Zendikar: Rise of the Vampires Review (Part 2 of 2)
Well here’s a novel idea, we thought: for Rise of the Vampires’ playtest, why not put it up in a “mirror-match” of sorts against Zendikar’s mono-White equivalent, Kor Armory. As we’d hoped, this yielded a very spirited contest for Sam and I, and changed our thinking on one of the deck’s power cards- not for the better.
It’s a nonbasic showcase as Sam leads off with a Kabira Crossroads, bumping her to 22 life, and I return fire with a Piranha Marsh, taking her back down to 21. A Kor Aeronaut opens the creature front the turn following, and I drop a Child of Night.
Our detente is ended on turn 4, when Sam deploys an Armament Master, then swings in for 2. Wagering she won’t want to lose the Master in trade just yet, I freely go in with the Child before tapping for a Vampire Aristocrat.
With both decks being Weenie-based, the critters keep coming. A turn 5 Kor Cartographer for Sam, fetching her another Plains. A Gatekeeper of Malakir for me, kicked, taking out her Cartographer. Thinking it time to tip the scales in my favour, I snipe her Armament Master with a Feast of Blood. Pausing to take inventory, we find Sam at 12 and me at a healthy 24.
Sam tries gamely to maintain some offensive threat, swinging in for 2 on turn 6, but pays dearly- I return fire for 6, cutting her in half and adding a Zombie Goliath for kicks. A turn-7 Landbind Ritual gives her some breathing room (adding 12 life), but an appropriately-named Heartstabber Mosquito (with kicker) snaps her Aeronaut. My forces rumble into the red zone, taking her down to 8.
Sam Pacifies the Goliath, but my assault will not be denied- I swing in for her last 8 life. Sam fires off a Divine Verdict on the Child of Night, a poor choice of target as I simply sacrifice the Child to the Aristocrat in response and get in for all eight.
We can tell already that both decks fire off nearly right out of the gate, and three turns in sees Sam with a Spidersilk Net, a Kor Skyfisher (returning the net to be re-played for free) and a Kor Hookmaster. On my side of the table, a Guul Draz Vampire, an Acolyte of Xathrid and a Vampire Aristocrat stand ready.
First blood is drawn when Sam’s Hookmaster taps down my Acolyte as Sam flies in for 2 from the Skyfisher on turn 3. Her turn 4 play keeps the momentum on her side- a Kor Cartographer, adding to her mana base. She swings in with the Skyfisher and Hookmaster, I’m able to kill the Hookmaster with the Aristocrat by having it feed on the Acolyte (giving the Aristo +2/+2).
I miss my first land drop on turn 4, but still return fire with the Child of Night. Thanks to Lifelink, I’m at 16, Sam at 18.
Sam swings in for another 4 on turn 5, then attaches the Whuispersilk Cloak to the Cartographer. I swing in for 5 in turn, and enjoy another bump to my life total from the Child. With both decks seemingly equally capable of aggression, it’s anyone’s game.
Sam adds a Kor Aeronaut on turn 6, swinging in for 4 more damage taking me to 10. I drop a badly-needed Piranha Marsh and swing back for 4 of my own.
Sam takes another 4 off my life with her Kor on turn 7, and we’re tied at 8-all. She’s dismayed to see that the Guul Draz Vampire’s sub-10 life ability has come on-line, but her doom is all but upon her when I drop another Swamp and tap out to cast the Malakir Bloodwitch. With my three other Vamps out, she’s cut in half to 4 while I go back to 12 life on account of her special enters-the-battlefield syphon, while its Protection from White means that she has no answer for it. When the Bloodwitch swings in the next turn at the head of my Vampire army, she tries a Narrow Escape on a Plains for the life bump, but it’s not enough.
Sam’s off to a characteristically strong start: a turn 1 Kor Duelist followed by a turn 2 Whispersilk Cloak. I manage the reliable Child of Night on my turn 2, but the Double Strike on the equipped Duelist means that the Child won’t survive a block. When Sam gets out a turn 3 Kor Hookmaster after swinging in for another 2, she seems to have the upper hand.
Stability comes for me in the form of a Vampire Nighthawk, which she can’t profitably attack into. Although she trots out a Kor Sanctifiers to bolster her board position, the Nighthawk’s Lifelink gives me some buffer for aggressive play and I start swinging in with it. Turn 5 sees her play a Kor Cartographer, and she swings in for 5 with her Kor army taking me to 13. Unlike the last game I’ve managed five consecutive land drops, and a turn-5 Malakir Bloodwitch turns the tables. It almost feels unfair having a card in my deck that so thoroughly hoses another intro deck in the same set, but who am I to complain? Sam started the turn at 18 life. The Bloodwitch syphons off 4, and I swing in for 6. Sam’s aggression screeches to a halt.
A turn 6 Kabira Crossroads gives her a slight dollop of life, but I follow up with Blood Tribute (with kicker), leaving her vulnerable to my flyers. She chumps the Nighthawk but can’t touch the Bloodwitch. At 1 life, she draws her card… and scoops.
Like many of the mono-Black preconstructed decks, Rise is capable of some blisteringly fast starts (even without Dark Rituals!). Although in the duel above Rise was pitted against another mono-Black deck, consistently having early options gave the deck a lot of presence in the early game, and can frequently overwhelm an opponent.
The problem with Weenie strategies is that the red zone can begin to clog up in the midgame, and the Weenie critters so fearsome in the beginning become quickly outclassed. A turn-6 Child of Night is nobody’s idea of rescuing cavalry.
To combat this, Rise relies on two elements: a raft of efficient removal (Feast of Blood is a particularly synergistic delight here), and creatures that have evasion. While Vampire Nighthawks and the Malakir Bloodwitch are obviously evasive with Flying, the Guul Draz Vampire picks up Intimidate as the battle goes on, and even the lowly Acolyte of Xathrid can get in there for the last few points of damage.
Upon reflection, we’re not especially sold on Blood Tribute, though- as a Rare, it has too much potential to underperform. Certainly draining your opponent for half their life (you’ll hardly ever cast this unkicked) is delicious, but it’s a poor fit here.
Rise of the Vampires is designed to be extremely fast: come right out of the gate flying, and don’t let up. If you start to falter, clear a path with removal or finish the job with an evasive beater. By the time you’re able to get the six mana needed for Blood Tribute, if your deck is playing as it should your opponent should already be heavily damaged. Blood Tribute should consistently be bringing you small doses of life in this environment, a far cry from the massive swings the card makes you dream of. In other words, for Blood Tribute to be at its best, your performance up to that point has to be at its worst.
That said, there’s still plenty of room for improvement here. A number of cards are just simply poor for their slot- Acolyte of Xathrid and Mindless Null, we’re looking at you. Vampire’s Bite is similarly poor- a card that bumps power but not toughness is a “combat trick” that usually costs you the life of your creature in the process, and this sets up card disadvantage. The lifegain you get by kicking it offsets this disadvatage only marginally.
On the whole, though, the deck delivers as one of Zendikar’s better Intro Packs. Although it supports more of Zendikar’s flavour than mechanics, there’s enough of both to satisfy most.
Pros: Tremedous synergy between cards; loads of tribal flavour; efficiently-costed mana curve
Cons: Some very weak or otherwise suboptimal card selections, removal selection good but not enough of it to consistently support deck’s Weenie strategy
FINAL GRADE: 4.5/5.0