Dinos and Pirates and Vamps, oh my!
It’s been a week now since Ixalan was released, to a lot of hype about the sweet tribes we’d get to play with and the excitement of a brand new limited format. Many of us, myself included, went along to one or more prereleases and got to battling.
Ixalan was released on MTGO on Monday (which is awesome by the way), so I’ve spent a lot of my evenings this week playing the Swiss draft queues to get a hang of the format.
A brief aside
Swiss queues do not offer good expected value, since unless you go 3-0 you’re automatically down tickets. However, you do get to play all 3 rounds no matter what, so I still recommend them if you want to get more games played while you’re in the early days of the format. That is unless you’re skilled (or lucky) enough to be able to get to the latter stages of a lot of single elimination drafts.
Anyway… my hope today is to share a little of what I’ve learned so far, and a few cards that I think are noteworthy. So, without further ado, let’s get started with the first and most glaring thing about the set for draft:
1. There aren’t a lot of good playables.
Now Martin Juza is undoubtedly using a bit of hyperbole here, but there’s more than a grain of truth to what he says. After your first few picks, you may well be scraping for good cards.
It looks like Wizards have taken the opportunity to make Ixalan into a bit of a core-set style environment. That means there are a lot of cards at common that we’d have previously seen in core sets, such as Cancel, Demolish, Duress and Demystify.
Also, the set seems to be powered-down overall. There aren’t a ton of rares and mythics that look guaranteed to make waves in Standard, and this has filtered down to the average strength of commons.
What does this mean?
Well, it means the draft itself is more skill-testing than usual. It’s a lot easier to navigate a draft when each colour has an abundance of riches, because if you go into the same colour as your neighbour there are still usually cards to go around.
With Ixalan, finding your lane in draft is crucial, or you could be on the receiving end of a train-wreck a lot more often than you’re used to. On top of this, it can be harder to read signals, because after pick 3 or 4 there may simply be no cards in the pack good enough to consider a ‘signal’. This puts the drafter in a difficult spot. You want to ensure you’re in the right colours in order to get enough playables, but being able to do that is tricky because so few cards are good enough to be clear signals.
One archetype notably not lacking in playables though, is UG Merfolk.
2. Blue-Green Merfolk is the best archetype
In my second draft, I put together what I felt was a very good RG Dinosaur ramp deck. It had multiple ways to ramp on turns 2 and 3 followed by some big hitters at 5 mana and up. I got soundly smashed by UG Merfolk without winning a game in two of my matches in that league.
Later, I myself drafted UG Merfolk and I was the one doing the smashing. In a format where many colour pairs can struggle for playables, UG merfolk has multiple good options at each spot on the curve at common. Green provides solid creatures throughout and blue complements with some real serious tempo with three bounce spells spread between the lower rarities. For me, at this early stage in the format, Merfolk is the clear frontrunner for best archetype.
At 2 mana, Deeproot Warrior and Shaper Apprentice are decent Merfolk, ably backed up by solid non-merfolk options such as Ixali’s Keeper. The 3 drop slot contains Tishana’s Wayfinder and Watertrap Weaver, with Siren Lookout offering an alternative, and the powerhouse common Jade Guardian at 4 mana, which works so well with River Herald’s Boon and One with the Wind.
Speaking of River Herald’s Boon…
This card is great. An instant speed, permanent +2/+2 to one of your Merfolk is incredible, and the flexibility to spread the counters around is just gravy. I expected it to be a solid playable for the Merfolk archetype, but it’s better than that. Even if you aren’t in Blue-Green, River Herald’s Boon is worth picking up in any green deck with a couple of Merfolk.
3. Dinosaurs work better if they’re aggressive
In my drafts so far, I’ve found Dinosaur decks to be very popular. Sometimes, they try to set up early with ramp spells before slamming down a huge creature to gain control of the board. I’ve been beating those guys. Part of the reason is that most of the large creatures don’t stabilise you when you’re behind (outside of the rare/mythic avatar cycle). If you aren’t lucky enough to get one of those bombs, you’re forced to try and untap with your expensive creature in play to have any chance at all.
As I said before, blue has three bounce spells spread between common and uncommon, and that’s without mentioning Watertrap Weaver. Meanwhile, red decks have significant reach available to them in Lightning Strike, Unfriendly Fire, Storm Fleet Pyromancer and Lightning-Rig Crew. That makes it a risky proposition to spend the first few turns setting up before trying to stabilise with a big blocker. So be aggressive instead.
A curve of Raptor Companion into Territorial Hammerskull into Pterodon Knight represents a lot of pressure. If you started with Kinjalli’s Caller or Otepec Huntmaster and played your Dinosaurs ahead of curve, even better.
4. Combat Tricks are great
I’ve already mentioned River Herald’s Boon, but I’m a fan of almost every trick in the set – and I usually hate playing these types of cards. I’ve often found myself going to blocks, thinking “I hope they don’t have a trick here, or I’m in real trouble”.
Aside from the Boon, Skulduggery is possibly the best of the bunch. It is often a two-for one for a single mana since there are a bunch of playable 1-toughness creatures. Vampire’s Zeal wins combats left, right and centre, especially when first strike is added into the mix. Even Crash the Ramparts at 3 mana is a scary proposition. Just be careful when your blue opponent is holding up mana.
In terms of equipment, Pirate’s Cutlass is the cream of the crop. The virtual haste of the cutlass auto-equipping means that two-drop into Cutlass often guarantees you 8 damage to the opponent. Later on in the game, it makes your small guys into threats, helping them attack without fear to trigger raid.
A few little things I’ve found.
Last but not least, I have already lost a match to a deck containing both Spell Swindle and Revel in Riches. I don’t think playing those cards is advisable, but it certainly represented an achievement unlocked for my opponent.
Thanks for reading all, and happy drafting!