- For the card type, see Tribal
Tribal is Magic slang for a block, set, or deck with a mechanical theme centered around one or more creature types. Tribal was a major focus of the Onslaught, Lorwyn, Innistrad, and Ixalan blocks, while many other blocks and sets have offered support to one or two creature types.
The tribal theme should not be confused with the no longer supported Tribal card type.
History of the tribal theme
The concept has been around since Alpha , but was not explored in depth until Fallen Empires. The Onslaught block was the first to delve very deeply into the mechanics of the tribal theme, to be followed several years later by the Lorwyn block. Many other blocks and sets have employed the tribal theme in a more minor capacity, most notably the Kamigawa block and Innistrad block.
Tribal decks have been persistently popular since the game's beginnings, in part because novice players find it easy to understand and fun to play with. Meanwhile, their range has expanded from being cute side strategies to being the core of many sets.
R&D has shifted all tribal effects many years ago to only affect the player's own cards, instead of the appropriate cards of all players. It was what more players intuitively believed was supposed to happen and it leads to less tension when casting the cards.
The tribal concept is as old as the game itself, going back to Alpha. The three "lords"—Goblin King, Lord of Atlantis, and Zombie Master—each encouraged players to build decks with creatures of their respective type (goblins, merfolk, and zombies respectively), although this was hampered by the fact that none of these creatures actually had that creature type (all three would later be issued errata to change this) and that each lord had very few cards of their creature type to call subjects (two goblins, one merfolk, and one zombie). Ensuing sets would add a handful of new cards to each tribe, but for most of the game's early history, creating a tribal deck meant simply picking a large number of creatures of the same type and just throwing them in a deck together.
Arabian Nights and Antiquities added little to the tribal theme (despite the preponderance of djinn and efreet in the former). Legends employed the tribal theme with the addition of the "legend" creature type (which has since been changed to a supertype) with numerous cards that helped or hindered legends; the set also included the kobolds, which are viewed by many as a failed early experiment in tribal design. The Dark added a few more goblins to players' arsenals, plus a handful of cards that rewarded players for playing with them (Goblin Caves, Goblin Shrine, Orc General) or against them (Tivadar's Crusade), setting goblins on their way to becoming Magic's preeminent tribe.
Fallen Empires was the first set to bring the tribal theme into the limelight. Numerous cards were created that cared about certain existing creature types (mainly goblins, but also elves, dwarves, merfolk, and orcs). Soldiers emerged as white's preeminent creature type (though they wouldn't get considerable support until Invasion, years later). The set also introduced three new tribes—fungus, homarids, and thrulls—but despite the enduring popularity of the fungus/saproling concept none of these made much of a splash. Despite adding new fodder to tribal decks, however, Fallen Empires is regarded as something of a failure, as each tribe (with the possible exception of the goblins) received very little useful support; like many early sets, it was built from a "flavor-first" perspective, and as such the set's mechanics suffered.
The rest of Magic's early, pre-Weatherlight Saga sets did little to expand the tribal theme. Ice Age and Alliances both brought in more goblins, elves, soldiers, and zombies, but without much in-game support. Homelands tried to encourage players to use unusual tribes (dwarves, faeries, minotaurs, vampires), but like much about the set, it fell flat. Mirage, Visions, and Weatherlight tossed in yet more new goblins and had a few cards that encouraged players to use knights and griffins, but did not play up the tribal concept.
With the release of the Tempest block and the beginning of the Rath cycle (kicking off the long-running Weatherlight Saga), Magic began moving toward a different model in which consistent game rules took precedence over the set's flavor, a model that would later be cemented by Invasion. Tempest was not a "tribal" set, but it and the following set, Stronghold, did introduce a new tribe that has proven enduringly popular and deadly: The slivers. Each and every one of these creatures rewarded players for putting them in a deck together, making it relatively easy to build truly powerful decks around a single creature type for the first time. Tempest also saw the creation of the beast tribe, but it wouldn't receive adequate support until Onslaught.
The last set of the Tempest block, Exodus, added little to the tribal theme, nor did the ensuing Urza's block, although Priest of Titania and Goblin Lackey from Urza's Saga empowered elf and goblin decks respectively. The Masques block did not play up the tribal theme, but it did include widespread support for two new tribes: rebels and mercenaries.
The Invasion block was the first time an entire block was built around a single concept (in this case, multi-color cards), laying the groundwork for the Onslaught block and Lorwyn blocks to come. It also formally solidified in many players' minds Magic's five major tribes with the five "envoys" in Apocalypse: Soldiers in white, merfolk in blue, zombies in black, goblins in red, and elves in green; the five enemy-color two-drop creatures from the same set reinforced this. The Invasion block also featured the kavu tribe across several colors.
The Odyssey block's major theme was interactivity with the graveyard, though it also encouraged use of several new or unusual tribes: Barbarians, beasts, birds, centaurs, cephalids, druids, horrors, insects, minions, mystics, nightmares, nomads, and squirrels, plus some new zombies. However, there was minimal tribal support, as the different creature types existed more for story purposes than game ones.
The Onslaught block was a major breakthrough in tribal design, as the entire block was built around the concept. Soldiers, zombies, goblins, and elves returned as the major tribes of their respective colors, though wizards replaced merfolk as blue's major tribe. Beasts, birds, clerics, dragons, and even walls received broad in-game support. The slivers made their triumphant return. Many enchantments, instants, and sorceries bolstered tribal decks with tribe-specific effects. The mistform creatures, which had the ability to change their creature type between turns, were created to patch holes in the tribal concept, and the set saw the creation of Mistform Ultimus, the first creature to have all creature types. Onslaught represented a high-water mark in tribal design as goblin and elf decks saw widespread tournament play, and the depth of its exploration of the tribal concept wouldn't be matched until Lorwyn.
At this time, Eighth Edition introduced the race/class model, in which almost all humanoid creatures were given not one but two creature types: One for their species and one for their profession. For instance, Fyndhorn Elder was both an elf and a druid and benefited from cards that cared about either. This model, which had been heralded by the many "bird soldiers" and other dual-typed creatures in the Odyssey and Onslaught blocks, opened up a whole new dimension for tribal deckbuilding.
The tribal theme was not played up in the artifact-centric Mirrodin block, though it introduced playable tribes in the form of cats and myr, and added several new goblins, elves, zombies, soldiers, and others to complement those in Onslaught.
The Kamigawa block had numerous tribal elements, though it is not considered a "tribal block" — its focus was more on the legendary mechanic. The spirit creature type, which had been in existence since Legends, was a major part of the block, spanning all five colors and spawning what is so far two of only a handful of keyword abilities to relate to a single creature type: spiritcraft and channel. Other tribes to receive support included foxes, moonfolk, rats, goblins, snakes, ogres, demons, samurai (which received another type-specific keyword, bushido), and ninja (which was assigned ninjutsu).
The next block, Ravnica, centered around multicolor cards rather than creatures, but some new goblins, elves, rats, ogres, and spirits were included to bolster cross-set synergy. The Time Spiral block, however, was a dumping ground for all themes and mechanics up to that point, included many tribal concepts, including bringing back the slivers for one more hurrah; it also included several tribes (such as kithkin) in anticipation of the upcoming set Lorwyn.
To date, the Lorwyn block is the most thorough exploration of the tribal theme. To begin with, almost every creature in the block belonged to one of only eight racial tribes (elves, goblins, merfolk, kithkin, faeries, giants, treefolk, and elementals), and most belonged to one of five class tribes (soldiers, wizards, rogues, shamans, and warriors), all of which received numerous cards to promote play with them. In Lorwyn, several tribes received support in colors they had previously not been very prevalent in. Minor tribes like knights, clerics, assassins, archers, and druids also received some support, making decks built around some of them viable for the first time in Magic's history. The Lorwyn block followed Kamigawa's example by assigning keywords to single creature types, giving them a sense of thematic cohesion: evoke belonged to elementals and prowl to rogues. The kinship ability (focused on shamans but appearing in other tribes as well) rewarded players for playing with many cards of the same tribe in one deck, benefiting from the race/class model.
The Shadowmoor block following Lorwyn was not tribal-centered, but since it shared settings with the previous block it provided many cards that fit well into decks built around the Lorwyn tribes. For instance, Inkfathom Infiltrator and Noggle Bandit were boons to rogue/prowl decks, while Sapling of Colfenor played well with other treefolk. The Shadowmoor block also offered some support to the scarecrow artifact creature type.
The Alara block was light on tribal elements, focusing more on the three-color "shards" as card groupings. Dragons and Zombies got a couple of cards each, with the colored artifacts and 5-power matters taking the place of tribal synergy gameplay. The Zendikar block similarly did not feature much tribal, with the introduction of Allies and Vampires being inducted as a characteristic race. Rise of the Eldrazi had some with the Eldrazi themselves getting a few colorless spells with the tribal supertype and a keyword tribal with Defenders. Over the block, Merfolk and Elves got two independent tribal cards, and one Goblin and one Kor. Scars of Mirrodin block was again mostly devoid of tribal, concentrating on the Mirran/Phyrexian split, except some minor elements of it in the continuation of the myr family. Golems have various lords through the Splicer mechanic, and Elves got another single lord.
Innistrad block saw a return to tribal. Though the tribal supertype was not present as it had been in Lorwyn and Rise of the Eldrazi, each of the five main tribes of Innistrad and Dark Ascension—humans, spirits, vampires, werewolves and zombies—got some support cards, including the Dark Ascension "captains" cycle (a return to the concept of tribal "lords"). Avacyn Restored, as a partial mechanical reboot, included some angel and demon tribal as well as further exploration of human tribal. The same tribes were used in the Shadows over Innistrad block.
Return to Ravnica block, like original Ravnica, was not tribal-focused (although there was an unusual example of some minor land subtype themes, with the bicolored Gate lands). Slivers returned in Magic 2014. Theros block has featured a significant amount of tribal in black-red minotaurs (and less so with gorgons), but it has not proven to be a major theme of the set as played.
Khans of Tarkir – Guilds of Ravnica
Khans of Tarkir block featured Warrior tribal as a prominent sub-theme of the Mardu Horde (and some cards in Dragons of Tarkir), though Dragons of Tarkir would fully embrace tribal play with a predictably heavy Dragon tribal focus. A Zombie lord was printed at Mythic in Dragons, which was strange given how the textbox generally didn't support a tribal build.
In keeping with the tradition established by its predecessor, Battle for Zendikar showcased both Eldrazi and ally tribal gameplay, though strictly speaking the Eldrazi cards all referred to "colorless creatures" to encompass the surrounding morphs in Tarkir and the artifact creatures in Kaladesh. Likewise, Shadows over Innistrad block maintained the precedent set by its predecessor with its five tribes - more Eldrazi were printed in Eldritch Moon, but there were no callouts to support them.
Amonkhet was built with Zombies as a central theme, with a dose of Cat and Minotaur tribal mixed in. In Hour of Devastation, a significant number of Desert related cards were also printed, making yet another instance of land-subtype tribal. A Horse lord was printed, its creature type was chosen specifically not to overlap with any relevant cards.
The Ixalan block places tribal gameplay front and center, arguably to the greatest degree since Lorwyn. Pirates, Dinosaurs, Merfolk, and Vampires receive substantial support, the first two receiving it for the first time. Ixalan was somewhat unusual in that Pirates () and Dinosaurs () were three-color tribes, while Vampires () and Merfolk () were two-color tribes. Most of the two-color draft archetypes in Ixalan were centered on drafting from a single tribe.
Dominaria offers support to Wizards and Goblins tribal, with lesser but still noticeable support for Knights and the triumphant return of Fungus and Saproling tribal. It also supported legendary as a form of supertype tribal, with it being part of a new way to group card types called batching, represented with the Historic batch.
The return to Ravnica in Guilds of Ravnica block was low on creature type tribal, though it expanded on the Gate land tribal. War of the Spark had four cards that boosted the Amass drafting archetype which could be used in Zombie tribal, though restricted to tokens. The oft-requested Ooze lord Biogenic Ooze was printed in Ravnica Allegiance; Persistent Petitioners called for Advisors and Mesmerizing Benthid called for Illusions, though both cases are self-contained cards.
Core Set 2020 featured Elemental tribal as a draft theme in and pairs, and also had a selection of independent tribal cards, notably Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord and Marauding Raptor for the outgoing Ixalan tribes. An extremely powerful Wolf and Werewolf lord was printed in Nightpack Ambusher, incidentally following two other Wolf tribal cards in War of the Spark. Given the lack of Wolves in the following year, the card was printed as a stand-alone power card with Werewolf for flavor.
Modern Horizons brought back Slivers, Goblins and Ninjas for tribal draft archetypes, alongside four independent tribal cards, two of which have no support within the set. These were designed for the "arbitrary tribal" Shapeshifter deck in .
Throne of Eldraine - Adventure in the Forgotten Realms
The following year of sets was not in blocks; none had tribal as a major theme, with Eldraine having a Knight theme for pairs in the wedge and minor Human tribal in Ikoria. However, there was an experimental through-line for Throne of Eldraine and Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths of anti-tribal, or "non-Human" tribal. Ikoria had lesser benefits for non-Humans, being only for Mutate and some callouts that support controlling both Humans and non-Humans; whereas Eldraine had more true rewards. Ikoria also introduced keyword tribal in four spells for five different keywords - previously a treatment only seen at length for flying. Satyrs received a lord in Theros Beyond Death. With the consolidation of the Dog creature type, a Dog lord was printed in celebration in Core 2021 - it was also the white constituent of a loose tribal cycle, with blue Spirits, black Rogues, red Goblins and green Cats getting one card in support.
Zendikar Rising brought about subtype batching in the mechanic party, which collects Rogue (), Wizard (), Warrior (), and Cleric () together, four iconic Dungeons and Dragons classes. Each have primary (listed) and secondary (the color next listed) colors, with being tertiary in each. This allows for a scaling tribal count that caps at four, where previously it was clunky to implement limits in tribal counting. The imbalanced color distribution provides an unusual archetype dynamic: four two-color tribal decks, two Party decks in the off-colors of and , and four non-tribal decks. Allys do not make a return from the previous two blocks due to typeline space, but it gets a callout on one card: Tazri, Beacon of Unity.
Kaldheim takes the Innistrad approach of top-down tribal, with a tribe per pair but with lower mechanical focus, unlike a set like Ixalan or Zendikar Rising. There are multiple cards that support cards that share creature types, but the tribe the cards are is not relevant. To up the density and relevance of these cards, Changeling returns as a mechanic. Of the ten tribes of the realms, Giants and Elves have the most tribal synergies; the Giant spells sometimes also refer to Wizards. Dwarves and Zombies get a lord each; Berserker, Cleric, Warrior, God, Serpent, Shapeshifter, and Angel receive one or two references in stand-alone cards. A few cards check for Legendary creatures, though each of them use it as a small bonus to their normal function.
Strixhaven: School of Mages is primarily an enemy-color set, but each school features a token type, and tokens themselves as a type have some support. Spirits have definitive support across various cards. Fractals have one card in Biomathematician. Pests are supported obliquely by lifegain triggers (Pests are defined to gain the controller a life upon dying), with Blex, Vexing Pest also being a lord for Bats, Insects, Snakes, and Spiders. Inklings and Elementals round out the quintet, but have no support.
Modern Horizons 2 featured the return of Squirrel tribal support as an element of the draft archetype, centered on creature sacrifice. A large selection of cards have explicit token-tribal effects, extending them to noncreature tokens also, like Food or Clues. Like the previous Modern Horizons, several types received one-off tribal support, like Merfolk, Lhurgoyf, and Crab.
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms has minor themes of Dragon tribal, alongside two Goblin lords and one "undead" (Skeleton, Zombie and Vampires) lord. "Legend" tribal returns in some Bard-flavored cards.
Innistrad Double Feature - present
Midnight Hunt dialed down the five-tribe tribal seen in the previous two blocks of Innistrad, instead favoring a mechanical link over a subtype link. Nonetheless, there are four or five cards in the set for each type. Part of this approach lead to a far fewer number of Spirits and Zombies, as the former are represented on back faces of Disturb cards, while the latter are scattered across various instants and sorceries with the downside mechanic Decayed. Crimson Vow is also expected to have this mechanical approach.
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