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Crafting a Tribal Lowlander Format
By Stephen Bahl
From 2005 to 2011, we ran a series of “tribal” multiplayer games on the CPA message board. The nature of the games on the message board is such that not everyone is present at the same time, so there can be extended pauses with games progressing over weeks, months, or even longer. So these were akin to “correspondence games.” Starting with chess forever ago, correspondence games peaked in popularity in the 1980’s with a variety of other turn-based strategy games in which players would fill out cards detailing their turns and mail the cards to each other. Magic is turn-based, but players can, and sometimes must, make decisions on other players’ turns, so correspondence Magic is awkward. We have found that we can make it work for casual games, though.

Our tribal series included some fun games. Actually, it included some very, very fun games, with intense multiplayer battles that featured some surprising plays. But the games were also beset with problems, in part because we were haphazard and inconsistent in laying out and applying the principles of our “tribal” format. We based our rules on the old “Tribal Wars Classic” format from MTGO, but with some modifications. There was some brief discussion of banned tribes, “gentleman’s agreements”, legal cards, rule modifications, and overall format philosophy, but nothing really substantial. I won’t review the whole history of our tribal games here, but the important part for my purposes is that after we’d already had 14 regular tribal games, 1 highlander tribal game, 3 two-headed giant games (of which 1 was abandoned when a participant from each team had left or been unable to keep up with the game), and 1 game that was abandoned and restarted with the same decks due to awkward circumstances, we came up with a different concept that I liked a lot more...

The term “Highlander” in Magic refers to a gameplay variant in which all cards except basic lands are restricted (only one copy of a card can be used in a deck). The name comes from a famous line in the 1986 Highlander movie (about an immortal man from the Scottish Highlands): “There can only be one!” Wizards of the Coast doesn’t use this term in their official format descriptions and uses the word “Singleton” to denote the same “all cards except basic lands are restricted” concept. There’s a somewhat popular notion that WotC eschew the term “Highlander” because they want to avoid being hit with a trademark infringement lawsuit, but that’s a load of crap. I assume that the real reason is that they don’t want to confuse new players by naming formats based on an obscure joke. They already winge about “mill” as a common term to describe placing cards from the top of a library directly into their owner’s graveyard, and that one even comes from the game itself! Regardless, most people who actually play “Highlander” formats don’t use “Singleton” and stick with “Highlander” as a descriptor.

We came up with the idea, unique as far as I know, of combining the “Highlander” deckbuilding restriction with the “Tribal” deckbuilding restriction (one third of a deck must all be creatures with the same creature type), such that a player must devote one third of the slots in a deck to creatures of the same type and all other cards (not in the “tribe”) except for basic lands are restricted. We did this because we noticed that actually combining Highlander with Tribal limits the viability of most creature types: if the creatures in a tribe are left unrestricted, it’s possible to build a deck with four copies of each of the same five creatures, whereas if the “tribe” is restricted, then you need fully twenty different creature cards. Creature types that have received extensive support over the years already have an advantage because of their strategic depth, and restricting all cards would further punish the creature types with shallower card pools. But by restricting all other cards, we move the focus of deckbuilding to the tribes themselves.

I should note that the CPA artificial intelligence program known as S.P.I.D.E.R.M.A.N., which acts as my editor for articles here, has historically championed the case that in a tribal format, the decks should be meant to showcase the creatures in the tribes, and not merely decks based on some other engine that happen to devote twenty slots to creatures of the same type. And I admit that I didn’t appreciate this enough in the past. There’s no exact line that can be drawn when it comes to this philosophy, but to use the examples of a few of my own decks, I had a “Wizards” deck that was mostly just built around synergies with Mind Over Matter, a “Walls” deck that was really just an artifact-based prison shell, and a “Spirits” deck that was mostly just built around Survival of the Fittest. I wasn’t the only one taking the “deck based around a creature type” concept a little too loosely and I’m not even sure if I was the worst offender. Ultimately, parties will probably disagree on when exactly a deck shifts from being built around the theme of a tribe to being built around something else with the some creatures of the same type thrown in to fulfill the deckbuilding requirement. The cool thing about restricting non-tribe cards is that it automatically mitigates this problem.

Infinite combos were another problem, and eventually everyone involved just agreed not to use them. Potentially, the moratorium on infinite combos benefited me, as although I did an infinite lifegain loop in one game and an infinite token generation loop in another game, other players were attempting infinite combos too and, as there were more of them than of me, they collectively succeeded more often than I did myself. But I had some trepidation on this point. Firstly, I like infinite combos. Secondly, unilaterally ignoring infinite combos artificially changes value assessments of disruptive cards. For instance, Counterspell in multiplayer can only stop one spell from one opponent, which isn’t usually as impressive as its role in a duel. But if it stops the card that an opponent is using to set up an infinite combo, it can keep the game from ending abruptly and give the player some breathing room as the whole table gangs up on the player attempting an infinite combo (unless it’s Tribal Game 6). Thirdly, infinite loops are an inherent part of the game rules and not something that there’s an established system in place to opt in or out of. Some infinite loops are generated by cards that are independently useful on their own. It’s even possible, although rare, to have infinite loops made from cards belonging to different owners. Where possible, my preference is to have clean, technically precise rules and the ad hoc “infinite combos: just don’t do them” stipulation strikes me as sloppy.

Despite my misgivings, I’ve come around to the stance that a rule against the execution of unbounded loops (infinite combos) is necessary for this format. From my observations of local Commander playgroups, which often persist for years with the same people upgrading their decks and devising new ones, is that with the “highlander” deckbuilding constraint, tutors and infinite combos are extremely potent and gameplay eventually evolves around them. Some Commander groups start attacking this by imposing other constraints like budget limits, and the ones that don’t usually degenerate into races to impose broken stuff on the rest of the table, with each player striving to be the first to go off with an infinite combo or something that is a reasonable facsimile of one. By “facsimile” I mean something that isn’t actually an unbounded loop, but something that is so powerful it can still beat a whole table at once, generally by ramping into huge attackers, casting tons of spells for free, deploying some combo that creates conditional boardwipe so that opponents are left with no resources, or setting up a hard prison that blocks everything opponents might try. You don’t need to “go infinite” if you want to win, but you are stuck doing something so fast and powerful that it might as well be the same. You either play your own infinite combos or you play something else so powerful it can win the game for you, like an infinite combo would do. And at that point, the whole environment has become a race to be the first to kill everyone else, with the details of how you get there varying, for whatever that variation is worth.

I do think that infinite combos in casual multiplayer can be acceptable in some environments, but in Commander with its rules, the benefits of running infinite combos so heavily outweigh the drawbacks that it’s almost always suboptimal to avoid them, and this means games either become repetitive races to assemble combos or they are full of players deliberately building weaker decks than they could. Ostensibly that problem is solved by the “spirit of the format” but after seeing so many small Commander playgroups that make “Combo Winter” look like a tropical paradise, I’m confident in saying that the “spirit” platitude is worthless. And a tribal format should definitely be about the tribes, so even if I think “infinite combos: just don’t do them” is ugly, I also think it’s necessary.

I guess what the practical “rule” is in this case is that while no specific combo components are banned, unbounded loops are not permitted to be executed. You’re free to put cards like Enduring Renewal, Intruder Alarm, Reveillark, Sliver Queen, etc. in your deck, even though they tend to easily cause unbounded loops, but if you find yourself in a board state that could be demonstrated to create an unbounded loop, you may not make the play that would cause such a loop. I guess this means Rule 720.1b is replaced with “Everyone else in the game gets to tell you that no, this is forbidden from happening.”

I forget who came up with “Lowlander” to describe this concept of “everything is restricted except X.” I had thought that it was probably me because I live in a region called the Puget Sound Lowlands and it seems like my sense of humor to come up with that kind of twist, but on reflection I don’t actually remember inventing it. The answer is probably somewhere on the CPA message boards but I’m not motivated to hunt it down right now. Anyway, I’m enamored with this idea of Lowlander formats and now I want to apply this same concept in other ways. Off the top of my head, interesting variants might be “Peasant Lowlander” (no rares allowed and all uncommons are restricted, perhaps with a cap on the total number of uncommons) and “Bring-Your-Own Lowlander” (choose one card and unrestrict that, all other cards except basic lands are restricted). But Tribal Lowlander has the most potential.

Our first attempt at Tribal Lowlander at the CPA didn’t go so well, which was partially my fault. OK, mostly my fault. Fine, almost entirely all my fault. But I don’t want to let one bad game sour what I think is overall a promising idea. I don’t think I have the gumption to start a Tribal Lowlander community, but it is kind of a dream. There may not be enough activity or interest at the CPA and at this time I don’t really think I have a playgroup where I think I could cultivate this sort of thing. But here’s where I’ll brainstorm how I’d establish Tribal Lowlander as a robust format.

1. This first point isn’t a rule, but more of an explanation of the premise. I’ve criticized the Commander format for emphasizing “spirit of the format” and yet I’m going to do the same here. So I’m a hypocrite. So sue me. The goal of Tribal Lowlander is to provide a kind of gameplay that emphasizes creature types and allows for a diverse field of creature types. In the interest of opening the field up, we want to keep out cards that are too dominant, that sharply move the focus away from tribes, or that overly distort gameplay to become more homogenous. This also applies to tribes that are capable of doing the same. Also, Tribal Lowlander is balanced around casual multiplayer gameplay, rather than duels.

2. The basic rules of Constructed Magic apply. The minimum deck size is 60 cards. Additionally, each deck must have a designated “tribe” (creature type). The minimum ratio of creatures of the chosen type to other cards in a deck is 1:3 (rounded up). This means that in a 60-card deck, at least 20 of the cards must be creatures of the same type, in a 100-card deck, at least 34 of the cards must be creature of the same type, and so on. If a creature shares the same type as the deck’s chosen tribe, up to four copies of that creature may be used in the deck. All other cards except basic lands are restricted to a single copy. At this time, we have no provision for sideboards and no sideboarding.

3. Unbounded loops are not allowed to be used. It isn’t feasible to ban individual cards for this, so instead of targeting individual cards, it is the action of executing a loop itself that is disallowed.

4. In addition to all extra-tribal cards being restricted, some individual cards are assigned to a Banned List. Banned cards may not be used in any decks.

5. Some creature types are so strong on their own that they are not to be used as tribes. This does not invalidate any individual card. For example, Goblin Chainwhirler is a goblin and a warrior. If Goblins are banned as a tribe but Warriors are not, the card could still be used as a 4-of in a deck with Warriors as the tribe, or it could be used as a 1-of in a deck with some other tribe.

I think that about covers it other than the actual lists of banned cards and banned tribes. For a while, I thought those problems were rather daunting or would take a lot of work. But lately, I have been looking at different formats and I think that both issues are manageable, although the question of which tribes to ban is a bit tricky. What I propose, to make management as smooth as possible, is that the both lists be managed by a single “Tribal Council” consisting of a few community members (or perhaps all of the regulars, if the community is small enough). They would be the final arbiters of changes to the lists. Additionally, they would have the assistance of one or more “Investigators.” These would be players who have an interest in maintaining a healthy format. They would look for potential issues and analyze whether a particular card or tribe might be degenerate within the format, then they would present their findings and opinions to the Tribal Council. Like I said, this is brainstorming. The size of the Tribal Council and the number of attached Investigators would depend on the size of the community involved in the format. I initially had the CPA in mind, but this approach could be taken anywhere. In a community with very few players, it might be best to have almost everyone on the Tribal Council. In a larger community, it would be possible to have more Investigators than Council members.

Before I close this out, I want to provide tentative starting points for both lists. At first, I had planned on using the MTGO “Tribal Wars Legacy” list as a starting point (and that list is useful for flagging the most egregious “tribal hoser” cards, which I do think should be banned), but I abandoned that simply because Tribal Wars Legacy isn’t a very well-developed format. When I say that, I mean no disrespect to whichever MTGO managers created the list, but it just seems to be the case that the list was established without much scrutiny or testing, cobbled together from older lists. To be fair to MTGO, our multiplayer “Lowlander” format is different from a format that might be meant more for competitive duels. Even so, some of their choices just aren’t adequate. For example, The Abyss is on the list. Presumably it got there because it is powerful reusable creature removal. But there are plenty of other powerful reusable creature removal cards, including some that are arguably better than The Abyss in tribal formats (and if Zombies were allowed, I’d be far more worried about Call to the Grave than I would be about The Abyss). The card simply isn’t that scary. There are other questionable cards on their list, but what’s worse is that they do nothing about other cards that would be far scarier than anything I could do with The Abyss. In fact, it looks like under the current Tribal Wars rules, I could build a fully uncompromised tournament-caliber Legacy Elves deck, and that would probably walk all over just about anything else in the format with a few reasonably close matchups (a Goblins deck might possibly be constructed in such a way that it could compete with it, and maybe an Eldrazi deck might be able to pull it off with some modifications).

Based on experience in other formats, I think I can come up with a pretty good starting point for a Banned List. Let’s see. We’ll get rid of cards that are banned in Vintage (and almost everywhere else). They’re trouble for logistical reasons (well, one of them is allegedly a logistical problem and I disagree with that, but I’m not gonna die on that hill) or they just don’t make sense in our format anyway…

All "ante" cards.
All cards with the "conspiracy" type.
Chaos Orb
Falling Star
Shahrazad

And I can’t think of a good reason to allow the “tribal hosers” even if they don’t turn out to be that good. The whole point is to use your tribe, not to nuke someone else’s tribe. They’d be bad gameplay if they were worth playing at all. Get them outta here…

Circle of Solace
Endemic Plague
Engineered Plague
Extinction
Peer Pressure
Tsabo's Decree

Cheap mana-producing artifacts that net mana on the first turn are powerful sources of tempo. Although no one mana rock is going to ruin a game by itself, their cumulative effect, even restricted, is huge. Banning them is kind of a key distinction between Vintage and Legacy, which says something for what these cards do. They warp deck construction around them and if we want to focus on tribes it’s better to ban them…

Black Lotus
Mana Crypt
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Sol Ring

I did give some thought to Mana Vault, Grim Monolith, Mox Diamond, Mox Opal, and Chrome Mox. But because of inherent limitations and because we’re already banning the other, more egregious artifacts, I think those cards are safe and might not even make it into very many decks. Card-drawing spells have the same issue. Even if we restrict all of them, some of them might still be too good. I’d lean toward banning…

Ancestral Recall
Dig Through Time
Treasure Cruise

That should solve the problem. There are plenty of other good card-drawing spells, but those three are explosive and can be cast extremely cheaply. Perhaps more importantly, as this is a “Lowlander” format, we don’t want people easily finding their one-off copies of all their favorite cards with tutors. A deck full of tutors could consistently find the same card. So to shape our format, I’d take a heavy-handed approach toward banning tutors...

Demonic Consultation
Demonic Tutor
Enlightened Tutor
Entomb
Gifts Ungiven
Imperial Seal
Intuition
Mystical Tutor
Personal Tutor
Vampiric Tutor

There’s a method here. I don’t know if I’ve picked enough targets or all of the right ones, but I think I’m reasonably close. Very cheap tutors (even the amusingly risky Demonic Consultation) are the ones that distort gameplay in other formats. And cards that can effectively tutor for multiple cards to set up a combo are also dangerous. We might forbid infinite combos, but let’s not make powerful finite combos too easy. I’ve left alone some of the more expensive and more contingent tutors, as I don’t think they’re as risky. I’d also ban one more card-drawing spell specifically for its effect in multiplayer games…

Trade Secrets

I’d ban this one for the same reason it’s banned in Commander. Same problem, really. There’s another multiplayer oddball that I’d rather not deal with, but for a different reason...

True-Name Nemesis

I consider the card to be a mistake. It’s controversial in Legacy, makes equipment significantly more powerful, and is generally a miserable experience to play against. In multiplayer, it encourages politicking, but I think the effect is too severe. It’s possible that Merfolk would be a banned tribe anyway, which would partially mitigate this, but my inclination would still be to steer clear of the “protection from you” creature. There are also cards that are just so high-impact in what they allow, that even with them restricted they could come down early enough and make a big enough change on the board that I’d advocate banning them…

Balance
Bazaar of Baghdad
Mishra's Workshop
Time Walk
Tolarian Academy

That’s only five cards! Testing might reveal others, but those are the obvious ones. They warp gameplay. Restricting them just means that they wouldn’t consistently dominate games. Whenever they turned up, in the decks built to use them, they’d be overpowered. And finally, with infinite combos banned, there are still some combo enablers I’d ban because they can pretty easily do degenerate things even without infinite loops...

Channel
Dark Depths
Hermit Druid
Natural Order
Skullclamp
Sneak Attack
Time Vault
Tinker

This is the part of the list I’m thinking might require some expansion. There’s a whole lot (often put on other lists) that I left out. It’s very likely that I haven’t come to appreciate how powerful some other cards would be in Tribal Lowlander. But that’s where I’d start.

Banning tribes is something I’m less comfortable with. It’s not something I’ve seen in other formats. In fact, I can only ever remember “tribal, but with some tribes banned” as a thing at the CPA. As far as I can tell, WotC borrowed the idea of “Tribal Wars” as a variant format for a Magic Invitational (for those who don’t remember, Invitationals traditionally tried to mix things up and make pros test their skills against each other in a variety of obscure formats) from a player-driven MTGO concept that had a large-scale faction-based point system tracked on the old official M:tG message boards. Before the format was an official option on MTGO, players were organizing it as an event themselves and they banned Goblins, Elves, and Zombies because those tribes were believed to be dominant at the time (Onslaught Block was the only strong source of tribal stuff back then). The players running the format at that time only banned “tribal hoser” cards and Skullclamp, which seemed strange to me when I first found that bit of information, but with the card pool available through MTGO back in 2005, it actually sounds about right. Curiously, when WotC made the format official, they didn’t ban any tribes (which might explain why the format didn’t become more popular). Anyway, Bennie Smith wrote about this format on the official WotC site and we initially adopted the idea of banning those three tribes, although we dropped it for the “Highlander special” game and for the first “Lowlander” attempt.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the three original “banned” tribes should indeed be banned. But a lot has changed since 2005 and if those were the only tribes banned, there are others that would rise to take their place. I don’t want the format to go into a nasty pattern of banning the best tribe, having a new best tribe, banning that one, having a new best tribe, banning that one, and so on. That would suck. I want people to be able to play with the tribes that they think are cool. But as we found out when I brought Goblins to our first attempt at a “Lowlander” game, restricting all cards outside of the tribe doesn’t do much to slow Goblins down, and I don’t think they’re the only tribe that could be explosive and powerful. In the interest of giving smaller, more obscure tribes a chance, it seems reasonable to ban some of the most powerful tribes, slowing the format down a bit and letting people actually have a chance to play. So if Goblins, Elves, and Zombies are banned to diversify the format, what else? I’m sure there are other culprits, but I am not sure how many. Here are the ones that scare me the most…

Humans: Deceptively powerful because some of the strongest old creatures were retroactively added to this tribe. And in general, they get tons of utility and combo shenanigans.
Eldrazi: Before Oath of the Gatewatch this was probably an interesting tribe with some unique features. But even with Eye of Ugin restricted, these guys might be fast enough to just bulldoze people.
Merfolk: Almost all of their power is loaded onto “lord” creatures that boost all other cards in the tribe, so restricting non-tribal elements does little to slow them down.
Constructs: Much like humans, these guys get a huge boost from their tribe being retroactively assigned to some classic old cards. It’s also kind of a catch-all for artifact creatures and so it has been used frequently on them. Even with Mishra’s Workshop banned, constructs could be hard to stop.
Faeries: Arguably less dangerous than some of these others. They rely on Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Blocks a lot, but they get a superior curve of efficient threats from early to late game, with some real staying power in black.

After that, I can think of more, but there seems to be a drop in power level somewhere in here.. Strong tribes would definitely include Angels, Spirits, Soldiers, Wizards, Vampires, Shapeshifters, Clerics, Elementals, Slivers, Birds, and Horrors could all be especially potent in this format because they have deep pools for selection and a versatile range of costs and abilities. They’re all good, but are any of them too good? Well, I’m still trying to figure that part out! What do you think? Visit the message board here and let me know.

Read More Articles by Stephen Bahl!

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