The Dragon Cycles of Magic: the Gathering

A Magictation by Mikeal Basile

“Magictating” is defined as getting into the zone with your Magic the Gathering collection–thinking, planning, organizing, reminiscing about past games, and imagining future games. It is a combination of hard thinking about the game and calm meditation, reveling in the joy it brings you.

Let’s talk about dragons. Namely, the top dragon cycles in the game of Magic: the Gathering. Now, Magic has over 20,000 unique cards in its catalogue, but most people will be shocked to hear that there are only 244 creatures with the creature type “dragon”. As a long time player, I’m from generation X, I used to get super excited for new dragons. Shivan Dragon was the gold standard for flying beat down for years. It was the original iconic Magic dragon. However, nothing is more exciting than seeing a set that brings you a whole cycle of dragons! When I talk about cycles I’m talking about a set of 5 cards that are all part of a design group, like the cycle of Commands, or cycle of Ultimatums, or the cycle of “Seal of Blank” enchantments! I’d like to take the time to discuss all of the top Commander/EDH dragon cycles available in Magic today.

Dragon Whelp and Nalathni Dragon were the only options for quite some time. Legends introduced the namesake EDH dragons that this Commander format was built on. Those were awesome and paved the way for dragons moving forward. Yet, when Mirage introduced a cycle of non-legendary dragons with Catacomb dragon, Mist dragon, Canopy dragon, Pearl dragon, Volcanic Dragon, and Teeka’s dragon, dragon lovers were excited. The Mirage dragon cycle is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, but it introduced mono-colored dragons in other colors. Even for the time, the dragons were really only playable as fun singletons in odd ball multiplayer decks. I managed to live the Catacomb Dragon dream and fearlessly attack into Sengir Vampires, Serra Angeles, and Mahamoti Djinns. Though I’m pretty sure I still lost quite a few of those games. It wasn’t as exciting as you might think, because it could still fall victim to Swords to Plowshares, and was a full turn slower than the other top 4/4 fliers in town. Canopy Dragon was a sad patch for green decks to try to answer all these nasty fliers, but the four toughness made it pretty weak. Mist Dragon is neat, but when Rainbow Efreet exists it’s hard to justify running the Mist Dragon. Yes, even when you’re going for a dragon sub-theme. It’s just fairly weak. Though, I did watch someone cast Hurricane and make Mist Dragon lose flying in response, and then fly over the surviving ground troops—it lived and all our fliers died.

Invasion brought back an old approach to dragons. This is when it was clear that legendary dragon cycles could be thing. Rith, the Awakener was a beast to deal with, and Dromar the Banisher bounced plenty of people’s permanents during those late 90’s and early 2000’s. Treva was never all that exciting, Darigaaz was fun, and Crosis was no Bolas. It was neat to see that each of these legendary dragons seemed semi-connected (at least by their colors) to the original elder dragon legends. Odyssey block only had a few, but then Onslaught block had a dragon sub-theme, and dragon tribal decks were now a thing you could actually do. Cards like Kilnmouth Dragon, Imperial Hellkite, and Bladewing the Risen begged you to go dragon tribal. Bladewing’s Thrall, Dragonspeaker Shaman, Belbe’s Portal, and the ubiquitous Urza’s Incubator all helped to solidify this as a solid multiplayer strategy. Today, we have even more enablers, and so playing dragon tribal isn’t a stretch at all. Heck, cutting yourself down to just the dragons you want to play can be difficult.

The modern era of Magic brought with it new borders and a new cycle of legendary dragons. The Mirage cycle introduced mono-colored cycles, and Invasion brought back legendary cycles. Kamigawa dragons combined both concepts to bring us a cycle of legendary mono-colored dragons. Each dragon had a death trigger, and that was a refreshing and fun new way to experience dragons in each color. This was the first time we saw mono-colored legendary dragons for each color, and it was very well received (though, I hear, the block itself was not…yet perhaps we are destined to return). I loved the Kamigawa block for all of its legendary creatures, ridiculous story line, and fun quirky mechanics like bushido and splice onto arcane. Overall, the dragons were definitely the stars. Yosei is amazing for locking people down, and no one really wants to kill your Keiga for that matter. Meanwhile Ryusei is decent enough to run, and Jugan is the lucky dragon (except if you’re playing it). The most terrifying at an EDH table is definitely big floppy himself Kokusho the Evening Star. Heck, Kokusho was banned from EDH for quite some time. That tells you all you really need to know about how powerful that card has been.

The next cycle of dragons to come into Magic would be in the Time Spiral block. This set brought us more legendary dragons in the same vein as Invasion block. Teneb the Harvester and friends are all solid stats for their era. They are 6 mana 6/6 fliers with activated abilities that trigger upon doing damage to an opponent. These dragons punish your opponents severely. You not only get to smack them for 6 points of damage, but then you go ahead and tap a mere three mana and ramp up the punishment even more. Their abilities are good, but they didn’t help mitigate the loss of them like the Kamigawa dragons did. Now, keep in mind that the original elder dragons were printed in 1994, and by the time 2007 rolled around we only had 3 more cycles of legendary dragons. That is about one cycle of legendary dragons every four years.

It wouldn’t be until eight years later in 2015 that we would get truly spoiled with dragons. Khans Block with Fate Reforged and Dragons of Tarkir were the most exciting dragon themed sets ever. The only thing close to it is the Ur-Dragon 2017 Commander deck. It’s probably one of the most fun precons I’ve purchased. Anyway, the Khans block brought us all sorts of dragon cycles! The initial dragon cycles we got in Fate Reforged included a two colored dragon legends. This was the first time we got a cycle of dual colored legendary dragons. Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind has the honor of being the first dual colored legendary dragon. These dragons offered you mega rewards for playing with more dragons. Atarka, the World Render can be a Savage Beating in combat. Dromoka, the Eternal is frightening when you have a doubling season in play. Silimgar, the Drifting Death wiped out other people’s tokens armies. Ojutai, Soul of Winter is just cruel in multiplayer, and Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury can enable very large attack phases (downright disturbing with enough dragons). Additionally, Fate Reforged gave us an uncommon dragon cycle as well. Wardscale Dragon, Mindscour Dragon, Noxious Dragon, Shockmaw Dragon, and Destructor Dragon are all six mana 4/4 fliers, so they aren’t super exciting. The do all have a little ability tagged onto them, so they are often better than the cycle from Mirage. Overall, Fate Reforged did a great job adding to the pile of dragons we could shuffle up.

Dragons of Tarkir was the best dragon set ever. There were six cycles of dragons. Yes, I said six cycles. Up to this set there was a grand total of seven dragon cycles in the history of Magic. This set alone nearly doubled the total of dragon cycles. The dragons are all very tribal oriented, and work really well together. The dragonlords are clearly the best ones in the set, but the two rare cycles are also solid, and the two uncommons cycles are decent as well. I’m counting the monument cycle as a dragon cycle because they turn into dragons. The weakest were the dragons with Megamorph. They were all six mana 3/3 fliers with abilities appropriate for each color. They’re fine filler, but they aren’t anything you want to jam in every dragon deck ever. The other cycle of uncommon dragons were much more powerful as 4/4 two-color fliers for six mana. Savage Ventmaw is very powerful, and Ruthless Deathfang lets you tighten your claws around your opponent’s wormy little neck. If you ever find a way to clone an Enduring Scalelord with Dack’s Duplicate you can live a beautiful dream. Meanwhile, the rare regent cycle has some pretty powerful effects lurking in there. The cards are all costed fairly well, and I can see cases for playing any of these in any dragon deck that can run them. The other rare cycle offers up very interesting options. The Boltwing Marauder seems incredibly good in some sort of storm style tokens deck. The others offer unique abilities as well, and most of them are arguably playable if you have ways to maximize their abilities. Overall, this was an amazing dragon set.

I didn’t forget to discuss the dragon lords, but instead felt they deserve some of their own space. These were the second time in history that Magic came back to Elder Dragons! These were only the second instance of elder dragons existing in Magic. This was so exciting. Dragonlord Dromoka shuts down certain deck styles all by itself—that just awesome. Dragonlord Ojutai is incredibly difficult for your opponents to deal with, and I’m not sure anyone is playing this card without a way to give it vigilance, right? Dragonlord Silumgar is just about everything I want from a blue/black elder dragon—deathtouch, flying, and steals people’s stuff—perfect. Dragonlord Atarka is a ridiculous card to resolve and if it happens to be your commander, then people have to watch out for you one-shotting them off a couple sneaky pump spells. Meanwhile, Dragonlord Kolaghan does have a useless ability for EDH, but that is easily mitigated by the other amazing ability to give all your creatures haster…heck Kolaghan has haste too. These dragons definitely deserved the moniker of Elder Dragons.

We would only need to wait two years for the Commander Precon to release in 2017, so that brought many new toys for dragon decks. Then, in 2018, M19 released with a whole new cycle of dragons that revisited and updated the original elder dragon legends. This was super fun. I played at this prerelease and my buddy, Donovan, opened up Nicol Bolas, the Ravager. I was so excited for him. These are all very fun dragons to run in your decks, and I’m not sure that any of them are anything short of super fun. Their abilities and casting costs all offer up something different. This is the type of fun we want and need from our legendary dragons. Also, Bolas flipped into a planeswalker—that’s just awesome.

Interestingly enough it was just this year 2021 that we got more elder dragon legends. These are similar to the Khans elder dragons in that they are dual colored and not tri-colored like the original elder dragon legends were both times they were envisioned. This cycle of dragons all offer very unique abilities and ask you to build around them as commanders. They don’t really feel like cards you jam in the 99, but when you are running The Ur-Dragon, then I guess you can jam whatever draconic beasts you want.

The most recent set (as of this writing) is Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. We got spoiled in this set as well, because we got two cycles of dragons in one set. A set of mythic legendary mono-colored dragons, and set of uncommon mono-colored dragons. Oh, and Tiamat—the dragon god. The uncommon cycle centers on each chromatic colored dragon in Magic (black, white, red, blue, and green). This is similar to the uncommon sets we’ve seen before, and each one has an interesting comes into play effect that ties into its D&D roots rather nicely. Green dragons breath poison gas, so Green Dragon’s ability makes perfect sense. The stars of this set were fun cards like Old Gnawbone and Inferno of the Star Mounts. Icingdeath is a solidly costed dragon, and Ebondeath Dracolich is definitely a flavorful and fun design. Overall, these were excellent adds to the legendary dragons cycles.

I’m excited to see what else rolls along for dragon cycles. According to the past, it seems like we can count on an elder dragon or legendary dragon cycle every few years. So, we may have to wait awhile for more elder dragons to join the fray, but they’ll be worth the wait. I suspect that it might not even be as long as one might think, just looking back over the yearly releases. The rate that products are being pushed out to us seems to suggest that we may not need to wait years between dragon cycles, more like a few months. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but I do love dragons. Until next time, may the cards be ever in your favor.

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