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Why Tribal is Terrible December 9, 2008

Posted by James in : all, random, game rules, theory, complecated rules, reviews, design , trackback

When I first saw Tarmogoyf I noticed that some of the card types were from the future. “Tribal” was one of them. For some reason I didn’t make the connection that a tribal card already existed. Eventually I noticed that Bound in Silence was a “tribal” card. At this point I didn’t think much about it. “Tribal” seemed like an eccentric but modest mechanic that couldn’t mean much.

When I saw that tribal was a big deal in Lorwyn block, I realized that tribal was going to be “Arcane” all over again. In everyone’s favorite block, Champions of Kamigawa, “Arcane” spells would trigger the ability of Spirits. In Lorwyn tribal cards were used to trigger the ability of other creature types. Tarfire is a Goblin, so it would trigger the abilities of Goblins.

Wizards of the Coast were very proud of themselves when they invented “arcane.” Why? Because “arcane” is meaningless. It is just a word attached to a card. Wizards of the Coast realized that they could create meaningless terminology in order to “trigger abilities” and have other arbitrary card interactions.

Why don’t I like Tribal? For two reasons. One, it is arcane all over again and treats Magic: the Gathering as nothing more than an arbitrary set of rules. Two, it requires “card types” to be arbitrary.

1. Tribal is Arcane all over again

Arcane was the worst mechanic ever. The idea to make cards with meaningless terminology in order to create arbitrary card interactions is not interesting. Flip cards are interesting. Split cards are interesting. Hybrid mana was interesting. But arcane is not interesting. It is the most boring idea for a card interaction possible. “Arcane” was the product of a realization. Wizards of the Coast realized that Magic: the Gathering is nothing more than a logical probability game. Arcane has little to no basis in a fantasy world, but it can cause arbitrary kinds of strategy. Tribal is bad for the exact same reason that arcane is.

2. Tribal requires card types to be arbitrary

Card types are a sacred part of the game and make sense in a fantasy setting. Some things are sorceries or instants. Other things are creatures, enchantments, lands, or artifacts. Makes perfect sense. Due to the fact that card types deal with different types of stuff, there are different rules for playing each of these cards. One land can be played for free during its controller’s turn, creatures can only be played when a sorcery can be played, and so on.

Wait a minute, what about “tribal?” This isn’t a “kind of thing.” In fact, a card can’t “just be a tribal.” (Notice how terrible it sounds to say something is a tribal!) A card can just be a creature, artifact, or sorcery. Why not just a tribal? Because “nothing can be a tribal card without having another card type!”

Now think about what “tribal” cards are. For example, Tarfire. It’s a Goblin instant. Does that make sense? No.

In other words “tribal” should not be a new card type. This new card type is arbitrary, has nothing to do with a fantasy setting,  and it requires us to alter the very meaning of what it means to be a “card type.” A card type is an independant type of card! A card type is not an arbitrary modifcation.

Why do we even need “Tribal” card types anyway? Because Wizards of the Coast wanted to give instants, sorceries, and so on, creature types. Usually only creatures can have creature types. Tribal is a meaningless card type that basically says, “Hi! I can have creature types!” (Sorry, but creature types should only be on creatures! Right?)

Now we have two questions. One, was it really necessary to have “tribal” card types in order to give creature types to noncreatures? Two, is it worth it? The answer to the first question is: No. Wizards of the Coast could have just as easily said that a card “counts as a Goblin” whether or not it is a creature. It might not look as official to do it this way, but it’s not impossible. We might also wonder whether or not tribal should have been a “supertype,” like “legendary” or “basic.” This could also be a great way to stop “tribal” from being a creature type. (It might be objected that supertypes can’t have a subtype, such as creature, but this can be easily amended in the rules.)

What about the second question, “was it worth it?” I would say, “No.”

Another look at “tribal.”

Instants with a creature type? This idea naturally sparks the imagination to create an actual creature instant. Yes. A card that is both a creature and an instant.

“Evoke” was a natural outgrowth of Tribal in the sense that we want creature instants (or creature sorceries). In fact, this was the original suggestion of evoke by Mark Rosewater, who originally called it “animate.”

Originally Shriekmaw would have been an sorcery that could come into play as a creature. This is kind of neat. It isn’t exactly a “creature sorcery,” but it sounds revolutionary. Unfortunately by the time that evoke was finalized it was much less interesting because it no longer had the feel of a “creature sorcery.” Development realized this fact, but gave up on the idea of “animate” because it could be done so easily without the strange rules of a spell that can become a creature.

Of course, we are still left with the question: Will we ever have a “creature instant” and if so, what will be the point? I do not have an answer to this question, but I can imagine a situation where we would want an instant to become a creature. Consider the following:

My next article will be posted on Friday December 12 2008.

The image used for Duplicate is an altered version of “The Last Knight” by Carsten Holtmann.


1. michael - December 9, 2008

Channel is even more useless of a keyword (or ability word as the case may be). Same with Sweep.

The other intent that tribal tries to bring to the table is a sense of unity with creatures and non-creatures. Arcane was flavorful in that it was “spirit magic”. Tribal is trying to capture that same essense, but using a chainsaw where a scalpel is needed.

2. James - December 9, 2008

Good point about Channel. Kamigawa is when they started having arbitrary and unnecessary keywords. “Channel” wasn’t even used for newer creatures with “channel,” such as Faerie Macabre (Malnourished Faerie).

I thought arcane was supposed to be some kind of divine magic, and as such I could kind of see how it might be relevant to… something. Goblin instants on the other hand seem especially goofy.

In light of Dungeons and Dragons, there could be a lot of “kinds” of magic: Necromancy, conjuration, divination, etc. These kinds of “spell types” would make a lot more sense and could be relevant.

3. michael - December 12, 2008

One problem with using Tarmogoyf as an example why tribal is bad is cause of the now defunct card types, Mana Source and Interrupt. If you played with R&D’s Secret Lair, I believe those would be valid types so the goyf can get even bigger.

I do not imagine them making more card types anytime soon, but they have retired card types before.

4. James - December 12, 2008

michael, I’m not sure exactly what you mean. Tarmogoyf is indeed a broken card, and we all have good reason to fear new card types that have not yet been introduced, such as planes.

However, I didn’t really discuss the fact that I hate Tarmogoyf in the article. I just used it as a way to point out how we were introduced to the idea that Tribal is a card type.

5. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » More Rules Updates that We Need - December 10, 2009

[…] Go here to find out more about why tribal shouldn’t be a card type. […]