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By: Psychobabble, PB
May 28 2015 12:00pm
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One of the biggest disappointments of the Theros block was the impact, or lack thereof, that the gods had in standard. These cards seemed to be set up to be the poster-beings of the set in constructed. They were a splashy mythic cycle across all three sets, were an almost completely new take on a card type and showed off many of the block's core themes - enchantments, devotion, Greek mythology. Unfortunately, while Thassa, God of the Sea had her time in the sun, none of the other mono-coloured gods had more than a fringe impact while the multi-coloured gods were a complete flop. Remember all the pre-release hype about Ephara, God of the Polis? Do you even remember that she's still legal? The gods were, and are, constructed bit players at best and that was a huge failing of the block in my opinion. The problem was both because their power level was slightly too low, but also because WoTC was too cautious in preventively seeding answers to them - Unravel the Aether, Selesnya Charm and the utterly unnecessary Deicide as the nail in the coffin.

So it was with some amount of caution that I approached the latest splashy headlining cycle of elder dragons. I was generally cold on three of them - Dromoka, Kholagan and Silumgar - but was sold on the other two. I never imagined that WoTC would actually find the holy grail and print a cycle of durdly, casual-appeal, timmy dragon cards that just so happen to be constructed powerhouses, let alone that you would be able to get away with playing a deck full of all colours of dragons as a legitimate strategy! Today's article delves into a strategy that is at the perfect intersection of cool, thematic and powerful - 5-colour dragons.

Metagame overview

While aggressive red decks remain on top, the format continues to evolve:

Last week red was a standout winner, this week it's joined by Abzan midrange/control which had literally the same number of copies as aggressive red decks by my count (each had exactly 113). A few comments on these figures:

  • UBx control continues its slide down from top deck in the meta. It may still be a viable option in the hands of the right pilot, but it's no longer the default best deck of the format.
  • Abzan, combined, makes up an even greater proportion of the meta this week - 27% up from ~23% last week. It's joined in the midrange space by a strong performance from Mardu (up from 7.7% last week) and Gx devotion which makes a return to the list (not at all unrelated to the fall of Esper dragons).
  • Gx aggro, which is mainly various (non-abzan) Gw and mono green collected company variants, makes its way out of the "other" category onto the graph for the first time. I haven't been particularly impressed with these decks in my admittedly limited testing, but they've established themselves as an aggro option.

In my old block columns, I would sometimes highlight a completely rogue deck option that had placed in a recent daily. In going through the MTGGoldfish results, a deck caught my eye which inspired me to bring this back. The auto-classification tool described this deck as "UG" with the three key cards of Torrent Elemental, Assault Formation and Dragon's Eye Savants. I knew I was on to something spicy:

 

Outside of the mana base, this deck can be put together for peanuts and looks well worth a shot if you want to try a rogue strategy in standard. Assault Formation is a brewer's dream, and this is a pretty interesting take on the strategy. Commune with the Gods, Omenspeaker and Monastery Siege help you dig for your Assault Formation (although I might question whether the latter is any better than Anticipate, while a bunch of high-toughness dorks clam up the ground until you do so. Torrent Elemental is a generally under-appreciated card, here the on-attack falter effect ensures that your assault formation-enhanced team gets through for what could often be a one-shot kill. The sideboard Profaner of the Dead is a card I had expected to see a bit more, it combos perfectly here with a bunch of high-toughness creatures to bounce your opponent's board.

5-colour dragons

Before getting to this week's list, I just thought I'd diverge a bit to explain why Mike Flores is one of the best stories in Magic at the moment. While I had dabbled with other people's cards at high school in the late 90s, I only started playing Magic properly in early 2012 around the release of Dark Ascension. My prime source of information about the game was the official website, which was kind enough to dish up a whole lot of content well aimed at a new player such as the (now defunct) Building on a Budget column. I was always kind of put off by the author of their Top Decks column though - Mike Flores. This was supposed to be the article analysing the current standard metagame, but it was written by this strange self-promoting old-timer who spent his time banging on about old cards and decks I'd never heard of and didn't care about, while occasionally promoting clearly ridiculous strategies like Door to Nothingness. I eventually found out he'd once written a fairly cool article, but wasn't surprised when he eventually was put out to pasture by the editorial team.

Fast forward a couple of years. I'm a keen devourer of magic content, including podcasts, and am excited when I find that Patrick Chapin has launched a weekly podcast. He's done so with his friend Mike Flores, but I can overlook Flores' self aggrandisment and constant tangents because he's got good personality on the 'cast, and plus with a bit more experience in the game behind me the history lessons are a little bit more interesting. Plus, one of the more interesting angles of the podcast to begin with is the meta-story of Mike's quest to rejoin the pro tour. On one episode, the two hosts do some off-air brewing of a (pre-DTK) UB control deck, but Flores actually has the microphone on and posts the brewing discussion as the 'cast. The next week Flores wins his local PPTQ with the deck. A few weeks later, a cast which is primarily devoted to dissecting the three versions of UBx control that featured at Pro Tour DTK slid off the rails towards the end with a look at a terribad mono-blue 5-colour dragons deck running a playset of maindeck Encase in Ice. Turns out, people who are better at Magic than me are better able to dissect the potential of a rogue deck like that though, and Mike goes and wins his pro tour qualifier a couple of weeks later with a modified version of the deck.

There's a few things I love about this story. In a world of pervasive net-decking and formats that are, apparently, quickly solved by the hive-mind, it was pretty amazing to see someone implement - on air - two different deckbuilding strategies which had such an immediate impact on their performance. It shows that there really is a deckbuilding skill in this game, whether it be taking an existing archetype and tweaking it for the current meta or brewing something completely off the wall. In addition, it was interesting to see how much Mike and Patrick were guided by their history of other similar decks in their brewing efforts, particularly something like "tap out blue" as an analogy for the 5-colour dragon decks. It gave an insight into how much of an edge old-time players can have in deck building based on their long history in a game which changes a lot on the surface but retains a similar core over time.

Anyway, enough background, lets dive into the decklist:

 

 

This deck looks like a monstrosity, but I've really enjoyed playing it online and have found it quite powerful. The key to the deck is that you have to understand how it plays, which is not at all like a control deck. This deck does not have sufficient tools to fight a full control game. Instead, you desperately try to trade cards in the early game and stay alive until you get to the point where you can cast trump after trump after trump. The idea is that the Dragonlords go so far over the top of what most decks are doing - and close the game out so quickly on their own - that if you can start casting them back to back, and ultimately recurring them with Haven of the Spirit Dragon, that you'll take over and finish the game quickly when you get to that point. You don't need to win the long game card advantage battles, you just need to cast two or three Dragonlords and ride them home.

This concept of how to play the deck leads to some interesting decisions. For instance, imagine your opening hand on the play against an unknown opponent is this:

Temple of Deceit Island Crucible of the Spirit Dragon Temple of Mystery Nullify Dragonlord Dromoka Dissolve

You play your tapland and your opponent plays Mountain, Foundry Street Denizen. The temptation here is to play a turn 2 Island to leave up Nullify, then an untapped land the following turn to leave open Dissolve. That's not necessarily the line there though. This hand doesn't win by countering your opponent's threats and refilling down the line with a Dig Through Time and playing a threat onto a clean board. In fact, your opponent has already played a creature so with no wrath costing less than nine total mana, you're never realistically going to face a clean board this matchup. The line here is arguably Turn 2 Crucible, storage counter. Turn three tapland, storage counter, turn 4 storage counter and nullify then turn 5 Dromoka and pray your opponent doesn't have Goblin Heelcutter. Against mono red, that line will put you very close to the edge, but you face the same sorts of decisions about letting your opponent play a threat vs putting a storage counter on Crucible, or developing your mana better with taplands, in many other matchups and it's frequently best to take the line that leads to a Dragonlord being in play a turn earlier.

Speaking of Crucible, that card - along with Haven of the Spirit Dragon - is absolutely crucial to making this deck work. There are so many hands which are average or actively bad for colour or speed reasons without one of those lands, but the fixing and acceleration they collectively provide make a mono-coloured deck with 5-colours of win conditions work. The crucible also does what you always want in a deck with a lot of counterspells, which is a way to spend your mana in your opponent's end step if they don't cast anything you want to counter. The land is simply amazing in the control mirror too. In that matchup, you can sit back and build up counters until you reach a point where you can cast a Dragonlord by tapping one land, leaving all of your counterspells up to either protect your threat or stop your opponent's depending on the situation. One little trick to note with Crucible though, if you ever get to a point where you have two out but can only put counters on one of them, prioritise getting the second counter on one copy over the first on the other - the storage counters only count as mana acceleration once you are taking the second one off a single land. Taking two storage counters off two different crucibles doesn't net you any additional mana over simply tapping the lands as normal, while taking two counters off a single land generates an extra mana over what you could otherwise make off it.

Two cards stand out in the maindeck as worthy of specific commentary. The first is Encase in Ice. One explanation could that Flores needed a punny title for his tournament report and included them just encase he won. The real reason is that thanks to the number of multi-colour creatures and decks floating around at the moment, both Encase and the related colour-hoser Self-Inflicted Wound are secretly non-terrible maindeck cards at the moment. Encase in Ice hits creatures from every top deck in the metagame graph above at the moment other than UB control. That's not necessarily true of Bile Blight, which is frequently main-decked and which sometimes has no relevant targets against Abzan Control or Gx devotion, other than the odd mana dork. The real problem with Encase isn't the colour restriction, it's the fact that it dies to Dromoka's Command and doesn't do much against certain threats like Goblin Rabblemaster or Whisperwood Elemental, it's the best removal option you have in blue though and great against certain early game creatures which can take over a game like Rakshasa Deathdealer, Deathmist Raptor and Warden of the First Tree.

The second is Perilous Vault. I can understand why you want the card here, it's a catch all answer for any board state that gets out of control, but it also fits in really awkwardly with the deck's overall game plan. As I said earlier, you are not a control deck. You are a dragon deck that uses counterspells to survive until you can cast your dragons and/or protect them once cast. I found that they played extremely awkwardly in practice and sideboarded them out frequently. The spot that they were most useful in was as recovery if your first round of dragons wasn't enough and your opponent cleared them out or went over the top. In that case, you might want it as a relatively urgent catchup for a board that's gotten out of control, and I feel that Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is worth looking for in that role. Perilous Vault is too slow to be an anti-aggro card, and Ugin's both cheaper and better in the late game against a slower deck like Abzan than vault so I think it might work.

The sideboard of this deck is a work of art. The deck's in an interesting spot where the 75 is built to handle the polar extremes of the metagame really well. The maindeck is surprisingly non-terrible against red, and the board just monsters it. In between Omenspeaker, Master of Waves, more Encase in Ice and a bunch of cheap counterspells backed up by an essentially un-killable 5/7 lifelink dragon, you have a very good post-board matchup against red. And with a truly ridiculous number of post-board counterspells and card draw spells you have inevitability against the esper decks. It's actually the decks in the middle that give you the most problem. Decks like Abzan aggro or Jeskai tokens, that play a big enough game that your dragons don't auto-win on the spot but a fast enough game that you can't stop all their plans with your early counterspells or Perilous Vault. These colour combinations just don't give you the tools to fight those battles. So what happens if you branch out a bit?

 

 

At first glance, this doesn't really look like the same deck. It looks like an abzan megamorph deck which replaced all its Siege Rhino's and Elspeths with dragons. Which it kind of is. But it's actually just following an evolutionary path from Mike Flores' deck. The key to that deck wasn't the counterspells - remember, it's not a control deck. The deck just wants some early disruption to survive and tap out to play big dragons, with Haven of the Spirit Dragon to fix your mana and recur your threats. The disruption here comes in the form of black removal (especially post-board), (Thoughtsieze) and Deathmist Raptor, which also happens to give you another late game engine to play with in combination with BFF Den Protector. The dragon angle in this deck allows you to run the often-superior Foul-Tongue Invocation over the third and fourth copies of Hero's Downfall, although some of those remain in as a concession to planeswalkers or edict-proof boards.

I've been jamming online with this deck for the past week, and it's my new favourite deck in standard. Unsurprisingly, it's not quite as powerful or consistent as the Abzan Aggro deck I tested last week, but it's far sweeter and easily competitive. It also wins matches that Abzan Aggro can't, and it has a way of coming back from insane spots that is truly impressive. Just when you think you're out of the game, you draw a Dragonlord Silumgar, steal your opponent's Elspeth and wipe their board or an Atarka and blow it up. There's so many angles you can take here throughout the game too, with really tough decisions around Den Protector (when to morph, when to unmorph, what to get back) and how to play your lands. On the subject of the morphing, everyone seems to be on the "kill every morph on sight" plan due to the power of Den Protector, while also doing everything they can to NOT kill Deathmist Raptor. For that reason, I've found myself playing Deathmist Raptor face down very often, they kill it then my Den Protector comes down a couple of turns later and recovers it.

I don't think this is the end of the line for the 5-colour dragons strategy. Already I've seen a mono-black version in the winning decklists:

 

 

I also played against an utterly insane Temur version in the 2-player queues the other night, it was running a bunch of insane cards like (Yisan, the Wandering Bard), Prophet of Kruphix and (Sarkhan, Unbroken) alongside the 5-colour dragon package. It was probably terrible, but totally sweet and shows that the space has a lot of brewing left in it. I look forward to seeing where it goes from here!

Conclusion

I'm going on holiday soon, so there won't be another column for a few weeks. I look forward to seeing where the format goes in the meantime, I feel there's still a couple of developments left before we head into Magic Origins! Until next time...