Ixalan is officially fully previewed and that means it's brew o'clock in the Woods household (err, single bedroom-apartment-hold). As a deck builder, a new set is always exciting, but can be a little daunting as well. While there are always a ton of new strategies to examine and brew around, there is also some tension in wanting to avoid barking up the wrong tree.
By that, I mean that you always want to feel like your time spent brewing is profitable one way or another. I want to be careful how I present this, but you can imagine how it might feel pretty bad to spend your free time working on a sweet new Zombies deck, only for a similar list to win the Pro Tour and be everywhere as a result. The time you spent might feel a little wasted, as a tuned list of the deck is now public and thousands of other people are going to start continue tuning it further, looking for the same things you were. The progress you made on the deck cannot match that of all those tuners for long, as they quickly catch up and take the lead on you.
Of course, you could still find some undiscovered tech or a new build that is better than the mainstream Zombies deck and in any case you probably learned plenty to help you. However, if you had spent all of that brew time focused on something less undead in nature, perhaps you might have discovered the next big thing. Was that purely bad luck? Could you have predicted where everyone else was going to aim their efforts and then aimed somewhere else? Is there even a good reason to do this besides sparing one's ego?
"Unique" doesn't automatically mean good or powerful, but it is something that you as a deck builder can now leverage as new data. As an analogy, consider that the Zombies data you collected was essentially all about to be published in a peer-reviewed journal in the midst of you researching the topic. Now, your research on Zombies is not null altogether; you did learn some things along the way.
The issue is that you could have absorbed that information in a much swifter and more digestible way had you simply waited for the journal to come out. Assuming you trust the work of that journal, it acts as a sort of proxy shortcut for your learning. Therefore, if you had been researching a different topic and then simply read the journal to catch up on Zombies, your total knowledge would be larger simply from having researched effectively two different topics.
It isn't the end of the world if you happen to work on a deck that others are working on, of course. As mentioned before, you could still be the person who understands the deck best and comes up with technology for it that is better than anything else. But the likelihood of that goes way up when focusing on a list with way fewer eyes on it.
Where to Begin?
Some cards in basically every set have a very obviously powerful output, yet seem like a lot of work to make happen. Maybe they are absurdly expensive, or maybe the hoops one must jump through just seem too tricky so that even if you find something passable, doing so took a much longer amount of time. This is basically how I felt about Indomitable Creativity.
The card can just win games out of nowhere and has some cool versatility to it, but constructing a deck with no artifacts or creatures doesn't seem like an easy task to make work in a competitive environment like Standard. Therefore, it is pretty unlikely that too many people will be getting their hands dirty with the card and would rather spend their time on safer projects that require less overall investment.
Of course, Indomitable Creativity could have been a total dead end, and if I ever I felt like it was, it's on me to recognize it and move on. Until that point, however, any progress on an Indomitable Creativity shell could be absolutely huge, as I am effectively removing the fog of war from a part of the map that no one else is even remotely close to. Assuming I digest the information that my fellow players and deck builders are making public, I can then combine my own unique information to that community knowledge for an even clearer picture of the metagame and of Standard.
While Indomitable Creativity isn't in Ixalan, a similar formula can be found on some cards that are. For example, Grim Captain's Call is a card that most players will brush aside as Limited fodder, or maybe as too much work, but I see a draw-four. Now, I'll admit to being more in Magical Christmas Land than I probably should here, but without that optimism, this isn't a card I would investigate further. If I looked at this as a double Raise Dead, I really couldn't justify trying to build around it.
Drawing three or four creatures gets me excited, though, There is an obligation here to run four different creature types for that to happen. Are there enough strong options across those creature types and in few enough colors to be somewhat consistent? Let's take a look.
- 4 Deathgorge Scavenger
- 4 Gifted Aetherborn
- 4 Hostage Taker
- 4 Kumena's Speaker
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Ripjaw Raptor
- 4 Ruin Raider
- 4 Vicious Conquistador
- 1 Yahenni, Undying Partisan
I have stripped this down to its bare essential elements of Pirates, Merfolk, Vampires, Dinosaurs, and the namesake card itself. Through iteration, we can look to add removal or swap things around as need be, but this list looks like a reasonable starting point. The deck plays out as a sort of "good stuff" aggro deck with aggressive creatures and useful abilities along the curve.
We kick things off with a potential eight one-drops that attack for two. That curves into two-drops that are reasonably sized and bring big benefits alongside those bodies as well. At three, we have more card advantage, lifegain, and utility. This sounds like a midrange set of abilities, but everything is stapled to aggressive creatures as well, so we keep pressure on the opponent's life total. At four, the top of our curve, we have more card advantage and some prime removal in Hostage Taker, which will generally take the best defensive option away from the opponent and allow you to get in another attack step.
All of these abilities triggering upon entering the battlefield or attacking help make the value from Grim Captain's Call even greater. The amount of attrition you possess while constantly putting the opponent on the back foot allows your creatures to almost feel like burn spells or removal spells. Grim Captain's Call also allows you to recover from the many sweepers in the format without batting an eye.
Worth noting is the synergy that Merfolk Brankchwalker has with the list. Being able to mill creatures for Grim Captain's Call later on is nice, pumping up Kumena's Speaker on-curve is nice, and drawing lands is never a bad thing. It is entirely possible that Wanted Scoundrels should make this list purely on rate alone, but I have concerns of its drawback being even worse than it might first seem, especially when capitalized on multiple times.
A Moral Obligation
Sometimes powerful cards get overlooked because they appear to function too closely to a powerful card that already exists and therefore don't compete. Usually, people will identify these cards but then acknowledge the competition and move on. For example, in Ixalan there is a powerful new enchantment called Axis of Mortality.
Most players would admit to this card being powerful, but it needs help and a shell that facilitates it. Once you are playing some slow prison deck, possibly with lifegain, a card like Approach of the Second Sun starts to eclipse Axis of Mortality. Approach requires much less out of you and likely wins the game under similar conditions as Axis.
In a spot like this, you can either save your time and move on to another card, or you can ask yourself how to make Axis feel different from Approach of the Second Sun.
What aspects of the card are unique that can be capitalized on? Again, even if these ideas don't ultimately work out, we are at least probing areas of the game that have yet to be explored and gaining personal knowledge.
For me, Axis of Mortality enables a more aggressive deck than Approach. You can simultaneously be gaining life and attacking the enemy life total, or simply be resigned to one of these two things, and Axis can work in your favor.
Defensive: Axis allows you to use your opponent's life total as a sort of shield when on the defensive. If you are doing your best to gain some life and stay alive, you can eventually drop Axis of Mortality, swap life totals with the opponent, and now halt their attacks. Unless they can outright kill you, they run the risk of simply attacking themselves as you swap back the next turn. This can slow a game down and provide you time to find other means of recovery.
Offensive: Axis of Mortality allows you to use your opponent's life total to pay for your own costs. This is nice when you have some threats that can pressure the enemy life total because now Axis threatens to effectively be a burn spell to aid in that effort. If I have some Desert painlands on the battlefield, for example, I can steal the opponent's life, deal a few damage to myself, and then swap right back. This is obviously a tame use of the enchantment, but any way to pay life is better than nothing.
Let's put up an example list to see these concepts in full.
Here we have tried to blend a proactive set of creatures with some cool late-game synergies to hopefully arrive at something in a brand new space. Adanto Vanguard is the real hero of this strategy, as it manages to be a pretty good defensive creature thanks to the threat of indestructibility, but it is at its best attacking enemy planeswalkers or the enemy life total. Later on, it allows you to turn Axis of Mortality into a lethal Fireball as you drain away all of their life and then switch back the next turn for an easy win. Gideon actually combos with this plan perfectly, as you can give yourself an emblem, put your life total at a multiple of four with Deserts or other effects, and then drain yourself down to zero life before switching back for the instant win.
If the pieces for any sort of combo are not coming together though, this deck still attacks the enemy life total with some aggressive creatures and proactive removal to get them through. The idea is certainly not a perfect transition between the strategies, but it seems like an area worth further exploration.
So far, we have taken a look at a few powerful effects that have some steep deckbuilding costs. That is not the only place to find cool ideas or brews to focus on, though. Whenever a new set comes out, new cards and synergies get added to existing packages, and that can change the value of all cards involved. A simple card and package to look at as an example here is Ramunap Excavator.
Previously, I played Excavator in lists with The Gitrog Monster for the obvious synergy there, but with Gitrog gone, I wanted to look through Ixalan for new synergies. The most important card as far as Ramunap Excavator is concerned is probably Field of Ruin. While Field is not a Wasteland by any means, it seems like a perfectly serviceable card when you are playing it from the graveyard every turn, or maybe multiple times a turn. Most decks in Standard are going to run some number of basic lands, but just how many will most run? Eight? Six? Four? The point is that, as you Field of Ruin them, they go down and down on the number of available basic lands to the point where they eventually run out. It is at this point that your Field of Ruins are effectively Wastelands, and you can continue to pay the costs thanks to good old Excavator.
This newly gained interaction got me to see just what other cards in Standard make sense with a land based strategy. It didn't take long before I stumbled across Ghirapur Orrery, a card I have wanted to mess with for a very long time. The effect looks powerful and like we could break the symmetry of it, and I think Field of Ruin plus Excavator allows us to do just that. In fact, with Ramunap Ruins in the format as well as Shefet Oasis, we could potentially come up with list that just looks to win through making land drops while taking away the opponent's as the game drags on.
When looking at synergy-heavy lists like this, it is important to pay attention to the conditions present when the deck is successful. Amplifying those moments through redundancy, tutors, or ensuring that the game goes on long enough to observe them will ultimately make your deck more consistent and more cohesive. It is entirely possible that some section of the above list just doesn't quite work out how we want it to. Cutting that component while capitalizing on the successful components is how we can evolve the list and explore novel space.
It is always important to be honest with ourselves as deckbuilders and to know when to walk away. It is just as important to recognize when an idea has some component of it that is working well so that said idea can be conserved, even if that means doing so in a different list altogether. We are looking to expand our knowledge of the metagame and of the format by even looking at this lists, so don't lose sight of that.
Revisiting Past Work
As discussed earlier, one of the big benefits of novel exploration like this is that you have access to that information going forward. I originally did work on Indomitable Creativity in a format that had Aetherworks Marvel and some clear goals in mind for its position in the metagame. After Marvel was banned and Ramunap Red took over, the midrange Creativity idea just didn't seem as good anymore. Hour of Promise provided a similar swingy effect but was much easier to set up and much safer in doing so. With Ixalan, though, we have brand new fatties to cheat onto the battlefiled and brand-new enablers for them, so there is some value in looking over the archetype once more.
Rather than starting from zero, though, we get to piggyback off of our work from before. In this case, the rotation has done quite a bit of damage to the core structure of where we left Indomitable Creativity. Green lost most of its ability to produce tokens and therefore a new color needs to assist. In this case, white makes the most sense, with a couple of solid options available to us, but I also want to take a look at Trove of Temptation.
Trove of Temptation is not a card that is likely to get much attention from anyone, but it does serve a unique role of filling in for the soon-to-rotate From Beyond. As an enchantment that produces tokens, Trove gets around our deck not containing any creatures or artifacts to disrupt a Creativity casting. And in another similarity, Trove ramps us, allowing us to potentially just cast our more expensive ramp targets or to pay for a larger Indomitable Creativity later on.
Glorybringer still makes for a solid target, but with the loss of Reality Smasher pairing up with it, I wanted to try a slightly different route. Dinosaurs are getting a lot of love in Ixalan, but one of the specific ways that interests me most is in Regisaur Alpha's ability to give all of your Dinosaurs haste. Just two Alphas turns into fourteen damage out of nowhere, and if we are grabbing Burning Sun's Avatar with a third copy, we have 23 damage to the opponent as well as some light removal to get the job done.
This list can go a lot of different directions during testing, but it looks promising to me. Speaking of promising, Hour of Promise was a natural place for me to go when looking for token making ramp spells, but unfortunately, that was really all that green had in that department. If Nissa, Voice of Zendikar or From Beyond remained in the format, I could accept running Hour of Promise to complete the package and round things out. Once I am casting Hour of Promise, however, I might as well just cast seven-drops and take control of the game rather than needing to unload a Servo Exhibition and two more mana before winning.
Still, I really like how the dinosaurs in here are both castable and have immediate impact. We can switch back to Glorybringer if the Dinosaurs don't work out, but I do especially love Verdant Sun's Avatar in the sideboard, which might be worth looking into as a primary strategy. Gaining twenty or 25 life is just such a huge swing that, even without haste, you are going to beat some decks flat-out.
There is the cool possibility that Gishath, Sun's Avatar is similar enough to Indomitable Creativity that a blending of the two mythic rares is the right way to go. I like having alternative things to ramp to that can turn on our otherwise niche strategy, though. Consistency is always a weak point for decks built around a single card, and so lessening that reliance is nice.
While I am not certain that white is absolutely essential here, and I am definitely not certain that Trove of Temptation is even remotely playable, these are the sorts of tasks that a deckbuilder needs to be comfortable exploring. Even with a spectacular fail rate attached to these sorts of ideas, when one actually works out, the results can be incredible.
Keep learning. Keep exploring. Keep brewing.