Blogs and podcasts for other games feature a lot of card reviews and evaluations. As each set comes out, the blogs and forums become abuzz with people debating the merits and flaws of the new cards. Power, flavor, strategy, and so much more gets talked about. For VTES, this is obviously more difficult – card sets come out only rarely (a little less than once per year), and our community is small enough that a new set generates only a small amount of conversation. As an example, I can count the number of set reviews published for any given VEKN set on a single hand. Yet, as a blog writer, I’d like to engage in more card evaluation. Perhaps what I should do is start a series of articles on individual cards and possible uses for them, but today I’ve decided to step back in time to 2013 and the release of Danse Macabre. It was the first VEKN set released, and it was designed to shore up the weakest sect in the game: the Sabbat.
Now, I have a very odd love/hate relationship with the Sabbat. I am baffled by them in the RPG. They really just make no sense to me – it’s a sect that flagrantly breaks the Masquerade, but nobody knows about them (remember, monsters are a secret). They rule with an iron fist and create armies of newly raised vampires who know nothing about their supernatural condition (shovelheads) to lay siege to cities, but humanity has no knowledge of them. I guess they have legions of Lasombra with level 3 Dominate following their armies and making everybody forget their presence. It’s clear that the entire sect was conceived of as “the bad guys” and flavor/beliefs were ascribed to them much later. So in that sense, I really dislike the Sabbat. But in the card game, I love them. Why? Because they are the underdogs. Not a single one of the Antitribu clans are able to match their Camarilla counterparts. Five out of five of the worst performing clans (if we ignore Bloodlines and Laibon for a moment) are Sabbat. Most of the Sabbat clans that manage to rack up any number of wins are being held up by their mastery of Dominate, the only two exceptions being the Malkavian Antitribu (turns out Dementation is a pretty good replacement discipline) and the Tzimisce, who were the subject of a previous detailed article.
You need only look at the number of crypt cards available to the Sabbat clans to see that they are at a disadvantage. They have three full crypt groups (although I’d hesitate to call group 4 “full”), and 1 group that is so small that it’s a wonder it ever gets played (group 5 currently has 3-4 vampires from each clan). Compare this to the give full groups that the Camarilla boasts, and the four very full groups + 1 significant group that the Independent clans possess. There are more Independent vampires in group 6 than there are Sabbat in group 5! Underdogs, indeed. And frankly, the Sabbat never has had a mechanical center or theme in the game (other than being the underdogs). This is likely due to the fact that the game was designed as a Camarilla game, but the Sabbat has never managed to feel different. It’s pretty hard to tell the difference between a Brujah and a Brujah Antitribu.
The point is, I’m drawn to underdogs, and the Sabbat certainly qualifies. For this reason (and likely this reason alone), the Sabbat are my favorite sect in the card game. So when the first VEKN set was announced as being the next Sabbat set, I was pretty excited. Danse Macabre was the first time cards for the Sabbat had been released since the Sword of Caine expansion hit the shelves in March 2007. The question is how good are the cards? To what degree did they help make the Sabbat competitive, and did they provide a mechanical center or theme for the sect? Well, I’d like to answer those questions today with a Danse Macabre review three years in the making. Now, I’d like to go through the crypt cards, but the problem is that so much of the analysis for a crypt card relies on what else you could pair it with in the same group. But since group 5 (which all the Danse Macabre vampires belong to) has 3-4 vampires in it, it’s extremely difficult to review them, so sadly I’m going to skip them for now. Maybe someday I’ll swing back to cover the crypt cards (and to rant about how much I hate the fact that the Assamites rule the Black Hand, get a seat on the Inner Circle, and become the most powerful Independent clan… seriously White Wolf?).
Now I’m going to rate these cards on a somewhat unusual scale. Since I have access to a lot of information about how these cards have impacted the game, I will rate cards on a 1-5 scale with 1 reserved for cards that have actively made the game worse (perhaps by supporting already very powerful archetypes), cards that have had little to no impact on the game will get a 3, and cards that open up new strategies or help define flavor in a useful and novel way will get a 5. Got all that? Well then, let’s look at some cards!
This is a clear variation of Carrion Crows, a card that some credit with single-handedly reinvigorating and defining Animalism combat. But does Dark Steel match up to it’s inspiration? Well, it requires two disciplines instead of one and only deals damage at close range (which means that the opponent will almost certainly be able to hit you back for at least 1 damage), but it does provide a free maneuver to hopefully help the card function. Of course one key difference is that Carrion Crows provided Animalism with something it was previously lacking: a means of doing consistent damage. But Potence has never had a hard time dealing massive amounts of damage. I honestly expect that Potence combat would be more excited by the maneuver to close than the extra damage. It’s kind of surprising to me that this is only the second Potence card that provides a maneuver back to close range (the first being Slam). One potential use for this is to turn the traditional long-chain Potence combat (where many cards are played during a single combat) into a short-chain package similar to Animalism combat. By playing Immortal Grapple and Dark Steel you get a maneuver, a press, you force the opponent to use hand strikes, and you inflict 6 damage (3 each round). Of course you are also getting punched for at least 2 damage… so maybe that isn’t the best use for the card.
If we look at the decks that have won tournaments since the beginning of 2014 (Danse Macabre was released mid 2013), clan Lasombra has racked up 17 wins, of which only 1 has used Dark Steel. So why isn’t the card more popular? Well, the first reason is that I’m not convinced it’s a very good card, but the second reason is that it doesn’t have much crypt support. In my experience, combat decks want to keep their vampires relatively low capacity. If they are going to take a 7 or 8 capacity vampire, it had better have a good combat special (preferably a built-in rush action). But the youngest vampire with OBT POT is 6 capacity (1 in group 2, another in group 4). There’s a few more vampires at capacity 7 and 8 that qualify, but none have a good combat special. This means that your deck is going to need to heavily feature capacity 7+ vampires, which is non-ideal. I think this card has potential, and while it might someday help change the game, it isn’t currently doing that, meaning that it gets a 3/5 for me.
I really like action cards that let you untap afterwards – it’s a great way to include minor effects in the game, and I’d be in favor of seeing many more of these cards printed. Their only problem is cards like Perfectionist that can potentially trigger off any (or every) action you take. Esprit de Corps also wins bonus points by having defensive as well as offensive capabilities. The ability to cancel an action requiring Dementation, Dominate, or Presence can potentially shield you from a nasty bleed action, or could be used to protect your allies from being stolen. My only complaint is that the card does nothing to stop the Brujah and Brujah Antitribu (the two clans who will most often use this card) from being the table’s “bleed sink,” by which I mean the only deck at the table without bleed bounce. It can be painful to watch a large, stealthy bleed getting bounced from deck to deck until it lands at your doorstep, especially when you have no answer to it. I would have liked to see this card cancel bounce cards that redirect bleeds to you, although it would have to be worded very carefully to prevent it from canceling bounce cards used by your prey as defense.
Anyway, this card is clearly designed for the Bruise & Bleed archetype, but how well has it performed? Well, it’s been featured in 2 decks in the TWDA since 2014 – one Brujah and one Brujah Antitribu deck. That seems to indicate that the card hasn’t done all that much to help either clan. That having been said, it does seem to be a strong card that I imagine would really help to push that archetype. Given its potential, I’m willing to give the card a 3.5/5. Maybe some day we’ll see great things from it.
Inside Dirt is a really fascinating card because it interacts with a component of the game that has been around since the beginning, but which is rarely utilized. It’s incredibly how few cards in VTES actually interact with the edge. The fact that many of these cards are so bad that they don’t ever see play (Sabbat Threat, anybody?) just makes edge manipulation appear even more rare than it actually is. Anyway, this card is perhaps most analogous to Enticement – both are actions that require you to burn the edge to deal pool damage to your prey. Inside Dirt is (I think) the clearly superior card – it doesn’t require a discipline, can be used to burn blood off vampires, and it doesn’t prevent your minions from bleeding after it’s used. My guess is that it’s designed to work well with all the mid-cap Nosferatu Antitribu who have Obfuscate and Fortitude, meaning that a since vampire can bleed to get the edge, and then burn it to fuel Inside Dirt. Well, after playing this exactly deck for a while, I can say that the deck faces a major uphill battle in that it requires a lot of cards in a very specific order: stealth to get the bleed through (or Night Moves), Freak Drive, Inside Dirt, and then more stealth to get the Inside Dirt through. And assuming that all that goes off without a hitch, how much pool have you burned? 3, maybe 4… boy I’m excited now.
Inside Dirt appears in exactly zero tournament winning decks. That’s not actually all that surprising since zero is also the number of Nosferatu Antitribu decks that have won tournaments since 2014. I don’t mean to be overly negative, because I think this is an interesting card, I just don’t think it’s a powerful card. And given that this was the card that the designers gave to the Nosferatu Antitribu to help them out, an interesting but weak card just won’t cut it. So is the game actively worse because this card is legal? No, but it is disappointing that this was the best that could be offered to the weakest major clan in the game. I can’t give it more than a 2.5/5.
This card is clearly trying to help the poor Gangrel Antitribu who have been cursed with two bizzarly different discipline sets: Animalism, Fortitude, and Protean (which they share with their Camarilla brethren), and Celerity, Obfuscate, and Protean (which they partially share with the Assamites, I guess?). This discipline split has caused major problems for the clan, and I’m honestly surprised that the City Gangrel were even included in the game. But since they were, it seems logical and reasonable to try to help them out, and a card that requires both Celerity and Protean seems like a good way to do that. The card itself is quite powerful: it provides free stealth at inferior (something that neither Celerity nor Protean get at inferior), and a free Freak Drive at superior (an effect that both Celerity and Protean kind of have in significantly weaker forms). Seems to be just the thing to help a badly underpowered clan, right?
It’s been featured in 13 decks in the TWDA since 2014, which on the surface makes it seem like it’s doing it’s job of helping it’s clan. But the Gangrel Antitribu have only won 4 tournaments since 2014, so what’s going on here? Well, if we look at those 13 TWDA decks, we find that 4 of them are traditional Stanislava decks, and 6 are standard The Unnamed star decks. In fact only 1 of those 13 decks in the TWDA is actually a Gangrel Antitribu deck! This card has done very little to help the intended clan and has significantly helped already dominant archetypes. It’s an example of why it’s dangerous to make such overpowered crypt cards – you can’t really make good Protean cards for fear that it will make Stanislava even more powerful. I give this card a 1/5: it has failed to serve the clan it was printed to help while providing a very powerful and flexible tool to decks that didn’t need to become any more powerful.
Well you already know how much I like actions that untap you. And if you’ve read some of my previous articles, you know that I think weak clans stay weak because of a lack of good defensive options. Since this card is clearly trying to provide a viable defensive option to the Gangrel Antitribu, I’m already inclined to like it. My only real question is whether the card is good enough: +2 intercept is pretty handy, but the restriction of allowing it only to be used for directed actions is pretty limiting. Then again, it’s always possible to make a card better, it’s just not always advisable. So while I remain skeptical about the power level, I’ll refrain from making suggestions. Looking at the tournament winning decks from 2014 to the present, 3 of them have featured this card. That might not seem impressive until I also mention that 3/4 of the winning Gangrel Antitribu decks during that time period included this card (this includes the 2 Gangrel Antitribu decks that have won in 2016 as of the publication of this article).
But the real question is whether this card has made the Gangrel Antitribu more viable. Well, there was a single winning Gangrel Antitribu deck in 2014, and another in 2015. That’s 2 events out of 317, meaning that the clan represented 0.63% of the winning decks. Looking at the events between 2008 and 2013, 17 events were won by Gangrel Antitribu decks out of 1404 events, meaning that they represented 1.21% of the wins. So there really isn’t any reason to suspect that it’s helped the Gangrel Antitribu in any meaningful way. Given that, I can’t really give the card more than a 3/5.
One of the promised aims of this set was to create a really cool political action for titled Sabbat vampires. I think many people had in mind a Sabbat version of Parity Shift, but really all that was required was a useful and flavorful referendum for the Sabbat. Instead we get this. Steal 3 blood from a younger vampire. I guess it pairs well with Temptation… if you want to run a Sabbat with Serpentis vote deck. This honestly isn’t that terrible of a card (although it’s outclassed in nearly every way by Voter Captivation), but it’s really unclear what connection it has to the Sabbat. Swaying public opinion is a sneaky Camarilla tactic that doesn’t seem to mesh with the way the Sabbat handles things.
So this card has a mediocre (at best) effect paired with what I consider to be a failure of flavor. So what effect has it had on the game? Well, it’s featured in 2 tournament winning decks since 2014. Both decks included a grand total of 1 copy of this card. In the end, this card serves only to dilute and confuse the flavor of the Sabbat. I could accept this card as an interesting niche effect if it didn’t require titled Sabbat vampires (I’d rate it a 3 in that case), but as is, I have to give it a 2/5. If I could only print 12 library cards to help the Sabbat, this would not have made my list.
Turns out I have a rather a lot to say about each card, so rather than push through to cover all 12, I’ve decided to split this into two parts. Next week I’ll finish my review of the Danse Macabre library cards. In the meantime, post any comments you have about these cards! Have I missed something crucial to a card? Do you see a flavor connection that I missed, or do you have a fantastic use for a card that just hasn’t made it into the TWDA? Post below!
Until next time, may your bleeds never be bounced and all your referendums pass,