Rogue Report – Now I Know My ZBC’s

Last week I wrote about Zendikar block constructed and my take on the early frontrunner, Vampires. Now I’m back with another week of results under my belt and an updated decklist. I plan on not only talking about the changes I’ve made and why, but I’ll also talk about the other “lesser” decks that make up the format.

Here’s my newest list of Vampire Carnage, complete with a shiny new toy:

Not a lot has changed since my last version. The big update is Blade of the Bloodchief, which was added after some discussions with David Derrickson. It can be a house in the mirror match, but what keeps it in the deck is the synergy it has with the rest of the deck naturally. It makes your Bloodghasts even scarier when sending them into sure death actually has a benefit. What surprised me is how good of a benefit this is, and while it’s obvious that making your Vampire Nighthawk bigger is a good thing, it also makes your Vampire Hexmages or Gatekeeper of Malakirs real forces to be reckoned with.

Now the deck can almost “combo out” with Carnage Altar, using Blade of the Bloodchief to stack a pile of counters on a Malakir Bloodwitch that will easily be lethal in one or two attacks. This has been very useful in my version, which is a lot more controlling than other Vampire decks with Vampire Lacerator. Blade of the Bloodchief lets you get so much more value out of your plays. Your removal spells obviously become better when they are putting counters on your creatures, but there’s more to it than that. Gatekeeper of Malakir could be hit or miss in the mirror match when they drew Bloodghast, but now you still get value out of that play.

I also cut one Feast of Blood in favor of a Disfigure. The Feast is obviously weaker in my version compared to ones with Vampire Lacerator, and I found myself in situations with multiple Feast of Bloods in my hand and not being too happy about it. It’s less a matter of not being able to activate Feast of Blood and more a matter of being able to activate them on time. Grim Discovery (which has continued to shine, justifying the full set of sac lands) acts like another four vampires in the deck, but slow ones. I really hate to start cutting cards that make this deck better than other decks (like my last article talked about) so I hope I’m not going in the wrong direction. Sometimes a deck gets to a point where that’s as good as it will get and you’ve just got to accept its weaknesses, but I don’t think we’re at that point yet.

Vampire Tracking

When I started playing Constructed on Magic Online I decided to track my decks results. (I think it’s the economist in me.) Zaiem used to tell me about his records over hundreds of games, and the information seemed very useful. Right now I just have a spreadsheet for each deck, tracking matchups, game records, and match records. It’s still pretty primitive, like I’m using the same file even after I change the deck, but it’s still been useful. Now I’ll take you through the major matchups I’ve played, my record in that matchup, ideas on sideboarding, and thoughts on what the opponent is trying to do.

For the record, out of literally all the sanctioned Magic Online matches I’ve played, the deck is 22-10 so far. That’s mostly two-man queues, but I’ve also started doing Daily Events. As you can see I’ve only played 32 total matches, so there’s still a lot to learn.

Vampires (the mirror)

This isn’t exactly the record I’m looking for, but like I said, Blade of the Bloodchief helps a lot. I started out 1-3 in the mirror, but I’ve won the last three times I’ve faced that matchup, probably in part due to a more refined decklist with the mirror in mind. Now this doesn’t mean I’m going to win the next three times I play against Vampires – it just means I need to play the matchup more and watch the statistics level out.

What I find really surprising is that out of 32 matches, I’ve only played the mirror 7 times. Vampires was supposed to be the top deck, and the cheapest to assemble, so I assumed I’d face it more often. One reason for this is that people could be tired of facing Devout Lightcaster in game one, and I don’t blame them. Second, most of my results are taken from two-man queues, and I think they tend to be a little more random than Standard events. Also, the format really doesn’t matter in the sense that there are no major tournaments with this format, so I think you see more people playing “fun” decks, and this format certainly has them. Who doesn’t want to Harrow for their 5th and 6th Mountain, doming their opponent for 12 with double Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle?

The mirror is a war of attrition, and this version will almost always find itself in the control position. Carnage Altar gives this deck the inevitability in the long game, and it’s running things like Grim Discovery and Mind Sludge game one, where your opponent is likely running Disfigure, Vampire Lacerator, and Quest for the Gravelord. It’s not uncommon to come back and win the game from a huge life deficit (like 4 to 34) after letting them hit you with a Vampire Nighthawk a few more turns than an aggro version could allow.

Not surprisingly, Vampire Nighthawk is the most important card in the matchup, and it must be answered. The last person to stick a Vampire Nighthawk unanswered is usually the winner, and that’s also why Malakir Bloodwitch is important. The Bloodwitch is your only other creature that can trade with a Nighthawk, so you often don’t want to trade for another random guy and a Disfigure if you can help it. Blade is good for getting your Nighthawk out of their Bloodwitch range.

Bloodghast is a really weird card in this matchup. It’s such a beating when you’ve got a hand of multiple Gatekeepers and they’ve got a turn two Bloodghast, but it’s such a beating the other direction when they don’t have the Bloodghast. However, when you’ve got Bloodghast and they don’t have Gatekeeper, he isn’t that impressive when facing down a Nighthawk or Vampire Hexmage. Basically you always want one Bloodghast in your opening hand for the mirror.

-1 Disfigure
-1 Vampire Hexmage
-1 Gatekeeper of Malakir
+1 Blade of the Bloodchief
+1 Swamp
+1 Mind Sludge

I’m still messing around with different variations, but this is where I’m starting to land. It pretty much comes down to whether or not Mind Sludge is any good in this matchup. It’s such a weird card because sometimes you play it on turn five and it’s a complete blowout, yet other times it might only grab one card. Sometimes you would win the game if you drew a Mind Sludge, and other times you lose the game because you drew two or three of them. For now I’m still a fan of the Mind Sludge plan, but I’m still not sure it’s right. It might actually come down to playing different numbers of them on the play or the draw, and that’s usually where I experiment.

What I’ve found to be consistently true is that the first person to miss one of their first five land drops is in a bad spot. The other player is free to Mind Sludge them out of the game, or just out pace them with more spells each turn. That’s why I bring in the 25th land out of the sideboard, and that’s why Grim Discovery has continued to impress me. I’m becoming a bigger fan each day of the sideboarded land in general.

As for the cards that come out, it’s a little bit of everything, but for good reason. Vampire Hexmage and Gatekeeper of Malakir can both be very good, but are inconsistent in the mirror. As I said before, multiple Gatekeepers are bad against Bloodghast. Vampire Hexmage is good at keeping Bloodghast at bay, as well as other random creatures like Lacerator or Gatekeeper, but it doesn’t fight what’s really important in the matchup. (Unless you expect Sorin Markov.) Drawing multiple Vampire Hexmages is usually a bad thing. Disfigure is similar in the sense that it’s useful to keep yourself alive (which is still important), but it doesn’t fight what really matters in the long run. If I find myself dying too early after sideboard, I’ll mess with these numbers, but it’s been working for now.

UW Control

I’m constantly surprised when I look at that result. How can I have such a positive record against the deck that seems to be designed to beat me? Not only do I have a positive record, but I’ve only lost one match! It could just be variance, and certainly seven matches isn’t enough to make a definitive claim, but it makes me hopeful for Vampires in a sea of Devout Lightcasters.

The definitive card in this matchup is Mind Sludge. A lot of what you do is position yourself for a game-sealing Sludge. Especially when you’ve got Carnage Altar, you should be able to beat them after a Mind Sludge, especially if it’s early. One of the best ways to do this is to overcommit to the board so that they have to Day of Judgment. That lets you untap and Mind Sludge, though this play is a lot safer when you are on the play, otherwise they could have Spell Pierce. Hitting your first five land drops for a timely Mind Sludge is very important, which is another reason why Grim Discovery is good.

-1 Disfigure
-1 Grim Discovery
-4 Vampire Hexmage
-2 Blade of the Bloodchief
-3 Feast of Blood
+1 Swamp
+1 Mind Sludge
+4 Desecrated Earth
+3 Halo Hunter
+2 Hideous End

You would think that my game one record would be better than my game two record. Certainly them filling up on Devout Lightcasters has to be better than whatever I’m doing. What I’ve found, however, is that a lot of their cards lose power when they don’t have the mana to kick them: Rite of Replication, Sphinx of Lost Truths, and Conqueror’s Pledge. The primary culprit is Rite of Replication, and it’s often hard to stop them from kicking a Rite of Replication for the win in game one. In game two, however, it’s very hard for them to get up to nine mana, especially with any sort of hand, so their ways of winning are greatly reduced.

This sideboard plan transforms the deck to try to fight their plan and make their cards much worse than they could be. Devout Lightcaster, for example, has a lot less to do after sideboard. It can still nab some creatures, but it can’t block your primary threats of Halo Hunter, Vampire Nighthawk, and Malakir Bloodwitch. It’s very common that my opponent discards one or two Lightcasters when I Mind Sludge them just because I never gave them a chance to play it.

Desecrated Earth is also very good at fighting their strategy. It can attack their white mana, making Devout Lightcaster and Conqueror’s Pledge awkward. Even when you’re not color screwing them, attacking their mana is good in general, keeping them off of Sphinx and Rite kickers – the discard is especially relevant here. Also worth mentioning is how Desecrated Earth lets you lock up games where your opponent kept a marginal hand. If your opponent was banking on Devout Lightcaster or Into the Roil buying enough time to find the lands they need, Desecrated Earth makes this much harder for them. You’re primary goal is to Mind Sludge them, but Desecrated Earth puts them in a spot where they might have to use a Cancel on something else.

When it comes time to close up the game, that’s where Halo Hunter and Malakir Bloodwitch come in. Bloodwitch is your best threat because they can’t Lightcaster or Journey to Nowhere it – they basically have to Day of Judgment or Cancel it. (You’re trying to stretch their Cancels in this matchup.) Halo Hunter is generally worse, but he does kill faster and still gets by Conqueror’s Pledge and Devout Lightcaster. You can’t side out all of your removal because killing a Sphinx (of Lost Truths or Jwar Isle) is necessary to get a Bloodwitch through.

Just a tip: try not to let your Bloodghast get exiled if you can help it, either by Journey to Nowhere or Lightcaster. If I have a [card]Carnage Altar[/card] and a Bloodghast, I usually won’t play the Bloodghast until I can leave three mana open. Once you have that combo going you’re in much better shape, and Bloodghast is great at applying pressure, especially in the face of Day of Judgment. You don’t want to give your opponent a good opening for a Devout Lightcaster.

RG Valakut

Now we’re getting to the matchups that I have less experience with. The new deck on the scene is a RG deck hinging on Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. First, big props to whoever got Valakut going in a non-mono-red deck. With Harrow and Khalni Heart Expedition, it’s not hard to get enough mountains to trigger multiple Valakuts.

In general I find the matchup to follow the logic of my last article: they are a control deck without blue, so they lose to Mind Sludge. The reason the deck still succeeds is that there are definitely times when their acceleration races your Mind Sludge, but I find they are still usually a turn short if you’ve got it on turn five. (Again, Grim Discovery rocks.)

-4 Vampire Hexmage
-2 Blade of the Bloodchief
-1 Disfigure
-2 Feast of Blood
-1 Vampire Nighthawk
+4 Desecrated Earth
+1 Swamp
+1 Mind Sludge
+4 Hideous End

Desecrated Earth is mainly in the sideboard for the UW matchup, but it also shines here. Their deck basically has two threats: Valakut and Rampaging Baloths. Four Desecrated Earth helps solve one of those problems, and four Hideous End help solve the other. They can still do damage to you along the way, so it seems like gaining life is a good thing. However, Vampire Nighthawk is kind of weak against Punishing Fire. Feast of Blood is a little too inconsistent when you need to immediately kill a Rampaging Baloths, and maybe I should just cut them entirely.

I also to try the sideboard plan that intends to kill them with a large unkillable Vampire Nighthawk or Malakir Bloodwitch thanks to Blade of the Bloodchief. I’ve also tried [card]Halo Hunter[/card] a few times and he hasn’t disappointed me, but I’m not sure he’s winning games I wouldn’t win otherwise.

W/x Aggro

I’m lumping these decks together, though it’s pretty much just mono-White aggro and RW landfall. Your strategy is basically the same for any of these non-Black aggro matchups: teach them why their deck is bad and your deck is good. You’ve got Hideous End, Disfigure, Feast of Blood, Vampire Nighthawk, Malakir Bloodwitch, Gatekeeper of Malakir, and they don’t.

Each deck presents their own threats, but your plan generally remains the same. The whiter versions have more (in quantity and consistency) Devout Lightcasters and Brave the Elements, while the RW landfall versions have Punishing Fire and can be more explosive with Plated Geopede. Sometimes I wish I had more Disfigures, but you still can’t kill a Steppe Lynx when they’ve got a sac land.

+4 Hideous End
+1 Disfigure
+2 Halo Hunter
-1 Mind Sludge
-1 Vampire Hexmage
-3 Carnage Altar
-2 Bloodghast

Hideous End makes your job a lot easier, filling your deck with more removal spells. Your goal is essentially to land a Malakir Bloodwitch in a good position, which they rarely have an answer to, and Hideous End helps you get to that position. Most of these decks tend to have Emeria Angel, so Halo Hunter can randomly be amazing, otherwise he’s just okay, and might actually be worse than random vampires for Feast of Blood.

That’s essentially what Vampire Hexmage is: a random vampire for Feast of Blood, as well as Bloodghast. Hexmage can be annoying when carrying a Blade, but usually doesn’t have anything to block. The Carnage Altar engine is a little slow, but Bloodghast is your best way to activate Blade and Feast of Blood. Mind Sludge can be slow sometimes, but it keeps them honest and gives you the occasional blowout. On the draw I’d probably only leave one in.

The Rest:
Red aggro 1-0
GUW ramp 1-0
BW control 1-0
UG Mid 1-0
W Emeria Control 1-0
GW Ramp 0-2
GW Midrange 0-1

I randomly had some trouble against GW, and both the ramp and the midrange versions I played against had Oran-Rief Recluse. That little spider is actually quite a house against this version. The problem with these results, however, is that the sample sizes are so small. Heck, my other sample sizes are small, so these results are almost useless in comparison. Am I good against W/x Emeria Control, or was my opponent just bad? I mean, he was playing a deck that most other people aren’t playing. Also, I know that I lost one match to GW ramp when my opponent, after a Mind Sludge, immediately topdecked Conqueror’s Pledge and Eldrazi Monument. I also lost my GW Midrange match after failing to draw a land three turns in a row for lethal Bloodghasts against an opponent with no hand.

But that’s the problem with low sample size – variance. I probably won a few matches I didn’t deserve just like I lost a few close ones, but I only remember the crushing defeats. This is where I need to just play and play and play, and that’s what I’m hoping Magic online will let me do. Until that point, however, we’ve just got feel to go off of. I’m still learning lessons every time I play, and hopefully I’ve transferred some of that knowledge to you.

I’m thankful for you reading,

Jonathon Loucks
Loucksj at gmail
JonLoucks on twitter

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