Oath of the Gatewatch: Desperate Stand Review (Part 1 of 2)
Black/White (“Orzhov”) decks seem to be having something of a renaissance these days. Historically one of the less-common two-color pairings in preconstructed Magic, they’ve been on the rise since Return to Ravnica block. Some of this shouldn’t be surprising- after all, Gatecrash brought back the Guild of Deals with all of its extorting glory, and the Orzhov made the 50/50 cut to have a second deck devoted to it in Dragon’s Maze.
But it didn’t stop there.
Magic 2013 brought us Sole Domination, personified by Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis. Favors from Nyx came in Theros, while Journey into Nyx bookended the block with Pantheon’s Power. Magic 2015 and Fate Reforged brought another each, leading up to Call of Blood in Battle for Zendikar. What once might have been the province of “Cleric decks” now has a number of different and flavorful options.
Of course, as any consumer of fast food will tell you, having something readily available doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.
Call of Blood was something of a disappointment. While it looked impressively on-theme on paper, playtesting revealed that overall the spine of the deck was fairly weak and over-reliant on drawing the “right cards” to fuel its synergies and combos. Fail to draw those, and your game turned into something between mush and muddle.
Surprisingly, Wizards took the opportunity to update the archetype in Oath of the Gatewatch with today’s deck, allowing for an interesting comparison. Will Desperate Stand succeed where Call of Blood failed?
Fight for this World Together
The mana curve for Desperate Stand‘s creatures are nudged slightly towards aggressive play, with extra cards in the 1-2 mana drop slots. We open with a pair of Expedition Envoys, a card whose history was covered at length in our previous review, Concerted Effort. There it served as an early beater and prime target for support effects. Here, while it serves the same aggressive purpose, the Ally creature type it carries is also particularly relevant thanks to the deck’s employment of the cohort mechanic.
Cohort allows the deck to generate a number of different effects at the cost of tapping two of your Allies. This gives the deck a multi-tool approach, since amongst the deck’s 60 cards are cohort triggers to make creatures, gain life, hurt your opponent, and draw cards- pretty much any basic thing you’d want to do.
The tradeoff, though, is that you don’t have any vigilance effects, meaning that you’ll often face a choice of either using cohort or attacking. Since you can tap a creature with summoning sickness for the cost (as long as it’s the “extra” Ally and not the one with the ability you’re trying to generate), that takes some of the edge off, but nevertheless this can act as a drag on your aggression. You’ll want to be mindful of that as you play, lest you give in to the temptation to ‘build up’ through cohort and losing a game you might have otherwise won had you been more bloodthirsty.
As with Concerted Effort, you also get a useful mana sink in the Cliffside Lookout. Not great on its own, the ability to pump your side for five mana can be useful later in the game, making this one of those uncommon things- a 1/1 one-drop that you don’t mind drawing late.
The similarities between the two decks continue as we enter the two-drops, finding a pair of Kor Castigators. Their protection is of modest impact, but does keep them safe from being traded for a 1/1 Scion token on the attack. From here, though, the deck begins to take on a much more distinct personality.
We find our first cohort creature in the Ondu War Cleric, a two-mana 2/2 that offers the opportunity for a little lifegain. This isn’t a great card- that’s a rather steep price for a trickle of life most of the time, but as we’ll see there are rewards for gaining life in the deck that helps retain a Call of Blood feel. One of these is the Serene Steward, which gives you the option to add a +1/+1 counter to a creature for a modest fee whenever you gain life.
This also pairs well with the deck’s final two-drop, the Kalastria Healer. Thanks to the fact that every creature in the deck is an Ally (plus appropriately-included Allied Reinforcements), the pair of Healers in the deck will have the opportunity to do a lot of work when they are deployed.
In addition to the Castigators, you have another heavily-lopsided attacking option in the Kor Scythemaster. The problem with creatures possessing high power and low toughness is that they swing hard, but can be traded with just about anything. That’s mitigated a little by the Castigator’s protection, and a lot by the Scythemaster’s conditional first strike.
As we’ve seen in the past with the (admittedly easier-to-cast) Porcelain Legionnaire, a high power and first strike can go a long way towards keeping your fragile beater and upright and productive member of the team. This is a great example of a card that incentivizes you to do something you should be doing anyway. Many newer players in particular have a tendency to turtle, out of fear of losing creatures unnecessarily. The Scythemaster helps guide play towards the correct course of action, and is a terrific inclusion.
Moving to the three-drops, we find another lifegain option in the Vampire Envoy, an otherwise somewhat unremarkable 1/4 flying creature. This is a natural fit for cards that care about lifegain, but it’s particularly synergistic in a deck that also wants you to be tapping Allies for cohort. With the Envoy on board you’re effectively able to kill more than one bird with a single stone, maximizing the different effects in the deck. It’s a clever card, and the 4 toughness will often be relevant as a good defensive option.
Drana’s Emissary makes a return appearance from Call of Blood, offering you a slow, steady lifedrain as well as an evasive body. This time, you’re only given a single copy.
Another Vampiric minion ushers us up the ladder with Drana’s Chosen. Creating additional creatures isn’t the worst cohort effect you’ll find, as it can allow you to break a board stall through strength of numbers. It’s also the option that will most bring about a board stall, however, if the temptation to make more dudes exceeds the temptation to attack. It’s worth noting here that the 2/2 Zombie token enters the battlefield tapped, so no insta-blocker shenanigans allowed.
Next up is the Spawnbinder Mage, another defensive-minded creature that offers some added utility. In this case, the Mage takes on the role of the classic White ‘tapper,’ long a staple in the color. While you are tapping two to impact one, that will often be a perfectly fine trade if it gets a particularly nettlesome blocker out of the way. The Zulaport Chainmage, on the other hand, is almost the direct opposite. A 4/2 instead of a 2/4, rather than harry your opponent it goes after their life total directly. We’ve mentioned the potential for board stall already, this is exactly the sort of card that can break a deadlock. If things become dire, you have the option to turtle behind your nonessential personnel and chip away with unblockable life loss every turn.
The final four-drop is the Cliffhaven Vampire, another 2/4 body that has flying. This Vampire is effectively a powered-down version of Call of Blood’s premium rare, Defiant Bloodlord. Although it doesn’t do 1:1 damage based on lifegain like the Bloodlord, it can still offer a few pings of its own, and it makes the repeatable lifegain of some of your other cards even more worthwhile. This marks something of a welcome change from its predecessor. In Call of Blood, lifegain was your win condition, with the Bloodlord and Felidar Sovereign. Here, it’s much less central to victory, but still has a lot of great synergies that help advance the war effort.
Arriving at the top end of the curve, we find a second tapping option in the Kor Entanglers. This is another great card that can help enable an offensive push by tamping down opposing defenses. It is perhaps a touch too expensive to be most effective, in the transition to midgame, but this isn’t a rushing deck that wants to go all-out across the red zone either. Unlike the Spawnbinder Mage, this can’t be used on defense since you have no way to put an Ally into play at instant speed, but it’s solid for offense.
The Malakir Soothsayer is a funny card. It has a very strong cohort ability, letting you draw a card for a single point of life. That’s a great way to keep some pressure up n your opponent, given the many ways the deck’s creatures interact with one another. What makes it so vexing, though, is that this ability is grafted to the body of the deck’s biggest creature. That’s right, your beefiest option will have to be held back for card advantage. This will make for interesting decisions through the course of games where she touches down onto the battlefield, though it’s always preferable to have more options rather than fewer.
Finally, the deck’s premium rare appears in the form of Munda’s Vanguard. The 3/3 body is a bit soft for five mana, but the cohort ability- adding +1/+1 counters to all of your creatures- can pack a powerful punch. This, too, is another way the deck will let you outpace your opponent if it comes down to a stall, as you’ll reach a critical mass where an alpha strike comes on-line as your creatures continue to grow.
Your Newest Recruits
The noncreature suite of cards in the deck are fairly solid. One problem with Call of Blood was that it suffered from a bit of fluff in that regard, with cards sitting in hand useless. One guilty party was Dutiful Return, which offers card advantage but only after two of your creatures have already died. Concerted Effort trims this down to a much more manageable singleton, and the deck is better for it.
The only other less-than-exciting option here is Dazzling Reflection, which pairs damage prevention with lifegain. It’s very conditional, but at its best it will allow you to kill an opponent’s creature while saving yours, and triggering a lifegain effect or two in the deck. It’s not removal, but it’ll have to do.
Luckily, the removal package is reasonable. Smite the Monstrous gives you protection from some of the larger threats you may face, particularly the Eldrazi battlecruisers. Gideon’s Reproach is a conditional direct-damage card, useful for picking off an attacker or clearing out a defender. Alas, the latter option costs you an attack, since removing a defender after blocks are declared doesn’t let the attacker’s damage pass through (sans trample, of course). Finally, a pair of Tar Snares offer another approach at dealing with a creature, giving you the options of an outright kill for smaller creatures, or an assisted kill for a larger one.
The last card here is the aforementioned Allied Reinforcements, which give you a pair of 2/2 Knight Allies. This is clearly relevant to the deck, since it both wants Allies entering the battlefield as well as Allies to use for cohort. The bodies it leaves behind are a bit underwhelming (2/2’s can become redundant fairly quickly, depending upon the opposition), but there’s still plenty of use for even a redundant Ally.
The nonbasic land complement has been reduced here in Oath of the Gatewatch, with just a single Evolving Wilds paired with Blighted Fen. The Fen offers an Edict effect, which doesn’t come cheaply but can count in a pinch.
Overall, Desperate Stand looks like an improvement over Call of Blood, but there’s only one way to really find out. We’ll be back with the playtest results soon, see you then!