Betrayers of Kamigawa: Rats’ Nest Review (Part 1 of 2)
As relayed in our previous review (Ninutsu), there was a steep and immediate drop-off in tropes and conceptions about medieval Japanese history and mythology after the most obvious two- Samurai and Ninja. This wasn’t necessarily all downside; instead, it meant that there was a great deal of “ideaspace” for Creative to fill, and Magic’s players were treated to a world filled with Spirits that had suddenly and inexplicable turned on their one-time moral cohabitants. For all the criticism of the set overall- typically focused on either a) power level, or b) card names hard to grasp for Occidental ears- one could hardly argue that the narrative itself wasn’t intriguing and compelling. Mechanically, though, Betrayers of Kamigawa couldn’t help but look a bit thin.
This is in part evident in the theme choice for today’s deck, Rats’ Nest. Although there are some obvious differences- this deck is Black whereas the prior was Blue… this deck features the Nezumi Rat-folk while the denizens of the other were largely Human- there’s little getting around the obvious: this is also a Ninja deck. Sure it’s flavourfully different, much like Innistrad’s Skaabs and Zombies. The Blue Ninja are your scouts, your spies, your saboteurs. The Black? Those are your assassins. But nevertheless, it’s two Ninja decks all the same.
This feeling is only compounded by the set’s other major keyworded mechanic, offering, which appears in no other deck. Offering is a very narrow but thematic ability which lets you summon one of a cycle of five legends by sacrificing a creature of the appropriate type and playing the difference in mana costs, with the extra upside that this can be done at instant speed. Although novel, it doesn’t imbue the set with any great feeling of mechanical depth, and indeed as an obvious rare the Patron of the Nezumi isn’t a card you can reliably expect to see in most games.
To focus on the keyworded mechanics, however, does Betrayers of Kamigawa a bit of a disservice, for many of the innovations that have moved it from Champions of Kamigawa aren’t immediately obvious. Although narrow, the Patrons themselves are nicely tailored towards their respective tribes. With Moonfolk, for instance, returning land to your hand as part of their special-ability activations, the Patron of the Moon lets you cheaply settle them back onto the battlefield. For the discard-happy Nezumi of Rats’ Nezt, the Patron acts as a steady source of damage- note the lack of the clause “from play” in its rules text. From the hand or battlefield, if its a permanent headed for a graveyard your opponent is going down a point.
Some of the other tweaks included a number of small cycles, such as the Baku and the Genju, both of which were on display in our previous playtest. Flip cards recieved a new flip condition in the accumulation of ki counters whenever a Spirit or Arcane spell is played. The splice onto Arcane ability was expanded to include non-mana costs. And lastly, a new cycle of pitch spells (a la Force of Will) was brought out, at that time only the third ever in the game.
Wherever this resides on the spectrum between ‘underwhelming’ and ‘incremental advantage’ is up to the individual player, and no clear consensus on Betrayers itself has really materialised. If anything, though, the fame of Rats’ Nest has nothing to do with any of this. Although it is firmly a Betrayers creature, the infamy of the deck is instead due to the presence of a single card: the legendary Umezawa’s Jitte.
The Blade of Dishonor
As you can see from the mana curve, this is an aggressively-costed deck, particularly considering the rather midrange Kamigawa environment. With Ninjutsu, the deck was tuned to get your Ninja through, thanks to evasive creatures and cards like the Minamo Sightbender. Rather than going around, Rats’ Nest simply prefers to go through. With a swarm of early, cheap creatures, there’s almost always going to be something getting through to activate ninjutsu, and if it means you have to lose a few Rats in the process, well, that’s just the cost of doing business. As we’ll see, this deck looks to generate card advantage as well- but has a very different way of doing it.
We begin with the deck’s only one-drop, a singleton Nezumi Shadow-Watcher. Most of the time, this is going to be a simple vanilla 1/1, but on those rare times when you’re up against other Ninja the card will be gold. Not only can you destroy a Ninja with it, but you also Fog your opponent’s attack, since they traded an attacker back to hand for the Ninja, and you gain a tempo advantage off the returned creature to boot. Otherwise, it’s just another body to throw at your opponent.
Things really turn on at the two-drop level. First, you get a solid enabler in the Nezumi Cutthroat. A 2/1 body with fear, the Cutthroat will typically have little problem giving your Ninja a helping hand, given the difficulties presented in blocking him. Although the Cutthroat can’t block either, this deck is as aggressive as it gets here, and if you’re in the position where you’re needing to use it to block, the cause is likely lost anyway. Next we have a pair of Nezumi Bone-Readers, giving us our first taste of handkill. Sadly, it’s confined to sorcery speed (otherwise it would be bonkers), but it nevertheless is a strong ability that can cripple your opponent’s lines of play in the cradle. You’ll have no shortage of creatures in this deck, and it makes a good use for early, cheap ones which have outlived their usefulness.
The deck’s flip card comes in with the Nezumi Graverobber. Here’s an interesting thing to note about this deck- it has a lot of resources dedicated to filling up your opponent’s graveyard, but just as many dedicated to emptying it back out again. If you manage to land the Graverobber and clean out your opponent’s graveyard, he flips into Nighteyes the Desecrator and can start giving you reusable Rises from the Grave. Beyond that, it’s a 4/2 body as early as turn 2, which is very relevant. And should you need a little extra help securing the flip, you get a full playset of Skullsnatchers, the deck’s first Ninja. Although the Skullsnatcher’s sabotage ability doesn’t do a great deal to impact the board (unless you’re up against a graveyard-based deck, obviously), it can certainly help you liberate Nighteyes.
Another playset comprises the entirety of your three-drops, this time a Nezumi Ronin. The Ronin is a reasonable beater that becomes a 4/2 when blocked. That’s strong enough to do some damage, but still weak enough that it can be traded out with some random 2/2, making it a feelbad play if your opponent has any random blockers milling about. Still, there’s a solid amount of disruption here, and you can certainly help clear a path for the Ronins.
Bushido gets another look with the Numai Outcasts, your four-drop creature. The Outcast is a puzzling, even perplexing inclusion given its obvious lack of quality. You might see a card like this crop up in the decks for the first set of a block, when selections are more limited, but it is difficult to see its purpose here. There are only a small number of creatures in this format without trample that will reliably be hitting you for six or more life, but some of the comments on Gatherer perhaps say it best. “Black will do anything to win,” writes one, “therefore it will pay and bleed you for 5 to keep your opponent on a 20-turn clock.” Next!
The good news is, once you enter top-of-curve territory you have some very strong options. The Throat Slitter is one of the most useful Ninja you’ll find, being essentially a Terror on a stick. The Okiba-Gang Shinobi are also very solid, forcing a double-discard when they connect. Finally, there’s the aforementioned Patron of the Nezumi. Easily your largest single beater, the rat offering means that you can flash it in at instant speed, and then set up a steady trickle of life from your opponent thanks to its graveyard trigger.
Some hits, some misses, let’s next take a look at the deck’s noncreature support, for it is here that much of the difference will be made as to whether or not you’ll be getting through on the battlefield.
The first thing to look at is the deck’s removal package, which you’d expect to be fairly sturdy in a mono-Black deck. A single Rend Flesh evokes the flavour of Go for the Throat, in this case removal that’s useless against a creature with no flesh to rend. This is somewhat relevant, given the prevalence of the Spirit creature type in the environment, but it trades off for this by being tremendously versatile otherwise.
You also get a pair of Horobi’s Whispers, which can take care of the pesky Spirits- provided they aren’t Black. What makes the spell most intriguing is that it has splice onto Arcane, meaning you ca use the effect more than once. It takes some doing, however, as the non-mana pricetag is nevertheless a rather high hurdle. Finally, a pair of Befouls, a reprint from Urza’s Saga, can smash either a creature or a land, though you pay more for the versatility than just mana- it’s also at sorcery speed.
For additional hand disruption, you get a Psychic Spear and pair of Three Tragedies (Six Tragedies?). The Spear gives you the luxury of choice, but only Spirit and Arcane spells are eligible, making up a bit for the disadvantage you have against such decks with Rend Flesh. Three Tragedies isn’t cheap, but it can ruin an opponent’s hand if they don’t see it coming- and add some bonus damage along if you have the Patron in play.
A further four cards act as your creature augmentation suite. Midnight Covenant turns any of your creatures in to a Shade, letting it pump its power and toughness with Black mana. Although as a creature aura it’s vulnerable, with the deck being mono-Black it can be a real beating on a hard-to-block creature like the Nezumi Cutthroat. Shuko is the first of the deck’s two equipment, and gives a small power bonus at a very cheap cost.
Then we come to the Umezawa’s Jitte. One of the most powerful cards ever to make it into a preconstructed deck, the Jitte needs little introduction. It’s a ridiculously strong, proven top-tier Constructed performer, and it is the one reason you seldom find copies of this deck for less than $25 on the secondary market. Cheap to play, cheap to equip, and a source of repeatable removal, combat pumping, or lifegain- whichever is needed most- the Jitte can turn games around on their axis when it comes onto the battlefield. The last card in this class is the Dance of Shadows. Half augment, half combat trick, the Dance is best used to set up a game-ending alpha strike against a non-Black opponent.
The last three cards are miscellany. A Stir the Grave gives you the ability to return one of your creatures fro mthe graveyard to play, functioning as a sort of Black version of a Green Sun’s Zenith. Genju of the Fens is part of the cycle of land enchantments, turning one of your Swamps into a Shade. Finally, Ragged Veins is a direct damage spell masquerading as a Black card. Great for dealing out a sledgehammer’s worth of damage should someone dare chump-block your Patron, it’s a conditional but unusual effect whose utility will vary greatly depending on what you have managed to put into the field.
And that’s all we have for Rats’ Nest. Check back in two days when we return from Takenuma Swamp with some tales to tell about the fierce Nezumi, and a final assessment to go with it.