Whenever there’s a new 3-mana planeswalker in the making, you’d better make sure to test it. Previous 3-mana planeswalkers have had quite the track record. So far, we’ve had Ajani, Caller of the Pride, Gideon of the Trials, Jace Beleren, Jace, Cunning Castaway, Liliana of the Veil, Liliana, the Last Hope, Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, Domri Rade ,and Saheeli Rai, not counting non-regular Magic sets. Out of these ten, eight of them have been heavily played in Standard, with half of them making it into Eternal formats.
The reason they are so good is because of their mana cost. Planeswalkers are at their best when you cast them on an empty board, where your opponent can’t destroy them without using a card by attacking. Whenever a planeswalker enters the battlefield, gets value immediately, and then is dealt with by a burn spell or maybe Vraska’s Contempt, you came out ahead—a basic 2-for-1.
Well, that’s what it seems like. It’s actually not a basic 2-for-1, but a 2-for-1 with tempo—your opponent actually has to use their turn to deal with your planeswalker instead of doing something else. This is also why 3-mana planeswalkers are so fantastic against control decks. They are easier to get under a counterspell and they rarely have creatures to attack them, making this exchange more common. To add, if they have to tap out next turn to deal with it, it means that they can’t keep up a counterspell for anything else you cast the following turn.
If they don’t deal with it and the planeswalker stays in play, it will continuously generate advantage. This is especially true when it comes to planeswalkers who continuously increase in loyalty, given that their ultimate is usually a time bomb.
Understanding what makes 3-mana planeswalkers so strong can help you understand how to maximize Sarkhan, Fireblood.
“+1: You may discard a card. If you do, draw a card.”
Some of the puzzle is hidden in the first ability. “Rummaging” a card is some value in itself, but it’s not worth a whole card. If they destroy Sarkhan, Fireblood the next turn, you’d like as much advantage as possible from using it for a turn. Part of making Sarkhan good is to find relevant cards to discard. It could be something like Scrapheap Scrounger, Earthshaker Khenra, Champion of Wits, or Spit Flame for later Dragons, or even lands for Hostile Desert. But remember that you don’t have to overdo it. Don’t play cards that are only good with this ability. Still, it’s going to feel like actually drawing a card some of the time, especially if you’re flooding or playing a matchup like control where your removal is dead.
“+1: Add two mana in any combination of colors. Spend this mana only to cast Dragon spells.”
The second ability is straightforward. You need Dragons, a creature type we haven’t seen too much lately. Luckily, the most likely best Dragon already exists, Glorybringer, and there are tons of new sweet ones. Note that Bone Dragon works with both of the first abilities!
It’s important to make sure that this ability is good enough, because this is where you can really punish your opponent for not killing Sarkhan the following turn.
“-7: Create four 5/5 red Dragon creature tokens with flying”
The ultimate ability isn’t fantastic. Sure, it’s most likely going to outright win against any other creature deck, but it takes time to get there and the Dragons don’t have haste, meaning that it gets pretty easily countered by a Fumigate. If you have an easy way to give them all haste, something like Garna, the Bloodflame or Samut, Voice of Dissent, it becomes a lot better, but I wouldn’t want to work too hard for an ultimate that’s already unlikely to happen. To add, at 5+ mana, it’s pretty likely that you want to play mono-Dragons.
Regardless of all this, the ultimate is pretty much free upside because you don’t really “have to go for it.”You don’t have to make sacrifices to get there, considering both other abilities are plus abilities anyways.
There are a few different ways you can play Sarkhan, Fireblood, but they all start with being base red, as not only is Sarkhan double-red, but the best “cheap” Dragons are all double-red too. But after adding four Glorybringer and two to three Verix Bladewing to make Sarkhan even better, I had to branch out to another color to get more playable Dragons because I don’t plan on running Lathliss, Dragon Queen. In this deck, that’s Palladia-Mors, the Ruiner.
Palladia-Mors is quite powerful as it rules the skies over other flyers like Glorybringer, Verix Bladewing, or Rekindling Phoenix. Heck, it actually rules the ground even better, blocking Hazoret the Fervent and all. I believe that Palladia can be quite powerful versus all the Red-Black Midrange decks running rampant, because it will always trade against two premium cards, or at least get in for 6 damage before that player can deal with it. And even then, a 6/6 is pretty hard to kill if you don’t have Unlicensed Disintegration—even an un-kicked Fight with Fire won’t even do it.
Some other interesting card choices are Spit Flame and Druid of the Cowl. Druid of the Cowl is a bi-product of Goblin Chainwhirler ruling the format—Drover of the Mighty is too fragile. Spit Flame is more interesting.
Spit Flame may be the Dragon deck’s best tool for midrange matchups as it’s a repeatable removal spell and source of card advantage. Spit Flame makes Glorybringer even more potent in the deck as it curves naturally with Sarkhan, Fireblood.
Turn 3, Sarkhan, Fireblood, +1, discard Spit Flame, draw a card.
Turn 4, play a land, +1, add 2 mana to Dragons, cast Glorybringer, and return Spit Flame to your hand.
Simple, clean, pure value.
Remember, as the game goes on, you get to return Spit Flame multiple times, or even multiple copes. It works great with Sarkhan even when you don’t need the mana, as you can keep using it as your Squee, Goblin Nabob that you discard and then return every time you cast another Dragon. Even if you have more mana in Magic Christmas Land, you could play a Verix Bladewing kicked, return it from your graveyard with the trigger from the first Dragon, cast it, and then return it again with the trigger from the next Dragon!
Grixis Dragons Energy
Much like how Naya Dragons plays extra colors for Palladia-Mors, the Grixis version is doing it for Nicol Bolas, the Ravager. And oh boy, is Nicol Bolas, the Ravager a card. At first, I thought that it wouldn’t be too great, considering it dies to both Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer that are also being heavily played, but then I realized that I had forgotten about the “non-Dragon” clause on Glorybringer. Nicol Bolas is just a straight-up good deal on the surface. 4/4 flying and discard a card is already a 2-for-1 because it warrants a real removal tspell. If left alone, it snowballs, given that you have enough mana, and I’m going to be making a blunt comparison.
As I wrote in a previous article about card design, especially things that went wrong in previous Standard, I mentioned that threats that are efficient, gain value as soon as you cast them, and snowball, are cards that tend to take over formats, and Nicol Bolas is one of them. If its restrictive mana cost doesn’t hold it back from being played in Standard, it’s going to be a house.
If that wasn’t enough, Nicol Bolas becomes even better post-sideboard where the card your opponent discards matters more, since post-sideboard there are no dead cards—the game slows down so all of Nicol Bolas’s effects become more relevant, and he becomes easier to protect with cards like Duress and Negate out of your own sideboard.
Spit Flame actually seems even better in this deck because it has more ways to abuse it. The Grixis deck can put it into the graveyard in more ways, such as discarding it to Champion of Wits or milling it with Liliana, Death’s Majesty. It also has an easier time returning it, since Nicol Bolas gives it a way higher number of 4-mana Dragons, making it easier to have extra mana available for it.
Speaking of Liliana, Death’s Majesty, she’s fantastic with both Nicol Bolas and Sarkhan, Fireblood. Sarkhan helps her discard things to reanimate and Nicol Bolas becomes absurd in the late game with Liliana returning Nicol Bolas to play, who can flip into a planeswalker, returning Liliana for even more shenanigans. Even just triggering the discard effect of Nicol Bolas twice in sequencing turns is pretty great.
I don’t believe that there will be infinite ways to build Sarkhan, Fireblood. He is pretty restrictive as he forces you to play a higher number of Dragons than usual, but if there’s a deck that comes to mind immediately, it would be another version of R/B Midrange. It would feature Chainwhirler and Scrapheap Scrounger, but not as low to the ground and with a higher Dragon infused top end. Maybe even Jund Dragons with Darigaaz? Who knows.