I’m Ben, better known as a-fish-ioando and I’m tribal obsessed.
I have more merfolk Legends commanding my decks than there is shells on the beach (seventeen, to be precise!). But when I poke around my collection for something else to play I have pirates, demons, zombies, Modern merfolk and Spirits, I have… a problem. Whether I’m at the pub playing Commander, or sneaking in a few ladder matches on Arena, I’ll be casting lords, naming creature types and crying at boardwipes.
No matter what format, I have a unhealthy penchant for limiting my card choices to a subtype.
Back to Basics is a series of articles that puts tribal strategies under the microscope, dissecting the various tribes, to reveal their strengths and weaknesses.
Through the eyes of a tribal player, I will give you my take on the fundamentals of the game: colour-pie, deck building, archetypes, the prey and the predators of tribal decks and the format niches of each tribe within the meta eco-system.
If you’ve had the misfortune of believing the best way to play Magic is with piles of cards that work without having to rely on creature synergy, I am going to help you question your previous life decisions.
For newer players, we’re about to take a deep dive into the iridescent breeding pools of tribal Magic. So if you don’t know your Wanderwine hub from your Auntie’s Hovel, let me be your guide through these unclaimed territories.
Grab your snorkel and come on in; the waters fine.
A Quest called Tribal Pay-off
If at this point you’re thinking: I like the cut of your jib, good sir but… what on earth is a tribe? Well, you’re in the right place.
“a deck with a lot of cards that care about creatures that share a subtype [elf, merfolk, vampire] which benefit in some way from that shared attribute.”
I’d like to add that there is a huge difference between “care” and “pay-off”.
When your boss says they “appreciate” you stayed late to get the project delivered on time while they “had” to take the client out to the pub, this is a world away from the “pay-off” of an actual pay rise.
In the world of Magic, pay-off means winning.
The classic cards that “care” about a shared subtype are lords:
an Anthem effect to all creatures of the same subtype, only with a body. The reason they’re classic is they’re from Magic’s original Alpha set – Zombie Master, Goblin King, and our hero, Lord of Atlantis – not that I’m biased.
Pay-off cards define a tribe and the types of deck they produce.
They are more than a functional constituent, they are the identity of a deck. With Tron, at 7-mana you can cast any old piece of cardboard – do it turn 3 and you’ll struggle to lose.
The identity of the deck remains no matter what the pay-off of choice. Like other decks, they’re defined by their choice of lands.
Tribal, however, plays a series of mini sub-games:
‘How can I build a winning deck using only birds?’ or elves or merfolk. You get the idea.
‘Why merfolk?’ – ‘Master of Waves’,
‘Why elves?’ – ‘Ezuri, Renegade Leader’.
Each pay-off card rewards players for meeting its needs with a game winning strategy. What its needs are creates the deck’s identity.
If by now you’re thinking you like the sound of tribal strategy… well, you didn’t think it was going to be that easy did you?
Pay-off cards reward players with a chance at winning.
But tribal pay-off cards demand a price for success and that is devotion. They are build-around-me cards that forces a deck’s direction in such a way as to maximise their value.
Everything I’m not makes me everything I am
A tribal player is unique among Magic players, in that they enjoy the self-imposed constraint of a very narrow selection of cards.
Some say this self-inflicted challenge is what makes the playstyle so dangerously tempting – like keeping a baby tiger as a pet. You know you shouldn’t but they just look so adorable. Others say you should instead just play the best cards on-curve – never trust these people, these are the sort of people that predicted the decimation of Modern by Assassin’s Trophy, or Jace, the Wallet Sculptor.
If you’re like me, you love playing creatures and getting in the red zone.
But I’m not going to lie, the punishment for this pleasure is not to everyone’s taste. As a 3-colour deck has hidden costs like casting consistency, there are limitations caused by the decision to build around a specific tribe.
If you’ve played Limited or Standard, you’ll have experienced the first limitation arising from the inherent puzzle-challenge of these formats. It is unlikely that gathering up all the tribe-matters cards into a pile will leave you with the best deck in the format.
Players must think more carefully about their deck construction.
This makes searching for the right card from Magic’s long history of printings like long hours spent angling: it will take you hours and you’ll return a fair number to the card pool. Each creature subtype has its own shoal of cards and can vary significantly – often dictating which creature subtypes are playable and which are jank.
In the subtypes with enough cards to choose from there are many red-herrings (that’s not a creature type – fish is a creature type!).
No, what I mean is, with great choice comes great decisions. Often what looks good on paper fails in play. Jadelight Ranger and Merfolk Branchwalker have been Standard staples this last year, however with all the merfolk cards printed – 55 in pre-War of the Spark Standard – only Merfolk Trickster has made its way into Vintage, Legacy and Modern.
The second limitation lies in the tribal strength from critical mass on the battlefield.
Individually powerful cards are often rejected , including – significantly – creatures limited by the Legendary rule, as they lack the synergy that allows tribal decks to become more than the sum of their parts.
So, easy choices – out! Legendries – out! Individually powerful cards – out! What are you, a midrange player?
But wait there’s a fourth, and it has far wider implications.
Tribal decks play somewhere between 22-32 creatures.
Outside of lands (usually 20), this leaves very little space for non-creature spells. You’ll have very little interaction as most creatures are played at sorcery speed, they are inherently incapable of disruption during your opponent’s turn.
This is where a little restriction stimulates, in some tribally-obsessed few, the creative inspiration to find creatures on-tribe with the necessary interactive abilities needed to create a competitive deck.
Necessity, as they say, is the merfolk of all invention.
And wow, do we have an invention up our wizarding sleeve!
In the formats that support Aether Vial, using up a non-creature spell slot is heavily outweighed by what it enables. Aether Vial gives every creature a flash. If they have an ability with a relevant body for our pay-offs, Aether Vial turns our creatures into an interactive nightmare for our opponents.
Takes Two to make a thing go right, Three to make it out of sight
As we’ve already discussed, tribal decks gain value from a critical mass of creature cards that seek to maximise pay-off rewards.
Tribal needs creatures cast early and often, with cost-effective abilities on bodies and the potential to be ‘cast’ through Aether Vial.
Though flexible, Aether Vial encourages an unwholesome addiction to a deck reliant on creatures of the same casting cost.
These hapless players are driven to find creatures at the lowest possible point on the mana curve: the difference between a 2-mana lord and 3-mana is the difference between Spirits being tier 1 and Zombies being unplayable.
But being cheap has its own costs.
Cheap creatures are often weak creatures.
There are exceptions, but these have their own deck building constraints. Take Primeval Titan and Lord of Atlantis. On an empty board, the Lord is clearly so much salmon to their Brown Bear. But on the flipside, they could be facing down a Cursecatcher, two Silvergill Adepts and Benthic Biomancer and now your Lord of Atlantis will make them feel like Gepetto being swallowed by the whale.
Tribal creatures have a low floor but their ceilings are high and it is this need for skilful manoeuvring that offers players the most challenge.
Everything that glitters ain’t fish scale
Right, got it! Tribal decks are cheap creatures with abilities and aether vials… wait, isn’t that Humans? I’ve seen them putting up results.
Let me address the octopus in the fish tank – Humans are not a tribal deck. Think about it. Name a human lord. Don’t worry I’ll wait. And no, Mayor of Avabruck is a werewolf, if I want it to be – or rather – when you don’t.
You might be thinking that it plays Cavern of Souls ergo it must be a tribe.
You’re correct for thinking it’s a fantastic land in tribal decks. But look at it another way, Amulet Titan plays Caverns too, in order to make its’ Primeval Titan uncounterable, you wouldn’t describe it as titan tribal.
Humans uses Unclaimed Territory and Cavern of Souls to make its mana-bases one of the most consistent in Modern despite its five colours. But upon closer examination, neither Noble Hierarch, Meddling Mage, Kitesail Freebooter, Thalia, Anafenza, Mantis Rider nor Reflector Mage care about creature subtypes at all. It becomes even more pronounced out of the sideboard; Deputy of Detention is a Vedalken Wizard and Knight of Autumn a Dryad Knight. Only Champion of the Parish and Thalia’s Lieutenant care about Humans at all. Guess which ones get cut when you take the deck into Vintage? Enough said.
The truth about Humans is that as a creature subtype, it is the single biggest sub-group of cards within Magic’s history.
The consequence is that a significant number of cards have been printed and aggressively costed with relevant abilities which happen to be Human, in the same way that many good cards also happen to be instants.
Phew, right, glad we got that out the way. Now where was I?
So all tribal decks are linear aggro decks, right?
A tribal deck is not simply a collection of cards that care about a creature type, but is also defined as having pay-off cards that reward a critical mass of these creatures – both being cast and on the battlefield. Then it rewards players for playing cheap creatures – early, often and ideally in multiples per turn. Hence the propensity for players to think of tribal decks as Aggro, both when playing with and against them.
Playing out creatures early and often sounds like Aggro, but it glosses over the nuances between how each tribe utilises these early plays.
Llanowar Elves might turn sideways, but it ain’t getting into the red zone. Nor, given its proclivity for stepping up and taking one for the team, is Cursecatcher long for this world.
The other commonality between tribal decks is their use of lords,
which not only makes people think of aggressive playstyles but blurs the lines between tribes. Not all tribal strategies are Aggro. But if you shouldn’t define tribal decks as Aggro, how can you define them?
Let’s break it down, what do we have? A pile of lands and a lot of creatures that are cheap to cast, small and individually weak that rely on synergies not raw power.
In Magic these are called weenie
i.e. small creature decks, and small-creature-decks exist outside of being strictly tribal decks. Not being defined by creature type puts more emphasis on how these decks are defined by the abilities they can access, based on their colour; as the colour-pie of Magic determines the abilities of each colour.
Until the Next Episode
Thanks for joining me wader-deep in the pool of tribal possibilities.
We have identified within the taxonomy of deck strategies that tribal decks are a specialist form of weenie deck.
I hope you’ll agree with me there is merit in further observation of the various forms of non-tribal weenie decks. I’m already considering how colour has an overarching mechanical and thematic influence…
I hope you’ve enjoyed the article, I’ve been a-fish-ionado, look for me on TappedOut, TribalMattersMTG and Instagram. Check me out on Spotify, with some classic playlists to get your grind on as you rank up! But until next time, keep casting creatures and turning things sideways!