So Many Insane Plays – The Best Deck Ever? (Part 2)

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Monday, March 31st – Last week’s So Many Insane Plays saw Vintage World Champion Stephen Menendian bring us his thoughts on what some folk are heralding as the best deck ever created: Vintage Hulk Flash. Today, Stephen continues his thorough examination of the archetype, and draws some exciting conclusions…

Flash is the most unfair, absurdly powerful, and non-interactive deck in the history of Vintage.

I have been playing a lot of games with and against Flash lately with my play testing partners [Chapin and LSV]. In my experience, Flash is extremely powerful and extremely consistent. Especially with the new Reveillark-based win, the deck has become even faster and even more powerful. The ability to use Pact of Negation to counter Force of Will on the first turn in order to Tutor for Flash is completely insane – since you can just go off and win with the ‘lose the game’ trigger on the stack at instant speed.

To say that Flash is extremely powerful might be a drastic understatement. I have been playing Vintage competitively for many years now: I played against 4 Gush GAT when it was dominant back in the day, and I played the real Long.dec before it got a whole laundry list of cards restricted. In spite of that I am going to go out on a limb here:

I think that the new “Flash” deck might be the most powerful/consistent deck in the history of Vintage

There, I said it, I stand by it, and you all can hold me to it if I’m wrong…

Brian DeMars (on themanadrain.com)

Last week I walked you through my approach to building Vintage Hulk Flash since the printing of Reveillark. Today, we’ll explore the sideboard options, the matchups, and address the question of whether Hulk Flash is as good as Brian and Matthieu believe.

III. Building a Sideboard

0 Tarmogoyf

Since Flash first set foot on the Vintage stage it has been plagued by Leyline of the Void. Ichorid Dredge-based decks had already seen significant play in Vintage long before Future Sight saw print. Future Sight was the capstone of a long rise for Ichorid-based decks in Vintage. Vintage decks, often revolving around Yawgmoth’s Will, have long been graveyard reliant. Leyline of the Void was already seeing plenty of play before Flash started making the rounds. Flash gave people another reason to run Leylines, pushing it up into the top 5 most played cards and far and away the most populous Black card in Vintage Top 8s.

Flash players, from the beginning, were looking for ways to surprise their opponent post-board and make Leyline a non-issue at the same time. For many, Tarmogoyf seemed to fit the bill. Even though a Leyline might be in play, you could still use your opponent’s graveyard to boost your Goyf and your countermagic to help you survive until the Goyf finished its work. To me, that plan never really made much sense. If you are trying to fight Leyline, wouldn’t Goyf be the wrong answer to that problem?

0 Oath of Druids

Other players, such as Mat Endress, tried the Oath of Druids approach. If you sideboard in Oath of Druids and, say, Platinum Angels, you can still use your Pact of Negations offensively to protect Oath of Druids. Although I think this is a step in the right direction, it still suffers from several flaws. First of all, it eats a lot of space in the board. Second of all, it’s difficult to sideboard out all of the worthless cards for this combo. Third, it may not be that much better than your mainboard plan. Being immune to Leyline of the Void may simply not outweigh the fact that you’ll need four to five turns to win with a Platinum Angel.

0 Tinker

This plan would come in as a complement to Oath plans or by itself (or as a complement to any other plan, in fact). It can be comboed with Platinum Angel or other juicy artifact targets.

4 Virulent Sliver and 1 Heart Sliver

The main reason I have rejected those alternative plans is because I think that Chapin’s idea of using Slivers in the sideboard makes the most sense given the state of the metagame.

The main criticism of this plan is best explained by Matthieu Durand:

If you are going to keep switching to the Slivers kill, I don’t really see a reason to waste 5 SB slots by MDing Reveillark. I hate using a third of my SB for a plan that won’t even work if my opponent has Leylines of the Void (which you don’t really care about, but still). Instead I’d rather run Gigadrowse so I can tap down these Underground Sea and Tormod’s Crypt, or go Tinker Robot on them while they hold their billions of Extirpates and Offalsnouts in hand. Tinker Robot seems to be a much much better SB plan than Slivers. Extirpate is only a threat if backed up by a clock (otherwise you’d have boarded in the full package of Duress and Thoughtseize), and clock equals potential blockers. You could probably steal games against Ichorid by going Platinum Angel for example. It’s also a great B-plan in the mirror.

Matthieu critiques both the use of Slivers on three interconnected grounds: space it costs in the abstract, its similar ineffectiveness against Leyline as the Reveillark kill, and the possible superiority of the Tinker into Bot plan for the same reasons.

I don’t think that any of his reasons here are wrong, and he makes a compelling case, but I think he has made one error that leads me to another conclusion. In my article on complex systems theory, I explained that one of the key reasons we make mistakes in Magic is that our brain’s aren’t wired to properly account for time delays, especially in the midst of other constantly fluctuating variables and decision-making.

Here is a great example of what I’m talking about: In 2004, when Forbidden Orchard had just seen print, my team quietly went to work building the best Oath list we could construct for a StarCityGames Power Nine tournament. We settled on a mainboard that used Akroma and Spirit of the Night because it produced the fastest kill. Many of my teammates insisted on playing with mainboard bounce in case we faced Control Slaver or Workshop decks with Platinum Angel. I vehemently resisted these calls to sub-optimize our maindeck based upon a better understanding of time delays. Our team swept the tournament by putting half of our team into the Top 8 and winning the whole thing. After a little bit of testing, teams and players across the internet chatboards reported and boasted that they had little trouble beating the Meandeck Oath list, and no small reason for that was that they had moved to incorporate Platinum Angel as a Tinker target.

I could only smile behind my computer screen. We had known beforehand that Platinum Angel would be an effective solution, but we also resisted, intelligently, the very powerful impulse to build a solution to it before Platinum Angel even saw play as a reaction within the metagame. Had I listened to my teammates who so strongly insisted on running a solution to Platinum Angel, we would have diluted our mainboard and diminished our chances for success, even though we would have shored our deck up against a future metagame threat. You don’t play tournaments for future players’ test gauntlets, you play in tournaments to win them.

Matthieu’s suggestion to use bounce makes the same mistake. It improperly accounts for time delays — the difference between the metagame he eventually expects and the metagame as it is currently constituted.

Although Leyline of the Void is very prevalent, at the moment you are as likely not to face as you are to face it. But most importantly, you are not likely to face it from the one deck that is currently the strongest competitor for “best deck” in the format. When facing Gush decks you are unlikely to see Leyline. Gush currently accounts for 25% of Top 8s, and within this box, there are basically two competitors: GroAtog and Tyrant Oath. Neither uses Leyline. I will discuss GroAtog later, but Tyrant Oath’s plan is as follows. But first, here is the deck:

The Tyrant Oath pilot is likely to go:

+ 2 Extirpate
+ 2 Tormod’s Crypt
+ 3 Red Elemental Blast
+ 1 Duress

– 4 Gush
– 1 Fastbond
– 1 Krosan Reclaimation
– 1 Flash of Insight
– 1 Oath of Druids

It’s also possible that they’ll try to bring in Pithing Needles.

Suffice to say, they are bringing in a lot of hate, most of which will only be effective or efficient against the Reveillark kill. If they Extirpate or Tormod’s Crypt your Hulk with the first Hulk trigger on the Stack, then Flash won’t be able to combo out.

Since Tyrant Oath is probably your biggest metagame competitor in the Top 8, I think the Sliver kill makes the most sense. It will be completely immune to Tormod’s Crypt and Extirpate, giving your opponent plenty of less than optimal draws. If the metagame shifts, then I would be more inclined to agree.

Sliver kill, as a sideboard plan, is not the “objectively” strongest sideboard plan, it is the optimal sideboard plan for the metagame gaps that currently exist and that demand to be exploited. For the near future, until Tyrant Oath players and GAT players feel pressure to make adjustments, I’m confident that the Sliver kill is the kill that is most likely to help you take the match.

Once they are aware of it, I still think it is the proper sideboard plan, although it will admittedly lose some of its luster. It becomes a gamble that the Oath player can’t afford not to make.

In game 2, if your Oath opponent expects you to bring in the Slivers, you have two options. You can bring in the Slivers or you can decide not to. If you bring in the Slivers and you’re opponent expects you to, they will have less dead cards (either because they won’t bring in Tormod’s Crypts or they won’t bring in both Tormod’s Crypts and Extirpate), but they will still likely have no Leylines. The lost advantage of being able to combo out at instant speed to having to use the combat step should outweigh the fact that you have neutered their graveyard solutions as a tactic. Even if they are fairly certain you will be bringing in Slivers, I would still expect the Oath pilot to have Extirpates. If they can successfully Thoughtseize a Hulk or a Flash, Extirpate can ensure that you can’t combo out by stripping the remainder from your hand and deck.

If you end up deciding not to bring in Slivers in game 2, you then have it on the table as an option for game 3, and you’re opponent will possibly be more inclined to suspect that you aren’t running Slivers by that point.

It is true, the question of whether you are running Slivers or not can quickly devolve into a guessing game, but it’s one that I think inheres to the advantage of the Flash pilot rather than their opponent. The burden will be on the opponent to get it right rather than the other way around.

For now, it’s the Sliver kill for me, and it’s the one I recommend to you for upcoming tournaments.

0 Tinker

On the other hand, I think Matthieu’s idea for a Tinker + Robot plan may have a lot of merit. It doesn’t have to displace the Flash kill, it can simply be a backup kill, but it is less reliable than Flash. I haven’t had a chance to test it out very much yet, so I’m not sure whether it makes more sense than Slivers. In any case, they are not exclusive. The critical issue is sideboard space.

0 Boseiju, Who Shelters All

This card is the new hype for Flash sideboards. I understand the allure and attraction of this card. In a format so defined by cards like Force of Will, Boseiju seems like the super answer. It’s been used in Extended to great effect (from what I saw at PT Valencia), so we know that it works in real tournament conditions. Boseiju will allow you to win through a counterwall of untold size and strength. In addition, Boseiju also will permit a victory through cards like Chalice of the Void and Counterbalance. Chalice of the Void is a unique weakness that Flash has, but it will be only played by a very few decks. Chalice for 0 is a likely Ichorid play, but Chalice at 2, the real place that Boseiju would shine, is almost exclusively a play by MUD.

While those are all cute and nifty, I think this card plays to Flash’s advantages and shores up few, if any, of its relevant weaknesses. In the first place, I think the key weaknesses of Flash are discard and Leylines, not counterspells. With the printing of Thoughtseize, it is more likely that your GAT opponent will be nailing you to the wall with Duress and Thoughtseize than trying to counter you with Force of Will and Red Elemental Blast. That isn’t to say that they won’t be using Red Blast or Force, they will. But they will be stripping your hand of relevant cards and Boseiju will have nothing to say about it. In a deck with more Force of Will effects than any other deck in the format, I don’t think that getting your spells to resolve ranks quite as highly as a priority as things that are actual weaknesses.

4 Leyline of the Void

Ichorid, on the other hand, is an actual weakness. Chalice of the Void, Leyline of the Void, Unmask, and Cabal Therapy are all cards you can expect from an Ichorid opponent. Leyline of the Void is not the only card you can use to fight Ichorid, but it is the most effective.

In addition, the only card you can be assured with help you interact in the Flash matchup is Leylines. Leyline of the Singularity is only effective against the Sliver builds, but Leyline of the Void is effective against all Flash variants. Leyline is the only card, next to Force of Will, that can stop a Flash opponent from winning before you get a turn. If you don’t have a Leyline in your opening hand, but you draw one shortly thereafter, it’s not a total loss. If you manage to survive into a semblance of a mid-game, you shouldn’t have that much difficulty casting a Leyline.

3 Reverent Silence

An opposing Leyline of the Void turns your deck into a three-card combo deck. You have to address the Leyline before you can combo out. Reverent Silence is probably the most effective card for dealing with Leylines. It’s basically free and the drawback is irrelevant. With all of the search and draw, running the fourth is probably unnecessary, especially since you have a Chain of Vapor already built into the maindeck.

1 Hurkyl’s Recall and 2 Rebuild

It goes without saying that these “bounce all artifacts’ instant spells are virtually silver bullets against Workshop decks. They remove all of the lock components from the table and are very difficult to stop. A Red Elemental Blast can stop them, but the Workshop pilot has to be playing with them and has to draw them. With all of the basic lands we’ve included, it shouldn’t be that difficult to play a Hurkyl’s Recall or a Rebuild. If there are multiple Spheres on the table, it will become more difficult, but so long as Hurkyl’s costs 4 or less, you should be able to make it.

So, that’s 15 cards. Here is our deck and sideboard:

IV. Role Reversal: Playing Flash

As you know by now, misassignment of role = game loss, a formula made famous by one of the most famous Magic strategy articles ever composed. Since Flash is one of the most powerful and fastest combos ever put together, it would seem likely that the correct role for the Flash pilot would be the aggressive role. In practice, this needs to be carefully qualified.

Given all of the variables — speed, resilience, power, flexibility, etc – that can be used to describe and measure the operations of a Magic deck, the only thing that matters is maximizing your chances of winning. There will be many opportunities for Flash to win on turn 1 or turn 2, even with counter-protection, but that does not mean that it should.

This is the most difficult skill for playing Flash. If you are a Vintage storm combo expert, this deck is very different. Decks like Long are premised on pounding your opponent with must-counter spell after another until one sticks without walking into a huge counter-threat like a Mana Drain.

Here is how Matthieu described proper play with Flash:

You should not play Flash as an all-in Combo deck such as Belcher or [Meandeck Tendrils]. You can win at instant speed so aside of Thoughtseize, Duress, lethal damage or Yawgmoth’s Will being put on the stack, there are only few reasons to attempt to go off with Flash. [Against GroAtog you] have 8 counters, GAT has 4, so as long as they don’t draw twice the amount of cards you draw, every single turn you play gives you more chances to win the game, as you are going to draw more counters than them. GAT is the Aggro deck in this matchup, not Flash. Just wait a few more turns until you go off and try to win in response to something that’s going to kill you or in response to a Brainstorm or a Gush to shut down their draw engine and their ability to find Force of Will.

I talked with Patrick and he expressed the same sentiment. Often the correct path to victory is accumulating countermagic and combo parts in hand and going off only at the last possible moment. Since your combo is instant-speed, this plan can be executed with far more alacrity than it could have in the past.

As always, context matters. The particular matchup and situation you face will be critical in determining the correct course of action.

Perhaps the best course of action is the role that Zvi says can be attributed to the most successful decks, and that is both roles. If a deck can seize both the aggro and control roles, it will necessarily win. GroAtog does this easily, as it is both a beatdown and a control deck. It will feel less natural with Flash, but it makes sense when you think about it. You have plenty of countermagic to protect your combo. If your opponent isn’t going to win first, what’s the rush?

V. The Best Deck Ever?

So, where does this deck stand in the pantheon of broken and twisted Vintage decks, past and present?

Some claim that this is more broken than Trinistax, Academy, Trix, or even Long.dec. The comparisons are easy to assert, but difficult to evaluate. Despite having pioneered Long.dec in 2003 (look near the beginning of my archive) and despite being an expert on Vintage storm combo, when I put Long.dec together last year for fun, I couldn’t even figure out how to play it.

No one with a brain denies that Magic is a complicated a messy enterprise. And yet, as creatures of narrative and sound bite we simplify the world around us to navigate its complexity for our sanity and survival. If we were to encounter every object, every table, tree, chair or pencil, sui generis, the result would be mental catastrophe.

When we look at Flash and how it works, it is very simple, almost easy, to conclude that this is the most broken deck ever. After all, Professional players concede, almost without debate, that Legacy Flash is the most broken deck ever to see play in a professional level event. Vintage Flash incorporates all of the nastiness of Future Sight, Lorwyn, and Morningtide on top of all the goodies that Legacy had, in addition to the original Alpha cards that are banned in Legacy.

Vintage has seen its fair share (perhaps the largest share) of broken decks. A couple of years ago, I held a mini-tournament of the best deck of Vintage past — decks that were so degenerate they warranted restriction.

We piloted the Maysonet Balance-Rack deck (with 4 Balance), the 4 Necropotence Trix decks, the 4 Academy decks, the 4 Gush GAT (which was restricted at the time), 4 Fact or Fiction mono blue, and finally 4 Lion’s Eye Diamond/4 Burning Wish Long.dec Storm combo. You can read about the results, but the short answer is that the 4 Gush GAT deck, a deck that is now completely legal and even powered up placed 2nd in the tournament behind Long.dec. If GAT isn’t even the best deck in the metagame at the moment, what does that tell you about the so-called historical “best decks” and how they might fare in the 2008 Vintage metagame? I’d bet money that the current Vintage tier one: Mono Red Workshop Aggro, MUD, Ichorid, Flash, and Tyrant Oath/GAT would tear apart the vast majority of the “broken” decks of Vintage past, decks that prompted restrictions.

Since the time of the “Battle of the Banned decks” tournament, other powerful decks have come and gone. Trinistax would undoubtedly have fared well in the field of banned decks. I think the die roll would determine who wins the Long.dec matchup, and the mono blue deck probably would crush Trinistax, but other than that it probably would have gone at least 3-2 against that field. GAT went 4-1, which tells you something about it. Note that Gifts would now be a part of that field as well.

Having played through all of these eras, where does Flash fall? My teammates Matthieu Durand and Brian DeMars suggested that Flash is now the best deck ever. Matthieu cites Long.dec and the Trinistax decks as being chump change compared to Hulk Flash post-Morningtide. I think memory, perception, and theory all do us a disservice here. Flash is an archetype that appears more powerful than it is, while other decks appear less powerful than they were. One reason is that if we were to compare it strictly against other, powerful decks from Vintage past, we might well conclude that Flash would be in the upper-tier of those decks. The problem is that most of the current Vintage tier one decks would fare similarly. Ichorid decks would tear apart Trinistax decks and Gifts decks.

Another reason that I think we are more likely to mentally upgrade Flash relative to decks like Long.dec is that Flash is clean and Long.dec is messy. When you compare it to earlier decks like Long.dec or Trinistax or even Academy, Flash just looks faster and more consistent. Long.dec is a non-linear deck with many paths to victory. The same is true, even, of the Academy decks. It jumps through all kinds of hoops and over all kinds of hurdles to achieve its end goal of Tendrils of Agony. Long could win with almost any sequence of cards. It didn’t need to Burning Wish for Yawgmoth’s Will to win. It needed to burning Wish for Tendrils at some point, certainly, but that was the final touch. It is like saying that Flash needs to throw Mogg Fanatic at you for the last point of damage after it’s already done that 19 times so far. In contrast, the extreme linearity of Flash moving from point A to point B to point C and so on, all trigger by the assembling of a two-card combo, creates a mental impression that goes to Flash’s advantage. With Flash, we see the combo immediately: it’s Hulk Flash and Protean Hulk and we see all of the support tutors to find the combo parts and dig and search to find and protect it. In short, the way that Flash looks vis-à-vis other major decks makes it seem more powerful than those decks, without respect to whether it is or not.

Lion’s Eye Diamond also looks dangerous and risky. Playing it in Legacy shows you just how difficult a battle it is to beat counterspell decks. It’s not that you can’t win, but it’s an uphill battle. This was not true of Long.dec. With that deck, control decks would not win. It took us years to realize this (at least, for the Vintage community to reach consensus on this point) but the weakness of Mana Drain decks was fast storm combo. Long.dec was the fastest and most resilient. It functioned much differently in Vintage than in Legacy.

The Flash deck is broken, no doubt. But the comparisons to earlier decks are easily drawn, readily made, and seem very plausible from the surface. The problem is that I don’t think it is as true when the issue is more closely inspected.

Because the other decks were less linear, they are less vulnerable to their own problems than flash. As incredibly consistent as a 2 card combo deck can be with 2 supporting tutors that are as efficient as Scroll and S. Pact can be, Flash still suffers from the math. I had a hand where I couldn’t win on turn one because I had Carrion Feeder in hand, and to delay a turn meant losing to my opponent. Old Sliver flash would sometimes get hands full of Slivers. It’s not always as simple as just finding a Brainstorm or going Sliver beatdown. Sometimes those tactics didn’t work.

Memory works in funny ways. I am partial to the argument that Flash is better than the “restricted” decks of Vintage past. And, on paper, the argument that Flash is the best deck ever seems plausible, particularly when you compare it to decks that prompted restrictions. But empirically, I have not seen it to be true nor do I believe it to be true. It may be true that Hulk Flash could compete or even beat the best decks of Vintage past, but that is true of most of the top tier competitors in current Vintage. I’m skeptical of the claim that Flash is the best deck ever, let alone the best deck in Vintage the moment. It’s not because I don’t believe them to be true, but because I think it remains yet to be determined.

On the other hand, there is a real concern that Flash could be damaging to Vintage. A combo deck that is easy to assemble and easy to execute could warp the format and drive players from it in the same way as Trinisphere, irrespective of whether Flash is the best deck of all time or even one of the better decks of all time.

On the other hand, Flash could be a good thing for Vintage. It is an easy to assemble entry deck that allows people to become familiar with the format without having to master the intricacies of Mana Drain decks, Storm combo, or the timing of a Workshop deck.

Whatever the case may be, I’m confident that we’ll discover the answer relatively soon.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian