Ixalan is here! I made it out to a pre-release on Sunday at Enchanted Grounds and had a Flinstone-style gay old time. Tribal sets aren’t really my cup of tea, but Magic is Magic. And honestly, pirates seem cool, dinosaurs are always cool, and I’ll let you call my blue-green tempo deck “Merfolk” if you’ll leave me alone. Vampires seem more boring than most black-white archetypes, but I’m sure they’ll grow on me.

It’s hard to imagine that Ixalan Sealed will be very tribal, though. You kinda have to play with the good creatures you get in Sealed, and this format seems to have weaker creatures than recent sets. That would make sense, as tribal synergies are supposed to make mediocre creatures good. Unlike the other tribes, though, dinosaurs are just good creatures. We used to call big green draft decks “dinosaur” decks, mostly thanks to Alpha Tyrranax. Plenty of Sealed decks win with big green vanilla creatures. So it seems to me that if you have some big dinosaurs in your Sealed pool, you’ll probably end up playing them. Dinosaurs don’t need help, and Sealed is the format where you cards get the least help.

Here are the rares I opened in my prerelease pack:

Not bad. I didn’t have enough blue to try to find out if Overflowing Insight is a good card, but those red rares definitely look worth building around. It turns out I had some other solid dinos and a decent collection of cheap green creatures.

Dino Saucier

Creatures (18)
Merfolk Branchwalker
Wily Goblin
Ixalli’s Diviner
Ixalli’s Keeper
Frenzied Raptor
Tilonalli’s Skinshifter
Rummaging Goblin
Tishana’s Wayfinder
Blossom Dryad
Grazing Whiptail
Thrash of Raptors
Charging Monstrosaur
Raging Swordtooth
Burning Sun’s Avatar
Angrath’s Marauders

Spells (6)
Vance’s Blasting Cannons
New Horizons
Pounce
Sure Strike
Dark Nourishment
Crash the Ramparts
Lands (16)
Dragonskull Summit
Mountain
Forest

Sideboard (18)
Frenzied Raptor
Brazen Buccaneers
Storm Fleet Arsonist
Headstrong Brute
Pillar of Origins
Cobbled Wings
Prying Blade
Mark of the Vampire
Bellowing Aegisaur
Deeproot Warrior
Ancient Brontodon
Spike-Tailed Ceratops
Slice in Twain
River Heralds’ Boon

I went 3-1 with this deck, losing only to another red-green deck that was a bit faster and punished me when I stumbled on mana in game three. I beat two pirates decks and an absurd Abzan deck starring Vraska, Relic Seeker, Vona, Butcher of Magan, Legion’s Landing, Vraska’s Contempt, and plenty of other great cards. It turns out Burning Sun’s Avatar is a house, and Vance’s Blasting Cannons provides a lot of card advantage. Also, Charging Monstrosaur is ridiculous.

Prereleases are mostly about having fun and experimenting with new cards. With that in mind, here are some interesting lessons I learned:

Explore is Flavorfully Unpredictable

I really like explore. It provides great value and helps smooth your draws. You never know whether you’re going to draw a land or get an extra power and toughness plus a scry. That doesn’t matter too much, because both outcomes are good most of the time. But here’s the thing: you can’t really plan multiple turns ahead when you plan to cast multiple explore creatures. Depending on which results you get from your early explores, you may change your plan from beatdown to control or vice versa. That’s a sort of downside that’s hard to see or evaluate, but does make the game harder to play. Of course, you can jam a bunch of Wildgrowth Walkers and make sure you’re getting value regardless.

It’s funny, though, that explore is an unpredictable mechanic. That is perfect flavor—the whole point of exploring is you aren’t sure what you’ll find. Playing a deck of explore creatures is exciting but unpredictable. The path of the game unfolds as you walk down it. I think that might end up being really fun. Games of Magic can get repetitive, especially in tribal sets where the main strategies tend to be linear. Explore promises decent variance from game to game.

Small Creatures Want to Get Big

Pump spells play surprisingly well. Crash the Ramparts especially impressed me, even at three mana. Combat tricks tend to be worse when your opponent can block and effectively trade bad creatures for pump spells. But with Crash the Ramparts, they still take damage and your creature most likely survives. Add in various saboteur effects in the format, and the card is real. Yes expensive pump spells are hard to use and open you up to getting blown out, but I think this format will reward skillful use of combat tricks.

Equipment looks great. Pirate’s Cutlass seems very strong, and I saw Cobbled Wings and Prying Blade do decent work during the prerelease. So many of the creatures are in the two or three power and toughness range, so adding a point or two to their stats makes a real difference in combat. I’m reminded of Veteran’s Sidearm, which helped the interchangeable creatures in Magic Origins trade up and gain value over long games of Sealed.

Even auras probably do good work. Mark of the Vampire has always been pretty good, and slamming it on a giant dinosaur sounds like a great plan. Green also has a lot of hexproof creatures that are happy to get marked, or become One With the Wind. I expect auras will help round out your playable count in a lot of decks.

Wily Goblin is Pretty Good

I wanted to test Wily Goblin so I threw it in my deck. I was heavily enough into red that it wasn’t too tough to cast it on turn two, and the treasure ramp is real. You look at Wily Goblin and think it must be horrible. Double red for a lowly 1/1? But think of it this way: if it cost 1R instead of RR, wouldn’t it be amazing? When does red get ramp? Did you notice that it’s a pirate? That means you can buy it back with March of the Drowned. Throw in the value of auras, equipment, and various ways to throw around +1/+1 counters, and the body doesn’t seem so useless anymore. I’m not ready to say Wily Goblin is great, but I think you want them and will play one or two in your red decks.

Angrath’s Marauders Loves Dinosaurs

Angrath’s Marauders is a seven drop pirate that doubles all damage you deal. It has “haste” in that you can play it and attack with all your creatures, sort of like Insult // Injury. I was fairly impressed, especially in a deck full of big dinosaurs. It also helps smaller creatures turn the corner against dinosaurs, as your 3/2s can attack into a wall of 6/6s without fear. Just watch out for how damage doubling interacts with trample—you have to assign damage before doubling, which means you lose some of the trample damage that you would get if you actually doubled power or had double strike.

Ixalli Has Too Many Two Drops

Ixalli’s Diviner and Ixalli’s Keeper should have had different names. They are hard to tell apart and will at the least make registering Sealed pools more time consuming. I actually mept a two land hand thinking I had Ixalli’s Diviner, then realized it was Ixalli’s Keeper. This isn’t a big deal but something to watch out for. I do think it was a mistake to give them such similar names. Both of them are quite good, by the way. You want two drops that have value. Ixalli’s Keeper is a solid body and the eight-mana pump is a real way to close a game. Ixalli’s Diviner is a cheap explore creature, and the 0/3 version is a solid blocker against enrage creatures. Just make sure you know which one you’re picking, and which one you have in your hand.

So what do you think of Ixalan Limited so far? Will anything compete with giant dinosaurs in Sealed? Can you stop me from drafting all the Merfolk whenever I can? How much life can a vampires deck gain? Which three tribes will be most common in Team Sealed builds this weekend at Grand Prix Providence and Shizuoka? I can’t wait to find out!

Brendan McNamara (MTGO: eestlinc, Twitter: @brendanistan) used to play Magic in the old days. His favorite combo was Armageddon plus Zuran Orb. After running out of money to buy cards and friends who were willing to put up with that combo, he left the game. But like disco, he was bound to come back eventually. Now he’s a lawyer by day and a Dimir agent by night.

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