Rivals of Ixalan Could Fix Ixalan Limited If It Did This…
Last week, for my first Manaleak article, I wrote about the woes of Ixalan Limited. I originally intended to follow it up with a piece about the worst Limited formats I have ever played, but perhaps it might be better to look on the bright side instead. After all, you do not want to be known as the guy who complains about everything. And didn’t a wise man once say “Always look on the bright side of life?”.
Ixalan’s flaws may be inescapable, but Amonkhet was not a particularly great format until Hour of Devastation came along. Rivals of Ixalan might be a few months away, but with Iconic Masters to tide us draft junkies over till then, perhaps we can start looking forward to Ixalan’s sequel. The question then becomes obvious: what can we realistically hope for in order to salvage such a disappointing set? After all, there are some great ideas in Ixalan and the set is bursting with cool flavour. How hard can it be to make Dinosaurs and Pirates fun?
5 Steps to fix Ixalan Limited
Step 1 – More interesting tribal payoffs
This one seems like the most obvious, but in terms of improving the Limited format, leaning even harder on tribal interactions could go badly. On top of that, WotC has shied away from landwalk abilities in recent years, meaning we are unlikely to see the typical Merfolk lord we might have expected. Still, we did get a couple of pseudo-lords in Ixalan in the shape of Herald of Secret Streams and Kopala, Warden of Waves. Your run of the mill +1/+1 and Islandwalk dork might be out, but what if there was a Talrand-esque creature that pumped out merfolk tokens instead of drakes? Maybe the first green merfolk lord could double the number of +1/+1 counters your merfolk get. There is plenty of design space for a more interesting merfolk payoff and I would be surprised if Rivals of Ixalan did not give us at least one.
Merfolk is not the only tribe in the set, however, and they are already one of the better supported, even in Limited. Pirates and vampires also have pretty decent incentives at all rarities for drafting cards of a specific creature type but what about dinosaurs? While I would be wary of increasing the number of “dinos matter” cards in the format, the giant lizards could use a bit of love outside the rare and mythic slots. There isn’t much beyond Otepec Huntmaster and Savage Stomp to reward you for picking dinos. Thundering Spineback is solid, but is realistically just a good card for any ramp deck. You could put it any set as the only dinosaur and it would still be just as good as it is now.
There is a difficult tension at play here. Having a looser tribe that doesn’t require you to just pick every card that says dinosaur on it is important in a format which is criticized for being too linear. On the other hand, though, having the best dinosaurs stand alone feels a little underwhelming. I hope we get some kind of raptor that hunts in packs by making tokens or something but it’s possible that dinosaurs need to be the victims of all the other tribes being so linear. I suppose it makes sense that dinosaurs hunt alone while pirates and vampires need to work together.
Step 2 – No more hexproof guys!
Lack of interactive games is one of the biggest problems in Ixalan and Jade Guardian is one of the worst culprits.
Cards on the table: I hate hexproof. I think it is the worst evergreen mechanic in modern Magic and I wish it would go away. In a world where WoTC wants to make the game more interactive and creature-based, hexproof stands by itself, middle finger raised, and says “screw you and your removal, this creature is here to stay.” Lack of interactive games is one of the biggest problems in Ixalan and Jade Guardian is one of the worst culprits.
That said, I understand it has a place in the game, and, presumably, someone somewhere must like it. Most of the time it doesn’t affect Limited too much anyway. If it has to exist I am glad it usually ends up on over-costed dorks and expensive mythics. Scaled Behemoth was a good card, but had the downside of being a six-drop in a relatively aggressive set. If you were still alive when you cast it you hard-earned your payoff. Jade Guardian, on the other hand, not only comes into play at least two turns earlier, it is backed up by solid tribal synergies and extremely powerful auras. All the usual downsides of sticking auras on creatures are gone in Ixalan. It’s like Theros all over again. Eww.
Both Mark of the Vampire and One With the Wind are eminently playable in a format with very little cheap interaction (more on that later too). When you can negate that interaction altogether by slapping your auras on a hexproof creature every game becomes little more than a race. When your opponent is racing with a 5/5 lifelinker or flier, that race is unlikely to go your way. You are left feeling helpless and frustrated.
Granted, when Rivals of Ixalan comes around we will have 66% fewer opportunities to see any of these cards, but any good auras make Jade Guardian better. Similarly, any good hexproof creatures (God forbid) make Mark and One even stronger than they already are.
Step 3 – Give us better cheap interactions
I touched on this in the last section, but it really does deserve its own spot. Look, I get it: we don’t get Doom Blade and Lightning Bolt any more. That’s fine. But when the best common removal spell costs five mana and the creatures in the set reward you for being aggressive, problems are inevitable. Add to that the fact that there are multiple playable auras (and a great equipment) and it becomes clear why so many people don’t enjoy Ixalan Limited.
Thankfully, the solution to many of those problems is simple: print better, cheaper removal. Ixalan already punishes you for getting behind. Having to take an entire turn off just to go one-for-one with a creature that already slapped you around is not a winning prospect. Rivals of Ixalan needs to have something like Grasp of Darkness or Magma Spray at common to save us from another three months of incessantly turning 2/2’s sideways. More playable, well-costed removal will allow us to play more Magic and less Solitaire.
Step 4 – Print better defensive creatures
People are starting to pick up on the playability of Looming Altisaur in decks that want to last longer than five turns, but we need more like him. Right now, blocking in Ixalan is miserable, if not impossible. Even the noble Altisaur can’t stop the myriad evasive threats, with or without auras and equipment. Just like Hour of Devastation added to Amonkhet, though, it is possible to add enough defensive options to salvage the format.
Rivals of Ixalan needs cheap interaction but it also needs cheap creatures that can block without immediately dying to a trick. Off the top of my head, maybe vampires could get a 1/4 lifelink creature or something similar. Since Rivals will make up two thirds of any given draft, simply not printing a ton of aggressive two-drops might be enough. Still, I would like to see some creatures that can block a 2/2 without dying to Skulduggery or River Herald’s Boon.
Step 5 – Add more individually powerful cards
What are the best non-rare cards in Ixalan Limited? I realise it’s a highly subjective question, but I expect many people are thinking along the line of Pirate’s Cutlass or Shapers of Nature. Maybe you got Skulduggery stuck in your head from the last section, but I couldn’t fault you for suggesting it. The point is that most of those cards only have mild tribal synergy. Pirate’s Cutlass, despite its name and its ability, plays great in any deck that wants to attack. You could even reasonably argue that it’s better in vampires than in pirates.
Outside of the rare and mythic spots, though, cards like this are few and far between. Most of the commons and uncommons in Ixalan are borderline unplayable without a ton of their fellow tribesmen for backup. Rivals needs to have more cards like Pirate’s Cutlass – cards which reward you for being in a tribe without punishing you for not being in one. Shapers of Natures is a perfect example of this. It works well with Merfolk’s subtheme of +1/+1 counters, but since those counters are just naturally good in a game of Magic, Shapers could easily go in any blue/green deck ever.
What might these cards look like in Rivals? Cards that interact with +/1+1 counters are easy. Similarly, cards that either cost or grant life will always be good with vampires. Pirates and dinosaurs are a little tougher, however. Enrage is good with dinosaurs, since they are large enough to survive a little damage but it doesn’t necessarily play well with others in the way that +1/+1 counters do. Maybe dinosaurs’ real theme is just that: they don’t play well with others. If they continue to just be a loose association of powerful individual cards that could actually help ease some of the problems, so long as the other tribes can make room for them in their decks.
That just leaves pirates. The fact that Raid just requires you to attack makes pirates pretty easy to work with. They are already quite friendly with Skymarch Bloodletter, for example so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to make good attacking creatures in Grixis colours. All three of those colours have solid options for evasive abilities nowadays so raid should be easy enough to build around. Similarly, treasure tokens have a lot of design space to toy with, so I have high hopes of pirates continuing to be a tribe which does not rely on parasitic synergy.
Rivals of Ixalan, released in January, has a lot of heavy lifting to do. It needs to maintain the cool flavour of Ixalan and further the tribal theme while opening up the draft format to more interesting decisions. Still, we just finished playing with one of the best second sets of all time. That should give sceptics some hope. Personally, I do believe WoTC is capable of turning things around but we will just have to wait and see.
Excited about Rivals of Ixalan? You can check out the latest Rivals of Ixalan spoilers and updates here: RIVALS OF IXALAN | Magic: The Gathering Spoilers, News & Updates
Thanks for reading,