This column, from time to time, will look at innovative play formats.
Now just hold your horses, you may insist. Is this
necessary? Don’t we have all of the fun playing formats we need, within
the fine tournament structure supplied by our friendly DCI? I mean,
there’s Block Limited and Constructed, and Standard, and Extended, and
a whole bunch of formats with decimal points, or carrying the names of
fine wines, where everybody plays decks carrying the names of cereals.
Cereal and wine, what could be better for you, right? Why rock the
boat, Alongi? And what’s with you putting words in our mouths, anyway?
Well, if you’ll stay quiet long enough for me to speak, I’ll tell you. It is a little known fact in the Magic community
(and not even everyone at Wizards knows) that several tournament
formats are going to get phased out soon. That’s right, phased out,
faster than Teferi's Isle.
And it’s unlikely we’ll ever hear from any of them again. Extended, for
example, is going to become serialized into a fantasy novel about a
family of dragons that try to give away some pet baby bunnies. Standard
is going to run back to its former spouse, Measure, and tour the
country visiting abandoned weigh stations on highways. And on it goes.
Soon, the DCI won’t have any sanctioned tournament formats left; at
that point, it will have to provide ratings points to players who don’t
actually carry around their DCI cards in their wallets every waking
moment. (I mean, really, folks. What on earth do you people say when
you’re out on a dinner date, things are going great, she seems to like
you, the waiter presents the bill, you go for your wallet…and out slips
Back in September, one of Star City’s casual format writers proposed a formal version of what many Magic players try at one time or another - setting one creature type against all others. (The original link is here.)
Stijn van Dongen, along with Herman and Sander Jacobs, have developed
rules suitable for holding informal tournaments. (Of course, neither
these nor any other casual play tournaments are or will be sanctioned
by the DCI; that would rather ruin the point.) Here is the breakdown.
“Tribe” is the name given to a collection of cards built around a
creature type. It includes both the actual creatures of that type, as
well as any cards specifically worded to refer to them. (So Baron Sengir
can play in the vampire tribe, since he has a specific ability naming
vampires.) It also includes any cards that (in their English language
version) use the word that defines the tribe. (Hello, Vampiric Tutor.) Don’t get too cute: enchantments are not part of an “ents” or “treefolk” tribe.
Now that you know what a tribe is, here’s the basic rule: pick a
tribe, and build your deck with up to four copies of any combination of
tribe cards you want. If you want to include non-tribe cards, you may -
but they’re all restricted to a single copy. (Basic lands are okay, of
course.) Your deck may NOT use creatures that identify exclusively with
The construction parameters are as follows: minimum 90 cards total,
minimum 30 cards in tribe, minimum 25 of which must be creatures (or
creature generators, like Call of the Herd).
You can probably adjust these parameters somewhat to fit the card
library capacity of your group; but Stijn and his Dutch friends at The
Labyrinth have worked on this format for some time.
There are a few nuances that the Labyrinth crowd suggests: allow for
some measure of creativity in tribe-building (e.g., let kings, queens,
and similar cards fit into a “royalty” tribe; and consider obvious
old-school legends that have appropriate artwork); and don’t let game
mechanics count toward tribes (e.g., disallow creatures who simply have
the evasion ability "shadow" from the "shade tribe”).
Any card that plays around with creature types (e.g., Coat of Arms, Tsabo's Decree, Engineered Plague, Unnatural Selection)
is banned from the format. No, don’t complain; that’s the right thing
to do. Every deck would have 1x every single one of those annoying
cards otherwise, and the idea here is to be creative and unpredictable.
Specific color and creature-type hosers are also frowned upon.
There are other cards you might decide to ban, too (the Labyrinth
doesn’t care for lifegain cards, and I don’t blame them); following the
Type 1 banned and restricted list would put you roughly in sync with
So, to lay all this out in examples: your elf deck may include Eladamri, Lord of Leaves; Elvish Farmer; and Elven Cache - but it can only include one Aluren, and no Rith, the Awakener. Your giant deck may include Bloodshot Cyclops, Giant Trap Door Spider, and Giant Growth - but it can only have one Lure, and no Heartstone. Your shade deck may include Nantuko Shade, Scent of Nightshade, and Nether Shadow - but it can only have one Soltari Lancer, and no Spike Cannibals. Your wizard deck may include Cabal Patriarch; Aven Windreader; and Reveka, Wizard Savant - but it may only have one Puppet Strings (use Puppeteer, a wizard, instead!), and no Deathgrip.
Got it? Good, because we have a new tribe on the block. If you ever
organize an event - at a store or your kitchen table - get ready to
give your friends a taste of bitter calamari.
ONE TRIBE, MANY TENTACLES
I can remember when I first heard that merfolk were, for all intents and purposes, gone from the Magic world. (Torment’s Laquatus is a reasonable exception built in for storyline purposes.) And then I heard that these
freaks were taking over the oceans. While I thought the house-cleaning
was far overdue (goblins and elves also got the axe), I still greeted
this new race with some ambivalence. What, really, could a bunch of
calamari with barely two expansions under their belt have to offer us,
besides a tasty appetizer at your local theme restaurant?
More than you might think, it turns out. “Cephalid” is indeed a
narrow creature type. Unlike “goblin” or “soldier,” its name doesn’t
get tossed around in card titles too often, or at all before Odyssey.
(No Cephalid War Drums, yet!) So that may make part of a deck
construction job easy… but it leaves quite a bit of work to do in the
remaining: non-creature cards.
Let’s look at our options:
No cards mention cephalids in their text without mentioning them in the title. So that’s it for our tribe!
This deck can certainly find 25 creature card slots, since all but
two of these cards are creatures. The question is, can it put them
together in a way that lets a deck succeed?
As game-breakers, Aboshan and Llawan
are each going to play a special role in your deck. Aboshan can
suppress entire armies at instant speed, but must maintain vigilance;
Llawan can do away with them altogether, with a larger (and trickier)
one-time effort. The Retainer is an excellent lieutenant to this royalty. We’ll put in four copies of all of these creatures.
Because these are game-breakers, those cephalids that let you draw
them faster will also be important. We’ll let four copies in of the
amazing Looter and stunning Broker, as well as four Scouts. The new Cephalid Sage
is one of the first true uses of threshold in blue - and it keeps your
card drawing going. We’re up to 28 tribe creatures already!
The Cephalid Snitch will find some role in a deck that, as we’ll see, depends partly on black. Many white and green creatures (e.g., Paladin en-Vec)
will “fly under” the color-hosing radar; the Snitch is no more
offensive than they are. We’ll run two, which brings us to 30 tribe
cards, all creatures.
There are three more cepahlids - the Aristocrat, the Illusionist, and the Vandal.
Those all do a direct mill into your graveyard. They would support a
heavy recursion deck fairly well - perhaps run one copy each of Living Death, Dawn of the Dead, Yawgmoth's Agenda,
and so on. But I have two problems with that - first, cephalids aren’t
about raising the dead. So I would feel like I was violating the spirit
of the Tribes format. Second, each of those recursion cards is at a
strategy and power level that typically demands four copies. Each does
very specific things, and puts very severe restrictions on you (losing
life, playing only one card a turn, etc.) Cards like that don’t
“mish-mash” well at one copy each. So we’ll just put in one honorary
copy of the last three cephalids, for Aboshan or discard fodder.
This is one of the few viable tribes out there that can use every card that qualifies, so we should make the effort! We’ll hold our nose and let one Cephalid Shrine
sneak in. (Normally, you’ll want to discard it to a Looter’s ability.
Hey, look, I found a use for a Shrine! If those suckers had madness,
they’d be broken.)
And of course, we’ll use a couple Cephalid Coliseums,
which aren’t too horribly offensive. For a 90-card deck, that leaves
about 23 slots for non-land cards, and 43 slots for lands, if you want
a reasonable ratio. So where do we go from here?
HOW AND WHEN TO BEND A FORMAT
With great respect to Stijn and his colleagues at the Labyrinth, I’m
going to promote a little subversiveness with this format - and any
casual play format, really. The point of making new formats is to
promote creativity; and we can hardly fault those who want to push
their creativity a bit harder than others!
And I don’t think Stijn would mind - if you read the original
article at the link above, you’ll see several allowances for
flexibility in order to get decks that really shine. But he, and I, and
a good deal many other people, would probably mind if you ignored the
format altogether just to squeeze in cards you like. The three rules I
suggest, if you’re looking to put cards in your deck that break the
letter of the law, are:
- stick very, very close to the spirit of the law;
- compromise enough to show respect for the format;
- if you can do so without totally ruining your deck’s surprise, ask
ahead for the opinion of the event’s organizer (or other players, if
it’s a kitchen table thing).
That way, when you show up with your slightly off-center deck, you won’t generate hard feelings… just smiles at your ingenuity.
Here are the two points where I would push the borders of the rules:
The squid creatures. There are three beasts - Fylamarid, Sand Squid, and Gulf Squid
- that have a very clear common lineage with the cephalids. Fylamarid
has the additional benefit of complementing Llawan and the Snitch’s
abilities. After sending an email to my buds before building
the deck and making sure no one else was using any blue beasts, I would
put in one copy of each. I would ideally use four, but this is what I
mean by compromising to show respect for the format. Besides, 36
creatures is perfectly respectable.
The color hoser aspect. I will go into how much I hate color
hosers some other week. Believe me, what I am about to do is an awful
lot like Nixon going to China. (For you younger folks, the parallel
would be Korn doing a joint tour with Britney Spears… only they could get away with it.) Llawan has a certain color-hosing flavor to her; why should she be allowed when, say, Anarchy isn’t?
To answer that, I’d let the play group know I was going to have a
mild color hoser in my deck. I’d mention that since I’m playing the
very color it wrecks, I’m certainly running a risk to myself, and would
anyone mind if I tried to work creatively around that…? If there was a
problem, I’d drop it (and cephalids altogether, to be honest). But
we’re going to fly on the assumption that most play groups won’t mind
if you’re setting up this kind of challenge for yourself.
I would then proceed to add those cards that show the manipulative
power of blue, which is really what the story line of cephalids is all
about. Mind Bend, Alter Reality, and Whim of Volrath
will all change a card so that it reads a different color - so Llawan
could stop green, or black, creature spells from being cast. (Note that
Mind Bend and Alter Reality’s effects last beyond the turn they are
played.) We’ll also provide Sunken City as another permanent whose text can be affected.
We’ll also put in Sway of Illusion, a card that can change the color of creatures so that Llawan and Sunken City are more effective. We’ll avoid the Wash Out path, since we’re probably already pushing the rules’ good humor with Llawan.
Cephalids are all about backstabbing, and killing off their enemies
at unexpected times. So from black, we will provide a “4x” set of
non-black creature removal that can complement the manipulative theme.
I’ve chosen the basic Terror, the cycling Expunge, the color-challenging Dead Ringers, and the card-drawing Dregs of Sorrow. A fifth kill card, Corrupt, makes it in under virtue of its name alone.
That’s enough color nonsense. Cephalids also have a side that screams mental manipulation,
and we can use any one of a hundred of so blue or black cards in there.
Using the name of the cards to guide me as to what would be most
“cephalarrific,” I let Probe represent discard, Circular Logic and Undermine represent countermagic, and Skeletal Scrying
represent card drawing. The Scrying and Logic will doubtless take
advantage of a massive graveyard. In addition, cephalids’ reputation
for studying led me to allow both Mystical Tutor and Vampiric Tutor.
The final three cards are borderline, but are absolutely necessary
to give this deck a chance to win if its primary path to victory fails.
(To refresh everyone’s memory, our Plan A is to slowly peck away with
2-power squids while one or both fragile legends keep opposing armies
at bay. Wow, how could anything possibly go wrong with that strategy?!?)
First, I let one Bone Harvest
in, as the only representative of graveyard manipulation and the deck’s
defense against self-milling. Yes, I know, “bone harvest” doesn’t fit
flavor. I wish it was called “Squid Resurrection” too, folks. But the
card’s actual effect is a beautiful end-game move worthy of the most
intelligent fish-primate hybrids…oh, just deal, people.
Second, I allowed Spinal Embrace,
which, like Bone Harvest, fits more through its actions than through
its name. Getting someone to fight on your side for a turn, and then
commit suicide, while giving you additional resources, just feels like the sort of thing a person with the head of an octopus would do.
In fact, I had originally designed this deck as a creature-stealing
deck, to represent changing allegiances and what not. There’s still a
lot of promise in that deck, and this remnant is my way of signaling to
all of you that you should give it a try.
Finally, as an alternate path to victory, I found Vexing Arcanix
and felt it fit. No other card in the game uses other players’
libraries as a source of damage against them. I’ll take suggestions for
other tribes where such a method of winning fits better; but I don’t
suspect there are many. I don’t know what a ghost is doing on the
artwork, anyway; if I had had my way around here, you’d have been
looking at a “Vexing Fishhead” since Ice Age.
To help people understand the lines I feel are crossable, and those that are not, I should point out two cards I did not use in building the deck, since neither their titles nor effects fit the mold of the shifty cephalids. Haunting Misery and Mortal Combat
each use a massive graveyard - which this deck certainly generates - to
pose a rather quick and final solution to the game. But cephalids do
not haunt, are not generally miserable, do not thrust for sweeping
damage, do not engage in open mortal combat, and do not rely on the
dead to do their work for them. As efficient as these cards may be for
this deck, they cannot even argue for honorary status in the cephalid
I’m sure many of you would have drawn the line even earlier. If you
do, your options will be limited. But give that creature-stealing type
I mentioned a try. While it wouldn’t serve Aboshan and Llawan’s
abilities as directly, it would use cards like Ray of Command, Legacy's Allure, Reins of Power, and perhaps milling cards like Altar of Dementia very well.
THE TRIBE HAS SPOKEN
So what is this tribe’s prospects, in a field littered with tribes
that are either vastly more flexible (e.g., merfolk) or more focused
(e.g., rebels)? I would rate the cephalids as fairly solid, especially
given their youth. While we do not know yet if cephalids are a
long-lasting empire like the merfolk, or a single-block fetish like the
kavu, we can be impressed by their rapid start. I thought of two
different approaches (the deck provided, and the creature-betrayal
alternative) fairly quickly. A third deck emphasizing recursion may
It’s alarming how quickly Wizards gave this species the legendary
tools to suppress just about any other creature type: Aboshan’s flood
effect reaches even untargetable creatures like slivers, Llawan’s
banish effect can devastate goblins and minotaurs and dragons all at
once. There are tribes that have existed for far longer (beasts and
soldiers come to mind) that don’t have champions anything like these
two. Meanwhile, the other cephalids provide excellent “librarian
support” in finding these gems in time to use them.
The untapped potential of a cephalid deck lies in what to do with
all of those cards in the graveyard - green’s options are intriguing
but few and far between, black’s options are typically out of flavor,
and the other colors (including blue itself) are quite bad at using the
graveyard, even in this age of threshold. (Most quality threshold cards
are creatures, which belong to other tribes.) This is where the next
expansion kicks in - will judgment provide more threshold effects to
blue? And while we’re asking, will madness be a one-shot mechanic (as
many mid-block mechanics are), or will blue get some additional cards
that work in sick fashion with Cephalid Looter?
Time will tell. For now, I’d love to hear stories of groups'
experiences with this deck, or any other decks in a format emphasizing
creature types. I’m also open to visiting other interesting play
formats in future installments of Serious Fun. Just send your
experiences, ideas, and feedback to email@example.com.
And be sure to show that grilled calamari appetizer a bit more respect next time.
Anyone interestend in playing? I have a Samurai tribe deck. If so let me know