Back before the entirety of the Earth had been explored, charted, and photographed for Google maps, early cartographers had to wrestle with the mysteries that lay beyond their charted borders.
In these unexplored and unknown spaces of maps, they would often write things like "HC SVNT DRACONES" (which translates from Latin to "here be dragons") to convey the idea that what lay in these uncharted areas was unknown and potentially dangerous. Occasionally other beasts like lions, serpents, or other monsters would stand in for dragons, but the concept was always the same; we are conditioned to fear the unknown, and mysterious dangerous monsters formed an appealing metaphor for that fear.
When Wizards of the Coast announced the return of core sets (something I think was a mistake to remove in the first place) we had a vague idea what we would be in for: some high-profile reprints, some cool new top-down designs, some old favorites, maybe a cool Dragon or two, but for the most part it was a mystery. Now as previews continue to be revealed, we're starting to realize that when it comes to Core Set 2019, "here be dragons" can be taken very literally.
Why's that you say?
Okay, the original crew of Elder Dragon legends wasn't actually a landmark in terms of raw power level, but as far as coolness factor goes, they were way up there. First creature cycle? Among the first gold cards? Among the first legends? Inspiration for Crosis, the Purger and friends? The origin of the now ever-present Nicol Bolas?
Face it, Elder Dragons are sweet. And now after over two decades, they're back!
Okay, I guess Nicol Bolas has actually been back to bothering people for a while now, but here he is... again! (It's kind of weird really; the original Nicol Bolas looked so calm and studious, not like some crazy megalomaniac trying to take everything over.) We've seen one Nicol Bolas creature card and two planeswalker cards so far, but Nicol Bolas, the Ravager joins the ranks of Jace, Vyrn's Prodigy and crew as one of the few creature-to-planeswalker transform cards.
While Nicol Bolas, the Arisen is one of the most powerful planeswalkers ever printed, it also comes at a steep cost: namely eleven mana and a massive vulnerability to removal spells. If you resolve a safe Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, get to seven mana, and fire off the on-the-table transform at sorcery speed and get hit with a Harnessed Lightning or any other removal spell, you're likely going to lose the game on the spot; and that's if your 4/4 flier even lives that long.
As such, the planeswalker side of Nicol Bolas feels more like a bonus than anything else, like a big kicker cost you're rarely going to pay. We need to evaluate Nicol Bolas, the Ravager as 80-90% of the expectation and go from there, and when looking at just the front side, Nicol Bolas isn't that exciting.
Creatures have come an absurdly long way, and a Tower Gargoyle plus Ravenous Rats is very solid but ultimately unexciting. Given how difficult Nicol Bolas is to cast, you probably already need to be playing a Grixis deck that's interested in a good value four-drop past Rekindling Phoenix, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Ravenous Chupacabra, Karn, Scion of Urza, Gonti, Lord of Luxury, Hostage Taker, etc. Put mildly, there's quite a bit of competition for good four-mana spells in Grixis, and while Nicol Bolas has huge potential upside, he's got a lot of cards to get past to make it onto the decklist.
The one path I'm seeing to get Nicol Bolas, the Arisen onto the battlefield for a reasonable cost is to reanimate it with a Liliana, Death's Majesty that's already on the battlefield and have seven mana available immediately, but that's also easier said than done.
Nicol Bolas is a cool card that will see some play, but is much more flash than substance.
Ahh, now there's an Elder Dragon that's sticking to its roots.
Nicol Bolas, the Ravager feels very much like a modern Magic card design. It's big and flashy but also fairly efficient, pushing that mythic rare rate hard as a 4/4 flier for four mana with lots of upside. Vaevictis Asmadi comes more from the Treva, the Renewer school of design.
Vaevictis Asmadi is a 6/6 flier for six mana that doesn't do anything until it attacks. It can't protect itself and it doesn't affect the battlefield in any way until attacking, which makes it almost completely unplayable in Standard. It's probably very fun in more casual formats though!
It may seem odd to describe a seven-mana creature as "nimble," but that's exactly what Chromium is. Flash is an excellent ability for an expensive creature to have because it doesn't tie up all your mana on your main phase, while the "can't be countered" clause is also huge for a seven-mana investment.
But that's not all!
Chromium can also protect itself for the low cost of a single card and no mana! I'm not exactly sure of the flavor reasons why the Human form has hexproof, much less unblockable, but hey, I don't write the lore so what do I know? What I do know is that Chromium is huge and difficult-to- kill game changer in any sort of slow midrange or control matchups.
Like Pearl Lake Ancient before it, Chromium ends up being the ultimate control mirror trump card. Esper Control is already a thing in Standard, and amusingly enough, the only cards in the format that really kill Chromium are the exact cards you want out of your deck immediately in control mirrors (Fumigate and Settle the Wreckage). Chromium is killable, but you must bring the proper tools to the fight, as well as resolve them through all your opponent's untapped mana.
Chromium will only have a large effect on the control mirror side of the format, but the effect it will have will be huge. If you want to win a control mirror in post Core Set 2019 Standard, you must have a plan for Chromium, the Mutable.
I just want to say real fast how much I dislike this sort of ham-fisted approach to "control mirror match trump cards." I understand wanting to have some sort of a trump and not have control mirrors decided by decking (which I'm fine with, but I get), but does it have to be so blatant and obvious? For example, I really like the innovative juke of playing History of Benalia in the U/W Control sideboard. It's a nice strategy switch that flips the script in an interesting way and changes what the game is about while also making sideboarding and overall strategy much different. That's fun. Slapping "can't be countered" on a big, dumb, unkillable idiot that's only good in control mirrors is just too dumbed down for my tastes.
Ah, we have one more big, dumb idiot in the cycle.
Palladia-Mors, the Ruiner looks a lot like Vaevictis Asmadi; Six mana for a 6/6 flier, no immediate impact on the battlefield, therefore, not too exciting. Sure, flying, vigilance, and trample is a nice combination of abilities for both dealing damage and defending, and it's very difficult to stop Pallaida-Mors from successfully attacking either you or your planeswalkers while also very difficult to attack into it as well. So, we've figured out that Palladia-Mors is pretty good on offense and defense, but what's the big deal? It's just another six mana 6/6.
Don't undersell how good hexproof is.
In a lot of ways Palladia-Mors reminds me of Dragonlord Ojutai. You don't get to draw cards from it, but in return it's much better at dealing damage and playing defense. On offense you get to decide to attack with Palladia-Mors or not, thereby deciding if you want to expose it to your opponent's removal spell. It's also important to note that unlike Dragonlord Ojutai, Palladia-Mors will at least get to deal its damage (and potentially kill a planeswalker) before possibly dying to a removal spell.
Then flipped around on defense, Palladia-Mors is almost impossible to attack into profitably. You can't kill it before blockers, it's bigger than everything else, and if you must double up and kill it after damage, it's just card disadvantage.
And now for something completely different.
It makes sense they would push Nicol Bolas down to four mana to try and make him a marquee mythic for the set. It also makes sense that the other Elder Dragons are all huge, flashy, and expensive. And then we come to Arcades, the Strategist.
What? Defender tribal lord?
...Uh, what is going on here?
Here are all the defenders currently legal in Standard:
Not exactly a murderer's row of high quality Standard playables.
It's possible something like Wall of Omens is in M19, which would vastly improve the power level of the defender bonuses, but for now we've just got to look at Arcades on rate alone. And you know what? A 3/5 vigilance flier for four mana ain't that bad. It matches up favorably against basically every good red card (Chandra, Glorybringer, Rekindling Phoenix, Lightning Strike, Abrade) while attacking planeswalkers, being hard to kill, and blocking well. Being a legend is also nice for enabling cards like Urza's Ruinous Blast as well.
Arcades is probably not there without making use of the odd defender ability, but it's really not that far off the mark even without it. Like Palladia-Mors, it would be easy to dismiss Arcades as a cute Dragon bulk rare, but don't be surprised at all if you see it in the top 8 of an SCG Tour Open at some point during its Standard legality. This likelihood goes up a ton with even one good defender in a future set.
Dragons Are For Timmy?
There's no doubt that big, flashy Dragons are an awesome part of the game, but common belief is this doesn't usually translate to tournament play.
It would probably be best to dispel that notion.
Last time Sarkhan was around, we saw some of the best tournament Dragons of all time, and many of the Dragons on this list terrorized their respective Standard formats. Well Sarkhan is back, Core Set 2019 is almost here, and Wizards is notorious for pushing their sets' themes and story characters a bit too far when it comes to power level.
You've been warned...
Here be Dragons.