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Yamazakis for Days

Hello again PDH Homebase readers! Dave (Alkadron) back to talk about more decks that I’m really enthusiastic about. I meant to finish this a couple weeks ago when folks were still excited about the fresh new set Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, and I apparently procrastinated long enough that now we’re getting New Capena spoilers? I’m honestly not sure anymore whether the sets are coming out too fast, or I’m just too old. Could go either way, really. Possibly both.

Anyways, today’s topic is a couple of badass Samurai ladies that deserve some thorough consideration.

The first thing I wanna talk about is the lore of these two - who they are and what they’re about. (If you’re not into lore, feel free to skip ahead a couple paragraphs.) Astute readers (by which I mean “old people”) will recognize the family name Yamazaki from these brothers, who are very close to one another and love working together:

Apparently a lot has changed for the Yamazaki family in the last thousand years. For starters, Heiko and Norika aren’t siblings, they’re cousins. More notably, they’re enemies that are working against each other towards mutually exclusive goals: Heiko is part of the Asari uprising, trying to overthrow Imperial rule, and Norika is part of that Imperial rule. Despite this, they were best friends throughout their childhood, until Norika was badly injured in an accident.

The enmity between the characters has been cited as the reason that their cards don’t partner with one another. It’s also worth noting that Wizards doesn’t like to print commander-only rules text (like “partner” or “this can be your commander”) on standard products. Honestly though this reasoning feels weak - “Partner With” has made an appearance in non-commander sets, and it even has relevant rules-text in non-commander games. As for their enmity, I like to imagine that these two childhood best friends can find some common ground after their showdown in Sokenzanshi. We’ll talk more about partnering them up later.

Before that, I want to talk about general strategies for putting one of these Yamazakis in the command zone, because their abilities are very similar. Both cards allow you to cast a card from your graveyard as a reward for attacking alone with a Samurai or Warrior. This is already pulling us in a few different directions that make deck-building fun:

  1. If we’re attacking alone, we need some Voltron elements to make sure those attacks are impactful. I’d recommend against going too hard on the Voltron elements. You need your commander to stick around for value; you don’t want her getting murdered. (Norkia can safely get bigger than Heiko, since white has good protection.) Cards like Bonesplitter or Simian Sling (for Heiko) and Call to Serve or Cartouche of Solidarity (for Norika) are a good way to make those hits count without drawing too much negative attention to yourself.

  2. Casting stuff from your graveyard means that there’s value in putting stuff in your graveyard. I would advise against self-mill -- our graveyard is a resource, but we only get one card per turn from there, so working to fill it up is a waste of cards. Red and White don’t have great self-mill anyways. Instead, we want to go hard into looting and rummaging. The big advantage these have over mill is that they involve drawing cards, which is super important in mono-red and mono-white. Heiko is better at this than Norika, but Norika’s got some tricks up her sleeve. Heiko gets obvious staples like Thrill of Possibility and Electric Revelation. Norika has access to gems like Jalum Tome and the new Network Terminal.

  3. Fortunately for us, “Whenever a Samurai or Warrior you control attacks alone” was a theme of this set, so we’ve got some support there. Extra fortunately for us, that support is always stapled to the bodies of Samurai and Warriors, so we can attack alone with them if we don’t want to risk our commander dying in combat. Heiko’s helpers are going to assist with our casting-spells-from-graveyard plan with Akki Ronin and Peerless Samurai. Norika’s are more combat focused, with Eiganjo Exemplar and Imperial Subduer.

Beyond this point, the decks are going to diverge considerably, so I’m going to discuss them separately. I’ll start with Heiko.

Heiko really shines as a value engine. She’s already got a lot more draw power than Norika in the form of good red looting spells (like Cathartic Reunion and Unexpected Windfall), and casting artifacts from the yard lets us really abuse card-draw effects like Spare Supplies and Experimental Synthesizer. Even recycling stuff like Armillary Sphere or Renegade Map will be good for us: we want all those land drops (the deck gets very mana-intensive) and we can pitch extra lands to loot them into real draws. The “keep your grip full” power of this deck is honestly surprising and awesome.

We don’t want our hand to just get full though, we want to utilize all these cards we’re drawing: we do this by keeping our mana curve really low-to-the-ground, and relying on effects that we can cast early and use later. Bad-but-still-playable versions of this effect look like Universal Solvent or Spiked Pit Trap. Outstanding versions of this effect look like Pyrite Spellbomb - it’s cheap, it draws cards, we can kill little guys with it, and when it’s time to end games, we can send it’s damage at peoples’ faces. The versatility is incredible.

The mediocre versions of this cast-now-and-use-later effect look like Blazing Torch and Ninja’s Kunai. In most decks, these cards cost more than you think, because tapping the creature to use their ability means not attacking with those creatures, and that’s often significant. In Heiko, we weren’t going to attack with those creatures anyways, since we only get one attacker each turn. This makes the Torch and the Kunai fantastic ways to utilize any extra non-attacking creatures we have.

Speaking of tapping creatures, we need to talk about a weird inclusion in this deck: Scaretiller. We have a lot of looting and we’re mana-hungry, so Scaretiller feels like a slam dunk at first glance.

The trick is tapping him - he can’t attack alongside Heiko (the Samurai has to attack alone) and he can’t attack instead of Heiko (he’s not a warrior), so we need to find interesting ways to tap him. Torch and Kunai are excellent at that. We’ve also got Viridian Longbow (which also gives our other non-attackers something to do if we don’t have Scaretiller in play), as well as Holdout Settlement and it’s desert clone Survivors’ Encampment. The funniest option we have for tapping Scaretiller is just suiting him up with the Amorphous Axe and letting him be the lone attacking Samurai.

Amorphous Axe helps us in another important way as well (aside from giving our trampling commander three additional power) - it can turn Heiko into a Vampire. This is extremely relevant for allowing us to loop Wedding Invitation. Looping Invitation without lifelink is also fine - we’re still drawing cards and delivering unblockable commander damage.

Ultimately, this ceaseless train of value has to culminate in a strategy to actually close out games. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t want to do too much Voltron with Heiko - she’s very difficult to protect, and removal will derail our value-train in a big way, so it’s best to keep the target on her pretty small. Instead, I’ve leaned into tried and true game-ending tactics: a good old fashioned Fireball and its clones.

I expect that Heiko’s value generation will slide her effortlessly into the very late game, where we will have large quantities of mana and people will have small quantities of life. At that point, yeeting players out of the game with x-damage spells seems like the thing to do.

My Heiko list

Next up: Norika

I was surprised to discover that the Norika deck is actually very different from the Heiko deck. Heiko is packed with straight gas - cheap artifacts that keep our hand full and put themselves in the graveyard for easy re-use. Norika doesn’t have the same draw power - She’s mono-white and she can’t re-use the draw artifacts. The closest she gets to Spare Supplies is Capashen Standard, which is honestly pretty disappointing.

Norika has some powerful advantages though. Heiko’s repeatable removal are Pyrite Spellbombs and Ninja’s Kunais. Norika’s are far more powerful and versatile, like Dreadful Apathy and Minimus Containment.

Heiko Voltrons in tiny overlook-able ways like Boots of Speed and Ceremonial Knife, because you can’t protect her and you can’t afford for her to die too often. Norika can Voltron bigger and better, and get away with it, with stuff like Mammoth Umbra and Ethereal Armor.

Heiko’s defensive strategy is “hope that Spiked Pit Trap is enough of a deterrent and if not, I guess we’re racing.” Norika’s defensive strategy is so powerful the deck almost feels like a pillow-fort. Let’s talk about it piece by piece.

I’ll start with the piece that I think is most interesting: all five Runes of Protection. The thing that makes up for White’s lack of looting here is the enchantments with Cycling. Unfortunately, we’ve basically only got these five*, but they’re fantastic - they just turn off certain decks. Couple this damage prevention machine with a Prismatic Circle and a Gossamer Chains and you’ve got yourself an impenetrable wall. A wall that, thanks to Norika, is mostly immune to removal. Someone kills your Rune of Protection? No problem, putting it right back into play costs nothing more than a single attack trigger.

*(The sixth “cycling” enchantment is Sunblade Samurai, which has Plainscycling but spelled differently)

The second line of defense that Norika boasts is simply being a massive Voltron-ed threat that naturally has vigilance. She’ll usually have some combination of first strike and protection, so you don’t need to worry about her dying in combat, and she blocks for days. Giving the big attacker/blocker lifelink is extra powerful.

As an extra side-note here about protection: Norika is really fun with the instant-speed protection spells. If you attack with Norika and target Ward of Lights or Benevolent Blessing, you have a lot of options: you can cast them before blocks to make sure she gets through, or you can cast them after blocks to save Norika from combat damage. Or, in the case of Ward of Lights, you can wait to cast it in the second main, so that it sticks around. This kind of interactivity is what really draws me to a deck, and I’m a lot more enthusiastic about Norika than I thought I’d be when she first got spoiled.

The third line of defense, and where Norika really shines, is the inexhaustible removal suite. I’ve mentioned Dreadful Apathy and Minimus Containment already, but the density of these re-usable effects is staggering: Weight of Conscience, Choking Restraints, Candletrap, Compulsory Rest, Sigarda’s Imprisonment… even Sun Clasp functions as repeatable removal in this deck.

The cards that take the removal suite from oppressive to downright unfair are Oblivion Ring, Journey to Nowhere, and Lunarch Mantle. O-Ring and Journey have the old formatting, with their Enter the Battlefield (EtB) and Leaves the Battlefield (LtB) abilities templated as two different (but linked) triggers. This means that if you sacrifice them while their EtBs are on the stack, their LtBs go on the stack above the EtBs. The LtB resolves, returning nothing (since nothing has been exiled), then their EtB resolves, exiling the target permanently. And you can do this every turn.

Lunarch Mantle is honestly the MVP of the entire deck: completely aside from sacrificing O-Rings and Journeys, it also sacrifices value enchantments so we can re-cast them: stuff like Chosen by Heliod (and, if you’re an irredeemable heartless monster, Spirited Companion). The mantle also provides +2/+2 and flying, which is a sizable boost for the Voltron plan. The deck runs three tutors: they’re mostly for Lunarch Mantle.

To wrap up the discussion of the Norika list, I just want to remind everyone that if you cast Flicker of Fate on a control aura (like Temporal Isolation or Reprobation), the aura returning to play skips the “targeting” step of getting attached to things, and you can slide it right onto something with shroud or hexproof.

My Norika list

The last thing I want to discuss in this piece is, as promised, partnering up the Yamazaki cousins. They don’t have the Partner With ability, but with rule zero and a cool playgroup, anything’s legal. I’ve given this an enormous amount of thought over the last month, and I’d like to share some of those thoughts with you.

Right away, I want to come out and say that I am, for the most part, strongly in favor of casually partnering two cards that don’t actually have partner. Obviously this can create some problems - don’t partner two cards that effortlessly combo with one another, that’s not casual - but partnering for fun or for synergy can open up space for some interesting decks and some otherwise inaccessible/limited color combinations. I’ve even got an unofficial partners deck myself with Markov Waltzer and Alluring Suitor.

Having said that, I should go on to say that I personally won’t be designing or building a Heiko + Norika unofficial partners deck, for a lot of reasons. For starters, I already have a deck for each of them, individually, and I definitely don’t need a third deck that does the same things. Secondly, when I go in for unofficial partners, it’s because the two commanders are not strong or interesting enough on their own to build individually, and that’s obviously not the case here - I think each of the Yamazaki’s is a powerhouse on her own. Asking new opponents whether or not they’re OK with me breaking the rules, and explaining that it’s for fun and flavor rather than power or advantage, can be a tricky conversation to navigate. I’d often rather just avoid that conversation altogether, and in this case, I can do that easily by playing Heiko and Norika separately.

Still, partnering Heiko and Norika seems like an enormous amount of fun: giving Heiko access to protection and repeatable white removal while also giving Norika red’s looting suite and value-engine artifact package can create some powerful magic. I would personally love to see it: please build this deck and then show it to me and then play it against me.

Let me know what you think of the commanders and the decks! If you have lists for these two, find me on discord and share your lists with me! In the meantime, thanks for reading. I’ll be back next time a cool new commander piques my interest.




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