The Beauty and Bygone Times of Bloodthirst

Posted in Top Decks on August 4, 2011

By Mike Flores

A query for the term "bloodthirst" on Gatherer will yield twenty-three Magic: The Gathering cards. Of these, one of them is Bloodthirsty Ogre, which is not what we are looking for at all.

Of the twenty-two actual bloodthirst cards, eleven come from the set Guildpact, one is a common mechanics-borrower from Future Sight, and the other ten are now-Standard-legal creatures from Magic 2012.

Today we will start with the ones that have come before (primarily Guildpact) for a discussion of the bloodthirst that was, and then come back around to talk about Magic 2012 and the bloodthirst that may yet be.

    The Guildpact Cadre

One Mana
Skarrgan Pit-Skulk

Two Mana
Scab-Clan Mauler

Three Mana

Four Mana
Burning-Tree Bloodscale

Five Mana
Ghor-Clan Savage

Six Mana
Skarrgan Firebird

Seven Mana
Battering Wurm
Petrified Wood-Kin
Skarrgan Skybreaker

Bloodthirst is at its best when it makes for an undercosted threat. Consider Battering Wurm or Skarrgan Skybreaker. These sevens will yield a 5/4 or a 6/6, respectively, if the opponent has already been dealt damage. The barrier for a seven-mana creature to see play in competitive Constructed is steep enough... but unless you are offering something very significant in terms of special abilities, even a 6/6 for seven mana is not typically a good enough deal for Standard.

Consider the opposite case:

Of all the bloodthirst cards printed in Guildpact, only Scab-Clan Mauler saw really widespread, serious, and successful play. But speaking of successful... It couldn't really have done any better than its debut Pro Tour.

Mark Herberholz's Heezy Street

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The crown jewel of the bloodthirst empire is obviously Scab-Clan Mauler. Herberholz elected to look past the white of Zoo (Watchwolf, Lightning Helix, and so on) in order to play a super-streamlined Gruul beatdown deck with a more consistent mana base.

Mark, the rare deck designer capable of producing both perfect control and beatdown designs, ran a low curve including not just Kird Ape, but Frenzied Goblin and Scorched Rusalka at one mana. Having so many one-drops gave Mark a very good chance of hitting the opponent on the second turn, which would typically allow him to play the Scab-Clan Mauler at full size.

No one wants to play an otherwise unspectacular 1/1 for two mana, but a 3/3 trampler for two mana? Now you're talking!

At the time there were relatively few decks that could play a comparable creature (Watchwolf, Hand of Honor, Hand of Cruelty, or the trump in Burning-Tree Shaman a turn later). Therefore—and especially against opponents whose second turn thing was either a 1/2 combat non-presence or (God forbid) a Howling Mine—it was game on for the bloodthirsty!

This is bloodthirst at its best: fast, bigger than the competition at the time it is cast, and economical. That is the difference between the Cadillac (Scab-Clan Mauler) and cards that don't make the bloodthirst Constructed lineup, like Ghor-Clan Savage. If our Ramp;D overlords just gave us a straight 5/6 for five mana... I mean, no one is even going to play that in Constructed deck (Baneslayer Angel is barely seeing play with a wildly better resume). At the time, Rumbling Slum—a 5/5 for four mana—was a non-universal inclusion in these colors. If you have to actually set up bloodthirst to get the 5/6-ness (rather than the fundamental 2/3-ness) you end up in a place that is possibly difficult (you have to get a hit in at a point where the opponent can have already set up some defense), or worse, you need to use mana and/or spells to get the size.

How bad is it when you have to use, say, a Shock to set up a five-drop bloodthirst beater? Not only are you now in six mana range (you had to use a mana for the Shock in order to avoid the smaller retail size), but you blow a card as well!

It is interesting to contrast the successful Scab-Clan Mauler with the theoretically playable but ultimately never played Skarrgan Pit-Skulk. This is a case where costing one mana is actually a detriment relative to costing two mana. Scab-Clan Mauler sits at the perfect spot; you set it up with an aggressive one-drop (ideally Kird Ape, which was more or less just going to get in on turn two in Standard), and it becomes a 3/3 for you on turn two. Great! But poor Skarrgan Pit-Skulk... When are you going to play this guy?

A 2/2 for one mana... is probably good enough, especially with evasion. The problem here is that there is no good opportunity. A deck like Heezy Street is already full up with one-mana beaters whose job it is to set up our bloodthirst two. Where are you going to fit the Pit-Skulk, and when is a good time to cast it? It's just really an odd case of a kind of card that gets worse by being cheaper; maybe the only one.

Scab-Clan Mauler | Art by Liam Sharp

So what did we learn from Scab-Clan Mauler?

Bloodthirst is at its Constructed best—at its only, really—when we can use it to leverage a mana-cost discount. We need to pay a reasonable price but get something bountiful in return.

    Lamenting the Lancer

I hope you don't mind if we mostly gloss over Bogardan Lancer. At bloodthirst 1 (but with flanking), Bogardan Lancer would have been comparable to Fallen Askari (which was a Constructed staple in its day); however Bogardan Lancer had some serious competition at the time from Blood Knight and Keldon Marauders at the two—a pair, unambiguously, of the best red two-drops of all time. Sorry, Lancer!

    Four-Point Discussion of Bloodthirst in Magic 2012

Two Mana

Whether it is cracking with a Nomadic Elf in draft or setting up a Scab-Clan Mauler to win a Standard Pro Tour (as we discussed above), two-mana creatures are more or less the backbone of competitive Magic play.

For our discussion of two-mana bloodthirst beaters, we have to look at these cards in the context of bloodthirst as a potential source of discounted size, particularly in aggressive strategies. After all, you need to hit them first!

Duskhunter Bat

This creature is actually pretty interesting; I wouldn't be completely surprised to see it played in Constructed at some point. Black—and even red (a favorite allied splash)—has no shortage of aggressive one-drop creatures that are difficult to stop (Vampire Lacerator, Goblin Guide, etc.)

What's great about Duskhunter Bat?
If you set up bloodthirst, Duskhunter Bat is basically a black Leonin Skyhunter. Leonin Skyhunter is a pretty good card; however, it was never a 100% include in decks that might want to play it. So basically you are talking about a somewhat-more-difficult-to-get Leonin Skyhunter, if you accomplish the bloodthirst. Not too bad, but not a slam dunk.

What gives me pause about Duskhunter Bat?
"Not too bad" is hardly the foundation upon which legendary two-drops are built. A 1/1 flying Duskhunter Bat is officially "not too bad," but remember that we are competing against Primeval Titans finding Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and third-turn Deceiver Exarch / Splinter Twin kills powered by Birds of Paradise in Standard.

Rating: Constructed Playable (fringe)
(This is my new rating that is just above "Constructed Unplayable.")

Stormblood Berserker

Stormblood Berserker is basically the second coming of Heezy Street. Now that Mark is once again producing the decks of big tournament champions—he made the Puresteel Paladin deck that David Sharfman and Pat Cox played at Pro Tour Nagoya—maybe we are going to see a further resurgence of this great designer. I mean, with Stormblood Berserker we have an even easier to play variation on Scab-Clan Mauler.

Stormblood Berserker | Art by Min Yum

What's great about Stormblood Berserker?
Stormblood Berserker is only one color. Red already has great one mana tools to set up the bloodthirst (Goblin Guide, Grim Lavamancer, Spikeshot Elder, and others). We don't need to dip into green for our undercosted aggression... but if we want to go old school, no problems.

What gives me pause about Stormblood Berserker?
There is a lot of competition! Red is at a high point in terms of Standard tools right now—everything from Shrine of Burning Rage to a burn suite of Lightning Bolt, Searing Blaze, and Goblin Grenade—so it's not a question of whether Stormblood Berserker is good, but whether it's good enough to get past the other options in this currently deep color.

Rating: Role Player (high)

Three Mana

Blood Ogre

Our low end is "better than a Gray Ogre" and our upper end is 3/3 first strike for three mana.

What's great about Blood Ogre?
There was a time when a 3/3 creature for three mana with no other bells and whistles received from Zvi Mowshowitz the same Constructed set rating as Umezawa's Jitte (in the same set)... and would go on to break a Constructed format. The incentive on this creature is vastly better given the first strike...

What gives me pause about Blood Ogre?
...but a 2/2 for three is not good enough for Constructed.

Rating: Constructed Unplayable

Bloodrage Vampire

In Guildpact, bloodthirst was very much a red and green ability. It has spread to black in Magic 2012, and aesthetically speaking, seems to be very much in-line with that set's vampires (bloodthirst obviously fits very nicely with, you know, the fangs).

What's great about Bloodrage Vampire?
The extra point of power gives us a potential 4-power creature for three mana; if we weren't considering anything else, that might be attractive. Consider Leatherback Baloth.

What gives me pause about Bloodrage Vampire?
Even fully powered by bloodthirst, Bloodrage Vampire only has 2 toughness; that is a liability primarily because it gives the opponent increasing opportunities to put one over on us. It's one thing for Blood Ogre (which we did not consider 60-cards playable) to come out a 3/3 first strike... but a fully powered Bloodrage Vampire can end up trading with unenhanced one-drops in combat. Not cool, man.

Rating: Constructed Unplayable

Lurking Crocodile

What's great about Lurking Crocodile?
I like the aesthetics on this card. It's hiding... in the water. It's hiding, but when there is blood in the water (you turn on bloodthirst) it really comes out to play, vicious-like.

What gives me pause about Lurking Crocodile?
Creatures are at a point where this just isn't competitive. A 3/3 for three mana is low end for Constructed options in green, and we have to work extra to even get the 3/3 body.

Rating: Constructed Unplayable

Four Mana

Traditionally, four mana is the cutoff. Look at the bone-crushing fours that have defined Standard the past couple of years: Bloodbraid Elf, Day of Judgment, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. So the question we ask ourselves at this cost is "How do these stack up against the best cards in the format"?

Because at four, that's the competition.

Gorehorn Minotaurs

With bloodthirst active, this is a 5/5 for four mana (i.e. about good enough for Herberholz's sideboard in the age of Lightning Helix).

What's great about Gorehorn Minotaurs?
There was a time when players would voluntarily discard a card for a red 5/5 for four mana. Creatures of that size, at four mana—especially in red, the color with generally the least impressive creatures—are highly prized.

What gives me pause about Gorehorn Minotaurs?
If you don't have bloodthirst online, you are talking about basically a Hill Giant (wildly not good enough for Constructed). In any case, in order to get the 5/5, if the opponent has some defense, you are often going to miss the true advantage of bloodthirst. Like if you Lightning Bolt the opponent to set it up, haven't you kind of discarded a card? Even worse, aren't we now in "five mana for 5/5" range?

Rating: Constructed Playable (fringe, possibly sideboard)

Vampire Outcasts

The Bloodthirst / vampires aesthetic gets even better with the lifelink on the fangs of this one.

What's great about Vampire Outcasts?
A 4/4 lifelink in black is a very not-inconsiderable threat. There are numerous scenarios you can imagine where this card is comparable to or better than a Loxodon Hierarch.

What gives me pause about Vampire Outcasts?
Really, it's a question of consistency. Not just card consistency... Without Bloodthirst, this is a 2/2 lifelink at a mana cost with, as we covered, a whole lot of stiff competition. It's also a question of strategy consistency. In Limited (the intended battlefield for Vampire Outcasts) you typically have a world of creature combat defined by skillful attacks and blocking. In Constructed, to set this up you need to set up some beatings that get through... and then it becomes a question of when you would want to have a 4/4 lifelink.

Rating: Constructed Unplayable

Five Mana

Bloodlord of Vaasgoth

Here is the big one, the mythic rare Vampire!

What's great about Bloodlord of Vaasgoth?
Bloodlord of Vaasgoth is unbelievable when it is going, and no one is getting in its way. A huge 6/6 flyer for five mana—we are talking "better than Titan" curve combined with the ability to power up all subsequent Vampires. A 6/6 flyer is hard to block, so any further Vampires are probably going to get big. All great.

What gives me pause about Bloodlord of Vaasgoth?
That said, there is little precedent for this card. The previous Vampire Lord, Vampire Nocturnus, was an Overrun. You slammed it down for four mana, and hopefully hit for a ton. Bloodlord of Vaasgoth has a wide rift of one mana between it and the previous Cadillac of Vampire Lords, even if its best self is better.

Rating: Constructed Playable (Role Player)

Seven Mana

Seven-mana creatures have to be pretty special to see play. Simic Sky Swallower is about as "bad" as they can be and see play, so that is the bar.

Carnage Wurm

What's great about Carnage Wurm?
A 9/9 with trample is big.

What gives me pause about Carnage Wurm?
Even at 9/9 trample, we are talking about a card that probably does less for green than Avenger of Zendikar.

Rating: Constructed Unplayable

Furyborn Hellkite


What's great about Furyborn Hellkite?
A 12/12 with flying is just absurdly huge. If you are setting up bloodthirst, it is fairly likely this will kill in one strike.

What gives me pause about Furyborn Hellkite?
Seven mana is still a heck of a barrier, especially in red.

Rating: Constructed Playable

Given the sometimes-playability of Shivan Dragon, I can't really say that Furyborn Hellkite for just one more mana—with so much more impact—is completely out of the question. Given the direction some of the things we see already are going (Urabrask the Hidden in Valakut), there is a not-inconsiderable possibility of this doing something, somewhere.

Furyborn Hellkite | Art by Brad Rigney

Well, that is just about everything I can think of about bloodthirst.

I am going to spend the weekend reading about my favorite tournament of the year (US Nationals) here on; unfortunately, I won't be attending this year. Fortunately... there are some pretty awesome guys doing awesome coverage here on!

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