Betrayers of Kamigawa: Ninjutsu Review (Part 1 of 2)
It will come as news to no-one that brainstorming and free association are powerful creative tools. The simple act of allowing a group of minds in a room to bounce ideas off of one another can often produce results greater than the sum of the parts, and we’ve related more than once the stories of what’s come out of these sessions at Wizards of the Coast. For instance, there was the recently-recounted Godfather moment with the Orzhov during Ravnica block design, and during our look at Deathly Dominion we discussed the same being done for the horror themes and tropes that would bring Innistrad to life.
A similar thing happened in the lead-up to Kamigawa block. Wizards informally polled a number of its employees to see what concepts and ideas came to mind when thinking about medieval Japan. Far and away, two words were at the very top of everyone’s list- but only one of these found its way into Champions of Kamigawa. The Samurai, and their bushido mechanic, were a staple of the block’s large set, finding their way onto eighteen cards in three different colours and providing the basis for the Way of the Warrior Theme Deck. Of the other- perhaps characteristically- there was not the slightest sign.
Until, that is, Betrayers of Kamigawa. See, an interesting thing happened when Wizards conducted the in-house survey of Japanese history and mythology. Unlike Ravnica and Innnistrad, where the ideas spilled forth like a torrent once the creative tap was spiked, the knowledge gap between the Samurai and Ninja and, well, everything else was fairly vast. Although the folks in Creative could do a superb job creating a world and crafting its stories, when it came to the flavourful, real-world basis that would underpin the entire concept Wizards had two solid tropes to work with. Creative would need to fill in the rest. Given that paucity, it was determined that it might be better to stretch the material out, and hold off on unveiling the Ninja until the second set of the block.
Mechanically, the Ninja were a bit of a conundrum for R&D. Given the popularity of the Ninja in the Western world, they knew that they had to have a certain “wow!” factor to the cards, lest they risk releasing something that perhaps might be mechanically intriguing but nevertheless underwhelming when confronted with the weight of expectation. They knew that they wanted the Ninja to be the foil of the Samurai- sneaky and cunning rather than upright and martial. But how to represent that in Magic terms?
At first, their attempts focused on two different gameplay modes- unblockability and enters-the-battlefield (ETB) triggers. Unblockability would represent the Ninja’s ability to slip through defenses unseen and undetected, and to that end Aaron Forsythe tried an update of Tempest’s shadow mechanic. This proved unsatisfactory, but then so did ETB abilities. Sure they let the Ninja “strike from the shadows” as it landed on the battlefield and did something useful, but that was a one-shot deal. After the ability had expended itself, all you were left with was an uninspiring vanilla body.
To give the Ninja their due, Mark Rosewater lifted a page from the element of mystery and surprise that had made the morph mechanic of Onslaught block a success. Obviously you couldn’t bring it back wholesale- the idea of Ninja hiding inside “morph crawler” shells and skittering around the battlefield was of course preposterous- but could you not recapture the element of surprise and disguise? Towards that end, Wizards eventually settled on the idea of sabotage and disguise. Ninja would adopt the guise of other creatures on the battlefield, many of which might not seem as threatening. Then, once they’d slipped past the defenses, the disguise would come off and they’d be free to wreak havoc behind enemy lines.
Mechanically, this is perhaps just a touch inelegant, but overall it does well to heighten a sense of uncertainty and anxiety that isn’t ordinarily found to a great degree in creature combat. When you let a 1/1 pass, you know what’s most often going to happen- you’ll take a point of damage. Sometimes, you’ll be in for a surprise- a Giant Growth for extra damage, or perhaps a set-up for something like the bloodthirst mechanic, but with the Ninja you never know what you’re going to face.
A Ripple on a Still Pond
The creatures of Ninutsu separate themselves into three distinct camps, each with their own part to play. Aside from the Ninja themselves, you have what we might whimsically call the Enablers and the Stallers. The Stallers are a simple class. Like any combo-esque deck, you often need the luxury of a little time while you assemble your critical components, and the more aggressively-minded decks you might face tend to offer you very little of this precious commodity. Enter the Stallers, defensive-minded creatures designed to congest the red zone as much as possible. Any swarming oppening might still be getting damage through, but by blunting the tip of the spear you’ll generally be able to last considerably longer, and that means more time and more draws.
These begin appearing almost immediately for Ninjutsu with the two-drop Kaijin of the Vanishing Touch. This Kaijin is a slightly depowered version of the very strong Wall of Tears from Stronghold, but loses only a single point of toughness in the translation. Purists may argue that this makes it a “strictly worse” card, but Magic typically looks less at the overall game and more on the specific environment, where perhaps a 0/4 was too strong but a 0/3 is right for the casting cost. In any event, you get two of them, and they’ll be amongst your best defensive assets due to the tempo disadvantage your opponent faces if they attack you with expensive creatures.
Next up is the River Kaijin, a three-mana body without any limitations on attack. That said, a 1/4 generally means the creature is intended for defense, and the trio you find here will go a long way towards keeping incoming creature damage under control. Finally, there’s the 1/5 Tomorrow, Azami’s Familiar, the first of the deck’s two rares. In addition to being a very robust blocker, Tomorrow has a very strong draw filtering ability which offers a massive boost towards draw quality. The pricetag is a steep six mana in a deck completely absent any ramp, and furthermore there are some cards in the deck which require you to return lands to hand as part of their activation cost. Nevertheless, if you manage to get a card-drawing engine on-line, you’ll have a much better chance of deploying Tomorrow soon enough for it to impact the outcome of the game.
The next group of creatures are the Enablers, ones that help your Ninja sneak through enemy lines. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, but the overall effect is the same. If you can’t get your Ninja in for damage, the path to victory becomes that much harder to find. The deck opens with a single one-drop, the Teardrop Kami. This Kami is fairly unassuming on its own, but it brings two things to the table. The first is its cheap cost and small size. If you can deploy it early enough against a midrange deck, you can often get it in for a few nibbles of early damage, which is a perfect opening for the Ninja whose ninjutsu cost is always cheaper than their casting cost. Second, by being able to tap or untap a creature, you can make sure that your opponent’s best defender is out of the way for your next Ninja attack. It’s this latter ability too that gives them some relevance, even when drawn so late in the game that a 1/1 is fairly unwelcome.
The Soratami Cloudskater offers a similar deal- thanks to its evasion it can often get in for some damage on its own, setting up your Ninja. In this deck that would be solid enough at two mana, but it also packs in a very useful looting ability. Although having to return a land to your hand is something of a drawback, it can also be looked at- particularly later in the game- as “sacrifice a land, draw a card.” Also helpful is the Student of Elements. The Student on its own is a terrible deal, paying two mana for a 1/1 that does nothing on its own. However, if you manage to grant it flying (and you’ve several ways to do that, as we’ll soon see), it flips into Tobita, Master of Winds and gives all of your creatures flying. That will often become a win condition all its own rather than just a Ninja set-up, and can be well worth the trouble. That said, there will be plenty of games where you don’t find your flight-granting cards, and this becomes nothing more than another small body to throw into an attack in the hopes of getting through for a Ninja.
The other tactic offered by your Enablers is unblockability. As mentioned in the introduction, this was an ability initially offered to Ninja by default, but removed when it didn’t seem to work as well as Wizards had hoped. That said, with the ninjutsu ability, unblockability remains highly relevant, and will help set up a number of your attacks. Thus far, we’ve focused on those creatures that help you get Ninja into play, but what makes this next group strong is that they equally help those Ninja you’ve already played. Take, for instance, the Minamo Sightbender. Although their aid must be renewed each turn, the relatively small power of your Ninja means that its still well within the realm of affordability. With two in the deck, they’ll become one of your most valuable allies as they fortify your ability to eke out the incremental advantage critical for Ninjutsu’s success. You also have a singleton Soratami Mirror-Guard, which has a similar trigger to the Cloudskater. For two mana and the return of a land, you can grant unblockability to most of your other creatures.
Finally, we come to the stars of the show themselves, though these are stars who prefer a life of inconspicuous concealment. Ninjutsu gives you a total of eight Ninja, and thanks to their reduced ninjutsu cost they can begin doing their dirty work as early as turn two! For this reason, moreso than most decks the mana curve of Ninjutsu should be taken with a grain of salt. Your Ninja as costed aren’t great bargains, but as often as not you should be buying them into being at a discount rather than their full, hardcasting cost- indeed, that’s what the deck is built to do.
We open with the Mistblade Shinobi, who offers an Unsummon effect should it slip through enemy lines and score a wound on your opponent. This is a superb tempo play, and if used repeatedly can cripple decks which rely on a few large creatures rather than a swarm of cheaper ones. The deck gives you three of them, so it’s one of the two abilities you’ll be seeing most often. Next up is the Walker of Secret Ways, one of your Ninja singletons. Her ability is somewhat limited in scope, letting you look at your opponent’s hand and nothing more. This might be useful if your deck was filled with countermagic, since you’d then know what you needed to anticipate, but Ninjutsu only offers you a modest two. Instead, it’s her second ability which is much more useful, letting you return a Ninja to hand. Although it can only be played on your turn, making it less useful as a reaction to removal, it can still help you set up Ninja strikes. If your opponent has set up a solid ground game such that you can’t profitably attack through it, but you’ve got a Cloudskater active and unopposed in the air, the Walker can let you ‘reload’ your hand for another Ninja ambush. Your opponent may see it coming, but there may not be a lot they can do to stop it.
Our third representative here is the Ninja of the Deep Hours, another three-of card. Moreso than perhaps any other, this is your bread-and-butter Ninja. His four-mana pricetag is cut in half if you can cheat him onto the board, and his benefit is simple, straightforward, and obvious: draw a card. Forget increments, this is full-on card advantage if you can get him through more than once, and engineering that feat is well worth the effort. Fittingly, Ninjutsu is a somewhat subtle machine- there are no massive Silent-Blade Onis here as found in the recent Night of the Ninja Planechase deck. You won’t be pounding your opponent into the dirt with fat creatures, but you can certainly ensure that they die the death of a thousand cuts.
Towards that end, we find the deck’s last Ninja and final rare card, Higure, the Still Wind. Higure is expensive- even through ninjutsu- but he brings several tools to the table. First, as a 3/4, he’s your deck’s biggest beater. Second, should he manage to slip through for damage he lets you tutor up a free Ninja from your deck. Finally, and perhaps most useful of all, is the unblockability he can grant any Ninja on the table for just two mana- himself included! Given his damage output and card advantage potential, Higure should almost always be your top priority for getting past your opponent’s defenses, and rightly so. As a one-card combo, he is well worth his asking price and can steal the occasional game on his own.
Like Storm Water Through
The noncreature support suite in Ninutsu is largely focused around creature augments, as you might expect given the centrality that your primary creature type plays in establishing dominance on the battlefield. There’s some Equipment present in the form of the Shuriken and pair of Ronin Warclubs, both of which are particularly suited towards your form of asymmetrical warfare. The Shuriken is best regarded as repeatable burn in the hands of your Ninja. You’ll very seldom want any of your other creatures to pick them up- their clumsy throw might hit the mark, but it then lets your oppnent pick them up and throw them right back, or- more likely if they know what they’re up against- let them collect rust on their side of the table.
The Ronin Warclub is much less subtle, granting a nice, juicy +2/+1 bonus. Although its equip cost is absurd (five mana), that’s not how you’ll typically be using it. Instead, the Warclub equips for free onto a creature freshly entering the battlefield, a creature like… a Ninja! Since the Ninja is already unblocked if your using ninjutsu, look at this is immediate bonus combat damage in addition to the sabotage effect you’ll already be getting from the Ninja themselves.
Next up is some evasion-granting effects in Phantom Wings and Lifted by Clouds. The Wings are a reprint from Weatherlight, and are a cheap and useful way to make one of your creatures much harder to block. Keep an eye out for the Student of Elements too, as this is one of the two ways you’ll be able to trigger the flip to Tobita. Being able to fetch the enchanted creature back to hand in a pinch gives the card a little more mileage as well, and helps offset some of the card disadvantage traditionally faced by auras. The other option here is an instant rather than an enchantment, and it carries the splice onto arcane keyword. Surprise! You have no arcane spells in the deck, making this a one-shot deal, so you’ll want to be sure to make it count.
The final creature augment here is Field of Reality, which is a heavily meta-dependent card. Indeed, the decks of Betrayers of Kamigawa have some ‘silver bullets’ in the chamber for each other’s decks; you won’t be amused when your Rat’s Nest opponent drops a Nezumi Shadow-Watcher, for instance. The effectiveness of the Field entirely depends upon what your opponent is playing. If they’re playing Rat’s Nest, the card is quite nearly a dead draw about the only thing you’ll be slipping past is the Patron of the Nezumi or Genju of the Fens. Your luck against Dark Devotion, with its mix of Ogres and Demon Spirits, is about 50/50, while the card will make you outright unblockable against the tribal Spiritcraft.
Your creature removal suite consists of a trio of Mystic Restraints. The Restrains are good but not great, leaving any utility creature free to use their activated abilities. On the upside, they tap the creature they enchant if they’re not already tapped, so that does create a surprise hole in the defenses for you to exploit. For the most part, you’ll be relying upon the Mistblade Shinobi and Shuriken to clean up any creature-based threats, but only the latter can permanently kill a creature.
Of course, if the creature never resolves when cast, then you’ll never have to deal with it. A Minamo’s Meddling and Hinder each can counter a spell- creature or otherwise. Each offers a twist on the usual “counter target spell” clause. The Hinder doesn’t put it in the graveyard, but instead on the top or bottom of the library. This helps get around graveyard-based mechanics like soulshift, though you’ll find little of that in Betrayers of Kamigawa (even in Spiritcraft, where you’d most expect it). The Meddling, on the other hand, is another targeted “silver bullet” card, this time against the splice onto arcane ability. This spell not only kills off the spell you’re countering, but it blasts any splice spells your opponent used alongside it into the graveyard as well- a potent if pricey weapon.
Finally, a pair of Genju of the Falls gives you a little more evasive reach on the battlefield. By turning into a 3/2 flyer, you up your ability to deal damage to your opponent while at the same time giving your Ninja a chance to sneak onto the battlefield.
All in all, Ninjutsu is another realitvely uncommon thing- the mono-Blue deck. Indeed, Ninjustu was only the third ever, following on the heels of the Dominator of Exodus and Darksteel’s Transference. We’ll put the deck into field testing, then return back in two days’ time to offer our conclusions and a final grade. See you then!