Well, I was close, but off by one place…
Turns out God-Pharaoh's Gift was only good enough to place three people in the top 8 of Grand Prix Seattle last weekend, with Gan Yan and Mono-Red Aggro slicing through the combo decks like a hot knife through butter. I'll chalk it up as a partial victory, even though I was personally stuck with a middle-of-the-pack 11-4 finish. The deck performed admirably, and it made up a massive percentage of the top of the field relative to its starting metagame penetration, but Mono-Red can be a tough nut to crack.
The larger lesson, though, is that God-Pharaoh's Gift is incredibly powerful in concert with a number of potent creatures in the format, and a low-curve aggressive deck with a combo top-end and the inability to flood due to amazing card selection and mana sinks is always going to toe the line between "good" and "busted." Of course, this bodes well for brewing with Dominaria, as Llanowar Elves is, as we discussed briefly last week, basically everything Gate to the Afterlife ever wanted. Sultai Energy Gift, R/G Gift, Bant Gift, and/or Temur Gift are going to be insanely powerful going forward, and I expect Pro Tour Dominaria to be dominated by those decks, Karn-du Vehicles, and Ol' Reliable: Mono-Red.
Since last week's article gave some shells for Temur and Sultai Gift, I want to take a very brief look this week at Bant Gift, which benefits from lots of semi-mirror hate cards while giving up the card advantage and velocity that comes with Bomat Courier or Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. Add it to your mental repository of Gift variants that you can play should the metagame get really weird.
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Angel of Invention
- 4 Champion of Wits
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Minister of Inquiries
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 3 Thrashing Brontodon
- 3 Trophy Mage
- 2 Vizier of Many Faces
Gate to the Afterlife, much like Birthing Pod, benefits every time powerful cheap creatures are added to the format. The difference is that while Birthing Pod synergized magnificently with persist creatures and those with enters-the-battlefield triggers, Gate synergizes with cheap, battlefield-filling creatures, especially those with sacrifice abilities. Walking Ballista, Bomat Courier, and Fanatical Firebrand all push Gate to the limit, functioning as reasonable creatures when combined with Warkite Marauder that also quickly flip the Gate into God-Pharaoh's Gift at will. This is not to say that God-Pharaoh's Gift decks with potent creatures with immediate effects, like Glorybringer or Hostage Taker, aren't also strong, just that there is special synergy with these sacrificial lambs. For example, expect Thrashing Brontodon in green Gift decks to become absolutely bananas after Dominaria, as the main-deckable source of semi-mirror hate is well worth the space now that there's a compelling reason to play green.
Clearly, with Llanowar Elves and Karn, Scion of Urza easily taking up the #1 and #2 spots on any serious "Top Ten of Dominaria" list, the next question is obvious. What comes after these format movers and shakers? The next place to look is Modern.
Damping Sphere is the most powerful sideboard card Modern has seen in a long, long time. It's better than Rest in Peace. Better than Stony Silence. The fact that this hate piece crosses two major format boogeymen off the list while going easily in any sideboard means that Modern is about to change in a big way. Fair decks are getting better with every multifaceted answer and hate piece printed, as they multiply virtual sideboard slots by taking the place of two or more cards previously needed. You'll see U/W/x sideboards with a handful of Damping Spheres, Stony Silences, and Rest in Peaces that can then devote their other six or seven slots to a few removal spells and counterspells and attempt to cover all their bases. Grixis decks now no longer need to play Fulminator Mage or Spreading Seas + Field of Ruin to ensure a reasonable matchup against Tron.
Biggest winners? Jund, Grixis, U/W, Affinity, Hollow One, Scapeshift, and Lantern. Biggest losers? Storm (duh), Tron (duh), Spreading Seas, and Fulminator Mage. It will be interesting to watch the format move around those new pressures created by ubiquitous hate for two of the most powerful poles of the format.
Obviously the high-impact list for Modern drops off sharply after that doozy, but there are still powerful cards that demand attention. Mox Amber, of course, offers enough incentive to build around it that many will likely try to make it work in a Baral, Chief of Compliance deck or Wizard tribal deck. Goblin Warchief and Skirk Prospector are bringing the band back together to see if a turbo-Goblins deck is possible. Just give them Goblin Ringleader and we'll be off to the races, I tell ya! Speaking of Goblins, Squee, the Immortal offers bold new opportunities for Serum Powder or Skred Red decks of all stripes, and I shudder at the thought of being killed bit by bit with a Squee while I'm locked out under Blood Moon.
On a more serious note, Goblin Chainwhirler is the actual best Goblin in the set for purposes of contemporary competitive play (sorry, Warchief). In case you missed the first few paragraphs of glowing praise for Gate to the Afterlife decks, well, they're here and they look like they'll be very powerful going forward. Chainwhirler is powerful enough to make me question why R&D saw fit to ban Rampaging Ferocidon if they were immediately going to print a similarly potent card for bashing tokens decks and God-Pharaoh's Gift decks. This card is out there killing opposing Llanowar Elves, Glint-Sleeve Siphoners, Champions of Wits, small Walking Ballistas, Combat Celebrants, Bomat Couriers, Fanatical Firebrands, and (of course) the Vampire and/or Servo tokens in any good W/x token deck. At a certain point, it almost seems unfair that this card hit the printing presses at all. After Llanowar Elves, Karn, and Damping Sphere, Chainwhirler is the next obvious powerhouse in Dominaria.
Then there are a few neat homages that could influence Modern or Standard depending on what co-stars they find to work with. Unwind is halfway between Negate and Rewind, with excellent applications for flash-based Wizards decks in Standard and Modern. Divest makes Ostracize blush (as if Despise didn't already embarrass the Urza's Saga black sheep enough). Zhalfirin Void offers incredible card selection to decks like Eldrazi Tron and Colorless Eldrazi while paying homage to the cycle of Temples from Theros.
Few of these cards, however, stand much of a chance of reaching the winner's circle of top cards in Dominaria. One of the long shots that could truly mess up the Standard metagame is an innocuous 3/3 flash creature with a wacky ability, one that combines with an even wackier instant from Kaladesh to draw your entire deck.
Here's how it works. Let's say that you're playing a strange U/W/R Flash Wizards deck in Standard. You've got some countermagic, maybe some Siren Stormtamer, Sunscourge Champion, Merfolk Trickster, maybe Nimble Obstructionist (gotta hate on those Gate activations!) and hopefully a crew of solid one- and two-mana creatures that we've yet to see from Dominaria. Your opponent, on their turn, does something awfully foolish. They tap out for a Glorybringer, sending in their team and exerting their Dragon to try to finish the game.
Time to draw your deck.
You cast Acrobatic Maneuver targeting any random creature, then hold priority and cast Naru Meha, Master Wizard. You copy Acrobatic Maneuver. You target Naru Meha with the copy. Naru Meha leaves, then re-enters the battlefield. You draw a card. Naru Meha re-triggers upon re-entering the battlefield, and copies the original Acrobatic Maneuver, still conveniently located on the stack. It's time to loop and draw as many cards as we want! In this case, it should be about twenty. For style points, you untap and show them a Fateful Showdown, doming them for twenty while drawing just enough cards to not deck yourself. You smile a big toothy grin as you chuckle. Your opponent sees that they have lost. They leave the tournament hall in shame, cursing themselves for losing to what they see as a "meme deck."
Okay, so it's not actually busting any doors down, this seven-mana combo that requires you to build your deck with Fateful Showdown and three colors. Even a two-color version dedicated to this combo isn't likely to take home Pro Tour Dominaria's trophy (although we can all hope…) What we can see is that, provided there is enough flashy support for Wizards as a tribe, there's an unappreciated angle of attack that should not go unnoticed in whatever Wizards deck does end up coming out of Dominaria. And we all know that surprise angles of attack are what often turn flash decks from reject to first-pick in a matter of days.
Back in the world of the Magic realist, there are a few clear staples that will undoubtedly make an impact on Standard, and they are the serious choices to round out Dominaria's Top Ten Greatest Hits. #1-4 are, to reiterate, Llanowar Elves, Karn, Scion of Urza, Damping Sphere, and Goblin Chainwhirler. Next are the Innistrad enemy-color dual lands, which Owen Turtenwald has written about in an enlightening piece with more detail than I could have properly included. Suffice it to say, the mana makes the man, and Owen wouldn't be the Hall of Famer he is today without knowing his way around the factors that make or break a manabase.
#6 must go to Cast Down. Hero's Demise's evil twin, Cast Down is worse in this Standard than it would otherwise be, due to the presence of several potent legendary creatures at the top of the power curve. However, in Modern, Cast Down kills almost everything you could want, making it the removal spell of choice for decks that were dipping as low as Go for the Throat to get a pseudo-Terminate. Gurmag Angler, Death's Shadow, Mantis Rider, Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Steel Overseer, the list goes on and on and on. Aside from Thalia, Guardian of Thraben; Baral, Chief of Compliance; and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Cast Down kills most everything a Modern player could want. It's going to be a nice pickup when you're in the market for that effect without splashing Red.
#7 on the list of most impactful cards in the set is Yawgmoth's Vile Offering, which offers insane card advantage and tempo advantage in one package. If you can, try to live the dream of a turn-2 Baral followed by a Mox Amber, followed by a cheap counterspell to loot away a Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh, followed by a turn-3 Yawgmoth's Vile Offering to reanimate the most powerful Planeswalker ever and shatter your opponent's hopes and dreams. Talk about value!
#8 on the list is the card that is most likely to enable the busted opening for Yawgmoth's Vile Offering, a flexible counterspell that Standard definitely needed: Syncopate. Essence Scatter and Negate are adequate, but Syncopate is flexible and provides some incidental graveyard hate, which is useful in an age where the dead seem to be getting reanimated as mummies more and more often.
#9 is where we get silly again. Paradox Engine needed a new friend, and Gilded Lotus is just the artifact for the job. I'm no artificer, but Foundry Inspector seems to be lonely, and Powerstone Shards and Gilded Lotuses are just itching to be turned into an infinite mana combo. I'll leave the details to the interns.
And then we get to #10, History of Benalia. Sometimes you have to channel your inner Craig Wescoe and fall in love with Mono-White Aggro once in a while. Print me a Knight with protection from red or even hexproof from red, Wizards! I would be thrilled to play a Wescoe deck at the Pro Tour, and there are just enough pieces in Dominaria to tempt me with the possibility.
Look. I'm generally a skeptic when it comes to new cards. I looked at Ixalan and thought the print sheet had been mixed up with a new casual Commander product. Ditto when Rivals of Ixalan came around. We've been getting rocked by Amonkhet and Kaladesh bombs for so long now, it began to feel like nothing would change in Standard until rotation in October. Take it from a skeptic: Dominaria will shake things up. Let's just hope all that shaking leaves us with a dynamic Standard format, preferably one where I can reanimate a bunch of angry Combat Celebrants on the fourth turn.