Building_on_a_Budget

Tweaking begins on the Ninjutsu experiment.

Ninjutsu: Talons, Truth and Throwing Stars

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The letter H!ello! Thanks to everyone who gave me such a warm reception last week in my “Building on a Budget” debut. I was especially impressed by the number of people who really dug into last week's Ninja deck to offer suggestions and card-choice analysis. Keep up the good work!

A few tidbits before we get started:

  • My Magic Online name is now “BuildingOnABudget”. If you're looking to play me and my cowled deck, look for me online. I play at highly unpredictable hours, unfortunately. The good news is that I'm on almost every day.
  • Keep in mind that I am aiming to turn a preconstructed deck into a fun, respectable Standard deck. I am not saying you'll win any tourneys, but neither do I expect the eventual deck to get killed versus more competitive opponents. Think somewhere between the Casual Constructed room of Magic Online and Friday Night Magic.
  • It may sound cliché, but I am far more interested in the journey than the destination during these preconstructed forays. It's not my intention for you to copy what I've done here. Instead, my hope is to spark your deckbuilding creativity so that you make your own deck, either starting from a precon or otherwise. I firmly believe that there are no bad card choices, just bad thought processes.
  • Something I haven't yet mentioned is that I'm going to be changing a lot of the cards from the original Ninjutsu decklist. That's okay, though. The idea is to start from a preconstructed base and evolve from there. It's theoretically possible, I guess, to end up with a deck that doesn't share a single card with the original decklist. My loyalty is to the deck concepts, not the cards from the initial version. The only possible exception are the rares from each decklist, which in a budget column feel important to hold onto as long as possible.
  • Which is all to say, remember the Guidelines:
    1. Start with a preconstructed deck, unedited, and play it.
    2. Don't make changes until playing the deck in at least five games.
    3. Change no more than five cards at a time.
    4. Build a respectable deck that's fun to play.
    5. Build an affordable deck.

Enough preamble! Ready? Steady? Let's get back to it! Here is where we left off last week:

Here are some games in the Casual Constructed room of Magic Online with this version of the deck...

Game 11: Monoblack Ninjas

The slightly frustrating thing about making a blue Ninja deck is that the black Ninjas are so juicy. My opponent used Ravenous Rats, Swarm of Rats, Nezumi Ronin, and Blinkmoth Nexus to get first Throat Slitter, then Okiba-Gang Shinobi, then Skullsnatcher into play. I didn't see them, but I bet Marrow-Gnawer and Ink-Eyes were in the deck too. Anyway, the only thing my Mistblade Shinobi wanted to bounce was his Nezumi Ronin, and that wasn't enough to slow him down. River Kaijin blocked for awhile, but his Throat Slitter (joined eventually by another) was too much for me to handle and he won at 10 life. He really used Ravenous Rats well, which had me desperate for a cheap, blue comes-into-play creature in my deck. There has been an entire discussion about blue comes-into-play options on the Message Boards, which has only added fuel to my mental fire.

Game 12: Monowhite Control

Ah yes, my 9-1 record last week notwithstanding, this was more of what I expected in terms of struggling against more polished decks. His deck had the Urza lands, Genju of the Fields, Solemn Simulacrum, Pristine Angel, and Final Judgment. That's a lot of powerhouse cards, and they handled me pretty easily. I could bounce his Angel once with Mistblade Shinobi, and Tomorrow, Azami's Familiar could block the Genju, but then Final Judgment cleared the board and I was stuck with Teardrop Kami versus his Pristine Angel and Genju of the Fields. That's not a good matchup for my little Kami, and I died a hideous death.

Game 13: Red-green Spirit/Arcane

My opponent used Cunning Bandit, Soilshaper, Kami of the Hunt, Hearth Kami, and Hana Kami, to go along with Kodama's Might and Glacial Ray. It was a surprisingly close and long game considering that I drew 15 Islands. A Genju of the Falls, Mystic Restraints, Condescend and Shuriken kept my opponent off balance while I hoped to draw some creatures to help me gain control of the board, but five turns of Islands was too much for me to recover from, and his Azamuki, Treachery Incarnate eventually killed me. He ended the game at 12 life.

0-3 so far. It feels like forever since I've sniffed a Ninja of the Deep Hours, much less gotten one into play on the second turn. Look at my first five games from last week as insight into how big a difference that guy can make.

Game 14: Blinkmoth Urn deck

My opponent started with two Cloudposts and a Mirrodin's Core. I got off to a decent start with Genju of the Falls. I attacked over and over and over again with my Genju. My opponent played Wizard Replica but chose not to block three turns in a row, dropping his life down to 8. He tapped out to play Blinkmoth Urn, and I used Condescend to counter it. Frustrated with lack of mana after the first few turns, my opponent conceded.

It's worth noting that Genju of the Falls has won me the vast majority of my games. Genju plus lots of Islands is a great combination, and very difficult for a lot of decks to handle. What annoys me about it is that when I'm attacking with my Genju, I'm in a “blue weenie” mindset rather than a Ninja mindset because the Genju isn't a creature I want to return to my hand (I lose the enchantment if I do), and it's expensive to activate for a deck holding back mana for Ninjutsu and countermagic. In other words, Genju of the Falls is a powerful card at odds with what I'm trying to build. Keep this in mind as I make changes later on down the road.

Game 15: Monoblack Control

I had a slow hand, but it was interesting enough to keep because it had two Ronin Warclub in it. I played both Warclubs while my opponent played Royal Assassin. I used Phantom Wings to bounce his Assassin when he tapped out to play Cursed Ronin, then played River Kaijin (wielding two clubs ... however that happens). He used Dark Banishing on my Kaijin, so I followed up with Teardrop Kami. My opponent got in one hit with his Ronin, but then I locked his Assassin down with Mystic Restraints, bounced his Cursed Ronin with Mistblade Shinobi, and started swinging for the fences. He conceded after I used Condescend on his replayed Ronin.

Reach For The Owl

Game 11, as I said, really highlighted for me how much Ninja appreciate quick creatures with comes-into-play abilities. If you look at what sort of options a Monoblue deck has available to it, you're pretty much restricted to Trinket Mage, Merchant of Secrets, Neurok Familiar, and Sage Owl. The deck doesn't currently have enough artifacts to justify Neurok Familiar, and Merchant of Secrets doesn't do enough for the cost. Trinket Mage might be interesting with Shuriken available, but let's set that idea aside for now and focus on a quicker creature with evasion: Sage Owl.

IN: 4 Sage Owl

Sage Owl should perform a couple of different functions in the deck. First and foremost, it's a quick creature with flying that allows Ninjas to sneak into play. Its comes-into-play ability is also really useful for finding those Ninja (or other answers in the deck). The only worry, really, is that the deck now has far too many one-toughness creatures for my taste. Night of Souls' Betrayal would wreck me, for example, and I worry about vulnerability to things like Honden of Infinite Rage, Vulshok Sorcerer, and Frostling, all of which are relatively popular in the Casual Constructed room. I think this probably means other one-toughness creatures will get dropped, though, rather than the Owl...

OUT: 1 Soratami Mirror-Guard

...Other creatures such as, say, Soratami Mirror-Guard. I like that the Mirror-Guard is an offensive threat and its ability is obviously perfect for Ninja. But it simply costs too much, especially when taking its ability into account, to be so fragile. Notice, too, that I'm slowly dropping one-of copies of cards in favor of multiple copies in an attempt to make the deck more consistent.

OUT: 3 River Kaijin

Given my discomfort with the amount of one-toughness creatures, I feel squeamish about dropping River Kaijin. I'm embarrassed every time I cast it, though. It's almost a wall, which is not what this deck wants or needs. I like when it suits up with Ronin Warclub, but that's too rare an occurrence to keep it around. Look at Trinket Mage, Phantom Warrior, Neurok Spy, Puppeteer, and Wizard Replica, all of which cost three mana, have more than one toughness, and all of which I would rather have than River Kaijin.

That's a good start, but there's one more thing I want to clear up:

OUT: 1 Tomorrow, Azami's Familiar

Tomorrow is the last “wall-like” card left in the deck, and I've been systematically weeding them out. The original design of the deck had you sitting behind defenders like Tomorrow and River Kaijin while using unblockability-tricks to get Ninja through. In practice, Standard is too fast a format for this strategy to work, and the deck needs more attacking creatures. Besides, if I want defensive-minded creatures, I surely want some that come before Turn Six. Check out my rationale for both River Kaijin and Kaijin of the Vanishing Touch (last week), for more explanation. I hate to drop one of the deck's two rares, but this card sticks out like a sore thumb, both in function and in cost. The interaction with Ninja of the Deep Hours is spiffy, but not worth it.

IN: 1 Higure, the Still Wind

I'm still undecided whether my favorite blue Ninja is Ninja of the Deep Hours or Higure, but it's close either way. The reasons for adding another copy into the deck are twofold:
1) With no tutors available in the deck other than Higure, it's nice to double the chances of drawing him. Especially since I've dropped a lot of the “unblockability” tricks in the deck, Higure's abilities are more needed than ever; and
2) I hate the terrible, sinking feeling when Higure dies. Having two copies means that I have a possible replacement in the deck. For this reason, I can see Higure searching for the extra copy of himself when I have a game well in hand, just as a precaution.

So why not more than two copies? It may happen, but since Higure is legendary and since the deck now has some decent library manipulation in Sage Owl and Condescend, I think two may be enough.

My suspicion is that I'm at an awkward stage in this deck, which may translate into some losses. The deck's creatures feel too vulnerable without enough support. I'm a tweak or two away from where I want to be, I think.

Game 16: Red-green Aggro

I was thrilled to get Teardrop Kami and Ninja of the Deep Hours in the first two turns. My Ninja hit twice before dying to Magma Jet, though. My opponent cast Kodama of the North Tree as I looked at my hand of Mistblade Shinobi and six Islands. The Kodama smacked me twice as I drew two more Islands and then Fireball finished me off. That's two games now where I've been outrageously mana-flooded.

Game 17: White-green Weenie Equip

He had an impressive array of equipment, including Loxodon Warhammer, Grafted Wargear, and Banshee's Blade. They came too late to save his early Lantern Kami, though, which died to my blocking Sage Owl. A Teardrop Kami, two Ninja of the Deep Hours, and Ronin Warclub followed for me with my opponent unable to find any creatures. I won at 17 life, with Condescend and Mystic Restraints comfortably in hand.

Game 18: Blue-red-black Honden

His deck was an interesting control deck, using three colors of Honden plus things like Staff of Domination. Luckily for me, I had a nice start of Sage Owl, then Ninja of the Deep Hours. I then played two Ronin Warclub, which kept my Sage Owl safe from his Honden of Infinite Rage. He sunk his mana into tapping things with Staff of Domination, but I drew Genju of the Falls and Soratami Cloudskater to keep the damage coming. I was probably a Barter in Blood away from losing horribly, but as it was I won at 16 life.

Game 19: Green-black Spirits

The next game was a long, fun, back-and-forth sort of affair. My opponent played a couple Child of Thorns and a couple Dripping-Tongue Zubera while I started with Sage Owl and Ninja of the Deep Hours (my new favorite opening). He tried a Devouring Greed, but I had Condescend, meaning he “only” received four tokens. I found out thanks to Walker of Secret Ways that he had another Devouring Greed in hand, so when he drew and played Thief of Hope I was more than a little worried.

Here is where I finally used the Walker's abilities to full effect. I would attack with my creatures, then use the unblocked Sage Owl to put Walker into play, return one of my blocked Ninja to hand, then play it in place of the Walker. It was a cool trick that let me keep bouncing his Thief with Mistblade Shinobi, but it was mana-intensive too. Luckily I had Ronin Warclub so I was putting the pressure on him damage-wise. He played his Devouring Greed for non-lethal damage, putting him back up to 15 life and me down to 6. I kept plinking away for several turns, dropping him to 3 life before he drew a third Greed for the win. I had Condescend in hand but not enough mana to counter his spell.

Game 20: Green-blue “Free” deck

I'm not sure if my opponent was playing Heed the Mists, or if it was a combo deck of some sort, but he used the Urza lands, Frogmite, and both Spire Golem and Tangle Golem. All in all it was a silly game, because I played Island, Genju of the Falls, then Island, Sage Owl. What did I see? Four Islands. What was in my hand? All Islands. I proceeded to attack for four damage a turn while his Frogmite hit me for two. I finally drew a non-Island in Ronin Warclub, but it didn't matter as my two flyers attacked for the fifth and final time.

That's a third game in which I was mana-flooded. Time to make some adjustments.

Let's Talk Control

There are more tweaks I'd like to make to the creature base, but what I'm feeling right now is a decided lack of support cards. Since it's Control Week here at magicthegathering.com, let's talk about the control-ish parts of the deck.

OUT: 3 Mystic Restraints

To be honest, I like Mystic Restraints a lot more than I thought I would. Thus far it has been very effective at neutralizing an opposing creature for the duration of the game. However, I haven't yet faced a deck with significant enchantment removal or bounce, two strategies that would obviously neutralize my Restraints. That's not the reason to drop it, though. The reason to drop it is that Mystic Restraints has been too expensive for a deck that wants unblocked attackers in the first few turns. Heck, it's expensive at any time for a deck that wants mana to counter and to do things like use Higure and Walker of Secret Ways's abilities. At three mana I would be a lot more conflicted. At two mana I think I'd try four in the deck. At four mana, it's out.

Put it another way: For the same cost, I can play Icy Manipulator. I know the Manipulator has an “upkeep” cost of one mana and can't be used on Turn 4, but it's versatile enough to tap non-creatures as well as switch which creature it taps. So do I want Icy Manipulator in my Ninja deck? Probably not, again because of its speed. And if I don't want Icy, I'm pretty sure I don't want Mystic Restraints either.

OUT: 2 Phantom Wings

Phantom Wings is another card that has pleasantly surprised me in practice. The problem is that what I think the deck needs most right now -- the removal of blockers -- is probably the third-tier use for Phantom Wings. That is, I most often want to suit my own creatures up with the Wings to both give them evasion and protect them from harm. I only want to use it to bounce a potential blocker in a pinch. Another frustration with Phantom Wings is that I hate giving my creature flying only to return it to my hand (and thus lose the Phantom Wings) for Ninjutsu.

IN: 4 Echoing Truth

Here is my current replacement for the function of Phantom Wings. Its primary role is to remove blockers, but it can also save my creatures in a pinch. I like that it can potentially remove multiple blockers at one time (if I could use AEther Burst or Rushing River here, I probably would), which is why I give it the nod over the also-good-idea AEther Spellbomb. In particular, Echoing Truth can really mess with decks that rely on Insect, Myr, Spirit, or Snake tokens, all of which I'm seeing in increasing number in the Casual Constructed room. Finally, it can also bounce artifacts and enchantments, which is bound to be useful. As with every other choice I've made, I'll try it and see.

IN: 2 Shuriken

For whatever reason, I am not yet in love with Shuriken. It has been good but not great when it has appeared thus far, and I often feel like it puts me at odds with whether I want to attack or block with my Ninja. Creature removal is good, though (especially in blue), and Shuriken gives me something to do with Mistblade Shinobi or Walker of Secret Ways that don't have an opening for attack. I'm upping the number to three partly because everyone else reports such great things from them, and partly because three copies gives me more chances to draw and test them.

OUT: 1 Island

Three games of being absolutely manaflooded is enough for me. Now that I've dropped both Tomorrow, Azami's Familiar and Mystic Restraints, I see even less reason to have 24 land in the deck. I can't see going much below 23, though, because as many people have pointed out on the Boards, Ninjutsu is a fairly mana-intensive ability to use well. Technically, Soratami Cloudskater should help me get rid of unwanted Islands, but it hasn't quite worked out that way in practice.

One other note about the control-ish cards in the deck: Apparently people think Mana Leak would be better than Condescend as my primary counterspell, because Mana Leak is a) more reliable, and b) can do more for two mana. These are good reasons, so I'll take a very close look at how Condescend is performing in the deck (in other words, is scry worth it?), and how Mana Leak could have helped me.

Here we are:

I have time for a few more games before my deadline:

Game 21: Blue-white Mycosynth Lattice

My opponent dropped a second-turn Isochron Scepter with Roar of the Kha beneath it. I had Echoing Truth in hand, but I figured there were a lot worse things he could have imprinted on his Scepter than Roar. Instead, I attacked with Sage Owl, then shifted it into Ninja of the Deep Hours. I used my Echoing Truth on his Leonin Abunas, then made him replay it again when I snuck Mistblade Shinobi through. He played Mycosynth Lattice, making my bounce and Teardrop Kami useless with Abunas on the table. Thankfully, though, I had drawn into Higure, the Still Wind. Higure made my Ninja unblockable, and they -- along with my Owl -- cruised to victory.

Game 22: White-blue Artifact deck

At one point in the game, my opponent had two Leonin Elder, two Auriok Champions, a Lumengrid Sentinel, and a Juggernaut. I had a Spire Owl (equipped with Ronin Warclub), a Teardrop Kami, and a Genju of the Falls. He had 28 life while I had 4. So I lost, right? Wrong-o. I drew a Shuriken and a Mistblade Shinobi, followed by Ninja of the Deep Hours. I killed the Juggernaut with my Owl, then I managed to start killing his critters with Shuriken, one by one. When he ran out of creatures, he played two Howling Mine. I drew my three cards, then bounced his Mines two turns in a row with Echoing Truth. By this time I had a bazillion Islands, so massive Ninja tricks ensued, including tapping a second Juggernaut with Teardrop Kami so I could cruise in for the win. The game ended with me at 3 life. Whew.

Game 23: Five-color Artifact deck

My poor opponent could only muster two Forests, an Arcbound Worker, and a Cranial Plating. I had a second-turn Sage Owl, which turned into a Mistblade Shinobi to bounce his Worker. The replayed Worker blocked my Shinobi, but my replayed Owl turned into a Ninja of the Deep Hours. My opponent played Energy Chamber, then Ancient Den, then Journey of Discovery for a Swamp and Island, but it was all for naught as I brought Ronin Warclub, a second Ninja of the Deep Hours, and Sage Owl back into play to mop up. I ended the game at 20 life and a full hand.

Game 24: Blue-green Control

The next game was bizarre, in a funny, sad sort of way. My opponent went first and played a second-turn Vine Trellis. I played a second-turn Sage Owl. My opponent then tapped out to play Archivist. I attacked with my Owl, brought Mistblade Shinobi into play, and bounced his Archivist. Which prompted:

Opponent: no thanks.....that should be in the serious room, dude.

Me: What? Ninjas? And commons?

Opponent: Consider yourself ignored.

Me: Hello? What? Ninjas!? Commons!?

Opponent: (silence)

After several minutes, he disconnected. Sigh.

Game 25: Monoblack Control

I had the quick Teardrop Kami/Ninja of the Deep Hours draw to combat my opponent's Wicked Akuba. The Ninja got in one hit before dying to a blocking Akuba. I played Ronin Warclub, then hard-cast another Ninja to start attacking. Eventually I had Sage Owl, Walker of Secret Ways, and plenty of Islands to return my creatures if needed. When my opponent tried Nekrataal, I used Echoing Truth on the targeted creature, then drew Shuriken to kill the Nekrataal and keep attacking with my Ninja (okay, I'm starting to see the value of Shuriken). He drew Barter in Blood a turn too late to save him. I won at 20 life and a full hand, once again.

The decks I'm facing are still a bit random, but it's nice to be back to my winning Ninja ways.

In my mind, the creatures that are still potentially on the chopping block are Teardrop Kami, Soratami Cloudskater, and a copy or two of Mistblade Shinobi and Walker of Secret Ways. Possible replacements include (in no particular order): Ornithopter, Trinket Mage, Phantom Warrior, Puppeteer, Spire Golem, and Spiketail Hatchling.

The non-creature spells are pretty much all up for grabs. I think I've already mentioned some of the possibilities, but they include (again, in no particular order): AEther Spellbomb, Mana Leak, Crystal Shard, Evacuation, Serum Visions, Stalking Stones, Threads of Disloyalty, and more equipment.

I have enough toys to play with in blue that you should expect me to keep the deck monoblue. Adding a second color at this point would mean adding a week (or more) to the length of this series, and for now I want to keep this inaugural experience a taster sampler of things to come. In the future, I'll leave this sort of monoblue-splash decision to you in a poll, though.

So, next week I'll close the Ninjutsu chapter of Building on a Budget, starting with a few changes. Stay tuned and speak your mind on the Message Boards!

-jms

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