I'll just say it now: tribes are awesome in multiplayer. To a large extent, good multiplayer decks are about synergy—and tribal themes offer an automatic synergy that almost anyone can take advantage of.
Plus, I gotta admit that I love playing a deck with a theme other than "It wins." Sure, you can say that your Dralnu Du Louvre deck won the game, but what's the theme? "Cards that kick your butt." Compare that to the Timmy-tastic thrill of "I'm whuppin' ya with Kobolds!" and you'll see the difference.
With tribal decks, you know all of your cards are friends. Do Brine Elemental and Vesuvan Shapeshifter like each other? Who knows? They just got tossed together like two commuters winding up on the same bus. They could be like Han and Luke, adopting a great friendship, or they could be IG-88 and Boba Fett. It's all business, baby, and there's no guarantee that these cops will become buddies at the end of the movie.
But each of the tribes of Onslaught? Every member is a brother. They have a common origin. Sure, maybe the Goblins are a little cutthroat from time to time, but that's the way they like it. Every card in your deck has a bond of common blood that ties them to the other cards.
(I like to convince myself this fraternal deck atmosphere makes for better draws. Meanwhile, the statistician within me slowly weeps.)
In any case, not only do tribal decks have synergy, but they're also low-threat decks... Which is not to say that they're useless, but rather that the perception of what they do is generally underrated. Everyone knows that slamming a Damnation onto the board causes a lot of damage, but it also annoys a lot of players. If people think you have a Damnation, they'll frequently go for your throat just to avoid seeing another one.
But hey—it's a Centaur! Who's going to worry about a four-mana Centaur? Even if that four-mana Centaur, working in conjunction with other Centaurs, is turning out to be a reasonable threat, people often don't see your Voltron assembling, part by part, until it's too late to really do anything about it.
Onslaught was the first set to really push a tribal theme—what's that? Fallen Empires? Gosh, you're right. Let's rephrase that:
Onslaught was the first good set to really push a tribal theme.
There. That's better. And now that we have Onslaught on the brain this week, let's discuss the tribes of Onslaught... and rank them for multiplayer!
(Note: Because they weren't present in Onslaught the set, I don't count the Slivers... And frankly, if they were on here, they'd probably win. Likewise, there was a minor Mistform theme to Onslaught, but it wasn't fleshed out enough to really call a "tribe." Which is appropriate, since a Mistform should be sketchy.)
Wizards should, in theory, be pretty happenin'. After all, aren't planewalkers just souped-up Wizards? Wizards should be like the color blue—overpowered and annoyingly able to do just about anything.
But in practice, most Wizards are wusses without that much of an effect upon the board. Generally, they can help you counter spells or pitch in on some mana... But in multiplayer, you have too many threats to counter, and too few Wizards. Plus, usually a good Pyroclasm clears 'em all out anyway.
That's not say that there are no good Wizards, but the ones that are good usually don't help the tribe. If Teferi read "Wizards you own that aren't in play have flash," nobody would play with him. And Arcanis the Omnipotent is a good dude, but if all you're drawing with him is more Wizards, you're gonna lose.
As it is, Wizards are these rusty old men that get chumped by larger guys. Oh, I loves me some Willbending action, but as a tribe they're about as scary as the local geriatrics ward rising up.
Best Multiplayer Wizard in Onslaught:Willbender. Hey, it's a trick you love to use in Limited, and your choice of targets only gets better in multiplayer.
Clerics are the most badass class in D&D, so they should be totally buff here, amiright? Your D&D clerics can bash face con maces with the best of 'em, and then heal himself to go back for some more.
So why are the Clerics here such wusses?
Clerics in Magic tend to concentrate mostly on protection. That's not a bad thing, but wearing great body armor while several people take turns kicking you isn't winning, it's just not losing. Every turn you're amassing your Cleric army, you're... making your army harder to kill. Except that a Wrath of God, ironically, still wipes them out.
Guess they were the wrong kind of clerics.
Clerics aren't awful, mind you; their protection from various colors and damage prevention and enchantment-removal can help supplement a great deck. Plus, Clerics are pretty good at bringing Clerics back from the dead, making them nice—because multiplayer games frequently come down to "who can recycle their resources the most effectively."
But if you get a whole bunch of Clerics on the field, you'll still have problems winning. They're good at saving your butt, but not much good when it comes to actually taking the victory. That makes them particularly weak in multiplayer, where you often have to do stunning amounts of damage to win. (Vile Deacon and Starlit Sanctum help considerably, but two cards do not a strategy make.)
Best Multiplayer Cleric in Onslaught:Glarecaster. Oh, he's pricey. And everyone wants to kill him. But the fear he can wreak when he hits the board and people realize what will happen to them if they attack is delightful. (And if they miss the "or you" clause, it gets even better.)
Let me just say that this, perhaps, the most unfair ranking. With a bunch of soldiers on your side, you're near-unstoppable in combat—I've seen it! Have a couple Catapult Squads out, then provoke a bit with a Deftblade Elite (or just put Mobilization out), and bang! You have an army that can kill just about anyone. (Add in Catapult Master or Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion, and whoa Nelly.)
The problem is that you need a lot of soldiers—usually five or more—before your strategy starts to work. The good thing is that people usually don't think that Soldiers are a serious threat, so you tend to get overlooked. The bad thing is that mass removal absolutely slaughters you, and one soldier doesn't do much. (Thematically appropriate, of course, but also irritating.)
Another problem is that the best Soldiers actually aren't Soldiers! But we'll go into that in a bit, when we talk about one of the three best tribes.
Soldiers are, perhaps, the epitome of "works well together," since they don't do much apart. They've been supported very well in later sets, since they work so well with equipment... but given that a lone soldier can't fight the battle and there's not enough recycling or card advantage to get it to work, you have to view Soldiers as a problematic tribe.
When soldiers win, they win big. When they lose, they lose because their armies weren't big enough. That's a big cuppa flavor for you, but it puts them in the #6 slot.
Best Multiplayer Soldier in Onslaught:Catapult Squad. He seems so harmless. Nobody minds him. Then you realize that frankly, his ability makes it darned near impossible to attack you. Who would have thought that Soldiers would be so un-threatening?
Alas, Zombies should be higher on this list, because they have what it takes in multiplayer: massive damage, aggression, and recursion. But like real zombies, they're so blatant that people rapidly realize that they have to kill you or be killed.
Look. Call to the Grave is an awesome control card, and Shepherd of Rot does massive damage to everyone. Throw in a Maggot Carrier or two and a way to recurse your guys (Patriarch's Bidding or Lord of the Undead will do), and the zombie beatings will flow.
The problem is that you step in front of everyone without offering much defense. "This Call to the Grave will mess with everyone's strategy, while leaving me in the catbird's seat," it says. "Say, why don't you all form a temporary truce and take me out of the picture?" And lo, that's what happens.
The instant Shepherd of Rot hits the table, even the dimmest player can see that he's in deep trouble. It doesn't take much, and you don't have the firepower to stop a determined gang-up (especially since you often wind up trading life for cards along the way). Hence, the political considerations weaken the Zombie tribe.
Heh. Who would have thought that zombies should care about politics? Get out the zombie vote!
Best Multiplayer Zombie in Onslaught:Rotlung Reanimator. Yeah, he's a Cleric too, but he's really at home in Zombie-land. So what if someone's just Wrath of Godded your whole army? They come back! And they're so useful the next turn, too!
Oh, don't get me wrong; Clerics love the Rotlung. But they don't get the strength of numbers the way that Shepherd of Rot and Gempalm Polluter and Graveborn Muse do. Hence, he's more of a Zombie Cleric than a Zombie Cleric.
Though I do wonder what sorts of sermons a zombie cleric gives, particularly if he has rotted lungs. "Buh-wheeze-rrrraaaaainnnss...."
"What?" you cry. "Goblins are a terror in Legacy! In Extended! They mopped the floor when they were Standard-legal! How dare you say that Goblins are #4?"
The problem is, chum, that this is multiplayer—and Goblins think short-term. They're devastating in a three-man game, prone to stalling in a four-man, and in anything larger than that they'll usually take someone with them and then go out in a blaze of glory.
Perhaps the best-supported tribe of all time, Goblins have a lot of tools, from Goblin Lackey to Goblin Matron to Goblin Ringleader to the ultimate Goblin card, Goblin Grenade. (Siege-Gang Commander is more reusable, but the "five damage to the face for a red mana and a token" is really a great deal.) There's a lot to Goblins.
But in the end, Goblins rely on a quick rush. They operate on speed, overwhelming people with numbers—and as efficient as Goblin Piledriver is, he can't kill everyone in time. If there's any mass removal, the Goblins will get killed, and they can't recover quickly enough to do damage to everyone. Goblins have a hard enough time in duels recovering from multiple Wraths, but they can survive when they only have to do 6 more damage to finish the game. When they have 60 damage to go....
Worse, everyone knows Goblins are a threat. That first-turn Goblin Lackeywill draw the heat.
So in the end, Goblins are awesome in dueling. In multiplayer games, they're a threat to be watched, but usually can't take home the prize. A shame, that... or maybe not.
Best Multiplayer Goblin Card in Onslaught: I'd like to say Goblin Piledriver, but it really is Siege-Gang Commander. He's expensive manawise, but that's not necessarily a drawback in multiplayer—and he can kill a lot of things if he sticks around.
"You gotta be kidding me," you're no doubt saying, if you're used to duels. "Birds? Who the hell plays with Birds?"
That's the thing; they're a surprisingly powerful force in multiplayer, and nobody ever sees 'em coming. Go ahead! Try to tell someone that the Bird deck is going to slaughter you all. They just chuckle and hit the more obvious target. Oh, Alfred Hitchcock tried to tell you, but you didn't listen....
Seriously, though, the Birds tribe has some serious power to begin with. For one thing, they all fly, which is particularly nice in multiplayer. Many Birds can shrug off just about anything you can launch at them, like Aven Brigadier and Commander Eesha. The Gustcloaks let you launch attacks with take-backs.
Oh, and what's that? Most of the Birds are Soldiers, too, so they get extra benefits. These aren't just pigeons, but attack pigeons. I think Wizards was watching a little too much Chicken Run when they were designing this set, but Soldiers definitely suffered when Birds started poaching (sorry) their territory, because the best support cards go to Birds.
There are a handful of cards that turn Birds into a real threat that bubbles up from underneath: the first is Soulcatchers' Aerie. Unless it's killed—and you'd be surprised how reluctant people are to waste enchantment removal on something like that—every Bird who dies in combat makes every future Bird you cast from then on stronger. That's nice. And Aven Brigadier makes them all larger.
Then pull out the card advantage engine of Pride of the Clouds. It's slow, sure, but in multiplayer four mana a turn might just do it—especially since you're using that time to bank up real cards. By the time someone decides to blow away your Bird army, you've got a full stack of seven in your hand.
The issue with Birds is that they don't seem threatening. But eventually, an army of flying 3/3s do get through. That's nice. And if you have a Soulcatchers' Aerie out, remember that dying tokens will put feather counters on it.
I've seen people ride to victory on a huge swell of giant Birds, ten 8/8 tokens soaring through the air. But nobody believed me. Because "that Bird deck will have your guts for garters" does sound pretty crazy.
Best Multiplayer Bird in Onslaught: It's not really a Bird per se, but Soulcatchers' Aerie is what makes Bird decks hum. Don't be afraid to blow enchantment removal on it. Really.
...what? That's NOT from Onslaught? Well, darn it, it should be. Try Battle Screech, then. Not quite as steady as Pride of the Clouds, but it also makes a lot of tokens for a very reasonable cost.
Big, slow, and clunky. I've discussed Beast decks before during Fatty Week. Trample is one of the best multiplayer mechanics, and Contested Cliffs means that you can do a lot of damage at the end of people's turns, and Wirewood Savage helps keep your hand full. (And remember to check every creature to see whether it's a Beast so you can draw your card—some crazy guys are Beasts, and you'll often pick up three or four cards from your opponents' inadvertent Beast-castings in a large game.)
Best Multiplayer Beast Card in Onslaught: Again, not really a Beast, but if it weren't for Contested Cliffs you'd be restricted to the attack phase. The Cliffs lets you off those annoying utility creatures at will. Plus, so few people understand how it works ruling-wise (you don't "put damage on the stack" with Contested Cliffs, so if they sacrifice their creature in response, yours doesn’t take any damage) that you sometimes pick up some very cheap wins from players who should know better.
(I let novices take back moves. But if you've Top 8ed anything? Fuhgeddaboudit.)
Man, I really wish that this had been more of a surprise. But the thing about Elves is that as one of the best-stocked tribes, there are tons of ways to abuse them and so many ways to get them back.
Elves, needless to say, are about quick mana—everyone knows that. But unlike Goblins, which are good at the attack phase and then die, Elves are awesome at both restocking their numbers and working with each other.
Need to restock your hand? Bloodline Shaman will help. Worried about Wrath? Caller of the Claw! Running out of cards? Elvish Soultiller! Need big tramply things? Timberwatch Elf! Stupid life? Wellwisher!
Oh, but you're vulnerable to a Wrath of God, right? Well, you are open to mass destruction, but not as much as you'd think. You'd be surprised how much damage a Wirewood Herald or two can do once they get the right kind of Elf back.
Elves are great because they can attack for the win (I myself adore it when mister Baru or Mister Green Kamahl comes to play), but they're extremely flexible. Like Goblins, everyone knows the Elves are a threat. But unlike Goblins, which have to attack to win, nobody's really sure how an Elf deck's going to achieve victory. It could be the attack phase, or it could be some crazy lifegain deck, or perhaps an Intruder Alarm / Voice of the Woods combo, or a Staff of Domination thingie....
But if all that fails, go for the beatdown. You automatically have a backup plan.
And all of those are just from Onslaught Block. If you start throwing in non-Onslaught Elves, you can start making things even better.
Plus, nobody's ever sure it's Elves. You see a Goblin, you know there's an attack coming up. But a first-turn Llanowar Elf is a long-accepted play for mana acceleration. Maybe it's a multiplayer Zoo deck. Who knows whether you're harnessing tribal power or not?
Best Multiplayer Elf in Onslaught:Wellwisher? No, close, but everyone hates that so much. I'm gonna give the nod to Wirewood Herald, since it's what allows for a lot of restocking, making for an unusually removal-resilient deck. Crunch all you want! We'll make more.
Oh, and By the Way...
If you have not seen the coverage of the Grand Melee at GenCon, you have missed out on some of THE MOST AWESOME multiplayer plays ever. I'd tell you about it myself, but the creativity and flexibility that people brought to the tables have, frankly, astonished me. I don't want to spoil it for you, but in just reading the coverage I pumped the fist a few times and cheered. Go read, because Attila Heiler's attempt to win the big prize alone is both gutsy and cowardly—and effective. And the final showdown relied on good, old-fashioned politics.
There are those who are skeptical that multiplayer can be combined with the cutthroat atmosphere of a tournament format... and I'm one of them. But if the future looks like this, my friends, sign me up.