What Dominaria Means for Magic, Standard and Beyond

Feature Article from Adam Yurchick
Adam Yurchick
3/15/2018 11:00:00 AM
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Dominaria is set to release at the end of April, but the preview season started a bit early with an unexpected leak. Last week its release notes, which include general information on Dominaria along with details about mechanics and other aspects of the set, and including spoilers for over half of its cards, was found on a Chinese-language website. The Magic community obviously went crazy in reaction, and the internet was quickly abuzz with discussion about the leak. Wizards reacted immediately that day, embracing the leak as a mistake they caused by accidently making the notes public, and releasing translated versions of the release in English and other languages to clear up any confusion and bring transparency. Wizards also announced the official preview and spoiler season has been moved up a few weeks, starting next Wednesday, but with so many cards already officially confirmed, it's hard to resist thinking about what we now know about the upcoming set and what it means for the future.

Dominaria is a boon for Commander

It's natural to view a new set through the lens of Standard, but history shows that players tend to overestimate the impact that new sets will have on Standard. Each set added to Standard makes up a relatively small portion of the entire card pool, so new sets like Dominaria will not become the centerpiece of the format, and have to be viewed in the context of what is already available. This seems especially true as of late, because Magic has evolved to embrace the entirety of its player base, and new releases cater to the Commander and casual players as much as the Standard and limited players.

Ixalan and its tribal themes were a perfectly executed follow-up to the Commander 2017 release of four tribal decks, and Dominaria will follow suit by not only including tribal support, but by being centered around legendary cards, up to the point that there will be a legendary card in each booster pack, which means a whole new lot of new Commander generals and cards to build around. Dominaria is even taking the legendary type further by extending it to all sorts of cards, including the arrival of legendary sorceries, which require controlling a legendary permanent before they can be cast, leading to all sorts of new synergies to play with. As far as tribal themes, Goblins, Wizards and Knights are being supported, and there is even some minor love for Saprolings, Elves and Angels. This is great for Commander, but it's unlikely these tribes are going to have a big Standard impact without more concerted supported in Dominaria and future sets.

Dominaria Adds to the Tribes of Ixalan

There are some new Vampires, Merfolk and even Dinosaurs in the set, which provides more tools for those tribes in Standard. Dominaria isn't focused on the tribes of Ixalan, but including some cards of those tribes gives some additional support and helps move them towards being competitive, so pay close attention to any more of them revealed in the rest of the spoilers.

Standard Mana Gets Better

Regardless of what else gets spoiled, the most important cards in Dominaria for Standard are the enemy-colored check lands,which join the allied-color lands that were reprinted in Ixalan. Those lands have given allied-color decks an advantage over enemy-colored decks in Standard, but now things will come to a balance. It's a particularly big step towards making competitively viable the enemy-colored tribal decks of Ixalan, Merfolk and Vampires, which have been held down by subpar mana that hasn't allowed their cards to shine on their own merit.

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Another tribe, Pirates, could potentially make it to the big time in a blue-red shell with Sulfur Falls. Red in general will get better, and could now splash into white with Clifftop Retreat to better support Path of Mettle. Woodland Cemetery is a big help to Black-Green Constrictor decks, which also have existed a step below the top tier decks in the metagame. These lands also change the equation for tricolor decks, which will have greater flexibility in their mana bases.

Llanowar Elves is Back; Green Gets a Boost

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The spoiled card that stands out the most isn't a flashy mythic rare, but the lowly common Llanowar Elves, which heralds the return of the one-drop, mana-acceleration creature to Standard. It's a shoo-in for competitive play and changes the game for green decks. They will embrace the fast mana to ramp into their heavy-hitting midrange threats. It's especially relevant for three-mana cards that can now be cast on turn two, like Jadelight Ranger, so it's going to change how the decks using them are built. It's possible green decks decks will be able to move past Merfolk Branchwalker, literally and figuratively, and on to Greener Pastures. Servant of Conduit, your days may be numbered.

White Creature Aggro Returns

The Dominaria leaks are a lot to take in at once, but it's apparent to me that there is a lot of support for aggressive white creature strategies, which could bring about the return of aggressive white decks – rejoice, Craig Wescoe.

Benalish Marshall is Glorious Anthem on a creature, and while the 3/3 body is vulnerable, it's also incredibly useful as a threat and will apply more pressure than an enchantment ever would. It's a Knight, which means it will be the centerpiece of any Knight tribal deck that might appear in Standard, but it's also fantastic in any token strategy that can support it, and seems like one of the best possible cards to put into play with Sram's Expertise.

Dauntless Bodyguard is Savannah Lions with upside, so it's a surefire inclusion, Knight-focused or not. Its ability helps protect against sweepers by saving another creature, but even keeping a more high-value creature like Benalish Marshall safe from a targeted removal spell makes it very useful.

The New Saga Card Type is Hit or Miss

All that said, the most impressive card spoiled so far is History of Benalia.

One of the biggest bombs dropped in the release notes is the creation of a new type of card, the Saga, which are essentially like fixed Demonic Pact in that they offer another piece of value each turn they stay in play. The difference is that instead of choosing the ability, they have a fixed progression of abilities that are triggered each subsequent turn. The biggest upside, aside from not eventually killing you, is that they have an immediate impact when they enter play, which is an important factor towards making a card playable.

It's challenging to evaluate new types of cards, but it's clear to me that most of these Saga cards miss the mark for Standard, whether they are too expensive or too low-impact. On the other hand, it's easy to see that History of Benalia has obvious competitive potential in Standard. For one, it impacts the battlefield immediately with its ability, so in practice it's like playing a three-mana 2/2. It goes further by producing a second token the following turn, so it's chock-full of the value and tempo. History of Benalia then finishes off its story the following turn by providing a +2/+1 boost to all Knights its controller has, meaning its 2/2 tokens become formidable 4/3 attackers. That's a lot of value in damage in one card, and it's going to be even more powerful when used in a dedicated Knight deck with other creatures to pump.


The Saga cards offer a great deal of potential value and tempo, and the best ones, like History of Benalia, will be excellent, but I imagine most of them are slated for more casual play.

Karn, Scion of Urza Put Artifacts on the Map

One of the coolest, and potentially most powerful, cards on the spoiler is Karn, Scion of Urza, which as a four-mana planeswalker is definitely in need of a second look. History shows us that the best planeswalker are efficient – with four mana being the magic number – and can generate value, which Karn does with its +1 and -1 abilities drawing cards. Most importantly, they can protect themselves, which Karn does with its -2 ability by generating a creature to block, or it can even get aggressive and start pressuring the opponent.

Karn comes with a relatively high starting loyalty of five, which protects it against burn and creatures, and also allows for two consecutive uses of its -2 ability, which will be its most important ability and the one upon which decks using the planeswalker will be built. The power of the ability corresponds with the number of artifacts it controller has, which could mean anything from creating a 1/1 chump blocker to a bonafide threat that keeps attackers at bay or pressures the opponent. The size of the token isn't locked upon creation, but will change with the number of artifacts, so the second token will pump the first, which is useful, and also means that early tokens can be made more powerful later in the game. This is all upside for Karn, which can also use its first two abilities to draw cards and generate value, meaning it's a versatile planeswalker with very desirable abilities.

Karn, Scion of Urza will require some building around, but I see it ushering in some excellent artifact decks designed to maximize its power. Some obvious synergies in Standard are with Treasure Tokens, Servo Tokens and Ethereum Cell tokens from Tezzeret the Schemer. Decks built around Improvise have existed on the edges of competitive Standard, but they are definitely back in the picture now. That's to say nothing of Modern, where the planeswalker could be fantastic in artifact decks, specifically in Affinity as a source of massively powerful creatures, because the -2 ability essentially creates a token that is equipped with Cranial Plating!

Planeswalkers Receive Another Massive Rules Change

Ixalan fundamentally changed the way that planeswalkers worked by making them all legendary. Ironically, this change was also spoiled ahead of schedule with the infamous Ixalan leak that showed the legendary Jace, Cunning Castaway. The practical impact of this was relatively small, but replacing the planeswalker uniqueness rule with a true legendary rule opened up a player to control multiple planeswalker with the same name, meaning Liliana of the Veil and Liliana, the Last Hope could sit side-by-side.

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Dominaria changes the way planeswalkers work once again, this time more drastically, because planeswalkers can no longer have damage redirected to them. Instead, planeswalkers will be directly targeted and damaged by spells, and all existing cards like Lightning Bolt will be erratad, meaning their official Oracle text will be changed, to say “any target,” which allows them to target planeswalkers as well as creatures and players.

This change doesn't impact the functionality of those cards, but it does significantly alter how cards that indirectly damage planeswalker work. For example, Searing Blaze will no longer be able to be redirected to a planeswalker, nor will something like Earthquake. Going further, a card like Leyline of Sanctity that prevents its controller from being targeted will no longer save Jace, the Mind Sculptor from being targeted by a burn spell.

For Standard, this change actually has quite a negative effect on Mono-Red. Chandra, Torch of Defiance can no longer use its +1 ability to deal two damage to enemy planeswalkers, and Hazoret the Fervent can't damage planeswalkers with its discard ability. On balance, planeswalkers have gotten even more powerful because they are under less forms of pressure than before.

What do you make of the Dominaria leaks? Did I skip over anything important? What new cards are you most excited to play with? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I'll answer any questions.

-Adam

@AdamYurchick




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