Assessing Oath of the Gatewatch Cards For Upcoming Standard PPTQs – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge by Graeme McIntyre
“Never confuse the size of your paycheck with the size of your talent”. – Marlon Brando.
This article is largely designed to accompany the one before it (UK PPTQ Season 5: On the Road Again – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge with Graeme McIntyre) in terms of preparing for new PPTQ seasons. With the prereleases having taken place over the weekend, cards from the new set will be entering circulation and the rapid acquisition of these cards will be important, especially for those of us playing the first weekend of PPTQs. With that in mind we ought to have a clear idea of the sets we want to make a priority. To that end I’m going to discuss the way that I think about new formats, and prioritize getting the new Oath of the Gatewatch cards.
Things To Be Wary Of
The first thing I would say is that mana intensive combinations of cards which you wouldn’t play on their own merit probably aren’t great, unless they win you the game almost immediately. As a general rule the tier one decks in a format will be relatively diverse, and full of strong independent cards and answers. This format is no different. The red deck can kill you on turn 3 sometimes, and turn 4 pretty regularly (because of Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage) while also having a pretty resilient mid-game. The control decks have excellent card selection spells (Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Dig Through Time) as well as catch all removal spells like Utter End and Ruinous Path. The Abzan deck has a fast clock, powerful threats and Dromoka’s Command to mess up just about every remotely inventive thing that’s sprung to my mind.
Then there is the excellent mana allowing a more diverse range of spells in the maindeck, and in the sideboard, as well as a plethora of counterspells and discard spells, and all the great planeswalkers…
…all in all, this is a format which isn’t amenable to indulgence.
Secondly I would avoid the trap of saying one card is basically another card e.g. “Oath of Chandra is basically a Volcanic Hammer”. They’re basically the same card, but one is a legendary enchantment, doesn’t target players, and has a unique line of text, while the other is a generic sorcery, targets both creatures and players and is as mundane as they come. Functionally, you’re never realistically going to play Oath of Chandra in an aggressive deck but might in midrange or control, circumstances permitting, while the inverse is true for Volcanic Hammer. All that said, sometimes an effect which was good in the past won’t be good in the future, and vice versa; while Manic Vandal is basically a red Viridian Shaman the former wasn’t nearly as good as the latter because it wasn’t in an artifact heavy set like Mirrodin.
Even when a card is literally a reprint, the playability of the card varies drastically. Liliana Vess has seen four printings in Lorywn, M10, M11, and M15, and she saw marginal play in Jund, then virtually nothing for the next two printings, followed by being excellent in 3 different Standard decks last year.
I chose Liliana Vess because I suggested her to our group before the MSI event last year, and she was great for each of us on various occasions throughout the event and the following year. I could equally have chosen Duress, which has seen 7 different standard printings, and was a great main deck card during Tempest-Urzas and Urzas-Masques Standards, a marginal main deck card at other times, often a good sideboard card, and now a solid maindeck card again. Shard Phoenix, Hypnotic Specter, Glorious Anthem, Erhnam Djinn, Time Warp…
…All these cards have been both archetype defining powerhouse cards and trade filler in different printings. Context is quite important.
Try not to think about cards in an overly excited, best case scenario, way. Murderous Cut can cost 1 mana, or it can cost 5. Obviously you can build your deck in such a way that it will tend not to be 5, and will often be between 1 and 3, but even in decks like Sidisi Whip from last year, Murderous Cut wasn’t an automatic 4 in successful lists, because it’s really awkward when you draw multiples early, or mulligan and see two, etc. I discussed the importance of understanding probability, at least to a reasonable level of proficiency, and how this can meaningfully impact performance in Magic the other week, but this may have been a better article for it. In essence, though, the take away is that if you play variable cards, you introduce a greater level of variance into your games, and ought to come to terms with that.
I say this frequently and write it fairly often as well, but as a final point in this section I will reiterate this point: avoid emotional attachment to your ideas, as this will impair your ability to find the best solutions available to you.
The Existing Archetypes
As it stands the most represented decks on Magic online are:
Abzan Aggro 23.96%
Four Colour Rally 11.29%
Mardu Midrange 10.89%
Jeskai Black 8.51%
Esper Dragons 8.32%
Atarka Red 5.94%
This is similar to what I wrote last week, with the same decks making up around 70% of the field but with the difference that Jeskai has dropped a little in representation. These are the first decks that I will build to test against, and before I do anything else I will think about two things; what cards from the new set would go well into these decks, and which cards are going to be a problem for them in other decks.
In respect to what a deck can add, it’s important to think about what archetype the deck is. Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is a powerful effect, but I’m not sure that it is well suited to Abzan aggro because the +1 ability is both defensive and a bit redundant in this deck, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar already covers the second ability. Fall of the Titans is probably too mana intensive for the aggressive decks, but I do like the idea of flashing it back with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy in Dark Jeskai.
Of course, it is also very important to actually be able to cast spells, which is another problem with Nissa, Voice of Zendikar in Abzan aggro, where getting double green might well be an issue. The most obvious site for this problem, however, is with the new colourless mana spells. Looking at how colour intensive the current Standard format is, with many decks playing four colours due to the Battle lands and Fetch lands, it seems to me that there might be a choice to be made between an awkward splash for a fourth colour, or a colourless spell.
Curve is another big consideration. If an existing deck already has good cards in a given slot, then replacing the current cards in that slot or adding additional cards at that point on the curve may cause more harm than good. Sylvan Advocate looks like it might be decent in Abzan Aggro, but when you consider that Rakshasa Deathdealer isn’t seeing play, you might have second thoughts about the Advocate. Sure, the Deathdealer is very colour intensive, but at the same time it was an exceptionally awkward card to deal with last year, and has been decisively benched, making it look like the deck has it covered at 2 with Hangarback Walker, Warden of the First Tree activations and – in a pinch – Den Protector which will be better in the late game than the Advocate in most cases.
Utility is the next issue. When you play a card, you pass up the opportunity to play another (60+ card decks aside…) and so the fact that a card “Does things and might be good sometimes” doesn’t really cut it as a reason to include it. Cards need to either be filling a role the deck needed filling, or just upgrading on a role previously filled by another card. I’m pretty excited about casting Grasp of Darkness in Esper Dragons because it’s cheap, instant speed and versatile removal in a format where Ultimate Price was previously your best bet, despite Abzan Aggro being full of Gold creatures and being the most represented deck. Grasp of Darkness (another card which never got played in its first printing, incidentally) ticks a lot of boxes in this format, which were previously major concerns for control.
On the flip-side, I am also keen to play Linvala, the Preserver but with the diminished prominence of Esper Tokens I am far from sure it will be as great as I was expecting at first because the Esper deck of choice at the moment is Esper Dragons, which requires Dragons for several key spells, meaning that the angel would really need to be played *in addition to* the Dragons, and that sounds terrible. Silumgar’s Scorn and Foul-Tongue Invocation aside, I think that Linvala, the Preserver is comparable in terms of power to Dragonlord Ojutai – Linvala being better vs aggro, and Ojutai against control – but the creature type makes that a moot point. It’s a shame, because I was really hoping Linvala would be instantly awesome, and would just handle winning 25% of my games for me or whatever as soon as she was Standard legal, but it looks like I’m going to have to wait…
Flaying Tendrils and Kozilek’s Return are both excellent cards which will see some degree of maindeck play, and loads of sideboard play, at least. This is pretty bad news for decks which are about making tokens (Esper Tokens, Atarka Red, Hangarback Walker’s) and decks which develop a board presence of small men (Four Colour Rally). Flaying Tendrils and Void Shatter both exile, which is problematic for Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. There are loads of pretty decent cards for Red Green Ramp, which is a problem for Abzan, and possibly Esper Dragons, although it is possible that they will cut some of the previously good cards against control for some of the more general cards in Oath of the Gate Watch.
The Tier Two Decks
The first one that spring to mind is the aforementioned Red Green Ramp. This deck has gained quite a lot of assistance against the aggressive decks in the form of Kozilek’s Return and Spatial Contortion, which is promising because these were previously problem matchups. Additionally, Kozilek, the Great Distortion and Ruin in Their Wake both seem quite strong in their respective roles. Thought-Knot Seer ought to be a decent sideboard card as well. I don’t have the experience with this deck to say which cards I would cut from the deck, so I won’t, but I would certainly be looking to try these cards out (along with some Wastes to actually cast/enable them, of course).
Esper Tokens gains Linvala, the Preserver, Grasp of Darkness, Void Shatter and potentially Oath of Gideon, but with the presence of both 3 casting cost sweepers in Oath of the Gatewatch, I am sceptical about playing a deck built around Secure the Wastes. It might well be that Esper Dragons remains on top, and that Linvala gets played in Jeskai, which may well become less creature centric, again due to Tendrils and Return.
Mardu Control might be an option (and another potential site for Linvala, the Preserver…) with Goblin Dark-Dwellers and Call the Gatewatch. I think the latter of these two is a pretty weak card in general, and I don’t much like the comparison between the the former and Snapcaster Mage, but I do think they’re interesting together. Grasp of Darkness and Immolating Glare might help this deck out of the most obvious pitfall it has – namely that it sounds very clunky – but I am unsure.
As with every set to come from now on, Bring to Light got a little better because it has more options. Being able to put all 5 colours in and get a Goblin Dark-Dwellers to flash back a spell you would otherwise have happily searched for sounds like an excellent option to me.
The New Decks…?
In the first draft of this article there were two abortive discussions about Five Colour Ally Beatdown, and Black Red Devoid with Wastes, but they served only to highlight how bad I am at this part of the game. My Allies deck would really struggle against either Kozilek’s Return or Flaying Tendrils, and my Black Red Devoid deck didn’t really do anything, and left me wondering why it would be the best site for Wastes. For what it’s worth, I do think there are quite a lot of good allies and there might be a deck there.
I don’t really think that many people are well suited to building the decks from scratch. I certainly struggle with it, and would strongly advise playing a modified version of an existing deck in the first week, followed by an update from the StarCityGames event the following week, if your goal is to win a PPTQ in the first week.
That’s it for this week! Hopefully this article will have given you some insight into how I approach new formats, and – more importantly – that insight is of some use to you. Next week I’m going to discuss different types of players, and how I would suggest they ought to select decks. I’ll need your help for this however by answering the community question below. If you do that and leave your answers in the comments then that would be really appreciated, thank you.
Community Question: How do you see yourself in terms of progress? And what do you want out of the game?
Thanks for reading,
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