Last friday, Oath of the Gatewatch finally hit the shelves. And while the set continues the feel of Battle for Zendikar, the set is much richer for the Battle Box format. In this article, I'll review the set as a whole as well as individual cards.
The Sixth Color of MagicAs the title of this article already suggests, much has been written over the past few weeks about the sixth color of Magic (for you Terry Pratchett fans out there, the actual color of Magic is obviously the eighth color). The new colorless symbol looks so much like a new mana symbol that it is tempting to think that the symbol means purple or orange has suddenly been added to the Magic arsenal. Obviously, this is not the case. Colorless is not a color, and colorless mana is, well, colorless. But to add to the already considerable confusion, in the Battle Box format colorless is even more like a sixth color than in other formats. Because mana development is very orchestrated in Battle Box, adding colorless mana to the mix is no more difficult than adding a single Wastes or Unknown Shores to the Land sets. And because the communal library will not contain too many ramp elements, these lands will likely be the only sources of colorless mana as well. Of course, for things such as Sunburst and Converge, the mana is still colorless so it will not count towards those abilities. But Sunburst and Converge were already overpowered in Battle Box anyway, so colorless mana not boosting them further is actually a plus. Colorless mana is not entirely purple in the Battle Box, but it's close.
In Oath of the Gatewatch limited games, you are stuck playing the sources of colorless mana you can actually draft, meaning there's no guarantee of reliably getting a colorless mana source in your opening hand (and the chance of getting one is almost always less than that of getting mana of a specific color). This has allowed Wizards to push the power level of the "pure colorless" cards a little higher than normal. Now, in Battle Box, the guarantee of getting a colorless mana is exactly the same as that of getting mana of a specific color (assuming you have added a colorless source to your land sets to support the colorless theme). That said, the cost of colorless mana is still real, because it is replacing another land drop that could have added a colored mana to your board. The question is whether the "pure" colorless cards are worth adding to your Battle Boxes. I think you can look at this in a few ways. You can go all-in on colorless mana, adding many cards that need colorless mana to your Battle Box and adding a Wastes to your land set. You could add fewer cards, but I would question whether this would make it worth adding an extra land to your land sets; you are not only giving players access to colorless mana, you are also allowing them to ramp to 11 lands, a potentially undesired side effect. The other option is that you add an Unknown Shores to your land set and include a smaller number of pure colorless cards. Unknown Shores fulfills two roles in the Battle Box: it produces colorless mana but at the same time fixes mana by allowing you to change the color of mana your other lands produce. If your Battle Box contains a lot of cards with double or triple colored mana requirements or if you are running only basic lands in your land sets to limit complexity, this could be a useful addition. Because the Shores do multiple things, there is less need for a minimum number of pure colorless cards to justify them. On top of these, there are other colorless producing lands that are viable for some Battle Boxes: Grand Coliseum/Tendo Ice Bridge/Holdout Settlement (similar to Unknown Shores but each with a slightly different drawback), Darksteel Citadel (if you also need to enable Metalcraft), the Ravnica or Innistrad utility lands (if you like giving your players specific options) or an Elephant Graveyard (if you have an unusual fondness for Proboscidae). You can even go one step further and replace your "comes into play tapped" duals with the painlands, if you don't mind a faster and more cutthroat Battle Box environment. Your last option is obviously to ignore the colorless cards altogether if all this seems too much trouble for a few colorless cards. I think that would be entirely reasonable, but to keep things interesting for the rest of this article, I'll assume that you will somehow make colorless mana viable in your Battle Box.
Always go for seconds...The other flagship mechanic introduced in Oath of the Gatewatch is the Surge mechanic. Basically, if you play a Surge spell you can pay an alternate cost if you or a teammate has played a spell before it this turn. Most of the times, the alternate cost will be cheaper and/or it will have some additional benefit attached to it. Now, I have to start by saying Illusory Angel is quite possibly my favorite Battle Box card. It cannot be cast early, but it can be cast cheaply later in the game. And because Battle Box games will leave a player multiple options for most of the game, you will hardly ever have to skip playing a card before you get to play the Angel. If I had to design a Magic set specifically for Battle Box (a project I'm still interested in, by the way), a mechanic like this would feature very prominently in it. And lo and behold, Wizards has designed the mechanic for me! I'm sure I would have designed it so the spell could only be cast as a second spell to be able to push the card stats even further, but I can only say I'm very hopeful for what Oath of the Gatewatch will bring. But before we dig into the individual cards, I would like to remind you of what we are looking for in these articles. Unlike most review articles, we are not looking for the strongest cards or the most powerful synergies. We are looking for cards that can stand on their own, allow for meaningful interaction and are at a power level somewhere between top uncommon and playable rare. Cards that are too far below or above this sweet spot are not interesting for the Battle Box format because they will not lead to the nice, interactive games we are looking for. With that said, let's dig in.
The EldraziThe Eldrazi are less focused on the Ingest and Processor mechanics in Oath of the Gatewatch, which is a good thing because those mechanics were very parasitic. As a consequence, Oath of the Gatewatch has more Eldrazi that are useful on their own, making their inclusion in Battle Boxes more attractive.
Bearer of Silence
A 2/1 flyer for 2 is already quite efficient for the Battle Box (although anything but overpowered). The ability to tack on an edict for just two more mana pushes this right to the edge of what is acceptable. It's efficient and versatile and might well be a little too good. Fun card, though.
A 5/4 creature that regenerates for colorless mana and produces two extra Scions when it enters the battlefield is an interesting card. Seven mana does seem a little steep, and I question the usefulness of the one-shot mana production the Scions give you at that point of the curve (other than obviously protecting the hulk by paying for its first regeneration).
Deceiver of Form
An 8/8 without evasion for 7 mana seems okay but not great. The extra ability is interesting, although it should be noted that in the average Battle Box you would need to be a bit lucky to reveal a creature card that is better than your average creature. You can't choose to just have some creatures become copies, so on average the ability will whiff more often than it will be useful.
Although 6 mana is a lot, I would be hesitant to put a repeatable card draw engine into my box, especially one that can provide multiple cards per turn and has an ability that allows your creatures to become unblockable. Depending on your views on card draw in the Battle Box, this card is either great or way too unbalanced.
Allowing the creatures in your graveyard to have a second use is great, even if the cost seems prohibitive. I'm guessing you would only use this at a point in the game where it can deal lethal damage. If this was an instant or sorcery, that would worry me, but being on an expensive creature should give your opponent some time to find a way out. A more general point is that I am judging these cards in a vacuum. Many of the Eldrazi are huge and similarly costed, and you need to be careful not to overflow your Battle Box with hard-to-cast cards that will only be useful when it might already be too late. A few will be fine, but be judicious in your Eldrazi application...
Efficiently costed with a nice ability. The power of the ability is partly dependent on whether your other creatures have useful ETB abilities, so I think most Battle Boxes would have no big problem including this card, although being able to remove a blocker every turn (without tapping) is certainly powerful if not a little too powerful.
Nothing amazing, but if your Box has many good blockers, this may be an interesting way to break the stalemates that will inevitably come up.
A decent card that replaces itself when it dies. There are plenty of permanents with mana cost lower than 3 in the average Battle Box, so this card will hit a lot of the times.
A 5/5 hasty trampler for 5 mana that is hard to kill is way too powerful for the average Battle Box. I might be tempted to try it in my Commander Box, but I'm still on the fence whether I really want to introduce colorless mana there.
Sifter of Skulls
A solid card that provides some value to each of your dying creatures. I think giving a free token that potentially gives you a one-shot mana boost is nothing too crazy. If anything, it helps you rebuild a little faster after a board sweeper.
Slip Through Space
A nice cantrip that can push through your most powerful creature for a minimal mana investment. My only reservation is that space is limited and I would question whether this card does enough to warrant inclusion.
A decent removal card that can sometimes serve to push through a little extra damage. Versatile and situationally powerful, a great card.
The hefty price tag on this card suggests people think it will be a constructed bomb. I can see that, but I think the flatter power level of the Battle Box makes it a lot harder to make stealing a card worth it. That said, even a 4/4 for 4 mana is strong in the format, and I think this could be a fun card if you are willing to spend the money.
A Caller of the Claw clone that is a bit more expensive but also a bit stronger on an empty board. I think this is a fine card that offers some (mass) removal protection. Leaving 4 mana up will not always work out until later in the game, but I would not be ashamed to just play it as a 3/3 surprise blocker for three.
A 2/4 flash creature for three mana that also gives another creature hexproof is quite a versatile card. It can save a creature, be a surprise blocker or even just be a good tempo card (leaving counterspell mana open and playing it at the end of your opponent's turn). It doesn't require colorless mana either, so you're free to play it in any Battle Box.
A charm type card with three rather underwhelming modes. This might just be good enough, but I would only include it if you are looking to up your critical mass of pure colorless spells.
Both the land destruction and the land sacrificing go too much against the spirit of the Battle Box format. Pass.
That gives us 10-12 Eldrazi that are interesting enough to include (plus many more plain Eldrazi I didn't mention), making the addition of a colorless land to the land set a viable option. I will stress that as time progresses you are likely to take out some of these cards again, so unless Wizards will continue supporting pure colorless cards, you need to be careful not to accidentally cross the "colorless is viable" threshold in the future. And if you do, you should consider pulling all pure colorless cards out again to keep your Box streamlined.
The ZendikariOath of the Gatewatch continues the Ally theme of the previous Zendikar sets. Before, allies were very synergistic and didn't really work in the Battle Box environment. But even here, Wizards has made some changes. The Oath of the Gatewatch allies are less dependent on allies only, and more often check your total number of creatures. Even so, the Cohort mechanic (which requires you to tap one additional ally to get an effect) is not interesting for the format. There are also a number of "land creatures matter" cards in Oath, which I usually try to avoid because it disrupts the mana availability in the Battle Box.
Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim
Gaining 10 life during a game will be hard to do unless your Battle Box has a strong lifegain theme (or Ayli survives long enough to sacrifice many other creatures). So she should be judged mainly on her stats and her first ability. A 2/3 deathtouch for 2 mana is fine, and being able to sacrifice creatures (preferably those who were about to die anyway) for some lifegain is a nice bonus. Nothing crazy, but a fine card with a high potential upside if she manages to live long enough to use her "ultimate".
A great Battle Box card. Not overwhelming, but it creates a lot of value by getting back creatures from your graveyard. You want this effect later in the game (when your options are running lower), so having it on a 6 mana card is perfect.
A small boost and the ability to produce extra attackers every time you attack makes this a low impact card with a lot of staying power. I think I like it, but I would have to see it in action a bit to be sure.
+2/+2 and Menace for equip 3 makes this a fine equipment for the Battle Box. It's impactful without being too overpowering.
A nice clean effect that you can get cheaply if you manage to use the Surge ability. Not very exciting, but useful enough.
A nice effect for a Battle Box. Because it is instant speed, it allows you to leave counter mana up then use it at the end of your opponent's turn. Using it with an empty graveyard is risky but not unthinkable.
A nice clean effect that could be a very useful addition to the Battle Box. Like with Slip Through Space, my only reservation is that space is limited and I question whether this does enough.
Fall of the Titans
This card is definitely expensive to cast, and as such it is not that overpowering. It also gives an additional use to the cheap cards you draw later in the game, which means you will have less dead draws on average. My main concern with the card is that it also targets players, allowing for some "oops, I win" situations.
Another potential constructed player. I like the card a lot, depending on what instants and sorceries are in your Battle Box. I think it is safe to assume this guy will either recur a removal spell, making it a two-for-one, or it will sit in your hand waiting for a suitable target to turn up. If it would always hit, I'm sure it would be too powerful for Battle Box, but because it is somewhat hit and miss, I could see testing it.
An efficient but conditional removal spell. I like it.
Jori En, Ruin Diver
This card seems to be getting a lukewarm reception in the community. It may just be my love of second spells, but I really like it. In Battle Box, where you have few ways to sculpt your hand, it will likely be most useful later in the game. Even so, it can provide a lot of extra gas without being overpowering, so I'm pretty sure it's going into my Battle Box. I might even try it as a Commander in the Commander Box, but it could very well be I'm being overenthusiastic now.
Make a Stand
Swinging with all your creatures becomes very profitable when you cannot lose them to blockers. In a balanced format such as Battle Box this is much more powerful than in less balanced formats such as draft and standard. I like it, but it may lead to undesired blowouts.
If your Battle Box is looking for an extra piece of artifact/enchantment removal, this is an efficient but slightly conditional effect.
A rather convoluted way of dealing with a problem creature. I would say it is too much trouble, but it might just be that the two extra +1/+1 counters are worth it. I would probably try this in a Battle Box with a strong +1/+1 counter theme.
I'm having a hard time seeing what kind of situation this would be useful in. Sure, you can protect an important spell from countermagic by leaving an additional two blue mana up, but other than that it seems very situational. I don't like to confuse players on how they should use a card, so I think I'll pass.
Press into Service
Like with Nissa's Judgment, it is expensive for what it does, but does provide two additional +1/+1 counters. If you have a +1/+1 counter theme in your Battle Box, I guess it could be interesting, but I think I would still rather have Act of Treason.
As a "second spell of the turn" fan I should probably love this card. I do like it, but I have two worries. First, it does nothing when it comes into play and even after that it is quite situational. And second, it allows a player to sit back behind a wall of defences and slowly ping their opponent to death. I think I'll pass, with some pain in my heart.
Goblin Reckless Bushwhacker
A nice throwback card that does exactly what a Surge card should do. Play a creature, follow it up with a Surged Bushwhacker and attack with your whole boosted team. This is the kind of card I wish there could have been more of in this set.
An Aether Adept variant that delays the bounced spell by a turn. I don't think this will stump most Battle Box players too much, but it is still a solid card and often easier to cast than Aether Adept in Battle Box.
A nice on-curve threat that can be pumped, making it very hard to block correctly. The activation is quite expensive, but I'm hoping the threat of activation will be enough to get the desired effect most of the time, so players will not actually lose too much momentum durdling around with Relentless Hunter activations.
Wrap in Flames's little brother. I like it more, because I think stopping two creatures from blocking will be enough in 80% of situations, and paying an extra two mana to stop one extra blocker doesn't seem worth it. Seems like a great Battle Box support card.
An efficient hasty flyer with 3 toughness to block your opponent's early flyers. Having only one power is a bit weak, but this is offset a bit by having prowess. All in all, I think this creature fills a nice hole in most Battle Boxes.
Tyrant of Valakut
An interesting dragon that doesn't seem overpowered to me. Having some number of dragons in your Battle Box adds to its Vorthos/Timmy attractiveness, so on that basis alone I would consider including it.
Unity of Purpose
Another interesting card if your Box has a +1/+1 counter theme.
This violates so many format guidelines that it's silly even mentioning it as an option, even for the Commander Box. I just wanted to take a few seconds and marvel that this card exists now. Every green Commander deck I have will make room for this card, I swear. I don't often dabble in mtgfinance advice, but I'm seeing this card around for $0,39. That seems like a steal for such an obvious Commander staple.
Although I think the new Zendikari spells are a bit less splashy than the new Eldrazi spells, we did get many useful new utility cards. I think we'll be playing those for a long time to come.
And finally...The last great addition that Oath of the Gatewatch has brought to my Battle Boxes is a nice set of allied "comes into play tapped" dual lands. Finally there is a modern bordered option to have the plainest version of these cards in your Battle Box without having to come up with Snow or Gate synergies to justify using those. I know they are unexciting cards, but they may be the cards I am most happy with from the entire set.
I will be updating my Battle Boxes in weeks to come, so keep an eye out for the latest changes. Until then, I hope I have inspired you to try out some of the interesting cards Oath of the Gatewatch has given us. I think this set was truly a Battle Box homerun!