Tribal Update Report: Theros Beyond Death

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
Last year was pretty crazy about pushing the power level of Magic sets. We’ll see what 2020 brings, and that all starts with Theros Beyond Death. As usual, I’ll be analyzing the theoretical impact of this set on “Tribal” constructed Magic gameplay. My primary vision for this is some kind of 60-card, relatively open format, but with casual decks built around creature types competing against other decks built around creature types. A lot of cards in this set are going to be making waves in highly competitive duels, in Commander, etc. But this is all inspired by our CPA Tribal games, which were themselves inspired by the defunct “Tribal Wars” on Magic Online. The exact role of a new card could vary dramatically depending on setting, but my hope is to capture a general sense for what tools Theros Beyond Death brings to the table when it comes to “Tribal” decks.

As of this time, my reports are to an entirely fictional “Tribal Council.” You’re on it. It’s really just anyone interested in this sort of thing. On with the report!

As an initial view of this set, I’ll point out that the world of Theros was explored, in greater detail, when it got a full block of three sets, the last of which was released around six years ago. So we have some prior experience here and the expectation that tribes appropriate to Greek mythology will get some more help than they might in a set that takes place on another plane. For those who don’t remember, Theros Block reintroduced the Nymph tribe to the game and gave rise to new creature types in God and Sable. It featured, to some extent, hydras, krakens, demons, minotaurs, satyrs, centaurs, giants, humans, gorgons, pegasus, unicorns, and sirens. Don’t ask me why WotC thought krakens were Greek, because I have no idea. Anyway, we could probably expect to see more representation for some of those tribes in this new set.

New Tribes
Demigod: Exactly five new cards: one in each color. Each synergizes with its own color through the Devotion mechanic. So while the individual cards are not bad, the nature of these cards is such that of an anti-synergy when it comes to Tribal gameplay. Demigods are a “nonbo” to reuse some nearly-forgotten Magic slang. Therefore, this tribe is Tier 7.

Tentacle: A new type of token made by a single card in this set. By default, this creature type is Tier 8.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
New additions to existing tribes
Advisor: Two new cards. They’re mediocre and unlikely to influence much.

Archer: One new card. It uses the “Constellation” mechanic, which isn’t something Archer Tribal is particularly good at utilizing.

Archon: Two new cards. This tribe continues to get weirder in terms of what a deck might look like. One of the new cards is both a “Constellation” card and a card with a synergy for a different tribe, but it makes tokens of that tribe. Because Archon Tribal is already rather weak and awkward, these new cards might actually have a niche.

Artificer: One new card. While it isn’t a game-changer, a blue/red Artificer Tribal deck would very probably use at least one copy of this card, just because it makes mana that can be used on artifacts.

Beast: Three new cards. They don’t make the cut in such a potent tribe.

Berserker: Two new cards. There’s some possible incremental improvement here, mostly because both abilities on Blood Aspirant seem like they could have strong potential.

Bird: Two new cards. Probably not changing anything for Bird Tribal.

Boar: One new card. Everyone’s favorite rising star of a tribe from last year gets another item in its toolbox. It’s a five-drop, so it’s not what Boar Tribal really needs at this point to reach to the next level, but it’s probably worth playing.

Cat: Three new cards. Of these, only Bronzehide Lion shows much promise, but that one card is extremely potent and a definite consideration for improving Cat Tribal.

Centaur: Five new cards. Possible considerations. None of them really do anything special to make Centaur Tribal better.

Chimera: Five new cards. The tribe has come a long way since the days when Al0ysiusHWWW and I were playing with the original Visions chimeras. A couple of these could easily see play in Chimera Tribal, but they’re not so impressive as to promote the tribe to a higher tier or really make it stand out. Treeshaker Chimera could be a nice late game tool.

Cleric: Five new cards. Most of them actually seem fine, but the tribe is already so strong that I don’t think the new cards make the cut.

Cyclops: Two new cards, but they’re mediocre.

Demon: Three new cards. Two of them are outclassed by older stuff, but it’s possible that Nightmare Shepherd could be a powerhouse in the right deck.

Dragon: One new card. WotC believes that they are obligated to include a red dragon in every set because their market research shows them that dragons are popular. Usually, this dragon-of-the-set in a world where dragons don’t actually fit is uninspired and makes for a lousy bulk rare no one cares about. Exceptions to this rule have included Glorybringer and Balefire Dragon. Terror of Mount Velus is not one of the exceptions.

Druid: Two new cards. While they’re not great for Druid Tribal, they’re probably fine in some other archetypes in other formats. Skola Grovedancer could be a fun lifegain engine in a Loam deck or something.

Elder: Two new cards and a whole lot of commentary about WotC leaving this as seemingly two cards out of an incomplete possible cycle of five cards. The implications of these two new cards for Elder Tribal are tricky to evaluate. Previously, I’ve noted that because elders are always so expensive, a deck based around them would necessarily be cheating them onto the battlefield. And because they’re always legendary, such a deck would have to be flexible enough not to care about reliably having access to specific creatures. While the new additions are legendary, they’re a bit strange when it comes to cost. They’re relatively cheap, but die as a triggered ability if they entered the battlefield without “escaping.” A self-milling deck with a bunch of the elder dragons and dinosaurs as reanimation targets just might work, and I guess such a deck would also hope to use the “Escape” mechanic on these new giants in the process, which just might be viable.

Elemental: Four new cards. Elementals have myriad options already and a new card has to do something pretty special to warrant consideration in an Elemental Tribal deck, but Nyxbloom Ancient just might have what it takes.

Fish: Two new cards. I saw both already and didn’t find either remarkable, but thinking about it now, these guys are a boon to Fish Tribal. Here’s why: the pool of options in Fish Tribal is surprisingly shallow and the tribe isn’t particularly strong on either offense or defense. The best option for the tribe is to use its creatures as utility, protection, and support in a blue control deck that ultimately overpowers opponents on some angle they aren’t prepared to tackle. Blue control decks use a lot of instants. The two new fish are both pretty cheap and both synergize with instants.

Giant: Eight new cards. I don’t think this substantially improves the tribe, but I might be underestimating the new legendary titans (same ones that could contribute to Elder Tribal).

God: Seven new cards. While they seem fine and might even include some of the better gods, the fundamental awkwardness of the “Devotion” requirements and the legendary status of the most efficient ones.

Gorgon: Two new cards, but both are four-drops in a tribe that really needs coverage on the lower end of the mana curve. No impact.

Griffin: One new card. Its ability isn’t great for Griffin Tribal, but the card is a two-drop, which is helpful.

Harpy: Three new cards. While I wouldn’t expect Harpy Tribal to become a powerhouse anytime soon, this set does provide a couple of decent options, and decent options are a huge boon to a weak tribe like this one.

Horror: One new card. While Woe Strider doesn’t seem especially useful for Horror Tribal, it is a sacrifice outlet that can be played from the graveyard, which might be of interest to some combo deck in another format.

Horse: Two new cards. They’re not remarkable and don’t really help the tribe.

Hound: Two new cards. The deficiencies of Hound Tribal remain the same as before. Possible marginal improvement, though.

Human: Thirty-one new cards. I don’t see anything so obnoxiously broken that it slots into Human Tribal, but I might be wrong.

Hydra: Two new cards. Viable options, I think. There are already good hydras for comparable mana costs, so maybe the newcomers won’t make the cut.

Insect: One new card. It’s a good one, but probably not quite good enough to make it into an Insect Tribal deck.

Kraken: Two new cards. The previous Theros Block breathed life into Kraken Tribal. While this set won’t see them take over, it’s notable that Nadir Kraken synergizes very nicely with cantrips. As a three-drop with a useful ability, it would probably be good in Kraken Tribal no matter what, but this ability has a very high ceiling. As long as you have mana and you’re drawing cards, the kraken keeps growing and you keep getting more tentacles.

Lamia: One new card. This tribe remains Tier 7 by default. Ask me again in thirty or forty years and maybe Lamia Tribal could be a thing.

Manticore: One new card. As a three-drop, this is the cheapest manticore so far, which automatically makes it an improvement for the tribe.

Merfolk: Seven new cards. A few of these seem pretty good, just not really the sort of thing Merfolk Tribal is looking for.

Minotaur: Eight new cards, including a much-needed two-drop. Minotaur Tribal is still a bit awkward, but it’s gotten a bit better with this set.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
Nightmare: Three new cards. While Underworld Charger is bland draft chaff, the other two could easily be positioned for roles in Nightmare Tribal.

Nymph: Five new cards. One in each color, which reflects the problem they had before this set. Their abilities are all over the place. Because Nymph Tribal is so bad, one or two of these new cards probably are good to run.

Ox: One new card. Not that it’s enough to salvage this miserable tribe, but Ox of Agonas is probably the strongest Ox card we’ve ever seen.

Pegasus: One new card. It’s a mediocre four-drop.

Phoenix: One new card. A bit lackluster compared to some other members of the tribe.

Plant: One new card. A decent mana-dork that could easily see play in Plant Tribal.

Rogue: One new card. Not the worst, but not worth running in what’s already a very strong tribe.

Satyr: Ten new cards, including one that makes satyr tokens and another that pumps all of your satyrs. A huge boost to this tribe.

Scout: Four new cards. Probably not relevant for this tribe.

Serpent: One new card. Probably the best card for Serpent Tribal ever, unless you happen to be playing against krakens, leviathans, or octopuses, in which case it’s maybe the second-best member of the tribe.

Shaman: Nine new cards. Options for this tribe are numerous and perhaps one of the new additions makes the cut in some deck, but nothing jumps out to me as great.

Siren: One new card. It actually kinda-sorta works alongside other sirens. Use sirens to force certain attacks, messing with combat decisions for opponents. Then flash Threnody Singer in and use it to debuff a creature. Not amazing, but as Tier 5 tribes go, it’s a solid combat trick.

Skeleton: One new card. So, the problem with Underworld Sentinel is that, while its ability is interesting, it doesn’t really fit with anything Skeleton Tribal is good at. Mostly, skeletons are weak and unremarkable creatures that are hard to kill or easy to recur. To get mileage out of this new card, you want powerful creatures in your graveyard.

Snake: Three new cards. This is a weird tribe with weird considerations, so I’m not sure if any of the new options make the cut. Moss Viper is strictly worse than Wasteland Viper, so probably not an ideal choice.

Soldier: Thirteen new cards. Some of them would be promising in other environments, but my instinct is that Soldier Tribal is already so power-packed that it is better off with what it already has.

Sphinx: Three new cards. I don’t think any of them contribute anything substantial to the tribe.

Spider: Two new cards. Arasta of the Endless Web probably makes it into a Spider Tribal deck. Its raw size isn’t great for its mana cost, but it’s decent and the ability can be extremely potent in the right environment. Doesn’t work as well against every opponent, but it influences gameplay in multiplayer pods and the ceiling on the ability is very high.

Spirit: Four new cards. Probably no impact.

Turtle: One new card. Turtle Tribal was pretty bad, but not so bad that this helps much. Flash built into Riptide Turtle might mean that it makes the cut anyway, but it’s not good.

Unicorn: One new card. It’s mediocre.

Warrior: Eight new cards. The only standout is Setessan Champion, which would be reasonably strong in an “Enchantress” style deck. I suspect that Warrior Tribal is better off not going in that direction, though.

Wizard: Eight new cards. The only potential contribution to a strong Wizard Tribal deck is likely Thassa’s Oracle, which presents a kind of upgrade to Laboratory Maniac as a win condition.

Zombie: Four new cards. Probably no impact for a tribe so flush with options as it is.

New tribal synergy cards to look out for
Archon of Sun’s Grace: Not sure what I’d run in Archon Tribal, but the synergy here is for Pegasus Tribal, and it’s likely the best Pegasus Tribal synergy ever.

Deathbellow War Cry: Well, it’s super-expensive, but it is a minotaur synergy worth pointing out.

Nightmare Shepherd: The card itself is a demon, but not quite good enough for Demon Tribal. While there’s no direct Nightmare Tribal synergy, the card can make nightmare tokens with useful abilities in the right deck, and there might be some application here.

Serpent of Yawning Depths: While Serpent Tribal is extremely bad, this card could pack a punch as a powerful synergy in either Kraken Tribal or Leviathan Tribal, both of which are much better.

Tymaret Calls the Dead: Zombie Tribal synergy. As such cards go, this one strikes me as rather weak, but it’s been generating some buzz and I should note it here in case I’m underestimating it. Also, the potential value of this synergy goes up if one is playing in a more constrained environment, such as one with a card pool that excludes older sets.

Overall set analysis
For the second time in a row, I can say that the new set’s impact on Tribal formats doesn’t really appear to be a case of the rich getting richer. None of the especially strong tribes get anything that looks particularly appealing. Almost all of the tribes that get notable boosts this time around are Tier 3 or lower, usually lower. The downside is that even those boosts aren’t that notable.

I do not think that Theros Beyond Death is a bad set, but it is a worse set than the other full sets I’ve analyzed so far in my Tribal Update Report posts. All four of those sets were more power-packed, more innovative, more dynamic, and included more potent tribal synergy cards. But it feels trite to compare Theros Beyond Death to some of the most powerful sets of all time. It just happens to come on the heels of War of the Spark, Modern Horizons, Core Set 2020, and Throne of Eldraine. Time will tell, but this set is probably fine.

Winners and losers for this set? Tier adjustments?
Winners might be…
  • Archons
  • Berserkers
  • Boars
  • Cats
  • Chimeras
  • Elders
  • Fish
  • Gods
  • Harpies
  • Horrors
  • Krakens
  • Minotaurs
  • Nightmares
  • Oxen
  • Satyrs
  • Serpents
  • Spiders
While a lot of tribes get nothing or fall behind the competition with new set releases, Theros Beyond Death is notable in this regard because it draws on the established mechanics of the three sets in the original Theros Block. Some of those tribes got better tools in this set than in any of those three older sets. But others, not so much…
  • Centaurs are strongly associated with this world and they haven’t been getting much love in other sets. They did get some options with this set, so it might be overly harsh to say they’ve lost here. In a way, they did.
  • Cyclops got some of their only viable resources from Theros Block and got only bad cards this time around.
  • Demons received some focus in the original Theros Block and got little of interest in this set. They’ve been falling behind the rest of Tier 2 lately.
  • Giants were featured in this set, but fared poorly.
  • Gorgons had a lot of potential and saw their hopes dashed with this set.
  • Hydras were prominent in Theros Block and then, in the time since, they became one of WotC’s favored “iconic” tribes. This could have been a big set for them, but turned out to be meager.
  • Starfish got nothing!
Because of how speculative this is, I find it tricky to weigh how much it takes for a creature type like Harpy, Minotaur, Satyr, or Fish to get promoted a tier. They definitely got better, but by enough? It’s entirely likely that Satyr Tribal was overrated in Tier 3, but that it now earns its rating with the upgrades from this set.

So I’m going to recommend no tier adjustments at this time, but there is one case that warrants particular consideration: Kraken Tribal. They’re currently Tier 4 and I think they’re extremely close to being Tier 3, a borderline case that’s too close to call. I am torn on this one and would gladly solicit input from anyone else who wants to give the matter some thought. Are krakens finally good enough to compete with the likes of elephants, spiders, wolves, etcetera?

Ban list update recommendations
Nothing comes to mind. I want to give this section some time before applying scrutiny, hoping to come at it with a fresh perspective, perhaps late into this year. That is, of course, barring obnoxious Tribal hoser cards.

Conclusion
With a few exceptional niches, Theros Beyond Death isn’t going to be an especially important set in Tribal formats. The cards that are of direct interest as tribal members are sparse and are more along the lines of alternative pathways than best-in-slot upgrades. The support spells are tricky to evaluate. I’d say that support spells in this set average better than for most sets in the history of the game, but glaringly worse than some of the recent powerhouse sets we’ve grown accustomed to. Because of the setting, creature types associated with Greek mythology get more representation in this set. Perhaps I’m unfairly biased because I’m comparing a single set to three older sets, but I don’t really find the updated options for those Greek monster tribes to be impressive.
 

Shoe

Member
We should compare notes. I got. Bored one day and made a tribal wars spreadsheet with some stats. Let me see if I can find a shareable link.

When did tribal wars go away? I dont mtgo, but there was a site dedicated to paper for a long time. No longer active?
 

Shoe

Member
 

Shoe

Member
I'm not familiar with the "tiers" you mention. I kinda get where they are going, but am curious about requirements. Havent played tribal wars (or magic) for several years and I'm jumping back in
 

Spiderman

CPA Man in Tights, Dopey Administrative Assistant
Staff member
I don't think tribal wars went away in the Magic world, just we stopped playing it here. That's what Oversoul's analysis in reference to "tiers" - how they might stack up in a deck and game.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
We should compare notes. I got. Bored one day and made a tribal wars spreadsheet with some stats. Let me see if I can find a shareable link.
I'll take a look. This has pretty much just been a solo project. It's a fun exercise in a way, but virtually meaningless for now.

When did tribal wars go away? I dont mtgo, but there was a site dedicated to paper for a long time. No longer active?
I lost access to my MTGO account, but my understanding is that the format is now completely retired as an official MTGO format. Support was dropped long ago, but now I believe it's not even in the interface anymore. The format can still be played in Freeform, of course.

I don't think tribal wars went away in the Magic world, just we stopped playing it here. That's what Oversoul's analysis in reference to "tiers" - how they might stack up in a deck and game.
There's an online group with a kind of competitive unofficial Tribal Wars setup of their own. They're called "Tribal Apocalypse Central." I only learned about them relatively recently and didn't find anything with much bearing on the way we were playing it, but they do exist and do play a kind of Tribal format.

Yeah I get the concept, I was just curious if there was actually a set of rules for determining tier
Sorry that's been a bit buried on the forum lately. Here's a link: http://www.casualplayers.org/forums/threads/oversouls-preliminary-report-to-the-tribal-council-including-tier-lists-and-other-musings.17421/

That was my original report. It's very long. It was done just over a year ago and attempted to described how we might approach Tribal multiplayer if we were to play it. The eight tiers were something I just made up on my own with no testing. So there could very easily be some superior system. Here's how I summarized them...

Oversoul said:
8: Tribes with 0 members (aside from Mistform Ultimus and changelings). These are creature types used for tokens, and some of those tokens are usually only generated by a single card. These tribes could probably be ignored entirely.

7: Tribes with fewer than 5 members (aside from Mistform Ultimus and changelings). These range from creature types that were only used once to ones that were used four times. They cannot legally be used without throwing in those special “every creature type” cards. But if you’re feeling adventurous, you could try to build around the members that do exist and fill strategic niches with changelings. More probably, these tribes are dead ends for us.

6: Tribes with few members and no apparent advantages. As with the previous tiers, this one might as well read “Don’t use this unless you’re a glutton for punishment.”. If WotC printed exactly 5 creatures of a certain type and all 4 out of 5 are bland cards with no real potential, then what’s the point? It’d be technically possible to use these tribes, but I contend that doing so is a deliberate exercise in exploring self-imposed deckbuilding constraints.

5: This is kind of the first real “bottom” tier. These tribes all have enough members to build some sort of deck. No need for changeling shenanigans. But all of them, as tribes, are visibly deficient in some way. This can happen for various reasons. Sometimes WotC only uses a tribe for one set or block, and the tribe isn’t the main focus of the set or block. So it has “enough” to build a deck, but not a cohesive one. Some tribes only appear in older sets, before creatures got real power creep. Generally the tribes I’ve placed in Tier 5 have enough decent creatures that they are far more viable than the ones I’ve placed in Tier 6. But to compete with higher tiers, you’d need superior support spells. The creatures themselves just don’t offer much of interest.

4: These tribes are deficient, but they do have some strengths. This is where we start seeing most of the tribes that appeared in CPA Tribal games. These tribes have identity. They have something they can do, something they’re good at. But the reason they’re down here in Tier 4 instead of higher up is that they’re also missing something. Some have too many vanilla creatures and not enough with useful abilities. Some require annoyingly specific deck color configurations in order to be viable. Perhaps the most common flaw is a lack of useful small creatures to help provide a decent mana curve.

3: Here’s where it gets interesting! There are some more of the familiar tribes from CPA games. All of these tribes have an individual member or two capable of doing something special, something that we can really build around, whether it’s an engine, a strong tribal synergy, a powerful mechanic, or some other advantage. Some of them don’t really have anything too specific, but they can build a decent curve with reasonably valuable creatures.

2: These are the powerhouses. Here’s where I also anticipate some interesting discussion, in terms of which tribes belong here and which ones should be promoted or demoted, wherever this grouping eventually ends up. These tribes have been given deliberate support from WotC at one time or another, and they have the tools to make up for the deficiencies that plague the lower tiers. Doesn’t mean they’re always strictly advantaged against tribes from lower tiers. But they have readily demonstrable perquisites and any competent player could probably craft a decent tribal deck out of any of these.

1: The super elite. I’m not committed to a specific number of tribes for this tier. I’m starting with 8 tribes, but the club could be more or less exclusive than that. My intuition is that it should probably consist of somewhere between 5 and 10 tribes. Some of the tribes in Tier 2 could probably hold their own among these heavyweights. But I did want to demarcate the most powerful tribes of all. They constitute a kind of danger zone. Some of them were banned from our old tribal games. To put it in the broadest terms, these tribes all offer tools for decks to quickly deploy large amounts of power.
 
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