It’s no secret that Standard has been flush with Izzet decks of all shapes and sizes for the last few months. Alrund’s Epiphany is a great top-end spell that pairs nicely with big threats or copy effects to create multiple-turn sequences. Izzet Dragons was the first deck I built in this new Standard format, pushing the limits of bounce spells like Divide by Zero and Fading Hope. Those bounce spells acted as pseudo-removal to buy time, but didn’t actually solve the problems at hand. Harder removal like Dragon’s Fire was my personal preference at the time, but Moonveil Regent just wasn’t good enough. As a result, I didn’t believe we had enough dragons to play Dragon’s Fire, and moved on to other versions.
That all changes today.
Today’s article will spotlight Manaform Hellkite, the newest weapon for Izzet Dragons from Innistrad: Crimson Vow. This threat is unique and difficult to parse at first, but I truly believe it to be the best spell previewed thus far. Let’s take a closer look at Manaform Hellkite and build some decks that can put it to good use!
At four mana, Manaform Hellkite doesn’t step on the toes of Goldspan Dragon. When you’re building a deck with new cards, it’s important to make sure your new threats and answers don’t conflict. Having too many cards at the same mana cost, especially when they’re expensive, can lead to cumbersome draws. One of the more annoying trends over the last few years is having all the mythics in one color sit around the same mana value and kinda just do the same stuff. In this instance, Manaform Hellkite being a four-mana threat means it sits perfectly on the curve.
The flying part of Manaform Hellkite allows you to ignore ground stalls from the opponent, which in turn makes actually killing your opponent’s creatures less relevant than preventing yourself from taking twenty damage. That means this build will likely want more bounce effects, even if we’re heavily interested in Dragon’s Fire. Fading Hope has proven itself to be rather ludicrous against Ranger Class and other midrange threats, effectively invalidating the first few turns of development form those aggro opponents trying to curve out. If your Fading Hope bounces a creature that costs two or more mana, you’re gaining a small man advantage in the early turns, even though you’re not usually answering the card outright.
Your goal, when playing cards like Divide by Zero and Fading Hope, is to win the game with cards stranded in your opponent’s hand. Card advantage doesn’t matter when your opponent is dead, so we need to put an emphasis on tempo over card advantage. Izzet Dragons has a track record of doing this well, as Goldspan Dragon’s closing speed is unparalleled. Can Manaform Hellkite fit the bill? You bet your ass it can.
The Dragon Illusion token generated by casting a noncreature spell exiles at the beginning of the next end step, meaning it’s built to create bursts of damage just from casting your spells. What type of spells will we be wanting to cast, then? More expensive ones or a slew of cheap ones? Why not both?
As if we needed more reason to play Alrund’s Epiphany, Manaform Hellkite rewards you for the mana spent, just like Smoldering Egg. That means a big spell generates a big Dragon Illusion token to deal big chunks of damage. It’s pretty easy to win the game with Alrund’s Epiphany if you have a large creature on the battlefield, but Manaform Hellkite all but ensures it once you deal that huge burst of damage.
Spending more mana on your spells is fine when you’re being rewarded for doing so. In the past, we’ve mostly seen incentives to cast a lot of cheap spells like Consider. With Smoldering Egg and now Manaform Hellkite, we can basically do either, but more expensive stuff is made virtually cheaper by being rewarded for spending more mana. I don’t know how else to describe it other than it makes all Lesson cards solid, when they would normally be rather mediocre.
A cheap removal spell is the other side of the coin for Manaform Hellkite. If you’ve ever played with Shark Typhoon, you’ll understand how creating a token while interacting with your opponent’s creatures can be beneficial. Turns out these tokens, while they do leave at the end step, have the ability to block! Manaform Hellkite is naturally geared toward being more aggressive, but a slew of instant-speed interaction means your removal spells will double up as extra blockers. Against other creature decks, the ability to interact twice with a single spell can make the difference between winning and losing. The more aggressive decks in Standard flood the battlefield with creatures hovering in the 2/2 and 3/3 range, so all your cheap interaction will slaughter them.
When casting these spells offensively, you can think of each spell as just “dealing damage to the opponent equal to the mana value of the spell.” Every Dragon’s Fire also deals two damage to the opponent. While the opponent could kill or block those tokens, the likelihood is small because the Manaform Hellkite itself is still hanging around. All those spells effectively becoming Searing Blaze is pretty messed up, but the real strength is how it plays both sides of the field.
Manaform Hellkite isn’t just a threat for Izzet Dragons. It can be a rewarding threat in a number of different archetypes. Any noncreature spell can trigger it, giving you that burst of damage or little pocket of defense. Blue is usually the best at drawing cards, which increases the chances of making more Dragons. It creates a chain reaction that continues to fuel itself, offering you chunks of damage for a cost as paltry as “casting your spells.”
If Manaform Hellkite just said “deal X damage to your opponent or their planeswalker” instead of “create an X/X token,” it would be functionally the same in the aggressive instances. That is a card I can get behind already, and Manaform Hellkite is better thanks to the ability to play defense.
Let’s take a look at our first draft of Izzet Dragons featuring Manaform Hellkite!
We’ve learned a lot about how to maximize the effect of Manaform Hellkite by how we do the same already with Smoldering Egg. Cards that have slightly higher or variable casting costs, like Shatterskull Smashing, are quite strong because of their versatile nature. Shatterskull Smashing can singlehandedly kill your opponent if you have a Manaform Hellkite on the battlefield, helping to create a huge burst of damage while killing multiple opposing creatures.
Cards like Mascot Exhibition have gained a lot of popularity as of late, but having rewards such as “deal seven damage to your opponent when you cast this” can make them feel a lot better. Even Teachings of the Archaics, a rather weak card draw spell, can be a powerful tool alongside bounce spells and a creature that rewards you for spending all your mana every single turn.
If you understand how easy it is to transform Smoldering Egg, you should easily grasp how easy it is to kill your opponent just by casting a few spells. When you start to put Time Warp effects into the mix, the lines by which you can kill your opponent start to pile up. You’ll be astounded by some of the kills you can find just by adding a new spell into the mix.
This Time Warp effect offers some combo-style kills for only being three mana. Alongside Ashmouth Dragon or Manaform Hellkite, a single Alchemist’s Gambit can seal the deal on that extra turn. The burst of damage you get from the triggers on Ashmouth Dragon or Manaform Hellkite can be rather swingy. Filling your deck with cheap cards can lead to huge bursts of damage from these flying threats, and those effects are further exacerbated by the occasional Alchemist’s Gambit letting you untap for super-cheap.
The modal nature of Alchemist’s Gambit means you can steal games for three mana you might not be able to win otherwise. Becaue you get all the same benefits of a Time Warp for just three mana, with the caveat being you lose the game if you don’t kill your opponent, you’ll find yourself holding onto this more often than trying for combo kills. The back half with cleave costing seven mana means we just get more virtual versions of Alrund’s Epiphany that are just worse on their own. However, when using the cleave, it works just the same as Alrund’s Epiphany when you copy it with Galvanic Iteration.
Six copies of these extra-turn effects might be slightly too many. If you’re playing Manaform Hellkite, there’s a very real chance that Alchemist’s Gambit is better than Alrund’s Epiphany because of how easily it can steal the game when one of your threats is on the battlefield. Being able to untap and deal all that extra damage is uncanny, and those big turns are often pushed by the mana generation of Unexpected Windfall.
Abrade is a stellar card that was one of the better removal spells the last time it was in Standard. However, alongside Manaform Hellkite, I’m confident that Dragon’s Fire is slightly better. The fact that it can hit a planeswalker is dope, but just having the capability to kill an opposing four-toughness creature without much trouble gives you some true outs to opposing creatures that might be otherwise strong against red damage removal.
My gut tells me that most decks will play something like four Dragon’s Fire and two Abrade to help deal with Esika’s Chariot, but only if you have enough Dragons to turn it on. Abrade also killing Portable Hole is a nice upside. If you don’t go the Dragons route, Abrade easily supplants Dragon’s Fire as that two-mana removal spell, and will likely outclass all the other maindeck options people have been going for over the last two months.
One question I’ve been asking myself with Manaform Hellkite’s release: will Mono-Red return?
Innistrad: Crimson Vow seems like it has plenty to offer for those that enjoy Mono-Red Aggro. Manaform Hellkite could be one of the stronger top-end threats, giving you some combo potential so long as you’re willing to play enough noncreature spells to trigger it. Unlike Izzet Dragons/Turns, you don’t have the longevity of those card draw spells to keep it trucking. The noncreature spells in Mono-Red Aggro are often one- or two-mana removal spells, making the effect of Manaform Hellkite that much weaker. Maybe instead of going full aggro, we should be more Big Red? Or maybe just Slightly More Medium Red?
Let’s see if we can find a better name for it…
- 4 Goldspan Dragon
- 4 Bloodthirsty Adversary
- 4 Reckless Stormseeker
- 4 Manaform Hellkite
- 4 Voltaic Visionary
The one-drop creatures in Mono-Red currently don’t hit the mark, so I’ve decided to go a little bit bigger. We have some removal on the first turn, and hopefully that’s enough, but this type of deck might need the full set before building it correctly, if only because we need to be lower to the ground and more aggressive.
Bloodthirsty Adversary hasn’t seen much play since its release, but this might be the right home for it. The versatile nature of burn spells means you get to cast them at virtually any point in the game as opposed to only when your creature has something on the battlefield. That’s one of the reasons why Lightning Bolt has its reputation as the best removal spell of all time. Burn spells by nature can usually kill a creature or hit your opponent’s face. That means opponents can’t really punish you too often for playing too much removal, because that excess removal can often finish your opponent off.
Bloodthirsty Adversary will often be cast as a cheap threat, but drawing it in later turns allows for some really disgusting burst damage. In a nutshell, this card is on about the same power level as Goblin Dark-Dwellers, which was one of my favorite midrange threats ever printed. I’m curious to see if Bloodthirsty Adversary ever lives up to its predecessor.
Igneous Inspiration is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and often tried in earlier versions of Izzet Dragons. When I learned how good Smoldering Egg was with Lesson spells, I wanted more of that type of effect so I could always keep the gas coming. Igneous Inspiration ended up worse than Divide by Zero, but only because there wasn’t an aggressive red deck that could put the extra spell to good use. With both Manaform Hellkite and Bloodthirsty Adversary, we have plenty of reasons to spend our mana and cast more spells, even if those spells aren’t exactly maindeckable.
As of writing this, I haven’t found an English version of Voltaic Visionary, but I fully expect this to be one of the cards that brings Mono-Red back into the mix. Three power for two mana is huge, and the abilities are all upside. The fact that this can start chunking in for damage or pivot to some card advantage, while growing, is ludicrous. In a deck that’s trying to hit land drops and cast more expensive spells, this type of threat can bridge the gap between early- and late-game, offering you a free card at no real cost while growing it immediately.
What a card.
Manaform Hellkite is cheap for its effect and offers its wielder some potentially explosive lines. I love how it plays both defense and offense fluidly, and rewards you for doing the stuff I like doing the most: drawing cards and killing creatures. I love how well it scales with expensive spells, rewarding you greatly for casting things like Alrund’s Epiphany, a card we already know is one of the best in Standard.
While I was a fan of Moonveil Regent when it was first printed, and it filled the Izzet Dragons hole in the mid-game decently, ultimately it just didn’t do much more than be a 4/4 flying creature for four mana. While that isn’t necessarily bad, it just wasn’t quite good enough. The final form of Izzet Dragons as piloted by Yuta Takahashi at Magic World Championship XXVII didn’t even play it, but I’m confident Manaform Hellkite would’ve made the cut.
The true sign of a great Magic card is how well it can play when you’re ahead, at parity, or behind. If a spell is great in all three situations, you’ve got yourself a winner. Manaform Hellkite allowing you to close games from weird spots with a single Time Warp effect is bonkers, but it does so much more than that. I’m extremely excited to give it a try and think it will define Innistrad: Crimson Vow Standard.