In my last column, we dove into some of the major archetypes for Ixalan Limited, including Pirates, Vampires, Merfolk, and of course Dinosaurs. This time around, we are preparing for the new Limited format by exploring a Limited roadmap for this set.
For this article, we'll look at some of the big factors that determine how a format plays out and what assumptions we can make in the early stages about that format.
Limited formats are like massive puzzles. They don't seem like it when you first start playing; there are just endless bits of information and problems to solve. But the more you play and study Limited Magic, the more you start to see the patterns.
Being good at seeing these patterns is incredibly difficult. It's a skill though, like any other, and if you put the effort into it you'll see the rewards.
So let's get into some of the big picture stuff for Ixalan. We'll view it as a first brave step into yet another new world in our favorite game.
We'll start with the hottest commodity besides bomb rares in Limited Magic: removal.
Removal, of course, comprises the spells and effects that kill or at least marginally disrupt the creatures on the other side of the battlefield. Most Limited decks will play somewhere around fifteen creatures, but only three or four removal spells. They are simply harder to get your hands on, so you need to prioritize them.
Removal as a class of cards has changed a lot over the years. Currently, it tends to be slow, clunky removal rather than the cheap, instant-speed tools of yore. So it's through that lens that we judge removal spells.
It's important to note that it's the common removal that's really important for Limited. Sure, you'll get some sweet uncommon removal spells sometimes, but draft in and draft out, you're looking at the commons to set the tone for who gets the good stuff and who has to make due.
Let's look, color by color, at the removal in Ixalan.
This is a solid removal spell, but far from perfect. It's pretty expensive at four mana, and it's sorcery speed. Also, if your opponent has a way to bounce their creature, sacrifice it, or if it has a good activated ability, the effectiveness of Pious Interdiction can be mitigated. But overall, it's unconditional nature and 2-life boost make it pretty decent.
Slash of Talons is conditional and maybe good against some decks, but generally a pretty low-level removal spell.
Legion's Judgment is interesting in that it's relatively cheap at three mana, but won't often have a target that early in the game. It might end up being a sideboard card against Dinosaurs. That it's a sorcery is also kind of annoying because it doesn't work against pump spells during combat.
Blue isn't known for getting great removal, but it has had a few notables in recent sets, primarily Unquenchable Thirst from Hour of Devastation. But one thing blue has gotten a lot of lately is cheap (two- or even one-mana) bounce spells. These have gone up a lot in my estimation, as they are basically the only way to interact with an opposing creature at instant speed for such a low mana cost. That's a valuable thing when it comes to combat tricks, double blocks, Auras, and even saving your own creatures.
Let's see what we get in Ixalan.
We didn't get anything like Unquenchable Thirst, but we did pick up some interesting stuff.
Depths of Desire is an expensive Unsummon, but it gives us a little back by leaving a Treasure token behind. It's unclear to me how important Treasure is in the big picture, but just getting one mana rebate isn't enough to make me excited about Depths of Desire.
Run Aground is a super bounce spell; it puts the creature or artifact on top of its owner's library. That is equal to a card worth of value (remember, your opponent effectively has to skip their next draw step to draw the card you put there). It is expensive at four mana, though, so it's not winning any efficiency awards here. Maybe it's just great at putting Vehicles back in the garage?
Looks like blue is back to its normal, marginal removal for this set.
Black usually gets the best removal at common out of any color. Red is close, and white does okay too, but black gets the good stuff. Let's see if that holds true here.
Contract Killing is like the poster child for a black removal spell of the current era. It's slow at five mana, and it's sorcery speed. It is unconditional in that it has those three lovely words "Destroy target creature" (coming in second on the all-time best three-word phrases in Magic). But it's also got a cool twist on it this time around in that you get two Treasures back for your trouble. Those can help cast other spells this turn, fix your mana, or lead to other mysterious Treasure-centric bonuses that I don't fully understand yet.
Overall? It's not bad. You'll certainly be playing Contract Killing in Limited, though you may not be completely thrilled to do so.
Vanquish the Weak is another conditional removal spell, and it's not fantastic. It's three mana to kill something that realistically costs three mana or less in most circumstances. You want the opposite to be true: you want to pay less than your opponent paid for their creature to kill it. Still, there are plenty of creatures worth killing at this power level, and even some problematic ones.
Warning: Be careful about the possibility of the opponent using a combat trick to make their creature above 3 power! That will "fizzle" Vanquish the Weak, meaning it won't even resolve. You'll often want to play it on your turn—even though it's an instant—while your opponent is tapped out.
Red is the other color that gets the best removal. It usually has a problem killing really big things (like, say, Dinosaurs), but it's often the most efficient at killing the things it wants to kill.
It's official! Red has the best removal in this set.
Firecannon Blast is the frontrunner for best red common and is likely to be one of the best commons in the set, full stop. Yes, it's a sorcery. Yes, it's not splashable due to its mana cost. But being able to do 6 damage for just three mana really saves it.
Apparently, Dinosaurs are flammable.
Unfriendly Fire is another classic example of a modern-day removal spell. It's clunky at five mana, but it's an instant and (this is big) it can hit players! Many games will end with Unfriendly Fire "going upstairs," as we say in the business.
I'm really impressed with this card for aggressive decks. It can get big blockers out of the way or just finish off the opponent.
I threw in Dual Shot because it's red and a removal spell, but the most likely scenario for it is that it becomes a reasonable sideboard card against some decks.
This is usually where things get a bit ugly as far as removal is concerned. Best case scenario for green is a good fight spell. Let's see how it faired.
Hey look. A good fight spell!
Nice. Pounce is a very good and efficient spell, provided you have the big beefy creatures to make it great. Remember, it's not augmenting your creature like some of the recently printed fight spells.
Also, it's actually fighting the other creature, which means the other creature will fight back. Don't get this confused with an Ambuscade-style "punch"; this is good old fighting.
Still, it's instant speed and exists in a set full of Dinosaurs. What could go wrong there?
Red seems to be on top here, with black following. Green gets a good fight card, blue has two clunky bounce spells and not much else, and white's removal is either conditional or a bit slow.
The removal in this set is definitely a step behind what we are used to coming from Amonkhet block, but it's still right in the range we expect.
Next up on our Limited roadmap are the multicolored ("gold") uncommons. I'm not going to go over every one of them (there are strangely eight of them by the way, versus the normal ten), but we'll take a closer look at a couple that stand out.
When I first read this, I totally thought it was a rare. It has all the complexity and power of what I expect from a rare, but it's an uncommon. Pretty exciting stuff. So we have a card that can come onto the battlefield as huge creature based on your artifact count. This will primarily be affected by your Treasure tokens (which are artifacts) and maybe your Vehicles and such.
Then in a pinch you can start just making Treasure by dumping four mana into the thing, which also makes it even bigger. And this can be done at instant speed. I might be in love here.
It's not really clear to me how the red and white deck will look. It's traditionally an aggressive color pair, and it seems to be particularly so here. The three colors that make up Naya (green, white, and red) are the Dinosaur colors in Ixalan, and Sky Terror is a Dinosaur, but we'll see how this archetype actually plays out.
All I know is that this little guy is very hard to block.
I honestly can't think of a more Dinosaur-y card than this. That's all I got, it's a pretty straightforward Magic card, but I just had to throw it on here for all of its beefy goodness.
First thing first: this card is sweet.
The +1/+1 counter activated ability is a bit pricey at four mana, but you can always threaten to activate it rather than actually activate it.
A scenario: You have Shapers of Nature on the battlefield on turn three. Your opponent plays a 3/3 of their own, and passes the turn to you. You play your fourth land, and say "Attacks?". Opponent agrees and you attack for 3. They would love to trade off their 3/3 for your potentially late-game breaking Shapers, but they can't even block because if they do, you get to just tap four lands and kill their creature.
Threat of activation, my friends: it's very real. And this one works with any creature that would either win combat or trade up! Oh, and there's that whole "Draw a bunch of cards in the late game" thing, too.
I will be playing way too many of these in this format, I predict.
The bottom line is that you have to keep an eye on these gold uncommons because they can make or break a deck. The power-level boost from a non-rare card is massive. Especially when they are this good.
One Last Thing
I know that mythic rares aren't normally a great talking point for a Limited article.
I get it. You won't see these very often, and they don't really dictate how the archetypes work at all.
But have you seen this one?
I realize also that this card does not affect the board in any way and costs a whopping seven mana. I also realize that it's incredibly difficult to cast and not splashable.
Did you notice that it says "Draw seven cards" on there? Because that's insane.
I can't decide if I'm excited that I can target my opponent with it or not . . .
Report to follow.
Have fun with Ixalan, and let me know what the best cards were!