I had an entirely different plan for my article this week. What with there being the first Standard tournament post-Journey into Nyx at SCG Cincinnati I was intending to draw your attention to all the new decks and cards that had made the Top 16. However, there really wasn’t anything to write about. Please let this be a lack of time/imagination rather than an accurate reflection of the next 3 months of Standard. I can’t take it anymore.
In an attempt to find a new article topic I asked Twitter and Facebook what to discuss instead. Many of the suggestions revolved around why there weren’t any new decks. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can spin that out into 2000 words of insight. Not because it isn’t a very interesting topic, but because I don’t feel like I, personally, know the answer. Yes, certain cards are oppressively powerful and it’s debatable why Wizards printed Thoughtseize and Mutavault in Standard at the same time. But is that really the problem, or is it our reliance on net-decking that causes the real problem? When Theros came out it wasn’t until the Pro Tour that devotion decks were designed and developed. Give people enough incentive and maybe Standard would be altered more radically.
On that note, it’ll be interesting to see what the upcoming Block Pro Tour gives us in the way of decks, and whether these can be ported to Standard.
However, having decided to abandon all thoughts of Standard, salvation came to me for the second time from the lovely @CardboardNirvan. The first time was at GP Philadelphia where she let me stay at her place on a week’s notice having previously never met me. Without her I simply couldn’t have attended, as all the hotels were full. I have to say her suggestion on what to write about immediately caught my eye.
— Natalie Vervie (@CardboardNirvan) May 4, 2014
People love Tribal decks.
I swear the first deck everyone is drawn to when they start building is something based on a tribe. I haven’t met a person who doesn’t have a favorite creature type or types: Angels, Dragons, Slivers, Elves, Sheep. And Tribal decks are a way to build a deck designed to use you favorite! I’ve seen so many kinds suggested and tried.
First, I have to make something clear. What Tribal implies in Magic is playing a deck with a lot of creatures that share a subtype which benefit in some way from that shared attribute. I have heard players say “I want to build Tribal,” when that would be meaningless. For example, a Scorpion deck might sound hilarious, but you get no benefit from the fact you are playing all Scorpions… unless your opponents have a severe phobia that causes them to concede immediately. Why insist on playing only Scorpions when you can simply play better cards?
When it comes to Tribal decks you generally sacrifice some individual power at the benefit of enabling powerful synergies/cards. It’s like devotion in Standard. If you built an aggro deck with simply the most aggressively-costed creatures, you wouldn’t play a 1/4 for UU or a 2/3 flier for UUU. However, by sacrificing the individual power of these cards, you enable Master of Waves and Thassa and thus make the deck awesome. Nightveil Specter is individually awesome and fits into other shells, don’t get me wrong, but if you wanted sheer power for mana investment you could do better than 2 power for 3 mana.
Another general point about Tribal themes is that in order to get enough synergies based on creature type that are powerful enough to enable a deck, then that creature type will have to have been printed many times across Magic’s history. I loved Allies in Zendikar/Worldwake, but as that’s the only place you can find them, there just isn’t enough power to see them take on the whole field of Modern. It’s not hard to understand this concept when you think about it from the context of Standard at the time. If a Tribal deck was powerful enough just for its block printing to be good enough for Modern, then it would have quickly dominated its time in Standard, like the one exception to this rule—Faeries—which I’ll come back to later.
If you want to explore the possibility of new Modern Tribal-based decks then you now have some good rules of thumb: 1. You need a creature type that has been printed multiple times in Modern-legal sets (or was particularly broken in its time) and 2. you need cards that become more powerful when you play other creatures of that subtype.
All the following lists meet these criteria. They range from decks I would expect to see at a Modern GP and should have a plan for to rogue decks I might see but would expect to beat as they aren’t quite top tier, but they are still fun. Enjoy.
Merfolk have been printed since Alpha and Lord of Atlantis who, along with Goblin King and Zombie Master, was among the first Tribal enablers and still sees play today. With such an ancient history, there are a lot of Merfolk to choose from. Despite this there hasn’t been a Merfolk deck in Modern until very recently, despite essentially all the key creatures from the equivalent Legacy deck being legal.
Why? A lack of cheap counterspells.
In Legacy, Merfolk acts as a tempo deck. It has low-cost creatures with multiple Lords to quickly turn any collection of creatures into a formidable army. It gets to utilize Aether Vial to power cards out even faster, without fear of countermagic and for surprise effects during combat. And it backs up this strategy with cheap/free counterspells to out-tempo the opponent. It’s this last piece that is missing in Modern. Daze and Force of Will both have alternative costs that let Merfolk prevent their opponent from winning/stopping their plan while their aggressive, cheap creatures rapidly finish the opponent off.
What changed to give Merfolk a proper chance in Modern?
No, you didn’t miss the eternally-speculated reprint of Force of Will. Basically Merfolk got two new toys in Theros: Thassa and Master of Waves. The power of these two cards in a dedicated blue deck made the difference. Rather than the tempo form it takes in Legacy, Modern Merfolk is a synergistic aggro deck. Some versions do play Remand to provide some interaction, but an absence of unconditional sweepers in Modern means the deck can just overpower the board.
Here is Lukas Szplit’s deck which finished 9th–16th at GP Prague:
Shockingly I’ve actually played a list like this at a Modern event. It’s a lot of fun and has everything I expect from Tribal decks: lots of creatures that power each other up. The really cute aspect of this deck is using Spreading Seas to a) upset your opponent’s mana as many decks are three-color and taking out an early dual land can really slow them down, but also b) enabling the islandwalk power from Master of the Pearl Trident and Lord of Atlantis.
This is one of the most competitive Tribal decks out there, so if that’s what you are looking for this might be just what you want.
Alternatively you can play…
The recent unbannings in Modern freed up Bitterblossom, undoing Wizards’ attempt to keep Modern Faerie-free. As I mentioned above, Faeries is the exception to the “printed in many sets” rule as the subtype really doesn’t appear much outside Lorwyn block, but, boy, was it broken there.
Faeries in Standard was before my time but I understand it dominated Standard from the moment Morningtide came out in a way that wasn’t very interesting. Faeries plays as flash/tempo deck. Often the only card in the deck without flash is Bitterblossom, which comes down early, after which the game plan is to hold up counterspells/removal, using the opponent’s end step to flash in additional pressure when mana isn’t used for these other tools.
Faeries has some nice examples of weak cards made better from Tribal. What Modern deck would play a 1/1 flier for 2 mana? None. What about if it had flash? Still no. Perhaps if it got to counter a spell with CMC less than or equal to 1 when it enters play? Maybe, but probably still not good enough. However, when that last past scales with the number of Faeries (which, incidentally, Bitterblossom produces), then you are talking! Now you have a card that can counter small spells early and big spells late. It’s also a Faerie itself which allows it to be pumped by Scion of Oona and also enables Mistbind Clique. The classic/rudest time to cast Mistbind Clique, by the way, is in your opponent’s upkeep, especially if you used Vendilion Clique the turn before so you know they aren’t going to stop your evil plans.
The reason Bitterblossom got unbanned is that Magic has moved on. While Faeries was oppressive in its time, it hasn’t really gained anything from recent sets, whereas answers to cards like Bitterblossom now exist. The cards are still strong and the deck is valid but it’s not the dominant deck it might have been at the beginning of the Modern era.
I think Merfolk and Faeries are the most competitive Tribal decks out there. Merfolk is an aggressive deck while Faeries is more tempo/control-based. Choose your favorite!
If you want a combo-based Tribal deck then Elves has always been the archetype to turn to. While Merfolk got multiple lords (that is, creatures that make other creatures of a particular subtype bigger) in its printing history, Elves got lots of ways to make lots of mana. We might be at the point where you can run a deck purely comprised of 1-mana Elves that tap to make 1 mana. However, that’s hardly lots of mana. Much more important are Elvish Archdruid (which is also a lord) and Heritage Druid. Heritage Druid is enabled by Nettle Sentinel as every green spell untaps Nettle Sentinel. Tap it again (along with two other Elves) to produce yet more mana. This is all well and good but you need to keep playing spells for this to work. In Legacy, Elves decks have access to Glimpse of Nature to keep drawing cards. This is banned in Modern. Recent Elves decks make use of Beck // Call to substitute for this, though the blue is slightly awkward. Before this, the deck made use of Cloudstone Curio. As you would expect from any good Curio, its effect is rather unique.
Whenever a nonartifact permanent comes into play under your control, you may return another permanent you control that shares a permanent type with it to its owner’s hand.
That really is a complicated ability. For Elves though trying reading this instead:
Whenever an Elf enters play under your control, return another Elf you control to your hand.
This really enables you to get rolling, especially when combined with the card drawing potential of Elvish Visionary.
Let’s elaborate more with an example.
We have Heritage Druid, Nettle Sentinel , Llanowar Elves, and the Curio in play. We have Elvish Visionary in hand. So tap all your Elves for GGG using Heritage Druid’s ability. Cast and resolve Visionary, untap Nettle Sentinel, draw a card and use the Curio’s ability to return Llanowar Elves to hand. Use the remaining G to recast Llanowar Elves. In response to the Curio trigger, tap Sentinel, Llanowar Elves, and Visionary for mana. Then return the Visionary to hand. You now have GGG in your mana pool and Visionary in hand. You can repeat this cycle over and over, and once you draw into more Nettle Sentinels you will start to net mana with each play. Eventually you’ll draw into Craterhoof Behemoth then crash in with it for the win as it should be HUGE by now!
Phew. Combo decks are always a little involved to explain. I’ve only had limited hands-on experience with this deck and if you are interested in playing the deck, I suggest you find someone locally to sit down and go through its nuances with you.
The problem with Elves is its reliance on a few key pieces for it to work and its creatures are weak to removal. Without Heritage Druid or Elvish Archdruid then you have a board of 1/1s—terrifying!
Elves took up a bit more space to talk about than I was expecting, but here are a few other tribal decks that occasionally crop up at tournaments. I would put these in the “fun, but not truly competitive” category. Not that that should ever stop you from playing something. Magic doesn’t always have to be competitive, which is why I list these for your enjoyment. Besides, maybe you can find something new for these decks that makes them better.
With respect to Goblins it doesn’t have enough lords in Modern to make it as viable as it is in Legacy. Mostly it’s an aggro deck, and Merfolk and Affinity both do that better at the moment.
While there are Shamans printed outside of Lorwyn block, the majority are from that block, and unlike Faeries it wasn’t ridiculous during its time in Standard. The lack of outside support limits the power of this deck, but maybe more cards will come in the future to power it up.
Zombies does well in attrition games, as its ability to resurrect after removal using Gravecrawler and Bloodghast (notably not even a Zombie) will run you out of answers eventually. This isn’t Modern at the moment but its the sort of game plan I can get behind. This deck tends to play either blue for Diregraf Captain or green for Lotleth Troll.
One last note before someone comments about it: I have not considered Affinity a Tribal deck for this article. While the deck plays relative weak creatures that synergize together, and these are all related by being artifacts, they don’t share a subtype. So while it’s a powerful, synergistic deck in Modern, it’s just not the same!
I hope this article has given you a new toy to play with or at least some thought about your own Tribal desires. Tribal is always a fun option but remember Tribal is only powerful when it makes use of the fact that all (or most) its creatures are the same. It is always worth making a note of what creature types new cards have as they may be just want an existing tribe needs (like Master of Waves/Thassa and Merfolk) in order to make a deck competitive. Got a Tribe you love that I missed? Share your lists in the comments below. I’ll see you next week.