Today I’ll take on a new challenge: I’ll build four tribal decks—one for each of Ixalan’s four tribes—with no mythic rares and no more than four rares per deck. I will use only cards from Ixalan block and will ignore sideboards. The main purpose of these decks is to act as a starting point for new or returning players, especially those who are budget-minded. Although my budget decks won’t win Pro Tours anytime soon, I built them with the intention to be competitive for Friday Night Magic or MTG Arena.

Why Ixalan Block?

The reason I limited myself to Ixalan block is because of the Standard rotation later this year. Once the fall set releases in late September or early October, four sets will rotate out: Kaladesh, Aether Revolt, Amonkhet, and Hour of Devastation. But Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan will stay legal for another year. This is what sets my budget decks apart from the Challenger decks that will become available on April 6th. These $29.99 decks also don’t break the bank, but their usability is limited to six months, as they’re largely made up of cards from rotating sets.

Why My Budget Restrictions?

My budget restriction of four rares, zero mythic rares, and no sideboards is inspired by MTG Arena. Since the current (closed) beta only has a best-of-one format, as was shown during the developer live streams, sideboards aren’t used in MTG Arena. Meanwhile, its in-game economy features wildcards of various rarities that can be redeemed for cards of the same rarity. This means that each rare is equally easy to craft, and thus a given allotment of rares offers a clean definition for the notion of a budget deck. Finally, MTG Arena’s non-disclosure agreement will drop on Thursday, March 22, which means that players can create content or stream the game afterwards. This made me wonder which decks would be easy to build in this free-to-play game.

Even for paper Magic tournaments or for the purpose of teaching the game to new players, my budget restrictions can make sense. Sideboarding in particular is sometimes better to avoid for new or returning players, as it tends to sap mental energy and could make your deck worse, especially when it dilutes your synergies. Just like Odysseus had his sailors tie him to the mast of his ship, you’re sometimes better off with no sideboard whatsoever. I’ve successfully used this strategy before. In 2013, when I hadn’t played in a while, I made it to the Top 8 of a WMCQ with a deliberate zero-card sideboard. It sounds crazy, but sometimes sideboarding can do more harm than good.

Why Tribal Decks?

Given my limitation to Ixalan block decks on a budget, I believe that tribal decks are the best recipe for success—particularly aggro tribal decks. One obvious reason is that Ixalan block is based around its four tribes, most of which (except for Dinosaurs) are aggressively oriented.

But tribal aggro decks also suit our restrictions. Tribal decks never want to sideboard much anyway for fear of breaking up the tribal synergies, so the lack of a sideboard won’t hurt much. Moreover, aggro decks try to win quickly, which is ideal when you  don’t want to give your opponents a chance to leverage their full assortment of rares and mythic rares. Since you probably don’t have the power to compete on equal footing in the late game, you need to go fast.

Deck Building Approach and Restrictions

My deck building is guided by general principles that can apply beyond budget-minded Ixalan block decks. To reliably get in for a bunch of damage early on, I will build two-color decks with the following mana curves, land counts, and mana restrictions:

  • At least eight 1-mana creatures or spells
  • At least twelve 2-mana creatures or spells
  • At least eight 3-mana creatures or spells
  • At least four 4-mana creatures or spells
  • Exactly 24 lands, with at least 13-14 untapped sources for 1-drops (like Kumena’s Speaker) and at least 16-17 colored mana sources for double-colored 4-drops (like Tempest Caller) that are also fine to cast on turn 5.

This adds up to 56 cards already, leaving four open slots. These final four cards should simply be chosen from the available card pool to best fit the deck without paying too much attention to their converted mana cost.

I chose the above framework for good reasons. The mana curve is close to the one that maximizes the total expected amount of mana spent over the course of the first four turns, as determined in this article. So it’s suitable for an aggro deck. A count of 23 or 24 lands properly balances the risks of mana screw and mana flood for this curve, roughly in line with the suggestions from this article. And the colored mana source requirements ensure that you can cast your spells consistently, as they’re adapted from this article.

So, I’m confident these are good principles. As additional deck-building axioms, I’ll postulate that my decks should contain at least eight payoff cards that reward me for focusing on a certain tribe and at least eight breakthrough cards that allow me to beat a board stall or get past a big blocker. Typical tribal payoff cards are lord or anthem effects. Breakthrough cards include evasive creatures, removal spells, and combat boosts. Obviously, these cards should synergize with the overall game plan of the deck, and you need enough of them to make sure you can keep attacking.

I’ll now move to the tribal decks I created: W/B Vampires, U/G Merfolk, B/R Pirates, and R/G Dinosaurs. Out of these four, I like W/B Vampires and G/U Merfolk the best. Improved versions of these decks (usually with Kaladesh fastlands and additional rares/mythics) regularly appear among the 5-0 lists in competitive Standard Leagues on Magic Online, but the pool of commons and uncommons in these tribes is already solid enough. By comparison, the budget versions of B/R Pirates and R/G Dinosaurs seem worse.

W/B Vampires

This is the first of the two tribal decks I like. This deck fills the prescribed mana curve with the best available Vampires, and it can go wide with Queen’s Commission. The eight main payoff cards in this deck are Legion Lieutenant and Radiant Destiny. The eight main breakthrough cards are Duskborne Skymarcher and Ixalan’s Binding.

If you can afford more rares or mythics, then my first addition would be Sanctum SeekerIxalan’s Binding is a fine removal spell that helps achieve ascend, but you’d rather have a good payoff for a swarm of Vampires. If you do add Sanctum Seeker, then I recommend switching the basic lands in the mana base to 9 Plains and 7 Swamps. (Although the resulting mana base would technically be one black source short of supporting Sanctum Seeker, the card draws provided by 4 Dusk Legion Zealot can collectively count as the final black source.)

As a note on card choices and the mana base: Without Concealed Courtyard (which is not an Ixalan block card), it’s hard to reach enough black sources for Call to the Feast, enough turn-1 black sources for Vicious Conquistador, and enough turn-1 white sources for Legion’s Landing. Although it would be possible to get there with some adjustments, I’d rather focus on reliably casting a white 1-drop Vampire creature on turn 1  and a Radiant Destiny on turn 3. As always, the availability of lands drives the card choices to a large extent.

G/U Merfolk

This deck fills the prescribed mana curve with the best-available Merfolk, and I like the way it looks. The eight main payoff cards are Merfolk Mistbinder and Deeproot Elite. With any of them, Jungleborn Pioneer yields 5 power and 5 toughness for 3 mana—an amazing rate. The eight main ways to break through a board stall or big blocker are Mist-Cloaked Herald and Tempest Caller.

If you can afford more rares or mythics, then my first addition would be Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. As a mythic rare, it’s not easy to get your hands on, but the card is powerful and much better at boosting your entire board than Vineshaper Mystic.

As a note on card choices and the mana base: Without Botanical Sanctum (which is not in Ixalan block), you don’t have enough green or blue sources to reliably cast interactive spells like Crashing Tide or River Heralds’ Boon on turn 2 or 3. You could get there by adding more copies of Woodland Stream, but that would come at the cost of untapped sources for the 1-drops. Since this deck runs both a green 1-drop and a blue 1-drop, your mana base has to contain lots of basic lands and four Unclaimed Territory, which effectively constrains you to a creature-only deck. Still, Watertrap Weaver and Tempest Caller are interactive cards that are castable off the tribal land. (Although your mana base is technically one blue source short of supporting Tempest Caller, the card draws provided by four Silvergill Adept and two Merfolk Branchwalker collectively count as the final source.)

B/R Pirates

This is the first of the two tribal decks that I find mediocre. The main reason is that the payoff cards (Dire Fleet Captain and Dire Fleet Neckbreaker) are worse than Legion Lieutenant/Radiant Destiny or Merfolk Mistbinder/Deeproot Champion. I also considered a U/R variant with Storm Fleet Aerialist, Storm Fleet Sprinter, Dreamcaller Siren, and other evasive Pirates, but its tribal payoffs were even worse. (Besides, the double-blue cost on Dreamcaller Siren was too hard to reconcile with all the red 1-drops.)

Still, Pirates may have an edge against Merfolk and Vampires specifically because it has access to Fiery Cannonade. In this deck, it’s a one-sided sweeper that is excellent against these go-wide tribal decks and decent at breaking up a board stall. At the same time, Fiery Cannonade may be dead or useless in certain matchups. That’s an acceptable risk for the one-game Magic Arena format, but you may wish to replace them with more copies of Pirate’s Cutlass and Lightning Strike if you want to go take a sideboard-less deck to Friday Night Magic.

If you can afford more rares or mythics, then I suggest doubling the number of Dire Fleet Poisoner and Ruin Raider. Afterwards, you could improve the mana base by replacing Cinder Barrens with Dragonskull Summit.

R/G Dinosaurs

This is the second of the two tribal decks that I find mediocre. I had to do some creative accounting to mold a Dinosaur deck into the desired mana curve. Basically, I counted Commune with Dinosaurs and Savage Stomp as 1-drops and several 4-drops as 3-drops because you’re planning to ramp into them. But the card pool is not there to build a truly aggressive Dinosaur deck. Instead, the Dinosaur tribe excels at ramping into big monsters ahead of time.

Although I could use Drover of the Mighty and Thunderherd Migration to build around the ramp theme, most of the best Dinosaurs to ramp into are all rares. So adhering to the four-rare restriction was particularly hard for this archetype. The only way I saw to solve it was by adding Forerunner of the Empire along with a spread of rare Dinosaurs over the top end of the curve. It leads to a coherent deck and the ping effect synergizes nicely with the enrage Dinosaurs, but it isn’t ideal.

Eventually, you should replace Forerunner of the Empire with additional copies of Ripjaw Raptor, Regisaur Alpha, and Ghalta, Primal Hunger. Once you’ve cut all the Forerunners, you can cut tutor targets like Needletooth Raptor and Regisaur Alpha as well, and you should switch out two Thunderherd Migration for two more Otepec Huntmaster.

Conclusion

If you have an invitation to the closed beta on Magic Arena, then I recommend spending wildcards on my B/W Vampires and U/G Merfolk lists first—I think they’re well-rounded and competitive enough. And if you’re looking for budget decks to take to Friday Night Magic or to help teach Magic to a friend or family member, then my lists are fine starting points that should stay Standard legal for 18 months. Finally, even if you’d rather build something completely different, my mana curve framework can still act as a useful starting point for aggro decks.