Icon Of Ancestry Is Bringing Tribal Decks Back To Core Set 2020 Standard

Bring on the theme decks! “The Innovator” is besotted with Icon of Ancestry and he’s bursting with brews, from Spirits and Pirates to Elementals and Elves!

Icon of Ancestry is that rare tribal incentive that can be installed in whatever tribe you want, but what it brings to each potential tribal strategy varies a great deal.

Right off the top, Icon of Ancestry is a colorless Glorious Anthem, as long as you stay on message.

This is already enough to warrant an eyebrow raise. Remember, the fairly similar Hall of Triumph saw plenty of play, buffing the color of your choice instead of the tribe of your choice. However, instead of a second ability, Hall of Triumph had the (mostly) drawback of being legendary, making stacking it nigh-impossible.

By contrast, Icon of Ancestry comes complete with a powerful card draw ability. It would be easy to underestimate how strong this activated ability is, but as anyone that has played with Duskwatch Recruiter knows, this ability can be a lot stronger than merely drawing a card, and at a price fast enough to keep up with control decks that can’t get the Icon off the table.

If you’re willing to do the work, Icon of Ancestry represents a big step forward for tribal decks. The combination of immediate battlefield presence, diversification of threats, and greatly enhanced sustainability (particularly against permission and sweepers) is a lot more than we’re used to seeing for three mana. For instance, consider…

Radiant Destiny has proven itself a tournament card, and it pales in comparison to Icon of Ancestry. Not only does it require white mana, the eventual vigilance is nothing compared to this powerful card draw engine.

So, who is well-suited to take advantage of Icon of Ancestry?

It may seem odd to start with a tribe with so little tribal support, but the Spirits tribe gained a bunch of powerful new cards.

Hanged Executioner is excellent with Icon of Ancestry. Not only does it make two bodies, meaning double the bonus from each Icon, it’s also a creature, unlike similar cards such as Midnight Haunting.

Counting as a creature card means it’s another hit for Icon of Ancestry. It’s also much-needed hard removal without decreasing our creature count. Even if our opponent goes after it before it can exile a creature, we’re usually going to get the better of it by a 1/1 flier.

Goblin Chainwhirler is a real problem (what I suspect will be a recurring theme today). Icon of Ancestry helps here, too, raising our team up out of Chainwhirler territory, as does Supreme Phantom. But what about when we don’t draw the Icon or the Phantom is hit with a Lighting Strike?

There may not be much explicitly Spirit support, but there is the secret second package of tribal support for fliers. Most Standard Spirits fly anyway, and if we can stick to them, we’ve actually got access to a pretty hefty supply of Anthems.

Favorable Winds is already a proven winner and gains a lot with this set. Empyrean Eagle, on the other hand, actually looks a lot more suspect to me. These days, creature-lords that die to everything typically cost two. The Eagle does have an extra point of toughness that stacks well with all the other Anthems, but there’s still the question of opportunity cost.

What about these two powerful three-cost walkers? Teferi is crazy overpowered, and Dovin, Hand of Control might work exceptionally in a deck like this. If we’re already looking at Hanged Executioner and Icon of Ancestry, how many more three-drops can we really play?

Unfortunately, there aren’t really any fours as attractive as most of the three-drop options, though, at least Dungeon Geists is a nice get off the Icon.

Remember, using cards like Icon of Ancestry isn’t just about having good chances of hitting an extra card. The quality of the card in the context where you’re actually using the Icon matters. For instance, finding Llanowar Elves is usually going to be a disproportionately weak hit if you’re already at a spot of being able to activate Icon of Ancestry. By contrast, Dungeon Geists can be a powerful problem-solver that could easily be the perfect card to find when you’re in spots like that.

I don’t love Dungeon Geists in the format if played just straight-up. However, with Favorable Winds, Supreme Phantom, Icon of Ancestry, and Empyreal Eagle, we’re not exactly short on ways to make Dungeon Geists a lot more reliable.

While Winged Words looks great, I’m not sure we can get away with it without at least eight one-drops. Sadly, there’s only one “good” Spirit one-drop (at least, as of this writing). That said, it’s new and it’s a doozy:

Spectral Sailor’s flash ability is going to be quietly impressive against planeswalkers and sweepers, while actually meaningfully helping mitigate Chainwhirler exposure. Since you can cast it during their end step, you’ll get at least one hit in, plus be able to untap and either protect it, or perhaps draw a card to replace it. Even just not needing to cast it Turn 1 until after you see if your opponent’s first land produces red can be a big deal.

I tried building a version that gave up the Spirits thing, instead focusing on just supporting fliers. However, it just looks like a worse Mono-Blue Aggro to me.

Playing a bunch of one-drops with such mediocre mana on Turn 1 looks so loose. That being said, Spectral Sailor looks like a big upgrade for Mono-Blue Aggro itself. You really don’t need much more than a 1/1 flier for one anyway, and it’s got great abilities and a rate at least as good as Pteramander’s.

We’re even picking up an excellent tool for some traditionally challenging matchups in Aether Gust.

It can even delay uncounterable spells, like Shifting Ceratops, if well-timed.

Despite being both uncounterable and protection from blue, Shifting Ceratops on the stack is somehow vulnerable to Aether Gust.

As for Spectral Sailor and Stormtamer Siren working side-by-side, it is kind of interesting that they are both Pirates…

God, please no, not Pirates. Anything but Pirates.

Look, you don’t have to go all-in on Pirates to be potentially interested in Lookout’s Dispersal. I mean, just look at those Wizard’s Retorts, you know?

That said, if you were going to try to make Pirates work, I’m still not sure what you’re doing that’s better than Mono-Blue. I tried red, but like, why do you want twenty one-drops? Besides, even with Unclaimed Territory, the mana doesn’t look great, since we’d probably want some burn, which could be especially hard to cast.

Yeah, that’s probably not just a worse Mono-Blue deck…

You know who’d actually appreciate an Icon of Ancestry?

Judging from the card image, Merfolk?


This actually looks really promising. Merfolk lend themselves well to creature-heavy decks, without a lot of need for noncreatures (getting in the way of Icon and Unclaimed Territory). The extra cards are actually great here, too, as the Merfolk are all about getting quantity. Even late, they scale really well, making them good cards on Turn 5 or whatever.

While we’re making our way around Ixalan, what about Vampires? After all, unlike Merfolk, they even got an explicit call-out in Core Set 2020:

Every one of Sorin’s abilities calls out Vampires, so if you’re not largely Vampires, you’ve probably got no business kicking with him. If you are actually Vampire-centric, however, Sorin is no joke.

+1: Target creature you control gains deathtouch and lifelink until end of turn. If it’s a Vampire put a +1/+1 counter on it.

In a Vampire deck, this Ajani-esque ability is productive and useful; however, it’s the second +1 ability that really interests me.

+1: You may sacrifice a Vampire, When you do, Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord, deals 3 damage to any target and you gain 3 life.

Wow. I mean, that’s just fantastic for a three-drop planeswalker that goes up to five loyalty. You can turn any Vampire you want into a Lightning Helix each turn. That’s excellent for racing and fighting ‘walkers and problematic creatures.

This sort of sacrifice angle is different from what Vampires have been utilizing recently; however, there are some options, such as Cruel Celebrant, if we want to explore that route.

-3: You may put a Vampire creature card from your hand onto the battlefield.

I’m not sure we’re really looking to capitalize on this -3 all that much at the moment; however, it might be just enough incentive to get us playing a Vona, Butcher of Magan or two.

Vona is a borderline card anyway and would make a great hit with Icon of Ancestry. When combined with Sorin, however, we have the option of presenting a pretty intense battlefield position on Turn 3 in matchups where they’re unlikely to be able to deal with it so quickly.

Unlike with Pirates, we’re actually able to make great use of Unclaimed Territory, especially now that we don’t need to play Legion’s Landing if we don’t want to.

Knight of the Ebon Legion alongside Vicious Conquistador means we’re way less vulnerable to Goblin Chainwhirler than most one-drop decks. If it grows even once, you’re extremely doing it, and it’s a legit threat on its own, thanks to that pump ability. My hope is that between the Sorins, Vonas, and so much deathtouch, maybe we can get away with not playing dedicated removal Game 1. I think there’s a good chance a lot of people are going to be playing few (if any) creatures worth killing, and we really don’t want dead cards here.

I don’t love the one toughness, so if we end up needing to make room, this one is an easy cut. I’m not even sure we should be playing it over Martyr of Dusk anyway.

Yeah, we’ve already got plenty of two-drops, but Martyr of Dusk is even more exciting when paired with Sorin.

I’m not using any here, on account of white mana and wanting to avoid removal, but Final Payment is an increasingly attractive option the more we go the Cruel Celebrant route. The life loss can even be upside when we’ve got Knight of the Ebon Legion.

Completing the Ixalan circuit, Dinosaurs picks up Kawhi Leonard Marauding Raptor. A 2/3 for two isn’t too shabby to begin with, but the cost reduction ability is incredible (and sort of suggests an evolution in red’s color pie). The “drawback” becomes major upside with Dinosaurs, turning the Raptor into a 4/3 or larger threat (and that’s to say nothing of triggering enrage abilities).

Raptor Hatchling is especially exciting with Marauding Raptor, becoming a one-mana 3/3 with trample that gives your Marauder +2/+0 until end of turn.

I considered Thunderherd Migration, but I really think we’re must impact the battlefield every turn. Besides, Marauding Raptor plus Drover of the Mighty gives us a lot of looks at a four-drop on Turn 3, anyway. Ripjaw Raptor is a wombo-combo with the Marauder, of course, and Shifting Ceratops is just big and versatile.

Core Set 2020 has another four-drop that has everyone talking, however. Goblin Ringleader is a classic, and wow does Goblin Warchief miss its old friend. The card draw potential from Ringleader and Icon is just wild and really makes us want to prioritize mana efficiency. Here’s an attempt:

There are a lot of Goblins worth considering, but the biggest thing I’m trying here is the lack of removal besides Volley Veteran and Siege-Gang Commander. If we need to, there’s nothing wrong with a little Collision // Colossus action here, too.

Zhur-Taa Goblin’s power level is higher than other two-drop options, like Cratermaker or Dark-Dweller Oracle, and it’s not like the splash is hard. Still, I could imagine Goblin Warchief being enough of an incentive to move the needle back the other way. If we did go away from green, I’d lean Cratermaker, as Oracle is greatly diminished by the arrival of Ringleader and Icon, which do that sort of thing so much better.

Ember Hauler isn’t completely out of the question, but I really like the idea of saving a mana from the Warchief.

Maybe we’re supposed to maindeck it, but at the very least, I want access to these in the sideboard. We could easily not need the Blood Crypts at all; I was just curious if the added flexibility might be worth the price of admission (two life).

I do like Krenko with Icon of Ancestry, but I think I’d want another way to give him haste (which is not necessarily off the table). I don’t think the added quick pressure is likely to amount to enough to make a difference, compared to just better supporting our threes, fours, and fives.

While the Elemental tribe is new on the scene, there’s already enough action in Core Set 2020 to warrant investigation. Obviously, these two Chandras work great together, and alongside Icon of Ancestry naming Elemental. We’ve also got a new two-drop that plays right into the Gruul Monsters sort of style the aggressive Elementals point to.

Why Gruul Monsters?

Cavalier of Flame is a pretty great curve-topper, if you can go big enough. It gives you selection immediately, it’s a must-kill threat, and even if they do kill it, you may even get some extra value (especially if you can make Living Twister do some work).

My first attempt seemed okay in theory, but when I actually put it together, it looks kind of wonky:

Lightning Mare just seems so out of place here. Probably we’re supposed to use another accelerator or something. Besides, it kind of seems like we’ve got to use either Llanowar Elves or Goblin Chainwhirler anyway, because seriously, why would we not?

Creeping Trailblazer is nothing special, but it does look like a fine Elemental lord, particularly if you’ve got a lot of cantrip Elementals and 1/1 tokens. To get the cantrips, though, I think we might need to pick up blue.

Risen Reef looks amazing, and Cloudkin Seer might be at least serviceable. What about something like:

The addition of blue even lets us pick up Omnath, Locus of the Roil, giving us a superior Volley Veteran.

Omnath can really get roiling when we’ve got Risen Reef online.

Finally, we come to Elves (Dragons don’t really get all that much out of the +1/+1 from Icon, and they’re already pretty mana-hungry).

Elves might be especially appreciative of how good of a mana sink Icon of Ancestry is. They’re also the sort of tribe that frequently doesn’t need many noncreature spells, and they are super into quantity of raw material. For example, add two copies of Vivien, Arkbow Ranger to…

I wanted to start with some heavier-hitting Elves, playing into Pelt Collector (since one-drops seems to be the bottleneck); however, I could also imagine a world where Leyline of Abundance is actually of interest.

We don’t have to play many, either. They have diminishing returns, particularly when viewed as an expensive mana sink later. If we do try this path, we’re going to need a lot of Druid of the Cowl to go with the rest.

That said, I sure am enthralled with Barkhide Troll, and I’m not sure I can pass the card up if I’ve got Forests. It’s kind of the dopest Fleecemane Lion since Fleecemane Lion. Next thing you know…

Now this is a green deck I could get into…