Hello, welcome to the Rivals of Ixalan prerelease primer! Since we’ve already been playing with Ixalan for months, I’m going to try to focus on what I believe are the changes from one format to the other. I’ll start with some generic comments about Rivals of Ixalan, and then move to each specific tribe.
Ascend is the only new mechanic in Rivals of Ixalan. The others (enrage, raid) were already present in Ixalan, and haven’t changed much.
The new mechanic is tough to evaluate without knowing the speed of the format. In this set, blocking is very hard. Creatures tend to stick around more, which means that it’s more likely to get to 10 permanents. At the same time, it means the games will be faster, which means that it’s less likely you get to 10 permanents. My inclination is that for most of the early-mid game, ascend will not be on—for most of the late game, it probably will be. If you ever get into any sort of board stall, then ascend will break it. If you have a tokens strategy (such as some Vampire decks), or a Treasure strategy (U/B Pirates), then it’s more likely to be on as well.
Most cards with ascend are going to be naturally solid, and then ascend is going to be a nice plus. Take, for example, Skymarcher Aspirant—a 2/1 for W is a fine card to play, and the ascend here is just a bonus, so you don’t need any particular incentive to play it.
1. Don’t plan on blocking in the early game
The defining characteristic of Rivals of Ixalan Limited is that there will be close to no blocking early on. Everything about the set incentivizes attacking and disincentivizes blocking.
First, there’s raid. If you have any card with raid, then you want to attack to trigger it. But it’s not just that. Let’s take a look at the common creatures:
- Kitesail’s Corsair: 2/1 flying when it’s attacking for 1U.
- Mist-Cloaked Herald: 1/1 unblockable for U.
- Grasping Scoundrel: 1/1, +1/+0 when it’s attacking for B.
- Voracious Vampire: 2/2 menace for 2B. When it enters the battlefield, it gives a Vampire +1/+1 and menace.
- Goblin Trailblazer: 2/1 menace for 1R.
- Hardy Veteran: 2/2, +0/+2 when it’s your turn for 1G.
- Giltgrove Stalker: 2/1 can’t be blocked by creatures with power 2 or less for 1G.
Those cards are all common, and all so much better on offense. Hardy Veteran, Kitesail’s Corsair, Giltgrove Stalker, and Goblin Trailblazer cannot stop each other if mirrored. If you play any of the four and I play any of the four, even if it’s the same one, then I simply cannot block. It’s not common that a creature is unable to block itself, and this happens with four different common 2-drops, none of which can block each other as well.
2. There’s a lot of unconditional removal that kills big things, and not a lot of small removal. This means you shouldn’t necessarily prioritize big rares in deckbuilding.
Here’s a list of the removal:
That’s a good amount (remember—it’s a small set), and most of it seems to be targeted at medium-sized or bigger creatures—think Contract Killing more than Shock. This makes me think that you don’t want to go way out of your way to play a bomb rare. I expect most people to have at least some way to remove it—probably multiple ways. Cards like Ghalta, Primal Hunger and Etali, Primal Storm are obviously good, and you’ll obviously play them if you’re in those colors, but don’t let yourself be pushed too heavily toward those colors just because you have them and you expect them to bail you out in an otherwise bad deck. Three of the colors can easily deal with those big creatures with commons alone, and splashing in this format is very easy, so you’ll almost never play against someone without an answer.
3. Fixing is more plentiful and more spread out. 3-color decks will be the norm rather than the exception.
In Ixalan, the only mana fixing was either from green or from Treasures. In Rivals of Ixalan, you have Evolving Wilds and Traveler’s Amulet, both at common, that can be used in any color combination. Before, it was almost impossible to splash a Charging Monstrosaur in your Vampire deck. Now, with two uncommon dual lands and two common colorless fixers, it’ll be very easy. In fact, it’ll be possible, and desirable, to build flat-out 3-color decks if you have enough uncommon lands and Evolving Wilds.
This is a radical change from Ixalan, and one you have to keep in mind in deckbuilding. We’re so used to straight 2-color Vampires and Merfolk that it might not even cross your mind that you can play another color in there as well, and even in Merfolk/Dinosaurs, we are used to just having a splash, whereas now we can have a whole additional color, or perhaps two splashes.
4. 4 toughness is the line for surviving most creature combat.
The defining creature size in the format seems to be 2/2 for 2, but that’s a little deceptive because as we’ve already seen, they don’t do a good job of blocking. There are also a series of 3-power creatures for 2 or 3 mana, and that seems to be where the line is. I’d say that if a creature has 4 toughness, then that’s worth paying more for because it’ll survive a noticeably higher number of combats than if it has just 3 toughness, whereas the leap from 2 to 3 isn’t as high. There is a common removal spell that deals 4 damage, so having 5 will also insulate you from that.
I believe Dinosaurs were the most popular tribe for Sealed last time around. That was mainly for two reasons:
- They had the best-sized creatures, and therefore relied less on synergy. Tapping 5 and casting Charging Monstrosaur will work regardless of what else you did before in the game or what you’re doing next. Cards like Drover of the Mighty and Savage Stomp didn’t ask for a lot of Dinosaurs to be good, just some of them. It’s very different from having a card like Anointed Deacon or River Heralds’ Boon, which will get significantly better in a deck full of Vampires and Merfolk, respectively.
- They made it easy to splash. When Ixalan was first released, I thought Pirates would have an easier time splashing because of all the Treasures, but it turned out that Dinosaurs were decent at it as well. Between Drover of the Mighty, Ranging Raptors, New Horizons, and Commune with Dinosaurs, it was quite easy to splash a Monstrosaur, a Lightning Strike, or a Pious Interdiction.
The mana fixing in this set is a bit different. You lose Commune with Dinosaurs and New Horizons, and there’s no common mana fixing to replace them in green. You do gain Traveler’s Amulet and Evolving Wilds at colorless, though. This means that Dinosaur decks will still have fixing if they want, but it will not only be the prerogative of Dinosaurs. You’ll be able to much more easily play 3-color Pirates, or splash a red removal spell in your Vampires deck.
Other than removal, the common that catches my eyes the most for Dinosaurs is Knight of the Stampede. At 4 toughness, I think it’s big enough to defend you from any non-Dinosaur creature, and then adding 2 mana when you untap (while still being able to block that turn) is very powerful.
The Dinosaur game plan overall seems to be largely unchanged—you just play beefy creatures and removal spells and hope that’s enough. In most cases, it will be, and I suspect Dinosaurs will remain the most popular tribe at the prerelease (though not by as much as it was before).
Merfolk was, in my opinion, the best Draft archetype. Its synergies were amazing, even if the cards weren’t individually that powerful. The main problem for Sealed was that it really needed a critical mass of good Merfolk cards, and you could rarely get as many as you wanted. As a result, most people would prefer mediocre Dinosaurs over mediocre Merfolk, because the Dinosaurs cards were more powerful in a vacuum whereas the Merfolk cards really needed a dedicated deck. The few people who did play Merfolk would often have a busted Sealed that resembled a Draft deck.
The biggest difference between Ixalan and Rivals when it comes to Merfolk is the creature enhancements. With triple-Ixalan, you could almost never block against a Merfolk deck because they could have River Heralds’ Boon, and that would be devastating. Sometimes you couldn’t block because they’d have One with the Wind. With Rivals, the chance that those cards turn up will be much lower.
What this means is that Merfolk decks will have room for other spells. It wasn’t uncommon for a Merfolk deck to play like 16 creatures and 4-of One with the Wind and River Heralds’ Boon, which meant you were probably playing only 3 other spells in your deck. Now you’ll have fewer One with the Winds and Boons, and more things like bounce or removal: Crashing Tide and Waterknot come to mind.
With the new fixing (2 uncommon lands, Evolving Wilds, Traveler’s Amulet), it’s also possible to splash a color in Merfolk, which virtually never happened before. Cards like Lightning Strike, Bombard, and Luminous Bonds will be good additions to the deck, and will give it a dimension it didn’t have before. In Ixalan, Merfolk depended on curve and synergy, but now it should be able to play a more “fair” game—you’ll get less “nonsense” wins with fast One with the Winds and more “normal” wins with creature and removal. Just be careful with Traveler’s Amulet because Merfolk should still be a curve-based archetype, and taking potentially two turns off to find a land can be devastating.
The uncommon Merfolk (the lord, Silvergill Adept) are both great, and for non-Merfolk cards you’re probably looking at random 2-drops to fill your curve and just straight-up removal spells.
Of the four tribes, Vampires had the lowest amount of tribal synergy in Ixalan. Most of the time, the only common or uncommon that you had that referred to Vampires at all was Anointed Deacon, and a lot of the Vampire decks were fueled by powerful rares such as Sanctum Seeker or Mavren Fein.
Instead, B/W decks were bounded more by implicit synergy than explicit. Cards didn’t say “Vampires do X”—they just worked together in a theme, and B/W decks often had a tokens sub-theme or resembled control decks. Both of those strategies got a big boost with Rivals.
Swarm Vampires was adept at creating tokens, but not as adept at using them. We lose a lot of the token makers (Queen’s Commission, Call to the Feast, Paladin of the Bloodstained), but we also get some creatures that are good for this strategy, such as Dusk Legion Zealot, Martyr of Dusk, and extra copies of Legion Conquistador (since Rivals is a small set, it should show up more than it did in Ixalan).
Overall, I’d say that they’re slightly worse at swarming the board, but not much worse. To make up for that, they’re much better rewarded for having a swarm. First, there’s ascend, which Vampires is better at triggering than anyone else. Then, you have Legion Lieutenant and Pride of Conquerors, which can turn your lifelinking tokens into a bigger threat. Finally, you have Forerunner of the Legion, which can serve as another way to find your powerful rares, such as Sanctum Seeker or a new rare Vampire, like Twilight Prophet or Champion of Dusk.
The caveat is that most of the payoffs are uncommon, which means that you probably won’t have a ton of them, and you might just have zero, in which case Vampires is probably not for you. If you do get those uncommons and the support for them, though, then dive in.
The second aspect of Vampires is the “B/W Control” deck. This is basically a normal B/W deck that happens to have some Vampires in it, and doesn’t necessarily rely on a lot of synergies. I feel like it got a boost in this set because there’s even more hard removal, and because it’s now much easier to splash. Those decks want the games to go long, they want to play their bombs if they can, and now they can more easily play bombs in other colors. A lot of them are double-costed, so you can’t just play all the ones you have, but if you open something like a Vraska, a Huatl, or an Angrath, they’ll be trivial to cast in your B/W Vampires deck. You can also splash even more removal if you want.
Overall, Vampires should play similarly to how it did in Ixalan, but it should be better at it. I still don’t expect many Vampires decks since it’s hard to get everything you need, but there will be more than before, and the decks that do get it will be very good.
In Ixalan, Pirates came in two forms: control (U/B, often splashing with Treasures), and aggro (U/R and B/R). They were two very distinct decks that wanted very different types of cards.
In Rivals of Ixalan, it seems like the Pirates themselves are more geared toward aggression, but the control strategy can still live on for the same reasons B/W Control can still be good—you have even more removal, and you’re even better at splashing. Between all the fixing in Rivals and all of the Treasures in Ixalan, you’re almost guaranteed to be able to play 3, 4, or even 5 colors in your U/B-based decks, though for that to be good you need a lot of removal and a lot of powerful rares.
The aggressive builds of Pirates seem to have gotten a bit more of a leg-up to me. Kitesail Corsair and Goblin Trailblazer are two good aggressive 2-drops for Pirates, and then you have several 3-power attackers for 3 in Swaggering Corsair, Fathom Fleet Boarder, and Siren Reaver. You also get several playable 1-drops (Grasping Scoundrel, Daring Buccaneer, Fanatical Firebrand), which should make it easier to get on the board before they do, trigger raid, and find a target for your 2-mana Auras.
The biggest loss for aggro Pirates is Pirate’s Cutlass, which was awesome in the archetype, but the creatures being naturally better in the early spots of the curve is going to make up for that, and I expect the aggro Pirate decks in Rivals to outperform the aggro Pirate decks in Ixalan.
- Most early creatures are good attackers and bad blockers.
- There’s a lot of unconditional removal.
- Mana-fixing is more plentiful and isn’t color-based, which means you’re going to see a lot more splashes and a lot more 3-colored decks.
- Dinosaurs remains the safest choice because it can work even when you don’t have any “key cards,” and it will probably be the most popular deck at the prerelease.
- Merfolk has fewer “I win” draws and turns into a more “normal” deck, with a curve and removal—you won’t see nearly as many “17 creatures, 6 pump spells” Merfolk. A splash is now possible.
- Vampires lost some ways to make tokens, but gained several ways to boost those tokens, which should make the deck significantly better. A lot of the power is in the uncommons, though, so you need some of them to play a Vampire tokens deck. B/W Control with some incidental Vampires synergies is still possible, and that deck probably wants to splash removal or bombs.
- Pirates can still be played as a control deck, but you need a lot of removal and rares. Aggro Pirates lost its best common, but the creatures are better now—there are more good 1-drops, the 2-drops are hard to block, and the 3-drops hit hard.