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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
May 29 2018 12:00pm
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Kamigawa is a very interesting block to revisit after seeing how well Dominaria did a similar theme (Legendary-matters with some tribal themes). The comparison isn’t a clear home run for the new hotness either: for all the crap Kamigawa (deservedly gets) for how awful it was for Constructed, in a format where all its parasitic mechanics can exist in isolation, Kamigawa Limited was actually an interesting format (even if it was completely overshadowed by Ravnica the year after), and Champions/Champions/Betrayers is generally thought of as the best iteration of that format (which was why it was picked over the typical triple-large set draft format for the Flashback). In terms of my flashback series it’s also very interesting, as I actually wrote two articles for Champions of Kamigawa (one of the mechanics and one on the cards), so combined with the Betrayers of Kamigawa article I’ve already written three articles on this format, which means I’ve gone very deep on the format already (especially since I wasn’t playing back in the day). However, I also can’t just remaster one of my old articles (even though they desperately need it) since I didn’t really write an article on CCB specifically. As such, my card evaluations are going to be all new (framed using color pairs rather than colors), but I’m not going to repeat the mechanics again.
 
Color Pairs/Archetypes:
Since I’m having to cover two sets, I’m doing this slightly differently than usual. Since Champions of Kamigawa has the most cards (both in the draft and in terms of unique cards), I’ll be framing the archetypes in terms of Champions of Kamigawa cards, then using another (short) paragraph to talk about the improvements made by Betrayers of Kamigawa.
 
White/Blue: Fliers
Flying creatures is the baseline for the Azorius archetype, and cards like Mothrider Samurai, Soratami Mirror-Mage, and Teller of Tales are the workhorse. Of course, the best flier is the one you’ll almost never attack with: Kabuto Moth is both a 2/4 flying blocker and a way to complicate combat. Your tempo tools are decent as well, as both Mystic Restraints and Reciprocate are decent removal while Eye of Nowhere and Consuming Vortex are good bounce.
 
In Betrayers of Kamigawa, there aren’t nearly as many fliers (Shimmering Glasskite is the main midrange flier here), but the support is a lot better. The flying deck is the main archetype that wants Heart of Light, and Ninjas are great in a color pair where you have lots of evasion.
 
Blue/Black: Efficient Cards
Looking at just Champions of Kamigawa, there isn’t much tying the Dimir together. You have good removal from cards like Mystic Restraints and Befoul, and black's creatures actually aren’t horrible for the era (a Wicked Akuba or Scuttling Death is at the curve at this time period, sadly), but there isn’t much synergy. One hidden gem for this archetype is Soulless Revival, which is a decent source of card advantage if all your cards are good. The problem is that this format seems very synergy-driven.
 
Of course, WotC must have realized that UB didn’t really have a theme (or planned that gap in advance) and gave them Ninjas in Betrayers of Kamigawa. The problem is that you can’t really build around them, both because the Ninjas are generally good cards and because what you need to maximize them (evasion) is already prized in Limited. Instead, you want more cards that are just good—the Glasskites help here more than other archetypes since they’re natural card advantage in most cases.
 
Black/Red: Aggro
As I mentioned in the previous section black actually got some decent creatures this time, and red continues that trend as much as it can (in a time where red creatures are destined to be awful). Nezumi Cutthroat is great for an aggressive deck, while red gets versatile creatures like Hearth Kami and Pain Kami. The problem is that it feels like for this deck to be good it wants to be the literal Lava Spike deck, and while Glacial Ray helps that plan a lot (Lava Axe is a good card for three mana, especially when it can also be a Searing Blood), I don’t know if that’s a good place to be. Of course, the removal deck always works, especially when Splice gives many of your removal spells multiple uses.
 
Betrayers of Kamigawa doesn’t change the deck much. Red’s cheap creatures get much better with Goblin Cohort and Frostling, and Ogre Recluse seems surprisingly good (yes, the drawback is worse than “can’t block” in most circumstances, but 5/4 for 3R is an above the curve creature that actually needs a drawback). Black gets the interesting Ogre Marauder, while Scourge of Numai and Takenuma Bleeder are efficient creatures with drawbacks that shouldn’t matter in an aggressive deck.
 
Red/Green: Ramp/Land Destruction
The standard RG theme is ramp, and there are definitely tools to ramp here. Two of the best ramp spells ever are in Champions of Kamigawa (Sakura-Tribe Elder and Cultivate), and you even get the good Orochi Sustainer as well. The ramp targets below rare aren’t quite as good, but putting out an Order of the Sacred Bell on turn 3 or Moss Kami on turn 5 is good enough in most cases. There are also plenty of decent Soulshift creatures in green, such as Rootrunner and Vine Kami (hello green Menace!), that help mitigate the card disadvantage of ramp spells. However, you may notice a trend with the cards I’m mentioning: none of them are red. Yes, you could ramp out something like an Earthshaker, but red’s big (or even midrange) creatures aren’t good at all, and thus you are mostly looking for removal.
 
However, then Betrayers of Kamigawa noticeably changes the color pair. The Goblins of Kamigawa had a minor theme of making opponents sacrifice permanents and caring when lands are put in a graveyard, but the cards aren’t particularly good (unless you like four-mana 1/1’s like Akki Underminer). What BOK did was print a pair of commons that pushed the theme (Akki Blizzard-Herder and Crack the Earth) while also printing Akki Raider as a reasonable payoff (especially if you’re clearing their board). When you combine them with the few good land destruction cards in Champions of Kamigawa like old-fashioned Stone Rain (its penultimate printing) and Rootrunner, as well as Uproot in BOK (because WotC thought a block needed multiple Plow Under effects for some reason), you actually get a cohesive deck where you ramp into land destruction. The ramp itself isn’t quite as good in BOK (the main tool is the okay Sakura-Tribe Springcaller), but the archetype itself is overall better.
 
Green/White: Efficient Spirits
Selesnya is the first color pair that has a real Kamigawa theme, as it’s the first where both colors have Soulshift. However, white only has two Soulshift cards (Kami of the Palace Fields and Hundred-Talon Kami), so there isn’t much synergy. Green has more Soulshift cards (five total), but they aren’t that great, as most of the good green cards are the ramp cards and the aggressive Snakes. The Spiritcraft and Arcane cards are similar, so there isn’t much to build around and the deck just becomes an efficient creatures deck.
 
When Betrayers of Kamigawa came out, power was moved from Samurai and Snakes into Spirits, which clearly improves the Spirit deck. Everything about the archetype was improved: the Soulshift cards were better (Moonlit Strider, Forked-Branch Garami), the Spiritcraft cards were better (Waxmane Baku, Loam Dweller), the Arcane cards were more generic (Terashi's Verdict, Unchecked Growth), and the generic Spirits were more efficient (Gnarled Mass, Kami of False Hope). That’s a lot done with a single small set to actually make an archetype synergistic.
 
White/Black: Spirits/Good Cards
While both white and black technically have Samurai, black’s Samurai are really bad (two of the three are four-mana 1/1’s, and that’s bad even if Cursed Ronin is a “shade”), so I wouldn’t lean in that direction. Instead, I’d start by taking my cue from Modern Masters 2015 and go into Spirits. White’s Spirits still aren’t great, but black gives you decent creatures like Gibbering Kami, Scuttling Death, and Thief of Hope, and Devouring Greed is a very powerful finisher. Unfortunately, Champions of Kamigawa just doesn’t have the density of good Spirits to focus on an archetype, so just making a “good cards” archetype seems better.
 
When you get to the second set, the Spirit synergies get much better, as while the Soulshift creatures aren’t completely outstanding (“Soulshift 5” isn’t quite enough to get me to play a 2/2 Fear for six mana), both Waxmane Baku and Skullmane Baku are very powerful Spiritcraft creatures. Another synergy is that you can Ninjitsu Spirits back to your hand to get more Spiritcraft triggers, which works best when most of white’s good Spirits fly. Finally, this is one of the best decks to abuse Horobi's Whisper, as it’s one of the few black decks that reliably has enough Arcane spells to Splice it at least once.
 
Blue/Red: Splice Spells
You may expect that the Splice deck in Kamigawa block is very similar to its appearance in the original Modern Masters, but Dampen Thought at uncommon needs you need to luck into the mill side of the deck (though it’s obviously good if you pick Dampen Thought). Instead, the pair of commons Eye of Nowhere and Consuming Vortex let you delay your opponent a lot while getting value off your Glacial Rays and Lava Spikes. You also have a lot more ways to get your Arcane cards, as Sift Through Sands is reunited with its friends Peer Through Depths and Reach Through Mists and Eerie Procession gives you duplicates of the important Splice spells. The one problem is that most of the red Arcane spells don’t work well in a deck that’s mostly spells (cards like Unearthly Blizzard and Unnatural Speed), but sometimes you need things to Splice onto.
 
Strangely, the situation is reversed in Betrayers of Kamigawa: the red spells like Ire of Kaminari and First Volley help you push through damage while the blue spells go downhill quickly after Toils of Night and Day. In general, however, Splice is one of the few archetypes that gets noticeably weaker after BOK was introduced to the format, as you have fewer packs of the build-around Splice cards and card draw/filtering.
 
Black/Green: Soulshift Spirits
The graveyard colors have the best creatures with a Raise Dead effect attached? What a shock. The other part of the color pair that makes this archetype good is that the non-Soulshift Spirits are good as well—Cruel Deceiver is a notable card that often make trades, which gives you a body to get back. The ramp also helps, since you’ll cast a lot of spells through the game. When you combine that with black’s removal and green’s efficient creatures you have a good base for a deck.
 
Betrayers of Kamigawa might change BG less than any other color pair, as the plan doesn’t really change at all. The Soulshift creatures are a little worse (Harbinger of Spring doesn’t seem good at all since the Protection doesn’t help against removal spells), the Spirits are slightly more efficient, and black shunned Spirits slightly to add Ninjas, but otherwise you should have the same decks with or without BOK.
 
Red/White: Samurai Aggro
Samural have been mostly under the radar through this whole review, as the main thing tying them together is an okay combat mechanic and a few average tribal cards like Call to Glory and Konda's Hatamoto. However, their key is efficiency: creatures like Kitsune Blademaster and Ronin Houndmaster are above the curve for their respective colors, and Bushido is a sneaky good mechanic even in a time where the removal is good. Nagao, Bound By Honor is also a reason to draft Samurai—note his pump counts himself, which means he’s a 4/4 Bushido 1 attacker for 4 even by himself. When you combine that with creatures that make the combat step a pain for your opponent like Kabuto Moth and Akki Coalflinger, this is the aggro deck to beat in the format, at least in triple-Champions.
 
Unfortunately, Samurai take a huge hit in Betrayers of Kamigawa, and while Takeno's Cavalry (continuing the trend of four-mana 1/1’s) may not be entirely representative, it’s still a sign of how fall they’ve fallen. In general, there aren’t many cheap Samurai and your only tribal payoff is the okay Indebted Samurai. If you load your deck with Samurai you also don’t get to benefit from the powerful BOK cards like Waxmane Baku. You could just pick removal and generically-powerful creatures in BOK (this seems like a good place for Goblin Cohort and Ogre Recluse, for example), but it does make the deck not quite as powerful in CCB as triple-Champions.
 
Green/Blue: Moonfolk Ramp
I mentioned in my previous articles that I didn’t really have a clue what the Simic deck is doing, and that’s still true here. One tribe I haven’t talked about much in this guide is the Moonfolk, as they mostly exist as okay fliers with okay upside in the late game. However, what if you can get ahead on lands through all the ramp present in green? I guess that works, but you still can only play one land per turn (no Sakura-Tribe Scout in this format, not that it’s great in other situations) and the abilities are expensive (as you would expect from abilities that don’t actually cost a card), so you can’t expect to play ten Moonfolk and get more of a benefit like you would for Samurai (or even Snakes). As such, this becomes a good card deck with a good late game, and as I’ve said a lot in this review, this feels like a synergy-focused format.
 
The main benefit added by Betrayers of Kamigawa are the Ninjas, which help in a deck defined by a lot of cheap fliers. The problem is that there’s a lack of ramp and good Moonfolk in BOK, which means you’re just left with efficient cards, going back to my “good card” outline for the deck.
 
Other Important Cards:
The two tribes I haven’t covered yet are the Foxes and the Snakes. The white Foxes don’t have a tribal aspect, but their theme is explicitly anti-Spirit, with a focus on damage prevention. This means their value is very variable: Kitsune Riftwalker may just be a below-average creature when it isn’t facing a deck that is primarily Spirits or Arcane-focused, but Kitsune Diviner can just be a blank. In contrast, the Snakes are just good creatures, particularly the Warriors that “freeze” the creatures they damage. As for the Spirits, you don’t have to be one of the Abzan colors to get a benefit from the tribe, as all five colors have both Spiritcraft and Splice (especially in Betrayers of Kamigawa) and some of the most efficient Splice cards like Blessed Breath, Soulless Revival, and Kodama's Might are off-color.
 
As for colorless cards, Kamigawa has almost none. Between Champions and Betrayers there are no colorless commons and only 18 colorless uncommons, five of which are a bad allied dual land cycle. There are also no artifact creatures, though Jade Idol does a good impression of one. Instead, there are a lot of Equipment (seven total, including four of the five colorless cards in BOK), and they’re clearly powered down Mirrodin, and even the Equipment we see today might be stronger—No-Dachi is decent, Hankyu and Shuriken are (slow, annoying) removal (along with the conditional Nine-Ringed Bo), Ronin Warclub is inflexible (the attach is not optional), and the other Equipment (and other colorless cards) go downhill from there).
 
Conclusion:
Another Flashback Favorites done, but there’s no time to rest, as Battle of the Planes returns next week—there are some changes, but it still looks interesting. In other news, Announcement Day has come and gone, and other than Return to Return to Ravnica, there actually wasn’t much news. In particular, no fall Masters set was announced, meaning that unless they’re announcing it way later than the normally do (as a reminder, Masters 25 was announced almost nine months in advance), it appears Iconic Masters was just a one-off (or at least an only-for-HASCON-off). As for Battlebond, we have yet another supplemental set that has a ton of good reprints that isn’t coming to MTGO—True-Name Nemesis is a perfect reprint for a 2HG set, even though MTGO needs it most. The new cards are more interesting, as while Assist is confirmed to almost certainly not be coming (though most of the cards are Limited filler, with the exception of Play of the Game (did you realize this only other card with this precise effect is Perilous Vault?) and The Crowd Goes Wild (a better Thrive), and Partner with has to be coming (at least the Commanders), I hope that the cards that mention teams make it along with the obvious Constructed plants like Spellseeker and Arena Rector (and I hope they don’t miss possible Pauper card Stadium Vendors). Of course, we probably won’t see the cards for six months (but feel free to surprise me WotC), so until then, let’s battle some planes next week.
 
Vincent

@VincentSIFTD on Twitter