Welcome back for the initial draft archetype impressions for Oath of the Gatewatch! Today I’ll take a look at WB and GB, but first, I want to mention what the purpose of the key cards section is for any readers who have commented about them in my past articles. The key cards are not an exhaustive list of the very best cards in the archetype. That would be more an individual Limited ranking, which LSV already covered in his Set Reviews. Rather, it takes a sampling of the cards that help the archetype fully function. These cards point to synergies and focuses of the color pairs to help you generate a more holistic approach, and help form your early drafts of the format. Thus, there will be some great cards alongside some role-players that give decks a better overall game plan.
Previous archetype: Life gain/Allies
Now: Allies, specifically cohort
WB in Battle for Zendikar was summed up by Kalastria Healer. Allies were completely central to the deck’s structure, but they were almost synonymous with a linked life gain strategy. Many of the life-gain-matters cards were also Allies, like Bloodbond Vampire and Serene Steward, and you can see from the key cards that that hasn’t entirely changed. Ondu War Cleric and Vampire Envoy both fit the same category, but the focus of the archetype has moved away from life gain. Now it is much more an incidental bonuses since the only real payoff card for the archetype in Oath of the Gatewatch is Cliffhaven Vampire.
Individual games will play out slightly differently due to the cohort abilities, but they all encourage a slower plan of blocking and tapping for cohort. This is also why Allied Reinforcements is the key to WB. With enough cohort creatures, you’ll sometimes have to decide which one you want to use in a given turn if you don’t have enough Allies. The Reinforcements help make sure that isn’t a limiting factor while also contributing to the board in a meaningful way.
I mentioned before when covering GW that cohort puts aggressive decks in an awkward spot because it’s an inherently defensive mechanic. In GW, you have to choose whether to attack or use cohort, but WB doesn’t have to choose as often since it’s much more focused on blocking and winning by accruing slow but insurmountable resources. This is one of the deck’s biggest strengths since many of the other archetypes I’ve discussed so far are pulled in different directions. WB’s plan is very clear and all you need for the deck to work is for it to be open in your draft seat.
Because all the life gain payoffs are in pack 3, you can’t rely on getting any, but I think when you do get them they’ll matter more compared to triple-Battle for Zendikar. Any Kalastria Healers you happen to pick up are going to trigger again and again since white creatures in Oath of the Gatewatch are almost exclusively Allies. Serene Steward still has many sources of life gain even if there are far fewer Stewards in the draft. Unlike Halimar Tidecaller, which became worse due to only drafting one pack with awaken cards, WB’s pack-3 buildarounds will slot neatly into any WB deck. Additionally, Serene Stewards and Kalastria Healers were picked rather early before because they offer huge payoffs when the WB deck came together. But they also led to terrible decks when the deck missed on a critical mass of Allies, and for that reason I preferred drafting cards like Benthic Infiltrator, which I knew would always be good. Now there will only be 1-2 players at the table interested in these synergy-driven Allies instead of many players speculating, which makes them much easier to pick up.
Most Improved from Battle for Zendikar
I already mentioned the reasons why I think these Allies are better now, so I’ll briefly touch on Sheer Drop. In a deck looking to go long, you’ll often have time to get to the awaken cost, and the 3/3 helps defend you while you pull ahead with cohort activations. Additionally, Sheer Drop is better in a defensive strategy and fits WB well. Lastly, WB has access to a ton of life gain so you’ll have the luxury of holding onto your Sheer Drop longer for a juicier target. Take some hits from that 3/3 and gain 2 life a turn until you get a chance to take down the Oran-Rief Hydra that’s really causing you problems.
Biggest Losers from Battle for Zendikar
Kor Castigator was always fine as an early drop that could trade up, and the fact that it was an Ally really helped out the WB deck. Additionally, Kor Castiagtor could create some great draws of early pressure and let the deck win much faster than it normally would. With more replaceable Allies in Oath of the Gatewatch, its effect is much less needed, and on top of that, the synergy cards from Battle for Zendikar have become a much higher priority. Mire’s Malice suffers a similar fate in that it was a nice effect to have in a slow format, but it doesn’t really help what WB is trying to achieve, especially now that the deck is about having a ton of Allies on board to cohort with. Courier Griffin was an excellent card on its own, and it’s not a whole lot worse, but the deck cares less about gaining life than before, and you’ll be triggering far fewer Serene Stewards with this flyer in your Oath of the Gatewatch drafts.
Previous archetype: Scions/ramp
What can be said about Baloth Null other than that it does it all? I can’t even imagine the level of value if you ever happen to draft two of these guys and are able to loop them. GB has shifted away from a Swarm-Surge-type strategy to one trying to play beefier threats backed by good removal, or as I see it, a return to classic GB Limited Magic. Compare Baloth Null to Catacomb Sifter from Battle for Zendikar and you can see how the direction of the archetype has shifted. Cards like Scion Summoner happen to play well in both types of strategies, but I don’t see going wide with Swarm Surge happening very often, especially with only one pack of Eyeless Watchers. Oblivion Strike plays the nice middle ground as it can help you catch up or press an advantage, and it’s not a surprise why everyone points to it as the best common in the set. Kozilek’s Translator is also a fine card in a quintessential midrange deck since it happens to be efficient in all the right places.
One of the most awkward parts of GB before was that it tried to go wide while also ramping out tough-to-deal-with threats like Plated Crusher. GB decks would often play Swarm Surge in the very same deck, and there were awkward sequences of ramping out a big monster only to draw a Swarm Surge on the following turn. I think this lack of focus and the fact that most of the sacrifice synergy cards were uncommon pushed GB into an archetype that rarely came together. Now with less of a focus, I think GB is far more playable. Your 5/4 is an Ally? Cool! Do I care? Probably not—bash you for 5. When you care more about the stats and the individual power level of cards, you don’t have to worry about the fail case where your synergy deck never fully comes together during the draft.
Most Improved from Battle for Zendikar
Without trying to go wide, GB can focus on using its random Scions to ramp out big creatures ahead of schedule without worrying that it’s disrupting its own plan. Plated Crusher is one of the best candidates around and is much bigger relative to the format than when it was in triple Battle for Zendikar. Malakir Familiar was always great, but it’s even better when it’s not taking the slot of a synergy-driven card in your deck. Sure, you won’t be gaining life often in GB, but this card can still peck away in the air, and when it comes time to trade, this gets the job done. Giant Mantis was a fringe playable before but that’s because it didn’t stop Eldrazi. While that’s still true, it makes sure that all the 2/3s of Oath of the Gatewatch fail to attack you, even after they’ve been supported onto once. Many of the fliers in the format still can’t punch through the Mantis, and while Netcaster Spider is a much better card overall, the Mantis still does good work.
Biggest Losers from Battle for Zendikar
A sacrifice strategy just isn’t going to come together often enough to make these candidates worth a card in your deck often. Blisterpod already failed at that most of the time, but on rare occasions was actually a reasonable playable. Those days are mostly over now, and the Battle for Zendikar packs opened would have to line up incredibly well for a GB sacrifice deck to actually come together. For Zulaport Cutthroat to be reasonable, you’ll need a mix of cohort creatures and a plan to clog the ground so that it acts like an enchantment that provides incremental value from creatures trading. There is the off chance that Vampiric Rites is better than I’m giving it credit for since it was always a powerful card under the right circumstances, yet was constantly underappreciated.
We’re almost through our first look at the archetypes. Join me as I wrap up with UR and GU next time!