Welcome back to Magic Gatherings!
This weekend is the Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease, which means it’s time once again for a limited set review. As always, I’ll cover the major set mechanics and talk about what each color has to offer in sealed and in draft. In addition, since Oath is a small set, I’ll talk a bit about how it will affect the overall Battle for Zendikar limited environment.
If you have more appetite for reading about Oath limited, I strongly recommend Luis Scott-Vargas’s limited set reviews (which go through the set card-by-card) as well as Ari Lax’s “First Pick” series (if you have SCG Premium). I incorporate some insights from both in my review here—no one can completely understand a set on first read, so it’s important to engage the opinions of others!
The Changing of the Watch
Oath of the Gatewatch ushers in a big change for limited Magic: starting with Oath, two-set draft formats will be drafted small-small-large—that is, Oath-Oath-Battle for Zendikar. (Previously, you’d add only one pack of the new set to the draft format.) That means that the cards and mechanics in Oath matter much more than they ordinarily would; going forward, they’re the majority of the format.
In some ways, the most significant impact of Oath is that it pushes two synergy-driven Battle for Zendikar packs out of the format. Take ingest—those crazy Rube Goldberg decks you could draft in BFZ, exiling cards from your opponent’s deck and using them as fuel to kick your creatures and spells. In Oath of the Gatewatch, there aren’t any creatures with ingest, and the only effects that exile at all are a few common spells and a few uncommon creatures, some of which have abilities that are tough to use more than once or twice. Similarly, you will now only get one pack of powerful “build-around” commons like Kalastria Healer, a card you always wanted to play as many of as you could get. Now, you’re not guaranteed to even see one in any given draft.
There doesn’t seem to be anything that demands that kind of synergy in Oath, with the possible exception of colorless mana (which you may have to go out of your way to enable). This puts more of a focus on fundamentals: efficiency, removal, tricks, and making sure your creatures line up well against the format. As Ari Lax puts it, “we are back to playing normal Magic in Oath of the Gatewatch.”
Colorless mana as a cost—The highest-profile mechanic are the new cards that can only be cast with colorless mana. There are only a few such spells at uncommon—most of the “true colorless” stuff was saved for rare and mythic. Commons and uncommons though, do have lots of creatures whose abilities require colorless mana to activate.
Most of these creatures have abilities you’ll only want to activate once per turn; Stalking Drone even writes it on the card. At uncommon there are creatures like Havoc Sower and Essence Depleter, which have abilities that are worth going deep on, if you can.
In limited, you’ll have to actively select sources to produce colorless mana for these costs. Lands like Wastes and Crumbling Vestige do the trick. If you go this route, though, you’ll have to factor colorless mana into your manabase calculations, almost as though it were a color of its own. There are also a lot of creatures and artifacts that produce colorless mana, if you’re willing to devote deck slots: in Oath, just at common, there’s Hedron Crawler, Cultivator Drone, Warden of Geometries, Seer’s Lantern, and Kozilek’s Translator. This is handy, but it’s not worth adding an out-of-place weak card to make a Stalking Drone into a functional card.
Fortunately, adding this many ways to generate colorless mana has the fringe benefit of adding a lot of cards that happen to ramp you. In Battle for Zendikar, most of the “ramp” cards were creatures that incidentally produced Eldrazi Scions (which you often preferred to hang on to), until you got to Kozilek’s Channler. Oath of the Gatewatch, for its part, lacks the true top-end monsters of BFZ; there’s no Ruin Processor here, just Kozilek’s Pathfinder. On the other hand, you can ramp from two to four or three to five more easily and more permanently with Oath‘s colorless mana producers.
Support—Support puts +1/+1 counters onto each of several creatures you control. It reads like a long-game mechanic, since it allows creatures to get bigger incrementally and requires a large number of them. The expensive activated ability on the green-white uncommon, Joraga Auxiliary, certainly seems to pull in this direction.
In practice, though, I think support will do the most work in aggressive decks, where it can cap off an aggressive start to close out the game. Curving out with a two-mana and a three-mana creature, using a removal spell on turn four, then slamming something like Expedition Raptor on turn five should overwhelm a stumbling opponent, and even a player who is casting spells might have trouble if their blockers don’t line up well. Support also helps keep early-drop creatures relevant on the later turns of the game when they might otherwise be outclassed; if the extra +1/+1 counter mean your three-drop trades for a four- or five-drop, that’s actually a pretty strong effect.
In that vein, support can do work by making would-be-trivial bodies into creatures with actual board presence. Something like Makindi Aeronaut, for example, is card you’d normally only be interested in as an early blocker in a slower deck. But the jump from 1/3 flyer to 2/4 flyer is quite substantial, so a deck with lots of support might be able to make good use of it.
When playing against support, be aware that your opponent’s creatures might be bigger on their turn, when they attack into you. Particularly keep in mind Lead by Example and Unity of Purpose, two instant-speed tricks that can really change combat math. The latter is the only blue support card, so it’s easy to forget.
Cohort—The new Ally mechanic—one designed intentionally to give Allies play style to contrast with BFZ‘s rally mechanic—cohort allows players to tap multiple Allies to get a small effect. Cohort seems like it will tend to slow the game down, as the intuitive play pattern will be to pass up attacking, then use cohort at the end of your opponent’s turn. Your creatures will be able to block, so your opponent will have to have a strong board to attack profitably.
On top of that, many of the cohort abilities seem pitched for the long game; they draw cards (like Akoum Flameseeker, Malakir Soothsayer, and, effectively, Stoneforge Acolyte), or gain life (Ondu War Cleric), or tap creatures (Spawnbinder Mage). The rare duo of Munda’s Vanguard and Drana’s Chosen certainly want you to drag out the game until you have created an insurmountable advantage. Add in defensive Allies like Affa Protector and Vampire Envoy and you can stall for a good long while.
The possible exceptions are Zada’s Commando and Zulaport Chainmage, who can help chase down your opponent’s last few life points if they stabilize after your aggressive start. Both these cards deal much more damage by attacking than by using their cohort abilities, so I suspect it will be better if you can use a removal spell to clear a path for them, but having the option is nice.
As a rules note: the creature whose cohort ability you’re using can’t be summoning sick. The “untapped Ally you control” can be something you just summoned, however.
As far as Allies themselves go, there will be slightly more Allies per draft in Oath than in triple BFZ. On the other hand, other drafters who share a color (particularly white) may have little choice but to pick Allies, whether they’re pushing cohort and rally or not. On the whole you should still expect to trigger rally abilities regularly, but with only one pack of BFZ you’re definitely not guaranteed to get any particular effect.
Surge—Finally, everyone’s favorite new Two-Headed Giant mechanic, where it will surely enable some blistering starts. For normal duels, surge will be a thing you do on turn five or turn six—you’ll cast a two- or three-drop, then follow up with a surge spell. At common, that will usually be a reasonable attacker (Jwar Isle Avenger or Goblin Freerunner) or a removal spell (Containment Membrane or Boulder Salvo).
This little flurry of action will pull you ahead, though maybe less than you think; you set up your surge with a weaker spell, which (almost by definition) isn’t as impactful on turn five or six. In addition, you have to commit to both spells right away—the easy-to-overlook bonus of natively undercosted spells is that you get options: you can leave up mana or cast another spell, whatever’s better.
Categorizing surge spells during deckbuilding is tricky. It may actually be more correct to think of your Jwar Isle Avenger as a five-mana 3/3 flyer that gives you a free two-mana spell, than it is to think of it as a 3/3 flyer that might cost three mana. Blue and red (the surge colors) get Expedite and Slip Through Space as cheap ways to enable surge that don’t cost a card. They do cost deck space, though, so it’s better to play them only when you’re really sure you want them.
Lest I sound too chilly here: surge will set up some really thrilling turns, and it definitely is possible to put the game away with it—pushing through damage with Sparkmage’s Gambit and following up with a Jwar Isle Avenger will pitch a game strongly in your favor, for example. It’s also important to realize that surge demands you build your deck in a particular way, and that much of the value may hinge on how impactful your inexpensive “enabler” spells are, rather than your surge cards themselves.
Sizing and Pacing
In his set review for SCG, Ari Lax comes to the conclusion that the critical toughness is Oath of the Gatewatch is 4. I’m inclined to agree: white, black, and red all get 3/2 creatures for three mana at common, so a 1/4 or a 2/4 can do a lot of work holding things off.
As I mentioned in talking about colorless mana, the curve in Oath doesn’t go as high, even though more tools are available for ramping. This should tend to move players from two mana to four or five more quickly, bringing creatures like Tajuru Pathwarden or Cinder Hellion online more quickly. If I had to guess, I’d say the developers made sure to hold those cards back on 4 toughness so that Boulder Salvo and Grasp of Darkness remain relevant, and so that the ramping player doesn’t get an insurmountable advantage. The 5 toughness on Kozilek’s Pathwarden is a lot, but you have to pay for it.
With the common curve ranging only up to six, mana costs and powers and toughnesses all get compressed into a tigher band. That suggests that tricks matter a bit more. The smaller creatures from Battle for Zendikar may get better as well; Coralhelm Guide and Culling Drone (formerly marginal cards) now trade for more things. That said, Battle didn’t have loads of 4-power attackers, so higher-toughness blockers from Oath may still hold them off well.
On the hard numbers side, Oath‘s power and toughness figures seem to indicate that it will be slower than average. Cohort would tend to push in this direction as well, as it encourages you to leave back blockers. Support can throw a lot of this math on its head, though—adding a +1/+1 counter is a meaningful upgrade when your creatures have a tight cluster of powers and toughnesses, and it can mean everything when the difference between 3 and 4 power is so significant.
Again, we lose two packs of Battle for Zendikar, where synergies (Allies or Devoid, typically) drove picks, and the effectiveness of your deck depended more on the ability to leverage those synergies than on raw speed. With Oath, the “synergy” is picking the creatures whose power/toughness combinations advance your gameplan; support, surge, and cohort are all pretty open-ended mechanics that don’t force you to build a linear, one-theme deck.
All that said, aggression tends to be good in the early days of any draft format, so err on the side of attacking in your first drafts. In sealed this weekend, prioritize evasion; with a more limited card pool, it’s more likely the board gets cluttered.
The Colors of Oath
As with my Battle for Zendikar review, I’ve eschewed tables of creature costs and sizes to focus on broad themes. On the other hand, the “sizing” section above should give you a good starting point for evaluating the cards in your pool.
- White has some potential to be offensive or defensive. On the one hand, white is full of support, which as Ari Lax points out moves Kor Scythemaster and Kor Sky Climber up to the critical four power. White is also full of Allies, and several of them (the Aeronaut, Affa Protector, and Spawnbinder Mage) can set up a serious defense. White gets one of the best removal spells in the set with Isolation Zone. Most cards that synergize with awaken have moved to uncommon.
- Blue seems to be in a bit of a tough spot based on its creatures. Cultivator Drone must be stellar in a dedicated Devoid deck, but Blinding Drone and Gravity Negator both require regular access to colorless mana to become really good cards, which strains your other colors. Blue doesn’t seem to have anything generically powerful like Eldrazi Skyspawner or Clutch of Currents. It also suffers from the lack of creatures with ingest, which makes repeatable processors (like BFZ‘s Oracle of Dust) that much weaker.
- Black‘s two-drops have me a bit nonplussed, but it’s got power further up the curve with Kozilek’s Translator, Vampire Envoy, and (at uncommon) Havoc Sower. It also has an great removal spell in Oblivion Strike and the best trick in Unnatural Endurance. Like white, black has some cards that seem to want to be in an aggressive deck, and others that seem to want to be in a defensive deck; here (and throughout the set) you may need to rely on more powerful uncommons to dictate the direction you want to build towards.
- Red seems to have solid commons across the board. They tend aggressive, as red usually does, though you have a potential ramp target in Cinder Hellion and, with Maw of Kozilek, a flexible blocker that can hit very hard as soon as you need it to. (In general the pumping in this set seems quite good to me, especially if you ever activate it more than once. The mere threat does a lot to dictate your opponent’s actions.) Embodiment of Fury is a phenomenal uncommon. Again, while there’s potential for synergy, the Allies don’t add much beyond what BFZ already had, and your two new Devoid creatures at common pair with two fewer packs of Nettle Drones and Vile Aggregates.
- Green once again seems to be in a weird place. Its less expensive commons don’t seem to really cohere into a strategy, so my best read is that green is the ramp color, and that you’re meant to fill out your early game with Hedron Crawlers and the like. Hopefully, that strategy works a little better this time around. If nothing else, there are fewer Ruination Guides to casually trump your strategy—Tajuru Pathwarden and Canopy Gorger at least trade with Kozilek’s Pathfinder. Two fewer packs of Clutch of Currents and Rush of Ice also mean you won’t get punished as badly for ramping out a big monster. Green doesn’t have a common fight spell in this set, so you’ll need to lean especially hard on Lead by Example and Elemental Uprising, especially if your deck is full of smaller creatures.
As you’ve probably heard already, Oath of the Gatewatch is especially tilted toward team play, and you may wish to try a Two-Headed Giant prerelease if your local store offers them. If you’re new to the format, try this primer by Jacob Van Lunen or this article by Neal Oliver, who got to play the format last weekend at GP Oakland. Aside from that, I have a few thoughts of my own:
- Since the team shares a life total, but players still take damage individually, effects that cause “each opponent” to lose life or take damage will be doubly effective. Kalastria Healer, Drana’s Emissary, and newcomer Cliffhaven Vampire are the big winners here, though Nettle Drone, Dominator Drone, and Tunneling Geopede work as well. I suspect it will be a common strategy for teams to field a black-white deck with all their Kalastria Healers and as many Allies as possible—see Gaby Spartz’s deck from the GP Oakland 2HG preview for one example.
- Since that deck wants to play Allies to the board every turn to trigger its Rally abilities, the other deck can really benefit from Surge abilities. Conveniently, all the Surge cards are blue or red, so there is no color overlap. Don’t skimp on Goblin Freerunner or Jwar Isle Avenger; both are evasive threats that are a great way to develop your board while your teammate is setting up.
- Another popular strategy could be base-red Devoid, going deep on Nettle Drone. That deck could be red-black or red-blue, depending on what cards are in the pool. The counterpart could be a green-white Support deck, since your Support abilities can target your teammates’ creatures.
- In addition to separating out your bombs and your countermagic (one of Jacob’s suggestions), it can help to have your decks’ threat and answer cards hit at different points on the mana curve. If you expect your teammate to usually tap out on turn five for a great threat, it doesn’t make much sense to also give her lots of five-drop removal.
- Try to hit the same player repeatedly with your Ingest and exile abilities, preferably the player you expect has more powerful cards in their deck. If they run out of cards, their team loses, and that might be a path to victory if their decks are good at gaining life.
- Don’t forget that many cards can target your teammate’s creatures if you like—Tandem Tactics, for example.
- Check out this great blog entry (for BFZ) or this one (for Oath) for other “hidden gems” that get more powerful in 2HG. Some highlights: Felidar Sovereign, Mind Raker, Angelic Captain, Ondu Rising, and Part the Waterveil.
- Your 2HG pool for the prerelease is two prerelease box sets—twelve packs total. This is a lot of packs, and will make for very strong decks. Deckbuilding will be a challenge, because your pool will probably present lots of powerful options. If in doubt, build toward a synergy that gets better in 2HG (like Kalastria Healer and Nettle Drone) or build toward your bomb rares and mythics.
Phew! As ever, contact me on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_) or leave your own thoughts in the comments here. Good luck at your prerelease(s) this weekend! May you all open Expeditions.