Tribal Attractions: Standard Wolves
- Gianluca Aicardi
Not just Knights. The tribal options in Standard are more varied than meets the eye, and a ferocious pack of canines is one of the most entertaining to assemble, with all those apex predators, as well as their off-tribe and planeswalking friends, eager to answer your call and begin their wild hunt.
For being one of the initial creature types from Limited Edition, Wolf has spent many years as a negligible side act. Granted, with only 51 members to date, it still isn't a major tribe by any stretch of the imagination, but at some point it outgrew its banding phase and all the early, weird experimental attempts at finding an identity.
In its stern simplicity, Watchwolf from the original Ravnica set marked the first time a Wolf attracted genuine competitive interest. By the time the reworked Werewolf type was making a big splash during the first Innistrad block, the Wolves also started to receive more and more Constructed-playable specimens, somewhat becoming a companion tribe to their larger cousins.
Fast-forward to 2019, when we witnessed the printing of at least one truly great Wolf or Wolf-related card each set, three sets in a row, from War of the Spark through Core Set 2020 up to the especially Wolf-friendly Throne of Eldraine. Among other things, this lupine bonanza produced a new lord. Nightpack Ambusher immediately felt more intriguing, and much more individually powerful, than the old Immerwolf ever was. Also, the red Wolves remained strictly an Innistrad/Homelands thing without any follow-up on other planes, so the tribe as a whole never developed red as one of its main colors.
If this is the best Standard environment the Wolves ever had, why not try and put them all together in a deck and see what happens?
The Wolf Hour
Curiously, one of the best cards to care about Wolves at this moment in time isn't a Wolf itself. War of the Spark gave us Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves, and as the name implies, this legendary Elf really is something you want to include in any Wolf deck. With Tolsimir, each Wolf that hits your side of the board generates 3 life and a free fight—starting of course with Tolsimir's own favorite pet, Voja. Once this amazing engine is online, the more Wolves you drop onto the battlefield, the greater the advantage. Garruk, Cursed Huntsman's double-Wolf routine is the perfect follow-up, gaining 6 life, fighting two targets for 2 power each or a single one for 4, and likely procuring the death of at least one token, which already allows Garruk to ultimate the following turn.
This one-two punch is so flashy that it runs the risk of overshadowing the actual Wolves in the deck, particularly since I'm only playing eight of the doggies. This happened mostly because those currently in Standard all find themselves between converted mana cost 3 and 4, which makes for a very clunky curve. Of course, if I had to build this deck for Tribal Wars proper, it would require twenty tribal creatures out of sixty cards, so I would be forced to run full playsets of all five available Wolves, rather than just the cream of the crop. To be fair, though, none of them are completely unplayable: Fierce Witchstalker has decent stats and its Food-making is a good complement to Wicked Wolf; Ferocious Pup makes two bodies for 3 mana; and Arlinn's Wolf has a form of evasion.
The Wolf lady herself, Arlinn, Voice of the Pack, was another consideration, as a way to create more Wolves and make all of them better; but at 6 mana she feels too expensive, while not really comparing to Garruk in power level. Wolf-related cards like Wolfrider's Saddle, Wolfkin Bond, and Howling Giant didn't make the cut as they're more suited to Limited. Here's the pack-hunting list.
The Pack: Interestingly, each of the two Wolves in the deck has been featured as the centerpiece of a different Standard powerhouse: the extinct Simic Food for Wicked Wolf and the still very operational Simic Flash for Nightpack Ambusher. Both are quite strong 4 drops in their own right, but they also invite a specific set-up. For one, Wicked Wolf wants Food, and rewards us with a double fight under Tolsimir's watch. As for the Ambusher, it's the last in a conspicuous series of Wolves with flash, emphasizing their knack to lurk in the shadows in the thick of the forest, then surprise attack their prey. At least that's what fantasy and fairy-tale wolves like to do; I can't speak to the actual hunting strategies of their real-life counterparts. This deck doesn't have enough things to do at instant speed for the Ambusher to consistently go into token-making mode, but there are still some ways to take advantage of a resolved Ambusher, and regardless, it'll still prove useful as a tribal anthem, improving the success rate of the various fight triggers.
The rest of the Wolves appear in token form, be they the legendary 3/3 from the new Tolsimir incarnation—remember Tolsimir Wolfblood?—or the pair of 2/2s that accompany the return of the burly Garruk. Tolsimir and Garruk are also the only cards that force the deck into Abzan colors, but they're well worth the effort, and the fixing is not too painful, thanks to Fabled Passage.
The Path in the Woods: The deck really wants to get to Tolsimir and Garruk as soon as possible, but they're a 5 drop and a 6 drop, respectively, so the trail that leads to them requires quite a bit of ramping. For this we have Gilded Goose, which also is the main source of Food for Wicked Wolf, and two of the Druids, the fixing princess Paradise Druid and the adaptable Incubation Druid, the latter also giving us something to sink mana into without disrupting an active Ambusher.
The Ambusher's main complement, though, as well as a source of ambushing in its own right, is the extremely underrated Vivien's Arkbow. If you never tried an Arkbow deck, you'll marvel at how much of a nightmare a resolved Arkbow is for both permission decks, which get completely bypassed, and aggro decks, which never know for sure what they're attacking into. Compared to a dedicated Arkbow deck, this list has the flaw of running four copies of a crucial planeswalkers, something the Arkbow can't find. Other than that, Ambusher, Wicked Wolf and Tolsimir are all excellent targets to find with the Arkbow, as are two of the sideboard options, Cavalier of Night and Massacre Girl. Once we hit 5 or 6 mana, we can start discarding other Arkbows or excess lands and mana dorks, and by doing that we entirely stop casting spells, so there will be nothing to disturb the Ambusher's end-step call, but also nothing for the opponent to counter, and even nothing for Teferi, Time Raveler to interfere with, since the Arkbow's activation falls squarely outside his purview.
The Fodder: If the Ambusher's needs are dutifully taken into account, the deck doesn't forget the other big bad wolf either, with Gilded Goose and Trail of Crumbs supplying a stream of Food tokens for Wicked Wolf to snack on—of course Oko, Thief of Crowns would do the same, and more, but he's gone. The Trail also doubles as a secondary digging engine, and unlike the Arkbow, it is able to find Garruk too.
All in all, this is a fun concoction, definitely worth a try. It plays like a ramp deck with strong midrange plays and a scary late game, and the presence of the Arkbow makes it more unpredictable than one would expect. We could almost say that, in the current meta, it's … a lone wolf.
Tribal Attractions Archives
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