Planechase 2012: Night of the Ninja Review (Part 1 of 2)
Having reached this, the final of the four Planechase 2012 reviews, we thought we’d begin with a revelation so staggering that it requires a bit of a preamble. For the faint of heart, you may wish to ensure that you are seated before reading it. If you’re reading this on your smartphone, you might wish to put the device on a flat surface first. This shocking revelation flies in the face of conventional wisdom for some, but it’s important to note before we get stuck into Night of the Ninja.
In short… Wizards makes mistakes.
That’s right, Wizards fouls things up from time to time, and is batting something less than a thousand. Although the game is nearing two decades of existence and at present is turning out record participation, it hasn’t been an unblemished path. Wait, what’s that you say? This isn’t news?
Well, to longtime readers of Ertai’s Lament, we might be forgiven for thinking so. For the most part, our look at different sets and mechanics is tinged by our affection for the game, and as we flit from set to set we seldom stick around long enough to get tired of what’s in front of us (though that wasn’t the case with Mirage Block as we hit all three sets back to back to back, which was a useful experience but one that will not be repeated). By the same token, it’s always illuminating and even fascinating to learn about what Wizards has considered to be their failings in designing the game. As it so happens, the Night of the Ninja deck heralds from one of those failures: Kamigawa.
Kamigawa was and is a Vorthos player’s dream set. It had a ton of legends, flavour dripping from a number of cards, and even fiddled with the “narrative design” by having a White villain and Black protagonist. Unfortunately, for all that there are a number of things about the block that rub many the wrong way. Some decry the drop-off in power level coming on the heels as it did of the original Mirrodin. Others find both the heavily-Japanese card names and splice mechanic challenging to comprehend. Then there is the fact that every rare creature is legendary. If you’re looking for controvertial design choices, you could do worse that to start looking here.
That isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t ideas in the set worth revisiting, and for our final deck of the release the ninjutsu mechanic gets a new coat of paint. Ninjutsu, from middle-set Betrayers of Kamigawa, is a combat trick ability. If one (or more) of your creatures is unblocked on the attack, you can pay a special ninjutsu cost- typically a reduced mana cost- and put a Ninja into play from your hand, tapped and attacking, trading out for the unblocked creature which then returns to your hand. On its own that wouldn’t be worth a mechanic, but the other part of the equation that makes for interesting gameplay is that every Ninja is a “saboteur,” or creature that triggers a special effect whenever it deals combat damage to an opponent.
Night of the Ninja looks to bolster this ability with a strong supporting cast to bring out its full potential. One the one hand, the deck has unblockable creatures, which all but guarantee your ability to cheat out a Ninja from your hand. On the other, there are a number of creatures with beneficial enters-the-battlefield (ETB) effects. Though these don’t directly support your Ninja, they’re exactly the kind of creatures you’d like to return to your hand for a second (or third) casting.
While a number of players way well feel that sets like Kamigawa were a mistake for a number of reasons, as Night of the Ninja hpes to show the deck is all the better for the procession of ideas and risks the game takes as it moves forward from year to year.
The Tender Marrow of Dream
As mentioned above, the creatures of Night of the Ninja can be broadly divided into three camps. The first camp we’ll look at are the evasive creatures, the ones that help set up your ninjutsu shenanigans by making it hard (or impossible) for your opponent to block. The first of these is the Tormented Soul, a reprint from Magic 2012. A new card from that set, the Soul was designed to be a cheap bloodthirst enabler, but its inability to be blocked as well as its cheap cost make it the perfect inclusion here. Even deploying a single Soul (the deck has two) is enough to enable a new Ninja to touch down and hit right away, each turn. Though they are brittle and can provide no value on defense, they are a superb value for the role they play in the deck.
Next up is the Dimir Infiltrator, another unblockable creatures. In addition to being a Ninja-enabler, the Infiltrator has the Dimir’s signature transmute ability, meaning you can use it to tutor up another two-drop. With the Planechase 2012 decks tending towards the larger, splashier effects, tyou don’t have a ton to choose from but you can cash it in for a Ninja (Skullsnatcher), some ETB options (Augury Owl or Baleful Strix), or the deck’s Fractured Powerstone. In most cases, you’ll likely be better off playing the Infiltrator, but it’s good to have options when you need them. You could also call up the Inkfathom Witch, a 1/1 who is difficult (but not impossbile) to block thanks to its fear. It also can turn your unblocked creatures into 4/1’s for a decent mana investment, getting in an extra wallop. Ordinarily that 1 toughness might leave your creatures open to some instant-speed removal (like Zap or Gut Shot), but in the removal-thin Planechase 2012 environment you’ll seldom have much to fear.
The Glen Elendra Liege is another evasive creature, thanks to its flying. In addition, it comes equipped with a power boost for your creatures, and is a great deal for four mana here. Although there aren’t a ton of hybrid creatures of both colours to get a double-buff from the Liege, the most potent of these must surely be Vela the Night-Clad, the deck’s mythic rare legend. An outright game-ender if you’re playing a deck without Blue or Black creatures in it (such as Savage Auras and Primordial Hunger), Vela gives all of your creatures intimidate in addition to having the keyword herself. Furthermore, she deals damage to your opponent whenever once of your creatures leaves the battlefield, which is exactly what happens each time you cheat out a Ninja!
The next class of creatures are your enters-the-battlefield triggers. Like the unblockables, the ultimate aim here is to set up a Ninja attack, but these ETB beaters go one better. By returning them to hand, you’re free to cast them over and over, gaining additional value each time. A pair of Birds lead things off here with a Baleful Strix and Augury Owl. The Owl will let you adjust the top four cards of your library to suit, while the Strix- in addition to being just ridiculous value card overall- gives you an extra card. Because they’re flying creatures, they’ll be more difficult for your opponent to block, which means they’ll make themselves great volunteers for ninjutsu.
Indeed, its evasion that makes the rest of this class of creatures work as well. Your three-drop Cadaver Imp and Liliana’s Specter aren’t the largest bodies you’ll see for three mana, but both provide very useful effects when summoned. Another dose of incremental card advantage comes with the Dark Hatchling, a 3/3 flier that brings along a Dark Banishing. The Hatchling will seldom falter when looking for targets, given the scarcity of Black creatures in the Planechase environment- only the Chaos Reigns deck has some besides this one, and they’re just a scattered few.
The remaining creatures (aside from a singleton Wall of Frost, which defies classification) are all Ninja, and they run nearly the full spectrum of mana costs. The ninjutsu ability shaves between one to two mana off of the hardcast cost, so it can let you get a robust Ninja out up to a few turns ahead of schedule. In addition to the mana savings, cheating a Ninja out through ninjutsu also all but ensures that it will score a hit on your opponent, triggering its “sabotage” ability. Ninja will do this at any time, but you can be certain your opponent will be blocking ones that prove too harmful. By tricking them in, you deny your opponent the chance to halt them in their tracks.
The Skullsnatcher is the least of these, coming in at two mana. This Ninja’s ability is equally modest- exile two cards from your opponent’s graveyard. Though there isn’t a lot of graveyard interaction in Planechase 2012, against a graveyard-based deck the Skullsnatcher is quite an asset. Moving up to the three-drops, we find a Mistblade Shinobi and Walker of Secret Ways. The Shinobi is fairly straightforward- it’s a stealth Unsummon– but the Walker bears further scrutiny. Although her saboteur ability- a free peek at your opponent’s hand- is nothing special (Night of the Ninja packs only one counterspell), returning a Ninja to hand can be quite useful. Alas, you can only do it during your turn, but it can certainly help you get another use out of one of your Ninja when the red zone is congested with blockers.
Moving up to the four-drops, we find the iconic Ninja of the Deep Hours. In addition to being one of the slicker-looking cards in the deck, the Ninja has a most delightful saboteur ability: card drawing. Combine that with his half-price ninjutsu cost and a cheap unblockable creature (like the Tormented Soul), and it’s easy to see why the Walker of Secret Ways’ return-a-Ninja-to-hand ability can provide repeatable value. The other card here is the new Sakashima’s Student. Also a bargain to play through nunjutsu, the Student has no abilities of its own, but can mimic any creature on the battlefield.
The rat-like Nezumi make a return in the five-drops, with the Throat Slitter and Okiba-Gang Shinobi. Both of these Ninja pack powerful effects, either killing a (nonblack) creature or forcing the discard of two cards. Any opponent that lets you hit them more than once with these is likely in danger of losing the game, and neither of them are especially robust on their own. Again we see how important the deck’s tricks are to allowing them to slip past the enemy defenses, either by returning them to hand or giving them evasion. They are joined here by Higure, the Still Wind. Although he’s still expensive even through ninjutsu, he’s well worth it. Not only can he tutor up other Ninja when he strikes, but he can make your Ninja unblockable as well. Considering how difficult it can get to see your Ninja through after their initial stealthy strike, this is a tremendous benefit to your battle plans and you’ll never be dismayed to draw him.
Another Ninja legend clocks in at the top of the curve with Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni. Like Higure, she’s expensive- but shes worth it. With the ability to give you a free creature from your opponent’s graveyard with each successful attack. Her regeneration isn’t all that useful if things are going to plan, but it’s good to have the option all the same. The deck’s final creature is the Silent-Blade Oni, a beefy 6/5 and another new card for Planechase. As the game’s first Demon Ninja, he undoubtedly wants to make a good impression and a free card from your opponent’s hand is certainly one way to accomplish that. Overall, the Ninja offer solid incremental card advantage, so long as you are able to ensure that they get through to your opponent. If you can do your job, you can leave the rest up to them.
To help you do your job, the deck places a number of noncreature support cards at your disposal, incuding a small equipment suite. The Whispersilk Cloak is superb, ensuring that any of your creatures become almost impossible to deal with. This is strong at nearly any point in the game, for early on you’ll use it on a creature to help get a Ninja into play, then later with your Ninja on the battlefield you can ensure that one of them is able to get through to do its dirty deeds. There’s also a pair of Sai of the Shinobi, another new creation custom-tailored for the Ninja. The problem with equipment is that by the time your Ninja flashes onto the battlefield through ninjutsu, it’s already too late to equip them. The Sai gets around that by being able to be attached to any creature entering the battlefield. Their bonus is modest, but it works well for the deck. It’s a little harder to become enthused about the Quietus Spike. The objective of your deck’s creatures is not to be blocked, and girding something with the Spike is as sure a way of ensuring that it will as you’ll find. Of course, if your creature has evasion, it can deal a brutal hammer-blow to your opponent’s life total.
The deck also has a dose of removal in a pair of Assassinates, which aren’t great but you’ll take what you can get. The problem with Assassinate is that it asks your opponent’s permission about a creature rather than dealing with any one you’d like. So long as your opponent doesn’t tap it, it can’t be hurt by the removal. This is good if the creature in question is a fat beater, but if your opponent is playing a nettlesome utility creature that doesn’t tap to use its special ability, it can be quite frustrating. Furthermore, Night of the Ninja splashes in a touch of countermagic (Cancel) as well as added card draw (Concentrate). A Farsight Mask also gives you the opportunity to draw additional cards, while the final artifact in the deck- the Fractured Powerstone– is standard issue. It’s light mana ramping combined with a free roll of the planar die, and each of the four decks comes stocked with one.
The nonbasic lands, too, are standard issue of what we’ve seen in the set. A couple of Jwar Isle Refuges give you a touch of lifegain in return for coming into play tapped, while a Tainted Isle rewards you for having a Swamp in play already. The Dimir Aqueducts give you a taste of both colours of mana, while the Terramorphic Expanse evens out your manabase depending upon what you’re most in need of when you crack it.
Adversity of the Moment
Like the other decks, the Planes of Night of the Ninja are a mixed lot, with some of them supporting the deck directly while others seemingly seeded at random. Four Planes in particular have strong synergy with the deck. The Kharasha Foothills puts a token copy of each attacking creature into play attacking each other opponent. This can help you deploy multiple Ninja in a given turn as you return the token “to hand” and replace it with a Ninja. If your creatures are evasive thanks to Vela the Night-Clad, you’ll have the opportunity to sabotage the entire table at once!
Bloodhill Bastion gives any creature entering the battlefield double strike and haste. This is a double-edged sword, as it makes the game several degrees more lethal immediately, but it combos well with the Ninja. Since your Ninja have a triggered effect upon dealing combat damage to your opponent, with this in play they’ll deal that damage twice. That’s two cards off the Ninja of the Deep Hours, two kills with the Throat Slitter, four cards discarded with the Okiba-Gang Shinobi- the mind swims just thinking about the possibilities!
Takenuma is a Swamp on Kamegawa, so it’s fitting that it would dovetail with the deck as well. Although your opponents will benefit from drawing cards, you’ll often be returning them to hand quite frequently and should expect to draw quite a bit more. Beware the Primordial Hunger player, however, as they can reap quite a harvest of token creatures through the devour mechanic. Finally, Glen Elendra has an annoying ability- swapping control of creatures- but when you realise that you can trade your Tormented Soul for the best creature on the battlefield, well, that’s a considerable bargain.
The remaining Planes are fairly generic. Gavony gives all creature vigilance, while the Quicksilver Sea lets each player scry 4 before their draw. Norn’s Dominion is a board-sweeper of sorts, while The Zephyr Maze is a most curious inclusion. Given that most of the deck is ground-based that that many of your Ninja have a power of 2 or less, having a Plane that nerfs your deck’s primary mechanic seems self-sabotaging at best.
The two Phenomena- Morphic Tide and Interplanar Tunnel– are as much at home here as in any deck. The Tide is a Warp World variant, while the Tunnel essentially lets you scry 5 on your planar deck, though you can’t select a Phenomenon.
All in all the deck looks like a fun one to play, and we’ll put it through its paces in the second half of the review. See you then!