All I want for Christmas is the Oath of the Gatewatch spoiler season to start. That and insider information on the upcoming banlist announcement. Plus an eventual Innocent Blood reprint when we take a trip back to Innistrad. Maybe the Santa Claus's at Wizards are listening, but if not, we still have a few Oath spoilers to get us through the holidays and into the official card previews. Unofficially, we've seen a few Oath cards hit the internet, a leak eagerly received by the Magic masses and harshly rebuked by Wizards and Trick Jarrett. We've also seen a few Wizards-approved Oath reveals, including a trio of eyeless Goblins with Snapcaster Mage aspirations. Big thanks to the folks at GatheringMagic for their preview article on Goblin Dark-Dwellers to keep me afloat through the week, and another round of applause to Wizards for releasing such a neat Buy-a-Box promotional creature.
Today's article is going to be a shorter piece than usual (relative to my usual monsters, at least) because I have the in-depth Part 2 of our Stoneforge Abzan vs. Affinity series coming out on Wednesday. Until the banlist testing goes live, let's take a satisfying look at a possible sleeper cards from the known Oath spoilers. Patrick Chapin wrote about the Goblin in his aptly titled "Bloodbraid Goblin...Dark-Dwellers!", focusing on the Dwellers' comparison to the infamous Elf and their Standard applicability. I'm not quite as excited as Chapin, but I'm optimistic enough to see some Modern potential in these three Descent extras. We're going to start with a quick rundown on the Dark-Dwellers' Modern strengths before exploring a neat Naya brew using the Goblins.
Finding a Modern Dwelling
Fun fact: Goblin Rabblemaster was the Magic 2015 Buy-a-Box promo. Looks like the Dark-Dwellers have big shoes to fill in the Goblinoid legacy! Thankfully, the Oath trio has a lot going for it in a format with a high bar for creatures. Here are the big strengths Dark-Dwellers brings to the format, along with some weaknesses:
- The five-mana casting cost stinks, and is by far the card's biggest barrier to Modern playability. Neither Grixis nor BGx, Modern's best grinding strategies, use anything in the maindeck over four mana. Twin slips Keranos into the sideboard and certain Scapeshift builds roll with Bring to Light, but otherwise there isn't a lot of precedent for successful five-mana cards. Ramp decks like Tron and Amulet Bloom are exceptions to this, but those are operating on an entirely different axis. Thankfully, I think we can mitigate Dwellers' cost with dorks and/or other accelerators, so we'll table the casting-cost issue for now. On the bright side, you can think of the Dwellers like a turn five Snapcaster that doesn't get hit by either early Inquisition of Kozileks or later Abrupt Decays.
- Goblin is one of the more relevant creature types, although I don't think the struggling Goblins deck needs Dark-Dwellers to achieve a breakout performance. I've seen tinkering around Dwellers' synergy with Goblin Grenade, or with the card advantage engine Lead the Stampede, but I don't think this is the best direction.
- I'd rather the Goblins had intimidate or fear than menace, but the ability isn't irrelevant. In grindy contests, the Dark-Dwellers can menace through Lingering Souls' Spirits and Pia and Kiran Nalaar's Thopters. A Tasigur/Goyf/Rhino pairing is definitely bad news, but the Goblins bully a lone 4/5 all day.
- Of course, the real reason to play Dark-Dwellers is its Snapcaster and a flipped Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound imitation. True, it's not quite the same (no flash like Tiago and a higher cost than Jace), but what can you expect of a red creature with no eyeballs? Jokes aside, I'm comfortable trading some of those qualities for a 4/4 body that ends the game on its own. As for the ability itself, given its cascade similarities, you can't blame Chapin and others for the Bloodbraid comparison. Although the Dwellers can't hit creatures or planeswalkers (Elf into Liliana still gives me nightmares), the selective recursion is very strong in a color with access to Kolaghan's Command and Anger of the Gods. The key is to get huge value out of the recurred card, unless we want to just play a red Gilt-Leaf Winnower.
To be sure, we're not looking at Modern's second coming of Bloodbraid, nor a color-defining staple like Tasigur. Dark-Dwellers is just a brew-worthy creature with more potential than we probably acknowledge at first glance. I want to see what Tier 2 or Tier 3 strategies Dwellers can improve, and what Modern synergies the Goblins can exploit.
I tried a Breaking // Entering reanimator deck during the Return to Ravnica era, using cascade spells to dig for the mill side of the card before reanimating a fatty with the Entering side. As you may or may not know, an effect like Violent Outburst or Isochron Scepter can cast either side of a split card as long as half of the card is within the appropriate mana-range. The Dark-Dwellers interact with split cards in a similar way, which gives us some interesting options for breaking its recursion effect.
Or should I say, busting it.
Boom // Bust hasn't seen many notable Modern performances outside of a 17th place finish by Italian player Marco Camilluzzi at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. We also saw some Mardu Smallpox versions in 2015, such as Matthew Currie's from an SCG States event in Maryland. Whatever your approach to Booming, the gameplan is similar: lead turn one dork, follow with turn two fetchland, Boom your fetch and an opponent's non-fetch, and crack your own land in response. The Boom still resolves and you keep three mana while your opponent drops by one. As with Shadow of Doubt, this line amounts to a Modern-legal Sinkhole, but one that is more proactive and hits better lands (such as Affinity's Nexus lands or the BGx's manlands). The Bust side is certainly splashier, but it's rarely the reason to run the spell in today's cardpool. The old exception to this were lists with Bloodbraid Elf, which gave players an option to snipe an enemy land if behind or remove all mana from the equation if ahead.
With Oath, now you and the Dark-Dwellers can relive those Busted glory days. Play your dork on turn one and then follow with the turn two Boom and fetchland combo. When turn four comes around, you can drop the Goblins and re-cast Bust as Armageddon. Add some clocks and removal, maybe even the equally busted Blood Moon, and you have yourselves the trappings of a sweet land-smashing brew. I'm liking Naya colors for Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch, both of which get us a turn ahead of the curve and the latter of which turns Dwellers into a 5/5 monster. Tarmogoyf fits into most Naya decks, especially those maindecking an enchantment, and who said fun brews needed to be budget? Jordan has already extolled the Goyf/Moon pairing and we'd be silly to ignore their joint power in today's metagame.
I'm sad to lose Kolaghan's Command now that we're out of black, but happy to gain Dromoka's Command in exchange. I have a (semi-irrational) love affair with this card and the Dark-Dwellers wield it nicely. In the early game, the GW modal spell crushes Burn, screws with Twin, and saves your dorks from sweepers. It also wins Goyf wars and snipes opposing threats. Later on, it leads to big Goblins and clears out the multiple blockers which can ruin menace. +1/+1 counters stick around after the effective flashback, extending Dark-Dweller's value well past the turn you recur a spell. This also gives Goblins a come-from-behind mode (killing a creature and gaining a 5/5) instead of the seal-the-deal Bust which doesn't work if you're losing. That said, Goblins into Bust isn't always win-more: sometimes it's just win.
A few Naya staples later and we got ourselves a deck! Strategically, we're trying to launch a big turn two play off one of our eight dorks: Moon, Boom, or even Goyf + Bolt. We share elements with traditional Naya decks, but swap others for this Moon and Boom // Bust angle, along with a mid-game punch in Goblin.
Dismember goes in over Path to avoid major anti-synergy with both Boom and Moon. Our Kitchen Finks lifegain mitigates the Phyrexian mana lifeloss and the fetch-intensive manabase, not to mention persist synergy with Dromoka's Command counters.
Naya Dark-Dwellers trades Zoo's aggro consistency for percentage points against big-mana decks like Tron and Amulet Bloom. Boom // Bust and Blood Moon also steal games against fair decks that fetch poorly, keep 1-2 landers, or are relying on low land-counts backed with cantrips. Maindeck lifegain and Commands hamstring Burn's racing potential, and combine with low-cost removal, lifegain, and land killers to turn off some Affinity's advantages. In Games 2-3, your maindeck welcomes 3-4 Molten Rains to further assault manabases against slower decks, or more anti-aggro bullets such as Fiery Justice and Feed the Clan. Don't forget Choke for blue decks too!
This is just one of many ways to build the Dark-Dwellers in Modern, and I'd love to see what else readers can come up with. Where else could you see the card? Are you still skeptical it will see any play (yeah, I am too)? Any other Oath cards catch your eye? I'll catch you all in the comments and am excited to wrap up our 2015 article season with Wednesday's Stoneforge Mystic piece. See you soon!