A Way-Too-Early Pick Order List for Rivals of Ixalan

While the four tribes are fighting over the golden city of Orazca, I assembled a Rivals of Ixalan Pick 1 Pack 1 list. I used the same aggregation method as I did for my Ixalan pick order list, which means that I took the average of the normalized grade of the following three sources:

  • LSV’s set reviews. In this classic article series, LSV provides a Limited grade between 0 and 5 for every card in the set. I’m well aware that what he writes about the card is more relevant than the grade, but the grade still conveys some information. If a range was specified for a card, then I took the middle point as the rating.
  • The Draftaholics Anonymous rankings, collected on Sunday, January 14. Their scores for cards are derived from users who are presented with choices between two cards in a Pick 1 Pack 1 context. I scaled the ratings so that the card with the highest score became a 5.0 and the card with the lowest score became a 0.0, in line with LSV’s ranking scale.
  • The LR Community review rankings, also collected on Sunday, January 14. Their rankings are based on a project by cricketHunter where hundreds of users submit Limited grades for every card in the new set. I scaled the grades so that the card with highest grade became a 5.0. Thanks to cricketHunter for providing me with the raw data!

After taking the average of the three grades, I subtracted 0.25 points for any multicolor card (including dual lands) and I added 0.25 points for any colorless card. These adjustments are made to get closer to a proper first-pick first-pack order. After all, a multicolored card reduces flexibility, whereas an artifact keeps your options open, and these effects did not appear to be accounted for in LSV’s set review or the LR Community review.

The end result was a number for every card in Rivals of Ixalan–an aggregate of the above three sources. Two other sources (limitedspoiler.com and top8draft.com) were suggested to me, but I ultimately did not use them because their rankings looked off, likely as a result of insufficient data. But their websites looked promising.

My full spreadsheet, which may double as a searchable text list, is available here. I left in the notes I jotted down for various cards as I was reading LSV’s set reviews and entering his grades. After I got a number for every card, all I had to do was to press sort, and the pick order list arose.

This methodology leads to a list that captures first impressions. Indeed, most rankings were made before anyone even had a chance to play with the cards (even if some people may have had a chance to participate in the early Rivals of Ixalan preview league on Magic Online beforehand). So by and large, the rankings reflect early impressions, not a “correct” first-pick first-pack list based on experience in the format.

While this is a downside compared to a pick order that is honed by a team after hundreds of Drafts, the resulting aggregate list still has three good uses:

  • It’s an excellent starting point for holding discussions. By fixing a ranking, statements like “this card is overrated” or “this card is underrated” become more concrete.
  • It forms a backdrop for me to offer my own impressions of which cards are overrated or underrated, along with general analysis of the format and of key interactions. I view this as the main contribution of this article.
  • You still get a semi-reasonable list that can help players who are new to the format, at least for navigating their first couple of Drafts.

Before turning to the list, let me share my thoughts on the new ascend mechanic.

How Should We Evaluate Ascend?

To analyze ascend, let’s consider turn 6, at which point you will have drawn 12 or 13 cards. If you curved out with a land and a creature every turn, then you will have 12 permanents on the table. Even if two creatures traded in combat or died to a removal spell, you would still have exactly enough permanents to ascend at that point.

Of course, this is based on a perfect permanent-based curve-out and a low rate of trades in combat. For an average Limited game with a deck that doesn’t focus on enabling ascend, that doesn’t seem realistic—in such a case, I wouldn’t expect to receive the city’s blessing before turn 8, at which point many Limited games will already be over. But you can make the “10 permanents by turn 6” plan more likely by filling your deck with:

Given this list of enablers, white-blue decks appear to be the best ascend colors, closely followed by blue-black. This is further confirmed by their gold sign-post uncommons: Resplendent Griffin and Deadeye Brawler. Looking at the enablers once more, I expect that if you build around ascend, you can receive the city’s blessing reliably by turn 6 or 7, at which point you can start to pay attention to the ascend bonuses.

In terms of payoffs, there are five ascend cards at common. Red and green have none—all ascend commons are contained within the Esper shard:

On the whole, the number of good payoff cards is limited. There is probably not enough payoff to build a dedicated ascend deck in the same way that you can build a dedicated Merfolk deck, but you can still make your Draft picks and formulate your game plan with ascend synergies in mind if you’re white-blue or blue-black. These colors also contain a bunch of good uncommon ascend tricks, such as Expel from Orazca, Pride of Conquerors, and Golden Demise, yielding further reasons to build around ascend.

In conclusion, I believe that ascend is achievable in the right color combination if you build around it. But the amount of good payoffs is limited, and outside of white-blue or blue-black, I wouldn’t place much value on bonuses from the city’s blessing while evaluating cards.

Now let’s turn to the list. Remember that it’s essentially one big continuous list, to be read left-to-right, top-to-bottom. I added a few headings only to make it easier to read and so that I could intersperse some comments.

Bomb Rares/Mythics and Chupacabras

These are the best cards in the set, and I would first-pick all of them over any common or non-Chupacabra uncommon. Ravenous Chupacabra is already enshrined in the “mythic uncommon” Hall of Fame and gets to hang out with the bomb rares and mythics. In fact, according to this list, there are only three cards in the set that are better than the Beast Horror.

While Rekindling Phoenix and Tetzimoc, Primal Death are beyond broken, I was a bit surprised to see Trapjaw Tyrant as the third card in the set. After all, it trades for a vanilla 5/3. But the potential for blowouts (for instance, by combining it with a combat trick or a ping effect) is there, so I have no real objections to the ranking.

The next card that caught my attention was Twilight Prophet. Is a 2/4 flyer really that good? Well, I’m not convinced it should be higher on the list than Ghalta, Primal Hunger or Jadelight Ranger, but the inter-rare ranking doesn’t matter unless you have an unusual pack with a foil rare. Still, I would first-pick Twilight Prophet over any common. It has a relevant creature type, good base stats, and a good ascend payoff: about a 1.7 point drain, i.e., a 3.4 point life swing, for an average Limited deck. But later in the Draft, if I’m black-red or black-green (and thus not in an Esper-based ascend color combination) I would place lower value on it.

The Part with the 6 Best Commons

Usually, we’d see a collection of uncommons after the group of bomb rares/mythics. This time, however, the best card in this category is a common. Due to the presence of Ravenous Chupacabra, we don’t have a set where the best common is better than the best uncommon, but it comes close.

Yet, does Bombard deserve a higher ranking than Reaver Ambush, the best non-Chupacabra uncommon? Well, looking at common creatures, Bombard is incapable of killing Sun-Crested Pterodon and Colossal Dreadmaw, but it deals with everything else. Reaver Ambush is capable of exiling Sun-Crested Pterodon, but in exchange if fails against Orazca Frillback, Canal Monitor, Overgrown Armasaur, and Stampeding Horncrest. So first-picking Bombard over Reaver Ambush makes sense. (What doesn’t quite make sense is how Reaver Ambush immediately obsoleted Vanquish the Weak, but that’s another matter.)

The best 6 commons according to this list are all removal spells. In order: Bombard, Impale, Luminous Bonds, Waterknot, Hunt the Weak, and Moment of Craving. That’s two black cards and one card for every other color. I don’t think Moment of Craving is that much worse than Impale, as in a viciously fast format I’m always hungry for cheap instant removal. So all of these cards are a good start to a Draft, especially since they don’t commit you to a tribe yet.

Looking at uncommons and rares in this category, I’d like to point out two cards that, in my view, are slightly underrated:

The present category also has two cards that, in my view, are slightly overrated:

  • Everdawn Champion: “It’s basically True-Name Nemesis,” LSV wrote. Don’t believe his lies: Everdawn Champion gets blocked by a random 2/3. It also has an irrelevant creature type. Unless you’re drafting a controlling ascend deck, I’d prefer Exultant Skymarcher as a creature for 1WW.
  • Nezahal, Primal Tide: Thematically according to Mark Rosewater, it’s a large aquatic Dinosaur that disappears under the water. Practically, it’s a vanilla 7/7 without evasion. It might be a nice tool against spell-heavy control decks in Standard, but Nezahal is closer to an Enormous Baloth in Limited. That’s still fine, but first-picking it doesn’t feel like prime time.

The Part with the Next Best 12 Commons

Two of the best common creatures in Rivals of Ixalan are Martyr of Dusk and Exultant Skymarcher. This suggests that white Vampire decks will be strong in Rivals of Ixalan Draft. Meanwhile, the common white Dinosaurs are lacking. Whereas in Ixalan there were plenty of solid common white Dinosaurs at all spots on the curve, Rivals of Ixalan has no common 3-drop or 4-drop Dinosaurs whatsoever! Instead, you merely have Snubhorn Sentry, Raptor Companion, and Sun-Crested Pterodon.

This is very weird to me, given that the 3-drop slot is one of the most important ones in Limited. Blue has a common 3-drop Merfolk and a common 3-drop Pirate. Black has a common 3-drop Vampire and a common 3-drop Pirate. Likewise for red and green. Where’s my common 3-drop white Dinosaur? How are we supposed to build proper Dinosaur decks now?

At least the Vampire curve of Martyr of Dusk-Exultant Skymarcher-Sanguine Glorifier is a strong one. But you may have to get used to the notion that white-based Dinosaur decks are worse than they used to be and that white decks in Rivals of Ixalan will be more frequently based around Vampires.

Moving to individual cards, I believe the following ones are underrated in the aggregate list:

  • Reckless Rage: Cheap removal that synergizes with enrage.
  • Form of the Dinosaur: The ratings of my three sources had a standard deviation of 0.82, indicating disagreement. LSV gave it a 3.5 and I think he’s right—Form of the Dragon should be up there with the very best commons. I think that many people were put off by the fact that you have to fight, but the effect can be very powerful and should secure the win in a few turns. You can use life gain or bounce/removal in response to the ability to avoid dying. I love the design, and I expect turning into a Dinosaur will often be worth it.
  • Evolving Wilds: Another card with a high standard deviation (0.75). In my experience, people always underrate mana fixing in Limited. I would move up Evolving Wilds on this first-pick first-pack list, also because it doesn’t commit you to a color yet. Evolving Wilds will turn out to be particularly valuable for decks from the Esper shard, as Exultant Skymarcher, Waterknot, and Impale are powerful double-colored commons that enjoy better mana consistency.
  • Tilonalli’s Summoner: With a standard deviation of 0.99, there was again a bunch of disagreement. I like the card and believe it should be ranked higher than this list suggests. It’s a Fireball-type card that forces opponents to keep back at least one but often multiple blockers, it yields instant ascend in the late game, and it does a lot for a 2-drop.
  • Golden Demise: Double-black could be an issue, but the effect can easily decide a game. If you keep in mind that Fiery Cannonade is a powerful spell and accept that Golden Demise can be better in a black deck with an ascend theme, then I think it is slightly underrated on this list.
  • Relentless Raptor: The first thing I thought when I saw this card was, “Danish Magic!” In that type of Magic, which is how some Swedes believe Danes play, you have to block whenever you can, attack whenever you can, and play a spell whenever you can. Relentless Raptor doesn’t force you to cast a removal spell on your own creature at the earliest opportunity, but it will still lead to hilarious games. It could be ranked higher as far as I’m concerned.

The Part with the Stat-Boosting Auras

In Ixalan Limited, Aura-based strategies were powerful, and many games were won via One With the Wind, Swashbuckling, and Mark of the Vampire. The underlying context was that there were only three maindeckable removal spells in Ixalan that could deal with beefed-up creatures: Firecannon Blast, Pious Interdiction, and Contract Killing. Also, Dive Down and Jade Guardian brought hexproof for extra protection.

By contrast, Rivals of Ixalan provides more ways to net a 2-for-1 against Auras: Luminous Bonds, Waterknot, Impale, and Divine Verdict. There are more answers than in Ixalan, while the set is smaller! Moreover, Hunt the Weak is better than Pounce at taking down big monsters, and if you like to kill creatures in response to Auras, it’s easier to keep mana open for Bombard or Moment of Craving than for Unfriendly Fire.

As a result, I expect that stat-boosting auras like Curious Obsession, Squire’s Devotion, and See Red will turn out worse than the initial impression might suggest. So while I think they should be ranked lower, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the potential synergies. Squire’s Devotion is an insane follow-up to Famished Paladin, and all Auras will be insane when combined with Soul of the Rapids. Printing a hexproof flyer at common is asking for trouble…

Anyway, this category has other noteworthy cards. I believe this list undervalues Siegehorn Ceratops, Strength of the Pack, Stampeding Horncrest, and a bunch of ascend cards. In particular, I’d be willing to first-pick Resplendent Griffin, Vona’s Hunger, and Spire Winder more highly than the list indicates. LSV was pessimistic about achieving ascend, and although I believe it is wise not to overvalue the bonuses from the city’s blessing, all three of these cards are passable even if you’d never receive the city’s blessing. And once you ascend, their bonuses can break a board stall. Given my belief that it’s realistic to achieve the city’s blessing in dedicated white-blue or blue-black by turn 7 or so, they deserve a higher rating. Enablers like Sailor of Means may play an important role in increasing ascend’s reliability, so I’d peg the 1/4 Pirate higher as well.

Finally, I have some comments on two white cards. First, Legion Conquistador, which will show up more frequently because Rivals of Ixalan is a small set. In triple Ixalan you’d see 2.38 Legion Conquistadors per Draft on average. In Rivals-Rivals-Ixalan draft you’ll see 3.08 on average. That’s a substantial increase, and I believe the card is currently underrated.

The second card of interest is Sun Sentinel—the third white common 2-drop. Every other color has two common 2-drops, but white got three for some reason. Maybe it’s to have more targets for a turn-3 Squire’s Devotion? Still, Sun Sentinel lacks a relevant ability or creature type, and it will never be a high pick. I maintain that this white common slot should have been a 3-drop Dinosaur.

The Part with the Dual Lands

We get five enemy-color duals because Ixalan already had the allied-color checklands. The Draftaholics Anonymous and LR Community didn’t give identical rankings to the uncommon lands, and the result is this somewhat weird category.

The standard deviations of their rankings were all very high. In my opinion, the rankings of Draftaholics Anonymous and the Limited Resources Community were far too low. LSV’s grade of 3 was more in line with my view. Mana consistency is valuable, and the difference between a 9-8 and a 9-9 mana base (or 10-8, if you have double-colored spells in one color) shouldn’t be underestimated.

Mediocre Filler

There are playable cards in here, but on the whole this category is not filled with exciting cards. The fraction of mediocre commons is roughly the same as in Ixalan (39 out of 101 commons according to my pick order list classification back then—27 out of 70 now). So like in Ixalan, 4 out of the 10 commons in every pack will be poor, and thus packs can look “empty” quickly. It remains of vital importance to ensure you are in an open tribe.

Fortunately, the quality of the mediocre common in Rivals doesn’t drop off as quickly as it did in Ixalan. That set featured a lot of nonsense like Hierophant’s Chalice, Demystify, Blinding Fog, and Spreading Rot. In Rivals of Ixalan, we have a larger selection of semi-useful cards:

I have good hopes for Rivals of Ixalan Limited. As I explained, the most important goal of a pick order list (or this aggregate of people’s first impressions) is to spawn debate. I already gave my thoughts on which cards are overrated or underrated. Don’t hesitate to join the comment section below and share your picks!

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