We've gone from the best time of the year with family and friends to the best time of the year for Magic! It's time for preview season, and what a wild week it's been already. While I went into depth a few weeks ago with my disdain for the current shape of Standard, Rivals of Ixalan seems to have more than a few goodies that might dethrone Energy and the stranglehold it's had on the format for nearly a year now.
We're finally seeing more of the tribal synergies that Ixalan teased us with get some tools to actually compete at more than just the kitchen table. As it goes with most tribal-based sets, their impact isn't really felt until all the cards in the block have been released since their synergies require a critical mass of "X or Y matters" cards to fully function.
These two cards gave me hope when I first saw Ixalan that there could eventually be a hyper-aggressive Merfolk deck in Standard. That didn't pan out very well for all the Fish fanatics out there with just Ixalan, but Rivals of Ixalan certainly hasn't disappointed.
Holy hell! What is this, Lorwyn block? We haven't seen this many potentially playable tribal cards all in one set in quite some while. It took Zombies multiple blocks to put all the pieces together for them, but it seems we're being served Fish for dinner tonight! It's chow time, and after the meal has been devoured and my stomach has time to settle, what would we be left with?
While a deck with only creatures might have a slight issue dealing with some of the more aggressive decks in the format like Ramunap Red, the idea is that having a critical mass of Merfolk might just be good enough with some of the ones we've seen so far.
One card I really like is Deeproot Elite, as it's just a better Metallic Mimic in this type of deck, since it can function exactly how Metallic Mimic does but has the versatility of moving those counters around to where they're best-suited.
Of all the tribes, Merfolk seems to have been given the biggest shot to the arm as far as power level goes, since it was previously nonexistent. With this just being the initial batch of cards we've seen, I'm sure that by this time next week we'll have nearly a full picture of just how deep the Merfolk water goes.
Another tribe that felt like it was almost there but ultimately fell slightly short of seeing the light of day was Pirates.
While there were certainly enough pieces for you to play a deck based around Pirates, the quality wasn't entirely there and the synergy payoffs didn't get you as far as simply playing more powerful cards. These cards from Rivals of Ixalan might just tip the scales in the right direction of the scurvy sea devils!
While I'm not the biggest fan of trying to make the Pirate tribe into a three-color deck for consistency's sake, if we were able to just play all the best Pirates and ignore the color restrictions, what would we be looking at?
Of course we can't run 23 Unclaimed Territory, and even if we could, would we want to play a deck like this entirely filled with creatures? What about Lookout's Dispersal? What about any random removal spell to deal with Hazoret the Fervent? While Pirates seem to have more in the way of spell-like abilities strapped on them, such as with Hostage Taker, few decks can truly get away with going that light on interaction because of how amazing the threats are in Standard at the moment.
A few cards I mentioned before that I'd like to highlight give me real hope for the archetype, starting with Dire Fleet Poisoner. This card does it all! They have one large creature preventing you from wanting to chump attack in for damage? Flash in this Pirate! They're beating you down with a Bristling Hydra or Longtusk Cub? Flash in the Poisoner and block! Deathtouch is a highly sought-after ability these days, since dealing with problematic attackers seldom has been more difficult, but having a flexible creature that can play both offense and defense and gives the deck a bit more play at instant speed is exactly what the doctor ordered for Pirates.
The other big win for Pirates is Warkite Marauder. An early evasive threat that can help push through damage against bigger minions is a perfect two-drop. While it doesn't match up all too well against Whirler Virtuoso in a vacuum, the card is proactive enough that I'd expect it to be an auto-include in any Pirate deck.
So we can't play 23 Unclaimed Territory and we should probably fit some spells into the mix. What would Pirates look like, then?
I'm still not completely sold on Fell Flagship, but I do believe it's a powerful enough card that we should be giving it some attention, since having an Anthem that's also doubling as a resilient threat is no joke. Outside of Silvergill Adept, the best two-drops from Rivals of Ixalan are going straight into the aggro Pirate shell.
I do like the idea of casting Ruin Raider, but I see it as more of a sideboard card with how aggressive the red decks are and how it can be difficult at times to attack into a Temur deck and not just kill yourself with its ability. I do recognize that typically life for cards is an exchange we'd want to make eight days of the week, but for three mana in this metagame, that might be asking a bit much.
The question of whether or nor Pirates is up to the challenge or not hinges on whether what they're doing isn't just worse than casting The Scarab God, which I suppose Pirates could just play as a curve-topper themselves! I have high hopes, and with the addition of just a single additional one-drop creature they want to be casting, both Pirates and Merfolk could be making waves on more than just the seven seas of Ixalan.
The last tribe I want to touch on today is the one I felt was just shy of leaving its footprint on the Standard format.
These two are certainly powerful cards with a great stat-line-to-cost ratio. Dinosaurs have been a beloved idea since we were first told Magic was visiting a plane filled with them. However, despite my best efforts and a ton of Magic Online event tickets, I couldn't for the life of me get the deck to function. The biggest stumbling blocks the Dinosaur strategy are Longtusk Cub and Settle the Wreckage.
What you're looking to do in any Dinosaur deck is to have the biggest creature on the battlefield and leverage the size of that creature to win fights and deal lots of damage very quickly. Longtusk Cub, unfortunately, is just bigger than the Dinosaurs by itself, and it only costs two mana! When I found my Carnage Tyrant being held in check by my opponent's Turn 2 creatures, I lost all faith. When I tried fighting the nightmare of a card that is Settle the Wreckage with the idea of splashing for blue mana to incorporate some Negates into the deck, I found myself with simply a worse version of Temur Energy at almost every point along the curve.
So what has Dinosaurs gained to make me want to take a second look?
Ghalta, Primal Hunger is a huge addition to the deck beyond what it might seem at face value.
Remember a moment ago, when I was saying that Temur was simply outsizing the Dinosaur deck? I'd imagine this card is pretty hard to Harnessed Lightning or Confiscation Coup for almost any deck, regardless of how much energy they make. The big thing to note here is Ghalta is castable on Turn 4 pretty easily. The curve of Drover of the Mighty into Ripjaw Raptor means that, with an untapped fourth land, you have a 12/12 trampler on the fourth turn of the game!
While that might not be all too impressive, imagine casting this with the help of Otepec Huntmaster or the cost reduction that Regisaur Alpha can give, and now you have a 12/12 trample with haste coming down, smashing your opponent's face in when they thought they were safe behind Whirler Virtuoso and friends! Take that, Energy!
In all seriousness, I do expect this towering T-Rex to find a home in many places but have increased applications alongside its fellow prehistoric predators. There are a few more interesting Dinosaurs that could be paired with more of an Enrage theme, but the best enablers haven't yet shown themselves, so I'm not too big on that idea outside of Ripjaw Raptor and Savage Stomp.
- 2 Burning Sun's Avatar
- 4 Deathgorge Scavenger
- 4 Drover of the Mighty
- 3 Otepec Huntmaster
- 4 Regisaur Alpha
- 4 Ripjaw Raptor
- 3 Ghalta, Primal Hunger
Like I said, I didn't think that Dinosaurs needed all too much more to be competitive, and I'm really happy with how Ghalta slots into the deck, allowing for it to have more powerful openings and late-game burst damage.
Blue is still relegated to the sideboard to help with people trying to cast Fumigate and Settle the Wreckage, and to make all this possible, we have to have a slight energy theme utilizing Attune with Aether and Harnessed Lightning, since Wizards of the Coast is unlikely to give us anything better anytime soon as far as removal goes. Commune with Dinosaurs doubles as threat and mana, letting this deck have a high density of both and reducing the amount of variance it might run into otherwise.
A notable card excluded from this deck is Thunderherd Migration. While I do recognize the power that getting to cast a Rampant Growth can bring to the deck, Ghalta wants more creatures on the battlefield so that they double as cost reduction as well as accelerants.
Just compare Thunderherd Migration to Drover of the Mighty when you have a Dinosaur on the battlefield. One of them gives you a single land toward Ghalta, Primal Hunger. The other gives you a three-mana discount to the card as well as the ability to tap for mana. Otepec Huntmaster gives a reduction of two mana as well as haste, and it cannot be overstated how powerful that can be. While I do think that Thunderherd Migration is a very powerful card, I imagine seeing it in decks looking to cast Wakening Sun's Avatar rather than Ghalta, Primal Hunger.
Yes, there is the potential for other cards outside of the tribal synergies that are likely to have a major impact! Some of the more exciting ones to me are…
Wait…what?! Sure, the front side is a weird form of looting, and while that's not all too exciting, the back side of this card sure as hell his! "Add X mana of any one color to your mana pool, where X is your life total" is a line of text I don't think we've ever seen, and it's both exciting and terrifying. My head immediately looks to a card like Cut // Ribbons being able to aftermath Ribbons and just one-shot a player. Sure, the cost of having to exile five cards with different mana costs means you do have to exile spells to flip this, but I think the payoff is well worth it in the right deck!
Holy Sphinx on a Sphinx! This is a control player's dream come true. Even without its enters-the-battlefield ability, I could see people experimenting with this as a finisher. If you catch your opponents tapped out, that they can't kill this until you have mana up for a counterspell is sort of unreal. Further, it can't be hit with Confiscation Coup or anything of the like.
The only real danger I see you running into with this card is Vraska, Relic Seeker coming down, but even so, the payoff is real and the body on this particular Sphinx is something to watch out for.
So we're being given a less conditional Flametongue Kavu on a weaker body? Scratch what I said about Azor, the Lawbringer; this Chupacabra is what's more likely to happen against anyone sporting black mana. Seriously, though, who would have expected us to be given a better Flametongue Kavu?
Rivals of Ixalan certainly has me on my toes, and only when the full set is out and we all have time to play with the cards will we see if it can break the stranglehold that Energy currently has on the Standard metagame. From what I've seen, I have high hopes for that happening, so please don't let me down, Rivals of Ixalan!
I'll see you all in Columbus this weekend for some Modern action, but you'd best bet I'll have my eyes and ears tuned to the preview pages!