Based on the Message Boards commentary from my last article, I was sure either Truth Seekers or Soratami's Wisdom would win the precon evolution poll. However, much to my surprise:
|Which deck is JMS going to play and change next?|
That's right, the focus of the next three weeks will be on the otherworldly aggression of Spirit Flames (apparently the Spirit Flames fans aren't Boards posters). It's nice to know that Green finally received some love from all of you voter-types. This will be the first time I've seriously dealt with Spirit and Arcane interactions, too, which should be fun.
It's been over a month since my last foray, so for those of you unfamiliar with my preconstructed deck approach, here are the Guidelines:
- Start with a preconstructed deck, unedited, and play it.
- Don't make changes until playing the deck in at least five games.
- Change no more than five cards at a time.
- Build a respectable deck that's fun to play.
- Build an affordable deck.
I strayed from this formula slightly with Rat's Nest, coming into the experience ready to expand a minor theme rather than stick to the deck's core themes. This turned out well (being not only the favorite deck in polls but also the winner of the first BOAB Smackdown!), but I'm not sure how much this was the Rat-ness of the deck versus the minor theme bit. With Spirit Flames I'm going to be more open... If the major themes are fun to play and make an interesting deck then I'll stick with them, and if a minor theme rears its head that's cool I'll run with it. It's an experiment of openness to whatever comes. I'm going zen, baby.
My primary goals for these precon evolutions are to have fun and explore the art of budget deckbuilding. That means the journey is as much a part of the experience as the final decklist (see? zen!). If you disagree with my individual card choices or the direction in which I take the deck, that's great... use your energy to build your own deck the way you want to build it. Even better, post your ideas on the Message Boards so everyone else can benefit from your wisdom.
Spirit Flames First Takes
I've been waiting for this day for a long, long time. In fact, I've been keeping myself from peeking too much at the Saviors of Kamigawa preconstructed lists because I wanted to start off with a sense of wonder. Here is what I found when I cracked open the Spirit Flames deck, sorted by card type, number, and mana cost:
I gotta tell you, this deck looks bizarre to me. There are all sorts of things going on and I can't tell if it's meant to be an aggressive deck or a midgame deck. It seems to be a beatdown deck with very few beatdown creatures and a lot of utility. Let me see if I can better organize my first impressions into a few core categories. Keep in mind that these are first impressions only, without a single game under my belt.
1) Deck Themes: When I first look at a deck, I find it helpful to identify the major and minor themes to understand what the deck is all about. Each of these themes, in my mind, are pulling on the deck and wanting to make it into something else. As I said, Spirit Flames happens to be a deck with themes aplenty. This makes it a deck ripe for taking in incredibly different sorts of directions. The themes, as I see them, are:
- Major theme: Arcane. Where there are Spirits, there are often arcane cards to make them feel good about it. Every single card that isn't a creature or a land has the arcane subtype. What's interesting is that only two of them--a single copy each of Kodama's Might and Glacial Ray--have splice onto arcane. Instead of splicing, the arcane part of the deck is meant to fuel cards like Petalmane Baku, Elder Pine of Jukai, and Briarknit Kami (Glitterfang, incidentally, is a cute trick with these cards as well). That's an interesting tweak to how arcane cards are usually used, and emphasizes the importance of the Spirit theme.
- Minor theme: Channel. Spirit Flames is the deck showcasing Saviors of Kamigawa's channel mechanic. Both rares in the deck have it (and are the two scariest cards with channel in Saviors), as do Shinen of Life's Roar, Ghost-Lit Raider, and Ghost-Lit Nourisher. Note that these three cards focus primarily on combat, which underscores that the deck wants to win via combat damage.
- Minor theme: Creature pumping. The critters in Spirit Flames aren't particularly big. They have plenty of ways to get there, though, thanks to Kodama's Might, Ghost-Lit Nourisher, Inner Calm, Outer Strength, Devouring Rage, Unchecked Growth, Briarknit Kami, and Strength of Cedars. That's a lot of cards to dedicate to creature-pumping.
- Minor theme: Burn. The deck doesn't have a lot of cards that can affect opponents directly, but it does have plenty of ways to remove blockers via Frostling, Glacial Ray, Ghost-Lit Raider, and Crushing Pain.
- Minor theme: Mana acceleration. It's not over the top, and the deck doesn't rely on the best mana acceleration in Kamigawa Block: Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama's Reach. Instead, it uses Petalmane Baku and Elder Pine of Jukai as a way of hoarding mana. Strength of Cedars sort of falls into this theme as well.
- There are a few truly minor themes, as well, including splice, wisdom (“hand-size matters”), and board-sweepers.
Like I said, a lot is happening in the deck. It's basically a Spirit deck with a lot of subthemes. I can almost guarantee that some of these themes will wither to nothingness as others rise in prominence over the next three weeks.
One other point of concern in Spirit Flames is the number of double-green (Forked-Branch Garami, Rending Vines, Briarknit Kami, and especially Arashi, the Sky Asunder) in a relatively mana-balanced deck. The three red of Jiwari, the Earth Aflame's channel cost isn't very pretty, either. As most people know, I tend to default to single-mana cards in two-color decks as a way of maximizing the deck's reliability. As it is, it looks like Spirit Flames is just asking for mana problems.
3) Consistency: All preconstructed decks suffer from a lack of consistency. Simple math says that if you use a sixty card deck, you want the maximum number (four) of your best or key cards so you have the highest probability of drawing them. Precons, however, try to showcase a broad array of new cards and thus rarely have four copies of anything. Spirit Flames happens to be less consistent than even most precons. It has three copies of Promised Kannushi, and everything else is one or two copies. The cards all have different abilities and stats, too, which makes it look like the deck was built to show off lots of cute tricks. I would say consistency is Spirit Flames' weakest attribute, by far.
4) Power: On the plus side, both of Spirit Flames' rares are highly playable and can be massively game-changing. Board-sweeping effects are the sort of thing that budget players don't often get to use, so having two is pretty great. Arashi and Jiwari also happen to be Spirits with channel, thus it's likely that they will stick around through the deck's various incarnations because of how closely they tie with the deck's central themes.
The rest of the deck is more mixed. As always with precons, there are some real stinker cards in there and some imminently Constructed-worthy ones. What is probably most noticeable from a power perspective are those cards that fit the deck's main themes but aren't in the deck. Where is Kodama's Reach? Hearth Kami? Gnarled Mass? Only one Frostling, Glacial Ray, and Hana Kami? For an aggressive Spirits deck, these holes feel pretty gaping.
5) Fun: I'm not sure why, but almost all “tribal” decks built around a central creature type tend to be pretty fun. Certainly the many interactions in the deck between arcane cards triggering Spirits, Spirits dying for some effect and then coming back via soulshift, and the uncounterable combat tricks of channel (plus soulshift) all sound fun. Making medium sized creatures obscenely big to smash face is pretty keen. The deck is sort of randomly fun, too, as I'm pretty sure no two games will feel quite the same. As a final point in its favor, I love the two rares, Promised Kannushi, and Forked-Branch Garami and anticipate them being the soul (pardon the pun) of whatever deck I build.
Those are first impressions. Let's test some of my observations by actually playing the thing.
But first: One of the things I really regret about my last article is forgetting to include a poll about the format of my new deck. I had assumed it would be Standard (my favorite format), but then I realized that a) people might be sick of Standard decks after Regionals, and b) we've finally rounded out the full Kamigawa block with Saviors. So do you want a Kamigawa Block deck or has Regionals actually heightened your interest in Standard? You'll get to decide. Examine my next ten games (in which I'll alternate formats) closely, then vote in the poll at the end of the article.
Playing With Spirit Flames
Game 1 (Standard): Monoblack Aggro
This was a great first game because it lasted a long time and thus gave me a chance to see a lot of my new deck. There was no way that I should have been able to get my opponent down to three life, though. Dude had Nezumi Graverobber, which is a terrible, terrible card for Spirit Flames to deal with. Dude had four Nekrataal. Dude had four Dark Banishing. Dude had four Echoing Decay. Dude had Gravedigger. Dude had Wicked Akuba. Dude had Bonesplitter. Dude even had Bog Imp. So what happened? I started out with Promised Kannushi (love him) and a hand full of channel guys. I found more than enough mana to play out my creatures despite the fact that my opponent kept killing them. I cleared the board with Jiwari, the Earth Aflame. I did incredibly sick graveyard things with a second Kannushi, Ghost-Lit Nourisher, Forked-Branch Garami (love him too), and Burr Grafter. My lone Hana Kami tried to break through and deal the last points of damage, but his Graverobber (brought back via Gravedigger) and creature removal were too much for me. It was a close game, though, which made me immensely happy. What I realized is that Spirit Flames is, above all else, stubborn.
Game 2 (KBC): Black/Green Shirei deck
Game 3 (Standard): Monowhite Samurai
We played a game in which I had a hand with two land. Then I never saw another as he beat me down with two Kitsune Blademasters, a Mothrider Samurai, and a Konda's Hatamoto. It wasn't much fun for either of us so we decided to play again.
The second game I stalled again at two land, but at least had Promised Kannushi and Shinen of Life's Roar. Thankfully my opponent was creature-shy until the third turn when Kitsune Blademaster showed up, then Opal-Eye, Konda's Yojimbo. At this point I had found more land. He attacked with the Blademaster and I killed Opal-Eye with Unchecked Growth on my Shinen. After that we went back and forth, him eating into my life while I channeled Ghost-Lit Raider and used soulshift repeatedly to start picking off his creatures. He attacked with two Konda's Hatamoto to bring me to one life, then played another Blademaster. Then, in the game's deciding turn, I cleared the board with Jiwari, the Earth Aflame. Now I could start rebuilding. I had finally drawn land at this point, too. So I played Glitterfang and Forked-Branch Garami. Then I played Elder Pine of Jukai and my Glitterfang. My opponent put Heart of Light on my Garami, but on my next attack I spliced Glacial Ray onto Devouring Rage for thirteen fatal damage. Neat!
Game 4 (KBC): Black/Green Arcane
Game 5 (Standard): Black/Blue/Green Gifts deck
Okay, so his deck had Gifts Ungiven, Kokusho, the Evening Star, Hana Kami, Soulless Revival, Meloku the Clouded Mirror, Umezawa's Jitte, Cranial Extraction, Time of Need, and Sensei's Divining Top, among other things. Since this is a Regionals archetype, I did give him a bit of a hard time for playing in the Casual room. So he blew me out of the water, right?
You mean I won??
Nope. Let's not get crazy, here.
I'm really loving the weird synergies in this deck. At one point I attacked with a Hana Kami and Venerable Kumo. I spliced a Glacial Ray onto Inner Calm, Outer Strength to kill my opponent's Hana Kami, then sacrificed my Hana Kami to get back Inner Calm, Outer Strength and play it again on my Kumo. When my Kumo died two turns later, it brought back my Hana Kami to perform a similar trick on Briarknit Kami. In fact, my opponent's Cranial Extraction was for Hana Kami and he laughed when he saw that I only had one and that I was playing a preconstructed deck. Anyway, my opponent killed Kokusho twice, and we still managed to get to a point where I had two beefy ground attackers (4/4 Briarknit Kami and 4/4 Frostling) and he had Kokusho, Meloku, and two 1/1 tokens. Here's the kicker: We were both at two life! As I untapped, I realized that if I drew either of my Unchecked Growths, I win. If I drew my lone Arashi, the Sky Asunder, I win. If I drew Burr Grafter to return
Hana Kamito return Glacial Ray, I win. It's just crazy that I had such a good chance of winning against his deck. What I drew was Crushing Pain, wishing it was a Glacial Ray (in which case I also would have won).
The Kannushi-Garami Gambit
2-3 is a pretty mediocre start. Look at what I faced and how close my losses were, though, and I think that's pretty darned impressive. Even better, it's not like I was mowing through mana-shy opponents. The games went long. I used my many graveyard tricks to keep my opponents off balance. Howdy boy, I like this deck!
Still, there are some cards that simply have to go...
OUT: 2 Crushing Pain
OUT: 1 Venerable Kumo
I think all you need to do to realize that Venerable Kumo has no place outside of a Limited environment is compare it with Forked-Branch Garami. Both are five mana. With the Kumo I get two less power, one less toughness, one less soulshift 4, and an ability to block fliers. Is the ability to block fliers worth all of those negatives? Not on your life. I may like writing about Venerable Kumo, but in practice it's grossly underpowered for my deck. Oh, yeah... for comparison, Arashi, the Sky Asunder costs five mana, too.
OUT: 2 Petalmane Baku
I still think that Petalmane Baku might be a reasonable choice for a five-color Kamigawa Block Spirits deck. Maybe. It's silly to rely on its mana-fixing or acceleration, though, because of how inconsistent it is. Petalmane Baku is almost never going to speed me to a Turn 3 Briarknit Kami, for example. That means it's a 1/2 for two mana. I'm pretty sure I would rather have Zuberas for those stats. Even better, I would rather pay one more mana for Kodama's Reach or the same mana for the non-Spirit Sakura-Tribe Elder.
IN: 3 Glacial Ray
IN: 1 Promised Kannushi
At this point, I think Hana Kami is probably a more vital one-mana card in the deck than Promised Kannushi. So why add the Kannushi and not Hana Kami? Mostly because one of the things I did with Ratimation was start by creating a nucleus I liked and building from there. As great as Hana Kami is, my two favorite cards in the deck are the Kannushi and Forked-Branch Garami. I only need one copy here to come up to four copies, which makes my deck more consistent and helps make my dreams of recycling five-mana Spirits a reality.
IN: 1 Forked-Branch Garami
Speaking of five mana Spirits, I think Forked-Branch Garami is the bee's knees (if anyone knows the origin of this saying, by the way, please post it on the Message Boards). It has such a cool, unique effect (double soulshift) attached to a respectable body for its cost. Add all of the Ghost-Lit Raider, Ghost-Lit Nourisher, Frostling, Burr Grafter, Hana Kami, Shinen of Life's Roar craziness that can ensue with the Garami on the table and I'm pretty sure I want four copies. I've only taken out five cards from the deck, though, and that means I can only add a single copy right now. I would be flabbergasted if a fourth copy doesn't appear in the next round of changes.
My deck now looks like this:
The good news is that after only one round of changes, I already have a deck in which I don't really hate any of the cards. It still looks like a mess, though, which is why I need to play some more games.
Game 6 (KBC): Black/Green Legends
Game 7 (Standard): Black/Blue Ninjas
time_bomb had been stalking me for about two weeks, watching almost every game I played over that time. He finally asked me to play, using what he called a modified Nate Heiss Ninja deck. I cast an early Shinen of Life's Roar, and time_bomb was forced to hard-cast a Ninja of the Deep Hours. Glacial Ray killed his Ninja, then I killed a second with my Shinen and Burr Grafter. I played Arashi, the Sky Asunder. Nekrataal killed my Arashi, but I killed his Nekrataal with my Shinen plus Unchecked Growth. time_bomb then played Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni and the game seemed a lot more bleak. Luckily I found a Promised Kannushi, which died to bring back Arashi. This was significant because he had played Phantom Wings on his Ink-Eyes. Arashi held off the regenerating Ninja and we played a stalemate for a long time. Eventually I played Kami of the Tended Garden, time_bomb cast Walker of Secret Ways and Okiba-Gang Shinobi. I untapped, paid mana for my Kami, channeled Jiwari, the Earth Aflame to clear everything but the tapped Ink-Eyes, then attacked and channeled Ghost-Lit Nourisher for lethal damage. Neat.
Game 8 (KBC): Monoblue Ninjas
This was a frustrating game. Not only did my opponent play incredibly slow, I was again mana-shy and stuck on a single Forest with a host of double-green cards in hand. My Shinen of Life's Roar did some early damage, helped along by Burr Grafter. But my opponent had Soratami Cloudskater with Umezawa's Jitte, then Ninja of the Deep Hours, then Higure, the Still Wind, then two Mistblade Shinobi. I got him to eight life with a Kami of the Tended Garden (locking up my one source of green mana), but the Jitte did its work and I died pretty quickly. These mana issues are driving me nuts.
Game 9 (Standard): Five-color Cogs
Game 10 (KBC): Black/Blue Wisdom deck
His deck was cool, using the blue and black Honden, Gnat Miser, Locust Miser, and some other discard and card-drawing to go along with Soramaro, First to Dream as a finisher. He put down a couple of Minamo Scrollkeepers on defense while I got out a quick Promised Kannushi and Elder Pine of Jukai. For the first time, I realized the synergy between Elder Pine and Inner Calm, Outer Strength, which ballooned my Spirit to 9/8 for three mana. After that my opponent was on the defensive, even though he had a 4/4 Soramaro and Honden of Seeing Winds on the table. I channeled Ghost-Lit Raider to kill his legend, then used Glacial Ray on a Gnat Miser to keep the beats coming. My opponent was able to muster one token defender, but I recycled Hana Kami for my Glacial Ray to end the game.
Time for some more changes.
IN: 4 Kodama's Reach
The question becomes what to take out to make room for my rather drastic mana move...
OUT: 1 Devouring Rage
Devouring Rage is super cool when it works. The problem is that it has only worked once (Game 3) and sat uselessly in hand three times as often. I like the intent of the card, which is to beef up my creatures while allowing for a way to sacrifice soulshift Spirits. In practice, though, I would rather have another five-mana Spirit or something always useful like Kodama's Reach. I can see a way to take the deck in which Devouring Rage remains the finisher, but it's not the deck I'm going to build.
OUT: 2 Inner Calm, Outer Strength
Tricks with Elder Pine of Jukai aside, this card is almost never as good as Unchecked Growth. Even though I will sometimes get more than a +4/+4 out of it (although not often), the effect of trample on Unchecked Growth is huge. Right now I think the deck has too many creature pumpers and not enough everything else, so it's time for me to start trimming the numbers a little. Strength of Cedars currently remains a nice “wow that creature just became enormous” finisher, while Unchecked Growth and Kodama's Might are vying for which is the most solid card for my deck. Inner Calm, Outer Strength suffers in comparison to all three, unfortunately, at least in a green/red Spirits deck.
OUT: 1 Glitterfang
IN: 1 Forked-Branch Garami
As I said earlier, I want the nucleus of my deck to be four Promised Kannushi and four Forked-Branch Garami. Apparently, if you didn't realize it with Ratimation, I love graveyard animation. The fact that I can have a graveyard-focused deck outside of black is fun, too. This probably signals that Spirits and soulshift will be the two core themes of the deck I'm building, with everything else taking a backseat.
OUT: 1 Briarknit Kami
Unfortunately, adding a fourth Garami means I have a crowding at the top of my deck's manacurve. I actually like Briarknit Kami quite a bit, but I've found it to be too slow in an already slow deck. The biggest indictment, I think, is that I have never wanted to return it to my hand after a Promised Kannushi dies, preferring instead to focus on Arashi, Jiwari, or a Garami. That's pretty telling, and what it tells me is that Briarknit Kami's slot is better used for an additional copy of one of these Spirits.
These changes lead me to want to make one more quick change...
OUT: 1 Mountain
IN: 1 Forest
I've switched the ratio of green-to-red cards slightly, but more importantly I've put pressure on drawing green mana via Kodama's Reach. As a result, I want a different balance between my Forests and Mountains. Given the randomness of the deck and the changes that are sure to come, I imagine the land ratio will bounce around a bit.
That's where I'll pick up next week. So far all of the changes I've made have stayed in Kamigawa Block. The deck still has a long way to go, but before I can contemplate the next changes I need to know which format the deck is supposed to play. As a result, it's now time for you to look over my ten games and choose. Speak your mind (and of course try to convince others on the Boards), and I'll get to it next Monday.