Welcome to First Look! This is a repeating column every quarterly release (similar to the M-Files) where Play Design will share decklists and their thought processes from the Future Future League focus period of the most recent set. The FFL focus period is the three months during set design where we handle most of the competitive balance tweaks to the card file.
Today, I'll be going in depth in how we got to the printed versions of Knight of the Ebon Legion and Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord, and going through our attempts to make Vampires a fun and competitive deck.
Eighth-Set Standard Perils
Core Set 2020 being the eighth set introduced into the Standard environment provides some interesting challenges for us. The more cards in the environment, generally the higher the power level and more opportunities for combos and synergies. It's tough to make generically powerful cards in the eighth set, as for them to hit Standard they must beat out a lot of competition. This makes it harder for the set after it to add fun and strong cards as the environment shrinks because of rotation. Competing for deck slots in a five-set environment is very different than in an eight-set environment.
One strategy we use to get around this is make cards that synergize with the cards from previous years. One of the most successful examples of this was the Blue-Red Thopters deck from Magic Origins. Magic Origins introduced cards such as Chief of the Foundry, Pia and Kiran Nalaar, and Whirler Rogue to combine with Ornithopter, Ensoul Artifact, and Springleaf Drum. Blue-Red Thopters was an explosive deck that took the metagame by storm on release but fluctuated up and down in popularity once players figured out how to adapt to it. (My testing team for Pro Tour Magic Origins had the Blue-Red Thopters deck, but I still played Blue-Black Control . . . many regrets.)
Vamping Up the Vampires
With that in mind, we set out with the goal of making Vampires a fun and exciting deck for Standard. Given the set space in M20, we had two card slots to work with to accomplish that goal. The final cards that we ended up on were Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord and Knight of the Ebon Legion.
One of the first things we did was look at the existing pool of Vampire cards and identify holes or problems with their baseline strategy. The two problems we felt most necessary to address were that too much power was locked up in high converted mana cost creatures and that there weren't any powerful mana sinks. Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord allows the top of the curve to get into play ahead of schedule, and Knight of the Ebon Legion is a meaningful mana sink for the later game.
The Beginnings of the Knight of the Ebon Legion
The initial goal for this design was to be an aggressively slanted card that specifically synergized with Adanto Vanguard. Our first design started out at this:
Creature — Vampire Knight
At the beginning of your end step, if a player lost 4 or more life this turn, put a +1/+1 counter on each creature you control.
After some playtesting, we found that even though it accomplished the above stated goals, it was too snowball-y on the play and should be changed. As a three-drop, it was also pushing out cards we wanted to play such as Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle and Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord. With those findings in mind, we tried this next:
Creature — Vampire Knight
2B: Knight of the Ebon Legion gets +3/+3 and gains menace until end of turn.
At the beginning of your end step, if a player lost 4 or more life this turn, put a +1/+1 counter on Knight of the Ebon Legion and you gain 2 life.
Playtesting of this version yielded more positive results. We enjoyed the interaction with Adanto Vanguard being more toned down and loved the addition of a mana sink in the deck. In the environment, we were finding that Goblin Chainwhirler was too brutal against the deck and menace wasn't the right keyword on an instant-speed activation. With that in mind, we added a point of toughness, changed menace to deathtouch, then took off the life gain as a balance compensation. Then after playing with those changes, we were happy to give it our final Play Design stamp of approval.
Starting on Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord
Sorin was a tough one, it took us a lot of iterations and number tweaking to end up at his final set of abilities. It was nearly like pulling fangs . . . anyways. Here's the first version we tried:
+2: Up to one target creature you control gains deathtouch and lifelink until end of turn. If it's a Vampire, put a +1/+1 counter on it.
-2: You may put a Vampire creature card from your hand onto the battlefield.
-7: You get an emblem with "Whenever you gain life, each opponent loses that much life."
We learned a lot from testing this version of Sorin. We enjoyed the play pattern on the plus ability making combat interesting and the -2 getting expensive Vampires into play. The main problem with this design was that once you chose an ability, you were likely locked into using the same ability again. -2ing would make Champion of Dusk draw into more Sorins and Vampires, which would encourage a -2 on the next turn and then playing a new Sorin. Once the +2 ability was used, building to the ultimate was too often more powerful than using the -2. Those play-pattern issues also made the card feel and play less like a planeswalker. With those findings in mind, we changed the design to three mana and looked for a different ability other than an ultimate. That got us to this:
+1: Up to one target creature you control gains deathtouch and lifelink until end of turn. If it's a Vampire, put a +1/+1 counter on it.
-3: You may put a Vampire creature card from your hand onto the battlefield.
When looking for a new ability, we asked ourselves "What angle can we give Vampires that Mono-White Aggro doesn't have?" Mono-White Aggro's weakness is generally closing when the opponent has stabilized the board. We opted for something that could close out the game if the opponent was at a low enough life total, and ended up with Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord's second plus ability, "+1: You may sacrifice a Vampire. When you do, Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord deals 3 damage to any target and you gain 3 life."
I wanted to write about all the iterations that it took to get the Vampires deck to a fun and competitive level. But that goal conflicts with the original goal of this article which is to post decklists that we built during the making of M20. To compensate, here are my favorite decks that fall more into the "brew" category.
I'll be back once Throne of Eldraine rolls around to share some of my favorite Future Future League decks from the ELD FFL focus period. In the meantime, I'll be at most West Coast (best coast) Magic events. Come say hi!