Ninjas Sneaking to the Top in Legacy
- Andreas Reling
The ninjutsu keyword was introduced to Magic with Betrayers of Kamigawa in 2005 and has been a fan favorite ever since. It tries to display the trickery and mastery in stealth that Ninjas are known for within the mechanics of the game. Recently, the tribe has seen renewed success in Legacy.
While the ability barely played a role in Legacy upon its initial release, players tried to make it work in every format. (Ninja of the Deep Hours quickly became a thing in Pauper and even appeared Vintage.) Yet, it wasn't until 2018, when that year's Commander edition brought powerful new cards, that the tribe turned competitive.
The Ninjutsu Ability
A keyword designed by Mark Rosewater and exclusive to Ninja creatures, ninjutsu lets you exchange one of your unblocked creatures with a Ninja from your hand. From the Comprehensive Rules:
So for deck construction, we want to run a sufficient number of creatures with evasion abilities that can be cast on the first turn of the game. That way, we can make sure to sneak our Ninjas into play as early and as often as possible, dodging all kinds of pesky blockers and counterspells along the way. It can also make sense to employ evasive creatures with enter-the-battlefield abilities such as Faerie Seer or Spellstutter Sprite, as we'll be able to use their abilities again.
What Are the Best Ninjas to Sneak In?
There still aren't many Ninjas. For a long time, Ninja of the Deep Hours was the best payoff you could get. Luckily, Wizards decided that Ninjas was a fun tribe worth pushing and released Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow in Commander 2018 as well as Ingenious Infiltrator in Modern Horizons. These two finally gave the strategy the necessary power to make it work in Legacy. The same sets also brought us Retrofitter Foundry and Changeling Outcastl. Both are incredibly important to glue the pieces of the deck together.
It's incredible how fast this deck can seal the deal once both of those Ninjas hit the table and connect. Just imagine a game state where you connect with both Yurioko and Infiltrator on the third turn of the game. You now draw four cards and your opponent loses a bunch of life just because you attacked with a pair of creatures that cost two mana each. If you happen to have access to Brainstorm, you can put expensive cards such as Force of Will on top of your library and Yuriko will take excessive amounts of out of your opponent's life total. And if you draw into free counterspells such as the just mentioned Force of Will, Daze, or even Force of Negation, there isn't much your opponent can do to avoid getting hit another time.
Success to Back It Up
What sounds strong in theory and looks good on paper continues to rack up more and more notable results on Magic Online. A player that goes by the username "TheHamburglar" finished second at the Legacy Challenge on July 4, 2020, with this list:
|Ninjas by TheHamburgler|
Various builds continue to collect more and more 5-0 finishes in Magic Online's Legacy Leagues as we speak. Let's see what makes this long-overlooked deck strong and how the components of the deck work together.
Yuriko and Infiltrator are what make this deck work. They're the most powerful Ninjas available and once you sneak them through and keep the ground clear they drown your opponent in card advantage and seal the deal pretty quickly. Most lists play seven Ninjas as that's proven to be enough.
At first, I wasn't sure if Ornithopter is a card I want to register in my competitive tournament deck as it doesn't do anything on its own, but it just works so well with ninjutsu! You can view it as kind of a Ninja Mox that helps you cheat your Ninjas into play without additional mana investment. Once you've looked at the additional synergy with Retrofitter Foundry, you'll be convinced this is a must!
Changeling Outcast is a real star as the Shapeshifter makes it possible to get the big Ninjas past literally any blockers, even fliers. Later, it counts as a Ninja itself and benefits from related abilities. Sneak in Yuriko or Infiltrator, recast the Outcast, and keep getting through again and again and continue to draw extra cards despite pesky blockers. It also is a Thopter so that you can sacrifice it for your Foundry and create more 4/4 Constructs.
Most lists only include these two as a playset, but you can also see some number of Baleful Strix and Brazen Borrower in the main deck. They can help you grind in the midgame while being able to get past blockers themselves for ninjutsu action later on. Though Strix didn't fully convince me. I could see myself trying out Faerie Seer and Spellstutter Sprite soon.
Permission and Disruption
A tempo strategy like this of course needs to buy time and stop the opposing game plan if it wants to succeed with its small threats. That's where the cheapest and most efficient counterspells and removal come in.
Force of Will, Daze, or even Force of Negation are just perfect for this deck. You draw an abundance of cards when your Ninjas do their work and don't need a lot of mana. Since the deck might ordinarily miss land drops in the midgame, returning your Islands is as easy as exiling blue cards from your hand. With regard to removal, most people run a singleton Murderous Cut as it can kill any creature while the rest of the deck doesn't need the graveyard, and because having a high converted mana cost comes in handy for Yuriko. Fatal Push also fits excellently into this shell since revolt is almost automatic between Daze, fetch lands, Foundry, and ninjutsu. Some try to fit in Drown in the Loch, and Petty Theft can also meddle with big creatures or other problematic permanents.
Of course, no blue deck is complete without Ponder and Brainstorm. They help to pull off your synergies, but also pitch to Force, and can cause huge life loss alongside Yuriko. When running a lot of situational cards, you're particularly happy as well to manipulate your library and not draw excess copies of Ornithopter, Daze, or Retrofitter Foundry.
Most lists have very similar and streamlined sideboards. The goal is to tick all of the following boxes …
A playset Leyline of the Void is often necessary if you want to be able to beat decks like Hogaak or Dredge with a tempo strategy. Leyline also comes in handy against Reanimator. If you played more versatile cards, you could also side in your Cling to Dust or Surgical Extraction against Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, but beware: the more versatile your graveyard hate gets, the less useful it will be against dedicated graveyard combo.
Additional Disruption Against Combo
Thoughtseize is the perfect card to make life easier against fast combo decks relying on fragile synergies. Whether the matchup is Storm, Belcher, Reanimator, Show and Tell, or Doomsday, this is one of the cards you want to see the most in your starting hand. Other options include adding some copies of Force of Negation or a Null Rod.
When you meet decks that are full of nonbasic lands and aim to cast expensive catch-up spells, Back to Basics is your friend. It fights Dark Depths, Lands, Four-Color Loam, Eldrazi Stompy, and others. Since your own mana base makes consists of many fetch lands and basics, this powerful enchantment comes at almost no cost and can catch unprepared opponents off guard. You can also use Wasteland, which interacts nicely with Daze and the general strategy of the deck.
A battlefield full of small creatures is the ultimate nightmare for Ninjas. That's why Plague Engineer is so important and included in almost all lists I've seen. Liliana's Triumph serves as a multi-purpose tool against Dark Depths tokens and other strategies that go for single, big creatures.
I think this deck will remain successful in times where Swords to Plowshares isn't that good and Delver strategies reign supreme. It's simply the bigger Delver deck featuring a much faster clock, albeit with some consistency issues and being easier to disrupt. If the Snowko situation remains this bad, I could see Ninjas having even more success. Also, I'm looking forward to the time when we return to Kamigawa, as Wizards would certainly print some powerful Ninjas again. If we got access to another one-drop like Changeling Outcast — a Ninja with evasion that you can play on the first turn — that would make the deck a lot better.
Do you think they would print something like that? Have you tried the Ninja deck yourself? What do you think about its emergence in the Legacy metagame? Tell us your opinion in the comments!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.