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September 24, 2012

Betrayers of Kamigawa: Spiritcraft Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

When it comes to tribal decks, you don’t typically see one following right after another in the progression of a block. In the game’s first tribal block, 2002’s Onslaught, the inaugural tribes honoured by anchoring their own Theme Deck were Soldiers, Clerics, Illusions, and Beasts. Thus a few months later, when the follow-up Legions hit the shelves, these four tribes hit the bench and allowed a new slate of four to take center stage: Elves, Slivers, Zombies, and the quasi-tribe morphs. 

Five years later, the next tribal set arrived in the form of Lorwyn, with its gaggle of heavily-defined races. The interesting thing about Lorwyn was that it was based on creature type, but then layered in the next level of classification by making its sequel, Morningtide, care about class rather than race. Thus while the first set gave decks to the Merfolk, Kithkin, Elves, Goblins, and Elementals, Morningtide supported Soldiers, Rogues, Shamans, and Warriors- regardless of their race. This marked a significant departure from the game’s creature philosophy up until that point, where “Clerics” or “Soldiers” were tribes in their own right rather than a job that your creatures held.

When the third iteration of tribal rolled around in last year’s Innistrad, again we saw something rather different again. Although strongly a tribal set, Innistrad’s Intro Packs weren’t relegated to solely supporting that role. To be sure you had decks built around Spirits (Spectral Legions), Vampires (Carnival of Blood), and Humans (Repel the Dark), to be followed by Zombies (Relentless Dead) and even Angels (Angelic Might), but mixed in amongst these were decks based on themes and mechanics, like sacrifice or flashback.

If that looks familiar, you’ve got the right of it- we saw much the same in the decks for Kamigawa. Although not a traditional “tribal” set, many of the offerings here could blend right into the tribal crowd. In Champions of Kamigawa alone we found constructions based entirely around Spirits (Kami Reborn), the serpentine Orochi (Snake’s Path), Humans (Spiritbane), and- remembering that in this era class was also a tribe- Samurai (Way of the Warrior). While Betrayers carried true to form with decks focusing on Ninja (Ninjutsu), Ogres (Dark Devotion), and the rodent-like Nezumi (Rats’ Nest), it also made its mark by doing something the others had not: two consecutive decks built around the same tribe.

In some ways, this was almost inevitable given the prominent role the Spirits played in the Kamigawa story- to leave them out would be somewhat akin to, say, not having a Phyrexian-themed deck in Mirrodin Besieged simply because there were a couple in Scars of Mirrodin. It does make for an interesting comparison when you have decks ‘piggybacked’ in this way, since it lets you see directly how the underlying theme blossomed with the addition of another set of cards to pull from. Going back to the Scars of Mirrodin example, a quick history lesson of the role and evolution of infect is provided just by comparing Phyrexian Poison, Path of Blightand Ravaging Swarm.

While the first Spirits deck, Kami Reborn, centered around recursion and the Spirits’ soulshift ability, Spiritcraft goes in an entirely different direction. Those looking forward to more soulshift shenanigans are apt to be disappointed- there is only one card in the deck with the ability, and it’s one of the two rares. Instead, Spiritcraft expands upon the innate synergy amongst Spirits. Packed with cards that have bonus triggers when you play Spirit or Arcane spells, and containing almost nothing but, the deck s perhaps best viewed like a little pebble rolling down a snow-covered hill. It might start as a pebble, but by the time it reaches the bottom- look out!

Split the Sky

As we saw with Kami Reborn, Spirits are greedy beings. The decks pack in a fairly balanced mana curve until the end, where it becomes rather bloated and somewhat unwieldy. The deck offsets this a touch with the Traproot Kami, a defender with reach that gets bigger as the game goes on and you deploy more Forests. As a singleton, it won’t always see play but can be useful to help your deck buy the time it needs to establish itself. Joining it here are a pair of Lantern Kami, an updated Flying Men for White. There’s little else to say of them other than to note their evasion will always be useful, particularly in the Betrayers of Kamigawa environment where fliers can be hard to deal with.

Our Spirit-synergy cards begin to appear with the two-drops. The Loam Dweller is a Grizzly Bears with a bonus- whenever you play a Spirit or Arcane spell, you get to play a land from your hand tapped. This has the look of ramp, but looks can be deceptive- it’s only a minor accelerant. If you play the Dweller on turn 2, then on turn 3 play a Spirit that triggers it and put another land into play tapped, you now untap on turn 4 with four land and the possibility of a fifth. That’s not bad, but two things work against it. First, the Dweller’s ability is only useful if played early- by midgame, the only land that’s bumping about in your hand is often the one you always keep there as a decoy. Second, unlike many ramping effects this one doesn’t give you any card advantage. The great thing about cards like Rampant Growth is that they get you extra mana from your library- they’re not conditional upon you actually having land in your hand. The best use of the Dweller happens if you’re running Kodama’s Reach and, inexplicably, Spiritcraft isn’t.

That leaves the other two-drop, Petalmane Baku. The Baku are a cycle of cards- one for each colour- that interact with Spirits and Arcane magic. You might recall that earlier in our coverage of Betrayers of Kamigawa we talked about top-level and sub-level mechanics, and the lack of keywording here plants the ki counter firmly in the latter. Under the radar though it may be, the humble ki counter- obtained when a Spirit or Arcane spell is cast- features on two of the set’s more prominent cycles: the Baku and the flip cards. The flip cards- first seen in Champions of Kamigawa- here have a new flip condition, which is the accumulation of ki. Once your creature has acquired two or more of the counters, you’re eligible to flip it into its more powerful, legendary incarnation, whereupon you cease acquiring ki counters and can instead trade them in for spell-like effects. This gives you an incentive not to flip the card at the first available opportunity, as patience early can become power later.

The Baku cycle, on the other hand, never flip or evolve form. Instead, they store the ki like a battery, letting you discharge it from them for additional spell-like effects. In the Petalmane’s case, this is mana filtering and ramping. Here is the ramping card the deck begs for, and while it’s far from perfect it’s about as good as it gets. Although you have to pay  to trigger it, you can then convert ki to mana at a 1:1 ratio, all of a single colour. It may be tempting you use the Petalmane as a mana filter early on if you find yourself short a colour, but like many of this deck’s cards the longer you wait, the stronger it gets.

Terashi’s Verdict

This becomes even clearer as we cross into three-drop territory and are greeted by the Waxmane Baku. Although it’s a shade more expensive, the Waxmane has a very devious trick with it- it’s a tapper. Sure you have to expend ki counters to do it, but played early enough you should have plenty. You can use the Waxmane to lock down an opponent’s best creature, or charge it up in order to tap out your opponent’s side- leaving them defenseless against a game-ending alpha strike. At least nettlesome and at most dangerous, the Waxmane is one of the deck’s key cards.

Next up is the Kami of the Hunt, one of the few cards to carry over from Kami Reborn. This Kami gets a temporary stats boost with each Arcane or Spirit spell you cast. Though the deck’s mana curve generally ensures you wont pump this thing up to Eldrazi-like levels, with your entire noncreature support suite consisting of Arcane instants, every one of them is like having a bonus combat trick.Your Kami may not get huge, but he can certainly get bigger in a flash! This is an important dynamic, and one reinforced by the fact that the deck gives you three of the Kami to work with.

Rounding out the three-drops are pair of flip cards. As mentioned above, these gain ki counters through your playing of Arcane and Spirit cards, something you’re doing anyway. They can flip anytime after getting their second counter into their legendary forms, though again depending on how useful you see their ki power you might hold off to let them gain a few more, since once they’re flipped they no longer accumulate them. Of course, this tactic is not without risk, since you can only flip them at end of turn. If your opponent burns them out, you can’t “flip in response” to suddenly present a hardier target.

The Faithful Squire flips into Kaiso, Memory of Loyalty, a robust 3/4 flier that can cash in a ki counter to prevent all damage dealt to a single creature for a turn, which is one of those abilities which impacts the board simply by being available. Ordinarily your opponent might be happy to trade out your attacking 3/3 with a 3/3 of its own, but with you having the option of a one-sided Fog effect, you might find your opponent reconsidering. It’s unstated, but Spiritcraft happily wreaks havoc in the red zone, between tapping down creatures, pump threats (the Kami of the Hunt) and these sorts of shenanigans, your opponent can get quite the headache when evaluating profitable blocks or attacks! This is further exacerbated by Ichiga, Who Topples Oaks, the flipped version of the humble Budoka Pupil. Each of Ichiga’s ki can be redeemed for a +2/+2 bonus to a creature. Although an impressive 4/3 trampler on his own, this ability makes the Budoka Pulip/Ichiga quite formidable indeed.

The deck takes a breather in the four-drop slot, offering you nothing here. Instead, it starts to jam up the top of the mana curve. Better hope you found a Petalmane Baku, because it’s quite busy in the back! For five mana, we find a pair of Horizon Seeds. Although a 2/1 body at this price is dreadful, the ability is at least somewhat useful. Each time you play a Spirit or Arcane spell, you can regenerate one of your creatures. Although we’re often conditioned to think of regeneration as something we do in response to our creature about to die, it’s also perfectly functional if done ahead of time. Stick a regeneration on that 3/3 of yours (going back our previous example), and it will automatically regenerate if killed. And of course, you can always trigger it at instant speed by casting one of your instants. Again, more things for your opponent to worry about when sizing up your army!

After some of the more intricate options presented thus far, the Kami of Tattered Shoji is almost refreshingly simple. A 2/5 beater, it gains flying each turn you cast a Spirit or Arcane spell. Then there’s the Kodama of the Center tree, the first of the deck’s two rares. Kodama’s power and toughness are equal to the number of Spirits you have in play, which is a fair deal when you consider that every creature you have is a Spirit. It also has soulshift X, with X being the number of Spirits you control. Of all your creatures, Kodama has the potential to be amonsgt the most massive.

Scaled Hulk

If it has any rivals, surely the Scaled Hulk is the one. A 4/4, it gets a free Kodama’s Might every time you cast a Spirit or Arcane spell, making it in every way a double-strength Kami of the Hunt. Another beating-in-a-box, the lack of trample limits the Hulk from being truly deadly, but it’s surely an offensive, must-answer threat. Next up is the Orbweaver Kumo, a 3/4 with reach. Like the Kami of Tattered Shoji, this one’s benefit is straightforward: forestwalk. As only this deck has any Forests, it’s also useless in the Betrayers environment.

The final creature in the deck is Oyobi, Who Split the Heavens. Clocking in at a massive seven mana, Oyobi is a one-card closing machine. A 3/6 in the sky is already a difficult target to deal with, but the 3/3 Spirit tokens it spawns will quickly close the game out once unleashed. It’s a worthy second rare for the deck, hampered as it is with the lack of effective ramp. Oyobi is one Spirit who’ll be more than grateful for the help of the Petalmane Baku.

Overwhelm Flesh and Foliage

As befitting a Green/White combat deck, Spiritcraft has a wealth of combat tricks in addition to the ones already present on the creatures themselves. It’s worth noting again that every card here is an Arcane instant, so your tricks are even trickier. Kodama’s Might is the set’s Giant Growth variant, giving you a slightly reduced pump in return for offering you the ability to splice it onto another Arcane spell. Unchecked Growth is a bit pricier, but gives you a much larger payoff- not just in the +4/+4, but in the trample that comes with it. Simply sticking this onto your Scaled Hulk gives you a 10/10 trampler- in addition to all the other triggers the play sets off amongst your Spirits.

If that wasn’t enough, you also have recourse to a singleton Roar of Jukai. The Roar helps your army overcome anything thrown in its path on the attack, with a +2/+2 bonus to every blocked creature. This rewards aggressive play, and turns would-be defensive trades into one-sided losses for your opponent. It’s conditionally useful, but does have some added flexibility with its splice. The 5 life it gives your opponent isn’t trifling, but if you’ve just managed to blow out their defensive line you’ll very soon claw it right back.

Finally, a pair of Blessed Breaths offer protection from a colour at instant speed, which is just the trick to abjure them against death in combat or a removal spell. It also can ward them against being blocked, letting some of your fatter non-tramplers swing for full damage against your opponent’s life total rather than being chump-blocked.

The deck’s removal suite is, unfortunately, quite a bit less robust, leaving your deck to do most of its work in the red zone. A pair of Terashi’s Verdicts kill an attacking creature with power 3 or less- not exactly the terror of the battlefield, but useful at least against surprise Ninja. Otherworldly Journey is temporary removal at best, but it does return the creature to play with a souvenir for its travel- a +1/+1 counter. This gives it some versatility, both offensively as well as defensively.

Finally, a pair of Vital Surges are the weakest cards in the deck. Simple lifegain is only really useful if you’re about to die- if you’re ahead in the life race it’s a dead draw. It has some extra utility by being repeatable, but since it solves no problems on its own it’s seldom a card you’ll be happy to draw.

That’s all we have today for our Spirits. We’ve watched the tribe develop from a graveyard/recursion theme into a combat deck, and we’re excited to see how the evolution plays out. Check back in two days and we’ll recap our match as well as deliver a final grade!

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