**Note** What follows is some of the first stuff I ever wrote in the early days of MTG Arena. I decided to re-release this as a guide since Ixalan has found its way back into the Ranked Draft rotation this week. You will find an overview of the set followed by breakdowns of five different successful decks. I had a really good run when I wrote this, quickly climbing to #6 Mythic with these decks. Obviously the decks you draft won’t be able to include the exact same cards (especially rares), but I think you can form a solid understanding of what kinds of cards are important to support each archetype and get a general idea of their game plan. Whereas Ikoria is generally a mess of cycling, sacrifice aggro, and ‘good-stuff’ decks, Ixalan is very much a BREAD-and-butter Limited format. There are four tribes to choose from to create the foundation of your deck, while the Ascend, Raid, and Explore mechanics add a lot of strategic depth. I hope you find Ixalan as enjoyable as I do and that reading this guide will give you a leg up on your opponents. **Note**
My primary inspiration for writing these articles is that I have looked for something like this myself with minimal success. There are guides for basic limited strategy, so I am going to assume you have read those (but will discuss a few things that I don’t think are emphasized enough). Every time a new set comes out there is a wave of limited reviews and tier lists for each card. Some of those are really great, but the problem is they often come out when the cards are in a vacuum and aren’t updated based on the meta or over/under performance. Cards are often rated with the BREAD system in mind. For those unfamiliar:
While drafting in this order can often result in decent decks, the unfortunate truth is that you often won’t pull bomb rares, premium removal goes really fast, and evasion/aggro cards are very format dependent. So, I propose a better strategy:
No, that it isn’t an acronym or anything, just the idea that your cards must work together in meaningful ways. On average your drafts are going to have cards that are the same power level as your opponents, which means that you need to pick cards that play into an overall theme or game plan. This is what will keep your win rate above 50% so you can keep progressing. Now, exactly how to do this cannot be described, it needs to be shown. So I am going to give five different 7-x Rivals of Ixalan example decks that I built and discuss drafting/playing strategies with them to help provide some insight there.
Rivals of Ixalan Synergy and Archetypes
Usually the best clue for the arch types of a given set are the tap lands. Unfortunately, Ixalan has all the allied color pairs and Rivals of Ixalan has all the enemy color pairs. So, all ten color combinations are present here.
Okay, next we should look at the tribes. In this format we have Vampires (BW), Merfolk (UG), Dinosaurs (RGW), and Pirates (RUB). Out of these, I would rather draft Vampires or Merfolk since I want to be in two colors, but if the right cards present themselves Dinos or Pirates are options to be aware of.
Finally, we need to look at mechanics. The most relevant mechanic in this format is Ascend, which has cards that reward having 10 permanents on the board. There is also Raid, which rewards having creatures attack, and Explore, which can be good on its own but lacks sufficient payoff cards. I cannot overstate how important it is to make sure your deck enables a given theme or mechanic. For example, there are some cards that become very good when you have ascend. But, accumulating 10 permanents on the board is hard. If your deck doesn’t have enough cards that put multiple permanents on the board or stick around for the entire game (i.e. enchantments or high toughness creatures), your ascend payoff cards aren’t going to work. Similarly, you may draft cards with really good raid abilities, but if you don’t support those with cards that can attack without dying (i.e. evasion) they may just sit in your hand all game or you may end up needing to cast them as under powered vanilla creatures.
Once again, I will be providing at least five 7-x drafts to give you some specific examples/insights further below. These are:
- UG Merfolk
- BR Pirates
- GB Explore
- GW Dinosaurs
- Esper Vampires
Rivals of Ixalan: Bears, Elephants, and Giants
Every set, Wizards of the Coast brings new mechanics to the table, but the stats of creatures is something that stays relatively constant. In limited, we always have bears (2 mana 2/2s), elephants (3 mana 3/3s), and hill giants (4 mana 3/3s). Ixalan is a pretty weak format in terms of creature power. So, bears with even an okay ability like killing dinosaurs or lifelink are playable. Elephants are good in weak formats. For example, you have this card:
This is a good card in an aggro deck, even though at best it is an elephant. In a strong creature format (i.e. Ravnica) this would be a bad card. In Ixalan there are a lot of giants with abilities like adding a +1/+1 counter or a +2/+2 buff for a turn. These cards are good filler as long as they fit into your overall theme.
Rivals of Ixalan: Draft Order Strategy and Creature/Spell/Land Ratio
In Ixalan there are a lot of playable cards in every color. This means that just because you pick a good card or two in a color early doesn’t mean you have to force that archetype. In most of my decks I will be going through there is an Impale or Luminous Bonds or something sitting on the bench. I typically take the best cards picks 1 through 3 or 4 regardless of my first pick, since pack two might offer something that pulls me in a specific direction. This is possible in Ixalan more so than formats like Dominaria because the packs go a lot deeper with cards you won’t mind having in your deck.
Another thing somewhat unique about Ixalan due to the creatures being weak is it allows for more spell picks than usual. On average I want my deck to look something like: 17 creatures, 16-17 lands, 6-7 spells. In Ixalan you will see that most of my decks go a little lighter on creatures in favor of additional spells. This is possible because choosing certain efficient creatures can help you control the board, and you can essentially gain card advantage from holding up multiple opponent creatures with just one or two of yours. Try not to go overboard with this advice because creatures are always the life blood of any limited deck, but it is still worth noting.
Rivals of Ixalan: Conclusions
I mentioned earlier that I want to be in two colors. One reason for this is that the tap lands are uncommon. There are some cards like sailor of means or evolving wilds that can make 3+ colors work, and I will be writing up a successful Esper deck that used both of these, but under most circumstances you shouldn’t be going for that. Both of those cards will go pretty early (because sailor of means is ridiculous and evolving wilds thins the deck), so you will need to reach on them instead of other cards that actually win you games. If you connect on some really good Merfolk or Vampire cards, those are great decks to go for in two colors. Overall, there are some uncommon cards to build around:
These cards scream go pirates and dinosaurs! Ultimately, if you can assemble at least six cards that can be stars in your deck and build the rest of the deck around those, you are (pretty much) guaranteed to have a solid opening hand each game. Most people fall into the trap of opening a bomb rare or some good removal and forcing that color.
My best advice is to be open to leaving those cards on the bench if a cohesive, synergistic deck presents itself. I will be presenting a few of my own examples to you below.
Ixalan Draft #1 – Merfolk (7-2)
I actually drafted UG Merfolk twice in a row at the end of my Ixalan run. Today I am going to go over the one that got me to mythic.
If I get a Merfolk Mistbinder early, chances are I am going to look to draft merfolk. I think it is the best draft deck in the format with the right cards. Mistbinder is really important, but the deck also needs to be able to win games without it. Forerunner of the Heralds is here because it finds Mistbinder (or Jadelight Ranger if you already have it). Jadelight Ranger is amazing in any deck, but shines extra bright here with its merfolk creature type. Deeproot waters isn’t always a good card, but in this deck it is awesome. With 10+ merfolk and mistbinder, those extra merfolk are worth the investment. It also has great synergy with the ascend mechanic, which I will discuss more in a minute. Atzocan Archer is a card that I really like in this format. There are a lot of x/1 creatures it can snipe, or it can work as a combat trick where your opponent blocks with 1 extra toughness and you punish them for it in your second main. In this deck it is extra good because there isn’t a lot of flying presence or removal. Having 4 toughness that can block flying is really important for extending games. This deck has a lot of ‘legs’ with card draw and bonus creatures, so this is not a deck where we need to end the game quickly. However, Deadeye Rig-Hauler does help the game end quickly if we have a solid hand. Giltgrove Stalker and Mist-Cloaked Herald are great at enabling raid, and getting a 3/2 body while bouncing a creature is just nuts. In some games this acts like a 3/2
All of these guys are efficient and also further the overall plan of the deck. As I mentioned before, Giltgrove Stalker and Mist-Cloaked Herald are good for beginning the aggression and enabling raid. Jungleborn Pioneer comes out as two creatures which adds value to Mistbinder and Spire Winder. I would have liked to get another Spire Winder this draft since this deck achieved ascend pretty easily, but it was not to be. Jade Guardian was decent filler since it could give a counter to mist-cloaked herald or a different merfolk that needed the buff in order to attack. Wind Strider is a solid creature and most people walked into it when I had 5 flash mana open, allowing it to pick off a 2/2. Okay, time for the cards that really made this deck great.
Having two copies of Secrets of the Golden City was amazing in this deck. Sometimes I casted one 3rd turn in slower games, but being able to consistently get three cards out of these was nuts. Having 2x Crashing Tide and a Run Around helped with the overall tempo/bounce theme of this deck. The game plan was always to get a creature or two out to get some early damage/pressure in. Then, I would hit their best blocker with crashing tide, deadeye rig-hauler, or run around. This enabled me to continue attacking despite my merfolk only having 2 or 3 attack/toughness. Having some combat tricks like Aggresive Urge, River Herald’s Boon, and Hunt the Weak also enabled this strategy even if i didn’t draw the bounce spells. The best part about Crashing Tide and Run Around is you do not lose card advantage. But, as I keep saying, your deck needs to get damage out of these cards with low cost evasive creatures that can capitalize on the bounced creatures or all you’ve accomplished is stalling and don’t net any gain out of them.
Ixalan Draft #2 – GB Explore (7-1)
This was honestly my favorite deck to pilot during my Ixalan run (once again, if it is difficult to see the image or if you want to be able to read each card just click the link in the caption). It was my favorite because it is a good example of turning decent cards into great cards with some basic synergy. Overall, it contained 16 creatures, 7 spells, and 17 lands. You can see from the mana curve below that this is an aggressive deck. I thought about cutting a land for an extra creature, but opted to keep it in due to Tomb Robber.
Early on in this draft I picked up Strength of the Pack, Thrashing Brontodon, and Ravenous Chupacabra. These are all very solid early picks, and had me leaning towards BG, even though it isn’t a very strong color combination in Ixalan. Tomb Robber was an interesting early-mid pack pick up. It helps smooth draws/get rid of excess lands productively, and menace is a nice aggro ability. But then, things got interesting. I noticed a Lurking Chupacabra in the beginning of pack 3 and had to take it. Now, my Tomb Robber had the potential of becoming a -2/-2 machine gun. Going further into pack 3 I was on the hunt for more support for this concept, and reached pretty hard to secure 3x Tishana’s Wayfinder. I mentioned in my Ixalan format that elephants (3 mana 3/3s) are good in Ixalan limited. So, even on their own wayfinders are 3 mana 3/3 scry or 2/2 draw a card (pretty sweet!). Now, add the possibility of a shock on top of that, and you have a great payoff card for Lurking Chupacabra. If the aggro/combat tricks didn’t get there or this combo never came into play/got shut down, Strength of the Pack was a fantastic alternate win condition. In a 16 creature deck it wasn’t hard to assemble at least 3/4 to make this card a blowout.
The archer is here much for the same reason as in Merfolk, to pick off juicy 1 toughness creatures (cough – Vampire Revenant), serve as a 2nd main trick, or simply block flying in a deck that is vulnerable to it. He also combos really well with Hardy Veteran, since people will think they are safe blocking him with 3/3’s. But then he doesn’t die and archer comes in to finish their 3/3. Aggressive Urge is in here for the same reason. Creatures like Deeproot Warrior and Hardy Veteran are great for staying aggressive and great combat trick targets. Always attack with them unless they will die for free since sometimes your opponent will let them through fearing a trick even though you may not even have one. Grazing Whiptail is actually a great beater in this weak creature format, and doubles as anti-air. I always try to play exactly 1 Vampire Revenant in my black decks. If your opponent has no answer it can win you games by itself. But, if you match up with Azorius cheap flyers or Atzocan Archer with a hand full of Revenants, you’re going to have a bad time. Armasaur helps the curve, adds some beef, and has solid synergy with Savage Stomp and Strength of the Pack.
Savage Stomp is great with or without Dinos, but I had some good ones in this deck! Combat tricks were very good with the 2 drops. I don’t usually play Recover but it gave me a second chance at going off with Lurking Chupacabra if my opponent had an answer. I always reserved Impale for a bomb, a 2 for 1, or to win the game. When you have limited removal never blow something up just to get a little damage in one turn, that is a very common rookie mistake.
While I loved this deck, I don’t recommend *trying* to draft it. I think this deck is a lesson in identifying strengths in cards with seemingly novel abilities and drafting to those strengths if the opportunity presents itself. Also, make sure combo pieces in limited stand alone. My explore cards were good without Lurking Chupacabra, but with it they became great.
Ixalan Draft #3 – GW Dinos (7-0)
First off, yes this thing actually did go 7-0. However, you’ll notice this is one of the first decks I drafted when I was still getting out of Platinum. So, throw an asterisk on there if you’d like.
I opened Zetalpa pack 1 and said **** it, I am going to build around this thing. I drafted it once before (last time Ixalan was on quick draft) in pack 2 and was amazed how well it cleaned up in one game I was able to land it. Unfortunately, it sat in my hand a couple of the other games and I decided it was not worth drafting. But, when I saw it again pack 1 this time I decided to give it a shot as a build around. Obviously, it paid off. This deck broke down as 18 creatures, 6 spells, and 16 lands. I got away with 16 lands despite a high curve because I drafted two mana dorks and two mana ramp spells:
I think these cards give you a good idea of the gameplan: mana ramp into bombs. This is how I would suggest handling a GW deck. Atzocan Seer is very underrated in my opinion, simply because I pretty much never see him played by my opponents. Conventional wisdom says do not pick gold cards early on, but if you don’t take risks sometimes you will miss out on great cards like him. In weak creature formats (like Ixalan) mana dorks can be great. Seer and Drover of the Mighty are especially great because they bring some power/toughness with them. Being able to resurrect a Dinosaur is an amazing ability late game as well, so even when you don’t need Atzocan Seer to tap for mana anymore you can still put him to work. Crested Herdcaller is incredible, and has good synergy with Thundering Spineback, which can win games alone just like Tendershoot Dryad or Zetalpa, Primal Dawn. If I am going to draft a high curve creature deck, I need to see some bombs early. As I mentioned, this draft I took a chance on Zetalpa pack one, and was very lucky to open Tendershoot Dryad pack 2, and see Thundering Spineback early pack 3. If that didn’t happen I would have run more copies of Colossal Dreadmaw, but my deck would have had more trouble going 7-0.
To be honest, I don’t like these cards very much in general. However, consider how well they work together here. Cherished Hatchling can bring out Imperial Ceratops or Overgrown Armasaur to kill something and then gain life or make a saproling. I drafted two Overgrown Armasaurs here because those saprolings get +2/+2 if I manage to draw Tendershoot Dryad. Dropping Knight of the Stampede turn 3 (with mana ramp) allows me to absolutely flood the board turn 4 with 1 mana Orazca Frillbacks or Territorial Hammerskull. And by the way those two guys work really well together because Hammerskull can take away key blockers that would take advantage of the 2 toughness on Frillback. So, while I would want almost none of these guys in a deck that takes them out of this context, within the theme of this deck they are all actually pretty great.
Getting 2x Thunderherd Migration for this deck was awesome. Once again, outside of a ramp deck like this I would never play the card, but being able to drop Knight of the Stampede turn 3 and unload the rest of my hand turn 4 (or Thundering Spineback/Zetalpa turn 5/6) makes them well worth the picks. Hunt the Weak and Luminous Bonds are great picks for any deck. I also played a copy of Plummet (lol) in this deck because I literally had no recourse for flyers.
Ixalan Draft #4 – BR Pirates (7-1)
As you are all probably aware, removal is really good in limited. This deck had quite a lot of it. But more than that it had the capability to take advantage of the removal. In this deck the removal was all about opening lanes of attack for power-efficient creatures. There were only 14 such creatures needed in this deck, accompanied by 10 spells and 16 lands. It didn’t hurt that this deck also contained the single best card in the format.
Tetzimoc, Primal Death is definitely the bomb and won me a couple games, but he wasn’t always around or necessary. Having 8 removal spells is what felt unfair most games, and they included Repeating Barrage which is a perfect rare for this archetype. Captain’s Hook is also on point for this deck, which thrives on clearing the board to get through with high attack power creatures (ideally with menace). Bonded Horncrest might seem out of place here with only 14 creatures in the deck, but attaching captain’s hook and powering him with Buccaneer’s Bravado for a 16 damage double strike was a spectacular win condition. I included some cantrip creatures such as Dire Fleet Hoarder and Dusk Legion Zealot that don’t mind attacking into their death with Horncrest if necessary. Ruthless Knave was a good way to get more value out of those as well. Altogether, this deck was very strong and only dropped 1 game moving through Diamond Tiers 3 and 2.
The Supporting Cast
These are all bread and butter Rakdos creatures. Goblin Trailblazer and Frilled Deathspitter are my favorite to draft. Grasping Scoundrel isn’t usually very good in my opinion, but he was able to get through a lot with the air support/equipment this deck generated. Ruthless Knave is another card that probably isn’t worth drafting too early in most decks, but when you have several powerful cards you should add card draw whenever possible to increase your chances of seeing them. Buccaneer’s Bravado was a good incentive to play a lot of Pirates, but this definitely was not a Pirate deck. An ideal hand dropped a couple creatures early and then never stopped attacking with removal support. If you draft a deck like this, remember that even though there are only 14 creatures they are imperative to you winning. Even though a hand full of good removal (and no creatures) will be tempting to keep, you should mulligan those hands to ensure you are getting damage out of the removal spells.
I really love drafting all of these except Mutiny. I don’t think Mutiny is bad, but sometimes it sits awkwardly in your hand in a way that the others rarely do. Skulduggery you can get you 2-for-1 value in a lot of situations and often just keeps your creatures alive and attacking. Take advantage of the instant speed of cards like Moment of Craving, Vanquish the Weak, and Skulduggery. It may be tempting to wipe your opponents side in your main and then get damage in, but in some cases it is better to attack with mana open. Consider a board where you have Bonded Horncrest and Dusk Legion Zealot out with instant removal in hand and your opponent has two 3/3s. Just get right into combat! If they double block Horncrest, Vanquish one of the 3/3s and now your removal spell was a 2-for-1. If they just block the Zealot you still get 5 damage through and you can then save the Zealot if you need him to help Horncrest attack next turn, or let him go and play your next layer of attack in your 2nd main. Plays like this generate card advantage and keep your tempo up. Opponents are going to have a hard time attacking back with a deck like this because it is so easy to punish them for only holding back 1-2 blockers.
The best part about playing this deck was even if the aggression didn’t blow out my opponents early, cards like Repeating Barrage and Tetzimoc kept them on a clock. One card that I didn’t see this draft which would have put this deck over the top:
Picking up a Dire Fleet Neckbreaker is a great reason for drafting a deck like this. If you grab one in your next draft (or get passed a bunch of BR removal spells), give this archetype a shot!
Ixalan Draft #5 – Esper Vampires (7-1)
This deck combined defensive creatures, flyers, and Ascend payoffs across 3 colors. Ixalan is not usually not 3-color friendly but this deck shows how to pull it off:
The real MVP in this deck is Sailor of Memes. He blocks like a champ, adds a permanent for Ascend, and helps with color fixing if necessary. Resplendent Griffin, Dusk Charger, and Deadeye Brawler are all good payoff cards for Ascend. Baffling End helps remove early threats and sticks around as a bonus permanent. Elenda is a total bomb and you should always draft her unless she arrives in pack two and you haven’t taken any black or white cards.
None of these creatures are terribly exciting, but each perform their role well in this deck. This is a control archetype, and the plan of attack is through the air. Creatures on the ground are mostly there to block. Snubhorn Sentry and Desperate Castaways are very efficient at that. Both can become attackers later on through Ascend and treasure tokens, respectively, but that is not usually necessary. This archetype looks to stabilize the board and then chip away with flyers. The best part about these creatures (excluding Skymarch Bloodletter) is they can be picked late in each pack. This allows you to prioritize good spells and creatures like Resplendent Griffin and Sailor of Means.
Chart a Course provides nice card advantage as long as you have some ways to attack for free. I included Mist-Cloaked Herald to provide some synergy there as well as make a solid target for Squire’s Devotion. Also remember that Snubhorn Sentry can attack even with 0 power, as that can be another good way to enable Chart a Course. I prioritized enchantments with this deck because they add a permanent for Ascend. Waterknot is a good option for that too but the double blue casting cost is tough in a 3-color deck. I always enjoy playing both ‘moment’ cards and the extra life fits well into the control archetype. I don’t always run Opt, but it was useful for smoothing out draws in this deck.
That’s All For Now
I hope you have an enjoyable vacation in Ixalan prior to the release of M21. Drifter and I will be tackling the core set beginning next weekend as we review every card for Limited prior to release! I will also be streaming the early access event here, so feel free to check that out if you want to get an early look at M21 Draft.