In my twenty years with Magic: The Gathering, the only constant has been my love for building theme decks. I bought my first Sengir Vampire because I wanted to build an Angels and Vampire deck for my Serra Angel to go into. And I’m pretty sure the impetus for my combo deck using Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Seeker of Skybreak was the film “Multiplicity.” In truth, that is a beautiful thing about this game, one can express their love for any theme if they have enough creativity and time. This is how I eventually assembled the deck I will be revisiting today.

I was a rather active manga reader in high school and in mid 2003, Shaman King first premiered in Shonen Jump. At the time, I was mainly subscribed to keep up on Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh, but the portrayal of shaman as individuals with the ability to communicate and fight with spirits really captured my attention. It was through the first half dozen English publications of Shaman King that I became engaged with Japanese mythology, coincidentally just in time for the Kamigawa block in the Fall of 2004.

As Champions of Kamigawa was being released, my investment into Japanese mythology through the manga I had been reading really paid off. But I do remember being a little let down that the humanity versus spirits direction the original block took was in direct contrast to the humans working in tandem with spirits narrative I saw in Shaman King. As a result, for a long time, I struggled to find a way to express my love for the series through a casual theme deck, despite how much I really wanted to.

It wasn’t until 2018, when we were given several enchantment-matters generals in Commander 2018, that I was really able to conceptualize the feel of the Shaman King deck I had always envisioned. I remember looking at Estrid the Masked and thinking about how totem armor was an ideal way of portraying the metaphysical construct of Over Soul seen in the series. But it was Kestia, the Cultivator as a bestow general who finally won me over.

The original skeleton I outlined in 2019 was very promising and the draft I eventually made proved to be something that I very much enjoyed bringing out for the occasional game, but never quite entered into my main rotation of decks. As we entered into 2022, I looked to Kamigawa Neon Dynasty as the motivation to have a new draft of the deck ready, little did I know the set would impact the direction in big ways.

Commander: Kestia, the Cultivator

Creatures: Boon Satyr, Celestial Archon, Eidolon of Blossoms, Eidolon of Countless Battles, Elderwood Scion, Golden-Tail Disciple, Greater Tanuki, Heavenly Blademaster, Heliod’s Emissary, Humbler of Mortals, Jukai Naturalist, Kami of Transience, Kor Spiritdancer, Norika Yamazaki, the Poet, Nylea’s Colossus, Renata, Called to the Hunt, Sanctum Weaver, Satyr Enchanter, Silent Sentinel, Starnheim Courser, Sunblade Samurai, Sythis, Harvest’s Hand, Thassa’s Emissary, Transcendent Envoy, Umbra Mystic, Weaver of Harmony, Whitewater Naiads

Artifacts: Nettlecyst, Skyclave Relic, Winged Boots

Enchantments: Angelic Destiny, Aspect of Mongoose, Bear Umbra, Boar Umbra, Burgeoning, Corrupted Conscience, Dawn’s Reflection, Daybreak Coronet, Drake Umbra, Elephant Grass, Exploration, Felidar Umbra, Flickerform, Hyena Umbra, Indrik Umbra, Mammoth Umbra, Octopus Umbra, Rancor, Snake Umbra, Spider Umbra, Spirit Loop, Treefolk Umbra

Instants: Daze, Deprive, Fumble, Growth Spiral, Reality Shift, Resculpt, Season of Renewal, Suspend

Sorceries: Creeping Renaissance, Cultivate, Kruphix’s Insight, Ravenform

Lands: 7 Forest, 3 Island, 5 Plains, Arctic Treeline, Barkchannel Pathway, Branchloft Pathway, Command Tower, Deserted Beach, Dreamroot Cascade, Fortified Village, Glacial Floodplain, Hengegate Pathway, Overgrown Farmland, Port Town, Razortide Bridge, Rimewood Falls, Seaside Citadel, Tanglepool Bridge, Temple of Enlightenment, Temple of Mystery, Temple of Plenty, Thornglint Bridge, Vineglimmer Snarl

Notable enchantment-matters cards Norika Yamazaki, Jukai Naturalist, and Transcendent Envoy

Going Through Changes

When I earmarked this deck as a point of discussion for 2022, I really thought that most of what Neon Dynasty was going to have to offer was a few samurai at best, to the point that I had it listed as a March article. I remember looking at Theros Beyond Death and besides deeply missing bestow, assumed that the enchantment creatures on display would constitute most of my upgrades. This all changed when I saw Jukai Naturalist and realized a fundamental change to Kamigawa had occurred, to which I would need to accept that Kestia was coming out of Neon Dynasty as a very different deck than I had assumed.

I figured that Theros would add a lot to my revisions, but the impact of Kamigawa was amazing for this deck. The original version only featured cards from the plane for strictly flavor reasons or in the basic lands, but now Spirited Companion and Weaver of Harmony feature as prominent enchantment creatures, along with Norika Yamazaki, the Poet and Season of Renewal being the kind of recursion I didn’t know I needed. While our trip to Kamigawa did leaving me wanting more, especially since the Commander decks didn’t align with what I was trying to do, I’m thrilled with the unexpected quantity of additions we did gain.

Octopus Umbra and a diagram of Shaman King’s Over Soul. Displaying how flavor meets game mechanics.

Playing with Flavor

Within the confines of Shaman King’s narrative, the primary way that shaman interacted with the spirits that originate from everything including deceased humans to nature spirits was by using conduits that allow the spirit a brief opportunity to interact with the physical world. At the beginning, our main cast of characters used their own bodies, allowing the spirits to essentially possess them. Later the companion spirits could be channeled into items like weapons or bracelets to become greater manifestations of the spirit with even more effect on the physical world; aka Over Soul.

This concept is captured within my Kestia deck by the bestow and totem armor mechanics. While neither fully encapsulates Over Soul, bestow captures the idea of a being—such as Thassa’s Emissary—ascending beyond its physical form to grant power to another creature. Totem armor captures an aura so potent that it acts as a first line of defense against effects that would gravely injury a creature. While not spot on, the flavor on display is about a perfect as I could ask for and my only wish is that there were more cards to choose from for this purpose.

Three staple enchantress cards, Mesa Enchantress devoid of color, as it is no longer a staple to this deck.

Enchantress without Enchantress

My original build of the deck relied heavily on enchantress effects, including Enchantress’s Presence, Eidolon of Blossoms, Herald of the Pantheon, Mesa Enchantress, Kor Spiritdancer, Satyr Enchanter, and Verduran Enchantress. Partially due to what was available at the time and how I concepted the deck, this seemed like the most appropriate way to maintain card advantage and keep up with the rest of the table. But this often felt slow, as the only thing I felt like I was doing was casting enchantments and deterring players from attacking me with Propaganda, Ghostly Prison, and Sphere of Safety.

This suite of staples has transformed a lot, with only Eidolon of Blossoms, Kor Spiritdancer, and Satyr Enchanter remaining. Now with enchantment creatures are in full supply now, making Kestia’s draw trigger simple to activate off of low curves creatures like Boon Satyr, Golden-Tail Disciple and Sythis, Harvest’s Hand as soon as our general enters play. No longer restricted to playing a purely pillow fort deck, I was able to trim away staples and invest more in proactive combat. This only fed more into my play style of defying preconceived notions of what a deck is, in this case being more mid-range, instead of as a Stax deck.

Indrik Umbra, Starnheim Courser, and Thassa's Emissary. The mechanics of totem armor and bestow making the pegasus formidable.

Every Piece, A Voltron

One of the byproducts of the skeleton of the deck moving away from enchantress effects was that suddenly every creature could pick up any number of the auras and be my win condition. Auras have a history of being a skill testing card type. To new players, they can be very cool, but very quickly those players may learn the inherent card disadvantage many can represent. Once the creature you enchanted leaves the battlefield, you’ve lost that aura. Because of how crucial auras are to this deck, totem armor becomes so important.

Originally designed to both minimize the card disadvantage of auras and allow creatures to scale up against the Eldrazi in Rise of the Eldrazi, totem armor has become an underrated keyword for Commander. Often it means that players will need to string together several Wrath-effects or Tranquility to stop our win condition from dominating battle. As a pretty blatant Voltron deck, totem armor is so crucial. Of course, while I am absolutely okay with winning through commander damage, just about anything wearing an Octopus Umbra or Angelic Destiny is going to be able to finish games. This dynamic has made playing the deck in public a lot more invigorating, because I rarely feel like I am on the back foot.

In the quest to capture an IP near and dear to my heart, I have created a deck that has become one of my favorites, because it is so distinctly different from the majority of my other established decks. The ability to include more cards coming directly from the plane of Kamigawa has really given this deck a striking individual identity and as a byproduct, I now have a soft spot for Theros that didn’t exist before. While it is not always as blunt as today’s example, flavor resonates with me in a lot of my deck building, thanks for reading.

Ryan Sainio (he/him) is a Minnesota Graphic Designer exploring the Commander format and Magic history on a regular basis. Notable decks that value flavorful and fun gameplay over competitively optimized decks include Shattergang Eldrazi, Doran Soul Sisters, and Chatterfang ProsBloom.

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