Deconstructing Constructed – Talking Vintage: Ze Response

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This week I was planning on working on an aggro compliment to go along with the control side of my Faeries articles. However, I ended up side-tracked due to unforeseen personal matters, and I’ll have to take care of that next week. Instead, today I’ll be covering a small section of Vintage topics inspired by Ben Bleiweiss last week.

This week I was planning on working on an aggro compliment to go along with the control side of my Faeries articles. However, I ended up side-tracked due to unforeseen personal matters, and I’ll have to take care of that next week. Instead, today I’ll be covering a small section of Vintage topics inspired by Ben Bleiweiss last week.

Sullivan Solution and Vintage Players
In Ben Bleiweiss latest article, he talked about how the Sullivan Solution deck just, “fell off of the face of the Earth…” in competitive Vintage. He levied the complaint that Vintage players were being too intolerant towards new ideas, and just didn’t share enough love or open-mindedness. In large part I disagree with this statement towards the players he seems to be addressing. Here’s my basic reasoning, along with a number of others I asked about the subject.

Nataz posted a perfectly reasonable reason in the forums why SS didn’t see as much play as one would expect. Here’s an exert of the relevant section of the post from the forums.

Want to know why so many Meandeck’s would flood the market after a big win? Steve, and Jacob, Saucemaster, JP, etc were all well known figures on TMD + they were very vocal about their decks. They wrote articles, they made expansive forum posts, they pimped themselves constantly. Steve at one point had articles on SCG, the Mothership, and was writing huge forum primers.

Information dissemination is interesting in vintage because we have very few large multi-regional events. If you don’t see it in person because you aren’t traveling to SCG/Gencon/Waterbury the only place to trade information is online via TMD, and now occasionally SCG.

Essentially, it’s the fact that many Vintage players / decks simply aren’t going to be noticed or seen by the public at large. As much as TMD helps with this, the fact is there’s only one active writer for Vintage on SCG and two that do some part-time work on it (Chapin and… well, me), which severely reduces the visibility of certain archetypes. In addition to this reason, after talking with a number of players I’ve come up with three more why Sullivan Solution was more widespread, not including the obvious and timeless failure of an excuse, “Nobody good plays it ‘cause I said so.”

1. Many people dislike playing underpowered decks
A number of players are here in Vintage in large part because they want to play with overpowered broken cards that no other format has. Past the usage of the obvious restricted cards, in large part the deck doesn’t do anything even close to what decks like Gifts, Control Slaver, or Long could do (Remember, we’re largely talking about the time before Gush was restricted when referencing when SS was actually a factor). This tends to lead to some people dismissing it off-hand, or shortly after testing it for a small sample of games.

Doesn’t this reason actually lead towards Ben’s assertion that people are being unfairly harsh towards it since they aren’t open-minded? In a way, yes. Thing is, for the most part every format has these kind of people, those who will just play a deck that they want to play. Even more competitive players will often fall into the pit of playing something they’re comfortable with versus something that may be better. In Vintage, a significant portion of the metagame will likely fall under this criterion, and hence feel much more comfortable piloting something powerful compared to something that is strategically narrow and essentially requires tight play at all times to make the most of it.

The final thing I’d like to say towards this point.. SS was never going get anywhere near the number of free wins decks like Gifts and Long were making by comparison. This gives this reason a valid statistical and game-plan perspective, in addition to the natural behavioral patterns I’ve already covered.

2. The variance in opening hands is often higher than other deck designs**
With decks like Control Slaver of Gifts builds of sorts, you typically had anywhere from 6-12 immediate draw effects and 3-12 search effects. In a deck like Sullivan Solution you only had 5-6 immediate draw effects with 1-3 search effects and a number of conditional draw aspects to round it out.

The main problem was when you rolled up into a match and got hands of all disruption, or openers of mostly mana and creatures, along with an answer you couldn’t use / didn’t need right away. Just like many Fish decks, these decks had a significant variance between keepable hands, where many other decks had great odds on hitting a decent hand, but the ability to fix it ASAP via draw or tutors. With Fish decks, you generally were stuck until Confidant got online, unless you hit Brainstorm, Ancestral, or DT in your opener.

** Okay, for those that don’t understand my criticism here, it was when you got hands like:

2 land, Mox, Dark Confidant, Stifle, Force of Will, Chain of Vapor

Nice reasonable hand here… the problem stems from this:

2 land, Mox, Duress, Stifle, Force of Will, Chain of Vapor

Same hand with a one card difference, and it collapses. Even kicking in a Brainstorm to the hand makes it risky to roll, because you have so few real threats in the deck.

3. SS was very vulnerable when Dark Confidant or Dimir Cutpurse could be dealt with in a timely fashion.
For the most part, the people who did test the deck all had this issue with it. The problem is that dealing with a creature with one creature that only had Force of Will and Duress protecting it was incredibly simple when you consider the expansive draw and search engines other decks ran. Not to mention specific cards like Darkblast, Lava Dart and company were largely unaffected by the protection that did exist.

Even decks that featured such unglamorous cards such as blockers could be major bugbears. The reason for this was simple: the deck has very limited ways to get around any large blockers, ranging from Auriok Salvagers to Jotun Grunt to Darksteel Colossus. Although this only shut down half the draw options in the deck, it could also limit Confidant in usefulness due to additional life-loss, or preventing SS from winning, giving it more chances to higher costed cards.

4. The deck was vulnerable to entire subsections of the metagame, aggro in particular.
I asked my friend and teammate Jesus Roxas* about his reasoning about not playing the deck, and he told me this:

The reasons I wouldn’t play it… hmm. There are a fair number, but these are the main points.

It lacks solutions to broken plays before it can get its disruption going, can have trouble with straight-up aggro decks and Workshop aggro, and can be vulnerable to certain cards like Pyroclasm and Flametongue Kavu and Triskelion.

* Best. Name. Ever.

So there you have it, Ben. I note you managed a… passionate response in the forums, but hopefully this explains an alternative point of view for the disappearance of the SS deck. As much fun as I’d have arguing about the ICBM team stuff (about as much as watching paint dry), I’m going to leave that for other poor souls, although team-on-team violence seems to have gone down in recent years. Odds are good that this won’t provoke the same response as if you were poking the Brazilians, so I suggest going after them next time.

Gushing over Ponder
Ponder is insane. End.

Oh you want reasoning? Isn’t the fact that it’s Blue and U enough for you? The upsides of Ponder are many, but the biggest that comes from running four mini-Brainstorms is the mana fixing. Nineteen to twenty mana is much more feasible in a field full of Wastes, Spheres, and Stifle when you have effectively nine turn 1 draw spells that can give you a nice selection for your next draw. You nearly always hit your second mana drop, and it allows you to keep normal land hands without the nasty repercussion of lacking a shuffle effect for Brainstorm. In addition to this, Ponder adds to the overall drawing density of the deck, allowing you easier access to cycling for the 6-8 relevant cards in the deck; and especially when going off via Yawgmoth’s Will or Fastbond into Gush.

Ultimately, it isn’t that Ponder is some new insane weapon in the Gush deck… it won’t revolutionize the deck, but it makes the deck even more consistent and gives it another valid turn 1 play in the face of Duress and Sphere. In fact, Ponder is arguably better than Brainstorm, because of how well it lends itself to setting up your next draw while also giving you the valid option of cleaning the top without needing a follow-up Fetchland.

I’m very happy to see Ponder getting attention early. I have no doubt that, with more time, Ponder will become a three- or four-of in GAT and other various Gush decks. In Vintage the card is effectively a “fair Brainstorm.” For those that don’t get the reference, it’s the thought that Brainstorm is so ridiculously good it’ll be restricted eventually. Ponder isn’t quite at that level, but after significant testing, the difference is rather small and Ponder can be run in a greater variety of decks.

I think the biggest addition for Ponder will be in Flash and certain Aggro Shop decks. The former because seeing the top three cards of your deck will almost always get you the gas or tutor you need to combo off, while providing extra defense against Duress. The latter since Shop decks suffer from a horrible card selection drought, really only being able to rely on Sword of Fire and Ice or Bazaar of Baghdad. With Ponder, it becomes easier to find relevant cards to throw out with Shop while providing the Bazaar’s upside of clearing garbage off the top of the deck if necessary.

Flash is an interesting position at the moment, with the metagame at SCG: Chicago seemingly moving back towards slower and more interactive decks like G/R, various Goyf Aggro-Control builds, and Goblins. This shift bodes well for Flash, due to the increased ability to survive a Duress or Stifle on turn 1 / 2, as well as gain even more goldfish consistency via Ponder. Although Flash itself has certain issues with creatures, that is largely weighed on the kill’s shoulders. Considering the versatility of the FlashProtean Hulk engine, this means these decks could all see a huge drop in their performance against Flash with a simple 5-6 slot switch post-board. Or even a maindeck switch back to an older kill, like the Kiki-Jiki —Sky Hussar build to trump blockers. Ah, if only I could figure out a Flame-Kin Zealot kill… alas.

The problem with Flash is people are prepared for it, and that makes it a tough sell for many people, especially those that are willing to put in the practice time with such a risky deck. That said, the deck has a ridiculous amount of power and can still just blow people out of the water. With the addition of Ponder, the deck has only gotten stronger, and Thoughtseize can allow the deck to run a partial transformational protection board in the face of overwhelming sideboard disruption. Really, between Reverent Silence, Chain of Vapor, Thoughtseize, and the counter-base, you can destroy practically any disruption package with pinpoint removal. Unfortunately, many people don’t even play sideboard games, preferring to create sideboards with generalized good cards and lack real plans. This will unfortunately limit Flash until a few people take the plunge, prepare, and have a bit of luck on their side.

That about wraps up the article. Hopefully you’ll now consider the merits of Ponder in any and all decks, or at least have a better understand of how the people who do test can come about and dismiss certain decks. At worst, I think people should take to heart some of the behavioral tendencies I harped on towards the beginning of the article, and take a good look in the mirror when settling on a deck.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
E-Mail me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom