Happy 2016 everyone! The New Year is here and new cards are soon to come, as we are about three weeks out from the release of Oath of the Gatewatch. Today, I am going to talk about Oath spoilers, but with a twist -- instead of discussing how good these cards are and if they have a place in Standard, I'm going to think about how these cards will affect the metagame as a whole, with the assumption that they are good. This is a big picture exercise centered around what is essentially the Magic equivalent of the ripple effect, how the presence of a card in a format affects the play of other cards and strategies as a whole. I like thinking about spoilers this way because, let's face it, identifying the cards that have what it takes to be pivotal to a Standard format is not easy, and no one is 100% accurate with those predictions. However, within just a few weeks of the cards being out we will all have a much better idea of which new cards are worthwhile. Then, I can look back at the thought experiment I ran for each of the potentially good cards and have a sizeable head start on understanding where the metagame is heading.
Oath of the Gatewatch is a perfect set to run these thought experiments on because it is a pure additive set. That is, the set entering the Standard format is not going to cause any cards to leave. A format is drastically changed when cards leave it, making it much harder to get a handle on how cards that are simultaneously entering the format will affect it. An experiment is a great paradigm for understanding how this exercise works -- elementary science courses teach us that a good experiment only changes one variable at a time so as to know what to attribute any measured change to, and this thought experiment is better run when the cards being added from the new set are the only changes occurring to the format.
So, just to be very clear, here's how this is going to work. I am going to bring up cards. I am going to assume that the thing that the card is doing is a worthwhile thing and that the card in question will see significant play in the upcoming Standard format. I am not predicting that the card is great; I am assuming that it is in order to have a baseline from which to evaluate how the card will affect the metagame. In fact, I can nearly guarantee that not every card I talk about will see significant play. I chose them for how much buzz I feel they have received thus far and how interesting the metagame ramification analysis is, not how good I personally feel they will be. This exercise does not work if you allow your opinion on how good each card is to affect the logic of how it would affect the metagame, so my opinion of these cards' strength is not the factor including them, and your opinion of the cards' strength should not influence how you judge the merit of the logic presented.
Oath of Nissa
The first thing I thought about when I saw this card was how Standard finally was going to have a cheap cantrip. I spent multiple months playing and working with various Jeskai Ascendancy lists and ran more than one Gatherer search for Standard-legal spells that replaced themselves on cast. For a long time, this list began and ended with Defiant Strike. No more. In general, we can expect a viable cheap cantrip to strengthen prowess cards and the Khans block prowess-like cards such as Monastery Mentor and Jeskai Ascendancy. For a card so very powerful in larger formats like Legacy, Monastery Mentor has been historically quite underplayed in Standard (although admittedly not so much at this exact moment), and most of the reason for that has been the absence of support cards of sufficient power level. If good enough, I would say that Oath of Nissa has what it takes to move Monastery Mentor out of just Jeskai Black and into decks that include green.
The cantrip effect is the headline of Oath of Nissa, but I think the rest of the card is what has the more interesting implications on the metagame. No, not the planeswalker rider text (as cool as that is). The mere fact that this is an enchantment will shift the metagame. First and foremost, the presence in the format of a commonly played enchantment that has next to no value once on the battlefield greatly weakens Dromoka's Command. Do you remember the days where the first few turns of a lot of Standard matchups played out as a game of cat and mouse, where one side really wanted to land a Hangarback Walker under their Silkwrap to create Dromoka's Command insulation for the rest of their enchantment-based removal? This subgame was one of the driving factors behind the drop in popularity of Hangarback Walker, as Dromoka's Command decks realized they didn't want to have any chance of their Commands not being great. The shift away from Hangarback Walker in effect closed the loophole, and the white enchantment-based removal began to see less play. With Oath of Nissa we can easily get insulation for our powerful enchantments and thus get to play them with much less risk. This should increase the profile of the white enchantment removal again, and perhaps even the profile of some of the other powerful enchantments in the format like Jeskai Ascendancy and Outpost Siege.
So Oath of Nissa will create heightened metagame presence of prowess and prowess-like strategies, increase the incidence of enchantment play and decrease the power level of Dromoka's Command. This is how it interacts with things already in the format and The General direction of the trends Oath of Nissa will create, with the magnitude left to be determined as we discover just how good Oath of Nissa is. There is, however, one last thing I want to note about Oath of Nissa: how it interacts with other Oath of the Gatewatch cards. Specifically, Oath of Nissa is a fantastic enabler for the surge mechanic. We haven't seen all of the surge cards yet nor do we have any idea if any of them will be Constructed viable, so the importance of this effect is impossible to pin down right now. However, this is a very important thing to earmark for future reference as the rest of the spoiler comes out and new potentially great surge cards are revealed.
Speaking of surge, next up is Reckless Bushwhacker. Here we have a card that, if good, will see play primarily in exactly one place: the red deck. To explain how I think this card could affect the metagame, I first need to give some context for how I think about the red deck in current Standard. As I've talked about before, the Battle for Zendikar red deck is wildly different from previous Standard red decks because it is largely focused on the Temur Battle Rage combo to get through a significant portion of its burst. Or rather, it is focused on abusing the threat of that combo to gain mana equity throughout the game. The truth is that without the combo, the power level of the red aggro cards in Standard is not nearly high enough to create a top tier deck. Yes, I get it, many of the current red decks routinely board out the combo or are much less focused on it and still see a high level of success, but even these less combo oriented versions of the deck derive a lot of value from the implied combo finish.
In essence, every red deck in Standard is a mix of typical red aggro and the Temur Battle Rage combo -- two different halves in one deck. The red aggro cards on their own aren't good enough, and the combo on its own is too easy to play around. The deck performs best when it keeps the opponent guessing, crushing its opposition with the half of the deck they were not prepared for. Enter Reckless Bushwhacker. A card in the noble lineage of Goblin Bushwhacker, Reckless Bushwhacker does two important things. First, he strengthens the red aggro half of the deck, increasing the power level of the base aggro strategy and decreasing the amount the deck has to rely on Temur Battle Rage. Second, he serves as the second "tokens matter" effect that this deck has desperately needed. Before Battle for Zendikar, it was Foundry Street Denizen and (to a smaller degree) Goblin Rabblemaster that joined Atarka's Command in making Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst significant threats. Both of those goblins rotated out though, leaving Atarka's Command alone to perform this duty. This made the token generators very awkward to play, as in the games where Atarka's Command was nowhere to be found, the anemic token bodies very often did not matter. Now Reckless Bushwhacker is here to pick up the mantle and allow the red deck to transform from a deck in halves to a deck in thirds: red aggro, Temur Battle Rage, and tokens matter.
So how can we use these ideas as to how Reckless Bushwhacker will change the red decks to understand how the overall metagame will shift? Well, first off, red will see more play and/or better results. The uncertainty in the metagame as to what version of red is better, Atarka Red or Green/Red landfall, will wane with Atarka Red taking a clear lead due to its tokens sub theme being bolstered. This will let the rest of the metagame focus their red hate on just one deck, but they will still suffer from the fact that the new red deck will have multiple parts that require different kinds of hate. Cards that can deal with multiple plans of the red deck, like Negate (stops combo and token generators) will be highly prized. Overall play of Temur Battle Rage will fall, but will likely still be a pivotal part of the red decks.
Crush of Tentacles
The last card I want to discuss is Crush of Tentacles. Before diving into this one, I need to clarify exactly what I'm assuming about how good Crush of Tentacles will be. For the purpose of this exercise, I'm assuming a deck comes to exist that uses Crush of Tentacles as an important part of its strategic goal. Not just a one-of value card, this deck is routinely trying to play Crush of Tentacles and reset the board. Whether that is the deck's endgame or just a stopgap as the deck bridges onward to an even more dominating late game doesn't matter, the starting point for this analysis is that boards will be routinely reset and the accompanying octopus will be omnipresent in the format.
So, if this is the case, what does Standard look like? Evacuation-like effects like this are inherently punishing to midrange decks as those decks play to the board and have a much harder time rebuilding than lower to the ground aggressive decks (worth noting that getting to rebuy Siege Rhino's ETB trigger might make this card less painful to Abzan midrange decks). Decks that are weak to Crush of Tentacles will need to be able to reliably deal with the octopus, as an unanswered 8/8 tends to end the game in quick fashion. This will increase play of Murderous Cut and Crackling Doom. Curves will lower as decks prioritize being able to redeploy their hands in the event of a reset. Similarly, mana sinks and card draw become less important to decks as they often find themselves with plenty of things to be doing with their mana at all stages of the game.
Strategically, Crush of Tentacles has the potential to polarize the format into low curve aggressive decks that can duck and weave under the tentacles, and high curve slow decks that can ignore them. Low curve Monastery Mentor strategies are also uniquely punished by this effect. To shore up its weaknesses, the Crush of Tentacles deck likely needs to have the best late game of any deck (I would hazard a guess at an Eldrazi core) and have enough early game to survive against aggressive decks. The lack of reach in this Standard format will be a huge boon to a Crush of Tentacles based strategy, as it means that reaching Crush will often be enough to stabilize and win the game.
Using spoiler season as a time to try and identify the best, most impactful cards from the new set is a high risk, high reward strategy. When you are right you will be way ahead of the format for a few weeks, but when you are wrong you will be significantly behind. Even the best of the best are not always right when it comes to evaluating new cards. Thinking through what the format would look like if each card is good is a slightly lower reward, much lower risk strategy. Instead of staking your claim immediately, you play it safe at the beginning of the format -- you're not ahead, but you're not behind. You gather information from tournament results and are able to identify what cards are truly good much more accurately than if you tried to do it from the card text alone. And then this strategy begins to truly pay off as you find yourself one step ahead in understanding how the format is shifting.
Thanks for reading,