Monday, July 4, 2011

Standard Deviations #18 - The Calm Before the Storm Part 1: Black/red Vampires

Hello everyone out there in Internetlands and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  As most of you are no doubt aware the post-M12 Standard is fast approaching us; the release date is July 15th and as of sitting down to write this we've already seen 221 of the set's 249 cards spoiled.  In light of this it had originally been my intention to wait until M12 was out to publish any of the lists I've been working on in the "new" Standard.  While I was a little worried about not posting anything on the blog for almost 2 weeks, I figured it would be pretty easy to find some other things to write about in the meantime and I assumed that readers would greatly prefer "finished" deck-lists that reflect the post M12 Standard environment.

Well it turns out I was dead wrong; between email, IRC, Twitter and my own paper Magic playgroup I've been asked at least 20 times for various deck-lists by friends who don't seem to care that we're only 12 days away from the release of M12.  What's more now that I've *seen* so many of the cards I'm not entirely sure the environment will ultimately change very much; this is an interesting core set with a lot of solid support cards for existing strategies but other than a few highlights (Angelic Destiny for example) I'm not really seeing anything "new" that's going to shake up the format.  Red Deck Wins will get much better despite being already very good because of cards like Lavamancer, Chandra's Phoenix, Incinerate and Goblin Grenade.  Control decks get a solid boost with Ponder and Visions of Beyond to try and replace what they've lost with the banning of Jace.  Even Valakut gets back Rampant Growth; although I suspect it will be harder to jam it into modern lists now that everyone knows how amazing Explore can really be.  None of these changes however will fundamentally alter the environment as a whole in my opinion and M12 is starting to feel like a "slow and steady" caretaker set that was designed primarily *not* to produce another Jace/Stoneforge Mystic type card.  I should note that this is simply an early opinion based on looking at but not testing the M12 spoiler so far; I reserve the right to deny I ever said any of this if Visions of Beyond turns into "the new Recall" for example. :)  Finally if the truth be told I'm simply playing so much Standard now that I don't actually *have* anything else to write about; I even tried to draft SoM block recently just to generate content but after opening a Batterskull, Thopter Assembly and a Contagion Engine only to be passed Corrupted Conscience plus a Volition Reins I felt said article wouldn't be very interesting.  "Open bombs, get passed Mind Controls and win" doesn't make for very good draft advice.

Faced with these grim realities I decided the only solution was to break down and write up the deck-lists my playgroup and I have been working on for the pre-M12 environment here on the blog.  Naturally it goes without saying that these decks were created without M12 cards and while some consideration was giving to the upcoming format in their construction for the most part I simply pushed the new set out of my mind during the building/testing process. I won't lie; I hate proxies and I have a mental block about testing with cards I can't physically hold in my hands so even if I had wanted to add M12 cards to these decks I would have been extremely difficult.  So with that out of the way let's start off by taking a look at one of the aggro decks my playgroup and I have been testing since the Jace/Mystic ban was announced: B/r Vampires!

"Cannibal Pygmy Bloodsuckers Ver 3.0" - Standard B/r Vampires     

Creatures - 26:

4x Vampire Lacerator
4x Viscera Seer
4x Bloodghast
4x Kalastria Highborn
4x Vampire Hexmage
4x Gatekeeper of Malakir
2x Abyssal Persecutor

Spells - 11:

4x Lightning Bolt
3x Go for the Throat
4x Dismember

Lands - 23:

4x Blackcleave Cliffs
4x Dragonskull Summit
4x Lavaclaw Reaches
4x Marsh Flats
1x Verdant Catacombs
6x Swamp

Sideboard - 15:

3x Duress
3x Arc Trail
3x Manic Vandal
3x Mark of Mutiny
3x Memoricide

Overview: Like most Vampire decks in Standard this is a basic "burn and crash" weenie aggro deck that focuses on dominating the early game and beating your opponent before he can really get started on his own game plan.  Unlike many aggro decks however (RDW, Elfvine) Vampires accomplishes this goal not by racing the opponent but by overwhelming them with swarms of cheap/versatile monsters and *heavy* creature disruption; often from the same cards!  At least to a degree this makes B/r Vampires a "thinking man's" aggro deck and if you're looking for an aggressive build that still focuses on synergy and creating play options as the game develops this may be the deck for you.  Let's take a look at the individual cards that form the deck and some of the reasons why they ultimately made the final cut:

  • Vampire Lacerator - Pretty much a "value beater" this is basically the Vampire version of Goblin Guide.  His drawback is marginally annoying but the life-loss is fairly easy to make up with Kalalstria.
  • Viscera Seer - It's hard to believe that a 1/1 for B could possibly be this relevant in Standard but this card proves itself more every time I cast it.  Her primary function in this build is to sacrifice Vampires on command to fuel Kalastria.  Additionally however she also combines with Bloodghast(s) for a free Scry effect every time you draw a land, helps blank or at least minimize enemy spells that target your creatures and can even dispose of an unwanted Persecutor when your opponent reaches zero life.
  • Bloodghast - One of the most important cards in any Vampire deck; Bloodghast thrives in this build by fulfilling multiple roles over the course of a single game.  Early on he's pretty much a cheap beater that your opponent won't want to counter, kill or trade with because of his Landfall ability.  In the mid-game he switches to more of a "combo enabler" role; working with Viscera Seer and especially Kalastria to give you added value by dying over and over again.  Finally in long ground out games against Control builds he'll often turn into the de factor "finisher" as each land you pull off the top suddenly throws 1-4 Blooghasts at your opponent's life total.  
  • Kalastria Highborn - Simply put this is the best card in the entire deck and without Kalastria I really don't know if Vampires would even be a legitimate strategy in Standard.  To this end it is *extremely* important that you play/protect this card properly if you want to win matches with Vampire decks.  Used correctly this card will punish your opponent for playing removal spells and trade-blocking while simultaneously letting you close out games against wounded enemies who've stabilized by sacrificing off your own Vampires.  Used incorrectly she'll look very pretty in your graveyard when your opponent murders her the moment you tap out.
  • Vampire Hexmage - Oddly enough this is the card I find myself arguing about most with other Vampire builders during playtesting and to be 100% honest I have absolutely no idea why other people don't like her as much as I do.  A 2 power Vampire that wins creature combat (First Strike) against other "bears" isn't exactly a bad card but when you factor in her ability to control enemy Planeswalkers and key metagame cards like Shrine of Burning Rage or Tumble Magnet the choice to include her seems like a "no-brainer" to me.  You can even use her as a free Kalastria trigger; she targets a permanent rather than the actual "counters" she removes so you can just target a random land and send her to the graveyard if necessary.  
  • Gatekeeper of Malakir -I've listed the Gatekeeper in the 3 mana slot because unless you are *absolutely* certain your opponent has no creatures left in his hand/deck you'll probably never cast him for 2.  This is pretty simple math folks; for 3 mana you get a 2/2 Vampire and your opponent loses his least important creature.  When combined with other removal effects this often means his only/best creature and for that reason alone Gatekeeper is an auto-include in Vampire decks.  In a deck that simply does not draw cards these type of 2-1 "value" effects are your only way to generate card advantage and as such playing without a full rack of Gatekeepers is basically just wrong.
  • Abyssal Persecutor - If the Lacerator is a value beater than the Abyssal Persecutor is a "value beatstick"; 6/6 Flying Trample for 4 mana is absolutely ridiculous in a world without Jace the Mind Sculptor.  Naturally of course the Persecutor is not without his downsides but in my experience 4 Seers, 4 Gatekeepers and 3 Go For the Throats have been more than enough ways to get him off the table when it comes down to "winning time".  Finally of course I should mention that I chose this card over Obliterator primarily because it passes the "Dismember test" but also because it can be used to contain enemy flyers and "Oblity" cannot.  Now matter how you break it down, Persecutor specializes in winning you games you have absolutely no business winning and as such is a very easy to include 2-of here in this deck.  

  • Lightning Bolt - Unfortunately with the arrival of Spellskite, Lightning Bolt is no longer *the* premium creature removal spell in Standard.  It is however still incredibly useful in weenie aggro builds like this one; both as spot removal for problematic creatures (Lotus Cobra, Vampire Nighthawk) and as an end game clock accelerator, you just have to kill the Spellskite first.  Thankfully this isn't a real problem in a deck with 4 Dismembers and 4 Gatekeepers so "Bolt" remains a strong main-deck option for B/r Vampires.  As an interesting side-note I should mention that every once in a while I'll "dome" an opponent with Lightning Bolt just to bring them to 10 or less life; giving my Bloodghasts "surprise" haste before my attack phase.  While not a common play this has absolutely won me games and it's a good example of something you simply can not do with a mono-black Vampires build.
  • Go for the Throat - Oddly enough G4tT has been one of my least favorite cards in testing so far; while it's certainly *very* useful in some matches it tends to be a very reactive/defensive card which goes against the overall tempo/design of this deck.  Worse still there absolutely *are* decks out there in Standard that will take advantage of the fact that it can't hit artifacts; something you will learn the very first time an opponent chooses to copy his Wurmcoil Engine with a Phyrexian Metamorph.  Unfortunately there really aren't any better options out there when your goal is to murder 6/6 Titans in 5 different colors, execute Deceiver Exarchs right through a Spellskite and ultimately kill your own 6/6 *black* Abyssal Persecutor to win the game.  At this point I think of Go for the Throat as a necessary evil rather than a quality card in this build and the lack of a 4th copy in either the main-deck or the sideboard is a reflection of that opinion.
  • Dismember - As I've said before on this blog I consider Dismember to be the single most important card in all of Standard and as such tend to include 2-3 copies even in decks that can not produce black mana.  In a deck with 23 on-color sources to potentially *pay* the Phyrexian mana costs I really can't see how you'd play with less than 4.  While I won't repeat my previous arguments for Dismember here in this article I thought I'd make a short list of the potentially problematic creatures I've recently binned with a Dismember: Lotus Cobra, Spellskite, Overgrown Battlements, Baneslayer Angel, Phyrexian Obliterator (about 10 times), Avenger of Zendikar, Hero of Oxid Ridge, Hero of Bladehold, 4/4 Koth Mountains (again about 10 times), Celestial Colonnade, Creeping Tar Pit, Deceiver Exarch, etc.  Frankly I'm quite sure there were more creatures but you get the point; that's a long list of some of the best cards in Standard going down to the same 1/3 mana uncommon.  Just remember the key here is versatility; there are definitely times where you'll want to pay the 4 life and drop a 1 mana Snuff-Out on your opponent's best creature.  Having the option to pay 3 however helps make Dismember a strong topdeck for B/r Vampires well into the late game. 
  • Lavaclaw Reaches - As strange as this may sound it was ultimately this card and not Lightning Bolt that convinced me to keep red mana sources in the Vampires build.  While testing the mono-black version of the deck I constantly found myself unable to win long ground out games against decks with a lot of removal; 4 Bloodghasts simply weren't getting the job done against control.  Thinking back I realized that this was primarily due to the lack of a "man land" in mono color decks and after fruitless experiments with Mimic Vat, Inkmoth Nexus and to my shame Dread Sanctuary I eventually threw the Lavaclaw Reaches back into the design.  I chose reaches over Creeping Tar Pit primarily because it better suited the aggressive nature of the deck; Bolt and a potential late game 1 shot kill man land seemed more "on theme" than Preordain and an un-blockable Plainswalker assassin, particularly in a deck with 4 copies of Vampire Hexmage.
  • Blackcleave Cliffs/Dragonskull Summit - This choice was actually pretty obvious; your deck needs black and red mana sources that preferably come into play untapped.  These cards make both black and red mana and at least *tend" to come into play untapped; it's pretty much that simple.  Don't even think about skimping on the number of rare dual lands in this build; Akoum Refuge, Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse simply aren't reasonable options in this deck so there's no point in going "cheap" on your manabase because the deck will not function properly if you do.
  • Marsh Flats/Verdant Catacombs - Once again this is actually a pretty simple choice; you sorta need "cracklands" to take maximum advantage of Bloodghast who is in turn one of the most important cards in the deck.  This literally has nothing to do with thinning the deck out to avoid land draws in the late game as I've found that you need 8 or more "land fish" effects to actually accomplish this goal in a statistically significant manner.  Personally I would much rather be running 6 "cracklands" total but I'm a little touchy about running more of them than basic lands to go fish; I hate dead draws even on turn 13 or so.  The actual mix of lands you use is fairly unimportant; I included 4 Marsh Flats because I seem to own more than 12 copies of it while I only have 5 or 6 Verdant Catacombs lying around.
  • Swamps - To be fair I think it's pretty redundant to discuss why you'd include Swamps in a deck with 33 black cards and 8 activated/triggered abilities that require black mana.  Additionally you will need to draw or fish out an actual Swamp at some point to take maximum advantage of Dragonskull Sumitt so they're pretty much a no-brainer here.  The decision to cut to 23 land was made after considerable playtesting; with only two 4 drops in the entire deck I found that I was flooding more often than not, particularly in games where I could not draw or my opponent destroyed my Lavaclaw Reaches.

  • Duress: If the truth be told I would much rather these be Inquisition of Kozilek because it's straight up a better card in the format than Duress.  Unfortunately during testing this deck consistently struggled against both Batterskull and Day of Judgment out of control decks and IoK touches neither.  Naturally of course there are a variety of other cards you can attack with Duress including Planeswalkers, enemy removal spells and random problem cards like Birthing Pod but they're primarily included to fight board sweepers and Batterskull; which destroys this deck.
  • Arc Trail: As previously mentioned Vampires is not the fastest aggro deck in the format and relies on getting extra value from it's creatures and a steady supply of creature removal to win the aggro mirror. Arc Trail basically shores up your removal package in these matches; offering you yet another cheap 2 for 1 option in game 2.  Additionally it's pretty good against creature based mana ramp decks like Elves, RUG variants or anything with Birds/Treespeakers and Fauna Shamans really.  As a word of warning it should be noted that this card is NOT very effective against Tempered Steel aggro decks because it's not an instant and once they drop the Tempered Steel you won't be able to kill anything with Arc Trail at all.
  • Manic Vandal: Primarily included to deal with enemy Spellskites and Batterskulls this card has proven oddly useful in a variety of other situations.  In particular I'm quite fond of destroying opposing Phyrexian Metamorphs almost regardless of what they are copying and it's nice to know that if your opponent ever taps out with a 5-6 point Shrine of Burning Rage in play that you've got the answer.  I've also destroyed a couple of Tumble Magnets and expect to nuke quite a few more of them as people remember that Magnet is pretty good against Valakut and begin to reintroduce it to their decks.  Unfortunately the Vandals are not particularly effective at dealing with Wurmcoil Engine but we have other cards in the sideboard to answer this problem.
  • Mark of Mutiny: Speaking of answers for Wurmcoil Engine; do you know what happens when you Mark of Mutiny your opponent's 6/6 (now 7/7!) Wurm, attack him with it and then sacrifice it to a Viscera Seer?  You gain 7 life, he loses 7 life or a blocker, you get *two* 3/3 Wurms with neat abilities, he loses his big Wurm and you get a free Scry effect.  Good deal huh?  Obviously this also works pretty well against all stripes of enemy Titan, Baneslayer Angels and pretty much any creature big enough to render a bunch of 2/2 Vampires completely irrelevant.  I should note that Mark of Mutiny was chosen here over Act of Aggression primarily because I could only think of a very limited number of situations where I'd prefer to lose 4 life to make this effect an instant; most of which involved Deciever Exarchs or Leonin Relic Warders that this deck has no trouble killing at instant speed now.  When I Mark of Mutiny my opponent's big monster I pretty much intend to attack and end the game with it; taking it in the middle of his attack phase and blocking one of his other creatures with it simply isn't on the agenda very often.
  • Memoricide: This is another example of a card I tried very hard to replace with Surgical Extraction but ultimately had to come back to after rigorous playtesting.  The truth is this deck is a massive game 1 underdog to Valakut and while the Mark of Mutinies do help they simply aren't enough to guarantee victory in games 2 and 3.  Memoricide allows you to attack Valakut by ripping the Titans out of his deck and typically sticking on on turn 4 will end the game in your favor very quickly (although Avenger is still a very real worry).  Even casting it after you've killed his first Titan but before he's played his 2nd is often enough to disrupt the Valakut player for 2-3 turns; during which time you can typically find a way to kill him.  Unfortunately despite it's much more favorable mana cost and instant speed I found that Surgical Extraction was largely ineffective in this role; because I don't run Despise it was difficult to get the Titan into the graveyard against an opponent who was slow rolling me for lethal damage off one Titan.  Additionally even if I DID run Despise my playtest partner was running 2 Noxious Revivals to attack that strategy and on more than one occasion simply flipped the Titan on top of his deck in response to my Extraction.  I realize that not many Valakut players are running Noxious Revival at the moment but you have to assume that if Surgical Extraction becomes the "go to" Valakut meta card for black decks, they will start. Thankfully Memoricide doesn't care at all about that nonsense so I decided to just skip the meta circle entirely and start with it here.

Playtest Results: At this point I've had the pleasure (depending on your point of view anyways) to run this deck through about 200 or so test games against a wide variety of opponents.  Through it all I've come to the conclusion that B/r Vampires is a *very good* but ultimately not great deck in this format.  It bears most of the hallmark signs of a classic tier 1 deck; it has several unfair cards, potential answers for virtually any strategy and it absolutely rolls mediocre FNM or rogue decks.  Unfortunately it really doesn't generate card advantage in any meaningful way and before you suggest Dark Tutelage please be reminded that it pairs *incredibly* poorly with Dismember and ask yourself which card you'd rather have.  In my experience truly "great" decks will rarely spend as much time playing off the top of their library as this deck does and while Viscera Seer addresses this problem somewhat she's not enough to keep this deck from being fairly high variance.  Additionally while this build has a number of both good and bad match-ups amongst other "tier 1" decks in the format there are *very* few decks it's a slam dunk victor against; no free wins will typically make a deck weaker over the course of a long tournament although I'm fairly certain a skilled pilot would mitigate this problem significantly.

Good Match-ups:  While as previously mentioned this deck doesn't really dominate anything off the table testing has shown that it's very strong against both blue and green decks as a whole.  Main-decking 4 Dismembers and 3 Go for the Throats goes a long way towards beating Exarch-Twin decks, you run more than enough removal to keep Lotus Cobras off the table and likewise it's pretty hard for a control deck to survive your onslaught when it can't keep blockers on the table.  To this effect I've had good (at least 60/40) results against: Exarch-Twin (U/R and Grixis), U/W Tap-out Control, U/B Control (although Batterskull main gives me fits), RUG Titan (Exarch and non), G/R Midrange, U/B Midrange, G/W Aggro (both Fauna Shaman and Quest for the Holy Relic based), Mono Infect (G and B) and a wide variety of random aggro/homebrew type decks.

Bad Match-ups:  Well for starters I think you'll need an incredibly lucky draw to beat a good Valakut deck in game 1; I'm something like 3-11 in pre-sideboarded games and frankly even sideboard games are a 50/50 proposition at best.  When you're boarding in 6-8 cards and still only going .500 against a deck that's the very definition of a bad match-up.  I've also found that the deck can struggle against RDW, it's not quite the completely un-winnable game 1 that Valakut presents but assuming equal draws you're probably a 40/60 underdog.   Fortunately this does get a bit better once your bring in Arc Trails and Manic Vandals (to control his Shrines) but we're still only talking about a marginal advantage in games 2 and 3; maybe 55/45 or less.  Finally as previously mentioned this deck can struggle mightily against builds that main-deck Wurmcoil Engine or Batterskull; particularly if they can ram the Engine down turn 4ish.  In practice the only decks I've seen do this so far are Mono U Architect, U/W and U/B control.  For the most part you should still beat the control decks more often than you lose but the Architect build is a SERIOUS danger to this deck; especially if he's smart enough to wait until he can immediately cast the Wurmcoil Engine before playing his Architect.

Conclusions:  Overall I'd have to say that B/r Vampires is a Tier 1 deck but ultimately it's the weakest of the 4 or 5 decks in the format that lay claim to the same title.  This is a problem that I don't really think is going to go away and so long as Valakut and RDW remain popular I personally would avoid taking it to a large cash tournament.  It is however exactly the kind of deck that will tear up FNM event after FNM event for the next couple of months even though it gets basically *nothing* relevant from M12 whatsoever.  It's also riotously fun to play and once you master the various Bloodghast/Seer/Kalastri tricks fairly easy to pilot overall without being so easy that it's boring.   

Well folks that's about all my fingers and likely your eyes can take for the moment so we'd better wrap it up here.  Hopefully you've enjoyed taking a thorough look at our version of B/r Vampires as much as I enjoyed writing it.  Even though I don't actually play this deck often in tournaments it's one of my favorites to show off to beginning Magic Players because its cheap (ish), simple to build/play and incredibly fun.  As always thanks for reading and until next time remember folks; Pulse Tracker is only a good card until your opponent plays a blocker!  Keep it weird gang.

    1 comment:

    1. I'm kind of surprised that B/r vamps have trouble with RDW. Bloodghast is a problem, as is Kalastria Highborn. Vamps can cast tons of creatures, (Gatekeeper is annoying, too) gain life, GFTT mountains, etc. I've definitely had trouble against it with my RDW.