Ixalan Limited, Where Did It All Go Wrong?
It’s no secret that Ixalan is one of the poorest draft formats in recent history. A friend of mine politely described it as being “on the poor side of mediocre.” Another, in the same day, claimed it was worse than Avacyn Restored – bold words indeed. Personally, as someone who almost only plays limited, there is a certain floor of enjoyment which drafting Magic can never fall below. Still, it has been a long time since I got bored of a format this quickly and I’m not alone.
What went wrong, though? There was so much potential for Ixalan to be sweet. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs, after all? I like tribal cards too, and so do many players, but they are part of the problem. Tribal is a cool mechanic for casual players – even I have a solider Commander deck, for example – but oftentimes it sets a draft on rails. When the tribes are as linear as they are in Ixalan, it makes drafting very repetitive. After two or three picks you are normally pretty solidly in one tribe and the remaining 42 decisions boil down to “what’s the best merfolk/pirate/vampire in this pack?” I have heard people complaining about the lack of playable cards in Ixalan but the real problem is that many cards are unplayable outside of their tribe, even within a deck of the same colour. Ixalan has very few non-rare cards which are just out-and-out powerful: only Charging Monstosaur and Pirate’s Cutlass really spring to mind.
For newer players, being clearly pushed into a specific direction can be super helpful, and that’s great. The problem is, for more experienced players, it quickly becomes boring. Part of the reason I love drafting is because of the decision making skills required in the actual draft process. Ixalan takes away many of those decisions, simplifying the format to a fault.
Ixalan’s problems have been exposed further by the temporary re-release of a similar set on Magic Online. The original Innistrad set is hailed by many as one of the greatest limited formats of all time. It too leant on tribal themes, but never did it feel as forced as it does in Ixalan. Vampires were the most linear tribe in Innistrad but their best cards didn’t rely on other Vampires. Bloodcrazed Neonate, for example, is a good aggro card that goes fine with other aggressive red cards and is especially good with Rakish Heir. River Sneak, on the other hand, is more-or-less unplayable without other Merfolk.
So the linear, one-note tribes are a problem, and there are the lack of individually powerful cards make building a non-tribal deck difficult. There are red/white decks to be draft, which are only coincidentally dinosaur heavy, as opposed to relying on them to function, but there is little else. Innistrad was great because it had build-around uncommons that didn’t require tribal synergy. Spider Spawning, while nearly impossible to draft nowadays, was super fun in its heyday. You felt so smart the first time you put that deck together, but there isn’t really anything like it in Ixalan. Burning Vengeance was similarly fun and interesting, but Deeproot Waters? Meh.
So the draft is boring, but it’s still Magic, right? It’s still fun to jam games, right? Right?! Well…
Let me try and answer this highly subjective question with a story. My very first game of Ixalan limited, round one of the pre-release, started with me on the play. I was playing red/black aggro, splashing green for a Swordtooth. Game one ended on my turn five without either player blocking a single time. My opponent and I looked at one another and shrugged as we shuffled up for game two. “I hope this isn’t representative of the format,” we half-joked. How naive we were in those halcyon days.
Okay, not every game of Ixalan limited has been as un-interactive as that, but too many of them have been. Falling behind in this format is miserable and coming back is extremely difficult. Removal is sparse and inefficient and even expensive two-for-ones which typically help a control deck stabilise simply don’t exist outside of rare and mythic. We don’t get Doom Blade any more, I get that, but when the payoff for your five-mana removal spell is just more mana, playing for the late game is going to be tough. Oh, and if you’re playing against Merfolk, that same removal spell probably can’t even target the thing you want to kill. Hexproof guys with auras on them are super fun, yeah? Urgh.
There are a lot of cool ideas in Ixalan, but for limited players they were mostly unsuccessful. The flavour is cool, but the gameplay is sorely lacking. Amusingly, it feels like a set which could really benefit from having a direct sequel to flesh out some of the tribes and give them a little more finesse. Alas, the new block system won’t allow that and so Ixalan will probably go down in history as one of the worst limited sets of all time. Worse than Avacyn Restored? Debatable. Worse than Hour of Devestation? Absolutely.
What rating would you give Ixalan Limited out of 5 in terms of playability? With 1 being the lowest score, and 5 being highest score. And what do you think went wrong?
Thanks for reading,