Preparing for Rochester

Having trouble deciding what to play in Rochester? You probably should be… the results of Richmond probably add to the confusion. Hopefully, I’ll be able to shed some light on the situation, giving you some guidelines for your deck choice at what will surely be the hottest American Vintage tournament of the year.

Having trouble deciding what to play in Rochester? You probably should be. The results of Richmond probably add to the confusion. Hopefully, I’ll be able to shed some light on the situation.

Deconstructing Richmond

What happened in Richmond?

First of all, Fish had returned. The big win in the Waterbury (a very large quarterly Vintage tournament held in Connecticut) by U/W Fish meant that Fish would return to the SCG Circuit. A few months earlier, Fish was declared dead in Syracuse, but Trinisphere was restricted and Mana Drain decks did pretty well in Chicago. Gifts Ungiven decks were making waves. In this field, U/W Fish builds and more recent variants using Chalice of the Void and Aether Vial over Null Rod had suddenly begun to perform. Preparing for Richmond, we expected there to be Fish. The bigger question was whether Fish would be winning or not. It’s one thing to expect a deck to show up. It’s another to expect to face it. This made me wonder how much Oath was going to show up. The appearance of Oath last October caused most of Richmond’s local Fish players to go into hiding – the more Oath, the less I had to worry about Fish. Waterbury had so little Oath and Fish can run rampant in that metagame – explaining why Fish got first place in a Mana Drain and TPS Top 8. The opposite was true in Chicago. Oath was the second most popular deck and there were no Fish in the Top 8. On the other hand, although Fish still has a strategic inferiority to Oath of Druids in theory, the newer variants have developed tactics to combat Oath. This was one of the big questions I had going in: would there be Oath and if so, would it keep Fish in check?

Richmond is also very well known for playing Mishra’s Workshop decks. It is the home of Team Short Bus, which has developed many of the Mishra’s Workshop decks that have done so well in the last year and a half. David Allen created 5/3, a Workshop aggro deck that took him to the Vintage World Championship finals last year. Eric Miller first broke Workshop Aggro over Fish in the first SCG event last July. Shane Stoots unleashed the dreaded 7/10 Split at Grand Prix D.C. last spring. Jay Coffman has been a consistent performer with his JuggerStax list as well. I wondered whether these players would still be playing Workshop decks now that Trinisphere was restricted. And even if they were, could they make the cut now without Trinisphere?

I anticipated that most of these Workshop players would return to 7/10 deck, since Blue dual lands were everywhere. Using Titans and Chalices is not a terrible plan versus Drain decks. The talk after the restriction of Trinisphere was that Aggro-Workshop decks were dead. Although two Workshop aggro decks made Top 8 in Chicago, one was 7/10 and the other was Ravager Aggro, nothing like traditional 5/3. I wondered what awaited us from Team Short Bus. I expected Workshop decks, but I wasn’t sure exactly what kind they’d play. Fish traditionally beat 7/10 and Oath might have game against non-Trinisphere Workshop Aggro. Once again, the metagame seemed to ride on the quantity and quality of Oath.

Finally, we knew to expect Gifts Ungiven decks. Gifts not only won SCG Chicago, but it was the talk of the town, putting several players into the Top 8 at Waterbury. Richmond marked a huge decline in the number of Control Slaver decks as peopled shifted to Gifts. I figured that the increase in the proxy count would cause an explosion in these decks, since Mana Drain decks are seemingly among the best and cheapest decks to build with 10 proxies. The bottom line is that beating Mana Drain decks seemed to be the number one priority.

The two big uncertainties were therefore the quantity of Oath and the effect of ten proxies. If Oath showed up in large numbers, I figured that would put a lot of pressure on the Fish players, knocking many out of contention. Second, I expected that the increase in the number of proxies would cause an explosion in the number of good Mana Drain decks.

What actually happened?

I was right that there would be a lot of Mana Drains. There were. Over forty decks played with Mana Drain. My mistake was expecting so many optimized Drain lists. I think there were two factors at work. First, many of the people who could now run Mana Drains lacked the experience with the Drain decks to know really how to construct an optimal list and how to metagame appropriately. Second, although the increase in proxies permitted more Mana Drains in the field, these lists were constrained by the 10 proxy limit. I saw several opponents proxying dual lands and even Polluted Deltas. Goblin Welder, Oath of Druids, Intuition, Force of Will, and the dual lands range between $12-25 dollars a piece. People were not able to suddenly build Gifts with ten proxies even if they previously owned all the components to a deck like Fish. Instead, as far as I could tell, they opted for Oath and Landstill, and in some cases Fish. The Gifts list required lots of expensive cards including two different sets of dual lands, Goblin Welders, Gifts, and cards like Mana Crypt. I was really surprised at how few Gifts lists were played. The vast majority of the Gifts lists were played by my teammates (although their decklists were incorrectly labeled as TPS) and Team Short Bus members like Ben Kowal, Andy Probasco, Ian Bennett, and Josh Reynolds.

Although Oath did show up in pretty big numbers, very few of the Oath lists were optimal for the metagame. The Oath list I used in Syracuse and advertised before Chicago was an Oath list built and designed for a Control Slaver metagame. It was not nearly as strong against Fish as the Oath list we ran last Fall. Chalices are very good against Welders and Combo and Workshops. Furnace is also fantastic against Welders but useless against pretty much everything else. Out of 15 or so Oath lists, only a handful were threatening. One Oath list used Bringer of the White Dawn. Others had Morphling. One that was in the top 40 had only three Accumulated Knowledge. Another had Arcane Denials. Whatever the case, these Oath lists did not do their job of keeping Aggro in control.

The result of the weak Oath performance and the use of suboptimal Mana Drain decks was profound. There were Wastelands everywhere. All of the Workshop decks and all of the Fish decks had Wastelands. Quite a few people played weird Mana Drain decks like W/U control or Landstill variants. They too were running Wastelands.

So what happened to these Drain players? It’s hard to tell exactly, but it looks like some of the Drain players had mirror matches in the early rounds: Andy and Ben and my teammates Doug Linn and Jason Stinnett both played each other in round three. Others faced Fish and lost. Others faced Workshop decks and got a tournament-ending second match loss.

One thing is clear – everyone knew that Gifts was going to be in force and most of the “name” players who didn’t play it certainly had a plan for dealing with it. Kevin Cron and I were running In the Eye of Chaos maindeck as a solution for Gifts in Stax and we added Meddling Mages in the sideboard so that we wouldn’t lose to Tinker.

If I had to provide a rough overview of what happened, I’d say it was this: The Oath players totally failed to keep the Aggro and Aggro-Control decks in check. In the early rounds of the tournament, the successful Mana Drain decks started accumulating a loss because they were playing each other. The Fish decks knocked out more of the Mana Drain decks. By mid-tournament, very few Mana Drain decks were still in contention, and very few of the contending Drain decks were piloted by players of skill and experience equal to the Mishra’s Workshop players. Many of the best North American Mishra’s Workshop players were present and all running them were playing with Workshops: Kevin Cron, David Allen, Eric Miller, Hill Redwine, Jay Coffman, Shane Stoots just to name a few.

There are few plays as devastating for Fish as: Mishra’s Workshop, Mox, Juggernaut, or, Mishra’s Workshop, Crucible of Worlds followed by Wastelands. They can’t worry about Wastelanding you as they might if you drop Trinisphere on turn 1. They have to build up a defense ASAP or lose. The best Mishra’s Workshop players were experienced and skilled enough to hang with the field despite the restriction of Trinisphere. They were fortunate enough to get paired against decks like Fish in the later rounds and they had no trouble beating much weaker Mana Drain players. Kevin and I used cards like Chains of Mephistopheles, Choke, and In the Eye of Chaos to hose Mana Drain players. Finally, since many of the Mana Drain players were inexperienced and the lists were not quite optimized with full power, they were particularly vulnerable to the non-basic hate in such a Wasteland, Crucible, and Null Rod heavy field.

That leaves one final question:

How did Food Chain Goblins win the whole thing?

Although Zaun claims not to have simply ported his deck into Vintage, that is obviously not the whole truth as he included three Red Elemental Blasts and three maindeck Vandals – calculated metagame choices. First of all, Food Chain Goblins with three maindeck Goblin Vandal and plays like turn 1 Goblin Lackey is a very scary match for decks like Stax if they are not prepared. Second, Food Chain Goblins should just run over Fish. If Juggernaut ruins Fish, can you imagine what a Goblin Piledriver looks like? Third, the Food Chain player had three maindeck Red Elemental Blasts as well. I would expect that a good number of Mana Drain players walked right into those. I was puzzled by the fact that Mike Zaun didn’t run Artifact Mutation in his sideboard – but apparently he didn’t need it.

There is one other thing that is very important to explaining the success of Food Chain. There was virtually no genuine combo present in Richmond. Storm combo was non-existent. Worldgorger Combo was non-existent and would have been destroyed in this Wasteland heavy metagame. Far too many of the Mana Drain decks did not have combo finishes that could race or overpower Food Chain. Although I’m a little surprised that Food Chain was able to handle so many powerful Workshop decks with such ease, it appears that he had excellent pairings in the Top 8. Zaun got to face both Fish decks in the quarter and semi-finals and had to play neither David Allen or Eric Miller. Instead, Travis took both of them out of the Top 8 and played Zaun. Travis’ Workshop deck is the least equipped Workshop deck in the Top 8 to combat Food Chain. In short, Zaun played a good metagame deck very well and had was fortunate to have two relatively favorable matchups in the Top 8 before the finals.

Building a Gauntlet for Rochester

Rochester is going to look very different from Richmond or Chicago. First of all, Rochester will have a huge influx of Canadians. The rumor is that as many as fifty Canadians will make the trip. Canadians are notorious for playing rogue decks and making rogue decks like Salvagers combo, Dragon combo, and Landstill mainstream. Because of their tendency to play rogue it is impossible to say exactly what they will be running, but it would not be unreasonable to test against some Bazaar decks, Salvagers, and Landstill. In Syracuse the last time around, Landstill got second place. [Played by a New Yorker. – Knut] Rochester is going to get the same crowd. There were quite a few Landstill decks back in Syracuse because it is basically the Keeper factor. It is a true control deck – perhaps the last in the format – that people can play on a budget. In Richmond I played 2 Fish decks, 2 Landstill, 1 Oath, 1 Gifts deck, and 1 Rector Trix. That’s a lot of Fish and Landstill.

Second, and more importantly, there will be a huge number of Northeasterners. They are notorious for playing heavy Mana Drain decks. Expect some Northeasterners to play Gifts-Belcher, Control Slaver, and a small contingent of Divining Top Combo. I would bet money that Rich Shay and his crew will show up with Mana Drains.

Add to the mix the fact that Fish won Waterbury and Food Chain won Richmond, and you can certainly expect both of those decks.

The fundamental difference between Richmond and Syracuse/Rochester will be the number of Workshops There will also be Mishra’s Workshop decks, but not anything like you saw in Richmond or Chicago. There were some Workshops in Syracuse, but there weren’t many. Richmond and Chicago are Workshop enclaves. Rochester is closer to the Northeast where very few people play them, and even fewer play them well or to any success. Also, there will be a lot of diversity in the Workshop decks that people play. There are multiple Stax variants, The Riddler, 7/10, Affinity, and even more unusual variants such as Uba Stax and hyper Mud. There will probably be at least one Workshop deck in the Top 8 and you have a fair chance of seeing one in the swiss.

In summary, if you had to prioritize, I would say: Fish variants, Gifts and Food Chain Goblins are the decks to beat. Although I’m not sure if it is a deck to beat, you will probably see Landstill. After that, you face serious diminishing returns, but you probably want a plan versus the Bazaar decks, Workshop prison/aggro, and Oath.

How Will the Pros Perform?

In Vintage, performance is generally determined by two chief ingredients: playskill and understanding of the format. Although distinct, the two are not wholly separate. Insufficient understanding of the format can lead to poor plays. Thinking your opponent is playing one deck when they are playing something slightly different may cause you to put back the wrong card with Brainstorm. Worse, it may cause you to hesitate until you see more of their deck. Since Vintage is so fast, an insufficient understanding of the format which causes tactical or strategic errors in the early game which may prove fatal. However, understanding of the format is best exploited through shrewd metagaming and thoughtful design and tuning. That puts the Type One players at a disadvantage because Rochester is not the tournament for new design and great technology. After Rochester, everything will change. Not just because of the results there, but because Saviors will reshape Vintage. If the tournament were to be held a month later, then I think that the Vintage players would have a bigger advantage because of their knowledge of the format.

For these reasons, I think playskill is the more important factor at the moment. The Pros will do pretty well in Rochester because the metagame has rarely been more skill intensive. The metagame is pretty obvious so surprises are unlikely – every deck has weaknesses and every weakness is being exploited. That means that lots of matches are very tight. When matches are tight, the fundamental differences that separates the winners and losers in this metagame is playing well. Making a single play error is enough to knock you out of the tournament in a metagame like this. Pros don’t need to understand the format so long as they make the right choices when the critical moment arises. In any given match, there is only likely to be a few times where a game could shift depending upon a difficult decision. The pros don’t need to know every threat, they only need to be able to identify the threats that arise and deal with them in the best way possible. Therefore, the burden is on the Vintage players to play decks they are good with and play them very well. Otherwise, some Pros will likely dominate the tournament.

Preparations for Richmond

Before Richmond, I narrowed my choice of deck to three options: Modified Meandeck Oath (the old list with Spirit of the Night) to deal with the influx of Fish and expected Workshop decks as well as to race Gifts Belcher, Gifts Ungiven.dec or my teammate’s Stax list. I decided against Gifts because I didn’t want to have to deal with Fish. I decided against Oath because there were too many uncertainties. I had no idea how much Oath hate would be out there and I didn’t want to risk running into Eon Hubs, Seals of Cleansing and Goblin Bombardments that lingered in sideboards.

Here is the Oath list I likely would have run:

Meandeck Oath 2K5

4 Islands

1 Tropical Island

4 Forbidden Orchard

2 Polluted Delta

2 Flooded Strand

1 Mox Pearl

1 Mox Ruby

1 Mox Jet

1 Mox Emerald

1 Mox Sapphire

1 Black Lotus

2 Wasteland

1 Strip Mine

1 Library of Alexandria

4 Oath of Druids

1 Gaea’s Blessing

1 Spirit of the Night

1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath

4 Brainstorm

4 Mana Leak

4 Mana Drain

4 Force of Will

2 Misdirection

3 Cunning Wish

3 Intuition

4 Accumulated Knowledge

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Time Walk


3 Back to Basics

3 Energy Flux

2 Arcane Laboratory

2 Ground Seal

2 Null Rod

1 Fact or Fiction

1 Echoing Truth

1 Chain of Vapor

I decided against Gifts because I had put so much effort into Stax in the weeks leading up to Richmond. Until Richmond, Kevin Cron had only lost two matches in two tournaments, winning the Power 9 in Syracuse and getting screwed into ninth place on tie-breakers in Chicago. After Richmond he had lost a total of three matches in three tournaments and got 11th place in Richmond with 5-1-1 – the same record as myself. I have a good deal of experience with Stax, but this deck is a totally different beast. After watching Kevin do so well, I decided it was time to try the deck. I worked on it pretty intensively for several weeks to learn the sideboard plans and how to play the deck. Let me tell you, it is not easy.

Old Stax had a style of play where it would just unload onto the board and seal you up by locking you down. Kevin’s deck is entirely different. Kevin’s Stax is much closer to Weissman’s Keeper of 2001. The deck has one goal: pull you into a ditch and keep you there. Ideally, the deck keeps you a hair away from winning and then its inevitability kicks in. For example: Turn One, Mox + City of Brass, Sphere of Resistance. At this point, the player will go, Land, Mox to try and get around the Sphere. Then you play Wasteland, Gorilla Shaman and eat the Mox. Or you play Chains of Mephistopheles, which shuts down their subsequent Brainstorm. You get the point. You just continue to play spells that keep them in the hole. Eventually inevitability kicks in and you’ll win: you’ll find cards like Balance, Yawgmoth’s Will, and most importantly: Strip Mine with Crucible of Worlds (and the Strip Mine can be found with Vampiric Tutor, Demonic Tutor and Crop Rotation).

A good part of the maindeck and most of the sideboard in that list was subject to intense debate. Although I would argue vigorously for and against many different cards, in the end, I deferred to every single card that Kevin was going to run simply because he has vastly more experience with the deck than I do. I hated the maindeck Seals of Cleansing in my testing against Gifts. I also found that Mox Diamond was very strong. I wanted to keep the third Chains of Mephistopheles in the maindeck. Kevin found Mox Diamond to be strong, but we ultimately cut it because it is weak in a mulligan and a bad topdeck. I’m really happy I trusted his wisdom on the Seals. The one card I was disappointed I went with him on was the maindeck Swords to Plowshares. Although the card can be randomly amazing, it should probably have been something else.

I have participated in all but one of the StarCityGames Power Nine tournaments thus far. Without exception they have been among the most enjoyable Magic events I have ever attended. StarCityGames Richmond proved the rule despite getting the booby prize this time: ninth place. I wish I could go to Rochester, but I am beginning the process of studying for the bar exam. I’ll be very busy studying for this exam, so my output in the next two months will be lighter.

I will, however, see you at Gencon!