In a non-guild-based set, you can choose essentially any color pair available as a starting point. The goal is to figure out which colors work well together, have the deepest set of commons, the best removal, etc. The guild system pushes us in more specific directions.
First-pick Wojek Halberdiers? Shambleshark? These kinds of cards guide us down some pretty specific paths. It's not that you are stuck in that guild; you can still change, but that often means not playing your first few picks. That's far from a disaster, but this restraint conditions how we proceed from the very early stages of the draft. We are highly rewarded for being in a guild and taking cards from that guild—especially the gold cards.
Not So Black-and-White
With that in mind, I'm going to dive into a guild today that wasn't obvious from the start. The Orzhov Syndicate proved tricky to evaluate. That is, until we saw it in action.
Extort is a powerful mechanic that can win the game on its own. Usually, it's combined with incidental combat damage and used as a finisher while the deck effectively locks down the board with the best removal suite available in Gatecrash. The lifegain allows the deck the breathing room it needs to pay for all of those extort triggers. Once the ball gets rolling, it's difficult for aggressive decks to keep up with the life swings.
Let's take a look at the creatures that have extort first.
If you break it down, there are eight non-rare cards with extort in the set. Let's start with the best of the best.
These three creatures form the basis for the deck in many ways. They each share some key traits: They are cheap to cast and can attack, block, and extort. Playing an early threat, then backing it up with a constant stream of extort payments, is a key to winning in Orzhov. The rest of the deck just sort of falls in place after you have a solid core of these cards. Kingpin's Pet is the best of the bunch, as a 2/2 with flying for three mana would be playable even without extort. With extort, it's one of the best commons in the set.
Syndic of Tithes is the most mana-efficient extort creature available. At a mere two mana, it has solid stats as a 2/2, and it gets the taxes flowing very early. Basilica Screecher is similar, but doesn't attack as well. Even though I prefer the other two, I would play as many Screechers as I could draft.
This next tier of extort creatures are all playable, even if they don't quite offer the efficiency that the previous ones did.
While these don't quite fill the criteria I set above for one reason or another, they are still part of the bigger extort picture.
Basilica Guards looked to be a shoe-in for the Orzhov deck, and in many ways, it is. I originally thought it would be a great blocker in the format, with 4 toughness for only three mana. It turns out that it's just an okay blocker. Boros has combat tricks, Gruul and Simic are often just bigger, and Dimir can fly over. I rarely cut it from an Orzhov deck, but it doesn't quite hit that top tier of extort creatures.
Knight of Obligation is a strong uncommon and a card I love to have in my Orzhov deck. You don't see it too often, but it gums up the board, can usually attack well, and has that magical six-letter word on it.
Syndicate Enforcer and Vizkopa Confessor both suffer the same downside: they cost too much. Again, it's not that these are unplayable, it's just that there are better options. I'll run these in my deck (especially Confessor in Sealed Deck), but I'll wish I had more Syndic of Tithes and Basilica Screechers.
Thrull Parasite answered a question I had early in the format. Is any cheap card with the word "extort" on it good enough to play? The answer: pretty much. I am not as excited by Thrull Parasite as some, but I'll make room for it in my Orzhov decks because it does a ton of work if you stick it on turn one.
The Rest of the Team
Now let's take a look at some of the other creatures that contribute to Orzhov victories. The extort creatures take the front row here, but I'll pick out a few notable sidekicks.
Dutiful Thrull fits into one style of Orzhov draft deck: a more controlling build. The little helper is good at keeping the ground game in check. This allows us to develop our mana base and get critical mass on extort creatures. The downside, though, is that it doesn't have extort itself and it requires holding mana for regeneration. Mana we would rather spend on extort triggers.
Balustrade Spy—and Assault Griffin, for that matter—are both serviceable four-drops in the deck. They attack, they block, they do creature-y things. They don't have any specific synergies in the deck, however, so they aren't a priority during the draft portion.
Vizkopa Guildmage has a solid starting point: a 2/2 for two mana. I am always aware of my two-mana creature slot when I am drafting Gatecrash. Its activated abilities are a nice late-game mana sink, but they don't come up in the early or middle stages of the game very often. A nice pickup, but not a high priority for the deck.
Daring Skyjek and Gutter Skulk are both easy-to-cast two-drops that fill a similar role. They attack early, block late, and only cost two mana. This means that if you cast one on turn five, you will often be able to pay for two or three extort triggers. And that's the name of this particular game.
Undercity Informer is quite good as a 2/3 for three mana. It also can act as an alternate win condition if the game goes very long or gets stalled out. Simply sacrifice your entire team (referred to as a Beta Strike, courtesy of Brian David-Marshall) and try to mill out your opponent in one fell swoop.
Nothing to See Here
Now we come to, perhaps, the best part about playing Orzhov: the removal.
Grisly Spectacle is high in the running for best removal in the set. It kills almost anything and does so at instant speed. It costs four mana—which is kind of pricey—but for an effect this strong it's worth it. Nearly unconditional removal has to be taken highly and held at a premium.
Smite may have found it's home. It was pretty good in Rise of the Eldrazi, but it's very good in Gatecrash. Specifically, it's very good in Orzhov. Extort primarily comes on creatures, and having creatures that sit back and block means that Smite hits its target more often than not. The fact that it costs just one mana means extort happens for the full amount.
Killing Glare offers us more unconditional, instant-speed removal. Glare is an uncommon so it's harder to get our hands on, but it's a great addition to any Orzhov deck. Even if it doesn't always kill everything, and isn't particularly efficient in mana cost, I'll still run as many of it as I can get.
One Thousand Lashes is the most Orzhov of the removal options. Locking down an opposing creature, then slowly taxing its owner to death, is a particularly satisfying way to win a game of Magic. The fact that it is kind of expensive and can be removed by a few cards in the set doesn't hinder how well it helps the goal of the deck.
These two identically costed two-drops are both easy additions as well. Orzhov Charm kills early threats from aggressive decks and has two other modes that can be relevant at different stages of the game.
Executioner's Swing is a card that looks somewhat suspect if taken at face value. After seeing how it plays out in Orzhov, though, it's a welcome inclusion. This deck can afford to take a hit from a creature before killing it, thanks to the lifegain from extort.
These two removal spells work pretty well together, and we will usually run them in our deck. They aren't premium removal, but they are cheap and can be effective. Keep your eye out for match ups where these aren't as effective and be prepared to move them to the sideboard for future games.
I'm not able to cover all the cards in Orzhov, as I want to get to some general strategy tips for playing the deck.
First, extort every time you can. This sounds simple, but crafting your game so you pay for the maximum number of extort triggers is often the difference between winning and losing. Even though it pains my heart, I will play creatures off curve just so I can pay for the extort cost. This means I'll play a four-drop on turn five just so I can pay that extort.
Second, save your removal for the cards that can do big chunks of damage to you. Creatures with 2 or 3 power will get some hits in early in the game. That's okay. Save your removal until you have two or three extort creatures down, and then use it on the biggest threat. After you pay for the extort triggers and attack back, your opponent will realize the race favors you.
This is where Smite and Executioner's Swing become important. Sometimes your opponent will land a creature bigger than yours, or an evasive threat you can't block. Smite and Executioner's Swing provide answers to almost all of those threats, and paying for two or three extort triggers at the same time can be outright backbreaking for our opponent.
Remember, there will be games where we don't have to attack at all past a certain point. Any spell off the top of our deck becomes a small Drain Life effect, and those add up quickly.
When in the draft portion, prioritize cheap extort creatures and cheap removal over everything else. The deck will form from there. Remember that the first plan is to pay for extort as many times as possible during the course of a match, and that our removal is likely a lot better than our opponent's.
I hope this is a helpful starting point on how to approach collecting your first payments of life, and I'll see you in the queues!