About Adrian Posoiu
I've started playing Magic when I was 18 years old, around the time when Mirrodin reared its head in Standard. The jump to semi-competitive play came shortly thereafter, as I started grinding local events on a regular basis. I attended my first Grand Prix in Athens 2006 and made my Pro Tour debut in Nagoya 2011. Recently, I won the Romanian Nationals and am currently set on participating at the World Championship. For those interested in what goes on outside my realm of Magic influence: I'm currently studying for a Master’s degree in Astrophysics, as I find it one of the most interesting and rewarding branches of science at the moment.
The day of the Gatecrash prerelease is drawing closer and closer. The community is quivering in anticipation of this second installment of the most hyped Magic: the Gathering block, much like a hungry customer would grin impatiently at the thought of an upcoming restaurant dinner. Wizards of the Coast, like the astute patrons they have always proven to be, are enticing our hunger even further by letting us flick through a growing menu full of succulent spoilers. We are still less than halfway through knowing the Gatecrash card pool, yet we can already see ourselves cracking open those red packs in a new draft environment.
As is customary, the first contact players will have with the set will be made through the permissive Sealed format that embodies prerelease events throughout. Fortunately, the 'Choose your guild' event structure that we've seen at Return to Ravnica's debut will also be present for Gatecrash. Fans of the Orzhov, Gruul, Dimir, Boros and Simic will be able to side with their favorites and battle in the name of their faction throughout the whole tournament. This adds an extra level of flavor to the game as a whole, while also promoting the sense of community and friendly rivalry that makes prereleases one of the most entertaining Magic events of the year.
For those of you who were not yet swayed by any of the contending guilds, I suggest we take the time to browse through the known mechanics and interactions in order to get a clearer picture of what the environment is going to look like. Mind you, the aim of this article is not to determine which faction will give you the greatest chances to emerge undefeated from the tournament, a feat which couldn't be accomplished anyway given the limited card pool information and lack of hands-on experience with the set. Instead, I will focus on the play style emphasized by each guild. In doing so, I will try to predict their strong points and weaknesses, both with respect to one another and to the relative progression of the game (early, mid or late game).
*Warning: spoilers lie below*
In no particular order other than the alphabetical one, I suggest we start with the militaristic Boros Legion and work our way through what defines this particular guild's identity. From the get-go, one of the common points shared by white and red revolves around attacking with cheap creatures and backing those up with spells that increase their power in combat. We've seen an example of such an archetype as early as Innistrad draft, where armies of humans and vampires were teamed together and backed up by the namesake Rally the Peasants. The success of this strategy relied on amassing a critical mass of attackers before the opponent would have the time to mount a sufficient defense, then smashing them into any existing blockers and using Rally to push through lethal damage. I assume that players opting for a Boros deck in Gatecrash will adhere to a similar game plan. I expect this color combination to be the most aggressive limited archetype.
Another example of a Boros trademarked ability is Double Strike, a keyword which made its debut in the original Ravnica block on cards such as Boros Swiftblade. Although, at a glance, the creature is little more than a multicolored Grizzly Bear - with a slight upside against one-powered attackers/blockers - tournament results have proven any initial belittlement to be false. At the time, the Swiftblade became a mainstay of the Boros Standard deck, where it wielded the overpowered Umezawa's Jitte to great effect. Granted, no such piece of equipment will be present in Gatecrash Limited, but any permanent power-pump effect can turn any small creature into a nightmare in the red zone. A similar interaction was already present in Return to Ravnica Limited, where cards such as Civic Saber or Common Bond often enforced Fencing Ace's stats. Needless to say, the keyword works wonderfully with Rally the Peasants-type spells, which adds to the existing guild synergy.
The Boros mechanic is called Battalion. It is a triggered ability that goes on the stack whenever a creature with Battalion and at least two other creatures attack at the same time. Due to the way this mechanic is worded, it is doubtful that we will see Battalion on anything other than a creature, which rules out enchantments or lands that will trigger off multiple attackers, a la Windbrisk Heights. In essence, this ability is little more than the condensed form of the red/white philosophy. It rewards players for assembling a large force and for sending it repeatedly across the battlefield. What Battalion does is add automatic Rally the Peasants effects to the combat math. Despite the fact that individual effects may differ, as we have already seen on Firemane Avenger and on Boros Elite, the foundation behind how these scenarios will unwind remains the same.
The guild prerelease card is Foundry Champion, a new incarnation of Inferno Titan designed to work hand in hand with creature swarms. Although it lacks any form of evasion, the inbuilt power and toughness boosters make it difficult for the opponent to knock it down in combat. While it is vulnerable to targeted removal, choosing the proper time to cast Foundry Champion will almost always net you some form of card advantage. I expect that the Boros player will not encounter significant difficulties in amassing a large enough army to make sure the elemental's comes into play ability manages to kill a creature. Lastly, the Champion can also provide the extra reach needed to end games. As is common in Sealed, creature stalls are bound to occur, especially when running Boros. In such instances, it can be difficult to find a large enough gap to sneak your attackers through and may stump your gameplan to the point of neutralizing it altogether. Fortunately, there is always Foundry Champion as an out, who rewards you for simply deploying enough creatures on the battlefield to match the opponent's current life total. Be wary of removal or bounce spells that can mess up your computations.
In terms of what makes them weak, I expect the Boros to lose a lot of ground as the game drags on longer and longer. If the opponent can stave off enough of your attacks or if the red/white deck fails to curve out properly, it is easy to start falling behind. Starting with Kraken Hatchling variants that can effortlessly block Boros' Grizzly Bears and leading up to large beasts that make attacking less than profitable, there are many trumps for a rigid, creature-based aggro deck to stumble on. I expect the Simic, with their affinity for low power, high toughness evolve threats to become the natural predators of Boros in the upcoming format. Leading off with an early 1/3 reach creature which grows as large as a 3/5 in the upcoming turns can make it difficult to pile up enough damage in a reasonable amount of time. Look toward surviving the early game and building up a dominant board position when facing off against the Boros.
The secretive House Dimir has spawned from the collaboration of two allied colors which rely more on subtle manipulation, card advantage and winning the long game, rather than beating its opponent senseless with repeated attacks. In a sense, the guild should play out completely opposite to the Boros Legion, with little emphasis on creatures and more on grinding out an advantage with its spells. In the past, successful blue/black limited decks had large amounts of removal, card manipulation and defensive creatures such as the recent Duty-Bound Dead and Fog Bank in M13. To close out games, the archetype needed one or more finishers, creatures that were large enough to dominate the board and resilient enough to pose a threat in the face of opposing removal.
Previously, the Dimir were associated to the Transmute mechanic, which was a smooth representation of how well they could manipulate the contents of their own arsenal according to the threats they were facing. Having several of your spells double up as tutors adds an interesting level of depth to the decision tree. Instead of just having the option to cast one of the cards in your hand, you were also presented with the possibility to magically metamorph it into a more suitable answer at a later point in the game. Each card with Transmute was also a placeholder for all the cards with the same converted mana cost that you could fit into your deck. The new mechanic belonging to the Dimir is Cipher. It presents players with the potential for a repeatable source of card advantage, provided they can engineer the board state in such a way that they can deal combat damage with a creature. In a way, this is akin to both the ninjas from the Kamigawa block, as well as Ophidian-type attackers like the recent Stealer of Secrets. Allow me to elaborate on this claim.
In stark contrast to the Boros mechanic, I expect all of the Cipher cards to be of the instant and sorcery type, since these are the only plausible means to carry such repeatable effects. If we are holding a Cipher instant, then any of our potential attackers takes on the role of a creature with ninjutsu. Upon first inspection, it is nothing more than an innocuous threat swinging into the red zone. However, once it has been allowed to go through unblocked, we are free to cast the spell we had been cheekily holding and encode it onto that creature with the purpose of casting it again. On the other hand, if the Cipher spell is a sorcery, then we can upgrade any of the creatures we control to an Ophidian-style attacker and work toward clearing a path for it in the future. I am slightly disappointed that the mechanic does not permit encoding a creature an opponent control as well, since that would have opened up entirely new development avenues and might have led to interesting gameplay situations. Having their largest creature provide you with an extra benefit whenever it deals combat damage would have again widened the decision tree in a way that feels very Dimir to me.
The mill subtheme was a very prominent trademark of the guild in its past incarnation, with Vedalken Entrancer being a high pick in the triple Ravnica drafts of old. This effect was further refined for the reboot and now comes in the form of 'grind' (as it was affectionately nicknamed). Grinding your opponent out involves milling cards from the top of their library until the point where you hit a land card. This leads to a difficult evaluation of grind cards, since it is impossible to discern in advance the exact number of cards you will get to mill for the mana cost invested. Nonetheless, spoilers have revealed several cards for which grind is a supporting mechanic, rather than their explicit purpose. One such example is the prerelease card, Consuming Aberration. Part Lord of Extinction, part Vedalken Entrancer, the horror attacks the opponent from two different angles. First of all, it grows stronger as the game progresses, clearly labeling it as a finisher. Moreover, it brings a degree of inevitability to the board and forces the opponent to interact swiftly or fall prey to the repeatable grind effect. With a standard deck composition of 40/17 cards-to-lands, the opponent will be hard pressed to find a solution to the creature and will not be allowed to cast more than 10 spells to do so. I've made this approximation assuming that the Aberration enters the battlefield on turn five. At that point, the opponent will have drawn 12 cards, with an average of 5 lands among those. Consider that roughly one in three of his/her draw steps will yield an additional land and it becomes evident that Consuming Aberration is one of the stronger prerelease cards of the bunch.
In my opinion, the greatest obstacle for Dimir players will be to assemble a proper deck. Be it having good cards passed in a draft or opening an adequate pool in sealed, building control decks in Limited has always presented some problems. While it is easier to jam in a ton of creatures and hope to nab games on the back of combat math, acquiring the tools to fight an opponent well into the late game takes a more involved approach. Removal is always a commodity in the world of 40-card decks, one that is highly sought by all players regardless of archetype. In this context, I believe that Wizards has given blue/black a higher density of spells that interact with creatures, but at the price of them being conditional and more cumbersome in use. A Brainspoil without transmute might be too slow to hold of the beatdown, whereas a nerfed version of Smother (as we can see in Dimir Charm) might sit idly in hand against larger creatures. It is up to the card pool to determine how viable the guild is, as a whole.
The Gruul Clans are here to smash face and chew bubble gum. In typical red and green fashion, the guild seeks to affirm its superiority on the board with a mix of fast beaters and efficient fatties. Throughout Ravnica block, Gruul paved the stage for undercosted creatures like Scab-Clan Mauler and Rumbling Slum. Its threats covered the entire cost spectrum, ranging from one drop goblins to expensive wurms and giants. As one would expect, the supporting cast was composed of Ground Rift effects, pump and burn. Little has occurred in the past years to alter this identity. Magic has been growing more and more creature-centric, which should play on the already existing strengths of the Gruul.
Despite initially coming off as the promoters of a blunt and brainless game plan, the Clans surprise me with the subtle nuances of their mechanic, called Bloodrush. Up until now, overloading your deck with creatures left less room for tricks and off-board effects. When a creature hit the battlefield, its stats and abilities become public information for which the opponent can properly prepare for. Bloodrush allows red/green players to mix their game-defining threat density with a quantity of pump spells that is far from negligible. This increased number of tricks makes is a lot easier to maneuver your creatures in combat, as well as turning bluffing into an effective strategy for Gruul. Yes, you've read that right! Bluffing, one of the finer points in Magic strategy, has now been made more accessible for what is being marketed as one of the most obtuse factions in recent fantasy history.
Rubblehulk is the first prerelease card to actually showcase the mechanic of the guild it is representing. As a creature, it definitely falls into the late game fatty end of the spectrum since the absence of rituals makes it hard to cheat the creature into play before you hit your 6th land drop. Nowadays, a 6/6 for six mana is nothing to get excited about anymore and Rubblehulk is definitely one of the worst prerelease cards once it actually gets cast. Its strength, however, lies in its potential to be the most undercosted pump spell to have ever graced a limited environment. Might of Oaks was a legitimate first pick in any of the formats it saw print and I expect Rubblehulk to stand up to its predecessor. Once your board has been developed far enough that any unblocked attacker can be pumped for lethal, the game suddenly takes a turn for the interesting. Forcing your opponent into early chump blocks or bad trades is what the creature was designed for and any additional Bloodrush creature your deck holds only makes it more dangerous for your opponent to take damage.
So far, most players appear to be concerned with the balance between playing out your creatures or holding them in hand to serve as pump spells. The latter serve little purpose if the board is not sufficiently well developed or if there are no creatures good enough to benefit from the boost in stats. Nonetheless, I believe that the Gruul card pool will feature an overwhelming abundance of threats, more so even than the Boros. As showcased by the recently spoiled Fires of Yavimaya goblin (*note: name might not be exact), the green/red game plan is heavily focused on creatures on steroids. Unfortunately, the Gruul strategy seems to lean too much on the all-in aspect. Bloodrush, as with any other pump spell, forces you to commit and risk getting blown out by instant speed removal or bounce. As much as the added mobility of the mechanic represents a boon, a well-prepared opponent can easily overturn your big moment and leave you in an even worse position than just casting the creature in the first place. This dance of unknown information can quickly turn into a guessing game and choosing the wrong option can cost the Gruul player the game.
The Orzhov Syndicate has always struck me as a bit odd in terms of its gameplay identity. Both colors overlap in the area of removal spells, where white and black both provide several methods of dispatching opposing creatures, but seem to work in completely opposite ways otherwise. Much like the dichotomy between life and death, white always looks to add new forces to the field of battle, whereas black is bent on extinguishing it and on keeping the board as clear as possible. In Guildpact, the second set of the original Ravnica block, we saw Wizards' response to the dilemma, in the form of the Haunt mechanic. In short, cards with Haunt could be imprinted onto a creature once they were cast in a way similar to how Cipher was designed to operate now. The difference is that, while Cipher triggers off the creature dealing combat damage, Haunt would only trigger when the creature died. This blends the philosophy of both colors into a workable form. On the one hand, the presence of creatures was required for the ability to function, but doing so also involved a going-to-the-graveyard stage. The penance of others is what fuels the Syndicate.
The current adaptation of the Orzhov's exploitation eschews direct interaction with creatures, revolving instead around a bleeder mechanic similar to what we have previously seen on Pillory of the Sleepless. As long as we control at least one permanent with Extort, we can make all of our spells drain the opponent... for a small fee. At a first glance, the mechanic seems quite powerful due to it becoming better in the long term and also due to its cumulative nature. Obviously, the more we can afford to keep a permanent with Extort around, the more uses we will get out of it. Moreover, as the game advances and we get more and more land into play, it will become easier to pay the extra charge needed for the effect to occur. This is counteracted by the weak impact Extort has in the early game, where delaying your threats by one turn is not worth getting the 2-life gap.
Nonetheless, the true potential of Extort, at least to my mind, lies in assembling several permanents with this mechanic on the board. With the way Extort is worded, we are unable to pay more than one extra mana per trigger regardless of how much mana we have at our disposal. The situation does get better with every trigger we get onto the stack. Once we reach at least three Extort permanents, the advantage we obtain from playing as little as one spell per turn is almost insurmountable unless the opponent musters a proper removal spell..
If Foundry Guardian is the set's Inferno Titan, then Treasury Thrull is its Sun Titan. While its combat stats are unimpressive, its potential to recur a sac effect or to recycle blockers turns it into a Limited powerhouse. What I find commendable about this card is its aptitude to help you catch up from a losing board position. Aside from being a reasonable blocker to throw in the way of smaller threats, the internal synergy between the Thrull's two abilities can turn the game around. On the one hand, it can regrow a creature used for chump blocking, effectively nullifying the opponent's largest non-trampling attacker. In addition, it provides an endless fuel for Extort and can single-handedly fashion wins without risking too many creatures in combat. Unfortunately, the requirement for this engine to work is that Treasury Thrull keeps attacking turn after turn, a decision which goes against the slow bleed, turtling mentality promoted by the Orzhov.
Despite their powerful mechanic, I am concerned that the Orzhov will not benefit from sufficient board presence to survive until their strong end game. The creatures previewed are far from beefy and I am unsure if they can stand up to a full onslaught from a curving Gruul or Boros opponent. High Priest of Penance and Vizkopa Confessor, two relatively recent spoilers, provide good examples to support my concern. Their abilities are undeniably powerful, but their impact on the board does little to deter combat interaction. Even the Vindicate effect tacked onto the High Priest amounts to nothing more than Deathtouch when factoring in the way a typical Limited match plays out. Under these circumstances, Orzhov must be carried entirely by the strength of their set mechanic. The ease with which an Extort engine can be assembled will probably determine its viability in the format.
This color combination represents another strong gameplay dichotomy, spawned from the underlying nature of its individual constituents. Green is a color almost synonymous to creatures in Magic, whereas blue seeks to be as far removed from combat interaction as possible. Pairing these two up has always posed a serious challenge, one that I feel was never properly acquitted. The mechanic that characterized the Simic Combine in Dissension was Graft, an ability similar in design to Modular that triggered whenever a new creature came into play under your control. Flavor-wise, this represented the idea of mutation that was arduously promoted by the guild. Gameplay-wise, it allowed players to manipulate the size of individual threats, either by evening out their strengths in an effort to reduce the impact of spot removal or by building up to a single, massive creature.
Evolve is the mechanic that most closely resembles its predecessor. At its core, it is a creature-centric ability that makes use of +1/+1 counters to upgrade our forces. What is more, it is directly linked to the size of other creatures coming into play. Where this new mechanic diverges from Graft is the philosophy behind the counters being added. We have established that the former links the transfer of +1/+1 counters to mutations. Every time the ability was used, the total power and toughness of our creatures remained the same. On the other hand, Evolve is all about increasing the power of one creature at the expense of none other under our control. For each Evolve trigger, our board presence is developed, with a net gain of a +1/+1 counter.
Fathom Mage is the most aggressively costed of the prerelease cards, but is just as capable of winning the game on its own. Given its bare stats, I find it hard to believe that the Mage won't trigger off of any other creature that enters the battlefield after it. Following that up with a few larger threats should easily chain three additional draws. Looking at the power and toughness of the cards spoiled so far, it seems difficult to trigger Fathom Mage after it has grown to a 4/4, but any card draw past that point is just gravy. I predict that one of the skills to have as a Simic player will be to properly plan out your deployment sequence in advance. Remember that Evolve triggers off of power or toughness. That means it might be more useful to hold on to a 1/3 creature that costs 3 mana and play it after a 4 mana 2/2, in order to benefit from an additional counter... and in the case of Fathom Mage, an additional card.
Out of all the guilds I've examined so far, I find the Simic to be the hardest to evaluate in a vacuum. The way their cards are designed dictates that blue/green decks will take a defensive posture in the early turns, gradually building up their hand and board presence until they can turn the tables on the opponent. Unfortunately, Evolve cards appear to be very weak topdecks, which makes it difficult for the Simic to catch up once they've truly fallen behind. If operating with an empty hand, it will be difficult to amass enough counters on late Evolve creatures. In addition, having the opponent muster up a larger, stronger force does not leave enough time for those creatures to grow to workable proportions. Any Crocanura or Experiment One that arrives late to the party will hardly bring a contribution, apart from being relegated to chump block duty, a scenario that never happened with Graft. As long as a use can be found for freshly played Evolve creatures past the mid game, I believe the Simic will have shored up their greatest weakness.
As the spoiler season rolls out more and more cards, Gatecrash becomes less of a mystery to the community. Limited and Constructed aficionados alike are looking forward to the day of the prerelease to start exploring the formats first hand and to see if their initial predictions were correct. So far, the set seems to be a suitable follow-up to the most hyped Magic launch in history. However, only by sampling it directly can we make out the nature of the beast.
"The guilds of Ravnica will destroy each other."
Until next time,