With the release of each new Magic expansion, I, like so many of us, wait with bated breath to start cracking packs and picking them one at a time around a table of friends. I live for 40-card Limited formats, more specifically Draft.
But the initial few drafts are always daunting. Staring at fifteen new cards and picking that first one is nerve-wracking. Am I doing it right? Am I misevaluating something? Does everyone else know something I don't? Luckily, we have the Pro Tour veterans to help us out with this dilemma.
At Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch last weekend in Atlanta, I talked to three storied pros who each ran a perfect 6-0 in the Draft portion, one of whom even converted that to a Top 8 finish! I asked each of them which commons or uncommons (because those are the cards you'll see most frequently) from each color are the first-picks to feel best about.
Which are the cards that you can start your stack with confidently, knowing that you and the pros are in lock step? I talked to Pro Tour Hall of Fame members Frank Karsten and Shuhei Nakamura, and reigning Player of the Year No. 10-ranked Mike Sigrist to see what cards they're happy to first-pick in Oath of the Gatewatch Limited.
Isolation Zone was unanimously the top choice from white, with Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch quarterfinalist Shuhei Nakamura saying, "It's not close. Not close at all." And as someone who played white in both his 3-0 decks, his advice is salient.
Everyone agreed this set is a "premium-removal-is-at-a-premium" format, and unsurprisingly, spending four mana to remove any creature is exactly what you're looking for. (Be thinking about this when we talk about black.) Second in this genre is Immolating Glare. Still strong and quite cheap, but it's more conditional than the Zone. Because mechanics like cohort mean that you can be killed without being attacked, you might die to a Zulaport Chainmage with an Immolating Glare stranded in your hand. That doesn't mean it's not great too, it's just why the pros prefer Isolation Zone to start.
Outside of removal, there are a few other key white cards to start your engines. Frank Karsten mentioned that the unassuming two-drop Ondu War Cleric is a fine kickoff. White-Black Allies is arguably the strongest archetype in the format, so just staking your claim in a cohort-laden white deck, which can also go green, will reap rewards.
Additionally, Mike Sigrist spoke up for Relief Captain. The card is undeniably strong, despite his reservations about the support strategy overall. As someone who's lost to a white curve that ends with Relief Captain swinging for the win, Sigrist couldn't ignore its power. When you draft this first, look to perfect your mana curve with subsequent picks. A curve that goes Kitesail Scout, Makindi Aeronaut, Vampire Envoy, and then Relief Captain—pumping all your flyers—can be demoralizing for your opponents.
Sigrist was the most vocal blue advocate, all but shouting from the rooftops about Blinding Drone. He thinks it's far and away the best card in the color, common or uncommon. But he made sure to point out that along with Blinding Drone comes the requirement of picking colorless lands higher. After first-picking the Drone, look for Holdout Settlement, Unknown Shores, and Crumbling Vestige to consistently activate the powerful blue common.
"Mono-blue is a real deck," Sigrist said. Teaming the color with colorless mana allows you to take all the big guys that shamble your way. "When you open a colorless bomb in pack two, you'll be happy you took the lands."
The other powerful blue-colored strategy is blue-red surge. Karsten said the blue cards that start your way down that road are Containment Membrane and Jwar Isle Avenger. Often, the surge deck can cast a lot of spells—card draw and small damage-dealers—but they need ways to stop bigger creatures and actually win the game. Membrane and Avenger shore up those weaknesses.
Blue has access to many powerful commons and uncommons: Roiling Waters, Grip of the Roil, Sweep Away, Thought Harvester, etc. But some of them only go in control strategies. So be wary of first-picking a Roiling Waters. Seven mana is a steeper commitment than you might be willing to make.
Black houses what everyone considers the best common in the set, and some say best common or uncommon. Oblivion Strike is as elegant as it is powerful—an unconditional "Exile target creature," and for three mana less than we saw in Battle for Zendikar's Scour from Existence. Mike Sigrist said, "This format is about power." This often means strong, powerful creatures. Well, no matter how strong or how powerful, Oblivion Strike will kill them dead—no questions asked, no answers provided.
Also like Isolation Zone, Oblivion Strike is rated higher than its uncommon analog, Grasp of Darkness. Though the instant speed and lower mana cost are relevant, -4/-4 is often not enough in this set. There are powerful Eldrazi going back and forth. Ruin Processor is still a common, and most of the marquee rare bombs survive the Grasp.
Further into black, both Karsten and Sigrist are big fans of Vampire Envoy, saying it's a solid common and likely second to Strike. Like the Ondu War Cleric, it's a card that sets you up to be in the White-Black Allies deck if the cards come to you, and Envoy does everything. Its 4 toughness makes it a great blocker, it provides a 2-point life swing when it attacks, it gains you 1 life when paired with any of the cohort creatures, and "you can even use Holdout Settlement to trigger it," Sigrist noted. All in all, a fantastic first pick.
Red wants to be aggressive. Red wants to be burning. Red wants what red wants. All three players mentioned the same two cards for red: Boulder Salvo and Zada's Commando. Boulder Salvo is quite fine when you're paying five mana. Five mana for 4 damage in red is completely serviceable, and will kill things like Tajuru Pathwarden or Vampire Envoy with ease. Where things get ludicrous is after you've cast another spell.
Two mana for 4 damage is downright loony. At that price, red aggressive decks can advance their board and set back their opponents. Keeping the pressure on with red is key for blue-red, red-white, black-red, and red-green. Boulder Salvo can help red mages do just that.
One of the great cards to pair with Salvo, and another strong red first pick, is Zada's Commando. This card might surprise some people, but all three of these 6-0 pros mentioned the card by name. It's almost the perfect red creature. A 2/1 first strike for two is already good enough. Add onto that the cohort ability to continue netting damage during board stalls. Add to that the fact that we're in a set with surge, so low-cost, high-impact cards are even more highly valued. Add onto that, Sigirist said, "It's really good on defense too."
These are all small considerations, but they add up to a creature that you want in every red deck, and that will almost always do something relevant. That can't often be said of common red two-drops.
Green mages have found a lot of help in Oath of the Gatewatch. Whether you prefer the devoid strategy or the Allies, or you just want to jam the most powerful from both, this set has got you covered.
Karsten first mentioned the power of Tajuru Pathwarden, and Sigrist echoed his thoughts. The stats and abilities on it are enormous compared to the cost. A 5/4 for five mana is already just fine for Limited. But there are three highly relevant words on the card—vigilance, trample, and Ally. Vigilance and Ally mean that this can both attack and be used for cohort, while trample ensures that the opponent takes some damage even if they block.
Every pro talked about the power of green-white in this format. With the power of support, even the smaller creatures turn into extremely relevant threats. And Karsten made sure to mention that, unlike in Battle for Zendikar, "Now there are many early creatures that matter." Tajuru Pathwarden is a creature that spans the divide in creatures. It's the biggest of the small guys and the cheapest of the big guys.
The other two creatures the pros mentioned were on the cheaper side of things. Karsten mentioned Scion Summoner, while Sigrist lauded Stalking Drone. Anyone familiar with Limited won't be too surprised by Scion Summoner—maybe only its first-pick status.
Three mana for 3 power and 3 toughness is usually a great deal. The added bonus with the Summoner is not only using that extra Eldrazi Scion to ramp your mana or block, but also to fix your mana. There are many powerful colorless spells, or green creatures with colorless activations. Scion Summoner helps with the "splash" without having to resort to playing or drafting Wastes.
A good use of that colorless mana would be to pump Sigrist's pick, Stalking Drone. We already learned from the blue section that Sigrist loves harnessing the power of colorless mana. He said of the Drone, "It's just waaay above curve." By that, he meant if you can consistently activate the Drone, you've got a 3/4 for just two mana. That's a card that's good in the early game and relevant in the late game.
Though it's not a color, some people might be drawn in by the powerful Spatial Contortion as a first pick. However, the pros—even the colorless-loving Sigrist—said that is likely a mistake. It might seem like you're keeping your options open, but instead you're committing to splashing a color that cannot possibly be your main color.
It narrows your options further than you'd like on the first pick. All three suggested that it's better to settle into at least one color before you start picking colorless cards. And Sigrist suggested to speculatively pick those colorless lands earlier than that if you can. That way, when you pick a card like Spatial Contortion, you already know it has a home in your main deck rather than your sideboard. Now, that might go differently if you open, say, Reality Smasher. But for the commons and uncommons, the power level just isn't there.
In summary, the big takeaways for first-pick commons and uncommons are the premier removal and two-drops. This makes the Oath of the Gatewatch format seem like a blend of the original Zendikar Draft, where two-drops mattered greatly, and Rise of the Eldrazi, where giant monsters roamed everywhere and unconditional removal was king.
Though it'll take practice to learn what to draft after the first pick, hopefully the thoughts of some of the 6-0 Draft finishers from Oath of the Gatewatch will help jump-start the process.