Dominaria United - cEDH Set Review
G'day cEDH fans, Jake FitzSimons here, I've avoided compleation long enough to bring you a cEDH review of Dominaria United.
First things first; Dominaria lacks staples. That's not a criticism, but there's no Boseiju here, no Ledger Shredder, no Archivist of Oghma: no card so powerful it will become a mandatory inclusion for its color. But it makes up for it in synergistic pieces, unique commanders and a lot of cards that are almost good enough. There's also an unhealthy amount of Isochron Scepter decks...
The comparison to Culling Ritual is tempting, but the cards lead to radically different outcomes. They share the same "mana value 2 or less" clause, but there's so much more to Culling Ritual.
For one, Culling Ritual is a permanent effect. For obvious reasons, permanent removal is better than, you guessed it, temporary removal. Any impact you make on the board can be undone with a bounce spell or an enchantment removal.
Secondly, while Culling Ritual and Temporary Lockdown are symmetrical, the former works like a ritual. The player casting Culling Ritual is sure to lose pieces from their own board, but they're instantly refunded with a massive pile of mana. This can feed into a game-winning Ad Nauseam or Peer into the Abyss, or it can just give you the resources to redevelop post-cull.
If you're playing a more proactive deck and using it to fight opposing stax pieces, you'll be shutting off your own fast mana and value engines. If you're playing a stax deck trying to shut off your opponents' fast mana, you'll be shutting off your valuable hatebears. There might be windows where this card shines, but I think the symmetry of the outcome will be too awkward to play around.
I've been surprised with the hype around Serra Paragon. It's a clear play on the Sun Titan effect with some additional restrictions, but the discount from six mana to four is undone by the fact you actually have to pay for whatever you're recurring with the Paragon. Unless you're desperate to bring back something at one or less cmc, Sun Titan will provide an equal or better rate. That only compounds every turn it's in play. The "exile and gain 2 life" clause also makes building loops with it much more difficult. Maybe it's playable as a value piece in a stax deck, but it's a slow one.
Defiler of Dreams
This is the only member of the Defiler cycle that stands a chance at seeing play. They're all held back by high mana costs and only discounting permanents, but Defiler of Dreams is boosted by its combo with Shrieking Drake. Pair the two and you can loop the Drake for two life and a fresh card. It's not infinite, but you can dig deep.
Spellseeker at home. The "at home" joke is a lazy one, but c'mon, what else would you call it? Micromancer will never boast the same ubiquity that Spellseeker does, but in the right deck, with the right line, I can see it being worthwhile. The obvious home for a Wizard that tutors spells is Inalla, or as the four mana creature in a Birthing Pod/Prime Speaker Vannifar deck but I haven't yet seen a line worth running yet.
If you've ever wanted Orvar, the All-Form in enchantment form, you've got it. It's not quite the same, but close enough as makes no difference for what you'll use it for. I want to like Vesuvan Duplimancy (making copies of something that should be legendary tends to be broken) but it comes with a challenging deckbuilding cost. To actually trigger Duplimancy, you need beneficial cards that can target your own creatures, making this card niche at best.
This card is at its best in the brief moments before you realise it reads "from the battlefield this turn". That hampers the utility of this card and means no Entomb or Survival of the Fittest shenanigans. Thankfully, it still leaves open Neoform lines and of course, Protean Hulk piles. If you have an unbound sac outlet, grabbing Activated Sleeper will give you two Hulks, effectively increasing your Hulk allowance by three. This won't radically change Hulk decks, but it will allow for additional flexibility and creates space for future lines to flourish in.
There's some utility in being able to copy something removed on an opponent's turn, but it won't come up often. You're banking on having three mana open, a creature dying (as opposed to more common forms of removal: exile and bounce) and that creature being worth copying.
The only notable creatures on the staples list that Cut Down misses are Birgi, God of Storytelling, Gilded Drake, Ranger-Captain of Eos and Endurance - even though removing Endurance doesn't really matter. That's a pretty wide swathe of creatures this can take out, and it neither requires an upfront life investment, like Dismember, or a commander in play, like Deadly Rollick. If your deck finds those conditions difficult to meet, Cut Down is your answer. This won't constitute much of an improvement to decks with access to blue bounce spells or white exile removal, but for everything else, there's
Mastercard Cut Down.
While it takes a full turn to wind up and your opponents will see it coming a mile off, tutoring directly to the battlefield is a worthy payoff. If you've got reliable access to a Cleric (clue: rhymes with Jimna) and your deck relies on black combo creatures like Razaketh, Vilis or Necrotic Ooze, Shadow-Rite Priest seems perfect.
Shadow-Rite Priest gets extra points for taking Tymna up to a respectable 3/3 and helping her connect for more cards. The Cleric anthem will even help get a tiny bit of extra combat value from Grand Abolisher, Archivist of Oghma and Ethersworn Canonist.
This is the most I've ever seen a card held back by its color identity. Specifically, the white and green parts of this card are absolutely useless while the black part of the card, the meat of it, is golden. If this was mono-black, I think it would see more play than Dark Confidant. While the floor is lower - if you can't connect, you can't draw - the ceiling is so much higher. Being able to produce value the same turn you pay the mana for it is a huge upgrade, not to mention you can draw up to three cards rather than just one.
Okay, snap back to reality. This card isn't mono-black, it's Abzan. That severely restricts its playability, but where this works, it shines. If combat is already a primary part of your gameplan, I can't see why you'd leave it at home. If you're leaning into Tymna, buy a ticket to the Stronghold Arena. Your hand will thank you for it.
Also, it gains three or more life if you kick it. Mana Crypt is in shambles right now.
Would you believe this is only the second one-mana creature with haste and flying? I suppose Shivan Devastator counts, but you're not playing that for one mana. In any case, flying and haste are the perfect keywords for decks that care about combat triggers, be they connecting or just attacking. This is one of the finest one-mana beaters a Tymna deck can run, and I'd wager it will replace Gingerbrute wherever it can. Even better is Winota, Joiner of Forces, where the one thing they care about is getting more Human flips. In a long enough game, that recursion ability could even become relevant post-boardwipe.
Squee, Dubious Monarch
Goblin Rabblemaster and Legion Warboss are relevant in cEDH for one reason: Winota, Joiner of Forces. Squee, Dubious Monarch wants to join that club and form a power trio, but he doesn't work quite the same way. While he can produce just the same number of Goblin tokens, those Goblins won't enter until attacks have already been declared, at which point Winota's trigger has come and gone. Just like Phoenix Chick, Squee also gets a nod for being a good response to a boardwipe heavy meta.
There's nothing flashy here, nothing that makes you leap out of your socks and start brewing in a mad fever. It's just a pretty good card, an improvement on the options currently available. While there's no shortage of fight spells at 1 CMC, this is the first that works at instant speed. If you were in the market for a fight effect, this is your best bet.
Threats Undetected joins the "Gifts Ungiven, but it's green and it's also bad" club along with Ecological Appreciation and Realms Uncharted. A double creature tutor for three mana seems playable on the face of it but the restrictions here are crippling.
Requiring different powers is a surprisingly annoying restraint given how many valuable combo creatures are sitting in similar stat ranges. At sorcery speed, it's also inherently clunky if you want to tutor and capitalize on what you got the same turn. But what really puts this card in the unplayable pile is that the unchosen creatures are shuffled back into your library. If they hit the bin, reanimation options would be plentiful, but alas. I'll take Shared Summons every day of the week.
Artifacts & Lands
Karn's Sylex's effect is similar to Yasharn's in that it shuts down fetchlands, Necropotence, Force of Will, Vilis, Razaketh, and even the like of Noxious Revival and Gitaxian Probe. So it stops some relevant cards, but it does not hit Treasure tokens. This card won't stop Dockside, a huge part of what makes Yasharn, Implacable Earth so effective.
The rest of the card is much closer to Blast Zone, albeit more controllable and quicker to get rolling. Quicker than Blast Zone is a low bar, and the relative speed of this card is another mark against it. Entering tapped and only being effective at sorcery speed, Karn's Sylex leaves a lot to be desired as far as flexibility goes. Nevertheless, slow and clunky is the modus operandi of winconless stax decks, so if it has a home anywhere, that's where.
Plaza of Heroes
This card could reach borderline Command Tower levels of play in casual, but I can't see it making much impact on cEDH. It's sort of a rainbow land, but you need your commander in play for that. This makes it underwhelming for reliable color fixing, particularly in the early game. More than that, it makes colors based on your commander's colors, not its identity. That means it will make just a single pip for multicolor decks like Tasigur, Najeela, or Kenrith, rendering it useless.
For the sake of improving a manabase, Plaza of Heroes won't offer much cEDH doesn't already have. As a tool to protect a commander, it has a better chance. Perhaps mono-color commander centric decks like Godo or Urza can run this without any real concession to the reliability of their mana, adding even more utility to their manabases. At (3) and a tap, it's not easy to pay for, but it's better than nothing.
Relic of Legends
Good god, a three-mana rock? It seems unlikely any Manalith adjacent card could make it in cEDH when many decks eschew even two-mana rocks, but there are exceptions: Honor-Worn Shaku in Godo and Cursed Mirror in... Godo, among others. Which is to say that enough utility (or combo potential, I suppose Basalt Monolith counts) really can justify a three mana price tag.
Making colored mana rather than coloreless, Relic of Legends looks like an upgrade over Honor-Worn Shaku if not for the fact it stipulates creatures rather than permanents. This would fit best in a deck with two partners that are both central to the deck's strategy. If you can ensure you'll have both commanders in play early and you're thirsty for more colored mana, this might be right for your deck.
Dihada, Binder of Wills
Dihada, Binder of Wills is a triple threat: card advantage, mana production and a valuable combo piece. Unfortunately, she does the first two awkwardly. She'll only give you cards if you hit the tiny portion of Mardu legendaries worth playing in the 99 and while every miss is a Treasure, it takes a long time to build up the loyalty counters needed to activate her -3 again. Dihada's real draw is her combo potential with Underworld Breach and the way her -3 loyalty ability fills the bin.
Throw Flicker into the mix and you can get your entire library into your bin with enough mana to cast every spell you can Escape. Substitute Flicker with Mayhem Devil and you can use the Devil triggers from each Treasure sacrifice to ping down Dihada so you can recast and reactivate her. A Dihada deck will basically be an Underworld Breach secret commander deck, but that's not a bad thing. Who doesn't like going off with Breach?
Meria, Scholar of Antiquity
This is my pick for the best commander of the set. This is new territory for Gruul, not just because she's both mana production and card advantage, but because she encourages you to play artifacts, usually the very thing Gruul wants to destroy. The comparisons to Urza, Lord High Artificer are obvious and the same synergies apply, such as breaking parity on Winter Orb, Static Orb and to a lesser extent Trinisphere. But the differences can't be overlooked.
Most significantly, Meria's secondary ability is not an outlet, or at least, not a clean one. None of the combos so far found with Meria are as efficient or tutorable as Urza's Polymorph into Hullbreaker Horror or Isochron Scepter + Dramatic Reversal which makes her considerably less quick. Thankfully, Gruul is happy to slow the game down to a crawl and make the rest of the table play at its own pace. There are plenty of crippling stax effects to run alongside the orbs, the most notable being Collector Ouphe and Null Rod.
Anti-artifact cards? In my artifact-centric deck? It's more likely than you think. As long as your wincons don't rely on activating artifacts, Meria is the rare deck that can run fast artifact mana alongside Ouphe and Rod. They might stop artifacts from doing anything, but Meria's activated abilities are her activated abilities, not the artifacts'. They can still tap for green!
If you do want to use artifact combos and lean more into her second ability, there are combos with Underworld Breach and Grinding Station, not to mention some developing lines with Battered Golem and Traxos, Scourge of Kroog.
Stenn, Paranoid Partisan
With the printing of Elsha of the Infinite two years ago and The Reality Chip in Kamigawa 2: Electric Boogaloo, comboing off with Sensei's Divining Top has never been easier. Stenn is a new addition to that club, even though he serves a different role in the combo: the mana reducer.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out this explainer from my favorite cEDH resource, CommanderSpellbook. There's only one Sensei's Divining Top, but Future Sight and Helm of Awakening have various substitutes. Stenn is one of those substitutes and functions in the same way as Kykar, Wind's Fury does by making Sensei's Divining Top free to cast. Personally, I'd rather have the Future Sight equivalent in the command zone for the sake of consistent card advantage when not going for the combo, but the right artifact-centric build could make up for the lack of card advantage with additional speed via Stenn's discount ability.
Raff, Weatherlight Stalwart
This would be my pick for best Azorius commander ever if Shorikai, Genesis Engine hadn't been printed earlier this year. At a baseline and just like Vega, the Watcher before them, Shorikai and Raff both function as outlets for Isochron Scepter + Dramatic Reversal. Working as an outlet for a clean and tutorable combo is a great start when assessing anything for cEDH viability. The Isochron win can be harder to setup than Shorikai's courtesy of needing an additional creature, but easier because you only need to produce (2) mana on board to get infinite draws, not (3).
Beyond the Isochron combo, Raff, Weatherlight Stalwart is a decent source of card advantage. The additional value you'll accrue off creatures you probably weren't tapping down anyway will really add up over the course of a game. Pair that with Raff's low casting cost lending itself to a smooth curve and you've got yourself a fantastic commander. If nothing else, I've never seen a better reason to play Monastery Mentor in cEDH.
Ramses, Assassin Lord
Ramses is as funny as he is bad. There's been some discussion of how Ramses, Assassin Lord would work in a tournament context where a player could collude with an opponent and concede at instant speed to force a loss for the rest of the table, but this isn't much more than an irritating hypothetical.
Killing one player might seem easier than killing the whole table at once, but when the vast majority of playable combos in the format (including the very best, Thoracle, which this deck can run) already do that, it's hard to see what Ramses is actually making easier. Sure, you could lean into combat damage and hyper focus a single player down - Hatred works beautifully here - but you'll be doing it without card advantage or mana advantage, and you'll be putting in significantly more work than other Dimir decks like Yuriko, Nymris and Vohar - more on that last one in a moment.
Rona, Sheoldred's Faithful
Well, she's an Isochron Scepter + Dramatic Reversal outlet, I'll give her that. She's also dull as dishwater. Isochron outlets aren't new to Dimir, with Oona, Queen of the Fae being the go-to ever since Kaladesh's release and the printing of Dramatic Reversal. But much like Oona, in a cEDH context, Rona just doesn't really... do anything.
Being a scepter outlet is great, but is it enough? You could play Kels, Fight Fixer and have some incidental card advantage or Toxrill, the Corrosive with both card advantage and one of the most crushing anti-creature effects available in cEDH. The unique part of Rona is her mini Guttersnipe effect and that just won't be relevant outside of a long game or an incredible storm turn. The recursion is borderline flavor text as well. If you're keeping count at home, this is the second Isochron Scepter commander in Dominaria United and we still have one to go.
Shanna, Purifying Blade
It's nice to see Bant get something other than Chulane, Teller of Tales or the various partner combinations that the trio have been stuck with the last few years. Shanna, Purifying Blade is, fittingly, pure card advantage. There's nothing tricksy here, just swing, gain life and spend mana to draw cards.
The fact that Shanna doesn't actually have to connect the way that Tymna does is huge point in her favor. The fact you need to keep reinvesting in her to see that card draw is a strike against her. Likewise, the fact you don't see those cards until the beginning of the end step is a shame. A decent hand with a mana dork that lets you play Shanna on turn two will mean a turn three connection. With the exception of instants, you won't be able to use those cards until turn four. The end result is six mana spent over two turns for three cards. While those three cards are repeatable, and even scalable if Shanna can back herself up with Serra Ascendant, it's fairly slow in comparison to other card advantage options.
One way to mitigate this lack of speed would be to drag the game down to a slower level with a suffocating stax suite. White is easily the best stax color and green does a wonderful job of providing it the consistency and mana production it needs to get off the ground, along with stax of its own. Alternatively, Shanna could be built as more of a draw-go style deck, hoping to maximize Instant speed interaction to make use of the end step draws.
Verrak, Warped Sengir
He's one spooky-looking fella, and damned if we don't all wish Orzhov had a unique cEDH viable commander! At first, Verrak looks incredible. Doubling up on fetchlands? An Orzhov deck can max out at eight good fetchlands, and Verrak will give you genuine land ramp in colors that have no right having such a thing.
Not to mention getting twice as many cards from Necropotence! Wait, you still have to pay the life, so it's the same. Okay, well how about double trouble when you draw cards from Tymna the Weaver? Oh no, that doesn't work either, hers is a triggered ability not an activated one. Alright, what about producing a crazy amount of mana with Blood Celebrant, wouldn't that be awesome? You could pay for a Peer into the Abyss and have mana leftover to play with! Nope, Verrak says non-mana abilities. There's still Razaketh and Vilis, but by the time you've put in the work to resurrect either creature, they should be enough. The more you try to brew with this commander, the more you'll start asking yourself, "does Verrak do anything other than boost fetchlands?".
Verrak looks like there should be something under the surface, but there's too little that synergises with it and no smooth win condition. The hunt for a truly powerful Orzhov commander continues.
Vohar, Vodalian Desecrator
The coolest name in the set, no contest. And the best Dimir commander in the set, as it's not only an Isochron outlet (are you tired of talking about Isochron Scepter yet?), it does other things as well! While not exciting, filtering once per turn is a fine thing to do and never useless. More interestingly, it means Vohar can crack Doomsday piles on demand.
And then there's the second line of text. Reminiscent of Kess, Dissident Mage, Vohar can turn the forbidden tutors - Demonic Consultation and Tainted Pact - into one card wincons. Simply cast either one, grab Thassa's Oracle, activate Vohar to replay the tutor and execute the combo as usual.
Vohar is the first Dimir commander we've ever seen that can efficiently run Doomsday and Isochron Scepter & Dramatic Reversal. Coupled with Thassa's Oracle a Vohar deck is capable of running three of the best wincons in the format. If you love Dimir and you want a deck jam packed with the best staples the guild has to offer, Vohar is your... Phyrexian Merfolk.
Dominaria United looks like the weakest of the full sets this year, at least in a cEDH context. There's enough to brew to tide me over until the Brothers War rolls around, but only just. The best offerings are the new commanders - I wager it won't be long before you see Meria, Vohar, Shanna in the wild.
But maybe I've been too pessimistic. Is there more potential in Dominaria United than I've been able to find? Am I underrating your favorite new card? Did I forget anything? Let me know in the comments!