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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Dec 07 2016 12:00pm
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Welcome back to the Modern Flashback Series! And of course, our last Flashback format was crippled by the lack of Common Bond (and Mana Bloom, but not only is it a rare, it was bugged when it was put into a cube a year ago). On one hand these really should be fixable: we knew the flashback formats were coming, so they should have been easily fixable (imagine the “beta” boosters being biased toward the next month or two of flashbacks). On the other, this tweet by Lee Sharpe introduces the possibility of intentionally removing some cards from Flashback formats for balance reasons (Sprout Swarm in TPF or Pack Rat in RTR, for example), and I’m not sure what to think about it. It feels like balance can be a good thing, but changing things doesn’t seem great for formats based on nostalgia, especially at low stakes, and the failure of Tempest Remastered doesn’t set a good precedent for changing old sets like this—let me know in the comments what you think. On to Gatecrash!
Now that we’ve gone through Return to Ravnica, it’s time to look at the other five guilds with Gatecrash. However, the combination of guilds here are mostly aggressive or provide reach (or are Dimir), which leads to one of the fastest, most aggressive formats in Modern. Keep that in mind as you look at the format: two drops are a very-high priority, your default mode should be attacking, and it isn’t possible to do many “cute” things. If you can understand that, the format is good (it’s better to have a clear identity in most cases rather than be a bland “core set” like Return to Ravnica was). Onto the mechanics!
Dimir: Cipher
Oh Dimir, why must every mechanic of yours lead to repetitive gameplay? First Transmute was a tutoring mechanic, now Cipher is a “saboteur” ability. The problem is that most of the cards assume not only that you have the creature to Cipher onto, but that you can hit once right away, and the card advantage ones even want more than that. The exceptions are the ones that give you a creature (Call of the Nightwing, along with Stolen Identity at rare) and the ones that actively let you get through (Hands of Binding, and to a lesser extent Voidwalk). Dimir also includes a slight mill theme, notably with the “grind” mechanic last seen on Mind Funeral—it can be powerful, as grind is generally a rider on a spell you already want.
Gruul: Bloodrush
What looks like a normal Channel variant at first is surprisingly powerful: the split card of creature and pump spell is powerful, even if the pump spell is conditional. However, what makes the cards so powerful is that it seems like the cards are pushed, from the boring cards like Scab-Clan Charger and Skinbrand Goblin to the insane Gore-Clan Rampager (remember, Colossal Might was a reasonable card, and it’s not like a 4/4 Trample for 4 is bad). Importantly, this will change how you play—don’t try to burn out creatures after they’ve attacked.
Orzhov: Extort
On the opposite end of Bloodrush is Extort, one of the grindiest mechanics ever. The drain rider may not seem like much, but it gets a lot better in multiples, it serves as both a win condition and a way to survive, and you get it basically for free on cards like Syndic of Tithes, Knight of Obligation, and Kingpin's Pet (and even Basilica Screecher fits well in the overall strategy). However, you can’t warp your deck around Extort, since you still need to cast most of your cards on-curve to survive.
Boros: Battalion
Back to the aggression, Battalion wants you to have creatures, and then get surprisingly-good advantages. Again, you’re getting these Battalion triggers mostly for free on cards like Warmind Infantry and Daring Skyjek, since Battalion is not guaranteed unless you get into a board stall (and don’t be afraid to trade creatures when you’re getting your triggers).
Simic: Evolve
Simic is the guild that’s had to wait the longest in both Ravnica blocks (waiting until Dissension originally, along with being isolated from the three-guild draft pattern), but here that is worth the wait with one of the most-interesting mechanics in the block. Evolve is a Great Designer Search 2 all-star, making you care about stats in a different way and creating interesting designs (like Adaptive Snapjaw and Elusive Krasis), all while fitting the Simic perfectly. This is another aggressive mechanic, as most of the creatures become far above the curve if you can Evolve them twice, which isn’t that difficult if you pay attention to your creature curve.
As I mentioned, we’ll start the commons with the two-drops, and it’s hard to understate just how good Syndic of Tithes is: you’d probably play a Glory Seeker in this format, and Extort gives the decks full of two-drops so much reach and mana efficiency. Court Street Denizen also helps the surprising trend in white this block of getting creatures through, even before you combine it with a token-producer like Knight Watch. Unfortunately, the uncommons seem awful here. Sure, a Righteous Charge is fine in the Battalion set, but being a sorcery hurts, while other cards like Guardian of the Gateless and Knight of Obligation are fine, but slow.
Even blue has to have decent two-drops: Frilled Oculus is a good Rootwalla (and 1/3’s are better in Evolve world), but even Metropolis Sprite is decent (even before you consider pumping it) as fliers are good with Cipher. Speaking of fliers, Cloudfin Raptor requires the most setup of the Evolve creatures, but even just getting it to a 2/3 flier is relevant. Keymaster Rogue is another card that fits perfectly in the set: an unblockable creature works nice with Cipher, and while there aren’t many “enters the battlefield” triggers in this set, Evolve doesn’t mind you casting creatures multiple times (even itself, if you somehow have the spare mana). Up at uncommon, Agoraphobia is a good removal spell (and in the long games it can get you additional Evolve triggers if you put it on your own creature), while Simic Fluxmage makes combat impossible for your opponent.
Enjoy Grisly Spectacle, as it’s the last instant-speed removal spell at common that’s reasonably efficient (until Oblivion Strike shows up in three years, and even that’s a sorcery). Other than that, Death’s Approach is probably the best payoff for “incidental” mill, especially since it only needs two creatures to be Dead Weight, a card which would be insane in this format. Backtracking a bit, the two-drops aren’t that great, but at least you have Gutter Skulk to trade with most creatures. That’s overall the trend: black is paired with both controlling guilds, which isn’t a great thing. The uncommons aren’t great either: even nice designs like Gateway Shade and Thrull Parasite can’t make up for slow cards like Dying Wish or Mental Vapors.
Surprisingly red’s two-drops aren’t great: Bomber Corps doesn’t want to block (though it’s still playable as a common pinger), while Skinbrand Goblin’s best use is the Bloodrush (though still cast it if you need a two-drop). Instead, we have good burn: Massive Raid works well when you want lots of creatures for Battalion and Mugging is one of the best Shocks ever, especially in a non-Lightning Bolt era (I even feel like this should have seen Constructed play—yes, it’s a sorcery Shock that can’t hit players, but “can’t block” feels like such a good rider). Act of Treason is also here, and it’s much better as a pure-steal effect when it takes away a blocker and gives you Battalion. Rounding out the commons, Madcap Skills is so much power for two mana, and it’s one more way to break through. Up at uncommon, Firefist Striker is the two-drop you want, and Cinder Elemental is surprising weak for a Blaze on a stick (but that’s the format). Crackling Perimeter is also worth mentioning, as it’s one of the only “cute” things in this format that can actually work.
The two-drops here aren’t standouts (though Disciple of the Old Ways is great in Gruul), but Crocanura is the real stabilizer, as just Evolving it once makes it a roadblock. Ivy Lane Denizen is also neat, if a little slow (though green can certainly stabilize until then). At uncommon, Wasteland Viper is your green removal spell for this format (either as a Typhoid Rats or an extremely-cheap combat trick), Experiment One and Crowned Ceratok are decent creatures, and Hindervines is interesting in a racing format (even before you consider that it is often one-sided against the Boros menace).
While both sets have Gates and Keyrunes (and they’re worse here in a much-faster format, especially the Keyrunes), here the other colorless cards are common rather than uncommon. Unfortunately they aren’t nearly as good here: Prophetic Prism loses value in a slower format, and you don’t want to be wasting time on below-average Equipment like Riot Gear. As for the good cards, Armored Transport fills its role as a Battalion enabler well, and Razortip Whip is actually better than you would think as a form of reach if you don’t get any Extort cards.
Dimir (Blue/Black):
Sadly, not only was Cipher nerfed to avoid repetitive gameplay, Dimir had to be the control color pair in an aggressive format. It’s not even like Dimir is entirely made of bad cards: Deathcult Rogue is a neat, flavorful way to say unblockable (though there are more Rogues than you would think in the block), Bane Alley Broker is an awesome looter variant, and Dinrova Horror is a nice callback to Recoil, but it doesn’t matter if you get run over in the first couple of turns. The one strategy that can work is a dedicated mill strategy: Paranoid Delusions is a good mill spell if you have enough evasive threats, and you get enough incidental mill from cards like Psychic Strike, Grisly Spectacle, and Balustrade Spy to pull it off. Of course, this strategy is like black in Avacyn Restored: you’re clearly drafting the worst cards and are relying on getting them late and being the only person in those colors, and even then the splash potential of the format means you aren’t likely to get the bombs like Consuming Aberration.
Gruul (Red/Green):
I normally wouldn’t think of Gruul as the removal combination, but that’s what it is for this set: Pit Fight is your fight card for the set (and instant-speed combos well with Bloodrush), Ground Assault is basically Terminate if you’re keeping up in lands, and Gruul Charm tacks a Windstorm onto your Falter. The problem is that most of Gruul’s cards are expensive, which clashes with both Bloodrush and the format in general—even the aura Primal Visitation is five mana! Of course, the two drops at uncommon are awesome, with Skarrg Guildmage giving you creatures to Bloodrush onto (and more-importantly trigger Battalion), and Burning-Tree Emissary leading to some of the most-ridiculous starts in the format (though I wish it didn’t empty until the end of the turn to combo with Bloodrush for limited—and yes, I realize you probably shouldn’t buff an already-great card). As for the combination as a whole, the simple “creatures+pump spells” combination works well, especially when you add in the aggressive Simic and Boros cards.
Orzhov (White/Black):
Orzhov’s gold cards feel like a very well-rounded bunch: Kingpin's Pet and Cartel Aristocrat are both good creatures, Executioner's Swing (much better in this format than the similar Avenging Arrow in Return to Ravnica) and One Thousand Lashes are great removal spells, and Gift of Orzhova is a surprisingly-good aura. Still, you would think Orzhov isn’t great in such a fast format, but the key is that Orzhov is just fast enough to survive. In exchange for being slightly slower, you gain a lot of flexibility. When you’re punished for not curving out perfectly, having the option to go two-three-three+Extort instead of two-three-four is worth a lot, especially when it means you win the late game due to getting more from your cards.
Boros (Red/White):
The reason why Boros is the best isn’t just because it has crazy gold two-drops like Wojek Halberdiers and Truefire Paladin along with its Guildmage; the entire color pair aligns perfectly with the Battalion theme. Skyknight Legionnaire was just an efficient creature in the original Ravnica, but here the Haste is crucial for “surprise” Battalion to turn the tide of battle. The combat tricks also help a lot, as Bloodrush pairs with Martial Glory (a surprising NWO common, considering how easily it can become a two-for-one in a turn with a lot of combat) to make combat chaotic. Of course, even though Boros is by far the best color pair in a vacuum, it’s very competitive: both Orzhov and Gruul want your two-drops, you need good-enough mana to cast an early Wojek Halberdiers without playing too many Gates, and the gold cards are very top-heavy (unless you want to play Ordruun Veteran or Fortress Cyclops).
Simic (Green/Blue):
Simic might not have the highest ceiling of the five guilds (that still goes to the nuts Boros deck), but it clearly has the highest floor. If you’re not paying attention to your creatures’ power and toughness, you’ll be casting a lot of under-stated creatures. In addition, the gold cards are more-synergy-based: Shambleshark and Drakewing Krasis are fine creatures but not ground-breaking, while an Elusive Krasis or Zameck Guildmage needs other creatures to be great. The key is to vary your creatures’ powers and toughnesses: a Frilled Oculus or Scab-Clan Charger helps Evolve your Shambleshark, Drakewing Krasis and Slaughterhorn Evolve your Crocanura, and Leyline Phantom wins the end game.
Other Archetypes:
As I’ve hopefully hammered into your brain, this format is very aggressive, which means that splashes have a higher opportunity cost. However, while Keyrunes certainly aren’t where you want to be, the combination of Prophetic Prism and Gates can certainly be good enough, as long as you have enough defenses early.
Now that we’ve been reintroduced to all the guilds, it’s time to mix them all up in the full-block format. Dragon’s Maze is up next—how can you fit all ten guilds into one set?

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