Ixalan’s Best Treasures

With spoiler season in full swing for Ixalan, it’s time to embrace the hype and start the big brewing process that occurs with each major Standard rotation. With so many cards leaving (which we discussed at length last week), it’s natural to start by looking at the holes in the metagame and what that means for the surviving archetypes. The clear conclusion is that Temur (possibly with a Black splash) and Mono-Red will be the major poles of this vastly shrunken format, and any new deck will need to contend with the speed of Red and the power of the Energy shell for the next year. Ixalan, by the looks of it, is primarily flavor-driven rather than power-driven, and that’s a good thing. We’ve been spoiled with a ton of high-powered sets in the last year, and kicking it back to a pseudo-Commander-style set might be the calming force we need in the wake of three major Standard bannings.

However, even a set release with a bunch of little-kid favorites like Dinosaurs and Pirates can still pack a punch and shape Standard in unexpected ways, so it would be the ultimate arrogance to completely ignore Ixalan and the few impactful cards we’ve seen so far. With half the set remaining, there’s surely some buried treasure that we’ll discover in the coming weeks, but there are quite a few cards that already stand out as potential future staples.

Honorable Mention: Hostage Taker

What could have been a fun little exploration of “how to abuse a Development screw-up” got cut off at the pass with a wee bit of errata. Notice how the text of this card allows it to exile itself, thus immediately returning itself to play and re-triggering. With a Pious Evangel or Soul Warden-style effect, that’s infinite life. With an Impact Tremors-style effect, that’s a clean win. With Soul of the Harvest, that’s a “draw my deck” effect. All of those two-card combos might be tolerable, but the biggest offense of this card is the simplest. With no other creatures on the board, this induces an immediate draw, as it creates an unstoppable infinite loop. Wizards really doesn’t want a large portion of its Standard games to end with “I was losing, so I cast a Hostage Taker and we went to game four.” Sorry Hostage Taker, at least with some text-box surgery you didn’t have to Walk the Plank!

10: Glacial Fortress, Sunpetal Grove, and the rest of the M10 land cycle

Glacial Fortress
Sunpetal Grove
Rootbound Crag
Dragonskull Summit
Drowned Catacomb

I’ll be honest; compared to the Kaladesh enemy colored fastlands and the Battle for Zendikar Block enemy colored creature-lands, these are far from the most exciting lands to see come back. Hell, most of the appeal of Battle for Zendikar’s allied-color dual lands was the basic land types in their type line, and these lands don’t even have that lucky feature. However, they will quietly make their impact on Standard in the same way the Battle for Zendikar and Shadows over Innistrad allied-color dual lands did. These are workhorses that Wizards can rely on time and again to give Standard reasonable, but not too powerful manafixing, and they’ll prove their worth in the wake of all the other allied-color dual lands leaving the format. And yes, Rootbound Crag will provide a worthy replacement for Game Trail in Temur Energy (for all three of you who were worried about that deck’s mana base without the valuable dual land!)

There’s likely to be a {B}{R} aggro deck in addition to the Mono-Red variety in the coming Standard format, and Dragonskull Summit will provide a worthy addition to the mana base to improve consistency without demanding major sacrifices in speed. And with one of the other valuable removal spells in Ixalan, it might even be time for {U}{B} or Grixis Control to take over from{U}{R}. Drowned Catacomb will be an extremely welcome addition there, so do not under any circumstances sleep on these role players.

9: Ripjaw Raptor

Walking Ballista’s newest friend, the raptor can turn excess mana into excess cards with ease, and promises a delightful four-drop to bridge the gap between {B}{G}’s powerful 2-drops and its Verdurous Gearhulks. The body is solid for its mana cost, no one will want to get into combat with the raptor, and it even draws boatloads of cards with another key element of Constrictor decks. What’s not to love?

8: Bellowing Aegisaur

Well, except for this guy, who might just steal the title of “Walking Ballista’s best friend” right out from under the Raptor. Cards are nice, but infinite combos are even better. Now, nothing about a 3/5 for 6 mana screams “play me!”, but with two of these guys and a Walking Ballista out you get to make the Aegisaurs infinitely huge, and with a Winding Constrictor, a Bellowing Aegisaur, and a Walking Ballista out you get to make the Ballista gain a permanent +4/+4 every turn. Is it too cute? Well . . .  maybe. Is it a low-cost addition to a proven shell? Well . . .  the cost of a third color in {B}{G} Constrictor is non-trivial, but it might be worth it. Don’t forget, Jeskai Saheeli was only a good deck in Standard, but once the four-color version was perfected, it became a bannable offense.

7: Jace, Cunning Castaway

This is a weird card. Just weird enough to maybe be great. 3 mana is a discount price for powerful planeswalkers, and any playable planeswalker at 3 mana is likely to be a very powerful planeswalker. Just ask Liliana of the Veil; Jace Beleren; Nissa, Voice of Zendikar; and Liliana, the Last Hope. Hell, even Saheeli Rai (once she gained a feline friend) became a terrifying threat when left alive through a turn cycle. The castaway Jace can easily run out of control if left uncontested, making tons of copies of himself and looting through the deck like crazy. A skeptic might qualify that statement with “but you see, any solid uncontested threat will win the game if left alone for a few turns. Just look at the powerful four-mana planeswalkers of the last set! Or just look at Longtusk Cub, Walking Ballista, and Winding Constrictor. Or the long line of Dark Confidant lookalikes!” While that’s true, planeswalkers deserve special attention at 3 mana, and especially when they can protect themselves (as Jace can with a 2/2 Illusion friend.) Their unique vulnerabilities and resiliencies make them candidates for busted flagship cards much more than your average creature, and Jace certainly has “busted” in his range. For the potential upside of massive fun with planeswalkers making copies of themselves, Jace gets a spot on this list.

6: Settle the Wreckage

Aetherspouts, meet Path to Exile. If a stampede of raging Dinosaurs has you down, this might be just the card to save the day. With Hour of Devastation unable to answer some of the largest prehistoric predators, and with Vehicles, Bristling Hydras, and other hard-to-answer beaters still roaming the land, Settle the Wreckage is a great way for a control deck to settle down some of the frisky aggression and smoothly move into a Torrential Gearhulk-based endgame. Hell, Gearhulking a Settle the Wreckage might just be the end of the game right on the spot!

5: Gishath, Sun’s Avatar

Now we come to the card that straddles the border between fun casual monster and Standard-ruining variance-inducing powerhouse. In the right deck, Gishath can come down on turn six and rain twenty power worth of dinosaurs down on the board for free. Notice the qualifier, “in the right deck”. Gishath is a tough customer to please, as not only do you need a healthy dose of powerful Dinosaurs (most of which must be powerful enough in their own right) but you also need some sort of ramp angle and a way to keep from dying to Red aggression. Make no mistake, though, in the wake of the Eldrazi, a new apex predator of ramp is rising, and its name is Gishath. Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is cool, but gets stale after a while. Gishath is kind of like an Aetherworks Dino-Marvel, but one that also brings the beatdowns by itself. With payoffs like Carnage Tyrant and Regisaur Alpha waiting on top of the deck, there’s a decent chance that Naya Dinosaurs becomes a legitimate ramp strategy in an otherwise Temur- and Red-dominated format. At the very least, the deck comes bearing a theoretically positive matchup against Temur, as it’s a midrange-ramp deck that goes over the top of what Energy is trying to do, while not being particularly vulnerable to any one angle of interaction.

4: Huatli, Warrior Poet

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar pumped out 2/2 Knight Allies. Huatli does him one better by pumping out Dinosaurs! To be sure, his other abilities are a bit weak, although with a beefy monster on the table Huatli does quickly move you out of range of a Ramunap Ruins. Getting a removal spell out of Huatli isn’t even the absolute worst case scenario, and you can even cast a free Forked Bolt and then begin pumping out prehistoric threats. If there ends up being a Red aggro deck that wants to go big without playing Glorybringer (i.e. in order to play around certain creature removal spells), Huatli is a powerful option. Obviously with Skysovereign, Consul Flagship and Glorybringer owning the skies, Huatli would need a specific metagame to flourish, but the opportunity is there.

3: Carnage Tyrant

We’ve talked about this uniquely resilient threat at length last week. It’s the king of the dinosaurs, and this one doesn’t really demand much except a burning desire to crush control decks between your claws. Carnage Tyrant is almost unanswerable, blows through Torrential Gearhulk like it was nothing, and stands tall against sweepers like Hour of Devastation. It’s this card alone (alongside the printing of Settle the Wreckage) that may push {U}{R} Control into {W}{U} territory by necessity. Fumigate is one of the only clean answers to this giant dinosaur (that incidentally cleans up Thopter tokens and Bristling Hydras along the way) and if {W}{U} Approach wasn’t the best way to build control decks before, the Carnage Tyrant is out here making sure that it is now. It goes in Dinosaur Ramp, Temur Energy, and even {B}{G} Constrictor decks. Get used to the new Tyrannosaurus Rex.

2: Lightning Strike

Lightning Strike

Incendiary Flow, eat your heart out. No fake Volcanic Hammers for us in this Standard format, no sir! Strike is slightly worse than Flow against recursive creatures, for example the Zombies that just rotated out of Standard. Now, the biggest creature that Lightning Strike doesn’t kill but Incendiary Flow did is Scrapheap Scrounger, and somehow that little unable-to-block bugger doesn’t seem like a huge problem for a Mono-Red deck. Where does Strike work wonders? With Soul-Scar Mage, for one. Blocking becomes more nerve-wracking with more instant-speed burn spells that now double as pump spells. Soul-Scar Mage had a lot more competitors at 1 mana before the rotation, but with the loss of Falkenrath Gorger and Village Messenger, alongside the pickup of Lightning Strike, the future is looking mighty bright for aggressive Red decks in this Standard format. Someone, get us an emergency reprint of Kor Firewalker, ASAP!

1: Vraska’s Contempt

Well, it’s possible the calls for Kor Firewalker are a bit premature, especially with this classy universal answer seeing print. Hazoret the Fervent was always a troublesome creature, and with the loss of Grasp of Darkness and Stasis Snare, some of the best clean answers to the God disappeared. Fortunately for control and midrange decks, we are receiving a card tailor-made to answer Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Glorybringer, and Hazoret alike, with a two-life cushion to help buy more time to keep answering Red’s threats. It won’t singlehandedly upend Red’s place at the top of the metagame, but Vraska’s Contempt is a great start to patching up a format that might have otherwise devolved into Duel Decks: Temur Energy vs. Mono Red. True, Black and White get hit hard by this rotation, but with a few more good universal answers in those colors we might be able to pick up post-Zombies Black and find some use for the color in control and midrange decks in this brave new Standard.

From a card singlehandedly creating a DinoMarvel deck out of nowhere to a clean and powerful replacement for a rotating piece of a top-tier deck, to a nice pseudo-Utter End, to the rich history of Glacial Fortress and friends, Ixalan is bringing along-awaited steady wind for Standard. Of course, we’ll just have to wait and see if Captain Lannery Storm and her Pirate friends can’t upend the smooth seas and bring on some chaos in the metagame!

Ixalan is now available for Preorder! Pick up sealed product and singles as they're posted!