Lorwyn: Kithkin Militia Review (Part 1 of 2)
With today’s deck- Kithkin Militia- we are now four decks deep in Lorwyn. Every one of the five has seen play now, if not as hero than at least as foil while they await their turn under the microscope. We’ve had a chance to see the set’s themes and mechanics, and how the environment plays out. In light of that, we’d like to pause and take stock of the set. On the one hand, we have our long anticipation of playing the set- it’s been near the top of the list for as long as we’ve run the site. On the other hand, we have the criticisms of the set by R&D stalwarts Aaron Forstyhe and Mark Rosewater which were woven through our introduction to Elvish Predation. The question remains: is Lorwyn really a failure?
It’s a loaded question, of course, as such questions often are. We were surprised (and delighted) to see comments from readers taking up Lorwyn’s case, and by certain objective criteria it’s hard to make the label stick. There’s a reason why Lorwyn has taken this long to be reviewed, and it has to do with the fact that the only “reasonably-priced” Theme Deck of the set’s five is the ever-available Boggart Feast. The set’s decks have long been either hard to find, expensive, or both. Back in April of 2004, while I was producing my Preconstucted Buyer’s Guide series over on Quiet Speculation, I compared the pricing for a number of major online retailers for all theme/intro decks. That research led me to conclude the following:
Somehow, somewhere in some dank cellar Wizards of the Coast has a cadre of slaves still cranking out copies of Boggart Feast for reasons perhaps better left unknown, for it approaches levels of ubiquitousness and cost seldom seen outside of the later Kamigawa sets. In part because of the heavy tribal themes in these decks, they have been coveted by players and are now hard to find. Expect few bargains on eBay as they tend to be rather contested affairs. Some may find better success reconstituting the decks out of singles cards.
None of that has changed with the passage of time, and these remain some of the hardest Theme Decks decks to acquire. Tempest block? Urza’s block? If you’re willing to drop a twenty on a deck you’ll see these all the time on eBay. Good luck sourcing a copy of Merrow Riverways there. Want to get your hands on some Elves? Be prepared to open your wallet. I’d recommended reconstituting the decks from singles cards in the original writeup, but with the prices of some of the staples in Elvish Predation this isn’t going to save you much in the way of capital. In short: players wanted these decks, and they’ve held on to them.
So if the yardstick of player demand tells us that these decks are coveted, can we place at least one hash-mark on the “Success” side of the ledger?
Moving on to world-building, this ball is more firmly in play. It would seem that enough of the player-base found the set’s story to be anemic for Wizards R&D to conclude it was a black mark on the set overall (recall from our opener the line from Rosewater saying players wanted sets to be more “bad-ass” than this one). It’s perhaps fair to say that the Celtic mythology has a certain whimsy or romance to it that doesn’t quite fit the “bad-ass” approach- the great epic of the age is the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley). Of course, if a battle about a stud bull seems absurdly silly and lacking in a certain, well, “bad-assedness,” one might well remember that the Trojan War was fought over a woman (and caused by an apple- ha!).
At the end of the day though, the source material is less relevant than what was done with/to it, and when you’re reading about the ingredients of a “squeaking pie” that give it its characteristic noise (mice, faeries, and prickly-hogs, btw), a certain sturm und drang is irretrievably lost. Still, it is important to remember that Lorwyn was the introduction to a four-act play, one which pivoted volte-face on its heel with Shadowmoor and became something far more sinister. Indeed, as Rosewater himself has discussed regarding the design of Innistrad, the concept of transformation is a crucial element in horror. Mr Hyde isn’t scary because he’s Mr Hyde, he’s scary because he’s also Dr Jeckyll. Without showing the happy meadows and copses and meandering waterways of the somewhat-idyllic Lorwyn, you wouldn’t have the same carpet-pulled-out-from-your-feet effect when the Great Aurora turned the plane of eternal day into that of eternal night.
We enjoy the lore and the world-building we get to see each Autumn as much as anyone (and we’re thrilled to see a new lore-based weekly feature on the mothership by Jenna Helland). With so many recent blocks seemingly singing from the same songbook, this sort of setting and story is a risk well worth taking. That said, some folks just want the high fantasy, high drama story that most sets cater to, and for them perhaps having two blocks focused around Lorwyn/Shadowmoor was a bit too much. We’ll call this one a push.
The last lens through which we’ll assess the set is the mechanical/gameplay one. It is here that we can agree with the set’s critics and detractors, though the reasons why merit a full and detailed explanation- one that we’ll save for our look at the set’s final deck. For today, we’ll be pausing here to look at Lorwyn’s only mono-coloured deck, Kithkin Militia.
Upon the First Threat
Although a new race for all intents and purposes, the first Kithkin rolled off the printing press as far back as June of 1994, with Legends’ Amrou Kithkin. A couple more were seeded in Time Spiral (Amrou Scout and Seekers), but the tribe itself came into its own when Wizards was looking for another race to stand in for the Humans, which were not a themtic fit for the world. Enter the Kithkin, the Hobbits of Magic’s universe.
According to Magic artist Quinton Hoover (who created the art for the original Amrou Kithkin, as well as over seventy other cards), the repositioning of Kithkin was done to avoid legal peril with the estate of JRR Tolkien- but the archetype was very much in mind. By the time the first booster pack of Lorwyn was opened, however, they had taken on a life of their own. While retaining the “folksy” charm of Hobbits, the Lorwyn Kithkin are similarly agrarian in nature but are effective fighters when provoked. Thanks to the quasi-telepathic bond that unites them and lets them share thoughts and emotions (the thoughtweft), they are united by a tremendous sense of community. Naturally, should that community be threatened they stand ready to take up arms in its defense.
And so we find the latest collection of sisxty cards, Kithkin Militia. At its heart a White-weenie deck, Kithkin Militia shares a number of common components with that archetype. It has a relatively low mana curve that peaks at the two-drop slot, though like all of Lorwyn’s decks it is built more for endurance than speed. We also find a robust suite of combat tricks as well as equipment, though the latter is in unusually short supply here (though it does fill a very important role in the deck).
The deck begins with a trio of Goldmeadow Harriers. In a purely speed-based build, you might not find quite so many resources devoted to lockdown effects. While they certainly have their uses, they’re not the most flat-out aggressive option here. By way of comparison, let’s look at recent decks that do take this approach, the mono-White Event Decks War of Attrition and Hold the Line. War of Attrition came from the New Phyrexia environment and boasted an even half-dozen openers. Four of these are the ultra-aggro Elite Vanguard (a card that once upon a time in the early days of the game was considered strong enough to be a rare, the Savannah Lions). The remaining two are Kor Duelists, a good choice for an equipment-heavy deck. That said, the tappers do have their day in Hold the Line, from Innistrad. Here we find a full playset of Gideon’s Lawkeepers, which are functional equivalents of Goldmeadow Harriers. While this might lend some credence to the notion that Kithkin Militia is comparably swift, it’s important to note that War of Attrition boasts a further seven one-drops, so the percentage by volume devoted to the reactive play the tappers provide is still fairly minor. Here, you only get two other one-drops.
That isn’t to say that the tappers dont have their uses- they most assuredly do. But it does give a good impression of how the deck expects a game to go. The presence of tappers here means that Kithkin Militia expects your opponent to live long enough to field creatures that are worth tapping down in the first place. Otherwise, it would just salt in extra copies of the more attack-minded cards like the mighty Goldmeadow Stalwart. Like others in its lateral cycle (Wren’s Run Vanquisher, Squeaking Pie Sneak, etc), the Stalwart can be brought into play at a substantial discount if you can reveal another Kithkin from your hand at time of casting. Although as a 2/2 it’s not the most impressive of its line, it makes for a very strong opening deployment if you’re fortunate enough to find it in your opening hand. Other early creatures tend to be 1/1′s, and you’ll often be able to get in a few strikes before things start to thicken up in the red zone. The Goldmeadow Dodger offers an interesting counterpoint. A riff on the original Amrou Kithkin, the Dodger has a bit more room to maneuver in the field of combat, though that still leaves it vulnerable to plenty of things that can kill it. With the deck’s overall lack of permanent creature enhancements, however, you have few ways to fully exploit this ability.
Moving on to the two-drops, we find the bulk of the deck’s heavy lifting done here. The first thing we find is a full playset of Kithkin Greathearts. Playsets of a single card tend to be fairly uncommon, with the general idea that they leave no room for improving the deck through adding an additional copy of a particularly choice card. Here you get a 2/1 for two mana, which is a fairly poor deal as it is here. Once you manage to field a Giant, though, they become 3/2 first strikers. Counting Changelings, you have seven ways to activate the Greatheart, and a further two (a pair of Crib Swaps) which could be used in a pinch. You should reasonably expect to see this combo come together fairly often.
From there we have a Knight of Meadowgrain, recently featured in the Duel Decks: Knights vs Dragons release. A two-mana 2/2 with first strike and lifelink, the Knight is one of the deck’s all-stars, especially considering an environment rich on small creatures with lots of abilities (pretty much anything outside of Giants and Treefolk). Things only get better if you find one of your two Wizened Cenn. Much has been made recently of the upcoming Master of the Pearl Trident, a two-mana tribal lord. In fairness, the Merfolk are a much more expansive tribe than the Kithkin, so Wizened Cenn is considerably narrower. All the same, she’s a huge boost to the deck and can come down as early as turn 2. Finally, there’s the Cenn’s Heir. A mere 1/1, in the true spirit of community and togetherness he can take on much greater power when attacking alongside his kinfolk.
In the three-drops, we find far slimmer pickings. A pair of Avian Changelings give you some added presence in the skies, while the standard-issue Kithkin Harbinger gives you the tutoring power each of Lorwyn’s Theme Decks gets a taste of. Moving to the four-drops, the air force is expanded with a pair of Kinsbaile Balloonists. Not only do they have flying themselves, but they also grant the ability to another attacker.The Thoughtweft Trio continues another “lateral cycle” for the Theme Decks- a champion creature. In this case, by offering up a Kithkin when cast, you get a 5/5 first strike, vigilant creature that can block as many attackers as you like. Finally, the deck’s legend comes in the form of Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile. As the deck’s second rare (the first being the Trio), the power she can grant the deck is absurd. This would be strong even if limited to attacking creatures, but to also give her the ability to hit defenders is what really puts it over the edge. With the ability to let smaller creatures “trade up” against bigger defenders, your opponent will have a lot of thinking to do during comabt.
At the top of the mana curve, we find two copies each of two final threats, both of which can activate your Greathearts. The Cloudgoat Ranger gives you a trio of 1/1 Kithkin tokens when it comes into play, essentially offering six power of creatures for five mana. By tapping Kithkin, the Ranger can also gain a power buff and flying, just the thing to help polish off your opponent if the red zone is bogged down. The Changeling Hero, on the other hand, is a simpler deal- a 4/4 lifelinker. While you do have to champion a creature when summoned, you don’t often find lifelink attached to creatures with such a high power. The problem with lifegain is that it’s really only useful when you’re behind, and even then it offers no solutions to your predicament on its own. The good news here is that it’s attached to one of the largest creatures in the deck, and a 4/4 body is relevant at any time.
A Word of Forbiddance
The noncreature support suite here is fairly straightforward. The first thing to note is the removal package, which is fairly sturdy. A trio of Oblivion Rings will take care of just about any threat you’ll come across, while a pair of Crib Swaps can remove your opponent’s best creature from the game. On the downside, they are left with a 1/1 Changeling, which in this format can be quite relevant. As mentioned above, you can also use one on one of your own creatures in a pinch if you desperately need to activate your Greathearts, making this a possible combat trick.
It’s certainly in good company, for the deck has a few others which will keep your opponent guessing. Shields of Velis Vel offers a quick defensive bonus across the board, while Surge of Thoughtweft instead offers +1/+1. As an additional bonus, if you happen to control a Kithkin when you cast it, the Surge will replace itself in your hand. You get three of them, so will be quite likely to see them fairly steadily. As a one-of, there’s also a Fog-variant in Pollen Lullaby, which can also keep your opponent’s tapped creatures locked down if you win a clash.
The final pair of cards are your permanent creature enhancements. The Runed Stalactite offers a simple +1/+1 bonus, but also turns its wielder into a Changeling for one further way to activate your Greathearts. You also have a Battle Mastery to give a creature double strike, but it carries with it the traditional drawbacks of a creature aura.
Overall, this looks like a worthy deck in the White Weenie pantheon, and we’ll next take it into battle to see how it performs under fire.