The tribes of Ixalan haven't had much of an impact in Standard so far. Despite the great number of sweet Dinosaurs, Pirates, Merfolk, and Vampires we've been able to play with for months, there hasn't been a tribal deck that has enjoyed a breakout success. A few have come close - Wilson Hunter's deep run at Pro Tour Ixalan with Mono-White Vampires (featured here by TCGplayer's very own Corbin Hostler) nearly managed to get there, but in the cold light of day we just haven't had a deck come up with the goods.
There is a very good reason for this. Or perhaps I should say was rather than is – in a few short weeks, we're going to see the landscape of Standard change. Tribal decks haven't contended meaningfully in Standard simply because there hasn't been a critical mass of powerful tribal cards from which to bring together a cohesive strategy. No more, however! Within the first week of Rivals previews, we've already seen enough new tribal powerhouses to ensure that new strategies will come to the fore. Let's have a look at how things will change once we get our hands on Rivals packs!
An excellent starting point is the almost-but-not-quite-good-enough Mono-White Vampires deck we saw. Benefitting from early aggression with hard-hitting, sticky threats like Adanto Vanguard, this deck came very close to getting there in Standard. With the addition of new cards, and by opening up different angles of attack with a black splash, the Vampires of Ixalan can now emerge, glittering majestically, into the sunlight.
Falkirk's own Brandon Balfour has already cooked up a new Vampires deck, building upon the tried-and-true Duskborne Skymarcher into Adanto Vanguard starts offered by previous lists. With more cheap threats, anthem effects and the very best in interaction, this strategy could prove to be a real contender in the coming months.
4 Duskborne Skymarcher
4 Skymarch Aspirant
4 Legion's Landing
4 Legion Lieutenant
2 Metallic Mimic
4 Adanto Vanguard
3 Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle
1 Vona, Butcher of Magan
4 Fatal Push
4 Glorious Destiny
2 Cast Out
4 Concealed Courtyard
2 Forsaken Sanctuary
4 Unclaimed Territory
2 Ifnir Deadlands
2 Shefet Dunes
2 Scavenger Grounds
Key upgrades for this deck include two separate anthem effects – both Legion's Lieutenant and Glorious Destiny are at their very best in a deck filled with both cheap creatures and token generators. Powering out a steady stream of 1/1 lifelinkers with Mavren Fein or a flipped Legion's Landing won't be a challenge for this deck – and of course, these tiny 1/1s won't stay small forever. Additional icing on this delicious cake is of course gaining the City's Blessing – it won't be difficult to ascend with the sheer number of permanents this deck can very quickly generate.
Speaking of ascend – another card that significantly improves this deck is the latest Savannah Lions-plus: Skymarch Aspirant. A two-power one-drop is always welcome in a deck such as this, and sending it into the air in later turns is an excellent way to push through damage. Duskborne Skymarcher is an excellent utility card, but didn't have the immediate early game impact a one-drop should offer. An aggressive new one-drop will go a long way in giving this deck blazing-fast curve-outs that can leave an opponent in the dust.
It's not just new cards that are changing things up in this deck, however. As we all know by now, Fatal Push is an exceptionally strong piece of interaction with strong game against the Longtusk Cubs and Earthshaker Khenras of the format – it's an extremely welcome addition here. Further interaction is offered with Cast Out and Vona, Butcher of Magan, although as we want to keep the curve low, these more expensive cards only come in in limited numbers.
As for the sideboard, some other Rivals cards in Starving Paladin and Mysterious End are worthy of speculative inclusion – Mysterious End is particularly exciting against Ramunap Red and Mono-Black Aggro, as they have no way to remove it. Fumigate is a curious inclusion at first glance, but this deck can pivot to be much more controlling post board, with Arguel's Blood Fast and Legion's Landing providing excellent engine cards in addition to the extra disruption offered by Duress.
Keep an eye on this deck – with a promising pedigree, these upgrades may be all the strategy needs to finally have a big impact in Standard!
There was a lot of hype about Merfolk returning to the forefront of Constructed playability as we set sail for Ixalan – after all, it's the only tribe of the four with a proud heritage of tournament success (once again, brought to you by Corbin). Given the power of the fish in older formats such as Modern and Vintage, many players had great expectations of Merfolk in Standard. Obviously, it didn't come to pass – but even at this early stage it's clear that this will change, given the number of heavily pushed Merfolk cards we've already seen in Rivals.
Corbin isn't the only one who is seeking to make a splash with Merfolk in Standard – Berlin's Thoralf Severin is already excited to share his initial sketches of how a Merfolk deck may shape up once Rivals arrives. The sheer power level of many of the cards we've within the opening days of Rivals previews very clearly lays out a roadmap for success - and while we're not upgrading an established list as with Vampires, the fact that there is now a critical mass of excellent Merfolk means this strategy is already looking very promising indeed.
We've known for a while that Silvergill Adept would be joining us in Rivals, but some of the more recent additions to the Merfolk tribe are perhaps even more exciting than the old fish staple. Merfolk decks of all ages rely heavily on lord effects, and so Merfolk Mistbinder is a good sign for the fortunes of this deck (in addition to potentially affecting older formats – will this finally be what forces the green splash in Modern?).
Playing a slightly larger game than the previous Vampires list, this Merfolk strategy aims to dominate the board with large, synergy-driven threats, and use cheap interaction such as Blossoming Defense and Unsummon to stay ahead on board. Critical to this game plan is a nice aggressive start, and for that reason there is still a piece missing - the Deeproot Elite is something of a placeholder for another playable one-drop to join Kumena's Speaker. The two-drops in this deck are all at a premium, so if we're able to sub in another one-drop, the Elite will hit the chopping block.
Aside from the aggression, new engine-based tactics are available to this strategy thanks to a key piece of new technology: Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. When left unchecked, this unbelievably flexible card will be sure to win you the game. He can apply quick pressure with his first ability, draw you more business with his second, and grind out the long game with his third – he slices and dices and does it all! A 2/4 for three is a decent body at a decent price – Kumena is the real deal, and if Merfolk decks come together after Rivals drops, it'll be in no small part thanks to him.
The way in which this deck will be able to switch gears will mean it will be difficult to both play with and against. A slower, value-oriented angle of attack is supported by Jace, Cunning Castaway as well as Kumena, and breaking through board stalls to victory is never out of sight thanks to Rhonas, the Indomitable and Tempest Caller. But even a tempo-based approach is always possible with early aggression, an anthem effect, and Unsummon to keep the board clear.
Merfolk have a strong history of robust playability across many of Magic's formats - and if the final pieces come together for this deck in the coming weeks, we'll see the fishy menace take centre stage in Standard.
In the past, Merfolk enjoyed a much stronger presence in Modern. More or Less always mono-blue (some decks splashed white for main deck interaction and sideboard hate cards), Fish decks in Modern were taking names and Top 8ing GPs for quite some time. In recent years, this trend diminished, until Merfolk were relegated to obscurity.
Are the latest round of additions to this noble tribe enough to bring the fish back to Modern dominance? If they are, it will mean Merfolk pilots embrace their inner little kid and start playing green cards - and if this happens, entirely new dimensions are available to the strategy. Add four Merfolk Mistbender to this list and you've got a deck.
Running the full 12two-drop lords, this list also plays a pseudo-Silvergill Adept in Merfolk Branchwalker. A heavy green component also allows Kumena's Speaker to join the fray, opening up opportunities for very aggressive starts. That's not the end of the green cards, however –Collected Company is the perfect fit for this list, as it's mostly composed of creatures, many of which can mess up combat when played at instant speed.
Aether Vial has a long tradition of allowing decks like this to cheat on both mana and casting speed, and Collected Company offers the opportunity to do all this while also getting ahead on cards. Flashing in a lord – or two – and building out your board presence as we've seen Company do in countless different decks over the years is a terrifying prospect – and it could be a reality in a few short weeks!
As Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan will showcase the Modern format, any new Green-Blue Merfolk decks will have a baptism of fire to get through. It may not come together – Modern is dominated by Fatal Push at one end and overwhelmingly huge threats at the other – but if there ever was a time for Merfolk to make a resurgence in Modern, that time is now!
That's it for this week. Next week we'll have a look at the other tribes of Ixalan, and we'll do it with a more complete picture of what the set will look like. Previews are coming in thick and fast, and so in addition to some new Pirate and Dinosaur lists, I'll be sure to update the deck sketches I've shared today.
I'd love to have your help in doing this! As previews continue, be sure to let me know which tribal cards you think will make the cut once we finally get to play with Rivals of Ixalan. I'm always available over on Twitter, so get in touch and let me know your thoughts!
- Riley Knight