Pattern Recognition #196 - Domain
20 May 2021
20 May 2021
Hello everyone! This is Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series as written by myself, berryjon. I am something of an Old Fogey who has been around the block quite a few times where Magic is concerned, as as such, I use this series to talk about the various aspects of this game, be it deck design, card construction, mechanics chat, in-universe characters and history. Or whatever happens to cross my mind this week. Please, feel free to dissent in the comments below the article, add suggestions or just plain correct me! I am a Smart Ass, so I can take it.
Not many mechanics get keyworded later in life when they get reprinted a second time. This mostly happens when something moves from being a minor component of a set or just something that was just so common now that it made sense to Keyword it in order to keep card text down.
Domain is an example of the former, and not the latter. First published in the Invasion Block, Domain was a non-keyword ability that played into one of the greater themes of the block, that of multicoloured decks by passively encouraging players to play with multiple land types, rewarding them for it. It currently sits at a '6' on the Storm Scale, indicating that its use is fairly narrow and it is unlikely to return in a Standard rotation set.
You know, in the days where the only non-Basic lands with basic land types were the Alpha Duals. Before the Shock Lands, the Bicycle Lands, the Tricycle Lands...
Anyway, Domain worked by counting the number of basic land types you had in play and setting that as the current value of a variable on the card. You see, every card with Domain has a variable "X" on it that changes according to the number of types you have in play. Plains, Island, Swamp, Mountain and Forest. But not Urza's or Desert, or other non-basic land types. This means that yes, as I mentioned above, Sacred Foundry counts as both Plains and Mountains for this mechanic.
Now, when I mentioned variables, Domain's effect usually came in one of two types, with a couple outliers. The first was Aven Trailblazer, or Matca Rioters, where the Domain number was used to determine the scale of power and/or toughness of the creature. On the other side of things, we got the vast majority of cards where the Domain count was used to determine something else, a simple count for the resolution of the spell or ability, like Drag Down or Power Armor.
Lastly, the first of my mentioned exceptions are the same on Draco and Stratadon, where these two cards have their costs reduced from 'HAHA NO' to merely expensive. The other one is on Magnigoth Treefolk, where the Land types you control determine which landwalks you get on that creature.
Domain is not in of itself a complicated mechanic, and it does have some severe restrictions. So let's look at those.
First is that Domain is, by nature, limited from to in terms of what the variable could be. Back when we came back to Zendikar for Oath of the Gatewatch, we got Wastes as the new Basic Land to show off how the Eldrazi were interacting with the plane. This of course, caused people including myself to wonder how this would interact with Domain if we suddenly got a sixth basic land type. Wizards solved this by simply not giving Wastes a land type, but did keep the Basic supertype.
Anyway, what this means is that Domain cards can have a predictable scaling, and by adjusting the casting cost, you can aim for more likely results than others. Cards like Evasive Action assume a Domain of two, even though it could just be cast with Islands in play. On the flip side, when these cads were made, and the total lack of viable multi-type lands, I am legitimately surprised that we only saw Ordered Migration and Exploding Borders be the only two multi-coloured Domian cards.
Let me step back for a moment here. Domain cards, because they assumed multiple land types would be in play when they were cast, even if they only had one required color on the card, were costed as though the expected outcome would be Two or Three or sometimes higher. Gaea's Might and the functional reprint of Might of Alara for example, only makes sense when it was expected that it be cast in an environment with three land types, otherwise it's a strictly worse Giant Growth, one of the staples and benchmarks of the game.
These numbers change from card to card, and because of this, knowing when a Domain card is 'worth it' when compared to a card without the Domain variable can be difficult, if not next-to impossible.
This reason helped sabotage Domain before it really got going, as in the Invasion block, the cards were still designed with two colors in mind, three at most for stuff like Degavolver. And that placed a soft, almost unwritten cap on how effective these cards could be outside of more fringe cases. Like, I dunno, a Five colour deck? But that's silly. Who builds those?
Domain's problems come from the cost of the cards themselves, and the cap on how effective they can be. The former is an issue because Wizards can't judge optimal values when the player base will easily prove them wrong, while in the latter, if you want upwards scaling, why not simply put an in the casting cost?
Which is why, surprise, surprise, Wizards tried again. With two mechanics that... wait a minute.
What the hell.
OK, that's a thing. I can see the differences, but that's not here or now as I want to look at something else. Both of these mechanics move away from checking land types, especially as those have proliferated in terms of what lands they can appear on and more towards checking what colors of mana were used to cast the spell. On one hand, it's simpler in that you don't need to keep track of your land subtypes, but on the other, these replacement mechanics do require thinking in more detail about what lands or non-land sources you used to pay for the costs involved.
All three of these mechanics were also hard-capped at five because again, there are only five colours of mana in the game. Sorry everyone, no Purple or Pink yet. So that led to the same constraints.
A side experiment though, led to a small mini-cycle of cards in the Lorwyn Block, and the one I remember most was Dawnglow Infusion. There was also Firespout, Repel Intruders, River's Grasp and Torrent of Souls. These were cards that rewarded you for using multiple colours of mana when casting them, but they didn't require them either.
This theme was taken forward into Ravnica... No. Wait. I have them backwards. Yeesh. Ravnica came before Lorwyn/Shadowmoor, what was I thinking? I was thinking about Induce Paranoia, a card that was part of a horizontal cycle of cards for each guild where you got a basic effect (if slightly over-costed when compared to the later standard set by Cancel but you gained an added benefit if you spent a second colour on that spell. This allowed you to use the card in multiple decks, but you got the full effect for being in-colour.
Wizards has experimented with color requirements or benefits that don't matter to the casting cost, from off-colour activation, like Tasigur, the Golden Fang, or the above examples where the effects improve based on the number of colours you throw into them.
The problem then becomes one of deckbuilding. A lot of these cards trend towards such difficult requirements that they become ignored, or seen as last-pick draft choices because in this game, mutli-colour decks are supposed to be more intensive to build than mono-colored ones.
Yeah, I know, most of you will disagree with me there, but I remember an age when dual lands weren't the norm, but the exception. When making a multi-coloured deck meant basically building two half-decks and carefully balancing one against the other in terms of resources and space in the deck.
These cards are all part of a long term acceptance by Wizards that this should not have been as difficult as I remember it, that there should be a reward for expansion, rather than more narrow limitations.
Domain started this off by really making the effort - no matter how much it may have fallen on its face - to encourage people to branch out into different colours passively, rather than more aggressively with multi-colored casting costs, and huge splashy effects to draw people into them.
As I've said before, and I'll say again, I'm a fan of giving players options to work with, and letting them build their own creations, rather than building a specific play-lines in sets and going outside of those results in poor decks. These early attempts to open up options may not have succeeded, but they shouldn't have been abandoned and the whole course of card design gone a different direction.
Hey, where did this soap box come from? And who makes these any more?
Regardless, it was an experiment that found better outlets. Hybrid Mana for one. Encouraging multi-coloured play is now the norm for the game, and I accept and embrace that, even as I plot in the back of my mind a return to the days of aggressively mono-coloured decks, where only could do everything.
Live and learn, as some people say.
So, join me next week when I break down the card distribution of my developing set! Expect math, charts and graphs.
Until then please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!