Oath of the Gatewatch is Zendikar’s last stand. The new Magic: The Gathering set ramps up everything established in the previous expedition to the embattled plane, Battle for Zendikar (review here), while keeping all the weirdness, the prioritization of group-play, and the story-driven drama. As MTG’s first cap to a new two-set-a-year system, Oath rounds out a fascinating story line with cards just about every player should find exciting.
If Battle for Zendikar was Zendikar’s initial pushback against the Lovecraftian horrors that are the Eldrazi, Oath of the Gatewatch is all-out war. According to the lore, the planewalkers (represented by some of the most powerful cards in the game) have rallied together to save the plane of Zendikar. In response, the otherworldly and unknowable Eldrazi have unleashed hordes of minions set on annihilating the allies that stand before them. “We wanted the Eldrazi to have roughly equal numerical representation with the Zendikari, so that Battle for Zendikar would feel like a two-sided conflict,” Ethan Fleischer, game designer for MTG told me in an email. “This meant that we needed to put way more Eldrazi into this block.” It makes the conflict feel desperate and odd; it works.
The new set reflects the conflict with a new kind of basic land—created by the obliterating presence of the Eldrazi, says Fleischer—called “wastes.” This is a major shakeup for MTG, considering that there have been only five basic land types for over two decades. Wastes produce colorless mana, a type that many Eldrazi in the set need to function. And though during my play-testing wastes could be confusing at first, the new land type opens up a whole new realm of MTG strategy.
“No other card sums up the craziness of the set better,” Fleischer concluded about the new lands. “I certainly wasn’t expecting, when I was hired at Wizards, to be responsible for the introduction of the first new basic land to Magic in twenty years!”
Other game mechanics represent the flavor of Oath’s lore as well. Both “cohort” and “support” cards embody allies who must lend each other strength if they are to topple the traditionally huge Eldrazi creatures. When I played with friends, these lore-driven mechanics shaped play-style and card choice. Sure, Eldrazi are big and pack a wallop, but they lack the synergy you can find with allies.
Oath continues MTG’s focused support for multiplayer formats. Many cards in the new set have a “surge” mechanic, which reduces card costs if you or a teammate played another card during the turn. It encourages a format called “Two-Headed Giant,” where two players (the heads) can defend one “body”or life total and attack the body of another multi-head giant. “Just as the planeswalkers are teaming up to fight the Eldrazi,” says Fleischer, “So are you, as a planeswalker, teaming up to defeat your own enemies.” The decision to highlight Two-Headed Giant was made specifically for Oath, a fun option for players who want to team up, but this support will soon end. For the next block, and the two sets it will contain, we’re heading to a new plane.
For the more competitive MTG player, powerful and valuable “Zendikar Expeditions” cards return. They are twenty re-printed, foil versions of some of the best land cards ever created, inserted randomly into booster packs at a percentage that will have you scrambling for your wallet (I opened 36 boosters without a hit). While the lands are only legal in the formats where their original printings are legal (and Oath draft/limited events) they remain shiny, tantalizing beacons for players that need to “bling out their decks,” as Fleischer puts it. Scoring one of the Expeditions lands elicits a squee beyond what getting even a “mythic rare” can produce.
Players new to MTG can jump right in with five new “Intro Packs” — ready-to-play, 60-card decks with a foil rare and two booster packs. Like the Intro Packs for Battle for Zendikar, these capitalize on Oath‘s unique flavors, and offer enough value with the included boosters to draw in intermediate players. They continue to be the product to buy if you want to get a friend into MTG.
Oath of the Gatewatch is another exciting MTG set that builds upon the last. It shakes up the game with a new basic land type, has enough bombs like Kozilek, the Great Distortion to keep players tearing at booster packs, and adds to a tangible story with multiplayer-focused mechanics and lore-driven cards. The set is a blast to play – the line is drawn between the allies of Zendikar and the Eldrazi before you even open a pack, and the resulting battles are brutal. Oath of the Gatewatch has something interesting for every kind of Magic: The Gathering Player, and that’s weird, in a good way.
Oath of the Gatewatch is available at your local card store today.
IMAGES: Copyright Wizards of the Coast, used with permission
Kyle Hill is the science editor at Nerdist Industries, and is pretty sure he can beat you turn four with his Narset Commander deck. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.