Blog Elemental - A Tribal Revival
Strap me into the saddle cowboy... I’m going to start playing Tribal Wars!
You should definitely join me.
In case you hadn’t heard here are the rules for Tribal Wars:
A third of the cards in your deck must share a creature type.
Your deck must be Standard legal.
Umezawa’s Jitte is banned.
Aren’t you excited? Oh come on! Join me!
Okay I get that longtime Magic Online players hated the recent announcement that starting June 22 the Tribal Wars format would focus on the Standard cardpool only. Why the vitriol? A few reasons. First the announcement invalidated a lot of decks that people loved. Folks bought packs of Mirage and Visions only to see those investments suddenly “illegal” for their favorite format. Lovers of Volvers Bringers Griffins and Mistform Ultimus had to face the idea that their pet decks were dead. For people who were longtime Tribal Wars players it must have felt like quite a slap in the face.
Second Tribal Wars has been a primarily casual format and casual players usually hate being told what they can and can’t play. Oh they’ll spin up a home-brewed banned list a mile long but to wipe out whole sets eras or to tie it to a popular tournament format just irks them all to hell. I’ve given up trying to define “casual” but I do know that keeping a broad lens is the most effective way of capturing the diversity of casual subgroups.
Third the move seemed lazy and random to most online players. To Tribal Wars diehards it looked like Wizards was unwilling to playtest the format enough to figure out a banned list so they just wiped out all of the problematic sets. To make matters worse the announcement effectively unbanned Umezawa’s Jitte from Tribal Wars which just meant that every deck automatically had to run four copies of Fork of Doom. That just seemed silly even to non-Tribal players.
There were other complaints but as I read the more than two hundred posts on the Magic Online Message Boards these three reactions capture most of the outrage. Several people on the Boards commented that they had rarely seen such a unified front from the online community on an issue.
The outrage and unity worked too. On June 2 Aaron Forsythe responded to the fist-shaking in two ways. First “Classic Tribal” would still be available for people who wanted to play it. This solution took most of the steam out of folks’ first two complaints. People could still play their Mono-Red Shaman deck and could still play Mirage cards. They just couldn’t compete in sanctioned tournaments with these decks or cards which was fine for the bulk of people complaining. The second solution was more of a clarification. Umezawa’s Jitte would indeed remain banned for all Tribal Wars games. The fact that it was left off the Banned list was an oversight. This solution didn’t exactly wipe out the third complaint - longtime Tribal Wars players still think it’s a dumb random decision - but it at least blunted their aggression.
To be honest I didn’t know about the Banned/Restricted Announcement until Aaron mentioned it in his article. I didn’t know about the collective outrage from the online community until I investigated for myself what Aaron was talking about when he said “we have rethought our stance in light of public reaction.” I guess the Boards backlash is obvious in hindsight but I have to admit that it surprised me. Why?
Because the idea of Standard Tribal Wars has me completely excited to play Magic.
Why I Never Got Into Tribal Wars
Before I wax enthusiastic about Tribal Wars let me first explain why I previously never enjoyed the format. As much as I wanted to like Tribal I tried several dozen games during my “Into The Aether” stint and the format never stuck. That is I never found myself tinkering with Tribal decks in my spare time nor did I pick up my old Tribal decks to see what new sets offered them. This is odd because as I’ll outline in a minute Tribal Wars speaks to so many facets of my inner geek.
Here are as far as I can tell the big reasons why Tribal Wars never captured my imagination. These reasons are pretty much in enthusiasm-squelching order.
Onslaught Tribes Bullied My Weird Tribes
Who ever thought that Onslaught Block would dominate a format other than Onslaught Block Constructed? It should come as no surprise though that the Tribal-themed block heavily influenced the format based around creature type. Goblins are the most represented tribe in the Casual Decks room partly because there are so danged many Goblin cards and partly because they tend to be tournament-caliber competitive. Elves and Zombies are annoyingly common too as well as Onslaught’s other feature tribes like Soldiers Wizards Beasts and Clerics.
In fact these tribes are so common and powerful that my Tribal Wars games had me wading through a sea of the same decks. Of my first twenty Tribal games twelve of them involved Onslaught tribes and what I would consider fairly archetypical builds. Oh I ran into the occasional Dwarf Horror and Illusion deck but these felt like pleasant exceptions. It was in a word boring. Worse these were my first twenty games so they stuck in my mind as representative of the format. I would try out Tribal Wars three or more times and although I probably saw a higher percentage of creative decks than my first foray I was now sensitive to Onslaught tribes and experienced a big motivational dip whenever my opponent went Swamp Carrion Feeder go.
I had abandoned Tribal Wars before they started sanctioned play online but I’m guessing that official tournaments only worsened the problem. Look at Bennie Smith’s Tribal recaps. The first Tribal Open event he covered pitted Clerics against Wizards in the Finals. Most recently Bennie covered an event that saw Goblins versus Goblins in the Finals. Since the bulk of Magic players love to copy decks more than make their own these results were sure to increase the homogeneity of Tribal Wars games rather than their potential diversity. I like deck diversity so Onslaught’s tribes were a big interest-killer.
The Spirit Of The Format Disappeared
Sanctioned play had another effect on Tribal Wars that stifled my enthusiasm for it as a format. Suddenly Spikes and prize-sharks swooped onto the Tribal scene. You know what they realized besides the fact that Onslaught’s tribes were the most competitive? They realized that you could actually use twenty creatures as a necessary evil to win in non-creature ways. Tooth and Nail became a Tribal staple as did Goblin Charbelcher Isochron Scepter and Lion’s Eye Diamond’s ability to feed Auriok Salvagers. Tribal decks seemed to be winning tournaments without any real focus on creature combat or creature-type themes. To me this simply wasn’t the point of Tribal Wars.
Couldn’t I just overlook the sanctioned Tribal play? As I said I had mostly stopped playing Tribal Wars at this point so it’s possible that the Tribal Open results were completely different from what I would find in the Casual Decks room of Magic Online. When I saw the tournament results though I (rightly I think) concluded that people would be playing those non-Tribal-Tribal decks in the Casual Decks room either because they were practicing for an event or because they copied a published decklist or because they saw an opportunity to prey on people for easy ego-stroking wins. The motivation doesn’t matter - what matters to me is that the decks in Tribal Wars didn’t seem to be made in the same spirit as I would be making my decks. I want to see tribes clash for supremacy. I want to see you know wars. Between tribes. I don’t want to see tournament-winning decks adapted to a new format. For this reason after the Onslaught tribes originally pushed me away I never returned.
Tribal Games Were Hard To Find
This is a minor complaint compared to the previous two but the other thing that bugged me about Tribal Wars - both before and after I had tried it - was how relatively few people seemed to be playing it. I’m an impatient Magic Online player; I tend to either play Standard or Online Extended where games fill up within seconds. Waiting for several minutes between games - begging in the Casual Decks room for someone to join me - annoys me to no end. Given the percentage of Onslaught-based and non-Tribal decks have increased I could probably spend an entire evening online for a small handful of fun games. That’s simply not a good return on the investment of my time.
Anecdotally there seem to be even fewer Tribal Wars players now than when I last played. I’ve been scanning the Casual Decks room and there are only two or three Tribal games going on at one time (compared to maybe seven to ten when I stepped away). Maybe this dip is due entirely to the Banned announcement forcing people to either give up on the format or wait until it’s changed. It wouldn’t surprise me though if general interest in Tribal Wars has been steadily decreasing over the past year or so. It said a lot to me that many of the outraged posts on Wizards’ Message Boards began “I don’t play Tribal but...”
Those are the reasons Tribal and I never got along: It was dominated by too few tribes many of the decks didn’t represent what I consider the spirit of the format and it was too hard to find a game.
Why I Love Standard Tribal Wars
Now that I look over that last paragraph it’s a little surprising that anything would pull me back to Tribal for a second try. As I said though Aaron’s article has me pumped up. Here’s why:
I Love Standard
Standard has consistently been my favorite Magic format for going on ten years. I have often said I like it because it’s new-player friendly it’s dynamic and because I cut my teeth on Standard when I competed in tournaments long ago. These are all true but I think the core reason that I like Standard is that what I really like is new cards and new decks. New cards (in the guise of new sets) usually affect Standard in big ways spawning several new decks or innovations to existing decks. Just as I’m getting truly bored with a mechanic it rotates out of Standard and I don’t have to play with or against it anymore. It’s a format that is right in line with my attention span; it has enough cards to keep me interested in deckbuilding (Block Constructed is cool but I end up seeing the same cards again and again); and it changes just often enough to pique my creativity. It’s no wonder I suppose that I’ve always considered my writing as aimed at the Friday Night Magic crowd of players.
You know even though I play exclusively online and uh never play FNM.
A Standard Tribal Wars means the same thing to me. Tribes will wax and wane in viability. If a card drastically helps or hurts a particular tribe it will eventually phase out (possibly along with the entire tribe). Tribes themselves will experience constant and massive overhauls. I love it. For me this will keep Tribal Wars fresh. It will also hopefully keep gentleman cliques out of the format and make Tribal consistently approachable for new players. Above all just like regular old Standard the format will be affected by every new set and should constantly be swimming with new decks.
I Love Creatures
On Mark Rosewater’s player type quizzes I show up as a solid Johnny. No surprise there. What is slightly surprising I guess is that I really don’t like making or playing combo decks. Combo decks for whatever reason feel a bit too much like math to me and not enough like art. Pure beatdown decks are similar though I have a greater appetite for them because it’s fun for me to envision creatures storming across a field to do battle. Even when I make control decks I feel compelled to win with a big hard-to-handle fattie. No the decks I like are midrange creature-based decks or aggro-control decks. A card like Searing Meditation is hard for me to picture in my mind’s eye and so it helps make Magic more of a game and less of a fantasy experience. Razia on the other hand is a card that draws me into the experience more than the game. I suppose that’s why I love writing card names and flavor text so much - It’s a way of bringing the story of the game to game-play situations. In all of Magic there is no place the story comes alive more than summoning creatures to protect me and do battle with my opponent’s creations.
True story: I was allowed to audition for my “House of Cards” gig as one of MagictheGathering.com’s first set of columnists for two reasons. First Aaron Forsythe was a fan of my StarCityGames writing and recommended me to Mark Rosewater and second I made an impression on Mark because of a Wizards deckbuilding contest. From his first-ever MagictheGathering.com column: “Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar first came to my attention when he sent a few decks into this year’s Auction of the People (an online deck-building contest on Sideboard.com which asked players to build decks around creature types). By a few decks I mean a deck for every creature type in existence.”
I jumped all over the Auction opportunity. The fact that I submitted hundreds of decks shows that a) I had way too much time on my hands b) Wizards really needed to limit the number of submissions per person and c) I’m a total freak. It also I hope shows how much I love creatures. There is no other topic that brings out my creativity and deckbuilding fire than a cool creature. During games it’s the same thing; A Blaze to the head or milling an opponent’s library is hollow for me compared to an Ogre pummeling my opponent’s face. For me Viridian Zealot is a lot cooler than Naturalize. It’s no contest really.
I Love Themes
Hand in hand with my love of creatures is an overarching love of deck themes. The first Auction of the People exposed this love and I’ve since written lots of “House of Cards” “Into The Aether” and “Building On A Budget” articles highlighting how much I enjoy theme decks. In fact you can trace my unnatural attraction to preconstructed decks to a love of themes.
Another true story: During my Ph.D. program in Ann Arbor a friend turned me onto this weird new card game called Magic. He then faded into the background of my life leaving my wife Sarah and I to play around with one starter deck between us. We played Magic using only those starter cards for about three months and eventually we decided we liked the game enough to start buying booster packs. Buying boosters brought me into a store selling Magic singles and my deckbuilding spark ignited within the store.
What sort of decks did I make? Theme decks. I made a deck called “The Ice Age” before I knew of Ice Age as a set. I made “The End of the World” “Elephants” “Steroids” (taking Kobolds and pumping them up with Giant Growth and other effects) “Light Versus Dark” and on and on. In hindsight of course the decks were hideous - one hundred cards each without more than two copies of any card in them. I probably used way too little mana too. Still it was so much fun for me to see “The Desert” clash with “Rise of the Phoenix” that I still smile to think about it. Until Ravnica Block by far my favorite Magic set was Fallen Empires because of its emphasis on storytelling and themes. Ravnica’s guilds have spawned more deck ideas than any other three sets which for me is a frightening statement.
Although not strictly theme decks Tribal Wars decks are really close. A third of each deck shares a creature type which gives most Tribal games a good “clash of armies” sort of feel (at least this is true when the decks actually strive to feature the creature type and base games on creature combat). Also a lot of Tribal players turn their decks into true theme decks using Voidslime in their Ooze decks for example. The fact that Tribal Wars brings out the theme deck urge in people is definitely a point in its favor as far as I’m concerned.
I Hate Umezawa’s Jitte
I almost quit Magic during Urza Block because of the dominance of Morphling and Masticore. Sure I love creatures but any card that can single-handedly dominate the game no matter the board situation or support cards makes me want to gargle with shattered glass. Thankfully most of the silly ber cards went away after Wizards R&D started playtesting their sets properly. Mistakes do slip through the system though. Skullclamp was such a mistake. So was Umezawa’s Jitte which arrived to almost single-forkedly ruin my creature-loving experience.
Now let me be clear: I’m not saying Jitte should be banned from Standard nor am I saying that there aren’t plenty of ways to combat Jitte. I am saying that it was an R&D mistake though and I take queer pleasure when beating opponents who use it. As much as I try to hold my tongue about half the time I’ll let slip a snide comment about a deck in the Casual Decks room using Jitte. It surprises and disappoints me how much Jitte pushes my buttons but it does. I hate that card.
Tribal Wars is like - a lot like - playing my favorite format without my least favorite card in that format. Gone are the arguments of whether Jitte belongs in casual decks or my own righteous justification for not using it in my own creature-based decks. Poof! I will never play a Tribal Wars game where an Umezawa’s Jitte sees play on either side of the table. Even typing those words makes my fingertips tingle. This is a huge huge deal to me.
My Issues Are Solved
Finally it’s worth noting that most of the reasons I wasn’t interested in Tribal Wars have disappeared. I mean I loved creatures and deck themes before. I’ve hated Jitte since it debuted. If these aspects were all that mattered to me I would already have been playing Tribal. The shift to Standard though not only moves me into my favorite (dynamic) pool of cards it also obliterates the Onslaught tribes that made Tribal so boring for me. The move to Standard also I hope neuters most or all of those decks I considered outside the spirit of the format. If I play a Tribal Wars game now I expect to see an interesting variety of decks based on creature types and using creatures to win.
One big question remains for me which is whether the new Tribal will increase interest in the format and thus provide more opportunities for play. As I said my inability to find games was a downer during my first Tribal foray and if you believe the Message Boards then almost no one will be showing up after June 22nd. It’s possible that I will have found the perfect format for me only to have it wither on the vine because no one else is interested.
More on this later but my fervent hope is that there are other people like me whose attention on Tribal has been rekindled by the move to Standard. If not my guess is that I’ll be gung-ho for a few weeks and then eventually start playing something more mainstream. If that happens expect a tail-between-my-legs article from me decrying the lack of a Tribal Wars nucleus needed to make the format successful.
If on the other hand people decide to experiment with the format and like it I may have found my new home. I’ve got no problem going from being known as the “weird deck guy” to the “Magic Online shill” to the “budget deck guy” to the “Tribal guy.” As long as there’s a niche of Magic that excites me and has me playing I’ll write about these experiences. If Standard Tribal Wars is a success expect lots of StarCityGames articles from me on the horizon.
A Tribal Cheat-Sheet
In preparation of my Tribal Wars adventure (and in a vain hope to lower the barrier of entry for those people still on the border of whether or not to play Standard Tribal) I’ve decided to provide a list of all Standard-legal tribes and the number of creatures in each. Consider this an updated list of Bennie’s which I thought was probably a good resource for new Tribal players.
I like the way Bennie divided his list of tribes into categories but I wanted smaller categories and to use different titles. As you’ll see I’m playing here with the idea that the tribes represent actual armies in the world of Standard. My nerdosity apparently knows no bounds.
It turns out that a fellow named Bazaar of Baghdad already assembled a tribes list on Wizards’ Boards after the Banned announcement. I think my list is slightly more accurate but he went to the trouble of including the individual cards within each tribe. Whichever list you prefer I hope your deckbuilding creativity has been poked in the ribs.
Okay enough preamble. Here are the available tribes in Standard Tribal Wars with some commentary from me. If I continue playing and writing about Tribal expect me to frequently jump around from category to category.
The Big Two
Spirit: 202 Human: 175
The current world of Standard is overrun by two tribes: Spirits and Humans. It’s like the Kami War reenacted. You can realistically make a deck for every color combination and pursue a wide variety of strategies within both tribes. These are the Tribal everymen. If Standard had continents they would populate them all and make up all of the world’s biggest cities.
Kamigawa Block is obviously driving the total number of Spirits in the format and Ravnica Block included Spirits to be mechanically compatible with Kamigawa. Does this mean that we went from a handful of dominant Onslaught tribes to a single dominant Kamigawa tribe? I don’t think so. No real “Spirits” deck has wrecked the Standard scene over the past two years and although some individual Spirits are powerful (Kokusho the Evening Star; Kodama of the North Tree etc.) they are dispersed over five colors. I think other tribes will be able to compete with Spirit decks just fine. Also even though I expect more Spirit decks to show up in Standard Tribal than any other type of deck my guess is that they will be diverse and varied.
Humans concern me more frankly. When Time Spiral arrives to rotate Kamigawa Block out of Standard my guess is that Spirits will become a minor tribe at best. For better or worse I also think it’s reasonable to expect that every Magic set for the foreseeable future will contain a lot of Humans. This means that going forward Humans will always be in the top two or three more populous tribes no matter what sets are available for Tribal Wars. On one hand this has some thematic appeal since it matches most stereotypical fantasy settings. Humans are also spread over five colors so I expect there will be diversity even among Human decks. On the other hand it’s more likely that a dominant deck will come out of the Human camp than any other tribe and I bet I’ll get pretty sick of seeing Humans tromping around in the Casual Decks room. Stupid Humans.
Spirits and Humans might be everywhere in the new Standard Tribal Wars world but these six tribes represent significant nations. Somewhere a hidden enclave of Wizards is plotting dominance over the other tribes. Huge nomadic bands of Warriors and Shamans are roving across the surface of Standard’s world while Goblins breed in the mountains and Samurai set up camps in the plains and swamps. Soldier city-states are always around brewing for a war. There isn’t as much color variety amongst these six tribes but there are enough options to make for diverse - and potentially powerful - decks. Although I expect to see a high percentage of Spirit and Human decks online these six tribes are sure to be well represented.
Looking forward I’m guessing that Samurai is the only tribe on the list significantly on the decline since it’s Kamigawa Block specific. The others feel like Magic staples that will always have a voice in Tribal.
Tribes For Hire
Applying the imagery from the last two categories these are tribes that probably have either their own loose societal structure or are simply common in the wild. Clerics may not have the numbers to constitute a nation but they are certainly able to organize when threatened. Ogres Elves Snakes and Rats exist as subcultures within Standard’s mountains forests and swamps respectively. Zombies have a Lord but they are likely the pawns of some darker force in the world. Elementals and Beasts could also be pawns or they might represent the organized backlash of nature against other tribes. Again I’m pushing far-fetched storylines here because for me Tribal Wars is about its themes as much as anything else.
Rats Ogres and Snakes are experiencing a renaissance thanks to Kamigawa and will probably linger as very minor tribes when that block rotates. Elves and Zombies have dipped recently and will surely rise to nation status sometime in the future. Clerics Elementals and Beasts will probably always be around in moderate numbers never a full-fledged force but never completely gone.
It’s nicely symbolic that the Rogue tribe is in this next category which is likely the cutoff for rogue deckbuilders to be interested. Now we’re in the true minority groups of the world. Foxes Monks Rogues Druids Moonfolk and Berserkers live in their own small societies and organizations. I don’t think of Demons Dragons and Horrors as social in nature but I could easily see someone summoning a group of them to make up an army. Whatever the case these tribes represent groups that will be a pleasant surprise amidst the common decks of Standard Tribal. Most of the time these decks will be different but bad although sometimes there will be just enough there to scare people. A single power creature like Meloku the Clouded Mirror is enough to make a legitimate deck in this category.
As far as I can tell most of these tribes are likely going to stay small in the future and may disappear altogether from Standard at various times. Foxes Monks and Moonfolk for example are probably extinct after Kamigawa Block’s rotations. Anyway I’ll surely be making some decks with these tribes sometime in the near future.
A lot of the decks in this category - the rare tribes of the land found only in far-flung pockets of society - are going to be silly but there are also some gems here. Ninja is the most striking tribe of the list but others have some potential as well. A really frustrating White/Blue Advisor deck is asking to be made for example along with a fairly beefy Black/Green Insect deck. Sure the Giant and Scout decks will be tough to find but I can pretty much bet that I’ll see a Zubera Angel and Plant deck early in my Tribal experience.
This category represents too many tribes on too small a scale for me to spend a lot of time writing about them individually. Suffice it to say the tribes in this category are always going to be a weird mixed bag. Some will get big boosts from future sets while others will disappear entirely. From a cursory glance it feels like Knight Vedalken and the aforementioned Advisor and Insect tribes are the ones most deserving a close hard look in the current Standard.
Tribes of Five
These ten tribes are the last playable tribes on the list. That is they have just enough creatures available to make a legal Tribal Wars deck (remember: no Mistform Ultimus in Standard Tribal). What this means is that if you make a deck with one of these tribes a third of your deck is already set in stone and it’s up to you to decide the remaining forty cards. For some people this makes these tribes untouchable pariahs. Others are drawn to these tribes like moths to flame. I fall somewhere in the middle: I can get interested in these decks every so often but I won’t make a living out of them.
This category falls into two basic subtypes: there are the “legitimate” tribes that span a reasonable number of colors: Assassin Centaur Imp Lizard Skeleton and Thrull. These decks are challenging to the extreme but they can actually hang together pretty well. The second type of tribe here are the creature cycles that span all five colors or are for some other reason nearly impossible: Avatar Kirin Lord and Nephilim. These decks are going to be “gimmicks” only. Don’t get me wrong: I think a five-color Nephilim deck sounds like fun but I’m also realistic enough to know it’s a gimmick.
The Endangered List
Which leads me to...
The Extinct List
This is the large and hopeless category of misfits. It’s unlikely that a single set will push one of these tribes into legality. They are the tribes we may never see represented in Standard Tribal Wars and if so it will be so far in the future that the creatures from this list probably won’t be around. Personally I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to make a Frog Bat Egg Gnome or Gorgon deck someday. A guy can dream...
A Final Plea
I didn’t expect to write this much for a completely voluntary article on an untested format. Clearly as I’ve said repeatedly the announcement of Standard Tribal Wars has me excited.
As I’ve also said today’s article is partially self-serving. By my estimation the one and only thing standing in the way of me falling in love with Standard Tribal is a lack of players. If I’m sitting at a table waiting for opponents then I will quickly get frustrated and eventually stop playing Tribal despite all of the ways it resonates with my inner geek. My building a hundred decks does me absolutely no good if I can’t find three good games in an evening. Given the general online response to the announcement of Standard Tribal I’m worried that this is a distinct possibility. In fact I haven’t seen a single promotion of the format anywhere since the announcement.
So you should definitely join me.
Which is to say that I hope this article has tickled your deckbuilding funny bone. I hope you decide to give Standard Tribal a try. I hope you make fun good Tribal decks to do battle with me in the Casual Decks room of Magic Online. Most importantly I hope we all have a lot of fun and keep coming back for more. If so I promise I’ll keep writing articles on my Tribal decks experiences and observations. If not well we’ll all have to wait until another Magic announcement gets me out of my easy chair. It’s sure to happen - I’ve proven in my Magic career that I will keep coming back for more - but it would be great if no hiatus is needed.
Let’s all see what happens. Let’s try out this odd little format together and see what happens.
Aren’t you excited? Oh come on! Join me!