So Many Insane Plays – GAT in Action

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Vintage, it seems, has turned from the combo table, opting instead to feast on the attack step. Stephen Menendian, Vintage World Champion, takes his GAT deck into the Workshop Aggro fray, with mixed results. As usual, the detail in his report is phenomenal, and the insight he offers cannot be ignored. If you’re looking for an edge at your next Vintage tournament, look no further!

Tournaments are now my principal testing grounds. I test in smaller tournaments to prepare for bigger ones. You face a diverse gauntlet of matchups under actual tournament conditions. After scheduling a Vintage tournament the day before New Year’s Eve, I sensed quite a bit of enthusiasm for a cash tournament caught in the dead zone between two frigid holidays with meaningless football on TV. Twenty-something males would be happy to get out of the house, away from the girlfriend, smarmy holiday kitsch, and overbearing family for a few hours, in order to sling cards.

I had two goals this tournament: The first was to figure out how to avoid getting routed by Workshop decks, or how to foist myself into competition with these beasts. The second was to actually go for the gusto and refuse a Top 4 split that seems to be the capstone to every one of these cash tournaments. In smaller Vintage tournaments, the real tournament is in the Top 8. Every Top 8 match is a drag-out, untimed fight. It’s where you learn the most and have the most to learn. Splitting $250 in cash four ways is not as valuable as losing or winning a close match that will give you the tools and experience necessary to sharpen and improve your game for the big money Vintage tournaments.

After running the stats I unveiled last week, I knew that Workshop Aggro was the new deck to beat, followed closely by GAT. But I also knew that you couldn’t just focus on those matchups, as they are only half the metagame. As I thought about how to fight Workshops, I entertained the idea of going back to Mana Drains or adding Psychatogs. But ultimately, both seemed flawed. Thoughtseize has to be as good as Mana Drain, and it’s proactive. Psychatogs were slow, and an early or well timed Empty the Warrens seemed just as effective. I considered cutting Red since Thoughtseize basically obviated the need for Red Elemental Blast as more one-mana disruption, but the 3c GAT doesn’t really give you significantly more mana stability in the Workshop match, certainly not more than it potentially adds with Fire/Ice, Ancient Grudge, and cards of that ilk. Rich Shay recently won a mid-sized Vintage tourney with the Red splash. Here’s what he said:

The first thing you might notice is that I ran Red. This is because of Goblins. Do I need Red Blasts? I’m not sure they’re any better than Thoughtseize. Do I need Red artifact removal? I didn’t run any. What Red gave me were burn spells. The last tournament I went to was Star City in Chicago. There, my one match loss was against Goblins. My teammate, Jesus, also lost a round to them. And none of the answers in-color seemed great. Hail Storm, Plague, and Infest; these aren’t on par with a two mana sorcery. The fact that Pyroclasm also hits Magus of the Moon made it seem even better.

For someone who has long been a forceful advocate of 3c GAT, the addition of Red was a surprising and revealing move. I doubt he’ll be going back.

I ultimately decided that I couldn’t come up with a better list for the GAT/Shop metagame without actually putting anti-artifact cards into my mainboard, a move I wasn’t prepared to make. I’m sure you can understand why I didn’t want to maindeck an Energy Flux.

So here’s what I played:

Round 1: Workshop Aggro — Mark Trogdon

This is Mark Trogdon.

I can only wonder how many times Trogdon has appeared in my tournament reports, as I seem to face him at every event. Mark is perhaps the face of the Vintage player of the future. Mark is nearing the age of retirement and virtually out of a third marriage, but he is a great guy and young at heart. Vintage Magic of the future, I imagine, will be a competitive hobby of predominantly adult men well into their careers who can’t invest the time and effort to learn new formats every few months and travel to Pro Tours, but can take out their Vintage deck once month and play for some cash prizes instead of spending that Sunday afternoon at the golf course. It’s a better hobby too (my opinion).

In 2006 Mark transitioned from scrub to knowledgeable competitor, even knocking Rich Shay out of the Vintage Championships. Last year he ascended into the upper echelon of Vintage players. Although my record against him is heavily weighted in my favor, he seems to gain something every time we face off. And now that his pet Workshop Aggro decks are the best performing deck in Vintage, this match is going to be pitched battle or a wearisome grind. It is fitting that my first match is also the one I’ve been dreading.

Mark wins the die roll and elects to play.

Game 1:

Mark opens the game with a move made possible thanks to Lorwyn. He carefully considers his cards with the pea-eyed glance of near-sighted eyes behind thick glasses, eyes moving from card to card with an expression that reveals nothing and leaves the impression of lackadaisical curiosity rather than systematic, computational analysis. After a moment of consideration, he gently, but with intent, plays a Mox Pearl onto the table. Tilting his head back, he looks up at me with the slight air of a question. Half conscious and half unconscious of his meaning, I short circuit further discussion on this point and usher the game along by declaring the Mox’s resolution.

With this knowledge out of the way, he plays a Mox Jet and then Thorn of Amethyst. I consider the play. Thorn of Amethyst, like Trinisphere and Sphere of Resistance, is the bane of the Gush deck. Most of my spells are free or extremely cheap. That doesn’t make Thorn worse. In fact, it makes Thorn better. My spells are cheap such that I can play more spells per turn than the average deck, and indeed plan on doing so. I play 4 Ponders, for instance — a card used solely to dig for other cards. Gush is almost always played during the same turn as one or more other spells. Similarly, my tutor engine, Merchant Scroll, is not a lonesome play. Although Sphere does no single thing, it has a tremendous cumulative effect. Thorn would stunt my development, slow me down, and do virtually nothing to him. I can’t allow it. Even if Force of Willing the Thorn would open the door to a more dangerous spell resolving on turn 2, it’s a play that I have to be willing to make. Right?

I Force of Will the Thorn, pitching Merchant Scroll.

He plays a Mountain and passes the turn.

I draw my card for the turn, my first, and play Polluted Delta. I have a dilemma. In my grip is another fetchland. But I have Ancestral Recall, Duress, and Vampiric Tutor in hand. This leads to several branches of possible play. I could break the Delta for a Sea and play Duress, taking his strongest remaining non-creature threat. On my upkeep, then, I could Vampiric Tutor. Alternatively, I could find an Island and play Ancestral Recall. Island is resilient to both Wasteland and Magus of the Moon. If I have an Island in play when I play my second land, I can always Gush in response to a Wasteland to save the dual land. The danger in this line of play, of course, is that if I Ancestral into a Dryad, I’ll need to break my second fetchland for Tropical Island and may not see another land to play Duress and Vamp. Another option is to wait until the end of his turn to break the Delta, just to see what he does first. The downside to that play is that I could potentially draw into a broken start right now. For instance, if I draw Mox Emerald and Fastbond, I could theoretically start to combo out.

I break the Delta to find an Island (19 life). I tap Island to play Ancestral Recall. I play Mox Ruby and pass the turn. With the Mox and a difficult-to-remove basic Island on the table, a Sphere will be less troublesome.

On his second turn, Mark taps his Mountain and Moxen and my fears are realized. Magus of the Moon. The moon man has landed. One small step for Future Sight, one giant leap for Workshop Aggro.

In spite of my predicament, at least I fetched an Island. I have Blue mana to work with. Now it’s time to dig with Ponder and hope to find some more Moxen to get out of this mess.

I untap and play Ponder, plopping a Force of Will into my hand with the plan of playing Mystical Tutor on my upkeep. I play Polluted Delta and pass.

On his third turn, he plays Sword of Fire and Ice. Another major change from the old Grow versus Workshop Aggro match of 2003 is the presence of equipment. Equipment is powerful in Vintage because they are so mana cheap for their effect. A single Workshop can easily power out a Sword of Fire and Ice, and a land and a Mox is all that is needed to equip it. It’s not just that SOFI gives a nice combat bonus, but it’s a source of removal and card advantage. I have to Force of Will the equipment, and I do. He attacks me for two with the Moon man and passes the turn.

On my third turn I play upkeep Mystical Tutor for Cunning Wish. I play another dual land (read: Mountain) and pass the turn.

Relentless, on his fourth turn Mark again tries to play a Sword of Fire and Ice. This time, it sticks. He taps his Mox and plays Sol Ring, which he uses to equip the Moon man.

I untap and play Cunning Wish for Fire/Ice, and play another land. My attempt to Fire the Magus fails due to the fact that Sword of Fire and Ice gives the Magus protection from Red. It mattered little anyway. I’m toast. If I can’t kill the Magus, stopping the Sword won’t matter as I can’t play any blockers.

He plays a Solemn Simulacrum on turn 5, and a Goblin Welder on turn 6, and I’m eliminated from the game by the equipped Magus of the Moon.

As disheartening as being beaten down by a Blood Moon dude equipped with a big-ass Sword is, at least I have plenty of answers in my board. I sideboard in Oxidize, Ancient Grudge, 3 Energy Flux, Echoing Truth, Fire/Ice, and 2 Pithing Needle. I boarded out 2 Misdirections, 2 Ponder, 3 Duress, and I believe Empty the Warrens and a Gush.

Game 2:

We shuffle up, present, shuffle more, and cut.

I open with Flooded Strand, and break it for Underground Sea. I play Pithing Needle on Wasteland.

Mark opens the game with Mountain, Mox Sapphire, Goblin Welder. I Force of Will the Welder. I can’t speak to the correctness of this play, but given the possibility of recurring Duplicants on my Dryads and just the fact that he can recur Equipment back to play and negate my Energy Flux, this seemed a wise play.

I played Flooded Strand into Tropical Island (17 life), Mox Jet, and cast Quirion Dryad.

On his second turn, Mark played Wasteland, an emotional buoy from my possibly premature Needling. He followed the play up with Welder, causing me to grimace over my turn 1 Force and reconsider whether I should have waited to Needle. Nonetheless, there appear to be no other plays on his part and I end the turn by tapping my Jet to Vampiric Tutor (15 life).

On my third turn, I play Ancestral Recall, Demonic Tutor, and Volcanic Island. I have just DTed for Mystical Tutor. The final card in my hand is Force of Will. The tutor will grow my Dryad and provide me with an out to Force of Will if necessary. If not, I can Tutor for Yawgmoth’s Will and win the game next turn. I attack for 4 and he goes to 16.

It was not to be. Mark plays Mox Pearl and Gorilla Shaman! He eats my Mox Jet and Welds out my Needle for the Jet. He eats my Jet again. He Wastelands my Tropical Island. I float a Blue mana. He moves to his attack step and I play Mystical Tutor for Fire/Ice. He surprises me by playing another Wasteland and using it on my Volcanic Island. Now I’m stuck on Underground Sea and that’s it.

On my fourth turn, I draw a Tropical Island, which I play, and attack with a 5/5 Dryad. He chump blocks with his Gorilla Shaman.

He does nothing on his fourth turn except turn a Welder sideways.

On my fifth turn I attack him with my Dryad. He goes to 11. Again, he does nothing but attack me with a Welder.

On my sixth turn, I attack him to 6.

On his sixth turn, he plays Solemn Simulacrum. I hope to gain some tempo in spite of the Welder. There are only so many artifacts in play he can Weld out to recur the Simulacrum. I play Force of Will pitching Energy Flux.

On my seventh turn I draw another Force of Will and attack with my 6/6 Dryad. He Welds the Simulacrum back into play, finds a Mountain, and chump blocks, drawing him a card. At this point, things spiral out of control. He plays Thorn of Amethyst.

When I attack again on my eighth turn, he Welds the Simulacrum back in again and draws another card. He plays Black Lotus and Juggernaut. I can do nothing but draw go on turn 9. He attacks me and then flips the Juggernaut into a Solemn Simulacrum.

On his tenth turn he plays another Simulacrum and he can flip from Simulacrum to Simulacrum each turn, drawing more and more cards so that I can never break through. He has me locked out.

I scoop.

The match ends with a twinge of regret and a modicum of embarrassment mixed with the feeling of inevitability over the outcome of the match. Was it inevitable? No. There were alternative lines of play. I could have Needled Welders, but then I would have been facing Wastelands from turn 2 and on while his turn 3 Shaman gobbled up my board. On the other hand, at that point I could have just saved the Force for the Shaman and I may have been able to wipe him out. When playing against Shops, you are always fighting an array of tactical possibilities, and any given play that accounts for one may be vulnerable to another. In the future, I will wait to Needle a card, hoping that the tempo loss of not using my mana on turn 1 is outweighed by the fact that my hand is better molded to fight the cards that my open has drawn as opposed to cards he could have drawn. Imagine if he played turn 1 Mox, Wasteland, Thorn? Then I would have had to spend my second turn playing the Needle and would be open to turn 3 Magus of the Moon. And even were I to win this game, would it change the outcome of the match? The Aggro Workshop match seems to have many advantages over GAT.

Almost every card is a threat. There are too many cards to counter or answer. The longer the game goes, the more inevitability the Workshop deck seems to have. In my decklist design, I spent a great deal of time trying to think of maindeckable cards that would improve this matchup. Mana Drain doesn’t seem to be much stronger than Thoughtseize if at all. Mana Drain doesn’t match up well against Thorn. At least Thoughtseize can take practically anything proactively.

Both decks try to win on the ground, but Workshop Aggro has superior tools to fight the ground war. Its armaments are stronger, and its turf is more battle hardened and resistant to wear and tear. The monstrous Juggernaut is locked with battle equipment, while the Dryad needs tender care, sunlight, and water. Goblin Welders summon the machines from the grave in a never-ending conveyor belt of robot soldiers, and Magus bakes the ground under a red orb. It’s a tough match.

My second match promises no relief.

Round 2: Josh Morford with Tyrant Oath

Josh is an innovator, coming up with new ways of looking at old decks and new decks for old metagames. His mind is fastidious and creative. I can be sure that he will have some hot tech for this match.

He wins the roll, and I’m justifiably wary. I open a hand with no land, but decide, on a lark, to try it.

He opens with land, Duress and he sees my hand:

Force of Will
Demonic Tutor
Merchant Scroll
Mox Emerald

Aside from being amusing in that curiosity killed the cat sort of way, the sheer shock of Duressing a hand that has no viable turn 1 play is potent enough to blow smoke over the future of any game plan. I think he’s so surprised by my hand that he completely revamps his game plan. He takes my Mox.

On my first turn, I draw a card and am disappointed, but not surprised, to not see a land.

On his second turn, he plays Ponder and then Black Lotus, Mox Jet, and Forbidden Orchard. I topdeck Mox Jet and play Duress. I see Force of Will and Oath of Druids. I nab the Oath and pass the turn.

On his third turn, he plays Regrowth on Ponder and replays the cantrip. I draw Tropical Island, attack with spirit token, and Scroll up another Force of Will.

On his fourth turn, he Ponders and shuffles. On my mainphase I tap my Trop to play Brainstorm. I see another land. I play Flooded Strand and break it for Volcanic Island since I have Mox Jet in play. I tap the Mox and the Volcanic Island and Demonic Tutor.

On my endstep, Josh plays Reclaim. He Reclaims the Oath on top, untaps and plays Oath. I Force of Will, he Force of Wills. I Force of Will again. His Oath is countered. He has three Reclaims in his deck and it seems very good. Once you’ve Oathed, Reclaim is like a Demonic Tutor. I play Quirion Dryad on my fifth turn and set up a turn 6 Yawgmoth’s Will which ends the game.

I sideboard in Echoing Truth and Red Elemental Blasts for some junk.

Game 2:

Josh begins game 2 with the increasingly common play of Island, Ponder. After passing the turn, I decide to go broken. I play Black Lotus and a Fetchland for Underground Sea. I play Quirion Dryad, which resolves, and then Thoughtseize. I see: Merchant Scroll, Merchant Scroll, Ponder, and Krosan Reclamation for spells.

On his second turn, he plays Forbidden Orchard and Demonic Tutor. I Duress his hand again, taking the Oath he just tutored up. I attack for 3.

Undaunted, he presses ahead despite the incremental pressure I’m applying. On his third turn Josh plays Tropical Island, Scroll for Ancestral Recall. He plays it and it resolves. He plays an Underground Sea. He plays Brainstorm and passes the turn.

On my third turn I play a third dual land and Duress a third time. I see: Reclaim, Krosan Reclamation, Vampiric Tutor, Brainstorm, Ponder, and Merchant Scroll. I take Reclaim. It’s not simply that he needs Oath in play. He needs Oath and a turn. If I can out tempo him, then the Oath will come too late.

He does nothing on his fourth turn, perhaps hoping that his Vamp will save him. But I have the win, just in the nick of time. I have Duress + Time Walk for the win. My Dryad is just large enough to kill him.

Man, Duresses and Thoughtseizes are so good.

Round 3: Brian Keil — Manaless Ichorid

Just what I’ve been looking forward to: the matchup where half the game is the mulligan. As much as people decreasingly disparage the Ichorid deck, it is an important element of the Vintage metagame — it provides a constraint on deck building and a wild card element to the format. It isn’t problematic, but it is fun. People ask “why” — I say “why not?” It’s not like Ichorid wins tournaments.

Game 1:

Brain wins the die roll and of course elects to play. On the first ride around the Ichorid merry-go-round, Brian mulligans to six without the aid of a Serum Powder.

The raw math is a challenging calculation that results in a simple stat: the chance of the Ichorid player hitting the Bazaar in a mulligan with assistance from Serum Powder is about 94% of the time. About 6% of the time, the Ichorid deck will “fizzle” — that is, not find the Bazaar despite mulliganing to 1, or the mulligan to “oblivion.”

Then Brian mulligans to 5. Still no Serum Powder.

Then four. At this point, the probabilities favor me. He can still see something like 20 cards if he were to hit all of his Powders, but the chance of him finding a Bazaar fall below 50%.

He keeps going. No luck yet. Mulligan to 3.

This is it: his last shot before being forced into a one card hand: mulligan to 2… and he finds the Bazaar.

Bazaar with a hand of two. Keeping in mind that Ichorid is generally a turn 2.5 deck, can Ichorid goldfish faster than GAT with a two-card hand? We were about to find out. It’s time to put on our helmets because we were about to go the races.

Brian plays Bazaar and draws 2 cards, discarding Golgari Thug and junk. It will all turn on what happens on his next upkeep.

On my first turn, I play Tropical Island, Ponder.

Then it all unravels.

On his second turn, he activates the Bazaar on his upkeep dredging the Thug, but he reveals Golgari Grave-Troll and Stinkweed Imp. He dredges the Troll, revealing Ichorid, Narcomoeba, and a Bridge From Below. He dredges the Troll again on his draw step and reveals more of the same. I couldn’t have stacked his deck better for a two-card hand.

He dredged 16 cards on turn 2 despite a two-card starting hand. While he can’t pull the trigger this turn, he sacrifices Narcomoeba to Cabal Therapy me. I Force of Will the Therapy.

I see that I have probably one more turn left. I play Brainstorm on my mainphase, play and break Polluted Delta for Underground Sea. I cast Ancestral Recall, but it does me little good.

On his third turn, he dredges 17 cards, Cabal Therapies me, and casts Dread Return on his Flame-Kin Zealot. He didn’t even need Cephalid Sage to generate enough zombie tokens. He found most of his Narcomoebas and Bridge From Belows already. Me dead.

Game 2:

I sideboard into the numbingly predictable plan of 2 Pithing Needle and 3 Yixlid Jailer along with some other junk, but for some reason all of my Ichorid opponents bring in Enchantment removal anyway. It matters not, for what ended up not happening last game actually manages to occur this game. Brian mulligans to one after a good 10-15 minutes of pile shuffling, cutting, and drawing hands without Bazaar. This, in addition to ditching a few hands to Serum Powder.

In a move of stubborn defiance, Brian refuses to look at his hand of one and gives me priority to begin the game. Before dropping my first land, I remind Brian that he could have had a Leyline of the Void in there… and no sooner do I finish my thought then he comes to the same realization. Nonetheless, he refuses to spoil the surprise by peeking at his hand.

Although I kept a slower hand that had turn 1 Needle and a Brainstorm, I play the Brainstorm first given the situation. Brian draws a card and reveals the card he had — it was Serum Powder. I suppose he could have been one card deeper…

I play turn 2 Needle, just in case and turn 3 Scroll for Ancestral Recall and play it. On turn 4 I play Demonic Tutor for Fastbond in the hopes of comboing out, but I fizzle. On turn 5 I draw, go. On turn 6 I Thoughtseize him and see Bridge From Below, Golgari Grave-Troll, Contagion, Dread Return, and Serum Powder. I take the Contagion. Finally, on turn 7 I’m able to finish comboing out and with Yawgmoth’s Will Brian has a fiber-rich meal of two scoops.

Game 3:

My opening hand has Pithing Needle and Yixlid Jailer but no mana. I kept it. Stupid? Probably. Ballsy? Definitely.

I figure with as much good and bad karma as this match has generated so far, one of us is due a win. Why tempt fate? I’m on the draw. If my deck wants me to win this match, it will give me some form of mana to play these silver bullets.

He opens his hand and appears satisfied. He begins the game with Bazaar, Chalice for 0, and Unmask. I Misdirect the Unmask to him. I see a Contagion and another Bazaar. Although he hasn’t yet drawn a dredger, he has two Bazaars, which means it won’t be long.

On my first turn I peel a land followed by an excited utterance and possibly an expletive. I play Needle naming Bazaar of Baghdad. He can only groan and draw a worthless card.

On my second turn, I Brainstorm, but only see Black Lotus for mana. I have another Brainstorm, but I plan on waiting a turn until using it. He Unmasks me and although I have Yixlid Jailer in hand, he momentarily forgets about the Chalice and nabs my Black Lotus. Not that it really would have made a difference. My second Brainstorm yields a fetchland. With two mana, I drop Jailer and can begin to combo out. I play a Dryad and time is called on my turn. I have Time Walk and a tutor for Yawgmoth’s Will, so I am in a position to set up the win within time with plenty of counterspell backup, but Brian, being friendly, wanting to avoid a draw, and just coming to play for fun, scoops to me anyway. Although he was locked out with Needle and Jailer, part of the fun is trying to win under all of the constraints. His mulligans ate up unbelievable amounts of time, but I had it in the bag at the last moment anyway.

Round 4: Twuan Pwnertown – Control Slaver

Twuan is an Ohio Vintage regular who usually opts for some Workshop concoction. It’s mildly ironic (dramatic irony, okay?) that the time when Workshops seem to be nearing an apogee he audibles into something different. This match is as bizarre as they come.

Game 1:

There is no dancing around here. I am on the play and I open with Underground Sea and dagger him with Duress. His hand is:

Flooded Strand
Mox Emerald
Thirst For Knowledge
Thirst For Knowledge
Thirst For Knowledge
Gifts Ungiven

If this hand resembles the programming algorithm of Magic Workstation, I can only smirk in agreement.

Although it may be the wrong call, I took his Mox Emerald. Taking a third copy of Thirst seemed virtually irrelevant. Although Brainstorm is probably as good as any card to take, the first one will either reveal more mana or it won’t. The second one will only be useful if he has seen mana.

On his first turn he predictably play the Flooded Strand and passes the turn.

I play Tropical Island and Brainstorm. I tap the Sea and play Duress. His hand looks very similar except for the conspicuous presence of Volcanic Island. It seems that my choice of Mox Emerald may have been correct after all. I took one of his Brainstorms. With Volc and Strand, he can Brainstorm, shuffle, Brainstorm. I stop that before it begins.

He meekly dropped the Volcanic Island into play and passed the turn back to me.

Now on my third turn, I played Demonic Tutor. He responded with Brainstorm.
I play Ancestral Recall and pass the turn. He breaks the Fetchland and finds an Underground Sea. He plays Mox Ruby and passes the turn.

On my fourth turn I put a Quirion Dryad into play and cast Thoughtseize. Despite my array of Duress effects, it doesn’t seem like I’m getting very far. His hand is very different now. I see:

Thirst For Knowledge
Thirst For Knowledge
Thirst For Knowledge

I take the Tinker. I play Delta and break it for a Sea. In response, he plays a Thirst and discards the Trike. I play a second Thoughtseize, my fourth Duress effect in as many turns.

It gets weirder. I see:

Thirst For Knowledge
Thirst For Knowledge
Thirst For Knowledge
Force of Will

It seems that his Thirst drew him into a fourth Thirst. I snag the Force of Will. I pass the turn.

On his fourth turn he plays Darksteel Citadel and passes the turn.

On my fifth turn, I play Ponder, which finds Yawgmoth’s Will. I survey my board state. If I Yawgmoth’s Will now, I can replay Ancestral Recall now and a land from my graveyard. Given that he will play Thirst twice, I go for the tempo play. I play Yawgmoth’s Will. He plays Mana Drain. I play Force of Will. I replay a Delta from my graveyard and fetch out a Tropical Island. I cast Ancestral Recall. I attack with my Dryad for 7 damage.

He can do nothing but draw, go.

On my sixth turn I attack him for 7 and pass the turn. He tries to Thirst, which I let resolve. It’s now or never. He makes his final attempt to wrest control of the game. He untaps, plays Sol Ring, Island, and Time Walk. I hesitate but let it resolve. He plays Thirst For Knowledge, which I also let resolve. In a telltale sign he discards Brainstorm and a Thirst. He untaps and plays Volcanic Island, Demonic Tutor, Black Lotus, and Yawgmoth’s Will. I play Force of Will. He Force’s my Force. I Misdirect his Force of Will. He’s out. My Dryad kills him.

I shuffle in my anemic Red Elemental Blasts and a Fire/Ice. Although I’d like to bring in Needles, I don’t plan on needing to take complete control of the game before winning. My old Psychatog deck would need them to shut down Welders as a mid-game threat. This deck has a more incremental plan. Although I can’t precisely my board plan, I can hazard a guess that I took out a Dryad, a Ponder, and a Misdirection.

Game 2:

Twuan mulligans to six and opens the game with Volcanic Island. My turn 1 is less innocuous. I play Mox Emerald, Flooded Strand into Underground Sea, and Quirion Dryad. I wrestled with the fact that I could have played turn 1 Duress. If he tries to combo me out I’ll regret the move. But if I don’t play turn 1 Dryad, if I try to interact first, I risk not applying pressure that could have short-circuited the game. One could imagine entering a late game where my tenuous control has been overcome by the drawing power and interaction of Welder and Mindslaver. Since my deck is more tempo oriented, I sacrifice my turn 1 to establishing a threat that will grow as I interact over the next few turns, assuming I live to interact.

Twuan has no objection to my Dryad. On his second turn, Twuan misses a land drop. When he hands me the reigns, I can hardly wait to see what’s in his hand. I Duress him. He responds with Brainstorm. Once he’s finished Brainstorming, he reveals:

Force of Will
Mana Crypt
Red Elemental Blast
Gifts Ungiven

This Duress is a bit tricky. What would you take and what’s your reason?




Well, I won’t pretend that I know with absolute certainty what the correct pick is, but my pick makes a lot of sense. My Dryad is a 1/1, so I’m clearly afraid of Fire/Ice. I can Force it, but he has Force of Will back up. So that would seem to indicate that taking Force of Will or Fire/Ice would be the right call. Gifts Ungiven seems unwieldy here, but if he draws a land, he can play it. That will give him a nice edge. It’s fair to guess that he’s hid his strongest trump on top of his deck. Therefore, it’s doubtful he hid a land on top. If so, that would be a masterstroke of reverse psychology.

The right card, in my evaluation, is Mana Crypt. I take his Crypt and leave him manaless.

I don’t have a second land either. But I attack for 2. Twuan goes to 18.

On his third turn, he can do nothing but say draw, go.

I topdeck a Tropical Island and play it. I cast Demonic Tutor. Twuan plays Force of Will. I am holding Force of Will and only one other Blue card: Gush. I debate whether to play Gush or just play Force of Will pitching Gush. I decide to float a mana and Gush. I play Brainstorm. I let his Force resolve. I attack him for 5, sending him to 12.

On his fourth turn, he plays Brainstorm and another land and a Mox. On my fourth turn, I play Fastbond, Thoughtseize, and Brainstorm twice. He Tinkers, I Force of Will, he Red Elemental Blasts. His Tinker resolves and he is forced to get Trike. I untap and play Yawgmoth’s Will. This becomes a perfunctory kill.

Twuan and I shake on a nice match and move on to other things.

Round 5: Juan Rodriguez

Juan and I draw into Top 8 and go our separate ways to scavenge up some dinner.

Top 8: Quarter Finals — Doug Linn with GAT

Understand that Doug Linn has personally vetted the adjectives I made in his description. Doug Linn is a fashion-forward and very sensual… I mean, uh, Doug is a rakish and daring rogue… I mean, um, Doug is a picaresque…

Doug is a great guy. He also split with Owen Turtenwald for first at SCG Indy, the last Vintage event he played in, sporting his signature Disrupts in GAT. You can read his hilarious report here.

I get a vicarious thrill from watching acolytes and friends perform well. All three GAT decks had managed to make Top 8. Doug and I, two of them, were paired in the first round, an unfortunate circumstance. That said, I knew that this match would test my mettle. Testing with friends is no substitute for the pressure of a tournament. Doug had clawed his way through a SCG Top 8 to the finals, so I knew that I was doing business with a battle-hardened professional. It was time to roll.

We rolled a die and after several ties, I came out ahead. I elected to play.

Game 1:

Reminiscent of my championship crowning match against Rich Shay, I opened with Black Lotus, and Quirion Dryad. In chronological order, I played: Lotus, sacrifice it for UUU, Brainstorm, Quirion Dryad, Mox Ruby, Tropical Island, Mystical Tutor for Ancestral Recall, Brainstorm into it (putting it on top just in case he tries to Duress me) and pass the turn.

Although my extended turn surely inspired fear, Doug stood firm. For his first turn, he played Mox, Land, Dryad, bringing some equilibrium to the match. Now it would be a tempo battle. The cautionary thought running through my mind was to watch out for Disrupt

On my second turn, I began with Ponder. I saw Force of Will, Time Walk, and Ancestral. I bounced the Force to my hand and set Time Walk on top. Doug’s hand was flush with cards and I was fearful of throwing Ancestral into it without being able to protect it from his Misdirection. In addition, I didn’t have a Black mana despite all of this digging. I was working off a Mox and a land. I attacked him and passed the turn. Doug fell to 16.

On his second turn, Doug played Brainstorm and also felt the sting of mana screw. He missed his land drop as well.

On my third turn, I set my play into motion and cast Time Walk. Doug was quick to Force of Will me, perceiving the danger. In fact, Doug has rated Time Walk the most important “power” card in GAT.

All I could do was attack him to 10 and pass the turn.

On his third turn, Doug tapped his lonely Mox and land and played Demonic Tutor. Without hesitation he plopped an Underground Sea onto the table to play Gush and Brainstorm. There aren’t many times I’d DT for a dual land. Doug’s Dryad was now the same size as mine. I had to keep my tempo advantage or I might fall behind. I could feel the game slipping slowly away.

It was now turn 4. I Brainstormed into Volcanic Island and played it. I desperately needed a Black mana to play Duress and Demonic Tutor I’d been holding since the early stages of the game. I played Gush, which resolved. I suppose it was now or never. I threw down Ancestral Recall, hoping to hit a Force of Will, if anything. Instead, he played Misdirection and drew three cards. All I could do was attack. Doug fell to 2 life from my 8/8 Dryad.

Doug played a Mox Emerald and an Underground Sea. At this point, he was setting up a trap and hoping I’d attack. His Dryad was 6/6. It would only take two spells for him to block and trade. I couldn’t risk it. If he could even trade at this point, I’d be buried by his superior card advantage. I needed one or two key topdecks to punch through right here.

On turn 5 we both played Tropical Islands and passed the turn back.

On turn 5, I drew dead and passed the turn. On my endstep he played Gush. On his turn, he replayed Tropical Island and Quirion Dryad.

Now he had two Dryads on the table. My chances of winning this game were now nearly decimated.

On turn s7, probably my last chance, I drew Polluted Delta. I quickly threw it down and broke it for Underground Sea. I cast Duress, which met Disrupt. I paid for the Disrupt, which he promptly cycled. He Mana Drained my Duress. His Dryads were now 3/3 and 9/9. I responded with Gush and lo and behold, I drew into Fastbond.

I played another Delta and broke it too for Underground Sea. I played my own Demonic Tutor for Gush. I return two Tropical Islands to hand and Gush. Doug feels compelled to intervene with a Gush of his own. My Gush resolves. I draw into another Gush, my final Gush. I replay my lands, float to a Blue and a Black and Gush again. I play Ponder drawing Merchant Scroll. I use my final two mana to play Merchant Scroll. In hand I have Tropical Island, Underground Sea, Underground Sea, Volcanic Island, Force of Will, and now Cunning Wish, my Scroll target. These four lands are just enough to Cunning Wish for Berserk, which is precisely what I do. My Dryad is large enough, especially with Berserk, that his duo of blockers can’t prevent a piddly two damage from breaking through and ending the game.

I sideboarded in two Red Elemental Blasts and an Echoing Truth for a Misdirection, a Ponder, and a Quirion Dryad.

Game 2:

Flush with the feeling of victory under trying circumstances, I was a bit heady going into game 2. Doug mulliganed to six, bringing with it a feeling of greater relief. Doug opened with Underground Sea and passed the turn.

On my first turn, I debated the merits of Ponder, Brainstorm, and Duress, but settled on Duress. I played Underground Sea, Duress, and Doug got me with my pants down in Disrupt. He stopped my Duress and drew a card. I was taken aback and miffed at myself for forgetting about that tactic.

On his second turn, he played Flooded Strand and Ancestral Recall, producing further anxiety. I had no response. Then when he played Tropical Island, Fastbond, I half expected the game to end. Instead, he passed the turn and laying a Polluted Delta.

On my second turn, I played a land and cast Ponder. He broke his Delta for Volcanic Island and cast Red Elemental Blast. I played Brainstorm and passed the turn.

He played Demonic Tutor, Gush, returning two lands, Yawgmoth’s Will. He replayed Gush, a land, Ancestral Recall, and cast Brainstorm. He played Mox Ruby, Demonic Tutor, Flooded Strand into Underground Sea, and tapped his three lands for Cunning Wish, which found Gush. He played Gush, then replayed the two lands, and played Time Walk. He untapped and play Quirion Dryad and Psychatog. The game ended a turn or two later.

We shuffled up for our third and final game. Although I probably would not have emerged from that game victorious under any of the lines of play, walking into his Disrupt with Duress was clear error. If I had Pondered on turn 1, I could imagine that he would have Disrupted it, and he claims he would have, and then my turn 2 Duress would have nabbed his best card.

Game 3:

I opened the third game with a similar start to the first. I played Polluted Delta, Black Lotus, Quirion Dryad which resolved, and then Merchant Scroll for Gush instead of Ancestral Recall.

On his turn, he played Flooded Strand, broke it for Underground Sea, and played Duress. I was somewhat surprised when he took my Gush, suggesting not only that I made the right play, but reaffirming the notion that Scrolling for Ancestral Recall in that position on turn 1 is a vulnerable and unnecessary move.

On my second turn I played another Delta and cast Ponder and draw a card setting up turn 2 Upkeep, Vamp. I attacked for 3 sending him to 16. Doug played Time Walk and then Brainstormed.

On my turn 3 upkeep I played Vampiric Tutor. He Disrupts my Vamp, and I pay for it. I debate my tutor target, but end up just finding Gush. I cast Gush which draws me a Duress. I Duress him and see:

Demonic Tutor
Yawgmoth’s Will

He realizes that he probably should have hid Yawgmoth’s Will a card lower, knowing that he might Disrupt. This shows me the Will. After some analysis, however, I realize that he can actually launch a defense led by Psychatog. More importantly, if he can Demonic Tutor for Black Lotus, he can win with his four mana and Yawgmoth’s Will. I can take his Yawgmoth’s Will, but I think the more powerful play is just to take the Demonic Tutor. He won’t be able to do anything with just Yawgmoth’s Will. I take the DT, in a risky gambit. I attack with Dryad, sending him to 8.

He Brainstorms, plays Polluted Delta, shuffles, and casts Psychatog, which I Force of Will. He Red Elemental Blasts my Force of Will, but it’s too late. I make the calculations. I untap and Duress him again and he discards Yawgmoth’s Will to Tog. I attack him and he can’t actually pump enough to kill my Dryad. He topdecks a land and extends a congratulatory hand.

On my side of the Top 8 bracket, Nam Tran, piloting Aggro Workshop, had just beaten the other GAT pilot, Joe Bushman. On the other side of the Top 8 bracket, the other Aggro Workshop player, Mark Trogdon, had just stomped his way into the Top 4. To win this tournament might have required that I beat not only Nam Tran, but also Mark Trogdon.

Now the pressure was on. The Top 4 wanted to prize split. My teammates, reminding me of my admonition to go all the way, goaded me. The store owner wanted to go to dinner and a movie with his wife for her birthday (although I didn’t realize that’s why she was there at the time), with her watching on. The prize split would be about $70 per player. Playing these Workshop matches was one of the reasons I showed up today. If I lost, at least I’d hopefully learn something. Resisting the pressure, I summoned the courage to press ahead and rejected a split.

In our neck of the woods, it is considered bad karmic justice to refuse a split. A few years ago, an old teammate, Jason Stinnett, refused a split with JP Meyer for a Mox Pearl. Jason was promptly smashed. JP took home the Mox. For his efforts, Jason was given some Mirrodin packs and cracked both Chrome Mox, an ironic taunt from the Magic gods, and (most memorably) a Grim Reminder.

Nam Tran just ran the Nam Train over Joe Bushman, a man I consider to be a fantastic Grow pilot. That means that Nam and his deck are the real deal. Not that I didn’t already know this. Since 2004 I’ve played Nam three times in tournaments, and my lifetime record against him is an abysmal 0-3. There are a few people that have beat me 1-0, but no one that I can think of that has beat me three matches to none.

Nonetheless, I came here to learn, to gauge my abilities, to evaluate my thinking and my card determinations, to run though the fire and see if I can pick myself up and make myself a stronger player. If I run into Workshop Aggro at the next big SCG event, I would have lost much more valuable testing experience. I refused the split.

Semi-Finals: Nam Tran with Workshop Aggro

Here is what Nam played:

I harbor few doubts that Nam’s deck, or some variant of it, is probably the best deck in Vintage right now. Let’s see how I fared.

Game 1:

I lose the die roll, but my fear shifts to a measure of relief as the first two turns unfold.

On turn 1 he simply plays Mox Jet, Mountain, and Umezawa’s Jitte. What is this? Mirrodin Block Constructed?

I played Flooded Strand and pass the turn back.

On his second turn, Nam plays another Mountain and casts Magus of the Moon, the villain that beat me earlier in the tournament. I Force of Will the threat and pitch Merchant Scroll. I break my Strand for Island and play Brainstorm. It’s time to go on the offense. I played a Delta and break it for Tropical Island and cast Quirion Dryad. I have four cards in hand, Duress, Vampiric Tutor, Force of Will, and Gush. I only hope that by playing Dryad here I made the right play.

On his third turn, Nam leads with Strip Mine to play Solemn Simulacrum. I consider the threats. Strip Mine is best answered with Gush, which I have in hand. But Solemn Simulacrum with Jitte is a threatening proposition. If he were to equip it, I would be unable to attack. He could swing back and add counters. In addition, as soon as he equipped it, even if I blocked with a Dryad, he could use the ensuing Jitte counters to kill my Dryad. I would need to grow it 4 points next turn to block and survive. And if I didn’t block, the Jitte would surely murder my Dryad anyway. I considered Gushing, but the chance of me not hitting a Blue card loomed large. Playing it safe (?), I Force of Willed pitching Gush.

On my third turn I played my Sea and Duressed, him seeing Magus of the Moon and Tangle Wire. I took the Tangle Wire and attacked him.

On his fourth turn he Strip Mined my Island and played Magus of the Moon. Could my Dryad carry the day? Could I effectively win in a situation in which I had no Blue, Black, or Green mana? I would need to draw pitch spells, Red spells, or Moxen. My Dryad was also not large enough. I began regretting not playing Gush.

All I could do was play an Underground Sea and pass. The tide had turned. The Jitte had made a four-mana 2/2 a worrisome threat.

On his fifth turn, he played Trinisphere, which had little impact on the game by this point.

I did nothing and he equipped the Magus. On my turn 6, I again did nothing. He played Juggernaut.

I topdecked Empty the Warrens and played it for one storm, making two Goblins. My Dryad was now 4/4. But it was too late.

On his eighth turn he equipped the Juggernaut. Even if I were to double block, he could wipe out my Dryad, kill my tokens, and his Magus would still remain. The Empty the Warrens topdeck was a false hope.

Although a different piece of equipment did the dirty work, Magus locked me out with the same result. Strip Mine ensured that I couldn’t work around it with my only basic Island.

I settle back for a moment, a brief respite as I mentally pull myself out of this game before it is over. I summon some additional courage to look up and ask if the split is still on the table. Nam had me beat. What’s more, asking for a split — putting my attention into it probably divert enough mental resources from my game – would further harm of my chances of pulling out of this match.

Nam, however, is eager to go to Thurman’s for some food and end this tournament. With a disarming acceptance he agrees to the split in unconditional terms.

On the other side of the bracket, it looked like Ichorid was winning the match against Trogdon. Although it probably would be close, I suspect that Nam Tran and his sideboard Leyline of the Voids would have emerged victorious from an Ichorid finals.

So, I can’t beat modern Workshop Aggro. It has too many tools, too many answers, and too much pressure. What are my options?

Doug Linn was not playing around. Look at this sideboard:

4 Viashino Heretic
3 Artifact Mutation
2 Volcanic Island
1 Oxidize
1 Pyroblast
1 Red Elemental Blast
1 Rushing River
1 Berserk
1 Fire/Ice

Doug sacrificed the Ichorid matchup to pile on the artifact hate. I would not give up the Ichorid match. My stats from last week show Ichorid is a constant presence in the metagame.

Although I adore Empty the Warrens in the GAT mirror and even in Stax matchups, in this Sphere/Thorn metagame, it’s probably a weak option. Psychatog, while truly unexciting, is probably the superior blocker. While he can do little against an equipped SOFI, he can at least combat Jitte and Juggernauts.

I should have taken a cue from Rich Shay and Roland Bode and ran a Fire/Ice maindeck. Rich Shay has proposed running 3 Pyroclasms in his sideboard. Roland Bode ran 3 Flametongue Kavu in his sideboard in 2003.

Roland was the first. He was not just the first to splash Red in GAT, but in many ways GAT owes as much to Roland, the first to put Black in the Grow shell, as it does to Patrick Chapin, the first to port Grow to Vintage. 2003 is a source of inspiration to me.

So what’s next? Heretic is an option, as are piling on Pyroclasm, as is FTK. I don’t know where I’ll settle. Rich Shay managed to defeat Workshop Aggro in the finals of the tournament I linked to at the beginning of this article where other GAT players had failed. He used Goyfs and Togs and forsook Dryad altogether. His reliance on Clasm seems troubling to me if the SOFI is going to be all over the place. It also doesn’t address Juggernaut or Trike.

There is an even bigger issue: why continue to play GAT? Why tune GAT to beat Shops instead of just playing Shops? Of course I can offer up some impotent, weak-willed response to that query. My plan is to experiment with Shop Aggro and MUD and see what I can come up with.

If I had to identify one major over-arching lesson from this tournament, it’s that Ancestral Recall as a correlate of game winner seems less and less valid. In the Gifts and combo era, the player that successfully resolved their Ancestral in the face of resistance and then untapped was almost certainly the victor. In this Gush era, where attack steps matter more and there are spells other than storm spells reaching the stack, Ancestral as a short boost of raw card advantage somehow matters less. It may simply be that Grow decks don’t rely on Ancestral to generate card advantage, as Gush is one of the best bargain rates you can pay for such an effect. Or it may be that the spells we now draw into are less game-winning in their own right such that Ancestral as a condition Vintage trump has a less direct route to the finishers that actually end games, and consequently a greater chance of being trumped itself.

Without launching into a tirade, a rant, or a full scale analytical attack on Mike Flores “Phase” understanding of Magic, part of the problem with the distinction between Part II and Part III as it relates to Vintage is that the Part III concept of trump assumes, as Flores puts it, that only a small subset of cards affect you at that stage. There is actually a very long and unfinished debate on the question of skill in Vintage in this thread with a to and fro between myself and Michaelj. But one point I made is that in Vintage there are a tremendous set of cards that trump your trump. As I wrote: Each “bomb” is often answered with a tactical counterthreat. You play Ancestral, I drop Null Rod, you try to bounce it, I drop Smokestack. Or, you play Ancestral, I play Windfall, negating your Ancestral. The advantage of Ancestral is often nullified by the next play. If I play Xantid Swarm on turn 1, your turn 1 Ancestral is utterly worthless as I will just win on turn 2. Each turn in Vintage poses threats and risks that most decks contain.

The battle over an early Ancestral Recall can be quite intense itself, mitigating the advantage it confers; a battle involving Red Elemental Blast, Misdirection, Force of Will, Mana Drain, Pyroblast, as well as Duress and Cabal Therapy. Another common early disruptive card is Xantid Swarm. Hell, if I play turn 1 Trinisphere, you won’t be able to play Ancestral on turn 1. In fact, a fruitful way of thinking about Vintage may be that Vintage is just a series of conditional trumps.

Some cards in Vintage are so much more powerful than others that they are restricted. And on the restricted list, some cards are vastly superior to others for their ability to contribute to an eventual game win. Two such cards are Yawgmoth’s Bargain and Ancestral Recall. Patrick Chapin tried to bring this idea of Vintage as a series of conditional trumps to the fore with his claim that the player who resolves Ancestral will win 98% of the time. So, imagine a scale much like a Poker scale. 2-10 with face cards, but with a wild joker. Necropotence is like a King, but it only trumps if you have a Dark Ritual (say an 8 ) to fuel it. That makes it a conditional trump. Similarly, Mind’s Desire is an Ace. It trumps just about everything from Force of Will to Mana Drain. The problem is that it too is conditional. You need a lot of storm to build it up. You need a lot of low cards, say two 4s, a 6, and two 7s and then your Mind’s Desire (The Ace) trumps everything else out there.

Ancestral Recall is also an Ace. However, there are lots of cards that trump it, potentially, from Pyroblast to Force of Will, and most powerfully, Misdirection.

Null Rod was once an insane trump in this format. It’s a lower ranked card, but it trumps insanely high value cards like Moxen and Black Lotus.

What makes Ancestral Recall so obscene among this system of conditional trumps is that Ancestral is the most powerful trump without any conditionality. The other “Ace” trumps: Bargain, Desire, Tinker etc require some limited conditionality: mana, storm, etc. Ancestral only requires 1 mana.

But in a format currently situated as Vintage is, where combo is diminished and combat phases are at the fore, the conditionality of Ancestral Recall as a trump has grown. The board state against Doug where he Misdirected my Ancestral demonstrates this. It did him little good to steal my Ancestral since I had the win on board anyway.

Most critically, the idea of the trump as Phase III assumes, as I’ve already stated, a limited subset of relevant cards. In the words of Michaelj: “Phase III is a special point that exists for some decks where that deck is actively dictating the field of battle and only a small subset of the opponent’s cards still matter.” But what if that is what Vintage is? Vintage has the largest card pool of any format. The entire format is made up of conditional trumps. Every deck in Vintage is built that way. There are probably as little as 250 relevant cards in Vintage, but each of those that is a conditional trump. Xantid Swarm conditionally trumps countermagic, which conditionally trumps combo threats, and so on. Instead of assuming a limited number of trumps or a sort of de facto decision based upon who has the superior trump, it may be that a huge part of the skill in Vintage is properly selecting trumps given a metagame and then ensuring that the trumps function (execution). I mean, if Vintage is just a series of conditional trumps interacting with each other, then doesn’t that make Phase III really just Phase II in Vintage? That’s precisely the case, I would argue. Phase III as conditional trump is so multi-varied and multi-faceted that it is characterized primarily by errors.

I also have other quibbles with Flores’ system. I mean, consider the description of Phase I: “bound by inherent scarcity.” Isn’t this a relative question? I mean, what if your mana curve begins with 6cc spells and goes up to 11cc spells? But I think most fundamentally, Phase II and III bleed together in such a way that they are truly inseparable in Vintage.

And so I leave you with over 10,000 words, many questions, some answers, and hopefully a lot of Vintage insight.

Until next week,