Ixalan spoilers are quite underway and we are finally getting to see what a bulk of the new Pirate tribe we've all been waiting for looks like. Pirates appear as a Grixis tribe, and they have a variety of functions. This includes evasion, looting, attacking with the return of raid, and the creation of Treasure Tokens - essentially Lotus Petals. Pirates seem interesting within the Standard format because they are quite different from some of the cards we have seen in recent sets. The power creep on creatures that appear undercosted for their size is not seen in the Pirate tribe. Recent printings of Hazoret the Fervent, Heart of Kiran, Siege Rhino and the like are more of a brute force card design with regard to power/toughness and keywords. Pirates have a much more toned down statline with lots of unique effects and triggers. Card selection, disruption and value generated through Treasure creation or card draw are what Pirates are trying to accomplish.
All in all, this makes Pirates an extremely fun to play tribe from the looks of things, but just how viable will they be in Standard? There is an Abundance Pirates in Ixalan, but how many are actually good and just how big are the payoffs?
There are few Pirate lords in Admiral Beckett Brass and Fell Flagship, which are the kind of cards that can tie tribal decks together. The Flagship has very modest stats with a high crew cost, but coupled with enough cheap Pirates can act as a huge threat. Creatures these days are usually excellent, but it's the spells that can really put an archetype on the map.
The biggest Pirate push is Lookout's Dispersal which is a superior Mana-leak when controlling a Pirate. It's quite the powerful tool if you can get underneath an opponent, but you have to build your deck to be able to capitalize on the tempo advantage or protection this counter provides. The other major spell we is a planeswalker, and not just any Planeswalker, but a new Jace. Meet Jace, Cunning Castaway.
While not a card that has to be in a Pirate deck, it certainly plays well with cheap evasive creatures. Jace, Cunning Castway is much better than he looks. Many people have dismissed him, but these people don't consider how fast he can ultimate. Meanwhile, looting isn't terrible, and the ability to start pumping out 2/2 Illusions is actively good. Don't let the -2 loyalty fool you. Playing Jace and immediately making a 2/2 on a contested battlefield is fairly strong, if you untap with him, then presumably you are in good shape. In the games where you land Jace on an uncontested battlefield, he is absolutely nuts. Sure, he doesn't just win you the game like some other planeswalkers, but three mana is very cheap cost considering he's only bad when you are way behind.
Since I'm so hyped about Jace, it's only fair that I'm excited about his first mate. Meet the oldest most experienced Pirate in Standard: Skyship Plunderer. Straight out of a movie, what diamond in the rough captain can Jace, Cunning Castaway find? Forgotten and adrift, limited all-star Skyship Plunderer is pretty exciting with Jace.
While this may be a bit cute for Standard, it's entirely possible Skyship Plunderer will be awesome if you can find enough synergy. It works with Rowdy Crew, though it is a bit win-more as winning that flip is already super beneficial. Rigging Runner is also a Pirate that could be played alongside the Plunderer, but again the cards just don't quite work together perfectly. Metallic Pirate that can make the Skyship Plunderer work. It still not the fastest combination, but once it gets rolling it can be quite powerful. Energy and Walking Ballista and planeswalkers are solid non-Pirate options for the Skyship Plunderer.
In conjunction with Jace, you are looking at a turn-four Jace ultimate in a perfect world combined with the Plunderer. Of course, this assumes many things are going right, but the combo also makes for a rather nice Illusion engine. Not to mention a base 2/1 flier that is also a Pirate are rather solid stats on their own.
The other powerhouse "spell" that Pirates will have access to is Hostage Taker. Yes, I know this is a creature, but this is the type of spell or effect that I'm talking about regarding making an archetype viable. Hostage Taker is card advantage, tempo advantage and creature type advantage while providing blowout potential. Hostage Taker can and will see play in non-Pirate decks, and I imagine it will be one of those cards that every deck will need to be able to of answer.
This card makes blue-black an enticing combination for first attempts at making Pirates work, especially considering the one of the next best Ixalan Pirates, Fathom Fleet Captain. Like Hostage Taker, this card provides super high upside of being able to run away with the game by providing an army of 2/2 menace tokens. Having one toughness is mitigated by menace, and backed up by removal and countermagic can provide you with a Pack Rat of sorts, albeit a modest one. The Fleet Captain can go also off with Metallic Mimic.
Siren Stormtamer isn't the most powerful one-drop ever printed, but is quite the role player for a Blue-Black Pirates deck. Most importantly, it is a one-mana evasive Pirate. That enables Lookout Dispersal to be a potential turn-two play, and also is quite important to ensure you have a Pirate to start triggering Fathom Fleet Captain while potentially having mana left over to play with. Flying allows you to use it to trigger Jace, Cunning Castaway. On top of that, the ability to provide protection to more expensive and important threats is game breaking. For just one mana, Siren Stormtamer can ensure you get to untap with Hostage Taker – increasing the likelihood of "stealing" their creature or artifact. It also protects Kitesail Freebooter, which can help you ensure you lock down your opponent's most important card. Remember, it also counters abilities. While not ideal, stopping a Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Glorybringer or Skyship from eating one of your more important cards is quite relevant.
In the past, I always thought Mesmeric Fiend and Brain Maggot were terrible cards that were quite overplayed. Kitesail Freebooter is an interesting version as the effect is worse but the creature itself is better. While this may be more of a sideboard card, I think that having a Pirate is important enough that the Freebooter should likely make the cut over a more powerful card such as Scrapheap Scrounger. Jace provides some salvation for drawing this card late as perhaps you can loot it away. Notably, the Freebooter is also perfect with the most busted card in the deck.
Which is The Scarab God. Expect to see a lot more Scarab God in Ixalan Standard. We already know that The Scarab God is excellent against Ramanup Red and Temur Energy, which are very likely to come out of the gates as the most-played decks. Scarab God is just straight busted alongside Hostage Taker. Other cards like Siren Stormtaker and the Freebooter not only help you protect your Scarab God, but all provide excellent reanimation targets.
Here is my first draft of Blue-Black Pirates:
I rounded out the deck with Fatal Push and Walk the Plank as removal. Ifnir Deadlands is also an excellent card that synergizes with Skyship Plunderer a bit and seemed like an easy include. With Deadlands and Fetid Pools, we can pretty comfortably play a reasonably high 25 lands.
This deck is pretty streamlined, and it's hard to evaluate what removal you should play before all the cards are spoiled and even before tournament play begins. It's entirely possible you could build a better deck that is more Midrange oriented utilizing Hostage Taker and Scarab God in tandem. It's never bad to be a bit proactive early on when a rotation comes and people have yet to perfect their own decks.
Red-based Pirate decks are still interesting. Rowdy Crew is a strong card, but it is hard to compete with Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer and the go-to bigger red options-while also not lining up well against those cards to begin with. Besides the Crew, so far Red Pirates do not seem spectacular. Red can provide artifact generation through Treasure production, so it's possible there is something there in conjunction with Kaladesh being an artifact block. It seems like Pirates are just almost there, and hopefully Rivals of Ixalan can fully push Pirates into Standard contention. For now, it's been awhile since a tempo or aggro-control creature deck has been in Standard – let's see if the Pirates can live up to their name and Wreak Havoc.
- Steve Rubin