Tribal decks have been around since the dawn of Magic, built around creatures like Lord of Atlantis and Zombie Master before creature types even existed. Today, these decks are full of creatures that share the same creature type, and seek to win games through tribal synergy.
At the time of this article, there are 224 different creature types in Magic: the Gathering. With the exception of those types that have only one representative (sorry to crush your dreams of a Dreadnought tribal deck), most of them can be played as a tribal theme.
The following creature types have 25 or more cards with that creature type, and as such can be easily built around: Advisor, Ally, Angel, Ape, Archer, Artificer, Assassin, Avatar, Barbarian, Beast, Berserker, Bird, Boar, Cat, Centaur, Cleric, Construct, Demon, Djinn, Dragon, Drake, Druid, Dryad, Dwarf, Elemental, Elephant, Elf, Faerie, Fish, Fungus, Giant, Golem, Horror, Hound, Human, Illusion, Imp, Insect, Kavu, Kithkin, Knight, Kor, Lizard, Mercenary, Merfolk, Minion, Minotaur, Monk, Mutant, Myr, Nomad, Ogre, Plant, Rat, Rebel, Rogue, Samurai, Scarecrow, Scout, Shade, Shaman, Shapeshifter, Skeleton, Sliver, Snake, Soldier, Spellshaper, Sphinx, Spider, Spirit, Treefolk, Troll, Vampire, Vedalken, Viashino, Wall, Warrior, Werewolf, Wizard, Wolf, Wurm, and Zombie.
Three things should be noted. First – Nightmare, Rhino, Serpent, and Thrull are close to 25, and should all be considered viable with a little help. Second, there are several tribes that are well-supported, but don’t have many creatures of that type. Of note are Atogs, Eldrazi, and to a lesser extent, Ninjas. Third, Saprolings have precisely zero creatures of that type, but there are so many different ways of making and supporting Saproling tokens that one would be crazy to not consider them a viable tribe.
The good news is, even if a tribe you think would be fun to play doesn’t have many creature cards (for example, Phoenix has 10 cards – 11 if you count Worldheart Phoenix which requires a 5-color general), there are still options. We’ll discuss this more later.
ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1. It is friendly to new players. The great thing about the tribal archetype is, the cards themselves pretty much tell you what you’re supposed to do with them. Goblin Chieftain gives all Goblins haste and +1/+1 – it seems pretty obvious that you’re supposed to get a bunch of goblins into play and swing with them the turn they come out. Because the game play is intuitive, most tribal decks can be piloted with lower play skill and still compete at the table.
2. There is a great deal of support for tribal decks. In fact, there was an entire block focused on tribes. Lords (creatures that give +1/+1 and possibly other bonuses to a creature type) exist for a great many creature types. Many tribes have their own mechanics found nowhere else (Prowl, Ninjutsu, Bushido, Kinship, Soulshift, etc.). And, of course, cards like Coat of Arms exist.
3. This is a very versatile archetype. Tribal is more a theme than an engine, so it has a vast array of win conditions. (For example, recall just how many ways Slivers can win the game.) The larger the number of creatures of a specific type, the more options they have. Consider one of Magic’s largest tribes: Elves. Elves can generate tons of mana, allowing you to ramp into huge creatures and X-spells (like Genesis Wave or Comet Storm). They can also generate a bunch of tokens, allowing you to swarm your opponents. There are multiple game-ending combos elves can engage in. Under Ezuri, Renegade Leader, just a couple of them can get huge and wreck your opponents’ faces. A particularly crafty deckbuilder can do every single one of them in the same deck.
4. Tribal decks are fun. It’s a rare magic player that won’t have fun with a deck full of their favorite creature type. In fact, there is an entire Commander variant where nothing BUT tribal decks are played. It’s very easy to make a personal connection with your deck when you’ve picked out your favorite tribe, and then all your favorite members of that tribe.
5. Some tribes are budget-friendly. You’d be surprised just how cheaply you can build a dragon deck once you already have Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund. If you’re looking at an off-beat tribe, like Warriors, then the creatures of your deck are probably not going to be expensive, and you can afford the tribal support cards (more on these later) to make them awesome.
DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1. Though rare, tribal-hosers exist. A couple of them can completely wreck you. If your meta is particularly tribal-heavy, expect anyone not playing tribal to pack Extinction, or worse, Tsabo’s Decree. In addition to these two, Circle of Solace shows up on occasion in Enchantment and Pillow Fort decks. Human tribal decks often run Riders of Gavony, and blue tribal decks can include Faces of the Past – which they run for their benefit, but can easily be tailored for your detriment. Less-popular tribal hosers include An-Zerrin Ruins, Endemic Plague, Engineered Plague, Outbreak, and Walking Desecration. Oh, and watch out for specific-tribe hosers too! On a rare occasion, you just might see a Plague Sliver or a Tivadar’s Crusade.
2. Synergies can be broken. Because you’re relying on multiple cards to threaten the board as opposed to single cards or small combos, your board is more vulnerable than non-tribal decks. You are more susceptible to sweepers, because it’s much harder to rebuild a synergistic collection of permanents than it is to play one or two permanents that are powerful on their own.
3. Some tribes are very expensive to build. Angel decks want Iona, Shield of Emeria, Avacyn, Angel of Hope, and Linvala, Keeper of Silence. That’s $68 for three creatures. Elf decks can be similarly expensive because of their popularity in Legacy. Same deal with Goblins (see Goblin Piledriver if you don’t believe me.) Slivers not only have a couple expensive members (like Sliver Queen, who is on the reserved list), but they have to support a five-color mana base. Oh, and you just can’t have a Djinn deck without good old $150 Juzam Djinn. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t be a real Djinn deck…
TRIBAL SUPPORT CARDS
In addition to support cards geared toward one particular tribe, the following cards can be utilized to support any tribal deck.
Colorless: Coat of Arms is the most famous and popular one. It rewards you by having multiple creatures of the same type in play. If there are five wolverines in play, each one gets +4/+4. Door of Destinies gives a flat bonus to all your creatures, which increases as you cast them. Urza’s Incubator makes all your tribal creatures cost 2 less to cast. Adaptive Automaton is a lord for any creature type. Brass Herald is a lord that lets you draw some of your tribal creatures into your hand when he comes into play. Konda’s Banner is an equipment that turns a legendary creature into a tribal (and color) lord. Cryptic Gateway lets you cheat tribal creatures into play, as does Belbe’s Portal. Volrath’s Laboratory and Riptide Replicator let you make tokens of your chosen creature type.
Land: Though there exist many tribe-specific lands like Riptide Laboratory, there are two lands that are universally good for tribal decks: Cavern of Souls produces any color of mana and makes your tribal creatures uncounterable, and Mutavault is a man land that turns into every creature type.
White: Only two tribal support cards exist in this color, and neither are exciting. Shared Triumph gives your chosen creature type +1/+1, and Crown of Awe gives your creatures a one-shot protection from black and red effect.
Blue: Call to the Kindred and Riptide Shapeshifter allow you to cheat tribal creatures into play from your library. Peer Pressure lets you steal creatures of your chosen tribe that your opponents control. Crown of Ascension gives your creatures a one-shot flying effect. Distant Melody lets you draw a number of cards equal to the number of tribal creatures you have in play. Faces of the Past allow you to untap (or tap) all your tribal creatures when one goes to the graveyard. Mistform Warchief can tap to make your creatures cost 1 less to cast (though he doesn’t have to tap if you’re playing Illusion tribal.)
Black: Patriarch’s Bidding is a powerhouse. It lets every player choose a creature type, and return all creatures of that type to the battlefield. If your deck is full of the same creature type, then that’s a massive board advantage for you. Aphetto Dredging lets you return 3 tribal creatures from your graveyard back to your hand. Cover of Darkness gives all your tribal creatures Fear. Pack’s Disdain is a removal spell that gets more powerful by having more of your tribe’s creatures in play. Crown of Suspicion gives your creatures +2/-1 until end of turn.
Red: Mana Echoes is a tribal combo machine, capable of generating infinite mana easily. Roar of the Crowd is a burn spell powered by the number of tribal creatures you have in play. Crown of Fury gives your creatures +1/+0 and first strike until end of turn.
Green: Green has some amazing tribal support cards. Descendants’ Path gives you the chance to cast a tribal creature for free every upkeep. Alpha Status is two Coat of Arms enchanted onto a single creature. Steely Resolve gives your tribal creatures shroud. Luminescent Rain gives you 2 life for each tribal creature you control. Tribal Unity makes your creatures huge for a turn if you have sufficient mana. Reins of the Vinesteed is a +2/+2 aura that, when it hits the graveyard, comes back to the battlefield and enchants one of your tribal creatures. Tribal Forcemage gives your creatures +2/+2 and trample until end of turn. Bloodline Shaman lets you put the top card of your library into your hand if it’s a tribal creature. Crown of Vigor gives your creatures +1/+1 until end of turn.
COPING WITH LOW-MEMBERSHIP TRIBES
So what do you do if you’re in love with Basilisks, but there’s only ten of them in the game? Well, you have a couple options.
1. Add a second tribe. Let me be clear – ONLY one more tribe. There is a rare selection of generals capable of supporting three different tribes (Kaalia of the Vast, Lovisa Coldeyes, etc.), but if you have more than two, then the synergy of your deck is going to be shot. If Tribal synergy is going to be the strongest focus of your deck, then two tribes is an absolute maximum. The best two-tribe combinations are the “race and class” combinations. Faeries and Rogues, for example. Since there are several Faerie Rogues in the game, those creatures that have both types will synergize with both Faeries and Rogues. To help make this work, you can…
2. Force some creature types. Enchantments like Xenograft and Conspiracy will turn all your creatures into whatever type you want. Unnatural Selection will make your creatures a specific type for as long as you have the mana to keep them that way. Standardize and Mirror Entity will do it for a turn. Runed Stalactite turns whatever creature is equipping it into all creature types. Artificial Evolution will permanently change one creature’s type.
3. Employ some changelings. Certain creatures in the game have the Changeling ability, which makes them all creature types. Some more notable changelings are Taurean Mauler, Amoeboid Changeling, Chameleon Colossus, and Shapesharer. Because changelings are all creature types, they can fit into any tribal deck of the appropriate colors. Yeah, so maybe it seems weird having a deck half full of Basilisks, and half full of changelings, but you know what? Maybe being a basilisk is so awesome that all these creatures, who can be anything they want, choose to be basilisks. That’s what I’m going to tell anybody who questions their presence in my basilisk deck, anyway.
If you’re running blue, the Mistform creatures (like Mistform Ultimus and Mistform Skyreaver) function like lesser changelings and can change their creature types to whatever you want, provided you have the mana.
4. Go non-tribal. If none of these options work for you, then you may wish to consider abandoning the tribal focus, and instead putting as many creatures of your favorite type into a different archetype. All those basilisks fit right into a deck heavily focused on Deathtouch. Even if the deck isn’t relying on tribal synergy, it’s still a Basilisk deck if you want it to be.
CHOOSING A TRIBAL GENERAL
The absolute most important thing is your general’s color identity. Unlike other archetypes, you can’t pick your general first and then build around him/her. You already know what 1/3 of your deck is going to be, and your general has to squeeze into those colors.
There are a great many generals that synergize with a specific creature type, and I will give a few examples shortly. However, it should be noted that this is not a requirement – Xira Arien would make a fine Tribal Insect general, though all she does is draw cards and fly.
Dragons: If you want to go five colors and nab all the awesome tri-colored dragons (like Numot, the Devastator), then your choice of general should be Scion of the Ur-Dragon. If you can reanimate, recur, or return cards from the graveyard to your hand, then the Scion is a never-ending dragon tutor. If you don’t want to go five-color, then Karthus, Tyrant of Jund is a very popular general. Dragons are popular enough in Commander that his enter-the-battlefield ability is completely relevant, and hasty dragons are a scary force. Bladewing the Risen is also very popular, able to recur and pump dragons. Of course, any of the elder dragons (like Nicol Bolas) are excellent flavor choices.
Slivers: You have three choices. They’re all good, and they enable different types of decks.
Goblins: Wort, Boggart Auntie gives you access to black, and brings your goblins out of the graveyard back to your hand, making her great for a recursion deck. Wort, the Raidmother gives you access to green, and is a solid choice for a token or swarm deck (finishing with something like Overrun.) Krenko, Mob Boss is a combo machine, and even if you don’t like combos, she can put an insane number of goblins into play without going infinite. Krekno with a pair of Illusionist’s Bracers is downright frightening. Squee, Goblin Nabob is a great flavor choice for old-school players.
Elves: There are a total of 21 legendary elves, so you have plenty of options here. Ezuri, Renegade Leader has become the default tribal elf general, and with good reason. She’s inexpensive, casts Overrun whenever she feels like it, and her ability to cheaply regenerate elves makes her deck very resilient to sweepers and targeted destruction. Eladamri, Lord of Leaves is a somewhat less-popular elf general. He’s a classic lord, giving forestwalk and shroud to other elves. Though not as versatile as Ezuri, making your other elves impossible to target (and block, if your opponent controls a forest) makes it much harder to interact with. Rhys, the Redeemed is a very strong elf token general.
Angels: Even though she’s not an Angel herself, it’s hard to find a better Angel general than Kaalia of the Vast. Her ability to cheat very expensive angels into play early in the game is practically unfair. For mono-white, Avacyn, Angel of Hope turns your heavenly army into an indestructible army. Sigarda, Host of Herons gives you access to green’s powerful tribal support spells, and gives your angels protection from forced sacrifice effects. Aurelia, the Warleader gives you access to the boros angels, and gives you a powerful win condition by having multiple combat phases.
Vampires: Olivia Voldaren gives you access to red and black, which enables you to make use of the vampires from the Innistrad block that get larger the more damage they do. Her ability lets her sire more vampires (and then steal them), making her a solid choice for vampire general. Anowon, the Ruin Sage is another great general if you’re willing to go mono-black (and there are more than enough black vampires to support this choice.) Whenever he’s out, each player has to sacrifice a non-vampire creature during your upkeep, making him a solid control or reanimator-oriented general. Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief is another popular vampire general – her draining ability makes her well-suited to control the board and do 21 general damage reliably.
Wizards: Azami, Lady of Scrolls is a powerhouse wizard general. She’s able to turn all your wizards into a massive card-draw engine. With this mass of cards, you can dig for combos with the help of Descendant of Soramaro, control the board with bounce and counterspells, or hit hard with creatures such as Sturmgeist. Ertai, Wizard Adept is a very strong choice for a more control-oriented wizard tribal deck, given his ability to counter a spell with four mana whenever he’s untapped. Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind, and Ertai, the Corrupted are other possibilities that are worth considering.
Zombies: There are several good choices here. Grimgrin, Corpse-Born loves the zombies that regularly come back from the grave. His ability to destroy your own creatures and your opponents’ can generate a massive amount of +1/+1 counters, quickly, making him a serious threat for 21 general damage. He’s also at the center of several infinite combos (and the Night of the Living Dead ultra-combo.) Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is a wonderful thematic choice, being the highest ranking member of the church of Avacyn who was tragically assassinated and raised as a member of the undead. His abilities give all your undead +1/+1 and undying – ensuring that your horde of the damned keeps fighting on. (Also, enabling quite a few infinite combos.) Other good tribal generals to consider are Thraximundar and Balthor the Defiled.
Merfolk: Sygg, River Guide is the most popular Merfolk general, able to protect your Merfolk army by giving them protection from the color of your choice. Empress Galina is another good choice for Merfolk general, and her ability to take control of your opponents’ legendary creatures is a good start to a thievery deck. Thada Adel, Acquisitor is another strong thievery Merfolk general, though she also would be strong in an Islandwalk theme – blue magic has several ways of turning your opponents’ lands into Islands.
Here’s a tribal Golem deck I built while writing the article. While Karn, Silver Golem seems to be the obvious choice for general, I decided I wanted all six Splicers from New Phyrexia. That put me in Bant colors (white, blue, green). Alas, there weren’t any generals in those colors that made much sense, but I chose Ragnar, because regeneration is always useful, and he looks like he belongs in a heavy metal band. I could see him rocking out with some golems. So, here it is…
This deck really, really wants a Mishra’s Workshop, but I could never justify the $380 cost, and assume most of my readers can’t either. (Same deal with Wasteland, but that’s a fraction of the Workshop at $50).
You may notice there’s several creatures that have some issues untapping, like Colossus of Sardia. This is one of the things you’re saving your artifact tutors for – to grab a Voltaic Key or Unwinding Clock to make sure you don’t have to pay a bunch of life to untap them.
Another thing you may notice is that the mana curve of the deck is a tad high. This is why Basalt Monolith and Mana Vault (which ALSO benefit from the Key and Clock) are in the deck. You can also cheat high-cost artifacts into play by judicious use of Call to the Kindred, Master Transmuter and Arcum Dagsson.
Getting Darksteel Forge down as quickly as possible makes the deck nasty – just the forge and Platinum Emperion makes you very, very hard to kill. Since there are a great many cards in the deck that produce golem tokens, and several cards that come into play with counters, Doubling Season has been included.