Tribal Knowledge: Three Nations Pow-Wow

Once you get past the big two tribes, there are a number of tribes I consider “Tribal Nations.” These tribes don’t necessarily have the five-color ubiquity of Spirits and Humans, but there is a lot there from which to choose. Wizards, Warriors, Shamans, Goblins, Samurai, and Soldiers all occupy significant territories in today’s Standard and should be able to raise pretty awe-inspiring armies. I decided that my next deck would involve one of these nation states.

I’m getting worried.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve noticed two disturbing trends as they relate to the new Standard Tribal Wars. First, games are getting harder to find, at least in stretches. I will often see five or six “Classic” Tribal games going at any one time with me as the lone Standard holdout, waiting as much as three minutes for an opponent. Other times I see neither Classic nor Standard Tribal queues at all. Thankfully, just as despair starts to well up in my wee little heart, I’ll have an evening where it’s five or six Standard games going and one Classic. So there is definite inconsistency from night to night, but what I’m seeing is overall less interest from when the format debuted.

The second disturbing trend involves the decks I’m facing. Whereas at first I was seeing no two of the same tribe and lots of creative decks, I’m now starting to see Standard tournament decks ported over to Tribal Wars. I’ve played against multiple Ghost Dad, Ghost Husk, Heartbeat, and Greater Good Spirit decks, all from different opponents. I can only guess that these are folks gearing up for Tribal Premiere Events, and I always knew that the existence of the Premiere Events would mean these sharks would be in the water. At least recently, however, these folks seem to be taking up a higher and higher percentage of the players. There is some threshold at which this percentage will kill any interest from casual or new players. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I can feel us getting closer.

Was Standard Tribal Wars doomed from the very beginning to be a twisted version of the Standard metagame, in which a few dominant decks crush all of the non-tourney, quirky decks out of existence? Is Tribal Wars headed to “gentleman” status, played only by a small collection of people who have access to Onslaught Block cards? I’m hoping not. I still hold out hopes that the excitement I felt at Standard Tribal’s announcement, and excitement shared by folks like Chris Millar and others, will create a fun and dynamic format full of diverse decks. At least today, though, my hope feels slightly tarnished.

I’ve decided to give my Standard Tribal affair ten articles. I don’t know how long it will take me to write ten articles, especially since “Pop” names and flavor text writing starts up in earnest later this month. I do know that I have six articles after today to explore my interest, though, and after that I’ll decide whether I’m on to new pursuits or whether I’m sticking with it. If these articles aren’t enough to pull people into the format with me, well… I’ve given it my best shot.

Speaking of which, let’s step away from doomsaying and talk tribes.

Druids Revisited

The response to my first Tribal deck on White/Blue Spirits, and my last one on Green/Red Druids were interestingly different. Folks liked my first deck and had few suggested modifications. Those same folks weren’t apparently very inspired by my second deck, and instead offered up completely new and interesting Druid decklists. I encourage you to check out the Forums thread from my last article, in which you’ll find a good start on a Green/Black Druid deck as well as a few “Druid-Ball” lists.

The one very solid piece of feedback came from Tribal diehard Bazaar of Baghdad. His argument is clear enough to quote verbatim: “Not sure, Jay, but it seems to me that Utopia Sprawl is the kind of card that you don’t ‘try to fit in,’ but rather it goes in first, mostly replacing land, and then you see what’s left. It gives mana, it boosts Yavimaya [Enchantress], it draws X cards for X Verduran [Enchantress] you have in play. It should swap with your first 2-3 land, and maybe even four for four. I think that you’ve kind of stumbled onto the card late and are looking at the problem backwards. The cards to cut are elsewhere in your deck. This is assuming you want the most consistent deck; if you want the most toys, then I agree that Sprawl may be a bit blasé. Didn’t Enchantress decks always play 4 Wild Growth?”

As I said in the Forums, the whole “you’ve stumbled onto the card late and are looking at the problem backwards” is exactly the right assessment. Let me say here and now that I’ve played the deck with four Utopia Sprawl and they are the lungs that allow the deck to breathe. It seems crazy to run a Standard deck with only eighteen land, but I’ve found it works fine.

If you’re scratching your chin trying to figure out how I accommodated the three additional Utopia Sprawls, I dropped two Mountains and a Fists of Ironwood for them. I still like Fists of Ironwood (and, for the reasons I said in the Forums, still like it better than Treetop Bracers), but it’s the least game-swinging Aura in there. The Stomphowlers still feel awkward in a deck so packed full of enchantments and with so few land, but I think it’s the best Standard can offer my deck.

I also spent some time playing around with a Green/Blue version of Druids, using the same Enchantress suite from my Green/Red deck. At first I made the deck as sort of a lark, but I found that the combination of Coiling Oracle, Shielding Plax, Infiltrator’s Magemark, and Flight of Fancy was surprisingly explosive. Unlike the Red deck, the Blue one doesn’t try to disrupt an opponent at all and instead focuses on building a huge, untargetable, unblockable monster that can win in two or three swings. The deck is far from optimized, but here it is in case you want to play around with the idea:

Okay, I’m taking a big tribe-small tribe-big tribe approach to these articles. My first deck tackled the biggest tribe in the land, Spirits. I’ve just explored a smaller tribe in Druids. Now it’s time for a big tribe to again fill up my periscope.

Once you get past the big two tribes, I have said that there are a number of tribes I consider “Tribal Nations.” These tribes don’t necessarily have the five-color ubiquity of Spirits and Humans, but there is a lot there from which to choose. Wizards, Warriors, Shamans, Goblins, Samurai, and Soldiers all occupy significant territories in today’s Standard and should be able to raise pretty awe-inspiring armies. I decided that my next deck would involve one of these nation states.

The only problem was that none of these tribes really spoke to my inner deckbuilder. I tried a deck in one tribe, played it for a couple of evenings, grew bored, and tried a different tribe. This went on for over a week before I realized that I had accidentally made four solid decks in three separate tribes. None of these decks are going to knock off your socks for their creativity, but hopefully they’ll start to tickle your Tribal brain a little. Goodness knows that there are enough Tribal Nation lovers in everyday Standard that these decks should excite someone out there.

The caveat for today is that since I’m talking about multiple decks in multiple tribes, I won’t be going into the exhaustive detail I did with Spirits and Druids. Today’s more of a survey course, speed-dating possible tribes we may want to marry later. Like I said, it’s a function of how my week went in pursuit of a Tribal Nation deck. I personally enjoy depth articles over breadth, but speak up in the Forums about which you prefer.

Bloody Goblins

It’s always interesting when the same deck can be so utterly repulsive in one format and completely intriguing in a different one. Goblins are one of the key culprits as to why I don’t like Tribal Wars using a Classic online cardpool. Goblins in Classic Tribal is about as creative as Ravager Affinity in Mirrodin Block. Take away all of those pimped out Onslaught Block Goblins, though, and I sniff a deckbuilding challenge. Can Goblins actually compete in Tribal without Goblin Piledriver, Goblin Incinerator, Goblin Warchief, Siege-Gang Commander, and their wiry-muscled friends? I decided to find out.

I should point out that aggressive weenie decks often offend my sensibilities. I tend to like big creatures and gravitate towards midrange decks that can respond to different decks in different ways. There is no room for creativity in beatdown decks; it’s a math exercise, and by the fourth turn you have usually either clearly won or clearly lost. I appreciate all-out aggro decks for their elegance and focus, but I don’t usually build or play them myself.

Which is why, when I approached the challenge of Standard Goblins, I focused first on Patron of the Akki. After four deck iterations, I had three copies of the Patron, twenty-four land, Kiki-Jiki, Akki Lavarunner, Rakdos Guildmage, and Green for Tin Street Hooligan and Wildsize. Not your typical Goblin deck, to be sure. It was also inconsistent, and either won or lost in dramatic ways.

An online conversation with Flawed Paradigm convinced me that one of Goblins’ best tools is Blood Moon. Not only is there natural synergy with Goblin King, but Blood Moon manages to shut down a huge percentage of today’s Standard decks, Tribal or otherwise. Begrudgingly, I went about tearing the Green out of my deck and making a Mono-Red Goblins deck with Patron and Rakdos Guildmage. For a while I even had Seething Song in my weirdo Goblin deck.

Then something unexpected happened. I lost. And lost. And lost some more. The more I changed the deck, the worse I did. My opponents went from winning at two or three life to winning at twelve or thirteen. By about the fifth or sixth turn, I would find myself in a bad situation and realize that no card in my deck could save me. That’s a bad feeling to have game after game, and one of the reasons I switched my focus to another tribe.

After several nights away from my twenty-four land Goblin deck, I decided to play it straight and just see if I could build a tight, focused deck whose only aim was to kill quickly. Blood Moon stayed, but I almost cut it because it didn’t do direct damage to my opponents. Cooler heads prevailed, though, and I ended up with this deck:

As you can see by the version number, this deck went through a lot of gymnastics to land on this configuration. The good news is that it can compete with the tourney decks floating around in Tribal Standard, or at least I’ve been asked to playtest with folks gearing up for Premiere Events once they’ve seen the deck in action.

I think most of the choices here – especially Frenzied Goblin, Goblin King, Zo-Zu the Punisher, Seal of Fire, Blood Moon, and Char – are self-explanatory. Goblin Chariot has been consistently solid for its hastiness, especially when Goblin King was on the table. I wish there was a two-mana Goblin with haste I could use, but for now the Chariot is solid enough. Ishi-Ishi is my token “F-You!” to all of the Spirit decks running rampant in Tribal Standard, and has been so effective that I’ve upped the number of copies from one to two. Giant Solifuge is just a ridiculously good creature that has won games long after my Goblins took their ball and went home.

Goblin Brigand is the least impressive card in the deck. I don’t hate him, but I certainly don’t love him either. What I was looking for in my final Goblin slot was fairly narrow: I wanted a Goblin that a) cost one or two mana, as a way of lowering my mana curve, and b) was an offensive threat. That second requirement really knocked out a lot of the one-mana Goblins, including Boros Recruit and Raging Goblin. I thought about Mogg Sentry, Akki Avalanchers, Goblin Cohort, Goblin Raider, Akki Raider, and Utvara Scalper. Goblin Raider made the cut for about a dozen games until I realized it would be helpful to hold off opposing attacks for a turn. Goblin Brigand will sometimes needlessly flings himself to his death, but this happens a lot less often than I would have expected.

The last card I added to the deck was Threaten, which used to be Rakdos Guildmage, and before that was Shock. I can still make an argument for the Guildmage, but honestly Threaten has ended games a lot more quickly for a lot less mana. It also handles cards like Dragons that otherwise scare away my little tribe. The only problem with it is that it makes my deck really, really dependant on reaching three mana to win. Threaten’s very existence had me seriously pondering dropping Goblin Chariot and Goblin Brigand for Akki Avalanchers and Akki Raider to better support the deck’s mana. In the end, though, I haven’t seen my hand clogged with three-mana spells enough to concern me.

After I was done with this deck, I went back and looked at Chris Romeo Regionals deck (it’s interesting to note that his “Goblin” deck isn’t actually legal in Tribal Wars). We sure pursued the same strategy in completely different ways. Hmm… Maybe there is some art to beatdown decks, after all.

Anyway, I’m sure there are Goblin experts out there and can tell me where I went awry. Speak up in the Forums if you have your own deadly Goblin build. For me, this deck has been brutally efficient and I would need to be convinced that it needs significant changing. I promise to keep an open mind, though.

Godless Samurai and Samurai Gone Wild!

When I was fed up with my awkward Goblin experiments, before I walked the all-out aggro path, I turned to Samurai for comfort. You may recall that I made a White/Blue Samurai deck soon after the release of Champions of Kamigawa, then updated it after Betrayers’ release. I was pretty tired of White/Blue Samurai, but thought I would revisit my long-lost tribe to see what, if anything, Ravnica Block had brought to Kamigawa’s warriors.

The thing is, Samurai are boring on their own. All they do is attack and block. I like that Nagao, Bound By Honor is an uncommon, and I enjoy tricks like Call to Glory. For the most part, though, they’re a bunch of grunt soldiers who are great in one-on-one battle but otherwise lack any clever combat maneuvers. What’s the fun of that? Literally, the only Samurai that currently tickle my fancy are:

If you look at that list you’d think I would be making a Red Samurai deck, or maybe even a Red/Green deck. Tricky me, though: I put that list in order of preference. By far the Samurai that intrigues me the most is Toshiro Umezawa, and each time I’ve played against a Toshiro deck I’ve thought, “man, I hate that guy’s Jitte,” followed quickly by “man, Toshiro is cool.”

I have yet to make a deck with Mortify in it, so my first instinct was Black/White. What resulted was one of those decks that falls into place without a lot of hand-wringing. Toshiro begat Nagao, who begat Mortify, Last Gasp, and Hand of Cruelty. The Hand begat Kentaro, who begat Golden-Tail, who begat Konda’s Hatamoto. Call to Glory and the mana-efficient cantrip Cremate followed, then land. About the only decision I had to make was whether to use Kitsune Blademaster or Nezumi Ronin, and I decided on the Blademaster not only for its first-striking-ness but also because using it allowed me a true balance of colors in my deck.

Like I said: Boring. Oh, it wins often enough and has a lot of raw power, but Toshiro deserves a deck more interesting than this.

Because I like so many of the Red Samurai, I mentally toyed around with a Black/Red deck. I didn’t think Toshiro and Godo fit into the same deck, though, and although a lot of Red instants sounded fantastic with Toshiro, the deck didn’t sound any more interesting than the Black/White version. Worse, a Paladin en-Vec, Worship, or any combination of other cards could completely hose a Black/Red Samurai deck, and I didn’t think I could make a deck fast enough to avoid these sorts of pitfalls.

My mind was whirring, and I started to toy around with Black/X color combinations for Samurai that used Toshiro as a base. In reality, this meant that I started looking at all of the instants in other colors. I had already looked at White. Red had burn. Blue had card-drawing, milling, and bounce. Green had Putrefy, Naturalize-type effects, and creature boosters.

Waitaminute… Putrefy? Naturalize? Creature boosters for a bunch of combat specialists? There’s even a Green Samurai I like!

In went Toshiro, Isao, Hand of Cruelty, and Nezumi Ronin. There isn’t a fifth Samurai in Black and Green that excites me, but I decided Kuro’s Taken was less horrifying to use in a two-color deck than Cursed Ronin or Numai Outcast. After that came the expected Toshiro suite of Putrefy, Last Gasp, and Naturalize. I kept Cremate partly because it hoses some decks, but mostly because it’s a one-mana cantrip to help me find more Samurai generally and Toshiro specifically. Wildsize – a card I had tried and failed to use in my Goblin deck – felt like the perfect card to round out the deck:

Of my decks today, this one is my favorite, and yet far from the most powerful. What I like is that it’s versatile and can play both fast and slow. It doesn’t roll over and die to any one particular card or strategy that I’ve encountered. It can go into “turbo mode” with Toshiro on the table (my favorite game was against a milling Wizard deck in which I drew Putrefy and killed four of his creatures with Toshiro on the board and all four Last Gasps in my ‘yard). And – I’m not sure I’ve admitted this for a long, long time – I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I use cantrips. Wildsize just loves his bushido brethren, and I’m pretty sure the feeling’s mutual.

Izzards [Covered in Beeeeeeees! – Craig.]

For some reason, I had been avoiding making a Wizard deck. I’m not sure why. After all, they’re the third most populous tribe in Standard today, spanning all five colors (though admittedly slanted heavily towards Blue). The only thing I can figure is that I was in more of a brawny beatdown mood than a brainy tricksy mood. After several attempts at Goblins and Samurai, though, the idea of doing more than attacking and blocking sounded appealing.

Right away, I felt the obligatory pull towards Blue/Red Wizards. I’ve seen a few of these decks online, and my only thought was that people kept making the deck differently than I would make it. The decks I had seen focused on Wee Dragonauts and usually Izzet Chronarch, with Volcanic Hammer and the like. If I’m playing Wizards, though, I don’t see any reason to mess around with Sorceries, and I certainly don’t want to play instants on my turn to fuel the Dragonauts. To me, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind is plenty damage all on its lonesome without ever needing an attack phase at all. I mean seriously… Wizards shouldn’t be forced into combat. It’s unnatural.

I set about making a deck whose sole aim was to get Niv-Mizzet into play, hopefully backed up by Azami, Lady of Scrolls. My secret motivation, of course, was that I could also use lots of cantrips to feed my soul – er, Dragon.

My deck uses four copies of the “combo”: Niv-Mizzet and Azami. I then added four copies of Meloku, the Androgynous Cloudiness. I really hated using Meloku, to be honest, because he distracts from the rest of the deck. At one point I tried dropping him for Dimir Guildmage, actually. I can’t in good conscience leave him on the sidelines, though, unless I’m intentionally handicapping myself to get the Niv-Mizzet win. I’ve noticed recently that my tendency is to make as solid a non-traditional deck as I can, instead of making something that aims only to be non-traditional. I’m honestly not sure if this is a phase, an evolution, maturation, or a step backwards in my creativity. Whatever the case, Meloku is too good to ignore.

Interestingly, though, I found that four copies were too many. My key cards were all five or six mana, and they were clogging up my hand. In a move that seemed crazy but that boosted my winning percentage, I dropped two copies of Meloku for two Jushi Apprentice. Besides, how cool would Tomoya the Revealer be with Niv-Mizzet on the table?

My next Wizard was Minamo Scrollkeeper, who plays the dual role of keeping me alive and helping me avoid discard at the end of turn. After that I wasn’t sure whether to use the aforementioned Dimir Guildmage or Izzet Guildmage. The answer seemed to depend on whether I had enough two-mana instants to justify the Izzet Goggle Guy. Let’s set aside that last Wizard slot, then, and focus on the instants.

I needed card-drawing, both to find Niv-Mizzet and to deal damage once I’ve done so. Electrolyze, Remand, and Repeal looked like no-brainers, which amazingly left me exactly one open slot. Given how high my mana curve is, and how much potential I have to dominate games if I survive long enough, Pyroclasm seemed like the lone sorcery worth including.

Of course, Pyroclasm left me in a quandary. Both Guildmages I was considering for that final Wizard slot die to Pyroclasm. I thought about the underwhelming move of Graceful Adept before I actually realized that –dangit – Wee Dragonauts would be perfect. I still don’t usually cast instants on my turn unless the Dragonauts is going to swing for the win, but he’s a nice defender and survives long enough to enjoy Azami’s company.

My final tweak after a dozen or so games was to drop one Repeal for a twenty-fifth land. Another strike against Meloku is that this deck is one of the most mana-hungry I’ve made in recent memory. I often can win with Meloku alone, but doing so takes a long time and runs counter to everything else the deck is trying to do.

Here’s the deck:

I had to remind myself what it’s like to play a deck that doesn’t rely on the combat phase. Early in the game, I don’t care at all about dealing damage; I care about survival and playing land. Unlike Goblins and Samurai, I also don’t cast spells as soon as I can, but I cast them when it makes the most sense in the flow of the game. Niv-Mizzet sometimes hits the table on turn 6, but more often it’s turn 8 when I can keep him alive with Remand. Control players know all of these things, but I had to be recalled to them. It’s nice to visit No Combat Phase Land for awhile, even if I won’t be staying long.

So there you go. On this Tribal Cruise, we’ve visited the islands of Goblins, Samurai, and Wizards. We aren’t anywhere near cultural immersion, and there is a metric ton of deck ideas we haven’t pursued within each tribe. As I said before, though, today is mostly aimed at skipping along the surface and generating quantity over quality. If any of these decks inspire you – either because you see obvious improvements, have made your own (different) version, or you see an entirely new deck within each tribe – speak up in the Forums. For people interested in Tribal Wars, I think they get as much from the Forum discussion as they do the articles themselves.

Next week: A whole new tribe excursion! I haven’t decided which tribe yet, but rest assured it’ll be a small one.

Think hard and have fun,