Sunday, 4 February 2018

Rivals of Ixalan Highlander set review

Open the door, get on the floor, everybody walk the dinosaur.

This is my Rivals of Ixalan Highlander set review. Just in time for CanCon....hmmm. You can find coverage of CanCon here. Great job CBR MTG team!
Disappointing that I didn't go this year. I can barely write these articles in a timely matter let alone organise to get to another city. It's almost impossible.

Anyway! Set review, in no strategic order:

Joins a long line of Savannah Lions. Together proud and a pride. 
Here's how I rank the Savannah Lions at the moment:
Dryad Militant
Soldier of the Pantheon
Kytheon, Hero of Iroas
Skymarcher Aspirant
Mardu Woe-reaper
Dragon Hunter
Expedition Envoy
Elite Vanguard
Savannah Lions

Let's be honest, none of them are excellent. They all get rekt by Liliana, the Last Hope. They're passable in Death and Taxes, where being mono white gives you consistency and lots of Skullclamp tutors. The Savannah Lions get sided out against decks that block them well.

"Each upkeep", therefore pretty good in creature decks which play pain lands/City of Brass/Mana Confluence/Horizon Canopy. Ideally you'll have a few cheap instants and abilities so that when you tap your pain lands in their turn to get the paladin trigger, you will be able to utilise the mana.

Playable in decks which tutor for Ancestral Recall and Time Walk, e.g. the 'turns' deck. May also help some random combo decks which don't have access to Regrowth. Sometimes your key instant or sorcery combo piece gets discarded or countered.

"Target player". This card is pretty powerful. You need to put in some work to make it great though.
Imagine having Spirit of the Labyrinth or Chains of Mephistopheles turn two and then casting this turn three.
Also, if you play ways to sacrifice enchantments (which is actually pretty hard to do), then this doubles your hand. A sleeper card which gives added incentive to sacrifice enchantments is Hatching Plans.
This may also be good with Life from the Loam and Land Tax when you've cast all your spells and just have lands in hand.
Against some combo decks this acts as a super Vendilion Clique.

There are very few ways to put cards from your hand onto the top of your library, so anytime one gets printed my Highlander senses start tingling. Others include:
Jace, the Mind Scupltor
As you can see, it drops off fast.
This is a very powerful effect when combined with miracles (Entreat the Angels, Temporal Mastery, Bonfire of the Damned). There are also cards like Aethermage's Touch, Descendants' Path and Impromptu Raid, which let you cheat huge threats into play.
Sometimes you just want cards back in your library, e.g. in decks which play Protean Hulk, Natural Order or Tinker.
Riverwise Augur is four mana, which is quite slow, but he may still be good enough. You can always just put two bad cards back on top and shuffle them away.

Straight into Red Black aggro which Dillon Kikkawa and Jeremy Neeman have had some success with. I'd say it replaces one of the lesser burn spells, e.g. Fire Bolt.

Unique. This card got me pretty excited when it was spoiled. This would go in the Channel + Lich's Mirror deck if it was just a Diabolic Tutor reprint; However, it also has that amazing other mode. Channel Mirror now has a reasonable out to Extract without losing a maindeck slot.
You can jam this in almost any combo deck as long as you have Massacre and some zero-to-cast combo hate in your sideboard, that way you can tap out for this without dying.
This card is just so much more powerful than it looks.

"Chupacabra", so fun to say. A fine addition to Birthing Pod and Recurring Nightmare decks, hard to imagine it played outside that archetype.
May dethrone or at least buddy up with Palace Jailer in that role.
Reveillark returns it. If you have a Canadian in your life, listen to how they pronounce "Chupa Chup". Don't screw it up by using your pronunciation in the question.

Anything which hurts fetchlands is fine with me. I don't think you can play this in a deck with fetchlands. Naturally you'll be playing mana acceleration to get Blood Sun onto the battlefield ASAP. One-cost mana dorks, Chrome Mox, Mox Diamond, Simian Spirit Guide, Ancient Tomb, City of Traitors etc. That last one is particularly exciting since Blood Sun removes it's downside. Playing mana dorks helps fix your mana, which is nice since you're forgoing fetchlands. If you're playing Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors without fetchlands, you may need additional colour fixing other than lands.
Ironically you're likely to play Blood Moon in the same deck as Blood Sun and occasionally you will undo some of Blood Sun's work by letting their fetchlands tap for red rather than nothing.
Fetchlands are the main lands effected, what else is there?

Ravnica bounce lands are excellent under Blood Sun. These lands are only for players who like to take risks, since a Wasteland will really screw you. Maybe bounce lands + Blood Sun is more for Modern.

Lotus Vale and Scorched Ruins are like Ravnica bounce lands on crack. If you're playing effects which untap lands or have ways to get value from your lands dying, then you can have these in your sideboard against decks which can't remove your lands.

With the recent rules change, Dark Depths now enters the battlefield without counters if Blood Sun/Moon is on the battlefield. Therefore, if you remove Blood Sun/Moon afterwards, Dark Depths will trigger and release Marit Lage.
If you're playing Dark Depths then you'll also be playing Thespian's Stage, Expedition Map and all the green nonbasic lands tutors. Beware that Marit Lage is surprisingly easy to stop in Highlander, so take precautions to recover from the tempo loss of losing two lands and/or protect Marit Lage somehow.

Maze of Ith and Bazaar of Baghdad get hit by Blood Sun but they aren't commonly played.

Excellent against all the blue good-stuff decks which are popular now. Ancestral Recall, Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time are dream targets, but even just exiling Preordain is great.
Even if you aren't able to cast something, a 2/1 First Striker for two mana is still fine; attacks into Trinket Mage, Vendilion Clique and Kitchen Finks. Better than usual with Jitte. Also good against Jitte if the opposing creatures are ≤ two toughness.
Exiling an instant/sorcery may even disrupt some combo decks, e.g. Past in Flames in Storm.

And the winner is...Merfolk! With FIVE new additions including Jadelight Ranger, a.k.a. Alex Bertoncini (two explores), which is even playable outside a tribal deck. Here's a list that Brett Hughes and I threw together. I played it yesterday at the awesome charity event Isaac organised at Good Games Melbourne. Five rounds of swiss. I miraculously made the semi final. Miraculous considering that I hadn't played the deck before and had just built it for fun. Realistically the deck is weak, mostly due to it's lack of good one-drops.

Qasali Pridemage has been a mainstay in Highlander since it's printing. It gives creature decks a tutorable answer to cards such as Moat, Vedalken Shackles, Umezawa's Jitte and Time Vault. Being green is important for Green Sun's Zenith.
Pridemage's strength comes from it's decent size-to-cost ratio and ability to cast proactively. Other 'naturalize creatures' are either poorly costed or only naturalize at sorcery speed when entering the battlefield.
Thrashing Brontodon is now the second best naturalize creature and the best non-white one, which is fantastic news for Sultai, Jund and Temur.

Decent dude for Zoo and Boros aggro. Particularly good in the mirror where you may not be the aggro player.
You'll want plenty of pump and burn to minimise the chance of having to 'chump attack' into an opposing fatty.
It's a small thing but worth noting, Relentless Raptor is horrendous against Vedalken Shackles; they can either steal a different creature and you'll be forced to attack the Raptor into what they stole OR they can steal the Raptor and be able to attack AND block with it. Vigilance creatures are bad against control magic effects.

If you're playing enough ways to sacrifice creatures at will, then this is a sweet. Often you can Journey a creature with an ETB or death trigger for a bit more value. I'm imagining this in a deck like the one Keith Frost posted in the public "7 Point Highlander" facebook group recently: link. The Protean Hulk kill in that deck is very elaborate!

Solid in Mishra's Workshop stompy decks. I recently cut Precursor Golem from my version, so no need to worry about that blowout :P

Also great in Workshop decks. I imagine it's also good in Tolarian Academy combo decks which can quickly generate six mana and take full advantage of the spell cost reduction.
Gets better every time a new planeswalker is added to other decks. Obviously you don't want to play your own planeswalkers.
You practically win the game if you untap with this.

We have a lot of options for graveyard hate now. If you want to keep your graveyard in tact and also don't need to target cards in it, then this may be preferable to the other graveyard hate.
Ground Seal is another effect like this.

I'm not familiar enough with the Lands deck to know if this guy would make the cut. To make up your own mind, check out Jake Sims' take on the deck here.


This guy screams combo to me. I did a few Gatherer searches an voila! Resplendent Mentor = infinite life. That's not very impressive when you compare it to Kiki-Jiki + Pestermite, or even Spike Feeder + Archangel of Thune, but it is white only, so it could fit some small niche. If you already have a creature based deck with some life gain synergies and tutors, then it could be worth chucking in. Prepare yourselves for the Resplendent Mentor buyouts ;P

Finds Famished Paladin! :P You can never discount cmc≤3 tutors from playability. 
There aren't many exciting vampires; Vampire Hexmage comes to mind for it's interaction with Dark Depths, but that combo is surprisingly easy to deal with - Ghost Quarter, Wasteland, Path of Exile, etc.You haven't lived until you've combined Skullclamp with Bloodghast and fetchlands. That interaction may warrant a tutor for Bloodghast. It also solidifies vampires as a Skullclamp deck in my opinion.
Vampire Nocturnus is the only amazing tribal payoff.
Rivals added a few 'ok' vampires for the day that more tribal payoffs are printed:

Mono blue beatdown is probably a thing now. I'm imagining the colour pie as Pac-Man and he's throwing up.
Sword of Fire and Ice and it's brethren equip nicely to these
Warkite Marauder pairs well with pingers like Cunning Sparkmage or Izzet Staticaster, or even Curse of Death's Hold.
Going mono-blue would let you play a bunch of value colourless lands or you could go all islands and play Back to Basics, Thassa, triple U creatures and Master of Waves.

Might be good in Elves, where you make enough of them to ascend and the vigilance is really sweet since you can attack AND tap for mana postcombat. Myr is another 'mana tribe'. For fun here's a bad list!
Glare of Subdual, EarthCraft, Cryptolith Rite and Opposition get better when all your dudes have vigilance.

Niche reanimation target. Maybe in a build playing Soulflayer.

Another resilient fatty for ramp deck sideboards. Nezehal joins the ranks of:
Thrun, the Last Troll
Gaea's Revenge
Carnage Tyrant
Akroma, Angel of Fury
Sphinx of the Final Word

On another note; why does the maximum hand size rule exist? It seems unnecessary and is just a random complication. I've lost count of how many times my opponents have forgotten to discard to hand size. Also, sometimes you need to keep a risky hand and you miss your land drop; consequently discarding to hand size feels so bad. Also, no one's going to complain if Manaless Dredge is eliminated from Legacy.

I'm probably way off here, but I can imagine this in a Brandon Owen style UB Counterspell tempo deck. That kind of deck needs to hold up it's counterspells a lot so that it doesn't lose to powerful artifacts and enchantments, but it also needs to deploy threats so that it doesn't get attritioned by Life from the Loam or some other inevitable card engine.

Absolutely unplayable right now, but once again, a tutor is a tutor. Eventually pirates will be printed again and this will be the forerunning tutor. I say that, but ninjas have yet to be revisited, so perhaps not. Ninjas are fucking great, where dey at!?

Maybe after the third Ixalan revisitation set. Probably also relying on another set of Lorwyn changelings.

Squee akbar! Grenzo akbar!
Raging Goblin eat your heart out.
Once upon a time I built a few goblin decks. The one-drop slot was where the decks were really lacking. I was resorting to Goblin Firestarter. Fanatical Firebrand is at least an improvement on that. He's not the saviour of Goblins but he'll be in your list.

Naturally a win-more card, which you wouldn't want. However, it could find a niche in a Nourishing Shoal combo deck. 

Path of Niche and Metzali, Tower of Niche.
Great sideboard card for any deck which could transform it. Good at killing mana dorks.

Alright! That sums up the set review. Naturally tribal strategies get far fewer printings than simple 'good card' strategies so I'm always happy to see a tribal set.
No huge impact cards this time round. Blood Sun, Dire Fleet Daredevil and Thrashing Brontodon are my picks for the best highlander cards.

Until next time,