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Budget Commander: $20 Vampiric Bloodlust Upgrade

Welcome back to Budget Commander, where we finally complete the Commander 2017 precon upgrade series that was started months ago. We're on to the final deck: Vampiric Bloodlust, the aptly named Vampire tribal deck.

Of the four precons, Vampiric Bloodlust is the most aggressive list, looking to establish a strong board presence and deal significant damage (or win outright) before the other decks can really get going. This is very much a go-wide style of Vampires looking to flood the board with small creatures until you reach a critical mass and then swing for lethal. The main commander of the precon, Edgar Markov, perfectly represents the archetype by pumping out free (!) vampire tokens, which he then beefs up for serious beats. The deck is fast and brutally efficient, able to take a decisive lead over the others within a couple of turns if you have a decent draw and are mostly left alone. 

You might like the deck if...

  • You want to play an aggro deck that comes out of the gates swinging
  • You want a deck that focuses on a go-wide / tokens strategy, flooding the board with creatures and killing through combat
  • You like Mardu (W/B/R) colors, granting you access to the best removal, graveyard recursion, tutors, and card draw
  • You want to play one of the most popular tribes in Magic, with a huge, ever-expanding card pool to build from

You might NOT like the deck if...

  • You want to play a control / combo or durdly deck
  • You'd prefer avoiding the combat step, if possible
  • You want to play an aggro deck but want to focus on going tall instead of going wide
  • You want a deck that you can upgrade / optimize whose best cards aren't super expensive (some of the best Vampire cards are pricey!)

If you like where this deck is going, then great! Let's check out the preconstructed list:

Vampiric Bloodlust is first and foremost an aggressive go-wide precon: with Edgar Markov at the helm, all the Vampires you cast come with a free 1/1 Vampire token. While it's not the most aggressive curve—the average CMC is still a fairly high 3.71—it still manages to build a faster board state than the opposition, allowing you to dominate early combat and possibly snowball from there. Your board state of small creatures will quickly grow out of control once you start beefing them up with Vampire lords like Rakish Heir, Stromkirk Captain, and Edgar Markov himself.

The precon also has a TON of cards that gain you life: Vampires like Malakir Bloodwitch and Sangromancer can shoot your life total up, but that's just the tip of the iceberg, as so many spells and even some of your lands grant you various amounts of life. Unfortunately, there's only one good lifegain payoff card included—Well of Lost Dreams—but the deck provides a good base to build a lifegain deck from. Even without any lifegain payoff cards, however, the obscene amount of lifegain helps the deck survive retaliation from the enemies you'll inevitably make while being the aggressor at the table.

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Go Wide

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Edgar Markov is the strongest Vampire tribal commanders ever printed. While sitting untargetable in the command zone, Edgar provides you with free 1/1 Vampire tokens each time you cast a Vampire. Then, once you have a decent army and enough mana, you can cast him to buff your forces and lay the smackdown. Your opponents have very few turns to come up with an answer to your ever-growing army before they will be overwhelmed by your bloodthirsty vamps.

Edgar Markov's text explains exactly how a deck under him wants to be built. It's very straightforward:

  1. Cast Vampires.
  2. Buff your Vampires.
  3. Swing for lethal.

That's it, really! So a deck under Edgar must have lots of Vampires to get those sweet tokens and then ways to buff up your small vamps so they can deal lethal damage. That sums up the deck's entire game plan. Cards like Stromkirk Captain, Rakish Heir, and Patron of the Vein buff our army while bringing an extra 1/1 Vampire thanks to Edgar. We can take things further with additions like Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle and Drana, Liberator of Malakir or super game-ending anthems like Cathars' Crusade and Coat of Arms.

Of course, there are weaknesses to this plan, the biggest being board wipes, the bane of all Token decks: Wrath of God can stop you cold. Eating multiple board wipes can make it very difficult to achieve victory. Because of this, we need ways to protect ourselves from our opponent's answers: the precon runs Teferi's Protection, which is my favorite card in the entire set and is a fantastic way to protect our army from a wipe. There are also other cards that can protect our army, like Eldrazi Monument, Rootborn Defenses, and Boros Charm.

It also helps to have one or two "reach" cards to help close out the game. Even if we're set back by board wipes, as long as we've done enough damage with our creatures, we can close out the game with an Exsanguinate or similar.

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Lifegain + Group Pain

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Vampiric Bloodlust has a strong lifegain theme, despite not running any payoff cards outside of Well of Lost Dreams and Licia, Sanguine Tribune. However, the precon provides many excellent lifegain cards, and with just a bit of tweaking, you can turn it from a Vampire tribal deck led by Edgar Markov into a lifegain deck led by Licia, Sanguine Tribune!

As the commander of a lifegain deck, Licia, Sanguine Tribune is solid: gaining tons of life is trivial in a lifegain deck thanks to cards like Sangromancer and Consuming Vapors, often letting you cast Licia for a mere three mana, even after she's died a few times and accumulated some commander tax. That means you'll often have a 4/4 first strike, lifelink creature on the battlefield—a nice, reliable source of lifegain for cards like Angelic Accord and Well of Lost Dreams while also knocking down your opponents' life totals. You can also dump excess life to beef her up a bit, keeping her relevant in combat and even threatening kills with commander damage.

I think the biggest strike against Licia as your lifegain commander is that we already have so many terrific options for that slot. Looking to go Voltron lifegain? Karlov of the Ghost Council can't be beat and even comes with amazing repeatable removal! Going for a more controlling lifegain deck? Vona, Butcher of Magan or Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim are better at controlling the board. And of course, Oloro, Ageless Ascetic is the king of lifegain durdle, gaining life passively from the command zone and giving you access to blue for extra durdly options.

So, why pick Licia, Sanguine Tribune? Two reasons: first, she's a very reliable commander, since she'll remain cheap to cast even if she's been killed a few times. The biggest reason, however, is that she gives you access to red, something the other lifegain commanders do not offer.

Red doesn't offer a ton of good Lifegain cards—yes, I know Searing Meditation and Brightflame exist, but I said good cards. What red is very good at doing, however, is dishing out damage, and lots of it! As long as you don't mind taking a bit of damage as well, a ton of red cards can dish out obscene amounts of a damage for very little mana investment—cards like Spellshock, Manabarbs, Earthquake, Zo-Zu the Punisher, and on and on. Increase the damage with cards like Dictate of the Twin Gods or even better, drop down Gisela, Blade of Goldnight to double your opponent's pain while mitigating your own!

So imagine this: lifegain with group pain. Gain a bunch more life than your opponents thanks to the usual lifegain cards, then burn out your opponents with giant Earthquakes while staying alive due to your higher life total. Could be fun, right? Lifegain pain control...stuff. Could be sweet!

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Group Hug / Politics

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Mathas, Fiend Seeker is an excellent addition to politics / group hug decks as part of the 99 or as the commander. He encourages your opponents to kill creatures you place a bounty on by dangling card draw and lifegain in front of them. In that way, he's a great help at "dethroning" the archenemy at the table, by giving you and your temporary "allies" extra cards to deal with the biggest threat at the table.

Another neat thing about Mathas is he makes single-target removal spells stronger, turning your Snuff Out from a one-for-one removal into a two-for-one thanks to the card you draw off of killing a bounty. The cutest card of all is the aptly named Bounty Hunter, which can repeatedly snipe any creature Mathas puts a bounty on (but only bounties placed by Mathas himself will draw cards), a terrific synergy that turns an otherwise unknown jank card into legit removal in a Mathas deck.

Personally, Mathas is the commander that I'm the least interested to build around, but if / when I do play with him, it'll be as part of the 99 of a Queen Marchesa politics deck: pillow fort (Ghostly Prison), run all my favorite offerings (Volcanic Offering) and tempting offers (Tempt with Immortality), and go from there.

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Earlier this year, I wrote an article about a very different style of Vampire tribal deck: a madness deck led by Olivia, Mobilized for War utilizing the madness Vampires printed in Shadows over Innistrad block. While there are not a lot of good madness cards to work with, the deck ended up being incredibly fun and surprisingly powerful for its meager $30 budget. Unfortunately for madness lovers, it's unlikely we'll see the mechanic return any time soon, let alone see new Vampires with madness. If there ever were a good spot to print more of them, it'd have been in Commander 2017, but alas, there are none here.

Ultimately, Edgar Markov is the stronger Vampire tribal commander, both in terms of raw power of the commander himself and the vastly larger / superior card pool to work with, but if you want a different (and cheaper!) approach to Vampire tribal, then check out my Olivia article!

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What Is the Deck Lacking?

As I often explain in my Budget Commander articles, every time I build a rough draft of a deck, I make sure I have certain ratios of mana, interaction, card advantage, etc. This gives me a reference point to compare to the deck and see which areas may need improvement. My general ratio is:

  • 50 mana: lands and ramp, usually a 38–12 split
  • 10 sources of "card advantage;" I use this term loosely but am mostly looking for card draw or any spell that nets me 2+ non-land cards in hand / directly into play
  • 6 single target removal, split between creature / artifact / enchantment removal
  • 3 board wipes
  • 2 recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors
  • 1 graveyard hate
  • 1 surprise "I Win" card

That's always my starting point, which is then tweaked to suit the individual deck's strategy and further tweaked with playtesting. I always find it immensely useful to figure out some quick ways to improve the deck in question. Let's see what the rough ratios are for Vampiric Bloodlust and how it compares:

Vampiric Bloodlust has a ton of ways to remove opposing creatures that could get in the way of your army. It also boasts a surprising amount of card advantage, keeping your hand full of gas even if your board gets blown up. The deck is certainly lacking in some departments, however: there's not enough mana sources here for your average deck, which would be fine if this were a very aggressive deck with a low average CMC, but since the deck is half aggro / half lifegain with an average CMC of 3.71 and has quite a few expensive / mana-hungry cards (Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief, Dark Impostor), 43 mana sources is just not enough for the precon and certainly not enough to cast all of the cards this deck can draw into.

There's also a complete lack of tutors in the deck. The precon doesn't run a lot of "essential" cards to find each game like a combo deck would, but just a few flexible tutors can be a great help to find your single anti-graveyard card (Bojuka Bog) when you're up against a graveyard deck, or a board wipe, card draw, or whatever else when you need it. I would highly suggest running at least two flexible tutors like Diabolic Tutor. I also have a pet card in go-wide decks: Night Dealings; yes, it costs eight mana to tutor up your first card, and you need to deal damage before you can even use it, and it can be destroyed before you get any value out of it, but despite all the warning signs, it's performed fairly well for me!

Finally, the deck can use a bit more recursion. Bloodline Necromancer is great and all, but tossing in Phyrexian Reclamation would help a ton.

No matter which direction you take Vampiric Bloodlust, I would recommend either increasing the amount of mana in the deck or lowering its average CMC, removing some of the targeted removal / replacing some creature removal with enchantment / artifact removal, adding a couple of tutors, and adding a couple of recursion cards.

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$20 Budget Edgar Markov Go-Wide Upgrades

As we discussed earlier, Edgar Markov is all about casting Vampires and going wide with the tokens he produces. We want to add cards that help us go wide, buff our army, and protect our board. We also want a bit more ramp, recursion, and tutors. With that in mind, here are some recommended cards under $5 that fit our goal:

Prefer seeing the card suggestions in a big ol' deck-list format? Don't worry, I got you:

Alright, we've got some cards to add, so let's make room for them! Here are the first cards I'd look to cut:

We're focusing on the go-wide aspect of Edgar Markov, which means the lifegain theme gets cut. There's also the usual selection of bad cards—Curse of Vitality, Kabira Crossroads, Skeletal Vampire, and so on—that would be cut regardless of which theme we go with. While we do want at least two board wipes in the deck, Fell the Mighty is too inconsistent for what I'd like here. I also mentioned the importance of protecting our board from wipes, but Kindred Boon requires way too much mana to protect our go-wide strategy.

With some room cleared, here's a $20 sample of cards that will significantly boost the power of the deck:

As I laid out during the precon analysis, Vampiric Bloodlust could benefit tremendously from a couple of tutors, so in went Night Dealings and Diabolic Tutor. For a bit more recursion, we've got Bishop of Rebirth and Phyrexian Reclamation. The precon was low on mana to support its 3.71 average CMC, so I lowered the average CMC a little with the swaps and added three more ramp with Fellwar Stone, Dowsing Dagger, and Curse of Opulence; I was shocked that the curse was left out of this precon when it's the perfect fit! I chose Starstorm for the deck's second board wipe because of its instant speed and cycling option (and it's so cheap!), but it can just as easily be Kindred Dominance, Mizzium Mortars, or anything else.

The most expensive card added was Drana, Liberator of Malakir—an excellent Vampire that supports the go-wide strategy. She's small enough to be brought back by Bishop of Rebirth and benefits greatly from haste, which Olivia's Bloodsworn can provide. She's not the absolute best Vampire go-wide lord, which would be Bloodline Keeper, but she's half the price, which allowed me to fit more useful cards in the sampler.

Here's Vampiric Bloodlust with the swaps made:

Keep in mind that this is just an example of what you can do with $20. You have the deck analysis earlier in the article showing how much mana / card draw / tutors / yadayada are in the deck and a ton of suggestions to work with, so try different cards, ratios, and archetypes! Figure out which cards work well in your playgroup and which cards you like playing! As Ms. Frizzle says, "take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"


Edgar Markov Go-Wide Expensive Upgrades

So, you want to make the strongest Vampire Tribal deck possible. Greatness, at any cost—the cost being lots of cash, of course. I can offer some suggestions to get there.

The most important card for the archetype that's over $5 is definitely Bloodline Keeper. This card is perfect for Edgar Markov, as it both produces Vampires and easily flips in this deck.

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Outside of Bloodline Keeper, there aren't a lot of specifically Vampire Tribal Go-Wide cards to pick up. Olivia Voldaren is a sweet pickup and works well with your Vampire Tribal synergies. There's also Vampire Nocturnus, an absolutely bonkers Vampire lord, but it requires a lot of support to work; I'd recommend at least 15+ black creatures in your deck and as much topdeck manipulation as possible—Scroll Rack, Sensei's Divining Top, and tons of fetch lands to shuffle your library.

The rest of the upgrades are just generally good cards: better lands, ramp, tutors, removal, and so on. Here's a quick dump of cards over $5 that will make the deck function better:

Since a lot of you guys ask for a higher sample budget list, I'll do one at $100. First, removals:

Let's add some more good stuff. Most of the budget goes into upgrading the lands, plus Bloodline Keeper, Olivia Voldaren, Legion's Landing—all good stuff:

Voila, Vampiric Bloodlust upgraded with $100:

There you go: a nice, streamlined Vampire tribal go-wide deck! While not the most competitive deck ever built, it should pack a punch at your average Commander playgroup.

If you reeeeally want to push Vampire Tribal to be as competitive as the archetype can possibly be, there's always the boogeyman that is mass land destruction: cards like Armageddon and Cataclysm work really well with Teferi's Protection, just saying! If you go that route, I'd recommend cutting out pretty much any card with a CMC higher than four, add more mana rocks, and toss in ~6 MLD cards. The idea is to drop a couple cheap threats on the board and then destroy your opponent's lands so they'll never be able to stabilize.


That's All, Folks!

Phew! That's all the Commander 2017 preconstructed decks analyzed and upgraded. I was going to show how to build and upgrade Vampiric Bloodlust into a lifegain + group pain deck under Licia, Sanguine Tribune, but this article has been going on long enough, so I'll leave that for another time. I hope this article helped show you how to upgrade Vampiric Bloodlust but more importantly showed the general process to analyzing and upgrading any Commander deck. Often, people ask me which card should be removed to add XYZ card, but what you should be really asking is what the deck is lacking; go over your list, categorize each card by its function in the deck (ramp, removal, etc.), and see what you have too much / too little of, and you'll know exactly what you should cut / add. Then, playtest your list and re-evaluate. That's the best way to do it!

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