Magic 2013: Sole Domination Review (Part 1 of 2)
A rotating card pool. Multiple new sets each year. A Standard format which evolves and adjusts each Autumn upon rotation. At its core, change is bound up in the heart of Magic. In our last review, we discussed how the advent of Magic 2010 marked a milestone in Magic’s history, a major turning point for the design philosophy of Core Sets. It should not be surprising, then, that the game has hardly sat still since then, with other innovations being introduced. Indeed, we would see the first of these the very next year.
Although groundbreaking, Magic 2010 was a fairly simple and stragithforward set, filled as it was with evergreen mechanics (flying, haste, etc.). The next advancement in Core Set construction was the introduction of the concept of the returning mechanic. This idea- to take a mechanic from the history of the game and give it a fresh coat of paint- had already been introduced in the expert-level expansions- for instance, kicker in Zendikar (originally in 2000’s Invasion) and flashback in Innistrad (2001’s Odyssey). With Magic 2011, they brought it into the Core Sets. For the grand unveiling, Wizards chose to bring back scry. From 2004’s Fifth Dawn set, scry satisfied the basic criteria that they were looking for. In other words, it was flavourful, easy to grasp for the new or returning player, and not on the plate for returning in any planned expert-level expansion.
It made an immediate splash, and affirmed the validity of the idea. The next year, we saw bloodthirst return, and what’s more, a set better built to accommodate it with new cards like Tormented Soul and Goblin Fireslinger. This leads us to the second sea change in Core Set innovation- the underpinning philosophy with regards to accessibility. Mark Rosewater explains this here, when he says:
I feel we’ve shifted our thinking about the core set over the last five years (since the design of Magic 2010). While simplicity is still valued, it is not the prime goal that it once was when we defined the core set as the entry point into Magic.
We now believe that Duels of the Planeswalkers is the best entry point and it leads into the core set. This means the core set is less about being as simple as possible and more about showing off what Magic has to offer (while still not overwhelming the newer player). That’s why we’re playing up resonance, showing off more of the Multiverse, bringing back popular reprints, and including a returning rotating mechanic.
These twin currents helped guide and shape the form of Magic 2013. It is indeed a less “basic” release than some previous Core Sets, while at the same time holding true to the objectives of the product line. And with it, we see the return of exalted, the mechanic that defined the shard of Bant in 2008’s Shards of Alara. As originally concepted, exalted reflected the honourable nature of the shard’s inhabitants, where conflicts were decided in single combat. For Magic 2013, exalted has undergone a slight course correction. As with Shards of Alara, we find it showing up in White (Bant’s primary colour alignment), but it also comes through in… Black?
“Black is a new color for exalted,” explains Creative Designer Doug Beyer, “but we felt that beyond white and its allies, black is the color with the most flavor of exalting higher powers. While white honors its paladins and angels with acolytes and squires, black pays loyalty to its demonic lords with cultists and dark priests.”
Indeed. As it happens, both are the subject of today’s deck, Sole Domination. Paladins and angels and squires? Check. Demonic lords and dark priests? Check. Black and White working together? Now that’s something to really exalt.
At the Altar of Power
Black/White decks haven’t traditionally been the most common of colour pairings, but in recent times we’ve seen it crop up increasingly often- note Dark Sacrifice in Dark Ascension and Magic 2011’s Blades of Victory. Wrapped around the exalted mechanic, the deck’s concept is a straightforward one. Set out a number of creatures with exalted, then turn one massive beater sideways every turn until your opponent is pulped.
To do so, Sole Domination gives you the most solid core of exalted creatures yet assembled. Going back in time, we note that the first deck to feature the keyword, Bant Exalted, only had just under 20% of its content made up of cards which carried it. The next deck, Conflux’s Bant on the March, actually had one card less. With Sole Domination, Wizards has decided that the mechanic needed a bit more presence to do what the deck asks of it, so they upped it to an even 25%.
The fifteen exalted cards run the gamut of the deck’s mana curve, appearing in every converted mana cost class. It beings with a pair of Duty-Bound Dead, which shows you what you’re able to get for a single mana if you are willing to drop a creature’s power to 0. In addition to exalted, the Dead carry a somewhat pricey regeneration effect, but you’ll seldom have much call for the latter. One consequence of attacking with a single creature (to gain the exalted benefit) is that you’ll have a much thicker defensive core. At four mana, this is late-game gravy.
Moving up a rung, we find the replacements for the old White and Black Knights. Knight of Infamy and Knight of Glory lack the first strike of their classic predecessors, but in return each carry exalted. In a nod to the deck’s colour scheme (one dominant colour plus a splash of a second), the deck gives you two of the Knights of Infamy, and only one of Glory. White doesn’t miss out, however, as it also brings along a pair of Aven Squires. A Conflux reprint, the Squires serve double duty. First, of course, they are exalted. Second, they are a very strong candidate for being your main attacker. The key to effective use of the keyword is to have a creature that is hard to block, lest your opponent simply chump-block your lone attacker over and over. By taking to the air, the Squire becomes a much harder threat to deal with, and a potential headache for your opponent.
For three-drops, we begin with a new card, the appropriately-named Servant of Nefarox. The Servant is reminiscent of another recently-printed card, Innistrad’s Markov Patrician, and as both are at common it shows that exalted and lifelink are at relative parity, cost-wise. Although her fragile toughness is a liability, she’s a strong candiate for attacking should you lack any evasive options thanks to her solid power. There’s also a Guardians of Akrasa, another Alara-era reprint. Although they are more defensive-minded in nature, that’s less of a liability here than it would be in other decks since they’re not going to be attacking anyway.
From there we find a pair of Duskmantle Prowlers, 2/2 bodies which also carry haste. Although like the Servant they lack evasion, they still retain some surprise value by being able to attack straightaway. Finally, at the top of the mana curve we find Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis. In addition to being the deck’s premium foil rare, he’s an absolute beating in an exalted deck. Not only does he carry the keyword himself, but he has the added benefit of hitting your opponent with an Edict effect whenever you turn him sideways by himself. Sole Domination has a very reasonable cost distribution across the curve, and this makes a superlative closer here.
Share the Feast of Blood
That still leaves a further dozen creatures that have other things they bring to the table. Thanks to the deck’s theme, even one-drop creatures like the Tormented Soul and Warclamp Mastiff are splendidly relevant even when drawn later in the game. Indeed, so long as you’ve managed to field a few exalted creatures, they never really go stale. The Soul in particular can end games quite quickly unless immediately neutralised, as it removes the ability of your opponent to block. The Mastiff is blockable, but thanks to first strike doing so may come at a fairly hefty cost.
Further evasive options are present deeper into the deck. One nightmare scenario for your opponent is if you manage to find your Vampire Nighthawk, a wonderful reprint from Zendikar. Although deathtouch is less relevant here (since if you have enough exalted triggers piling on him, you’re going to kill whatever you’re up against anyway), the lifelink can pivot a game right around on its axis. Even if all you get is one solid exalted-buffed strike before your opponent finds their removal, you’ll have received quite a return for your three-mana investment. A pair of Bloodhunter Bats have the added benefit of a Syphon Life effect when they enter the battlefield, and leave behind another evasive threat.
Much less sexy are the pair of Walking Corpses, which here are simply filling a hole to ensure you don’t fall too far behind your opponent. A strictly better upgrade over the long-serving Scathe Zombies, the Walking Corpse is an inclusion from Innistrad and gives Black a bit more creature efficiency. Further up the chain we see another familiar face, the Zombie Goliath, which has made an appearance in three out of the four modern Core Sets. Thanks to exalted, even these rather pedestrian creatures have a chance to shine.
The deck’s final three creatures are all new cards. Liliana’s Shade is the newest entry in the Shade class, Black creatures which let you funnel Black mana into them for a power/toughness boost. This one has a new trick, letting you grab a Swamp on its way in to help with that endeavour. The Veilborn Ghoul, meanwhile, is a brittle 4/1 that compells aggression by having a blocking restriction. That extra Swamp you grabbed with the Shade has a perfect use here, since whenever the Ghoul is in your graveyard you can fetch it back by playing one. Finally, we find the deck’s second rare in the Xathrid Gorgon. Although a six-mana 3/6 is a bit pricey, it’s not her deathtouch that’s driving up the cost here. Rather, in a flavourful turn she can petrify your opponent’s creatures, turning them into defenders which can’t activate any special abilities. She’s brutal, and bound to be a lot of fun (for you) when she hits the table.
The Strong Transcend
As you’d hope for in these colours, the removal package is fairly strong here, giving you ample ways to support your attacking beater(s). For one thing, you get a pair of Murders, the new Doom Blade but without the colour limitations. White brings along its relative equivalent in its workhorse spell Pacifism, which gives you a further two options. You also get a pair of Cower in Fears. A blanket -1/-1 to all your opponent’s creatures, this has the opportunity to knock out multiple creatures if you catch your opponent at the right time.
A couple of enchantments further enhance your board position. Blood Reckoning punishes any opponent who has the nerve to attack you, while Angelic Benediction acts as a form of very temporary removal on your opponent’s best blocker whenever you attack. In addition, we find the last occurrence of exalted on it as well. Lastly, there’s some creature buffs available with a Mark of the Vampire and Ring of Xathrid. Mark of the Vampire is a creature aura which gives a solid power/toughness boost and lifelink. Although the Ring’s bonus is a bit more conditional and gradual, as equipment you’re free to use it as often as you can pay to equip it.
Throw in an Evolving Wilds for colour-fixing, some Swamps and a handful of Plains and voila! Sole Domination is served! Next we’ll take it into the field of play for some in-game testing, then return with a verdict.