As has been the case with first sets lately, I’ll focus more on general qualities of the format—the abilities, speed, fixing, removal—rather than the evaluation of specific cards, but if you have any questions about a card in particular feel free to ask in the comments.
Kicker is one of my favorite mechanics and I love that it’s back. Like cycling, it helps when you’re having mana problems, though it’s usually in the other direction. Knowing if you should play a card outright or wait to be able to pay the kicker is challenging and there isn’t a right or wrong answer—you really have to evaluate the board and decide for each particular spot.
Most of the time, you’ll look at the power difference between the card kicked and non-kicked, and then analyze the board state to see if that makes enough of a difference or if it’s not worth waiting for. Take, for example, Academy Drake—this is a card you’ll almost always play without kicker if it’s your only turn-3 play, because a 3-mana 2/2 is a much better rate than a 7-mana 4/4. If you get to the late game, then you can kick it, but it’s meant to be a bonus more than anything.
Here’s a list of cards that will almost always be played at the first opportunity:
- Academy Drake
- Saproling Migration
- Grunn, the Lonely King
- Baloth Gorger
- Keldon Overseer
- Fight with Fire
- Josu Vess, Lich Knight
For all of those, the kicker cost is either prohibitive or very expensive, so you shouldn’t worry too much about it—play the card as it reads, and then, if the game goes longer than you expected, start thinking about the kicker cost.
Now, take Kavu Titan’s cousin, Untamed Kavu. 5/5 vigilance, trample for 5 is much stronger than a 2/2 vigilance, trampler for 2, as not only does the body get better but the abilities also scale with it, so you’re better off waiting for 5 mana. As a general rule, plan to play these cards with kicker:
This list is more situational than the other list, as there will be times where you just have to jam Untamed Kavu for 2 mana, either because you are under pressure or you need to apply pressure. The cards also aren’t equivalent—obviously, playing Ghitu Chronicler as a 1/3 blocker early in the game is fine, whereas playing Skizzik for 4 mana is not advisable.
There are other kicker cards in the set, but they seem flexible enough that I wouldn’t expect to always play one or the other—each situation is going to be different. Verix Bladewing is a powerful turn-4 play, but also a very powerful turn-7 play. If you think the game is going to be fast-paced, play it on turn 4. If you think the game is going to go long, you’re flooded out, and they have a ton of removal, wait for 7 mana. It also depends a lot on what else you can do that turn. If you have a good 4-drop to play, then waiting is less of a cost than if your turn would otherwise be “go.”
Sagas are pretty interesting, and change a lot in power level. Some of them seem like you’ll want to play all the time (History of Benalia and Time of Ice, for example), some of them are situational (The Mirari Conjecture) and some you will not play most of the time (such as The Antiquities War and Fall of the Thran).
The important thing about Sagas is probably how unimportant they actually are. There are only 14 of them, none of which are common—most are rare or mythic. I see a lot of people saying stuff like “Rescue is broken with Sagas” or “you need to main-deck enchantment removal,” but I don’t think either is necessarily true. Yes, there is synergy with bouncing your own Sagas with the third trigger on the stack, but not necessarily more so than resurrecting a creature from your graveyard, and most Sagas aren’t worth having a card as bad as Rescue in your deck.
That said, reusing Sagas is an angle, so cards like Tragic Poet and Sentinel of the Pearl Trident (yes, and Rescue) are better than they would otherwise be, but just make sure you don’t get tunnel vision on Sagas. Most of them aren’t worth it.
There are clear tiers when it comes to the legendary spells. All of them require you to have some number of legendaries to turn them on, but some are worth the risk, whereas others demand that you be able to cast them more frequently.
Tier 1: You want to be able to play these cards and they’re worth the risk when you can’t
Jaya’s Immolating Inferno
Jaya’s Immolating Inferno is very good. You won’t always be able to cast it, but it can be so good when you can that it’s worth the times it stays in your hand doing nothing. If you have a reasonable number of legends that you expect to stay in play without winning you the game (if you have Darigaaz Reincarnated in play then it doesn’t really count because you’d win anyway), then you will play this all the time.
Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering
Worse than Jaya’s Immolating Inferno but still very good if you can turn it on, as it can be quite a swing to kill their best permanent and get the best one from either graveyard back (though unfortunately not in that order).
Tier 2: If you can cast these cards reliably, you’ll play them, but they’re not worth it if you can’t
Urza’s Ruinous Blast
This is very hit or miss. If I could cast it reliably, I’d always maindeck it, but I’d be ready to side it out against opponents with a lot of legendaries. It’s also awkward that the nature of Wraths is that you want to sandbag your threats, but then this leaves you in a precarious position if they just kill your legendary creature and you run out of time to cast another, so you really need multiple legendaries to make sure this works.
Karn’s Temporal Sundering
This isn’t strong enough when you cast it to make up for the times you can’t, so you need to have a lot of legends as well. That said, if it were just a 6-mana card then I think it’d be strong, so if you can make it that reliable, you want it.
Tier 3: You don’t want to play it even if you have a lot of legends
Green gets the worst legendary spell to match the worst legendary spellcaster (Kamahl, really? Who is that? Isn’t he a red card anyway?). I think this card is pretty bad and would not play it unless I had a very specific deck (ramp with a lot of legendaries).
You can also change how you play because of legendary spells (go after their legendary creature more aggressively, for example), but all five of those are rare and some are not even good, so I wouldn’t worry much about it. If your opponent plays one in game 1, then you can be mindful of it for game 2 (or if they make some very weird plays, such as declining an easy block on their legendary creature, that might show you that they have another use for it).
Historic is the hardest new mechanic to evaluate to me because its range is very big. If you have a card like Kraxos, Scourge of Krogg, then you’re going to lean toward playing every historic spell you can, but it’s not going to be worth it to play a bad legend or a bad artifact to trigger your D’avenant Trapper.
There are a lot of artifacts in this set, so anyone who wants to play artifacts will have access to them, but the main problem is that they’re mostly bad—there are few artifacts that you actually want to play. So if you have a deck full of powerful historic triggers, then you will find ways to trigger them, but if you just have a couple of historic abilities and they aren’t that good, you shouldn’t push it.
When it comes to Sealed deck, I have a mantra I like to use: “don’t put bad cards in your deck.” This is true for Dominaria as well. In the dark, I’d lean toward “don’t get too attracted to historic cards,” and don’t play cards that you wouldn’t otherwise play just because you have historic unless your deck is very specific.
There are some tribal synergies in this set: Goblins, Thalids, Wizards, and Knights. While you can certainly make use of a lot of those synergies, I feel like the only tribe that can be worth committing to is Saprolings because they have an uncommon lord and an uncommon pseudo-lord on top of many supported creatures (and tokens), and that’s only if you open a very specific pool. The other tribes have cool synergies, but you don’t really need a Wizard deck to play Wizard’s Lightning. In other words, don’t go playing all your bad Goblins because you have Goblin Warchief.
I always like to analyze the common and uncommon removal spells to see what you can expect to happen with the creatures. Here they are:
Blink of an Eye
Pierce the Sky
In Bolas’s Clutches
Settle the Score
Fight with Fire
When it comes to removal, three things catch my eye. The first one is that a lot of the removal is unconditional, or the condition is very easy to meet—there are some that only kill 1-toughness creatures, but most removal in the set can actually kill anything. Cards like Eviscerate and Blessed Light get rid of any bomb, and the red removal does enough damage that it’ll get rid of most things as well.
The second is that removal seems to be concentrated in red or black, which is sort of a throwback to how things were before. There is removal in white and green, but less so than in black or red, and usually worse in quality. Blue has two ways to bounce creatures at common, which seems to be about standard for what’s been happening lately, if not lower than average, and they’re both pretty good.
The third is that a lot of the good removal is splashable. Eviscerate, Shivan Fire, Blessed Light, Cast Down, Wizard’s Lightning, Fight with Fire, etc. all cost a single colored mana, and can be splashed if you have the right amount of fixing.
In practice, this means that most decks will have access to hard removal, which means that you shouldn’t rely too much on a particular bomb. Obviously, you’ll still make an effort to play your Shalai, Voice of Plenty, but you should know that basically everyone will have multiple ways of dealing with it, so don’t go forcing G/W just because you have Shalai—it’s better to have all good cards than all bad cards and a Shalai, because Shalai is not going to survive reliably.
There are a lot of fixers in Dominaria, but not in the lands—those exist only at rare. For commons, you’re looking at cards like Skittering Surveyor and Navigator’s Compass, which aren’t exactly cards you’re looking forward to playing. For those cards to be good, you ideally have uses for their artifact type. If I have a lot of historic-matters cards and I’m splashing a card, I’ll begrudgingly play Navigator’s Compass, but if I don’t have a use for historic then I really don’t want to play it. The bar on Skittering Surveyor is a bit lower, since it’s still a two-for-one of sorts, but if you can get your fixing while meeting your historic quota then it’s much better for you.
In green, we have two common fixers: Llanowar Envoy and Grow from the Ashes. Llanowar Envoy in particular is pretty nice, because 3/2 for 3 is already a respectable body and it can fix multiple colors. Yes, it costs a mana, but Eviscerate at 5 is still fine as a last resort.
In practice, even though a lot of the removal is splashable, it doesn’t look like there are many decks that can splash it. Green can do it, and we might see some 4- or 5-color green decks, but it’s not easy for a U/W deck to splash Fight with Fire, for example, unless it has a lot of historic synergy and those common artifact fixers.
How Many Lands?
Dominaria seems to have a decent amount of mana sinks, particularly because of kicker. It also has an uncommon cycle of lands that sacrifice themselves for an ability, and those are mostly good (with the exception of the red one). This means that flooding isn’t the end of the world like it was in Ixalan, and most decks will want between 17 or 18 lands. I’d imagine that a mana base of 18 lands with two of the uncommon utility lands will be quite common, for example, as will 17 lands and a Llanowar Elves or 17 lands and a Skittering Surveyor. If you’re very low to the ground, however, and have few-to-no kicker spells or utility lands, then normal rules apply and you can get by with 16 (or, for example, 16 and 2 mana creatures).
The Speed of the Format
It looks like to me that Dominaria is a fallback to the earlier stages of Magic in more than just flavor—it’s also a more “balanced” Limited format. It’s possible to attack and it’s possible to block, and there doesn’t seem to be a strategy that dominates the other. Decks have a curve, but we don’t see any of the “must attack” abilities that existed in previous sets (exert, afflict, Vehicles, etc.), which makes me think that it’ll be slower than most formats we’re used to. Aggressive decks will rely more on 3-, 4-, and 5-drops backed up by removal, instead of hoping for busted starts with Spectral Flights or Renegade Freighters, which will also mean that they’re less likely to be brickwalled if the game goes long. Basically, I’d expect both aggro and control to be viable, but I’d also expect the game to be decided much later than it has been. In previous formats, it was possible to look at the board on turn 4 and tell who was going to win. I expect this to be harder with Dominaria.
There also aren’t that many creatures that are great at attacking and horrible at defending. There are several 1/3s for 2 and 2/3s for 3 at common that can gum up the ground, and the 2-drops aren’t nearly as pushed as they have been. Take black, for example: It has three common 2-drops, but one of them you’re mostly looking to play kicked and the other two you never want to put in your deck. In green, the 2-drop is “make two 1/1s.”
Red, usually the most aggressive color, has three 2-drops, but one is a 1/3 that you want to play kicked, the other is kind of mediocre and only good if you have very specific Sagas, and the last one takes a long time to become better than a vanilla 2/2 and will only do so sporadically. Compared to cards like Tilonalli’s Knight, it’s a big difference. There’s basically no common 2-drop in the format that I’m thrilled to have on turn 2, and therefore no common 2-drop that I really fear. The best common card to play on turn 2 is probably Llanowar Elves.
This means a couple of things:
- Attacking has to be done intelligently. You can’t just jam eight 2-drops and hope that works—most of the power will be in the 4- or 5-drops even for aggressive decks. 2/2s for 2 are suboptimal and you probably don’t want to play any, and you shouldn’t be biased toward certain cards because they were good in previous formats. In Ixalan, Bishop’s Soldier was a premium common, but in Dominaria I can see leaving Mesa Unicorn in the sideboard of some decks.
- You want removal. Games will go long and your opponent will play bombs. You need to have ways to remove them.
- You want late-game mana sinks. Cards with kicker are the best for this.
- You want to draw. In early Magic, I was a fan of drawing in Sealed, but newer formats were just too punishing to slow starts. I think Dominaria isn’t nearly as punishing, so my impression is that you want to draw again.
That’s what I’ve got for today. Good luck at your prerelease!