We're a little further along in the Ixalan preview season, but still not quite deep enough to see the synergies in the set fully fleshed out. We may not even get to that point until the second set in the block, Rivals of Ixalan, is released in a few months. Synergy-heavy decks are houses of cards in that they need every piece to be present in order to be good enough, and a single missing piece can cause the entire deck to collapse.
We had plenty of pieces for Zombies to be a deck, but it took until Amonkhet for everything to come together with the addition of Liliana's Mastery.
By next week we'll have the entire set revealed and can begin to look at decks that push the new synergies and tribes with all the available pieces, but for now I want to talk about a recent phenomenon in how cards are designed and how it can aid our evaluations of any new cards.
Have you noticed how in recent years we seem to get a wave of powerful cards at the same mana cost, making it impossible to play all of them? For the next two weeks, we have a Standard format with Archangel Avacyn, Angel of Invention, and Angel of Sanctions, all powerful five-drops that have fought for play in various decks. On top of these we have Skysovereign, Consul Flagship as a viable option.
Moreover, Ramunap Red decks have had to decide exactly which one-drops they want to play, with Falkenrath Gorger, Bomat Courier, Soul-Scar Mage, and Village Messenger all seeing play in various lists. B/G Aggro decks had plenty of options for two- and three-drops that would change back and forth over the course of the season.
Of course, we most often think of these decisions in the context of removal spells, such as deciding between Shock and Magma Spray or Harnessed Lightning and Abrade, Blessed Alliance versus Immolating Glare versus Declaration in Stone, or Murder and Ruinous Path.
Deciding between options like these makes deckbuilding a lot more difficult, but it also increases the edge one can gain over the field by making the correct decision. These decisions are the core of deck tuning in Magic today, and recognizing what factors will go into deciding between cards that sit on top of each other will serve to give us a framework in which to choose the right cards for any given week.
To that end, I want to go over some of the cards in Ixalan that will be battling for our attention and space in our decks with established cards from the remaining sets in Standard, and what the key factors will be in deciding between them.
Of the cards I've seen thus far, Regisaur Alpha is the one that stands out the most as obviously powerful enough to see significant Constructed play. Even ignoring all tribal synergy considerations, getting a 4/4 and a 3/3 with haste for five mana is a great rate and fits the mold of the aggressively slanted midrange decks that are a hallmark of Standard these days.
Unfortunately, being in the Gruul colors means that the card is competing with two of the premier threats from the other two blocks: Glorybringer and Verdurous Gearhulk. These are all incredibly efficient threats that provide immediate value, so what will ultimately separate them?
The first thing that stands out to me is that while they all provide immediate value, only Glorybringer's value can be halted with an instant-speed removal spell. Should they have a Harnessed Lightning or Vraska's Contempt, your five-drop leaves nothing behind, whereas the others provide their value upon entering the battlefield. Keep a keen eye on the removal being played to see whether you need your value as quickly as possible.
However, if the removal in the metagame is sweeper-heavy, Glorybringer is going to be the better option. Both Regisaur Alpha and Verdurous Gearhulk build a significant battlefield, but all that work is undone by a well-timed Fumigate or Hour of Devastation. Glorybringer can at least get four damage in before leaving the battlefield, which in a red deck is typically significant.
All three creatures are good at attacking planeswalkers by providing power that can attack immediately, but the evasion on Glorybringer and its ability to remove a blocker gives it the edge there. The evasion of Glorybringer also helps it out if the format is dominated by good ground blockers.
On the whole, this battle is a bit more straightforward. Energy-heavy decks are going to want to run Bristling Hydra, whereas non-energy decks will play the new Dinosaur. But things do get murky when you consider B/G Constrictor decks. These decks can use energy cards, but they aren't nearly as energy-intensive as Temur. They also have Walking Ballista, which is the best enrage enabler in Standard and can turn into a great draw engine with Ripjaw Raptor.
With Nissa, Voice of Zendikar and Catacomb Sifter leaving the format, B/G decks are going to have to rely on more energy cards, but unless you're going far enough to want Longtusk Cub and Greenbelt Rampager, then Ripjaw Raptor looks to be better.
Moreover, the presence of red removal changes the calculus here. All of Harnessed Lightning, Abrade, and Lightning Strike can potentially kill a Bristling Hydra with its trigger on the stack, whereas Ripjaw Raptor not only survives most of these, it punishes them with enrage. You have to judge how consistently you'll be able to cast Bristling Hydra with three energy already available to avoid these situations, and either increase your number of energy sources or lean toward the Raptor.
But while Ripjaw Raptor is better against red removal, it's vulnerable to the Falter effects common in Ramunap Red, which is sure to be popular in the early weeks of the format. Ahn-Crop Crasher and eternalized Earthshaker Khenras can both make Ripjaw Raptor irrelevant, whereas they will almost never be able to target Bristling Hydra. If you want to go with the Raptor, you need to ensure you're not overly vulnerable to these cards so long as they are prevalent in the metagame.
Captain Lannery Storm / Rampaging Ferocidon / Pia Nalaar / Ahn-Crop Crasher
Holy three-drops, Batman!
These cards are all aggressively costed and could all see play if the right shell is around them. Ahn-Crop Crasher is likely the best among them in a vacuum, since being able to curve into it and simultaneously blank a blocker and advance your battlefield is incredibly strong, but it's close enough that the others will all sneak their way into decks.
Pia Nalaar and Captain Lannery Storm both provide necessary artifacts to fuel cards like Inventor's Apprentice and Unlicensed Disintegration. Playing them over Ahn-Crop Crasher in order to gain those upgrades in other places is quite reasonable, especially if the format has a lot of Shocks and Magma Sprays that can answer the 3/2 body for value. Of course, Lannery is also vulnerable to the one-mana red removal, but Pia Nalaar leaves behind a valuable flying body.
And then we have Rampaging Ferocidon. Outside of tribal synergies, the Dinosaur has a lot of things going for it. The three toughness makes it harder to kill and its abilities are all quite relevant. The damage its triggered ability deals can be very important in a racing scenario, but more importantly, it's excellent against one of the premier cards against Ramunap Red: Whirler Virtuoso.
If Rampaging Ferocidon can tip the scales in the Temur matchup for Ramunap Red, that would ripple through the rest of the metagame, becoming the dominant force in the early weeks of the format. Lifegain would be a reasonable angle to turn to, especially with Crested Sunmare poised to break out from under the shadow of Archangel Avacyn.
Ultimately, this fight looks to be a tag-team affair, with the artifact-centered Humans squaring off against the Minotaur and Dinosaur. Man versus animal, as it was in nature.
After going over some threat battles, let's look at some of the overlapping removal spells. Of the three, Harnessed Lightning is the easiest to place, since it's going to be the obvious choice for decks with reasonable amounts of energy and a clear third in those that don't, so the more interesting decision is between Lightning Strike and Abrade.
We've already had a similar choice between Abrade and Incendiary Flow, and while Lightning Strike is an upgrade on the latter, it certainly doesn't supplant the former entirely. Kaladesh block is going to comprise a large portion of the Standard format ,which means plenty of artifacts to go around. Can Oketra's Monument and God-Pharaoh's Gift survive rotation? How many Skysovereign, Consul Flagships are going to be around with all the other quality five-drops to choose from? How powerful are the transform artifacts from Ixalan?
All of these questions will be important to answer when deciding on your removal splits in your red decks, although more generally, Lightning Strike is going to be more favorable in aggressive lists that can use the reach, while Abrade's versatility makes it better in reactive decks. The exception is in dealing with planeswalkers, where the direct damage can be quite relevant.
Getting this choice right each week is going to be important for red mages for the next three months, so be sure not to blindly choose Lightning Strike due to the hype surrounding its return. Abrade is a quality card and shouldn't be dismissed so easily.
Ixalan's Binding / Cast Out
With Stasis Snare rotating, one of these more expensive, more versatile removal spells should fill the void for white decks, but which one?
This choice is between high-variance and low-variance. Ixalan's Bidding is the weaker card, being sorcery-speed, but it can potentially gain virtual card advantage, becoming a two- or three-for-one if your opponent draws redundant copies of what you've removed. In more aggressive decks that will be casting removal spells on their turn quite often, that potential is significant, as it could lead to a wasted turn from your opponent.
But in addition to being an instant, Cast Out's cycling is a big deal. Four mana is a lot for a removal spell, and having them stuck in your hand in the early-game can leave you too far behind. Cycling gives your deck an added bit of consistency that, while small, is still important. On the whole, I have to give the advantage to Cast Out, although if you're only playing a small number of copies in a more proactive deck, then the potential upside of Ixalan's Binding could win out.
The takeaway here is a concept I've stressed quite often in my writing: the importance of context. Cards are only good or bad when viewed from the perspective of the cards around them. Wizards of the Coast does a very good job of designing cards that are roughly equal in raw power, but with strengths and weaknesses that swing the balance toward or against them should that context change.
It can be frustrating to be forced to choose between several good options, but those decisions are opportunities get ahead of the competition, and thus should be taken seriously. As such, we shouldn't be asking whether a new card is better than a similar card from a previous set, because that question doesn't have a definite answer. Rather, we should ask when each card is better than the other, that is to say, under what conditions is one best, and vice versa.
If you take the time to answer these questions now, then you can plug and play each week as you focus your time toward predicting the metagame for that weekend…and always remain one step ahead of the competition.