Last week, I took a broad overview of Dark Ascension to try to find some casual gold. This week, I’m going to see where the Innistrad block has left us in terms of the three coolest horror movie tribes: Zombies, Vampires, and Werewolves. Rather than give decklists for each, I’d rather identify some of the dilemmas and decisions we face in building dedicated multiplayer tribal decks and suggest where these might take us.
The least sexy—but most terrifying—tribe goes first, because they were the first horror tribe that you could actually build a deck around; sure, there were Vampires in the earliest sets, but they all cost 5 mana, so it wasn’t exactly the easiest tribe to build around. Of course, most of those early Zombie builds were mono-black, unless you were desperate to include Drowned or, for some reason, Reef Pirates, in which case U/B was an option. This brings us to the first major decision we have in making Zombies work: Which colors are you running? Obviously, blue brings a lot to the table, including a heapin’ helpin’ of heartstopping horror; recent U/B Zombies outside of Innistrad include Dralnu, Lich Lord, Lich Lord of Unx, and half a dozen critters in Alara block, including Commander favorites Sedris and Thraximundar. Innistrad gives us a couple of options for adding Islands, including going all-in on skaabs, building around Grimgrin, Corpse-Born, milling your opponents with Undead Alchemist, and comboing out with Rooftop Storm. At this point, there are a couple of different ways you could go about building even mono-blue Zombies!
The second dilemma you face is: Do you want zombies, Zombies, or ZOMBIES? What I mean is that there seems to be a bit of tension between the cards that make Zombies and the cards that actually are Zombies. For example, Reap the Seagraf, Moan of the Unhallowed, and Endless Ranks of the Dead are all ways of making Zombie tokens, but none of them really works well with Zombie Apocalypse, Rooftop Storm, or Unbreathing Horde. I blame WotC for not bringing back the tribal supertype that was used so well in Lorwyn, but that is a small problem buried beneath an avalanche of undead goodness.
Of course, you can just mix and match without too many difficulties, but I think most cards will tend to pull you into either a Zombie card or a Zombie token direction. Grave Titan works just fine in either strategy, but that is more the exception than the rule, so choose your path wisely . . . or just build two Zombie decks!
The highlights (lowdarks?) of Dark Ascension’s Zombies are clearly Geralf's Messenger, Gravecrawler, and Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, and they’re so good that they’ve set various portions of the online community abuzz (although not usually the same portions—Todd Anderson’s article on Zombie aggro in Standard had a distinct anti-Cleric bias). Expect them to be pricey while the real star of the show, Zombie Apocalypse, stays affordable. Worst case scenario: It costs as much as Army of the Damned. The real steal is probably going to be Havengul Runebinder, who is kind of like Cemetery Reaper on steroids (and is in one of the precons if you fancy a nice, cheap, foil version!). Notice again the tension between having Zombie cards that he can exile and spells that produce Zombie tokens, which are almost certainly the most efficient way to benefit from his massive torrent of counters, but that he can’t eat. It becomes even more apparent when you realize that the best way to benefit from his one-sided Zomboosting is with Tombstone Stairwell, which really wants those Zombie critters in your ’yard. Perhaps the best way to use the Runebinder is in combination with Undead Alchemist, the Stairwell, and Altar of Dementia (for yourself).
I already have a Tombstone Stairwell deck that is tight enough that it won’t gain much from Dark Ascension, although Zombie Apocalypse is strictly better than the singletons of Patriarch's Bidding and Twilight's Call that I currently use. That's why I’m now excited about building around Unbreathing Horde, with Endless Ranks of the Dead as the only allowance I make to the token side of the tribe. Diregraf Captain might be worth splashing blue for, but I can get most of the same effect with Vengeful Dead and any of several black Zombie lords, so it might just be my favorite color combination: mono-black.
Ah, the Children of the Night! What sweet music they . . . wait a minute, does “children of the night” mean Vampires, or was that Dracula talking about (were)wolves? Now I’m just confused! Anyway, the bloodsuckers have seen the Twilight Saga and they are seriously pissed—that’s why they added red in this set.1
Take a second to think about how far Vampires have come since the original Sengir Vampire. Zendikar gave us mono-black aggro weenie Vamps, and now we have both black and red and several different strategies and mana curves to choose from. Do you want a Sligh-style mana curve, a steady progression of threats, or a midrange strategy that involves accelerating into a steady stream of brutal threats? I honestly don’t know where to go, and I have simply decided to build multiple Vampire decks . . . but then I’m a freak.
I’ve mentioned before that I love the concept of Bloodcrazed Neonate, which is why Erdwal Ripper is so intriguing, but I think I would actually prefer to curve out with a turn-two Neonate and a turn-three Rakish Heir or Stromkirk Captain. The first strike that the Captain gives (like Vampiric Fury in Innistrad) is normal in red but very rare in black; most importantly, it’s super-synergistic with the original Sengir mechanic! For shits and giggles, combine Rakish Heir and Mephidross Vampire to get a bonus every time you attack; for insanity, give everyone trample!
Regrettably, Dark Ascension offers less to Innistrad’s Vampires than other tribes; the bloodcrazed mechanic is a bit of a nonbo with undying, so Mikaeus is unlikely to be leading your Vamps into battle. But I think Vampires gain more from the addition of a second color than Zombies do—or, at least, I’m much less likely to build both a black and a red Vampire deck and instead try to combine the two colors in different ways. For starters, I’m interested in seeing Guul Draz Vampire and Vampire Nighthawk get in on that bloodcrazed action with Rakish Heir (I’m totally willing to let the dopey name and douchey picture slide). I also love what Olivia Voldaren and Falkenrath Aristocrat bring to the table.
A friend of mine built an accelerated Olivia deck that basically made it impossible for anyone else to keep creatures on the table. Even playing her “fairly,” nobody is going to be fooled by that playful smile and 3/3 body more than once—she is a clear and present danger all by herself. In addition to her raw power, Olivia invites us to consider a seduction and control theme deck (Traitorous Blood, Enslave, and so on. There’s probably room for Bullwhip, too . . . ), and she makes a Wooden Stake a Vampire’s best friend.
The Aristocrat is wonderful in an aggro deck, allowing you to survive most sweepers while still keeping the pressure on, especially if you’re adding hasty Vamps like Erdwal Ripper or undying ones like Nearheath Stalker or Vengeful Vampire (with a +1/+1 counter, it is known as Very Vengeful Vampire). Perhaps best of all, putting a Blade of the Bloodchief on the Aristocrat turns her into a strictly better Bloodthrone Vampire.
I have three words on the Werewolves in Dark Ascension. The first word is “holy,” and the second and third words will be edited out on a family sight. I hate that we’re only getting our furry friends for two, or at most three, sets,2 but they are certainly making the most of their brief time in the sun . . . uh, moon.
Bruce wrote last week that Werewolves in multiplayer present significant challenges, as you have no more control over when they transform as anyone else does (with the exception of Moonmist, which you absolutely must play four of in every single Werewolf deck—even the mono-red lists). This does make it harder to get the most out of them, and an untransformed Werewolf is at best an over-costed beater. There are few things worse than having your army of slavering Werewolves turn into a squad of were-Wolves during your upkeep.
However, Dark Ascension changes the canine calculus in two ways; most obviously, Immerwolf revolutionizes the transform dynamic, demanding that it be killed before your opponents flip your Lycans. If the Immerwolf can Withstand Death, every other creature you cast is going to be great value, transforming into something that gives more value than the mana cost you paid, and staying that way.
Secondly, the transform triggers on Huntmaster of the Fells and Afflicted Deserter mean that you really don’t care which side is up as long as you get a couple of flips each round. The question of whether transform is feasible in multiplayer goes from a complicated judgment about metagames and seating positions to a simple equation of: more players equal more triggers equal more value. In a five-player game, you’ve got a chance to transform twice per round, and in a larger game, you could easily trigger three times in a round. If you’re playing Emperor as the right-hand lieutenant, your Emperor will probably oblige you by holding back, and one of the next two lieutenants will almost certainly transform it, but if the enemy Emperor doesn’t cast anything, you’re in a great position—that single 4-drop will have netted you three 2/2 Wolves and 6 life and has done 4 damage to your opponent and potentially killed two of his creatures. Add an Overrun to the mix, and you’re home and hosed!
As with the other tribes, Werewolves force you to think long and hard about two questions: How many Wolves do you want, and which colors do you want to play? Mono-red and mono-green are both legitimate strategies, as is R/G (and perhaps R/G/W for Curse of Exhaustion or Jund for Pain Magnification). For pure aggro, it's hard to argue with R/G—Reckless Waif is a fearsome first-turn play, but Moonmist and Mayor of Avabruck are two of the most powerful cards in the archetype. Unusually, green mages in particular have to consider the costs of adding a second color—staying in green and adding Wolves to the deck gives you a lot of stability that your trigger-happy R/G Werewolves build may lack. Mist and Mayor don’t discriminate between different types of Wolves (and neither does Immerwolf), and playing mono-green gives you a range of options, the most powerful of which is Howl of the Night Pack—just when it looks like you’ve run out of gas, you get a whole pack of hungry Wolves to finish off your opponents.
I will be building a mono-green Werewolf deck this weekend, starting with my single copy of Mayor of Avabruck from the prerelease, but adding play sets of Moonmist and Full Moon's Rise, then red cards from Dark Ascension as I open them. Call me Mr. Predictable, but I would just run four-ofs of the tribal boosters if I could, and I look forward to adding Huntmaster if it ever drops down to a reasonable price. What I plan to do that might be a little unusual is run Scorned Villager, a.k.a. Plow Under Werewolf. If you aren’t sitting to the left of the control deck, you can at least be sitting to the left of the mana-screwed deck that is lucky to play one spell per turn, let alone two! Fallow Earth, Mwonvuli Acid-Moss, and Frenzied Tilling all help the same strategy, or you can go Winter Wolf, with Winter Orbs and the hatred of your playgroup.
Magic is a game of fantasy, so take a moment to revel in your dark side. Shout, “Crucio!” at your opponent and slam a Curse of Bloodletting on him! Embrace the role of the unspeakably evil necromancer, the cold-hearted Vampire, or the savage were-Alpha! It's only a game, and tomorrow is another school day/workday, so this is your time to own the night!
2Maro has confirmed that the transform mechanic will not appear in Avacyn Restored, although they may still throw a bone to the newest children of the night with a card like Immerwolf.