The Knowledge Pool - Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow
Go Ninja Go!
Hi everyone! Welcome back to The Knowledge Pool!
This week we get to finally talk about the long awaited Commander 2018 set! For me, the yearly Commander sets tend to be the most exciting product Wizards releases. While people seem to have varying opinions on this year's offering, I think it's fairly safe to say that we've gotten a bounty of awesome new legends and planeswalkers to lead us into battle.
So which new commander made this Temur Timmy writer most excited this year? Lord Windgrace would make sense because of my fondness for lands. Or maybe Arixmethes, Slumbering Isle so I can try to unlock that hot 12/12 body. Even Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer has the potential to go off the rails in very fun ways, but today we won't be discussing any of these.
Based on the title of the article alone, I've spoiled the surprise. This year my heart was stolen by our first UB Ninja legend, Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow. I know what you're all thinking: "Scot! You write about decks that play big, stupid creatures that brutally run your opponents into the ground! Where's the green?" And you're right! I do normally prefer decks that approach the game from a stompy/ramp angle. It's rare for me to get excited about a non-green strategy. But believe it or not, a deck like Yuriko's has been an ongoing project for me for years, and I could never figure out how to make it work until now.
Let's go back in time and discuss the impetus for this deck. Sometimes inspiration strikes like lightning, and other times it needs to be coaxed into existence. The UB color combination has always been a struggle for me in Commander, in large part because I could never find a commander to match my personality. I always lacked inspiration, and I would force myself to brew various commanders in the hopes of being surprised by the final result. When I was new to the format and still fancied myself a control player, I put together a Dralnu, Lich Lord deck, but I quickly discovered I didn't enjoy the feeling of being on the defensive. I was somewhat successful with a combo-centric Oona, Queen of the Fae brew, but by the end, my list was too linear to hold my interest.
Of my excursions into UB, the deck that got me most excited was Vela the Night-Clad. When most people think of UB, myself included, the signature abilities that come to mind are mill, clones, counterspells, and recursion. It's easy to forget that UB is also one of the best color combinations for evasive creatures, with a host of flying and unblockable options, and this is what I wanted to exploit with Vela. I wanted to create a UB deck that got value out of each attack, and used Vela's Intimidate anthem to ensure I could push damage through. There was just one problem: Vela is really expensive to cast. It's possible to play expensive commanders successfully, but it's much tougher when you expect them to be the linchpin of your strategy. After several iterations and countless edits, I put Vela aside, realizing I just couldn't get excited about the direction the brew had gone.
Given that one of my primary issues with Vela was her cost, I began searching around for other commanders that might be successful with a similar strategy. This process lead me to Edric, Spymaster of Trest. For those of you unfamiliar with the way a typical Edric deck operates, I recommend you do a quick browse of his EDHREC page here. Edric is cheap, and his access to blue means that we still get many of the better evasive creatures. Being in green meant that we could play with a very lean curve and use spells to pump up the smaller creatures for lethal damage. This combination seemed like a better version of the Vela deck I had been building, but again there was a problem. Simply put, Edric is just too good of a card; he comes down, you attack with your creatures, and you profit. This, and the fact that a bunch of fairly optimized Edric lists are circulating the internet, granted him a stigma of being a fairly competitive commander among my playgroup. In my meta, if your deck relies heavily on your commander, and your commander is a primary target, you won't be doing much of anything. Thus with Edric died my interest in the unblockable creature archetype...
Until Yuriko was spoiled.
Functionally, Yuriko operates more similarly to Edric than Vela, but many of the cards that made me interested in Vela for an unblockable strategy are equally applicable in Yuriko. Let's get something out of the way now: Yuriko wants us to build a deck based around Ninjas, but of the ~10 available Ninjas, quality is limited. This means we're more likely to have more success aiming for a "Ninja-less" Ninja deck, which is made possible by cards like Arcane Adaptation. The subtle beauty of this extra hoop we're forced to jump through is that it eliminates the quality that makes Edric such a target - the lack of setup required to make him effective. We can still play small unblockable creatures, and we can still have our Edric-esque ability, but we're going to have to work for it a little bit, making us inherently less threatening.
This isn't to say that Yuriko is merely a worse version of Edric. In fact, in my opinion she has several qualities that make her a more appealing choice overall. First, Yuriko's triggered ability carries with it some burn damage, meaning that we don't have to be as concerned with the pump effects that an Edric deck might need to close the game. Even with a very low curve, the extra damage incurred with each attack will help take turns off our clock. Second, and most importantly, Yuriko can cheat commander tax with her Ninjutsu ability. The gravity of Ninjutsu on Yuriko cannot be overstated, as it almost guarantees that we will be able to have her on board at any time as long as one of our little creatures can make it through (they don't even need to be a Ninja). In many games, we can expect to have Yuriko attacking as early as turn two, and while playing a commander on turn two might be ill-advised for most decks, we don't care if Yuriko dies because we have the very real expectation of replaying her almost immediately. These are the abilities that made me fall in love with Yuriko. We may not be green, but we still get to break all the rules.
- We will attack with small, natively evasive creatures to enable casting Yuriko early and often.
- We will use enchantments to turn our creatures into Ninjas to enable Yuriko's triggered ability and tribal synergies.
- We will win the game through a combination of combat damage and burn.
What We Do in the Shadows
After looking at this deck, I know what you're all thinking: "Most of those creatures suck!" Yes, they do. There are very few decks that could convince me to play Tormented Soul in Commander, but this is one of them. While our creatures may suck, they do a very good job of agoing unblocked, and ultimately, that's all we care about.
Commander offers us a variety of effects that grant our dudes evasion or unblockability. At one point, cards like Thassa, God of the Sea were included in this list, but as I whittled the deck down, I began to realize that focusing on an "Edric" style of attack would likely be the best course of action. I realized that it was in the best interest of the deck to have creatures with native evasion so we could ignore the cards that were solely included to grant evasion. I also realized that the leaner the curve became, the more likely it would be that we could frequently have Yuriko on board and also have a party of Ninjas to brawl with. This is how we ended up with the creatures that "suck". Of our 30 creatures, 27 of them have natural evasion. The three creatures lacking evasion can copy our evasive creatures to become evasive themselves.
Almost more important than our evasive creatures is the ability to turn them into Ninjas. We don't care that most of our creatures are french vanilla because as long as they're Ninjas, Yuriko gives them the only ability they're going to need. Before we delve deeper into our creatures or any of the other goodies we're packing, let's take a look at these key enchantments.
Wax on, Wax Off
There are four cards that let us change our creature types. Of these, Arcane Adaptation and Conspiracy are our best options, as they change the creature types of the dudes in our hand. With Adaptation and Conspiracy, we can make use of abilities that care about Ninjas entering the battlefield like Kindred Discovery and Door of Destinies.
However, the card that I was most excited to find was Unnatural Selection. Until I started working on this list, I had never heard of Selection, and even though it's the only one of our enchantments that requires us to pay additional mana to get the ability, the fact that it costs two is a boon for multiple reasons. The most obvious benefit of this lower cost is that we will have to invest less mana initially to get our Ninja strategy activated. The more subtle benefit is that we can tutor for it using the Transmute abilities of Dimir Infiltrator and Muddle the Mixture. Infiltrator and Muddle are two cards that do things that our deck wants to be doing anyway, and the fact that they can represent two additional copies of Unnatural Selection increases the value of all three cards.
Xenograft is included in this deck for redundancy. Given that our deck is devoted heavily to having Ninjas on board, redundancy in these sorts of effects is paramount. Moreover, despite my aversion to tutors in most decks, I feel the inclusion of them in this deck is important for reliably succeeding in our strategy. Luckily, black offers us the best tutors in the game.
Among our tutoring options, I aimed for some of the cheapest options, given the low curve and low land count. If cards like Demonic Tutor are not in your price range, I still think it's worth including tutor effects like Diabolic Tutor. Likewise if you can afford an Imperial Seal, this deck certainly won't complain about another one-mana way to find Arcane Adaptation.
For most decks, this section would be fairly boring. Tutors find the cards you need, end of story. However, for us, the tutors that put cards on top of our deck have an added utility. Vampiric Tutor, Lim-Dul's Vault, and Long-Term Plans each let us effectively stack our deck, which means we can tutor up extra damage for our Yuriko triggers. If we already have an Arcane Adaptation in play, we can instead find one of our top-end spells, like Deepfathom Skulker, which can represent a lot of damage quickly. If the game comes down to the wire, tutoring in this way could be the difference between winning and losing.
Including our tutors, we have 11 "copies" of enchantments that let us change creature types. We also have 12 cards, not including Yuriko, that can let us draw through our deck. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to assume that we will be able to find these enchantments one way or another.
Now that we've addressed the our Ninja enchantments, lets take a look at the Ninjas we'll being employing.
The Smallest Ninjas
Turn One Sneaks
I pointed out that it's a very real possibility for us to have a turn two Yuriko, and this is made possible because 12 of our creatures are one-drops. The goal is to start the game with one of these 12 on the board so that we can curve nicely into Yuriko. With our creatures, redundancy is equally as important as it was for our Ninja enchantments. We want to get damage through as early as possible, and the more cards we can draw to let us put bodies on board, the better off we'll be.
Among our one-drops, there are a few standout creatures. Mothdust Changeling is here entirely because it's effectively a Ninja without any help. Hypnotic Siren scales nicely with the state of the game, and will let us steal opposing creatures in the late game. Siren Stormtamer protects our dudes from spot removal. Admittedly, we're much more afraid of a Wrath than spot removal, but I can imagine scenarios where having the added ability to fizzle a spell is game-changing. Lastly, Hope of Ghirapur can lock an opponent out of the game if we're concerned about one player in particular. The fact that Hope of Ghirapur also has a colorless cost shouldn't be ignored.
Beyond these, our one-drops are mostly included to pester our opponents and enable Yuriko. Once we go up a step in size, we begin to notice some more significant abilities.
Our next round of creatures is a little bit bigger, and offers a bit more utility. Baleful Strix, Looter Il-Kor, Wharf Infiltrator, Cloud of Faeries, and Shadowmage Infiltrator each represent additional options for drawing cards. These can help us dig towards one of our Ninja enchantments, our game-ending spells, or else just replace themselves.
Inkfathom Witch offers us a way to turn our little dudes into a real clock. Boosting base power is a big deal for a deck where all of the creatures are evasive, and coupled with Yuriko's triggers, we can realistically expect about six damage from each attacker. It's also worth noting that we can activate Witch politically as well, buffing our opponents as they attack each other.
Phantasmal Image is whatever we need it to be. I really like how Clones scale in this deck. In the early game, a card like Phantasmal Image can copy our Tormented Soul to give us an additional body, while in the later game it gives us the chance to enjoy our opponent's Blightsteel Colossus. The key here is that Image offers us this ability for two mana.
Stratus Dancer is another option for countering spells, but stapled to a creature. Instants and sorceries are likely our biggest issues anyway, and we'll be saving Dancer to eliminate a pesky Wrath.
Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive is a weird inclusion in this deck. Didn't I already go on a rant about only including creatures that have evasion? Tetsuko was in and out of this deck during the design process, but she made the final cut because I realized how valuable she could be in situations where the air is gummed up with flyers. In most Commander games we probably won't have to worry about too many flyers, but if we're trying to finish off an opponent that has Spirit tokens, we're in for a rough time without Tetsuko. It also helps a lot that Tetsuko benefits from her own ability, acting as another unblockable attacker.
The last creature I want to highlight is Thada Adel, Acquisitor. Islandwalk is easily the most limited form of evasion among any of our creatures, but I think in most cases she'll have another blue player to prey on. Luckily for Thada, the other blue players are also likely to be playing artifacts (especially the ones who are testing out the new UR commanders), but even if we can only snag an opposing Sol Ring we would be very happy. It's also worth noting that we are pretty psyched to steal any Equipment, so maybe make friends with your opponent playing Nazahn, Revered Blacksmith (shout out to Mason at the Underdog's Corner).
While not directly a creature, I did want to acknowledge our creature lands/rocks and Bitterblossom. This is a perfect Bitterblossom deck, as we'll appreciate as many evasive creatures as we can get. Blinkmoth Nexus, Creeping Tar Pit, and Faerie Conclave offer us three additional ways to get damage through, and the opportunity cost is virtually nothing. Dimir Keyrune is a ramp option of choice for this reason. Unless it's an emergency, we're probably not using any of our creature lands to cheat Yuriko into play, but once we have a Ninja enchantment on board, they each represent more card draw.
There are only five more creatures in the deck, and these are included for their particularly potent abilities. Let's check out what this deck has to offer on the "Fatties" end.
Creatures On a Diet
Okay, so realistically, we don't have any creatures that qualify as "Fatties," at least not as much as I'm used to when playing green. Here, our top-end creatures are included to put us over the edge and make Yuriko overwhelming.
Glen Elendra Liege will buff almost all of our creatures, and many of them will be gifted a hefty +2/+2. In a deck where everything is evasive, any amount of extra buff is worth our attention, and this is one of our better options.
Alongside Mothdust Changeling, Sakashima's Student is our only other natural Ninja. What's particularly excellent about Student is that, in this deck, it's a Phantasmal Image with no downside that counts as a Ninja even if it copies our opponent's Progenitus.
Twilight Prophet seemed like a natural inclusion in this deck, given its evasiveness and the fact that it draws us a card every turn. Since we'll be stacking our deck with tutors for Yuriko, Prophet can get in on the fun and gain us some life in the process.
I'm not going to go into much detail about Deepfathom Skulker here. The gist is that we don't particularly care about the activated ability, but we're more concerned with the triggered draw ability. We have several cards that use this sort of effect, and we'll talk about them later.
The last inclusion, and easily my favorite, is Sakashima the Imposter. At first, Sakashima seems like just another Clone. That's until you consider that we can copy Yuriko, and now draw two cards and inflict twice as much burn damage for each attacking creature. Sakashima even protects herself, and lets us reset her if something more desirable enters the battlefield. Either way, I couldn't be more excited to see what game-breaking stuff this card will do.
There we have it, ladies and gentlemen. We've addressed the creatures and the Ninja enchantments, so we turn now to the supporting cast. Like every deck, the supporting cards are indispensable, offering us ramp, card draw, and protection options. Let's take a look at the glue holding this party together.
The Ninja's Stockpile
Our curve is just under 2.5, which this means two things. First, we can lower our land count slightly. Second, we're likely going to play out our hand pretty quickly. For this reason, having ways to reload our hand will be important if we want to have a continued source of pressure. Luckily for us, Yuriko already does a really good job of ensuring that we draw lots of cards, but blue and black have the best options for card draw, and I think it would be wasteful not to take advantage.
Card Draw and Filtering
Many of these cards we've already talked about in detail. Many of the evasive creatures we're including also have card filtering applications.
I originally included cards like Ponder and Preordain as ways to stack the top of our deck, while also giving us a means of digging towards our Ninja enchantments. The longer I brewed, however, I began to realize that quantity was probably more valuable than quality, since our tutor count is so high. This realization lead to the inclusion of Night's Whisper and Phyrexian Arena. Whisper lets us dig two cards deeper on demand, while Arena will help us slowly accrue more value as the game goes on.
I want to make a quick note here. We are in blue, and that means we have access to Rhystic Study. It's hard to argue that Study won't do an equivalent (if not far superior) job to Arena for our purposes. However, my playgroup is particularly hostile to Rhystic Study. I was part of a game where an opponents played Study, and was the perpetual target for the rest of the game. The owner of Study didn't even get to do anything with the extra cards because everyone hated on them so much! For this reason, I chose Arena as my draw spell, but if your meta is more forgiving of Rhystic Study definitely make the swap.
The only card filtering option I've retained is Sensei's Divining Top, largely because the ability is reusable.
I've also decided that we're in a good position to take advantage of permanents that allow us to draw cards when we deal combat damage. This will let us double up on Yuriko's ability, and fits nicely with the creature strategy we've established. The two most obvious options here are Coastal Piracy and Bident of Thassa.Deepfathom Skulker also fits in this category, although I'm less than enthused by its high cost. Originally Skulker was included in this list because of its combination of activated and triggered abilities. However, now that we no longer care so much about giving our creatures unblockablility, Skulker is now just a pricier variant of Coastal Piracy. I still think Skulker will be a reasonable include because it can become a 4/4 unblockable creature on its own (and can grant Yuriko unblockable) but I also wouldn't be surprised if this card is one of the first cards on the chopping block in favor of more efficient options.
Once we have a Arcane Adaptation or Conspiracy, Kindred Discovery suddenly becomes one of the best draw spells in the deck. We'll draw a card off of every dude we play (and we'll be playing lots of dudes), and we'll draw off of every attack too. If we can assemble this synergy, we'll have no trouble refilling our hand and racing ahead of our opponents in card advantage.
Striking From the Shadows
I've pointed out that we'll be relying on Yuriko's burn damage to finish off our opponents. Despite the fact that Yuriko will be very challenging to remove for long, I still want to have some back-up plans built in to our strategy, so our Ninjas aren't completely worthless without her. Because our creatures are mostly evasive, and because we plan to go wide, even a little bit of team pumping will dramatically increase our clock.
We've already talked a little bit about Inkfathom Witch and Glen Elendra Liege, but Door of Destinies and Coat of Arms are intended to really push our team over the edge. As long as we have any of our Ninja enchantments active, Coat of Arms will provide gigantic increases in power to our team. Door has a similar potential, but we need to do some work. I like the high ceiling Door offers, and unlike Coat it's a non-symmetrical ability. My concern, however, is that Door relies on us casting Ninjas. This means that of our Ninja enchantments, only Arcane Adaptation and Conspiracy are effective synergistic pieces, and Yuriko will not trigger Door if we're casting her via Ninjutsu. Once we've successfully achieved this synergy, it shouldn't be difficult to load up Door with counters, and we should be in great shape to take control of the game. However, if Door turns out to be too difficult to activate, I plan to swap in Obelisk of Urd. Obelisk gives a much more limited buff, but it's substantial and will probably be enough to close out a game.
There are two more cards I want to mention in this section for their ability to speed up our clock, or else restrict our opponents from playing the game. The first is Quietus Spike, which will cut life totals in half when it's equipped to one of our dudes. The second is Larceny, which is effectively an inverse Coastal Piracy. I'm excited to try out Larceny because it should have devastating implications for our opponent's plans, and I imagine we'll often be leaving them without many options to combat us.
A consideration I made while building this deck was how to keep opponents from simply "cracking back" and killing us with their own dudes after we've attacked. We don't have much in the way of creature removal, barring Cyclonic Rift and Evacuation, and most Wraths pose a greater threat to us than our opponents. The compromise was to let our opponents keep their creatures, as long as they can't attack us. Meekstone shouldn't affect our creatures unless we've played Coat or Door, and if our opponents let us keep an early Meekstone, we will plan to kill our opponents with Yuriko's burn damage. Propaganda is our other option for protection, and will likely dissuade most opponents from sending attackers in our direction.
What About Removal?
It turns out that blue and black have trouble with most noncreature forms of removal. However, like we pointed out when assessing our protection options, we don't particularly care what our opponents are doing as long as they aren't disrupting our board or combo-ing out. Our solution to disruption and combos is counterspells.
We've talked about most of these cards already, and for the most part, the cards we haven't talked about are standard fare. Swan Song, Counterspell, and Negate each provide us a catchall for the spells that will give us the most trouble. It's possible we may need more cards in this section, with stuff like Pact of Negation and Spellstutter Sprite, but for now I think 7 options is enough to keep us in the game.
The Cut List
Due to the unique strategy we're taking with this deck, I've talked about many of the cuts already. I've also talked about a few cards that nearly made the cut, like Obelisk of Urd and Rhystic Study. Most of the main cuts for this deck were Ninjas and cards that gave unblockability, like Thassa, God of the Sea and Vela The Night-Clad. However, there are still a few cards that I considered that are worth taking a look at:
Necropolis Regent was one of the anthem effects I considered early on and ultimately cut in favor of Door of Destinies and Coat of Arms. I like what Regent offers this kind of strategy, but as I cut towards a leaner curve, Regent didn't seem to fit.
Ghastlord of Fugue was another creature I originally considered for its natural unblockability, but got cut for its high cost. Given the cost, Ghastlord's targeted discard is a bit underwhelming, and the four power isn't particularly threatening.
Blade of Selves was included in this list until the very end, but again, the cost was prohibitive.
I would also like to point out the cards that specifically synergize with Ninjas were cut. A lot of Ninja decks are interested in reusing their Ninjutsu abilities, so cards like Crystal Shard, Cavern Harpy, and Thalakos Seer make a lot of sense. If you opt for a version of this deck focused on "real" Ninjas, these sorts of cards are worth considering, but for our purposes they're not very useful.
The last card I want to address is Paradoxical Outcome. I think Paradoxical Outcome could be a really interesting way for us to protect our creatures while drawing more cards. Given that our creatures are so cheap, replaying them shouldn't be an issue. I didn't end up including this card because it seemed too "cute," but it could be a fun option if you're in a Wrath-heavy meta.
Thank you all for taking the time to read my article! Since Yuriko was spoiled, I've been able to think of few other things than this commander I think there's a lot of potential to make Yuriko a powerful deck, and I think she'll stand up well in comparison to her contemporaries.
My version of the deck is far from perfect. I didn't go as lean as most competitive Edric decks, and I'm trying to straddle the line between being optimized and 75%. For instance, I've included Mox Amber because Yuriko will almost always be on board, but I've neglected all the other moxen (Chrome Mox, Mox Diamond, Mox Opal) even though they would probably be potent here. Once I have the chance to test this deck extensively, I'll have a better idea of what tweaks would make this build more effective overall.
Aside from the Yuriko deck, I've been trying to find more ways to interact with you all. I've recently made a Twitter account @theKnowledgePL, and I'm planning to update it with whatever I'm working on next. If you like my articles, follow me there!
Until next time, I wish you all the best,and happy brewing!