Linear tribal decks in Modern have always had a rough go of it.
Modern currently consists of 57 Magic sets, and in those sets there are a ton of great tribal cards available. Humans, Merfolk, Elves, Goblins... you name it, and you can probably put together a decent linear deck based around the theme. Not all tribes are created equal (hello, Aetherborn), but the best ones have already made their mark on the format: Elves, Merfolk, and to a lesser extent Humans.
The problem is that decks packed with 30 linear creatures don't always match up well with how hostile the Modern format is. Decks like Storm, Valakut, and Ad Nauseam can completely ignore most creatures, while decks like Affinity and various Tron decks can just blow right past them. While the power level of linear creature decks is often high in the abstract, they just aren't as fast and powerful as some of the format's other options.
Linear tribal decks need to present a ton of power upfront or have disruptive elements that can slow down the other faster linear decks, and Ixalan brings a number of new tools to two Modern tribal decks that have been on the brink.
More Human than Human
Before Ixalan, various Four-Color Humans decks had been floating around on Magic Online but would often come up a short.
The synergy between Champion of the Parish, Thalia's Lieutenant, and a pile of Humans is fairly obvious, and creates the fast clock necessary for any linear tribal deck in Modern. Champion of the Parish and Thalia's Lieutenant also scale very well, with the ability to push through any battlefield state eventually. Noble Hierarch is one of the best creatures in the format, and having eight mana creatures of the proper creature type is quite the benefit.
The issue was that the deck lacked interaction.
Against decks not relying on creatures, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben was the only line of defense. Without her, the deck was completely at the mercy of its opponent's plan. Even then, while Thalia is a fantastic Magic card, she's more of a speedbump than a roadblock. Path to Exile and Reflector Mage are phenomenal Magic cards at interacting with your opponent's creatures, but if they were trying to kill you with Grapeshot; Ugin, the Spirit Dragon; or Supreme Verdict, you were pretty much at their mercy.
Kitesail Freebooter is one of the most important cards to come out of Ixalan from a Legacy and Modern standpoint.
Flying matters: It sounds simple to say, but it's not always easy to get into combat with your Tidehollow Sculler or especially Brain Maggot. Very often they end up as a Thoughtseize that just sits around waiting to be unlocked because they are too small to engage in meaningful attacks or blocks. Kitesail Freebooter gets to peck in for some damage and help end the game before your opponent can draw out of it.
Easier to cast: Tidehollow Sculler is frankly pretty tough on the mana, while Kitesail Freebooter is relatively painless. With our excellent and Ixalan-updated manabase, we should have no problem giving them the boot early and often.
Creature type matters: Pirates are awesome! Okay, the Pirate type doesn't really matter beyond sounding cool, but being a Human is extremely relevant. Not only does it play well with our manabase, but even a single +1/+1 counter from Thalia's Lieutenant makes Kitesail Footbooter into a significant threat. At times the ground can get very gummed up, so having a flying Human in our deck opens some nice doors for us.
With Kitesail Freebooter now a solid part of our mana curve and easy to find off Collected Company, we actually become a fairly disruptive deck with a very fast clock. If we can nab that Gifts Ungiven or Oblivion Stone before our opponent can cast it, it's very likely we can kill them before they can get it back. Furthermore, the truly linear decks that Kitesail Freebooter shines most against won't often have maindeck removal, making it even more of a threat.
The other big addition to the Human deck from Ixalan is of course Unclaimed Territory.
Sure, it's just a bad Cavern of Souls, but Cavern of Souls never really needed the uncounterable clause to be a playable card in tribal decks. With eight effective copies of Cavern of Souls, we are able to stretch our mana across four colors while taking very little damage from our manabase, a huge advantage against other aggressive decks.
What's that? You're ready for the decklist?
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 2 Tireless Tracker
- 2 Anafenza, the Foremost
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Andrew Jessup and I had worked on this deck for #SCGCHAR, but felt more comfortable with our usual Modern choices.
The core of the deck is pretty much set in stone:
This leaves the biggest question marks in the three-drop slot.
Reflector Mage is absolutely phenomenal in the creature matchups, but also awful in the noncreature matchups. Drawing too many creature removal effects in Game 1 can be detrimental, so the fourth Reflector Mage gets a spot in the sideboard for when it's needed.
Anafenza, the Foremost is a somewhat odd card in a deck that's looking to go wide, but that's exactly what makes it so useful. We are susceptible to cards like Anger of the Gods and Lightning Bolt, or anything that is able to deal with multiple creatures at once because of how our cards need to work together. Anafenza, the Foremost is a solid singular threat that gets around many of these effects, while also providing some extra utility alongside the beatdown. Sometimes you just cast Anafenza Turn 2 against Dredge and life is wonderful, but the other times she is just a great beater that scales well.
Tireless Tracker was the one major point of disagreement between Andrew and me on the deck. Andrew had been playing cards like Xathrid Necromancer in this slot, but I wanted something bigger and more powerful. Tireless Tracker is a Human that attacks reasonably well but is also a huge tool in any sort of grindy matchup where your opponent would be killing a lot of your creatures. It's a great hit off Collected Company and a great mana sink in a deck with 29 mana sources.
One of the bigger draws to the deck is the sideboard, where we see another Ixalan standout:
People are seriously sleeping on this card, as it is one of the best possible against any sort of removal heavy deck. All the Lightning Bolts and Fatal Pushes in the world don't look nearly so bad, and your opponent will have a very difficult time going long against you without mass removal. Shapers' Sanctuary should be in the sideboard of almost any creature deck that can cast it Turn 1!
One of the big draws of the deck is you get access to all the usual good white sideboard cards with zero splash damage against yourself. Rest in Peace and Stony Silence win games all by themselves and that's a great thing to have access to.
The two other Humans in the sideboard are Kambal, Consul of Allocation and Orzhov Pontiff, which are both total blowouts against the decks they come in against. Being able to hit them off Collected Company is a huge bonus, which makes it feel like you have extra copies of them available to you. Kambal in particular has really impressed against a wide variety of Modern decks, and these sorts of haymaker effects are very important to have in such a hostile format.
While all the pieces and the sideboard are great, the card that really holds everything together is Collected Company. If you take nothing else away from this article today, take away this:
If you want to play a heavily creature-based deck in Modern, you need to play Collected Company.
The power level and flexibility of the card is so unbelievably high that not playing it feels like a mistake, and realistically it makes any deck of 26 reasonable creatures feel playable. Which brings us to our next deck...
Fish out of Water
Pirates, I mean, Humans, were not the only tribe to get some help from Ixalan.
Merfolk are green now!
...I have no idea, but I know what other card is green:
Yes, Kumena's Speaker is nothing more than a glorified Isamaru, Hound of Konda. It would have been very nice for Wizards of the Coast to follow the Kird Ape / Loam Lion template more closely, giving it +1/+2 and making it a very solid threat, but this is what we have. And frankly, Merfolk needs it.
Merfolk's lack of good one-drops has been one of the major factors holding it back in Modern; the deck isn't fast enough to rely on pure speed, but also lacks the disruption to play a longer game. This leaves the deck just hoping it can draw a good mix of lords along with a Spreading Seas and end the game as fast as it can. That's not a great place to be in Modern. Kumena's Speaker will attack for three on Turn 2 often enough to make it a reasonable threat, which considerably speeds up the clock.
Having another actual one-drop also allows us to finally slay a sacred cow:
I wrote an article a while back about five overrated Magic cards and Aether Vial was number one. The long and short of it is that Aether Vial asks a lot; it asks you to play a ton of creatures, have numerous ways to draw cards, and have other things to do with your mana besides just cast the creatures in your hand.
Merfolk does an okay job of this with Silvergill Adept and Spreading Seas / Mutavault, respectively, but that's really it. Any time you mulligan, draw a second Aether Vial, or start watching your creatures die to a flurry of removal spells, you start to wish your Aether Vials were literally anything else. If you could only play one Aether Vial and were guaranteed to have it in your opening hand every game, it would be great, but the floor on Aether Vial goes pretty low.
We're still going to play two because we want to ensure we have something to do on Turn 1, but thankfully we will almost never draw a second one. If we don't draw the first? That's fine too.
Oh, what's that, you want the decklist again?
- 4 Cursecatcher
- 4 Kumena's Speaker
- 4 Lord of Atlantis
- 4 Master of the Pearl Trident
- 3 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Merrow Reejerey
- 4 Silvergill Adept
Merfolk Branchwalker still has a good amount to prove, but it's close enough to Silvergill Adept that I'm interested. Otherwise it's just most of the usual Merfolk suspects backed by Collected Company. It's possible the deck wants a few more three-drops or maybe Phantasmal Images to make Collected Company more powerful, but hitting two lords seems plenty powerful as is.
Merfolk is definitely lighter on disruption than the Humans deck is, but it has the benefit of being better against various Tron decks with Spreading Seas and then having a much more disruptive sideboard. Once you bring in Ceremonious Rejection and Disdainful Stroke, most decks based around the Urzatron are going to have a really tough time beating you.
The counterspells in the sideboard also play very well with your much-improved clock; the faster you can get on the battlefield and present a good threat to your opponent's life total, the sooner you can leave open cards like Negate and Disdainful Stroke. And if they don't go for it, just cast Collected Company!
Once again we also see a pair of Shapers' Sanctuary in the sideboard for the fair matchups. Just imagine how deflated your Jund or Grixis opponent is going to be when you cast Shapers' Sanctuary on Turn 1 instead of Aether Vial!
Modern, Modern, Modern
There's been a lot of talk about the health of the Modern format this week after Wizards of the Coast announced no changes to the Banned List, but it is very refreshing to see a new set like Ixalan able to make some serious splashes in the format.
I don't love Modern as a serious competitive format, but I do think it's in a very good place right now. Modern is definitely a very fun format to brew up decks in and there's a pretty wide variety of playable strategies at the moment. Sure, it's a bit too linear at times, but it's been much worse.
It seems like the most important thing in Modern is to just find a deck you actually like and just keep playing it. Relative power seems much less important than how well you know and play your deck. Just look at Tom Ross and his 8-Rack deck, or Harlan Firer and his Jeskai Trash deck (his name, not mine – although I do agree!). You've gotta really like what you are doing, and finding that deck that feels right is the hardest part.
Just remember to put Collected Company in your linear tribal decks!