A Closer Look At Slaver in Vintage

Control Slaver is the hottest Vintage deck on the planet, but there’s a huge amount of debate about what the best configuration looks like. Should the deck run the Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge engine? Is it worthwhile to add Black to the deck? What’s the best deck configuration to help you win the mirror match? Does Meandeck really need to use training wheels to win? All of these questions and more are examined inside!

The development of Vintage is a history of the development of archetypes that can compete with Mana Drain. The first card to do so is Illusionary Mask in combination with Phyrexian Dreadnought. Others have emerged: Bazaar of Baghdad, Mishra’s Workshop, Gush, Null Rod, Dark Ritual, and so on. This dialectic has had a profound impact upon the quality of control decks in the format.

Once upon a time, Mana Drain was played to fuel a sizable Braingeyser or Stroke of Genius, which in turn was used to draw more solutions to possible threats. Mana Drain was used as a powerful answer that would slowly help the control player stabilize their board position. The decks that abused Mana Drain took many, many turns to win using cards like Morphling or Serra Angel. Those days are long gone. Typical five-color control has given way to more potent, flexible, and powerful Mana Drain decks. More importantly, the slower control decks have given way to a process of hybridization.

Darren Di Battista was the first to observe that decks in Type One tended to have what he called a “combo finish.” Masknaught was the operative combo in the shell of a disruptive aggro deck. Psychatog decks used Berserk to seal the deal immediately rather than wait turn after turn of swinging with a four or five-power finisher. This can even be seen in Type Two as Arcbound Ravager decks, primarily beatdown decks, can seal the deal with a Ravager/Disciple of the Vault combo. Food Chain Goblins is just one more example of this tendency for Type One decks of any archetype to include a combo finish as part of the package.

The general reason for hybridization is that the decks with the combo finish tend to be better. Explaining the specifics, while interesting, is mostly guesswork and theory, and in any event beyond the scope of this article. The important idea (that I’m just going to ask you to assume) for purposes of this article, is that the Mana Drain decks with the hybrid finish appear to be, in part, an attempt to compete with the archetypes that threaten its preeminence. They are stronger, more flexible and put up better results. If Masknaught makes mono-Blue bad, then why not play a Drain deck that wins before Dreadnought?

The point is that the development of Type One is a dialectic between non-Mana Drain decks trying to compete and the parallel improvement of Mana Drain decks has profound and important implications. For instance, any restriction that neuters a non-Mana Drain deck will result in a format with more powerful Mana Drain decks than existed before the pernicious influence of the then-banned decks was known.

In this article, I’m going to take a look at the most successful Mana Drain deck and attempt to resolve some of the more interesting debates and controversies surrounding it.

DEBATE #1: Goth Slaver v. Control Slaver (formerly Enslaver)

One of the more common debates in the format is what the best home for the Goblin Welder/Mindslaver combo is. On the one hand, a deck invented by the Germans and developed to its full potential by Rich Shay is asserted to be the best home for Goblin Welder/Mindslaver/Thirst for Knowledge combo. Others claim that a deck known as “Goth” slaver, for its first appearance at a tournament in “Gothenberg,” using Intution and Accumulated Knowledge (from here on known as “AK”) is the best home for it. Take a look at both lists:

Goth Slaver

“Goth” Slaver

4 Intuition

4 Accumulated Knowledge

4 Brainstorm

4 Thirst for Knowledge

3 Goblin Welder

1 Demonic Tutor

1 Yawgmoth’s Will

1 Mind Twist

1 Time Walk

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Pentavus

2 Mindslaver

4 Mana Drain

4 Force of Will

4 Volcanic Island

2 Underground Sea

5 Fetchlands

4 Island

1 Library of Alexandria

5 Moxen

1 Black Lotus

1 Sol Ring

1 Mana Crypt

1 Mana Vault


1 Platinum Angel

1 Pentavus

4 Goblin Welder

4 Mana Drain

4 Force of Will

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Brainstorm

1 Fact or Fiction

1 Ancestral Recall

2 Blood Moon

1 Mystical Tutor

1 Cunning Wish

2 Mindslaver

1 Tinker

1 Time Walk

1 Yawgmoth’s Will

1 Demonic Tutor

1 Mana Crypt

1 Mox Sapphire

1 Mox Emerald

1 Mox Ruby

1 Mox Pearl

1 Mox Jet

1 Sol Ring

1 Black Lotus

1 Library of Alexandria

2 Darksteel Citadel

2 Underground Sea

4 Polluted Delta

4 Volcanic Island

5 Island


3 Lava Dart

1 Mogg Salvage

1 Shattering Pulse

1 Blood Moon

3 Red Elemental Blast

3 Old Man of the Sea

3 Sphere of Resistance

The question goes to the heart of designing Mana Drain based Mindslaver decks. Which list should I play?

Here is what Rich Shay says about the matter on themanadrain.com:

I personally find Control Slaver without Intuition or AK to be the best build. I think it is faster and more agile. I think the benefit of adding the Intuition/AK engine is most helpful in matches that are already good, and that the engine does little to help against matches that are already difficult. I realize that Intuition itself can be good without AK, but this requires a Welder on the board, thus making Intuition too situational for my taste as a stand-alone card.”

In my opinion, Rich Shay is not someone who would be blinded by their own preferences. He isn’t rejecting the AK variants just because he didn’t advocate them – he genuinely wants to play the best deck he can.

So, let’s try and unpack a bit of what he’s saying. The core of his argument, in my view, is that he thinks that Intuition/AK costs more than its worth.

Let’s take a look at the core of the Slaver build:

4 Mana Drain

4 Force of Will

4 Brainstorm

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Time Walk

These cards aren’t even Slaver specific, they are Drain deck specific.


2 Intuition

3 Goblin Welder

4 Accumulated Knowledge

3 Thirst for Knowledge

Those are the “essentials.” Why 3 thirst or 2 Intuition? It is difficult for me to discuss without speaking fundamentally about the deck. Let me try – so bear with me.

The fundamental premise of Rich Shay argument that AK Slaver is inferior is not rooted in some inherent weakness of the AK engine – it is rooted in a practical tournament reality that greater flexibility tends to win matches. My team’s Goth Saver list for SCG Chicago were frighteningly powerful, but weak against a few small, but common things. I sat and watched Kevin lose a match for Top 8 contention against two Razormane Masticores because he had sideboarded out all of the large creatures in his deck. He had nothing to deal with them. There were no Wishes, no Triskelion, no Pentavus – no nothing. He had Crucible of Worlds though!

Rich’s deck uses more creatures, more disruption, cards like Blood Moon, Duress, and even Wishes. It is leisurely and spaciously built. But it is not entirely cost free. He is forced to play differently. This is where I disagree with Rich’s statement that his deck is “faster.” He can’t just Brainstorm immediately. One of the key skills with Control Slaver is knowing to wait until the last possible moment to Brainstorm. Mark Biller demonstrated this skill repeatedly at the Gencon Championship. His timing has to be fairly precise or else he will be overpowered. He has to tune his sideboard very well to deal with the metagame (which he does every time). And his past tournament experience has honed his sideboard into a masterpiece. He wisely and efficiently uses the space that not running AK provides. That use of space and the ability to more flexibly board wins him matches that Kevin lost. Kevin probably didn’t know what to sideboard out instead so he sideboarded out the monster that seemed weak.

From the starting premise that greater flexibility and agility tends to win tournament matches, it does not follow, however that AK Slaver is inferior. What does follow is that if you want to run metagame slots and have some flexibility, it will require more outside-the-box, unconventional thinking and approach to the deck. It will require some thinking that perhaps Rich has not given it – thinking that might change his view.

I think Ultima best demonstrated this by his addition of Deep Analysis and his opponents by the addition of Lava Dart, both maindeck. They are applying Rich’s principle in a more tightly constructed deck. I think they can get away with this for a very important reason. AK Slaver has too many cards, but Control Slaver has too few. The difference is that you can trade off some essential cards in AK Slaver to get metagame flexibility while Control Slaver can’t. Control Slaver is trading up while Goth Slaver is trading down in a sense. The difference is that I believe Goth Slaver is still in a better position by trading down than Control Slaver is by trading up. Why? Because Goth Slaver is a more objectively powerful deck. Intuition has insane synergy in the deck and AK is, in my experience and as powerful as Thirst is, a more powerful draw engine than Thirst. Intuition AK has no limit but mana. Thirst can be conditional and requires timing – it requires that you wait in certain circumstances.

I believe that the only cards that are sacred are the cards I listed above. Everything else should be added for metagame flexibility and built around. Nine times out of ten you will be playing with 4 Welders and nine times out of ten you will be playing with four Thirst – I just wanted to emphasize that there are not as many sacred cows as you might be inclined to believe.

Now, let’s talk about this deck generally. This deck has glaring weaknesses that can be exploited. Stop the draw engine and you win. The problem comes when Goth Slavers start running Deep Analysis. Then the deck becomes too much to handle. I do not believe you can simply cut AKs while running Deeps, as that permits your AK opponent to use their AKs freely. Not only that, but ballsy or stupid Goth Slaver players may not even cut AKs after game one. There are actually grounds for not doing so, which I can explain if asked.

So, to a certain extent, this boils down to weaknesses. Not all weaknesses are created equal. Moreover, not all objectively equal weaknesses are in fact equal. The tournament context is what defines weakness. That and nothing else. The lack of large monsters is a serious weakness. If I were running Goth again, I might be inclined not only to run Platz, Trike, and Crucible, but perhaps Pentavus and two slavers as well.

Here is what I think looks like an optimized Slaver list prepared for the mirror:


4 Drain

3 Intuition

3 Thirst

4 AK

3 Deep

4 Brainstorm

1 Tinker

1 Ancestral

1 Walk

4 Welder

1 Trike

1 Slaver

1 Platz

1 Pantybus/Crucible

1 Lava Dart/Yawg Will

Game Two is probably something that has to be determined by testing, but again, thinking outside the box, I might be inclined to try some radical approaches, like siding out three Welders, siding in Yawgmoth’s Will and 4-5 Red Elemental Blasts. Such a plan assumes that you gain control and Yawgmoth’s Will ensures the survival, in that assumption, of your lone welder.

DEBATE #2: Whether to play two- or three-Color Goth Slaver – I.E. Should Slaver play with Black?

This is a fundamental question that goes beyond design by approach and play style. From the outset, there appears to be two possible starting points: First, that there is an objectively correct answer. And that answer is “yes” or “no.” Or, Second, that there is no correct answer, and that it depends upon the metagame. Let’s take a look at what the Black does, first, and then approach the question of whether there is an objectively correct approach or whether the answer is metagame determinative.

What Black are we including? The first problem in answering this question is that we often make unwarranted assumptions. For instance, you might assume that Slaver with Black in it can’t have four Goblin Welders because there isn’t room. This is a false assumption. It may be that some of the most prominently displayed Goth Slaver lists have three Welders and Yawgmoth’s Will, but this design isn’t set in stone. I think it’s critical to point out that the arguments on whether to add Black or not do not hinge upon any specific design question, but upon design in general.

Rich Shay Control Slaver has consistently used Duress, Demonic Tutor, and Yawgmoth’s Will. His deck has more room and the added Black doesn’t create mana instability. The ability to use Duress, Rich has decided, is worth what it costs. The additional non-basics required to run Black do not significantly compromise his deck’s mana stability. In addition, the slots available from not running Intuition really are best optimized by Duress.

However, removing the discussion to Goth Slaver, for the moment, the question basically becomes a proxy for whether to run Yawgmoth’s Will or not. That is really the heart of the matter.

I think the answer to whether Goth Slaver should have Black or not is both objectively determinable and metagame dependent. I believe that there is an objectively “best” version of the deck, in a vacuum, based upon identifiable criteria. However, I also think that there can be circumstances in which varying from the objective determined deck is justified by the metagame – particularly when the deck needs modification because it is considered “the deck to beat.” As a result, I think the answer is that the deck should run Yawgmoth’s Will, but that upon the clearest showing and the highest burden, you can overcome that presumption.

Let’s examine why.

What is Yawgmoth’s Will there for?

Let’s look at the objective reasons first.

1) Yawgmoth’s Will is commonly recognized as either the most powerful card in the format, or one of the most powerful cards in the format. It’s only limit is that it isn’t always the best card to have in an opening hand because it is grows in power as the game progresses. Yawgmoth’s Will is also known as “Yawgmoth’s Win” because once played, it usually results in no more turns for the opponent.

2) The deck is built around synergy between the graveyard and speed artifacts. Yawgmoth’s Will likes both.

3) The deck uses Intuition. Yawgmoth’s Will and Intuition have tremendous synergy.

What are the costs of running Yawgmoth’s Will?

1) Absent a card like Crucible, you probably need at least two Underground Seas.

2) It isn’t particularly good in the opening hand. This fact is amplified when you realize that there are multiple dead cards in the opening hand in this deck until you can resolve Thirst: Triskelion, Platinum Angel, Penatavus, Mindslaver, etc.

The Best Card in Vintage?

3) It is a win “more” card. I.e. the deck’s primary game plan simply doesn’t need Yawgmoth’s Will because once you have the key components in place, Yawgmoth’s Will is an empty formality that just accelerates the game by a turn or so when you already have it sown up.

All of these points are critical and the third is particularly compelling. The deck can just Intuition up the Slaver, Weld it in, and begin Slaver recursion. You don’t need to Slave a person turn after turn. A single Slave can be sufficiently crippling that it buys you enough turns that your next Slave becomes lethal.

The first point should not be lightly dismissed either. Running two Underground Seas when you could run more Islands can be a serious weakness.

What metagame considerations make Yawgmoth’s Will stronger?

1) Combo. You might be amazed at this, given that we already said that Yawgmoth’s Will wasn’t particularly strong in the first turn or so, but Yawgmoth’s Will actually gives you another chance to race Combo. Even the slightest advantage can make the difference.

Here is an example from a test game where I was playing Meandeath. My hand was: Necropotence, Wheel of Fortune, Tinker, Brainstorm, Mox Emerald, Tendrils of Agony, and two lands.

Turn One:

Goth Slaver: Island, Black Lotus (never a good thing for the opponent)

Meandeath (me): City of Brass.

Turn Two:

Goth Slaver: Island, go. (Island, Island, and Lotus in play).

On his end step, I Brainstormed and saw more land, but nothing that would make my decisions easier.

Meandeath: I could play Tinker or Wheel here, but not both. I played Wheel. He Mana Drained me.

Turn Three:

Goth Slaver: He then played Intuition and a Mox and Accumulated Knowledge for 3. He dropped another land and passed the turn. He had untapped: Lotus, Mox, Land.

Meandeath: I topdecked Dark Ritual. I play Tinker. Predictably, he counters it playing Force of Will and pitching some inconsequential card. Relieved, I drop my third land, play Dark Ritual, and resolve Necropotence.

Now you might think – good lord, I’ve just resolved Necro with 18 life – I should be fine right? He does nothing of consequence on his turn. I go to my end step and he sacrifices the Lotus for Intuition. He digs up Accumulated Knoweledge, Mystical Tutor, and Ancestral with one Blue untapped. I give him the AK because if I give him Ancestral he can use it now and if I give him Mystical he finds Yawg’s Will with 4 AKs and Lotus in the bin.

Turn Four:

Goth Slaver:

On his turn, he AKs 4, and then draws the Yawg Will and goes absolutely bonkers. He plays Time Walk, Welder and has no trouble immediately killing me with Mindslaver.

This is what I was talking about in the introduction when I was talking about hybridization. Yawgmoth’s Will accelerated him out of certain doom. That isn’t to say that Welder, Walk, and Thirst couldn’t have done the same thing. But finding all those cards the hard way is a much more difficult task.

Sometimes winning now is not just better, it’s the only way to win. For that reason alone, I believe that Yawgmoth’s Will, if you can find a slot for it and make the mana work, is worth it.

2) Related to the first point is the fact that you just have a faster goldfish. If you can go:

Turn One:

Mox, Mox, Land, Intuition for AKs.

Turn Two:

AK for 3 and AK for 4 (assuming you had an AK in your opening hand)

Turn Three:

Intuition for broken restricted cards like Time Walk, Black Lotus, and Mana Crypt

Turn Four:

Yawgmoth’s Will.

It doesn’t matter whether you had a single Goblin Welder up to that point – after the Yawgmoth’s Will’s recursion of Time Walk and all that card draw, you will have everything you could possibly need. Granted, you aren’t goldfishing in most matches. But the possibility of that goldfish is a point of leverage that I wouldn’t want my deck to be without.

3) Mishra’s Workshops. If you are in a field of Workshops, Yawgmoth’s Will is one of your best outs. Tinker for Pentavus, Mindslaver, or Crucible are all strong plays, but there is no denying that Yawgmoth’s Will is the biggest slap in the face to a prison deck. Goblin Welder usually buys time against Workshop decks by toying around with their artifacts for a while – but it can’t stop the onslaught all by itself. Yawgmoth’s Will is one of the best cards you can draw against Stax.

4) The Mirror. In certain metagames, this is all that matters. In my personal experience, one way to approach the mirror is not only to play the mirror carefully, but to realize that everything else is bait. Playing the mirror intelligently can get you far, but no amount of bluffing or skill can prevent the abuse of Yawgmoth’s Will. Let me show you how you can leverage your opponent in a mirror.


It is game two of the Goth Slaver mirror. The only difference is that they are playing two colors and you have black for Yawgmoth’s Will.

You both have Lava Dart in your graveyard and you both have monstrous graveyards.

You have both managed to keep Goblin Welders off the table and neither one of you can seem to get control of the game.

Here is how you can leverage the fact that you have Yawgmoth’s Will:

Your opponent’s board is:

Mox Pearl, Island *3, and Volcanic Island *2

Your board is:

Mox Jet, Mox Emerald, Island, and Volcanic Island *3

Your hand is:

Thirst for Knowledge,

Mana Drain,

Red Elemental Blast,


Force of Will,

and Yawgmoth’s Will.

You both have Deep Analysis maindeck, and so neither one of you can let your opponent’s Intuition resolve.

This is what you do:

Your opponent draws a card (7th card). They think for a moment and pass the turn. You say:

1) On your first mainphase, Intuition and you tap the Mox Emerald, Mox Jet, and an Island and to play it.


Your opponent can’t let Intuition resolve. You will find three Deep Analysis and they are effectively uncounterable. They will put you over the edge in this stalemate. However, if they counter the Intuition they will have to use: Mana Drain, Force of Will or Red Elemental Blast. Your goal is to simply get them to tap down and use their counters to stop what is a seemingly critical card.

Even more insidious, you are going to want to time things in an odd way to try and maximize your Yawgmoth’s Will.

1) Your opponent responds with Red Elemental Blast. They don’t want to use their Mana Drains because it is the first main phase and they will have to use the mana in their second mainphase. You know that they aren’t playing Black so they don’t have a nasty Mind Twist or Yawgmoth’s Will to sink their mana into. The best they could do is drop Slaver or Thirst, Walk, Welder. But that is unlikely.

2) Here is your signal: you play Force of Will pitching Thirst for Knowledge! This signals that you have don’t have Mana Drains. And what’s more, it signals that you are desperate to get this Intuition to resolve by pitching a key draw spell! Here is when they walk into your trap. They play Mana Drain on your Force of Will. You Red Elemental Blast their Mana Drain.

3) At this point they may either Mana Drain you or Force of Will you. You are fine with either. Either way, they are going to have to use both spells before the turn is up. The difference is profound though. If they Force of Will your Red Elemental Blast, then you get to Mana Drain a nice juicy target. If they Drain it, then you will Drain back and then they will have to use Force of Will to stop you from drawing gobs of cards off Deep Analysis next turn.

4) they play Mana Drain/FoW

5) You Mana Drain their last counter

6) If they have another counter, that’s fine. Everything was bait anyway. If they don’t, you get to Intuition up Ancestral, Walk, and Lotus instead of Deep Analysis in order to maximize your Yawgmoth’s Will.

The point is that by having Yawgmoth’s Will in hand you were able to leverage that fact into making a series of plays that directly results in your win.

There are definitely costs associated with playing Yawgmoth’s Will, but it provides important flexibility to the Slaver deck. You have the option of abusing it or not. You have the option of comboing out right now. You have the option of goldfishing over your opponent. Those options are not, strictly speaking, “win more” options unless you are that good with Goth Slaver. They are powerful and compelling options. You can win without them, to be sure, but I wouldn’t want to leave home without Yawgmoth’s Will.

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian