t's time to get our hands dirty. The dust has settled on the initial wave of Gatecrash action and now we have real information to work with. I have been tirelessly drafting on Magic Online, searching for the perfect deck. I make this sacrifice for you, dear reader, and in the next few columns I'll be sharing some of what I have found.
We all have ideas about how archetypes (or guilds, in this case) fit together. Some things are obvious from the start, while others take time to emerge.
Perhaps, most importantly, things will change over the course of the draft format. Having a good grasp on the core strategies will give us the tools with which to get flexible later on.
First to Strike
Firefist Striker | Art by Tyler Jacobson
Early in a format, I find that playing aggressive decks is the best strategy. While other people fiddle around with clunky mana bases and unproven strategies, I turn creatures sideways until they hit 0 life.
In Gatecrash, there are a few good aggressive archetypes available. Boros offers the most straightforward line to victory. Gruul isn't as fast, but it hits harder than anything else in the format once it gets going. Orzhov has proven as grindy as it appeared at first glance. With the right curve, Simic can beat down pretty hard, but it's not as consistent as Boros.
Today, we are going to take a close look at Boros, with other guilds—and niche strategies—coming in the following weeks. I am spending extra time on Boros because I have drafted it a lot and feel it's a great starting deck for people getting into drafting Gatecrash.
Red and White and Dead All Over
I knew after seeing the whole set that Boros was going to be fast. Heck, everyone did. I wasn't aware that it would be this fast, though.
Boros comes out of the gates quickly and has the punch to put away a game before the opponent even has his or her feet down. It can win a fair fight and slams the door on poor draws, mana stumbles, and greedy decks.
The previous champion of aggression—Rakdos—won the game by casting big, undercosted creatures and backing them up with quality removal spells.
Boros attacks on a completely different angle.
Hitting a quality two-drop on turn two is the most important step to winning in Boros. And boy do they have some quality two-drops:
Wojek Halberdiers, Truefire Paladin, and Sunhome Guildmage are excellent, and they are all loyal to the Legion, and the Legion alone. Sure, these could be splashed in other decks, but it often isn't worth it for a color-intensive two-drop. These three will end up in a Boros deck most of the time.
Wojek Halberdiers is a great deal as a 3/2 body for only two mana. Its battalion ability makes it rough to deal with in combat, when the time comes. I will play as many of these as I can get.
Truefire Paladin is an exceptional two-drop. This is one of those cards whose text box is more akin to a wish list than rules text. Early in the game, Truefire Paladin is nearly unblockable. One of the best recent examples of a threat-of-activation card, he is fantastic early in the game—and late, as well. I have used this guy to get in early damage, sit back on blocking duty, and finish off my opponent after he or she was forced to chump-block my two-drop turn eight or nine with a five-mana creature.
Sunhome Guildmage is a solid early-game spell and an outright win condition in the late game. Enabling alpha strikes thanks to its first ability and giving the Boros deck a long game thanks to its second puts it very high on the pick list for Boros.
A quick aside: "Threat-of-activation" is a term I use to describe creatures that have abilities which allow them to attack with activation mana available, go unblocked, then just hit the opponent without having spent the mana for the activated ability. Typically, this comes in the form of power and toughness pumping, or the ability to gain deathtouch or first strike. A typical exchange with Truefire Paladin is to attack with two red and two white mana available. Our opponent declines the block, and we simply hit him or her for 2 damage and continue to develop our board. Even though we didn't actually activate its ability, the ability enabled us to get in for extra damage.
Filling out the two-drop slot is easy, as well, with these solid options:
These range from sweet (Firefist Striker) to solid (Skinbrand Goblin, Daring Skyjek), but all of them are playable in the Boros deck. That's right, all of them.
Filling in the Gaps
Here are some other creatures that make this deck tick:
I have found Skyknight Legionnaire excellent in the Boros strategy. Enabling an unexpected battalion hit is the Legionnaire's specialty. The 2/2 flying body on its own is totally serviceable as well. I'll run as many of these as I can get.
Ember Beast provides a lot of toughness and a good amount of power for three mana, and it is right at home in a deck looking to attack early and often. Be aware of your creature count, though, as this Beast gets lonely easily.
Court Street Denizen is a powerful three-drop that strikes fear once on the battlefield. A common plan against Boros is to hold back a key blocker and get in for attacks where possible. A Court Street Denizen puts a big crimp in that plan, as your opponents have to live in fear of having their key blockers tapped down and the race falling firmly in your favor.
Warmind Infantry has been impressive to me, as it's difficult to block, hits hard with battalion, and can even block well on its own versus early creatures.
Attack, Then Do That Again
Boros has a streamlined approach to victory: Attack, with three creatures, about three times.
I'm taking some liberties here, but from my experience, if I can get three battalion hits in one game, the third will usually seal the deal. Boros has many cards that can enable the next battalion hit.
Act of Treason—at common—is a thing to fear in Gatecrash. I have already won a few games from way behind with a well-timed Act of Treason. It takes away a blocker, creates an attacker, and enables battalion most of the time. You don't want too many in one deck, but one at the right time often spells victory.
Aerial Maneuver is not exciting on its own, but when the name of the game is battalion, it gets the job done. Synergizing nicely with cards like Daring Skyjek and Wojek Halberdiers, it acts as a removal spell when your opponent is forced to tap out and block every turn or die. When you just need that last battalion attack, you can play it precombat and attack freely in the air.
Boros Charm represents 20% (or more, if we have the right unblocked creature) of our opponent's life total. While this is often its role in a game, making our creatures indestructible just after they have been blocked is a great way to remove two or more of our opponent's creatures while threatening a nasty attack the next turn.
Martial Glory does exactly what we want it to do. It gets in extra damage while enabling another potentially lethal battalion attack the next turn. This card is an exceptional combat trick in this deck.
Shielded Passage is far less exciting than Martial Glory or Boros Charm, but in a pinch it gets the job done. It can turn a trade into a one-for-one in our favor and can save our creatures from burn spells. Again, not an amazing spell, but it is serviceable and it keeps our soldiers swinging.
Righteous Charge is like a small Overrun in this deck. It rewards a solid curve-out like few cards can, and it often puts the opponent in the unenviable position of either death this turn or a bunch of chump-blocks followed by certain death next turn. Make sure your creature count is high if you are running more than one of these, though—seventeen creatures is around where you want to be.
Aurelia’s Fury | Art by Tyler Jacobson
The removal in Boros is not what I would call top tier, but in conjunction with the combat tricks we just talked about, it works out.
Arrows of Justice isn't an ideal removal spell for Boros, but it gets the job done often enough. Ideally, a removal spell would get a creature out of the way to free up a huge battalion hit, but Arrows of Justice doesn't do this. It does, however, kill almost anything on the board, keeping our attackers alive. It also shores up a race situation nicely by taking down most huge creatures capable of racing our onslaught.
Homing Lightning is good removal, although it's not particularly cheap. Four mana is not unreasonable for the effect, though, and I will happily run as many of these as I get passed. Being able to proactively remove would-be blockers is a huge deal in this deck.
Massive Raid is the most-often-seen removal spell since it's at common and isn't splashable. Its ability to take out pesky blockers, disrupt combat tricks, and outright kill our opponent makes it a valuable addition to the deck. Be careful, though: if you try to kill a 3-toughness creature when you have three creatures on board, and your opponent responds by killing one of yours, it can be devastating. Always make sure you are protected from this kind of situation before firing off your Raid.
Mugging. Oh Mugging, why are you so awesome? I can tell you why. Mugging moves blockers out of the way. That's all Boros really wants. Mugging gets this done in two ways. First, it can just outright kill a low-toughness creature. Second, it can stun a bigger creature to enable a big alpha strike. So cheap, yet so useful. Mugging is awesome.
Smite is far less desirable than it normally would be. The reason for this isn't that it doesn't kill creatures when we are playing Boros—it does. It just doesn't kill what we want to kill, when we need it to. My focus is always on getting the next good attack in. Smite simply doesn't help us do this. Smite helps keep us alive, but our goal is to defeat our opponent. Prolonging the game is usually not to our advantage, as our small creatures will get outclassed eventually. Still, Smite is a powerful tool against decks looking to race. They will always attack into our low-toughness creatures with their bigger ones, and that's where Smite really shines.
Madcap Skills is all the rage. People have been contacting me on Twitter and via email to tell me how amazing Madcap Skills is. Reports of two or even three Skills on one creature, winning the game in a few turns, are not uncommon. People seem to really be excited by this card.
But I'm not.
I think it's a fine card. It's cheap and powerful and can put the screws down on your opponent in a real hurry.
I can appreciate that.
But it also carries a very high level of risk.
Haphazardly slamming a Madcap Skills on your early drop is a good way to get blown out of a game of Magic. If your low-toughness creature is met by a removal spell—even after it gets that one hit in—it can be hard to recover. Remember, not only is there a significant tempo loss to go along with the card disadvantage, it also doesn't play into the rest of the deck's strategy of getting three creatures attacking at once.
I have played plenty of Madcap Skills in my decks so far, but I also try to keep the card in perspective when I do. It has a high upside, and a low downside. Ryan Spain—my Limited mentor and a Wizards R&D member—and I call these "Strikeout/Homerun" cards. When they are good, they are very good; but when bad, they are really bad.
There is certainly a place for cards like this in the metagame, but I expect the value of Madcap Skills to go down as decks adjust and people figure out how to combat it.
Pitfall Trap | Art by Franz Vohwinkel
There are some cards to avoid in Boros. They look good on the surface, and might even perform well in other decks, but overall they are not worth inclusion in a successful aggressive Boros deck.
Let's just lead off with this guy. Hellraiser Goblin looks like he would slot right into the Boros deck. He has haste, he attacks a lot, and he encourages others to attack a lot... with haste. What's not to love?
I was playing against a Boros player at my local game store recently. He played a turn-three Hellraiser Goblin and hit me for 4 damage thanks to his other creature.
I untapped and played a Ghor-Clan Rampager. The look on my opponent's face was priceless. He looked at his hand and realized he had no way to deal with my 4/4. On his turn he attacked with both creatures, I blocked the non-Hellraiser Goblin and just took the 2 damage from the Goblin.
He didn't cast another creature for the rest of the game.
To be fair, I have also had stunningly fast wins with the help of this creature. If our opponent has no early game, or stumbles on his or her mana, this guy puts away the game about as fast as possible. I think people tend to remember the times when that happens a lot more often than they remember the times when he was completely uncastable or when he created a soft-lock on his owner's side of the board.
While it has potential, I think this card is dangerous and I won't be prioritizing it with my picks. I will look to bring it in versus slow decks or in the mirror.
Each of these is a fine creature. But they don't fit well in a finely tuned Boros deck. Six-mana creatures are not where I want to be in this type of deck. They are simply too slow to enable battalion hits and get stranded in your hand when you need a critical play early in the game. I can see bringing them in from the sideboard if our opponent has tons of removal, but I am much happier to bench them in Game 1. Since every draft won't go perfectly, they will end up in the main deck often, and that isn't the end of the world.
Basilica Guards is a good Magic card, just not in Boros. Some aggressive decks of the past would really like a card like this to clog up any races and provide some level of reach in the late game. Boros isn't one of them. If our turn-three play is to cast a creature that can't even attack, we are doing it wrong.
Skullcrack looks like it would be right at home in this deck, but it's a trap. A mere 3 damage to a player for one whole card from your hand simply isn't good enough. If this cost one or even zero mana, I still wouldn't run it. We need creatures that can attack and that have some form of evasion or are hard to block in combat. Skullcrack is none of these things and shouldn't be in your Boros deck.
Getting a close look at a deck like this helps set the stage for a fundamental understanding of the format as a whole. Once you have a solid feel for each of the core archetypes in Gatecrash, you can experiment more effectively with blurring the lines between them.
This opens new doors to new, niche archetypes that other people may not have found yet. This process of discovery is just one of the many things that makes playing Limited one of my favorite things to do.
Now go bash some proverbial face.