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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Jan 11 2018 1:00pm
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Rivals of Ixalan spoiler season was strange: cards were officially revealed early due to promos, then two more sets were released, and now the entire set of official previews was crammed into a single week. Furthermore, RIX is sending out the small set with a whimper: it isn’t bringing anything new other than Ascend and slightly more focused tribal aspects, and it’s overshadowed by the power of the previous year, the awfulness of Ixalan Limited, and the anticipation for Dominaria (not to mention all the supplemental sets and other stuff in the Magic-sphere both good and bad). People are still going to play it though, so let’s get going on the Limited review, starting with the mechanics.




This is the spotlight of the set, as it appears on 23 total cards though all the colors, though it’s focused in Esper (and primarily in blue). Having ten permanents is simultaneously both easier and harder to obtain than you think: permanents don’t stay on the board in most cases other than a board stall, but if the game goes on long enough you will eventually play 8-10 lands and get there naturally (and once you have Ascend, you keep it). The biggest question is how quickly you’ll get it, and how good are the effects. Certainly in Limited you should be playing the cards based on their base rate, and at lower rarities they’re generally at-rate pre-Ascent (maybe a mana more at most) and the post-Ascent bonuses are minor, though meaningful (a card here, some stats or a keyword ability there). My gut also says Ascend permanents (particularly non-creatures) are much better than non-permanents, both because they contribute to the count themselves (like how Metalcraft artifacts are much better than non-artifacts or spells) and because they give you the City’s Blessing immediately once you have ten permanents (they can’t even respond once the tenth is on the battlefield). Defensive cards also seem good, as they lead to the board stall that gives you Ascend easily, but it’s a double-edged sword since your opponent will likely get it as well if they care about it.



The four tribes are still here in the same color combinations (with the exception of the blue and black Elder Dinosaurs), but the tribal aspects have been ratcheted up a couple notches—while alarm bells are going off in my head with comparisons to how the ratcheting up of tribal in Dark Ascension ruined Innistrad Limited, there isn’t really anywhere to go but up after Ixalan’s mess (though that was caused by an on-rails format in many ways). If you look at the signpost gold uncommons, only three are pure lords (Dire Fleet Neckbreaker, Legion Lieutenant, and Merfolk Mistbinder) and they only give stats (while the Dark Ascension lords gave stats and relevant keywords like First Strike and Hexproof). Maybe this will work? We’ll see in the archetype breakdown.


Other Returning Mechanics:

As you would expect in a modern small set (or at least as modern as something going away can be), there isn’t much room for innovation with other mechanics. Treasure only appears on eight cards, and it’s still in Grixis other than Gleaming Barrier, but red actually gets a decent share this time. Explore only appears on four cards with no commons and only one uncommon, so there’s a lot less smoothing, though you can make arbitrary creatures Explore—hooray, more buffs for hexproof creatures! Enrage gets nine cards and nothing new mechanics-wise is done with it. Raid only shows up on five Izzet cards, and while the cards seem good, the use of the mechanic is boring. Finally, there’s a cycle of enemy-color DFCs that turn into lands alongside two artifacts (one of which is mythic), but they still won’t come up as much in Limited.


Limited Archetypes:

Since it looks like each color pair has a distinct deck now (they each have a signpost uncommon), I’ll just go by color pair rather than by tribe.


White/Blue: Fliers/Ascend

Resplendent Griffin points to a deck that cards about fliers and Ascend, and while I don’t know how much the latter is practical (other than as inevitability), but there are certainly fliers in the set, with cards like Exultant Skymarcher, Kitesail Corsair, Siren Reaver, and Spire Winder. There’s also a lot of removal (Luminous Bonds, Waterknot, Baffling End) and tempo (Deadeye Rig-Hauler, Expel from Orazca), and a lot of that contributes to Ascend to boot. I know you’re hurt by the lack of a tribe, but this looks much more reasonable than in Ixalan.


Blue/Black: Pirate Ascend Control

Deadeye Brawler wouldn’t be awful as just a 2/4 Deathtouch for 4, and the Ascend trigger works well in the controlling archetype Ascend is made for. However, other than the typical removal spells, there isn’t much to further that plan, especially in black. Cards like Sailor of Means and Sworn Guardian help you survive to Ascend, and payoffs like Secrets of the Golden City and Dusk Charger are good, but I think this deck needs help against the fliers and oversized creatures the tribes will be putting out, and Golden Demise can only do so much.


Black/Red: Aggro Pirates

The plan set forth by Dire Fleet Neckbreaker is very simple: attack! You certainly have the tools to do so, with three high-power one-drops (Grasping Scoundrel, Daring Buccaneer, and Fanatical Firebrand), plenty of two-drops, and other options up the curve. The biggest problem with these decks is what happens if your opponent survives the initial onslaught (important when one of the opposing tribes has life gain as one of its main themes), and that appears to be this deck’s clear weakness. In particular, the burn in this deck you draft for its removal purposes (Bombard, Mutiny, Reckless Rage) can’t go to your opponent’s face, so you’re left with sub-par options like Gruesome Fate for the most part, though Forerunner of the Coalition seems important for the archetype. Of course, the removal is great, so maybe you’ll be able to clear enough blockers to deal 20 before your opponent can stabilize?


Red/Green: Midrange Dinosaurs

Even ignoring the Dinosaur and Enrage synergies, Raging Regisaur is a very efficient creature, though that doesn’t help much with the archetype direction. The Enrage synergies are still good though—if you somehow manage to trigger Needletooth Raptor twice it’s insane, while Thunderherd Migration is a card that’s apparently too good these days without the catch. The creatures are also very good, and you can break through the board stalls that will happen when everyone else cares about Ascend so much.


Green/White: Dinosaur Ramp

It’s strange for GW to be a ramp deck, but Atzocan Seer is clearly pointing in that direction. White does have most of the non-Colossal Dreadmaw ramp targets, but do you really want to be ramping into Sun-Crested Pterodon or Imperial Ceratops (though the latter is still a good card, assuming you can actually cast it in this format)? I feel like this deck needs help from some source, whether it’s going into Naya, opening an Elder Dinosaur, or digging into the Ixalan pack (this is the perfect place for Thundering Spineback, Bellowing Aegisaur, or Snapping Sailback). I’m not sure how good this archetype will be, but it’s certainly better than the toughness-matters theme in Ixalan.


White/Black: Vampire Lifegain Aggro

Not much has changed here, as the signpost Legion Lieutenant is even more basic than Dire Fleet Neckbreaker. You have lifegain synergies with Famished Paladin (which doesn’t actually seem that great overall as a first impression) and Oathsworn Vampire, though surprisingly there isn’t nearly as much lifegain overall—it’s hard to get multiple Moment of Cravings, Martyr of Dusk is fragile and not immediate, and Moment of Triumph and Arterial Flow are riders on marginal spells (though Moment of Triumph seems good in this format), so you’ll have to rely on Squire's Devotion in a format with more removal than recent sets. You still have the pump sub-theme with Sanguine Glorifier and Forerunner of the Legion, which are smaller but longer-lasting effects as well. However, the card I want to highlight is actually a reprint from Ixalan: Legion Conquistador is still marginal on its own, but you’re going to see more per draft now than in triple-Ixalan due to the smaller set size of Rivals of Ixalan (and Ixalan still has the card as well), so don’t be afraid to go in on that strategy.


Blue/Red: Raid Pirates

It’s still strange to see blue so focused on attacking, but Storm Fleet Sprinter is an easy way to show that. I am concerned that there are only three Raid cards outside of rare (and Swaggering Corsair isn’t exactly game-breaking), but maybe playing multiple Deadeye Rig-Haulers is good enough—then again, I don’t know how many four-mana 3/2’s you want in your aggro deck. You do have good enablers with Fanatical Firebrand enabling it out of nowhere and both Kitesail Corsair and Goblin Trailblazer as evasive two-power two-drops. There are also the pair of Auras that should have Raid (See Red and Curious Obsession), but they don’t seem that much better than the already marginal Auras in Ixalan to be the focus of a specific deck. It just doesn’t seem to have enough to break it out of the same mold as the UW Fliers deck, which was hurt by a lack of synergy.


Black/Green: Recursion?

The BG Explore theme wasn’t that great in Ixalan, but with Explore mostly being removed in Rivals of Ixalan BG needs something else. Unfortunately, Jungle Creeper doesn’t really point in a direction other than a grindy archetype (though the card itself does win a long game by itself; note it can always block unlike most recursive creatures), but even that doesn’t get much obvious support other than Recover and maybe Mausoleum Harpy. I’m not seeing any synergy in this color pair, which puts it in the back of the pack.


Red/White: Aggro Dinosaurs

This color pair wasn’t really a tribal deck despite being in Dinosaur colors, and that remains the case here with even fewer payoffs. Instead, it just has cheap high-power creatures, headed by Relentless Raptor (though “must block if able” seems like a bad downside—then again, Wanted Scoundrels ended up as one of the best cards in Ixalan despite its awful downside, so it’s probably still good). Otherwise there isn’t much special about this deck: play good cheap creatures and run them into everyone else’s good cheap creatures.


Green/Blue: Merfolk

Even if Merfolk Mistbinder isn’t really directly correlated to +1/+1 counter theme of Merfolk, it still continues the “pump and attack” theme in the tribe. Unfortunately the Hexproof subtheme continues as well, though instead of Jade Guardian there are more Hexproof tokens and the efficient Swift Warden, and Soul of the Rapids isn’t a Merfolk. The tokens are important though, as Merfolk continues its wide theme, most notably with Strength of the Pack. The tempo theme also helps here, as Merfolk should easily be able to trigger Deadeye Rig-Hauler and get Crashing Tide as well. Overall Merfolk still looks like a good deck, so I’m worried not much has changed in the format.


Colorless Cards:

Starting with fixing as always, Traveler's Amulet is better in a format where you care about permanents on the battlefield and Evolving Wilds is the same as always (though Riverwise Augur makes the shuffle more relevant), but the insult is the enemy taplands—not only does Standard not need them reprinted (they’re all legal through Planeswalker Deck/Welcome Deck reprints), all the enemy color decks in this format (except BG, which isn’t really a deck) are aggro decks! As for the rest of the colorless cards, Orazca Relic seems good for any deck that wants ramp or quick Ascend, Gleaming Barrier seems very good in this format, and Strider Harness exists (grantable Haste is relevant in a Raid format, but it still isn’t great).


Treasure Chest Update: Rivals of Ixalan

As I mentioned last week, there really wasn’t that much to this update. Other than the curated list changes, the news this time is the removal of the Exclusive list. It’s strange the Exclusives were removed so quickly (though the fifth most-expensive card on it is (Brainwash) of all cards) and it’s pure downside (since the 5% chance in each slot was added to Standard common/uncommon in Slot 2/3 and Modern rare/mythic in Slot 1, the worst possible result in each grouping), but some of the most expensive cards in that grouping ((Edgar Markov), (Kess, Dissident Mage), and (The Ur-Dragon)) were added to the curated list, which is a perfect segue to the curated list changes.


Curated List Addition/Frequency Changes:

Let’s cover the latter part first, as the only two changes were two increases: the Engineered Explosives and Mox Opal Inventions both went from 6 to 12, and both are obviously welcome. As for the rest of additions, it’s the standard mix of Modern and Legacy staples like Fulminator Mage and Food Chain, Commander cards like Mystic Confluence and Bane of Progress, and pre-Invasion cards with extremely low circulation like Skyshroud Claim and Energy Field. The middle category is the most interesting, as it includes several cards that had been removed from chests recently and are being put back since they are either still expensive and/or rebounded meaningfully from their lows. Other interesting cards are Burning Wish and Rise of the Dark Realms, as their prices have decreased recently (probably after the curated list was locked in)—expect to see some of them removed with the Masters 25 update. Finally, some of the additions like Karlov of the Ghost Council and Pathbreaker Ibex were added at the frequency of 3, which had only been used for the Power 9 in the curated list before this—there’s no real pattern to the frequencies, but hopefully it can add some stability to the curated list (as interesting as these changes are, there probably shouldn’t be that many changes once the list stabilizes, especially during releases where there aren’t Masterpieces to add).


Curated List Removals:

This really felt like a “cleaning house” type of update, even more than the others. In particular, a lot of the near-worthless Masterpieces like Aggravated Assault and Planar Bridge were removed (210 slots in total), which will reduce the number of “feel-bads” in the curated pool and maybe even increase the price of the lesser Masterpieces to a reasonable level (it seems bad if multiple Masterpieces are under a ticket). A lot of the Commander-focused cards that have been pummeled into nothing have also been removed, like Marath, Will of the Wild and Sakashima's Student. Finally, some of the cards were hurt by Iconic Masters reprints, including River of Tears, Thundermaw Hellkite, and Condescend. Overall, I didn’t see many, if any value-decreasing removals like Mystic Confluence and the Power 9 frequency decreases (though the latter was justified).


Overall Changes:

As I’ve said multiple times, this was a minor update, with only a net of 376 slots removed. Even so, the value of the curated list increased by 2,914 tickets, but as I’ve cautioned before, that isn’t the whole story since I’m not recalculating the total value of the list each time. As an example, I pulled out the removed cards from Commander 2013 and Planechase 2012 (9 cards in total, totaling 102 slots) and calculated their price two updates ago, at the release of Ixalan (when many, if not all of them were added). Using those numbers, their total value was 846 tickets, which is almost 30% of the value that was added. I’m never going to have the full picture without recalculating the value of the curated list every update (which other people are doing—as I’ve mentioned in comment sections before, GoatBots has the EV of a Treasure Chest and the value of each of the slots, though they have many more resources than a random columnist), but hopefully even this limited analysis is helping some people.



Is it a bad thing that a Standard set release feels like a non-event? Rivals of Ixalan has interesting cards in it, but the set itself feels like “more Ixalan” in a very bad way—maybe if Ixalan had been better I’d feel differently, but it wasn’t, and unfortunately WotC needs something different to break out of the current news cycle. Presumably Dominaria and Masters 25 will be that spark, but those sets have a much larger weight on them than any in recent memory and all we can do is sit back and hope WotC delivers (and of course MTG Arena could release at any time and drastically change the Magic landscape). Speaking of Masters 25, my next article will dive back into my design for the set, going deep on all the first-time reprints I’ve chosen—I don’t know if it’ll be next week, as it’s mostly done (though I still need to choose a Rivals of Ixalan reprint—there aren’t any obvious choices that fit in my design at first, so I need to actually think about it), but I’m busy with other things. Until then.



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