Exploring Ixalan Limited

by Justin Robb on 11 October 2017, Wednesday

Justin Robb


Exploring Ixalan Limited 

While Amonkhet / Hour of Devastation Limited was wildly lauded as being one of the greatest draft formats in recent times, Ixalan has received a very different response. Pros on social media have often called the format one of the worst in recent memory.

Common complaints include the lack of decision points, high variance, high rate of unplayables and most games being decided by mana flood or screw. While Ixalan is almost certainly a worse limited format than Hour of Devastation it's not without hope. Today I'm going to detail my approach to this difficult limited format. 

Ixalan's Mechanics


Sun-Crowned Hunters Deadeye Tormentor Tishana's Wayfinder

Limited formats are defined by their mechanics and in Ixalan those are Raid, Tribes, Enrage, Vehicles, Explore, double-faced cards and legendary planeswalkers. All the double face cards are rare and the planeswalkers mythic so they aren't going to have too much impact on most limited games. The other mechanics appear at common and uncommon and as such will be the defining forces of the format.

Raid rewards you for attacking with creatures, tribal synergies reward you for having creatures of that tribe, enrage rewards you for damaging your creatures, vehicles require creatures to crew and explore is only on creatures. All the common and uncommon mechanics of Ixalan are pushing you to play creatures and attack with them. Recognising this is vital in how we construct our limited decks.

Conspicuously missing here is a mana sink mechanic such as Kicker or Cycling. Even worse there are very limited activated abilities or mana sinks on any of the cards. In other formats, if you drew a few too many lands, you could count on a mechanic like Kicker to help get you out of it but not in Ixalan. When you draw a few too many lands or mulligan you are just permanently down on the action.

What works in Ixalan

As we see from the mechanics, Ixalan limited is pushing us to play creatures and lots of them. Many of the creatures tend to be vanilla without triggered or activated abilities whereas the good creatures either have relevant combat abilities such as First Strike and Flying or great stats for their cost. We want to be making use of Raid and Enrage and to do that we need to be able to confidently get into combat at every point in the curve.


Anointed Deacon

Another important reason to be playing a lot of creatures is their tribe. Some cards like Anointed Deacon swing from very underpowered to the best card in your deck depending on your tribal allegiances. Maximising every part of your creatures, including its tribe, is key to getting the most power into your limited deck.

Even without Raid there are many creatures that are naturally better on offense. Deeproot Warrior, Territorial Hammerskull, Tilonalli's Knight, Anointed Deacon and Watertrap Weaver all get significantly better when you are on the beat down. Blocking is ineffective or impossible against these cards and they all exist at common.

Clearly, aggro decks are where you want to be in Ixalan.

The lack of mana sinks in Ixalan puts a higher priority on the top-quality ones that remain. Shapers of Nature stands out as a card with great stats, a relevant creature type and a mana sink that can take over the game. Ways to loot away excess lands like Shipwreck Looter or Marauding Looter can act as a substitute for a mana sink too. Still, with most decks having few to no mana sinks and the format pushing you to be aggressive I am looking to play 16 lands in most of my decks.

What Doesn't Work in Ixalan

With all the talk of creatures being great it shouldn't be that big of a surprise that spells are poor in comparison. Spells don't attack for raid, explore, enrage, contribute to tribal synergies, or do anything that the format is encouraging you to do.

There is always an opportunity cost to putting a non-creature spell in your deck but that is amplified in this format. The simple fact of not being a creature means only premium spells are going to make the cut here. Bounce spells and counterspells are particularly unplayable.


Lightning Strike Vanquish the Weak

Removal in the set is fine but forming a game plan around removal is unrealistic. The premium removal spells like Lightning Strike and Vanquish the Weak combine mana efficiency and the potential for 2 for 1s. By comparison Unfriendly Fire and Contract Killing are far more expensive and will most often trade down in mana.

With the way games tend to play out removal is primarily used for dealing with opposing bombs or evasive creatures rather than gaining tempo. 


River Heralds' Boon Vampire's Zeal Skulduggery

Combat tricks always carry an inherent risk in leaving open mana that may never be used and in Ixalan they are worse than usual with only certain ones being powerful enough to be playable. River Heralds' BoonVampire's ZealSkulduggery are cheap and efficient enough to make the cut. The risk of leaving open mana is minimized and they have the potential to completely swing a board state. In contrast a card like Sheltering Light is not going to let your creatures in combat and runs the risk of being stranded in your hand all game long.

I spoke a great deal about how important creatures are but that doesn't mean they are all great. Creatures that don't have a tribe, don't have combat abilities or are just overcosted need to be avoided. Queen's Agent, Sunrise Seeker, Wily Goblin, Blossom Dryad, Brazen Buccaneers, Prosperous Pirates, Encampment Keeper and Lurking Chupacabra are prime examples of creatures that aren't advancing your game plan and should be left on the bench.



Winning Games of Ixalan

In Ixalan Limited, games tend to play out in one of the three following ways.

  • Both players curve out, but one has better quality creatures. That player can make attacks while the opponent can't eventually leading to the attacking player winning.
  • Both players curve out with similar quality creatures but one player floods. Without mana sinks they are unable to keep up with the extra spells the opponent has access too. The player that didn't flood can continue to trade spells and make attacks.
  • The board becomes stalled and neither player can make attacks. The game becomes decided by a combination of mana sinks and evasive creatures. A mana sink like Shapers of Nature or an evasive threat like Shining Aerosaur will once again allow one player to attack while the other cannot.


Considering these three points above, our blueprint for victory looks like this:

  • Curve out with a creature on almost every turn.
  • Maximise mana efficiency.
  • Take advantage of your creature's synergies, including tribe, for virtual card advantage.
  • When the board stalls use mana sinks or evasive threats to break through.



Time to Draft

Considering all these points, how can we apply it towards the drafting process? how can apply it to the draft process.

We want a deck that is mostly creatures, at least 17 and preferably as many as possible in the same tribe. We want to minimize the number of situational spells, spells that don't trade for a card or spells that don't affect the board. Premium removal and bombs remain high picks.


Regisaur Alpha

Ixalan is not a set where you can use a pick order to take cards on pure power level. The value of a card when drafting is going to swing drastically depending on what color pair you are in and what stage of the draft you are at. The cards relative value to your deck is critical here. River Heralds Boon has the potential to be extremely strong in a Blue-Green Merfolk deck but what about a Red-Green Dinosaur deck? Pay a lot of attention to how good a card is in your deck as it stands and evaluate its relative value rather than its absolute value.


Air Elemental

There are some creatures that have great stats but no relevant tribe. Seeker's Squire and Air Elemental give up their subtype for a boost in pure stats. While it would be nice if Seeker's Squire was a Vampire or Air Elemental was a Pirate they are still going to make great additions to those decks.

On the other hand, we have some creatures that have great stats combined with a tribe such as Storm Fleet Aerialist or Skymarch Bloodletter. If you can take advantage of the creature type on these cards that's a good bonus but their pure stats means they will still be strong in a Merfolk or Pirate deck respectively.

White-Blue and Black-Green are the 2 color combinations that don't have a tribal allegiance and should be avoided in Booster Draft. Without making use of tribal synergies you would just be hoping that your spells just line up better than your opponents. Sometimes it can work but these color pairs have a high fail rate, steer clear.


River's Rebuke

Recognising what cards work only in one archetype is important too.

Imagine this situation, Pick 1 in a draft you take a River's Rebuke and pick 2 you have the choice between these two cards.

  • The first is a Blue card that can be an 8/10 in a Blue-Green Merfolk deck but only a 3/10 in Blue-Red or Blue-Black Pirates.

  • The second is a Blue card that is a solid 6/10 across Blue-Green, Blue-Black or Blue-Red.

In this situation, the first card only has an average rating of 4.6/10 across all archetypes while the second remains a 6/10 no matter what the second color you end up pairing it with. Taking the first card would essentially be the same as taking a gold card pick 2.

Here the pick is the second card. However, consider the same choice in another scenario. If you are established in Blue-Green Merfolk and are presented with the same choice the pick becomes the first card. The relative value of the card to your deck at the point in time of the pick is crucial to drafting the best deck possible.

When I start a draft, I begin by prioritizing cards that are strong across multiple archetypes and avoid picking ‘gold' cards. Here are some examples of cards that are both powerful and fit into multiple archetypes.

Emissary of Sunrise Territorial Hammerskull Ixalan's Binding Storm Fleet Aerialist Chart a Course Shipwreck Looter Wanted Scoundrels Skymarch Bloodletter Vanquish the Weak Charging Monstrosaur Fathom Fleet Firebrand Firecannon Blast Merfolk Branchwalker Tishana's Wayfinder Savage Stomp


When the draft develops to a stage where I can identify my colour pair I can start taking cards that shine in that pair. This is again where the relative evaluation of cards is so important. Here are some examples of cards that you can look to pick once you establish yourself in that color pair:

Vampire's Zeal Duskborne Skymarcher River Sneak Shaper Apprentice Anointed Deacon Bishop of the Bloodstained Tilonalli's Knight Thrash of Raptors Vineshaper Mystic Pounce

Finally, we have the traps, bad cards and general unplayables of the set. Putting these cards in your deck will actively make it worse under almost all circumstances. There is a relatively high number of unplayable cards in this set, so these examples aren't exhaustive:

Looming Altisaur Sunrise Seeker Legion Conquistador Ritual of Rejuvenation Legion's Judgment Spell Pierce Cancel Pirate's Prize Shore Keeper Headwater Sentries Duress Lurking Chupacabra Queen's Agent Heartless Pillage Costly Plunder Trove of Temptation Dual Shot Makeshift Munitions Wily Goblin Brazen Buccaneers Spike-Tailed Ceratops Ancient Brontodon Blossom Dryad Verdant Rebirth Emergent Growth

This is how I have approached the Limited format with the key being recognising the impact of the sets mechanics on Limited play and adjusting your game plan card evaluations around it. We've seen that Ixalan pushes you to be aggressive, play few spells and make the most out of your creatures.

To maximize our win rate, we need to play the way the cards want us to and while it's still a decision light, overly aggressive, higher variance than usual format it's the one we must draft, play and win inside of. Thanks for reading!


Cards in the Articles

Articles you might be also interested

Tobi Henke shares some thoughts about Core Set 2019 after experiencing the format for himself.
Lee Shi Tian goes through the colors pairs in Core Set 2019 booster draft.
Zen Takahashi reviews the top commons and uncommons from Core Set 2019!

M19 Singles Available
Recent Sold
Date Event
Jul 07
Grand Prix Sao Paulo 2018
Jul 01
Standard (M2019)
Jul 01
Modern (M2019)
Jun 30
Grand Prix Barcelona 2018
Jun 23
Grand Prix Pittsburgh 2018
Jun 23
Grand Prix Singapore 2018
Jun 15
Grand Prix Las Vegas (Modern)
Jun 10
Jun 09
Grand Prix Copenhagen 2018
Jun 01
Pro Tour Dominaria 2018

Copyright © 2002 - 2018 MTGMintCard.com