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Magic: The Gathering—Oath of the Gatewatch Review

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Oath of the Gatewatch is the most recent set of Magic: The Gathering cards, filling out the back half of the two-part Battle For Zendikar released in the fall of last year. It continues both the story and thematics of the battle: the Lovecraftian titans called the Eldrazi are destroying the world of Zendikar, and a scrappy alliance has to band together in order to keep their home from being annihilated in totality.

I have two stories about Oath of the Gatewatch.

First story: The Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease was a few weeks ago, and I played in it. A prerelease is a special event held the week before wide release (when you can buy the cards in stores), and lots of people around the world crowd to their local gaming stores in order participate in large tournaments with cards that no one quite understands yet. It’s a brave new world every time.

The cards of Oath of the Gatewatch are particularly strange. There are cards that cannot be used with the traditional resources of the game, using “colorless” mana that can only be produced by certain lands, artifacts and creatures that are relatively few and far between. Those are the cards that have made a massive splash since the announcement of the set, cards like Thought-Knot Seer or Endbringer, and if you’re not familiar with Magic, just take my word that the mana cost (the numbers and symbols in the top right), the abilities (the text in the body of the card), and the power/toughness (in the bottom right) are in a particular kind of formulation that make those cards profoundly exciting.

At the prerelease, which is an event where you are given cards on arrival and are expected to make a deck within an hour, I saw many people make strange choices. New cards are always confusing, and the promise of a card like Crush of Tentacles gives players the confidence to try new and extreme strategies to get the most out of their decks. Players argued about rules, played cards in weird ways, and generally diverged from expected strategies. Oath of the Gatewatch shook up the usual modes of play, which is something that you can’t generally say about a new set.

At the beginning of the day of the prerelease, I was coughing a little. By the end I had consumed a liter and a half of water while sweating, coughing and sneezing my way into a mysterious illness that kept me bedridden for a full week afterward.

I won every match that day, barely squeaking past a finals against an exceptional and regular player that kept me on my toes for a riveting, swingy game that forced me to use every single faculty available to my bleary-eyed body. This was my Flu Game. Finally I have something in common with Michael Jordan. I now have my airplane anecdote if I even meet him (my previous anecdote would be a Fruit of the Loom gag).

Second story: I’m playing in a large draft at Friday Night Magic, and I am in the fourth, and last, game of the night. I have only lost one so far, and winning this final game secures the prizes (and special cards) that I want to own and covet like they’re the Ark of the Covenant. I’m playing against a control deck with an aggro deck, which is potentially the worst matchup for me. In non-Magic terms, I’m playing a deck that wants to attack my opponent, and he is playing a deck that does everything in its power to say “no, you cannot attack me.”

He handily beats me in the first game, and his friendly, jokey attitude about winning that game makes me unhappy. Let me explain: I am not normally a “salty” played who goes “on tilt” (these, of course, are weird gamer euphemisms for what we might call “mad.”) It takes quite a bit to get me riled up, and I’m not proud to say that his play style and demeanor made my blood boil. I looked at my deck, thought for a moment about how I could win against his deck, and then executed on that plan to take the next two games and establish a winning record for the night.

On one hand, I think that was some of the best play I have had in Magic, period. On the other, I think that Oath of the Gatewatch is such a deep set with so many great synergies and possibilities that I was afforded the opportunity to dig in, think through the puzzle, and make it happen with the cards that I had.

Part of me is being a big braggy braggart in telling those stories, but the other part is that I honestly haven’t experienced those kinds of games in a limited format since Time Spiral was released sometime around a decade ago. Oath of the Gatewatch is a wide-open set that allows for lots of different kinds of play, and it also has a depth that gives players many options and outs for how they can interact with their opponents. On top of that, the inclusion of colorless mana has created the conditions for very exciting cards and potentialities that were just not available in the world of Magic previous to this.

Sadly, the play of Magic is only half of the game for me. As I’ve written before, I really enjoy the fiction and storytelling that frames and informs the game of Magic, and Oath of the Gatewatch misses the mark on that front. Battle for Zendikar told a story of planeswalkers, the big powerful magicians of the Magic universe, traveling to Zendikar in order to help lead the denizens of that world to victory over the titan Ulamog. That story ended with the plan to kill Ulamog foiled by the villain Ob Nixilis, a so-evil-it-is-comical planeswalker set against the heroes. While you can get all of the minutiae over at the Magic Story website, the broad strokes are that Kozilek, another titan, appears as the protagonist planeswalkers are kidnapped by Ob Nixilis. Everyone escapes, the titans are lured into a trap, and the protagonists Jace Beleren, Gideon Jura, Nissa Revane and Chandra Nalaar destroy them before each take an oath that they will protect this whole big wide multiverse together as a team. As the designer Mark Rosewater has suggested, it is very much like the Super Friends. Just like the Super Friends, I find it very boring and pat.

The opening story of Magic: The Gathering involved two supergenius brothers living on a fantasy world powered by ancient technological relics. They became enemies, and one was corrupted by an evil machinic force from another world. Those brothers brought down apocalypse on their home world, literally shattering it over the course of their conflict and the ones that followed in the wake of that original one. It’s a huge, massive story that takes everything cool and weird about the potentials of the genre of fantasy and plugs them into a serious framework (while also existing in a game where I pretend to be a very cool magical wizard man).

While the worldbuilding of the contemporary Magic era is certainly more comprehensive (as something like the wonderful art book for Zendikar makes clear), the specific end of the Oath of the Gatewatch plotline leaves a lot to be desired. The planeswalkers trap the terrors from outside time and space within a leyline matrix and they set them on fire. Then they become a superteam. It feels like The Avengers, which I’m sure is intended, but it also has the same inevitability as the Marvel film world. Things occur in predictable sequence, and while peril appears in the storyline, it’s readily apparent that it isn’t going to be that harrowing for our heroes. I’m holding out for the hope that the spring set, Shadows Over Innistrad, will pack some surprises.

In the final calculus, Oath of the Gatewatch is one of the better Magic sets that I’ve had the luck to experience on release. It creates interesting limited play, and the cards have had impacts on the constructed formats of the game in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Despite some storytelling shortfalls, I think this set will stick with me for a while.

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.

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