Monday 8 January 2018

Rivals of Ixalan: Conclusions and Additions

Despite seeming like a very silly theme for a set when Ixalan first started to be spoiled in the summer I have to say I think the block has been a big flavour win. I like the feel of the sets, I love the things that flip into lands. The art on those new uncommon dual lands is divine, if only they were good! That sentiment sadly permeates throughout the set, particularly RIX - if only it was good... Rivals has to be the least powerful set relative to the cube I have seen in over a decade. It is not just that it is low average power but it is also an incredibly safe set. All the good things are not dangerous or powerful cards, they are just suitable cards. There are a mere six things I am willing to call outright good enough for the cube but most of them are borderline and none of them are bombs. I think the highest rating any card got in the set was a 7/10 and one of those was to a jumped up Savannah Lions! All six of the additions are creatures and they mostly have two power. None of them will really change much in the cube. Some things will have more options, depth and power but so marginally it isn't going to shift things at all.

All the interesting cards in this set are so narrow there is just no chance of them working out well in a drafting cube unless you ruin if by putting in as much support as you can find for these cards. Stuff like Induced Amnesia and Blood Sun can do awesome things but are not cards you can just put into a cube and have them do stuff. They likely both need other do nothing low powered cards to make things happen.

Ixalan block has brought a lot of things for tribal decks, mostly vampires and merfolk as pirates and dinosaurs were not a thing prior to the block. While there are a lot of good cards for the vampires and merfolk they are not doing all that much for the drafting cube either. Tribal themes are hard to include in any sort of draft format without making it narrow, dull or imbalanced and cube is no exception. Tribal decks are great fun and many are pretty powerful but they should sensibly remain the thing of the more constructed formats. Two mana lords for example are great, they are some of the best tribal cards on offer but they are not having any impact on the drafting cube. While I am very welcoming of all the new tribal offerings from this set it is a little bit of a shame that so many good white vampires and green merfolk saw print. In both cases it now feels like you really need to be Mardu and Simic respectively for those tribes now and in some senses that is a restriction. Green is certainly the least appealing colour for a tempo blue deck to pair with as both colours fail at killing creatures. White may be a happy third colour for vampires but three colours does put a lot of strain on a mana base for a tempo deck.

Of the six added cards I would not be at all shocked to see only a few remaining in the drafting cube in a couple of years. They are typically just not that much of an upgrade and are such common sorts of cards I can see many better things coming along and taking their slots. I have two and a half times as many cards to test out than the auto includes. I don't really hold out much hope for any of them bar Jadelight Ranger and Dusk Legion Zealot. All the cards are very much suffering the same troubles as the actual inclusions, they are mostly just dorks that don't change much. Some might be a little bit of fun to try out but as I mentioned several times in the reviews, many cards feel like they are 5 to 10 years overdue. So many things from this set would have done loads of work in older versions of the cube but power creep is to a point where few of these things really hit the bar. Basically as far as cube is concerned this set might as well not exist and things would be pretty much the same. As a cube player I don't expect much from any given set but it would be really nice to get some interesting and exciting cards rather than safe, tried and tested versions of the same thing. The fact that they have printed bad Rampant Growth for a while now is a pretty scary omen. I think they have balance and card design sufficiently well mapped out and understood now that they need to intentionally start pushing the boat out so as to make things generally more interesting. Some braver card design is needed.

I used to think as a cube player there wasn't much call for Wizards to cater for my needs, I wasn't contributing in the way a drafter or constructed player would economically. I have however given some thought to that attitude and can probably in fact make a pretty good case for why it would be well in Wizards interests to consider cube players as well as vintage, modern, EDH, standard, draft, and the rest. Sure, the job is already impossibly hard to perfect but you only need a couple of cards per set to keep us happy and take our money. Hell, you could put it all in the Commander sets and not have to worry about imbalance. I spend more on magic now just as a cube player than I did when I played the game full time both constructed and limited. A lot of that is down to my personal economic positions at those times but still, the point remains, there is money I want to spend on magic as a pure cube player and this set is only going to get at a fraction of that due to how dull and weak it is for cube. Take my money! Make more cube cards! Creep that power more adventurously! At least make more good removal, it is not like that can ever be too oppressive!

To add to the drafting cube

Thrashing Brontodon
Ravenous Chupacabra
Skymarcher Aspirant
Warkite Marauder
Direfleet Poisoner
Direfleet Daredevil

To test out

Paladin of Attonement
Jadelight Ranger
Tilonalli's Summoner
Baffling End
Dusk Legion Zealot
Rekindling Phoenix
Fanatical Firebrand
Azor's Gateway // Sanctum of the Sun
Mastermind's Acquisition
Twilight Prophet
Wayward Swordtooth
Curious Obsession
Oathsworn Vampire
Riverwise Augur
Martyr of Dusk

To get for constructed uses, sideboards, combo and tribal decks etc.
*indicates an actually good card with some homes already

The Immortal Sun
Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca
Tendershoot Dryad
Gleaming Barrier
Journey to Eternity // Atzal, Cave of Eternity
Elenda, the Dusk Rose
Radiant Destiny*
Seafloor Oracle*
Merfolk Mistbinder*
Daring Buccaneer
Admiral's Order
Legion Lieutenant*
Induced Amnesia
World Shaper*
Pirate's Pillage
Dead Man's Chest
Profane Procession // Tomb of the Dusk Rose
Silent Gravestone
Forerunner of the Coalition
Forerunner of the Legion
Forerunner of the Empire
Forerunner of the Heralds
Deeproot Elite*
Flood of Recollection
Golden Demise
Crafty Cutpurse
Slaughter the Stong
Release to the Wind
Blood Sun
Pitiless Plunderer
Hadana's Climb*
Expel from Orazca
Reckless Rage
Jungleborn Pioneer*
Jade Bearer
Shake the Foundations
Grasping Scoundrel
Mist-Cloaked Herald


  1. Compliments of the season, Nick! Thanks for the exhaustive set review, it really made for some enjoyable reading over the holidays. Looking forward to more 2018 :)

    You're absolutely right, RIX must be the most barren cube set since... Journey into Nyx? It's especially painful in the wake of Amonkhet block which had so many exciting inclusions. I too have come to the conclusion that cube players must the least valuable demographic to Wizards. Which is bizarre because it appears to be the format that a number of key people in R&D are most passionate about (Gavin Verhey stopped by to draft my cube when he visited Johannesburg! And promptly destroyed me with an Esper Stoneblade Thing!).

    You mention your disdain for the 'safe' Rampant Growth. I also cringed really hard, but I'm actually ok with Wizards' cowardly stance on green ramp and mana dorks. That area of the cube has enough tools I find. On the other hand, empowering green's aggressive potential is a higher priority for me. The colour offers very little to RG and GW aggro in the 1, 2 and 3 slot. So, more Kessig Prowlers, Scavenging Oozes etc please. I also wish red was a bit more functionally diverse. I'd love to see it be capable of more late-game decks, ideally based on artifact synergies. Daretti and Welder are nice and all, but let's have some more!

    1. Yea, we have enough ramp cards but there are plenty of lacking areas. I would also just like new blood so as to keep it interesting. I would love to see some data on all this. Like the % breakdown of player base and what formats they play plus how much they spend on primary and secondary markets. I wonder how many cubes there are per cube player and total and so forth. I feel like Wizards think that cube is just a bye product of "normal" magic and not entirely something to cater for in its own right. It is not like they have cube events and such. From where I am sitting it looks like it is significantly below EDH on Wizard's radar and fiscally that may be correct. It may just be too hard to conceive of ways to directly extract our money in the primary market and so they don't bother. I bought Commander 2014 and 2015 and I bought the dragons box from 2017. I bought FTV20 as well, that is basically the only primary market purchases I have made in over a decade. I think the Commander sets are the way to go for Wizards. They should print way more cheaper cards that will do work in the cube in those sets as well as the big swingers that appeal to the EDH players. There is plenty of room in the sets to do that and it would encourage people like me to buy the product. It would probably make them much more important purchases for legacy and vintage players too. If I thought it would have any impact at all I would do a massive article on what kinds of cards I think would improve the cube experience.

    2. Very true. Actually, now that I think of it, WoTC probably had cube players in mind with the Conspiracy 'draft matters' cards (despite all the awkward multiplayer baggage). That's really the only home for them. I know people run Lore Seekers, Clockwork Librarians and Deal Brokers, but for me these were a complete miss. Same with Arcane Savant and Volatile Chimera from CN2. It just felt unnatural to mess with the draft phase when we tried it. And don't get me started on the actual conspiracy cards, those free mulligan and always play ones we're horrendously overpowered. Call me a puritan, but I want to play 'real' magic even when I cube. Screwing around with the basic rules set of the game is very unappealing to me.

      FTV20 was also a product that helped me kickstart my cube. I still feel these are aimed at cube enthusiasts to some extent. Like FTV Annihilation which everyone hated but made me rather glad to obtain crisp modern frame versions of Burning and Rolling Earthquake.

      You're right though, Commander sets are a great place to put cards for cube. And again, I believe they have, with things like Confluences. Those weren't for Legacy and probably not for Commander either. I'm curious what you would ask Wizards to print to help our format. I know there's clamoring for green 4's and black 5's. A decent variation of fetches would likely be great too.

    3. Seconded! I too would love to know what sorts of cards you think would help cube. You never know who will end up reading it.

  2. Some thoughts on the new cards, in descending order of anticipation:

    1. Dire Fleet Daredevil
    Snapcaster this is not, but he has my vote as the most notable card of the set. Just so much more varied than the one dimensional beaters like Gorehouse Chainwalker et al. First Strike is also significantly more valuable in red, because it pairs so well with all the efficient burn, often feeling like pseudo-evasion. Aether Chaser has performed really well, even as a defensive tool in grixis Tinker decks. So I see the Daredevil being outstanding in midrange, and quite serviceable in RDW. The card has an almost unprecedented late game ceiling for a 2-drop: Flashing back your opponents Mystic or Fiery confluence sounds insane. I also strongly appreciate that it can cast X-spells. My likely cut is Chandra's Phoenix, since it's probably more of a 3 drop generally.

    2. Ravenous Chupacabra
    I was somewhat bemused by all the "This is great! But I will NEVER CUT NEKRATAAL!" That card has aged quite poorly and has already been wholly outclassed by Gonti, Lord of Luxury so I don't know what all the fuss was about. I'm also amused by the fact that Wizards saw the need to print this prominent card as a Chupacabra of all things. It could've easily been a Vampire or Demon but now we're stuck with this silly sounding thing. I'll probably cut Bone Shredder for it.

    3. Thrashing Brontodon
    As I said, cheap green creatures that have any semblance of aggressive potential are always welcome. You raise a really good point about these cards as insurance policies. By that line of reasoning I'll be cutting Acidic Slime. A respectable follow-up to a T1 mana elf for decks that are trying to be assertive.

    4. Warkite Marauder
    This is an excellent 2 for UR, UW and UB tempo. It upgrades your Disfigures and Firebolts into Murders quite handily, while being a bit of an Ahn-Crop crasher too. Your Savannah Lions will be able to attack into boards that they otherwise could not with the help of the Marauder. But again, the card is supremely silly from a flavour standpoint. Why couldn't they have shown this as a pirate battlemage that is casting polymorphs? My cut is likely to be Wharf Infiltrator.

    5. Elenda, the Dusk Rose
    This is an exciting build around card for Aristocrats style decks. In many ways it is like Blood Artist plus. What makes her tick is certainly efficient token producers and sac outlets: Yahenni, Carrion Feeder, Attrition, Death Cloud, Cataclysmic Gearhulk etc. Large lifelinkers can be very hard to race, especially if they turn into more of them. Probably won't break into the tighter Orzhov sections, but it is a great support card for a very enjoyable archetype. I'll be adding this to my B cube, replacing Start // Finish.

    6. Journey to Eternity
    Another card I'll personally enjoy playing with a lot. Again, you need sac outlets to really break this card. And when you do, you'll likely grind people to a pulp. I can see this being outstanding in an abzan Graveyard focused list with enablers like Victimize, Sakura Tribe Elder, Yavimaya Elder. Not good enough for most golgari sections but I'll be having a lot of fun with this in my Humble Cube.

    1. I should just outsource this shit to you.

    2. That, sir, would be a terrible idea! Hah! I'll let you know how these pan out in actual games.