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.
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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