Tribal Bible #8 – State of the Format (a.k.a. An Open Letter to Wizards)

Rivien takes a look at both the good and the bad in the Tribal Standard format. He also glances at the positive effects that Time Spiral may add, and makes an impassioned pleas for Wizards to take the format seriously. All this, and a decklist too!

[Tribal Bible is a series maintained by Rivien Swanson. Tribal Bible covers a format known either as Tribal Standard, or Standard Tribal, depending on whom you ask. The rules are as they are for Standard, except at least one-third of your deck must consist of creatures who share a type, there are no sideboards, and Umezawa’s Jitte is banned from the format.]

I actually considered doing this is some serious tone of writing, as though it were actually a presidential address or somehow official or in any way binding, but I decided against that. Instead, I’m just going to get to my opinions and whatever facts are present and let it all sort itself out. Let’s start with the good news.

  • Tribal Standard is a growing format. It’s been increasingly easier to get games, to the point where you can be picky (no Kamigawa block, for example, which I’ve been using for a few weeks).
  • The format is about to rotate into what looks like a healthier format.
  • Mistform Ultimus is back as a Time Shifted card, perhaps one of the more interesting tribally related cards ever, simply because it allows for things which otherwise couldn’t happen.
  • Seconding that, Conspiracy is a confirmed Time Shifted card; although admittedly the ability works better as a Vanguard avatar. But it might still be fun to turn your critters into Slivers. Of course, Hivestone can do this too. Maybe Fungus. I hear Sporesower Thallid and Thelon of Havenwood like that.
  • Oh, yes. Slivers are back, and several of them are aggressively costed. Plus, there are now Slivers for Fires of Yavimaya and Opposition. Yipes.
  • Many of the players are polite and friendly people. I usually relax a little more when playing Tribal Standard games than other formats.
  • I’ve been seeing less netdecking recently, although that may be because I’ve been stipulating no Kamigawa Block and all the top decks borrow from that mess.
  • Blue keeps more in line with the other colors in general, since most people avoid playing the critters that mimic Blue’s greatest strengths (draw and countering).
  • Very few truly aggressive decks in the casual room means wackier tribes are a little more fun to play. Even the faster games tend to last six to eight turns, meaning decks that intend to slow the game down and take control have a pretty good chance to do so.
  • Creatures have interesting enough abilities that non-combat wins can be viable options.

What does all this mean? Well, it looks like unless I’m giving Wizards too much credit, they had planned on the format around the same time they started planning Time Spiral, judging by the list of Time Shifted cards that were included; some of which interact directly with the format, and others that were creatures without types (primarily Legendary creatures) which will now have types and thus can be used more easily in the format.

It seems that the Magus cycle of cards from Time Spiral are going to lend themselves primarily to control and combo decks, further divorcing the format from being "just a bunch of dumb critters smashing each other," although I’m slightly worried that Magus of the Jar is going to be played in a kind of combo deck that led Wizards to create Tribal Standard in the first place, to get away from the nutty combo decks in Tribal Classic. That said, let’s examine the downsides.

  • It’s still not the most popular of formats. There are specific times of day where one can end up waiting over ten minutes to get a game. I’ve got these mostly sorted out and just play other formats during those times.
  • Slivers are returning. I love the little guys, but they’re such an obvious tribe to make and have so much built-in synergy that they can simply blow less synergystic tribes out of the water, barring good removal elements; note that board control elements are generally pointless against Slivers unless you can lock them all down; better to kill them so that they’re not sharing abilities.
  • Both Gemhide Sliver and Celestial Dawn can negate the drawbacks of playing even all five colors of Slivers.
  • We’re losing Hideous Laughter, and the only Black mass removal that seems to possibly replace it has Suspend 3. I suppose a case could be made for Stronghold Overseer being good board control, but it comes pretty late, doesn’t necessarily block, and basically requires mono-Black. Even Green gets Squall Line.
  • Split Second cards will definitely force some re-evaluation. A lot of critters these days are good primarily because you can get a last hurrah out of them before they die – like the entire Martyr cycle, for example. Split Second removal spells will make comes-into-play abilities a little higher on the totem pole than normal. I’m not sure this is a strictly bad point, but it worries me.
  • Remand is in pretty much any deck that can even produce Blue mana. I don’t think Suspend is going to kick off well here, but I suppose people are limited to four Remands per deck, so with enough effort, you can get a Suspend card to resolve.
  • Wizards is still married to the Red weenie = Goblin bit. Stop it, seriously. You could never print a Goblin again and no one would suffer for it. Thick-skinned Goblin? What in the name of my hairy left nipple does that have to do with not having to pay Echo costs? That sounds clever; Gobbos aren’t clever. In fact, almost any other creature type Red has ever used would have been better on this than Goblin. Dwarves, Minotaurs, and Drakes would all have worked fine. On a side note, Red could use some major spellcasting race – Humans, Phoenixes (is that the proper plural?), Dragons, Minotaurs… something. You know, Illithids are passionate xenophobes if you need a new creature type… although to be fair, they’re probably part Blue too.
  • Green is a bit underwhelming – while it can produce fat, that only lets it be the beatdown. Green is lacking in board control elements and thus doesn’t have a lot of the long-term options other colors have. Even a 4/4 for four can be decidedly unimpressive if every other color can kill/negate it for three mana or less (Terror/Cruel Edict, Boomerang, Char, Pacifism, Plumes of Peace, Putrefy, Mortify, Dark Banishing, Rend Flesh/Spirit, Devouring Light, et cetera). Admittedly, Green will always have something up its sleeve for as long as Savage Twister is available. Avoid Fate ought to be wicked fun as well.

Overall, I think the format is healthy more or less. It looks like it will continue to grow with the advent of Time Spiral. While the set’s power level looks a tad on the high side, it looks like it was pretty equally applied across the colors and more importantly the creature types, with only Humans, Knights, and Slivers being conspicuously common in Time Spiral.

Things for Wizards to keep doing/avoid doing for the sake of this format in the future:

  • Try to "cap" creature types; no more Kamigawa Block overloads on specific critter types, if it can be helped. I’d say in general that if a certain type has more than, say, fifty representatives, chances are it may be a little too prevalent.
  • Similarly, try to print more rare critter types in groups of five (or four as long as Mistform Ultimus is around). The more potential tribes there are to play, the less likely the format is to stagnate.
  • When choosing creature types, I think generally more is better. That is to say, if a creature is an Elf Druid and would also make sense as an Elf Druid Archer, then by all means use the latter printing. Use as many creature types as logic will support, and thus diversify the format. I’m looking at you, Carven Caryatid, Plant Spirit in disguise (and thank you for getting it right with Wall of Roots – Plant Wall!).
  • Continue printing good uncommon dual lands. Several tribes, particularly those spread across a cycle (such as Kirin) are forced into multiple colors, and losing games to your manabase is rarely (if ever) fun. Non-rare duals are of course good in normal Magic just as well. There’s really no reason not to keep printing good (especially non-rare) duals unless you’re specifically trying to focus on mono-color as a theme.
  • Similarly, keep multicolored cards in print whenever you can; they can often help bridge gaps between two colors, and several Tribal decks are forced into multiple colors more often than non-Tribal. Hybrid mana cards are especially nice and I hope they see use again in the near future.
  • Mechanics that by nature help combat manascrew/flood are ace. Cycling, Spellshapers, Suspend, and cantrips should be staples, in my opinion. Both cycling and cantrips should be strongly considered for core set potential.
  • Avoid ultra-synergystic tribes, unless they’re going to be a theme. Cards like Field Marshall and Sosuke’s Summons give bonuses to cards which themselves are often already aggressively costed. Creature Lords should be used more on narrow tribes that need help than common tribes that already are more worried about what to cut than what to add. Thrulls are a perfect example; even if a Lord existed to give them all +1/+1, none of them would be costed in a fashion that jumps the shark (they pay six mana for a 3/3, for the love of oysters!).
  • Print more cards which choose a creature type to interact with, be they permanents or otherwise. These are flexible cards that multiple tribes can benefit from.
  • Keep decent, but not overpowering equipment available whenever possible. Equipment allows for Tribes with good abilities but low stats a fighting chance, like Advisors or Thrulls.
  • Give Green more ways to protect its creatures and/or mess with other peoples’ utility dorks; Shielding Plax is a good start, Avoid Fate even better. Rimehorn Aurochs is positively ace (but unfortunately still one member short of a tribe, even with Mistform Ultimus). Provoke is a perfectly Green mechanic which should be used regularly; at least once per large set.

Keep in mind this is all said as someone who plays the format regularly, but still casually. I have no informed ideas about the competitive side of the format, although I can imagine that certain truisms apply to both sides (ultra-synergystic tribes in particular; I will be very surprised if Slivers are not a top deck in the post Time Spiral format).

Having said that, I’m pretty happy with the format; enough to continue writing about it and playing it for certain. I did even manage to come up with a deck for this week, although it’s not as thoroughly tested as I might like due to time constraints recently, as well as my uncertainty if I even wanted to include one in this article. I’ve been so busy with real life concerns that sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off if I were shot by…

I’m not entirely sure this is a finished deck; this is close to how I start most of my decks, with twenty-four land and nine four-ofs. Obviously, some of the ones in the past finished that way too, but this one advanced a little beyond that. The tribe is Assassins, if that isn’t obvious, and they all basically kill things under varying conditions. Right off, this means that your board control is pretty well in line.

Although it was a mistake in the Golem deck to try to support each creature individually, it works out a lot better with Assassins. First, the creatures here are just plain more useful than the Golems were; and second, all of the support cards are good on their own. As for the review of the Assassins and their support cards, let’s get on with it.

Orzhov Euthanist is supported by both Feast of Flesh and Plagued Rusalka, the former for setting up its comes-into-play trigger, and the latter for getting its Haunt off at an opportune time. Between that and creature combat, you should not have much difficulty in the way of making Orzhov Euthanist kill at least one creature and often two or three.

Royal Assassin is supported by Icy Manipulator, and both are strong cards on their own, demanding answers from your opponent before they dominate the table. Royal Assassin in particular functions as a semi-Moat, as most opponents won’t attack into it unless they’ve got a mess of creatures more than you do, a situation which is often difficult to obtain since all your creatures double as some form of removal.

Garza’s Assassin is supported by Grim Harvest, and the two of them working in tandem is just about as evil in this format as it is in Coldsnap Limited. Once you get to six mana so that you can play Garza’s Assassin and have mana to pay the Recover of Grim Harvest every turn, you’re in supremely good shape. Eight mana so that you can also cast Grim Harvest every turn is a soft lock versus decks without a high concentration of Black critters or untargetables.

Nekrataal and Unliving Psychopath are both supported by Vulshok Morningstar, the former becoming a 4/3 First Striker and the latter a 2/6 that can pump to 7/1 to destroy anything with six or less power, given enough mana. Note also that Plagued Rusalka can be used to sacrifice Nekrataal so that you can Grim Harvest it to get another use out of its comes into play trigger.

The good news: You’ve got board control in spades, at least insofar as creatures go, particularly the non-Black variety. Most creatures will fall to you like wheat before a scythe, and thus make up for the relatively small bodies of your men. The numbers in the lower right become much less relevant when the opponent has difficulty keeping anything on their side of the board.

That said, Vulshok Morningstar should probably become a four-of, but I’m not sure what to cut for it. I wanted Phyrexian Arena in the deck too, but I’d have to cut support for at least one Assassin in order to do so, and I wasn’t yet ready to do that at the stage of testing I was in. I am thinking the current weakest link is Feast of Flesh; you don’t particularly need the lifegain to pay for anything, except maybe after recurring Garza’s Assassin the hard way, and you’re unlikely to see more than two of them with no draw in the deck.

Icy Manipulator gives your deck a little more punch, in that you can deny people a key land or, in some cases, artifact. It also makes a decent argument for the inclusion of Howling Mine in the deck, since you can shut it off from time to time.

Note that Royal Assassin is significantly better than most of your other creatures; you probably don’t want to play him turn 3, instead laying out a couple of other Assassins first to test the waters for removal. You won’t always be able to do this, but I recommend it when possible.

The bad news: Well, of course your britches are down when it comes to enchantments, one of those endearing little traits of mono-Black. Probably more importantly though, untargettable dudes give you fits, and since Silhana Ledgewalker plus Moldervine Cloak is still a good play in many formats including this one, that can prove problematic. You don’t have any actual fliers or evasion, and your deck is weakened dramatically against other Black decks. I won’t say that you auto-lose to other Black decks, but the difference is notable enough that it feels like you’re playing another deck entirely.

Further, Unliving Psychopath tends to demand a lot of mana once you play him, either for killing things or swinging, and it pays to be aware of that when it comes to deciding when to play him. He doesn’t make for a bad Defender-wannabe though, so don’t ignore that.

Your win condition is usually whatever man you can get to wear a Morningstar, but failing that, Orzhov Euthanist and Garza’s Assassin turn sideways just fine without inhibiting their other uses as removal, as does Plagued Rusalka. That may not sound like a beatdown crew, but keep in mind the extreme difficulty most opponents will face in keeping blockers on the board. The Morningstar becomes much more significant in the Black-on-Black matchup (not a pornography reference, I swear it!) where several of your Assassins experience a queer sort of professional courtesy in dealing with other Black critters.

Next week I’m taking a break from presenting decks while I continue to test my current crop more to my satisfaction; instead you will be presented with a flavor review of Time Spiral, while I await its online release so that I may include it in my material.

Signing off,
Rivien Swanson
flawedparadigm at gmaSPAMSUCKSil dot com
Flawed Paradigm on MTGO
GodOfAtheism just about everywhere else.