Magic: The Gathering's next expansion is waiting for you on the horizon, so set sail and check out the full visual spoiler before you drop your anchor and explore the unknown depths of the jungle.
This weekend, September 23th and 24th, is the Ixalan prerelease. Sealed deck will be the format of choice, giving you six packs of the new set to build a 40-card deck from. The trick isn't just figuring out which cards are powerful, but also which ones work well together.
Sailing into uncharted waters is always a bit scary. Let me be your guide. Like most sets, Ixalan supports ten two-color archetypes in limited. Knowing what these archetypes do will help guide your sealed deck building at the prerelease and aid in future booster drafts too. Buckle your bootstraps, polish your helmet, saddle up your dinosaur, and dive on into the raging river that is the limited archetypes of Ixalan.
Ixalan may be a tribal set, but two color pairs have no tribal overlap: white/blue and black/green. We start with white/blue, so that's awkward. Don't think lacking a multicolored uncommon or tribal synergy is going to stop white/blue from being a competitive limited archetype though. In this set, it goes back to basics by focusing on the flying mechanic.
Skies is a common archetype in Magic, showing up in most sets in one way or another. The strategy is a simple one: you cast some fliers, turn them sideways, and kill your opponent before they kill you. Flyers are great at killing opponents, so your main priority is figuring out ways to survive.
White and blue are the colors that contain creatures with toughness higher than their power. Those are the perfect creatures for a skies archetype. They gum up the ground, preventing your opponent from being able to make profitable attacks. In the meantime, you're chipping away with your fliers.
This archetype also loves removal. White always has some great spells to stop enemy creatures, but this is also where blue's bounce spells help most. Time is one of your biggest assets, so being able to set an opponent back a card on the battlefield helps give you the time to attack for the win. There are definitely control elements here. Use them to outlast any assault while your flappy friends do your offensive work. Also note that blue has creatures that straight-up can't be blocked. Those act a lot like fliers for your attacking purposes, so don't forget them!
Blue/Black: Pirate Treasure
Pirates just wouldn't be pirates if they didn't have oodles of booty to track down and hoard. While Pirates show up in blue, black, and red, each of the tribe's color pairs have their own mechanical nuances. The blue/black Pirates are all about collecting Treasure tokens.
In Ixalan, Treasure tokens can be tapped and sacrificed to add one mana of any color to your mana pool. This does a few things for you in limited. First, it helps smooth out your mana. Missing land drops won't be so bad if you have Treasure to fill in the gaps. Second, Treasure can help ramp you into swingy spells that cost lots of mana. Finally, adding mana of any color helps you splash for a third color in limited; sometimes you'll end up with a great Pirate spell in red that you'll want to play.
This archetype has cards that care about you controlling an artifact. Treasure tokens are artifacts, so they'll work perfectly! Hoarding is the name of the game here, so make sure not to spend all your loot in one place.
Treasure also helps your tempo plays. Blue/black will have lots of evasive creatures featuring the flying and menace mechanics. They can chip in for damage while Treasure tokens let you leave mana up for removal or counterspells. Pirates aren't known for their honesty, so embrace their cunning nature to make the best use of your time and mana.
Black/Red: Pirate Aggro
Pirates may be sneaky, but they can also be violent marauders. The black/red Pirate archetypes is all about being aggressive. This is the most tribal feeling of the three Pirate themes, as it uses the creature type as a through-line for a curve-out deck.
When building black/red Pirates, you'll want to prioritize two- and three-drops. Your victories will be won by overwhelming your opponent early. If you manage to have a few potent one-drops, you can run them too. Ideally, you'll play a creature on your second and third turns. Your forth turn might be a bigger creature, but it might also be more two-drops. Or maybe you have a two-drop creature and a removal spell.
Black and red tend to have the best cheap removal, so make sure you play those cards as well. Lightning Strike is a vital reprint for this archetype, doubling as removal and a way to finish off a weakened opponent. Cheap removal is also needed to keep the number of enemy blockers contained. The fewer blockers your opponent can muster, the easier it will be for you to punch through damage with menace. For this archetype, a game of Magic is a race. Deal twenty damage first and you'll cross the finish line.
Red/Green: Enraged Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs are the tribe of choice for red/green decks. You'll want to make them angry. You'll like them when they're angry.
The mechanic that ties Dinosaurs together in Ixalan is enrage, an ability word with an effect that triggers whenever that creature takes damage. Most of the Dinosaur creatures with enrage have passable stats on their own, but you'll really want to enrage them to get the most value.
Red/green tends to be a beatdown archetype, attacking with medium-sized creatures with abilities like trample. Attacking and getting blocked also happens to be the easiest way to get your enrage abilities to trigger! Enrage puts your opponent in a tough spot. Do they block your creatures and give you bonuses, or do they take a massive dino-punch to the face? You win no matter what happens.
Ixalan also has a few spells that intentionally damage your own creatures. Rile gives a big Dinosaur trample and cantrips, which is great! The cost is dealing 1 damage to that creature, which turns out to be a feature, not a bug, when playing with enrage. OK, looking at the art, it's a literal bug that is also a feature.
Enrage also makes your Dinosaurs great blockers. Your opponent might not want to attack you, even if they wouldn't lose a creature, for fear of granting you an enrage bonus. This will help give you time to make land drops so you can cast your beefy Dinosaurs. Red's aggression combined with green's power in the late game make enrage a flexible mechanic that gives Dinosaurs relevant abilities throughout the game.
Green/White: Tough Dinosaurs
If you're a paleontological proctologist, you may have noticed that dinosaurs have big butts. This knowledge is generally useless, though the green/white archetype is where it shines. Here, the Dinosaur tribe revels in its ability to have high toughness.
Many of the Dinosaur cards in Ixalan are expensive creatures with hefty stats. Green/white wants to play as many of those creatures as it can get away with. Big creatures are difficult for an opponent to double block, making them great at crunching through a stalled battlefield.
The essence of this archetype is time. You'll need to hit your land drops. You'll need to not die to more aggressive decks. You'll need to draw your large Dinosaurs. Many of the cards in green and white are designed to facilitate this waiting game.
First is mana. Cards like Drover of the Mighty and Kinjalli's Caller, as well as the explore mechanic, help you get the requisite mana to cast your expensive Dinosaur spells. Second is lifegain. Whether you include some lifelinking Vampires or shoot for big bursts of lifegain later, keeping yourself from dying will give you the time necessary to draw your removal and costly spells. Third, remember that part about enrage being good at deterring attackers? Still true in this Dinosaur archetype.
White/Black: Vampire Lifegain
Blood is life for vampires, and the ones that belong to the Legion of Dusk are no different. Mechanically, their vampiric urges are expressed through lifelink. The more they conquer, the greater your life total will swell.
But just gaining life is a little bland. The white/black Vampire tribe is also adept at paying life for powerful effects. Playing with them is about balance. Pay too much life and you'll bring yourself dangerously close to death. Gain too much life and you'll be squandering a valuable resource.
White/black is also about creature tokens. Going wide and fighting an aggressive battle matches the conquering ethos of the Legion of Dusk. A battalion of soldiers can hold off a dinosaur. A flank of knights can maneuver around a single blocker. The more the murderier when it comes to the Vampire tribe, so make sure your limited decks contain a lot of creatures.
Small creatures will sometimes also need help in combat. Evasion mechanics like flying and menace will help push through bits of damage. Combat tricks are also at their best when your opponent thinks they can safely block a creature with small stats. Bluffing a pump spell might even be the difference between convincing your opponent to hold back on attacks or not blocking in a racing situation.
Blue/Red: Pirate Raiders
Pirates are about treasure. Pirates are about marauding. In blue/red, Pirates merge those two passions to be about raiding. The raid mechanic from Khans of Tarkir makes a perfectly flavorful return in Ixalan and is the core of this color pair.
Raid alters spells or sets up triggered abilities if you've attacked with a creature this turn. It's a perfect fit for red, the most aggressive color. Casting cheap creatures and turning them sideways is red's bread and butter in limited, so getting raid bonuses that way is easy.
But raid in blue? It's more likely than you think. Ixalan is a tribal set, so the focus is already on creatures. Blue's creatures here leverage evasion to sneak in for damage. What better way to activate raid every turn than with creatures that are guaranteed to safely attack? Together, blue and red give this archetype a tempo-oriented play style that swings in with small creatures while disrupting the opponent's plays.
While raid is the keyworded overlap, blue/red also has lots of looting (drawing and discarding cards). You'll want to sculpt the ideal hand for every situation, so drawing lots of cards and throwing the worst ones away will help support the disruptive side of your strategy. Burn, counterspells, and cheap removal ensure you don't fall behind while attacking with evasive threats.
Treasure tokens show up in red as well, and they can help with this tempo plan. Blue/red wants to use Treasure more proactively than blue/black, overwhelming opponents with the sheer volume of spells they can let you cast.
Black/Green: Exploring Resources
Ixalan's other non-tribal archetype still loves one of the new mechanics: explore. This ability does an awful lot, so let's take a look at what makes it so powerful.
First, explore helps you hit your land drops. If you find a land, congratulations, you get to draw a card! If you don't, you can mill the revealed spell and get closer to drawing more land. If you do reveal a spell, congratulations, you have a larger creature! You can still mill that spell if you don't want it, increasing your chances of drawing a better spell.
Explore is rooted in card selection and card quality. These two ideas help you draw better cards than your opponent, even if you're both drawing the same number of cards. Midrange decks benefit from this the most, allowing them to dictate the flow of the game and answer any threat. Black and green are the colors most associated with this kind of value-laden play, making them the perfect champions of the explore mechanic.
Explore helps get lands, and black has Treasure tokens, so it will be easy to splash a third color in your black/green decks. Focus more on removal and game-ending creatures here. Having such good mana also means you'll probably be playing all your spells on-curve when your opponent might falter. Explore enables you to make the most out of grindy games. Embrace those small edges and add them up into a victory.
Red/White: Dinosaur Aggro
Most Dinosaur creatures are the big and chompy type or the big and stompy type. But not all Dinosaurs. Red/white focuses on the lower end of the mana curve, and that gives it a unique identity compared to the red/green and green/white archetypes.
While some cheaper Dinosaur creatures exist (Sky Terror is fantastic), this archetype also includes the citizens of the Sun Empire. Aggressive Human creatures like Tilonalli's Knight and Imperial Lancer may not be Dinosaurs, but they become excellent creatures when they have Dinosaur friends to ride with. You'll want to cast your Humans first so that you can attack with their bonuses sooner than later.
Dinosaurs do have an overall size advantage over the other tribes, however, so don't be surprised if your red/white decks have a higher mana curve than in most other sets. While Charging Monstrosaur is a middle-of-the-pack card in the red/green Dinosaur strategy, it still makes an excellent curve-topper here. It's effectively a Reality Smasher at uncommon. That's absurd and exactly the kind of creature you want in limited no matter what.
As always, white's combat tricks and red's burn spells help smaller creatures compete with the larger ones your opponent casts. They're even better with first strike and double strike, mechanics that are rooted in both red and white.
Green/Blue: Merfolk +1/+1 Counters
Green/blue has a reputation for being a durdling color pair. It can spin its wheels and not really get anywhere, ramping mana and drawing cards for no reason at all. Ixalan limited ensures that this isn't the case. This is an archetype that is prepared to beat some faces in.
On this plane, green/blue is all about the +1/+1 counter. The primary way creatures gain +1/+1 counters will be the explore mechanic. It's no accident that exploring also does what green/blue loves: filter your draws so you hit all your land drops. I guess you can't remove all the durdle from this color pair.
Both colors can make fantastic use of +1/+1 counters. Green has trample, a mechanic that is obviously better when a creature has higher power. But don't forget, Blue is all about evasion in this set. Higher power also goes great with flying. Add in cards that interact with +1/+1 counters and you've got yourself an archetype with a lot of synergistic power to it.
Green and blue tend to be the slowest colors in Magic, but don't let that dissuade you from playing them if that's what your card pool signals. It's rare that this color combination will win a quick game, but it's excellent at winning the long ones. Growth through +1/+1 counters gives you the biggest creatures on the battlefield, while counterspells ensure that your opponent can't remove them. Bounce spells help clear the path for your gestated giants, allowing them to crunch in for massive chunks of damage. At it's core, this archetype is simple: build up a huge creature or two and protect them with spells.
Let the Quest for Orazca Begin!
Four tribes vie for the Immortal Sun, a relic with an ominous past. Will the Pirates of the Brazen Coaltion, Vampires of the Legion of Dusk, Merfolk of the River Heralds, or Dinosaur riders of the Sun Empire claim its awesome power for their own?
Ixalan's limited environment pits these enemies against each other as they raid for treasure, explore vast jungles, and enrage the locals with their lust for power.
I expect a format defined by resource management and intelligent combat. It's also important to remember that these ten archetypes aren't the end-all-be-all of limited decks. Magic sets contain hundreds of cards, and sometimes you open up ones that allow for unique decks. The best example is the black/red control deck, which can arise if you open up an above-average number of removal spells. Feel free to experiment beyond what the archetypes tell you to do if you have the cards for it.
I wish you good luck at the Ixalan prerelease this weekend, Planeswalkers, and may your expedition to the lost city of Orazca deliver you in one piece.