Ixalan draft has gotten a mixed reception. Coming right after Hour of Devastation—an all-time great draft format—certainly doesn’t help. But it’s safe to say that Ixalan won’t be joining the pantheon of great Limited environments. I’ve heard a few comparisons to core set draft, though Ixalan has tons of great flavor and more intricate mechanics than you’d find in a core set. Perhaps there’s something else going on.

I don’t love Ixalan draft, but I do enjoy it more than most. The thing about Ixalan that reminds people of core sets is also what I like about it: the cards are weaker than recent sets. Kaladesh and Amonkhet were full of aggressively-costed creatures that attacker for a lot of damage. Wind Drake was close to unplayable in Kaladesh draft, so efficient and difficult-to-block were the cheap ground creatures. There was no point in paying extra mana for “full” evasion. I wrote an article about it, and in general recent limited formats have heavily favored attacking with cheap creatures.

Those powerful Limited formats were tough for competitive players. It’s easy to figure out how to navigate games of Limited when the best strategy is to play your most efficient creatures and constantly attack with them. Games felt swingy, and a lot of cards were difficult to answer. You don’t need years of competitive experience to win with Renegade Freighter. I enjoyed playing those games, but it was hard to win consistently. Hour of Devastation slowed things down a bit and was a lot of fun, but it was still a swingy format.

Ixalan cards are just a lot weaker. The games are more relaxed—there just aren’t that many cards you’re ever afraid of. Sure, there’s Charging Monstrosaur, and annoying rares like Hostage Taker and Waker of the Wilds. And yes, you can get run over by one drops and Swashbuckling or other nonsense. But we’re talking about a five drop, two three-toughness rares, and mediocre creatures with auras. If that’s the fiercest the format has to offer, we can prepare ourselves.

Ixalan Limited boils down to a lot of 2/2s and 2/3s and like-sized creatures battling it out, with combat tricks providing small edges that are key to victory. Removal isn’t great, but it does exist. Blue laughs at creatures with auras thanks to it’s plentiful bounce spells and Watertrap Weaver. Legion Conquistador actually does decent work when you have three or four copies. Five-mana 4/4s are good bodies—Storm Fleet Arsonist is actually quite strong. Legion’s Judgment sometimes has no targets, and Vanquish the Weak kills over half the format.

Many rares are 2/3s or 3/3s. Rampaging Ferocidon is a great example of the reasonable power of the rares in Ixalan. A 3/3 menace is great, and the life-gain and pinging abilities are a nice bonus, but Rampaging Ferocidon isn’t signficantly better than Cursed Minotaur. You can deal with it, and you don’t have to have an immediate answer. Waker of the Wilds is scarier, but it dies just as easily, and if you’re lucky your opponent will spend their mana elsewhere and give you a few turns before giant lands run you over.

the absurd mythics mostly cost too much to be dominant. Wakening Sun’s Avatar looks amazing, but you have to do some real work to rely on an eight-mana dinosaur. Tishana and Gishath are similarly expensive. The cheaper mythics, like Rowdy Crew, are good but not game-breaking. Vraska, Relic Seeker is nigh unbeatable, but a six-mana planeswalker in two colors that don’t work well together in the format is a reasonable “best” card. Huatli and Jace are good, but not oppressive. Overall, it’s a format where you can play your cards and outmaneuver your opponents.

Much of the complexity of the set lies in the drafting. In a low power-level set, you want to prioritize powerful, flexible cards with your early picks. But many of the best cards slot better into a specific tribe. The gold cards provide the most raw power, but each one pushes your draft in a specific direction. You are much better off picking up Marauding Looters that nobody else wants because you chose the open archetype, but Shapers of Nature are a tempting first pick even if you end up in a fight for merfolk.

Some draft seats fall perfectly into place, where the open tribe or color pair is obvious and flowing. That doesn’t happen too often, though. Reading signals can be quite tricky, as you have to look for both colors and the tribes that are coming your way. Raptor Companion and Bishop’s Soldier are both solid white two drops that you can play in any deck, so they transcend archetypes and get taken early. But most of the weaker cards fit in only half the decks of their respective color. Spike-Tailed Ceratops mostly only sees play in dinosaur decks, so seeing one passed to you late in pack one tells you nothing about drafting merfolk. And the Raptor Hatchling you see fifth pick doesn’t mean your neighbor is avoiding red—maybe they took Lightning-Rig Crew or Pirate’s Cutlass instead and only want red pirates. They won’t pass many Unfriendly Fires your way.

So what does this all mean? Get used to maneuvering with weaker cards. Take the good cards as soon as you can, then read signals so you know which marginal cards will work best with the rest of your deck. If you see a strong deck coming your way, go for it. If you start the draft with Savage Stomp into Merfolk Branchwalker, and a couple picks later you see River Heralds’ Boon, take the invitation and draft a sweet merfolk deck. But if you see two straight Tilonalli’s Knights come your way, swing over toward the dinos. Later in the draft you can take the cards that round out your deck. Early on make sure you have power that lines up well for what you expect to get passed.

The best Sealed decks aren’t jam-packed with rares. The draft decks rely on rares even less. But it’s not like the commons are oppressive or repetitive either. Enjoy a comfortably weak format with a lot of play and tricky choices in deck building, drafting, and playing. And watch the best players excel more consistently.

Carrie O’Hara is Editor-in-Chief of Hipsters of the Coast.

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