Tribal Knowledge: AquaBeasts, Ursa Major, And The Secret of Tribal Standard

Jay tackles the most monstrous of tribes… Beasts! He shares two decklists, both with high synergy and an excellent fun factor. Tribal Standard is a format with a growing fanbase… are these the decks for you?

Greetings! Yes, I know that I said I would be taking a week off to work on Future Sight names and flavor text. What I didn’t realize was that my entire family would be out of town for the weekend, leaving me alone with free time on my hands. As a result, I plowed through my creative writing with time to spare for Tribal Wars. I tend to, uh, become a bit of a hermit when my family’s away.

In any case, the deckbuilding portion of our show is cut slightly short this week as I deal with a few odds and ends. Call them tidbits, as it were.

Tidbit 1: The Secret of Tribal Standard

Thank goodness for the Forums. One of the only reasons I continue to write articles is because of the reward and insight I receive from reader feedback. My last article was dedicated almost exclusively to my Insect deck, yet the Forums managed to cover topics as far flung as Golems, Horrors, Rogues, Beasts, Drakes, Ogres, Kamigawa Block rotation, and Coldsnap. The thread has a ton of decklists in it if you happen to be a Tribal aficionado or are simply intrigued by the format.

Somewhere during the discussion, Lyleswann threw out this nugget: “For those who have been playing this game a long time (read “old guy”) Tribal Standard is very reminiscent of our deckbuilding “prowess” in the mid-90’s (I need to make my zombie deck work!) and not knowing what to take out for that guy (formerly known as really lame zombie-now simply sub-optimal card). Thanks for waving the banner for more ignorant (fun) times!”

I’ve been thinking about this observation quite a bit. Tribal Standard is like playing when Serra Angel topped the power curve, at least from the Casual Decks side of the house. It’s Constructed, to be sure, but it’s Constructed often using anemic cards or silly combinations. Whereas in earlier days I wouldn’t take out my GleancrawlerMortipede combo because it was So Cool, Tribal Standard says I must keep it and somehow make it work. This aspect also separates it from “Classic” Tribal, where you can often make a deck without sacrificing card quality. In Tribal Standard, if you want the power of Skeletal Vampire, you’re also stuck with Restless Bones.

As Winged-Weasel said in response to Lyleswann, “Personally, I think the feeling of ‘days of yore’ when I cracked revised packs is why I play Tribal and love it so much. It’s the feeling of still being competitive and wanting to win, but kinda doing it with bad cards.”

Amen, brotha. Add this to the long list of reasons I think Tribal Standard is so great.

Tidbit 2: Maggots (Ew) Revisited

In other news, Flawed Paradigm identified what I think is the missing piece of my Insect deck in Golgari Germination. I was excited enough by the suggestion that I logged on during my lunch hour last Tuesday and tried them in place of Scatter the Seeds. I also upped the number of Golgari Rot Farms to four based on JoDiamonds’ pleas. In my games, the deck hummed. I still think it’s too slow to compete against more serious decks – and it has a tough time winning without Grave Pact, frankly – but it’s certainly towards the top of the casual power curve:

I still wish that I could ditch Mortipede for some smaller Insect, but Plague Beetle is overcompensating in this regard and no other options exist. Coldsnap brings absolutely zero Insects to the party, so it looks like this is as good as the deck can get before the Big Rotation.

Speaking of the Big Rotation…

Tidbit 3: Goblins And The Kamigawa Problem

Through sheer luck, I found myself with time to watch a few replayed matches of a July 23rd Tribal Standard Premiere Event. There I saw the usual collection of Spirits, Black/White Humans, and Snakes. I also saw a few clever decks, such as Black/Green Zombies, doing well. The other thing about the event that many folks commented on was that Goblins were out in force. In fact, I saw two distinctly different builds: Toby Horner’s Regionals deck and my own Bloody Goblins, both of which I mentioned in my Coldsnap review. As you can imagine, I watched people playing my own deck closely, as well as how Toby’s deck differed.

My conclusions from the Premiere Event were twofold. First, I realized that my Goblins deck needs a lower mana curve to compete. Oh, it beat up on the slow decks fine, but I watched Zombies out-hustle it, which should never happen to Goblins. I think that I knew the deck’s mana was clogged at the three-slot, but it was helpful to see it in practice. If I were to build the deck after Coldsnap, here’s how I would do it:

My second conclusion was that Tribal Standard will be better off without Kamigawa Block. The tribal themes in Kamigawa are too strong (themes that Ravnica Block supported for Block compatibility), resulting in a bunch of ported-over Standard decks and very little room for non-Spirit, non-Human, and non-Snake tribes to compete. Imagine if the Block contained the same minor themes given to Foxes, Rats, Ninja, and Demons… A few enabling cards but nothing that falls together too easily. This would require Tribal decks to differ from their Standard counterparts, and likely result in a more diverse format. At least from a tournament perspective, I don’t get the sense that there is currently much room for creativity. That sentiment has to spill over into the Casual Decks room, and must taint feelings about the format as a whole.

Of course, my worry post-Kamigawa is that we’ll simply have a horde of two- and three-color Human decks running rampant at Premiere Events, which will in turn taint the casual side of the house. Best to tackle one problem at a time, though.

Tidbit 4: A Ray of Hope

Although I found myself frustrated at the homogeneity of the Premiere Event, I have been thrilled to see more Tribal Standard games in the Casual Decks room of Magic Online. Twice in the past week I’ve seen half a dozen games going. Only during the middle of the day do I find myself needing to wait a minute or more to find an opponent. Also, despite my grousing last week, it appears that Forum hits are up on my articles. These are all good – albeit modest – signs that the format may yet develop the foundation it needs to thrive.

This is my seventh Tribal article, and I’ve promised ten before I decide whether to move on to other pursuits or stick with it. One of the deciding factors for me is going to be where I feel the momentum is from an online perspective. If the number of games, new players, and article interest continue to rise, then I feel better about continuing on my Tribal journey. If they stay flat or drop off, I’ll probably choose to beat my head against a different wall for awhile.

In the meantime, please do your part to promote the format. If you’re a Tribal Standard player, actively solicit folks around you to try it out. If you keep meaning to try it out, do so. Keep throwing deck ideas out in these Forum threads, as well as over on the House of Cards threads. Let’s see if we can clue other folks into what Lyleswann so nicely identified.

If the momentum keeps up, I’ll even add more cheesecake. Integrity… Feh.

Tidbit 5: Tribal Standard or Standard Tribal?

Okay, this has been bothering me for awhile. Is it “Tribal Standard” or “Standard Tribal?” Can we settle this once and for all?

I think that Tribal Standard is becoming the agreed-upon parlance, and I’ve certainly found myself using it as a default. I’ve seen a lot of people call the format Standard Tribal, though, and part of me wishes that Standard Tribal would stick. Why? Two reasons. First, I like that it makes the format sound like the standard. It’s sort of like saying “Normal Tribal” or “Basic Tribal.” It’s the Tribal entry point if it’s Standard Tribal, or at least appears to be. Tribal Standard puts the emphasis on Tribal, then gives a qualifier that is clearly about format, not normalcy.

Second, folks playing Tribal Wars where any online card is allowed are calling it “Classic Tribal.” I don’t see anyone saying “Tribal Classic.” So it strikes me as weird that one format would be called Tribal Standard and the other Classic Tribal. Is there no consistency in the world?!?

I’ll throw it out there in case any of you have strong opinions on the matter. It doesn’t give me a huge amount of heartache to call out “Tribal Standard” when waiting for a game, but every time I do it I wonder whether I’m saying it incorrectly.

And yes, we’ve wandered into minutiae territory here.

Moving on.

That’s all of the housekeeping bits on my mind today. It’s time for my roving spotlight to land on yet another tribe.

Deck For Hire: Beasts!

There’s only one category of “big tribes” I haven’t yet touched. The Tribes For Hire set – which currently includes Clerics, Ogres, Elementals, Elves, Snakes, Zombies, Beasts, and Rats – are really a bunch of medium-sized Tribes more than large tribes per se. None can compete with Spirits, Humans, or the Tribal Nations in terms of sheer size, but there’s a core nucleus that should be robust enough for a deck or two. The good news is that except for Elementals, the tribes here fall into one dominant color, which also helps to make a strong deck possible. As I’ve already said today, you could argue that outside of Spirits and Humans, Snakes represent the most superhuman deck in Tribal Standard.

Speaking of Snakes, I am sick of them even if I understand the allure. After all, it’s an easy deck to make at relatively low cost. It’s versatile. It’s powerful. It’s difficult to disrupt. Even better, it’s one of the few tournament-quality Tribal decks that actually feels Tribal. All of that said, can we please set our Snake decks aside for a little while and try something else? With Ohran Viper on the horizon, I’m afraid that Snakes are probably going to be ubiquitous until the Big Rotation. A guy can dream, though.

Other decks I won’t be making today:

  • Rats, because I’ve also seen too many of them and have played the individual cards too often to find them interesting. Except Hellhole Rats. I love those guys.
  • Elementals, Zombies, and Elves, because all three tribes have cards I want to use from Coldsnap.
  • Clerics, because making a deck with Eight-and-a-Half-Tails, Loxodon Hierarch, and Soul Warden makes me feel dirty, not holy.

That leaves Beasts and Ogres, and it’s not even a close race. Last article I poo-pooed Wurms because they are big, dumb, Green fatties. It turns out that I really like big, dumb, Green fatties if they also have cool abilities. Looking over the list of Beasts makes me want to jump giddily all over the room with my arms flailing, sort of like my son when a new “Lilo & Stitch” cartoon airs.

Of the twenty Beasts available in Standard pre-Coldsnap, eight make me extremely happy. Those eight, in rank order, are:

8. Gristleback – A 3/3 for three mana is what I expect from a Beast, plus free sacrifice abilities are always welcome. I like how it gets better with something like Moldervine Cloak or Green’s many creature-pumping effects. The fact that it’s splashable makes Gristleback one of those cards I’ll never build a deck around but which I’m happy to include if there’s room.

7. Hunted Wumpus – I like the Wumpus partly because its name is “Wumpus,” partly for nostalgic reasons, and mostly because a 6/6 for four mana is suh-weet. Unfortunately, I’m most happy playing Hunted Wumpus when I know my creatures are better than my opponent’s, and Beasts can’t quite compete with the Dragons in today’s Standard.

6. Trygon Predator – Obviously once this guy is active and unblocked, he can cause all sorts of headaches for an opponent. The fact that Trygon Predator is a flying Beast is a novelty, and fills a hole for the otherwise altitude-challenged tribe. I just wish I liked the art better.

5. Plaxmanta – Speaking of weird art… That nebulous mist-thing is a Beast!? Man. Blue/Green Beasts freak me out. In any case, Plaxmanta is just the sort of “Gotcha!” trick that I enjoy, and reminiscent of Mystic Snake (though obviously not as powerful). Messing up an opponent’s plans and getting a 2/2 creature for my troubles is worthy of a smile.

4. Ursapine – Honestly, I think Ursapine would have tournament appeal if a Mono-Green deck were out there to support it. Ursapine is like a combo card, able to change the game in one turn from a loss to an insta-win. It’s also bloody difficult to deal with for any deck using damage or Last Gasp as removal. Sure, a 3/3 for five mana seems anemic, but in a Green deck with hordes of mana and token producers, it’s devastating. The interaction with Gristleback is cute, too.

3. Stampeding Serow – Again, Stampeding Serow gets my nostalgia vote since I used to loooove Stampeding Wildebeests. The difference here is that even aside from nostalgia, I enjoy the style of deck that Stampeding Serow begs – Mid-range, comes-into-play effects, lots of creatures, Green. Mid-range Green decks may very well be my favorite decks to make and play.

2. Indrik Stomphowler – If you haven’t noticed, Indrik Stomphowler seems to be creeping into almost all of my Green decks. As I’ve said repeatedly these past several weeks, I don’t like dead cards in hand and I love versatility. The Stomphowler is at worst a big beater and at best a life-saver. The only – and I do mean only – reason I won’t play him in a Green deck is if it won’t fit into my manacurve. The fact that I’m sorta-kinda forced to use four copies in a Beasts deck is awesome.

1. Protean HulkProtean Hulk is one of the very few cards that made me take notice as a fan during names and flavor text writing. I saw it and immediately vowed, “I am going to play that bad boy. A lot. A whole lot.” As you can imagine, I also busted my butt to try and get my name on that card. Dissension was the set I limped through after the birth of my daughter, though, and whatever I submitted was too lame to be accepted. Still, the memory of seeing it in Namebase lingers. Protean Hulk has pretty much everything I love in a creature except kick-ass art. I even like the name.

Other Beasts are cool, too, and not all are confined to Green and Blue. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to use Assault Zeppelid, Coalhauler Swine, Drooling Groodion, Flowstone Crusher, Gruul Nodorog, or Helium Squirter in a deck, which means that I could conceivably be making a deck in any color outside of White (sorry, Dromad Purebred).

I knew from thinking through this list that no matter what sort of Beasts deck I made, I would be using four copies of Indrik Stomphowler and four copies of Protean Hulk. The very idea had me grinning. The very idea sounded expensive, too, so my deck is already doomed to mana hunger.

The question is which would I like better: Blue/Green Beasts, allowing me the use of Trygon Predator and Plaxmanta, or Mono-Green Beasts, making best use of Ursapine and Stampeding Serow?

Why not try both and find out?


I tried Green/Blue Beasts first mostly because I thought it would be stronger and less quirky (shows what I know, but judge for yourself).

Four copies of Hulk and Stomphowler meant I was using Sakura-Tribe Elder, Coiling Oracle, and Birds of Paradise. Trygon Predator, Plaxmanta, and Gristleback rounded out my Beast choices. After that I wondered aloud what I would be fetching with a dead Protean Hulk. Some of my thoughts included…

  • Keiga, the Tide Star, which should be re-dubbed Keiga, the Tribal Star.
  • Carven Caryatid, for stout defense and card-drawing.
  • Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, to protect my many critters.
    Trophy Hunter, to bat fliers from the air.

  • Loaming Shaman, to disrupt graveyard-focused decks (and Sosuke’s Summons), but also to restock later in the game.
  • Clone, which is one of those catch-all cards I like. It’s Hero’s Demise. It’s an equalizer against opposing fatties. It’s unexpected utility. It’s a way to make playing the same deck interesting. Especially with Birds in my deck, I saw Clone as a nice safety net of a creature.

Which to use in my remaining slot, though? Is one clearly superior to the others, especially in relationship to my other cards?

Apparently I’m in a wishy-washy mood this week, because I decided to use all of them. I dropped a Coiling Oracle, decided twenty-three land was sufficient, and ended up with this decklist:

Why version 1.4? It took me a few games to realize the big “duh” of adding Miren to a deck with Protean Hulk. It took me several more games to also add Minamo and Okina to a deck using Keiga. After several more games, I dropped three copies of Gristleback for one copy each of Assault Zeppelid, Ursapine, and Helium Squirter. Otherwise, the thirty-seven-creatures-and-twenty-three-land deck has stayed remarkably stable.

I like three things about this deck, other than the fact that it’s fun to play. First, it’s entertaining to have my opponent guess my tribe. I often start out with Birds of Paradise, then either Sakura-Tribe Elder, Coiling Oracle, or both. That’s five potential tribes right there, none of which are Beasts. After that I might cast a Beast, but I also might cast a Spirit, Centaur Shaman, Human Archer, Mutant, or Shapeshifter. I can almost hear the mental gears turning in my opponents’ heads as they try to puzzle out whether they accidentally joined a straight Standard game. Some people are nice and call out tribe guesses throughout the game. Others are not so nice (these are usually the people being tortured by Trygon Predator), and blurt “What the %&$@! is your %&$@!ing tribe?!?!”

The second fun thing about this deck is obviously its versatility. Playing against a fast deck? I can slow the game down. Playing against a slow deck? I can speed up my attack. Need fliers? Lifegain? Graveyard hate? Yep. Yep. Yep. I have those. Opponent drops a problematic enchantment or artifact? I have eight Beasts who can take care of it. Playing against a problematic creature? I’ve got Keiga and Clone. Even better, my deck has loads of mana-acceleration, so I am rarely on my heels when making these decisions. Believe it or not, Protean Hulk is almost never a problem to cast, nor is holding extra mana for Novijen, Plaxmanta, Trophy Hunter, Ursapine, or Helium Squirter. I rarely dump my entire hand, content to make my opponent deal with Protean Hulk first. From the other side of the table, I think it probably looks utterly random and I’m sure my opponents think I luck out constantly. From my side of the table, I feel like I have a, dare I say it, toolbox through which to rummage and find answers. It’s a lot like my Followed Footsteps deck, except with better cards.

Finally, I like all of the subtle card interactions here. Giving Trophy Hunter an unexpected counter by shooting my own Birds of Paradise, for example. The synergy between Gristleback and Helium Squirter, or Gristleback and Ursapine, or Assault Zeppelid and Ursapine, or Clone and my comes-into-play creatures, or Clone and Keiga… The list goes on and on. This is a deck that rewards good play and outthinking an opponent. It’s a deck that takes advantage of people who aren’t paying attention. Sometimes it’s fun for me to smash face with Goblins, but more and more I’m drawn to a deck that challenges me with play decisions. This is such a deck, and I appreciate its complexity.

On the other side of the coin, two things bug me about this deck. First, only having one card in the deck that allows me to sacrifice Protean Hulk seems like a huge hole in the game plan. What’s the point of having a tutor suite of creatures if I can’t reliably tutor for them? Thus far I’ve been slamming my Hulk onto the table and swinging its fists, not caring whether my opponent or Hulk dies. That’s not a strategy that will often pan out against a good opponent. Maybe the answer is Elvish Skysweepers or a Rusalka, but it’s hard for me to imagine spending significant card slots on either of them. Certainly the answer is to add more Miren, but the strain of Novijen, Plaxmanta, Ursapine, and the many gold cards makes more colorless sources untenable. Greater Good works well with my Hulk but not many of my other creatures. I don’t know the answer, but I know that if I could find a way to sacrifice my Hulk without compromising what the deck can already do, I will have hit the jackpot.

Second, it bothers me on principle that I’m not adding a third color for some comes-into-play creature I can fetch with Protean Hulk. I have Birds of Paradise and Sakura-Tribe Elder, so splashing a color would be easy. I have the Hulk, which gets around casting cost. My deck has had no mana troubles whatsoever (something I can’t say for Insects… *shudder*). Yet when I scan the available creatures, I don’t see anything that stands out as a terrific addition to my deck that isn’t already covered.

If you have ideas of ways to addressing my concerns without sacrificing what I like about the deck, please speak up in the Forums. I know that it’s a hard deck to analyze on paper, especially without the benefit of game logs (in case you hadn’t noticed, today’s too packed for game logs). If you have a keen eye and mind, though, I’m eager to hear what you have to say.

Oh, and lest you jump too quickly: What doesn’t bother me about the deck is the lack of non-land, non-creature cards. A few spectators have said I should add Moldervine Cloak, or splash Red for Demonfire, etc. I know it’s unconventional to see a deck with thirty-seven creatures, but I like that this number of creatures allows me a full twenty Beasts plus a utility-based creature suite. I’m not against considering Instant, Sorceries, Enchantments, or Artifacts, but they would have to possess a lot of synergy with the rest of my deck for me to get excited about them. So far, I haven’t seen a hole that a creature (and a Green or Blue creature, even) can’t fill.

Ursa Major

At some point in my tutoring glee, I remember that I also wanted to try a Mono-Green Beasts deck. Mono-colored decks in today’s Standard aren’t easy since a) there are so relatively few mono-colored cards available compared to other Standard environments, and b) it’s so easy in today’s Standard to use multiple colors, so often it feels like mono-colored decks are unnecessarily handicapping themselves. In some cases, however, mono-colored strategies make sense.

One such case is Ursapine. I wanted to make a deck in which people conceded when Ursapine hit the table. That’s a lofty goal, but maybe not as lofty as you think. With a horde of Green mana and more attackers than an opponent has blockers, Ursapine should read “Target opponent groans. You win the game.” The question is: Are there enough Green Beasts to make such a deck?

I said I’d start with four copies each of Protean Hulk and Indrik Stomphowler, and I’m sticking to those particular guns. Hulk seeks out Ursapine and a one-mana dude. Indrik Stomphowler attacks Faith’s Fetters, Ghostly Prison, Glare of Subdual, Worship, Grave Pact, Night of Souls’ Betrayal, and any other enchantment that annoys Ursapine. Gristleback is pretty good with Ursapine, and is also better if I have little dudes attacking early. Ursapine likes little dudes attacking early, so Gristleback gets the nod.

Being Mono-Green also allows me full use of Stampeding Serow. Now, Serow opens up a whole new angle for my Mono-Green Beasts deck. The Hulk and Serow like comes-into-play creatures like Indrik Stomphowler. Both like Wood Elves, a card Ursapine approves of as well. Carven Caryatid is also perfect for such a deck since it helps me set up and digs for my key cards.

The rest of deck fell into place pretty easily:

Ursa Major v.1.1
Tribal Standard deck

16 Forest
4 Quicksand
2 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers

4 Llanowar Elves
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Gristleback
4 Wood Elves
4 Carven Caryatid
4 Stampeding Serow
4 Indrik Stomphowler
4 Ursapine
4 Protean Hulk
1 Arashi, the Sky Asunder

The only tweak I made after ten or so games was to add a single copy each of Arashi and Okina. I wasn’t necessarily losing to fliers, but fliers were putting more pressure on me than I’d like.

Have you ever made (or picked up) a deck that is tuned to your soul? This deck just flows for me. Every turn follows the next and I feel utterly in control of my fate. I smack the deck’s hindquarters and it finds that extra burst of speed to the finish line.

At least, that’s how I felt at first. I was so in love with the deck that I played it, played it, and played it some more. Over thirty games it went a respectable 21-9 in this configuration. More importantly for me, it seems to have struck that balance between winning, being a joy to play, and a joy to play against. Unlike AquaBeasts, opponents don’t grouse over my wins. Getting beaten by Ursapine is apparently a novelty that folks can appreciate, or maybe it’s the novelty of seeing a Mono-Green Beasts deck. Whatever the case, I get a lot of “Cool deck” and “Nicely done” comments from my opponents.

Thirty games have exposed the deck’s holes, though. Fliers and fear creatures (usually Nezumi Cutthroat, Marrow-Gnawer or Dimir House Guard) are a problem in multiples. Decks that can defend against my onslaught can set up a game winner like Devouring Greed while I stare on helplessly. Unlike most Midrange Green decks I’ve made, there is no Desert Twister or Nevinyrral’s Disk to bail me out if I get in trouble. In other words, I have started to see the limits of a Mono-Green strategy.

Also, unlike AquaBeasts, I’m more open to non-creature spells if they make sense. I’ve wondered about Moldervine Cloak or Putrefy as a worthy addition. If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them in the Forums. Just be sure to recommend what you would take out of the deck as well, since that’s always the bugaboo in Tribal decks.

For now, I’ve decided to take a page from AquaBeast’s book and splash Blue for Keiga, the Tribal Star. This solves the fliers problem a bit and makes imminent sense in a deck with Protean Hulk and Miren. Here is my current thinking:

What I hadn’t realized was that the addition of Birds of Paradise was also a solution to opposing fliers. I’ve won two games – and was close in a third – against Kokusho and Yosei, all thanks to the combination of Birds and Ursapine. Maybe swapping Birds for Llanowar Elves is enough in Mono-Green, but I want to try this configuration out for awhile.

That’s it for today. As always, speak up in the Forums if you have thoughts on any of the odds and ends at the beginning of the article, Beasts decks (mine or yours), or whatever else in Tribal Standard strikes your fancy. My next article will go back to the small-tribe vault as I tackle a truly challenging tribe. Chris Millar would be so proud!

Think hard and have fun,

(currently StudentDriver on Magic Online)