Champions of Kamigawa: Spiritbane Review (Part 1 of 2)
The sudden and startling aggression of the kami caught the world by surprise. None could say why their gods had turned against them, but there could be no doubt that something had moved the spirit world to attack the mortal world, both faithful and faithless alike.
Reports came in from all corners of Kamigawa of the manifestations of the kami’s wrath.
“When the rampaging kami at Reito had crushed the opposing militia, swarms of minor kami swept over the battlefield to consume all that remained.” —Great Battles of Kamigawa
“Each night as Master Dosan prays to the kami, the hate he receives in return withers his body a little more. Though the kami are slowly killing him, still he continues his prayers.”—Meditation journal of a young budoka
“Everything the kami had done, they did with more force. Gentle breezes became typhoons, rolling rivers turned to crushing rapids, and gentle growth became overnight masses of thorns and vines.” -Unknown
“The hound sniffed the air and let slip a low growl. General Takeno looked down at the faithful Isamaru and calmed him with a touch. “Alert the men. The kami are coming.”” -Unknown
“Many great warriors died in the first days of the war, as the spirits of their weaponry turned against them with terrifying rage.” —Observations of the Kami War
“How can we wage war against ourselves? What happens when the kami of our very souls rise against us? I answer simply: We cannot. We die. There can be no victory in this war.” —Sensei Hisoka, letter to Lord Konda
Still, despite the initial panic and confusion after the kami turned against them, there were still pockets of resistance. Not least were the yamabushi of the Sokenzan Mountains, monks who had trained for combat against the Spirit world and were some of the most prepared to strike back. Spiritbane recreates this enclave of monks and warriors in a single, 60-card deck.
Winning Victories Against the Kami
Of the four theme decks of Champions of Kamigawa, only Kami Reborn has more than one colour. For Spiritbane, it’s sole provenance derives from the Mountains, the land of the akki Goblins and the yamabushi Shaman. In more material terms, it’s exactly what you’d expect- aggressive creatures backed up by a heavy burn package. Of course, this being a Kamigawa deck there also needs to be a solid flavour component, and here too we see little exception. Look for yamabushi cards which remove creatures from the game rather than send them to the graveyard. This might not seem all that important, until you realise that the yamabushi are formidable enemies of the kami- and what better way to combat them than to deny them soulshift?
We begin our walk up the creature curve with your one-drop Akki Avalanchers. Once upon a time you actually would see full playsets of cards in preconstructed decks, before Wizards realised that doing so gave players less incentive to buy more cards and tinker with their deck. The upside, however, is a welcome level of consistency- as you’ll see, a large number of cards here are two-ofs or better. The Avalanchers are a reasonable beater- a 1/1 body that can eat land to get a power boost. Later in the game, that might be just the ticket to maximise your resources-to-damage ratio, and having one-drops that aren’t total rubbish in the late-game is always a plus. The fact that you can activate this ability at instant speed also makes the Avalanchers a solid blocking option.
Moving on to the two-drops, we have a pair of three-of’s here in the Akki Rockspeaker and Battle-Mad Ronin. The Ronin is a 1/1 Samurai which has the occasional Red drawback of being forced to attack each turn if able. The upside is that with bushido 2 your opponent will need to block him with a 4/4 if he doesn’t fancy a trade, making this a fairly reliable beater. Less welcome is the Rockspeaker, who essentially is a slightly worse one-mana 1/1- slightly worse in that it’s harder to cast than the Mons Goblin Raiders but gives you no more benefit. Were there ways to harness the enters-the-battlefield mana bonus, like ways to recur creatures from the graveyard, a case for utility might be made. As-is, though, this is a straight Red deck, and the Rockspeaker is a waste of three slots. On the upside, at least we don’t have to worry about mana burn anymore.
The Ronin Houndmaster give us another quality bushido body in the three-drops, and you get a trio of them. A 2/2 with haste as well as bushido, this is a solid deal. You also have a pair of Akki Coalflingers here, also 2/2 with first strike and with the ability to give first strike to all your attacking creatures. Finally, you have a pair of legends in the Brothers Yamazaki. Each merely a 2/1 with bushido 1, the Brothers have a most interesting condition. They are exactly identical (aside from the art), but they grant an exception to the ‘legend rule’ which states that if a legend comes into play with the same name as one in play, they both are sacrificed. Instead, if you manage to get two Brothers out, they each get a nifty bonus- +2/+2 and haste. That’s a strong deal, but on their own each Brother is a bit weak for three mana.
Our four-drop slot consists of three copies of a single card, the Frostwielder. She’s essentially a Prodigal Pyromancer, but for one more mana she ensures that anything she damages that dies is removed from the game instead of going to the graveyard. It’s here that we get the first real taste of the yamabushi’s Spirit-fighting capabilities, and against them this ability is cripplingly strong. Being able to keep Spirits out of the graveyard to prevent their return means that the Spirit-reliant player is overpaying for their creatures for an ability they won’t even get to use. Like other cards in this deck, she’s a bit overpriced under less optimal conditions, but a pinger in this environment won’t often have a lack of targets.
Finally at the top of the curve we have the big man himself, Kumano, Master Yamabushi and a pair of Kumano’s Pupils. Both cards have the same exile clause as the Frostwielder, and Kumano himself has a repeatable ping ability atop a beefy 4/4 body. The Pupils follow the same pattern as the Frostwielder and Brothers Yamazaki in that they’re a touch too expensive for what they are under less than optimal conditions. Against decks that have no recursion, they’re just a rather underwhelming five-mana 3/3.
Embracing the Sun Itself
As you’d hope, Spiritbane is packed with burn spells in addition to its other noncreature support. First up is a trio of Yamabushi’s Flames, essentially a Lightning Bolt with an exile clause on it. Even against non-Spirit decks you’ll be happy to have three points of instant-speed damage at your disposal, even if it’s a little pricier than the Bolt. Then you have a pair of Hanabi Blasts, which continuing the metaphors is like a pricier Shock. The upside here is that you might not lose the Blast when you cast it, though that may or may not be a good thing depending on what you cast. Integrating randomness into Red is always hit or miss, but this card is definitely a flavourful hit. The prospect of being able to Blast someone out of a game by casting it multiple times is a very appealing one. Finally, there’s a pair of Crushing Pains. These are a little less reliable, given that you can only target something that’s sustained injury. You’ll want to avoid blowing two burn spells to kill one creature unless circumstances are absolutely dire, so you might want to save this for when you get a pinger out, or can offer up some useless creature as a chump blocker.
A trio of equipment cards can help make up for some of the deck’s highlighted inefficiencies when it comes to its creatures. The No-Dachi gives a simple +2/+0 bonus, granting first strike in the process. Meanwhile, your deck’s other rare outside of Kumano is the Kusari-Gama. It gives a sort of colourless Firebreathing, with the added kicker that whenever the creature it equips damages a blocking creature, every creature your opponent controls will also then take that much additional damage. Equipped to one of your more powerful creatures, this has the potential to be a one-sided Wrath of God effect, and having a mana sink for later in the game always comes in handy.
The deck’s final cards are the Sideswipe and a pair of Blind with Angers. The Angers are the expected variation on Red’s borrow-a-creature theme a la Act of Treason. Sure it costs one more mana- and can’t steal legendary creatures- but the fact that it can be cast at instant speed can give it the potential for two-for-one situations where you steal an opponent’s creature to block one of their attacking creatures. Finally there’s Sideswipe, one of the target-fiddly spells you historically have often seen in Blue (like Redirect). With Arcane spells appearing in each of the four theme decks for Champions, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to put this to good use.
In a nutshell, then, we have a very start contrast to Kami Reborn. Kami Reborn was a two-coloured deck with a lot of interactions and interplay between its cards focused on graveyard recursion. There are no such tricks here- Spiritbane is about as blunt and direct a response as you could expect to get. Mono-Red, filled with aggressive-minded beaters and burn spells, with the ability to exile cards rather than send them to the graveyard, can its singlemindedness of purpose carry the day? We’ll take it into battle and find out- see you in two days’ time!