From Right Field: Seor Bloodsucker

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Chris takes his first monthly Magic budget and spends it on some tasty Black cards. With a passing resmeblence to Craig Jones’s Pact Huk deck above, has Chris’s deck got the makings of a true contender? Read on to find out!

{From Right Field is a column for Magic players on a budget, or players who don’t want to play netdecks. The decks are designed to let the budget-conscious player be competitive in local, Saturday tournaments. They are not decks that will qualify a player for The Pro Tour. As such, the decks written about in this column are, almost by necessity, rogue decks. They contain, at most, twelve non-land rares. When they do contain rares, those cards will either be cheap rares or staples of which new players should be trying to collect a set of four, such as Dark Confidant, Birds of Paradise, or Wrath of God. The decks are also tested by the author, who isn’t very good at playing Magic. He will never claim that a deck has an 85% winning percentage against the entire field. He will also let you know when the decks are just plain lousy. Readers should never consider these decks “set in stone” or “done.” If you think you can change some cards to make them better, well, you probably can, and the author encourages you to do so.}

If you read last week’s column (I’ll wait), you know about the budget tracking we’re now doing for this column and the way I’m now approaching deckbuilding. If you still saved your money from last week, you have twenty dollars in your Magic savings account. If not, did you get the most out of your money?

Speaking of getting the most for your money, I popped onto Magic: The Spending Online the day after Time Spiral went on sale to see what people were playing with. That day, by the way, was Halloween. I was greeted by a pop-up box from StarCityGames.com own Wonder from Down Under, Talen Lee. It read “Boo!” and was followed by “Do you want a couple of free cards, just to borrow?”

I’ll admit that I was a little scared. I was always taught to beware of strangers offering presents, and there’s no one stranger than Talen Lee!

Boo-ya! And snap!

That’s right. I’ll be here all week with two shows on Saturday and a matinee on Sunday.

Anyway, it seems that Mr. Lee, through sheer force of will, had managed to pull not one but two Sengir Nosferatu from his online packs. “I won’t be using them for a while. I have other fish to fry.” (You’ll find that to be funny when you see the deck he’s working on.) I was apprehensive, but I figured, what the heck.

To see how the Sengir came up budget-wise, I popped onto StarCityGames.com. A buck-fitty each? That’s it?!? Hot dawg. Only six bucks invested in a playset. People should be able to get behind that.

Of course, before I jumped off of the deep end, I had to ask myself, was this guy any good, or was I just excited to be offered two copies of a new Vampire on Halloween? I searched my heart with honesty and found that the answer was “both.”

He’s Good, But is He Really Good?

The first thing I do when evaluating a creature is to look at the base stats, i.e. power and toughness versus mana cost. The worse the base stats, the better any abilities have to be to overcome those base stats. Un-Holy crap, is this guy good. He’s a 4/4 flier for five mana. That’s mighty efficient, especially for Black. You’re not getting a 4/4 or larger flier for four mana in any color unless it comes with a hefty drawback. (See, e.g., Hunted Lammasu.)

Of course, some dingbat (heh) is going to point out a card here or there that they think is better. Of course, there are “better” creatures. If he only goes for a buck-fitty, he’s not at the top of anyone’s “Add to Solar Flare” list. That’s why Mr. Lee was happy to loan him out to me, I’m sure. Still, he is efficient. Let’s look at some of the other four-power fliers in Standard right now.

I was going to list all of them since there aren’t a huge number, but the list was still a bit long. Essentially, four-power fliers come in several flavors. There are some fairly efficient five-mana, four-power fliers. That sub-group is either vanilla (Air Elemental), fraught with drawbacks (Woebringer Demon), or requires two colors and isn’t a 4/4 (Sky Hussar, a 4/3). Many cost much more (Firemane Angel, Nullstone Gargoyle) or have outrageous color requirements (Scion of the Ur-Dragon). Then, there are the cheaper ones like Moroii and Vexing Sphinx with drawbacks that are serviceable. Of all of the 4/4 fliers for five mana that I found, only one, Sengir Vampire, had an advantage rather than a drawback (Woebringer Demon) or pure vanilla-ness (Air Elemental).

Now, switch gears from power to mana, and take a look at the other five-mana fliers. I’m not going into the whole list because it’s significantly longer, but 3/3 seems to be what Wizards considers baseline for a five mana flier. Some are much smaller, like Belfry Spirit, which is a 1/1. Of course, it can end up giving you a total of five power worth of fliers in the end… usually. Not always, though.

The bottom line is that Sengir Nosferatu is good even without that added ability. With that ability, though, man, he rocks like Billy Squier. Hey, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” With enough mana (and without Sudden Death targeting it or Sudden Shock or Wipe Away targeting the token), this guy can essentially live forever.

Oh, I get it now like a vampire! That’s cute.

Living forever, though, as countless science fiction, horror, and fantasy stories have pointed out, isn’t so grand if you don’t do anything with it. First off, you end up watching all of your loved ones pass on before you, which seems to be why so many immortal types are so unfeeling. It’s not that they don’t care. On the contrary, they care, but it hurts too much to care because they outlive any mortals that they love. So, they develop this façade of cool indifference.


What can we do with this guy, then, beyond having him live forever?

Yes, you in the back lounging on the sofa

“You could attack with it?”

Gee, a 4/4 flier for five mana, and we could attack with it? Why, yes, yes we could. How astute. To quote Prof. Paul Simon, maybe we could get together and call ourselves and institute.

Any other bright ideas?

“What if we take advantage of the fact that we’re sacrificing tokens to bring Sengir Nosferatu back into play?”

In what way?

“Well, we could use Grave Pact…?”

I like that idea. A lot. The Pact solves a multitude of problems, especially against decks running creatures with Protection from Black. For instance, if the only threat that an opponent has on the board is Akroma, Angel of Wrath, she won’t be blocking any of your dudes while you have Grave Pact in play. If she does, she loses Akroma.

StarCityGames is selling Grave Pacts for between six and seven dollars. Me, I’m willing to play with slightly played Pacts to save some money. At six dollars each, that’s twenty four dollars for a set. Along with the Nosferatus, that’s only thirty dollars outside of the cards we already own. Between the Grave Pact and the Sengir Nosferatus, we’re essentially selling out to Black. Black has some good card drawing, but, given the mana cost on the Vampire, I’d stay away from Dark Confidant. Two Sengir Nosferatu in a row, and you’re Confidant toast. That means Phyrexian Arena. Those can be had for as little as four dollars each. If we add no more rares (other than the lands), we’re coming in at forty six dollars. That’s just over a month of saving your ten dollars a week. If it’s one of the two five-week months, you come out ahead by four bucks.

To cut costs even more, I’ve played this with Phyrexian Gargantua in the Phyrexian Arena slot. No doubt the Arena is better, but there are advantages to the Gargantua. For one, it’s a 4/4 creature. For another, you only lose two life with it, as opposed to the never-ending life loss with the Arena. (If you’ve ever gone long with an Arena in play and lost only because you couldn’t get rid of it, you know how frustrating that can be, regardless of how good it is otherwise.) With the Gargantua for Arena switch, the non-land rares in this deck come to thirty dollars. Nice.

What, though, do we add to all of this? Obviously, we want something else that allows us to sacrifice creatures and maybe even something that can make tokens. I’ve got my eye on Plagued Rusalka and Deathspore Thallid. Sadly, those are both 1/1s. However, with Grave Pact in play on your side, they can each kill two creatures. The Rusalka’s ability can take down an X/1 while the Grave Pact’s triggered ability can take out another.

(Don’t tell the other guy that he can sacrifice to Grave Pact the creature that’s targeted with the Rusalka’s ability. (If you need a more in-depth explanation, we can talk about it in the forum.) A lot of people will miss that one. While it’s never a good idea to assume that someone will make a mistake, as Sun Tzu would say, if your opponent is in the middle of making a mistake, don’t stop him.)

Here’s what I finally came up with after a Gatherer search, a bit of testing, and watching a few episodes of Drawn Together:

Before we go any further: I know that I’m again writing about a nearly-mono-Black deck. I didn’t plan it that way. Honest. It’s all Talen Lee and Rivien Swanson faults. First, Lee gave me those two Sengir Nosferatus, darn his black and generous soul to heck. Then, minutes later, he and Mr. Swanson both showed me that they had pretty much perfected the very deck that I was still working on! Oh, irony, thy name is Bubba.

As you can see, the manabase is essentially the same as the revamped one that I should have used for Zombies! 2k6 for States. I so very badly wanted this deck to be mono-Black, but I have to make the concession to the decks that run enchantments. That concession is Mortify. It’s also good at killin’ critters dead. So it’s not like it’s going to be a wasted card or anything.

So, where’s Deathspore Thallid, you ask. Went away for Nantuko Husk. While the Thallid was a nice two-mana creature, it… was… so… slow. Granted, the deck’s second turn is now casting a Rusalka with mana up to kill an X/1, Last Gasp, or Swampcycling a Twisted Abomination. That’s been quite fine in testing, especially since that means you can answer you opponent’s second-turn Watchwolf or Scab-Clan Mauler with a certain death (i.e. not predicated on combat).

The last two creature slots, Faceless Butcher and Twisted Abomination, were tough to finalize and simple, respectively. Twisty’s an easy call. He turns into Mortify by grabbing a Godless Shrine at the end of your opponent’s turn.

Faceless Butcher started out as Skulking Knight. I love me some 3/3 in that three-mana slot, especially when he dies so easily. Grave Pact loves that. Then, I started playing with it and found that it died a little too easily. Bounce spells became kill spells. Shock killed it. Giant Growth killed it. None of this was awful if Grave Pact was on board. Then I used Trespasser il-Vec. He kills Watchwolf, Scab-Clan Mauler, Kird Ape, Call of the Herd tokens, and can swing through untouched if he needs to thanks to his activated ability. He was just a tad too fragile. In the end, I gravitated back to the removal that is the Faceless Butcher.

The Manabase

If you don’t have your Godless Shrines and/or Caves of Koilos and you like playing B/W, shame on you you can replace as many as you need – up to a maximum of four, of course – with Orzhov Basilicas. Don’t forget Terramorphic Expanse, either. The even-more-budget version of this deck, running four Basilicas over Godless Shrines, two Snow-Covered Plains over Caves, and two Expanses for two Snow-Covered Swamps, was doing just fine, although it was regularly a turn slow (thanks to Basilicas and the Expanses) against the faster decks. In other words, it probably wouldn’t win you any Friday Night Magic tourneys, but it wouldn’t embarrass you, either.

Some people have pointed out that they simply scan my articles for decklists and don’t notice when I suggest changes. So, here’s the cheaper version with an alternate manabase and Gargantua (Phyrexian version) for Arena (Phyrexian version):

I tried adding in a copy of Orzhova, the Church of Deals, since it can win games by itself and playing it can’t be countered, but it was just too much colorless mana. Having five lands that make colorless mana bit me in the tushie once too often to make me comfortable, the implication being that you can bite me in the tushie a certain number of times with which I am comfortable. I didn’t think the amount of colorless mana would be a problem, since the deck is mono-Black-mostly just like Zombies! 2k6. However, this one is a bit more color intensive. Just take a gander at the triple Black needed for Grave Pact. If you don’t think you’ll need to use Ghost Quarters where you play (and I’d really like to know where that is), you can sub a copy or two for Orzhova.

Playing the Deck

Don’t be afraid to drop the Sengir Nosferatu as soon as you can. At first, I was timid. I wanted to protect him with two or even four open mana. That turned him into a seven-to-nine-mana creature. You know what? Sometimes, you don’t need to protect him. You just bash face for four through the air. If you can protect him, well, yah-freakin’-hoo. There will also come a time, and it is oh-so-sweet, when you can use him as removal. That time is when you have mana open and Grave Pact on the table. You simply pay your 1B to remove the Vampire from the game and put a Bat token into play. Then, you pay 1B, and sacrifice the token to bring the Vampire back. Sacrificing the token will trigger the Grave Pact, and you opponent will have to cut someone from his team.

Of course, Plagued Rusalka and Nantuko Husk can do the same things. Either one can use any warm body to do its trick.

Everything else should be fairly straightforward. Last Gasp is your two-mana answer to two-mana 3/3 creatures. Mortify is used to kill, in order, enchantments, creatures when it must, and your own Phyrexian Arena as a last resort.

Don’t forget your silly Faceless Butcher tricks, either. As with the warning above, this is not a trick to pull with Grave Pact on the board because your opponent may actually know what he’s doing and sacrifice the creature to the Grave Pact before the Butcher can do its thing.

Step 1: Cast Faceless Butcher.

Step 2: Target an opponent’s creature for removal from the game with the Butcher’s comes-into-play ability.

Step 3: Before that ability resolves, sacrifice the Butcher using the Plagued Rusalka’s or Nantuko Husk’s ability (ideally) or kill the Butcher with Last Gasp or Mortify (not recommended unless you really, really must). This triggers the Butcher’s leaves-play ability. Since nothing has yet left play — the Butcher’s CIP ability is still on the stack at this point — there’s nothing to come into play. Next, the Butcher’s CIP ability will resolve. That will remove the targeted creature from the game. Since the Butcher has already left play, you never have to worry about the removed creature coming back. There’s no Butcher in play that can leave play and bring it back! Yeah!

What if I Don’t Get Grave Pact or My Opponent Kills Grave Pact?

In other words, “What if I suck?”

Ah, but seriously, the Pact is like when your buddy and you start talking to a hot blonde woman and her hotter brunette friend. You may want the hotter brunette (hence, the adjective “hotter”) more than you want the blonde, but, if your friend gets her, you would gladly “settle” for the blonde. That’s not to say that Grave Pact is just a so-called “win more” card. This deck has been winning most of its games when the Pact doesn’t show up. Its winning percentage is even higher when the Pact does show up because of the tricks it plays.

So far, the deck has been strongest against beatdown decks like R/G Beats and aggro-control decks like Solar Flare, Solar Pox, and O Solar Mio. I’m sure that people who understand such things aren’t surprised. The aggro-control decks have few win conditions and tend not to want to blow up individual opposing creatures when Grave Pact is on board. No need to turn Smallpox into creature advantage for the other guy. The beatdown decks like to swing into the Red Zone but tend not to when doing so would simply mean losing their creatures. Seriously, why would you attack with a Rumbling Slum and a Kird Ape when they’re going to get blocked by two creatures who will die and trigger Grave Pact? Unless you had sacrificial mana bugs on board, you wouldn’t.

It’s been having a harder time against pure control decks. Those decks tend not to let the Grave Pact hit. In that way, their very few win conditions are easier to protect. Still, one Grave Pact is bad for them.

Isn’t This Deck About Sengir Nosferatu?

Well, the deck was inspired by Sengir Nosferatu, but that doesn’t mean that the deck has to function in such a way that it would fall apart without it. Those kinds of decks are called “Combo” decks. It’s really best if the deck doesn’t totally dependant upon one card. The Nosferatu simply got me to build a new deck. The fact that Senor Bloodsucker works so well with some of the pieces is part of the design. The fact that the deck works without him is also part of that design.

The Missing Piece(s)

There is one card not in this decklist that I tried to work in. It’s not here because the deck got weaker no matter what I took out for it. If I dropped creatures, there weren’t enough bodies. If I dropped spells, there wasn’t enough control. That card is Dread Return.

The great thing about Dread Return in regards to this deck isn’t the reanimation. It’s that buyback. If you can afford to cast this with buyback and Grave Pact is on board, it’s often a one-sided Wrath of God, or, given that we’re talking about Black, maybe it’s more appropriate to call it a really cheap Plague Wind. Then again, you lose three guys. So, let’s say it’s a really effective Hex. Geez, I’m not doing a very good job of making Dread Return sound good, am I? If you’re intrigued by this deck, you may want to play around with some of the numbers and see if you can work Dread Return into this. I couldn’t. Maybe you can. Try it with Deathspore Thallid. Hmm…

If you have even more money to spend or if you have them from when you picked them up cheap at the beginning of the year (yes, both Talen Lee and Evan Erwin were dead on), add in Skeletal Vampire. He’s just nuts with Grave Pact.

As usual, you’ve been a great audience. Join me next week when there won’t be any Black mana anywhere. I promise. I haven’t made the promise before, have I?

Chris Romeo