Friday, August 30, 2013

Zero to Sixty Primer: Dragonauts

   This entry is going to be a bit different for the Zero to Sixty series. This is less about my exact, specific decklist, and more about an archetype in general. Today we’re going to focus on a deck I refer to simply as “Dragonauts”. Instead of just showing you my list and talking about why I picked those exact cards, I’m going to break down the archetype, discussing card selection in both broad strokes and fine detail.

The Deck: What is it? What Does it Do?

   In the most generic terms, Dragonauts is a Blue/Red deck with an “Instants and Sorceries Matter” theme. But, more specifically, it focuses on using creatures that milk extra damage and value out of your spells, turning Lightning Bolts into 6 Damage, and Ponders into Lightning Bolts that Cantrip. That sort of thing. The deck’s name comes from the card that inspired the archetype for me: Wee Dragonauts. Dragonauts was the primary threat, with Gelectrode backing it up by providing extra damage or by clearing away blockers. The rest of the deck was just chock full of cheap, efficient spells like Lightning Bolt and Brainstorm. Both Dragonauts and Gelectrode tack on extra damage to every Instant and Sorcery you play, so you play draw spells to draw more and burn more, and you play burn spells to just burn… more. 


   This deck can be moved around quite a bit along the Aggro/Control spectrum, but I find it’s a bit of a glass cannon sort of deck, so going as Aggro as possible is my favorite approach. Just blitzkrieg your opponent out of the game before they can find an answer. You can, if you prefer, go the other way, and play it much more controlling, but I feel that sort of deck would prefer Talrand and Young Pyromancer over Wee Dragonauts and Kiln Fiend. By that point, the deck isn’t really a “Dragonauts” deck, and is really just a totally different U/R Instants and Sorceries Matter archetype. Anyway, the definitive Dragonauts deck follows this basic strategy:

   Step 1 – Find and play a couple of creatures that add value to your Instants and Sorceries. These need to be cheap to cast, because you ideally want to cast as few spells as possible before dropping one or two of these guys. I basically refuse to consider anything viable if it costs more than three.
   Step 2 – Once you have a couple of these guys on the board, start chaining together sequences of cheap spells and cantrips – think “Ponder into Lightning Bolt into Preordain into Lightning Bolt…” and you have an idea of what I mean.
   Step 3 – Is your opponent still alive? Well, you’re probably losing, but if possible, repeat Steps 1 and 2 until they are toast.

   Here’s the tricky part of this deck. You are relying on creatures to win, but those creatures specifically require you to jam pack your deck with as many Instants and Sorceries as possible. You can’t run too many creatures, or you dilute all the “whenever you cast an Instant or Sorcery” triggers, and your creatures will sit there failing to gain you the promised value. But you can’t run too few creatures, or all your Ponders and whatnot will simply fail to kill your opponent. You also need to have enough creatures where if you lose one to a Doom Blade, you don’t auto-scoop. Finding that balance between running enough creatures and running enough spells is tough.
   The other reason I prefer the “glass cannon” approach is that this approach is the only hope this deck has of beating a true Control deck. You absolutely have to kill them before they stabilize, or else you’re simply going to lose.
   This deck hates long games.  It hates removal. And it hates Fog effects. Basically, it plays like a gimmicky burn deck. So, if all of these things are common staples of your playgroup, you might not have much luck with this deck.

   But in any environment that doesn’t absolutely stifle it out of existence, it can be a remarkably fun and challenging deck to play. When it’s firing on all cylinders, there are SO many triggers to keep track of, and it’s a lot like a Storm deck in that you genrally want a D10 or something handy to keep track of how many spells you’re casting. In fact, it really does play like a combo deck, because you’re usually just “goldfishing” and ignoring your opponent until you’re ready go for the kill in a flurry of spells and triggered abilities.

The Cards: What are they? What do they do?

   In general, you don’t want anything in the deck besides Lands, Creatures, Instants and Sorceries. Other permanent types just gum up the works and cause you to sputter out. Planeswalkers, Enchantments and Artifacts just dilute the effectiveness of the deck. Of course there are lots of permanents of those types that care about instants and sorceries. But you’ll just have to trust me when I say that you want Guttersnipe over Pyromancer’s Gauntlet and Gelectrode over Sphinx-Bone Wand. If you want to build around those types of cards, that’s awesome and I fully support it – but it’s going to be a totally different deck from what I’m talking about today.

   Even though Instants and Sorceries – what I’ll call Spells from here on out, for berevity’s sake – are the meat and potatoes of the deck, it’s generally the creatures that actually do most of the heavy lifting, in terms of actually killing your opponents. So that is where we will start.


The first category are creatures that pump themselves when you cast things or deal damage:
Blistercoil Weird

Kiln Fiend

Nivix Cyclops

Wee Dragonauts

Chandra’s Spitfire

You’ll no doubt have noticed that Chandra’s Spitfire doesn’t quite match, in that she has a trigger based on dealing non-combat damage, instead of simply casting spells. But you’ll see that she still fits the archetype quite perfectly, because her similarities outweigh her differences. And, besides, dealing non-combat damage is still something this deck does very, very well, so she’s almost as easy to trigger several times a turn as is Wee Dragonauts.

Next up, we’ve got pingers that untap themselves with some kind of trigger:
Cinder Pyromancer


Goblin Sharpshooter

Lobber Crew


   Regular “pingers” like Prodigal Pyromancer or Cunning Sparkmage don’t cut it here. We want pingers that can machine-gun out 4 or more damage a turn, by untapping multiple times. There aren’t very many cards in Magic that do this specific function but there are a few options. I put Guttersnipe in this category because he fits better amongst creatures that deal direct damage, rather than among those that have to attack for damage.

   Not appearing in our list of contenders are cards like: Snapcaster Mage, Augur of Bolas, Archaeomancer, or pretty much anything over 4 mana. The reason is simply that the deck is meant to be much too fast and aggressive for these kinds of spells. By the time we could cast Izzet Chronomancer, our opponent should be dead, or we’re likely in trouble. As much as they might be thematically on-point, they will just slow the deck down, dilute its core strategy, and make winning harder, rather than easier. Again, there are ways to build the deck so that cards like that might be good, but such a deck would still be too far afield to be a proper “Dragonauts” deck.

   So now that we’ve outlined the possible contenders, let’s take a closer look at each one, and evaluate them individually.

   Blistercoil Weird – The only 1-drop that fits in this deck at all, I’m still of the opinion that this guy is too weak. He’s a 1/1 with no evasion, and his pump is only +1/+1, which in general is much, much worse than +2/+0 or +3/+0. As much as I want to speed up this deck by having a 1-drop creature, I think he actually slows us down by having too small of an pump increment.

   Kiln Fiend – seemingly the holy grail for this deck – he’s a two-drop, and he has the solid gold +3/+0 pump. The problem? No evasion. This guys is absolutely viable – but only if we’re commiting to playing some number of Artful Dodges or Distortion Strikes. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can just use your burn to clear a path… I mean, you can do that, but you’ll run out of gas. You really need to just burn face AND attack face.

   Nivix Cyclops – It costs one more than Kiln Fiend and has Defender – two major downsides – for what advantage? +2 to his Toughness. Here’s the problem – neither one has any evasion, and as I already said, we’d prefer not to use our Lightning Bolts on blockers if we don’t have to, so if we run this guy too, we’re still looking at playing Artful Dodge/Distortion Strike. Overall, the Fiend is better, but I can see a version of the deck playing both.

   Chandra’s Spitfire – Flying and +3/+0 is great. The trigger, however, is a bit more narrow than on most of these creatures. You have to deal non-combat damage to a player to get the pump. So, if you’re holding a grip of Lightning Bolts, she’s fantastic. But she doesn’t add any value at all to your Ponders and Preordains. There’s a workaround, though, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Still, the combination of built-in Evasion and the maximum amount of pump, means the Spitfire is a strong contender regardless.

   Wee Dragonauts – The very card that spawned this archetype, and still my favorite of the bunch. With their +2/+-0 pump, they’re not as explosive as Fiend, Cyclops or Spitfire, but each of those has a drawback that the Dragonauts do not share (in order: no evasion, no evasion/has defender, more narrow pump trigger). So they are simply the most reliable option, overall, and have the added bonus of being friggin’ cute and awesome. Why would you not want to play tiny, flying Steampunk Faeries?

   Gelectrode – My favorite of the “ping-untappers”, Gelectrode is solid, and has no real downside compared to the other entries, save a SLIGHTY tougher mana cost. Unlike the other categories, this one is clearly and definitely the best of the bunch – the only question is do you just play 4x of him, or do you add some number of the other guys?

   Cinder Pyromancer – This guy is the runner up. He’s kinda like Chandra’s Spitfire, in that his trigger is a bit more restrictive and doesn’t trigger on Ponders, et al. However, he DOES trigger when you cast even a Red Creature spell, so your Dragonauts and Spitfires, and even other copies of himself will untap him! I recommend this guy for your deck if you find yourself having to run a slightly higher creature count due to a removal-heavy metagame. Ideally, I run about 14 guys and load up the reset with spells, but if you’re in the 16 to 18 range on creatures, all of which should be at least partly Red, then this guy’s value goes up.

   Lobber Crew – While I like that this guy says “each opponent”, I very much dislike the fact that his untap trigger keys off of multicolored spells only. That’s a pretty serious restriction, because we want the bulk of our spells to cost 1 mana, and being a multicolor spell generally requires a spell to cost at least two mana. I’m cool with playing Izzet Charm an all, but I don’t think we’re going to find enough UR spells to make this guy playable.

   Goblin Sharpshooter – Again, this untap trigger just doesn’t mesh well with our deck. We don’t have that many creatures, and we’re kinda counting on them not dying. And as for opponent’s creatures, we’re really hoping to just ignore them as much as possible and only kill those that directly get in the way of our victory (like, literally, by blocking our huge Dragonauts, for example). Worth looking into as a metagame call, if you need to deal with some elves or tokens or something, but in a vacuum, this is a poor fit.

   Guttersnipe – Remember how casting a Ponder or Preordain doesn’t trigger Chandra’s Spitfire? Well, this guy bridges that gap nicely. If you really want to play Spitfire and/or make this deck have some kind of Multiplayer game, you definitely want this guy. Actually, you probably play this guy no matter what. He’s insane in multiples, and can win without ever attacking at all. The only way in which he’s worse than Gelectrode is that he can’t kill creatures in a pinch, if needed. Milk enough out of him and that might not be an issue, but I like to be able to handle a Windborn Muse or whatever else might come up.

Instants and Sorceries

   So, now that we’ve got the creature candidates out of the way, let’s get to those spells! This portion of this deck is mostly comprised of burn and draw. Burn because it accomplishes the goal of killing our opponents dead, draw because running out of gas is absolutely fatal for this deck. In addition, we also want to consider spells similar to Distortion Strike, that not only pump our Kiln Fiends and such, but also make them unblockable.

Burn Spells

   There are a lot of burn spells in Magic. Like, hundreds of them. Possibly thousands. What we’re looking for is efficiency above all else. Things with some form of card advantage built in – like the Retrace, Rebound and Flashback mechanics – are also worth looking at. Basically, what we’re trying to do is pack the highest amount of damage possible in the smallest number of physical card slots possible, with the cheapest mana costs possible. It’s a pretty tough balancing act, and there are quite a few options to consider.

   Lightning Bolt – Duh, this is pretty much the pinnacle of all burn spells, and is an auto 4x in almost any conceivable build. Even in Multiplayer, this is still good enough, which is not something you can say about most one-shot burn spells.

   Flame Jab – Don’t get caught up in the “only 1 damage” mindset. You’re ideally going to be casting this while having various creatures on the battlefield, so they will all collectively add value to this card. But what really sells this for me is the fact that it turns dead land draws into more damage/triggers. You almost never need or want more than 5 or 6 lands, so having a Flame Jab to turn Land numbers 7, 8 and 9 into a useful spell is very valuable.

   Rift Bolt – This is an interesting option, but having to hardcast it for 3 when you draw it on the turn you want to go for the kill will always be awkward. This simply doesn’t work for me, but I can imagine there’s some radically different build of this deck that would love it. Seems like it might be a good fit for a Young Pyromancer deck, but not the Dragonaut version.

   Flame Rift – More of a multiplayer-only option, this is still an incredible amount of damage for 2 mana. If you have Guttersnipe and Spitfire in your deck, and you’re facing more than one opponent, you probably want a couple of these at least.

   Arc Trail – Great if your Spitfires and Dragonauts keep getting stymied by chump-blocking birds or faeries. Cheap and can 2-for-1 in the right situations. Best in decks with Spitefire and Cinder Pyromancer. I’ve run it before in my Dragonauts decks, and have found it to be pretty good.

   Staggershock – Too expensive, sadly. Otherwise this combination of damage and card advantage would just be too sweet to pass up.

   Electrolyze – Too expensive and inefficient in my experience, but I have tried to make it work. The ultimate card for this deck is one that both does some amount of damage and cantrips, but even at 3 mana, it’s just too clunky. Still good, though, if you’re not going for pure speed and aggression.

   Reckless Charge – I can see this in a crazy build that forgoes the pingers and whatnot in favor of just playing all the Kiln Fiends/Nivix Cyclops/Wee Dragonauts guys. With just one of those guys, this card represents 10 or 12 damage total, for only 4 mana.

Draw Spells

   Much like the burn category, what I’m going for here, primarily, is efficiency. One-mana cantrips are fine, even if they don’t actually net us any card advantage. Looting is also valuable, because sometimes you draw too many lands, or too many creatures, and you will happily pitch those in favor of drawing more gas. I also like bonus things like Scrye or the shuffle option as another way to get rid of unwanted chaff.

   Ponder, Preordain: Grouped together because they’re pretty close to being the same, in terms of power-level and awesomeness. When pressed as to which one I’d rather have? The only answer I can ever give is “Both!”

   Brainstorm – Obviously, a great card, but for this deck I like Ponder and Preordain better. Both have the ability to get rid of excess lands or guys, which is super important when you’re digging for gas, which is always more Instants and Sorceries.

   Faithless Looting – Better than Izzet Charm if all you care about is looting, but I like the Charm more for its versatility. It’s a matter of preference really: efficiency vs. versatility. Definitely worth considering this one.

   Ancestral Vision – Fantastic when suspended turn 1 or turn 2. Probably terrible at any point after that.

   Ideas Unbound – This is one I’ve very seriously been considering. It can basically do what Faithless Looting or Izzet Charm do on turn 2, if I need to dig for more gas and/or pitch a bunch of excess lands or creatures. But the real draw is casting that last turn, when you’re going for the kill. If all goes well, you won’t ever reach that end step anyway, so this is basically “Draw three” for UU. Seems legit.

Can’t Block This!

   As previously mentioned, cards that provide evasion to your guys are also worth considering. There are really only three cards worth looking at here.

  Artful Dodge – It’s cheap and has Flashback. This makes creatures like Nivix Cyclops and Kiln Fiend much more playable. Normally, their lack of evasion is a huge strike against them, but if we’re playing cards like Artful Dodge or the next two cards, they become quite lethal.

   Distortion Strike – Similar to Dodge in that you get two uses out of it, but it also has a nice +1/+0 bonus tacked on – very relevant in this deck. The downside is that Rebound is less controllable than Flashback, so it’s easier for your opponents to thwart. Also, if the creature you target with Strike gets killed in response, the spell fizzles and you lose out on BOTH castings of this spell, whereas with Artful Dodge, in the same scenario, you only lose the first casting, but the Flashback casting is still available for later on.

   Teleportal – In a vacuum, this is just strictly worse than Distortion Strike. Costs twice as much, and you don’t even get the Rebound? Lame, right? But, in a certain build, one that really pushes the front-pump guys like Fiend/Cyclops/Dragonauts, in lieu of pingers, the Overload mode of this spell is basically an Overrun. It’s the iffiest option in this category, but still totally worth mentioning.

Assembling the Puzzle Pieces

   So now that we’ve covered all the potential cards, which ones actually make the cut? Well, that’s part of the appeal of this archetype – there are so many worthy candidates, that you can’t possibly fit them all into one deck (well, unless you go for a nearly-Singleton build, which I don’t recommend). This enables multiple builds within the archetype, allowing for some degree of variety and customization.

   As with most decks, I’d start with the creature base first, add spells next, then go back and tweak the creatures if necessary after you’ve selected your spells. Because, while many of the creatures and spells all appear to be very, very similar on the surface, they all have subtle differences that make them work better in some builds, and with certain other cards, than others.

   For example, if I’m playing 4x Distortion Strike in my deck, I’m inclined to take Kiln Fiend over Chandra’s Spitfire, and Guttersnipe over Cinder Pyromancer. Meanwhile, in practically any deck in which I am running the Spitfire, I’m all but guaranteed to be playing Guttersnipes and at least a couple of Flame Jabs.

   The number of creatures we run is also a very important decision point. I’ve played versions of this deck with as few as 12 creatures, and it’s… shaky, at best. You wind up taking mulligans on a lot of creatureless hands, and losing games to a single 1-for-1 removal spell because you’re light on threats. But at the same time, running 18 creatures results in a lot of games where you just drop creatures 3 or 4 turns in a row, then never have more than 1 spell to cast on any give turn. Or you just get blown out by a Wrath.

   Ideally, you want to drop 2 or 3 creatures up front, then never see another creature card the rest of the game. I’ve found the sweet spot to be in the 14 to 16 range, but even splitting the difference and going with 15 results in some awkwardly bad draws once in a while. That’s why looting cards like Izzet Charm, or “filtering” cards like Ponder and Preordain are so good. They allow you to get rid of junk you don’t want in exchange for, hopefully, something more relevant.

   So, to start with, I’d pick the cards that you like the best, the ones that excite you the most, and figure out which other cards work well with your favorites, and which ones aren’t so synergistic. For example, if you really, really like the idea of casting Distortion Strike and a bunch of other stuff, and attacking with a 15/3 Wee Dragonauts, start with those two cards, and go from there. That deck probably will avoid cards like Chandra’s Spitfire, Flame Jab and Cinder Pyromancer.

   But if not getting to play Chandra’s Spitfire is a deal-breaker for you, avoid the unblockable spells an instead double up on pingers and burn spells. And don’t forget the Guttersnipes!

   Maybe tapping and untapping all those pingers just reads like so much math and memory issues, and you’d rather just turn guys sideways only ONCE per turn. Drop the pingers altogether, dump in more of the front-pump guys, and throw in a couple of Teleportals, Artful Dodges and more burn.

   If you want to play looting cards like Izzet Charm or Faithless Looting, I’d be sure to include some Flame Jabs and Artful Dodges – cards you don’t mind discarding if need be, because you can use them from the graveyard too. Fiery Temper and Obsessive Search might be good in this build – and they weren’t even on my list of candidates.

   So, just for the sake of example, I’ll throw out a couple of lists.

List #1
4x Chandra’s Spitfire
4x Wee Dragonauts
4x Gelectrode
4x Guttersnipe

4x Ponder
4x Preordain
4x Ligtning Bolt
4x Faithless Looting
2x Flame Jab
2x Izzet Charm
2x Artful Dodge

23x Lands

List #2
4x Kiln Fiend
4x Wee Dragonauts
4x Gelectrode
4x Guttersnipe

4x Distortion Strike
4x Lightning Bolt
4x Ponder
4x Preordain
3x Izzet Charm
1x Reckless Charge
1x Ideas Unbound

23x Lands

List #3
4x Guttersnipe
4x Gelectrode
3x Cinder Pyromancer
4x Wee Dragonauts

4x Faithless Looting
4x Fiery Temper
4x Lightning Bolt
4x Ponder
3x Ideas Unbound
3x Flame Jab

23x Lands

   All of these look really similar, but each has a subtly different focus. List #1 balances between attackers and pingers fairly equally, while also catering to Spitfire to make her as effective as possible. List #2 focuses mainly on attackers, including a full suite of “can’t be blocked” spells. In fact, this build might even prefer Nivix Cyclops over Gelectrode or Guttersnipe, depending on the environment. List #3 is all about pingers, direct damange, and a very minor Madness theme going on with Fiery Temper and Flame Jab.

Lands Matter Too!

   The canny observer will note that I didn’t spell out the mana base in any of those lists. In fact, that’s one very important element of this deck I have yet to really talk about at all. Well, I’m about to rectify that oversight right now.

   First off, the number of lands is important. I went with 23 in all versions of the lists above. I’ve played as much as 24 and as few as 20. But, much like every other aspect of this deck, getting it right is all about balance. You want enough lands to reliably hit 3 mana on turn 3 every single game – this is crucial. But after that, you usually only need to make 1 or 2 more land drops. I basically NEVER want to have more than 6 lands in play for this deck, and usually 5 is plenty. That said, I find that 24 lands makes “going off” a bit less reliable, as you’ll sometimes string together a chain of Ponders, etc. and then run out of gas with 3 or 4 dead Land cards in hand, with your opponent at 2 or 3 life. That’s why Looting cards are so important – they both help you find those lands when you need them early on, or get rid of them for you later in the game. Ponders and Preordains can help with this as well.

   I find that with enough looting spells, 23 to 24 lands is ideal, as you want to ensure those lands drops are reliable, but you have lots of outs if you draw too many.

   Now as to the specific land choices, the general rule here is this: Run as many U/R duals as you possibly can. More specifically, focus on the good ones like:
Steam Vents

Sulfur Falls

Cascade Bluffs

Izzet Boilerworks

   Other than the Boilerworks, I avoid cards like Izzet Guildgate because the coming into play tapped is a big downer.

   And don’t underestimate the Boilerworks. They are actually very, very good in this deck. I don’t like to run a full 4x simply because drawing too many of them are awkward, but they guarantee hitting three mana when you keep a two-lander with one Boilerworks. The ideal hand for this deck is something like: Island, Boilerworks, Creature, Creature, Spell, Spell, Bolt.
The other nice thing about Boilerworks is, later on, you can drop one to bounce a land, discard that land to retrace a Flame Jab, and still be up one mana on the next turn.

   There is one other ETBF-Tapped land I like for this deck, and that is Halimar Depths. Again, you don’t want too many of them, but dropping one on Turn 1 when you ordinarily would have no play anyway, but it sets up your draws for the next three turns, helping to ensure you hit your land drops and find a threat or two by Turn 3 more reliably. Best of all, you don’t have to cast one of your precious Spells to do it! Save those Ponders for when you have a creature out.

   Desolate Lighthouse seems like a good fit, too, doesn’t it? Not so much, actually. It costs too much to activate and is too slow. If you find yourself with the time and mana to activate Loothouse – if you have nothing better to do that turn – you are probably losing, unfortunately. Furthermore, with so dang many spells in this deck costing U, or R, or UR, colored mana is at a premium in this deck, and I can’t stress that enough. On the turn you’re going for a kill, you want every land to count, and when you’re holding a hand full of Ponders and Bolts, Lighthouse does absolutely nothing for you.

   My ideal mana base would look something like this:

4x Steam Vents
4x Sulfur Falls
4x Cascade Bluffs
3x Izzet Boilerworks
2x Halimar Depths
2x Island
4x Mountain

   Ideally, if you have 5 lands in play, you want to be able to make at least three of those lands to tap for U or R. If you have Volcanic Islands, I’d throw those in as well. Hell, I’d even run Shivan Reef as well, just to have a mana base where every single land in my deck taps for U or R. It’s not necessary, of course, to go THAT far. But I do highly recommend erring on the side of caution and playing as many duals as you possibly can, for consistency’s sake.

Fiery Conclusion

   So, as you can see (if I’ve done my job properly), this is a fairly niche little archetype that nonetheless has a surprising amount of depth and flexibility. There are nearly endless variations and configurations, so you have a ton of room to tweak the list to fit your personal tastes, playstyle and metagame, while still overall maintaining the proper “feel” of a Wee Dragonauts deck.


  1. I play a deck very similar to this. Noted omissions: Delver, Young Pyromancer, and Gitaxian Probe (for its not costing mana.) Isochron Scepter gives you plenty of reuse and counts as a spell cast, Nothing like a Lightning Bolt on a stick. Also Cackling Counterpart can replace a creature slot in the deck while making everything go off. Fire/Ice is quite worthwhile, burn or draw cards can be extremely situational with this deck.

    1. Pyromancer is kind of a different deck altogether - similar, yet fundamentally wants to do different things. Gitaxian Probe and Isochron Scepter are definitely good options.