It's fall 2004. To put it bluntly, it's been a bad year for Standard. It just so happens that the poker boom is in full swing. Faced with the dim future of playing Affinity mirrors for the foreseeable future, the majority of professional American magicians determine that pursing poker or a career in finance will be a better use of their time.
Mirrodin Standard was a diverse environment full of sweet decks with plenty of play to them, but once Disciple of the Vault and the artifact lands joined forces with Skullclamp, Arcbound Ravager, and all the other broken nonsense Darksteel brought to the table, the resulting decks were pretty degenerate. Skullclamp got the banhammer first, under the assumption that the Affinity archetype wouldn't be quite so dominant without its steady stream of card advantage. One Cranial Plating later, and Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and the artifact lands quickly joined the banlist.
But that was the summer. It's fall now, and Champions of Kamigawa's getting its proper release. Against the cold efficiency of the Mirrodin block standouts, Champions of Kamigawa cards seem totally out of place. They are clunky, but novel, and in any other time in history they would be embraced with open arms. This—a period in time where players have the beatdowns from Affinity and the hopelessness of trying to play anything else still fresh in their minds—is not one of those times. In the wake of Arcbound Ravager beatdowns, the idea of things like Kokusho, the Evening Star and Meloku, the Clouded Mirror being a set's best cards does not inspire confidence in that set.
Many players will look at the cards from Champions of Kamigawa, and subsequently Betrayers & Saviors of Kamigawa, in frustration. They will stop playing. I'll watch my local scene whittle down to just me and the other high-schoolers and be kind of confused, mostly because I can't imagine my life without Magic because I'm 15 and lack imagination.
From this moment on, the next two years will be the most fun I'll ever have playing Standard.
Based on what's been spoiled so far, Dominaria and Champions of Kamigawa feel very similar. One of the mechanics of both sets can be described as "keyword: legendary;" lots of the cards are either legendary or play in that space. Betrayers of Kamigawa had Hero's Demise, Dominaria has Cast Down. In Kamigawan fashion, Dominaria has a plethora of legendary creatures that can be most charitably described as clunky. Inefficient. After the absurd hyper-efficiency of the blatantly pushed storyline-stars-as-mythic-rares we've been forced to suffer through since Battle for Zendikar, cards like Lyra Dawnbringer and Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain are easy to overlook. Mythics that don't have a spell attached as an enters-the-battlefield effect? What a quaint concept!
Our preview card is one of those quaint legendaries.
When I think of black 4/5s for four mana, my mind immediately goes to Siege Rhino. Josu Vess isn't Siege Rhino; there's no enters the battlefield ability to be found here unless you're willing to spend an extra six (!) mana to get it. I mean, for six mana, you should get a free jet ski along with the zombies.
Josu Vess won't be breaking Standard anytime soon, especially with Kaladesh and Amonkhet blocks in the mix, but we went ahead and made three decks based around him anyway: one for Standard, one for Brawl, and one for Commander. Also, Luis Scott Vargas has a preview card up today that goes into all three of these decks. You should check it out.
Zombies are perfect for casual formats, so it made sense for us to put together a couple Josu-led decks for Brawl and Commander. Brawl seems really exciting; my only concern is that Magic Online Brawl events will homogenize the metagame, Brawlers out in the world will adopt optimized Magic Online lists, and Brawl won't feel like a casual format. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The Brawl decklist is pretty straightforward, going as hard on the zombie synergies as it can. Liliana, Death's Majesty is an all-star here.
Thanks to a bigger cardpool, the Josu Vess Commander deck really hedges on the zombie tribal stuff, with all the usual undead suspects present to bolster our new commander.
It's really tough for me not to draw parallels between Champions of Kamigawa and Dominaria. Maybe it's not the slam-dunk comparison I think it is, but their similarities hold a promise of a Standard format that, for the first time in years, won't be decided by a handful of mythics that enter the battlefield and effectively say "deal with me in one turn or the game's over." That's exciting!
Is this Standard list competitive now? No way. God, no. You would be better off playing The Scarab God, Hazoret the Fervent, or Winding Constrictor—three cards that are rotating out of Standard this fall.
I'm not saying Josu Vess is going to be a great card once Kaladesh and Amonkhet blocks rotate out of Standard, but you know what? There's a chance. With few exceptions, the powerful cards in Dominaria aren't very efficient. The cycle of Legendary sorceries are a good example of this: they're absurdly powerful, but they're expensive and need multiple cards to work. They require some set-up, allowing for counterplay that doesn't necessarily have to be immediate. Sure, Llanowar Elves into Steel Leaf Champion is going to get old fast, and Siege-Gang Commander seems like it's a half-step above everything else, but there are very few cards like that, and even those examples are handled relatively easily compared to the Gatewatch-themed haymakers we've been dealt for the past four years.
Dominaria, like Champions of Kamigawa before it, heralds a shift in gameplay philosophy—a necessary dialing-back of power. It can look a lot like regression. I promise it's not. I'm not saying these sets are above criticism—Saviors of Kamigawa, a third set that turned two all-time great Limited environments to garbage, was and remains totally unplayable—I'm saying that cards rarely play like they look. No one ever gets a preview season 100% correct.
In evaluating Dominaria, I can only draw on my past experiences with a set that looked and felt similar.
I've never been more excited for a Standard rotation. See you this fall.