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Tribal Update Report Double Feature: Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths & Commander 2020

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
Well, this is going to be a big one. I don’t know when we’re going to get our hands on these cards. The current pandemic has messed with Magic set release scheduling. After some consideration, I’m consolidating the reports for Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths and Commander 2020. Looking back on last year, Commander sets aren’t normally that big of a deal for us, and this one is thematically tied to Ikoria anyway. It looks like there will be more large sets in the future that come with smaller product releases associated with them. We already know that the next core set is going to be tied to a smaller special set called “Jumpstart.” And I remain uncertain as to how to approach future reports. However, I can already tell, as I start this report, that it was going to be a big one anyway. Even if I’d split the Commander stuff into a separate report, the one for the regular Ikoria set would be larger than normal. Rather than write a big report and immediately follow it up with a small report for the Commander set, especially knowing that we’ll probably have access to all of these cards at the same time anyway, I figure it’s best to just consolidate them into one even-bigger report. It will presumably be much longer than my other reports for this year. We’ll just get it out of the way. I blame the virus.

Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths takes us to a brand new plane, one full of monsters. Refreshingly, this set is themed around the “wedge” color combinations, known in this set as “triomes”, and centers them around the “enemy” color this time, which makes much more sense than the old way of doing this. So while the Sultai cards in the Tarkir Block used black as a core color with blue and green as support, the Zagoth cards in Ikoria use green as a core color, with blue and black as support. In practice, this is usually a very minor distinction. But it can matter, and I think that this way is better. Shouldn’t affect Tribal decks much, though.

This is a power-packed set for Tribal gameplay, but before I get into the tribes themselves, there’s a major issue, which has already had drastic effects on other formats, and which will undoubtedly continue to do so. With that in mind, it’s prudent to lead with something about the “Companion” mechanic. I don’t want to. I’d much rather talk about the contents of the set. But the mechanic isn’t going away. I know this next part is going to be too long, in a report that will already be unusually long. I’m sorry.

The Companion Digression
I’ve always tried to frame these reports as an advisory analysis to a hypothetical council, the people who’d be making the real decisions. I try to evaluate every pertinent detail that I can think of, and convert it into something I could confidently submit for consideration. We’d already stopped playing Tribal games at the CPA before I ever started writing these, so really it’s all just for fun. While I’ve never lost sight of that, I do try to take the premise of the format seriously. Generally, since this is all just in good fun anyway (or my twisted sense of it, anyway), I’m fine with throwing in my own remarks, joking about things I like or don’t like when it comes to tribes. But the more relevant a new card or mechanic is, the more it would mean a serious effect on our hypothetical tribal format, the more serious and dispassionate I try to be. Even though this stuff is all make-believe anyway, I want to present a sober, responsible analysis of what effects new sets have for Tribal gameplay. And now, for the first time, the implications of a new mechanic have circled all the way back around to the point where it’s impossible for me to honestly analyze things without talking about my own position. That’s why this is a digression.

This all started with Ring of Ma'rûf. When I was 13 years old, I bought a copy of Ring of Ma'rûf from a local game store for $20. It was one of the only Arabian Nights cards in my small collection, but it was my favorite card from the set. I was transfixed with the idea of being able to fetch any card in my collection from outside the game. At the time, my whole collection could fit in a shoebox, so bringing all of my cards with me and pulling out the one I wanted was a very real option (and I did as much at my after-school game club). This was probably about what Richard Garfield had in mind when he designed the card. But I also took other approaches. Ring of Ma'rûf only removed itself from the game “after use” and so I’d cast Boomerang (or use Obelisk of Undoing) to put it back in my hand in response to activating it. While errata did change that part, I tried to find ways around it anyway. This culminated in my “Relentless Pony” deck, which I think was the first deck that I built with help from the CPA. The idea was to make lots of token copies of Ring of Ma'rûf with an infinite loop and to put my entire Magic: the Gathering collection into my hand. I was really proud of it. Back then, the rules had no provision for stopping me from bringing ante cards in from outside the game, so I took advantage of that (not that it really mattered). And I’ll always remember using Opalescence to make 15 copies of Snowfall into 3/3 creatures and killing an opponent by attacking for 45 damage. Also relevant, albeit less frequent, was the ability of Ring of Ma'rûf to bring a card back into the game after it had been removed by some effect. If your creature had been hit by Swords to Plowshares, this was, for many years, the only way to get it back.

Although Ring of Ma'rûf was never cost-effective enough for competitive play, its function wasn’t really practical to allow in tournaments (official tournaments didn’t exist back when Richard Garfield designed the card). To address this, Wizards of the Coast didn’t modify the card itself, but imposed a rule on its then-unique effect: it could only be used on cards that were in your sideboard or cards that had been in your deck, but had been removed from the game. Later, the rules would formalize this with the removed-from-the-game zone. And of course, it laid the groundwork for other cards with similar effects. The first of these were the “Wish” spells in Judgment. Four out of five were successful in tournaments (Golden Wish is bad) and gave rise to the term “Wishboard” for decks that dedicate sideboard slots to Wish targets. Although the use of Burning Wish to reliably pull Yawgmoth’s Will from one’s sideboard was, for a time, deemed too powerful in Vintage, the Wish cards were otherwise reined in by only being able to grab cards from the sideboard and the removed-from-the-game zone. In casual games, things could get more hectic, but from what I’ve experienced and heard myself, this was rarely an issue. In theory, if I’m playing a non-tournament game of Magic in my house, I could use Cunning Wish to search for any instant card in my entire collection of Magic cards, but so what? I’m probably going to have one of a few specific targets in mind anyway, and it’d be more practical just to build what would look like a “Wishboard” anyway.

In 2009, Wizards of the Coast changed the rules so that suddenly none of these cards could pull cards from exile, the new replacement for the removed-from-the-game-zone. For tournament play, this change was minor because retrieving “exiled” cards had only ever been a backup usage for Wish spells, and sideboards were the main attraction. However, I never got over this change because it was effectively a power-level erratum on Ring of Ma'rûf. I was and am against this ruling. The original five Wish cards and a couple of other versions (Glittering Wish and half of the split card Research//Development) were originally designed with the full understanding that in tournament play they would be able to target cards in sideboards or cards in the removed-from-the-game zone. Pull from Eternity and Riftsweeper were deliberately templated differently, and this was reflected in how cheap they were. While nerfing the Wish cards was unnecessary and inconsistent with the philosophy of, where possible, allowing cards to function as originally intended, it’s not nearly as egregious as doing the same thing to Ring of Ma'rûf: the original printed text on the card makes it explicitly clear that it’s supposed to be able to work on a card in what would become known as the “exile zone.” It may be an archaic phraseology for Magic rules today, but it’s not remotely ambiguous. To add insult to injury, Wizards of the Coast would go on to make new cards that did have the same type of function they took away from Ring of Ma'rûf, those being Coax from the Blind Eternities and Karn, the Great Creator. How rude.

Yes, I just wrote multiple paragraphs about something only tangential to the Companion mechanic, and you’re probably thinking it’s irrelevant and silly. Well, it’s kind of a full disclosure sort of thing. I am emotionally invested in what I see as an affront, but it’s something most people, probably including you, don’t think about at all. The vast majority of Magic players do not care that Ring of Ma'rûf was changed. If pressed, they might have one opinion or another about the nuances of the exile zone and the history of rules changes there, but it certainly doesn’t bother them. It bothers me. I am weird. I recognize that I’m highly unusual in this respect. And now that we come to the Companion mechanic, I have to emphasize that I’m biased. The mechanic has already caused problems, and we’ll come to that, but my personal take on it is colored by my own weird obsession with this whole issue of how WotC treats “outside the game” in the rules. Whatever your thoughts on Companion, for or against it, your response might not be as vehement, as annoyed, as mine. If you weren’t disgusted with the printing of Coax from the Blind Eternities because it was a reminder of a past offense, then your objection to Companion cards just isn’t going to be as severe as mine. And when I report on the implications of the Companion mechanic on Tribal gameplay I want to temper my evaluation and set aside my own prejudice. But it’s hard!

The Ikoria companion cards are the first cards that bring themselves in from outside the game. And this means that other than the deckbuilding restrictions each companion imposes, there’s no reason not to use whichever one is best for your deck if your deck can use it. The first question to ask is: “Does the deckbuilding limitation outweigh the benefits of the companion?” At the time I write this, while the physical set has yet been released, MTGO data already indicates that for top decks in every major competitive format, the answer is often a strong affirmative. Also, we see that different individual companions perform well in different environments. Notably, in the Brawl and Commander formats, one of these cards has been preemptively banned. Other bans may follow, but it’s too early to know how this will turn out.

In the Canadian Highlander format, which is organized by its own community and isn’t tied to WotC, they stipulate that sideboards are not used and that “outside the game” cards do not function. The Commander format used a similar rule, but Wizards of the Coast intervened to specify that companions were an exception. Canadian Highlander doesn’t recognize this exception. I haven’t been following other popular community-governed formats, but they might handle this in different ways. I’ve never really been happy with Magic formats just making rules that Ring of Ma'rûf and cards like it don’t work. Ring of Ma'rûf is older than any of those formats! It’s part of the game. Allowing the official tournament “sideboard” modification is fine.

I don’t think that we’ve ever formally addressed the issue of sideboards or “from outside the game” effects for Tribal games at the CPA. So far, we’ve just let them work in the default way for casual games. I forget how often they’ve been used, but there was one time when Mooseman had Burning Wish in his Dwarf Tribal deck and used it to grab Apocalypse from outside the game!

I have to acknowledge that “Wish” cards are pretty ridiculously flexible if no limits are imposed on them, such as setting up a sideboard. Still I don’t feel motivated to advocate for limiting these cards to their tournament functionality for a casual format. And even if we did that, it wouldn’t address the issue of companions anyway, because each deck can only have one companion.

My personal preference would almost be to give in to frustration and just ban the Companion mechanic from working. The individual cards are fine, if they’re in a maindeck. It’s being able to cast them from outside the game that’s the problem. But I wouldn’t want to go down the road of just ignoring aspects of Magic that I don’t like, or of imposing houserules that cancel out what WotC has done. I strongly believe that this mechanic is a horrible mistake. But it’s a mistake that we’ll just have to live with. One solution might be to ban the companions that are problematic. I’ve given the matter some thought, and I won’t be advocating for a ban on any companions at this time. But I am very wary of them. There are ten companions, one for each of the two-color combinations. Because they use hybrid mana, they could fit into a deck that uses either of their colors. Data from other formats shows that different companions flourish in different environments. I can’t think of anything that completely rules out any of them for Tribal gameplay, although some are more obviously viable than others. For instance, Umori pretty much rules out support spells for a Tribal deck, which seems harsh. Meanwhile, Lutri gets most of the way toward the format imposing its restriction on decks anyway if one is using the CPA Tribal Lowlander deckbuilding rules.

Out of the ten companions, the one that stands out for Tribal usage is Kaheera, the Orphanguard. It has synergies with cats, elementals, nightmares, dinosaurs, and beasts. I’d imagine that it basically becomes a default companion for almost any deck in any of those tribes. It would seem that all five of those tribes receive a substantial boost.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
New Tribes
Otter: Three cards. So this defaults to Tier 7 for now. Although fans of these furry little vermin can’t really play them as a proper tribe, it shouldn’t matter too much. The two interesting ones are both elementals, so you can just play Elemental Tribal. The other otter doesn’t fit into another tribe, but it is a functional reprint of Stealer of Secrets, so you’re not missing out.

Shark: This is technically the return of a formerly defunct creature type, as Giant Shark was printed as “Summon Shark” originally, and was made a fish through an erratum. What they’ve done is introduce three new cards with the “Shark subtype” as well as restoring Giant Shark to have the subtype, and furthermore retroactively changed four existing fish to now be sharks instead. There are a total of eight members of the Shark Tribe, which is probably Tier 6, although it arguably has enough decent cards to break into Tier 5. Also, this means Fish Tribal loses those cards, if that matters.

New additions to existing tribes
Antelope: One new card. The tribe is still bad.

Ape: Two new cards. They’d be unremarkable in a stronger tribe, but they might be fine here. One has a Human Tribal synergy, which is weird and probably doesn’t matter.

Assassin: Two new cards. I don’t think either makes the cut.

Badger: One new card. At long last, the fifth member of the Badger Tribe has been printed, and now Badger Tribal can abandon Tier 7 and rise to the lofty heights of Tier 6. In other words, the tribe is still bad.

Bat: One new card. Dirge Bat is overall of a higher power level than most bats, but its Mutate ability is awkward for a Bat Tribal deck to actually use. Still, I could see Bat Tribal adopting this guy.

Bear: One new card. It has a Human Tribal synergy, so it’s not much help here.

Beast: Twenty-seven new cards. Yikes. Many of these use the set’s brand new mechanics of “keyword counters” and “Mutate.” I am uncertain how strong those mechanics might be in Tribal multiplayer. Because it’s already so strong, Beast Tribal is a likely home for a deck with Kaheera as a Companion. Just having access to Kaheera might not seem like anything gamebreaking for a tribe that is already in a competitive position, but keep in mind that this isn’t just access, but guaranteed (nearly) free access without taking up a card slot, which is stupidly good. And some of these other new beasts are powerful cards too. This seems like a big deal.

Bird: Ten new cards. A lot of these are weird combinations of birds and other animals, which doesn’t really change anything for the purposes of Bird Tribal. The issue that Bat Tribal has with this set applies here as well: you probably don’t need to mutate a flying creature onto another flying creature. The mechanic might be fine in another format, but wasted here. There might be something of interest here, but I don’t think that it’s a huge change, unless you decide to use Yorion as a Companion, which really might work.

Brushwagg: One new card. Although this card is extremely mighty, Brushwagg Tribal remains Tier 7 by default. Just you wait, though.

Cat: Nineteen new cards. Most of these are duds, but a few are extremely strong (Kaheera, for one) and likely to be new flagship cards for the tribe. Cat Tribal is in an awkward spot because it had enough things going for it that I couldn’t justify leaving it in Tier 3 in my preliminary report. And this set gives it some great new tools, but Tier 2 has some tribes that make Cat Tribal seem still kind of puny. Also, the new stuff has nothing to do with the equipment theme that a strong Cat Tribal deck is probably leaning on, although the Mutate cards could synergize with that.

Cleric: Four new cards. Cleric Tribal is probably a bad place to try and make non-Human synergies work, and they’re a prominent feature on these new cards.

Crab: One new card. It’s mediocre.

Demon: Two new cards. Both are unique and offer powerful effects. Although its Companion requirement is probably too harsh, Gyruda is a strong card anyway. The new cards likely have no impact, but I wouldn’t rule them out.

Dinosaur: Eighteen new cards. These are likely to contribute some flexibility to Dinosaur Tribal decks. We’ve got the same problem here that was seen with Cat Tribal: it was already Tier 2 and already lags behind some of the big players in that tier. The new stuff is nice, but doesn’t change that.

Dragon: One new card. It doesn’t really fit the playstyle of a Dragon Tribal deck. However, it is such a strong card that people might try it out anyway.

Druid: Four new cards. And they’re pretty good too. Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy is stupidly powerful and a definite boon to this tribe, assuming that it bothers to splash blue.

Egg: One new card, but it’s tied completely to the Mutate mechanic, which doesn’t seem like something that could be worked into an Egg Tribal deck. After all, there aren’t any eggs that have Mutate.

Elemental: Nineteen new cards. Not only are some of them pretty good, but this tribe is uniquely positioned to try some Companion option. Kaheera isn’t an elemental, but has an elemental synergy. Jegantha is an elemental and its deckbuilding restriction probably gets fulfilled in a five-color deck anyway. Lutri is a very real consideration. And Zirda is also an elemental, although its deckbuilding restriction probably rules it out.

Elephant: One new card. Draft chaff.

Elk: Three new cards. They’re not bad, but they’re also not good enough to make Elk Tribal a serious threat.

Faerie: One new card. Good card, too. If a Faerie Tribal deck is running red, this probably makes it in. But that seems unlikely.

Fish: One new card. It seems like there must be a use for this guy, although I can’t think of it.

Fox: Four new cards. It feels like they’re all over the place. One has a Cycling synergy, one has Mutate, and one is a Companion that cares about activated abilities. Oh, and one is a colorless non-artifact creature that tutors for a basic land? Weird. Fox Tribal was pretty bad before and one of these probably improves the tribe. I’m just too lazy to figure out which one.

Frog: One new card. Mutate synergy on a creature in a tribe that has no Mutate creatures. Same problem Egg Tribal has with this set.

Fungus: One new card. I really like it, although I don’t know how well it’ll work in practice, nor whether a Fungus Tribal deck can take advantage of Boneyard Mycodrax.

Giant: One new card. It’s a weird one, but potentially quite useful.

Goat: Two new cards. I don’t think that this tribe is viable.

Gremlin: One new card. Although I can’t really think of a fun and productive way to make Gremlin Tribal work, the new addition is probably a fine option.

Hellion: One new card. It has a Companion option, but that option would rule out Crater Hellion, which just seems wrong (Crater Hellion is one of the stronger cards in this tribe). Still, it just might work. And most members of the tribe do have odd mana costs.

Hippo: One new card, and again, there’s a Companion option. Even though the only hippo that doesn’t work with Keruga is Pygmy Hippo, this tribe is so miserably weak that it doesn’t even matter.

Horror: Two new cards. Neither one really contributes enough for the tribe.

Hound: One new card. Part of its function is locked away in its partner, which isn’t necessarily a problem for a Tribal deck. It’s weird and a totally different approach for Hound Tribal, but it might work.

Human: Forty-eight new cards. I think. At some point, it gets tricky to count them all without making sure I didn’t accidentally include any reprints. Oh wait, Scryfall has a flag for that now? I just scroll through and find the “reprint” option and then switch it to “not” and, let’s see, yep, 48. So glad that I counted them all manually first, just so I could have that experience. Anyway, humans are so ridiculously overpowered at this point that they don’t need help, and yet this set just might give them top-tier options anyway. In fact, you could probably build a Human Tribal deck that’s just legendary creatures and lands and it’d still beat the crap out of most tribes.

Hydra: Two new cards. Potential big mana options, and that’s kind of what hydras were about anyway. The relevant question is whether Hydra Tribal wants to run black. I suspect that the answer is probably yes.

Hyena: One new card. It’s all set to become the flagship creature for this tribe, once the tribe has enough membership to enter Tier 6.

Insect: Five new cards. While I’m a little hazy on what an Insect Tribal deck would probably look like, these new cards seem to be very strong additions. I don’t know which ones are likeliest to see play, but basically all of these rares look amazing. And the commons are fine, just probably not potent enough for what’s already a deep tribe.

Jellyfish: One new card. It’s weird, but then the whole tribe was already weird. Maybe someone can think of a good use for this?

Kraken: One new card. It’s Companion, if that matters. Since it’s also a demon, that’s probably a better bet.

Leech: One new card. Draft chaff.

Leviathan: Two new cards. One is based around the Mutate mechanic. The other is some super-weird build-around thing obviously meant with Commander in mind.

Lizard: Three new cards, which continue the general Lizard Tribal problem of a lack of focus.

Mole: One new card. This remains a Tier 7 tribe by default. Also, it’s kind of weird how the two creatures in Magic that are moles are a 2/4 and a 3/3 when real moles are all tiny.

Monkey: One new card. Monkey Tribal is still pretty much worthless.

Nightmare: Twenty-five new cards. Remember when Nightmare Tribal was Tier 5? Well, these guys were already getting pushed over the past year or so, and this set takes that to another level. Congratulations, Nightmare Tribal.

Octopus: One new card. This is the cheapest octopus so far, and it’s pretty good.

Ooze: One new card. It’s a Companion, but it’s the worst one, and I don’t think it helps Ooze Tribal.

Pangolin: One new card. Tribe is still Tier 7.

Phoenix: Two new cards. Their abilities are synergies for two separate mechanics in the new set, and that might not be applicable to Phoenix Tribal in general.

Rhino: One new card. Probably fine in a Rhino Tribal deck that happens to run red already.

Rogue: Two new cards. Possible applications, although they’re a bit weird..

Scout: Two new cards. They’re not bad.

Scorpion: One new card. It doesn’t look like much, but actually helps shore up one of the problems Scorpion Tribal has. The tribe is still weak, but it just got a bit of help.

Serpent: One of them is a Companion, but that aspect isn’t particularly relevant to Serpent Tribal. I’m a bit torn on this one. Serpent Tribal was already so bad that the new cards are probably fine. On the other hand, these new cards don’t do anything that really helps the tribe or fix its problems.

Shaman: Two new cards. They’re legendary and probably only likely to be run as single copies, at best. Shaman Tribal might not bother with these guys, although a creature that pings opponents and gets bigger whenever you discard a card could be especially powerful.

Shapeshifter: One new card. Interesting, but unreliable.

Snake: Two new cards. Neither one is helpful here.

Soldier: Fourteen new cards. They’re not bad, but several of them have Human Tribal synergies, which is awkward for us.

Spider: One new card. And it’s a Mutate card, so it doesn’t really do much for the tribe.

Squirrel: One new card. In case you’ve forgotten, despite the existence of some awesome cards that make squirrel tokens, there aren’t actually enough real squirrel cards for this tribe to work.

Trilobite: One new card. Trilobite Tribal just needs one more member to get promoted to Tier 6.

Turtle: Two new cards. One is vanilla draft chaff. The other has an interesting and unique new ability, but I don’t think the ability fits especially well into Turtle Tribal.

Unicorn: Two new cards. One uses Ikoria’s Cycling theme and the other uses Ikoria’s Mutate theme. Unicorn Tribal remains terribly disjointed and bad.

Warlock: One new card. Warlock Tribal continues to be remarkably deficient. I’m a bit baffled at what WotC is going for here. On the one hand, they seem to have fully embraced this vision of warlocks as the black spellcaster creature type, so that each color gets its own primary spellcaster type (Cleric for white, Wizard for blue, Shaman for red, Druid for green). On the other hand, it’s like they’re deliberately avoiding giving this type the tools to function in any way as its own thing. For a change to the game that was made relatively recently and with clear determination, it’s strange that they seem so keen on ensuring that the change never matters.

Warrior: Ten new cards. Some of them look pretty good. All of them are also humans, but both tribes are extremely strong and flexible anyway, so take your pick. Under my proposals, Human Tribal is Tier 1 and Warrior Tribal is Tier 2, so if Tier 1 tribes are banned, you’d be wanting to use these new guys in Warrior Tribal instead.

Whale: Three new cards. The new releases give Whale Tribal a 50% increase in overall membership, for whatever that’s worth. Better still, two of them are three-drops, the cheapest whales so far. And the third has Delve. It also has a unique ability to let you reuse instants and sorceries that were exiled by it, which seems like it might actually be pretty strong for reusing strong blue support spells, especially in lower tier Tribal competition.

Wizard: Seven new cards. A few of them are interesting, but not really useful to Tribal applications. I wouldn’t rule them out completely, but I’d lean toward very low impact, and possibly none.

Wolf: Two new cards. One uses a Human Tribal synergy and the other has an awkward colored mana cost for a typical Wolf Tribal deck. Unfortunately, I don’t think these guys help the tribe.

Wolverine: One new card. It’s a bit stronger than older wolverines and incidentally synergizes with the sort of combat-oriented buff spells that Wolverine Tribal would already be using anyway, like Giant Growth or Brute Force. The new wolverine probably just outright replaces slots formerly taken by Wolverine Pack or Grizzled Wolverine, as it’s pretty much an upgrade if you’re running instants and sorceries.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
New Tribal synergies to look out for
Dire Tactics: Just to make sure that Human Tribal gets more options for efficient support spells than any other tribe, since it already has more options for creatures.

Kaheera, the Orphanguard: This comes with a whopping five tribal synergies, only two of which correspond to its own creature types. For a particular person building a particular Tribal deck, it’s likely that four of those synergies won’t matter. But the card is almost certainly good enough to use alongside any of those tribes, even in a maindeck slot. As a Companion, it’s even more bonkers.

Molten Echoes: A strong consideration in any red-heavy Tribal deck so long as that deck isn’t based around tokens or legendary creatures.

Sanctuary Lockdown: Yet another card for Human Tribal. It’s probably not quite good enough to bother running in such a powerful tribe, but it is an option. Human Tribal can make a lot of tokens if it wants to, and having all of your creatures tapped right before the Human Tribal player untaps and then attacks with a boosted team sounds like a bad time.

Silvar, Devourer of the Free: Oh look, it’s another Human Tribal synergy. This one partners with a human too, so if you draw either one you can fetch the other. Aren’t humans fun?

Species Specialist: This potent card gets a Tribal synergy for whatever creature type you want. Worth considering in any black-heavy deck.

Overall set analysis
I’ve already rambled about the Companion mechanic in a dedicated section, so let’s just set that aside and consider everything else. After all, we have 289 other new cards to consider here. And the thematic style of Ikoria is unique, presenting some real potential for Tribal formats. Yes, Theros is a world with “monsters” as a kind of theme, but it specifically focuses on monsters inspired by Greek mythology. Ikoria is something new.

This strikes me as a high-impact set, both for Tribal aspects and just for Magic in general. Furthermore, the report for Commander 2020 was probably going to be more substantial than its counterpart for last year, and then the pandemic messes with things and motivated me to consolidate it with another, much bigger report. As I type this, the official release hasn’t happened yet. For my part, I am scheduled to pick up my preorders for both sets on the same day. It’s two new sets, but it kind of feels like one big one.

It’s not all potent Tribal fuel. The Mutate mechanic might be fine in other environments, but no tribe has enough Mutate creatures to make it a strong theme, so the whole mechanic is probably irrelevant to us. A lot of this stuff seems to Commander-specific to translate well to a 60-card format. The new take on Cycling might be slightly more applicable in Tribal formats, but it’s not that impressive either. Keyword counters might be of interest, although I don’t think they’ll matter in higher tiers of Tribal gameplay.

Human Tribal gets some enticing new tools, and it was arguably already the strongest tribe in existence even before this release. But there’s also a new theme, tied closely to the flavor of this set, of partnership between human and non-human creatures. Several cards benefit in some way from a player having both human and non-human creatures, representing the “bonders” from Ikoria. Because this is a novel mechanic with a quasi-Tribal character to it, I’m not sure how to evaluate it. Constructing a deck to have enough humans and enough non-humans to take advantage of these new cards within a Tribal format seems easily possible. It’s just a question of whether it’s worth it.

The real point of interest here is just the deluge of superior creatures. Tribes that felt deprecated or incomplete get new powerhouse cards that will either complement or supplant the old stuff they’d been using before. Support spells are fine, but the creatures definitely take the spotlight this time around. Maybe I’m mentally downplaying prior sets, but moreso than in any of my reports, this seems like a set in which Wizards of the Coast pushed the things that they wanted to push and didn’t push the things that they didn’t want to push. So if your favorite tribe or playstyle was on their nice list, you benefit. If they weren’t interested in the stuff you like, you lose out even worse than normal.

Winners and losers for this set? Tier adjustments?
Winners might be…
  • Beasts
  • Cats
  • Dinosaurs
  • Druids
  • Elementals
  • Foxes
  • Humans
  • Hydras
  • Insects
  • Nightmares
  • Octopuses
  • Scouts
  • Scorpions
  • Shamans
  • Warriors
  • Whales
  • Wolverines
Unlike Theros, Ikoria wasn’t already an established world with expectations that certain tribes might get new toys. Reviewing my previous reports, I’ve been using “Losers” with considerable trepidation and have kind of used it as a “missed opportunities” category. And Ikoria presents a different situation compared to the other new sets I’ve reported on. When I wrote my report on War of the Spark, I noted that the term was a bit murky because no tribes actually lost members with the release of the set. Rather, there had been tribes that didn’t gain anything or ones that gained untenable options and might be likely not to gain anything else for a while. For these two new sets, there’s one tribe that did noticeably lose members, and a category of tribes that all missed out. Let’s tackle the easy one first.
  • Fish were already pretty bad. The new fish/shark split stripped the tribe of 5 existing cards and also caused them to lose out on 3 new ones.
That’s certainly not the first time a tribe had cards taken away from it because of some redefinition imposed by WotC, but it is the first time I can remember it happening since I started writing these set reports last year. The overall effect is minor and we can hope that perhaps this tribe split might someday give prospective Tribal deckbuilders more options to work with. As for the more typical “losers” for a new set, Ikoria does stand out in a way. Each world has its “people” creature types. Some, such as elves, show up on most planes. Others, such as vedalken, only show up on certain planes. The ones that get reused a lot tend to be the ones that have the strong Tribal deckbuilding options. Rare kinds of “people” have less to work with, although sometimes they are able to exploit a theme that makes them interesting for Tribal decks. For the setting of Ikoria, WotC emphasized the concept of humans struggling to adapt and survive in a world full of monsters. Consequently, humans get special attention and other “people” types, even the ones that are extremely common across the multiverse, just don’t show up at all. This means that for these two sets, we get no new...
  • Aetherborn
  • Azra
  • Centaurs
  • Cephalids
  • Dauthi
  • Dwarves
  • Elves
  • Goblins
  • Homarids
  • Kithkin
  • Kor
  • Merfolk
  • Moonfolk
  • Orcs
  • Soltari
  • Thalakos
  • Vampires
  • Vedalken
  • Zombies
Some of those are rare enough that they probably don’t warrant mention. And I may have forgotten some other obscure ones. But the point is, none of these tribes get a chance. They’re off-theme for Ikoria.

As for Tier list adjustments, I have some reservations about doing them. I’d been planning on skipping them when I started this report. I always envisioned the Tier lists as something that should be fine-tuned with feedback. This has little to do with Tribal interests, but I happened to peruse some of my own old CPA posts recently and I was taken aback by how egregiously I overstated the efficacy of some cards. I don’t mean that I think I was crazy or stupid, but I do think that some of those opinions should have been reined in. And I know that I am overestimating some tribes. I just don’t know which ones! I’m not complaining and I’m not asking anyone to perform the arduous task of slogging through all 251 creature types to figure out which ones I might have overestimated or underestimated. But I had the notion that I’d let those Tier lists sit for a while without looking at them, that returning to them after some time had passed would give me a fresh perspective. It always turns out to be the case that most of the changes to Tribal power level are within tiers. Cats might have gotten a boost from the Ikoria content, so now they’re better within Tier 2. Are they better than angels? Probably. Can they compete with vampires? I think so. Are they quite on the same level as slivers? Well, maybe not, but they could hold their own. But that’s a far cry from promoting them to the broken realm of goblins, elves, and merfolk. I could leave the Tiers in place for several reports, then recommend adjustments later on.

But I changed my mind. For how profound the new releases are likely to be in Tribal formats, most of the tribes that see substantial gains were already Tier 2. It would take a lot to promote any of the Tier 2 tribes to Tie 1, and even Ikoria doesn’t do that much. But just reviewing my own analysis here I can spot two sensible Tier promotions. Maybe next time I’ll switch my approach. For now, I’ll recommend adjustments.
  • Nightmare Tribal should be promoted to Tier 3. I started them out in Tier 5 and then promoted them to Tier 4 because of their new options in Core Set 2020. I thought that promotion might have been too generous, but here I am bumping them up again.
  • Whale Tribal should be promoted to Tier 5. They’re still bad, but they just got most of their best options out of Ikoria, and they’re now technically a functional tribe.
Ban list update recommendations
See “The Companion Digression” above. I have serious misgivings about the Companion mechanic, and it’s hard to analyze the potential distortion they provide in a casual multiplayer setting. After how many multiplayer games do you become fed-up with Beast Tribal always having access to a creature that boosts the whole team with +1/+1 and Vigilance? How much better does it make Beast Tribal for them to get that level of consistency? As casual players, we’re naturally going to appreciate raw power. That doesn’t necessarily translate very well when trying to assess something that is moderate power with 100% reliability.

I remain wary of this whole Companion issue, but cannot bring myself to advocate banning any of them yet.

Conclusion
Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and Commander 2020 are powerful sets, both in general and for Tribal gameplay. This is a huge Tribal shakeup, one that rivals Modern Horizons. If you’re building a Tribal deck around a creature type that was represented in these sets, I’d recommend taking a close look at your new options.

Humans might have already been the strongest tribe anyway, although they’ve always had competition for that spot. If these new releases don’t push them over the top, I don’t know what would. They’re in a fantastic spot. Other major developments come in the form of substantial boosts to Tier 2 tribes that had been lagging behind the foremost options in that tier. Beasts, Cats, Elementals, and Insects are all looking a lot better than they were earlier this year. And let’s not forget that Nightmares are essentially a totally different tribe than they were when I released my initial report back in January of last year.

Companion is an issue and I don’t know how to respond to that issue, despite how many times I’ve brought it up. The other new mechanics, with the exception of Keyword counters, mostly don’t affect Tribal gameplay, oddly enough. But the powerful new cards make up for that.

Mostly, I just want to play with Godzilla cards!
 

Mooseman

Isengar Tussle
there was one time when Mooseman had Burning Wish in his Dwarf Tribal deck and used it to grab Apocalypse from outside the game!
I did have a sideboard for that game, since it is necessary in tourney play... and well.... I did judge that stuff, so I always have a sideboard in decks that have any kind of out of game mechanic.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
Impressed that you remembered! I guess it makes some sense that Apocalypse would have been in your wishboard there. I contend that even if you'd never built a wishboard at all and had just picked any legal sorcery, we'd all have been fine with it.

But that does raise the question. Should Tribal games employ sideboards for usage with "Wish" cards and companions?
 

Mooseman

Isengar Tussle
But that does raise the question. Should Tribal games employ sideboards for usage with "Wish" cards and companions?
Since all our games are on the honor system, i'd say you should build a sideboard for all constructed games that you may have a chance to get cards from "outside of game".

Oh, I remembered that, I like to do things in multiplayer games that make everyone go "ugh".
 
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