Ixalan is already special. The plane’s flavor is just off-the-charts great. Every day I am excited to see what cool new cards will be previewed and feel that the mechanical tie-ins to the creative world are awesome. It was interesting to see the evolution of the set Maro described here and here, utilizing so many changes throughout design due to the intersection of flavor and mechanics, and that inside look iterating again and again really makes me appreciate where the set ended up. I am getting a little ahead of myself though since the set still has some secrets, and is missing a big chunk of commons and uncommons needed for any halfway-thorough Limited analysis.
Until then, I thought I’d attempt to tackle a subject that I would normally take on later in a set’s lifetime—rare/mythic Draft build-arounds. Ixalan is just overflowing with cool build-arounds, and this way I get to cover a lot of the cards previewed so far, while also setting realistic expectations that you won’t see these all the time in Draft. When you do, though, this will have given you some food for thought before you ever crack a pack of the new set.
Wakening Sun’s Avatar
This card is as much a bomb as it is a build-around, but it can still be improved with the right supporting cast. That supporting cast is rather obvious, but Dinosaurs aren’t exactly subtle. This Avatar does cost a whopping 8 mana, which means you’ll really need a plan to get there, and thankfully there are a bunch of ways to find extra mana between Treasure, green Dino ramp, and explore. My guess is that this card is going to be the Ulamog of the set. You cast it and it’s lights-out for the opponent.
After you draft it, prioritize the mana more than Dinosaurs, because casting it at all is going to be quite good. Notably, it lets opposing Dinos live, a “symmetrical” (not truly, because you usually have Dinosaurs and your opponent won’t) effect you don’t see on many cards these days. What’s nice is that ramp and Dinosaurs are usually going to go together without really trying, and all these words are just to say take this 8-drop and crush.
Okay—a little less brutal than the last build-around, Arcane Adaptation really makes you work for value. It’s likely more a Constructed card than a Limited one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to break it in Draft. You could turn all of your creatures into Merfolk, but that doesn’t seem particularly amazing to me. Likely many of them already will be, and then you’re down a card for putting this into your deck. Instead, you have to think outside the natural color pairs of the set. My gut tells me that this card will only really be good at maximizing U/W or U/B Vampire synergies. Vampires scale very nicely and care about numbers, but you still have to make up for the fact that you’re down a card. In addition, you have to have a deck that doesn’t fall apart when you don’t draw the Adaptation. All in all, I think this is just too many hurdles but the card is pretty sweet.
Herald of Secret Streams
Herald of the Secret Streams' payoff is a little more attainable, and encourages you to do something that’s already worth doing. There are a variety of ways to get +1/+1 counters—from explore, raid, or Savage Stomp, and now suddenly these beefy creatures are also unstoppable death machines! You do need to actually build around the Herald though, because it is an otherwise awful card as a 4-mana 2/3 vanilla creature.
I actually like this style of build-around card for a few reasons. The first: It harkens back to a time when synergy-based cards weren’t played simply because they were already good enough otherwise. There is an actual challenge to drafting the card and ensuring that it has a purpose in your deck. That challenge is fun, but then also provides a very real payoff in game.
Additionally, I like the float value these cards get in the Draft itself. Let’s say that the player sitting the maximum distance seven seats away from you opens the Herald but you’re the +1/+1 counter deck. In this case you might actually get it! Finally, when you lose to the card, you get to compliment your opponent on their use of the card. When I lost to Hour of Devastation's Gods, I didn’t feel like my opponent outwitted me (I’m not saying get salty or berate an opponent when they have a bomb rare!), but with build-arounds, there’s an actual discussion to be had and both the loser and winner can come away with a positive experience.
Revel in Riches
Alternate win-condition sighting! 10 Treasures is a lot and probably a pipe dream in Draft, but this card does offer some power outside of that. Kill spells get better, but so does trading resources. You invest 5 mana and a card but get some key tempo from Treasures if needed, and then you get to start working toward the ultimate once you no longer need the mana. This transition in the way the card plays almost feels like a secret flip card, and I’m actually having a hard time evaluating this one. 5 mana might be too much to try to use this fairly and perhaps its purpose is to go all-in on Treasure. Each other source of Treasure you have helps you get that much closer to winning, but unlike some other awkward alternate win cons like milling, this one actually provides meaningful progress along the way if you aren’t achieving your goal. Sign me up!
Star of Extinction
I wish there were Expeditions just so Stuffy Doll could be in the set with this card. As for build-around potential, this card does have some, but needs the right type of cards to interact with, or it’s just a wrath. If you have enough enrage creatures, though…
What a weird but awesome card. What sells me on this in Draft is the “X or less” on the text. That’s pretty flexible, and the Invocation just lets you start doubling up on spells as long as they’re expensive enough. But they don’t even have to be that expensive. 4-drops will have a decent chance of finding something to cast in your average Limited deck, and any 6+ drops start to become that much more absurd. The Invocation is firmly in the durdle camp but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, it can take over a game relatively quickly. There’s a very strong chance this card goes later than it should initially because it looks like a quirky but fun card, and while it is that, it looks good as well. It’s unfortunate it says "from hand," or it would be quite the wombo combo with Hazoret’s Undying Fury in Constructed.
Primal Amulet // Primal Wellspring
I’m ending again with a cool transform rare, and I once again love the flavor and mechanical tie-in these exploring transform cards bring. I’m batting from left field with this one, and you do need a lot of instants and sorceries to make this card good, but it is incredibly powerful once flipped.
Tribal components make this card even less likely to work since creatures are at the forefront, but there have been recent sets where you could get 12+ spells in your deck where I could see this card doing work. Time will certainly tell with this one, and again I think it’s more likely to flop, but it is a cool build-around that wants you to fit in as much as possible if you go for it. Every extra spell you get really powers up the Amulet because it will flip quickly and start going crazy with copies.
That’s all I have this week, but as you can see, Ixalan promises goodies for all sorts of players. Some of these cards ask for big commitments while others skirt the line of build-around, but I’m really looking forward to seeing which of these are hits.