Browse > Home / Strategy / Articles / Ixalan: The Return of Magic

Ixalan: The Return of Magic


The past few years of Magic have been strange, especially for Standard. While the game as a whole is healthy and doing well, the game's premier format—Standard—has been struggling with dominant decks, stale formats, and cards so overpowered that we needed an entire series of Standard bannings to fix the format. Many people peg Return to Ravnica as the last time Standard was truly great, with things slipping set by set, block by block, as we moved through Theros, Khans, Battle for Zendikar, Shadows over Innistrad, and friends. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Over the course of these sets, it almost felt like Wizards forgot how to design Magic cards and sets to make a healthy, fun, and vibrant Standard format. We saw a massive push in power to specific mythics (especially those important to the story), which gave us formats where a small group of cards (or even just a single card) were clearly the best thing you could do in Standard (think Aetherworks Marvel and Emrakul, the Promised End), a move seemingly at odds with the original intent of the mythic rarity. At the same time, efficient answers were removed from the game, often pushing Standard toward the middle, where nearly every deck was some sort of midrange build hoping to outdraw and outgrind the opponent, as true aggressive decks and slower control decks simply didn't have the tools to compete. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Wizards decided to stop making cards to punish powerful but narrow strategies, which led to overpowered graveyard decks in Rally the Ancestors and various Emrakul, the Promised End builds, and then overpowered artifact decks featuring Smuggler's Copter and Aetherworks Marvel. In some cases, Wizards wasn't printing good-enough answers (see: the early days of Smuggler's Copter and Aetherworks Marvel), while in others, Wizards just decided against printing any answers whatsoever (like graveyard answers during the reign of Rally and Emrakul, which weren't bad but quite literally non-existent). 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

While any one of these changes would have been a negative, the fact that they all happened together, in tandem, is what gave us a historically broken Standard that needed not one, not two, but three different rounds of bannings to fix. In this middle of this chaos, Mark Rosewater admitted there was a problem and promised to fix it. While his words were reassuring, they were also just words, as the proof of a real, meaningful shift would be in the cards themselves. While we saw the first small step in reversing the problems of the past several years in Amonkhet block with cards like Abrade and graveyard hate like Crook of Condemnation, Ixalan is the fulfillment of that promise, marking the return of real Magic to Standard!

As such, today we are going to take a few minutes to discuss Ixalan from a meta perspective and how the set builds on the promise of Amonkhet block and is the realization of many things that players have been asking for over the past several years, along with putting an end to the problems that have increasingly plagued Standard since the end of Return to Ravnica

The Return of Traditional Mythics

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Since first entering the multiverse back in Shards of Alara block, the very definition of mythic has been changing year by year. Initially, mythics were designed to be big, flashy, fun cards but not necessarily Standard all-stars or even playables. If you look back over the mythics from Shards block (apart from the planeswalkers, which have always been an exception to the rule), you'll find a ton of sweet and fun Commander cards but not much in terms of constructed playability. As time went on, mythics became cheaper, more efficient, and more pushed for constructed, a trend that reached its peak over the past year or two with mythics that were important to the story being pushed to ungodly levels (see Emrakul, the Promised End, Archangel Avacyn, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Aetherworks Marvel).

Having these ultra-pushed mythics causes two problems. First, they make for unfun Standard formats where if you're not playing whatever super-pushed story mythic is best, you're playing the format incorrectly. Second, these cards often end up being really expensive (since as mythics, they are the lowest-supply cards in Standard), making it hard for some players to field a competitive deck and compete in Standard, which is designed to be the most accessible format for new players. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Thankfully, Ixalan seems to be a return to the old-school, traditional definition of mythic rares. While we still have a few mythics from the set yet to be revealed, if we discount the planeswalkers, not a single Ixalan mythic costs less than four mana (with just two being less than five mana: Rowdy Crew—which is likely mythic thanks to being a pretty complicated card—and the legendary Admiral Beckett Brass), with most being big, powerful, and flashy effects but not likely to be tier cards in Standard. While we can quibble over the mythicness of drawing seven cards for seven mana at sorcery speed, for the most part, all of these cards feel mythic in the traditional sense and look like they will be a ton of fun to play but without breaking (or increasing the cost of) Standard. Most importantly, it seems like Wizards has realized that it can still tell the story of a set (Ixalan has some extremely flavorful mythics, like Star if Extinction and Jace, Cunning Castaway) without pushing cards to the point where they break Standard. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Meanwhile, it appears that the most pushed-for-Standard cards in Ixalan are rares like Ruin Raider, Ripjaw Raptor, Regisaur Alpha, and friends, which is great. If you look at these three cards in particular, Wizards could probably justify any one of them as mythics based on the recent track record of the rarity. Dark Confidant—the best comparison for Ruin Raider—is now a mythic. Ripjaw Raptor appears to be the most pushed-for-constructed green midrange threat, like the mythics Verdurous Gearhulk and Polukranos, World Eater were in their respective sets, and Regisaur Alpha has a bit of a Huntmaster of the Fells vibe going on. The point is, Wizards could have pushed these constructed staples up in rarity if they wanted to but they decided against it and left the staples as rare, where they will be comparatively cheap and accessible for anyone interested in playing the format. 

The Return of Efficient Answers

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

The story of Lightning Bolt in Standard is a sad one. It wasn't that long ago (Magic 2011) that we had literal Lightning Bolt in the format. Eventually (and perhaps rightly), the one-mana spell was deemed too good for the format, and it became Lightning Strike (Magic 2015 / Theros), which felt like about the right power level for Standard. It wasn't the best card in the format, but it was still efficient enough that you'd want it in your deck if you were playing red. The problem is Wizards decided that even this watered-down version of Lightning Bolt was too good, which led to some extremely depressing burn spells like the sorcery speed Incendiary Flow and eventually the embarrassment that is Open Fire. Now in Ixalan, Lightning Strike makes its triumphant return to Standard and immediately becomes the best burn spell in the format. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Even beyond the headlining Lightning Strike, Ixalan is overflowing with the cheap interactive spells we've been missing in Standard for quite a while. Ever since Khans block rotated, we've been stuck with two-mana discard spells with major restrictions like Transgress the Mind and Lay Bare the Heart—another part of the pushed-to-the-middle we talked about earlier, where cheap interactive spells all increased in cost by a mana, while powerful creatures all dropped in cost by a mana, leaving standard in midrange-only purgatory. Now with Ixalan, we get Duress. Meanwhile, Spell Pierce comes back to Standard for the first time since Zendikar, giving tempo-oriented decks support and maybe even allowing for a Delver- or Faeries-like strategy in Pirates. Even Walk the Plank deserves some praise. While being a sorcery does decrease its power quite a bit, it's also the least conditional two-mana black removal spell we've had since Doom Blade was reprinted in Magic 2014

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Think back to Return to Ravnica Standard, which again is often cited as the last truly great Standard format. The format was overflowing with efficient answers like Abrupt Decay, Dreadbore, Ultimate Price, and Murder. Duress gave us one-mana discard. Syncopate, Judge's Familiar, Essence Scatter, and Negate allowed control decks to stay alive during the early game. This formula—good threats but also good answers—worked for the best years of Magic, and after taking a few years off, this seems to be the model that Wizards is following for Ixalan, which is incredibly exciting. 

The Return of Hate Cards

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Along the same lines, Ixalan also marks the return of narrow but powerful hate cards. While we saw the start of this process in Amonkhet block, Ixalan feels like the culmination of the pendulum swing back to normalcy in the middle. Many of Standard's problems over the past few years weren't so much that the best strategy was too good in a vacuum but that Wizards simply didn't print ways for players to interact with the best deck in the format. 

Probably the clearest example of this was the Rally the Ancestors deck in Standard. Rally the Ancestors isn't a broken Magic card. Since it rotated, it hasn't really seen any play in Modern and didn't even see play in Standard for most of the time it was legal. However, we eventually reached the point were Rally the Ancestors was—by far—the best deck in Standard, simply because players didn't have a way to deal with graveyards. The same is mostly true of Emrakul, the Promised End, which turned Standard into "who can fill their graveyard the fastest to cast the Eldrazi titan for the least amount of mana?"

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Traditionally, strategies like going all-in on your graveyard have been powerful throughout Magic's history (see: Dredge in any format where it's legal or Legacy Reanimator) but also come with a high amount of risk, since your opponent can destroy your plan with just a single card, like a Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void. Basically, in seeking the reward of a very powerful but narrow strategy, you also take on a lot of risk, which only seems fair. You can earn 1% in a savings account with essentially no risk, but if you try to earn 20% in emerging markets, you have much greater odds of getting blown out and losing your entire investment. The problem is that Wizards removed the risk from the equation by removing hate cards for narrow decks from the format. When you can make 1% with no risk or make 20% with no risk, you'd be a fool not to take the 20%, which is where Standard has been for the past few years. 

Thankfully, the risk is back in Ixalan. Sentinel Totem is the best graveyard hate spell we've had in Standard since Return to Ravnica, and Sorcerous Spyglass marks the return of Pithing Needle for the first time in years.  Ideally, these cards will sit in the back of your binder unplayed, but these are the exact cards that Standard has been missing, which allowed the format to be overrun with broken decks and broken cards. 

Think back on the bannings we've had over the past year. If we discount Felidar Guardian as a mistake on Wizards' part that wouldn't have been printed if they had recognized the combo potential, there's a strong argument that we might not have had any bannings at all if we had these simple, traditionally evergreen answers and interactive cards in the format for the past year.

$ 0.00 $ 0.00

Smuggler's Copter is undoubtedly a very powerful Magic card and is starting to catch on in Modern, but the biggest reason the looter scooter was banned was because there simply wasn't a good way of interacting with it when Kaladesh came out. The best answers in the format were Unlicensed Disintegration, Grasp of Darkness, Harnessed Lightning, and Immolating Glare, following by extremely lacking artifact destruction in Fragmentize and Appetite for the Unnatural. Apart from a sideboarded Fragmentize, your best hope for dealing with Smuggler's Copter was to break even (two mana for two mana) with Harnessed Lightning or Grasp of Darkness, kill it after your opponent got loot value with Immolating Glare, or actually trade down in mana (spending three to kill the two-drop) with Unlicensed Disintegration or Appetite for the Unnatural. Fast forward to present day, and we have a slew of one-mana answers in Fatal Push, Spell Pierce, and Duress along with much better two-mana answers in Lightning Strike and Abrade, not to mention Sorcerous Spyglass, which lets any deck answer Smuggler's Copter forever for just two mana. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00

The problem with Emrakul, the Promised End wasn't that the card was too good; it was that the card was too cheap. Decks were consistently casting the 13-drop for six or seven mana, and there simply wasn't anything opponents could do about it because there was zero graveyard hate in the format. Now we have a ton of answers, with Crook of Condemnation and Watchers of the Dead from Amonkhet along with Sentinel Totem and Deadeye Tracker coming soon in Ixalan. While Emrakul, the Promised End may still have been too good even with our current options (it would have forced pretty much all decks to spend several sideboard slots on graveyard hate), it's certainly debatable as to whether the Eldrazi titan would have been ban-worthy if any deck could undo the turbo-graveyard strategy for just a single mana. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

This graveyard hate is also extremely important moving forward. If Ixalan Standard was like the past couple years of Standard (with literally zero graveyard hate), we'd be at risk of God-Pharaoh's Gift decks making Standard extremely unfun and potentially be talking about the need for even more bannings. As it stands, God-Pharaoh's Gift falls into the high-risk / high-reward camp we were talking about a few minutes ago. If you're willing to go all-in on your graveyard, you deserve the opportunity to do something really powerful, but you also deserve the risk of getting blown out by graveyard hate, which means God-Pharaoh's Gift should be a fun and playable addition to Ixalan Standard but without getting too out of hand, thanks to the cheap answers available to every color. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00

Aetherworks Marvel is a bit more questionable. It was dominant when there were very few answers and continued to be dominant after we got more answers, although to be fair, Dissenter's Deliverance killing an artifact for two mana isn't quite the same as having to fight through Spell Pierce, Duress, Abrade, Solemnity, and Sorcerous Spyglass. It's likely that Aetherworks Marvel would still be oppressive even with these answers, but not for the reason you might thinking. The card itself would likely be safe with all of the cheap, efficient answers and hate cards we have today, but energy as a mechanic was so pushed and so parasitic that the deck would probably still be too good. Sure, we'd have all of the tools to make sure our opponent didn't kill us with Aetherworks Marvel, but bringing in Duress, Spell Pierce, and [[Sorcerous Spyglass] would actually make our deck weaker to Rogue Refiner, Whirler Virtuoso, and Bristling Hydra, which means it's probably a good thing that Aetherworks Marvel is gone. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00

As for Reflector Mage, there isn't much to say other than if Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler's Copter weren't banned, it seems exceedingly unlikely that Wizards would have banned an upgraded Man-O'-War. Plus, if you want to go really deep, Wizards even printed an answer to Reflector Mage in Tocatli Honor Guard, which could help keep Panharmonicon, Spell Queller, and Cloudblazer in check if things went too far. 

The point of all this isn't to say things should be unbanned. They shouldn't. Instead, it's to illustrate just how much harder it is for Standard to be broken when we have cheap answers and efficient (but narrow) hate cards in the format. There have been a lot of extremely broken cards and mechanics in Magic's history, but generally speaking, having access to answers keeps the format from getting too out of line. We want Wizards to keep printing powerful cards because powerful cards are fun; they just need to make sure there are strong answers as well. It was the lack of these answers that nearly destroyed Standard last winter and spring, but thanks to Ixalan, it seems exceedingly unlikely that we'll have to deal with Standard bannings again in the near future.

Wrap-Up 

While Ixalan has some sweet and powerful cards and cool new tribes and flavor, the biggest reason to be excited about the set is how it marks the return of long-term stability to Standard. Back when things were at their worst this past spring, it was comforting to hear things like "we realize the pendulum has swung too far toward threats, and we're going to swing it back" or "we're going to stop pushing story cards so hard," but when it comes right down to it, those comforting things were just words. Ixalan clearly shows that Wizards is not just talk but action. It's one thing to say "we'll bring back answers," but it's a whole other thing to see Spell Pierce, Duress, and Lightning Strike in a Standard-legal Magic set. It's one thing to say "we'll tone down face cards," but it's another to see a set overflowing with sweet and flavorful mythics that aren't pushed to the point of breaking Standard. 

Basically, Ixalan is sign that Wizards really does understand the problems that have been plaguing Standard for the past several years—problems that eventually reached a climax with arguably the worst, most broken, and most confidence-shaking Standard format in nearly a decade this past spring. More important than just understanding the problems, Ixalan is a very clear and concrete step toward fixing the problem. 

Over Magic's history, the worst, most broken Standards of all time (Mirrodin, Worldwake) have often led to some of the best, most diverse, and most fun Standards of all time (Kamigawa / Ravnica, Innistrad / Return to Ravnica). As such, there is a very realistic chance that Ixalan Standard will not just be good but great, which might just mean that all of the pain and hardship of the past year will end up being worth it in the long run.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


More on MTGGoldfish ...

against the odds

Against the Odds: Five-Color Zubera Rally (Modern)

instant deck tech

Instant Deck Tech: Venser Bant (Modern)

ebay

Ebay $15 off $75+ Flash Deal (November 22, 2017)

unstable daily spoilers

Unstable Spoilers — November 22, 2017 | Vanilla Mythic and Complete Spoiler


Next Article

Get Email Updates

Follow Us

  • S
  • S
  • S
  • S
  • S
  • S
  • S

Welcome to MTGGoldfish. We display prices for both ONLINE and PAPER magic. By default, what prices would you like to see?   

Online Paper