Developing a Tribal Set

Posted in Card Preview on September 12, 2017

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

Hello and welcome to another week of Latest Developments . . . Okay, no, I don't do that anymore. Instead, I'm here to talk about development, but from the position of being the development lead of Ixalan. But first, let me talk about who was on the development team:

The Development Team

Erik Lauer – Erik co-led the early development of Ixalan before moving on to work on other projects. Erik is the most experienced developer within R&D, having led nine booster sets. He was invaluable for vetting ideas I had and making sure the set was making the right amount of progress to be successful.

David Humpherys – Speaking of experienced developers, Dave is the second most experienced developer within R&D, having led seven booster sets, and was immensely helpful in making sure the set was living up to its expectations. Dave is also excellent at giving incredibly constructive feedback and knowing what steps a set needs to take next to be successful.

Ethan Fleisher – Ethan was the design team representative for most of the development of Ixalan, and since he was also intended to lead the development of Core 2019, he was here to learn more about the process of developing sets. Ethan brought his design sensibilities to the set and made sure that even when we were fitting tribes into colors they had never been, they would match the tribal-identity and color-pie needs.

Yoni Skolnik – Yoni may not be as well known as some of the other people on this list, but he is a great developer in his own right. One of the newer members of the team at the time we started Ixalan, he had a great ability to figure out solutions to problems and to ensure conversations that needed to happen did.

James Wyatt – James Wyatt was the story lead on this set and someone who I had worked with before on Shadows over Innistrad. James is amazing at crafting stories and was able to answer all kinds of questions we had about how the story would play out and how the tribes were supposed to feel.

During the latter half of development, we added on two people from the Play Design team to the set to ensure that it would be able to succeed in Constructed while remaining balanced for Limited.

Melissa DeTora – Melissa, who now writes the Play Design column, has a ton of experience playing at the top levels of the game, including a Pro Tour Top 8. On this set, she was the most helpful with Limited, where she gave tons of awesome feedback in terms of how strong cards were and what kind of effects would improve the environment.

Pete Ingram – At the time he was put on the team, Pete was pretty new at the company, and he had the most in-depth knowledge of the real-world Standard. Beyond that, Pete was also frequently the most skeptical about what would work and what wouldn't, which helped me to push cards to the point they needed to be for Standard.

Late in the process of making of Ixalan, after the meetings had actually stopped, we decided to make some changes to our philosophies around Standard and set complexity. Rather than just hope that the work we had completed met close enough with the changing needs of the sets around it, we decided to reopen the file and incorporate some of the changes that we knew we were making.

Adam Prosak – Adam is a good friend of mine, even before he came to Wizards. One of the things I most appreciate about Adam is that he is always looking to improve the sets he's working on and knows when to not mince words when it comes to cutting through problems. Considering we only had a few weeks to implement some big changes, this was very appreciated.

Andrew Brown – When Andrew joined the team, he was the newest member of R&D. As someone with a background in game design and recent Top 8s in the Pro Tour, he helped to push the coolest cards to being fun in Constructed and had a ton of great thoughts on how to quickly make changes to the set to line it up with the new rotation plan.

Delivering on Tribal

Ixalan is a set I am incredibly proud of, but it was also the most difficult set I've ever led here at Wizards. Tribal is an easy thing to talk about doing but much harder to execute on, at least when it is the driving theme of the set. Innistrad gets to layer tribes on top of graveyard mechanics, which means a bit of light tribal. Ixalan was trying to go all the way. But, the definition of "all-the-way" was murky, since we knew we didn't want something like Lorwyn where getting into the right tribe and having a maximum number of creatures in that tribe was generally stronger than making interesting decisions on when to take a strong off-tribe creature. At the same time, we wanted more than the Innistrad blocks, where tribal kind of existed but it was something you might do sometimes in draft, not a major theme. There is a big gulf in between those, and we had to figure out the correct middle ground. I am really happy with where we arrived: a majority of decks in the format will have quite a few tribal synergies, but it's not all or nothing.

Still, there was a lot more about getting the tribes right than just having the right numbers. We also needed to make them feel different from each other and make each of the tribal decks play differently than just "go wide and play a lord."


We could just give the vampires lifelink or other gain-life abilities, and while that would technically work to make them white, it doesn't add anything new. Black cards can already gain life, and they frequently have lifelink. One of the problems we frequently encounter in the gain-life/lose-life archetype is that you start at 20 life, so you don't actually need that powerful life gain in black to make white unnecessary. As long as some element of that remained in the set, I pushed for a way of making the white Vampires feel more like white versions of Vampires and not just color-shifted Child of Nights.

The solution I proposed was to allow some of the white cards to have life payments. We have tried the white-black life-gain/life-loss theme many times before, and in my mind it usually fails because white doesn't do anything in the theme that black can't. Sure, we could have a whole set where black gets no drain or life gain to force white to have a role—but you do start at 20 life, so a lot of the life payment cards will naturally end up in aggressive black-red decks or the like.

In terms of how the tribe works in Limited, this is the closest to the traditional go-wide strategy, which lined up well with the theme of conquistadors. There are a few cards that reward you for going wide with Vampires, along with a few bonuses for gaining extra life from the lifelink tokens.


When you think Merfolk in Constructed, you tend to think about a deck that is mostly just different Merfolk lords (we've had quite a few of them) with a few strong on-rate cards thrown in. While that is a great Constructed deck, it doesn't make for a fun Limited game. We just can't put enough lords in the format.

The Merfolk in Ixalan were created as these sneaky magic users who would control the elements, dart in, and dart out before you had the ability to respond. For a good part of the set's design and development, we actually had prowess as the main mechanic that tied the Merfolk together, but eventually changed it over to caring about +1/+1 counters (putting them on themselves or others). A great way to pay this off is to have a Merfolk that is hard to block but also has some of that tribal synergy that reminds people of a Modern or Legacy Merfolk deck. In fact, the Merfolk creature tokens have hexproof, so you can load them up with counters or Auras if you are so inclined.

River Sneak doesn't put your opponent on a real clock by itself, but if you can cast a Merfolk per turn or just use one to put a +1/+1 counter on it, then you will be in a great situation to race, and your disruptive elements will let you win through otherwise insurmountable odds. Because it is unblockable, the Sneak can also fit just fine into one of your Pirate decks.

In terms of the deck in Limited, it has a lot of creatures that make your other Merfolk a little bit better—permanently. We have quite a few ways to put +1/+1 counters on your Merfolk, which can help you load up one that is hard to block or has some other strong effect. Then you use countermagic to protect it.


Pirates in Ixalan are deeper than the Vampires or Merfolk in terms of gameplay because they exist in three colors instead of just two. That means that we got to go further with each of the factions of Pirates, both mechanically and creatively.

When thinking about the tribes and how tribal synergies would work, it was important to give each of the tribes an identity about how they reacted to other members of their tribe. While the Pirates like hanging out with Pirates, they aren't nearly as invested in each other's success in the way the other tribes are. Pirates, by and large, are out for themselves, so most of the tribal bonuses on Pirates make the member with the bonus better rather than spreading that love around in the way that the other tribes tend to. Basically, being in charge of a lot of Pirates is great for the person in charge, but maybe not for the other Pirates. Not saying that a Pirate captain is going to throw you overboard just for the heck of it, but if the ship starts sinking, don't be surprised if some of the lower-ranking Pirates get the heave-ho before the treasure does.

That's not to say they are all evil. It's easy to get into the mode of Pirates just being mean and nasty scurvy dogs, but we also wanted some fun Pirates. And really, what would a set with Pirates be if there wasn't at least one person who convinced you to make poor life decisions:

Captivating Crew is the kind of bunch who can convince someone to come join the party for an adventure. Maybe they make it out alive, maybe not—but at the least a good shanty will come out of it.

In Limited, the blue-red Pirates tend to focus on raid, the black-red pirates are more go-wide with some steal and sac, and the blue-black Pirates are all about treasure. There is some overlap between the color pairs, but we liked each of those distinctions because they feel the most indicative of what the colors would do and also played really well into the Pirate tropes.


One of the jokes around the office as we were thinking up how to make Dinosaurs work in Ixalan was that to an uninitiated Planeswalker coming from another plane, Dinosaurs are just Dragons without wings. In terms of a design constraint, what that meant to us was that we were going to have to figure out ways to make Dinosaurs different than Dragons, and we couldn't just use high mana costs and big bodies. They needed their own identity.

The first way that they are different is that Dinosaurs come in all shapes and sizes. Sure, a tyrannosaur and a Dragon have a lot in common in the looks and function department, but you don't see a lot of brontosaurus-like Dragons, velociraptor Dragons, or triceratops Dragons. As I was working on the set, that meant making sure that Dinosaurs showed up at all sizes and all places on the mana curve. You will find Dinosaurs between two and eight mana, and the small ones don't need to be babies—just naturally smaller Dinosaurs.

Now, just because we have some Dinosaurs with useful appendages and different bodies, that doesn't mean we decided to skip out on one of the better tropes about Dinosaurs: that they are big, dumb killing machines. Dinosaurs aren't the masters of magic that the Merfolk are, they don't have the organized structure and finesse of the Vampires, and they aren't sneaky like the Pirates. Instead, they frequently operate as the heavy infantry for the Sun Empire—strong, fierce, and unrelentingly terrifying. To that end, I wanted to have at least one Dinosaur at a lower rarity that managed to just be one of the bigger beat sticks you could open in a draft. With that in mind, I present Charging Monstrosaur:

In terms of Limited, each color pair is focused on Dinosaurs, but frequently different ones. Red-green is the most traditional "ramp into big fatties" version that focuses on enrage, red-white is all about using small Dinosaurs and Humans that get bonuses, and green-white is the slow, controlling one that will try and gain life and win either with flyers or just the biggest creatures possible.

There's a lot more I could say about the set, but I have to leave at least a few things for people to talk about. I can't wait for you all to play with it!

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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