I'm sitting in a cafe in Barcelona, sipping on a freshly squeezed orange juice while I go over the Oath of the Gatewatch preview cards for this column. I almost spit some of said orange juice onto my laptop after seeing a few of these cards. Nevertheless, the roughly-translated holiday songs kept blaring and I kept reading.
We've got a cycle of five uncommons—all gold cards, all three-drops—from the upcoming set, and I'm confident you'll find something to be excited about. I thought about getting cute with this first preview card and saving it for last just because I'm personally so stoked about it, but to heck with it, let's just lead off with my favorite one of the bunch, Reflector Mage.
My. Oh. My.
I can only assume that they have given me this gift as a result of the hard work I've put in on this column and coverage over the past few years. It's the only explanation I can come up with for how we got Reflector Mage, the latest and greatest in a line of proud Jellyfish imitators going back to Visions.
I've caught my breath and had a little more orange juice, so let's get down to business here and figure out just how good this card is, and how it plays out in Limited.
First off, it's really good. The ability to bounce opposing creatures has been a powerful thing for a while, and to do so while you build your board state is a special thing.
(It is worth noting here that Reflector Mage can only return opposing creatures to their owners' hands. There are times when you'll want to return your own creature, but you can't.)
The best Magic card ever printed, Man-o'-War, was a 2/2 for 2U that had this ability. Reflector Mage is a 2/3, which is a significant difference, to be sure. And then we get to the super interesting part: your opponent can't cast creatures with the same name as the bounced creature until your next turn. So it just stays, stranded in hand for a turn cycle.
How good is this extra clause? It's pretty good. It's not life-changing levels of good, but it's a reasonable speed bump in Limited. The truth is that your opponent will often have another creature to cast anyway, since Limited is so creature-centric. But still, it's nice.
I'm running the risk of letting this whole column be about Reflector Mage, so I'll cut myself short here and just point out that this block has the awaken mechanic in it. Which means you can bounce an opposing awakened land and effectively kill a creature in the process. (Yes, your opponent can still replay the land since it's not casting a spell.)
Reflector Mage may be my favorite of the bunch, but there is plenty to be excited about with the rest.
Like this one:
What the heck?! Are they trying to break my soul here or something? Not only do we get a straight-up awesome creature by all measures, but we get that crazy new mana symbol on the activated ability, too.
Let's backtrack a bit on this newest iteration in a proud line of Drones and start with what we know: the (French) Vanilla Test. Mindmelter passes quite nicely as a 2/2 that can't be blocked for three mana. It's also got devoid, which, as we know, can come in handy in a number of different circumstances.
So there's that, a great little creature. But man, they were not finished yet. We get delicious, colorless gravy as well. Paying four mana total to make your opponent exile a card at sorcery speed is actually pretty good. I love me a good mana sink for when I've drawn a few more lands than I'd prefer, and this is a fine one. It's rare that you'll want to start hammering their hand right away, but having this ability as a possibility is nice.
But really, let's look at this crazy colorless mana symbol thing. Because that will dictate how often you are actually activating this guy. It's pretty simple: you can use any type of mana for the three generic mana, but only actual colorless mana for the other one. That means the land or mana source you are using has to specifically produce colorless mana.
There are ways to do that in this block, but it's not like you'll have the ability to just produce colorless mana at will. This means that you'll be able to activate this ability some percent of the time, but that percent won't be one hundred.
Either way, this card has awesome as its base, and only gets, well, awesomer, as it scales.
Our next card has more of that mana-sink thing going on:
A quick Vanilla Test shows that Joraga Auxiliary is a solid-if-unexciting 2/3 for three mana. We'll also note that it's an Ally before getting to the most interesting part of the card. Support is a cool and simple mechanic, and seems like a fine place to put six mana in this case. The wording on it can be a little tricky, so let's make sure we are on the same page.
For starters, you can activate this any time you want. That's nice. Also, since it says "up to," you can put just one counter on another creature; you don't have to have two targets to activate it. You can't, however, put both counters on the same creature. You also can't put any on Joraga Auxiliary itself—it's only for other creatures.
Overall Joraga Auxiliary is a super-solid little Ally. Reasonable in the early game, and a card that can absolutely take over the late game if left unchecked. Hard to ask for much more than that.
Two left, the first of which is a pretty straightforward and pretty brutal 3/3 for three mana. That is excellent as far as the Vanilla Test goes. It will be bigger than basically everything else in its weight class and even bigger than many of the four-drops that see play. That's a great start right there, and even though it's not as flashy as some of the other cards we've looked at today, this card is the real deal.
That activated ability, though. Again, this is the type of thing that is so easy to overlook, but don't. Readers familiar with my work will know that I am a fan of something I call "Threat of Activation." This is the concept that creatures with an activated ability often get a huge bonus just by having the ability, even if they don't have to activate it.
Think about Sludge Crawler attacking into a 2/2 in Battle for Zendikar while its owner has four mana available. Most of the time, the Crawler would just go unblocked, netting a damage and ingest trigger and allowing its owner to still use that four mana to develop their board state.
Relentless Hunter has that whole thing going on, but in addition it also just hits really hard. Chump-blocking it isn't a great proposition, as it gains trample while getting bigger. Taking 3 damage per turn forever isn't going to work out well either.
One thing you see with this kind of effect sometimes is that you can only do it once per turn. Not so here. Flood out a little and end up with nine mana? Fire it toward Relentless Hunter and you've got a nice little 6/6 with trample on your side. That is serious versatility for a seriously hard-hitting card.
They were not messing around with this cycle of gold cards. I mean, sure, they get to be more powerful since they are gold and all, but goodness these cards are great. Flayer Drone is another powerhouse three-drop that slots quite nicely into the black-red devoid deck that existed before this set entered the fray.
Make no mistake, 3 power and first strike is very difficult to deal with in combat. I mentioned that Relentless Hunter would outclass most creatures at the three- and even four-mana slots, and that's true of Flayer Drone as well. It's just very difficult to block, or to get by if you are attacking with smallish creatures.
But, much like its cousin Nettle Drone, it will often apply a passive level of pressure by dinging the opponent for 1 life every time another colorless creature enters the battlefield on your side. That counts a lot of things in this block, chief among them Eldrazi Scion tokens hitting the board in any number of ways, but also just takes into consideration the fact that you could build decks made up of almost entirely colorless creatures.
This guy will probably play out like a Nettle Drone that enters combat in a super-effective way. Still ticking away whenever another colorless creature enters the battlefield under your control, but also hitting hard in the process. Opposing life totals will fall quickly once this card hits the battlefield.
That will do it for our previews this time around. These have been five of the most powerful and exciting uncommons we've had in the column, and I can't wait to start building around them!
Until next week, when we'll have more previews from Oath of the Gatewatch.