Oath of the Gatewatch: Surge of Resistance Review (Part 1 of 2)
“May you know the joy of finding an untapped design vein.”
So Mark Rosewater, head designer of Magic: the Gathering, concluded his column of 21 July, 2014. Entitled “At All Costs,” the feature looked at all of the different cost-reduction mechanics available in the game of Magic. In many cases, such as using life as a currency for mana, much of the design space has already been mined, from Snuff out to Dismember. That isn’t to say it won’t be used again, but it’s not entirely new.
In other cases, however, Rosewater admits there’s plenty of room for innovation, and one of these he called “Condition Has Happened.”
What’s in This Category: This category is similar to the last one in that it’s looking for a particular event, but it is more flexible as it can be something you proactively do. The best two examples of mechanics in this space are the miracle mechanic from Avacyn Restored and the madness mechanic from Torment. The former lets you cast a spell for a lower cost immediately after you draw it, while the latter gives you the chance to cast it cheaper (on many of the cards, but not all) when you discard the card. The trick to this category is that you are often trying to make the trigger happen.
Future Design Potential: This is another category that’s wide open with design potential. In fact, I’m sure there are numerous mechanics in this design vein out there waiting to be found.
Given the length of time it takes to design and develop a Magic set, it certainly took almost no time at all to return to “Condition Has Happened.” Meet surge, the latest cost-reduction mechanic in Oath of the Gatewatch.
According to Ethan Fleischer, lead designer of Oath of the Gatewatch (and, as longtime readers will remember, a contestant in the Great Designer Search 2 who had us review his deck and mechanic), surge came about from the need to have interactions with a teammate. That not only would reinforce, the set’s theme of teamwork, but also allow for greater depth in multiplayer play, particularly Two-Headed Giant.
In the Two-Headed Giant, the mechanic really has a chance to shine, since it can kick in even if it was your opponent who played the first spell of the turn. Things are a little different in single-player mode, where you have to set up surge to get the most of it. That’s the challenge of today’s deck, Surge of Resistance.
Unpredictable, but not Uncontrollable
The deck begins with a Lavastep Raider, a card that is more and more interesting the more steeped in Magic history you are. Red has traditionally been home to some of the game’s least-efficient creatures as a whole, which is often the price that’s paid for their speed. This lays the foundation for the Red “Sligh” archetype:
1. Flood the board with cheap creatures early
2. Use burn spells to remove blockers, then
3. Use burn spells to finish off the opponent once they’re within striking range
A long-serving example of Red’s priorities is found in the Goblin Piker, a two-mana 2/1 with no special abilities. And while it’s true that Wizards tends to ‘cost’ power a little ahead of toughness, even a one-drop 1/2 is a little surprising, and not just because Red tends to favor offensive-minded imbalances (see: Ball Lightning) over defensive-minded ones. This goes even further with Goblins, who are a reckless and impulsive tribe as any you’ll find in the game. And if that wasn’t intriguing enough, the Raider also has an all-upside activated ability to go with it.
It helps to put this card in its historical context by looking at the other cards that are like it. In all of Magic’s history, Red has only ever had two other one-drop 1/2 creatures. The first was Return to Ravnica’s Nivmagus Elemental, a rare not least because of a complicated activated ability. Khans of Tarkir followed with the Monastery Swiftspear, a ½ with two relevant abilities that pushed the Swiftspear to high levels of constructed play. The Lavastep Raider is no Swiftspear, but then it’s no uncommon, either.
Instead, the Raider is an nicely-designed card that plays an important role here. In a deck built around the idea of being able to cast multiple spells per turn, the one-drops are particularly important as they are going to be the most reliable surge enablers you have. A one-drop that lets itself become more relevant later in the game with a power boost- even if it’s not a cheap one- fits right in. Oftentimes, the typical piloting of a creature deck dictates you play as much as you can to maximize your turn efficiency (particularly since the precon environment has little to fear in the way of sweepers that are less kind to that sort of deployment in other formats). Getting the most out of surge will occasionally mean not playing a card when you could have, so finding other ways to use that mana are helpful. Wisely, the deck gives you three of these, and “three of” is generally the preconstructed game’s version of “four-of” in constructed.
Moving to the two-drops, the Umara Entangler is another nice addition in a color not always known for its cheap creature efficiency. Essentially a Goblin Piker with prowess, the Entangler can offset its brittle toughness whenever you cast a noncreature spell. You get three of these as well, so expect them to do some work. You also get a pair of Stormchaser Mages, which have the same prowess but tack on a few extra abilities thanks to its multicolor status. A nice, evasive creature with a decent back-end, these are also cards that will be doing some of your heavy lifting over the course of a match.
If the early stages of the deck appear a little thin, there’s good reason as many of the later-drop creatures can be cast more cheaply under the right conditions. Next up in the three-drops are your Reckless Bushwhackers, the first surge creatures in the deck and a direct descendant of the original Goblin Bushwhacker from Zendikar. The Bushwhacker is a 2/1 with haste, which alone is a fairly poor deal for the cost, but if you manage to surge it out, you not only shave a mana off the cost but also give your team a bonus. It’s intriguing to see how they managed to reprint the original Bushwhacker in a functionally similar mold, but using an entirely different mechanic.
A less clear-cut analogue to a Zendikar creature appears in the form of the Goblin Freerunner, which bears a passing resemblance to the Bladetusk Boar, though again thanks to surge you can shave a little off the mana cost. The Freerunner is designed to be difficult to block with its menace, and continues the theme of the deck in having lots of pesky, difficult defending decisions. By this point, the pair of Cloud Mantas– simple fliers with no special abilities- are almost a breath of fresh air for the opponent, who doesn’t need to worry about them being surged onto the board or suddenly getting bigger thanks to a timely instant triggering prowess.
Moving on to the top of the mana curve, a pair of Jwar Isle Avengers are another decent body in the air- and a nice discount on the price tag if you manage to surge them out. This is a difficult card to assess, given how conditional it is. A 3-mana 3/3 flying creature is nice, but even in the best case you won’t be playing it until turn 4 since you need to cast another spell to get the discount. A five-mana 3/3, however, doesn’t have as much of an impact on the game state as you’d like to see for that much cost. Similarly, Cyclone Sire isn’t huge on its own, but there’s a certain virtual card advantage it offers by giving you an extra creature where once you only had a land.
Rounding the bend, we find a Windrider Patrol, which is something you’ll always feel good about casting for five mana. 4 power in the air starts to become respectable, and the scry is a nice added bonus that will improve the quality of your card draw, often at the time you’ll want it most- the end of the game. Finally, the deck’s biggest bomb comes in the form of its premium rare card, the Tyrant of Valakut. A 5/4 Dragon, it costs a brutal seven mana, but can be surged out at a reasonable discount. Doing so gives you the added bonus of a free Lightning Bolt, which is a terrific value. You’ll never want to see this card early, but you’ll usually be happy to draw it late.
By their nature, noncreature spells can be quite a bit different than creatures. They are often more board-state dependent- you usually won’t cast your Lightning Bolt on turn 1 on the opponent’s face, for instance- and so it’s harder to predict a tempo with them. That becomes a touch more complicated when you add surge to the mix, because now you may be in position to make suboptimal plays with your first spell just to get the benefits of your second.
That helps provide some context for the inclusion of a card like Expedite. Sort of. See, Expedite is the perfect surge enabler in that it costs only a single mana and replaces itself in your hand. It doesn’t get much better than that! However, the effect of Expedite is somewhat conflicted. Haste only works on a creature that’s entered the battlefield this turn. And if you’ve already summoned a creature this turn, well you’ve already enabled surge without needing to cast Expedite.
What you may find more often is that you’re casting Expedite just to cycle it out of your hand and trigger surge, not caring about the haste. Occasionally you might use it as an instant-speed boost for prowess creatures. But overall, it’s not a clean fit.
Anticipate, on the other hand, is a very clean fit. Whereas many spells are board-state dependent, as mentioned above, there’s seldom a bad time to improve the cards in your hand. Surge of Resistance gives you ample opportunity to do so, helping you refine your game plan to better set up surge-filled turns. Comparative Analysis is another card-draw spell, though it has a surge cost that can shave a point of mana off the casting. Finally, Ugin’s Insight– the deck’s second rare card- lets you potentially scry fairly deeply, then draw three cards. This is a great late-game card, where you are most likely to have high-CMC permanents on the field and an interest in finding the right card for the game state. Ugin’s Insight is a welcome sight at that point, even if it does cost a nice chunk of mana.
For removal, the deck has quite a number of options, many of them able to be surged out on the cheap. A pair of Containment Membranes lead the way here, and at a single mana each when surged they’re quite a bargain. It’s not a permanent solution, but in this environment there aren’t a lot of ways to deal with a hostile enchantment. Grip of the Roil, meanwhile, is another lockdown spell, albeit a temporary one. Sometimes that’s all you need, though, and Grip has the benefit of letting you draw a card to replace it. It, too, carries a surge discount.
Boulder Salvo has the biggest surge discount of any card in the deck, costing less than half its regular cost when played after the first spell. It does a nice chunk of creature-only direct damage, which will kill most things in the format. You also have some open-ended burn in Rolling Thunder, a reprint from Tempest. An X-spell that lets you divvy up the damage however you like, it’s a superb late-game closer. You only get one of each of your burn spells, however, so you’ll need to make them count.
Next there’s a Blue Unsummon effect in Roiling Waters, which pairs a double-Unsummon (at sorcery speed) along with card draw. Another card you’ll be delighted to see later in the game, this game can break through a board stall and open up some attacking options in the red zone if things have become congested.
The final spell in the deck is Pyromancer’s Assault. This is a classic Red archetype, the spell that lets you do additional damage based on using the set’s mechanics. Just like in Worldwake with multikicker and Rumbling Aftershocks or flashback and Innistrad’s Burning Vengeance, this is a repeatable source of direct damage that fires off a Shock every time you cast more than one spell each turn.
As for lands, the deck has the same light presence of nonbasics as the others in the set. The Blighted Gorge is a bit like Seal of Fire, a source of damage that sits there until it’s ready for its single, pyrrhic use. Of course, it happily provides mana until that point and it’s activation isn’t cheap, but any extra sources of direct damage are welcome. Evolving Wilds, of course, is the stock mana fixing option, and you have one of those as well.
It will be interesting to take the deck into battle and see how it performs. Although surge is clearly a “Condition Has Happened” cost-reduction mechanic, the way it guides you to play cards in bursts over a steady stream could make a case for the “Spend Time” category (making it, in some ways, similar to suspend).
It will be interesting to see how that plays out, and we’ll be back with a final grade and analysis.