The follow up to Ixalan is finally upon us. Rivals will make its way to standard very soon and with the entire list spoiled there might be some shake ups in the top decks. Ixalan was a very tribal focused set but most of the tribes struggled to make their debut outside of casual or limited play. However almost every single tribe got a boost that I believe can push them into standard viability. So here are some of the cards that I think will help their tribes break out into the spotlight.
The first tribe I’m going to focus on is also my favorite, vampires. This is the first time we’d seen white predominantly used in vampires and with Ixalan they favored a life gain/loss strategy with a go wide back up plan. But they lacked some great options at the bottom of the curve while also being pretty fragile for a deck that wants to grind it out.
Two cards stand out as for making vampires standard playable. The first being Skymarcher Aspirant. The Skymarcher is a 2/1 for one W with Ascend. It gains flying with the cities blessing (which can only be gotten if you control 10 permanents) but that doesn’t matter much. This is an aggressive 1 drop that is in the relevant tribe. White is the primary color for vampires in this set and being able to have a 2 power guy on turn one is huge, especially if you can follow it up with this next card.
Legion Lieutenant is a 2 man (WB) 2/2 lord. That’s right, a two-man creature that pumps all vampires you control by +1/+1. In Ixalan vampires could flood the board with several token making strategies but they were just an army of 1/1s. They had to rely on Angel of Invetions or Shefet dunes to boost their army. But now they have an on-curve lord. This brings a lot of power to the blood suckers.
Curve for a traditional vampire deck might look like, T1 Skymarcher Aspirant, T2 Legion Lieutenant, T3 Legion’s Landing and another Lieutenant, T4 Sanctum Seeker. This means on turn four you can be attacking for 13 power, draining your opponent for 4 directly and gaining 7 life while also flipping your legion’s landing. Obviously, this is a best case scenario but that’s the potential vampires have with just the addition of those two cards.
Though these two are the clear favorites for best vampires added there are some other notable additions. Bishop of Binding is a four mana (3W) 1/1 vampire that exiles a creature as long as it’s on the battlefield. Though it dies fairly easily, a Fiend Hunter that can be pumped is always a nice addition. It also has the ability to pump a vampire, including itself, by the exiled creatures power.
Another solid addition is Champion of Dusk. Pricey at 5 mana (3BB) but it’s a 4/4 that reads, when it enters the battlefield draw cards and lose life equal to the number of vampires you control. The vampires are already playing life gain and go wide so meeting these requirements isn’t too damaging. And late game being able to draw 4 or 5 cards can turn a game very easily in your favor. Whether you want to go super agro or grind out the MU vampires are in a very good place once Rivals drops.
But the vamps aren’t the only tribe to get some much needed support. The fishy simic Merfolk of Ixalan also got a lot of love in rivals. Like the vampires they also got a lord, Merfolk Mistbinder, for two mana (UG). Like the Lieutenant before it’s only a 2/2 but Merfolk also supported a go wide strategy but this time complimented with +1/+1 counters.
The Merfolk gained three notable cards that support their evasive and aggressive strategies. The first being Mist-Cloaked Herald. A one mana (U) 1/1 Merfolk that reads, it can’t be blocked. Simple agro turn one play but with a lord and several ways to distribute +1/+1 counters this guy can start hitting for 3-4 unlockable every turn and that’s just the low end.
At two mana (1G) the Merfolk gained Deeproot Elite. Another 1/1 but with an interesting ability. Whenever another Merfolk enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on one of your Merfolk. This can be the Elite himself or maybe that 1 drop unblockable I just mentioned. And note it said enter the battlefield, not cast. So Deeproot waters from Ixalan can start pumping out 2/2 hexproof tokens thanks to this guy. Or just make the unblockable 1/1 into a 5/5 or something absurd like that.
But by far my favorite of the new Merfolk is Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. A legendary 3 drop (1GU) with 2/4 power toughness. And he has a plethora of abilities that make the go wide grind strategy easy.
He can tap another untapped Merfolk to make himself unlockable, so imagine putting those counters on this guy once they deal with the Herald. He can tap three untapped Merfolk, this time including himself, to draw a card. We all remember how good cryptbreaker was right? Because this is that with no draw backs. An finally he can tap 5 untapped Merfolk to a +1/+1 counter on each Merfolk you control.
So, let’s review, he can make himself unblockable, draw cards, and pump the team. For only 3 mana! This is beyond insane. An aggressive Merfolk deck will be oppressive once Kumena gets on the board. What’s even better is that if you curve out to say, Herald of Secret Streams, you can tap 5 merfolk, give them +1/+1 counters and suddenly your entire team is unblockable. Can we say synergy?
Some other neat additions are two three drops. The first being Swift Warden (1GG), a 3/3 with flash. When it enters the battlefield target Merfolk gains hexproof until end of turn. Almost as good as a negate you can protect any of your Merolk with this and even play it on their turn. Which means you can tap it with Kumena for some added bemefits. Great protection on a good sized body in the right tribe.
The other is Jadelight Range. For 1GG you get a 2/1 Merfolk that explores twice. This should really read 1GG draw two cards or 1GG here’s a 4/3 creature. No matter how you slice it, when this explores it’s going to be straight up value town. Even if it only becomes a 3/2, in this tribe that’s going to be something special. The amount of card advantage and power the Merfolk can just dump onto the board is insane right now. Not to mention they have lots of decent protection with built in hexproof or spells like Blossoming Defense and Dive Down. This tribe will be making waves in a few weeks, mark my words.
The next tribe is one that was almost there but needed a little push. And they may have just stolen what they need. I’m talking pirates. The pirate deck lacked a lot of powerful one drops. Siren Stormtamer was rarely an agro threat, Rigging Runner wasn’t a good turn 1 play and Deadeye Navigator was likewise a late game power play.
But now they have 2 fantastic one drops and both in red. The first is Daring Buccaneer. For one R you get a 2/2 as long as you can reveal a pirate in your hand. Otherwise you’re paying an extra 2 mana. In a dedicated Pirate deck, this should be easy to do and a 2/2 on turn one in any agro strategy is just oppressive in the best way.
The second is Fanatical Firebrand. A one R 1/1 Goblin Pirate with haste and tap, sacrifice the Firebrand to deal one damage to target creature or player. This one is a bit smaller but no less powerful. One mana haste 1/1s have proven to be strong starting cards and with that tap abilities it can threaten to add a point of damage to any swing or just to ping down a token. The Buccaneer is the better of the two by far but I think the Firebrand will see some play even as a two of.
At two mana they gained Warkite Marauder, a goofy but powerful Pirate. For 1U they got a 2/1 flyer with, whenever it attacks target creature a defending player controls loses all abilities and has base power and toughness of 0/1. Remember the Firebrand? This is Synergy. The best synergy can be, attack with the Marauder and turn an enemy Scarab God into a 0/1. Tap the Firebrand to kill it. The Marauder’s ability will then make it so the Scarab God doesn’t return to the players hand at the end step shutting down one of the most powerful cards in standard for only three mana. I can’t wait to see that combo happen.
The final Pirate that caught my eye as playable was Dire Fleet Neckbreaker. For 2BR we get a 3/2 with attacking Pirates you control get +2/+0. So, first thing to note, it doesn’t have to attack to get this trigger so awesome. Second pirates have some of the best evasion in standard with many having unblockable, menace or flying. So, giving them all +2/+0 is just stupid powerful. If you have a Fell Flagship, which you could play on curve, they’d all have +3/+0. My pet evasive Pirates deck might become a real standard playable thing in Rivals.
The final tribe of Ixalan, and probably the strongest one off the bat, is Dinosaurs. The mighty thunder lizards didn’t need much after Ixalan dropped so many of these new cards are playing around the Dinosaur mechanic of enrage, whenever they’re dealt damage something happens.
One of the best to be spoiled is Sieghorn Ceratops. For GW you get a 2/2 with Enrage. When it is dealt damage put two +1/+1 counters on it. It’s like Longtusk Cub except a dinosaur and grows faster. If this survives just one trigger you now have a 4/4 for two mana. And it will keep growing over the course of the game. Would giving it trample have been too much? Probably.
Most dinosaur decks needed help ramping into these giant creatures and what’s better than a slightly worse Rampant Growth?. Thunderherd Migration is a 2 mana (1G) spell that puts a basic land onto the battlefield tapped. More often than not the ramp for dinosaurs is creature based and dies pretty easily. With this they get guaranteed mana at all points, color fixing and big dinos a turn earlier if they’re staying on curve.
But probably my personal favorite of all the new Dinosaurs spoiled is Ghalta, Primal Hunter. It’s a legendary 12 mana (10GG) 12/12 with trample that reads, Ghalta’s costs X less to cast, where X is the total power of your creatures. So, this could feasibly be a 12/12 trample creature on turn four. Oh and with Regisaur Alpha we could give it haste. Good luck coming back after this takes a bite out of ya.
Finally, there’s one card I just had to talk about and it’s the biggest plot twist of Ixalan. Azor, the Lawbringer, a 6/6 2WWUU legendary Sphinx. The Parun of the Azorious is on Ixalan and he’s bringing the control with him. When he enters the battlefield, opponents can’t cast spells on their next turn, effectively telling them to chill out for a second. And then when he attacks you can Sphinx’s Revelation! (pay XWUU to gain X life and draw X cards). This might be a sideboard piece for control decks as an alternative to Second Sun or even in the God Pharaoh’s Gift deck. Even if it doesn’t find a home in standard, this card was just too cool to not mention.
Stepping away from the tribes, Rivals brings with it both new and returning mechanics. Explore was one of those odd mechanics that was powerful but now with enough support. Enter the Unknown might be the support it needed. For a G you can have one of your creatures explore and also play an additional land this turn. So, you’re either putting a +1/+1 counter on one of your guys or ramping for one mana. One mana ramp is always something to take note of. If something happens to Attune with Aether, this will be the replacement card.
Raid is another returning mechanic and honestly the best of those might be Admiral’s Orders. It’s cancel with raid, that lets you pay U instead of 1UU. I’ve never seen something quite so conflicting. A 1 mana Counterspell that only works if you attack. Aggression in blue is always a fun thing and both Pirates and Merfolk might love this card.
We talked about a bunch of Enrage triggers but here’s a way to trigger it consistently. Raging Reigsaur is a 2RG 4/4 Dino with whenever it attacks, it deals 1 damage to target creature of player. This triggers enrage whenever you attack and it’s only one damage. Meaning your Ceratops gets huge without killing it,
The final old mechanic that got some much-needed love is treasure. Not a lot of creatures made treasure work in Ixalan and with Marionette Master in Standard the aristocrats combo has been looking for the final cog piece. That piece is Pitiless Plunderer. For four mana, 3B, you get a 1/4 that says whenever one of your creatures dies, create a treasure token. This ramps you, gives you sacrifice targets for the master, and can trigger even when a token dies. B/W tokens eat your heart out.
Finally let’s discuss Ascend. Lots of cards in Rivals have the mechanic and it sounds great for Limited but can it make the transition to standard? It has the potential that’s for sure. Hitting ten permanents is not hard, especially on curve, however it almost feels like a gimmick.
You need to get ten permanents and then cast a spell that has Ascend on it. Which means your Ascend card is almost a dead draw until you have ten permanents. Yes, there are many good Ascend cards in Rivals but some of them have a hard drawback without Ascend. The problem is, it’s going to be difficult to plan to have Ascend. You’ll have to build your deck to survive to ten permanents, not trade often, trigger Ascend and then have a big enough pay off afterwards to make it worth it. I think Ascend is better off as something that might happen and be a benefit as opposed to something you’re planning for and need to happen.
An honorable mention has to go to moment of craving. For 1B you can give a creature -2/-2 and gain two life at instant speed. Removal is removal and the ability to gain two life isn’t too shabby. Whether a combat trick or a straight up kill spell I think this is going to find a home in standard as well.
Rivals of Ixalan brings a lot of tribal synergy to standard as well as some nice mechanical support. Enrage and Explore are great mechanics that thrive in limited and just might finally have a place in standard. Many of the cards in Rivals want the same thing, energy to be banned in some way shape or form, especially dinosaurs. If that will happen remains to be seen.
This wraps up a block that I personally really love. I’m a sucker for tribal synergies and this has that in spades. I can’t wait to see what future brews are going to look like and hope standard sees some serious shake ups. Whether you like attacking with raid, exploring or just digging for treasure Rivals of Ixalan is going to be a treat for everyone.