Insider: Modern Tribal & Shadows Over Innistrad

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Who doesn't love tribal decks? Even in a format as spikey as Modern, everyone always gets more excited about pushed tribal spoilers than the boring, Abzan-colored new Vindicates. With Elves in Tier 2, Merfolk bouncing between Tier 1 and Tier 2, and players trying to get Allies, Slivers, and Goblins to work since the format's birth, it's no wonder that Shadows over Innistrad is renewing our passion for all things tribal.

Besides, even if you can't stand the gimmicky, worse-than-Affinity (or worse-than-Abzan Company) creature decks, it's hard not to profit from the tribal fanatics across the format.

Loving Tribal in Modern

(Merfolk weren't invited to the image-spread above---they get plenty of Modern love as-is.)

Despite their popularity, tribal strategies often get a bum rap in competitive Modern, often for good reason. Most Modern tribal options are worse than either the existing tribal all-stars (Merfolk), the current fast-aggro benchmarks (Burn, Affinity and Zoo), or the best go-wide exemplars (Elves, which is also tribal, and B/W Tokens). No matter what tribal deck you're playing, there's a good chance it's worse than something on that list.

But don't give up hope just yet! Shadows over Innistrad has plenty of new staples to join the fight for each tribe, some of which even address the historic weaknesses of these decks in Modern. Although it's unlikely any of these new cards will jump a deck from Tier Nothing to Tier 1, you should still see every tribal archetype improve by a small margin (maybe a slightly larger one) once Shadows hits tournament tables.

Today, I'll be focusing on the two tribal strategies that stand to gain the most from Shadows. After we look at these Tier 2 contenders, we'll also visit four other tribes further down the Modern tierings and see how Shadows can help them out. Of course, we'll also pay special attention to where these tribes can translate into big bucks for savvy investors and traders.

Leading the Human Charge

Of all the tribal decks looking to pick up manpower in Shadows, Humans is by far the best-positioned of the lot. This was already a fringe MTGO strategy throughout 2015, one I featured on Modern Nexus in both Naya and five-colored glory, and humanity's hopes are looking even stronger after Shadows.

As I talked about last Friday, humankind's chances rest in the hands of one stalwart lieutenant of Thraben.

Thalia's Lieutenant

At its core, Humans is an aggro strategy. There are other ways to build the deck, but if you don't want to be a bad version of Zoo, Merfolk, B/W Tokens, etc., then you need to be playing an aggro version specializing in going wide.

This gives you the fast burst of Gruul Zoo, the width of Tokens, and the heavy-hitters of Naya Zoo, all in one human coalition. That might not be enough to push Humans to Tier 1, but it should be enough to make the deck a much more regular Tier 2 or Tier 3 competitor.

Champion of the Parish is central to this strategy, matching Wild Nacatl's stats after you drop Lieutenant. Lieutenant is also the rare lord who grows your team even after she dies, not to mention growing herself as the game draws on.

I'm not sure if I want to get Humans working with Collected Company, Hardened Scales, Eldrazi Displacer, or any number of other synergies, but I do know I'm excited to try out the lot in April.

Fighting for Humanity in Modern

Any of the above humans stand to gain with a post-Shadows Human revolution. Same for necessary staples like Gavony Township---between Township and Lieutenant, even your dorks will be hitting like Tarmogoyfs by turns 5-6. Keep an eye out for more humans to help the cause (unlike with the other tribes, Wizards has been stingy with humans so far), and get on the Human hype-train accordingly.

In Good Spirits

Humans might be the most competitive tribe in post-Shadows Modern, but spirits is the one I'm most excited about. Between Topplegeist and Rattlechains, Spirits gets two huge tempo players at the one and two slot respectively. This opens up a ton of space for Spirits to glow in Modern in new and exciting ways.

rattlechains topplegeist

Jordan Boisvert, one of our Modern Nexus authors, recently wrote an article about a techy U/W Tallowisp deck using Shadows cards.

In addition to natural synergy with spirits, Tallowisp also gets enchantments in circulation to enable Topplegeist's delirium. Rattlechains completes the picture by protecting the fragile Tallowisp, and letting you keep up removal and countermagic mana both for Chains and subsequent spirits.

If auras aren't your thing, try Geist of Saint Traft instead, an old Innistrad favorite who loves when Topplegeist taps down blockers. Like Jordan's build, yours can combine Tallowisp with the Geist, or you can try Esper with Lingering Souls, hand disruption, and maybe even Obzedat, Ghost Council.

If I had to sleeve up a competitive spirits strategy for tomorrow, I'd start with a Jeskai Black list with Rattle and Topple, Geist of Saint Traft, Lingering Souls, and all the burn and countermagic that characterizes a Jeskai Midrange shell. Snapcaster Mage can join in too. The key is defeating removal with Rattlechains early (it even beats Abrupt Decay!) before closing out with fliers and Geist on an empty or tapped-down board.

Spirit Potential in Modern

Neither Topple nor Rattle are particularly enticing spec targets, but some of the older spirits could be interesting depending on how the Spirits deck ends up looking. Don't stray too far from mainstay Modern strategies (e.g. careful with those clunky Drogskols) and the Spirits core can easily start working for you.

Werewolves and Zombies and Horrors, Oh My!

And vampires! Don't forget the vampires. In this last section before we close out for the day, I want to visit all the other Shadows tribes which stand to gain from the new set.

Unlike the human hegemony and the spirit society, these tribes are unlikely to make too big of a Modern impact even after getting their new toys. That won't discourage brewers and longtime tribe fans from trying, so here's a quick breakdown of their different offerings.


Everyone wants those Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells to have a home in Modern outside of Jund and rogue Temur strategies. Don't they deserve to lead a tribe, not just play backup dancer to Tarmogoyf? Werewolves have struggled in Modern in the face of better tribes (Merfolk) and superior aggro options (Zoo), and unfortunately, Shadows appears unlikely to change that.

If Werewolves ever became a thing, Huntmaster is clearly the speculation target you'll want to go after. He's a mythic rare, has only one printing, and already sees Modern play without any new demand.

That said, the werewolves we've seen so far in Shadows aren't enough to get him there. The aggressive wolves are almost all worse than Wild Nacatls and Tarmogoyfs, and the lords just aren't cheap enough to cut it against Lightning Bolt.

Huntmaster and human staple Mayor of Avabruck // Howlpack Alpha are probably the best werewolves out there for investors, so jump on these if you see new previews to make the tribe work (hint: look for either hyper-aggressive one-drops, lords at two mana, or enters-the-battlefield creatures that synergize with Collected Company).


I know there are people out there with dozens of foil Gravecrawlers just waiting for the Modern community to rise up and moan "BRAAAINNSS" as they take down a Grand Prix. Despite some pushed zombie staples in Shadows, this tribe is unlikely to gain a lot of ground even after the new undead horde is unleashed.

Zombie fans have been trying to get this tribe to work in Modern since the last trip to Innistrad, and Relentless Dead has been leading this recent charge. Between Death Baron, Diregraf Captain, and Lord of the Undead, Zombies have no shortage of lords to support the strategy.


Unfortunately, they are all in the three slot as opposed to Merfolk's critical Lord of Atlantis/Master of the Pearl Trident at two. The other Zombies are too grindy to compete with Modern's legitimate grind-masters (Jund, Abzan, Abzan Company, etc.), and the aggression just isn't there yet.

Judging by the zombies we've seen so far, you'll need to satisfy your appetite for brains in Limited and not in Modern. If you see any new zombies to push the envelope (look for two-cost lords and one-cost beaters), then Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger become much better investment targets.


A transformed Thing in the Ice bounces all non-horror creatures. Most decks care about this more for the tempo than anything else, but most decks aren't also trying to run horror tribal (!!) in Modern. If it sounds too weird to be true, that's partially because you aren't thinking deep enough, and partially because you're totally right.

In one of the least justified buyouts in recent Modern history, a bunch of optimistic speculators (at best) or market-fixing nuts (at worst) jacked up the Hunted Horror stock from $3.00 to over $12.00 in a 24 hour buyout.

I guarantee you 90% or more of these purchasers have not tested this synergy in Modern. 50% or more may not even play the format. In the dream scenario, you play Horror right before flipping Thing, bouncing the two centaurs into oblivion before swinging for 14 with your two monsters.

The dream scenario is a lie. This strategy is just as fragile now as when people tried to make it work with Leyline of Singularity, back when you could even use the Leyline to screw with Twin decks. It's basically a 4-5 card combo of Thing, Horror, spells to flip Thing, and cards to protect both of your useless creatures while your opponent wins with Affinity or disrupts you with Jund. No thanks.

If you still have Hunted Horror s in your binder, sell into this nonsensical spike. Of course, the other part of living the nightmare is the much more solid Spellskite.

Unlike Hunted Horror, Spellskite is an incredibly playable Modern card that protects both your valuable Thing and your garbage 7/7 trampler. Honestly, Spellskite is a great investment period, so now is as good a time as any to buy in. But if you do purchase, don't do so with the intention of playing House of Horrors (or whatever name the hype-train is giving this pile).


It's always surprising to me that the supposedly devious, manipulative, and patient tribe is also the most aggressive in this current Innistrad world. Of the four tribes in this section, vampires is the closest to being Modern playable, with some competitive one- and two-drops to initiate aggression and some bigger creatures to close out the mid-game. Hope you got those Kalitas, Traitor of Ghets early!

If Kalitas is your midrange trump, Falkenrath Gorger (aka better Jackal Pup), Heir to Falkenrath (aka blood-sucking Delver of Secrets // Delver of Secrets), and trusty Bloodghast (aka party like it's 2011) are your frontline fighters. Kalastria Highborn can join in to give you some reach and Bolt resilience, with some combination of Captivating Vampire, Stromkirk Captain, and Vampire Nocturnus giving you the mid-game lords.

Vampire Sturm

Vampires gets some points over the other tribes for better synergies with Bolt, Command, and Thoughtseize/Inquisition of Kozilek, not to mention a sacrifice engine which closes out games even on a stable board. Neither Burn nor Zoo can boast that edge, which makes Vampires semi-viable after Shadows, assuming the cards are there.

Any of those above staples will prove worthy investment targets, especially if you see vampires get another two-cost lord.

All the Rest!

I know there's going to be someone out there who can't wait to get their angel or demon tribal strategy off the ground, and if you have questions about these other creature types, bring them down to the comments and we can talk there. Always be on the lookout for playable vermin to pair with the awesome Swarmyard spec target!

More Shadows Over Innistrad to Come!

The tribal bug gets to me as much as the next Modern guy, but I'm more excited for the non-tribal possibilities as Shadows previews keep on coming. Specifically, clue tokens promise to be the enabler I've been waiting for in my Shape Anew brews, not to mention the toolbox possibilities around Traverse the Ulvenwald.

That atrocious five-mana counterspell might have ruined my hopes for a Cancel plus clues, but with more than half of the set left to go, there's still hope for Blightsteel Colossus!

Thanks for reading and I'll see you all next week with more exciting Shadows over Innistrad spoiler reviews. Maybe we'll have the two-cost lords many of these decks need by then! Got any card evaluation questions? Deck-building ideas? Hit me up in the comments and we'll talk soon!

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