Commanding Dominaria, Part II

Last time  I began a set review of Dominaria for Commander. Part I covered the Planeswalkers, artefacts, and lands of the set, whilst today we will be looking at the instants and sorceries, enchantments and the plethora of legendary creatures it offers us. As before I’ll only be commentating on the cards that I think are relevant to the Commander format, with the obvious caveat that what’s “relevant” will vary according to your local metagame.

At the same time, the purpose of this column is also to help people get a little better at my favourite format. One of the most basic ways in which to do that is to help you better understand the broad purpose of the different card types, in both deck construction and play. So as we go through the remainder of the set- and what a set it is!- I’m going to continue my explanation of the various roles these cards might fulfil, so you’ll hopefully know not just whether you want a card for a specific deck but also why.

Alert readers of the Card Image Gallery will have noticed I missed a couple of cards from Part I. This will now be rectified! Cabal Stronghold is not Cabal Coffers, but it’s still an auto-include in any Mono-Black EDH deck and is notably better than Coffers in the early game since it taps for mana. Thran Temporal Gateway is another great toy for artefact and planeswalker-based decks, and I am positively itching to drop Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh ASAP. Finally, the Dragonzord, ah, “dragon engine” Traxos, Scourge of Kroog is an intriguing “Voltron” commander and offers the Breyas, Darettis, and Jhoiras of the world a trampling behemoth with a trivial drawback.

Now for that most varied and vexatious of card types- Enchantments. Much like artefacts, their most common roles in Commander can be neatly divided into the “Voltron” and “Not-Voltron” categories. Their use in the former strategy should be obvious: Magic is full of enchantments that grant your general additional power and evasion, from the humble Rancor and Goblin War Drums to the lethal Eldrazi Conscription. In their second role, they fill a similar niche to utility artefacts and planeswalkers by providing consistent value and card advantage over time. Indeed, there are very few problems in the format that cannot be solved by application of the correct enchantment. Phyrexian Arena provides straightforward card draw, whilst an Aura Shards or Karmic Justice will (repeatedly) handle noncreature permanents and the indiscriminate shutting down of graveyard shenanigans is only a Rest in Peace away.

On Dominaria, the enchantment primarily take the form of Sagas, a new subtype which function like a hybrid of Sorceries and “ordinary” enchantments. Unlike their normal (non-Aura) brethren, Sagas have an immediate effect upon entering play, but their effects are temporary and more varied: a Saga will usually end after two turns, whilst a regular enchantment would provide the same effect until it is dealt with. How much of a problem this is depends on your battle plan- in certain cases like Starfield of Nyx or Replenish, it might even be an advantage- but there are certain Sagas which I think will perform just fine without having to resort to any such tomfoolery…

Fall of the Thran is that rarest of things, an Armageddon that keeps the ramp players in check without ruining everyone’s fun in the process. The Mirari Conjecture would pay for itself with the first two abilities alone, and I fully expect to see someone die when the Twincasting starts. Black tells the best stories: Phyrexian Scriptures is a powerful albeit slow take on an exiling board wipe, and The Eldest Reborn combines both a removal spell and the best threat in your opponent’s graveyards. Even Rite of Belzenlok provides a hefty amount of sacrifice fodder at a reasonably cheap cost, something any Grave Pact deck can’t get enough of. Lastly I’ve a soft spot anything that does a reasonable impression of Cryptolith Rite, so I’ll listen to a Song of Freyalise all day long.

But what if you’re suspicious of these newfangled storybook cards? Such purists will have to be satisfied with Curator’s Ward for Commander protection and card draw in one, a terrifying value engine for “Superfriends” decks in Oath of Teferi, and the wonderful weirdness of Lich’s Mastery…anywhere you can, really. I know it’s probably not objectively playable unless you plan to make a Harmless Offering, but this falls into the category of cards too cool for me to care about “objective playability.”

But enough talk about permanents. Tell me about proper spells, I hear you shout! Instants and Sorceries! Magic as Garfield intended!

Very well. But first a question: when, and why, would you opt for an instant or sorcery over a permanent that could do the same thing? The most basic answer is that spells are fast. Most creatures need a turn before they can attack, and enchantments and artefacts often need to sit in play for several rounds to make a proper impact, but spells will do their thing lickety-split. Since in Commander there are usually several turns between you and your next untap step, this difference becomes more pronounced. Reacting to plays as they happen becomes more important. For this reason many players prefer to fill their decks with instants and flash creatures like Dominaria’s amazing Merfolk Trickster to give themselves maximum control. In a world where creatures die to almost anything, mana rocks and enchantments are often collateral damage to board wipes and planeswalkers can be taken down with a couple of decent creature attacks, it’s very tempting to get your card draw and removal in a cheaper and often more dependable way.

But what instants gain in speed and reliability, they generally sacrifice in terms of raw power and flexibility in their effects. With certain rare exceptions (I’m looking at you, Cyclonic Rift), the strongest and most unusual “spell” effects almost always take the form of Sorceries. Nearly all the premier sweepers across the colours are found here, from Blasphemous Act to Austere Command and Decree of Pain, as are most noncreature ramp spells, tutors and “finishers” like Rite of Replication or Rise of the Dark Realms. Very few instants or permanents of any sort offer this kind of immediate power, and going too deep on it is one of the basic mistakes a rookie EDH player can make. When to play Sorceries, therefore, is normally simple: when you want an effect so strong it can only be found on Sorceries.

Dominaria delivers in this last area in the form of the “Legendary Sorceries.” Castable only if you control a legendary creature or planeswalker- a non-trivial drawback, but one that can be mitigated- this cycle ranges from the sublime to the mediocre. To begin with the best, Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering is an excellent reanimation spell stapled onto unconditional removal, and Primevals’ Glorious Rebirth is yet another busted win condition for Superfriends builds and other legendary-themed decks of all varieties. Urza’s Ruinous Blast provides exiling removal for an impressively wide variety of threats, but has an additional downside- since it won’t touch your opponents’ commanders or other legends, you might find yourself in a position where you can deal with everything except the thing you really need to. Those belonging to the “I want to kill players, not permanents” school of thought should adore Jaya’s Immolating Inferno, which solves the problem of how to burn out three opponents by naturally scaling itself to melt multiple targets.

Alas, not all of these hit the mark. Once you factor in the casting restriction Karn’s Temporal Sundering is simply inferior to most of the extra turn spells we already have, and Kamahl’s Druidic Vow struggles as both an expensive ramp spell (a la Boundless Realms) and a “dump my library on the table” finisher, where it’s simply inferior to Genesis Wave and/or Primal Surge. Unless you’re going truly deep on either kind of effect, I advise passing on both of these.

Dominaria also has a good number of low-key instants and sorceries that won’t get much hype, but which I still expect to see play. We get our first “free” counterspell in a long time in Unwind, which will undoubtedly be snapped up by control decks wanting to play the entire game at flash speed. Blessed Light fills a specific niche by providing a reliable answer to Gods of all varieties (surprisingly hard to find outside of Orzhov decks), and Adamant Will is basically the white Blossoming Defense, a card I’ve been surprisingly impressed with. There are certainly cheaper tutors available than Final Parting, but being able to “search” for both your reanimation spell and reanimation target- or both Time Warp and Past in Flames, if you prefer- is surprisingly powerful. Broken Bond is a fun Explore variant that offers a Naturalize over a cantrip, and Sylvan Awakening is the latest in a long line of win conditions for decks that enjoy ramp spells and Mana Reflections more than is physically healthy.

Now for the truly delicious part of the set. Dominaria features over 40(!) legendary creatures, and to talk about all of them individually would require a third article. Thus, I’ll mainly be discussing the ones that seem most promising (or frustrating) to me in terms of their impact of the format as a whole, as well as a few cards I’m itching to get my hands on personally. I apologise to those whose favourites have been omitted- I intend it as no slight.

Let’s get this one out of the way right now: Muldrotha, the Gravetide is completely ridiculous. One of the most open-ended Commanders printed since Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice, Muldrotha is in arguably the best tri-colour combination in the format, allows you to go as deep or as broad as you want in the mixing and matching of permanent types, and combines beautifully with a pile of cards you’re probably already playing. Even if you’re not really trying to “break” this card, you’ll likely end up with a very powerful deck just by doing the first things that come to mind, and that’s what makes Muldrotha so dangerous. Don’t skimp on the graveyard hate in the coming weeks, because you’re absolutely going to need it.

Have you always hated Commander’s colour identity rules? Have you ever just wanted to play everything, without having to really worry about the mana costs? Jodah, Archmage Eternal is the immortal for you! Play him alongside your preferred curve-toppers of choice- I suggest Kozilek, the Great Distortion, Maelstrom Wanderer or Army of the Damned– and enjoy powering them out as early as possible. Your opponents will not thank you.

For too long there has been an Artificer-shaped hole in our Izzet commander options. No longer! Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain isn’t very flashy, but a Vedalken Archmage that lives in your command zone and supports every artefact strategy from Eggs to Storm isn’t something to sniff at. As a rule I like commanders that have multiple viable build paths, and Jhoira absolutely fits that description.

Shalai, Voice of Plenty is an interesting one. Very reminiscent of Sigarda, Heron’s Grace, Shalai trades the ability to produce token fodder for a strictly better protection ability and a Gavony Township-like pump effect. As well as sliding straight into any deck that seeks to make a lot of creatures, Shalai is also a fearsome rock to rest your Commander hopes upon. Give her a Darksteel Plate or Bastion Protector, mix in a White Sun’s Zenith and your position will quickly become unassailable.

The Jund shard has no shortage of humongous dragons already. But for those unsatisfied with Prossh’s generic power, Wasitora’s adorableness (Cat Dragon!) and the tribal demands of Karrthus, Darigaaz Reincarnated is an alarmingly fast clock with a phoenix-like method of protection. Sleeve up your sacrifice outlets to dodge the exile removal that will be coming your way, and go to work on your opponents’ life totals.

I confess a secret: I love a mono-black deck. I am most comfortable with a pile of Swamps in front of me and a Corrupt or Mutilate in my hand. It should therefore come as no surprise that I adore both Josu Vess, Lich Knight and Torgaar, Famine Incarnate. Either one is solid in the 99 but excels once built around. Josu demands a typical “big-mana black” deck, since you’ll want to be casting him with Kicker as fast and often as possible. With a total of 20 power across nine bodies with Menace, Josu will normally require a sweeper to stop him once he hits play…and those are often in short supply. Torgarr asks for a resource of a different kind: all you must do to continually halve your enemies’ life totals is feed him creatures, something this colour has no difficulty with. Throw in Erebos, God of the Dead to stop lifegain, and enjoy the wailing and gnashing of teeth that follows.

My personal favourite takes me out of my comfort zone. No Gruul mage am I, but Grand Warlord Radha is here to behead foes and win games and who am I to refuse her? Aggravated Assault provides you with infinite combat steps, but anything involving a lot of creatures and mana will work nicely. Personally, I’m in the market for a big pile of tokens and a lethal Clan Defiance, Comet Storm or Immolating Inferno

Dominaria also contains a mild tribal theme, one mercifully not as substantial as in Ixalan block. Unfortunately, several of these new legends fall afoul of what I call the Edgar Markov problem: more broadly powerful options, in superior colour combinations, already exist for these tribes, and this invalidates a lot of genuinely solid cards. Adeliz, the Cinder Wind is a good example of this- a fine option in Wizard decks, to be sure, but would you seriously consider her as a Commander when Inalla, Archmage Ritualist exists? Would you think twice about Marwyn, the Nurturer replacing Ezuri or Selvala or Rhys the Redeemed? I’m not sure I would.

Happily, not every tribe has the Edgar Problem. Knights get a pair of nice options in Arvad the Cursed and Aryel, Knight of Windgrace. Aryel in particular is the best kind of tribal commander, one who rewards you for playing lots of a given tribe by offering more than a mere boost in stats. Not merely a force in Limited, the Saprolings will soon be infesting a table near you under the command of Slimefoot, the Stowaway. And with Lyra Dawnbringer Angel decks finally get a lord with relevant rules text, one particularly nice in angelic Kaalia variants.

Then there are the legends which are not designed to lead a Commander deck, but do sterling work in the 99 of an already-existing strategy. Dominaria is swimming in legends of this type, from Baird, Steward of Argive for Pillowfort decks to Naru Meha, Master Wizard and Naban, Dean of Iteration for your Wizard builds. Voltron strategies should consider both Danitha Capashen, Paragon and Tiana, Ship’s Caretaker, and I direct those in favour of raising the dead to Whisper, Blood Liturgist. Almost any heavy ramp build or “lands matter” deck should probably find room for Multani, Yavimaya’s Avatar and/or Tatyova, Benthic Druid. Even what I call “expensive sea creature tribal” is thrown a bone with Slinn Voda, the Rising Deep. Break out those Whelming Waves!

The remaining cards I want to touch on span a wide array of colour combinations and effects. Firesong and Sunspeaker are for some inexplicable reason not actually in the set itself, but finally provide a viable option for Boros players who have grown tired of the combat step. Raff Capashen, Ship’s Mage is a great Shimmer Myr who also allows control decks to avoid tapping down on their own turn to deploy expensive planeswalkers like Tamiyo, Teferi, or the various Jaces. Evra, Halcyon Witness is a cheap shot, but it’s an all-star in Trostani and Brion Stoutarm decks and will mesh well with any type of Fling effect. As for Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle, the birdman bridges an odd gap between historic spells and smaller utility creatures. I’m not exactly sure what sort of deck would have an interest in both those effects- perhaps some sort of White Weenie build that runs a lot of equipment and/or planeswalkers? Teshar also enables some sweet infinite combos if you prefer that sort of thing, but infinite combos generally aren’t my cup of tea.

Whew! That’s about everything. If you’re still with me, I thank you for making it this far. Next time we’ll finally put all this theory into practice as we dive into the art of deckbuilding in Commander, starting with one of Dominaria’s more brutal legendary creatures…

Until then, may you always be the one in command!

 

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