Of the 4 tribes in Ixalan, Pirates is the one that interests me most because they’ll be the hardest to crack. If a Dinosaurs deck is good, it’ll be painfully obvious—it’ll have individually overpowered cards that happen to all be Dinosaurs and work together. If a Pirates deck is good, then it might take a long time before we actually find it, since it seems to be based on synergy rather than raw power—the cards are going to work with each other to form a masterpiece.

The way I see it, there are two possible ways you can build a Pirates deck—either you play a U/B-based aggro-control Faeries-like build, or you play a B/R-based aggro deck. Today I’m going to talk about the U/B version.

Most of the Pirates in this set remind me of Faeries. In fact, they could simply have been Faeries, if not for the fact that they don’t all fly and the fact that I assume Pirates are a more popular creature type. Their style is the same—small creatures with tricky abilities that do a lot more than you would otherwise assume.

The key to building a Pirates deck is to focus more on synergies between the cards than between their creature types. They will work together because they are designed to work together, but not necessarily because they’re all Pirates, since the payoff that we’ve seen so far isn’t very big. It should be a “deck with Pirates” rather than a “Pirates deck.”

This is how I would evaluate the new cards:

The Definites

Lookout’s Dispersal

Lookout’s Dispersal is the card that most draws me towards U/B Pirates. At 3 mana, it’s not a great card, but it’s not bad either—it looks worse because I’m comparing it with Supreme Will, which is amazing, but on power level alone it’s passable. At 2 mana, it’s arguably the best 1U counter we’ve ever had. Mana Leak was too good for Standard, and paying 4 is a lot more than paying 3.

For it to cost 2, all Lookout’s Dispersal asks is that you control a Pirate. In a deck with 20-ish Pirates in it, that’s going to be easy. You’re not often going to be able to use it turn 2 as you need a 1-mana Pirate for that, but you’re often going to be able to cast a 1-mana spell (say, a Fatal Push) plus a Dispersal on turn 3, or a 2-drop Pirate plus a Dispersal on turn 4. Later in the game, you can cast a 4-drop and still keep counterspell mana up.

Siren Stormtamer

This type of card has been playable before when synergies were involved (Judge’s Familiar, Cursecatcher, Mausoleum Wanderer), and while this is worse at countering mass removal spells and card draw (it doesn’t), it’s better at protecting individual, powerful creatures. It even protects them (or yourself) from abilities, which is something the others don’t do. It looks to me like Pirates really wants its key creatures to live, and Siren Stormtamer is a way to get on the board early, turn on Pirate synergies, and protect your better creatures. It also lets you play Lookout’s Dispersal on turn 2, which is a factor. I think most U/B Pirates decks will play 4.

Kitesail Freebooter

Mesmeric Fiend was a good card, but the game was very different. Nowadays, I do not believe it would have been a good card (and Brain Maggot wasn’t). But Kitesail Freebooter has an extra point of toughness, flying, and a relevant creature type, and that just might be good enough. It also pairs well with the “play some key cards and protect them” cards like Siren Stormtamer. Between those two and Lookout’s Dispersal, it’s going to be hard for your opponent to stop a card like Hostage Taker.

Fathom Fleet Captain

Fathom Fleet Captain is interesting because it’s both an enabler and payoff. As a 2-mana Pirate, it can turn on your other Pirate synergies quite easily, and it also rewards you for having more of them. This is one of the best Pirate cards, as it plays very well with the aggro-control theme. Imagine you lead with Dreamcaller Siren, and then play the Captain. If they don’t kill it immediately, then next turn you can attack with it, make a 2/2, and you still have mana to protect it with the Siren. Then the following turn, you can make a token and play Lookout’s Dispersal. It’s sort of like a Bitterblossom, except it costs 2 per turn and is easier to kill, but hey, you don’t take damage and you get 2/2s.

Hostage Taker

This card is a cross between Sower of Temptation and Fiend Hunter. If they can kill it immediately, then they get their card back, no questions asked. If they can’t, though, then you have the opportunity to cast it, at which point it doesn’t matter if they kill the Hostage Taker. Most of the time, this will be a one-turn window for them, but sometimes that window closes instantaneously since in the late game it won’t be rare that you take a card and play that in the same turn (you only need 6 mana to take and play Heart of Kiran, for example).

Normally I’d call this a “maybe”, but I think it goes very well with the rest of the theme of “protecting your powerful creatures.” Between counterspells, Freebooter, Siren Stormtamer, and other “must kills” like Fathom Fleet Captain, it’s very likely that by the time this gets into play that they won’t have a way to kill it.

Walk the Plank

Walk the Plank is the best sorcery-speed removal that you can play, pending Merfolk being a great deck in Standard. If you can afford some (which I think you can), then I think you want to play it.

The Maybes

Kitesail Freebooter

It’s easy to compare Kitesail Freebooter to Mesmeric Fiend or Tidehollow Sculler, which were good cards, but it has one massive difference—it doesn’t take creatures. If you’re interested in taking removal from them, then that doesn’t matter, but part of why those cards are good is because they mess with the opponent’s curve. You could, for example, take their 2-drop creature on turn 2 so that even if they killed it later on, the card wouldn’t be that good anymore. Freebooter can’t do that.

That said, it has some pluses—it’s got 2 toughness, flying, and a relevant creature type. Is that enough to make it good? Probably, but I don’t think it’s the automatic 4-of that I originally assumed it’d be. I’ll start with 4, but can see myself lowering to 2 copies pretty soon, and even potentially 0 in the future.

Daring Saboteur

I think people are underestimating the Saboteur a bit because it’s being compared to previous looters we’ve had. The difference is that as a 2/1, its stats are actually meaningful. I can’t recall another 2-mana looter that could ever attack for 2. On top of that, its unblockable ability represents a threat in the late game that has to be dealt with if the game is stalled. Granted, it’s easy to deal with it since it’s only a 2/1, but it only costs 2 mana, and you can’t ask for much more out of a 2-mana card than being a threat early and a threat late.

Deadeye Tracker

I can see playing this card for two reasons: First, there are decks that rely on graveyards. This can be in a lot of decks that incidentally need it (e.g., Snapcaster Mage), or a few decks that absolutely need it (e.g., Dredge). Unless God-Pharaoh’s Gift becomes super popular, it’s unlikely that this will be the case in Standard.

The second reason is if you really want a 1-mana Pirate. Right now, I don’t think the incentives are there for you to play a card that you would not normally play just because it’s a Pirate. Perhaps this will change with the rest of the spoilers or with a new expansion.

Deadeye Tracker could be good, and I’m going to try some number of them, but my inclination is that Fathom Fleet Captain is a better mana sink.

Ruin Raider

I think this is a great card in the more aggressive decks (like B/R), but a deck like U/B won’t always be aggressive, and the damage you take can be a real problem when you need to stabilize. That said, there are a lot of cheap creatures in the deck, many of which have flying or menace, so it’ll be very easy to trigger raid if you want to. I’m going to start with 2 of them because I think they’re good, but it’s possible that the metagame ends up being too aggressive and then you either have to decrease the number you play or cut them altogether. It’s also possible that the metagame ends up being a bit slower, in which case you’ll want the full 4.

Admiral Beckett Brass

Admiral Beckett Brass is the best payoff for playing Pirates that we have so far—it pumps all of them and lets you steal a permanent when you hit with 3. A smart person would ask, “why do I need to steal anything if I’m hitting with 3 pumped creatures?” But I think the ability can come up more often than you expect. The way those decks work, they often start on the defensive and then eventually at some point turn the corner, and this helps turn the corner a lot.

The main problem, of course, is that it’s Red. If this was U/B, you’d probably be playing 2, but since you need to add a third color, it’s probably not happening. If the mana proves good enough, or if you want to splash other cards as well (ideally other Pirates, since you have Unclaimed Territory for that), then I can see playing a couple.

Fell Flagship

I think this card is good, but it’s hard to evaluate, so I’m going to put it as a “maybe.” As an artifact, it’s a horrible lord (it’s not a creature and it’s not even +1/+1!), but it does turn all of your bad Pirates into much more threatening cards, and helps a bit in racing. Once you crew it, though, then it becomes quite dangerous, and the mere fact that you can crew it will make your opponent play differently. Crew 3 is a lot, but easily attainable from the fact that it pumps all of your creatures. This is one of the payoffs for being Pirates.

Chart a Course

This card is super powerful, but the question is whether you even want a card draw spell or not. If you do, then this is probably the best one, but it might not be something you’re interested in.

Duress

This is the best discard spell that you can play, but like Chart a Course, I don’t know if you’re going to be interested in this effect to begin with. It’s certainly good with your “must kill” creatures, so it could be worth it and I think it’s better than most other counterspells you can play. The problem is that you can’t play a very large number of both Duress and Freebooter, as you’ll then have too many dead cards versus creature-heavy decks.

The No’s

Opt

I love Opt and I think it will see play in Standard and Modern, but I don’t think this is the deck for it. With a deck like this, you want to use all of your mana every turn in the early game, and the added card filtering just isn’t worth the time you spend. I could be proven wrong in the future, but my first Pirates lists will not have this card.

Spell Pierce

Spell Pierce is another card I like, but not in this deck. It’s good to protect your powerful creatures in the early game, but you also have to protect them in the late game, and removal is cheap—it’s easy to cast Fatal Push or Abrade and still have 2 mana left. There are certain metagames in which I’d maindeck this, and this might become one, but right now I’d say that this is a sideboard card and that main-deck Duress is better.

Dreamcaller Siren

This card reminds me of Mistbind Clique on a fundamental level since it has flying, flash, and taps things, but in practice, it will not play out the same way. It’s still good in a race, but it doesn’t ambush anything and doesn’t Time Walk them, so it’s much more similar to a 4-mana Pestermite than it is to Mistbind Clique. Faeries decks often still play Pestermite though, so maybe there is a metagame for Dreamcaller Siren.

Wanted Scoundrels

Interesting card, but the downside is too big compared to the upside. 4/3 for 2 is certainly great, but it’s not like it’s going to dominate the board. It still dies to all of the cheap removal (Abrade, Harnessed Lightning, Fatal Push), and it still trades with most 3-drops, and even some 2-drops. Can you imagine playing versus Red and playing this, and then they end-of-turn Lightning Strike it and turn-3 Glorybringer?!

Dire Fleet Ravager

This is an interesting card, but I think at 5 mana it just costs way too much, and there are better alternatives such as Scarab God or Skysovereign.

This is how I’d build the deck:

Pirates

It’s possible to go for a slightly more aggressive version, with more Ruin Raiders, and it’s also possible to try some more counterspells, such as Censor and even Supreme Will. Right now, I want to try the “disrupt their hand and play good threats” approach, and I think a version like this will do that well.