Underestimation Escalation: Umezawa’s Jitte

There are many old sayings about plans going awry. Even when it seems like everything lines up perfectly, there’s always a chance for something to go wrong. Throw in a global health crisis, and everything goes out the window. The shutdown seemed like the perfect time to run another banlist test.

It’s been over a year since my last banlist test. It turns out that lengthy time commitments get harder to keep the deeper you go into adulting. However, I had thought that quarantine would be the perfect time to start another one. More time on everyone’s hands we could knock this test out quickly.

That didn’t happen, because the pandemic is truly a force of chaos. Previous tests took 3-4 months to complete. It’s been almost five months since this one started, and I have less than 1/3 of the data. By now, my test decks are out of date, and I’ve learned enough to know that I misunderstood my test card, Umezawa’s Jitte, at the outset. Thus, I’m going to have to throw out the data and start over at some point. But we still have some insights to cover.

Background

It’s a stark reminder of how long I’ve been in this game when I type that Kamigawa Block Constructed was the second PTQ season I participated in. That was 15 years ago; I was such a wee lad. And as a result, most readers won’t remember Jitte’s heyday. I barely do. So, time for a history lesson.

Kamigawa Block Constructed was a dipolar format. To be competitive, you either played Gifts Ungiven or Umezawa’s Jitte. The first pole, Gifts, was a combo-control deck. It used Gifts to find Hana Kami, two reanimation spells, and a payoff card to set up endless loops of Kagemaro, First to Suffer against aggro and Cranial Extraction against everything else. Gifts was generally considered the top deck, though not uncontested, and I also remember the lists being very similar.

The most common Jitte deck was White Weenie (which I played), but Jitte decks ran the full spectrum. There were midrange red decks with Godo, Bandit Warlord, Simic tempo-control decks, various black aggro decks, you name it. They all played Jitte. This was not just because Jitte was that good, but because you needed your own Jitte to answer opposing ones: the old legend rule said that a second copy of a legendary permanent from either player destroyed the first, so the best way to answer opposing Jittes was to resolve your own.

Later On

After that, Jitte was fairly omnipresent, though never dominating. It stuck around throughout its Standard run, and saw considerable Extended play. However, it was never as popular as in Block. This was primarily due to overshadowing from Tron in Standard and then Loam decks in Extended. That said, it remained viable until the end of legality.

Meanwhile, Jitte has been an inconsistent part of Legacy. At the start, Legacy was mainly combo decks and Landstill. Jitte saw some play, but proved very niche. When Delver was printed, Jitte suddenly gained traction. Since then, its stock has risen and fallen, but Death & Taxes always maindecks one and most creature decks have a couple in their 75. Remembering this long history, Wizards put Jitte on Modern’s initial banlist.

Hypothesis

Thus, the question of Modern viability. Jitte’s been banned nine years, and Magic‘s changed a lot. Creatures are significantly better and the overall power level is much higher. Size up Jitte against Oko and there’s little comparison, or so the argument goes. The argument for unbanning says that Jitte’s time has passed. Getting Jitte online requires four mana and an attack, not to mention a removal dodge along the way. You then have three options that are a bit mediocre, making it inefficient and underpowered by modern standards. And so every time there’s a list of unbannable cards, Jitte comes up either as part of the list or in subsequent discussion.

Meanwhile, there are dinosaurs like me remembering how warping Jitte was back in Standard and being very nervous that Jitte doesn’t destroy Jitte anymore. Games always revolved around the Jitte, and barring very bad variance, whoever had their Jitte online longer always won. I’m also always thinking about Legacy, where Jitte is critical for Death & Taxes. It’s the only hope of victory against Elves (especially game 1), and very strong in every creature matchup. Again, if you have active Jitte for a few turns, it will take some very poor luck to lose. Or lots of True-Name Nemesis. Which makes Jitte mirrors some of the most frustrating games I’ve ever played.

Thus, I set out to find out if Modern can handle Jitte. My assumption, as always, was that adding Jitte to Death & Taxes would have no effect on the win percentages. I tested against Humans, a Counters Company variant, Burn, Bant Snow control, and Ad Nauseam, as this was coming together in early March. As mentioned, I didn’t get far enough in my testing to fully evaluate my hypothesis. But I did play enough to become more skeptical of Jitte’s unban potential in Modern.

Deck of Not-So-Choice

The first thing I learned was that I’d made a mistake in test platform. My policy‘s always been to play the banned card in (as close to) the deck that got them banned. However, that doesn’t apply to Jitte, since it was a speculative ban and has never been Modern legal. I had to instead fall back on my experience with the card. That meant Legacy Death & Taxes, and since I’ve worked on that deck in Modern too, it seemed like a perfect fit.

Death & Taxes, Test Deck

Creatures (27)
Giver of Runes
Thraben Inspector
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Leonin Arbiter
Stoneforge Mystic
Flickerwisp
Blade Splicer
Restoration Angel

Artifacts (7)
Aether Vial
Batterskull
Umezawa’s Jitte
Sword of Fire and Ice

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Lands (22)
Ghost Quarter
Field of Ruin
Horizon Canopy
10 Snow-Covered Plains
Sideboard (15)
Kor Firewalker
Rest in Peace
Winds of Abandon
Leonin Relic-Warder
Mirran Crusader
Phyrexian Revoker
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Celestial Purge
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

The control deck had Jitte switched for Sword of Light and Shadow. I choose this deck because it was very similar to the last time I’d played D&T in Modern.

An additional benefit was that I’d be playing Jitte as part of a Stoneforge package. Normally I play my test card as a four-of because it’s the whole point of the exercise, but having Jitte be tutorable meant that I really had five copies. Besides, I figured that Jitte would primarily be played as a Stoneforge target, which meant that this test would be more indicative of a real-world scenairo. On paper, it was perfect.

Better Option

In a sense, I was correct, and Jitte was a great Stoneforge target. The problem was that I ended up tutoring for Jitte most of the time, and not just because it was the testing target. The situations where it was as or more relevant than other options were unexpectedly common. However, the main problem was that I actually feel that treating it just as a tutor target actually nerfed Jitte. I had forgotten how powerful Jitte was in the right matchups, and particularly early Jittes. I should have played more copies.

Speed-readers will see the next section title and correctly deduce that Jitte was very relevant in creature matchups. There, the earlier Jitte came out, the better it was. I only had a few games where I equipped Jitte on turn three, because I only played one. I won every time, and the wins were absurdly one-sided. In the future, I need to test Jitte in a more raw form, which means I will need to play at least three, and probably four. I’m thinking a one-drop-heavy deck to maximize the odds of early activation, but I’m not sure. Replacing Humans’s Reflector Mage with Jitte has shown some promise, though Prowess and Goblins are also on the table.

Creature Breaker

So, Jitte is still backbreaking in the creature matchups. It gets more overwhelming the earlier it resolves. I was prioritizing finding Jitte more and more as testing went on, and started mulliganing aggressively for Mystic, especially against Humans, which is the matchup I played the most. And my opponent agreed with me. To the point that we spent an inordinate amount of time debating the merits of sideboarding in Collector Ouphe in addition to Deputy of Detention to answer Jitte.

Normally, D&T is the control deck vs. Humans, and it’s tough. Humans can go very tall, very quickly, and that’s overwhelming. When that doesn’t happen, it’s a close game, requiring D&T to be judicious with its Path to Exiles and Flickerwisps. Jitte changed the dynamic. With that card out, unless Humans went tall quickly with Thalia’s Lieutenant, Jitte would gradually smother Humans. It wasn’t that the initial impact was overwhelming, but how things changed over time.

Once Jitte has counters on it, combat becomes a nightmare for the opponent. Jitte can only pump the equipped creature, but it can shrink any creature. It’s often wrong to pick off the one-toughness creatures because it’s better to block a stronger one and then shrink it so your creature survives. This makes combat math very hard for opponents. And if they don’t force the issue, it just gets worse as the counters start piling up.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben was a critical card for D&T because of first strike. It was right to attack Thalia into bigger creatures because it charges the Jitte before regular damage, letting you finish off the creature before Thalia was harmed. And if they didn’t block, I could just stockpile counters. Or pump my creature to win the race. The matchup had become about Jitte, just as it had in Block and does in Legacy.

Toolbox, Too

Against Counters, the effect was still present, though less pronounced. As a creature deck with mana dorks, Counters Company can win too quickly for D&T to do anything. When that doesn’t happen, Jitte becomes a chainsaw, since so many creatures are x/2 or smaller. This was tempered by Counters having tutors to find Reclamation Sage, but doing so pulled attention from the Rest in Peaces and Phyrexian Revokers that were keeping the combos down in the first place. I don’t know how this matchup would have played out, but I do know that the dynamic had been shifted as a result of Jitte.

Then, There’s Burn

The Burn matchup was also affected, but more subtly. Jitte was also good here, but mostly because gaining life is good. D&T’s creatures match or beat Burn’s straight up anyway, so Jitte killing them is irrelevant. Pumping creatures to shorten the clock is also good, but that was marginal at best. It’s better to just sandbag the counters to gain life as necessary.

The question then becomes if that’s better than Batterskull, and I think the answer’s mostly no. Skull’s attacks actively shift the game away from Burn, while Jitte is more of a sandbag. The only time Jitte’s better is against Skullcrack since you can gain life in response, which does come up. I’m not sure how this would have gone.

Bant was Beaten

The most surprising result was against Bant Snow. Jitte is normally just a pump spell against control, and useful mostly as a “combo kill” with Mirran Crusader in Legacy. Sometimes you get to pick off Monastery Mentor, but that’s rare. However, Bant relies heavily on Ice-Fang Coatl in creature matchups. A single hit from Jitte answers two Coatls, and that put a huge amount of red-zone pressure on Bant.

Normally, Bant just ignores equipment and focuses on creatures, but that wasn’t possible here. The control player lamented that he often had to use Teferi, Time Raveler on an equipment rather than a creature as he fell behind. Otherwise, he’d never have any non-planeswalker threats on the board, and it wouldn’t matter how big those got, as a single charged Jitte could kill them. Even Uro wasn’t safe, because Jitte pumps right through it without costing a card. I expected Jitte to be good because I knew about the Coatl problem. I didn’t think my opponent would end up regarding it as an existential threat.

Combo Question

I tested against Ad Nauseam the least, but Jitte didn’t seem to be having an effect. With the adoption of Thassa’s Oracle, life is basically irrelevant against that deck, and they don’t need creatures on the field to win. Thus, the only relevant text was the +2/+2, which helps race. And Batterskull is more efficient if that’s all Jitte’s doing, since it’s a creature too. Given how the Counters matchup went, I think that Jitte could be relevant against Storm, but I can’t say for certain.

Bottom Line

Umezawa’s Jitte is definitely Modern-playable. There’s a joke that Deathrite Shaman is actually a one-mana planeswalker thanks to all its abilities. I think Jitte is in the same boat. It’s a four-mana planeswalker, with abilities that are more relevant than I thought. It has a planeswalker-like effect of gradually building an overwhelming amount of virtual and real card advantage until it overtakes the opponent. Unlike real walkers, after all, Jitte activates multiple times per turn and at instant speed. Two mana to cast (or Stoneforge in) and then two mana to equip is not that bad of a rate for the versatility that Jitte actually provides.

While creatures are certainly better now than in 2005, they’re not so much better that -2/-2 or +4/+4 are irrelevant. Also, the March metagame was relatively slow and cared about card advantage (relative to Modern’s norm), giving Jitte the time to really build value. I thought that Jitte’s power would be limited to the aggressive matchups, but it had a wider net than anticipated. How this might translate into real Modern I don’t know. I do know that dismissing this card is wrong. It’s still powerful, and that fact is a testament to how busted it was originally.

Never Assume

As I’m writing this article Sunday night 7/27, four of MTGGoldfish’s list of most played Modern creatures die cleanly to Jitte’s -1/-1 ability off a single charge. They are Lurrus of the Dream-Den, Ice-Fang Coatl, Plague Engineer, and Snapcaster Mage. Walking Ballista, Monastery Swiftspear, and Scavenging Ooze can also die under some conditions. Thought Knot-Seer, Uro, and Wurmcoil Engine round out the list, and they’ll die in combat to a double pump.

I didn’t answer the question of Jitte being unbannable. I do think I can put to bet any question of it being Modern playable. Don’t underestimate Umezawa’s Jitte! Still, the question remains… can it come off?

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