Monday, April 16, 2018

The Pirate Problem: Flavor Doesn't Make a Tribe

I've been playing in the beta for Magic: The Gathering Arena since February. My experience in this very limited game environment has helped me think a lot about tribal design, particularly where Ixalan block succeeded and failed. Let's talk about Pirates and figure out what the heck happened with them, design-wise.

Before the NDA was lifted a few weeks ago, Arena allowed access only to the Ixalan block for constructed play. I was able to build a couple of decks I was happy with without too much trouble (including the White/Blue flyers/ascend deck).

I played against many different decks, but I faced only one Pirate deck. It lost. I tried making a Blue-Black Revel in Riches Pirate control deck. It mostly lost. Pirates would show up in other decks -- the Blue ones were great for my early creature curve in White-Blue -- but there were no Pirate tribal decks to speak of. And that's because ultimately, Pirates weren't really much of a tribe.

Let's look at the two mechanics associated with the pirates: Raid and Treasure tokens. Raid rewards you for attacking with your pirates... kind of. In reality, most of the time Raid rewarded you for having attacked. This is an important distinction. Whatever Raid rewards you earned (mostly ETB effects on creatures) happened after combat. Raid rewarded you or your Pirate for showing up late.

Raid didn't really synergize with Pirates in any particular "tribal" way. Raid triggers typically did the standard suite of in-color rewards. They were not particularly special things, and not related to other Pirates. There was a Blue Pirate that looted, a Blue Pirate that drew a card, and a Blue-Red Pirate that… also looted. Some Raid triggers were mechanically bizarre. Why would you attach library milling to Raid? The strategy and rewards were not coherent or connected to a tribal identity other than sharing an ability word. More importantly, Raid wasn't really connected to anything recognizable as a win condition. In the end, it felt like Raid was focused on for the flavor, not for any sort of design philosophy connected to a tribe's actual play style.

Let's move on to Treasure. Pirates made lots of Treasures in Ixalan, but weirdly, they didn't seem to need it very much. They were a midrange crew of rapscallions, and they didn't seem to have a terribly needy mana curve. There were only a couple of Pirates that cared about or interacted with Treasures. Deadeye Plunderers suggested they were a signpost uncommon for play style that didn't really exist. Blue/Black was well positioned to produce lots of Treasures, but only a couple of quirky cards really cared about them. Treasures allowed you to splash things into your deck, like Vraska, Relic Seeker and other off-color surprises, but you had to be careful. This also didn’t really create a tribal identity. The Treasures did allow you to play a creature and still have mana up for a spell during your opponent's turn, something Grixis colors like, but that's a color identity, not a tribe.

Even the Pirate leaders were a mystifying bunch. Fathom Fleet Captain and Admiral Beckett Brass had a baffling number of hoops to jump through. I only once managed to get more than one Pirate token creature out of a single Fathom Fleet Captain. I've never seen Brass in play, ever, and her ability is the ultimate expression of a "win more" mechanic. Dire Fleet Captain only buffed himself, which, to be fair is very B/R, but he was extremely vulnerable outside of combat and often didn't last. Dire Fleet Neckbreaker was much more effective, but she came too late. As for the Pirate Planeswalkers, Vraska made both Pirates and Treasures, but didn't actually interact with them (and she was partly off-color). Angrath, the Flame-Chained, despite his Pirate ties, was purposefully designed to fit into any Black-Red deck to fill a Planeswalker color pie gap, without any mechanical ties to Ixalan Pirates.

Now there are plenty of perfectly fine, usable, and even excellent Pirate cards, but once you’re forced to analyze Pirates on a card-by-card basis, that's a big red flag that this is not a tribe.

Arena recently moved to the next stage of Beta, adding Amonkhet block, and giving you a starting collection of ten two-color preconstructed decks. The Black/Red precon is the “Pirate” tribal deck of the bunch. In that deck, only three Pirates in the deck use Raid, and only one creates Treasures. There are spells that reward you for having Pirates, but it pales when compared to synergy shown by Vampires and Merfolk. Only one Blue Pirate appears in any of the other preconstructed decks, so you can't even make a Blue-Red or Blue-Black Pirate deck without cracking some packs.

I played with the Black-Red Pirates deck a little bit (adding some cards from my initial packs, including Hazoret the Fervent). It felt like playing any Black-Red deck. You used damage spells to remove blockers and attacked with your creatures. There were only three cards that actually made me "feel" like I was playing a tribe when playing the Pirates. I’m going to go through them and extrapolate the important design lessons from each.

Dire Fleet Neckbreaker: There's nothing innovative about this, but she brought the win condition. When I got her onto the battlefield, she was impactful right away. The design lesson here: If you want your tribe to focus on domination in combat, they need to be rewarded at the time they are attacking, not afterward.

Fiery Cannonade: There were plenty of non-creature spells that rewarded you for having a Pirate in play, but this one rewarded you for playing them like a tribe. It was very effective against Vampires and Merfolk. The design lesson: Even tribes that revolve around aggressive, disposable creatures need to reward player commitment. Otherwise, why play them over other aggressive, disposable non-tribe creatures?

Dire Fleet Poisoner: Embedded in this Pirate is a story of what the tribe could/should have been. This catches opponents by surprise and changes the outcome of combats entirely. She allows your Pirates to attack into boards you normally wouldn’t. She rewards risky moves and mechanically plays like you'd imagine a Pirate should. Imagine if the Pirates were designed this way with embedded combat tricks instead of post-combat triggers. The design lesson: Synergy in tactics creates a tribe, not just a bunch of shared mechanics.

Dire Fleet Poisoner inspired me to think about a different kind of pirate lord. Captain Brandis Thorn apparently led the Dire Fleet crew, but existed only in flavor text. What about a tribal lord that actually did make a tribe's mechanics cohere together?

Consider how Raid changes significantly as a mechanic if you're able to cast a creature with an ETB trigger in the middle of combat, which is what the Dire Fleet Poisoner does. It can actually change the outcome of combats, which seems like an identity the Pirates are supposed to have. And Thorn lets you be greedy with your pirates and rewards you for bribing them.

Ultimately it feels like the pirate tribe was designed entirely around flavor. And while flavor can be fun, it can quickly lose its appeal when the undergirding mechanics don't support playing them together, and they can't win games.

(This Community Spotlight article comes courtesy of Larcent. If you would like to contribute a Community Spotlight article, check out Write for Goblin Artisans, then send a brief pitch of your idea to zefferal on gmail.)


  1. Nice article, Larcent!

    I enjoy raid a lot and I think rewarding attacking does make a cohesive strategy and tribal identity, but I definitely agree that pirates didn't enjoy as much synergy as vampires or merfolk, and that they could have used more enablers in place of some rewards; A common Dire Fleet Poisoner (that just grants +1/+1 or so) would have been quite welcome.

    While it was nice from a variety standpoint, the fact that the blue-black deck was so slow and controlling while the black-red deck was so aggressive definitely hurt our deck-building options. (The three dinosaur pairings weren't so distinct.)

    I had better luck with Fathom Fleet Captain (but it still compares poorly to Mavrein Fein) and found Dire Fleet Captain the worst card in my deck every time. Shadowed Caravel is a must-have in either base-red pirate deck, and Buccaneer's Bravado wins games from nowhere.

    1. I think you meant the Fell Flagship, not the Shadowed Caravel (which kicks ass in the B/G explore decks).

      I faced somebody who went the trouble to make a blue/red pirate deck and it was kind of fascinating in its weirdness and lack of synergy. It just felt like this bizarre game of various red and blue things happening at random.

      It lost, but I was impressed they went through so much effort to give it a try.

    2. Fell Flagship was an insane card.

    3. I was quite high-ranked before the wipe/nda drop playing U/B Tempo pirates with Fathom Fleet Captain, stormtamer, poisoner, etc. It was great, but you're right, it didn't use any of the pirate mechanics besides Ruin Raider. It was just a good, disruptive aggressive deck that could use the best removal

  2. Raid + Flash is such a smart combination! Bringing Flash in helps offset the slow feeling of Raid, and using Raid really does make it less likely that the only two times you'll even think about casting your Flash creature is a- as a surprise blocker or b- opponent's endstep.

    I've been playing a UWB Midrange deck on Arena and Dire Fleet Poisoner has been very valuable, but I hadn't thought of how much more of the tribe could've been built that way. Thanks for the insightful article, Larcent!

    1. Essentially the bottom half of this piece was influenced by winning back-to-back games with pirates entirely due to Dire Fleet Poisoner surprising my opponent. I actually spent a couple of rare wildcards to get more of her, and I struggle with decision paralysis trying to spend wild cards.

    2. I certainly do too! I've been considering cashing out for some more Adorned Pouncer, but there's so much exile freely around.

      I wonder whether there's room for a flash-centric tribe like Lorwyn's Fae at common and uncommon if instead of Dreamspoiler Witches and Faerie Tauntings the impetus was still on keeping it to your turn. I suppose at the end of the day there's shared space to Ninjutsu, which is at least promising as far as lower-rarity higher-interaction U/B creature-and-combat mechanics go.

  3. I have a lot of thoughts to such an in depth post. I found out there is a word count limit and can't figure out how to narrow it down! I think a larger point is that I think it's just that pirates were not pushed for competitive constructed. I feel treasures and raid made very well defined "pirate decks" yet were open enough in utility that they filled other roles as well. I think that decision is arguable (I assume they wanted pirates and dinosaurs for the more casual players, and left vampires and merfolk to spike, which can exemplified by their legends in Ixalan), but I do think overall the result of the rewards for playing "the raid deck" or "the pirate treasure deck" is not there.

    1. I also lacked space to kind of analyze the utility of pirates. I found that itself kind of interesting. They honestly kind of made me think of wizard creatures, which often aren't win cons themselves, but help your deck win. Pirates were essentially half-aggro/half-wizard I think.

    2. One thing mark said is they divided pirates into 3 "tropes"-- basically tricky pirates, greedy pirates, and aggressive pirates. They made the divide to suit the draft format where 2 tribes went into 3 color combination with. UR were tricky, UB was greedy, and RB were aggressive. Interestingly, I don't think dinosaurs were divided as cleanly though I feel there was still a big difference between them (compare the WG dino dino deck versus the WR one).

  4. Ixalan tribal definitely had some identity issues. First off, trying to get 3 distinct archetypes out of the 3-color tribes just didn't end up working very well. Second, I think that relegating +1/+1 counters almost entirely to merfolk was a poor decision as it's such a useful, flexible tool for encouraging tribal strategies (plus it wasn't a very fun merfolk theme).

    I think we're just a card or two away from getting there, though. We got four mythic pirates and all of them missed the mark (by a lot). Beckett Brass is just a bad Merfolk Mistbinder; Timestream Navagator is a somewhat cool card, but not at all a pirate; Dire Fleet Ravager is just bad and not wanted by any deck; and Rowdy Crew is possibly the most baffling Mythic I've ever seen. Is it too much to ask for to get at least one exciting pirate?

    1. For the purposes of set construction, the 3 colors tribes weren't actually 3 color tribes, to be clear. It's not like they took grixis and divided it up-- rather, more like they made UB, UR, and BR draft archetypes and tied them together flavorfully. At least in terms of set design. There was not really an intention for a "Naya dinosaur" deck in limited, hinted at by fixing in the set (or more specifically, a relative lack of), but also this was clarified in one of Mark's articles about the set

      I actually think the red stealing snapcaster is an exciting pirate, but it's an illustration of the larger point, or at least, to the point that there is no pirate deck (I do think it feels like a pirate). There's no apparent constructed pirate cards at high rarity in Ixalan which is strange.

  5. Maro has noted that they want to use flash in black as a secondary mechanic, this seems like a very cool way to do it

  6. Great article!

    I am also disappointed by raid, especially with pirates/Ixalan. It compares very poorly with raid in Khans of Tarkir.

    See the full raid list here:

    Since pirates are generally aggressive and good at attacking, I feel like the rewards are pretty small. This means raid feels less like something that's changing the way I play and more like a standard bonus I should be getting every turn.

    Take Shipwreck Looter and Heartless Pillage as examples. Both of these cards have acceptable rates on their own and raid rewards. However, drawing & discarding a card or getting a treasure isn't enough to make me play much differently.

    Compare this to raid's first block, Khans of Tarkir. There, suiciding a 1/1 or two drop into your opponent's board was a somewhat common play to turn on raid. This suicidal attitude was something Mardu played up as well, with Bloodsoaked Champion, and Timely Hordemate replacing the random 2/1 you attacked with. There were also lots of 1/1 tokens but not much evasion - Hordeling Outburst and Mardu Hordechief, but only the uncommon Gurmag Swiftwing as a cheap evasive creature in the colors.

    In turn, this let the raid rewards be much more powerful. Bellowing Saddlebrute would suddenly not lose you 4 life (encouraging you to attack even if you were on defense), Mardu Warshrieker offering to cast a sweet 3 color card, or just to go up tempo with another morph. And of course the mythic Wingmate Roc to really drive home the mechanic.

    1. Very enlightening details on the difference of how Raid was executed! I disagreed with the OP about raid not being both a flavorful and mechanical hit, but that's because I was taking into account raid's overall potential and less the individual cards designed. Raid as a mechanic works well in a vacuum, and modularity is very important when your main theme is as linear as tribal, but I felt that the deck that took advantage of raid the kind of decision that makes suicidal or strange looking attacks under the guise of combat tricks or raid triggers, was well suited for pirates.

      Besides the comparison in raid effects, also the main way the set enabled raid was tons of evasion. This eliminates any decision tree going on. This is not the same as can't block/must attack interacts with raid (they did include one of these, though). Most of the time, flying or menace for example makes raid a free trigger. A lot of the nuance of what makes it feel pirate like is lost then. I was going to make a comment about how Dire Fleet Poisoner illustrated well why raid was a perfect fit for pirates in fact, but upon reflection I see the difference in execution between Khans and Ixalan.

    2. One of the things I noticed was that the only reason you played a pirate without the raid trigger was because you didn't actually have an attacker. Pirates were designed to either evade or trade, so combat was often a weird afterthought.

      Compare that to enrage, which really, really made you think about what was going on during the combat phase, who blocked or was blocked, and the consequences of those choices.