It’s Shadows over Innistrad preview season, but Oath of the Gatewatch draft is still evolving, so I want one last chance to cover it before we move into a land of madness and horrors. Most drafters have gotten a chance by now to nail down the basics of each major archetype and rough pick orders. Whether at a local store or through Magic Online, de facto truths have been set in place. One I agree with is that Blinding Drone is the best blue common. It’s a simple fact, but one that is good to know.
Others are more contentious. I’ve heard that UW is an unplayable archetype, which I will debate today, and then there is the debate over whether Stalking Drone or Saddleback Lagac is the best green common. Today I’m going to go through 3 archetypes and the advancements they’ve made since release.
With that, let’s get started with UW, the underdog of Oath of the Gatewatch.
UW operates in two distinct ways: In both cases, the deck ends up as a nearly mono-color deck that splashes the other. The reasoning for this is that blue focuses on the surge mechanic and colorless, while white cares almost entirely about aggression and Allies. These themes just don’t overlap among the commons in those colors. But a mostly-blue colorless deck is a very good deck. Blinding Drone and Cultivator Drone pull a lot of weight and allow for a synergistic game plan. Similarly, white can have a focused Ally package due to Ondu War Cleric, Reflector Mage, and the Ally 3-drops. Some black Allies would push that theme further, but you don’t necessarily need them if you have enough other white Allies to compensate for their loss.
In either case, your mono-color deck can capitalize on the powerful UW gold cards that no one else gets to play. Reflector Mage routinely tables because of how difficult it is to draft UW. Roil Spout is a first-pick card you’ll get 5-8th in pack 3 any time it’s opened. Additionally, because white decks aren’t interested in colorless, they won’t be picking up the various 5-color lands in Oath of the Gatewatch, which means that only 1-2 other blue drafters are ever able to realistically draft these cards as splashes and take them from your deck.
Some of your synergies may be less powerful than other decks in the format but, again, you’re more than able to make up for that on the basis of individual card power level. Being mostly one color means you’ll have fewer choices available when drafting so you’ll be stuck taking whatever on-color card is available. This may lead you to take an Expedition Raptor in your white deck that is mostly Ally-focused when you really just want another Ally, or a Shoulder to Shoulder when you aren’t a curve-out deck. This leads to slightly more in-game variance, but isn’t a huge deal most of the time since your average power level should still be higher than most of the table.
One problem you want to be aware of when playing UW is that many of the problems the archetype had from Battle from Zendikar are still present now. Your cards are mostly incapable of removing problem threats from the board, particularly opposing repeatable effects. Valakut Invoker is a real issue, and unless you have an Isolation Zone at the ready, it is very likely to kill you on its own. You won’t be able to remove many cohort creatures from the board indefinitely. Plan your games with these in mind. Either you’ll have enough tempo to beat these cards before they become a problem, or you’ll have to save your few precious answers for the threats that are otherwise unanswerable in a longer game.
The biggest answer to this is Eldrazi Displacer. It’s the one white card that creates a link between the white and blue themes. Beyond that, the draft starts with you in white or blue and just drafting within that color because the best or second-best card in every pack keeps you on that route. Then one of two things will eventually happen: You’ll see a reason to pick up a second color and move off UW, or you’ll see a Reflector Mage and pump the fist. Note that this fork in the road can happen at any point in the first two packs. After that point, you stay in your nearly mono-color lane and reap the benefits.
What can be said about the awesome WB archetype that hasn’t already? A lot, actually. On the surface the deck is straightforward, but there are a ton of little decisions from drafting to deck building to the in-game decisions that can determine games.
At its core, WB is a midrange Ally deck. All its cards are built on synergy to snowball into an insurmountable board presence that simply goes over the top of the opponent. The trick is that it takes a while to assemble those pieces, and that if drafted incorrectly, the deck can be unsure of its role as a beatdown deck, a cohort midrange combo deck, or a full-on control deck packed with removal. The good news is that the deck can be all three of those things, but ideally, any individual deck will be at least slanted in a direction as a primary game plan. As an example, some WB decks are interested in Flaying Tendrils because of a slightly higher curve and beefy blockers like Vampire Envoy, while other WB decks won’t be the least bit interested because it will kill all six 2-drops that deck plays.
Part of the trick of drafting WB is that many of the pick decisions are automatic. Both Oblivion Strike and Isolation Zone are always going to be better than anything but bombs, and even Ondu War Cleric is going to be a snap pick out of most packs. Past that, you’ll need to focus on your curve and how much synergy your build will have.
Some cards are so powerful that their synergy will almost always be turned on and you should take them early. The best example is Serene Steward, which went from a pretty good Battle from Zendikar card to an unbeatable 2-card combo with Ondu War Cleric. Many other cards like Allied Reinforcements and Kalastria Nightwatch have individually high power levels that then contribute to and benefit from surrounding synergistic cards. Whether you have enough payoffs helps determine whether you care about life gain or playing the best power cards. This may be the difference between including a Stone Haven Medic in the final build or leaving it on the sidelines.
On the other hand, some synergy cards are always going to hit the mark because they’ll always have enough support. The main contenders here are Kalastria Healer and all the cohort cards from Oath of the Gatewatch. You have to be careful with cohort though because you can get overloaded with them to the point that you can’t tap all your cohort creatures every turn because you don’t have enough other Allies. This doesn’t matter for Ondu War Cleric because the rate on the card is so good, but you can end up with too many Spawnbinder Mages and Zulaport Chainmages.
The final concern with WB drafts is the number of 4-drops. Isolation Zone and Oblivion Strike both take up slots and there are plenty of other premium cards like Cliffhaven Vampire or Bloodbond Vampire. Because of this, you should prioritize cheaper spells whenever possible. That will also allow you to take advantage of Shoulder to Shoulder and Expedition Raptor, which become worse in decks that don’t build with them in mind.
Any draft where you start with Oblivion Strike and get passed an Isolation Zone will be a quick start to a WB deck. This strength of removal is also a major downside to the archetype, though. Other drafters aren’t going to be passing these premium removal spells often, which leads to more players starting the draft in white or black. The deck also has the most potentially powerful end products and so it’s no wonder the deck is overdrafted. The problem with splitting the deck is in the Battle from Zendikar payoffs. When no one else wants your Kalastria Healers and lesser support cards like Nirkana Assassin, the deck will end up the most powerful deck at the table. Chopped 3-4 ways? Not so much. If you’re aware of the tendency for the deck to be overdrafted, it’ll be easier to jump ship mid-pack and abandon your awesome first-pick Isolation Zone.
RG has historically played big monsters with burn and pump spells to clear the way for big-monster smashing. Let’s look at how it pans out in Oath of the Gatewatch specifically.
If RG cares about anything, it’s efficiency. A solid curve puts the opponent behind and then RG is able to press that advantage in many ways to keep the opponent off balance until the game ends. Zada’s Commando into Relentless Hunter into a Saddleback Lagac is a nut curve, but these types of starts aren’t that hard to achieve when the deck is mostly comprised of aggressively-oriented creatures. After that kind of start, your opponent is forced to react and will try to trade off creatures to survive.
This is where your pump spells come in. Brute strength helps kill a blocker while dealing additional damage. It also combines well with first strike or with forced double-blocks from menace creatures like Goblin Freerunner. Even better than that is Sure Strike. In conjunction with Freerunner, you’ll almost always be getting a 2-for-1 on your pump spell, and you can get the awesome first-strike-plus-trample combination when combined with Vestige of Emrakul, Cinder Hellion, or Tajuru Pathwarden.
The green pump spells are also quite good but contribute better to future turns. Lead by Example is a great trick when you’re attacking with many creatures since you’ll often find good targets the more options you have. Vines of the Recluse doesn’t hit quite as hard as the red tricks, yet it’s almost always enough to win combat and is cheap enough that it lets you play another follow-up creature post-combat, sometimes even a discounted Freerunner.
While drafting, you’ll have to decide if colorless matters to you. The big payoff is Stalking Drone, but Maw of Kozilek can be quite good too. I’ve found that RG likes to take advantage of colorless when it can with non-Wastes colorless lands, but shouldn’t prioritize them. Because the payoff helps with a better version of the deck rather than the core, you make your deck way worse if you get needlessly sidetracked. That being said, Stalking Done is quite valuable for a 2-drop. This deck needs to apply pressure and it’s very easy to end up in a deck with only one or two 2-drops if you aren’t careful. You’ll have to prioritize cards like Baloth Pup, which are fine but unexciting.
One last element to the deck is that you’ll sometimes have a landfall subtheme. If it’s a larger component, you can consider running 18 lands just to ensure that your creatures are always on and you’re hitting your curve, which sounds strange for an aggressive deck. If you do miss a beat with these types of decks, you’ll end up seeing the downside of a curve-out deck. Your opponent will start to play better cards than you and form better synergies. You’ll be forced to play defense clunky blocking creatures like Valakut Predator. That’s why you need to make sure your deck is as streamlined as possible, because when you’re curving out, you’ll feel like you can never lose and when you’re behind, you’ll feel like you can never win. Make sure you’re on the right side of that line.
As with many of the Oath of the Gatewatch archetypes, the gold uncommon is a big draw. Relentless Hunter is powerful enough that I’m willing to pick it somewhat early once I’m already in red or green. I think the archetype is consistently good enough that doing so is reasonable, and the Hunter leads to some of your most explosive draws. In addition, it provides a mana sink, something this archetype lacks compared to others. Zada’s Commando can also provide some utility against a stabilized opponent, which pushes it to a reasonable first pick.
When I’m not picking Relentless Hunter, I’ve often drafted an early Saddleback Lagac or Boulder Salvo and simply landed in RG when the second color was wide open. It’s also nice that the combat tricks are less necessary for other Oath of the Gatewatch archetypes, so you should definitely look to pick up creatures before whatever tricks are still available late in the packs. If you get to the Battle from Zendikar pack and are lacking on tricks, pick Sure Strike higher (though it’s already one of the best tricks) and if all else fails, Swell of Growth can fill in.
Oath of the Gatewatch has been a blast to draft and I’ve really enjoyed the depth and nuance to many of the archetypes. I felt like the games themselves were often interesting, and there was more of a return to good activated abilities at lower rarity than I’ve seen in a long time thanks to cohort. I can only hope Shadows Over Innistrad is as good, and after the success of Innistrad and the early previews, I have a feeling it’s going to be great. Since you can’t play that yet, enjoy your final few weeks of Oath of the Gatewatch, and I’ll see you in the queues!