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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Sep 21 2017 12:00pm
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When we saw the teaser images with Pirate Captain Vraska, we should have expected plenty of exploration and swashbuckling (if not the underwhelming Swashbuckling itself). While we certainly got that, who would have expected one of the purest tribal sets in a while? In addition, those tribes are set up such that two are shards while two are enemy color pairs (similar to the original Khans of Tarkir structure pre-wedges), meaning this is the first time color pairs have been explicitly left out in a while (since Tarkir block), which should lead to an interesting limited environment. Let’s get to the mechanics!

 

Mechanics:

Treasure:

Treasure is mostly a renaming of “Gold” tokens from Theros block (it was changed to require a tap to prevent Improvise from ever being good in Constructed), and while it’s clearly aligned to Pirates, being in Grixis means that every tribe gets access to it. As such, while Pirates have the mechanical synergies like Deadeye Plunderers, Dinosaurs like the ramp the best (even though red gets no common Treasure-makers). Having Treasure as a major mechanic means there’s a lot of ramp in the set, which means there are a lot of mana sinks, notably the Shore Keeper cycle of one-drops with eight-mana sacrifice abilities.

 

Explore:

Our smoothing mechanic for the set, Explore is a lot of words to get to a decent reward (either a land or a +1/+1 counter plus semi-Scry 1). As it’s repeatable growth, the only repeatable Explore is on a couple of rares. Explore exists in all the colors, though it’s focused in green and black—importantly that means each tribe gets one of the “good” Explore colors, though there are enough Explore payoffs such that Explore might be able to exist as a deck itself.

 

Vehicles:

Pirates have ships, so Vehicles make their return, though they’re actually a deciduous mechanic now (like Hybrid; they can show up wherever they make sense) so it isn’t that big a deal. However, they’re much less important to the format than in Kaladesh: there are only five, they aren’t at common, and the two uncommons (Sleek Schooner and Dusk Legion Dreadnought) aren’t completely absurd (and the rares are more build-around). If vehicles were more like this in Kaladesh they probably wouldn’t have been despised by the end of the format.

 

Enrage:

The Dinosaur mechanic, it surprisingly only shows up on seven cards (and over half of them are green). That’s because it’s really good, especially in Limited: most creatures only die by either creature combat or damage-based removal, which means that Enrage is great upside, even before you consider building around it (fight cards or specific things like Rile or Dual Shot). The other part is that you aren’t playing that much for it (generally 1/1 in stats or less), so even the minor ones like Ravenous Daggertooth are nice.

 

Raid:

The orphaned Khans of Tarkir mechanic that was actually good (though Outlast just made a Masters set appearance, so what do I know), Raid is the aggressive Pirate mechanic, but like its cousin (Bloodthirst) primarily wants cheap evasive creatures. You also don’t normally need to build around Raid (most of the lower-rarity Raid cards are “enters the battlefield” effects or improved spells), but unlike in Khans of Tarkir cards like (Raider’s Wake) and Marauding Looter give you incentive to consistently trigger Raid.

 

Lifegain/Life Payment:

Vampires don’t get a keyword, but their main theme should be no shock to someone who’s followed my Masters set designs: lifegain! More specifically, Ixalan’s version combines lots of incidental lifegain ((Bishop’s Soldier), Dark Nourishment, Skymarch Bloodletter) with cards that demand life as a cost (Glorifier of Dusk, Adanto Vanguard). Unfortunately, Ixalan doesn’t do that much with it, as the life payment cards don’t show up at common, or much at all (there are only three cards, four if you count (Arguel’s Blood Fast)) and doing more with it could have added a unique twist on the tired concept.

 

+1/+1 Counters Matter:

While the Vampire theme was very abstract, the Merfolk one is even more so: it’s a +1/+1 counters theme (what a shock for Simic—though that was the last place we saw green Merfolk, so I guess it makes sense?). Lots of cards put +1/+1 counters on Merfolk specifically (Jade Guardian, (River Herald’s Boon), though there isn’t much direct synergy (just Herald of Secret Streams and Shapers of Nature). However, those cards are much better than you would think since Explore is another +1/+1 counter source (and one of its major colors is green).

 

Double-Faced Cards/Transform:

The reason why WotC wasn’t completely caught off-guard by the Ixalan card theft, DFCs are the big surprise of the Ixalan cycle, and they continue the trend of doing them uniquely in each block yet with a great implementation (all of them transform into very good lands). However, all of them are rare and they show up in the normal rare slot, so you unfortunately won’t see them much in limited, but they’re all playable (except maybe Primal Amulet, and (Conqueror’s Galleon) needs to be built around).

 

Archetypes:

As you would expect in a Tribal set, the archetypes are mostly framed around the four tribes. As such, I’ll group them as such, leaving the two “missing” color pairs until the end, along with the miscellaneous cards I missed in my main roundups.

 

Pirates:

Blue/Black:

The signpost uncommon Deadeye Plunderers points toward UB being focused on Treasure, and the multiple commons confirm that. While the Treasure build-arounds are good (Deadeye Plunderers, Ruthless Knave), the real question is if there is enough ways to use the Treasure for its intended purpose (mana acceleration). The Treasure cards start at three mana (unless your opponent is aggressive/crazy enough to kill your Dire Fleet Hoarder, so the primary boost will be playing a five-drop on turn four. The Treasure sub-theme provides plenty of these: Prosperous Pirates and Contract Killing pay you back with interest, Deadeye Plunderers is a five-drop (even if it probably shouldn’t be played without other Treasure on the board), and you can always go with the generic power of Air Elemental. There are also a lot of instant-speed options, such as Dark Nourishment and Wind Strider—these are particularly nice since you can hold up a counterspell (or something like Depths of Desire or Costly Plunder), use it if necessary (while saving your Treasure), then play your five-drop otherwise. Blight Keeper is also important for this archetype, as black getting a Zephyr Sprite with no downside at common is already good with Raid, even before the upside of draining for four.

 

Black/Red:

Dire Fleet Captain says two things: BR wants to attack and is the most tribal of the three two-color Pirate archetypes. The biggest problem I see is that there aren’t that many great low-drops that are Pirates specifically. Looking over the non-rares, Fathom Fleet Firebrand is a nice mana sink (and a red bear with upside, which is apparently so acceptable now there are two at common in Ixalan alone), Wily Goblin is the only Treasure card that goes from two to four, and Headstrong Brute seems very efficient for a common. However, you’ll notice that those cards are all red—what does black add outside of Dire Fleet Captain and some rares? Sure, Dire Fleet Hoarder is good, but Desperate Castaways and Deadeye Tormentor need setup, Wanted Scoundrels has way too much downside for Limited, and everyone wants Kitesail Freebooter (and a one-power two-drop isn’t exactly aggressive). There are other aggressive creatures in other tribes (Vicious Conquistador, (Seeker’s Squire), Skymarch Bloodletter), but that lessens the value of Dire Fleet Captain.

 

Blue/Red:

I’m not sure I would have guessed that UR would be the Raid archetype, but Marauding Looter points towards that. More accurately, I think BR uses Raid in an aggressive sense, while UR uses it for incremental advantage with cards like Storm Fleet Pyromancer (the rare common two-for-one) and Storm Fleet Spy. However, the biggest problem is that while (Navigator’s Ruin) is clearly meant to be the win condition for this controlling Raid deck, it seems like a win-more—if you’re attacking, you’re probably dealing damage, which means you don’t need to mill them to win. Maybe there is a deck that attacks with low-power evasive creatures (or zero-power ones, like Shore Keeper and (Lightning Rig Crew)) that is defensive enough for that to matter?

 

Grixis:

Assuming you don’t get Admiral Beckett Brass, what is the payoff here? Pirates seem to be very aggressive, which is more difficult to do in a shard when there isn’t that much mana fixing. I’d stay away unless you want to splash something (mostly the gold cards or removal).

 

Dinosaurs:

Red/Green:

Raging Swordtooth says this is an Enrage deck, but as I said there aren’t that many Enrage creatures. Instead, this looks like a midrange deck with some ramp: both Otepec Huntmaster and Drover of the Mighty are Dinosaur-themed ramp cards, (Ranging Raptor) works perfectly with the Enrage subtheme, and both Blossom Dryad and New Horizons are at common. The one thing I worry about is that most of the good five-drop payoffs are uncommon (Charging Monstrosaur, Snapping Sailback), and generically good, so it might be difficult to get them (though you don’t want that many five-drops, even in a ramp deck). If the format is slow enough that you can regularly cast Thundering Spineback this is probably the best deck, but even with all the mana in the format I don’t know how practical that is.

 

Green/White:

Between Belligerent Brontodon and Assault Formation moving to uncommon in Iconic Masters, the Doran, the Siege Tower ability is getting less special every day. However, the real question here is whether that ability is good enough to make your signpost uncommon a seven mana 6/6, and in regard to that I’m skeptical. Most of the white Dinosaurs have higher toughness than power (including the obvious combo piece Looming Altisaur), (Kinjalli’s Caller) is clear support for this archetype, and there are other combos like Atzocan Archer, but do I want my deck to rely on a seven-drop? The benefit of this deck is that you should get the pieces late (especially the expensive white Dinosaurs), so you can focus on the generic green and white cards—I suspect a lot of these decks will be failed RG Dinosaur decks that audible after seeing all the white cards late.

 

Red/White:

Like most people, I assumed that all the Dinosaurs would be expensive creatures (or at least midrange), so you can imagine my reaction when Sky Terror was previewed. After that, we had a lot of good cheap Dinosaurs, including the common two-drop trio of (Huatli’s Snubhorn), Raptor Companion, and Nest Robber (along with honorary member (Tilonalli’s Knight), which is probably the best of the four in the archetype), winner of the “how is the common?!?” award Territorial Hammerskull (compare this to Ahn-Crop Crasher—it’s obviously weaker in terms of explosiveness, but it’s closer than it looks), and the pair of Imperial Aerosaur and Charging Monstrosaur to top your curve and break through stalls. That doesn’t even count the other tribes—Adanto Vanguard and Emissary of Sunrise may not be Dinosaurs, but they are still very aggressive creatures. Add to this a lot of cheap removal and I think this is one of the decks to beat early in the format.

 

Naya:

Unlike Grixis Pirates, I think the Naya Dinosaurs deck is worth pursuing for two main reasons. First, green’s mana fixing (and Pillar of Origins) means it’s a lot easier to find your colors, especially if you aren’t going straight three colors. Second, if you’re splashing for late-game cards you don’t need the colors as quickly. I wish there was a way to use all three of the Dinosaur ramp cards together ((Kinjalli’s Caller), Otepec Huntmaster, and Drover of the Mighty), but outside of setting your Unclaimed Territory to Human I don’t see how the mana can work.

 

Vampires:

White/Black:

Other than the minor lifegain angle, there isn’t much that separates WB Vampires than the average aggro deck. There are a couple of nice tribal cards at least: Bishop of the Bloodstained is a nice finisher considering all the Vampire tokens in the set (and Legion Conquistador), while Anointed Deacon seems pushed for a common (remember, all the tokens have Lifelink, in addition to some of the other creatures). Otherwise it seems good, and probably the simplest deck to build.

 

Merfolk:

Green/Blue:

While the flexibility of Merfolk’s +1/+1 counter theme combined with Explore is nice, I’m worried there isn’t enough raw strength to compete with the other tribes. Sure, getting value off a (River Herald’s Boon) or opposing Walk the Planks is nice, and cards like Deeproot Warrior and Vineshaper Mystic are efficient enough, but it feels like it’s a “jack of all trades” tribe. Your goal is to go past other creatures (getting unblockability from Herald of Secret Streams, tapping the opposing team down with Tempest Caller, or just growing your creatures), but you lose races to Vampires (due to their lifegain), are slower than the fast Pirate and Dinosaur decks, and will always be smaller than the ramping Dinosaur decks. The one “unfair” build-around Merfolk has is Deeproot Waters—if you’re triggering it consistently it’s obviously good (especially in combination with River Sneak), but how many times do you need value from it: once, twice, more? Can you get the density of Merfolk you need to trigger it that often?

 

Other Cards/Archetypes:

White/Blue:

As you would expect from an unaligned archetype, the synergies aren’t crystal-clear, but there is one curious build-around we haven’t mentioned yet: Favorable Winds. Yes, we’re going back to the old favorite UW Fliers, and we can see a lot of generic flying creatures that don’t fit perfectly into other archetypes (Shining Aerosaur, Skyblade of the Legion, Siren Lookout, Wind Strider). You also still get Air Elemental and Imperial Aerosaur, and One with the Wind has also been more powerful than you would expect an Aura to be in the past (Spectral Flight became a reasonable pick in an environment as high-powered as Innistrad). I don’t know how good it is, but it’s at least something, which was more than I expected when I started looking at the set.

 

Black/Green:

On the other hand, BG’s direction is very clear: it’s an Explore deck. Wildgrowth Walker may just be relatively minor value on a reasonable creature, but Lurking Chupacabra is a clear payoff, even if it is fragile (and the lack of instant-speed explore in the set means it’s mostly just removal rather than a combat trick). I don’t know what your endgame is though—Explore feels like it loses value in extreme multiples (like ten or more) since it isn’t quite as good lategame (as the creatures aren’t that great stat-wise if you hit a land) and you don’t have much to use all that mana on other than the generic Dinosaurs. You also probably won’t get that many since everyone wants at least a couple Explore cards, and most of the major archetypes are taking cards from you. I guess you have the upside that Vraska, Relic Seeker will probably be passed to you if you’re in a non-rare drafting environment?

 

Colorless:

When you have possible three-color decks you need to start with the colorless fixing, and unfortunately there isn’t much—Pillar of Origins and (Uncharted Territory) are both good choices if you are locked to a tribe (and aren’t splashing noncreature cards), but other than that you’re stuck with Unknown Shores. After that we have a surprising three common Equipment: (Pirate’s Cutlass) seems great in a Pirate deck, Prying Blade might be playable in UB Treasure Pirates (remember, it’s an artifact itself for Deadeye Plunderers, and Cobbled Wings seems decent in RG Dinosaurs as a way to break a ground stall. Up at uncommon the two Vehicles should always be played unless you somehow have no creatures, but I’m not sure about Elaborate Firecannon—it is repeatable removal, but it requires your cards to be worse than four-mana Shocks on average. Other than that there isn’t much: (Hierophant’s Chalice) is your emergency ramp, Gilded Sentinel is the definition of filler, and Field of Ruin is unplayable in Limited (though an interesting design for Constructed).

 

Other Colored Cards:

White starts with a lot of removal (Bright Reprisal is important to watch for, while (Ixalan’s Binding) and Pious Interdiction are unconditional removal), and both Rallying Roar and Sheltering Light are nice uncommon tricks. Deadeye Quartermaster starts the great blue cards (as the Vehicles are still worth seeking out, as is (Pirate’s Cutlass) in a Pirate deck), and Run Aground is a nice aggro card (Time Ebbing an Equipment might be better than a creature in some cases). There’s also a very minor ETB theme with Storm Sculptor and (Siren’s Ruse) combined with the Explorers, Treasure-makers and Raiders. Black’s removal leans more-expensive than usual (even Vanquish the Weak is more expensive than you would expect, and there’s no cheap -2/-2 variant either), but by contrast the Raise Deads are very good: March of the Drowned is nice if there’s a slower Pirate deck that wants black, and (Grim Captain’s Call) promises enough raw card advantage that you want to build around it (remember, each color is part of two tribes, and each color pair covers at least three—GB does cover all four, so maybe it’s best there?). Fathom Fleet Cutthroat is also a card to think about when your opponent is making suicidal attacks “just for Raid”. Fiery Cannonade is my pick for “most-different use cases” as while the Pirate synergies are obvious, Pyroclasms in general are valued much differently in an environment with Enrage—this card by itself might hurt the chances of Vampires and Merfolk a noticeable amount. Makeshift Munitions is also interesting, as while adding an activation cost to Goblin Bombardment makes it much worse, sacrificing your creatures is a nice counter to all of the Lifelink in Vampire decks. Moving to the final color, Crushing Canopy seems maindeckable since there are a lot of enchantments (white removal and a lot of build-arounds) and Plummet seems good in a format where you’re facing either flying Dinosaurs or evasive creatures. It’s also worth noting that Pounce is better than Prey Upon in a Limited context, since you can play around a lot of tricks (kind of like Fling). Finally, I have no idea if Verdant Rebirth is good or not—it’s a tempo loss, but it is a two-for-one, and likely to be one of the possible replacements for Regeneration going forward.

 

Conclusion:

And another Limited Review done! And yet my marathon of articles isn’t done yet—we just got the Treasure Chest update as I’m submitting this. That will be my next article, and I hope to get it done quickly. However, there are a lot of changes, and even just as I’m starting to organize the data (without doing any real analysis yet) there’s one very important change: the total number of cards in the pool is significantly fewer (a net subtraction of 1337 cards—no, I didn’t make that up, unless I miscounted somewhere) and a lot of the cards being thrown out are garbage (along with the traditional culling of the Invocations), so that’s probably good. That article also covers the Flashback schedule for the rest of the year, and there are two Flashback drafts: triple-Innistrad from October 25th to November 1st (over Halloween, just like I predicted) and triple-Lorwyn from December 13th to December 20th, both of which were part of the Modern Flashback Series and are worthy of follow-up episodes. As such, that means I probably have eight more articles for the rest of the year: the Ixalan Treasure Chest update, a grab bag catch-up episode on various reprint set things, the Innistrad Flashback article, the Iconic Masters Limited article, the Commander 2017 Treasure Chest update, two articles on my Masters 25 design, and the Lorwyn Flashback article (though this is obviously subject to change). See you next time!

 

Vincent

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