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Six Lessons to Take Away From Dominaria United Standard

Wondering what the best in the world has learned from this new Standard? Find out the most important lessons PVDDR took away from this format from play/draw disparities to how to approach card evaluations moving forward in this FREE Premium article!

Last weekend’s World Championship saw the culmination of this Standard format, and it was certainly a weird one – utterly and completely dominated by midrange decks of various forms and color combinations. There was a lot of variation between builds – you could play versus two Grixis, Esper, or Jund decks back-to-back and have totally different experiences because they differ by 15 cards – but every deck was basically trying to do the same thing with different tools.

Soon, The Brothers’ War will be upon us, and the format is certain to change at least a little bit – though perhaps not a lot, since there is only a new set coming in and nothing rotating out. I would still expect midrange to be the most played archetype all-around, and I think we can learn many lessons from this previous format and apply them to our next format.

So, here are six lessons I learned by playing this format that I think can be applied moving forward:

  1. Pay particular attention to Play or Draw, the way you play and sideboard in this format is very nuanced
  2. You should be mulliganing less than normal
  3. 26 is the new 24
  4. Legends are here to stay
  5. The mana dictates what can be played
  6. We need to readjust our card evaluation process

#1. Pay particular attention to Play or Draw, the way you play and sideboard in this format is very nuanced

Tenacious Underdog Art by Zara Alfonso
Tenacious Underdog Art by Zara Alfonso

This format is very play/draw dependent, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue to be this way once The Brother’s War is released. In fact, The Meathook Massacre ban made it even more so, because that was one of the best cards for breaking serve in the entire format.

That said, there are some things you can do to mitigate the impact of play/draw, and they start with how you construct your sideboard. A game in which you are on the play is simply different from a game in which you are on the draw, and if you treat them both the same way, you are not going to do well.

The biggest difference, currently, is what happens on your turn two. If you are on the play, turn two is a turn to be proactive – you want to play a creature or at least something like a Reckoner Bankbuster. Leaving up removal or counterspells on turn two if you are on the play is quite a bad play and often equivalent to Time Walking yourself and giving up your play/draw advantage, so you want to make sure that your deck is constructed in a way where this doesn’t have to happen.

If you are on the draw, however, then the table flips completely – you’re no longer interested in developing a two-drop of your own on turn two. Instead, you are much more interested in answering their three-drop with a counterspell or a removal spell, so that you can then follow it up with your own three-drop. If you try to match their two with your two and their three with your three, it’s not going to work because you will simply fall behind, so you need to do something different.

There are many practical examples of this. For instance, if I am on the draw versus Esper, I like to have a number of Cut Down in my deck because Cut Down will answer a turn 3 Raffine through its Ward ability, so I can pass on turn twowith open mana and answer it. If I’m on the play, this sequence never happens, so there’s no reason to have Cut Down instead of Infernal Grasp.

Another example – a while ago, I saw an Esper deck with Siphon Insight in the sideboard. The way I understand it, if you are on the play, you don’t want that card in your deck at all – you don’t even bring it in, because you would rather play something like a Tenacious Underdog on turn two. If you are on the draw, then you can’t afford to play Tenacious Underdog on turn two because you want to pass with mana up – then, in case you end up not reacting to what they have, you get to cast Siphon Insight. Even if you don’t have a Counterspell or a removal spell, there’s value in passing with mana up so your opponent can’t freely commit their best card. Therefore, this card should be on your deck if you are on the draw, but not if you are on the play.

Here’s an example from the World Championship finals – 

In this case it’s a completely moot point, because Eli doesn’t have an untapped land, but if he did, I believe we’d have seen him pass on turn two rather than deploy Tenacious Underdog, whereas if he was on the play, he would have slammed the Underdog no questions asked. 

This is likely to continue being a thing moving forward, so you should continue paying particular attention to whether you are on the play or on the draw, and whether your plans should differ. As a general rule, being more proactive when you are on the play and more reactive when you are on the draw is correct, so if you are in doubt, do that (for example if you are undecided between holding up a removal spell or a two-drop, you should have the removal spell on the draw and the two-drop on the play). 

#2. You should be mulliganing less than normal

Raffine, Scheming Seer Art by Johannes Voss
Raffine, Scheming Seer Art by Johannes Voss

I’ve always been a big proponent of mulligan – when I do “Keep or Mulligan” articles, I usually keep fewer hands than my teammates. In this Standard format, I haven’t been mulliganing very much, and I also expect this trend to continue. 

There are two reasons for this. The first one is that the format is not very fast; there are few aggro decks that demand you do something immediately. It is a midrange format, and as such playing something to the board can be very important, but there aren’t many requirements on which thing that is – having a creature is fine, or a Reckoner Bankbuster, or a Negate, or a Make Disappear, or a removal spell, or even a Duress. If you’re on the play you can even afford to not do anything until turn three. 

The second reason is that this format just has a lot of filtering. The top decks usually have either Fable of the Mirror-Breaker or Raffine, Scheming Seer, and these are two strong ways to turn a useless card into a new card; this means that, in every major deck in the format, you can find a use for a card even if it’s bad. Because of this, sending a card to the bottom is never free – even if it’s an irrelevant 6th land – because you could have always looted it away instead. On top of that, even though we don’t have as many utility lands as before, we still have a fair amount of them. Card quantity often matters more than card quality, and you always end up regretting not having enough blank pieces of cardboard to loot away.

Obviously this doesn’t mean you should be keeping horrendous hands just because mulliganing is worse, but it means that moving forward I think you should adjust your priors a little bit – you don’t usually need any one specific thing from your opening hand, so most hands that have a decent number of lands and spells should be keeps.

#3. 26 is the new 24

Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire Art by Julian Kok Joon Wen
Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire Art by Julian Kok Joon Wen

In the previous Standard format, we were spoiled for utility lands; we had one good Creature-Land for each color, Faceless Haven, and several modal Double-Faced cards that worked as both lands and spells at the same time. This led to some heavily inflated land counts (sometimes Aggro decks played as many as 28), and when these cards rotated out of the format, people reverted to their usual standards from before, which was mostly 24 and sometimes 25 lands.

Once the format got a bit more established, it became clear that this amount was simply not enough for midrange decks. At the World Championship, all the top 4 competitors had 26 lands in their midrange decks, and I’d expect this trend to continue moving forward. There aren’t as many utility lands as before, but you still have some Triomes, some Channel lands and Plaza of Heroes as ways to mitigate flooding, as well as all the filtering we talked about in the previous topic. More importantly, missing a land drop early is just way too punishing. When half your lands require two lands to be in play already, missing a land sometimes translates into missing two turns of plays rather than just one, because your second land will enter play tapped when it otherwise wouldn’t, and that’s just too big a risk.

So, if you’re building a midrange deck, I would say you should start at 26 lands at this point in time and then either go higher or lower depending on how it feels, rather than starting with 25 or 26 – you simply can’t skimp on those nowadays. With the release of Brother’s War, this number is likely to continue being high, as we will now have Prototypes that might end up being great mana sinks later in the game.

#4. Legends are here to stay

Dennick, Pious Apprentice Art by Chris Rallis
Dennick, Pious Apprentice Art by Chris Rallis

For almost all of competitive Magic, being a Legendary card was a detriment. Right now, with the increase in popularity of the Commander format, there are not only a lot more Legends than before, but also several things that have synergy with Legends. For someone who’s had the different mindset for two decades, it’s hard to understand that being Legendary is now often a good thing, and that Legendary-based cards are no longer gimmicks relegated to more casual formats but actual pillars of the Standard format.

For example, when Plaza of Heroes was released, I thought it was for a “Legends deck”. It did not occur to me that it was actually a great fixer for a regular deck just because so many of the good cards in Standard happen to be Legends. I had four copies in my first Esper Legends builds, but zero copies in my first Esper “non-Legends” builds. Nowadays, most Esper decks are playing 2-3 copies of the card, and one big downside of the Jund and Grixis builds is that they can’t reasonably play it, so they miss out on a land that is both painless fixer and utility land. This is not even to mention the fact that you get extra discounts on the Channel lands by playing more Legends.

This is very likely to become even more true with The Brother’s War; many of the cards already previewed are Legends, and we already know there is a Legendary theme in the set.

Moving forward, we need to make sure to acknowledge that Legends and “Legendary matters” are a real part of Standard, and we need to evaluate all the new cards in this context. 

#5. The mana dictates what can be played

Invoke Despair Art by Olivier Bernard
Invoke Despair Art by Olivier Bernard

This is not exclusive to this format, but we had some very clear examples of it. If you had asked me what the two best cards in the format are, I’d have said Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and Wedding Announcement. After that, comes a pile of Black cards. Yet, the most popular decks are Esper, Grixis and Jund. These decks can play either Fable of the Mirror-Breaker or Wedding Announcement, but not both. Why aren’t there decks playing both Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and Wedding Announcement? The answer is the mana. You could very well play Fable, Wedding Announcement and the Black cards if you wanted by playing Mardu, but without a Triland, your mana is going to be so much worse that it’s hard to justify. 

We are not going to get more Trilands in Brother’s War, but we will get the remaining Painlands, and that might be enough to change the format a little bit already. Two-color aggro decks basically can’t exist without good mana, so playing something like Boros Aggro, for example, just wasn’t possible without Battlefield Forge; now we will have it, and more possibilities will open up. I’m particularly looking forward to having Underground River, because I believe Rona's Vortex and Ertai Resurrected are two powerful cards for a Blue Tempo deck that have been dragged back because the mana doesn’t really support a Dimir build. 

In practical terms, this means that once we get a new mana-base, there’s likely something to be gained by going back and revisiting the cards in certain color combinations, because maybe the reason they didn’t see play wasn’t that the cards themselves were bad, but that the mana didn’t support them, and in the near future it might.

#6. We need to readjust our card evaluation process

Reflection of Kiki-Jiki Art by akio
Reflection of Kiki-Jiki Art by akio

This Standard format saw the biggest evaluation miss that I’ve ever been a part of, both individually and as a group – Fable of the Mirror-Breaker. Certainly, we’re not infallible and we get stuff wrong all the time, but Fable was a special case because, even after a long period of testing, we never even considered it, and it turned out to be the best card in the format and a multiformat staple. I’ve been wrong, but I’ve certainly never been this wrong.

It’s hard to describe what happened there, because it almost feels like it wasn’t a misevaluation – there was no evaluation at all of the card. I played a grand total of zero games with the card before the Pro Tour. When my opponent played it against me at the tournament, I had to read it – I literally did not know what it did.

This is the kind of stuff that is just unacceptable if you’re trying to compete at a high level, and it’s not an isolated case. The majority of the tournament missed the card as well (I don’t believe any Runes player was playing it, for example), and it’s not the only card to be missed (though it is the most extreme).  The whole Dungeon synergy from Alchemy, for instance, was also missed by almost everybody and it ended up winning the tournament. At the time of this tournament, I couldn’t tell you what any of the Dungeons even did – I just assumed they were Limited gimmicks and as such didn’t bother with any of that.

Another example – just this weekend, there was a team at Worlds that showed up with Ludevic, Necrogenius in their Esper deck; they said it was very good for them, and no other team had that card. It is, honestly, a card that I had never even seen in an Esper deck before.

So, why has this been happening with this Standard format, and what can we learn from the Fable incident to make sure that it doesn’t happen again? After a lot of soul-searching, I came up with a couple of reasons:

  1. Our screening process is taxed too much by constant releases and different formats. Normally, when you’re trying to figure out a format, you don’t personally test every card – there’s simply no time to do that. What you do is screen the cards for stuff that you believe is worth testing and you ignore the rest. For example, I’ve played zero games involving the card “The World Spell” – I looked at it and decided it wasn’t worth trying, so I didn’t have to spend the time building decks with it and actually playing it.

Right now, there are simply too many card releases – more than ever before – and so many formats we have to think about. Not only are they constantly releasing new things, but they’re also nerfing and buffing Arena cards and we have to evaluate those as well. This means that you need to have a strict screening process and that a higher percentage of cards must go into the “don’t play this” pile, so you can dedicate time to trying the things that actually matter. In our case, Fable happened to go in that pile. If there was less stuff for us to worry about at the time (fewer cards/formats), then maybe we would have played some games with it and it would have been enough.

  1. We played no Limited. For several years, major formats had both Limited and Constructed, so we play tested both, and Limited served as a safety net for our Constructed filter, since in Limited you always end up playing with every card. Obviously not every card that is good in Limited is good in Constructed and vice-versa, but playing the card a little bit will usually help you get a grip of its power level. Imagine that I looked at The World Spell and decided it wasn’t worth trying, and then I play it in Limited and it overperforms – I might go back and try it in Standard.

For the past couple of events, there has been no Limited. This means there was no safety net – if a card was filtered out, it went literally unplayed. This is what happened with Fable of the Mirror-Breaker for me.

  1. Cards are just way too wordy nowadays, which makes the screening process much harder.  I used to be able to look at a card and understand what it did, and nowadays I don’t have the same level of immediate comprehension. This leads to not fully realizing what potential a card has.

You know how, in many fantasy novels, there’s a location that is off-limits to non-Wizards and it’s spelled in a way that, if a non-Wizard approaches it, their mind becomes hazy, and they soon forget why they’re there and leave? It sort of feels the same way to me. When I start reading Ludevic, Necrogenius, at some point my mind becomes foggy and I forget what I was trying to accomplish. I honestly needed to read the card like five times before I could tell you with confidence what it did, and the same is true for half the cards that they release nowadays. Fable of the Mirror-Breaker is a Saga, which is already a complicated card type, with a full other side to it – you can’t just “glance over it during spoiler season” and expect to come away with a good understanding of its power level.

I believe that these three factors were mostly responsible for the Fable incident, and, if I don’t want it to happen again, I have to adjust my process. The best way to do this is probably just to spend more time in the screening process while accepting that wordy, complex cards can actually be very good. It used to be that if you read a Red Rare with over five lines of text you knew it was going to be bad for competitive play, and nowadays you just can’t use that shortcut. You need to dedicate time to not just read, but fully comprehend what each card is doing if you are trying to do deckbuilding at all. You need to know what the Dungeons do; you can’t just assume they are a gimmick for Limited. The alternative, of course, is to just skip on this process altogether and iterate on what other people find, but then you will end up missing stuff like Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and Ludevic, Necrogenius.

All in all, it’s possible that the format changes radically and some of these are no longer true, but we have no reason to think that things will change too much, and if they don’t, then understanding some phenomenon from the previous Standard format might help us get a leg up in the new one.

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Paulo Vitor "PVDDR" Damo da Rosa has been a professional Magic: the Gathering player and writer for over 20 years. He was Player of the Year in 2017, World Champion in 2020, and is tied for most Top Finishes in history with 17. He will play whichever decks he thinks are the best, but his favorite style is aggro-control. Other than Magic, PV is also a fan of watching TV shows, reading fantasy novels and playing several other games such as Bridge, LoL, TFT, Storybook Brawl, Baldur's Gate 2 and Diablo 2.

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