A First Look at Rivals of Ixalan

Feature Article from Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe
1/5/2018 11:02:00 AM
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Today I'm going to talk about some of the exciting new cards spoiled this week from Rivals of Ixalan, focusing mainly on their applications for Standard and what new decks might emerge as well as what cards and strategies look to be the best complements to these newly spoiled cards.

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 Azor, the Lawbringer
$5.25
$3.16
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Magic MTG Card Azor, the Lawbringer Magic MTG Card
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Azor, the Lawbringer seems pretty strong. The mana requirements mean it will likely only fit into white-blue decks or Bant decks with green mana accelerants, though perhaps enough treasure-makers could make it viable in a different 3-color deck. Jekai with Captain Lannery Storm for example might work. It's also possible that a slow Esper Control deck splashing black could play it.

Being a 6/6 flyer means the game will end after just a few hits from this giant sphinx. And costing only six mana means it can come down the turn after a wrath effect such as Fumigate. That's a pretty good spot on the curve in a control deck.

It has a built-in protection feature as well, where if you catch the opponent tapped out or if they simply don't have an instant-speed answer in hand when you cast it, the Sphinx will very likely survive until your next turn. This means that even if they have a card like Vraska's Contempt in hand when you cast the Sphinx, unless they have four mana untapped, they won't be able to attempt to kill it until after you untap all your lands. This means even if they go for it on your upkeep, you will have mana untapped to counter the removal spell.

The other awesome part of this Sphinx is that if you don't have a counter in hand or another pressing reason to keep mana untapped, you can tap out for a free Sphinx's Revelation whenever you attack. That's really the part of the card that makes it feel like The Scarab God. The stats are already reasonable and it has some built-in protection, just like the God, but the backbreaker is that once you're able to untap with it and start sinking all your mana into it the game can get pretty out of hand.

I don't know yet what the best way to utilize Azor is yet, but so far it looks like one of the most powerful non-tribal cards in the set. Wait, did I say non-tribal? Let's not forget about Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign.

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 Silent Gravestone
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$0.63
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Silent Gravestone is maybe the best answer to God-Pharaoh's Gift decks (it prevents Refurbish) and it's colorless, so it can go into any deck (or rather, into any sideboard). It's not the most efficient answer to embalm, but it can still gain some value by knocking out all the embalm and eternalize creatures from the opponent's graveyard the turn before they get to enough mana to embalm or eternalize them. Four mana is a lot, but you get to draw a card, so in a lot of contexts it will be reasonable enough.

I don't think this card will see much play outside of Standard since Grafdigger's Cage will usually be the better option in Modern, but a deck that is otherwise hurt by the Cage and doesn't run black for Leyline of the Void might be interested in this card as an answer to a specific set of problems in Modern or even Legacy. I'm not holding my breath, but sometimes Relic of Progenitus for four extra mana still gets the job done.

Mid
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 Skymarcher Aspirant
$0.26
$0.12
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Yay, another Savannah Lions reprint with a marginal upside; this is just what white creature decks needed to compete with the energy mechanic!

Ok, not exactly, but it's a Vampire and so it fits nicely in the tribal Vampire shell, which was definitely in need of another playable one-drop. It also gains flying at a point in the game when flying is most relevant. In decks interested in a Savannah Lions, you generally spend the early turns swarming and then spend the later turns trying to close out the game before the opponent's more powerful mid-to-late game cards take over. So flying in that later game scenario will be especially crucial and that is also the time when you are most likely to have the city's blessing.

The city's blessing is an interesting ability (is it an ability?). It feels like a kind of cross between being the Monarch and having fateful hour. I like that once you have it, you have it forever. This takes away the blowout scenario where the opponent casts Abrade on your 10th permanent after you attack with all your creatures, only to cause you to lose the city's blessing and get wrecked in combat. Fortunately that's not how the ascend ability works. Also, since it includes lands, it will often get turned on around turn five or six in a deck that has a heavy board presence.

There are some interesting ways to construct a deck around the ascend mechanic. One way is to make creature tokens since those count as permanents. Another is to make treasure tokens. Another is to play cards that replace themselves such as Dusk Legion Zealot. Another is to just play a bunch of weenies, perhaps backed by an anthem. I suspect that for Skymarcher Aspirant the most likely scenario will be a go-wide aggressive strategy that makes Vampire Tokens off Legion's Landing and Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle. It may also include Radiant Destiny.

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 Radiant Destiny
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$0.90
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Speaking of Radiant Destiny, Vampires seem like the most obvious home for the card, but not necessarily the only home. There are a decent number of Humans in Standard right now, many of which are white and would benefit from an anthem like this. The Humans with the exert mechanic, most notably Glory-Bound Initiate and Gustwalker, used to work great with Always Watching. This card isn't exactly Always Watching since the vigilance part doesn't turn on until later in the game, but it has the upside of pumping tokens in addition to non-token creatures you control. So instead of the deck building restriction being non-token, it is instead tribal.

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 Profane Procession
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Cards like this tend to be underpowered since they are slow. The cards that see play are the ones that impact the board immediately and pack a strong punch at any point in the game. This card doesn't do either of those things, but I still think it is a very good card.

If you aren't behind on board, this card can begin taking over the game as soon as you hit five mana. Paying five mana to exile an opposing creature at instant speed is usually going to be the best thing you can do with your mana anyway, let alone if the ability does not cost you a card. And once you use the ability three times you get to start using the opponent's creatures against them. And even though it is legendary, once the first one transforms you can play out the second one and start using it since the front side and back side of the card have different names.

Another cool part about this card is that you can also target your own creatures and thereby use it as a kind of Safe Haven against opposing removal spells. This will come in handy against control decks with few threats. For instance, if your opponent is playing White-Blue Control with Azor, the Lawbringer as its win condition, you don't really want to leave in Vraska's Contempt to answer it (unless they also have planeswalkers), but this card still is useful for generating card advantage by targeting your own creatures in response to removal even when they don't have a sphinx on the battlefield. Overall, I think this is a pretty excellent card that might be overlooked by mana. I think it could be great in midrange matchups.

Mid
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 Fanatical Firebrand
$0.15
$0.01
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This is a really neat card. Mogg Fanatic is the obvious comparison, but unlike a lot of other functionally similar reprints of older format staples, this one is different in a way that is not strictly a downgrade. The downside is that you cannot sacrifice it while it is tapped, unlike Mogg Fanatic, but the upside is that it has haste. So really it's kind of like a cross between Mogg Fanatic and Raging Goblin. It's also a Pirate!

I expect this to see play in Ramunap Red as long as there are enough reasonable creatures to target in the format, which I suspect there will be. It may also play a role in a tribal Pirates deck since it can turn on raid out of nowhere and is generally a useful card in situations when one-drops are otherwise generally not useful. For instance, it can give you better attacks when you know you can finish off a blocker by playing and sacrificing the Goblin post-combat. Or even just representing the sacrifice on board by leaving it back and sending the rest of the team.

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 Dire Fleet Neckbreaker
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$0.04
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Speaking of Pirates, Dire Fleet Neckbreaker feels like a bomb in Limited but may also be good enough for Constructed. Black-red has a lot of cheap aggressive Pirates, and a double anthem attached to a body on turn four certainly sounds like what I want to be doing at that stage of the game in that style of deck. The biggest difficulty is that four mana is the magic number in Standard. It's the only spot on the curve with answers to the Big Three threats in Standard, and it's also competing with Hazoret the Fervent as your curve-topper. My guess is that you'd likely rather being playing Hazoret or Vraska's Contempt in your deck, but if we start talking about pirate tokens or whatnot, this card could enter the discussion.

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 Bishop of Binding
$0.50
$0.25
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Yet another four-mana white removal spell, exactly on the part of the curve where we needed a removal spell…

Seriously though, I highly doubt this will see play over Cast Out or Ixalan's Binding, but if you're the type of person that loves rolling the dice, the upside on Bishop of Binding if it lives is a very reasonable payoff. The problem is that it only triggers when the Bishop attacks, which means it will nearly always have to target itself merely to avoid getting eaten in combat by a blocker. So it essentially grows by the size of the creature it exiles.

I just don't see white decks being able to afford to risk losing their four-mana removal spell to an opposing removal spell. Maybe if the deck contained enough anthem effects there would be a tipping point where this card would be worthwhile. If anyone figures out how to use this card effectively it will very likely be me – we all already know that though. I just wish it triggered at the beginning of combat like Anointed Deacon. This would at least make the gambit pay off even if the opponent untaps and casts Shock on your Bishop of Binding. As it stands, I think the risk is likely going to be too high, unlike this next removal spell…

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 Baffling End
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$0.09
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It's obviously not Journey to Nowhere, but it is a two-mana removal spell that exiles, so I'll take it! It's basically Silkwrap but instead of the opponent getting their creature back if Baffling End doesn't prove to actually be the end, they get a 3/3 dinosaur token with trample. All things considered, I think that is a slight upgrade.

Being able to efficiently kill Longtusk Cub and any non-Hazoret creature in Ramunap Red is a pretty good deal already and I suspect with the increased options for the tribal decks, this card's stock will only go up. It still doesn't solve the problem of the major threats in the format (Glorybringer, The Scarab God and Hazoret), but it does deal with most other things and thereby leaves your removal spell that can hit those threats less taxed. For instance, if you run four copies of Baffling End and three copies of Ixalan's Binding or Cast Out, you can use Baffling End on all the early threats and then you'll still have the Ixalan's Binding or Cast Out in hand for the big threat whenever it arrives. It also counts toward ascend, which is not irrelevant by any stretch.

Overall I think the new set will introduce a lot of new options for Standard and hopefully allow some of the tribal decks from Ixalan to compete with the existing decks in Standard. I'm surprised by the amount of non-tribal specific cards that also look playable. Maybe it won't just be tribal decks that emerge from Rivals of Ixalan. I'm not crossing my fingers for sphinx tribal, but I suppose anything is possible.

Craig Wescoe
@Brimaz4Life




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