Ixalan Draft, a Dissonant Hellscape or an Avantgarde Masterpiece?

With Pro Tour Ixalan in the books, opinions on the feature set remain divided, and critical consensus looks no closer. Ixalan, a vibrant and colourful world of pirates and dinosaurs has polarised the Magic community, posing deep questions about how we define the success and failure of an expansion, and whether the design of a set can be considered art.

The pro community, by and large, is incredibly critical of Ixalan, in particular as a draft format. It’s been described as perhaps the worst Limited offering of the last 15 years, as the low quality of commons in the set combines with the hyper-linear tribal strategies to create a drafting experience that’s seen as low-skill and low-fun. The gameplay, too, has received harsh criticism – the scarcity of quality cheap removal and interaction in conjunction with several powerful auras often results in boring gameplay – or so the pros claim.

Ken Nagle, co-lead designer for Ixalan and The Great Designer Search alumni, sees it differently. For Ken, the futility that infuses both the drafting and the gameplay is the entire point: “Magic isn’t just about matching skills with your opponent, and straining your mental muscles in new and interesting ways – it’s also about being forced to sit there helplessly while your opponent absent-mindedly dispatches you.”

Ken acknowledges that Ixalan is a difficult set to love: “By design, this set pushes the boundaries of what’s unenjoyable about draft – I wanted to create something that was confronting and visceral, which would prompt an uncommon reaction from players, and force them to re-evaluate why they play Magic at all.”

“By presenting a Limited format that’s objectively miserable, full of unplayable cards and uninteractive Magic, we’ve crafted an experience that’s unique and memorable – as you sit there through a decision-free draft, the utter despair leaves a lasting impression that goes beyond your typical draft format.”

Inspiration for Ixalan came from numerous sources – both old and new. Nagle cites Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 surrealist cinema masterpiece, as a key inspiration. “Buñuel’s antagonism towards the audience – his unsettling and alienating movie – creates a viewing experience that’s revelatory. Un Chien Andalou causes an involuntary reaction, almost a contraction of the soul, and I’ve long chased that same feeling while playing magic.” Now, finally, Nagle’s vision has been realised. The idiosyncrasies of the draft format owe their existence to more than just one film, though – Ixalan can also trace its roots back to other surrealist works such as David Lynch’s Eraserhead, René Magritte’s This is not a Pipe, and Wizards of the Coast’s Aetherworks Marvel era Standard.

So, where do you stand? By succeeding beyond measure in his goal of creating a truly arduous and miserable expansion, has Ken sculpted a masterpiece? Or does Ixalan’s utter absence of anything even approaching enjoyment make it an incomparably bad set, hammering home, yet again, how important it is for Magic to include cheap interaction?