Gatecrash: Orzhov Oppression Review (Part 1 of 2)
In our last review, we took at look at the Gruul and the difference between their first Theme Deck, Gruul Wilding, and their Gatecrash update. As the joint-bottom deck from the original Ravnica block, it’s certainly true that there was nowhere to go but up, but Gruul Goliaths redeemed the guild in a big way. Can a similar magic be worked on a guild who ended their first run near the top?
Code of the Orzhov was the second-highest-rated Theme Deck in our run through Ravnica block, just pipped at the finish by Azorious Ascendant. Our main criticism of the deck was that it grafted a very solid bleeder strategy onto a sacrificial subtheme which was somewhat less elegantly executed. This was in part to take full advantage of the virtual card advantage offered by the guild’s haunt mechanic, but it came at the expense of full effectiveness from the bleeder angle. This in part was also designed to showcase what else the Church of Deals could bring to the table. “We certainly gave ‘bleeding’ all the tools it could want to have decks built around it,” wrote Aaron Forsythe in his article on development of the original Orzhov, “but the funny thing was that we didn’t want that to be what all Orzhov decks did.”
As it happens, it seems designing mechanics for the intersection between White and Black isn’t as easy as it is for some of the other colour pairings. As Forsythe relates elsewhere, coming up with haunt was a challenge. Continues Forsythe:
We tried a lot of trading and mercantile flavored mechanics, but those were really wordy and didn’t fit in well in a game that was supposed to be about attacking and killing—this isn’t Settlers of Catan, people! We then went down an “oppression” path, trying the Orzhov out as a very prejudiced guild that could aim their hatred at one specific color or enemy guild, chosen when the game began. That mechanic was very swingy and proved too devastating against any deck that was trying to be focused.
After many weeks of struggling for an answer, I went home and dwelled on the nature of the Orzhov. Yes, they were traders and merchants, but that wasn’t cutting it. What about them was appealing? I really enjoy their “look and feel”—very gothic and creepy with supernatural and religious overtones. How could that work on cards?
Ultimately Wizards gave us haunt, an ability which grafted a death trigger onto permanents. It was very solid from a flavour perspective, as it captured the blurry line between life and death in the Syndicate- a guild itself ruled by a council of ghosts. Unfortunately, it was significantly less successful in some of the more customer-defined metrics. Mark Rosewater has referred to the mechanic as a ‘mistake,’ and has made it clear that it is unlikely to return. Despite having had a hand in creating it, Forsythe readily concedes that haunt was “one of the more difficult mechanics to understand that we’ve ever made.”
“Developing it, he adds, “was no picnic, either.”
The road to extort was no less convoluted, and indeed this was a mechanic that didn’t crystallise until a sub-team was formed to deep dive into the mechanic. Sub-teams are a design team formed to tackle a particular issue, as opposed to the more general task of set design, and have notably been needed both on the Gruul’s bloodrush ability as well as the original Azorious mechanic, forecast. Given the ease with which the Great Designer Search 2 had given mechanical inspiration to the second coming of Ravnica’s guilds, it was perhaps only fitting that one of the competitors, Shawn Main, ended up proposing extort. Like haunt, it was deeply flavourful, evoking the notion of compulsory tithes and taxes. This gave it a certain pleasing symmetry to the guild’s abilities, contrasting the material from the spiritual.
It also gave the original “bleeder” concept for the Orzhov a massive boost. Before the bleeding tended to be smaller, recurring drains such as those incurred by Pillory of the Sleepless and Agent of Masks. These were very solid, but once you “landed a dot” on your opponent the card did the work itself- there were no more strategic decisions to be made. Extort freed the guild from that more passive yoke, giving an ability which had to be activated with each occurrence. In return, however, it had the potential to drain more in a single turn.
Somewhere, the Obzedat is grinning and rubbing its collective hands together.
Debt and Death
The creature strategy of Orzhov Oppression is very straightforward, not least because that is where all of your extorting will be coming from. Gatecrash offers an even dozen cards with the keyword, and all but one of them- a rare enchantment- are on a body. Interestingly, Shards of Alara’s exalted differed only in that it’s lone enchantment (Angelic Benediction) was at uncommon, but otherwise has the exact same rollout quantities. The idea behind the deck is simply to erect a wall of defenses, extort like a mad fiend, then close the injured opponent out with either a fat ground-based beater or in the sky.
In order to get the most out of extort, the deck needs to permit you to have mana open when casting your spells. One way to do this- mana ramp- isn’t characteristic of either Black or White, so the deck instead accomplishes this by keeping the overhead low. As you can see from the mana curve, there’s a substantial portion of cheap cards in the deck. This has two different benefits, first by letting you establish yourself on the board consistently early, and the other by giving you cards to play later in the game that give you the opportunity to extort.
Orzhov Oppression opens up with a pair of cheap evasive bodies. Both the Tormented Soul and the Shadow Alley Denizen offer ways of sneaking damage past your opponent’s defenses while you hide behind your own. The Tormented Soul is approaching staple status, not unlike Phantom Warrior did for Blue. The Denizen, on the other hand, is much more conditional, only triggering when you play another Black creature (a description which applies to thirteen of the deck’s twenty creatures). In return, though, she extends her intimidate to a target creature rather than being restricted to herself. This makes her relevant at any stage in the game, a mark of distinction for any one-mana 1/1. Unblockable Treasury Thrulls are something the clergy of the Orzhov surely must drool at the prospect of.
The two-drops are the deck’s most populous slot, containing a full seven creatutres. A trio of Basilica Screechers offer the first instance of the guild’s extort mechanic, and the statistical makeup (a 1/2 rather than a 2/1) is very relevant for a deck that’s happier to sit back and build up rather than swing in aggressively. Surely helping that aim is the High Priest of Penance, which has been called a “Vindicate-on-a-stick.” It’s difficult- though not impossible- to get more than one use out of the High Priest. You’d have to make sure it could survive damage in the first place by enchanting it with Gift of Orzhova, then blocking 1/x creatures. Of course, your opponent is unlikely to oblige, so you might attack with it, then cast Rain of Blades to nick it… but of course, this starts to get into the realm of the wildly conditional and rather silly. Look at the High Priest as a deterrence, one that gets better as the game goes on. Early on your opponent will happily attack past it, knowing you’ll be unlikely to expend it on removing a cheap threat, but as their board position grows so too does the High Priest’s leverage. If he buys you even a turn or two without attack, he’ll have happily done his job.
The Vizkopa Guildmage is another all-in-one combo package, as we’ve seen from many in this new Guildmage cycle. For three mana, she gives one of your creatures lifelink. That’s nice, but even better if you can then activate her second ability, turning your lifegain into your opponent’s life loss. Bear in mind too that extort falls into that class as well, so you can scratch off some extra life with the Guildmage even if you only have one extort creature in play. Three mana to hurt your opponent for 1 isn’t great, but later in the game when you find yourself with open mana it certainly beats letting it lie fallow. Lastly, a pair of Silvercoat Lions provide a touch of muscle in the midsection here, as only the Guildmage offers as much power and toughness for the two-mana casting cost, but is harder to cast than the Lion (and less likely to be something you’d want to risk in the red zone).
Moving up to the three-drops, we find a pair of Basilica Guards. These are everything the Orzhov would want here, providing a beefy defensive-minded body that can stand up to solid punishment in the red zone, enabling the extort strategy all the while. Of course, while extort is meant to add up over time, the deck would be ill-served to try and ride that horse all the way through to the finish line. What better way to hasten the inevitable than with some additional evasive damage? A pair of Kingpin’s Pets also dwell here, giving a very serviceable 2/2 body in the air- as well as a couple more extort triggers.
For one mana more over the Guards, there is the more versatile Knight of Obligation. For the extra investiture, the Knight gives you an extra point of power as well as the ability to both attack and defend thanks to vigilance. This is is another card highly desirable from an Orhov point of view, since it can opportunistically apply some pressure in the red zone while still protecting you from harm. You get one of these here, as well as a pair of Syndicate Enforcers. These are a bit less sexy, being a simple 3/2 body with an extort trigger attached.
The defensive aspect of the deck gets a boost at the top of the curve with Guardian Lions, a reskin of Judgment’s Border Patrol. The 1 power doesn’t offer much, but like the Knight of Obligation its vigilance lets it contribute on both ends of the combat spectrum. 6 toughness, meanwhile, is going to successfully stand up to almost anything you’ll conceivably face, and will tempt your opponent into spending a combat trick to overcome it if their deck has any on offer.
Orzhov Oppression doesn’t yield much in the way of closers, preferring instead to win through the death of a thousand cuts. Nevertheless, there are some creatures that can step into that role when occasion arises. The Zombie Goliath is a vanilla 4/3 and Core Set staple, and while fairly plain it can threaten offensively. The Smog Elemental is an evasive 3/3 that has the added bonus of weakening your opponent’s air force. Finally, the deck’s foil premium rare appears here in the Treasury Thrull. As a 4/4 it’s not only your single biggest body, but it also retrieves permanents from your graveyard to hand whenever it’s declared as an attacker. It’s drawn comparisons to Sun Titan with some obvious distinctions, but returning the card to hand rather than the battlefield isn’t as second-rate as it might first appear. Should you be playing off the top of your library in the endgame you might well struggle to consistently find cards to trigger your extort opportunities, so the Treasury Thrull’s recursion is a great way to make sure you can keep the taxing up turn after turn.
The Power of Control
The noncreature support suite of Orzhov Oppression is fairly substantial, with only the Dimir having as many spells at their disposal. Chief amonsgt these must be the removal suite, as both colours bring elements of crowd control to the table. The simplest and most versatile of these is Murder, a simple spell which kills one target. A bit more expensive is the pair of Angelic Edicts, reskinned Iona’s Judgments from Worldwake that are a good fit here. While five mana is a lot to pay for removal even in this environment, the ability to exile rather than destroy its target can often be worth paying the premium for- particularly if you’re up against the Golgari.
Executioner’s Swing is a clever card, reflecting the challege in designing removal that combines elements of both Black and White that feel distinctly different from what either colour could offer alone. Although you have to take the hit of whatever you’re looking to kill before it becomes a legal target, -5/-5 will kill most creatures in the format, and two mana is a steal. One Thousand Lashes is this set’s Pillory of the Sleepless. While the Pillory was a riff on Pacifism, Rosewater felt that this time around what was really needed was a version of Arrest. It costs an extra mana, but the ability to shut down Guildmages and other pesky utility creatures can more than make up for the difference.
Finally, Rain of Blades is a card that hasn’t seen a lot of printing since it first appeared in 2003’s Scourge, but it has found its way into the deck thanks to an update in Magic 2013. While the damage output is small, its ability to hit multiple creatures can be especially relevant considering how much this deck invests in defense. Your opponent might well be throwing numbers across the red zone to get some past your Basilica Guards, unconcerned at their 1 power. Rain of Blades can double the size of creature that they take down.
A trio of creature augments appear here in the forms of two Dying Wishes and a Gift of Orzhova. The Wishes are another lifedrain tool, giving your opponent a nasty gift when the enchanted creature dies, but they don’t directly benefit the recipient. Gift of Orzhova, on the other hand, has that as its only purpose. Granting +1/+1, flying, and lifelink, this can give you a substantial boost to one of your defensive-minded creatures, or beef up one you’ll be sending into the red zone. We often cite the inherent weakness of the aura card type, in that it can leave you vulnerable to a two-for-one if your opponent kills the creature off. Though this is certainly true, it’s worth noting that the weaker the removal is in an environment, the stronger these auras become. Gift of Orzhova has a lot to offer on a single card, and it’s easy to cast as well.
The rest of the deck is rounded out by some one-off effects. There’s a touch of discard in Purge the Profane, while combines Mind Rot with a dose of extra lifegain. Jayemdae Tome is a useful mana sink for later in the game, when you need to keep finding spells to cast to maintain your extort triggering each turn. The Tome is not cheap, but the card has a long and historic pedigree as the ‘original’ card-drawing Tome in Alpha.
A Blood Reckoning punishes your opponent for each creature that attacks you, helping hasten their demise. Though it isn’t cheap, played early enough it can claim a fair share of life off your opponent. Additionally, it can just as crucially disincentivise your opponent from attacking you, which suits this deck just fine. Some added defensive options mixed with mana ramp are present in the form of the customary pair of Keyrunes, and finally the deck packs in a Guildgate for some added mana fixing.
It’s going to be interesting to see how well bleeder2.dec pans out, and we’ll be taking this final Gatecrash deck into the field for a thorough playtest before delivering a verdict.