Understanding Rivals of Ixalan Limited

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
2/2/2018 11:03:00 AM
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Team Genesis had the highest constructed win percentage by 10% more than the next highest team at the last Pro Tour. However, our Constructed prowess was marred by an abysmal showing in Limited. We were barely above the worst team in Limited, winning less than 50% of our matches and having a worse showing than the players at the Pro Tour who didn't even have a team. Considering how much of an advantage it is to test with a competent team of great players, we greatly underperformed.

This time around it made more sense to focus mostly on drafting. We met up with the goal of doing live drafts a bunch of times each day and then worry about Modern on our own time before meeting up or during the periods where we were sitting out of drafts. This resulted in us doing a lot of drafts, learning a lot about the format and instilling in us the hope of putting up a better result this time at the Pro Tour.

Rivals of Ixalan is, in some ways, much the same as Ixalan. In fact, there are a lot of cards that are the same or are very much identical, like Vanquish the Weak and Reaver's Ambush or your choice between Frenzied Raptor and Orazca Frillback when your Red-Green Dinosaur deck needs that fresh 4/2 for three.

There are a number of big differences, however, and a changing of the guard in some regards when it comes to archetype dominance. Let's take a gander at how Rivals alters the format.

Vampires

This was the best archetype in Ixalan by a pretty sizable margin. Vampires had good removal to hang with big dino decks and was nearly impossible to race by aggressive decks, thanks to lifelink creatures and pump effects. Cards like Anointed Deacon and Deathless Ancient also made Vampires very difficult to grind out.

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The payoff cards were extremely good in Ixalan, and now that you only get one pack of Ixalan, Vampires have gotten way worse. Vampires is still a fine strategy, but it's nowhere near the powerhouse it was before.

Vampires has somewhat of an identity Crisis in Rivals of Ixalan. Cards like Vampire Revenant want to attack, but cards like Dusk Legion Zealot don't block very well and cost you life, which doesn't mix very well. To be successful, it's best to commit to either aggression or the grind, rather than end up with a mixture of the two.

Another issue that Vampires now has is that it is very glutted at the three-drop slot. Legion Conquistador is a great card to pair with anthem effects like Pride of the Conquerors, Legion Lieutenant and Radiant Destiny. It also goes well with Sanguine Sanctifier and Forerunner of the Legion, and with it in all three packs, it's not too hard to get several copies if you want. The issue is that there are also many other solid Vampire cards at three mana, such as Forerunner of the Legion, Exultant Skymarcher and Sadistic Skymarcher. Good removal and auras like Squire's Devotion and Luminous Bonds also compete for space in this part of your curve.

If you're looking to be aggressive with Vampires, then it's really important to prioritize one and two-drops like Martyr of Dusk or Skymarcher Aspirant, so you don't end up having to make do with much less exciting options such as Raptor Companion. If you're looking to grind, then it's perfectly fine to make do with early creatures like Dusk Legion Zealot and Snubhorn Sentry and prioritize picking removal and other grindy cards first.

Black-Red Pirates

Black-Red Pirates also took a huge hit with Rivals of Ixalan, and one of the major reasons is the lack of quality common two-drop creatures. Goblin Trailblazer is a really strong option but it drops off quite quickly after that. Dinosaur Hunter is probably the next best thing, and that card is very unexciting in this deck.

Black-Red Pirates in triple Ixalan functioned best as an aggressive midrange deck that had some reach and some bigger late-game creatures to finish the job. For example, Sun-Crowned Hunters was a card that I really liked at the top end of my Pirates decks back then.

Now, it seems like the best option for building Black-Red Pirates is to be more of an all-in strategy that focuses on using Buccaneer's Bravado to kill your opponent out of nowhere. This style of deck is based around utilizing cards that go late like Grasping Scoundrel and TILTonalli's Crown. It's nice to have a strategy that can make use of cards that nobody else really wants, but I'm still skeptical that these kinds of decks can put up consistently good results.

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The idea in drafting all-in Pirates is to punch in for some early damage with quick creatures and then combine together effects like Tilonalli's Crown and Buccaneer's Bravado to provide +4 power, trample and double strike to a creature to just one-shot your opponent. It is even possible to do this to a one-power creature by casting Bravado first to pump its toughness before playing the Tilonalli's Crown on it. Tilonalli's Crown can also serve as a removal spell for opposing one-power creatures, which does offer it some added versatility.

Blue-Red Pirates

Blue-Red Pirates was a fringe archetype in Ixalan, but is now one of the best decks. One of the key reasons is Waterknot, which is a huge addition for blue decks all around. Waterknot gives blue access to premium removal that sticks around, whereas before blue decks had to rely on bounce spells and hope to win via the tempo or time generated.

Blue-Red Pirates specifically benefits greatly from having two of the best common two-drop creatures in Rivals of Ixalan in Goblin Trailblazer and Kitesail Corsair. Being able to get out ahead early with evasive two-drops that still scale reasonably well into the late game is a huge benefit. Blue-Red also has some great uncommon options in cards like Siren Reaver and Storm Fleet Sprinter. Having access to quality cheap creatures makes life easy, because the rest of the cards in your deck can be tailored toward leveraging the advantage these cards provide, either by pushing aggression or disrupting your opponent.

Blue-Red Pirates also makes great use of Deadeye Rig-Hauler, a Pirate with a powerful effect that can be hard to utilize properly without evasive creatures to enable it. This deck also is a great home for Mutiny, a card I otherwise don't like very much. Mutiny is at its best when paired with evasive creatures that are trying to race the opponent, which is exactly the game plan here.

Merfolk

Merfolk had the highest ceiling of every deck in Ixalan. If the archetype was wide open, you could end up with some truly broken decks that curved out with above-rate creatures and then hammered them home with powerful tricks like River Heralds' Boon.

Merfolk in Rivals of Ixalan similarly has the highest ceiling. While you are now unlikely to end up with more than 1-2 copies of River Heralds' Boon, there are a ton of great payoff cards from the new set as well, like Forerunner of the Heralds and Merfolk Mistbinder, or rares like Deeproot Elite, Seafloor Oracle and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca.

Merfolk also has a lot of very reasonable creatures at common. Jungleborn Pioneer, Giltgrove Stalker, Hardy Veteran, and Jadecraft Artisan are all above-average creatures. Kitesail Corsair, while not a Merfolk, is also still a very good evasive two-drop. Pair these creatures up with good disruption like Waterknot and Crashing Tides and you already have the start to a solid deck at common rarity only.

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I think Merfolk is better now than it was before. While it may not be capable of as many disgusting decks as triple Ixalan could, the baseline Merfolk deck in this set is higher.

The major flaw with Merfolk is that they don't play well from behind. The creatures are nearly all better at attacking than blocking, and once you start double blocking bigger creatures and trying to trade that way, it's pretty difficult to come back and win. As a result, I like to draft Merfolk decks that are low-curve, aiming to get out ahead of my opponent and then leverage cards like Crashing Tides – another card that is way better when you're ahead – to push through damage. Cards like Mist-Cloaked Herald, generally a pretty weak card, is a card I'm actually happy to play in these decks, so long as I have ways to get additional value out of the card, like raid, auras or ways to pump it.

Red-Green Dinosaurs

Dinosaur decks that weren't Red-White Dinosaurs were extremely weak in Ixalan. This is no longer the case. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Red-Green Dinosaurs is consistently the best archetype, even if it doesn't have the highest ceiling.

Dinosaurs had an identity crisis in Ixalan. Half of the cards were trying to play defense in order to facilitate going big and the other half were trying to be aggressive. It was hard to end up with a cohesive deck. Red-Green Dinosaurs no longer has that issue. Now, the deck is best built as an aggressive strategy. The goal is to curve out from turns two through five and then use cards like Hunt the Weak to devastate your opponent, ideally while also gaining an advantage from enrage creatures like Frilled Deathspitter or Overgrown Armasaur. It is an extremely basic strategy, but still highly effective.

One of the advantages of Red-Green Dinosaurs is that there are a lot of great two-drop creatures in the archetype. Green provides Giltgrove Stalker and Hardy Veteran and red offers Goblin Trailblazer. You may notice this as a common theme throughout this article. Quality of creature options for each archetype reflects greatly on how good those archetypes are, and two-drops are just as important in this format as they are in most formats.

One thing to keep in mind when drafting Red-Green Dinosaurs is that there are a plethora of options for five-drop creatures, including both a common and uncommon Dinosaur at that cost for both red and green. Other than Crested Horncaller, five-drops are a lower priority pick, because it's easy to eventually get some. On the other hand, there aren't a lot of great three-drop options, so unless you want to be stuck playing lots of copies of extremely underwhelming 4/2s for three, it's worth taking cards like Frilled Deathspitter and Jungleborn Pioneer slightly higher in this archetype.

Red-White Dinosaurs

Red-White Dinosaurs was one of the top archetypes in Ixalan, but it has fallen significantly – it's now one of the worst.

One of the major reasons is that it's no longer a strong archetype is that you can no longer really call it Red-White Dinosaurs, because there just simply aren't very many good cheap Ddinosaurs in red and white in Rivals of Ixalan. As a result, red-white decks tend to be an amalgamation of creatures from a variety of tribes without much cohesion, which doesn't lend itself well to beating some of the other decks that offer both synergy and power.

It also has the problem that its creatures don't push through damage very well early in the game. Compare cards like Sun Sentinel and Raptor Companion that trade with everything to something like Tilonalli's Knight, which could usually attack a few times before trading off. The deck in Ixalan also had access to way more copies of Territorial Hammerskull, which let the deck push through damage very effectively. When the two-drop creatures get brickwalled early on, that means that the four-drop and five-drop creatures are coming into play onto a board where the opponent's creatures haven't had to trade off yet, which means your 4/4 for five might be facing down two 3/3s that it can't attack past.

I think the best way to approach this archetype is to focus on evasion. Get as many Exultant Skymarchers as you can. Have your four-drop creatures be Pterodon Knights and your five-drops be as many Sun-Crested Pterodons as you can manage. Instead of trying to push early aggression and inevitably failing, instead try to attack in the air with 3-4-5 drop creatures and use the rest of your cards to trade off or remove their creatures.

U/G/x Ramp

I believe this to be one of the most powerful archetypes in Rivals of Ixalan. The idea behind this deck is that you use treasure makers like Sailor of Means and Prosperous Pirates to generate treasures, which serve dual purpose in quickly achieving the city's blessing for cards like Spire Winder or Secrets of the Golden City as well as facilitating the ability to splash for powerful removal in other colors or for powerful bombs in other colors, or just both.

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Green offers decently sized bodies to hold down the fort in the meantime. Cards like Overgrown Armasaur and Colossal Dreadmaw are massive creatures that can completely take over some board states, buying plenty of time for flying creatures to punch through damage or giving necessary time to be able to find and deploy bombs.

This archetype doesn't really work very well unless you have bomb rares. Otherwise you're just playing a bunch of defensive bodies, which many opponents will eventually be able to punch through. However, this archetype is phenomenal at facilitating great rares, by both playing defensively enough to buy time for them, and by providing treasure tokens to quickly ramp into them.

Generally, you can find yourself ending up in a deck like this if you draft a few powerful high-end threats like one of the Elder Dinosaurs and need a deck to facilitate them. Oftentimes, cards like Zetalpa or Zacama are actually better in a deck like this than they are in a white or Naya deck, because the surrounding cast fits a lot better here. Zetalpa works much better ramping into it than it does if you're just trying to somehow throw it into your white deck with a bunch of cheap creatures.

Blue-Black Pirates

I loved this deck in Ixalan, but I don't think it's viable anymore. Before, this deck was built to win with cheap interaction, plentiful removal, card advantage spells and flying creatures. It's hard to win with grindy game plans like this anymore, because there are so many cards in Rivals of Ixalan that punish trying to play a grindy game plan. What if your opponent plays Profane Procession or Aquatic Incursion or Slippery Scoundrel or Tetzimoc and you're playing some durdly deck that is just trying to stall the game out? You're just dead.

I think it's better to be proactive and at least give yourself a chance to beat super powerful cards by killing your opponent before they matter, or be playing a slower deck because you yourself have those kinds of bombs and you want to buy time to enable them.

White-Blue Ascend

I think this is a viable option in Rivals of Ixalan, albeit one that tends to underperform compared to how it looks. Resplendent Griffin looks like a really powerful card, but in practice it is just Wind Drake a good portion of the time.

Still, I think this deck does have a lot of potential. The basic gist behind this archetype is to play essentially every single card that has ascend printed on it. Then fill out the deck with cards that quickly push you toward achieving the city's blessing. Squire's Devotion, for example, provides two permanents, as does Queen's Commission. Removal spells like Luminous Bonds, Waterknot, and Baffling End are all great because they deal with a creature and provide another permanent to get closer to the City's B.

Green-White Mediums

One archetype that we had some minor success with, but haven't touched much is what I refer to as Green-White Mediums. The deck is basically just average creatures paired with white and green removal spells and cheap interactive cards like Moment of Triumph and Aggressive Urge.

The idea behind the deck is to dominate the combat step. Play cheap creatures that can put on early pressure and also play defense well, and blow your opponent out repeatedly when they try to block or attack by having a plethora of tricks. This deck is surprisingly quite effective at doing exactly that, but it has some flaws in that it doesn't race very well, since it isn't focused purely on aggression and it also doesn't have any game whatsoever against opposing bomb rares. It can't kill fast enough to go underneath those cards and it doesn't really have any recourse against them.

Black-Green Don't Draft This

I'm not sure what a successful black-green archetype is supposed to look like, but we haven't really figured out how to make this deck into something that can consistently put up results. Personally, I think the key to success is Canal Monitor. Not convinced? Hear me out.

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I'll confess it. I love Canal Monitor. There is nothing about that card that I don't adore with every fiber of my being. We're knee-deep in the muck of a tribal set and here we find ourselves faced up against a Lizard. No relevant tribe types here on Canal Monitor. Not only is there a random Lizard inexplicably in this set, it also happens to be a vanilla 5/3 for five mana, which is a horrendous rate. It offers no tribal synergies and is just truly a bad card. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about Canal Monitor and how it ended up in Rivals of Ixalan, which is exactly why I love it wholeheartedly. Beating people with Canal Monitor is one of life's greatest joys, and black-green is exactly the kind of archetype that is bad enough to maybe try that out as plan A.

If Lizard and Horse tribal is your thing, then sign up right here for some Dusk Chargers and Canal Monitors, which fit perfectly with black-green's signature card Jungle Creeper, which is also unaffiliated with any relevant tribe. Maybe if you're lucky, Ravenous Chupacabra can provide some additional tribal joy by adding both beast and horror to the mix.

- Brian Braun-Duin




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