Wizards of the Coast seems to hate tribal decks.
Tribal cards and decks have been a part of Magic since Alpha, while also being major themes in many sets like Onslaught, Lorwyn, and most recently Ixalan. There have been times where Standard tribal decks have been extremely pushed (Goblins in Onslaught, Faeries in Lorywn), but lately it has been quite the opposite.
- 4 Metallic Mimic
- 4 Cryptbreaker
- 4 Diregraf Colossus
- 4 Dread Wanderer
- 4 Lord of the Accursed
- 4 Relentless Dead
Aside from Zombies, which was a fantastic and fun tribal deck, tribal decks have had it very rough lately.
Ixalan was initially billed as a tribal set, where Dinosaurs, Pirates, Merfolk, and Vampires battle for supremacy. Aside from a few Dinosaurs here and there though, the tribes of Ixalan are notably absent from Standard. We keep getting a few cards of support for certain tribes - a Goblin Warchief here, an Adeliz, the Cinder Wind there - but it has been very difficult for any tribal deck to actually break through.
Why is that?
1. Wizards of the Coast Loves Midrange
Wizards just loves midrange decks. Based on how they've designed sets for the last half decade, you'd think they'd be ecstatic if basically every deck in Standard looked like this:
- 2 Torrential Gearhulk
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 3 Nicol Bolas, the Ravager
- 2 The Scarab God
A dozen of the format's best mythic rares, a dozen of the format's best removal spells, rinse and repeat. These sorts of "Jund" decks have been a staple in Standard for years, and it's difficult for a deck full of small creatures that need to work together to win to beat a monstrous pile of removal and unbeatable creatures. That's also to say nothing of...
2. Goblin Chainwhirler (and Walking Ballista)
One of the best cards in the format incidentally murders every 1/1 over and over again. Playing middling 1/1s that get better as they work together is a hallmark of tribal decks, but it's very hard for synergy to trump raw power if they're all dying basically for free. Walking Ballista isn't as brutal but also has a very similar effect.
It's hard enough for tribal decks to overcome boatloads of removal, but Goblin Chainwhirler is just rude.
3. Not Enough Support!
It's actually quite frustrating to actually try and build a Standard tribal deck. It reminds me a lot of that scene in Apollo 13 where they have to try and rig a new filter using basically what garbage is lying around the ship:
There are only twenty unique Goblin cards legal in Standard right now, with a large majority of them vanilla creatures made for Limited. Things are a little better for the Ixalan tribes as far as sheer numbers go, but the truth is the payoffs aren't really there and the supporting cast is weak. Despite this, WotC keeps giving us tempting cards that ask us to play tribal decks...
... and then not giving us any support to play them! It's like getting a bunch of cool new toys on Christmas, but not getting any batteries to use them.
"WIZARDS OF THE COAST RUINED CHRISTMAS!"
Still, we are Magic players. We have to try. It's frustrating, but not impossible, and tribal decks have been poking around behind the scenes for a while. Let's take a look at a few and explore their strengths and weaknesses:
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Death Baron
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 4 Dread Wanderer
- 4 Graveyard Marshal
- 3 Lord of the Accursed
Given that Zombies is one of the only successful tribal decks in recent memory and many of the cards from that deck are still legal, it feels like a logical place to start. After all, Liliana's Mastery, Lord of the Accursed, and Dread Wanderer are still legal, and Core Set 2019 brought us a few new Zombie toys as well.
Zombies has a lot of recursive creatures that are good against typical removal spells, as well as a reasonable curve of one, two, and three-drops that are mostly immune to Goblin Chainwhirler. There's also a large critical mass of Lord of Atlantis effects.
In a lot of ways, this new Zombie deck is reminiscent of Merfolk decks in Legacy; it's an aggressive pile of okay creatures and lords that looks to swarm and attack. It doesn't have many ways to interact or gain card advantage, it just beats down and hopes. The old GerryT Zombie deck is reminiscent of Goblin decks in Legacy; it could be aggressive, but was also excellent at gaining card advantage and battlefield control, making it much more flexible and adaptable while also being good against other creature decks.
Payoffs that matter.
Cryptbreaker and Diregraf Colossus are payoff cards that make you want to put a million Zombies in your deck. They scale well, provide card advantage, and snowball effectively. There needs to be more of a payoff than a few Lord of Atlantis effects to make me want to put Diregraf Ghoul in my deck.
It's cool to see Liliana's Mastery still alive and kicking, but the Zombie deck feels underpowered in the context of the format.
- 4 Adorned Pouncer
- 4 Ajani's Pridemate
- 4 Leonin Vanguard
- 4 Leonin Warleader
- 4 Pride Sovereign
- 4 Regal Caracal
- 4 Sacred Cat
( A version of this deck went 5-0 in a Magic Online league; this is my suggested update after playing it.)
That's not an Ixalan tribe. That's not an iconic creature type. What's the deal?
Well, we somewhat surprisingly got a bit of Cat support in Core Set 2019:
Unexpected, but Leonin Warleader is no joke, and Ajani's Pridemate has a bit of a pedigree as well. Holding it all together is perhaps one of the only and best tribal enablers in Standard, Radiant Destiny.
Radiant Destiny helps with the Goblin Chainwhirler problem as well as making Walking Ballista not nearly as devastating. Having an anthem effect that can't be hit by Abrade or Lightning Strike is a nice bonus, and the power and toughness boost plays nicely with lifelink.
The top end cards are great! Regal Caracal already has a strong history of being a good sideboard card, but is great when being used as a lord / Siege-Gang Commander and alongside Pride Sovereign both cards allow the deck to go wide rather quickly. Leonin Warleader is also a must-answer threat, and overall the deck does a good job at building a battlefield presence rather quickly.
The top end is great, but the early drops kinda suck.
Leonin Vanguard is barely passable and a huge liability against Goblin Chainwhirler, with Sacred Cat also barely crossing into the realm of playability. Adorned Pouncer is a nice mana sink later in the game, but in the all important early turns has the same problems as the other one-toughness creatures and doesn't scale well into the midgame.
The early turns can be rough, and if you're on the draw facing down a turn two Steel Leaf Champion you may never get off the ground before you die. The lack of good removal further exacerbates this problem. If we fall behind, it's hard to catch back up.
This deck was pleasantly surprising, but the vulnerability to Goblin Chainwhirler and the other good red cards is worrisome.
- 4 Ghitu Lavarunner
- 4 Soul-Scar Mage
- 4 Viashino Pyromancer
- 3 Adeliz, the Cinder Wind
- 1 Hazoret the Fervent
The U/R Wizards deck hasn't changed a ton since the last time I wrote about it , but did gain an important new tool from Core Set 2019:
Viashino Pyromancer is a great two-drop for the deck, replacing the very lackluster Spellweaver Eternal. Viashino Pyromancer fills the all important two-drop slot, gets in some incidental damage, and ups your Wizard count to reasonable levels. At its heart, U/R Wizards is a burn deck and Viashino Pyromancer fits right in.
Wizard's Lightning is a fantastic Magic card, and U/R Wizards is capable of some absurdly fast kills. The evasion from Adeliz, the Cinder Wind and Riddleform is also very nice for getting across those last few points.
The fear here is that we're just a worse Mono-Red Aggro deck. We trade off the ability for insanely explosive turns with the possibility for very awkward hands and are really just barely on the edge of having enough creatures/Wizards in our deck. We're also soft to very large creatures.
Like most of the tribal decks we're discussing today, there needs to be more reasons to actually want to fill your deck with Wizards. Our only "tribal payoffs" are Adeliz, the Cinder Wind (which is almost good enough by herself) and the ability to play Wizard's Lightning in our deck. It's a Wizard deck, but it often just feels like a U/R Prowess deck.
- 3 Carnage Tyrant
- 4 Drover of the Mighty
- 4 Gigantosaurus
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Regisaur Alpha
- 4 Steel Leaf Champion
- 1 Ghalta, Primal Hunger
- 1 Rhonas the Indomitable
This is the kind of "tribal" deck WotC seems to like: a bunch of good rate rares and mythics with one or two small tribal synergies.
In reality, this is more of a "big creatures + Sarkhan's Unsealing" deck than a Dinosaurs deck, but it's the closest we've been getting to seeing tribal effects succeed in Standard so we're taking a look at it.
Dinosaurs have had the most success of any of the Ixalan tribes by a mile, because most of the good ones just get there on rate alone. Cards like Diregraf Ghoul and Leonin Vanguard aren't getting the job done without some serious help, but Carnage Tyrant, Regisaur Alpha, and the absurdly silly Gigantosaurus can do most of the heavy lifting themselves. You don't have to worry about the individual power level of your cards.
This deck is essentially just a pile of big, dumb idiots. You're very reliant on Llanowar Elves and Drover the of Mighty, and while Sarkhan's Unsealing is powerful, it does require a setup turn than can be backbreaking if you're already behind.
More reason to actually play Dinosaurs? Drover of the Mighty may not even be better than Servant of the Conduit because of Goblin Chainwhirler, and while Regisaur Alpha is good, its actual Dinosaur synergy isn't really that important. Getting to play Commune with Dinosaurs is nice, but this is mostly just a pile of big monsters.
Usually decks are either vulnerable to Goblin Chainwhirler (because they go wide) or Vraska's Contempt (because they go big), not both. Well, this deck manages to be bad against both. There's some powerful stuff happening here, but it feels unwieldy.
Not Quite There
It's a tough world out there for tribal decks.
The themes are present, but they aren't fully developed. There are payoffs, but not necessarily enough to make you want to pack your deck with creatures of a certain type. Come on WotC! Stop giving us cool tribal cards and not enough ways to actually play with them!
There's some hope though. Going wide is a good plan against decks with a lot of spot removal and not a lot of mass removal, and decks like Mono-Green Aggro don't actually play removal, which can let your synergies work unopposed.
Is it where we want to be? It's hard to be sure, but I'm going to keep trying.
Bonus Decklists for the Brave:
- 2 Benalish Marshal
- 4 Dauntless Bodyguard
- 4 Knight of Grace
- 4 Knight of Malice
- 4 Paladin of Atonement
- 2 Valiant Knight
- 3 Aryel, Knight of Windgrace
- 1 Vona, Butcher of Magan
- 3 Fanatical Firebrand
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 4 Goblin Instigator
- 1 Goblin Trashmaster
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 4 Siege-Gang Commander
- 3 Skirk Prospector
- 4 Volley Veteran