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Interlude: Kamigawa’s Commons Review

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The letter I!n my first Interlude, I looked at “junk rares” in Betrayers of Kamigawa. These are fun, inexpensive cards that most players scrap as useless but which are fun to build decks around. Chisei, Heart of Oceans, Twist Allegiance, and Patron of the Moon are the examples I used. As I said during my article, budget deckbuilders often make a living off of “bad rare” decks like the ones I proposed.

Today I'm looking at the other side of the budget deckbuilding equation: Solid commons. Let's face it, most budget decks--indeed, most decks in general--use commons as their backbone. Today I want to highlight the best commons that Champions of Kamigawa and Betrayers of Kamigawa have to offer for Constructed decks. These are cards you want to have in your collection no matter how tight your budget or how recently you have begun playing. Time and again, in a wide variety of decks, you will find yourself dipping into these cards to complement whatever strategy you're pursuing.

And, just because I want to amuse you longtime players who already know a good common when you see it, I'm going to speculate about the absolute worst commons in Kamigawa, cards that should never, ever find a home in Constructed decks of any kind outside of hardcore theme decks.

Before I get started, a few caveats:

  • Lists like these are highly contentious. I can already hear the “How could you possibly forget HOOSHENMOOFER!?!” posts on the Message Boards or people decrying me as a moron. Part of the fun of lists is to argue who got snubbed and who didn't deserve such recognition. Have fun on the Boards, but try to remember the spirit of this article and not get carried away.
  • Remember that I'm talking about Constructed decks, not Limited. Card evaluations for Sealed Deck and Draft are obviously different animals entirely and the purview of Scott Wills.
  • In fact, let's agree that I'm talking about Standard decks. Why? Because a) most of what I've been playing recently (thanks to your poll votes, by the way) has been Standard, so it's the format I currently know best, b) it's not feasible for me to cover what's good in Kamigawa Block Constructed versus Vintage versus Prismatic versus Multiplayer, and c) most new players are going to concern themselves with Standard before any other format.

With these caveats out of the way, let's first look at the cream of the Kamigawa commons crop...

The A List: Kamigawa's Terrific Twelve

What I tried to do is find the top commons in Kamigawa today. As I said, these are commons you are going to want in hoards of decks that share a color with them. Because of their versatility and general usefulness, I'll call these commons the “A List,” the platform of cards you want for deckbuilding.

Now, obviously, some commons are necessary to make specific deck ideas work. For example, you need Zuberas to make a Zubera deck and you probably want Devouring Greed for your deck too. Samurai decks like Call to Glory and Ninja decks like Mistblade Shinobi. Yes, context is important when considering what cards to add to your decks. I am not concerning myself with cards that are vital for a particular deck; Instead, I'm looking for cards that are vital for a wide variety of decks.

What I looked for are the commons you will find yourself using again and again, cards that you will need an excuse not to use rather than an excuse to use. These are the commons you want at least four copies of in your collection, or more if you happen to build multiple decks at the same time (though that's not an issue on Magic Online).

Here we go...

1. Sakura-Tribe Elder

Rampant Growth with legs, Sakura-Tribe Elder is simply the best common in Standard right now. I'm almost convinced that any deck with Forests in it should automatically add four Sakura-Tribe Elder without even thinking about it. He belongs in fast monogreen beatdown decks, slow monogreen control decks, two-color decks, three-color decks, four-color decks, five-color decks, reanimation decks, and tricky combo decks. I have seen a lot of otherwise-creatureless decks use him unabashedly.

Play with or against Sakura-Tribe Elder and you will quickly understand why he's so solid. He is a cheap creature, which means he can attack and block early. His ability can't easily be stopped or countered, which means that as long as you successfully play him, you will be able to put a land into play whenever it suits you. His ability is also free, making him efficient at a cost of two. He accelerates your mana, allowing you to play a four-cost spell on Turn 3. He fixes your mana, searching out any basic land. He thins land from your deck, meaning you're more likely to draw “business” spells instead of land as the game progresses.

Most importantly, he does all of these things at the same time. Let me tell you how frustrating it was with my Demon deck to power out a Scourge of Numai only to have it meet an Elder blocker. Not only did I do no damage for a turn (except maybe to myself during next upkeep), but my opponent effectively tutored-for and played an extra land. That's a very good deal for two mana.


2. Kodama's Reach

A distant second in green is Kamigawa's “other” mana acceleration, Kodama's Reach. The Reach doesn't have the benefit of being a creature and it has the slightly-stressful stigma of being a three-cost mana-acceleration card when many decks stall at two land. That said, the ability to thin a whopping two land from your deck is obscenely good. Multicolor decks absolutely love Kodama's Reach, and it has become a staple of decks wanting lots of mana. It reminds me of one of my favorite uncommons of all time, Explosive Vegetation, except that Kodama's Reach a) costs one less, b) often allows you to put one of the lands into play untapped, and c) is arcane. This last point matters, especially for the increasingly-popular decks of all flavors trying to abuse the splice mechanic.


3. Glacial Ray

The only reason Glacial Ray isn't one of the top two commons from Kamigawa is that so many other options exist for red burn. In fact, a lot of options exist for 1 ManaRed Mana red burn. Everyone will agree that Glacial Ray beats the pants off of First Volley and Guerrilla Tactics (not that these are unplayable cards, mind you). A hefty debate could rage about the relative merits of Magma Jet, Volcanic Hammer, and Glacial Ray. All three have their plusses and minuses and each probably makes sense depending on the type of deck you're playing. Still, the fact that Glacial Ray is in the debate with Magma Jet and Volcanic Hammer is significant.

The reason Glacial Ray is so good has to do with the aforementioned splice mechanic. Almost any deck wanting to use lots of arcane cards needs to at least consider splashing red, often for Glacial Ray alone.


4. Rend Flesh

I saved myself some explanation time today when I chose Rend Flesh for my version of the Dark Devotion deck. Then I said, “My gut from many, many games in the Casual Constructed room of Magic Online is that Rend Flesh is the most reliable, splashable creature removal I can find [in casual Standard games]. It's not perfect, of course, but I think it will kill almost all of the cards I want dead. The primary exceptions are the Champions of Kamigawa Dragons, Hokori, Dust Drinker, and a few smaller threats such as Zuberas, Tallowisp, etc.”

It's true that, just like Glacial Ray is part of the conversation for best red burn, Rend Flesh is part of the conversation for best black spot removal of creatures. In some local metagames, Dark Banishing, Eradicate, or Terror will be better. Devour in Shadow is more reliable than Rend Flesh but riskier. In some decks, Horobi's Whisper, Nekrataal, or Throat Slitter will be a better choice. When I had to choose my spot removal for my Demon deck, however, I chose Rend Flesh. It can kill the widest variety of creatures, and its single black mana in the cost makes it highly splashable for a two- or more color deck.


5. Frostling

It's no Mogg Fanatic, but if your deck wants a red, one-mana creature today, Frostling is usually your best choice. Not only is Frostling aggressive, it can kill a lot of important cards in Standard, including Birds of Paradise, Eternal Witness, Hana Kami, Thought Courier, Savannah Lions, Hearth Kami, Nekrataal, Vulshok Sorcerer, Lantern Kami, Suntail Hawk, Leonin Elder, Nezumi Cutthroat, Elvish Piper (for casual crowds), Soilshaper, Nezumi Graverobber, Viridian Zealot, Ogre Marauder, Ravenous Rats, Wood Elves, Myr, Slith, and Goblins.

*GASP!*

The point is that Frostling is often going to give you a two-for-one trade, killing something in combat, then killing an opposing weenie. It will almost always give you a one-for-one trade with a two-toughness creature, which is excellent for a one-mana creature. Being a first-turn creature, it can grab a Bonesplitter and start hammering damage to your opponent's face directly. Also, it's right behind Sakura-Tribe Elder and Myr Retriever as one of Standard's best chump-blocking speedbumps when the time comes. If your deck is aggressive and at least half red, you probably want to use Frostling.


6. Distress

If your deck is mostly black, on the other hand, Distress is the best early discard available to you. Knowing what your opponent is playing is nice, but denying her the best card in her hand is what's important here. The trick is having a) the double-black mana available by turn two, and b) the space available in your deck for discard. Some black decks get their discard through creatures, such as Ravenous Rats or Nezumi Shortfang, while others use non-creature permanents like Necrogen Spellbomb or Honden of Night's Reach. If your deck has room for it and you are worried about game-changing cards from your opponents, then Distress is a welcome addition to black decks, particularly when there are some spells or permanents that you just can't stop well any other way.


7. Hearth Kami

I've spent as much time analyzing Hearth Kami in my Dark Devotion preconstructed experiment as I did Rend Flesh. Suffice it to say, Hearth Kami is aggressive, quick offense and artifact elimination all in one package. Just like Frostling, Hearth Kami will often give you a two-for-one, using an opponent's card to kill it and allowing it to tag an artifact on the table. In Standard today, you are dealing with the “artifact block” of Mirrodin, Darksteel, and Fifth Dawn, along with recent powerhouses like Umezawa's Jitte. The dismantling of Ravager Affinity helped minimize the amount of maindeck artifact destruction you need to include in your decks, but it didn't eliminate the threat of artifacts. Hearth Kami is never dead if your opponent doesn't use artifacts, and it's vital against opponents who do. Not bad for two mana.


8. Wear Away

There has been a subtle raising of enchantments' relevance in Standard deckbuilding. The Hondens, Ghostly Prison, Heartbeat of Spring, and Night of Soul's Betrayal will all show up in decks from time to time. Add these to longtime staples (either casual or competitive) like Glorious Anthem, Death Pit Offering, Call of the Wild, Confusion in the Ranks, Curiosity, Grave Pact, Fecundity, Phyrexian Arena, Blanchwood Armor, March of the Machines, Story Circle, Worship, and Megrim, to name a few. Then add sideboards into consideration (Blood Moon, Circles of Protection), and fighting enchantments becomes even more useful. Wear Away takes all of the threat of enchantments plus the daunting presence of artifacts and gives your deck an easy, instant answer to both. Decks without a heavy green component will still prefer Naturalize, but if the double-green mana requirement isn't a problem then Wear Away is almost strictly better because of splice.


9. Reach Through Mists

Speaking of splice, everyone's favorite splice target seems to be Reach Through Mists. The reason is that Reach Through Mists is as cheap as arcane cards get while also digging through your library to find more. Lava Spike and Kodama's Might see a fair amount of use in aggressive decks as a splice target because of their cost, but the card that will most often find a home in arcane-related decks is Reach Through Mists. Notice that Reach Through Mists also comes in the color of Consuming Vortex, Dampen Thought, and Eerie Procession, making any arcane-based deck have to consider blue generally, and Reach specifically.

There's another reason you will often find yourself using Reach Through Mists, though. Blue has recently found its card-drawing becoming more expensive and slower. Right now blue only has two one-mana options for card-drawing: Serum Visions and Reach. Serum Visions is great, but it's neither arcane nor an instant. Gone are the days of Opt, Peek, Obsessive Search, and even Disrupt. Now Reach Through Mists is one of the single best options you have for cheaply sifting through your deck.


10. Stone Rain

At first glance, Stone Rain looks like a decent card for a very specific kind of deck: Land destruction. While it's true that monored and red/green LD decks will use Stone Rain as a staple, it's more important to remember that Stone Rain is one of red's best general ways to disrupt an opponent's strategy. Aggressive red decks of all kinds include Stone Rain as a way of slowing an opponent, and its cost makes it very splashable for other decks as well. These days, Cloudpost, the Urza lands, and Blinkmoth Nexus show up frequently, making a sprinkle of LD particularly good. Molten Rain is better against these cards in a heavy red deck, but Stone Rain can either act as a fifth through eighth Molten Rain or find a home in two-color decks.

In fact, I seriously considered adding Stone Rain to my Ogre-Demon deck in the past few weeks until I remembered that I was playing in the Casual Constructed room of Magic Online (land destruction of any kind usually draws a pretty negative reaction from the casual crowd). I still think it's a good idea, actually. The point is that if you need to buy your deck a turn or two and you're playing red, Stone Rain is a worthy card to consider adding to your deck.


11. Kami of Ancient Law

Two mana for a 2/2 is very respectable and makes Kami of Ancient Law a legitimate threat to either put an opponent quickly on the defensive or stall an opponent's initial attack. Grizzly Bears are 2/2 for two mana, though, and don't get used a lot. No, what makes Kami of Ancient Law so spiffy is that it has all the stats of Grizzly Bears with a dynamite ability. Just like Sakura-Tribe Elder, the Kami's ability is free, can't be stopped, can be used while your creature is tapped, and will often result in a two-for-one trade. Enchantments still don't have the panache in Standard of artifacts, but this doesn't mean that Kami of Ancient Law's ability is irrelevant (see Wear Away above). And that's without pointing out the Kami's creature type, which can also come in handy for many decks.


12. Counsel of the Soratami

I struggled for what card to put here between Counsel of the Soratami, Horobi's Whisper, and Terashi's Grasp. I think it's between Counsel and Whisper, but for me the edge in Standard goes to the Counsel because of the presence of Dark Banishing. I'll call Horobi's Whisper #13 and Terashi's Grasp #14.

As I said, blue's card-drawing is becoming slower (meaning, turning from instant-speed to sorcery-speed) and more expensive. Pure card-drawing doesn't currently exist at all for two mana, and your only choices at one mana are Serum Visions and Reach Through Mists. For monoblue or mostly-blue decks, Concentrate is now the standard against which other cards are measured. This makes Counsel of the Soratami a splashable mini-Concentrate, giving you the same boost as Inspiration but at Sorcery-speed and a mana cheaper. For some decks, Thirst for Knowledge (wants to fill graveyard or uses artifacts heavily) or Sift Through Sands (cares about arcane or uses The Unspeakable) is going to be preferable as a three-mana card-drawer. If all you want to do is fill your hand, though, Counsel of the Soratami is a solid choice.

I see two similar features of all twelve of these cards. First, all cost three mana or less. The cards you will most often add to your decks are those that do what need being done (artifact/enchantment/creature/land destruction, card-drawing, burn, discard, mana-acceleration) in as efficient a package as possible. The second similarity is that these cards will rarely be dead in your hand. Next time you're evaluating new sets, look for efficient cost and general usefulness and you'll start to identify the solid commons in that set.

Are there other good, versatile commons in Champions and Betrayers? Absolutely. Off the top of my head, Ronin Houndmaster, Befoul, Yamabushi's Flame, Soratami Cloudskater, Stir the Grave, Consuming Vortex, Wicked Akuba, Nezumi Cutthroat, Takenuma Bleeder, and Ninja of the Deep Hours are all cards that can find a home in a wide swathe of deck. Heck, even that list isn't anywhere near complete. I have a hard time arguing, though, that any other commons are more generally useful than the twelve I've listed above (plus Whisper and Grasp as #13 and #14). Feel free to disagree and post your thoughts on the Message Boards.

Hopefully everything I've said so far helps newer players entering the weird, confusing world of deckbuilding. The A List won't make a deck by themselves, but they are cards you will find yourself dipping into repeatedly to fill out your various deck concepts.

Now let's turn the list upside-down...

The “No, Never” List: Kamigawa's Sucky Six

Just as important as identifying the cards you should gravitate towards is identifying the cards you should actively avoid. In every set, Magic R&D tosses in a few cards infected with Noob Cooties. They call them “skill testers,” cards that might seem good but that really have no place in Constructed decks. I'm not saying that you can't use these cards in decks, only that you shouldn't.

Keep in mind who's delivering this message, by the way. I'm the House of Cards pioneer, the guy who loves to take underappreciated cards and bend decks to their meager wills. I love the challenge when someone calls a card useless. I firmly believe that any card--any card--is useful in the right context.

The difference is that experienced deckbuilders can have fun building decks around bad cards, but in our heart of hearts we know they're bad cards. If you are new to the deckbuilding arena and trying to make a deck to compete with your friends, make sure you steer clear of the Sucky Six.

160. Blessing of Leeches

I can almost... almost... see using Blessing of Leeches. It looks like it has bells and whistles, at least. I mean, you can play it as an instant and the regeneration is free, all for the low cost of three mana and a life each turn. That's good, right? No. Enchant Creature cards in general need to meet a much higher quality threshold simply because of the opportunity of giving your opponent a two-for-one advantage. What happens if your opponent Shocks your creature in response to the Blessing? What if your opponent uses Dark Banishing, Hideous Laughter, or Pacifism as removal? What if you can't find a creature to enchant? Notice that four of the bottom six cards are Enchant Creature cards. These cards need to look like Serra's Embrace, Armadillo Cloak, Curiosity, or Dragon Scales, either giving you a chance to recoup the two-for-one loss or flat-out dominating the game. Blessing of Leeches does neither.


161. Vigilance

Ah, Vigilance, the first card dropped during my Way of the Warrior experiment. Here is what I said then:

“To the deck's credit, Vigilance is the only truly easy card to drop. The reason it's so easy is that it just doesn't do enough to warrant a spot in the deck. Yes, it lets you use Bushido to both attack and block, but you need a creature first and that creature shouldn't be Konda's Hatamoto if you're planning on playing a legend. Also, the creatures are fairly expendable here, so you're almost always giving your opponent a two-for-one advantage if you play this on, say, a Devoted Retainer. If these slots had an enchantment that gave all of your creatures vigilance, that would be one thing. If this were Dragon Scales that gave a power/toughness bonus and could come back into play on Takeno, that would be something too. As it is... yuck.”

One question to ask is: Are there truly no other cards available to you that you would rather have in your deck than Vigilance?


162. Crawling Filth

I have a hard time saying a 2/2 creature with fear, soulshift, and no drawback is unplayable. It's the cost that kills Crawling Filth's usefulness, though. There's the obvious comparison that for six mana you get Kokusho, the Evening Star, Kyoki, Sanity's Eclipse, Mephidross Vampire, or Nightmare. That may not be fair, however, since all of those cards are rare. Okay, let's say instead that for five mana you get Scuttling Death, Gutwrencher Oni, or Painwracker Oni, all of which I would rather have in a black Spirits deck. Gibbering Kami is probably an even better comparison, since it's a 2/2 with evasion and soulshift for two less mana. For the same price as Gibbering Kami you also get Gravedigger, which will return any card in your graveyard to hand regardless of cost. Abyssal Specter costs four mana, for crying out loud. The point is that hordes of black creatures deserve to be in your deck before Crawling Filth.


163. Takeno's Cavalry

You have to work very hard to convince me that a 1/1 creature is worth four mana. Archivist, maybe, since he can replace himself if he gets even a single turn to live. Elvish Piper can do sick things, too. These two cards give some of the best abilities available to creatures, and in punishment are given a fragile body and a high cost. Takeno's Cavalry costs a lot, is fragile, and lets you... wait for it... Ping a creature for one damage!

Wait, the creature has to be attacking or blocking? Oh, that's worse.

Wait, wait... the creature has to be an attacking or blocking Spirit?!? You have got to be kidding me.

Even pure Samurai decks can think of a dozen creatures they'd rather play than this guy.


164. Field of Reality

From my first Building on a Budget article:

Field of Reality is the only card in the deck that overwhelms me with its awfulness. In Kamigawa Block, being unblockable by Spirits may come in handy, but even then I'm not sure that it's worth losing card advantage for a mediocre effect. If Field of Reality were a cheap, arcane sorcery with splice I might see its use in Kamigawa Block, but even that's stretching my imagination. In Standard, as an Enchant Creature card, it's completely out of place.”

Whispersilk Cloak is a common. Use that instead of Field of Reality.


165. Kumano's Blessing

Finally, from a few weeks ago:

“I'm starting to suspect that each preconstructed deck contains one truly horrible card just to see if you're paying attention. In Ninjutsu, that card was Field of Reality. In Dark Devotion, it's Kumano's Blessing. I honestly have no idea what I'm supposed to do with the Blessing nor how I am supposed to play it in the deck. I suppose technically it could disrupt an opponent with Spirits or some other sort of graveyard recursion, but this is far too narrow a mechanic to have maindeck. Besides, this deck wants to pound people senseless, not worry about tricks like removing cards from graveyards. Consider Nezumi Graverobber as a card that would perform a similar function with a lot more synergy in the deck. Heck, Yamabushi's Flame is the same cost and a lot more useful. Whatever you do, keep Kumano's Blessing away from me.”

Don't get blinded by the fact that Kumano's Blessing can be played as an instant. I've met Kumano, Master Yamabushi and he never, ever gave a blessing this bad.

Demonology

Last week I asked you all to help me name my revamped Dark Devotion deck. You all flooded the Message Boards with ideas, many quite punny. Not a lot of them fit my “catchy and short” criteria, though, despite their humor.

Here were my Top 5 favorite suggestions (some slightly modified per my preference):

5. Ready Ogre Not, Here Oni Come (AJkiller23)
4. Break Oni Through (Kevin H)
3. Prisoner's Laughter (Mr Dark Avocado)
2. Chain Gang (FunkmastaD622)

And the winner comes from Ghost of Rage...

Joining The Minor Leagues

So far I have evolved three preconstructed decks on this site. Way of the Warrior became an aggro-control “Fish”-style Samurai deck. Ninjutsu became an aggressive Ninja deck swinging Ronin Warclub willy-nilly. Most recently, Dark Devotion became a face-bashing fattie deck powering out Ogres and Demons galore. Fun decks, all.

In all of these experiments, I have held true to the main themes of the deck (which happened to be a dominant creature-type theme, for the most part). Although I identified more minor themes in each deck, I never significantly expanded upon them.

With my next preconstructed deck, though, my goal is to take one of the minor themes I identify in the deck and expand it into a major theme and the deck's foundation. The result will potentially be more changes to the original decklist than I've done so far but should also be a good lesson for those deckbuilders who see a single card or effect around which they want to build.

So, which deck do you want me to turn inside-out? Let's open up the options a bit.

Just remember: The focus will be on a minor theme brought center stage in whatever deck you choose, so expect the unexpected.

See you next week!

-jms

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