One of the great mysteries of 2018 is why so many successful Oath of Druids decks are running a copy of this unusual werewolf who, until recently, seemed to have passed by like an unremarkable breeze along with the rest of her low-impact set, Shadows over Innistrad.
Like most novelties, her initial reception was jeered by long-time aficionados. Her presence in the format was uncharitably described as an embarrassment and a "fiasco." But as of June, she is officially the fourth most played proper planeswalker in Vintage of 2018, only a few appearances shy of longtime staple Tezzeret the Seeker, and vastly far ahead of Chandra the Rules-Neutered, Nahiri of the Yesterdays, and Teferi, the Fashionable who does a pretty good Dark Confidant impression for only five mana. Ms. Kord has appeared in several winning lists both online and has seen significant play in paper. Her range extends primarily to Oath of Druids though she has also appeared in RUG Planeswalker Control and the RUG Paradoxical Outcome list floating around that runs Titania, Protector of Argroth. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on her utility in Oath of Druids.
We'll begin with a poignant anecdote. In April of this year at Waterbury, witnesses gathered around an Oath match-up with an unknown pilot. Arlinn Kord was on the battlefield and the Oath player won. Afterwards, the pilot was asked politely (though with typical incredulity), "Why is Arlinn Kord in your deck?" He responded, "I don't know. Brian Kelly plays it." They both laughed.
It is admittedly humorous that in a format of such astronomical threshold and caliber this seemingly ridiculous card would see unabated persistent play. How did we get to this point?
It starts with recognizing that despite all of the cantripping, Planeswalkers, Delving, and even Pyroblasting, Oath of Druids is a very different beast from its blue stew brethren. Unlike Jeskai, BUG, or Landstill, and to an even greater degree than Paradoxical Outcome, Oath of Druids is a special needs deck. The triumvirate of known paramount necessities are 1) safeguards against self-milling, 2) safeguards against dying to Spirit tokens, and 3) mitigating the virtual card disadvantage of drawing into fantastical beasts who might not be ready for their stage debut until the curtains have already closed.
Another differentiating factor is less overt but just as critical in today's metagame. That is its relationship to Planeswalkers. Unlike other blue decks, Oath of Druids cannot pressure opposing Planeswalkers with garden variety creatures and cannot protect its own. We will never flash in a Snapcaster Mage at the end of your turn. Sometimes we even give our opponents the very 1/1 tokens that attack our planeswalking allies.
A final consideration is the notion that, in theory, Oath of Druids can win by activating Jace's ultimate. This was historically accurate but over time, it's become increasingly infeasible, with Snapcasters, tokens, Containment Priests, Pyroblasts, and Mishra's hyperaggression flying at him every second. So if the Oath and hardcast plans fail, the pilot is generally disabled.
Those things considered, we turn to Arlinn Kord.
These are the main reasons she slots into Oath of Druids:
-Significant independent threat and viable alt-win
-Heavily threatens opposing Planeswalkers
-Defends our own Planeswalkers
-Cannot be Pyroblasted or Abrupt Decayed
-Neutralizes Containment Priest
-Diminishes risk of dying to Spirit Tokens
-Enables victory after Oath activation where passing the turn is hazardous (similar to Dragon's Breath)
-Allows Griselbrand to kill Jace immediately, rather than being bounced by him
-MVP in the dreaded Oath mirror
-Strong in matches that are most difficult for Oath (BUG Fish, UW Landstill)
-Helps stabilize against Workshops
Arlinn Kord gives us the longtime staple of Dragon's Breath on a planeswalker instead of an otherwise dead card, which happens to address many of the weak spots endemic to the archetype. She may not have a home in the more combo-centric builds like Burning or Paradoxical Oath but she's a very reasonable and powerful inclusion in the more mainstream Inferno Titan/Griselbrand decks. Below, I'll discuss her role in various match-ups. She is rarely boarded out.
Dredge: Game 1, her general job is to use the +1 on the Oath creature which is usually the difference between life and death. I've had several games where Griselbrand is not enough, but using the Arlinn on him enabled him to generate more life, resources, and ability to find Time Walk.
Post board, her use more commonly involves Wolf creation and Zombie burning, since you will be more disposed to keep hands that stop the Dredge plan rather those that advance our Oath plan, which is a bit slower and easier to disrupt. She will prevent dying to that lone annoying Bloodghast and the residual Zombie that snuck in before the Tormod's Crypt. Less commonly, she will just function as the win-con, as a temporarily neutralized opponent is floundering around looking for colored mana or a Nature's Claim while all you're drawing is counterspells or redundant Dredge hate.
Storm Combo: In game 1, her primary relevance is being able to get material value out of the Inferno Titan who doesn't actually do anything immediate to impede the opponent's game plan. 3 damage is negligible, but 12+ damage is not, particularly if the opponent intends to use Yawgmoth's Bargain. It's tempting to think that she gets boarded out, but she doesn't. The reason for this is that you should be boarding out at least 1-2 Oath of Druids and the third creature here, since you're in the control role. The match will be all about counterspells, draw spells, Planeswalkers and specific anti-Storm hate pieces. While you're expending resources to stop their main plan, you may find that it's become necessary to give them an uncomfortable abundance of Spirit tokens, especially if you've Null Rodded or Chaliced out the artifact mana. Arlinn is a godsend there. Additionally, it may not be wise to expend resources assembling both Oath of Druids and Forbidden Orchard when you need to devote your attention entirely to stopping their more exigent game plan. You may have had to discard Oath creatures to Dack Fayden in order to responsibly control your volatile and dangerous opponent. Even removing one creature dramatically increases the risk of losing by self-mill so you'll want a win condition that isn't being cannibalized by your deck's need to withstand the Storm threat. In one instance, I was able to refrain from countering Sadistic Sacrament and simply let a Ritual opponent take out every beast in my deck because I knew I would be better off saving my countermeasures for things that can actually kill me and then inevitably just winning with Arlinn. (*Similar things have happened with Jester's Cap.) Overall, this is not a showcase match-up for her, but she doesn't get boarded out since she smooths out rough edges that subtly become problematic after sideboarding.
BUG Fish: Hmm, costs 4, populates the board and kills any of their creatures or Jaces. Very good.
Landstill: This is another match where she is very strong, since the Wolves block Factories, Snapcasters, and Containment Priests and Arlinn, Embraced by the Moon can directly Bolt Jace without triggering an uphill stack war like Pyroblast. They may Swords a Wolf, but that puts them down a card leaving you with a dangerous and difficult-to-interact-with Planeswalker on the table. If they are splashing red, the Pyroblasts will be futile. They may eventually deal with the Arlinn, but doing so creates a major headache that demands their full attention, potentially becoming a diversion which can create an opening for your other threats to resolve. It's ordinarily very easy for Landstill to abuse and beat down an Oath mage so having this ability to create actual board presence without Plowable 6+drops is huge and in many ways unprecedented. It also goes without saying that you can't play Standstill over an Arlinn Kord.
Workshops: This is another match where she's going to be doing more Bolting and Wolf creation instead of haste-giving. Wolves can block Foundry Inspector, Phyrexian Revoker, and Mishra's Factory and Arlinn, Embraced by the Moon can remove creatures up to and including Lodestone Golem. She's not going to win the game by herself but she will play an important role in effectuating a path to victory. Post-board, she's even stronger as opponents are lighter on aggression and forced by Oath of Druids into running cards that don't directly advance their aggro-tempo plan. When they keep hands with one lock piece, Foundry Inspector, and 2 Grafdigger's Cages for instance, they will find themselves woefully unprepared to deal with a Wolf Planeswalker and likely lose when it resolves. She's much better at surviving than Dack Fayden or Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Jeskai: She's better post-sideboard here due to the Containment Priests. A rule of thumb is that you should never attack with the first Wolf. If you do, they will probably flash in a Snapcaster or Containment Priest and exploit her vulnerability. If they are tapped out, you still likely shouldn't attack because these cantrips-as-heroin sleazebags always have Time Walk and of course they'll Snap it back and kill your Arlinn. The Wolf is your guardian here, not an attack dog. Arlinn is usually outclassed by Monastery Mentor but lines up well against most of their other threats.
Paradoxical: This is one match-up I might be inclined to board her out, but again, since I have to lean away from the Oath plan so much post board, it's good to have an actual win condition and she can remove Kambal, Consul of Allocation.
Oath Mirror: She does a great amount of work here, especially post sideboard. Most good Oath players board out copies of Oath of Druids so she presents a very uncomfortable clock given that a mere 2 Spirit tokens and Wolf on your side will be doing 7 damage per turn. Her aggression also disincentivizes and punishes gorging on the mirror-busting Sylvan Library and makes it difficult to extract significant value from the Jaces and Dacks that play outsized roles in post-sideboard games.
Thalia/Hate Bears: Block this hate bear, then Bolt that one. Heaven on earth. I'd run 4 if I could.
Now below are three additional notes on using Arlinn Kord that may be helpful.
First if you have Arlinn, Embraced by the Moon when there are two Wolves in play, it's tempting to keep flipping her back and forth every turn to generate more "value" but in this case, you should use the +1 and give them Trample. Consider an opponent at 13 life. If you attack with the 2 Wolves and use the Bolting ability targeting your opponent, you will deal 7 damage this turn with 4 potential damage on the next turn via attacks for a total of 11. This leaves your opponent at 2 life and you with an additional untapped Wolf in play. By contrast, if you use the Trample ability, the opponent will suffer 6 damage this turn, and then 7 the following turn, for a total of 13. You won't have the extra Wolf, but since 13 damage is lethal, the Wolf would be superfluous. Always bear in mind that using the +1 on Arlinn, Embraced by the Moon leaves the Lightning Bolt ability loaded and ready to fire while switching back to Arlinn Kord can give a window for an opposing threat to survive.
Secondly, looking ahead is also important if you want to use the haste ability. It may be correct to play Arlinn, and use the +1 with no target in order to preserve her haste ability for a forthcoming Oath creature.
Finally, there's the question of whether creating a Wolf on your side of the battlefield is at odds with the concept of forcing Oath of Druids activations by giving creatures to your opponent. In theory, yes, but in practice you should be able to determine how to sequence your plays and adjust accordingly. If it's imperative that your opponent not be able to use Oath, simply refrain from creating the Wolf. In other cases, you may actually want them to use your Oath. Consider playing against a Pyromancer deck where you have Oath of Druids in play but no Forbidden Orchard. If you sit around doing nothing, they will put a planeswalker on the board and get so far ahead that anything you Oath up will immediately become their property via Dack Emblem->Pyroblast. In this case, it's wise to use Arlinn Kord and force action. Generating the Wolf will tempt them to activate Oath and then having a Pyromancer in play will prevent them from casting any instants or sorceries without enabling you to trigger Oath on your following upkeep and obtain a much greater advantage. This is vastly preferable to remaining stationary while they begin their litany of cascading advantages and eventually win despite the Oath in play. I might also do this against Workshops, since many of their creatures are lackluster to Oath up on an empty board (Hangarback and Ballista are 0, Steel Overseer is a 1/1 with summoning sickness, Metamorph on a Wolf is unimpressive). Workshop pilots prey on Orchardless Oath mages by beating them down with Mishra's Factories, and in some cases Fleetwheel Cruiser. Arlinn's presence will entice them to play more creatures and you'll probably end up activating your Oath even despite lacking an Orchard. In sum, Arlinn Kord doesn't frustrate the gameplan of giving Spirit tokens to activate Oath of Druids and can even end up helping you activate it. You will know when it's a bad idea to give yourself a Wolf and it will never accidentally harm your Oath plan because it's an optional ability.
Hopefully this helps to demystify the confusion surrounding Arlinn Kord's popularity and recent success and provides some insight on how to utilize her optimally. Best to everyone,