Cards from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan were available for use on Magic Online this past weekend, and we are starting to get an initial glimpse at what the new Standard format might look like. In a somewhat unsurprising move, many players simply added a couple powerful new cards to well-established tier one archetypes from Wilds of Eldraine Standard. For instance, Sunday’s Magic Online Standard Challenge showcased four Esper Midrange decks in top eight, two of which were in the finals. Both finals decklists made use of Subterranean Schooner and Deep-Cavern Bat as upgrades from the new set.
Of course, not everyone is content playing well-known archetypes near the start of a new Standard format. Some players love to brew decks around new cards. Well, one of the most intriguing parts of The Lost Caverns on Ixalan is the emphasis on specific Creature types. Would kindred shells built around Merfolk or Pirates make their presence felt in this new Standard environment? Would there be enough support?
As it turns out, the top eight of Sunday’s Standard Challenge specifically featured a Dinosaurs shell made up primarily of new cards. The Dinosaurs deck relies on getting big, yet efficient Creatures into play to close the game quickly. There are a handful of payoffs for building specifically around Dinosaurs, though interestingly, they aren’t your traditional generic “Lords” that buff your team. Let’s begin by taking a gander at the cards that might pull you into this strategy in the first place.
Dinosaur Enablers and Payoffs
In order for players to gravitate towards a deck built primarily around one Creature type, there typically needs to be at least a few cards that benefit from having other Creatures of that type in your deck. In this archetype, a few key cards come fill this role.
First and foremost, we have Ixalli’s Lorekeeper. Long gone are the days of one-drop mana dorks like Elvish Mystic in Standard. This is, in part, because they tend to provide a massive mana and tempo advantage. The range of one-mana removal spells is typically quite low in a Standard setting, making these mana dorks exceptionally reliable.
Ixalli’s Lorekeeper is an exception, because it only ramps you in a Dinosaurs shell. This is a big restriction, but also a big reason to play a lot of Dinosaurs in your deck. Another reason to play a hefty number of large Dinosaurs is to be able to maximize Triumphant Chomp. Triumphant Chomp, at minimum, can kill small Creatures, much like Torch the Tower or Cut Down. The difference, though, is that Triumphant Chomp has the potential to kill much bigger threats. With cards like Cut Down, you are giving up versatility for efficiency. Triumphant Chomp provides both, killing small Creatures in the early game and large Creatures in the middle or late game.
In addition to Ixalli’s Lorekeeper, this deck makes good use of Belligerent Yearling and Itzquinth, Firstborn of Gishath. Belligerent Yearling is already a 3/2 with Trample for two mana, which is a solid base. However, if you play a big Dinosaur, your Belligerent Yearling grows, adding a bunch of extra attacking power to the board. Itzquinth is a 2/3 with Haste, which again is a decent body on rate. The card is quite versatile, though, since if you wait until you have four mana, you can potentially end up with a removal spell on top of that. Notably, you can choose to have Itzquinth deal damage equal to its power to another Creature, but if you have a massive Dino in play, Itquinth gets even better.
Big Efficient Dinosaurs
All of these cards above synergize with Dinosaurs. Ideally, though, you want your Dinosaurs to be both high-powered and efficient. This is where Pugnacious Hammerskull comes into play. As a three-mana 6/6, this card hits hard. Alongside Lorekeeper, you can play this on turn two and threaten a ton of damage early. Belligerent Yearling can attack for six when you play Hammerskull the following turn. Itzquinth can kill six-toughness Creatures in conjunction with Hammerskull. The only downside for Hammerskull is that you need another Dinosaur in play to keep the pressure up. Thankfully, in this deck, that’s an easy task.
While Hammerskull is certainly the biggest three-drop available, Scytheclaw Raptor is a decent second option. Four power on a three-drop still synergizes with your other cards, and Scytheclaw Raptor punishes your opponent for casting spells on your turn. This actually helps make Itzquinth more reliable. Itzquinth specifically states that “target Dinosaur you control” deals damage to another target Creature. This means that your opponent can completely fizzle this ability with an Instant speed removal spell on whatever you target. As a result, you need to be careful when using this ability, as you may end up spending an additional two mana for nothing.
While Scytheclaw doesn’t fully protect you from Instant speed removal, your opponent will be rather hesitant to take four damage rather than try to kill your Creatures on their turn. The damage this deck can deal adds up quickly. The Creatures are very beefy for their mana costs, and when you lead off with Ixalli’s Lorekeeper, you get to play almost a full turn ahead of schedule.
Ixalli’s Lorekeeper, beyond letting you play three-drops on turn two, can also help you get to some impactful high-end threats. First up, we have a playset of Rampaging Raptor. As a four-power Hasty Dinosaur, this card can deal a ton of damage in short order. If your opponent can’t remove it, you can start sinking mana into it to deal extra damage. Having Haste also helps you beat board wipes, like Sunfall, out of the multi-color ramp decks.
Speaking of Hasty Creatures, our last Dinosaur is Palani’s Hatcher. Palani’s Hatcher fills a similar role that Regisaur Alpha used to fill in Standard Dinosaur decks during the original Ixalan bock. Palani’s Hatcher, barring Instant speed removal from your opponent, provides you with a 3/3 Dinosaur token that you can attack with on the same turn. If your opponent still can’t kill Palani’s Hatcher, you can convert your second Egg token into a 3/3 next turn and attack for a boatload of damage.
Of course, if your opponent does kill Palani’s Hatcher before you enter combat, you are simply left with two 0/1 Dinosaur Egg tokens. These at least help ensure Hammerskull can continue to attack each turn and are excellent Creatures to sacrifice to chapter two of The Huntsman’s Redemption.
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Strengths and Weaknesses
What this deck does best is attack for big chunks of damage quickly. Triumphant Chomp and Itzquinth help remove big blockers from the opponent while you continue to beat down. Pugnacious Hammerskull can be a nightmare for small Creature decks like mono-red aggro just based on its size alone. This deck relies on getting an early advantage on board and continuing to push this advantage with big threats.
Where issues can arise, though, is when your opponent can consistently answer your Large Creatures. The reality is, outside of Palani’s Hatcher, this deck has very little built-in card advantage. As scary as curving Yearling into Hammerskull can be, your Esper midrange opponent may simply curve Cut Down into Go for the Throat and keep the board completely stabilized.
That being said, this deck does ultimately force the issue rather quickly, and if your opponent runs out of removal, they may be in for a bad time. Cards like Urabrask’s Forge out of the sideboard can also punish an opponent who keeps a hand too reliant on removal spells and board wipes. Additionally, Cavern of Souls helps push your big Dinosaurs through cards like Make Disappear that could otherwise be somewhat effective. This deck hits hard, and if you’re not prepared for it, the game may be over before you know it.