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The Week That Was: Ripping Across the Multiverse

April 12, 2024
Corbin Hosler

It started with a whisper.

Weeks of preparation led to this moment. Every competitor in the Pro Tour put years of effort into qualifying for this event. They battled thousands of hours of gameplay to give themselves the best opportunity possible when the lights go on and the decks are shuffled. They faced down every match-up they could think of, and experimented with every avenue they could find so nothing was missed.

The goal was simple: no surprises.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

And when that shock inevitably comes, it hits the tournament like a tidal wave. It begins with a few shared whispers, as huddled Pro Tour teams convene to compare notes and ask each other if they should really be concerned about that deck, the one that they never even noticed in all those thousands of hours of testing. Could it really be that good?

Most of the time, the answer is no—it's really difficult to discover something in Magic that no one else has, and even more difficult for that discovery to translate into a tournament-viable deck, much less a good one. But in the incredibly rare circumstances where that all comes together to produce not just a good but a great tournament deck? That's the stuff of Pro Tour legend.

Elves in Berlin. Eldrazi at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. CawBlade at Pro Tour Paris in 2011. Kethis, the Hidden Hand in the hands of the Czech House. When it happens, it's an historic occasion.

The draw of Magic events comes down to telling a story, and even the "bad" times like, say, Eldrazi Winter, are fondly remembered in the context of Magic history. It feels special to be on the ground when a breakout deck takes the Magic world by storm, especially when it turns out to be more than just a one-event success.

Three months into 2024, it was clear: we're living through another of these rare moments.


"I had absolutely no idea about it. I believe enough players played the deck for it to show up in the published metagame, and people were making fun of the deck on Twitter," Adam Edelson recalled of the lead-up to Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, where he would go on to make the Top 8. "I remember looking at the decklist myself and being undecided; I was a little skeptical."

Coming off the Draft rounds and preparing for Round 4 and the start of Pioneer Constructed in Chicago, almost everyone was a little skeptical of the surprise Vampires deck that Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl dreamt up and the ChannelFireball team sleeved up for the Pro Tour—including the soon-to-be Pro Tour winner.

"We did a meeting once we all had a chance to look at Murders at Karlov Manor, and Vein Ripper wasn't in anyone's top-ten list of cards," Seth Manfield remembered. "But once we added the red cards, we thought we had something. And if you have something innovative, you don't want it to get out, so we were keeping the deck out of Magic Online leagues. It's nerve-wracking because you're just only relying on the games your teammates are getting in."

While CFB was in the lab, the rest of us were busy laying down a bunch of plans that would of course soon go awry. The conventional wisdom was that the hallmark of Pioneer heading into the event was consistency: the top decks were the top decks, and we all knew what to expect. We even had a series of coverage meetings to that effect—there was a lot going on under the hood in Pioneer but no breakout candidates in the offing.

The boxer Mike Tyson once famously said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." In Magic, everyone has a plan until the Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord drops Vein Ripper into play on the third turn while you're staring at just two lands on your side of the battlefield and a crippling ward cost on the Vampire.

Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord 646668

"The first time I played against it, I thought I was well positioned, and even after losing in three, I thought I had an edge overall, but I wasn't nearly as sure as I had been," Pro Tour regular Dan Kristoff explained. "And I was even less sure after getting smoked the second time."

At that point, the whispers had long since turned to shouts, the internet ablaze with news of CFB doing it again. The defining story of the Pro Tour was underway. Riley Knight interviewed the players winning with the deck, and competitors who dropped early started to search for their own Bloodtithe Harvesters for the next day's events. There were deck techs, sideboard breakdowns, and complex hypotheticals being mathed out by thousands of viewers across the globe.

On the floor, players still in the tournament had access to almost none of that. Not only were they still coming off the rigors of Pro Tour draft pods, but there were also no guarantees that their last round would end in time to get a data dump about the Vampires everyone was talking about. A round or two watching the Pro Tour online can feel like a full day; amid the maelstrom, it can pass by in what feels like minutes.

"The first I had heard about the Vampires deck was from Frank Karsten's meta breakdown, and all I knew was that eleven people were trying to cheat Vein Rippers into play," Adam Brace recalled. "I figured doing so came at some cost, but without seeing the list, I didn't really know what to expect. I think almost everyone in the room had kind of written it off as a joke and were even memeing on it.

"It wasn't until Round 6 against Tommy Ashton that I finally got a look at the list. I kept a hand that would be great against a regular Rakdos draw, but it really showed the strength of the Vampires deck. He did have a Thoughtseize like regular Rakdos, but then he put a 6/5 flyer into play on turn three and flung a 1/1 Dusk Legion Zealot on turn four to leave me without a board and basically end the game on the spot. Through that match, I quickly learned where the power of the Vampires deck really lies."

About that power. Ever seen the Legacy staple Show and Tell?

"I think 'Sorin Tell' is a much better deck name. The deck is trying to cheat Vein Ripper into play to have a higher ceiling. There isn't a lot to do when you don't have the proper cards to answer Sorin-Vein Ripper," reflected Brian Boss, who had the unfortunate draw of running into both Luis Scott-Vargas and Reid Duke playing the deck at the Pro Tour.

And match-ups were only the start. The Pro Tour took place over three grueling days of the most intense Magic played. It's a mental game in more ways than just assigning attackers and blockers or counting damage.

"The unknown is scary," Sanctum of All team member Marcy Franta admitted. "We had prepped for a while, assuming we knew roughly what decks and cards to build in mind of, and getting that thrown on its head even in a small way was scary! Especially when it involved a card as menacing as Vein Ripper."

From meme to menacing, Rakdos Vampires would go on to post a dominant win rate at its debut event, place multiple members into the Top 8, and help send Manfield to a second Pro Tour trophy.

But that's not where this story ends. You see, it turns out that Sorin-Vein Ripper Vampires is not just a one-tournament deck. In fact, it's not a one-format deck. Like its counterpart Izzet Phoenix, Rakdos Vampires has gone as not only a staple of Pioneer but of Magic since that captivating weekend in Chicago.

Because when the dust settled on Pioneer, it settled with Sorin on top. When I played in the MTGO Masters this week, I played against Sorin-Vein Ripper in Modern alongside Smallpox. I've seen Vein Ripper come into play off Indomitable Creativity. Like Phoenix, the deck adds a few incremental improvements in each format, shores up its tough sideboard match-ups, and soon enough, becomes one of the few decks to beat.

And when it came time for the 32 qualified players for Arena Championship 5 to select their decks in Explorer? You guessed it, almost half of them chose Vampires. This is no flash in the pan.

In the span of just six weeks, Vein Ripper clawed its way through Magic. And with the Standard-format Pro Tour Thunder Junction just a few weeks away, there's another format that Vein Ripper might yet take over.

"It's really cool to find something doing incredibly powerful things while knowing that people might not respect the deck," explained Brace, fresh off a Top 8 appearance at the Regional Championship in Atlanta. "After making the Top 8 with Amalia Combo, the breakout deck of that tournament, I gained a lot of respect for trying to find the 'broken' deck for a tournament. It provides a huge advantage at the tournament if you get to do something very few others are doing."

The Road to Magic World Championship 30

One thing that no one else was doing in card games back in 1997? Broadcasting their gameplay on ESPN.

Except Magic, that is.

Frank Karsten and I are counting down the weeks to Magic World Championship 30 later this year by highlighting each of our 29 World Championships past. The winner of the event 27 years ago was Czech Magic enthusiast Jakub Slemr, but arguably more memorable from that World Championship was that it wasn't just about who won—it was about everyone who watched them win it on a cable channel in the comfort of their home.

This was the first time Magic appeared on ESPN, as you may have famously heard mentioned. Long before YouTube and Twitch livestreamed esports, the worldwide leader in all sports telecasting broadcasted Pro Tour Magic and described the game in official releases as "the intellectual sport of the '90s."

The trend wouldn't last long, but we're marking it down in the history books. We take a lot of things for granted now that we're not at all clear when the Pro Tour first made it to the airwaves, starting with the fact that millions of people across the world want to watch high-level Magic. From backpack streams to Pro Tour productions, there's a lot we owe back to that original ESPN experiment.

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