Umezawa’s Dominance

Posted in Feature on July 14, 2005

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

The following is a pretty close estimation on this week's qualifier results. Note that these include some somewhat older results from a week or two ago that were not available when we looked at only Orlando and Little Rock last week.

White Weenie
Black Hand/No Hand
3/4-color Creature Control
Gifts Ungiven
Mono-Red Aggro
Gifts Reanimator
Sway the Stars
G/W Spiritcraft
Infinite Sachi
U/W Kite Control
U/G Control
U/W Ninjas
R/W Jank
Legendary Heartbeat
B/W Control
PTQ winner PTQ Top 8

Catch anything interesting?

The brutally overwhelming success of two decks over the rest of the pack is obvious... That's not what I'm getting at here. It's possible that I missed a deck list (and certainly I don't have the international results at present), but from the data I've seen so far, it appears to me that every single deck that has actually won a PTQ so far plays Umezawa's Jitte. In fact, most of our winners thus far have played the maximum number of copies.

Back at PT Philadelphia, we looked at the Top 8 as a world where almost every deck played four copies of Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama's Reach. In that Top 8 decks with Jitte couldn't beat decks without Jitte and many matches came down to who manipulated their decks best. In this format, though, it seems like successful players are drawing threats off the top of their libraries and letting Umezawa's Legendary Equipment do the rest.

A Helping Hand

Back in Philadelphia, there was no dominant Mono-Black deck. This state has quite obviously changed for the qualifier season. The reason that Mono-Black in both aggressive and controlling forms has become a successful archetype seems to be the seemingly innocuous Saviors of Kamigawa two-drop Hand of Cruelty. Mono-Black at present trails only White Weenie in terms of qualifications and overall Top 8 appearances. Given its relative power over White Weenie, I can imagine weeks where Black is the dominant deck (though it is difficult to imagine anyone catching White Weenie in aggregate numbers this season).

The interesting thing about Mono-Black in this format is that the differentiation between beatdown and control decks is so thin. Most of the decks seem aggressive because they play equipment like O-Naginata, but motivations behind certain cards is not as clear cut as they might seem. In the truly aggressive decks, Umezawa's Jitte is of course a premiere threat card. In especially the post-Budde control Black decks that have replaced Final Judgment with Kagemaro, First to Suffer, there remains the gaping hole that was Terashi's Grasp; in these decks, Umezawa's Jitte can be a threatening card and can also be used to Shatter the opponent's Jitte. Note how the motivation to play Hand of Cruelty itself is subtly different in the Control black decks. Though that two-drop remains a nasty attack creature, a near-guaranteed two on turn three, Hand of Cruelty in Black Control is less an aggressive inclusion than a Stop Sign for White Weenie (the deck that handed the then 6-0 Kai two of his three consecutive losses at PT Philly).

Though last week we looked at a suicide-style deck with tons of "hurt myself" Demons and Ogres, players have expanded on and dissented against the pure strength and synergy of these threats. Consider Greg Weiss's deck, which won the Philadelphia-area PTQ New Cumberland:

Gregg Weiss - Black Hand

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Raving Oni-SlavePerhaps not worth it after all?

Greg's listing looks to be one of the best of the crop, and among the Black decks is defined by some interesting omissions. For one thing, he deviates from last week's champ by not playing Raving Oni-Slave. Although that Ogre Warrior is certainly a strong card, especially in the echo of Suicide Black, Raving Oni-Slave gives the opponent the opportunity to race, especially if he plays relevant creature elimination. Like Umezawa's Jitte, the Juzam Djinn-esque Yukora the Prisoner is a near-automatic four-of in both controlling and beatdown Black decks; thus Greg's even stranger omission is in playing no copies of said Legendary Demon Spirit.

"Yukora just gives the opponent outs he might not have had. Not only does it let another Black player beat you with the Legend Rule, but every time I saw a Mono-Black player losing, he'd have Yukora on defense, afraid to lose two other guys to a bad block."

The inclusion of Kiku's Shadow helps Greg win the mirror by giving him a spot removal card that can take out opposing 3/3s... Even if he doesn't have Oni-Slaves of his own, early Shadows let him turn the opponent's efficient 3/3s into Ball Lightnings. Yet unlike most Black decks, Greg plays very little disruption main deck. "I wanted to play five Psychic Spears in my sideboard, but never really wanted to draw two copies of the card Psychic Spear... So I played two Distress. Anyway, the Okiba-Gang Shinobi were enough disruption; people didn't expect those. The only reason I played O-Naginata was to connect with Okiba-Gang or Ink-Eyes even when they had blockers."

The power of Mono-Black is its combination of powerful creatures for their costs and control of the board's tempo via creature removal. Because the Black decks have such strong early drops, including their many 3/3s, the difficult-to-block Ogre Marauder, and sneaky Ninjas with nasty combat triggers, the opponent is often scrambling to catch up. When he goes to tap mana for an adequate defender, the Black deck's removal helps to maintain the initiative.

Local Tech

Last week it was interesting to see how half the Orlando Top 8 had similarly templated TOGIT-style Three-color Creature Control decks. This phenomenon has exploded across many local PTQs. Consider the Top 8 of the 7/2 PTQ at Columbus, Ohio. Six of the eight decks played Celestial Kirin -- a fairly unique decision for this environment thus far, with only ONE deck from the Columbus PTQ running TWO copies of that card just one day earlier -- and seven of the eight decks were straight up White Weenie. The one dissenting deck was a G/W creature deck with heavy Spiritcraft elements, including the aforementioned Celestial Kirin.

Of the Columbus White Weenie crop, I like Alex Purdy's finalist deck the most. Alex only finished in second place to Gary Cornwall, but he is also the only player in this Top 8 to run Waxmane Baku.

Alex Purdy - White Weenie

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Waxmane Baku
Waxmane Baku is a subtly powerful card in White Weenie. Like Man-o'-War back in 1997, Waxmane Baku is a Gray Ogre that is clearly incredible in limited... but takes a while to reveal itself as a Tier One constructed card. Clearly synergistic with the Spiritcraft element of Purdy's deck (headlined with that Celestial Kirin card), Waxmane Baku lets White Weenie get in there for two against a Sakura-Tribe Elder (surprisingly important), tap whatever isn't getting destroyed by the Kirin, or perhaps most importantly, clear blockers at the end of the opponent's turn for the endgame Charge Across the Araba.

Local innovations aside, at the end of the day, White Weenie is not only a known quantity, it is the most populous deck in all Top 8s. More interesting on the local tech front is Houston. Under the hot Texas sun, three fiery Mono-Red Aggro lists blazed their way into the PTQ Top 8. Sean Williams, Eric Honeycutt, and Chris Cormy advanced to the elimination rounds with a design by Honeycutt.

With four copies of Zo-Zu the Punisher, it is easy to see how this deck hates out a format designed for Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama's Reach action. The heavy Spiritcraft elements of some decks are held in check by the deceptively lethal Ishi-Ishi, Akki Crackshot. Blazing Shoal is an unexpected card that most players don't even have on their radar when considering what play to make next... but when life totals hit ten, Hidetsugu's Second Rite can end it immediately.

"Three of us played the deck and we all finished in the Top 8. It took a lot of work to figure out a way to make the deck competitive against White Weenie, and we accomplished it with a 15 card transformational sideboard in the latest version. Gifts and other legendary based decks are just about a bye for the deck."

Previously I considered Kamigawa Block a rough format for the beloved Red Deck. The problems for Basic Mountain are many... For one thing, most of the top decks run Umezawa's Jitte. The Jitte is a true triple threat against Red Decks. First, most of the Red creatures are small when compared to the combat creatures in other colors -- certainly the ascendant White and Black decks -- so Jitte's -1/-1 ability is more damning than usual. Second, one of a Red Deck's main weapons is direct damage used to take out opposing creatures and generate tempo; this is more difficult to accomplish against the potential +2/+2 power of the Jitte. Last, and most importantly, each charge counter on a Jitte represents two life -- a full Glacial Ray -- meaning that an opposing Jitte represents a steep hill to climb in the card advantage department.

More than Jitte, the defining creature of Kamigawa Block in many Jitte decks, and most non-Jitte decks, is Sakura-Tribe Elder. This little Snake is actually quite a problem for threats like Akki Avalanchers or Hearth Kami, if less so against Zo-Zu. When Sakura-Tribe Elder catches most of the Red Deck's creatures in combat, no one is left standing, but the opponent has an extra land.

Props to Eric and his friends for braving the trials of the format to create a powerful new rogue deck that plays many unusual cards, from Fumiko the Lowblood to Skyfire Kirin.

Inheritors of Philadelphia

Snakes was the most popular deck at PT Philly... but posted only one Top 8 appearance. This week, Snakes showed up big time, posting five Top 8s and two big wins.

Chris Kuehl - Snakes

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Sosuke's Summons
All of Kamigawa Block's green decks try to break Kodama's Reach and Sakura-Tribe Elder for mana acceleration. Different decks do different things with that mana; some set up multiple colors and play Gifts Ungiven to lock the opponent out with recurring Ethereal Haze or Kagemaro activation while others ramp up to huge amounts of mana for Sway of the Stars. What a Snakes deck does instead is to make 1/1 tokens... and then play its actual Snakes -- from the aforementioned Sakura-Tribe Elder all the way to Seshiro the Anointed -- to buy back Sosuke's Summons. By ramping out its mana and repeatedly breaking Summons, the Snakes deck can create an army of 3/3 Ophidians.

Kuehl splashes White for Hokori and Yosei, stalwarts of the TOGIT-style decks; Hokori especially is quite synergistic with the core elements of the Snake deck, which by adding a second color, can bring out more of the Winter Orb reprint than a regular White Weenie. Time of Need lets Kuehl play fewer than four copies of the Dust Drinker... and yet "feel" like he's got five copies. More importantly, Orochi Sustainer and especially Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro allow the deck to operate with sufficient mana even though the opponent can ostensibly untap only one land; thus he supplements his Snake engine with essentially the best elements of some of the best other decks in the field. Chris was ultimately very fortunate, and rode his combination of mana acceleration, board control, four Jittes, and Snake engine to the coveted first place position... and Blue Envelope.

Though we have focused primarily on TOGIT-style U/G/W decks in the Three (or Four)-color Creature Control deck department, the most successful example of this strategy, this week at least, was Ken Nowell's at High Point.

Ken Nowell - Three-color Creature Control

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Rather than going for Yosei and Myojin of Cleansing Fire at the top of his curve, Nowell went dedicated Black. Everywhere we would typically see Hokori, Dust Drinker, Nowell has Infernal Kirin for disruption. Ken trades Evening for Morning Star, and Kagemaro for Final Judgment.

While the switch to Black is interesting on its face while never deviating from the core strength of the Tribe-Elder/Kodama's Reach/Time of Need engine, Ken's most unique switch is not on the colored card front but in his artifacts. Rather than playing four copies of Umezawa's Jitte, Nowell touches Godo instead of Meloku for a single search target... But on top of cutting three Jittes, he replaces Sensei's Divining Top with Pithing Needle, the anti-Top.

Once again, the PTQs have served up numerous decks for discussion. Though two archetypes -- one really -- are grabbing most of the real estate and Blue Envelopes, the season is young. Hopefully we will have more weeks like the last two, where innovation forces its way into the elimination rounds, ready to brawl with Hand of Honor and Isamaru, Hound of Konda. Until next, check out all this week's Top 8 deck lists here.

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