How do you draft Ixalan? With Grand Prix Phoenix coming up this weekend, and Pro Tour Ixalan a week later, we’re about to get a lot more information about what the best players think and do at competitive draft tables. But for those of us battling this weekend in Phoenix or at local PPTQs, we can’t wait for those events to tell us the answers. Here’s my take.

Ixalan is a strange draft format because there are four creature tribes distributed across eight of the ten color pairs and two pairs left in the dust. Normally in an eight-person draft pod, all eight competitors can find a color pair or archetype that nobody else is drafting. Every format has one or two color pairs that underperform and people try to avoid in draft, and in most sets that leaves eight or nine pairs for the draft pod to divvy up. Sometimes you get an unbalanced color, like green in Battle for Zendikar or black in Avacyn Restored, and that can knock out four of the ten two-color pairs. Those are bad draft formats.

I don’t think Ixalan is in their class, but the lack of explicit support for blue-white and green-black in Ixalan draft makes it difficult for players to avoid fighting each other during drafts. Those two archetypes being basically undraftable really constrains options when finding an open color pair. If all eight remaining pairs were good, it might work. But two more color pairs—green-white and blue-red—tend to underperform as well. This means we’re dangerously close to the six-archetypes-but-eight-drafters dilemma.

So what do you do if you want to read signals and find open archetypes in your Ixalan drafts? You need to know which archetypes are best and which ones are acceptable to fall back on as the draft progresses. As a practical matter, that mostly means drafting one of the best colors early, and then pairing it with a second color that is open and keeps you within the better archetypes.

Draft Archetype Tiers

Tier One—WB, WR, UG

These are the best decks to draft if you can. White-black vampires and blue-green merfolk are the two tribes that only fall in a single color pair, so it makes sense that they are the best and most focused when they are open. It’s hard to fight over merfolk, but vampires can support a couple drafters if enough copies of cards like Anointed Deacon get opened. These are both high risk, high reward archetypes to draft. If they’re open, great; but everyone knows these are good so you rarely get them unimpeded.

White-red is somewhat a dinosaur deck, but really it’s an aggressive or midrange beatdown deck with efficient creatures, tricks, and removal. You want some Raptor Companions and Frenzied Raptors to turn on Tilonalli’s Knight and Thrash of Raptors. Playing white vampires and red pirates is fine, so long as your curve is cheap and you have plenty of tricks and interaction. Vampire’s Zeal is great no matter your target.

Tier Two—UB, BR, RG

Blue-black pirates might be tier one, but Ixalan draft rewards aggression. Pirate’s Cutlass can help blue-black hit hard, but Sailor of Means is looking to play a longer game. Hostage Taker is your premium rare, but the archetype offers plenty of interaction to disrupt your opponent’s plan. This deck has tons of treasure, so it can splash all sorts of expensive spells. Even something like Regisaur Alpha can fit in, so this deck opens a lot of powerful options later in the draft.

Black-red pirates is a fine beatdown deck with good creatures and removal. The gold uncommon, Dire Fleet Captain, is good but not amazing. You have plenty of two drops to choose from, and Pirate’s Cutlass is great as you’d expect. You don’t want a ton of red dinos, but you’ll still play Tilonalli’s Knight and slam Charging Monstrosaur or Burning Sun’s Avatar if given the chance. It’s good to keep your pirate count high, however, so you can take advantage of March of the Drowned.

Red-green dinos is solid midrange as well. You can lean more on mana ramp off Otepec Huntmaster and Drover of the Mighty, but you want to curve out and beat down. Splashing can work, like the Gishath, Sun’s Avatar in my PPTQ-winning draft, but you don’t want to clutter your deck with too much nonsense. This deck tends to be bigger than the rest of the field, with plenty of trample to help force through damage. I love Crash the Ramparts here, as your big threats push your opponent to tap out to keep up on board and thus give you openings to cast expensive combat tricks.

Tier Three—WG & UR

White-green dinosaurs and blue-red pirates are both supported archetypes, but they underwhelm. The dino deck doesn’t compete well. Your big “bonus” is turning high-toughness creatures into an offensive force with Belligerent Brontodon, but that isn’t very good. You’re relying on a seven drop, and plenty of green and white dinosaurs have more power than toughness. You can trade off Raptor Companion before turning it into a 1/1 with Brontodon, but those two cards look silly in the same deck. Bellowing Aegisaur gives you a second way to turn Kinjalli’s Caller and Ixalli’s Diviner into a real threats, but you still feel like you’re playing the second-best deck in your match. Too much work for mediocrity.

Blue-red pirates has more pontential to be good, but can also be a total trainwreck. This color pair tends to be the weakest in Limited by default, and the pirate synergies don’t always do enough to overcome that. But you get Marauding Looter, one of the best gold uncommons, and its looting ability helps smooth the variance. You also have good access to treasure so you can augment your deck with off-color spells, so this deck feels more “salvageable” than green-white. Draft at your own risk, but you can often make it work.

Tier Four—WU & BG

White-blue and black-green are the unsupported archetypes. You can draft either of them, but you won’t get much help. There are very few cards that one of these decks wants but that others do not. White-blue can probably get Favorable Winds, but you still need a bunch of good white and blue creatures with flying to come your way to make that deck work. Green-black can try to lean on Lurking Chupacabra and Wildgrowth Walker to go deep on explore, but it’s really hard to do that because explore creatures are generally strong regardless of archetype.

Both explore creatures and flying creatures get taken by the other drafters, leaving you fighting with the rest of the table. It’s a recipe for disaster—the “synergy” cards you want are early picks instead of middle or late picks. You should avoid these two color pairs, and you should try to avoid setting yourself up to have either of these colors as a fallback plan during the draft.

Navigating the Draft

Stay in the first two tiers if you can. Sometimes I’m happy with a blue-red deck, but the top six color pairs provide bigger rewards. Keep your options within the top two tiers. That means you want to be in colors that have the most appearances within these six archetypes. Those colors are black and red, which each have three archetypes within the top two tiers and only one in the bottom. Red stands out as the best, because it’s “bad” archetype—blue-red pirates—is much better than black-green.

Blue gets a bump if you’re willing to venture into multicolor pirate builds and dip your toe in blue-red from time to time. Plenty of cheap interaction makes blue a good support color, as you have Depths of Desire and friends to deal with auras or pump spells, and Dive Down to foil your opponents’ removal. Blue merfolk and pirates tend not to play well together, making it hard to rely on blue as your primary color.

White and green are the riskiest colors, because half the archeyptes in each color fall in the bottom two tiers. When you start your draft in white, you really want to pair it with black or red; but if you end up seeing mostly blue and green cards as the draft progresses, you are going to get punished.

I prefer starting in green over white if I must, mostly because the general consensus seems to be the opposite. White provides two top-tier archetypes, so the upside is higher. But that means you’re less likely to get that upside because others will fight you for it. I’ve found green to be easier to draft—maybe you get lucky and merfolk is open, and if not you can usually slide into green-red. Green also has the most explore creatures, which are good in all decks and help you cast your best spells more regularly.

I hope this helps you navigate Ixalan drafts. If you’re in Phoenix this weekend, say hello!

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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