Even with a little over half of Ixalan revealed, it's very challenging to build decks for the new format. How many cards not yet revealed will fundamentally shake things up? How many niche role-players are going to fill out mana curves and generally just do what a strategy needs? Besides, the rotation of four sets is far from trivial, and a lot of mental shortcuts, a lot of understandings need to be re-written.
Getting a "feel" for a format is about more than just finding the best build of the best deck and knowing how to sequence your plays, how to sideboard. For me, trying to build a deck around a certain card, a certain combo, a certain color combination, can all lead to curiosities and insights, questions and experiments.
What better place to start than a couple of the best blue cards in the format?
Torrential Gearhulk has long had an A+ rating as a card, though most of the time the card has been legal, it's been an uphill battle. Frequently, Torrential Gearhulk has been the best card in some decks that aren't always the best decks.
The Scarab God is an absolute beast. I think a fair number of people are still sleeping on the card, despite how much success it's enjoyed already. Once the rotation takes effect, I've got a feeling the number of people sleeping on the card is going to decline.
Last weekend, while Matt Severa was busy winning Grand Prix DC with Mardu Vehicles, Robin Dolar took down GP Turin with one of my favorite decks in a minute, his take on U/B Control:
Robin's list is basically what I was aspiring to find after my experiences with Grixis at GP Denver. Once it became clear that The Scarab God was enough better than Goblin Dark-Dwellers, Glorybringer, and Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh, and that The Scarab God and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet were enough to not necessarily need Abrade against God-Pharaoh's Gift, I was interested in moving towards more of a U/B Control list.
Robin's list went a step further, though. Not only did he strike an excellent balance in his permission, with choices like three maindeck Essence Scatters and even splits between Disallow/Supreme Will and The Scarab God/Torrential Gearhulk, he also maindecked Flaying Tendrils, which was just smart. Not only does Flaying Tendrils go a long way against Ramunap Red and Zombies, it also can be used against Scrapheap Scrounger or Gideon tokens. Hell, it can even combine with Grasp of Darkness to take down The Scarab God!
Of course, Grasp of Darkness is rotating out, along with a bunch of miscellaneous cards throughout the list. What might an updated version look like?
Walk the Plank is good, don't get me wrong, but it's not an instant, and double black mana is a little harder now.
I'm actually a pretty big fan of this card. We're paying a premium to run four-cost interaction, but we're also getting a lot in return. Just compare it to Hero's Downfall:
Hero's Downfall was an automatic four-of staple, and while we are paying an extra mana, we're also getting to exile the card and gain two life. What if the card is The Scarab God?! Besides, Hero's Downfall isn't legal. Hell, To the Slaughter isn't even legal. We've got Never // Return and Commit // Memory as competition in this space, and maybe Consign // Oblivion.
Four mana is a big ask in a deck already likely interested in Glimmer of Genius, but to help manage this, I want to try a split with Hieroglyphic Illumination. It's an interesting question how much discretionary mana we'll have lying around. For instance, is Opt an auto-include or more like Anticipate was, where it can sometimes just cost tempo we can't always afford?
I'm a buyer on Opt, but it would not totally blow my mind to start seeing decks with fewer than four Opts (and more than zero). With the option to cast Opt or cycle Censor or Hieroglyphic Illumination, we've got so many ways to spend a mana at instant speed, we'd be more inclined than usual to look at Counterspells that cost just a single blue mana. As fate would have it, Ixalan has brought us a very powerful reprint, Spell Pierce.
While less reliable than Negate, Spell Pierce is a little stronger of a card. It's far easier to make two good plays in a turn when you have the potential to thwart your opponent's entire turn for just a single mana. That you can keep a single blue open without suspicion only adds to the card's potential effectiveness.
There are a lot fewer options for planeswalker sideboard threats than before, but maybe the best choice isn't even a planeswalker. Treasure Map being so cheap is great for a world of Spell Pierces and Duresses. It can start giving you an advantage relatively quickly and further increases the likelihood you'll be able to spend your mana productively. Over time, it generates an even bigger advantage than Ancestral Visions (with Treasure Cove, as a land, giving you a fourth card).
While the lands produced by flipping the legendary enchantments are legendary, the artifacts all flip into regular lands, so there's no need to fear getting two. The real question is going to be how many people have Abrades and Dissenter's Deliverances against us, even if they were aiming for Torrential Gearhulk?
Hostage Taker looks excellent to me. Faceless Butcher variants continue to see play today, though typically more along the lines of a 1/3 for 2W. Hostage Taker has the added upside of being able to interact with artifacts (something U/B is desperately in need of), but even more importantly, you can actually steal the targeted card.
Yeah, you have to cast it, but that also means you get the benefit of any enters-the-battlefield abilities. Besides, if the Hostage Taker had just drawn you a card, you would have had to cast that card to use it anyway. Here, not only do you get an extra card with selection (you chose the target), you're also insuring your opponent can never get the stolen card back.
What if it's The Scarab God!?
Hostage Taker seems very promising to me, and we're not even taking advantage of its "Pirate" lifestyle.
Lookout's Dispersal looks to be a very promising payoff for even a small step into Pirates. After all, Spell Shrivel has seen plenty of play. Having to pay "full price" isn't actually all that much.
Supreme Will is actually a little stronger of a card than Spell Shrivel, but regardless, once we're paying just 1U for Lookout's Dispersal, we're way ahead of the game. It's another potential avenue for setting up two good plays in a turn. Finding more ways to let Pirates capitalize on the tempo of plays like this, Fatal Push, Spell Pierce, and Siren Stormtamer is very interesting. Hell, all the Pirates in the list above support the aggro-control plan, and we might want to go even further, looking at cards like Unsummon.
I wonder how many Pirates you actually need to be interested in Lookout's Dispersal? Even if we had to pay full retail half the time, would that necessarily be bad?
This isn't how I would usually build a U/R Pirates deck, but it isn't trying to be that. It's much more of a Favorable Winds deck.
Favorable Winds is particularly interesting with Whirler Virtuoso and Pia Nalaar, and any Thopter-making cards, really. I could really imagine a Maverick Thopterist deck being potentially interested in the card.
Siren Stormtamer is an easy one, but Skyship Plunderer is quietly a cheap, flying Pirate that takes on new meaning with Ixalan. This list doesn't really make that great use of the "proliferate" ability, but it does have energy counters. If we got another one-drop flying Pirate (or perhaps just used Hope of Ghirapur), we might be interested in Storm Fleet Aerialist as an additional two-drop.
I think Storm Fleet Aerialist is just too bad when you miss to run in a deck with just four one-drop enablers; however, eight might make a huge difference. Then the +1/+1 counters might be a pretty fun thing to stack turn after turn, thanks to the Plunderer.
I haven't included any here, but Jace, Cunning Castaway and Chandra, Torch of Defiance might be of interest for cards to stack extra counters on. Instead, I wanted to try Dreamcaller Siren and see if it might bring together the Favorable Winds aspect and the Pirate aspect.
Dreamcaller Siren is clearly a very tempo-oriented card, but it's going to have its work cut out for it. Between Hostage Taker and Rowdy Crew, Pirate decks have some really excellent four-cost options, and that's to say nothing of scurvy ones like Admiral Beckett Brass.
We looked at Pirates a fair bit last week, so I'd like to pivot to more traditional blue decks. What about U/R?
While most of the cards are the same, and we did gain Opt and Spell Pierce, I'm just not as excited about this direction as looking at lists that get to take advantage of The Scarab God. I can't rule it out; I just haven't seen anything to indicate that this is the right way, especially with the loss of Wandering Fumarole. Maybe the incredible losses suffered by Ramunap Red bode well for U/R?
You know what strategy might make better use of Opt?
While the maindeck cards have been discussed above, there's a very notable sideboard card meriting discussion.
Deeproot Champion is the second coming of Quirion Dryad, of Miracle Grow fame. While this one doesn't grow from Torrential Gearhulk (or any other creatures), it does grow from Attune with Aether and Dynavolt Tower. On the whole, I think it's generally a more powerful card than Quirion Dryad (especially in Vintage, where the card works particularly well with Moxen and the restriction of Monastery Mentor has opened up a lot of breathing room for other creatures).
Once opponents have sideboarded out some amount of their removal, we can sideboard in Deeproot Champion and go to town. A turn 2 Champion might just take over a game, and a turn 4 Champion is easy to protect, easy to grow.
I think Deeproot Champion is going to be a maindeck consideration for some decks, but at the moment, the most reliable usage I see with it is as a more exciting transformational plan than Longtusk Cub. One of the main advantages these control decks enjoy is the ability to strand opponents with dead cards in Game 1. However, once opponents get a chance to sideboard out the wrong answers, it's important to have some flexibility in how to play the next game or two.
Speaking of control decks blanking our opponent's removal, Approach of the Second Sun goes even further, typically relegating its Torrential Gearhulks to the sideboard. While Blessed Alliance and Stasis Snare are rotating out, the deck is largely still intact. Here's a stab at an updated list:
The big X-factor here is Search for Azcanta.
I realize this is kind of a weird card, so it's hard to have much confidence in, but it looks very promising to me. For starters, how good is getting to scry 1 each turn? As anyone who ever rode a Thassa for any extended period can tell you, it's pretty good. Getting it for just two mana is very interesting, and in this world of Abrades and Dissenter's Deliverances, an enchantment-based card selection engine is especially interesting.
Of course, Search for Azcanta isn't just scrying, it's actually filling your graveyard. This list doesn't really take advantage of that, but I could imagine some that do. Even still, that's not the end of the story. We're already interested in digging to Approach of the Second Sun after casting the first, but Search for Azcanta is likely to flip at that point...
...which is much better.
Once we've got Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, we can dig to Approach of the Second Sun turbo-speed. If we haven't found an Approach yet, we can quickly rip through deck and find it. What's more, if we play Search for Azcanta on turn 2, we've got great chances of flipping it by turn 6. Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is actually a land that taps for mana, so it also serves as an accelerator, letting us play Approach a turn ahead of schedule.
How much should it being legendary stop us from playing more?
I really don't know. It is interesting that the flip is optional and the legend rule applies to both halves separately. As such, we could flip our first one, drop a second Search for Azcanta, and keep both. Still, I want to be careful not to play too many slow cards, too many cards not impacting the battlefield. We're already short on cheap interaction anyway.
These are interesting times for blue mages. The Scarab God and Torrential Gearhulk are extremely powerful, and there's a surprising amount of quality permission. There's a reasonable amount of selection as well, though none of it really busted, as has so frequently been the case. We're really short on early interaction, but that's often true. What hurts more is how much less early interaction other colors have now.
There is growing evidence to suggest that we're going to want to be more proactive, and Temur Energy, The Scarab God, and Approach of the Second Sun are the directions calling loudest to me. That said, depending on what other Ixalan cards are revealed, and if there is some way to pioneer a new manabase with Treasure, Spire of Industry, Aether Hub, and Unclaimed Territory, I see a lot of potential with some of the Pirate cards.
It's just kind of hard to figure out how to put them all together at first blush.
After all, they are kind of a motley crew...