What is Ixalan? That is, other than Magic’s 76th expansion.
Some have gone so far as to call it a “Return of Magic”, referring to Magic’s less than stellar few years of standard balance, locking important tournament cards behind the expensive mythic rarity, and a squishing of deck archetypes towards mid range across the board. I like to think of it as the Return to Zendikar adventure world (part two) that we missed out on because of the Eldrazi. But it is the biggest shakeup the standard format has had in a little while.
With the changes to Wizard’s standard cycle of sets, and the subsequent changes to those changes, this is the largest number of sets leaving standard at one time since Theros. This means that regardless of whether Magic R&D has solved whatever internal balance issues they have had recently, the face of standard as we know it will change drastically. Because of this, I am not going to even try and predict what decks will exist on the other side of the rotation veil. Therefore, I can’t say whether or not they have fixed the strange propensity for standard bannings or whether we will have the true quintfecta of combo, tempo control, aggro, and midrange. But we can look and see if whatever feedback they have gotten over the last few years has managed to trickle it's way down to Magic’s newest set.
First and foremost to this set is Jace, or more specifically the removal of half his clothes, his memory, and the rest of the Gatewatch. In addition to breaking numerous middle school dress codes, Ixalan breaks the recent trend of the Gatewatch being the unchanging lump in the center of a game based around new and exciting exploration of things. I wasn’t as big of an enemy of the Gatewatch as either Nicol Bolas or the rest of the Magic community was, but as someone who enjoys seeing the new places Wizards is willing to take Magic it was a small disappointment to see the same cards (essentially) in every expansion. It's nice to see a Jace that does more with the “telepathic master of illusions” side of his character and less of the “I am blue, look at the cards I draw”.
Secondly, double faced cards are back. Again. And Wizards has shown that they are willing to experiment with old mechanics and bring them back in new and exciting ways. This has been something that Magic has been doing well recently: Recycling old mechanics, playing new mechanics close to the vest to conserve design space. In that sense, Ixalan is more of the same. Gone are the days of strip-mining mechanics. It may not be as exciting, but seeing mechanics like Raid sprinkled back into sets when they make sense makes me feel good.
In terms of story, it's nice to see that we have strayed away from the “World in Peril” and have a chance to explore a plane more naturally. The last few sets of Magic have been intense from a storytelling standpoint, but you need to look no further than Zendikar to see my issues with it. In the original Zendikar we had an adventure world, a world of high flying and exploration. When we returned there, we instead got a world torn apart from war. Powerful for a story, but it doesn’t leave much room for casual exploration. Seeing the variety of planes and stories is one of Magic’s strengths, but between Battle for Zendikar, Battle for Amonket, Battle for Tarkir, and Battle for Innistrad, it's nice to see a story about a hero going on an adventure again.
How serious has Magic been lately? It's a game for young adults, and has dealt with themes more suited to the latter than the former. A false promise of an afterlife and a merciless god. A plane torn by rebellion and a racist society. An eldritch being consuming sanity itself and an immortal father having to kill his angelic daughter. In Ixalan we get pirates and dinosaurs. Now, this isn’t a negative. Palate cleansers are an important part of storytelling. For all the rising action that lead to a failed conflict with Bolas, it's nice to have a bit of falling action before the story ramps back up. It may or may not be a return to classic Magic stories, but it is a return to the types of stories I wanted to read in the early 2000’s.
Some classic card effects are on their way back in. Wizards did away with the two-mana-for-three-damage instant burn spells a little after Theros. A post from Maro talked about cycling out such classic effects to allow the colors to shift and breath, and, coming off of the mono-black Thoughtseize/Duress deck of late 2013, this idea didn't sound so terrible. But I think the parts of Magic players minds that aren’t occupied by salt and terrible combos has quite a bit of nostalgia wrapped up in it. For a 24 year old game, and a player base that could span the whole length of it, there is a simple power to nostalgia and classic effects. Maybe Lightning Bolt may never claw it's way back up into standard, but it's nice to see old familiar cards and effects come in and out.
I think Wizards is continuing to take feedback from the community, we just have to remember they work so far ahead in the future that by the time we notice an issue, it's a few sets before they can make the changes. If we assume every set is locked in about a year before it comes out, and it's being still being designed a year before that, that means that when Battle for Zendikar came out they had just started Ixalan design in earnest. So the feedback we have been giving of less Gatewatch, more varied standard, and a desire for less serious storylines is only just now showing up. Feedback we gave during Shadows over Innistrad won’t show up until Dominaria. And the feedback give them now probably won’t be able to be incorporated into sets for two years.
Overall though, what is Ixalan? It looks like a fun set that takes a step back from the world ending storylines. It looks like a continuation of some good Magic design (a few development hiccups aside). But I think Magic players have been a little hurt lately by all the standard bannings, and are looking for any sign to show them it's OK to love again. I think standard gets a stale near the end of every life-cycle, and everyone is searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. If you are looking for Magic to change overnight with a single new set, you might be out of luck.
...although I hear Dominaria is supposed to be something of a “Return to Magic”.