I won’t pretend to know everything about Dragon, but since I learned what it was, I have been fascinated by Dragon combo.
I will share this anecdote about my ride. Whilst discussing Vintage and metagame with Team Serious, someone mentioned Dragon, I guess in hindsight as an inside joke. Up to that point I had not really played much Vintage, so I nodded and agreed but I’ll admit in my mind, I assumed they were talking about Dragon Breath. And since it was Vintage, I figured it would go on something like, Emrakul, this was the only Dragon I knew of. I later learned that that deck was called Golden Gun Oath; what they were talking about was Worldgorger Dragon.
Once I figured it out, I was pretty hooked. Here’s a one minute video that explains the combo:
Automatic Transcript of Video:
“On this episode we’re talking about animate dead and world gorgeous dragon. for this to work we need world gordadragon in our graveyard and animate dead in our hand. we cast the enemy dead targeting the world gorge dragon. when the dragon enters the battlefield it’ll exile all other permanents that we control. importantly this includes the animate dead. when it drops off, animate deads leave the battlefield effect triggers which means the world caller dragon goes back to the graveyard. all of your exile permits will then come back into play, including the animate dead. when the enemy dead comes in, you can then target the world gorda dragon again and repeat this process infinitely. your lands will also then come into play untapped, so you can tap them again in response to the animate dead targeting the world gorge dragon. with this combo you’ll generate infinite mana with all the lands coming in and out of play and we also get infinite end to the battlefield effects. so if you have something like an impact tremors and another creature in play when you start this you’ll shoot all of your opponents to death animate dead can also be replaced with dance of the dead or necromancy. i would only cast this combo if you have a way of winning the game on the spot as if you don’t and if you don’t have another creature in your graveyard you can’t stop the loop meaning the game will end in a draw. thank you very much”
In Vintage, we can rely on tutors to find our Dragons and Animation spells, while using very efficient digging spells and lands. The deck was very powerful at one time but not so much in today’s Vintage metagame. For an excellent review of what the deck looked like in days of yore, check out Team Serious member JR’s article on EC, Chasing the Dragon.
Middle School Monoblack
So how does this relate to Middle School? Here’s my take on Monoblack Rack Deck a la Ian Blank of Lords of the Pit.
My original build for Dragon in Middle school looked closer to the Vintage list. Standard blue suite of draw spells and dig; AK, Impulse, Intuition. From playing through the deck in testing, the deck wanted some orthogonal attack vector. Doing a lot of setup just to have your Animate Dead countered, or digging a lot only to have them find Crypt / Furnace / Swords / Disenchant / Funeral Pyre / Coffin Purge etc., it didn’t feel great.
Even when I could counter the first hate piece, often I had exhausted too many cards to counter the second, with such varied classes of answers to the combo. Additionally, resetting after a failed attempt was near impossible. Enter Black Dragon.
Middle School Black Dragon
From the shell of Monoblack Rack, which was already playing Entomb / Nether Spirit value engine to support Cabal Therapy flashbacks and Contamination locks, I started brewing how to jam in the Dragon combo. My initial builds were good at executing the orthogonal Rack / chip damage plan, but weren’t great in aggro / burn matches. Since I had based my build so much on Ian’s black build (which I’m pretty sure is based on the Pox build by Alan Finney from MusicCity), I shared the deck with them. Ian rocked it during the LotP March Radness webcam event, going 1-3.
Further tweaks and testing led to a few changes for the current build, but things are still in flux and for sure can but adjusted for your local meta to get best results.
Essentially this is a creature-less deck, but it does lean hard on Nether Spirit. We are, of course, using creatures in the combo plan, as covered below in the combo section. Nether Spirit does a great job of blanking all sorts of damage based removal and keeps coming back unless it is exiled. Having access to a second is often a good plan when using Contamination as a win condition. If recurring Nether Spirit isn’t absolutely necessary, a nice sideboard option for graveyard hate is always Withered Wretch, a body that also helps to hose the graveyard.
The Rack is classic companion to Hymn to Tourach and the rest of the included discard suite. Cabal Therapy, Duress, Hymn to Tourach and Unmask all fuel the Rack damage. Deciding what combination of discard spells to play will depend on your meta. Mishra’s Factory can usually be on the offensive, with lots of removal spells clearing the way. Additionally, Cursed Scroll is a lynch-pin of the chip damage/control angle of attack. It keeps opposing weenies at bay and helps win a damage race vs. aggro. Many, many opening hands are made serviceable by the presence of this repeatable damage source, and if you are at rough parity, it is not a horrible top deck. Nether Spirit has already been mentioned for its utility, but a very early Nether Spirit can also usually be counted on for a passable Grizzly Bear impersonation, swinging for between 2 and 6 damage. Just remember: It doesn’t fly!
There are two Worldgorger Dragon combos in this deck. The first one is fairly known and has been used in classic Worldgorger combos of yore. Ambassador Laquatus is a non-damage based kill that mills the opponent’s entire library; after generating infinite mana with the Dragon loop, end the loop by animating Ambassador in the graveyard and activate his ability a lot, then passing the turn. The opponent then loses by decking, drawing from an empty library. This kill is great in situations where you can safely pass the turn AND they don’t have some way to put cards into their library. For example, beware of an active Scroll Rack. The opponent’s library becomes their hand size after milling, since the Scroll Rack ability doesn’t draw the cards and they can put any number back, so you will need to survive that many turns. As another example, milling over a Gaea’s Blessing generally means you should scoop it up and concede.
The second combo is with Cursed Scroll. Since all permanents re-enter the battlefield untapped, you can execute the Worldgorger Dragon loop starting with only two lands, and then simply activate Cursed Scroll on any iteration you have enough mana, to shoot them to death.
In terms of Animation package, Animate Dead is probably ideal to max out on, with 2-3 more spells. Dance of the Dead is probably next best due to CMC, while Necromancy is likely the last place animation enchantment due to CMC. Not having to pay to untap the creature it enchants may be worth the extra initial investment.
This deck doesn’t have a great way to get card advantage beyond Nether Spirit. The rest of the deck relies on trading cards one-for-one while amassing board presence of The Rack and Cursed Scrolls and/or building towards a combo turn. Virtual CA is found also through the use of 2-for-1 cards like Hymn to Tourach or Contagion.
Cards to explore in this area might be Phyrexian Arena, Necropotence and Graveborn Muse. Any creature that provides an “Enter the Battlefield” (ETB) trigger needs to be considered carefully, since they might be in play when you combo. For example, Phyrexian Rager might seem great on paper, but if you try to combo with it in play…did I do that???
Straight monoblack allows to overload on removal if necessary. At sorcery speed, Innocent Blood provides an amazing rate for removal, especially when you don’t plan to have any creatures in play! Still at sorcery speed, Vicious Hunger is great at gaining life, but doesn’t do much against opposing Factories or PersonLands. For this we call on Spinning Darkness, an all-star for surprise factor. Being able to cast it while tapped out usually isn’t a line opponents are considering when they are firing up a Treetop Village, for example. Smother is another good targeted, instant speed removal, also prime to deal with animated lands. Ghastly Demise rounds out the removal package, a 1 CMC, situational, instant targeted removal. The mix here is based on testing and definitely is not settled.
Other cards in consideration are sweepers like Infest, Mutilate, Massacre and Nausea. Of these, Infest is probably the best pseudo-Pyroclasm, as it is non-situational and hits everything. The original Monoblack deck played some number of Diabolic Edict to deal with untargetable creatures at instant speed, which might be prudent depending on your meta. Also, consider cards like Contagion because of the 2-for-1 possibility coupled with alternate casting cost.
Constructing a Mana Base
Swamps! Of course in a Monoblack deck, you need ways to produce that black mana. The deck doesn’t really need acceleration, so lands like Peat Bog, Cabal Coffers or Phyrexian Tower aren’t a thought in this particular combo. Additionally, most of the deck action casts on a low cmc, so Sol lands don’t help much either.
Mana denial lands like Dust Bowl, Wasteland and Rishadan Port might fit in a Contamination based build but likely not here. For creature lands, Mishra’s Factory comes immediately to mind, since the rack plan requires dealing some additional damage, and the Factory fits the bill. The activated ability cost to P/T ratio make Spawning Pool somewhat unplayable, but it could be good against some midrange strats for blocking.
Designing a Sideboard
The sideboard options should look to address holes in the deck’s main plans. One of the central tenets of monoblack Dragon is that you don’t need to combo to win. So in designing the sideboard, you should look to pivot away from the use of the graveyard, depending on how you win in Game 1.
Creature removal is blanked in most combo matchups, so having extra hand control to swap in makes sense. An extra Duress or extra Unmask can be great to shore up those applicable matchups. Necropotence can be killer in combo or control matchups where you need to keep up to win.
One of the great weakness of the deck is being overrun by creatures. Additional creature removal with built in life gain helps with this, so an extra Spinning Darkness and an extra Vicious Hunger seem good. Engineered Plague can help against a lot of aggro decks and even against Enchantress!
As we live by the sword, we die by the sword. Graveyard strategies abound in Middle School magic, so Phyrexian Furnace is a reasonable sideboard card, as well as Coffin Purge which is tutorable via Entomb. Other cards to consider for fighting graveyard strategies are Tormod’s Crypt and Planar Void.
The sideboard can be tweaked to be more transformational where necessary. If there are not a lot of Mox Diamond or Monoblack decks in your meta, perhaps the Contamination lockdown plan can work. If the decks you face are more combo and control in nature, consider more discard effects, like additional Hymn to Tourach or Bottomless Pit or Pox.
Playing Black Dragon
Use early hand control to control the game and plan your turns. Use cheap and efficient removal to play one-for-one, leaning on Nether Spirit to grind out incremental advantage. When possible, look for opportunities to pull off the Dragon combo and end the game. Otherwise, try to keep parity, control their hand and clear the board to win via incremental damage.
A Dozen Dragon Opening Hands
Duress is one of the strongest turn one plays in Middle School and I think I like this hand on the play or the draw. Turn one we can cast Duress and check out what is going on. Depending on our draw, we can go for Nether Spirit, then start chipping away. If we don’t like what we see with Duress, we can draw the game by turn 3, but I never like to show my combo unless I have to.
Sample Hand 1
Sample Hand 2
Sample Hand 3
Sample Hand 4
Sample Hand 5
Sample Hand 6
Sample Hand 7
Sample Hand 8
Sample Hand 9
Sample Hand 10
Sample Hand 11
Sample Hand 12
Sample Hand 13
With roots in a fairly established archetype, Black Dragon was a blast to design and fun to play. Though the general game plan stays the same game to game, the variety of reactive and interactive spells means the lines develop differently each game and based upon draws. I look forward to seeing where others take this archetype and the Dragon combo in Middle School.