Introduction - Why Oath?
The dust had hardly settled on the Gencon Vintage Championships when my team began brainstorming what we might play at the next StarCityGames.com Power 9 tournament.
Take a look at the Top 8 decks from GenCon. Each of these decklists have one commonality that you also find in the decks of other formats. Creatures. And for the most part I'm not talking about creatures used just as combo parts like Academy Rector or Worldgorger Dragon. I'm talking about bona fide creatures that use a mysterious and enigmatic part of the turn called the "attack step." Certainly, Simister's Belcher deck doesn't attack with Elvish Spirit Guide, but his sideboard Xantid Swarms certainly do. Simister's Belcher deck had more creatures that join the board than my mono-Blue deck.
Having dusted off mono-Blue to chomp through a vulnerable metagame, I began thinking about Oath before the tournament had even ended. My second round opponent was playing an unpowered Oath variant that scared the bejeezus out of me due to the latent memory of Kevin Cron smashing my mono-Blue with his Sapphire Oath two years prior.
With a field like Mono-Blue, Fish, Workshop Aggro, and heavy Goblin Welders, Sapphire Oath seemed like something that would be the next metagame answer. Almost immediately, we began brainstorming lists and tuning. We had made some progress towards a solid Oath list when the spoiler for Kamigawa stopped us in our tracks. Suddenly, we were presented with an entirely new option of using Forbidden Orchard to win the short game instead of aiming to win the long-long game. At first we were frustrated because we felt that our efforts might be undermined as Oath would accrue new attention.
Again, we had made some progress and began narrowing our choices for the power nine tournament down to a few decks when we were handed a superior Oath list. We had been using combination of creature kills that included the obvious Darksteel Colossus, Trike, Weaver, and even Cognivore when Kevin Lowry, a friend of Meandecker Doug Linn, dominated my Columbus Mox Tournament in late September with a list that had Platinum Angel, Spirit of the Night, and Akroma.
Kevin's list appeared janky at sight. But I began playing with it just to see what it had going for it. I noticed hidden synergies and set a course to tune it. Several test sessions later and we had quickly arrived at a fully tuned list. The final decisions had to be made based upon optimizing for various matchups.
PART I: Card By Card Analysis
A. The Frame
The core components of any Vintage Control Oath deck consists of 13 cards:
Those cards are indisputably the first cards that go in any list. One can debate whether to use off color Moxen on the grounds that the benefit of being able to play turn one Oath isn't worth the cost of having a dead mana source if you are running like Drain, Counterspell and no other spell that has a 1 colorless in the mana cost. It's absurd, but at least arguable. Kevin Cron's old Oath list only had 3 Moxen (2001 list). Likewise, one might argue that Mana Drain isn't better than Mana Leak or Counterspell on the grounds that you'll mostly mana burn with Mana Drain mana. This was also the case with Kevin's old list.
But let's not be silly. The core of any decent Oath list starts with these cards:
Those 20 cards are a full third of the maindeck.
B. The Kill
The first and most fundamental decision is what win condition you are going to choose. Here I'm going to go through the pros and cons of each victory condition.
Darksteel Colossus (DSC)
The speed of the deck is two turns after your first Oath - so three turns after you resolve Oath.
Weaknesses: The deck is slower than the Akroma/ Spirit of the Night (SOTN) combo as well as slower than Cognivore. It also has no way of dealing with those threats. DSC is also blocked by the Spirit tokens you made them and therefore permit them to oath. DSC can't deal with an opposing Angel - which may or may not be able to race it if the Angel has already gotten in a few swings. One real problem with DSC is that it can be Welded out.
Strengths: You can Tinker it up.
Speed: Generally wins the turn after you Oath, however a short oath may require two turns.
Weaknesses: dies to Tormod's Crypt, any sort of spot removal, can be stolen by Control Magic, and you lose if they have Swords to Plowshares or if Cognivore is the last card in your deck (unless you resolve Krosan Reclamation). The weaknesses are too high to really justify running it. Adding a second Cog alleviates some of these problems, but makes it more likely that the deck will be slower. It doesn't beat Akroma/SOTN which can keep Oathing up blockers until it can get both into play at the same time. By which time you'll just deck.
It beats DSC Oaths. It has the fastest Oath win of any Oath list aside from Dragon Tyrant.
A Pair O' Triskelions
Speed: This is the list you'd take for a pure control list
Weaknesses: Null Rod means you can't use your stuff. If any other Oath deck gets to Oath, you lose. It's probably hard to use Orchard well with this win condition. Oath really isn't a powerful card in this deck. You need lots of other ways to combat other powerful strategies so that the Oath basically becomes your source of inevitability. This strategy can't deal with Tog either.
Strength: Will always be able to deal with Welders. It is elegant.
This deck loses to DSC plan and Cognivore plan as Oathing up Hydra means you lose. You can't alternatively Oath up chumpers. It will beat Morphling, but it also may or may not be able to deal with Welders any more effectively than any of the other lists. If you Oath up Akroma first against Control Slaver after they have Welder and they are poised to Thirst away Mindslaver, then you have a 50% chance of being able to do nothing. The next turns, Hydra might as well have been SOTN, which over 50% of the time will win on that turn.
Strengths: You are fast but you have a little more disruption in Hydra. This plan actually can beat big Platz.
SOTN + Akroma + Trike/Hydra
Speed: I have a great affinity for this idea. Here you get the best of both worlds. Even if you Oath up Hydra first, you still basically win in three turns after you Oath. This is what Kevin Lowry would run.
You have another card that you never want in your opening hand. You won't be able to win in two turns even when it's possible to do so, because your opponent is at eighteen unless you are very lucky. This also may or may not be fast enough to beat DSC and probably will lose to Cognivore.
You do have a maindeck out to Welder and a basically 50% chance of seeing one on the second Oath - which may or may not be too late.
Weaknesses: Pristine Angel as a singleton has no game against DSC. It still tramples over. The loss of being able to "just win" takes away needed flexibility in many tight positions such as when Combo is about to combo you out or Stax is about to permanently steal the game. This combination of card may also mean that you could actually lose games to Fish or 5/3 if your life is too low (like under five).
Strength: The combination is elegant and powerful. It beats Cognivore and almost everything else. The one-two punch is quite strong. You can also attack as soon as you get an instant. I like it.
Akroma + SOTN
Two turns after you oath if your opponent has done two damage to themselves, Otherwise three turns.
Weaknesses: It doesn't have a way to deal with Welder other than just killing your opponent ASAP. It is vulnerable to spot removal - but not as much as Cognivore Oath.
Strengths: Its speed. It beats the Cognivore plan and the DSC plan.
Clearly the Angel+ Hydra and SOTN + Akroma combinations appear to be the strongest two combination of cards, as they beat most of the various Oath mirror configurations and provide the best stability for the general metagame.
To a certain extent, the creature base will also determine the direction of the build. A Weaver/Trike configuration probably implies that you may not want to even include Forbidden Orchards. Testing with Darksteel Colossus showed that there were significant problems about finishing your opponent off. They could often block with the Spirit tokens you created for them and then Oath up a blocker. That could cause sticky situations. Colossus was also no more than three turn clock including the turn you Oathed him up, and was often slower. Lowry's Akroma and Spirit of the Night combo was a full turn faster, didn't have the Spirit blocking problem, and wasn't as Weldable as Darksteel Colossus was. After some testing, we cut Platinum Angel from Lowry's list to ensure a two-turn clock, including the turn you Oath up a creature. Granted, Akroma plus Spirit of the Night is only eighteen damage on turn 1, but many Type One decks do one or two points of damage to themselves through Fetchlands, Force of Will, and the like in the first few turns, so eighteen is generally enough to kill them.
Therefore, assuming that one is using just two creatures, we have 22 cards left to choose.
The aggressive nature of the deck also meant that no less than four Oaths and four Forbidden Orchards would be included. The remaining question was the number of Blessings. We decided there was no reason to waste a second slot with another Blessing and therefore included the single Blessing. Either way, we are going to want at least one blessing. In the latter configuration, it's necessary, in the former it's certainly not, but it gives some stability for the following reasons:
1) You can recur Time Walk
2) You can recur Hydra
3) You can recur a murdered creature such as when Cognivore is swinging.
4) You can discard one and get it back.
So we have 23 cards.
Here is a non-exclusive list if the next set of spells that were considered:
Brainstorm, Impulse, Accumulated Knowledge, Thirst for Knowledge, Mana Leak, Misdirection, another Blessing, Regrowth, Demonic Tutor, Mystical Tutor, Merchant Scroll, Vampiric Tutor, Duress, Chalice of the Void, Fact or Fiction, Cunning Wish, Echoing Truth, Capsize, Mind Twist, Crucible of Worlds, Back to Basics, Deep Analysis, Intuition, Pernicious Deed, Skeletal Scrying, Yawgmoth's Will, Fire / Ice, Living Wish and jank like Fastbond.
C. The Draw Engine
One of the fundamental decisions is deciding on a draw engine. We had flirted with a few configurations and finally ended up with the Intuition/AK engine.
Accumulated Knowledge (AK)
AK also has a natural fit with this deck because inherent in the Oath is the benefit that AK provides. There is a reason that Oath decks from the very earliest days that had access to AK have been using it. It naturally fits in this deck better than almost any deck ever conceived. With Orchard, you don't even need your opponent to have a creature to get AK to be amazing.
The synergy of AK and Oath is undeniable (you can AK with a Blessing trigger on the Stack and multiple AKs in your graveyard). Facilitating this engine meant finding room for Intuitions. Additionally, finding Oaths was a slight problem and therefore we found room for 4 Impulse and 4 Brainstorm, as just Brainstorm was not found to be enough. After some testing, we discovered that Intuition was so amazing we wanted four.
With AK, Intuition almost follows logically. Intuition in many ways could exist without AK. It can find Oath and Orchards or even a Wasteland if the deck is built for it. It is a tutor as well as a way to use AK's efficiently. When they shuffle back in you can do it all over again.
Intuition does not just find Accumulated Knowledges. We were using Intuition to selectively Oath (removing creatures like Platinum Angel to guarantee a hasty attack). We were using Intuition to tutor up Oath. We were even using Intuition to find Forbidden Orchards. Intuition becomes even more valuable once you've Oathed. It is not unreasonable to expect to Intuition for Accumulated Knowledge several times in a game, because you are recurring your AKs with Blessing.
Of that list, I don't consider Brainstorm to be optional. How is it that mono-Blue can get away without it? In mono-Blue, you really don't want to see the next three cards just to put them back, if you can't shuffle. You want to keep digging to find B2B, Ophidian, or more importantly, a counterspell. If you have used all your countermagic, you'll be forced to draw the terrible sh** you've already seen instead of a desperately needed counterspell. In this deck, you desperately have to put back the terrible sh** you've already drawn. The only way you can even remotely consider not running Brainstorm is if you have double Blessing and Thirsts.
This card will help find the critical components you need with amazing speed. There is a reason that Brainstorm is one of the most played cards in the format. Brainstorm is a critical card in this deck. It permits you to put back Blessing (which you cannot play), and creatures that are only castable after you have copious quantities of mana. We added Impulse, because without it we were simply unable to find Oath when we needed it. Once we tested with four, that was no longer an issue.
It can function as a miniature tutor in a deck like this. Finding Oath as quickly as possible has a high premium.
Deciding on a counterspell base isn't an easy or obvious decision.
Mana Drain and Force of Will were automatic inclusions, but testing with the lone Misdirection proved so strong that we flirted with up to four. The deck is proactive in a similar way that GroAtog was in playing threats that cost 1G. In addition, it was critical to resolve Intuition to get the draw engine online. Therefore Misdirections functioned as Force of Wills in most matchups and were superior to Mana Leak. The sole reason we have only two Misdirections is because there is no room for more.
This card has an inherently strong "fit" with the Oath concept. The need to resolve one of your Oaths means that there is almost no deck besides Gro that likes Misdirection as much as this one. No other deck really really really wants to resolve a single cheap threat as this one does. Mono-Blue doesn't even want to resolve its cards with that certainty because it isn't a matter of speed. If your Oath list isn't constructed right, you may need to win ASAP. I think the rule of thumb for design with this card is to play as many as you can possibly fit.
We knew that we wanted to include no fewer than four Islands for two reasons. First, Crucible/Wasteland requires that you have significant basic land count for mana stability. Second, Back to Basics and Blood Moon are players in this metagame. We have always liked the five Fetchland base, and Forbidden Orchards are nice to support Oath. Therefore, we cut down to two Tropical Islands to make room for some Wastelands. Wastelands were included almost entirely for the Oath mirror. I'll explain why later. There is no longer a need for Mishra's Factory or some other man land that would apply pressure if your opponent decides to obviate Oath by not playing creatures. The printing of Forbidden Orchard has made this idea obsolete.
Then when you add the requisite Orchards and lands you have:
1 Tropical Island,
That's 51 cards.
That gives us nine cards to play with, at least three of which need to be mana.
We can't play with any less than 23 mana in a two color deck, even with 4 Impulse (which we haven't added yet), 4 Aks, and 4 Brainstorms.
I think the primary debate lies in finding the optimal set of ten cards to round out the deck. However, the most argument will be found in the set of cards that I have just gone through.
Of those we haven't added already discussed, we wanted most to add Impulse, Regrowth, Demonic Tutor, Fact or Fiction, and Fire/Ice. However, we need more lands first.
Our testing of the Oath mirror tells us that Wastelands are amazing. Wasteland is also strong against Dragon, Madness and Control Slaver (especially after board) and can be disruptive in helping to resolve Oath:
You: Island, Go
Them: Island, Go
You: Fetchland, go
Them: Dual land, go
You: Wasteland. They float. You attack. Then you break for Tropical Island and play Oath.
That gives us:
1 Strip Mine
With six remaining slots.
After testing Fire/ice, Regrowth, Demonic Tutor, Fact and even Wishes, we found that Mana Leak + 2 Impulses gave us the best chance of maintaining control over the game - stability after Oath resolves in that normally vulnerable time. Impulse helps find the Oaths so you aren't sitting on your ass losing.
Our final list for the tournament was:
Regrowth was in the maindeck for a long while because it would help replay bombs like Ancestral Recall and Time Walk. It became part of an Intuition trio like AK, AK, Regrowth if you've already played two AKs. Demonic Tutor was in the deck for some time before we decided that there was no room for the lone Underground Sea that was supporting it.
PART II: How Do I Play This Deck?
This deck switches roles on a dime. This deck is very similar to Type One Psychatog. The differences are that it has a more stable mana base, one part of the combo is a land, which is uncounterable, the kill is 1G instead of 1GU. It is faster than Tog and has built in evasion.
The similarities are that it will often play the tempo role - countering just to gain a tempo boost. It also changes role almost immediately and fundamentally in a way that I said caused Psychatog to have strategic superiority to the format. Tog was a control deck that would play aggro against aggro decks. This is the same concept. Zvi said of Mike Flores famous axiom concerning "Who's the Beatdown?" that the deck which can seize both the control role and the aggro role will almost always win. That is the strength of this deck. It will play control and beatdown at the same time without being aggro-control. Once you Oath, all plans and tactics designed to win you the long game go out the window. You only need to defend your combo for the space of two turns and you win.
B. The Specific Game Plan
The game plan is rather simple. You have two objectives. The first is to play Oath and Oath up your win conditions. The second is to get your draw engine online to keep control of the game with your countermagic. Both strategies enhance each other and solidify your win. Aside from those basic ideas, the deck plays out little differently than any other control deck.
C. Rules Note
How Oath Works:
Oath of Druids triggers at the beginning of each player's upkeep. It checks the number of creatures that each player controls. If there is an imbalance, the Oath trigger will go to resolve. If, before resolution, the number of creatures becomes equal, Oath will not resolve.
If you have multiple Oaths, both will trigger on your upkeep if you have fewer creatures than your opponent, however, if, upon the first Oath's resolution the number of creature is equal, the second Oath will not resolve.
If while you are Oathing you see a Gaea's Blessing, the Blessing will trigger, but will not resolve until the Oathing completes.
If you have a creature in the graveyard, no creatures in play, two Oaths in play and your opponent has multiple spirit tokens, your first Oath will find a creature, hopefully trigger Gaea's Blessing, thereby shuffling your graveyard into your deck. The second Oath will then resolve and deposit the creature in your deck into play.
PART III: Matchup Analysis and Sideboarding
Our final sideboard was based upon hours and hours of most Mean Deck debating the various choices and specific sideboard plans for various matchups. Every single member of our team made contributions in some form or another to this deck and our awesome sideboard reflects that.
3 Ground Seal
Ground Seal was added to combat the proliferation of Welder decks infesting the format. In particular, our testing of this matchup proved that Ground Seal was the strongest sideboard card, surprisingly. It also wrecks Dragon combo if you can keep Deed ofd the board or from activating with Back to Basics.
2 Control Magic
However, those Welder decks often run Platinum Angel, which makes it impossible for you to win without maindeck bounce or removal. Therefore, we added this to the board to bring in with Ground Seal against Control Slaver or Meandeck Titan or variants thereof.
3 Energy Flux
Energy Flux is a must use card to stop Stax and Stacker variants - particularly when they use Platinum Angel.
2 Back to Basics
Are there to back up Energy Flux as well as destroy Fish and non-basic heavy combo decks.
2 Iridescent Angel/Pristine Angel
These come in against the Control decks that have cards like Swords to Plowshares and Control Magic. The idea is to make their cards dead and surprise them at the same time. It worked amazingly at the StarCityGames.com tournament.
Incidentally, mono-Blue is one of your best matchups. Mono-Blue is designed to win the long game by obtaining complete control over the game. Oath of Druids foils that plan entirely. A single resolved Oath turns the mono-Blue engine into a liability. Therefore, your primary goal is to resolve Oath of Druids. Surprisingly, this is not difficult to achieve. The cheap casting cost of Oath and the density of pitch magic combined with the strong search and draw engine make resolving Oath relatively easy. It is important to find Islands so that Back to Basics and Wastelands don't grind out of the early game, thereby giving mono-Blue a chance to win.
Mono-Blue will likely sideboard in Control Magic when they see that you finished them off with Akroma and Spirit of the Night. Therefore, you must sideboard in Iridescent Angels for Akroma and Spirit of the Night. The mono-Blue player will be stuck with three entirely dead cards. Additionally, Iridescent Angels will best Morphling by being able to attack and block.
We tested both Multani's Presence and Red Elemental Blast and found both unnecessary. Those cards were only good after Oath had resolved, and that that point, they became pointless. If mono-Blue is holding twenty cards, you have Oath in play with one card in hand, you still win.
1 Platinum Angel
This is here almost exclusively for the Oath of Druids mirror match.
1) You Oath and they don't.
In this case, you have won the Orchard war and they are unable to Oath. What will they have? They may have brought in REB or something like that. Whatever the reason, you have Oathed. What sideboard card do you want? Really, you don't want anything except a quick win. What creatures do you want? The Redhead is slow and you'd probably want Beauty and the Beast.
2) They Oath and you Don't
Whatever the reason, they get the Oath engine going and you don't. In this case, what creatures do you want? You probably want IA and Platz. Without Platz you may die to Colossus. What sideboard do you want? Control Magic, Gilded Drake, and Polymorph all work excellent here.
3) Both of you Oath (the rare case)
a) they Oath first, then you (because you drew another Orchard)
What creatures do you want? You would want something that can deal with Colossus or Cognivore. Therefore Platz and something else.
b) You Oathed first, then they do.
Again you want Platz to survive their onslaught.
So what does this mean? None of our sideboard cards are equally good if they Oath and you don't and if you Oath but they don't.
Gilded Drake is ruled out because you can't Oath it up if you get to Oath and they don't.
They only way to have strategic superiority is if you decide that they will Oath and you will not. But that is an inferior strategy, because it depends upon your opponent doing something good for them, and it also lets them manipulate their library.
In three of the four scenarios, you want Platinum Angel. Unless the Oath player brings in Morphling, the best answer is to board in Platz and the two Control Magic. Then you can use their creatures to kill them yet stay alive with the Angel.
2 Arcane Laboratory
We had a listing of potential combo answers: Null Rod, Sphere of Resistance, Arcane Lab, and Chalice of the Void. On an analytical chart measuring the strength of each hoser against weighed combo decks based upon what we were likely to see, Arcane Lab won and it was truly invaluable.
Quick and Dirty Tournament Report from Starcitygames Power Nine Tournament II
Round One: Fish
I remember nothing about this match. The only reason that I know I played against Fish is that I remember I played against two Fish decks in the tournament.
The Fish match is rather rudimentary. Once you resolve Oath of Druids, there is almost nothing they can do.
Round 2: Control Slaver
He was playing Control Slaver with a few more Islands for stability. He mulled to six and had Citadel and off-color Moxen. It was many turns before he had a Blue source. I don't remember many of the specifics of this match except that I was playing Mono-Blue with Intuition/AK engine instead of Phids until my Oath came online.
Round 3: Jay with JuggerStax
This was by far the most interesting match of the entire day and Jay is a superb player.
Jay won an extremely close and tense game one where we both had Wasteland-heavy hands. I Wasted his first two lands after he went Gemstone Mine, go for two turns in a row. I had Lotus and an Island, but got stuck on it and couldn't play my Intuition AK for 3 and AK for 4 in my hand. I countered three of four Smokestacks and all of his Juggernauts and threats until he finally resolved a Smokestack and blew away my board, including Oath. I had dug through 40 cards and still hadn't seen an Orchard to activate the Oath. The Smokestack reset the game, and he recovered more quickly than I did. He finally got Crucible/Strip lock going and despite my topdecking three Orchards in a row, I couldn't find Oath now and I scooped.
Game Two was another war of attrition, but I Forced the Trinisphere and countered the Smokestack and Oath killed him.
Game Three my hand was: Island, Mox Jet, Forbidden Orchard, Oath of Druids, Accumulated Knowledge, Intuition. He went first and went: Academy, Lotus, Mox, something else and Trinisphere. I was deflated. I drew a Fetchland and played it and he played Juggernaut. I played the Island and he played another Juggernaut. I have turn three Oath, but only double Juggernaut's before the Oath hits can beat me - and it did.
Round 4: Fish
Back to Basics and Oath of Druids are near auto-wins here.
Round 5: GroAtog
Oath has utter strategic superiority over GroAtog. I didn't even know what he was playing in the first game. He did win the second game because of that fact though.
Round 6: 4CC
Game one involved a long and tense match where I finally managed to get him to zero life.
Game two involved me siding in the two untouchable Angels and him having a hand full of Swords to Plowshares.
Round 7: draw
Top 8: Quarter Finals - Jacob Orlove (Teammate) playing Meandeck Oath
Game One my hand was horrible for the Oath mirror. I had too many lands and AKs. I lost.
Game Two, I sideboarded in Control Magic for Platinum Angel and the two untouchable angels because, since we had identical decks and sideboards, he wouldn't be able to Control my Angels. I won the Orchard war and Oath off of his turn 1 Orchard, Mox, Oath. I win.
My hand is probably as good as it gets in the Oath mirror:
Forbidden Orchard, Strip Mine, Wasteland, Wasteland, Brainstorm, Oath of Druids, Mana Drain.
He went first turn Island go. I drew Black Lotus off the top and played it and Orchard and Oath with Drain backup if need be. He didn't counter it and I Brainstormed. I won pretty quickly. However, I scooped to Jacob because I was tired of playing and my close associate Kevin Cron had already scooped to him and Jacob winning meant that he could pay back Kevin with more prize goodies. I asked Jacob if he would win and he said he would. He did.
You can reach me at steve dot menendian at gmail dot com