April 7, 2016

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Going Rogue: Vampire Madness

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal but it often happens anyway.

Despite having recently written about Spirits, I'm not really a fan of tribal decks. They tend to be painfully linear, rely heavily on "lords", fold pathetically to sweepers, and really have very little to differentiate themselves from one another.

Elves make mana. Allies help each other. Humans gain experience. Goblins are reckless. Merfolk are... well, actually a good deck. But you can call it whatever you want and dress it up in the colours of your choice - tribal decks are width-based aggressive strategies whose function can be stopped dead in its tracks with the removal of certain key pieces.

But with tomorrow's release of Shadows Over Innistrad, the Modern card pool got a lot deeper in two tribes with, in my opinion, a lot more depth to them.

Bring Out Your Dead

For the Zombie-lovers out there, Prized Amalgam and Relentless Dead are spectacular additions to the unstoppable horde that is Magic's most flavourful creature type. Surely there are other writers out there focusing on Zombie lists, not to mention the upgrade to other semi-tribal decks such as Dredgevine.


But today I want to revel in the fact that Wizards of the Coast made a very exciting decision to bring back the Madness mechanic, and conveniently assign most of its best applications to Vampires. Is it a mechanical theme or is it a tribe? You decide - but either way I think there's a real deck to be made here.

Indeed, looking at these four powerful new cards we got, we can see that the glue that sticks them together isn't an overcosted tribal effect like Elvish Archdruid, but rather an elegant combination of effects that let you uniquely approach the concepts of aggression and card advantage - together at last. More importantly, as any critic of a tribal deck would be quick to point out, these cards each stand on their own relatively well.

Our New Vampire Overlords

  • Asylum Visitor is closer to Dark Confidant than Blood Scrivener, and although you have to work for the best payoff, her stats and Madness cost make her a respectable threat on her own.
  • Falkenrath Gorger flies the token tribe-effect flag that I loathe, but I'll reconsider my position for a deck-critical effect that can be stuck on turn one. I would expect to have to trade something off to give Madness to an entire tribe, but at 2/1 for one mana, I'm not sure I see the downside.
  • Is that a Delver of Secrets? Heir of Falkenrath (transforms into a 3/2 flier) is just great. Just like Delver, she's a fast clock on her own, and being able to transform her on demand is terrific. This is quite possibly the best addition to the tribe.
  • Finally, we have Olivia, Mobilized for War. Her triggered ability can very quickly spew out an army of jacked-up threats (one activation is fine, but it's also a chain reaction with enough Madness.) On the other hand, she's fragile by Modern 3-drop standards. While not unplayable, her power is limited by the prevalence of Lightning Bolt. Sideboard accordingly.

But four new cards, even with all their synergy and efficient stats, aren't going to be the entire engine of the deck. No - the addition of Madness to Vampires in Shadows Over Innistrad actually marries up beautifully with some very powerful effects already existing in the format.

Favourites of graveyard decks everywhere, and Modern's flagship Planeswalker, it isn't at all difficult to put these to powerful purpose in any setting. But add Madness to the picture? Bloodghast has never seen so many discard outlets, and is a key piece to turning discard into indirect card advantage. Faithless Looting is going to do a great impression of a one-mana Divination, so long as you "discard" wisely. And Liliana of the Veil is particularly brutal, forcing your opponents along for the very unfair discard ride.

The Tribal Deck Gotham Deserves

But what really separates this concept from a cheeseball tribal deck? The interaction. No, this is not your 29-creature-plus-Collected Company cookie cutter tribal catastrophe. Thanks to complementary pieces like Lightning Axe, Fiery Temper, and Urge to Feed, we arrive at a final list that plays a lot less like Akoum Battlesinger and friends and a lot more like a tournament deck. Fast, lean, and maybe even competitive.

Let's take a look.

Unlike your typical aggro tribal deck, this one doesn't come racing out of the gates quite as quickly as Goblin Guide and friends, but it builds a lot of steam on larger bodies by turn three or four. Your typical early game sequences will look something like:

  1. Play a Falkenrath Gorger or value-play Faithless Looting to pitch a Bloodghast.
  2. Play either Heir of Falkenrath or Faithless Looting pre-land drop, cheat a Bloodghast into play, and possibly miss using one mana this turn. Turn two can be a little awkward as you can't really get Madness value yet. This might be an area for improvement as time goes on.
  3. Play Liliana of the Veil and -2 her, or a kicked Gatekeeper of Malakir, and swing through, or start discarding Madness cards to Heir of Falkenrath or Lightning Axe.
  4. Play removal spells, get down to zero cards in hand, and start generating value with flashbacked Faithless Looting, Rotting Rats, or ideally Asylum Visitor.

Sooner rather than later, you'll have taken out a few key threats while developing a board of power-heavy creatures, and find yourself swinging through to threaten lethal by the sixth or seventh turn.

Vampires Against the Modern Meta

The value generated by slick card advantage engines like Gatekeeper, Liliana, Faithless Looting, and Bloodghast tends to add up very quickly, and this deck is particularly strong against decks with fewer larger threats, thanks to the solid spot-removal suite. It's tested well against Jund, Jeskai Control, and Tron, and with a little help from Urge to Feed it has also shown itself to be capable of playing well on its back foot against Zoo and Infect.

Meanwhile, Black-Red may not be White, but it does offer some valuable sideboard options. Fulminator Mage has risen in the ranks of Modern all-stars over the past year, and it plays well with Kolaghan's Command lying around to recur it. The rest of the sideboard helps to address other problem matches, such as Affinity, and various combo engines, as well as to use Call the Bloodline as another value tool to help with the games we want to make go longer. I also put a second Olivia, Mobilized for War in the sideboard, for opponents who aren't playing Lightning Bolt, but it's possible that we'd rather have a Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet instead, for the decks that do.

Beyond just being fairly strong, the deck also boasts some options for cute lines of play at no expense to the deck's primary direction. Some examples from testing include using Kolaghan's Command, discarding my own Fiery Temper to burn for five for lethal, and swinging with everything except Kalastria Highborn, recurring a Bloodghast post-combat and saccing it to Liliana to deal the final two points of damage. These lines aren't necessarily things you want to design into a deck, but it's rare for a tribal deck to have these sort of creative options that will occasionally win you games.

A lot more testing needs to be done, I'm happy with where this deck has arrived as a reasonable first draft. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please leave them in the comments as I'd love to hear them. I'm sick of linear aggro tribal decks, and invite you to help me make this archetype more interesting by improving Vampire Madness.

Thanks for reading, and as always, have fun, and may the force be with brew.