Ixalan is a tribal Set, which means that most of its creatures are split into one of four main tribes—Vampires, Pirates, Dinosaurs, and Merfolk—and that there’s a bigger focus on creature types. Most of the time, we don’t even pay attention to what’s a Human, what’s a Cleric, or what’s a Soldier, but with Ixalan we will have to.
A side effect of this emphasis on tribal identities is that color identities got a bit lost in Ixalan. Black and blue have more fixing than green, blue has two good 2-drops, removal is pretty much evenly spread across the colors, red has better creatures than green (the set wasn’t kind to green), and so on. You should probably try to lose some of the preconceived notions of “what a color does” before you play Ixalan, because it seems to me that every color does a bit of everything. As such, I’d rather focus on analyzing the tribes.
Vampires are black or white, and they’re mostly aggressive. There’s a lot of token making, and the tokens have lifelink, which helps support the “pay life to do something” theme that is also present in the tribe. It also makes it a good tribe for racing and pumps. Here are the common and uncommon payoffs for having Vampires:
Pirates are blue, black, and red, and they also seem to be mostly aggressive. There’s some trickiness to them, though—they are usually small creatures, and make up for that fact with evasive abilities. They’re also the tribe that makes the most Treasures, but they don’t have many ways to utilize them. Here are the common and uncommon payoffs for having Pirates:
Dinosaurs are green, white and red, and as you’d expect from the name, they’re the beef. Most of the huge creatures in the set are Dinosaurs, and a lot of them share the enrage ability that triggers whenever they take damage. Some Dinosaur decks will want to play a ramp game, accelerating into bigger threats, and some (mostly the red ones) will just want to beat down. Here are the common and uncommon payoffs for having Dinosaurs:
Merfolk are blue and green, and they are also a mostly aggressive tribe that interacts with +1/+1 counters, though there are currently way more ways of adding such counters than there are to profit from them—I assume this will be a big thing in the next set, Rivals of Ixalan. Here are the common and uncommon payoffs for having Merfolk:
From this, you can see two things. The first is that most of the tribes have an aggressive focus—three out of four are primarily aggressive, and the fourth can be aggressive. This will contribute to the speed of the format.
The second thing, and the more important, is that there aren’t actually that many payoffs for being focused on a certain tribe. Some of the cards on the list, such as Otepec Huntmaster or Lightning-Rig Crew, really benefit from having a critical mass of Dinosaurs and Pirates respectively, but others, such as Jade Guardian and Vampire’s Zeal, do not need them or only get marginally better if you have them.
The main point I want to hit here is that though the creature synergies can often be good, it’s not essential that you “pick a tribe” and play with that—at least not in the sense that it’s essential for you to pick a color. There aren’t only four possible choices in Ixalan Sealed—you can play a mix of tribes, or even no tribe at all. In fact, there can be good cross-play between the tribes. You can, for example, use blue Pirates to generate Treasures that will help you cast green Dinosaurs.
When you open your Sealed pool at the prerelease, you should look for the synergies, but you should know that you don’t have to find them to be able to win. A blue-white deck with some Dinosaurs, some Pirates, some Vampires, and some Merfolk will be able to win if it has strong cards on its own, and will likely be much better than a white-red deck that has Dinosaur synergies but is weaker overall.
Unless you have a lot of the rewards, or some really good ones (like Admiral Becket Brass), you shouldn’t just jam a bunch of weak cards of a creature type because you’re a “Dinosaur deck” or a “Pirate deck.” You should just stick to cards that are good. Previous tribal sets often had powerful payoffs at common, such as Sparksmith, Timberwatch Elf, Daru Stinger, Silvergill Douser. Those were cards that really rewarded you for simply having bodies in the right creature type. In Ixalan, the rewards are much smaller, so unless you have a lot of them, just stick with playing “good cards that happen to be Merfolk” instead of trying to jam every Merfolk you can in your deck even if it’s bad.
The mechanics in Ixalan are remarkably straightforward because none of them necessarily have to change how you do anything. Explore is simply going to happen, and enrage and raid will also trigger naturally over the course of a game. There’s no “explore deck” or “raid theme” for you to build around, so you should mostly treat them like an evergreen ability, such as flying or trample.
Explore is like a scry with an upside on both ends, which makes it pretty good for Limited. You’re not going to play a bad card because it has explore, but most medium-sized creatures with explore (Merfolk Branchwalker, Tishana’s Wayfinder, Emissary of Sunrise) are going to be pretty good.
Enrage is a mechanic that will trigger normally—just play Magic and it’ll happen through attacking and blocking (remember that you get the trigger even if the creature dies). Having a lot of enrage will make a card like Rile playable, and it will also make every fight card you have a little better.
Raid is the only one that’s potentially trickier, because there are certain cards in the set that aren’t good unless you’re raiding them out, such as Storm Fleet Spy or Deadeye Tormentor. If you include those cards in your deck, then you need to have at least a plan for attacking at some point in the early game, preferably with a 2-drop. Luckily, that seems very easy to do in Ixalan, as there are several cheap creatures with evasion, including multiple 1/1 flyers for 1. It really looks like you won’t have to go very much out of your way to trigger raid if you choose to do it, and only the most controlling of decks will have a problem with it. If I had several of this type of raid card, I wouldn’t mind including cards like Blight Keeper in my deck, but with one or two you shouldn’t even need to do that.
The Speed of the Format
In modern Magic, the biggest factor when looking at the speed of the format has been the 2-drops. When 2-drops are plentiful and good, then the format is quite fast. When 2-drops are either bad, defensive, or non-existent, then the format is slow. Here are the common 2-drops in Ixalan:
This is a large number of 2-drops that are actually great. Blue usually gets zero, and this time it has two good ones. Red usually gets one good and one filler, and this time around it has two great ones and a third that’s better than filler.
When I look at the 2-drops and the rest of the curve in the set, it makes me think that this is an unforgiving format. Just imagine being on the draw and having your opponent play these cards:
This is a single-colored curve of all commons that leaves you at 10 life and an absurd 12 power in play—by turn 4. Now imagine that your opponent is on the draw, and your first play of the game is a turn-4 removal spell—you’re dead! Even if you deal with Thrash of Raptors and your opponent has nothing else, you’ll be at 3 life. What if your removal is Unfriendly Fire?
Draws like this are always an exception, but in Ixalan, they might not be. The above sequence is all commons, and all in just one color, and even that has replaceable cards—exchange either Tilonalli’s Knight or Frenzied Raptor with Nest Robber, for example, and the curve is just as threatening. Red is capable of a draw like this, but so are the other four colors, because everyone has good 2-drops (though green looks to be the hardest to do it with).
In practical terms, this means you shouldn’t durdle too much. The removal in this set is plentiful but clunky, and if you keep a hand with all 4-mana removal spells you have a good chance of straight-up dying. Pay more consideration to your curve than you normally do in a Sealed deck. I would also choose to play 100% of the time in the dark, and probably also after game 1.
Let’s take a look at the common and uncommon removal in Ixalan:
The removal in Ixalan is a bit clunky, but there’s a decent amount of it, even if you don’t consider the really situational ones like Dual Shot, Skulduggery, and Crushing Canopy. It’s a big set, so it’s going to have a large amount of removal, but there are, for example, three different bounce spells in blue (two common and one uncommon), two Pacifisms, two fight spells—we’re used to seeing one of each. If you include bounce in your removal category, then it’s also very evenly spread—you no longer have black and red as the “removal colors” and everything else trying to play catch-up.
In Ixalan, since the early creatures are powerful and the removal is clunky, we’ll see more removal spells in the sideboard than we’re used to. You simply cannot match creatures with spells at all points because the creatures are better. You need some removal to kill enormous things, but everything else is better dealt with through combat. A more defensive blue deck, for example, might not play a card like Run Aground, and most white decks will not want Bright Reprisal.
It’s also interesting to note that a lot of the removal—particularly the white ones—are splashable. Which brings me to my next point:
Here’s the common and uncommon fixing available:
Fixing in this set is weird. There isn’t really a good fixer either in lands or in artifacts—the best you’re going to do is Unknown Shores, which I don’t like to play in most of my decks. Green’s only common fixer is a 3-mana land enchantment that really wants you to have played a 2-drop that attacks, but the decks that play 2-drops that attack aren’t usually looking to play mana ramp.
Instead, most of the fixing is in blue and black. Cards like Contract Killing and Dire Fleet Hoarder are great cards on their own, and they can single-handedly take care of your splash needs. This is a big paradigm shift. I cannot recall another format where green was the third color when it came to mana fixing. Most “5c X” type of decks that splash for two removal spells in different colors will be black, blue, or both, and not necessarily green.
Since splashing is easy (black, blue, and green all have splashing options, so the only color combination without them is W/R), you’re probably going to see more rares being played than usual. A U/B deck, for example, will virtually always splash for Vona or Tishana, a U/W deck will almost always splash for Hostage Taker, a B/R deck will splash for Regisaur Alpha, and so on. This is worth it even if there’s a lot of removal, because rares and mythics in this set aren’t just random Dragons—the majority of them have powerful abilities that will work even if the creature is killed or pacified, and some of them even welcome being bounced. Cards like Gishath, Tishana, Regisaur Alpha, Burning Sun’s Avatar, Wakening Sun’s Avatar, etc. all leave you with a little or a lot of value even if they are dealt with.
As far as splashing goes, the one thing you should watch out for is the fact that Treasures only work once. Splashing two cards off three sources is different than two cards off three Treasures, because if you draw one Treasure and both cards, you can only cast one. One Manalith will cast one Open Fire, one Cast Out, and one Final Reward, but you need three Treasure tokens to cast all three. As such, you can’t just look at four Treasure makers and go “I have four free sources, let me splash for four cards in different colors” because you will run into trouble.
My conclusion, therefore, is that you want some number of removal spells, especially to make sure you don’t just die to something like a Brontosaurus, but that you don’t need or even want a lot of them. The creatures are simply better than the removal spells in this set—they are faster and more efficient, and they have a lot of enters-the-battlefield abilities, so trying to kill everything your opponent plays is going to be a losing proposition. You want some expensive removal to deal with enormous creatures, and you want cheap removal to break early game tribal synergies and so that you don’t die, but you do not want a lot of expensive removal even if it’s easy to splash for.
- Color identities are a bit lost in Ixalan. Instead, they’re replaced by tribal identities. Things that we’re used to knowing (such as “green has the best fixing” or “blue has no early plays”) aren’t necessarily true anymore.
- Tribal synergies matter, but there isn’t that much payoff. As such, it isn’t necessary to choose a tribe and commit to it—you can have multiple tribes or no tribe at all and still have a good deck.
- There’s almost no colorless fixing, and little fixing in green. Fixing is instead in blue and black because of the Treasures.
- Most gold rares are worth splashing for if you can afford to.
- The format is (probably) quite fast. There are multiple good 2-drops in every color and if you stumble you will die. You should always choose to play.
- The removal is not as efficient as the creatures—you’ll often pay 4 or 5 mana to remove a 3-drop. A lot of the removal is splashable, but you might not even want to splash for it, as you can’t play too much. Save removal for the creatures you truly can’t beat and try to kill everything else in combat.
Have fun at the prerelease!