Teeny Tribal

Posted in Serious Fun on May 12, 2015

By Bruce Richard

Bruce's games invariably involve several friends, crazy plays, and many laughs. Bruce believes that if anyone at your table isn't having fun, then you are doing it wrong.

Tribal decks are some of the most loved decks in Magic. Casual players love packing all of the Goblins they own into a deck and running it out. Most of us have at least one or two decks that feature our favorite tribe. I run a curious Goblin deck that features Wort, Boggart Auntie and many exploding Goblins. I had, until recently, a Kithkin deck that focused on Kinsbaile Borderguard and Order of Whiteclay. Everyone loves a good tribal deck.

Given this, I wasn't surprised when several weeks ago, one of the guys in my playgroup, Johannes, started talking about wanting to build a tribal deck. The difference was that he wanted all of us to run tribal decks against each other. When it comes to trying different variants, my group is generally excited to try most anything. If the variant involves building a deck however, then we are going to need some time. We all have full-time jobs and responsibilities outside work, so finding time to build a deck for a specific format can be tricky. We set a deadline for six weeks down the road, and began to build our decks.

Early on, we all agreed that we wouldn't use cards that were designed to destroy a particular creature type. We were in the process of determining how many creatures needed to be in the deck when Jesse showed the group that we would not need to reinvent the wheel. The site describes just the tribal variant we were looking for, albeit from a few years ago. There is a list of cards that are banned in the format and they include most of the cards you'd expect: Engineered Plague, Extinction, Tsabo's Decree, and the like. We opted to stick to that list and added any card that negatively affects a particular tribe, named or unnamed. Thus, Bile Blight was out.

Bile Blight | Art by Vincent Proce

The joy with our group is that we don't need to list off every card that is banned. Everyone understood the spirit of the format. No one was trying to find a card that the others had missed that would destroy everyone else and break the format. The goal is to make your deck awesome, not make everyone else miserable.

The other limiting factor was the one-third rule. One-third of your cards need to be creatures of your tribe. We altered that rule so cards that made a token creature of your tribe counted as a card for your tribe. White Sun's Zenith would count toward the one-third of the cat cards needed for your tribe. This change would be key for me once I picked my tribe.

Oh, and in an effort to make the format particularly awesome, you needed to choose a minor tribe! There would be no Goblins or Merfolk in this crowd. We discouraged everyone from choosing tribes that had been featured in a particular set. No Kithkin or Elementals. Johannes set the tone for the group when he announced his tribe: Thrulls. That's right, we were going Teeny Tribal!

Kingpin's Pet | Art by Mark Zug

The Tribes

So what exactly came out to play? Seven of us showed up on that fateful evening with tribal decks in hand. We knew Johannes had Thrulls, but everyone else kept their choices close to the vest. As the first game began, each person's choice became obvious. Johannes' Thrulls came out quickly, and Josh's Snakes were soon obvious. Kevin's Plants showed themselves, and Jesse got a cheer for running Antelopes. After John revealed his spike deck, it was just Tyler and I who hadn't yet revealed our tribes. Our decks were definitely slow out of the gates, but it was also a product of our tribes. On Tyler's fifth turn, he showed his Golem deck with a Blade Splicer. On my sixth turn I finally revealed my tribe: Germs!

I went through a few options before settling on Germs. For a long time, I considered using Minions as my tribe of choice. The chance to create a Minion token featuring Despicable Me minions was a big draw, but the deck just didn't inspire me otherwise. I decided to look for creatures with very low power and toughness, with the attitude that I would then find cards to make the lowly tribe into something special. I considered kobolds for a while, but I decided the deck would be either a lame Kobold deck or a Prossh deck, so I set that idea aside. I then realized that the weakest creature in Magic has to be Germs! They are 0/0 creatures! There isn't even a Germ creature card in Magic, so that just upped the crazy quotient for me!

Since Germs tend to come with a nice piece of Equipment, I also determined that I wouldn't use any other creature in the deck. There had to be some way to take advantage of the fact that I would be the only person who had no creature cards in his deck. Every one of my creatures would be token creatures! This was promising!

Cough! Cough!

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I needed twenty Germs, so I started out picking twenty pieces of living Equipment. Batterskull, Skinwing, and Bonehoard were easy choices as they offered power and evasion. Flayer Husk made sense since I wanted some early defense. Mortarpod and Strandwalker weren't particularly exciting, but I could envision times when each of them would be useful, so I included a copy of each. I knew I would be using Bad Moon as a way to keep the Germs alive if someone started to take out my artifacts, so if I'm already in black, Lashwrithe just made sense.

The next big addition was the Grafted Exoskeleton. Germs bring infection, so Grafted Exoskeleton seemed on theme. I was a little concerned that this might make the deck overpowered for the format, and I'm still a little concerned. I'll go into that when we talk about the games.

The next big addition was Overburden. Overburden meant my opponents would have to return lands to their hands to play their creatures, while I would not. My friend Brandon suggested the card and it fit perfectly with the deck.

At that point I knew I was a two-color deck and just started adding cards accordingly. Liliana of the Dark Realms and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth made sure I would find plenty of Swamps for Lashwrithe while letting me run plenty of blue sources. Then everything else just fell into place.

The Game

With seven players, we decided to use Secret Alliances[1] as our format. We tend to use it whenever we have seven players, since it breaks the game up a bit. I found myself without an ally in the game, which almost seemed to make sense to me, since I'd be trying to poison my opponents to win.

My deck started slowly, but once it was going had an amazing burst. A Skinwing with Bad Moon and Grafted Exoskeleton was delivering five points of poison damage each turn. When the Overburden hit, things got particularly interesting for me, since several players were reduced to just sitting there with only one land. I was unwilling to take someone out of the game too quickly, so I hit three different players on consecutive turns for five before the Germ died. Everyone was building up their forces again, while keeping most of their lands in hand due to Overburden. Not surprisingly I started to take damage, since I had no Germs around to wear all the Equipment on my battlefield. I started to eye up the Cyclonic Rift in my hand and considered my options.

The obvious option was to play the Cyclonic Rift, overloaded, and bounce everything back to people's hands. Using the Rift as a board reset when you need more time is fine, but I prefer to have a way to take advantage of everyone's vulnerability, and I didn't have another Germ in hand. When you add in the Overburden, things would get even worse. I would have no way to kill people and it would be very difficult for the others to recover, since they'd be bouncing lands to their hand every time they played a creature.

Another option was to simply do nothing and let the game play on. I would likely get eliminated, but the game would move at a comfortable pace, as opposed to the crawl that would likely happen if I overloaded the Rift.

Instead I chose to bounce a creature that was attacking me with the Rift and buy an extra turn or two to find a Germ. I did find another Germ, but it just wasn't enough and I was run over soon after.

Gradually players were eliminated and the alliance of Plants and Snakes pulled out the win. Josh, the controller of the Snake deck, opted to go the extra mile and use only single copies of each card in his deck. It will surprise no one that Josh is the most dedicated Commander player in our group.

Snakes in a Game!

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The Game II

Our second game of the night broke up into two groups. I was lucky enough to get into the game with four players and we got started. I changed up my deck to try something a little different.


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A Chicken deck is comical, as it demands a five-color mana base...but offers almost none of the power you'd expect from a five-color deck. The purpose of the cards is to roll as many six-sided dice as possible with a Chicken a la King in play. In our game, I only ever managed to draw three Chickens, so I proved to be a non-threat. I ended up getting closer to winning with Maze's End, getting eight different Gates out before I was eliminated. I had no chance of actually winning, since two of my opponents could remove me when they wanted to, but waited until I got close before doing anything to me.

The deck offered very little beyond comic relief. Given a bit more work and abandoning the mana base for a Chromatic Lantern centered mana base, it could certainly improve and at least be challenging in this format.

Teeny Tribal's Trials and Triumphs

The only significant change I'd want to make is to reduce the one-third tribal demand. When you are using tribes that aren't particularly powerful, you are really relying on a small percentage of your deck to provide the real power. With weaker tribes, perhaps only fifteen cards would make for more exciting decks while still keeping the spirit of these fun tribes.

In spite of this, the night itself was a success. Everyone had a good time. John used my Germ deck in the second game and had no better luck than I did, but with a few changes, I think it could make a serious splash. Watching Jesse try to squeeze something out of Antelopes was a lot of fun, while Johanne's Thrulls and their constant extorting proved to be far better than I ever expected. I'll be looking forward to the next chance to see our limited tribes butt heads.

Bruce Richard



[1] With Secret Alliances, half of the players receive a land at random and start with that land in play. The other half of the players receive a card face-down that matches with one of the lands. Each of those players knows who they are allied with, while the players with the lands in play do not. When you have an odd number of players, one of the players with a facedown card has no ally. You win when either you or your ally is the last surviving player.

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