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Against the Odds: Desert Tribal (Standard)

Hello, everyone. Welcome to episode ninety-five of Against the Odds. Last week, we had an all-Hour of Devastation Against the Odds poll, and in the end, it was the dark horse Desert Tribal that came out on top! As such, this week we are heading to Standard to see if we can figure out a way to win some games with a deck built around lands! While lands are an odd card type to build a Standard deck around, the good news is that there's actually some really good Desert support in Standard at the moment, with The Gitrog Monster to help us get lands into our graveyard, Ramunap Excavator to get them back, Tireless Tracker to draw us some cards as we loop our lands, and even Ramunap Hydra to close out the game! Is it really possible that Deserts could be good enough to compete in Standard? Let's get to the videos and figure it out, and then we'll talk more about the deck!

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Against the Odds: Desert Tribal (Deck Tech)

Against the Odds: Desert Tribal (Games)

The Deck

Desert tribal was actually pretty tricky to build, probably because decks built around lands are pretty rare in Standard. Usually, at least in Standard, lands are just throwaway slots of necessity, not the namesake cards of the deck. The other problem is that a lot of the Deserts matter cards just aren't quite good enough for Standard (like Sand Strangler, for example), so rather than going the more obvious route of cards that actually refer to Deserts, most of our important cards synergize with Deserts in less obvious ways. Despite these challenges, the end result is a deck that not only can win with Deserts, but when it wins with other cards, it's because of the great support that Deserts provide!

The Engine

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The combo of The Gitrog Monster, Ramunap Excavator, and Tireless Tracker gives our deck an unbelievable late-game card-advantage engine that just happens to work really well with our Desert plan. The Gitrog Monster is the most important card in our deck—as a 6/6 for five, it's really hard to kill, dodging Fatal Push, Grasp of Darkness, Abrade, and even Harnessed Lightning much of the time, while giving us a ton of card advantage as we cycle lands in and out of our graveyard. While sacrificing a land each turn is supposed to be a downside, it's actually a major upside in our deck, especially combined with the ability to make two land drops each turn.

If we can get a Ramunap Excavator on the battlefield alongside The Gitrog Monster, not only are we drawing an extra card each turn as we sacrifice a land but we are sacrificing a land for free, since we can just play it from our graveyard as one of our two land drops. Throw in Tireless Tracker, and we are not just drawing one card each time we go through this process but getting a Clue token as well that we can cash in for even more card draw. One neat trick is that we can tap our land on our upkeep before sacrificing it to The Gitrog Monster and us that mana to help sacrifice the Clue to essentially reduce the price of our card draw. 

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While looping lands in and out of our graveyard is strong no matter what lands we use thanks to the card advantage we generate, things get even better if we toss a Desert or two into the mix. If the land we are sacrificing to The Gitrog Monster and getting back with Ramunap Excavator is Dunes of the Dead, we get a free 2/2 Zombie token every turn, which can help us stay alive by chumping or even go on the offense once we build up a Zombie horde. Meanwhile, Sunscorched Desert is slow, but it technically gives us a way to kill our opponent without attacking by getting a damage or two for free each turn!

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Ipnu Rivulet probably looks weird because it's a blue land and we aren't playing any blue cards, but it's actually really important to our deck because it the cheapest (non-The Gitrog Monster) way to sacrifice Deserts for value. While it's probably unlikely we'll be able to mill an opponent out, it's technically possible if we start activating Ipnu Rivulet a couple of times each turn. More importantly, it gives us another way to sacrifice our Dunes of the Dead for more Zombies or Sunscorched Desert for more damage. Remember: with The Gitrog Monster out, we can make two land drops each turn, so if we make one by returning the land we sacrifice to The Gitrog Monster to the battlefield with Ramunap Excavator's ability, we still have one "free" sacrifice each turn. Meanwhile, Ifnir Deadlands gives us a backup sac outlet. While it's a bit expensive, in the late game, when we have a ton of lands on the battlefield, it can work like the world's slowest Plague Wind as we repeatedly sacrifice it (and get it back) to mow down our opponent's board. 

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The clunkiest part of our deck is our mana base. While our Deserts are really good at comboing off, they aren't all that good at fixing our mana, since many enter the battlefield tapped and are either colorless or one color. As such, we can't just play four copies of Dunes of the Dead and four Sunscorched Desert and hope we draw into them naturally—we'd never be able to cast our spells if we did this. Instead, we play a ton of one- and two-of lands, and then use Hour of Promise to tutor out whatever Desert we need for a specific situation. Since we have so many Deserts in our deck, we should also always get the two Zombie tokens to go on chump-blocking duty while we are looking to set up our The Gitrog Monster / Ramunap Hydra / Tireless Tracker synergies. 

Other Desert Stuff

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Ramunap Hydra is weird. While it does like Deserts, it doesn't actually do much with the rest of our combo pieces. Instead, it's just a big creature with a lot of keywords. In our deck, we should always have a Desert on the battlefield and will usually have one in the graveyard as well, which means Ramunap Hydra will almost always be a 5/5 for just four mana. The combination of keywords is also important. Trample and vigilance let us play offense / defense by attacking with Ramunap Hydra (and getting in damage even through chump blockers) and then blocking our opponent the next turn, while reach gives us a way to deal with annoying threats like Archangel Avacyn and Cloudblazer, which are heavily played in the popular blue-white decks.

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Thought-Knot Seer doesn't work with Deserts directly, but all of the colorless Eldrazi work well in Desert decks, since so many Deserts produce colorless mana. As a result, Thought-Knot Seer felt like too powerful of a card not to play. While we only have a single copy in the main deck, we have the rest of the playset in the sideboard to bring in against control and midrange opponents.

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Our cycling Deserts also work pretty well with The Gitrog Monster and Ramunap Excavator. When we cycle a land with The Gitrog Monster out, we get to draw two cards for just two mana, which is a pretty great deal and an even better deal when we can immediately return the Desert of the Glorified or Desert of the Indomitable to the battlefield with Ramunap Excavator's ability!

Other Stuff

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Rounding out the deck are a few more lands (both Deserts and non-Deserts), including Hostile Desert, which seemed sweet on paper but was actually pretty bad in our deck. While it's probably fine as a one-of, one thing I learned while playing with this deck is that we really don't want to be exiling lands from our graveyard—instead, we want to be returning them to the battlefield with Ramunap Excavator or our single Splendid Reclamation

Servant of the Conduit and Deathcap Cultivator give us a bit of ramp, which is pretty important because our deck tends to be slow (both because we are playing a lot of expensive cards and because we have a lot of lands that enter the battlefield tapped), while Fatal Push and Grasp of Darkness give us ways to deal with our opponent's early creatures and hopefully survive long enough to get our engine online.

The Matchups

Desert Tribal is the epitome of a late-game deck. If we can survive long enough to assemble our pieces, we have a nearly unbeatable engine that generates a ton of card advantage, tokens, and damage. On the other hand, the combination of slow cards and tapped lands makes getting run over early a very real threat. As a result, we really want to avoid aggro decks. As you can see in our matches against Mono-Red Aggro and WU Monument, our Tireless Trackers, Ramunap Excavators, and The Gitrog Monsters are just too slow if our opponent can start slamming creatures on Turn 1 and back this up with some sort of evasion.

On the other hand, our deck loves playing against control and especially midrange. Against midrange decks, we can usually just out-value our opponent. Our threats are as big as or bigger than our opponent's threats; plus, we generate an absurd amount of card advantage once we get our engine online. Against control, it's all about finding a way to slip The Gitrog Monster through our opponent's defenses. Decks like UR Control really struggle to deal with a 6/6—it even dodges Hour of Devastation—so if we can get down a copy of the Frog, we can usually ride it to victory and overwhelm our opponent with our card draw.

The Odds

All in all, we got in six matches and won three (50% match win percentage) along with playing 14 games and winning 7 (also 50%), which makes Desert Tribal a reasonable but certainly not great deck by Against the Odds standards. It's a weird deck, in the sense that it felt like our bad matchups were really, really bad (I'm not sure we ever beat Mono-Red Aggro or beat UW Monument often), while our good matchups were really, really good (pretty much everything GB Energy was doing looked silly compared to the card advantage we were generating). 

As for the Deserts themselves, there's good and bad. The bad is that having so many tapped lands really slows down some of our draws, and our color fixing is pretty horrible. Things usually go smoothly if we have a mana dork, but we had some games without a Servant of the Conduit or Deathcap Cultivator where we drew a bunch of colorless lands and Ipnu Rivulet and never cast a meaningful spell. On the other hand, turning cycling lands into free draw-twos is quite powerful, and the value we got from Dunes of the Dead and Sunscorched Desert did win us some games!

Probably the best part of the deck is that our losses were relatively quick and painless (we just get run over by aggro in a few turns and move on to the next game), but our wins are super long, interesting, and fun, as we spend out turns grinding out value, drawing cards, and sacrificing lands. As a result, the deck was actually a lot of fun to play, although it's probably best to go a different direction if there are a lot of aggressive decks in our local metagame. 

Vote for Next Week's Deck

Hour of Devastation is still fresh and exciting, which means this week, we have the second part of our Hour of Devastation Against the Odds poll. While some of the runners-up from last week are back, we also have some sweet new #MTGHOU options. Which of these cards should we build around next week? Let us know by voting below!

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Anyway, that's all for today. Don't forget to vote for next week's deck! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at

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