Ixalan has some problems. I don’t mean it’s overrun by Dinosaurs, Pirates, Vampires, and Merfolk, even though it is. What I mean is that it has some design flaws that are beginning to be noticed by players. The repetitiveness of its limited format and its nearly nonexistent impact on Standard will, in my personal opinion, classify Ixalan as one of Magic’s weakest sets over the past decade. Here’s why:
Defined Limited Archetypes
Having defined limited archetypes isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it quickly becomes a problem when there is little to no room for other archetypes in the format, and if none of the cards that fall into a color of multiple archetypes only fit into one of them. This problem is magnified when color pairs aren’t supported and the limited metagame only consists of a limited number of decks.
Ixalan primarily has four archetypes: U/B Pirates, G/R Dinosaurs, U/G Merfolk, and B/W Vampires. Outside of these primary archetypes, there are a couple of secondary archetypes, but they don’t come close to the level of play as the primary four. This leads to very repetitive drafts, where the same matchups are played out over and over again, with minimal changes made to the decks involved.
Formats that have this sort of makeup aren’t always seen as repetitive, but Ixalan draft has several color combinations that are completely invalid due to how defined the limited archetypes are. B/G is wildly unplayable, U/W requires a perfect storm of both blue and white being severely underdrafted to make it work, B/R (despite being a supported Pirates color pair) requires the correct makeup of cards being passed to you and a general underdrafting of both colors at the table, G/W (despite also being a supported color pair) only works when there are 0 or 1 other Dinosaur drafters at the table and no other Dinosaur drafter in white, and U/R (also a supported Pirates color pair) similarly requires a severe underdrafting of both colors at the table due to the archetype’s skeleton being made up mostly of both colors’ strongest cards.
When the format largely consists of the four “viable” archetypes with R/W Aggro and infrequently one or two of these other color combinations mixed in, it creates a draft format with a very defined metagame, where certain decks are very strong against some decks and weak to others. This leads to a matchup-dependent format with little room for innovation, making it feel a lot like some of the most recent Standard formats that players weren’t big fans of.
Limited formats with very rigid and defined archetypes aren’t worse than formats that offer more open-ended options, but when the few dominant strategies leave little room for other archetypes to exist, the format turns stale quickly.
Defined Archetypes for Each Card
One of the ways that sets with rigid and defined archetypes stay interesting and create fun and not monotonous drafts is having cards that are wanted by multiple archetypes or are individually powerful on their own, meaning an amalgamation of cards in two colors can combine to create a viable deck. An example of this would be the Changeling mechanic in Lorwyn block, which presented players with cards that could very well fit into multiple archetypes. This is not the case in Ixalan, due to the fact that the vast majority of the cards are underpowered on their own and become viable in one specific archetype. Let’s take a look at some examples.
River Heralds’ Boon is a top, top tier card for U/G Merfolk. It’s arguably the most powerful combat trick in the format in U/G Merfolk, making the cut every single time, with more certainly being merrier. However, outside of U/G Merfolk, I’m very close to calling it strictly unplayable. What this leads to is River Heralds’ Boon only being selected by players in one specific archetype. Since there aren’t Merfolk outside of blue and green, this card has no chance to be played anywhere else, making it a painfully obvious signal in the mid picks of a pack, signaling that not only a color is open, but that an entire archetype is. Synergy-focused cards like this one that are clearly intended for an archetype are usually moderately playable or decent when not in its intended archetype, but then become premium cards when in their intended archetypes. River Heralds’ Boon is not this, as it quite literally doubles in power when in U/G Merfolk. “Kickers” like this one are difficult to balance, and this one is way off.
Otepec Huntmaster is another card very similar to River Heralds’ Boon, but slightly less extreme. It’s a dream card for R/G Dinos. It lowers the cost of expensive Dinosaurs, which helps the deck be more explosive, and gives Dinosaurs haste, helping the deck be more aggressive and get on the front foot. This seems like a fantastic card for the general play and health of the draft format, but this isn’t quite the case. I would argue that this card only really fits into one strategy: R/G Dinos, due to the general makeup of the R/W Dinos deck, which is much more accurately classified as R/W Aggro.
In this R/W deck, your game plan is usually to have a solid curve with some combat tricks and removal. In this deck, you don’t have the same all-out Dinos strategy as the R/G archetype, and thus the total amount of Dinoasaurs you have is limited. The white Dinosaurs, notably Imperial Aerosaur, Shining Aerosaur, and Territorial Hammerskull are all excellent options for every other deck playing white. This leads to R/W “Dinos” decks with significantly fewer, and certainly significantly fewer exciting, Dinosaurs than expected. Thus, Otepec Huntmaster reads much closer to a 1/2 for 2 mana with situational upside rather than the Birds of Paradise + Fervor that it is in R/G Dinos.
It’s cards like these that cause the format to get stale fairly quickly. If there is one U/G Merfolk drafter at a table, that player is likely to get all, if not the majority, of the copies of River Heralds’ Boon that are opened in the 24 packs in the draft. There are several other similar cards like these that fall squarely into one archetype, severely limiting the options players are presented with when looking at mid-to-late picks in packs.
Pseudo-Parasitic Nature Diminishes Standard Impact
Lastly, let’s touch on Standard a little bit. Currently, the Standard decks we’re seeing are very similar to the Standard decks of old, but with the addition of the new lands that Ixalan brought. There is a good reason for this, and it’s due to Ixalan’s pseudo-parasitic (I wouldn’t call it entirely “parasitic”) nature.
The term “parasitic” as it relates to Magic is used to describe a mechanic that only plays well with itself or other cards in the set. Lead Designer Mark Rosewater uses the mechanic Splice onto Arcane as an example of this. While a really interesting mechanic, it required two things to make work: cards with Splice onto Arcane, and Arcane spells, both of which were never going to be found outside of Kamigawa block. While it created interesting limited situations and deckbuilding, all of the Splice onto Arcane cards that were printed were never going to get any new tools, and didn’t play nicely with anything else that existed in the constructed formats they entered. Desperate Ritual and Through the Breach are two examples of cards with Splice onto Arcane that see play, but the aforementioned keyword is almost completely irrelevant, making the mechanic “parasitic”.
Ixalan is an intensely tribal set. Dinosaurs, Vampires, Merfolk, and Pirates are all heavily supported tribes in the set, with most of the cards with those subtypes being either unremarkable in a constructed context or require other creatures in the same tribe for them to do decent work. What this creates is an odd pseudo-parasitic nature to these tribes, which aren’t found in the other Standard sets. Currently, there aren’t enough exciting, playable creatures in any of these tribes to make a dedicated tribal deck work.
When looking at the current Standard decks that are focused on a certain block’s mechanic, we don’t see the same level of paracitic-ness. Mardu Vehicles, for example, simply wants planeswalkers or creatures with power 3 or greater for Heart of Kiran, as well as artifacts for Toolcraft Exemplar and Unlicensed Disintegration. The closest we get to a parasitic deck is Temur Energy, which has a heavy energy theme and plays mostly energy cards. That being said, Glorybringer is still a valuable part of this deck, and Energy was such a widely-printed mechanic in Kaladesh block that it had enough tools to work with to piece together a viable Standard archetype or two. The same cannot be said for any of the tribes in Ixalan.
This wouldn’t be a conversation if any of the four tribes had incidental creatures lying around in Standard waiting for their release, but as it currently stands, if an Ixalan card is to see Standard play, it has to be individually powerful on its own, something Ixalan has very little focus on. This is why we’ve seen Hostage Taker as one of the only Ixalan cards to even be played at all in this format. It’s individually powerful regardless of what is surrounding it.
Like many other players, I was really excited about Ixalan. Tribal sets always get me excited, and I was eager to see what playstyles Wizards of the Coast gave Pirates and Dinosaurs. My first few drafts were awesome, as I got to try out each of the archetypes in this format and try out some outside-the-box archetypes (spoiler alert: they didn’t work). Since then, the format’s gotten quite stale for me, and I’ve been disappointed in how little the set has affected the Standard metagame, which needed a shakeup (as it turns out, rotation was all that was needed). Ixalan has some problems, and I think over the coming weeks and months players will be realizing this, due, in my opinion, to the reasons I laid out above. Let me know what you think.
Till next time,
The World Championship has fully shaken up Standard, with new and exciting decks complimenting old favorites. What really stood out to most people was the return of control! Read Riccardo Monico’s article here, where we goes in depth on the exciting new U/B Control deck.
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