Day of the Dragon

Posted in Limited Information on April 8, 2015

By Marshall Sutcliffe

Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited and never looked back. He hosts the Limited Resources podcast and does Grand Prix and Pro Tour video commentary.

Confession: I've never been that into Dragons.

Don't get me wrong: if I open a sweet Dragon in draft, I'm taking it and I'm playing it. But when it comes to my favorite cards, I'm more of a Jellyfish type of guy.

Still, Dragons represent some of the coolest, biggest things you can do in Magic. They've long been fan favorites, ever since this one showed up in the original Magic set, Alpha:

Most of the lore behind Shivan Dragon revolves around it being traded for trinkets of jewelry or seemingly useless lands that made two different colors of mana. But the first Dragon had a much bigger impact on the game as a whole than just being the subject of stories some 20 years later. Shivan Dragon ruled the roost, and it set a precedent for awesomeness that wouldn't be upended until Planeswalkers started finding their spark and turning up in booster packs.

In the early days, we didn't have Limited like we know it now. Heck, it just didn't exist at all for a long time. And in some ways, that's not a bad thing. The game (and its designers) had to take some time to incubate before being ready for more complex game play scenarios like a Booster Draft.

Imagine opening this bad beast in a draft:

What in the world is going on here. That mana cost! Also, after finally compiling enough mana in the required colors to get this guy on the battlefield, you had to pay an upkeep cost or else it just died.

At least it had flying…?

What about this one:

Because 7 toughness is just never enough.

Anyway, Dragons have come a long way since those days, and for the most part they tend to be desirable bombs in Limited. When they aren't, it's usually because they are prohibitively expensive in mana cost.

Let's take a look at a sampling of Dragons from the most dragon-y set of all: Dragons of Tarkir.

Let There Be Dragon

When I first heard the name of this set, I wondered immediately if there would be common Dragons flapping about on Tarkir. Dragon creatures printed at common are exceedingly not common, as it turns out. There are but two common Dragons ever printed, and they were both printed in the last few years. (Dragon Hatchling and Lightning Shrieker for those wondering)

I figured if there was ever a time to unleash the mini-dragons it would be now. Apparently that just isn't a thing, though, as we didn't see any Dragons at common in Dragons of Tarkir. I don't work in R&D, but I think I know why this is the case: Dragons are special.

They aren't supposed to show up all the time, for risk of losing that specialness and becoming just another tribe.

But we did get a slew of Dragons at uncommon in Dragons of Tarkir: two full cycles and an outlier.

Let's start with the outlier first:

If we were going to get a Dragon at common, this is what it would have looked like. It's about as vanilla as a Dragon ghost can get, though it does have one interesting characteristic that we haven't seen that often: it's colorless. But it's not an artifact. It's kind of like the Eldrazi were, if you remember back that far.

But it's also a six mana 4/4 flying Dragon, which would normally meet the threshold for playability, but in this set it seems not to.

The reason is pretty simple:

Flexibility. This cycle of megamorph Dragons has a potentially higher upside than Scion of Ugin, but what really separates them is their fantastic mana flexibility. The problem with most Dragons is that they cost a lot of mana. While this puts them in a particularly good place as far as game-ending bombs go, it doesn't make them amenable to a simple curve-out scenario. Or a scenario where you are stumbling a bit on mana.

This cycle of megamorph Dragons helps out immensely in those spots, while doing a good enough job of finishing the game in the air after the dust has settled.

This is how I have them ranked in order of power level:

  1. Shieldhide Dragon
  2. Acid-Spewer Dragon
  3. Stormwing Dragon
  4. Belltoll Dragon
  5. Herdchaser Dragon

Shieldhide Dragon is in first here, and it's by a lot. The ability to pay the megamorph cost and then attack or block can be game changing thanks to lifelink. One clean hit in the air with a Shieldhide Dragon and it's an eight life point swing.

That's huge! Since these Dragons cost either six mana to get on the battlefield or a full seven man to turn face-up, it's not unreasonable to assume you may be a bit behind on the board by the time this actually happens. Shieldhide Dragon helps undo this damage the best out of the bunch.

Acid-Spewer Dragon is in second place because it is very difficult to tussle with in combat. It can block even the biggest of creatures and at least get a trade. It can also attack into the biggest creatures (usually opposing Dragons) and force blocks or get through for damage.

Stormwing Dragon does a decent job on defense with its first strike, and also is a trump to all of the other Dragons in this cycle as it wins combat against all of them.

Belltoll Dragon has hexproof, which is decent but not nearly as good as the other abilities we have seen that actually affect combat directly. Still, it's not bad.

Herdchaser Dragon is pulling up the rear here as trample on a flyer of this size (I call it "flample") is rarely relevant. Either the dragon can attack safely or it's being chump-blocked in which case you are usually only getting in for an extra point or two of damage.

Biggest and Baddest

Okay, no more fussing around. Let's touch on the biggest, baddest bombs you can open in this set: The Dragonlords. Every time you crack that first booster pack of Dragons of Tarkir, these are what you are hoping to open. The fact is all five of them are outstanding bombs and easy first picks.

The best of the bunch has to be Dragonlord Ojutai.

It's not that Dragonlord Ojutai is the most powerful of these five Dragons—he's not. It's the mana cost that is the big game changer here. While the other Dragons all cost 6 or 7 mana, Ojutai cashes in at an affordable five mana. It's easy to overlook that fact and just look at the stats and power level of the Dragons, but that would be a trap.

You'll often hit your fifth land drop on the fifth or sixth turn of the game. Your sixth land drop comes in around the eighth turn of the game, on average. To get up to seven mana, you'll have to wait until turn ten most of the time.

Another way to think of it: Dragonlord Ojutai attacks on turn six pretty often. That's a lot more than even Dragonlord Kolaghan can say; and she has haste!

Dragonlord Ojutai's abilities are fantastic as well, drawing you extra cards while being quite difficult to remove.

Next on my list is Dragonlord Silumgar.

Dragonlord Silumgar has a profound effect on the board once resolved. He can get you out of some pretty insane board positions, and there aren't many other cards in the whole set that can claim the same. He also works nicely with exploit, as you can steal an opposing creature and then exploit it away for value.

Or just kill your opponent with it. Either way.

I currently have Dragonlord Dromoka and Dragonlord Kolaghan in roughly the same spot.

They are vastly different cards but, in their respective color pairs, these two Elder Dragons get the job done, and done well. I love that Dragonlord Kolaghan can finish the game off so quickly, and I love that Dragonlord Dromoka can make it go longer.

Both are grade-A bombs and worthy of first picks and stretched mana bases to accommodate them.

That brings us to Dragonlord Atarka.

She is the most interesting of the whole bunch. She costs the most, but she is also the most powerful in a vacuum. Resolving a Dragonlord Atarka should result in a dramatic upward spike of your win percentage for that game. She not only stabilizes the board, but she closes the game out very quickly.

The interesting thing about Dragonlord Atarka is the mana. Once resolved, she is the best of this bunch by a fair margin. But for every game that you die while holding Dragonlord Atarka in your hand after only getting up to six mana, Dragonlord Ojutai will have won a game just by virtue of costing two full mana fewer.

Still, if you can build your deck to make sure you can resolve Dragonlord Atarka consistently, she is the best of these dragons.

Here to Stay

Dragons are always going to be a part of Limited Magic. They don't serve a dominant role in many sets (Dragons of Tarkir being an exception) but their presence is always felt. I've heard many pro players just substitute the word "dragon" for any huge bomb card, regardless of its type.

Now that's respect.

Until next week!


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