Throughout Magic’s history, tribal decks have been popular. Limited Edition Alpha had lords for Zombies, Goblins, and Merfolk despite only having a couple of creatures of those types, and they were some of the more popular cards in the set. Competitively, there has been substantial success for tribal decks. Goblins, Merfolk, Elves, Spirits, Faeries, Vampires, Zombies, Kithkin, Slivers, Dragons, Shamans, Elementals, Humans, and even Eldrazi (they count) have been established upper-tier decks at some point, and some of them still are. Rare is the mechanic or game concept that hits the home run of Johnny-Spike-Timmy-Vorthos appeal, but tribal decks get there.
Our original visit to Innistrad saw both Spirits and Zombies making competitive splashes. Both were helped by Dark Ascension‘s addition of two-colored lords to the archetypes. Werewolves and Vampires also received lords but never really made it to the top tier of competition, despite those lords granting very powerful abilities.
Perhaps our return to the plane of horror will see that change. Shadows over Innistrad brings us something resembling a lord for each of the four “monster” tribes as well as one for the Humans, which did not get the love in Dark Ascension. We looked at Vampires a couple of weeks ago, and I think that might just have been the Level Zero deck of the format. What do the others bring? Are any of them playable? (Signs point to yes for at least one of them…)
Fortunately for us, the junction of Casual and Competitive is right where we opened our brewhouse! When putting decks together, I will generally aim to hit that sweet spot for power level that lets us win an FNM and be competitive elsewhere. With all else considered, the undead seem to be offering us the best shot at doing what we want to be doing.
For All of You Who Wronged Me
Zombies were arguably the strongest in Innistrad, and as we come back to town, the shambling ones certainly haven’t lost too many slow, moaning steps. Back then, the deck won because of its three one-drop-with-two-power creatures and the resilience of Geralf’s Messenger, Gravecrawler, and copies thereof (mainly from Phyrexian Metamorph). Having Diregraf Captain and later Cemetery Reaper gave the deck two lords, and later on it would morph into a B/R deck with Falkenrath Aristocrat. Both versions made use of the otherwise-unplayed Killing Wave, as losing its own creatures meant very little and the opponent often could not make a good choice.
The New Stuff: While we don’t have the explosive potential of those decks, we are not hurting for some brain-devouring options, both new and existing. Any discussion about the new Zombies has to start with Relentless Dead, which will be our biggest and scariest source of resilience. Not only does it bring itself back, we get to spend some mana to bring back a friend as well…directly on to the battlefield. We get to dodge the color requirements, too, if that should ever become an issue.
A natural combo with Relentless Dead can be found in Diregraf Colossus. With the proper stacking of triggers, you can bring back the Colossus before resolving Relentless Dead’s return-to-hand ability, making sure the Colossus gets that extra counter. Then, when you cast the Dead again, you get that free Zombie token. This back-and-forth can continue many times with a sacrifice outlet and a lack of exiling removal from the opponent, and it’s unlikely they will be able to clear up all three creatures each time. Sure, I’ll take that value! Later in the game we can add Prized Amalgam to that mix, which, although hard to get rid of, is ultimately just a 3/3. Shame, really.
Do we want to fill up our graveyard? Probably. Isn’t that where Zombies come from? Blue is black’s partner in the creation of monstrosities, and both Geralf’s Masterpiece and Forgotten Creation provide us fast ways to fill the graveyard. The Masterpiece can even come back from the dead on its own, discarding some Colossus fodder in the process. As eager as I am to play the big flying 7/7, I am less excited about Forgotten Creation in the type of deck that we’re looking at making here.
I would really like to say that Drunau Corpse Trawler is playable, but at four mana I simply can’t justify it. Stitchwing Skaab, while arguably having a less attractive text box, does have the bonus of letting us get it onto the battlefield for a mere two mana. Well, that and two cards in the graveyard, but in this deck we’re often going to be happy about that part.
The challenge is going to be getting these cards in the graveyard to start with, and that’s where the support cards come in. I think both Catalog and Epiphany at the Drownyard can see some play here. Also don’t sleep on Shamble Back as a nice little defensive spell that also gives us a creature for the minimum investment.
The Old Stuff: Let’s start with the obvious and say that Risen Executioner is probably a requirement in the deck. Although we might have some trouble casting him from the graveyard (more on that later), he’s still well worth the effort as a lord that can, in a pinch, come back from the dead.
Although not a Zombie himself, we’d be betraying ourselves if we didn’t seriously consider Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet for this deck. We all know what he offered in the departed Standard format, but that oft-overlooked third ability will be super relevant in a deck full of Zombies that want to be in the graveyard. Ol’ Judas IsKalitas will be happy to oblige on that front.
One card I am actually quite excited about is Sibsig Icebreakers. I don’t recall even considering this card for any deck at any point in any format other than one Draft deck, and that was as card number 23. Now that the creature type is relevant and the ability could actually benefit us, it might be time to sidle on over to Sibsig and ask about the weather. You know, to break the ice.
Sorry. (Not sorry.)
Fleshbag Marauder has some potential, although we might prefer it out of the sideboard. Screeching Skaab might be a necessary evil to start the graveyard train, though I really hope it isn’t. Corpseweft, however, is a very powerful effect that works exceedingly well with Risen Executioner and decidedly less so with Relentless Dead and Diregraf Colossus. I think it’s possible to play them all in the same 75, but how they are configured will be the real test. There’s also the possibility that we really want Liliana, Heretical Healer to help us with recursion. Wait, did I say possibility? I meant near-galaxy lock certainty.
- 3 Risen Executioner
- 2 Sibsig Icebreakers
- 2 Liliana, Heretical Healer
- 3 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
- 2 Geralf's Masterpiece
- 3 Relentless Dead
- 4 Diregraf Colossus
- 2 Prized Amalgam
- 2 Stitchwing Skaab
Manabases are still pure guesswork right now without knowing how the Shadow lands end up playing; we have to hope for the best. My gut feeling is that we want more of them than the Battle lands, but I am open to correction.
The numbers here are a little loose, but that’s what brews always look like to start with. I am less and less convinced that we want Corpseweft and Relentless Dead in the same deck, which means that Risen Executioner might also be wrong. I also feel like this deck could benefit more than most from a Corrupted Grafstone or two. Compelling Deterrence looks good in a Zombie deck but might need to be trimmed for more reliable removal.
I am pretty sure that there’s a secret second Zombie deck to be found, one that maximizes token-creation spells like From Under the Floorboards and Gisa’s Bidding alongside the aforementioned Risen Executioner. If Compelling Deterrence has a better home than the first deck, this might be the one.
This potential deck would play more like a U/B control deck with some reliable madness enablers and the usual hand destruction spells. I don’t think Liliana still has a place in this version, but of course we are going to want Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy as well. This version excites me a fair bit, to be honest. It’s true that we don’t get to play with the more exciting Zombies, but we do get to show off our Sam Black Zombie tokens!
It remains to be seen if Languish is good enough in the upcoming Standard format. If people are going bigger than four toughness on a regular basis, we might need to re-examine that slot, but right now I think it is important to have answers to token and aggressive strategies. Our sweeper options in black are not great without Crux of Fate, sadly.
The Forgotten Tribes
Werewolves of Blunder: You have to feel sorry for the Werewolves. After being close to playable last time around, a possibility that was scuppered in part by Ratchet Bomb and Abrupt Decay being better against double-faced cards then than they are now, they still don’t seem to be high enough on the power scale.
Geier Reach Bandit is a powerful card and Breakneck Rider turns up the aggression, but ultimately the deck suffers from some familiar problems. An aggressive deck wants to be casting spells as much as possible in order to put pressure on the opponent, and the Werewolf strategy asks you to effectively skip a turn. The trade-off is that your creatures gain inevitability in the longer game when the opponent is empty-handed and eventually will draw a land.
Although there is a clear attempt to mitigate this with flash spells like Howlpack Resurgence and Pack Guardian, what’s really needed is another mana sink like Duskwatch Recruiter. Although there is probably an aggressive G/R deck to be found in Standard, I would be surprised if there is anything more than a token Werewolf representation. That said, they also do a solid job of punishing slow starts, so if the format ends up being a slow one, then don’t overlook that potential.
Spirits in the Sky (and nowhere else): I guess after Drogskol Captain and Lingering Souls made such major impacts last time around, the feeling was that the tribe could stand to be powered down somewhat. Although I really like Rattlechains, Topplegeist, Bygone Bishop, and even Vessel of Ephemera, there’s no real reward for playing the deck. Spectral Shepherd is decent but not spectacular, and although I am very high on the Bishop, he does need friends to make him good. The Tireless Tracker, Sylvan Advocate, Collected Company sort of friends, probably.
Oh, the Humanity! It became clear this weekend that the Human deck is going to be a real force in this Standard format, though whether the deck will be W/U, W/G, Bant, or just W remains to be seen. Reflector Mage is a powerful argument for blue mana, but Tireless Tracker is pushing hard for the inclusion of green. Thalia’s Lieutenant and a plethora of one-drop 2/1s ensure that white is the basis. I would love to have Mayor of Avabruck back in Standard, but I’m not that lucky. That poor card never got the love it deserved despite being an army in a can and having a powerful effect on each side.
As Standard, develops I would be shocked if we didn’t see some surprises at Tribal Council. Humans definitely have the immunity idol right now, but after the Pro Tour, will their torch remain lit? Just watching the one day of coverage from #SCGBALT that I was able to catch before submitting this article, my brain is brewing overtime. As always, thanks for stopping by, folks.
I know I will be, but until next time…