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By: Tribal Apocalypse, Tribal Apocalypse
Jul 18 2014 11:00am
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Left to right: AJ, Willy. Not pictured, Tesla.

 We did it last week for Robin88, the 2013 Tribal Player of the Year; we'll do it again now for AJ_Impy, the 2013 Ultimate Tribal Champion. A man and MTGO celebrity who doesn't really need an introduction (let's just say you might have listened to his and gamemaster32's podcasts a few times if you spend time on PureMTGO), so I won't waste your time with one.

 First of all, something about you: who's the man behind the mask?
 My name is Anthony James Richardson, frequently abbreviated to AJ. I am presently a 34-year-old mature student with the Open University working on a computer science degree. I am an Englishman, a British national with ancestry touching upon Ireland, Poland, Byelorussia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I live in Bishop's Stortford, in a Grade 2 listed building created by a Victorian eccentric architect in homage to Elizabethan-era design. My life is fairly quiet at the moment.

Somehow, I doubt AJ actually lives in that building, but I like to think he does.

 Why "Impy"?
 An abbreviation for "Imperator", an online handle I used on an old Compuserve forum back in the 1990s.

 Oh, I thought it was a reference to being mischievous and unpredictable like an Imp! It sort of fits, though, doesn't it?
 In some ways. I could allude to Peter Dinklage here, but I was using the nickname before George R.R. Martin even published A Game of Thrones

 Aside from playing Magic, do you have any other intensive hobby? What do you like to do in your free time?
 Creative writing, roleplaying, computer games (usually involving taking over the world/galaxy in some way or another), and plenty of reading.

 What are you reading right now? And what non-MTG-related book would you suggest all MTG players to read?
 I'm planning on picking up Skin Game, the latest in The Dresden Files series, in the very near future. As for a non-MTG related book all MTG players should read, Sun Tzu's The Art of War. A great many strategies that applied to Chinese warfare in antiquity translate surprisingly well to our card game.

 

A day at the football game.

 That picture of you at White Hart Lane means you're a Tottenham fan?
 Yup. Lord Erman spotted that due to a shirt I was wearing in another interview on the site a few years back.

 You also frequently mention your wife, Susan. What can you tell us about her?
 We've been married eleven years, she's a genius with multiple degrees, she's American from Pennsylvania, she has the singing voice of an angel, she works on the cutting edge of scientific publishing.

 When/how do you started playing MTG and MTGO? Was it back in the time of legends, or do you actually remember it?
 My first contact with the cards was my cousin showing me a few back in the early to mid '90s. I started playing with the demo version of Shandalar, which would have been around 1996 or '97. I had the expansions for that imported specially, and moved on to the Magic: The Gathering Interactive Encyclopedia, which had a rudimentary Apprentice-like game engine. I joined MTGO about the time of the Legions release.

 Timmy/Johnny/Spike percentage?
 Principally Johnny, I like doing things other people have not even considered, using cards whose existence has been forgotten, in unexpected ways. A fair bit of the other two, I have a competitive streak and a fondness for splashy impact cards. 

 Are you satisfied about your current MTGO collection? How do you feel about spending money on MTGO to better one's collection?
 There is always room to improve. Twice in the past few years I have sold up completely and rebuilt from scratch, largely on credit from my podcasts and articles, garnished lightly with prizes. It is not for me to determine or comment upon what others do with their money or their collections. I have no fondness for sitting across from someone capable of hitting me in the face with their wallet, but it would be hypocritical for me to complain given what I was able to sell out for.

 You're possibly the most recognized tribal player ever, due to your constant commitment to the format. It's always remembered with an epic tone that you built and played and won a match with each and all of the 208 existing tribes (including the ones that aren't even recognized in Tribal Apocalypse). But what's the Tribal Wars format for you? Why were you attracted to it in the first place?

 It has a unique deckbuilding restriction: Whatever happens, you know your opponents will have twenty creatures minimum in their decks. No other format past or present has anything remotely similar to that, It has a deep card pool, giving maximum potential for interesting shenanigans. It encourages finding synergy in your decks, even in cases where the potential appears nonexistent at first glance. In short, a fascinating deckbuilding challenge coupled to entertaining gameplay, with just enough known about your opponent's deck to work with. 

 You were there when Tribal Apocalypse started in 2009, before the Blippian era. The event, the format and Magic itself were very different back then. Any memories of that time?

 It all tends to blend together over time. One bittersweet memory is getting a card added to the Wizards maintained format ban list, namely Moat. I did a whole series of base white decks with various fliers, some exceedingly obscure (monowhite Warrior, for example), which used that enchantment to stymie the prevalent aggro decks. I miss being able to do that, Magus of the Moat is much easier to remove. I provided a brief history of the early days in the comments of the 100th Blippian-era event anniversary article. We've come a long way from there, but the old days make interesting reading.

A perfectly trimmed AJ.

Let's talk about your history with the Tribal format. Choose and review for us 10 Tribal Wars decks you consider significant, worthy to feature in an "AJ_Impy's Greatest Hits" kind of thing.

 Now there's a challenge and a half. Here's some context: I have in my deck directories every deck I have ever made on Magic Online across three computers going back more than eleven years.  There are over 3,600 decks listed, not too far off a deck a day given a couple of interregnums. The vast majority of those are Tribal, either in legality or ethos. The first decks I ever built on MTGO were tribal in nature, and as with many tribal players just starting out I began with a random pile of Slivers and a random pile of Elves. I touched upon other Onslaught block tribes such as Clerics and Beasts, but the very first time I ever tried to go off the beaten track in Tribal Wars and do a deck that no one else was doing was with Dragons.

 

 By my current standards, the deck is terrible, 66 cards instead of 60, with appalling mana (two Tainted lands off three Swamps?). It touches upon all five colours, with the early game a struggle to ramp up using the Fertile Grounds and Elves, with three 4-mana Dragons and six morphs to tide the deck over until the heavy hitters start coming out at 6 mana. But for all its faults, this really is where it all began. I still remember trying to get enough Dragons back in those wild west days before bots or reliable trading partners. There are elements that stand out as the seeds of what came later: The token one-sided mass removal spell, obscure cards, even the Kaboom! there to provide a chance at unexpected reach. I wouldn't call this a good deck, or one of my greatest hits, but this right here is one of the most significant decks in the entirety of my time with the format. If I hadn't gone down this path, the format might well not exist today.

 Moving on to 2005, and we have one of the earliest major player run tribal events, Ith's Natural Selection. This got a considerable amount of coverage from Bennie Smith, the MTGO columnist, including the first mention of me in connection with the format on the mothership, in this Seraya's interview. The deck to which Seraya refers is the first one I entered into a player run tribal event, which ended up placing pretty well.

 

This was Humans back when they only had two blocks and two sets to work with, back before the Grand Creature Type Update. The enchantment/artifact removal was principally for equipment: Skullclamp was banned, Jitte not yet, and having a card that could throw the Jitte back in your opponent's face was very handy. In a format where equipment was taking up slots instead of removal (no Bolt, no Swords, no Path back then), Master Decoy was a potent metagame call, shutting down their angle of attack whilst letting yours get through. Very definitely my style of deck taking form: 24 lands, all 4-ofs or 2-ofs. Now, the interesting thing with Natural Selection was that you knew what your opponent's tribe and primary colour were (though secondary colours were allowed) and you were allowed to freely change your deck so long as those two variables remained the same. I used this extensively, applying my favourite Sun Tzu quote:"If I determine the enemy's disposition of forces while I have no perceptible form, I can concentrate my forces while the enemy is fragmented." I built my decks to counter what I could discern of my scheduled opponent's decks, whilst keeping my own secondary colour and deck form a mystery.

 Now, let's jump ahead another two years to 2007. Whilst I'd had a variety of my insane Johnny decks shown off on the mothership since 2004, I didn't start writing on my own behalf until February '07. Here is the very first deck from my very first article, so old it is no longer extant in PureMTGO's archives. It is, however, still on Archive.org.

 

This one is a bit of fun, using the parasitic arcane cards and spiritcraft abilities of Kamigawa block with Ravnica lands fetched via Krosan Verge. Having a qualifying X-spell alongside the Kirin is good times. The new legendary rule helps the tribe considerably, since you now get to keep the spare if you need to play one to trigger it. One of these days I will rebuild a Kirin deck using Conspiracy set to Spirit, and Memnite or Ornithopter as an ersatz Armageddon.

If you see AJ play this, run!

 The Art of Tribal Wars article series ran for more than two years, initially infrequently but it attained a regular weekly slot in the fullness of time. This next deck comes from the last article published under that header, in the same week as the first ever Tribal Apocalypse, in September 2009.

A Classic Tribal Wars deck by AJ_Impy, September 2009
Creatures
4 Kobold Drill Sergeant
4 Kobold Overlord
4 Kobold Taskmaster
4 Kobolds of Kher Keep
4 Rohgahh of Kher Keep
20 cards

Other Spells
4 Mirrorweave
4 Sign in Blood
4 Terminate
4 Void
16 cards
 
Lands
6 Mountain
4 Blood Crypt
4 Crumbling Necropolis
4 Steam Vents
4 Watery Grave
2 Kher Keep
24 cards

 
Rohgahh of Kher Keep

 

 This was a fun little combo deck which used Rohgahh of Kher Keep, Mirrorweave, and a Kobolds of Kher Keep in either original or token form to steal everything. The trick was to let Rohgahh take itself under an opponent who was unable to pay for its control, then turn everything into Kobolds of Kher Keep with Rohgahh's "ownership exchange" trigger on the stack. Net result, every creature on the battlefield is a tapped Kobold of Kher Keep under your control, which then reverts to its original self and untaps in time to attack their former owner. Needlessly complicated to set up, but amazingly satisfying on resolution.
 
 I stopped doing The Art of Tribal Wars mainly so I could focus more on the podcast, Freed from the Real, but also to make more room for articles pertaining to Tribal Apocalypse. I generally mentioned my tribal shenanigans each week in the podcast, as well as playing in the event. During those early Shardfenix days, I earned a reputation as "Lord of the Moat", and for consistently finishing second. This deck dates to January 2010.

A Classic Tribal Wars deck by AJ_Impy, January 2010
Creatures
4 Celestial Ancient
4 Dawn Elemental
4 Flickerwisp
4 Shinewend
4 Squall Drifter
20 cards

Other Spells
4 Moat
4 Oblivion Ring
4 Swords to Plowshares
2 Ghostly Prison
2 Story Circle
16 cards
Lands
22 Plains
2 Emeria, the Sky Ruin
24 cards

 
Moat

 

 This is typical of my decks before Moat was banned: A different tribe every week, as ever, and a mixing up of strategies, but every other week or so, a bunch of flyers backed up by spot removal, Wraths and the signature enchantment. I got through Elementals, Sphinges, Warriors, even Lammasu in this way. We lost Moat when the format shifted from Classic to Legacy on 8th December 2010 with the arrival of MED4.

 This next deck is at the other end of the scale: Steel Overseer-based Robots aggro with one hell of a combo squeezed in. This one saw play in November 2010, during FlippersGiraffe's tenure at the helm of Tribal Apocalypse.

A Classic Tribal Wars deck by AJ_Impy, November 2010
Creatures
4 Memnite
4 Phyrexian Walker
4 Steel Overseer
4 Summoner's Egg
3 Phyrexian Soulgorger
1 Thermal Navigator
4 Disciple of the Vault
4 Protean Hulk
2 Clone Shell
30 cards

Other Spells
4 Spawning Pit
4 Springleaf Drum
2 Mox Opal
10 cards
Lands
4 Cloudpost
4 Deserted Temple
4 Glimmerpost
4 Overgrown Tomb
4 Vesuva
20 cards

 
Protean Hulk

 

 A deck which uses Summoner's Egg and Clone Shell to cheat Protean Hulk into play, which then fetches the Disciples and 0-cost Constructs, plus a Thermal Navigator if a sac outlet is needed. The whole Russian nesting doll sequence of cracking open the various layers one after the other is really quite something to behold. Even if the combo plan doesn't work out, the aggro plan still needs to be accounted for, multiple mutually supportive angles of attack. Wish I hadn't had to sell off those Moxen, though.

 Now, let's jump forward another couple of years, into the Kumagoro-led Blippian Era. Another of my proclivities is for powerful ramp decks. The above list includes the Cloudpost/Glimmerpost/Vesuva/Deserted Temple manabase, but one of my most enduring signature lands are the venerable Cabal Coffers. This deck from October 2012 makes great use of it.

 

 This deck is very much in my style, incorporating as it does shenanigans via the Torpor Orb to turn off my disadvantages and my opponent's ETB advantages, a playset and a half of mass removal with additional recursion, plus Chainer's Edict for additional spot removal and get rid of Persecutor's persecution. Leechridden Swamp is another of my favourite value lands, counting as a Swamp and providing a way to plink away even if stalemated.

 

Planechase reprinted two of AJ's favorite lands.

 Something I like to indulge in from time to time are completely landless decks, casting aside one of the most fundamental tenets of deck design in favour of various shenanigans. Perhaps the most archetypal example of this is the infamous landless, Progenitus-hardcasting deck.

A Legacy Tribal Wars deck by AJ_Impy, October 2012
Creatures
4 Child of Alara
4 Death's Shadow
4 Karona, False God
4 Progenitus
4 Scion of the Ur-Dragon
20 cards

Other Spells
4 Ancestral Vision
4 Brainstorm
4 Charmed Pendant
4 Chrome Mox
4 Lotus Bloom
4 Restore Balance
4 Sunscour
4 Swords to Plowshares
4 Terminus
3 Sensei's Divining Top
1 Mox Opal
40 cards
Lands
0 cards

 
Charmed Pendant

 

This deck from 2012 (itself a refurbishment of one from 2009) has no less than 16 wrath effects, with Restore Balance also including Armageddon and Mind Twist with its creature destruction, and Child of Alara killing everything when it dies. Charmed Pendant enables any of the tribe members atop the library to cast any in your hand, with the deck as a whole a challenging exercise in resource management. Suspending the right spell at the right time, using Charmed Pendant in conjunction with (Sensei's Diving Top) to get rid of unwanted cards to dig deeper, Terminus shenanigans with Brainstorm and top, knowing when to use Sunscour and what to exile for it, how much damage to take to make your Death's Shadows threats without making yourself dead. Even playing Child of Alara and Karona at all is a risk. This sort of high stakes deck, where you are at a considerable disadvantage conventionally speaking but can parley that into game-winning advantage, is one of the most enjoyable things it is possible to do in the game.

 This next one combines an obscure tribe with value lands, indestructibility, and several ways to blow up the world. As with the previous deck, it eschews a major aspect of the game, in this case colour. The 6 wrath/mass removal effects all have the potential to be one-sided. In short, very much my preferred deck ethos.

 

Another one from 2012, this deck has a fairly low curve for an all-artifact/colorless build, with the Gargoyle Sentinels hitting on turn 3 (or turn 2 after a T1 Cloudpost, T2 Glimmerpost). The basic principle here is ramp up, clog the board with hard to kill obstacles, kill everything, swing in. Predator, Flagship is another personal favourite: I like including it as a singleton in ramp, especially colourless ramp, as it provides both evasion and removal, and looks cool doing it.

 Let's finish off with something recursive. This deck debuted at the start of this year, and was the first component in the invitational win.

 

 Ramp via Krosan Verge and 3-mana rocks, Emeria, the Sky Ruin and Recurring Nightmare as reanimation, Ashen Rider, Krond the Dawn-Clad and Archon of Justice all providing repeating exile effects. Sticking Celestial Archon with bestow upon Krond is just plain nasty, resulting in a flying, vigilant, first striking 10/10 which exiles something when it attacks. But the real nastiness comes with a pair of Ashen Riders and the Recurring Nightmare: Sacrifice one, exile something, get the other back, exile something, rinse, repeat for as many times as you can pay the three mana. The additional colours allow getting creative with the other removal, pairing the repeatable Chainer's Edict with Wrath of God and the "don't sweat the small stuff" Abrupt Decay. Outclass and evade everything you can, exile everything you can't. Fun deck.

 There's a way you build deck that evolved over time in what some people now call "the AJ style". A lot of your decks use the "golden ratio" of 24 lands, 20 creature and 16 other spells. They typically use full playsets with few or no 1-ofs. And they sometimes feature up to two full playsets of mass removal spells. What's behind these choices? An attempt to avoid variance, meta-calls, or just a personal mindset?
 It's a useful shorthand which gives a good framework for a given deck. It helps with consistency. It's also a bit of a myth: There have been 1- or 2-ofs in almost every deck of mine recorded on Gatherling, you have to go back to early February to find one that doesn't have them, and that one was very much the exception. I do tend to use the golden ratio (unless I'm going for landless or low land shenanigans), but this is dictated by the nature of the format, hitting that requisite 33%, having the mana to cast everything and using the rest to deal with the opposition. As for the prevalence of mass removal, it boils down to this: Everyone runs twenty creatures. A substantial proportion lean towards aggressive strategies that flood the board. Disrupting that by killing everything hinders their plans, as does forcing them to play around it, as that slows them down and forces them to be cautious, which weakens the main thrust of a wide aggressive strategy.
 It is also important to note which removal is used: I have a strong preference for one-sided wraths, stuff that can decimate the opposition whilst leaving my own side unharmed. This can be attained a number of ways, from variable effects which my own creatures can survive, to indestructibility or recursion, to tribe, colour or other value-specific destruction in decks where I can adjust which side has what value, to straightforward Bonfire of the Damned effects. 
 So, a bit of all three, really. Always kill everything, always carry a spare, always have something in reserve.

 Speaking of the flip side to your preference for full playsets, from where it comes your hatred of Singleton? One would think a player so interested in experimental builds and the alchemy of card interactions would welcome the challenge of breaking them down to their primary, singular components. Or maybe your experiments needs certain controlled condition to be properly performed?
 It would be a mistake to categorise me as hating Singleton for Singleton's sake. I have a reputation in Commander, a singleton-based format, for being an extremely tough opponent, as recently attested by PureMTGO's own Commander expert, Leviathan. The problem is, Singleton is an appalling add-on to Tribal Wars. In one fell swoop, you eliminate any tribe with less than 20 members (or less than 11 if you don't mind half your deck being multicolour Changelings), you slash the odds of any tribe with just one or two solid members of ever seeing their good stuff, you massively strengthen tutors and silver bullet strategies such as a set of Swords of X and Y off an off-tribe Stoneforge Mystic, you force the smaller tribes to play a huge percentage of chaff, and you strengthen the dullest, least interesting and most overplayed tribes, the ones with the greatest amount of redundancy in their deck options. It leads to a smaller tribal pool of less interesting decks with more "oops I win" potential for disappointing games. I hate what the implications of Singleton mean in the context of the Tribal Wars format.

They really didn't know what they were doing when they printed this card.

This approach puts you at odds with your fellow interviewer and last year's #1 of the ranking, Robin88, who's known for successful builds that emphasize 1-ofs. What do you think of his style and his merits as a winning player?
 By an interesting coincidence, I had the pleasure of meeting Robin in person on his visit to London very shortly before the Invitational. We had quite the discussion on our respective philosophies at the time. You can't argue with results, he earned that top spot and earned it well.

 In his own interview, Robin talked about your meeting. Let's do it from your point of view now.
 He covered the meeting pretty well. He came across as friendly, fairly animated. We have very different approaches to the game, which couldn't be made clearer than his preference for 62-card decks expressly to minimise the chance of drawing any card from a given tribe in favour of more Legacy format power. Probably the most antithetical thing I've ever heard or seen regarding the format: Deliberately avoiding the tribe with every deck built seems out of kilter with the concept of Tribal Wars. Differences of opinion of that magnitude, when presented without dogmatism, make for the most interesting debates.

 Speaking of which, you're sometimes very openly critical of other players' choices that don't fit your deckbuilding philosophy. Do you think that speaking out loud your concerns and dislikes could improve the community, or is it just that you can't help but doing it, in the heat of the moment?
  I'm basically a bitter grognard with a strong dislike for abusing the shortcomings of the format (of which it has many: It is very easy to break, the trick is in not doing so) and for the inclusion of cards with no real connection to a given deck or tribe aside from just being a powerful card. Stuff like sticking Spectral Procession or an offtribe playset of Tarmogoyf in just because it's a very efficient lump of creature annoys me: It isn't there to do anything clever or unique, it's just there to have good stats at a cheap mana cost. Someone sticking hundreds of dollars' worth of cards in their deck just to wilfully sneer at the idea of having a tribe to win with will always leave a bad taste in my mouth. I hope people will do it less, as I believe that will improve the event and encourage more interesting deckbuilding. If people wish to criticise my own deckbuilding choices, I will listen to them without problem: Communication is vital for the sharing of ideas, and led to the establishment of the subformats in the first place.

 

Cards AJ doesn't like to see.

And speaking of tribal philosophies, we don't entirely share the same views on the format. You seem to think that a "proper" tribal deck is only a deck where no creatures outside the tribe are involved, going as far as condemning the use of tokens that don't belong to the tribe. On the other hand, I feel like this in an extremist view, and a greater flavor resides in the (careful) combination of a tribe and its "allies", whereas from a mechanical viewpoint, certain tribes are meant to be accompanied by, and servitors to, other cards that complete and realize their strategies (emblematic case: the Wall tribe), and those cards might well be other creatures, which have merely the function of "other spells" in the non-tribal slots, the challenge being that those slots in a tribal deck are limited to about 16. This said, care to elaborate a bit on your own outlook?
 It boils down to this: Do we want the format to devolve into a bunch of identikit decks where the actual tribe and its members are an afterthought? Do we really want people to go Lingering Souls, Spectral Procession, Battle Screech, Honor of the Pure, plus "whatever white weenie tribe I want to plug in this week"? Do we want people to just port across Legacy zoo decks with a couple of creatures added in to make it tribal? There is no "careful combination" in a brute force solution. There is no concept of "allies" or of "complete or realize strategies" when the only value a card has is in improving your win percentage regardless of synergy. Minimising the tribal aspect minimises what makes the format a format to begin with: Acting in defiance of the restrictions devalues them. The most egregious examples were the old Doomsday decks using Shelldock Isle and Emrakul, whose game plan was essentially to exile the entirety of the tribe as an irrelevance in favour of the combo.

 Exploring the topic further, the supporters of a "whatever is legal" approach have all the reason to point out that Legacy Tribal Wars has rules, and if these rules were meant to be different, they would be. Do you ever feel like the format was created wrong? (Do we know who exactly created it?) If it were up to you, how would you redefine it? And, more importantly, why?
 Do we know who created the format? Yes, we do. It was announced to the world on Valentine's Day 2003 by Randy Beuhler as part of the long-forgotten "Wizards Invitational", the event which unlocked the Two-Headed Giant of Foriys avatar. In Randy's own words:

We're going to introduce a new format to Magic Online and this one has a much better name than "Casual Format 3". The rules for Tribal Wars are simple: at least one third of the cards in your deck must be creatures that share a creature type. There are no sideboards allowed and there is a Banned List that currently includes six cards (Engineered Plague, Endemic Plague, Tsabo's Decree, Peer Pressure, Unnatural Selection, and Circle of Solace). Anything else is fair game.

 It was designed for a long-forgotten invitational-style challenge event with only slightly more sets legal than our modern Standard at its fullest, namely 7th Edition, Invasion, Planeshift, Apocalypse, Odyssey, Torment, Judgment, Onslaught and the as yet unreleased Legions. The original banned list contained every single possible tribal hoser that was available at the time, and the potential for broken combos was practically nonexistent. At the time, it was entirely fit for purpose. But times change: Rather than nine sets, the present Tribal Wars format has to handle well over seventy. Those who say 'If the rules were meant to be different, they would be' are forgetting one major fact: Wizards did try to change the rules! Wizards, for all that I criticise them, are neither blind nor unwilling to act when warranted. A mere three years after the format came into being, they tried to fix it. What they wanted to do was take it back to its roots, limit it to a smaller number of sets and get rid of both the egregious combo decks and the overstuffed major tribes. As Aaron Forsythe put it:

The big change was the switching of Tribal Wars to the Standard card pool. That was the best solution we had for a format that was increasingly deviating from the “spirit” of its initial conception. Several good things happen with this change: (1) We lose the decks based on Tooth and Nail, Isochron Scepter, and Lion's Eye Diamond, which are less about tribal and more about preying on the fact that other people's decks are tribal; (2) We lose the oppressive Onslaught Goblins, Elves, and Zombies, which were fun for a while but had outlived their welcome; and (3) We get to guarantee that the format won't stagnate again. As sets come and go, various tribes will be more or less feasible, and new block will have an actual impact on what is being played, as opposed to feebly trying to unseat the eternal powerhouses.
This change was made to re-inject some fun into the format and allow creative deckbuilding—rather than metagaming—to be the driving force behind what tribes are showing up.

 What stopped them from repairing the format? We did! We, the tribal community, myself among them, fought tooth and nail to keep it Eternal-based rather than Standard-based. The thing is, the average Standard just doesn't have enough viable tribes to make for an interesting format: Unless a given tribe was the focus for a particular block, there generally wouldn't be enough members for it to shine. Big, iconic tribes like Angels, Demons and Dragons would have likely been unplayable: During the debates in the week between the announced change and the retraction, Bennie Smith said he was hoping to try out a Spider deck in the tweaked format, to which I angrily retorted that there weren't enough Spiders in Standard at the time. The unlamented collapse of Standard Tribal and its subsequent removal confirm our stance.

  But this doesn't mean that Wizards were wrong. The problems they spelled out, the dominance of the eternal powerhouse tribes, the prevalence of cynical combo decks and decks exploiting the nature of the format, or abusing the lack of sideboards, remain with us today. We don't have a satisfactory solution: Even the Tribal Apocalypse event is a mishmash of different answers, such as "Don't allow the major tribes" one week for Underdog and "Ban the most egregious cards" another for Pure. The very existence of these subformats shows that Wizards were right to try and apply the brakes [actually, it just shows that I, as the host who came up with those sub-formats, was willing to try and shake up things for fun's sake, but that was never a necessity, nor anybody ever asked me to do it – if anything the opposite was true. I firmly believe Tribal Wars doesn't need to be "fixed" because it's far from "broken", but that's a topic from a future article, or for the comment section — Kuma's note] as the very problems they explicitly pointed out with their reasoning back in 2006 are the selfsame ones we try to legislate for today.

 Fixing those problems would be the "why" of my solution, but the "how" is another matter altogether. We could try banning entire archetypes, we could strip out the most egregious tribes, but we are dealing with multiple tens of thousands of cards, any number of which have the potential to interact together. If there was an elegant solution, I'd propose it, and if anyone finds one, I'll endorse it. As it stands, I'll champion the ideal of the format as spelled out by Aaron Forsythe: Encourage creativity, shun the egregious tribes, avoid the cynical stuff. Regrettably, this is at odds with the ideology that guides many of the other players, and I am unlikely to convince them. Let's leave this one open: There may be a solution we think of in the future.

 As an aside, I already have had the format altered: The changes I asked for here were implemented here. This remains the only time a card was deliberately removed from the Tribal banned list. 

 Which other players from the current Tribal Apocalypse crowd do you like, both for their skills in building and playing or just as a guys you get along with?
 First and foremost, the fact that there's a Tribal Apocalypse crowd at all delights me: Despite everything, despite the inherent problems of the format, despite the format being effectively threatened with destruction twice, the basic core concept is still entertaining enough that a couple dozen people are willing to give up several hours out of every weekend to get together with like-minded folks and play some tribal. That already makes me like these guys. I have long collaborated with Winter.Wolf, PureMTGO's own Paul Leicht, and he remains one of the people I most enjoy bouncing ideas off. Vantar6697, Chamale and MisterMojoRising are at the forefront of creativity and variety, characteristics I value highly. Romellos I consider to be one of the tightest and most effective deckbuilders I've ever seen, and I have nothing but the greatest of respect for his abilities. I still really hate playing against him, for much the same reason. Ranth and I go way back, Robin88 is talented, mihahitlor is near legendary. ML_Berlin's staunch defence of tribal singleton is praiseworthy. Fliebana, SekKuar Deathkeeper, Bazaar of Baghdad, SBena, you yourself, Gq1rf7, and dozens more besides. I know there are people I've missed, and I regret doing so. We are in no way short of talented and likable players.

What are your thoughts about the current status of Tribal Apocalypse? Is it still fun enough for you? We're halfway through the season, and we have had quite a few new player, even prominent ones, which feels like a good indicator of health to me, do you agree?
 I'm delighted to see fresh blood get drawn in, especially when they do well. Looking at the all time standings and seeing the likes of MisterMojoRising overtake some of our luminaries in just a single season is a good thing, the new generation shaking up the old order. Is it still fun? If it wasn't, I wouldn't spend my time on it. There is still scope for decks to do interesting things, still challenges to take on, achievements to claim, obscure tribes to win with. I've been coming up with ideas in this format for more than a decade: I'm not going to stop now. If nothing else, I have a title to defend, and I invite everyone who wants it to work at getting into the Top 16 by years' end. I'll be waiting. Is Tribal Apocalypse in good health? Wizards themselves can't kill our format, and it was mostly the warriors of the Apocalypse which kept it alive. Seems pretty damned healthy to me!

 And on Magic Online as a whole, while we're on the verge of one of the more seismic change in its history? Are you optimistic? Are we looking down at the abyss or is there a rainbow on the other side?
 It will be rough for a while. Transitions like this always are, and there are still structural issues with the new client that they can't begin to work on until they turn off the current one. More worryingly for us, I have anecdotal evidence that there may be problems with changelings in the Tribal Wars format, which given how low priority the format is, would likely be a sore point for quite some time. Magic is still magic, people will still play it. I'm not looking forward to it, given that everywhere that Wizards and Computers intersect seems to fall within the company's core incompetency, those things they can't seem to do well no matter what. I want them to prove me wrong on that. I've wanted them to prove me wrong on that for a decade. On the minus side, I'm still waiting. On the plus side, I'm still waiting.

5 Comments

Bravissimo! What an excellent by Paul Leicht at Fri, 07/18/2014 - 12:22
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Bravissimo! What an excellent read! :D Thanks for topping my interview of AJ and bringing us this delightful bit of insight into the man. As a long time friend, I can say I learned a few new things. Also cool pix. :D Now I am going to have to refer people to both articles when I tell them about AJ. :D

To touch on a few things: I've been Enjoying AJ's return to writing again and his articles compliment your own in setting pure as the home for Tribal Wars online. I agree that players in the format have a temptation to resist when it comes to going against its grain. It is no matter for someone with deep pockets and or a deep collection to just shoehorn say Charbelcher or Dream Halls legacy style decks on to a tribe and call it a day. The tribe becomes irrelevant to winning (except in the most trivial way) and people have a hard time dealing with this because there are no sideboards and few good natural answers to quick combo.

On the other hand it is easy to build really bad decks adhering to the spirit of the format and difficult to tune those decks into competitive lists. This is where AJ really shines. He takes tribes that one should never win with because they are just horrible and he finds a way to make them stars. He may use some non-tribal cards to do that but it is the tribe members themselves that do the heavy lifting usually in his decks.

As for changelings being broken. I have mixed feelings on this: 1) Changelings enable all those 3-5 member tribes with really poor synergy to be playable and even possibly good. 2. Changelings enable a far greater number of tribes to compete in singleton. 3. Changelings have some all stars which might be preferable to any given tribal member. 4. Some of those all-stars are far too ubiquitous imho. I don't like seeing Colossus and Mauler in every green and red deck where the tribes are nowhere near on par. I also don't like seeing Mirror Entity abused as a finisher even though I have done this multiple times myself.

That said I do hope they fix changelings in the client. It would be egregious if they ignored this bug after we lobbied so hard for them to bring TWL back.

Thanks, Paul! I purposely by Kumagoro42 at Fri, 07/18/2014 - 17:45
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Thanks, Paul!
I purposely avoided to go back and re-read your AJ interview before my own, not to be influenced one way or another. I'll do it now to see how I fared in comparison. :)

Just couldn't stop myself by Lord Erman at Mon, 07/21/2014 - 05:40
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Just couldn't stop myself from commenting after reading this note from Kuma: "I firmly believe Tribal Wars doesn't need to be "fixed" because it's far from "broken"".

Come on Kuma, we all know this is absolutely not true! As a matter of fact, the "core" of the format is as broken as hell, but there are several reasons why you don't see it -or experience it, in other words- in the Tribal Apoc. Main reason, of course, is that it's a PRE and its audience is mostly people with budget restirctions or people who like trying different things.

If you really want to see how broken the format really is, just raise the reward to 100 tix for 1 week, advertise the event whereever possible and then see the results for yourself. I guarantee you; not a single game will reach turn 5 in such an event. NONE!

What I'm saying is, is that the format is actually a more broken version of the actual Legacy format, because of the 20 creatures rule and the "no sideboards" rule. There is absolutely no way one can fight all of those broken 2 card combos in Magic AND also fight dredge AND affinty AND Elves AND whatever other cursed deck there is AND still try to win with just a main deck that has to have 20 creatures in it.

But you don't feel it in Tribal Apoc because it's -as I said- a PRE where people mostly gather to have fun while slinging spells. But is the format fun? Hell yes, it is! Even it's broken beyond hope, it's still lots of fun. And it's still alive ONLY because it has some tireless defenders such as AJ or yourself and some others. If you guys didn't care and if Tribal Apoc didn't exist, this format would have died long, long ago.

Apart from that, it was nice to read a bit more about the man who's responsible for me to start playing Tribal Wars back in the day (and I "fear" I wasen't the only one).

/me vanishes into thin air and goes back to the shadows

And I think what you perceive by Kumagoro42 at Mon, 07/21/2014 - 09:12
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And I think what you perceive as "broken" is what Magic is, deep down, ALWAYS, when pushed to its competitive limits (you can say the same for many, many other games). I ask you, is Vintage any less broken? Hell no. And yet there's still people who are willing and happy to play it, for high prizes, and resulting in the same 2-3 possible scenarios all over again. Is it fun for you and me? Hell no. Not played *that* way. But then what we're really talking about here is what you and me and AJ *like* to have fun with. Which has nothing to do with the legitimization of a format.

"Fixing" a format, in the hope that it will result in some warm, rich competitive experience, is a pointless, endless path. "Fixing" Vintage resulted in Legacy, which is broken. "Fixing" Legacy resulted in Extended, which was broken, then in Modern, which is also broken in its own, different ways, if you count dominance of a few top decks and fast combos as a factor. When you analyze them at the top levels, Legacy is Vintage + 1 turn, Modern is Vintage + 2 turns. 2 turns more not a warm, rich experience make.

Or else, everything does. Everything is meta. The flaws you mention about Tribal Wars work against the same decks they assumedly help. You also underestimate the current Tribal Apocalypse crowd: most of the players are not there to smile and joke. They try to come up with very efficient, very brutal ways to win through aggro and combo, which every sub-format makes possible. Rogue decks still occasionally thrive, everybody still has fun enough, newcomers still show up on a regular basis (and I assure you I don't do much to attract them).

And combo rarely wins, btw, which is why I'm not sure that, were Tribal Wars a pro environment, we'd see the pros taking the combo route. Elf in particular would be the most fragile deck, since in a pro meta they would be hated maindeck with cards that would be useful against aggro too. The top decks would probably be something like Kithkin or Merfolk, and you have to tell me what format that fancies itself the realm of tribal strategies would make sense if it was impossible for Kithkin or Merfolk decks to exist within it. It's like saying, let's do a format that's only burn. But hey, let's ban all the burn spells though, otherwise it'll be only burn, and that's annoying!

There's also a strange idiosyncrasy I'm detecting lately. I call it "Good Johnny gone Spike". Johnny was ruined by the proximity with Spike, and has almost forgotten that Johnny's main pleasure is not winning. Johnny enters a tournament of Spikes (like all are), wins a game per match pulling off his elaborate, labyrinthine combo, then *he* won.

Sometimes "fixing Legacy Tribal Wars" sounds like turning it into Legacy Johnny Wars, but I'm not sure Legacy Johnny Wars is not an utopia, because to achieve it you wouldn't need to ban cards; you would need to ban people.

If we tried to really find by RexDart at Mon, 07/21/2014 - 12:24
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If we tried to really find the optimal decks in Legacy Tribal Wars, if it were supported by WotC and firing DE's with prize support every couple days, I believe there would probably be about 4 or 5 Tier One decks in the metagame. An all-in graveyard deck like Manaless Dredge or Living End, Elves, *maybe* Goblins, certainly some G/W/x Human Hatebears deck, and probably some sort of creature-based combo deck, either Painter's Servant or Cephalid Illusionist.

I agree with you that the format is kept diverse by people trying to be creative within it, rather than purely playing the supposed best decks. I also think that, as Kuma notes, the players in the event now *are* efficiently trying to win. But they are mostly doing so within budget constraints. For anybody not named mihahitlor, playing the same stable of 2-3 decks over and over isn't very satisfying, and you probably would see more format diversity just out of boredom.