I won an Ixalan Limited PPTQ on Sunday. That qualified me for the November RPTQ, in the final week of the qualifier season. As I surveyed the room and talked to my friends before the tournament started, I felt that I was the most prepared player in the room. (It being the end of the season probably helped.) But why was I the most prepared? What knowledge did I harness to get the probabilities working fully in my favor?

Theory

We don’t play enough mana in Limited.

I went out of my way on Sunday to play more lands than the general consensus so I could cast my spells on time. I am beginning to believe that every Limited deck would be improved by replacing the worst spell with an additional land. That only works in the context of people playing too few lands, but that’s been true for essentially all of Magic’s history. Maybe that will change some day, but I doubt it. Spells look more fun than lands.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to play sixteen lands in your Limited deck. I played fifteen in my undefeated Esper control Sealed deck at Grand Prix Toronto, though I probably should have played sixteen. And that’s the point I want to make: when you can’t decide between sixteen or seventeen lands, play seventeen. Don’t trim down to fifteen lands unless you’re sure. If you’re Andrew Cuneo, play nineteen lands. When in doubt, add a land.

Think more broadly about the goal of all competitive Magic formats. You want to play a deck with a higher effective power level than your opponent. How? You can play better cards, get value out of lands, make your deck consistent, harness synergy intelligently, and control the length of the game in your favor. Playing your best cards is step one, but at some point you don’t really know which spell is your 23rd-best or whatever. As I’ve written before, it’s best to push those decision until after sideboard, when you know what you need in the matchup. You can cut a land if you’ll be on the draw.

This is especially true in Ixalan Limited, where the power level of cards is low and flat. I hear people say, “cut lands because you don’t have anything to do with them after you’ve drawn five or six.” Are you giving up on trying to make use of extra lands you draw late? What if you could turn every land in your Boros dinos deck into Shock? Wouldn’t you be less worried about flooding out?

Cutting lands lowers consistency. You need to hit your land drops in fast formats so that you can fully interact on the early turns. But to do that you need to play more lands. Cards like Commune with Dinosaurs or Attune with Aether can help, but in fast formats you’d rather just draw lands. Zendikar was the most consistently aggresive format because Landfall encouraging attacking and pushed you to play extra lands to pump Steppe Lynx and Plated Geopede. Brilliant design, though perhaps too successful.

But what do you do when you flood out and don’t get Landfall triggers? Mana sinks, looting or rummaging, discard outlets, graveyard recursion, and variable-mana spells are what you want. People look at a new set and say “there aren’t many mana sinks” but they don’t look hard enough. It is better strategy in aggressive Limited formats to find playable ways to harness extra lands, than it is to simply play cheap spells and cut lands.

Tournament—Sealed

I was fortunate to open two of the best rares in the set: Burning Sun’s Avatar and Vance’s Blasting Cannons. I had no burn spells, so it wasn’t easy to build the deck. Blue offered some good pirate interactions, and I like playing blue in Ixalan Limited because the bounce spells are excellent, but I decided that my green cards were better.

Mo Sealed Mo Dinos

Creatures (16)
Drover of the Mighty
Wily Goblin
Ixalli’s Diviner
Tilonalli’s Knight
Fathom Fleet Firebrand
Tishana’s Wayfinder
Rummaging Goblin
Thrash of Raptors
Raging Swordtooth
Storm Fleet Arsonist
Spike-Tailed Ceratops
Burning Sun’s Avatar
Colossal Dreadmaw

Spells (7)
Elaborate Firecannon
Vance’s Blasting Cannons
Fell Flagship
Savage Stomp
Pounce
Crash the Ramparts
Lands (17)
Mountain
Forest

Sideboard (19)
Cobbled Wings
Dual Shot
Rile
Makeshift Munitions
Fire Shrine Keeper
Blossom Dryad
Trove of Temptation
Ixalan’s Binding
Spell Pierce
Run Aground
Depths of Desire
Pirate’s Prize
Spell Swindle
Goring Ceratops
Territorial Hammerskull
Legion’s Judgment
Contract Killing

Drover of the Mighty and Raging Swordtooth are premium uncommons, and my only real removal is green. The curve looks nice too.

As you may have guessed, I really like Elaborate Firecannon. It’s one of the best ways to use extra lands. In this deck it also helped shore up the lack of red removal, as it really mows down all the 2/2s and such that pervade the format. If you really need to, you can activate it twice in your upkeep to deal four damage—the untap trigger happens even if it is untapped to start your turn. Plus you can go to the face to close out a game. I also played Rummaging Goblin to help mitigate mana flood, but it was awkward with Raging Swordtooth and I sided it out most games.

I went 4-1-1, drawing in the last round with a friend. My round five match was intense and wonderful—one of those memorable games full of consequential decisions, and I happened to pick the right line more often. Let me tell you, Dire Fleet Ravager and Captivating Crew are hard cards to race against. But somehow I did, with Fell Flagship providing the crucial last point of damage from my Storm Fleet Arsonist to win game three. My opponent and I had one of those great Magic moments—the dazed afterglow where you say good game five times and aren’t even sure who won because it was such a good match.

Tournament—Draft

Somehow I drafted red-green dinos. I swear I’m not trying to do that, but you gotta go where the path leads.

The Dinos Are Open

Creatures (16)
Deeproot Warrior
Tilonalli’s Knight
Raptor Hatchling
Ixalli’s Keeper
Frenzied Raptor
Ravenous Daggertooth
Blossom Dryad
Grazing Whiptail
Bonded Horncrest
Regisaur Alpha
Spike-Tailed Ceratops
Colossal Dreadmaw
Thundering Spineback
Gishath, Sun’s Avatar

Spells (8)
Pillar of Origins
Commune with Dinosaurs
Pounce
Sure Strike
Crash the Ramparts
Lands (16)
Forest
Mountain
Plains

Sideboard (18)
Fire Shrine Keeper
Brazen Buccaneers
Kumena’s Speaker
Vineshaper Mystic
Rummaging Goblin
Verdant Rebirth
Slice in Twain
Demolish
Hierophant’s Chalice
Field of Ruin
Ancient Brontodon
Belligerent Brontodon
Kinjalli’s Caller
Slash of Talons
Bright Reprisal
Sunrise Seeker
Duress
Queen’s Bay Soldier

I started this draft taking Deeproot Warrior over Pounce. Oddly enough, the two-drop merfolk goes in every green deck, while Pounce only really shines in with dinos. Deeproot Warrior, along with Adanto Vanguard and Tilonalli’s Knight, are the Gust Walkers of Ixalan. Of course, I then followed it up taking Pounce and Ixalli’s Keeper. Then I got passed Gishath, Sun’s Avatar in a weak pack and said “hashtag yolo” to myself.

Pack two had Regisaur Alpha staring back at me, and you can guess how things progressed from there. The overall deck looks awkward but powerful. Pillar of Origins and Blossom Dryad are bad ramp cards, but that’s what I had to do. I passed three copies of New Horizons early in packs and none came back. Each time I took a strong creature instead. Pillar was fine, though it’s annoying to sequence your opening hand when you also have Tilonalli’s Knight in hand.

Loading up on dinos paid off with three copies of Commune with Dinosaurs. That card is great, and even better in multiples. Commune really highlights another of the ways you improve your deck’s effective power level: make it more consistent. With eleven dinos and sixteen lands, Commune is basically Ancient Stirrings. I really could—and did—take lands early, stack big dinos on the bottom, and pick them up later in the game to win. And I cut through merfolk, pirates, and dinos to win my ticket to the next RPTQ.

Parting Thoughts

I know a lot of people are down on Ixalan Limited. Zach Barash wrote a great analysis yesterday. I do not yet have a strong opinion on Ixalan draft, but I have played a lot of Ixalan Sealed and love it. The power level is finally where it should be—after so much power creep—and the format has room to breathe. Aggression is good, but blocking is not inherently bad the way it was against Exert or undercosted vehicles. I think aggro is doing the best right now because people don’t know how to plan for longer games.

If you want to block, I recommend 1/4 creatures. Ixalli’s Diviner is a lot better than it looks, and even the 0/3 version is good at blocking, especially Raptor Hatchling and Ranging Raptors. I see people skip it because it’s human or doesn’t attack well. Big mistake. Sailor of Means is card people recognize as a good blocker, but Ixalli’s Diviner is in the same league. Sure there are times when you hit a land off the explore and can’t totally nullify their Adanto Vanguard, but at least you’ll dig deeper to more great blockers like Atzocan Archer and Grazing Whiptail.

Relatedly, a 4/4 body is big on Ixalan. Mediocre-looking five drops like Spike-Tailed Ceratops and Storm Fleet Arsonist are actually above-average cards. You can’t load up on fives, but any creature that can attack through 1/4s is better than it looks.

Speaking of Explore, I like it. The mechanic is unpredictable, which makes it hard to plan ahead, but you shouldn’t be so rigid anyway. Reevaluate where you stand and what strategies will lead you to victory each turn. Yes the counter matters a lot because creatures are so small, but hitting land drops and drawing extra cards is still great. You just have to be comfortable adjusting based on how your explores turn out. And be happy to draw more lands! Put them to use!

What are the other good mana sinks? Deadeye Plunderers, Marauding Looter, Grim Captain’s Call, March of the Drowned, most equipment, Fathom Fleet Firebrand, Storm Sculptor, Deathless Ancient, Ixalli’s Keeper, and even Jungle Delver. Note that these commons and uncommons, along with ones I played in my decks like Thundering Spinebeck, include all four tribes. Throw in the obvious bomb rares like Waker of the Wilds and Repeating Barrage, the flip lands, etc, and there are plenty of “mana sinks” if you know where to look. I recommend you take a Thaumatic Compass on your search.

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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