Deconstructing Constructed – Minor Deck Customization in Vintage

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The recent discussion of cutting Library of Alexandria or Mana Drain from GAT reminded me of the constant pressure on newer Vintage players not to cut sacred cows from decks. Although this is a good general rule, people tend to stick stubbornly with certain builds/choices until the end of time. For example, there’s the removal of Smokestack in certain builds of Stax for cards that actually do things.

Something that is often overlooked in Vintage is the major effect that minor deck customizations have on the overall performance of a deck.

For example, last week I talked about the common consensus that Library of Alexandria was an auto-include in GAT, and how I felt despite its popularity, LOA wasn’t optimal in the deck. Regardless of whether or not I’m correct, the change will make a substantial difference to the number of games you’d play where you had LOA in the opening hand. You have about an 11% chance of seeing it in the opening grip, which isn’t inconsequential, especially in a tournament setting.

I find that many people don’t actually take notice of this change in gameplay in the sense of how the game decision trees become vastly different with the removal of this one card. This is because a huge number of Vintage players seem to just throw LOA down if they can, and if it taps for a card, good times. If it doesn’t, c’est la vie. The problem is this small one-card change can make a huge impact on how games will play out, and for the most part that significance is ignored or downplayed.

First, LOA requires a different mindset from the standard GAT playbook, if you really want to abuse it. You miss out on first turn Brainstorm, Duress, and Sleight of Hand/Opt opportunities. This means the rest of your hand has to be relatively stable in terms of mana, because you not only miss the first Island drop, but the ability to dig entirely if on the play. The second major issue is it changes your priorities about what you want to Force of Will. Suddenly you need to think long and hard about what’s worth Forcing, because you’ve set back your development in hopes of using LOA to gain major card advantage, at no mana cost, over your opponent. This can lead to not Forcing key cards if they won’t cost you the game immediately, since you set yourself back significantly if you do. On the other hand, there are games where you drop LOA, and the opponent says fetchland, go. Then you just draw 3-4 free cards and win the prize.

If you cut the card, all of that decision tree and planning goes out the window, and those games play out dramatically different. You don’t get any free wins from the cut, but you also have a steadier manabase, and mulligan decisions become a little easier. You also won’t get blown out by taking the LOA route at the wrong time. Then again, you still don’t get free wins. I like free wins.

This is what I mean when I talk about the lack of consideration some people give these kinds of decisions. Like I said, regardless of which is the right deckbuilding concept, there are significant ramifications in a number of your games.

Mana Drain is another small customization choice that can completely change how the deck plays out in certain scenarios. Without it, the deck has a more difficult time playing control and loses an option for Merchant Scroll. Suddenly there’s no fear coming from opponents in the later rounds in playing around open mana; not to mention your number of all-purpose hard counters is reduced to just the four Force of Will. It also becomes more difficult to play aggro-control with the Green critters since the opponent will have more openings to play their own creatures or removal in post-board games. On the other hand, it gains multiple cantrips that are better than Opt, and hence allows for more selection and discretion to be used when judging opening hands. One-land hands are nearly impossible to keep as it stands, because the best digger (Brainstorm) is a death knell if you miss land. Post-Lorwyn this debate becomes even more important, because then Ponder will have to be given consideration to fit into GAT. Ponder moves away from reactive cards like Mana Drain, but the improved digging allows you to keep mana-light hands and an easier finding of answers when time is a factor.

Once again, the changing of two cards can completely alter how you want to build the deck and how you play it. The impact of changing certain cards in a deck like GAT is immense. So whenever you want to make a small change due to play style, or because you think one choice is superior, consider the ramifications to the play of the deck and the number of decision trees you open and close off.

The recent discussion of cutting LOA or Mana Drain from GAT reminded me of the constant pressure on newer Vintage players not to cut sacred cows from decks. Although this is a good general rule, people tend to stick stubbornly with certain builds/choices until the end of time. For example, there’s the removal of Smokestack in certain builds of Stax for cards that actually do things. Formerly a sacred cow of the deck, Smokestack was removed from many builds (See Ray Robillard’s Staxless Stax) after realizing it was essentially a very slow win condition or a very slow lock piece. Either one wasn’t exactly going to be tearing up Vintage.

As Ray once wrote:

It costs four mana (more than Yawgmoth’s Will, Necro, Tinker, or Thirst for Knowledge).

When you play it, here’s what it does:


You pass the turn. On your opponent’s turn it does:


You take your next turn. You put a counter on it. Then, guess what it does:


You pass the turn. On your opponent’s turn (now four turns later) it’s:
The worst Misguided Rage ever.

People are generally slow to embrace change, especially in a format that stays as static as Vintage. People should be critical of change, yes… but many times cards should be reevaluated in the face of advancing technology and shifts in the metagame.

Revisiting the Speed of Vintage
In some ways, this is the fastest Vintage format that has ever been. Flash is one of the fastest and most consistent turn 1 kill decks to exist, but the rest of the format has actually slowed down. GAT doesn’t typically kill until turn 4 or later unless Fastbond is involved, and both Bomberman and Stax both kill quite slowly. Ichorid really kills at about the same speed as the older storm combo decks like Grim Long and Pitch Long. So really the format still hasn’t become the turn 1 format people are scared of, and I really wish some people in the various forums would stop talking as if every deck can magically kill as fast as Flash. The reason Flash kills so fast is because the Flash win condition is literally the cheapest win condition for a combo deck ever. Other decks don’t have this, so get over it.

You have decks that are clearly on both sides of the spectrum as far as speed goes. The only difference between Vintage and other formats is our fundamental turn demands some course of action by turn 1 if on the draw and turn 2 if on the play. Is that very fast? Oh yes. But between Red Blasts, Force of Will, Chalice of the Void, and Leylines, if you really want you can make it to the mid- and late-game even if you think the format is unreasonably speedy.

With the restriction of Gifts, the main reason to win quickly has actually departed the format. A deck like GAT doesn’t have inevitability over you if you can survive the early and midgame now no control decks exist that’ll just crush you if the game happens to go long. There’s no need to worry about getting easily outdrawn and destroyed in card quality at the same time by losing to the Merchant Scroll into Gifts Ungiven engine. Instead, the decks win fast, as long as you can withstand the initial onslaught from them, but have no backup plan or resilience to keep chugging along. Ophidian doesn’t have to kill you in one shot, because as long as it can keep holding a couple of cards in hand it’ll never lose the game.

Yet the format has gotten faster, and it’s pretty clear to everyone. Flash and Ichorid really push the line of metagame distortion, and what an acceptable turn 1 and 2 win clip is, even in Vintage. Sure, we’ve had decks like Long and Belcher push the limits before, but never to this extent or consistency. Trinisphere was truly the closest we had to a turn 1 power play with one crucial difference: Flash and co. actually end the game instead of pretending the game is over.

In the literal sense (i.e. at tournaments), the format has stayed the same, and in some ways slowed down – at least for the early rounds – but in the “ideal” metagame the format has actually gotten much faster.

Tactical versus Strategic Superiority
Always an amusing subject, simply because most people reading about it fall asleep by the second paragraph. This will actually just be a brief look at the topic, but I’m sure it’ll be recapped more and more as Extended grows closer. In Vintage, the concept of tactical and strategic superiority is really limited due to the sheer power of the decks and strategies involved. However, it still exists, and it’s used approximately 0.2% of the time.

The simplest way to explain it is by looking at the Goblins versus GAT match. GAT has the strategic advantage by a landslide, since it can completely ignore what I do on the board with the deck and combo Goblins out at will under the ideal circumstances. I’m never going to able to compete with the GAT’s deck capability to gather resources, get more spells in hand, and play more of them in the same time frame as me. However, this ideal scenario doesn’t work so well in the real world, because I can force them to compete on the board level, where I have all the tools and weapons to win.

At the tactical level, my creatures are taking away the life resources needed for the deck to combo out, and my board position will almost always be dominant in the match. Nearly any creature that hits the board can either be killed or ignored under most circumstances. The other spells in the Goblins deck are there to slow down the speed at which the GAT deck can apply its strategic advantage. Goblins really just wants a decisive tactical advantage so it can steamroll the board and force the GAT player to fight on the Goblin player’s level with an inferior amount of resources that actually matter (creatures, removal, life) in that fight. On the flipside, the GAT deck just wants to stall until it hits a critical mass of cards in hand and mana on the table. Once it has that, it’s practically impossible for the Goblins deck to win.

So now you know why Goblins can beat GAT instead of getting crushed like an ant. Apply this type of understanding to all underpowered decks, and please stop complaining when a ‘bad deck’ makes the Top 8 of a tournament.

Lorwyn Analysis
There’s one very interesting card that was just spoiled, and it’s really interesting for Vintage purposes.

Gaddock Teeg
Legendary Creature – Kithkin Advisor
Noncreature spells with converted mana cost 4 or greater can’t be played.
Noncreature spells with X in their mana costs can’t be played.

I’m not sold that it’ll be the biggest impact creature we’ve ever had in Vintage, but it definitely has a ton of potential use. Plus it gives people actual options if using the two worst colors in Vintage. Consider this short list of cards it counters:

Disruption Spells
Smokestack, Misdirection, Force of Will, Unmask.

Draw and Search spells
Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Gifts Ungiven, Fact or Fiction, Gush.

Combo Cards
Mind’s Desire, Dread Return, Tendrils of Agony, Empty the Warrens, Goblin Charbelcher

Chalice of the Void, Engineered Explosives

Pretty good list for the most part. Now consider that it can easily be dropped turn 1 through the use of Moxen, Lotus Petal, and Elvish Spirit Guide if you needed to, and even on the draw this kind is pretty strong. Even if you don’t want to base your deck around the two colors, you’ve always got Aether Vial to cheat the mana cost. Some of the hype seems kind of excessive for a man that drops to Fire/Ice and Smother, but still it’s a huge improvement in the typical Green or White creature for Vintage. This is especially nice considering Vintage is the only format where Tarmogoyf didn’t automatically outmode a bunch of creature-based strategies and force widespread adaptation.

That’s all for now. Good luck to all of those attending SCG: Indy this weekend!

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom