Rivals of Ixalan drafts have been firing for almost a month now, but there is still a ton of drafting to do before Dominaria gets here.
Team Massdrop finished Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan with a 41-25 Draft record, or a win rate of 62%. At the Pro level, that is really strong. Dating back to the early days of the team we have always focused on strong, structured Limited preparation, and it often pays off.
This was our finalized strategy for Rivals of Ixalan draft, from big picture, to how to build successful decks of each archetype, to the full pick order that comes out of our Limited meetings.
The One Minute Version
The best rare and uncommon threats are miles ahead of the common threats, but the common removal is good. The best rares are those that don’t die to removal or win the game even if removed.
The format defaults to aggression, but random 2/2s aren’t reliably good enough. Attack with 3/3s and evasive creatures and tribally enhanced stuff. You can be defensive if you have enough good removal or powerful cards to lean on.
Don’t have too many four and five cost cards. Lots of the good removal costs that much and if you have hands that don’t do things before then you will die to two drop, three drop, trick, removal or lose when you just miss your fourth land because that happens. My general guideline is a maximum of eight or nine cards at these high costs, with exceptions for big Dinosaur decks.
Creature enhancing auras are good, but so is the removal. Play them, but play them carefully.
Take the best tribal payoffs like Merfolk Mistbinder or Forerunner of the Empire very early, but quickly abandon them for open colors if you don’t see more good cards on the theme.
Don’t change colors too late. Ixalan is a low power set with lots of packs where you won't find a good card and the tribal themes require lots of specific cards to work due to creature types mattering on your filler cards.
I’m going to double down and emphasize this. The best decks have good uncommons and rares supported by the commons. Take the high payoff cards early, but you have to switch out if you aren’t getting the support as well because your deck will be bad, and if you don’t switch early you won’t get the support for your backup plan.
The general pick order is: the best rares, Ravenous Chupacabra, more good rares, Golden Demise, good common removal and the best fliers, the good uncommon tribal cards, then the less great removal and common evasion and efficient creatures. After that most playable things are fairly interchangeable depending on your plan.
Every color pair can be fine to draft. W/U is midrange fliers, U/B wants to be control and needs good cards to lean on, B/R is aggro Pirates and needs ways to beat big blockers, G/R is aggressive and doesn’t need to be all about Dinosaurs, W/G is big stuff Dinos and often splashes a third color, W/B is either Vampires or removal and good creatures, B/G is hope you get good cards or don’t draft it, G/U is Merfolk, U/R is aggressive evasion, and R/W is best as a bulkier midrange deck with lots of removal.
The Archetypes In Detail
(Note: These header images are cards I associate with the archetype, not necessarily high priority picks)W/U is a traditional fliers deck. Get some good blockers down, start attacking, get some good tempo plays in, and you win. There’s a bit of Ascend going on but not enough to make a theme deck.
- Between Exultant Skymarcher and Waterknot your color requirements can be stretched. Play 17 lands and be aware of this issue when choosing between similar quality two cost and double color-costed spells.
- You have tons of good three cost creatures. Value good cards in other roles over comparable threes.
- You will struggle with creatures that Luminous Bonds is ineffective against. Cleansing Ray is an important sideboard card to handle Legion Lieutenant and Anointed Deacon for this reason.
- Squire’s Devotion is really good here with all your fliers to ensure you can keep attacking with your Lifelinked creature.
- Your creatures mostly have two power, so if you get into a pure race from turn two you can easily lose. You want some defensive options like Sailor of Means.
- It is easy to accidentally get a small Dinosaurs or Vampires subtheme in your deck, allowing you to play Sanguine Glorifier or Pterodon Knight.
There are two very separate U/B decks. One is a very aggressive U/B deck loaded with one drops, and the other is a control deck.
The very aggressive deck is just OK. It was much better in Ixalan with three packs of One with the Wind and Pirate’s Cutlass and even silly stuff like Blight Keeper to keep dealing damage.
The control deck leans heavily on Secrets of the Golden City, Dusk Charger, and Sailor of Means to do something good with its later picks. It also requires you get a lot of good U/B cards early like spot removal or good uncommons and rares before you pick those cards up later. Sometimes U/B is just open and you end up with this, but unless I opened a Ravenous Chupacabra or Golden Demise I wouldn’t be looking to end up here from the start. This is contrary to what a lot of people think about the deck, but even if you are drafting against people who undervalue the key non-removal commons and always get them your deck isn't going to be better than a well assembled and open version of any other archetype unless you are getting the obvious good cards to carry them.
Aggro Pirates is the name of the game. Dire Fleet Neckbreaker is insane. The best B/R decks have Forerunner of the Coalition to find it, or better multiple Forerunners to chain.
Your creatures don’t have much evasion beyond menace, so ways to kill larger blockers are key. Big tricks like Sure Strike and general purpose removal like Impale are crucial to this deck.
Green-Red is kinda Dinosaurs. By kinda often it’s just good curve, combat tricks, and some cards that end up being Dinosaurs with no real payoffs unless you get Tilonalli’s Knight and Thrash of Raptors in Ixalan. Or the mondo-combo of Needletooth Raptor and Forerunner of the Empire. I guess Stampeding Horncrest too, but that’s just a fine five drop and not anything irreplaceable.
You have issues with really big creatures, but unlike B/R your default creature size gets up to 4/4 and can punch through random Sailor of Means. The problems come when your opponent is an even bigger deck with Colossal Dreadmaws, which unfortunately you don't have many ways to deal with.
G/W is a much bigger Dinosaurs deck that almost always wants Knight of the Stampede. Part of that is that the white five cost flying Dinosaurs are quite good, part of it is both of the super giant Dinosaur rares are white, and part of it is the white low drops attack worse and the removal kills more.
You often splash, probably in part because Atzocan Seer is a really good to be G/W and produces any color to splash with. Taking Raging Regisaur and assuming you will play it is perfectly fine.
Vampires are great. Since the difference between 2/2, 3/3, and 4/4 is so big Sanguine Glorifier is one of the few good common tribal payoffs. Even if you aren’t actively Vampires you can just draft a W/B deck full of removal and solid creatures, making W/B one of the most reliably good archetypes.
There isn’t actually a good reason to be B/G. Jungle Creeper is mostly a 3/3 and there isn’t a tribe. You need to be continuously passed high quality green and black cards to end up in B/G. If you get this then go ahead and draft B/G, but otherwise stay away.
Merfolk or bust. If you try and force your way into Merfolk, there’s a lot of busting. The baseline Merfolk cards aren’t that good, so you need multiple payoff cards for your deck to come together. There’s a lot of hoping Ixalan delivers unless you can get multiple Merfolk Mistbinders or get lucky enough to open a Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. This is the color combination you most commonly follow the route of taking a great Merfolk card early then never come close to playing it before moving into two completely different colors, but the one out of three or so times you get passed some Jungleborn Pioneers and have it all work out are pretty nice.
U/R is an aggressive evasion deck. It is the best deck for auras, both due to evasion to carry a Swashbuckling for damage and due to cards like Dive Down to protect them. It is the worst deck for the defensive Ascend blue cards like Secrets of the Golden City and Spire Winder as the red cards promote just killing them and are spell-based removal and tricks over auras that stay around as permanents.
If you try to draft R/W as a pure aggro deck, you are going to have a bad time. There aren’t really early game synergies for Dinosaurs aggro. The good R/W decks are full of solid early drops that are fine attacking or blocking, four and five drop fliers, and an abundance of removal. Snubhorn Sentry and Sun-Crested Pterodon are some of the less high priority cards that really carry their weight here, alongside Mutiny and Divine Verdict to really hit the removal count you need.
One Giant Pick Order
If you came for the quick version, that ends here. If you came for lots of big pictures and rankings, you are in luck. These are the rankings we used to guide our early draft picks, then to help decide tough picks between cards in our colors once we settled in.
These rankings were all made using a handy tool made for us by Alex Majlaton, who has been a key part of our Limited process and organization for a long time. In each image I've divided the cards up where we felt there are clear power level drop offs, but there is definitely wiggle room based on your previous picks.
These cards are great. Most of them are obviously good.
Here’s how Golden Guardian works: first a 4/4 is too big to attack into, then they can’t attack because you can fight something before Golden Guardian dies in combat, then eventually you transform it and they die to more 4/4s.
With Evolving Wilds, Traveler’s Amulet, and uncommon dual lands it is easy to splash lightly colored spells. Tendershoot Dryad is a great example and will usually make your deck off one or two sources. It is a bit fragile, but the flexibility makes up for it.
Trapjaw Tyrant is a bit worse than it looks as the Enrage trigger is difficult to trigger, so don’t expect it to be unbeatable, but a 5/5 that is impossible to chump block is still good enough.
Hadana’s Climb gets better in live drafts because everyone knows you are G/U. The other double-faced cards are either not good enough to signal with or are Profane Procession and slam dunks regardless.
Champion of Dusk and Direfleet Poisoner are both tribal cards that are absurdly good without any tribal backup. Even if you are in the opposite tribe they are still first pickable
Captain’s Hook is absurdly efficient for an equipment and often just turns all of your creatures into two-for-ones. The drawback rarely comes up, though I did get Run Aground’ed at the Pro Tour. I think you could argue it is better than Ravenous Chupacabra, but it ended up here in our discussion.
Golden Demise is insane. It is very easy to just get three or four creatures with it and all the times you would play into your own sweeper just make it one sided and force them to over extend into it.
Of the good removal spell I like Luminous Bonds best because white is the deepest color and it hits anything, but based on personal preferences you can take any of those top cards over the others.
Crested Horncaller is technically more powerful than the removal, but it isn’t splashable and green is a bit worse than the other colors.
Moment of Craving can be used as a combat trick to trade up with larger creatures on top of just killing Kitesail Corsairs.
Arch of Orazca is great. The format is very light on ways to fight mana flood, and Arch has a very low upfront cost of playing a colorless land as your 17th in exchange for a very good return of extra mana for extra cards
Azor, Lawbringer is good, but it’s very hard to cast. You can’t splash it, so you need to just be U/W or heavy treasure U/B. Even then, it is still just a really good six drop that dies to aura-based removal.
Dire Fleet Daredevil has a really high baseline of 2/1 first strike, and if you ever get the Snapcaster Mage mode on a removal spell it is game winning. You definitely don’t get that upside every time, but the worst case scenario is still good.
These non-rares are all the really good payoffs for a specific two color combination. As another reminder: Take these early and move along if the rest of the deck isn’t coming together.
You will notice the three best payoffs here are mono-colored. Forerunner of the Legion is good enough with just Legion Conquistadors and a Sanguine Glorifier in any white deck, Needletooth Raptor is fine as is in any red deck, and while Forerunner of the Empire isn’t always good it is easily splashable in G/W and G/B and has a huge upside when you go off with it. The best thing to find is Needletooth Raptor for the build a Doom Blade every turn is the normal combo, but I’m partial to Crested Herdcaller as build your own Golden Demise.
After those are a couple of just solid rares in Jadelight Ranger and Tilonalli’s Summoner. Tilonalli’s Summoner really isn’t a two drop, but a two cost finisher that lets you play another spell on turn four or five and threaten a game winning play the next turn. A bunch of 1/1’s that almost always stick around is usually enough for lethal.
The rest of the payoffs here are still great cards, but they are less likely to make your deck as they are true two color cards. I have Merfolk Mistbinder as the worst of these cards as it is the least reliable, but it’s still great. Note that U/R can splash Dire Fleet Neckbreaker and G/W and G/B can splash Raging Regisaur.
Curious Obsession leads to very easy game wins on an early Mist-Cloaked Herald or Kitesail Corsair. Usually the worst case scenario is you get one hit in before your creature dies, keeping you at card parity. The only reason it isn’t ranked higher is that not every deck has an abundance of cheap evasive creatures to guarantee hits with.
Like I said, the next best removal and evasive threats fall here. Waterknot and Impale are good, but the double colored costs are a real issue as is costing four for Impale.
Reaver Ambush is pretty average as far as removal comes. It is way less flexible than it looks, missing things like Raging Regisaur or Squire’s Devotion on a larger creature where Moment of Craving might actually be able to pick them off with a blocker. It’s still solid removal.
Sadistic Skymarcher is fine as a four cost 2/2 flier especially with any way to enhance it like See Red, but the Vampires upside of three mana 2/2 flying lifelink isn’t as gamebreaking as the really good tribal payoffs a tier up.
Zacama, Primal Calamity is actually game over if you cast it. You need a specific deck to support it, with multiple Knight of the Stampede and another big payoff or two, but it is one of the best cards for said deck.
Etali, Primal Storm is still just a six mana 6/6. It has some dream scenarios, but it isn’t going to save a game any more than Colossal Dreadmaw.
Crashing Tide is good in every blue deck. Just because it says Merfolk doesn’t mean you need Merfolk.
Forerunner of the Heralds is solid but is just a big four drop and as a result is more replaceable in non-Merfolk scenarios. Forerunner of the Coalition doesn’t have a lot of the easy setups the other Forerunners have, but still has a couple high payoff cases like Dire Fleet Neckbreaker or the lucky Hostage Taker.
Squire’s Devotion really wants you to put it on a flier or Colossal Dreadmaw.
Radiant Destiny is mostly a Vampires card, but it is fairly easy for W/R or W/U to have enough Vampires to make it work.
Seafloor Oracle is worse than it looks. Often it wins games you are already ahead in and is clunky in games you aren’t winning, but the effect is strong enough it still commands some premium.
Stormfleet Swashbuckler’s double strike is relevant, but expect it to be a 2/2 Pirate most of the time which is just fine
Vona’s Hunger has a lot of spots where it ends up being awkward, like with a bunch of Luminous Bonds or them having Jungleborn Pioneer. The upside is there, but expect to be let down sometimes.
Elenda, the Dusk Rose asks a lot to be really good. You have to be in a game where your creatures are trading and they don’t just kill it. Often things aren’t trading, or you are too busy killing their stuff to want to play a 1/1 on turn four, or it just dies and acts like Martyr of Dusk. It still has a high upside, but don’t expect to be wow’ed by it every time you cast it.
Dead-Eye Rig Hauler is a four drop that doesn’t brawl that well in a format with a lot of fine fours. The bounce is nice, but it is a very replaceable card.
Once you pick up three copies Legion Conquistador becomes really good when you have some way to enhance it, but also just crushes certain matchups. If you don’t see your first copy until pack two it is a lot worse, but I tend to pick them up somewhat early because the payoff for getting a bunch is high.
Pride of the Conquerors is mostly a W/B card, but it is very good there. It is really absurd with Legion Conquistadors.
Wayward Swordtooth functions a lot like the fine horse Dusk Charger, but it has more potential for crazy curves where you get to play a five drop on turn four and have a bonus 5/5 on turn five.
As you can tell from my descriptions, we are really reaching the point where cards just aren’t that exciting. Anything past here is filler, which is definitely important but way more contextual. The context stuff is fairly straightforward in this format, but I’ll make notes where things aren’t clear cut tribal.
These are the filler cards that have a relatively good best case scenario or just make your deck most of the time.
- Famished Paladin is a good blocker in W/G Dinosaurs
- Silvergill Adept is a lot of work for the payoff of getting a 2/1 body that doesn’t matter a lot.
- Kumena’s Awakening quickly gets you the City’s Blessing and unlike past effects of this type makes sure your opponent Demystifying it never costs you extra cards.
- Slaughter the Strong works very well with Snubhorn Sentry for a while.
- Dusk Charger is good but as a turn four play disappoints for a turn or two.
- Don’t try to transform Azor’s Gateway, just exile extra lands.
- Path of Mettle works with Buccaneer’s Bravado and Sure Strike.
- Frilled Deathspitter does good work with Tilonalli’s Crown, but it is often difficult to make your other creatures work there.
These cards have reasonable payoffs but are often limited in how many you want to have, or are just slightly below par filler.
-Sun-Crested Pterodon is probably the best card here, but having too many five drops is a problem.
- Relentless Raptor looks awkward but most of the time it just trades for something in a fine situation. What more do you want from a two drop?
- Charging Tuskodon is just a big goofy five drop that needs help to be more than that. There’s a lot of those.
- Grasping Scoundrel isn’t actually good in most decks, but seeing them late in drafts is a tiebreaker in favor of black aggressive strategies being open.
- Form of the Dinosaur requires a lot of setup. You need to be at parity or they just attack for a bunch, and also you need to want to spend six mana to do nothing for a turn, and also you can’t just win with a different card that actively helps you stabilize.
- I love taking Cleansing Rays that come back to me pick nine or ten. When this is a good sideboard card it will be one of the best few cards in your deck.
- Recover jumps way up once you have a Ravenous Chupacabra or similar card to return. Before that it is just an average two-for-one.
- Temple Altisaur asks a lot to setup, then often just dies in combat and it ends badly.
These are cards that are often among your last playables.
- Sun-Collared Raptor doesn't function as a two drop, it’s a two cost finisher you can cast with another spell on turn four or five. It plus Recover can trample-burn people out over multiple attacks.
- River Augur is basically a four mana 2/2 draw a card. You only see one extra card once you untap and draw the first time, and there aren't many shuffle effects in draft to get full Brainstorm value.
- Mausoleum Harpy and Vampire Revenant are the most likely cards here to make my decks. Sometimes you need a flier to kill them, but both aren’t anything special.
- Divine Verdict is often your 9th best spell. Sideboard it in when needed, play it if you need another effect that kills stuff.
You don't want to play any of these cards, but they will make your deck on occasion.
- Soul of the Rapids costs five and doesn’t block anything well.
- Jungle Creeper is fine, but B/G is not a good archetype and it isn’t worth splashing.
- Nezehal costs a million mana and is just a 7/7.
- My blue decks are rarely looking for a Pirate +0/+2 for Sea Legs, or if they are they would rather have an actual counterspell to stop removal on boosted fliers. Sea Legs sometimes hits good stuff, but has a lot of places it just fails.
-Naturalize and Plummet are often conditionally good even when you sideboard them in. Sometimes they don't draw their flier and you have a dead card.
Hopefully none of these cards make your deck, but everyone has a bad draft that just needs another piece of cardboard.
- Gleaming Barrier is playable in the really controlling Ascend blue decks but doesn't block any of the good two drops.
- Majestic Imperiosaur is a slow flier, but can turn extra Raptor Companions into attackers.
- Dark Inquiry is a sideboard card against the best rares.
- In this set’s don’t try this at home, I have combined Gruesome Fate, Sun-Crowned Raptor, and playing eighteen creatures to turn really bad piles of low cost B/R cards into something capable of winning.
Don’t play these. Seriously, I just told you I tried to play Gruesome Fate, and these cards ended up being worse than that.
There have been a lot of differing opinions about this draft format across various professional players. In the past, the reason this has been true has been that the format supports a ton of archetypes and if you know what you are doing you can make any of them work well, resulting in people finding a couple cool things and sticking with them.
Rivals of Ixalan is a bizarre inverse of that. Anything can work, but everything has a high fail rate because the average decks are so much worse than the good decks and often that difference is determined by which infrequent cards come your way. It is easy to get burned by the same strategy a couple of times and come away unimpressed, when what actually happened was you just didn’t get a key piece and should have looked elsewhere.
At this point there isn’t a lot to be learned about the format from this, but you do need to understand that it is really easy to have Rivals drafts where you do everything right and still lose a bunch. Enjoy the individual games for what they are and try to make the best decisions in the spots it counts.
· Meet the Massdrop Teams: http://dro.ps/mtg-team-announce
· *2nd* at Pro Tour Ixalan: http://dro.ps/ixalan
· Unclaimed Creature Types: http://dro.ps/ari-creatures
· Why I Never Drop From Tournaments: http://dro.ps/eric-nevergiveup
· The Art of Sideboard Construction - Sultai Energy: http://dro.ps/jon-sideboard
· A Commoner's View on Pauper: http://dro.ps/mark-pauper
· Blue Moon Beach Control: http://dro.ps/scott-bluemoon
· Top 5 Modern Decks: http://dro.ps/pascal-modern
· Storm in Vintage Cube: http://dro.ps/ben-storm
· An Early Look at Rivals for Standard: http://dro.ps/shaun-rivals
· A Standard Approach to Evaiuating New Cards: http://dro.ps/rob-newcards
· Drafting Rivals of Ixalan: http://dro.ps/tim-ixalan
· Team Sealed Secrets: http://dro.ps/eric-secrets
· Steal My Standard Ideas: http://dro.ps/tommy-secrets· Vexing Devil. Any Questions?: http://dro.ps/jon-devil