So Many Insane Plays – Gush, Gush, Gush, Gush, Win

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Vintage World Champion and 2007 Magic Invitational R&D Pick Stephen Menendian took his favorite GroAtog deck to the recent “StarCityGames Vintage Grand Prix,” his first tournament since taking the GenCon title. Today, he talks us through the tournament play-by-play, and crunches some of the numbers from the Top 8. Gush, it seems, is everywhere. Was unrestricting it a huge blunder?

Vintage is utterly fascinating. It is a latticework of interactions crammed into the space of a few turns.

On the night before the most recent StarCityGames.com Vintage Grand Prix (well, might as well be), I was testing with teammate Tom LaPille, instructing him on the ins and outs of GroAtog through mirror testing. At one point in our series, he was contemplating his first play of the game, a land drop, and as he laid an Island into play, I explained that if he had another land in his hand then that was probably the wrong play. Indeed, he was holding two Fetchlands. Confident that he had corrected his error, he played a Flooded Strand and began searching for Tropical Island when I informed him that that too was probably not the optimal way to go.

Since he was holding Brainstorm, there was a chance that he’d Brainstorm into Vampiric Tutor. If that occurred, he’d need the Black mana on his upkeep from an Underground Sea so that he could draw the card he tutored for in his second turn’s draw step. Since Vampiric Tutor is the only one-mana non-Blue instant in the maindeck, this is the only reason to find Sea over Trop, but it is a compelling one. If you were to Brainstorm into Vampiric Tutor, the tempo loss of not being able to tutor immediately might cost you the game that you should have won. It’s the difference between turn 2 and turn 3 Ancestral Recall, which often equates to the difference between comboing out before your opponent.

That’s Vintage. It looks like Magic, but it’s really just an odd cousin. Amazingly, a 1U casting cost Blue spell that wins the game on turn 1 (Flash) with multiple counterspell protection is actually making no headway in this format.

I’ll tell you what are making headway. Gush decks.

Since the announced unrestricting of Gush, I’ve written 15 articles, including this one. Eight of those have been exclusively about Gush decks, including long-winded primers, exhaustive matchup analysis, and intricate tournament reports. So while almost all of my Vintage articles since June have been about GroAtog, there is a good reason.

On August 20, 2003, I wrote an article explaining why Gush had to be restricted, and then reviewed tournament data that supported the decision the following week. The short of it was this: During a three month period immediately preceding its restriction, Gush decks showed up a whopping fifty times in seventeen Top 8s, or 36.7 percent of those Top 8s.

Statistics like these are unheard of in Vintage. Until now, we have never seen anything like it. Not even Necropotence put up those numbers in Vintage. In any given Vintage field across all metagames in the world, it is virtually impossible for one archetype to constitute 40% of the entire Top 8 field. I’d never seen it happen before and it has never happened since, until now.

Consider by contrast Trinisphere, a card widely reviled by many Vintage players, was only making up 21.5% of Top 8s in the two months preceding its restriction.

Similarly, Gifts Ungiven was a mere 18.3% of Top 8s in the 2006 and 2007 Vintage tournaments preceding its restriction.

In short, Gush was restricted in 2003 based upon tournament performance that was roughly twice as successful as Gifts Ungiven.

This is why it completely baffled me that the DCI would unrestrict the one card that was the most tournament-dominating engine in Vintage in this millennia (literally), and simultaneously restrict a card that was relatively tame in terms of tournament performance by Vintage standards, constituting fewer Top 8 slots than practically any Blue-based engine in memory (less than Intuition plus Accumulated Knowledge and Thirst For Knowledge had made up in years prior).

This data is a long way of leading up to the most shocking piece of information I’m going to share with you today: At the StarCityGames.com Vintage Grand Prix this past weekend, Gush based decks placed seven of the Top 8 decks. More spectacularly, they placed eight of the Top 9 decks.

The Top 8 broke out like this:

First/Second Split: Owen Turtenwald: Empty Gush.dec (Empty the Warrens Gush deck)
First/Second Split: Doug Linn: GroAtog
Third: Empty Gush.dec
Fourth: GroAtog
Fifth: Manaless Ichorid
Sixth: GroAtog
Seventh: Gush Tendrils
Eighth: Empty Gush.dec

Decklists are available here.

So, the Top 8 breakdown looked like this:

3 GroAtog
3 Empty Gush.dec
1 Gush Tendrils
1 Ichorid

Note that ninth place was a GroAtog deck.

That’s seven Gush decks for a total of 28 Gushes (incidentally, there were fewer Merchant Scroll).

Right now, it’s hard to say precisely which Gush variant is best, given that Owen and Doug split in the finals, and the fact that GAT and Empty Gush decks were evenly distributed in the Top 8. One might be tempted to give the edge to Gush Storm, but Paul’s Gush Tendrils deck was very different than my GAT list or TK’s Empty Gush list. On the other hand, Rich Shay took ninth place with GAT. So, there were as many Gush Storm decks in the Top 9 as there were GAT and vice versa.

While I’m confident that this debate will be resolved at the next StarCityGames.com tournament (I’m eagerly looking forward to it), one debate is clearly and absolutely resolved. Gush is dominant. Perhaps dominant is actually lightly descriptive. How about: Gush is completely, utterly, and absurdly dominant.

One might be tempted to conclude that this was a feature of the number of Gush decks in the metagame. While I don’t have this data available at the moment, my “eyeballing” suggests that no more than 20-25 players out of 130 were Gush decks, and I’m willing to bet that that number was probably slightly under 20.

Even assuming the upper end here, assuming a field of roughly 20% Gush, to constitute 89% of the Top 9 is a truly stunning feat. It is mathematically extremely difficult to execute and would require most of the Gush decks to have knocked each other out because you have to realize that a lot of these players faced each other or faced teammates or other opponents that were also running Gush decks.

Let me repeat. Historically, Gush decks made up 36.7% of top 8s and that was defined as dominant and definitely warranted restriction. At the most recent StarCityGames.com, Gush made up 87.5% of the Top 8. We need a new word to describe this kind of ferocious dominance.

As for me, the reigning GAT/Vintage Champ, what happened?

Here’s what I played:

There are only two changes from the Vintage Championship winning decklist.

First, I swapped the main deck Pyroblast for Red Elemental Blast. My teammate Patrick Chapin suggested that the Red Blast is probably better main deck because it isn’t Misdirectable to any permanent if it is trying to hit a Psychatog. I agreed, but I wanted to try and see how it felt different under tournament settings, if at all. I’ll probably go back to the Red Elemental Blast in the future. The reason I wanted to play Pyroblast is that it is better in Stax type matchups. But since it is clear that those matchups are now few and far between, I’ll go back to REB.

The second change was more substantive. After talking with Steve Houdlette early last week, he said he was running a similar list of GAT, but ran Volcanic Island over the Island in the sideboard. That swap made perfect sense. In the GAT mirrors, I could sideboard out the Island for a Volcanic Island and better support my 4 REB/Pyros.

Round 1:

I’m feeling pretty good. This is my first tournament match since the Vintage Champs. I’m excited.

My turn 1 Library of Alexandria, on the play, is met by a turn 1 Chalice of the Void. My entire hand, save my one Force of Will, is now useless.

I also deduce that he’s playing UR Phid/Magus of the Moon. Uh Oh.

The only thing that keeps me in the game is my Library. With active Library, I’m able to put plenty of mana into play, and sculpt a hand that can Mana Drain, and play potentially three pitch counterspells. I actually luck directly into Cunning Wish, not having to Scroll for it. My board is Black Lotus, Mox Jet, several lands, and Library. He casts a second Ophidian (I countered the first one), and I decide to let it resolve. If I can Wish for something to kill the Chalice, my Pyroblast will take care of the Phid.

However, he has five cards in his hand. I decide to go for it. Since I used LoA on his turn, I have nine cards in my hand by the time I untap and draw.

I float two Blue mana and play Gush. He taps to play Mana Drain. I’m holding Force and Misd, and I decide to let his Drain resolve. He’s now tapped out.

I let his Drain resolve. I sacrifice the Black Lotus for Red. I tap my Tropical Island. I play Cunning Wish for Ancient Grudge. I play Ancient Grudge on his Chalice. Astonishingly, it resolves.

I tap my Mox Jet and play Duress. Imagine my surprise when I see Flametongue Kavu, Threads of Disloyalty, Pyroblast, Ancestral Recall, and Sol Ring. Not a single Force or Misdirection. Apparently, he topdecked Ancestral after playing Chalice at one. I take the Pyroblast. With my one Red floating from Black Lotus, I Pyroblast his Phid. I pass the turn.

He throws his Ancestral directly into my Misdirection and from there, it’s all over. I soon assemble Fastbond plus Yawgmoth’s Will.

I board in Fire/Ice, Red Elemental Blasts, Volcanic Island, and Rushing River.

Game 2:

This game goes much more in my favor. I have Library again, and follow it up with Land, Duress, and then Time Walk. He attempts to play Magus of the Moon, which I Drain. He then plays another, which I Fire. And soon afterward I’m comboing out.

Round 2: Adam with the Jester

My opponent is playing a Mishra’s Workshop variant using lots of lands and non-traditional disruption spells.

He wins the die roll and opens with Leyline. Although I have Force of Will, I don’t care as he plays turn 1 Black Lotus, Mox Jet, Jester’s Cap. I don’t mind if he Caps me that much. Plus, he doesn’t appear to have a land to activate it.

I play turn 1 Black Lotus, Merchant Scroll, Ancestral Recall, land, Duress seeing Sphere of Resistance, Trinisphere, Crucible of Worlds, and something else. I take the Sphere, since he’s most likely to be able to play that.

He topdecks Bazaar of Baghdad, and suddenly he discards his entire hand to keep one card which is not Trinisphere or any of the cards I’ve seen. You can probably guess it’s a land.

I play a land and pass.

Adam plays the land he dug up and fires off Cap, taking Fastbond, Dryad, and a Psychatog.

He also drops Urborg onto the table. Suddenly his Bazaar taps for Black mana.

I play Mystical Tutor, almost finding Yawgmoth’s Will until I catch the Leyline in play. To ensure that I don’t make that mistake again, I clearly remove my GY into an obvious RFG zone. I think I find Brainstorm so that I can put back my Pyroblast.

Brainstorm yields a Dryad and I begin to hammer him with small beats. While he is lamenting his decision to keep his explosive but one-shot hand, he does manage to stall the ground with Maze of Ith. Eventually I acquire a fantastic lead with double Dryad and he scoops up for game 2.

Game 2 begins with Mishra’s Workshop and Powder Keg. I let it in.

Once he gets my Dryad my game slows dramatically. Right before my death, I manage to Pithing Needle his Barbarian Ring recursion with Crucible, but that doesn’t stop his Factories and Maze of Ith from shutting me out.

In game 3, I have the nuts and take him out rather swiftly.

Round 3: Nicolas playing Tommy Kolowith’s “Deez Naughts” — the U/B Aggro-Control variant of the “Sullivan Solution” featuring Phyrexian Dreadnaughts aided by Illusionary Mask and Stifles.

I have no idea what I’m up against, but my opponent wins the die roll.

When he plays Flooded Strand, I assume it’s either Fish or GAT. Either way, I should be in very good shape.

My hand has Tropical Island, Polluted Delta, Duress, Gush, Psychatog, Opt, and Misdirection.

For obvious reasons, I decide to play turn 1 Duress. My Delta is met by him breaking his fetchland for a Sea and playing Stifle. Suddenly, it hits me: he’s playing SS. I beat Tommy, the creator of the deck, at GenCon in the finals of the Champs Prelim tournament, but I play around Stifle like nobody’s business. Getting caught here is a knee to the crotch.

His next play is Illusionary Mask. He doesn’t put a man into play, so I assume I’m safe.

I play a Dryad and hope to kill him before he can topdeck or dig up a Dreadnought.

Unfortunately, it’s his very next topdeck.

A Dreadnought swings at me. I played Cunning Wish for Oxidize with exactly enough mana, but my Oxidize is met with a Force of Will.

I sideboard in Rack and Ruin and Rushing River, as well as some REBs.

Game 2: (I hope I’m not conflating this game with my side event match — apologies if I am).

This time I’m on the play. I have turn 1 Time Walk, and then Duress with a Flooded Strand in play. I Duress and see: Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, Mox Sapphire, and lands. I take Ancestral Recall.

I consider breaking my Strand now, but if I do that, then I’ll telegraph that I have Red Elemental Blast in hand by getting Volcanic Island. There is a slight chance he topdecks Stifle, but I decide that I want to surprise Blast his Time Walk more.

He predictably plays Mox, Land, Walk, and I meet it with Red Blast.

Within a few turns of me topdecking lands, the game state becomes as follows:

I played Brainstorm a turn prior, and have drawn the first card that I put back. My top card is a land. My hand is Opt, Psychatog, Force of Will. He plays Dark Confidant.

I know that my top card is garbage. But if I am not able to Opt, I’ll lose a full turn of tempo. My options are:

1) Force of Will his Dark Confidant pitching Opt, and drawing a bad card.

2) Opt, hope that the second card is Blue.
a) Pitch that card and Force.
b) if the second card isn’t Blue, pitch Tog.
c) if the second card isn’t Blue, don’t play Force.

3) Do nothing now, just play Psychatog next turn so that his Dark Confidant can’t attack and apply more pressure with my Tog.

I make the worst of all plays here. I Opt, put the land on the bottom, and draw another land. I Force, pitching Psychatog. My opponent is completely relieved by this misplay.

Psychatog is one of the strongest cards against his deck. Dark Confidant is likely to do at least 4-8 points of damage in its tenure, depending upon how long he lets him live. Tog can finish the job.

Of course, Dark Confidant reveals two more Dark Confidants in the next two turns as my opponent remarks that they like to team up.

I’m crushed by an army of Cloned Bobs in short order.

It’s frustrating enough to lose your first match since winning the Vintage Champs, then I look at the pairings and realize I’m going to face:


Jiminy Christmas…

Round 4: Dave Feinstein

Dave Feinstein is Vintage’s premiere Fish pilot. He is an expert pilot and begins the match by reminding me that he is “10-0” against my team.

Suffice to say, that is pretty much the worst record my team has against anybody in Vintage. I audibly question how accurate “10-0” is, but the figure is probably not too far from the truth. I aim to remove the zero from right hand column.

I mentally gear up for an exhausting match. This is generally the kind of match I live for. Although I can’t mentally ratchet my game up as much as I hope, I’m still in it to win it.

We roll and I’m disappointed that Dave gets to go first. He opens with Mox Sapphire and Island. He taps his Island, for what I think was Ancestral Recall.

My memory here gets fuzzy, so I apologize for any errors.

I know that I play something that is met with Daze (which surprises me). It may have been Time Walk. I play Quirion Dryad. Dave plays Brainstorm and fetches out Underground Sea, which I’m relieved to see since that means he isn’t sending my Dryad farming (Swords to Plowshares).

I Duress and see: Swords to Plowshares, Meddling Mage, Brainstorm, Tundra, Underground Sea, and I think that’s it. I take the Swords. My concern, of course, is that he’ll Brainstorm into another Swords, but that’s a risk I have to take. My alternative is to take Brainstorm and let him Swords my dude and then play Mage.

I hope to be the tempo aggressor here. I do manage to Gush, but unfortunately, I topdeck land/Moxen for several turns as well as a Force of Will. My Dryad stays safely low as a 2/2.

I can feel the tempo shifting to his favor. My dead topdecks have prevented me from taking advantage of the neutral position and his hand is growing. He uses two Brainstorms to ensure that Confidant reveals land. At one point, right as I’m in my draw step he says: “no blocks” clearing attempting to induce me to attack. I am taken aback by this verbal tactic, a subtle suggestion designed to get me to attack? Eventually, he is back to seeing new cards and his life dwindles to nine from Confidant.

When I topdeck Force of Will, I play a land and think. I pretend to have other options, but I end up acting as if I’m going to pass the turn, but drop a Mox into play as an afterthought and pass as a way of suggesting that I’m not holding Force.

He plays draw, go, refusing to play anything into my Force. I have five mana on the table, a land in hand and Force of Will, and I just topdeck Merchant Scroll. I can play Scroll, but I won’t be able to play Force. I think about it for a moment and decide to pass the turn, hoping I can get to Force something before Scrolling.

It’s the right play. On my endstep, he Flashes in Aven Mindcensor. I Force it.

He untaps and finally casts that damned Meddling Mage. He looks at my graveyard, which is very full. Unfortunately for me, it’s obvious that the only four-of in my deck that is unplayed is Merchant Scroll. He narrates aloud: “You haven’t played that card at all, huh? Do I care about that card? Yes, I care about that card. Merchant Scroll.”

Damn. I draw something useless.

Our ground is stalled. He plays Dark Confidant. I can attack with my 4/4 Dryad, but he can trade both his men for mine. I should do it, but I decide that his life is low enough that his Dark Confidant can now serve as my win condition. I also figure that after topdecking all of that land, I’m due to hit some spells. I topdeck Fastbond. Ugh.

A Jotun Grunt joins the fray. I know that I’m going to have to suck up Jotun Grunt beats, and that I can afford to do so for some time. Jotun Grunt sends me to seven, and his own Dark Confidant sends him to seven.

At this point, I do manage to scrap out some spell that I can play, and my Dryad is now large enough to protect me from Grunt. Our ground is now stalled. My hope is that he won’t topdeck more creatures while his Confidant murders him.

His life dwindles to three, and on a tense upkeep, he thinks outloud: “Am I a betting man? If Bob doesn’t kill me, I win this game. I’m not a gambler.” He plays Swords to Plowshares on Jotun Grunt.

I respond by saying: “I AM a gambling man.” I Force of Will his Swords. Dave responds with a Force of his own, pitching Meddling Mage. He goes to two and then up to six. He takes two damage and is back down to four. If he hadn’t Plowed, he would have been at one life.

Over the next two turns, with our ground forces stalled, and me hoping he just dies to his own Bob, he reveals Lotus and Lotus Petal, taking no damage. He reveals another Jotun Grunt and plays it, sending him to 2 life. At this point, I add another Dryad to the table just so I don’t die from his three men. He casts Meddling Mage on Yawgmoth’s Will. My next card is Yawgmoth’s Will.

I look at his board. I decide to attack with Dryad. I calculate that if I attack, he’ll be forced to block and thus pre-emptively preventing him from being able to alpha strike me in subsequent turns.

The game winning play is playing Aven Mindcensor during combat to block my Dryad.

He untaps, and reveals the final card with Dark Confidant at two life… and it’s a land.

He wins the game.

It also turns out that Dave has another Force in hand. He never shuffled after Grunting cards to the bottom of our libraries, but he did draw all four Forces.

We have around 4 minutes and 38 seconds left in the match.

It has been probably four years since I’ve played a game 1 in tournament Vintage that took over 45 minutes.

My hand is quite powerful, but there just isn’t enough time. At the GenCon Prelims, I managed to win in turns, so I try to go for it. I have early Dryad, Force his plow, Time Walk, stealing his extra turns, but on turn 4, when I can only deal about six damage on the final turn sending him somewhere safely under ten life, he Plows and I break my fetchland announcing that his Swords is fine when I meant to play Drain. My Dryad is RFG and we draw game 2o, with me losing the match.

Dave Feinstein played exceptionally well, and the entire match game down to a Bob flip. The winner of game 1 was going to be the winner of the match. I suppose there is a chance that GAT can win in just a few turns, but it’s hard to imagine GAT winning the match if Fish won the 45-minute game 1.

I’m looking forward to my rematch against Dave Feinstein. The most fun I get out of Vintage Magic is playing the best players playing their favorite decks.

I am felled. Far from my perch, the Champ is out at 2-2.

I enroll in an Imperial Seal side event, first facing my round 2 opponent whom I quickly dispatch, and then Mark Trogdon, in a grueling three-game set featuring Yotian Soldier, and then a finals in which I take game 1, he takes game 2, and we agree on a split.

I am thrilled to watch my teammates Paul Mastriano and Doug Linn battle their way to Top 8, with Doug splitting first prize. Doug made Top 8 at the very first SCG Tour® nament way back when, and this is his first Top 8 since. Way to go buddy.

So, my thoughts on GAT and the Empty Gush deck. Despite the claims of Team ICBM, I still think that GAT is probably the superior deck. The Empty Gush deck looks really good, but its primary advantage is that it is aimed at GAT through the use or Meloku and Empty the Warrens to clog the ground up, and the fact that Tinker for Colossus is often a play GAT is ill-equipped to address. The problem with those win conditions is that because they require more setup, the cost is greater when they are answered. If you invest your resources into playing Empty the Warrens for ten, you’ll be pretty heartbroken when Echoing Truth bounces all of your threats. Quirion Dryad, by contrast, is an incremental win condition that is put on the table when you have extra mana and while you are doing something else. It requires no set up and no investment. Yet it’s the most bang for your buck. Tinker for Colossus is still more efficient, but it requires an artifact to sacrifice (which GAT doesn’t have many of) and Tinker is restricted. Both Empty and Meloku are tactically superior to Dryad but require more setup. The problem for Dryad is insurmountable on its own. Both Meloku and Empty are walls of men for Dryads. That doesn’t mean they can’t be beat. They can.

As I explained in my treatise on GAT, it is a mistake to let GAT remain static. Of course I played the same list as the Vintage Champs, since I won two tournaments in a row with it, including the Vintage Champs itself. However, in the future, changes will be made to ensure that GAT beats the ever-living hell out of Empty Gifts. Expect GAT pwnage at SCG Chicago.

I was going to spend the remainder of this article talking about the discussions had about whether Gush should be re-restricted, and my alternative and innovative suggestion, but I will save that for next week.

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian