Let me start by saying that Ixalan Draft is one of my favorite Draft formats.
My goal for today’s article is to teach you the nuts and bolts of Ixalan Draft. Even if you haven’t drafted before, I’d like you to come away from this article feeling like you have the necessary information to dominate a Draft. I’m about 35 Drafts deep, and these are the principles I believe to be true about the format.
The key to winning at Limited is to understand how the commons work together. The uncommons and beyond are a luxury. Sometimes you see them and sometimes you don’t. You will always see a ton of commons. They are the backbone of the format.
Fundamental understanding of the commons is like having good pawn structure in chess. It isn’t flashy like dashing a rook across the board, but good pawn structure fills the trenches where the game is won and lost.
Overall Impression of Ixalan Draft
Ixalan is deceptively simple, yet nuanced. Good flavor and fun cards. The board states don’t tend to get bogged down with too much nonsense.
Ixalan is about basic combat and board presence.
The format is ruled by aggression. In most cases, I prefer decks that are good at attacking when I can get them. The format favors attacking, but isn’t particularly fast. It rewards smart play. Another aspect of the format is that the bomb rares don’t feel too unbeatable. I don’t feel hopeless when rares are cast against me like that stupid mostly-hexproof 5/3 Sphinx in Amonkhet. Commons matter even more, because the rares are even less likely to bail you out of a poor Draft.
Rule #1: Build with a Curve in Mind
One of the easiest ways to build a great deck is to be curve conscious with your creatures.
I want every single deck I play to have this core of 11 creatures:
- 5x 2-drops
- 4x 3-drops
- 2x 4-drops
You’ll likely need more than just 11 creatures. I feel like 15 is the sweet spot. But I always want to prioritize filling out this portion of my curve before I’m getting my third or fourth awesome 5-drop.
The same can be said of all the combat tricks, removal, etc. You will want a nice distribution of costs with an emphasis on “cheaper is better.” An above-average deck will typically have a lean curve with half the spells at CMC 3 or less.
You cannot interact with the board effectively when you are stuck playing one spell per turn all game long. Look to “double-spell” (play two spells in one turn cycle) before your opponent can. The player who double-spells first and most often is highly favored to win because they are simply doing more and having a greater impact on the game.
Even if your deck is full of awesome bombs, you’ll be hard pressed to win if your curve stinks. You’ll be playing from behind every game. You’ll get less value from your good cards because you have no choice but to run them out and hope for the best. You’ll be constantly walking into the opponent’s combat tricks because they can push your hand into taking actions you’d rather not take. A word of advice—make life easy on yourself and prioritize that good, lean creature curve.
I frequently pick above average 2-drops over nearly everything else. If your 2-drop requirement is met with above average cards, it is very likely that your deck has genuine 3-0 potential.
Archetypes Aren’t Everything—Just 90% of It
Archetypes are important in Limited. Understanding what they are and what they do is key to having sustainable Limited success.
Some formats are more archetype driven than others. Formats like Ravnica, where fixing and gold cards are abundant, allow more profitable deviations from the beaten path. But even less rigid Limited formats are still defined by archetypes.
On Ixalan, the archetypes are defined by tribal synergies that tend to put you into certain combinations of colors. There are lots of cards with tribal “payoffs” and ignoring these synergies will put you at a disadvantage.
Pirates: Grixis (Red, Blue, and Black)
The Pirate tribe is only present in blue, black, and red. It is possible to play all 3 colors but most Pirate decks will be solidly 2 colors (B/R, U/R, or U/B).
Personally, I’ve found the red Pirates to be the most consistent. The aggro is real. I love to pair them with blue and don’t mind pairing with black.
The U/B Pirate deck is the trickiest, because it depends on maximizing “artifacts-matter” in concert with Treasure tokens. I’d also suggest blue Pirate decks—having access to Treasure gives them an advantage at splashing a powerful off-color bomb at a low opportunity cost.
When you really start breaking things down by creature curve it becomes easier to understand:
The biggest drawback Pirates face is that their 2-drops don’t dazzle out of the box. They can’t pound through opposing 2-drops without help the way that Merfolk or Dinos can.
Also, just because you are in Pirate colors doesn’t mean you have to be all Pirate all the time. I’ve had black-red Pirate/Dino hybrids that draw from both synergies. Tilonalli’s Knight is an amazing 2-drop creature (assuming you also have some Dinos) and the red Dinos slot nicely into any aggressive red deck.
Blue gets two 3-drops in Pirates. Siren Lookout is a top-notch 3-drop. In my opinion, it’s the best blue common Pirate by a mile. The Sailor of Means obviously goes way up in value in a U/B Pirate deck looking to make use of Desperate Castaways.
I’ve played Sentinel in Desperate Castaway decks that were lacking in the artifact department. It is not a great card unless it is specifically filling that need.
The 4-drops are pretty medium. Brazen Buccaneers is the one I prefer and possibly a reason I prefer red. I love the explore mechanic and it is no surprise that I think the explore ones are the best ones. Drawing cards and scrying…? How can that be bad?
I usually save my 5-drop spots for uncommons and rares. With that being said, Storm Fleet Pyromancer is a ready-made 2-for-1 that is effective in certain low curve matchups. I sideboard it in a lot in matchups where I expect a lot of low cost creatures that will trade early.
The spells and combat tricks are fairly interchangeable between tribes. Just because “Mark of the Vampire” references Vampires doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t also be excellent in a Pirate deck!
Here’s the breakdown for curve purposes:
Skulduggery is one of the most important gameplay cards in the format. When they have a single black mana open, look out! Playing around the card and finding good moments to use it is a huge position battle in games. 1 mana to create a 2-for-1 blow out on the board for a single B is huge. For reference, I’ve been taking this card extremely highly lately, over even Contract Killing!
I like all of these spells a lot. Sure Strike is an important card to understand because it is very good and sees a ton of play. It’s a great way to move large blockers out of the way on the cheap. Hard removal is scarce on Ixalan, and so combat tricks are even more important than they typically would be.
The Cutlass is the reason to be Pirates. It is also great because while most of the spells are interchangeable, no other deck wants the card. It is an absolute beating. It powers up Desperate Castaways and makes all of your creatures rumble with Dinos, one after another. Outside of good 2-drops, this is the card I prioritize most.
I had a deck with 3, and I was worried it was too much. You can’t have too much Cutlass.
Decent removal in the 3 slot. These are all pretty wonderful spells.
These spells are all on the expensive side but powerful. Don’t go overboard on these. One of the biggest mistakes is that people get seduced by the “power” and end up with a crazy curve. A good rule of thumb is 1 or 2 4-drop spells in a 40-card deck.
These are both extremely useful effects, but you are paying a premium for it. I love having one or two 5-drop spells (when they are this good), but never more than that.
Merfolk: Simic – U/G
Merfolk is a tempo synergy-based deck, and my favorite tribe to draft because they have excellent low-cost common creatures and nice payoff spells.
He’s not great, but he’s playable. In fact, the very best Merfolk decks tend to be so synergy based that having a copy of this creature in the deck is a very nice place to drop some extra +1/+1 counters.
One of the reasons I like Merfolk so much is that their 2-drop commons are both great. Not only are they among the best 2-drops heads up compared to every other tribe.
I have not been a big fan of the 4-drops. The weakness of the Merfolk is that their high drops are mediocre. The fix to the problem is to not play them. With that being said, Jade Guardian has impressed me. He is great in the Merfolk deck at continuing to allow your early creatures to pressure higher converted mana cost blockers.
If they do nothing on 5 and pass and you walk into this nonsense, you have nobody but yourself to blame. They always have it when they do that.
These spells are actually pretty good at protecting your “build-a-Merfolk” from removal. I know it sounds crazy because Pierce is such a Constructed all-star, but I typically like Dive Down better in Limited because it can also keep two same-sized creatures from trading while also being a foil for removal. It doesn’t counter Vraska, but it takes care of 90% of the things I’m worried about.
Aside from having great early drops, River Heralds’ Boon is the card that makes Merfolk the archetype I most want to be in. It’s the combat trick that keeps giving. It also stacks favorably, allowing you to put two +1/+1 counters on the same Merfolk. The card is such a blowout in combat and makes it difficult for the opponent to catch back up after they’ve been caught off-guard.
I love New Horizons. It allows you to ramp mana without falling behind on the board. In fact, it can often push you ahead on the turn you play it so that you can make a favorable attack. My favorite is the turn-4 New Horizons to pump my Merfolk and then use it to cast River Heralds’ Boon.
Crash the Ramparts is so strong. When you are playing from ahead it’s like a removal spell that also deals damage! It’s also a great finisher. The opponent tries to chump block a huge monster and “oops, they died.” A card to always keep in mind when the opponent has 2G up.
Already covered these in Pirates.
Dinosaurs: Naya – W/R/G
The Dinos are an interesting tribe. They certainly have some really high impact uncommon+ cards that push the tribe into the top tier. But the base (as is the case for all archetypes) is in the commons.
A few things to keep in mind: The R/W Dino deck tends to be a straight Boros aggro deck. It exploits Dino synergies where it can, but will play any good aggressive creatures and tricks.
R/G and G/W are tricky. They are less adept at racing than the other colors and blocking is difficult. I’ve had the most success with these archetypes by trying to get a little bit “rampy.”
In particular, New Horizons and Blossom Dryad really shine in the green Dinosaur decks. Pairing these two cards up can produce some really big swings. Of all the color combinations, I’ve found that green is the best suited to play defense. This is a drawback in general (as the format rewards attacking more than blocking), but with that in mind, it makes a lot of sense to plan on trying to survive the early turns until you can turn the corner and go over the top with big green monsters.
I feel about this card the way that I feel about Jungle Delver. It isn’t a great card in an average deck, but it has potential in a very focused G/W ramp deck. It can block some things and produce mana. I would almost never start this card in R/W.
The R/W common 2-drops are aggressive. The green ones are defensive. When I said that green is best suited for rampy, defensive decks, this is precisely why.
The Knight may not be a Dino but it is one of the best reasons to play Dinosaurs. It hits hard and is difficult to block early in the game.
The trend of aggressive R/W cards and defensive green cards continues. Territorial Hammerskull is probably the best 3-drop common creature in the format. It impacts the game in a huge way and allows you to press the advantage. Ravenous Daggertooth is great at trading early and buffering your life total until you can stabilize and go over the top.
You’ve got two for the aggressive deck and two for the defensive deck. Grazing Whiptail and Looming Altisaur are really important in the more defensive builds. In particular, I’ve been impressed with Looming Altisaur. Since much of the format revolves around using combat tricks to push blockers out of the way, Altisaur is invaluable. There are very few creatures that can best it even with a pump spell. My appreciation of the card has continued to grow the more I play.
A big strength of the Naya colors is that they have a lot of great 5-drop rares and uncommons. As far as 5-drops go, both of these are fairly unimpressive, which some players may not notice immediately.
Yes, they will have an impact on a board when you play them. They might even get the job done. I mean, they cost 5. They are more powerful than cards that cost 2 and 3. But my assessment of cost analysis isn’t that 5-drops are individually more powerful than 2-drops! I’m curve conscious and with so many great uncommons and rares I’ll typically pass on these creatures because I want to snag the better big Dinosaurs. If they don’t come, these cards are always floating around in the bottom of the pack to fill out your curve.
6 is expensive… these creatures are large. I’ve certainly had them make my deck before but I’m typically not happy about it. If I’m paying 6 mana for something I want it to be pretty busted. The payoff isn’t great but these cards have their place particularly in the ramp shell.
There are some nice spells in the Naya colors that help the clunky Dino decks double-spell to try to stave off the beatdown.
I love Slash of Talons in G/W as a way to deal with high quality 2-drops. Vampire’s Zeal (alongside Skulduggery) is one of the only consistent 1-mana combat tricks. It is amazing at blowing out opponents who try to “fight” your creatures with Pounce or Savage Stomp.
Dual Shot is a really nice sideboard card. It tends to be difficult for Merfolk to deal with. Also, there is the bonus mode of targeting your own enrage creatures!
A lot of good 3s in Naya. The problem is that the 3 spot is pretty jammed up in many of these decks already. I love New Horizons. I prefer Crash the Ramparts in Merfolk to Dinos because they have an embarrassment of riches in the cheap drop department.
Crushing Canopy and Legion’s Judgment are both cards that won’t always make my main deck but are invaluable sideboard cards depending upon the matchup. I’m always happy to snag these late to tighten up the old sideboard. Crushing Canopy, in particular, has a ton of value against both blue decks and Vampire decks.
A fine card on the high end of the curve. I don’t generally love this card in Dinos, since I need interaction early and want to cast boom-booms later.
Vampires: Orzhov – B/W
The Vampire clan is the one I most overlooked early. They are not flashy. They are not exciting. But like all things Orzhov, they will eventually whittle you away and leave you feeling drained and empty inside.
They are not great at storming the gates, but they have a very even and nuanced attack that can hang with any archetype. You interact on both sides of the field, blocking and attacking. The key is to stave off the ground long enough for flyers to seal the deal in the sky.
The removal is scarce in Ixalan with combat tricks serving as pseudo-removal. You can’t use combat tricks to take out flyers if you can’t block them!
Bishop’s Soldier and Skyblade are the premier 2-drops. The Bishop makes racing awkward for aggressive decks while the Skyblade pecks away at their life total in the air. Skyblade of the Legion is a surprisingly adept blocker in the early stages of the game, especially when coupled with the awesome B/W combat tricks: Skulduggery, Slash, and Zeal. With a little help, it can win a lot of combat sequences.
These are all the grindiest of 3s. All great. Bloodletter is a good racing card, especially when you can gum up the ground. These cards all play a role. I don’t typically prioritize Conquistador, but when they show up in droves you can grind really hard. The downside is that they are often difficult to trade in combat because they are so small.
Another great blocking, racing, and gum-up-the-ground card. It’s not hard to make the Paladin trade with a card and the 1/1 lifelink is just gravy.
The secret (not so secret) key to the Vampire deck. The Deacon allows the Skyblade and the Bloodletter to hit really, really hard in the air when racing. The +2/+0 combat trigger is like pseudo-haste. It is also a pretty big game in combination with the vast wealth of lifelink creatures. 3/1 lifelink tokens are very difficult for most decks to deal with if it goes on for very long.
I actually like this 6-drop, and I hate 6-drops. It is just a great fit in the Vampire deck and plays to its strengths. I don’t pick it highly, but I’m always happy to start it.
Whether you are Dino or Vampires, these are great because they are cheap and impactful.
Vanquish always starts. Judgment sometimes, but it’s a great sideboard card against Naya decks.
I love Mark of the Vampire. I said that it was great in Pirates, which is true. But enchanting the 1/3 flyer and transforming it into a 3/5 flying, lifelink is such a huge game. It’s nearly impossible to race. The Vampire deck is all about draining the opponent’s life total and keeping yours just out of reach. The perfect card with awesome flavor.
I like this card better in Vampires than in Pirates because I feel that Vampires are better suited to play a long game. Vampires are not defensive. They pressure, but they pressure slowly while keeping their bases covered. Contract Killing is a nice ace in the hole for when the opponent comes up with some really powerful rare or mythic that breaks the normal trends of the common game I’m describing. A fantastic catch-all for a deck that is looking to play 8+ turns of Magic.
There are other routes to take. I’ve seen some interesting U/W and B/G decks that are not tribal. But if you stick to the basics I’ve explained here, you will be well prepared to start crushing the Draft format.
- Tribal alliance matters and dictates the major archetypes: You don’t have to color inside the lines, but your picture will be prettier if you do. Synergies between allied creature types are the easiest ways to create advantage in Ixalan Limited.
- Removal is scarce and combat tricks are the removal: You need combat tricks and you need to learn what they are, what they do, and play around them. You can only get wrecked so many times by Skulduggery before its time to suck it up and play around it!
- Green is the most defensive color (well, besides Merfolk): I have had little success with aggressive green decks. They don’t beatdown as hard. I like drafting these decks with early defense in mind with an emphasis of turning the corner and going over the top.
- No removal makes flyers OP: You cannot combat trick away what does not block and cannot be blocked. It is the basic premise behind why B/W is the default “best deck.”
- The sideboard is important: There are a lot of good sideboard cards on Ixalan. Dual Shot versus Merfolk. Crushing Canopy versus Vampires. Legion’s Judgment versus Dinosaur Ramp. Use your late picks to snatch up these important cards.
- The curve. The curve. The curve: A good creature curve is so important in this format. I use most of my premier picks (picks 1-5 of each pack) on cards that are dedicated to ensure that my curve is smooth and flawless. It’s why I like Merfolk so much and believe it is the objectively best archetype in the format.
I’m loving this format. As I said at the beginning, it’s a good “fundamentals” format. Attacking, blocking, racing, and combat tricks. It also highly rewards understanding the basic matchups and knowing what each deck does up and down the curve, and what each deck can do in combat with tricks.
The commons are the key to Limited. If you understand what the commons do and how they work together you’ve mastered the format. Understanding the commons makes understanding the rares and uncommons simple because they are just less likely to appear cards that are “better” upgrades to the commons you’d typically be playing.
Also, if you open Charging Monstrosaur, pick it and count your blessings. OMG!