Magic Gatherings #6: Themes Pt. III (and More Dragon Previews!)

By Harry Huberty on

About Harry Huberty

Harry blogs about games for GeeklyInc. He loves Magic: The Gathering, but he's always looking for new things to try, too. Find him on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_).


Welcome back to Magic Gatherings!  This week we’ll continue our survey of Commander themes, and take another look at new cards for Dragons of Tarkir which have been spoiled in the last week.

If you missed them, here are the other two theme articles: #1 (Intro, Blink, Equipment, Tokens), and #2 (Sacrifice, Artifacts, and Tribal).


Karametra, God of Harvests art by Eric Deschamps

Karametra, God of Harvests art by Eric Deschamps

Ramp/Big Mana

“Ramp” is Magic slang for playing spells and artifacts which give you access to more mana than you’d normally have, more quickly than you should have it.  The quintessential card is [mtg_card]Rampant Growth[/mtg_card], which puts an extra land straight into play for you, but artifacts like [mtg_card]Darksteel Ingot[/mtg_card] give you a similar effect: more mana for you to use next turn. (Note that this is different from cards like [mtg_card]Dark Ritual[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Desperate Ritual[/mtg_card], which don’t permanently increase your mana—they just give you a temporary boost.)  All Commander decks want some ramp to some degree, since all Commander decks have powerful, expensive spells they want to cast.

Dedicated ramp strategies go further, casting multiple ramp spells on successive turns to quickly reach large amounts of mana: [mtg_card]Rampant Growth[/mtg_card] on turn two, maybe, and then [mtg_card]Explosive Vegetation[/mtg_card] on turn three, and then they have seven mana on turn four.  At that point, they start playing cards which are much more powerful than what their opponents can cast.

Most ramp spells are early-game plays, but there are a few which provide steady advantage ([mtg_card]Karametra, God of Harvests[/mtg_card]) or provide a tremendous burst of power later in the game ([mtg_card]Boundless Realms[/mtg_card]).  Some effects let you hold on to all that nice mana ([mtg_card]Kruphix, God of Horizons[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Omnath, Locus of Mana[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Upwelling[/mtg_card]), and [mtg_card]Doubling Cube[/mtg_card] can “ramp” you by giving you a bunch more mana all at once.

Of course, you have to do something with all that mana.  Huge, expensive creatures are a natural place to go—[mtg_card]Worldspine Wurm[/mtg_card] is one of my favorites.  Scaling effects are especially good—look for the variable “X” in the spell’s mana cost—as they let you use as much mana as you can make.  Hydra creatures often fit the bill: [mtg_card]Genesis Hydra[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Lifeblood Hydra[/mtg_card] give you bonus effects in addition to just being BIG.  If your deck includes blue, scaling draw spells like [mtg_card]Blue Sun’s Zenith[/mtg_card] can help keep cards flowing.

A natural drawback of ramp spells is that they are poor draws later in the game.  Having some ways to get extra effects out of your mana can be handy.  The dragon monument cycle, coming up soon in Dragons of Tarkir, are great examples: tap for mana when you need it, and sink mana into it if you have plenty already.

Useful Cards: [mtg_card]Seer’s Sundial[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Helix Pinnacle[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Burnished Hart[/mtg_card]

Crossover Themes: Fatties, but generally useful everywhere

Epic Proportions art by Jesper Ejsing

Epic Proportions art by Jesper Ejsing


“Fatties” is Magic slang for very large creatures.  Like ramp, these are useful for all Commander decks: when your opponents start at 40 life, dealing damage in huge chunks is a great way to get them dead.  Commander games tend to progress until each player has lots of mana in play, so it’s helpful to have beefy creatures to draw to when that happens.

Like ramp, you can make fatties a more dedicated theme of your deck, and the themes naturally pair well together.  There have also been a few mechanics over the years that reward especially large creatures: Shards of Alara had a theme of “creatures with power five or greater,” which was reprised with the Ferocious mechanic in Khans of Tarkir.  Dragons of Tarkir has an upcoming mechanic, Formidable, which gives you extra effects if you control creatures with total power eight or more.

One nice part about fatties is that each set has a lot, and many are “bulk rares”–usually available for a quarter or fifty cents from your local game store.  These cards don’t see much tournament play (hence the low price), but that doesn’t mean they’re not good in Commander.  [mtg_card]Nessian Wilds Ravager[/mtg_card], for example, is fun to play (you get either a 12/12 or a 6/6 that kills something, plus the fun of seeing your friends debate which is worse), and you can have it for a song.  Truly unique and powerful creatures (like [mtg_card]Avacyn, Angel of Hope[/mtg_card]) can sometimes be very expensive buys, but if you’re setting the tone for Commander games for your group, these cards aren’t necessary.

Useful Cards: [mtg_card]Fierce Empath[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Warstorm Surge[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Greater Good[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Shamanic Revelation[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Mayael, the Anima[/mtg_card]

Crossover Themes: Ramp, but generally useful everywhere

Sphere of Safetey art by Slawomir Maniak

Sphere of Safetey art by Slawomir Maniak


“Pillowfort” strategies aim to keep you safe by making you a less attractive or less convenient target for your opponents.  Most commonly, these include cards that stop your opponents from attacking you, like [mtg_card]Ghostly Prison[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Sphere of Safety[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Propaganda[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Norn’s Annex[/mtg_card].  Faced with the choice of using all their mana to attack you, or attacking someone else and still being able to play spells, most players will choose the latter.

Pillowfort strategies can also include “rattlesnake” cards, a concept coined by longtime Magic author Anthony Alongi.  These are cards that tell your opponents to go somewhere else, usually by threatening them or their stuff in some way—[mtg_card]Vampire Nighthawk[/mtg_card] would be a basic example, as its deathtouch ability means it can kill most things it blocks.  [mtg_card]Michiko Konda, Truth Seeker[/mtg_card] would be fancier one.  Rattlesnakes are generally useful in all Commander decks, but pillowforts especially appreciate some teeth.

You can also protect yourself by slowing the game down generally by limiting attackers—try [mtg_card]Silent Arbiter[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Crawlspace[/mtg_card], for example, or you can use [mtg_card]Fog[/mtg_card] effects and damage prevention to keep attacks that do get through, from actually hurting you.

Sometimes pillowfort decks are just trying to outlast everyone else, building to powerful late-game spells or combos. You can also force other players to attack with cards like [mtg_card]Goblin Diplomats[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Courtly Provocateur[/mtg_card]: your opponents have to go after someone, but your fort should keep them from going after you.

Useful Cards: [mtg_card]Stuffy Doll[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Luminarch Ascension[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Blazing Archon[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Angelic Arbiter[/mtg_card]

Crossover Themes: Lifegain, Group Hug

Elixir of Immortality art by Zoltan Boros and Gabor Szikszai

Elixir of Immortality art by Zoltan Boros and Gabor Szikszai


Lifegain themes do just what you’d think: you play cards that gain you life.  In Commander, where everything is bigger, you can gain some fearsome amounts of life indeed; triple digits are easy, and infinite life is not impossible.

Of course, gaining life doesn’t actually win the game for you—it just keeps you from losing it.  And it doesn’t even protect from all the ways you can lose it; commander damage will still get you, for example.  So you have to make sure that you include some ways to win the game, especially those that take advantage of you having tons of life.

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to do this.  A number of cards get bonuses when you gain life, like Archangel of Thune, Ajani’s Pridemate, For these cards, you want to maximize the frequency with which you gain life: [mtg_card]Nyx-Fleece Ram[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Recumbent Bliss[/mtg_card] are good options, as are [mtg_card]Soul Warden[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Spirit Warden[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Soul’s Attendant[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Suture Priest[/mtg_card] (all excellent with a token theme, too).

Other cards care about how much life you gain, like [mtg_card]Voracious Wurm[/mtg_card].  These cards want to you gain as much as possible when you do gain it.  [mtg_card]Beacon of Immortality[/mtg_card] gives the most bang for your buck, but large lifelink creatures (or anything carrying a [mtg_card]Loxodon Warhammer[/mtg_card]) can do the trick too.

There are a few cards which care about your life total as a discrete number, and some of these break in Commader: [mtg_card]Serra Ascendant[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Felidar Sovereign[/mtg_card] are the most infamous.  Some groups consider these cards in poor taste, or otherwise errata them to activate at 10 or 20 life above your starting total. Use your discretion, or ask your opponents before the game starts if you’re playing with people you don’t know well.  If you’re the one providing the decks, you can make your own policies to maximize the fun factor.

Useful cards: [mtg_card]Storm Herd[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Angelic Accord[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Path of Bravery[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Patron of the Kitsune[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Chalice of Life[/mtg_card]

Crossover Themes: Pillowfort, Group Hug, Tokens

Special Bonus Section: Khans of Tarkir Previews, Part II!

One week later and there’s a bunch of new preview cards to talk about.  First, DRAGONS:

Dragonlord_AtarkaAtarka recalls [mtg_card]Bogardan Hellkite[/mtg_card], a snazzy rare in Time Spiral block which still has a place in my [mtg_card]Mayael, the Anima Commander[/mtg_card] deck.  I appreciate the simplicity of the design here: play your dragon, eat something, attack your opponents.  What more do you need to know?

Dragonlord_DromokaLifelink is a great ability on a 5/7 flyer (since you want to attack with it every turn anyway), and “can’t be countered” is a nice bonus.  Shutting down opponents’ spells has good utility, especially if you plan to commit to equipping or enchanting creatures on your turn.  The drawback is that, presumably, your opponents will kill her as soon as your turn is over, so there’s some incentive to do everything at once.  For that reason, Dromoka would be a great fit for a big mana theme— I’m excited to try her in my [mtg_card]Karametra, God of Harvests[/mtg_card] deck.

EnduringScalelord_CardWe haven’t talked about +1/+1 counters as a theme yet, but there are lots of things you can do in these colors—[mtg_card]Juniper Order Ranger[/mtg_card] comes to mind.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect to trigger this several times per turn.  It dies to removal, of course, but it will get very large if left unchecked.

RuthlessDeathfang_CardThis effect is reminiscent of [mtg_card]Dictate of Erebos[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Grave Pact[/mtg_card], which we discussed as part of a sacrifice theme last week.  It’s not quite as powerful, but that actually makes me like it a bit better—those enchantments can get oppressive, whereas Deathfang is more of a pinpoint tool.

SavageVentmaw_CardA 4/4 flyer for 6 mana isn’t the best deal, even in red-green.  But this attack trigger seems very good to me: 6 free mana will make for some extremely large spells in your postcombat main phase, and if you can give Ventmaw haste, it’s effectively free, as it refunds the mana you spend on it when it attacks.

DescentOfTheDragons_CardDragons for everyone!  This is a great fit for a token theme, since you want to turn a bunch of expendable creatures into mighty 4/4 dragons.  You can also make some allies by upgrading their twerpy dudes into 4/4 flyers.  This card seems like it will make for a lot of wild moments.

SarkhansTriumph_CardFind your dragons!  This is a great tool for a dragon tribal deck, since dragons have a variety of powerful abilities which can be used to answer lots of problems—just use this to tutor up the one you need.  This is an instant, too, which surprises me, but I won’t complain.

HavenOfTheSpiritDragon_CardCast your dragons!  Again, dragon tribal: never underestimate the power of being able to cast your spells!  Getting a dragon back from the graveyard is a useful effect; if you happen to have a [mtg_card]Scion of the Ur-Dragon[/mtg_card], you can use its ability to find the exact dragon you want, too.

AssaultFormation_CardThis card has a lot of text, but the first clause is what will garner the most notice, and with good reason—it’s an ability we’ve seen before on one card, [mtg_card]Doran, the Siege Tower[/mtg_card].  Any deck built around Doran will appreciate some redundancy for his effect, so that’s a plus.

This could also open up a deck based around creatures with defender, since Assault Formation lets them attack—[mtg_card]Overgrown Battlement[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Axebane Guardian[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Vent Sentinel[/mtg_card] would be creatures to start with.  Just make sure you have ways to protect Assault Formation, or ways to win if you don’t draw it; a common failing of decks like this is that their creatures are poor if the key card isn’t in play.

SarkhanUnbroken_CardI could hardly end the column without talking about the week’s big reveal.  I have to confess: I am not bullish on planeswalkers in multiplayer.  They can be incredibly powerful (free stuff every turn is good: as Carrie Oliver has pointed out, it’s basically like getting extra actions in a board game), but they’re also very hard to protect from multiple opponents.

That said, if you’re playing Temur (or five-color) anyway, Sarkhan looks worth the risk.  He can help protect himself by making a dragon, and his +1 seems like one of the strongest we’ve seen: you are guaranteed a card, and the mana will help you cast it.  If you can activate his ultimate ability (“cast ALL THE DRAGONS”), that should be wild, but it’s not something to bank on.

That said, there are worse things than including a generally useful card in your deck.  Every deck needs a few fun cards that just make you smile whenever you play them, and Sarkhan seems like a great inclusion on those criteria.

That’s it for this week!  Next week we’ll wrap up our theme survey and take a look at Dragons of Tarkir as a whole.


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