Commander 2017 — A Brief History of Vampires
“He thought, in fine, that the dreams of poets were the realities of life.”
The first pack of Revised I ever opened contained a Sengir Vampire. At the time it was a bomb card. A 4/4 flyer for five was insane. Better hope you draw that Shivan Dragon, son. Still, the power level of the card wasn't what hooked me. No, instead it was the art. That bald, Max Schreck-looking dude with blood streaming from his face was just captivating. Also, interestingly enough, subsequent Sengir Vampire printings have maintained the tradition of excellent art. Legions saw the fantastic Anson Maddocks original replaced with another Nosferatu-looking claw-handed chap from Kev Walker, and the Beatdown Box Set got us a sweet Baron Sengir-inspired vamp from Jeff Easley.
Back in Black
My first deck was black just to have a slot for my favorite creepy card, but what I really wanted was a vampire tribal deck. The idea has nagged in the back of my mind for years. Eventually, deep in the thralls of an EDH deckbuilding bender, I assembled my vampire tribal deck—eventually settling on Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief for my commander.
Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief: Queen of Bleeding HeartsView on Archidekt
It's fairly fun to play, but it has some problems, namely in that it doesn't really care much about vampires. The non-Drana vampires in the deck tend to just float around to block other stuff until I get enough mana out via doublers and such to blow people apart with a Drana alpha strike. The reality is, the deck would probably function much better with a focus on big mana instead of a tribe of glorified blockers.
Shadow of the Vampire
Enter Edgar Markov, a solution seemingly custom built for my problem. With Commander 2017 everything coalesced: make Edgar my vampire general and convert Drana into big-black-mana. This, of course, led me to dig back through old vampires to see if there was anything I had missed worth considering for either new build, and in doing that research I started to think on just how far vampires in Magic have come as a tribe.
Such a respective, just like my own personal desire for a vampire deck began with the OG bloodsucker, the Sengir Vampire. He has a home in 403 decks on EDHREC, and, at least based on myself, plenty of those are probably fueled by nostalgia for one of the most striking cards from the original magic set. Alas, vampire tribal dreams for anyone like myself went unfulfilled for years. Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, the Dark and Fallen Empires brought us nothing new so, for the first several years of Magic, he remained our only nosferatu.
It wasn't until lowly Homelands that the second and third vampire were added to Magic: Baron Sengir and Irini Sengir, both mono-black legends so bad you'll want to force your friends to use them as commanders if they lose a bet. However, at the time they weren't technically vampires until the Grand Creature Type Update in September of 2007, so while they are now retroactively recognized as such, at the time they just had the creature type legend. Sure, they looked like vampires, but so did Grandmother Sengir who is a human wizard despite looking like a nightmarish apple core doll. At least the good Baron mentioned vampires in his rule text, allowing him to tap to regenerate target vampire, i.e. your Sengir Vampire as it was the only vampire type in the game.
Baron Sengir can be found in 131 decks on EDHREC, some of which I'm assuming are theme decks where he cosplays as an evil drug kingpin from an episode of Miami Vice. Of those, he's the commander in 27 different lists. Dwarf vampire Irini is in 24 decks, 9 of which are as the commander because I'm guessing people like Fibonacci circles.
“His character was dreadfully vicious, for that the possession of irresistible powers of seduction, rendered his licentious habits more dangerous to society.”
Ice Age brought us our second (at the time) official vampire, Krovikan Vampire. He is a departure from the nosferatu-style art we had previously seen, instead aping the cover of a mid-70's issue of Morbius the Living Vampire. He was followed shortly thereafter by Ravenous Vampire from Mirage, alongside another legend we would later learn was a vampire, Shauku, Endbringer.
None of these are particularly good cards, with Ravenous Vampire being downright disastrous at the time in a tribal deck. "Yeah, sure I'll sacrifice my Sengir Vampire to my Ravenous Vampire. That seems like a good trade." Shauku, Endbringer isn't any better, though the rise of cheap-to-produce tokens in modern magic makes the former somewhat less awful. Still, all three show up in decks on EDHREC, with Krovikan Vampire mustaching up 36 lists, Ravenous Vampire killing your mens in four, and Shauku bringing an end to your life total in 74, including 28 as a commander.
The Rath Cycle (Exodus, Stronghold, and Tempest) brought three more vampires to the fold, though at the time Crovax was just a Legend and not a vampire, and Vampire Hounds were just hounds. None are really very good regardless. To add insult to injury there were no vampires printed in the most overpowered block in Magic's history, the Urza Cycle. Still, Crovax resides in 59 decks in the EDHREC database, nine of which where he is the commander, Skyshroud Vampire flies in 14, and Vampire Hounds barks at 22.
“All those upon whom it was bestowed, inevitably found that there was a curse upon it, for they were all either led to the scaffold, or sunk to the lowest and the most abject misery.”
Nemesis brought us the first of what I would consider EDH-playable vamps in Ascendant Evincar. He's half an Elesh Norn, with flying, wearing shoulderpads, that dropped from Upper Blackrock Spire. While he's the commander in a mere 42 decks on EDHREC this ascended version of vampiric Crovax has a home in 779 decks making him easily our most commonly-used vampire to date. He's not the best vampire ever printed, but a token sweeper and Bad Moon stapled to a 3/3 body with evasion ain't nothing.
The Invasion Cycle was silent on the vampire front, adding nothing new to the canon, but Odyssey block brought us Repentant Vampire, a card most notable for being Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and whose art pairs with a very Buffy-looking figure on the card Gallantry. This block also brought to the fold Stalking Bloodsucker, Treacherous Vampire and our first multicolored vampire in Vampiric Dragon. None are heavily represented in Commander, with only Vampiric Dragon breaking into triple digits with a home in 258 decks.
Onslaught added Soul Collector as the first, and so far only morphing vampire, while the original Mirrodin cycle added Mephidross Vampire as the first modern-border night stalker. Soul Collector shows up in 183 lists, most of which seem to be morph-centric, but Mephidross Vampire is played just shy of 700 times making him chronologically our second most popular vampire after Ascendant Evincar. The Kamigawa block had zero vampires, meaning that during the three-year run from Onslaught to Mirrodin only two new vampires appeared.
Things brighten a bit, metaphorically speaking at least, during the original Ravnica: City of Guilds block. The cards are still suitably gloomy, of course. Our second and third multi-colored vampires appear here, this time pairing blue with black, and Szadek, Lord of Secrets marks our first multi-colored vampire legend and thus our first multi-colored commander. Morori sees representation in a mere six decks, but token-producer Skeletal Vampire appears 543 times. Szadek heads a mere 61 decks, but he has a home in 758 total most of which seem to be mill-centric.
Cold Snap added our second multi-colored vampire commander, this time in grixis. Garza Zol, Plague Queen has the oft-used vampire ability to get a +1/+1 counter when she kills a creature. Normally that ability rarely crops up, but on a commander who can kill you with 21 damage and who draws you a card when connecting she's much more likely to be blocked that traditional vamps. She only appears in 52 decks probably in part because seven mana may as well be a million, though she does offset that slightly with haste and evasion.
With Time Spiral block, we see the arrival of two more vampires, an alternate version of Mirri where she is cursed with vampirism instead of Crovax, and the flavorful Sengir Nosferatu. The non-legendary Nosferatu appears a mere 140 times, but Mirri's second card marks another universally good vampire who shows up in 839 builds including 37 as commander.
The four sets that comprise the Lorwyn block contain no vampires, but the Alara block added two new faces to the mix, namely Blood Tyrant and Vein Drinker, two very solid cards, both hampered by high casting costs and color restrictions. The 5/5 tyrant comes with baked in trample and flying, and his size will very quickly get out of control in a multi-player game, but, as he can only be included in a limited number of grixis-led decks, he appears less frequently than his power level would indicate, only showing up in 795 decks. For some reason, he looks like a mid-card pro wrestler. Still, this pushed him ahead of Ascendant Evincar on our most frequently played vampires list. Vein Drinker, whose art features a floating girl who sells molly in the alley behind the club, has a home in 401 builds. It's a decent card but six mana can be a lot, and she can only be run in decks featuring black and red thanks to her activated ability.
“He had required, to enhance his gratification, that his victim, the partner of his guilt, should be hurled from the pinnacle of unsullied virtue, down to the lowest abyss of infamy and degradation.”
Zendikar brought us our first magic block absurdly rich in vampires. Prior to Zendikar there were 24 total vampires printed in Magic: The Gathering. Zendikar alone doubled that; adding another 24 bloodsuckers to the mix. Some of these are the usual draft fodder commons, and some are cards that don't play well with commander, but plenty are absolute stars. Anowon, the Ruin Sage and Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief are both excellent choices for mono-black vampire commanders, with Drana heading 311 decks and appearing in 2,821 total builds, and Anowon topping another 185 builds while appearing in a total of 1,380.
Beyond those commanders, Zendikar contained an abundance of excellent support vampires. Blood Seeker, Bloodghast, Butcher of Malakir, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Guul Draz Assassin, Kalitas, Bloodchief of Ghet, Malakir Bloodwitch, Nirkana Revenant, Pawn of Ulamog, Vampire Hexmage, and Vampire Nighthawk are all Commander playable, with cards like Bloodghast and the Hexmage even seeing play in modern and vintage.
Zendikar also introduced us to our first non-creature cards that care about vampires in Blade of the Bloodchief, Blood Tribute, Feast of Blood, and Urge to Feed. Blade of the Bloodchief especially sees play both in vampire decks and in decks where counters matter like Marchesa, the Black Rose and with Mistform Ultimus.
Finally, Sorin Markov made his debut in Zendikar, and, though his card does nothing vampiric, it is notable for a devastating -3 that can be activated as soon as he enters the battlefield.
Things quiet a little with Scars of Mirrodin, though the block still brought three more vampires to the fold including Chancellor of the Dross and Sangromancer. This was mostly the calm before the storm, however.
“The title of the elder branch falling at length to him, he obtained an important embassy, which served as an excuse for hastening the marriage.”
Not surprisingly, the gothic horror plane of Innistrad has a ton of vampires. And by ton I mean thirty-one. It also contains the first mono-red vamps—breaking the streak of all vampires being black, the first rakdos vampire commander in Olivia Voldaren, various dual-faced flip cards, and the second Sorin planeswalker, who, on his home plane is orzhov, and makes vampire tokens.
Olivia Voldaren remains one of the most popular vampire commanders with 775 lists featuring her as the lead, and 1,234 total using her as one of the 99. Between her and the two mono-black vampire legends in Zendikar, Innistrad marked the point where we had multiple strong options available to anyone wanting to build a vampire tribal deck.
The Return to Ravnica block brought another seven vampires including our first two white nosferatu in Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Tithe Drinker, another dimir Commander option in Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker, and team-buffing Necropolis Regent, all of which see play in 1000+ decks.
Things continued to trend quiet on the vampire front after the riches of Innistrad with no vampires present on Theros and only a single one in Khans of Tarkir in the form of Kheru Bloodsucker, but Khans also brought us our second black/white Sorin in Sorin, Solemn Visitor, who, like the previous Sorin, also makes vampire tokens.
Like the first Zendikar block Battle for Zendikar was loaded with vampires adding fifteen more, including several additional black/white vampires, and excellent (and aggressively-costed) new versions of Drana and Kalitas. These new versions both have homes in 2,000+ decks and Kalitas even sees play in modern.
Shadows over Innistrad brought another thirty-three vamps as well as our first enchantments that care about vampires in Call the Bloodline and Stensia Masquarade. Orzhov Sorin also makes his third appearance, this time with an ult that makes vampire tokens, and another aggressive rakdos vampire commander appears in Olivia, Mobilized for War.
Core sets have added sixteen starting with Magic 2010. Bloodlord of Vaasgoth, Captivating Vampire, Vampire Nocturnus, and Viscera Seer all see significant play, and the commander sets have given us another grixis commander in Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge in Commander 2013, an orzhov commander in Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter in the first Commander set, and utility vampire Thief of Blood in Commander 2015. Portal also contained the not-so-great Arrogant Vampire way back in 1999.
"The deceased is not only doomed to vampyrise, but compelled to confine his infernal visitations solely to those beings he loved most while upon earth—those to whom he was bound by ties of kindred and affection.”
― John William Polidori, The Vampyre
Whew. That's the history of vampires in Magic prior to Commander 2017. Clearly, at some point the game designers figured out how to make interesting creatures, relegating most of the vampires created before the modern border unplayable. Still, it's fascinating to look back and see how far we've come towards building a full vampire tribal deck featuring no filler.
This brings me full circle with my test build of Edgar Markov. While I may wind up running actual good vampires down the road if this experiment doesn't work, for now I'm going to try something a little wonky and run almost exclusively one-drop vampires, with the goal to cast and recast them repeatedly each turn to abuse both Edgar's token-creation ability and cards like Cathars' Crusade as well as Edgar's on-attack ability.