Interlude: Standardizing Samurai Fish

Posted in Building on a Budget on June 20, 2005

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

Something I intend to do every now and then is revisit a past deck and update it with new sets or a different format. Since starting my stint at Building On A Budget, I've been eager to circle back to where it all started... Samurai Fish.

Remember me?In many ways, my four-week experiment transforming the Way of the Warrior preconstructed deck into a White/Blue aggro-control deck laid the groundwork for this column. The Samurai experiment was so successful and positively received that I was sure I could turn it into the focus of a column all its own. For those of you missed it, you can check out part one, part two, part three, and part four to catch up.

Once you've read all of that, you'll see that below is the last version of the deck. Actually, I ended up with version 1.3 (a slightly quirky label since when I renamed the deck Samurai Fish I started over with version 1.0), but in playing the deck after the fourth article realized that I wanted to swap the maindeck Thoughtbind for the sideboard Hisoka's Defiance.

Samurai Fish v.1.4

Download Arena Decklist

Now, a few things to note here. First, it's a Kamigawa Block deck as contrasted with the three Standard decks I've done since. Second, I made these changes without access to Betrayers of Kamigawa. As a result, my goal here will be to update the decklist for Standard and Betrayers. For those people who carry “pet decks” over from set to set and format to format, what I'm doing here should resonate with you. For those of you who salivate at any mention of the word "Standard" around the time of Regionals, this isn't intended to be a tournament-worthy answer to anything.

It may seem strange to update my Samurai deck on the eve of Saviors of Kamigawa being available to Magic Online. Shouldn't I, you know, wait a week or two? All I can say is: Please hang with me this week, because there is a method to my madness (not the least of which is wanting to jump into a Saviors preconstructed deck as soon as the set's available online). That said, I will do the same sort of Saviors-hypothesizing at the end of this column as I did at the end of the Rat's Nest evolution.

Now, where to begin?

Parallel Universe

I think the first task of updating a deck for a new format or set is a theoretical one. For Samurai Fish, I looked across Standard to see if any superior analogues existed to the cards I was already using. That is, by expending the card pool by four sets, were there cards that were functionally similar to what was in my deck, only more powerful, cheaper, or both? This is the same sort of advice Doug Beyer gave when discussing Prismatic decks, a format where analogues are king.

As far as I could tell, the Samurai were all staying put. Cards such as Leonin Skyhunter are very good, but they aren't Samurai, which is the dominant theme of my deck. I can't see any white Samurai in Betrayers that are strictly better –- or even as good -- as what I'm already playing. Indebted Samurai is a cute idea, but I'm happy with Nagao, Bound By Honor at the top of my mana curve.

That left me with the support cards. Here, analogues abound.

Mana Leak
OUT: 4 Hisoka's Defiance
IN: 4 Mana Leak

Hisoka's Defiance is a powerful counterspell in Kamigawa Block Constructed, and against many decks is almost as good as its Counterspell. In Standard, though, Defiance is a lot more situational. Although many Standard decks use Spirit and Arcane cards, few are built with them as a core strategy. Along comes Mana Leak, a counter for the same cost that is much more likely to take down a key spell at a key time in the game. If Mana Leak were available in Kamigawa Block, I would be hard pressed to decide which one Samurai Fish would want more. For a Standard deck, there's no competition.

OUT: 4 Consuming Vortex
IN: 4 Echoing Truth

I was faced with a choice: Keep the splicing possibilities with Consuming Vortex and Blessed Breath or look for non-Arcane analogues from Mirrodin Block and Eighth Edition. It may have been a harder choice if I didn't like Echoing Truth so much more than Consuming Vortex. Echoing Truth can hit non-creatures and is a much better weapon against Beacon of Creation, Sosuke's Summons, and Myr tokens, all of which I see frequently online.

OUT: 4 Blessed Breath
IN: 4 Test of Faith

Finally, I had my toughest decision, whether to leave Blessed Breath alone or replace it, then whether I liked Otherworldly Journey or Test of Faith as the better analogue. Let me take each of these decisions in turn.

First, do I keep Blessed Breath? I like its low cost and the ability to splice it. There are tricks the Breath allows me to do that are surprisingly useful -- things like stopping a Rend Flesh, making a Cage of Hands fall off, or making a creature unblockable to administer lethal damage. As a huge fan of Shelter, Blessed Breath holds a dear place in my heart. The problem is that without any other arcane cards in the deck, the opportunity to splice it isn't going to come up terribly often. That means I need to decide if it's useful to dedicate four spots in my deck to its one-mana effect, and in that light it underwhelms me enough to drop it.

Next, Otherworldly Journey or Test of Faith? I think most people like Otherworldly Journey better. It can still save a creature from a Rend Flesh or Cage of Hands in a way that Test of Faith can't, and maybe its best use is to combat board-sweeping effects like Wrath of God, Hideous Laughter, or Death Cloud, something even Blessed Breath can't do. Since I'm also a fan of Flicker, I'm surprised that I've turned away from Otherworldly Journey.

Which is all to say that although the Journey probably has a place in more serious decks, the reasons I choose Test of Faith are twofold. First, I can't get it out of my head that a Kitsune Blademaster, Samurai of the Pale Curtain, or Nagao, Bound By Honor with three +1/+1 counters on it is going to win the game single-handedly. The fact that it makes Soratami Cloudskater into a legitimate threat is amazing too. The second reason is that I sort of rebuffed Otherworldly Journey once during the precon evolution, so returning to it now seems sort of wonky. Maybe these are dumb reasons, but they're the reasons that I'm starting my testing with Test of Faith.

After those analogue decisions, I made another tweak that felt increasingly necessary over the past few months of play:

OUT: 4 Cloudcrest Lake
IN: 2 Plains
IN: 2 Island

I caught some flak when adding Cloudcrest Lake to my deck originally because “tap lands” don't tend to suit an aggressive deck well. At the time, my reasoning was that mana stability was vitally important to a two-color aggressive deck and that my deck could usually survive a missing land for a turn without missing a step. I've now played the deck enough to be swayed back to the other side of the argument. Yes, consistency is important, but in practice too often the turn of a tapped land is a turn I can't afford to lose. Using basic land means a harder time casting Samurai of the Pale Curtain on the second turn or having the blue mana necessary to use Mana Leak at a key time, but it's a chance I'll have to take. If I had access to Tendo Ice Bridge, that would be an ideal analogue to Cloudcrest Lake. City of Brass wouldn't be horrible, either.

I had quite a few other questions about the deck beyond analogues. For example, the weakest links seemed to me to be Soratami Cloudskater and Kami of Ancient Law. Surely given a Standard card pool I could do better with these six slots. The Cloudskater is there to get me out of land-flooding later on since the deck only really needs four land to operate. Would Spiketail Hatchling or Sage Owl be better than Soratami Cloudskater? How about Ninja of the Deep Hours or Aether Spellbomb? The Kami of Ancient Law was there to focus on the Hondens, primarily, and some other problematic enchantments in Kamigawa Block such as Ghostly Prison and Night of Soul's Betrayal. Are there enough enchantments in Standard that matter, or should I rely on something like Terashi's Grasp? Was Indebted Samurai worth a peek after all, despite its seemingly prohibitive cost? What about the aforementioned Leonin Skyhunter?

As you can see, these aren't questions that involve direct analogues. To see if I would be better served by different cards, I would first need to play the deck to see why I was losing.

That left my new deck here:

Samurai Fish v.2.0

Download Arena Decklist

Playing Samurai Fish

I'll list some game logs since I continue to receive e-mail that they're people's favorite part of my preconstructed articles. Here's what I faced in the Casual Constructed room of Magic Online and how the deck performed:

Sensei Golden-Tail
Game 51 (how crazy is that?): Blue-green Aggro

I did some early damage with a Sensei Golden-Tail and Konda's Hatamoto. I dropped Kitsune Blademaster, then bounced his Elvish Pioneer wearing Empyrial Armor to keep up my attack. He equipped an Ornithopter with his Armor, and I stalled with him at 10 life. I spent some time playing Soratami Cloudskater and Kami of Ancient Law, making each a Samurai. Then I played Nagao, Bound by Honor and it was time to attack. He unloaded his hand for chump-blocking weenies like Sakura-Tribe Elder, two more Ornithopters, and his replayed Pioneer, but I overran him pretty easily. I had Call to Glory, Mana Leak, and Test of Faith in hand as combat tricks just in case.

Game 52: Monogreen Snakes

I had a second-turn Soratami Cloudskater and he had one, then two, then three Sakura-Tribe Elder. Between Elders one and two I Mana Leaked a Tangle Asp, then played Kitsune Blademaster and Samurai of the Pale Curtain. My Samurai died to Duplicant. I finally drew my fourth land for Nagao, Bound By Honor, putting pressure on my poor mana-flooded opponent. He tried Sosuke's Summons as a last-ditch defense, but I had Echoing Truth. A Call to Glory combined with Nagao's morale boost gave me the last points of damage I needed. It was a rout, plain and simple.

Game 53: Green-red Aggro

His deck was a little wacky, using a Snake base but also with burn and Ogre Recluse. I Mana Leaked his Orochi Ranger, then went on the offensive with Kitsune Blademaster and Sensei Golden-Tail. His Orochi Leafcaller blocked my Sensei and added Kodama's Might, but I had Test of Faith to give me a 5/4 Golden-Tail. Kodama's Reach let my opponent cast Sosuke, Son of Seshiro and a Recluse, two Call to Glory gave me lethal damage. Again, a rout.

Toshiro Umezawa
Game 54: Black/Blue Toshiro Umezawa deck

His deck was scary, using Toshiro Umezawa, Night of Soul's Betrayal, and Forbidden Orchard to create a combo. His enchantment killed my Soratami Cloudskater while he Mana Leaked my Kitsune Blademaster. Samurai of the Pale Curtain slipped through his countermagic, though, and that proved to be the difference. I made him replay Night of Soul's Betrayal via Echoing Truth, then killed it with Kami of Ancient Law. He let my Samurai do damage until finally deciding to block with Toshiro. I used Test of Faith. He Hindered. I played a second Test of Faith. He tried to Boomerang my Samurai. I had Mana Leak. That was pretty much game. In the waning turns he managed to bounce my Samurai and then play Remove Soul on it, but ironically he had to use Forbidden Orchard to do it, giving me a 1/1 token to do the last point of damage.

Game 55: Green-blue Aggro

This deck was very similar to the French Regionals deck I listed last week, with Sword of Fire and Ice, Umezawa's Jitte, Birds of Paradise, Iwamori of the Open Fist, and Beacon of Creation. I'm not entirely sure what he was doing in the Casual room of Magic Online, but maybe that's just sour grapes. The fact is that my small Samurai army got him down to 1 life before he cast Beacon and took over the game with a Sword- and Jitte-wielding Birds. If I had attacked with my Nagao, Bound by Honor the first turn I could have instead of being intimidated by his Iwamori, that would have been game. Drat. I guess I can't complain about my showing, though, going 4-1 with four routs and a close loss to a polished tournament deck.

Game 56: Five-Color Hondens

The first several turns were amusing. I cast Sensei Golden-Tail, stuck on two lands. He played Terror, also stuck on two lands. I played a second Golden-Tail. He tried to Echoing Decay it, but I had Echoing Truth. Three or four turns later, we both still had two mana and he was at 14 life from my Sensei. I found Kami of Ancient Law when my Sensei died, and it became a 4/4 thanks to Test of Faith and a blocking Eternal Witness. We both recovered our mana, him playing Honden of Night's Reach and Genju of the Realm. I had just enough Samurai and combat tricks in hand to get him exactly to zero. Whew.

Game 57: Five-Color Cogs

I was very lucky to have a second-turn Samurai of the Pale Curtain, which prevented his Spellbombs from hitting the graveyard as he desperately drew cards for an answer to my swarm. His Trinket Mages were hiding, which allowed my Samurai, Konda's Hatamoto, and two Kami of Ancient Law to wreak havoc. He tried to Pyrite Spellbomb my Samurai, but I had Test of Faith. When he tried Crystal Shard, I had Mana Leak. It was brutal.

Game 58: Mesmeric White Weenie

Mesmeric Orb
His deck was interesting, built around Mesmeric Orb and vigilance critters like Razor Golem and Skyhunter Prowler. He played a quick Golem and Orb, while I had Kami of Ancient Law, Konda's Hatamoto, and Soratami Cloudskater. I plinked away for awhile, dropping to 11 from Golem attacks. Eventually my Cloudskater helped me find Nagao, Bound By Honor at about the same time my Kami of Ancient Law became a 5/5 thanks to Test of Faith. A second Kami killed his Cage of Hands, and that was game.

Game 59: Monoblue Control

It's nice to know I can win a game stuck on only Plains. My opponent was a little mana-flooded, dropping Island after Island, while I got off to a fairly anemic start with two Konda's Hatamoto. He bounced and countered one of my Hatamoto, opening the door for me to play Sensei Golden-Tail. He used Bribery to get a Nagao, Bound By Honor. I played Samurai of the Pale Curtain, using Call to Glory to kill Nagao but none of my guys. He drew a Silver Myr, conceded, and showed me the two Mana Leak in hand I had been playing around.

Konda's Hatamoto
Game 60: Black-green Shirei deck

My opponents, on the other hand, have a harder time winning stuck on one color. He could only find four Forests, playing Myr Servitor and Skeleton Shard. I had a near ideal start, with Konda's Hatamoto, Kitsune Blademaster, and Nagao, Bound by Honor on the first four turns. After I swarmed over my opponent, he showed me a hand full of black cards, including Nezumi Graverobber, Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker, and two Horobi's Whisper.

Game 61: Five-Color Myr Matrix

I got a Soratami Cloudskater that quickly earned its Samurai badge via Sensei Golden-Tail. My flier took out a 3/3 Skyreach Manta and became 4/4 via Test of Faith. My opponent killed my Sensei with Infused Arrows, then dropped Myr Matrix. I used a lot of combat tricks -- including two Call to Glory and a Test of Faith -- to keep Nagao, Bound by Honor alive through a sea of Myr. Nagao, the beefy Cloudskater, two Konda's Hatamoto, and a Kitsune Blademaster finally overwhelmed the Myr army for the win.

Game 62: White-black Equip

I shouldn't have won this game. I got stuck on three Islands for something like six turns while my opponent played Leonin Den-Guard, Auriok Steelshaper, and Auriok Glaivemaster. The saving grace was that I had two Mana Leak, taking out his Vulshok Battlegear and Loxodon Warhammer. He found another Warhammer when I finally found a Plains and played Nagao, Bound By Honor. I bounced his Warhammer to take out a creature blocking Nagao, then played my third Mana Leak on his recast Warhammer. My opponent found some black creature removal and a Whispersilk Cloak, but by then I was drawing land and could win via a second Nagao, Sensei Golden-Tail and Konda's Hatamoto.

Opal-Eye, Konda's Yojimbo
Game 63: Monowhite Samurai

He played a turn-three Opal-Eye, Konda's Yojimbo, and followed it up with an Eiganjo Castle. That was enough to completely screw me up for the rest of the game. I tried to bounce it with Echoing Truth, but my opponent used Otherworldly Journey to save it (and make it bigger). I managed to get in a whopping three points of damage through major calisthenics, but his Nagao, Bound By Honor was eating into my life. I finally drew another Truth thanks to Soratami Cloudskater, but my opponent had Blessed Breath. Ouch. Beaten by all of the cards I've rejected! Oh, the humility!

Game 64: Monored Coin-Flipping deck

I had a second-turn Soratami Cloudskater, and I was able to Mana Leak his first Krark's Thumb. He Shocked a Samurai of the Pale Curtain while my Cloudskater kept plinking away at his life. I then played Kitsune Blademaster, and used Test of Faith when my opponent tried another Shock. Now I was off to the races, attacking with my 1/1 flier and 4/4 beatstick while he used Sensei's Divining Top to find an answer. He successfully cast another Thumb, but couldn't seem to find the coin-flipping cards to go with it. He tried Ensnaring Bridge, which I Mana Leaked, then he used Shrapnel Blast (sacrificing the Thumb) to try and kill my Blademaster. I had a second Test of Faith, and my 7/7 Fox ended the game on his next attack.

Game 65: Blue-green Intruder Alarm

My poor opponent was stuck on one Forest for a loooong time. The good news for him was that he used that Forest to play Birds of Paradise, then Vine Trellis, then two Silver Myr. I, meanwhile, had Soratami Cloudskater, Kitsune Blademaster, and Samurai of the Pale Curtain on the attack. I used my Cloudskater to find a Mana Leak for my opponent's Intruder Alarm, then to get Nagao, Bound By Honor. My opponent found a second Alarm, but he had to tap his creatures to do it and I could attack with Nagao for the win.

Pause. Reflect.

Okay, I hadn't quite expected a 13-2 start right out of the gate. Just to be sure, I played another 10 games and went 7-3. My losses seem to be about my own mana issues, primarily. Still, let's say the deck is a-okay in its 2.0 incarnation, since I think the solution to its mana problems is probably the rare Tendo Ice Bridge. Without it, I'm either losing a turn to Cloudcrest Lake or getting stuck with off-color cards in hand without multicolor lands. Expect me some day to discuss the value of rare multi-lands to budget deckbuilding.

Two Paths of Temptation

The deck is performing well enough that to make changes now would be mostly for change's sake. That said, as I pondered cards in Betrayers of Kamigawa and Standard, I was very tempted by two ideas that take the deck in slightly different directions. Here are two “Paths Not Taken” before I discuss what Saviors of Kamigawa has to offer my Samurai Fish deck.

Patron of the Kitsune
Life of the Kitsune

Someone online pointed out that I should use Patron of the Kitsune in my deck since it's mostly Foxes anyway. I immediately fell in love with the idea. The deck probably loses any need for blue in it, and drops cards like Konda's Hatamoto, Nagao, and Kami of Ancient Law in favor of the Patron, Eight-and-a-Half-Tails, Pious Kitsune, and probably a copy of Opal-Eye, Konda's Yojimbo or two. That's still an aggro-control strategy, but the question would be what to do with the life I gain during the game. Phyrexian Colossus? Well of Lost Dreams? As you can see, taking the deck down this path flirts with a lot of rares, but the creature type Fox is a minor theme of the deck that I would love to see expanded.

Samurai Equip

The more obvious direction to take Samurai Fish is to start thinking of the very solid equipment available in Standard as a supporting strategy to bushido. The rares -- Umezawa's Jitte, the Darksteel Swords, Oathkeeper, Takeno's Daisho, Konda's Banner, and Empyrial Plate -- are the ones that probably first come to mind here. I think there is great promise, though, in anything that makes a Samurai scarier in combat, including Tenza, Godo's Maul, Grafted Wargear, Loxodon Warhammer, Vulshok Morningstar, and Fireshrieker. Mask of Memory might give a Samurai deck just the fuel it needs to survive the late-game, Lightning Greaves obviously makes the deck a turn faster, and a less obvious choice is Horned Helm, which really gives bushido a kick in the pants. I wouldn't want to use all of those artifacts in my deck, obviously, but it would be fun experimenting with them to see which ones most enhance my Samurai goodness. This probably also opens the door for Aether Vial in the deck.

Saving Samurai Fish

Saviors of Kamigawa will be available to Magic Online on July 27. Since Samurai is a creature type introduced in Champions of Kamigawa, it makes sense that a Samurai strategy will be strongest once the full Kamigawa block has run its course. It should be no surprise, then, that I am drooling over the Saviors cards to add to my modified Way of the Warrior deck. Below are four cards I'd like to at least try in my deck, roughly in order from most to least probable of making it into the final decklist. No points for guessing my first choice.

Hand of Honor
Hand of Honor

Okay, seriously. That's one nifty Samurai. Cool name. Cool art. Great cost. Great abilities. Remember, too, that the Casual Constructed room of Magic Online is rife with black decks. The only downer, really, is that it's competing with so many other good two-mana cards (and generally making them look bad). A Samurai deck's two best tools are now Samurai of the Pale Curtain and Hand of Honor, which is enough to probably push me away from splashing a color and return to a monowhite deck. That's how good Hand of Honor is. Without him, I think Samurai decks are more interesting splashing a support color. With him, I would rather stay in one color. That's one nifty Samurai.

Charge Across the Araba

If you squint, it's sort of like a white Overrun. Score another point for the monowhite argument. Charge Across the Araba is a game-ender in a White Weenie deck, plain and simple. Also, recall that my deck never really needed more than four mana to be effective. In the current build I use Soratami Cloudskater as a solution to extra land, but Charge Across the Araba is just as good a use for extra land and a heck of a lot more deadly. The problem with it is that it becomes the most expensive card in the deck, and thus pushes the deck's mana curve a little higher. I'm not overly concerned about it, though, especially moving to a monocolored deck that will have fewer mana problems on principle.

Araba Mothrider
Araba Mothrider

“Wow, neat,” you may be saying, “your moth can lay into an opponent for exactly one damage a turn and can block Meloku's Illusion tokens without dying. You must be thrilled.” True enough, Araba Mothrider doesn't look like it has much offensive firepower. For effectively the same price you get Leonin Skyhunter. For one more mana you get Diving Griffin. The important distinction is that these cards aren't Samurai. Why should that matter? Two reasons: Nagao, Bound By Honor and Call to Glory. Add Oathkeeper, Takeno's Daisho, Konda's Banner, etc. to your deck and I can imagine wanting Araba Mothrider more than any other cheap flier. I still think with Sensei Golden-Tail in the deck I may prefer Leonin Skyhunter, but it would be worth testing to see.


It's cheap, it makes my Samurai better in combat and it's a definitive stance against power rares such as Umezawa's Jitte and Sword of Fire and Ice. If I decide to go the equipment route, Manriki-Gusari is something to try. I like the idea of O-Naginata on Nagao, too, but that's too narrow to take seriously.

For Saviors rares, Pithing Needle and Kataki, War's Wage are the two cards I can see making it into the deck. Pithing Needle obviously stops so many virtual auto-loss cards for Samurai, including Vedalken Shackles, Umezawa's Jitte, Arc-Slogger, and Meloku the Clouded Mirror, among others. Kataki, while not a Samurai, is aggressive and doesn't slow you down if you're not playing many (or any) artifacts yourself. He would easily replace Kami of Ancient Law, I think.

Based on these thoughts, here's a theoretical (untested) Samurai deck I might start to play post-Saviors. You can see I've left some decision points that would need working out through playtesting.

Standard Samurai

Download Arena Decklist
Land (23)
22 Plains 1 Eiganjo Castle
Other (12)
4 Araba Mothrider / Leonin Skyhunter 4 Kami of Ancient Law / Kataki, War's Wage 4 Test of Faith / Otherworldly Journey
62 Cards

I hope you've enjoyed my retrospective, updating, um... thing. As I said, expect me from time to time to circle back to a past deck and revamp it given new sets or formats.

Next week I'll unveil the mtg.comSpecialGuest account owner many people have seen me playing online. Also next week will be my “What Saviors preconstructed deck do you want me to evolve?” poll. In the meantime, think back to the four experiments I've done so far. Which has been your favorite final decklist? More importantly to me, please post on the Message Boards to answer: Why?

Think hard and have fun!


What is your favorite final precon list so far?Samurai Fish (v.2.0)Club Ninja (v.1.6)Bad Religion (v.2.0)Ratimation (v.1.6)

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