The Flash versus GroAtog (GAT) match is one of the most important matches in Vintage. Not because of its frequency, but because Flash and GAT are widely regarded as the two best decks in the format. This matchup may not be that common, but it must be understood. A helpful parallel may be the Gifts versus Long match in the previous Vintage era (i.e. before the errata of Flash, the introduction of the Mean Deck, the set Future Sight, and the restriction of Gifts, and unrestriction of Gush). Gifts and Long were far and away the best performing decks and the archetypical Control versus Combo match.
Flash and GroAtog are much better, more aggressive, and more deadly decks by comparison, but they are also very different in their contours and strategy. They aren’t simply amplified variants Gifts and Long. They are totally different decks. Understanding this matchup is important, not only for Vintage practitioners, but also for format theorists and analysts. This article is a must read for any serious Vintage player.
I ran a set of 20 games, pre-board, alternating back and forth on the play so that no deck would the benefit of being first. My general modus operandi for matchup analysis articles is to present a set of games, play-by-play, with complete in-game analysis, and then follow with a more general summary at the end. This is the approach I took with the Ichorid versus Gifts match earlier this year. That way, people who were unfamiliar with the archetypes could watch my in-game plays to learn how to pilot the decks through mimicry, if nothing else; and experienced players, who were already knowledgeable on the basics of these decks, could read the summary table and concluding paragraphs and get the detailed analysis without having to wade through tedious play-by-plays.
In some cases, however, I present in-game analysis and play-by-play analysis for Vintage experts. For instance, my introductory article on Long.dec in 2003, and my Gifts versus Long article earlier this year. In both instances, I was piloting intricate combo decks and the play-by-play was of interest to Vintage novices and experts alike (as the forum responses clearly reveal).
That said, I’m not going to present play-by-plays of each game that I ran here for three reasons. The first reason is the sheer quantity of games I played (twenty is more than I’ve run for these articles in the past). The second reason is because this is one of those instances where in-game play-by-play isn’t necessary to help people get better with these decks. Neither deck is really a complex deck on the order of Gifts or a Long variant. The third reason is that as a necessary byproduct of the analysis I’m about to present, I will be showing you plenty of play-by-play excerpts. It is more productive to show you play-by-plays in the context of making a particular point rather than just dump 20 games on you.
So, here we go!
Overview of the Flash and GAT
Here are the decklists:
As for this build, I used Eric Becker’s manabase and then built the deck as powerfully as possible while using just Chain of Vapor.
- 4 Brainstorm
- 1 Fastbond
- 2 Mana Drain
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Yawgmoth's Will
- 4 Duress
- 4 Force of Will
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 4 Gush
- 1 Cunning Wish
- 4 Merchant Scroll
- 2 Misdirection
- 1 Black Lotus
- 3 Opt
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
There’s absolutely no doubt about it — Flash is one of the best decks I’ve ever seen in Vintage. Legacy experienced the un-errata of Flash. Vintage is now living the reality of Flash with the addition of Future Sight’s Summoner’s Pact to help find Protean Hulk and Pact of Negation to protect the combo, and Virulent Sliver to provide the safest kill (immunity to T. Crypt and Pithing Needle without having to spend as many slots on the Disciple kill).
Because of my years of Vintage experience, I am able to compare decks past and present (see my article on The Banned Playing Again). It is my opinion that this deck is at least as good as many of the best decks in Vintage history. The deck that I consider to be the best deck ever, past or present (excluding absurd X Black Lotus decks) is 4 Lion’s Eye Diamond Long.dec followed closely by 4 Tinker-Jar decks, 4 Necropotence Trix, and other such-absurd decks. Although I would gladly play Long.dec over the Flash deck, in many respects Flash is actually a superior deck. The Flash deck, as listed above, is one of the best decks ever.
Vintage Flash isn’t faster than Legacy Flash ever was simply because of Future Sight. The natural acceleration of Vintage, the Moxen, make Flash much stronger than it could be in Legacy. Combine that with 4 Merchant Scrolls and the other tutoring, such as Demonic Tutor, Mystical Tutor, and Vampiric Tutor, and you have a faster, more consistent, and more robust archetype. In Legacy, even the most robust Flash lists had to contend with metagame rivals that directly fought it. For instance, Fish decks with Duresses, Stifles, and Meddling Mages were genuine threats — even for the final Flash lists that fought at Grand Prix: Columbus. In Vintage, Flash doesn’t have to operate on the same timeframe. It can play Mox, Land, Flash and protect it with Pact of Negation, Force of Wills, and Misdirections. If a Mage or some pesky threat does hit the board, one of 7-8 tutors can easily find a Chain of Vapor.
So, as absolutely ridiculous as Flash is — being objectively broken, incredibly fast, and a serious rival for one of the best decks in Vintage, past or present – the only reason it isn’t running away with the format is really twofold. First, GroAtog actually IS one of the Top 5 decks in Vintage history, period (which is so mystifying why Gush was unrestricted). So, the absolute brokenness of Flash is probably disguised by how incredibly good GroAtog is. Second, Vintage decks are used to brokenness. Answer decks like Fish and Stax have the ability to compete, no matter how broken your deck is. While Trix, Tinker, and Long decks were monsters of the past, they didn’t exist in a format with 4 Mishra’s Workshops, Trinispheres, and Chalice of the Voids.
In the last five years only one deck has ever actually dominated Vintage tournaments for a long period of time. That deck was GroAtog. That’s why Gush was restricted.
More than just being an insanely powerful deck, GroAtog is highly disruptive. I mean, it has packed as tightly as imaginable, not only the full bevy of Vintage early disruption (Duress, Force of Will, Misdirection, Mana Drain, Scroll for Force), but also an incredibly light manabase so that it can jam more of those spells into it. Finally, its engine, Gush, is free. As a result, it can spend all of its mana playing answers and tutoring and cantripping into more answers.
You cannot build a deck that is more disruptive without actually using targeted hate or cards that are traditionally sideboard cards.
With that out of the way, you can see that this is a battle of intense, unbelievable firepower up against a rush of highly resilient defensive spells. It’s fireworks in the first few turns.
Unpacking the Results
So let’s begin with the base results. Out of 20 games, GroAtog won 12 and Flash won 8.
Here’s how that breaks down: On the play, GroAtog won 7 of 10 games. Conversely, on the play, Flash won 5 of 10 games. In other words, GroAtog won 5 of 10 games on the draw, and Flash won 3 of 10 games on the draw.
Being on the play is clearly important, particularly to GroAtog. Beyond the obvious tempo advantage of going first, here’s the actual reasons why:
Flash can win on turn 1. On the play, GroAtog can play Duress, or Merchant Scroll or just cantrip into a Force of Will to build a defense to stop Flash.
Duress on the draw is much weaker. Flash can Brainstorm to hide its most important card or just drop or play its best cards onto the table. Most problematic, a Duress on the draw can’t stop a turn 1 win.
Mana Drain will come online before Flash’s second turn.
Merchant Scroll can be played to find more Force of Wills both on turn 1 with Mox, Land and on turn 2 off of a second land.
The GAT deck can use Brainstorms and Opts to dig for turn one Force of Wills.
For those reasons, GAT is much stronger on the play. So, clearly going first is huge. It is not an exaggeration to say that the die roll is the most important element of this matchup.
My most general impression from the match is this: if both decks get decent hands or better, the matchup is even. GAT sometimes gets the nuts. Flash sometimes gets the nuts. Sometimes one deck just overpowers the other and vice versa. GAT is loaded with answers, Flash is loaded with tutors and threats.
However, as I qualified, this is dependant on the fact that both decks get decent hands or better. The reason that the even odds don’t hold is because of Flash’s inherent inconsistency. The problem is that Flash is very inconsistent, even with its incredible quantity of tutoring power and cheap disruption. It seems to me that if both decks essentially kept decent hands or better, the matchup would be virtually even. What gives GAT the huge edge is that Flash has to mulligan hands that are tactically incredible, but strategically terrible. Let me explain what I mean.
As you push Vintage decks towards turn 1, you sort of run into an impermeable barrier much like Einstein theorized that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. There is a fundamental trade off of speed and consistency in Vintage. The reason is simple: despite the incredible acceleration in Vintage, you still have two fundamental limits: 60 cards and a maximum of 4 cards per card. Even with Summoner’s Pacts, Merchant Scrolls, and cards like Pact of Negation and Misdirections to protect the combo and, most importantly, Brainstorms to help fix everything, Flash still has lots of consistency problems.
How significant are they? Pretty large. Let’s break it down.
Flash mulliganed 11 times in 20 games. That’s over 50% of the time.
There was no single reason that Flash had to mulligan; it was an assortment of problems.
First of all, Flash has 12 lands in the deck. This produces two subsets of problems. At least three of the mulligans were no-landers. I was able to keep two hands that Flash drew that had no lands, but had Mox Sapphire and other acceleration. But, even when Flash has lands, it actually needs two. Without a card like Brainstorm or a tutor, the hand becomes extremely iffy. Take a look at these hands.
Here is a hand from game six that was mulliganed into:
Pact of Negation
Since I’d already mulliganed to 6, you probably aren’t going to get a better hand of five. You have a huge risk of mulliganing into a no-lander or another one land hand. I kept it.
Here is another one-land hand from game 17:
Force of Will
Pact of Negation
That hand is another heartbreaker. It’s packed full of specific and general disruption, tutors to find the combo, and plenty of protection. But there are no 1cc spells and only one land.
So the first problem is the inherent mulligan you’re going to face with a twelve-land manabase. The second problem is the fact that you have a two-card combo. You’re going to have otherwise excellent hands that only have one part of the combo and cards that can only find the combo piece you already have (at least easily). This happened in four of the eleven mulligans.
Here is an extreme example of this problem from game 19:
It might be amusing to keep this hand just to psyche your opponent out, scaring them out of their wits with early Flashes. If you are very clever, you might be able to bait out a few Force of Wills by dropping one Flash out after you’re pretty confident your opponent has a Force, and then dropping the other Flashes at appropriate intervals. However, you are just a sitting duck while they develop their game plan. It’s an extremely risky hand.
Here is an example of the other side of the same problem:
It’s not that this hand is automatically unkeepable, but it is certainly questionable. Granted, you have access to turn 2 Flash, but you have at least three dead cards and no protection.
Third, there is the problem of just not getting any part of the combo, or worse, just garbage — the wrong side of the combo (i.e. the combo parts you want to put into play with Hulk):
Here’s an example from game 10:
Force of Will
Force of Will
Pact of Negation
This hand has mana, protection, disruption… but no draw, no search, no tutoring, and most importantly, no combo parts. You have to mulligan that unless you think that you can take Virulent Sliver all of the way (I’m joking of course).
This is the important statistic: Flash only won 36% of the time it mulliganed (four of the eleven games). So, mulliganing hugely affects the ability of Flash to win games.
There are huge spates of hands that Flash can’t keep. In contrast, there are basically two kinds of hands that GAT automatically can’t keep:
1) No Blue mana, and this almost never happens. In the 20 game set, there was only one automatic mulligan due to no land. That’s par for the course in a deck with a fourteen lands. Contrary to what some people claim, GAT is not a land-light deck. It’s a mana light deck. In addition, there was another hand that I mulliganed with just Library of Alexandria. I would have kept that hand against many, but not all, opponents.
2) Garbage — no draw, no tutoring, no counterspell/disruption. Such a hand might be: land, land, land, Dryad, Dryad, Tog, Yawgmoth’s Will, Fastbond. A hand like that just doesn’t come up. A single Blue spell can make it a keepable hand. It’s even rarer than the no Blue mana hand.
That said, GAT has to mulligan in this matchup far more than it ordinarily would. In the set of twenty games, I mulliganed six times with GAT.
One of the six mulligans was a no-lander, another was the one-land LoA hand, and four were tactical mulligans. Although I only had one automatic mulligan, I tactically mulliganed five times in twenty games, bring me to a nearly 25% mulligan rate for a deck that is incredibly consistent. The old joke about Vintage that the early game is the mulligan is a truism in this match. Mulliganing is an intensely tactical decision.
Consider this hand from game 13:
Would you keep that hand? You are on the play.
You don’t have Force of Will. You don’t have Duress. You don’t have Merchant Scroll on turn one for Force. You don’t even have Misdirection.
You do have turn 1 Mystical for Force. Or, alternatively, turn 1 Brainstorm followed up by upkeep Mystical for Force (or just mainphase Mystical followed by Gush).
I can’t tell you what the correct play is, but what I can tell you is that you should consider mulliganing these hands. Use your intuition and don’t settle for these hands without reflection.
I felt like I could get a more disruptive hand of six, and I did:
This turned out to be a much better hand. Keeping a hand with no disruption against Flash, and no real speed, is probably going to be wrong a majority of the time. Most of the time Flash will be able to assemble the combo by turn 2, or it wouldn’t have kept its hand.
From the GAT player’s perspective, this is the first important choice you make. The answer won’t be obvious and there is no simple rule to follow. You’ll have to mix intuition with theory and context to help you decide. The choice you make may be the key to winning or losing your match that is so fast.
There is one other consideration you should keep in mind. Unlike Flash mulligans, a GroAtog mulligan has a higher chance of forcing you to five cards. A strategic mulligan of seven to six can sometimes put you into a clearly unacceptable hand.
Here are some more potential mulligans to think about that were drawn during my 20 game set.
This hand is similar to the hand above, but far more tempting. First of all, it has Mana Drain — i.e. an actual counterspell. This hand is on the draw.
What would you do?
Think about it for a few minutes and then scroll down.
Would you believe that I mulliganed that hand?
I believe you have to be aggressive to beat Flash. The hand I mulliganed into was far better. I still lost, but that may have been attributable more to the decision I made with a mid-game Duress than the decision to mulligan.
The point I’m making here is that although GAT normally has a below 5% mulligan rate, in this matchup, you jump to nearly 25%. That’s how important the mulligan becomes and how often you should be doing it. If you are a GAT player who never mulligans (like me), you need to change your ways for this matchup.
The good news is that there is one big piece of information that can help you more than any other: whether the Flash deck mulliganed. Sometimes the Flash deck mulligans into the perfect hand (as it did in game 2 with this hand):
Pact of Negation
The Flash pilot was able to Pact for Elvish Spirit Guide, Pact for Protean Hulk, and cast turn 1 Flash with Pact of Negation to protect it. Note, this is an example of how Summoner’s Pact is flexible and can be used to find mana. There is a good case to be playing two Elvish Spirit Guides precisely to support two-Pact hands. You may have already used one ESG in the early game and need another as a Pact-tutor target.
However, the vast majority of the time that Flash mulligans, it will be turning a terrible hand into a mediocre one. As a GAT player, unless you have some intuitive reason to suspect that your opponent drew the nuts (a genuine tell, not a good bluff), I would play from the assumption that they have a mediocre hand and mulligan accordingly (i.e. maybe not at all).
That’s another advantage for GAT. One of the toughest decisions — on whether to mulligan, or whether to make the preemptively defensive or proactive move, will often be answered by Flash’s mulligans and turn 1 play. That information is critical to making GAT’s correct first moves and reveals so much on the part of Flash that GAT almost always has an edge as a result. Examples abound in the set of games I conducted.
The Force is With You
The next critical tactic to play is to dig, search, and scavenge for Force of Wills. Do not worry about the cost of bringing many Force of Wills to your hand. This isn’t a true control deck that has a 25+ card manabase. You can blow your hand and then quickly recover.
Your immediately goal is to assemble as many Force of Wills as you can. Digging for Duresses is also a high priority. Duress will tell you what your opponent is holding while it takes their best card.
As a general rule, Merchant Scroll for Force of Will before you Scroll for Ancestral Recall. Exceptions should be obvious: if you’ve seen your opponent hand or if they’ve mulliganed heavily. There will be non-obvious exceptions, but my advice is that it is better safe than sorry. Unlike most Blue decks, you can afford to do this. GAT’s light manabase means that you generally have more spells you can afford to pitch to support playing pitch countermagic.
Just because you have one Force of Will does not mean you are safe. Flash is designed to win with at least one protective counterspell, whether that is Misdirection, Force of Will, or Pact of Negation. Sometimes you’ll need Duress and two Force of Wills or Mana Drain and two Force of Wills to stop Flash. But stop them you must.
Pact for the Win
This is not something that will come up that frequently, but when it does, you must be ready to exploit it, and it is the reason I bring this up. A good GAT player will use the stack to his advantage. You can selectively let Pact of Negation resolve and then target the Flash with a new counterspell. This will cause the Flash player to lose the game on their next upkeep.
Here is game 1 from my set of 20 games:
Force of Will
GAT plays Tropical Island and passes the turn.
Flash plays land, Brainstorm into: Pact of Negation, Pact of Negation, Elvish Spirit Guide, putting back the Sliver and a Summoner’s Pact.
Turn 2: :
GAT draws Misdirection.
It plays Underground Sea and casts Merchant Scroll for Force of Will.
Flash: upkeep Mystical for Flash.
Play Strand and break it for Sea. Remove ESG to generate a Green mana.
GAT plays Force of Will pitching Psychatog.
Flash plays Pact of Negation.
At this point, GAT plays Gush, and luckily Gushes into Mana Drain and Brainstorm.
GAT lets Pact resolve.
GAT players another Force of Will on Flash, pitching Mana Drain.
Flash plays another Pact of Negation.
GAT plays Misdirection pitching Brainstorm.
Flash dies on its next upkeep to the delayed Pact of Negation trigger.
GAT’s was very fortunate to draw into two Blue spells with Gush to support two more pitch spells, but Flash had the “nuts” as well. This game was fun to show you because it was exceptional for several reasons.
However, the point of showing this game was to illustrate how selectively letting Pacts resolve can resolve in game wins for GAT. Unlike other combo decks, Flash doesn’t “fizzle,” it just gets overwhelmed. A single topdeck can threaten instant win. It only needs two cards to kill you: a Protean Hulk and a Flash. It goes without saying, but winning through whatever means is available now is always preferable to winning later.
The single most important tactical play aside from the mulligan is figuring out what to Duress. At least one of the 8 losses for GAT in my set of 20 games was directly attributable to taking the wrong card, clearly in retrospect, with Duress. However, knowing which card is right is sometimes counterintuitive. The problem is even difficult to verbalize.
Your goal with Duress is to stop them from winning. As a general matter, this means that you want to take cards that you imagine yourself needing to Force of Will later. However, this can lead you to make the wrong decision.
Let me show you how. Here’s the situation:
Flash on the play and played turn 1 Land, Brainstorm. GAT plays turn 1 Duress with a Force of Will in hand, and sees this:
Pact of Negation
Pact of Negation
What do you take?
Do you take a Brainstorm or a Pact of Negation?
How do you even decide?
Think about it for a minute. Put some serious thought into it.
The correct card to take is Brainstorm. Remember how I told you that you probably want to take cards you’d Force? That’s not always the case.
I took Pact of Negation. It’s pretty clear why that’s wrong in retrospect. Brainstorm is powerful enough in itself, but double Brainstorm means that the Flash player can Brainstorm, fetch, Brainstorm and see 5 new cards on their second turn, a minimum. That’s unacceptable. In those five cards they are likely to see another pitch counterspell and a tutor for Flash if not Flash itself.
There is another reason why that was wrong. In my set of 20 games, Flash didn’t win a single game after its third turn. If you can survive past turn 3, it’s chances of winning are slim indeed. If you can just decompress the game, then you can more solidly answer Pact of Negation than by taking it directly on turn 1.
Flash played Brainstorm, played the fetchland, and Brainstormed again.
On its second turn, GAT played Scroll for Ancestral Recall, holding up double Force of Will.
However, Flash Brainstormed into yet another Pact of Negation (might as well have been a Force or Misdirection, however. Flash played turn 3 Flash with double Pact of Negation backup to beat GAT’s double Force.
GAT played Duress and double Force of Will and still lost. Granted, I misplayed the Duress, but that is also testament to just how ridiculous Flash is. In fact, it was this game that fully alerted me to the fact that the one card that really glues the whole Flash deck together, more so than even Merchant Scroll, is Brainstorm. Brainstorm is the best fixer this deck has. Do not underestimate it.
Perhaps the next trickiest scenario is knowing what to take when they have a hand that has multiple Flashes (or access to multiple Flashes) and countermagic.
In game 12, Flash went first and played turn 1 Brainstorm off an Island. It then dropped Mox Ruby and passed the turn.
GAT played turn 1 Duress seeing this hand:
Force of Will
Force of Will
You can assume that Flash hid the best card. Even so, what do you take? You really have to take the Merchant Scroll because there is a chance that the Flash player didn’t consider the risk of Duress. However, the Flash deck hid Flash on top for an easy turn 2 kill with Force of Will backup. There was no real chance for GAT to win that game, but it does illustrate the difficulty of deciding what to take.
Poison is Not Queen
There were certain games where GAT successfully countered Flash’s threats and Flash spewed slivers on the board. Two Virulent Slivers can end the game in a few turns. This is, of course, not the ideal path to victory, but is one available to the Flash player nonetheless. Thus, although Quirion Dryad is generally a card you rarely wish to see with GAT, it is a card you will often be happy is readily available. In none of my 20 games did the raw-dog Sliver kill work, but it did come close at least once.
Note, however, a strategic point I have not really explored: it is possible that if you get three men in play you can stop the entire Flash kill. With two Dryads and a Tog, say, and only 4 Virulent Slivers in the Flash deck, you can theoretically stop Flash from winning by comboing out unless they can Chain of Vapor or otherwise bounce or remove one of your blockers. This is not something I would advice as a primary tactical strategy, but it is something to be aware of nonetheless.
The analysis I’ve conducted applies exclusively to game 1s. While that may seem to have little relevance to the full matchup, understanding game 1 is a necessary starting point for understanding the post-board game, which I’ll probably analyze next week.
The Flash versus GAT matchup, preboard, is essentially an even match except for the fact that Flash is a much less consistent deck. This gives GAT the edge and makes it the favorite, even in game 1, with a roughly 60/40 matchup ratio. That said, although GAT is the favorite, Flash is a streaky deck. It can get two turn 1 wins in a row and then have to mulligan the next three games. That’s the nature of the beast. Flash is extremely powerful.
Although it has the ability to win on turn 1, Flash generally goes for a turn 2 kill, like most decks of its power level. The turn 2 kill is preferred or more common primarily because Flash needs to play a set up spell, whether it is Merchant Scroll or Brainstorm. It isn’t even always doing that just to find the combo, but by waiting until turn 2, it can also maximize its ability to protect the combo.
Both decks are hyper-aggressive. What I’ve noticed is that if the GAT player can survive the first two turns, however, its chances of winning reach over 80%. What’s more, if the GAT player can survive the Flash player’s third turn, the GAT player is probably over a 90% favorite. Keep that in mind.
The first and most important decision from the GAT player’s perspective is the tactical mulligan. Knowing when to mulligan or not will make the difference in the tight, often match-deciding, games. In the first few turns GAT needs to focus on finding Force of Wills (and Duresses, etc) as quickly as possible with Opts, Brainstorms, and tutors. The second most difficult decision for the GAT player is figuring out what to Duress. If you get both the tactical mulligans and the Duress targets right, you’ll probably be winning the vast majority of your Flash matches. As a GAT player, you should fear Flash to make you stay focused and because Flash can always just out-nuts you. But you should also realize that your chances of winning are very good.
Until next time,