How to be a Great Clan … without Dominate

Greetings Methuselahs!

I was looking through my Clan Breakdown of the TWDA, trying to figure out which clans were the “Great Clans” in terms of tournaments wins, but while doing this, I ran into a problem — what cutoff should be used to separate the most successful clans from the chaff? Ultimately, I settled for figuring out which clans were doing better than average. If you look at the wins racked up by all the major clans (so no Laibon, Caitiff, or Bloodlines) since 2008, the average number of wins per clan is 44.7, so any clan who has won more events is better than average, and makes the cut. Below is the list of these clans, in descending order of wins (from 2008 to present):

I wonder what connects these successful clans?
I wonder what these Great Clans have in common?
  1. Ventrue (90 wins)
  2. Giovanni (89 wins)
  3. Malkavian (75 wins)
  4. Ventrue Antitribu (69 wins)
  5. Toreador (64 wins)
  6. Tremere (60 wins)
  7. Lasombra (56 wins)
  8. Tzimisce (56 wins)
  9. Brujah (48 wins)
  10. Tremere Antitribu (47 wins)
  11. Gangrel (46 wins)
  12. Malkavian Antitribu (46 wins)

When looking at this list, I notice two things almost simultaneously. First — that all the clans with Dominate made it past the cut (well, except the Kiasyds, but they’re a bloodline), and they occupy the very highest positions on the list. Second – that all the Camarilla clans except the Nosferatu made the cut. The Sabbat is represented by two clans without Dominate (Tzimisce, and Malkavian Antitribu), and the Independents have no clans on the list who do not have Dominate. I think that both of these observations make a lot of sense. Dominate is the undisputed offensive and defensive master of bleeding in a game where the default method of ousting is bleeding. And the Camarilla has access to some of the best sect-specific cards in the game.

But I’m not very interested in pontificating on the awesomeness of Dominate (at least not today). What I want to examine today is what makes a clan without Dominate become a “better-than-average” (Great) clan. If we take the above list and discard all the clans who have Dominate as an in-clan discipline, we’re left with these clans:

  1. Malkavian
  2. Toreador
  3. Tzimisce
  4. Brujah
  5. Gangrel
  6. Malkavian Antitribu

And, of course, the big question is: what separates these clans from the below-average clans — how did they rise to the top without the power of Dominate? My first hypothesis for why so many Camarilla clans without Dominate had been elevated to Great Clan status was simply due to the number of crypt cards that these clans possess. More vampires mean more options, and a better chance of being able to bring together an optimized crypt for your deck, and I had assumed that the Camarilla clans possessed the most crypt cards. However, when I actually looked at the number of crypt card available to each clan (summarized in the chart below), I found my assumption was unfounded. While the Camarilla clans have many more crypt cards than their Sabbat counterparts, their crypt selection is roughly comparable to that possessed by the Independent clans (admittedly, having so many vampires in group 2 and so few in group 3 is a bit of a hindrance as it essentially forces group 4 to pair with group 5 rather than having a choice). If the Camarilla really was enjoying an advantage due to their wide crypt selection, this should be an advantage shared with the Independent clans. Since no Independent clan without Dominate made it on the list, I think it is safe to discard the idea that crypt selection is the determining factor for which clans become Great.

Camarilla Sabbat Independent
Brujah 66 Brujah Antitribu 43 Assamite 66
Gangrel 75 Gangrel Antitibu 56 Followers of Set 62
Malkavian 63 Lasombra 46 Giovanni 62
Nosferatu 64 Malkavian Antitribu 43 Ravnos 62
Toreador 66 Nosferatu Antitibu 43
Tremere 68 Toreador Antitribu 43
Ventrue 68 Tremere Antitribu 43
Tzimisce 48
Ventrue Antitribu 43

So if crypt size isn’t the determining factor, what is? To answer that, I’ll have to look at each clan in turn and figure out what allows them to win without the power of Dominate. And now is as good of a time as any to warn you, gentle reader, that this article began with modest aims which have swollen greatly. As a consequence, this article is long, for which I apologize. The other disclaimer that I should offer upfront is that I spend quite a bit of time categorizing winning decks from these Great Clans without Dominate according to how they win, but I have no strict criteria for what makes a winning deck a political deck or a bleed deck, or an intercept combat deck. I examined the deck lists of each deck, and made a judgment call on how that deck would be most likely able to acquire victory points. But this is significantly more difficult to do in some situations than others. How should a deck that needs to tool up with Alastor and Archon political actions, but which then switches to become a rush or intercept combat deck after that be categorized? So when I discuss each deck category, I’ve tried to point out all the variations that are contained within that header, but I want to emphasize that each category includes decks on the fringes that might be better categorized as a different type of deck. If you are willing to accept this rather lengthy list of caveats and addenda, then by all means, proceed!

Clan Malkavian

Who needs dominate?
Who needs dominate?

Ok, this is the oddball clan in the list because in groups 1 and 2, the Malkavians do have Dominate as a clan discipline! In groups 4 and 5 it is replaced by Dementation. Group 3 Malkavian are in an odd situation in that they clearly have Dementation as their clan discipline, but in an effort to allow them to play well with group 2, many of them were given Dominate as an out-of-clan discipline. This means that decks that use group 1 or 2 can be reasonably expected to be using Dominate as an in-clan discipline. If we look at the crypt groups used in winning decks from 2009 to the present (so everything after the release of Keepers of Tradition), 37 decks use groups 1+2 or 2+3, while 34 use groups 3+4 or 4+5. To me, this indicates that the Malkavians are as successful without Dominate and with it. It also means that the Malkavians would be on the borderline of Great Clan status if all of their group 1 and group 2 victories were taken away.

Looking at the remaining 34 wins, they fit into three (very) broad categories. First, there are 4 decks that use vampires like Tryphosa (often as a star vampire) who have superior Dominate in order to include this powerful discipline. Second, there are 15 decks that are Dementation bleed decks. Now these are (usually) not the weenie Dementation decks used by the Malkavian Antitribu — they usually feature mid capacity vampires (6-8), and occasionally even high capacity vampire. They also differ by how defensive or “toolboxy” they are. Some just rely on the pool generated by Kindred Spirits to keep them alive, while others utilize Auspex and sometimes Second Tradition: Domain to provide themselves with more defensive options. But they all share a common ousting method — stealth bleed. Really, the major difference between these decks and the stealth-bleed decks from groups 1+2 is the choice of bleeding discipline. These decks lose the Dominate of old in favor of Dementation.

Is he necessary for Malkavian Politics, or just an excellent addition?
Is he necessary for Malkavian Politics, or just an excellent addition?

The last category (which also contains 15 decks) are politics decks dominated by Lutz von Hohenzollern, the Malkavian Inner Circle Member. These decks either go with a group 3+4 crypt that allows you to include Maris Streck (who tends to fit into more defensive-minded decks), or a group 4+5 crypt that features Unmada. Some of these decks also include the potentially powerful Derange / Malkavian Dementia combination that allows you turn a vampire into a Malkavian, and then take control of them for a turn during your Master Phase. What these decks share in common is that they oust using political actions, and they gain the votes to do so primarily through Lutz, who makes every political action slightly more deadly.

So how do the Malkavians win? Well, the most popular choice is to simply use Dominate. But barring that, their replacement discipline of Dementation is extremely powerful and provides nearly the same bleeding power (they gain some flexibility in who they target in return for a maximum bleed of 4 rather than 6 with dominate). What Dementation is missing is a powerful defensive option like Deflection. Sure, there are cards like Wrong and Crosswise, and these are occasionally utilized, but most decks either rely on bloating to defend themselves, or turn to Auspex. The final strategy is a political one which is dominated by Lutz as the star, and 1-2 other vampires as co-stars.

Clan Toreador

The centerpiece of so many Toreador decks!
The centerpiece of so many Toreador decks!

Ah, the ultimate toolbox clan. The Toreadors have it all — defense through Auspex, combat through celerity (and usually guns), and bleeding through presence. They have enough titled vampires to effectively engage in politics, and they even have access to a tiny bit of stealth in cards like Resist Earth’s Grasp, Perfect Paragon, and Crocodile’s Tongue. Appropriately enough, the most successful deck archetype for the Toreador from 2009 to the present (so everything after the release of Keepers of Tradition), is the AAA toolbox based on the awesomely powerful group 1+2 vampires Anson, Alexandra, and (to a lesser degree) Anneke. These decks usually pack some political actions (particularly Parity Shift), some degree of bleeding (using Presence bleed actions or permanent bleed modifiers like Heart of the City), a defense largely based around Second Tradition: Domain, and a high number of Master Cards which often includes Ashur Tablets. Decks in this archetype mostly distinguish themselves by the mixture of each element included — some are essentially political decks, while others only throw in one or two Parity Shifts for good measure. Notable exceptions include the inclusion of Aching Beauty, which is usually paired with Majesty. This variant essentially turns the deck into a Ventrue Lawfirm deck where the absence of stealth is compensated for by the ability to take multiple actions per minion. Although this deck suffers from the lack of Dominate, it does punish your prey every time they block.

Is this the best political action in the game, or just the most commonly used?
Is this the best political action in the game, or just the most commonly used?

But even these toolbox decks tend to use one strategy as their “primary” path to victory, with one or two “secondary” paths. And I think it is especially important that we identify the primary path if we really want to learn how these decks win and try to emulate their success. Looking over the 30 AAA decks (and 2 mid-cap toolbox decks) from 2009 to the present, I judge that 22 of them are focused on politics, now that isn’t to say that these decks can’t bleed and have no defense, but it is clear that the primary method of ousting for these decks is clearly through political actions. They include cards like Awe and Voter Captivation, and pack a large number of the political actions including Parity Shift, Kine Resources Contested and (in a few cases) Alastor. Indeed, the libraries for these decks very closely resemble the 3 Toreador political decks that don’t feature this typical group 1+2 crypt. That brings our total to 25 political decks.

Of the remaining 10 Toreador toolbox decks, 6 of them are clearly focused on intercept combat, and they join the 22 non-AAA Toreador decks that win using this strategy (for a total of 28 decks). These decks feature a large number of Auspex reaction cards like Eyes of Argus, Eagle’s Sight, and the dual discipline Quicken Sight which allow them to efficiently and reliably block all but the most dedicated stealth decks, which may then find their super-stealthed bleeds being bounced via Telepathic Misdirection. Once these decks block enemy minions, they punish them using equipment — often Sniper Rifles or .44 Magnums, backed up with celerity to provide additional maneuvers (via cards like Flash), additional strikes (via cards like Blur), and Psyche! as a counter to Strike: Combat Ends. This reliance on weapons also means that these decks include Concealed Weapon to save them the (potentially blockable) equip action. Infernal Pursuit is sometimes added as a card cycling machine to ensure that these decks have the right mixture of reaction and combat cards in hand at all times. It is often paired with a large number of Ashur Tablets, and Anson (who provides the additional master phase actions needed to reliably put the Tablets into play).

Anson sure does love these tablets!
Anson sure does love these tablets!

The variations in these decks come in the number of forms including the choice of reaction cards (decks with Princes and Justicars will usually include a significant number of Second Tradition: Domain), how many rush cards like Bum’s Rush, Nose of the Hound, and (occasionally) Fleetness, are included, and how much the deck focuses on bleed (usually through the extremely efficient Aire of Elation action modifier). One enterprising deck uses those few Toreador and Toreador Antitribu who have Protean to gain access to aggravated damage through Claws of the Dead and Wolf Claws, which allowed the deck to include Rötschreck as a trump card against any form of combat. Before I move on, I think it is worth taking a moment to talk about how these Intercept Combat decks win. Although many of these decks include a small number of bleed cards (as mentioned above), that is rarely their main source of pool damage. Instead they take advantage of some of the cards usually used by combat decks, including Fame, Tension in the Ranks, and (less often) Dragonbound. In some ways, these cards work better than in rush combat, since it is relatively easy to either block a rescue attempt (which provides you with an opportunity to put another minion into torpor), or the hunt action taken by the rescued vampire. Both of these scenarios allows for additional pool loss due to the above cards. Finally, these decks can rely on Smiling Jack for pool damage to the entire table.

Beauty
If you’re going to get blocked anyways, might as well make them pay!

Of the last 6 decks, 5 of them are presence bleeding decks, 4 of which are AAA toolbox decks (meaning that they feature varying amounts of politics, combat, and master cards). These decks focus on producing large bleed actions using powerful actions like Legal Manipulations paired with Aire of Elation (for a total bleed of 6!). When these decks encounter resistance, they usually avoid combat using Majesty, and some of them include Aching Beauty so that your prey is damaged whether your action is blocked or not. The final deck was an innovative deck that focused on Vidal Jarbeaux‘s ability to satisfy specific clan or sect requires once per game to bring out powerful (but clan or sect limited) allies like Harzomatuili, Nephandus (Mage), War Ghoul, and others.

So how do the Toreador win? Well, the clear winning strategies here are politics and intercept combat. And one might argue that the best strategy to win is to simply use Anson, Alexandra, and Anneke, but I think that might going a little far. What interests me about the Toreador is that they offer a viable alternative to the typical Bleed or Politics decks. Intercept Combat has proven very effective in their hands, and (as we shall soon see), other clans have been very successful with this strategy, making it unlikely to simply be a property of the Toreador crypt cards and their discipline spread.

Clan Tzimisce

How did I not notice these guys?!
How did I not notice these guys?!

When I wrote my last article about the Tzimisce, I mentioned that I thought most of their victories came from either politics or intercept combat, but when I actually looked through the 56 winning Tzimisce decks, I noticed something odd. I had greatly over-estimated the number of political decks — only 7 actually feature any political actions, and only two decks (including my own contribution to TWDA) make sure of the presence possessed by some of the titled vampires in group 2 and 3. My second surprise came in how much I had underestimated the effectiveness and popularity of ally decks — 14 decks are focused on Tzimisce allies like Asanbonsam Ghoul and the iconic and powerful War Ghoul. These decks usually oust using the same strategy as combat decks: most of the pool loss is caused by cards like Fame, Tension in the Ranks, and Dragonbound, or by bleeds for 1 (or 2 thanks to Changeling!) once your prey’s minions are all knocked into torpor. Since they are ally decks, they are also able to take advantage of The Unmasking, which allows these allies to act defensively if needed.

Breath of the Dragon
One of several viable combat modules.

But by far, the most successful deck strategy for the Tzimisce (with 33 wins) is Intercept Combat. These decks all feature a mix of permanent intercept retainers (from Raven Spy and Revenant), reaction cards (Eagle’s Sight being particularly important so that you can reliably block your prey), and a combat module. Unlike the Toreador Intercept Combat decks, one of the primary differences between these decks is what sort of combat is used. Many decks rely on vicissitude for their combat. These decks take advantage of powerful cards like Horrid Form, Breath of the Dragon, and Chiropteran Marauder to fight enemy minions. Decks that can reliably cause aggravated damage always include Rötschreck, which allows these decks to trump nearly any form of combat. But some decks use the traditional Animalism combat combination of Aid from Bats, and Carrion Crows. They also distinguish themselves through the presence of a rush module (often provided by simply adding Deep Song into a deck), the number of bleed modifiers the deck has, and if the deck tosses in a few War Ghouls for good measure. These decks win in very much the same ways as the Toreador Intercept Combat decks discussed above.

The final two winning decks include a bleed and bruise deck based around vicissitude and Fiendish Tongue, and a trick deck involving Lambach and the promo card Legion.

So how do the Tzimisce win? Well, combat is clearly central to their strategy. But unlike the Brujah, they have the ability to fight as the defender. This allows them to see what their opponent will do during combat before committing their cards, and it allows them to utilize Rötschreck, which trumps all forms of offensive and defensive combat. The disadvantage of this strategy is that you might not be able to punish your prey’s vampires as much as you would like to. Fortunately, they have access to Eagle’s Sight, which ensures that they can fight whomever they need to.

Clan Brujah

Better performance through dominate!
Better performance through dominate!

Ah, the mighty Brujah, king of Bruise and Bleed. While I had initially expected this clan to heavily feature this strategy, I was destined for disappointment. If we only consider winning decks from 2009 to the present (so everything after the release of Keepers of Tradition), there are only 7 combat decks, and only a few of these rely on the Bruise and Bleed strategy (using either the classic Torn Signpost + Immortal Grapple combination, or focusing on celerity combat and guns like the Toreador decks above). The Euro-Brujah archetype accounts for another 11 victories. These decks are based around two group 2 princes — Constanza Vinti and Dónal O’Connor — both of whom have superior Dominate, and while they are toolboxy decks, they make heavy use of Dominate for both offense and defense.

By far, the vast majority of Brujah victories are political in nature — this strategy accounts for 26 of their wins. Some of these decks (10 of them) rely on the very low capacity group 1+2 titled vampires (namely Rake and Volker, the Puppet Prince). Most of these decks feature only low and mid capacity vampires and run Brujah Debate, which turns even the smallest Brujah into a killing machine. The rest of these decks (16 in total) utilize the extremely cost-efficient group 4+5 Brujah titled vampires like Dmitra Ilyanova, Carlak, and Tara. The crypts for these decks is almost always identical, but their paths to victory are more varied. Some are rather traditional political decks, which rely on damaging votes like Kine Resources Contested and Conservative Agitation to oust their prey. Others focus on the Alastor and Archon votes to empower one of their minions, usually with the aim of creating an ultimate combat machine. Since the Brujah have little in the way of stealth, nearly all of these decks include a significant combat module, forcing their prey to either allow their actions to proceed unblocked, or to block and risk losing a minion. Some of these decks also include Carthage Remembered to provide a slightly greater ability to bleed, which potentially opens up multi-acting in a similar way as Ventrue Lawfirm decks.

Turning politics into brawls since 1994!
Turning politics into brawls since 1994!

So how do the Brujah win? They are clearly a political clan — 26 of their winning decks focus on politics, and another 11 of them are Euro-Brujah which feature a significant number of political actions. Only 7 decks of their winning decks can contain no political actions. But what is perhaps most interesting to me about the Brujah is how they use combat. Nearly all of these decks include combat as a significant element in the deck, especially when you compare these decks to more “traditional” presence political decks which mostly only include Majesty or some other form of Strike: Combat Ends. But these Brujah decks rarely use combat as a path to victory. Sure Brujah political decks might throw in a Fame or two, but it’s not usually a significant source of pool damage. These decks instead use their combat as pseudo-stealth. The question a potential blocker asks themselves is not “can I block this action?” but “is stopping this action worth the potential damage to one of my minions?

Clan Gangrel

A card so good that it spawned its own archetype
A card so good that it spawned its own archetype

While the Brujah may dabbled with the powers of dominate, the Gangrel have come to truly depend on them. If we consider all the winning decks since 2009 (so after the release of Keepers of Tradition), nearly half of their wins (19 out of 39 total wins) utilize either Stanislava or Iliana (usually both), and take advantage of their superior Dominate. While these decks usually aren’t just stealth-bleed decks, they feature all the usual Dominate cards — Govern the Unaligned, Deflection, Conditioning, etc. This leaves the Gangrel with only 20 dominate-free wins — certainly not enough to put them into contention for Great Clan status. But let’s look at those remaining 20 decks. 7 of them are ally decks built around the legendary Renegade Garou, 4 of them are wall decks that use Animalism for to generate intercept, and then fight either with Animalism combat, or with protean (agg-poke or more often Earth Meld). 6 decks are fairly traditional combat decks, and the last three are a mix of weenie bleed and Anarch-tech.

So how to Gangrel win? Well, mostly by grafting Dominate onto their clan, but also by taking advantage of the powerful cards offered in their unique discipline of protean, and their clan cards like Renegade Garou, Ecoterrorists, and Backways. Like the Brujah, this combat-oriented clan rarely relies on combat to win, but often supplements other decks with combat. Unlike the Brujah, the Gangrel have access to some fantastic Strike: Combat Ends cards which provides them with the option of using defensive combat rather than the typical Brujah “defense” of smashing your brains out.

Malkavian Antitribu

If the Sabbat is known for one thing...
Who needs other disciplines?!

Finally we arrive at the Malkavian Antitribu. These Sabbat vampires have never had Dominate as an in-clan discipline, so unlike their Camarilla counterparts, all of their victories were made without the aid of that discipline. But when looking at the winning decks from 2008 to the present, there is a depressing lack of different deck types. 41 of their victories fit very neatly into the category of Dementation stealth bleed. The only real difference between these decks is whether they rely solely on Dementation, or if they branch out into Auspex (for a little defense, often in the form of Telepathic Misdirection), and/or into obfuscate (which allows these decks to fine tune their bleed-to-stealth ratio). The next most popular deck type are political decks, but this category features only 4 decks, 2 of which include the dreaded Lutz von Hohenzollern! The final two decks are intercept decks that feature guns.

Clearly the vast majority of Malkavian Antitribu victories can be attributed to their unique discipline. Dementation (as discussed above) gives nearly the same bleeding power that is offered by Dominate, but provides superior stealth options. The only real question is why the Malkavian Antitribu have been so much more dependent on this discipline than their Camarilla brethren. But I’ll leave that analysis to a future article (this one is long enough!).

So how do these clans win?

Strategy: Malk Tor Tzi Bru Gan !Malk Total Per
Intercept Combat 15 28 33 4 2 82 26.2%
Political Actions 20 25 7 26 4 82 26.2%
Bleed w/o DOM 17 5 1 41 64 20.4%
Use Dominate 18 11 19 48 15.3%
Allies 1 14 7 22 7.1%
Combat 7 6 13 4.2%
Other  1 1 2 0.6%

As can be seen in the chart above, politics is the tied for the best way to overcome deficiency imposed by the lack of Dominate. Indeed, politics is utilized by a great number of clans that do have access to Dominate, and it is rightly considered one of the core strategies in the game.

Sharing the top spot is th strategy is what I consider to be the most novel of the strategies employed here. Intercept Combat appears to be the third “main” strategy in VTES (after bleeding and politics), but it is mostly limited to clans with Auspex (although Animalism is a good secondary choice) and a combat discipline like Celerity, Protean, or Vicissitude. While a few of these decks rely on combat packages that do little damage to the blocked vampire (perhaps most notably Earth Meld – which untaps the vampire, setting them up to block the next action), the majority of these decks feature combat packages designed to severely punish blocked vampires.

Third on the list is bleeding without the advantage of Dominate. This is perhaps the most limited strategy because it requires access to a discipline with nearly the same level of bleeding power that Dominate possesses. Dementation is the only really viable alternative because of its access to stealth and the pool gain from Kindred Spirits. Some are able to make presence bleed decks work, but most of those decks are actually AAA toolbox decks that simply focus on bleed actions. Weenie presence has had some success, but those decks feature vampires from a number of clans and so don’t appear in the list above.

The fourth most successful strategy is to simply graft Dominate onto your clan through careful crypt selection. Those top four decks make up 88.1% of the victories discussed in this article. The last two real categories are allies and combat. In many ways, these strategies are actually quite similar because the ally decks (War Ghouls and Renegade Garou) are really just combat decks with allies doing the fighting instead of vampires. One of the interesting implications here is the relative success of defensive combat (26.2%) and offensive combat (7.1+ 4.2 = 11.3%), which suggests that the sort of “proactive defense” employed by rush decks is simply not as effective as blocking.

So, in summary, if you are a clan that doesn’t have dominate, but you want to be able to reliably win tournaments, you have a few tried-and-true options available to you:

  • Use Political Actions and have the titles or vote push necessary to pass them.
  • Have a reliable way of blocking and punishing your predator and prey’s minions.
  • If you have access to Dementation, then use it like you would use Dominate.
  • Graft Dominate onto your deck using crypt cards that have it as an out-of-clan discipline.
  • Utilize a niche-strategy and hope to get lucky.  (Hey, it happens!)

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the Great Clans and how they got there. My apologies for the length of the article, but if you made it this far, please feel free to post a comment about the strategies that I identified, if you think I’ve overlooked a successful strategy, or if you have a clever idea about how to employ these strategies in the clans in the bottom 50%.

Until next time, may your bleeds never be bounced, all your referendums pass, and your Fames never be contested.

Brett


This is a repost of an article that I originally wrote for VTES ONE.  The original posting can be found here.

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