Every format has its guidelines.
In Modern, creatures with four toughness are much more durable than ones with three or less due to the prevalence of Lightning Bolt. In Legacy, you need to be careful about what non-basic lands you choose to play or fetch early, lest you be on the wrong side of a Wasteland. These are things we've learned from playing those formats over the years, but Standard moves more quickly.
In Standard, the defining guidelines tend to revolve around the format's most common threats, as well as the format's most common answers.
If your deck couldn't either interact with The Scarab God/Hazoret or go so far over or under them that they didn't matter, you were going to have a bad time. Each card presented a powerful and unique threat that was difficult to answer, ended the game quickly, and required almost no help from other cards to be good. The conundrum with both cards is that they're "must answer" threats, but are also very difficult to answer.
The result of this was easy to see.
Vraska's Contempt, a flexible but very expensive removal spell that's usually worse than the rarely played Utter End, ended up being one of the best cards in the format. This is in large part due to its ability to take down the two best threats in the format at instant speed. When paired with Fatal Push to deal with early creatures, it's not hard to see why black was one of the most popular colors in pre-Dominaria Standard.
The removal in any given format often dictates what types of threats will do well, and while The Scarab God and Hazoret are so powerful that they're worth playing even when Vraska's Contempt is popular, most threats need to be looked at through the lens of how they interact with the format's removal.
Let's take a quick look at pre-Dominaria Standard's important flash points:
Both Walking Ballista and Fanatical Firebrand eat one toughness creatures for breakfast, making them a bit more of a liability than they would normally be. Any one toughness creature will also fare very poorly against any deck making tokens.
The main removal spells that deal two "damage" are Shock and Moment of Craving, and both are less popular than the other options. Still it is something to consider; it's nice that your opponent can't Shock your Kari Zev, Skyship Raider in a Mono-Red mirror.
The most important red early removal spells - Lightning Strike and Abrade - deal three damage for two mana. This means against any red deck, be it aggressive or more controlling, it's going to be difficult to rely too heavily on any creature with three or less toughness. As a result, any creature that costs more than two mana and has three or less toughness may end up putting you down mana in the exchange. This is a good reason to favor something like Contraband Kingpin over Gifted Aetherborn if you're looking for an anti-Mono Red Aggro card in your U/B Control sideboard.
While Shock, Lightning Strike, and Abrade are red's early removal spells, red's bigger guns - Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer - deal their damage with the number four. This makes trying to tap out for any big threat after turn four that only has four or less toughness a huge liability, as the tempo swing from a Glorybringer or Chandra coming down to kill your large threat and still be on the battlefield is backbreaking.
Three+ / Five+ Converted Mana Cost
Fatal Push is one of the best removal spells printed this decade, being fantastic in both the early and mid game as way to deal with fast starts and middle of the road threats for an astoundingly low cost. Threats that cost three or more mana are somewhat resistant, but five or more is the Magic number to completely ignore the best removal spell in the format.
Given their resistance to all but the biggest removal in the format, it's not hard to see why The Scarab God and Hazoret were so ubiquitous.
A Whole New World
However, now that Dominaria is here, everything has changed.
We have a few new removal spells and flash points, as well as a host of new (and old!) threats that are rising to prominence because of how they line up with the answers currently being played. The guidelines are shifting, but they're always a moving target because of the cause and effect from each shift.
I've spoken at great length about Goblin Chainwhirler already, which smashes the hopes and dreams of any creature with one toughness that wants to see play in the format. Looking over the top decks from#SCGATL and #SCGBALT, there are very few one toughness creatures seeing play - this is no accident. Playing a lot of one toughness creatures or trying to go wide with any sort of token strategy is folly as long as Goblin Chainwhirler remains a heavily played card.
The issue is that Goblin Chainwhirler is mainly just a Mono-Red Aggro card and Mono-Red Aggro has a new enemy.
Perhaps one of the biggest breakout cards over the last two weeks has been Lyra Dawnbringer, which is essentially just Baneslayer Angel version 2.0. Anyone who played back when Baneslayer Angel was legal remembers how unbeatable she was against aggressive red decks and not much has changed. However, back then Baneslayer Angel had to contend with Doom Blade, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Terminate, Maelstrom Pulse, Path to Exile, and more. She endured, but it was a rougher road.
A cursory glance at our removal flashpoint list from earlier shows that Lyra has a much easier path to greatness: Five toughness avoids basically all the important red removal in the format, while a converted mana cost of five conveniently dodges Fatal Push. She's even a legend to dodge Cast Down!
As a result, Lyra Dawnbringer is currently one of the premier threats in the format. She still dies to cards like Vraska's Contempt and Cast Out, but at barely any tempo loss. And if she is left unanswered... good luck.
Mono-Red Aggro currently plays almost no good answers to Lyra Dawnbringer, and while there are options like Fight with Fire that could be played, they're narrow and reduce the power level of the deck as a whole. Mono-Red Aggro, one of the most consistent and powerful decks in the format for a while now, stands to be one of the first casualties of Dominaria Standard unless they can find a good answer to Lyra... and fast.
White just gets all the fun new toys!
Move over Dovan Baan, step aside Narset Transcendent - Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is the Azorius planeswalker we've been waiting for since we saw the first multicolored planeswalkers a decade ago. Teferi really does everything a control deck could ever want, and while he is exceptional because of his ability to generate mana and draw cards, what truly pushes him over the edge is how flexible he is when it comes to removing permanents from the battlefield.
If Teferi wants it gone, it's gone. There's no restrictions on power, toughness, mana cost or card type, it's just gone. That's huge because of how often decks try to overload control decks with a variety of difficult to answer permanents. Giving a control deck such a versatile tool is big game.
While a bit overrated in general, people are starting to realize that Karn, Scion of Urza is much more powerful as a token making machine that can occasionally draw cards rather than a typical planeswalker card draw engine.
With all the powerful Kaladesh and Aether Revolt artifacts still available in Standard, we're starting to see a resurgence in cards like Scrapheap Scrounger and Heart of Kiran alongside Karn, as well as some of the usual suspects like Toolcraft Exemplar, Walking Ballista, and Inventor's Apprentice. Karn is even taking things a step further, providing support to wilder things like Construct Tribal and the various improvise cards that never really got there.
Karn is powerfully opening a lot of doors that haven't been opened in a while, and doing so at a low and easy to manage cost. It's also really freaking hard to take the big man down, as five starting loyalty is absurd. If you can't properly pressure a deck that is playing Karn or answer a Karn directly, you're going to struggle in Dominaria Standard.
With the biggest new threats covered, let's turn to what new removal enters the format and where the new guidelines get drawn.
Seal Away gives defensive white decks something they've been lacking for quite a while - a good two mana removal spell. I went as far as playing Aether Meltdown in my U/W Approach deck a while back and that card sucks! Seal Away deals with most early threats, as well as the format's bigger threats like Hazoret and The Scarab God. Doing so at instant speed while also playing amazingly well with Teferi instantly bumps Seal Away up to the highest tier of defensive removal spells in the format.
It's important to note what this does to our removal guidelines, as it adds a new flash point:
Doesn't need to tap to be good
If your creature is never tapped, your opponent can't play Seal Away on it! Brilliant!
This can mean creatures with vigilance, or just creatures that don't need to tap to be effective like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, Walking Ballista, or The Scarab God. Is it any wonder that Heart of Kiran is back in full force? One of the format's best removal spells can't touch it and it plays awesome with the format's fancy new planeswalker.
Sometimes solving a new format is less about finding the great new cards and more about finding the great old cards that became obsolete for reasons that are no longer true.
Speaking of "great old cards," Unlicensed Disintegration is another one poised for a comeback.
Mono-Red Aggro decks don't currently have a good answer to Lyra Dawnbringer, but that doesn't mean they can't branch out a little. Unlicensed Disintegration has proven itself many times in Standard, and now with a specific role to fill it may be time to fire up the disintegrators once again. If you can turn your opponent's Lyra Dawnbringer turn from "oh no I can't win anymore" into "you spent five mana to take three damage and not have a blocker lol, you're dead" that sounds like a win to me.
Unlicensed Disintegration cares nothing for guidelines. If you want it dead, it's pretty much dead - end of story. The cost in playing Unlicensed Disintegration comes in the deckbuilding phase, both in getting artifacts in your deck and being able to reliably cast it.
Ah yes, Patrick Sullivan's favorite Beast Horror.
A lot of fuss was made about Ravenous Chupacabra when it was first printed, but the reality was that the market for "four mana black removal spell" was pretty much monopolized by Vraska's Contempt. Once again, answers for Hazoret and The Scarab God were a necessity, and Ravenous Chupacabra didn't play well against planeswalkers, Glorybringer, or Rekindling Phoenix.
But you know what card Ravenous Chupacabra does play well against? I'll give you a hint... It starts with "L" and ends with "Dawnbringer."
- 3 Verdurous Gearhulk
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 3 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 1 Thrashing Brontodon
- 4 Winding Constrictor
- 2 Rishkar, Peema Renegade
They're Coming For You
Every format has its guidelines, but if you try to circumvent the rules to be skewed in your favor don't be surprised when other players do the same.
If everyone is playing Lightning Strike and Fatal Push as their removal spells of choice, Lyra Dawnbringer looks awfully appealing. However, what happens when everyone goes back to playing Ravenous Chupacabra and Unlicensed Disintegration? If you try to go back to playing Skymarcher Aspirant or Bomat Courier, then Goblin Chainwhirler may rear its ugly head again. No matter what you do, they're always coming for you.
We're in the infancy of Dominaria Standard and were going to do this song and dance for the next few weeks while we figure out where the format stands. If you want to win, it's your job to be on the right side of these exchanges. Identify which cards are good, identify how they fit into the format, and then pick the ones that people aren't prepared to answer.
It sounds so easy!