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Previous Level Drakes



When someone says "Drakes" what do you think of? Something different than you might have in the past, I'll bet. Prior to this Standard I probably would have thought of the Survivor team from Pearl Islands, and Rupert Boneham - probably the nicest guy in the real world - stealing his opponents' shoes. The creature type of "Drake" was SO not in the front of my mind, when I - flatteringly - got the official preview for Crackling Drake. I initially tried to brew Sarkhan / Niv-Mizzet decks (you know, to get around Niv-Mizzet's prohibitive casting cost) before Patrick Chapin broke it to me that our Preview card wasn't actually a Dragon.

So... "Drakes"?


Drakes generally refers to an archetype that plays these two creatures:

Enigma Drake
Crackling Drake

You'll notice that they both have the word "Drake" in their names, and have Drake creature type.

Prior to last year's World Cup, the predominant "Drake" deck was some kind of Arclight Phoenix deck; there was no consensus about how many of either type of Drake one might play alongside one's Phoenixes. The same was true of some Jeskai Control decks. Enigma? Maybe. Crackling? Usually. Niv-Mizzet? Maybe zero... Maybe four.

In our mind space all of that became largely normalized under the one-word "Drakes" banner. We all think of four Enigma Drakes, four Crackling Drakes, and then some light permission of Spell Pierce and Dive Down to protect them... Along with a healthy measure of Red removal doing double duty.

The reality is, though; there is no real, unified, "Drakes" deck. From the World Cup, I would broadly identify two big trend types:

  • Drakes with White (kind of a baby Jeskai)
  • Drakes with Black (if barely)

Here is what the White-splashing Drakes deck looks like:

Deafening Clarion
The big selling point here is Deafening Clarion. From a functionality standpoint, Deafening Clarion really shouts a big game.

No one plays Deafening Clarion just for the lifelink; the major push in almost every case is for the sweeper element. At only three mana, it does a profoundly more efficient job - provided you can cast it - than the straight Red equivalent, Fiery Cannonade.

Not only does Deafening Clarion do three damage rather than two (for the same total mana cost), but it has no particular Kryptonite around Pirates. This matters kind of a lot given that two of the decks most likely to go wide on you in Standard play Pirates.

Mono-Red has long started its curve with Fanatical Firebrand. The Firebrand was often the first card sided out for them, and is arguably the weakest spell in any of the three or so builds that would actually start it. However, the Spectacle mechanic has breathed new life into the little 1-drop. Starting with haste always (unlike Wizarding peer Ghitu Lavarunner), Fanatical Firebrand is a perfect setup man for Light Up the Stage and Skewer the Critics.

... And as a longtime Mono-Red player, I can't tell you how many times my opponent has smacked himself in the forehead upon realizing that two of the three creatures he meant to Cannonade were, in fact, little 1/1 Pirates.

Ditto on Mono-Blue. The ubiquitous Siren Stormtamer is a Pirate; some builds play other Pirates, like Warkite Marauder (or splash additional colors). Long story short: Deafening Clarion is more reliable than Fiery Cannonade - again, provided you can cast it - on more than one dimension.

On top of that, there is, yes, the lifelink.

Because the Drakes deck can produce enormous power, that means it can also generate enormous life gain with Deafening Clarion. What's better than smacking the opponent for ten? Gaining ten at the same time! Right? Right.

I found this far less practical in real life than it seemed like it should have been. For one thing, the mana base in the White version is ridiculously awkward, at least relative to the "Black" version. With double the Shock lands (Sacred Foundry in addition to Steam Vents) and the odd Clifftop Retreat actually coming into play tapped I found that I actually needed Deafening Clarion to catch up, because I was starting off in a life total hole... At least relative to the Black.

It was just a ton of work to put in for two paltry Deafening Clarions main... Not to mention missing a Shock and a Spell Pierce.

TLDR: The increasingly complex mana base of Jeskai Drakes makes landing Deafening Clarion more of a "catch up" necessity than an opportunity for something actually powerful you want to do.

When we think of "Drakes" I think we really mean Carlos Romao's deck:

The Psychatog Master (and former World Champion) Romao played a super streamlined version that everyone could understand and get behind. The "Black" comes from a lone Dragonskull Summit.

But that one Dragonskull Summit DOES WORK.

Not only can it help the deck cast Discovery on turn two in the absence of Blue; it can help cast Discovery later in the game when you need to keep Spell Pierce or Dive Down open. More importantly, without it, you can't cast Dispersal at all in Game 1.

Dispersal is awesome in this deck, especially if you are clocking with a Drake already. I personally bounced three Wilderness Reclamations - or, rather, the same Wilderness Reclamation three times - just last Friday Night.

The basic shell of the two World Cup-era decks are the same. Very similar spell suite where White gets the genuine incremental functionality of Deafening Clarion - along with its gigantic lifelink swings - while the Romao version can sometimes cast Dispersal; a card White plays but has a devil of a time casting.

The game plan is straight out of 2005 Mike Flores :)

To be fair the plan is slightly better than 2005 Mike Flores; the "Dragons" are a bit cheaper + the "tap n-1 mana" plan with Dive Down is something we just didn't have access to in the Keiga, the Tide Star days.

The Drakes themselves have very solid toughness, and resist much of the format's common removal as a result. They can usually block and force a one-for-two when the opponent has to toss in an additional piece of cardboard when trying to take one down.

Drakes has one of the most compelling game plans in Standard, provided you can play super well. One of the problems I had, especially in early testing last December, was that I could do 30+ if I had an extra turn, but often found myself shy of actually dealing 20 before the opponent did. Despite having cards like Search for Azcanta and the big genius Niv-Mizzet, Parun Drakes has a relatively poor long game. It has basically no hard answers to anything more powerful than a Drake; and while any individual Drake can get "a lot" of power, the break points of five versus six versus seven are meaningful. It was weird to learn that randomly throwing away a Dive Down at the end of turn to deal a point with Niv-Mizzet (or stockpile for a future point with Enigma Drake) might be right. Might be worth a turn, at least.

Brad Carpenter's deck has become the model for present Drakes decks.

This build makes a meaningful change: It adds actual-Drake (or at least "Salamander" Drake) Pteramander to the Romao shell for two Search for Azcanta and the pair of Legendary Dragon Wizards.

In addition, Carpenter swapped a Mountain for an additional Island (which makes sense if you're planning on dropping Pteramander turn one) and upgrades Dragonskull Summit to Blood Crypt.

Carpenter's deck has taken over the Drakes Hive Mind for a compelling reason: It can turn on Chart a Course quickly.

Previous Drakes decks would often bend their tactical games in order to get a Chart a Course off; Pteramander on one gives the Carpenter build the ability to get there on turn two.

Moreover, in a deck with twenty-seven instants and sorceries - some of which are Discovery // Dispersal and Chart a Course, which can put multiple cards in the graveyard - Pteramander is conditionally very cheap to Adapt. In fact, going long (and cheap) [enough], you can protect an Adapt activation with another Adapt activation!

Chart a Course on turn two? Check.

Potential 5/5 flyer for uu? Check.

Pteramander is just perfect, right?

Not so fast.

Previous Level Drakes

I played Drakes last week at Friday Night Magic, and ultimately decided against running Pteramander.

In fact, my deck looked a lot like the Romao deck, just borrowing Carpenter's Blood Crypt over Dragonskull Summit.

Basically, I thought people would be bringing Mono-Blue Aggro in greater proportion because of the success of Alexander Hayne on Arena (I was right). Further, I thought that Mono-Red - already one of the most popular Standard decks at my Friday Night Magic - would be more popular on account of preying on Mono-Blue.

The Niv-Mizzet build is better in both cases.

Against Mono-Blue, they have very few answers Game 1. Keep yourself alive to six; or five if you're aggressive enough with Search for Azcanta, and you will probably win if you can land Niv-Mizzet. Mono-Blue is really bad at removing Niv-Mizzet in Game 1; if you just play a sit-there / removal game, you can probably get Niv-Mizzet into play with one open if you can believe that! Yeah!

Then, once you're drawing cards and casting instants and sorceries, the world is a mess for the poor deck of all little guys.

It's not that the slow version of Drakes is so much better against Mono-Red... It's more that Pteramander is not a consistent threat. You probably have to give up the whole "I can play turn two Chart a Course now" game plan because of Shock; come midgame you realize you made Goblin Chainwhirler good. That can't be what you signed up for.

Is Previous Level Drakes the ultimate deck for Standard?

Probaby not. You have to be pretty lucky (or at least uncommonly fast) against Wilderness Reclamation or Gates. Even without Pteramander, Mono-Red isn't exactly a cakewalk. But it's solid, probably better positioned than it was at the World Cup, and ultimately quite powerful.

Seriously, who loses after playing Niv-Mizzet? So play it. Exactly!