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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Nov 16 2023 2:46pm
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It’s time to delve into the land of Dinosaurs and Pirates as we return to Ixalan and the new adventures under the ground. As such, the typal, faction-focused design of the original Ixalan has been mostly replaced with a new focus on artifacts and the graveyard, as Wizards tries to draft on the success of Minecraft and other survival games. It’s also leading to another interesting Limited format that may be backtracking on some recent trends with Magic design in recent years. Let’s dive in, starting with the mechanics.

 

Mechanics:

Decend/Decended/Fathomless Decent:

The focus of the newest Ixalan set is permanents, and the as-fan is higher than normal, with many spell effects attached to artifacts. The main embodiment of this focus is this group of related mechanics about putting permanents in your graveyard. It takes four different forms: the descend rules term caring if you put a permanent into your graveyard this turn, Descend 4 and 8 giving you a Threshold equivalent for permanents, and Fathomless Descent letting you scale based on the number of permanents in your graveyard. Unsurprisingly the focus is in blue and black, but all the colors get at least a taste of it (though red and white only care about the non-counting descend)

 

However, the real question is how you’ll be filling your graveyard. The answer in constructed is obviously self-mill, and there’s a bit of that with cards like Mineshaft Spider and Deathcap Marionette. In Limited, discard is also a relevant way to reliably descend, whether it’s with a card draw spell like Ancestral Reminiscence or Saheeli's Lattice or a cost like Bitter Triumph. Finally, permanents in play will enter the graveyard naturally, whether it’s creatures dying to combat, the black/white sacrifice theme, or even something like Orazca Puzzle-Door or Promising Vein. However, it’s not free, even in a deck that naturally is only running a couple non-permanents, and that’s before considering Craft feeding off your graveyard. Most decks will probably get to Descend 4 eventually, but Descend 8 will be difficult even for dedicated decks.

 

Discover:

Wizard’s latest mechanic remodel is cascade, and this version makes it more generally useful by letting you draw the spell rather than casting it right away (so you can run things like counterspells with Discover cards), as well as more flexible by disconnecting the Discover number from the mana cost of the spell. Constructed concerns asides, it’s an interesting Limited mechanic, as it’s primarily used for smoothing. Surprisingly it’s very heavily focused in red and colorless, but there’s a touch of it in all five colors, as well as a cycle of common lands we’ll focus on in a bit.

 

Craft:

The primary double-faced card mechanic (particularly at low rarities) is a strange mechanic in isolation. However, it’s mostly a weird form of Flashback: most craft cards function as spells (to up your permanent count for Descend), then do nothing until you can craft them, with your reward being another inefficient card. This is mostly very expensive (look at Kaslem's Stonetree for the obvious example), but if you get a creature from it, it’s big and ends games if unopposed (and also likely ends games if you invest six mana into crafting something at sorcery speed and it gets Abraded). My initial impression is to view craft cards primarily based on their front side primarily, with the back side as a bonus unless you’re actively building around it (with artifact synergies, descend synergies, and/or ramp).

 

Explore + Map Tokens:

The hit smoothing mechanic from Ixalan returns, and the main twist this time is a new artifact token that lets any creature explore. The focus is in green, but blue gets a decent amount, and white and black get a bit as well. Beyond the expected power creep (even more than usual since Ixalan was relatively underpowered), there aren’t many surprises here—the main surprise is that it’s joined by a cycle of landcyclers as well.

 

Caves:

The titular caverns of Lost Caverns of Ixalan get their own land type, and Wizards is actively trying to recreate the phenomenon of Gates in Ravnica. The main density of Caves from their prominence in the land slot, as in 70% of packs you’ll either find Captivating Cave, Promising Vein (both functional reprints of lands from Modern-first sets, if you want a hint of their power level), and the cycle of Hidden lands. Putting Discover 4 on lands is an interesting way to smooth Limited decks—we saw a similar cycle in Phyrexia: All Will Be One, and while those lands were hurt by Phyrexia being a fast format, they were also cheaper and let you hold up mana. I think the Hidden lands will be very good, but if Ixalan is fast, they may get left in the lurch.

 

Beyond the land slot, there are a bunch of other lands that are interesting. Cavernous Maw is a hoop to jump through, but an uncommon creature land is worth building around. Volatile Fault looks better than the average Field of Ruin with all the spell lands running around, along with Cave, Descend, and even sacrifice synergies. The biggest question is whether fully building around Caves is worth it, as while Bat Colony, Sinuous Benthisaur, and Calamitous Cave-In are strong, you need a lot of Caves for them to work, and most of the caves are high picks, so you likely won’t see enough (and if you gamble on picking the caves early, you might not see enough payoffs since they’re all uncommon). I hope it works, but I wouldn’t count on it.

 

Archetypes:

Before I dive into the archetypes proper, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the typical structure for modern sets, and in particular how many of the “prescribed” archetypes aren’t working. Obviously I haven’t played the set when I’m writing these articles, and at the base level I have to assume that the archetypes work as designed. I can say that the pieces don’t appear to be there for it to work, but when the fundamental idea of an archetype doesn’t function (think Lorehold in Strixhaven or White/Blue tapping in Wilds of Eldraine), that’s going to render a lot of my conclusions null and void. I’ll try to look at archetypes based on card quality, or possible niche strategies based on specific build-arounds, but this series in general is a first look, and not the ending point of the format. And now, onto the color pairs:

 

White/Blue: Artifact Control

This is an interesting archetype to start with, as it’s a true test of format speed. Everything in the artifact space looks like a powerhouse on pure rate, from Envoy of Okinec Ahau (a surprising common) and Staunch Crewmate in the middle to Oltec Archaeologists and Master's Guide-Mural on the high end. However, slow archetypes like this have a bad track record in recent sets, where you won’t have time to get all the value from your craft artifacts and to fiddle around with Lodestone Needle and Clay-Fired Bricks. I think it’s good enough just based on the rate (and creatures like Shipwreck Sentry and Market Gnome help bridge the gap), but rate often isn’t good enough in modern Magic.

 

Blue/Black: Descend Control

Self-mill feels doomed in Standard where there’s a ton of graveyard hate, but can it work in Limited? Milling is the only way you’re going to get Descend 4 at a decent pace and Descend 8 at all, and enablers like Deathcap Marionette and Waterlogged Hulk are a fine rate, but there aren’t that many in the set. I’m also not sure the payoffs are worth the work. On one hand, most of the common Descend cards are either minor upsides (Echo of Dusk, Join the Dead) or an underwhelming rate for the work required (Didact Echo, Frilled Cave-Wurm). The higher-rarity cards like Chupacabra Echo and Stinging Cave Crawler are better, but that’s hard to rely on, especially since you don’t have to build around them as much (and the other decks want them). On the other hand, there are cards that benefit from being milled, and while Uchbenbak, the Great Mistake is obviously pushed, Buried Treasure has the downside of a bad front side, Self-Reflection takes one of your few non-permanent slots, and Craft cards both require another specific resource and are another drain on your limited resources (especially if you’re aiming towards Descend 8). I don’t like this “all-in” version of the graveyard deck by default, but it might be better if you can reliably get all the pieces.

 

Black/Red: Descend Aggro

Conversely, Rakdos caring mostly about whether you’ve descended or not means it’s much less all-in, and you can use more than self-mill to trigger the effects, with discard via Saheeli's Lattice or Volatile Wanderglyph (or even going deep with Bloodthorn Flail), sacrifice abilities like Promising Veins, the hidden lands, or Seismic Monstrosaur (either side) letting you descend more consistently. Again, I worry about the payoffs, but both Deep Goblin Skulltaker and Child of the Volcano have evasion which may push creatures without great stats over the top (a 3/3 Menace for 3 is probably good enough, while a 4/4 Trample for 4 needs more). Descend 4 is also reasonable, with Echo of Dusk and Stinging Cave Crawler fitting well in an aggro archetype. I think this deck is fine, but might be a hair too slow to compete with decks that go over-the-top. A permanent-focused archetype also conflicts with black and red’s traditional removal focus, so a deck with a bunch of Abrades and Join the Deads might not work (though you can still play Dead Weight and Idol of the Deep King to your heart’s content).

 

Red/Green: Dinosaur Midrange

Unsurprisingly, Dinosaurs were by far the most popular (and semi-unique) creature type in Ixalan, so they’re the ones who get a full typal archetype in Limited. Surprisingly, the common typal benefits aren’t great, as Burning Sun Cavalry isn’t a dinosaur itself and Armored Kincaller is fine but not a standout. Instead, the uncommon synergies like Belligerent Yearling, Earthshaker Dreadmaw, and especially Itzquinth, Firstborn of Gishath are the reason to go into this archetype (though note Ixalli's Lorekeeper looks like a massive trap in Limited). Beyond the typal synergies, the dinos themselves are generally strong, but surprisingly the commons aren’t great, with Pathfinding Axejaw as the main efficient creature, while Panicked Altisaur can be both a wall and a win condition. This deck seems fine, but more uncommon-focused than expected.

 

Green/White: Buffs Aggro

The first of the strange archetypes in Lost Caverns of Ixalan is barely an archetype, as only the signpost Kutzil, Malamet Exemplar and a mythic directly reference the explicit “power greater than base power” theme. On the other hand there are a ton of enablers, from generic pump spells, an abundance of Explore, and explicit counter cards like Ironpaw Aspirant and Explorer's Cache. As such, this archetype is mostly an archetype based on raw stats, and the lack of removal in Selesnya in general hurts that concept. Here’s it’s even worse, as while Petrify is the latest power-crept aura removal, Huatli's Final Strike and Quicksand Whirlpool are slightly weaker than their standard versions (more on that in a bit). I think it’s fine, but not more than that.

 

White/Black: Sacrifice Value (Vampires)

Unlike with Dinosaurs, the rest of the creature types are aligned with a similar archetype, but there are virtually no typal benefits below rare. The vampires want to sacrifice things, with both extremely good sac outlets and fodder. On the enabler side, signpost Bartolomé del Presidio is the best sac outlet in years, with Glorifier of Suffering and Fanatical Offering being common efficient outlets. As for fodder, along with specifically-designed fodder like Mephitic Draught and Synapse Necromage, you also have a lot of random spell artifacts you don’t plan on crafting. This seems like a very good aggro deck with a lot of card advantage, though a lot of it might depend on how often you want to craft those spell artifacts—if they’re free to sac this deck will be great, but if it’s a real cost it could be harder to draft.

 

Blue/Red: Artifact Aggro (Pirates)

Pirates have a bit more explicit typal support, but even Staunch Crewmate and Captain Storm, Cosmium Raider are very tied to artifacts. However, the need for Pirates (particularly with Pirate Hat, an efficient card flow machine) makes it difficult to get the density of artifacts, Pirates, and aggressive creatures all in one deck. As a couple examples: Oaken Siren is the only artifact Pirate, but a 1/2 flier for 2 isn’t that aggressive (though the whole package seems good enough). Volatile Wanderglyph and Digsite Conservator are good aggressive artifact creatures (with Waterwind Scout in a similar space), but the lack of synergy with Pirate Hat will come up sometimes. Shipwreck Sentry is made for this deck, but is it worth one of your few non-artifact slots? The best might be Spyglass Siren, though that’s uncommon for a reason. I think the pieces are here, but it requires more finesse than your typical aggro deck.

 

Black/Green: Grindy Descend

If the previous two graveyard archetypes were on the extremes of the aggro/control scale, Golgari is in the middle; a midrange deck focused on value and grinding out the opponent. There are a lot of permanents that can easily trade with your opponent’s cards, whether it’s a removal spell like Tithing Blade and Chupacabra Echo, discard like Skullcap Snail, or deathtouch creatures like Poison Dart Frog and Deathcap Marionette. Combined with more traditional value like Coati Scavenger and Walk with the Ancestors, theoretically you’ll have enough in the end to win with a Akawalli, the Seething Tower or one of your craft mana sinks. However, everyone else also gets a ton of value naturally, so I don’t know if a deck focused on value is good enough. The core seems good enough based on raw card value, but the other parts are very slow.

 

Red/White: Tapping Midrange

The other unique archetype in Lost Caverns of Ixalan also involves all the random permanents, in this case tapping them to get various benefits. However, I see another case of Wilds of Eldraine’s blue/white tapping archetype here: it just doesn’t work. Caparocti Sunborn is a strong signpost and Guardian of the Great Door is playable just because its floor isn’t awful (and working a bit for a four mana 4/4 flier is worth it), but the rest of the payoffs like Adaptive Gemguard and Goldfury Striker look very bad (mostly because of the sorcery-speed restriction), and synergies like Volatile Wandergylph and Thousand Moons Infantry aren’t enough to power it through. Maybe there’s a generic RW aggro deck that plays a Sunshot Militia as a finisher alongside the few good tapping cards, or maybe there are enough craft artifacts and Map tokens sitting around to let you get three activations a turn, but I’m skeptical at the start of the set.

 

Green/Blue: Explore Midrange (Merfolk)

This is a strange archetype, as beyond the signpost (Nicanzil, Current Conductor), there isn’t much tying all the exploring together (and there’s even less Merfolk typal). However, there are two parts possibly saving it: the base rate on the Explore creatures and pivoting into a ramp strategy. Since you’re getting so many lands (possibly Caves), you can ramp into strong cards like Council of Echoes, Sinuous Benthisaur, Tendrils of the Mycotyrant, and the backsides of the landcyclers and craft cards. I don’t know if traditional ramp is good in a format full of value-filled aggro and midrange, but it’s actually a path, unlike Explore on its own.

 

Three-Plus Color Archetypes:

The most obvious three-color archetype is a Sultai self-mill deck, as all the big Descend cards are in green, blue, and black, and there’s enough self-mill density to reliably fill your graveyard without much effort. There’s also a combo of the GW buff deck and RW tapping deck that could work, since most of the mediocre tapping payoffs buff your creatures, but that sounds like combining two bad things to try and make something good, even before you consider a three-color aggro deck isn’t great. Jeskai artifacts is also interesting if you need to combine white, blue, and red to get enough artifact density, and treasure could help a three-color deck work.

 

Other Important Cards:

I mentioned how all the non-Abrade, non-Petrify common removal seems weaker than average, and that takes a variety of forms: Quicksand Whirlpool and Idol of the Deep King cost more, Song of Stupefaction and Over the Edge are sorcery-speed, and Join the Dead is double-black just to mention a few examples. The trade-off is that they are more versatile, and that’s a theme through the whole set, particularly with the multiple smoothing mechanics. Overall the format looks slower than normal, so a strong aggro deck can dominate, but it’ll be rare to get.

 

Conclusion:

Overall this looks like a very interesting set, and the interesting parts aren’t overwhelmed by the massive power creep in recent years. I worry about the underpowered cards not affecting Constructed, but that’s not a concern for this article. Of course, the train of sets can’t ever stop. I won’t be covering the re-release of Khans of Tarkir on Arena next month, but I did write about it back in 2018 if you’re interested. Instead, my next article will be the Limited Review for Ravnica Remastered when that releases next year. My Pioneer Masters design is almost done as well, and that article will likely come after Murders of Karlov Manor, as the never-ending train of sets continues.

 

Vincent