I'm more of a Pirates of the Caribbean kind of guy than anIndiana Jones kind of guy, so I may be a bit biased, but so far, Ixalan kind of feels like Zendikar done right. The flavor basically seems to be Age of Exploration if Dinosaurs were still alive in the new world, which I actually think is a pretty sweet twist. I like how it adds color and excitement to exploring the new world, and it's a cool alternate universe to image.
Mechanically, I love everything about the tools of exploration that transform into lands. They tell me a story about how this set is about exploring new territory and using it to go way over the top, which is a perfect mechanical tie-in to the idea of exploring a new continent full of Dinosaurs; as you explore the new continent, where you'd be finding Dinosaurs, your tools become lands that allow you to cast these Dinosaurs in the game of Magic.
Meanwhile, while you're trying to explore this new world to tame these awesome Dinosaurs, shortsighted looters are trying to sabotage your efforts for their own greed (Pirates try to kill you before you can cast these sweet Dinosaurs).
While I imagine that the race between Pirates and summoning Dinosaurs in Limited will be close and interesting, I worry that the race in Constructed between Hazoret the Fervent and summoning sweet Dinosaurs will be a little more lopsided.
"I cast Extinction."
Ixalan dreams big and tells a sweet story, but I worry that it's a little too off in its own world, with tribes that aren't supported by the existing blocks and gameplans that can't keep up with the fully formed Energy, Vehicles, and aggressive red decks that already exist. Essentially, this feels like Lorwyn, where Lorwyn itself wasn't enough to support the new tribes for the most part, but once Morningtide hit, Faeries, Merfolk, Elves, Goblins, and Kithkin were all serious players. (My history may be a bit off here; it's possible Kithkin, Elves, and maybe even Goblins were decent decks before Morningtide, but tribal decks weren't what they became before we got cards like Bitterblossom and Mutavault.)
Standard is small, and I'd hope at least one tribe in Ixalan will be competitive, but I'm sure some, likely most tribes will need another set to come into their own (if they ever do).
Fortunately, not every card in the set is so linear that we have to put them all on hold. Personally, I'd love to see a world where Treasure Map, Primal Amulet, and Thaumatic Compass compete to fuel also grindy late-games. As strange as it may sound, I think Vraska's Contempt might be the key to enabling these kinds of games.
Black decks excel at trading resources, so when they have access to a card like Phyrexian Arena or Underworld Connections, black control decks become possible. Cards like this are printed infrequently, but artifacts like Thaumatic Compass can occasionally provide a functional substitute.
Vraska's Contempt doesn't win a game by itself, but it can make it very hard for the opponent to find a way to kill you, allowing your late-game engines to take over.
When combined with Fatal Push and Walk the Plank, possibly even with Bontu's Last Reckoning if needed, we start to see a good curve of extremely versatile black removal spells the could line up very well against the "Level 0" aggressive decks that carry over from the current format.
Consider something like the following:
I'd originally imagined a mono-black control deck, but the lands in Standard make splashing an allied color into a control deck very cheap, and I think the deck is better with a splash.
This take is a fairly pure control deck that uses the transforming artifacts to get ahead and plans to actually win the game with The Scarab God.
While this set might allow people to get large amounts of mana quickly with Treasure, as long as the payoffs are large creatures and planeswalkers and not Eldrazi with difficult-to-beat cast triggers, Vraska's Contempt should do a good job of stopping the opponent from doing something that goes over the top of your long game.
Gifted Aetherborn offers fantastic early defense, and I think it's a good card for a strategy like this, but between that and the other artifacts, this deck isn't necessarily optimizing Primal Amulet, a card that I think is actually very powerful if we build a deck to take full advantage of it. Abrade continues to be a serious consideration when trying to build a deck around a four-mana artifact, but Lightning Strike could cut into Abrade's stock somewhat.
We could imagine a deck that goes further to support Primal Amulet, which mostly means playing more card draw spells:
Unfortunately, because Approach of the Second Sun only wins the game if it was cast from your hand, you don't win the game immediately if you cast it with Primal Wellspring. On the other hand, you do gain fourteen life and your card draw spells are great at getting you to cast it again, so I think this is still the best way to win the game if you're trying to maximize Primal Wellspring.
Another Vraska's Contempt control deck could use a reanimator strategy:
- 1 Cataclysmic Gearhulk
- 4 Noxious Gearhulk
- 1 Torrential Gearhulk
- 4 Champion of Wits
- 2 Demon of Dark Schemes
- 2 The Scarab God
This deck uses Strategic Planning, Tragic Lesson, and Champion of Wits to try to get a Gearhulk, Demon, or God into the graveyard to return with Liliana, Death's Majesty, or Refurbish for a Gearhulk. One common issue I've noticed in looking at Esper control decks is that there aren't very many strong planeswalkers in Standard now, so taking full advantage of Liliana, Death's Majesty seems particularly powerful.
Going the other direction, R/B Artifacts looks like a very powerful aggressive deck:
Wily Goblin may not offer the best rate for a creature, but it does turn on Inventor's Apprentice, raid for Ruin Raider, go to the graveyard as a creature for Scrapheap Scrounger, and allow you to cast Chandra, Torch of Defiance on turn 3, which this deck is designed to take maximum advantage of.
Ruin Raider is a fantastic follow-up to Heart of Kiran that plays well with the large number of creatures that aren't often afraid to attack into anything on turn 3, and the removal in this deck is fantastic at supporting continued attacks. The fact that all of the removal functions as additional reach when needed is a tremendous asset to a deck like this.
Building an aggressive red deck that can end up with extra mana from Treasures or Chandra, Torch of Defiance that doesn't use Khenra Eternal feels like a mistake, but Unlicensed Disintegration is a powerful pull down the artifact path, and Inventor's Apprentice really requires maximizing them, and Heart of Kiran makes it difficult to make room for creatures with two power, so it just doesn't look to have a place.
I noted last week that Hostage Taker would be fantastic at the top end of a U/B creature deck, and it's starting to look like the Pirate tribe was actually built specifically to maximize Hostage Taker, as the early plays of Siren Stormtamer and Kitesail Freebooter both serve to protect your more expensive Pirates, and Ruin Raider and Fathom Fleet Captain both demand answers before Hostage Taker comes down.
- 4 Deadeye Tracker
- 4 Fathom Fleet Captain
- 4 Hostage Taker
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Ruin Raider
- 4 Siren Stormtamer
This is an interesting tribe. It's not the fastest, but it has an interesting mix of card advantage and disruption. All of the card advantage requires creatures surviving, but the disruption helps them survive. Jace, Cunning Castaway and Scrapheap Scrounger offer an interesting backup plan against opponents who are set on trying to kill all of your creatures, and the efficient removal allows you to avoid losing races against opposing creature decks with more power.
Whirler Virtuoso is a card I'd be very afraid of with this kind of deck, as the Thopters line up very well against your relatively small creatures and you don't have a great way to deal with it. Your best plan is likely to try to resolve the Scarab God against Temur decks, and it's possible this deck wants to have access to more of those.
Between Unclaimed Territory and Treasures, I can imagine attempting to build a three-color Pirate deck, and I think it would be awesome if such a deck had a low curve that made Treasures and topped out with Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh as a finisher, but I don't think we quite have the cards to support such a strategy at the moment, I'm just optimistic that there might another good uncommon Pirate that makes Treasure or something.
Looking over these options, I certainly think Ixalan's spells will play a substantial role in Standard, but I think we'll mostly see it in strategies like the control decks and artifact decks that combine aspects of Ixalan's mechanics with previous synergies more than tribal decks that rely almost entirely on cards from Ixalan.