So Many Insane Plays – Preparing for the 2008 Vintage Championship

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Monday, July 28th – 2007 Vintage World Champion Stephen Menendian has a title to defend… and he’s not taking the task lightly. With the recent restrictions still causing shockwaves through the Vintage metagame, Stephen examines his options as the 2008 World Championship approaches. Where will he lay his hat this year? Read on to find out!

What are the best unrestricted spells in Vintage? That’s a helpful question to ask. The last time I asked that question, it guided a rebuild of GroAtog, giving me the idea for 8 Duress GAT. However, back then the question was relatively easy to answer.

After nearly two months of testing, my answer remains as tentative as ever. Here are what I feel, at this moment, are probably the top ten unrestricted spells in Vintage.

1) Force of Will
2) Grim Tutor
3) Mana Drain
4) Dark Ritual
5) Thirst For Knowledge
6) Sensei’s Divining Top
7) Thoughtseize
8) Goblin Welder
9) Duress
10) Dark Confidant

A list such as this can always be contested. There are no objective criteria underpinning it, and the very notion of a discrete, cardinal ordering defies actual reality. The value of each card is interconnected to the value of other cards. To take a simple example, it is doubtful that Grim Tutor would even be on this list if Dark Ritual did not exist. Similarly, the value of Goblin Welder is in part determined by the existence of cards like Thirst For Knowledge, Intuition, Mishra’s Workshop, and Bazaar of Baghdad.

Nevertheless, here is my list. The restriction of Merchant Scroll re-opened the metagame to Grim Tutor and Mana Drain decks. Thirst For Knowledge is seeing play in a host of decks, from Control Slaver, to Painter decks, to Oath decks, to Drain Tendrils. It’s the default Blue draw spell now that Gifts and Gush are gone. Sensei’s Divining Top has not quite come into its own in the way that I expected. It has, however, become a gap-filler. Decks that once ran 4 Brainstorm now seem to run a Ponder, a Brainstorm, and a Top or a pair of Tops. Grim Tutor is now the best unrestricted tutor in the format, with Gifts and Scroll gone. Goblin Welder is an incredibly powerful effect, recurring artifacts in not just Control Slaver, but also decks like Belcher and Workshop Aggro. Dark Confidant is now one of the format’s best two-drops.

I am not a big fan of Dark Confidant. I think he is overrated. A card that does nothing the turn it comes into play, nothing on your opponent’s turn, and then only breaks even in terms of card advantage a full turn after he’s been in play seems slow for Vintage, unless you build a deck around slowing the game down. European players have a particular fondness for this guy, so he shows up in tournament data in large numbers thanks to the European skew. That doesn’t mean that he is absent from American metagames. Luis-Scott Vargas has a thing for Bob, and seems to play him in all of his Vintage decks.

For the last couple of months I have been dedicating most of my testing to Control Slaver variants. In the metagame that this one most resembles, Control Slaver was the top deck. It remained on top until Scroll-Gifts decks started to ascend. At the same time, Grim Tutor was released from its Portal purgatory, and the metagame became dominated by Pitch Long and Meandeck Gifts. I thought that the metagame contours, which featured Thorn of Amethyst, would keep more dedicated storm decks like Grim Long in check. More importantly, I thought that the restriction of Brainstorm would kill Pitch Long.

Turns out I was wrong.

Tommy Kolowith, the runner up in the 2006 Vintage Championship with Pitch Long, revived the deck two weekends ago at the ICBM Open in New Berlin, Wisconsin, with a stunning win over a Control Slaver laden Top 8.

Tommy rampaged over a very competitive metagame that featured five former StarCityGames.com Power Nine Champions in a field of 37 players.

Then, the weekend before this past weekend, Rich Shay (the Control Slaver paragon) switched to Pitch Long. Here is what he played:

Although I thought that Grim Long would be a deck that would get better as the metagame progressed and became more Mana Drain centric, as I wrote about a month ago in my Grim Long primer, I had no idea that Pitch Long could still be viable.

Apparently, the restriction of Brainstorm has had no real clear metagame impact. Of all of the decks that I thought would be hit most hard by the restriction of Brainstorm, I thought it would be Pitch Long. Certainly, I thought that Grim Long and Control Slaver would feel the impact. However, testing revealed that both decks were as consistent as ever. Grim Long felt almost faster, somehow. And Control Slaver adapted quite well by using a Ponder and a Top or two.

Pitch Long is a long variant that required a high density amount of Blue spells. With Brainstorm restricted, how could it assemble its Blue spells and threats in the right ratios?

At this point I’m speculating, but I have two overlapping working hypotheses on why the restriction of Brainstorm has done so little. The first is that every deck except Ichorid and Workshops used Brainstorm, so that the restriction of Brainstorm affected everyone equally. The second theory is that maybe Brainstorm really didn’t do everything we thought it did. Specifically, I mean that perhaps the level of consistency that we attribute to Brainstorm may have been overstated. In truth, it only increased your chance of seeing a Force of Will by about 6%. If you draw at least one Brainstorm about 40% of the time, that means that the chances of seeing Force of Will in an opening hand thanks to Brainstorm are quite small on average, probably too small to make any real difference. In terms of mana consistency, it may also be that Brainstorm doesn’t do that much either since the draw on your next turn will see at least one of the three cards Brainstorm was going to dig for you. It may be that the biggest impact of the restriction of Brainstorm is actually tactical. A very common play, in fact a play I used in the finals of the Vintage Championship last year, is to hide cards from Duress with Brainstorm. That option is now gone. Duress and Thoughtseize are now stronger animals. Also, Brainstorm can no longer turn raw junk into treasure. One alternative option is that perhaps the presence of 1 Brainstorm and 1 Ponder is enough. Effectively cutting the number of Brainstorms in half has not been enough to really change anything.

Despite all of the time and energy I’ve put into Control Slaver, there are still a few problems I have with it. First of all, I make an incredibly high number of play mistakes with it, even with lists that have fewer Tops. Second, it has high vulnerabilities to Fish and Aggro decks, let alone Ichorid. Pitch Long will rarely lose to Aggro and can race Ichorid. Being the creator behind most of the Long variants (including Grim Long and Death Long, and the primary propagator of original long.dec), I’d consider myself crazy not to play Long.

Control Slaver is a great deck. The fundamental strengths of the deck, especially its usage of Goblin Welder, are weaknesses against Long variants. Goblin Welder is slow against Long. In order for Control Slaver to seriously compete with Pitch Long, it would have to really bastardize itself in a way that would make it vulnerable to other metagame competitors.

My plan right now is to figure out how to build the strongest Pitch Long deck I can. This weekend (which will have passed by the time this article is live), I am hosting a tournament in Columbus, Ohio in which I will test run a Pitch Long list. With that information, I will make final tweaks for the Vintage Championship this coming weekend.

As I wrote many years ago in my Meandeck Tendrils Primer:

In Vintage, the key to deck design, particularly combo deck design, is asking the right question. A properly framed question crystallizes all the necessary issues and binds them together into a tight focus.

You can’t have answers unless you are asking the right question. Thus, the question at the outset of this article is a very important question. Here are the questions I want to answer before the Vintage World Championship:

1) How much land should I run?

Tommy upped the land count to twelve from the eleven he ran in the 2006 Vintage World Championship.

Here are the differences between Tommy’s 2006 and 2008 Pitch Long lists:

– 3 Brainstorm
– 1 Bloodstained Mire
– 1 Tolarian Academy
– 1 Grim Tutor
– 1 Misdirection
– 1 Cabal Ritual
– 1 Tinker
– 1 Memory Jar
– 1 Infernal Contract
– 1 Mana Vault

+ 4 Duress
+ 1 Flooded Strand
+ 1 Island
+ 1 Swamp
+ 1 Ponder
+ 1 Gifts Ungiven
+ 1 Merchant Scroll
+ 1 Windfall
+ 1 Cruel Bargain

Half of the changes are swaps, such as one land over another or Cruel Bargain over Infernal Contract. However, there are some real changes here. It looks like Tommy really wanted to include Duresses, and so he skimped on mana in the process, cutting out a Cabal Ritual and a Mana Vault. But he also was more serious about the land count, so he went from eleven to twelve lands.

Rich Shay also ran twelve lands. Right now, I’m too scared to only run twelve lands. Granted, Tommy’s manabase is pretty solid with four basic lands, but right now I see myself running thirteen, including Tolarian Academy. I also want to run the Green splash, like Rich did, to support Xantid Swarms and Tarmogoyf out of the board. I will have at least one more land in my sideboard, and probably more.

2) Which secondary and tertiary Blue spells should I run?

Both Tommy and Rich ran seventeen Blue spells.

Both Tommy and Rich ran:

1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Brainstorm
4 Force of Will
1 Misdirection
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Ponder
1 Timetwister
1 Mind’s Desire
1 Chain of Vapor
1 Rebuild
1 Gifts Ungiven

Then, beyond those, Tommy ran:

1 Windfall
1 Merchant Scroll

Rich ran:

1 Tinker
1 Time Spiral

Right now, I would find it hard not to run Tinker. I’m not thrilled about running Gifts Ungiven in a deck like this, but I’ll probably end up running it anyway. I will also probably end up trying the Time Spiral, since I’ll be playing Academy.

3) How much disruption to run?

Tommy ran four Duress and Rich ran three. I’m inclined not only to run four Duress, but also run some Thoughtseizes. My experience with 8 Duress GroAtog showed me that, really, eight Duress wasn’t nearly as much as you might think. Once you have four or five Duress, playing with eight didn’t feel like that much more, and it was almost always great. I wouldn’t mind running eight Duress effects here, although I don’t know how I could possibly fit them. I also question the move to run Duress over Thoughtseize here. Does life total really matter that much?

4) How many Cabal Rituals to run? And Mana Vault or Lion’s Eye Diamond?

Lion’s Eye Diamond is an incredible card. I understand the impulse to omit it in a deck using substantial amounts of Pitch Magic, but I think that could be a critical mistake. If I am not running a maindeck LED, I will be sporting one in the sideboard. It actually makes you a full turn faster and makes Grim Tutor almost instantly lethal. I also will run Memory Jar, which means that I’ll almost certainly be running Mana Vault. But then, how much Cabal Ritual should I run? In 2006, Tommy ran four! Cabal Ritual is extremely attractive. It is a key mana accelerant that is undisrupted by Chalices and Null Rods, and it helps you fight Spheres. I would like to run at least two, and wouldn’t mind running three.

So, here is what I’ll be testing for the Vintage Championship:

We’ll see how it goes.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian