Core Set 2019: Here Be Dragons

Some Dragons are Commander staples. Others radically change Standard. So which are which when it comes to all the big Elder Dragons from Core Set 2019? Jim Davis gets ready to breathe some serious fire!

Back before the entirety of the Earth had been explored, charted, and
photographed for Google maps, early cartographers had to wrestle with the
mysteries that lay beyond their charted borders.

In these unexplored and unknown spaces of maps, they would often write
things like “HIC SVNT DRACONES” (which translates from Latin to
“here be dragons”) to convey the idea that what lay in these uncharted
areas was unknown and potentially dangerous. Occasionally other beasts like
lions, serpents, or other monsters would stand in for dragons, but the
concept was always the same; we are conditioned to fear the unknown, and
mysterious dangerous monsters formed an appealing metaphor for that fear.

When Wizards of the Coast announced the return of core sets (something I
think was a mistake to remove in the first place) we had a vague idea what
we would be in for: some high-profile reprints, some cool new top-down
designs, some old favorites, maybe a cool Dragon or two, but for the most
part it was a mystery. Now as previews continue to be revealed, we’re
starting to realize that when it comes to Core Set 2019, “here be
dragons” can be taken very literally.

Why’s that you say?

Well…They’re back!

What, you don’t remember the awesome power of Vaevictis Asmadi? Has
Chromium not been turning heads in Legacy lately?

Okay, the original crew of Elder Dragon legends wasn’t actually a landmark
in terms of raw power level, but as far as coolness factor goes, they were
way up there. First creature cycle? Among the first gold cards? Among the
first legends? Inspiration for Crosis, the Purger and friends? The origin
of the now ever-present Nicol Bolas?

Face it, Elder Dragons are sweet. And now after over two decades, they’re

Okay, I guess Nicol Bolas has actually been back to bothering people for a
while now, but here he is… again! (It’s kind of weird really; the
original Nicol Bolas looked so calm and studious, not like some crazy
megalomaniac trying to take everything over.) We’ve seen one Nicol Bolas
creature card and two planeswalker cards so far, but Nicol Bolas, the
Ravager joins the ranks of Jace, Vyrn’s Prodigy and crew as one of the few
creature-to-planeswalker transform cards.

While Nicol Bolas, the Arisen is one of the most powerful planeswalkers
ever printed, it also comes at a steep cost: namely eleven mana and a
massive vulnerability to removal spells. If you resolve a safe Nicol Bolas,
the Ravager, get to seven mana, and fire off the on-the-table transform at
sorcery speed and get hit with a Harnessed Lightning or any other removal
spell, you’re likely going to lose the game on the spot; and that’s if your
4/4 flier even lives that long.

As such, the planeswalker side of Nicol Bolas feels more like a bonus than
anything else, like a big kicker cost you’re rarely going to pay. We need
to evaluate Nicol Bolas, the Ravager as 80-90% of the expectation and go
from there, and when looking at just the front side, Nicol Bolas isn’t that

Creatures have come an absurdly long way, and a Tower Gargoyle plus
Ravenous Rats is very solid but ultimately unexciting. Given how difficult
Nicol Bolas is to cast, you probably already need to be playing a Grixis
deck that’s interested in a good value four-drop past Rekindling Phoenix,
Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Ravenous Chupacabra, Karn, Scion of Urza,
Gonti, Lord of Luxury, Hostage Taker, etc. Put mildly, there’s quite a bit
of competition for good four-mana spells in Grixis, and while Nicol Bolas
has huge potential upside, he’s got a lot of cards to get past to make it
onto the decklist.

The one path I’m seeing to get Nicol Bolas, the Arisen onto the battlefield
for a reasonable cost is to reanimate it with a Liliana, Death’s Majesty
that’s already on the battlefield and have seven mana available
immediately, but that’s also easier said than done.

Nicol Bolas is a cool card that will see some play, but is much more flash
than substance.

Ahh, now there’s an Elder Dragon that’s sticking to its roots.

Nicol Bolas, the Ravager feels very much like a modern Magic card design.
It’s big and flashy but also fairly efficient, pushing that mythic rare
rate hard as a 4/4 flier for four mana with lots of upside. Vaevictis
Asmadi comes more from the Treva, the Renewer school of design.

Vaevictis Asmadi is a 6/6 flier for six mana that doesn’t do anything until
it attacks. It can’t protect itself and it doesn’t affect the battlefield
in any way until attacking, which makes it almost completely unplayable in
Standard. It’s probably very fun in more casual formats though!

A monstrous 7/7 for seven mana, Chromium, the Mutable is cut from a similar
“big, expensive Dragon” mold as Vaevictis Asmadi, the Dire, but that’s
where the similarities end.

It may seem odd to describe a seven-mana creature as “nimble,” but that’s
exactly what Chromium is. Flash is an excellent ability for an expensive
creature to have because it doesn’t tie up all your mana on your main
phase, while the “can’t be countered” clause is also huge for a seven-mana

But that’s not all!

Chromium can also protect itself for the low cost of a single card and no
mana! I’m not exactly sure of the flavor reasons why the Human form has
hexproof, much less unblockable, but hey, I don’t write the lore so what do
I know? What I do know is that Chromium is huge and difficult-to- kill game
changer in any sort of slow midrange or control matchups.

Like Pearl Lake Ancient before it, Chromium ends up being the ultimate
control mirror trump card. Esper Control is already a thing in Standard,
and amusingly enough, the only cards in the format that really kill
Chromium are the exact cards you want out of your deck immediately in
control mirrors (Fumigate and Settle the Wreckage). Chromium is killable,
but you must bring the proper tools to the fight, as well as resolve them
through all your opponent’s untapped mana.

Chromium will only have a large effect on the control mirror side of the
format, but the effect it will have will be huge. If you want to win a
control mirror in post Core Set 2019 Standard, you must have a
plan for Chromium, the Mutable.

An aside:

I just want to say real fast how much I dislike this sort of ham-fisted
approach to “control mirror match trump cards.” I understand wanting to
have some sort of a trump and not have control mirrors decided by decking
(which I’m fine with, but I get), but does it have to be so blatant and
obvious? For example, I really like the innovative juke of playing History
of Benalia in the U/W Control sideboard. It’s a nice strategy switch that
flips the script in an interesting way and changes what the game is about
while also making sideboarding and overall strategy much different. That’s
fun. Slapping “can’t be countered” on a big, dumb, unkillable idiot that’s
only good in control mirrors is just too dumbed down for my tastes.

Ah, we have one more big, dumb idiot in the cycle.

Palladia-Mors, the Ruiner looks a lot like Vaevictis Asmadi; Six mana for a
6/6 flier, no immediate impact on the battlefield, therefore, not too
exciting. Sure, flying, vigilance, and trample is a nice combination of
abilities for both dealing damage and defending, and it’s very difficult to
stop Pallaida-Mors from successfully attacking either you or your
planeswalkers while also very difficult to attack into it as well. So,
we’ve figured out that Palladia-Mors is pretty good on offense and defense,
but what’s the big deal? It’s just another six mana 6/6.

Don’t undersell how good hexproof is.

In a lot of ways Palladia-Mors reminds me of Dragonlord Ojutai. You don’t
get to draw cards from it, but in return it’s much better at dealing damage
and playing defense. On offense you get to decide to attack with
Palladia-Mors or not, thereby deciding if you want to expose it to your
opponent’s removal spell. It’s also important to note that unlike
Dragonlord Ojutai, Palladia-Mors will at least get to deal its damage (and
potentially kill a planeswalker) before possibly dying to a removal spell.

Then flipped around on defense, Palladia-Mors is almost impossible to
attack into profitably. You can’t kill it before blockers, it’s bigger than
everything else, and if you must double up and kill it after damage, it’s
just card disadvantage.

I’m not saying Palladia-Mors is the second coming of Sun Titan or
something, but it’s a card that looks like a bulk rare but that has some
real potential.

And now for something completely different.

It makes sense they would push Nicol Bolas down to four mana to try and
make him a marquee mythic for the set. It also makes sense that the other
Elder Dragons are all huge, flashy, and expensive. And then we come to
Arcades, the Strategist.

What? Defender tribal lord?

…Uh, what is going on here?

Here are all the defenders currently legal in Standard:

Not exactly a murderer’s row of high quality Standard playables.

It’s possible something like Wall of Omens is in M19, which would vastly
improve the power level of the defender bonuses, but for now we’ve just got
to look at Arcades on rate alone. And you know what? A 3/5 vigilance flier
for four mana ain’t that bad. It matches up favorably against basically
every good red card (Chandra, Glorybringer, Rekindling Phoenix, Lightning
Strike, Abrade) while attacking planeswalkers, being hard to kill, and
blocking well. Being a legend is also nice for enabling cards like Urza’s
Ruinous Blast as well.

Arcades is probably not there without making use of the odd defender
ability, but it’s really not that far off the mark even without it. Like
Palladia-Mors, it would be easy to dismiss Arcades as a cute Dragon bulk
rare, but don’t be surprised at all if you see it in the top 8 of an SCG
Tour Open at some point during its Standard legality. This likelihood goes
up a ton with even one good defender in a future set.

Dragons Are For Timmy?

There’s no doubt that big, flashy Dragons are an awesome part of the game,
but common belief is this doesn’t usually translate to tournament play.

It would probably be best to dispel that notion.

Last time Sarkhan was around, we saw some of the best tournament Dragons of
all time, and many of the Dragons on this list terrorized their respective
Standard formats. Well Sarkhan is back, Core Set 2019 is almost
here, and Wizards is notorious for pushing their sets’ themes and story
characters a bit too far when it comes to power level.

You’ve been warned…

Here be Dragons.