A Vintage Excursion

Carsten tells you about the Charming Slaver deck he took to a local Vintage event and shares his impressions about the current format as a returning veteran.

Happy New Year everybody and welcome to 2014! I hope you had a great New Year’s Eve and will have a bright future during these 365 days (and beyond). As for me, one thing I want out of this year is to get to play some more Vintage. After the Bazar of Moxen and our first Vintage proxy event in Berlin in years, I’ve gotten to dip my toes in again, and I have to say I missed the power and crazy plays of Magic’s oldest format. Vintage is still just utterly sweet.

Before I delve into the deck I played at the Berlin event and the reasons why it looked like it did (including a number of observations about today’s Vintage in general), a few words about my goals for when I play Vintage. As some of you may know, I was a very dedicated Vintage player for most of my Magic career and pursued the format with a Spike’s outlook. Those days sadly are a thing of the past for the moment. Between the tournament scene crumbling after the Brainstorm restriction back in the day and me moving to a city with absolutely no Vintage scene, Legacy has become my main outlet for competitive urges. There just wasn’t much of an incentive to invest that much time and effort into a format I couldn’t play anyway.

This might change with time, but for now the situation is still similar in spite of finally getting to play in events again. These are small local events, and in all honesty my main priority there isn’t to play the most broken deck possible but something I enjoy—similar to the Burning Wish control deck I brewed for the BOM actually.

That doesn’t mean I’ll just play whatever though. If I’m playing in tournaments, winning is still important to really having fun, so I wouldn’t bring something I don’t believe could win out. It’s just that I’ll explore a lot of options not because I believe them to be better than everything else but because they fit what I enjoy about the format—doing broken stuff with card draw and mana acceleration. That and reliving the glorious years I spent playing with Moxen, Ancestral Recall, and Mana Drain, which is what the following deck is all about.

Reviving Control Slaver

One of the big decks with lasting impact that came out of the CAB labs over the years was Control Slaver—and no, in spite of it being a CAB deck, I didn’t even have my fingers in the original design of that one. Kim Kluck unveiled it back in December 2003, as far as I remember inspired by some Welder based decks German pro player Roland Bode was trying out:

The deck saw significant refinement over the following years but remained one of the if not the best combo-control decks in Vintage until Gifts Ungiven changed everything—and was viable even then. What the deck did was to play a strong card-advantage and countermagic control game fueled by Thirst for Knowledge but with a ridiculous Reanimator style game plan basically for free thanks to the interaction of Goblin Welder and fat artifacts discarded to Thirst for Knowledge. Activating Mindslaver against a Vintage deck is just that ridiculous.

And while the deck didn’t make my Top 5 last week, it’s still one of the most fun decks I’ve played. Sadly, Thirst for Knowledge was restricted, so just putting this sweet stack of cards back together wasn’t an option. The rest of the deck is still legal though and quite powerful to boot. So when I was looking for something cool to do in our proxy event, the best Goblin ever printed popped into my head. Now I faced the problem of efficiently discarding fat artifacts without having to run a ton of cards that are dead without a Welder in play.

The answer I came up with? Izzet Charm. Its Careful Study mode provides a decent way to get rid of dead Mindslavers and fatties, and between Dark Confidant, Delver of Secrets and Deathrite Shaman, there are a lot of solid targets for Shock in Vintage. A two-mana Spell Pierce, while not impressive, is still a decent thing to have. My goal and way there decided, I set to brewing a list and ended up with this:

Alright, so what’s going on here? The whole power and broken card setup should be obvious from the game plan described above, and I already explained Izzet Charm’s role too. The 61st card Nihil Spellbomb was me running out of sideboard space and deciding that a singleton Spellbomb should do nicely as additional artifact and maindeck graveyard hate while cycling when unneeded. That still leaves a number of things unexplained, though, and I’ll also take this chance to talk about some of my impressions about modern Vintage in general.

Tiny Creatures

First, the Baleful Strixes. The theory here was that they’re cheap solid artifact bodies to stall things like Delver of Secrets and Lodestone Golem that also happen to have great synergy with Welder and cycle in situations where they’re irrelevant. So far they have mainly been useful as a card that doubles as Welder and Force of Will fodder though. The 1/1 body plus a card was rarely good enough to cast them over something else, but their dual nature worked well to fuel the deck’s engines without ever using the card for its intended purpose. I also never got around to setting up the Welder draw engine with them. I generally either didn’t have an artifact in the yard or better things to do with Welder than drawing an extra card every two turns.

Goblin Welder, on the other hand, has been quite impressive, and its performance has made me wonder why I don’t see more of them in decklists. The little guy was once one of the most feared cards in Vintage Magic because you rarely lost when it went active, and my experience with Welder in this deck suggests that that still holds true. Games in which Welder lives and I don’t totally brick generally end up very much in my favor, be it because of Gifts Ungiven blowouts, the traditional Mindslaver action, protecting Vault/Key, or simply recycling Black Lotus for some utterly busted mana ramping.

The Finisher Package

I clearly wanted to run Voltaic Key and Time Vault. Not only does the combo lead to a ton of free game wins in combination with all the tutors and card drawing, but it also has great synergy with Goblin Welder protecting it from countermagic. The real thing to discuss here is keeping the whole fat-artifacts plan intact in spite of having access to this dumb way to end the game.

As mentioned, I originally wanted to play the Welder shenanigan game for nostalgic reasons as much as because of its power, but playing with Welder plus Slaver again rapidly reassured me that the power is in fact still there. Between Tinker, Tolarian Academy, and Mana Drain, getting one of the fatties into play was quite easy, and both Mindslaver and Sundering Titan are still devastating to other blue decks. Myr Battlesphere, my replacement for the old-school Pentavus, also proved surprisingly decent on its own. What really drove home the power of Mindslaver though was the fact that I rarely had reason to go for Vault/Key over it.

As soon as Welder was in play, Mindslaver turned into the closest thing to an instant game win there is in one-card form (well, other than Yawgmoth’s Will obviously). Even with only one other artifact around, Mindslaver generally disabled the opponent for more than a single turn, which gave me time to find the Myr Battlesphere and all but hard lock them. Gifts Ungiven for Myr Battlesphere and Mindslaver putting both into the yard also was significantly better than finding Vault/Key most of the time for the same reason.

The first Mindslaver activation was generally good enough to buy me time to establish the full lock by Welding in Battlesphere on the next turn. Vault/Key would have won the game on the same turn, mind you, but could easily have been stopped during that one-turn window before it would have done anything. Instant impact is key in Vintage.

Drawing Cards: The True Seat Of Power

With the engine and endgame explained, a few words about the most important part of a Vintage control deck: the draw engine. Let’s start by looking at a card that’s past its prime:

I included this only because I saw it in most successful current Drain control lists I found online and haven’t been impressed with it. I stopped running Library in Gifts back in the day simply because other blue combo-control decks—and blue decks are what you’re running it for after all—could generally just overpower it when you held back to keep seven cards in hand. From what the format feels like now, that seems to still be true most of the time. At the very least I can attest to the fact that having a basic Island in that slot would have been better in every game I drew the card. In short, I think Library’s time to shine is over, as it’s just too slow and demands too much effort in a format as ruthlessly powerful as Vintage.

Speaking of speed versus long-term power in your draw engines, there’s the reason I went with Fact or Fiction over the current standard Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Without the full set of Thirst for Knowledge, I originally wanted some way to draw extra cards, and the interaction with Goblin Welder led to trying out Fact or Fiction instead of even considering Jace. As I’ve been playing more Vintage though—still not a ton, but at least some—I’ve come to believe that Jace is quite overrated in Vintage.

As a double blue card, he’s hard to resolve and accelerate out with protection and takes two turns to even roughly match the card advantage of Fact or Fiction, and that’s ignoring the nice graveyard filling the instant provides as a bonus. He also demands that you try to keep the board clean to make him more than a four-mana Brainstorm, and removal is hard to find room for in Vintage.

Don’t get me wrong—Jace is incredibly powerful if he’s allowed to hang around and has amazing flexibility, especially if accelerated out early. He’s lackluster in one very important department in my opinion though: burst advantage.

Burst advantage is what I call the kind of card advantage provided by tools such as Ancestral Recall, Gush, and Thirst for Knowledge—cards that allow you to instantly put a couple of cards into your hand and push ahead of your opponent. While these kinds of cards will be overpowered by more stable continuous draw engines in the long run, they allow you to pull ahead momentarily. In the past I always found that burst card advantage was significantly more relevant than grinding card advantage (like Library of Alexandria) just because the power level of the cards you drew now allowed you to outdistance an opponent that invested into long-term card advantage. In Vintage, burst advantage spells have a tendency to uncover other burst advantage spells, allowing your momentary advantage to rapidly spiral out of control.

Basically what I’m trying to say here is that drawing three cards now is much more powerful in Vintage than drawing six cards over the course of six turns. Being three cards ahead generally allows you to put enough pressure on your opponent to easily match their future extra cards, oftentimes even before they become relevant at all.

Jace and Dark Confidant, the current darlings of Vintage control mages, fall firmly into the camp of grinding card advantage. They only become powerful if left unchecked and unthreatened for two or more turns. Good Vintage decks generally won’t give you those turns to really profit from your investments, making burst advantage effects significantly more powerful than they would seem from a pure card-advantage perspective. In a way, burst advantage is the Vintage version of tempo advantage.

What all this theory is supposed to tell you is that I think the Vintage community has been negligent in trying to find homes for Fact or Fiction since its unrestriction just judging from the fact that Fact is seeing nearly no play. I can tell you that after playing with both cards (Jace at the BOM and Fact in Berlin) I’ve been much more impressed with Fact or Fiction whenever turn 1 Black Lotus wasn’t involved. Take this with a grain of salt though—I’m a recent returnee, and maybe that’s just old-school bias and misunderstanding the current format talking.

Screwing Up The Sideboard

There are two things I’d like to talk about as far as the sideboard I ran is concerned, one good and one bad. Starting with the bad news, my anti-Stax plan was terrible. While I had the Welder / Gorilla Shaman lock and access to a basic Mountain and both Engineered Explosives and Ingot Chewer to hopefully deal with Spheres and other goodies, I made a huge mistake when setting these things up.

Goblin Welder decks traditionally have a good matchup against all things Workshop, especially when combined with the Mox Monkey himself. Switching around their artifacts just messes with their game plan too much. As such, I thought the above sideboard would leave me well prepared. I was very wrong. First, there is Chalice of the Void. My whole plan revolved around resolving two one-mana spells, and Workshop can always Chalice on one turn 1. Not good.

The worst mistake that really drove that weakness home though was forgetting that Tangle Wire is a card. If you check back above, you’ll realize that every single piece of artifact interaction I brought to battle is sorcery speed. The expected thing happened, and I lost with a handful of artifact hate but no main-phase mana multiple times.

After that experience I’m reasonably sure you want access to at least two Hurkyl’s Recalls between maindeck and sideboard to have a blue instant-speed answer to both Chalice and Tangle Wire. In addition, I feel like Engineered Explosives just isn’t good enough against Workshops in spite of how good it is at evading taxes when dealing with Sphere effects.

As to what I did right, I think that Ravenous Trap is by far the best form of Dredge hate in the format even though I have yet to run this particular deck against Dredge. From my experiences at the BOM and watching what Vintage coverage I could find, Dredge generally has between eight and twelve answers to any form of permanent-based hate post-board in the form of Nature’s Claim, Chain of Vapor, Ingot Chewer, and Wispmare.

Assuming you mulligan to find your hate, it just doesn’t seem like that’s a fight the blue deck is likely to win twice in a row, especially as most of the Dredge hate leaves Bazaar of Baghdad fully capable of filtering them into mana and answers. As a result, you often need not only the opening hand grave hate but also a second piece as soon as turn 3 to replace the one that was just blown up.

Spell-based hate like Ravenous Trap neatly sidesteps that problem and even a flashbacked Cabal Therapy doesn’t really help there since you can usually cast the Trap in response. It’s also cheap enough to tutor up or draw into, something Leyline of the Void—the supposed most powerful hate card—doesn’t let you do.

From what I’ve seen so far, the only actual reasonable pieces of graveyard hate to run in draw-heavy blue decks are Ravenous Trap—I just elaborated on that one—and Grafdigger’s Cage. While Cage has the same problems as the other permanent-based solutions, it’s a very powerful play against Oath of Druids in addition to Dredge, making it a reasonable way to spend sideboard space on multiple decks at once.

I’m unsure as far as Pithing Needle is concerned since I haven’t yet seen it in play, but I assume it could be good enough because it attacks Bazaar instead of the graveyard, leaving the Dredge deck unable to sift through its library to find its answers. Everything else, from Leyline of the Void to Tormod’s Crypt to Nihil Spellbomb, needs strong contextual justification to take the place of Trap (like my Goblin Welders making a singleton Crypt for the hard lock a good idea for example) in my opinion.

Once again, those are just my impressions after a long hiatus, and I might be quite a ways off—feel free to enlighten me below.

The Winningest Way To Play

So there you have it—my latest Vintage project and my observations about modern Vintage from the point of view of a returning veteran. I don’t think I built the best deck in Vintage with this Slaver redux, but it does feel powerful enough to at least hang in there with most other things people are doing and captures the fun factor of Control Slaver of old quite well. Maybe with some tuning and tinkering this particular shell could actually become a hit ten years after its original inception. I sure hope so!

Until next time, bring out the oldies but goldies!

Carsten Kotter