Dominaria is truly a return to Magic's past. Oh, I'm not talking about the nostalgia or going back to the plane where it all originated. I'm talking about a Limited format where creatures suck and removal spells reign supreme. I'm talking about a Limited format where sometimes you keep a hand where your first play of the game is a good old country vanilla 4/4 for four and at that point in the game you're at 17 life and you've just bricked your opponent's entire board. Magic at its finest.
Okay, I'm also talking about the nostalgia. My first set ever was Time Spiral, and Dominaria has brought back a lot of memories. Oddly enough, most of these memories have been about Thallids. I loved drafting Thallids back then, and to see them in the pack again has been awesome.
Full disclosure, I I have audibly yelled out "I ****ing hate Thallids!" at least twice in the past few days when my opponent kicked a Saproling Migration with a Thallid Omnivore in play. In fact, I keep losing to Thallids and my patience is dwindling, but like I said, nostalgia, baby! Thallids are great, except for Thallid Omnivore who can sac my dreck.
When I heard that I could start drafting Dominaria on Magic Online on Monday, I thought that was pretty cool. In fact, I looked directly into the camera and said "Cool" and slowly nodded my head. When 1 p.m. rolled around, I put on my Dom Jeans and got down to business.
I haven't stopped drafting since. In fact, me writing this article is the first break from drafting I've had since the set released, minus small intervals for sleeping, eating and performing essential bodily functions. Who needs sleep when you can draft Dominaria? The answer will not surprise you, as doctors have informed me that it is still everyone. Nonetheless, I have not heeded their expert wisdom, and have only slept a small amount in the past few days. If at any point during this article you think to yourself: "these aren't normal words, but rather the ravings of a madman" then perhaps this paragraph will serve as sufficient explanation.
But enough of this lunacy! Let's get down to the business of talking Dominaria draft, and business is booming. Let's look at some of the more popular archetypes.
Speaking of the devil, let's go ahead and start off with the archetype I've been subtly hyping this entire article. The heeby BGs.
I've had mixed experiences with this deck. The mix is that I can't win with it but I can never beat it. Exactly how my opponents all drew it up.
Thallids is an entirely synergy driven archetype. The cards that comprise this deck are all relatively low-power cards on their own, but when they start to pair together it creates this unstoppable engine that can be really impossible to grind through. As a result, it's important to prioritize getting the payoff cards first. You don't want to take a bunch of the support cards and then not end up getting any payoff cards, because then you'll just be stuck with a deck with a bunch of low power cards in it.
The core strategy is to go wide, and it often wins by grinding your opponent out with token generation or forcing them into bad combat situations.
The first payoff is Sporecrown Thallid, which is an extremely effective lord that pumps all your Thallids and Saprolings. This can turn a bunch of tokens into real threats, especially since creatures aren't that big in this format and a bunch of 2/2 Saprolings can actually brawl.
The easiest payoff to get, because it's a common, is Thallid Omnivore. Thallid Omnivore is another in a long line of Nantuko Husks, and it being a base 3/3 that pumps to 5/5 on the first activation is huge because the threat of activation usually prevents your opponent from being able to block effectively. With enough support, it doesn't actually take very long before it threatens lethal and then your opponent has to chump it every turn the rest of the game.
The other two usual payoff cards are Sean Fungal Plots and Thallid Soothsayer. Both cards can turn Saprolings into a way to churn through your deck, and being able to draw a lot of cards to find even more synergies is a huge part of grindy, engine-based strategies. Fungal Plots is a really strong engine that is nearly impossible to grind through without trample or flying creatures.
Slimefoot, the Stowaway is a good card, but it's not really a payoff or a support card, just more of a really powerful card that can play both roles in games that go long. I'd take it and play it, but it's not the core to the archetype. One last payoff card is Wild Onslaught, which is a very costly effect but can be absolutely devastating when kicked onto a board full of tokens. This can swing combat and cause every tire in your opponent's neighborhood to simultaneously deflate if they don't expect it.
I probably wouldn't jump into this archetype unless I've already grabbed a few payoff pieces to really solidify myself in it. I wouldn't try to go into drafting this deck purely off taking early support cards. However, once solidified, it's time to call in the support.
The major support cards are token generators like Spore Swarm and Saproling Migration, which both spit a bunch of tokens into play, along with just generically good three drop creatures in Yavimaya Sapherd and Deathbloom Thallid. These cards add to the board in a meaningful way while also serving as good fodder late for Thallid Omnivore and friends.
One key when drafting this archetype is to ensure that you have a way to handle evasive creatures. An easy way to beat this deck is to just fly over it, since Thallids is a slow archetype that can take a while to close out a game. Prioritizing Mammoth Spiders and removal options like Vicious Offering and Eviscerate to take care of relevant threats is important.
Lastly, this deck is a good home for Song of Freyalise. Well, basically every green deck is a good home for that card, but I want to explicitly mention that this card is unbelievably good and lets you develop to the board insanely well in the first two turns it comes out, culminating in a turn where you get to attack for huge chunks of damage with no opposing recourse. There isn't much I would take over it, perhaps nothing.
This is a personal favorite of mine. The theory is to load up on removal and play a low creature count but have all of your creatures be effective in combat. The value in doing that is that you can use your removal spells to handle whatever powerful threats your opponent plays, but ignore all the minor threats as long as you have one or two creatures that can hold down the fort.
This is the kind of deck where you don't really ever want to play low-impact creatures. Cards like Keldon Warcaller or Ghitu Journeymage should basically never make the cut in this deck unless you're desperate. Instead you want things like Knight of Malice if you can get them. Bloodstone Goblin can be a sometimes play if you have enough kicker cards, but you basically don't want to play that card either if it's just a grizzly bear.
The main two drops for this kind of deck are Ghitu Chronicler and Caligo Skin-Witch. Both have defensive stats, which means they can be run out early if you need an early blocker, especially if your opponent is migrating toward a Saproling strategy. The beauty of both cards is that they also provide a very relevant effect going late. A kicked Skin-Witch can be a real...hitch...in your opponent's plans, and Ghitu Chronicler rebuying relevant removal spells is a really nice follow up to killing everything your opponent has played in the first few turns.
This is the kind of deck where a card like Drudge Sentinel can shine. Games will go long with your ability to kill most of your opponent's threats, so having a creature that you can invest mana into later in the game that can hold back whatever you couldn't kill can be a real boon later in the game. You don't want to burn your removal spell on random 2/2s, so it's nice to have something that can hold back a bunch of them.
At last year's World Championships, Christian Calcano forced an interesting draft archetype based around super cheap evasive threats like Blight Keeper and enchantments like One With the Wind or Swashbuckling to boost them to put immense early pressure on the opponent to have some interaction or they would just get steamrolled.
Since then, this style of drafting is known as "The Calcano" in some circles. Not concentric circles, unfortunately, but we take what we can get.
I believe such an archetype exists in Dominaria as well. It's based around two red cards: Champion of the Flame and Valduk, Keeper of the Flame. I guess you could say that Calcano's flame continues to burn.
Champion of the Flame and Valduk both do some disgusting things if they get suited up with enchantments or equipment. This deck is based around playing cheap creatures as well as some first strike or evasive threats like Serra's Disciple and Knight of Grace and then using the plethora of cheap effects that white and red provide to boost them.
For example, a turn two Champion of the Flame into a turn three Dub leaves you with a 5/5 first strike trampling creature that is impossible to block, difficult to race and definitely game over if they don't have a removal spell. Jean Valduk's tokens deal a lot of damage and have trample, so they can't even be sated by Saproling chump blocks.
The plan for drafting this archetype is to focus on getting the creatures first and getting the enhancements later. It's pretty easy to get Short Swords, Dubs, Frenzied Rage or other more expensive equipment like Jousting Lance or Shield of the Realm if you need to. Those cards come late. What is more important is prioritizing the right mix of creatures.
In addition to the specific payoff creatures, anything with evasion is key. Pegasus Courser, Aven Sentry and Warcry Phoenix are all important aspects. Worst case, if they kill your suited-up creature or if the pieces don't come together perfectly, you want to end up with a deck that is still capable of smashing with evasive threats.
Dauntless Bodyguard is normally a card that isn't too strong. 2/1's for one mana have traditionally been fairly weak or merely average creatures in Limited formats, but this is a deck that really takes advantage of the card. It comes down early and can be the recipient of some sick boosts, but it also is relevant later in the game to protect your important creatures from damage or destroy-based removal like Eviscerates and Fiery Interventions.
White is an interesting color in this set. The creatures in Dominaria are for the most part pretty weak, especially when compared to the spells. White, however, has a lot of creatures and they are all pretty solid. Unlike other colors, though, white doesn't do anything other than play decent creatures up the curve and attack. White is the best creature color, but is very one-dimensional. To have a truly busted white deck, you'll usually need to dip into another color for some powerful splash effects.
One thing about white decks is that they are usually heavy white. Because other colors don't usually offer creatures that are better than what white does, I've found a lot of my white decks are nearly all mono-white creatures and then some removal spells, tricks or shenanigans in a secondary color. I've been performing pretty well with these decks – and I like to draft them – but I think there are some tips to drafting effective white aggro decks and some traps to avoid.
The first tip/trap scenario is to avoid playing bad creatures, even if they fit your curve well. I'd rather only play two or three two-drops than put random weak creatures into my deck, like Benalish Honor Guard without legendaries to pump them or Knight of New Benalia without any way to give them evasion.
The second tip is to value evasion extremely highly. Pegasus Courser has been an extremely impressive card for me. It has gone up a lot in my valuation over the course of playing to the point where I now think it's a pretty integral part of white-based decks. It turns two-drops into relevant threats throughout the game, is great with Call the Cavalry to allow you to punch in for damage without leaving yourself without blockers and can win races with random creatures that pack big punches like Kwende, Pride of Femeref.
Another creature that has overperformed is Serra Disciple. This card goes late and looks really weak, as it is a 1/1 flying creature for two mana. Generally speaking, Suntail Hawk is pretty weak in Limited and that even costs one less. What makes the Disciple so good is that first strike is surprisingly quite relevant, especially if you can equip or pump the Disciple on offense or defense, evasion is at a premium in this format and the flying creature that can smash through board stalls is worthwhile, even if it doesn't peck away that hard.
Cards like Dub were originally high on my pick order, but have gone down a lot. I generally won't play that card in a deck like this because the vulnerability to being two-for-one'd is strong and if you build with evasive creatures you don't actually need it to push through for damage. I do like playing equipment like Short Sword, however, because it stays relevant throughout the game and can turn Sergeant-At-Arms into a relevant threat both as a 2/3 for three and later on kicked to make three creatures. What, just three creatures?
I've gotten obliterated by this deck a few times and have also gone 3-0 with a strong version of the archetype. It's not one I see very often, but when it comes together it seems very good. It operates very similarly to the white decks, taking creatures and then using a splash color to supplement them with removal, tricks or other useful cards.
The idea behind the deck is to use cheap green acceleration like Llanowar Elves and Elfhame Druid to accelerate out Baloth Gorgers and Primordial Wurms to beatdown and then supplement it with red removal spells like Shivan Fire, Fight with Fire, Fiery Intervention and Goblin Barrage.
One of the reasons to go into to this archetype is both red-green legendary creatures. Grand Warlord Radha deals a lot of damage, helps accelerate into big fatties quickly and can be really tough to interact with in combat if you can pair it with tricks like Gift of Growth and Ancient Animus.
Likewise, the theme here is kicker, so Ain't No Hallar Back (Hallar, the Firefletcher) can get big and angry really quickly. Bloodstone Goblin is another card that can shine as a relevant two-drop in this archetype, even though generally speaking a 2/2 for two is pretty weak in the format.
Truth be told, this is a very simplistic archetype. Curve into fat, play removal and tricks and sign the match slip. With that said, one card that I've really liked in this deck and others is Radiant Lightning. It generally goes fairly late but is a great way to finish off bigger creatures in combat as well as clear a path for fat bruisers to punch through 1/1 tokens. While mostly I've seen this card toted as a potential sideboard option, I'm not opposed to main decking one or even two copies because it has proven to be more effective than it looks.
This archetype is like the black-red removal archetype. The main draw to playing this deck is to pair red removal with blue card draw and kill everything. As a subtheme, usually you finish the game off with some minor Wizard synergy.
Most good blue-red decks I've seen are not aggressively slanted, but rather play like control decks. Vodalian Arcanist and Tolarian Scholar both are cheap Wizards that play good early defense and set up for Academy Journeymage to be cheaper and Firefist Adept to can get a great two-for-one later on. These creatures mostly sit back on defense to trade off or hold down the fort, but they can also peck in for some damage whenever possible.
Typically, this deck is content to play for a long game and try to set up for cards like Fight with Fire to end a game or to just grind the opponent completely out of resources and then win with whatever is left over.
Two cards that are way better than they normal are Divination and Weight of Conscience. While card draw in Limited is traditionally decent, recent Limited environments have been sometimes fast enough that you never really have a chance to get them off. That isn't typically the case with Dominaria, where you almost always have time to play your draw spells and they are quite effective at generating an advantage, especially if you also have natural card advantage like Ghitu Chronicler to rebuy powerful removal and draw.
One issue that I've occasionally had with decks like this is that I sometimes run into danger of milling out before I can close the game, and in fact I have lost a few games to this happening. Usually this occurs when my opponent has gained a ton of life from something like Fungal Plots and I've had to try to grind through their engine. Eventually, with enough velocity, blue-red usually can grind them out of resources, but not always before you run out of time to end the game.
For that reason, I like to try to ensure that I have enough ways to close games out. Cloudreader Sphinx is a good, safe bet. It has evasion, a relevant clock and the scry two helps a lot in a deck that goes long and doesn't want to flood or screw. Playing upwards of even three copies of this card can go a long way, and I greatly prefer it over something like Cold-Water Snapper, even if the Turtle plays defense better and seems like it fits more thematically.
While these seem to be the most common archetypes I'm running into, by no means is this exhaustive. Dominaria seems to be a pretty deep format and I'm excited to see where it leads.
At the very least, since I didn't spend much time talking about them, I want to note that so far sagas have been amazing to play with. They are a lot of fun to play with and against, and although I've only had a short time to experience them, I want to go out on a limb with the hot take that I wish they had just made sagas instead of planeswalkers from the get-go. Originally planeswalkers were supposed to function like sagas, but they changed planeswalker design to what we know currently, and it creates some interesting hypotheticals about whether this was the right move in hindsight.
If nothing else, the sagas are mostly all pretty good in Limited, so while some of them might not look that great, they all have some pretty strong applications in the right shells. They might even transition into powerful Constructed options. I'm looking at you, History of Benalia.
- Brian Braun-Duin