Jo-ha-kyū: Beginning – Break – Rapid

I recall first encountering this term when I was actively practicing Shorinji Kempo (an interesting martial art – I highly recommend checking it out if you run across a club). In the traditional Japanese culture, many different disciplines co-existed, and you would often find warriors to be skilled in the finer arts like tea ceremony, calligraphy, and (in some cases, I understand) flower arranging. Across these disciplines, the concept of Jo-ha-kyū refers to a tempo; one in which the flow starts slowly, then accelerates and finishes swiftly.

Commander is commonly stylized as “Battleship Magic” – where the games start slowly, with players building resources and feeling each other out. The game then hits a sudden acceleration point, where explosive board development begins occurring until someone achieves dominance and brings the game to a swift and often brutal conclusion.

Commander could be best described as Jo-ha-kyū.

.     .     .     .     .

We left off last time after breaking down the first few elements of deck choices. Today I would like to conclude the remaining elements. The first element I will talk about today is control.


The problem with multiplayer formats is assessing threats correctly and exercising appropriate action to address them – whether that is bouncing a board when the entire world is being swung at you or blowing up that combo piece that the wizard across the table from you tried to slip in.

With the increasing amount of ‘comes into play’ abilities adorning creatures and the power of various artifacts, enchantments and planeswalkers floating about these days, it is often a better result to counter them before they become a problem than to blow them up once in play. (However, for some things, this approach is not possible.) Control also heavily overlaps with answers, in the sense that one way to answer a lethal Exsanguinate is Counterspell.

There are other answers that I want to discuss, but that will come later on.

The control elements I have chosen to use for this deck can be categorized as follows:

  • Permission
  • Mass Removal
  • Spot Removal
  • Disruption

Roughly 10% of my decklist consists of counterspells. Many of them, like my other card choices, do an additional job other than the main counter ability.  Mana Drain, Rewind and Plasm Capture all act as ramp spells, with Rewind allowing for an end of turn gas rip into Fact or Fiction. Cryptic Command operates as spot removal, mass removal (in the form of a tap-down), or even gas in a similar vein to Brutal Expulsion, offering bouncing spells and permanents as well as damage or narrow spot removal.

Choosing how aggressive you want your counter package to be is best defined by how you like to play. I like my counterspells to be as versatile as possible whilst offering universal solutions to spells. As such, my counters are all ‘hard’ universal counters (none are conditional; the all say “Counter Target Spell.” somewhere on them.) They all also offer an advantage over other choices; as an example, I prefer Counterspell over Cancel due to the mana cost. I do however run a Forbid over Cancel, as Forbid has Buyback. Voidslime is an excellent example of extra advantage – no other card in this deck can counter an ability that is on the stack, short of killing the controller out of the game.

My counter package, you’ll also note, is deliberately not running Force of Will or Pact of Negation. While I have plenty of blue spells that I can feed into Force and enough mana to pay for Pact, I deliberately rejected selection of these two counters as I wanted to force myself to play a deck where correct mana management is important. I want a deck where my opponents have to learn to assess my capability correctly, as opposed to going hellbent digging for Thoughtseize to see if I am packing a Force of Will.

In a similar vein to permission-type control, I recognized that I need to be able to remove some threats that I would not be able to counterspell. I consider counterspells to be a form of pre-emptive spot removal in the sense they are usually operating on a 1-for-1 ratio; I’ve picked a few additional effective tit-for-tatters due to two factors, which primarily are for their universal nature and secondly for their efficiency. Chaos Warp and Beast Within both offer single-permanent removal, either via tuck or destruction with minimal downside, and they are attractive options given they can easily have their cost reduced to a single red or green and readily be copied for maximum damage.  Depending on your metagame, one might choose alternative options like Reality Shift or Unravel the AEther, but I prefer the universal nature of Warp and Beast over some of the cheaper and more conditional options. I also do not mind the drawbacks of these cards, given that with minimal reverse taxation they allow much greater Storm than options like Desert Twister.

In the case of big mana removal spells, I have assigned this role to Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre as one of his tasks amongst the myriad of other things he does.

Where spot removal is not enough, I have selected three choices for mass removal. Given I am in blue, this usually means mass bounce. While Cryptic Command offers a one time tapdown, few spells are more devastating than an overloaded Cyclonic Rift. I’m not going to wax lyrical about this card – we all know what it does. It’s great as just spot removal, and it is back-breaking when overloaded.

As I am running precious few creatures, it is also very safe for me to run another favourite: Evacuation. While we do want to have our Ulamogs and our Rikus in play, getting a free Regrowth by Evacuating our Eternal Witness definitely buys us some time to survive and sculpt a hand.

For the final choice I made for mass removal, Temporal Fissure offers a spot removal mode as well as a mass removal mode much in the same way that Cyclonic Rift does. Unlike Evacuation and Rift, however, Fissure can bounce a wider selection of threats – but it can only reliably be played as attacking control.

Regarding control, I would like to talk about one final thing – disruption. Disruption is usually a set of tricks attributed to black discard and deck mining spells and abilities. While black does have the market cornered very well on those subjects, we do have some tools at our disposal. As discussed earlier, simply abusing one of our Draw7 spells can often cause a shuffle of a library, the dissolution of a sculpted hand, or the wasting of a top-deck tutor. One of the most devastating (and least-friendly) opening plays I enjoy is turn one Winds of Change. Breaking mulligans and shuffling in carefully loaded graveyards is very satisfying as a side effect with reloading.


In Magic, answers come in many forms. We’ve already touched on several types of answers, including countermagic (countering spells and countering abilities), spot removal, mass board wipes and disruption. These answers are all relevant for many scenarios…but there are other types of answers.

…Such as stealing spells. I love the concept of taking my opponents’ force and bending it back at them. There are two ways this can be done; one spell I love to use to do this is a gem called Commandeer. Commandeer is not the only card in this class – Spelljack, Desertion, Gather Specimens and the new AEthersnatch all are great examples of taking your opponent’s power and being able to redirect it back. Answering opposing questions by asking them back means the deck possesses an ability to scale threats aimed at opponents based on the power of the questions they themselves ask.

In my Riku list, I have chosen only two defensive thieving cards: Spelljack and Commandeer. These cards were chosen for two reasons: Spelljack offers the ability to stop the threat and to use it where and when I need it, while Commandeer offers the ability (like Force of Will) to steal control of a spell from nowhere due to the mana-free alternate casting cost

An alternative form of spell thievery is offered by abusing Forks. As a practical example, let us imagine an opponent has just cast a lethal Exsanguinate to the stack and has made it un-counterable through Boseiju, Who Shelters All. You’re staring down the barrel of a game having the fun sucked out of it by “that guy” again, and you’d been prepared to stop it by countering it, but you can’t due to the Boseiju. But wait! You have a Fork!  The stack happens, and your brand-new Exsanguinate goes off first with predictable results – just not for the person who cast it.

Maybe your opponent casts an overloaded Cyclonic Rift with the intent to blow out the board with a one-sided sweep, and you have a Twincast. In the case of some spells that would take out a single player, this can easily spell the removal of the caster – when you clone their spell and remove them from the game, their own spell is also removed from the stack.

Lastly and alternatively, if you are feeling malicious, you can potentially Fork someone else out of the game with Riku directly.


The final element of the design of this deck that I would like to discuss are the questions that it can proactively ask.

A flexible deck – one that offers multiple lines of play – needs to be able to ask questions on many levels. One of the primary strategies this deck wants to employ are ‘judo’ techniques. We’ve highlighted the weapons we have for defensive judo strategies; I also chose to employ some active attacking techniques as well.

For Riku, I have chosen three strong attacking spells – Bribery for Tinkering out my opponents’ creatures, Acquire for powerful artifacts, and Blatant Thievery for stealing things in play. Similar to the results of Spelljacking your opponents’ spells, these tools all base their power on what resources your opponents bring to the ring. If they bring a Blightsteel Colossus, they only have themselves to blame if they take lethal infect next turn.

In a similar vein to stealing techniques, clones offer you the same tools your opponents have without necessarily taking their fun away from them. My two chosen tools here have been selected for their potential abuse. While Rite of Replication gets a terrible rap due to abuse with Avenger of Zendikar and the like, the absurdly light nature of the creature component of this deck almost ensures that the best target for Rite is something your opponents have.

I also chose Stolen Identity as a clone spell; in many decks, Clever Impostor is the best clone spell, but Stolen Identity allows the repeated recasting of the spell with alternative targets. This forces your opponents to dig in and try to defend against their own threats until they can deal with your copy ninja, making for a more robust threat.

.     .     .     .     .

Next time I’ll be finalizing this short series on my Riku of Two Reflections deck by talking through some of the common patterns and hopefully leave you all with an understanding of why I find this deck so fascinating.


Until next time-