Bluffing Drains and Storming Brains: Playing Control in Vintage

There’s no doubt that Stephen Menedian is one of the premier Vintage thinkers in the game today. This article tackles some of the more tricky decisions facing those packing Force of Will in the current Type 1 metagame… so that’s almost everyone. When do you Force? When do you Drain? When do you hold back, and when does playing into a Force reap the rewards? A strong article, packed with positive theoretical tips.

Let me begin with a little vignette from a conversation I had a few months back with Brian Demars. Brian battled a number of solid Michigan Vintage players for a Sapphire, which slipped from his grasp in a finals match. Brian was playing Control Slaver. In game 3 of the match, his opponent played turn 1 Tinker. Brian Force of Willed the Tinker. His opponent Force of Willed Brian’s Force of Will. Tinker resolved, finding Darksteel Colossus. Brian brought his up for the purpose of explaining to me his distaste for some elements of the format and, more importantly, his desire to see Tinker banned. I have brought this scenario to you for a far different purpose.

As an avid Vintage player, I began to analyze this scenario. As dire as it looks, in my view, the chance of Brian winning still seems pretty high. Brian’s opponent played a gambit. He has sacrificed board position and the long game in the hopes of achieving a quick victory.

Turn 1 Tinker against Control Slaver is a very risky play. Control Slaver has upwards of four Goblin Welders (at least three), which Brian could drop on turn 1, at least one bounce spell, and probably 4 Tutors to find those bounce spells. Not to mention cards like Time Walk and even the ability to just explode and start Slaver combo before Colossus can finish the job.

Look at this scenario:

Turn 1:
Opp: Tinker
Brian: Goblin Welder

Turn 2:
Opp: Attack for 11

Turn 3:
Opp: Declare attack, Brian can then Weld out the Colossus.

Who wins that game?

Analytically speaking, what factors help us determine who may have the better chance of winning this game? The first question that seems to matter to me is how Tinker was played. Tinker off land, Mana Crypt is very different than Tinker off two artifacts and a land. With the latter, the Tinker player has a slimmer chance of being able to recover if Brian can deal with the Colossus.

The Tinker player was on the play. If he dropped Mox, Sol Ring, Land, or Mox, Mox, Tinker, and Force of Willed, that means Brian’s opponent is completely spent. He has one card in his hand. Brian Force of Willed, but is on the draw. That means after he plays a land, Brian will have 5 cards in his hand to his opponents 1. I like Brian’s chances quite a lot.

However, if Brian’s opponent dropped Mana Crypt, Land, Tinker, Brian’s opponent has a better shot of protecting his game to finish Brian off. If Brian doesn’t bounce the Colossus immediately, then Brian’s opponent will have three cards in his hand on his second turn. That’s enough to stop Brian from answer Colossus. He could Brainstorm into Pithing Needle if Brian played turn 1 Welder. He could be holding Mana Drain and play an Island with one card still unused. He could even Brainstorm into a Force of Will and another Blue card. If Brian’s opponent misses a land drop on turn 2, I’d almost bet money on that occurring. Vintage decks are very good at making the most of every card because of utility like Brainstorm.

I interrupted Brian to ask how his opponent played the Tinker, and he said it was Mox, Mox, Land. I then told Brian that I was surprised he lost. Brian indicated that he bounced the Colossus with Echoing Truth on turn 2. I then sat in disbelief.

How the heck did Brian lose?

Brian told me he lost to Tendrils of Agony.

And yet, Brian brought up this entire little vignette to illustrate his displeasure with Tinker. Ironic isn’t it?

I then said, well, there’s only one way I could see that playing out: is if his opponent a) was already holding the Tendrils and b) Brainstorms into Black Lotus relatively soon. My guess is that the soonest this could happen is turn 4 or 5.

Brian indicated that this was precisely what happened.

His opponent got quite lucky. He was probably holding the Tendrils in that final card or drew it within the next two turns (turn 2-3) and then drew Brainstorm and, most fortunately of all, saw Black Lotus. The fact of the matter is that a number of card combinations could have produced the same result. Although a number of cards could have found the Lotus (Demonic Tutor), only Brainstorm plus Lotus plus Tendrils is enough generate lethal storm so that the Tendrils will kill Brian. (Also note that the Brainstorm would have shuffled back the Colossus).

Okay, with that vignette out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks.

Vintage games have repeating patterns. In every single control mirror, each player can hazard reasonable guesses about what the opponent has in hand. More importantly, these guesses are likely to be functionally correct even if they are in-fact wrong. Your opponent may get lucky and start the game with three Force of Wills in their opening hand. The third Force of Will is pretty much irrelevant. They probably will pitch it to the first or second Force of Will. There is a huge difference if you assume they can Force three times, but they can’t. So it doesn’t matter whether you assume they have two when they in-fact have three if they functionally only have two

Every Vintage player, whether you play Control or not, will have to learn how to make some of these assumptions. Vintage Control decks are sufficiently similar in some key respects, that what I’m about to go through remains true across the board.

Force of Will
Every time you start a game of Vintage, Force of Will should never be far from your thoughts. Almost every deck – except for Workshop decks and some other oddities – run this card. It is something you need to consider every time you play a critical spell. I think the best way to analyze a game state is to begin with the assumption that your opponent may and may not have Force of Will. The probability that they have it is around 40% in their opening hand, supposing no mulligan. However, if you are playing a fast combo deck, the reason they may mulligan is because their first hand didn’t have it. Never assume that just because someone mulligans to six cards that they don’t have and aren’t capable of playing Force of Will. I start with the assumption that they may or may not have it and then adjust that assumption as the game progresses.

Let me show you:

It’s turn 1 and my opponent won the roll and elected to play. They go:

Turn 1:
Mox Emerald, Volcanic Island, Goblin Welder.

My assumption that they may or may not have Force of Will has now been revised. I now think it is more likely that they do not have Force of Will than that they do. Even if they do have Force of Will though, this assumption that they probably do not have it is functionally correct. I made that claim earlier, now I’m going to back it up. There are two reasons that this assumption is safe to make:

1) Even if they do have Force of Will, the probability that they have a Blue card to pitch is decreased. A minor sub-point to that is that even if they do have a Blue card, there is a greater chance that it is more important Blue card. If they Force of Will on turn 1 because you play a turn 1 bomb, the cost to them of playing that Force of Will is greater. For example, if they pitch that Thirst (assuming they are playing Control Slaver since they dropped Goblin Welder), they may have to be stuck with that Pentavus in their hand until they can find a Brainstorm or another Thirst to get rid of it. Not to mention the fact that you have taken a key draw spell out of the game. For them to have Force of Will, a Blue card, and Thirst, their hand would have to be a god hand:

Land, Land, Mox, Thirst, Welder, Force of Will, Blue Card.

2) Even if they do Force of Will, they may well be close to being spent. So you don’t have to be concerned as much if a bomb gets Force of Willed. In other words, let’s say your hand is this:

Gemstone Mine, City of Brass, Dark Ritual, Necropotence, Grim Tutor, Elvish Spirit Guide, Mox Ruby.

I would probably go ahead and just play City of Brass, Dark Ritual, Necropotence. If they Force of Will it, they are going to have precious little in hand to stop your turn 2 Grim Tutor for anything you want, or anything that you topdeck on turn 2.

The point I’m trying to illustrate is that the reason you fear Force of Will is diminished if they have played the turn 1 I described above. The reason you fear Force of Will is that you have a key number of threats in any game and if they Force that, you may not have a window of opportunity to play another that won’t be Mana Drained. Therefore, if your threat gets Forced, you may lose the game as a result. Even if they do have Force of Will here, they may as well not have one for the purposes for which you fear Force of Will. Thus, they may not functionally have one.

Now, if my opponent does this on turn 1:

Island, Brainstorm.

I tend to almost assume that they have Force of Will. And even if they don’t, they functionally do for the same reasons I articulated above… but reversed. Their hand is going to be so good, so optimized, so fixed, that even if they don’t have Force of Will, they will probably be in a good position to combat and answer any game plan you try to lay out.

Consider this:

Let’s say you are both playing Control decks. Here is how the game proceeds:

Turn 1:
You: Land, Mox, Merchant Scroll. You find Ancestral Recall
Your opponent: Island. Pass.

This simple little example is rich with analytical value.

The relevant question is whether you play turn 2 Ancestral Recall or wait. If you have a Force of Will in hand, the answer is probably yes. But if you don’t, the answer depends upon a number of factors. The first factor is whether you think your opponent has Force of Will. A rational person might say if you play Ancestral and they Force of Will it, you still got the same card advantage. This is true seen through the lens of strict card advantage, but depending upon the deck, this may be dead wrong. Meandeck Gifts, for example, has 4 Gifts Ungiven and 4 Merchant Scroll, but no in-between card draw. It is critical for Meandeck Gifts to resolve Ancestral so that it can execute is strategy. The play of Ancestral Recall is a critical tactical maneuver that helps the deck achieve a resource threshold that it requires to pull off its game plan.

Another factor to consider is that even if your opponent doesn’t have Force of Will, they very well may have the ability to find Force of Will by playing their own Brainstorm, or Ancestral to find Force of Will. Most good Vintage control players Brainstorm on their opponent’s end-step in the control mirror. Thus, this is a strong likelihood that increases the probability that they can counter you.

My instinct would be to wait if I don’t have Force of Will. Let’s watch how this game may unfold. It is rich with pedagogical insight.

Here is what I might do:

Turn 2:
Play Island and pass

Now your opponent should be thinking two things:
a) There is a chance that he doesn’t have Force of Will, otherwise he would have played Ancestral.
b) Maybe he wants to wait until turn 3 so he can FOW and Mana Drain to protect Ancestral.

Point b is your cover. But by the time you get to turn 3, it might actually be the truth. So you have plausible deniability.

Your opponent plays their second Island and passes.

On their end step, you play Brainstorm and you see Force of Will.

Turn 3:
You play a fetchland and break it.

Now, what do you do? Things get pretty tricky.

Although there are many options, I think there are really only two viable plays unless you have some other bomb you’d like to play like Fact:

1) Go to your second main phase and play Ancestral
2) Wait until your opponents end step and play Ancestral

I like both plays, but they both have attendant risks. This is a useful example, because it illustrates another key point that I want to make:

Suppose you move to your second main phase. This signals that you have Mana Drain. Why? If your intent is to play Ancestral Recall, this play makes it clear that you intent to use Mana Drain to protect your Ancestral Recall. This is because Mana Drain gives you mana on your next main phase. If you play Ancestral and Mana Drain, you won’t have lands up to provide the Blue to use the Mana Drain mana – say on Gifts Ungiven. Since you have moved to your second main phase, you have shown that you have Mana Drain. That can be good and bad. If you can make your opponent think you have it, when you don’t, this can help you… but it may not change what they actually end up doing. They know you have Ancestral, so they are going to be watching out for that. Here is how it could play out:

You go to your second main phase and you tap an Island and play Ancestral Recall. Your opponent taps both of their land and plays Mana Drain. You tap both of your land and play Mana Drain. If you are holding Force of Will, you just screwed up very badly.

You Ancestral, they Drain. The proper response now is to play Force of Will.

Here is why:

First of all, since you played Force of Will, they may assume you didn’t have Mana Drain before the resolution of your Ancestral. That means that even if you resolved Ancestral, they can reasonably assume that you still may not have one. That makes them all the more likely to walk into your Mana Drain. And since you just resolved Ancestral Recall, they will feel the urgent need to find a way to come back from behind in a war they are rapidly losing.

Second, and most important, if they have Force of Will for your Force of Will, you get to Mana Drain their Force of Will for an enormous five colorless mana on your next mainphase (which is your next turn). Unless they do something to win immediately, you are going to blow them out of the game ASAP.

Third, if they don’t Force of Will for your Force of Will, then you resolved Ancestral Recall and you recouped the card loss easily. They are going to be way behind and lose this game unless they play some key draw spell on the following turn, like Thirst or the like (which, as I stated above, you are holding Mana Drain for).

Vintage players, and particularly control players, often use the wrong frame to analyze in game situations. This is the real important lesson of this article: there are many considerations that matter as much as card advantage. Card advantage is a means to an end: the end is winning the game. The tactical play I’ve just went over – Force of Willing a Mana Drain to make them play Force of Will on you so that you can Drain it for its mana – does involve the risk that you’ll lose card advantage if they don’t have Force of Will. However, the reasons to play the Force of Will and not the Mana Drain on their Mana Drain are too compelling. The other key reason, as I stated, is that they will feel pressured into playing a draw spell immediately. Thus, as soon as they can, they’ll walk right into your Mana Drain. It is easy to come up with the wrong tactical play in Vintage because there are so many variables to consider. Learning how to bluff, mislead, and most importantly, maximize your tempo is and can be just as important as card advantage. When you see how the additional mana derived from Mana Drain will ensure that you strategy of Gifts Ungiven ends the game, the marginal card disadvantage of using Force of Will first becomes a miner sidenote.

The to and fro of the Control mirror is, above all, a matter of timing. Each deck has its own advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage of Thirst is that it is a three-mana instant. Thus, it can be played in response to a fetchland break:

Turn 1:
P1:Island, go.
P2: Island, go

Turn 2:
P1: Fetchland, go
P2: Volcanic Island, Mox go

Turn 3:
P1: Underground Sea, Brainstorm. Break fetchland.

Do you see what has happened? Player 1 waited to play Brainstorm until they could hold two Blue mana up. However, they have inadvertently given player two a window to play an instant speed draw spell where Player 1 can’t Mana Drain. Thus, while the breaking of Fetchland is on the stack, Player 2 can now play Thirst for Knowledge.

It is precisely this sort of timing knowledge that separates the wheat from the chaff. The great thing about Thirst is that it will force player one to either screw up and walk into a Thirst they can’t counter with Drain, or else slow down their game plan by waiting another turn to Brainstorm. Thus, the Thirst player is controlling the flow of the game. That’s the essence of tempo.

Control mirrors often look like a battle to develop mana and then squeeze. That is, they seek to control the to and fro of the game by dropping a bomb or bait on the opponents end step. If they lose the counter war, they can untap and just try and seize control of the game in one fell swoop. Our obsession with card advantage has led us down a dangerous path. We have ignored the critical role that tempo plays in control mirrors. As the control mirror accelerates, card advantage, as an analytic lens becomes less and less valuable. Certainly, card advantage still is correlated to winning the game – but not as strongly. “When” matters as much as “how much.” And by using it as a lens, it helps us ignore other important elements of the game such as tempo. A strict view of card advantage would lead a control player to misplay the scenario I constructed in the middle of this article. Control Slaver and Meandeck Gifts goldfish somewhere between turns three and four. When they play the control mirror, they have to constantly balance mana development, card advantage, and tempo in an intricate dance. Every single turn is fraught with opportunities to exploit. It is up to you to see them.

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian