Oath of the Gatewatch is the second set in the Battle for Zendikar block, Wizards of the Coast's return to the much beloved world of Zendikar. Released on January 22, 2016, this set finished the first block in the new Magic: The Gathering block format, in which blocks would consist of two sets, not three, and Standard rotation would happen on a much more frequent basis. To see what we thought of the first half of the Battle for Zendikar block, make sure to check out our review of Battle for Zendikar.
Today, TechRaptor will be taking a look back at Oath of the Gatewatch from a competitive standpoint, looking at how well the set performed in the Limited Draft and Sealed formats and looking at what contributions the set made to Standard and the non-rotating formats of Modern, Legacy, and Vintage. We’ll also be looking at Oath of the Gatewatch from a setting viewpoint, seeing how well it carried on the original Zendikar‘s flavor and themes and also how well it continued the themes found in Battle for Zendikar.
Unfortunately for fans of the original Zendikar block, Oath of the Gatewatch again had very little of the charm and flavor of its source material. The set contained seven reprints (Bone Saw, Grasp of Darkness, Mighty Leap, Negate, Netcaster Spider, Strider Harness, Unknown Shores), none of which were from Zendikar or had printings in that set. The choice to pass up Inquisition of Kozilek or other Zendikar-flavor cards for something like Bone Saw baffled many players, especially when three of the cards that were reprinted in this set were reprinted as recently as the Theros block and certainly didn't need to see reprints again so soon.
This is especially irksome considering just how Wizards of the Coast concluded Oath of the Gatewatch. The Eldrazi Titans Ulamog and Kozilek—two of the biggest threats in the Magic: The Gathering multiverse—were swiftly disposed of despite giving three of the strongest pre-Mending Planeswalkers trouble in the ancient past, giving the impression that either the Eldrazi are greatly weakened in comparison to their first appearances or the Gatewatch Planeswalkers are much stronger than Ugin, Nahiri, and Sorin were.
The lack of Zendikar flavor also extends to two mechanics that made prior appearances in Battle for Zendikar, Landfall and Rally. The former of makes limited appearances on cards in Oath of the Gatewatch and the latter of fails to show up at all, seemingly replaced by the new mechanic Cohort. While the lack of Rally doesn't disappoint me, Landfall only appearing on a few cards does as it was one of the stand-out mechanics of the Zendikar block—if not the defining mechanic.
Speaking of Cohort, Oath of the Gatewatch introduced three new mechanics: Cohort, Support, and Surge, and the set was overall designed around these mechanics and also with Two-Headed Giant Limited gameplay in mind. However, the new focus on this type of gameplay means that playing Oath of the Gatewatch in regular Limited formats isn't as fun as it is playing in Two-Headed Giant, nor does every card work outside of Two-Headed Giant as intended. For example, trying to cast cards for their Surge cost is much more difficult when you don't have a teammate to help you meet the Surge requirements; while this is okay for some cards such as Reckless Bushwacker, it becomes a real problem for others such as Crush of Tentacles.
The other big introduction in Oath of the Gatewatch was "Colorless" mana, which had existed previously in Magic: The Gathering but had never been properly codified in what it was or how it was generated until this set. Colorless mana is now represented by the diamond symbol and has its own Basic Land in Wastes (although as per new Draft rules starting with Oath of the Gatewatch, players could only use Wastes that are in their card pool; they aren't provided for players to use during deck construction the way other Basic Lands are). Along with the new Colorless mana symbol and lands were several "Colorless-matters" cards that required being cast with Colorless mana (such as Endbringer and Kozilek's Pathfinder) or benefited from you having Wastes on the battlefield (Walker of the Wastes).
Introducing these mechanics only in Oath of the Gatewatch means that they don't have much in the way of support or creative exploration; this, I feel, was a major problem with Oath of the Gatewatch set and the Battle for Zendikar block as a whole. Both sets focused on way too many new mechanics that weren't properly explored or given the opportunity to flourish, and returning mechanics were overlooked and underpowered compared to their original iterations. I think this is a result of the new block format and Wizards of the Coast failing to compensate; in the last Zendikar block, the middle small set (Worldwake) was used to follow up on the themes and mechanics from the first large set (Zendikar), while the final large set (Rise of the Eldrazi) was used to explore new mechanics in their entirety, without being constricted by set size or having to share creative space with other mechanics. Rise of the Eldrazi was also its own Draft set, whereas the Oath of the Gatewatch Draft comprises two Booster Packs of Oath of the Gatewatch and one of Battle for Zendikar.
Additionally, shifting the focus from Battle from Zendikar's "Color-matters" to "Colorless-matters" means that Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch don't mesh well in either Limited format. As a result, the Limited formats suffered from similar issues that plagued Battle for Zendikar: inconsistency.
Surprisingly, quite a few cards from Oath of the Gatewatch saw Standard play. Reflector Mage was a major player in Bant Humans (which, as of today, will need to be revised to remain Standard legal), and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet saw usage in a niche Black/Green Sacrifice deck and wide usage in Delirium and Control-based decks. The two "manlands" of this set, Hissing Quagmire and Wandering Fumarole, see consistent play now that the mana fixing fetch lands have rotated out of Standard. The cards of Oath of the Gatewatch slotted quite nicely into the existing four- and five-color decks that had popped up as a result of Battle from Zendikar's "battle lands," and while no new archetypes came about as a result of these cards, I will gladly take usable cards over Battle from Zendikar's chaff any day of the week.
As far as Oath of the Gatewatch's contributions to Modern, Legacy, and Vintage go, one only needs to hear the phrase "Eldrazi Winter" to know of the sets impact on these non-rotating formats. The two months where the Eldrazi of Oath of the Gatewatch reigned supreme in tournament play and in Magic: The Gathering Online was a time of great discontent for Wizards of the Coast's playerbase, and even now the impact of Oath of the Gatewatch can still be felt as Bant Eldrazi has become one of the top tier decks of Modern, even without access to the Eye of Ugin tribal land. Outside of the Eldrazi cards, Kalitas is one of the few Oath of the Gatewatch cards that sees consistent, competitive play in Modern, specifically in Jund.
Defining cards: There are some very interesting defining cards in this set. While Oath of the Gatewatch carries on the lack of large, monstrous Eldrazi that started in Battle for Zendikar (outside of Kozilek, the Great Distortion and Deceiver of Form), there are some mid- and low-costed Eldrazi with unusual abilities, such as Thought-Knot Seer, or Eldrazi Mimic, Eldrazi Displacer, and Matter Reshaper. Despite being much smaller in power and stature than the Eldrazi from the previous Zendikar block, they felt alien and eldritch, and the abilities they had very much more interesting to play with. I found this set's take on the Eldrazi to be much more enjoyable than the majority of Eldrazi from Battle for Zendikar and a much better representation of the race as a whole. Non-Eldrazi cards were also handled much better than they were in Battle for Zendikar. Jori En, Ruin Diver took a unique approach to Merfolk, as did Mina and Denn, Wildborn for the Elves.
Notes on price and print run: Booster Packs have an MSRP of $3.99 and Fat Packs have an MSRP of $39.99; the set has a normal production run so product quantities aren’t restricted. While Oath of the Gatewatch Fat Packs also had full-art "basic land packs" and the second half of the Zendikar Expeditions was found in this set, price gouging by local game stores wasn't as bad as it was with Battle for Zendikar. I can only attribute that to player dissatisfaction with the strength of Battle for Zendikar. Many were wary of buying into Oath of the Gatewatch given the historical trend for second sets in a block to be much weaker than the first set. As Battle for Zendikar was weak to begin with, it was thought that investing in sealed Oath of the Gatewatch product wouldn't be worth the price, not even for the chance to pull one of the Zendikar Expeditions.
Notes on the Battle for Zendikar block: The block as a whole was a let down from the high expectations players had after experiencing previous sets that successfully returned to fan-favorite planes (such as Scars of Mirrodin and Return to Ravnica). I think it's obvious at this point that Wizards of the Coast used players' nostalgia for Zendikar to prop up the messy transition in block formats. It was very disappointing seeing a classic setting being tarnished by subpar mechanics and the superhero-esque origin story of Wizards of the Coast's Avengers-styled Gatewatch.
Bottom line: Oath of the Gatewatch was slightly more successful than Battle for Zendikar, but suffered from similar issues with gimmicky mechanics and unsatisfying story plotlines. While Battle for Zendikar made little to no impact on any Magic: The Gathering format it was legal in, Oath of the Gatewatch went the opposite direction in having too much of an impact on Modern, resulting in unpleasant experiences for enfranchised Modern players. Wizards of the Coast's abrupt change from the "Color-matters" theme of Battle for Zendikar to Oath of the Gatewatch's "Colorless-matters" was jarring and confusing, as was Oath of the Gatewatch's focus on the Two-Headed Giant format. Overall I felt like Oath of the Gatewatch was very disjointed from Battle from Zendikar, and while many more individual cards saw use beyond Limited than in Battle for Zendikar, the set and mechanics introduced weren't very well supported and it fell flat as a result.
The Limited Draft and Sealed Oath of the Gatewatch events were slightly better than Battle for Zendikar but were ultimately just as disappointing, and Standard was largely unchanged from previous archetypes. If you played Modern during Eldrazi Winter, you quite likely didn't enjoy yourself in the slightest.
The author of this review participated in Oath of the Gatewatch drafts, Magic: The Gathering pre-release events, Standard format competitions and purchased Oath of the Gatewatch product at his local game store.