Tribal in Commander

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Today I’m going to talk about one of many Timmy’s favorite archetypes: the tribal deck. For the uninitiated, a tribal deck is one that picks a particular creature type and focuses around using and abusing creatures (and spells) with that creature type to create a highly synergistic collection of cards. There are many, many different tribes in Magic. Some are especially well represented (see Goblins and Elves for great examples). Some are significantly less represented, but fervently loved by others, like Advisors. Today we’re going to talk about how to take some of your favorite tribes to Commander as well as how to use some other tribes you may not have considered.

Most tribal decks consist of a number of small creatures backed up with various “lord” effects to make them more relevant in combat, or occasionally make them into a combo deck. Tribal decks and concepts are not new to Magic. One could easily argue that tribal goes all the way back to Limited Edition Alpha with Lord of Atlantis, Zombie Master, and Goblin King. While it wasn’t a very well developed concept back then, the idea of playing a bunch of synergistic creatures together has existed since the beginnings of the game.

Before we go too far, I have an admission to make: I love tribal decks. I have at least 10 different tribal decks that I regularly break out for multiplayer games, and I played Goblins for years in Legacy. I love having each of my creatures get more powerful when I play other ones. I love knowing that my deck is one big pile of synergy. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to make it work even if I can only keep one or two creatures on the battlefield at a time. Lorwyn was one of my favorite blocks because we finally got some support for the “class” creature types and because they explored really supporting some under-loved types like Treefolk.

That said, let’s see how we can make one of my favorite archetypes work in Commander!

Traditional Tribal

Typically, tribal decks start out with some number of efficient 1-drops, back them up with 2-drops, then have some number of lords at the 3-drop slot with the occasional “big” creature above that. Looking at Legacy, this plays out pretty clearly with the three most popular Legacy tribal decks: Elves, Goblins, and Merfolk. Other key components of the strategy are either a combo finish (in the case of Elves and some varieties of Goblins) or a strong disruption suite designed to keep your opponent’s defenses down while you get in for enough damage to win (in the case of Merfolk and other varieties of Goblins).

In Commander, you can’t realistically win with a curve like a Legacy deck. When you’re just reaching the top of your curve, your opponents will be fixing and accelerating their mana, and you can’t do enough damage to slow them down when life totals start at 40. If you’re playing multiplayer, you’re even worse off since now you have to eliminate multiple people and you’ve put a big target on your forehead by being so far ahead after only a few turns. Lastly, most tribal decks revolve around a very short list of good creatures that you play in multiples to ensure a nice consistent stream of threats that you can count on to get your game plan working. Going from 12 copies of 3 different lords in 60 cards to 3 copies of 3 different lords in 100 cards can really hurt an aggressive game plan. So what can a tribal loving planeswalker do?

Commander Tribal

The answer, unsurprisingly, lies in the very nature of the format itself – go big or go home. Little 1/1s for 1 (or 3/3s for 2) aren’t going to get the job done here alone; you need to break out the big guns. Choosing your commander should be based around what aspect you feel your deck needs the most help with.

To take a look at Elves, Nath of the Gilt-Leaf provides solid disruption and a steady stream of Elves, so you’ll want more pump to back up the army he produces. Eladamri, Lord of Leaves and Ezuri, Renegade Leader gives you good protection for your team and evasion if you see a lot of forests in your playgroup, so you’ll need some pump and enough elves to take advantage of both. Radha, Heir to Keld accelerates you and gives you access to red. It’s all a matter of picking the general that best suits your style and running with it.

Diversify the Pump

Since you can’t run 4 Merrow Rejeerey, 4 Lord of Atlantis, and 4 Coralhelm Commander, you have to find some good replacements. There’s more lords out there, but you can’t come close to the percentage split you know works well from Legacy with just the creatures that give a bonus. Since Wizards knows how much we all love tribal, you have a pretty good selection of other ways to give all your creatures bonuses in the form of artifacts.

Coat of Arms is the classic, though definitely something that can accidentally backfire. It can be very frustrating to try and pump your team only to realize you actually gave your opponents a bigger bonus. Saproling armies giggle when someone plays a Coat of Arms, let me tell you. More recent printings, like Door of Destinies, only work for you, and work for you like a champ, making all you weenies relevant even if you only have one or two. Eldrazi Monument protects your team as long as you have a steady stream of spare sacrificial lambs to feed it. Akroma's Memorial can make even an army of 1/1s look scary, especially if your opponent is packing mostly black or red cards.

You can also sow the seeds a little farther afield and start looking for creatures and effects that may not be part of the tribe necessarily, but also get the job done. White has by far the easiest time at this with the Glorious Anthem variant that seems to be in every block. Green has a lot of ways to pump temporarily, like the classic Overrun. If you have enough creatures, it’ll only take one attack. Red, black, and blue have a harder time with it, but there are hidden gems for you to exploit. There are always the Lieges from Shadowmoor that may not be the right creature type, but give your whole team the bonus usually with a nice bonus effect tagged on. Just because you’re playing Merfolk doesn’t mean you can’t have a Vedalken help out. Grand Architect pumps your team and helps you play out artifacts at the same time.

Speaking of artifacts, you can always run equipment. Equipment can turn a generic weenie into a legitimate threat, and it can do it again (usually) when you get a new, better threat. If you can’t keep enough guys out to swarm, you can always just go for the build your own monster strategy, especially if it’s synergistic with the colors you’re in.

Look for Utility

Similarly to the problem with not having enough lords to populate a singleton deck, there aren’t really enough efficient strong creatures with the right creature type to fill out a deck most of the time. Exceptionally deep tribes might have enough to get there, but most fall short of good playables. How do we get around this and still maintain our theme?

The solution is to start looking for creatures that provide some solid utility, even if they don’t have the best body for the job. Did you know there are 5 different Goblins who can destroy an artifact? How about five different Elves who can wipe out those pesky enchantments for you? Over 10 different Merfolk who can draw extra cards for you? Every Commander deck needs outs to problematic permanents and should have at least a few ways to draw extra cards. Picking up utility in your tribal creatures is a great way to extend your theme and have creatures that play well with the rest of your deck. Sometimes those little utility guys can make all the difference.

Find the Fatties

Other times you just need a big guy to curve into. Allosaurus Rider is a potentially huge Elf that doesn’t require you to overcommit to get him there. Siege-Gang Commander brings an mini-army with him. Wanderwine Prophets lets you turn all those mini-threats into extra turns with a little evasion backup. Every tribe has a few members that are just a bit bigger than the average member, and it can make all the difference in breaking a stalemate on the board. As with pump, you can always opt to diversify a bit. Voracious Dragon is a Dragon who likes Goblins (for dinner, but who’s counting). Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly as many big fat Elves, Goblins, Merfolk, Soldiers, or Zombies as you might want to make a good Commander deck, so you have to rely on the pump more.

Breaking Out the Fatty Guns

As it turns out, Wizards has been making a concerted push to create tribal cohesion at the top end of the curve as well over the years. They may not be the tribes you’re used to playing in constructed, but Angels (white), Sphinxes (blue), Demons (black), Dragons (red), and Beasts and Elementals (green) are becoming more cohesive as a tribal identity, and some of them are fan favorites already. Angels, Demons, and Dragons are well traveled fantasy tropes over the years, and there are a lot of them to choose from. I’d highly recommend trying one out with your playgroup. Wizards apparently agrees with me, since they designed the Commander precon Heavenly Inferno and gave tribal players everywhere Kaalia of the Vast as a present. I’m highly tempted to make a deck with her as the general with just Angels since we’ve never had a general that really fit well and there’s so many you can play that work great in Commander.

The best part about the monstrous tribes is they’re already big enough to be relevant in Commander without a ton of pump. By starting big, you can be tribal without being weenies and get the best of both worlds. I personally have a Dragon deck that I enjoy quite a bit, one of the guys in my playgroup has a Demon deck that will make you cry when he thumps you with Rakdos the Defiler, and Angel decks  just got a lot better with Kaalia of the Vast to lead them. Sphinxes are getting their day in the sun as we get more sets, and green has always been king of the fatties, even if they haven’t been quite as cohesive as I’d like. Hopefully we’ll see some solidification of green’s main fatty type in coming sets.

Going Tribal

There are so many different options on how to do tribal in Commander that it makes it hard to make up one’s mind. The most important thing to do is pick a tribe and go with it. Don’t be afraid to run a few creatures that aren’t necessarily of that type. It’s a tough world out there; sometimes you just need an Indrik Stomphowler, and there’s nothing wrong with running it even if you aren’t playing a Beast deck.

Until next time, may your tribe of choice get the mythic you’ve always dreamed about.

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