Gavin’s Format-of-the-Month – March 2020: Tribal Identity

If the rules for Commander are intended as a starting point (spoiler: they are, and ignoring that won’t earn you anything), then one of the best things you can do is mess with its fundamental rules. Last month’s variant was a strictly tougher set of rules than normal, and hence always “acceptable” to other players. This time I want to talk about how to diverge from the rules of Commander but still embrace its spirit, in a way that other players will enjoy.

Of course, before breaking the rules it’s useful to understand why they exist. Colour Identity is one such fundamental rule of the format, which dates back to the early days of the format. It provides two things…

  1. A deck building restriction, which increases diversity of card choices
  2. A more coherent theme for each deck

… each of which serves the over-arching purpose of the format: richer experiences. Done right, Commander isn’t just competition, it’s performance art.

But Colour Identity is only one way to achieve those goals, and you should feel free to experiment with others. Back in Coldsnap, I experimented with a way to abandon the mana-symbol restriction, and replace it with a restriction on creature types.

Enter, Lovisa Coldeyes… the OG representation.

Image result for lovisa cold-eyes
Lovisa Coldeyes, art by Brian Snoddy

I decided to build a deck with any colour of mana symbols, but only cards which fit the “Warriors, Barbarians, and Berserkers” theme. Adapted the standard rules for Tribal decks:

  • At least one third (33) of the cards must be creatures
  • All non-land cards must
    • Mention a relevant creature type in their name, subtype, or text, OR
    • Contain the text “Choose a creature type”

This is a pretty high bar… which is one of the secrets to making it work. It’s obvious to other players that I’m not trying to circumvent the normal deckbuilding challenge to a net advantage. I considered restricting non-basic lands as well, but it goes over the top — the effective prohibition on mana rocks and other fixing is sufficiently punishing. Excluding all non-basic lands as well would be equivalent to saying that all lands in a Commander deck must generate coloured mana.

(Yes, allowing “Choose a creature type” cards is a hack, with several holes… it’s not something which could ever be codified in real rules, but we have the advantage of just having fun)

So, let’s get the obvious questions out of the way:

  • Is this deck good? No, not even close.
  • Is this deck fun? Oh yes.
  • Could I could have made a mono-red deck instead? Of course, but the result would have been less interesting than a deck which really leveraged her ability.
  • Could I have used a different commander for the same deck? Sure… a Najeela deck would be much better at winning the game, and lots of other commanders would suffice. Less interesting though, somehow.
  • Could I have abused this? Yes… but nobody would want to play against it.

I’ve rebuilt this deck a few times over the years. These days it looks like this:

Lovisa Coldeyes
Combat Celebrant
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death
Ankle Shanker
Archetype of Aggression
Belbe’s Portal
Berserkers’ Onslaught
Blood-Chin Fanatic
Boldwyr Intimidator
Brion Stoutarm
Champion of Rhonas
Civic Wayfinder
Coat of Arms
Den Protector
Duskwatch Recruiter
Elvish Skysweeper
Flaxen Intruder
Furystoke Giant
Gilt-Leaf Winnower
Goblin Bushwhacker
Grand Warlord Radha
Hazezon Tamar
Huatli, Warrior Poet
Jungle Wayfinder
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Kindred Dominance
Lightning Mauler
Lord Windgrace
Madrush Cyclops
Mercy Killing
Mindblade Render
Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist
Mogis’s Marauder
Moriok Replica
Nath of the Gilt-Leaf
Oakhame Adversary
Obsidian Battle-Axe
Ogre Battledriver
Oketra’s Monument
Patriarch’s Bidding
Raiders’ Spoils
Reckless Bushwhacker
Rhys the Redeemed
Rush of Battle
Samut, Voice of Dissent
Secure the Wastes
Sedris, the Traitor King
Surrak Dragonclaw
Sylvan Offering
Undead Gladiator
Vanquisher’s Banner
Viridian Zealot
Warrior’s Oath
Warriors’ Lesson
Wren’s Run Packmaster
Yasova Dragonclaw
Zealous Conscripts
Pillar of Origins
Unclaimed Territory
Cascading Cataracts
Crystal Quarry
Fabled Passage
Wooded Foothills
Command Tower
Gateway Plaza
Rupture Spire
Fire-Lit Thicket
Breeding Pool
Stomping Ground
Krosan Verge
Verdant Catacombs
Temple Garden
Sacred Foundry
Smoldering Marsh
Arid Mesa
Godless Shrine
Sheltered Thicket
Ghitu Encampment
Bloodstained Mire
Steam Vents
Cavern of Souls
6 Forest
5 Mountain
3 Swamp
1 Island
2 Plains

Again… could I have broken this more? Absolutely, but it’s important to notice that’s no different than any other Commander deck. It’s easier in this case for potential opponents to refuse to play against me (using the rules-as-written to justify their preference), but they shouldn’t be forced to play against ANY deck. If you look at a deck and think “This works because other people have to play against me”, you’re doing it very, very wrong.

So does a Tribal Identity commander need to have an intrinsic “creature type matters” mechanic? No, but it’s a good idea… it makes the “creature identity” of the card clear. There are tribes which are more or less powerful… I don’t even know if there are enough Digeridoos to make an all Minotaur deck, but Kangee Bird Tribal is fine. You’ll have a hard time convincing people your Elf Tribal deck is fun to play against.

Going further…

Are there other “identities” your group could experiment with? Card Type Identity springs to mind… there’s lots of commanders who would work well with only “Lands and Instants”. Karn with only lands and Artifacts is a challenge as old as the format (first built by format pioneer Gijsbert Hoogendijk circa 2005?). Mechanic Identity could also be viable… all-flying for easy mode, all-coinflip if you’re nasty.

Whatever variants you try, it’s important to decide (or at least think about) whether it’s a variant that mixes well with “basic” Commander, or should be used alone. Most Tribal Identity decks will play fine with “colour identity” based decks… restricting the cards in your deck by creature type is arguably more of a constraint than restricting the colours available.

To recap, the key is that Colour Identity is meant to provide a thematic coherence and deck building challenge, both of which improve the experience for everyone involved. You can use other constraints instead (or in addition) to achieve the same thing… just remember to embrace them, not try to abuse them.

11 thoughts on “Gavin’s Format-of-the-Month – March 2020: Tribal Identity”

  1. Thank you or the interesting take on Tribal EDH. Reminds me of the post I had on the Official Forums (Variant section) where I proposed treating creature types like Color Identity, where as long as the Creature Type is anywhere on the card (name, type line or text box) it would count toward meeting the tribal requirement (though I still use General’s CI as a limiter as well).

  2. One of the players in my new group did something like this with Elephants. Every card had to mention them or have on in the art. The unusual bit was, he was using Elephant Graveyard as his commander. Absolutely no one had a problem with this. It was a fun time.

  3. I’m a month late, but I’ve two questions.

    Why the 33+ creatures restriction? This seems like an unneeded and arbitrary one. Since nonland noncreature spells must also exhibit some kind of tribal aspect, you’re pretty much forced to include a good amount of creatures (and if you aren’t, I don’t see why the deck would feel any less tribal).

    > Yes, allowing “Choose a creature type” cards is a hack, with several holes… it’s not something which could ever be codified in real rules, but we have the advantage of just having fun
    (end quote)
    Would there be any problem with merely stating that any card that doesn’t mention one or several specific creature subtypes in its rule text, but includes the term “creature type” in its rule text can be played anywhere? That condition seems well defined to me (albeit a bit convoluted) and allows you to play cards like Stoneforge Masterwork anywhere while correctly rejecting, say, Lim-Dûl the Necromancer in a non-zombie deck.
    After all, if something mention specific creature types, they probably belong to these types (and if not, restricting too much is a lesser evil), and if something mention “creature type” without als omentioning some specific creature type, it’s certainly some kind of “choose your tribal type” card.
    The only weird cases I can think of would be kinship cards that somehow would be allowed in any deck, but the ability itself kinda enforces the restriction and takes care of the problem (and the 5 old cards that can turn any creature into a something-else-except-a-wall… which… well, are old, probably irrelevant, and “too restricted” rather than the opposite, thus not that problematic).

    1. “One third of the deck must be creatures” is a holdover from the old “Tribal” format rules. In the case of a “Tribal commander”, it’s important to have a significant minimum otherwise the deck could just be spells of any colour. Having roughly half your non-land be compliant with your theme is a reasonably strong constraint that is likely to encourage other players to allow the deck, that’s all 🙂

    2. How you implement the additional “creature type” cards is an implementation detail, you can adapt as your group prefers… I just wanted to highlight that you can (when you’re messing with the rules), be a little flexible to allow cool things to happen.

  4. I have built an Angry Omnath deck with zero creatures other than Omnath himself. Lots of ramp, red removal, green card draw and lots of ways to create Elemental tokens. It’s fun, and easy to play, and is probably the most borrowed deck at my local store. No deck? No problem, here’s Omnath. Is it Cedh? Not even close. Can it win with hordes of beefy Elemental’s or huge red burn? Absolutely! It’s also entirely legal under the normal rules as I’ve stuck to Omnath’s red/green identity throughout.

  5. What a good article!

    I’m a Lion Tribal player so all my constructed decks are made of only Lion or Leonin based creatures! I don’t do the non-land/non-creature aspect of it because it’s very hard to find spells that specifically say lion.

    I’ve been enjoying Lion Tribal in Commander! My Commanders are Arahbo (Because, why not not?), Marisi (It’s a bit of a violent deck that doesn’t do me good when it’s down to just me and other player), and then Golos/Morophon/Horde of Notions (Mostly just there for color identity for the Ajani Superfriends deck!)

    Of all the decks, my Ajani Superfriends deck is my just for fun deck because the goal is to get all 12 Ajanis out. It’s satisfying when it happens AND I win.

  6. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service? Thanks!

  7. ¡Hola!
    This sounds interesting Gavin. Identities other that colour identity as a general theme/flavour limitation.
    I listened last night to Shivam’s podcast episode where you were the guest and I loved it, especially the part where you talked about the history of the RC.
    I would like to have access to your latest Blind Eternities Map format rules, pretty please! Where can we find them?
    Also, with regards to EDH variants, I have also a few of my own I wish to share.

    1- Contraption Rumble (requires one shared deck with all contraptions from Unstable). Players can build contraptions at the cost of 1, 2, 3, 4, … mana.

    2- Race EDH for leagues or short games (based on the Goal Chips from Race for the Galaxy). You play until someone obtains 12 Victory Points from Goals Chips you randomly select from a large pool or your favourite set of goals (first to control 5 token creatures, first to play 10th land, etc). We also have a harder variant where we can trade Victory Points for political favours, quite complicated (the rules are like 10 pages long, lol).

    3- Planechase Prison (draft upto 4 planechase cards per player, shuffle and make a common deck). Harder to explain perhaps, we play with an additional Phase: the Planeswalking Phase. The die has 2 Chaos sides instead of one for Planeswalk and one for Chaos. At the end of the last player’s turn at the Table, we are forced to planechase to the next card.

    1. Hey Filpe, glad you enjoyed it… thanks for the kind words.

      The Eternities Map rules are here:

      I really like the Contraption format… that’s a neat way to use it, and I think Contraptions are an underexplored space for casual gaming. The planechase prison also has some potential, I’ll give that a thought. Points/Races/Alternate win conditions can be fun but also tricky to balance…hmm.

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