Innistrad is one of my all-time favorite planes of existence in Magic. The flavor is unique and super cool. When Magic returned to Innistrad with Shadows Over Innistrad, I got the idea to combine it with one of my favorite casual formats: Star Battle. The result is a really fun and cool way to immortalize Innistrad that can be replayed over and over with friends as I have been doing.
The Star Battle format requires exactly five players. Each player has two allies and two enemies. Your enemies are the two players seated across from you and your two allies are the two players seated beside you. The objective of the game is to defeat your two opponents before any other player can defeat their two opponents (and also to survive throughout). Any player can target any player or permanent, but you can only attack enemies and you can only block creatures that are attacking you. Turn order always skips a player so that two players never gain consecutive turns to gang up on a mutual opponent. For the Innistrad Tribal Decks, the turn sequence would go in this order:
Whoever wins the die roll goes first, in this case Humans went first. Then it would skip Spirits and go to Zombies. Then Vampires would be skipped and (Were)wolves would go third. Then Humans would be skipped and Spirits would go fourth. Then Zombies would be skipped and Vampires would go fifth. Then the cycle would repeat, with Vampires being skipped and Humans taking their second turn. Star Battle is usually played with five mono-colored decks, one of each of the colors. Since the tribes of Innistrad are all dual-colored, each tribe's enemies are the two-color pairs that do not share a color with the tribe whereas the tribe's allies are the two color pairs that do share a color with the tribe. Easy enough, right?
Now let's talk about the decisions that went into the construction of the five decks.
I decided to go with 100-card Commander decks because those played out the way I wanted. Each tribe has an iconic legend that can play as their general and 100 cards felt large enough to create variation in game play from one game to the next, and the card pool could reasonably support decks of that size.
The next decision I made was dividing all the cards from Innistrad, Dark Ascension, Avacyn Restored, Shadows Over Innistrad, and Eldritch Moon into their appropriate tribes. I wanted to preserve and capture as much of the tribal flavor as possible while also facilitating a fun game play experience. One of the difficulties was that most of the red and black removal was Vampire-related, so Zombies and (Were)wolves didn't get as much removal as I would have preferred. I decided instead of compromising flavor, I just left it as is.
Another decision I made in deck building was to keep in mind who had which enemies. For instance, a creature equipped by Blazing Torch cannot be blocked by Vampires or Zombies, so I made sure to include that card in the Humans deck since Humans are the tribe that is enemy to both Vampires and Zombies. I included as many such "enemy" cards as possible to highlight the enemy feel of opposing tribes.
Now that we have an overview of how the Star Battle format works and an idea of what went into the thematic construction of the five decks, let's take a closer look at each of the five tribal decks individually.
Commander: Sigarda, Heron's Grace
Holy Judiciar, a card that would rarely see play in Limited and never in Constructed, was included because Zombies are one of the two enemies and is therefore quite useful. Elite Inquisitor is very good because he has protection from both enemy tribes, even though protection from Werewolves is not relevant here (since Werewolves are an ally to Humans). Same with Slayer of the Wicked. Spare from Evil is also more useful than it ordinarily would be since it grants protection from all your enemies' creatures, whether used on offense to make them unblockable or on defense to protect them from combat damage.
Riders of Gavony is one of your most powerful cards. Since Vampires have more removal than Zombies, you generally would rather name Zombies, but beware that Vampires can still kill the Riders mid-combat to cause your attack or block to be disastrous. Bonds of Faith is also interesting because it can be a Pacifism on any opposing creature or a Giant Strength on any of your own.
There are also lots of ways to pump up your creatures. Lots of equipment that grants additional bonuses when equipped to a Human, and temporary pump effects such as Inspiring Captain, Goldnight Commander, Hamlet Captain, and Heron's Grace Champion. You also have permanent pump effects such as Thalia's Lieutenant, Mikaeus, the Lunarch, and Gavony Township. These effects can be quite useful once Sigarda starts making tokens (and granting everything hexproof).
You also have card advantage engines in the form of Tireless Tracker, Courageous Outrider, Mentor of the Meek, Ulvenwald Mysteries, and Descendants' Path. And you have Angel of Glory's Rise as a windmill slam bomb for card advantage that gets all your Humans back while destroying all Zombies (aka the entire board of one of your two enemies).
Commander: Huntmaster of the Fells
The transform ability of Werewolves is quite powerful in this format since any of the five players taking a turn off means your creatures all transform. You also get a pair of cool planeswalkers (Garruk Relentless and Arlinn Kord) that can each make a Wolf Token, in addition to doing other cool things. There are also a few other ways to make an army of Wolf Tokens, such as Silverfur Partisan, Kessig Cagebreakers, Cult of the Waxing Moon, and Feed the Pack, all in in addition to Huntmaster of the Fells.
Daybreak Ranger is excellent against Spirits, being able to kill nearly any creature in their deck. Alpha Brawl can often wipe out the entire board of one of your opponents. Moonlight Hunt can cause all your creatures to Gang Up on an enemy creature. You also have various ways to grant bonuses to most or all of your creatures: Moonmist, Howlpack Resurgence, Spirit of the Hunt, and Full Moon's Rise, Immerwolf, Instigator Gang, and Mayor of Avabruck. You also have Wolfir Silverheart, which I have found to be one of the strongest cards in the deck.
Commander: Olivia Voldaren
Vampires have a discard and madness mechanical sub-theme. They also have some ways to grant abilities to every creature of the tribe, just like the other tribes have. In this case they have Stromkirk Captain, Vampiric Fury and Stensia Masquerade.
They also can suck the blood (drain the life) out of the opponent in various ways such as Alms of the Vein and Blood Artist. Blood Artist is especially strong since it triggers from any creature dying, not just yours. You can then choose which of your enemies loses the life. Exquisite Blood is also strong in that it gains you life whenever either of your enemies loses life.
Some cards are specifically geared toward enemies, such as Stromkirk Noble unable to be blocked by Humans, Victim of Night killing any Human or Spirit, and Human Frailty destroying a Human. On a tangent, I wish Human Frailty's flavor text did not quote Olivia Voldaren because functionally that card belongs in the Zombie deck since Zombies are enemies of both Humans and (Human) Werewolves whereas Vampires are only enemies of Humans (and Spirits). So functionally the card fits better into Zombies, but flavor-wise it belongs in Vampires. Even though Zombies is light on removal and Vampires are not, I still decided to prioritize flavor here. Feel free to do otherwise in your own version.
Some of the most powerful cards in the deck are Bloodline Keeper and Voldaren Pariah. Bloodline Keeper can transform into a double anthem that makes a 4/4 flyer each turn while Voldaren Pariah can become gigantic while trading your three worst creatures for (quite often) one of your opponent's entire board. Olivia Voldaren is also a very strong general.
Commander: Grimgrin, Corpse-Born
The major theme of the Zombies tribe is returning from the grave. You have cards like Ghoulraiser and Ghoulcaller's Chant to return Zombies to your hand. You have Advanced Stitchwing, Geralf's Masterpiece and Stitchwing Skaab that return to the battlefield if you discard cards and Gravecrawler, Prized Amalgam, and Relentless Dead can come back in other ways. Ride from the Grave and Ever After can Reanimate, and a few other creatures have undying.
The second major theme is making a horde of Zombie Tokens. There are at least a dozen cards in the deck that make Zombie Tokens, the most powerful of which is Army of the Damned which makes 13 Zombie Tokens (and then 13 more if you flash it back).
Death's Caress doesn't quote a Vampire, so I snap included it in Zombies. Corpse Lunge is also clearly a Zombies removal spell. Dark Salvation, however, is the best removal spell in the deck.
I made a few judgment calls and added a few Humans to the deck. Gisa and Geralf are clearly Human traitors that are helping the Zombies, as is Havengul Runebinder, so their treasonous existence is preserved. Deranged Assistant is less obvious, but the flavor text is clearly Zombie-related and the mill ability is very useful for the deck, so it got included. Haunted Dead is a bit strange since it makes a Spirit Token, but Spirits are allies of Zombies, so I allowed it.
Some of the most powerful cards in the deck are Rooftop Storm (making all your creatures free), Grimoire of the Dead (Zombifying every creature from every graveyard onto your battlefield), Havengul Lich, Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, and of course the most flavorful card of all: Zombie Apocalypse, the reverse haymaker to combat Angel of Glory's Rise from the Humans deck. And Grimgrin, Corpse-Born is not so shabby either.
Commander: Geist of Saint Traft
Like the other tribes, making tribal tokens is a theme – in this case 1/1 flying Spirit Tokens. Moorland Haunt, Vessel of Ephemera, Midnight Haunting, Emissary of the Sleepless, Spectral Reserves, and Drogskol Cavalry make tokens. Geist Snatch interestingly makes a blue 1/1 flying Spirit Token.
Like the other tribes, there are plenty of ways to pump and protect the tribe. Drogskol Captain is the tribal lord, granting +1/+1 and hexproof. Gallows Warden pumps toughness while Battleground Geist pumps power. Ethereal Guidance can pump the whole squad, Spectral Flight can pump one creature, and Favorable Winds (although depicting Gryffs instead of Spirits) clearly belongs in Spirits rather than Zombies.
There are several cards that protect the tribe in various ways, my favorite of which is the blink effect. Blinking Spirit was an old favorite of mine back in Ice Age when I first began playing Magic, so being able to "blink a Spirit" with Essence Flux, Spectral Shepherd, Deadeye Navigator, or Lantern Spirit is somewhat nostalgic for me. You can also give a creature hexproof with Rattlechains (and all your subsequent creatures flash). You can pump the toughness of your creatures with Drogskol Shieldmate or give them indestructible, Selfless Spirit, or blink all your Spirits with Eerie Interlude.
The removal spells in the Spirits deck are quite flavorful. Spectral Prison and Ghostly Possession neutralize a single creature. Silent Departure and Grasp of Phantoms get a single creature off the battlefield, but then both spells have flashback. Dungeon Geists and Niblis of Frost can keep a creature tapped down while Spirit Away and Soul Seizer can steal the creature. Dissipate, Geist Snatch, and Spell Queller can also counter a key spell. Geist of Saint Traft is the most aggressive general and Spirits have the most evasion, so they can often get combat damage in at will. The tradeoff is that they also have a lot of low-toughness creatures that don't block well, so it's a bit of a double-edged sword.
I think I got the decks to a point where they are pretty well-balanced. Since it is a Commander game, everyone starts at 40 life and gets a free mulligan, so you generally have some time to develop. In my opinion this makes the games more interesting and lets the big haymaker spells get cast at critical junctures in games.
You can customize the decks to your liking, switching in some cards and others out according to your liking and/or card availability. You can also cut some of the more expensive cards if you'd rather build a more budget-friendly version, as I did by cutting both Lilianas from the Zombies deck. You can also make them 60-card Brawl decks instead of 100-card Commander decks. One thing I did to really add a fun finishing touch was to use appropriately colored sleeves and deck box for each deck. Zombies felt like they had to be black rather than blue, and Vampires and their blood felt more red than black. The other colors all then fell into place with (Were)wolves green, Humans white and Spirits blue. As you can see from the photo at the beginning of the article, I even got matching colored dice for each tribe! I also acquired all the appropriate tokens just to be fancy and to make the experience that much more flavorful for everyone playing:
Blue Spirit Token (1/1 flying)
White Spirit Tokens (1/1 flying)
White Human Tokens (1/1)
White Human Soldier Tokens (1/1)
Black Zombie Tokens (2/2)
Black Vampire Knight Tokens (1/1 lifelink)
Black Vampire Tokens (2/2 flying)
Green Wolf Tokens (2/2)
Lastly, thanks to my friends at Now Playing (Jim, Kelley, Jamillo, and Jon) for battling my Innistrad Tribal Star Battle Decks with me and offering feedback. According to their feedback, these decks are a lot of fun to Star-Battle against each other. There are so many ways to play Magic and this is one way that captures the awesome flavor of one of the coolest planes in Magic history while also showcasing one of my favorite casual formats in existence (Star Battle). I'm overall quite satisfied with this product and I suspect you will be too.