It’s no secret that I love tribal decks. Committing to a theme and being rewarded for it is a very satisfying element of Magic the Gathering and is one of the main ways I find enjoyment in the game. However, when it comes to tribal decks in Modern, only two are ever considered worth playing in humans and spirits. These decks used to be pretty fringe until some key prints in the last few years catapulted them into high tier status. A lot of other tribes are on the verge of breaking out in Modern but still need a few more cards to make an impact on the Modern landscape.
What Broke Humans and Spirits?
For the longest time, tribal decks were relegated to tier 2 or 3 decks that would occasionally show up and top 8 a GP. If you wanted to play tribal your only competitive option was Merfolk but as time has gone on, Merfolk has lost its stature as the best tribal deck in Modern. Instead, that title now belongs to Spirits and Humans while Merfolk has become a tier 3-4 deck. Why are these two decks succeeding where other tribal decks have failed.
Let’s start by talking about Humans. There were two key changes made to humans that allowed them to rise up the ranks and become a competitive deck, and the first change was expanding the colors the deck could play. For the longest time, Humans was a GW deck that played as a simple beatdown deck. You’d play a Champion of the Parish and hope that your Travel Preparations would be enough to finish them off. The biggest shift in philosophy was the 5 color manabase which opened up the potential for a much wider range of cards. Just as important as the introduction of the 5 color manabase was the printing of Kitesail Freebooter. This card gave humans one of the most important tools a tribal deck needs to succeed in interaction.
Spirits was always on the verge of breaking out in Modern because many of its cards interact with the opponent. Spell Queller, Mausoleum Wanderer, and Rattlechains are all powerful cards because they interact with the opponent. Spirits is very good at slowing the game down to their pace, but they often weren’t fast enough to close out the game even after they had disrupted the opponent. With the printing of Supreme Phantom, they were now able to close the game much quicker, making their disruption much more meaningful.
This combination of aggression and interaction is what lets these decks remain at the top of the format. With just pure aggression, you end up with decks like Merfolk that can kill quickly but not as fast as combo, and with pure interaction you end up with a deck like Spirits in the days before it had Supreme Phantom and is far too slow for Modern. What other cards will other tribes need in order to become viable?
Merfolk, as I discussed earlier is a very aggressive deck with very little interaction. The interaction they do have is relegated to Spell Pierces and Spreading Seas and doesn’t help their deck to beat unfair decks. When paired up against other fair decks such as Humans or Burn, they can often race and win because their deck is very good at handling creature threats. Harbinger of the Tides and Merfolk Trickster handle opposing creatures very well, but when the opponent casts a Supreme Verdict there is not much they can do.
Zombies can grind like none other. As soon as the game gets to a board stall, zombies can continually accrue value and use their graveyard to overwhelm their opponents. The problem for zombies is that games typically go by too fast for them to effectively use their graveyard. Most of their lords cost 3 mana and Zombies can’t do much against unfair decks. They are simultaneously too slow and don’t interact enough. Zombies could desperately use a few cards that interacted with the opponent more, and a 2 mana lord would help them be so much faster.
Vampires are another interesting tribe for Modern simply because there are so many different directions you can take a vampire deck. They have a lot of support for madness strategies, aristocrats, aggro, lifegain, and even stealing your opponent’s creatures. If Vampires wants to succeed in the format it needs to focus on one archetype specifically and play to it’s strengths. This tribe has a lot going for it, it has a 2 mana lord, lots of unique and powerful effects, but it lacks focus and just like many other decks it struggles to interact with spell based strategies.
Slivers have gotten a lot of cool new tools in the latest set, but I still don’t think Slivers have what it takes to be a tier one deck. Slivers are a very powerful and aggressive deck with every sliver functioning as a lord. However, Slivers have the issue of not being able to interact with their opponent. For a Slivers player, killing the opponent is the only way you can deal with unfair things. And while there are Slivers that let the player deal with any permanent such as Necrotic Sliver, it is at a really expensive rate and requires sacrificing Slivers to use it. A Sliver that could sacrifice other Slivers to counter spells would be really helpful for the tribe, and help them to beat unfair decks.
Faeries are a very interactive tribe and in the days of their Standard were oppressive. However, in the landscape of Modern they are a tribe that only shows up occasionally. Faeries are a very slow tribe, and even though they can slow the game down, they can’t slow it down enough for them to win. Spellstutter Sprite is a fantastic card, but as a 1/1 it’s just mediocre. Without any cheap lords, Faeries are gonna remain too slow for Modern.
There are lots of great tribal decks in Modern already, but most of them are just missing one or two cards to really let them break out onto the scene. Spirits and Humans showcase the two key features that a tribal deck needs to succeed either in interaction (Humans) or a faster clock (Spirits). When analyzing the other tribes of the format a lot of them are just missing a few cards that would let them become competitive. Are there any tribes you are interested seeing break out in Modern? Tell me in the comments below what kind of card they would need to succeed. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!