Anyone who puts thought into any given endeavor is likely to develop a particular outlook or perspective on the matter. I generally have no shortage of explanations or frameworks for thinking about Vintage Magic. Whether my ways of thinking about Vintage are accurate or not is beside the point; I think they are true, or they approximate the truth, and they aid me in my preparation and analysis. I’m going to present to you a vignette that has broken my view of Vintage and left it in shambles – a ruinous heap of theory and worthless nuggets of wisdom.
I’m opening with this vignette first rather than chronologically presenting Day 2 of my tournament report because it captures, so clearly, the story I want to tell.
The situation is this: it’s round 5 of SCG Roanoke, Day 2. I am X-1. If I win this match I guarantee myself a spot in the Top 8 and will walk out of this tournament with nothing less than a Mox.
I’m paired up against Michael Heatherington. Michael split top prizes the day before with a close variant on Meandeck Gifts, a deck I’m intimately familiar. I happen to know that he’s piloting the same deck.
I win the roll and elect to play.
Since both of us mulligan, the disadvantage is neutralized.
My opening hand is:
Study that for a moment. My view of the Gifts mirror is quite straightforward. You play the control role and then, when the opportunity ripens, you switch roles and win the game. In practical terms, this means “End of turn Gifts Ungiven, main phase Yawgmoth’s Will.”
This hand seems to lend itself very nicely to the control mirror. First, it has the complement of permission spells. The Force of Will can protect whatever early plays I may go for, and the Mana Drain means that I can engage in a sustained counter battle if we both assert the control role in the early-midgame. A topdecked Blue spell means that I can hold Mana Drain and Force of Will open to win a counter battle.
Also, the fact that I’m holding Yawgmoth’s Will means that I can leverage cards like Gifts more liberally. I won’t have to tutor for the Will and so I’ll have a much stronger mid-late game position. If I can bait him on his end-step, it will be a very easy matter to untap and win with Yawgmoth’s Will.
Finally, since I’m on the play, I should be able to resolve the Demonic Tutor before he can play Mana Drain. This hand could use one more mana source and another Blue spell, but given the six cards I have, I couldn’t ask for much more.
The game lasted four turns. These four turns aren’t that complicated so I want you follow along carefully.
I open the game with Island.
I draw Brainstorm.
This will be my only opportunity to Demonic without having to fight over it and defeat his possible Mana Drain. After a moment’s consideration, I find Ancestral and pass the turn.
He plays an Island and replays the Mox.
I draw another Island and play it.
I am quite happy about this as I can now play Ancestral with Mana Drain available.
I move to my second main phase and cast Ancestral Recall.
He appears to consider countering it, but lets it resolve. I’m fairly certain that he has Force of Will at this point.
I pass the turn.
Mike plays another Island and passes with three lands and a Mox untapped.
I untap and draw another Brainstorm.
I play my Volcanic Island.
My board is:
My hand is:
Thinking about the game state, I feel like I’m in a borderline dominant position. I have plenty of countermagic and I have the Gifts Ungiven. I have resolved Ancestral Recall and in an apparently strong control role at the moment. I have the mana advantage and card advantage. My plan is to win next turn after drawing him into fight over Gifts Ungiven on his end-step.
I play a main phase Brainstorm in my second main phase to help me dig a little more. I see:
I put back a Mox and a Brainstorm.
I play a Mox Ruby with three lands untapped and pass the turn.
My experience with the deck suggests that the role to play in this position is the control role. You play the control role until your opponent instigates a counterwar. My superior firepower, my tempo, and card advantage stemming from my playing first and having resolved Ancestral Recall reinforce my view that I can successfully play the control role here. If I were in the weaker position with fewer mana, fewer cards, and fewer good cards, perhaps I would think that my only chance to win is from playing the aggressor. All of my experience suggests that I play control and that I will be able to do so successfully.
All of my experience was wrong.
In my end-step, Mike makes a play that startles me. He plays Gifts Ungiven.
I tap two of my three Islands and Mana Drain it, relishing the knowledge that I’m going to get four colorless mana next turn and likely able to resolve not simply one Gifts, but likely two Gifts and my Yawgmoth’s Will for an excellent endgame.
Mike has other plans.
Michael takes his turn.
He draws a card and plays Ancestral Recall, which resolves.
After drawing three cards, he plays Mana Vault off his Mox.
My thought is that he’ll get the Colossus and go for the kill with what he thinks is a favorable board state. My guess is that he thinks he’ll be able to leverage the tempo threat of Colossus and the card advantage he just netted off of Ancestral to eek out a game win despite the fact that he knows I’m going to have a lot of strong plays on my next turn in part due to my Mana Drain mana.
He replays Black Lotus.
He replays the Mana Vault and taps it.
He plays a Fetchland from his graveyard.
He fetches out Underground Sea taps it and taps the other Underground in play for BB.
He uses the BB and the two colorless from the Vault to Tendrils me for exactly twenty damage.
He has no more mana remaining.
Michael used his Gifts Ungiven on my end-step to draw out all of my countermagic and then with a combination of Ancestral Recall, Tinker, and Yawgmoth’s Will was able to kill me despite having virtually no graveyard. [Note that he could have Repealed a Mox to generate more storm if he had needed so long as he sacrificed the first Black Lotus for UUU.]
I am simply flabbergasted.
What happened? How could I have lost a game where I appeared to have such a dominant position?
The easy and simple answer would be to say that he was lucky: he had Yawgmoth’s Will and Tinker after Ancestral despite his Gifts not resolving. True, he barely had enough mana to kill me and all of the components fell into place. If he had had Demonic instead of Yawgmoth’s Will, he wouldn’t have had the mana to kill me. He could have Tinkered up Colossus and then Time Walked, but I would have had a really powerful untap and probably would have won the game. He could have drawn more than just Yawgmoth’s Will there, or seen more than just one or two combination of cards to win the game. He could have directly drawn the Lotus and Will or Time Walk and Will, among others.
The alternative explanation is that he baited me with Gifts: he used my end-step like a Black Lotus for four free mana. He played a card I had to counter. If I didn’t counter his Gifts, he could have gotten a powerful mixture of permission and bombs ensuring that his Ancestral would have resolved and his powerful hand went into action.
But that explanation doesn’t wash either. The truth is that if he were Control Slaver and had just played Thirst for Knowledge right there, I would have made the same play. I would have Mana Drained it and then Force of Willed his attempt to counter my Mana Drain, leaving me exposed on his turn.
Somehow I lost after having what I perceived to be a nearly invincible position for the control mirror. Why was I so wrong?
I asked my teammates for insight. My friend Paul Mastriano put it like this:
I had good cards. Those cards helped me get where I was. But his cards were better. If my cards were not that good, I wouldn’t have done what was able to do.
That sounds a bit fatalist, doesn’t it?
Here’s how I interpret what Paul said:
I had no chance to successfully play the control role. The way I generally play Gifts is that I establish an early control role and protect it until the point at which I hit a critical mass of resources – of mana, cards in hand, and graveyard options… and then I play an end-step bomb, forcing my opponent to fight over it. Then I untap and win. Unlike a true control deck, I don’t wait until the very end of a long game to make this play, but I tend to do it around turn 5 or so.
The biggest mistake I made all weekend – a recurring mistake – was that I tried to always assume the control role. And as we know, mis-assignment of role equals game loss. The last year and half of tournament experience made me think that it was possible to play control. After all, Meandeck Gifts has had virtually no changes since I created it in April of last year.
Yet, astonishingly and paradoxically, it has changed enormously. How people perceive, think about, and play against it has all changed. And in turn, I have to change as well. Not a single card in the deck may have changed, and yet it has turned from a control deck into a combo deck with control elements.
The advantages I had in the game: resolving Ancestral first (and playing first) gave me a one turn window of opportunity to not lose. Without all of the advantages I had, I wouldn’t have even had that opportunity.
Looking back at the game, I don’t really see a window of opportunity for me to exploit. There are, at most, three different things that I could have done. Take a look at the game again, briefly summarized:
What could I have done differently?
1) I could have played a Brainstorm on his turn 3 end-step. This would have cut me off from Mana Drain mana and let him resolve his Gifts or Ancestral Recall here because we both had Force of Wills. However, if he did nothing, the situation would have been the same. If he did go for the Gifts or Ancestral there, there is nothing different I could have done on my main-phase except that I would have had Mana Drain mana up on his fourth turn, a fact that doesn’t really matter if he has resolved Gifts or Ancestral.
2) I could have tried to Gifts on my fourth turn main-phase. But that doesn’t really seem sensible unless I Brainstormed on his third turn end-step and saw the second Mox. Then I could have played Mox, Mox, Gifts on turn 4 and gotten mana. In that event I could play Yawgmoth’s Will with two wrinkles. First, if he counterspells my Gifts, I would be able to Mana Drain his counterspells and use the colorless mana to help fuel my Yawgmoth’s Will. Since I had Will in hand, I could just Gifts for Mox Jet, Lotus Petal, Black Lotus, and another artifact accelerant and play Will in my second main-phase.
In retrospect, it seems like I made all the right plays and still lost. The only realistic possibility is if I tried to play Brainstorm on his third turn end-step with the intent of trying to find another Mox. Then I could have won on my fourth turn.
But given the fact that I thought I had such a great chance of winning simply by playing the control role, going through such a script seemed silly. Nonetheless, it was my only out.
Should I have to ask myself: if I lose a counter war prior to my opponent’s fourth turn, should I have to think about them just winning? Perhaps that’s where we are in the control mirror nowadays.
Like I said, this could have been Control Slaver playing Thirst for Knowledge and the result could have been the same.
The lesson, it seems to me, is that the control role is obsolete. Meandeck Gifts might as well be TPS Storm combo.
I built Meandeck Gifts to be the ultimate control deck. And it was… for a while. Meandeck Gifts transformed the format and is no longer capable of controlling the decks around it. While the decks haven’t changed, the way they are played and understood has changed quite dramatically. My efforts to shoehorn my deck into a control mode have repeatedly led to risky plays and game losses. Think about my losses in my article last week. My game 3 losses to Pitch Long, and even my lopsided game 2 wins against Pitch Long. I could have won all of those matches by playing more aggressively.
Now onto my full report.
Round 1: Albert, playing the Sullivan Solution.
Albert played Underground Sea.
I played another land and passed the turn.
We played draw go for a couple of turns and my hand became:
My board was:
I could Mystical for Misdirection, and then Brainstorm into it and Misdirect the Hymn to him making him lose two of the three cards left in his hand. If he had Force of Will though, I’ll lose my whole hand.
I let it happen.
I end up Gifting for:
My opening hand is:
Round 2: Eric Becker
I go into this game fully expecting some highly disruptive antics, plenty of Wastelands, and annoying creatures. I expect to try to establish a manabase, stem the bleeding, and create card advantage to eek out wins. Alternatively, I want to blow him out of the water. I want to be careful not to stumble into his disruption. Play prudently around Daze and Stifle, but not overly conservatively. The mystery was whether he was running Chalices or Null Rods.
He plays a land and passes.
I play Ancestral Recall.
He draws and then scoops.
I sideboarded in:
I sideboarded out:
My opening hand is:
I Force the Chalice pitching Time Walk
I draw Tinker
It resolves and the game is over.
My top card is Yawgmoth’s Will.
I guess the moral of the story is that playing control is for losers.
Round 3: John playing Control Gifts
John mulligans to five and plays:
Not a bad mulligan to five.
I win on turn 3.
My assumption is that he is playing Control Slaver. Over the course of our banter, I somehow let him in on that and he makes some sort of comment about playing Goblin Welder in a previous match as a way of making me think that he was playing Slaver.
I sideboard for Slaver.
We both build a control position.
I play land and have the option of playing Demonic Tutor or Merchant Scroll. If I Scroll, he’ll know what card I’m getting. If I play Demonic Tutor, he may think I’m getting one card when I’m really getting another. I play the Demonic Tutor intended to make him think I’m getting Ancestral when I really grab Misdirection.
He plays Tolarian Academy.
He has Academy, Sea, and an Island.
I play another land.
Over the next few turns, neither of us can find the fourth land so that we can Scroll with Drain up. Eventually, he goes for it and plays a Scroll with one mana up, and I play Mana Drain.
I untap and Chain of Vapor the Chalice. He plays Ancestral, which I attempt to Misdirect. He Misdirects the Misdirection to the Chain of Vapor, which the judge says doesn’t change the Chain of Vapor since the only legal target remains Chalice.
My Chain resolves, and I resolve Yawgmoth’s Will and win the game.
I am 3-0 and 6-0 in games.
One more win and I’m in the Top 8.
Round 4: Jeremy Seroogy playing Stax, winner of SCG Richmond
Jeremy knocked me out of SCG Rochester Top 4. This is my chance to even the score. This is a classic Gifts versus Stax match and I’ve always known this matchup to be squarely in my favor. My heavy basic land manabase and tutor power give me plenty of resilience.
I’ve written about the Stax matchup a lot here.
My hand is solid and most importantly I won the roll.
I drop Lotus Petal and pass.
Jeremy opens with:
I play land and Time Walk.
Now, I want to Vampiric Tutor for Tinker, but I will only have two mana up after I Vamp in addition to the Petal, which I need to sacrifice. If Petal had been a Mox, I would have played Tinker immediately.
I’ve drawn a gross amount of lands and I’m holding nothing but Vampiric Tutor and lands.
Jeremy plays City of Brass
Chalice for two, again. This time it resolves.
I do the latter.
Jeremy plays Smokestack.
I swing with Colossus.
He plays Sundering Titan, killing some lands.
I attack with Colossus and he blocks with Titan, blowing up some of my lands. I made the crucial mistake of playing a land before I attacked. As a consequence, he can ramp the Stack to kill my Colossus.
In either event, it doesn’t matter because the last card in his hand is Balance, which he can play after he sacrifices the Chalice for two.
This is astonishing.
My experience against Stax has always been to play the control role. Yet, for some reason or another, that didn’t pan out. I don’t know whether I just had too much land or what. It’s worth noting that Vroman was fond of saying that only bad players go for early Colossus against Stax. Has that maxim now been reversed by the changing tide in Vintage? That is, has Meandeck Gifts become so integrated into the format that it cannot play the control role effectively?
I sideboard in:
Him: City of Brass.
I Mana Drain it.
I couldn’t have been more surprised when he gave me Ancestral and Tinker.
I played the land and used the remaining mana to play Tinker.
Round 5: See my game one against Mike in the opening of this article
After an extremely frustrating game loss, I mulligan into:
The dissonance is jarring. The mana is horrible for the spells I’ve drawn.
He plays Island, go.
I play Library of Alexandria.
At this point, I become convinced that LoA should be Underground Sea number 3. This cost me this game.
He plays a land and Merchant Scrolls.
I play Academy and pass.
I swing for eleven and pass.
I watch helplessly as he Wipes Away my Colossus, staring at a useless Duress in my hand that wants so badly to have been played, but sat there doing nothing because I ran Library instead of Underground Sea number 3.
I’m now 3-2 and out of contention for Top 8. However, I play on since there is only one more round left in the tournament.
Take a look at the decklist before reading on. Albert has been discussing this deck extensively in the forums and elsewhere. It is worth a closer look in a future article.
Having been a progenitor of Ichorid in Vintage, I know what he’s going to do. I innovated over half of this deck. Nonetheless, I don’t know the precise details about how he generally activates Dread Return or which creatures he uses to fuel it.
He mulligans to one!
The plan with this deck is to mulligan until you find Bazaar. He was on the play.
He obviously does nothing.
For some reason I do not play the Lotus Petal in my hand.
He topdecks Chalice of the Void and plays it for zero after a split second of hesitation.
It doesn’t matter, however, as he scoops.
I sideboard out Mana Drains and bring in:
He happily keeps a hand of seven and plays Leyline of the Void on turn zero.
He plays Bazaar and activates it discarding:
My hand is:
He takes the Merchant Scroll
On my turn, I draw Time Walk and make one of the stronger Gifts I’ve made in tournament play in terms of its efficiency given what I have.
What do you get?
To make things interesting, I’ll post the Gifts solution in the forums along with the rest of this game.
I ended up winning the game. The two players above me ended up drawing and that moved me into ninth place. I walked out of the tournament with a Timetwister!
By now the recurring theme is that Meandeck Gifts is not and should not be primarily a Control deck that can combo out. It is essentially combo with control elements. If that is true, then I can’t help but wonder if it is misbuilt. The way I conceptualized how the deck operated informed its design in every way. I used Red Elemental Blasts to solidify the control role. My sideboard charts were designed to protect that role. My preference of Fact or Fiction over Duress exemplified my concern for the control mirror. My decision to not run Tormod’s Crypt or Dark Ritual until Sunday reflected my belief that board cards like T. Crypt don’t fit well into a pure control role and that Dark Ritual was inferior to Fact or Fiction. If Meandeck Gifts can’t play control, I think it is in need of a redesign or at least some serious remodeling. I believe this to be the case.
Next week we’ll begin the Vintage Year in Review!