A G/R Dragons Standard Roundtable

Pro Tour Champion Ari Lax discusses the recent successes of an aggressive, recursive build of G/R Dragons, joined by two guests who have had recently had strong finishes with the deck: Steve Rubin and Eric Rill!

Grand Prix Providence had a promising start followed by a disappointing finish for me. A 4-1 start after my three byes was mirrored by a 1-4 streak to knock me out of Pro Point and money contention. The Jeskai deck I played featuring Ojutai’s Command was awesome and did a lot of cool things, but whether it was actually a good choice is up in the air.

I would normally spend some time breaking down the deck I actually played rounds with, but I have some promises to keep.

left shark is gunning it

Instead, I’m going to talk about a deck that actually did its fair share of winning: the aggressive G/R Dragons deck that Eric Rill won the SCG Indy with and that my teammate Steve Rubin top eighted Grand Prix Providence with this last weekend.

I got a chance to sit down with Steve Rubin, who immediately pointed to Eric Rill as the mastermind behind the deck. We got him on through Facebook Messenger as well (which is unfortunately a less in-depth communication mode than in person) and went through what really makes this deck tick.

Give us a quick fundamental description of the deck you played this last weekend.

Eric– G/R Aggro is a deck that wants to get out ahead. It tempoes people out until it gets your opponents into burn range or gets them low enough for a Dragon to quickly finish them off.

Steve– It’s a deck that is fundamentally trying to play from ahead. It’s definitely the aggressor most of the time but it’s also just a size ahead of the true aggressive decks. Even if you are a bit behind, you can easily transition into a quickly lethal plan as the opportunity arises, in part because of the additive chip shot damage from multiple sources like Draconic Roar, Thunderbreak Regent, and even Den Protector’s pseudo-evasion. Basically, it’s the definition of an aggressive midrange deck.

(Ari’s Note – Notice the use of aggro by Eric here. This is a very aggressive deck, and that is part of why it was so good.)

What sets this apart from the previous iterations of G/R Dragons decks we have seen, namely the lists that won a pair of StarCityGames Standard Opens in the hands of Chris VanMeter and Nathan Fabilenia?

Steve – The biggest card-for-card difference is the addition of the Deathmist Raptor + Den Protector megamorph engine over some of the higher-end threats like Dragonlord Atarka. Deathmist Raptor is also great at the chip-shot damage plan because it is so miserable to block or kill; that card may have done more damage than any other card in my deck over the course of the tournament just by three damage beats.

Den Protector acts as your replacement end game. It’s a great threat as it’s so hard to block, lets you “Snapcaster” Roasts on multiple Siege Rhinos, re-buys burn like Crater’s Claws, and lets you keep pace with decks that are trying to grind you out with the same engine. It’s really just a great Magic card.

The replacement of Sylvan Caryatid with Rattleclaw Mystic and Courser of Kruphix with Goblin Rabblemaster pushes the real difference, which is the deck’s focus on getting in chip shot damage and figuring out how to kill them once they end up at ten life. While these are both slightly more fragile options, that extra damage adds up fast. Even just doing something like Roasting a Siege Rhino gets that much better when you are attacking with Rattleclaw Mystic to follow up.

Eric– The deck is much more streamlined than the previous lists. You have cut slower cards like Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix for creatures that attack well like Goblin Rabblemaster. The Deathmist + Den Protector engine also lets you have a great backup plan against opponents who would try to grind you out.

What do you think are the more interesting technical aspects of the deck?

Steve – The deck is actually quite straightforward. For the most part you follow the obvious lines, jam your Dragons, and get ahead.

(Ari’s Note – An important aspect here has to be style. Don’t forget to flap your wings Kent Ketter style. Seriously, it’s really that good. Everyone should watch it, and then again.)

Mana development is a really huge part of it. Play to your curve, but also play to your opponent’s curve. For the most part, all of the answers in the format are going to be cheaper than the cards you play that they’re answering. Ultimate Price for Thunderbreak Regent, Hero’s Downfall for Stormbreath Dragon, Lightning Strike or Bile Blight for Goblin Rabblemaster. You want to keep making progress, but don’t just let your opponent play their removal when they want to. Play your threats to make them tap the wrong amount of mana at the wrong times to get ahead on board. Get ahead and set the pace, use Haven of the Spirit Dragon to repeat turns. Each turn you force them to play a kill spell instead of a threat is a turn Rattleclaw Mystic generates two damage. BANG BOOM KA-POW ELBOW JAB.

(Ari’s Note: This last part was both a physical and verbal expression.)

Don’t mulligan to mana creatures. You only have eight. While starting on turn three with Deathmist Raptor or Goblin Rabblemaster isn’t ideal, it’s usually good enough.

Bait morphs are a big part of the deck, especially with Rattleclaw Mystic on top of Deathmist Raptor as non-Den Protector morphs. You usually cast Deathmist Raptor face up, but you can force your opponent to spend removal on creatures that could be Den Protector. It’s tough to describe, but this really ties into how you can exploit reactive answers with threat sequencing. For example, if you expect they are going to have an Elspeth and you play a morph, they can’t really Elspeth into a Den Protector returning a burn spell that finishes off their planeswalker. Basically, having Den Protectors in your deck price your opponent into killing your morphs because if it is Den Protector, they lose. The reverse is sometimes true as your opponent has a reasonable doubt your morph isn’t a Den Protector and gets punished. Note that this probably doesn’t happen as often as I’m probably making it out to sound like, but it does happen.

Morphing Deathmist Raptor is also a big way to play around Abzan Charm. Sometimes you can’t afford to get your creature exiled.

Eric – Steve is right about bait morphs. I play Deathmist Raptor face down a lot because they will often snap kill it out of fear of you getting Den Protector value or just the unknown morph factor.

You can play around most removal pretty well. You have things like the double-up of Deathmist Raptor and Ashcloud Phoenix to overload Abzan Charm, you can time Goblin Rabblemaster to always get a token of value, and Thunderbreak Regent always gets you some damage. It always felt like the trade of their removal for my threat favored me, and they are forced to be reactive while you can proactively line up your threats in the best possible way.

I mulligan most hands that don’t have action before turn three as curving out and being efficient are the big strengths of the deck. I keep basically anything with Elvish Mystic. That card is literally a Mox in this Standard format.

(Ari’s Note: Elvish Mystic strikes again. The Mox comment is pretty accurate, as it is basically the card in the format that lets you always play from ahead. Same reasoning I had when playing Collected Company Aggro at Grand Prix Toronto last month. It’s even more magnified by turn-two Goblin Rabblemaster, which is near unbeatable)

What were the most interesting points that happened in your tournament?

Steve – I literally sat for five minutes and came up with no answer to this in my Top Eight profile. I never drew Mob Rule, never drew Barrage of Boulders. We did sleep three people in a king bed, that’s about it.

Eric – I won a game through Dragonlord Dromoka and Arbor Colossus. I was able to get back a Stormbreath Dragon and put my opponent to one, then had exactly one turn to rip Crater’s Claws for exact lethal. I flipped the top card… and there it was!

Any sideboarding tips or tricks you want to pass on?

Eric – I generally don’t sideboard a lot with this deck as it has a large core of untouchable cards. Sometimes I would sideboard, then sideboard right back into the original maindeck. For the most part the deck just tries to smooth out the numbers for dealing with specific problem cards, adding some more efficient removal, diversifying your threats, or just adding outs to random unwinnable situations.

Steve – You don’t want to overboard. This is why my list has a large number of powerful singletons: you want your sideboard cards to not disrupt the core of your deck but have a high impact. You also have Den Protector to recycle a lot of these cards.

A lot of the same cards keep coming out each time: Xenagos, the Reveler, Roast, and Draconic Roar where they are obviously bad, Gobling Rabblemaster in the face of Drown in Sorrow or being on the draw, very occasionally Rattleclaw Mystic if you expect a lot of Drown in Sorrows.

Would you make any changes to your deck?

Steve – I think Eric was right and that Ashcloud Phoenix was better than Xenagos, the Reveler. This is mostly because Xenagos matches up very poorly against Den Protector. I was afraid Ashcloud Phoenix would be too hard to cast, but it never really came up. Fliers are just great in this format. I would still have the copies of Xenagos in the sideboard for Devotion, control, and midrange when you are on the play.

Eric – I should have played Plummets in my deck, but I’m dumb. The sideboard is a work in progress, and you need that card to deal with Dragonlord Dromoka and other similar cards.

It’s also possible I want all four Crater’s Claws in the maindeck, but for now the maindeck seemed pretty close to perfect.

Was this deck really good, like best deck potential good? Where do you go to beat this deck?

Eric – I absolutely think this deck could be a dominant deck or even the best in the format. I’m 22-3 across the two tournaments I’ve played with it with a large number of those being lopsided 2-0 blowouts. It has some weaknesses, but it’s aggressive enough to beat anything.

As for beating it, Anger of the Gods is good against us. High-end anti-flier trump cards like Dragonlord Dromoka, Arbor Colossus, and Hornet Queen are also really good. All of the creatures in the deck are also iffy on pure defense so a deck that can get ahead of us and leverage that also has an advantage.

(Ari’s Note- Mono-Black Aggro might be a good example of this last one. I remember Mogis’s Marauders being a great card against Stormbreath Dragon right after Theros came out, and it can only be just as good right now.)

Steve – I think the deck was just very well-positioned. It passes the Abzan test and also is a G/R deck that can break serve on the draw against the other G/R Ramp decks. It is also specifically better against pure control decks like Esper Dragons than a pure ramp deck like G/R Devotion might be because of the reach and recursive aspects like Haven of the Spirit Dragon and Deathmist Raptor.

As for beating it, Abzan Aggro seemed really good against this deck. It was really good at getting in underneath you and having answers when it is already ahead. (Ari’s Note- This was basically our plan at the Pro Tour, and despite Brian Braun-Duin losing to Steve playing for Top Eight here, I agree.) You also are sacrificing a lot of ground in the Atarka Red matchup by trading Courser for Goblin Rabblemaster. You have Seismic Rupture, which is how I beat the matchup, but it won’t always be enough.

My Conclusions

Overall, I was really impressed by the performance of this deck over the weekend. I was skeptical early on because of the previous iterations of this deck having known issues, but over the weekend Steve’s deck just played out much more smoothly than I ever thought it would. It may have just been my deck choice, but Draconic Roar really stood out as a busted card. Searing Blaze is always a gamebreaker, and this one has almost an even easier condition to meet than the previous iterations of the card.

Between this deck and the finals appearance of Abzan Aggro at the Grand Prix, it looks like Standard is swinging back towards the aggressive end of things. If you want to be prepared for next week, finding a good way to defend against these fast proactive decks full of sizable threats has to be the first priority.

My call for where things go is that we see a great performance from the G/B Dragons deck Kent Ketter played. It has the Dragonlord Dromokas and Silumgars to crush the aggressive decks, and Ojutai to bury the other midrange decks. It can have some clunky draws, but pure aggro appears to be on the decline. That deck absolutely dismantled me at this Grand Prix, and Kent Ketter and Oliver Tiu’s results of Top Four and Top Eight respectively mean this is backed by real results.

To provide my own answer to the last question: I don’t think anything can be the best deck in this Standard format. The answers are a bit too narrow, but also a bit too powerful. Keep moving, keep testing, and find the best deck for each week as it comes.