Last month, I presented a composite Stax list drawn from Top 8’s around the world. The purpose behind the composite list idea is to identify a “best” decklist solely upon statistical analysis. To do that, I looked at every Stax list that made Top 8 in a tournament with over fifty players. I then tallied up the cards in those lists, and figured out which cards most frequently appeared. The result was the “composite” Stax list. The hope is that the list will tell us something we don’t already know.
A common criticism of my article on Stax was that it wasn’t explanatory. So before we begin, let me talk a bit about Gifts. Then, after I present the composite list, I’ll analyze the list and show you how it was built. If you are a novice or relative newcomer to Vintage, you should understand the inner workings of Vintage Gifts by the end of this article without too much work on your part.
Starting with March of 2005 and going through December, I am going to present the “best performing” Gifts Ungiven list in Vintage. The parameters for this list are simple: the deck must have at least two Gifts Ungiven, and run Mana Drains. That tells us that Gifts Ungiven was not thrown in as an afterthought or nice additional tutor, and that the deck is a Control deck, not a TPS variant (Dark Ritual Combo deck).
The ongoing quest to build the best Gifts Ungiven deck reflects an evolving understanding of how the card operates. What is Gifts Ungiven? Is it a draw spell? A tutor? A combo piece? It is a late game bomb like Mind Twist, or it is a middle game draw engine like Fact or Fiction? If the latter, is it more like Fact or Fiction, or more like Intuition? Is it something else entirely? Gifts Ungiven is a complicated card requiring lots of decision-making — both on the part of you and your opponent.
It took some time for Gifts Ungiven to find a stable home in Vintage. At first, people were experimental. The very first Gifts list I found in a Top 8 was from March. (take a look at the second place deck here. In that list, there is a hodgepodge of singletons like Deep Analysis, Merchant Scroll, Crucible of Worlds, Strip Mine, Lava Dart, and Mind Twist, presumably reflecting the designer’s belief that Gifts was a busted tutor but that Intuition plus Accumulated Knowledge was the better and stronger draw engine.
Team CAB thought Gifts was more than just a tutor or draw engine. The Germans promoted a list, later popularized by Andy Probasco and team Short Bus, fusing the Control Slaver combo of Goblin Welder and Mindslaver with the idea of Gifting for Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, Mana Severance, and Recoup. No matter which set of cards they give you, you will be able to Tinker up the Goblin Charbelcher and play the Mana Severance to wipe your opponent out.
Some players found that combo too expensive and proposed Auriok Salvagers infinite mana combo. Salvagers recurs Black Lotus or Lion’s Eye Diamond to generate infinite mana. Then it recurs some small artifact like Aether Spellbomb to draw the entire deck, after which it kills you with whatever spell it desires, perhaps Brain Freeze. The quest to find an optimal home for Gifts Ungiven is really what this article is about. Over the course of 2005 there was a lot of jockeying over what people thought was the best use of Gifts. Some players were adamant about maximizing Thirst for Knowledge. Others felt that Merchant Scroll was a suitable replacement. Others still tried some combination of Skeletal Scrying, Merchant Scroll, and Thirst. I’m about to show you which combination of these spells shows up the most in Top 8s, and hopefully resolve some of these debates in the process. Even if this article does not put an end to some of the ongoing disputes, perhaps it will help crystallize what the major points of contention are and focus attention on them.
Oddly enough, there were exactly fifty Gifts Control lists that made Top 8 between March and December. However, I excluded two Salvagers lists and a Keeper list (a White heavy control deck) that fit the criteria simply because it wouldn’t tell us anything. In other words, those lists were so dramatically different from traditional Gifts lists that they were essentially irrelevant. Here is the composite list:
- 4 Brainstorm
- 4 Mana Drain
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Yawgmoth's Will
- 4 Force of Will
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 4 Gifts Ungiven
- 1 Burning Wish
- 2 Merchant Scroll
- 3 Thirst for Knowledge
- 2 Misdirection
- 1 Tinker
- 1 Rebuild
- 1 Black Lotus
- 1 Fact or Fiction
- 1 Recoup
- 1 Lotus Petal
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
The maindeck is fifty-nine cards. The cutoff to make the list was eighteen occurrences out of forty-seven decks. As you will see, as soon as we dip to seventeen cards, there becomes a three-way tie for 60th place.
Now that we have a decklist in front of us, let’s analyze what’s going on. To do that, I’ll break down the deck by its parts in descending order of frequency.
The Unanimous Card Choices
These cards appeared in all 47 lists from March through December. I have marked out Mystical Tutor because Eli Kassis, who made Top 8 at the Waterbury both on Day 1 and Day 2 with the same list, did not play with Mystical Tutor. Otherwise, everyone used these cards.
With this list, we can begin to see what it is that constitutes the core of a Control Gifts list. The key components of every Gifts combo devised thus far include: Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Recoup. Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, Demonic Tutor, and Mystical Tutor are too good to omit. Most Vintage decks run those cards if they are in Blue and Black, and every control deck runs four Brainstom, four Force of Will, and four Mana Drain. Ever since the printing of Fetchlands, Brainstorm has become ubiquitous in Vintage.
One question that you may be wondering about is: why two Gifts? This isn’t something that one can explain by saying that the early lists used two Gifts while the modern lists have settled on a different number. The fact is that some of the most successful Gifts variants winning in December are using only two Gifts. I think there are two things going on. First, the number of Gifts changes as people’s perception of the card changes. As with that early March list, and as with the early Slaver/Gifts fused lists, some other draw engine was seen as the primary mode of operation. Once decks were being designed with Gifts being more central or even necessary, then the number of Gifts has increased.
Second, the internal configuration of the Gifts lists makes more Gifts better or worse. I’ll explain this relationship. Gifts Ungiven is a rather expensive card for Vintage. I can’t think of an example, aside from Mind’s Desire and Yawgmoth’s Bargain, of a non-artifact, non-pitch spell that costs more than four that sees any play in Vintage.
Because Gifts is so pricey, no one plays it without some sort of early game. Usually this comes in the flavor of Merchant Scroll or Thirst for Knowledge. This has two effects. First, it makes Gifts less necessary since the idea is to have a better grip over the game before you even play Gifts. Second, if you are relying on the more expensive spell, Thirst, then your mana curve may be too high to play a full contingent of Gifts. Merchant Scroll and the flexible Skeletal Scrying fit better with a greater number of Gifts Ungiven, since Scroll and Scrying are cheaper than Thirst.
The Cards That Show Up In Nearly Every Gifts List
The only reason Darksteel Colossus is not in every single Gifts list is because the early American Gifts lists — such as the one that made Top 8 at SCG Chicago in April — eschewed Colossus in favor of Belcher/Mana Severance. Darksteel Colossus is now seen as universal, not an optional win condition. Time Walk, Tinker, Recoup, and Yawgmoth’s Will result in a nearly unbeatable Gifts combo with Darksteel Colossus. With Colossus over Belcher, Time Walk becomes a card you add to the Gifts pile instead of the much weaker Mana Severance. If your opponent gives you Mana Severance and Recoup, you have to wait a turn before Recouping the Yawgmoth’s Will or Tinker. The best you can do is Severance out the mana from your deck so your next topdeck will be a spell. However, with Time Walk, you may not even have to pass a turn.
If you Gift up: Yawgmoth’s Will, Time Walk, Recoup, and Tinker, your opponent will probably give you Time Walk and Recoup, or Time Walk and Tinker. If they give you the latter, they just gave you the game with Darksteel Colossus. If they give you the former, then you can Time Walk immediately, hopefully draw a useful spell, and Recoup for Yawgmoth’s Will with all of your available mana. Darksteel Colossus is a logical and necessary component to any Gifts deck.
Not all players use Fact or Fiction. It’s an interesting phenomenon: the most recent Northeast lists promoted by Probasco and his teammates have not been using Fact or Fiction. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t until Gencon that I finally realized that Gifts Ungiven is actually a stronger card than Fact.
Fact or Fiction is a card that secures a person who has the advantage. That’s because the stock Fact pile looks something like: Brainstorm, Mana Drain, Fetchland, Mox Pearl, and Force of Will. It is a good control card. At Gencon, I realized that Gifts Ungiven is actually far more broken than we give it credit for. Certain restricted cards are so powerful that you can usually Gifts for some cards that your opponent simply cannot give you, and therefore choose which cards will go to your hand. Although a few players don’t like using Fact or Fiction, the vast majority of people realize it is probably best to include. Fact has great synergy with the whole Gifts focus on Yawgmoth’s Will and cards like Recoup. It is restricted for a reason.
Burning Wish is an interesting card. Its inclusion goes back to the original German Gifts builds. However, like Colossus, Probasco and his teammates thought it was not optimal. Like their views on Colossus, they have reversed course.
Burning Wish is simply too synergistic to omit. Although it is frequently a suboptimal topdeck, it plays a few critical roles that make it necessary. First, it functions as a secondary win condition with Tendrils of Agony in the sideboard. If you resolve a big, juicy Yawgmoth’s Will, you should have no trouble finding Burning Wish and fetching out Tendrils of Agony for the win. Second, if you have just resolved a decent sized Yawgmoth’s Will, or played the Gifts into Time Walk plus Tinker scenario, you may have been forced to remove your Time Walk from game, either because of Yawgmoth’s Will or Recoup. There is a good chance you will see the Burning Wish so that you can play one more Time Walk, ensuring that your opponent never sees another turn.
Merchant Scroll is the final card of note. Before I introduced Meandeck Gifts, Merchant Scroll was non-existent save as an experiment in that prototype Gifts list from March. I introduced Merchant Scroll as a flexible tutor that can find early Ancestral Recall and mid-game Gifts, as well as shield you from threats by finding Echoing Truth or Rebuild. In addition, it can find Mana Drain or Force of Will if you are trying to build a counterwall in the control mirror. Probasco and his teammates included two Merchant Scrolls in their list after I unveiled Meandeck Gifts. The Italians continue to play Meandeck Gifts in its pure form, and it performs quite well over there to this day. The Germans are using a few Merchant Scrolls in combination with Skeletal Scrying. For all these reasons, Merchant Scrolls show up in the composite list despite its utter absence in the early Gifts builds.
Cards that are on the Consensus Bubble:
These two slots reflect the growing consensus that a Third Gifts is probably a wise addition. Gifts may be the best draw engine — even over Thirst, Scroll, and any combination thereof. The second Scroll shows up a lot for the reasons I already mentioned.
The Rest of the Composite List
Rebuild is here because it is the most popular bounce spell. However, if I were to aggregate the bounce spells, then you would see that every Gifts list runs some kind of bounce. The problem is that there is no consensus about which bounce spell or combination of bounce spells is optimal. I proposed Echoing Truth and Rebuild. The Italians running Meandeck Gifts instead prefer Chain of Vapor and Cunning Wish. A second Rebuild and Rushing River sometimes show up in Gifts lists as well. The reason that Thirst For Knowledge copies one and two make the list is that some of the German and French Gifts variants run a mixture of Thrist, Skeletal Scrying, and even Merchant Scroll. Even some modern lists, which do not feel like filling their decklist with artifacts to support a full contingent of Thirsts, feel that Thirst is sufficiently strong to run as a singleton or double.
Misdirection is one of those cards that was lucky enough to make it in. It does not really tell us much. For example, as you will see, sixteen lists had at least one Duress. Gifts Lists are split nearly down the middle in terms of running Duress or Misdirection. The Italian preference for Meandeck Gifts helps explain why Misdirection makes the cut for the composite list while Duress does not. The Italians simply have more tournament data to draw from than everyone else. It appeared a sufficient number of times in Germany and in the United States (particularly in the summer) to make the overall cut.
Tied for 60th Place:
These two cards, along with a land, were tied for 60th place. I’ll let you decide which you prefer.
Cards that Nearly Made the Cut
As I explained before, Duress was competing with Misdirection as the secondary disruption of choice. The Goblin Charbelcher combo requires some explanation. The fifteen lists running Charbelcher are almost exclusively from Northeastern American players. No one else is running that combo. I have grouped Belcher and Time Vault together because the players that were once running the Belcher/Severance combo have abandoned it in favor of Time Vault plus Flame Fusillade, presumably because it is cheaper to pull off.
Notable Cards that appear with some frequency:
1st Gorilla Shaman (12)
1 Vampiric Tutor (11)
1 Cunning Wish (11)
1st Chain of Vapor (10)
4th Merchant Scroll (10)
1 Pithing Needle (10)
3rd Misdirection (9)
1 Skeletal Scrying (8)
2nd Pithing Needle (7)
1st Impulse (7)
1 Imperial Seal (1)
There are a number of other cards that show up in Gifts lists, but these are the cards worth pointing out.
First of all, Gorilla Shaman has appeared out of nowhere in the Northeast. It isn’t run by anyone else in Gifts lists, but it is quite heavy up there. It appeared in almost every Gifts list in the big Waterbury tournament in Connecticut. I have no doubt that it will be a big player in the Waterbury this weekend. It is a card that I expect could make the cut if it continues to perform well in the Northeast, and if other players decide it is good enough to run too.
I think the mana cost on Shaman is somewhat prohibitive. Gifts doesn’t want to play an early Volcanic Island because it is vulnerable to Wasteland. It is preferable to drop Islands and fetchlands until you need to play Burning Wish or Recoup.
Vampiric Tutor is reviled among Gifts players. It is here to show that it appears from time to time, simply because some players like it. It is quite taxing on the mana base. I have included the Imperial Seal in this list to show that it, too, is making the cut in some of these Gifts list. It is worth nothing that Probasco and his teammates have just recently cut Merchant Scrolls in favor of Imperial Seal and Vampiric Tutor. I think this will tax the mana base too much and not spread beyond the Northeast. We shall see.
Cunning Wish is a European favorite that almost never shows up in the United States. The Germans and Italians prefer to use it over a bounce spell. Similarly, Skeletal Scrying is almost exclusively a German inclusion. Sometimes, Impulse shows up in these lists. Randy Beuhler argued that Impulse was a better choice than the fourth Merchant Scroll. Some players evidently agree.
The final point of note is that Pithing Needle has seen an explosion in popularity. It is a tremendously useful answer to the ever-popular Uba Stax. It also has alleviates the burden of having to discard a card to Thirst For Knowledge. I expect that Pithing Needle will show up wherever Gifts players use Thirst For Knowledge.
Next time, I’ll show you the composite mana base and sideboard. If you are playing in the Waterbury this weekend, good luck.