Commander Spotlight: Clockwork Dragon

It makes sense that Magic: the Gathering has to continually find ways to keep the game from becoming even more of the unwieldy lumbering behemoth than it already is. For a game this old, its requisite parts are legion. There are dozens of keyworded abilities, over two decades of changing card verbiage to contend with, an ever-growing stable of new cards interacting with older ones, and a comprehensive rulebook that reads like a law book primer. Although the game has taken extensive and often painful steps to make the introduction to Magic accessible to new players, largely with success, the more you pull the back the layers on this storied game, the more cumbersome and convoluted it can sometimes feel.

Just as the relative power of card strength has to be carefully watched in power creep, it is for this same reason that R&D keeps a hairy eye on rules creep and how to contend with it.

Most of the time over the years, this meant simplifying or outright eliminating what had been deemed antiquated or obscure in terms of rules and abilities in order to ‘free up’ space for new growth. Sometimes this is welcomed, but most of the time there’s griping from one faction or another. Such is the nature of change.

Among the areas where the game has contracted its focus over the years has been with oddball creature counters. In the modern Magic era, if there are going to be any counters put on a creature, the default has become +1/+1 counters. As in, unless there is a compelling reason not to, that creature will get +1/+1 counters. Occasionally, that will be inverted and a set will run with -1/-1 counters instead, making it the second most likely creature counter modifier. Only on rare occasion does a creature gain a different kind of counter if flavor or need takes priority, and it’s almost never in a set where +1 or -1 counters are present in high numbers. If you want special counter names, these days they’re mostly relegated to enchantments or noncreature artifacts.

Because to do so would make things more complicated. Supposedly.

For many, many years, though, this was not the case. For a long time there was no major worry about the board state in terms of counter variety, and it wasn’t uncommon in multiplayer games for there to be all sorts of counters strewn about. Fate counters. Rust counters. Spore counters. Age counters. +1/+2. Muster. Luck. Spite. Blood. Verse. Quest. Doom. Bounty. Brick. You’ll still find this in Commander nowadays, but from a modern design standpoint, trying to build a set with more than one predominant counter type is a nonstarter. And there better be a reason they aren’t boring old reliable +1/+1.

Baron Sengir, we mourn for thee.

Look, +1/+1 counters are fine, but they’re also rather bland. The potential for confusing board states aside, many players enjoyed the variety that a wide spectrum of counter types brought with them, even knowing that in reality the lion’s share of them were interchangeable anyhow.

Well, mostly.

There was one specific creature counter type that most people didn’t really care for, as evidenced by the fact that they only showed up on about 10 cards. These are the rather disappointing +1/+0 counters. Part of it was because they felt weak (as they were supposed to), and part was because of the creatures most associated with them: the clockwork crew. Clockwork Beast aside, few players went out of their way to utilize the original clockwork creatures for long. They were different and appealing for being so, which meant that most casual players tried them in a deck now and then for a hot minute, but the more you played with them, the more you wished they were better than they actually were. They were slow, restrictive, and easily picked off. But they also turned out to be rather memorable.

Which is probably why they’ve been briefly brought back not once but twice.

It’s also what brings us to this week’s card.

Today we have: Clockwork Dragon

Name: Clockwork Dragon

Edition: Mirrodin

Rarity: Rare

Focus: Creature Buffing

Highlights: In many ways the Mirrodin block was a renewal of the game at the time by both moving away from Dominaria as the principal plane of focus and by attempting to push some new power dynamics within a set. Yet even in such setting it was hard to break completely with the past. Despite being one of three new ‘upgraded’ clockwork cards in the Mirrodin set, they nevertheless were a callback to a handful of earlier cards that stretched all the way to Alpha. Clockwork Dragon was the pinnacle of this evolution.

Moreover, Clockwork Dragon has the distinction of being one of less than a dozen mechanical dragons in the game, which is a fun bonus.

For starters, Lil’ CD here starts off as a 6/6 Flying creature for 7 mana, which although it doesn’t feel as such, still puts it on par with most other dragons of similar size and cost – with the distinct advantage being that it can be slotted into any EDH deck. This can be very advantageous in multicolor decks where mana fixing is more difficult, or really any deck that wants to diversify its air force beyond its colors’ staples.

Additionally, Clockwork Dragon is not your traditional clockwork card – something many players instantly hand-waved away due to the often restrictive and problematic nature of the original gang. Which ultimately meant CD was dismissed because of its extended family, which is unfortunate. Because he’s pretty nice if you get to know him. At least, as dragons go.

Case in point: diverging heavily from its predecessors, Mirrodin’s trio of new clockwork cards gave up the classic +1/+0 counters they were known for in favor of the now-ubiquitous and default standard of +1/+1 counters. Not only does this make the board more streamline, but this opens it up to all manner of synergy with +1/+1 counter effects (something you could throw a dart at blindly and find nowadays). In other words, this clockwork now plays well with others.

That being said, many have been reluctant to consider Clockwork Dragon in decks because it still retains the classic diminishing returns effect that clockwork cards are known for: if it attacks or blocks, it removes a counter at the end of combat. Which means left unaddressed, eventually every clockwork creature winds down to a big pile of nothing. The supposed tradeoff has been that 7/9 of the clockwork creatures in existence also come with the paired ability to wind themselves up by paying mana to add back counters. With the original handful, this meant tapping them during your upkeep and paying X to remove all existing counters and add X back – which was punishing even by the standards of their day. With the newer iterations, several simply tap to add a single +1/+1 counter back. Ironically, this makes them technically more efficient but also slower and, yes, one could argue are almost be worse in Commander settings.

Clockwork Dragon, on the other hand, shares two distinctions unlike any other clockwork creature. First, it doesn’t require tapping of any kind to restore counters. For a mere three mana each (because powered by Dragon Blood, clearly), you can add a +1/+1 counter to it. This makes it much, much easier to keep it functioning at the dangerous levels it starts off as. Second, and equally notable, is that unlike the original clockworks the new generation of aren’t restricted to their original power and toughness. In the old days this Dragon would have been capped as a 6/6 creature. Here, there is no upper limit so long as it’s on the battlefield. Put all together and Clockwork Dragon is deceptively useful, and dare it be said, more effective than the mere sum of its parts.

Yeah, this is certainly one case where the switch to +1/+1 counters was definitely the right move.

Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.

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