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January 24, 2016

Oath of the Gatewatch: Concerted Effort Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

Infect, from 2010’s Scars of Mirrodin, was an updated take on the poison mechanic introduced at the dawn of the game in Legends. It also has the distinction of being one of the very few mechanics in the game that intersects with planeswalkers. Dealing -1/-1 counters to creatures and poison counters to a player, attacking a planeswalker was indeed about the only way you’d see ‘normal damage’ from an infect creature being dealt.

The same set gave us proliferate, which while not specific to planeswalkers nevertheless offered some interaction with them, letting you add a loyalty counter to them whenever proliferate triggered. Overall, though, while planeswalkers have become the face of the game since being introduced in 2008’s Lorwyn, their mythic rarity and overall complexity have limited the degree to which Wizards has included them in a mechanical way.

Oath of the Gatewatch was very nearly there.

With an overall theme of the set being one of heroes banding together to face down an overwhelming terror together, the support mechanic was perfectly positioned to bring these together. Indeed, the initial design of the mechanic offered the choice of +1/+1 counters on creatures and/or loyalty counters on planeswalkers. Alas, late in development the loyalty-counter component was nixed due to “developmental problems,” so what’s left is the latest twist on a long history of keywords that add +1/+1 counters onto creatures.

While this might seem like a very basic, even fundamental aspect of the game, the depth and variety of mechanics that have done this over the years is fairly impressive. Unleash from Return to Ravnica gave you the option to add a counter to a creature when summoned, with the tradeoff being that it could no longer block. Dissension’s graft let you pluck a +1/+1 counter off of a previously-summoned creature, while modular from Darksteel let you transfer counters from a creature to another upon its death.

Khans of Tarkir’s outlast was an activated ability from certain creatures letting you accumulate +1/+1 counters over the course of the game, Dark Ascension’s undying brought a dead creature right back from the graveyard with a +1/+1 counter on it, and renown from Origins rewarded your creature for damaging your opponent with +1/+1 counters.

These are only a sampling, the list is far longer still, including such mechanics as bolster, amplify, and even dethrone. Suffice it to say, there is an increasing challenge in making these somewhat-related abilities distinctly different. Support accomplishes this by spreading the wealth. A creature with support X gets to distribute X number of +1/+1 counters when its condition is met (typically entering the battlefield, or on an activated ability). Notably, the supporting creature cannot reinforce itself, so this is a mechanic that works best in a deck with a fair number of targets at the ready.

As the name implies, Concerted Effort has no shortage.


Ready for Anything

A look at the mana curve above leaves little doubt as to what the deck’s aims are: to flood the deck with creatures and overwhelm an opponent. The first unmistakable sign is the high proportion of one-drops, a slot not often given much attention by most slower-playing Intro Pack decks.

While all six of the one-drops are cards from Battle for Zendkar, they play no less an important role here. The Kitesail Scouts don’t seem like much as a 1/1 evasive body, but it won’t take too many support counters to turn them into a formidable aerial presence.

The Expedition Envoy is a card what might seem unassuming, but actually has some history behind it. There was a point in the game where a one-drop 2/1 was considered powerful enough to be rare, and was known as Savannah Lions. In recent years, however, the power level of creatures has slowly normalized to a point where that rarity was out of step with the rest of the game. Magic 2010 brought us the Elite Vanguard, which dropped the rebranded Lions to the status of uncommon, but even that has been subsequently pushed.

Sure there have been a few entries that trade off an evasive bonus for a drawback, like Loyal Pegasus from Born of the Gods or Magic 2013’s War Falcon, but we’ve even seen strictly-better versions such as Dragon Hunter or Mardu Woe-Reaper. While the Soldier of the Pantheon from Theros also falls under this archetype, it came in as a rare and this isn’t “strictly” better.

Alas we return to the baseline with Expedition Envoy, but nevertheless 2 power on turn one is a nice start. Finally, there are a pair of Cliffside Lookouts, Allies that come with an activated power boost to your side. Five mana isn’t cheap, but it’s a great place to put that excess late-stage mana and can present some blocking challenges for your opponent.

A similar principle applies as we move into the two-drops and the Oran-Rief Invoker. Another entry in the updated cycle of Invokers we originally saw in Rise of the Eldrazi, they keep the eight-mana activation that offers a solid bonus. In the Invoker’s case, that’s a huge power/toughness boost and trample. The downside, of course, is that instant-speed removal in response will be extra brutal, given the amount of your mana investiture. Still, +5/+5 is nothing to sniff at.

The Kor Castigator is another of the imbalanced power/toughness cards that has a history in White. If you want to see how far the 3/1 build has come, take a look at the Righteous Avengers from Legends. Sure they had a very unusual evasion in plainswalk, but they still clocked in at five mana. Now we’re getting that at two mana, and indeed the Castigator is a strictly better version of the recent Dromoka Warrior from Dragons of Tarkir. The tack-on flavor ability of being unblockable by Eldrazi Scions will certainly be as conditional as the Avengers’ plainswalk but it’s still a nice amount of power on your second turn. Following up an Envoy with a Castigator means you’ll be going sideways for 5 as early as turn 3.

Finally, there’s the Makindi Aeronaut, which swaps the Castigator’s power and toughness while offering flying. Like the Kitesail Scout, this is a decent enough option that makes for a great support target. The high starting toughness will also go a long way to ensure it’s around to swing for turns to come.

Moving up the ladder, we find plenty more options at the three-drop level. The Kor Sky Climber is another evasive option, and while flying isn’t automatic, two mana is far from a prohibitive cost. The Shadow Glider offers an interesting contrast at ‘card point buy,’ showing that the offset for the Climber’s conditional evasion is the equivalent of a single point of power.

Then there’s the Veteran Warleader. Originally a ‘preview card’ in Duel Decks: Zendikar vs Eldrazi, the Warleader serves no different a purpose here: to be a card whose power scales with the size of the army you deploy. Given that both decks look to field a lot of creatures, that can be a solid return on three mana- and with more Ally creature types present to maximise it.

Finally, there’s a pair of Joraga Auxiliaries, the first card we’ve seen with the support mechanic that makes up the backbone of the deck. Here it’s an activated ability, and another late-game option for getting the most return for your mana.

The steady curve takes a break at the four-drops, with just three cards on offer. We find another support option in the Saddleback Lagac, another offensively-loaded 3/1 that brings a couple of +1/+1 counters along for the ride. The Relief Captain– a little harder to cast with the more dedicated casting cost- is a more durable body and three support counters.

These are well-placed on the curve, ready to give your earlier-turn ground troops the push they need to overcome anything your opponent might have put in their way. Any rush/swarm deck can begin to run out of gas in the midgame, where it frequently relies upon removal to keep the lanes clear. Concerted Effort has very little removal, so you’re going to have to get the job done the old-fashioned way: in the red zone.

As we near the pinnacle of the mana curve, we have another support option available in the Expedition Raptor. This seems like a fairly generic creature that slots right in: evasion and support. Five mana for a 2/2 isn’t going to break any records, but the support is always welcome. The Steppe Glider, meanwhile, doesn’t offer any additional counters, but it can grant a temporary evasion and vigilance to any of your creatures that bear them. If the deck has played itself out well, you should be able to field quite an air force.

The Angel of Renewal plays in the same space as the Veteran Warleader, rewarding you for having a critical mass of bodies on the battlefield. In this case, it’s simple lifegain and not especially impressive, but fortunately the 4/4 flying Angel itself is a decent- if pricey- investment. Lastly, there’s the deck’s premium rare, the Gladehart Cavalry. At seven mana it’s a huge expense, and support 6 is interesting. That seems like a huge bonus, but that means that by the time you finish calling in the Cavalry you’ll have a ridiculous seven creatures on board to get the full value. That’s a game you should already be winning, regardless of the Cavalry.

It’s probably easier to see this as a shorthand for, “support every creature you have in play.” Waiting to get the most value from this by holding it back when you could cast it is an obvious mistake- a creature of this size should almost always be played sooner rather than later, as resources allow. The lifegain is not unreasonable- one is reminded of the persistent nuisance of an opponent’s Grazing Gladehart and landfall– but the Cavalry will often be something of a “win-more” card. Simply casting cheap, evasive creatures and supporting them repeatedly are what’s going to deliver the bulk of your wins.

Far from Losing Faith

The noncreature support is a bit thin here, not surprising given the emphasis on creatures in the deck. Nevertheless, there are a few options that can help you overcome any resistance your opponent tries to mount.

Support gets some added options with Lead by Example and Shoulder to Shoulder, useful cards that nevertheless feel a bit ‘thin’ as they do nothing more than trigger a set’s mechanism (see: Steady Progress).

Allied Reinforcements really is a creature card disguised as a sorcery. In an Allies deck with its stream of triggers, this card is especially useful. All it really does here- aside from offering you a pair of Bears- is plump up your Veteran Warleader or Angel of Renewal. Nothing great.

Iona’s Blessing is a throwaway Aura, improving a single creature while having the downsides of most local Auras in the threat of getting two-for-one’d by removal. Mighty Leap, however, can be much more useful due to the element of surprise and evasion. While here, too, you can risk losing your creature in response, this can help lift one of your larger bodies over the red zone in the event of a ground stall.

Finally, the removal comes in the form of a single Immolating Glare and pair of Isolation Zones. The Glare is a nice, inexpensive removal, even if its flexibility is rather limited. A relatively aggressive deck like this one usually prefers removal that can knock out defenses rather than just slow down the rate of incoming damage, confident it can win the race.

Isolation Zone is much better for this purpose. Although it’s not instant speed, it will whisk away your opponent’s best defender to allow your attackers a way through. Although expensive, it is absolutely worth it here.

As for lands, we don’t often see Intro Pack decks anymore with just 24 lands, which once upon a time was a welcome norm. One of these is an Evolving Wilds for mana-fixing, which can slow down the deck by a turn but even out your ability to cast some of the more difficult spells (like the aforementioned Zone). Tranquil Expanse is a simply dual land that comes into play tapped.

It’s great to see a fast(-ish) deck on offer in an Intro Pack, and we look forward to putting this one to the test to see how it stands up!

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