Previews for Ixalan are coming in swiftly, and trying to build decks around new cards (and reprints) is proving to be challenging. The previous year of Standard cards has given us a lot of powerful, proactive spells and solid manabases to build around, which in turn leads to some established archetypes that will take a lot to be dethroned. Decks like Ramunap Red, Mardu Vehicles, God-Pharaoh's Gift, and Temur Energy didn't lose much in the rotation, which says a lot when determining the power level of the current Standard format, even with Battle for Zendikar and Shadows over Innistrad making a hasty retreat.
So what exactly does Ixalan need to give us to make it viable in the new Standard metagame? Like in some previous Standard formats that revolved around block-centered mechanics (think Affinity and Devotion), we are now staring down Energy and artifact cards as established decks, with a hyper-aggressive aggro strategy and a graveyard recursion deck to boot. In order for Ixalan to successfully breach Standard, it's going to need cards that scream "Build around me!" Otherwise, the already-established decks are just going to pick and choose a few cards to add to their sideboards, and no one's going to be riding Dinosaurs or playing Pirate Tribal.
The good news is that we already have a few cool Pirate-based cards that might be fuel enough for some sort of black-based Pirate strategy.
Yes, I know these aren't blue or red cards, but we'll get to those shortly.
Now, I've already heart a good amount of buzz about Ruin Raider. After all, if your deck is full of cheap Pirates, the ease at which you trigger is staggering. To boot, Ruin Raider doesn't even need a Pirate to attack in order to trigger its ability, meaning it could easily fit into any aggressive black-based strategy. My fear with the tribal synergies previewed thus far is two-fold:
1) Vampires and Pirates will cannibalize each other, because they share black as a primary color.
2) The tribal synergies (lord pump effects, easy triggers, rewards for playing tribal) will not be good enough to warrant building your deck around it.
What the Pirate Deck Needs
As of writing this, I don't have the entire picture when it comes to building around these mechanics. The entire set will have to be released before we're sure about whether or not a deck like Pirate Tribal can exist. In order for it to exist, we'll need a few good one-drop creatures, somewhere between eight and twelve two-drops, and a solid number of higher-cost Pirates as payoff cards. We've had this type of build in the recent past with Zombies, but also decks like Mono-Blue Devotion. In those archetypes, it took people a few weeks to realize cards like Frostburn Weird and Nightveil Specter were playable, but when you have a payoff card as good as Master of Waves, playing weaker enablers tends to make a lot more sense.
Also not technically a blue or red card, but come on. This is a gimme.
Aside from the tribal elements of Ixalan, we're also getting a new take on the transform mechanic. All transform cards turn into a land with awesome abilities, and I will say that I'm absolutely loving this design. Lands are pretty tough to deal with, so the ease at which you're transforming the cards is the more important aspect of how good these cards will be. Primal Amulet takes a lot of effort to transform, but the payoff is very similar to one of my favorite cards in the last three years: Pyromancer's Goggles.
Since I first saw this card, I can't stop thinking about it. My hopes and dreams will probably be shattered by Abrade showing up in every deck, but for now I'd like to take a few moments and brew up a deck trying to push this card to the limit.
Now, I've thought a lot about this deck and how it's supposed to play out games. You have quite a few haymaker cards that can catch you back up after spending an entire turn to cast Primal Amulet. The trick to this strategy is trying to make the most out of Hazoret's Undying Fury, which is a potential dud but fits the overall theme of the deck. Not only is Hazoret's Undying Fury a busted card when copied, it can singlehandedly trigger Primal Amulet the turn you cast it. Obviously, you'll be tapped out on the next turn, but the tempo and card boost gained from both casting Hazoret's Undying Fury and flipping Primal Amulet should be able to catch you back up if you fall behind.
My only wish for the coming previews is a better win condition than The Locust God. Fall of the Titans was a beautiful find when I was building the Pyromancer's Goggles deck, acting as both a sweeper effect and win condition. And, if I'm being honest, that deck is likely miles better than what we're working with now. Without early threats like Thing in the Ice and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy that can take over the game, we're stuck relying on removal to buy us time until we can get our engines running. And, if our opponent is able to destroy that engine, our deck might not function very well at all.
The thing about Pyromancer's Goggles was that people weren't maindecking artifact removal. Instead, they were focused on beating decks like Collected Company, which gave us a bit of breathing room until their sideboard answers could come into play. And, if they were too focused on killing Pyromancer's Goggles, we could use Thing in the Ice as an alternate win condition.
Without a lot of burn spells that target the opponent to copy with Primal Spring, we're left relying on a fairly weak creature to do most of the heavy lifting. While Confiscation Coup could potentially steal games, I'm pretty worried that those win conditions might not be enough. Sure, we can draw a ton of cards and sweep the battlefield with impunity, but how are we going to actually win the game if our opponent is able to deal with The Locust God? I'd really like to see the rest of the set before I go all-in on this archetype, but my gut is telling me there's something here.
Much like Primal Amulet, this feels like a build-around-me spell that is probably too expensive. I do love the fact that it is an enchantment and not an artifact, which makes it much more difficult to destroy. My gut tells me that this card would be great in a ramp strategy, but it might take too much time to set up. Spending six mana to invest in a card like this without an immediate payoff is asking a lot.
Maybe I have a "thing" for do-nothing permanents that can ultimately take over the game, but that's just who I am. I'm embracing it, like Brad Nelson with his dopey green midrange creatures.
Spell Pierce is one heck of a Magic card, and one that I'm not so sure should be making a return to Standard. With the premier control deck relying on Glimmer of Genius as a primary means of functionality, Spell Pierce could give a number of decks a cheap way to obliterate the opponent. While Spell Pierce isn't all that great in a control deck, it tends to shine in archetypes like Merfolk, which just so happens to be making a comeback. But again, we don't have all the information just yet, so it is impossible to build a deck featuring Spell Pierce as a primary tool of protection, but suffice it to say that Spell Pierce was a key reason CawBlade was able to rule with impunity. Spell Pierce gave cheap protection for Splinter Twin.
But Spell Pierce in and of itself won't change the entire format without a deck that can utilize it. It will be a fine sideboard card for cheap-ish creature decks to help slow down ramp strategies or protect their threats from mass removal. Without something like Supreme Verdict in the format, I can imagine Spell Pierce being one of the best sideboard options in the format.
I can barely remember the last time we had a one-mana draw spell that was worth playing in Standard. My first thought is Quicken, which led to some pretty sweet blowouts with Supreme Verdict, but before that I can only think of Ponder and Preordain (both now banned in Modern).
This card will see some Modern play, but my gut tells me it will see a lot more Standard play in the coming months.
Your first turn, as a control player, will revolve around one of two things: casting Magma Spray or casting Opt. Opt will help you hit land drops, find a key piece of removal, or dig for your win condition later in the game. Opt saw a decent amount of Standard play the first time around ( Invasion, the first set I ever bought a booster box of!), but mostly because it was one of the only cantrips to play alongside Psychatog.
But Magic was a lot different back then, and I think we're living in a world where finding the key piece of removal is a much more important part of the game. With the threat diversity available to us at the moment, coupled with how punished you get for missing land drops, Opt is a no-brainer and something I'm very happy to see control decks get access to when Ixalan comes out.
As for why I'm not playing Opt in the Primal Amulet deck, I just wanted a higher density of blowout-style cards. I could be wrong on this, but I was trying to make Hazoret's Undying Fury as strong as possible.
Like Opt and Spell Pierce, this is another reprint that knocks it out of the park. I've been begging for Lightning Strike for years now, only to have to settle for weaker imitations. When I saw Open Fire from Hour of Devastation, I was baffled by how much Magic had changed. Was Lightning Strike really too good to print? Well, we got our answer to that question.
While the rotation affects some of the current Standard decks, I'm actually shocked by how little Ramunap Red cares about losing Falkenrath Gorger. You still have quite a few one-drop creatures in the deck, but I'm actually looking forward to seeing how deep Tom Ross goes on this Ramunap Red train. Here's the list he's playing against me on the VS Series next week. I won't go into detail, because he's probably writing about it this week, but you should check it out once it goes up.
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Ahn-Crop Crasher
- 4 Earthshaker Khenra
- 2 Rowdy Crew
- 4 Soul-Scar Mage
- 2 Hazoret the Fervent
- 3 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
I might be shooting myself in the foot here, but I'm confident that Rowdy Crew is a lot better than people are giving it credit for. For four mana, you get (at minimum) a 3/3 with trample that draws you a card. Sure, it gets a little weird with drawing and discarding at random, but an extra card is an extra card. And if you get lucky and hit two lands, two creatures, or two of whatever your deck is full of, then you get a much larger threat. While Rowdy Crew isn't an all-star threat and is fighting for space with both Hazoret the Fervent and Chandra, Torch of Defiance, I'd give it a try.
If you decide to build a deck around Rowdy Crew, I wouldn't blame you. The drawing and discarding effects seem to fit right up the alley of a U/R God-Pharaoh's Gift deck. Not only can you fill your graveyard with eternalize creatures, but you also don't mind discarding random cards most of the time (thanks to God-Pharaoh's Gift). In fact, if God-Pharaoh's Gift starts to pick up some steam in the first few weeks of the new Standard format, I'd guess most versions will play a few copies of Rowdy Crew, since you're not really looking to cast either Hazoret the Fervent or Chandra, Torch of Defiance.
Ramunap Red might not be the place for it, but it has a mythic symbol and a lot of text. I think it's certainly a mythic rare for a reason, and we're just going to have to find a home for it.
Sweet card, but probably too expensive to see real play. I expect this will make some noise in Commander, as lands are pretty annoying at times, and a clean battlefield wipe is always useful.
A+ for flavor, though.
At the very worst, Captain Lannery Storm is a 3/2 with haste for three mana. That is not a bad deal. At its best, Captain Lannery Storm generates enough mana to start casting five- and six-drops ahead of schedule, all while providing a decent amount of aggression. Generating an artifact is also not to be ignored, as losing Thraben Inspector in Mardu Vehicles is a big deal. You can also generate a Treasure token and cast Fatal Push immediately, killing a four-mana creature.
I'm not particularly happy with the design of this card, since it can't crew Heart of Kiran immediately and has a weak-ish body for attacking through a clogged battlefield, but I would be surprised if this card saw zero play.
Y'all know Glorybringer exists, right? This is a really cool card that's going to be overshadowed by superior threats, but will still be absolutely bonkers in Limited.
A card like this seems very tough to evaluate. While it isn't quite Sakura-Tribe Elder, having such a cheap creature generate an effective Lotus Petal is probably much better than it looks. While this set has a lot of cards that will generate Treasure tokens, few do it for so little mana. And while a 1/1 body might not be all that appealing, it could see some play for midrange decks trying to ramp out a big monster without playing green. A chump block is a chump block, after all.
I can't stress enough my initial disappointment with this card. But in the past it has been fairly common practice to dismiss weaker-looking planeswalkers at three mana, only to have them show up in full force as people realized just how good they are. Jace, Cunning Castaway might end up being significantly better than we all think, but it all depends on whether or not we have a good, aggressive blue deck to put it in. If there are enough Merfolk to pair with it, or just cheap blue creatures in general, I could see Jace, Cunning Castaway and Spell Pierce giving the deck some legs.
And I'm pretty upset that Siren Stormchaser isn't a Merfolk. Again, we're seeing the results of cannibalization between tribes and colors. Blue wants a cheap creature that can protect the more important threats, which would normally be perfect for Merfolk (think Cursecatcher). I suppose that, if there aren't any true Merfolk lords in the set, the creature types on the cheap blue threats might be irrelevant, but that also makes me sad that I can't just play a Merfolk deck.
I'm also of the impression that the ability to create creatures from such a cheap planeswalker is not to be overlooked. Control decks will have a tough time dealing with a resolved Jace, Cunning Castaway, and it will likely stick around long enough to provide you with two or three bodies. Aside from Hour of Devastation, there aren't a lot of ways for control decks to kill opposing planeswalkers. And if the deck is aggressive enough to leverage Spell Pierce, Hour of Devastation might not even be that big of an issue.
Check back next week after we have a better look at what's coming out of Ixalan. You can bet your bottom dollar that if a Delver of Secrets-type deck exists, I'm going to find it. It has been a long time since I've played Mono-Blue in a tournament, but nothing would tickle me more than curving out with a card that literally makes Illusion tokens.
The Power That Isn't Power
While the set doesn't look overly powerful, I'm actually happy moving away from that dynamic. I want games to be much harder to win. I don't want someone to cast a big rare and ride it all the way to victory. If you've read my articles in the past, you know that I'm a big fan of synergy and building decks around interactions as opposed to brute force. Maybe that's why I haven't been as successful as some of my colleagues. I can be a little stubborn, I know. Just look at the Primal Amulet deck. I know it's not good, but I really want it to be, and I'll probably spend more hours trying it out than is necessary.
But that's just me, and I don't mind a little bit of losing if I'm having fun.