Sullivan Library — In With The New: Tribal Cards

States is coming!
Adrian is jetting off to Valencia soon, but before he departs for some Extended chicanery he spills the beans on the new Tribal cards from Lorwyn. Will they have an impact in Standard over and above the obvious pump for Tarmogoyf? Or are they merely smoke and bubbles, designed to deceive us into believing their hype? Let Adrian reveal all…

It’s a real treat living in Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve been a lot less active in the local Magic scene for a little while (largely the result of trying to throw myself fully into my classes at the university), but I still feel so very fortunate. For a long time now, Madison has been blessed with an abundant Limited scene, and whenever the new sets come out, it feels like there is such an incredible amount of time and effort expended by the people in the area to know it through and through. Much like the “Sliver Kids” from the Team Two-Headed Pro Tour, I feel like Madison’s Mike Hron won his Limited Pro Tour largely because of an incredibly thorough understanding of the format. I’ve been getting phone calls to come play in drafts of Lorwyn, but I’ve largely had to sit these aside as I prepare for exams and, of course, the imminent Pro Tour: Valencia.

Still, though, there has been plenty of occasion to talk about the new set. I know that I have some largely different views of the Planeswalkers than most people (I think they are mostly weaker than people give them credit), and I expect I’ll have some different views than many people about the new Tribal cards. That’s fine, of course. Exploring differing opinions is one of the best ways to find your way to whatever it is that we might call “truth.” One of the more interesting conversations that I had had about Tribal was with several of the Madison crew, but most notably Brian Kowal.

Brian is one of my favorite thinkers in the game of Magic. These days most of his Constructed energy is often spent thinking about new approaches to explored metagames, and by his own admission, he’s more interested right now in playing a deck that is fun than a proven, winning deck. If you’re not sure who Brian is, among other things he is the man that brought Ponza to the world, the co-designer of my States-winning deck Kooky Jooky (along with Ben Dempsey), the designer of Grand Prix: Detroit Champion Bob Maher’s Slideless R/W deck, the designer of the BUG-Control deck that saw play throughout Invasion Block, and, most recently, the designer of This Girl, the Angelfire deck that gave Mike Flores his own State Championship. Brian’s a pretty smart guy.

Lorwyn hadn’t come out yet, and so Kowal was talking with some of us about his frustration with the idea of Tribal as a card type. He had some great points about how he felt like it was somewhat unnecessary. They were very convincing, up until I read Aaron Forsythe’s article describing the troubles that Mark Gottlieb had with what seemed to me to be a simple problem. Kowal’s intuitive take on what could be done is just about exactly what Aaron’s had been, and mean ol’ Mr. Gottlieb had to go and ruin their fun and make Tribal an entirely new card type. Grr.

Tribal, as it stands then, brings with it an interesting impact to the world of Constructed.

The Elephant in the Room

There might be no bigger elephant in the room than Tarmogoyf. Perhaps as one small testament to its omnipresence, I bought a set of them in the last several days with actual cash. I almost never do this. I didn’t buy a set of Jittes. I didn’t buy a set of Ravagers. I haven’t bought a set of hardly anything. Generally, if I’ve wanted cards, I’ve traded for them or borrowed them.

People are going to be far less likely to lend you their Tarmogoyfs than they’ve been willing to lend cards in the past. The reason? Tarmogoyf is in so many decks, in so many formats, there really aren’t that many going around. I’m sure that there are tons of people out there with 8 or 12 of them, but if they have any number of friends who might want to have some copies, they can run out of cards to lend pretty quickly. It’s just that this particular Goyf can oh-so-easily fit into everyplace. Patrick Chapin has already claimed that Tarmogoyf has stolen the crown from Psychatog as the best critter ever. He might even be right.

Previous to Lorwyn, it was usually pretty trivial for a Tarmogoyf to grow to 4/5. Tribal and Planeswalkers will, I think, make it pretty trivial for it to be a 5/6. If you’re playing Tarmogoyf, it is absolutely worth taking a look at every single one of the Constructed worthy Tribal cards for potential inclusion in your deck. Remember, any Tribal card also comes paired with another entire card type, so it can potentially be worth +2/+2 to your Tarmogoyf, though you could generally count on it for at least the +1/+1. Tribal Enchantments are somewhat notable in that they are likely to give you +0/+0, unless your opponent dispatches it, or unless you’re finding some way to discard it. Personally, I’m betting that many times, it will be worth the loss of a card to get that permanent bonus.

The important thing to remember is that there are going to be Tarmogoyfs everywhere. Everywhere. A Tarmogoyf can hold off a Tarmogoyf, but if you find yourself behind in numbers of Tarmogoyfs, you might not want to be growing the Goyf. It’s especially easy to fall behind in Tarmogoyf advantage if you aren’t actually running any Goyfs. With this in mind, you should be thinking very, very hard before including any Tribal cards in a non-Tarmogoyf deck. You can perhaps get away with running the Tribal Enchantments with a little less deep introspection, but don’t forget just how devastating it might be to have a Disenchant or Naturalize hit that Tribal Enchantment as your opponent beats down with a pair of Tarmogoyfs — it’s actually a lot like they just cast Overrun.

Harbingers (and the Like)

When I was a kid, I read a lot of fantasy books. In one book, I remember some villains called something like “Harbingers of Doom.” I dressed as them for Halloween that year, much to the bewilderment of my mom and anyone who asked what exactly I was that year.

The Harbingers (and other tutoring cards) bring up the interesting possibility of tutoring for cards in ways that we aren’t really used to. Comparing Bogart Harbinger to Goblin Matron shows the two cards to be incredibly similar, though the Matron I would say is clearly the superior of the two cards. What is important to all of these cards is the idea of being able to use them to find potentially useful non-creature cards. Goblins, it seems, have the biggest edge in this regard, largely because of the large amount of playable cards that have been discovered that search for or respond to the existence of other Goblin cards. That doesn’t mean that the remainder don’t matter too, however. If you can identify any reasonably potent Tribal spells, the economical Harbingers of that tribe become all the better. What we just need to remind ourselves is that the Tribal cards impact all of those previously printed cards that are quasi-Harbinger-like.

There are a few particular Harbingers that are very clearly worth taking an extra look. Flamekin Harbinger, as a 1/1 for a single mana, is actually reminiscent of a strange mesh of Tutors from the Mirage Block. Clearly, there are other Elemental cards that are worth tutoring for, and at one mana, this might just be the best of any of the Harbingers. Treefolk Harbinger is similarly cheap, but I would expect that you’ll find yourself less likely to find value from a Treefolk than someone will find from an Elemental. The ability to tutor for a Forest as well (and you might actually be surprised at how this could actually be quite good), but it definitely seems to be a nod from Wizards towards the relative weakness of Treefolk cards in Constructed.

Haakon and the Strange Case of Changelings

Mistform Ultimus is one of those cards that was always a surprisingly strong performer in Limited back when it came out in Legions. Time and time again, something would happen because the Ultimus was everything. Even in Time Spiral limited, this would occasionally matter, though far less often. Changelings, in a sense, are a race of Mistform Ultimus, in a set where it, like Onslaught Block, actually matters.

The Shapeshifter cards end up triggering a lot of abilities that might be on the table in Limited, but in Constructed they end up filling out so many possibilities within each of the tribes. But where the Shapeshifters become most interesting is in the implications that Shapeshifters bring to a card like Haakon.

For those of you who have been living in a hole, Haakon, Stromgald Scourge is a combo with the Shapeshifter tribe. Until now, the only Knights that have been out there that can provide a force to make Haakon a potent threat have been, you know, creatures. Some players loved to “cheat” Haakon a little bit by running Court Hussar (without amplifying it) to get a mini-Impulse again and again from it, but that’s the best that Haakon has had it. Now, though, any Shapeshifter card can be counted as a Knight. Anything that might not necessarily be that hot a spell can be counted on as being far more noteworthy if a Haakon is in play. And, of course, if you have a spell that is solid on its own, it becomes an incredible powerhouse in conjunction with a card like Haakon.

To the Tribes

I’m going to look at each of the Tribal cards, by tribe, putting a little spotlight on any of the cards that make me think they might have some kind of possibilities worth noting. Generally speaking, regardless of the power or the weakness of a particular card, it is the implications created by Tribal as a new card type that is more important than the individual card, so by its very nature, my discussion will be limited to cards that seem noteworthy for whatever reason.


Let’s start with the tribe with the most potential for abuse, simply because of the flexibility of these cards. It is worth remembering that every card that cares about Tribe cares about every Shapeshifter Tribal card, even if it isn’t a creature. Wirewood Herald, Goblin Recruiter, and Edgewalker will all affect Shapeshifter cards. And, as I just mentioned, so will a card like Haakon.

The clear-cut powerhouse combo of Haakon with Nameless Inversion has made a ton of waves. B1, ad infinitum, to remove three toughness from a creature is pretty impressive. Even without Haakon, Nameless Inversion would be well worth noting, but with it, we can easily imagine an opponent being overwhelmed. Of the rest of the Tribal Shapeshifter cards, most of these seem largely bound by their either minor effect or their cost. Even some of these effects seem like they could be quite potent when combined with Haakon, but largely underwhelming without him. That said, this is largely a result of the likely perception out of Wizards that they have to be careful in making any of these Shapeshifters too good. We still have at least one set of Shapeshifter cards coming out, so in the future, perhaps we’ll see something useful come out of it.

Classics — Goblins and Elves

Ah, Goblins- seemingly Wizards favorite tribe. I imagine that Goblin Shock (a.k.a. Tarfire) will see play more than any other Tribal card we’ve yet seen. Tarmogoyf decks are likely to spend a slot on a card that provides a possible +3/+3 to him. Dedicated Goblin decks in other formats are likely to play it, and you can bet that Wort will also be seeing a fair amount of play in Standard just because the card existed. It is possible that Fodder Launch might get some action as sideboard card against big creatures, but that might just be pushing it.

Elves have always been a personal favorite of mine. Much like Goblin Shock, Elf Terror (Eyeblight’s Ending) is going to be a high profile card in Tarmogoyf decks. The rest of the Tribal Elf cards, though, are only going to be doing well in peoples’ imaginations, if even there.

The twos — Elementals, Faeries, and Kithkin

Each of these tribes have two cards worth noting…

The Elementals are especially lucky in twos. One, they have a well-cost tutor card that can find one of their cards, and two, they have a pair of very potent non-creature Elemental cards to actually fetch. Both of these cards are also two-drops, so they can hit the table quickly.

Eyes of the Wisent is one of those cards that can be incredibly punishing to any counterspell based control deck, in nearly any format. While still pretty clearly a sideboard card, this one is going to stand the test of time. I pity the poor player playing in a counterspell mirror match with one of these on the other side of the table. Hoofprints of the Stag is another such card that is going to definitely see a lot of play. Pumping out 4/4 fliers at a much slower pace than Eyes can get out its own 4/4s, it still does so without relying on an opponent to make it happen. That’s pretty great news.

The faeries seem to have been blessed with two actually potent Instants, Faerie Trickery and Peppersmoke. Peppersmoke is heavily hindered by its requirement that there be a faerie around to keep it in cantrip-land, but Faerie Trickery actually doesn’t care about that at all. This card is very nearly a reprint of Dissipate, a card that had always seemed to get a lot of play back in the day. While there is a little less recursion going on these days, you can bet that control decks are going to be thankfully in Extended to have a means of getting rid of a Life from the Loam, and there are liable to be any number of reasons to want to remove a spell from the game. Do note that Faerie Trickery isn’t that hot against the odd Changeling spell, not to mention the few faeries out there that matter.

For the Kithkin, both of their two Tribal cards are worth noting, though in greatly differing amounts. Surge of Thoughtweft looks like it could actually be really reasonable in a Green/White Kithkin/Tarmogoyf beatdown deck, helping you win Goyf wars or just piling on the damage as a cantrip for cheap, so long as you keep a Kithkin around. With the sheer numbers that you are liable to play (as well as the likelihood you’ll want even more to jumpstart the Kithkin Isamarus of the world), it is well worth considering.

Their other card, though, is a card I expect to see played in a ton of decks that are planning on attacking, if not as a main deck card then as a sideboard against control. Militia’s Pride does an incredible amount of things. It allows you to continue to increase your pressure against a deck without committing extra forces to the table. It can speed your clock with a minimal investment. In creature races, it can easily provide enough manpower to the table to overwhelm an opponent, especially if you are activating the card multiple times in an attack. This one is going to be a rare that is chased.

The unlucky Tribal groups – Merfolk, Giant, and Treefolk

These poor saps are all stuck with a bunch of Tribal spells that aren’t actually that great. The most noteworthy for each of them are the cantrips — Aquitect’s Will, Giant’s Ire, and Rootgrapple — which just might be good enough to see some play, but probably aren’t that likely to make the cut. Some people will argue for the Merfolk spell Summon the School, but I’d like to point out just how much work you’re going to have to go through to get any real use out of the card, and how awful Summon the School actually is against any kind of resistance in the form of Wrath of God. Some people will still chase after Summon the School, most likely… it is going to be these minor cantrips that might be at all useful for these three tribes.

Wrapping up

Personally, I’m really excited about a lot of these cards for Constructed, even as I’m slightly frustrated about what they mean to the ever-increasing power of Tarmogoyf. “Tribal” isn’t just a repackaging of something with a new keyword (Reach, for example), but actually a really vibrant recasting of how the game can work, and I have to give some kudos to Forsythe and the rest of the design team for both it and the Planeswalkers.

Let me finish by just quickly recapping the relevant Tribal cards:

Nameless Inversion
Militia’s Pride
Hoofprints of the Stag
Eyes of the Wisent
Faerie Trickery
Bound in Silence (Don’t forget our little friend from Future Sight)
Eyeblight’s Ending
Surge of Thoughtweft

As I write this, I’m preparing myself for my journey to Spain. I hope that you’ll all be wishing me the best of luck, and next week I expect I’ll have a lot to share with you.


Adrian Sullivan