Revisiting Tribal

Posted in Latest Developments on March 18, 2016

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.

As we began work on Shadows over Innistrad, we knew that because the set was going to continue the "tribal matters" themes of original Innistrad, we would need a lord for each of our tribes. One thing that often got missed as we were thinking about it, though, was the separation between Innistrad and Dark Ascension.

To be sure, there were some tribal themes in Innistrad, but there was much more in Dark Ascension. I personally believe the Limited environment in particular was a little less fun when so much of the power was in the tribal cards in Dark Ascension, especially because of how similarly they played. While the tribes felt very different from one another in Innistrad, some of that was lost in the transition to Dark Ascension.

The problem, in my mind, with Dark Ascension's tribal wasn't the volume, it was the raw strength. The tribal lords at uncommon were the strongest uncommons you could open up, and were pretty over-the-top. If you drafted one of those and had a lot of cards of the same tribe, you basically won whenever you drew your lord. It took out a lot of the subtlety and nuance that had existed in triple Innistrad Limited and replaced it with an "I win" button.

Because the set only had 40 uncommons and there were four of these tribal lords, that meant that even with just one pack of Dark Ascension there would be 2.4 opened up per draft. They would usually end up in the player of that tribe's deck—or just tell the person who opened it to go into that tribe.

The main problem with these cards is they all encourage the same deck, which isn't ideal. You play out a lot of creatures of one tribe, cast the lord, then attack for a lot. I mean, it works. It was how our parents did it, and how our grandparents did it, but it wasn't as interesting as I think it could have been.

Our great-grandparents, meanwhile, paired Lord of Atlantis with Merfolk of the Pearl Trident and nothing else. And they liked it.

When you lose to one, it's hard to distinguish whether it was Diregraf Captain or Drogskol Captain, since both games would have played out very similarly. I think it is important that not every tribe should play the same way. While it may be fine for Humans to be a go-wide aggro deck, if Vampires and Werewolves are too, then all the decks will blend together. It would also mean that the individual creatures we would have to make for each tribe would naturally need to have similar curves, and they would all be weak to the same strategies.

Thinking back to Innistrad, what worked well was that the Vampires were pseudo-Sliths (meaning they gained a +1/+1 counter when they dealt damage to a player), the Zombies had a self-mill theme, and the Werewolves...well, they had their transform mechanic. That was great. Humans had the Equipment subtheme (which might have been forgotten except for the infamous Invisible Stalker-Butcher's Cleaver combo) and Spirits ended up being a bit of a generic white-blue fliers deck. Part of what happened during Shadows over Innistrad design was to try and give each of the tribes a more unique theme. Humans remain very go-wide, Zombies still have a graveyard mechanic (though slightly different), Vampires now have madness, Spirits have blinking, and the Werewolves...well, they are still the Werewolves you knew and loved, but we tried to make sure they had more instants to play with this time.

When Shadows over Innistrad got to development, the big question was just what targets to shoot for when looking at the non-mechanical aspects of the tribes. How much of the focus should be on the type-line, and how much should be on the mechanical aspects? If this were Lorwyn, you would be pressured not to take a creature outside of your tribe that fit into your strategy, unless it was very, very strong. We wanted lower-level players to be able to just pick creatures of a tribe and have success, but also to allow for players who are more experienced to have interesting decisions in both drafting and deck building.

In the end, we wound up going for a level somewhat between Innistrad and Dark Ascension, where each tribe has two common tribal rewards that are not very strong, and some uncommon and rare tribal rewards with more power in them. The goal was to let people draft decks that are tribal, but to not make every deck in the allied color pairs into tribe-matters or nothing else. That means that you may end up with a black-red deck that is very focused on the creature type Vampire, and you make your picks around that, or you have one that is very focused on taking advantage of the madness mechanic, which happens to appear or go well with a number of Vampires. You can do both, or you can even do neither and just focus on a deck with lots of removal. Really, it's all up to you.

Making Tribal Work for Constructed

Of course, getting that to work for Limited is one thing; Constructed is another animal. While most of the tribal decks in Innistrad were overshadowed in Constructed by Primeval Titan in Wolf Run Ramp—and Delver of Secrets—the decks did exist. Humans, Spirits, Vampires, and Zombies all had decks, clearly of those tribes, that succeeded, if not at the Pro Tour level then certainly at the store level. We wanted to repeat that success with Shadows over Innistrad.

As the development rep on the Shadows over Innistrad development team, one of my jobs was to start making rares early on in the process that would be fun if they were played in Constructed. Ideally, the goal is to test out the new mechanics and make sure that when we do end up pushing the cards for Constructed, the kind of spin they need will still be fun.

There have been many mechanics, like cipher, that ended up being fun in Limited but were so frustrating when we tried to push them for Constructed that we ended up just not doing that. We wanted all of the tribes in Innistrad block to have gameplay that would be fun. If the Zombies, for instance, were all acting like Gravecrawler, we probably wouldn't have found that gameplay to be fun. At the same time, the Zombie mechanic of eating creatures out of your graveyard worked great in Limited, but was never even close to being in Constructed. In an ideal world, we could line up what the tribes were doing in Limited and still find a way for that to be the Constructed deck. I don't think we ended up getting there 100% in Shadows over Innistrad, but I think it comes pretty close—or at least it will by the end of the block. This may be a spoiler, but Eldritch Moon will have additional Humans, Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies, and Spirits for your decks.

At the time, the file had a placeholder set of tribal lords. The first versions of these looked a lot like the aforementioned cycle from Dark Ascension, giving each of your creatures of that type +1/+1 and some other bonus. I was not a fan of this, because I didn't find that gameplay very fun or interesting. They worked for Limited playtesting purposes for a long time, but as the file got closer and closer to being finished, I made some suggestions to change them into something different that I thought would be fun. When looking through the original Innistrad block, I found inspiration in a different kind of lord:

What I liked about Champion of the Parish was that it wasn't exactly a lord, but it was a tribal reward. The biggest downside of Champion of the Parish was that it vacillated between being the best one-drop in Standard (on turn one when followed up by another Champion or a Gather the Townsfolk) to the worst (when drawn late in the game). Still, there was a lot of promise in that direction.

What I pitched to the design team was designing five different tribal lords at rare that would all function differently and support the kind of deck each tribe wanted to make. And that meant they didn't all have to give +1/+1, if that wasn't what the tribe was doing. One of them does, though, and I'll introduce you to it—Thalia's Lieutenant.

So, Thalia's Lieutenant is certainly strongest in a go-wide tribal deck, which is the role that Humans probably should be playing in Standard. What's nice, though, is that because it gives all other Humans +1/+1 counters when it enters the battlefield, it's as good, if not better, as a late-game draw. As an early drop, though, the card ends up being stronger against the small mass sweepers, and even grows quickly beyond the point that Languish can take it down. That Languish might take down your other creatures, but the Lieutenant will survive. That gives it a much different feel than the other tribal lords, which you will see as the Shadows over Innistrad previews continue.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be back with the full Shadows over Innistrad Card Image Gallery at my disposal to talk about making Shadows a graveyard set.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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