I might be brewing a little too much with a particular standout from Dragons of Tarkir.
Dragonlord Ojutai is the real deal, and it defined the deck that the Roanoke crew and I played last weekend at the Season One Invitational. The ability to
transform our Jeskai Ascendancy deck into a lean and interactive control deck topped out by the Elder Dragon all the while our opponents only had Bile
Blights and Drown in Sorrows was highly effective. Yet, I’m not going to harp too much on the tournament. Despite the fact that Todd made the top 8, our
Don’t misunderstand me, our postboard configuration was phenomenal, and the one Dragonlord that I jammed into my maindeck shamelessly even after being told
not to performed admirably, but have you ever cast Raise the Alarm?
One of these cards is better than the other.
Standard does not exist in a space where you can afford to mess around, to have bad topdecks. Is Jeskai Ascendancy an incredibly powerful Magic card? Yes,
but it suffers from the moving parts it requires to function. A common denominator of our failures was that a lot of us had games where we stumbled or
mulliganed. This can be largely attributed to the fact that our deck was slightly misbuilt, and it should have been playing an extra land, particularly to
complement the multiple five-drops we planned on utilizing in nearly every single match, but there’s something else more important at work here. I can’t
recall any stories from anyone about how they missed land drops and slowly wrestled back a win from far behind.
Simply, the deck isn’t really capable of doing that. In two matches, I bricked on my third land drop for just a single turn, and even with a hand full of
action, my horde of goblins were just flat out incapable of competing with a 3/3 and 4/5. There is a reason Siege Rhino is likely the best creature in
Standard right now, it hoof-for-hoof compares with just about anything your opponent is doing at any stage in the game.
I was talking with BBD and Matt Costa on the tail end of Sunday, discussing the merits of Jeskai Tokens, the top 8, and the deck’s viability moving
forward. Costa asserted something about Goblin Rabblemaster that hadn’t really occurred to me. I had always thought of the card as a litmus test of sorts,
a powerful threat that can win games handily on its own if left unchecked. Rather than this, Costa asserted that the only way Rabblemaster was effective
was if both player’s hands were bad. This makes a lot of sense. Often times, the way games sequence involve some number of tapped lands in the early turns
of the pseudo mirrors, and the pacing of the game often arrives at a player choosing whether or not to cast the three-drop into Wild Slash mana. If I have
a great draw involving Hordeling Outburst or Jeskai Ascendancy, I do not wish to incur negative tempo by allowing my opponent to trade one mana for three.
This is supposed to be one of the best cards in my deck, and I just want to side out it all the time?
If I was taught something this weekend, unless you’re just straight up breaking the rules of Magic (see G/W Devotion and Mastery of the Unseen), it’s just
better to adhere to raw power rather than synergy. After all, I won most of my games with a
big and dumb
thin and smart dragon.
Dragonlord Ojutai is the real deal, and its range is vast. The only natural problem I see with the card is a fact of the format. The good interactive
spells are so heavily polarized between red and black that it is difficult to build a deck without one of those two colors. As a result, one is naturally
forced to stretch their mana to some degree just to play the card.
However, I want to play Elder Dragons at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. I’ve never played so many matches where after playing a single card my opponent reads
it and predicts their own demise.
If spending mana to generate crappy 1/1s isn’t where we want to be, we can start with variant of Jeskai Ascendancy’s older brother:
I want to play interactive Magic and powerful spells, then I want to protect them. Pretty simple. Silumgar’s Scorn is a card that is getting little press
despite its absolutely outrageous power level. Folks are struggling so hard to hit their cards on curve with Temples and tri-lands as it is, a two-mana
Force Spike is sufficient rather often. With cards like Anticipate helping to insure that Dragons are around, we often get to play with full-fledged
Counterspell. Orator of Ojutai has a much weaker starting mode than Scorn, but it isn’t terribly difficult to get online by the fourth turn when you’re
ready to start double spelling, and the fact that it blocks opposing Mantis Riders and Fleecemane Lions will give you a lot of maneuvering room.
A noticeable absentee in a Dragon deck is Draconic Roar. I actually think that card is just worse than Lightning Strike. The occasional Searing Blaze
impression isn’t worth having the flexibility to send three points at your control opponent’s head or to pressure a planeswalker.
Icefall Regent is another card that is getting little love. While I do think it is firmly worse than Dragonlord Ojutai, the fact that it is non-legendary
buys you time against your opponent’s board presence while critically stopping Stormbreath Dragon. It is unlikely to trade immediately with a removal spell
the turn it comes down.
After playing this last weekend, having no ground pounder threats is extremely appealing to me, and I suspect that this volume of fliers will be difficult
for green decks to handle by default.
Here is a nearly forgotten deck that utilizes the back end of Dragonlord Ojutai as a very powerful plan B.
Anticipate has subtly done a lot to improve this deck. Rather than having to overload on a large amount of copies of the worst cards and combo pieces,
instead Jeskai Ascendancy Combo can just breeze through its deck, power up Dig Through Time, and comfortably find everything it needs. Between Dragonlord
Ojutai and Whisperwood Elemental, the sideboard has been given a great transformational plan with hard hitting, difficult to beat animals. Dragonlord
Ojutai feels particularly unkillable when complemented by Jeskai Ascendancy and Kiora’s Follower.
Before the Season One Invitational I worked on an Esper Dragons deck with horrible mana that played too many copies of Haven of the Spirit Dragon and felt
clunky. After seeing James Buckingham’s 7-1 performance at the Invitational, I’m going to revisit the archetype:
Rather than mess around as a dedicated control deck like U/B, I’d rather just jam Dragons on curve and use Silumgar to mop up tokens instead of having to
break my back to cast Bile Blight. I suspect that curving Thoughtseize, removal spell, Dragonlord Ojutai is difficult to beat, and that’s exactly what this
deck wants to do every game. As I touched on previously, Silumgar’s Scorn is excellent here, but castability may prove to be an issue, which would diminish
this deck’s effectiveness. I think the allure of having a powerful proactive threat that can’t be immediately killed makes this deck more compelling than
straight U/B Control on the surface, however.
The Pro Tour
I’m enjoying my last few days in the States wrapping up any loose ends before leaving to test for the week with Team TCGPlayer in Brussels. I’m extremely
excited and optimistic about the opportunity.
At this point, however, I understand that preliminary testing for these large tournaments is all about doing the best you can to optimize and improve upon
an imperfect process. Although I will be defaulting to their expertise, there are some things I’m going to be keeping in mind throughout the week that I’ve
learned both from my own experience and observing others:
The results of earlygames are largely unimportant.
When decks are rough or when facing brews against gauntlet decks, it is important to take note of powerful interactions or standout cards, not who won or
lost. Rather often these decks will be quickly thrown away, but learning that just one card is extremely powerful and can be placed in another or variety
of decks is always a valuable takeaway.
Don’t get married to a deck because you made it.
This goes pretty hand in hand with the above point, but just because I made a deck doesn’t mean I will be constantly championing it. With such a finite
amount of time, it is important to be objective about what is working and what isn’t. When it comes to the Pro Tour specifically, what matters is wins and
losses, not the deck designer. Being able to leverage your time properly is valuable to the entire team, not just yourself. Don’t steal that from them.
Keeping track of data is the difference between “We spent two hours playing this matchup, it felt favorable for X and here is what matters” and “I 6-4’d
Ask the right questions.
Sometimes it can be difficult for someone to articulate why they took a line in a game, picked a certain card in a draft, or sideboarded a certain way.
Learning is about proposing alternatives, taking into account the opinions of others, and looking at the big picture. Birding others instead of playing can
be an invaluable tool for improving multiple players when the conversation is properly focused.
For the love of God, Michael, just draft. A lot. Fix it, something, anything.
How would Brad Nelson sideboard? Admittedly, this is kind of cheating since I am working with him, but the point is that more so than any player I can
think of, he fully utilizes all 75 cards he’s allowed to play with. He takes linear decks and turns them on their head, allowing him to not only keep his
plan proactive and powerful, but nullify the reactive elements of his opponent’s sideboard. If we want to become better deck designers, we need to start
trying to emulate Brad.
In the workplace, we empower others to complete tasks with the confidence they will be carried out competently. A team testing for a Magic tournament is no
different. There can be a lot of hesitation towards results when they are different between two parties. In the past I’ve seen this lead to conflict, but
rather the important thing to do is look for and discuss both the similarities and differences in which people are handling the specific matchup. Just
because one party is winning or losing more often than another does not denounce their efforts. Further, sometimes we simply do not have the time to go
back and double check the details of a sideboard card or matchup, we have to trust the work others have put in.
I think it’s fair to say that after the results of this weekend, Dragons of Tarkir didn’t disappoint as an extremely impactful set on Standard. The format
remains diverse and ripe for innovation, and I expect this Pro Tour to be satisfying to both play in and watch.