Jesse K: Welcome, young planeswalker, to Two Jesses’ Flavor Reviews. We will be your flavor guides to the multiverse, imparting invaluable wisdom about which cards are super cool, and which are mega dumb. A wizard’s only got so much mental energy to consider this stuff, after all. This week, it seems that Sarkhan has accidentally stepped into the metaphorical DeLorean and found himself in a different, younger plane of Tarkir. Will he be able to successfully stop the death of Ugin, and by extension, his beloved dragons? Or will his time travel shenanigans have unforeseen consequences? Or perhaps, he will just invent Rock and Roll and become his own grandfather. Either way, Fate is about to be… changed in some way.
Jesse T: Imagine you live in a world that was once inhabited by a giant race of reptilian monsters that suddenly and mysteriously went extinct. Now imagine there exists a vast continent populated by a diverse array of ancient civilizations where these creatures once lived. Too far-fetched to be true, you say? Too fanciful and bold? What if I told you that you could travel to this place right now? What if I told you that this world was in fact called… Tarkir? Join us, your resident expert chrononauts, as we leave the present day and journey into the distant past, to discover if there are any discernible differences between the two time periods aside from the presence or absence of dragons.
Khans and the Dragons who Eat Them
T: He’s mean, he’s green, he’s Ugin! Although he may look like a simple palette swap of Nicol Bolas, don’t be fooled. This is actually a completely different piece of artwork. Kudos to Wizards for finding a way to template his -3 ability without introducing pre-Civil-Rights-era hate speech into the game’s official rules.
K: Ugin’s cool, but everyone knows his real role is Return to Zendikar hype-man. At least we’re finally starting to see Wizards accept that dragons were actually feathered, and were more closely related to our modern birds than to reptiles, in keeping with advances in archaeological science.
T: In the ancient past of Tarkir, prior to the invention of caution tape, the Abzan clan’s brave leaders protected future generations by directing pedestrian traffic away from dangerous construction sites.
K: To me this is probably the least interesting and compelling of the proto-Khans. Compared to his mythic descendant, Anafenza, the Foremost, he costs more, has a harder time getting counters on things, and most damningly, doesn’t ride a goat. If you’re looking for an EDH general to do broken things with counters, why aren’t you just playing Ghave, Guru of Spores? This card is really for no one.
T: I bet he’s really kicking himself now for leaving his sweet black ibex at home on picture day.
T: He may be a tempest on the battlefield, but he’s always silent in the library. Remember, kids: True prowess comes from books.
K: So the blue legend is the one with aggressive stats that just basically attacks well? What is this bizarro world? I gotta say, a thousand years of practice certainly helps the Jeskai come up with a more interesting legend.
K: Zombie-head fruit platter spotted! It’s good to know that some things never change.
T: The spice must flow! But seriously, if I were in that kind of shape, I’d probably dress that way too. Good for him.
K: This card is bringing up questions for me about the climate of Tarkir. All these characters seem to interact with one another fairly freely, but now we seem to have the Sultai living in an apparently sweltering jungle that is somehow right next to the icy tundra that all the other clans inhabit. What does this guy even do when he’s got to visit Yasova Dragonclaw to complain to her about all those Krushoks she gave him? I’m picturing some kind of luxurious mink coat.
T: Not to be confused with Alicia, Who Smiled at Me Once During Social Studies.
K: Alesha seems really bad ass, and is the card from this set that is most likely to inspire me to make an EDH deck (what can I say, I’m a sucker for red cards that are actually interesting). That being said, “Alesha”? I mean, that is the least threatening name possible. Maybe that’s the reason that she’s so tough a la Boy Named Sue.
T: Though smaller than an ordinary house cat, the Temur clan’s diminutive leader more than makes up for her size through sheer ferocity. With paintbrush in hand, she rules over Ice World, Lava World, and indeed all the worlds of the Super Mario Multiverse.
K: Shoutouts to fully clothed, adult-looking women in magic art. It is not that many sets ago when Yasova here would’ve been wearing boob armor and a bared midriff. Also want to point out that her surname is the same as her successor, Surrak. Has the same family really been in political power for that many years? What is this, America?
T: Tarkir has five clans of dragons, each of which is loosely modeled after one of the chromatic dragons from D&D. If you’ve ever rolled a d20 and then pretended to do a bunch of math, you already know that any dragon worth its treasure type can be immediately recognized by its sweet breath weapon. Dromoka is a desert-dwelling dragon that breathes lightning, which both art and rules text fail to capture. That, coupled with the fact that she looks like a winged version of 1998’s Godzilla, make this my least favorite of the five dragons.
K: It’s clear to me that the Abzan-ish dragons are actually supposed to be shooting LASERS as seen in the artwork of cards like Citadel Siege and Elite Scaleguard. This doesn’t bump the card up in the dragon rankings for me, really, since the mechanics and art of this card still don’t emphasize this at all. They’ve still got another set to make this right, and I want to cast a sweet laser dragon.
T: Ojutai soars high above the snow, and ices chumps with his mad chill frost breath. I’d rank Ojutai as the best-designed of the five dragons, since his ability does the exact same thing as the actual card Frost Breath. Yes, pleasing me really is that simple.
K: Like Jesse, I appreciate the amount of detail and thought that has gone into these different dragon broods. For instance, on this card we can see that Jeskai type dragons have bird wings, and cool looking head-fins (which probably make them go faster). Abzan dragons look to be more heavily armored and reptilian. Ojutai here is really well designed and has extremely nice art to boot.
T: Silumgar is a swamp dragon with horrible coffee breath. Aside from having a name like an evil alien from Futurama, his ability is actually pretty consistent with the mechanical identity of toxic fumes. I’ll rank Silumgar as the second best out of the five dragons, so he’s a pretty high pick if you’re flavor drafting.
K: Plus he’s like, a cobra dragon. How cool is that? This is my personal favorite, as to me the art and name does the best job of capturing the mood of how terrifying it must be to fight these guys. Another thing I want to point out is the slightly different clan mark on the rules box of each of these cards. An indication of things to come, perhaps.
T: Kolaghan is a hill-dwelling dragon who… also breathes lightning? I don’t care what this card does. It gets bumped down to fourth place for not having fire breath. What were they thinking?
K: Major flavor slops to not completing the cycle of clan leaders having something to say about their respective enemies. Come on guys, you couldn’t’ve left the reminder text off just once? Setting that aside, other Jesse is mega wrong about Kolaghan. Mardu dragons are four-winged (aka. twice as cool) and are constantly surrounded by lightning like an awesome blacklight poster or death metal t-shirt. Can you imagine what this guy looks like in foil?? The only dragon who I could picture playing an electric guitar.
T: Now you see the true advantage of being third! Atarka doesn’t even attempt to have a breath weapon, and just smashes things. Good job! I have to say, the looseness of this cycle kind of bothers me.
K: Correction, sir- Temur dragons seem to be the ones with some kind of fire breath (see Hunt the Weak) or maybe acid breath (Destructor Dragon, Frontier Siege). Either way, this is the most boring dragon to me, and his antler things look kind of stupid (again, see Hunt the Weak).
T: Also, weirdly, the spines on Atarka’s back give us yet another dragon that’s clearly modeled in part after Godzilla.
Keywords and Mechanics:
T: Not everyone can always afford +1/+1 counters when they need them. Here at Abzan Insurance, we care about the little guy. Helping working families and small businesses get the assistance they need, when they need it: That’s the Abzan advantage.
K: Bolster is like the Platonic ideal of a keyword. It’s something that can easily be added to any effect, and it’s vague enough in its concept that it can be represented by nearly anything (in this set green light, dragon scales, a glowing twig, etc.). It’s so vanilla and boring that I find it hard to say anything about it at all. I will say that I think it’s cool that they made the ancient Abzan mechanic something that works well with, and is related to, their Outlast-y future. It’s better than I can say for the Jeskai ability, which is still ‘gets +1/+1’ after a thousand years. I guess you can’t tamper with perfection.
K: A card as blandly pleasing as this is a perfect place to talk about the Prowess mechanic. They’ve done exactly nothing new with it to make it play any differently. On its surface Prowess looks pretty insignificant and is frustratingly at odds with itself during deck building. You want to have enough Prowess guys, and enough ways to trigger Prowess. However, having played with it for a while now, I can say that Prowess feels significantly better than it looks. Not only must you ‘walk the Jeskai way’ by making draft picks that feel unintuitive at first, you have to ‘find balance’ by drafting a deck that is more spell-heavy than usual. When you finally can string together a few unrelated cantrip spells, clear away some blockers, and boost your offense at the same time, all culminating in attacking for exactsies, you do feel a little bit like a Jiu Jitsu master.
T: I like the pretty colors.
K: Well, actually they may have given one other thing to Prowess, and it’s the two White Mythics in this set. Both are kind of Prowess engine cards, addressing the key weakness of the mechanic. One of them addresses the issue of running out of creatures with Prowess by making more of ‘em and one address the issue of running out spell by giving all your spells buyback. I wouldn’t be surprised if this stuff happened accidentally, but it just so happens to have worked out really well for team Jeskai.
T: In addition to making prowess seem a lot more appealing, Monastery Mentor is also apparently trying to get an endorsement deal from Nike. I guess I’ll just take his advice at face value.
K: You might have a problem if your Sultai flavor text could go equally well on a motivational poster.
K: I’m sure we’re all happy to see Delve (a.k.a. the mechanic that has ruined a half dozen formats) return. Soulflayer here represents two things- their increased understanding of the importance of using more colored mana in Delve spells (see also Temporal Trespass) and their sole effort to make Delve more interesting than a simple mana reduction ability. To be honest, Delve seems like a narrow enough mechanic that I wish they had tried something else for the early Sultai clan. Sure, this card is neat, but how much more mileage can you get out of ‘what you delve matters’? I hope the clans that didn’t get something new in Fate Reforged get something new in Dragons of Tarkir.
T: I’ve got some real issues with Soulflayer. Everyone thinks he’s so darn talented. “Ooo, Soulflayer is such a skilled sword fighter! Wow, Soulflayer is so good at gymnastics! Oh, I just love the way Soulflayer plays piano!” Wake up, people! You know he tortures the souls of the damned for a living, right? He just stole all of those skills from the nameless dead as he stripped them of their most precious memories! I know we all show our influences from time to time, but Soulflayer has absolutely zero artistic integrity, and every original bone in his body was shamelessly taken from a desecrated grave site. His work simply doesn’t deserve your support.
K: Dash! is the new Mardu mechanic, and it’s a pretty cool one overall, despite it sounding vaguely like they’re running out of ways to say ‘does a thing fast’. It plays with an interesting design space, because sometimes it makes sense for the Dash to be a way to get it into play cheaper, and sometimes you have to pay extra for the privilege. I really like that the new mechanics they introduced feel consistent with the identities established for the clans in the first set. Dash and Raid sorta kinda work well together, although in most cases it seems like you’d need about 6 or 7 mana to Dash a guy out to trigger Raid, and if you’re a Mardu deck getting to 6 or 7 mana, you’re probably doing it wrong.
T: What a jerk this guy is. He comes crashing through the window, snags a chest full of priceless artifacts, and then leaves his own warriors behind to take the blame. I bet he even breaks another window when he bails out just to be extra annoying. And you just know some poor Jeskai initiate is going to end up having to sweep up all that glass to “learn about humility and discipline”.
K: Looks like ‘temporary clone made of fire’ is becoming a thing that red does. It always amuses me (and no one else) when these little mechanical cues start to come out.
T: I feel like I’ve seen this done before, but it was probably just on one or two obscure cards that nobody really remembers. In any case, this is unambiguously the first and only instance of Double Dash!
K: Wizards appear to be just as embarrassed by Ferocious (aka the Naya mechanic -1) as I am. It only appears on 8 cards in this set, only 3 at common. I guess that makes sense since you’re almost never trying to draft “a Ferocious deck” like you might do for Prowess or Delve. It has an additional issue of always needing to be on either spells or smaller creatures, two things that this tribe is not really supposed to be excelling at. I feel like it’s safe to call it the worst and most boring mechanic of the set. Pictured above is a card that captures the Ferocious flavor well: it’s really awesome, and the mechanic is a largely forgotten add-on that you don’t really care that much if you get.
T: Is it just me, or is the Temur clan several millennia behind the rest of Tarkir in terms of technology? The rest of the plane is clearly well into the Iron Age while this scene looks like it’s taking place in the caves of Lascaux. Not that I can fault them. I can’t think of many better ways to spend my time than sitting inside, doing whatever drugs he’s doing, and drawing sweet pictures of mythical cave beasts. It sure as hell beats cleaning up after Mardu Strike Leader and/or getting eaten by dragons.
You’re the Manifest Now, Dog
T: WotC: Do you understand what a Morph creature is?
Artist: Not really, no…
WotC: Okay, so what we want from you is something that looks kind of like a morph creature, but even more vague.
T: Look! Up in the sky! It’s… well, I’m not quite sure what it is, but I think it has flying and lifelink!
K: So, let’s talk about manifest. I find myself really divided, because I love this mechanic and I think it’ll be super fun to play around with. I think flipping the top card in the hopes that it’s going to be a creature is going to be a great feeling, and will create a significant difference in the way the limited format plays. I know that I’m personally looking forward to drafting a Bant Secret Plans/manifest deck, complete with the suddenly borderline playable Lens of Clarity.
However. This is not a mechanics review; it is a flavor review. As little sense as morph made before, manifest makes even less sense now. It was hand-waved away last time, you might recall, as ‘draconic magic’. In this set it seems to be an even vaguer Ugin-related phenomenon. Why does Ugin summon random things, places, and animals that appear to be encased in xenomorph eggs? How are other people using this technique now? It’s completely baffling and you only get more confused the longer you try to think about it.
T: Come to think of it, the “morph spiders” from Onslaught Block did look a little bit like alien facehuggers.
K: Wow, it’s amazing how much cleaner-burning morphs are than manifests. Just look at that trail of billowing smoke. This is a reminder, folks: take care of your plane. You only have one.
T: In the distant past of Tarkir, Sarkhan finally comes face-to-face with the true cause of his beloved dragons’ disappearance: Climate change.
K: So this card deserves some special attention. It’s not just a conditional wrath effect, it’s the narrative core of not only this set, but this whole block. The climactic moment when Bolas and Ugin battle, and Ugin falls. Or maybe he doesn’t, now that our main man Sarkhan is here. (Hey, where’d Sorin go? Oh wait, no one cares.) Fate Reforged is the branching off point for two different timelines, and we the players actually get to experience both. For the next 3 months it’s the Destroy all Dragons timeline, and after that… well, you can probably guess what happens. The card doesn’t say ‘save all dragons and everyone else is fine too’, so I suspect Sarkhan might be getting in over his head here. He’s like… from Tarkir, right? How is messing with this timeline going to not result in him fading out of existence? Also, if Ugin is surviving this battle now, what does that mean about Bolas? Does he actually get killed? What kind of ripple effect does that cause? Well, I guess we’ll find out. I’m legit excited for the way they’ve done this whole time travel thing, and to see how far they take it.
T: Nah, you’ve got it all wrong. It sounds like you’re predicting Sarkhan is going to save the dragons, but end up killing all humans before he’s ever born. I, on the other hand, propose a deterministic single-world model of time travel wherein Sarkhan has always been present in Tarkir’s past, and is actually himself responsible for killing Tarkir’s dragons in a cruel and ironic twist of fate. Either that, or Sarkhan will create a time paradox which, according to the Dr. Who model of time travel, is ultimately resolved by the appearance of dragons anyway.
K: Wizards’ latest effort to make two-two-two cards in one is probably its most elegant so far. So, which side do you choose, Khans or Dragons? The art on these cards are all really cool and do a good job of distinguishing the 5 different dragon broods that they seem to have invented for this block. These cards are also going to be a neat pivot point between the current draft format and the next one (a timeline where, presumably, someone has named ‘dragons’). If you want to have maximum flavor consistency, I recommend always choose Khans now, and always choosing Dragons once we are drafting that set.
T: For a mechanic with the potential to be so flavorful, I think they really missed the mark by ascribing completely random abilities with no clear connection to each choice. If you reversed the “Khans” and “Dragons” abilities, the card wouldn’t make any more or less sense. I almost feel like the card would be cleaner and easier to understand if it just said “Choose One –”.
K: I also want to point out that each Siege is located at the tri-land of each clan. Cool attention to detail here.
T: That is actually really cool. If I weren’t wasting so much time and effort trying to figure out what the hell the card was supposed to represent, I would appreciate it a lot more.
T: Maybe it’ll be easier to understand what’s happening with these cards if I can make up a little story. The monks draw cards because they’re learning things while fighting the dragons, and the dragons counter spells because they’re freezing them with their magical ice breath. That’s not too bad. Knowledge and ice breath go together like two peas in a glove. Like peanut butter and the bees.
K: I’m pretty sure that monk in the bottom right of the art has comically slipped on some ice and is currently hurtling off a cliff. Aside from that, I do feel obligated to point out that ‘costing 2 mana more to target’ is well established to mean ‘being shrouded in icy fog’. You know, the way a frost dragon might be? Check and mate.
T: Hey, man. It’s not a contest. It’s all good. One of us will just end up being wrong on the Internet and getting branded forever as an untouchable detriment to the Magic community while the other is lauded for his wit and insight. No big deal.
K: Wait, before you again complain about the abilities here being seemingly random, I want to point out that there’s not a lot we know about these dragon broods yet. You have to admit that on the cards we’ve looked at so far, the Khan ability is somehow related to clan, or otherwise works with its game plan. Abzan loves the +1/+1 counters given out by palace siege, Jeskai can use the extra card filter to trigger prowess (established as a Jeskai ability on Ascendancy and Bloodfire Mentor), and Sultai is all about filling up the graveyard and grinding it out. I guess what I’m saying is maybe the dragon abilities will make similar sense once the next set is released.
T: Anything is possible. Maybe there’s a perfectly good reason that these dragons are draining life from your opponent. Maybe they’re all vampire dragons. Maybe that’s how Sorin fits into the storyline. I’m sure it all makes perfect sense to someone, somewhere. If this were anything except a top-down design, there’s no way it would ever be this convoluted.
K: Alright, this is the one that makes me look stupid. I can’t think of a single way either of these abilities makes sense flavorfully. Unless Mardu dragons, like, explode when you kill them. Yeah, I could almost talk myself into that one. The Khan ability is the real problem though. Maybe ‘temporary card draw’ just isn’t an established enough ability yet for me to have a really strong sense of what it represents.
T: I can imagine the dragons blowing up enemy soldiers like little tin cans full of electroconductive fluid, but I agree with everything else you said, mostly because it supports my own claims.
K: Yeah, ok, we’re back on track now. Temur loves to have big dudes, and mana helps you make big dudes. Also, dragons love to fight. Finally a card that makes perfect sense.
T: This is definitely the best of the Sieges, but I’m still not sold. The Khans ability isn’t particularly meaningful. I posit that it could be replaced with any other green ability, and the card wouldn’t make any less sense. I think it’s ok for us to disagree about this. Or we can always just battle to the death like mighty dragons! Choose? I choose neither!
That’s all we have for you this week, but stay tuned for More Dragon Trickery on Two Jesses Flavor Reviews next time when we go deep into some individual cards and name our best and worst of set.