Last updated on December 1, 2020
Call the Gatewatch | Illustration by Yefim Kligerman
It’s been a while since I last wrote an article, but I’m back, engaged, and ready to keep blabbering on about MTG. This time, we’re going to talk about Oathbreaker: a community-driven format that has been around for a while now.
Among MTG formats, Commander is way more popular than any other, but this also means that players can start to get bored and look for new ventures. Sometimes they come up with different alternatives, like Brawl. Oathbreaker is one such alternative, and it’s a pretty good challenger.
I must say that there is some room for skepticism because the format’s pretty new, but Oathbreaker offers some good twists to regular Commander. It might even catch up to mainstream when this entire lockdown ends and players can once again gather to, well, play. So, let’s learn about it now instead of later.
How the Oath was Broken
Oath of Gideon | Illustration by Wesley Burt
Oathbreaker is a casual community format, which means WotC has yet to recognize it as an official format. But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you can’t find people to play with! There are even ways to find people online looking to play. It was developed by a team from Weirdcards Charitable Club.
The story goes that the makers of Oathbreaker wanted to play a format that highlighted the power of planeswalkers. It was around the time the Gatewatch started showing signs of breaking their oath, and the creators thought it was a great opportunity to use the breaking of the “Oath of the Gatewatch” as the namesake.
You can take a look here to learn more about the story of Oathbreaker’s development.
What is Oathbreaker? The Rules
Oath of Jace | Illustration by Wesley Burt
As far as cool names go, Oathbreaker feels like you’re in for an epic battle and it keeps up to the premise. Oathbreaker is similar Commander with some small adjustments.
Instead of a commander you have an oathbreaker, which must be a planeswalker. You still have a command zone and a color identity based on your oathbreaker, same as Commander. Each cast of your oathbreaker costs an additional two mana and no two cards can share the same name i.e., it’s a singleton format. Any card that refers to “commander” has that reference replaced with “oathbreaker.”
However, there are two differences that significantly impact the game. First and foremost, you need to choose a “signature spell” along with your oathbreaker. This spell can be a sorcery or instant and becomes your oathbreaker’s signature spell. The spell is subject to the rules above, but there are two more restrictions: you can only cast the signature spell while your oathbreaker is on the battlefield and it always returns to the command zone after casting regardless of other effects and rules.
Second, Oathbreaker’s pace is somewhat quicker than Commander. You start at 20 life and Commander damage is not applied. Your deck also consists of 60 cards instead of 100, so big guns are drawn much faster.
Oathbreaker Banned List
Oath of Chandra | Illustration by Wesley Burt
Oathbreaker uses Vintage legality, so the card pool is pretty big. Since it’s not an official format, you can choose to not use the list, but it’s definitely recommended to do so. Here is the banned list:
- Cards with the “Conspiracy” card type
- Cards that reference “playing with ante”
- Silver-bordered cards
- Ad Nauseam
- Ancestral Recall
- Black Lotus
- Chaos Orb
- Dark Ritual
- Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
- Falling Star
- Gifts Ungiven
- High Tide
- Invoke Prejudice
- Library of Alexandria
- Limited Resources
- Lion’s Eye Diamond
- Mana Crypt
- Mana Geyser
- Mana Vault
- Mox Emerald
- Mox Jet
- Mox Pearl
- Mox Ruby
- Mox Sapphire
- Natural Order
- Painter’s Servant
- Panoptic Mirror
- Pradesh Gypsies
- Primal Surge
- Saheeli, the Gifted
- Sol Ring
- Stone-Throwing Devils
- Sundering Titan
- Sylvan Primordial
- Time Vault
- Time Walk
- Tolarian Academy
- Tooth and Nail
- Trade Secrets
- Yawgmoth’s Bargain
As you can see, it’s a long list. The creators of Oathbreaker chose to ban these cards to slow down early mana acceleration, prevent instant wins and drastically resetting the game, and to prevent Saheeli, the Gifted from steamrolling. New cards aren’t banned for at least 3 months after their pre-release unless they completely break the game.
Oathbreaker vs EDH
Oath of Nissa | Illustration by Wesley Burt
I already mentioned the key differences between Oathbreaker and EDH, but if that didn’t convince you to give Oathbreaker a try, I’ll give it another shot. It’s no secret that Commander is much more popular, and probably always will be. But Commander can take ages, especially if you’re not playing online. Just think about how long a 4-player EDH game takes. Sure, I like my games to be satisfying and not end in like five minutes, but still… Oathbreaker hits the sweet spot between satisfaction and boredom.
If game time isn’t a problem, think about strategy. Players like Commander because it’s deep; you need time to strategize and create the best deck. In Oathbreaker, your deck is limited to 60 cards and needs a signature spell on top of your oathbreaker, so the amount of strategy involved doubles.
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon | Illustration by Raymond Swanland
Here comes the fun part. Since it’s not an official format, it’s more difficult to come across solid deck suggestions, but I’ll do my best to give you some good ideas. I’ll start with something so janky that even I sighed when I first saw it:
That’s it. If your opponent doesn’t instantly kill off your oathbreaker, you win. In any other scenario, you lose horribly. It is legal, though.
How the Format Ticks
Curious Homunculus | Illustration by Filip Burburan
Jokes aside, let’s start with the crucial elements of Oathbreaker. Having a planeswalker as an oathbreaker changes the way you need to play. In Commander, you can choose to ignore abilities to some extent, but any Oathbreaker game needs a strong synergy between your oathbreaker, their signature spell, and the rest of the deck. So it’s important that you choose a planeswalker that is easy to build a deck around.
Your choice of a signature spell is also much more important than you might initially think. Remember, signature spells are returned to the command zone no matter what, so a spell that’s exiled to have an effect, uses the buyback mechanic, or returns to your library will just find itself in the command zone. This prevents some plays, but again, the signature spell returns to your command zone. This is a huge advantage if played correctly. Although there is a tax (two additional mana for each cast), you can repeatedly cast a powerful spell to gain the upper hand early or just as a guaranteed board wipe.
Since the format is a singleton, you should have some cards that are powerful by themselves. This means your deck will need a solid mana base. You can try to overwhelm your opponent with low-cost creatures, but they can easily be destroyed and you won’t be able to replace them. The only choice here would be to use several low-cost cards, but having a planeswalker right from the start is definitely an advantage against aggro decks.
There are a lot of decks that work well in Oathbreaker and, since the format uses Vintage legality, it’s almost impossible to decide which ones would be the best. So I’ll give you three relatively simple examples instead and then talk about planeswalkers that make or break the game.
Some Deck Options
Ral, Oathbreaker Conduit
Signature Spell (1)
Blink of an Eye
Into the Roil
Muddle the Mixture
Refuse // Cooperate
Ral is one of the better planeswalkers to use in Oathbreaker as he can easily stack damage. Your spells won’t cost much and you can trigger expansion repeatedly. If the game doesn’t end quickly, you’ll still have a lot of spells and you’ll only need a couple of turns to finish it once you get Thousand-Year Storm on the battlefield.
Freyalise’s Elves Tribal
Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury (0)
Signature Spell (0)
Triumph of the Hordes (0)
Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen
Ezuri, Renegade Leader
Marwyn, the Nurturer
Priest of Titania
Steel Leaf Champion
If you want to go face right from the start and keep hitting to the end, Freyalise makes it very easy for you. The ability to create a 1/1 elf token with “tap to add one green” is bonkers by itself, but Freyalise can also help you destroy an artifact or enchantment.
Triumph of the Hordes synergizes very well with the tons of elves you’ll have as the game goes past turn 5 or 6. Since your elves also grant bonuses to each other, it’ll take only a couple of mass attacks before the game is over. However, the deck is weak against board wipes, so you need to finish the game decisively.
Big Mana Nissa
Signature Spell (1)
Ashaya, Soul of the Wild
Avenger of Zendikar
Azusa, Lost but Seeking
Nissa, Vastwood Seer Flip
Titania, Protector of Argoth
Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger
This is a classic Nissa deck except for its almost unfair defensive ability. It’s built around ramping up and doubling mana. Garruk Wildspeaker provides solid mana sustain and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon can help you remove major threats, but the game breaker is Obscuring Haze.
As long as Nissa is on the battlefield, you can cast it for free and get protection from your opponent’s creatures, which is almost always. The only way your opponent can avoid this is to deal non-combat damage, but even then they probably won’t have many options. The deck is especially powerful against creature-heavy decks, but weaker against control decks.
Best Oathbreaker / Signature Spell Combos
Nicol Bolas, Dragon God and The Elderspell
It’s no surprise that Nicol Bolas shows up almost instantly when you look around the internet for Oathbreaker. Bolas allows you to play a tri-colored deck, which is useful by itself, but when combined with Elderspell, it becomes terrifying.
It basically prevents your opponent from keeping any planeswalkers because you always have Elderspell ready to go, and they lose the game if they don’t have a planeswalker (or legendary creature as a small workaround) on the battlefield. Pretty cruel.
Tezzeret, Master of the Bridge and Thoughtcast
Tezzeret is very powerful in any artifact themed deck, but with Thoughtcast, you can almost play with the entire deck in your hand. Since Tezzeret grants your creatures and planeswalkers affinity for artifacts and even deal damage equal to your artifacts, any artifact deck becomes very strong.
But Thoughtcast also has affinity for artifacts and returns to command zone after each cast, so you’ll always have the card advantage not to mention reduced costs. Eventually, you’ll just be able to play anything you have for free.
Narset, Parter of Veils and Windfall
I like control decks. I like frustrating people, but the Narset and Windfall combo takes it to a whole new level. If your opponent can’t immediately kill Narset after you put her on the battlefield, they’re doomed to play with whatever card they draw and hope for the best. Meanwhile, you can take your sweet time to decide how you want to finish the game.
Nissa and Nissa’s Triumph / Genesis Wave
Nissa is definitely one of the most useful oathbreakers you’ll find. She never goes out of style (or meta) and it seems that won’t change. She’s very easy to play. You almost never go through mana drought while playing a Nissa deck and can easily take control of the board around mid-game with some experience.
And you hit hard. Since you have a lot of mana, you can cast some pretty heavy cannons. Her abilities also allow you to create an army out of almost nowhere, no matter which version you’re playing. Having Nissa’s Triumph or Genesis Wave as your signature spell almost counts as overdoing things, but it’s Magic. We’re supposed to do that. Long story short, Nissa is great in Oathbreaker.
Getting Your Hands on Oathbreaker Decks
Unfortunately, there aren’t any official MTG products released by WotC for Oathbreaker. This means you’ll need to collect cards individually to build an Oathbreaker deck.
The best way to do this is to buy a Brawl or Commander deck and incorporate your other planeswalkers to build an Oathbreaker deck. Take a look at our Commander 2020 breakdown to get an idea about which Commander deck is your best fit.
Where to Play Oathbreaker
Unity of Purpose | Illustration by Jason Felix
Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Oathbreaker is finding people to play with. Naturally, you can play at MTG stores and other venues that host games. The format usually works with one player learning and spreading Oathbreaker, so if you can’t find any other players, you need to be the one to invite them.
You can find a lot of people online looking for a way to play since it’s an unofficial format. Check the Reddit post here to get an idea about how to play. Unfortunately, MTG Arena and MTG Online don’t sport the format and I think it would be naïve to expect that they will, at least not before Oathbreaker becomes much more popular.
Don’t lose hope, though. Oathbreaker is just around a few years old. It would be even weirder if players around the world started to play a format developed by an MTG club.
I might’ve ruined your dreams of playing already, but you really don’t need to worry that much about finding people. Oathbreaker has a dedicated Reddit community and a Discord channel. You should definitely check them out. Not just to find other people to play with, but also to improve your skills.
Break the Oath
Lead by Example | Illustration by Johannes Voss
After all is said and done, Oathbreaker is still quite new and needs time to establish itself as a common format. It has the potential to do so if it can increase its popularity over the next couple years and amass more dedicated players, it’s definitely a good alternative to Commander.
So, if you’re interested in spicing things up a little and already have a good collection, I seriously recommend you try Oathbreaker. You won’t regret it.
As usual, pop down into the comments below if you’ve got any questions or thoughts on Oathbreaker that you want to share. You can also check out our Discord if that’s more your style. Thanks for your attention today, and I’ll see you in the next one!