Every Pro Tour is important, but Pro Tour Ixalan is especially important for me if I want to continue playing high-level Magic. Thanks to other commitments, I let Magic take a back seat over the past year, and consequently fell to Silver status in the Pro Players Club. As such, I have been paying special attention to the spoilers for the new set to familiarize myself with the Standard format and give myself the best shot at doing well at this event.
One consequence of ingesting large amounts of Magic content, especially during new set spoiler season, is information overload. It clouds impartial judgment of the new cards and their place in the format. Of course, readers prefer novelty. This is a timeless tenet of journalism, and Magic is no exception. But hyperbole about new cards that look exciting but fail to match existing cards on power level does a disservice to serious players. Rather than raise your expectations with rankings of the newest cards, this article will lay out the clear foundations for the new Standard format—most of which are not in Ixalan.
Mono-Red, Still Tier 1
Despite all of the excitement surrounding Pirates, Sirens, Dinosaurs, and the new transform cards, the simple truth is that Hazoret, the Fervent will be the most powerful creature in this Standard format. How could it be otherwise? Grasp of Darkness, the cleanest, cheapest answer to the God is departing, and the replacement black removal options of Walk the Plank and Vraska’s Contempt are nowhere near as good. Walk the Plank is simply not acceptable at BB and sorcery speed, and Vraska’s Contempt’s 2BB is a large downgrade from Grasp of Darkness’ BB. In truth, Zombies was the Standard deck with the clearest game plan for beating Mono-Red, and its departure from the format means that the coast is clear for Red to dominate in the early weeks.
Besides the rotation of many of the key cards in Zombies, an innocuous white 1-drop is rotating out of the format as well, which bodes extremely well for Bomat Couriers. The loss of Thraben Inspector (alongside Gideon and Archangel Avacyn, of course) heralds the death of Mardu Vehicles, one of the few decks that competed with Mono-Red on a fairly even playing field. Both white and black suffer immense losses with the rotation of Battle for Zendikar and Shadows over Innistrad, which means there are very few archetypes left that can hope to compete with Red.
Alone, these would be reason enough to like Red’s position in the new format. Fortunately for fans of Ramunap Ruins, there is an abundance of powerful red spells to boost the archetype. In fact, the red cards lost to rotation are all being swiftly replaced, both Incendiary Flow (which becomes Lightning Strike), and Village Messenger/Falkenrath Gorger (which become Rigging Runner, or some as-yet-unspoiled red 1-drop). Additionally, new cards like Rampaging Ferocidon, Captain Lannery Storm, Rowdy Crew, and even Charging Monstrosaur offer different angles, different immunities, and different proactive strategic shifts to anticipate hate cards. All of those options increase Red’s resilience to traditional interactive measures beyond what the deck had pre-Ixalan.
To the thinking player, this is nothing surprising. Merely looking at the power level of the existing red 4- and 5-drops, you see that they are on par with anything the multicolor decks can muster. Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Glorybringer, and Hazoret are still exceptionally powerful cards, and the new Dinosaur-based, multicolored pseudo-ramp decks with no good life gain option are simply working too hard for a payoff that Red Aggro can match without trying.
Compare Regisaur Alpha with Glorybringer. The Dinosaur is missing flying and can never act as a removal spell. In exchange, it delivers a 3/3 trample token with haste when it enters the battlefield. Flying, haste, and the ability to throw Cuts around the battlefield is at least as strong as the 3/3 Dinosaur token, and that isn’t even considering that Glorybringer is mono-colored. In the post-board Dinosaur Ramp vs. Mono-Red matchup, the Glorybringers provide reach, evasion, and removal. In contrast, Regisaur Alpha can do nothing in the face of just a Hazoret. None of the Dinosaur cards we’ve seen so far have flying, and none of them turn the corner quickly enough against Mono-Red to beat the deck’s reach.
The one exception is Gishath, Sun’s Avatar, but at 8 mana the card is simply not going to come down in a relevant time frame to beat Red. Commune with Dinosaurs does an amazing job at increasing the consistency of the archetype, and it is a peerless card selection spell for its archetype, but the lack of cheap roadblocks will hamper the strategy in competitive tournaments. Without a surprise “Velociraptor Firewalker” or some equivalent hate card, expect the fun Dinosaur-themed decks to be relegated to casual play as long as Mono-Red is around.
Temur Energy, Flexible and Powerful
Time will tell whether the optimal list of Temur Energy adopts The Scarab God, as the black splash is not wholly without cost. Regardless, this deck loses next to nothing in the Standard rotation, while gaining options from all of the powerful red, green, and blue cards in the new set. Throughout the modern era of Magic, the universal constant has been proactive midrange decks with the flexibility to adjust their game plan to counteract that of the opponent. Whether they incorporated a planeswalker shift (e.g., Abzan Aggro, Mardu Vehicles, Jeskai Aggro), a combo to keep the opponent honest (e.g., R/G Aetherworks Marvel, 4-Color Saheeli, Rally the Ancestors), or a simple adjustment in threat choice (Skysovereign, Flagship in Temur or Consecrated Sphinx in U/W Delver), these types of decks have long been the best choice for their flexibility.
Temur Energy is simply the current bearer of that mantle, and as such it is not going away any time soon. The matchup against Mono-Red is tolerable, though not particularly favorable, and Temur can always gain more percentage by adding more copies of Aethersphere Harvester to the main deck. Although the deck suffers a few minor cosmetic tweaks from the loss of two blocks of Standard cards, all of the rotating pieces are replaceable. For example, the loss of Tireless Tracker in the sideboard is not hugely concerning, as there are plenty of new anti-control threats, with a healthy dose of Negates and Spell Pierces to protect them. Chief among these anti-control threats is the best Dinosaur that has been spoiled so far.
The Single Best Dinosaur
It may end up being the case that a Dinosaur Ramp deck beats one of the two ready-made top-tier decks (Temur Energy) consistently, but even that would only be due to the impact of one specific card. Carnage Tyrant is one of the most powerful standalone threats Wizards has ever printed, and the crucial 6th point of toughness means it will break through opposing copies of The Scarab God and Torrential Gearhulk with ease. The fact that it also survives Hour of Devastation nearly obsoletes U/R Control strategies by itself, and if Wizards spoils any more similarly-powered Dinosaurs, perhaps a Dinosaur deck will be a true force to be reckoned with after all.
Carnage Tyrant nearly mandates that control decks use white, rather than red, as their secondary color, which draws them down the path of Approach of the Second Sun as the de facto win condition. After all, blue-white decks can answer the Tyrant with Fumigate, with Settle the Wreckage, or by winning via the deck’s namesake sorcery.
U/R, U/B, or Grixis Control have no clean answer to this singularly powerful threat, immediately weakening their matchups against any decks that have access to green mana. The fact that white allows for a control deck to sideboard Authority of the Consuls as a concession to Mono-Red is the icing on the cake, and therefore Blue-White Approach will be the torchbearer for control in this new Standard. Such is the power that Carnage Tyrant exerts over the metagame.
The New Transforming Artifacts
The primary example of overpowering hype during Ixalan spoiler season revolves around a small group of new artifacts. It seems that many of my contacts and fellow Magic players on social media have forgotten about the existence of Abrade when they discuss these flavor-driven flip artifacts. Dowsing Dagger, Treasure Map, Primal Amulet, Conqueror’s Galleon, and Thaumatic Compass—all of them appear at first glance to be timeshifted from some Commander set, rather than serious parts of competitive Standard play. Like most people, my social media acquaintances are first drawn to imagine the best-case scenario when contemplating how these cards will perform in Standard.
These expensive, mana-intensive artifacts that do not affect the board for at least a turn after they hit play will see no serious play when Mono-Red is a top contender. Not only do these cards all turn Abrade into Time Walk, most of them have a laughably small impact in the face of powerful haste threats like Ahn-Crop Crasher and Hazoret the Fervent. At least God-Pharaoh’s Gift, a similarly high-investment artifact, impacts the board the same turn it hits play. Nothing any of these new printings offer is close to as swingy, and so there is little reason to build around them when a better option exists.
Ixalan—Standard or Commander?
I must confess, when first looking at most of the spoilers for the new set, the thought that crossed my mind the most was, “Is this just a Commander release with a few Standard staples thrown in for good measure?” I am skeptical by nature, but many players I respect have voiced similar opinions. There is nothing wrong with a lower-powered set in the wake of repeated Standard bannings, and it is a wise move on Wizards’ part to shore up this deficiency by replacing powerful cards with flavorful ones, but it does portend a predictable Standard format. Unique designs make it hard to get a clear read on a card’s power level, but in this case, it will pay to stay skeptical rather than buying into hype. The cards we have seen thus far are likely to play supporting roles in the best existing decks. Keep that in mind as you prepare for the first Standard tournaments of the new format.
Bonus: My #1 Advice for (Team) Sealed
Limited is my favorite form of Magic. Limited games play out in unpredictable patterns and involve a tremendous amount of choices during deck building. Whenever I have the opportunity, I enjoy asking pro players how they build their Sealed decks and about their preferences at Grand Prix.
If I can give you one piece of advice, it’s to always favor power over synergy.
If my team opens a Vona, Butcher of Magan at Grand Prix Providence, there is a 100% chance that it will be in one of our three decks. I would extend this statement to uncommons that are strong—Charging Monstrosaur for instance—to about 95% instead of 100%.
During the first few rounds of a GP, I play against opponents who have virtually no chance of winning, purely because they choose to play a weaker, synergy-based deck. What is particularly startling to me is that even teams of pros make grave mistakes in deck building. Hopefully we can all learn from the following mistakes made at GP Mexico City:
Unnamed team that includes two PT Champions and a World Champion:
- Did not play Fateful Showdown in either of their two red decks.
Unnamed team that includes Two Platinum-level pros:
- Did not play Treasure Keeper in any of their three decks.
- Did not play Chandra’s Revolution in their one red deck.