Before we begin, a quick note on Modern Horizons.
With preview season kicking into high gear this week, I don’t want to make you wait until next Monday to read my thoughts on one of the most exciting new sets in Magic history. Instead, you can expect an in-depth column on the first few Modern Horizons previews in this space on Friday. That’s right: you’re going to get a super-special bonus column from me this week, so make sure to check back in on the morning of the 24th
For now, though, I’d like to talk about Oathbreaker, a new casual format that I honestly believe is on the cusp of becoming a very big deal. Yes, really! Even though your attention might be laser-focused on Modern Horizons at the moment, I implore you to keep reading. When it comes to Magic finance, the adoption of a new format is as big as it gets.
It may seem unbelievable in retrospect, but Doubling Season was actually a dollar rare before Commander really took off. I could list another several thousand cards that are expensive now due to that format, but I don’t think I need to. Commander has become as big a part of the fabric of the Magic scene as Standard or Modern, and nobody can afford to ignore Commander demand when evaluating card prices.
A format doesn’t need to be as popular as Commander to make a financial impact, though. I wrote about Old School (the niche format that is limited to cards from Revised and earlier) quite early in that format’s existence, and my article was met with a lot of skepticism in the comments section. Whoops! Old School created a ton of demand for old Reserved List cards that didn’t really have a home beforehand, and it’s a big reason why (for example) Juzam Djinn jumped from $500 to $2,500.
On the other hand, some promising new formats quickly prove to be all sizzle and no steak. Frontier started strong and died fast. Tiny Leaders tried to split the difference between Commander and Legacy; now it’s a punchline. Even support from Wizards of the Coast is no guarantee of success. How many games of Brawl have you played recently?
This makes investing in a new format a bit of a high risk/high reward proposition. On the one hand, you might end up on the ground floor of the next Commander or Old School. On the other…well, I still have about a dozen foil copies of Ambassador Laquatus and two dozen foil copies of Vorel of the Hull Clade that are still waiting for Tiny Leaders to take off.
Which brings me back to Oathbreaker.
What is Oathbreaker?
Oathbreaker is actually a couple years old at this point, but the casual format appears to be on the verge of breaking out. Several local stores near me have begun to run Oathbreaker events, there are several active hype threads about the format on the mtgfinance subreddit, and The Professor over at the Tolarian Community College YouTube channel put up a video about Oathbreaker late last week. In less than 24 hours, it was viewed more than 100,000 times. The official Oathbreaker subreddit has doubled in size twice (!) over the past couple of days.
Here’s a quick rundown of how Oathbreaker works. It’s an eternal singleton format similar to Commander, only with 60 cards instead of 100 and twenty life instead of 40. Instead of having a legendary creature as your commander, however, you choose a planeswalker and their “Signature Spell” to start the game in your command zone.
Just like with Commander, all the cards in your Oathbreaker deck have to fit within your planeswalker’s color identity. This includes your Signature Spell, which can be any instant or sorcery that would otherwise be legal to play in your deck. Your planeswalker and your Signature Spell both return to the Command Zone if they would otherwise go to your graveyard, and you can cast them each again for an additional two colorless mana for each time they’ve been cast. There is one added wrinkle here, though: you can only cast your planeswalker’s Signature Spell when your planeswalker is on the battlefield.
This is a bit of a quick and simplified explanation of the rules, so if you’re curious in learning the details (including the format’s unique banned list), you can find them all here.
Is Oathbreaker Just Another Tiny Leaders?
Oathbreaker has a lot going for it that those other failed formats did not.
Frontier was a bust because it was a competitive eternal format with a card pool that was just too small. Standard’s small card pool is only fun because rotation is always bringing swift change. Modern and Legacy are fun primarily because they both have large card pools, which leads to a lot of metagame diversity. Small, non-rotating card pools become solved quickly and don’t evolve fast enough to remain interesting. I feel like Frontier might actually be pretty solid at this point, with an additional two-plus years’ worth of cards, but that’s an article for another day.
Oathbreaker doesn’t have any of these problems. It’s a casual format with the same eternal card pool as Commander. It’s not going to be solved quickly, if at all.
Brawl was a bust for similar reasons as Frontier. Not only was Brawl’s card pool even smaller than Frontier’s, but WotC seemed intent on keeping it that way. There were several community efforts to establish some sort of rules set for Eternal Brawl, but they were rebuffed by the powers-that-be. The result was a stale format that nobody really asked for.
Again, Oathbreaker doesn’t fall into these traps. It already has an eternal card pool, and it was created organically by fans, not imposed upon us by WotC. Fan-made casual formats are always going to be better bets to take off simply because they’re clearly addressing some sort of need in the community. There are loads of people out there who already like Oathbreaker, which wasn’t true for Brawl at the very start.
Of the three failed formats I’ve talked about so far, Oathbreaker is most similar to Tiny Leaders. I admit that the comparison scares me a little. I was definitely a believer in Tiny Leaders early on, and I was incredibly wrong. Like Oathbreaker, Tiny Leaders had an eternal card pool with pint-sized deck sizes, and it was a grassroots invention.
So what does Oathbreaker have going for it that Tiny Leaders did not? A couple of things, actually. Most importantly, it’s an answer to the biggest criticism of Commander at the moment: the fact that you cannot use planeswalkers as your commander. Like it or not, the Commander Rules Committee has been pretty adamant about not amending this restriction. Now that we’ve got War of the Spark and its 36 ‘walkers, the desire to build some kind of Commander deck around your favorite planeswalker is stronger than ever. Commander doesn’t allow this, but Oathbreaker does.
On the other hand, Tiny Leaders tried to solve the problem of…people liking cards that cost four-plus mana to cast? Yeah, I’m starting to see why that one didn’t take off.
The Signature Spell element seems key to Oathbreaker’s popularity as well. All new formats need an exciting hook, and “What spell pairs best with my favorite planeswalker?” is better than most. Do you want to go with a cheap spell like Fatal Push that you can run back multiple times, or something big and game-winning like Cruel Ultimatum? Are you going for power, or flavor, or something in between? Having constant access to two unique cards also makes the format very attractive to combo brewers.
There are some red flags here, though. Having access to two cards in your Command Zone as well as the 60-card limit (instead of 100 like in Commander) can lead to some incredibly consistent and powerful decks. It’s possible that this is the secret sauce that separates Oathbreaker from Commander, allowing it to thrive as its own format, but it’s also possible that the format will crumble under the weight of scrutiny and optimization. The fact that this hasn’t happened in two years of existence is heartening, but it’s not like there have been too many people dedicated to breaking Oathbreaker so far.
So yeah. It’s certainly possible that everyone will just sort of forget about Oathbreaker once War of the Spark is old news, but that’s not the way the wind is blowing right now. The format is interesting enough, unique enough, and well-thought-out enough to make me believe that it has real legs.
I guess we need to do some speculation!
The Best Spec Targets in Oathbreaker
There’s one big, obvious problem with Oathbreaker speculation: most of the cards that are good in Oathbreaker are also good in other formats. Therefore, there isn’t a lot of room for a lot of them to spike. For example, in The Professor’s video, he builds a deck with Gideon Blackblade as his Oathbreaker and Wrath of God as his Signature Spell. I don’t think either of these cards is going to see much of a price increase from Oathbreaker, since those two cards already see significant play in Standard and Commander. Even if it increases the overall demand for each spell by 10-15%, that’s not enough to really move the needle.
We also can’t just look for “planeswalkers matter” cards because, well, literally every single one of them spiked in the lead-up to War of the Spark. Again, it would take Oathbreaker catching fire in a pretty astonishing manner for a card like The Chain Veil to spike again.
Because of these issues, we can’t just compile a list of the best cards in Oathbreaker and call it a day. That list might be useful if the format ends up becoming as popular as Commander, but it’s not going to do us a lot of good right now. Instead, we’re going to have to look at cards that fit at least one of the following two criteria:
1. Does it play well in a strategy that’s viable in Oathbreaker but not in Commander, either because of deck size or reduced life total?
2. Does it form part of an interaction that people are super-excited to try out in Oathbreaker?
And even if a card manages to meet one of those criteria, it also has to fit a third:
3. Is current demand low enough to allow Oathbreaker to move the needle?
This means no fetchlands; no Snapcaster Mage; no Teferi, Hero of Dominaria; etc. If a card is already wildly popular in Standard, Modern, or Commander, it can be an MVP in Oathbreaker and it won’t really matter.
Let’s start by examining the first criterion. Which strategies are viable in Oathbreaker but not Commander?
For starters, mill decks seem like an obvious choice here, since milling 60 cards is a heck of a lot easier than milling 100. Ashiok, Dream Render seems like the most obvious Oathbreaker choice for a mill player, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a bit of a run on the foil version of this ‘walker over the next couple of weeks.
As for signature spells, Glimpse the Unthinkable, Archive Trap, Dark Deal, and Windfall immediately jump out to me as solid spec calls. Glimpse hasn’t rebounded in price since it was reprinted in Iconic Masters back in the fall of 2017, which means that it might be due for a bump. Several other Iconic Masters cards have returned to their pre-reprint price points, so the available supply isn’t that high here. Overall, it’s a very-low-risk spec that’s going to pay off well at some point.
Archive Trap was only printed once – way back in Zendikar – and it sees just enough casual and Modern play to sustain a slow and steady growth curve for almost a decade. In fact, Archive Trap is pretty much the model card for slow and steady growth, climbing a couple of bucks each year from $1 back in 2011 to $15 now. Oathbreaker might be the thing that finally causes a spike, though – goodness knows the available supply is low enough to sustain a $20-$30 price tag without all that much additional demand.
Windfall and Dark Deal are amazing buys in foil right now. Both only have one foil printing, and they’re both incredibly good in Oathbreaker. I can’t imagine either card is printed again soon, and both retail for just $5. I’m absolutely going to put my own money where my mouth is here. If you’re only going to speculate on one card due to this article, make it foil Windfall. If you’re going with a second, choose foil Dark Deal.
Mill isn’t the only deck that gains viability in Oathbreaker, though – so does Burn. With your opponent at just twenty life, killing them with fire before they get their combo off is a totally reasonable approach.
There are quite a few Chandras that seem viable to me as a Burn Oathbreaker, but Chandra, Torch of Defiance seems like the best of the bunch. It looks like the Oathbreaker subreddit agrees with me, too. Financially, Chandra is in a really interesting place – after bottoming out at $11 earlier this year, she’s back up to $16 and rising on the back of Modern play in decks like Izzet Phoenix and Mono-Red Prison. While this seems like it would violate the third criterion, I’m willing to make an exception for a card that appears to be a solid spec regardless. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is already a solid card to target now that it’s Modern-viable, and Oathbreaker can only help add fuel to that fire.
What Signature Spell might pair best with Chandra? There are too many good choices. Flame Rift, Price of Progress, Lightning Bolt, Risk Factor, Light Up the Stage, Jaya’s Immolating Inferno…you can’t really go wrong. Most of these cards aren’t viable as specs for one reason or another, though, which is why my pick of this particular litter is foil Flame Rift. The card was only printed once, way back in Nemesis, making this one of the rarest foils out there. It’s been $15 approximately forever, and nudging that needle all the way up to $50 doesn’t seem like it would be all that hard. I’ve already seen a decent amount of Flame Rift hype on the Oathbreaker subreddit, so I feel like this one has a real shot at paying off.
Let’s move on to the second criterion. Which cards are people most excited to try out in Oathbreaker?
For starters, you don’t have to go too deep into any Oathbreaker conversation before someone inevitably brings up the interaction between Narset, Parter of Veils and Windfall. It’s a pretty obvious combo, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. Foil copies of Narset have been rising for weeks now, but that has more to do with the eternal play that she sees than Oathbreaker. As for Windfall, well, this is yet another reason why foil copies of the powerful sorcery are such a great buy right now.
In terms of weird interactions, I have to mention Jace, Wielder of Mysteries and Mana Severance. Yes, it’s a more of a meme deck than a real deck, but it’s also a two-card combo that wins the game immediately if your opponent can’t disrupt it. Mana Severance has settled in around the $9 range after a major spike back in January, but this is a card with very low supply and room to grow. I’m not sure how many people will actually want to build this deck, but I can easily imagine a Mana Severance buyout regardless.
While she doesn’t seem to have a standout Signature Spell yet, Saheeli, Sublime Artificer is all over the Oathbreaker subreddit. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the most popular Oathbreaker in the entire format right now. Foil copies of Saheeli are on the rise, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re over $20 soon.
So far, I feel like the Signature Spells that seem to have the most potential to break out with Saheeli are Divergent Transformations and Battle Hymn. Divergent Saheeli is about as established as it’s possible for an Oathbreaker deck to be at this point, and Divergent Transformation was only printed once back in Commander 2016. A sneeze three rooms away can cause cards from Commander sets to get bought out and spike, which makes this dollar rare a really solid spec target right now. Battle Hymn isn’t as interesting, but foil copies are just $7 right now and they’ve been as high as $15 this year. Worst case, you’ll be able to flip these to Commander players at some point.
Final Thoughts on Oathbreaker
I can’t predict whether Oathbreaker will continue to catch on. It’s certainly possible that the format will go the way of Tiny Leaders, Frontier, Brawl, and all those other failed formats that we’ve already forgotten about. But I can say that Oathbreaker is already a better format than any of those three. It has a reason to exist, a small but rapidly growing community, and decks that don’t look like anything from either Legacy or Commander. Plus, it plays really, really well with War of the Spark.
Right now, the Oathbreaker community is like the Wild West. There’s no EDHREC equivalent for Oathbreaker, no consensus on best decks, and no clear hierarchy of staples. If there’s a reason why my spec choices look like they’ve been plucked from random forums threads this week instead of streamlined decklists, that’s because they have. I did my research by reading what I could about the format on Reddit and Twitter as well as seeking out some of the folks who have played more games of Oathbreaker than I have.
On the one hand, this means that some of my specs might be dead wrong. It’s quite possible that someone will discover a better Signature Spell for Mono-Red Burn than Flame Rift, and that foil won’t ever go anywhere. There simply hasn’t been enough optimization for any of us to be certain about anything when it comes to Oathbreaker.
On the other hand, there’s nothing quite as exciting (or as potentially lucrative!) as getting into a brand-new format on the ground floor. My recommendation? Grab a few of the obvious specs I’ve mentioned in this article, and head over to the Oathbreaker community and brew up a couple of decks. The best way to learn about a new format is by giving it a spin, and your specs are more likely to pay off if you’re helping to build the community that you want to see grow.
This Week’s Trends
First off, anyone who didn’t get their War of the Spark Mythic Edition should check their eBay messages. Our $20 coupon codes are live, and you should make sure to use your code on something sweet before you forget.
Second, it looks as though the War of the Spark foil sheet pre-orders have already climbed from $200 to about $350 over the past couple of days as folks start to realize just how cool and rare these things are going to be. My advice for all would-be buyers is to wait until they’re finally delivered, at which point a glut will hit the market and they’ll probably dip below $300 again. By the same vein, would-be sellers should hold onto these as long as possible. Once that first rush ends, the price will shoot back up again.
I will not be directly addressing any of the Modern Horizons leaks in this article – leaks are harmful for the Magic community – but I will say that you should probably not order any of the reprints that you see previewed this week unless you can snag your copies before they spike. Older cards that are added to the Modern card pool will almost certainly increase in price, but they’re also likely to spike high and then slowly start to sink back toward some kind of equilibrium. Either make your play within ten to fifteen minutes of a card being previewed or wait a few weeks for the price to come down. If there end up being exceptions to this rule, I’ll address them in my next article on Friday.
If you want to read more about my philosophy and approach to Modern Horizons in the meantime, check out both of the columns I wrote about the expansion back in March.
Over in Standard, the Japanese alternate-art planeswalkers are still on the rise. While I expect this growth to taper off at some point, likely when US stores and dealers are finally allowed to order a bunch of Japanese boxes, don’t sleep on these cards as great long-term holds. The community has spoken, and it is clear that these cards are a mega-hit.
Beyond that, Legion Warboss and Thief of Sanity were the two biggest Standard risers of the week. This lines up with the fact that Mono-Red Aggro and Esper Midrange are currently the two most popular decks in the format, according to MTG Goldfish. Legion Warboss has proven to be a clutch sideboard card against decks like Esper Control and Simic Nexus, while Thief of Sanity is the creature that makes Esper Midrange tick. Both cards are solid bets to maintain their current value going forward, and Thief of Sanity still has room to grow.
On the flip side, Nicol Bolas, the Ravager and Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God were the two biggest Standard losers this week. That might change with a good tournament result for Grixis Control at some point, but the deck hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire on Magic Online or Magic Arena. I love both cards in a vacuum, but they have to put up results at some point if they’re going to maintain their value. I’m selling.
Over in Modern, the biggest gainers of the week were Trinisphere and Mycosynth Lattice. Both cards are part of Karn, the Great Creator’s Wish sideboard, which means that they’re starting to see a lot more play in Vintage and Legacy as well as in Modern. I still think that Ensnaring Bridge has a chance to pop for the same reason, but I haven’t seen much movement there yet.
Also up this week: Pillar of the Paruns, a rare land from Dissension that is suddenly $20 after having been stuck at $5 for approximately forever. This spike is likely due to the Five-Color Bring to Light deck that’s been showing up in Modern events recently:
I don’t know how good this deck actually is, but it looks like a wild amount of fun and it doesn’t have any super-expensive cards in it. When Kolaghan’s Command and Mana Confluence are two of the deck’s big choke points, you know you’ve got a decently affordable brew going. Well, for Modern, at least.
Speaking of Mana Confluence, it’s probably the next best spec in the deck. The card has been on the rise for months now due to the play it sees in Dredge across multiple formats. It’s also a very solid casual card. There’s some risk of a reprint here, but otherwise I think we’re heading above the $20 mark soon and $30 isn’t an unreasonable expectation.
Lastly, there have been some rumblings about an impending Nivmagus Elemental buyout due to one of the leaked Modern Horizons cards. I don’t need to tell you what the leaked card is in order to tell you that going in on Nivmagus Elemental is a bad idea. Much like Leveler, Nivmagus Elemental has been through multiple hype cycles without actually paying off at any point. I’m staying away, and I suggest that you do, too.