To splash or not to splash?

IntoTheAether Contemplates His Colors

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The letter F!or part three of four of my “preconstructing constructed” foray I promised to take a good hard look at my deck's colors. I have some business to clean up first, though.

Three reminders:

  1. This deck is Kamigawa Block. That means I'm only adding cards from Champions of Kamigawa. I have received a lot of suggestions by e-mail for cards like Arrest, Blinding Angel, Armadillo Cloak, Akroma, and even Swords to Plowshares (which isn't even available in Magic Online). Those are fine ideas if I happened to be playing a different format, but then I would be making a different deck and this would be a very different experiment.
  2. We're at a point now where the “This is a deck for me, me, me” caveat will come into play. Most of my decisions so far have made some sense no matter if you're a Spike, Timmy, Johnny, Beginner, Expert, Tournament, or Casual player. Now the changes are going to swim against your own mental currents. I just want to remind you that having different deckbuilding instincts at this point is okay. If you want to take your own deck in a different direction, please do so and let's play in the Casual Constructed room.
  3. Finally, as a reminder, here is the deck as I last left it:

Before I make any color decisions, I want to pause for a moment and let you know the cards I think are currently under suspicion of being dropped. I'm not saying these cards will be dropped, but right now I consider them the weakest links.

  • Takeno, Samurai General
    I'm a big fan of tribal “lords” like Takeno, and as a Samurai lord he's a pretty good choice. The problems with him are threefold. First, he's currently way at the top of the deck's manacurve so he'll often just sit in hand with nothing to do while his soldiers do the work. Having him in the deck forces me to play twenty-three land, too, which wouldn't be the case if he wasn't in the deck. Second, he's a 3/3 for six mana with whom I never want to attack. I can't risk Takeno dying if he's on the table, so he often just sits there like an expensive enchantment. Third, as folks on the Message Boards last week pointed out, he's not a particularly cool or fun lord as lords go.
  • Devoted Retainer
    To me, Devoted Retainer is the only creature in the deck that currently has the label “filler.” Having a first-turn creature is nice, and Devoted Retainer is the only one-cost Samurai. Usually, though, he only deals one damage to an opponent until I have Nagao, Takeno, or Call to Glory in and he's often not alive long enough to make use of these cards. Devoted Retainer was a lot better when I was playing with No-Dachi and Indomitable Will, but now he's just sort of “meh.” He's in there because I have no better alternatives.
  • Reciprocate
    I have Reciprocate in the deck as a safety net against mean creatures who can do me large amounts of bodily harm. Truly, though, an aggressive deck can (and maybe should) just worry about offense and dispense with safety nets. When Reciprocate is useful it usually is one of the key reasons for me winning the game. When it isn't useful, though, it sits annoyingly in my hand. Usually this would suggest that Reciprocate should be a sideboard card rather than a maindeck one.

Here are some games to help illustrate what I'm saying:

Game 27: Green/Black Aggro

He played a Jukai Messenger, Humble Budoka, and No-Dachi to go along with some Forests and Swamps. I wondered aloud whether he was playing a Monk deck, but I couldn't figure out the advantage of doing so in Kamigawa Block format. Anyway, I played Sensei Golden-Tail, Kitsune Blademaster, Devoted Retainer, Kami of Ancient Law, and Nagao, Bound by Honor. As I attacked, the only creature to die was the Devoted Retainer (note!), so needless to say I won. My opponent played an early Distress on me (taking a Call to Glory), so he knew I had at least one Blessed Breath in hand. I think the Breath won me the game, since he kept muttering about it as I attacked over and over again. My guess is that he had a Rend Flesh sitting uselessly in hand.

Game 28: 5-Color Honden

All I have to say is: Ick. I had started a game with my opponent but had to leave because my son came home. Later I jumped back online for a rematch. I knew he was playing a Honden deck, so I kept a one-land hand that had a Kami of Ancient Law in it. Well that was a big mistake. I didn't find a second land until the fourth turn, at which point he dropped his second Honden. I killed a Shrine with the Kami, but the next turn he dropped another one. He had out Honden of Infinite Rage to kill any of my two-toughness creatures, plus Honden of Seeing Winds to fill his hand each turn. Oh, and then he played Kumano, Master Yamabushi and spliced two Glacial Rays at my face. Takeno sat mocking me in my hand (note!). As I said: Ick.

Game 29: White/Red Legends

His deck was bizarre and strangely cool. He started with Isamaru, Hound of Konda, put a counter on it with Otherworldly Journey, then equipped it with Tenza, Godo's Maul. I held off his 6/6 Hound with a few Samurai, then he played a single Brothers Yamazaki. His Honor-Worn Shaku kept untapping, allowing him to eventually play Konda, Lord of Eiganjo the turn after I played Takeno, Samurai General. I had Sensei Golden-Tail, too, making it a veritable Legend-fest. Anyway, Konda wielding Tenza is a scary proposition for my deck, and I couldn't seem to find one of my three Reciprocates to get rid of him. Thanks to Golden-Tail and Takeno, my Samurai army managed to make a game of it and get him down to six life, but in the end his indestructable bad guy took me down.

Game 30: Monowhite Samurai

Here was the first time it was clear I was playing against my own deck, especially since he said so. The difference was that he wasn't playing Reciprocate and was instead using Otherworldly Journey (note!). His logic was that this was a beatdown deck, so don't mess around with anything but beatdown. It looked prophetic, too, since he got out some quick Samurai and Nagao, Bound by Honor. When I tried my Reciprocate on his Nagao, he used Blessed Breath to stop me (note!). My saving grace, really, turned out to be Sensei Golden-Tail. I had Kitsune Blademaster and a few other Samurai and just kept loading them up with training counters to stop his assault. After that I played Mothrider Samurai to plink away at his life. He tried an all-out assault, which dropped me to eight life or so but killed his Nagao. Then he played another Nagao and I topdecked my own to kill it. One swing later with all of my guys plus Call to Glory and I had won the mirror match.

Game 31: Monored Beatdown

My opponent was a little land-shy, stuck on two Mountains for a turn before finding two more. He managed an Ember-Fist Zubera, Lava Spike, and Brothers Yamazaki, but they were no match for my Samurai of the Pale Curtain, two Kitsune Blademasters, and Kami of Ancient Law. A Blessed Breath stopped one attempt to kill my Samurai, and a Call to Glory finished him off. This was a quick, brutal game, with Takeno left in my hand (note!).

Game 32: Green/Red/Black Spirits/Arcane

Ah, the same opponent and deck that so brutalized me in Game 16. That was with version 1.2 of my deck, so this was an interesting yardstick to see if I had progressed at all. I had a nice quick hand with Devoted Retainer, Kitsune Blademaster, and Nagao, Bound by Honor. He had a Thief of Hope with various Arcane spells, then Hana Kami to start recycling tricks. I forced him to burn his cards in hand to stay alive after dropping a few more Samurai, and I just kept attacking with my dudes. He finally found a Kodama of the South Tree to allow him to kill my Nagao with it and Glacial Ray, but after combat I dropped a second Nagao and a Devoted Retainer. That was game. My only card in hand at the end of the game was Reciprocate (note!).

Okay, I've played enough games now to know the deck's relative strengths and weaknesses and what other colors might offer it. Seems like as good a time as any to jump into the promised color discussion.

To Splash Or Not To Splash

In my mind, below are all of the cards I think have a place in my modified Way of the Warrior deck. These aren't all of the good cards in each color (remember: I'm talking just Champions of Kamigawa now), but rather they are cards I think either a) fit right into the deck's central themes, b) enhance the deck's central themes, c) compensate for one or more of the deck's weaknesses, or d) are just really cool and would make me happy in the deck. It's likely that any cards I add from here on out are on the below list, though of course you may talk me into some different options.

Here is my list of “potentials,” along with perhaps some shocking revelations:

Artifact & Land: Hall of the Bandit Lord; Konda's Banner; Oathkeeper, Takeno's Daisho; Sensei's Divining Top.

No one's mentioned Hall of the Bandit Lord, but I think it might have great synergy in a Samurai deck trying to eke out those last points of damage. Konda's Banner and Oathkeeper seem to be the most-requested Equipment for my deck, and Sensei's Divining Top is an effective way to continue to “give the deck gas” as The Zed would say. I'm not one hundred percent sold on any of these cards for my deck, but they are hanging out in the back of my mind.

Red: Battle-Mad Ronin; Blind with Anger; Brothers Yamazaki; Glacial Ray; Godo, Bandit Warlord; Pain Kami; Ronin Houndmaster; Stone Rain; Yamabushi's Flame.

Red is the most obvious color to include in my Samurai deck. Just look at the number of White/Red Samurai decks I've faced. Red offers solid Samurai, solid arcane spells, solid creature removal and burn, along with Godo, Bandit Warlord (with Tenza, Godo's Maul 'natch) and the disruptive Stone Rain.

Here's the thing: I'm not adding red to my deck.

Why? Two big reasons...

1) It's too obvious, and thus bores me. I'm not all that interested in building the deck that everyone else has thought of. That's not a “pet deck” for me. White/Red Samurai is a fine choice, but it's not the deck I want to make. Besides, Nate already made a White/Red Samurai deck, even though that was for Standard. If you want me to lose interest in this experiment, force me to add red.

2) Have you seen my record against White/Red Samurai? 4-1 for those keeping score at home. The game I lost I blame at least in part on me playing around with Sensei Golden-Tail the first time I ever cast him instead of focusing on my attack. I'm not saying Monowhite is definitely better than White/Red when it comes to Samurai because I haven't played White/Red, but you would be hard-pressed to convince me to adopt a color I've consistently beaten up to now.

Black: Cranial Extraction; Nezumi Graverobber; Nezumi Ronin; Rend Flesh; Rend Spirit; Waking Nightmare.

Maybe no one has mentioned the attractiveness of discard with my Samurai because Cranial Extraction is so expensive to acquire. Still, beatdown decks work well with disruption, whether it's in the form of land-destruction, discard, or some other way to mess with your opponent's side of the table. Rend Flesh and Rend Spirit are also solid additions, though I would have no idea which to add over the other. Black has one nice Samurai, along with two others that probably don't fit my deck. For some reason I think Nezumi Graverobber would absolutely shine in a Samurai deck.

I'm not going to be adding black to me deck either, though.

Wha-wha-whaaaat? Black still seems too obvious, and honestly I just don't think what it offers solves any of the problems I've seen in my deck. Rend Flesh and Rend Spirit aren't necessarily better than Reciprocate, which is on my “weakest link” list anyway. Discard is a nice idea, but do I really find myself running out of gas and losing to my opponent's expensive cards? Nezumi Ronin would be a must-have if he were white, but as the only really viable Samurai in a splashed color he doesn't seem worth it. Really the most attractive option to me is the Graverobber, and I have a hard time deciding whether he distracts from the central themes or not. So no black for me on this go-round.

I've given away which ways I'm definitely not going. Since last week in my mind, I have been seriously contemplating my other three options: White/Green, White/Blue, and Monowhite...

Green: Commune with Nature; Kodama's Might; Kodama's Reach; Sakura-Tribe Elder; Strength of Cedars; Time of Need.

There are three separate paths to take, here:

The toolbox and Super Samurai plans are very tempting. The mana-acceleration idea, though, seems to take the deck in a direction too far afield from where it is today, and as vengerofthelight rightly pointed out on the Message Boards last week, adding creature tutors means dropping combat tricks from the deck. I like the idea of green in my deck (to be honest, when I was looking at version 1.0 right out of the box this is where I thought I would go), but not today.

That leaves White/Blue and Monowhite. I am seriously on the fence with these two.

Blue: Consuming Vortex; Counsel of the Soratami; Keiga, the Tide Star; Meloku the Clouded Mirror; Reach Through Mists; Thoughtbind.

I'm not really seeing the need to add countermagic to the deck, but Thoughtbind is a nice addition for those who want to say “No!” I also don't see the great need for a finisher; Takeno, Samurai General already plays this role although he's admittedly not as cool nor effective as Keiga, the Tide Star or Meloku the Clouded Mirror. Card-drawing in the form of Counsel of the Soratami and Reach Through Mists is a nice way to keep the deck from stalling, serving much the same purpose as Commune with Nature and Sensei's Divining Top. None of these are the first cards I would add, though.

No, I have more modest aspirations when thinking of adding blue. Consuming Vortex is the one card I can't stop thinking about in my Samurai deck. It's a small addition, but I'm only looking for a splash of an off-color anyway. It's an arcane spell, so it enhances Blessed Breath. It saves my creatures, bounces their blockers, and generally provides a tempo boost to what can be a very fast deck. It's also very splashable in an allied color to white (read: Cloudcrest Lake). I basically love the idea of Consuming Vortex in my Samurai deck.

Here are the changes I would make to splash blue: - 1 Takeno, Samurai General, -3 Reciprocate, - 7 Plains + 4 Consuming Vortex, +1 Sensei-Golden Tail, +4 Cloudcrest Lake, +2 Island

The idea would be to drop the mana-heavy Takeno and a Plains, along with my current creature control of Reciprocate. In comes the new creature control (plus an additional way to save my own creatures) Consuming Vortex, along with the land needed to support it. Sensei Golden-Tail has proven to be good enough to deserve a second copy no matter which way I go.

White: Eight-and-a-Half Tails; Hikari, Twilight Guardian; Isamaru, Hound of Konda; Kabuto Moth; Masako the Humorless; Otherworldly Journey; Yosei, the Morning Star.

I have--surprisingly--been very happy with Monowhite. I still have cards I want to try in white, so it feels premature to start messing with one of the deck's key strengths: A stable mana base.

For giving an opponent serious headaches, there is no card better than Eight-and-a-Half-Tails. Both he and Isamaru, Hound of Konda fit the deck's manacurve and are aggressive. Kabuto Moth is obviously great with Call to Glory in the deck, but I worry that it's a bit too defensive. Hikari, Twilight Guardian and Yosei, the Morning Star are beefy “finishers” if indeed the deck needed a finisher (I know you would rarely use Hikari's ability, but he's a 4/4 flier for five mana which is all that matters). My Game 30 opponent convinced me to rethink Otherworldly Journey in place of Reciprocate to focus the deck more on all-out aggression.

The card that really gets my pulse roaring, though, is Masako the Humorless. No, Masako isn't a Samurai, but she is a terrific combat trick that can act as virtual creature removal. Masako allows you to continue to attack all-out without worrying about the consequences, then WHAM! kill off your opponent's creatures when they retaliate. Masako's ability seems perfect with bushido, and the fact that she can be played as an instant just seems ridiculously good to me. If I was looking for a replacement for the sometimes-anemic Reciprocate, it's right here.

The only real problem I see is that almost all of the cards I listed above are rare. Since I am trying to keep this experiment comprehensible for beginners, it feels cruel to add in the “fun” by adding in a bunch of rares.

If I were going Monowhite, my next changes would be: - 3 Reciprocate, -1 Takeno, Samurai General, -1 Plains + 3 Masako the Humorless, +1 Sensei Golden-Tail, +1 Sensei's Divining Top

Vortex Versus Masako... Fight!

So which to choose, which to choose? I like both options. The blue version involves less expensive cards to acquire but destabilizes my mana for a trick I'm not sure I need. The white version gives Masako a test drive but adds (at least) four rares into the deck. Hmmmmmmmm...

I guess I'll have to play both versions a few times to see which I like best.

Game 33 (W/U Test 1): Monowhite Samurai

He played a Devoted Retainer, then I played a Devoted Retainer. He played Samurai of the Pale Curtain, then I did. Then he kept dropping Plains and Samurai and I couldn't find a third land. I did find Sensei Golden-Tail, though, which allowed me to stall his rush a bit. Then he got a Mothrider Samurai to start jabbing away from the air. I finally found a third land--Cloudcrest Lake--and played Kitsune Blademaster. Then I found another Lake to play my own Mothrider Samurai. Since I was low on life, I traded my Mothrider for his, and then he played another and so did I. We now had equal forces (mine with training counters, though) and I was holding Call to Glory, Nagao, Bound by Honor, and Consuming Vortex with four land untapped. I decided to pursue the combat trick route and attacked with everything. Amazingly he blocked despite the fact that he was at eighteen life and had an empty hand. I decimated his troops with Call to Glory and won in the next attack. The Cloudcrest Lakes produced a lot of buzz in the room, but I never played my Vortex in hand.

Game 34 (W/U Test 2): Red/Black Control

What made his deck scary was Hideous Laughter, which killed a Samurai of the Pale Curtain and Kitsune Blademaster. Yamabushi's Flame killed my Nagao and another Blademaster, then my Kami of Ancient Law killed his Honden of Infinite Rage. I was left with two Devoted Retainers, who were eating into his life. I really put on the pressure with Samurai of the Pale Curtain then... wait for it... bounced it back to my hand when he tried to kill it with another Yamabushi's Flame! Woo! After that Nagao and a Konda's Hatamoto came to play and smash face.

Game 35 (W/U Test 3): Green/Red/Blue Zubera/Honden

He had an early Sakura-Tribe Elder, Ember-Fist Zubera and Honden of Infinite Rage. I had a Devoted Retainer, Sensei Golden-Tail, and Kitsune Blademaster. My Call to Glory killed his Zubera without losing one of my guys, and I had a Kami of Ancient Law for his Honden. I then drew Samurai of the Pale Curtain, which put a real crimp in his style since he then played three Zubera (one for each color). I fought through his blockers, and when he found Honden of Life's Web, I had another Kami. Blessed Breath protected my Samurai from Glacial Ray, and I won at eighteen life. I had Consuming Vortex in hand but only three Plains on the table. These are the frustrations of a two-color deck.

Okay! Let's try the Monowhite version...

Game 36 (W Test 0): Monogreen Snakes

I'm not going to consider this game one of my three test games because of manascrew. Getting manascrewed is good information as far as testing goes, but it doesn't let me try out the new changes in my deck. I only found two Plains, and even then fairly late in the game, while my opponent played Forests, two Sakura-Tribe Elders, Konda's Banner, Sosuke, Son of Seshiro, Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro, Time of Need, and Seshiro the Anointed. If you can believe it, my two Plains and some cheap Samurai got him to six life, but the ridiculously big Snakes pounded me into oblivion. I ended the game with seven cards in hand.

Game 37 (W Test 1): Red/Black Spirits

I felt oddly hopeless in the next game. My opponent had three Thief of Hope, three Ember-Fist Zuberas, and one Ashen-Skin Zubera. I dropped Samurai and attacked over and over and over again, but with his Zuberas and Soulshifting Thief of Hope he was gaining a lot of card advantage. Eventually he had a Thief of Hope and two Zubera against my two Samurai. I attacked, he took a hit down to five life, then I played Call to Glory to block when he retaliated. Much to my surprise, he had Devouring Rage and killed me with his one unblocked Spirit.

Game 38 (W Test 2): Red/Black Spirits

Very similar to the last game, except this time there was only one Thief of Hope and I had Samurai of the Pale Curtain. Thanks to Blessed Breath I kept my Samurai alive while he needed to start chump-blocking with his now-useless Zubera. He tried twice to kill my Samurai with Rend Flesh, but I countered both with Blessed Breath. When he tried to kill my Kami of Ancient Law with Rend Spirit, I sacrificed it to kill his Honden of Infinite Rage. Sometimes this deck is just silly-good.

Game 39: (W Test 3): Green/Black Spirits/Arcane

I'm finally beginning to learn how to play against Zuberas (and to realize more fully how valuable Samurai of the Pale Curtain is). He got two Ashen-Skin Zubera, and had at least one Kodama's Might in hand to go along with Kodama's Reach, Soulless Revival, and Long-Forgotten Gohei. That was a nice hand, but I stalled the ground with Kami of Ancient Law and Sensei Golden-Tail, allowing a Mothrider Samurai to soar over for some visiting time. I then got Konda's Hatamoto and Nagao, Bound by Honor, with Blessed Breath and Call to Glory in hand. I never needed to cast the other Mothrider Samurai in my hand to absolutely smother my opponent.

After these test games, I was still undecided. What I did next was play a whole evening of games... deciding not to log them. Shhhhhh! Basically I just needed to get a handle on which way to go, so I stayed up late one night switching between the two decks and trying them out. I have the game logs, but I think Scott Johns will do me bodily harm if I were to post all ten of them here. Anyway, here is what I found:

  • Masako the Humorless isn't as good as Reciprocate. Theoretically I should be able to attack all-out and surprise an opponent, but savvy opponents realize that when I attack all-out I probably have Call to Glory in hand. As a result, Masako just never had the stunning effect on games I had hoped for. Also, she utterly failed to help me versus cards like Konda, Seshiro the Anointed, and Kokusho, the Evening Star.
  • The downside of the blue/white version is that every time I have a second-turn Island when I want to cast Samurai of the Pale Curtain (which hasn't happened yet, but it's only a matter of time), or every time I can't untap Cloudcrest Lake when I could play Nagao (again, not yet but coming), or every time--as in Game 35--when I have a Consuming Vortex but no way to cast it, I'm going to remember that I could have stuck with Monowhite.
  • The flipside of the above argument is that playing White/Blue quickens my pulse more than Monowhite. I find myself wanting the White/Blue deck to do well and looking for opportunities to do cool splice or bounce tricks. I cackle when I can save a Samurai of the Pale Curtain from Yamabushi's Flame with a Consuming Vortex. In short: I had more fun playing the White/Blue deck than the Monowhite deck, even adding in the mana frustrations, because I felt more clever and because it was trickier.

Which means...

OUT: 1 Takeno, Samurai General

Takeno comes in the original Way of the Warrior preconstructed deck, which is probably why I have been reluctant to drop him until now. The truth is that I have focused the deck on weenies, which means he just sticks out like a sore thumb. I like the alternate path of making the deck more about big Samurai and splashing green, but that's not the deck I'm making right now.

IN: 1 Sensei Golden-Tail

I have so far been really impressed with Sensei Golden-Tail. At worst he's a quick attacker. At best he turns my other cards into an impenetrable wall of defense or an unblockable army. I made a joke last week about his ability to turn Kami of Ancient Law into Samurai, but with Call to Glory and Nagao this has turned out to be a fairly significant trick. Adding a second copy doubles my chances of drawing him and keeps the deck with five legendary Samurai for Konda's Hatamoto.

OUT: 3 Reciprocate

Reciprocate was probably going to be out soon anyway as I tried other options. It's the easiest card to drop because it is the only one (along with Takeno) that sometimes sits uselessly in my hand. I still think Reciprocate is mostly solid, so it definitely belongs in a sideboard and may even come back into the deck, but right now I want to experiment a little.

IN: 4 Consuming Vortex

It's cheap, which is good for my deck, and it's versatile too. The only sort of deck I can really see being a problem with Consuming Vortex is a Honden deck, but even then the Vortex is more useful than Reciprocate because I can remove token blockers or save a critical creature from burn if need be. Consuming Vortex is also a common, which is a nice way to test out a new color. This opens the door for making the deck more blue, either with card-drawing, counters, or a big, legendary finisher.

OUT: 7 Plains

With Takeno gone, I think I can easily get away with twenty-two land. I may drop to twenty-one, but probably not anytime soon. Although the deck's manacurve doesn't need to now support a six-cost creature, it still has seven important cards that cost four so let's not get too crazy with the land count. Seven Plains is a lot to drop in one fell swoop, but they make room for what I think is the minimum support necessary for four off-color cards...

IN: 4 Cloudcrest Lake

I could have added six Islands and eventually moved to replacing them with Lakes, but that seemed silly. The deck needs a lot more white mana than blue (although it's nice that Samurai of the Pale Curtain is the only WW card in the deck), and when it needs blue it usually only needs it for a quick instant. Cloudcrest Lakes are uncommon, and they fit perfectly into a deck with a dominant color and a splash. The Lakes will be stressful sometimes when they don't untap, but it's worth it for their mana consistency.

IN: 2 Island

As terrific as Cloudcrest Lakes are, they aren't enough to support four Consuming Vortex, especially when the deck isn't currently using Sensei's Divining Top or some other way to smooth out the draws. As a result, I need to try out a couple of Islands to allow for six land to support my four splashed cards. I'll be keeping a very close eye on whether these Islands are enough or whether I need to resort to some sort of Divining Top solution.

Whew. That was a painful decision, but I'm really excited about the deck. It now looks like this (I've bumped it up to version 2.0 with the color splash, since those feel like more significant changes than the last several):

Next week I'll put the finishing touches on the deck and bring this experiment to a close. As always, please discuss your thoughts on the Message Boards; What do you think of my choices? What cards do you want to see added? Taken out? Speak up!

-j

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