I love dragons. I really want dragon decks to be good. I’ve been playing dragon decks in Hearthstone since before there was any reason to – outside of dragons being inherently awesome, that is. When Blackrock Mountain was first announced, I was excited to finally have a chance to actually bring dragons to a competitive event without feeling like I was making a terrible mistake.
I got a delayed start on Blackrock Mountain due to travel for the Magic Pro Tour in Belgium, so I wasn’t able to dive into deckbuilding with the cards right away. It’s probably for the best, since the first few wings didn’t really have many tools for dragon decks, and I would have just found myself banging my head against the wall.
For that reason, I didn’t really like the way the card releases worked this time around. The pacing just didn’t work with the nature of the mechanic. I wasn’t really playing competitively when Naxx came out, so I’m not sure if that expansion suffered from the same issues as this one. Just from thinking about the Naxx cards, I doubt it would have, because they were more generally solid cards like Sludge Belcher and Death’s Bite rather than anything that really relied on synergy and critical mass.
With Blackrock Mountain, though, many of the cards were tied to the dragon tribal theme, and having them released piecemeal was more a source of frustration than fun. When Blackwing Technician came out, long before most of the new dragon cards, I tried playing with it right away, unsurprisingly with little success. That was a pattern I found repeated with each successive week. New dragons came out, I tried to build decks around them, and those decks sucked.
It wasn’t until the very last day of April that we finally had access to all of the BRM cards, and with them the last big batch of dragons. As much as I tried to resist, I spent the day tinkering with new decks rather than playing something tried and true. I tanked my ranking well out of the Top 100 – so far that I didn’t even bother with the last minute scramble to try to climb back up.
Much of my initial excitement for Blackrock Mountain has been tempered by these factors. I think I would have enjoyed the experience of playing with this batch of cards much more if they’d just all been available at once in an expansion, like in Goblins vs Gnomes. I like the adventure model for card releases in theory and think it can work well with the right set of cards. But the nature of tribal designs requires a certain critical mass of the given creature type, and the slow trickle of dragons just disappointed players like me every week who tried to tried and failed to make them work.
A cursory glance at Reddit threads during that time would suggest that I am not alone in this critique. Many players have felt frustrated by how the dragon theme has played out, and I think for good reason. It isn’t good for your players to be disgruntled with one of your major mechanics right when you release it. I hope Blizzard takes note of this, and considers the implications of the staggered set release on synergy reliant cards when they are designing future adventures.
Of course, none of that stopped me from playing nothing but Dragon decks since BRM release.
I think Paladin, Priest, and Warrior seem like the best homes for dragons. Warrior and Priest are both classes with hero powers that can naturally prolong games, which makes them natural places to play the powerful endgame dragons like Chromaggus, Ysera, and Nefarian. Priest can also use its hero power to keep its minions alive, which makes early oversized bodies like Hungry Dragon or Blackwing Technician more valuable than they might be elsewhere. One might argue that Druid has the mana acceleration of Innervate and Wild Growth to play dragons faster, but I’ve found that it seems like the class generally better off using that mana to play things that close out the game faster, like the Force of Nature/Savage Roar combo, or are more powerful standalone cards, like Ancient of War or Dr Boom.
That leaves Paladin. Paladin is in the strange position of having no natural synergy with dragons due to its hero power or card pool, with the exception of Dragon Consort. Dragon Consort is an extremely powerful card, as most cost reduction effects tend to be in collectible games. The question is how best to use it.
My earliest builds of Dragon Paladin were focused on the dream of ramping into the big endgame dragons early. I wanted to use the cost reduction effect of Dragon Consort to play Chromaggus on turn six, or Ysera on turn seven. Who could possibly beat that?
A lot of people, it turns out. There are only so many expensive cards that you can afford to put into a single deck and still expect to win games. Many of my early builds were packed with dragons, including multiple expensive Legendaries like Ysera, Chromaggus, Neferian, and Alexstraza. When I didn’t draw Dragon Consort, though, those cards tended to rot in my hand all game.
The biggest problem I found with many of these decks is that they just didn’t seem to do much that was actually very powerful. Cards like Chromaggus can generate advantages over time in long, attrition based games, but they don’t actually produce any kind of significant swing in the game state themselves. Paying eight or nine mana for a minion who doesn’t have an immediate impact on the board is a lot to ask, especially in a world with multiple combos that can outright end the game at that point.
To that end, I tried to find ways to abuse Volcanic Drake. Its cost reduction mechanism based on creatures dying feels like it fits perfectly into Paladin, since you have cards like Muster for Battle along with your hero power to create minions to send to their doom. Those same cards also help support Solemn Vigil, which offers the card draw power that Paladin decks often seem to be lacking. Volcanic Drake is a card that can actually lead to powerful turns, especially alongside board clearing effects like Equality plus Consecration. Wiping out everything your opponent has in play and dropping a sizable minion in the same turn is certainly a big swing.
I had quite a few screenshot-worthy moments like Consecration into double Volcanic Drake on turn four against Warlock Zoo, but never quite found a version of the deck that I was happy with. Volcanic Drake wasn’t a reliable early minion in many matchups, and it wasn’t a resilient enough late game threat in others. The deck generally felt inconsistent, in part because it relied heavily not only on drawing certain cards together yourself, but having them line up appropriately against your opponent’s board as well.
A big part of the reason I feel like so many of my early attempts at Dragon Paladin failed was because of the demands of the dragon tribal mechanic and the selection of dragons that are actually available. Most of the strong dragons that exist are big late game Legendary minions. They’re also largely focused on offering incremental advantage rather than immediate board impact, like the card advantage offered by Ysera, Neferian, and Chromaggus. That means that any deck that is going to use them needs to have tools to actually survive not only until they play them on turn nine or ten, but long enough afterward to leverage the advantage they generate to claim victory.
Not only that, but any deck that wants to use any of the dragon synergy based cards like Blackwing Technician or Blackwing Corruptor needs to have a certain density of other dragons in order to support them. I’m not particularly statistically inclined, but I feel like I generally want at least seven or eight dragons in my deck to feel comfortable playing something like Technician, and I’d prefer at least four or five to support Corruptor.
This gap is because Technician is both an earlier play and one whose power lies in its efficiency. Playing a 3/5 minion on turn three is very powerful because it dwarfs anything else on the board at that point, but those stats aren’t nearly as big of a deal if you play Technician as an underdrop later on.
Corruptor, on the other hand, offers immediate board impact and value at any point in the game, so waiting a bit to draw a dragon and play it off curve is less of a detraction from its effectiveness. While Corruptor is at its best when you play it on turn five (or even four with the Coin) to kill something like a Piloted Shredder, it can finish off opposing minions and even opposing heroes late in the game as well. Corruptor is really the biggest incentive (besides inherent awesomeness) to play a dragon deck – it’s strong enough that it’s worth warping your entire minion base to enable it. Technician is solid, but Corruptor is really the all-star of the pair.
The problem comes in actually trying to find the dragons to support them. Let’s take a look at the list.
While the Blackrock Mountain expansion brought quite a few new dragons, especially at lower casting costs, there still aren’t very many great options available. I tried all of the four cost dragons, and generally wasn’t thrilled with any of them.
Hungry Dragon was the most attractive of the lot, since it offers a very strong body if you’re equipped to deal with the minion it spawns. It’s great when you’re ahead or at parity on board, but it can be a huge liability in games where you’re already behind. In a metagame featuring lots of Hunter and Zoo, giving your opponent a free minion can just speed up your demise.
Dragonkin Sorcerer just isn’t independently very strong, and requires you to invest additional cards into it in order to even be on par with the likes of Chillwind Yeti, which doesn’t even see play these days.
Twilight Drake is the most reliably solid body of the three early on, but without something like Lifetap, it’s an extremely weak late game draw, and is clearly quite vulnerable to silence effects.
This all makes it hard to justify playing any of them over something like Piloted Shredder, which is pretty much the gold standard for four drops these days. If there was actually just a 4/5 vanilla Chillwind Dragon, I might give it a shot, but the available options just haven’t felt reliable enough.
Things don’t get a lot better moving up the curve. Azure Drake is a reasonable minion that sees play in a lot of different decks on its own, but its at a rough place on the mana curve for Dragon Paladin. The five drop slot is pretty crowded, since you obviously want to play both Dragon Consort and Blackwing Corruptor already. Adding in Azure Drake as well – whose spell power is only really valuable for buffing Consecration – starts to crowd out anything else like Sludge Belcher.
That’s where things really start to get tricky. If a Dragon Paladin deck is focusing on using Dragon Consort to ramp to late game dragons, it needs to commit some amount of deck space to things like Sludge Belcher to actually stay alive. Without the luxury of a hero power like that of a Warrior or Priest, or tools for closing out games quickly, Paladins pretty much have to play quite a few taunts and healing effects to have a chance of winning against aggressive opponents.
Well, look at that list of dragons. How many of them have taunt? How many of them can keep you alive against an aggressive deck? Exactly one – Alexstrasza. End of list. I had a few versions of Dragon Paladin that included Alexstrasza as my big late game heal instead of something like Lay on Hands, but too many times I found myself unable to use her effectively to prevent me from dying to something like Force of Nature/Savage Roar. She’s powerful in the right situation, but reliable healing she is not.
That’s how I found myself cutting more and more dragons from my Dragon Paladin decks. I needed more taunts, so the Azure Drakes had to leave for Sludge Belchers. I needed more reliable midgame minions, so the Hungry Dragons left for Piloted Shredders. As more dragons left, Blackwing Technician just didn’t have enough support, so I left her to yell about her work elsewhere. I also kept feeling like I needed to fit cards like Big Game Hunter, or Ironbeak Owl, or Antique Healbot – all of the situational cards that are so important when you’re playing a midrange or control deck that has to fight through everything your opponent throws at it. That doesn’t leave much room for dragons.
Ultimately, the Dragon Paladin deck with which I had the most success and that I played more or less exclusively from Rank 5 to Legend, barely had any dragons at all.
Just two Dragon Consorts plus Nefarian and Ysera may not feel like much of a dragon deck, but with all the demands I talked about above, I just couldn’t find room for more. I chose Nefarian and Ysera because they provide guaranteed value even if they’re immediately removed after you play them, unlike Chromaggus, which requires that he survives the turn to generate extra cards. Also, while it’s awesome to be able to copy key cards in a matchup with Chomaggus, some times you just end up getting extra copies of cards like Truesilver Champion or Zombie Chow late, which can be hard to leverage for game impact. Even bad spells from Nefarian can often swing games, since they at least always have an immediate effect.
I feel like this deck is better in some of the tougher matchups for Paladin like Oil Rogue because of the tempo generated by Blackwing Corruptor, but it’s likely weaker against aggressive decks like Zoo or Face Hunter since it has a higher density of expensive cards thanks to the dragons and less explosive potential from Muster for Battle thanks to the lack of Quartermasters.
I do hope that future sets will offer more options for dragon decks so they can actually feel more like dragon decks and less like typical class builds with a few dragons thrown in. I’d love to see even a single dragon with taunt or a healing effect attached so the tribe actual has some of the tools it needs to survive until the late game. I do want to explore more with Volcanic Drake, since it’s definitely the most exciting and different of the new batch of dragons, and I haven’t gone back to explore it further since my last failed experiment. I’m still going to keep trying to build different kinds of Dragon decks, but a lot of my excitement is gone, which is a little sad. How much of that has to do with the nature of the initial roll-out of the BRM cards and my frustration surrounding it and how much of it is the result of feeling really restricted in my options in actually building dragon decks is unclear, but in either case, I’m sure new dragon cards would have me chomping at the bit once again.
In any case, on the next page I’ve included a gallery of all twenty-seven versions of Dragon Paladin I played on my stream at some point since the Blackrock Mountain release. Be warned – some of these decks are absolutely terrible, but I’m including them for completeness sake. Perhaps someone out there will be able to take one of my ideas and flesh it out better than I could.
Oh, and maybe one day Rend really will still turn out to be awesome. I’m holding out hope. You’ll see.