Coldsnap: Kjeldoran Cunning Review (Part 1 of 2)
Our next stop on our visit to Coldsnap is the curious White/Blue weenie-control hybrid deck that is Kjeldoran Cunning. Whereas Aurochs Stampede was largely a thematic addition, revisiting one of the more noted creatures from the original Ice Age set, this deck is an entirely new creation featuring one of Coldsnap’s unique mechanics, ripple.
The deck itself is designed with ripple in mind, looking both to control the game’s pace as well as manipulate your library so as to give you as many chances as possible to gain card advantage.
Much like imprint in today’s Scars of Mirrodin, ripple is a very sparingly-applied keyword. In Coldsnap, each colour was given one ripple card, and there was one artifact that interacted with it (giving all your spells the ability, often paired with Relentless Rats). For each colour, the keyword was tied to something at the heart of that slice of the colour pie, the usual crop of abilities you’ll see on most every variant card in a set. Black got discard (Surging Dementia), Green naturally had creature growth (Surging Might), Red had burn (Surging Flame), and Blue had Unsummon (Surging Aether). The odd man out? White. Perhaps it was felt that “Surging Lifegain” wasn’t exciting enough to play, or maybe they just wanted to reinforce a different trope, but White’s addition to the cycle was placed on a creature, Surging Sentinels.
The Sentinels- 2/1 first striking creatures- are perhaps emblematic of Kjeldoran Cunning. Flood the board with cheap weenie creatures, go aggro against slow decks, turtle against more aggressive ones (and then take to the skies), all the while churning through your library looking for incremental advantage over your opponent through card quality and ripple. How well it actually does this will be the focus of our review.
Cautious As Well As Clever
The creatures of Kjeldoran Cunning defy easy categorisation, but there are some thematic currents running through the selection. These currents are: token generation, tribalism, and flyers. To put this in its proper context, we’ll begin with the mana curve:
If from this you’ve already noticed that the deck contains more spells than creatures, you have sharp eyes indeed, for this is a rather unusual deck. Rather than play a swarm of cheap creatures as you might expect from a White Weenie-type aggro strategy, the deck instead focuses on card quality and card advantage through both cantrips and multiple uses per card.
This latter aspect is made clear by the deck’s token generation. The Jötun Owl Keeper uses the set’s cumulative upkeep to provide you with a readymade air force of Bird tokens. A 3/3 for three mana in White is highly efficient, but you won’t have him long. As discussed in our review of Aurochs Stampede, Coldsnap added a twist on the cumulative upkeep mechanic, adapting it from a pure drawback (as it was in Ice Age) to something that contributes to a delayed payoff (not unlike Time Spiral’s suspend). In this case, he exits the battlefield with a flourish, leaving you a flock of Birds in his wake.
For a more conventional approach without any upkeeps, you have the Kjeldoran Home Guard. Not the most steady or stalwart band ever to take up arms for love of king and country, the Home Guard gradually whittles away to nothing the more you ask of them, eventually leaving you with up to a half-dozen 0/1 Deserter tokens. Better by far is one of the deck’s rares, Darien, King of Kjeldor, who can give you up to twenty tokens (or more) over the course of a game. With him in play, every point of damage you sustain yields you a 1/1 Soldier token. This interacts with a few other cards as we’ll soon see, giving the deck a note of synergy.
The deck’s tribal component is limited, but a potent one should you draw into the singleton Field Marshal. With the majority of the deck’s other creatures featuring the subtype Solider (as well as Darien’s token army), the deck can often shift into a finishing gear once the Marshal comes down. The Jötun Grunt (a supercheap 4/4 whose cumulative upkeep- like his brother the Owl Keeper- ensures he has a limited shelf life), pair of Kjeldoran Elite Guards, trio of Kjeldoran Outriders (which, in Magic’s colourful vernacular could be referred to as “bears with pumpable butts”), and playset of Surging Sentinels are all poised to take advantage of this demi-Lord’s power boost.
Beyond that we have a couple of misfits that find a happy home here. The twin Zuran Spellcasters are pingers from back when pingers were in Blue rather than Red. The deck’s strategy guide recommends comboing these with Darien, King of Kjeldor to create 1/1 Soldier tokens at-will. Simply ping yourself and hilarity ensues! The Kjeldoran Gargoyle is an impressive package (with a pricetag to match). A 3/3 flying, first-striking lifelinker gives you an aerial finisher should you successfully shut down the ground lanes with your weenie hordes.
A Truth Stronger than Swords
As mentioned at the beginning of the review, Kjeldoran Cunning is one of those uncommon preconstructed decks where the creatures are actually in the minority. While it carries no win conditions outside of creatures, the deck looks to help its ground troops pull ahead through a combination of card advantage and draw quality. Unfortunately, the place where it is lacking is in actual removal, and here it’s terrible.
To be certain, Kjeldoran Cunning does pack one of the game’s best removal spells of all time: Swords to Plowshares. There’s also a Binding Grasp (a Control Magic variant); a playset of the deck’s other ripple spell, Surging Aether, which like Unsummon is generally only a temporary solution; and a Disenchant. These days we take quality removal in White for granted, but is it really fair to Kjeldoran Cunning to so strenuously take it to task? Let’s pause for a moment to examine the environment the deck has been placed in.
White in Ice Age had plenty of combat tricks (Sacred Boon, Lightning Blow, etc), but only Swords to Plowshares as hard removal. In an interesting twist, there was one mass removal card available to Blue (Winter’s Chill), but as a Rare card there was precious little space in the deck. The next set in the block, 1996’s Alliances, gave us another very strong instant- Exile– but it too was considered a Rare. Reprisal, at Common, was probably thought too conditional to be included in the preconstructed deck- Aurochs Stampede, you might recall, had all of three legal targets (the fourth high-power creature, Deadly Insect, couldn’t be targeted). It’s worth noting that neither Ice Age nor Alliances had any White sorceries, so we don’t even have the option for settling for something slower.
This leads us to Coldsnap. It’s an intriguing question- did R&D ‘correct’ White’s slice of the release here to bring it more in line with modern sensibilities? Or was the tone and spirit of Ice Age preserved? According to Gatherer, it would appear the latter- combat tricks (Kjeldoran War Cry, Swift Maneuver), but no removal. And at sorcery speed? A Wrath effect, Sunscour– obviously a Rare.
It thus behooves the pilot to suspend expectation in playing this deck, and appreciate that it’s trying to do what it can in the context of its times. There’s no equivalent for Oust, Condemn, Excommunicate, or Pacifism– just that single Swords to Plowshares, truly a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ card that should be expended most judiciously.
This means, of course, that you’ll be doing most of your removing in the red zone, and that means you’ll be taking casualties. The good news here is that Kjeldoran Cunning includes a Reinforcements to help rebuild your army after a setback. There are also a number of ways to build up your existing troops. Two Wings of Aesthir grant a modest power bonus and (more importantly) evasion through flight. If you’re forced into a slower game, these will be invaluable. A single copy of Scars of the Veteran (White’s “pitch card”) prevents damage to one of your creatures and can leave behind an impressive toughness boost. Finally, Kjeldoran Pride gives another buff to its recipient, with the added perk of being able to be shifted around at instant speed as circumstances dictate. This can certainly set up some awkward blocking assignments for your opponent as they must account for the Pride being switched to any creature you have.
Finally, the deck uses a lot of card draw/cantrip effects to churn through your library, helping you to find the right solution at the right time. A trio of Brainstorms and pair of Portents help you set up what you need, the latter distinguishing itself by being able to be employed offensively if need be. There are also a pair of Lat-Nam’s Legacies, letting you pass the trash from your hand (such as a late-game land). Employing library manipluation effectively is critical to the long-term success of this deck, as its your only reliable way to influence how often you get a ripple trigger. Often you may consider conserving ripple cards in your hand until you can chain two or three of them together, giving you a large bang for your (relatively minor) buck.
So there’s Kjeldoran Cunning, a crafty, scrappy deck that plays against our usual expectations for both colours. We’ll be taking it into the field next to see how it performs, and will be back to issue our report. We will be pausing here, however, to begin our reviews of Duel Decks: Knights vs Dragons, and will resume Coldsnap coverage on 09 April. See you then!