Gifts Ungiven Belcher Control – The Primer-Type Thing

Those of you who are familiar with our Power 9 Event Coverage probably know all about the infamous Brass Man, a player adept at deckbuilding, amusing one-liners, and utterly smashing Stephen Menendian(s). For those of you who have not heard of this colorful character of Vintage, follow along today as he introduces his very saucy version of Gifts Ungiven Control that uses Goblin Charbelcher and Mana Severance as a combo win condition. If any of this sounds confusing or counter-intuitive, this excellent article is just a click away, prepared to explain the whole thing.

I’d like to preface this by saying that no deck is built in a vacuum. There’s been a little controversy lately on TheManaDrain.com about similar decklists, and I am in no way am trying to imply that I built this list “first” or that this is the ideal and final evolution of Gifts Ungiven control. One of the things I love about this archetype is that there are so many directions you can take your list in. I’ve tested different win conditions and ways to put the deck together, and this is just the build that I’ve gotten the best results with. As far as originality goes, I know team CAB released another Gifts Ungiven deck, and members of Team Reflection have been working on a similar list. Any similarity between this deck and anyone else’s is just a nod in their direction, my way of saying they had a great idea, and not in any way an attempt to steal credit for it.

Back in the Fall of 2003, in the autumn of the Gro-A-Tog era, an abomination called Long.dec started making appearances in the tournament circuit. The deck was underplayed and never really dominated the format, but it became quickly apparent that a number of broken cards had slipped underneath the radar of the vintage community. When Burning Wish and Lion’s Eye Diamond finally got the axe, more decks than Adam Bowers’ Bombs over Baghdad felt it. Overseas, a Keeper style deck packing Future Sight and Burning Wish, The Shining, was being developed by Carsten Kötter and team CAB. In the States, a similar deck called Your Mother was being played by Steve Houdlette and Team Hadley. While Long.dec was obviously a powerhouse, it’s arguable that the even more underrepresented Combo Keeper decks were stronger contenders. They could easily race aggro with a combo kill, packed as much disruption against pure combo as any other deck in the field, and could simply overpower contemporary control decks. Future Sight and four Yawgmoth’s Will in a strong, tested control skeleton made it a ruthless deck in the hands of a skilled player.

With every deck in the format pushing to be faster and more resilient, a well-built combo control deck should, in theory, be on top of the ideal metagame. Tog did a great job of this for a while, but still had its drawbacks. The one extra turn it takes to kill with a Psychatog can be huge in Type One, especially against decks packing answers from Red Elemental Blast to Maze of Ith. Using the attack step became more and more of a liability when other control decks gained the ability to quickly bring out creatures with high toughness, and force the Tog player to find a quick Berserk or lose. Tog had a very strong ability to just win from nowhere, but couldn’t match the game-stealing power of the Combo Keeper decks, which could use Burning Wish to tutor up Yawgmoth’s Will (or Balance, or ways to fetch Grim Monolith/Power Artifact) almost any turn of the game.

Short of running Death Wish Keeper (and don’t think it hasn’t been tested – it’s about as terrible as you’d imagine), to reach the kind of game The Shining and Your Mother used to have, you’d need an effective and redundant way to fish bombs out of your deck. Up until recently, there hasn’t been a good way of doing that, without running a slew of sub-par tutors.

Enter: Gifts Ungiven/Recoup

The synergy is obvious, but its first Top 8 appearance was in a pure tendrils combo deck piloted by Peter Matyssek of team CAB. By adding Recoup to a Gifts split, you can force your opponent to give you that game ending Will, something good enough on its own for an instant, even if it is a pricey one. On top of that, the other two cards can be much needed mana sources, or more game winning sorceries for you to pick and chose from, like Tinker and Time Walk.

Once you’ve decided on that, there are a few directions the deck can go. The problem with pure combo is twofold. First, storm combo really doesn’t want to be playing four-mana instants. The card is a bomb in TPS, but by building a deck around it, you’re basically saying “I’m not going to win until turn 4, and I’m comfortable with that.” Now there’s nothing at all wrong with a consistent turn 4 clock, but the idea just doesn’t have synergy with a deck packing Dark Ritual. The other problem is that you’re investing a lot of your resources into your Gifts. For instance, if you cast a game ending Gifts for Recoup and LED in hand, Yawgmoth’s Will and Lotus in graveyard, and your flash-backed Will gets countered, you’re in very bad shape. Even if you hadn’t discarded your hand to LED, you might not have enough gas left in your deck to build up storm and win, and that’s assuming your opponent isn’t putting his own pressure on. If your deck needs the Yawgmoth’s Will to win the game, then it’s dead in your hand until you’re ready to go off, and you don’t want the best spell in your deck to be a dead card.

That’s the fatal flaw of storm-based combo. It’s fast, it’s brutal, and it forces your opponent to play very tight, but when it stalls out, it has a lot of trouble recovering. Classic two-card combos, like Grim Monolith/Power Artifact, and Illusions of Grandeur/Donate, don’t have that same problem. They have their own disadvantages, but with Gifts Ungiven’s ability to tutor up a variety of cards easily, it’s really what you’re looking for.

So we have a mana hungry deck that abuses the graveyard and finds cards quickly. Anyone who’s played Control Slaver long enough to turn a Mox into Black Lotus for an insane Will turn knows Goblin Welder is going to be strong here. As for your game-ending combo, Goblin Charbelcher/Mana Severance is a perfect fit. Think about it for a moment and you’ll see the layers of synergy… An artifact and sorcery is an elegant fit in a deck that already runs Goblin Welder and Recoup, Tinker and heavy tutoring ability. The sheer numbers of options you have when playing out the deck are staggering.

Here’s the list:

4 Force of Will

4 Mana Drain

3 Duress

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Brainstorm

3 Gifts Ungiven

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Time Walk

1 Yawgmoth’s Will

1 Tinker

1 Demonic Tutor

1 Mystical Tutor

1 Recoup

1 Deep Analysis

1 Triskelion

3 Goblin Welder

1 Goblin Charbelcher

1 Mana Severance

4 Polluted Delta

3 Underground Sea

2 Volcanic Island

3 Island

1 Tolarian Academy

1 Library of Alexandria

1 Black Lotus

5 Moxen

1 Mana Crypt

1 Sol Ring

1 Mana Vault

1 Lotus Petal


3 Chalice of the Void

3 Rack and Ruin

3 Red Elemental Blast

2 Tormod’s Crypt

2 Lava Dart

1 Echoing Truth

1 “Darksteel Colossus

The first thing people ask when they see the list is, “What do you Gifts for?” What you’ll actually be going for is completely dependent on the game state, but the Gifts that defines the deck is Tinker, Mana Severance, Yawgmoth’s Will, Recoup. That’ll give you the kill no matter how they split it, but will obviously run you a lot of mana, thirteen if they give you the Recoup and the Mana Severance, which is usually the right choice. The good news is that it’s really not as hard as it sounds. Black Lotus and Goblin Welder can generate mana quickly, as can Yawgmoth’s Will, generally. Unlike storm combo, you can spread the cost over a few turns, so Time Walk can often generate mana as well. Chances are your first Gifts won’t be for Tinker/Mana Severance, but you’ll want to keep that goal in mind at all times. Because you’re drawing cards and playing the control game, most games you’ll see one or two combo pieces before you actually try to kill with Gifts. For instance, if you’re holding Yawgmoth’s Will, you can Gifts for Tinker, Mana Severance, Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, and seal the game with a lot less mana on the table.

That said, first and foremost this deck is a control deck, and doing well with it is all about timing. Keep your mana up and your options open in the early game, because if you just try to Gifts into the win as early as you can, you’re probably going to walk into some game-ending disruption. Your first few turns aren’t about setting up the combo, and the deck will reward you for playing conservatively. In most matchups, you shouldn’t use your early tutors and Gifts to grab kill cards, as you’ll be better off developing your manabase and building card advantage. You’ll want to have cards and mana available, so that when the time is right, you’ll be able to win before they get a chance to recover. Duress is amazing for finding the weak point in your opponent’s game, but nothing’s better than being able to read the other player correctly. Usually you’re fine if you just won a counter war where they fought back, or if you just stopped one of their game-enders like Yawgmoth’s Will or Tinker unopposed. Chances are you’re in good shape if you have the mana to win backed up by a few counters, but you should be paying constant attention to the game state and your opponent’s actions.

After you’ve played the deck in a few matches, you might notice an interesting phenomenon. This deck has the ability to just tear through itself finding cards, which is generally a very good thing, but sometimes you’ll end up with less than 20 cards in your deck after casting Mana Severance. This isn’t really too much to be worried about, often you can cast Time Walk here to seal the deal. In most cases, when you go for the kill your opponent isn’t really in any condition to win in the one turn you’re giving them. In the few situations where this really does matter, often times you can kill whatever threat is facing you down, and buy yourself plenty of time to win. With ten cards left in your deck, Belcher can still kill a Goblin Welder, an Akroma, a Sundering Titan, or a Worldgorger Dragon with “comes into play” on the stack, even after being attacked by a Xantid Swarm. This situation isn’t going to come up terribly often, but it’s worth keeping in mind. In the mid to late game, when looking through your deck with a fetchland or a tutor, it might be a good idea to make a quick count of the nonland cards in your deck. If Mana Severance won’t make you lethal and there are no threats to contain with Belcher, you’ll want to leave one Volcanic Island in your deck if it’s still in there. You’ll still kill in two turns no matter what, by stacking the land on the bottom after you activate the Belcher, but you’ll have a chance of winning immediately.

One thing that can’t be stressed enough is to really think out your Gifts completely. You should be picking your cards so they give you exactly what you want, but you’ll want to know the right play for every two cards you could end up with. It seems obvious, but if they can give you a combination that doesn’t win you game, you shouldn’t be going for the kill. If you have a reason to cast a Gifts early, before you’re likely to combo out (after an early Mana Drain, for instance), you’ll be better served by getting cards that will push you into a winning situation in the mid to late game, like Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Deep Analysis, or Black Lotus. It’s important to note at this time that if you have an active Goblin Welder, you’ll want to have your Black Lotus available to you as early as possible, and getting Triskelion early can be enough to win many matches all by itself. If you find yourself mana light in the early game, there’s nothing wrong with a Gifts for Mox Sapphire, Mana Crypt, Black Lotus, Tolarian Academy. A Gifts like this can really push your expansion ahead of your opponent’s, and can turn an early Yawgmoth’s Will from mediocre to game ending.

Just like classic Keeper to Control Slaver, you’re running Mana Drain and Force of Will, so no matchup is unwinnable. The drawback, as always, is that most matchups aren’t a walk in the park either. Gifts Ungiven might take you to the Top 8, but it won’t let you grab a sandwich in between rounds.

Against Control Slaver you have access to Red Elemental Blast and either Tormod’s Crypt or Lava Dart. If you can drag them into the long game without being Slaved, you’re in good shape with Duress, Deep Analysis and Gifts Ungiven, all of which shine in a Control mirror. Triskelion is huge in this matchup, and a Mana Severance-free Goblin Charbelcher can still pull its weight by keeping Goblins off of the board. Don’t dawdle if have the kill though; Slaver can pull out from unlikely situations almost as easily as you can.

Oath is similar; you’re going to want Red Elemental Blasts and your Echoing Truth, possibly the Darksteel Colossus if you’re finding extra cards you’d like to board out. Oath doesn’t really have the win from nowhere potential of Will based decks, but it has some very strong openings, and redundant counters that give it a strong mid-game. If they do get the early Oath/Orchard, you actually still stand at racing them. Even if you can’t quite get the mana you need to win in time, a lucky shot with a Belcher can take down an Angel or Spirit, particularly if you still have Volcanic Islands left in the deck.

Stax and Workshop Aggro, neutered as they are after Trinisphere got restricted, are still solid contenders. You’re already running Goblin Welder, which by can win those matchups by itself. Their own Welders can’t do that much to hurt your strategy, besides taking out your Moxen for Lotus Petals and similarly weak plays. After boarding you get to drop Duress for Rack and Ruin, which should be enough to handle most Workshop-based decks.

Against combo you have the same tools as other control decks, and more Duress than most are running. Chalice is nice become it comes down turn one if you draw it, with or without Moxen, and in this deck more than any other control deck, you stand a chance to win quickly in the time that it buys you. You can win under Sphere of Resistance and Arcane Laboratory if you have to, particularly if you bring in Darksteel Colossus, but Chalice hurts your game plan a little less.

Dragon and Cerebral Assassin have some powerful tools against you, but you definitely have the ability to fight back. Triskelion can be surprisingly strong in these matchups, killing Goblin Welder and Xantid Swarm if needed. You get to bring in Tormod’s Crypt and your Echoing Truth against these decks, which do a great job of crushing their gameplan. In a Dragon/Assassin heavy meta, you’ll probably want extra Crypts and bounce in your board to deal with them.

No need to beat around the bush, Null Rod-based aggro-control does not look good for you game one. If a Null Rod drops, your only win condition maindeck is a 4/4 Triskelion with no abilities. That alone is more than enough to handle a random control deck packing Damping Matrix, as the rest of your deck is still operating in full force, and they’ve wasted at least one of their cards on an otherwise dead hoser. Against aggro and aggro-control however, it’s probably in your best interest to scoop after Null Rod hits, and assure yourself enough time to take the rest of the match. Basically, your best bet of taking game one is counter the Null Rods or combo off quickly. This is one of the few matchups in which you might have to just cross your fingers and hope that Fish or UG madness doesn’t have any countermagic, and go for an early kill.

Luckily, games 2 and 3 end up in your favor. You get to bring in answers to Null Rod, efficient removal for their threats, and their worst nightmare, Darksteel Colossus. Now the deck plays out how it’s built to. Just build your resources, contain their threats, and when you need to win, you can Echoing Truth from the graveyard if you have to. Better still, the Darksteel Colossus plan is a serious threat to their deck, and comes down without too much work on your part. It feels like a win more card, and in games 2 and 3 it can be, but the fact is you’re going to lose some pre-board games against these decks, so you’re going to need a better shot at stealing the next two than you otherwise would. Even if they see the Darksteel Colossus coming, you’re in good shape. You’re boarding in two cards that hose their entire deck, and if they want to deal with Colossus effectively, they’re going to have to bring in more than two answers to see them consistently. This means they’re taking out something good, either threats, disruption, or heaven forbid, mana sources. Whatever their plan is, game two your deck is just better.

If you expect a lot of Null Rod in your metagame, you can maximize your wins by maindecking an Echoing Truth, which can turn game one around. Running the Darksteel Colossus main probably isn’t a good idea in an area like New England, where Goblin Welder shows up everywhere, but could be a very strong move in an area where your main threats are Fish, Oath, and to a lesser extent, Tog or Tendrils Combo.

The list given is built for a powered, unknown metagame, like Waterbury. There’s room in the list for tuning to your specific metagame, though. The Triskelion is strong in a number of matchups, but in the right environment could be replaced with a different sort of artifact threat; Darksteel Colossus, Sundering Titan, and Memory Jar all have their advantages against different decks. Deep Analysis is strong against any control deck, but can be cut for spot removal, a fourth Duress, or a maindeck hate card like Tormod’s Crypt. Yawgmoth’s Bargain has been tested in the Deep Analysis slot, and can be a strong card against decks that can’t counter it. The most notable weaknesses in the sideboard are the Oath and Dragon matchups, so if they’re expected, you can cut a few cards for extra help there.

Keep in mind when sideboarding, your best answer to most threats is to activate Goblin Charbelcher for the game. You don’t need final solutions like Arcane Laboratory and Ground Seal, when cheaper, efficient answers buy you plenty of time to win.

Have fun with it!

Andy Probasco