Tribal Attractions: Dragons
With its strict, four-faction setting, Ixalan has been a very tribal block, and then Dominaria doubled down with some tribal focus of its own. Time for Kumagoro to have fun with Modern-legal concoctions for some less obvious tribes. In this installment: the most iconic of the iconic tribes.
Dragon is arguably the most popular creature type in Magic, to the point of receiving a new instance (aka "the Obligatory Dragon") in most sets that don't expressly exclude its presence due to internal lore. The firebreathing flying lizards have always been a staple of fantasy narratives, from ancient folklore, both Western and Eastern, to the Arthurian cycle, Fafner in Der Ring des Nibelungen, Smaug in The Hobbit, down to a certain hyper-successful HBO show that's been in the zeitgeist for the better part of the current decade. It felt only natural for Magic: The Gathering to feature right away one of the two "Ds" in D&D (five years before Dungeon Shade), and that's how Shivan Dragon ended up having the honor to be the first great finisher in the game.
The problem with using Dragons to build a Modern tribal deck (the established goal of each installment in this series) is that, in order to be the impressive centerpieces their literary reputation demanded, they have rarely come cheap, CMC-wise. In fact, out of the 123 Modern-legal Dragons, only four cost less than four mana: Slumbering Dragon, Dragon Hatchling, Dragon Egg, and Sarkhan's Whelp.
Most of the thirteen four-mana Dragons aren't very interesting either. Dragon Whelp, Furnace Whelp and Hellkite Hatchling are some other underwhelming dragon pups; Phantasmal Dragon belongs with its other tribe, and Arcades, the Strategist with tribes that aren't Dragon; Avaricious Dragon and Rathi Dragon seem hardly playable these days (though the latter has a history of being a bomb back in the Tempest era); Rakdos Pit Dragon and Skyship Stalker are mediocre mana-intensive specimens; and Thunderbreak Regent is only mildly interesting. The only strong Dragons in this group are Archwing Dragon, because he's a hasty attacker that dribbles sorcery-speed removal, Verix Bladewing for being flexible and legendary (in case it matters, or just to nullify Cast Down), and Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, because he's just a few mana away from being a Nicol Bolas planeswalker card.
The good news is that from this point on the curve onward, the Dragons really shine. CMC 5 in particular is the home of a triptych of amazing finishers that will savagely fight for a slot in your red-based midrange deck.
Do we go midrange, then? It's certainly a way. We can include some accelerants (well, maybe not Dragonlord's Servant) and some control elements, on the way to some crushing late-game action. The sheer number of Dragons required for a proper Tribal Wars build (which is twenty Dragons out of a 60-card deck) is unfortunately its own Achilles heel, but the whole endeavor can lead to a nicely thematic deck, also thanks to dragon-lover Sarkhan being recently graced with a very tribal-friendly iteration.
I kept it simple by remaining firmly monocolored, despite the temptation to run at least a couple of excellent high-profile guild-colored Dragons like Dragonlord Atarka and Dragonlord Dromoka, with Haven of the Spirit Dragon and Crucible of the Spirit Dragon probably already providing enough of a splash to cast them. And of course Crux of Fate could be our sweeper of choice in a multicolored Dragon deck, though a heavy black presence doesn't suit the tribe too well.
|4Bloodstained Mire||2Demanding Dragon||3Lightning Bolt|
|4Cavern of Souls||4Dragon Egg||2Spit Flame|
|2Crucible of the Spirit Dragon||4Glorybringer||3Slagstorm|
|10Mountain||2Scourge of Valkas||3Sarkhan, Fireblood|
|4Ramunap Ruins||4Stormbreath Dragon||2Dragon Tempest|
|2Thundermaw Hellkite||3Dragon's Hoard|
A Storm of Dragons
Midrange strategies are fine and all, but let's consider an entirely different avenue to put our scaly friends onto the battlefield. The most celebrated dragon-themed deck in the history of competitive Magic has to be the one built around the most larger-than-lif e of all the cards bearing the storm mechanic.
A classic from Scourge, inducted into Modern via Time Spiral "Timeshifted" reprint, Dragonstorm was famously piloted by Makihito Mihara all the way to the top of the 2006 World Championship. His list was hardly tribal-oriented, though, featuring only six of the mighty fiends.
One year later, Dragonstorm decks were still so prominent that players would side Ignite Memories to punish the high-costing cards that were characteristic of those builds. During that year's Worlds semifinals, a epoch-making Dragonstorm mirror match happened between Patrick Chapin and Gabriel Nassif. You can see it here.
From those lists we can surmise that one Dragon in particular, Bogardan Hellkite, is the lynchpin of the entire battleplan, since it can turn resolving a Dragonstorm into winning the game right then and there. In order to do that you'd need a storm count of three and all the Hellkite copies still in the library, which is not guaranteed to be the case every time a Dragonstorm resolves, as cards have the annoying habit of being occasionally drawn. As a backup, Mihara used Hunted Dragon, able to swing immediately for six (those Knights stop being a concern if they never get to retaliate), while Chapin and Nassif's list, which they had developed together, included traditional storm game-ender Grapeshot. A crucial element that still had to be printed at the time was the Legendary Dragon that would lower the required insta-win storm count to just two.
By summoning one Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund and a couple of Bogardan Hellkites as part of Dragonstorm's resolution, you deal ten damage due to the Hellkite triggers, then attack for 17. And you even get to ignore hosing effects like Thalia, Heretic Cathar's and/or steal the occasional Glorybringer on the opponent's side, exerted or otherwise.
Those classic lists highlight all the main elements that any Dragonstorm deck needs:
- Some ramp factor, to reach the whopping nine mana required by our game-ending spell;
- Something cheap to raise the storm count the turn we go off;
- A way not to get stuck with all the finishing cards in hand.
Lotus Blossom appears immediately as a must-include, its time counters marking the countdown to the fatal turn when we'll storm out, exploiting both its mana as well as its storm boost. A Lotus Bloom suspended on turn one will go online on turn four, and by then we'll have four lands out, hopefully, which means we'll still miss two mana. Alas Seething Song is not an option anymore, and both Desperate Ritual/Pyretic Ritual and Rite of Flame only increase the mana production by one, so if we don't want to wait for a later turn, we'll need a mana rock along the way, or a Simian Spirit Guide.
Once we come to reflect on the importance of blue diggers, specifically those able to shuffle cards back into the library, like See Beyond, or at the bottom of it, like Telling Time and Peer Through Depths, we realize our Tribal Wars build will never have enough room for all this stuff in its 16-18 nonland nontribal slots – which is the main challenge of the format. This is where an unassuming tribesmember like Slumbering Dragon might come in handy as a storm booster. On the bright side, our Dragon density makes sure we'll always have something scary for Karrthus to lead into battle, even if not all the Bogardan Hellkite copies will be available. We can also include a bunch of large green Dragons (and Karrthus himself count among those) to cast Nourishing Shoal, at the same time keeping ourselves alive long enough for a Dragonstorm to go off, and upping the storm count.
Let's see what a Dragonstorm tribal deck might look like, with Scourge of Valkas becoming another way to reduce the damage you need to deal through combat, which is always a good thing.
|4Arid Mesa||2Atarka, World Render||2Manamorphose|
|2Bloodstained Mire||4Bogardan Hellkite||4Nourishing Shoal|
|8Mountain||4Dragonlord Atarka||4Pyretic Ritual|
|2Stomping Ground||4Dragonlord Dromoka||4Dragonstorm|
|2Temple Garden||4Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund||4Lotus Bloom|
|4Wooded Foothills||2Scourge of Valkas|
And that's it, two different tribal decks for the price of one article and featuring most of the cards with a dragon theme. Well, the ones that make sense, at least.
Tribal Attractions Archive
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