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Brewer's Minute: Building Tribal

Hey, everyone! It's time for another Brewer's Minute. With the recent release of Commander 2017 and the impending release of Ixalan, the focus of the Magic community is on tribal themes. As such, our topic for this week is building tribal decks. When it comes to building tribal, there are three important steps to keep in mind to make your tribal build as effective as possible. So before you start building Vampires, Dinosaurs, Pirates, and Merfolk, let's break down the right way to build tribal!

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Step 1: Figure out the Tribe's Competitive Advantage

After figuring out what tribe you want to build, the first step to building a functional tribal deck is figuring out the competitive advantage of the tribe. Ask yourself, "what does this tribe do better than anyone else?" For example, Cats and Servos in Standard are the best at going wide because they make a ton of small tokens. Merfolk in Modern are the best at going tall, since they get the most cheap lords (Lord of Atlantis, Master of the Pearl Trident, Merrow Reejerey). Humans and Elves have the best fast mana, with multiple one-drop mana producers (for Elves, Elvish Mystic, Llanowar Elves, and Heritage Druid; for Humans, Avacyn's Pilgrim and Noble Hierarch). Slivers have the most keywords. Once you figure out the competitive advantage, let it dictate your card choices. Embrace the competitive advantage, and do everything you can to support it as much as possible.

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Figuring out the competitive advantage of a tribe is also important because it helps you figure out which tribe members should be in your deck. Especially for tribes with lots of members like Humans and Elves, simply being a Human or an Elf isn't enough to deserve a slot in your tribal deck. Instead, you want tribe members that best support the tribe's competitive advantage. For example, you wouldn't play a random seven-drop human in a deck that's looking to play a ton of aggressive one-drop Humans into Collected Company

Step 2: Shoot for 30 Tribe Members

If you look over popular tribal decks in both Standard and Modern—Zombies, Merfolk, Slivers, Servos—one thing is very consistent: all of these decks play about 30 tribe members. While the numbers vary a bit, from 28 on the low end to about 32 on the high end, a true tribal deck is about 50% tribal cards. This is super important because the entire idea of building a tribal deck is that you take a bunch of cards that aren't that great on their own (Cursecatcher is a bad Judge's Familiar, for example) and make them good thanks to creature-type-matters synergies (Cursecatcher is a great Judge's Familiar when you have 12 lords to pump it—it untaps your  lands with Merrow Reejerey and makes an Elemental with Master of Waves). For this plan to work, your deck needs to be overloaded with tribe members.

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Assuming you have about 30 tribe members, after including lands, this generally leaves you with about eight slots to use on utility cards. In theory, these cards can be any non-tribal cards that support your deck, but these eight cards most often fall into two camps: ramp and removal. Modern tribal decks often have Aether Vial as one of their utility cards, which is essentially a super-powered ramp spell, along with one removal spell (or something disruptive like Chalice of the Void). Meanwhile, in Standard, you're more likely to find Fatal Push, Grasp of Darkness, and Declaration in Stone. No matter what you choose to run in your utility slots, the most important thing is that you use these slots wisely because there simply aren't that many to go around.

3: Look for "Free" Utility Cards

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Finally, one way to improve your tribal decks is to look for free utility slots, which basically means finding sneaky ways to up your tribal count or find non-creature spells that still support your tribe. One of the best examples of this is Dark Salvation, which gives the Zombie deck a removal spell that is also a Zombie token maker. Including this card in a Zombie deck lets you keep your tribal count up near 30, where it needs to be for your synergies to work, but still lets you play removal, which is valuable to any deck. Unfortunately, these types of spell-based free utility spells are few and far between, but there's another much more common way to sneak a few extra "spells" into your tribal deck: lands.

Lands are key to tribal decks because you need to put them in your deck no matter what, which means they don't count towards the tribal / utility spell count we were just talking about. By adding cards like Mutavault, you essentially get four more free "tribal" cards, no matter what tribe you are playing. Even beyond increasing your tribal count, playing Kessig Wolf Run, Horizon Canopy, Ifnir Deadlands, and Ramunap Ruins is a great to squeeze a little bit more utility into your deck without weakening your tribal synergies or taking away utility card slots. So, as you're building Pirates, Dinosaurs, Merfolk, and Vampires, make sure to look for ways to increase the spell count of your deck without eating away your precious utility slots!


Anyway, that's all today. Hopefully, these steps will be helpful when it comes to building around the sweet new tribes from Ixalan in Standard, although it's worth mentioning that these lessons hold true in Modern as well! 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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