Play Noble Fish!

Reinventing Noble Fish, catching up with Vintage Gro, and a terrifying Zombie doctor? Matt Elias returns with a bunch of Vintage goodies!

You aren’t playing Noble Fish. You should be.

Of the decks that are in the top tier of the Vintage format, Noble Fish is the most under-played by a wide margin. It’s relatively easy to play, has great matchups against the top tier decks in the format, and is comparatively cheap to build.

So why aren’t you playing Noble Fish? You should be!

I have said in the past that Fish struggles in open metagames where it lacks a specific target; the reason I say this is because I find Fish to be most potent when it can deploy strategic trumps to opposing strategies. At least, that’s always been my understanding, and it informs the version I’m going to show you shortly.

First, though, some brief backstory on how I got to my build. Mike Noble came up with a version that approaches Fish in a different way, creating a consistent, disruptive beatdown deck for game 1 situations:

Mike shipped this list to Alex, who was the only Noble Fish player in a field of 84 players. Not only did he make Top 8 as the only player on the deck, but he did so in his first Vintage event! So what is this deck doing?

The first thing to notice is that this deck uses the traditional Noble Fish strategy for beating Workshop and Time Vault decks. Noble Hierarch helps the deck accelerate, and Qasali Pridemage is an all-star against Workshops and Time Vault. Those exalted creatures also fulfill another important function:  they let this deck’s Tarmogoyfs swing into an opponent’s Tarmogoyfs, and they allow Trygon Predator to swing into opposing Predators (such as those created by, say, Phyrexian Metamorph).

The next interaction, and one unique to Mike’s version of Fish (as far as I know), is Gitaxian Probe with Meddling Mage. Probe helps thin the deck and gives you an idea of what you’re up against, but in this deck, it also gives you extra value from your Meddling Mages. Against Shops, this might help you decide whether to name Tangle Wire, Smokestack, or Lodestone Golem, while against blue decks (where one often names Tinker) you can determine whether you go with Tinker for the long game or have a more pressing, immediate need based on what Probe reveals.

The four Path to Exile might seem out of place in a format like Vintage, which has traditionally been creature-light, but in the current metagame they’re critically important. Against Workshops they take care of Lodestone Golem, Metalworker, Kuldotha Forgemaster, and also Phyrexian Metamorph copying Trygon Predator in case you have no exalted creatures in play. Against blue decks, you get removal for Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf, but most critically you also have cheap outs to Tinker into Blightsteel Colossus.

The counterspell package of four Mental Misstep and four Force of Will isn’t particularly robust, but it’s functional and they all deploy for “free” in a manner of speaking.

When I was trying to pick a Vintage deck for the NEV tournament on 3/10, I put Noble Fish at the top of my short list. I haven’t played Noble Fish in a Vintage tournament for over two years, but I have always enjoyed the deck. I used this list as my starting point but began to modify it almost immediately.

While the Probe/Meddling Mage interaction is sometimes very good, I wondered if it crosses that border between “good” and “cute.” I also wanted to play a version with Stony Silence in the maindeck. While Fish decks and other “beats” decks have played Null Rod for years, Stony Silence is a huge upgrade. Ancient Grudge is a popular splash card for many blue decks, but Stony Silence, being an enchantment, is literally impossible for many decks in the format to remove game 1.

I had also recently been testing a few Stoneforge Mystic decks with Mark Hornung, one of which was a U/B/W build that played Dark Confidant and no Gush with Ethersworn Canonist in the sideboard for Gush and Dark Ritual opponents. While the deck itself was mediocre, the Canonists proved themselves to be exceptionally good. One of the reasons why I wanted to play Noble Fish was that I wanted to try a version which included Canonist in the 75.

As an aside, I don’t expect Stoneforge Mystic to make much of an impact on Vintage in the near future. Mark and I have been testing it for some time, and ultimately we always reach the same conclusion: the Stoneforge decks are decent but the engine itself is just slightly behind the curve for Vintage. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a printing later that bumps up the strategy or that the metagame might not shift into something where the format slows enough that the Stoneforge engine is viable, but I don’t think I would recommend it at the moment.

After a few weeks of testing, I ended up here:

Want to know something shocking? This deck has only 28 cards in it that existed before Ravnica block, and a large portion of them are in the mana base. Noble Fish, as a strategy, shows how influential recent Magic design has been on Vintage. Huge chunks of the format today are strategies that hinge on printings from the last seven years:  Dark Confidant, Trygon Predator, Qasali Pridemage, Phyrexian Metamorph, Stony Silence, Lodestone Golem, Kuldotha Forgemaster, Mental Misstep, Grafdigger’s Cage, Snapcaster Mage … The list goes on and on.

While R&D might not test cards for Vintage and may not usually design with the format in mind, new cards are massively impactful on the format today.

When I put this list together, I had three decks I was aiming to beat:  Gush, Dredge, and Workshops.

The Gush matchup is quite favorable, although obviously there are a wide range of Gush decks. Ethersworn Canonist shuts down the Gush engine and Yawgmoth’s Will. It also helps put games away once you get ahead in the early game. Grafdigger’s Cage fights Tinker and Will as well, while Stony Silence and Wasteland attack their mana. While less popular, I would think the Doomsday Gush deck would really struggle against this version of Fish as well, as would any Gush Combo variant. You don’t really need to sideboard all that much against blue decks, but depending on their build Path to Exile might be stronger than Steel Sabotage and Seasinger can be great against opposing Goyfs, Bobs, and Blightsteel Colossus.

Think about it this way: while the Gush deck is more “broken,” the Fish deck is loaded with cards that single-handedly counteract entire strategies in the Gush deck. Canonist shuts down the entire Gush/Bond engine as well as Yawgmoth’s Will. Grafdigger’s Cage takes away Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will. Stony Silence turns off seven or more cards out of the opponent’s mana base (meaning that single card takes out nearly a third of their mana-producing cards). As these cards overlap, a few resolved cards on your side of the table put a game completely out of reach, and you do so without having to break a mental sweat.

While I wouldn’t say the deck is favored against Dredge in game 1 situations, it has a much better matchup than most other decks. The combination of Wastelands with creature pressure supported by Grafdigger’s Cage gives you a fighting shot pre-board. Post-board, the matchup definitely becomes favorable as you bring in another Cage, the Ravenous Traps, and the last Wasteland. If Dredge is really popular in your area, another Ravenous Trap can put the matchup over the top. I prefer Traps to Surgical Extraction, as the interaction with Cage is terrific. Typically, you stick a Cage, and your Dredge opponent tries to use Bazaar to dig for answers. Once they find one, you can sweep their yard with a Trap, and the Wastelands and Strip Mine can handle those Bazaars. And the Fish deck can put swift pressure on Dredge opponents, giving them less time to dig out.

Finally we get to the Workshop matchup, which is critically important right now. The game 1 matchup of the build I listed above is mediocre; while you have Qasali Pridemage, Steel Sabotage, and Trygon Predator, you also have a ton of blanks like Grafdigger’s Cage, Mental Misstep, and Ethersworn Canonist. Post-board, things get much better as you’re boarding in ten cards for the matchup. I had the Steel Sabotages in the deck for the Workshop matchup and as an out to Tinker/Blightteel, and they ended up being shockingly good. Because of this relative pre-board softness to Workshops, I suggest making a few modifications below.

I played in the NEV tournament on 3/10, which had 51 players, and I posted a tournament report for anyone interested.

Briefly, I ran out to a 4-0 start going 8-2 in games and defeating Gro, Kuldotha MUD, Elves, and Dredge After a couple of intentional draws, I was in the Top 8 where I beat Cat Stax and then lost in the Top 4 to Espresso Stax. In that last match, I played very poorly in game 2 to punt a winnable game. Critically, though, I went 0-3 in game 1 situations against Workshops, which just isn’t good enough. If I were going to play this deck again, I’d make a few adjustments to improve that matchup.

That said, the deck as-is made the Top 8 last weekend at the NYSE tournament played by Shawn Griffiths.

The two most expendable cards in the list are Edric, Spymaster of Trest, which I love, but again borders on the edge of “cute,” and Ethersworn Canonist, which might be able to transition into the sideboard to some degree. I’d probably suggest something like this:

I probably underestimated the value of Meddling Mage against Dredge post-board where you can name their removal spells for Grafdigger’s Cage, and against Workshops where it’s a huge upgrade over Ethersworn Canonist. While not as powerful as Canonist against Gush decks, Meddling Mage’s even value across the field makes me want to play Meddling Mage in this Workshop-infested metagame. I’m somewhat torn between the third Meddling Mage and a singleton Edric.

With this version, against Workshops you’re siding out three Grafdigger’s Cage, four Mental Misstep, one Stony Silence, and two Ethersworn Canonist for two Path to Exile, two Dismember, a Tarmogoyf, two Hurkyl’s Recall, a Steel Sabotage, a Wasteland, and a Tropical Island. The one exception would be against Metalworker or Forgemaster decks where Stony Silence is very good.

In case you’re curious, I really do like Edric, Spymaster of Trest.

I mean, it’s an Elf, so… yeah.

Granted, Edric doesn’t help so much in games where you’re behind, but in games that are at parity or where you’re ahead, being able to slam Edric and start drawing two, three, or more cards a turn is a great feeling. The three mana creature slot is somewhat hogged up by Trygon Predator at the moment, but in various metagames, I would consider Vendilion Clique, Aven Mindcensor, and Thada Adel, Acquisitor. Unfortunately, none are all that great against Dredge or Workshops.

Miracle Gro!

The second deck on the agenda today is Gro. I first wrote about my version of Vintage Gro in my last article in October. I didn’t get much buy-in on this one from the Vintage community at the time, but Vintage superstar Paul Mastriano gave the deck a shot, making the swap of Tarmogoyf for Quirion Dryad that I discussed in the article and also cutting the Bobs for more Trygon Predators. He piloted that modified list to the finals of an NYSE tournament in November. I gave the deck a second shot at the Blue Bell Vintage in December and took it down. Variants of the deck have put up some impressive results in the US from November forward:

Paul Mastriano, 2nd, NYSE, 11/19/11
Matt Elias, 1st, Blue Bell, 12/3/11
Theo Limber, 6th, Sandusky, 12/3/11
Jake Gans, 2nd, NEV, 1/7/12
Doug Linn, 5th, Columbus, 1/8/12
Ryan Glackin, 1st, NYSE, 1/14/12
Jake Gans, 3rd, Selden, 2/4/12
Tom Dixon, 1st, NYSE, 2/18/12
Jake Gans, 4th, NYSE, 2/18/12
Tom Dixon, 2nd, NYSE, 3/24/12

My intention isn’t to claim credit for all of these, as some are heavily modified, but all build on the framework I put out there in that article I linked to above. Jake Gans added a Tendrils of Agony, Ryan Glackin added Key/Vault, and Tom Dixon added another color and slowly pushed to a hybrid with Remora Gush Control, while Doug Linn played Paul Mastriano build more so than mine.

Still, the strategy of Mystic Remora and creature beats has proven quite powerful and influential over the past four months. The 84-player Grudge Match IV I mentioned earlier was actually won by a version of Gro that replaced the Mystic Remoras from Glackin’s version with two Trinket Mages and a Grafdigger’s Cage.

While the deck hasn’t seen success in Europe, Mystic Remora has started to show frequently in Top 8 results there, which isn’t shocking given that we continue to see Snapcaster Mage and Oath of Druids decks having success.

If I were going to play Gro today, it’d probably look like this:

My original goal with Gro was to beat blue decks, especially opposing Gush decks, while being able to sideboard into configurations that beat Workshops and Dredge. This list maintains those goals but ups the counter density using Spell Snare. I’m of the opinion that Spell Snare is criminally underplayed in Vintage at the moment given the abundance of targets in all top-tier opposing decks.

The problem with this strategy is that it wasn’t built with a creature-loaded format in mind. Given that, I could see playing a version with Repeal a Tendrils in it or one with Time Vault and Voltaic Key, although both strategies aren’t particularly well suited to beating Workshops. Lorescale Coatl is actually a house against the mirror and Fish decks as it quickly out-grows Tarmogoyf. Credit goes to Mark Hornung for that one.

Here’s Tom Dixon’s most recent four-color build, which straddles the line between Remora Gush Control and Gro:

“Doctor, doctor, give me the news, I’ve got a bad case of eating brains.”

Chalk up another big win for Dredge:

The unusual part about this deck—Dr. Edge, get it?—is that it doesn’t use the Dread Return combo at all. Instead, it’s highly disruptive, playing Leyline of the Void and Unmask, and it plays a full set of Petrified Field in the main. This version should have a leg-up in the mirror and a solid game 1 against Workshop decks at the expense of explosive power for matchups where you need to race. Admittedly, those matchups are not all that common in this metagame.

In fact, given that Workshops are our public enemy number one, I can actually get behind this list. Give it a try if you want to get a feel for a slower, more grindy version of Vintage Dredge.

If you prefer a more American build, Reigning Vintage Champ Hornung wrote about Cagebreaker Dredge here. I think that the deck needs some modifications in that Grafdigger’s Cage hasn’t penetrated maindecks to the extent that we were worried about, and Workshops are probably the deck you most need to beat. To defeat Workshops game 1, I would probably load up on Petrified Field in the main, be sure to pack the third Ichorid somewhere in the 75, and bump Nature’s Claim to the sideboard:

Regardless of what Vintage deck you play, you need to make sure you have a solid plan against Mishra’s Workshop decks. While I think all of the decks I discussed today are solid choices, before your next Vintage tournament you should read Mishra’s Workshop Strikes Back by Brian DeMars to make sure you understand what the format’s top Workshop decks are doing and know how to beat them.

Check back soon for a closer look at a deck I swore I’d never play again…

Oh ok, one more insane bonus Vintage deck before I go:

Matt Elias
Voltron00x on The Mana Drain, The Source, and Twitter