Fenton Oath primer
Oath of Druids + Forbidden Orchard is without a doubt the most easily-assembled two-card combo in modern Vintage. Not only is getting a Griselbrand for two mana and two unrestricted cards completely busted, but both combo pieces are semi-useful on their own: the Orchard forms part of the deck's mana base, and Oath can win the game on its own against an unaware or careless opponent, or, at minimum, curtail the opponent's aggression while you search for the rest of the combo.
The core combo leaves plenty of room in the deck for disruptive and control elements, which positions Oath to perform well against most of the Vintage metagame: while slower than purer combo decks like Storm or Belcher, Oath's control suite allows the deck to survive crucial early turns, while presenting a relatively fast clock that punishes combo decks that cannot go off immediately. Between Oath, Show and Tell, the deck can deploy a series of must-counter early-game threats that can punch through a blue deck's countermagic. Finally, Oath naturally preys on Workshop decks, and to a lesser extent, Dredge. Oath's truly bad matchup -- Mono-white Humans -- sees only fringe play. All of the above combine to make Oath a consistently Tier 1.5 deck that you can learn once and tweak forever; it's also a great choice to bring in against an unknown metagame.
Why Fenton Oath?
Fenton Oath is the meat-and-potatoes of Oath combo-control builds; many more spicy decks featuring Oath have been proposed, and have done well in tournaments, including Omni-Tell, "Odd Oath," Oath in a Storm or Landstill shell, etc. To keep the length of this primer reasonable, it will focus only on Fenton Oath, and leave the other builds to other authors. There are two reasons why I believe that Fenton is a good Oath build to learn first and learn well:
Consistency: When you resolve Oath's trigger, you will get a Griselbrand, every time. There are advantages to diversifying your creature pool -- dodging Karakas, for instance -- but these don't outweigh the advantage of knowing what you will Oath into and planning around it.
Resilience: The presence of Show and Tell dramatically increases the robustness of the deck against a wide swath of sideboard hate cards, and Vault+Key opens up yet another possible avenue of victory, as well as giving the deck a reliable way to end the game post-Oath. Where specific specialized builds of Oath can excel in specific metagames, this redundancy gives Fenton Oath an advantage in diversified or unknown metagames.
Who am I?
Short answer: nobody of particular consequence. My work schedule prevents me from participating in real-life tournaments; the last Vintage tourney I played in was the Waterbury many years ago. I do, however, play a lot of Vintage on MTGO (at least a couple of matches per night) and while I still consistently lose to the true Vintage experts like Rich Shay, I have "gone infinite" playing Oath in the 2-man queues. I've also won a few dailies running Oath. When BrassMan took over the site, he urged the community to seed the new site with quality content; this is my attempt to contribute. Of course, I also encourage you to supplement this primer with your own experience and analysis.
# Core Deck 4 Preordain 1 Time Walk 1 Demonic Tutor 4 Force of Will 4 Mental Misstep 3 Griselbrand 3 Show and Tell 1 Ancestral Recall 1 Memory's Journey 1 Brainstorm 1 Mox Emerald 1 Mox Jet 1 Mox Pearl 1 Mox Ruby 1 Mox Sapphire 1 Black Lotus 1 Mana Crypt 1 Voltaic Key 1 Time Vault 4 Oath of Druids 4 Forbidden Orchard 1 Polluted Delta 2 Tropical Island 2 Underground Sea 1 Island 4 Misty Rainforest 1 Yawgmoth's Will 1 Strip Mine 1 Dig Through Time # Metagame Calls 1 Misdirection 1 Flusterstorm 2 Thoughtseize 1 Hurkyl's Recall 1 Abrupt Decay 1 Pithing Needle # Sideboard 1 Forest 1 Pithing Needle 4 Nature's Claim 2 Nihil Spellbomb 1 Island 3 Abrupt Decay 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite 2 Flusterstorm
First and most importantly, Oath is a combo deck with control elements. The deck has only two sources of card advantage, other than Griselbrand himself, and cannot go toe-to-toe with Landstill, Mentor, or Grixis decks in the control role for any length of time. This means you should almost always be the aggressor in a given matchup, keeping your opponent under constant pressure until an Oath or Show and Tell sticks; the exception is against even faster combo decks, namely Storm and more exotic decks like Belcher and Dark Depths, where the first priority is to not-lose, with landing Oath a secondary objective that clinches full control of the game once the opponent fails to win in the crucial early turns.
Oath + Orchard is the obvious broken turn one play, and there is little downside to running it out game one, turn one against every deck. The combo steals the game the heavy majority of the time: blue decks need to have an opening Force of Will, and Storm needs the unlikely turn-one kill. In addition, the price of holding back Oath against Shops, Dredge, or an agressive Mentor opening hand is catastrophic. Post-sideboard, such aggression is riskier, as answers like Grafdigger's Cage, Nature's Claim, Containment Priest, etc. are more common, but again, giving your opponent time to Preordain into the answers you fear is not a winning strategy.
There is more tension to the decision of whether to play Oath early without Orchard. On the one hand, by waiting to play Oath, you can trap your opponent into playing a low-threat early creature like Delver of Secrets, Dark Confidant, or Trinket Mage, obviating the need for Orchard; you also have a chance to bait removal spells ("accidentally" exposing your Black Lotus to Abrupt Decay, e.g.) before exposing Oath. On the other hand, against the decks mentioned above (Shops, Dredge, other very aggresive creature decks like Humans, Affinity, etc) you cannot afford to waste time playing Oath, as the Oath will trump the opponent's strategy and win the game on its own. Oath will also buy a lot of time against control decks that do not have maindeck enchantment answers: a Young Pyromancer deck, for example, cannot race a resolved Oath without setting up a Time Walk turn; you may not resolve another spell the rest of the game, but still have good odds to win the game after you draw an (uncounterable) Oath. Similarly, if you do not resolve Oath on turn one against Landstill, you probably never will.
The most basic function of Show and Tell is as a backup mechanism for cheating Griselbrand into brand if you do not draw Oath, Oath is countered, or is neutralized by cards like Grafdigger's Cage. This backup mechanism gives the deck much-needed resiliency against incidental and intentional Oath hate, and also significantly adds to the deck's must-counter threat density. Show and Tell is also one of the few topdecks (along with Yawgmoth's Will) that can steal a seemingly-lost game. Show and Tell does require more care to use optimally, as it is more expensive (and thus usually cannot be played until after the opponent has set up defenses, such as Spell Pierce or Mana Drain), more vulnerable to countermagic (most notably Flusterstorm and Pyroblast), and allows the opponent to cheat a card into play as well, which is unfortunate when they are holding Blightsteel Collosus, Yawgmoth's Bargain, Emrakul, etc.
For these reasons, rushing an early Show and Tell does not pay off as often as an early Oath. Waiting for countermagic (ideally Flusterstorm) support, or a Thoughtseize to clear a path, is usually advised (but see below for some specific Show and Tell tactics).
Once Griselbrand arrives, the deck can usually transition into a heavy-handed control role. The ideal situation is having 15+ life and facing a mostly-empty board, at which point the deck can easily counter any meaningful opposing threats and win at leisure. Griselbrand's lifelink also allows it to race in most situations when its ability cannot be used (either due to low life total, or opposing cards like Phyrexian Revoker or Notion Thief).
There are two common, less-rosy scenarios:
You cannot pass the turn without losing Griselbrand or the game (for instance, the opponent has a Karakas or Jace, the Mind Sculptor in play, is threatening a Tendrils kill, has lethal damage in creatures even with Griselbrand blocking, etc). The strategy in this situation is to draw as many cards as necessary with Griselbrand and either chain enough Time Walk turns to answer the opposing threat (by attacking into Jace, for instance) or to assemble Vault-Key. One of the advantages of the Fenton build is that it can accomplish one or both of these goals with surprising regularity: after Oath, the graveyard is typically stocked with enough material that a Yawgmoth's Will is game-winning (and if Yawgmoth's Will was milled, Memory's Journey can shuffle it back into the library); drawing 7-14 cards followed by chaining cantrips will also quite reliably find Time Walk, Vault+Key, Demonic Tutor, or a toolbox answer like Pithing Needle, and artifact mana to cast these cards, even if Yawgmoth's Will is exiled or otherwise neutered.
A stalemate, where the opponent's board is developed to the point that Griselbrand cannot profitably race the opposing creatures (but can prevent an opposing attack thanks to Lifelink) and you also cannot activate Griselbrand. This situation is common game one versus Dredge, and sometimes arises against Shops (especially with Revoker naming Griselbrand), Young Pyromancer, and Mentor decks. If the problem is a low life total, in a pinch you can attack with Griselbrand and hope a post-combat draw-7 will find an answer like Time Walk, but in several cases it is possible to extricate yourself more conservatively. Several tactics can be used to pad your life total to the point that you can race the opponent, or draw enough cards to combo out as in scenario one above: Time Vault can be used to store a turn, allowing a Griselbrand attack followed by an untap step; similarly Show and Tell can be used to replace a tapped Griselbrand post-combat with an untapped blocker.
Sometimes the situation is so desperate that Oathing up Griselbrand cannot save you; this is most common against Dredge or Mentor, where the opponent might have a huge army, and your life total is too low to activate Griselbrand. Elesh Norn comes in from the sideboard to deal with these situations; see below.
Oath of Druids
There are a few points to bear in mind about the deck's namesake enchantment.
- The triggered ability must target the opponent, and is an "intervening if" trigger. Your opponent must control more creatures than you do (and not have hexproof) both at the beginning of your upkeep, when you place the Oath trigger on the stack, as well as when the Oath trigger resolves. Practically speaking, since you will not receive priority during your untap step, your last chance to give your opponent extra creatures with Orchard is their end of turn. This is also the best time for your opponent to react (by casting Swords to Plowshares on their own token, say): if they wait until your upkeep, with Oath already on the stack, you can create a new token with Orchard, and Oath will resolve as usual. The opponent's end of turn is also their last chance to stop Oath by destroying it (which trips up some opponents for some reason.)
- The Oath trigger is symmetric; it will also trigger on your opponent's upkeep if you control more creatures. The rarity of this situation makes it easy to forget, which can lead to awkward blunders, like the opponent blocking Griselbrand with their last creature and then Oathing up Blightsteel Colossus or Emrakul.
- You can Oath even if the creature cannot enter play, due to Grafdigger's Cage, Containment Priest, etc. Very occasionally this is useful for stocking up a graveyard for Yawgmoth's Will, digging through Brainstorm lock, etc.
Show and Tell
The presence of Show and Tell in the deck adds a layer of strategic complexity beyond its most basic function as a backup plan for cheating Griselbrand into play. First, your opponent must respect Show and Tell as a game-ending threat, whether your hand actually contains Griselbrand or not, and can therefore serve as a makeshift Duress.
Second, Show and Tell can be used to put non-Griselbrand permanents into play, thereby shielding them from countermagic. A notable example of this tactic is when your hand contains Show and Tell, Oath of Druids, and no Griselbrand. Playing Show and Tell draws out a counterspell, or worst case, allows you to play Oath of Druids for 2U; if Show and Tell gets countered, you can follow up with the Oath itself. As a bonus, your opponent, expecting Griselbrand to come down, might Show a middling threat like Pyromancer, activating Oath. Another example of this useful function is when you have a game-winning Voltaic Key in hand, and want to play around Mental Misstep.
Finally in extremely unusual circumstances, Show and Tell can be used to put a second land into play (for instance, if you are in a Yawgmoth's WIll turn, have already played a land earlier in the turn, and need to Strip Mind an opposing Karakas.)
A quick rules note about Show and Tell: both players pick the card to Show, and then reveal their choices simultaneously. Both permanents then enter the battlefield simultaneously. This timing means that copy cards like Phyrexian Metamorph cannot copy the incoming Griselbrand; this interaction trips up a lot of less-experienced Shops players.
Griselbrand's lifelink and draw 7 ability make it an amazingly flexible finisher. How much life to spend, and when, will depend on the details of the game being played. There are a few specific situations to watch out for. The opponent can use the time that the draw trigger is on the stack to try shenanigans like casting Swords to Plowshares on the Griselbrand, or flashing in Notion Thief. This possibility is worth keeping in mind when playing decks that support those cards (if you have enough life to draw another 7, you can of course search for Force or Will or another counterspell if necessary).
Griselbrand is legendary, but playing a second copy is occasionally still useful, since the new, untapped copy can replace a tapped copy and serve as blocker.
Finally, there is a perception that Griselbrand's casting cost of 4BBBB is uncastable in Vintage. In fact, hard-casting Griselbrand is not uncommon, especially late-game against control decks. The main obstacle to casting the demon is usually not generating the eight mana, but the quadruple-black color requirement. Besides Black Lotus (powering out Griselbrand is a great use for a late-game Black Lotus, and makes the artifact somewhat less useless of a top-deck than in many other decks), the only black sources in the deck are Mox Jet, two Underground Seas, and the four Forbidden Orchards; the latter cannot be fetched. If the game is going long, it is worth planning for how to generate Griselbrand mana. One of the few incidental uses of Voltaic Key are helping to cast Griselbrand, either by generating an extra mana with Mana Crypt, or by turning an off-color Mox black by untapping Mox Jet.
The Time Vault combo serves two functions in the deck. First, it can accidentally steal games. Because of the deck's lack of Tinker, and generally low card draw and tutor density, this occurrence in uncommon, but playing an early-game combo piece can really put the fear into some opponents. Playing an early-game Key can thus draw out Mental Missteps, cause the opponent to waste Cabal Therapies on Time Vault, draw out Abrupt Decays that would otherwise be aimed at your Oaths, etc. I have also seen opponents respond to seeing a lock piece during game one by sideboarding in artifact hate like Ingot Chewer and Ancient Grudge (almost certainly a mistake).
Voltaic Key has occasional incidental use in fixing your mana colors (see above under Griselbrand); Time Vault's ability to store turns is also useful every now and then; one such situation was described above, when you have a Griselbrand that cannot attack because your opponent is threatening a lethal retaliatory strike. Every so often Time Vault can be used to wait out Tangle Wires or Smokestacks. The Oath mirror is very tactically challenging to start with, and becomes even more so when a player controls Time Vault. For instance, if you are losing the Orchard race, and your opponent ends their turn with their Orchard untapped (hoping to give you a game-winning Spirit token during your turn), you can effectively cause your opponent to lose an Orchard activation by skipping your turn to untap Vault.
All that said, Dack Fayden makes playing early-game lock pieces more dangerous than it used to be; nothing feels worse than your opponent stealing your Time Vault and winning the game with their own Voltaic Key. It's hard to justify playing Vault or Key alone against any unknown deck with access to blue and red mana.
The second, and main purpose of the Vault+Key combo is to secure control of the game after Griselbrand is in play. Vault+Key can be easily played from the graveyard during a Yawgmoth's Will turn, and is also cheap enough to be cast if drawn with Griselbrand using incidental artifact mana that you also draw. Assembling infinite turns solves many problems that would threaten Griselbrand alone (i.e., an opposing Jace, Karakas, Yawgmoth's Bargain / Necropotence, token army, etc) and the combo hence forms an integral part of the deck. Cutting the combo from the Oath deck (under the theory that the cards are dead on their own, which is somewhat true) is, in my opinion, a significant error.
By this point the correct use of Brainstorm is well-known among Vintage players, but it's worth reiterating here given the particular importance of Brainstorm to the Oath deck. The deck contains many combo pieces that are dead in the wrong circumstances (extra copies of Oath, Show and Tell, and especially Griselbrand) and Brainstorm can shuffle these away. In fact it's one of only two cards (along with Memory's Journey) that can replace Griselbrands in the deck.
The usual Brainstorm tactic is to play it during your main phase, and only when you have a uncracked fetchland available to shuffle away the cards you placed on top of the deck. In some cases where mana is scarce (for instance, you have an Island and fetchland in play, a Show and Tell and Griselbrand in hand, your opponent is tapped out, and you're looking for a third land with which to play Show and Tell) it is acceptable to play Brainstorm during your opponent's end of turn, but usually this play is suboptimal since Brainstorm during your next main phase digs one card deeper into your deck, for the cost of only one mana.
In desperate times Brainstorm can be used to find mana or answers even when you don't already have a fetchland in hand or play, or during a counterspell battle as a hail mary to find a Force of Will, but these are not the best or usual circumstances for using Brainstorm.
A few other Brainstorm tactics of note: if you are about to resolve an Oath trigger, you can use Brainstorm to place unwanted cards on top of your deck to be milled away by Oath. You can also place a creature from your hand on top (or second from the top) to limit the amount of your deck that will be milled, if library size has become a concern.
Finally, Brainstorm is one of the few ways the deck can increase storm count when trying to set up Flusterstorm, and since Brainstorm is a prime Mental Misstep target, can be used to clear a path for Ancestral Recall or a game-winning Voltaic Key.
Memory's Journey is probably the most unusual card in the deck. When I first started playing Oath I was tempted to cut Journey, as it is a very narrow card that is often dead. However, I've come to find that Journey pulls it weight thanks to its many minor but helpful interactions:
- Memory's Journey can be cast from the graveyard post-Oath to place key cards back into the deck. This may not seem important, but when your library has only 20 cards left, shuffling back in Time Walk, Demonic Tutor, and Yawgmoth's Will and then drawing 7 cards using Griselbrand gives you a very favorable (68%) chance of winning the game.
- When you only have one Griselbrand left in your library, resolving an Oath trigger is risky; Journey lets you do so fearlessly, as even in the worst case where Griselbrand is the bottom card of your library, it will buy you the three turns needed to deal 21 damage.
- Memory's Journey is a maindeck answer to Bridge From Below, Dread Return, Dark Petition, Snapcaster Mage, and other cards that abuse the graveyard. Blowouts where the opponent doesn't realize that Memory's Journey is in your graveyard and can be flashed back do occasionally occur.
- Memory's Journey can be flashed back to neutralize Vampiric and Mystical Tutor with no loss of card advantage; in a pinch it can also be used to shuffle your own deck to break a Brainstorm or Jace-fateseal lock.
- And of course, Memory's Journey is prime Force of Will fodder.
I'm of the opinion that Strip Mine is too useful and flexible not to include in virtually every Vintage deck. In addition to removing Library of Alexandria and other dangerous specialty lands like Tolarian Academy, Mishra's Factory, or Thespian's Stage, it can be used to cut the opponent off of secondary colors, stall Storm decks, lock Workshop decks behind their own spheres, etc. The only pitfall to watch for is walking into an opposing Gush.
Although the deck's manabase is for the most part self-explanatory, Mana Crypt deserves special mention. Mana Crypt is the worst card in the deck, and is there for two purposes: powering out a turn one Show and Tell (in any case a risky play unless on the play), and to give the deck some added resilience to Lodestone Golem and other sphere effects. The problem with Mana Crypt is that unless you can win the game immediately (by resolving Show and Tell, e.g.), it will drain an average of 1.5 life per turn. This is unfortunate, given that Orchard tokens will already be whittling down your life total, and that your life becomes a precious resource once Griselbrand arrives. Mana Crypt can put you in awkward situations where you must weigh the 50% probability of dying against the benefits of drawing an addition 7 cards, when you are at 8-10 life with Griselbrand in play; it also provides a way you can lose the game even once you have assembled Vault+Key.
For all of the above reasons, Mana Crypt should be played cautiously, i.e. only when the mana is absolutely needed for powerful early-game tactics, or when playing against Workshops.
Finally, note that Abrupt Decay and Hurkyl's Recall can be used to remove a Crypt in an emergency.
The cards above form the core of the deck; within this shell there is room for several additional pieces of disruption and removal, which are discussed in more detail below in the matchup analyses. The exact composition of these additional cards can be adjusted depending on the expected metagame; the decklist above takes a "toolbox" approach that includes answers tailored for a diverse or unknown metagame.
Why Not Card X?
Some cards have been purposefully excluded from the above decklist.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor: An early Jace can win the game on his own, and of course the Brainstorm planewalker power is extremely useful for putting Griselbrands back into the deck from your hand. That said, I've been unimpressed with Jace when testing him in this deck. Given the increasingly aggressive Vintage metagame, Jace is awkward in a (virtually) creatureless deck, and is even more so in a deck with 4x Forbidden Orchard. Jace shines against creature-light control decks, but these decks are not only increasingly rare, but are also the decks most likely to reliably counter Jace.
Treasure Cruise: Even with 4x Preordain, the deck does not have enough cantrip support to reliably cast Treasure Cruise, and moreover, raw card advantage is not as valuable to the deck as card selection. Post-Oath, you have plenty of cards in your graveyard, but you also have a much better engine for drawing cards. Therefore I've found that while Dig Through Time is a useful inclusion (for finding gas when the game goes long, or finding counterspells when fighting over a game-ending Oath or Show and Tell), Cruise is not.
Swan Song: It's true that there are situations where you have resolved Oath, but cannot seem to find Orchard. Swan Song is not a good solution to this problem; in the early game, the 2/2 flyer is a faster clock than you'd like to give your opponent, and it's awkward that Swan Song gets countered by Mental Misstep. Flusterstorm is the superior choice for fighting Storm and blue control decks.
Threats and Countermeasures
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Threats and Countermeasures
Almost all decks are prepared, to some extent, to fight Oath or Griselbrand in games two and three. This section will outline the most common sideboard cards and tactics likely to come in against Oath, and how to overcome them.
Leyline of the Void / Rest in Peace
Threat Level: Blue
Sometimes opponents bring in graveyard hate to combat Oath. This is a very weak and oblique line of attack: it stops Yawgmoth's Will, and eliminates assembling Vault+Key or multiple Time Walk turns as a post-Oath tactic, but is essentially "lose-less" for the opponent: it won't stop Griselbrand from entering play, drawing you a ton of cards, and attacking.
Graveyard hate is most dangerous in situations where Griselbrand on its own can't race the opponent, and you have no backup plan: thanks to Elesh Norn, this most commonly occurs only in game one, against decks like Dredge and Mentor. I'm always happy to see that my opponent wasted deck slots on graveyard hate post-board.
Threat Level: Green
Grafdigger's Cage is by far the most common hate you'll encounter, due to its versatility at combatting Dredge and other graveyard strategies. Nevertheless, Cage on its own is not a deceptively weak threat to the deck, to the point that it often helps you more than your opponent. Let me explain. When you play Oath, the opponent will carefully play around allowing you to trigger it, holding back minor threats like Delver, Pyromancer, Lodestone Golem, etc. Playing Grafdigger's Cage lulls the opponent into a false sense of security; they will prematurely switch gears to the aggressive role, allowing you to steal the game with a timely Abrupt Decay. Blue decks with a fistful of Mana Drains and Forces of Will are especially prone to this mistake.
Don't get me wrong, Cage is still a fine sideboard card against Oath -- but it should be seen as a speed bump, not a silver bullet. Besides being easily removed with Abrupt Decay, Cages are vulnerable to Nature's Claim and Hurkyl's Recall, and Show and Tell dodges Cage completely. Cage is also hit by Mental Misstep, though because of its fragility and tendency to encourage opponents to make strategic errors, I will sometimes avoid Misstepping an early game cage, depending on how quickly it looks like I will be able to resolve Oath.
It bears mentioning that Cage stops not only Oath, but also Yawgmoth's Will. If you plan on playing Abrupt Decay on Cage to clear a path for Will, and have plenty of mana, you should sequence the Will before the Decay, as your opponent may believe you are blundering and allow the Will to resolve. Conversely, it is sometimes worth playing Will even when you have no way to remove Cage, to try to draw out counterspells; worst case you can replay a Strip Mine or other land.
Finally, Cage does not stop the Oath trigger from resolving; it only prevents the Griselbrand from entering the battlefield. Instead it will stay on top of your deck, and you will draw it during the draw step. This interaction means that you can use Oath to "tutor up" Griselbrand, once you have access to a Show and Tell (or enough mana to hard-cast the demon).
Illness in the Ranks
Threat Level: Green
Illness in the Ranks sees occasional play as a foil to Pyromancer and Mentor; it is for most purposes significantly less threatening than even Cage, since it doesn't stop Yawgmoth's Will, and doesn't allow your opponent to safely play any creatures. Ignore it, or remove it with Abrupt Decay when the time is ripe. Note that when you Decay the Illness in the Ranks using Forbidden Orchard mana, you have full control of whether or not a token stays behind under the opponent's control: if you want a token, tap Orchard for mana first, then respond to the Orchard trigger by playing Decay. If you would rather not give your opponent a token, announce Decay first, then tap Orchard during the mana ability window; the Orchard trigger will then stack on top of Decay and resolve first.
Swords to Plowshares
Threat Level: Green
Swords sounds like a much better answer to Oath than it actually is in practice. It is likely to be used in two situations: first, in response to you activating Griselbrand's draw ability. The theory here is that by casting Swords in response, the opponent minimizes your chances of being able to counter the Swords. This reasoning is sound, but even if Swords resolves, the opponent is usually left in a losing position: you've drawn seven cards for free, and usually found some countermagic to respond to any threats your opponents may attempt to play during their turn, while you wait to Oath in a replacement Griselbrand. And of course, if your life total is high enough, you can always draw another seven cards in response to Swords, and look for Misstep, Force of Will, etc.
The second use of Swords is removing their own creatures and tokens to prevent Oath from triggering (see above for a discussion of the timing subtleties of this line). Of course, if you have an active Orchard, this play is usually one of desperation, as you can always generate more tokens in future turns.
Threat Level: Yellow
Abrupt Decay is an amazingly versatile removal spell (hence its inclusion in this deck), and you should expect to see it in any deck that can support BG (i.e., BUG and the mirror). In addition to Oath, Decay can stop the Vault+Key combo in its tracks, and can also snipe an exposed Black Lotus or Mox. The only answer to Decay itself is Misdirection; at times when BUG is a bigger metagame player a second Misdirection can be included in the sideboard to combat Decay. Decay's presence is a good reason to play redundant Oaths even after landing the first one.
Of course, Decay does nothing to stop Show and Tell, or deal with Griselbrand once it is on the battlefield.
Nature's Claim / Disenchant / Wear//Tear
Threat Level: Yellow
These answers to Oath are weaker than Abrupt Decay, since they can be countered. The white cards are most commonly found in Mentor decks, against which Flusterstorm is an excellent sideboard card in general and against these spells specifically, since your opponent will typically try to Disenchant during your end of turn after you play Oath, when the storm count is fairly high. Since Chalice was restricted, Nature's Claim is increasingly common in decks that support green (including some Dredge builds), but can be Misstepped.
Like Abrupt Decay, Nature's Claim and Disenchant can be Misdirected onto a convenient Mox (ideally, on your opponent's side of the board). Note that while Tear can be Misdirected (though this is more difficult as it requires a second enchantment on the battlefield), the fused Wear+Tear cannot.
Pithing Needle/Phyrexian Revoker
Threat Level: Yellow
These cards don't stop Griselbrand from entering play, but neuter his ability to draw cards. Fortunately, these cards are most commonly found in Shops decks, where Griselbrand's lifelink and 7/7 body is usually enough on its own to check the opponent's aggression, and buy you time to either race or find an answer.
Threat Level: Yellow
Your opponent's dream is to flash Thief onto the battlefield in response to your first Griselbrand activation. This fortunately rare occasion is usually a game-ending blowout, since Notion Thief is immune to Abrupt Decay, leaving Force of Will as the only answer. (Of course, with enough life you can activate Griselbrand again in a pinch, hoping to draw a Force of Will.)
Fortunately, Grixis Thieves decks are usually easy to identify before Griselbrand arrives on the battlefield. In this situation, Notion Thief acts much like Phyrexian Revoker, preventing you from activating Griselbrand without presenting much of a threat on its own. Thief is much more resilient to removal than Revoker, but on the other hand, unlike Shops the Thieves deck has few ways to win a race against Griselbrand.
It hasn't happened yet, but someday I will win a game by decking my Thieves opponent with Griselbrand.
Threat Level: Yellow
This nasty surprise is found in many Storm sideboards. If it resolves, it can strip all creatures from your deck, leaving you with no way to win the game, even if you manage to assemble Vault+Key (I have managed to win one game anyway by decking the opponent; Memory's Journey makes this plan at least slightly plausible, if you have a way to e.g. exile the opposing Tendrils.)
Sadistic Sacrament is a must-counter threat, and one of many reasons (including Necropotence, Yawgmoth's Will, and Dark Petition) to prevent your Storm opponent from generating BBB at all costs. If you are concerned about Sacrament, you can sideboard in Elesh Norn to give yourself four Oath targets.
Remember that Sadistic Sacrament cannot remove cards from your hand, so if you already have drawn a Griselbrand, you are more or less immune to the card.
Leyline of Sanctity
Threat Level: Yellow
Unlike Leyline of the Void, Leyline of Sanctity actively interferes with your plan to cheat Griselbrand onto the battlefield, by neutering Oath of Druids. If you are aware that your opponent's sideboard sports Leylines of Sanctity, Nature's Claim will make short work of them -- however it is easy to be blindsinded, since Leylines can appear in all sorts of odd places like Dredge sideboards.
In addition to Oath, Leyline of Sanctity also singificantly weakens Thoughtseize, Nihil Spellbomb, and Memory's Journey. Of course, like Grafdigger's Cage, Leyline of Sanctity does nothing to thwart Show and Tell.
Threat Level: Orange
Playing Show and Tell against a Shops deck is always a gamble; your opponent might cheat in anything from Revoker to Tangle Wire to Spine of Ish Sah to Duplicant. Duplicant is by far the nastiest possibility, as it will exile your Griselbrand, and leave you to deal with the resulting 7/7 artifact creature. At least you can respond to the Duplicant trigger by drawing as many cards as your life total can support, which can sometimes win the game anyway.
Duplicant was a mainstay of Martello Shops decks, which could also tutor up Duplicant at instant speed using Kuldotha Forgemaster. Matello Shops has fallen out of favor in the current metagame, and fortunately, so has Duplicant.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Threat Level: Orange
Everybody knows that a blue deck with an active Jace will have great difficulty losing the game; against Oath Jace is particularly problematic since it can repeatedly bounce Griselbrand (though you do at least get to activate Griselbrand to draw cards).
The deck has two strategies for winning despite an active opposing Jace. The first is to set up an extra turn, either with Time Walk or Time Vault, and attack the Jace during the extra turn. The second is Pithing Needle. Obviously, your opponent will stop at nothing to block both of these tactics, so your post-Griselbrand turn needs to be carefully planned, with Thoughtseize and countermagic protecting your key answers.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is also one of the few answers a blue deck has to an active Griselbrand. A preemptive Needle naming Griselbrand is not unwise if your hand cannot stop an opposing Jace with Flusterstorm backup.
Threat Level: Orange
Karakas is an uncounterable answer to both Griselbrand and Elesh Norn, and can repeatedly bounce them at instant speed; these characteristics make Karakas one of the most threatening Oath answers. Like with Jace, it is possible to beat an active Karakas either by taking extra turns, or by naming it with Pithing Needle; Karakas is also a prime Strip Mine target.
You should expect Karakas in the sideboard, and sometimes even main deck, of any deck playing white, and some decks that don't (such as some Shops lists). Karakas is also one of the most effective answers your opponent might cheat in when you play Show and Tell. Preemptively Needling Karakas when playing any deck that might feature Karakas is prudent.
Threat Level: Red
The Priest is the Oath deck's enemy number one: it hoses the deck completely and utterly. It is one of the few cards on this list which stop both the Oath and Show and Tell plans dead in their tracks, and unlike Jace and Karakas, Priest doesn't even let you draw any cards before Griselbrand is exiled. Worse, the Priest can be flashed in by your opponent at the most inopportune times, such as in response to Show and Tell or the Oath trigger. (Note that MTGO bugs notwithstanding, Containment Priest will not exile creatures that enter play simultaneously with it. So Show and Tell is safe if your opponent doesn't have 1W open).
Containment Priest is an extreme threat that must be answered before the Oath deck can hope to advance its own objectives. Fortunately, Priest is susceptible to Abrupt Decay. If Containment Priest's popularity continues to increase, I'm tempted to sideboard even more heavily against it, by testing cards such as Dismember, Toxic Deluge, or even Darkblast.
(continued below due to post length limits)
In the final section of this primer, I will give some advice for how to play the deck against particular matchups. Archetypes listed here are the ones I have played enough to have some experience against; since I play primarily on MTGO, some decks that appear in paper Magic only (e.g. Bomberman, Dragon) are not included here (though in the few games I have played, the Bomberman matchup is slightly unfavorable, and Dragon, slightly favorable). Absence of a deck in this list is not intended as an insult to that deck!
The "workshops" pillar encompasses a wide range of strategies, from the more traditional prison "stax" decks to the more recent aggro shops builds revolving around Arcbound Ravager. Oath is well-position against nearly all Shops builds, since these decks have few answers to Oath of Druids, which trumps much of their strategy: they cannot deploy threats like Lodestone Golem or Phyrexian Revoker without triggering Oath, buying you plenty of time to stabilize your mana and draw into potent answers like Hurkyl's Recall and Nature's Claim.
Against shops more than any other deck, it is essential to deploy Oath as early as possible, before spheres and Wastelands shred your ability to cast spells. As usual, game on can be very difficult to win on the draw, but the matchup is quite favorable if you are on the play.
Your goals when sideboarding are twofold: first, the Oath deck sports a shaky manabase especially susceptible to Wastelands; you must harden it by bringing in the two basics. Basic Forest is in many cases more crucial than basic Island, since it allows you to reliably cast Nature's Claim and Oath of Druids. Second, spot artifact removal can deal with the opponent's most significant threats, such as Lodestone Golem and other large robots, Crucible of Words, Tangle Wire, etc.
Pithing Needle also shines in this matchup, as it can name Wasteland, Mishra's Factory, Kuldotha Forgemaster, Staff of Nin, Arcbound Ravager, or various equipment, as needed.
Your opponent has few good sideboard options. Grafdigger's Cage and Ensnaring Bridge are easily handled by Nature's Claim. Duplicant, mentioned above, is the most significant sideboard threat, but is a rare sight these days. Phyrexian Metamorph is more common, but also less threatening, since it does not remove your own Griselbrand, and the copy is still an artifact that can be bounced or destroyed. Your opponent can draw cards using the Griselbrand copy, but Workshop decks are limited in the amount of mischief they can cause due to the heavy mana requirements of their threats (especially if they have been playing many sphere effects), so even 7-14 cards will only translate to 2-3 deployed threats.
Arcbound Ravager is a very subtle card, difficult to play with and against. Its presence allows several anti-Oath tactics worth being aware of. First, it can be used to sacrifice all of the opponent's artifact creatures, preventing Oath from activating until you draw an Orchard. The counters from Ravager can be transferred to a Mishra's Factory, presenting a fast clock. Second, creatures blocking or blocked by Griselbrand can be sacrificed before damage is dealt, denying you the 7 life from Griselbrand's lifelink; you must take this trick into account when calculating combat math. (A similar trick is also possible using Wasteland and animated Mishra's Factories).
Finally, a word about Tangle Wire: upkeep triggers are stacked in APNAP order, so Tangle Wire will tap down your permanents before Oath tutors up Griselbrand. This means that Oath will find you a blocker even if your opponent's Tangle Wire requires you to tap down more permanents than you currently control. On subsequent turns, you may be required to tap Griselbrand; however, if your opponent still controls more creatures than you, you can Oath up an untapped replacement, and sacrifice the tapped copy.
-4 Mental Misstep -1 Flusterstorm -1 Misdirection -1 Memory's Journey +4 Nature's Claim +1 Pithing Needle +1 Island +1 Forest
Oath is one of the few decks that can race Dredge, even on the draw. However, as in the Shops matchup, doing so requires some luck and extreme aggression, i.e. landing Oath on the first turn, before the Dredge player can shred your hand with Cabal Therapies. Sometimes the Dredge player will just win on turn 2 before Oath can trigger (usually due to them having double Bazaar in their opening hand); that's life when playing against Dredge.
The flip side is that Dredge is one of the few decks that can reliably race a Griselbrand. Griselbrand's lifelink counteracts only four zombie tokens (five on defense), and true to trope once the Dredge deck starts recurring Ichorids and Bloodghasts, the zombie horde will just keep coming. Winning game one will require either an extremely explosive start, or assembling multiple extra turns with Time Walk recursion or Vault+Key.
The sideboard is relatively light on Dredge hate, as not much hate is necessary given that Oath naturally preys on Dredge's creature strategy. The main order of business is slowing down Dredge so that they cannot win in the first few turns using the Dread Return combo; both Pithing Needle (naming Bazaar of Baghdad) and Nihil Spellbomb accomplish this objective, and Memory's Journey can also do so in a pinch (and is immune to Cabal Therapy thanks to flashback). Expect the Dredge player to sideboard in all manner of artifact and echantment removal, including Ingot Chewer, Nature's Claim, and Wispmare; these answers require Dredge to draw them as well as mana sources, however, which they will have difficulty doing if you can neuter Bazaar.
The Oath decks's trump card against Dredge in games two and three is Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Elesh Norn sweeps away Dredge's entire board, stops them from generating any additional zombies or casting Dread Return, and leaves them with few to no answers (some Dredge lists might have Chain of Vapor). There is some danger to casting Show and Tell against Dredge, as some lists contain large creatures like Sun Titan, an Elesh Norn of their own, Chancellor of the Annex, etc. which can survive Elesh Norn; however Elesh Norn is so potent agains their strategy that it's usually worth the risk to run out an early Show and Tell anyway.
Be aware that in addition to "vanilla" Dredge, I have seen several players experiment with transformational sideboards that contain surprises like Dark Depths + Thespian's Stage, Grinstone + Leyline of the Void, etc. Pay attention to cards milled during game one that might telegraph such strategies.
-2 Thoughtseize -1 Griselbrand -1 Hurkyl's Recall -1 Dig Through Time -1 Abrupt Decay +2 Nihil Spellbomb +1 Pithing Needle +1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite +2 Flusterstorm
Merfolk (and other non-white aggro)
Every tournament has some players trying poorly-built rogue decks or noncompetitive Modern decks; other than these decks, Merfolk and other aggro decks (like Goblins) are the closest you will get to a free match win, as Oath completely trumpts their strategy.
To win a game, Merfolk must attack your mana to prevent you from resolving or finding Oath of Druids, while deploying enough threats to kill you before you can stabilize. Therefore as in game one of the Dredge matchup, it is essential to assume an aggressive role. Note that all of the opponent's creature will likely be unblockable due to islandwalk, so there is some chance that with enough True-Name Nemeses and lords, the opponent can race Griselbrand. Elesh Norn in games two or three eliminates this threat and makes it extremely difficult for the opponent to win.
-1 Griselbrand -1 Misdirection -1 Hurkyl's Recall -1 Pithing Needle +1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite +3 Abrupt Decay
Yes, the Storm matchup is slightly favorable, despite Storm's strength against other "big blue" decks. The reason is that Griselbrand presents an extremely fast clock: if Storm stumbles during the first couple of turns, you have a window in which to resolve Oath and find Griselbrand, at which point your opponent will have great difficulty resolving their tutors and other game-winning spells.
The Storm matchup is one of the few cases where it is correct to assume a control role. Your job during the crucial first few turns of the game is to not-lose: you must counter their attempts to generate large quantities of black mana, and to resolve Dark Petition in particular, at all costs. Thoughtseize and Mental Misstep are excellent here, as is Flusterstorm. Do not waste Mental Missteps on blue cantrip like Ponder or Brainstorm; save them for Dark Ritual. Do not tap out to resolve Oath if you can leave up mana for countermagic instead.
Few Storm decks play countermagic, so an early Show and Tell is usually a safe, game-winning play. The biggest risk is that the opponent Shows Yawgmoth's Agenda; unless the opponent is very low on life, passing the turn to an opponent with Agenda will lose the game. In this situation I recommend paying as much life as necessary to try to find Time Walk or Vault+Key instead.
Necropotence is less of a threat, since it is usually too slow(!) to race Oath. Keep in mind also that Necropotence will exile any cards that the opponent discards due to your Thoughtseizes; Demonic Tutor for Thoughtseize can be a game-winning play if you can snatch their Tendrils of Agony.
Nihil Spellbomb comes in to thwart Dark Petition and Yawgmoth's Will. Nihil Spellbomb continues to function even in the presence of Defense Grid, making it excellent insurance against broken opposing turns. More Flusterstorms allow you to fight more reliably against the opponent's early-turn acceleration and disruption.
-1 Hurkyl's Recall -1 Pithing Needle -1 Abrupt Decay -1 Dig Through Time +2 Flusterstorm +2 Nihil Spellbomb
The strategy against blue decks is to overwhelm their countermagic with multiple must-counter threats, such as Oath, Show and Tell, and Vault+Key pieces. The blue deck is likely to feature potent card advantage engines like Gush and Treasure Cruise, so it is essential to assume an agressive role and pressure the opponent during the early turns when they haven't had times to set up defenses.
The reason I list Big Blue as a slightly favorable matchup, and Mentor as just a tossup, is that the traditional non-Mentor creatures like Delver, Young Pyromancer, Consecrated Sphinx, etc. present a slow clock (relatively speaking), allowing you a few turns to penetrate the opponent's countermagic while maintaining a high enough life total to activate Griselbrand at least once. Once Griselbrand is in play, the Oath deck can transition to the control role, patiently countering the opponent's important spells. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the most dangerous card in most blue lists, as it can stop Griselbrand even once it is in play. A preemptive Needle naming Jace is prudent.
Abrupt Decay is a trump against several key permanents in blue decks, including Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Dack Fayden, other small creatures, and Grafdigger's Cage. No number of Mana Drains can stop Abrupt Decay from removing Cage, and this play will punish countless overconfident and overextended fellow blue mages.
-1 Hurkyl's Recall -1 Memory's Journey +2 Flusterstorm
The exact sideboarding plan will depend on the blue deck's specific build; i.e. it may sometimes be necessary to bring in more Abrupt Decays.
By "Grixis Vault" decks I refer to blue decks with a very high artifact density (including artifact lands), whose primary strategy is to win by tutoring for Vault+Key, and/or using Tezzeret, the Seeker to animate a lethal number of 5/5 artifacts.
As with other blue decks, the main danger of the Vault deck is that its draw engines -- Thoughtcast and Thirst for Knowledge -- easily trump your Ancestral Recall and Dig Through Time. By chaining enough draw spells you opponent is bound to eventually find game-ending threats like Tinker, Time Vault, Tezzeret, or Memory Jar. Abrupt Decay trumps Time Vault, and it is prudent to keep up Abrupt Decay mana at all times. As always, the strategy for beating Vault is to assume an agressive role, and overwhelm their early defenses.
Pithing Needle is excellent in this matchup, as it can stop either Tezzeret of Time Vault. Artifact hate intended for the Shops matchup also does good work here, for obvious reasons.
-4 Mental Misstep -1 Hurkyl's Recall -1 Misdirection +3 Abrupt Decay +2 Nature's Claim +1 Pithing Needle
Mentor decks are the most dangerous of the blue decks, for multiple reasons. First, a Mentor represents an exponentially growing threat -- playing Oath a turn after Mentor may already be too slow to stop the opponent from successfully racing Griselbrand. Second, since the deck is playing white for Mentor, they are also likely to possess annoying sideboard answers like Karakas and Containment Priest.
Abrupt Decay is essential in this matchup, as it not only uncounterably answers Mentor, but also removes Containment Priest. Elesh Norn gives you a way to clear out the opposing monk tokens, cutting off the possibility of the opponent racing Griselbrand. Still, this matchup is rough -- sometimes you will get an early Oath and run away with the game, and sometimes the opponent will play an early Mentor or Jace, counter all of your threats, and run away with the game. If Shops loses its deck-to-beat status due to the recent Lodestone Golem restriction, I plan to swap out Shops hate for more Mentor answers.
-1 Griselbrand -1 Hurkyl's Recall -1 Dig Through Time -1 Memory's Journey +3 Abrupt Decay +1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
BUG is very likely to play early creatures, like Dark Confidant and Deathrite Shaman, activating Oath even if you do not have Orchard. Unfortunately, all of BUG's creatures are dangerous -- including the deceptively flexible Shaman -- and BUG has potent answers to Oath in the form of Trygon Predator and their own Abrupt Decays. Moreover BUG can put great pressure on your mana via Wastelands and Null Rods.
An early Oath nevertheless will win most games, especially if you can protect against Abrupt Decay using Thoughtseize or Misdirection. It is usually wise to Misstep Deathrite Shaman, unless you have an Oath you can play and protect next turn; Shaman allows the BUG player to accelerate into Jace, fix their mana in order to resolve Abrupt Decay or Trygon Predator, and removes your best spells from your graveyard, greatly weakening Yawgmoth's Will. Trygon Predator is an extreme threat for obvious reasons. Dark Confidant will allow the opponent to win the game through incremental card advantage, but is usually not worth countering unless it looks like the game will inevitably go long.
The sideboard strategy against BUG assumes that Deathrite Shaman and Grafdigger's Cage effectively shuts off your graveyard recursion tactics. Abrupt Decay is excellent at stopping BUG's creatures, and removing Null Rods; brining in basic lands relieves some of BUG's pressure on your manabase.
-1 Flusterstorm -1 Hurkyl's Recall -1 Pithing Needle -1 Dig Through Time -1 Memory's Journey -1 Yawgmoth's Will +1 Island +1 Forest +3 Abrupt Decay +1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobyte
Dark Depths relies on another unrestricted two-card combo, Dark Depths + Thespian's Stage/Vampire Hexmage. These combo pieces are weaker on their own than Oath is, but Dark Depths and Thespian's Stage are both uncounterable, which can pose problems for Oath if it cannot win the game in the first few turns.
The deck has literally zero outs to an opposing Marit Lage token. You must therefore stop the Dark Depths combo at all costs. If your opponent does manage to create a 20/20 token, you have to hope that your opponent attacks you with it, allowing you to chump block with Griselbrand, and giving you an opening to set up infinite turns while the Marit Lage is tapped.
Strip Mine is excellent against Dark Depths; it can be used in response to them activating Stage or Hexmage to stop the combo, requiring them to find two of their second combo pieces before they can go off. There is an important timing issue to be aware of when fighting Dark Depths. Often the opponent will wait until your end of turn to create a Marit Lage token (presumably to play around the possibility of Jace, the Mind Sculptor bouncing their token). This gives you a window to stop Dark Depths even after they have assembled both combo pieces, by searching for and playing Strip Mine during your main phase. Your opponent cannot response to the special action of playing Strip Mine once you find it, and once in play, they cannot activate Hexmage/Stage without you being able to Strip the Depths in response. The opponent's correct play is to create Marit Lage as soon as possible, or at the very least, in response to Griselbrand's card draw ability / your cantrips / your Demonic Tutor. But unless the opponent knows you have no Jace or other answers to Lage, they are unlikely to do so, giving you a narrow out.
Pithing Needle obviously stops Thespian's Stage or Hexmage, and comes in games two and three.
-1 Hurkyl's Recall +1 Pithing Needle
If you cannot resolve Oath during your first couple of turns, you probably never will. Most of Landstill's cards are great against Oath, from Mishra's Factories that whittle away your life total without activating Oath, to Jace which bounces Griselbrand even if you do manage to get Griselbrand into play, to the namesake Standstill that heavily punishes you for playing artifact mana and cantrips.
To make matters worse, Karakas is common in Landstill sideboards.
Why then is Landstill only "slightly unfavorable"? If you do manage to land an early Oath, you are the heavy favorite to win the game. When Landstill wins, it doesn't do so quickly, so you will have plenty of turns to find and play an (uncounterable) Orchard.
Pithing Needle naming Jace or Mishra's Factory can buy you some time, and Flusterstorm allows you to fight back during the early turns. But make no mistake: if it is turn 3 and there is no Oath in play, you have lost the game, just as surely as you have lost the game against Shops if they have played multiple Spheres and Wastelands without you landing an Oath; the only difference is that against Landstill, you labor under the illusion of still having a chance.
-1 Hurkyl's Recall -4 Mental Misstep +1 Pithing Needle +1 Island +1 Forest +2 Flusterstorm
I prefer Fenton Oath to other Oath builds due to its consistency and resilience against a large metagame cross-section; unfortunately, these features make Fenton Oath weak to more specialized Oath strategies. Show and Tell is extremely dangerous in the mirror match, since there is a good chance your opponent can Show their own Griselbrand (or worse), and if your opponent is playing additional card filtering or disruption instead of your Show and Tell slots, they have the advantage in the match.
Emrakul is notable in that it utterly trumps Griselbrand -- the only way to beat Emrakul is to wait for it to attack, sacrifice six permanents, and hope to assemble infinte turns while Emrakul is tapped. Other Oath creatures like Void Winnower are less dangerous, but can still win games by shutting down Time Walk, Time Vault, and Demonic Tutor, giving Odd Oath time to Oath up their own Griselbrand.
The main thing to keep in mind is that the mirror match revolves around Orchard superiority. Do not play Oath until you are sure you will win the Orchard race. Strip Mine, Time Walk, and even Time Vault are invaluable as they can be used to subtly change the spirit token math. Review carefully the section at the beginning of this primer on the timing rules surrounding the Oath intervening if trigger -- the win in the mirror will often go to the player with the tighter technical play.
-1 Hurkyl's Recall -1 Pithing Needle -1 Show and Tell +3 Abrupt Decay
This matchup is pure misery. If Oath ever becomes the deck to beat, White Trash is the deck that will keep it in check. The only card in the entire deck that doesn't somehow hinder your strategy are the basic Plains: Karakas, Thalia, Stony Silence, Spirit of the Labyrinth, Disenchant, Aegis of the Gods, Containment Priest, Wasteland, Grafdigger's Cage -- and this is just the maindeck!
Play Oath on turn one and pray -- you're going to need as much divine intervention as you can get.
-1 Hurkyl's Recall -1 Misdirection -4 Mental Misstep -1 Griselbrand +3 Abrupt Decay +1 Pithing Needle +1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite +1 Island +1 Forest
I have a few thoughts on this deck as I have played it in several tournaments.
First of all I am glad that you didn't include Ponder in your list, as I think that card is hot trash in this deck.
I don't think 4 Misstep is necessary, and I run an extra discard spell instead of the 4th (1 Duress).
I think 1 Jace is necessary. Without Jace, your only win condition is attacking with Griselbrand. Even if you assemble infinite turns, if they have a flying blocker with toughness > 7 (such as an Emrakul they put in to Show and Tell), you cannot win the game.
Prior to the Lodestone restriction I was playing Blazing Archon in the board instead of Elesh Norn. Archon is better against Shops. vs Shops their only out is a combination of Ravager + Triskelion. Elesh Norn is great against Dredge but they still have the out of a hardcasted Grave Troll. With Archon out their win con becomes Flayer of the Hatebound, if they run it.
Engineered Explosives is a very useful sideboard card and it gets a lot better with Mentor running around. I recommend a copy.
@mediumsteve Engineered Explosives is an intriguing option. It does sound good against tokens, Cage, even Containment Priest or Jace in a pinch.
I've tested Jace extensively and you are right that it gives the deck an out to large flying blockers (though in practice Emrakul and Marit Lage are rather rare, at least in the online metagame). However in my experience this advantage is not worth the dis-synergy between Jace and Orchard. It feels really bad to resolve Jace onto a board of 2+ Orchard tokens, and of course the situation is even worse if the opponent has also played some of their own creatures. Jace is horrible vs Shops, Dredge, Storm, and creature aggro strategies. It shines in the blue matchup, where it serves as an additional must-counter threat, but even here it is weak vs opposing tokens, expensive, and slow. I prefer to dedicate the slot to additional countermagic and disruption.
I'll have to read this more thoroughly when I get out of work, but thanks for posting this.
Oath is my deck of choice more often than not and it's nice to see it getting some respect
@Islandswamp Yes, I was a bit dismayed by the dismissiveness of some of the VSL commentators towards the deck. Oath is not optimally-positioned in every metagame, but it is a versatile and powerful strategy that always deserves respect.
@Islandswamp Yes, I was a bit dismayed by the dismissiveness of some of the VSL commentators towards the deck. Oath is not optimally-positioned in every metagame, but it is a versatile and powerful strategy that always deserves respect.
Chris Pikula has regarded Oath as "not a real deck" for as long as I can remember. I can recall him saying it in earshot of me at an event in what was probably 2010, then I beat him a round or two later with Oath. Needless to say, he was not pleased.
I'm not really surprised to hear that his opinion is shared by other VSL commentators though.
Nice primer though, I'm sure Greg will weigh in at some point.
@evouga without reading the entire thing since I'm at work, I REALLY like the formatting for this. I plan to write a Delver2016 primer shortly, and will most likely steal it. Thanks for the hard work.
@evouga However, you're Mirror sideboarding is just plain wrong!
You absolutely ALWAYS do the following
-3 Oath of Druids
The card is dead. You never want it (I keep 1 to tutor for, in case my opponent boarded all his out as well). You NEVER want to play an Oath just to find out your opponent has drawn more Oarchars than you have.
@Soly how do you plan to win, without Oath? Oath is a safe play, once you have established Orchard superiority. Show and Tell is almost never safe (unless you can clear a path with e.g. Thoughtseize).
@evouga I always end up playing the Control game. I win a lot of times by becoming Spirit Aggro post-board.
You can't always rely on Orchard superiority especially if your opponent sides in Wastelands, which while really uncommon, is something I've seen.
I used to occasionally play Oath decks WITHOUT Show and Tell and I'd still sideboard out 3 Oaths. You rely on your opponent being bad and keeping his in, while you're busy drawing non-blank cards in those spots post-board.
@Soly there has been a wasteland in my sideboard for the last two events I played oath in. Good in the mirror, comes in against dredge and shops too. I've even considered using them to go after certain colors to keep people off of Gush, Abrupt Decay, or anything else important.
@Islandswamp Even so, I'd rather sandbag extra orchards and let them play the Oath. I know I'm not alone in this thought process.
Thanks for writing up this primer on Fenton Oath! Like many aspects of Vintage, there's a 'wild west' feel to deck/archetype theory and primers like these really help establish a baseline for each archetype, similar to the DTB and established deck section for Legacy at the mtgthesource.
I love this deck and exclusively played this deck for a full year in paper tournaments (NE weekly tournaments, NYSE, Champs etc.). I know nothing about online so here are my 2 cents based on paper games only:
LSV actually played a similar list at vintage champs last year, he was 7-1 before having to drop to catch a flight. So ignore Pikula, oath is real deck and can be a great choice for some metagames.
This is not the best JTMS deck for sure, but like you alluded to, the 'brainstorm' effect is absolutely insane and necessary for this deck. I've been extremely happy casting JTMS while giving my opp a token, because I still get 3 brainstorms out of it before it dies, AND Jace can always tick up. JTMS is also by far the best card in the mirror, so I'd be very reluctant to not play at least 1, usually 2, and have been happy with it.
On a note re: the mirror - Yes traditionally you sideboard out 3 oath, and 2 show and tell. You win the following way: After establishing orchard dominance, tutor for your single oath, hardcasting griselbrand eventually or stick a JTMS. If you play vault key, that is another way to win obviously.
My main issue with the deck has to do with consistency. There are an upward of 6 cards (3 grisel, vault/key/memory's journey) that do almost nothing on their own in the deck, and having any of them them in your opening hand (50% of the time by my estimate) feels bad. You can get lucky and even spike a tournament or 2 with great draws, but eventually the variance will catch up to you.
The other issue is containment priest. While abrupt decay is a great answer, mentor just does not give you enough time to find the decay due to how quick of a clock it is.
While winning game 1 is easy, 2 and 3 becomes nightmares IF your opp is well prepared. When ppl are unprepared against oath they get crushed.
Completely anecdotal, but fun anyways: Last weekend, I played against Greg Fenton and he is on the play with the following draw: lotus, recall, oath x2, orchard, land, flusterstorm. I beat that god draw with a turn 1 aegis of gods plus double force of will hand. If the game dragged on longer, he might have found an abrupt decay, but because my deck has more velocity, I was able to find a containment priest before that happened and seal the game completely while he just sat there playing draw go for awhile.
Thank you for writing this outstanding primer to my deck, Evouga.
I'm amazed at how much consideration, care, and fantastic detail you put into every aspect of it. You took a lot of words straight out of my mouth.
I'm only just seeing this for the first time, but I plan on adding in some anecdotes, fun facts, and extra details to your thread later in the day or week. I'm looking forward to reading the entire article.
@hankzhong I was off of Jace for a while. I went from two in the main, to one and one Tezzeret, to one Jace TMS, and then to none and one in the SB, and then none for quite some time.
I am now back to running one Jace, because I think it's right again. The reason I wasn't running it is that I wanted my deck to care the most about the first few turns, and plowing through an Oath, But now Oath has picked back up online, and as you mentioned, Jace is SUPER important in the mirror. Without Time Walk or Vault, you can't even beat a Jace much of the time. So having one to put the hurt on mirror opponents is key.
Also, being able to put an Oath target back into your deck never hurts.
@Soly I side out SOME Oaths, but usually I leave in two. Your point makes perfect sense though. I will also not side out Show and Tell all the time either, it depends if I'm playing Thoughtseize or not. If I am on Thoughtseize, there's a decent chance I can safely cast Show and Tell. Also, if you have enough mana and life, it's totally possible to Show Griselbrand and draw into either a Vault Key combo or your own Jace or Echoing Truth (which I do sometimes run). It's not pretty, but it can work.
I've had several games where my opponent had enough of an army of tokens to potentially race me, but I've used Show and Tell to play a second, untapped Griselbrand to block with, denying my opponent the chance to race. It doesn't always come up, but in games against Mentor or Pyromancer it can save your life.
Your matchup analysis of Dredge is wrong. You seem to assume that Oath naturally trumps Dredge, but it's the reverse. Turn one Oath gives you some chance to steal game one, so there's that, but Dredge is easily capable of overpowering Griselbrand. Dredge can race Griselbrand without even casting any spells by just using Ichorid and Bridges, and Oath has no way to clear Bridges. In addition, Dredge can Flashback Therapy to kill the tokens you give them, buying them more time. I'll grant you that Oathing into Elesh Norn is a winning position, but Dredge can beat a resolved Oath in several ways. The 1 turn window you grant them by passing turn before you Oath can likely be enough for them to win the game with Dread Return. Also, Dredge naturally packs their sideboards with a huge myriad of enchantment removal that just so happens to take out Oath. Your 3 sideboard cards aren't close to enough to sway the post-board percentage back into your favor. You might occasionally draw that opening hand of Orchard, Mox, Mox, Oath, Nihil Spellbomb, but that isn't going to happen very often.
Am I criticizing your deck? No. Pick your battles. You can't have a deck that beats everything. Sacrificing your Dredge matchup might be the correct thing to do, but don't fool yourself into believing you're above 50% against Dredge.
I may not have made this point clear in my original posts, but the matchup analyses are based not on armchair theorycrafting or wishful thinking, but on hundreds of games played in the MTGO Vintage 2-man paid queue. I am quite happy with the Dredge matchup.
It may be that the online Dredge pilots are uncharacteristically poor, but that has not been my impression. In any case, if you have an account I'm on MTGO most evenings, and am always happy to playtest against Dredge.