The mechanics of Gatecrash were spoiled over the week between Christmas and New Years, and we are now in proper spoiler territory! As someone looking forward to contending in the Gatecrash Sealed Grand Prix in London in the beginning of February (as well as, hopefully, a ton more limited Magic these next months), I think taking a good look at the five mechanics of the upcoming set and really considering their implications for how the limited format will shape up will definitely help in netting an advantage during the days when the limited format of triple Gatecrash is still new. But, before that, we need to finish up our dealings with Return to Ravnica and take a look at what we can walk away as more broad lessons. I hope to shine some light on this in part through a few more of the "Single Card Studies" that were well received in my last article. Without further ado...
Golgari Longlegs: The unassuming workhorse
One of the cards I found continually rising in my evaluation in the limited environment of Return to Ravnica is the anonymous, common, vanilla Golgari Longlegs. As the format unfolded, it gradually became clear that this large insect had just the right size to perform far better than you would have thought from looking at it; after all, (Fire Elemental) was never a huge hitter even if it did find employment every now and then in core sets. Yet despite nominally being in "the worst guild" (though of course hybrid mana lets you cast it in Rakdos and Selesnya as well), the prevalence of Centaur tokens and other 3-power creatures as well as a few hard defender types like Armory Guard and Voidwielder to crack through on the offensive, the sheer size of this relatively effective beatstick meant that it fit perfectly in the format. In draft decks, "Daddy Longlegs" pulled its fair share of the weight, but where it really shone was in the slightly slower format of Sealed Deck that the PTQers will know well by now.
Where does that leave us, going forward? What does this mean once we move outside the format of triple RTR? I purposefully started out with perhaps the simplest lesson: it can be said in many different ways. "Context matters" is relatively accurate, though perhaps a little general. In every limited format, there will be cards that look unexciting and which might in another context be something you should not be surprised to see thirteenth in a draft pack, but which actually fit well enough into the format to be worth noticing. Thinking about the format (as we will do with Gatecrash later) ahead of time helps us spot these "sleeper cards" before others realize their value.
Teleportal: The "Haymaker"
Ah, Teleportal. Most of us by now realize how powerful of an effect this card has; most of us have probably tried sitting comfortably at 16 life as the board stalls out, content to beat down with a flier or two, until the player on the other side of the table shows you the last card in his hand and says, "overload?" in that inquisitive and perhaps even slightly apologizing tone just before we nod and scoop up our cards, trying not to go on tilt as the match goes to game three. And on the other hand, most of us have probably been in a situation where we've thought to ourselves "my only out here is probably Teleportal". Whether you get there or not, there is an acknowledgement of the power this card has to warp the game - and to warp your draft if you open up on it as your first pick.
Very few cards have that radical of an impact on how you draft and construct your deck. "Get guys out, attack when able, dig for teleportal for the win" is a perfectly legit strategy in some RTR draft decks. I know I've played this in probably more of my sealed pools than was reasonable, and in one of them (where I was merely splashing the red) found that it won so many of my games that I regretted leaving my Izzet Charm in the board because it could dig me two cards closer to a Teleportal that almost always ended the game there and then.
What this teaches us is, I think, that sometimes a limited format will have cards such as Teleportal that are powerful enough to warp your deck and gameplan significantly to include. Examples of this from earlier formats might be the Innistrad fun-maker Spider Spawning or the "alpha-strike enabler" predecessor from Scars block, (Concussion Bolt). Some of these cards are easier to accommodate that others (Teleportal mainly asks you to play lots of creatures and keep them alive) and also more powerful (Pyroconvergence never really 'got off' in the same way that Teleportal did). Knowing how successful they'll be will almost always require us to try them out. But before we can to that, we need to identify them - keep a look out for those, especially among the uncommons, as the Gatecrash spoilers are rolled out!
Knightly Valor: An Unconventional Powerhouse
A card that I (and many other limited players) started out being deadly afraid of running, this 5-mana creature enchantment ended up proving its worth time and again in limited games of Return to Ravnica. Enough so, in fact, that I would not find it unreasonable to list it in the top five commons of the set. What happened? Why were we scared to like it, and what convinced us and kept increasing our opinion of the card?
Limited players are normally (and with good reason) not fond of playing creature enchantments, especially expensive ones, because of the inherent risk of being 2-for-1'd by instant speed removal in response to the enchantment. The situation in RTR is no different, but (Knightly Valor) proved favorable for several reasons; the tiny suite of instant-speed removal and bounce spells being one of them, combined in particular with the fact that even landing the aura and attacking with the enchanted creature once was often worth it if the creature was then removed at sorcery speed afterwards. The fact that one of the white decks (Selesnya) could really use the Knight token, whereas the other white deck (Azorius) often really appreciated the +2/+2 and vigilance (on one of its fliers, most often) while simultaneously appreciating the "other half" as gravy made Knightly Valor a card that kept rising in people's ratings.
... Some people did go too far, I think. There have been people who played this out into open (red!) mana and were punished severely for it. We must never forget the inherent risk of playing cards like creature enchantments. But at the same time, we must not get irrational about this for of being 2-for-1'd either. It seems to me that many limited players (and perhaps Magic players in general) are just a tad too concerned with stuff like this. The fear of Scroll Thief is a well-known phenomenon, too. In general, a card having some kind of inherent risk (like Knightly Valor and other creature enchantments have) should not make us instantly shy away from the card like that. Instead, it is important to assess the risk - and the upside - of running a card. Some times, these will align in a way so favorable that it catapults the card to the forefront of our pick orders, as it happened with Knightly Valor.
Gatecrash: Extortion, Evolution, Battalions, Backstabbing and Barbarism
The mechanics of the five guilds of Gatecrash have been unveiled, and while we have still only seen a few cards with the mechanics on them (especially considering a significant amount of the spoilers so far are rare, which is less relevant for the general feel of the limited environment), I still think it is worth it to go over each of the five mechanics and briefly outline what kind of playstyle they promote and under which conditions they will prosper. Let's get to it:
Extort is a powerful mechanic, much more powerful than it initially looks. If you ever played against Agent of Masks out of the original Ravnica block, or more recently perhaps against the vampire duo of (Falkenrath Noble) and Blood Artist, you know what I am talking about. The trickle of life-drain can quickly drain you quite a bit while simultaneously helping your opponent get out of reach.
Extort promotes a long, drawn-out game, one in where few permanents are actually removed from the battlefield (we want our guys with Extort to stick around, not to trade for our opponent's stuff) and where a lot of spells are cast. As far as I can tell, a card such as the already-spoiled Basilica Guards fit perfectly into this pattern; it will be interesting to see what other cards at common and uncommon that carry the keyword.
It is worth noting that Extort should play very well with certain aspects of the neighboring guilds; the evasion of Blue or the burn of Red could both help speed up an opponent's demise, while both of these colors also assist the White-Black guild in prolonging the game through use of removal or tempo plays like tapping or bouncing. Extort looks like a promising mechanic, especially in sealed, if you can actually close out the game.
Boros' mechanic is a lot more questionable to me; I do not like the condition (despite loving to attack), simply because I feel like making so large attacks is sure to give most opponents a good block somewhere while simultaneously making sure that I have no defense of my own. That said, it looks as if the Legion plans to reward us handsomely if we do pull off the swarming plan.
Battalion does not in and of itself invite an all-out aggression (in fact, trading off creatures hurts it), but it promotes a very low curve to bring attackers in as soon as possible (I could easily see one-drops being decent in Boros), and I think the throwback reprint of Skyknight Legionnaire with its evasion and haste at the exactly right spot on the curve will serve as a valuable enabler for this mechanic on your one- and two-drops. Especially useful with this mechanic would also be creatures like Fervent Cathar from AVR with falter effects upon entering the battlefield, enabling you to further widen your board presence while simultaneously getting in there with the battalion with minimal losses.
Dimir is, I think, going to be the hardest guild (and the hardest mechanic) to use properly; cipher is an inherently very powerful attribute (free spells - potentially every turn - is extremely valuable), but the Dimir guild seems to have the least powerful creature-base and also seems to have a share in a strategy of milling which is not very synergistic with a more traditional game-plan. Getting to use the power of cipher to its full extent means picking up the right cipher spells for what your deck wants to do. In general, I think Dimir decks will tend to be controlling, caring less about the method of finally winning than about extending the game long enough to actually do so. Powerful cipher spells should be one of the things that attract you to this otherwise perhaps not all that attractive guild, because it will very likely have ways to get those encoded agents in there (removal in black or tempo/evasion in blue), but on the other hand, you cannot hedge your bets entirely on one encoded spell (what if the creature carrying it dies?). Cipher probably finds its best use in slow and controlling decks, where the grinding out of advantage it provides will grant them inevitability in some form or other.
As it stands, Simic is looking more aggressive than I would have expected from a green-blue guild, and evolve very much is part of that picture. A common, evasive one-drop with evolve (starting at 0 power but with the potential to quickly outgrow Wind Drakes) as well as an uncommon one-drop and an uncommon, unblockable three-drop - coupled with cards like a 3/1 flier for 1UG makes it look like the Simic will indeed be bringing the beats. I suspect that Simic will play in a way that feels a lot like what I've dubbed "big Rakdos" - playing a bigger creature every turn to maintain the pressure on your opponent, only Simic's early creatures will not be huge out of the gate; they will start small and the pressure will build up exponentially (ideally one 1/1 into two 2/2s into three 3/3s, etc.). The key to fighting this will be to either remove/trade for the early creatures in the chain or simply putting down a few blockers and then countering the later plays. "Curving out" with Simic will be devastating, but so will "stumbling", only for the Simic player. Striking a balance between evolve creatures and creatures that can fend for themselves and boost the evolvers is going to take some practice and a "feel" that I'm sure we will develop once we start cracking boosters.
As simple as this mechanic looks, I actually think it is one of the most interesting in the set. Discarding a perfectly fine creature for a one-time effect looks to be a powerful move but it is also radical; in doing so, you give up the continuous source of damage that that creature would have been if you cast it instead of using it as a pump spell. The interesting tension and choices this creates is something I look forward to seeing how will play out.
It should be clear that most Gruul decks will have more than the typical 15 creatures we are used to in limited decks. I would not be surprised if the standard is going to be 18-20. Among these, some abilities will be extra important due to the interaction with bloodrush, the most obvious one being trample (though first strike is also a biggie). Throwing away a creature (or even two) from your hand to alter combat is going to feel a lot better if it ends up dealing your opponent 4 damage in addition to turning around combat.
What also needs to be considered is the weaknesses of bloodrush; it is obviously fragile against instant-speed tricks, removal and bounce - imagine a card like Unsummon (or even a regular burn spell) in response to the bloodrush activation. It is most likely going to leave you tapped out, down a card, and unprepared to defend against the counterattack from the blocking creature you failed to kill. Bloodrush is an ability that can be very overwhelming but which needs to be played more carefully than the flavor of it might suggest.
I hope this helped processing some of the experiences from RTR as well as preparing you for the come of Gatecrash. I will make sure to take another look at the set once we have seen a larger number of cards and perhaps try to figure out what cards could be the Knightly Valors or Voidwielders of the set - but also the Korozda Monitors and the Catacomb Slugs. Until then, I would welcome a discussion of the look of the Gatecrash guilds in the comments section if anyone agrees, disagrees or have questions regarding any of the above.
Thanks for reading,
Marcus (@Lobster667 on Twitter).