Ixalan Standard: Where to Start?
The full spoiler is out, and the entirety of Ixalan is laid bare before us. The set is chock-full of extremely cool and flavourful build-around-me cards, but is also hiding its fair share of tournament staples, from Spell Pierce and Opt to Ripjaw Raptor. Nationals is less than a month away, so it’s time to start testing! Sure, the World Championships might be the previous weekend, and that will likely define the metagame, but for an event as important as Nationals, it’s probably a good idea to have more than five days of testing in the bag.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. The cards in Ixalan just aren’t that powerful, at least as far as Standard is concerned. Flavourful and awesome mythics like Vona, Butcher of Magan and Dire Fleet Ravager just get embarrassed by format staples Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer. The new planeswalkers aren’t pushed on the level of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar —which is a good thing, for the record—and a lot of the mythic and rare slots are clearly used on cards intended for a more casual audience. That isn’t to say that this is a bad set, however. There’s clearly a lot hiding under the hood, but it might take another Standard rotation or some serious upgrades in Rivals of Ixalan for, say, Pirates, Merfolk, or Dinosaurs to take center stage.
Why is that? As is, we have a bunch of top tier Standard decks that survive rotation more or less unscathed. There are some big losses, however. Mardu Vehicles loses its linchpin of Thraben Inspector as well as the creature lands and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar for lasting power. The rotation of all the Eldrazi completely destroys Ramp strategies and, unsurprisingly, Mono-White Eldrazi. Zombies, of course, disappears without its Shadows over Innistrad cards.
But what does the poorly-named Ramunap Red lose? A one-drop, that inevitably got a replacement late in spoiler season. Temur Energy has to pick one of the hundred other grindy cards to replace Tireless Tracker. Let’s start off by looking at what these decks are likely to look like on the first week of this brand new Standard.
The most important change made to this list, based off of trap music aficionado Oliver “Tiu Chainz” Tiu’s work, is its name. We don’t name decks after their manabases, we name them after their trademark cards or strategies. Nothing is more important to this deck than the comically powerful Hazoret the Fervent. This card is so absurd that it almost feels better to mulligan on the draw with this deck just to ensure that it can attack on the turn you play it. It’s hard to believe, but Hazoret got even more powerful with rotation. The average strength of decks in the format will assuredly dip with fewer legal sets, and most of the cards used to effectively answer Hazoret have rotated. Grasp of Darkness, Blessed Alliance, Stasis Snare – all gone. Aside from counterspells, all the reasonable answers to her cost at least 4 mana, and you don’t really want to have decks full of clunky answers when playing against an aggressive red deck. This is why I think it’s wise to start the full playset of the hasty god despite her Legendary status. You can always discard duplicates, anyways!
There are a few other changes and upgrades that this deck gets with the new set. Falkenrath Gorger will be missed, and while Rigging Runner doesn’t quite do a good Jackal Pup impression, the upside of sometimes being a 2/2 first striker is nothing to laugh at. You don’t really want to lead with it, however, so I feel like splitting spots with Soul-Scar Mage is wise. Assuming that Hazoret’s stock rises in value, as well, Soul-Scar Mage plays an important role, as his ability combines with Chandra’s Defeat to be the only way to dispose of the god in the mirror. Incendiary Flow becomes an instant in Lightning Strike, despite losing its exiling properties, and the flex slots can be used on Repeating Barrage to generate reach even if your opponent is able to deal with your Hazoret.
This deck’s real strength has always been its powerful sideboard strategy, bringing in the full sets of Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer to go way over the top of any midrange deck. It definitely doesn’t get any worse. Hazoret Red is without a doubt the deck to beat in this format’s nascency. Plan on beating it, or waste your entry fee.
Temur Energy decks started to get really interesting towards the end of Amonkhet Standard. The stock version of the deck included a light black splash for The Scarab God as well as sideboard cards like Dispossess to dismantle God Pharaoh’s Gift decks. Some used this opportunity to switch to playing Woodland Wanderer in the 4-drop slot, as a huge vigilant 6/6 would just dominate the board as well as block Hazoret. Our lovely landfall friend has left us, however, so we’re stuck with another disgustingly powerful card in old faithful Bristling Hydra. Instead of teching out our deck with tons of bullet cards like The Scarab God, I recommend starting the format with a quadcopter version of Temur. Play four copies each of all of the best cards, and start fine-tuning the deck as the metagame develops. It’s not like Glorybringer is bad in the mirror.
There are two other main points of tension in the building of this deck post-Ixalan. First off, despite Rootbound Crag being a far superior card to Game Trail, it’s legitimately worse when coupled with Sheltered Thicket and Attune with Aether. We want to have as many untapped green sources as possible on turn 1, and Rootbound Crag simply cannot do that. We still, however, want to keep a high Sheltered Thicket count. Being able to cycle one of our lands is crucial in a deck that’s a solid 50% mana sources between Attune with Aether and Servant of the Conduit. We also want to be able to board out Servant when its impact is insignificant in the matchup, which means the deck’s mana needs to stand without it. As is, it might just be correct to play an additional Forest over Rootbound Crag, but I’m not comfortable making that change with so many red cards in the deck. We’ll have to wait for the inevitable Frank Karsten article to solve that dilemma.
The last topic to cover is what to do with the sideboard slots lost with the departure of Chandra, Flamecaller, Radiant Flames and Tireless Tracker. The mass removal spells were largely there for the deck’s poor Zombies matchup, but with that deck gone, it feels like a good idea to replace them with anti-red cards. As for Tireless Tracker’s spot, I have a feeling that Shapers’ Sanctuary is a mirror breaker. It’s definitely a powerful card, and the mirror is frequently decided through attrition and haymakers – this solves the attrition part of the equation.
Alright, that’s quite enough of trying to win. Magic is about two things, after all: fun and friendship. You don’t make friends by winning, you make friends by chatting at the bottom tables! Here are two decks that are guaranteed to help broaden your social circle.
I might have played Glorybringer Mardu at the last two Pro Tours, but all the glory there went to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and his band of White Knight Allies. Of course supported by Thraben Inspector, which was basically a cantripping Moat in the sea of Bomat Couriers at Kyoto. Losing these cards is an insurmountable blow for the consistency of this deck and the power of its transformative sideboard plan, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna try to make it work anyways. Ally of Zendikar is irreplaceable, even by Chandra, Torch of Defiance, but luckily there’s another Gideon who’s been patiently waiting for his brother to rotate. I mean, they also changed the planeswalker rule so that there’s no tension between the two anymore, but its implementation coincides with the rotation of Chandra, Flamecaller and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, so whatever.
The most recent iterations of this deck were trimming on Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, or eschewing it completely in Matt Severa’s case. It turns out the real Mardu MVP was “the little Inspector that Could.” The clue token that it made was critical to the functioning of the deck, powering up Unlicensed Disintegration, Spire of Industry, and Toolcraft Exemplar. With her gone, we have to look elsewhere to up our artifact count. The new set gives us a few options, such as Captain Lannery Storm, but nothing really fits in the shell. That just means that we have to play a bunch of Walking Ballistas, Pia Nalaars, and Aethersphere Harvesters to make up for lost ground.
As for Thraben Inspector’s role in the curve, I saw two real options for replacements: Bomat Courier and Inventor’s Apprentice. Bomat Courier solves our artifact problem, but is also little more than a joke in any matchup where we aren’t perennially on the offensive. Mardu’s strength in Amonkhet Standard has always been in its versatility and ability to switch roles, and since there is a more premium aggro deck in Hazoret Red, I think it’s wise to shy away from being simply a worse version of that deck. That leaves us with good old Inventor’s Apprentice. This definitely exacerbates our artifact problem, rather than helping it, but a 2/3 for R is nothing to laugh at on defence.
Our sideboard features a full 5 (five!) ways to remove pesky Hazorets from play as well as a bunch of gasoline to switch to a more controlling role in post-board games against creature decks. Hour of Devastation is, of course, a non-bo with the planeswalker strategy, but I think its interaction with Hazoret as well as opposing planeswalkers is more significant than that downside. One more deck to go for today!
0-2 Grixis Control
Ah, you thought you could get away without a Torrential Gearhulk deck, didn’t you? This Search for Azcanta theme deck is named after the record you’ll have two rounds into playing with it. For real though, control strategies got a powerful new tool in this flip enchantment. The ability to not only scry every turn, but be able to fill your graveyard, is valuable in and of itself for a mere two mana. The enchantment permanent type is notably difficult to remove from play, and when you, well, find Azcanta, you get to Impulse for non-creature spells every turn – and you get a free Island out of it. That’s wildly powerful, but the risk is that it might be way too slow in a format with Longtusk Cub and Hazoret the Fervent.
The biggest thing that URx control decks lose with rotation is Wandering Fumarole, which was an essential backup win condition when people would Dispossess you in post-board games. For that reason, I think it’s important to have access to all three of Torrential Gearhulk, The Scarab God, and Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh in this deck. It helps that Azcanta can Impulse for Nicol Bolas! If that doesn’t excite you, then I don’t know what will.
That’s all I’ve got in the tank for this week, but I’ll be sure to keep working on some new brews to see if I can get anything playable out of Deeproot Champion and friends. What are you working on? Let me know!