Deconstructing Constructed – Goblins and Slivers and Dryads, Oh My!

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For now, I’ll be taking a break from the Time Spiral Block format to take a look at Vintage. The last time I mentioned Vintage was when I was writing about how broken Flash was, and why you should be playing it right now if you weren’t already. Waterbury has come and gone, and more or less bolstered my suspicions that Flash is the deck to beat (along with GAT).

For now, I’ll be taking a break from the Time Spiral Block format to take a look at Vintage. The last time I mentioned Vintage was when I was writing about how broken Flash was, and why you should be playing it right now if you weren’t already. Waterbury has come and gone, and more or less bolstered my suspicions that Flash is the deck to beat (along with GAT). I wasn’t sure if GAT would be quite as broken as the last time it existed, but sadly instead of being at the same power level as every other deck, it’s still more powerful than the majority. GAT is only rivaled by Flash, as far as the highest return you can get on a deck choice is concerned… Flash is one of the most broken combo decks to exist in any format in the history of the game.

As I was saying, Waterbury basically provided real evidence that Flash can be consistent, play through hate, and compete head-to-head with GAT at a large tournament. It also confirmed that GAT will be sitting pretty at the top of the mountain until the DCI decides to re-restrict Gush, which never should’ve come off the list in the first place. What a brilliant idea they had in taking away a skill-testing and powerful card in Gifts Ungiven, which powered a strong, but ultimately fair, archetype in the various Gifts builds, and giving us back a dumb card that powered a completely dominant deck while legal.

So if we accept the metagame to basically be GAT and Flash at the top level, what about the rest? From the reports I’ve read and information gleaned from my teammates who were at the event, it seems that aggro-control decks were the big gainer at the event. Everyone who didn’t play GAT, Flash, or some sort of metagame hate deck like Stax or Oath basically shoved onward with Fish of 500 different flavors, Bomberman, or other anti-GAT decks with heavy Red compliments (Hello REB!). Despite GAT and Bomberman seemingly removing the need to play other aggro-control decks that couldn’t combo out, their presence* seemed undiminished on the whole.

* The downside of limited information is I’m basically going off of second hand news. Once we have the main metagame breakdown or more lists / reports, we can better judge the field.

With Flash winning Day 1 and GAT winning Day 2, combined with their impressive testing percentages across the board, it seems that these two are the Keepers of the Gate for Vintage. If you choose not to play one of these decks, or modify one of them to “suit your playstyle,” then you should have these two decks’ plans specifically in mind to build around. You want to know the strengths and weaknesses, as well as the various board configurations that could alter their game plan and weaken your deck. You absolutely have to form a coherent and consistently effective plan against these two if you hope to win any large tourney comprised of an unknown field. People might want to write Flash off as a fluke, but it has the power for a few good players to run it and simply maul the field at large. Even if you don’t expect many of them, you need something for them when you see one in the Top 8.

The main problem with the non-GAT aggro control decks coming out of the woodwork is that they create a complicated metagame solution where it doesn’t really become feasible to run meta choices like Stax or Ichorid effectively. It simply becomes too complicated to deal with all the underpowered decks with differing disruption and attack methodology. In addition, as stated above, the decks are naturally underpowered by virtue of the cards they run and lack of a centralized search / drawing engine. Running a deck like Bomberman instead of GAT may have valid reasoning when only dealing with segments of the metagame, but when looking at the whole and knowing you may run into decks like Goblins or Storm Combo in addition to the top tier stuff, it’s really knocked down a peg compared to the top two. These decks lack the capability to simply power up and blow through random* competition. So not only do you lose the free win aspect of such combo decks, but you have the possibility of running into a match you really can’t alter your strategy to beat without significant thought beforehand. Then take into account the amount of space you already have to dedicate to beating GAT and Flash (since the same disruption doesn’t really work against both) and see how much room you have left to deal with that.

From pure power and the randomness factor, my reasoning leads me to think that about 90% of the people playing non-GAT aggro-control would be better off learning to play GAT and switching over. The remaining 10% are the ones that have played so much with their deck archetypes that they are intimately familiar with how the deck’s strategy and game will flow overall. They simply know every match-up and intuitively will lean towards the correct play; plus they have the benefit of being able to make more accurate changes to a deck based on the expected metagame without impacting the power of the initial build. For these people, the benefits of switching are almost always outweighed, as the decks can compete… they simply are less likely too than in the past. The experience they bring to the table is enough to outweigh those considerations.

All of that said, I would have to think long and hard about not just playing a deck like Flash over an older familiarized deck. Even with a deck like Goblins (which made an impressive showing on Day 2), which I played for years and wrote an entire primer about, I’d have a hard time justifying playing it over Flash or GAT. Rich Shay once inquired to me why I’d prefer a deck like Flash over Goblins, assuming for the moment they had equal match-ups, even though I can play the latter well in my sleep. My basic reasoning is pretty simple: Flash is an unfair deck and Goblins is fair. In Vintage, that should be explanation enough.

For those that need a more in-depth thought behind it, try this. I rather play a deck where I can rack up a couple of free wins through the tournament by just drawing amazingly good hands and winning on turn 1. Over a longer tournament, assuming the manabase is stable, the free wins will add up and make it easier to win the tournament, since I’ll have to play fewer real games than the competition. In addition, a deck like Flash gives me the opportunity to completely switch plans if I need to. I can shift from a pure combo win to hard-casting a Protean Hulk or a few Virulent Sliver and attempting to win the old fashioned way of turning men sideways. I still have counters and Duress to protect them, and it’s a perfectly valid idea against slower decks like Bomberman and Stax.

I can even take it a step further in sideboarding if I want to use a transformational board. The two-card Flash combo can suddenly be replaced by men like Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant to beat down, or even just provide an alternate angle of attack while looking to resolve the combo. Or I could take it a step further and change the combo for a different one, such as Oath of Druids / Akroma / Forbidden Orchard. One plan I’ve only heard talk about, but a plan that has shown promise in limited testing, is to board into a modified Countersliver deck. Instead of using different aggressive cards, you simply build upon the base kill of the deck and make them further resilient against creature removal. Cards like Fire/Ice, Tarmogoyf, and Mogg Fanatic lose almost all of their value when facing down Crystalline Sliver and Winged Sliver. You could even take it a step further and run Muscle Sliver to increase the chances of a non-poison beatdown kill, as well as providing extra resilience against damage based sources.

Aside: I’m not a big fan of the transformative sideboards thus far. Although I understand why you would want to run them to avoid certain types of hate and catch people off-guard, the deck takes a significant nosedive in power when using one. In addition, if playing a deck that invalidates the transformative strategy, then you have a few slots to use with actually beating that deck. In essence, you’ve made your board useless in one of your worst matches while hoping to surprise and wipe out the other bad ones. Personally, I’d rather just board in the dirt cheap removal to said hate cards and continue with the proactive answer approach to combat most opponents’ plans against me.

Realistically, this leaves my only advantages to playing Goblins as my familiarity with the deck and the lack of a stupid mirror to play. Simply put, that’s not enough for me to avoid playing one of the best decks in the format. Odds are I’d think long and hard about the decision and perhaps even go with a deck I was 100% familiar with, but it would probably be as much about fun factor as tournament factors.

Speaking of tournament factors…

For those of you thinking about attending the Gencon Vintage Championship this year and have some card availability, but are otherwise limited from lack of proxies, I fully recommend Ichorid. Right now the metagame is actually ripe for Ichorid; maybe not as perfect as it was when Gifts was still around and you had a top tier “bye,” but GAT is a pretty easy match-up both pre and post board. Flash has the possibility of just destroying you before having a chance to do anything, but you maindeck Leyline of the Void and have the capability to lay Chalice of the Void / Unmask on turn 1 as well as win or cripple the Flash opponent via Dredge into multiple Cabal Therapy on turn 2.

Yes, it’s possible the opponent will manage to draw and play so much hate against you that certain games are just going to have to be acceptable losses, but a good sideboard and practice can let you battle through a huge number of scary-looking situations. Ben Kowal repeatedly beat multiple hate cards in play by his opponents post-board with Ichorid, by playing well and not just mentally scooping like most Ichorid players would when faced with real resistance. If you want to do well with Ichorid, please practice games 2 and 3 far more than game 1s against various decks. Think about your board… you should have mana sources, Contagion, Reverent Silence, and Ancient Grudge in there at the very least. That combination, along with some of the maindeck disruption, should allow you to battle through multiple hate cards such as Tormod’s Crypt, Leyline of the Void, Platinum Angel, Mogg Fanatic and others.

Just for example, here’s one game Kowal has mentioned on TMD and all that he battled through.

One player’s board position against me in a game I won:
2 Tormod’s Crypt, 1 Goblin Welder, 1 Platinum Angel, 1 Sphere of Resistance, 1 Leyline of the Void
I got there between paying mana for Reverent Silence and Contagion, and forcing him to burn his crypts on Ichorids while his 2/3 Plats beat me up. Eventually he ran out of Crypts, so I went freaking nuts off Bazaar, and located another land and Ancient Grudge for the win.”

Practice post-board games, as those are the ones that are going to matter the most and actually test your skills with the deck.

Earlier I mentioned Goblins, which did well on the second day of Waterbury. This development had amused me greatly, because on Reflection we had been discussing the uses of the amazing Mogg Fanatic with the return of so many x/1’s to the format. Although I’ve been working on the design for a while now, Team ICBM has put out the first public Goblins list, which you can see here. Although most Goblin builds look the same due to the core Goblins being more or less identical in every build, they have a few interesting choices (like Stingscourger, and the lack of Red Elemental Blast in the maindeck).

I had been working on two Goblins builds. One features Aether Vial and one doesn’t. The second resembles the older Food Chain Goblins models.

All the Goblins decks share the same general strategy against GAT and Flash. Versus GAT you want to be able to swarm the opponent while controlling the creature base via the gun creatures (Fanatic, Sparksmith, Krark-Clan Shaman) as well as controlling the timing of Gush via Blasts and sometimes Blood Moon / Magus of the Moon. You want to limit the card advantage they can get on you, since if you can control the timing of their plays, you can maximize damage and prevent getting blown out in a single turn.

Against Flash the plan is to defeat the kill directly, which means being able to provide three blockers or simply being able to kill all the Slivers at once (Krark-Clan Shaman or Pyrokinesis). The second list here is configured far more towards that goal with the use of quad Krark-Clan Shaman. Although sacrificing an artifact is against the basic attack plan of Goblins, by cutting back down to the core Goblin cards along with Shaman, it leaves only 12 creatures to die to its ability while the rest survive. The use of Goblin Goon probably seems odd, but once you realize you’ll almost always have more creatures than the opponent and the increased inclusion of green creatures in decks means he becomes quite useful. The six power Goon provides can end the game in a few turns even without the help of other attacking Goblins and can force damage through despite the amount of Tarmogoyf and Quirion Dryad being used.

That said, the second list is much more experimental due to the focus on overall disruption and narrow answers to beat Flash (and incidentally, Empty the Warrens, though the use of that card has dropped quite a bit) while keeping the Goblin core intact.

Here re a couple of general notes on playing Goblins:

Remember that if you only have a blocker or two, and want to stop a hasted Sliver attack with Mogg Fanatic or Gempalm Incinerator, you need to hit Heart Sliver during the beginning of combat step. A lot of people just tend to jump straight to the declare attackers step in Vintage, and forget this part even exists. I inform you now for your benefit, in anticipation of the first Flash idiot to jump straight to declaring attackers and trying to hold the opponent to, “No, you didn’t kill my guy in the right step, you lose!”

Aether Vial is surprisingly good, a lot of it’s usefulness comes from the fact that if you survive turn 1 against Flash, it practically guarantees a win because of the potential blockers / burn you can force down after a Flash resolves. The other implications against otherwise good metagame decks like Stax are obvious.

If you aren’t using the artifacts for anything, I highly recommend Simian Spirit Guide over cards like Lotus Petal and off-color Moxen. Not only does it avoid telegraphing REB/Pyroblast mana, but it allows for more openings with Lackey + Fanatic or Vial + protection, thanks to the extra Red mana it provides.

The sideboards for the above decks are constantly in flux, but I highly recommend some sort of Blood Moon effect and Leyline of the Void if you expect any Ichorid or Bomberman at all. They can’t really win game 1, but games 2 and 3 can get hairy if they run the right kind of sideboard against you.

That’s all for now, next week we’ll be returning to block, so I’ll see you then.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom