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MTG Ikoria

If the past few years of Magic are anything to go by, I have to assume that it’s a corporate-mandated requirement for each year’s Spring set to include strong overtones of “hold on a second, they really did that?” and “wait, this is a real Magic the Gathering set?”

Following in the footsteps of Dominaria and War of the Spark, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths goes where no Magic set has gone before and perhaps even eclipses its predecessors in terms of the ambitious heights its limited format attempts to climb. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Ikoria challenges us with one of the most complex draft formats we’ve ever seen and—while complexity doesn’t always translate to a good or a fun format—I’ve found that the set hits more of its marks than it misses.

I’m currently 70 MTGO drafts deep, still having an absolute blast, and can’t wait to share everything I’ve learned about how to successfully draft the format!

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, the Big Picture

Increasing Confusion MTG card art by Dan Scott

Increasing Confusion | Illustration by Dan Scott

Architecture of the Set

If you’ve been struggling to find your footing in Ikoria and can’t quite put your finger on why, I offer a simple answer:

It’s really hard to draft this set.

Part of its difficulty stems from the fact that the set’s archetype layout and incentive-payoff structure is unlike anything we’ve really seen before. We’re sort of swimming in uncharted territory so I’d like to take a bit of time to talk about my view of the set’s architecture and what that means for you as the drafter.

To be proficient at any limited format, it’s best practice to reach a point where you’re past merely identifying what cards are good and not so good, and understand how to maximize on building cohesive decks out of the good (and sometimes not-so-good) cards.

For years now, limited content creators have been trying to hammer home the idea that you need to be drafting a deck, not just a pile of good cards. This idea is paramount in Ikoria, but perhaps easier said than done.

Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to several “hand holding” mechanisms that help guide deck building, many of which don’t exist in Ikoria in the same forms we’re used to. Most notably, Ikoria doesn’t contain the traditional structure of ten multicolored signpost uncommons that hint at what each color pair wants to be doing. Instead, it opts for three gold uncommons for each of the enemy color pairs that support the set’s main themes, and one hybrid uncommon for each of the allied color pairs to support some of the set’s minor themes.

On its surface, Ikoria looks like a true multicolored set, similar to Khans of Tarkir. But if you draft it like Khans, trying to draft a straight-up three-color deck every time, you’re going to run into some issues along the way. This is not a wedge set; you shouldn’t draft it trying to end up in three colors. Most decks in this format end up being two colors, or two colors and a light splash.

For reference, here are the themes Wizards has outlined for each of the color pairs:

Major Themes

  • BW: Humans
  • RW: Cycling
  • GB: Graveyard Matters/ Reanimator
  • UR: Spells Matter
  • UG: Mutate

Minor Themes

  • UB: Flash
  • GR: Trample
  • RB: Menace
  • GW: Vigilance
  • UW: Flying

In theory, this structure seems fairly similar to the ten multicolored signpost uncommons structure we see in most sets, with the exception that you’ll find yourself in an enemy color pair more often than an allied one, by virtue of the enemy color pairs having more support. This is true for the most part, but there’s a defining feature of Ikoria that sets it apart from most limited formats:

In Ikoria, the gold and hybrid cards don’t tell the full story of what each color pair is capable of. A color pair doesn’t always define what a deck wants to do; you as the drafter are responsible for defining what your deck is doing.

Divine Arrow MTG card art by Slawomir Maniak

Divine Arrow | Illustration by Slawomir Maniak

In a lot of sets, if you first pick a strong gold uncommon, that card can act as a guiding light, telling you what that color combination wants and the kind of cards you should be looking to include in your deck. While this is still true in Ikoria and the best-of-the-best decks are indeed trying to execute a linear plan based on archetype-payoff cards, the perfect cycling or reanimator deck isn’t always going to fall into your lap, even when your colors are open.

You can’t simply rely on the gold cards or the suggested archetypes that WotC have laid out for each color pair to build your deck for you, you need to be critically thinking about how each of the cards in your pool interact with each other and not just auto-piloting by picking the good cards in your colors.

When a streamlined RW cycling or UG mutate deck with good enablers and payoffs comes together, congrats! Your deck is probably great. But when your lane isn’t perfectly open, you’ll usually have to do a bit of improvising. For example:

A UG mutate deck with a reanimator package…

UG mutate deck with a reanimator package

…or WB Humans with a cycling subtheme.

WB humans with a cycling subtheme

Although the enemy pairs have extremely linear plans that you’ll often build your deck around, each color pair doesn’t have just one thing it wants to do. If you tunnel yourself into an archetype or a theme after you’ve picked up a few good cards of two colors, you’re limiting your possibilities. If you lock yourself into the box of saying “I am GB, I want to be a graveyard deck,” you’re going to miss out on a good GB mutate deck a percentage of the time.

This is especially true with the allied color pairs, since their “keyword tribal” themes are substantially less supported than the enemy color pair themes. You shouldn’t expect to always be able to build around one of the allied color payoffs like Slitherwhisp, as the cards to make those decks tick may not be opened in a given pod.

Slitherwisp MTG card art by Yigit Koroglu

Slitherwisp |Illustration by Yigit Koroglu

Once in a blue moon, a true BR menace or UB flash tribal deck will come together, but your allied color pair decks are going to borrow their main theme from one of the enemy color pairs most of the time and sprinkle in some of those keyword tribal synergies. GW mutate with a vigilance package or UW cycling with a Skycat Sovereign are common places to end up.

Deck A

deck A

Deck B

Deck B

Deck C

Deck C

Here we have three different BR decks. While they share many of the same generically good cards, the core plan of each deck is different. Deck A is roughly “menace tribal,” the deck you’d expect to draft if you just looked at the BR signpost hybrid uncommon. Deck B and Deck C are self-sacrifice/reanimator and cycling decks, respectively.

In addition, even though your goal when drafting Ikoria will generally be to draft a streamlined deck where all of your cards contribute towards the same goal, don’t be afraid to mix and match themes. Some of my best decks have been decks that have small cycling, reanimation, and steal and sacrifice packages, all in one.

All this isn’t to say that the gold and hybrid cards aren’t still helpful, just less so than in previous sets. Most of your RW cycling decks don’t want Regal Leosaur and your BW humans decks don’t often want Necropanther, but RW and BW aren’t eternally resigned to the “cycling” or “humans” moniker like they may be in other sets. Be on the look out for times when those cards are great.

Deck credit: MisterMetronome

RW deck
WB

No Necropanther in this list but it would be excellent here!

Successfully navigating a draft with all these ideas in mind can be daunting! We’ll come back to that a bit later, but first, I want to explore a few more big picture ideas.

Speed of the Format and Deck Building Incentives

Speedway Fanatic MTG card art by Slawomir Maniak

Speedway Fanatic | Illustration by Slawomir Maniak

I think that deciphering the “speed of a format” has become somewhat of an antiquated measure, something us limited players place too much weight on, at least when trying to apply it to make meaningful draft and deck building decisions.

R&D has gotten better at seeding their sets to include a wide range of archetypes that offer different play styles and speeds each of the decks want to operate at. When the plans of decks range from “stick a 1-drop that grows arbitrarily large and end the game ASAP” to “gum up the ground with tokens and drain your opponent out of the game by turn 15,” telling someone the average game in this format ends on turn 8 doesn’t help them all that much when building their deck or thinking about matchups.

Flourishing Fox MTG card art by Ilse Gort

Flourishing Fox | Illustration by Ilse Gort

I think a more pragmatic approach to figuring out how you should be building your decks is trying to identify what decks in the format are trying to be proactive (execute their own linear game plan) and which ones are trying to be reactive (react to the opponent’s game plan to reach some form of late game inevitability). This is helpful not just to better inform you about how to draft or build a given archetype, but how to better play against and disrupt your opponents.

In Ikoria, the majority of decks are trying to carry out some sort of proactive game plan. Whether they’re trying to stick an early cycling payoff then start churning through their deck, pair a mutate card with a mutate target, or reanimate an 11/11, most decks are trying to “do a thing” and then say, “hey look ma! I did the thing!”

Titanoth Rex MTG card art by Svetlin Velinov

Titanoth Rex | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov

A notable exception to this, and one of the more prevalent archetypes, is BW humans or RB grind decks that try to attrition you out of the game using Bushmeat Poacher as a value engine. These decks don’t have much of a linear plan and are happy to let the game meander on for as long as it takes to grind out a win.

For the most part, the commons and uncommons don’t incentivize you to prolong the game or to have a mostly reactive game plan. There aren’t a ton of tools for guaranteed inevitability at common. No matter how good your top end is, there will always be a bigger fish. Incentives to build towards being a more reactive deck certainly exist; Shark Typhoon or the Ultimatums spring to mind, but those incentives mostly live at higher rarities.

Inspired Ultimatum MTG card art by Tyler Jacobson

Inspired Ultimatum | Illustration by Tyler Jacobson

When drafting and building a deck with a linear, proactive game plan, ask what your deck or archetype is trying to do. Draft cards that contribute to that plan and worry less about how to answer your opponent’s plan. The inverse is true when you do find yourself in a black-based grindy deck, or with a great late game payoff.

To tie this all back to the speed of the format, I wouldn’t worry too much trying to figure out the format’s aggregate speed. Every archetype in this set is viable and nothing is automatically priced out of market because its plan is inherently too slow or to anemic to go toe to toe against the other decks. What matters most is focusing on a good curve and ensuring that your cards all contribute to your plan, whether that be a proactive or reactive one.

The Removal

Ikoria is a set with great interaction but isn’t all that interactive.

This, what I feel to be a fairly apt description, is the way that my podcast co-host Abram describes how the removal in Ikoria lines up with the threats.

I am eternally grateful to R&D for their decision to employ the FIRE philosophy in the past year of set designs. It has freed us from an age where even the best common removal spells in each set were either unnecessarily conditional or over-costed to the point that they felt like boxes you had to check during the draft rather than a legitimate pull into a color.

Blood Curdle MTG card art by Antonio José Manzanedo

Blood Curdle | Illustration by Antonio José Manzanedo

In a vacuum, Ikoria has some of the best removal and interaction spells we’ve ever seen. Fire Prophecy and Blood Curdle, the top two commons in the set, are efficient, effective, and give you a bit of bonus value to top it all off.

However. Ikoria seems to have taken a cue from Constructed, and as the removal in our limited formats has gotten better, so too have the threats. A feeling many standard players may be familiar with: if you don’t have an interaction spell as soon as your opponent lands a haymaker like Valiant Rescuer or mutates Auspicious Starrix, the game starts to spiral out of control. If you miss a beat, or your cards line up poorly against one of the many “deal with me now or lose the game” archetype payoff cards—Parcelbeast, Reptilian Reflection, Flourishing Fox, Titanoth Rex… the list goes on—the game will quickly slip away from you.

Zenith Flare MTG card art by Jonas De Ro

Zenith Flare | Illustration by Jonas De Ro

This effect is exacerbated when playing against a cycling deck because all their threats are viciously potent, and their deck is inherently structured to quickly find a new payoff if the first gets removed. Worse still, the deck’s best payoff, Zenith Flare, isn’t something you can just point a removal spell at.

Ikoria is a set with great interaction but isn’t all that interactive” embodies the idea that the cadence of many games tends to be “let’s slam haymakers and see whose is the last to stick.” Sure, you interacted with what your opponent was doing, but it often doesn’t feel meaningful because a new threat is likely just around the corner.

I’ve heard a lot of players ask, “what am I even supposed to do against a good cycling deck or an opponent snowballing with a giant mutate stack?”

You’d think the answer to this may be to take removal even higher than we normally would to make sure you have an answer when you need it, but you run into a scarcity issue where there just isn’t enough removal to go around for multiple control decks at a table. Instead, the more practical solution becomes to prioritize drafting your own streamlined proactive deck trying to execute its own linear plan, so that a well-timed removal spell can help you to win a close race.

Instead of trying in vain to remove every one of the cycling or mutate decks threats, getting onboard early to put your own plan into action ensures that you set up your own clock so that the opponent doesn’t have all the time in the world to enact theirs.

Pacifism MTG card art by Kev Walker

Pacifism | Illustration by Kev Walker

With this paradigm in mind, removal spells should go down in your pick orders when you’re on the path to drafting a deck with a streamlined proactive plan. A good cycling deck wants maybe one copy of Pacifism, and although it’ll play multiple copies of Fire Prophecy, it sometimes has a tough time finding the slots for them. Since Ikoria’s incentive structure leads you to drafting proactive decks more often than reactive ones, you should be shifting where you value removal spells in the draft. You’ll still take the best-of-the-best removal spells early, but I find myself taking the second rate removal spells like Pacifism, Dead Weight, Capture Sphere, and Rumbling Rockslide lower than I might in a different format.

I don’t want anyone to get the impression that removal is bad in this format. That’s far from the case. But I want to temper any expectations that a deck with 11 removal spells and no real plan will succeed in Ikoria. Removal spells are good, but you’ll often find your opponent asking a question that you have the wrong answer to.

Always Draft Red, Never Draft Green

While the header for this section is clear hyperbole, I wouldn’t be surprised if your win rate shot up substantially, simply by using it as a rule of thumb.

During the first week of Theros: Beyond Death drafts (see my ultimate guide here), it quickly became apparent that black was head-and-shoulders better than the next best color in the format. That info spread quickly through podcasts and articles and thanks to the self-correcting nature of draft, black became a fair bit worse on average. Trying to get into black in THB turned into a game of chicken.

Everyone knew how good black was, so if you first picked a good black card, you knew you’d have to do a bit of fighting to wiggle your way into the color. We have a similar situation with red in Ikoria. It’s not quite as deep or as powerful as black was in THB, but it’s close and isn’t getting anywhere near as much press as black did. “Red is great, try to draft red” hasn’t quite made its way into the collective conscious of the limited community just yet, so reap the rewards while you can.

Red commons

The top 10 commons in the color are cards I’m quite excited to put in my deck, and even the cards in the tail end of the pack have homes where they excel. Not only do red’s cards harbor a great deal of raw power, but most of red’s commons fit in just about any red deck.

In a set that’s as highly synergy based as Ikoria is, you often run into an issue when drafting where you see a powerful card in the color you’re in, get excited for a split second, and then go ”oh wait, this card isn’t for me.” Pollywog Symbiote, when you’re not drafting a mutate deck, is a good example of this. Red’s commons generally don’t suffer from this issue. Not only are they good in any red deck, but they actually have synergy with what most of the red color pairs are trying to do.

On the flip side, practically none of the nice things I said about red can be said about green. Green is shallow, underpowered, and most of its commons only excel in certain archetypes.

Green commons

Ram Through is a powerful removal spell which can be a tempting draw into the color, but in Ikoria, true pulls into a color are the cards that lend them selves to uniquely powerful synergies. Aside from a few cards that support the mutate deck and Greater Sandwurm for reanimator, green’s commons just don’t offer that.

Green isn’t terrible, mind you, I’m not claiming it to be unplayable. But, if you have the option to start your draft with a reasonable non-green card, I’d take it. But who knows, maybe in a few week’s time we’ll realize Flycatcher Giraffid is the truth and my disdain for green will look silly.

The Mechanics and Pillars of the Format

Cycling, mutate, humans/sacrifice, and companion decks are what I’d consider to be the pillars of the format. These are the themes you’ll find most often headlining your deck. Sometimes you are the cycling or the mutate deck, and sometimes you’re just a RW deck with a cycling theme or a UB deck with a mutate package.

The idea of a synergy package is one that I consider integral to drafting and deck building in this format. You should always be trying to draft towards some semblance of cohesion between your cards, which means having a small synergy package comprised of three payoffs and seven cyclers is a great back-up plan even if you can’t wiggle your way into the nuts cycling deck. As an extension of the format pillars being your most common headliners, they’ll also be your most common synergy packages. There are some  lesser common synergy packages you’ll end up with at times, but we’ll explore those a bit later.

Cycling

WotC meme

Cycling has always been a much beloved mechanic for us limited players. Limited decks are inherently less consistent than constructed decks as they don’t have the same redundancy, access to the same draw smoothing tools, or dual lands that constructed decks often do. Cycling grants our limited decks more consistency, which in turn leads to less non-games where one player never casts a spell. Need to find a land? Cycle a spell. Need to find a spell? Cycle a land.

When cycling is announced as a mechanic in an upcoming set, a collective “hooray!” can usually be heard from us limited junkies. However, I think that the way Ikoria has handled cycling has traumatized us so much, that the next time someone tells me the mechanic is slated for an upcoming set, they’ll just be met with a blank stare as I plunge into vivid flashbacks of 2020 with CCR’s Fortunate Son playing in the background.

Multiple things baffle me about how cycling has been implemented in Ikoria. For starters, one-mana-colorless cycling does some really messed up things to a format. R&D made the cycling costs in this set colorless to help smooth out the gameplay experience for people trying to splash. Sound in theory, but when the RW cycling deck is able to pick up a certain density of one-mana-colorless cyclers, poaching the black or blue ones that they never intend to cast, the consistency of their deck skyrockets and they reach a point where they’re able to just run 12 to 13 lands, distilling their deck to just cyclers and cycling payoffs.

 RW cycling

The second thing that baffles me, and I’m sure you’re well aware of this if you’ve played with or against a cycling deck, is that there are a ton of payoffs for cycling and they are all absurdly powerful. The worst of the cycling payoffs are still B level cards and the best of them, Zenith Flare, is one of the top 10 cards in the whole set.

One of the ways that synergy decks can falter is if they draw the wrong half of their deck. To use an example from this set, the mutate deck draws all its expensive mutate cards, but none of its cheap cards to mutate onto. The cycling deck rarely encounters this problem, as many of its payoffs like Flourishing Fox and Valiant Rescuer also have cycling. So, as you’re chaining together cyclers in the midgame, you don’t brick just because you draw into one of your payoff cards instead of a cycler, as your payoffs are also your enablers.

Savai Thundermane MTG card art by Svetlin Velinov

Savai Thundermane | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov

A small aside on the one-mana cycler: take these early and take them often. If you end up in the cycling deck they’re going to be great, and if you don’t they’re still good playables that enable you to play 14 to 15 lands which is a huge advantage over an opponent who has to play 17 lands.

Unprecedented consistency paired with silly-good payoffs and easy-to-pick-up enablers means that the cycling deck is easily the best archetype in the set. And, potentially, the best limited archetype we’ve seen since affinity way back in original Mirrodin.

But how do you actually draft this deck? I’m sure after hearing about it—or perhaps having your face beat in by it—you’re eager to try the deck yourself. The best detailed breakdown out there right now is this episode of Lords of Limited.

Ben and Ethan do a great job of getting into the nitty gritty of drafting the deck, a difficult task for a deck that’s somewhat unintuitive to draft and has a bunch of corner cases and exceptions to the normal heuristics of draft.

Here are some quick hits and guidelines that I’ve been using to draft the cycling decks:

  • Your cycling deck can be any combination of the Jeskai colors (RW, UR, UW) and can sometimes even dip into BW or RB. You’re most often going to be RW as that color pair gives you access to the highest density of payoffs, but don’t feel confined to taking just red or white cards if your payoffs are focused in a single color. If you have multiple Reptilian Reflections and Drannith Stingers, don’t shy away from taking high quality black removal spells that make their way to you; you might end up RB with a cycling package.
Reptilian Reflection MTG card art by Antonio José Manzanedo

Reptilian Reflection | Illustration by Antonio José Manzanedo

  • I tend not to play three colors when drafting these decks. Although it’s tempting to play Ominous Seas in your RW cycling deck, these decks run such low land counts that playing off-colored basics is quite painful, and playing tapped duals isn’t ideal when playing your payoffs on curve is such a high priority. You can still play Ominous Seas because it cycles, but don’t make too many concessions to your mana base for it. A miser’s Swiftwater Cliffs is fine, three Islands is not.
  • If you open or are passed one of the uncommon payoffs, don’t be afraid to soft-force the deck. The cycling deck doesn’t often just fall into your lap, you have to take the one CMC cyclers aggressively to plant your flag in the archetype, as it’s a popular deck that many players are trying to get into. First-picking Zenith Flare and then second-picking Frostveil Ambush is totally fine, the cyclers are just as important to the deck as the payoffs, and taking the one-mana cyclers aggressively means you’re more likely to see good payoffs later.
  • The table can support about three cycling drafters. There’s usually enough payoffs and enablers to go around but be aware If you’re getting cut hard (you see no cyclers) and maneuver into a different archetype. More on that later in the draft navigation section).
Fire Prophecy MTG card art by Kieran Yanner

Fire Prophecy | Illustration by Kieran Yanner

  • Fire Prophecy is excellent in the deck to help filter though lands. Every other common removal spell are lower priorities than the payoff cards.
  • To quote LSV on a recent episode of Limited Resources, “one mana to cycle is way less than half as much as two.” The one-mana cyclers are key to this deck and seeing them in the middle of the pack is a signal this deck is open. The two-mana cyclers I could take or leave. You play these because you have to, not because you want to, with the exception that you’ll take cards that are reasonable to cast like Lava Serpent and Raking Claw a bit higher than something like a Indatha Crystal.
Lava Serpent MTG card art by Jason A. Engle

Lava Serpent | Illustration by Jason A. Engle

  • You want to end up with about 7 to 10 cycling payoff cards by the end of the draft. If you’re not getting close to that number by the end of pack 2, consider picking up cards like Pyroceratops and Spelleater Wolverine as stand-ins for the premium payoffs.
  • Your goal is to play 12 to 13 lands, anything more is a real cost. Even in your 12 land decks, you will flood. I generally play a copy of Cathartic Reunion to turn the lands you’ll accrue into gas.
  • When playing the deck, don’t cycle on turn 1 for no reason. You want to have a payoff in play before you start to churn through your deck. Cycling to hit your first few land drops is totally fine as you’ll often keep one-land hands in this deck.
  • Mulligan hands without a cycling payoff in them. Keeping a hand of all-cyclers and no payoffs means you have to use your cycling cards to dig to your payoffs, which leads to flooding in the midgame. The London mulligan is a huge boon to this deck.

And here’s a cheat sheet for the best cycling payoffs, in order from best to worst:

Even though they’re all great… OK maybe not Drannith Healer, but he tries his best and has cycling.

Savai Thundermane may seem low on this list but that’s not because it’s bad, its just a bit worse than the payoffs above it as it asks you to sink more mana into it after you’ve already spent mana to cycle.

Mutate

Despite being one of the more out-there mechanics we’ve ever seen, mutate is pretty intuitive to play with and draft a deck around. I don’t have quite as many words to say about mutate as I did about cycling, but there are still some key points that are important to touch on.

Your most focused mutate decks will often be UG, but since mutate exists in all colors, don’t be surprised to find yourself mutating in any color combination.

GB mutate
UR mutate

When drafting mutate cards, consider it an A + B mechanic.

Your As are the sweet mutate cards you pick up:

… and your Bs are the cheap non-humans you want to mutate onto:

I can’t stress enough how important it is to prioritize the cheap non-humans when you find yourself with mutate cards in your pile. A deck with too many payoffs and not enough cheap enablers will. Not. Function. The mutate decks live or die by getting onboard and mutating early. Going Essence Symbiote into Migratory Greathorn into Auspicious Starrix feels busted, but casting Farfinder as your first spell of the game and then mutating Dreamtail Heron is uninspiring, and often a step behind what your opponents will be doing.

I drafted a ton of mutate decks to great success at the onset of the format, and initially was very high on the mechanic. I’ve since lowered my opinion on mutate decks significantly, though. Turns out my first few mutate decks just had a lot of busted cards in them.

Dreamtail Heron MTG card art by Caio Monteiro

Dreamtail Heron | Illustration by Caio Monteiro

When the mutate deck does its thing, it’s great and you feel like you’re playing an entirely different game than your opponent when you put 15-mana worth of permanents into play with Auspicious Starrix or stick a turn 2 Parcelbeast. But dig a bit deeper beneath the explosive starts mutate decks can get off to and a few glaring issues reveal themselves.

Unlike the cycling or the humans decks, the mutate deck cares dearly about the order in which it draws its cards. Draw your payoffs and no enablers? You’re relegated to casting your mutate cards for their unexciting front half. Draw your enablers but few payoffs? You’re stuck with a bunch of anemic creatures.

When you cast a mutate creature for its mutate cost, you suffer an inherent tempo loss, as you’re essentially sacrificing some amount of onboard presence for a slightly bigger creature and a spell-like effect. It’s devastating when you mutate onto your 3-drop and your opponent snaps off a removal spell. Sure, you usually get your card back from the trigger generated from mutating, but the tempo hit is hard to come back from. A common play pattern of these decks is “mutate, pray, cry.”

The best mutate cards have build-in ways to mitigate this by giving you additional permanents or interacting with your opponent’s board as to not fall too far behind, but these live exclusively at uncommon and rare.

Trumpeting Gnarr MTG card art by Aaron Miller

Trumpeting Gnarr | Illustration by Aaron Miller

This leads us to our next issue: the quality of the mutate cards at common. Each color gets one mutate card at common. Each of these are totally respectable cards on their own, but I’m not happy with any of them as true payoffs if I were to build an all-in mutate deck. These cards merely exist as glue to keep your mutate deck running and trigger your most powerful mutate cards, or as reasonable modal cards in non-mutate centric decks.

This means that you should be hesitant about moving into a mutate deck without first locking in about three of the good uncommon mutate payoffs. If you’re five picks in and have Pouncing Shoreshark, Gemrazer, and Auspicious Starrix in your pile, absolutely draft an all-in mutate deck. However, as most of you likely know, the strength of a limited archetype lies within its consistency to draft a good version of it using commons.

To clarify, I’m not low on the mechanic itself, putting two mutate cards in your deck means that you get to play two split cards which is great. What I am not keen on is building an all-in mutate deck before I have a few of the good uncommon mutate cards as payoffs.

When you have multiple mutate cards in hand, you may ask yourself, “am I supposed to pile all of these cards onto one creature, or is better to just cast them for their normal cost?” The real if not annoyingly abstract answer is that it’ll vary from game to game, but a good thing to remember is if it’s a common, you don’t want to mutate more than once; if it’s an uncommon, create the biggest mutate stack you can and it’ll pay you back in kind.

Parcelbeast MTG card art by Milivoj Ceran

Parcelbeast | Illustration by Milivoj Ceran

The exception to this of course is Parcelbeast. You don’t want to put all of your eggs in that basket as he does a good job of accruing value on his own and, I mean, just look at him! He looks like he’s dealing with a lot right now.

Here’s a quick and dirty cheat sheet for the best mutate payoffs in rough order from most to least impressive:

BW Humans/Sacrifice

This one isn’t a mechanic in a strict sense, but the decks that live in this space take up enough set real estate that it’s worth talking about them with the other mechanics. Cycling may be the clear best deck in the format, but I believe BW quietly holds the second-place title.

bw humans

BW’s main plan is to attrition the opponent out of the game by stuffing your deck with sacrifice fodder like Whisper Squad, Daysquad Marshall, and Durable Coilbug and then accruing value with Bushmeat Poacher. This unassuming common is one of the deck’s lynchpins and you generally want two of them and will play three if you end up with enough fodder.

It’s easy to look at the type of cards that slot into this deck and say, “small creatures and token makers, I’ve heard this joke before,” and assume this is an aggressive deck. While you can get off to quick starts and out-tempo your opponent, that’s not the deck’s main plan. I think it’s ill-advised to make mulligan decisions or plays framing this deck as a traditional aggro deck.

Bushmeat Poacher MTG card art by Randy Vargas

Bushmeat Poacher | Illustration by Randy Vargas

The BW deck is billed as being a “human tribal” deck, but aside from one payoff at uncommon (Sanctuary Lockdown) and one at mythic rare (General Kudro of Drannith), there are virtually no incentives to pick up more humans than you would in any other color pair. Yes, there are a few cards at common that reference humans like Perimeter Sergeant, but they’re generally cards I try not to include especially when they don’t play particularly well with what the deck is trying to do. If you do happen to pick up a Sanctuary Lockdown or two, you can certainly build around it and take humans over non-humans as a tie breaker, just don’t expect to take a bunch of humans early and get paid off later like you might if you were drafting the cycling deck.

I’ve been watching a ton of streamers draft Ikoria the past three weeks, and by far the most common question I see chat ask is, “wait, why is Whisper Squad good? Is this a card I should be playing?” This is another card that looks fairly unassuming, but not only is it a lynchpin of the BW deck, practically every black deck wants three to four copies of this little guy.

Whisper Squad MTG card art by Stepan Alekseev

Whisper Squad | Illustration by Stepan Alekseev

The other day I was having a conversation about the Squad with (at the time of writing) MTGO trophy leader BeersSC, and he considers the card so important to his black decks that he’s taking it over Blood Curdle these days! I’m not quite there yet, but I do firmly have Whisper Squad as the second best black common, I have not shied away from second picking it to ensure I get to three in my final pile. You can play two and it’s fine but three to four is the sweet spot. Any more than that and you risk drawing multiples in your opening hand.

Think of Whisper Squad as a token maker. If the card just said, “B for a 1/1, Pay 1B: make a 1/1,” I think it would look much more appealing. Now, Whisper Squad isn’t that card, it has an upwards limit to the number of times you can “make a token” and has a deck building cost, but that doesn’t make the card all that much worse that my imaginary card. The 1/1 body is small but that’s not what you’re playing the card for, you’re playing it for access to multiple raw materials to sacrifice to your Bushmeat Poacher, Mutual Destruction, or Weaponize the Monsters.

Weaponize the Monsters MTG card art by Magali Villeneuve

Weaponize the Monsters | Illustration by Magali Villeneuve

Speaking of Weaponize the Monsters, your BW decks will often dip into red exclusively for this bad boy. Weaponize is currently one of the most underrated cards in the set. I often see it wheeling even though it’s a first pick quality card. The card looks like a build-around and it sort of is in the sense that you need to accomplish the daunting task of “draft creatures for your limited deck.” Any deck with 15+ creatures should play this card. The card reads, “your opponent is at 10 less life than the number you see displayed” while punishing cards like Pacifism and making combat a nightmare for your opponents.

Deck Credit: Discord user PieceOfSchmidt

BW weaponize

One last card I want to talk about is Bastion of Remembrance. This card is great in most black decks, but truly shines in BW. Zulaport Cutthroat-style cards have always been powerful, but since this effect is usually printed on small bodies, they usually get picked off easily. Putting this effect on an enchantment gives you inevitability in a long and grindy game with the comfort of knowing it won’t be going anywhere unless your opponent has a disenchant effect.

Bastion of Remembrance MTG card art by Volkan Baga

Bastion of Remembrance | Illustration by Volkan Baga

Companions

Despite turning multiple constructed formats into what I’ve heard described as “Commander, but in Hell,” I think companions are a net positive for Limited play.

Keruga, the Macrosage MTG card art by Dan Scott

Keruga, the Macrosage | Illustration by Dan Scott

Companions are absurdly powerful. If you open one, you should try your best to build around them. Ignoring the advantage of adding a “Commander” to your deck powering up all your other cards, it’s hard to precisely quantify and calculate exactly how good having an eighth card in hand at the start of the game is. Rough estimates are “amazing” and “very, very good.”

Even a card like Jegantha the Wellspring, who is honestly not much better than a Collosopede, is ridiculously powerful. How many games of limited have you lost where you’ve said, “jeeze, if I only had one more creature?” Well, ta-dah! Here you go, out of thin air here’s one more creature. The kicker with companions is that even if you don’t end playing them in the companion slot, they’re almost all A- and B-level cards that you’d be taking early even if they didn’t have that additional, magic line of text.

“How hard should I try to companion?” is a question that pops up often. My advice for most of the companions has generally been to take cards that go with your companion until it’s painfully obvious that you shouldn’t.

If you open Gyruda, Doom of Depths and next pick you’re met with a B-level odd CMC card and a C-minus-level even CMC card, you should just take the B-level card. The real tricky part comes when you’ve taken five decent even cards and pick 6 you’re faced with a pick between a great card like Bastion of Remembrance and a reasonable card like Durable Coilbug. In this spot, I’d just take the Bastion but treat this pick the same way as you’d treat picking a great red card pick 6 if your first five were starting to solidify you in UB.

You’ve taken the Bastion because it’s a fairly low-opportunity cost, but you may not end up with it in your final deck. You don’t have to commit to the odd CMC card and give up Gyruda, but if it’s so much better than the next best option in the pack, just take it. Companions don’t lock you in as soon as you draft them and there’s so many playables in this set that you can bob and weave for a bit. Keep your options open but bias towards the card that goes with your companion when you can.

If you aren’t hard forcing your companion, you often end up with two potential builds at the end of the draft: one with your companion in the sideboard and one with it in the main deck. Which deck is correct to play will vary based on how your draft went and how good your companion is to play as your companion.

Voracious Greatshark MTG card art by Mathias Kollros

Voracious Greatshark | Illustration by Mathias Kollros

Some are better than others, but a good rule of thumb is: if you’re giving up one or two bomb A-level cards to play your companion, you should; at three it becomes a tough decision; four or more means you should strongly consider keeping the companion in the main deck. I’ll gladly give up an Everquill Phoenix in order to companion Jegantha the Wellspring, probably even two Pheonix’ if I were so lucky, but not playing two Pheonix’, a Mythos of Illuna, and a Voracious Greatshark is a tough pill to swallow.

These are just broad stroke examples and I challenge you to critically think about the cost benefit analysis of playing your companion. There is no easy answer. I could tell you, “of course you should companion! Companions are busted!” But I feel like that would be disingenuous. Even among the best limited players out there, “to companion or not to companion?” is an enigmatic question and a fascinating exercise in deck building. Your default should be to play your companion, but you’ll be submitting sub-optimal decks if you do so 100% of the time.

Playing against a companion can feel brutal. When your opponent has a companion, you’ve started the game with a virtually forced mulligan. It’s an uphill battle but remember that your opponent has usually paid a cost in their deck build. Their 60-card deck will be filled with more air than your 40-card deck and their Obosh, the Preypiercer deck has given up the right to play Fire Prophecy and Blood Curdle.

Obosh, the Preypiercer MTG card art by Daarken

Obosh, the Preypiercer | Illustration by Daarken

I keep coming back to this point, but the best way to fight a companion or any of the other best decks in the format is to draft a deck with a streamlined, proactive plan. If your deck is a generic value deck trying to one-for-one with your opponent, you’re going to lose most games that the villain starts with an extra card in hand. But if your plan is to reanimate a Titanoth Rex, you get to play a game where the deciding factor isn’t always who’s up an additional card.

When I first looked through the full list of the companions in Ikoria, I assumed that maybe about half of them were companion-able in limited, the rest were just too difficult. Turns out not only is it possible to make all of them your companion, a few of them have trivial requirements.

17lands.com has collected some fascinating companion data from their users. The win-rates of each companion mirror my experiences with the cards, with Zirda being a bit of an outlier. I imagine the accuracy of Zirda’s win-rate statistic suffers from small sample size, as it’s the hardest companion to make work.

Here’s a quick rundown of each companion, in rough order from best to worst. For each, I’ll touch on a few drafting/deck building tips and specific cards that each companion appreciates.

Gyruda, Doom of Depths

Gyruda, Doom of Depths
RB gyruda

Ease of Companionship: 9/10

Grade in the Main deck: A

General Notes: Gyruda asks very little of you and gives a lot in return. The “all even” restriction seems like a steep price to pay, until you realize that most of the good commons and uncommons have even CMCs anyways, including practically every removal spell in the set. This one is easy to force. A 40-card Pokémon deck with Gyruda as companion will often be a good deck. Gyruda pushes you towards wanting 18 lands to ensure you always hit six lands on turn six and don’t shy away from 19 lands if your 22nd playable is junky.

Specific Cards: Corpse Churn to rebuy Gyruda. The game often ends if you can ever cast it twice. This one is going to be a given for all the companions that touch black. Ways to rebuy the card your deck is built around are gas.

Obosh, The Preypiercer

Obosh, The Preypiercer

Deck Credit: KaptainMeliodas

 WBr Obosh

Ease of Companionship: 8/10

Grade in the Main deck: A

General Notes: Obosh is slightly harder to companion than Gyruda since the odd CMC cards are generally a bit weaker than the even ones. One of the cool things about Obosh is that he turns cards that are usually weak and late-picks into cards that you actively want. Seldom few want Serrated Scorpion, but in and Obosh deck, the card is a 2/2 that deals four damage to the opponent when it dies.

Specific Cards:

Lutri, the Spellchaser

Lutri, the Spellchaser

Deck Credit: DubinZach

UBR Lutri

Ease of Companionship: 8/10

Grade in the Main deck: B+

General Notes: With so many of the decks in Ikoria being streamlined synergy decks, giving up redundancy of your commons is a tangible cost. However, the consistency that you lose in having multiples of your best spells is somewhat recouped by always having a 3/2 flash that copies your most powerful spells. Ya win some, ya lose some.

Specific Cards: One mana off-color cyclers can help you to reach 40 cards if you don’t pick up enough uniquely named cards. Prioritize cheap spells; the more expensive the spell, the harder it is to copy. Cathartic Reunion is a mondo combo with Lutri.

Jegantha, the Wellspring

Jegantha, the Wellspring

Deck Credit: DubinZach

GB Jegantha

Ease of Companionship: 9.5/10

Grade in the Main deck: C+

General Notes: Jegantha may be the weakest companion if you’re judging it based on its card text, but what it lacks in raw power it makes up for by being very easy to get along with. It’s close to trivial to companion this card. There just aren’t many double pipped cards in the format, and the times you do have a few, it’s often well worth it to give them up for the free 5/5.

Specific Cards: Not many specific cards for this one, but it’s worth mentioning that Jegantha can help cast some off-color cycling cards.

Lurrus of the Dream-Den

Lurrus of the Dream-Den

Deck Credit: MisterMetronome

WB Lurrus

Ease of Companionship: 7/10

Grade in the Main deck: A

General Notes: Out of all the companions, Lurrus is the one that I’d have bet on being impossible to companion in limited. Turns out there are enough good, cheap cards that Lurrus can hang with the best of them! You often give up some cards you’d like to play in your main, but Lurrus as your companion is well worth sacrificing a few decent cards for. Lurrus ends up playing out like a control or attrition deck: you want to slow the game down the point where you’re casting a card from your grave each turn to bury your opponent in card advantage.

Specific Cards:

Umori, the Collector

Umori, the Collector

Deck Credit: RCSaxe

Gx Umori

Ease of Companionship: 6.5/10

Grade in the Main deck: B+

General Notes: Umori is another card I would have lost money on if I were to have bet on it being a good companion. While giving up removal spells hurts, Mutate creatures like Chittering Harvesterand Archipelagore fill that role if you can pick them up. Being able to dump your hand on when you untap with Umori on turn 4 or 5 is huge

Specific Cards: Humble Naturalist and Skull Prophet allow you to cast Umori on turn 3 which is huge for this deck. Mutate cards with spell-like effects.

Keruga, the Macrosage

Keruga, the Macrosage

Deck Credit: MisterMetronome

BUG Keruga

Ease of Companionship: 8/10

Grade in the Main deck: A

General Notes: Keruga is in a weird place because even though it’s a powerful card and the companion requirement is easy to fulfill, I don’t think you should be doing it all that often. There are enough decks in the format that’ll punish you for not doing anything until turn 3 that I’m not in love with the idea of making Keruga my friend. If you’re in a slow matchup, I think it’s great to companion Keruga post-board, but unless I have multiple Frost Lynx’—the key to not falling behind in a Keruga deck—I’m pretty off it as my game-one companion.

Specific Cards: Frost Lynx is the most important card to the deck. You need a way to bridge the gap between the early game and the midgame.

Yorion, Sky Nomad

Yorion, Sky Nomad
WUr Yorion

Ease of Companionship: 9/10

Grade in the Main deck: A

General Notes: Yorion is similar to Keruga where it’s both a good card and easy to companion, but the deck building requirement is often too painful. Playing 60 cards often means you’re playing a lot of air; a ton of cyclers and card-draw spells. I can see playing Yorion as your companion when you’re in the exact right lane for your seat and end up with 30 good playables, but that doesn’t happen all that often.

Specific Cards: Frost Lynx is one of the few good ETB effects in the set. Cyclers help you to reach 60 cards.

Zirda, the Dawnwaker

Zirda, the Dawnwaker

Deck Credit: bparispoker

RG Zirda

Ease of Companionship: 4/10

Grade in the Main deck: B+

General Notes: Of all the companions Zirda has the most stringent deck building cost. The main joke of the card is that it works with cycling and, although your cycling decks don’t have a hard time playing the card, you give up some of the best payoffs in the deck like Prickly Marmoset and Reptilian Reflection. I’m more interested in making Zirda my companion in a deck like the one pictured above, where I’m abusing it by having cards with true activated abilities, not just cycling. You have to get sort of creative to make this one work, but when you get there, Zirda is a powerful card.

Specific Cards: Almighty Brushwagg is a house with Zirda. The keyword “mentor” cycle of uncommons and cards with activated abilities you plan to use each turn like Checkpoint Officer are nice as well.

Kaheera, the Orphanguard

Kaheera, the Orphanguard

Deck Credit: TopDeckFTW

4c Kaheera

Ease of Companionship: 4/10

Grade in the Main deck: B

General Notes: Kaheera asks a lot from you. The set is littered with the creatures that Kaheera specifies and yet it still feels like a large cost to have to ignore about a third of the creatures in the set. You usually have to include sort of crappy creatures to make Kaheera works so, if it dies, you’re just stuck with a bunch of subpar creatures. My experience with Kaheera has been that, since the opponent can see Kaheera coming, they just save their first removal spell for it.

For a second opinion on building with each Companion I’d recommend checking out this Jim Davis Article.

Minor Synergy Packages

If format pillars cycling, mutate, and humans/sacrifice are your Michael Scott, Pam, and Jim, these minor synergy packages are your Kevin, Creed, and Stanley. You won’t see them as often, but when they have their moment in the spotlight, they’re golden.

If your cycling deck isn’t coming together the way you’d like it to by the middle of pack 2, consider a deck that employs the set’s minor themes. The minor synergy packages aren’t spread across as many of the set’s cards, but they can often be just as powerful as some of the set’s main themes. Your whole deck won’t be built around these themes very often, but once in a while you’ll end up with an absurdly good vigilance or reanimator deck because all of the right cards happen to come to you.

One of the awesome things about Ikoria is how often you find weird synergies by mixing and matching themes. A lot of my best decks have been decks where the core is a pillar of the format, but I also have a synergy package made from the minor themes. A mutate deck with a vigilance package, for example.

Reanimator

Out of all of the minor synergy packages in the set, this is the one I find myself actively trying to draft. Back for More and Unbreakable Bond are just as good as archetype payoff cards for the pillar decks, but there’s only two of them so you won’t see them as often. You really want the cycling monsters like Titanoth Rex and Void Beckoner to cycle early and then get back when you find your reanimation spell, but Honey Mammoth is a fine stand in if you can get it in the grave.

Spells Matter Cards

I find my UR decks more often lend themselves to cycling than these spells matter cards, but these are a good fallback if the cycling cards aren’t flowing. Sprite Dragon is the best payoff here but Pyroceratops is a decent stand in. Your goal with these cards is to be an aggressive UR deck, often combo killing with Raking Claws. There’s a decent amount of tension with the spells matter cards and cards that want you to cycle as you can’t do both with your spell, so be careful about throwing Sprite Dragon in every deck.

Keyword Tribal

Each keyword—vigilance, menace, flying, flash, trample—gets a rare payoff, a hybrid uncommon, an uncommon mentor that grants the keyword and pumps creatures with it (with the exception that black’s mentor grants lifelink), and a common that references the keyword in some way. Decks with vigilance and menace packages are the most common with flash not too far behind. I haven’t found myself to have strong trample or flying subthemes unless I have the rare for those decks, due in no small part to the cards that reward you for those keywords just not being as strong.

Vigilance

The vigilance package is pretty strong. I’m actively looking to find a way to slot it in my deck. I’ve had Alert Heedbonder create game states where I’ve had multiple onboard and gained so much life there was no way my opponent could win before decking. Solid Footing isn’t just a meme, it’s a very real card. You hope to wheel these, but as people are picking up on how good the vigilance package is, I’ve had spots where I expected to wheel it but didn’t.

Menace

Sonorous Howlbonder does a good Phantom Warrior impression while granting its ability to your other menace creatures. Tentative Connection is similar to Solid Footing where the decks that want it really want it but you do hope to wheel it. Don’t put this card in your deck without sacrifice outlets, This is a card you actively want once you reach about three.

Flash

Slitherwisp is sort of a whole deck on its own but if you aren’t lucky enough to have the card, Cunning Nightbonder making your Blitz Leechs and Capture Spheres cost less is real nice.

Flying and Trample

What you see is what you get here! No real tricky combos, the bonders for these two keywords are fairly uninspiring and I’m really only including these packages in my deck If I have the rares that go with them.

Navigating the Draft

We’ve covered the most important decks and big picture ideas in Ikoria, now it’s time to talk about applying what we know to translate theory into drafting a successful deck!

The draft portion of Ikoria shares more things in common with a Masters set or a cube than your typical Standard draft set. It rewards extremely linear deck building (see RW cycling) but also dynamic and creative drafting where finding pockets of synergy among cards that don’t obviously belong together can be the driving force of your deck.

This can be a lot to process when trying to navigate a draft, especially when the signpost uncommon “recipes” don’t always contain the correct measurements for a tasty final product. Ikoria is a haven for the drafters who are confident in their abilities and know how to make a meal with whatever’s in the fridge, but for those who prefer to do the cooking by the book, let me lay out my strategy for navigating an Ikoria draft.

1. Drafting a deck that has a cohesive plan that “does a thing,” preferably something over-the-top and busted, is your number one priority.

The best early picks in the set are cards that provide some sort of direction for your draft. Companions are the best of these types of cards, but strong pillar-archetype-payoff cards like Parcelbeast, Flourishing Fox, and Weaponize the Monsters are great as well. In a lot of sets, taking narrow cards like these early can pigeonhole you, but since the best decks in the format are trying to execute a linear strategy, these cards are much better than just first picking a generically good card like Blood Curdle.

2. In Ikoria, your goal is to read what archetype is open, not necessarily what colors are open.

Drannith Healer MTG card art by Scott Murphy

Drannith Healer | Illustration by Scott Murphy

If you’re trying to navigate an Ikoria draft like you’d navigate a draft in other sets, you’re setting yourself up for a bad time. You can have two white drafters sitting beside each other, one in RW cycling and one in BW humans, both ending up with great decks because the white cards each player wants are dramatically different. A player drafting a focused RW deck doesn’t want Daysquad Marshal and the BW player isn’t often going to be able to make great use of Snare Tactician. This is an effect you see replicated amongst many of the top commons for each archetype and, consequently, cards that are good in multiple archetypes like Drannith Healer are high picks.

3. If you’re not seeing cards that belong to your archetype and see strong uncommon payoffs for other archetypes coming your way, don’t be afraid to switch lanes entirely.

After you’ve first picked a strong archetype-payoff card like Auspicious Starrix, you should navigate the draft trying to maximize on it by picking up more payoffs and enablers for your mutate deck. However, if I see a pick 5 Ominous Seas followed by a pick 6 Of One Mind, I’m very likely to jump ship to UR spells even if there are decent blue cards in the pack I could see myself playing in a UG mutate deck like Glimmerbell.

Glimmerbell MTG card art by Simon Dominic

Glimmerbell | Illustration by Simon Dominic

Ominous Seas pick 5 is a good sign that the UR spells/cycling deck is open in my seat. In most sets I’d take my strong first pick green card, pair it with the strong blue cards I’m getting passed and draft UG, but since Ominous Seas and Of One Mind generally don’t belong in UG, I know I need to shift lanes not just into a second color, but into a different archetype.

The presence (or lack of) strong archetype-payoff cards are the signals I’m trying to read as I’m navigating the draft, and less so reasonable cards in my colors. In most sets, the payoff for reading open colors is that you get rewarded with cards in that color later than you’d normally expect to see them, but this matters a lot less when half of the “good” cards in your colors don’t fit into your archetype/deck.

Don’t be afraid to straddle two archetypes at the same time early in the draft. This is often what the early picks of my pack 1 look like:

It’s almost as if I’m drafting two decks at once. I’m willing to take uncommon payoffs of multiple archetypes early and then see which one is more open as the draft progresses. I often think about Ikoria as “drafting the hard way until you’re not.” Staying open to find your archetype and then sticking to it and drafting as linear a deck as you can once you’ve found it

4. If no lane presents itself, have an exit strategy: draft a deck full of pockets of synergy, especially ones focused around the set’s minor themes.

Sometimes, the packs break in such a way that no clear archetype ever presents itself. Or it’s too late to hone in on it by the time it does. When you feel your draft is starting to derail a bit, the easiest way to still end up with a deck and not just a mishmash is to draft a deck with multiple synergy packages.

packages of synergy

Keensight Mentor | Illustration by Yongjae Choi

Seeing a pick 6 Keensight Mentor can be a point of direction to latch onto. I want to highlight this next point because I think it’s really important: taking all the good payoffs for the set’s minor themes early often means you’ll get rewarded with cards for your deck late. For example, since there are less vigilance payoffs in the set than there are cycling ones, it’s much less likely that multiple people are going to be trying to be drafting a vigilance deck. Planting your flag early can often lead to huge rewards.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: don’t be afraid to mix and match! This deck is a little mutate, a little cycling, not doing either one all that well. But good enough that most of my cards are contributing towards a similar plan and none of the cards having so much discord with others that I’m ever drawing “the wrong combination” of cards.

Deck Gallery

Usually I’d use this section to talk about how to draft each color pair, but since two decks of the same color pair will often be doing very different things and we’ve covered the set’s main themes already, I’ll instead be using this section as a gallery for example decks and their draft logs where I can. Each deck went at least 2-1 and the majority of them are 3-0 drafts.

Each deck will be labelled using its main themes, and I’ll be sure to include decks that don’t fit the typical mold. I’ll also be using this section to highlight some less prominent archetypes that we have yet to touch on. If nothing else, I hope this deck gallery shows that there’s a ton of room for creativity in Ikoria!

RW Cycling

Draft Log

RW cycling

RW Go Wide

This is a that deck exemplifies what a good exit strategy for when you don’t get enough payoffs for RW cycling looks like. Huntmaster Liger and Regal Leosaur are cards that often wheel and, in case you haven’t seen them in action, mutating either one onto the other gives your team +4 power.

Draft Log

RW cyling 2

UG Mutate

Draft Log

UG mutate

5C Mutate Good Stuff

Draft Log

 5c mutate

BW Sacrifice

Draft Log

BW sacrifice

BW Mutate

Deck Credit: potagold4

BW mutate

UR Spells

UR spells

UR Cycling

I’d like the record to show that this deck was from early in the format and I admit P1P1 is an egregious mistake! Don’t make that pick unless you’re sick of drafting Zenith Flare.

Draft Log

UR cycling

GB Reanimator

The GB reanimator package with Back for More or Unbreakable Bond returning Titanoth Rex,Void Beckoner, or Greater Sandwurm is powerful but not something exclusive to GB. You can play it in your GB decks but it’s also an easy pocket of synergy to splash in other green-based decks or RB.

Draft Log

BG reanimator

GB Mutate

As we move into the allied color pairs, I want to give a quick reminder that these are often going to be less focused then the decks you’ll find in the enemy color pairs. What your allied color deck wants to do will largely be a function of the types of cards you take early in the draft. You’ll often start RW cycling and move into UW cycling when you realize red it too cut in your seat. I have a few examples of peak “keyword tribal” decks, but again, these decks aren’t typical, just examples if you happen to wander down the right path.

Deck Credit: DubinZach | Draft Log

GB mutate

RB Menace

Draft Log

RB menace

RB Steal and Sacrifice

Deck Credit: xXGimmliXx | Draft Log

RB steal

RB Reanimator

I love RB because it lends itself to so many of the set’s synergies. The world is your oyster.

RB reanimator

Draft Log

GW Vigilance

Draft Log

GW vigilance

GW Mutate

Deck Credit: DubinZach

GW mutate

UW Flying Aggro

Deck Credit: Discord user GamerGC | Draft Log

UW flying aggro

UW Cycling

Deck Credit: Discord user LoosterBooster

UW cycling

UB Flash

Draft Log

UB flash

UB Mutate/Reanimator

Draft Log

UB mutate reanimator

RG Trample

RG trample

The Part with the Best Commons

Since you’re so incentivized to be taking cards that belong to your archetype instead of generically powerful cards, pick orders go out the window as soon as P1P2 in some cases. That being said I think there’s still merit to talking about the better commons in each color to determine general power rankings and a rough approximation of where you should be taking them.

White

1. Snare Tactician

Snare Tactician

Great in the RW cycling deck and a decent card in any white deck that just happens to be playing cycling cards.

2. Drannith Healer

Drannith Healer

Mostly here because it has cycling for one mana but is a good role player in most white decks.

3. Imposing Vantasaur / Pacifism

Most of Vantasaur’s value comes from it’s cycling ability, but it’s nice that you do cast it in some number of games. Pacifism is a fine removal spell and you’ll take it over Vantasaur if you aren’t a dedicated cycling deck or have a cycling package, but Vantasaur is the better early pick.

Blue

1. Essence Scatter

Essence Scatter

Essence Scatter is good in virtually every blue deck. It’s efficient and one of the best answers to mutate creatures.

2. Startling Development / Frostveil Ambush

They’re going to keep popping up! One-mana cyclers are the truth.

3. Dreamtail Heron

Dreamtail Heron

Heron is a good card in decks with a lot of mutate payoffs and decent elsewhere. It’s super solid but rarely exciting.

Black

1. Blood Curdle

Blood Curdle

Did you expect anything else?!

2. Whisper Squad

Whisper Squad

SQUAD! The card that makes a lot of your black decks tick, don’t be afraid to pick these up early. Planting yourself as “the Squad drafter” is important.

3. Bushmeat Poacher

Bushmeat Poacher

Poacher interacts really nice with the majority of black’s commons. You usually only want two in your deck maximum, but picking up the first one is critical.

Red

1. Fire Prophecy

Fire Prophecy

Red’s clear frontrunner. Prophecy is excellent, snap up as many as you can.

2. Drannith Stinger / Prickly Marmoset

Both cards are great in a cycling deck but also just good cards in general. Stinger is a slightly better early pick because it’s cheaper and it cycles, but you often want a good mix of these

3. Rumbling Rockslide / Go for Blood

The tier two removal spells in red, both these cards are still exceptionally good. Red just happens to be incredibly deep.

Green

1. Ram Through

Ram Through

This is green’s only “great” common. I’m not taking this card early because I’m not looking to get into green early, but if you see them mid-pack it’s a decent sign green is open in your seat.

2.Migratory Greathorn / Greater Sandwurm / Essence Symbiote

Each of these cards are perfectly reasonable in the decks they belong in, but not high picks.

3. Almighty Brushwagg / Honey Mammoth

Yeesh, we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel here. Honey Mammoth is surprisingly potent. You don’t have to take it early, but most green decks want one and sometimes two. Brushwagg is a fine creature on its own and a good host to mutate onto.

Special Mention: Farfinder

Just some quick notes on Farfinder. This card is good, but not as good as I think some thought it would be and nowhere close to as good as Skittering Surveyor was in Dominaria. Take Farfinder in the early- to mid-pack if you’re drafting a mutate deck or think you might be splashing, but don’t take it expecting it to make your deck all the time. Cycling decks don’t usually want the card and even though it fits into a self-sacrifice Bushmeat Poacher deck, it’s a bit clunky there and usually one of the first cards that gets the axe in deck building.

Odds and Ends

One final section to cover some tidbits that didn’t quite fit anywhere else.

The Ultimatums

I hate to break it to you, I wish it weren’t so, but the Ultimatums are bad.

OK, they aren’t bad bad, but I’m of the opinion that they make their way into way more decks than they should. As PT champion and Limited expert Kyle Rose puts it, and I’m paraphrasing, “they’re anti-companions, draft these and you have the privilege of starting the game with 6 cards in hand instead of 7.”

Two out of the five of them, Ruinous Ultimatum and Inspired Ultimatum, have effects that I’d consider to be both consistently worth their difficult mana costs and good enough to catch you up from behind when you can’t cast your seven-mana three-color spell on exactly turn 7. These are our base lines for “good payoffs,” cards that are worth spending real picks in the draft to get the requisite fixing needed to cast them. The other three Ultimatums are either inconsistent or, in the case of Emergent Ultimatum, close to straight-up bad.

Ruinous Ultimatum and Inspired Ultimatum are totally fine cards to build around but they’re too often shoved into decks that can’t reliably cast them. Or, even worse, incentivize you to play a rocky mana base that impedes on your ability to reliably cast your other spells. Medium author Drew Hoyt put together a great write up about the number of sources needed to cast an Ultimatum on time and by extension how much fixing you need to draft to be able to responsibly put one in your deck. Spoiler: it’s a lot.

The nail in the coffin for me was seeing this visualization of 17land.com data made by MTGA data analyst Sierkovitz. It looks at the win rates of decks with Ultimatums in them compared to decks of the same color without. Almost across the board, putting an Ultimatum in a deck lowered its win rate compared to decks that didn’t have them.

Admittedly, the lower win rates may be attributed to improper deck building especially when many players will draft an Ultimatum and still play it even if they didn’t pick up the requisite fixing, but that still speaks to the point of “don’t play these unless you have the right tools to do so.”

Funky Rares

Offspring’s Revenge

offspring's revenge

Offspring’s Revenge is a B-level card you can splash in your BW or RB decks. It plays well with Bastion of Remembrance, Weaponize the Monsters, and Bushmeat Poacher.

Titan’s Nest

Titans'_Nest

Titan’s Nest is a card that I think most players have written off as unplayable, but I’ve found it to be an all right card in any deck where you’re drawing cards and have a minor self-mill theme. One of the issues with decks that are casting card-draw spells is they get bottle necked on mana and often can’t deploy multiple cards a turn. Titan’s Nest helps with that issue.

You can often cast a second spell the turn this comes down assuming that turn isn’t turn 4, and it provides you with a bit of filtering for the rest of the game. Not a bomb, but a solid playable in decks that can cast it.

Porcuparrot

Porcuparrot

One of the more unfair things you can do in Ikoria is put Porcuparrot on Bootnipper or a creature with a deathtouch counter on it from Void Beckoner to start sniping your opponents creatures.

Slightly more fair is putting it on Glimmerbell for multiple pings per turn or on Thieving Otter to draw an additional card each turn. Note that Otter doesn’t specify it has to deal combat damage to draw a card.

Some Parting Thoughts

Try to Play Fewer than 17 Lands

Thanks to streamlined game plans, the prevalence of one-mana cyclers, and a relative lack of mana sinks, many of the decks in Ikoria can operate on four or five lands and don’t really want ever to hit land seven. I’ll play 17 lands if I have to but, in most RB, WB, UR, WR, GW, GR, and UW decks, I’m aiming for 15 or 16 most of the time. Applying the same concept that the cycling decks use, for every 3 one-mana cyclers, you can cut a land. In BO1 on Arena I’m going to play 16 or less almost every time.

A Twitter Thread from Sam Black

Sam is one of the brightest minds playing our game today. He has some really interesting thoughts about drafting the cycling deck and companions. I highly recommend you give this thread a read. It’ll only take about two minutes and I promise it’s worth the time.

My 17lands.com Rankings

The final tidbit I leave you with! My 17lands.com rankings for every card in the set. These are general power rankings and aren’t meant to be used as a pick order, just as a tool to get a feel for the power level of cards you may not have played with yet or to reaffirm your feelings about certain cards.

Wrap Up

I hope you’ve enjoyed this draft guide! I drafted Theros: Beyond Death well over 200 times and while it was a fine draft format, drafting Ikoria has been such an enjoyable experience that it makes me wonder if my affinity for THB was really just Stockholm Syndrome.

Alert Heedbonder MTG card art by Randy Vargas

Alert Heedbonder | Illustration by Randy Vargas

Stay safe out there, and I’ll see you in the next set!

5 Comments

  • Avatar
    Hare__Krishna May 13, 2020 6:33 pm

    Well-written and much appreciated!

    • Avatar
      b June 9, 2020 3:56 pm

      For the vigilance or flying deck how good is the deck if you have a medium version of the deck ie missing one of the key uncommons, not enough of another subtheme to make it work?

  • Avatar
    Agent of Lechery May 14, 2020 10:02 am

    I appreciate the deep dive into Ikoria. I had done a couple sealed events on Arena without reading about the set and did pretty poorly. However I just did my first draft after reading this article and went 7-1 with WBR (red was a splash for Weaponize the Monsters). The advice was very helpful in understanding the environment of the set. Thank you for the hard work.

  • Avatar
    Filip May 15, 2020 4:04 am

    Hey

    Thank you so much for this guide.

    I used to win between 1 to 2 Games per Draft, but after your Guide in my first Draft i reached now 5 wins and have onel loss. Incredible.

  • Avatar
    Filip May 15, 2020 4:06 am

    Btw. I made some sort of menance, mutate combo Deck

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