Since you don’t get to choose a color beforehand, like you did a while ago, there isn’t much merit in discussing which color is the best—only what you open matters. Instead, I’ll try to focus on the abilities of the new set, general strategies, and what changes in Battle for Zendikar.
Right off the bat, we can tell that synergistic decks are the big losers and “real” decks are the big winners. With Battle for Zendikar, synergy was very important, and you’d often build decks with a ton of cards that no other decks wanted to play. Now we only have a third as many Battle for Zendikar packs, and most of the synergy is not replicated in Oath of the Gatewatch. You will find some cards that exile, but not as many, and nothing that processes. You’ll find some cards that gain life, but nothing that benefits from them. You’ll find fewer ways to power landfall and fewer benefits. You’ll find fewer big creatures and Eldrazi tokens and more medium-sized creatures.
This doesn’t mean you can’t play decks with those synergies, just that you’re way less likely to be able to. Take a card like Mist Intruder: It’s a card that I expected to make the main deck of over half of my blue Sealed decks, because it was just very likely that you had uses for ingest. With Oath of the Gatewatch, I’d expect to not play it over half the time.
The other big change is the size of the creatures. Battle for Zendikar was in a weird place where creatures were either very big or very small, and there wasn’t a lot of room for something in the middle to shine. The biggest example of this is Turn Against, a card that would have been a first pick in some formats but just wasn’t very good in this one, because creatures would hardly be a match for each other at the middle sizes.
With Oath of the Gatewatch, it’s different. There are some big monsters, but it’s just the average number of big monsters (or sometimes even less depending on the color). You should no longer expect everyone to have access to a 7/8 or 8/9 or 10/8 in their decks. This means that removal like Gideon’s Reproach will now kill a much higher portion of your opponent’s deck than it previously did.
Oath of the Gatewatch in particular seems to be more defense-oriented than usual. There are multiple 1/3 and 2/3 creatures, and there are some 1/4s and 2/4s. For aggressive creatures, 3/2 seems to be the most common size. Pumping a 3/2 creature with support looks like the best way to get through the most common blockers, though you’ll still end up trading with all the 3/2s (which makes me think that the defensive decks might want a 3/2 blocker over a 2/3 blocker a lot of the time).
Support is an interesting mechanic that can be very powerful but demands that you build your deck and play the game with it in mind.
First, you need a ton of creatures—a card like Relief Captain goes from bad to powerful if you can get its full effect.
Second, you need a curve. +1/+1 is good, but it does so much more on turn 5 than it will do on turn 8. Turning your 2/2 into a 3/3 or your 3/2 into a 4/3 is a much bigger upgrade than turning your 5/5 into a 6/6. Then, you ideally have creatures that will survive more combats with the help of a counter. If you grow a 2/2 into a 3/3, it will now survive battle with a 2/3 and a 3/3, and it will bounce off a 2/4, which is a significant improvement. If you grow a 3/1 into a 4/2, however, it’ll still trade with all 2/2s and 2/3s, so it doesn’t improve as much. If you have a lot of cards with support, you should keep this in mind as you round out the rest of your deck.
Finally, support asks that you do not trade. If I have a 2/2 in play and my opponent has a 2/2, I’m incentivized to not attack if I have a support card in my hand, because next turn (or in the next couple turns) my guy will just become better. Likewise, if my opponent attacks and I do not have a support deck, I’m incentivized to block, because I won’t be able to do the same in future turns.
Since you want to avoid trading, support works well with creatures that can get through early, such as fliers or first strikers. Those creatures also work very well if pumped, so you have double the incentive. Fliers from Battle for Zendikar such as Steppe Glider and Cloud Manta get a bit better than they were, and a card like Shadow Glider is the perfect target for your counters.
Cohort is… weird. Tapping two creatures is a big cost, and few of the effects justify it, but it’s the perfect ability for a board stall. I think cards should rarely be played for their cohort ability, but if the creature is already playable without it, then it’s a very nice bonus.
The fact that this set has high toughness and low power makes me think board stalls are going to be more common than they were before, and having a cohort guy going can go a long way. A card like Akoum Flameseeker, for example, has a fine body (3/2 for 3), good for supporting, and if the game stalls, can put you up two or three extra cards by discarding excess lands. A card like Ondu-War Cleric also has a very passable body that will randomly gain you 6-8 life in the late game.
The bottom line: if you have a card with cohort, great, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to use most of them, as they’re mostly playable if you don’t get to activate Cohort very often (so no playing a horrible Ally just because it triggers it).
Surge can offer some very powerful turns if you manage to either have cheap removal or if you topdeck your cards out of order. Ideally you’ll play a 2-drop on turn 2, and not on turn 5 to turn on a surge card, but sometimes you draw your 2-drop on turn 5 and then surge makes sure you can play it effectively for free.
Of the surge cards, the one I likebest is Boulder Salvo.
Paying 5 mana for a sorcery-speed removal spell is not good, but it’s not awful, and it’s the kind of effect that you are more likely to want for cheap later in the game. On turn 6, for example, you can play a 4-drop and then play Salvo.
I’m also a fan of Containment Membrane because it’s powerful in race situations. You can deploy a threat and still get rid of an attacker.
In general, I’d say the surge cards are not worth playing bad cards (e.g. Bone Saw), and they are not worth sandbagging your early drops. Just play the game normally and, if surge happens, it happens.
The exceptions are Crush of Tentacles and Tyrant of Valakut, both of which get substantially more powerful if you can surge them (Crush particularly). I still would not play Bone Saw for those cards, but it might lead to me not playing a 1-drop that I draw on turn 4, for example, to be able to trigger surge on turn 6 (or something like Slip Through Space).
Understanding colorless mana will be the key to succeeding at the prerelease. For all intents and purposes, colorless should be treated as a 6th color—do not let the name fool you. Having 4 red sources is not enough to play, say, 5 red spells, so having 4 colorless sources is not enough to play 5 colorless spells, it’s that simple.
Luckily there are a bunch of “incidental” colorless sources that we never considered because they were never important (such as the Blighted land cycle, Eldrazi Scions, Kozilek’s Channeler, Evolving Wilds for Wastes) so I think you’re likely to have plenty of colorless sources.
A good resource to study before this tournament is Frank Karsten’s article about mana bases from a couple years ago. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it,
According to his chart, to have a 90% chance to have a specific mana by turn 5, you need 7 sources. I don’t think we need 90% on a splash color, but you can look at the numbers here and decide what’s best for you.
Since colorless exists and some of the colorless cards are very powerful, we’re often going to see “2 colors with a colorless splash” in this format. This means multiple specific mana symbols are problematic—Grasp of Darkness is clearly good, but worse than it would be in many formats because with this one you’re likely to have at least some number of lands adding colorless in your 2-color deck.
Normally, I’d say that actual splashes are also harder because the “fixing” will generally be for colorless, and if your fixing comes in form of Scions, Wastes, or colorless creatures that generate colorless mana, then that is true. If your fixing comes in the form of the other common lands, however, then splashing another color might actually be easier than it was before, because you need fewer sources of your main colors (since at least some of your spells will be colorless) and the three common colorless lands (Holdout Settlement, Unknown Shores, and Crumbling Vestige) can add colored mana.
It’s similar to a scenario where you are playing three colors, and to support your third color you have two Evolving Wilds and two Lifespring Druids. At this point, adding a 4th color is much easier, because one basic will give you 5 sources.
The same happens here—if you’re already going out of your way to accommodate colorless cards by having an Evolving Wilds, a Crumbling Vestige, a Holdout Settlement, and an Unknown Shores, you might as well add a Swamp and that Complete Disregard, because you already have 4 “free” sources. Of course it’s not as simple as this and there are costs to adding a Swamp (those lands don’t add black mana for free either), but the general idea here is that having a colorless mana base will not necessarily stop you from splashing more, and it might actually encourage you to do so (though if your colorless comes from colorless-only lands, like Wastes, then this does not apply).
There are two types of colorless cards: colorless costs (such as Matter Reshaper) and colorless activations (such as Blinding Drone). If your cards have a colorless activation, then you’re more likely to play them with fewer sources, because they still do something even if you don’t have access to colorless mana.
Colorless costs, on the other hand, will be stranded in your hand for a while, and will make for worse splashes in general. The exception is their synergy with Eldrazi Scions. Scions are one-time producers of colorless mana, and as such they work better with cards that have a colorless cost than with cards that have a colorless activation. The best of both worlds, of course, is a colored cost with a colorless kicker (such as Bearer of Silence), since that works well with any scenario.
Overrated and Underrated Cards
Clearly most people haven’t rated any cards yet, so it’s hard to have something be overrated or underrated, but I’ve selected some cards that I think might be better or worse than a first-glance evaluation would suggest:
Wall of Resurgence
Don’t get me wrong, Wall of Resurgence is a good card, but it’s no Blade Splicer. The two bodies are great, but turning a land into a creature is very different than simply creating a creature, and for most of the early game I think you’ll end up tapping it for mana, which negates some of its usefulness. It’s still a good card, and sneaking in 3 or 6 damage with your land on top of an 0/6 Wall and then trading later is definitely worth it, so you’ll almost always play this card, but I don’t think it’s the fantastic card I’ve seen some consider it, so don’t go around splashing for it in every deck.
Vigilance on a 1/4 is almost never relevant, as it’ll rarely get through, so the outcome is that you’re paying 3 mana for a 1/4, which is a pretty bad deal. If you don’t have multiple support effects, I think I would not like to play this in any white deck, as you have access to better defensive creatures.
Call the Gatewatch
Do not play this card with only one planeswalker in your deck—it’s simply not worth it. If you have two planeswalkers, then that means you’re very lucky already, so you’re just going to draw them naturally and therefore you don’t need this.
I’ve never been a fan of Inspiration (or Divination, truth be told) and I don’t see why having a modest surge discount is going to make things any different. I think the great majority of decks do not want this card.
I expect 1UU to be a very prohibitive cost in this format, so I don’t think this card is as good as Cancels normally are. If I’m playing a “normal” 2 color-deck I’m happy to play it, but with, say, 7 blue sources, I’d rather leave it in the sideboard.
I’d say you need 2 uses of this card to not feel far behind, and 3 to feel like you’ve got your money’s worth (unless you can activate it immediately on turn 5, in which case I’d be happy with 2). More than 3 and it starts being great, but I don’t think you’re very likely to do this, because you’re simply going to run out of cards. This is a reverse Lightning Rift—with that one, each card you cycled got you closer to the next cycler. With this card, every time you trigger it it becomes much harder to trigger again. I would not play this card in any deck.
If I had an extremely aggressive deck I might play this, but the modal part of it is not enough to make me play a card I otherwise wouldn’t play. My default is that this will stay in my sideboard.
Ruin in their Wake
For most decks, this is going to be worse than Sylvan Scrying a lot of the time, and Sylvan Scrying wasn’t very good to begin with. You can play this if you need the fixing or if you have a ton of Wastes and want to accelerate, but my default is certainly not playing it.
I know you want to play this to trigger surge, but please resist the temptation, it’s a very bad card.
2/4 vigilance flying for 5 mana is not good, but this is perfect with support—it gets to a point where you can block almost anything and it deals 3 damage a turn for free. If you’re supporting, you can also make use of the second ability—turning a 4/4 into a 4/4 flier vigilance for only 2 mana is very powerful. I think this is going to be better than Ghostly Sentinel the majority of the time, and I liked Ghostly Sentinel in this Sealed format to begin with.
3/3 for 4 is not bad for Limited, and the ability to make it a 5/4 is very good. You often don’t have to use it, since they aren’t blocking, but the potential to Fireball them if they don’t is certainly there.
Black has a lot of colorless activated abilities, and this guy makes sure you can use them—potentially twice if you want to (once on your turn, once on their turn). Add that to a very reasonable body and you have the makings of a very good card.
2/3 for 3 is fine, and the ability is very good in the late game if you can activate it twice a turn. It’s particularly strong with Kozilek’s Translator.
Visions of Brutality
Normally this type of card is bad, but if you are definitely the aggressor in the matchup, then they can’t block or attack, which is quite good.
Call the Scions wasn’t an exciting card, but this is significantly better, because a 2/2 is better than a Scion and because now Scions have more uses (since colorless mana is relevant). Nothing to write home about, but better than it would have been in the previous set.
Pulse of Murasa
I think 6 life is exactly the kind of effect you want on this type of card. I do not expect this to be great, but I expect it to be playable whereas I think most people would just not play it ever.
How Battle for Zendikar Cards Are Affected
In general, most synergistic cards get worse. This is roughly how I would evaluate it:
What Gets Worse:
• Anything that deals with awaken. Halimar Tidecaller is less likely to be good, Volcanic Upheaval is less likely to be sideboarded in, and even Grip of Desolation got a little worse, since there will be fewer creaturelands (though more splashes, so not much worse).
• Anything that interacts with Scions. There are just way fewer Eldrazi Scions in this set (there’s only one playable Scion maker at common), so cards like Kor Castigator and Boiling Earth become worse.
• Anything that ingests. There are no Processors in this set, so you have very little payout.
• Anything that processes. There are ways to exile in this set, but you’re likely to play less cards that do it in your deck, so they’ll triger less reliably. You’ll have less Processors competing, though.
• Anything that gains life. There is now less payoff for it without the Vampires. There are still other ways to gain life, though, so the payoff cards didn’t necessarily get worse.
• Anything that was better because it triggered landfall (such as Slab Hammer).
• Anything that bounces, as there’s now less awakening.
• Anything that makes them discard cards (Mire’s Malice in particular). With less of a use for lands in the late game with less awakening, less expensive cards, and less landfall, making them discard is not as punishing.
• The 18th land. 18 lands was almost automatic in Battle for Zendikar for the same reasons Mire’s Malice was so good, and now those are mostly gone and we can revert to a “17 or 18” land configuration (as opposed to “always 18”).
What Gets Better:
• Anything that was good but you couldn’t fit in a strategy before. Cards like Sheer Drop, Cloud Manta, Dampening Pulse, Broodhunter Wurm, Territorial Baloth, and so on would often be left behind because they didn’t add to your particular synergy or didn’t have a relevant creature type, and now this seems to matter less. I’m not saying go put Territorial Baloth in all of your decks, but consider it a bit more than you did before.
• Anything that makes Scions, since they now fix your mana as well.
• Fliers, since they work well with support and push through the board stalls that might happen because this set has a decent amount of toughness.
• The Blighted lands, because now adding colorless mana can be an upside instead of a downside. I can’t wait for people to play off-colored Blighted lands that they can never activate.
• Curve-based creatures (like a 2/2 for 2). You really want to have dudes in play when you cast the support cards.
• Midrange creatures—3/4, 4/4. These prey on the 2/3s and 3/2s of the new set.
• Anything that interacts with mid-sized creatures in general. Removal like Gideon’s Reproach, Demon’s Grasp, and Touch of the Void is now more likely to be able to kill what you want to kill, since creatures are no longer 7/7s. Turn Against is also better since creatures are more likely to be similar in size and kill each other in combat.
That’s what I’ve got for today!
• Synergistic cards are worse (Processors, ingesters, life gainers, etc.).
• Normal good cards are better.
• The format is no longer split between tiny creatures and monsters. 2/3 and 3/2 are common sizes in the format, so 3/4 and 4/4 are better than before.
• If you have a deck with support, prioritize fliers and creatures that will survive combat once supported.
• You should not hinder yourself too much to turn surge on (with the exception of a few rares)—if it happens, it happens, but don’t go out of your way to do it.
• The same goes for cohort—it’s a good ability that will win you a lot of late games, but you do not need to play a bad creature just because it’s an Ally.
• Colorless mana is the same as a color, you can’t just jam 10 colorless cards with 5 colorless sources.
• Colorless activation costs are easier to play (since you can always cast the spell even if you don’t have them), but they do not work well with Eldrazi Scions. Colorless mana costs, on the other hand, are more punishing but work well with Scions, since it’s a one-time investment.
• Double-costed cards become worse due to the colorless lands that you are likely going to play.
• Most decks will be 2 colors with a colorless splash, but since much of the colorless fixing is also color fixing, this can make it easier for you to splash a third or fourth color on top of that.