No Gamble, No Future – Standard B/R Vampires

Thursday, January 6th – The SCG Open in Kansas City is coming up in just a few days, so sleeve up EFro’s update on his 5th place Vampire list from Worlds and beat up on control!

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but you guys don’t need an intro. This Standard format has been around for some time now, and we all know about the Vampires deck. If you care about this format, you’ve certainly either played with it or against it, but I’m pretty confident I’ve gotten in more games than most. Hopefully I’ll be able to present to you everything you need to know…

For reference, here’s the Vampires list I played at Worlds:

I’ve been playing Magic for a looong time – we’re talking like seventeen years. I can count the number of times on one hand where I’ve played in a tournament and wouldn’t change my deck or a single card in my main deck after all was said and done. It doesn’t happen often where you feel you have the perfect sixty, but that was close to the case here.

The Cards

4 Kalastria Highborn

– you cannot play fewer. If you don’t like playing rares, don’t play Vampires. This is arguably the best and most important card in the deck, and it’s also the most challenging to play. Most games actually revolve around protecting your Highborn. As you can probably see from the decklist, the only way to actually protect the Highborn is by keeping it in your hand. This is your finisher, and many games are won or lost by knowing when to hold ‘em. Playing a Highborn in the late game often acts as a Fireball and makes blocking impossible. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be to remember the right play is often to say “Go” rather than playing a turn 2 Highborn and leaving it exposed for no value.

4 Bloodghast

– if Highborn isn’t your best card, this is. Gets around countermagic, removal, Gatekeepers of Malakir, Consuming Vapors, and blockers. All of your lands turn into scry activations with a Viscera Seer in play, and he’ll come back for more. You basically always want to draw this — preferably in multiples.

4 Vampire Lacerator, 4 Pulse Trackers

– it would be nice if there were more creatures you could play that could attack for two on turn 2, but these are a good start. It’s important to remember that you’re essentially playing a burn deck. Getting the most reach out of each of your cards to maximize damage in the short run before setting up a Kalastria Highborn finisher is the name of the game.

3 Viscera Seer

– this card can be excellent, specifically in combination with Bloodghast for pure value or Highborn as an Exsanguinate. However, without those combos, it’s usually just a 1/1 for one, aka unexciting. Sure, you can turn some of their removal into scry activations, which helps, but drawing two is basically just awful. I’m confident three is the most you want to play and would certainly consider going to two.

4 Gatekeeper of Malakir

– few creatures have ever been more valued than this guy. A 2/2 for two is quite good, and the kicker is clearly fantastic and card advantage at its finest. It’s possible this card isn’t as well positioned in the current Standard metagame, but as long as U/B plays Sea Gate Oracle and Valakut plays Overgrown Battlement, this guy earns his keep. If those decks become less reliant on creatures, this next guy gains even more value…

2 Vampire Hexmage

– Hexmage is really good right now. She’s super susceptible to Arc Trail and Cunning Sparkmage, but those aren’t really prevalent. I’d strongly consider going up to three of these, mostly just to blank planeswalkers. The first-strike ability is largely irrelevant; although it’s good in the mirror, and it’s still a two-power creature for two.

3 Dark Tutelage

– I feel like this is the card that puts the deck over the top and really gives it that extra “late-game” reach…granted the late game with this deck is only around turn 6, but still that’s important. Hitting a Toot off of a Toot is usually just disgustingly awful, but every other card in the deck provides a ton of value for its casting cost. As I said earlier, this is more of a “burn” deck, like the red decks of old. Something those decks were often lacking was a way to go over the top once the opponent stabilized. A personal Howling Mine is going to get the job done and will often allow you to out-draw even the blue control decks.

4 Lightning Bolt

– best burn card in the business, and this is a burn deck. Super strong in the current format, as it can kill any Vampire, Sea Gate Oracle, Jace, and any creature in the Quest decks, Elf decks, or Boros decks. It basically says, for one red mana, kill any non-wall non-Titan. Oh, and it deals three to target player. Pretty good way to finish someone off, in my opinion.

2 Burst Lightning

– the next best Bolt. Although rarely kicked, the option to have it available at the end of the game is nice.

3 Arc Trail

– I’m pretty confident this is the right number; although it’s more than possible this is the one card you want to shave to get the third Hexmage main. Even in the matchups where it excels, you rarely want to actually draw two, so playing four is almost certainly incorrect. Having one in the early game against the aggro decks is often backbreaking, however, and it deals enough damage to help finish someone off in the end.

4 Blackcleave Cliffs, 4 Dragonskull Summit

– I’d be interested to hear whether anyone thinks this should be altered.

3 Lavaclaw Reaches

– this deck isn’t really a manland deck, and the Reaches tend to hit less hard than the other lands, as is. It can certainly help out in games where you’re flooded, but you lose most of those games anyway. The color fixing is certainly good, but entering the battlefield tapped can be crippling. I often don’t mind drawing one, but two can be pretty bad. The most value I’ve gotten out of this land has been activating it on turn 3 or 4 as my third black creature to cast a Demon of Death’s Gate.

8 Swamp, 4 fetchlands

– it’s still very possible you only want three fetchlands. It thins your deck a little and can be excellent with Bloodghast, but you deal a fair amount of damage to yourself with Lacerator and Tutelage already. It’s also possible five is the right number, so four is where it’s currently at.

Onto the fun stuff, some matchups!

The Matchups

Valakut is supposed to be “the bad matchup.” In testing, Vampires really was just destroying every other deck, while many of the pilots were struggling with this matchup. This was also before the Demons of Death’s Gate were added to the sideboard. Valakut has had to adjust to this card being played in black decks, since they really just couldn’t beat it whatsoever, and it seems the leading solution is Tumble Magnet. Now post-sideboard, Vamps gets a full complement of Duresses to make sure the coast is clear, but this is another reason why Hexmage is so good in the current metagame. If there aren’t more than two in the maindeck, I absolutely believe that there should be more coming in from the board.

Vampires is definitely fighting an uphill battle in game one (even more if they lose the die roll). The Valakut deck will just win with its nut draw, although it’s rare to find a deck that’s going to beat that draw in game one. However, if you’re on the play, a well-timed Highborn is often more than enough to finish them off before they get you unless they get off a well-timed Pyroclasm. If they make the mistake of blocking with an Overgrown Battlement, make sure you Bolt it to keep them off their game plan as long as you possibly can.

You want a full complement of Demons and Duress here; I’d want four of each in my sideboard, and they’d all be coming in. I’d also like more Hexmages, if possible. The Tutelages come out, clearly, as they’re too slow, and you’re bringing in 9/9s. Then the burn spells come out after that (in order of Arc Trail, Burst Lighting, and Lightning Bolt, depending on how many cards you bring in).

U/B Control was an easy matchup in our original Worlds testing – but it seems not everyone had figured out that Spreading Seas belonged as a four-of main. It’s definitely gotten far tougher, although I believe Vampires still has the edge. If U/B wants to beat you and dedicates enough of their 75 to doing so however, they will. There are a lot of powerful tools, from Ratchet Bomb to Vampire Nighthawk to Skinrender to Consume the Meek. A resolved Grave Titan is often game – which is the sole reason why a singleton Feast of Blood ended up making it into our sideboard at Worlds.

They do have a lot of weak cards against you in game one, namely the countermagic. Mana Leak and the like are quite poor in this matchup, as the U/B deck doesn’t really want to leave mana up, and when it does, the Vampire deck can just play a Bloodghast to really punish them. The card that really made this matchup so favorable for the Vampire deck ended up on the cutting room floor the morning of Worlds due to belief it was unnecessary to win – that card was Tectonic Edge. It doesn’t really help you cast many of your spells, so Tectonic Edge really needs to be viewed more as a spell here. Especially with everyone on four Spreading Seas, taking out some of your black sources for lands that won’t cast your spells is risky, but it also keeps them off their big spells. It’s possible that at some point 1-2 Edges main with 1-2 in the sideboard will be the way to go.

Arc Trail is an easy cut after board, and if they have Sea Gate Oracles and mass removal like Ratchet Bomb, Viscera Seers become huge liabilities that add little to your own board presence. Against a deck like Paulo VDDR’s U/B, where they’re bringing in a bunch of creatures, cards like Skinrender gain a ton of value.

U/W Control isn’t much different, so I won’t go too in depth. Their finisher isn’t nearly as strong as Grave Titan, so that’s a plus. Condemn is certainly fantastic against Bloodghast, however. Elspeth is extremely difficult to beat, especially with the slightest bit of support, but I don’t think too many people will feel U/W is currently well positioned, as is. The black cards are just so much stronger to complement the Mind Sculptor.

The Vampire mirror was something I definitely expected playing a decent amount of following the Star City Games Invitational. If that’s the case in your local metagame, a sideboard similar to the one I played is gonna be good for you. Skinrender is just the best card possible, often providing better than a two-for-one, considering how hard it can be to attack through or remove a 3/3. Vampire Nighthawk is completely excellent, especially now that there are other three toughness guys for them to deal with. Sarkhan the Mad can turn all your Bloodghasts and assorted other creatures into 5/5 fliers and can draw you some cards, both of which are excellent in the mirror. Another possible card that was always excellent in testing was Quest for the Gravelord, but it’s kind of polarized against Vampires.

Game one, as in most mirrors, is pretty much a coin flip. This is the matchup, however, where holding your Highborn to finish them off is of most importance. Bloodghasts are of course fantastic, providing Highborn fodder and blanking Gatekeepers. After sideboarding, the Tutelages are taken out. It’s a fine card, but the high casting cost and the life loss, especially after adding a bunch of four-mana cards, isn’t worth it. The other cut is the Pulse Trackers. They’re completely outclassed by every other creature on the battlefield and are a terrible draw after turn 1. The card-advantage game using creatures like Skinrender is the most effective way to win.

Eldrazi is very similar to Valakut, albeit a much easier matchup. They don’t have quite the fire power of Titaning away your entire board on turn 4 before killing you turn 5, so you have a lot more game against them. You probably want to keep 1-2 Arc Trails in to deal with cards like Treespeaker, to finish off Overgrown Battlements, and sometimes to take out some Plant tokens from the Khalni Gardens. Demons again come in here, which means Tutelage will come out. Some Duress effects are also useful to keep them off acceleration or Summoning Trap.

Against Quest and other creature-based strategies, the plan is simple. You want to overload on removal and keep them from doing what they want to do. Vengevine can be pretty rough, and Squadron Hawk is excellent against you, so try to save Arc Trail for the Birds. Tutelages, as usual, aren’t overly effective. If you board in a ton of removal and become the control deck, Pulse Tracker loses a lot of its effectiveness.

The one card I see that gets play that I think is just awful is Mark of Mutiny. It isn’t even that good against the decks you want it against, as taking a Primeval Titan does nothing if it doesn’t kill them that turn (which it often does not). I understand you still lose those games if you don’t Mark of Mutiny, but I’d rather have a more proactive card to try to get ahead earlier in the game. I whole-heartedly believe that the people who play Mark just haven’t tested enough, and any reasonable sample size of games will show just how poor a choice it is.

It’s possible the Feast of Blood should be a Memoricide as a tool to get rid of both Primeval and Grave Titans, but at four-cost and with no impact on the board as is, it definitely requires more testing.

I really do believe this deck to be the best in Standard right now. It isn’t super complicated to play, but the small mistakes or bad lines you take will be punished more often than not. Here’s the list I’d run if I played the deck tomorrow:

Good luck!

Eric Froehlich

@EFroPoker on Twitter