Big Picture and Little Details in Dominaria United

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It's finally here. Dominaria United (DMU) prereleases begin the weekend of September 2nd and run until the set is released on September 9th. As always, a new set will have unpredictable interactions, hidden synergies, and its own distinct landscape.

The Jumpstart Model

Instead of traditional archetypes, DMU offers five different lanes for each of its colors.

  • Green - Domain
  • White - Go Wide
  • Red - Aggressive
  • Blue - Spells
  • Black - Graveyard Matters

Whereas in traditional sets each color pair is labeled with a more specific synergy (think GW Enchantments or RW Samurai in Kamigawa Neon Dynasty), DMU embraces a mix-and-match approach, similar to the Jumpstart products. Ergo, RW is Go Wide-Aggro. GU is, theoretically, Domain-Spells.

Aggressive Keywords and the Hellbent Problem

DMU introduces several new mechanics. The most aggressive of them is enlist. Enlist allows you to tap a non-attacking creature to boost the power of an attacker. While this can lead to powerful attacks, I feel this mechanic has something of a hellbent problem. Hellbent, a mechanic from the original Ravnica block, incentivized having no cards in hand. The problem with this is that you very often want to have cards in your hand. Similar to hellbent, I fear that enlist is asking aggro decks to do something that is not in their best interest. Typically, in aggressive decks, you want to swing with all available attackers.

Enlist Today!

Some enlist cards will be strong, some will be middling. This is a nice option to have, but I don't imagine it will be an overpowering aggressive tool like mentor or blitz. It will help trade up in combat, but the toughness of the creature stays the same. A 3/2 Hexbane Tortoise dies just as fast as the 6/2 version.

Coalition Skyknight and Linebreaker Baloth have forms of evasion and will make better use of the ability than most other creatures. Samite Herbalist gives this ability a little more juice, offering value every time it's enlisted.

The best aggressive mechanic might be stun counters, which can keep a creature tapped down long enough for an aggressive deck to close out the match. Impede Momentum is a removal spell if your deck is aggressive enough, though it's unclear if blue is best suited to be aggressive.

Slowing Down the Format with Domain and Kicker

Domain and kicker return and both these keywords incentivize the long game. Domain cards get better with the more basic land types you have in play. Kicker spells get bigger and more powerful the more mana you can put into them. Every single kicker spell in the format has an off-color mana kicker, making fixing a priority. Thankfully, A new 10-card cycle of common "enters the battlefield tapped" dual lands, with basic land types, turbo-charges the Domain decks, and enables these off-color kickers.

Domain will be a great place to start off in this format, especially if the rest of the draft pod opts for more streamlined strategies. It's worth remembering that the kicker cards will likely be available later in the draft, as they play more like gold cards than mono-colored ones. Furthermore, the power level of DMU is stacked at uncommon. Having reliable access to a multitude of colors means having access to significantly more power.

However, ignoring those aggressive decks would be a mistake. With that in mind, I expect DMU to be a fairly balanced format. Cards like Vineshaper Prodigy and A-Sunbathing Rootwalla can trade off early while providing an advantage in the late game. Cheap interaction will be at a premium in this deck. Green will be the critical color for domain, as it has access to fixing and reasonable creatures. Blue and Black should also make strong starting points, as they lean more controlling and want to play to the long game.

Let's Talk Two Drops

Two-drops often define a limited format. Your aggressive decks will need them, and as a result, the slower decks will also want them. When building an aggressive deck, we typically want an abundance of aggressively slanted two-drops. In DMU, it will be difficult to assemble a critical mass.

The most interesting two drops have off-colored kickers. Juniper Order Rootweaver, Benalish Sleeper, and Ghitu Amplifier all fit in an aggressive deck, but they're significantly worse if those decks aren't able to activate the kicker. This puts two color requirements on the aggressive decks, which don't typically want to splash.

Haunted Figment gives the aggressive Red Blue decks an exciting attacker to pair with Ghitu Amplifier. Green White decks also have aggressive tools in A-Sunbathing Rootwalla, Benalish Faithbonder, and Samite Herbalist, as well as the Rootweaver. Of course, this assortment can be upgraded at higher rarities, but the common twos are mostly pedestrian.

Similarly, I'm concerned about the card quality of Splatter Goblin and Toxic Abomination. These are designed to push the aggressive decks, but both seem underwhelming. I have the same fear for Yavimaya Steelcrusher, however, its activated ability offers meaningful utility.

It's a Top 3 Common

Conversely, most twos lead us to a more controlling path. Goblin Picker, Phyrexian Vivisector, Floriferous Vinewall, and Vineshaper Prodigy all offer card selection and presumably perform best in slower decks. Snarespinner returns in this format as a defensive piece against the aggressive decks. These all strike me as primarily defensive, as does Volshe Tideturner which can help slower blue decks. Be wary, though. The 1/3s don't line up well against enlist creatures.

Second-Wind Stompy

This format won't be dominated by aggressive decks, but I expect them to make a showing. The uncommons in this set are very powerful and some of them are very aggressive.

Bringing the Heat

If your table isn't drafting aggro you will see cards like these in higher quantities. In formats like Alchemy Baldur's Gate, you could build a strong aggressive deck just from commons. That doesn't look to be the case here. Also, remember that most limited decks are versions of midrange. Yes, they may skew aggressive, but that doesn't mean you're all one, two, and three drops. Some of the uncommons in this set like Warhost's Frenzy, Balduvian Bersker, and Garna, Bloodfist of Keld help you power through the late game. You don't have to be all-in to be aggressive.

Aggro at Common

The best aggressive cards at common cost more than one might expect. These aggressive decks still need to pressure the opponent early, but they have access to many options to finish them off in the mid to late game. The two drops might be mediocre, but backing them up with powerful spells makes it hard for opponents to recover. It is very easy to die on a stable board to a Heroic Charge or In Thrall to the Pit. These cards will encourage the aggressive decks to dip into a third color, albeit conservatively.

So, What Should I do?

As I start thinking about my first draft in the format, I'm leaning towards Domain. Ideally, I would like to start off in a green-blue shell. I want to splash powerful cards, I'm not overly scared of the aggressive decks, and the plethora of gold cards and off-color kickers all lead me towards a multi-colored midrange deck. Additionally, I don't want to pass Vineshaper Prodigy or Talas Lookout. Blue Green has access to two Organ Hoarders! I want cheap removal to interact early and access to the powerful multi-colored spells later on to out-muscle my opponent.

Moreover, Domain provides a good vantage point to survey the open lane. If I have a couple of good white and blue cards, it might not make sense to keep the green base. In that case, I may want to splash one or two off-color cards, but if I see power, I'll follow it. This set has a lot of absurdly powerful uncommons. Seeing them, means I'm probably in the right lane.

Ranking the Commons

No preview article would be complete without a speculative list of the top five commons. Today, we're going ten deep. While I have the Organ Hoarders at the top of my list, things got more complicated after that.

Top 5 Commons

  1. Talas Lookout - It's an Organ Hoarder that flies. I think this is the best common in the set by a good margin. It has to die for you to get the Sleight of Hand effect, but it's also a 3/2 flyer for four, which is not bad on offense or defense.
  2. Vineshaper Prodigy - Also an Organ Hoarder. The flexibility is nice. Buying time with this early, and then using Urborg Reposession to get it back and grind out opponents is a very real play pattern.
  3. Extinguish the Light - Four mana is a lot, but this is an instant speed answer to any creature with potential upside. The fact that this card really punishes creatures with kicker, especially those in the aggressive decks, makes it a strong answer despite the casting cost.
  4. Lightning Strike - Aggressive decks can use this to clear the way or go to the dome, and if you're playing a slower game then this becomes a valuable answer at only two mana. Versatile and effective.
  5. Keldon Strike Team- You have a 3/1 for three if you need it. Not great. But hastening it in with two 1/1s can add a lot to the combat math of an individual game. White has a lot of pay-offs for going wide, and I considered Heroic Charge in this spot, I was far more excited for this hasty army-in-a-can. Its versatility gives it the edge

The Next, More Interesting Top 5

Those cards seemed pretty obvious to me. They're all two-for-ones or versatile removal spells good in any deck that can cast them. This list features cards that might be more narrow, but will shine in the right deck. While I'm more interested in the synergy packages each card represents, and what they mean for deck-building, I suspect they're all extremely strong.

  1. Ghitu Amplifier - Impede Momentum and Timely Interference will play very nicely with this two drop. I'm not sure that it's better than its running mate Haunting Figment but the two will carry one of the format's best aggro decks.
  2. Tribute to Urborg - Instant-speed cheap removal that scales up. Perfect in Blue Black, but might be a strong incentive elsewhere
  3. Eerie Soultender - I like what this card does. It helps enable some graveyard payoffs like Urborg Repossession, Writhing Necromass, and Tribute to Urborg, while trading nicely on defense and providing some late-game value. Four mana might be too much for the 3/1, but I think it all adds up to a strong card.
  4. Citizen's Arrest - This is a versatile removal spell, but it's hard to splash. White looks aggressive, so while the deck will be interested in this card, I'm not sure it will be a priority.
  5. A-Sunbathing Rootwalla - This card is going to do a lot of work in this format. In stompy decks, the threat of activation will help it get through in the early game. In slower decks, it's a body early that becomes a powerful threat once you've built up your domain.

Honorable Mention: Phyrexian Rager, Essence Scatter, Argivian Cavalier. These three cards all seem reliable pieces to help a deck work. Though they're less exciting than the aforementioned commons.

It All Starts This Weekend

Exploring a new format is always a blast, and there is no better time to do so than prerelease weekend. Are you the hero Dominaria needs? Find out this Friday, while testing out the new cards, exploring new decks, and winning new packs.

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