Ixalan Limited Prerelease Primer

Feature Article from Steve Rubin
Steve Rubin
9/20/2017 11:01:00 AM
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Since the storyline for Ixalan was spoiled, there has been plenty of excitement surrounding this strange world Wizards of the Coast is creating. Wizards is providing a fresh take on Limited with this set, providing us with four tribes with various color combinations. Weirdly, this makes the set feel the most similar to Shards of Alara block, except instead of five shards, we have two shards coupled with two dual-colored combinations to keep the colors leveled.

Tribes

Take a look at the tribes of Ixalan:

Pirates: Blue/Black/Red
Dinosaurs: Red/Green/White
Merfolk: Blue/Green
Vampires: Black/White

You notice right away that each color has two distinct creature types, which makes this set evenly designed, albeit in a new way we have never seen before. There are other creature types, such as Orc or Human, but those function more as character identity and don't have any built-in synergies.

Going a bit deeper, I went ahead and counted the number of creatures have a certain relevant type within a given color (including cards like Deeproot Waters or Queen's Commission as creatures).

30 White Creatures

12 Vampire
14 Dinosaur

23 Blue Creatures

10 Merfolk
10 Pirates

25 Black Creatures

11 Pirates
8 Vampire

26 Red Creatures

12 Pirates
11 Dinosaurs

29 Green Creatures

12 Merfolk
13 Dinosaurs

Also notable are the following multicolored creatures (again being inclusive with stuff like Call to the Feast)

5 Pirates
5 Dinosaurs
2 Vampires
2 Merfolk

I did not include spells as many of these are quite ambiguous, but in general there seems to be an even spread of tribe-specific spells.

These splits are crucially important to understand for all types of Limited play for Ixalan. About 40-45% of the creatures of any given color are of a relevant type. The rest are filler that can go in any deck but don't necessarily add specific synergy-generic creatures such as the “Keeper cycle” (Fire Shrine Keeper, Ixalli's Keeper, and so on).

If you take a look at the creatures that are“tribe assigned,” there is fairly little overlap between different tribes within Ixalan. This is especially true for the most powerful non-rares. To be more specific, Bishop of the Bloodstained is a premium uncommon for a Vampire deck, but next to useless in a Pirate deck. A large number of the creatures can only be utilized most effectively in decks dedicated to a certain tribe. That doesn't mean that there won't be much overlap, but it does mean that the best decks in Limited will likely have one focus. As such, this set will play out like a tribal set for Limited.

Color Combinations

For the prerelease, you can build a deck with “normal” color combos from the different tribes. But stay alert that there will be off-color overlap decks. In Sealed, you don't get the option to pick what you play with, and it may be very hard to fill out that Green-Blue Merfolk deck with playable cards that you are actively happy about playing. To get the most out of your Sealed pool, a Merfolk deck is overlapping with Pirates of black-red or Dinosaurs of red-white, so red is a shared color where you can most effectively double-dip synergy. A Vampire deck (white-black) has Pirate overlap in blue-red and Dinosaur overlap in red-green. If you are scratching your head to put it simple Mardu (white-black-red) and Temur (blue-red-green) are the most likely and most potent color combinations that are extensions of the dual-colored tribes. This is because these color combinations provide three tribes in one worth of potential synergy. This is obviously not ideal compared to a straight Green-Blue Merfolk or Grixis Pirate deck filled with tribal fixins, but for Sealed you have to most effectively make do with what you open.

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Expect to play a lot of two-color decks, potentially splashing for a third if you are Dinosaurs or Pirates. Ixalan has an interesting distribution of mana fixing. The three-colored tribes have a healthy amount of fixing where the dual-colored ones have little or none. It's important to know, but I wouldn't say that it's a negative for the format as a whole. This is intended as you don't necessarily have the need to splash, and if you did it would often be for a removal spell or two. The tribal nature of the set means that many of the bombs are going to only fit into a single tribe. Furthermore, two of the main mana fixers are Pillar of Origins and Unclaimed Territory, which only provide mana for creatures. While the Pillar is clearly a Dinosaur card, these are going to be good in every deck and hard to come by in draft – and at uncommon will only show up in under 25% of Sealed pools.

This Sealed format is undoubtedly going to be synergy based. Unfortunately, this is not going to be in an “explorable” way, but in more of a “who opened the most good cards in the same tribes” kind of way.

Loosely in this order; look for powerful rares, a high amount of tribal synergy, solid removal, and an even mana base that is unlikely to punish you often. It's likely that rares and tribal synergy will operate hand-in-hand, and just to name some bombs from every color: Regisaur Alpha, Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle, Herald of Secret Streams, Fathom Fleet Captain.

As opposed to going color by color, let's outline the set by the four tribes of Ixalan.

Dinosaurs

We start with Dinosaurs, and for good reason. Dinosaurs appear to be the most breathable tribe, with the highest potential for overlap. Since they are a shard, Dinosaurs (Naya), just like Pirates (Grixis), share a common color with each other tribe. Green has the most fixing, which allows for potential but likely unnecessary splashing. Dinosaurs – to the surprise of nobody – are high costed and large creatures with beefy stats. This makes them powerful cards that can fit in more than just Dinosaur decks. Ripjaw Raptor or Thundering Spineback are mighty fine in a Merfolk deck, for instance.

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But to be most effective, Dinosaurs belong in a focused deck. There is a healthy amount of ramp, some of it dino-only or with dino synergy tacked on such as Drover of the Mighty, Otepec Huntmaster or Kinjalli's Caller. Dinosaurs have the enragemechanic, which makes them both great blockers and hard to block at the same time. This makes them excellent with fight cards, and provide extra benefits from pump spells. You can curve out and be aggressive and overpowering, but appear to be most effective keeping pace with your opponent in order to ramp into awesome creatures and easily overwhelm them once you stabilize the board.

Pirates

Pirates are the other shard-based tribe and are not surprisingly the second-most flexible tribe of Ixalan. Pirates may be the least defined of the four Ixalan tribes, and can be built many ways. Pirates as a whole are rather interesting, as they seem to eschew having great stats for lots of triggers, evasion and interesting effects such as Treasure Token creation. They also have several tricky spells, including countermagic like Lookout's Dispersal, Makeshift Munitions, Fiery Cannonade and Siren's Ruse. This makes the Pirate tribe the most interesting gameplay wise, and likely also incredibly difficult to build.

Pirates have two unique mechanics, raidand treasure. There is an interesting dichotomy here as raid is a pretty aggressive mechanic while treasure is more of a ramp mechanic. While ramping may appear to be what Treasure is doing on the surface, Treasure is also providing Pirates mana fixing and the ability to play a three-colored deck, which can generate a ton of tempo by allowing you to cast two spells in one turn earlier than normal. Pirates have a healthy amount of looting (draw and discard) which can become more potent, while Treasure allows you to play with fewer lands than normal.

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These two mechanics make the Keeper cycle quite powerful in a pirate deck. Fire Shrine Keeper and Blight Keeper both have evasion, which can be helpful to trigger raid. Any extra treasure in the late game can help you get to eight mana to cash them in.

Pirates also are the tribe that seem to best utilize the artifacts from the set. Fell Flagship is a rare Pirate lord, and Sleek Schooner and Dusk Legion Dreadnaught both have low crew costs which work well with most Pirates' statlines. Pirate's Cutlass is a strong equipment, and these artifacts can complement artifact matters cards such as Deadeye Plunderers or Desperate Castaways.

Merfolk

Merfolk are perhaps the most basic and well-defined tribe of Ixalan. As a dual-colored tribe, you are going to have good mana and hopefully a smooth curve. Green creatures and spells pump up your Merfolk: Jade Guardian, Vineshaper Mystic and the deadly blowout potential of River Herald's Boon. This works quite nicely with the blue Merfolk, which are very evasive and want to be pumped: River Sneak, Shaper Apprentice, Wind Strider and Storm Sculptor. Or, they help get your creatures through: Watertrap Weaver, Tempest Caller and Herald of Secret Streams.

While Merfolk as a tribe can benefit from a critical mass of Merfolk, there is also some flexibility in overlap. Evasive Pirates can be a nice compliment, or some Dinosaurs can be nice finishers as Merfolk has a decent amount of the explore mechanic, which can align well with ramp as it provides you with extra lands or scrys.

Vampires

Like their dual-colored brethren Merfolk, Vampires are reasonably focused but from the looks of the set are the least overlappable tribe. Ixalan is designed this way so tribes with greater colors and much more of a build-your-own-adventure, so to speak. Vampires have token generation, and are looking to build an incredibly wide swarm of Vampires. There are a healthy amount of ways to build your army, from Legion Conquistador, Call to the Feast, Queen's Commission and Paladin of the Bloodstained. However, there are not that many easily attainable ways to pump all of your Vampires. Encampment Keeper seems to be the best way, but costs eight mana and can be disrupted. Anointed Deacon is the other easily obtainable card at common to boost up your Vampires. Five seems like a ton of mana for this card, but remember that in conjunction with lifelink or evasion it can be game-changing, and can attack as a five-power creature on its own.

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Vampires tokens and some cards have lifelink, a subtheme which can help boost you up to make some of the uncommons such has Adanto Vanguard and Glorifier of Dusk from solid playable to premium uncommons.

Vampires are based around rares and uncommons. If you have some white and black removal, you can't just play a deck full of filler Vampires. Where they don't have easily obtainable anthems, the hard-to-get ones are brutally powerful. Vanquisher's Banner – while great in any tribe – may be at its best in Vampires due to sheer numbers. Legion's Landing and Sanctum Seeker are both awesome if you can build up a Vampire army. Bishop of the Bloodstained and Deathless Ancient are both massive payoffs for constructing an army of Vampires.

Generic Red

The color identity of red goes beyond what we normally see within a Magic set. Red is a linchpin for different archetypes, not only for the shards but for the off-color shards. This may end up being more pertinent for Draft, but for a pre-release primer this is just yet another concept that is key to understand. Red is the only color that is in both of the three-color shard tribes (Pirates and Dinosaurs) and neither of the dual-colored tribes (Vampires and Merfolk). As we covered before, this is why Merfolk and Vampires, at least on paper, are best combined with red, as this maximizes the amount of tribal synergy you can pull off. Now you may be better off being WB/u as Vampires splashing for some Pirates, but if you do end up playing WB/r, for instance, you can be Vampires and Pirates and Dinosaurs.

In theory this seems relevant, but it's important to understand in practice you don't necessarily want to be trying to utilize three tribes as once. In Sealed, these color combinations just come up a bit more likely as there is a higher chance of added incentive because of the additional overlap.

I know this is a whole lot of critical thinking for a tribal set where your best deck is likely going to be pre-built. From a deckbuilding and design standpoint however, red is so fascinating as many of the best cards are generic and can be played to effectiveness in many decks. Since you are most likely to open commons and uncommons, here are the most relevant ones: Unfriendly Fire, Storm Fleet Pyromancer, Firecannon Blast, Lightning Strike, Charging Monstrosaur, Fiery Cannonade and Makeshift Munitions. These cards are all great in any deck, which is a contrast to the other colors, where some of the premium commons or uncommons are synergy driven.

Red is built to be flexible; burn spells are great in any Limited deck. Commons like Tilonallis Knight, Thrash of Raptors and Headstrong Brute are all synergy cards. But they all seem playable on a lower count of the needed card types as they have average stats under normal conditions.

Enjoy the prerelease!

- Steve Rubin




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