Dreamborn Musings: Enchanting Gatecrash Limited

New Era Auras

For a long, long time, suiting up creatures with an enchantment was considered to be a poor strategic choice, at least from a Limited perspective. Sure, you may have just given your dragon or goblin or elf or brushwagg some sweet new stats, but you had also just stapled a giant, flashing bullseye to the poor creature’s forehead. Any removal spell that could kill your monster would also now net a free card, and your opponent would be up in resources at least, while most likely gaining tempo and board control as well. Very few auras were worth this risk, and even those that that bestowed exceptionally powerful boosts were often left in sideboards.

                 R and D designers tooled around with creature enchantments for several years, tweaking and tuning, even renaming them ( Auras).  Some were “pushed”, or deliberately designed to be efficient and versatile. For example, Armadillo Cloak didn’t simply create a large creature. It also provided lifelink, thus invalidating the attack of an opponent’s large creature.  Arcane Teachings boosted power and toughness, but it also turned a creature into a repeating removal spell that synergized with various untap effects. Both Cloak and Teachings cost three mana to play, boosted their host’s power and toughness by two, while also providing further enhancements. Now, the bullseye was still flashing for all its worth, and removal was still devastating, but these auras threw a new variable into the equation. If I played a Cloak or a Teachings, and my opponent had the removal spell, then I was probably going to end up in a losing situation. If, however, my opponent did not have the spell on the exact turn that I cast the spell, I was most likely going to win.

TLDR of paragraph 2, if an opponent had the removal spell, you were behind. If they didn’t, then you were significantly ahead.  R and D kept tweaking, and kept tuning. Mirrodin block offered an alternative to creature enchantment, the Equipment card type. These new artifacts were resilient to removal, provided excellent statistical boosts, and were quite prevalent throughout the landscape of Mirrodin Limited.  In Ravnica: City of Guilds, auras that provided immediate resources in addition to enhancements were introduced. There was a cycle of these “enter the battlefield” auras, with effects that varied depending on color identity. While the enhancement they provided was often minimal ( just first strike, for example, or trample), the “spell” that they were doubled with made them worth playing. The design team kept at it, creating the umbra enchantments in Rize of the Eldrazi, auras that provided the traditional boosts while guaranteeing a minimal risk of resources, for they prevented the destruction of any creature that they enchanted.

TLDR of paragraph 3, the design teams decided to validate auras by reducing the inherent risk that that was involved in playing them, by giving them one shot, sorcery speed effects, and by making auras more resilient to removal. Instant speed removal could still trump an aura completely, but they were much safer from sorcery speed destruction. Well, that was the way-back-when and back-when, and here is the skinny on the now. Mark of the Vampire. Pursuit of Flight. Security Blockade. Knightly Valor.  ( I didn’t mention Rancor, anything that says “when this dies you get it again” is clearly strong, you’re very smart, calm down.) The auras of the most recent Magic expansions have proven themselves in their respective limited environments. Security Blockade and Knightly Valor tip the hat towards the creators of old Ravnica, providing additional, spell-like effects in addition to power/toughness boosts. Pursuit of Flight and Mark of the Vampire play more of the high risk/ super high reward game that Armadillo Cloak and Arcane Teachings once offered, being efficiently costed and acutely devastating.

The auras of Gatecrash all seem to have much more in common with the risk/reward game than with the resiliency plan. Madcap Skills. Way of the Thief. Holy Mantle. Each of these auras provides some kind of evasion, in addition to a raw statistical boost. Note that each instance of “evasion” isn’t simply flying, fear, or intimidate. Madcap Skills demands two blockers in order to stymy a single attacker, and WoT and Holy Mantle simply make it impossible for blockers to even be assigned. If a creature enhanced with any of these auras can attack freely even once, its controller is in a good position. If it can attack twice, than its controller is in a great position. WoT and Holy Mantle are efficiently costed, stalemate breaking enchantments that can also be put to midgame use if an opponent telegraphs a dearth of removal, or if another certainty of safety can be ascertained. Madcap Skills, however, is in a league of its own. At two mana, it is easily possible to play both the enchantment and a creature in the same turn. An unassuming 2/2 that appeared on turn two can attack for 5 on turn 3. That isn’t just a clock, it’s a time bomb. On the other hand, Madcap Skills doesn’t boost toughness in the slightest, attaching a lightning rod to that metaphorical bullseye. The risk/reward game with this card is at an all-time high, and playing that game will be an important part of Gatecrash Limited, regardless of whether you have the Skills or are being killed by them.

When you draw your opening hand, consider your outs to an early aura. Do you have a removal spell? If you don’t, can you race a turn 3 or 4 aura? Can you bluff removal and delay your opponent’s enchantment until your late game plans kick in and limit an auras efficacy? Madcap Skills is a common, and Boros and Gruul are popular archetypes. It’s worth preparing for a line of play before it happens, especially one that appears to be as mainstream as Madcapskillattackyourturnisitmyturnyetattack.

What is the best way to play Madcap Skills, and in the same vein, Holy Mantle and WoT? You could just go for broke at your earliest convenience, they have it or they don’t. This line of play is much easier to justify in games 2 or 3, after you’ve seen some of your opponent’s deck. If your opponent is playing some blue/green Simic, which is almost cripplingly light on removal ( and for that matter, even bounce/ tempo generation), then go nuts as soon as you can. What if, however, they keep playing swamps, or mountains, and deploy only one or two creatures? Might they have a piece of removal? ( Of course they do. Look at them. They always do.) It might behoove you to play a bit more conservatively, baiting out removal and waiting for a more certain opportunity.

Here is something else to think about. What if it’s game one, you’ve played a few creatures, and your opponent has matched you. You’ve got an aggressive Boros deck, and your opponent has what seems to be Gruul, with a Boros Guildgate that was played last turn. The life totals stand in your favor by two points, although both players are still fairly robust. Your hand, however, could use some proverbial juice. Three lands (probably forests, it’s always forests) and one Madcap Skills. You don’t have a single spell to play on turn 5, other than your risk/reward aura. Do you go for it? There are some legitimate reasons to wait, and some legitimate reasons to strike.  On the one hand ( the one with the sword), if you pass the turn, you could possibly telegraph more of your situation that you want to be known. You also run the risk of losing your momentum in the life race that you were, before you drew that land, winning. If you slap down the Skills this turn, then despite not having another creature to add to the board, you either trade with two of his/hers while guaranteeing that your second monster connects, or you take a big stride in winning the race in the next few turns. On the other hand (the one with the shield), what if your opponent has the removal spell? Not only will you be down two resources to their one, you’ll have to knock the top of your deck every single turn for the remainder of the game. You’ll lose the last little bit of information that you can guarantee, and you’ll be playing pretty blind. If you wait until you see what the next draw step yields, you can make a better informed decision, and your opponent won’t know just how much pressure that you can exert when the top of the deck finally runs smooth again.

I expect that this kind of situation will be common in Gatecrash Limited, and there aren’t any definitive answers. There are, however, a few basic enchanter’s guidelines, and while they won’t solve each specific issue, they might put you into the position to out-maneuver most.

  1. Try to play your auras when your opponent is tapped out. This guarantees at least one empowered attack step. For some aggressive decks, it might be strategically sound to spend an early turn hitting hard when there is no chance of interruption, while saving board development for more uncertain times.
  2. If your opponent does have mana up, know each potential instant that they might have. Know what the removal spells in each color cost, and their rarities.
  3. If it is likely that your opponent can answer your aura and creature during their next turn, will this one turn of guaranteed damage put you so far ahead that the loss of resources is nullified by the loss of their life?
  4. Playing auras from a point of parity is safer than when you are behind. If you spend an entire turn enchanting a creature, a creature that you spend an entire previous turn summoning, and your opponent eliminates both on a single turn with a single spell AND gets to attack through this new opening with his more highly developed board, winning won’t be much of an option.

Understand that there will be games of Gatecrash Limited that you win from a seemingly desperate position with an expertly timed enchantment, and games that you lose when your opponent punishes your risk with one of this removal spells. That win doesn’t make your aura broken, and that loss doesn’t make it garbage.  Moldervine Cloak was broken. Unholy Strength was garbage. Auras are a bit different now, and the each of the auras in this format enjoys a tenuous three way relationship with risk and reward.  Know when the risk isn’t worth it, and know how to minimize that risk. Know when the reward is worth it, and learn how to engineer game states that make the reward much safer. Pat yourself on the back when you get there, and understand the position that you put yourself in when they happen to have it.  This is just one of the aspects of Gatecrash Limited, and I look forward to discussing the format a bit more broadly in a few days, after some more practice. Until then, thanks for reading.

-Chris Sauer