One Step Ahead – Standard Musings: Open The Vaults

The StarCityGames.com Open Series returns to Atlanta!
Thursday, April 22nd – Gerry Thompson returns with a detailed examination of Open The Vaults in Standard. Rise of the Eldrazi doesn’t offer much to this under-the-radar archetype, but its power is evident nonetheless. Building on the views of Kyle Boggemes earlier this week, and expanding in fresh directions, Gerry does not disappoint!

Pre Rise of the Eldrazi Standard is an extremely complex format. Awkwardly enough, complex is often referred to as “terrible” or “boring.” While I suppose that getting Blightninged twice each game isn’t exactly everyone’s idea of fun, instead of simply quitting, try to do something about it! Thankfully, Rise of the Eldrazi is almost here, and the format is sure to shift a bit (and hopefully mitigate the incessant baby whining), but let’s ignore that for right now.

The Magic Online Standard metagame is defined by two decks: Jund and UW Tap Out. But why is that? Sure, both decks are extremely powerful, but so are a lot of other decks in the format. I feel like it’s because both decks are able to trump the other decks in the format.

Take the Jund versus Boros Bushwhacker matchup. Turn 1 Goblin Guide or Elite Vanguard often got in a few points, but what happened after that? Putrid Leech, and then Boros was brickwalled. Sprouting Thrinax, brickwalled. Those are very efficient trumps to the various Isamarus, and it’s not like Boros got hated out. The matchup played out like that because of cards that Jund was playing incidentally. It’s no surprise then that the old Boros deck sees little to no play.

What about the Chapin UW matchup versus the Czech Tap Out UW? Tap Out would out-mana the Chapin deck and keep slamming them with big, must-counter spells like Mind Spring. Again, Mind Spring played trump card… assuming it resolved, of course.

Mirror matches for these decks are especially about trumps. The Tap Out lists initially eschewed Jace for more efficient or better positioned cards (like Divination, who doesn‘t die to the Blightnings or Bloodbraids that, again, Jund just happens to have because they are good, not because they are aiming at beating Jace), but Jace mostly trumped Mind Spring. Elspeth trumped Jace, and the battle rages on. Iona was the ultimate trump, leaving the opponent with very few castable cards, but is very vulnerable to an active Jace.

What, then, is the answer? Obviously you must trump the trumps while still playing intrinsically powerful cards. Eldrazi Monument is such a card. So is Open the Vaults. These are cards that you cast and your opponent says, “Nothing I can do to beat that one.” These cards seriously warp the game state.

If you wanted to compete in the pre-ROE Standard metagame, you had to be doing utterly sick things to your opponent. I don’t foresee that trend changing, and ROE probably adds more options on that front, which should delight all the brew masters out there.

Moving on…

A while back, I wrote about Open the Vaults, a deck with which I’ve achieved some modest online success. Sadly, few have been able to recreate my success, which leads me to ponder a few things. I feel like I have a grasp on how the deck operates, as I’ve played similar decks in this past. These decks typically rely on velocity to get ahead.

Now, I may be misunderstand the term or misusing it slightly (please don‘t berate me, Patrick), but my understanding of velocity is basically using your mana every turn to achieve some end. That end could be attacking with a lethal Quirion Dryad or Psychatog, or simply not dying until you can reach a critical mass to Open the Vaults them right out.

To better explain what I mean, we can look back at Time Spiral Block Constructed. A buddy of mine wasn’t playing a whole lot of MTG at the time, but wanted to get back into MTGO and said that TSP Block looked fun. He liked the look of the Mystical Teachings deck I was playing that was nearly creature less.

I loaned my copy of the deck, and after a couple queues he came back disappointed. He was having the same success I was and was struggling in matchups that I wasn’t. Thankfully, he thought ahead, realized that it was probably a somewhat complicated deck to play, and thus he should save his game logs and have me take a look at them and tell him what I would have done differently.

On turn 3 of the first game, I immediately saw what his problem was. He led with turn 2 Prismatic Lens, and a turn 3 Coalition Relic, getting ready to charge it, untap, and see what he drew before committing to anything.

All in all, a solid start, but one that could have reaped far better rewards. You see, his hand at the time contained a Mystical Teachings, and by not casting his Teachings on turn 3, he was wasting a mana, and effectively skipping a turn in doing so.

His reasoning was that he didn’t know what to Teachings for at the time, and he just figured that he would use Teachings whenever a problem presented itself. If you didn’t know what to get, you should just Teachings for Teachings, or get Careful Consideration. A couple turns down the line, you are going to be able to cast that Relic and another four drop, be it Teachings, Consideration, or Damnation. At that point, you’ve gotten to cast that Relic for free and can now start playing two spells a turn. That was when you started winning.

It may have opened his eyes, or he may have lost every match after that. Either way, I don’t remember exactly. The moral of the story is that making sure that all of my permanents tapped every turn was second nature to me. COK Block Gifts Ungiven operated on a similar principle, so I was used to playing similar decks, but I didn’t realize that not everyone else was.

Open the Vaults is the same way. Spreading Seas, Courier’s Capsule, Architects of Will/Glassdust Hulk, etc. They all team up to ensure that by the time you cast OTV, your graveyard is stocked and there’s virtually nothing your opponent can do once you resolve it. They also help you hit all your land drops and always have things to do, since that’s all you really want.

All of the cyclers really are an engine of their own. Sometimes you hit a snag where you cycle into three Open the Vaults and just sit there doing nothing, looking stupid, but that’s just some variance that you’re going to have to deal with. Jund has variance problems when cascading, and UW can always draw a handful of Mind Springs and Martial Coups with not enough mana. You just have to shrug it off and know that it won’t always happen.

Anyway, onto the decklist…

I realize that the Nose already wrote about OTV this week, so there’s some overlap and for that, I’m sorry. Still, there are enough differences in our lists that it’s worth talking about.

First of all, I run zero Ruinblaster-able lands. Goblin Ruinblaster is a serious issue for decks looking to cast big spells, and the non basics outside of Kabira Crossroads and Magosi, the Waterfall don’t really add much to the deck. The manabase is very stable already, even at three colors. Manlands are not something I would be even remotely interested in, as activating them would be incredibly rare. I don’t particularly like Terramorphic Expanse, as entering the battlefield tapped is somewhat annoying, but I do what I have to.

Maelstrom Pulse on your Borderposts is similarly frustrating, which is why I only have two, and decided to split them. I wouldn’t want to cut them entirely though, as the more value you can gain out of Open the Vaults and Filigree Angel the better. Sometimes you want to accelerated anyway, so there’s always that option. I tried some Everflowing Chalices for a while

Second, I’m not running Architects of Will. After all that talk of using my mana every turn, I cut one of the cards that fills my curve every time? Yes, for a few reasons. Architects is thoroughly unimpressive after Opening the Vaults. The body is small and the effect is often unnecessary. Pilgrim’s Eye was much more important to my victories, as a chump blocker and mana fixer.

I started out by never touching the core engine of the deck. Then, slowly, I started getting lazy and siding out Architects for lack of better things to cut during sideboarding. After playing a bunch of post board games without them, I realized that they were in no part integral to me winning, so they could safely get the axe.

Pilgrim’s Eye is the perfect replacement. The matchup against Jund is often close, depending on what happens. They try to beat you down and you should be able to cast a midgame Open the Vaults. If you get a Filigree Angel out of the deal, that’s great, you probably just won the game. Even if they fight through the first OTV with removal or something like Siege-Gang Commander, you should have plenty of time to combo again.

If you don’t reanimate a Filigree, either because you didn’t draw the Angel or Sphinx, or just didn’t have time to cast Sphinx, then you’re in for a nail biter. They usually need two Bolts to burn you out, and sometimes three, depending on who played first and how good their draw was. Lately, I’ve been on the receiving end of end of turn Bolt, untap Blightning you out. Those games are always sad ones to lose, but Wall of Omens should help immensely at allowing you to stabilize at a higher life total.

Omens and the Eye are both excellent blockers, and ones that are definitely expendable. All you really need is time, since you have inevitability against everyone. For similar reasons, I would advocate playing Celestial Purge in the sideboard instead of Flashfreeze, or at least maxing on Purges before you even consider Freezes. While Flashfreeze may seem like the superior card, it’s usually very awkward on the draw or when you have Courier’s Capsule. Remember, you really want to use your mana every turn, and if you pass the turn with two open and a Capsule in hand for fear of Thrinax or Ball Lightning, you’re not doing your job.

Kyle’s build has a split on Sphinx of the Steel Wind and Filigree Angel, which I have tried already. Sometimes, Sphinx is more than enough against Jund all on its own, but in the closer games, they can untap and burn you out with Siege-Gang or Blightning before you even get an attack in. In the majority of games, you just want Angels.

I’ve tried builds with Merfolk Looter, boarding into a more concentrated reanimation package with Rise from the Grave against Jund, but like I said, Steel Wind doesn’t always beat them, and there’s really no need to try and go that far against Jund. Your matchup, while obviously not 100%, is good enough that you don’t have to warp your entire deck to gain 5% against Jund, just to lose 20% versus the field.

Kyle favors Esper Charm, and I can see why. It’s got a lot of very attractive modes, and having another discard outlet for Steel Wind is pretty important. However, Charm is hard on the mana, and you rarely end up in the situation where you want to Mind Rot yourself only to OTV the next turn. I frequently cast Open for value, getting back an Eye, Hulk, and Capsule when I have nothing else going on. By playing Open-able cards, you’re increasing your variance by turning Open the Vaults into strictly an “I Win” card.

I feel like Oblivion Ring is a necessity in today’s UW filled metagame. It’s one of your few outs to Jace (outside of casting Glassdust Hulk, which I happen to do frequently against UW), and there’s no way I would play without them. The fact that it’s a safely blanket versus crazy stuff like Manabarbs cements my decision to keep them.

If you want to play Path to Exile, I would probably do it in the Journey to Nowhere slot. Currently I have a Doom Blade in that slot, mostly for Iona, but it’s good against Dauntless Escort and manlands also. Iona is seeing some play in Polymorph decks (although that might change with the release of ROE) and is sometimes played as a one-of in UW. The games there tend to go long, so you can sandbag the Blade if you need it, or dig for it with Capsules and Sphinxes while chumping with the latter and Pilgrim’s Eyes. Not the greatest plan, but it’s better than being kold to a single card.

Against UW, my plan is to kill all of their threats which includes saving Spreading Seas for Colonnades. Be careful about using Borderposts to save your own Sea-ed lands, as Open the Vaults works for both players! Since they have few to no counterspells, eventually you can resolve an Open the Vaults with Sanguine Bond and Filigree Angel for the hyper combo finish. The only thing they can really threaten you with is Jace.

Post sideboard, things get interesting. They basically have to keep in their Baneslayers (or side them in if they’re not maindeck), so you have to keep in some removal. UW probably doesn’t gain a whole lot aside from some extra counterspells, so we know exactly what we’re up against.

There’s a few ways to fight them. The first would sticking to our original plan, which involves the Sanguine Bond combo. There’s not much wrong with this plan except for them having counters for OTV. I used to run a discard package that included 4 Duress and 2 Tidehollow Sculler, but I have since moved on to better things. Negate is often better against UW than Duress since you force them to invest their mana into their spell. Duress is also embarrassing against a top decked Jace or Mind Spring.

Still, that probably isn’t enough. I would also add a couple Jaces and a Liliana. While both good on their own, they serve dual purposes. Jace kills theirs and is a huge tempo swing versus their Baneslayer. Playing only a single copy of the Bond is sort of risky, as while you tend to tear through your deck in the midgame, sometimes you just can’t find it. Liliana is like a second pseudo copy while also being a solid disruption tool.

John Cuvelier turned me onto Luminarch Ascension without even really trying. We compared lists, I saw his plan, and wanted to try it for myself. I was pleasantly surprised how much easier Ascension makes the games. While UW still has Orchids, Baneslayers, and manlands, those are easy enough to deal with. You can basically rely solely on the Ascensions to beat them, so you can afford to cut the Angels, Bond, and some OTVs, leaving you with all good cards.

Obviously there are slight problems with Ascension. Good UW players typically have a couple copies of Kor Sanctifier in their sideboard, in addition to the Oblivion Rings they already have maindeck. You tend to go through a lot of work attempting to protect yourself from being damaged, and then have the wind taken out of your sails with a timely Ring or Sanctifiers.

Luminarch Ascension is basically another one of those high risk, high reward cards. If flying by the seat of your pants is your type of thing, this is definitely the sideboard plan for you. I can play fast enough where the long games still go fast enough for me to finish three games, so I don’t consider that an issue. For right now, I’m sticking with my Sanguine Bond.

Against Jund, the plan is simple: Don’t die. Yes, Siege-Gang is scary, but only because you couldn’t kill the Putrid Leech that dealt you 12 damage. If you’re at 17 when they cast Siege-Gang, it’s basically irrelevant. For this reason, I favor Celestial Purge over Flashfreeze. Purge is also much better against RDW and things like Ajani and Manabarbs. That’s not to say that you can’t run both, but you don’t necessarily need to either.

You could mess around with Sphinx of the Steel Wind, but I’ve been there, and I wouldn’t even bother. Resolving Open the Vaults is often game winning, even if means that the game isn’t over on the spot.

That would leave the sideboard looking like:

4 Negate
4 Celestial Purge
2 Flashfreeze
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Liliana Vess
1 Day of Judgment
1 Doom Blade

Another interesting list that I found on Magic-League was a combination of Spread ‘Em plus Open the Vaults. I haven’t played a game with this list, but it looks awesome.

I’ll see you guys in Atlanta for the StarCityGames.com Open weekend, where I’ll most likely be casting Pilgrim’s Eye. This is the first Open tournament I’ve had a chance to play in this year, and I’m very excited. This tournament series (and those like it) are the best thing to happen to Magic since Magic Online, and I’m glad I get to participate. Here’s hoping I can make it to the StarCityGames.com Pro Tour!