One of the most popular — and dangerous — draft strategies in triple-Battle for Zendikar was the feared White-Black Lifegain strategy. It seems innocuous at first because, after all, who’s scared of a 1/2 for two mana? It turns out, when that 1/2 is Kalastria Healer, pretty much everyone.
The strategy was less obvious than many of its contemporaries, driven by Devoid synergies or the landfall mechanic. In fact, many of the cards in the white-black deck could also be used in other decks, so the necessary pieces wouldn’t always come together.
But when they did, the deck was a thing of a beauty. Boards full of Kalastria Healer — the lynchpin of the plan — alongside other synergistic cards like Serene Steward or Stone Haven Medic put up the defenses very quickly, and things would slowly snowball out of control thanks to things like Angel of Renewal, Vampiric Rites or Bloodbond Vampire.
As strong as the archetype was in Battle for Zendikar, all bets were off once Oath of the Gatewatch hit the scene. With only one pack to find your critical Kalastria Healers, would the archetype be able to survive the new additions?
A quick walk around the top tables at Grand Prix Mexico City says that the answer is a resounding “yes.”
With two packs of Oath of the Gatewatch in every draft, it falls to the new cards to carry the archetype, and there are some more than reasonable replacements, or as the case usually ends up being, additions to those core cards from Battle for Zendikar.
Enter Ondu War Cleric. Not only is it a passable Grizzly Bear in battle, it fills a similar role to Stone Haven Medic, with the downside of needing another creature but the upside of not costing mana. It’s the most common two-mana play for the new iteration of the deck, and one that is already filling opponents with dread at what’s to come.
While Ondu War Cleric may be the backbone, there are plenty more hits to round out the deck. Another common in Spawnbinder Mage locks down the board through both its Cohort ability as well as its 2/4 body, putting up the defenses long enough for the deck’s synergy to really take off.
Malakir Soothsayer is that payoff. It has teamed up with Vampire Envoy all weekend to “effectively” draw a card for free, with the Envoy’s lifegain trigger offsetting the Soothsayer’s downside, while also triggering the rest of the deck’s lifegain-based abilities.
Those abilities include Cliffhaven Vampire, which fulfills a similar role to Drana's Emissary in Battle for Zendikar, with the benefit of having a much larger body, one that is again ideal for blocking and slowing down the game.
“It’s definitely one of the decks to look out for, and strong when you can get it,” Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir champion Martin Dang said as he prepared to draft in the Top 8 of the tournament. “This format is much slower, and the lifegain deck is very good at going late in the game.”
It’s too early to tell where exactly the white-black plan fits in the pantheon of Oath of the Gatewatch strategies, but after six draft rounds on Sunday at Grand Prix Mexico City, it’s definitely a contender.