Fear And Loathing And Black Lotus

Pat takes a gonzo-reporter tear through recent Vintage results in a quest to unearth a deck that fits his craving of the moment. He wants to see something different, but still build something good – how do we get there from here?

How do you build decks?

In Magic’s first twenty years, a lot of tools have been developed to aid in deckbuilding. We have templating (using existing lists as blueprints for other decks), mana curves (having a number of each cost of spell designed to maximize our ability to use all of our mana every turn), and untold numbers of manabases to compare our creations to in order to understand what is necessary to power different sorts of decks.

Each of these subjects can be (and has been) broken down and discussed at length. However, what about the skills that can’t be put into words? I wonder if there are lessons that can be learned from observing direct action.

I’d like to try an experiment. Today, I’m just going to look at results, brew, and experiment, as I normally would; but instead of working until I find an interesting deck, then going back and looking at that one strategy, I’m going to chronicle the journey to that point. Also, to add a layer of challenge, I want to look for a non-Standard format, a new puzzle.

Fair warning, no idea where this is going…

As many brew sessions do, today’s begins with reading the news. What’s going on in Magic?

There’s a Modern GP going on in Antwerp. That’s kind of interesting, but as of this writing few lists are available from the event, which has so far only had one day.

Block Constructed is kind of appealing, if only because it is a brand-new format. However, it is not a “real” format that will feature any major tournaments, so it really is just a casual format. Still, ideas in Block might end up teaching us things we can use in Standard.

What about Vintage?

There is so much that could be done in Vintage! The thought of building Vintage decks is honestly pretty enticing. My first instinct is to play Jace, the Mind Sculptor, a lot of restricted cards, Force of Will, and maybe Dark Confidant. From the look of it, a lot of other people came to similar conclusions.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is just unreal in Vintage, making it really hard to get away from dedicated blue decks. Still, as an experiment, I wonder what we can do in the new way of non-blue decks.

Oh, sure, we could just play Dredge or Workshop, but there just isn’t much room for edge-tuning decks like that. They are just metagame calls. They are just so completely beatable by people who want to, and there doesn’t look to be a lot of room for innovation to change any of the match-ups.

While last year’s Vintage championships were won by a Jace/Dark Confidant blue deck, the rest of the Top 8 is less impressive. Two blue decks, two dredge decks, and four Workshop decks?


It is laughable that the Vintage Championships would feature this much Dredge and Shop. Both strategies are not only very beatable, it is already a solved problem. How do you beat Dredge? A good proactive game-plan and graveyard hate. How do you beat Workshops? A good proactive game-plan and artifact hate.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a pretty unreal proactive game-plan, but if we are trying to build a non-blue deck, we’re going to need to:

1) Be combo, so our proactive game-plan is winning the game, and

2) Find another source of advantage.

In most formats, being aggressive is also an option, but pure creature-based aggression is just nowhere near fast enough in a format this powerful.

Combo decks that don’t play blue aren’t exactly calling out to me, so what other sources of advantage could we utilize? Dark Confidant and Young Pyromancer are a pretty respectable start, but what else can we use?

The first card that comes to mind is Skullclamp, a card I think is criminally underplayed in Vintage. That card is mind-numbingly powerful and half of the good creatures in Vintage have one toughness anyway. Once you factor in the insane-o combo with Young Pyromancer, you are really getting somewhere.

OK, so we’ve got a proactive game-plan, but what about that disruption plan?

Unlike beating a deck like Faeries, you don’t have to dedicate your whole deck to beating Shops and Bazaars. Here’s an example of Stax:

To beat Shops while still using cards that we could actually reasonable maindeck, we could have Gorilla Shamans (which also work well with Skullclamp) and Ancient Grudges (or Vandalblast, depending on our mana). Shop decks can be very vulnerable to one-for-one removal when backed up by advantage engines like Dark Confidant, Young Pyromancer, or Skullclamp. The most important thing is to make sure we can reach a minimum threshold of mana. Cards like Thoughtseize aren’t always the best against Shops; however, it is perfect addition to the game-plan we are describing, particularly given how much disruption we’d need to play in order to compete with the combo-esque decks.

Gorilla Shaman can help us fight back against Shop’s mana, which is interestingly one of the best ways to give yourself time to advance your game-plan. Wasteland is a nice, low-cost way to supplement this sort of attack.

While there is a shortage of big Vintage tournaments, in what events there have been, Stax has fallen out of favor even among the diehard Workshop contingent. In recent months, we have seen more decks along the lines of MUD. For example:

Obviously these decks are really still just the same thing at their cores. They are colorless artifact decks that use mana denial to disrupt opponents, leveraging Mishra’s Workshop and Ancient Tomb to turbo out powerful artifact creatures.

It’s no question – artifact hate is dynamite against these opponents, but as you can see, Lightning Bolt and Diabolic Edict aren’t bad.

Dredge? Here’s the list that finished third at the 150 player Vintage@Ovino8 event last month:

Seriously, sideboard into a proactive game-plan with 4 Leyline of the Voids, a couple other hate cards (maybe Grafdigger’s Cage?) along with Wastelands and Skullclamp (to kill Bridges on demand) and we’ll be fine. Hell, it’s not clear we can’t play a couple graveyard hate cards main. Yixlid Jailer can even be sacrificed to Skullclamp, and having one copy to find with Vampiric Tutor or Demonic Tutor can give us real game-one chances against Dredge.

Even if you win 80% of your sideboard games, that is only 64% to win the match if you always lose game one. A single Jailer probably brings our game-one win percentage up to at least 33%, elevating our match win percentage to 74.7%, if we assume that same math is given.

Of course, more people are going to play blue decks than those two (at least I would hope so), and thus we are going to have a real deck. Our proactive cards are all good against blue, so we have a realistic plan as long as we can keep broken cards under control. Discard, Mental Misstep, Pyroblasts (better than REB with Young Pyromancer), Wastelands, and artifact hate to keep mana constricted are all reasonable. Also, it really isn’t that hard to splash colors, so we probably want to explore the use of cards like Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and possibly even Brainstorm. It doesn’t count as a blue deck until it has Force of Will, right?

Vintage is a format populated with a lot of Force of Wills. In fact, from analyzing the results of 25 Vintage tournaments over the past two months, 70% of the Top 8 decks were Force of Will decks. The most popular archetype, among these, are the various Jace Control decks. This is the champion’s list, from that same 150-player event:

The runner-up from that same event was also piloting a similar Jace deck:

Not surprisingly, we see the tag team of Dark Confidant and Jace. If I were playing Vintage for high stakes, I’d likely play something along these lines. This is the bar that has to be overcome. This deck is why you can’t just play hateful cards.

Lightning Bolt may surprise some unfamiliar with Vintage in recent years, but it is an excellent removal spell for most of the creatures in the format for just one mana, plus it kills Jace the Mind Sculptor, which is a pretty big deal. Think of how good Hero’s Downfall is, and that is sort of the Lightning Bolt experience in Vintage.

Another point that is worth paying close attention to is just how much artifact and graveyard hate these lists have access to. Half a dozen extra artifact hate, with main-deck tools? Half a dozen graveyard hate cards, plus Pithing Needle? You can beat Shop and Dredge if you want to, you just have to do what it takes.

Not all Force of Will decks are so reactive, however. In recent months, there has been a rising tide of Fish decks putting up solid numbers. For example:

Obviously, Pyroblasts and the like are quite good, as are Lightning Bolts, but the Young Pyromancer deck I am imagining is really going to have to use Skullclamp or Pyromancer to get a winning board position. It’s fortunate that the Fish deck doesn’t have access to much removal, and we can play plenty of artifact kill to make sure Null Rod doesn’t thwart our Skullclamp aspirations.

Be careful not to fetch your Underground Sea unless you really need it! You can also Wasteland it, if things get hairy.

Not all of the Fish decks are actual Merfolk. For instance:

The “good stuff” versions are really quite similar to a lot of other blue decks, with the primary defining aspect of each being which source of advantage is used to complement Dark Confidant. We already saw “Jace” decks above. This version uses Deathrite Shaman. Replace those with Gush and we’d have another archetype… “Gush.”

Not all Gush decks look this much like “Threshold” decks, but the important thing is the engine.

Another possible engine we can use is Intuition and Accumulated Knowledge (often referred to as “Almost Broken”).

Not every Force of Will deck uses Dark Confidant, however. The most notable of these has to be Oath. Oath of Druids gained a major boon because of the printing of Swan Song, in order to trigger Oath faster and earlier.

A first-turn Oath (off an Orchard and a Mox) is actually basically threatening game. If they mill their copy of Dragon Breath, their Blightsteel Colossus or Emrakul can attack immediately.

Before assembling a rough draft of Young Pyromancer + Skullclamp, let’s take a quick look at the Vintage metagame as a whole. This is a weighted metagame based on results from 25 tournaments over the past two months.

Archetypes Metagame
Workshop Decks 18.3%
Jace Decks 17.8%
Fish 14.6%
Gush 10.9%
Oath 7.6%
Storm 6.3%
Dredge 5.1%
Intuition-AK 3.9%
Landstill 3.4%
Tezzeret 2.9%
Bomberman 2.0%
Doomsday 2.0%
Stoneblade 1.9%
Miscellaneous 3.2%

That is a reasonably-diverse metagame, all things considered, although it basically all blue decks outside of Workshops and Dredge. This is a format with first turn kills and Ancestral Recalls, though, so I would be shocked if it was any other way.

OK, so with everything we’ve learned, from looking at the recent metagame, what might a rough draft of Pyromancer + Skullclamp look like, if we are avoiding making it a blue deck?

There are a lot of ideas I’m excited to try here. Chandra, Pyromaster’s ability to deal ping for one damage a turn is pretty hot in a world where it kills half of the creatures people play. Besides, drawing an extra card a turn is not the worst Jace-impression.

Grim Lavamancer is another way to gain an advantage that can prey on small creatures and decks with relatively few removal spells. It might not be good enough, but at least you can eat it with a Skullclamp.

The manabase is a pretty big question mark, as we want to use a lot of mana to take full advantage of Wastelands and avoid getting hurt my opponents’ Wastelands too much. That said, almost everything in the deck costs one or two mana, so we don’t want to flood either. I do like the idea of one blue land and one green land to find with Bloodstained Mire, and Taiga makes the most sense so that you can fetch one land that will play both halves of Ancient Grudge.

It’s a challenge to play both basic Mountain and basic Swamp, but it sure would make us resistant to Wasteland if we can afford it.

Of course, a deck with this many sorceries and instants would love to consider Snapcaster Mage. It is the perfect creature to sacrifice to Skullclamp. Of couse, once we have that much blue mana, we should really consider Jaces and Force of Wills

If you were to approach Standard the same way, what does that look like? I’ll be back next week to do just that…

Patrick Chapin

“The Innovator”