Chances are that you’ve never seen anything quite like this Gates deck before.
My exposure to the deck came through my friend D.J. Kastner earlier this week. I’ve worked with D.J. many times in the past and our efforts have always yielded solid results. This effort appears to be no different! I’ve been playing the deck for a couple of days and have managed to climb from Bronze 4 to Platinum in two days. Not too shabby, considering I lost a ton of games learning how to operate some of the tricky commands on MTG Arena in the process (more on that later).
I recommend the following list for traditional ranked and would specify that I’m not a fan of it in BO1. The transformational sideboard is a big part of what I like about the deck.
4 Azorius Guildgate 4 Simic Guildgate 4 Izzet Guildgate 4 Gruul Guildgate 1 Gateway Plaza 1 Steam Vents 1 Breeding Pool 3 Stomping Ground 3 Plaza of Harmony 1 Island 1 Anticipate 4 Growth Spiral 3 Negate 1 Mission Briefing 1 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin 4 Gates Ablaze 4 Guild Summit 4 Wilderness Reclamation 4 Expansion/Explosion 4 Opt 4 Lava Coil Sideboard 3 Kraul Harpooner 1 Atzocan Archer 3 Crushing Canopy 1 Negate 3 Gatebreaker Ram 2 Entrancing Melody 2 Sorcerous Spyglass
This isn’t the traditional “spam a Ram” Gates you might have encountered before. D.J. did a fine job of identifying the synergies that are most relevant and focusing the deck to be a solid combo shell. We’ve easily gotten in over 75 matches, and have been fine tuning the deck and our plans over the past few evenings. This deck is legit good and ready to play.
This is a combo control deck through and through. While I think the deck is worth playing because it is straight-up good, it’s also worth noting that it’s a fantastic budget option whether you are trying to craft it on Arena or buy it in paper:
1 mythic and 18 rares. In paper, the deck is one of the cheapest budget decks money can buy!
Why I’ve Switched from BO1 to Traditional on Arena
I’m not going to make a ridiculous claim like “broke it!”
On a saber-metrics level, I’d suggest Mono-White or Mono-Blue. Personally, I find those decks to be boring and redundant to play, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to work on a combo deck.
I’m also happy to see that ranked traditional has become a legitimate thing on Arena ladder. I’ve been a big supporter of BO1 and still am, but at the moment I’m not particularly inspired by the format for a couple of reasons:
- Nexus is banned in BO1. The move took an entire pillar of the format and threw it in the trash can. The format is less interesting to me because it has less stuff going on.
- The Mono-Blue deck is really obnoxious without sideboards. It’s the epitome of a deck that exploits the B01 linear loophole. I started with BO1, played four Mono-Blue decks in a row, and switched to traditional.
It’s not an issue of “I will never play BO1 again,” but for the time being I find the traditional metagame the more engaging option.
The Growing Pains of Learning to Play Combo on Arena
So, first and foremost, the Gates combo deck is a fun and exciting play experience. With that said, getting to that point on Arena has been filled with frustrating learning experiences.
The Gates deck isn’t a pure combo deck like Storm. It’s actually more of a combo control deck like Splinter Twin or Copycat. A bold claim, because Twin and Cat are two of the best “best decks” of all time.
Clearly, the Gates combo deck is overall less powerful (and oppressive) than Twin. I’m not comparing power level, but style of game play. You interact with the opponent’s board via removal and permission. You see a ton of cards and generate card advantage. And you win the game outright with a combo finish. Once a certain point in the game is reached the opponent is typically dead if they ever tap out.
The most difficult part of playing the deck, for me, has been learning how to completely operate the Arena interface. In the process of learning the deck, I’ve lost a lot of games due to messing up my stops, running out of time, and incorrectly operating my spells on tricky stacks. All of these factors play a role in your Arena matches and I would argue that Arena is not set up to handle these types of decks yet.
The cardinal rule of playing Wilderness Reclamation is you must set a stop at the end of your turn or suffer dire consequences. If you forget to stop and move to your end step, Arena will resolve all of your Reclamation triggers and pass the turn without giving you priority to cast spells. Once you click too far there is nothing you can do to regain priority so always make a mental note to throw up that stop!
The second thing to keep in mind is that the clock is not your friend with this deck and you always have to be thinking about that. You can’t float a bunch of mana quickly. Instead, you need to manually tap each land. It also doesn’t help that all of your lands are dual lands, which asks you to specify which color you want to make each time.
Games tend to play out like this:
- Set your stop.
- Go to end step.
- Reclamation triggers go on the stack.
- Frantically tap all lands.
- Resolve Reclamation trigger.
I’ve lost several games with lethal in hand because I couldn’t get it done in time. Also, I’ve noticed that Arena tends to get laggy when you try and do a bunch of stuff quickly, which does not help when the bomb timer starts buzzing in your face!
It’s really important to play the early turns quickly to bank time extensions for the big turns. It’s especially important for games where you need to fight a big counter war over your Explosion, which is a whole other issue…
I have 99 compliments for Arena, but the stack ain’t one… whoever decided that the stack should display the way it does on Arena is straight up cruel. It’s extremely difficult to tell what’s going on with the way cards and triggered abilities display when they are on the stack. There are six spells on the stack and my opponent just cast an Expansion. What is it copying and what is the target? Also, to compound all problems Arena tends to lag when there are a bunch of items on the stack, which makes pointing and targeting the arrow properly awkward. Good luck figuring it all out before the clock blows up.
So, be aware that playing the Gates Deck is going to present some operational challenges right off the bat. With all of that being said, it was extremely useful to learn how to do a lot of these things on Arena and I do feel like I have a much stronger understand of how to use Arena, although there are certain places where I think improvement should be made in the future on the platform.
Matchups and Sideboarding
There’s only one way to win in game 1. Fireball face. You have four copies of Explosion and a Mission Briefing to get it done. If the game goes long enough you can almost always kill them in one shot. In other games, it’s not uncommon to shoot them for a short Explosion, leave up counterspells and interaction on their turn, and then untap and finish them the next turn. It’s also not uncommon to untap and explode their best threat, fuel up on cards, and then kill them.
Expansion // Explosion is one heck of a Magic card. It’s also important to note that the first mode, Expansion, is great for copying opposing counterspells. It’s also a strong early game play to copy an opponent’s Opt or Chart a Course.
Let’s talk about why we are playing the Gates shell. I’ve seen a Temur Explosion deck floating around, but I much prefer the Gates shell version that D.J. has brought to the table for a couple of reasons.
The deck also gets access to a cheap Wrath of God effect. A very good one. It’s a 3 mana sweeper for little stuff, but it scales to smolder bigger threats later in the game. It also doesn’t kill the creature in the transformational sideboard:
Tarmogoyf out of the board! It’s a tactic as old as Time (Spiral block). I love that in game 1 the Gates deck completely blanks removal spells. After sideboard, once the opponent boards out (or, at the very least down) on removal, you bring in the bleatdown plan, which incidentally may be one of the five best Magic puns I’ve ever coined.
Esper started as a matchup where we assumed we would always lose game 1. It’s actually improved significantly from when we started with the deck. The addition of a slew of Negate makes it much more difficult for the opponent to jam Teferi on 5.
With that being said, their plan is to Thought Erasure, force down Teferi, and stockpile counterspells. Four copies of Mortify to attack your Reclamation is also a problem. The key to winning game 1 is to keep Teferi off the board and spam Guild Summit for a ton of extra cards. If you can keep them off Teferi long enough, you’ll eventually be able to power through their permission.
Esper has two primary ways they beat you after sideboard: Teferi and Thief of Sanity. Both beat you, badly, if you get caught with your pants down. Basically, everything I bring in is to address their cards that matter. I also bring in at least one Ram so that I’m not cold to a resolved Unmoored Ego.
Mono-Blue is another tough, but winnable, matchup. Since you are a slower attrition-based combo deck, it’s not easy to play through a turn 1 dork into Curious Obsession + counterspell in game 1, or even post-board, for that matter.
D.J. and I have had a lot of post-board success transforming into more of a control deck post-sideboard. Since they have so many counterspells post-board, it’s not realistic to race, which means you maximize early interaction and try to grind them out.
Board out the combo, and focus on killing everything and coming over the top with Guild Summit. I win by stealing their Pteramander with Entrancing Melody and protecting it with Negate on turn 10. You have a Fireball, Mission Briefing, and Harpooner to win with as well.
I like Negate in the matchup because you know the game is going to go long and they have hard counters. Also, they always seem to bring in Entrancing Melody either to steal the Hydroid Krasis they think I have or to steal back their Pteramanders they assume I’m going to try and steal. I like that the Ram is an insane monster for me, but if they steal it, it’s just a vanilla 2/2.
I’ve considered trying out a different removal suite, but the Lava Coils are so important across the board at hitting Arclight Phoenix, Drakes, Djinn, Thrashing Brontodon, and Rekindling Phoenix. Killing 4 toughness creatures is a must when you can’t always count on Gates Ablaze for 4 early.
The best strategy I’ve found is to board out the combo, kill everything, draw a million cards, and spam more Rams than they have answers. Mission Briefing is also useful because it recasts Entrancing Melody, Negate, and Gates Ablaze.
Vs. Izzet Drakes
So, we’ve talked about the depressing matchups. Let’s talk about some good matchups. I haven’t lost to Drakes yet.
Four Lava Coils and Gates Ablaze is a lot for them to slog through in game 1 and they don’t have much permission to stop you from going ham. I typically Opt and Growth Spiral early. I kill their first threat and when they tap out for the next threat I’m ready to Fireball it with counterspell back up, which fuels a lethal Fireball on the next turn.
Gates Ablaze is awkward because it doesn’t kill 4 toughness creatures until later in the game. You need to answer each threat as it is played, because they have the potential to protect it with Dive Down. You just want to snap off Lava Coils and Crushing Canopy to protect your life total, and force them to continue to tap down. Easy game.
There’s a whole bunch of aggressive beatdown decks and how I play against them doesn’t change much. Gates Ablaze is a house against swarm decks and it’s one of the good reasons to choose the Gates deck.
You bide your time as long as you can and try to assemble the combo before they can get you to zero.
How you sideboard against aggro varies from matchup to matchup, but the general idea is the same. Gatebreaker Ram shines against opposing creatures because it is gigantic and survives Gates Ablaze, which gives you a second viable way to win.
Often connecting just once with the Ram makes it easy for a short Explosion to end the game.
You’ll need to be wary of the types of cards an opponent is likely to bring in:
Most people are going to try and mess with your Reclamation. I like that the Rams give you a different angle of attack and are not answered by things that deal with the combo. D.J. swears by the Archer in the board, but I’ve been underwhelmed. I am willing to give it more reps. I’m tempted to make it a fourth Ram.
Vs. Simic Nexus
The only thing that matters is Wilderness Reclamation and who has it going first. Also, it’s significant that your win condition, Expansion // Explosion, doubles as more counterspells, which is something that Nexus cannot do.
Our list is really focused on winning the battle for Reclamation, especially after sideboard.
The sideboard games are the same as the pre-board ones. Reclamation is what truly matters and whoever has it up and running first will probably win, so everything is focused on fighting that battle. Simic Nexus feels basically unbeatable once it has resolved Reclamation, but it’s not powerful without the enchantment going since they can’t Nexus of Fate and do other things in the same turn cycle.
The matchup is tricky, but the key is to focus on stopping an opposing Reclamation and resolving your own.
Simic Nexus is a deck that I like in Standard and I would choose to play Gates over it in a big tournament for the following reasons:
- I think the power level is similar.
- Gates can win games where it doesn’t draw a Wilderness Reclamation until turn 8+, whereas Simic’s draws feel borderline unplayable when it doesn’t untap with Nexus early.
- A transformational sideboard makes Gates not 100% reliant on Wilderness Reclamation to win.
While I do think Simic is “more broken” when it untaps with a Reclamation on 4, I feel perfectly comfortable with the level of brokenness Gates is with a Reclamation ongoing. On the other hand, in games where Reclamation gets countered, killed, or needs to be found, I’d much rather have the Gates deck to slog through.
Final Thoughts on Combo Gates
Gates has a solid and focused game plan against the field, and reasonable sideboard plans to shore up problematic matchups like Esper Control and Mono-Blue Aggro. Its nut draw is pretty bonkers and while not common, I’ve won my fair share of games on turn 5.
There are a few compelling reasons to try the list. First, it’s unique and may appeal to your play style. Busted combo control is certainly my favorite deck, i.e., Vintage Control Slaver. It’s a unique deck, and it’s a good unique deck capable of functioning against a wide array of matchups with well thought out plans.
If there was a Standard Tournament tomorrow, this is what I would play.