Innovations – All Red Decks Are the Same, Vampires Rock, Keep Loose Hands

Wednesday, November 24th – Patrick Chapin talks about a medley of topics, including the Vampires deck in Standard, why red decks are all the same, and why you should keep more hands.

The World Is a Vampire

The Vampire tribe is nothing new, having been pushed ever since

back, during M10. A popular and fun tribe, looking big picture, they’re really not actually that fundamentally different from Zombies, if you think about it. They’re certainly much more sophisticated, having more instances of abilities like flying or lifelink, sure. However, these days, an awful lot of Vampires are functionally just like Suicide Black’s Zombies of old.

Vampire Lacerator vs. Carnophage? Sure that one is easy.

Bloodghast? All things considered, Bloodghast feels more like a Zombie than a Vampire. Gatekeeper of Malakir? I mean, this guy could have been a Zombie, a Spirit, a Nekrataal (err Human Assassin). Where are the sophisticated Vampires, like Vampire Nighthawk and Malakir Bloodwitch? Now we’re back to the world of Suicide Black. I’m not judging; it’s just an important trend to understand, because Vampires are being played very differently as a tribe these days than they were last year.

You have surely seen this list:

This is a very classic example of Suicide Black, featuring a very aggressive swarm, only a very minor removal and enhancement package, instead featuring a “Fireball” endgame in the form of Kalastria Highborn with Bloodthrone Vampire/Viscera Seer and Bloodghast (potentially found with the Pawn of Ulamog plus Viscera Seer combo). This deck is devastating against purely defensive decks (though admittedly very weak against Jace decks with red) and is often too fast for many ramp decks, giving it a very real niche in the metagame. Its weakness? Other creatures, because let me just tell you, “Pulse Tracker? He does not like a fair fight.”

Long ago, people would occasionally try experiments with adding burn to Suicide Black, but there were a number of factors in the way. First, mana was never as good as it is now, but Suicide Black always required very heavy commitments to the color. Next, even if you splashed black, what did you get? Before M10, we hadn’t had Lightning Bolt in thirteen years. Splashing Shock? Not impressed.

Last year, the Vampire tribe brought back Suicide Black in a big way. Ever since then, there have been occasional forays into the surprisingly non-traditional B/r aggro, but it’s only recently that a build appears to be posed to hit mainstream. This sort of strategy is very appealing to new
competitive players, not for being mindless or easy or flavorful, or whatever. It’s appealing because on an intuitive level, it feels very

to try adding burn (which is now clearly among the best removal) to aggressive creature decks of all sorts.

Usually, what happens is that relatively new tournament players go through a phase where they want to try adding direct damage to Elves, or direct damage to White Weenie, or direct damage to Vampires, or whatever their favorite tribe is. They get exposed to the tournament field and eventually a few too many matches against decks like Jund, Five-Color Control, Next Level Bant, and Teachings break their will. They learn to conform and start playing “real decks.” After all, they’re playing to win, and if that concept isn’t working, they move on to something that is.

This time it works!

We live in a strange world of a few, very popular Jace control decks, a few, very popular Primeval Titan ramp decks, and fifteen different fringe fast aggro decks. While the sort of Vampire deck listed above has had a following for a fair bit now, another sort of Vampire deck is starting to make an appearance:

This strategy is an attempt at building a Vampire deck that beats other creature decks. A fast clock with fantastic tempo plays like Bolt and Arc Trail give you plenty of ways to get ahead early. Then Kalastria Highborn + Viscera Seer + Bloodghast provides added reach, as does Dark Tutelage and Viscera Seer helping find burn to finish an opponent off, as well as an occasional Mark of Mutiny to end the game (or even just serve as a great removal spell with the Seer!). This build has a surprising amount of card advantage (Gatekeeper, Bloodghast, Tutelage, Arc Trail) and is relatively easy to pick up, making it a great potential option for someone trying to escape the Jace vs. Titan view of the metagame.

One of the more important skills being tested with a build like this is what sort of hands to keep. This list is very much set up like a Red Deck Wins sort of deck, and as such should have mulligan decisions made in a similar light.

Aside About All Red Decks Being the Same

Am I sympathetic to Adrian Sullivan‘s somewhat
pedantic plea to restore Red Deck Wins

as a name to describe Sped Red? Sure, I mean, I try to fight the good fight, too. Names mean things, and it’s valuable to be able to convey information about decks and archetypes through our language. Draw-Go and Tap-Out are very different ways of saying U/W Control. So what do I think of Red Deck Wins?

To paraphrase Zac Hill,
if everyone knows what something means, it means what everyone knows it means.

Red Deck Wins? Sligh? Sped Red? Ponza? Chevy Anything?

That is entirely too much of a focus on the wrong thing, if you ask me. You know how I know those names aren’t worth it anymore? We, as in competitive tournament players and deckbuilders, don’t use most of those words when we are communicating with each other. Sure, we occasionally say things like “A little more Sligh,” in reference to Cedric Phillips‘ Mono-Red list featuring Flame Slash and Molten-Tail Masticore, but for the most part that isn’t even how we talk about decks when we’re in private company, not trying to sound smart or correct. When we’re just communicating with each other, and our interest is purely utilitarian, Gerry Thompson, Brian Kibler, Michael Jacob, Luis Scott-Vargas, Gabriel Nassif, Conley Woods, we all use the exact same language to describe Red Decks.

Red Deck

No, that’s not the name of this section. We’re still in the middle of the All Red Decks Are the Same aside. In real life, we call Red Decks, Red Decks. We then generally modify it with a piece of information that will tell the other party what they need to know, such as Fast, Medium, or Heavy/Big. That’s it. Seriously, all the originals, the Slighs, the Ponzas, the Red Deck Wins, the Deadguy Reds, all that, those aren’t some pure model of how to build Red Decks. They were built as a function of the card pool that was available at the time. We have very different sorts of cards, now. Additionally, at this point, we’ve seen enough Red decks to realize that they’re all basically the same; they just appear different places on the spectrum from


That is all you need to know about a red aggro deck, most of the time! Cheap aggressive creatures, burn, land destruction, all that stuff is potentially available as a result of the modifier “Red” that appears before the word “Deck.” It’s not important to spell out a recipe for exactly how much land destruction – if there is any – that’s being used in order to understand what deck is being talked about. Same with how many creatures have board removal abilities or whatever.

The only reason I use Red Deck Wins or RDW in print is to make it crystal clear to readers that are not heavily involved in tournament Magic that I’m not talking about Goblins, Destructive Force, Machine Red, or any other weird sort of “Red Deck,” as in real life, I’d rarely ever say Red Deck Wins. Really, we call those decks “Red Decks,” and all Red Decks are the same.

You know when we use Land Destruction? When the format calls for it. If Gerry is telling me about a Red Deck that has land destruction, and it’s industry standard at the moment, he doesn’t have to say anything; it’s industry standard. If a Red Deck has land destruction, and it’s not industry standard at the moment, he says “Little bit of LD main.” That doesn’t make it some different deck or archetype or anything even remotely important to deckbuilding. It’s just a Red Deck pre-sideboarded. That is it.

Red Deck Wins, Ponza, Sped Red, Deadguy Red, Sligh, Blitz are all the same deck!

We don’t pick which cards to play with because they fit in Ponza but not Red Deck Wins, or Sligh but not Blitz. We just say, “Want to test against Red?” Generally, when we call a deck “Red” or the “Red Deck,” we mean all those decks, because they’re all the same!

Keep in mind, this is no sleight against Adrian Sullivan, as he is not only a totally awesome dude, he is one of the most influential theorists in the entire history of the game, ever. Even Michael Flores will attest to being in many ways derivative of Adrian Sullivan, one of the grandfathers of Magic theory. Still, Adrian played most heavily in different days. Back then, theorists like Sullivan, Flores, and myself were struggling to invent a language to communicate these ideas at all. As times change, so too do languages.

Just think about how different American English is today than it was even just fifteen years ago.

-As if
-You go, boy!
-Don’t have a cow
-Take a chill pill
-Knocking boots
-Homey don’t play that
-Top Banana
-That was totally major

Those were all popular words and expressions back in the days where Sligh and Ponza got their names! Language evolves, and honestly the fact that no one really has any idea what anyone else is talking about when they say a new deck is Sligh vs. Red Deck Wins vs. Blitz, or whatever, should tell you that it is time to move on. We can hold onto the history, but if what you’re interested in is competitive Magic, in real competitive Magic, that stuff is all dead.

So every Mono-Red deck is a “Red Deck?”

No, and that’s the exact point! When we talk about Lava Spike decks, we call them Lava Spike decks (and usually Lava Spike isn’t even legal for the format in question). What is a Lava Spike deck? It’s the ten most analogous cards to Lava Spike and 20-22 lands. Real Lava Spike decks are combo decks, not aggro decks. When we talk about Goblins, we’re talking about a very linear aggro deck that’s just another Sliver deck, not a Red Deck.

However, all the decks listed above, well the truth is that regardless of how theorists imagined we would talk or think, we talk about them and think about them the same. Not everyone does, of course, but everyone I play and test with does, as well as almost all of my friends in other testing circles.

If everyone knows what something means, then it means what everyone knows it means.

Here is the hierarchy:


Who built it or the well-known name that distinguishes the exact build, nice if such a name exists, but is optional.


 Where does the deck fall on the Fast-Medium-Heavy spectrum? Usually only important if multiple speeds of a deck exist in a format.


   What is the subtype? Generally the colors (Red, U/W, Naya, Five-Color)


  What is the archetype? “Deck” is used when there’s only one option, letting us differentiate the deck from the colors themselves. For instance, the word “Deck” might refer to Grixis Control, Red Aggro, and Jund midrange. If multiple styles of decks are being used, the word “Aggro,” “Control,” “Midrange,” “Combo,” or some other modifier replaces “Deck.”

Regardless of what the textbooks say or what was used ten or fifteen years ago, nowadays, that’s the language that top tournament players generally use in real life. The fact that they’ve all arrived at this language and find it the most useful way to communicate with each other makes me think it’s a better system than the outdated model of every six months trying to force everyone to change their language back to how we talked in the nineties.

End Aside About All Red Decks Being the Same


So B/r Vampires ought to be played much like a Red Deck with cheap creatures curving out earlier, and burn clearing the path. You want to maximize damage during Stage One (before they can properly execute their strategy). You have a very mild Stage Three that can threaten to end the game all by itself (the Kalastria Highborn combos), but often you’ll just be trying to finish opponents off with a flurry of direct damage before they can reach their Stage Three game plan, which you’ll generally have no defense against.

The reason understanding this is important is because against an unknown opponent, you need an opening hand that can realistically end a game before their Stage Three. The majority of players play Jace or Primeval Titan decks, so an opening hand that can’t put a good deal of pressure on someone isn’t going to cut it. For instance, let’s say your opening hand is:

Lightning Bolt, Arc Trail, Dark Tutelage, Lavaclaw Reaches, Blackcleave Cliffs, Dragonskull Summit, Swamp

Do you keep this?

Against an unknown opponent, this is too unreliable a mix, because it provides no clock and looks to waste its first couple turns, which are supposed to be the best for a deck like this. If you knew your opponent was playing an aggro deck, you could actually keep this and play a weird sort of control game, killing their first few guys, then getting ahead with Dark Tutelage, but against an unknown opponent in a field that’s like over half Jace and Primeval, this is suicidal. By the time you’ve drawn your first extra card from Tutelage, they’re Jace-ing, Persecuting, or perhaps a turn away from a Titan.

Okay, so that one was easy, how about:

Kalastria Highborn, Kalastria Highborn, Kalastria Highborn, Burst Lightning, Lavaclaw Reaches, Blackcleave Cliffs, Swamp

What do you do on the play? On the draw?

Now, I’m often a little looser than most when it comes to mulligan decisions, meaning I mulligan less often than a lot of people, but I think I’d actually keep this hand against an unknown opponent. It’s not a good hand, to be sure, but it has a plan. You “waste” your first turn playing Lavaclaw Reaches then start dropping guys every turn. You actually don’t need to hit them quite as hard early because you potentially can just suicide your Highborns one after another, triggering each one once per Highborn still in play.

The point is that you aren’t just looking at having a mix of lands and spells, nor even just having creatures. You’re looking for a plan, a way to actually play this game that could reasonably win. I actually think a lot of up-and-coming players and even some higher level pros mulligan way too much. It’s so easy to mulligan a tough hand, then when you get a better hand of six, you say “Yeah, I’m good because I knew to mulligan,” but when you get a six that doesn’t win, you say “Well, I had to mulligan, it’s not my fault.”

I’m not saying that people do this consciously. It’s just that a lot of people learn experientially, and it’s very easy to be subtly pushed by psychological incentives to mulligan more. It feels good to get a better six than you had, and feeling good feels good. On the flipside, there are few things as painful to many people as keeping a hand that won’t even be able to play a real game if it doesn’t draw a land by turn 3, and not getting there. Yes, some people keep too often, absolving themselves of blame when they “don’t get there,” but really it’s very possible to have a hand that has to draw a land soon to have a good chance to win, but that’s still better to keep than a random six.

For instance, I’ve seen players mulligan:

Bitterblossom, Scion, Cryptic Command, Cryptic Command, Island, Island, Mutavault

What are you hoping to draw with your six!? Yes, obviously you’d give up any two besides Bitterblossom for a source of black, but come on, this hand is great if you get there, and even if you don’t, you have a game; you hand an actual way to play the game.

When strong players keep loose hands, they have to live with how it feels when they don’t get there during the game, which can have a major psychological impact on someone. Keeping a good six, on the other hand, can pump a player up, pushing them to make it work. I guess, all I’m saying is that while amateur players often don’t mulligan enough, all too often, they play and mulligan far too tight once they “learn” how great mulligans are. Then, they always seem to be so shocked when they watch “lucky” players like Luis Scott-Vargas, Martin Juza, and Conley Woods keep hands that many “pros” could not stomach. Why do they keep loose hands if they are such good players? Because loose is not the same as bad.

Loose vs. tight in this context is very much like in poker when one is evaluating how many hands one plays in. When someone plays in hands with only “strong” hands like high pairs and suited connectors, they might be said to be playing tight. On the other hand, other times they’ll play much weaker hands, with perhaps just a high card, two random cards of the same suit, or even much weaker. This sort of play is loose, but it can be very effective at winning, because the game is to win the pot, not make a statement about which hands are the best.

When you’re playing a game of Magic, you want to win the pot. Yes, obviously you could often get better hands, but there’s something to be said about playing loose and relying on the random one card a turn more than the random six cards you could draw. Please don’t take this to mean that I’m suggesting not mulliganing, or anything. All I’m suggesting is that most of the best players in the world don’t play as tight as most people think they do. They play well, even when the right play is to keep a loose hand (just how loose they’re willing to play can vary, as well, depending on a lot of factors).

Additionally, how tight top players play changes as formats change. For instance, Bitterblossom, Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, Survival of the Fittest, and so on are the types of cards that are so important to their deck that decks that use them will often mulligan much more often than other decks (though be so potent that mulligans hurt them much less). Understanding how tight or loose a deck ought to be played, as well as how tight or loose you personally should play can go a long way towards climbing off of whatever plateau you might be on. Just because it’s currently “in fashion” to keep particularly loose hands, doesn’t mean that this will always be, as formats, decks, and players change.

tl;dr – All Red Decks are the same, Vampires are gaining popularity, and loose keeps are in style.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

—Third-person speaking aficionado VictorVonDoom wants a mention? Okay, let me just mention that while he is one of the most enjoyable forum
dwellers to read, he broke character

so hopefully he doesn’t think that he’s above the wrath of Chapin and Sperling Beats…