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Brewing Rivals of Ixalan: Tribal


Back when Ixalan was released a few months ago, we talked about brewing with Dinosaurs, Pirates, Vampires, and Merfolk, and while each tribe had some potentially powerful options, they were all missing key pieces. At the time, our conclusion was that the Ixalan tribes would probably need to wait for Rivals of Ixalan to really have the tools to compete, and this is essentially what happened. While Dinosaurs made some waves as soon as Ixalan was released and some of the better Pirates showed up in non-Pirate decks, the missing pieces, combined with the power of Kaladesh in general and the energy mechanic specifically, kept all of the Ixalan tribes from developing into competitive Standard decks. The good news is that Rivals of Ixalan is here and it brings a ton of tribal support with it. In fact, Rivals of Ixalan is a significantly better tribal set than Ixalan itself, which is especially impressive considering that Rivals of Ixalan is a small set, giving it fewer total cards than Ixalan to improve the tribes.

So today, we are going to revisit each of the Ixalan tribes, talk about the sweet new additions they got from Rivals of Ixalan, and try to put together some competitive tribal decks for Rivals of Ixalan Standard. A word of warning before we get to the tribes: Energy is still the best deck in Standard, and while it's possible this will change, either because of Rivals of Ixalan shaking up the format or the banned and restricted announcement on the 15th of January (which seems like the more likely possibility, especially considering an article Wizards published Friday comparing energy to the infamous banned Affinity deck from 15 years ago), we aren't going to focus too much on Energy today. Hopefully, some of our tribal decks will have the power to compete with Energy, but rather than fretting and worrying about whether Dinosaurs, Vampires, Merfolk and Pirates are good enough to take down the Energy monster, our goal for today is simply to build the best possible tribal decks for Rivals of Ixalan Standard and let the chips fall as they may as far as Energy is concerned.

Building Tribal—The Mana

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Before getting to the individual tribes, let's take a minute to talk about the mana, because if we don't get it out of the way, we'll have to repeat it over and over again throughout the article as we talk about each tribe. By far the biggest challenge facing the Ixalan tribes is that their mana is pretty lacking. All of the tribes are in enemy colors, but we only have one playable enemy dual land in Standard at the moment (the Kaladesh fast lands). Beyond the fast lands, we have the enters-the-battlefield-tapped duals, but these are really problematic for Vampires, Pirates, and Merfolk, all of which fall somewhere between aggro and tempo. Playing off-curve in your Pirate deck, for example, to get down a tapped land on Turn 2 or 3 is a pretty sure way to fall behind and possibly even lose the game. This problem is compounded by the fact that the deck all the tribes are gunning for—Energy—has great mana thanks to Aether Hub and Attune with Aether, not to mention Servant of the Conduit. While Unclaimed Territory can help some decks as a second untapped dual land, it require a lot of creatures, since it doesn't help you cast colored spells. 

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While there are a couple solutions to the problem, with the easiest being to branch out into energy for Attune with Aether and Aether Hub, the problem is that once you start playing energy-producing cards, it's almost always correct to add more and more energy cards to your deck, until suddenly your UG Merfolk deck is actually just Temur Energy. Going into three colors to get additional fast lands is another possibility, but three-color mana bases are less consistent. 

The good news is that, for the rest of the article, we aren't going to worry too much about the mana. However, it is worth keeping in mind that, at least until Dominaria comes along with more enemy dual lands, the mana base is going to be the biggest weakness of all of the two-color tribal decks.

Merfolk

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Best New Addition: Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca, Merfolk Mistbinder, Silvergill Adept, Jadelight Ranger, Deeproot Elite

Merfolk got three major additions from Rivals of Ixalan, highlighted by the Modern staple Silvergill Adept along with a two-mana lord in Merfolk Mistbinder and a potential mythic payoff in Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. While not quite as exciting, Jadelight Ranger and Deeproot Elite also deserve mention as potential Standard playables, especially with tribal support. 

Even with these powerful new additions, there are still two big challenges when it comes to building a Merfolk deck for Rivals of Ixalan Standard. First, unlike Pirates and Vampires, Merfolk only have one good one-drop in Kumena's Speaker. While it's possible Mist-Cloaked Herald could fill in, having one power is a big drawback, even accounting for the fact it is unblockable. The second challenge is figuring out the two-drop slot. Merfolk are overloaded with a ton of potentially powerful options, with Merfolk Branchwalker, Silvergill Adept, Merfolk Mistbinder, Metallic Mimic, and Deeproot Elite. Figuring out just how many of these creatures we can stuff into one deck and which of this group are the best, if we can't play them all, is going to require a bit of playtesting and depend on what the Rivals of Ixalan format ends up looking like. Here's my first draft of Merfolk:

Even if we don't branch out into additional energy cards, one of the biggest upsides of Merfolk as a tribe is that they can play Attune with Aether and Aether Hub and have good mana. There are a couple of reasons why this plan works well for Merfolk specifically but not for other tribes. First, Merfolk are already in green, so Attune with Aether is sort of a freeroll, especially if we count it as a land and cut back on our real lands accordingly. Second, as we talked about a moment ago, Merfolk are missing a second playable one-drop, which means we have time to cast Attune with Aether without playing off-curve. 

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Probably the most contentious spot of the deck is the three-drop slot. Deeproot Waters can do some crazy things and work well with all of our Merfolk lords (but especially Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca), although it comes with the downside of not doing anything the turn it comes into play. While I plan on starting with a full playset in the deck, it's possible that Swift Warden or Vineshaper Mystic will be better in the deck. Another possibility is that we should be playing Swift Warden over Blossoming Defense, although having a pump spell to force through damage seems important to force our Merfolk through bigger blockers. Regardless, the main plan of the deck is to go wide, with Deeproot Waters giving us a steady stream of 1/1 Merfolk; Silvergill Adept, Merfolk Branchwalker, and Jadelight Ranger keeping us drawing solid action; and Metallic Mimic, Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca, and Merfolk Mistbinder turning all of our small Merfolk into very real threats.

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A couple of other things to consider are the sideboard and splashing. If we are playing Attune with Aether and Aether Hub anyway, it's pretty easy to play Fatal Push as an upgrade to Unsummon or move into white for hard removal like Cast Out or Ixalan's Binding. While I'm not sure adding another color is correct, Merfolk is the non-Dinosaur tribe that can splash the easiest thanks to their access to energy-based mana fixing. Meanwhile, the sideboard gives us a lot of options, especially for control, where we have Lifecrafter's Bestiary, Heroic Intervention, and Shaper's Sanctuary. On the other hand, dealing with The Scarab God, Hazoret the Fervent, or Longtusk Cub is an issue for a straight blue-green deck, which is probably another reason to consider dipping into another color.

Vampires

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Best New Additions: Dusk Legion Zealot, Forerunner of the Legion, Legion Lieutenant, Twilight Prophet, Skymarcher Aspirant, Champion of Dusk, Bishop of Binding.

Vampires are tricky because the ample new additions of Rivals of Ixalan mean there are several different ways of building around the tribe, ranging from aggro to control, not to mention the lifegain subtheme, Oketra's Monument, or even Panharmonicon. Part of the challenge is that, while many of the new Vampire cards are powerful, they don't all fit into the same style of deck, which means deciding on the style and theme of the deck is more important with Vampires than with any of the other Ixalan tribes. Let's start with a straightforward aggro build of Vampires:

One of the competitive advantages of Vampires compared to the other Ixalan tribes is they get a lot of power on Turn 1, with Skymarcher Aspirant being a Savannah Lions with upside, Legion's Landing putting multiple permanents on the battlefield for ascend, and Vicious Conquistador essentially attacking for two, even though it only has one power. This gives an aggro build of Vampires the ability to start curving out from Turn 1, making it feel like a white-black version of Ramunap Red in this regard. Forerunner of the Legion also offers up some interesting possibilities, like playing a single copy of cards like Bishop of the Bloodstained and Twilight Prophet, which are incredibly powerful in specific situations but—especially in an aggro deck—have the potential to clutter up our hand if we draw them in multiples. However, by far the biggest advantage of playing Vampire Aggro is Sanctum Seeker, which might finally have enough support to reach its potential as a Vampire version of Hellrider (minus the haste but with a lifegain bonus). 

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The basic plan of the deck is simple: curve out starting from Turn 1 and then use Forerunner of the Legion to make sure we have a copy of Sanctum Seeker on Turn 4 to hopefully close out the game with direct damage. The combo of Forerunner of the Legion and Sanctum Seeker specifically is reminiscent of Modern Shamans, where Flamekin Harbinger gives the deck a ton of consistency when it comes to finding its finisher (Rage Forger) to close out the game. Of course, the Vampire plan is slower, with our tutor costing three and our finisher costing four, but having a tutor to give us eight copies of Sanctum Seeker adds a similar amount of consistency. While going aggro is a great starting point for Vampires and might end up being the most competitive version of the deck, perhaps my favorite Vampire deck is Vampire Panharmonicon!

Vampire Panharmonicon is almost the direct opposite of Vampire aggro. Rather than trying to kill our opponent by attacking, we're mostly just looking to stall out the game as long as possible by playing random Vampires with enters-the-battlefield triggers until we eventually stick a Panharmonicon and win the game. Dusk Legion Zealot keeps us cycling through our deck, Inspiring Cleric keeps our life total high, Bishop of Binding keeps the board clear, and Forerunner of the Legion finds us whatever other Vampires we need. After chump blocking for a while, we'll eventually get all of our Vampires back from our graveyard with Dusk // Dawn. At this point, we should be ready to kill our opponent by flooding the board with all the cheap Vampires we got back from our graveyard, followed by Bishop of the Bloodstained. With a copy or two of Panharmonicon on the battlefield, just a single Bishop of the Bloodstained should be enough to finish the game by draining out opponent out, perhaps without ever attacking! If you like Vampires but you'd rather durdle than be aggressive, this is probably the Vampire deck for you (plus, at only $92, it seems like a reasonable budget option for Rivals of Ixalan Standard).

Pirates

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Best New Additions: Daring Buccaneer, Dire Fleet Daredevil, Fanatical Firebrand, Forerunner of the Coalition, Protean Raider, Warkite Marauder, Dire Fleet Poisoner

Pirates got a ton of new tools in Rivals of Ixalan, highlighted by a chase two-drop in each of their three colors. Speaking of three colors, the fact that there are so many different options is the biggest challenge in building a Pirate deck. Grixis Pirates offers the most power by virtue of having access to all of the best Pirates in Standard, but this power comes with the cost of a less-than -consistent mana base. Meanwhile, every two-color combination of Pirates offers potential, with RB offering an aggressive start and lots of reach; UB offering some of the best tempo and control options; and URx giving a fast, evasive close with the help of Favorable Winds

Since there are so many options, rather than going deep about one specific build of Pirates, I'm just going to share with you all the different Pirates builds I've been working on, with a brief write-up about the pros and cons of each deck. Maybe by the end, we'll have a better grasp on what build of Pirates is best for Rivals of Ixalan Standard (although to really figure this out, we'll need a bunch of playtesting).

Favorable Pirates Pros: The biggest upside of Favorable Pirates (apart from the price—it's basically an ultra-budget deck) is evasiveness. While cards like Glorybringer see play in Standard, most decks are primarily fighting on the ground, which means that all of our creatures are essentially unblockable in most matchups. Warkite Marauder is also a massive upgrade for the deck. Generally speaking, blue-red decks really struggle to deal with Hazoret the Fervent or The Scarab God once they get onto the battlefield, but with Warkite Marauder, we can simply turn either of the Gods into 0/1s with no abilities and then use Shock or Lightning Strike to finish them off.

Favorable Pirates Cons: There are two big downsides to Favorable Pirates. First, the curve isn't great, with most of the best flying Pirates being concentrated in the two-mana slot and only one flying one-drop Pirate available. This means we'll run into hands where we have nothing to do on Turn 1, spend Turn 2 playing Favorable Winds, and then follow this up with a single two-drop on Turn 3, which isn't an exciting start for an aggro deck. Second, Favorable Pirates is the least powerful of the Pirate decks, since being restricted to just flying creatures means a lot of the best Pirates are left on the sidelines.

RB Aggro Pirates Pros: Daring Buccaneer is one of the best one-drops that's been printed in a long time, and RB Pirates is the perfect deck for harnessing its power. Combined with Rigging Runner, it gives the deck the possibility of the devastating triple one-drop start, which is a great way to steal wins in a lot of matchups, especially backed up by some burn spells like Lightning Strike. RB Pirates also has a ton of powerful two-drops and can really take advantage of Forerunner of the Coalition, which not only gives the deck even more reach but also allows for some situational one-ofs like Captivating Crew, Rowdy Crew, Dire Fleet Daredevil, and Captain Lannery Storm. Finally, being based in red, we even get access to Ramunap Ruins, which has proven to be a great way to add reach to aggressive decks in Standard. 

RB Aggro Pirates Cons: The biggest con of RB Aggro Pirates is the mana. Being an allied-color deck, we actually lose out on having a fast land, which means we'll get some hands where we get stuck playing tapped copies of Dragonskull Summit, which isn't ideal. Plus, the secondary ally dual is Canyon Slough, and having a land that always enters the battlefield tapped isn't great for aggro. The other big con, or at least question, for RB Aggro Pirates is whether it's worth splashing into black at all. The biggest payoff for RB Aggro Pirates is Daring Buccaneer. Would it be better to focus on building a version of Ramunap Red that could take advantage of the one-drop (by incorporating more Pirates) rather than dealing with the not-great mana of RB aggro?

UB Tempo Pirates Pros: UB Tempo Pirates not only gets a lot of tricky disruption, with Siren Stormtamer, Kitesail Freebooter, Warkite Marauder, and Dire Fleet Poisoner all offering strange value and disruption attached to Pirate bodies, but also Hostage Taker and The Scarab God, which are both really powerful cards. Plus, being in black offers Fatal Push to answer Longtusk Cub and Vraska's Contempt to answer Hazoret the Fervent and The Scarab God along with Lookout's Dispersal as a catch-all, which makes UB Tempo Pirates the best Pirate deck for passing the two big tests in our current Standard format. 

UB Tempo Pirates Cons: UB Tempo Pirates is probably the slowest of all of the Pirate decks, so it doesn't pick up the free multiple one-drop wins that you occasionally get in RB Aggro Pirates or the fast, evasive clock of Favorable Pirates. It's also the least Pirate-y of the Pirate decks, with Lookout's Dispersal being the only card in the deck that really cares about Pirates (discounting Dire Fleet Poisoner, which is more like a removal spell than a creature in our deck).

Grixis Pirates Pros: Grixis Pirates gets all of the best Pirates from three colors along with Forerunner of the Coalition to tutor up the best Pirate for any given situation. Being Grixis also allows the deck to take advantage of Admiral Beckett Brass, which is a good Pirate payoff, especially as a one-of thanks to Forerunner of the Coalition's ability to tutor it up, which eliminates the downside of Admiral Beckett Brass being legendary. Being in all three colors also gives the deck access to a wide range of removal, with Fatal Push and Vraska's Contempt from black, Lightning Strike from red, and Lookout's Dispersal from blue. Basically, Grixis Pirates gets the best of all worlds as far as Pirates are concerned.

Grixis Pirates Cons: There are two big cons to Grixis Pirates. The first is that the mana is somewhat rough. Being in three colors means we have a lot of dual lands, which means it should function reasonably well, although as a rule, three-color mana is less consistent than two-color mana. The other con of Grixis Pirates is that it doesn't do any one thing especially well. RB Aggro Pirates, for example, is all-in on being aggressive and closing out the game quickly. Favorable Pirates is all about being evasive. UB Tempo Pirates is committed to being as tricky and disruptive as possible. Meanwhile, Grixis Pirates can be somewhat disruptive, occasionally fast, and slightly evasive, but it doesn't really have a solid identity. It's pretty much just an aggressive midrange list aided by some Pirate synergies. 

So, which Pirate list is best? Personally, I like UB Pirates with The Scarab God because it manages to be both consistent and powerful, although with the new additions from Rivals of Ixalan, Grixis Pirates looks like it has a lot of potential as well. Favorable Pirates and RB Pirates seem like really solid budget options, but they are less powerful in a vacuum than UB or Grixis Pirates, so just how good they end up being will depend heavily on which decks are popular in Rivals of Ixalan Standard. 

Dinosaurs

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Best New Additions: Thunderherd Migration, Cherished Hatchling, Ghalta, Primal Hunger, Tetzimoc, Primal Death, Thrashing Brontodon, Trapjaw Tyrant

The Dinosaurs in Rivals of Ixalan are oddly disappointing, at least from the perspective of Standard. While they got a handful of support pieces like Cherished Hatchling and Thrashing Brontodon and powerful but problematic finishers in Ghalta, Primal Hunger (which might end up being too win-more to really be competitive) and Tetzimoc, Primal Death (which is a strong card but not especially for Dinosaur tribal, since Dinosaurs are primarily Naya based), most of the Standard-playable Dinosaurs seem to be from Ixalan proper. However, Dinosaurs did get one card that will go a long way toward making the tribe more playable.

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Thunderherd Migration is probably the best reason to play Dinosaurs in all of Rivals of Ixalan Standard. While it sounds strange to be excited by a worse version of Rampant Growth, having a Turn 2 ramp spell that doesn't die to Fatal Push or Harnessed Lightning is a huge deal for the Dinosaur tribe, especially when that ramp spell doesn't make other decks better because it's only playable in Dinosaurs. 

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As such, my expectation is that Dinosaurs in Rivals of Ixalan Standard will look a lot like Dinosaurs in Ixalan Standard, except with Thunderherd Migration as the primary ramp spell, and this is fine. Dinosaurs were by far the most pushed tribe in Ixalan, which means they needed less from Rivals of Ixalan to be competitive in Standard. While being able to cast Ripjaw Raptor on Turn 3 into Regisaur Alpha on Turn 4 (while also blanking early-game removal) goes a long way, out of all of the tribes in Standard, Dinosaurs would benefit the most from Energy being banned.

The biggest problem with Dinosaurs is that they live in the same space as Energy, basically being a midrange deck with lots of powerful creatures, but they simply can't compete with the amount of synergy that Energy brings to the table. This means that, more so than the other tribes, which are different enough from Energy that they aren't directly competing, Dinosaurs most likely needs an Energy banning to really take off as a tier deck in Standard. While they were playable before and are probably slightly more playable now thanks primarily to Thunderherd Migration, I expect than when all is said and done, people will find that Dinosaur decks are still mostly just bad Energy decks, unless a straightforward Dino-ramp deck emerges in Rivals of Ixalan Standard. Anyway, our goal for today was to avoid talking too much about Energy, so here's where I'm starting for Dinosaurs in Rivals of Ixalan.

Considering that many of the best Dinosaurs from Rivals of Ixalan are pretty expensive, it seems likely that Deathgorge Scavenger, Ripjaw Raptor, Regisaur Alpha, and Carnage Tyrant will still be the foundation of Dinosaurs in Rivals of Ixalan Standard. Unless we splash into an additional color, it's hard to imagine that the midrange build of Dinosaurs will change much. It's possible that some sort of Dino-Zoo deck will emerge featuring cheaper Dinosaurs like Siegehorn Ceratops, Relentless Raptor, Rampaging Ferocidon, and Kinjalli's Sunwing, but trying to cast three colors of Dinosaurs over the first three turns of the game seems pretty challenging without delving into Attune with Aether and Aether Hub. Even if we could make it work, it's hard to imagine that casting Kinjalli's Sunwing and Relentless Raptor will be better than casting Whirler Virtuoso and Rogue Refiner, especially if we have to play energy cards to cast the Dinosaurs. However, there is one other build of Dinosaurs that probably isn't competitive but at least seems fun:

The basic idea of enrage combo is simple: we ramp a bunch and then use Forerunner of the Empire to tutor up Regisaur Alpha and Polyraptor. We get Regisaur Alpha onto the battlefield and then cast Polyraptor. When Polyraptor enters the battlefield, we ping everything with Forerunner of the Empire, which makes makes another copy of Polyraptor. When the copy enters, we ping everything again, making two more Polyraptors, and then we do it one more time, giving us a grand total of eight Polyraptors. Throughout this process, we probably killed most of our opponent's board by dealing three damage to everything, and since Regisaur Alpha gives all of our Dinosaurs haste, we simply attack with everything and win the game on the spot!

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Of course, this is more of an Against the Odds deck than a competitive Standard build. There are just too many pieces to assemble for it to be consistent enough to win a Grand Prix or anything along those lines, not to mention the fact that Polyraptor costs a massive eight mana, but even pulling off the combo just a single time and killing the opponent with 40 power of hasty Polyraptors out of nowhere would make just about any amount of losing worthwhile!

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. Hopefully, this gives you some ideas as far as brewing with Dinosaurs, Pirates, Merfolk, and Vampires in Rivals of Ixalan Standard. Rivals will be released on Magic Online in just under a week, so we'll be playing some of these decks on video soon! 

Which of the tribes are you most excited for in Rivals of Ixalan Standard? Which got the most support? Are there any other cool combos or synergies worth building around with Vampires, Merfolk, Dinosaurs, and Pirates? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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