Feature Article – Those New Set Tribal Blues

Read Feature Articles every Monday and Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
There’s a new set in town… Morningtide is here to rock our socks and set our Tribal / Class juices flowing. Some people, however, are not so enamored of the current Tribal direction in which the game is headed. John Friggin’ Rizzo takes a sledgehammer to the Tribal theme in a provocative article crammed with his usual verve and passion. Do you agree with his assessment?

[Editor’s Note – Mike Flores will be appearing on Monday, folks… watch this space!]

Through no fault of my own, merely extreme and innate prejudice, color me underwhelmed by Lorwyn block. Tribal is not something I find particularly engaging, and though I may be in the minority, I want the tribes to hurry up and be over.

I don’t want to play with or against cards that read “narrow and representative of one small place in time.” The words “Kithkin” or “whenever you cycle a card” are constricted and degenerate in their lack of forever-ness. Some may argue that this is the intent — the now is now; forever is something to worry about later. I retort: intentions are for teh ass; results are all that matter, now and whenever.

Planeswalkers, us, the spell caster elite, are forever; we’re Time Spiral every-time, not frozen in some sort of quasi Feroz-like ban. Three years from now, it’s doubtful you’ll hear “man, I wish Merrow Harbinger was Standard legal!” The new and improved version of Fodder Launch will not be something that sees many players crack packs in desperation; whereas, I still take the occasional stab at Future Sight, wondering if Mr. x/1 is lurking at the bottom.

Putrefy, Dark Confidant, the sac lands, Chrome Mox…these are forever cards that could be used ten years ago, or ten years from now. These are cards you can count on to contend for slots in many different decks in many different eras.

Dredge will be forever, as will cycling, threshold and the hideaway lands. “You may use this mana only to cast Elemental spells” will not.

Any deck of any era would be happy to reuse critical spells at the cost of milling itself.
Any deck of any era can achieve threshold simply by playing the game.
Any deck of any era might like the option to pay 2 to discard this card and draw a card.
Any deck of any era could utilize a free hideaway card when a certain condition is met.
One deck ever will care about playing Elemental spells on the cheap.

This is what I dislike about Tribal, and to a lesser extent, extremely inbred formats or expansions. They’re do-something in their respective time and place, but a long term blank. Blanks are the white light of Magic: the absence of not being blank.

Dredge, the card, not the mechanic, is another forever card. Pay one Black, sac a creature or land and draw a card. This is elegant, blasé yet interesting, and blossoming with an eternal understanding and simplicity; its complexities are of such a straightforward nature that it defies a logical grasp — it’s so elementary that it’s embarrassingly deep. Despite it being a one-mana cantrip no one ever used, feel free to never use it, even in, and especially in, a vacuum.

Lightning Bolt, and its dozens of variants, would suffice if you’re all about taking it to the face on turn 1, or simply doing three to something. Dredge and Bolt will do the same thing, block after block after fifty years from now, and will never need to coexist with any other subset or theme or diversion of cards.

Change the rules or add a hundred new card types, colors, timing, whatever you wish. Tapping a Mountain to do three means the same in any time frame or alternate situation you could imagine.

Aging like fine wine is not a prerequisite, but looking at a card two years later should not be akin to hearing “that song” that takes you back to an exact and certain time and only that time with no means to relive; nostalgia has its place – pinpoint, dedicated particular-moment-and-only-that-moment should not. Cards that transcend their block, even their era, are cards that will keep the game fresh by being classic; they’re do-something forever.

You can pay 1G for Tarmogoyf or River Boa or Wyluli Wolf in 1993 or 2013 and it will make as much sense as it did when it was supposed to. Paying 1G for Petalmane Baku or Riftsweeper or Tribal Forcemage… well, not so much.

Duress is forever. Psychic Spear is a one second blip in history.

Some cards are useful outside of their “proper” time and place, and others will live long after the rest of the brethren are dead and buried. Quick: name a Constructed format, other than Highlander, where Meddling Mage couldn’t make an impact. Name a format, other than the ones they were designed for, where Brutal Suppression or Catalyst Stone would, but didn’t even then.

Set-specific or situational set-hoser cards piss me off. I want my cards to be useful in a year or five. I don’t want Stabilizer or Fluctuator. Sure, I understand the “flavor” and “environment” and all that jazz; I’m simply not one of those guys who oozes over purported added value at the sight of “card for this instance and no other.” Give me something that holds its value — play-wise, idea-wise, ideal-wise; a potential deck slot; something to advance my agenda, whatever that happens to be at the time.

Cards that could have been printed any time and any place and used likewise, simply outclass and outshine those created to max out a niche or fill out, complement or control a theme or mechanic.

Coldsnap was the first set I had seen since my dubious Ravnica return that made me pretty much shrug and say “okay.” There were a few neat and unique cards, and I understood the closure of Ice Age block, but cumulative upkeep all over again?

(“Cumulative upkeep all over again.” That is so very much one of the most egregious, yet satisfying, puns I’ve ever made.)

The set felt bland-ish and offered very little reward for the itinerant deckbuilder, or, in this case, me. [In case you haven’t figured it out yet: it’s all about me. You should feel the same, substituting “you” as the pronoun of choice. Because you are the customer — you put the U in EULA.]

I realize that many players care not about creating their own decks, or exploring the intricacies that we know the designers and developers must have missed, and my diatribe is falling upon deaf ears. Still, there are many who relish the discovery and construction of something contracted in their minds and made real by their unique fingerprints on cardboard pieces. I don’t fault those who don’t care to dig in and get their hands dirty. In fact, I envy you:

With each new set, I take it as a personal affront analogous to a glove slap to the grill — “let’s see what you can do with this, fruitcake!” Often, my only answer is “I can’t do as much as I’d like,” but other times have a more satisfying ending that doesn’t really end when the cards can permit themselves to live on and try to find purpose: one set, one block one year or ten from now.

Regardless of the outcome, it’s the drive to create, to compile, that motivates me. How motivated can a guy get with Lorwyn? I’m gonna build the world’s most awesome Goblin deck evah! omg — my Kithkin deck is gonna blow everyone away!

I like to try to break, abuse, or at least create something a little out of the woodwork. The cards were in house and tested into oblivion by dozens, but I know I can find something you didn’t intend; a grain of sand that went undetected. It doesn’t matter if I succeed (though sucking blows), since much of the reward is in the process itself. Tribal isn’t about discovery in any sense of the word. Sure, there are neat synergies and strategies, but they’re printed right on the card. Since there are so many interlocking, obvious puzzle pieces, it’s more like a process of elimination:

Imperious Perfect and/or Elvish Harbinger and/or Elvish Promenade and/or/and/or/etc.? It’s like an a la carte menu: choose seven cards from the ready-made list and add Forests to season.

One could argue that all synergies and strategies are printed right on the card, and to a degree, that point is valid. Any finite system, such as the current Extended environment, when given a long enough timeline, can only result in everything that can be discovered being, well, discovered. When the sample size is cut in half, which is what occurs with inbred or exploratory-challenged expansions, the timeline shortens drastically, but for no reason: the smallness is more likely to lead to inner thinking, which is the exact enemy of everything that is forever. The cards fight the players who try to immortalize the cards, who can’t possibly be anything but the near future or recent past.

Certainly it would be a refresher to focus on the now with the now cards, knowing full well and with no regrets that this effort will pay no long term dividends; it’s the next three months, and then we’ll never have to worry about it again. Some people are not built that way, and they’re stuck with a knotted ball of string and an antagonist daring them to figure it out.

At this point, allow me to come to the defense of the developers that I’ve spent three pages crapping upon. Development or design is not something I could ever do. For one, I don’t work well with others. Take that to read: the first time someone said “nice idea, but we’re not going to use it,” I’d pick up a brick and Reginald Denny wouldn’t know from nuthin’. Or else, if I was feeling generous, I’d sling pejorative terms and quit.

Second, I’d be hard-pressed to design any card that couldn’t bridge the current application and future and past environments. Between the possibility of crackin’ skulls and redesigning the already redesigned ad nauseam, I’d last fourteen minutes.

I can appreciate the tens of thousands of man-hours devoted to creating a world with rules and regulations, and cards that make sense in that world and no other. I admire the passion and dedication of the creative teams, and the need to stay on task and see the job through to satisfaction. Many hours of sleep have likely been lost trying to make a certain card “more faerie-like” or “less Mirrodin-ish.” I get it, I respect it, I acknowledge it, more than this article will attempt to describe.

That doesn’t mean I have to like your ideas.

Building the guilds and the tribes must have been a massive undertaking, with pitfalls a plenty, and perhaps a do-over or fifty. As a fledgling dramatist-type guy, I know the pleasure of the ending of the pain when things finally come together after too much time apart. And yet…

All of the creative members are charged with tasks I would never want and could never do, especially when the audience has been spoiled with three consecutive years of greatness. Despite surmising how difficult a road they must have traveled, to me, Lorwyn has the allure of a white-bordered, Chronicles-like reprint set. I respect the effort, but the result is mostly irrelevant.

Flavor, story, world, theme, whatever, Parallax Inhibitor makes my flesh crawl.

While I’m certain that there are players frothing at the mouth when they see all the new elves, I’m not one of them. I don’t give two rats asses about intravenous Faerie decks. I want options and possibility, not hundreds of cards so narrowly designed that I’ll forget they even exist, and not care one way or the other. Pigeonhole my evaluation, but don’t expect me to sit idly by and color by numbers.

It feels as if Wizards is pushing us to go where they want us to go, and will throw us a bone or two with a handful of cards that can be used in past or future applications. True enough, the same argument could be made for Ravnica block, and even if there is some legitimacy to that suggestion, the quality and variety and usability of the cards made it easy to break out of the cookie-cutter mold and go where we wanted, not necessarily where the cards lead or implied.

Much as Ravnica block didn’t require membership in a particular guild in order to play, it’s possible that one could assemble a decent Lorwyn block deck without majoring a particular tribe or tribes. But it won’t be filled with forever cards, and Lorwyn block is a mere moment in time, soon to be forgotten — will the cards live on afterwards, as many Ravnica cards will?

Glancing over the Morningtide spoiler left me with a “whatever” feeling. I checked the first few White cards: “whenever a Kithkin you control…” stop reading, scroll down to the Black cards: “if you control a Rogue…” stop reading, sigh, pleh. I’m aware that people like tribes. Fine, like ‘em, love ‘em, never get enough of ‘em. You scan the Treefolk and I’ll be over here looking for cards that aren’t part of the spoon-fed, socialist regime.

Cards that can exist by their lonesome are attractive. Cards that cannot, such as Goblin Ringleader, are much less appealing. Ringleader cannot exist without other gobbos to find — that dependence is the weak link. Of course, he could find himself and only himself, which sounds like quite the deckbuilding exercise in futility.

This need for like-minded, tribal, or “useless without this exact thing, which is equally useless without its counterpart,” naturally triggers me to “the greater good,” and “from each according to his means.” This tends to further strengthen my resolve against dependent cards. If you cannot exist for your own sake and not that of your brother, or tribe member, or “specific and exact thing x or y,” all I can do is ask: why bother?

Lightning Bolt can and will exist and flourish by and for itself, completely disregarding everything else except Red mana and a target. Duress continues to flourish because non-land cards exist. These cards are meat – they’re men in a world of soy-eating spoiled little children.

As an example, Oona’s Prowler is a two-drop meat eater, hard-hitting discard outlet that just happens to be a faerie with an edgy rogue side. The day when its creature types will ever matter to me is the day someone drops Engineered Plague. You’ll use Prowler in your rogue faerie deck, while I’ll use her despite her creature types. She exists in the way I want her to exist regardless of her class and race and affiliation.

Changeling, however, is pure genius. It’s inbred and right now this instant, and it’s also absolutely forever and ever and even more so ever. Too bad all the changelings suck.

I knew every card in Ravnica and Time Spiral block, and was quite familiar with Coldsnap. But the tribal set? I traded for all the cards I wanted at the release (OONA!, Profane Command, Lily — forever all), bought a box, won some packs, and there are still dozens of Lorwyn cards I’ve not seen, nor even heard of. I can’t even read a Lorwyn Limited article — I’d be too busy clicking the blue links and remembering why I hate Limited.

If I were a fan of tribal wars, then pow, bam and booya, I’d be walkin’ right up to and thru ya’. Alas, I was due to be disappointed eventually, and I have no doubt, that when tribal is over, Wizards will once again wow me, as they have virtually every other time with every other product.

At this point, I am able to step back and consider. As I perused the Morningtide previews for a second and third time, some interesting nuggets started to sneak out. Small, sure, but there are some cards that will exist without the tribes; their own little eternity; forever-ness in the form of Mind Shatter and Scapeshift and the like.

Boldwyn Heavyweights. Mind Spring. Shard Volley. Forever cards, each one. Hell, even clash is forever, despite the toned-down coin-flip aftertaste. Gilt-Leaf Archdruid? Build a deck around it or go home.

Far from being won over by mere table scraps of forever-ness, I can nonetheless recognize the slivers of potential brilliance on exhibit. While there may be fewer cards that wow me compared to Ravnica and Time Spiral, the creative juices at the home office are still alive and flowing. They’re just too reigned in and devoted to a singular message.
Design big to last forever, or design small to be a historical footnote. Don’t hate the playa, don’t the game; hate the concept. That way we can be friends again when this is all over.

Ravenous Baloth is a great example of small design that worked large. The core of this article may suggest that the mention of “Beast” in the textbox would be cause for dismissal – if Baloth was an elf, thereby rendering the text virtually worthless in most forms of Constructed play, then indeed this indictment would ring true.

The ability is useful because one card, independent of other beasts, serves multiple purposes; it needs no other beasts to make it playable. Add other beasts and you may or may not foul the process, but 4 Ravenous Baloth could exist as the only creatures in a variety of decks, whereas, 4 Goblin Ringleader as the lone four-of is still likely the worst idea you’ve ever heard.

Yes, but we can’t simply make expansions without themes and structures and individual identities. That would be like making a whole bunch of excellent, Constructed-worthy cards, collating them by fifteens and throwing on some sparkly, artsy shrink wrap.

Yes, that is what it would be like.

Part of the set and block appeal is that we can reinvent and refresh the game by taking it to a new world, yet we must build on what came before. If every four months came an endless parade of non sequiturs, block cohesion would all but disappear.

Do a few Ravnica “spirits” greatly impact the desirability of soulshift?

What if every block was filled with tons of great stand-alone creatures and versatile and effective spells and lands that would not only weather rotation, but continuously revitalize the past, present and future?

This would be the creative team’s greatest achievement and most difficult challenge: to continuously push out independent mouth gaper after multipurpose jaw dropper, with nary a constriction in their midst.

If the interdependent block mentality proves to be as unsustainable a model as I believe it could eventually become, if it can’t get beyond spoon-fed and prepackaged meals in the form of tribes or cemented themes, if the cards themselves aren’t designed with maximum long-term creative output at the end user level, then our grandchildren will not be shuffling them up and drawing seven. If, ten years from now we’re looking back at dozens of inbred sets with multitudes or cards virtually useless except in very narrow and particular contexts, we can always remember Paris.

But, by refusing to utilize all available tools, am I not shortchanging myself? Couldn’t there exist a forever-viable scheme in which a handful of Kithkin play a vital role despite their apparent “smallness,” a la: the minimalist rebel chain of yesteryear? Is it possible I’m overlooking a hidden gem of small synergy that looms large with the right impetus thrown into the breach?

After all, at Regionals 2000 I played, to some degree of success, a G/W aggro deck that featured the aforementioned rebel chain. This idea can perhaps be revisited in the current Standard environment, but much like Lin-Sivvi, the time frame is short, the applications are limited, and the rewards are unlikely to translate into anything remotely resembling forever-ness.

This article is not intended to impact Wizards’ creative process, but I am a customer, and for the first time that I can recall, I’m neither impressed nor looking forward to the new set. I’m this close to discretioning my income for a set of ‘Goyfs rather than a box and Fat Pack of Morningtide. My money could get me four x/x+1 diamonds, or 40 packs of Tommyknocker moments in time. Two or three years from now, which purchase could offer the opportunity for damned near 100% utility, creative-wise, if certainly not monetarily?

After falling deeper in love with Wizards over the last three years, suddenly I’m a customer too disenfranchised to be apathetic. This is not a plea for change, nor a desire to be “understood,” or even self-righteous aggrieved victim status – it’s the opinion of one crotchety sumb*tch who yearns for the feeling of constant discovery and challenge in the forever vein that I’ve come to expect from Magic. Those things can’t reside in a breadbox reserved for a handful of tribes determined to push me to conformance.

Perhaps my tribal and for-now-only antipathy-slash-ennui will eventually fade.
Tribal is not and cannot be forever, and if two sets (or four if the next mini block is tribal) that don’t catch my fancy is the biggest gripe I have against those latte-drinkin’ Marxists in Renton, then I’ll suck it up. Not for the greater good in some twisted and archaic zero sum game, but for myself, as I look forward to the next big idea, which will hopefully depart from tribal in a tremendous fashion.

Until then, I’ll tap for mana and attack for two, but on my own completely selfish and tribal-less terms. Patience is not my strong suit, but in this case, it appears I must learn the virtue of delayed gratification.

But hurry the f*** up and get to the next real block.

John Friggin’ Rizzo