Ixalan came out on Magic Online this past Monday, and since then I have been eating, sleeping, and breathing in all the ways I normally would accomplish those necessary-yet-mundane tasks. On a more related note, I've also been drafting a lot in preparation for Grand Prix Providence. I don't know how many drafts I'm deep at this point, but it's a lot and while I can't say that I've drafted every combination possible, I've hit quite a few of them. At this stage, I've drafted every tribe multiple times along with a healthy variety of non-tribal decks across many colors.
Throughout it all, I'm learning a lot about the format and what has worked and, just as importantly, what has not worked for me. So while this is early in the format, and opinions and ideas will change over time, I wanted to dump the information I've gathered so far and break down what I think is important for each archetype to succeed, along with assorted thoughts and information I've gathered.
With the exception of a few decks, like the highly synergistic Merfolk deck that can get out super early and put a lot of pressure on the opponent, the format seems pretty slow. As a result, card advantage and selection is a huge part of this format, much like a traditional core set draft format. Evasion is also at a much higher premium again. In some hyper aggressive formats, like Amonkhet, evasion didn't matter nearly as much, because adding evasion to a creature typically comes at a power and toughness cost, and games were too fast for that tradeoff to be worthwhile.
The card advantage in this format mostly comes from the set's three mechanics: enrage, raid, and explore.
Enrage has been the worst of these in my experience thus far. Enrage is only on a handful of dinosaurs and most of them are higher rarity cards that you won't see nearly as often. While there is an enrage enabler in Rile, the common effects aren't worth it. The only non-rare Dinosaur that is worth investing the time and energy in trying to set up enrage is Bellowing Aegisaur, and the best way to do that is with fight effects, like Savage Stomp or Pittsburgh Steelers superstar Maurkice “Pounce”y.
Raid's card advantage is strong, but fickle. Cards like Deadeye Tormentor, for example, offer the ability for a 2-for-1 by coming down and stripping a card from your opponent's hand. But with that upside, there is also a lot of downside. It's a bad topdeck late in the game, sometimes the 2/2 body doesn't do a whole lot, and there's no guarantee that you can easily enable raid, either by not having enough early bodies to attack or not having early creatures good enough to attack profitably through your opponent's blockers. Still, cards like Storm Fleet Spy, Maurading Looter, and sometimes even Storm Fleet Aerialist are worth it for the upside.
Then there's explore. Explore is extremely good and a great source of minor card advantage. Every single explore creature is playable, even cards that don't on the surface seem very good, like Queen's Agent, because of how much advantage explore can provide. With the exception of Ixalli's Diviner, all the explore creatures have pretty reasonable stats when they hit a nonland card on the top of the deck, making them very serviceable creatures even in the scenario where you hit a nonland card and leave it on top.
Where explore kicks into overdrive is that it really helps smooth your draws out and ensure that you aren't getting stuck on lands. If there is a land on top, you get to draw it, giving you one extra land drop down the line. If there isn't a land, you effectively get to scry one, which can help find your payoff cards or even dig one card deeper for a land if you need more.
I wouldn't say that an explore creature hitting a land on top is quite as good as drawing a card, because sometimes you don't really need those extra lands, and while it will dig you deeper to finding gas, you don't get access to a potential “real card” until the following turn. However, if you can combine explore with looting effects, like Rummaging Goblin, Maurading Looter, or Daring Saboteur then every extra land does turn into something real.
The biggest general key I've learned from playing this format is that you don't want to play low-impact cards. 2/1 creatures for two mana, for example, are all pretty weak without some form of evasion, because of how many three toughness creatures or 1/1 tokens can invalidate them. Generic 2/2s for two mana are also pretty weak, unless you have a way to improve them later in the game, like vampires can do with Anointed Deacon. This philosophy also holds for more expensive cards. Cards like Sailor of Means or Spike-Tailed Ceratops, for example, aren't generally going to be very good without a strong reason to play them because their stats are just not impactful for their cost, regardless of their minor benefits. This also applies to cards like Slash of Talons that are narrow in application. Looming Altisaur is a frequent exception to this, as it blocks damn near everything.
Another key I've learned is that traditional curve rules don't apply as much in this format because of how slow the format is and how much explore can help ensure the lands keep flowing. I've played decks with eight 5-drops or three 7-drops or multiple 8-drops. Ixalan is not like some of the previous formats where you needed to play a bunch of cheap cards and then top your curve off with a few five or six mana plays. You can play a lot of bigger cards, and a lot of decks are going to need all those cards in order to grind out a win.
Because there isn't a lot of instant speed removal spells, and because the general size of creatures are pretty small, creature enchantments like Mark of the Vampire and One With the Wind are actually pretty great.
I initially found the strength of the vampire tribe surprising; a lot of the vampire cards looked really weak to me when I was looking through the spoiler. I was wrong. Vampires has a lot of random 2/2s for two and other generic cards, like Paladin of the Bloodstained or Skyblade of the Legion that don't offer much in the way of stats. What makes vampires so potent is that it dominates the combat step with a lot of tricks and effects and has great grind potential. Anointed Deacon is an extremely powerful card that turns your 2/2s for two or 1/1 lifelink tokens into real threats that trade off with real creatures. That card really sums up what makes vampires so good, you play a bunch of annoying creatures to stall your opponent's offense, you make combat tough, and then you grind them out.
Another big advantage of Vampires is how much evasion the deck has and how hard it is to block many of the creatures. A lot of vampires have flying, headlined by the Wind Drake that could: Skymarch Bloodletter, and with how low-powered the format is, these evasive creatures have time to plink away slowly in the air to get the opponent low enough to die to Anointed Deacon or Bishop of the Bloodstained. Even some non-flying creatures, like Adanto Vanguard make blocking really hard for the opponent. Oftentimes they have to keep throwing creatures under the bus and hope you can't pay 4 life enough times, but with all the lifelink tokens that various cards and effects create, it's usually easy to stay up on life.
Another key to vampires is that black and white have some of the best removal and tricks in the format. Skulduggery and Vampire's Zeal are both one-mana plays that can lead your opponent into making mistakes or ruin the combat step for them. Black has great removal options in Walk the Plank, Contract Killing, and Vanquish the Weak that can take care of whatever creatures that you can't handle in combat. White also offers some good options in Ixalan's Binding and Pious Interdiction.
The biggest key to drafting vampires is to ensure that you get enough payoff cards. Without the payoff, all the 2/2s for two are not going to stack up very well. Payoff cards include Anointed Deacon, Bishop of the Bloodstained, and Deathless Ancient. They are all reasonably expensive, but it's pretty key to make sure you end up with a handful of them, because it's tough to win without them. Beyond finding payoff cards, you want to round out your deck with a fairly nice mix of enablers, good cheap vampires, and removal spells. Enablers are cards like Queen's Commission or Call to the Feast that play well with the payoff cards and can buy time to either find payoff cards or race with evasive threats.
Merfolk is easily the most powerful tribe and a good merfolk deck is nearly unbeatable. The reason I think that vampires as a whole are a stronger tribe is because it's much easier to draft an above average vampire deck than it is to draft a strong fish deck. merfolk is all about mana-curve. The key to a successful merfolk deck is to get a lot of two and three drop merfolk paired up with cards like Herald of Secret Streams, Tempest Caller, Vineshaper Mystic and River Heralds' Boon.
The problem is that a Merfolk deck without a good curve or without ways to push through damage, either from pump spells or evasion, is going to be very underpowered and a lot of the good two and three drop creatures are going to be snatched up by other green and blue decks that just need serviceable early creatures. I've also just found that merfolk are more heavily drafted than vampires, making it more likely that you have to fight other drafters harder to get the deck.
River Herald's Boon and Vineshaper Mystic are the keys to merfolk. I had to read the card twice to understand that River Heralds' Boon lets you put two +1/+1 counters on any merfolk creature or you can put a +1/+1 on any creature and another +1/+1 counter on a merfolk as well. For two mana, this is a really efficient instant speed card that can dominate combat and also just put your opponent on a really fast clock in racing scenarios. I would play almost any number of this card, and one of the keys to determining if merfolk is open is when you see these floating around 6th-10th pick. Vineshaper Mystic is similarly extremely powerful by providing the Boon effect along with a merfolk body that also serves as a recipient to one half of the effect.
A fairly basic, but yet nearly perfect version of merfolk would be something like 16 mostly cheap merfolk creatures and eight River Heralds' Boons, preferably topped off by a way to finish pushing through damage like Tempest Caller of Herald of Secret Streams or evasion via Shaper Apprentice or Wind Strider.
One thing I've found in drafting merfolk is that I don't really care about spells very much other than One With the Wind and River Heralds' Boon. Pounce hasn't been very good in merfolk because of how small the creatures are, and similarly I haven't liked bounce spells that much because it's hard to punish double blocks with bounce spells when the creatures have such small base stats. I just want to get out early with aggressive creatures and then push damage with One With the Wind and River Heralds' Boon.
Drafting merfolk is fairly simple for me when it's open. Curve is paramount. Something like seven two-drops and six three-drops would be perfect. I'll take Vineshaper Mystic over pretty much everything. River Herald's Boon is a bit worse than Mystic but I will also take it over almost any non-premium creature, unless I'm seriously lacking in cheap threats. Premium two-drop creatures are Shaper Apprentice, River Sneak, and Merfolk Branchwalker, with Kumena's Speaker and Deeproot Warrior being fine options. Ixalli's Diviner is pretty bad in merfolk. Premium three drop creatures are Vineshaper Mystic, Tishani's Wayfinder and Siren Lookout. Watertrap Weaver and Storm Fleet Spy are also quite good. I usually want a few Watertrap Weavers in every Merfolk deck but I don't draft them super high, since they usually come relatively late.
It's fine to play non-merfolk creatures. There are a lot of cheap pirates that are pretty effective creatures that work well with merfolk's aggression. Drover of the Mighty and Grazing Whiptail are pretty solid if the deck ends up having to go a bit bigger, which usually happens when the archetype isn't super open. I'm not even opposed to playing some New Horizons and Colossal Dreadmaw if need be.
Pirates is a tribe that I've had less success with than merfolk or vampires. I think pirates has potential, but I haven't been able to make it work nearly as well yet, so I'm going to just stick to discussing only what I feel fairly confident about.
Pirate's Cutlass (and the rarer Fell Flagship) is the key to pirates. It's an artifact to turn on the very playable Desperate Castaways, it automatically equips to pirates, which validates the investment the turn you play it, and then later in the game it makes life a living hell for your opponents by forcing them to constantly trade down their creatures while also threatening to put a lot of pressure on with evasive creatures. I think two to three copies of this card is the right amount to play, and I always want at least two in basically every pirate deck, especially if I have Deadeye Quartermaster to find them.
There are four different options for drafting pirate decks: U/B Pirates, R/B Pirates, U/R Pirates, and full on Grixis Pirates. I've only really drafted U/B Pirates and R/B Pirates with regularity, so I'll focus just on those.
The theme of U/B Pirates is to utilize treasures for artifact-matters cards, but that's only really relevant if you have a bunch of Desperate Castaways and Deadeye Plunderers. I wouldn't slot very many Sailor of Means into your deck unless that artifact really does matter. The game-plan is to play good early game creatures with good stats and minor abilities and pair it up with evasive creatures backed up with interaction of some kind. It's nice if these cheap creatures are pirates for the synergy with the very important Pirate's Cutlass, but they don't have to be. I'm happy playing Skymarch Bloodletters and Seekers' Squires.
It's nice to have hard removal spells if you can draft them, but any kind of instant speed interaction is pretty good, whether it's bounce spells, Lookout's Dispersal, or Siren's Ruse. The key is to just generate a bunch of two-for-ones and keep them Off Balance long enough for Pirate's Cutlass or evasion to win the game. Sometimes you can also just bury them in card advantage.
B/R Pirates is more of an aggressive deck than U/B. Without access to the card advantage and two-for-ones that blue provides, this deck is more interested in beating down and enabling raid for cards like Storm Fleet Arsonists. Red has a decent bit of reach with Storm Fleet Pyromancer, Lightning-Rig Crew, Sun-Crowned Hunters, haste creatures, and burn spells like Lightning Strike and Unfriendly Fire. Because it can often finish off the last 4-6 points of damage with burn, and because it doesn't have the kind of card advantage other decks do, the deck often needs to get out ahead on board pretty early to win. It needs to push enough damage to put itself in range where cards like Rummaging Goblin can dig to whatever will finish the game.
Much like pirates, there are a bunch of options for drafting dinos. You can go full Naya, W/R, R/G, or W/G. I've had the most experience with R/G Dinosaurs but the most success with W/G Dinosaurs. I think dinosaurs are the weakest tribe, with only W/G Dinosaurs being a naturally strong archetype from what I've experienced so far.
R/G Dinosaurs is a really clunky strategy. Green provides a lot of defensive dinos like Ranging Raptors and Grazing Whiptail while red provides the most aggressive dinosaurs with options like Nest Robber and Thrash of Raptors. The combination doesn't mix very well. R/G Dinosaurs often also has a problem where it plays a bunch of early dinosaurs that just trade off leading up to a big six or seven drop dinosaur that just eats a removal spell, and then the deck is out of gas. I've had the most success playing G/R Dinosaurs when I'm ramping to six and seven drops and using Rummaging Goblins to smooth out my draws. In other words, I think G/R Dinosaurs plays better as a ramp deck than an aggressive deck.
W/G Dinosaurs has been a way stronger strategy for me, because it utilizes green's defensive dinosaurs with white's evasive options. Ranging Raptors and Grazing Whiptail play perfectly into a strategy that's just trying to hold down the fort long enough for Shining Aerosaur, Imperial Aerosaur, and Pterodon Knight to finish them off. White also offers removal options that aren't fight or damage based like Ixalan's Binding and Pious Interdiction that can handle bigger threats, which is usually what you need to kill anyway. White also has a great endgame with Bellowing Aegisaur if you can pick any up. That card makes combat a huge pain for the opponent and is a delight with fight effects. White also has great three-drop options that red doesn't really have in Emissary of Sunrise and Territorial Hammerskull.
I have yet to draft W/R Dinosaurs, but I think a good W/R dino deck could actually be quite potent as an aggressive strategy. White is a more aggressive dinosaur color than green, which pairs well with red's aggression. The W/R uncommon, Sky Terror, is a very powerful threat, and Territorial Hammerskull and Thrash of Raptors both make blocking very hard. This is an archetype I intend to draft more with.
I've also had a lot of success with decks that aren't based on any specific tribal synergies. So far, these decks have all been based around the explore mechanic. The two color combinations I'm most versed in are B/G and W/B. Both decks are based around a similar game plan, which is to play the best creatures, regardless of tribe, lots and lots of removal spells, and a ton of explore creatures to keep generating a constant advantage over the course of the game. These decks have all had very high curves, which is possible thanks to explore and they win games by surviving early and then just playing five- and six-drops one after another until the opponent succumbs.
These two archetypes are where you would play a card like Lurking Chupacabra, a powerful threat that goes very late in drafts because it doesn't naturally fit into either of black's tribes. There are a number of cards like the Chupacabra or Sunrise Seeker that are pretty reasonable threats that go extremely late because no tribal deck wants them. This deck wants them.
Now go forth, my friends, and draft. Draft till you drop. Draft till you can draft no more. There's a war coming. It's a war for Ixalan, but it's bigger than that. This war will spread through the multiverse, and beyond. It already has. It's a war for us, for our minds, for our children, for life itself. It ripples through everything we do, everything we've done, and everything we will do.
I'm drafting up an army. I need you. It's time to step forth, draft this set, and let your deeds echo through the centuries. Let future versions of you speak of past you and how your vision led humanity to a 3-0 record in an Ixalan Single-Elimination Competitive Draft League. Do your duty. Don't be a draft dodger. Get in there and draft, maggot! Make me proud. No. Make yourself proud.