Ixalan is a weird set to draft. Sometimes, you start with a tribe, get more cards of that tribe, and your deck turns out busted, even though you didn’t really do anything. Sometimes, you get 8 packs in a row without a playable in any color. Here are 10 tips I have for navigating the format:
1) Flexible cards are at a premium early on
In Ixalan, there is a serious shortage of playables. There are several cards that you’ll never play, like Demystify, Demolish, Spell Pierce, or Spreading Rot, and even of the playables within your colors, you might not want to play some due to tribal considerations. It’s very common that you receive a pack where the only playable in your combination is a card you can’t even play. You could be R/G Dinosaurs and receive a pack where the R/G cards are Demolish, Rummaging Goblin, Hijack, Blinding Fog, and River Heralds’ Boon. This is a pack with a lot of R/G cards, but the only good one, River Heralds’ Boon, is one that you cannot play. This can happen as early as pick one.
This means that there’s a decent chance you’ll end up without enough playables, or at least without enough cards you’re happy to play. Because of this, you want to prioritize cards that will go in any deck early on.
In Ixalan, those cards are mostly removal spells. Cards like Vanquish the Weak, Contract Killing, Pious Interdiction, and Unfriendly Fire are all “okay” first picks. Pirate’s Cutlass is also great because it goes in several decks—3 combinations of Pirates as well as Vampires.
The same is true of creatures that don’t necessarily require a tribe. I like picking cards like Merfolk Branchwalker and Tishana’s Wayfinder early, for example, because even though they are Merfolk, they will be good in any green deck.
2) Removal isn’t that good
In many Magic sets, removal is the best thing you can pick. While I like picking removal early in Ixalan, it’s for its flexibility and not its power. Once you are already established in an archetype, then the creatures are, as a whole, better than the removal spells. Do not get lured by the fact that “removal is good in Limited”—removal in Ixalan is inefficient and often costs more than what you’re removing. When given the choice between a removal or a generic creature that’s good in every deck, I usually take the creature. I’d take Merfolk Branchwalker over any common, for example.
If it’s P1p1, I’ll prioritize the removal. I’ll take Unfriendly Fire over Tilonalli’s Knight, Vanquish the Weak over Anointed Deacon, and Pounce over Jade Guardian. Once I’m already in Dinosaurs/Vampires/Merfolks, however, I’m happy to take the creature.
3) You want to be the open tribe, but you can’t waffle too much
In synergistic sets, it usually pays to stay open rather than commit. This is because the key to those Drafts is that a card that has first pick value for you could be useless for someone else, and if you position yourself in a tribe that no one else is in, you’ll get all of the cards that the table opened for that archetype. For example, if there are 3 Merfolk players at a table and 3 River Heralds’ Boons were opened, you can assume that each player is getting 1. If there’s only 1 Merfolk player, that player will get all 3 because no one else wants them, even other players who are green.
That said, Ixalan is an unforgiving set. With so many unplayables, if you keep changing tribes, you might find yourself having to play 19 lands and a Gilded Sentinel. In practical terms, this means that I try to spend my early picks figuring out which tribes are open, but I like to settle in one earlier than normal. In some formats, I’ll sometimes find myself with two cards in each color by the end of pack 1, and then only decide what I actually am by the start of pack 2. With Ixalan, that’s suicide. So my advice is to be flexible, but “lock in” earlier than normal, and then stay in barring an exceptional circumstance.
4) Tricks are great
Tricks in this format are everything removal is not. They only cost 1 mana for the most part, so you can cast them and another card in the same turn, and there isn’t any good instant-speed removal spells to punish them. I’m very happy to play cards like Vampire’s Zeal (even in non-Vampire decks), Skulduggery, and Dive Down, often in multiples. At Worlds, for example, Lee Shi-Tian played, I believe, 2 Vampire’s Zeals and 2 Skulduggery in his deck, and I think that was the correct choice. River Heralds’ Boon is obviously great as well if you’re Merfolk.
5) Auras are great
In some formats, you can’t play Auras—they’re just too punishing. In Ixalan, you can and should play them. One with the Wind is the best one, but Mark of the Vampire wins many games as well, and even Swashbuckling can be good in the right deck. This is a product of removal being bad, but also of the fact that a lot of early creatures are powerful. You can have a curve of turn-1 Kumena’s Speaker, turn-2 One with the Wind, and that will beat almost anybody. On top of that, there’s a good hexproof creature at common!
6) The 1-drops are better than normal
Most of the time, 1-drops are bad in Limited—Suntail Hawk was never a great card. In this set, however, most of the 1-drops range from playable to actively good, either because they have extra abilities that synergize with a tribe, because they enable raid, or because they carry Auras and equipment. Blight Keeper, Skittering Heartstopper, Kinjalli’s Caller, and Jungle Delver are cards I’m often happy to play, sometimes in multiples, and uncommon and rare 1-drops like Siren Stormtamer, Priest of the Wakening Sun, and Duskborne Skymarcher are all great.
7) Watch out for these two specific spots on your curve
Most Ixalan decks have a decent curve, but there are two spots in particular that you have to worry about. The first is the 4-drop slot in R/W Dinosaurs. Simply put, there are way too many R/W cards that cost 4: Pious Interdiction, Thrash of Raptors, Bonded Horncrest, Steadfast Armasaur, Imperial Aerosaur, Ixalan’s Binding, and Pterodon Knight are all cards you’re happy to play. Since there are so many 4s, this means that you should devalue them a little bit compared to normal. It also means that 4s that would have been good in other archetypes, such as Brazen Buccaneers and Paladin of the Bloodstained, often don’t make the cut.
The other tricky slot is the Vampire 5-drops. You can afford fewer 5s than 4s, and there are several 5s you want in Vampires: Anointed Deacon, Contract Killing, Glorifier of Dusk, Shining Aerosaur, Dark Nourishment, and Bishop of the Bloodstained are all good. Since Contract Killing is very good and Deacon is the key to the archetype, this means I put a lower priority on all the other 5-drops, and sometimes I don’t even play Bishop of the Bloodstained in my Vampire decks if I already have something like 3 Deacons and 2 Contract Killings.
8) Don’t aim to draft U/W or B/G
Some people swear by those color combinations, but I don’t like them and haven’t seen a deck that impressed me that couldn’t have been another combination instead. I don’t think it’s impossible to draft a good B/G or U/W deck, but I think it’s very hard because the card quality in the set is low, which means that you need the synergy cards to work. A deck like Vampires can exist because it elevates the value of cards such as Queen’s Commission, Queen’s Bay Soldier, and Anointed Deacon to much higher than those cards would normally be through the synergies that are present in the deck. Once you do not have those synergies, then you’ll end up with a bunch of mediocre cards, as there isn’t enough power in the set to make a good non-synergistic deck.
There is some synergy in the B/G Explore archetype, with Chupacabras and Elementals, but I think you need a lot of those before you go for it, and for me personally it has never happened since all of the payoff is uncommon and the explore cards are mostly good anyway, so other people snatch them up.
If you want to play it safe, I’d say that you should assume that U/W and B/G aren’t draftable. You might miss the 1% of the time the deck would actually be great, but in those spots you’ll probably still have a good deck. In return, you’re going to spare yourself from the 99% of the time they are bad.
9) Some games in this format are non-games and that’s OK
In Ixalan, there are a lot of games where a person doesn’t do anything. Some decks are absurdly powerful with very fast, tribal starts—it’s not uncommon to be attacked for 3 or even 4 before you’ve played your second land against Merfolk, and all the other tribes can have a very imposing board before you’ve even played a creature. Sometimes, they go turn-2 Raptor Companion, turn-3 Territorial Hammerskull, then they remove your first creature, have a trick, and you die just like that.
On top of that, Auras don’t make for very fun games—cards like One with the Wind and Mark of the Vampire tend to create a sub-game where if you can get rid of the creature, you win, and if you can’t, you lose. You’re often forced to double-block, and if they have a trick, you lose. If they don’t, you win. If they have Jade Guardian, good luck.
Even worse, there are almost no mana sinks to speak of. Cards like Blightspeaker pretend to be mana sinks, but in practice they’re not going to win you most games in which you flood out horribly. If a player draws a lot of lands and the other player draws a normal amount of lands, then the player who drew a lot of lands is usually going to lose.
The fact that a lot of games just end for reasons outside anyone’s control isn’t great, but acknowledging that this happens more than normal in this format will help prevent frustration and will lead to playing better and having an overall better life in the future. If you play Ixalan Draft, you have to know you signed up for this—you have to accept that in any given game, your opponent can play Jade Guardian into One with the Wind and you won’t be able to do anything. When that happens—which it invariably will at some point—resist the temptation to throw your deck in the trash can. Take a deep breath, and move on to the next game.
10) There’s a real difference between Leagues and pod play
There’s always a difference between Magic Online Leagues and pod play (which is the method used in all live tournaments), but in Ixalan it’s more noticeable. Through my first two Magic Online Drafts, I played against 5 Pirate decks—all of them were busted, with multiple key uncommon and rare Pirates. It led me to think that Pirates was better than anything else, when in fact I should have quickly realized that something like this was never going to be possible in pod play.
Decks in Leagues will tend to be significantly better than in pod play because there’s no hate drafting. In a synergistic format such as Ixalan, it’s not uncommon for a card that’s first-pick quality for a deck to go around the table and end up being taken with four cards left in the pack. In a League, there’s no incentive to hate-draft that card—you want the person next to you to commit to that archetype anyway, and if their deck ends up busted, it doesn’t affect you.
In pod play, the incentives are reversed. You want their deck to be as bad as possible. When you see a card like River Heralds’ Boon or Queen’s Commission go very late, and your other options are Demolish, Spell Pierce and Spreading Rot, you’re just going to take the better card. This will result in everyone having a worse deck in pod play.
There’s also the fact that in pod play, with a synergistic format like this, you often share the fate of your table. Since there are only four tribes, it’s as if there were 4-6 color combinations, rather than the usual 10, which intensifies this.
If two people are in each tribe, then everyone’s decks will be good. If four people are Merfolk, then those four people will have horrible decks, and everyone else’s decks will be great. In pod play, the Merfolk decks will play each other at some point, as will the great decks, and all the good decks in the first pod will be playing other good decks. In League, all bets are off—you could have a good deck from the first pod, and then play against all bad Merfolk decks from the second pod, or all busted decks from the second pod.
As a result, don’t get desperate if you keep playing against amazing decks in Leagues, and don’t get overconfident if you keep playing against horrible decks. Know that in an actual tournament, both are unlikely.