The Magic Guest Month: Scarlet Roarke

This morning, Ross James asked me to write about Magic: the Gathering for my (second) official article here. Presumably because he’s amused by a chance to feed my addiction. And, I will quote, he would be “very excited if [I] did it about vampire corsairs.”Well, weirdly, no pirate vampires in Magic currently exist – but plenty of conquistador vampires do. So I’m going to take today and ask the question that I’m sure is burning in the minds of hundreds: why are vampires not a Thing in constructed Standard right now?

Get ready, gang, we’re going on a ride. I promise to keep my tangents to somewhere between three and five, but we’re going deep.

  1. The State of Standard

So if you don’t play Magic: The Gathering on the regular or you played back in the ’90s, some of the terms I’m throwing around are going to be weird. For the sake of anyone in the audience who’s not familiar with it, “Standard” is the flagship competitive format of constructed Magic: The Gathering. Standard-legal decks of Magic cards consist of a sixty-card main deck and a fifteen card side deck, with no more than four copies of an individual card between the two. Notably, Standard is the only format subject to “rotation”, meaning you can only use cards printed in the most recent sets.

Right, all on the same page? Good, because we’re about to talk “the metagame”.

Somewhat fortuitously, I’m writing this article soon after the release of Guilds of Ravnica, a set that drastically changed the makeup of the Standard format. The release of Guilds coincided with cards from four sets (Kaladesh, Aether Revolt, Amonkhet, and Hour of Devastation) rotating out of Standard completely. Currently only five sets are standard-legal: Guilds, Ixalan, Rivals of Ixalan, Dominaria, and Magic Core Set: 2019.

Yes, I promise I’m going to talk about vampires soon.

Current Standard is in a good place, with multiple dominant decks and no one deck having too much of a stranglehold on the format. There’s a few quirks that may change that when Ravnica: Allegiancesis released next year, and I promise you I’m going to get to that, but for right now things are fine – if you’re playing Green/Black, Green/White, Red/White, mono-blue, mono-red, mono-green, or (occasionally) white/blue/black control. If you’re trying to make one of the tribal decks from Ixalan work, you have some hurdles to overcome. Like losing in tournaments. A lot.

II. The Sad Story of Ixalan Block

Ixalan is one of my favorite blocks in current Magic from a flavor and story perspective. Set on the Mesoamerican fantasy plane of Ixalan, it follows a four-way struggle between major factions questing for the lost golden city of Orazca and the fabulous treasure held within: the Immortal Sun. Also, Jace Beleren was there.

As a tribal block, Ixalan heavily encouraged players to look into playing cards from one of four supported creature types which just happen to coincide with the four factions seeking Orazca. In no particular order they are: the dinosaur-themed Sun Empire, the river shaman, jade-wielding Mayan-inspired River Herald tribes of merfolk, the pirates of the Brazen Coalition, and the conquistador vampires of the Dusk Legion.

For the record, the Dusk Legion are my favorite boys ever and I want to love them all.

I want to stress for a bit here that in terms of flavor, Ixalan is gorgeous. The artists who get contracted to work on Magic cards regularly receive accolades for their work, and Ixalan’s bright color palette and even-more-colorful faction concepts gave them a lot to work with. The set is bright, inviting, and occasionally looking at the cards makes me want to go outside and go questing for treasure.

Even the creative team at WotC themselves brought their A-game. Vampires, dinosaurs, merfolk and pirates fighting over treasure could’ve tipped completely into campy silliness, but the creative team’s lore made each faction feel a bit more grounded than it has a right to be. For instance, the Sun Empire are the old inhabitants of Orazca, forced from their ancestral home, but they’re also led by an emperor who wants to become an expansionist. The lovable pirates of the Brazen Coalition are the descendants of refugees driven from their homes by the Dusk Legion when they took over the mainland of legally-distinct-from-Spain. The merfolk are loosely based on the Mayans, and seek the immortal sun only to ensure nobody murders people for it.

The Dusk Legion, though, are easily the best for flavor. Rather than just being expansionist murder monsters (though the subtext of literal vampires invading legally-not-MesoAmerica from legally-not-Spain is hard to miss), the Dusk Legion are religious fanatics with a religion built around vampirism. The Legion see themselves as holy warriors, taking blood only from enemies and heretics. The Immortal Sun once rested in their homeland until a “great winged creature” stole it, and from their point of view they are simply retrieving a holy relic. Also, they often engage in a ritual known as a “blood fast” which puts them in a heightened state and causes them to receive what they perceive as holy visions.

Just. Unf. As someone with a more-than-passing interest in old-school church history, I love that Magic “went there”. It’s such a great touch.

So if I love these factions so much, why am I calling this the “sad story” of Ixalan block? Well, because flavor is only part of what makes Magic fun. Eventually you have to shuffle some cards together and actually play with them, and historically the Ixalan tribes have been absolute duds since they entered Standard.

The funny thing is that if you look at individual cards from each tribe, it’s difficult to see why they fail to post results in competitive events. Dinosaurs have powerhouse four and five-mana creatures, merfolk have access to cards like Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca to build engines of fishy death, and pirates…. Well, they can’t all be winners.

Of the four tribes, vampires have perhaps the strongest available support in Standard. They have access to some of the best token-generating cards in Standard and a two-mana lord, which often means good things for tribal decks. Their creatures have lifelink, which is a valuable tool for beating aggressive decks like blue tempo and mono-red. They even have some solid high-impact creatures for the mid to late game. So why are they a complete non-presence in tournament Magic?

Well, to answer that, let’s ask another question: How successful have tribal decks been in the history of Standard as a format?

III. Tribal is Dead

Tribal decks, or decks that focus on the synergies between creatures of a single type, are among the most popular archetypes among players – and their power isn’t to be underestimated. Modern and Legacy both see occasional results put up by Goblins, Merfolk, and Elves. Elf decks in particular are perhaps the strongest, most consistent tribe in the history of Magic.

That’s Modern and Legacy though, formats with a much larger available card pool than Standard- and Goblins, Merfolk and Elves have been supported tribes for basically all of the history of Magic as a game. One of the first ‘power’ cards in Magic’s history was Llanowar Elves, and one of the earliest powerful tribal payoffs was Lord of Atlantis for merfolk. Part of what gives the old-school mono-color tribes power is that they have had years to accumulate their card pool.

In Standard, by contrast, a tribe has at most seven sets to choose from -and of those sets, creatures from that tribe may only be in two or three. Vampires, for instance, haven’t really seen a single significant new addition to their core strategy since Rivals of Ixalan. By contrast, decks that focus less on tribe and more on a united strategy or archetype have had pretty significant support by virtue of the fact that there will always be new cards for each color in any given Magic set.

So is it impossible for competitive Tribal decks to ever be good in Standard? Not necessarily. I did some digging and discovered that the last time a tribal deck in Standard was viable, it was during Llorwyn block. Llorwyn, coincidentally, was the last time we had a tribal-focused block legal in Standard.

Of Llorwyn’s supported tribes (Goblins, Merfolk, Elves, Treefolk, Giants, Elementals, Kithkin and Faeries), only one would really rise to prominence. Blue-black Faeries, a deck so powerful one of its key pieces was later banned in Modern, has been recorded as one of the most oppressive decks in the history of Standard. So why hasn’t vampires followed in its footsteps?

Part of it is that Faeries are unusual as tribal decks go. Rather than being a creature aggro or synergy deck, as most tribal decks are, Faeries are a tempo/control deck that seeks to win in much the way any other control deck does: lock out the opponent’s key threats with removal and counter-magic, then deploy a threat of your own to reduce them to zero life while they can’t do anything. Faeries are uniquely suited to this playstyle in part because most of the good ones have the keyword “flash”, letting you play them during your opponent’s turn. If your opponent tries to do something, you can counterspell them. If they don’t, you play a faerie that can attack them next turn. If you play Spellstutter Sprite (as the deck did), sometimes you can do both simultaneously.

In addition, Llorwyn-Alara block was the home of some of the best control cards ever printed. The blue-black faeries deck played multiple copies of Thoughtseize and Cryptic Command, cards that  see play even in non-rotating formats. Cryptic Command is sort of the ultimate control/tempo card, with four modes that let you effectively blank an opponent’s entire turn when deployed correctly. This meant that even if some of the Faeries weren’t insane all on their own (Sower of Temptation is a bit ‘meh’ by today’s standards), the deck itself had access to the strongest tools in Magic.

This, to me, speaks to the key thing that pushes tribal decks over the edge in Standard. Since you can’t choose from a card pool of every card of that tribe ever printed, it’s rare for one tribe to be strong enough to take Standard purely through synergy. Instead, the core gameplan of the tribe has to be well supported in Standard in order to take off.

So, where does that leave vampires?

IV. The State of Standard Part 2: Manabase Boogaloo

At long last we return to those “quirks” I mentioned earlier. I’ll probably do a more involved piece on this someday, but right now Standard is defined (and perhaps subtly improved) by the fact that its manabase is lopsided. Remember how we had four sets rotate out of Standard? Those four sets contained the Kaladesh fast-lands and the Amonkhet cycle-lands. Previously those were the two highest-impact cycles of lands in Standard, and their loss is pretty keenly felt.

When Guilds of Ravnica hit it, as has every Ravnica expansion before it, brought with it some of the highest sought-after cards in Magic: the “shocklands”, so-called since you must “shock” yourselves by paying two life to have them enter the battlefield untapped and ready to use. Since they tap for two colors of mana and have basic land types the shocklands are among the strongest dual-colored lands in the game. The only other untapped dual lands legal in Magic right now are the buddylands from Ixalan block and Dominaria, all of which are significantly worse in a deck that isn’t playing shocks.

To explain this to the newer players among you: If your deck is made up of cards of two or more colors, you need to play lands that tap for two of those colors so you don’t lose to yourself by failing to draw lands that tap for the color you need to cast the spells in your hand. Most dual lands enter tapped, which basically sets you back a turn when you play them. The buddylands from Ixalan and Dominaria enter untapped as long as you control a basic land that taps for the same color as them, and the shocklands not only enter untapped if you pay life but have both land types. Having a deck that can play both means you lose to yourself less often.

The thing is that Guilds of Ravnica only included the shocklands for five of the guilds, though – Golgari, Selesnya, Boros, Izzet and Dimir (green/black, green/white, red/white, blue/red, and blue/black). The other five shocklands are reserved for Ravnica Allegiances. This means if you’re playing a color combination outside of the five that have shocks, you’re going to be playing with worse mana.

Notably, white-black – the colors of Ixalan vampires – is one of the five combos still waiting on its shocks.

This quirk of mana is ultimately healthy for Standard, at least in the short term. While five color combinations are less viable, it’s made it harder for players to build three and four-color decks with no penalty, one of the things that helped make energy decks in Kaladesh such a scourge back when they were legal. It’s also – at least, temporarily – killed Bant Turbo-Fog, a three-color deck that was one of the worst things for Standard on every conceivable level, but more about that later.

Now, all of this could and probably will change in the spring when we get the rest of the shock lands and some of these decks get better mana. Will this help vampires, though?

I’d argue no, and here’s why: the communists are going to overrun them.

V. The Red (and Green-White) Menace

To break into competitive Standard, vampires have two problems to solve – one old, one new. Conveniently, both of them make this communist joke work. We’ll start with the dirty reds.

Specifically one dirty red trick: Goblin Chainwhirler. While mono-red decks have lost major payoff cards like Chandra, Hazoret, and Glorybringer, they are still very much a force to be reckoned with in standard. Experimental Red took down Grand Prix Lille without much trouble, forcing its way past a gauntlet of decks, and packed four Goblin Chainwhirlers even in a metagame with relatively few creatures that die to it. Chainwhirler’s ability to ping every card on an opponent’s table is absurd, and a Chainwhirler hitting the field against a vampire token deck is sometimes just game over.

This is a bit of a snag for vampire players. Because most playable vampire cards either are X/1 creatures or specifically synergize with X/1 creatures, it’s hard for them to shore up their weakness to the red decks. That said, maybe red gets pushed out of the format or falls off when Ravnica Allegiances releases. Well, then you’ve dodged the Marxist-Leninists only to run into the communalist anarchist collective.

Specifically the Selesnya Conclave, who are technically not communists but, screw it, they live in a literal commune so close enough. Right now one of the major problems vampires have to deal with is that green-white decks do everything they want to do, but better. Vampires can pump their tokens with Legion’s Lieutenant, but green-white can pump them with Song of Freyalise or Venerated Loxodon and have that pump stick around even after those cards leave the field. Green-white has access to Flower//Flourish, which lets it cheat on lands and also gives it a quick game-winning play. Green-white has Trostani Discordant, who both buffs your dudes and makes two dudes of its own.

The list goes on like that, but the biggest difference between vampires in black/white and token decks in green/white is currently March of the Multitudes. Called the green-white Sphinx’s Revelation by some, March of the Multitudes is an absurd card, letting you effectively double up your creature count and giving you ample opportunities to murder your opponent. Going March into Venerated Loxodon or Pride of Conquerors is often just game-ending in a way that vampire decks don’t have a great answer to.

Do vampires have powerful cards to compete with green-white’s offerings? Sure. But cards like Twilight Prophet, Bishop of the Bloodstained, and Sanctum Seeker just aren’t quite good enough at supporting a token deck to justify running them over Trostani, Venerated Loxodon, or March. Meanwhile the vampire cards that are strong enough to draw you to the deck in the first place – cards like Legion’s Landing and Queen’s Commission – all function just as well or better in the Selesnya deck than they do in the vampire deck. The Selesnya deck even gets cards like History of Benalia that the vampire deck can technically play – but of course, then it’s not really a vampire deck.

In tournament Magic, especially in Standard tournament Magic, the last thing you want to be doing is playing a deck that is the second-best version of a particular strategy. Unfortunately, until Selesnya loses some support, vampires are going to have to deal with that.

VI. Is there any hope?

To be honest, not really. While I’d love to end on an optimistic note for my favorite bloodsuckers, the best they can hope for is that their improved manabase when Ravnica Allegiances is released gives them a bit more reach, or gives the token decks an incentive to play more black cards. One problem with focusing on a tribe instead of a strategy is that tribes aren’t guaranteed to get new cards in a given set, and while there are vampires in the white-black Orzhov guild it’s more of a haunt/spirit thing, and traditionally Orzhov support focuses on bleed/life-gain decks instead of tokens.

Still, I don’t think that means it’s all over for vampires. While their chances of standard dominance have largely slipped by, many of the cards from Ixalan are strong enough that as the tribe sees more support through the years they may have a shot at seeing play in Legacy or Modern. Legion’s Landing is one of the best grindy token cards ever printed, and a vampire deck in modern that could take full advantage of it might have a legitimate case for occupying the same slot that, say, white-black tokens does now: small, but not to be underestimated.

And hey, this is just tournament Magic. Arena, Friday Night Magic at your local game store, and events like the Standard Showdown aren’t going to subject the deck to the same rigors. After all, the problem with vampires isn’t so much that they aren’t good as it is that other things are better. Running the second-best version of a strategy doesn’t make much sense at a Grand Prix with your paycheck on the line, but if you’re just playing with a friend, you can expect to do pretty well with any decently-built deck.

So go on, sleeve up that Mavren Fein and those four copies of Legion Conquistador. You may not bring home the Pro Tour, but you will have a bloody good time.

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