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As you may or may not know, I did not play at Grand Prix Dallas—I did commentary instead. While I was in the booth, I few interesting situations came up more than once. Basically, this is my version of the “Lessons from GP Dallas” article, which I stole from Riley.
1) Cards in Graveyard Are a Resource—Don’t Give it to Them for Free
In the quarterfinals and semifinals, we saw players playing Homarid Explorer and targeting their opponent. This is something you should almost never do, both because you give something up for yourself, but also because you could easily be helping them. In the quarterfinals, the player had both Rona, Disciple of Gix and Soul Salvage in his deck, yet he chose to target the opponent. Players had access to their opponent’s pools (though not deck lists), and he knew the opponent also had access to a Rona, Disciple of Gix and a Soul Salvage of his own! If you play Homarid Explorer, target your opponent, and then draw Rona, Disciple of Gix, how silly do you feel?
Here are the things I’ve done with it:
- They targeted me and then I returned a milled sorcery with Ghitu Chronicler.
- They targeted me and then I played a Ghitu Lavarunner boosted by the spells they milled.
- They targeted me and then I played a Multani, Yavimaya’s Avatar that was two power and toughness bigger than it should have been.
- They targeted me and I played Whisper, Blood Liturgist and reanimated a Verdant Force they milled.
There’s some popular perception that milling the opponent is a good thing, but the great majority of the time it just isn’t—they aren’t losing anything, and you’re just giving them access to another resource. It’s almost like targeting them with a draw spell—it’s something that they want. Yes, you could happen to mill their bomb that you had no way of dealing with otherwise, but you could also mill four bad cards and bring them four turns closer to said bomb. Probability-wise, it’s the exact same unless you believe they will actually run out of cards.
As a general rule, you should always target yourself with mill effects in this format (and in most formats, but definitely in this format). Here are the exceptions:
- You believe the game is going to come down to decking. This is extremely rare, but does happen. If the board is stalled and no one can break through, then you can finish the game with one or two mill effects. If your opponent has played cards like Windgrace Acolyte, even better. But the default is that you do not get decked. I’ve played hundreds of games of Dominaria Limited at this point, both in Draft and in Sealed, and not a single of them came down to decking. But if you do believe that it’ll be relevant, you can target them.
- The game is going to be over either way and you want to get more information.
There is a downside to milling yourself: information. That’s four cards from your deck that the opponent gets to see for next game (and four cards you don’t see from their deck). You could, for example, mill an Urza’s Ruinous Blast that will change how the opponent plays future games, and you might not want to do that. Normally it’s still worth milling yourself, but if those cards are going to be irrelevant to the outcome of the game either way, then it’s better to get more information. If you’re about to attack for the win, or if you’re surely dead next turn, then mill them and you might see a card you can play around next game.
- You know for a fact that neither you nor your opponent have any ways to abuse the graveyard.
If no one is using the graveyard in absolutely any way, then you can go ahead and mill them because there will be no upside to milling yourself. You should always know if you have ways of using the graveyard, but in practice it’s almost impossible to know if they do. In some formats, a particular color combination will often guarantee they can’t use the graveyard, but in Dominaria every color has access to some interaction. Just off the top of my head:
Red has Ghitu Chronicler and Ghitu Lavarunner
Blue has The Mirari Conjecture
Black has Soul Salvage, Whisper, and Memorial to Folly
Green has Multani, Yavimaya’s Avatar, Mending of Dominaria, and Nature’s Spiral
White has Daring Archaeologist and Tragic Poet
So, no matter what color combination your opponent is playing, unless you’ve seen their entire deck (either you played a game that went to decking or you have access to deck lists), it’s better to play it safe and just target yourself.
- You’re specifically trying to mill one card.
This is a corner-case scenario, but can come up. Cards like Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering and The Eldest Reborn let you steal stuff from any player’s graveyard, and sometimes the only way to win is to steal something that they have. If you’re under a lot of pressure and need a Lyra Dawnbringer to win the game, well, you don’t have one, but they just might.
Another situation in which this can come up is when you’re trying to specifically mill their splash color. It’s not uncommon for decks in this format to splash off one basic land and then try to find it with Skittering Surveyor or Grow from the Ashes, and if you spike milling that one basic, you might cut your opponent off their splash color for the rest of the game. If you’re the person with only one basic to splash, then you might consider this as well on your mills.
2) Dominaria Sealed and Draft Have Different Speeds, and Draft Decks Can Rush You
Dominaria Sealed is very slow. It’s almost impossible to create much pressure because the 2- and 3-drops aren’t aggressive enough, and you usually live to see the late game, and often the very late game. Because of this, bombs and mana sinks are at a premium and people usually splash because they have time to draw their splash colors.
Draft is different. In Dominaria Draft, you can still have a control, late-game-oriented deck like you can in Sealed, but you can also have an aggressive deck. Decks like U/R Wizards, U/W Flyers, and R/W Equipment are all viable, and those decks will pressure you even without premium 2-drops. In Draft, you need to give a bit more consideration to your curve if you’re a slow deck, and you can’t have a bunch of 6-mana cards or a bunch of splashes. You still want some of those cards, of course, because games aren’t that fast and some games still aren’t fast at all, but you have to acknowledge the fact that there are decks that can aggro you out, which is almost never the case in this Sealed format.
In fact, in the finals of the GP, we saw two aggro decks playing each other: U/W Flyers against R/W Pump. Neither deck had an incredibly high card quality—they just got by with aggressive creatures and tricks. Look at the winning deck, by Robert Brown:
This deck was very focused. It had 16 creatures (or cards that produced creatures), two Equipment, five combat tricks, and a Radiating Lightning. There wasn’t a single removal spell in his deck, yet the tricks acted as removal because the opponent was forced to block.
In Dominaria Sealed, if you don’t open bombs, you’re out of luck—it’s not going to be easy for you to win. In Draft, however, GP Dallas showed us that you can adopt an aggressive approach and, even if your card quality isn’t high, you can just beat people down with a curve, equipment, and tricks, especially if they are still in the Sealed mindset.
3) Reevaluate Your Plans Based on Context
In the finals of the GP, two aggressive decks met: U/W and R/W. I thought the U/W deck was a bit better overall, but the R/W deck was better in that particular matchup. Both players had a clear game plan—attack until the opponent is dead—and neither was particularly good on defense, but I felt like the Red-White deck’s lack of removal wouldn’t hurt it in this matchup, so it was just a bit better at doing the “attack with everything every turn” thing than the U/W deck.
Both players identified very early that they had to be aggressive, and almost nothing stayed home to block. At some point, we got to what I thought was the key turn in the match:
The relevant point here is that Will is at 23 life and his opponent is at 16 (going down to 13 this turn). Will has a Danitha Capashen with Short Sword that’s keeping everything at bay, and a Cloudreader Sphinx that can attack in the air. On his turn, Robert Brown played Juggernaut and passed.
On his turn, Will drew and played a Pegasus Courser. Then, he attacked with the Sphinx.
I think this is a very big mistake, and it’s worth distilling. Yes, both players have to be aggressive, and blocking is bad in the face of all the combat tricks in the R/W deck. Will is at 23, and Robert is going to 13, so Will can definitely just race. So, why do I think he should stay back with the Sphinx? Because his opponent played specifically Juggernaut.
Will has a 3/3 lifelinking first striker in play. Juggernaut is a 5/3 that has to attack. Playing that Juggernaut is a statement—it means “I’m going to attack next turn, and I don’t care that you have a 3/3 first striker.” Clearly, Robert wouldn’t play the Juggernaut just to throw it in the graveyard the following turn (giving Will 3 life in the process), so he must have a plan.
In practice, what happened was that Robert attacked with everything—as we imagined he would—and Will was blown out by a combat trick. Will took 9 damage that turn (even after gaining 3 from lifelink) and lost his best creature. Had the Sphinx stayed back, then Will would have had some much better blocking options (especially in the case Robert tapped something with the Trapper, which didn’t happen but could have). At the very least, I think you’re giving up 3 damage to block a Knight, killing it and gaining 2 life in the process, which I think has to be worth it, and maybe you don’t have to expose your 3/3 lifelinker (soon to be flyer, because of the Pegasus) in combat if you don’t want to.
So, this is a spot in which I think Will correctly evaluated what he was supposed to do in the match, but then didn’t adjust based on what was happening in that particular game. I agree with being aggressive, especially when you have a lifelinker, but when your opponent throws the gauntlet like that, with a Juggernaut into a 3/3 first strike, you have to stop and think. Yes, you’re currently winning the race… but there’s a decent chance you won’t be anymore next turn if you keep attacking. Things are rarely so black and white—it’s not because you’re supposed to attack that you have to attack every turn, and even aggressive decks can and should take a turn off. In this particular case, Will knew that this was the only turn he’d have to take off because Robert had to act now—the Juggernaut can’t stay back—so it was even easier of a decision. The Sphinx kept attacking every turn of the game after this, and eventually Robert just pushed through enough damage.
4) Read Your Cards
This should go without saying, but the GP showed us that a lot of people don’t actually know what their cards do. Dominaria has a lot of complicated cards, and several of them don’t do what you’d originally assume they do, so you have to make sure that you know. For example, Helm of the Host—if you just passingly read Helm of the Host, you might think the tokens go away at the end of the turn, since that’s how most of those effects go. Except that, in this case, they stay in play forever, turning Helm of the Host into a bomb.
Another card that doesn’t do what you’d expect is Fervent Strike. We think that a red trick that costs 1 mana gives +1/+0 and first strike because that’s what we’re used to, but it actually gives haste as well. A lot of people who play with the card simply don’t know this.
At the GP, I saw many cases of people messing up because they didn’t know what their cards did. For example, there was a player that scooped a game they were actually going to win because they didn’t realize that Thallid Omnivore gained life when you sacrificed Saprolings, which means that they took lethal when they shouldn’t have. And then there was another who used the third ability on The Eldest Reborn, and took something like a Mesa Unicorn over the opponent’s Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Now there’s a chance they’d actually rather have Mesa Unicorn over Teferi, but I’m going to say that it’s overwhelmingly more likely that they just didn’t realize that The Eldest Reborn could steal planeswalkers (and kill them, for that matter).
So, take a moment to read your cards, even if you think you know what they do. They can get quite complicated in this set, and reading the card takes two seconds and can avoid a costly mistake. For example, in a feature match, Seth Manfield almost double-blocked a land animated with Sylvan Awakening with two Serra Disciples, which would have resulted in just losing both his creatures since the land becomes indestructible. Luckily, he took the two seconds to pick the card up and confirm what it did, and then, once he realized that it gave them indestructible, he was able to make the right blocks.
If you can’t figure out a card by reading, call a judge. At some point throughout the weekend, a player controlled two copies of a creature—one legendary and one not (you can accomplish this via In Bolas’s Clutches or On Serra’s Wings). Do they have to sacrifice one? The answer is no, since both have to be legendary for that to be the case, but this is not intuitive, and, if you don’t actually know the answer, you could guess either way. Instead of guessing, you should just call a judge before you make the play.
We also saw an interaction with On Serra’s Wings and Merfolk Trickster, and rather than just assuming they knew how it worked, the player called a judge. It turned out that it was timestamps-based on the abilities (so if On Serra’s Wings came down first, and then the Merfolk, the creature would have +1/+1 and be legendary, but wouldn’t have flying, vigilance, or lifelink).
So, the gist is—some cards in Dominaria can be quite complicated or nonintuitive, so make sure you understand what they do, and, if you don’t, call a judge.