Metagaming Ixalan

Thorn of the Black Rose
Ixalan has come to Magic Online but Pauper has not gone exploring just yet. The posted decklists from this past week’s leagues contained zero cards from the latest release. That’s a shame because there have been some interesting options added in this latest set. More importantly, these cards will help players in attacking the established metagame.

Speaking of the established metagame, I want to take a look at the Top 25 archetypes from the Hour of Devastation challenges. Eleven tournaments provided a treasure trove of information and today I want to look at the 25 best strategies. I use two major metrics when looking at the relative strength of decks in the challenges. The first is something I call the K-Score — named after Frank Karsten and his metagame math. The K-Score takes a deck’s wins and subtracts its losses to arrive at a numerical value. I’ve split K-Score into two different numbers — one inclusive of Top 8 statistics and one that completely ignores the elimination rounds. The goal here is to try and understand how well a deck does in a Swiss environment since that’s what gets you to the proverbial Sunday Stage.

The second metric is Win+. The Challenges are 6 or 7 rounds and this stat measures the Top 32 against the 32nd place deck. Normally this means an X-3, and for each win above three losses, the deck earns a point. The more points, the higher the finish in the standings and usually a Win+ score corresponds to a Top 16 finish. This helps to separate the wheat from the chaff as decks with a higher Win+ are more likely to perform better over a Challenge length event.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the decks.

25-19: Flip a coin for a winning record
25. Jeskai Midrange — K-Score: 4; Win+ 1
24. Tron — K: 4; W+ 2
23. {R}{G} Tokens — K: 4; W+: 2; One Top 8
22. Thermo Delver — K: 6; W+ 2
21: Elves — K: 5; K-Score (Top 8): 6; W+ 2; One T8
20: Mono-Black Control — K: 10; K(8): 9, W+ 3; One T8
19: Rally Gond — K: 8; K(8) 11; W+ 3; One T8; One Win

Three of these decks made it to the elimination rounds but none of them ever truly excelled during Hour of Devastation season. Rally Gond — the Midnight Guard/Presence of Gond combo deck darling of days gone by — had a fairly poor season, splitting its Win+ score of 3 across six appearances. While it did take down a challenge on August 27, I do not believe it is a deck to watch moving forward.

For me, the deck out of this group best poised to do well in Ixalan season is Mono-Black Control. Mono-Black is never the best deck in the format but the opportunity to tune its removal to a known metagame provides it with a shot to adapt from week to week. The ability to steal the Monarch thanks to Thorn of the Black Rose may also be of value moving forward.

18-10: Solidly Top 16
18: Murasa Tron — K: 9; K(8) 8; W+: 4; Two T8
17: Esper Flicker — K: 8; W+4; Two T8
16: Kuldotha Tokens — K:12; K(8): 11; W+ 4; Two T8
15: Izzet Faeries — K: 13; K(8): 12; W+ 5; Two T8
14: Hexproof — K:15; K(8): 13; W+ 6; Two T8
13: Izzet Puzzle — K:15; K(8): 17; W+ 6; Two T8; One Win
12: Dimir Reanimator — K: 17; K(8): 18; W+6, Three T8; One Win
11: Dimir Alchemy — K: 19; W+ 7; One Top 8
10: Dinrova Tron — K:22; K(8): 21; W+ 9; Three T8

The next group of decks has two wins amongst them but are less heavily played. Because of this they have not put up the strong numbers of their more popular counterparts. Each of these represents a solid choice to end up with a winning record and have a decent shot at making the Top 8. Going further than that, however, is a stretch.

Esper Flicker is my pick of decks to watch in this group. The value deck gets a serious boost in the form of Prosperous Pirates, allowing it to create an arbitrarily large amount of mana and enter-the-battlefield triggers thanks to Sunscape Familiar, Mnemonic Wall, and Ghostly Flicker. Unlike previous versions of the deck, which required Cloud of Faeries or Peregrine Drake to go off, the reliance on Pirate and the associated Treasure tokens makes this deck far slower. It is also a reason why I am bullish on Black removal — Doom Blade can take out Prosperous Pirates while Red removal has trouble with the 4 toughness.

9-5: The Good
9: Tribe Combo — K: 28; W+ 10; Four T8; One Win
8: Burn — K: 28; K(8) 27; W+ 11; Three T8
7: Izzet Blitz — K: 26; K(8); 25, W+ 11; Five T8
6: Dimir Flicker — K: 30; K(8); 31, W+ 12; Five T8
5: Delver — K: 44; K(8); 42, W+ 17; Seven T8

Two of the decks in this category are creature based combo. Both Izzet Blitz and Tribe Combo want to win via one rather large attack. Using powerful Blue card sculpting to assemble the correct pieces, these decks both fill a similar slot in the metagame. Izzet Blitz is a known quantity but Tribe Combo, comparatively, is new to the top tables.

The deck wants to use Tireless Tribe and Inside Out to attack for 20 in a single blow. Gush does a lot of work in this deck as it represents 16 damage on its own. Ixalan gives the deck Dive Down, which thanks to layers roughly translates to +3/+0 and Hexproof in Tribe. Dive Down is not exciting but it is another protective option that helps an already solid deck.

Tribe Combo — Pauper | greenprinny, Winner, September 24 Pauper Challenge

4-1: The Great
4. Boros Monarch — K: 66; K(8); 61, W+ 26; 11 T8; One Win
3. Affinity — K: 66; K(8); 66, W+ 30; Nine T8; One Win
2. Izzet Delver — K: 78; K(8); 82, W+ 30; Seven T8; Two Wins
1. Stompy — K: 123; K(8); 127, W+ 49; 13 T8; Three Wins

These decks represent the best of the best for the past 11 weeks of play. But this ranking is somewhat deceiving. While Izzet Delver did moderately better than Affinity on the numbers, they both fielded 36 participants in the Top 32, so Izzet Delver’s better K-Scores give it a serious boost. Boros Monarch had one of the best articulation rates with 20 total Top 32 finishes, giving it the best Average Win+ in the top tier. But the story here is Stompy. In 50 appearances it had a Win+ of 49, meaning that aside from a single win finish (a 2-4 in a six round event made 32nd place once), the deck averaged at least one win above an even record per appearance. For such a heavily played deck that is quite the feat.

What does this mean? Moving forward, while I do not believe Stompy to be the best deck in the format (I am of the opinion that it is currently Boros Monarch), it is the baseline against all decks should be measured. Stompy is a consistent deck that can both apply pressure and resist removal. Burning-Tree Emissary gives the deck the ability to produce an army quickly and draws involving two copies are tough to fight. Yes, it may just be a Green creature deck, but these creatures go under the readily available answers.

* indicates a Top 8 Finish; ^ indicates a Challenge Win

Ixalli's Diviner
Moving into the world of Ixalan, Pauper is definitely skewing aggressive. Three of the top four decks are all on the beatdown end of the spectrum — Izzet Delver can play the aggro-control game but it still likes to attack. The metagame has reacted to this as well, with five of the Top 8 decks running Lightning Bolt (or in the case of Affinity, Galvanic Blast) with another three in the Top 16. Compare this to Black removal, with one deck in the Top 8 and two more in the Top 16. Yet I think that it is time for Black removal, headlined by Chainer’s Edict and Doom Blade, to come back en vogue.

As mentioned, I believe that a potential rise in Esper Flicker decks could put an increased onus on the need for Doom Blade style effects. I also believe that despite how slow it is, Evincar’s Justice is one of the best ways to constrain strategies that seek to flood the board. Two of the top four decks — Stompy and Izzet Delver — have a significant number of their creatures die outright to Justice. Black decks also have access to Echoing Decay, a card that should see more play due to the fact that it can help to stifle Burning-Tree Emissary draws.

This is where I started approaching the new format — I wanted to have access to Evincar’s Justice and Doom Blade. On top of this I wanted to be able to cast Justice as early as turn three and have access to enough life gain so that casting the board wipe would not be a death sentence unto itself. I want to say I started looking at ramp strategies but that would not be accurate. Instead, I looked at Ixalli’s Diviner and started to theorize a Tron deck.

Ixalli’s Diviner is a card I missed in my Ixalan review. I regret that. The card is not a powerhouse but fills a similar role to Thraben Inspector in that it is an early drop that helps to improve the overall quality of your draw. After my third look at the new common, I realized it could fill the role I always wanted Omenspeaker for in Tron decks.

Back when I was working on Murasa Tron, I wanted to run Omenspeaker as a 2-drop that could improve the decks flow while also absorbing some damage. The problem was Scry 2 was much worse than Sea Gate Oracle’s Sleight of Hand despite the cards 3-drop status. Ixalli’s Diviner reduces the number of looks, but in the early game it can help you get closer to Tron. On the second turn it either bins a useless card or draws you a land — either way it is inching you toward the goal. A 3-toughness creature is also the right size to absorb some blows while a 1/4 does that job with the upside of potentially trading.

Going into Tron and Green also makes it easier to run Fangren Marauder and its ability to gain gobs of life with Expedition Map. Pulse of Murasa also helps to keep you healthy, making Evincar’s Justice easier to swallow. I opted to include some copies of Golgari Signet as a way to hit Evincar’s Justice on the third turn and rounded out the 2-drop artifact slot with Metalspinner’s Puzzleknot and Prophetic Prism.

I also experimented with an Ancient Stirring package. Normally used to find Eldrazi, lands and artifacts, I included a single Relic of Progenitus (again, as a hedge against Flicker decks) and an Oblivion Strike as a one-of tutor target. Rounding out the threats are a Wretched Gryff and two Ulamog’s Crushers.

I played a version of this deck to a 3-2 finish in the league, beating Stompy, Izzet Delver, and Affinity. I made a few changes and have settled on this list for the time being.

{B}{G} Tron plays out much like a midrange deck in the early and mid game. It wants to trade off resources and keep parity, all while building toward assembling its namesake. Once Tron is online, the deck can start doing two to three things per turn and resolve big enough threats to render the opponent’s plays meaningless.

I think {B}{G} Tron is well suited for the early Ixalan metagame. First it runs a flexible suite of answers backed up with one of the better sweepers available in the format. Second it has access to one of the more powerful things you can do in Pauper — assembling the UrzaTron — while not jumping through the hoops of trying to make three colors work. The main deck Marauders give it lasting power against Affinity while the size of its threats can make it hard for Izzet Delver to handle if you get to the midgame. Stompy is a toss-up but with access to an additional copy of Echoing Decay and two copies of Moment’s Peace out of the sideboard it is eminently winnable.

Of course this could change in a heartbeat. And with Iconic Masters less than two months away, we are only going to have so much time to see exactly what Ixalan has to offer.

Ixalan is available now! Get singles and sealed for the latest set!