Magic Memories: Balefire Dragon


The Tentacled One
White gets a bad rap in EDH, but I think that the color I've had the most trouble trying to use in EDH has been red. With the tendency toward drawn-out multiplayer games, trying to dish out damage isn't as effective as it would be in your typical 20-life duel. Efficient damage is no longer enough, and you need big damage. Fortunately, red has a surfeit of big, dumb dragons and some other expensive, powerful creatures. Every new set comes with at least one of these, so I've got options. Depending on my commander and my deck's overall strategy, certain big red creatures present advantages over others. The variety is sufficient that there's probably a dragon, giant, avatar, elemental, or whatever for almost any playstyle. And all of them are inferior to Balefire Dragon.
Every single one. Oh, don't get me wrong: red has some fun and powerful big creatures, and they can be amazing in the right deck. I've found some that I really appreciated. They're good cards. They're just garbage compared to Balefire Dragon, because it's the best.
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The Tentacled One
Fine, that first post might have been a little bit hyperbolic. Slightly. But I was only half-joking!

I remember that when Balefire Dragon was new, I thought of it as just being another in a long line of big, red dragons. I did notice that its ability was splashy and I probably thought about pairing it with Repercussion or something, but this just wasn't the sort of card that I was interested in at the time and I didn't have much use for it. It didn't really fit into any of my early EDH decks and at some point I just kind of forgot about it.

And then I started building a new deck every week for the West Coast Commander League. At first, that didn't seem to matter much either, but then I began my silly "West Coast Commander League Exclusive Legends Legends Country Club" concept. And for that, I had to play some pretty bad commanders.

At first, I just thought it would be cool to play with the original 55 legendary creatures as commanders because I was trying to collect them anyway and because most of them saw essentially zero play. Playing all 55 was a lofty goal and I wasn't initially committed to it. In April of 2019, I played a Ramses Overdark deck and another guy played an Adun Oakenshield deck, but that was it. Neither I nor anyone else in the League bothered to follow up on that in May, but I did decide to start building a new deck for the League every week. With so many decks being built, playing all of the original 55 legendary creatures as commanders started looking like a realistic goal. The same person who beat me to playing a Legends legend as commander in April with Adun Oakenshield repeated this in June, with a Halfdane deck. That got me more motivated to pursue this, not because I relished the challenge, but because splitting the task of playing all 55 of these commanders among multiple people made it even easier. So in June I built a Boris Devilboon deck and a Rubinia Soulsinger deck. It was around that time that I began proselytizing Legends legends. I wanted to see if I could get the rest of the League to chip in on this stupid venture, even if only a few people each only built one Legends legend deck, it would cut down on the number of such decks I'd need to bring to the League.

It was around July of last year that I started to get a feel for how to game the points system in the West Coast Commander League and how to rush-build my stupid EDH decks. And simultaneously, I was looking to make Legends commanders work, even the bad ones. That's when I started looking more outside my wheelhouse for strong cards to give my decks an imposing presence and cancel out all the bad cards I was playing. There were a bunch of these cards, previously ones I'd ignored, that became staples for me. And Balefire Dragon was one of the first such cards. Its first appearance in my League decks was in "Please Sir, Play a Legendary Land."


The Tentacled One
Initially I hesitated to bother creating a thread for this card, simply because I don't have that many memories surrounding it and I haven't really used it so much, but let me put that in context. Looking over the numbers in my West Coast Commander League decks, I built decks with Balefire Dragon 4 times. Not a lot. But let's put that in perspective...
  • The West Coast Commander League has been shut down due to the pandemic, and has yet to reopen. Our last meetup was March 8th.
  • Out of the eight League meetups I participated in this year, the only one with any red cards at all was "She's a Killer Queen." So I didn't get much of a chance to run Balefire Dragon in 2020. I mean, the potential was there, but back in January the thought didn't occur to me to play more decks with red cards because I wouldn't get a chance to later.
  • I did that statistics writeup for my 2019 decks, which covered 42 individual events. But almost half of those were before I, so to speak, rediscovered Balefire Dragon. The actual pool I should be looking at isn't 42 decks, but 23 decks.
  • Of the 23 EDH decks I built last year following my rediscovery of Balefire Dragon, one was a budget deck built for a special event with unusual rules and considerations, so it can't really be counted. And another one was an unmodified precon from a meetup where we all played with unmodified 2019 precons. Obviously my precon didn't come with Balefire Dragon, so that's out too.
  • Of the 21 remaining decks, just over half didn't have red cards at all. So really, we're only left with 10 decks.
  • 2 of those decks were five-color decks anyway, and while I could technically run Balefire Dragon in a five-color deck, it'd definitely be unusual. In retrospect, it probably could have worked in one of those decks, "Uncle Stephen's Tub-'o-Lard." I kind of regret not running the card in that one, but that deck fared poorly for other reasons anyway, and just kind of made me sad.
  • Taking color identity and those other factors into consideration, this narrows the pool of decks where I could reasonably have considered Balefire Dragon down to a whopping 8 decks. So I ran it half the time.
  • This list of constraints isn't me hedging my bets or cherrypicking. 4 is a small number in some contexts, but it was enough that in my statistics writeup for 2019, the card showed up tied for my sixth most-played red card in my decks.
  • Unlike most of the other cards in my statistics writeup, Balefire Dragon fills the role of a big creature. It costs 5RR and is a 6/6. While many of my decks included some kind of top-end creature, I used a variety of those, and many were one-off features. The only "big" creature to show up in more of my decks than Balefire Dragon was Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger. Vorinclex showed up in 5 of my decks, so it only beat Balefire Dragon by a single deck. Considering that Vorinclex got a head start and that I ran green much more prolifically than I ran red, it shouldn't have been much of a contest.


The Tentacled One
Balefire Dragon has earned a spot in my toolbox of EDH cards. Let's a take a look at how it got there.

07/21/19: Please Sir, Play a Legendary Land
I'm really proud of this deck and it remains one of my favorite builds from the West Coast Commander League. July of 2019 had points themed around Modern Horizons. Since the set featured the Ninjutsu mechanic, I suggested "Deal combat damage with at least 2 creatures that weren't on the battlefield at the beginning of combat" as one of the weekly point options. And that incentivized blue/black, as those are the colors ninjas tend to show up in. But the rest of the points available on that day looked to favor green-heavy decks. So I built a red/green deck that crammed a bunch of cards to earn those points.

Without any context, it looks pretty strange that I'd have a red/green Loam deck with a bunch of cards like Inexorable Blob and Warcry Phoenix. But when it came to scoring points, this one was quite successful. Because of the color combination and the heavy use of land ramp, I wanted some outlets to take advantage of all that mana and turn it into imposing creatures on the board. I also knew I might be cheating some creatures out with Ilharg, the Raze-Boar, so that called for some big, hard-hitting attackers. Also, one of the point categories was to hit an opponent with a "Sword of X and Y" (having an evasive attacker with multiple triggers on hitting a player was nice). All of those factors made Balefire Dragon a strong choice.

Looking back at the point totals, it was in the month before this one that I'd finally gotten the hang of building decks that could accumulate lots of points. But many of the decks that were good at picking up points, especially some of the ones I built in late 2019 and in 2020, weren't really focused on taking people out. In the West Coast Commander League, eliminating an opponent is only worth 1 point, and the combined total you'd get if you single-handedly eliminated all three opponents and won the game would be 5. That's pretty good, but there are way more points up for grabs, even if you never eliminate a player yourself. What I really liked about this deck was that it did both. I won 2 out of 3 games, and did so with good, old-fashioned beatdown. Ultimately, it was the presence of token-generators and Landfall engine stuff that dished out the most damage for me, but much of that happened after I'd already softened people up with nontoken creatures. Even Livonya Silone held her own.

Balefire Dragon wasn't really a key card in this deck, but I did have at least one game in which it forced changes to the board state that helped me set things up for eventually taking over with Zuran Orb + Titania, Protector of Argoth. Balefire Dragon itself wasn't really important here, but I think that my evaluation of it as an excellent card to use with Ilharg, the Raze-Boar was 100% correct.

09/08/19: Breaking a Few Eggs
This one was a little too gimmicky, but was built to earn points for putting a dragon or dinosaur onto the battlefield by sacrificing another permanent. Since I ran 14 dragons and dinosaurs and since Balefire Dragon had already proven itself, it seemed like a sensible inclusion. I think that with Atla Palani as my commander, my opponents were expecting some well thought-out deck with explosive combos, and that's really not what I did here. Simply put, Atla Palani is not difficult to abuse, and this deck was lazy about trying to abuse the card. I could have done better. Still, I seem to recall that this deck performed well. Part of the problem might have been that I happened to face some nasty decks. And really, I held my own.

Balefire Dragon was actually kind of amazing in this deck. If my memory is correct here, I chose Balefire Dragon for the Livonya Silone deck on a whim because of Ilharg, the Raze-Boar and then I chose it for this deck because I still had it sleeved up in a pile of cards I flipped through while looking for dragons and dinosaurs. So although this was certainly not my first experience with Balefire Dragon, it was somewhat formative. The excellent performance of the card in this deck made an impression on me and solidified a place for Balefire Dragon in my EDH toolkit.

11/10/19: Needs Mor Beatdown
I'd always wanted to play with one of the original namesakes for the Elder Dragon Highlander format, and I'd finally gotten the perfect excuse to do so. With the power creep in the format, the original commanders are looking less and less viable as serious options, even at genuinely casual tables. So do it while you've still got a chance!

By the time I built this deck, I'd pretty much mastered building decks for the West Coast Commander League. Just now, when I reviewed this list, it looks like a pretty flexible beatdown deck with various methods to cheat big creature out early. Initially I didn't even notice the spiteful gimmick I'd employed when constructing this. With the advent of the new Pioneer format, the League attempted to incentivize decks built entirely from Pioneer-legal cards. So I tried to build a deck with no Pioneer-legal cards. However, I ran out of time and botched it. At the last minute, I did swap out one Pioneer-legal card that had been in the deck. But I missed two more.

I do remember grinding out one win because of a dramatic showdown between my Ulamog and my last opponent's Zacama, but I forget how this deck performed over all. Anyway, Balefire Dragon is a good card and so is Sneak Attack.

11/17/19: Sunastian's Magic Ramp
Although this deck was a rushed mess, it set a personal record for me on points in the League. Like I said, I'd mastered building these decks. Despite being just a mediocre mana dork, Sunastian Falconer is one of my favorites among the 55 original legendary creatures. As a commander, Sunastian Falconer provides the perfect excuse for a red/green deck to go all-in on big mana silliness. So I did. Balefire Dragon was a no-brainer here.

Strangely, I recall few actual details on this one. None of the games made that much of an impression. I seem to recall that this was the day where there was some kerfuffle with people comboing off and collaborating to take down a particular player, and perhaps that was just more interesting than my own games. I guess I mostly had smooth sailing with this one, which might explain why I earned so many points. I might have used a big Finale of Devastation on Balefire Dragon, as that sounds familiar. But I can't remember the details.