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Budget Commander: Olivia, Mobilized for War ($30)


Welcome back to Budget Commander! One request that I've put off for a long time is to do a Tribal Vampire primer. I've made attempts in the past, but none of my first drafts ever met my personal standards at the usual price range of ~$50. I recently got inspired to take another crack at these pesky bloodsuckers with some different strategies and lo and behold, it clicked! I've been having a blast playtesting Tribal Vampires on Magic Online now, and hopefully I can sell you on the deck and its commander, Olivia, Mobilized for War:

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What Vampires Do (Besides That)

Vampires are a popular tribe that have been popping up throughout Magic's history and will continue to appear in the sets to come. The tribe shows up most prominently in the Zendikar and Innistrad settings, both of which introduced some recurring mechanics for the tribe that dictate how Vampire decks play and are built. So, what are Vampires about and why should you play them? Individual Vampires can do a ton of different things, but there are two main themes that encompass the tribe as a whole:

  1. +1/+1 counters. The longest running theme that Vampires have is growing bigger by adding +1/+1 counters. At first they'd get +1/+1 counters if they fed on other creatures (e.g. Sengir Vampire), but more recently they get +1/+1 counters for dealing combat damage to opponents (e.g. Rakish Heir). This encourages an aggressive strategy where you swing in with your Vampires to grow them into deadlier threats.
  2. Madness. Most recently in the Shadows over Innistrad block, a lot of Vampires got printed with the madness mechanic (e.g. Bloodhall Priest). These Vampires encourage a discard theme, where you run cards that often discard as a downside/payment and turn that into a huge upside.

If you're sticking with the most prominent mechanics, Vampires naturally build towards an aggressive deck that keeps up consistent pressure with creatures that steadily grow bigger after every combat step. They benefit from a discard subtheme which not only helps your deck but can also disrupt your opponent's plans as well. You can also build Vampires as a slower, more controlling deck that works just as well as an aggressive discard version, but it will be much harder to pull off effectively on a tight budget. Vampires show up in all the non-Green colors but focus specifically on Black, so no matter how you build, you'll always be in a color known for excellent creature removal, card draw, tutors, reanimation, and life drain.

If you're looking for a budget tribe that is aggressive, consistent, and has a unique discard theme, then Vampires might be the tribe for you! 

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Which Olivia?

My two favorite options for the leader of a Tribal Vampires deck both happen to be Olivia: Olivia Voldaren and Olivia, Mobilized for War. Both offer a lot of power to the tribe but in very different ways, and the choice of which Olivia is the best commander for your deck depends on what style of Vampire deck you're looking to play.

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Olivia Voldaren has long been the favorite choice leading Tribal Vampire decks, and for good reason: she can take over the entire game if left unchecked. OG Olivia is an incredibly versatile mana sink, able to kill off smaller creatures, steal the best creatures, and grow large enough that she can even kill people with commander damage. She shines (sparkles?) brightest late game, when hand sizes are dwindling and your opponents are running low on options to get rid of her. You just need a healthy amount of mana and she'll nom-nom the board into submission all by herself.

OG Olivia's biggest downside is her lack of usefulness early/midgame because she requires a ton of mana to get things done and your opponents are more likely to kill her before you get any real value out of her abilities.

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Olivia, Mobilized for War was met with lukewarm reviews when she was first spoiled in Shadows over Innistrad. People thought the newest Vampire commander was a letdown (though thankfully not as disappointing as Ulrich of the Krallenhorde). People still gloss over the new Olivia, which is a shame, because she plays a lot better than she looks.

New Olivia does everything a Vampire deck wants to do: she adds +1/+1 counters to your creatures, gives them haste so they can immediately deal combat damage and get more triggers (e.g. Markov Blademaster), and serves as a repeatable discard outlet for your madness cards (e.g. Stromkirk Occultist). Best of all, she's only 3 cmc and her triggered ability costs no mana! Compare that to Olivia Voldaren, who is spending at least 2 mana to bite a creature, or 7 mana to bite + steal a creature. This makes Olivia, Mobilized for War highly mana efficient and a powerful support card in the early, mid, or late game, while Olivia Voldaren only really shines late.

Olivia, Mobilized for War's upside is also her main downside: if you're not playing with madness cards, then discarding cards sucks. So if you're not playing with a discard theme, avoid new Olivia.


Which To Choose?

Choose Olivia Voldaren if ...

  • You want to play a slower, more controlling version of Vampires
  • Your deck can generate tons of mana to sink into her ability
  • Your playgroup either doesn't run a ton of removal or you have consistent ways of protecting her from removal (e.g. Lightning Greaves)

Choose Olivia, Mobilized for War if ...

  • You want to play a faster, more aggressive version of Vampires
  • Your deck runs madness cards

There's no wrong answer here. As the title of this article suggests, I'm going to show you how to build around Olivia, Mobilized for War, because I want to include a discard/madness subtheme.


Discard and Madness

What drew me into Tribal Vampires in the first place was the themes of discard and madness that was recently added to the tribe in Shadows over Innistrad block. I feel like these unique themes are what really set Vampires apart from the other tribes. Turning the downside/payment of discarding cards into a strict upside works way better in practice than you think it would, and it surprised me at just how amazing plays like casting Cathartic Reunion to draw cards while also casting Stromkirk Occultist with madness ended up being. The madness mechanic feels great to pull off and leads to some fancy trickery that your opponents won't expect!

Another upside to focusing on the discard/madness side of Vampires is that it's absolutely the cheapest way to build a competent Tribal Vampire deck. The tribe is a casual favorite, so the general goodstuff Vampire lords like Captivating Vampire have inflated prices and quickly add up. On the other hand, the discard/madness cards are super cheap, which is great news for your wallet!

Madness Cards

Madness is a super sweet and fun mechanic that always seems to perform better than I thought it would. As a general rule of thumb, I found that for madness cards, the cheaper the madness cost the more appealing the card. You're often paying mana to discard cards, so paying the madness cost is in addition to whatever else you pay. Stick to madness costs between 1-3. That way you can play a Markov Blademaster, give it +1/+1 and haste with Olivia, Mobilized for War, discarding/casting Dark Withering for 4 mana total. Cards like From Under the Floorboards only get value late game when you have a ton of mana.

Pretty much every Vampire with madness is a worthy candidate for this deck. The best one by far is Falkenrath Gorger, because it gives all our Vampires madness, but even the blander looking cards like Incorrigible Youths end up doing serious work in the deck. They look dorky, and they kinda are, but value is value!

For the non-Vampire madness cards, you can never go wrong with Dark Withering, which I was always happy to see in my hand. Gibbering Descent is also a sweet bit of tech, offering you a controlled and free discard outlet for your madness cards while also disrupting your opponents. Even Fiery Temper, which is just a Lightning Bolt in Commander, still kills off random utility creatures like Oracle of Mul Daya as free value.

Here's a list of suggested madness cards for the deck. They're all super cheap to pick up with every card under $2:

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Discard Outlets

The best discard outlets for your madness cards are ones that are cheap, controlled, and repeatable. Cheap because you still need mana available to cast your madness cards, controlled because you only want to discard your madness cards not just random ones, and repeatable so you can use it as your madness engine.

Olivia, Mobilized for War is one of the best discard outlets in the deck for reasons already mentioned. The next best is certainly Call the Bloodline, which lets you play your madness cards at instant speed and is one of the very few ways you can generate Vampire tokens. We also have a few other Vampires that can act as discard outlets. My favorites of the ones available are Insolent Neonate and Heir of Falkenrath. They don't look like much, but they are cheap evasive Vampires, and most importantly they can discard for free and at instant speed.

Do you love drawing cards? Of course you do! You're going to love looting cards like Cathartic Reunion and Faithless Looting because madness cards break the symmetry of looting and turn them into super efficient card advantage. Mask of Memory is one of my favorite undervalued sources of card draw in creature-heavy decks, and it gets even better with madness cards! There's also Key to the City, which doubles both as a looter and a way to give your Vampires evasion.

Finally, we have a bunch of global discard cards that can act as madness enablers for us while also disrupting our opponents. Cards like Gibbering Descent and Creeping Dread are convenient outlets to play our madness cards while also thinning out our opponent's hands. Adding a pinch of these in the deck is great, but if you really like this style of play you can build your entire deck around mass discard cards like these and profiting further with Geth's Grimoire, Megrim, etc.

Here's a quick list of solid discard outlets for the deck. Everything is super cheap under $2 per card:

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The Other Vamps (<$3)

Now that we've covered the discard/madness theme, let's talk about the rest of the tribe. Vampires dabble in a bunch of stuff, but as apex predators in Black they do one thing particularly well: killing stuff! You've got quick and dirty murderin' with Gatekeeper of Malakir, or slow n' steady stabbin' with Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief. Creature removal is great, and since it's built into the tribe it means we can focus the non-Vampire slots on other stuff.

Here's a quick list of tribal cards under $3 that I'd recommend filling out your list with:

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Everything Else (<$3)

Now that we've covered the core of the deck, it's time to fill out the rest of it with the usual suspects: lands / ramp / removal / card advantage / tutors / recursion. Most of them are generic goodstuff cards in Rakdos colors, but there are a couple niche cards I'd like to highlight:

  • Geier Reach Sanitarium and Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace are sweet utility lands that can be madness enablers later in the game
  • Night Dealings is a super expensive tutor requiring a whopping 8 mana before you tutor your first card, but it is a repeatable source of tutoring and in playtesting it's actually quite sweet in an aggressive deck like this!
  • Shred Memory is an amazing tutor: it can fetch Call the Bloodline, Mask of Memory, and Key to the City among other cards, or be used to disrupt an opponent's graveyard at instant speed. A definite all-star in the deck!
  • Phyrexian Reclamation is great in any creature-heavy deck, but it's especially good with madness creatures
  • Retribution of the Ancients is one of the few +1/+1 counter support cards that you'll find outside of Green / Blue / White and is a great source of repeatable removal

Here's a list of cards under $3 you can use to fill out the rest of the deck. It's far from an exhaustive list but should be a good starting point:

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Budget Olivia ($30)

Here's the first list. I set myself a hard cap of $30 to make it as affordable as possible while still offering up cool things to do.

The starting point of pretty much every Commander deck I built is setting aside slots for 38 lands, 10 ramp, 6 spot removal, 3 board wipes, 10 card advantage (mostly card draw), 2 recursion, 1 graveyard removal, 2 flexible tutors. This deck has a couple tweaks from that. Because the deck has a more aggressive curve and functions best around 6-7 mana, I went down to 7 ramp cards. Because I'm running so many looters and want to discard madness cards, I cut down to 37 lands. The deck plays out its hand a bit faster than normal so I went with 11 sources of card draw, including some repeatable sources (i.e. Mask of Memory).

How It Plays

Aggressive. Consistent. You cycle through a lot of your deck, looting and casting madness cards. You keep dropping down 3/3's and 4/4's that grow bigger and bigger until they get taken out. Because you're drawing so many cards, you can quickly rebuild your board even after numerous wipes. Later on in the game you have big mana sinks like Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief and Dark Impostor to repeatedly remove your opponent's threats and take over the game if left unanswered. You have a lot of ways to deal with creatures, a few ways to deal with artifacts, and only one way to deal with problem enchantments. For politics, it's best to leverage your aggressive deck to strong-arm your opponents, "Do this for me or else I'm going to hurt you!"

I think the biggest weakness of the deck is that it's very fair. You win with moderately-sized creatures in a predictable manner. Sure, you can catch an opponent off-guard with some hasty beats or flashing in creatures right before your turn, but for the most part your opponents can assess how close you are to killing them. If you are doing well, your opponents will have ample warnings to deal with you. The deck doesn't really have the capability to hang back looking innocent and then win out of nowhere. We can add some more surprising finishers to the deck but it will require an increased budget.


Upgrades and Fiddly Bits

Vampires are a casual favorite just like Dragons / Angels / Planeswalkers so you'll need to fork over a bit more cash to get some of the classic tribal Vampire support cards, but they're worth it. Here's a quick list of Vampire-specific goodies you can work towards upgrading your deck with:

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My next suggestion isn't a Vampire, but the lil' guy deserves an honorary spot: Squee, Goblin Nabob can be a tireless workhorse in the deck, getting discarded over and over again for value. Speaking of discard: Liliana of the Veil does quite well here too, since the discard is beneficial for you, and you'll have the creatures to protect her.

Alright, two more suggestions before I go into the generic goodstuff upgrades. First up is Sorin Markov. I mentioned that my first list is very fair, because it can't really win out of nowhere. Sorin fixes that by dropping your opponent to 10 out of nowhere, within easy reach of a lethal combat step. Some people will consider Sorin a jerk move, but he is a Vampire so I think it's fair game. The next card is Insurrection, which often wins the game by itself if the board state permits.

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Finally, here's a list of more generic upgrades to give your deck some more oomph:

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More Lists!

I always get people asking me for more lists between my first budget one and the "blinged" version worth thousands of dollars. So this time I'll give you four lists: $30, $50, $100, and blinged. That should slake your thirst for bloody decks!

Here's my list upgraded to $50:

And here we go with $100:

Finally, here's the blinged out version with no budget:

Same strategy and core as the $30, just with better cards. We now have powerful finishers with Sorin Markov and powerful anthems such as Vampire Nocturnus. We have more tutors and better ones with classics such as Gamble and Demonic Tutor to get the cards we need when we need them. We can deal with the entire board, enchantments and all, with Oblivion Stone when we need to. We also pick up explosive recursion in Yawgmoth's Will and Patriarch's Bidding.

Is it the most competitive deck you can make for $700? Absolutely not. This is a casual Tribal Vampire deck first a foremost; the extra cash helps it run smoother and do its schtick better.


That's All, Folks!

This article is much longer and more in-depth than usual. That can be good or bad. Let me know what you think about this new structure!

We're going back to polling you guys for what the next Budget Commander should be. These options were collected from Twitter, and if you want to suggest an option for next article's poll please leave a comment here on this article or tweet me @BudgetCommander. Our options for the next article are:

  • Prossh, Skyraider of Kher is known to be a scary commander that oozes value. He runs Tokens and Sacrifice themes, plus game-ending combos like Food Chain.
  • Doran, the Siege Tower makes a solid defense into your best offense. He can lead high-toughness creatures into battle and sometimes leads Tribal Treefolk.
  • Hazezon Tamar is all about Blinking stuff for value. The card itself is very expensive so the budget will have to be higher than usual, but it's still a sweet card.
  • Volrath the Fallen is a unique Voltron deck that discards weird high-cmc cards like Draco for lethal commander attacks. If that fails, you can always use your tremendous mana-generators to hardcast the big threats instead!

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