How to Draft Ixalan at Nationals
The plane of Ixalan is a harsh and hostile environment. It’s full of Vampires, Merfolk, Pirates, Dinosaurs and all other kinds of dangers. As a self-proclaimed flavour connoisseur, perhaps it’s appropriate the Limited format reflects this harshness. Ixalan Limited is unique in that it’s a synergistic tribal-set that’s also generally low power. Strong picks dry up fast, rares and mythics aren’t as strong as usual and the disparity between the good bomb uncommons and everything else is massive. For the first time since what feels like Origins Limited, it’s possible to actually train-wreck drafts. Even the tribal synergies are weak or might not seem apparent at first and there are very few generically good cards. The format feels aggressive, which is to say that attacking is generally better than not attacking. All of this makes Ixalan an interesting, difficult to draft and a lot of the time a frustrating format. But worry not! Let me be your guide through Ixalan park.
Before we begin with the archetypes, some general advice: in this format, it’s important to pick up the payoff cards first as far as tribal synergies are concerned, then try to round out a deck. This is because there is so little payoff and not all of it is powerful, it’s important to get the good stuff first.With that said, it’s still usually better to take cards that are really good generically like Air Elemental or Charging Monstrosaur over synergistic cards early-on.
Merfolk exist in Blue and Green only. Drafting this archetype is all about having a low to the ground curve and evasive creatures. This deck wants to exploit Merfolk synergies to load up creatures with +1/+1 counters and out-tempo your opponents. Like most Ixalan tribes, when drafting a U/G deck, most of your cards are going to end up being Merfolk naturally anyway, so don’t prioritize the Merfolk typeline over solid creatures like Air Elemental. Merfolk is the best tribal archetype, a good Merfolk deck can make it’s evasive creatures hit very hard and out-tempo you like it’d a constructed deck. This makes it the most powerful tribe when open, but also not something you want to fight for. The deck can even grind pretty well due to the abundant explore cards in U/G that can serve as a form of card advantage.
Let’s talk specifics:
A 2/2 for three mana isn’t very exciting and no evasion isn’t great but the ability is fine. Not a high pick but still a fine addition to a U/G deck.
A 2/3 body for four mana is a bad rate but the ability to give your creatures evasion is huge, and Merfolk are good at putting +1/+1 counters on each other. This is a great card and a high pick if you’re already in U/G.
It’s easy to have this be a 2/2 unblockable for 3 turns if played on turn 2. Putting a counter or two on this actually makes the unblockable body decent. Fine card if already U/G but still worse than the best options, try not to take it if you’re not in the colours yet.
Very easy to make this card simply read: “2/1 flier.” Evasive. Cheap. Merfolk. That’s generally everything this deck wants, you want as many of these as you can pick up.
A bear for one mana is an ok rate in this format. Not evasive, but it’s a Merfolk and can enable raid for turn 2. Grab one if you can but don’t prioritize this card.
This card is fantastic and a reason to have merfolk in your deck. The rate is excellent if you can make it 3/5 worth of stats for three mana. Excellent with evasion but still good for creature sizing. Take these high.
This card is deceptively strong. A 3/3 for four mana with Hexproof is a fine rate and the ability to distribute 1/1 worth of stats is great. But the secret power of this card is the Hexproof. First off, Hexproof is great with all the Merfolk +1/+1 counters. Load this thing up and there’s very little your opponent can do. Second, this along with One with the Wind is a great combo. This isn’t a joke, making giant, Hexproof fliers is a really easy way to win a game of Magic and there’s very few ways to punish this in the format. Third, this card is excellent with the green removal. Pounce and Savage Stomp this guy as much as you like, no one can two-for-one you with removal or even with combat tricks if this guy is adequately large. Even with all this upside, it’s still a four mana creature, I would avoid playing more than three.
Versatile combat trick that sticks around. You can load up a single merfolk or spread the boon, what’s not to love? This card is fantastic in U/G and helps establish a tempo advantage. Think of it as two hasty power that’s reusable if need be.
This card is absurd. Breaks board stalls wide open and attacks freely. If your opponent is still somehow left standing in the aftermath, you end up with a 2/3 merfolk and an opponent who is very behind. Take this highly.
This card is already good, it’s hard to get punished for slapping this on a Merfolk because the removal isn’t very good or efficient in this format. With Jade Guardian, this becomes absurd. I’ll always maindeck one or two if I have them and board them out against bounce spells.
Protects creatures, lets you reuse enter the battlefield triggers and can even be a surprise blocker in a race. Even when not targeting a pirate, this card is good. I like to have one if possible. Can also free a creature from Pious Interdiction.
Good for mostly the same reasons as Siren’s Ruse but is also a strong, unblockable body on a Merfolk. Two is a good number to have to top-out the curve and anything more is a little dangerous because they are not great to draw in multiples or as your only creatures.
Explore is abundant in U/G and a good pick up if you already have a few explore creatures. Even one trigger is worth the card.
Hard to block and it only gets better as the +1/+1 counters pile on. Solid pseudo-evasive two-drop that I’m always happy to have a few of.
Incase it needs to spelled out, this card is absurd. I’ll often first pick one even though it’s gold because it is that good.
Vampires exist in B/W. This archetype is about going-wide on the ground and then simply taking advantage of that by playing cards that reward you for having Vampires. The archetype benefits from drafting cards that are aggressive early and takes advantage of the good combat tricks available in B/W to then bridge the gap to your late-game go-wide plan. Vampires have the second best tribal payoffs only behind Merfolk.
On to the cards:
While obviously good alongside other Vampires, this card is also just generically good. It works by itself and generating a token or two makes it worth it all on its own.
Like Mavren, this card is also just generically good, no additional synergies needed. Even a bad Serra Angel is still good. Pick this highly.
This card is especially good in B/W if you can pump-out tokens. Good while being aggressive and can be used defensively in a race. I like to have one if I can.
Effectively a two-mana 3/1 while being pseudo-evasive. Perfect card for this archetype’s early game and you can even use it on the defensive to block a creature with more than four power to save some life.
A one mana 1/1 flier isn’t impressive but the ability is a little better than it looks, it turns tokens into bears in a format with generally small creatures. Just the threat of activation is sometimes enough to make blocking an arduous task. That said, I’m not upset if my deck doesn’t have one.
Fine card for four mana and a key piece in establishing a board presence to bridge the gap to the late game plan of this archetype. I like to have a couple.
Medium removal spell. I’ll almost always play the first one and almost never the second. Sometimes necessary to kill bombs.
Two 1/1’s for three mana isn’t an exciting deal but Lifelink sweetens it up a bit. The archetype has enough use for 1/1’s that one or two of these is fine.
This card is better than it looks. 1/3 for two on a flier is fine but this card is quite good at blocking the abundance of 2/x’s in the format while chipping in for damage. Later it can become a threat with Duskborne Skymarcher or Anointed Deacon.
This card is an actively good combat trick in B/W. Even when used on a 1/1 token you get a 3/3 First Strike, Lifelink—big enough to rumble with a lot of the format.
Bad if you have one. Ok if you have two. Becomes good with three+. Part of the “go wide” theme.
Some call it Hellrider and it might as well be in this low-power format. Fantastic and a high pick.
Gives B/W some grinding power, turns those tokens into cards. Happy to have one or two.
I’m grouping these cards together because they’re all excellent payoff cards for this deck. Anointed Deacon is the best one, turns fliers into serious beaters and tokens into real threats and it only gets better in multiples.
Is it a flavour fail to give a Vampire the Mark of the Vampire? Either way getting punished for trying to suit up a creature is difficult and lifegain is absurd in a fast format. Slap it on a flier and you’ve got a combo. This card is actually good.
Cheap and efficient with the potential for 2-for-1s. Happy to have the first one.
If making two 1/1’s for three is good, then making three 1/1’s for four is even better, right? Yes, yes it is.
For the last few archetypes I will not go over individual cards in detail, there are few synergy/tribal cards and these archetypes are closer to traditional ones. Instead I will talk about general strategy for each deck, how to draft it and list the good payoff cards.
Pirates exist in the grixis shard. This archetype doesn’t really benefit from tribal synergies all that much. Pirates feature the keyword raid, which makes them naturally inclined to attack. Therefore all three combinations are generally aggressive with a few slight differences.
B/R is basically a traditional aggro deck. The gameplan is to have a low curve and draft creatures that are either efficiently costed or have evasion, those cards being: Bonded Horncrest, Rigging Runner, Charging Monstrosaur, Wanted Scoundrels, Fathom Fleet Firebrand, Headstrong Brute, Dire Fleet Interloper, Nest Robber, Thrash of Raptors, Desperate Castaways, Brazen Buccaneers, Tilonalli’s Knight and Dire Fleet Captain. This archetype also has access to some very efficient removal: Walk the Plank, Lightning Strike, Firecannon Blast etc. A few of those even double as reach, which is excellent for these aggressive decks. Unfriendly Fire is actually worse than it looks, five mana for four damage isn’t a great deal in this fast format but this deck appreciates the reach. Lightning-Rig Crew is also a card that stands out for it’s damage output in this archetype and rewards you for being pirate-dense.
U/R plays like a tempo deck. Prioritize cards that are either evasive like Storm Fleet Aerialist or Storm Sculptor and efficient disruption like Lookout’s Dispersal. Again, prioritize a low curve. This deck wants to get on board as fast as possible, start the beats and then keep the opponent off the board with bounce spells and removal. A particularly strong card in this archetype is the U/R gold uncommon, Marauding Looter. A good body and raid triggers every turn will keep the cards this deck desperately needs flowing. Combine all this with good red bodies and the reach provided by Lightning Strike, Unfriendly Fire or even Storm Fleet Pyromancer.
U/B is somewhere in the middle of these two archetypes. With access to black’s efficient disruption and the evasive power of blue creatures. This deck is also good at establishing a tempo advantage but in a different way. U/B is the colour of treasure, being able to cast more spells than your opponent or spells ahead of schedule are classic tempo plays. Once again, prioritize drafting evasive creatures to beat down with, preferably ones that disrupt or provide some other sort of advantage such as: Air Elemental, Kitesail Freebooter, Siren Lookout etc. One great thing about this archetype is that because of the abundance of treasure it’s usually easy to splash a random high-impact card or two and generally a good idea.
R/W is another one of these traditional aggro decks Ixalan has a lot of. This archetype actually benefits from having a large number of Dinosaurs. Cards like Tillonali’s Knight or Pterodon Knight either become very efficient beaters or evasive when a Dinosaur is near and with cards like Thrash of Raptors or Imperial Aerosaur, you’re going to end up with excellent Dinosaurs anyway. Prioritize good two-drops like Tillonali’s Knight, Fathom Fleet Firebrand and Adanto Vanguard very highly and after that cards like Territorial Hammerskull that can help push through damage. Combat tricks like Sure Strike are also great here because your opponent will have to tap-out turn after turn to get on board, leaving you to safely use your tricks. The R/W uncommon is also great, Sky Terror, it might as well say unblockable on it. The only thing R/W does is attack – and it does it well.
R/G Dinosaurs is a deck that goes bigger. Most of the power in this archetype comes from its 5+ drops as it’s easy to win the late game if you can get there, but that also makes it vulnerable to being insanely clunky. In order to avoid five-drop-city clunk fests, it’s very important to have cards that bridge the gap to those power cards. For that reason, once you know this archetype is open you have to prioritize those kinds of cards over all but the very best late game. The best cards for this are Drover of the Mighty, New Horizons and Ranging Raptors. The second best are the explore cards like Ixalli’s Diviner, Merfolk Branchwalker and Tishana’s Wayfinder. These are great as they provide bodies to stay alive with and keep the land drops rolling. This archetype has the most Enrange cards and cards to enable it like Rile and Raging Swordtooth.
W/G is kind of a weird archetype, it’s not as aggressive as W/R and doesn’t like to go as large as R/G. It doesn’t really have a great identity to me as there are good aggressive white cards but the green cards aren’t really evasive or efficiently costed. This archetype kind of suffers from the “a pile of cards” problem where it doesn’t really have a coherent game plan. I suppose the best way to draft it is similar to Vampires where you beat down early and then finish by either attacking with fliers after gumming the ground or with giant green monsters. Cobbled Wings is particularly good here to slam damage through later. Make sure to draft with curve considerations in mind, curving out is the best path to victory with this deck.
Taimur’s insights got you fired up for Nationals? Join us a day early on Friday at the International Centre to tune-up for Nats on Saturday and Sunday !