Dark Ascension Set Review: Part Two

Brian DeMars and Mark Hornung wrap up their Vintage set review with Grafdigger’s Cage, Gravecrawler, Tragic Slip, and some other surprising candidates.

BRIAN: Welcome back to the Dark Ascension Vintage set review with Brian DeMars and Mark Hornung. Last time we talked about some of the hits that are likely to make a splash in Vintage in the upcoming months, and now we are going to finish up with the rest of the spoiler. In particular, in this section we are going to discuss possibly one of the most important Vintage printings since Jace, the Mind Sculptor—the much subtler, still game-changing Grafdigger’s Cage!

Here we go!


MARK: Gravecrawler I feel can fit into Vintage but not exactly with the deck in Vintage that creates Zombies. I feel this card just simply doesn’t make the cut in traditional-style Dredge decks, and I see no reason to abandon the raw speed and power of those types of Dredge decks. Bloodghast, Narcomoeba, and Ichorid are all NOT ZOMBIES… This means for Dredge to actually be able to cast this guy from the graveyard, you would need to have triggered a Bridge from Below or cast one from your hand first. I feel that if you reach a game state in which you can reasonably accomplish this, you are most likely very much ahead, making it a very marginal inclusion for Dredge.

The argument can be made that you can attempt to have some sort of transformational sideboard into a Dark Depths and/or aggro creature plan, which would make Gravecrawler a nice inclusion to the 75. But after some testing with the transformational Dredge sideboards, I just found them to be wildly inconsistent and not worth the risk.

What I mean by this is that a lot of times, people still need to draw and/or play their traditional hate cards, and because of this, they mulligan aggressively to them. However, I have witnessed too many times people keeping marginal hands with little to no hate, or they have little to no hate with a fast Tinker-Blightteel or Time VaultVoltaic Key game plan. Because you are diluting the deck’s power and explosiveness by using a transformational and slower game plan, you open yourself up to potential losses that could have been easy wins. 

Basically I feel that these aggro or Dark Depths transformational sideboards for Dredge aren’t necessarily worth the risk despite the potential reward you could receive. With that said, I feel Gravecrawler gives us a lot of deck design space, which can lead us one step closer to a possible Survival of the Fittest archetype in the format. Being able to chain these guys via Survival of the Fittest into Vengevines gives the deck a consistent way to potentially trigger Vengevines. At the end of the day, I feel Gravecrawler might not see Vintage play, but as I mentioned, there is a lot of room for deck design out there…

Here is an example Survival list I have been messing around with. I modified a really old Vintage Survival list—Land Grant and all—and inserted some new goodies, including two from Dark Ascension (Faithless Looting and Gravecrawler).

Most people would have Scavenging Ooze here, but I chose Withered Wretch since it is a Zombie. This is obviously a very rough mockup of a deck, but with the brief testing I have had with it, it’s been extremely fun.

BRIAN: Mark and I talked at length about this card, and both of our preliminary intuitions about what this card is or isn’t ended up matching the consensus we reached after talking about it for a while. Personally, I don’t think that Dredge decks as they are constructed today really benefit from the inclusion of this card. It seems to me that if you are recurring Gravecrawlers with Bridge tokens in play, chances are the game is already over.

However, I will say that I think that this card is a good card and that there are other possibilities available for it.

Mark already pointed out that Survival of the Fittest could create a home for this guy, and that is certainly a possibility. If the creature trend continues to expand and thrive as it has been doing recently, there is a distinct possibility that new space for new types of decks could be created, and this card fills a nice role in a possible niche deck.

By the way, don’t do this (because it doesn’t work!):

It does work! One-drop, two-drop, BEATDOWN!”

I remember years ago a friend of mine who doesn’t really play Vintage specifically showed up to one of the old-time R.I.W. Power tournaments with what I would basically describe as a rock deck and made top 8 in a 45-player field.

(It was Phil Cape, and he’s a legitimate pro gamer—but still, THE ROCK!!!)

The deck used Bazaar of Baghdad but mainly as a way to set up other subtle advantages via Life from the Loam (with Fastbond) and Crucible of Worlds and then controlled the game with hand disruption (Cabal Therapy and Duress) and got its beatdown on with Tarmogoyf.

I distinctly remember he played with Withered Wretch in that deck—which just so happens to be a Walker!

Something to think about.

Huntmaster of the Fells

“There is a new Werewolf Mayor in town: the Mayor of VALUETOWN.”

BRIAN: I don’t expect you to understand or believe me, but I think there is a better than two-to-one chance I play with this card in Vintage sometime in my lifetime.

When I went to Waterbury with the Meandeck guys last fall, we met up with Paul Mastriano in a strip-mall parking lot. There just so happened to be a Valuetown Furniture store there, and for a moment I slipped into a J.D. style flashback about what it must be like inside the Valuetown: there were Electrolyzes, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Crucible of Worlds, and Night’s Whispers EVERYWHERE!

If I had known about this card then, he would have been in my dream vision of Valuetown. Now, Huntmaster clearly isn’t the prototypical Vintage staple playable—he is a slow four-drop R/G monster. However, I could see a card like this being the absolute stone blade being boarded in from a creatureless Vintage Control deck against a Fish deck. Aside from having a Swords to Plowshares on the spot or using a hard counter on it, I am pretty sure this card could beat Fish all by itself!

Flip it, kill a guy, flip it, get a guy, etc.

Good powerful cards are simply that, and this card is so good it’s special. Maybe not everyday Vintage special, but at the right time when you want a card that does something like this—he’s about the best there is.

MARK: While I am not 100% there with Brian on this card, I feel he makes some valid points. When this guy hits the board, Fish decks don’t have much to combat it with aside from Swords/Path and Tarmogoyf. The only problem I have with him is being able to flip him enough to create an army of blockers to contend with opposing Tarmogoyfs.

Most decks that aren’t blue may have some trouble flipping him back and forth, and the blue decks that can have some other options to deal with Fish decks; Massacre comes to mind. If this card were to have a place in Vintage, it would most likely be in an R/G/x or R/G Beats deck.

 Tragic Slip

MARK: Tragic Slip’s applications in Vintage are pretty strong I feel and very playable in the format currently. The main/default ability on the card is -1/-1, which kills the numerous Dark Confidants and Snapcaster Mages in the format right now; additionally, this can by default kill any Spirit tokens an Oath of Druids deck may attempt to give you. Ironically enough, I feel Tragic Slip is BEST in decks playing Dark Confidant and Snapcaster Mage. Snapcaster Mage and Dark Confidant don’t stack up well in combat being 2/1; however, thanks to Tragic Slip’s morbid ability, trading and/or chump blocking in combat can be a very reasonable option, especially considering that it will allow even Blightsteel Colossus to slip up…

Tragic Slip’s morbid ability also gives you another way to deal with Tarmogoyfs, Lodestone Golems, Karns, and the format’s various other creatures, which have been growing at a very continuous rate recently. Thanks to Dark Confidant and Snapcaster Mage and the value they provide, blocking with them and then taking advantage of Tragic Slip’s morbid can help maximize the value of your 2/1s, especially when you’re staring down multiple Tarmogoyfs and/or Lodestone Golems.

BRIAN: Any card that can kill a Dark Confidant for one mana that can nix a Blightteel is worth a look. The big thing about this card is that it is going to be competing for space with Dismember. However, the biggest draw to this card will probably be playing it in a deck that also plays Dark Confidant, where the caster is going to actually care about their life total.

Unfortunately, the card that Tragic Slip has the most synergy with, Qasali Pridemage, is already in a color combination that doesn’t need this particular ability—already having Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile.

Once again, a Rock style deck is where I think a card like this could really shine. The synergy between Cabal Therapy and Tragic Slip is perhaps one of the best interactions around for this card; not to mention Rock decks pride themselves on killing creatures anyway.

Sorin, Lord of Innistrad

“Would I play this instead of Jace, the Mind Sculptor?”

BRIAN: You have to love the Vintage set review because it is probably the one review on the planet where the authors are going to tell you this card is a non-issue!

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is about a million times better than this card in Vintage (and probably in general), so you would need a very good reason to play this card instead. That isn’t to say that Sorin, Lord of Innistrad wouldn’t be a nice fit in your Vintage B/W Tokens deck…

(Don’t play B/W Tokens in Vintage; I was being sarcastic.)

I suppose, this card COULD (and that is a big leap to could) be playable from a control deck against a creature deck if you really wanted to pay four mana for an easier-to-kill Bitterblossom that gains a life instead of costs you one. However, every slot that such a control deck devoted to Sorin they could just be playing Jace…

MARK: Like any format, like any planeswalker…does Sorin pass the Jace Exam…?

AKA The Jace Aptitude Tests



A. Yes
B. No

  1. Does your planeswalker cost four or less?
  2. Does your planeswalker draw you at least one card with any of its abilities?
  3. Does your planeswalker even draw cards?
  4. Does your planeswalker win the game by himself/herself?

If you answered “No” to any of the above questions, your planeswalker may not qualify for Vintage.

Now obviously there are exceptions like Tezzeret the Seeker and Agent of Bolas, but Sorin obviously doesn’t fit any of them.

Torch Fiend

MARK: Torch Fiend is in a tough spot because it really is competing with Ingot Chewer for artifact removal in my eyes. With that said, however, Torch Fiend fills a different role than Ingot Chewer and would not replace the same slots in the same decks. I see Torch Fiend fitting into a more R/G Christmas Beatings type deck or even in a TMWA/TPWA build such as the ones I talk about here. I feel this card is a slight upgrade to Manic Vandal because you can run him out early to put pressure on your opponent and still get value later by destroying a pesky artifact. Torch Fiend is going to compete mostly with Goblin Vandal in these decks. With the continuing growth of creatures in Vintage, I feel Torch Fiend may get a slight edge here since he doesn’t have to attack to destroy an artifact for you. 

BRIAN: When is this card going to be good?

Specifically, he’s going to be good when you either don’t need his ability or when you get to attack with him for a while and then GET to use his ability later.

The most comparable double I can think of for this card is Qasali Pridemage, but if Pridemage is the gold standard, then Torch Fiend is essentially an IOU for a Snapple.

Qasali, for two mana, has an extra toughness, an extra ability (exalted), a better primary ability (hits artifacts AND ENCHANTMENTS, e.g. Oath of Druids), and is green—which means it is a tutor target in Green Sun’s Zenith decks.

In order for me to play with a card like this, I would need one of the following criteria to be met in my deck:

  1. I am very aggressively attacking in the red zone. Ex. R/G Beats.
  2. I am very aggressively trying to utilize equipment. Ex. R/W Stoneforge.
  3. I have some sort of way to take advantage of having a 2/1. Ex. Skullclamp.

Elbrus, the Binding Blade | Withengar Unbound

Stoneforge Mystic IS and HAS been Vintage playable!!!

See here: http://www.starcitygames.com/magic/vintage/23398_Vintage_AvantGarde_8th_At_Meandeck_Open_With_Bant_Midrange_Stoneblade.html

And the 7th place deck here:


Stoneforge Mystic gets a new toy with this one, which will be a great addition to any deck playing Mystic. What we have here is another semi-Batterskull type card. It definitely doesn’t replace Batterskull, but what it does is open up another tutor possibility, one that could potentially swing the game your way. Elbrus, the Binding Blade only transforms after you successfully connect with it equipped to a creature, which currently in this growing creature metagame might make it a bit tricky to get your 13/13 beat stick. What really makes this card playable besides Stoneforge Mystic is that fact that it only costs one to equip, making it very manageable when it hits play.

I wouldn’t necessarily want this card against Workshops however, as they can just Phyrexian Metamorph your legendary guy away. It might also be very tough to connect against a Workshop deck given the size of their creatures—especially Karn, Silver Golem on defense. Finally Batterskull is just better against Workshops and Fish strategies than this card will be.

Elbrus, the Binding Blade will fit best against strategies whose creatures are at a minimum or that you can easily beat in combat, basically blue decks. Overall I feel we might see this card if Stoneforge Mystic strategies continue to evolve and get played, as I feel it is an excellent card to have against blue decks to really get a lot of pressure on them quickly.

BRIAN: Elbrus, the Binding Blade is playable and will see Vintage play in decks with Stoneforge Mystic.

The sick thing about this card is that if you play a Batterskull and an Elbrus, I think that it is very reasonable to also play Tinker without necessarily needing to play a dead drawn card like Blightsteel Colossus. Also, keep in mind that is TWO Tinker targets for U/W or Bant Midrange that are not affected by Grave-Jail, i.e. Grafdigger’s Cage! W00T.

To be honest, I am really surprised to see an equipment like this one that appears to be so tailor-made to be Stoneforged into play. I like the utility that this card provides, as it puts a short clock on an opponent, opposed to Batterskull, which puts a grinding, slow clock on them.

One thing is for certain; if they keep printing awesome busted mythic rare equipment, Stoneforge Mystic’s Eternal stock is only going to continue to rise over time!

Grafdigger’s Cage


MARK: Yeah…I am sure everyone has seen this card.

You don’t need me to tell you, but some of the cards and decks it shuts down while in play include the following:

Tinker into a Bot
Yawgmoth’s Will
Goblin Welder into a Bot
Snapcaster Mage
Traditional Oath of Druids Decks
Dredge Decks

You only need to look at any Vintage Top 8 to really see how encompassing the effect from this card will have. Virtually five to six decks in EVERY Vintage Top 8 is affected by this card. So what does it all mean moving forward?

Decks will have to realize that this is a real card and one that will see heavy play. I feel that most of the heavy play, however, will come out of the sideboard as opposed to the maindeck. For all the cards/decks that Grafdigger’s Cage does shut down, there are just too many instances where the card does NOTHING!!

Against Workshops: NOTHING!

Against Landstill: NOTHING!

Against aggro strategies: NOTHING!

Against Tarmogoyfs: NOTHING!

Against Time VaultVoltaic Key: NOTHING!

I expect a shift in the metagame because of this card, but in all actuality, it shouldn’t be that big of a change. If you look at that short list above, those are recent tournament-winning strategies, so if you want to maindeck a card that does NOTHING against recent tournament winning strategies, be my guest, but when you lose with three Grafdigger’s Cages in play when your opponent Tinkers into the second half of their Time Vault combo, you will only have yourself to blame. One more caution to everyone is that this card should be treated as nothing more than a colorless one-mana Yixlid Jailer when dealing with Dredge. This should not replace Leyline of the Void where applicable!!

I repeat this SHOULD NOT replace Leyline of the Void where applicable!!

This is a great addition to Leyline of the Void and gives every deck access to a Yixlid Jailer type shutdown card against Dredge. I still feel that you should look to diversify your Dredge hate if you are playing black however, since Jailer and Leyline of the Void are still very much superior to this card. With Leyline of the Void, they can’t dig as they are building their graveyard; whereas with Cage/Jailer, they still can. Decks like Workshops and Landstill can now have an extremely powerful card for the Dredge matchup, traditionally one that is very weak for them. This will spearhead the metagame shift in my opinion.

Workshops, Landstill, and Fish decks will continue to grow in popularity thanks to this card giving those decks the tools necessary to compete and make the other decks play fair. I also think Time Vault/Voltaic Key is a strong addition to any deck running Tinker/Blightteel now to give you an extra route to victory against Cage.

The only possible maindeck inclusion for Grafdigger’s Cage at this time is in Fish strategies. Fish strategies want to play fair, get into the red zone, attack with 2/2s, etc. Grafdigger’s Cage ensures that whatever deck they are playing against plays fair; not to mention the fact that this card singlehandedly helps two of their worst matchups, Oath of Druids and Dredge. Speaking with Mike Noble, noted Fish-ologist, he feels that this card replaces the Null Rod/Stony Silence slot. I am inclined to agree with him given the amount of times I have seen him Meddling Mage Tinker or Yawgmoth’s Will alone.

Grafdigger’s Cage ultimately will lead us into a metagame shift but one that is more “fair.” I still feel that Yawgmoth’s Will, Tinker, Oath of Druids, and Dredge will continue winning just as much as they always have, but this card will allow for more archetypes to spawn and compete on a level playing field. Mental Misstep, Nature’s Claim, and Trygon Predator already see tons of play in Vintage, as do other cards that beat and get around Grafdigger’s Cage. Grafdigger’s Cage’s biggest contribution to Vintage in my eyes is that it allows for more condensed sideboards. You should still run six to seven cards for Dredge, but now two-three of those cards are extremely useful in other matchups and aren’t as narrow as Dredge hate cards have traditionally been.

BRIAN: Last but certainly not least…

I think that Mark’s assessment here is pretty much spot on. The key thing I would like to reiterate is that Grafdigger’s Cage merely existing does not actually pulverize any particular archetype out of existence. Actually, Grafdigger’s Cage being played doesn’t even necessarily nuke anything out of the sky.

Much has been made about me complaining about how unfair or undesirable the current Dredge deck is in modern Vintage. My biggest critique of Dredge has always been that the deck has a ridiculously high game one win percentage because there has traditionally been no relevant cards one can play in their maindeck against them without drastically compromising every single other matchup.

Grafdigger’s Cage is a big piece of the puzzle that SHOULD pull Dredge closer to reality. Grafdigger’s Cage is the type of card that could very realistically be played in a wide range of decks and, while great against Dredge, will also be great for those decks against other popular and powerful strategies. For instance, creature decks will love playing with a few copies of this card because it helps with the Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, Oath of Druids, and Dredge matchups. For Mishra’s Workshop, it also solves the same issues.

I also think that this card could very easily put Trinket Mage back onto the map. Bomberman recently made the top 4 at the Meandeck Open and seems really well positioned to do some damage in the upcoming months.

“Coming soon to a Vintage tournament near you!”

Here is the scoop on this card: most decks only need to maindeck one or two copies of it. There will be decks that really NEED this ability that will play four, but most competitive decks probably don’t want that many. For instance, in my Bant Midrange deck, I would only play one in the maindeck and then start thinking about ways to get Trinket Mage in there.

The key with this card is that it doesn’t actually do anything proactive, besides take away your opponent’s options while it is in play. While true that sometimes, given a predicament where certain options are taken away and the Cage cannot be removed, an opponent might not be able to win. However, unlike a Pridemage, Trygon, or Scavenging Ooze that also takes away options, Grafdigger’s Cage doesn’t simultaneously take TIME away from your opponent by also attacking.

If you are just sitting there with three Cages in play and your opponent is casting spells, I’m fairly certain that unless the opponent has no relevant cards to draw to, he or she is going to ultimately win the game.

The thing that makes me most happy about the printing of a card like this is that it is the type of card that people will play that will steal cards from Dredge in the first game; or, that if it sees enough play, Dredge players will have to actively prepare a plan for beating this card in the first game—which should in turn bring that archetype back into a more realistic world. Grave-Jail also does this while providing certain decks with the ability to IMPROVE their game plan against other big blue strategies, such as Oath, Tinker, and Yawgmoth’s Will.



Well that’s your Dark Ascension review. The key takeaway should be that Dark Ascension is going to open up Vintage tremendously, even more than it currently is. It has been a very exciting time to play Vintage, especially with the recent shifts in the metagame, and I feel Dark Ascension is only going to keep the good times rolling.

If you aren’t playing Vintage now, I really feel you are missing out, especially with Dark Ascension now thrown into the mix. As of right now, I think the critical pickups are as follows:

4 Grafdigger’s Cage
2 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
1 Elbrus, the Binding Blade
3 Tragic Slip

I feel everything else is more of a wait-and-see process, as Grafdigger’s Cage is going to shake up the metagame in a big way. The other cards I listed are more likely to see immediate play than the others we reviewed.

Let us know what you think below. Any cards you think we missed? Incorrectly assessed? Or spot on with?

Cheers and thanks for reading,

Brian DeMars

Mark Hornung

@womba_ on Twitter