The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is exactly what I wanted ahead of the remaining Regional Championships and the Pioneer Pro Tour in Chicago in February. The set has a deep well of both valuable role-players and build-arounds that might spawn or define entire archetypes, giving enterprising brewers a lot to play with in the hope of blindsiding the world.
Bartolomé del Presidio
The handsome Vampire Bartolomé del Presidio looks unassuming, but its printing is a critical development for Pioneer. The card pool has no shortage of good things to sacrifice, ways to stock your graveyard, or solid recursion effects, but the lack of free sacrifice outlets has always been a glaring omission. Woe Strider is fine if you’re willing to go up the curve or can jump up there with Gilded Goose or Llanowar Elves, but until then, your options are limited to one-off effects like Priest of Forgotten Gods or repeatable effects that consume all your mana. Cartel Aristocrat narrowly made it into Pioneer by sneaking into Gatecrash over a decade ago, but it isn’t exciting on its own and doesn’t convert repeated sacrifices into some other resource.
I wasn’t holding out hope for Carrion Feeder, but something in that space was long overdue – and Bartolomé does a great impression of Carrion Feeder. In a deck with enough sacrificial lambs to want this effect, Bartolomé rapidly becomes the biggest creature on the battlefield and demands removal like Fatal Push that is poor against your deck otherwise. Unlike Carrion Feeder, Bartolomé can and will block – though he starts with one toughness, he is impossible to attack through on the ground once he starts amassing counters.
He also does so much more!
- 2 Cartel Aristocrat
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 4 Star Pupil
- 4 Knight-Errant of Eos
- 4 Scorn-Blade Berserker
- 4 Enduring Bondwarden
- 4 Bartolome del Presidio
This tricky brew uses modular-esque Humans like Enduring Bondwarden and Star Pupil alongside Agatha’s Soul Cauldron, The Ozolith, and Thalia’s Lieutenant to relive the glory days of Arcbound Ravager. Previous lists had to run Cartel Aristocrat anyway, but Bartolomé is outstanding here despite not being a Human as the +1/+1 counters he picks up while enabling these other synergies pair perfectly with Agatha’s Soul Cauldron and The Ozolith – imagine grafting his text onto an Enduring Bondwarden, stacking up counters there, and then having some other creature use Bartolomé’s ability to sacrifice the Bondwarden which in turn moves another set of those counters onto The Ozolith…
Thraben Inspector, a solid team player that is rarely a surprise to see, is here to support our new star. Sacrificing creatures on demand is a familiar concept (even if it’s mostly new to Pioneer), but few of the top sacrifice outlets can bin artifacts too. Thraben Inspector represents two pieces of material that you can sacrifice to Bartolomé or other cards in the set that use this batching. Once you look for similar examples, you find them everywhere. How about Bloodtithe Harvester or Food fighters like Gilded Goose and Tough Cookie?
Dusk Rose Reliquary also asks you to think in these terms. It isn’t a strict upgrade to a card like Portable Hole, which is often earmarked for a one-drop like Llanowar Elves, but if you have enough fodder, this is an excellent removal spell that can set up other synergies. Boros Convoke is built to have enough fuel for Gleeful Demolition and enough bodies to power its convoke spells, so it ticks that box easily and now has a way to deal with Mayhem Devil or Thing in the Ice.
Note that you only pay this additional cost when you cast Reliquary. If you sneak it in through another means or blink it with a card like Yorion, Sky Nomad, you won’t lose anything.
We can lean into the Arcbound Ravager comparisons even further, as the overlap between the +1/+1 counters and artifact themes grows deeper with every set. Animation Module lets you turn mana into +1/+1 counters on Bartolomé at an amazing one-to-one rate, just as it does with Ravager. Hangarback Walker is the perfect recipient for a full dice box of +1/+1 counters, and Bartolomé is ready to crack that open at the right time.
Hardened Scales and Sacrifice
Dipping into green lets you access the original Hardened Scales and the many riffs on it over the years, letting Bartolomé get out of control even faster. Mana-fixing for these proactive decks is good enough now that some kind of Abzan Scales deck is possible, as long as you aren’t fully committed to all three colours at once.
How about the existing Sacrifice deck that tends to have various trinkets cluttering up the table? Autumn Burchett and their teammates played Mardu Sacrifice at Pro Tour Phyrexia and Bartolomé is another enticing reason to splash white there. Traditional Rakdos Sacrifice is a little light on actual sacrifice outlets – Bartolomé makes cards like Claim the Firstborn much more reliable (and even gives Claim the hidden mode of granting Bartolomé haste to enable a big hit out of nowhere!)
Rally the Ancestors
Rally the Ancestors has been trying to relive its Standard glory days since the creation of Pioneer, but it always lacked the right supporting cast. Bartolomé is happy to help:
- 4 Stitcher's Supplier
- 4 Hunted Witness
- 4 Fiend Artisan
- 4 Elas il-Kor, Sadistic Pilgrim
- 4 Gnawing Vermin
- 4 Scorn-Blade Berserker
- 4 Souls of the Lost
- 4 Bartolome del Presidio
Lurrus of the Dream-Den may be gone, but its deckbuilding incentive lives on: fill your deck with one-drops and two-drops that key off each other, so that Rally the Ancestors for X = 2 or a mid-sized Return to the Ranks is reliably lethal.
There are more options for each of the basic ingredients now – most sets have their own take on Hunted Witness or Zulaport Cutthroat – but you also want the ability to build a battlefield that’s threatening without a Rally effect. Bartolomé is a big deal there, but this set has even more to offer:
We don’t have fetchlands or Mishra’s Bauble in Pioneer to make Souls of the Lost massive without even trying (rest assured I’ll see just how big Souls can be in Modern next time), but with the right enablers, it can be a formidable threat in a format with much worse removal.
If you sacrifice a Turn 1 Stitcher’s Supplier to a Turn 2 Souls of the Lost, you will likely have a 5/5 at worst when you attack on Turn 3, and it doesn’t take much more to have lethal by Turn 4. In the scrappy games that don’t finish with a giant Rally, creating a steady stream of giant Souls with Fiend Artisan and Return to the Ranks should be enough.
Letting your enabler be your backup threat as well is alsoan appealing pitch for more proven combo decks:
The turbo Greasefang decks powered by Stitcher’s Supplier fell out of favour after Pro Tour Phyrexia, but Souls of the Lost might be reason enough to revisit them. You need creatures that are also discard outlets to move your fleet of Vehicles between zones reliably, but Raffine’s Informant is unimpressive, and each riff on Seasoned Hallowblade is as mopey as the next.
Souls of the Lost has its downsides and increases your exposure to graveyard hate, but it hits incredibly hard. Some lists already had Rotting Regisaur as a sideboard pivot that rises above Fiery Impulse or Lightning Axe and can discard a Parhelion II in a pinch. Souls of the Lost can fill both roles more effectively at a better spot on the curve!
Amalia and the Walker
Fans of creature combo decks have a lot to celebrate too. It would take several new top-tier cards with the explore mechanic to make Wildgrowth Walker a natural choice in Pioneer, but an unlikely infinite combo lets it skip the queue. Wildgrowth Walker gains you life when you explore, which makes Amalia explore, which makes Walker gain life again, and so on until reaching Amalia’s escape condition, and then Amalia sends Walker and everything else back to the caves.
Traps to Avoid
There’s both a trap and a tactic to note here – if Wildgrowth Walker is indestructible, Amalia can’t remove it and the loop continues endlessly, forcing a draw [or a loss on Magic Online (MTGO) as you stare helplessly while your timer expires]. This means you have to be careful with some of the more obvious ways to protect your combo. Tamiyo’s Safekeeping can gain life at instant speed to start the combo again in response to removal – just don’t target the Walker if you don’t have to!
With both creatures in place, you just need to gain life or explore to have one piece set off the other. Once you commit to running Wildgrowth Walker, it’s tempting to load up on the cheap explore creatures in the set, but I think this is a classic mistake. These cards are weak by themselves, and you shouldn’t fill your deck with these just to salvage another weak card. I make an exception for Jadelight Ranger, which is almost there on rate by itself and sets up a strong curve of Walker into Ranger while giving Collected Company a good hit.
It’s much easier to gain life on a whim, but this isn’t a ‘lifegain deck’ either. Cards that only do that aren’t worth it. These extra sources of life should be cards that wouldn’t look out of place in any other creature toolbox deck.
Building Around Amalia
Here’s a first pass at this combo:
- 2 Llanowar Elves
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 2 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 1 Knight of Autumn
- 4 Gilded Goose
- 1 Skyclave Apparition
- 4 Prosperous Innkeeper
- 1 Extraction Specialist
- 1 Werefox Bodyguard
- 4 Amalia Benavides Aguirre
- 2 Sentinel of the Nameless City
Some problems jump out right away – balancing the manabase’s heavy focus on green with the desire to cast Amalia on Turn 2, the risk of flooding with this many mana creatures, the lack of high-impact Company hits when you can’t count the combo pieces – but a cleaner list should make a good starting point. If you miss Modern being about elaborate Kitchen Finks combos, you can take refuge here in Pioneer for now.
There’s a vast landscape of intriguing decks to explore beyond that – I’m excited to see how far I can recreate the Amulet of Vigor thrill with Spelunking – and I’m glad that, on this return to Ixalan, the sense of adventure comes through in the cards as well as the flavour!