City of Brass – Riddle Me This

Monday, October 4th – Join returning writer, Andy Probasco, in his newest Vintage column! What has he been gushing about lately? Hmmm, more 2/1s for two? But not the ones you’re probably thinking of.

Dear StarCityGames.com,

It’s been a long time. I know you’ve had your fair share of writers, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been to other websites. I see you have Zvi again; that’s nice.

I’ve done okay for myself, I guess. I lived in Atlanta for a while, played a lot of Legacy, and made the finals of a Grand Prix. Played on some Pro Tours — made Day 2 but didn’t make money. Fun stuff, though. I’m a game designer now. We make Facebook games, which isn’t the most glamorous gig, for sure, but it’s nice to get paid for something you enjoy, you know?

I guess I could’ve tried harder to keep in touch, but I just got caught up with life. I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be back here now, but when Teddy CardGame asks you to write something, you write it. This is just the way things work.

I just want you to know it’s you, StarCity. It’s always been you.



A month ago, I would’ve had stacks of decklists for you guys. (By stacks, I mean two. But they were good, which is twice as many as I usually keep around.) For the first time since I started playing Vintage, I was convinced that playing a bunch of Islands and restricted spells was not the best strategy. That’s interesting, right? Tons to write about there. I had things pretty much all sorted out.

As we all know, however, the friendly folks over at Wizards of the Coast went and unrestricted Gush, the only card that, over the past decade, we have empirical proof is unsafe to unrestrict.

From buzz around the net, I get the impression that people don’t realize how truly ridiculous Gush was the last few times around. I’ve seen players who‘ve come to Vintage post-Gush throw around statistics. I’ve heard the phrase “Golden Age” tossed about.

“Gush wasn’t even dominant during its era.”

“Thirst for Knowledge actually had a better tournament record.”

Hey, that’s great, Thirst for Knowledge. I’m happy for you; I really am.
I’ve been rooting for you from the beginning,

and like a father driving his son to college, I was sad but proud to see you go.

But honey? I know Gush. And Thirst for Knowledge? You are no Gush.

I know there’s data out there that implies Gush wasn’t as big of a problem as other cards — or at least, I assume there is, as it’s cited so often. A quick search found me the Gush I remembered.

Waterbury 11, 2007—
Gush vs. Flash finals

Vintage Champs, 2007,
Gush vs. Gush finals

StarCityGames.com Vintage Open: Indianapolis, 2007, seven Gush decks in Top 8

Milano 2007,
Gush vs. Ichorid finals

StarCityGames.com Vintage Open: Chicago 2007, three Gush decks in Top 4

Valencia 2007,
Gush vs. Workshop finals

Annecy 2008,
Gush vs. Workshop finals

That’s not a random selection of tournaments just to prove my point — that’s literally every Vintage tournament in the world with over one hundred players for the entire period of time Gush was legal. The only major American tournament not on this list is Waterbury 12 in 2008 — which, by the way, had six Gush decks in the Top 8.

When trying to explain why the card was so insane, I think of a conversation I once had with Rich Shay about draw spells and tutors.

Andy: “Tutors are just inherently better than draw spells. A strong tutor engine (like Gifts Ungiven) is going to beat a strong draw engine.”

Rich: “What about Gush?”

Andy: “Gush isn’t a draw spell. It’s a tutor that finds half of your deck.”

With a wind-up like that you may think I’m about to shout that the sky is falling, but I’m not. Gush may not just steamroll the format as if it were… well, Gush. Things are different now.

Brainstorm being gone is obviously a huge deal. While Brainstorm helped every blue deck, she and Gush had a “greater than the sum of their parts” relationship. Gush’s “drawback” of returning two Islands to your hand and Brainstorm’s “drawback” of returning two cards to your deck teamed up to net five cards for one mana.

Sometimes “Draw two cards” was the least important text on the card — even if Gush didn’t resolve, Brainstorm swapped those two lands you returned for real cards. Wrap your head around that for a second — if your opponent counters Gush with a Red Elemental Blast, that’s the same raw card advantage for you as casting Ancestral Recall. (This would be a great place to argue against the value of raw card advantage, but Brainstorm turns it into the real deal.)

Of course, your opponent could counter the Brainstorms instead, but then you have free rein on your Gushes. If your opponent can counter both the Brainstorms and the Gushes… well, that strongly implies they’re playing a Gush deck, too.

You can’t really rely on that Brainstorm anymore, which means that sometimes a Gush is just a draw-two. You’re just about as likely to go broken now as you were before, but in games where you can’t, it’s harder to generate huge long-term advantages without really investing much like old Gush lists could.

On the other hand, Big Jace has more than proven himself as a Vintage competitor right now. Old Gush decks didn’t run too many four-drops because they just didn’t have to — but Jace, the Mind Sculptor leverages Gush like few unrestricted cards do. While he’s interesting, I wouldn’t expect too many Jace-Gush lists right out of the gate. People are paranoid about four-drops, and Jace doesn’t address the “Stax and Ichorid” problem very well.

Merchant Scroll has been restricted, too, and was a powerhouse before, but unlike Brainstorm, I think it’s more easily replaceable. Many Gush lists only ran three, anyway, and there are lots of cards that serve similar roles. Merchant Scroll’s most memorable function here was to keep the “Gushbond” engines running. With Fastbond out, Gush is no longer “merely” a free spell, it nets the same amount of mana that a Dark Ritual would. With Fastbond out, you want to keep drawing more Gushes, and because each Gush nets two mana, any spell that finds a Gush for two or less is essentially free.

Merchant Scrolls just acted as extra Gushes in that sense. It wasn’t at all uncommon to cast your first Gush, draw a Merchant Scroll, Scroll for another Gush, cast that, and naturally draw into the third Gush, Gush again, and draw a Brainstorm, which could find another Scroll for Gush number four, which then could draw into some combination of tutors for Yawgmoth’s Will. (Note that the second time around, you wouldn’t be paying for Merchant Scrolls, so your four post-Will Gushes just drew eight cards and generated eight mana.)

Merchant Scroll is in no way required for this; it just increases the chances of drawing more Gushes off the first. Regrowth does this just as well and saw play in some, but not all older Gush lists. Impulse is a card with similar value, which also performs Scroll’s other role quite admirably — having a play at the critical one-mana cost.

Ponder is also gone but will barely be noticed. Ponder never came close to the power level of the other cards mentioned and was only borderline playable as an unrestricted card. Fans of the
GAT builds of
seem to really love Battlegrowthing their Quirion Dryads, and accordingly may try to convince you that Ponder is some big loss. Ponder is profoundly replaceable, though I’m not entirely sure why you’d want to.

What’s missing, though, is likely not as important as what’s new. Lodestone Golem was the tipping point for Mishra’s Workshop decks, which are supposed to be the natural predator of Gush strategies. The first Mishra’s Workshop Prison decks were made as a reaction to the Gro-a-Tog decks during the first wave of Gush. I’d argue that in past years, Workshops weren’t even favorable in the matchup, but they’re stronger, faster, and more streamlined now than they ever have been. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Gush decks find themselves having to contort themselves to compete against Workshops, possibly so much that they lose a lot of their edge against the rest of the field.

On the subject of annoying artifacts, we can’t forget that Gush is bringing friends — Frantic Search and the whole of Scars of Mirrodin

Personally I’m not seeing Frantic Search getting there. The

style decks don’t need to generate incremental storm, and don’t want to take the hit in hand size against control. The all-in combo decks have never been that successful to begin with. I doubt some kind of High Tide deck would make it anyway, but even if it otherwise could, waiting for three turns to cast Frantic Search seems like a bad plan in a post-Gush, Workshop-heavy world.

I don’t want to drag you into another full set review. Matt Sperling
did a great job

of summing up the most talked-about Eternal cards: Mox Opal, Leonin Arbiter, Liquimetal Coating, and Ratchet Bomb.

Early reports seem to indicate people are happy with Steel Hellkites, though myself I tend to avoid that kind of mana commitment when I play Shops. I tend to avoid six-drops altogether, but for those that aren’t put off by such things, at six you have Duplicant. While Duplicant might not be as good as Steel Hellkite against the guy with a board of Moxes, it’s much better against the guy with Steel Hellkite.

Beyond that, it’s worth noting that there are some relevant support players. Contagion Clasp and Sylvok Replica aren’t sexy, but I could see them both being correct in the right environment. Note that Sylvok Replica dodges both Thorn of Amethyst and Lodestone Golem, and Contagion Clasp is colorless and Null Rod-proof. Cards like these that have an effect we already use — but in a slightly different way — are worth keeping in mind. It wouldn’t take much to push either one of these into a deck.

For the moment though, my favorite Scars card is the little blue Artificer.

I hear you kids like decklists:

Riddlesmith is a card with a lot of potential for abuse, and if there’s one thing I like about Magic, it’s abuse. In this list, Riddlesmith tries to steal back a little of what Brainstorm left behind. Remember that paragraph where I talked about turning lands into real cards? Riddlesmith can provide a pretty passable version of that filtering, after the not-insignificant step of actually casting him. There’s a lot of interaction here that might be obvious, but it’s probably worth mentioning.

With Riddlesmith + Sensei’s Divining Top, every upkeep you can tap the Top to draw, getting it back on your draw step and replaying it, which gives you an extra loot each turn.

With Riddlesmith + two Tops, things get quickly out of hand, as you swap one Top for the other. You’ll get a loot for every mana you pay, which makes it easier to get:

Helm of Awakening + two Tops lets you swap each Top out for each other as many times as you want. On its own, this does nothing at all, but with a Riddlesmith, you can loot through your entire deck for free and generate infinite storm for a storm spell (like, say, Brain Freeze).

Hurkyl’s Recall is obviously just a strong card to have access to against Stax, but Riddlesmith makes Hurkyl’s valuable against any deck. Returning your own artifacts gives you, not only the chance to replay them to loot some more, but the ability to discard redundant ones.

Hurkyl’s Recall + Sensei’s Divining Top isn’t a new trick, but it’s more likely to happen in this deck than others. By putting the second trigger of all your Tops on the stack, then responding with a Hurkyl’s targeting yourself, you’ll draw the cards without having to put any of your Tops back on top of your library. This is particularly potent if you have multiple Tops, or replay them into a Riddlesmith to get more selection out of each.

Though it’s hard to predict what blue decks are going to look like by the end of the year, the popularity of Jace, the Mind Sculptor in recent months has raised the value of creatures in general. Dark Confidant has become extremely popular in control decks that are built to go long. While Riddlesmith doesn’t provide the raw card advantage that Dark Confidant can, it can provide card selection quickly and more frequently. Gush itself already provides raw card advantage in spades, and the last thing it wants to do is wait around a turn to see another card.

I’ve been pleased with the list so far, though it hasn’t particularly blown me away. The Brain Freeze and Helm of Awakening combo may be too cute; though I’m not counting it out yet — Brain Freeze gets slightly better in a field of Gush.

So where does this leave us?

While Gush will certainly start showing up in some Top 8s, it won’t be as simple as just porting an old list over. Hopefully things won’t be as dirty as they were the last few times Wizards was silly enough to let this thing run free. In any case, the next few tournaments are fairly large unknowns at this point.

This is all a good thing for you, the Vintage player. For me, the Vintage writer, it means a lot more work.

Andy Probasco