It’s Bill and Ted’s Draconic Adventure! Join two Jesses as they snark their way through the art, flavor, and mechanics of the new set, Dragons of Tarkir.
???: Megamorph! It’s me, Jesse K, exactly the same as before, but I have a +1/+1 counter on me. I’m here to start our flavor review of Dragons of Tarkir. It feels like just a few weeks ago that we were exploring the primeval landscape of past Tarkir in our Fate Reforged reviews. Actually, it was just a few weeks ago, because these two sets came out ludicrously close together. Not that I’m complaining—I’ve been looking forward to seeing what they would do with the time travel concept since it was first announced. Will Wizards come through with a cool, intricate, evocative design for the now changed world of Tarkir, or will they just slap dragons all over everything and call it a day? Spoiler alert: It’s a little bit of both!
Jesse T: While it does seem like these sets came out very close together, remember that we just traveled through a temporal vortex from the distant past. What seemed like only a few weeks to us was actually thousands of years on Tarkir, so they’ve been waiting for this flavor review for a very, very long time. Many have forgotten the keyword mechanics that appeared in Fate Reforged, both because it was so long ago, and because most of them were completely forgettable. So did things get better? Worse? About the same? Looking at the cards yourself is clearly out of the question, so read on to find out!
Mechanics and Themes
K: This isn’t your granddaddy’s Tarkir—it’s cool, extreme, and way more dragon-filled now! In the absence of Ugin’s death, dragons have flourished on the plane, and there are now roughly a million of them. This is represented by them printing not only a whole dump truck’s worth of dragon cards, but also a smattering of dragon helper cards, and the prevalence of dragons in the art and flavor text of the rest of the set. The clans haven’t so much ceased to exist, as they have become extremely dragon-focused. The people of Tarkir now rely on dragons for pretty much everything, whether it’s guiding them down the path of enlightenment, vomiting gross poison onto their weapon and forearm, or eating the head right off their body. Hey, it’s a living!
T: Personally, I think Tarkir is much better off now that our new draconic masters have forced us to change our minds about them. Why would I want the burdens of thought and free will when I can just do whatever the dragon tells me to do? Dragons appear in all 5 colors, representing a variety of different moral philosophies, all of which can ultimately be understood by their subjects via the simple maxim, “Don’t get eaten.” Do you like the fire-breathing dragon or the acid-spewing dragon better? Who cares? Whichever one won’t kill me! If you’ve ever voted in a presidential election before, you basically get the idea.
T: Keywords jumped the shark right after Richard Garfield invented flying. Has there been another top-down design since? Equip, maybe? I never really have much hope for anything except great gameplay when it comes to keywords. Inventing new ones for every set just seems like a needless restriction placed on Magic’s designers by, I assume, dragons.
K: I’m having a little bit of trouble figuring out what megamorph is supposed to contribute to this world. I thought maybe we’d see an evolution of manifest, since that was the more Ugin-based mechanic, flavorfully. Another idea I had heard frequently suggested was spells or other types of permanents you could unmorph. Instead we just got morph with a +1/+1 counter. I guess it’s supposed to indicate that on the new Tarkir everything’s a little bigger and tougher? It is slightly different from morph in that you’re a little more incentivized to play your things as morphs and kill their morphs before they flip up, but frankly, that’s kind of how it worked before anyway. Most egregiously, the morph looks exactly the same as before. They could’ve at least put a sweet dragon design on it, or added some muscle-y arms to indicate how much more mega it is.
T: If you showed these four cards to someone who didn’t play Magic and asked them what they all had in common, what kind of answers do you think you’d get? What would you say? I’d say quadrupedal earthling-like animal anatomy. Nobody would ever guess that they were all imbued with special power because they used to be formless beings of pure draconic magic. Once you told them, they’d be so impressed they’d never speak to you again. It’d be awesome! Who wants to talk to people who don’t play Magic?
K: Bolster is an ‘eh, I guess’ mechanic that we last saw in Fate Reforged. Like its predecessor, outlast, it has something to do with putting counters on things, strengthening them in a flavorfully inconsistent way. Would they keyword ‘put a +1/+1 counter on something’? Probably not, I guess, but this mechanic is the same as that, with a targeting restriction. I do like that a bunch of creatures and spells in this set reward you for playing bolster cards by giving you additional effects for having creatures with +1/+1 counters on them. With megamorph also in the set, this clan seems to benefit from having the highest amount of synergy.
T: I agree 100%. Bolster can apparently represent anything from an inspiring military leader to a fistful of sand. You can even “bolster” by making dragon jerky. If a keyword is going to be this vague, I’d really rather just see a +1/+1 counter theme.
K: Recipient of the honorary ‘how many times can we fit “+1/+1 counter” on a single card’ award.
T: The attribution on the flavor text seems to imply that the rest of Tarkir is English-speaking.
K: Rebound. The mechanic that you always knew would… come back again. This is a pretty good choice for the Ojutai clan, and a perfect complement to their spell-incentivizing prowess mechanic. It was always a little counterintuitive that the color combo that was traditionally the most spell-centric had a creature bonus as its mechanic. It’s too bad that prowess isn’t in the set, because rebound works so well with it. Wait a second! We might not have prowess, but we have tons of notprowess, which is just the same trigger but with different bonuses. Kind of makes you wonder why we needed to keyword prowess in the first place.
T: I love rebound, but it’s only because we broke up with prowess so recently. As fun as it is, it’s kind of a flavor miss, since that huge block of reminder text takes up space that could have been better spent on “doing a thing twice” quips.
K: “Prowess? Never heard of it.” —Ishai, Ojutai dragonspeaker
T: My flavorite text of all time is on Man-o’-War: “Beauty to the eye does not always translate to the touch.” Ishai takes what could be poetry, and makes it sound like a quote from a science textbook. How she was elected dragonspeaker laureate is beyond me.
K: Exploit is my personal favorite of the new mechanics, but it has some significant flavor problems. How exactly can a creature exploit itself? The problem is, if you took away this component, the mechanic would lose the interesting flexibility that lets you basically play your exploit creatures as spells. It’s unusual for flavor and mechanics to conflict with each other so much, but maybe the uneasy feeling this produces is all part of being a member of the Silumgar brood. Exploit doesn’t really intersect very much with delve, except that it lets you add a card to your graveyard, but then again so does playing any spell. Exploit works well with creatures with death triggers, and I kind of wish there had been a few more in the set to really let this be an archetype in draft. The mechanic also synergizes well with Pacifism and Reduce in Stature (good name, guys!) being in the set.
T: If sacrificing them seems like too steep of a cost, you can always exploit creatures by opening a 24-hour fast food franchise and paying them less than a living wage. I’m surprised there aren’t more death triggers in this set too, since I’d probably get triggered if I saw another creature get sacrificed right in front of me.
K: Festering Goblin, you look … different. It seems like Sarkhan’s meddling really has had unforeseen consequences throughout the multiverse.
T: “Kidnap the Dragonclaw
Lock him up real tight
Synergize for Silumgar
When we get sacrificed!”
K: Dash! is back, and in a set with megamorph, no longer holds the ‘dumbest mechanic name’ crown. It continues to be a pretty neat mechanic that captures the flavor of its clan well. I’ve been pretty impressed by the mechanic’s flexibility to make sense at a lower, higher, and more identical mana cost than the card it’s on. I would’ve liked to see some alternate dash costs, like different colored mana or life loss or the usual, but maybe they’re saving that for Return to Tarkir. They’ve worked on finding ways to make dash! more interesting in cards like Ambuscade Shaman and Warbringer, but there’s not a lot of subtle synergies here. I guess that’s a flavor win too.
T: Dash! is a fun mechanic with a consistent identity: A quick and unexpected attack … which is basically the dictionary definition of a raid. It sure is great when they choose to include two extremely similar keywords like that in the same block. If you ever get confused, you can usually tell dash! creatures from raid creatures because they’re all covered with lightning bolts.
K: Pictured above: The only dash!-helper card in the set.
T: Dash! also synergizes well with attacking.
K: And finally we have formidable. This mechanic has perfect flavor because it’s just as derivative and unimaginative as ferocious. It’s also thematically tied to ferocious, since it’s basically just identical. Like other mechanic pairs, the two complement each other in the way that two things that are the same tend to do. It’s like peanut butter and … the other, new jar of peanut butter, which is maybe a different brand. Storywise, it helps to show how the once ferocious Temur clan is now the formidable Atarka, which seems like it might be hidden commentary on how little personality this clan ended up having. Formidable, which is now technically added to the list of magic keywords, as well as your personal memory, is supported by … having creatures with high power. You know, like ferocious.
T: I feel bad for the design team. They can’t possibly keep expecting to create interesting new abilities set after set. They don’t have to do this to themselves. They could have just printed ferocious again. Better yet, they could have just given the whole set a “power 4 or greater matters” theme instead. Is this making people want to play the game? Who is this for? Isn’t having too many rules and keywords one of Magic’s known issues that scares away new players?
K: That’s one ferocious tree.
T: Not quite formidable, though.
Legends and Planeswalkers
K: Anafenza, noooo! I knew I shouldn’t have chosen Dragons that one time I played Crux of Fate. The new Anafenza is interesting in a few ways: First, she’s shifted from 3 color to one (a transition shared by most of the set), and second, she’s been downgraded from mythic to regular rare. It’s a dragon’s world now, and part of how this is represented is by showing all the former khans in new (generally) lesser positions. I like how this card turned out—it ties together the two Abzan/Dromoka mechanics nicely, and flavorfully communicates how things have changed. This is also the first card we’re seeing that indicates that things might not be all flowers and gumdrops in dragonland for the average citizen.
T: You’d better not let the dragons catch you talking like that. I’m enjoying my gumdrops very much, benevolent leaders! Thank you! Let me know if you’d like me to desecrate the graves of my ancestors later! Or anybody’s grave, I guess.
K: And Sidisi’s dead too. Well this is turning out to be a downer. Things may not have turned out well for our former leaders on the whole, but Sidisi actually got a little bit buffer in undeath. I guess we should take what we can get. After all, it’s more than a little weird that all these characters exist in any kind of recognizable way after 1000+ years of altered history. After a ghost and a zombie, our next legend can’t possibly have a worse fate, right?
T: Oh no, poor Sidisi. Somebody killed you and forced you to serve them eternally in undeath. That must suck so bad. Welp, guess you better just hope nobody carves out your skull and turns it into a fruit platter! Ttyl! Byeeeeee ;*
K: Oh Zurgo … You used to sit on Kolaghan’s skull, now you’re his lowly bellringer (and not even a very good one, judging by the lack of the bellringer’s trademark vigilance). Seems that we now have confirmation that it was some combination of Zurgo’s Ogre’s Cleaver and rad ‘tude that made him such a force to be reckoned with in the alternate timeline. Any time paradox grumbling aside, I think it’s neat that they show that all the former khans have risen to some kind of position of importance or prominence despite their reduced stature and importance to the storyline. Are they weaker because there are dragons now, or do they just never have a chance to show their true potential because they can’t compare to their dragon overlords? A true nature versus nurture debate hidden within our own fantasy card and yet another parallel to 1983 Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd classic Trading Places. I can only say I’m looking forward to seeing someone trying to teach Surrak about Frozen Orange Juice futures.
T: Honestly, one of the biggest problems with the public education system on Tarkir is young people having their potential sapped by dragons. If dragons weren’t so greedy and obsessed with vanquishing one another, we wouldn’t have promising students like Zurgo growing up to work 12-hour days as bellringers just to make ends meet. Again, if you’ve ever seen a presidential election, it’s pretty much the same thing.
K: Oh no, not Surrak too! Eh, actually, I think I’m ok with this. It honestly doesn’t seem that different from Surrak’s previous role, except now he’s rocking antlers instead of a split-in-half bear head. Honestly this character and his clan have so few character notes that it’s hard to care. ‘Punches bears/dragons’ may be cool, but it is not a personality trait.
T: If you’ve been paying attention, you may be wondering why we skipped Narset. Well, stick around until the end of the article, and you’ll learn that nobody edits these things and we forgot to include her entirely. Whoops!
Dragonlords: Yes, You Read that Correctly.
K: And here we come to probably the most significant innovation of this set: The return of the elder creature type! Clearly the term doesn’t mean what it used to, after all, these dragons are not the ageless, almost godlike beings that the term originally implied (see Nicol Bolas et. al. for an example), just a thousand years older than they used to be. That doesn’t matter, because now that we’ve embraced ‘age’ as a signified just like class and race, imagine all the design and creative space that have opened up. The creature type update that is sure to accompany this is going to be epic, and I’m looking forward to my Cathars, Land Wurms, and Pines of Jukai all technically becoming the Elders they were always meant to be. Down the road, I’m most excited about the prospect of receiving tribal support for my long-planned ‘middle aged’ creature deck.
T: I’m already disappointed by Youthful Scholar.
K: Now that we’ve discussed that strictly positive change that no one could ever have a problem with, let’s get to the dragons themselves and talk a little bit about how their broods have been characterized. The way I’m going to qualify whether these broods are a success or not is how much characterization that they receive and whether that identity is any different from the way the color pair has been in the past, say in its Ravnica guild. It starts off … not so good, with Atarka. The only qualities that Atarka, both the dragon and the clan, seems to have are ‘big’ and ‘hungry’. This leads me to believe that Atarka may in fact just be Borborygmos in a full body dragon suit. There is zero flavor text from Atarka herself (him?) which seems to indicate that Atarka can’t really even communicate in any meaningful way. Literally all the flavor is either ‘they sure eat a lot’ or ‘they fight a lot (mainly so they can eat)’. Flavor Grade: D-
T: Atarka probably doesn’t get any flavor text because her mouth is constantly full. While your assessment of her character is correct, I disagree with you on the point that big and hungry aren’t legitimate emotions. You can’t tell me this pang I feel deep inside isn’t real. I’m going to grade my dragons based on how likely I’d be to join their clan. Atarka promises me lots of food, but might randomly eat me. I’m going to give Atarka a C-. Sorry, I meant a Flavor Grade: C-
K: Dromoka seems to have few differences from her Abzan ancestors. It’s still the feel good clan that seems to emphasize comfort, inclusiveness, and familiano, much like a local Olive Garden restaurant. They seem to have lost their focus on ancestors and ghost trees and whatnot to some extent, in favor of more dragon worshipping, but it’s a confusing and cosmetic difference. If you live in a world where ghosts are just walking around and interacting with the world in observable ways, why would you stop believing in them? Aside from this, Dromoka hasn’t made any significant contributions to green/white as a whole. These cards might as well be Selesnian for how generic and bland they are. The feel of this clan is somewhat salvaged by some standout pieces of flavor that we’ll get more into in our next article. Flavor Grade: C-
T: This is a dragon with vision. This is a dragon of substance. This is a dragon who will eat you, just like any other dragon, if you become a problem. At least she’s more straightforward about what sort of stuff will get you killed than Atarka. I appreciate transparency and structure, whereas Atarka will just kind of get hungry sometimes. Dromoka’s strong moral compass really makes me like her clan, and her style of leadership. Flavor Grade: A-
K: One thing I will give the dragonlord designs: They all feel fairly mythic, and they do reflect the different clans fairly well. Kolaghan, for example, is all about attacking … and removal, I guess. The second ability basically does very little outside of constructed, which is a realm I have no business commenting on. The Kolaghan brood got just as little characterization as Atarka, which is a sad thing to say about 4-winged lightning dragons. They are mean, and nomadic, and they like to attack, and that’s about all there is to it. Well, there is the Crave, which I believe is a term for the battle lust that compels the Kolaghan to fight, but actually sounds more like an early 2000’s garage rock band. Not only has this brood done nothing unique for red/black, it actually takes a step back from the gleeful carnival sadism that Rakdos brought to the table. It is utterly generic red/black. Like Atarka, we never get to hear from Kolaghan herself. Flavor Grade: D-
T: Who needs to words when you’re a 50-ton sociopath? Kolaghan makes no promises whatsoever except that she could kill you at any moment without provocation. I can’t imagine what would incentivize someone to join Kolaghan’s clan, but hey, who am I to argue with results? I guess all that freedom must be pretty exhilarating until you get decapitated by a stranger for no reason. Flavor Grade: F-
K: Here we finally get to one of the few dragonlords that actually feels like a real character rather than just a generic dragon. Ojutai is calm, in charge, and thoughtful, and his card communicates this well. I especially like how he Anticipates every time he attacks. The whole dragon-in-meditation-pose thing looks kinda dumb, but with the flavor they were going for, it makes sense. Ojutai’s brood has the whole Buddhist monk/search for enlightenment thing going for it, which makes it distinct from previous incarnations of the white/blue color combination. Ojutai himself, along with his followers, contributes a number of pseudo-philosophical quips to flavor texts throughout the set, giving them a real voice, even if it is a little hard to believe that these aphorisms are getting anyone to a higher plane of understanding. Flavor Grade: B-
T:Ojutai claims to care about yout enlightenment, yet he refuses to reveal the sources of his ancient wisdom. Fact! Ojutai refuses to answer to our phone calls and letters. He’s only interested in your unquestioning obedience. How can you trust a dragonlord who doesn’t have faith in you? I appreciate that Ojutai is peaceful and orderly, but his brand of dogmatic loyalty isn’t for me. Flavor Grade: B-
K: Silumgar easily claims the crown of most fully realized character among the dragonlords. He is super fat and gross, and lies on big piles of money while scheming up new ways to increase his wealth and power. His card communicates his character loud and clear; he wears the former khan of the Sultai as a zombie necklace and is visibly drooling and bejeweled beyond all reason. Mechanically, his abilities represent both his sloth (he’s a lot less tough now) and his preferred style of dominance. This clan overall represents a major shift from the underhanded, secretive Dimir, showing that the blue/black color combination has a lot of room for different flavorful interpretations. The grotesque combination of opulence and necromancy makes its way onto many cards in the set, either in art of flavor text. Flavor Grade: A-
T: No, thank you! This has got to be the least appealing to me of all the clans. At least Kolaghan gives you a little bit of freedom. Living with Silumgar sounds like one of the most stressful things I could imagine. I’d have to constantly be plotting and scheming and watching my back … If I wanted that kind of thing, I’d apply to law school. It makes me want to blow up a goblin’s head with lightning just thinking about it! Flavor Grade: F-
K: Oh man! Narset in a planeswalker now. I guess that all the accumulated karma from the other old khans getting totally boned has allowed Narset to rise to the top. Narset’s been revealed to be a more interesting character than she originally appeared (and she had a pretty interesting set of abilities to begin with), being described as ‘neuro-atypical’ in a recent Wizards article. It seems that ever since Two Jesse’s started writing these social-justice-tinged flavor reviews, WOTC have been scrambling to cover their asses with as many socially progressive characters as possible. Narset represents another positive step forward in the long march to forget that they printed Triumph of Ferocity. As for the card I dig it. This feels like a design that is distinct from previous blue/white planeswalker outings, as well as exploring a little bit of new planeswalker design space. By having her start at a high loyalty, and have somewhat hit-or-miss abilities (rather than the usual ability to protect itself), it creates an interesting dynamic for your opponent, who now has to decide how much of their resources they have to put into killing it, and whether it’s worth it. I’m looking forward to seeing how this character develops, and hope we see more of Narset’s enlightenment-seeking adventures throughout the multiverse.
T: Apparently Narset had the good sense to challenge Ojutai’s teachings too. Maybe I’ve got a little bit of the planeswalker spark myself! Just kidding. I resigned myself to die toiling in obscurity for my terrible reptilian masters a long time ago. Like most planeswalkers, Narset has a handful of confusing abilities, but unlike most planeswalkers, they all have a common theme of enabling notprowess. She’s definitely not the least flavorful planeswalker I’ve ever seen. The important thing is that she’s a neurodivergent female planeswalker of color, so racism, sexism, ableism, and the inability to detect sarcasm are all fixed forever, and we can finally go back to printing new Jaces in every set again. It’s nice to know we were able to single-handedly effect social change through our biting satire where the people doing actual activism have all failed.
K: And Sarkhan gets another card! Who could’ve guessed? You know, we’ve seen versions of Sarkhan that were red, black, green, and blue now, making him the most colorful planeswalker so far. This is a card that I’m fine with, and it basically delivers on the promise of Sarkhan completing his character arc. Actually, I would say that of all the planeswalkers Sarkhan is the character for whom his planeswalker cards actually communicate his story and development the best, while still retaining his key trait of ‘likes dragons’.
T: Everything is pretty messed-up on the plane of Tarkir, but Sarkhan sure looks happy. Then again, maybe things were already pretty messed-up to begin with. The former Mardu are still fighting each other, the former Sultai are still stabbing each other in the back, and the former Abzan are still relying on each other just to survive. Maybe, at the end of the day, the fact that Sarkhan is happy is all that really matters. No. That’s a terrible moral. These dragons are literal monsters and they have people living in fear, like insects. They have to be stopped, and I refuse to stay silent any longer! Humanity will never—[REDACTED].
K: That’s all we have for now, but join us next time when we talk a little bit more about the set, see how that whole time travel thing works out, and name our best- and worst-of’s of the set. You don’t wanna miss it!