By most counts, Ixalan was not a good Limited format. It was one-dimensional, full of blowouts, unplayables, and lacked any nuance or flexibility. Rivals of Ixalan, for the most part, improves on all of those factors—some of them were corrected entirely, and the ones that still exist are much less prevalent.
In today’s article, I’m going to talk about Rivals of Ixalan Draft, and which concepts, cards, and strategies got better or worse compared to triple-Ixalan. The comparison to Ixalan is mostly to organize my thoughts and to provide a quick guide for the people who were already familiar with the format, but you should be able to understand what I’m talking about even if you have never played triple-Ixalan before.
Worse: Dedicated Tribal Decks
In Ixalan, there were a lot of dedicated tribal decks. You’d often see Merfolk decks with 16 Merfolk and then 4 other cards that cared about the creature type, or Dinosaur decks with several Tilonalli’s Knights, Otepec Huntmasters, Commune with Dinosaurs, and 10 Dinosaurs. Vampire decks would have 2 or 3 copies of Anointed Deacon, and Pirates decks would have seven 2-drop Pirates to equip with 1 of their 2 Pirate’s Cutlass.
In Rivals of Ixalan, this is not the case anymore. Why is that? Two reasons:
The first reason is that creature types are more spread out. It used to be that every good creature in a color combination just happened to be a tribe, which meant you naturally ended up with 10-15 creatures of that tribe even if you weren’t prioritizing them. With Rivals, creatures have random types, so you often end up with less of a tribal focus.
Let’s take, for example, Merfolk. What are the common Merfolk in Rivals?
What’s the best common 2-drop for a Merfolk deck in Rivals? Probably Kitesail Corsair—a Pirate.
In Ixalan, if you were a Merfolk deck looking for a good 2-drop, you could pick basically any decent green or blue 2-drop and it’d happen to be a Merfolk. Now, if you want the best one, you have to deviate from your tribe. If you take a card like Hardy Veteran, that’s also not a Merfolk.
There is one tribe for which this is an exception, and that’s Vampires. With Vampires, every creature that you want to play is naturally a Vampire. You don’t have to push it—you’re just going to draft normally, and then by the end of the Draft you’ll see that all your 2- and 3-drops have the creature type Vampire. As a result, you should prize Vampire synergies more than you do synergies in other tribes, because you’re more likely to end up with 12 Vampires in your deck than you are to end up with 12 Dinosaurs.
The second reason is that there are simply fewer payoffs at common. With Merfolk, you had, for example, River Heralds’ Boon, which would often be the best card in your deck at common. No one else would want it, so you’d regularly get a first-pick quality card fifth, sixth, or even eighth if you positioned yourself properly in a Draft.
With Rivals, the payoff exists, but it’s in higher rarities. Merfolk Mistbinder is amazing, and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca is a bomb, but those are uncommon and mythic. As a result, you’ll see fewer payoff cards even if you’re the only drafter, or one of two drafters, in a particular combination.
The same is true for the other tribes as well—there’s just less incentive to commit. You have fewer Anointed Deacons, fewer Pirate’s Cutlass, fewer Communes, Tilonalli’s Knights, Thrash of Raptors—there’s no longer this much benefit to having your random 2-drop be a Pirate or a Dinosaur.
In general, cards that rely on a creature type got worse. For example, Vanquisher’s Banner and Radiant Destiny. They’ll still be good in most decks (and they’re especially good in Vampires), but you have to know that they are not always going to be the mega bombs they would have been in the previous format.
To give you an example: At a GP Draft, I had a B/W deck that had 8 Vampires and 7 Pirates (it was Team Draft, so decks are a bit worse than usual). Then, on turn 3, I had Radiant Destiny in my hand, and I simply didn’t play it because I didn’t know what to name—something that would be unthinkable in Ixalan. When I finally played it on turn 6, I named Dinosaur!
Better: Changing Colors in the Middle of the Draft and Abandoning Some of Your Picks
In Ixalan, there were a lot of really, really bad cards—cards like Blinding Fog, Spreading Rot, Demolish, and Spell Pierce that would just never make your main deck. Card quality dried up quickly, and you’d often be passed a pack with 8 cards in it and nothing you wanted to play. This was exacerbated by the fact that some of the cards wouldn’t be good in your deck even if they were your color. You could, for example, be green-red, and then get passed a pack where the only green card is River Heralds’ Boon, which you don’t want to play. In that sense, it’s almost like there were 10 colors, and not 5. It wasn’t enough to be green if green was open—you’d have to be green Merfolk if green Merfolk was open.
In Rivals, the combination of much higher card quality with the fact that cards aren’t as specific to a single archetype means there are a lot more playables, and you’ll often end the draft with good cards in your sideboard.
In practice, this means that you can afford to be a lot more adventurous with your picks because you’re not going to get punished if you have to abandon something. In Ixalan, you picked a couple of cards in an archetype, and then put the blinders on and just started taking every card that you could for it. You couldn’t afford to abandon your first four picks because then you’d end up with 19 playables. Cards like Pirate’s Cutlass were at a premium because they were one of the few cards that could go in multiple decks.
In Rivals, you can afford to give up your first three, four, or five picks. You can start with a green card, second-pick a black card, and third-pick a blue card and fourth-pick a blue-white card. Sure, you’re not going to play all of those, but you don’t need to, because you’ll get enough playables regardless.
This also means you should take risks early on. If you see a card that is great for an archetype but narrow, take it, and be ready to abandon it if it doesn’t pan out. In this format, I believe you should first pick Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca over any common, but that doesn’t mean you should second-pick Mist-Cloaked Herald over Luminous Bonds. You can actually afford to gamble with Kumena and then switch out of Merfolk completely.
Better: Slower Decks
The format being less about tribes means that there are fewer completely busted tribal decks. It used to be that the great tribal decks were more or less unbeatable—they’d run over you with a great curve topped by incredible synergies. Now, it’s much rarer for a tribal deck to be this good, because they rely a lot more on uncommons than commons. As a result, fewer games end on turn 4, and late-game cards can actually see play.
You wouldn’t think it by looking at the stats of creatures, but blocking is actually easier now than it was before. Sailor of Means is an excellent blocker, and Snubhorn Sentry does a good job in the early game as well, not to mention the often underrated Sun-Crested Pterodon. Most of the time you’ll take the first couple of hits, but then once you start producing more than one blocker, attacking becomes pretty complicated since you no longer have decks with multiple Territorial Hammerskulls or One With the Wind to get through. There are also more (and better) uncommon sweepers than Fiery Cannonade. Golden Demise is one of the best uncommons in the set, and Forerunner of the Empire is often the best card in any red-green deck, and both of those can punish fast starts. This doesn’t mean that you can’t attack, of course—it’s still a viable strategy—but it’s no longer the only viable strategy.
Some people on my team really like the multicolored control decks, and will go to great lengths to play them. Personally, I like to draft a slow deck when I start with a way to win the game. A lot of the time, you just stall the game and then lose to their bomb. If I start with something like Zetalpa, Primal Dawn, Azor the Lawbringer, or Zacama, Primal Calamity, then I’m happy to draft a deck whose goal is surviving until I get to play them, but I usually like to have that powerful card before I start drafting defensive creatures left and right.
Better: Big Removal
This is a direct consequence of slower decks being better, because if people can actually play more powerful creatures in their decks, then it becomes more important to be able to kill them. Take, for example, Impale and Moment of Craving. If those two cards were in Ixalan, there’s a decent chance I’d pick Moment of Craving. In Rivals, I’m almost always going to pick Impale because I now value killing bigger creatures more.
One of the reasons the format has fewer fast, unbeatable starts is that there are more unconditional removal spells in this format, which means that someone is less likely to just put One with the Wind on a creature and run away with the game (as well as, of course, two fewer packs of One with the Wind). Auras are still good, and you can often get some value from them first (since most removal is still sorcery speed), but One With the Wind was a first-pickable card in Ixalan, and I wouldn’t be thrilled to first-pick it in Rivals.
The ground stalls a lot in Rivals since the defensive creatures have more toughness than power. It’s not uncommon for people to play draw-go for several turns, with a flyer chipping away at someone’s life total. Aggressive decks want flyers to get past blockers, and defensive decks want either flyers of their own or ways to kill flyers. I value Crushing Canopy and Plummet pretty highly as sideboard cards in most of my green decks, and in the case of the Crushing Canopy I often maindeck it.
Better: Unconventional Color Combinations
In Ixalan, you were heavily incentivized to get the “right” color pairings—meaning that if you were a Vampire deck, you’d be B/W, and if you were a Dinosaur deck, you’d be a Naya combination. If you ever deviated from this, your deck would likely end up considerably worse because you’d be giving up on creatures with the right type and powerful synergies. U/W decks weren’t good, and B/G decks were the last resort of the people who opened Vraska.
In Rivals, because there’s less focus on being tribal, there’s also more flexibility in color pairs. At the PT, for example, I went 3-0 with a R/W Vampire deck. I had about 10 Vampires and a lot of Vampire synergies, but I also had a good number of Dinosaurs and some Dinosaur synergies. I know that Jacob Wilson drafted R/G Merfolk twice! B/G is still mostly a bad archetype, but U/W Flyers is now a very reasonable deck.
On top of that, it’s also easier to splash. In Ixalan, decks were usually streamlined and two colors. In Rivals, there’s a lot more fixing, and the control archetype naturally wants Treasure makers, so it becomes much easier to splash something. For this reason, I think Luminous Bonds is the best common—it might not be as strong as something like Impale, but you’ll end up playing it in the great majority of your decks.
Better: Legion Conquistador
In Ixalan, Legion Conquistador was a mediocre common—you often wouldn’t play it if you had only 2 copies, and you were happy to play 3 but not thrilled. In Rivals, the card got much better, for three reasons:
- First, they’re more common. Ixalan was a big set, and Rivals is a small set, which means that there are a lot more Legion Conquistadors opened in each Draft, so the likelihood of ending up with 3 is higher.
- Second, B/W Vampires is just a better archetype than it was before. It used to be just fine, and suffered thanks to its inferior synergies, but now that synergy is less important, the fact that its cards can be naturally good is very important.
- Third, the format is slower. Since it’s slower, you have time to play all your 2/2s, which wasn’t necessarily the case in Ixalan.
I don’t think Legion Conquistador is a first pick or anything, but it’s a card that I’ll happily pick up, say, fourth or fifth, and I’ll pay special attention to any that I see so I can try to figure out if they’re going to wheel or not.
Worse: 1-Toughness Creatures
In Rivals, there are a lot of ways to punish 1-toughness creatures. There are more creatures that beat them profitably in combat (Sailor of Means, tokens from Squire’s Devotion, Dusk Legion Zealot, Martyr of Dusk), as well as more 1-damage spells (Shake the Foundations, Forerunner of the Empire) and a higher incentive to play 1-damage spells (such as Dual Shot).
The biggest example of a card that got much worse is Raptor Companion. Before, I’d play it in virtually all my aggressive decks. Nowadays, I’ll play it in less than half my decks, and usually only if I have a big gap at the 2-drop slot or a lot of Dinosaur synergies (though I still board it in from time to time if they don’t look like they can punish 1-toughness creatures as well).