Right now, Ixalan‘s tribes haven’t been making a lot of waves in Standard. There are some competitive tribal decks, of course, but none of them are considered tier 1, or perhaps even tier 2. In this article, I’ll go over each of the tribes, highlighting what I think they need from Rivals of Ixalan to be competitive.
First, however, a general request for all four of them: better mana for aggressive decks. All four tribal decks are at least somewhat aggressive, and the mana for aggressive decks is abysmal—it’s no wonder that we see mono-red, mono-black, and mono-white. Even the B/R decks have mana problems, and they’re only slightly splashing red, which is an allied color! If you want to splash an enemy color, you’re forced to play a Guildgate. If B/R with a splash has mana problems, how am I supposed to play U/G Merfolk? Can I even dream of playing Grixis Pirates or Naya Dinosaurs? The White Vampire deck that exists right now could definitely benefit from some black cards, but simply cannot afford them because of the mana. Another dual land for aggressive decks would go a long way toward making tribal decks competitive.
Right now, if you want to play a deck like U/G, B/W or R/W, you’re forced to use one of these things:
- Energy. Aether Hub can fix your mana, which is part of why the Energy decks are so good. Nongreen decks have a hard time producing consistent energy though, so you’re often just playing Tendo Ice Bridge in an aggro deck that’s color-intensive.
- Artifacts. Spire of Industry is also a fixer, but it doesn’t work for turn 1, and it’s easy for them to turn it off, at which point it’s disastrous.
- Tribes. Unclaimed Territory is a great fixer for a tribal deck, but obviously doesn’t work for anything else.
Since I’m talking about tribal decks, you might think that Unclaimed Territory is the answer, but even tribal decks have noncreature spells they want to cast, particularly post-board. We had a tribal Dwarves deck that used Unclaimed Territory to cast Toolcraft Exemplar, Depala, and Veteran Motorist. We also had a tribal Artificer deck that used it to cast Exemplar, Pia, Maverick Thopterist.
The creatures were all castable, but what happened when you wanted to cast a sideboard card? How is a mana base of 4 Unclaimed Territory, 4 Spire of Industry ever going to cast a Chandra, Torch of Defiance or a Gideon? Even Chandra’s Defeat is hard to cast. Post-board, people interact with your artifacts more, which turns off Industry a lot of the time as well—this is when you need those planeswalkers, but then you can’t cast them, so what’s the point?
Vampires could in theory splash some black cards. But then your Unclaimed Territory isn’t casting your Legion’s Landing, for example. And what if I want to play cards like Fatal Push or Duress? They will be very hard to cast. So in practice, the fixer doesn’t really work.
Standard needs more enter-the-battlefield untapped dual lands, particularly for enemy colors. It won’t do to have B/W Vampires, U/G Merfolk, Grixis Pirates, and Naya Dinosaurs be completely unplayable throughout their whole duration in Standard because it’s impossible to cast a white 1-drop and a 3-mana black removal spell in the same deck. I can think of two options that would be great:
- Painlands. Those would probably be very safe and they’re just generally good to have in Standard.
- “Reveal lands,” like the ones from Lorwyn (Secluded Glen, Wanderwine Hub). For example:
As Jungle River comes into play, you may reveal a Merfolk card from your hand. If you don’t, Jungle River comes into play tapped. Add U or G to your mana pool.
Those would be particularly awesome, because they would fix tribal mana problems while also helping you cast non-tribal spells, but at the same time they would reward tribes a little bit and wouldn’t turn Standard into a Khans of Tarkir 5-color fiesta.
With that out of the way, let’s dig into the specifics:
In Rivals of Ixalan, it’s looking for 2 things:
- A bigger payoff for having a swarm, and especially a swarm of Vampires. Right now, there are a ton of ways create creatures: Oketra’s Monument, Legion’s Landing, Mavren Fein, even Servo Exhibition if you want—but not a lot to actually do with them. Angel of Invention and Shefet Dunes are both good cards, but there has to be something that rewards you for having a ton of 1/1s. You can play Trial of Solidarity, but that’s a one-time effect. I’m mostly looking for a permanent anthem of some sort that will let your tokens and smaller Vampires swing past Whirler Virtuoso tokens. This can be general card (like an actual anthem) or some sort of Vampire lord. Vampires is a swarm tribe, meant for going wide, so give me some lords. How about a card like this:Vampire LordB/W or W/W
All other Vampires you control gain +1/+1
This is simple, but it would work. If you want to get tricky, you can give them all lifelink on top of it, or the Vampire ability (if it kills a creature and survives, it gets +1/+1). The important thing is that it rewards you for having a lot of Vampires. Sanctum Seeker is a card that’s on the fringe of playability, but ideally the new one is cheaper and easier to cast.
- A convenient way to remove Rampaging Ferocidon. Tokens and life gain are usually a good way to beat Ramunap Red, and Ferocidon stops both dead on their tracks, turning what should be a good matchup because of lifelinkers (Legion’s Landing, Aethersphere Harvester, potentially Glory-Bound Initiate, or Cartouche of Ambition) into a bad or at least close matchup. There are ways to remove Ferocidon, but none of them are effective outside of Red—if you’re mono-white your best options are Thopter Arrest, which is just a bad card, and Cast Out, which can be very slow (particularly on the draw). If you’re Black-White Vampires, then you can play Fatal Push, but this deck doesn’t want to play Evolving Wilds or other sacrifice outlets, so triggering revolt isn’t trivial.
Finding white removal that can kill Ferocidon at a profit is going to be very hard. We’ve had cards like Declaration in Stone, but I don’t think we will again any time soon. Our best bet is probably something similar to Stasis Snare. If you play black (which you can only do if there’s better mana), then you’re looking for a card that’s similar to Ultimate Price, Go for the Throat, Smother, or Doom Blade—an instant-speed, 1B cost card that deals with it no questions asked.
Dinosaurs is the most puzzling of the tribes, because in theory, it has everything it should need to be competitive. If you look at Merfolk, it’s obvious that they didn’t mean for it to be a competitive deck just yet. Dinosaurs, on the other hand, looks like something that should already be good with just Ixalan. It has a lot of cards that are individually powerful: Regisaur Alpha, Ripjaw Raptor, Rampaging Ferocidon—as well as good payoffs that tie everything together: Savage Stomp, Commune with Dinosaurs, Otepec Huntmaster. Since it’s red, you also get to play good removal. Then why hasn’t it taken off?
Dinosaurs has two problems. The biggest is that the threats that are currently in Standard are very hard to deal with. The Dinosaur deck isn’t winning any speed contests, but it also gets outclassed by everyone in the middle-late game, so when is it winning exactly?
In Standard, there are four major threats Dinosaurs has a problem with: The Scarab God, Hazoret, Heart of Kiran, and Glorybringer. It has no way of beating the first two in combat, and no way of blocking the other two since it has no flyers. Even Longtusk Cub is a big problem, and quickly outgrows all of the Dinosaurs. Every deck that doesn’t play those threats plays a bunch of Fumigates that are almost as hard to beat.
The second problem is that Dinosaurs is too reliant on ramp creatures. There are no good 2-drop Dinosaurs, and playing mana creatures makes you vulnerable to cheap removal (which is abundant nowadays) and sweepers (which are also present since they’re good versus Temur). If your curve is trying to play 2-drop into 4-drop, and they Magma Spray/Fatal Push/Shock/Abrade your 2-drop, then you have to pass turn 3 with no play, and that’s just not good enough.
The second part is easy to fix—we need better 2- and 3-mana Dinosaurs, so we don’t have to rely on mana creatures. The first part, not so much. The threats in Standard are too good, and they are not going away—I cannot imagine a metagame that drives away Glorybringer, Hazoret, or The Scarab God.
More than that, if I am correct in my assumption that Dinosaurs was meant to be a good deck already, this means that it’s less likely to get something great in Rivals. It’s possible that we see some amazing Vampires, but I think we were supposed to already have seen the amazing Dinosaurs. I could be wrong, though.
In terms of “what I would like to see,” I’m looking at two things. The first is good 2- and 3-drops that can be played by themselves—I want to cast Commune with Dinosaurs and find something great that I can play the next turn. This is very possible.
The second is a removal spell that can deal with at least some of the cards I mentioned. Right now, there’s nothing that deals with an array of them—Abrade can deal with Heart, but basically nothing can deal with any of the others. I want an Abrade for The Scarab God and Hazoret. “Deal 3 damage to target creature or exile target God” would be great. For 1R. Instant. This will never happen, and I am not sure I can even think of a card they could reasonably print that dealt with Hazoret or The Scarab God in R/G.
Realistically speaking, we’re probably looking at a shift into white. If Dinosaurs is to succeed, it’ll be G/W, R/W, or Naya. This will demand some great Dinosaurs in white, and that’s probably where they will be if they exist in the set (since there are already good ones in R/G). So if I’m a Dinosaurs player, I’ll keep my eye open for two things: 2- and 3-drops, and white cards that will allow me to build a mana base that can support removal for Gods.
(As an aside, you might be wondering why Dinosaur decks don’t already splash cards like Cast Out—the mana is certainly the best of any tribe. I think it has to do with the fact that the 2- and 3-drops are bad, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for removal in your deck. If I draw Otepec Huntmasters and 2 Dinosaurs, that’s great, but if I draw Otepec Huntmaster, Lightning Strike, and Cast Out, then it doesn’t do anything. If the 2- or 3-drops are better on their own, then playing this kind of reactive spell becomes more feasible.)
Pirates is a real deck right now, but it has a problem, which is that the further you go from Pirates, the better it looks. Sure, some Pirate cards are great. Hostage Taker and Kitesail Freebooter are cards I’ll be happy to play in my Standard deck—but the benefit for committing to Pirates isn’t quite there yet. There are rewards, like Lookout’s Dispersal, Fell Flagship, and Fathom Fleet Captain, but they just aren’t enough to justify going all-in, or even half-in. Right now, if you start with Kitesail Freebooter and Hostage Taker, you’ll do better if you add The Scarab God, Gonti, Torrential Gearhulk, or Gifted Aetherborn to your deck than if you add Fathom Fleet Captain and Fell Flagship. With only one tribal set, power trumps synergy.
What Pirates needs is a card or cards that truly reward you for playing Pirates. And I don’t mean rewards you in a Lookout’s Dispersal kind of way—this card only wants you to have one Pirate. I mean a card that gets better the more Pirates you have, to a point where it’s good enough to compete with all the U/B cards that already exist. This reward is probably not a lord, since Pirates will likely be too small even with one, though it would enable a more aggressive play style if you could play a 1- or 2-colored cheap lord.
When I first saw Pirates cards, I joked that the deck was similar to Faeries and I was hoping for a Pirateblossom. In reality, I don’t think you need a Pirateblossom. The Pirates already exist, and I already want to play them. I want to play Kitesail Freebooter, I want to play Hostage Taker, I want to play Kari Zev—I’m already doing that with no creature type incentives. Stormtamer Siren, Fathom Fleet Captain, and Ruin Raider are all Pirates that have a Constructed power level that are just waiting for the proper incentive. I want to play them—give me a reason to.
As much as I would welcome a Pirateblossom of some sort, what we need is a Spellstutter Sprite or a Mistbind Clique. Don’t give me more Pirates (or do), but give me cards that make it rewarding to play the Pirates that already exist, over creatures that are similar but don’t have a relevant creature type.
Okay, you’ve got me here. While none of the previous three tribes are exactly amazing, they all have decks that exist and can be competitive. You can at least visualize them—if I tell you “R/G Dinosaurs,” you know what type of cards it plays, and you know how it wins the game. Dinosaurs are big creatures, Vampires are a swarm, Pirates are tricky and have powerful abilities attached to small bodies, and Merfolk are… uh, yeah. They swim, I guess.
Merfolk is lacking an identity. Yes, they are the “+1/+1 counter” tribe, but how’s that supposed to translate to Standard? Am I supposed to play Sultai Merfolk with Winding Constrictor? It seems hard to accomplish with what we currently have. If a Merfolk deck is to emerge, it’s going to be using mostly cards from Rivals of Ixalan, because once you get past Kumena’s Speaker and Merfolk Branchwalker, there’s no card that I want to play that is either a Merfolk or rewards you for having them.
Since there isn’t a specific problem you have to fix with Merfolk, there’s no one card that you can print that will solve it—you could probably throw both Lord of Atlantis and Merrow Reejerey in Standard right now and Merfolk still wouldn’t be a good deck. What it needs, then, is a concerted effort from the whole set—whereas Vampires and Pirates need payoffs, Merfolk is going to need both payoffs and enablers if it wants to be competitive.
Past that, Merfolk is really lacking mana fixers, moreso than the other tribes. While Vampires can be mono-white or can splash black, Merfolk really has to be U/G—there’s not going to be enough in Rivals for you to play Mono-Green Merfolk. If you’re playing 1- or 2-drops in both colors, then the mana has to be better. Merfolk would benefit the most from a new enemy color dual land.
- Every tribe needs better mana, particularly the enemy-colored ones.
- Vampires needs a Vampire lord and ways to deal with Rampaging Ferocidon.
- Dinosaur needs powerful 2- and 3-drops and/or a way to shift more heavily into white for good removal. They could also use a rotation.
- Pirates needs a good Pirate payoff, ideally not a lord, though that can work too.
- Merfolk needs an identity, and both enablers and payoffs.