First Look: Dominaria Future Future League

Posted in Play Design on April 20, 2018

By Andrew Brown

Welcome to First Look! This will be a repeating column every quarterly release (similar to the M-Files) where Play Design will share decklists and their thought processes during the Future Future League focus period of the most recent set. The FFL focus period is the three months during set design where we handle most of the competitive balance tweaks to the card file.

Setting a Baseline

Dominaria is a set chock-full of build-arounds. As a result, there is a need for a ton of new decks to be built to explore as many potential shells as possible. When I was "on the outside" and testing for Pro Tours, I often found that testing initial brews against other unproven decks would lead to misleading results. Using these learnings, I set out to build a baseline deck for each macro-archetype in Magic—aggro, midrange, and control—to create a suitable gauntlet for our newest strategies from Dominaria.

Andrew Brown's Sultai Midrange

Llanowar Elves is such a powerful card that it's a great place to start with any green deck. This power comes at a cost, and due to the number of untapped green sources one needs to have a turn-one Elf consistently, I naturally gravitated toward Sultai (black-green-blue) to leverage Botanical Sanctum and Blooming Marsh. My goal was to fill my deck with cards that are strong on rate and cards that are naturally strong in the absence of synergy, such as Jadelight Ranger and Hostage Taker, to stress-test the impact of Llanowar Elves in a three-color midrange deck.

Champion of Wits is my favorite piece of the list; once your mana creatures are past their expiration date, they can be filtered away, in addition to the Champion's synergy with graveyard-centric cards like Muldrotha, the Gravetide; Liliana, Death's Majesty; and The Scarab God.

Andrew Brown's Black-Red Aggro

When looking to build an aggressive deck, it is natural to gravitate toward Hazoret the Fervent, but the question is whether to weaken the mono-red mana base in pursuit of powerful cards in other colors. Phyrexian Scriptures from Dominaria was more than enough to incentivize a two-color deck when the super-powerful Unlicensed Disintegration was also already available! My favorite interaction in this deck is simple but effective: Phyrexian Scriptures putting a counter on Walking Ballista is extremely satisfying when we don't have any other nonartifact creatures to target. Every point counts in an aggressive deck, after all!

Andrew Brown's Grixis Control

Control decks are my favorite strategies, both to build and to pilot. Search for Azcanta and Torrential Gearhulk are a natural start to any blue control deck, while Cast Down and Syncopate were excellent additions from Dominaria as effective early plays. When building control decks for FFL, I like to lean harder on countermagic and removal while skimping on win conditions to stress how much new strategies can handle meaningful interaction.

You might be questioning the fact that the three previous decks don't contain many Dominaria cards. When the FFL is trying to gauge the power level of the newest cards in our ecosystem, matching them against the strongest strategies in our previous environment is an efficient way to gather data. Using our gauntlet decks as an effective litmus test allows us to make the most appropriate changes to the cards we are currently testing in our focus period.

Testing Build-Arounds vs. Rate Cards

"Rate card" is a term we use to classify generically powerful Magic cards; they are stronger than other things you could be doing for the same mana cost. They don't necessarily need as much support or synergy to make a strong impact on a game. Rate cards are naturally easier to test than build-arounds because often the only consideration is simply filling out the holes in a deck's mana curve. Sometimes understanding their power level can be as simple as a comparison of A vs B. In other words, how does Rishkar, Peema Renegade compare to Jadelight Ranger in a Winding Constrictor deck?

Build-around cards are often the most difficult for the FFL to test and place at the correct power level. Creating a new strategy from scratch that is fun and competitive while also presenting opportunities for counterplay and meaningful gameplay involves balancing a lot of factors. A cool example of a build-around card from Dominaria is Torgaar, Famine Incarnate.

Michael Majors's Torgaar's Final Parting

Michael's black-red sacrifice deck was one of the most fun decks to play with and against during our Dominaria testing. The shell is a black-red token deck that plays Torgaar, Famine Incarnate to sacrifice its expendable creatures. The strategy has a low curve and can put some pressure on the opponent early or quickly accelerate out a Torgaar, Famine Incarnate to either deal a huge amount of damage to an opponent or turn around a race by targeting yourself to get back up to 10 life. The coolest parts of the deck are the multiple interactions with Final Parting. There are a lot of interesting one-of cards here to tutor for that work in both your hand and your graveyard. The main draw to playing Final Parting is to cast it and put Torgaar, Famine Incarnate in your hand and Claim // Fame in your graveyard. Then you can play Torgaar and give it haste with Fame, which, uninterrupted, is up to a (not quite) clean 19 damage!

The Strength of a Draw

One of the most powerful lessons I've taken to R&D from testing on the Pro Tour is the pitfall of misevaluating the strength of both players' draws in a small sample size and how it can skew data. It's easy to get frustrated if your draw does not pan out or your opponent has a particularly strong curve several games in a row. This is dangerous, as it can lead to incorrect conclusions. For example, my testing team for Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad had 56–60 cards of Steve Rubin's winning Green-White Tokens deck, but because of a poor testing session we quickly dismissed the strategy altogether.

The way I like to think about it now is within three subcategories for both players. After a match concludes, I determine whether my or my opponent's draws were strong, average, or weak. Then I base my decisions on learnings from both the card interactions and this information. This can lead us to be more precise when crafting cards for Standard. A deck that truly tested this process was Michael's Yawgmoth's Vile Offering deck.

Michael Majors's Four-Color Historic Reanimator

When conveying my opinion, I try to not use flowery adjectives or hyperbole because clarity and concise language when discussing the strength of cards and interactions is key. That also makes it more meaningful when I say things like this: "Dang, this deck can have some insanely powerful opening sequences!" This deck is built in particular to stress-test some of Dominaria's strongest interactions, going light on creature removal and countermagic to maximize the chances of this type of draw: Turn-two Baral, Chief of Compliance; Mox Amber; cast a card-draw spell (or Negate!) to discard Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh. Then reanimate the tyrant of the Multiverse on turn three with Yawgmoth's Vile Offering. On the other hand, this deck can have draws where it just "beats itself" by drawing no legends to enable the legendary sorceries or failing to draw any strong payoff cards. While having flashy plays like turn-three Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh is cool, it's healthy for these decks to be inconsistent and for there to be ample counterplay.

My biggest lesson from Dominaria FFL: Bolt the Baral.

These are all the FFL decks I can share with you guys this week, but hopefully they've inspired you to do some of your own brewing with the awesome cards Dominaria has to offer. I'll be back once Core Set 2019 rolls around to share some of my favorite FFL decks from the M19 FFL focus period. In the meantime, I'll be at most Pro Tours and nearly all the West Coast Grand Prix, so come say hello!

—Abro
@Murk_lurker

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