Saturday, 28 April 2018

Dominaria Highlander Set Review

Hello 7-point Highlander aficionados!

This is my Dominaria Highlander set review. Eternal Masters in Dandenong isn't far off now. Luckily the Highlander portion is on the Monday of the long weekend in June, so I'll be able to get back from the Adelaide RPTQ on Sunday in time to play.
The most recent large Highlander event was at GP Sydney. The GP was great. I prioritised qualifying for the Pro Tour over playing side events (I did not qualify for the Pro Tour) so I didn't get to play either of the bigger midday ones, but I still managed to enter two smaller three-round events in the evenings thanks to the abundance of Highlander, which Channel Fireball graciously scheduled. They did an excellent job with this GP. I was really impressed. I was never in a queue for more than a minute. Side events had good prize support and there weren't any delays to the main event due to administration, as far as I could tell.

Anyway, I could write a whole article about my GP experience. On with the review!

What you see is what you get really. So simple, love the design.
A dichotomy of building mono white creature strategies in Highlander is 'Anthems' versus Skullclamp. In my opinion, most of the anthems aren't worth this nombo, especially since you're likely also playing Stoneforge Mystic and Steel Shaper's Gift, thus increasing the chance of the nombo arising. Therefore, you choose anthems OR Skullclamp. If you choose not to play Skullclamp, then you have two free points to spend, and when you're playing Armageddon and Ravages of War, you would like Sol Ring. WWW and Sol Ring; avoiding a nombo creates another.
I was thinking that this new WWW spell may bring Nykthos into the equation, but yet another awkward situation: Benalish Marshal likes tokens. Nykthos does not. Benalish Marshal is part of a cycle though, so perhaps the others can bring Nykthos to bear. Let's have a look at the rest of that cycle.

Haha, Nykthos shrinks the Djinn; Still worth it though.
I was getting excited to play Thassa, God of the Sea whilst I was building my Merfolk tribal deck after Rivals of Ixalan. Tempest Djinn definitely won't go in UG Merfolk though. Hmmm unfortunately you can't play Collected Company and Djinn in a devotion deck together either, due to the dual lands required. You can however, play Back to Basics with Tempest Djinn.

I know there are some mono black diehards out there. Dread Shade is fine. Rumbles with everything. Kills fast. Can be easily chump blocked though.

Is that a carnivore he's riding? I can't quite tell.
Even though I think this card is playable, I think it's fringe. The mana cost is very restrictive, unless you're playing mana dorks, but as you may have noticed when looking at the polished heavy-green lists, most of their top end is resilient to sweepers. This is to counteract the weakness to sweepers of all their mana dorks. At least Steel Leaf Champion doesn't die to Anger of the Gods and the like.
By the way, a constant source of frustration for me is remembering all the different conjunctions in card names. Sometimes they're separate like "Steal Leaf", sometimes it's a hyphen, like Siege-Gang Commander and sometimes they just jam them together:

Speaking of sweeping mana dorks...
Goblin tribal decks are still low tier due to the small number of good one-drops but Chainwhirler could still go in mono red aggro; which is a thing thanks to Blood Moon, Magus of the Moon, Ruination and recently Blood Sun.
That planeswalker ping clause lets it pass the Jace test. A side note on 'the Jace test': since Jace, the Mind Sculptor went from zero points to one, his popularity has reduce enough that passing the Jace test isn't mandatory anymore. Similar to what happened with Karakas.
Sadly for Highlander Goblins, the better Goblins in Dominaria are mostly reprints, except for Goblin Chainwhirler annnnnd

My favourite card from the set for all sorts of reasons.
This card screams Food Chain. I mean, "Food Chain Goblins" was already a deck in Vintage. As far as Highlander is concerned, if Food Chain becomes a deck, you have Squee to thank. We already had Misthollow Griffin and Eternal Scourge but now we have those plus Squee, plus three tutor creatures: Goblin Matron, Recruiter of the Guard and Imperial Recruiter! I've scratched the surface of building that deck and oh man, it is going to be one of the hardest decks I've had to build. I'm holding off on building it until I'm on top of Standard (for the coming RPTQ) but it's going to be great fun.

I can see this in one of those '6 combos mash'em all together' artifact decks. I'm talking Time Vault, Metalworker + Staff of Domination, Thopter Foundry + Sword of the Meek, Painter's Servant + Grindstone, etc. Tolarian Academy is Legendary, so Board the Weatherlight hits that too. All aboard!

The TSLS (or 'The Savannah Lions Scale' for the unaquainted): 

Dryad Militant
Soldier of the Pantheon
Kytheon, Hero of Akros
Skymarcher Aspirant
Mardu Woe-reaper
Dragon Hunter
Expedition Envoy
Elite Vanguard
Savannah Lions

Where does she sit on the Savannah Lions scale? Tough question. I feel she's either directly above or below Kytheon; probably below thanks to this powerful card from Dominaria:

Oh baby. I love 'high restriction, high payoff' cards. Without restriction I try to jam too many themes into a deck and lose focus.
All moxes have been broken so far; Let's see how we can break this one!
Begging the Gatherer search, cheap Legendary Creatures:
Leyline of Singularity? Maybe if tokens and Splinter Twin decks are really popular in your meta :P
There is also Rhys the Redeemed and Oviya Pashiri, Sage Lifecrafter (as if her first name wasn't distinguishing enough!). However, I think they're too slow for Highlander. Maybe if you can reliably find Training Grounds...I digress.
We actually only have the first three Legends on the list above, so we're a RWx aggro deck at this stage.
Going two-drop + one-drop on turn two is still amazing, so let's have a look at the two-drop legends. If you have another mox, the two-drops act like one-drops anyway. The potential is scary.

They're the red and white legends which I like. That's only ten. I'm hoping for a few more, which means we're dipping into at least one more colour. Funny how with Mox Amber, two-colour Legends are better than mono-colour Legends:



There's a reason you don't always block Voice of Resurgence.
How many times did you read her shield ability? Gotta make sure not to get confused with Hexproof.
  • Radha, Heir to Keld (difficult on mana and to be confused with her less playable version from Dominaria)
  • Gaddock Teeg
  • Saffi Eriksdotter (I've always liked the idea of comboing Saffi with Loyal Retainers. That's not conducive to an aggro deck but it is suitable for a deck with lots of legends for Mox Amber)
Feels like a lord in the sense that she's low impact by herself but significantly boosts a large team. Also a Lorde in the sense of her popstar appearance.
Makes me happy that her evasion means she holds Umezawa's Jitte well; In fact, that may be Jitte on her hip.

Following this RWx aggro line of building with Mox Amber, it seems to me that Naya is the best fit.

Of course you can still aim to use Mox Amber to good effect in the midgame. I imagine playing powerful three-drop Legends and protecting them with one-cost counterspells or D.I.TS (Duress, Inquisition, Thoughtseize. One day somebody but me will call it that). Jace, Vryn's prodigy wasn't suitable for the aggro build but perhaps he works here.

Ok, I've gone deep enough on Mox Amber for this article but I'm sure there are other ways to build with it that I haven't hinted at.

Solid in a white-black creature decks. Note that they gets the +1/+0 off your stuff too.
As always, First Strike is great with and against Jitte.
3-power First Strike is great verse Titania tokens I've comes up more than you'd think.
Hard to say whether Hexproof from white or black is better. Depends on your local metagame. Lately Grixis has been popular in Melbourne, so I'll say black.

Hosey McHosehose against aggro decks. Sideboard only. Too slow against combo and too much potential for being blown out by cheap removal from control decks. Particularly good in sideboards of decks which can protect her with Mother of Runes, Benevolent Bodyguard and DITS.

Only for heavy equipment based decks. Particularly good with the 'Sword of X and Y' cycle. Hard to rank those swords from best to worst. At the moment I rank them as such:
  1. Sword of Fire and Ice - Pro blue is the best protection because of True-Name Nemesis and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
  2. Sword of Body and Mind - Also pro blue but with worse triggers. The 'mill ten' can significantly help your opponent, e.g. milling the shatter effect for their Snapcaster or fueling delve or giving them a combo piece.
  3. Sword of Feast and Famine - Good with creaturelands but if you aren't playing any of those, then War and Peace could be better.
  4. Sword of War and Peace
  5. Sword of Light and Shadow - much slower than the rest.
Niche value dude for decks with critical artifacts. Turn one Black Lotus rebuy anyone? Skullclamp tends to get destroyed a lot more these days thanks to Abrade, Kolaghan's Command and Fiery Confluence. Having ways to return it can really let you climb back in control matchups. Renegade Rallier is the best at returning stuff, but if you aren't in green or you want even more of this effect, then Daring Archaeologist is go. 
Time Vault is another critical artifact. However, in that deck you would have your artifact rebuy effect be an artifact itself, since you're playing so many artifact tutors. Unfortunately (or fortunately for fun's sake) all the artifacts which return Time Vault are bad: Sanctum Gargoyle, Myr Welder and Expedition Map finding Buried Ruin. With that in mind, more powerful non-artifact options are the order. Including this one:


Speaking of Time Vault!
Looks a lot like an Arbiter from Halo.
In Time Vault decks you don't need to open yourself up to creature removal but this guy might be worth it. Very importantly, Time Vault decks want to play Muddle the Mixture, Shred Memory and Dimir Infiltrator to find Time Vault. Up until now those couldn't tutor for a good way to untap Time Vault. That utility might be worth the susceptibility to creature removal. You may as well add Aphetto Alchemist too.
Voltaic Servant also untaps Mana Vault and Grim Monolith but not until your end step, so you can't 'double shot' in one turn like you can with Voltaic Key, you just get an extra chunk each turn. Ideal for midrange Mishra's Workshop decks.

Even though this card may not look impressive compared to some coloured four-drops, it's still playable in Workshop Midrange. That deck makes up for it's weaker spells by the power of it's lands.
You might take an extra bit of damage because Traxos enters tapped, but you will still win the race with a 7/7 trample. You may even be able to double spell the following turn to effectively give Traxos vigilance.
Sensei's Divining Top is cute with Traxos, as are Swords of X and Y.

Ouch. A brutal piece of sideboard hate for Storm and Tolarian Academy combo. This is cheap enough that you can cast it before they combo off most of the time. It's much harder to kill than a creature. It's colourless so any deck can play it, except decks which it also restricts, e.g. Gaea's Cradle or Mishra's Workshop, but even those decks have such a bad matchup against combo that they may still want this.

Looks crappy but I can imagine this in Infect or dare I say, Bogles.

Into the Roil is the anti-hate of choice for some decks, e.g. Flash combo, since you can transmute and Merchant Scroll for it. Now you can choose which artwork you prefer and play that instead!

It's arguable whether Merfolk is a playable deck, but this does make it in if it is. The devotion to blue is nice for Master of Waves and potentially Thassa, God of the Sea. The flash ability is also nice against sweepers and counterspells, not that you're going to 'get them' with an attack for two damage or anything.
Couple other cute things: tapping a mana dork in their upkeep or tapping the dude they equip Jitte to. I think I lost more games to Jitte than any other card whilst I was trying out Merfolk. I'm glad Jitte is pointed.

A pretty interchangeable card for blue decks but playable none the less. Obviously best suited to builds with cheap powerful instants and sorceries like Ancestral Recall, Treasure Cruise, Time Walk and Ancestral Visions. Note that she only copies YOUR instants and sorceries, unlike Dualcaster Mage which copies both.
A 3/3 flash can still ambush an attacking creature occasionally and pumping all your other wizards may give your opponent one less turn to rip burn after you've turned the corner (How was that for some magical nonsense speak).

Blue control plays enough wizards that they will get the discount rate a lot of the time. A lot of those decks spend a point for Mana Drain and often don't use or care about the mana boost, such is their desire for 'UU counter a spell'. Obviously Wizard's Retort doesn't come close to Counterspell but it is playable I think.


Let's move onto the new and very cool saga cards from Dominaria. Sagas have had a little bit of text omitted from them in order to make them less wordy and more aesthetic. Here's an extract from the rules primer leak, which explains the technicalities quite well:

  • As a Saga enters the battlefield, its controller puts a lore counter on it. As your precombat main phase begins (immediately after your draw step), you put another lore counter on each Saga you control. Putting a lore counter on a Saga in either of these ways doesn't use the stack.
  • Each symbol on the left of a Saga's text box represents a chapter ability. A chapter ability is a triggered ability that triggers when a lore counter that is put on the Saga causes the number of lore counters on the Saga to become equal to or greater than the ability's chapter number. Chapter abilities are put onto the stack and may be responded to.
  • A chapter ability doesn't trigger if a lore counter is put on a Saga that already had a number of lore counters greater than or equal to that chapter's number. For example, the third lore counter put on a Saga causes the III chapter ability to trigger, but I and II won't trigger again.
  • Once a chapter ability has triggered, the ability on the stack won't be affected if the Saga gains or loses counters, or if it leaves the battlefield.
  • If multiple chapter abilities trigger at the same time, their controller puts them on the stack in any order. If any of them require targets, those targets are chosen as you put the abilities on the stack, before any of those abilities resolve.
  • If counters are removed from a Saga, the appropriate chapter abilities will trigger again when the Saga receives lore counters. Removing lore counters won't cause a previous chapter ability to trigger.
  • Once the number of lore counters on a Saga is greater than or equal to the greatest number among its chapter abilities—in the Dominaria set, this is always three—the Saga's controller sacrifices it as soon as its chapter ability has left the stack, most likely by resolving or being countered. This state-based action doesn't use the stack.

The last dot point clarifies that you will have the opportunity to blink or bounce your saga with the final chapter ability on the stack before you need to sacrifice it. Perhaps Synod Sanctum could make it's debut in a deck full of Sagas and 'gain control' effects. That would be sweet.

Solid all-rounder. Your knights will typically be smaller than your opponent's creatures, but with some augmentation or removal you will win through.
Resilient to opposing removal, good on defense and attack.
Nombos with Thalia, so may not make it into aggro decks featuring her.
Flickerwisp, Glimmerpoint Stag and Felidar Guardian are nifty with all the sagas. If you can flash these creatures in somehow, then you can even get the third age of the saga before resetting.
Maybe Venser, the Sojourner could find a home with sagas. The trick is surviving whilst the value engine does the rest.

Very slow and therefore only for the sideboard, unless you can rush it out on turn two or three. I can see this being an effective sideboard card for blue artifact decks. Postboard opponents will bring in hate and slow down. This offers an alternate win condition and card advantage. Lets an artifact deck win against Null Rod/Stony Silence.

I just realised that Hex Parasite is really awesome with all the Sagas. You're welcome.

Very cool card. I really like this in Sultai Midrange with Emrakul, the Promised End. The enchantment card type is valuable and the deck already plays several artifact creatures. I also really like it in straight black Workshop decks where it's one sided. Goes alongside The Abyss to crush creature decks.
Stage three feels like salting their earth.

Good sideboard card for Big Red decks against creature decks.
I: Wipe their mana dorks.
II: Slam a fatty.
III: Wipe their team.

Easily confused with the previous Saga amirite?
I can see this at the top of a burn deck, although it clashes with other curve toppers like: Bedlam Reveler, Fireblast, Wheel of Fortune, Hazoret, the Fervent, Pyromancer's Swath, Avaricious Dragon, etc.

Ok that's all the Sagas I like.

Channel Mirror may have too many five-cost tutors now, doesn't change the fact that this is playable. Reminds me of Jarad's Orders. I like the idea of getting Body Double and something huge. One more mana than Gifts Ungiven into Unburial Rites + fattie.

Move over Relentless Rats, a new Rats is in town. These ones are less relentless as they tend to die, having only one toughness, but they're still much better. I've always dreamed of making this deck. There are some pretty sweet cards you can play: Swarmyard, Mutavault, Aether Vial, Thrumming Stone, Wood Sage, Bloodbond March, Desperate Research.

We're all in baby!
Turn one mana dork, turn two mana dork + zero cost dude + Torgaar. Not too unlikely. Even turn three Torgaar is good. You really need to keep him around though, otherwise you probably won't have the resources to finish them off; so once again we want DITS and Mental Misstep.
Obviously we can't rely on drawing Torgaar every game either, so we'll need some other payoff cards. Vampiric Tutor and Worldly Tutor find Torgaar nicely. Time of Need may be too slow.
Skullclamp is an excellent way to replace all our shitty mana dorks and cheap creatures. Birthing Pod is another great way to convert crappy dudes into useful stuff later on. 
Could go aristocrats style: Doomed Traveler, Tukatongue Thallid, Blisterpod.

I actually think this is decent in Big Red where you will get to nine mana some games. Can kill Goyf, Tasigur and Gurmag Angler, all of which Big Red has trouble with.

Cummon Shanley, I know you're reading this. You know you want to go back to mono red control.
Jaya isn't great but she has her niche. You need to play lots of land destruction to throw off combo opponents and since land destruction is bad against aggro, you need to play sweepers to make up for that, then you need Planeswalkers against control to make up for having sweepers. It's all a big puzzle.
I actually quite like Demonfire, Disintegrate, Burn from Within and Red Sun's Zenith. All of which, are American dreams. All of which, are American dreams. All of which, are American, dreams.

Old man Teferi.
Win condition for 'draw go' control decks. Max out on two-cost counterspells, trade resources until turn five and then ride Teferi to victory. That's the plan, and if things go awry, his -3 might still save you.

Decent fattie for Big Red. Would only just make it I think. That archetype seems to have gotten a lot from Dominaria, although that deck doesn't need more top end, it needs more fast mana.
Double dragon. I've played Broodmate Dragon a bit in Highlander and have always been happy with it. Verix is somewhere in that realm, probably better. Obviously you'll want some mana acceleration in your deck to make Verix work well.

Pretty much Oath of Nissa (which sees surprisingly little play). Obviously suited for decks full of creatures, but not mana dorks, since those are best turn one, which Adventurous Impulse can't facilitate. 
Increases the likelihood of finding critical hate bears against combo or artifacts or what have you.

Surely there's something here. That's a pretty unique and powerful effect. "From anywhere". My first thought was simply dredging Golgari Grave-Troll or Stinkweed Imp, but decks with those probably want creatures to remain in the graveyard. Maybe Garna would be good in a deck which can discard creatures the turn you cast her: Dack Fayden, Liliana of the Veil, Nahiri, the Harbinger, Smuggler's Copter, Frantic Search, Zombie Infestation, Lion's Eye Diamond. None of those effects are particularly exciting but they are cool!

Damn, now I need to choose between The Immortal Sun and this in my Mishra's Workshop Midrange deck. Can't cast Karn, Scion of Urza with Mishra's Workshop, flavour win. I'm more of a Mishra man anyway. But realistically Karn's power is worth those nombos.
You may not even need to use his -2 effectively for him to be good. I can see this being a decent anti-control sideboard card in any deck.
Karn techinically doesn't draw you extra cards, so still good under a Spirit of the Labyrinth or against a Leovold, for example.
Another small thing, if they kill Karn and you manage to get him back, you can still access the exiled cards with silver counters on them from last time, similar to Mairsil, the Pretender.

Playable in combo decks which have excellent mana consistency. Good with cards which care about the top or bottom card of your library, e.g. Impromptu Raid, Call of the Wild and Grenzo, Dungeon Warden.

If you're playing a deck which can make WUBRG mana and is already playing eldrazi titans, then you haven't got anything to lose by adding Jodah. He has a good body for his mana cost, I assure you - even though you can't see it beneath those robes. Jhoira would attest if she were here. Unfortunately she didn't quite make my playables list.

Wow, lots of good Highlander cards from Dominaria. To wrap it up:
  • My pick for strongest card is Mox Amber, even though it has high restrictions. Zoo decks may now converge to similar lists to enable Mox Amber.
  • I think History of Benalia is the best 'all rounder', that is, card which doesn't require any work. 
  • Best sideboard card and probably the most influential for Highlander, is Damping Sphere.
  • Big Red got a small boost with Verix Bladewing, Fight with Fire and The First Erruption.
  • There are a few more difficult-to-handle threats against control: Sagas and a couple more Planeswalkers, and possibly Squee!
That's it, thanks for reading. I'll be seeing you through bloodshot eyes at Highlander Eternal Masters! (June 11th @ Next Level Games Dandenong).



P.S. Damn office work, automating how I sign off by repetition.