The big Modern news from Rivals of Ixalan is the printing of some excellent new Merfolk that are tailor-made for format, specifically Merfolk Mistbinder, which continue the trend started in Ixalan by Kumena's Speaker and Merfolk Branchwalker of the historically mono-blue tribe moving into green. Previously the benefits of Merfolk splashing into green for a couple new creatures was questionable given the stress on the mana, but the power of Merfolk Mistbinder has tilted the scales firmly in the favor of the green-blue build, which is likely to be new norm.
What is being glossed over is Rivals of Ixalan's potential to impact another Modern tribe – or help them move from the fringes of the format to the forefront: Vampires. Legion Lieutenant gives Vampires their best lord yet, so along with some other attractive Vampires from the new set, the tribe might have reached the critical mass it needs to make a showing in Modern. The burden is on Vampires to prove itself, and the odds are stacked against it, but there's no way to find out how good the tribe is without trying it. Rather than miss a diamond in the rough, today I'll take the tribe seriously and see what sort of Modern decks the new cards could enable. I've been playing Mardu Vampires in 1v1 Commander on Magic Online commanded by Edgar Markov, which is arguably the most broken general in the format, so I've been exposed to all sorts of Modern-legal Vampires that many have forgotten even existed. I've even made the questionable-at-best decision of playing a Mono-Black Vampire deck at a Pro Tour, as I missed the memo on the then-brand new Jace, the Mind Sculptor, so I'm well-versed in the tribe.
Vampires have traditionally been black, so any deck built around them in Modern is going to be based in black. Legion Lieutenant provides a strong incentive to be in white, but Ixalan was the first set to bring white Vampires, apart from Tithe Drinker in Dragon's Maze, so dipping into the red Vampires available from the Innistrad and Shadows over Innistrad blocks may be attractive to fill in any holes. Vampires has strong tribal mana powered by Unexplored Territory, Cavern of Souls and potentially Ancient Ziggurat, like in Humans, as well as fast lands, fetch lands, and shock lands, so playing three colors is no issue. On the other hand, a more conservative mana base would open up access to Mutavault.
Beyond Legion Lieutenant, I'm intrigued by some other Rivals over Innistrad Vampires with Modern potential. Dusk Legion Zealot has historical precedent in Elvish Visionary, which sees play in essentially every Elf deck where it is legal, so I expect it will play very well in Vampire tribal in Modern. It's no Silvergill Adept, and isn't particularly aggressive, but it will help provide a critical mass of creatures, and could play very well in a deck based around sacrificing. An even more effective creature to sacrifice is Martyr of Dusk, which is the tribe's own Doomed Traveler, but as a 2/2 is also reasonably aggressive and will play well against removal like Lighting Bolt and Fatal Push.
I missed it at first glance, but a sacrifice-oriented Vampire deck could also make great use of Elenda, the Dusk Rose. It essentially gains double value from every sacrificed Vampire, and could quickly convert to a win with the right creatures supporting it, so it might be one of the biggest incentives to explore this strategy is Modern.
Another Vampire with Modern potential – albeit in a more aggressive build – is Paladin of Atonement, which works very well with fetch lands and shock lands able to consistently trigger its ability. It would also work with City of Brass and Mana Confluence, which could be used in a three-color build, or take a page from Standard with Shefet Dunes and Ifnir Deadlands as a repeatable trigger. And Skymarcher Aspirant is the most aggressive one-drop white Vampire, and could join other two-power one-drops like Vampire Lacerator to form the base of a highly aggressive build.
On the other end of the mana curve, Champion of Dusk has the potential for massive card advantage, and could have a power level high enough for Modern, where it will be more effective than the relatively lackluster Malakir Bloodwitch.
As far as the Vampires already in Modern, Bloodghast stands out as the only one that sees mainstream play in a variety of decks, so it seems like a must-include in any Vampire tribal deck. It's very effective as a robust aggressive threat that grinds through removal and blockers, it has synergy with discard outlets as a source of value and it's fantastic in any deck based around sacrificing because it can be repeatedly returned to play, even twice from one fetch land.
A key card for tribal decks is lords, which is why Legion Lieutenant is so exciting, but there are already some playable lords for Vampires. Captivating Vampire is accessible to any black Vampire deck, so it's another must-play, and its secondary ability is actually extremely powerful against creature decks, and will help end board stalls in the same way Lord of Atlantis and its islandwalk ends them in Merfolk.
Red provides Stromkirk Captain, which provides first strike in addition to its +1/+1 effect, so it's even more effective as a true lord, and in a three-color build would give Vampires a full three lord creatures that buff the team and make it comparable to Merfolk, or at least before it had Merfolk Mistbinder as a fourth lord.
Vampire Nocturnus has potential as a lord that provides two power in addition to the evasion of flying, and while it's not particularly consistent in its effect, it is effective with fetch lands giving a new look at the top and functioning as card selection. Vampires also has access to Stromkirk Condemned, which is not a true lord, but with the ability to give +1/+1 to the team may still be effective, especially with Bloodghast turning the cost into a benefit. Rakish Heir is something like a pseudo-lord, but including it would clog the deck with three-mana creatures, and its lack of immediate impact makes it less effective than other lords.
There are plenty of other notable Vampires, like Kalastria Highborn, which converts any dying Vampire into lifesteal value, and is especially effective in a deck with sacrifice outlets. To this same end is Blood Artist, which steals half as much life but doesn't require mana, so it may be even more effective in a deck with a sacrifice engine.
Carrier Thrall supplements Martyr of Dusk as another two-for-one creature for a sacrifice deck, even though its token is not a Vampire. Going even further is Pawn of Ulamog, which converts itself and each other dying creature into a token, meaning it could supercharge a sacrifice deck.
As far as sacrifice outlets, Viscera Seer is efficient as a one-drop and provides the great benefit of scry, so it would be the first place to start in a sacrifice deck. On the other end of the curve, Falkenrath Aristocrat is a very powerful sacrifice outlet because it's also very effective as an aggressive and robust threat. Somewhere in-between them are Indulgent Aristocrat, which costs mana to use but works as a psuedo-lord, Blood Bairn and Vampire Aristocrat, which are the Vampire versions of Nantuko Husk, a creature with historical precedent in sacrifice decks as a huge threat, and Bloodflow Connoisseur, which permanently grows from sacrificing. That said, the best sacrifice outlet of all for vampires is likely Bloodthrone Vampire, which is more powerful than Viscera Seer in terms of being a win condition, and is more efficient than the three-drop outlets.
Another notable Vampire is Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, which is a strong threat on its own that can grow large with other Vampires powering it, and is also a sacrifice outlet. Meanwhile, Bloodcrazed Paladin could also find a home in sacrifice deck because of its potential to come down as a large threat.
There are also a few Vampires that are generally just strong cards, even without any sort of synergy.
Bloodline Keeper has the potential to take over the game by generating a stream of tokens, and its ability to transform is easy to activate in a dedicated Vampire deck. Gatekeeper of Malakir is attractive as a source of removal combined with a creature, and it will be quite effective against some opponents, but the triple-black necessary to trigger its ability must be taken into account.
Another one with some utility is Vampire Hexmage, which had traditionally been used to destroy planeswalkers, and will find some other uses across the format, like playing decently against Arcbound Ravager.
Vampires also has a large number of aggressive one-drop creatures that hit two for two damage, like Vampire Lacerator and Falkenrath Gorger, and Pulse Tracker and Vicious Conquistador that effectively hit for two. Stromkirk Noble doesn't hit for two initially, but grows larger over time, making it one of the most powerful one-drop Vampires. These creatures work well with lords, so they will form the backbone of the average aggressive Vampire deck.
Vampires has the potential to function as a discard-oriented deck, with cards like Insolent Neonate and other outlets, but there aren't enough quality madness cards or other payoffs to make the plan worthwhile. The best avenues to explore seem to be a sacrifice-centric aristocrats-style deck that borders on combo, and an aggressive deck that takes full advantage of the lord creatures.
The first deck I want to explore is a sacrifice deck. Ironically, it seems the best way to build this version is to ignore Legion Lieutenant, as it doesn't help the sacrifice plan, but the deck does take full advantage of other new Vampires from Rivals of Ixalan.
In this deck, Viscera Seer and Bloodthrone Vampire work as sacrifice engines that provide their own value but create a game-winning combination with Blood Artist and Kalastria Highborn. Fueling the engine are a variety of Vampires that generate value or can be sacrificed for value, highlighted by Elendra, the Dusk Rose. Mutavault helps boost the creature count, and it combines with an Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth to help it produce black mana.
For another approach, here's a deck that looks to take advantage of Vampire Nocturnus, which means the deck must be focused entirely on black creatures. This means it can include all of the lord creatures, which are used to their fullest by supporting them with a curve of aggressive creatures.
At the top of the curve is Champion of Dusk, can generate massive card advantage and fuel the deck into the late-game. With a curve of creatures all the way up to five, meaning the need for 24 mana sources, this particular deck seems like the perfect candidate for Aether Vial, taking a page from Modern's best tribal decks, Merfolk and Humans.
The sideboard shows off some interesting sideboard options available to Vampires. Gifted Aetherborn is a source of life gain that is effective against aggressive decks like burn, as is Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. I'm most excited about Ascendant Evincar, which is a bit slow but is very powerful in this deck as a psuedo-lord creature, and as a hoser against creatures decks vulnerable to its -1/-1 effect.
Another approach to Vampires is to load up on all of the most aggressive one-drop creatures and support them with lords, which takes full advantage of the lords by giving them the maximum number of creatures to pump when they come down. By building the deck to be as aggressive as possible, it may be able to compete against the fastest decks in the metagame.
20 lands should be enough in a deck with such a low curve, but playing so many tribal lands means it doesn't have many good options in the sideboard. One card it can cast is Pithing Needle, which has enough applications across the format that it's worth trying. Vampire Cutthroat is something like a Gifted Aetherborn in that it can gain life, but can be cast on turn one. Asylum Visitor can help the deck refill its hand, which will often be empty given the low curve.
One of the best Vampire cards of all, especially with lords, is Legion's Landing, but it didn't really fit into any of the previous versions of the deck. The one-drop version could be reinvented with a more traditional mana base to support it, so here's an attempt to do that while functioning as a slightly more balanced deck capable of playing into the mid-game, along with a better sideboard.
There are many ways to build a Vampire deck in Modern, and today I shared all of the effective ways to build it that I could imagine. Which one of these decks is your favorite? What does your Modern Vampire deck look like? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I'll answer any questions!