Rivals of Ixalan has finally been completely revealed, so that means it's time to start building decks for the new Standard format. Ramunap Red and Temur Energy are the default best decks in the format until proven otherwise, but the four decks I will discuss today are the ones I think have the best chance at competing against them. Each deck gains some powerful new weapons from the new set. As we all know, there are four tribes in Ixalan, so today I'm going to share with you my take on Merfolk, Vampires, Dinosaurs, and Artificers.
What, arrrrrrrrrrrre you expecting a different fourth tribe?
This is a deck I built with Chris Fennell leading up to the last Pro Tour. We went 9-1 with it across two leagues and I wrote about it here. The deck was not quite there, so neither of us played it at the Pro Tour. It felt like it was missing a payoff card to really tie the deck together, so we ran Glorybringer as our payoff card even though it didn't really synergize in any meaningful way with the rest of what the deck was doing. It was just the best available card for that slot. Rivals of Ixalan provides us with that payoff card in the form of Storm the Vault.
The basic premise of this deck is to play Inventor's Goggles on the first turn and then ramp out with Artificers that get equipped with the goggles. This makes it difficult for opponents to block or attack profitably, and we also make Thopters and Servos along the way. Maverick Thopterist often comes down on the third turn to start pushing us further ahead, then Freejam Regent is our big finish. With Storm the Vault, we get an additional way to make Freejam Regent better while also making our Walking Ballistas into big finishers.
The Tolarian Academy side of Storm the Vault allows us to kill with Freejam Regent in a single swing and also makes our Walking Ballista twice as big and able to grow by about three counters per turn for the rest of the game (which probably won't be very many turns). It also makes Pia Nalaar into a win condition by proving us with twice as much mana to pump into her activated ability.
I'm excited to try out Storm the Vault and see if it's enough to put the deck over the top and into the realm of the top tier of competitive decks in the format.
The next deck didn't just get one key card but rather several cards that together may be enough to make it viable.
One of the first decks I worked on for the last Pro Tour was Naya Dinosaurs. Commune with Dinosaurs was great and the mana in the deck felt good enough. The problem was that there weren't enough playable Dinosaurs, so you had to play the Humans that set up for the Dinosaurs. At that point it felt like Temur Energy with worse creatures. With Rivals of Ixalan, however, we get some upgrades and a synergistic aura to help push the deck into the realm of playability.
Dinosaurs finally have two-drops! That's the best news for the tribe since that was the most glaring spot on the curve. The two that they got both seem very good. Relentless Raptor will sometimes be forced to attack or block at times we don't want it to, but a 3/3 vigilance for two mana is quite the rate in this style of deck. And it is likely that our removal spells can clear the way for it early on. The other two-drop is Siegehorn Ceratops. This one starts out slightly smaller and doesn't come with the drawback, but it also has a built-in way to pump itself that works exceptionally well with Savage Stomp. If we lead with turn-two Ceratops and our Temur Energy opponent leads with Longtusk Cub or Servant of the Conduit, we can Savage Stomp the Cub/Servant and immediately attack for five with our 5/5 dinosaur! It doesn't get much better than that, right?
Well, actually it can. Since Savage Stomp only costs one mana when playing it on our dinosaur, we still have two extra mana to work with. And you know what costs two mana? Tilonalli's Crown. So after we fight down the cub/servant, our ceratops is a 5/5 with 2 damage on it. This means we could put a crown on it with our remaining two mana, making it an 8/5 trampler. But wait, there's more! When the crown resolves, it deals a damage to our ceratops, which triggers its ability again. This makes it a 10/7 trampler with three damage on it. So we're killing our opponent's turn two play and attacking for 10 with our turn two play on the third turn. I don't know about you, but sign me up!
Another cool Dinosaur we get from Rivals of Ixalan is Trapjaw Tyrant. It's a great way to Wreak Havoc on an opposing board. If we Savage Stomp it to fight our opponent's creature, we get to exile another creature as well. This basically means we get to take out their two best creatures for a single card (Save Stomp) for just a single mana. We also get a few other cards that I'm not sure what to do with yet but they seem sweet: Ghalta, Primal Hunger, Cherished Hatchling, Thrashing Brontodon, and Reckless Rage. For now they are in the sideboard, but I could easily see some of them making their way into the main deck.
I expect people to build Dinosaurs in several different ways. I wanted to highlight the most aggressive version and I'll let everyone else figure out how to make the best midrange versions.
Another tribe that was sorely lacking in the creature department was Merfolk. They really only had a handful of playable creatures and not nearly enough to make a full deck, given the nature of Merfolk being such that you want to play a high density of Merfolk creatures and only few spells since the Merfolk get better the more you have. Fortunately, Rivals of Ixalan delivered and gave us several powerful new Merfolk, including a few big payoff creatures and a nice tribal spell.
Kumena's Speaker and Merfolk Branchwalker are great early plays, but we needed more. Rivals of Ixalan now gives us Mist-Cloaked Herald and Silvergill Adept to go alongside them as powerful early plays. We also get a powerful two-drop Merfolk lord in the form of Merfolk Mistbinder as well as a pseudo lord in the form of Deeproot Elite. The hits don't stop there, either. At three mana we get Jungleborn Pioneer and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. Pioneer works especially well with the lord since both creatures get pumped up. Kumena is a way to break creature stalls by drawing cards or pumping the team, whichever is more beneficial. Finally to top the curve we get Seafloor Oracle, a Coastal Piracy on a stick that allows us to draw cards for each Merfolk that connects. This works especially well with our unblockable Mist-Cloaked Herald and our sideboard Tempest Caller or with Crashing Tide to bounce their best blocker.
There are a few different directions this deck could go. Jadelight Ranger is a bit tougher on the mana, but may be worth it as it is a powerful card on its own. If we stay with the four Seafloor Oracles, I could see playing River Sneak, which might be correct anyway. Unsummon might also be worth it as a tempo play in the deck since we can Recoup the lost card with Seafloor Oracle. This is the build I would start with, though. I'll leave it to Corbin to refine the deck and figure out the optimal build of Merfolk as that is his area of expertise. As we all know, my area of expertise is the aggressive white creature deck, which happens to be Vampires in Ixalan.
As with the other tribes, the biggest difficulty with playing tribal Vampires was the lack of playable creatures. I played it anyway at the Pro Tour, but I stretched my mana a bit too far trying to play Gifted Aetherborn, and I also had to play some non-Vampire creatures such as Crested Sunmare just to be able to break through in the later turns. My creatures would also get outclasses pretty quickly and my removal was glutted at four mana. All of these things improved with Rivals of Ixalan.
The biggest upgrade is that my creatures will no longer get outclassed so quickly since we get four Legion Lieutenant and four Radiant Destiny. This means my creatures will be able to hang toe-to-toe with the larger creatures that come down after mine, forcing trades instead of unprofitable attackers. The other big upgrade is that we get better Vampires to attack with, some of which are built for trading such as Martyr of Dusk to go along with our old friend Adanto Vanguard. We also get a powerful new one-drop to go alongside Legion's Landing – Skymarcher Aspirant. It's basically Savannah Lions on tribe that gains flying later in the game when flying becomes important. So it's great early and late in this style of deck, which is about as much as you can possibly ask from a one-drop.
We also get Famished Paladin and a few others that are worth experimenting with. I don't know which Paladin is better, but my inclination is to go with the one that starts out larger. We also get a great new removal spell in the form of Baffling End, which clears out the opponent's creature for cheap while also getting us closer to the city's blessing. The last card I want to mention is Squire's Devotion – it seems like the best answer to Ramunap Red. It provides us with multiple lifelink bodies and permanents to build us toward the city's blessing. Putting it on Adanto Vanguard seems pretty unbeatable.
These are where I would begin my testing for Standard. We already know what the Energy decks and Ramunap Red look like. Neither of those decks seem to gain much, aside from maybe Fanatical Firebrand in the Red deck. The tribal decks, however, get much better. So figuring out how to optimize those decks seems like the best way to gain an edge in Standard. Metallic Mimic was a big question mark for me. It may be good enough to put in every deck. It may be good enough in some decks and not others, or it may not be good enough in any of them. I left it on the sidelines for now, but I could easily see it being worthwhile and it will stay on my radar as I test each of the decks. Overall, I'm quite pleased with the new set and what it offers for each of the tribes. Which one will end up being the best? I'm sure you know which one I'm most inclined toward.