We're right in the middle of Dominaria preview season, and as awesome as these new cards are, this time period's still frustrating. Nothing personal, Dominaria, please don't get offended. I feel this way with every set's previews. If that feeling is heightened this time around, it's only because your cards are so amazing that I just can't wait to play with them.
Alright, did Dominaria stop listening yet? The problem with preview seasons is that they raise Magic excitement to a fever pitch while also greatly lowering the efficiency of time spent on competitive Magic. I want nothing more than to figure out all these cool new cards, to start working on understanding the shape of Dominaria Standard. I just don't have quite enough information to do that yet.
For one thing, there's Dominaria cards out there we haven't even seen yet. Decks don't exist in a vacuum; they are consequences of their environment and without knowing the entire environment it's very difficult to predict the strength of a deck. For another, comprehending everything about a Magic card without playing games with it is quite difficult, and building a tuned list with new cards you haven't played with is completely impossible.
In any case, my solution to this problem is to dive deep into how individual cards will play out if they end up seeing action during the upcoming Standard format. I try to focus less on interactions with specific cards and more on play patterns and interactions with classes of cards: how the opponent can use their removal to stop this, what timing windows become critically important, things like that. This emphasis keeps my analysis relevant when new cards get previewed and even as cards enter and leave the Standard format with future set releases. This method isn't a fool-proof way to get ahead during preview season, but it's the best I've found and I've had success with it.
Tempo Jams with Shalai, Voice of Plenty
But enough blathering about the rationale behind this approach. Let's dive into some Magic cards.
The interesting thing with Shalai, Voice of Plenty is the generous gift of hexproof to the rest of your team. There's plenty of power on the rest of the card, but it's not particularly difficult to evaluate. The body of Restoration Angel has always been impressive, after all, and Shalai has the same mana cost.
So, let's hone in on that hexproof clause. Best case scenario, Shalai functions as an angelic shield for our awesome synergies. I look at Shalai and I dream of controlling an unkillable Winding Constrictor while having the mana to activate Shalai's six-mana ability, which obviously synergizes with my Snake. Value.
Activating that six-mana ability is a dream-world though, as Shalai is a lightning rod for removal. After all, your opponent can't do anything at all whatsoever with their removal spells besides kill Shalai once she's on the battlefield, so expecting her to stick around is quite greedy. She is, by her very nature, a temporary road block for our opponent. What we need to figure out is how to maximize the size of that road block.
But let's back up a second. What are we intending on protecting with our Shalai? Again, I'm not interested in knowing the exact details here, just the general idea. My gut says that using Shalai to protect fragile combos is not a good idea in Standard. We can't assemble our combo before Shalai comes down, as that gives our opponent the chance to disrupt one of the pieces before our shields are up. Nor can we expect to have time to deploy and make use of our combo pieces in the brief window between casting our lightning-rod and it catching some lightning.
No, the combos we're looking to protect are between individual cards and time.
It's not often you get to untap a Glorybringer that you've already exerted once, and when you do you often get to win the game. Can we utilize Shalai, Voice of Plenty to make that happen more often? Probably not reliably, but we can use her to ensure we get that first exerted swing in and solidly put our opponent on the back foot.
Here's the thing: Shalai is a tempo nightmare for our opponent if we jam her when they are tapped out. There's a lot of threat of activation style dynamics at play here. We have Shalai and nothing else worth worrying about, but out opponent must be concerned with our potential future plays. What if they ignore Shalai and we cast an untouchable copy of The Scarab God or Glorybringer? They will need to cast two removal spells to handle that problem, but by then the damage will already be done.
So, let's assume that our opponent is essentially forced to deal with our Shalai on sight. This means that we get to constrict their mana on a turn of our choosing. That can be a powerful tool in our arsenal. What if we have a bunch of efficient creatures and removal in our Shalai deck and are excellent at getting ahead early? Then our Shalai becomes a four mana Time Walk, and we get another turn of attacking with our team while also clearing the way for our Hazoret the Fervent or Glorybringer. That sounds pretty good.
So, in the end, it looks like I'm advocating for simply playing Shalai in a classic aggressively slanted midrange deck. To be honest, that makes sense to me. The card may look like a synergy protector, but it's going to play out like a strong tempo card.
Except when it doesn't. The other thing Shalai does is put your opponent to the test and potentially snowball the game out of control. You want to know what happens when you jam Shalai, they don't kill her, and you follow up with a powerful, game-ending threat?
The game ends.
For the record, that aside earlier about Shalai protecting Winding Constrictor was purely a hypothetical. I do not expect those two to be good together.
But I've been wrong before.
Seal Away Stars in the Cheap, Conditional Removal Show
Standard formats are shaped by their removal. I've made this point before, but it's no accident that every Standard format since the printing of Aether Revolt has revolved around five-drops. The very existence of Fatal Push pushed five-drops to the top of the heap.
I missed that consequence of Fatal Push during the Aether Revolt preview season, and I'm still a little upset about it. Had I realized what Fatal Push would do to the Aether Revolt Standard format, I would have started playing more five-drops earlier and gained a sizable edge on the field in the weeks before this became common knowledge. What's done is done, but I never want to make that mistake again.
As such, let's look at the new removal spells entering the fray.
Of the cards previewed thus far, Seal Away and Cast Down are far and away the best spot removal spells. Notably, they are highly conditional removal spells that are very efficient at doing what they do. They join Fatal Push in that role, and I expect both to see a great deal of play throughout their time in Standard.
The starting point in evaluating conditional removal spells should always be their restriction. On that note, there's bad news: Cast Down's restriction isn't terribly interesting. How much play it receives will depend greatly depend on the shape of the Standard format, the density of legendary creatures seeing play, and the importance of the common non-legendary creatures in the format. We'll figure those things out soon enough, but for now, Cast Down is somewhat of an unknown quantity. One thing we can say is that the card merely existing will push the format towards legendary creatures to some extent, just as Fatal Push pushed the format towards five-drops. I don't expect the Cast Down effect to be nearly as strong, however.
Seal Away's restriction is a lot more interesting to me. It poses an interesting dilemma: can our opponents abuse the counter play option the restriction offers to make our Seal Away significantly worse than its printed text would indicate?
The potential counter play when facing down Seal Away is simply not attacking with your creature and instead leaving it untapped when staring down open Seal Away mana. This forces the Seal Away player to either waste two mana or use their Seal Away on a lower priority target. We've seen this dynamic before.
On balance, I hate this restriction. It takes a lot before you see me casting a Divine Verdict in my Limited deck. I just can't stand giving my opponent that strong an opportunity to read me like a book and waste my mana while keeping theirs gainfully employed.
The comparison with Bright Reprisal / Divine Verdict kind of works, but Seal Away is much better than either of those cards. For starters, it only costs two mana. Constructed operates on smaller margins than Limited a lot of the time, but the waste of two mana in Constructed is still a smaller deal than the waste of four or five in Limited. Even more importantly, you can Seal Away a creature that attacked you even if you don't have the mana up when the attack is declared. In games where mana is going to be tight you can merely tap out, take a hit from the creature you care about, and then use Seal Away on it during your main phase.
So, the Seal Away restriction is minor when dealing with creatures you don't want to attack you. They can maybe jam your mana up a little and/or get one good hit in, but you will be able to deal with the threat. Things get a lot dicier when you need to deal with a creature for reasons other than combat.
Seal Away will never deal with a copy of The Scarab God when you need it to. There's plenty of legends in Dominaria that accrue value over time, and Seal Away won't reliably deal with any of them. It's exceptionally good at blunting an offense, and rather bad at dealing with value creatures. Even against offensive creatures, you're really hoping they don't have vigilance, and desperately hoping they don't control and refuse to attack with a Shalai, Voice of Plenty.
Right now, there's a strong message being sent to Standard players: if you want to kill something of your choosing at a time of your choosing, you're going to have to spend four mana.
The unconditional removal spells of this Standard format all cost four mana, and thus far Dominaria doesn't look like it's going to change that. What does that mean for the format as a whole?
On the Importance of a Stable Dominaria
This last bit is a departure from my general philosophy on approaching preview season. I have some thoughts on how the format looks like it's going to shape up, but these thoughts are untested and could easily be invalidated by something as simple as the reprinting of Hero's Downfall. Take them as you will.
Dominaria is a set with a lot of cool legendary permanents, and given the whole removal situation, it looks like those cool legendary permanents are going to get to stick around on the battlefield often. That's a very good thing from the perspective of the legends.
There's a lot of legendary creatures out there that really like sticking around on the battlefield. They do cool incidental value things and the longer they stay on the battlefield the more effective they are. I mean, that's true for every card, but especially true for a lot of legends. The new removal looks set up to help make that a reality.
A reality that might mean a lot to a certain class of new Dominaria cards:
There's been several historic Standard formats in which I don't think a legendary sorcery would have been remotely playable, for the simple reason that keeping a legend on the battlefield would have been far too much of an ask. I don't think Dominaria Standard is going to be one of them.
These legendary sorceries need a certain level of redundancy to be playable in your deck. A single legend, even if you're playing four copies of it, is unlikely to be enough. In a format chock full of cheap removal spells that can handle the legendary permanents, even nine or ten legends might not be enough. Dominaria Standard looks like it will offer both plenty of legends and an environment in which those legends can expect to stick around for a time, and I think the legendary sorceries will be more playable than many fear.
The main take-away I'm getting from the removal in Standard is that you can plan for some of your build around creatures to stick. Not all of them, and maybe not for as long as you'd like, but long enough to get some value out of them and pull ahead in the game. It'd be a shame if all the sweet Dominaria legends were unplayable, and I don't think that's going to be the case.
All in all, I'm excited about how Dominaria Standard is looking. The unconditional removal is expensive, and that means it'll have to be used sparingly. The conditional removal is very good at beating aggressive decks, allowing the format to develop synergy-laden midrange decks that don't need to devote all their energy to surviving and can instead do sweet things, things that look like they might be able to overpower the current oppressive The Scarab God endgame, though time will have to tell. The interaction to stop unfair things does exist, but its high mana cost means tempo plays will punish people who depend on it.
A battleship format where tempo is queen and you have the tools to survive long enough to play the game you want to play? There's a lot of Dominaria left to see and tons of it to be explored, but that sure sounds like Magic I want to play.