In today’s article, I’ll talk a bit about the Ixalan mechanics and some of the key cards that represent each of them.
Explore is a wordy mechanic that will take some use to be familiar with. It reads:
“Reveal the top card of your library. Put that card into your hand if it’s a land. Otherwise, put a +1/+1 counter on this creature, then put the card back or put it in your graveyard.”
I think it’s easy to peg this as a Limited mechanic (where it seems quite good), but it’s actually a significantly more powerful version of scry. If the card is a land, it goes straight to your hand, which is obviously an improvement—if it’s not a land, then you get a bonus and you can either keep it (same as scry) or put it in your graveyard (usually better than scrying to the bottom as graveyard cards can have value).
The value of explore is also obviously going to change depending on what it’s attached to, so it’s hard to evaluate in a vacuum. For Constructed, the best explore card spoiled so far is probably Deadeye Tracker.
The Tracker isn’t outstanding as an explore card, but it’s pretty good as graveyard hate that has more than one dimension—it’s something you can actually main deck because it’s a 1-mana Pirate that potentially draws cards, grows, and gives you card selection. You don’t need a Dredge deck to exist for the Tracker to be good—since it does something on its own, if graveyards matter and deserve fighting even to a small extent, then Tracker will probably see play.
When I first looked at raid, I thought, “oh wow, this ability seems familiar. I think we’ve seen something like this before.” It took me a while to realize that it’s a recurring ability from Khans block.
For the most part, raid was a Limited mechanic the first time around, and I expect it to be again. The exception was Wingmate Roc, which was a card that saw heavy play in a lot of Abzan decks.
The presence of raid makes for some interesting situations, especially when it’s not common and you forget that it exists. I remember sometimes my opponents would attack me with a creature and I would think for 35 minutes on why they would ever make this attack and what they could possibly have, only to end up taking it, and then they’d just go and play Wingmate Roc from their Jeskai deck and it’d all make sense.
Of the cards spoiled so far, I think the most interesting raid application comes from Ruin Raider.
Ruin Raider is an Orc Pirate, which has potential tribal applications (we already know Pirates will be a supported tribe, but we don’t know yet if it’s going to be any good or if being a Pirate is a big advantage). It’s similar to Pain Seer, except that it has one huge advantage in that the effect is immediate—whereas Pain Seer needs to attack on turn 3 and then untap on turn 4, Ruin Raider comes down on turn 3 and immediately draws a card. It’s also much harder to brickwall, as it doesn’t have to attack itself, though it can if it needs to (just be aware that if it dies you’re not drawing any cards). And, compared to Dark Confidant, it’s a bit safer—it’s still mandatory, but if you can’t risk it, then you don’t have to attack.
In return for this, it has two downsides. The first is that you have to have a 2-drop ready to attack, and the second is that you have to play a 3-mana 3/2. A 2-mana 2/2 was nothing to write home about, but it’s still better than 3-mana 3/2.
Is Ruin Raider going to see play? I think it’s possible. If you play a very aggressive deck, especially with a lot of 1- and 2-drops, it’s a powerful turn-3 play that immediately replaces itself and demands an answer. If your opponent has some cheap removal spells or blockers that brickwall your creatures, though, then it doesn’t do anything.
Enrage is the Dinosaur mechanic from Ixalan. It says “whenever [cardname] is dealt damage, [you get an effect].” It might be familiar to Hearthstone players since it’s a core mechanic from the Warrior class, but Hearthstone’s enrage mechanic has one key difference—damage is permanent, which means that there’s a permanent downside to doing it and a limit as to how many times you can do it. In Magic, damage regenerates every turn, so there’s nothing stopping you from triggering enrage 20 times if you have ways to constantly damage the creature.
There are two ways you can use enrage. The first is to let the creature take damage naturally. If you attack, sometimes they have to block. If they attack, you can block. This will trigger enrage even if the creature dies. The second way is to get some help from pingers and recurring sources of damage that you can use on your own creatures. In Standard, the best way to do this is likely Walking Ballista. Whether that’s worth doing will depend on the enrage rewards.
Right now, the best enrage card is probably Ripjaw Raptor.
As a 4-mana 4/5, the Raptor has an acceptable body, and drawing a card is a huge reward. At 4/5 it’s tough enough to survive a single burn spell, which means you’re drawing at least two cards if they want to kill this with most red based removal, and if they ever chump-block it, you draw a card as well. If they use some sort of sweeper like Sweltering Suns, then this will live and draw a card for your trouble.
As for triggering it yourself, one card is definitely worth it—I can see playing Ripjaw Raptor in the same deck as Walking Ballista and then just cashing my Ballista for 2 or 3 cards from time to time.
Vehicles were the new mechanic of Kaladesh, and at that point, I think WotC didn’t have a clear idea of their power level. They were completely new cards, much like planeswalkers when they were first introduced. As the format came together, it became clear that Vehicles were actually very powerful, some of them overly so. Smuggler’s Copter was arguably the most played card in Standard by the time it got banned, and Heart of Kiran was the centerpiece of one of the most dominating Standard tournament performances of all time, when Mardu Vehicles took the top 6 spots. Even today, after the dust has settled, cards like Skysovereign, Consul Flagship still see a decent amount of play.
I think that the Ixalan Vehicles are going to be much weaker, and if what we’ve seen so far is any indication, there won’t be a lot of support for them. We’ll see some flavor and roleplayers, and they might be good in Limited, but we probably won’t see a lot of synergies like Depala and Veteran Motorist.
If there’s a good Constructed Vehicle, it’ll probably be only one, and it’s certainly not any of the ones spoiled so far.
Double-faced cards return, and can hardly be called a mechanic to begin with. You can do basically anything with it, and its cards need to have no relation to each other. You can, for example, build a raid-based deck, or an infect deck, or a Goblins deck, but you most certainly cannot build a “double-faced” deck. It looks like the double-faced cards in Ixalan will be more in line with the Origins planeswalkers, rather than the Innistrad Werewolves, which should mean they aren’t as problematic for competitive Limited play.
Right now, the best double-faced card spoiled happens to be the only double-faced card spoiled, Treasure Map.
At first, for 2 mana, you get a 1, tap, scry 1 effect. That’s not so great. Once you’ve used it 3 times, though, it flips into Treasure Cove and gives you 3 Treasure tokens.
Treasure Trove is a land, so you get some pretty serious ramp—you play this on turn 2, activate it on turns 3, 4 and 5, and then on turn 6 you have 10 mana! It’s a bit like Pyramid of the Pantheon, except it’s a lot more flexible because those Treasure tokens can turn into extra cards if you want them to, and you’re scrying in the meantime. If you use Pyramid 3 times and they kill it, you’ve lost a huge amount of mana, whereas if you use this 3 times and they kill it, then at the very least you’ve gotten 3 scrys out of the deal.
I think this is a powerful card overall. It might not have a home since it demands so much (you need to be willing to spend your mana to do nothing early on and you need to have something to ramp into), but it’s one I’m going to keep an eye on.
Like Lorwyn, Ixalan seems to be a tribal set—its tribes are Merfolk, Pirates, Dinosaurs and Vampires, and there’s a lot of indication that they will be heavily supported.
Of those, Merfolk is the one we already know is going to be a deck (since well, it’s already a deck, at least in Modern), so it makes sense to start there and see what the deck gains.
The best Merfolk we’ve seen so far for the Modern Merfolk deck is Kopala, Warden of Waves.
- It doesn’t fly
- The ability is worse than Kira’s. They can still Fatal Push/Path to Exile/Bolt you, but it costs 3 mana instead of 1. With Kira, they need two of them.
Now here are the ways in which it’s better:
- It’s a Merfolk! It gets pumped by all the lords and works with Adept and Reejerey. The non-flying clause is not as relevant since it will get islandwalk as well. On top of that, it can easily be cast by Cavern of Souls, which is often a problem for Kira.
- It works against Abrupt Decay (which is at an all-time low, but still).
- It doesn’t stop your own spells from working. Not very relevant for most decks that play Kira.
In the end, my inclination is that Kopala is the better main-deck card—the synergies in the Merfolk deck are too important, and it’s going to be significantly better against decks that don’t want to kill your creatures with 1-mana spot removal. If you’re boarding it in to deal with a deck full of spot removal, then Kira is probably the better card. It’s also possible that a 1-1 split is correct if you play 2 copies since they’re both legendary.
For Standard, my favorite Merfolk so far is Kumena’s Speaker.
We haven’t seen any lords yet, so what I’m saying might be wrong, but in general, 1-mana creatures are very powerful in tribal decks because they let you start building a board earlier. Those decks want to get many creatures in play, and being able to play one on turn 1 goes a long way toward that. On top of that, there are usually enough tribal synergies that the cards scale well into the mid-to-late game, unlike most aggressive 1-drops.
Kumena’s Speaker is not only a tribal 1-drop, but it actually packs a punch. 2/2 for 1 is a stat that we rarely see in blue-green decks (cards like Loam Lion, Kird Ape, Wild Nacatl, Zurgo, Isamaru all need white or red to work), and if there is a U/G Merfolk deck in Standard, this will probably see play as a 4-of.
There’s a remote possibility that this sees play in a U/G version of Modern Merfolk. You can cast it with Cavern, Breeding Pool, or Botanical Sanctum, and then you can also have access to Collected Company, which is good in a tribal deck. The drawback is that you have less devotion and can’t play too many 4-drops, so you have to cut Masters for that, and Master is pretty good (though not as good nowadays since there aren’t that many Bolts going around).
New Planeswalker Legend Rule
Ixalan is going to change the planeswalker rule so that they’re now legendary permanents. In practice, it means that Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Jace Beleren are now like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Thalia, Heretic Cathar—they’re the same character for flavor purposes, but completely different cards where the game is concerned.
This is going to have some impact in Magic, particularly in Modern where several versions of the same planeswalkers are not only legal but actively good. A lot of black decks would have liked to play Liliana of the Veil and Liliana, the Last Hope in bigger numbers, but felt constrained because of the planeswalker rule. Gideon of the Trials, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Gideon Jura can all potentially be played in the same deck as well (maximizing the Gideon of the Trials emblem while you’re at it), as could Jace, Architect of Thought and Jace Beleren, and even several different copies of Chandra.
Not only that, but it makes it so that planeswalkers are now affected by legendary-matters cards. Lay Bare the Heart, for example, went from “in competition to Transgress the Mind” to “much worse than Transgress the Mind” because it can’t take planeswalkers now.
Had this been in effect earlier, Thalia’s Lancers would have been the biggest beneficiary—it was already a somewhat playable card, but give it the ability to find a Sorin, a Gideon, or a Liliana, and suddenly it becomes very powerful. Unfortunately, it’s rotating out as the rule changes are implemented, and it’s probably not going to see Modern play (though the ability to get Elspeth might push it over the top anyway).
The most exciting card to try this new change with is Untaidake, the Cloud Keeper, which so far hasn’t served any real function in Magic other than remind us how absurdly broken Ancient Tomb truly is. Planeswalkers are some of the best cards to accelerate into as they become more powerful the longer they stay in play (and the earlier they’re played), so it’s not inconceivable to want to accelerate a Gideon or a Jace into play badly enough that you’ll play a card like Untaidake, but in the end, I think this is too Magical Christmasland. Untaidake is just too bad of a card—it enters the battlefield tapped, only adds mana to play legendary spells, and costs 2 life. On top of that, it’s legendary itself, so it’s awkward as a build-around. If it had all those cons but still tapped for colorless mana normally, then maybe it would be good, but not tapping to cast over half your spells has got to be too much of a drawback.
So far, we have one planeswalker in Ixalan: Jace, Cunning Castaway.
This Jace is very different from the Jaces you’re used to seeing, and it doesn’t look to be a control card. The plus ability is only a loot, and requires you to hit with a creature, which is kind of awkward. A lot of the time, if you want to up Jace’s loyalty, it’s going to do nothing that turn.
The play pattern on Jace is usually going to be one of two: You play it, make a token, and then it immediately dies, or you play it, +1, +1 again, and then ultimate. Once you ultimate, you can simply +1, +1 and ultimate both in 3 turns, or you can just make 2 tokens. My inclination is that neither of those two seem very good, especially if you compare them to other 3-mana planeswalkers that have been great—both Lilianas, Nissa, Jace Beleren—but planeswalkers have a way of surprising me. Still, my bet is that it’s not going to be played in Standard.
So far, Ixalan looks to be an interesting but weird set. It doesn’t overlap much with the main mechanics that are going to remain in Standard, so it’s hard to fit the spoiled cards into existing decks (and that’s also just the nature of a mechanic like energy), but at the same time, we haven’t seen enough of the set to see if its internal mechanics can stand up to the likes of energy or Vehicles. Taking what we have right now, my answer is that it probably can’t, but there’s still over half the set to be spoiled. I have high hopes.