August 12, 2022

The Gathering’s Explorer Format Makes Me Hate Cat Ovens More Than Ever

Exploring is the best thing to happen to Magic: The Gathering Arena in years. He tossed aside the early digital design of Alchemy and Historic, and again gave us a non-rotating, “true-to-the-table” format. Better yet, it’s a stepping stone, as Wizards will update Explorer until it’s functionally indistinguishable from the popular tabletop Pioneer format.

While Explorer has brought me back to Arena in a big way (I’ve completed the entire Streets of New Capenna mastery pass and am almost at Mythic rank in the current constructed season), there’s a map whose I think it could really happen. It’s not a big splash rare – I agree with the likes of Greasefang and Agent of Treachery. But please, Wizards, for the love of all things holy, stop letting people put their cats in the oven.


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Anyone who played Magic during the Throne of Eldraine era in 2019 will be familiar with the Cat Oven. It’s a synergy based on two cards: Witch’s Oven and Cauldron Familiar. The first is an artifact that lets you sacrifice a creature to create a Food token (or two if the creature had a high enough power). Meanwhile, Cauldron Familiar gives you a life and causes your opponent to lose a life when they enter the battlefield.

The catch, however, is that Cauldron Familiar has a second ability. By sacrificing a Food token, you can bring it back to the battlefield from the graveyard. This is the whole strategy of Cat Oven: sacrifice the Cauldron Familiar to the Witch’s Oven to produce a Food token, then use this token to put the Cauldron Familiar back into play and cause your opponent to lose a life.

While it’s not an infinite combo thanks to the Witch’s Furnace that must be tapped to sacrifice a creature, it’s still horribly boring to play against. Part of the problem is that the Cauldron Familiar can be sacrificed at instantaneous speed, which stops any interaction someone might have with it. Does someone try to kill your cat when you have no food tokens? Just sacrifice it to make a Food token now to get it out of harm’s way. Got a big creature going for an attack? Block it with the Cauldron Familiar, then sacrifice it before damage is dealt to not only stop your opponent’s fight, but also aid your food-based cat recursion.

It’s not that Cat Oven is hard to counter – a little artifact destruction can turn it off completely. The problem is that it’s so bulky; if you’re playing a faster deck against a build around the cat oven, you’ll probably take maybe 25% of the total game time, while your opponent sits with triggers and recursion every turn.

It is for this reason that in August 2020, Wizards banned Cauldron Familiar from the Standard format. At the time, it stated that “the number of triggers generated by these decks can be tedious for both players in digital play”, and explicitly mentioned the sacrificial decks Rakdos (black/red) and Jund (black/red/green) which Cat Oven is an integral part of the problem.

With that in mind, it feels like Wizards is really missing a step by not banning Cauldron Familiar in Explorer. In this format, the standard Cat Ovens of Throne of Eldraine format has been bolstered by more recent inclusions in the Rakdos Sacrifice toolkit like Oni-Cult Anvil (another instant-speed sacrifice outlet, but this time for the Artifacts), Bloodtithe Harvester, and The Meathook Massacre, which stacks the triggers and makes playing against it even more frustrating.

Although Explorer tries to imitate Pioneer as closely as possible, the two are not identical. Pioneer is a paper format where you and your opponent can easily bypass all those pesky triggers. Explorer, on the other hand, is inherently digital. It’s only playable on Arena, where every action you take is prioritized to see if your opponent wants to pop another cat in the oven. Anyone playing even a mildly aggressive deck will take maybe 20% of the total playing time, with the other 80% coming from their opponent suddenly turning into Magic’s answer to Gordon Ramsey.

More than anything, Cat Oven is just plain boring. Explorer is supposed to be a format with a wide range of decks and strategies to play – I arrived at diamond rank with a Mutate Mardu (black/white/red) deck to shout out loud, proving that Explorer is home to give unloved bridges a new breath of life. But the second your opponent plays a Cauldron Familiar or Witch’s Oven (which can be on the first turn), the template is immediately in place. You know exactly who you’re playing against, and the strategy is so stubborn and non-interactive that it becomes a game to play against someone before they win at solitaire.

Cat Oven is Explorer’s first time feeling some kind of friction thanks to his close relationship with Pioneer. While the philosophy of the format and the intention to turn it into a Pioneer is fantastic, Wizards should remember that it’s still its own thing and needs careful management for its own good.

NEXT: Magic: The Gathering Arena – 10 Low Budget Explorer Decks

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