Last updated on November 30, 2023
Zirilan of the Claw | Illustration by Andrew Robinson
Dragon tribal decks are all over these days. The popularity of commanders like The Ur-Dragon and Miirym, Sentinel Wyrm can’t be denied. Would you believe that the best dragon tribal commander might not even be a dragon?
Commanders with built-in tutoring abilities have the potential to lead powerful combo decks, and Zirilan of the Claw is no exception. Its potential to constantly fetch the exact dragons you need gives it a powerful toolbox of combo pieces and interaction to pull from.
Let’s see how this Zirilan of the Claw Commander deck works!
Leyline Tyrant | Illustration by Chase Stone
Scourge of Valkas
Wrathful Red Dragon
Ancient Copper Dragon
Inferno of the Star Mounts
Scourge of the Throne
Tyrant of Kher Ridges
Drakuseth, Maw of Flames
Terror of Mount Velus
Elixir of Immortality
Sundial of the Infinite
Carnelian Orb of Dragonkind
Consistency is key in this Zirilan of the Claw Commander deck. Zirilan’s tutor ability works best when it can fetch the same dragons from your toolbox to deal with the same threats every game. You want multiples of the same effect in case one of your important dragons is exiled and so that you can double-down on Zirilan’s ability.
Mirage’s Zirilan of the Claw is probably the oldest dragon-tribal legend. When it was printed, there were only a score of dragon creatures for it to tutor up, and the best by far were the cycle of elder dragons. Since then, Zirilan has sort of “submarined,” staying under the radar in EDH.
Being mono red means that it's perceived to be outclassed by multicolor dragon tribal commanders like Scion of the Ur-Dragon or The Ur-Dragon itself. Zirilan decks don’t play like a typical tribal deck, though. Instead, its tutor ability lets you dig up dragon combos with amazing consistency each game.
Zirilan of the Claw is, if I’m being reductive, basically a red Yisan, the Wanderer Bard (or is Yisan the green Zirilan?). Zirilan’s tutor ability means that you’ll most likely make the same plays each game. That isn’t so bad: the combos Zirilan can assemble are insanely powerful and likely to win the game if they resolve.
The most important pieces in your dragon deck are, of course, the dragons. There are three loose categories for these dragon cards: combo pieces, combat pieces, and toolbox pieces.
The number one combo piece is Worldgorger Dragon. This wacky, pseudo-sweeper interacts with a handful of other cards to generate infinite mana and infinite enters- and leaves-the-battlefield triggers to effectively end the game.
A handful of dragons are included simply for their raw damage output. Dragon Tyrant is the star of this show, with built-in double strike and the “fire breathing” ability. This behemoth is a classic in Dragon decks.
Moonveil Dragon saves you mana on that fire breathing by passing it around to your entire board.
Inferno of the Star Mounts’s fire breathing ability comes with the bonus of 20 damage if you can get its power to 20. That’s no trouble at all in the late game when you have mana to spare.
Finally, there’s Mana-Charged Dragon, a fun political card you can use to convince players to help you defeat another. Moltensteel Dragon gets way out of hand if you have the life to spare on its fire breath.
Your most essential dragons are your toolbox cards, most importantly Hoarding Dragon. You want to use Zirilan to tutor for Hoarding Dragon as soon as possible, then tutor for the artifacts you need to combo out. If you’ve already drawn into your combo artifacts, chances are that you’ll need mana rocks to cast them. Hoarding Dragon grabs those, too! Remember that Hoarding Dragon has to die to give you the artifact you’ve exiled, so using Tel-Jilad Stylus or Rishadan Pawnshop to skip Zirilan’s exile trigger won’t work.
A handful more dragons make up the single-target removal and board wipes. Fetch Hoard-Smelter Dragon to destroy all those pesky artifacts, and it can really go off when it blows up something with mana value five or more.
Steel Hellkite is second-best in this role and helps hit more nonland permanents in case you lose your Hoard-Smelter.
Dream Pillager and Dragon Mage refill your hand and dig through your library when you run out of spells, while Balefire Dragon takes the place of one of your typical board wipes (Zirilan of the Claw combines with Worldgorger Dragon and Apocalypse for a one-sided board wipe).
Zirilan of the Claw’s ability to tutor up whatever dragon you need is powerful, but getting around its exile effect can be tricky. Luckily, you’ve got more than a few ways to keep those dragons in the game, one way or another.
This deck might be one of the best (and only) uses for Tel-Jilad Stylus I’ve ever seen. At one mana and a free activation, it’s the cheapest way to keep a single dragon around after it’s been tutored. It’ll grant you another ETB effect when you grab that dragon again.
Cold Storage is a weird card from before “exile” was really a thing. You can put your dragons “in cold storage” (exile them) then return them to the battlefield all at once later instead of losing them permanently.
Sundial of the Infinite lets you respond to the end-of-turn exile effect by ending the turn immediately, exiling all effects on the stack without resolving them. This is probably the best way to stick your dragons on the field since it’ll save multiple dragons should you have activated Zirilan multiple times.
Ashnod's Altar, Goblin Bombardment, and Trading Post can each put your tutored dragon into the graveyard, saving it from exile and letting you access it later with Elixir of Immortality or Reito Lantern.
Finally, Conjurer's Closet does all this and more, saving the dragon from exiling itself and granting you a free ETB to boot.
The latest sacrificial end-of-turn trigger is Industrial Advancement. Whatever dragon you sacrifice will have a high enough mana value that you’ll find something just as good.
Finally, if you’re in a really tight bind, you can use Chaos Warp to shuffle a dragon back into your library and hope for the best.
You can’t afford not to capitalize on Zirilan of the Claw’s ability every turn, multiple times per turn. To make sure you squeeze every bit of value out of Zirilan each turn, you want Thousand-Year Elixir and Magewright's Stone to untap Zirilan. You also want Battlemage's Bracers and Illusionist's Bracers so that each time you search for one dragon, you search for two!
Zirilan of the Claw isn’t cheap at a 5-mana cost to cast and another 3 mana to activate. Your access to ramp spells is limited in a mono red deck, so you’ll need to make the most of what you have. This deck runs a precon’s worth of lands (36!) and five traditional mana rocks. You absolutely can’t miss a land drop before turn five.
With luck, you'll squeeze some value out of Ashnod's Altar and stow a tutored dragon in your ‘yard for later.
Caged Sun is your saving grace, though. It effectively solves your mana problems while it sticks around.
This Zirilan of the Claw Commander deck wants to play just about every game the same way if it can manage it. There are direct paths to victory you want to take and specific combos you want to execute.
Your early game is all about playing Zirilan and making it stick. Starting hands with three or more lands and Lightning Greaves and the like are preferable to a handful (hand full?) of dragons. Those creatures are most effective in your library as tutor targets, and most cost too much to see play from your hand until later.
Once you have your Zirilan of the Claw on the field, it's time to start digging for dragons. Note that Zirilan can be activated on the previous player’s end step: the dragon won’t die until the end of your turn because it missed the “beginning” of the end step on that turn. This can gets two or more dragons per turn, and there are a couple that should be your first targets.
First, go for Ancient Copper Dragon and Hellkite Charger. On average, the Ancient Copper generates 10 treasures on each attack trigger, letting you immediately activate the Hellkite to untap your attackers and swing again. Rinse and repeat until you’ve won! This is a bit risky since it relies on you rolling a 7+ on the first d20 roll, but I like those odds. If you aren’t willing to roll the dice, wait until you can get another extra-combat dragon like Scourge of the Throne and guarantee two d20 rolls before you need to start spending treasure.
If that doesn’t work out, Worldgorger Dragon becomes your best friend. This infamous combo piece goes nice with Molten Echoes to blink your board infinitely and generate unlimited mana in the process. You won’t even get to use the mana if Scourge of Valkas or Warstorm Surge are on the field because they’ll generate enough damage to obliterate everyone.
Should your combo pieces be exiled or otherwise removed, you’re still running a deck full of huge dragons. If you make it to the late game, the strategy shifts to a straight-up combat damage win. Every dragon in this deck has flying, some have trample, and there’s more than a little double strike sprinkled throughout. If you’ve found your Dragonlord's Servant and Dragonspeaker Shaman, you won’t even need to cheat the dragons out with Zirilan. You can focus on building up a threatening board.
All the while, remember to use Zirilan to tutor up answers to threats. Opponent’s board getting too wide? Hit them with a Balefire Dragon. Rogue's Passage or Field of the Dead causing you woe? Grab your Obsidian Charmaw. About to be on the receiving end of a Blasphemous Act? Get Wrathful Red Dragon in response! You won’t need to waste precious mana on sticking most of these either since their value primarily comes from their ETB or attack and damage triggers.
This Zirilan of the Claw deck is ultimately a combo deck. Access to a consistent tutor means you can find specific cards in your 99 every game. As such, you’ll see a few infinite and near-infinite combos in this deck.
First is the previously mentioned Ancient Copper Dragon and Hellkite Tyrant to grant you, on average, infinite combat steps. I say “on average” because there’s technically a 30% chance you whiff on that first d20 roll and can’t give it another spin. I think it's well worth the risk, especially when you can retrieve the constituent parts later and try again.
Next, there’s the infamous Worldgorger Dragon. You’ll generate infinite mana with Worldgorger by casting or fetching it while Molten Echoes is on the field (with “dragon” named, of course). Molten Echoes’s and Worldgorger’s abilities trigger, and you’ll stack them to resolve in that order. You’ll resolve the Echoes’s ability trigger, creating a copy of your dragon, then float your remaining mana in response. The token dragon then exiles everything you control, including the original Worldgorger. Finally, that original dragon’s ETB effect resolves, exiling only the token dragon, who’s LTB effect then triggers and resolves, returning all your permanents to the field untapped. Now you just name “dragon” as Molten Echoes re-enters the battlefield and repeat this until you’re sick of it! This infinite loop can be ended by naming another type besides dragon. Note you can also achieve this loop with Flameshadow Conjuring.
Worldgorger Dragon can also do this really insane thing with Apocalypse, where you cast Apocalypse while your board is cleared by the dragon and exile all permanents your opponents control. This still costs you your hand, but it’s a really funny pseudo-Worldfire that I think is tons of fun.
Ok. So. A lot of these combos are brutal to play against. Especially when you consider you’re searching them up every game. This might not be the deck to take to your local Commander night, especially if folks take it personally when you pull the same trick over and over
I personally love playing against consistent combo decks like this. I think of them like puzzles to solve, and it takes more than a few trials to become familiar with its threats and can begin assessing target priorities and other strategies.
Sheesh! This deck runs you around $300 for the cheapest printings available. Let’s look at some budget options to tune that number up or down.
There are three easy cuts to bring down the price of this deck, but it’ll hurt. Ancient Copper Dragon, Balefire Dragon, and Utvara Hellkite are all powerful cards with only a handful of printings, so they count for an easy $100 you can shave off. Replace them with some cheaper dragons like Ganax, Astral Hunter, Red Dragon, or Fire Dragon.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement! You can max out the consistency in this deck by replacing some of the “filler” dragons with aggressive artifact ramp like Mana Crypt. If you swap in enough artifacts, it might behoove you to run Hellkite Tyrant as an alternate win condition. Gamble is just about the only red card that’ll tutor up your enchantments, so it’s also worth the investment.
Zirilan of the Claw doesn’t have to be built with this combo-ish tribal-ish strategy in mind. Another great way to get around Zirilan’s exile trigger is running a Fling-style deck. This frees you up to skip the expensive dragons and opt for only the cheap, high-power dragons like Rorix Bladewing. Plus, their fire-breathing ability lets you squeeze some extra damage out of those Thuds.
Dragon Tempest | Illustrationby Willian Murai
Zirilan of the Claw and commanders like it can be rewarding to play and frustrating to play against. I’m a strong advocate for tutor-based commanders if you’ve got the wrist endurance to shuffle your library all game. Overall, they’re best for players who want to dive deep into specific play patterns to make them unstoppable.
Will you be running Zirilan like a combo deck? Or maybe it’s better tuned down as a regular tribal deck. Has anyone considered building a Viashino tribal deck around it? Let me know in the comments, or over on Draftsim's Twitter.
Thanks for reading, and never stop searching your library.Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: