This Friday, players from all over North America and beyond will converge in Indianapolis to compete for the title of Vintage Champion. The annual Vintage Championships will be held at GenCon in less than a week. Unfortunately, I will not be among that throng. Inconveniently, my sister scheduled her wedding for this weekend despite the mildest and most subtle protestations. Worse, it is not the wedding that keeps me from attending, but he my duties at the rehearsal dinner.
The upside: This affords me an unprecedented moment of candor preceding a highly competitive and prestigious event on the Vintage calendar. While I cannot reveal what my teammates intend to play this weekend, I can tell you what I would have played (since it is not my team’s deck of choice).
In a few moments, I will do just that. But first: an observation.
Incredibly (and surely not coincidentally), for the past four years, my last Vintage strategy article published before the Vintage Championship has been about the deck that would go on to win the Vintage Championship.
The Vintage Championship was held on August 27, 2005. The last SCG article I wrote before that tournament was about 5c Stax.
The Winner that year: 5c Stax
The Vintage Championship was held on August 12, 2006. The SCG article I wrote the week (only a few days, in fact) before was on Meandeck Gifts, published August 9, 2006.
The Winner that year: Meandeck Gifts
The Vintage Championship was held August 18, 2007. The last strategy article I wrote on SCG was about GroAtog (the last two, in fact).
The Winner that year: GroAtog
The Vintage Championship was held at U.S. Nationals, August 2, 2008. The article I wrote on SCG the week before was about TPS.
The Winner that year: TPS.
While I would not be so bold as to predict a causal link (there is none), this pattern does suggest that I have my pulse on the Vintage metagame, particularly the one that is played at GenCon every year. Make of it what you will.
Reflections on NuVintage at the ICBM Xtreme Games Open
The ICBM Xtreme Games open was an eye-opening experience for me; epiphenomenal.
Wizards made major changes to the format in an attempt to weaken Tezzeret and bring greater diversity all around. Yet, Tezzeret pilots as varied as Jimmy McCarthy to Paul Mastriano to Stefan Ellsworth to Chris Browne confidently predicted that Tezzeret would still be the best deck in the format. Some pilots proclaimed this assuredly, with surprising, impossible, certainty. Others did so more bitingly, with a hint of anger at the DCI. Statements like: â€˜the restriction of Thirst changes nothing!’ could be found over internet fora.
I wanted to see data. The ICBM Xtreme games open was revealing and illuminating in this regard: both days had Top 8s featuring plenty of Mana Drain-based Time Vault decks and Mishra’s Workshop decks. However, in both cases, the tournament victor was a Null Rod deck. On day 1, BUG Fish beat Tezzeret and Shops for the top spot. On day 2, UBW Fish beat Tezzeret and Shops for the top spot. For the first time in years, Null Rod decks won not just a major Vintage event, but two consecutive tournaments.
Yet, I knew that many of the â€˜top’ Vintage players would take little note of this incredible fact. Why? Simple. The last time it happened, the elite tier of Vintage players ignored it. In 2004, the â€˜best’ Vintage players played one of two decks: Mana Drain decks, like Psychatog, or Mishra’s Workshop decks, like Stax. It was in this environment that Marc Perez innovated an annoying UR Fish deck built around Null Rod and cards like Spiketail Hatchling, Grim Lavamancer, Wasteland, Daze, and Force of Will.
Central Coast Championship, June, 2004
4 Cloud of Faeries
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Spiketail Hatchling
2 Voidmage Prodigy
1 Gorilla Shaman
4 Force of Will
3 Null Rod
1 Time Walk
1 Ancestral Recall
4 Mishra’s Factory
2 Faerie Conclave
4 Volcanic Island
3 Flooded Strand
2 Polluted Delta
1 Strip Mine
1 Library of Alexandria
1 Mox Sapphire
Marc won an incredible string of tournaments with this deck that year stretching from the beginning of the year up until the Vintage Championship at GenCon. Plenty of Drain and Workshop players made top 8s. At the Central Coast Championship, for example, the top 8 was 3 Workshops, 3 Drains, and 2 Fish. Like clockwork, the UR Fish decks each beat a Workshop and a Drain deck to meet in the finals.
As with all things Magical, the metagame shifted. Things changed. The printing of Forbidden Orchard and other metagame adaptations knocked Fish from its pedestal. Although Fish has resurfaced from time to time, UW Fish decks in 2005 and then UWB Fish decks in 2006, Fish never achieved the success it enjoyed for that long stretch of time in 2004. Fish decks have appeared in Top 8s, often but rarely in finals, let alone as tournament victors.
What’s going on? Why did Null Rod decks win both ICBM Opens? Does the answer matter?
I think it does. I think it matters a lot. Some people, especially regular Vintage players, might not think so. They might not ascribe much meaning to this. They may also continue to play whatever deck they have been playing, just as most Vintage players in 2004 did. I doubt many, if any, Drain or Shop players shifted to Fish. I know because I was one of those players who would never have even considered shifting to Fish. From my perspective the trick was trying to figure out how to beat Fish. I ran junk like Tsabo’s Web and Fire/Ice. Eventually, we (collective Mana Drain pilots) found the solution in Old Man of the Sea, among other solutions. The point is that I (and many others) never really considered Fish as a deck option.
That was unfathomable. Diehard Vintage players have a big blind spot: the â€˜fair’ deck. This is nothing new. It’s endemic to the player base. There are many reasons why. First of all, if you have been playing Vintage for a while, you have a well-socialized sense of what’s powerful in the format. You’ve seen the big Blue deck that wins with Gifts or Tinker, and you find it hard not to play these cards. After all, they win games. Also, since so many of the better Vintage players play the big Blue deck (whether that’s Gifts, Slaver or Tezzeret), they appear to be the best deck. If you test against these players, there is a good chance you’ll have been swayed to that archetype early on in your Vintage career.
These prejudices are difficult to overcome. After all, it’s not just prejudice. These cards (Tinker, Force, Yawg Will, etc) become so strongly associated with winning and the Vintage experience itself, that it’s not just that players find the cards unpowered, they — consciously or subconsciously, depending on how deeply rooted the associations are — find the very notion of playing a Null Rod deck to be unfun.
It’s taken years of unlearning such prejudices through many seasons of Vintage, but I have worked hard at opening my mind — at allowing myself – to play anything in Vintage. I will play the Drain deck, the Workshop deck, the Dark Ritual deck, and even the Null Rod deck. I will play anything so long as I think it give me the best chance of winning. Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t have preferences. All things equal, I want to be playing with Force of Will and Ancestral Recall. But things are not always equal.
On Day 2 of the ICBM Open, I was taken to the woodshed by Jon Donovan playing the WG deck I created a few months ago. As I watched Jon progress through the tournament, he was stomping everyone. In the quarter-finals, he annihilated Mike Solymossy and his Dark Confidant Tendrils deck. Steve Golenda, who eventually won the tournament with UBW Fish by beating Jerry Yang, agreed that he couldn’t beat Jon’s deck. Jon lost a won semi-finals match by forgetting to pay for his own Kataki triggers, having to lose both Null Rod and Crucible of Worlds (with Strip Mine lock active). All Jon had to do was finish Jerry off and Jon would have been playing Steve in the finals.
Then it struck to me: Jon Donovan, if not for a very major — and easily avoidable (not subtle at all) — blunder, would have won ICBM Day 2 with a deck I created as a budget deck for Vintage. Jon’s matches against the field weren’t even close. He blew everyone out, myself include. The GW deck smashes Tezzeret, destroys Stax, and pounds Fish. What else is there?
While GW Beats can be beaten if the metagame were to adjust, I don’t think anyone was taking GW Beats seriously. If Jon had such an easy time in that metagame, then I should be just fine. I resolved to play it at the Steel City Games P9 Open.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Tuning GW Beats
Read through my primer on the GW Budget deck for a comprehensive look at various options, including those I rejected. Jon made two basic changes. First, since the deck I was developed was for an unpowered field, Jon made room for a few critical pieces of power, such as Mox Pearl, Mox Emerald, and Black Lotus — all sensible additions. Second, since Enlightened Tutor was just unrestricted, he flirted with an Enlightened Tutor toolbox. After all, the deck I designed already had Seal of Cleansing, Null Rod, and Choke. To bolster this a bit, he played with a single Crucible of Worlds as well. The other 55 cards were identical to those that I ran in my budget list.
I started testing the deck using power. Like Jon, I needed to include power, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to make room for power. After all, I designed the deck as a budget deck. After a good deal of testing and even more thought, here is my final decklist:
- 4 Elvish Spirit Guide
- 2 Kataki, War's Wage
- 4 Aven Mindcensor
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Gaddock Teeg
- 4 Vexing Shusher
- 4 Qasali Pridemage
1) I analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of each card in the field. I took a look at which matchups each card was good and bad against. I decided that these cards were all auto-includes: 4 Null Rod, 4 Tarmogoyf, 4 Gaddock Teeg, 4 Qasali Pridemage, 4 Aven Mindcensor, and 4 Vexing Shusher. According to my chart, Vexing Shusher was the weakest. It was great against Mana Drain decks, some Fish decks, and Workshop decks that run Chalice of the Void. It’s pretty bad against most Workshop decks and Combo. It’s also pretty worthless except as a mediocre bear against Beatz decks. Nonetheless, it was great in testing, and I expected Tezzeret and Fish to be a large part of the field. I wanted to run 4 maindeck.
2) After including the requisite 28 mana sources, that left 8 metagame slots to play with. I chose: 2 Choke, 2 Seal of Cleansing, 2 Kataki, and 2 Swords for those slots. Here’s why: Most players are moving to Darksteel Colossus over either Sphinx or Inkwell as Tinker targets. Swords deals with DSC just find (and Sphinx). Not to mention, it’s good against Fish and Beatz matchup, and the Workshop match. Finally, a lot of Tez decks are running Sowers maindeck. Yet another reason to run Swords main. Choke is amazing against the better portion of the field, and is even better with Shusher. Kataki is very good, but its power is often not obvious because it needs to be paired with other cards. Seal of Cleansing is great against Workshops and the Tezzeret decks. I felt as if these 8 cards were the best use of those slots. I was protected against practically everything. These cards were metagame choices, but I felt that they gave me game against the whole field. I did expect to see a slight uptick in Oath. That’s another reason for Seals.
6) Jitte is the ultimate answer for the Fish or Beatz matchup. I sideboard out Null Rod for Jittes.
I tested this deck a lot and was very pleased. However, I couldn’t get over the suspicion that a Black splash might be superior. The most obvious reason to run black is Dark Confidant. But here are the problems I encountered when trying to splash Black;
â€¢ Do you run tutors? If so, which ones?
â€¢ Do you run Duresses? If so, how many?
â€¢ How do you build the manabase? How many fetchlands? How many duals? Do you run Mox Jet?
â€¢ What do you cut? Swords? Seals? Chokes?
I tried to develop several WGB lists, but I didn’t like any of them. They looked strange, played strange, or felt weird. Finally, I decided to work backwards. I decided to test incrementally until I liked where I was.
The first cut I made was to swap Dark Confidants for the Shushers. To support that, I cut Canopies and 2 Forest for 2 Bayou and 2 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]. The Bobs played wonderfully. Then, in testing, I kept asking myself which cards would be better as Thoughtseize? Both Kataki and Seal of Cleansing were the weakest links, and each in turn was cut for Thoughtseize. Then, with Thoughtseizes in my deck, Swords became less important. I decided to cut one for Demonic Consultation, which was incredible, and then eventually the last one for Vampiric Tutor, which tested well. There was nothing else I wanted to cut for Imperial Seal or a Duress, let alone Demonic Tutor, which was simply too expensive for the deck.
But there were kinks still to work out. The manabase wasn’t quite right. I tested Mox Jet, but I after many games in which I fed Jet into my hand, Lotus Petal was simply better most of the time. Petal could play Confidant on turn 1, or Teeg (or Pridemage). I kept trying to fit Mox Jet, but it never worked very well. Instead, what I realized was that I needed a basic Swamp. So I cut the Plains for basic Swamp, and cut the Wooded Foothills for Bloodstained Mires. Even then, my mana felt off. I realized that, with a three color manabase, I would be even more vulnerable to Wasteland. I needed more actual lands. I cut the 4th Elvish Spirit Guide for another land and things finally â€˜clicked.’ This deck needs at least 16 actual lands. Elvish Spirit Guide is a great accelerant, and one of the innovations in Budget Vintage Beatdown that I pioneered with the RG Beatz deck (Christmas Beatings) last year. But this deck simply needs more actual lands that produce colored mana. The demands on the manabase, with Pridemage, Teeg, and Thoughtseize, are great.
Here’s what I ended up playing:
Because I cut Shusher, I felt I needed a way to answer Chalice at 2. That’s why Krosan Grips are here. Everything else should look familiar in terms of functionality. The changes were just upgrades. Planar Voids replaced Ghostly Prison. Edict replaced Tariff.
This deck is quite spectacular, and I had an amazing time playing it. Here is my tournament report.
Steel City Power Nine Tournament Report
Round 1: Jeremy Beaver
Jeremy is a Vintage regular in the Philly/New England area, with plenty of pimped older cards. I’ve never faced Jeremy before. I’ll admit I was nervous about playing a deck without Blue in Vintage that doesn’t win the game in first couple of turns. Making matters worse, Jeremy tends to play extremely aggressive Blue and Black decks, and he won the die roll.
My opening hand was:
I showed my hand, and I think Jeremy was taken aback.
Jeremy dropped a Tolarian Academy, but stopped there. At that moment, I knew I had the advantage.
Poor Jeremy. He had a two-land hand that had Academy and Delta, but his plan to play Duress first to clear the way for Ancestral backfired only because I was playing a Wasteland deck, something that is very unusual for me.
If he topdecks a Mox, he can cast Tinker. He can play Mox and Key, and then next turn Tinker for Time Vault to win the game. This concerned me. If he topdecks a land, he can play Ancestral or land, Key, and then Night’s Whisper on the subsequent turn to try and Tinker. In the end, I took Ancestral, probably the obvious pick.
Jeremy topdecked a land and played Key.
I untapped, played a third land and cast Pridemage. I paid a mana to disenchant his Key, sacrificing Pridemage.
Jeremy played Thoughtseize. But I had just drawn a second Mindcensor. He had to choose between two Mindcensors, a Goyf, Dark Confidant, and a Teeg. He took Bob. This choice validated my decision to run Black.
I played Mindcensor on my turn, and his options became very limited. Jeremy tried to stay in the game with Night’s Whisper. I drew Demonic Consultation. I played Goyf and Teeg, which he Forced, and with a free mana on his endstep cast Consult. I debated what to get. He had three cards left in his hand. I decided to name Thoughtseize instead of Null Rod. It turned out to be the right play. He had Yawgmoth’s Will and two Dark Rituals in hand. He scooped.
This is important: I expect Tezzeret pilots to bring in Sowers. So I use STP and Choke as a counter-measure, and take out the Goyfs to deny them their best target.
My opening hand was pretty slow:
I thought, what the hell, I’ll keep it. Being on the draw with Strip Mine means that I’ll probably get two more draws to try and play something that costs less than three. If I didn’t have Strip Mine, I would have shipped this back.
Jeremy opened with:
As with the first game, Jeremy plays Tolarian Academy and passes the turn! He appears mana screwed, once again.
I played a fetchland and passed the turn.
Jeremy played an Underground Sea.
I played another land and passed the turn.
Jeremy played yet another land and cast Merchant Scroll. I responded by breaking my fetchlands, using an ESG and casting Aven Mindcensor. It resolved. Jeremy looked at his top 4 cards, revealed a Force of Will and passed the turn.
Round 2: Brian DeMars
I was pleased to win the die roll.
My opening hand was:
I couldn’t go with my plan of Vamp for Lotus. I needed to play Goyf.
I was surprised that Brian didn’t attack me. Instead, he played a land and passed the turn.
I debated whether to upkeep Vamp, but again, decided to wait. I was very pleased to draw Black Lotus. I played Lotus, tapped my Wasteland and my Bayou and cast Gaddock Teeg, which resolved. Then I played Aven Mindcensor.
Brian played a land and passed the turn.
At this point, I started attacking. I played another Goyf, and once I’d worked through all of his Empty token, Brian died.
I opened with:
Brian played turn 1 Island, which I Strip Mined, but not before he played a Voltaic Key. He played an Underground Sea and cast another Voltaic Key. I played turn 3 Null Rod, but he played City of Brass and evoked Ingot Chewer. I thought about playing Swords on his Chewer, but that wouldn’t stop his creature from killing my Null Rod.
On turn 4 I drew Thoughtseize and had to decide between Thoughtseize and Null Rod. I decided to play Null Rod, which resolved. Brian untapped and cast Ancestral Recall, which was extremely frustrating for me. His hand size doubled. He played a land and passed the turn.
On turn 6 Brian played Tolarian Academy. He played a Mox. He tapped Academy for 3 Blue and cast Yawgmoth’s Will with one Blue floating. He used the Blue mana to cast Ancestral Recall again. He replayed (via evoke) the Ingot Chewer from his graveyard.
I wish that I had played Swords on his Chewer. Finally, I played my fourth Null Rod, drawing no creatures. Brian untapped, played a land, and passed the turn.
I drew Black Lotus and passed the turn. Brian drew a card and passed the turn. I drew a land, played it, and passed.
I finally started to draw creatures, but it was too late. His remaining 9 tokens were enough to finish me off.
As we boarded for game 3, I contemplated the possibility that I mis-sideboarded. Had I had Goyf instead of that Plow, I could have won this game.
My opening hand:
I wasn’t too happy with this hand, but I wasn’t going to mulligan it. I just wish I could draw one of my 20 beatdown creatures.
Brian played a Tropical Island.
I drew Lotus on the turn. Useless.
I drew Windswept Heath…
I was disappointed to lose this match. It’s clear to me that I totally mis-sideboarded. I was treating this match like a Tezzeret match. Had I had Goyfs instead of Plows in game 2, I could have won this match. It’s possible that Choke just isn’t as good in this match either, on account of his Cities.
Round 3: Steve Golenda with UBW Fish
Although I was 1-1, I was paired down against Steve. Steve was playing Faeries, and we had been testing earlier in the week. I am a huge favorite in game 1, but game two is pretty evenly split. Since we rode in the same car and tested together, and he was out of contention, Steve told me he’d scoop to me. We played for fun, and I smashed him game 1. Game 2 he narrowly got me after a few blunders. Game 3 we went to turns and he scooped to me.
Round 4: Francis Hart with Tezzeret
Francis is an up and comer from the Pittsburgh area. Unfortunately, Francis’s deck is my best matchup.
My opening hand is:
Francis won the die roll and played:
He took Null Rod.
Francis missed his land drop, so I know his hand is probably insane.
I took Ancestral Recall, obviously.
Francis missed his land drop on turn 2 as well, and I played Bob
Francis found a land, but it was too late. Bob drew me into more good stuff, and Bob and Goyf went all the way.
I sideboarded in 3 Plows and a Choke for 4 Goyfs.
My opening hand was:
This is an excellent hand, but very tricky. There are many lines of play, some of them difficult to see.
I played Windswept Heath and passed the turn.
Francis played a Polluted Delta and passed the turn. On his endstep, I broke Windswept Heath for Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author] and cast Demonic Consultation.
Francis thought about it for a few moments, and let it resolve. I named: Bloodstained Mire, my other four-of fetchland.
This is one of the key advantages of Consult. Consult is by far the best tutor in this deck. About 7 cards in, I flip Mire.
Jimmy McCarthy was watching the match, and he said that I maybe should have Consulted for Black Lotus instead of Mire. That way I could play Thoughtseize, Aven Mindcensor and Gaddock Teeg on turn 2, a huge turn 3.
Francis untapped and cast Time Vault and used the Mana Drain mana to play Voltaic Key. He was completely out of mana with only two cards in hand, but he assembled the combo. Of course, I had Gaddock Teeg in hand, but I had also drawn a Null Rod.
I played a third land, and cast Null Rod, hopefully for the win. Unfortunately, Francis’ final two cards were Sower of Temptation and Force of Will. He played Force and I scooped. I needed one more mana to play Teeg first.
That was a pretty close game!
My opening hand was:
I wanted to play Teeg and Bob, even if he Forced my Teeg.
On turn two I played Teeg. He played a land and passed.
On turn three I drew Strip Mine. I Strip him and attacked with Teeg. Next turn I Wastelanded him and played Null Rod. Francis valiantly fought to stay alive. He played Darkblast twice in one turn to kill Teeg, and so I played yet another. But eventually, his life was too low to matter. He was able to evoke Ingot Chewer and then replay it with Yawgmoth’s Will. However, Aven Mindcensor finished him off.
Round 5: Mike Solymossy with Tezzeret
Another awesome matchup for me. We look at the standings. I am 5th in the standings and Mike is 7th. I have the highest tiebreakers of the 9 pointers so I am very comfortable drawing. I ask Mike if he wants to draw or play. Mike knows that I am a terrible matchup for him, he was crushed by the GW deck at the ICBM Open, so he figures his best chance is to draw and hope he makes top 8. We draw.
After round 5 I am heartbroken to discover that I end up 9th place. Mike leapfrogged me from 7th to 4th place and I fell from 5th to 9th. Mike’s opponent match win percentage jumped from under 50% to 60%. I could hardly believe it.
The top 8 was ripe for my deck to annihilate. While it’s sad that I couldn’t prove what a monster this deck is thanks to my own stupidity in drawing the last round (I also hadn’t eaten that day, and really wanted to use the round to get some food), that is an opportunity for you, the reader.
This deck is incredible, and I would play it again at the Vintage Championship this weekend, were I able to go.
This deck is simply amazing. It crushes Tezzeret and Workshop variants, the largest parts of the field. These matchups aren’t even that close. I was play testing against Mark Trogdon and his Mono Red Workshop aggro deck after the tournament and I went 9-1 against him. You have a great sideboard for Ichorid in Planar Void. The only thing it’s even with is Combo, Fish, and other Beatz decks. The maindeck feels just about perfect. The sideboard could use some tweaks, but I’m not sure what they are. A Darkblast might be a great addition. Tariff may be needed over Edict to fight Leviathan in decks that run other creatures.
While I am very interested in playing this deck after Vintage Worlds, the outcome of the Championship will reset or consolidate the Vintage metagame, which may shift in unexpected or unpredictable ways.
Although I believe that this is currently the best deck in Vintage that I’m aware of, there are plenty of ways that other pilots can adjust to it if it becomes a part of the metagame. Cards like Perish could start to see play in Vintage sideboards.
Patrick Chapin believes that the format can be described as: Null Rod versus Time Vault/Key. While I contend that there are decks that are capable of making top 8 and winning tournaments that don’t run either card, there is an element of truth to this. Null Rod, I believe, is at its peak power. The restriction of Thirst has dampened the power of Tezzeret, forcing it to rely on other, lesser, forms of card advantage. In that context, Null Rod is more powerful than ever, since it’s more likely to resolve and harder to remove, since Fish decks only need to trade on a one-to-one basis to keep it around, and prevent the opponents from winning. The trump against the Null Rod strategies become Tinker. With Thoughtseizes and cards like Tariff, Plow, Mindcensor and Edict, that can be answered as well. This is the best opportunity that a Null Rod deck has ever had to win the Vintage Championship. And what a thing that would be, to a see a â€˜fair’ deck claim the Vintage crown.
Until next time…