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Brewing Ixalan: Tribes


With the entire Ixalan set having been previewed this past Friday (you can see all of the spoilers here), it's time for us to jump in and start brewing around the new cards! While there are a ton of interesting and potentially powerful cards in the set, with some of the transform-into-land cards looking especially interesting, the true focus of Ixalan is its Vampires, Merfolk, Dinosaurs, and Pirates. These tribes will be our focus for today! What options do we have for building around the tribes of Ixalan? Which have enough support to break out in Standard? Let's discuss. 

Before we get to the tribes, one warning and a couple of assumptions. First, all of our builds today will be preliminary, and their final form will depend on what Ixalan Standard actually looks like after the metagame is fleshed out a bit. This being said, we'll be running on the assumption that Temur Energy, Ramunap Red, and some sort of Torrential Gearhulk control deck will likely be at or near the top of the Standard metagame moving forward. While there will probably (hopefully) be some new Ixalan decks to join in on the fun, these decks don't lose much at rotation and are already quite good, so it seems unlikely they will disappear completely. As a result, the decks we'll be building and looking at today will have these holdovers in mind. Anyway, with this in mind, let's jump right into the tribes!

Vampires

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Holdovers: Sengir Vampire (from the Welcome 2017 deck), Yahenni, Undying Partisan, Gifted Aetherborn

Tribal-Matters Cards: Bishop of the Bloodstained, Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle, Sanctum Seeker, Duskborne Skymarcher.

Vampires are in an interesting place: they almost have to be a tribal deck because most of their cards aren't good enough to stand alone without help. While it's possible that Vona, Butcher of Magan could show up in some sort of WB midrange or lifegain list, there's a lot of competition for these slots, with various Gods floating around, not to mention Angel of Sanctions and Crested Sunmare. As such, for Vampires to really make a name for themselves in Standard, it'll almost certainly be as a true tribal deck.

The good news is that Vampires do have some reasonable payoffs if we can manage to go wide enough. Sanctum Seeker offers the ability to get in tons of damage, even through opposing blockers, and then Bishop of the Bloodstained looks a lot like former Standard all-star Gray Merchant of Asphodel, giving a black deck a ton of reach that the color doesn't often have. The challenge will be making sure we can flood the board with Vampires, because both Sanctum Seeker and Bishop of the Bloodstained need a bunch of tribe members on the battlefield to really be effective. Here's a fairly straightforward WB Vampire build.

The problem with Vampires is that while they have some reasonable payoffs, they don't have that mana good ways to flood the battlefield with creatures and are generally like a worse take on Zombies from our current Standard. While their curve is reasonable and it seems possible this deck could win some games just by curving out from one mana to five mana, the mana base itself is actually pretty awkward, since we only have one good WB dual land in Concealed Courtyard, and Unclaimed Territory can't help us cast Legion's Landing on Turn 1. Another challenge is that Vampires are really bad at blocking (apart from Gifted Aetherborn, which is our only creature that is better on defense than on offense), but I'm not sure we're as aggressive as Ramunap Red. This might leave Vampires as a mostly worse version of the best aggro deck in the format, which isn't a great place to be. The biggest upside of the deck is that, being black, we get a ton of good removal to help us force through damage, and we can overload on discard like Duress in the sideboard to give us a least some chance against control (which seems like a rough matchup in game one, since there is a real risk we just get one-for-one'd into oblivion in game one).

One potential solution to our problems would be go to mono-black. If you look over the BW Vampire list, all of our best Vampire payoffs are black, and we only have a handful of white cards anyway (Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle, Legion's Landing, and one Call to the Feast). The question is if there are enough black Vampires to actually fill out the curve.

While going mono-black does make the mana quite a bit better, this consistency comes with a cost, in that we only have a single one-drop. Yahenni, Undying Partisan is a reasonable replacement for Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle in the three-drop slot, although it's a bit frustrating that we don't have any real synergies for the sacrifice effect. Perhaps the biggest problem with going mono-black is that it becomes much harder to flood the board, since we don't have any cards that make more than one Vampire, which means even if things go perfectly, we'll have (at most) three Vampires when we cast Sanctum Seeker on Turn 4 and four when we cast Bishop of the Bloodstained on Turn 5, which doesn't seem like enough.

All in all, Vampires strike me as the worst of the Ixalan tribes as far as being competitive in Standard. They just don't have that high of a power level, and they fall into this weird place where they aren't as good of an aggro deck as Ramunap Red and aren't as good of a midrange deck as any of the energy-based options. As such, I'd be very surprised if we see a competitive Vampire deck before the release of Rivals of Ixalan this winter. The tribe's best bet for the immediate future is that Bloodcrazed Paladin makes it in some sort of strange Aristocrats build (which might not be possible, since we don't have a Blood Artist in the format) or that someone figures out a midrange home for Vona, Butcher of Magan.

Merfolk

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Holdovers: Coral Merfolk (from Welcome 2017 deck).

Tribal Matters Cards: Deeproot Waters, Vineshaper Mystic, River Sneak, Kumena's Speaker, Kopala, Warden of Waves.

One of the weird things about Merfolk in Ixalan is that they didn't get a real lord, instead relying on +1/+1 counters to make their small creatures into real threats. The good news is that Merfolk got some extremely powerful cards. Kumena's Speaker might be the best aggressive tribal one-drop in the entire set, allowing Merfolk to get onto the board early, and Merfolk also have some solid explore cards, and explore is a great mechanic for constructed. No matter what happens when you explore, you get a ton of value—drawing a land is great, and (essentially) scrying while also making your creature bigger is great as well. Plus, exploring is even more valuable for Merfolk than it is for other tribes, since Merfolk can actually take advantage of having +1/+1 counters on their creatures. Let's start with a very tribally focused UG Merfolk build.

Deeproot Waters is an interesting card. It has the potential to be extremely powerful, but it isn't a Merfolk itself and requires a ton of Merfolk to really be good, which means one of the first decisions to make in building Merfolk is whether or not you are going to play the enchantment. The above deck is basically all-in on making Deeproot Waters into the Merfolk version of Bitterblossom, giving us at least one Merfolk a turn. While the enchantment is great on its own by generating a ton of free value as we play our other Merfolk, it gets especially scary with Metallic Mimic making all of the 1/1 hexproof tokens into 2/2s thanks to the +1/+1 counters. Speaking of Metallic Mimic, Merfolk is—by far—the best of the Ixalan tribes to take advantage of the lord thanks to their love of +1/+1 counters. 

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The most questionable card in the deck is Herald of Secret Streams. While we have a reasonable number of ways to get counters on our Merfolk in Metallic Mimic and Vineshaper Mystic, along with our explore creatures, there will be some games where Herald of Secret Streams is just a very underpowered 2/3 in the powerful four-drop slot, where we have cards like Chandra, Torch of Defiance. The upside is that there will also be games where the board gets clogged up and we play a Herald of Secret Streams and just immediately kill our opponent by making our team unblockable. There are possibilities for making Herald of Secret Streams better, but the more we try to build around the +1/+1 counter theme, the less our deck looks like Merfolk and the more it starts to look like some sort of Sultai Constrictor deck with a couple of Merfolk thrown in for support.

I don't actually recommend playing the above deck, at least without testing it a ton first (because it seems very possible that it's just worse than GB energy), but it does a good job of highlighting some of the problems with the Ixalan tribes at the moment. With only one set of support, many of the Ixalan tribes are reminiscent of Zombies back when Shadows over Innistrad released.

Sidebar Rant about Tribes

If you look at the Zombie deck that rose to the top of Standard a few months ago, you'll see that a large chunk of the deck had been in Standard for nearly a year, all the way back to Shadows over Innistrad block. In fact, many of the most powerful cards in the deck—Cryptbreaker, Diregraf Colossus, Relentless Dead, Dark Salvation—had been languishing in trade binders and kitchen tables for months and months. The framework of a powerful Zombie deck was there, but the deck was missing a key piece, which is often the most important piece in making tribal decks good: lords.

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Once Amonkhet was released, along with not one but two Zombie lords in Lord of the Accursed and Liliana's Mastery, Zombies suddenly came roaring back to life in Standard. In fact, the Amonkhet Zombie deck wasn't just good, it was Pro Tour-winning good and continued to be a tier deck all the way up to rotation. 

The story of Zombies illustrates a really important aspect of tribal decks: they are all or nothing. While random good-stuff decks, midrange decks, and control decks can usually get by without a piece or two because they are more reliant on power than synergy, the entire reason to play a tribal deck is that all of your cards work really well together. Diregraf Colossus is just a 2/2 for three, but when it's surrounded by other Zombies, it becomes not just a huge threat but a huge threat with the ability to make a Zombie horde all by itself. 

For tribal decks to really work, there not only needs to be a critical mass of tribe members but a critical mass of payoffs (primarily lords but occasionally other types of cards) to incentivize players to build a deck around the tribe. If either one of these elements are missing, the tribe usually doesn't work. This is where Zombies were in Shadows over Innistrad. While many of the tribe members were clearly powerful, there simply weren't enough good Zombies (or Zombie payoffs) to fill out a deck.

This is the same challenge that Ixalan tribes face heading into our new Standard format. While each tribe has powerful members, none of the tribes from Ixalan has much support from other Standard sets, which means if Dinosaurs, Pirates, Vampires, or Dragons are going to work before the release of Rivals of Ixalan, it's going to be almost exclusively with Ixalan cards. As such, as sweet as Vampires and Merfolk are, it's probably best to temper expectations for tier tribal decks until we get more support this winter. Thankfully, Dinosaurs and Pirates are another story altogether.

Dinosaurs

 

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Holdovers: None.

Tribal Matters Cards: Gishath, Sun's Avatar, Wakening Sun's Avatar, Regisaur Alpha, Dinosaur Stampede (and various non-Dinosaur ramp cards like Drover of the Mighty and Otepec Huntmaster).

Unlike Merfolk and Vampires, which need a lot of synergy and tribal support to be viable decks because most of their cards aren't all that powerful in a vacuum, Dinosaurs are overloaded with power. In fact, if I made a list of the five most powerful creatures from Ixalan, at least three (and maybe four) would be Dinosaurs. As a result, I'm very confident that several Dinosaurs will see heavy play in Standard almost immediately; however, I'm not sure if we'll ever see a true Dinosaur tribal deck. 

The definition of tribal is tricky. When I think of tribal, the first thing that comes to mind is a deck like Modern Merfolk or Slivers, where essentially every creature card in the deck is a tribe member (usually around 30—a full 50% of the deck), and most of the tribe members have an ability that make the other tribe members better. This isn't and likely will never be Dinosaurs. While we have a Dinosaur lord in Thundering Spineback, Dinosaurs are already so big that it's not really worth the effort to make them bigger. This being said, some of the best Dinosaurs do encourage you to play other Dinosaurs, just in more subtle ways. Take, for example, Dino-Ramp.

Is Dino-Ramp a tribal deck? I'm not sure. We only have 13 Dinosaurs in the deck, which is far too few by the typical tribal standard, but the Dinosaurs we are playing reward us for playing mostly Dinosaurs. Gishath, Sun's Avatar offers a huge, hasty, trampling threat, and while we aren't going to dump three or four Dinosaurs onto the battlefield with the triggered ability, odds are in favor of us hitting at least one if we get in for full damage, and even just one Dinosaur for free will often be enough to swing the game in our favor. Plus, Wakening Sun's Avatar gives us a great way to finish off the game as a one-sided wrath that also leaves behind a massive body. Since both of these cards care about Dinosaurs, we also have Ripjaw Raptor, which is where you can see the tribal influence of the deck. Is Ripjaw Raptor better than Bristling Hydra or Verdurous Gearhulk? Maybe not in a vacuum, but being a Dinosaur is the tiebreaker that makes it better in this specific build of the deck. 

While there's another, very different build of Dinosaurs I'm excited about as well, let's talk a minute about the Dinosaur creature ramp like Kinjali's Caller and Otepec Huntmaster before we get to it. These cards are actively bad in a ramp build of Dinosaurs for a few reasons, so let's count them down. First, they turn on our opponent's early-game removal like Fatal Push and Lightning Strike, which would otherwise be dead cards. Second, since they die to removal, they are less consistent as ramp than other options like Beneath the Sands or Gift of Paradise. Third, they are even worse if our plan is to ramp into Wakening Sun's Avatar, since we'll blow them up with the deadly enters-the-battlefield trigger because they aren't Dinosaurs themselves. Finally, the power of these cards is that, in the right build, they can add multiple mana per turn (for example, with a Kinjali's Caller out, we can cast two copies of Ripjaw Raptor for six mana, essentially making Kinjali's Caller add two mana), but in Dino-Ramp, most of our creatures are so expensive that this is very unlikely to matter. This being said, there just might be a build of Dinosaurs that can make use of these creatures.

Much like Dino-Ramp, I'm not sure that All-In Dinos is really a true tribal deck, although it certainly has a lot of tribe members. The basic idea here is simple: we stick a Kinjali's Caller or Otepec Huntmaster on Turns 1 and/or 2 and then start dumping huge dinos onto the battlefield, before closing out the game with the help of Dinosaur Stampede. In this style of Dinosaur deck, Kinjali's Caller and Otepec Huntmaster are insanely powerful. Picture a curve where we play Caller on Turn 1 and Huntmaster on Turn 2. This would give us the ability to play a three-drop (for one mana) and a four-drop (for two mana) on Turn 3, which is an absurd start, Even with just a single cost reducer, the curve is pretty crazy, with Turn 2 Rampaging Ferocidon, Turn 3 Ripjaw Raptor, and Turn 4 Regisaur Alpha or Charging Monstrosaur. Even better, many of the cheap Dinosaurs are fairly disruptive, with Kinjali's Sunwing doing a good imitation of Thalia, Heretic Cathar, Rampaging Ferocidon getting in some incidental damage and hosing Approach of the Second Sun, and Ripjaw Raptor generating card advantage. 

The bottom line with Dinosaurs is that they are the most powerful tribe in the set. Not only are the expensive finishers extremely strong and likely the natural successors to the rotating Eldrazi, but the cheaper midrange Dinosaurs are very pushed as well. Because of this, we'll be seeing a lot of Dinosaurs in Standard when Ixalan releases, although whether or not the decks they reside in are truly Dinosaur tribal (at least in the traditional sense) is certainly up for debate.

Pirates

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Holdovers: Kari Zev, Skyship Raider, Skyship Plunderer.

Tribal Matters Cards: Admiral Beckett Brass, Dire Fleet Captain, Fathom Fleet Captain, Dreamcaller Siren.

Pirates are the most exciting Ixalan tribe for Standard because there are approximately a million different ways they can be built, from straightforward tribal using [[Admiral Beckett Brass] as a lord to a more tempo-oriented Faeries-like list to full-out aggro. Let's start with the simplest of the builds: Tribal Pirates led by Admiral Beckett Brass.

The tribal build of Pirates actually looks oddly good, almost like a preconstructed deck, which is especially surprising after seeing how many holes there are in Merfolk and Vampires. One big takeaway from really digging into the tribes of Ixalan is that, at least for Ixalan itself, it seems like Wizards really wanted to make sure that Pirates and Dinosaurs had all of the tools to make a splash in Standard immediately, while the older tribes will likely have to wait until Rivals of Ixalan until they really have a chance to compete.

As for the Pirates, they have the best efficient creatures in the set. Deadeye Tracker and Siren Stormtamer are two of best one-drops out of all the Ixalan tribes, Fathom Fleet Captain gives the deck another strong menacing two-drop to combine with Kari Zev, Skyship Raider, Ruin Raider might be the single best constructed card in Ixalan, and Dreamcaller Siren is great as the top end of the curve. Plus, being Grixis not only gives Pirates access to the best removal in the format, in Fatal Push and Lightning Strike, but also blue counterspells in the sideboard. 

Maybe the biggest question for Pirates is if Admiral Beckett Brass is even worth the red splash. The other red additions to the build are replaceable, and there are a lot of Pirates in Ixalan, which means we don't really need to be red to be Pirates. Traditionally, four-mana lords aren't great, and four-mana legendary lords are even worse, and while I've come around to the power of Admiral Beckett Brass's ability to some extent since we've seen a lot of evasive Pirates, it still feels win-more (if you're hitting with at least three Pirates, you probably don't need to steal anything to win), so what happens if we just drop red entirely? 

While it's close, I think straight UB Pirates might actually be better than the Grixis build. Losing the reach of Lightning Strike is annoying, but our mana is more consistent, and I'm just not sold on Admiral Beckett Brass being all that good. In the place of the lord, we get another disruptive, tempo-focused Pirate in Hostage Taker, which seems great in the build. Picture a curve of Siren Stormtamer on Turn 1 into Fathom Fleet Captain on Turn 2. On Turn 3, we can either Fatal Push a blocker and make a Pirate with Fathom Fleet Captain or just play Ruin Raider to start drawing cards. Then, once we get to four mana, it's going to be really hard for our opponent to ever block our stuff, since both Hostage Taker and Dreamcaller Siren can remove blockers. I'm not sure about Dire Fleet Ravager. It's possible that we'd be better off using that slot on more removal or a counterspell, but the mythic feels powerful enough to at least test, since we can play it during our opponent's pre-combat main phase, drain away our opponent's life, and then potentially just close out the game with our evasive Pirates. 

As far as tribes are concerned, at least, this is probably the scariest new deck to come out of Ixalan. While it's possible we might want a very light red splash (for Lightning Strike over some of the black removal, not for Admiral Beckett Brass), generally speaking, I think that straight blue-black is the way to go when it comes to building Pirates. The curve is good, the creatures are disruptive, and the clock is fast and evasive. It has pretty much everything you could ask for to be a real tier Standard deck along the lines of Faeries or Delver, and that isn't even considering that we get Duress and Spell Pierce in the sideboard for even more cheap disruption. 

Our last deck is another very different take on Pirates—essentially an attempt to port our Favorable Winds Modern deck over to Ixalan Standard! While this deck probably looks weird and underpowered (and is sadly missing Psionic Blast), it just might work. Hope of Ghirapur, Siren Stormtamer, and Kitesail Freebooter are essentially our Standard-legal versions of Mausoleum Wanderer and Judge's Familiar, as cheap fliers that also help us disrupt our opponent by protecting us from removal and wraths. Storm Fleet Aerialist and Dreamcaller Siren fill out the curve, and the combination of four Favorable Winds and four Fell Flagships gives us a massive eight anthems to pump our flying threats to lethal levels. While this build of Pirates doesn't offer as much raw power as some of the other builds we've been talking about, the combination of a fast, evasive clock and good disruption might be pretty good, if not as a tier strategy, as least as a very budget-friendly Pirate option.

Wrap-Up

So now that we've talked about all of the tribes of Ixalan and discussed a bunch of deck lists, where does this leave us as far as the viability of these tribes in Standard moving forward? Let's quickly break it down on the way out the door.

  • Vampires: Right now, Vampires are semi-competitive in Standard. While there are technically enough pieces to build a Vampire tribal deck, and the tribe has some good payoff cards, they are lacking good filler options to support the payoffs. Overall, Vampires today are very similar to Zombies back in Shadows over Innistrad. While they probably aren't quite where they need to be yet, I have high hopes they will get there this winter with the release of Rivals of Ixalan. This being said, Vampires are the least competitive of the Ixalan tribes right now.
  • Merfolk: While Merfolk rank just a little bit above Vampires in terms of competitiveness, the two tribes are actually mirror images of each other. Vampires have good payoffs but lack support; Merfolk have good support but lack payoffs. Much like Vampires, it's possible to build a Merfolk tribal deck, but for the tribe to really shine and compete at the top level of Standard, they need another set's worth of support.
  • Dinosaurs: Dinosaurs are the most powerful of any of the Ixalan tribes and have a bunch of really pushed standalone cards. It would be surprising if we didn't see at least some Dinosaurs on the top tables of Standard tournaments almost immediately, although whether those Dinosaurs will be in true tribal decks remains to be seen. Dino-Ramp is the deck that is most likely to show up immediately, since we already have a strong ramp shell, making it easy to slot in Dinosaurs as finishers. However, a more aggressive midrange-style Dinosaurs deck could be even better once someone figures out the right build.
  • Pirates: While lacking the raw power of Dinosaurs, Pirates are—by far—the tribe that is most likely to have a traditional tribal build that breaks into the top tier of Standard. It has everything a tribe could want, from good removal, evasive threats, and efficient card draw to disruptive finishers. The only real question is what build of Pirates is best. There are a bunch of possibilities, but for now, I'd place my bet on the straight UB build (maybe splashing for Lightning Strike).

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. Which Ixalan tribe are you most excited to play in Standard? Do Vampires and Merfolk have more immediate potential than I think, or do they need to wait for Rivals of Ixalan? Can a more aggressive build of Dinosaurs work, or is the tribe limited to a ramp shell? Which build of Pirates do you think is best? Let me know in the comments, and as always, you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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