Duel Decks- Sorin vs Tibalt: Sorin’s Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
It may seem hard to believe now, but when Zendikar was handed off from design to development the set did not contain Vampires. Sure there might have been one kicking around in a rare slot somewhere, a ‘token representative’ creature fleshing out a splashy one-off, but the Vampires as a cohesive and cultural element in the Zendikar world had not yet come to be. No Vampire Nighthawks, no Gatekeepers of Malakir, and certainly no Vampire Lacerators. Although we’ve touched on this briefly in the past, the story of how the set’s iconic tribe came to be is worth a revisit- though as we’ll see iconic is probably the wrong word to use.
In a piece explaining the switch, Mark Rosewater defines creature tribes as having two levels of status within their particular colour. One of these reflects creatures that are characteristic of their colour, such as Goblins for Red, Elves for Green, and- for much of Magic’s earleir history at least, Zombies for Black. The other designation reflects iconic creature types, those that only show up in small numbers at the higher rarities but still help define their colour. Going back to Red we find Dragons, Blue gives us sea monsters of different types, and Black has offered us Demons and Vampires at different times. Given the cultural zeitgeist of the time, with Vampires fully in the ascendancy thanks most notably (but far from exclusively) to Twilight, it was felt that they needed a place at the table. Sadly, in Magic as in nature there are winners and losers, and the Zombies were pushed aside to make room- though they’d soon be back.
The catalyst for this change was the ground-up reinvention of Magic’ Core Set with the release of Magic 2010. Convention was discarded, and the Vampires found themselves introduced to characteristic status. It wasn’t a complete switch-over, however. While we did see non-rare Vampires in the Child of Night and Vampire Aristocrat (alongside the iconic inclusion of Vampire Nocturnus), they coexisted alongside cards like Zombie Goliath and Warpath Ghoul. It was the start of a new chapter, not the entire book.
When the Zendikar file was handed off for development, the “Great Vampire Swap” of Magic 2010 had only very recently transpired, so one of the challenges facing the developers was how to include the newly-promoted Vampires in the set. Design sub-teams were formed, with the aim of finding the tribe a mechanical identity above and beyond any thematic or flavourful one. A number of different approaches were considered, but in the end they went with a concept inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, were creatures were considered “bloodied” when they were reduced to half their life. What if, the question went, rather than looking at the Vampire’s health, why not look at the opponent’s? The magic number of 10 was settled on, and some Vampires then had this mechanic integrated into their abilities. Worldwake’s Ruthless Cullblade gains a sizable buff to power and toughness once you’ve managed to compel your opponent past that threshold, while the Bloodghast gained haste. The aforementioned Lacerator turned this mechanic on its side, giving you all of the benefits up front (being a one-mana 2/2), but causing you to lose life until you’d brought your opponent to 10 or less. Then at the apex of design, there was the Vampire planeswalker.
Sorin Markov from the outset was designed with his tribe in mind, although he himself was not indigenous to Zendikar. Although the modified Last Kiss and Mindslaver abilities were soid enough, it was his middle ability that interlocked perfectly with his ravenous kindred. By automatically setting an opponent’s life total to 10, in a stroke all of the Vampires using the tribal mechanic would become ‘activated.’ It should come as little surprise, then, that his deck in the latest Duel Decks release similarly plays with the powers of life and death.
Evil is Eternal
Like Tibalt’s deck, Sorin’s can largely be divided into broad themes. In this case, we’re looking at life/death, and creature tokens. Taken together, you get a fairly straightforward and aggressive-minded swarm deck, less subtle than Tibalt’s surprisingly nuanced construction.
The deck opens with a trio of one-drops representing both themes, with two Doomed Travelers and a Vampire Lacerator. The Travelers give you the opportunity for your first 1/1 Spirit tokens, but there will be plenty more to come. The Lacerator, meanwhile, is as much of a thematic inclusion as anything else, since its main virtue- its low cost relative to power/toughness- becomes increasingly irrelevant as the game goes on .
Moving up a rung to the two-drops, we have a larger array of options here. The Vampires continue to appear behind a Child of Night and Gatekeeper of Malakir, solid contenders in the life/death category. A Sanguine Bond-style lifelinking theme would have been interesting, but here the lifegain is strictly incidental. The Gatekeeper, meanwhile, is a Diabolic Edict on a stick, putting your opponent down a creature as you go up.
A pair of Duskhunter Bats give you an aerial presence, and reward you for aggressive play thanks to their bloodthirst. These were new creations for Magic 2012, with the mechanic being given a fresh coat of paint from Guildpact’s Gruul. A two-mana 1/1 flier is on par with what you’d ordinarily expect of Black, but optimising it through its mechanic makes it a very good deal. Given Tibalt’s lack of aerial options, these can be especially threatening. The Mesmeric Fiend on the other hand, is a more insidious threat, essentially putting your opponent’s best card in hand on hold until they manage to solve it. As a 1/1 it’s not well-suited to hold up well in the red zone, but then it’s not supposed to. This is disruption, one of Black’s specialties. Finally, a Wall of Omens rounds out the lot, a curiously defensive-minded play for such an attack-minded deck. Still, it’s a great value in that it can stand up to Tibalt’s legion of 3/3’s, and it doesn’t cost you a card.
The modern classic Vampire Nighthawk ushers in our three-drops, combining the best of what we’ve seen thus far. Thanks to lifelink he can help keep your life total up out of Tibalt’s burn range, while scoring in with evasive damage. Should Tibalt threaten to overwhelm, the Nighthawk’s deathtouch lets it trade with nearly anything. Bloodthirst makes an encore here with the Bloodrage Vampire, a high-power body that can become a 4/2 if you’ve managed to inflict some damage to your opponent prior to casting.
Like the Gatekeeper and Mesmeric Fiend, the Fiend Hunter is another value creature designed to pull you ahead of your opponent through incremental advantage. In this case, it directly solves a threat on the battlefield by exiling an opposing creature. Lastly there’s the deck’s first rare in the Twilight Drover, originally from Ravnica. This is an unusual card, but one that strongly synergises with the deck’s token-generation theme. As tokens leave the battlefield it gets ever larger, and can cash in the +1/+1 tokens it accumulates to generate even more. Though it can take some time to get going, it can be a very strong engine if you manage to build up your token swarm.
Moving on to the deck’s four-drops, there’s another part of the token-making machine here with the Mausoleum Guard. This 2/2 body from Innistrad releases a pair of 1/1 Spirits when slain, making it another of the deck’s good value propositions. This is especially true should you manage to find your Phantom General, which gives all of your token creatures a flat +1/+1 bonus. Since so much of your token presence is in the air, where Tibalt is vulnerable, this is an especially lethal prospect that can close down games very quickly unless Tibalt’s holding, say, a Pyroclasm. Finally, Vampire Outcasts gives you one more look at crafting an extra-efficient beater through bloodcraft.
At the top of the mana curve you have a few options for closers, though this is a deck that will sledom rely on one single creature to win. The Butcher of Malakir is a rare from Worldwake which stacks a Grave Pact atop a substantial, evasive body. This is a card that an opponent must answer and soon, otherwise it could soon close the game out. Another threat in the air is the classic Sengir Vampire, which has been in the game since the start. The Sengir Vampire is already solid as a 4/4, and threatens to grow larger each time it prevails in the red zone.
The deck’s final offering here is the Revenant Patriarch. Although seemingly less strong than its cohorts here at the top due to a lack of evasion, the Patriarch further has a blocking restriction- all it can do is attack. Still, like some of the other cards in Sorin’s deck the Patriarch exists as much for the effect it offers as any combat-relevant body it brings. Here it can completely blank an opponent of an attack phase. This might ordinarily be a double-edged sword, since it can conceivably blank one of your own since your opponent will have their entire force back for blocking, but again here’s where Sorin’s reliance on aerial threats does him no small favour.
Suffer No More
The noncreature supporting suite for Sorin similarly reinforces the deck’s primary themes. Token-making is given an extra boost with a few other options for squeezing them out. Lingering Souls offers a pair of them, with the tantalising prospect of two more courtesy of flashback. Spectral Procession, meanwhile, can only be cast the once- but in return, it offers a full trio of 1/1 Spirits. Then there’s Field of Souls. This rare enchantment from Tempest has never seen a reprint, but gives you the ability to turn every creature into a variant of a Doomed Traveler- while curiously giving said Traveler the ability to double-reincarnate upon death, once as a Spirit and then as an Essence!
These cards make the deck more creature-heavy than it might first appear, and to complement its reliance on the red zone it also packs in a fair dose of removal. Mortify destroys a creature or an enchantment, while Unmake simply whisks one away to the exile zone. Sorin’s Thirst deals damage, limiting its applicability, but in return offers you a dose of lifegain.
Urge to Feed is a flavourful inclusion, both resolving a creature-based threat while giving your Vampires the opportunity for a little self-improvement. Finally, Apocalypse gives us Death Grasp, a spell that has a rather Red feeling to it rather than Black but is just as useful all the same. As an X-spell, the only limit on its lethality is your manabase, and the life it provides you can be substantial. In a deck as burn-heavy as Tibalt’s, every tool you have to stay out of burn range is a gift.
That brings us next to Absorb Vis. This reprint from Conflux is expensive but represents a massive 8-point swing in life totals. Usefully, its basic landcycling means that if drawn too early to be relevant, it can still offer some assistance in developing your manabase if you falter on doing so. Going in the opposite direction is another inspired reprint, the Portal/Starter card Ancient Craving. A sort of jumped-up Sign in Blood, this can help refill your hand for a modest fee in mana and life.
The other main concentration of cards here is with creature augments. Mark of the Vampire gives a solid stats boost and lifelink, making it superb to play on one of your evasive creatures. In addition, you get a pair of instant-speed options in Vampire’s Bite and Zealous Persecution. Bite is very similar to Mark in that it gives a stats boost with lifelink (if the kicker is paid), while the latter is an across-the-board buff of your creatures. The -1/-1 to your opponent’s army can be nettlesome for your opponent, as Tibalt has several X/1 creatures in his rank and file.
Finally, a Decompose is a silver-bullet option designed to hate out the best cards in Tibalt’s graveyard. You may recall from the review if his deck that being discarded or leaving play isn’t the end of the line for many of Tibalt’s options, thanks to flashback and unearth. This card helps you make sure that such cards stay safely beyond use.
Like Tibalt’s deck, the manabase is largely basic with a splash of nonbasic fixing. Here you get a pair of the old standbys, Evolving Wilds as well as a pair of Tainted Fields. Then there’s Sorin himself, in his Lord of Innistrad persona. Although he doesn’t synergise with the deck to quite the same degree as Tibalt, he’s a natural fit here where you want to have a lot of token creatures as well as ways to pump up their power. In light of that, the ultimate is just gravy!
All in all, this looks a worthy rival to Tibalt, and we’re looking forward to pitting the decks against one another. We’ll be back in two days’ time to bring you our playtest results from Tibalt’s perspective. See you then!