This column, from time to time, will look at innovative play formats.
Now just hold your horses, you may insist. Is this necessary? Don’t we have all of the fun playing formats we need, within the fine tournament structure supplied by our friendly DCI? I mean, there’s Block Limited and Constructed, and Standard, and Extended, and a whole bunch of formats with decimal points, or carrying the names of fine wines, where everybody plays decks carrying the names of cereals. Cereal and wine, what could be better for you, right? Why rock the boat, Alongi? And what’s with you putting words in our mouths, anyway?
Well, if you’ll stay quiet long enough for me to speak, I’ll tell you. It is a little known fact in the Magic community (and not even everyone at Wizards knows) that several tournament formats are going to get phased out soon. That’s right, phased out, faster than Teferi's Isle. And it’s unlikely we’ll ever hear from any of them again. Extended, for example, is going to become serialized into a fantasy novel about a family of dragons that try to give away some pet baby bunnies. Standard is going to run back to its former spouse, Measure, and tour the country visiting abandoned weigh stations on highways. And on it goes. Soon, the DCI won’t have any sanctioned tournament formats left; at that point, it will have to provide ratings points to players who don’t actually carry around their DCI cards in their wallets every waking moment. (I mean, really, folks. What on earth do you people say when you’re out on a dinner date, things are going great, she seems to like you, the waiter presents the bill, you go for your wallet…and out slips that thing?)
Back in September, one of Star City’s casual format writers proposed a formal version of what many Magic players try at one time or another - setting one creature type against all others. (The original link is here.) Stijn van Dongen, along with Herman and Sander Jacobs, have developed rules suitable for holding informal tournaments. (Of course, neither these nor any other casual play tournaments are or will be sanctioned by the DCI; that would rather ruin the point.) Here is the breakdown.
“Tribe” is the name given to a collection of cards built around a creature type. It includes both the actual creatures of that type, as well as any cards specifically worded to refer to them. (So Baron Sengir can play in the vampire tribe, since he has a specific ability naming vampires.) It also includes any cards that (in their English language version) use the word that defines the tribe. (Hello, Vampiric Tutor.) Don’t get too cute: enchantments are not part of an “ents” or “treefolk” tribe.
Now that you know what a tribe is, here’s the basic rule: pick a tribe, and build your deck with up to four copies of any combination of tribe cards you want. If you want to include non-tribe cards, you may - but they’re all restricted to a single copy. (Basic lands are okay, of course.) Your deck may NOT use creatures that identify exclusively with another tribe.
The construction parameters are as follows: minimum 90 cards total, minimum 30 cards in tribe, minimum 25 of which must be creatures (or creature generators, like Call of the Herd). You can probably adjust these parameters somewhat to fit the card library capacity of your group; but Stijn and his Dutch friends at The Labyrinth have worked on this format for some time.
There are a few nuances that the Labyrinth crowd suggests: allow for some measure of creativity in tribe-building (e.g., let kings, queens, and similar cards fit into a “royalty” tribe; and consider obvious old-school legends that have appropriate artwork); and don’t let game mechanics count toward tribes (e.g., disallow creatures who simply have the evasion ability "shadow" from the "shade tribe”).
Any card that plays around with creature types (e.g., Coat of Arms, Tsabo's Decree, Engineered Plague, Unnatural Selection) is banned from the format. No, don’t complain; that’s the right thing to do. Every deck would have 1x every single one of those annoying cards otherwise, and the idea here is to be creative and unpredictable. Specific color and creature-type hosers are also frowned upon.
There are other cards you might decide to ban, too (the Labyrinth doesn’t care for lifegain cards, and I don’t blame them); following the Type 1 banned and restricted list would put you roughly in sync with them.
So, to lay all this out in examples: your elf deck may include Eladamri, Lord of Leaves; Elvish Farmer; and Elven Cache - but it can only include one Aluren, and no Rith, the Awakener. Your giant deck may include Bloodshot Cyclops, Giant Trap Door Spider, and Giant Growth - but it can only have one Lure, and no Heartstone. Your shade deck may include Nantuko Shade, Scent of Nightshade, and Nether Shadow - but it can only have one Soltari Lancer, and no Spike Cannibals. Your wizard deck may include Cabal Patriarch; Aven Windreader; and Reveka, Wizard Savant - but it may only have one Puppet Strings (use Puppeteer, a wizard, instead!), and no Deathgrip.
Got it? Good, because we have a new tribe on the block. If you ever organize an event - at a store or your kitchen table - get ready to give your friends a taste of bitter calamari.
ONE TRIBE, MANY TENTACLES
I can remember when I first heard that merfolk were, for all intents and purposes, gone from the Magic world. (Torment’s Ambassador Laquatus is a reasonable exception built in for storyline purposes.) And then I heard that these freaks were taking over the oceans. While I thought the house-cleaning was far overdue (goblins and elves also got the axe), I still greeted this new race with some ambivalence. What, really, could a bunch of calamari with barely two expansions under their belt have to offer us, besides a tasty appetizer at your local theme restaurant?
More than you might think, it turns out. “Cephalid” is indeed a narrow creature type. Unlike “goblin” or “soldier,” its name doesn’t get tossed around in card titles too often, or at all before Odyssey. (No Cephalid War Drums, yet!) So that may make part of a deck construction job easy… but it leaves quite a bit of work to do in the remaining: non-creature cards.
Let’s look at our options:
- Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor
- Cephalid Aristocrat
- Cephalid Broker
- Cephalid Coliseum
- Cephalid Looter
- Cephalid Illusionist
- Cephalid Retainer
- Cephalid Sage
- Cephalid Scout
- Cephalid Shrine
- Cephalid Snitch
- Cephalid Vandal
- Llawan, Cephalid Empress
No cards mention cephalids in their text without mentioning them in the title. So that’s it for our tribe!
This deck can certainly find 25 creature card slots, since all but two of these cards are creatures. The question is, can it put them together in a way that lets a deck succeed?
As game-breakers, Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor and Llawan, Cephalid Empress are each going to play a special role in your deck. Aboshan can suppress entire armies at instant speed, but must maintain vigilance; Llawan can do away with them altogether, with a larger (and trickier) one-time effort. The Cephalid Retainer is an excellent lieutenant to this royalty. We’ll put in four copies of all of these creatures.
Because these are game-breakers, those cephalids that let you draw them faster will also be important. We’ll let four copies in of the amazing Cephalid Looter and stunning Cephalid Broker, as well as four Cephalid Scout. The new Cephalid Sage is one of the first true uses of threshold in blue - and it keeps your card drawing going. We’re up to 28 tribe creatures already!
The Cephalid Snitch will find some role in a deck that, as we’ll see, depends partly on black. Many white and green creatures (e.g., Paladin en-Vec) will “fly under” the color-hosing radar; the Snitch is no more offensive than they are. We’ll run two, which brings us to 30 tribe cards, all creatures.
There are three more cepahlids - the Cephalid Aristocrat, the Cephalid Illusionist, and the Cephalid Vandal. Those all do a direct mill into your graveyard. They would support a heavy recursion deck fairly well - perhaps run one copy each of Living Death, Dawn of the Dead, Yawgmoth's Agenda, and so on. But I have two problems with that - first, cephalids aren’t about raising the dead. So I would feel like I was violating the spirit of the Tribes format. Second, each of those recursion cards is at a strategy and power level that typically demands four copies. Each does very specific things, and puts very severe restrictions on you (losing life, playing only one card a turn, etc.) Cards like that don’t “mish-mash” well at one copy each. So we’ll just put in one honorary copy of the last three cephalids, for Aboshan or discard fodder.
This is one of the few viable tribes out there that can use every card that qualifies, so we should make the effort! We’ll hold our nose and let one Cephalid Shrine sneak in. (Normally, you’ll want to discard it to a Looter’s ability. Hey, look, I found a use for a Shrine! If those suckers had madness, they’d be broken.)
And of course, we’ll use a couple Cephalid Coliseums, which aren’t too horribly offensive. For a 90-card deck, that leaves about 23 slots for non-land cards, and 43 slots for lands, if you want a reasonable ratio. So where do we go from here?
HOW AND WHEN TO BEND A FORMAT
With great respect to Stijn and his colleagues at the Labyrinth, I’m going to promote a little subversiveness with this format - and any casual play format, really. The point of making new formats is to promote creativity; and we can hardly fault those who want to push their creativity a bit harder than others!
And I don’t think Stijn would mind - if you read the original article at the link above, you’ll see several allowances for flexibility in order to get decks that really shine. But he, and I, and a good deal many other people, would probably mind if you ignored the format altogether just to squeeze in cards you like. The three rules I suggest, if you’re looking to put cards in your deck that break the letter of the law, are:
- stick very, very close to the spirit of the law;
- compromise enough to show respect for the format;
- if you can do so without totally ruining your deck’s surprise, ask ahead for the opinion of the event’s organizer (or other players, if it’s a kitchen table thing).
That way, when you show up with your slightly off-center deck, you won’t generate hard feelings… just smiles at your ingenuity.
Here are the two points where I would push the borders of the rules:
The squid creatures. There are three beasts - Fylamarid, Sand Squid, and Gulf Squid - that have a very clear common lineage with the cephalids. Fylamarid has the additional benefit of complementing Llawan and the Snitch’s abilities. After sending an email to my buds before building the deck and making sure no one else was using any blue beasts, I would put in one copy of each. I would ideally use four, but this is what I mean by compromising to show respect for the format. Besides, 36 creatures is perfectly respectable.
The color hoser aspect. I will go into how much I hate color hosers some other week. Believe me, what I am about to do is an awful lot like Nixon going to China. (For you younger folks, the parallel would be Korn doing a joint tour with Britney Spears… only they could get away with it.) Llawan has a certain color-hosing flavor to her; why should she be allowed when, say, Anarchy isn’t?
To answer that, I’d let the play group know I was going to have a mild color hoser in my deck. I’d mention that since I’m playing the very color it wrecks, I’m certainly running a risk to myself, and would anyone mind if I tried to work creatively around that…? If there was a problem, I’d drop it (and cephalids altogether, to be honest). But we’re going to fly on the assumption that most play groups won’t mind if you’re setting up this kind of challenge for yourself.
I would then proceed to add those cards that show the manipulative power of blue, which is really what the story line of cephalids is all about. Mind Bend, Alter Reality, and Whim of Volrath will all change a card so that it reads a different color - so Llawan could stop green, or black, creature spells from being cast. (Note that Mind Bend and Alter Reality’s effects last beyond the turn they are played.) We’ll also provide Sunken City as another permanent whose text can be affected.
We’ll also put in Sway of Illusion, a card that can change the color of creatures so that Llawan and Sunken City are more effective. We’ll avoid the Wash Out path, since we’re probably already pushing the rules’ good humor with Llawan.
Cephalids are all about backstabbing, and killing off their enemies at unexpected times. So from black, we will provide a “4x” set of non-black creature removal that can complement the manipulative theme. I’ve chosen the basic Terror, the cycling Expunge, the color-challenging Dead Ringers, and the card-drawing Dregs of Sorrow. A fifth kill card, Corrupt, makes it in under virtue of its name alone.
That’s enough color nonsense. Cephalids also have a side that screams mental manipulation, and we can use any one of a hundred of so blue or black cards in there. Using the name of the cards to guide me as to what would be most “cephalarrific,” I let Probe represent discard, Circular Logic and Undermine represent countermagic, and Skeletal Scrying represent card drawing. The Scrying and Logic will doubtless take advantage of a massive graveyard. In addition, cephalids’ reputation for studying led me to allow both Mystical Tutor and Vampiric Tutor.
The final three cards are borderline, but are absolutely necessary to give this deck a chance to win if its primary path to victory fails. (To refresh everyone’s memory, our Plan A is to slowly peck away with 2-power squids while one or both fragile legends keep opposing armies at bay. Wow, how could anything possibly go wrong with that strategy?!?)
First, I let one Bone Harvest in, as the only representative of graveyard manipulation and the deck’s defense against self-milling. Yes, I know, “bone harvest” doesn’t fit flavor. I wish it was called “Squid Resurrection” too, folks. But the card’s actual effect is a beautiful end-game move worthy of the most intelligent fish-primate hybrids…oh, just deal, people.
Second, I allowed Spinal Embrace, which, like Bone Harvest, fits more through its actions than through its name. Getting someone to fight on your side for a turn, and then commit suicide, while giving you additional resources, just feels like the sort of thing a person with the head of an octopus would do.
In fact, I had originally designed this deck as a creature-stealing deck, to represent changing allegiances and what not. There’s still a lot of promise in that deck, and this remnant is my way of signaling to all of you that you should give it a try.
Finally, as an alternate path to victory, I found Vexing Arcanix and felt it fit. No other card in the game uses other players’ libraries as a source of damage against them. I’ll take suggestions for other tribes where such a method of winning fits better; but I don’t suspect there are many. I don’t know what a ghost is doing on the artwork, anyway; if I had had my way around here, you’d have been looking at a “Vexing Fishhead” since Ice Age.
To help people understand the lines I feel are crossable, and those that are not, I should point out two cards I did not use in building the deck, since neither their titles nor effects fit the mold of the shifty cephalids. Haunting Misery and Mortal Combat each use a massive graveyard - which this deck certainly generates - to pose a rather quick and final solution to the game. But cephalids do not haunt, are not generally miserable, do not thrust for sweeping damage, do not engage in open mortal combat, and do not rely on the dead to do their work for them. As efficient as these cards may be for this deck, they cannot even argue for honorary status in the cephalid tribe.
I’m sure many of you would have drawn the line even earlier. If you do, your options will be limited. But give that creature-stealing type I mentioned a try. While it wouldn’t serve Aboshan and Llawan’s abilities as directly, it would use cards like Ray of Command, Legacy's Allure, Reins of Power, and perhaps milling cards like Altar of Dementia very well.
THE TRIBE HAS SPOKEN
So what is this tribe’s prospects, in a field littered with tribes that are either vastly more flexible (e.g., merfolk) or more focused (e.g., rebels)? I would rate the cephalids as fairly solid, especially given their youth. While we do not know yet if cephalids are a long-lasting empire like the merfolk, or a single-block fetish like the kavu, we can be impressed by their rapid start. I thought of two different approaches (the deck provided, and the creature-betrayal alternative) fairly quickly. A third deck emphasizing recursion may also exist.
It’s alarming how quickly Wizards gave this species the legendary tools to suppress just about any other creature type: Aboshan’s flood effect reaches even untargetable creatures like slivers, Llawan’s banish effect can devastate goblins and minotaurs and dragons all at once. There are tribes that have existed for far longer (beasts and soldiers come to mind) that don’t have champions anything like these two. Meanwhile, the other cephalids provide excellent “librarian support” in finding these gems in time to use them.
The untapped potential of a cephalid deck lies in what to do with all of those cards in the graveyard - green’s options are intriguing but few and far between, black’s options are typically out of flavor, and the other colors (including blue itself) are quite bad at using the graveyard, even in this age of threshold. (Most quality threshold cards are creatures, which belong to other tribes.) This is where the next expansion kicks in - will judgment provide more threshold effects to blue? And while we’re asking, will madness be a one-shot mechanic (as many mid-block mechanics are), or will blue get some additional cards that work in sick fashion with Cephalid Looter?
Time will tell. For now, I’d love to hear stories of groups' experiences with this deck, or any other decks in a format emphasizing creature types. I’m also open to visiting other interesting play formats in future installments of Serious Fun. Just send your experiences, ideas, and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And be sure to show that grilled calamari appetizer a bit more respect next time.
Anthony may be reached at email@example.com.