Oath of the gatewatch was a set high in innovation compared to its predecessor. A major part of this was colorless mana. I had enough to say on the subject to make a whole article about it. The rest of the set review will follow later.
The most exciting new feature of the set for me was colorless mana. Many mechanics do something new. Few are the mechanics that make old cards do something new. Very rare are the mechanics that change the tried-and-true deck-building algorithms. Colorless mana does that in spades. Never before did we have to craft manabases of decks with two colors and a splash for colorless. Never did we have to prioritize pain lands over shocks. Now we have a new basic land types, and I find that, by itself, strategically interesting. It added a new basic feature to the game in an intuitive way that is not intrusive. It is cleanly executed, easy to understand and surprisingly deep in applications. Besides, colorless gives off-color effects to many decks. It is more pushed than generic mana costing cards, as it does not need to be nerfed for fear of years of broken interaction cards with artifacts. The main argument against the mechanic for cube was that producing colorless mana is too difficult to do without damaging your mana base. It seemed to some like a nice idea in theory but too risky and demanding to be played. This proved a non-issue for us and likely for most large cubes.
The most effective way to facilitate colorless mana costs is to cube the colorless producing mana fixing lands. This makes playing or even splashing colorless easy. Painlands become a tri-land of sorts. It is actually a lot more difficult to support colorless at smaller cube sizes because painlands simply do not cut it there on power level. Besides painlands, I highly recommend Grove of the Burnwillows and of course the random filterland helps as well (although they are still quite bad and I do not like them, this is more an incidental ). The new Ash Barrens is also of the best enablers.
The usual suspects among true colorless lands, from Library of Alexandria to Rishadan Port just got a bit better. The amount of colorless producing lands has increased a little bit since including colorless caring cards, but overall not by a lot. Westvale Abbey, Gargoyle Castle and Foundry of the Consuls are new but I’d likely play at least the first two even without colorless costing cards, and that is in 720. We have tried many more, in thoughts the new mana symbol could give new life to old favorites, but it turns out the marginal colorless producing lands are still not making the cut, specifically Tendo Ice Bridge and its ilk. The amount of colorless mana cards is too low to make bad cards good. They make some already playable cards good, but they will not shift evaluation of colorless producers significantly. Pain lands were already desirable for aggro and green decks with mana elves for their ability to provide fixing from the first turn of the game. Including extra pure colorless lands proved just unnecessary as playing colorless cards is so effortless given the better producers. Said lands appear strictly better than Wastes, but they are not so for several reasons. They take real estate in the cube, require picking during the draft and are not basic.
Speaking of Wastes, I’ve overestimated how many are used. I’ve packed 8 and so far I think 4 have been the most that were ever used at a single 8 man draft. Actually ebfore today the record was 2, but today a mono white deck included 4 for Eldrazi Displacer – a risky move that payed off. Wastes are important to have, as they make splashing for colorless cards that much easier with Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse. It is especially relevant for green, who can fetch them with Sakura-Tribe Elder, Cultivate and more, mostly for the new Kozilek.
Nonland colorless sources are not as instrumental. If you ever needed more convincing to play the Talismans over the signets, now you have it. For some reason the talisman still do not get the respect they deserve. A Talisman of Unity was already playable to great in your W/R gruul midrange, now that you have a Thought-Knot Seer in your list too it is of the better mana rocks your deck can have. Turns out that many naturally producing colorless cards are played in cube. From Sol Ring through Mind Stone to Mana Drain, you’d be surprised how easy it is to find something to cast your card off of, even without trying hard.
Colorless mana costs are better served in mid to late game cards and mana sinks. Makes sense, as you have a higher chance of drawing your source by then. Also, colorless mana interferes with your curve sometimes and the earlier you want it, the more colorless lands your deck needs and the more it will hurt casting your other cards during that game. As a result of that and the available pool of cards, colorless is mostly a splash for a card or two at the middle to late stages of the game.
Eldrazi Displacer – Colorless mana staple
I do not want to say any colorless cost card is a true staple as smaller cubes cannot support them well. However, if you add any colorless cards at all, this should be the one. White’s three drops are stacked, yet this guy has enabled many combo decks at the cost of one card slot, while being good enough to see play in some aggressive decks too. A recent combo deck had Displacer + Arcane Savant naming Time Spiral. This is of the craziest combos in the cube environment! Having infinite mana and drawing whichever card you want out of your deck and graveyard should do the job. The resilience is what makes this combo special – it could go off out of nowhere if you have six mana, one of them colorless by nothing more than Arcane Savant. It doesn’t even care if Displacer was killed before, as Savant will dig for it anyway. The deck even had Phantasmal Image for an extra dig if needed. If you can keep Displacer and a colorless source on the board, you win when you get to 5 mana, only 4 of it from lands.
That was a bit off-topic but merely one example of the cool decks you can make with it. Channel + Eldrazi Displacer + Siege Rhino is also infinite. Even if you do not go all the way to an instant win, reusing ETB effects can be great repeated value. It is so annoying to play against it – all the other creatures but him cannot be killed by sorcery speed spot removals, planning blockers is difficult and your tokens just die. It is also noteworthy how strong Displacer is against planeswalkers. You have a Garruk in hand? That’s cute.
You absolutely want to have a few colorless sources in your deck for Displacer. Without them he is horrid. Usually one source online will do enough to justify the slot and 2 will enable a full-going machine. Any more is overkill. I’d feel fine to play Displacer in a deck with three colorless sources total, though 4 is even better. A noteworthy synergy in white is between Land Tax and Wastes.
Dimensional Infiltrator – niche
One of the surest ways to have an unplayable card is to take a card only one deck wants and add more conditions to its playability for marginal benefit. DI is only a consideration for tempo decks. In them it is hard to argue it is not playable. A Mistral Charger with flash would see play in white, and in every aggressive deck, yet would be hardly exciting. The self-rescue ability is so hardly useful it should barely be talked about. Besides requiring at least one colorless mana, you need to have that mana available in the appropriate time window and be lucky with the mill. It was never close to milling someone out as an alternative win condition due to the scarcity of colorless mana in decks (you cannot have half your mana be colorless consistently). If you have two drops in blue dedicated to tempo decks, this is a second place competitor to Stratus Dancer. I’d not even call this card a colorless casting cost one, as I’d hardly be prioritized to have colorless sources in my deck at all just for this measly ability.
Bearer of Silence – low playable
Bearer is in a good position – there is a shortage of strong black two drops and he is playable on curve without ever worrying about colorless mana. I’d definitely play him in a deck that needs the body with two colorless sources. The 4 mana mode should be seen as the second mode, something you do if the card is topdecked late or you can afford it. It is fair no matter how you slice it, and edict effects are usually much worse at turn 4 than at turn 2. That said, two playable modes make a solid card that will likely stay for a while due to the weakness of the alternatives.
Eldrazi Obligator – playable
I haven’t tried him yet, but I like him in theory and want to include him. He is almost a Geier Reach Bandit on one hand. An exaggeration really, as one toughness is much worse than 2 against many decks, and especially when facing tokens. On the other hand, he is almost as good as Zealous Conscripts. Again worse, due to lower toughness, being able to target only creatures and requiring colorless. However, being a 5 mana conditional aggressive red card is a bad place to be. Obligator had a playable base mode and the situational kicker effect is sometimes gamewinning. This way you can have your late game power without sacrificing early game consistency. A minor upside is that the Threaten effect is uncounterable. Obligator should never see play in a deck that cannot produce colorless, but in the aggressive red decks that do, he should be a good card.
World Breaker – unplayable
I’m only writing about some of these cards because I did not review the set when it came out. A fattie that cannot be grabbed with Natural Order and Green Sun’s Zenith, doesn’t trigger when cheated otherwise and has no evasion or easy way to end the game even when cast is not what you want for seven mana. Even the recursion is slow and conditional.
Thought-Knot Seer – great
The best of the true colorless cards. A 4/4 for four is a sizeable body and the targeted discard is a welcome off-color effect for many decks. Most of the important cards to hit cost 4 mana or more, and in any case just having a 4/4 + card advantage on top is worth the hassle. The body is big enough to contain the vast majority of creatures costing three or less mana. People are sometimes afraid of the drawback but it is really not too big of a deal. Quite often you will discard their only way to kill TKS. If they have two or more, you can usually ascertain that the eldrazi will not be answered by something much cheaper, meaning you are even on tempo and force them to answer him with the (1-for-1 if you were half smart) second card, with chances that the newly drawn card is worse than the one discarded, so it was a good deal for you anyway. If you hit nothing with the discard, it is a pure drawback but still means you are likely ahead. A 4/4 against no hand resistance is still a solid way to win the game. A good option for green to deal with opposing fatties.
Reality Smasher – solid
The body is impressive for the cost. The problem is mostly being a highly aggressive card in a non-aggressive cost, making him narrower than Thought-Knot Seer. Smasher is good against opposing planeswalkers and offers compensation when answered. A nice thing to cast early with mana ramp, the classic is off of Mana Vault at the second turn. A card reminiscent of Thundermaw Hellkite in function (though weaker in power level).
Kozilek, the Great Distortion – archetype piece in large cubes
The only card that requires more than one colorless mana. As most eldrazis, he will be mainly cheated into play and as he is castable with Channel that is not too much of a change. He is also reanimatable, a plus. However he is not as strong as old Kozilek with sneak attack. Matter of fact is Kozilek is relatively easy to answer and block for a while compared to eldrazi titans. In decks that want to hardcast him, the double colorless mana is of least concern. Super ramp decks usually pack accelerators that generate several colorless mana on their own: Thran Dynamo, Ancient Tomb, Worn Powerstone, Palladium Myr, Everflowing Chalice, Hedron Archive and perhaps a few more cards do that. Plus, most of those decks are green, the color that has the easiest time to fetch Wastes. Usually one Wastes is maindecked to support Kozilek. He is a bit stronger sometimes when cast than his old self, but is less consistent.
The two new titans, Emrakul and Ulamog, are definitely better. I still like Kozilek, Butcher of Truth more than him, but that is up to preference, making him eldrazi titan number 3-4. Large cubes supporting super ramp and/or sneak and show decks will want the eldritch horror, and probably for a long while.
Mirrorpool – playable but narrow
Mirrorpool is narrow and powerful. With Primeval Titan and the like it is awesome. Without combos as strong, the amount of colorless you will have in your deck, both from it and the lands needed to activate it, is prohibitive. It is the absolute weakest mana producer in cube, something you only ever want to draw late and requires attractive targets to be in play in the first place. Currently too damaging but if one day heavy Wastes decks are a thing, this will get another spin.