Oath of the Gatewatch has shaped up to be the Eldrazi set. The trickle of new Eldrazi printed in Battle for Zendikar were simply forewarning that the Floodgates of Eldrazi were opening in Oath of the Gatewatch. The most startling thing about the new set is how high-quality and clearly playable so many of these new cards are. The new Eldrazi aren't mediocre cards that require synergy to be effective, but instead they are excellent cards that each stand on their own. Oath of the Gatewatch isn't the usual case where new cards must prove their competitiveness and find their place in the metagame in the face of overwhelming odds. It would be better compared to the arriving of an advanced alien species that rewrites the very rules of the game while demanding you compete with them on the new playing field.
These new Eldrazi completely change the value of colorless mana in Magic, taking it from an afterthought to something between Snow mana and a bonafide sixth color complete with a basic land of its own, Wastes. Oath of the Gatewatch changes the way we look at colorless mana, and, by extension, how we value existing cards. Today I will explore how the new set changes how we look at the rest of the Standard cardpool. I'll wrap up by explaining how some new cards will be incorporated into my favorite existing archetype, Abzan Aggro
The most significant way Oath of Gatewatch and its Eldrazi impact Standard is increasing the relative deckbuilding value of pain lands: Caves of Koilos, Llanowar Wastes, Shivan Reef, Yavimaya Coast, and Battlefield Forge. In addition to their function as two-color lands, they also conveniently produce colorless mana to use towards any Eldrazi cards. No other lands in Standard will fix mana and generate colorless mana as reliably as do the pain lands, and that means these lands will serve as the backbone for many Eldrazi decks. Previously manabases were dominated by fetchlands, which have similar mana-fixing abilities as pain lands but cost less life over the long run, so these will begin to see less play across the format as a whole when Eldrazi invade the metagame.
Once the colorless mana requirement of Eldrazi is met, they have very lax colored mana requirements, so we are going to see a major increase in the number of colorless-producing utility lands played in Standard. The first that come to mind are the cycle of uncommon Battle for Zendikar lands that sacrifice for an activated ability. Blighted Woodland is a natural fit for green ramp decks looking to play the most expensive Eldrazi, Blighted Fen could be effective for fighting against other Eldrazi, especially against Reality Smasher, and I expect to see others from the cycle in decks that can support them. Don't forget Spawning Bed, which isn't constrained to any specific color.
There's a long list of colorless-producing utility lands that have potential in Eldrazi decks. Two of these, Shrine of the Forsaken Gods and Sanctum of Ugin, currently see play in Eldrazi Ramp decks, so they are going to be important as this archetype transitions to Oath of the Gatewatch and incorporates more Eldrazi, but they won't be very useful in the small-ball Eldrazi decks that focus around the cheaper Eldrazi. A deck built to play with these new cards will turn to other colorless lands that better fit its strategy.
Foundry of the Consuls is cheaper to use than Spawning Bed and produces flying tokens that are more valuable attackers than Eldrazi Scion, so it's the better option for aggressive decks with lower curves. Rogue's Passage is particularly spicy because it's best with large creatures, so it's going to be great with cards like Reality Smasher and Thought-Knot Seer. For a more defensive approach, Tomb of the Spirit Dragon is deceptively powerful as a repeatable source of life gain. Mage-Ring Network isn't flashy, but its ability to accelerate mana will be useful in some decks.
Keep in mind that there are also some great new lands to use. Sea Gate Wreckage is very powerful and will likely accompany existing colorless lands in any dedicated Eldrazi deck. Coming into play tapped, Mirrorpool and Ruins of Oran-Rief must be selected more carefully than the other options, but they are potent in the right decks. Eldrazi decks without colored spells may include any or all of these lands, but most will tend to include some number of pain lands and other colored lands, so decisions will have to be made on what specific combination of colorless utility lands is best for each particular deck.
There is also the potential for Eldrazi joining other tribes, specifically Allies or Dragons, because of the existence of Allied Encampment, Haven of the Spirit Dragon, and Crucible of the Spirit Dragon. These lands are great enablers for both tribal decks and Eldrazi decks, so they would be a great addition to a strategy combining the two. These decks could be tribal-based and use the tribal lands and pain lands to help splash some powerful Eldrazi, or they could be mostly colorless Eldrazi decks that use the tribal lands as an extra colored source towards splashing a powerful tribal card.
While there may be enough Eldrazi in Oath of the Gatewatch to fill a deck, the best Eldrazi decks will make the most of tools already in the format. Some specific colorless cards are now entering their glory days in Standard. We caught a glimpse of what Ghostfire Blade was capable of in the short-lived U/R Ensoul Artifact deck last season, but the rise of the Eldrazi in Standard might make better use of the card. Remember that it works with "colorless" Devoid creatures as well, so it's the perfect fit into aggressive strategies with cards like Reaver Drone. Hangarback Walker was everywhere immediately after rotation, but it has since dwindled to see very-little-to-no-play in Standard. The new set changes that and, as Eldrazi decks look to fill their ranks with quality colorless creatures, Hangarback Walker will very often be called upon. Endless One, which hasn't seen any competitive Standard play, will become commonplace.
Conduit of Ruin is a very effective card in Eldrazi Ramp strategies, and it's going to be especially effective with the printing of some very powerful new creatures that will serve as win-conditions for the Eldrazi decks. Previously Eldrazi decks had less high-end creature options to work with, so playing a card like Conduit of Ruin didn't make a lot of sense, but now it has a huge cast of cards to find and help accelerate into play. Kozilek, the Great Distortion is a powerful and desirable one-of helped made possible by Conduit of Ruin. World Breaker immediately impacts the battlefield, presents a huge threat, and has built-in resilience to disruption, so it's going to play a starring role in Eldrazi Ramp decks going forward. It represents a shift towards a more threat-heavy and creature-oriented Eldrazi Ramp deck, a deck where Conduit of Ruin could shine. Another card that has gained utility with the new set is From Beyond, which now has a wider array of potential creatures to search for.
Titan's Presence could see play in a variety of Eldrazi decks, but it's best in an aggressive Eldrazi deck dense with creatures. This sort of deck would have a lot of interest in removing blockers, and it could reveal Thought-Knot Seer or Reality Smasher to Remove even the largest creature the opponent is likely to have, especially Siege Rhino.
Beating Eldrazi Decks
With Eldrazi decks on the rise, the rest of the Standard metagame will be forced to adapt.
Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher are great against removal spells, so perhaps the best way to beat them is to stop them from resolving in the first place. Counterspells are particularly well-positioned to Crush midrange Eldrazi decks by gaining tempo with two- and three-mana Counterspells against their four- and five-mana plays. This could be indication that Esper Dragons or even old-school Esper Control with cards like Ojutai's Command could be great going forward.
Besides Counterspells, the other way to stop Eldrazi before they hit play is with discard.
With ramp decks diversifying their threat bases, I'm not sure that Infinite Obliteration is going to cut it anymore. It will still be useful for decks looking to play the long game that won't be able to stop the on-cast triggers of World Breaker and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger with Counterspells, but unfortunately Infinite Obliteration will only take out one aspect of their deck, not cripple them entirely. I will admit I am interested in the interaction between Infinite Obliteration and Goblin Dark-Dwellers to cast it again, perhaps in a non-counterspell control deck like Mardu.
For most decks the best approach against Eldrazi will be Transgress the Mind, a more flexible card for dealing with the threat currently at hand. It Removes any high-end threat all the way down to cheap Eldrazi like Matter Reshaper, along with their support cards like Kozilek's Return and ramp like Explosive Vegetation, so it's as versatile as they come.
While it's not a card I have considered much in the past, Despise could have applications against very creature-heavy midrange Eldrazi decks sporting the four- and five-mana Eldrazi, and against any new planeswalker-focused deck with Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, so it's something to have on your radar.
I suppose another way to stop Eldrazi before they hit play is make sure the opponent never has the opportunity to cast them. For decks like Atarka Red or even Abzan Aggro this might mean just killing the opponent before they can cast and use these cards, but what I had in mind was to keep them from ever getting the mana to cast them by using land destruction, specifically Crumble to Dust. With nonbasic utility lands set to become very popular, Crumble to Dust will be better than ever before.
Abzan Aggro and OGW
Preparing for a new set and evaluating new cards also means looking at the context of the metagame and the decks in it. The new set is not all about Eldrazi, and existing archetypes will incorporate new cards and evolve. I have a lot of experience with Abzan Aggro, and it's the place from which I will approach playing the new format competitively, so with the set fully spoiled I have taken stock of what cards could be included in the archetype.
I have heard a lot of talk on Oath of Nissa, but it's not a card I have any interest in playing in Abzan Aggro, and for multiple reasons. Abzan Aggro is a tempo deck that has two goals, to advance its side of the battlefield and to destroy the opponent's, so any mana spent not accomplishing these goals is a waste. The deck often taps out every turn, sometimes deep into the game. The deck has a lot of things to do with its mana, and with many lands already coming into play tapped there is even less mana available. There is simply no time to cast Oath of Nissa.
Abzan Aggro is also a homogeneous deck where every creature is essentially the same. Every card is a threat, and the only variation between them is their scale; in other words their size and their cost. Casting Oath of Nissa is essentially just treading water and does not achieve anything, and if anything it just downgrades to a less powerful threat because there is now less mana available. Oath of Nissa also comes with the opportunity cost of having to replace another possible card in the deck, which further highlights the fact that it's essentially accomplishing nothing.
Consider these points together and add in the always real possibility of just not finding a card to draw in the three revealed, and see that Oath of Nissa is not a card fit for Abzan Aggro.
Hissing Quagmire is the black/green creature land Abzan Aggro always wanted, and it's a fit into the deck, but it already has a better option in Shambling Vent. With an extra point of toughness Shambling Vent is more robust, so it's better in combat and doesn't die to Wild Slash or Kolaghan's Command. The life gain is also quite relevant in many situations and matchups. That being said, the deathtouch of Hissing Quagmire makes it a superior card in the Mirror Match, and it's definitely better against Eldrazi like Reality Smasher, so it could see play if the metagame shifts away from aggressive red decks. The main reason to not just play both creature lands is the high cost of a land coming into play tapped. It's possible that playing five or six total creature lands in the deck is fine, which would allow Hissing Quagmire to replace some number of Llanowar Wastes, but the cost of slowing the deck down is high.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion saw play in Abzan Aggro last season, so the deck can certainly hit six mana. One of Abzan Aggro's weaknesses is that it has a hard time when playing from behind, a problem that Elspeth, Sun's Champion once solved. Linvala, the Preserver could theoretically help Abzan Aggro exactly when it needs help. It almost functions like Wingmate Roc, only instead of being best when ahead it's best when behind. It doesn't exactly fit the aggressive plan of the deck, but adding a dynamic element to a deck makes it more difficult to play against. Linvala, the Preserver could help Abzan Aggro to shift into a fundamentally more controlling deck, especially as a sideboard card to accompany its many disruption spells. Abzan Aggro already often takes this role after sideboard, and this new tool would make that plan even more effective. I could see playing one or two copies in the sideboard, but it requires testing.
The printing of Flaying Tendrils reminds me of the printing of Drown in Sorrow in Born of the Gods, which elevated Monoblack Devotion and suppressed Red Aggro. Flaying Tendrils is not so tailor-made for Abzan Aggro, and it requires an altered manabase to be reliably cast, but it's just as powerful a tool against red aggro. Abzan Aggro sometimes uses Rising Miasma, so it would certainly desire playing a few copies of Flaying Tendrils. The mana is troublesome, but consider that a move towards a heavy black manabase is already a current trend in Abzan Aggro:
Nathaniel Smith cut four Flooded Strand and Sunken Hollow for two Swamps, two more copies of Llanowar Wastes, and a Plains. This change adds more reliable and untapped black mana to the deck, and specifically allows the deck to more often hit two black mana. This enabled him to play Ob Nixilis Reignited in his sideboard, and it will allow us to cast Flaying Tendrils. This is a manabase any Abzan Aggro player should consider immediately, and is certainly an example for any Abzan Aggro deck wishing to play double-black spells like Flaying Tendrils. This manabase also supports Ruinous Path, which could be very strong if the format moves towards planeswalkers like Chandra, Flamecaller.
What Oath of the Gatewatch cards are you most excited to play with in Standard? What existing cards are most improved by the new set?