When Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker was first spoiled, Twitter reactions were split between “I’m going to kill so many people with Sarkhan” and “I’m going to lose so many games to Sarkhan.” At first, I imagined I would fall straight into the second group, but then I realize that this card is never going to coexist with Sphinx’s Revelation, so there’s definitely a chance I’ll play it.
It doesn’t take long for someone to look at Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and realize it’s a pretty powerful card. It’s sort of a cross between Koth of the Hammer and Gideon Jura; it seems to me that it’s more powerful than Koth and less powerful than Gideon, but that’s a pretty good place to be. Let’s analyze each of his abilities:
+1: Until end of turn, Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker becomes a legendary 4/4 red Dragon creature with flying, indestructible, and haste. (He doesn’t lose loyalty while he’s not a planeswalker.)
Sarkhan is a Planeswalker that will live or die by his first ability. At first glance, you’re paying 3RR for a 4/4 flier with haste, which is a little below market value. Then, it has some downsides; it can’t block, for one, and it can be attacked, whereas a normal creature wouldn’t be able to. Then, finally, it has upsides; it can’t be killed by normal removal spells, it can’t be Wrathed, it has one extra toughness, kind of (it can’t be killed by Stoke the Flames, for example), and it has some other abilities you might use. The balance between those downsides and upsides will define whether Sarkhan is a staple in all red decks or merely a role-player.
Whether the Sarkhan creature is a downgrade or an upgrade from Stormbreath Dragon—its direct competitor for a deck slot—will depend entirely on the metagame. If control decks pack many sorcery-speed removal spells, or things that don’t beat indestructibility, then Sarkhan will have a distinct advantage. It is particularly good at beating Wrath of God effects, because it allows you to apply more pressure while not exposing yourself to Wrath. In this regard, it’s a solution to the Jace/Verdict conundrum, where if you play more guys you lose to Verdict and if you don’t you lose to Jace. Jace and Verdict are both rotating out, but the idea of the dilemma is basically ever present against any deck with a wrath effect—if you play many guys, you risk losing to Wrath, and, if you don’t, you risk losing even if they don’t have Wrath. With Sarkhan, you can be sure that you will beat someone that doesn’t have a board clear while at the same time protecting you against said board clear if they do have it.
If the removal suite of choice for control decks contains spells that kill both Dragons, however, then they will be roughly even. Take, for example, the BUG deck that all the smart people played in the block PT—that deck had no sorcery-speed removal, instead relying on multiple instances of Hero’s Downfall and Silence the Believers. If this is the case, those cards kill Stormbreath just as well as they kill Sarkhan, and none of the Dragons has a clear edge.
When is Sarkhan going to be significantly worse than Stormbreath? First, when people are playing Banishing Light—Stormbreath is immune to that. Second, when creatures are involved. It’s not ideal, but you can play Stormbreath Dragon and leave it to block. Sometimes, it brick walls their whole team, particularly when you’re playing against white. Sarkhan only plays one way—it has to attack. In many situations, it’s just going to die on the following turn. It also matches up badly against another Block all-star: Prognostic Sphinx. Stormbreath Dragon and Sphinx are at parity—no one can attack—but with Sarkhan, they can block it at their leisure and then attack it twice when they feel like.
Both Dragons also play differently against Elspeth. If you play Dragon into Elspeth, you are way behind, but if you play Dragon after Elspeth, the end result is they have six tokens and you have a Dragon. With Sarkhan, if you want to kill Elspeth, the end result is that they have six tokens and you have nothing; they can’t -3 to kill it, but they can just use the tokens to attack Sarkhan. Playing Sarkhan, however, gives you the option to hit them for 12 damage before the tokens can take it out, so it’s a different approach that could be better or could be worse.
Overall, as a creature, I’d have to give the edge to Stormbreath Dragon—even if there is no monstrous, it’s just a better threat against most of the field since it can’t just be attacked. Luckily, Sarkhan is not only a Dragon. If its first ability alone was already better than a very powerful card, it would be in a really strong place. Right now, I’d say his first ability is definitely good enough that I’m interested in what else it can do.
-3: Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker deals 4 damage to target creature.
I think this is Sarkhan’s underrated ability. I see a lot of people talking about a 4/4 haste, but few people talking about a Flametongue Kavu. In a board that only has one creature, Sarkhan removes that creature and leaves a very credible threat behind—one that has to be removed, even though it only has 1 counter left. It’s different than, say, Vraska, and in a better way. The fact that its threat ability is the plus ability and not the minus means that it stays a relevant threat regardless of how many counters are on it. A 6 loyalty Sarkhan? Well, you have to Hero’s Downfall it. A 1 loyalty Sarkhan? You still have to Downfall it, since it deals exactly as much damage as the other one. The fact that it doesn’t depend at all on how many counters are left to be a threat is very powerful and makes a turn-five “Sarkhan, kill a guy, leave you with no board” a great tempo move.
4 damage is also the perfect number nowadays, since it kills both Courser of Kruphix and Brimaz—huge problems for many red decks. It even kills Stormbreath Dragon! This makes Sarkhan a very versatile card—it can burst them down when they are low or when they have nothing, and it can remove a blocker or an attacker for basically no cost.
-6: You get an emblem with “At the beginning of your draw step, draw two additional cards” and “At the beginning of your end step, discard your hand.”
Then, we have the ultimate. This is definitely the worst part of Sarkhan, for two reasons: first, you might not even want to use it. If someone said “you can do this now for free,” there would be many games in which your answer would just be “no thanks.” Second, because, if you have a Sarkhan with 6 counters, why aren’t they dead? It’s probably better to just deal them another 4 damage and bring their life total to zero.
That said, there are definitely spots where this could be powerful. It is red, so there’s a chance you don’t have anything left to play anyway; if they are at a high life total, if they just played a blocker, if you’re afraid of removal or if you have a second Sarkhan, then ultimating this might ensure you never lose the long game, especially if you have burn in your deck—drawing three cards per turn is very powerful, after all, and if you were planning on playing all of them anyway then the discard clause is minimal. Basically this is a role player—it will usually not come up, but when it does, it will be very good. It’s not unlike many other planeswalker ultimates and it increases the value of the card by a little bit; it would still be a good card without it.
With all that said, where would we play Sarkhan? There are many possible homes: One option is to just throw it in an aggressive red deck. It could be a one or two-of late-game card, or perhaps a good sideboard slot in a Burn deck. Another option is playing it in a Jund Planeswalkers kind of shell. That deck is a bit crowded on 5s now that people are playing four Nissas, but Nissa is often a 6-drop anyway, so it could be very good there. I think that now that you don’t have Rakdos’s Return or Slaughter Games, black doesn’t offer much, and white is perhaps a better third color—though just not playing a third color could also be good. Here’s an example of a list after rotation:
Adding white also lets you play Chained to the Rocks, which definitely gets an upgrade once you get Wooded Foothills; a big problem with the card in Block was that you sometimes wouldn’t have enough Mountains to play it, but with four of your duals now being effectively Mountains that problem is highly diminished.
Another possible option is playing it in a red devotion deck. It’s sort of a mana sink, it adds 2 devotion itself, and it gives you the ability to play removal spells without getting light on threats. That deck also loves the emblem, if you can get there. The biggest issue is the fact that two of the RR creatures rotate out, and, and with Khans being a tri-color set, we’re unlikely to get another. Still, I’d try something like this:
Plus 24 lands (3 Nykthos, 12 duals)
These are of course just sketches. This second deck could really use a better creature, and I think it would improve a lot if we saw a good 2-drop in Khans—it doesn’t even need to cost RR at this point. The first deck is, I think, pretty competitive as it is. It’s similar to the Naya decks from Block Constructed but with more planeswalkers, which I think is a good direction because I don’t want to play Polis Crusher if people can just Sarkhan it away.
So, to sum it up: I think Sarkhan is great. The metagame will define whether it’s a better card than Stormbreath Dragon, but I think it’s of a comparable power level, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t play both in the same deck.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this, see you next week!