I’ve completed a lot of Ixalan drafts, and for many of those drafts, I focused on drafting the way I do for most sets. I read signals carefully, looked to be in the open color, and tried to develop powerful decks this way. However, after a while I realized that this strategy does not work well in Ixalan, and instead I adopted a completely different method: I stopped staying open and started committing to an archetype early. This should sound very strange to you, as reading signals and staying open in draft is a fundamental skill of draft, and one that is often crucial for success in limited. There are a few key differences about Ixalan, however, that change the landscape of draft, and ultimately should change your strategy as well!
I definitely underestimated just how impactful the tribes of Ixalan would be on the draft experience, but it’s clear to me now that they redefine how signaling works, and consequently alter the methodologies necessary for solid drafting. The effect that tribes have on the format is both straightforward and subtle: signals are less meaningful because the pick orders of cards vary drastically depending on the archetype you’re in. Consequently, if I’m in UB pirates and the person to my right is UG merfolk, we can actually go through the whole draft without feeling like we’ve cut each other off.
Although some blue cards like Storm Fleet Aerialist will be high picks for both decks, they will prioritize Shaper Apprentice while I prioritize Siren Lookout, for example, and similarly the non-creature spells will be distributed nicely as well. Siren’s Ruse is a very solid card in most UB pirate decks, but is often lackluster in UG merfolk, whereas Depths of Desire and Run Aground are excellent in UG merfolk and less necessary (but still good) in UB pirates, depending on the deck’s curve. Because of tribes, when I’m passed Siren’s Ruse 9th pick, it doesn’t mean the person to my right isn’t blue, it just means they’re likely not in pirates!
Consequently, the value of staying open decreases because the signals you’re getting are primarily signals about archetypes, not colors. Now, you might say this is enough reason to stay open; by not committing to an archetype early, you can read signals not about colors but about archetypes, and use this information to move into the most open archetype by pack 2! The problem is, there is another aspect of the format that makes it less valuable to stay open…..
Low Power Level
For better or worse, the majority of value you get in this set is in tribal synergies. On their own, most cards in the set are quite weak, and it is only when they are assembled into a tribal deck that they gain any semblance of power. At the same time that the power level of cards is lower, there is a plethora of tribal cards passed throughout the draft, meaning you have fewer opportunities to pick up powerful cards each pack, but a lot of opportunities to pick up tribal cards.
The result, of course, is that the value of staying open decreases considerably; the value of moving into the most open archetype at the end of pack 1 is less than the value of deciding on any archetype after the first 3 picks of pack 1! Since there are only 1-2 independently powerful cards each pack, it is exceedingly rare for the player to your left/right to pass you one in your colors, even if you stayed out of theirs! Instead, you are likely to be passed tribal cards that are weak outside their archetype, which is the same as if you had never tried to stay out of other players’ colors in the first place!
In sum, the value of staying open has diminished because the power level of the set is found primarily in tribal synergies, with few playable cards outside of those archetypes. So what can we do?
Now, this doesn’t mean you should necessarily go into a draft with one archetype in mind. Instead, use the first few picks of pack 1 to see what powerful synergistic cards you have access to, and then mold your draft around those options. For example, if I open Shapers of Nature P1P1, then see Shaper Apprentice and Storm Fleet Aerialist, I’m going to take the Shaper Apprentice. I don’t mind committing to the archetype early or pushing the player to my right into blue because these cards go into completely different decks.
Additionally, even if the player to my left ends up in merfolk, I can still pick up all the cards I need! Sure, I may have less access to One with the Wind and River Heralds’ Boon than I would if they weren’t drafting merfolk, but I can adapt my deck based on the flavor of merfolk they draft. If I’m not seeing +1/+1 counter effects, I just prioritize evasive threats like Storm Sculptor and develop my drafts around that!
The flexibility of the archetypes really makes a difference here, as there are multiple means of making your deck powerful even within the same general strategy. Rather than drafting based on open colors, I instead make picks that facilitate the strategy that is open for my deck. By doing this and committing early, I don’t give up the high-synergy cards that come early in pack 1, and don’t inhibit the viability of my deck because there are so many mediocre cards that fit into each archetype, and they won’t all be taken early!
Additionally, your focus should not be on staying open to different colors, but instead being open to variants of your archetype, and picking tribal cards early that fit into most of those variants.
What do you think, is it worth it to stay open in Ixalan, or would you rather commit early? Comment below!