Core Set 2020 is shaping up to be interesting, as several of the cards look like they can either see play in existing decks or might create entirely new ones. There are two cards that caught my eye for the potential to revitalize (or vitalize for the first time, I guess) an archetype that I’ve enjoyed since Ixalan: Vampires. It hasn’t really seen much play, but the new cards seem powerful enough that I’m definitely going to give the deck another try, at least until Ixalan rotates.
Vampires in Standard
The first is Knight of Ebon Legion. This card is so incredibly better than any other black one-drop we’ve had in recent memory that I’m surprised it’s not getting more attention. As a 1/2 for 1, it’s the right size to survive the bane of all 1-drops (Goblin Chainwhirler), and it has two relevant abilities. The first is pretty straightforward. For 3 mana, it becomes a 4/5 deathtouch. This is enough to win most combats even late in the game, and there’s nothing stopping you from using the ability more than once per turn. At six mana, it can attack for 7 damage even if it has never been pumped, which is pretty threatening–especially in the planeswalker world we live in where just the threat of being able to attack for a lot might cause your opponent to play differently–which means you don’t always actually need to pay the mana.
Looking at the second ability, four damage isn’t that hard to deal (in fact, by itself it deals 4 damage on turn 3), and that’s not even considering that it counts for any player! It’s not normally easy to take 4 damage on your own turn, but there is one card that is perfect for the job: Adanto Vanguard. If you’re playing against a deck that isn’t threatening your life total, you can simply pay four life and grow Knight of Ebon Legion, even if your opponent manages to take no damage.
Next up: Sorin.
Sorin is one of the few tribal planeswalkers we have, but it’s a very good one since all the abilities are strong for a 3-mana planeswalker, especially considering both +1s leave you with a 5-loyalty planeswalker in play.
The first ability leaves a permanent counter on a Vampire, makes blocking hard, and ensures you win any races. It’s especially good if you’re employing the “kill yourself with Adanto Vanguard to grow Knight of Ebon Legion” strategy.
The second ability is the all-star. Normally it would be a big minus; if you didn’t need to sacrifice a Vampire, this would probably be a -3 and be very good at that, as it’s essentially playing an Oath of Kaya. You do have to sacrifice a Vampire, but there are several expendable Vampires (in fact, it’s kind of their thing), and for your troubles you get a +1 instead of a -3! Given that you in theory just killed a creature, it becomes very hard for your opponent to kill Sorin. This ability can also just be used to kill planeswalkers or finish your opponent off in a stalemate, and it is very good with Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle, as it clears the way for your Vampires to attack which then generates more tokens for you to sacrifice.
The third ability is more narrow, but it’s also potentially very powerful because it means Sorin could simply cost 0 mana to play–you just play him and immediately play a Vampire, and then you just got a free planeswalker in play (albeit at only 1 loyalty and with a one-turn delay, but, hey, it was free).
It’s even better if you use it to cheat more expensive Vampires in play. Right now there’s no super-expensive Vampire in Standard to cheat into play (and I’m sure if there were then this card would have been different), but you can still play a five-drop and a planeswalker on turn three, which is quite strong. You can play The Haunt of Hightower, Vengeant Vampire or Queen’s Agent if you want a 6-drop, but these just look less powerful than Champion of Dusk and Vona, Butcher of Magan to me. Champion of Dusk seems to work particularly well, as the life loss is offset by the first two abilities, and if you play Champion of Dusk before you use Sorin you can play all the cards you draw. Curving Vampires on the first two turns into a turn 3 Sorin + Champion of Dusk should even be able to let you recover from any Wraths that follow, as it replenishes every creature you’ve played and the Sorin sticks around.
There’s also Icon of Ancestry. You could always play Radiant Destiny in Vampires, but I think Icon is quite a bit better as vigilance is way less relevant than the ability to pay 3 mana to draw a creature later in the game (which is especially good with Sorin since you can just -3 it to put the creature into play without spending any mana). I actually think Icon of Ancestry is a very strong card in a lot of different builds and a powerful tribal payoff, so I will be trying it out in other decks as well.
I think there are two potential ways of building Vampires: the “traditional” B/W build and then a mono-black version.
3 Temple of Silence 4 Isolated Chapel 4 Godless Shrine 5 Plains (331) 7 Swamp (339) 4 Knight of Ebon Legion 4 Dusk Legion Zealot 4 Adanto Vanguard 4 Legion Lieutenant 3 Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle 2 Sanctum Seeker 4 Champion of Dusk 4 Legion’s Landing 4 Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord 2 Icon of Ancestry 2 Conclave Tribunal
You could also go a different route with your one and two-drops. Playing Skymarcher Aspirant instead of Legion’s Landing would probably enable you to run Unclaimed Territory, but I think Temple of Silence does a good enough job, and if you run both the Temple and Unclaimed Territory, then your Isolated Chapels start getting worse as well. Besides, Legion’s Landing is just better in a deck with so many tribal synergies, as the tokens become more and more powerful as the game progresses.
For the two-drops, there are other potential options: Martyr of Dusk and Cruel Celebrant. Martyr of Dusk is appealing against Wrath effects (but not Cry of the Carnarium, unfortunately) and it also works incredibly well with Sorin’s second ability, but I think Dusk Legion Zealot is likely better, plus it’s much better versus Teferi, Time Raveler. I’m certainly going to be trying both cards, but my inclination is that Dusk Legion Zealot deserves this slot (though a 3-2 approach, for example, wouldn’t be out of the question, or even 4-2).
I see people playing Cruel Celebrant and I don’t really understand. Yeah, I’m sacrificing stuff sometimes, but it’s not really a sacrifice deck–it’s a creature deck. Your creatures will die incidentally, but I don’t think you’re that interested in chip damage, even it pairs well with Sorin’s second ability to nuke someone for 4 every turn. I would rather have a card like Martyr of Dusk than Cruel Celebrant in my deck.
A third option would be Oathsworn Vampire. It’s very weak but combos with Sorin’s second ability, and there are plenty of ways to naturally bring it back. I think the other options are better, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Then there are the two Conclave Tribunal, and they’re mostly a concession to random things we might need to deal with. Every time a new set comes out, I always try to build dedicated decks that basically have 36 creatures and 24 lands, and every time I end up wishing I had more interaction, so 2 Conclave Tribunal is me getting ahead of that. It’s possible Prison Realm or even Ixalan’s Binding are better, but I think you have enough cheap creatures that the convoke will come up. It’s also possible to run another removal spell so you don’t get blown out by Teferi.
For our big Vampires, I think Champion of Dusk is the best because the synergy with Sorin is so strong, but I think you can afford to play more than four. The contenders are Vona, Butcher of Magan and Sanctum Seeker. Vona is better with Sorin, as it’s generally a more powerful card, but I think Sanctum Seeker is better to play in a normal game, so I’m going to start them (though I will also be trying Vona).
The next option is the straight mono-black deck. This lets us use another powerful card from the new set: Dread Presence. Dread Presence has absolutely nothing to do with Vampires, but getting either repeatable draws or repeatable nukes by merely playing a land seems like quite a payoff for staying mono-black. You can just play it on turn four and hope, but if you wait until turn five you guarantee at least one shot of the effect.
23 Swamp (339) 4 Knight of Ebon Legion 4 Vampire of the Dire Moon 2 Vicious Conquistador 4 Dusk Legion Zealot 3 Oathsworn Vampire 2 Bloodthirsty Aerialist 3 Sanctum Seeker 4 Champion of Dusk 3 Dread Presence 4 Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord 3 Icon of Ancestry 1 Cast Down
You don’t have as many lifelinkers to empower Bloodthirsty Aerialist as you would in a B/W version, but it’s still incredible with Sanctum Seeker (you get a trigger for each attacking Vampire, including itself), and it also works with Vampire of the Dire Moon, Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord and Dread Presence. I think Mavren Fein is better, but that’s not an option in mono-black.
The biggest weakness in the black version is that the two-drops are much worse–I don’t really want to play Oathsworn Vampire (though it does work incredibly well with Sorin), but there’s simply no better option. The best black two-drop is Graveyard Marshal, but being a Vampire is just too important for the two-drops so I think you have to accept the tradeoff. It’s probably not worth it just for Dread Presence, but in the right metagame it could be.
As for the sideboard, it’s hard to say without knowing what the metagame looks like, but the color-hosers from Core Set 2020 all look incredibly good. Noxious Grasp destroys a wide variety of things ranging from Lyras to Teferis and Wildgrowth Walkers (and even gains life for Bloodthirsty Aerialist), and Devout Decree can also be good depending on what you expect (though right now I think Noxious Grasp is better). You can add removal, discard and possibly even graveyard hate like Grafdigger’s Cage.
All in all, I’m not sure the Vampire decks are better than other options, but I think they’re definitely worth trying while we can.
See you soon,