For this tenth Standard Tribal article, I knew that I wanted to focus on Coldsnap. I wanted a tribe or feature card that spoke to Coldsnap’s central themes and that resulted in a very Coldsnappian deck. I wanted to look at the final decklist and immediately think “cool,” or “snappy.”
Yetis were my first choice, of course, but not only did Rivien Swanson already write about a Yeti deck, but I also recently covered a Tribe of Five in Avatars. Last week, Chris Millar wrote a great Standard Tribal piece on the new Coldsnap options for Cats, Apes, and Elementals. No use, I figured, in treading over old material. But if my “Coldsnap feature” article didn’t cover Yetis, Cats, Apes, or Elementals, where did that leave me? I mean, as much as I stare at Gatherer, no more Aurochs appear.
To bide my time, I tinkered around with Illusions. I had made an Illusion deck prior to Coldsnap (it almost never won a game, but opponents seemed to appreciate the effort), and was completely excited that three new Illusions – including Krovikan Mist – had entered Standard. My intention was to play around with Illusions until either one of two things happened: I had a deck worthy of an article, or Coldsnappian inspiration struck.
My first post-Coldsnap Illusion deck was Mono-Blue, had sixteen land, and used Erayo, Soratami Ascendant along with Mishra’s Bauble, Ornithopter, Ideas Unbound, and… wait for it… Commandeer. The idea was that I would either flip Erayo, clear the way for Imaginary Pet, or both. It was a silly deck, but fun, and also prone to do absolutely nothing at awkward times.
What I realized was that Illusions are not meant to be blocked. There’s Phantom Warrior, Fleeting Image, Krovikan Mist, and Dream Prowler… These guys want to whisper on by an opponent’s defenses to tag him on the chin. Imaginary Pet is cute, but 1) it’s perfectly fine as a big blocker, and 2) it’s imaginary, so not really worth building a deck around. Instead, I should be focusing on Illusions’ strengths. If Illusions have a strength, it’s evasion.
Again, there’s not much subtlety there. The creatures come out quickly, should be mostly unblocked, and get bigger with either Moldervine Cloak or Resize (Resize was an experiment, and one that I enjoyed, but could easily be Giant Growth or Might of Oaks). The only card that looks truly out of place is Vertigo Spawn. I had Dream Prowler in there originally, but it was way too slow and almost never the only creature attacking. As a result, Dream Prowler ended up being a slow wall. If I was using a wall, I reasoned, I might as well let it defend on the second turn instead of the fourth. Because of its cost, Vertigo Spawn works much better with Krovikan Mist and Imaginary Pet than Dream Prowler ever did.
Anyway, today’s article isn’t about Illusions. The point is that I was playing the above deck when Flawed Paradigm (a.k.a. Rivien Swanson himself) sat down at my online table to play. He was testing a bunch of very clever Human decks that I’m sure he’ll write about soon, and promptly smacked me around with a 12/12 Rimefeather Owl.
Inspiration struck like an enormous owl.
Rimefeather Owl? Hmmm… Let’s see.
It’s a Coldsnap card. Check.
It counts snow permanents, so showcases the key mechanic in Coldsnap. Check.
It makes non-snow permanents into snow permanents with ice counters. Brrr. Check.
It’s cool and snappy. Check.
Thanks Rivien! I think I have my feature card for my deck.
(Author’s Note: Of course, after I had all but finished writing this article, he popped off with a Birds deck. There’s good news here, though: We have different takes on the tribe.)
Tribal Is For The Birds
Here are the lucky thirteen Birds available in Standard today:
Green (1): Birds of Paradise
The Bird decks I’ve seen online have tended to be White/Blue affairs using Glorious Anthem. In other words, they were a White Weenie variant focused on fliers. This is a reasonable way to go with Birds, since the Bird tribe currently consists of Suntail Hawk, Beacon Hawk, Courier Hawk, Aven Cloudchaser, and Aven Fisher. That’s pretty anemic as beatdown goes, but you add in some equipment, maybe Pride of the Clouds and Ninja of the Deep Hours, and it could work reasonably well. The problem is that it’s about as boring as my Illusion deck: attacking, blocking, and nothing tricky other than evasion. What’s the fun of that?
Rimefeather Owl seems to me to be the perfect starting point for a Bird deck. When I look at the Owl, I see a hugely expensive fattie that requires lots of a) mana to cast it, and b) snow permanents to keep it fat. I’m sure that I can make a deck to accommodate mana-hunger and snow.
Frost Raptor is a Bird, a snow permanent, and just so happens to be my favorite three-or-less-mana Birds available. Any Rimefeather Owl worth its ice, it seems to me, is going to also be using Frost Raptor.
Thieving Magpie is a longtime favorite of mine, and also Blue like both Rimefeather Owl and Frost Raptor. The Magpie isn’t a snow Bird, of course, but it does help me draw more snow permanents as I ramp up to my big Owl.
After those three choices, opinions are likely to diverge. I think a lot of people would default to Blue/White, using some smallish White Birds to hold the game until the big Owl can show its Rimefeathers. The other attractive Bird in White is Aven Cloudchaser, assuming you aren’t using many enchantments of your own.
As for me, I saw the fact that Rimefeather Owl needs a lot of mana and snow permanents and immediately thought of Green. Green has Kodama’s Reach, Into The North, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and other economical ways to get snow land into play. Green also has Birds of Paradise, the most versatile and overall best Bird on the playground. Besides, I had just been playing around with a Blue/Green Illusion deck, so I was getting fond of my Breeding Pools.
The problem with Green is, of course, that there’s only one Green Bird. Oh sure, Birds of Paradise is terrific, but it’s also a card that is best used on the first turn. If the rest of my deck is heavily slanted towards Blue, how can I make Birds of Paradise useful? Or, to turn the question around, how can I insert enough meaningful Green into my Blue Bird deck so that I can reliably cast a first-turn Birds of Paradise?
Before I could tackle the Green Issue, I needed a fifth Bird. Looking at the Blue list, I think both Aven Fisher and Sage Aven are going to best help me find Rimefeather Owl, and both cost the same. The question is whether I’d rather have a 2/2, more offensive creature, or a 1/3, more defensive one. Because I’m probably looking at playing Scrying Sheets, Sage Aven seems like a slightly better choice. Really, though, I can see arguments for either of them.
My cadre of Birds, then, is:
Okay, back to the Green Issue. I need snow permanents and snow land, both for Rimefeather Owl and Frost Raptor. Kodama’s Reach is probably the best and most consistent way to get snow land into play, and I can hopefully cast it on the second turn with Birds of Paradise. Are Birds and Kodama’s Reach enough mana acceleration, or should I also add Sakura-Tribe Elder? Since the Owl is the only really expensive card in my deck so far, I’m feeling okay with Birds and Reach as my two accelerators, especially since I have Sage Aven and Thieving Magpie to help out.
If I step back and look at what I have so far, it looks like a slow deck trying to keep the game under control until Rimefeather Owl can windmill slam onto the table for the win. Thus I want to add some more control elements into the deck while also supporting my Green Issue. Voidslime is the easiest way to cover both options, and I’ll add a splash of Mystic Melting for fun.
After that, my Green sort of peters out. I want Remand, since it fits what I’m trying to do so well. I really like Rimewind Taskmage as an off-tribe creature for its cost, its emphasis of the snow theme, and its ability to stifle an opponent’s attack.
For better or worse, then, I assembled this take on Birds:
Snow Birds v.1.0
Standard Tribal Bird deck
I have some concerns about this decklist, including:
- Whether there’s enough Green to justify Birds of Paradise.
- Whether I have enough snow permanents.
- Whether the light counterspell suite will trigger automatic concessions in the Casual Decks room of Magic Online (I don’t at all agree with the “no counter/discard/land destruction” edict of some casual players, but I know it exists).
- Whether Mystic Melting will find enough targets.
- Whether I can survive long enough to cast and swing with Rimefeather Owl.
As you know, there’s only one way to know if my concerns are well founded or not. It’s time to hop onto Magic Online to see how the deck plays. Deckbuilding theory is great and fun, but there is no substitute for seeing a deck in action.
I Believe I Can Fly
Remember that although I like keeping an eye on the Premiere Events (it’s a testament to my love of Standard Tribal, in fact, that I peer over into the tournament scene to see what’s going on… This is very unlike me), I’m a casual deckbuilder guy. All of the games I log here are in the Casual Decks room of Magic Online. If I ever find a deck that seems “serious,” I wouldn’t mind popping over the Tourney Decks room, but for Birds I’m just along for the fun of it all.
Game 1: Mono-Green Druids
My opponent was stuck on two Forests for two turns while I played two Birds of Paradise, Scrying Sheets, and Sage Aven. I stacked my deck to take advantage of the Sheets while Remanding my opponent’s Verduran Enchantress. He tried Yavimaya Enchantress next, which I let through on my way to casting a 6/6 Rimefeather Owl. I attacked. He put Beastmaster’s Magemark on his Enchantress, then Mark of Sakiko. I chumped with a Birds of Paradise because of his Mark, and on the next turn could turn all of his land into snow land for a 9/9 Owl and the win.
Game 2: Black/White Humans
This one wasn’t pretty. I Remanded his Hand of Cruelty for a turn, but then it started attacking. I played Thieving Magpie, which died to Nekrataal. I tried Rimewind Taskmage, but it died to Cruel Edict. A second Magpie died to Last Gasp, and a second Taskmage died to Mortify. Along the way I missed on four different Scrying Sheets tries, and his two critters went all the way. Not very interesting for either side of the table, I’m guessing.
Game 3: Green/Blue Elves
He came out with Llanowar Elves and Silhana Ledgewalker, while I had Birds of Paradise and Sage Aven. I got a little nervous when he saddled Ledgewalker with Blanchwood Armor, then became nigh-terrified when Loxodon Warhammer hit the table. My Rimewind Taskmage couldn’t do a thing against his now 9/6 Elf, so instead I blocked with an 8/8 Rimefeather Owl. After that we regrouped, me by playing another Sage Aven and him by playing Simic Guildmage with Shielding Plax. I was frantically digging for a Mystic Melting when he topdecked Elvish Champion and that was game.
Game 4: Green/Black Snakes
This was a long, drawn-out game. I can pretty much summarize it as me having two Sage Avens, two Birds of Paradise, and a Rimewind Taskmage holding off a horde of 1/1 Snake tokens along with some other small Snakes like Orochi Leafcaller and Orochi Scout. I countered some of his removal spells after playing a Rimefeather Owl, but eventually he was able to Putrefy it. After that Sosuke, Son of Seshiro showed up and my opponent started attacking in earnest. Two hits from his ten or so Snakes and I was dead.
Game 5: White/Red Humans
He knocked me down to twelve life with a Ronin Houndmaster while I had a Birds of Paradise, Frost Raptor, and two Kodama’s Reaches to load up on snow land. Rimefeather Owl hit the table as an 11/11, but he still attacked with the Houndmaster. This had me suspicious, so I let it through. On my attack, sure enough, he tapped out for Devouring Light but I had just drawn Remand. Thanks to eight open mana and another land I had just played, I pumped my Owl to be 16/16 and won in one mighty swing.
Okay, what have I learned after five quick games? An easy conclusion is that for the most part I lose to “competitive” decks and can beat “casual” decks, but that’s probably not a fair conclusion after such a small sample. Instead, I can say:
- Playing an early Birds of Paradise so far hasn’t been an issue, but it still feels dicey.
- Rimefeather Owl shows up a reasonable amount of the time and I can usually cast him when he does.
- Rimefeather Owl is big when he shows up.
- Frost Raptor isn’t quite as good as I hoped, and Sage Aven is better than I hoped. Both are staying in the deck at this point, but I thought the Raptor would give more opponents headaches.
- I love Remand, but keeping three mana open for Voidslime is often a bummer.
- I haven’t seen enough decks to have an opinion on Mystic Melting. It sure would have helped against the Elf deck, though.
- Rimewind Taskmage was great in my Black/Blue Human deck, but he seems a lot less effective here.
Are these conclusions enough to warrant changes? Something doesn’t feel right about the deck, so I feel like tinkering a bit. Let’s try this:
OUT: 4 Rimewind Taskmage
Not once did I tap down an opposing creature to deny an opponent access to mana. Only once did I surprise an opponent by untapping Rimefeather Owl to block. I still like the Taskmage in general, but I don’t like how it feels in this deck.
IN: 4 Ohran Viper
I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me in the first draft of the deck. It’s a snow creature. It draws cards. It’s creature removal. It’s Green. That’s a good package for three mana. The bummer is that it’s two Green mana to cast, making for some strain on a deck in which Green is the secondary color and with some UU casting costs in it. Still, Ohran Viper may be just what I was looking for in my last slot. I suppose I’ll need to explain to my opponents when I cast Sakura-Tribe Elder and Ohran Viper on successive turns that I’m not playing Green/Blue Snakes in the Casual Decks room.
Of course, the addition of the Viper has me wondering about some of the other choices in the deck. The land gets tweaked slightly. Now the deck feels glutted at three mana, so I’m going to swap out Kodama’s Reach for Sakura-Tribe Elder. I’ve also got a very critical eye on Voidslime, which feels like it should be… I don’t know. Something else.
For now, here’s the deck:
Snow Birds v.1.1
Standard Tribal Bird deck
Let’s see how this puppy plays…
Game 6: White/Blue/Green Wizards
How do I even summarize this game? Let’s fast forward towards the end of the game, in which my opponent had one of my Birds of Paradise enchanted with Threads of Disloyalty, a Jushi Apprentice, Auratouched Mage enchanted with Flight of Fancy, and Autumn-Tail, Kitsune Sage with Shielding Plax and Flight of Fancy on it. I had two Ohran Vipers, two Thieving Magpies, a Birds of Paradise, and two Frost Raptors. He was at something like twelve life with me at fifteen. I had just done of lot of countering and Mystic Melting gymnastics to kill two Confiscates that had been in play. Now I finally felt good enough to cast a 17/17 Rimefeather Owl. He tried Faith’s Fetters on it, but I had my third and final Voidslime in hand. The next turn I attacked with everything, then cast another Owl (now 18/18), another Viper (19/19) and a Birds of Paradise chump-blocker. My opponent drew a card with his Apprentice, then drew a card on his draw step, then conceded.
Game 7: Black/Red Rats
My opponent played Swamp, Sensei’s Divining Top, and then… nothing for three turns. That was a bummer for him, since I came out with Sakura-Tribe Elder, Ohran Viper, and two Thieving Magpies. He finally found land and two Rakdos Signets, but at that point I was off to the races. I used Remand on a Gobhobbler Rats, then used my Elder to get the seventh land I needed for Rimefeather Owl. My opponent was forced to use two Pyroclasms to kill my three 1/3s, but on the next turn my Owl grew to 10/10 and won the game.
Game 8: Green/Blue Snakes
I had a Snow-Covered Forest, Snow-Covered Island, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Snow-Covered Forest, and Ohran Viper. My opponent had Snow-Covered Forest, Snow-Covered Island, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Snow-Covered Forest, and Ohran Viper. “Mirror match,” my opponent commented, to which I replied, “Not exactly.” I backed my claim up with Sage Aven, at which point he asked for my tribe. When I said “Birds,” I could almost hear his eyes rolling.
Imagine his surprise, then, when our Vipers traded, but I dropped Thieving Magpie to go on the offensive. A Frost Raptor and my Aven held off his Sakura-Tribe Scout and Elder for awhile. He made two tokens, then tried another Viper which I Remanded. On the next turn I dropped a 16/16 Rimefeather Owl (I love how it counts all snow permanents, not just mine). He tapped out for Simic Sky Swallower, which looked sort of funny in comparison to my Owl. I attacked with my two Birds, he blocked the Magpie, and I pumped my Owl for the win.
Game 9: Green/Blue/Black Beasts
We both started out with Birds of Paradise. I followed mine up with Ohran Viper while he followed his up with Drekavac. Our creatures traded, then I played Sage Aven, Thieving Magpie, and another Viper on successive turns. He had Trygon Predator to block my Magpie, and my Viper died to a double-block of Plaxmanta and Sakura-Tribe Elder. After that he hit me once with Indrik Stomphowler before I played a 6/6 Rimefeather Owl. At the end of my opponent’s turn, I pumped my Owl up to 10/10 with him at eleven life. I swung with my big guy to kill his Birds, then again to kill his Predator, then again for the win, all the while keeping a Viper back as blocker.
Game 10: Mono-Blue Illusions
On the tenth game, I got beat by Illusions! Ah, irony… You fickle bitch.
Anyway, he dropped two quick Halcyon Glazes while I was busy casting two Ohran Vipers. I used Voidslime to counter his first Phantom Warrior, but still took the hit down to twelve from his Glazes. The second Warrior came through, and I blocked one Glaze with Frost Raptor. On my next turn I played a 12/12 Rimefeather Owl (he was using snow lands, too), but he Boomeranged it and played Vertigo Spawn to come in for the win.
I’m always amazed that a few small changes can make a deck feel so much better. The addition of Ohran Viper – its added defense, as well as the added card-drawing – makes the deck feel a lot smoother. It also helps the deck feel more legitimately Green, something that I was obviously self-conscious about earlier. The mana seems to be working fine, and Rimefeather Owl is just as deadly in this build as in the others.
Still, a few things about the deck didn’t feel right, particularly the Voidslimes. I can’t explain it except to say that while Voidslime definitely helped me win games, it always felt awkward in my hand. I found myself relieved more than anything when I was able to cast it, because it meant that it was out of my hand. That’s not the sign of a smooth deck, so I kept tinkering.
After twenty or so games, I had tried cards as far afield as Ninja of the Deep Hours, Mishra’s Bauble, and Thermal Flux in the Voidslime slot. I settled on Boomerang for the slot, which fits the curve better and also adds a few extra tricks to the deck. For example, I can replay Sage Aven to restack my deck. I can bounce Ohran Viper with damage on the stack. I can play Rimefeather Owl with confidence at nine mana instead of ten. I have an answer to heavily-enchanted creatures, as well as opposing artifacts and enchantments. I can also play Boomerang on a second-turn Karoo land, something I did twice to give me a huge head start. As I said, I’m not opposed to countermagic, but here I like the interaction of Boomerang much more than Voidslime.
Here’s the final deck:
So ends my Birds-eye view into Coldsnap. I hope your enjoyed it. Wasn’t it cool? Wasn’t it snappy?
You may recall – only because I’ve mentioned practically every article – that my commitment in this series was to write ten Standard Tribal articles as a way of kicking the tires of this new and seemingly fun format. I said that after my tenth article, I would evaluate whether to stick with it or go pursue other endeavors. This begs the question…
Is Today My Last Tribal Article?
In a word, no.
That’s the good news. I’ve found Standard Tribal to be as fun as it sounded when first announced, primarily for three reasons.
First, the decks are fun to play and play against. All of them. The gulf between “tournament” decks and “casual” decks isn’t nearly as wide as other formats I’ve played. I get tired of seeing Spirits, Snakes, and Humans, same as everyone, but even those decks sort of make me smile for their thematic goodness. The fact that Umezawa’s Jitte is banned in the format levels the playing field considerably for casual players. Remember too that I hated “Classic” Tribal in part because of the ubiquity and unfairness of Onslaught Block’s tribes. In Standard Tribal, the decks feel both diverse and surprisingly even.
Second, and related, I haven’t even begun to mine my deckbuilding creativity. I am constantly seeing new decks online or in print which inspire me. I’m not even close to covering the full breadth of tribes currently in Standard, and they are about to be a whole fresh crop of new ones with Time Spiral. The idea of using twenty creatures of the same type hasn’t grown old with me at all. Quite the contrary, in fact, since I prefer thematic and creature-based decks as a general principle, Tribal Wars gives me permission to make decks the way I want to without apology. I suppose I may long someday to build a creatureless deck around some new mechanic, but until then I’m perfectly happy with Standard Tribal.
Finally, I think the future is bright for Standard Tribal. My modest complaints about the format – too many Spirit and Snake decks, porting over successful Standard decks, too-strong tribal themes, not enough players – clear up considerably with Time Spiral. Some tribes will inevitably rise to the top, and some Standard Pro Tour decks will inevitably port over easily to Tribal. My honest belief is that we’ll see less of this, though. I think the gap between tourney and casual decks not only diminishes when Kamigawa Block rotates, but I have high hopes that more people will try out the format as a result. With Time Spiral, I think Standard Tribal may become its own animal separate from Standard, fun for tourney-goers and casual mages alike. This all sounds a bit pollyanna, but my hopes are seriously high.
That’s the good news. Here is the bad news.
The decision to keep writing about Standard Tribal was hard. I waffled for weeks about what I was going to do. On one hand, I was enjoying both the playing and writing about Tribal Wars. On the other hand, it was taking time away from other pursuits and it didn’t seem that many people were reading my articles, much less trying out the format. Should I keep butting my head against the wall, writing 4,000-5,000 word articles for a format no one but me was playing? I went round and round in my head, turning to several peers and asking their opinions.
Eventually the question morphed from “Should I keep writing about Standard Tribal?” to “Why do I write Magic articles?” which was a much more fundamental question with which I was grappling. Then I realized that as long as I’m playing Magic, I’m writing about it. For me, the two are inextricably linked. That brought me to the even scarier question of “Why am I still playing Magic?” Again I went round and round.
Suffice it to say, my relationship with playing Magic is a complex one. I’m not a tournament player, so there is no carrot dangling in front of me. I work on names and flavor text – the pinnacle achievement for a casual player, it seems to me – which means I’ve seen all of the new sets a year before they’re released. In the meantime, my non-Magic life has filled up over the years. I have a thriving career, a wife and two kids whom I love dearly, an ambition for fiction writing, a desire to keep in shape, and on and on. Read Alongi’s reasons for giving up “Serious Fun” and know that I empathize with the guy.
As a result, Magic bounces around like a sine wave in my personal priorities. First I quit and sold all of my cards, then came back via Apprentice. I had just decided to quit again when Mark Rosewater called me to ask I try out for a weekly column. After awhile, I quit again, then came back again, soon followed by another weekly column, which I quit to start a new column, which I quit recently, only to start up this Standard Tribal stuff. Magic is honestly the only facet of my life in which I admit I’m a mess. I have no idea how to predict my enthusiasm or sense of burden with this game we love.
I was on the fence enough about whether to continue or once again cut my ties with Magic that I decided to compromise. I’m still going to be playing Magic (and when I’m playing, I’ll be playing Standard Tribal), but I’m going to be playing less often. I should say explicitly that this is in no way an indictment of Standard Tribal. I’m having more fun playing than I have in a long while. It’s simply time for Magic to reverse roles and fit in around my other interests. I’m going to finally accept that my sine wave of Magic enthusiasm will continue while simultaneously trying to make the highs less high and the lows less low.
This means that I’ll still be writing (and when I’m writing, I’ll be writing about Standard Tribal), but less often. I’ve been on a good run of roughly weekly articles for this series, but I would expect me to drop to half or maybe a third that pace. Maybe less. I’m not sure, actually. Right now I’m letting my extracurricular muse lead me where she will. When she leads me to Magic Online, I’ll fire up the word processor.
One thing you can bet on is that I’ll be back with a Tribal look at Time Spiral. The introduction of the new set – along with Kamigawa Block’s rotation – is the most significant thing to happen to my new favorite format in its short history, so I’ll be one of the most excited folks around dissecting which new tribes got what and which tribes lost what. For a preview, check out Jam Tomorrow and prunedanish’s Forums posts to last week’s article. That’s exactly the kind of stuff that gets my blood racing.
Until next time, I’m banking on Rivien and Millar to keep the Standard Tribal fires lit. If others want to jump on the article bandwagon, I’d love to see it. The more the format thrives, the more likely it is that I’ll be sucked back into playing and writing.
Think hard and have fun,
(currently StudentDriver on Magic Online)