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Finishing up with Spirit Flames

Spirit Flames: Hana Kami Freedom

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The letter H!ello and welcome to the final installment of my Spirit Flames evolution. I seem to have thrown many of you off with my Lure announcement last week. I'm happy to report that this decision has led to a fun -- and surprisingly effective -- final decklist. Read on, gentle deckbuilder, and let me regale you with stories of glowing, two-headed, roaring, tiger-spirit... um, things.

When I left off last week, here is how the deck looked:

As you know, I played five games with this deck with moderate success. Although the deck is playing better than the original preconstructed one, I still think that a few more changes are in order.

OUT: 1 Mountain

In some respects, I think of figuring out the land count as pushing the limits of what my deck can get away with. That is, I want to reliably draw only as many land as my deck needs to operate and no more. My Spirit Flames deck has lowered the mana requirements of its cards, plus I have three Kodama's Reach. As a result, my hope is that twenty-three land is enough and thus I'm dropping one to find out. Twenty-three land feels like it's right on the edge of what's acceptable. The reason for dropping a Mountain rather than a Forest is that Mountains become more important later for my deck, whereas Forests are more important early. When I get a more stable decklist I'll tinker with the land balance, but right now if I always search for two Mountains with my Kodama's Reach, that's fine.

OUT: 2 Ghost-Lit Nourisher

The great thing about Ghost-Lit Raider is that sometimes I want to channel it and sometimes I want to cast it, meaning that it's a versatile tool. In contrast, I think I've only cast Ghost-Lit Nourisher once, and it felt a little anemic to do so. Even when I use Ghost-Lit Nourisher as an uncounterable +4/+4 effect, it never turns out quite as useful as I want it to be and always strikes me as overly expensive. Probably the biggest indictment -- which is the same rationale I used when dropping Briarknit Kami -- is that I almost never want to recycle it via soulshift. This suggests to me that while Ghost-Lit Nourisher isn't terrible in my deck, I can probably use the slots for something better.

Here's the biggie:

OUT: 1 Hana Kami

What have I done? I can't believe I'm dropping Hana Kami from my Spirits deck. Hana Kami is so . . . so . . . good. It feels insane to drop my single copy rather than add more.

The thing is, I have begun to suspect that Shinen of Life's Roar and Hana Kami are a bit at odds in my deck. Both require a certain amount of infrastructure to make work and I find myself without enough room in the deck to include both of them along with a soulshift theme. Since last week I committed to the Shinen, that makes Hana Kami the odd flower out. At this point one option would be to drop Promised Kannushi for a full set of Hana Kami, but 1) I have loved playing with Promised Kannushi and 2) I would rather recycle Forked-Branch Garami, Arashi and Jiwari than Kodama's Reach, Unchecked Growth, and Glacial Ray. It's a tough call, admittedly, but I think taking out the spiritcraft triggers from the deck piece by piece has made Hana Kami seem slightly awkward in my deck. I doubt that a lot of other deckbuilders would make the same choice as me in this regard, but that's why these articles are fun--to see how my thinking differs from your own and how you would make different choices if evolving the same deck.

IN: 2 Ghost-Lit Raider

Ghost-Lit Nourisher getting dropped by no means sours me on the channel mechanic. As I said above, I have found Ghost-Lit Raider to be the single best thing to recur via Burr Grafter, Forked-Branch Garami and sometimes even Promised Kannushi. I've put a bit more pressure on my deck by taking out a land and relying on four-mana removal, and I'll find out in testing if it's too much pressure. For now, I know that Ghost-Lit Raider is my favorite non-rare chaneller in Saviors of Kamigawa.

IN: 1 Burr Grafter

The more I play with Burr Grafter, the more I like him. The 2/2 body for four mana isn't going to win any awards, but his pumping ability makes Shinen of Life's Roar a more viable threat and his no-cost, instant-speed ability to return a Ghost-Lit Raider or Shinen has been fantastic. This is what makes him better than Rootrunner, in my opinion: the fact that I can at no cost get back one of these cards in critical situations. The single mana cost is nice, too, as opposed to Rootrunner's double-green cost. If a Burr Grafter is in my graveyard, I almost always use a dying Forked-Branch Garami to get it back. Again, this is a great bellwether for which cards I keep.

IN: 1 Time of Need

I can't tell you how many times I've hit a game situation where a topdecked Arashi, the Sky Asunder or Jiwari, the Earth Aflame will win me the game or drastically tip the game in my favor. I have basically four options given my desire to draw them more consistently: 1) Commune with Nature, 2) Time of Need, 3) Lifespinner, and 4) a second copy each of Arashi and Jiwari. Lifespinner is tempting since it's attached to a 3/3 body, but it's too slow and the times in which I need Arashi or Jiwari it's usually not the case that I have three Spirits to spare. A second copy of the two legends is not only expensive from a budgetary point of view but also only doubles my chances when making topdeck prayers. That leaves what I think are the two best options: Commune with Nature (first suggested by fireflames on the Boards) and Time of Need. Commune has the added benefit of finding things like Ghost-Lit Raider or Shinen of Life's Roar when I need them, while Time of Need is much more reliable. I'll go for reliable now, but I admit that Commune with Nature would be a fine choice.

I'm now here:

That's better, but the deck still needs something. The only problem is that I don't know what that something is. More games, please!

Game 26: Three-Color Legends

I thoroughly enjoyed this game. My opponent used a Snake base in Green along with Iname, Life Aspect, splashing Black for Kokusho, the Evening Star and Blue for Meloku, the Clouded Mirror, along with who knows what else. He got out an Orochi Sustainer to my Promised Kannushi and Shinen of Life's Roar. Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro showed up but I took her out with an Unchecked Growth. The Growth, I guess, made my opponent incredibly scared of my Shinen. I dropped two Hearth Kamis and kept attacking while he attacked with his two Sustainers in fear of them blocking my 1/2. He eventually got Iname while I got Arashi, the Sky Asunder. My Shinen played kamikaze and I took my opponent to eight life. Kokusho then showed up, and I played Forked-Branch Garami. I then attacked with my Kannushi and Garami. What does my opponent do? If he blocks, I get back the Shinen and win next turn. If he doesn't block, I take him down to the point where an Unchecked Growth can kill him. He blocks, kills my dudes (I get back both Shinen and the just-killed Garami), and I win the next turn.

Game 27: Green/White Spirits

I had a first-turn Promised Kannushi and used Glacial Ray on the second turn to kill his Hana Kami. I tried blocking his Waxmane Baku with Hearth Kami but he used Unchecked Growth to knock me down with trample damage and a Kami of Ancient Law. I chanelled Ghost-Lit Raider to kill his Baku, then played Forked-Branch Garami to stave off his Kami and Moonlit Strider. Eventually we got to a place where my opponent had ten life, Kami of Ancient Law, Waxmane Baku (just cast), and Burr Grafter (just cast). I had eight life, Promised Kannushi and Forked-Branch Garami. He tapped my Garami with the Baku and attacked with his Kami of Ancient Law knocking me to six life. He had no more cards in hand, so I attacked with everything and made my unblocked Garami 12/12 thanks to two Unchecked Growths for the win.

Game 28: Five-Color Hondens

Oh man, what a bad matchup for my deck. I got out two Hearth Kamis but he had Honden of Infinite Rage and a Sensei's Divining Top. I got him to ten with my critters before he killed them both, and by that time Honden of Cleansing Fire and Ghostly Prison had shown up. I kept him at ten with Forked-Branch Garami, but he was spinning his top like mad and getting lots of mana via Kodama's Reach. Finally he found Honden of Night's Reach, which forced me to play my two Ghost-Lit Raiders on the attack. He spun his Top, untapped, and played Final Judgment. I conceded at eighteen life. I think if there's auto-loss matchup for my Lure deck, it's a Shrine deck.

Game 29: Green/Black Wisdom deck

My opponent played a quick Descendant of Masumaro while I had a Turn 4 Ghost-Lit Raider and Hearth Kami thanks to Kodama's Reach. I blocked his 2/2 Descendant with my Hearth Kami, drawing out an Unchecked Growth. Ghost-Lit Raider killed it the next turn, then I played Promised Kannushi, Forked-Branch Garami, and Shinen of Life's Roar. He played Haru-Onna, then used Time of Need to get Kyoki, Sanity's Eclipse. The Shinen let me knock him down to six life, and I emptied my hand of another Garami and another Kannushi. My opponent drew a card and conceded.

Game 30: Monowhite Spirits

I had a second-turn Shinen of Life's Roar, but my opponent countered with Kami of Ancient Law. I used Glacial Ray to kill the Kami and start attacking, killing Waxmane Baku with Unchecked Growth. Cage of Hands stopped my Shinen, and for a couple of turns I took damage from two Kabuto Moths. Then I chanelled Arashi, the Sky Asunder in response to his Otherworldly Journey targeting a Moth. I started attacking with Promised Kannushi and Hearth Kami, but my Kami fell into a second Cage of Hands. Ghost-Lit Raider met the third and final Cage of Hands while my Kannushi kept on attacking. In probably the turning point of the game, my opponent tried to enchant a second Waxmane Baku with Indomitable Will without waiting for me to activate my Raider, so I killed it in response. He was then out of cards in hand. I put Burr Grafter down and started attacking for three a turn with it and my Kannushi. A Lantern Kami and Tallowisp showed up for my opponent, but a chanelled Shinen on my Grafter along with Unchecked Growth killed them, and I won with my next attack.

Okay, the deck is going fine. I'm pretty sure I would lose ninety-nine games out of a hundred against any sort of Shrine, Enduring Ideal, or other enchantment-based deck. I don't think the situation is so dire as to warrant maindeck Wear Aways or splashing White for Kami of Ancient Law or anything, though, because so far I haven't played against many of these decks.

The thing is -- and I apologize for not being able to explain it any better than this -- the deck feels awkward to play. It's not smooth in the way most of my final decks are. I don't feel like I have many games easily in hand, and when I win it has that same miraculous feel as when I win with an unmodified precon. The extra games I've played each week after my articles are done have included some horrible, anemic losses. I was willing to just point this out and chalk it up to the weirdness of soulshift and channel -- after all, the deck wins percentage-wise about as much as any other precon I've modified -- but the awkwardness was bugging me. After an evening of games, I stayed up late one night, going over my card choices in my head and thinking, thinking, of how to improve my deck without taking it too far afield.

Then, at 1:00am, it hit me.

An Arcane Revelation

What I realized is that taking Hana Kami out of the deck was actually very significant. It let me settle the subtle conflict that Shinen of Life's Roar and Hana Kami were having with the direction of the deck. Now that the Shinen had secured its place, why was I using so many arcane cards?

So I got out of bed, logged on, and made some changes. In total, they add up to eight cards which is clearly out of my guidelines. Sorry about that. Desperate times, and so forth.

OUT: 3 Kodama's Reach

Whaa-aa-a-at? No Kodama's Reach? People on the Boards have been arguing for me to add the fourth Reach back into my deck, saying that my deck is deceptively mana hungry. Why on Earth (er, Kamigawa), then, would I take out my tenuous hold on mana-acceleration? More on that in a bit. What I will miss is Kodama's Reach pushing me to a sure five mana on Turn 4 and the thinning of two lands from my deck. I won't miss splicing Glacial Ray onto it, though, because I rarely did that.

Don't worry: I'm keeping mana acceleration in the deck in the form of...

IN: 4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

No, it's not a Spirit, but neither was Kodama's Reach. Sakura-Tribe Elder is, however, a creature. My deck likes creatures. I still have a way to thin land from my deck with the Elder, but I also now have the option of putting an extra point of damage on offense or soaking up a block. This versatility is what I crowed about in my Kamigawa Commons Review. Some people will say that with both Promised Kannushi and Sakura-Tribe Elder that I should seriously consider Ashes of the Fallen. I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't think it's practical to add an artifact to my deck that only helps eight cards I may never see during the course of a game. There are too many other valuable and tricky things I want to add to my deck.

OUT: 1 Forked-Branch Garami

With only three Reaches left in my deck, I have to cut into something else to add all four Sakura-Tribe Elders. Now that I am only searching for one land rather than two, I think it makes sense to trim off the top of my deck's manacurve. Both of my rares are clearly too valuable to drop, but as much as I like him, I think I can survive on three Forked-Branch Garami rather than four.

Thought that was bizarre? Check this out:

OUT: 4 Glacial Ray

No Glacial Ray!?! How can I possibly be playing a significantly-Red Kamigawa Block Deck without Glacial Ray? All I can tell you is that Hana Kami's farewell from the decklist has given me some freedom from my own preconceptions. Although Glacial Ray is never useless, the truth is that I almost never splice it. Oh, sometimes I'll be lucky enough to draw two and get six damage out of the deal, but that's very uncommon without Hana Kami in the deck. I almost never splice a Ray onto either Unchecked Growth or Kodama's Reach because I've already cast them separately by the time I reach five mana. Glacial Ray is solid and good, it's just that my decklist is too crowded to include it.

Instead of generic burn, I think my deck needs more ways to make Shinen of Life's Roar a threat. Some folks have suggested Serpent Skin, Molting Skin, and Blinding Powder. These are fine ideas, but another card fills a hole in the deck that's been bugging me...

IN: 4 Manriki-Gusari

Although Umezawa's Jitte is less common in the Casual Decks room than the Tournament Decks room, it's still completely un-fun to lose to the Jitte. I've never liked that my deck only had four answers in the form of Hearth Kami. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that Manriki-Gusari would be great for my deck. It's another answer to Umezawa's Jitte. It makes my Shinen of Life's Roar a Thicket Basilisk. It allows Forked-Branch Garami to kill Dragons and Demons. It helps save me from my own channeled Jiwari. It keeps my creatures from dying to Kiku's Shadow. It kills other pesky cards like Tenza, Godo's Maul; O-Naginata; Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang; Neko-Te; and of course other Manriki-Gusaris. The downside is that it is my deck's only artifact in a format in which lots of decks can kill artifacts. I think the benefits outweigh this problem.

I was so excited by this revelation that I started playing this deck at 2am:

I won my first five games. More importantly, the deck felt . . . smooth. I went on to go 19-6 over twenty-five games without changing a card. As a measuring stick, I even peeked into the Tourney Decks room with the sideboard I list below to go an unbelievable 5-0 in matches, going 2-0 versus White/Red Legends, 2-0 versus Blue/Green aggro-control, 1-0 versus Monoblue Control (with my 1900+ opponent conceding the match after Game 1!), 2-1 versus Black Hand, and 2-1 versus Green/White Snakes. I'm definitely not prepared to say it's a PTQ-quality deck, but I will say that I'm happy now. The deck is finished.

Why do a lot of my decks ends at version 1.6? There's some universal truth there that I'd like to ponder. Anyway, I know it's disappointing to not see game logs from the final decklists, but given the obligatory wrap-up sections I include more game logs are unfeasible (in fact, expect the next three sections to be shorter than usual).

One thing I'll say is that the deck is fun in part because of the crazy strategic decisions involved when playing it. When to cast Ghost-Lit Raider and Jiwari or wait to channel them. When to let a Shinen die. When to fetch a land with the Elder versus use him on offense. What to return when a Promised Kannushi dies with a full graveyard. How to get the most out of combat tricks with Unchecked Growth and Burr Grafter. The list goes on and on. The deck challenges me to outthink my opponent, which I enjoy.

Finally, it's worth noting that the deck doesn't feel like "Spirit Flames" anymore. If you can think of a deck name that is a) short (no Shinen of Life's Roar And His Love Child), and b) catchy (no Shinen of Life's Roar And His Love Child), offer it up on the Message Boards. I'll officially dub the deck next week.

Sideboard Time!

Usually my sideboards are speculative. This time around it's a sideboard I've actually played, so consider it more of a "working draft" sideboard.

Sideboard: 4 Wear Away

Boo, enchantments, boo! I don't think Wear Away comes in versus a deck with artifacts because I have those covered in the maindeck. Against Honden, Night of Soul's Betrayal, Ghostly Prison, Cage of Hands, Day of Destiny, etc. I'll put in a full four.

Sideboard: 4 Yamabushi's Flame

I originally had Glacial Ray here to combat things like Samurai of the Pale Curtain and Nezumi Graverobber. I think Yamabushi's Flame is better, though, since it stops opposing soulshift shenanigans and can kill things like Takenuma Bleeder. It also won't get countered by Hisoka's Defiance or redirected by Sideswipe. Speaking of which...

Sideboard: 4 Sideswipe

I had been playing quite a few Ire of Kaminari decks in the Casual Decks room, so I thought it might be worth having a plan against them. I don't know if four Sideswipe is overkill, but against a mostly-arcane deck I figure this will have all sorts of uses.

Sideboard: 2 Dosan, the Falling Leaf

Having as many rares in the sideboard as the maindeck stinks. For that reason, I originally had Cunning Bandit here as a way of stealing big meanies like Dragons, Demons, Meloku, etc. The problem is that I realized I had absolutely no answer to Ethereal Haze. Dosan is something I can nab with Time of Need, which I like. If you can think of a non-rare way to combat a Haze lock, though, please post it on the Boards.

Sideboard: 1 Mountain

This is my throw-away slot. I couldn't think of what to do with it so I put in a land against Red land-destruction decks. This could easily be another Jiwari, the Earth Aflame or maybe Ayumi, the Last Visitor to speed me up versus slower developing decks.

Final Judgment is still a huge problem for my deck. A resolved Judgment should mean I lose, period. That's flavorfully sort of cool given that O-Kagachi's wrath can take out a kami deck, but it's annoying from a game perspective. If your friends play Final Judgment, sneak into their card collections and glue a Forest to it.

Adding Money To The Deck

If you happen to own any of the below cards or simply have more money to spend, I think they can easily find a home in a Green/Red soulshifting Spirits deck. Again, I'm limiting myself solely to cards in Champions of Kamigawa, Betrayers of Kamigawa, or Saviors of Kamigawa.

Legendary Spirits

There were several times throughout this experiment that I was tempted to add another copy of Arashi, the Sky Asunder and Jiwari, the Earth Aflame. Each can be backbreakers in games, either channeled or cast. It would be worth trying two copies of each to see how the deck fares. There are a lot of obviously potent Spirits out there though. Kodama of the North Tree and Kodama of the South Tree are both excellent, the latter a soulshift target for Forked-Branch Garami. Ryusei, the Falling Star could be fantastic in a soulshifting deck, as could Iname, Life Aspect. Kodama of the Center Tree is a tougher sell, but I could see it working if the Promised Kannushi became something like Child of Thorns and the Manriki-Gusari became something like Yuki-Onna. The point is that if you open yourself up to more Time of Needs and legendary Spirits, there are lots of options out there.

Umezawa's Jitte

If you happen to own Umezawa's Jitte, use it. That fork is one crazy utensil. I could easily see dropping as many Unchecked Growths as you need to add Umezawa's Jitte into the mix. I think enough writers and players have crowed about the Jitte enough to know why it's good.

Fancy Land

As with all decks with legends in them, there's almost no reason to avoid Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers or Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep. Also consider Tendo Ice Bridge and Boseiju, Who Shelters All as cards that could help the deck stay consistent and survive against counterspells. I could even argue for Miren, the Moaning Well in a soulshift deck.

Long-Forgotten Gohei

I personally think making arcane spells cheaper is more important than pumping up Spirits. A colorless Glorious Anthem isn't bad, though, especially for a deck relying on Shinen of Life's Roar. I wouldn't know what to drop for them, but the Gohei seems at least worth a look. If your deck starts to use Hana Kami and arcane tricks, then it makes even more sense.

Paths Not Taken

If I tried to discuss all of the different permutations of a Spirit deck, I could fill an entire article. Instead, I'm going to limit myself to Monogreen and Green/Red soulshifting strategies, paying particular attention to the original Spirit Flames decklist. Even with these limitations, the options are staggering.

Green/Read Beatdown

If you recall last week, I hit a crossroads with three different possible ways to take the deck. At the time I said the most obvious of these paths was the pure beatdown one, using Kodama of the South Tree, Hana Kami, Kodama's Might, etc. I think in many ways this deck makes itself, albeit with lots of trade-off card decisions along the way. ToshiUmezawa posted a deck along these lines on the Boards (replace the Briarknits with South Tree and you're close to what I would make):

Toshi Flames by ToshiUmezawa

Wisdom

The other path I didn't take last week was what I described as focusing on the interactions between Elder Pine of Jukai and Loam Dweller. I actually made this deck and took it to its natural conclusion, ending up with a monogreen deck that can be really fun to play:

Spiritcrafting

Similar to the beatdown path, it's fun to think about taking some of the spiritcraft triggers in the original decklist and starting from there. It looks to me like valyn5 took this idea to heart when he posted his deck on the Boards (but where's Hana Kami?):

True Lure

Of course, I sparked a lot of nostalgia by calling my deck a Lure deck. People started to remember dumping Lure onto a regenerator and attacking with everything. Good times. Since Lure is in Champions, I suppose you could take this idea to its extreme, using Serpent Skin, Molting Skin, Lure, Blinding Powder, Unchecked Growth, Shinen of Life's Roar, and a bunch of soulshifting critters. Honden of Life's Web seems to make some sense in this sort of deck as well.

Ashes of the Fallen

I still maintain that Ashes of the Fallen is a weird addition to my deck just to squeeze benefits out of Promised Kannushi. If you wanted to take the Ashes idea further, I would say not only does Sakura-Tribe Elder stay in the deck, but so too would other cards like Brothers Yamazaki, Cunning Bandit, Order of the Sacred Bell, Humble Budoka, Orochi Sustainer, and Ronin Houndmaster, not to mention rares like Godo and Iwamori. You wouldn't want to use all of these cards, obviously, but some combination of them and Forked-Branch Garami sounds fun.

Board-Sweeping Fat

Lukas Sanvien wrote me an e-mail (you should all be posting the Boards instead of writing me e-mail, incidentally) to say he has had great success using version 1.4 of the deck and replacing the four Shinen with two Scaled Hulks and two Moss Kami. This is certainly a way to go, and makes a board-sweeping strategy with more Jiwari and maybe Ryusei even more attractive. Load up on big critters, Unchecked Growth, mana-acceleration, and Promised Kannushi, then have at your opponent.

Whew.

That, folks, is that. I'll be honest and say that Spirit Flames winning the vote was a bit of a disappointment since I've already done so many creature-based beatdown decks. Once I realized how fun it played, I was then frustrated by my own inability to tune it. As a result, I'm probably more surprised and pleased with this final deck than any I've done for this column. I hope you've enjoyed the journey as well.

I also hope you enjoyed the look at Saviors precons, because I won't be returning to them for awhile. After a regularly-scheduled Interlude next week, I have something slightly different planned for the next series. After that, 9th Edition will be online complete with a whole set of precons. I'll surely give either Critical Mass, Soratami's Wisdom, or Truth Seekers a spin one of these days, just not right away.

Think hard and have fun,

-jms

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