Vampires are Storm

By: CML

Everyone knows Black aggro is terrible in conventional Cubes and the Legacy Cube is a conventional Cube. Moreover, it probably has to be at least a little conventional to satisfy people’s expectations of what an official Cube “should be,” which might limit the number of solutions the designers have at their disposal — it would be great if Randy and Gerry could speak to that, and understandable if they can’t.

At any rate, Carnophage et al. are too weak of cards to match up well against much of anything in the average 2015 Cube environment, which is undesirable from a design standpoint, nobody disagrees with that. One solution would be to weaken the overall power level of the Cube by cutting its strongest cards, but I tend to prefer higher-power environments and so do the Modo drafters, presumably. Another solution would be to just cut Diregraf Ghoul et al. and replace them with different Black spells — more finishers, more removal, or more viable yet more expensive creatures. This may have the desirable result of strengthening Black, the conventional worst color in conventional Cubes, to the point it doesn’t suck in general. This would promote deck diversity through balance. I will come back to this.

The argument for trying to keep Black aggro would also be one of diversity — if a color doesn’t have aggressive options, then there’s less you can do with it. So in order for Black aggro to be worth having around, what Black gains in versatility has to outweigh what it will lose in power level. This is an evaluation that every designer has to make for every “theme” they put in their Cube — should I have Academy Rector and a few goofy targets, or a Sublime Archangel and three more beaters? Aggro “themes” are bigger than other themes — they require a lot of slots — but we don’t think about it much because putting in beaters in Naya is what everyone does and everyone should do. However, the conventional Cube community, at large, has ruled against at least one aggro theme: Blue aggro. Check out http://www.gatheringmagic.com/enabling-blue-based-tempo-or-“blueggro”-in-your-cube/ and tell me that Lu Xun, Horizon Drake, and Mistblade Shinobi are worth three slots in your Cube. If they’re not worth it, the other bad support cards you need to make the theme big enough to be supported aren’t worth it, so then it’s time to get rid of the theme and allocate the slots to six Brainstorms, four Rune Snags, and a Dissolve or something.

I mention the multiples because in the case of Black aggro I could come up with no solution that did not involve breaking singleton. Jason Waddell’s excellent articles on CFB are not perfect, but they do have a lot of ideas worth borrowing, and the most successful one I’ve implemented in my own Cube (http://www.cubetutor.com/viewcube/114) is detailed here: http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/cube-design-remodeling-part-two/. The Cliffs are that Black aggro with Gravecrawlers, Carrion Feeders, Bloodghasts, and Blood Artists is lots of fun because the cards interact well with a number of other themes, can be reduced or increased in number to nerf or buff, and are viable and flexible enough to lead to interesting drafting and gameplay decisions. Some of the cards the Gravecrawler theme works well with are Vampires, and my Cube contains Blood Artist, Bloodghast, Bloodghast, Falkenrath Aristocrat, Guul Draz Assassin, and Stromkirk Noble, popular inclusions all, as well as DKA Sorin who makes little lifelinking Vampires.

Given that everyone likes these cards, and that Vampires, being an OK deck in a Standard format with Jace and Stoneforge, are among the most-pushed tribes in MTG history, a Cube Vampires theme is tempting. I tried it. It failed, but I learned something from it and some of what I learned I will type out below.

Start at my Vamps thread here: http://riptidelab.com/forum/threads/vamps.361/. To the typical lineup of Vampires, you could also add Bloodline Keeper, Olivia, Kalastria Highborn, Vampire Nighthawk, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Vampire Nocturnus, Blade of the Bloodchief, Bloodthrone Vampire, Anowon(?), and maybe another few that I’m missing, without making the theme too obtrusive. People who aren’t drafting “the Vampire deck” will want to play with most of these cards at least sometime, and that’s what you want.

At first blush, therefore, the theme looks reasonable. Why didn’t it work? Most of why is captured by Waddell’s comment — “There’s not a lot of actual incentive cards. Maybe the captain and Kalastria Highborn? Like, Bloodghast just works better with Carrion Feeder than any of these dumb old vampires” — but I should go into further detail. You want the “filler” cards to be fought over by a bunch of different people, but not too much — so far, so good. You also want there to be the incentive of synergy if you get a lot of these cards; this is what did not happen. The payoff for assembling the tribe was just not that great, and the tribe didn’t come together often enough. For the week or two I tried the Vampire theme there were maybe 20 vampires in my Cube of 450 cards, or 4.4%. By comparison, there are 56 humans in my current build of 470 cards — 11.9% — and I still cut Mayor of Avabruck and worry about people not picking Champion of the Parish and Xathrid Necromancer until late.

Yet 4.4%, which is insufficient, is significantly higher than the proportion in the Legacy Cube — and my list did not include Guul Draz Vampire, Vampire Interloper, and other draft dreck I see here. It is always funny to me how Cube power-maxers say “Cube is about the good cards,” and then include Sangromancer and defend themselves. (Though Vampire Interloper does make our jokes about Greg’s including Stormfront Pegasus even funnier, if that’s even possible.)

But I digress. In the unlikely scenario someone assembles a decent Vampire deck in the Legacy Cube and gets an incentive card or two, they may win some matches. Far more likely are the scenarios where the deck only comes partially together (40 percent of cards aren’t “opened” in a 600-carder), or where all the cards go 13th pick. The Zombie theme, synergizing as it does with sac outlets and recursion, is only partially a tribal theme; by contrast, Vampires (minus Bloodghast) are just regular dudes. Pure tribal in Cube is fundamentally problematic unless it is Humans. Compare Mayor of Avabruck, a two-mana lord in a big tribe, with the possible Vampire reward cards:

Blade of the Bloodchief sucks, nobody else will ever want it.
Bloodlord of Vaasgoth also sucks.
Vampire Nocturnus looks like it should work, but it will not. 1BBB is a restrictive cost in my Cube, which has a lot of fixing — and no one who has ever played both triple KTK and full-RTR block should ever bemoan games decided by something other than color screw.
Stromkirk Captain will be drafted by nobody else and is two colors. In general, the lack of fixing in the Modo Cube engenders awful games and throttles options for multicolor aggro, which brings me to the next card.
Kalastria Highborn is an amazing card, but there’s only one of them, and it’s not worth it with such a small amount of Vampires.

The larger issue is that the Legacy Cube is too big — 600 cards is better than 720, but it’s still obese. With a 600-card singleton Cube, there will never be enough strong Vampires to make a worthwhile theme, yet the theme will be too large and will stoop to include weak cards to artificially support itself — Guul Draz Vampire isn’t better in the abstract than Sarcomancy. This will ensure Black aggro continues to suck, which will make Black continue to suck, which is undesirable for all the reasons I covered at the beginning that everyone agrees on.

There are certain problems that cannot be solved without drastically slimming down the Cube or breaking singleton, likely both, and one of them is the problem of Black aggro. That Black aggro is not seen as irreparable when Blue aggro is widely looked down upon is, I think, due only to inertia and accepted convention, yet for some reason there are Vampires in the Modo Cube and I am writing a polemic about it.

While we’re at it, I’ll articulate my thoughts on aggro in Cube: having it is absolutely vital, and most of my design choices in my own Cube — more fetches and duals to fix and fix untapped, a smaller size, a lower curve — flow from this axiom. Yet I think that singleton Cubes mainly support aggro through having control decks either draw too many 4-drops or color-screwing themselves. (It is also funny to me how Cube power-maxers claim that “the decks should do powerful things” when the average deck will just implode pretty often.) Anyway, this does technically balance the Cube by bridging the power gap between “Scorched Rusalka” and “JTMS,” but leads to rote drafting and lots of horrible games. I also think nobody would consider playing big singleton Cubes were the RiptideLab.com-style Cubes popularized first.

Yet it is easy to rip something apart without doing any better myself. I will propose several solutions:

— Actual redesign of the Legacy Cube with Gravecrawlers, Bloodghasts, and so on.
— Ideal: let everyone make their own Cubes on Modo and draft them free of charge.
— Decent: maybe offer multiple Cubes.
— If the constraints on my solution are what I think they are, I would cut all the weaker Vampires (maybe a dozen of them) and add the strongest Black spells, regardless of function, you can find. Demonic Tutor would be a good place to start.

Jason Waddell articulates the process by which a theme becomes not worthwhile in his excellent article “The Poison Principle,” though, for Vampires, a more pointed comparison might be to Storm. Nobody will argue that “Great, I get to pass this 14th-pick Empty the Warrens again” is a good drafting dynamic, yet here we are with Guul Draz Vampire. Anecdotally, this is what happens when I include a terrible, half-baked theme, which I have done dozens of times in the last three years since I assembled my Cube. There have been a lot of bad cards in my Cube and there are still a lot of bad cards. A few of the bad cards leave and come back and are adopted given time, but almost all do not.

I support experimentation in Cube — I’m on Riptide Lab all the time, I find maybe one idea in twenty worth trying and find that to be worth the time spent, and I have a lot of radical ideas for Cube, including lowering the power level to open up a wider variety of cards, a broader and less explored design space. I’m not arguing that no one should try Vampires — I have tried Vampires. Rather, I am arguing that, based on personal experience and heuristics, and in the context of a 600-card singleton Cube with a conventional power level, it is very likely Vampires will not fix the issue their inclusion is meant to fix, or will just fail to work out according to game-design principles we as MTG players largely agree upon.

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