Well, I made the trip out to Cincinnati this past weekend and it was a lot of fun. Not successful on my part, but certainly fun. If you are interested in a detailed list and thoughts on it, take a look at the article from last week. The deck I played was almost the exact Vampires list I wrote about, but instead of the third Dismember, I played one Viscera Seer. That may seem an odd change but it was not really a change. Strangely enough, I never removed the last Viscera Seer. The deck I had been playing still had the one of in the deck the whole time. On that note, the one Viscera Seer will always be good and in that version I played, but you never want more than one. I am not saying that when playing Vampires you'll never want more than one in your list, I am saying for my version it was right. As an example of when you might want more than one was another Vampires deck that did quite well at this event.
We will get back to that Vampires list shortly, but first I wanted to talk about my experience at the tournament. If my title was not enough of a clue, I did not end up doing so well at this tournament. I only played in four of the ten rounds so that should give you a good idea right off the bat. This is a diverse format though, and now that some cards are banned your tournament experience is likely to be quite interesting.
My tournament was just that, interesting. Four rounds and four different decks.
Round one I played against Red Deck Wins. This deck is nothing new, but the new toys that got printed for it are some serious heavy hitters. Grim Lavamancer, Shrine of Burning Rage, and Incinerate are legitimate threats that you should consider in this archetype. Basically any version of red is going to be a pretty good match up for Vampires. The Vampires player gains some life, has recurring creatures, removal, and hopefully Phyrexian Obliterator. All these things are going to be a problem for any red deck. Manic Vandal and Duress help against the Shrine of You Now Have Half a Life Total a.k.a Shrine of Burning Rage. I was able to win this match and the way it played out was more of a close call than I was expecting. The match between these two decks is a lot like getting passed by a cop with its lights on. You are not sure if he is going to pull you over, but he usually doesn't and you get to go your own way. It's very close because you were actually speeding but the Vampires player gets the win the majority of the time. Don't speed too fast though and make sure you are careful otherwise the Red Deck Cop will pull you over before you know what happened!
Round two I played against Nate Pease with his Blue White Puresteel Paladin deck. His deck was very similar to the deck Caleb Durward top eighted with in this tournament. These games were some of the best magic I have played in a while on both sides of the table. All three games were very close, even with me never hitting a third land game one with my triple Gatekeeper of Malakir hand and never hitting a fourth land game three to basically win the game. Game three was one of those games that any small error or any dead draw would lose you the game. Not only did you need to play perfectly but you also needed to draw the right cards at the right time. Unfortunately for me I was on the side of drawing the wrong cards at the wrong time. Nate played a great game and it was a ton of fun but even though he complemented me on the match, it still was not enough and I was left unsatisfied at the loss.
Round three was by far the most interesting deck I played against and that was Blue/Black Dredge. This deck featured such interesting cards as Zombie Infestation, Merfolk Looter, Bloodghast, and Vengeful Pharaoh plus the normal Blue/Black Control cards like Inquisition of Kozilek and Go for the Throat. Game one featured me drawing fifteen lands and him killing me with Zombie Infestation tokens and his Creeping Tar Pit. Game two he could not handle my Bloodghasts, and then I played Phyrexian Obliterator. Game three was interesting, but I was able to pull it out with some Vampire aggro.
Round four I was made to play against my nemesis, Blue/White Control. Normally this should be a good match for me, I think. Maybe this version with Venser, the Sojourner and Blade Splicer was just more difficult due to those cards. I followed my normal sideboard plan of Duress and Dark Tutelage, but for some reason I walked the Dark Tutelage right into a Mana Leak! If not for that misplay, I may have been able to win this match.
What did I learn from this experience? Well, obviously Standard has many options to explore now but the more important lesson I learned was that Smallpox was just not good enough for this deck. Maybe there will be a home for Smallpox but it is not Vampires. Even in the matches where it should have been good, it just did not impact the game enough. I ended up siding them out all of the four rounds so the Smallpox experiment is over with. If Smallpox is going to be successful again it will have to be in a more controlling strategy like it was before or something that breaks the symmetry even more than just Bloodghast. In order to make the card one sided you would need to also play cards like Shrine of Loyal Legions, Shrine of Burning Rage, Glint Hawk Idol, and/or Chimeric Mass.
Let's compare the list that did well with say, a list I have played in the past.
9th Place Midwest Master Indy
2nd Place Starcity 5k Cincy
After comparing this deck to the one I played in Indianapolis, I can certainly see why this deck was successful and mine was not. If I play Vampires again, I will be playing a version similar to Matt's and my old version. The strengths of this list would have to be the Vampire Hexmages. They seem to be gaining value again with more planeswalkers seeing play in a variety of decks. Lots of removal is a key here as well. We do not agree on some sideboard choices, but that is often a bit fungible anyway. The point is, even though I was not successful with my Smallpox version of Vampires, it is still a deck worth playing and testing against in this new Standard.
Putting my Vampire love affair aside, I also wanted to mention the similarities between two other decks that have done well recently. The new version of Caw-Blade and Blue/White Puresteel Paladin. These two decks are similar in they aim to play some early creatures and gain advantage through the equipment they play. Just because Stoneforge Mystic is banned doesn't mean cards like Sword of Feast and Famine and Sword of War and Peace are not good. The new Caw-Blade uses Sword of Feast and Famine exclusively while UW Puresteel mixes it up with all three swords and tons of other equipment. Here are the two decks to compare.
1st Place Starcity 5k Cincy
4th Place Starcity 5k Cincy
Lots of authors have covered these two breakout decks but it is interesting to look at them side by side and compare what it is they are trying to do. Though these decks share many of the same cards they play out quite differently. The new Caw-Blade is comparable to the old version except not quite as fast without Stoneforge Mystic. Also since there is no more Stoneforge Mystic, the deck does not get anymore free wins from turn three Batterskull. Otherwise the deck is quite similar. The UW Puresteel deck on the other hand is more comparable to Boros. It has many early aggressive paths it can take to victory but usually they rely on the raw power of the equipment in the deck. The Puresteel Paladin deck also gets a new engine with its namesake. That card is quite powerful and if you have not played against it yet, make sure to find time to test against it so you do not underestimate how powerful it is. Both of these are powerful durable strategies that will prove to be strong choices in the coming months of Standard.
Find powerful cards and play the deck you want to play. So many strategies are viable right now, so have fun, prepare, and sideboard correctly.
Go find that Successful Force!