Saturday, December 25, 2010

Standard Deviations #8 - Cannibal Pigmy Bloodsuckers: Playing B/R Combo Vampires in Standard

Hello everyone out there in internetlands; happy holidays and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  As regular readers of this blog may be aware I've recently gone on a huge Standard binge; forcing my friends to play as many as 7-8 sideboarded matches in one sitting and crossing into "hopelessly addicted junkie" territory in the process.  I have to admit that I'm thoroughly enjoying myself even if I'm not finding a lot of time to get out to the few tournaments that are actually happening this holiday season.  I'm sure there will be plenty of drafts/tournaments in the new year to attend; in fact be on the lookout for an announcement regarding some changes in Hairy T tournament policies some time just after Christmas.  I've recently talked to a bunch of our regular players and in response to their suggestions we're going to make some improvements in terms of how tournaments are run; both at the downtown and North York locations.  More information will be posted on the store's website ( Hairy Tarantula's Website ) and this blog once everything is finalized.

With that out of the way lets dive right in and take a look at another one of the tournament-level Standard decks I've been testing with/against recently; B/R Combo Vampires.  I think at this point it's probably important to note what I mean by the word "combo" here.  There are basically two ways to build a competitive B/R Vampires deck here in Standard.  You can build a fast aggro deck with solid burn spells and use Kalastria Highborn to backdoor into victories once your opponent stabilizes.  This is a very solid deck in my opinion but ultimately I feel that it's trying to do the same things as Assault Strobe RDW or Kuldotha Goblins at a slightly slower pace.  The other way to build B/R Vampires however is to shape it around the "sacrifice" effects of Viscera Seer and Bloodthrone Vampire to create a deck that does something no other deck in Standard can accomplish; profit greatly from sacrificing it's creatures (and yours).  Personally I find the "combo" version of this deck to be both more interesting and more effective in my local environment.  If you want to try the other deck however just replace copies of Bloodthrone Vampire, Mark of Muntiny and Blade of the Bloodchief with cards like Arc Trail, Pulse Tracker and Vampire Hexmage.       

B/R Combo Vampires:

Creatures - 24:

4x Vampire Lacerator
4x Viscera Seer
4x Bloodghast
4x Bloodthrone Vampire
4x Gatekeeper of Malakir
4x Kalastria Highborn

Spells - 13:

4x Lightning Bolt
3x Blade of the Bloodchief
2x Doom Blade
4x Mark of Mutiny

Lands - 23:

4x Blackcleave Cliffs
4x Dragonskull Summit
3x Lavaclaw Reaches
8x Swamp
4x Verdant Catacombs

Sideboard - 15:

4x Duress
3x Arc Trail
2x Doom Blade
4x Vampire Hexmage
2x Act of Treason

Overview: One part blisteringly fast aggro deck, one part non-interactive combo deck; B/R Combo Vampires seeks to obtain the best of both worlds by switching strategies mid-game and challenging the opponent to respond accordingly. Like most Vampire decks this build tries to dominate the early game by flooding the board with cheap, efficient weenies and backing them up with Lightning Bolts and/or Kalastria Highborn.  Unlike other Vamp decks however this one doesn't rely on it's opponent to help it finish the game; instead it runs 8 key "sacrifice outlet" creatures to fuel game-ending cards like Blade of the Bloodchief, Mark of Mutiny and Kalastria Highborn.  With this distinction may seem subtle the effects on the table are anything but; whereas "aggro" Vampires tries to end the game before it starts the "combo" version of this deck manufactures it's *own* end game if the opponent doesn't crumble early.  As a side note I'd like to thank my friend Jared for helping me throw this list together.  My first version of this deck was half aggro/half combo before he helped me realize that I needed to pick one direction or another; thus saving me probably 40 or 50 wasted games of testing.  Thanks J.

What I think it's good at: If you want to see a U/B control player cry break this deck out against him at your next Friday Night Magic event.  Think for just a moment what we're talking about here:

* 24 creatures that can't be targeted by Doom Blade
* 4 Lightning Bolts to kill off random Jace's
* 4 Bloodghasts that can't really die
* 4 Mark of Mutiny main-deck for Titan/Wurmcoil meta
* Not a single card costs more than 3; making Mana Leak and Frost Titan significantly less effective.     

Even more frightening is that these advantages are all pre-sideboard; 4 Duress and 4 Vampire Hexmages also come in for games 2 and 3 if necessary.  Being fair it's pretty hard for *any* Blue-based control deck to handle this thing game one unless they specifically meta against it.  B/R Combo Vampires also excels against most other weenie aggro decks; it's hard to trade removal with Bloodghasts or outrace a deck with 4x Kalastria Highborn on life.  In my testing I found that most creature-based aggro decks would trade damage with me for the first 10 life and then find themselves at a loss when I combined Kalastria with a sacrifice outlet creature and some spare mana.  Combo aggro is even worse; both Boros and Quest decks are incredibly ill-suited to dealing with both the volume and variety of removal this deck runs.  While 2x Doomblade and 4x Lightning Bolts/Gatekeeper of Malakir are bad enough; Mark of Mutiny on an equipped creature is usually game over immediately.  Alternately making a 7/7+ Viscera Seer by sacrificing Bloodghast over and over with a Blade of the Bloodchief in play also represents a legitimate option against other aggro decks.  Finally I've found that Mark of Mutiny and the general overall speed of this deck-type make it a strong favorite against the slower Ramp decks in the format; Mono-Green Eldrazi and RUG Titan.  This isn't to say Vampires should win these match-ups every time but it's pretty rare to lose either match if you draw a Mark of Mutiny. 

What I think it's not good at:  While it would be easy to write this deck off as weak against "Wrath of God" type board sweep effects the truth is that a skilled player can easily play around these cards.  Unfortunately no amount of playskill can account for the fact that this deck is typically slower than Valakut Ramp builds and that said builds are very popular.  Of course sometimes the Valakut player will play poorly, forcing out the Primeval Titan and letting you beat him to death with it on your next turn.  Good players however will hold you off with Overgrown Battlements and wait an extra turn to play an Avenger of Zendikar before setting up their Titan/Valakut combo.  It's pretty hard to win the game through 5-7 random plant tokens and by the time you do break through your opponent will be hurling "MountainBolts" at you and your creatures.  Ultimately you can beat Valakut by simply outrunning it but more often than not in my experience you'll get the opponent down to about 6 life before he kills everything on your side and starts bashing you with Avengers/Plant Tokens.  I've also found that B/R Combo Vampires can struggle against other swarm aggro decks if the opponent's creatures are both interchangeable and simply too large to attack into/trade with.  Typically this means mono-Green decks with cards like Leatherback Baloth/Vengevine and Wolfbriar Elemental but I've lost games against random Ally decks as well.  Additionally while you're still a good match-up against most copies of RDW, Kuldotha Goblins in full flight can be almost impossible to beat on it's best draws.  Turn 1 Kuldotha Rebirth, Turn 2 Goblin Bushwhacker with R kicker and turn 3 Goblin Chieftain will pretty much always ruin your day but otherwise this is a fairly winnable match-up.  Finally while B/R Combo Vampires has a very strong match-up with Blue-based control decks in game 1, certain versions of U/W Control can be extremely difficult to handle post-Sideboard.  It takes a specific combination of cards of course but usually some mixture of Ratchet Bomb, Leyline of Sanctity, Condemn, Journey to Nowhere and Day of Judgement that adds up to 12+ cards total will be enough to shut you down in games 2 and 3.

What the Sideboard does:  Unfortunately I feel the current Sideboard for this deck is something of a work in progress. Originally when I built this deck I was trying to make sure it beat both U/x control and the various turn 3-4 "combo-aggro" builds that were rampant in my environment at the time.  This lead me to build a sideboard that was primarily about dealing with these two major deck-types while essentially ignoring G/r Valakut Ramp.  Further testing has lead me to believe that this may have been a mistake and that as many as 4-5 SB slots should be devoted to improving this match-up.  For the sake of study I'll talk about the current Sideboard here but for more information on potential answers for Valakut please check the "Possible improvements?" section below.  Currently the most versatile and important card in the sideboard is Vampire Hexmage because she's so ridiculous against both Jace-based control decks and other aggro builds.  First strike is a deceptively strong ability in Standard right now because the format is populated by an absolutely huge number of 2 toughness weenies.  Of course her ability to "suicide" all the counters from an enemy card can be quite valuable too; while obviously she can execute Planeswalkers at will you'd be surprised at how often this comes up against other cards as well.  Chimeric Mass, Beastmaster's/Pyromancer's Ascension, random Allies, Steel Overseer and even enemy Blade of the Bloodchief tokens are all examples of cards I've used a Vampire Hexmage on in play-testing.  Finally of course sometimes the ability to just sacrifice herself is enough; particularly when either the Blade or Kalastria are involved.  Without a doubt if Magic had a 65 card minimum I'd have found a way to work Hexmage into the main deck.  3 copies of Arc Trail are included to try and improve the match-up against other weenie aggro decks; in particular this card can be a lifesaver against Kuldotha Goblins but it's still strong against pretty much every aggro deck in the format.  It's also an absolute blowout card against creature based ramp decks so don't hesitate to bring it in against anyone running Birds of Paradise, Joraga Treespeakers, Elves, Lotus Cobras and/or Oralce of Mul Daya's .  On the opposite end of the scale 2x Doom Blade and 2x Act of Treason allow you to customize your removal for game two against big creature decks that would shrug off Lightning Bolts and Arc Trails.  It's going to take a whole lot of "Fatty" to survive 6 Threaten effects, 4 Doom Blades and 4 Gatekeeper of Malakirs in games 2 and 3 even if your opponent managed out outlast you the first time.  Finally the Sideboard contains 4 copies of Duress as a sort of catch all answer to dangerous spells that might otherwise ruin your day.  In practice this means Wrath of God effects like Day of Judgment, Consume the Meek and Ratchet Bomb but there's really no end to the number of problems this card can solve.   From Planeswalkers to counterspells to Eldrazi Monuments most decks will have something worth Duressing away by the time they've finished Sideboarding.
How to play it:  One of the coolest things about B/R Combo Vampires is that its both delightfully simple and riotously fun to play.  While I would absolutely recommend this deck for a beginning player because it's so easy to pick up and just start playing the design is also complex enough to reward good play by a skilled pilot.  Most veteran deck-builders will tell you that this is a pretty rare combination in constructed Magic and that's part of why I think this deck has the potential to be quite special.  At it's most basic level this deck breaks down a lot like a computer program:

A) Flood the board with Vampires and use spot removal to attempt to overwhelm the opponent.

B) If A doesn't work use Mark of Mutiny to take the opponent's best creature and attempt to kill him with it.

C) if some combination of A and B doesn't work establish a "sacrifice" combo with Bloodthrone Vampire/Viscera Seer, Bloodghast and Blade of the Bloodchief to create a "super" Vampire with many +1+1 tokens and beat your opponent to death with it.

D) If none of the above have worked start sacrificing/chump blocking all of your Vampires and using them to drain your opponent out with Kalastria while restoring your own life total to comfortable levels.

Obviously depending on the game situation/opponent the optimal order of these operations may change but for the most playing B/R Combo Vampires comes down to understanding these 4 options and deciding which is currently your best choice.  Of course there's a difference between playing a deck functionally and playing it well and there's no question that practicing with this deck against a variety of opponents leads to stronger play.  Lets' take a look at a few quick tips that can help you shorten this learning curve and start winning with B/R Combo Vampires right away:

  • Don't walk multiple "sacrifice outlet" creatures into 2 for 1 situations.  Turn 1 Seer/Turn 2 Bloodthrone may seem like a smart play but you'll be pretty upset when your opponent Arc Trails 1/4 of your combo enablers into the Graveyard.  
  • Don't cast Gatekeeper of Malakir without paying it's kicker.  While it will sometimes be tempting to run out a 2/2 beater in the early game the simple truth is sooner or later your opponent is going to play a creature you want to kill and giving away removal effects isn't a good way to win games of Magic.  Given this it's important to realize that Gatkeeper's actual cost is BBB, remember to allocate your mana accordingly when you're planning out your turns.
  • If you smell counter-magic cast the Blooghast first.  Your opponent will be very unlikely to counter it because you'll get it back the next time you play a land.  On the same note always remember to sacrifice/attack with your Bloodghasts first and wait until your 2nd main phase if necessary before playing the land.  I've left more than a few points of damage on the table in tight games simply by playing these cards in the wrong order.
  • Do not cast Kalastria Highborn without at least 1 and preferably 2 mana to activate her ability open.  Unless your opponent is a complete fool he will immediately recognize Kalastria for the threat she is and will go out of his way to kill her.  By waiting until you have a "sacrifice outlet" creature (Bloodthrone/Seer) and some spare mana you force your opponent to both lose and give you significant amounts of life every time he tries to kill a Vampire.
  • Don't walk into Day of Judgement/Pyroclasm/Consume the Meek type effects.  If your opponent is running 10 or less creatures it's a pretty safe bet that he has some kind of board swipe effect; if not in the main-deck at the very least in the Sideboard.  If you have reason to suspect your opponent is "packing heat" the key is to play accordingly; always hold back at least one creature, try to force him to play around Bloodghast and Kalastria Highborn at the same time.  Punish your opponent for killing your creatures but never let him take all of them out with a single shot.  For example I recently won a game against U/W Control simply by saving all 3 cracklands I drew for the late game; my opponent stabilized after multiple Day of Judgements at 5 life with a Sun Titan in play but ultimately lost to my Bloodghasts because even if I didn't draw a land I had the means to go fetch one every single turn.  
  • Finally stay flexible and don't argue with the cards.  Like most good combo-aggro decks B/R Combo Vampires is built around a number of powerful two card interactions and therefore has multiple paths it can take towards winning the game.  Keep your eyes open for ways to take advantage of these combos and try to play into potential combos that might come up later.  During a recent test game I found myself facing down an opponent I knew was holding on to a Lightning Bolt.  I had a Bloodthrone Vampire carrying a Blade of the Bloodchief and a Blooghast in play and I'd recently played but not cracked a Verdant Catacomb.  Without thinking I sacrificed the Bloodghast on my opponent's end step thinking I could put 2 bonus counters on the Bloodthrone and then crack the land to re-summon the Bloodghast next turn because he'd have haste (my opponent was at 9 life).  Of course I'd forgotten about the Lightning Bolt and my opponent proceeded to fire it at the Bloodthrone Vampire stacked on top of the various bonuses.  I stared at the board for a second and then realized that I could respond to the Bolt by cracking the Catacombs to fish out a Swamp; returning the Blooghast to play and giving me another chance to sacrifice it to the Bloodthrone Vampire *before* the Lightning Bolt would resolve.  Amusingly enough I drew another land on my turn and proceeded to kill my opponent outright by sacrificing the Blooghast again.                   

Possible Improvements?:  While ultimately I'm quite happy with the main deck for this build I've recently found myself a little frustrated with it's sideboard.  As previously mentioned I'm particularly worried that the deck simply can't beat Valakut often enough with the answers currently available to it.  While reading the various World Championship articles online I came across multiple "pro" players who suggested Demon of Death's Gate as a legitimate way to take down the match-up.  I am inherently loathe to play with a 9CC creature and I'm not exactly inclineded to sacrifice 3 of my own creatures at once either but I must admit that if you cast it early enough this card can put significant pressure on Valakut Ramp decks.  Unfortunately the card would be almost unplayable against any opponent running effective removal or bounce effects so we'd be talking about including it *just* to beat Valakut.  You would also never want two copies in your hand at the same time and yet you'd need to have it in play by turn 4 on the draw at the latest or your opponent will simply trigger Valakut 3 times on a single turn and kill it.  While the situation merits more testing for sure I'd probably be willing to include 3 copies in the Sideboard if my environment featured more Valakut decks; maybe in the place of 2x Act of Treason and 1x Duress for example.  Finally while my environment contains far too many Red aggro decks to seriously consider it, in more Control/Ramp based metagames Dark Tutelage can be a very strong option; either in the main deck or SB.  It combos well with Viscera Seer and can give you a pile of extra cards against control/ramp/combo opponents.  Of course you probably don't want to include Tutelage in a deck with 9cc Demons and I personally wouldn't include it at all if you expect to see a lot of fast/aggro burn.  Losing to your own cards sucks.

Well ladies and gentlemen it's officially 1 AM on Christmas morning and I'm thinking about a warm glass of egg nog and a comfy bed.  Merry Christmas to everyone who reads the blog and hopefully I'll have a chance to post another article before the New Year.  The gamestore I manage is having a crazy Boxing Week Sale and I'm expecting to put in 5-6 long, hard days in a row at the shop during this event.  Dunno how much energy I'll have for writing about Magic but we'll see.  As always thanks for reading and remember that while most creatures can only die for you once, Blooghast is happy to die over and over again to further your mad plans for world conquest.  Goodnight everyone.

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