First is the pregame, where we discuss what we think the matchup is going to be like without having played it extensively. This might mirror common opinion, and this way you can see where we’re coming from when we note what changed later.
Next is the pre-board analysis. We’ll discuss how the games turned out and what felt important after playing several pre-sideboarded games. After that is the post-board analysis, where we’ll do the same as the pre-board analysis, only this time after sideboarding. We’ll also discuss sideboarding methods in this section.
After looking at the games, we’ll focus on taking the matchup in as a whole. First, we’ll look at what really matters in the matchup by taking a look at what key elements and cards to focus on are. Then, we’ll look at key board states that come up over and over and what we determined the right play was in each circumstance. Finally, we’ll deliver some closing thoughts and suggestions on how to improve each deck for the matchup.
Ready to hear about it? Let’s go.
First up, to correctly model the results, we used these two decklists, both taken from the recent StarCityGames.com Open Series in Boston:
- 4 Bloodghast
- 3 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 4 Vampire Lacerator
- 4 Kalastria Highborn
- 4 Pulse Tracker
- 4 Bloodthrone Vampire
- 4 Pawn of Ulamog
- 4 Viscera Seer
Pregame: The Vampire perspective
I played the Vampire deck a lot when testing for Battle Royale and always felt like slow decks were favorable matchups as long as they didn’t have Pyroclasm or a string of Lightning Bolts. This R/U/G deck doesn’t even have maindeck Pyroclasms to worry about. Overall, you just have a very fast clock without a ton of pressure from the other side along with answers to their best draws.
Furthermore, Bloodghast and Kalastria Highborn will probably turn out to be a real problem for R/U/G. The reach is huge and allows you to win even after the top end of a Frost Titan. Overall, I feel like Vampires will probably have the lead, especially in game one.Â
Vampires is in a pretty interesting spot in the metagame right now. Vampires has a pretty hard time beating a Pyroclasm backed up by basically any green creature, but everyone has cut Pyroclasm from their control decks for cards that are better in the U/B mirror, and all of the midrange green decks have been pushed out by Eldrazi Monument-based Elf decks.
Consequently, Vampires is poised to tear decks featuring Jace, the Mind Sculptor to shreds. R/U/G is no exception; in game one it offers almost no resistance, with do-nothing Goblin Ruinblasters getting laughed at by Viscera Seer and Pulse Tracker and only four copies of Lightning Bolt to break up the Bloodthrone Vampire/Kalastria Highborn/Bloodghast fireball combo.
Pregame: The R/U/G perspective
This is definitely an uphill battle for the R/U/G player. I think you have to aggressively mulligan into either insane hands or hands with removal in the form of Lightning Bolt and Mana Leak. These Goblin Ruinblasters don’t really do anything, and are going to clog the deck’s draws. After sideboarding, things look to get better. I predict Obstinate Baloth and Pyroclasm are going to make life much harder for the Vampire deck.
I actually took Dan’s maindeck to a recent Mox tournament locally and got trounced in the quarterfinals by BR Vampires, so I wasn’t holding out too much hope for the Lotus Cobra deck. Game one is particularly miserable for R/U/G, with worthless Goblin Ruinblasters clogging up R/U/G’s hand and all of four Lightning Bolts to defend against Kalastria Highborn, Bloodthrone Vampire, and all of Vampire’s one drops. Even if R/U/G manages a fast Frost Titan, getting through Pawn of Ulamog is going to be slow going.
However, after boarding, the R/U/G deck gets access to some pretty sweet toys. Pyroclasm takes the starch out of even the most aggressive starts by Vampires, and Obstinate Baloth turns a board around pretty quickly. Between Pyroclasm, Baloth, and Frost Titan, R/U/G can switch from defense to offense in the blink of an eye after sideboarding.
Pre-board games: The Vampires perspective
Okay, so the majority of games went as expected. If I started out with a fast curve and any removal to back it up, the R/U/G deck would often flail. On the play, Vampires won almost every game. Usually, there wasn’t much problem in doing so — Vampires would simply overrun Max with little resilience. It pretty took mulligans or incredibly bad draws for Vampires to lose on the play.
On the draw, the games became much trickier. Vampires still won the majority — but R/U/G picked up its fair share in the process. Some major problems included a combination of any of: turn one Lightning Bolt, turn 2 Lotus Cobra, an unchecked Oracle of Mul Daya, and a fast Frost Titan. On the draw, a turn 2 Cobra especially hurts because, even if you have the Vendetta, you have to waste your second turn killing it. If you don’t have the Vendetta, that means a fast Frost Titan — in which case, you better draw that Vendetta fast.
Oracle is a card advantage machine and allows the R/U/G deck to maximize the number of things it can do in a turn. Worse yet, it makes sure the R/U/G player always finds gas. Turn 2 Explore into Oracle into Frost Titan is definitely an issue on the draw, where on the play it’s usually not as worrisome.
Blade of the Bloodchief felt pretty weak game one. Without Pyroclasm in their deck, you just want to swarm them before the R/U/G deck can access their late game. Blade is insane when it works — but you’re almost always going to win the games when you have enough guys for it to be active anyway. Pawn of Ulamog also felt thoroughly mediocre for the same reasons — you don’t really need a three mana 2/2. Even after Pyroclasm he’s not that impressive. I found myself yearning for Captivating Vampire over and over. Â
As mentioned above, R/U/G can’t really affect the board that much in game one. This means that just about any decent hand from Vampires will run right through R/U/G if Vampires is on the play. With Vampires on the play, R/U/G’s nut draw is something along the lines of “Bolt your one-drop, play a Cobra, land, Jace, fetchland, Frost Titan” and that’s actually not too hard for Vampires to beat with a draw of Kalastria Highborn and creatures. It’s pretty hard for Frost Titan to break through Pawn of Ulamog for any sort of value with Highborn in play.
When Vampires is on the draw, an aggressive Lotus Cobra draw from R/U/G can ramp out a Frost Titan too fast for Vampires to handle. Vampires can really only beat a turn four Frost Titan by ‘racing’ it with Kalastria Highborn. R/U/G has to keep the Titan on offense, so a series of chump blocks can give Vampires enough time to race the Titan, especially if Pawn of Ulamog gets involved.
Pre-board games: The R/U/G perspective
The outcome was no better when I took the helm of the R/U/G deck in the matchup. I already established the perils of being on the draw above, and I won’t recount them. Instead, I’ll say what the main problems were from the R/U/G side.
First of all, these Goblin Ruinblasters don’t do anything. You can play them and pretend like they might actually trade with something, but they never will. Bloodghasts and Bloodthrone Vampires will be run into them over and over. You can either block and save yourself a couple points of damage, or hold it back, crossing your fingers that if you ever cast this Frost Titan their removal spell is Gatekeeper of Malakir.
Second of all, I had nothing to build up to. There were a lot of games where Frost Titan wasn’t even close to enough. The problem is it’s supposed to be the deck’s trump card — but it isn’t in this matchup. I can dig and dig and built up to a game state, but all to no avail. In contrast, if I had something like Avenger of Zendikar I would have had a much better chance. For every game where the one mana difference mattered, there were two where Frost Titan wouldn’t pull me out of a rough situation.
You’ll notice that basically all of the circumstances where Vampires loses a game involves Lotus Cobra or Explore. R/U/G almost has to cast Lotus Cobra or Explore on turn two to have any hope of winning a pre-board game, otherwise Vampires will have half a dozen creatures knocking on the door by the time Frost Titan finally deigns to show up to the party. Unfortunately, Vampires has plenty of removal for Lotus Cobra, and you can’t just hope to draw Explore in every game.
R/U/G just doesn’t really have very many ways to force interaction with Vampires. The only really interactive cards R/U/G has are Lightning Bolt and Mana Leak, and finding a window to trade Mana Leak for
is hard. You can’t block with Lotus Cobra because you need an explosion of mana to win a game, and Oracle of Mul Daya’s role as a card advantage engine is important as well. I’m only too happy to throw Goblin Ruinblaster under a bus as fast as possible, but sometimes you need to keep him around to protect Frost Titan from Gatekeeper of Malakir.
R/U/G also has an extraordinarily hard time fighting Bloodghast. It’s not just that Bloodghast is unkillable; R/U/G doesn’t really have much to fight Bloodghast with anyway. Bloodghast is also extremely powerful with Kalastria Highborn, Bloodthrone Vampire, Viscera Seer, and even Pawn of Ulamog. (And besides, have you ever cast Mana Leak on a Bloodghast? Jeeeeeeeeeez.)Â
Post-board games and sideboarding: The Vampires perspective
I tried two different methods of sideboarding with Vampires.
The first was to try and attrition the R/U/G deck out. I knew they would be bringing in Pyroclasms and Obstinate Baloth. Rather than try and power through those cards, I figured why not try and be more controlling? If their only threats are Baloth, Raging Ravine, and Frost Titan, the sideboard has so much removal that you can just kill most of those and slowly win with cards like Bloodghast.
This sideboard plan had me making this switch:
This sideboarding plan worked okay. There were definitely a lot of games where I just slowly won with Bloodghast and Kalastria Highborn while overpowering Max with Dark Tutelage. However, interestingly enough, one of the largest obstacles to this plan is your own life total. Between Vendetta, Tutelage, Lacerator, fetchlands, and random dings from opposing creatures, I lost some long, grindy games just because my Tutelages flipped a few too many two drops. Plus, if your opponent’s list does have Avenger, this sideboarding plan can’t beat that card.
While I don’t think the removal plan is bad, I tried switching to a slightly different plan and found more success.
You are definitively the beatdown deck in this case. I know taking out Pawn and leaving in Blade sounds like a nonbo, but you need to power through cards like Obstinate Baloth and push your guys up past Pyroclasm range. You also want to remove a ton of slower three drops from your deck. Pawn is just thoroughly unimpressive, even against Pyroclasm. Max said he felt Pawn was important, but that’s a point I disagree on. I felt like he was often worthless.
As far as how the matchup shifts after sideboarding, R/U/G definitely picks up a lot more tools. Obstinate Baloth is essentially a must-kill because only Bloodthrone Vampire and Blade of the Bloodchief allow you to power through him. If you overextend, Pyroclasm will show up and cause a world of problems. Vampires was still winning the majority of games — but it’s a lot closer. If the opponent has Avenger of Zendikar, they might actually become favored because of how much time they can buy toward hitting the seven-mana mark. Â
Vampires is so linear that it can’t really do much to strategically reposition itself for the matchup through sideboarding. All Vampires can really do after sideboarding is become more streamlined and be ready for R/U/G’s sideboard, which will certainly include Pyroclasm and Obstinate Baloth.
You’ll want to address Pyroclasm with a source of card advantage; conveniently, Dark Tutelage provides a steady stream of cards. Obstinate Baloth is a card you’re frequently going to have to kill, but you don’t really just want to overload on removal spells and not have any threats. I fiddled around with a few sideboarding strategies until I found one I liked:
I like Pawn of Ulamog in game one because it helps Vampires hold out against an attacking Frost Titan for that much longer, but after boarding R/U/G will just go find a Pyroclasm and decimate Vampires’ board. The Eldrazi Spawn can block, sure, but the value in Pawn was fueling a counterattack, which is pretty tricky once your squad is in the bin. This configuration is somewhat lighter on creatures, but adding a third creature to the board isn’t nearly as important as being brought to a screeching halt by Obstinate Baloth until he can holler at his buddy Frost Titan. Gavin likes Blade of the Bloodchief here, but a lot of things have to go right for Blade to really help you out; they can’t Pyroclasm you, they can’t have Bolt, you probably need Bloodthrone Vampire…aren’t you pretty much winning in this situation anyway?
I think that R/U/G is a favorite after sideboarding. Not an overwhelming favorite, and not enough to overcome R/U/G’s horrendous matchup in game one, but it’s hard for Vampires to win after boarding. Vampires has to commit several creatures to the board or R/U/G will be able to race with Obstinate Baloth or Frost Titan, but putting a million creatures onto the board isn’t exactly something you want to do against a Pyroclasm deck. Drawing Bloodghast or Kalastria Highborn (or both) as well as something adorable to do with them (Seer, Bloodthrone) is a lot more important than it is in game one.Â
Post-board games and sideboarding: The R/U/G perspective
The sideboarding with R/U/G felt fairly straightforward to me. First, I knew I wanted to remove the three Goblin Ruinblasters and wanted to bring in four Pyroclasm and three Baloths. (Ratchet Bomb is not actually good against Vampires; it’s incredibly slow and marginally effective due to the wide spread of costs in the deck.) So the big question was: what other four cards to take out?
I switched it around back and forth, and eventually came to this sideboarding plan after it seemed to work best:
On the play:
On the draw:
On the play, you can start setting the pace of the game. Mana Leak is awesome because you can Bolt their turn one creature and then Mana Leak their turn two play, or sit back on it for when they cast Dark Tutelage. You aren’t all in on ramping, and you don’t need Explore as bad. You can even get use out of Jace sometimes.
On the draw, the game is much different.
You’re constantly on the back foot. You absolutely must ramp as fast as you can. Even Pyroclasm won’t buy you more than a turn or two at most thanks to the opposing steady stream of creatures and Bloodghast recursion. You no longer have the luxury to hold up Mana Leak all of the time for their Dark Tutelage. Sometimes you’ll have to play Lotus Cobra on turn two, knowing very well that a Gatekeeper of Malakir could cause a significant problem next turn.
R/U/G gains quite a bit from sideboarding. Pyroclasm and Obstinate Baloth definitely come in, and Goblin Ruinblaster is hitting the bench for sure, but is there anything else to bring in? What about cards you can cut? Volition Reins is too slow. I tried Ratchet Bomb, but if you cast Ratchet Bomb instead of Pyroclasm on turn two you’re just going to take a bunch of extra damage, and Bomb is too slow in the midgame.
As far as cards to cut: I always want Explore in my opening hand and I always want Jace in play on turn three, so I’m not cutting either of those. I don’t like Mana Leak nearly as much as Gavin does after boarding. You tap out so frequently that your opponent can either blank your Mana Leak on the one turn you can hold it up, or pick the worst card in their hand and trade it for Mana Leak. It’s also pretty hard to Leak for value against a deck full of one- and two- drops. Dark Tutelage is hard to beat, sure, but your opponent can sculpt a situation to play Tutelage pretty effortlessly (after a Pyroclasm or a Baloth, or by forcing you to Leak a two-drop, or…) and wow do you feel stupid when you hold up Leak and they show you Bloodghast.
(It’s also worth noting that you get maximum value from sweepers by minimizing the number of spot removal spells in your deck. The more removal spells you have, the more you start going one for one against a deck with five fewer lands and Bloodghast.)
It might look a little weird to bring in Pyroclasms and leave in Lotus Cobra, but if you cast Cobra on turn two and Vampires doesn’t kill it, all sorts of bad things are going to happen to Vampires and you can afford to slow-roll the Pyroclasm a few turns.
The post-board games are pretty good for R/U/G. Obstinate Baloth shores up R/U/G’s midgame and gives the control deck a powerful threat that it can play to stall until Frost Titan can make an appearance. Pyroclasm also steals back all of Vampires’ early tempo, and usually picks up a card or two to boot. You also get the ability to Explore on turn two, play an Obstinate Baloth on turn three, and battle with Baloth and Raging Ravine on turn four and just race Vampires, forcing them to totally overextend into a devastating Pyroclasm.
Lessons: The Vampires perspective
Your most important card in this matchup, bar none, is Bloodghast. The games where I had Bloodghast on turn two made it extraordinarily difficult for Max. After sideboarding, he had Obstinate Baloth to block. Besides that, it was just one gigantic reoccurring issue. It makes all of your Viscera Seers and Bloodthrone Vampires powerful, helps to turns on your Blades of the Bloodchief, and gives you an incredible resilience and endgame.
Your second most important card is Kalastria Highborn. I learned that you should never play it on turn two unless you have to. For example, often you’ll have a hand like this:
And it will be tempting to play the Highborn on turn two to get in extra damage. However, it is usually right to play Bloodthrone Vampire instead. The Highborn is just worth so much damage later on in the game. Additionally, it’s not like you’re only tapping out that one turn either. If you’re curving out with that hand, you aren’t going to be leaving mana up for another turn or two afterward. Highborn is just worth so much damage going long that it’s worth saving it.
Your third most important card is Dark Tutelage. After sideboarding, always cast this when you can. Unless you are below 10 life (which you shouldn’t be unless your opponent is on the offensive) I pretty much always feel safe casting a second. Additionally, you may often have choices like this on turn three:
Even though it is tempting to just cast Bloodthrone Vampire and Vampire Lacerator here and keep your damage up, Tutelage is just so strong in this matchup long term that it’s worth spending a turn of tempo on. The one exception is if your opponent might have Mana Leak, in which case you don’t want to throw away your Tutelage for clear reasons. (Though you may not want to empty your hand for fear of Pyroclasm either.)
Unless you have plenty of removal spells, generally you want to use your removal on a turn two Lotus Cobra or a Frost Titan. I found Oracle unthreatening most of the time if I had a clock. By the time they’ve cast it and used it, they can cast Frost Titan next turn and you would much rather save your removal for that.
Gavin wrote his half of the article before I did and stole a lot of my thunder, but nowhere so much as here. He’s absolutely right that Bloodghast and Highborn are vital to Vampires’ game plan, especially after sideboarding, and need to be prioritized accordingly. Particularly after board when Vampires needs to grind out all of the value it can, it’s important that you not expose a Highborn without being able to activate its ability if your opponent shows you Bolt or Pyroclasm. Bloodthrone Vampire is almost as important as Highborn just because it’s the best way to steal a game out from under R/U/G just as the control deck is starting to stabilize.
In game one, almost any reasonable hand out of Vampires is a fine keep, but after boarding having Bloodghast, Tutelage, or Highborn is pretty important. You can safely assume that the 4 Preordain 4 Pyroclasm 4 Jace deck is going to find a Pyroclasm pretty quickly, so the plan of swarming with a bunch of mediocre creatures isn’t nearly as attractive after sideboarding and you’ll need to be getting more value.
I agree with Gavin that you want to save your removal spells for a turn two Cobra and Titans, but I want to emphasize that you need to kill Lotus Cobra immediately. If your hand is such that you can’t beat that Baloth holding off your team, sure, kill it, but if you have a Tutelage or something you can grind out a game against a Baloth. Beating Titan is much harder. Also, you basically have to trade Gatekeeper for whatever R/U/G feels like paying the toll with; you can’t exactly slow-roll Gatekeeper for a juicier target.
In game one, you don’t
to play Bloodghast on turn two. Just about any creature is good enough, and if you manage to keep Bloodghast in your hand until your opponent is at ten, you can get some free value out of the haste. In game two, on the other hand, you want to get Bloodghast in play as fast as possible, because it’s important to be presenting a clock that minimizes your exposure to Pyroclasm.
Duress seems like an insane addition to Vampires’ sideboard. It punishes R/U/G for trying to eke a Pyroclasm for maximum value and fights Jace. It also seems like Duress has a lot of value in other matchups, as well.
Lessons: The R/U/G perspective
Unlike Vampires, R/U/G doesn’t really have a “most important card” ranking. However, game one I think you have to mulligan most seven-card hands without Lightning Bolt, Lotus Cobra, or Explore. Preordain is tempting, but often enough it won’t get you there and you’ll be too quickly run over to do anything.
After sideboarding, I would be very hesitant to keep any hand without Obstinate Baloth, Lightning Bolt, or Pyroclasm. If you’re on the play, Mana Leak helps too. In general, Vampires will have access to enough removal than Lotus Cobra simply isn’t enough on its own.
As mentioned above in the Vampires section, the matchup becomes a lot better for you after sideboarding. Surprisingly, the key is Obstinate Baloth. Pyroclasm is great — but without a removal spell they just can’t get through Baloth. The life and the body can buy you more time than Pyroclasm usually can. It also helps you go on the offensive when you smell blood.
Often, you will have to go offensive with Baloth and Raging Ravine. There are a lot of board states where the Vampires player will be at around 16, and it’s just correct to push your big creatures forward, force them to chump block a little, block with a Lotus Cobra or something on the backswing, and then be able to crack back for lethal. Without something big (like, once again, Avenger) to work up to, I found sitting on Jace and drawing cards simply isn’t enough.
Finally, there is a very important aspect of play in this matchup. If you have a Lightning Bolt, do not immediately Bolt their turn one creature unless you have another. You really need to save it for another, more meaningful creature most of the time. For example, if they’re on the play and lead with Pulse Tracker, you play Copperline Gorge and pass, and they go to attack, take the Tracker hit and see what they play afterward. If they do nothing or play Bloodghast, you can end step Bolt their Tracker. Otherwise, you should probably Bolt what they cast. Often your opponent will just run their Highborns out there, and being able to Bolt them on turn two or three is crucial.
I agree with Gavin that Lotus Cobra and Explore are important in game one, but a Lightning Bolt is not enough. R/U/G is such a dog in game one that the only non-Explore non-Cobra hand I’d keep in game one would be Copperline Gorge, Halimar Depths, Scalding Tarn, Lightning Bolt, Lightning Bolt, Lightning Bolt, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and it’s important to recognize how bad that hand is if your opponent plays Bloodghast on turn two. Don’t be afraid to mulligan the mediocre six-card hands, either; you can’t keep hands that don’t let you win the game, and at least if you go to five you’ll have a sweet bad beat story to inflict upon your friends.
Gavin mentioned switching over to beatdown once you have Obstinate Baloth in play, and I just want to emphasize that. Especially if your opponent has Tutelage going, you’re going actually getting very far ahead even if you’re just hanging out with Jace – Vampires can cast more spells per turn, and there are only so many Pyroclasms in your deck. Plus, if they suddenly find a removal spell for your blocker, you might be taking a bunch of damage in a hurry. Don’t be afraid to get aggressive with Jace’s Unsummon ability, either.
On that note, I like using Jace’s Unsummon if you can leave your opponent with just a one-power creature before you start Brainstorming. Gavin lamented the lack of Pulse Tracker’s second point of power many times in our games.
Also, if you can sandbag your Halimar Depths and Preordains until you have Oracle of Mul Daya in play for full value, bonus points. Depths and Preordain are usually better on turn 2 off Explore than they are on turn 1, especially if you don’t have a four-drop yet.
Gavin mentions the need to sandbag Lightning Bolt to kill Highborn, and while I agree with this line, it also opens up a play that I particularly like. If you have Bolt and Pyroclasm and you let Vampires hit you with a one drop, then Bolt their two drop while playing Explore or Preordain or whatever, most opponents will infer that you’re low on removal and play out a bunch of guys right into Pyroclasm, whereas if you took the two for one on turn two they’d just play two more creatures on turn three.
There are also a lot of games where R/U/G is tearing through it’s deck fairly easily, but can only manage to come up with a single Frost Titan to face off with all of Vampires’ creatures. In most of these games, if R/U/G drew an Avenger of Zendikar at any point, Vampires would be totally crushed. I can’t imagine why there aren’t two Avengers somewhere in R/U/G’s 75, particularly given how powerful Avenger is in the R/U/G mirror.
Vampires is definitely favored in this matchup — but it is not without hope for the R/U/G player. While Dan Jordan configuration is not optimal for the matchup, there are ways to switch it to make it better. Most notably, I feel Avenger of Zendikar would be a fabulous include. Vampires really has no good way of beating it unless they can immediately kill the Avenger before you play a land. Even then, those Plant tokens can do a lot of blocking.
Vampires doesn’t really need any help in the matchup, but if you wanted to sideboard cards I might look into Duress or Inquisition of Kozilek to strip Pyroclasm away. If you were doing that, Captivating Vampire may gain some value since it can steal Baloths away from the R/U/G player.
I think that the fourth Obstinate Baloth would be better against Vampires than more spot removal spells, but if you’re going to include more spot removal spells in the board of R/U/G, I’d look hard at Flame Slash. Against Vampires, most spot removal spells are more or less the same; sometimes you get to save some mana with an end step Bolt, sure, but at the end of the day you’re tapping a red and killing a guy. Flame Slash has some nice applications in other matchups, though; it kills the Overgrown Battlements in ramp decks as well as opposing Obstinate Baloths and Molten-Tail Masticore.
Thanks for reading, everyone! Please provide your feedback in the forums. This is a new feature, and we would like to know what we could improve. Did we miss a section you would really like to see? Did you like us each having a place to put our thoughts on each topic, or would you prefer we tried to merge them together? What decks would you like to see tested against each other? We would like to do more of these in the future, so please post your feedback on the forum thread.
Good luck from either side of this matchup!
max dot mccall at gmail dot com