So Many Insane Plays – The Best Unrestricted Spells in Vintage

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Monday, May 12th – This past weekend saw the Vintage community power to The StarCityGames Power 9 tournament… and current Vintage World Champion was there! Today’s So Many Insane Plays sees Stephen go over his choice for the first tournament, and he also breaks down his Top 10 of best unrestricted spells in the format. Do you agree with his assertions?

Here is the question I posed to my teammates: What are the top 10 best unrestricted spells in Vintage?

My question purposefully excludes lands, as they would dominate most of that list and make it more difficult to construct. Is Polluted Delta the best unrestricted card in Vintage? Probably not, but only because Flooded Strand exists. Figuring out the placement of heavily utilized but not ubiquitous cards like Mishra’s Workshop or Bazaar of Baghdad is not easy.

Taking a page from the Patrick Chapin playbook of top 10 lists (i.e. highly subjective and based on experience), here’s what I came up with:

1) Brainstorm
2) Force of Will
3) Merchant Scroll
4) Thoughtseize
5) Duress
6) Gush
7) Leyline of the Void
8) Dark Ritual
9) Ponder
10) Tormod’s Crypt

Before explaining this list, let me say a few words about lists like this. My list is a mixture of factors, including usage, power, and importance. Lists like this are not and cannot claim to be “objective” in any scientific sense. Even if you could find some criterion for measuring which cards are best, there is no objective way to select among those criteria or to weigh them against each other. That doesn’t mean that these lists are meaningless. Just because they can’t be scientifically grounded doesn’t mean they don’t tell us something valuable. If most people find substantial agreement on these lists even if they can’t exactly explain their view, then that would suggest that the shared and common Vintage experience is telling us something similar that is worth talking about.

I also don’t want to get into too much detail about how I put this list together. One of the reasons for that is that is that a lot of the know-how and experience that went into it is probably impossible to articulate or hopelessly obvious, so much so that an attempt to comprehensively explain the order of my list would be a waste of time or maybe even something that would take a great deal of time and thought to properly unpack. It’s sort of like gravity. You can see and feel the effects of gravity. Apples fall, skin sags, and we aren’t floating into outer space. But explaining gravity is a much more complicated thing. Some physicists might talk about graviton particles or some other theory. I happen to have a simpler theory for explaining gravity (basically, I suspect that our universe is rotating at a higher dimension, and the translation of that movement is that things on the surface of the hypersphere are squished together).

Universally, my teammates ranked Force of Will and Brainstorm as the top two cards.
I initially placed Force of Will above Brainstorm on the grounds that Force of Will is used in decks than Brainstorm is not, at least more than where Brainstorm is not, such as Worldgorger Dragon combo. On the other hand, Force of Will is clearly one of the most important cards in Vintage, one of the key cards that generates interactivity in the format. Ultimately, it just comes down to my experience in the last two years that Brainstorm has become a more and more important card. Before the printing of Onslaught fetchlands, Brainstorm saw very little use even though Force of Will was ubiquitous. But even after the printing of Onslaught Fetchlands, which made Brainstorm a heavily played card, the format was sufficiently slow that Brainstorm wasn’t universally regarded as an automatic inclusion. For instance, I played Impulse over Brainstorm in Mono-Blue Control and made Top 8 at the 2004 Vintage Championship with that configuration. Impulse functioned better in that deck for a number of reasons I won’t delve into at the moment.

The incredible speeding up of the format since 2004, aided in part by the acceleration of the Mana Drain archetype and the printing of Fetchlands which made multi-color manabases far more consistent, has made Brainstorm a huge bomb and strategic lubricant. Turn 1 Brainstorm can very often just lead a turn 2 win, or the setting up of a game plan that can be consistently executed. There are so many plays for which this is true, past and present. Turn 1 Brainstorm into turn 2 Dark Ritual, Grim Tutor, etc. Alternatively, turn 1 Brainstorm into turn 2 Merchant Scroll or, god forbid, land, Mox, Mox, Gifts Ungiven, is another way that a game might play out. With decks like Flash and Oath about, Brainstorm is simply indispensable for consistency in an already hyperactive format.

Because of the way that Vintage decks are now constructed, Brainstorm is just as often Ancestral Recall, allowing decks to return completely unusable cards in to their library, cards like as Reveillark, Virulent Sliver, Tidespout Tyrant, or even a Tendrils of Agony, which won’t be needed until the very end of the game. More than that, the omnipresence of Duress and Thoughtseize means that Brainstorm’s importance for hiding cards is now hugely important as well. In the finals of the Vintage Championship last year, I played turn 1 Brainstorm instead of Duress in order to hide my Ancestral Recall on top of my library. Predictably, Rich Shay Duressed me.

Although the issue is debatable, Brainstorm is clearly one of the most powerful and important cards in Vintage. In fact, it’s probably better than a vast majority of the restricted list. It makes Vintage decks consistent, it speeds up the format quite a bit, and it is a key ingredient in the aggressive library manipulation that is now so prevalent.

The only other card in my top 10 list that I’ll talk about is Tormod’s Crypt. Putting the first nine cards in there was relatively simple, although my teammates included a raft of strategic cards like Flash and Oath, and one teammate even included Bridge From Below, I deliberated over my tenth spot.

Ultimately, it came down to Tormod’s Crypt. Tormod’s Crypt would have been much higher on this list a few years ago. Tormod’s Crypt was absolutely incredible in fighting Gifts decks. It’s a single zero-mana spell that essentially turned off Gifts Ungiven as a power tutor and into an average card. It also shut down Pitch Long and Grim Long’s ability to use their most powerful card, Yawgmoth’s Will (see my article last week for more on this assertion).

Despite the decline in Tormod’s Crypt, which is heavily attributable to the rise of Leyline of the Void, it is still a card that is heavily played and quite effective. Tormod’s Crypt is a power tempo card in Vintage, given the tremendous reliance on graveyards. It’s cheap, not very clunky, and has lots of synergies (think Goblin Welder, Thirst For Knowledge, Tidespout Tyrant, Tendrils of Agony – i.e. storm – and even Tolarian Academy). It’s probably the second or third most played card in sideboards, and even has, historically and presently, a nontrivial maindeck presence.

Let me explain a few cards that did not make my list. Here are some of the big losers in the last year and a half:

* Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast – With the printing of Thoughtseize, this card is a lot less relevant. Decks simply don’t need to splash Red for this card when they can proactively take a card, even better cards than Red Blast can stop, with Thoughtseize. Long a Vintage staple, these cards would have been clear contenders for top 10 slots even a year ago.

* Chalice of the Void – This card used to be very good, especially two years ago. This card lost a lot with both the decline of Chalice in Stax, and the restriction of both Gifts and destruction of Long. Ponder replacing Moxen makes this card even worse. It used to probably be a top 10 spell, at least two years ago. It might not even crack the top 20 anymore.

* Mana Drain – This card was already on decline when Gifts was restricted from its decade plus dominance, but Drain is almost entirely absent from current metagame, at least compared to its previous roles as a central metagame player. In any case, I would rank Misdirection over Mana Drain both in the current metagame and in previous metagames.

* Tormod’s Crypt – I know it’s in my top 10 still, but it probably would have been higher if this was still the Long/Gifts metagame and especially before the printing of Leyline. It’s lost a lot of value.

* Goblin Welder – Not even necessarily the best creature in the format anymore. Decline of Stax and Control Slaver since 2004/5 have led to big decline in this card. It’s still amazing, just not in top 10 cards anymore. The top creature is probably Dark Confidant now anyway, even though I’ll likely never play him in Vintage.

With this list in mind, I wanted to evaluate my deck choices to see how well they were utilizing what I determined to be the best cards in the format.

Owen’s list runs 33 out of a possible 40 cards from my Top 10 list. He doesn’t have a full complement of Thoughtseizes, and he has no Tormod’s Crypts. That would seem to make Doomsday one of the best decks in the format!

I think the Doomsday deck is a very well-constructed idea. In fact, I pioneered Vintage Doomsday, including the use of Gush (albeit one, since it was restricted) and made Top 4 at an SCG power tournament in Chicago in 2004. You can read my report here. My team also came up with the idea of Research and Development a few years ago.

Doomsday looks quite powerful. As I discussed last week, Doomsday as a concept here is a solid one as it is the needed two-pronged attack engine that Gush decks now need. There is one fundamental problem with Doomsday, and the reason I won’t play it.

You might expect me to say that it’s too fragile. That is not the reason why I won’t play it, nor do I think that that is necessarily true. If anything, that is a subsidiary part of a larger problem.

The fundamental problem with Doomsday is that it is too difficult to play. You might think that I’m talking about building Doomsday piles. Although that is a critical skill, and often quite difficult to execute under slow play rules, that is not what I’m talking about.

Simply put, the fundamental problem with Doomsday is that you will very often have a decision to make where it is too unclear what to do. Let me break that down further. The vast majority of decisions in Vintage, while not necessarily simple or even rudimentary, can be pretty much and safely determined after some practice and testing. Although proper decision-making can be defeated by luck on the other side, a little bit of experience and some thought goes a long way to helping you choose one decision over another.

Sometimes, however, there are basically 50-50 choices in Vintage, but most often those choices don’t matter. For example, one of the key questions that Vintage players often face is whether to play Brainstorm or Duress on turn 1. I don’t think there is necessarily a “right” answer to that question a lot of the time. My instinct, especially if I am on the play, however, is to play Duress. On the draw, it’s a much more difficult choice. You could imagine even closer decisions.

Playing with Doomsday, however, will constantly put you in the position of having to make those sorts of decisions. Since Doomsday is disrupted by so many cards, from Leyline, to Stifle, to Force of Will, to Chalice of the Void, to Extirpate, and so on and so on, there will be real risks every time that you cast Doomsday. Granted, you have plenty of cards to help protect your combo, and Gush makes it much more likely that you will just be able to win on the spot. Nonetheless, you will often be facing a decision where, given the imperfect information in the game, you will have to decide based on your intuition what to do.

A few years ago, when I was testing Doomsday, I remember opening up Magic Workstation and piloting Doomsday against Control Slaver. If I played with hands face up, so to speak, Doomsday was very easy to pilot. With that information, I could see the path to victory. However, if I played like I didn’t know what the Control Slaver player had in hand, my decisions became much more agonizing, and just as often as not I made the wrong decision.

Doomsday today should be even more difficult to play, despite having more Gush. First of all, there are cards in the format now that didn’t exist then that disrupt you, such as Extirpate (in which shuffling the library alone can be game-ending). But more importantly, Vintage decks are now better than ever at topdecking. It’s not even just Ponder and the popularity of Merchant Scroll, it’s also cards like Sensei’s Divining Top and even printings such as Thorn of Amethyst which make it much more likely that your opponent will topdeck something harmful.

With Flash, it is possible a lot of the time to just build a counterwall of protection for your combo. With Doomsday, that often won’t be possible. In any case, even if your Flash combo is interrupted, as often as not you won’t lose the game because of it. Not so with Doomsday.

I think Doomsday is a deck that is capable of winning tournaments… I just wouldn’t feel comfortable playing it without an incredible amount of practice and experience so that I could rely more on my intuition and subconscious pattern recognition.

My top 10 list, however, also motivated me to take another look at GroAtog.

Here is my most recent GroAtog list:

This is what I plan to play on day 1 of the StarCityGames Mega-Magic Weekend, which by the time this article is published will have already taken place.

GAT scores 32 out of 40 on my list as well. It has four of everything except for Dark Ritual and Tormod’s Crypt. However, you could make the argument that it should be ranked above Doomsday because it has more of the higher placed cards.

For example, if we weighted each card according to its placement by multiplying each copy of a card by its reverse order number, giving 10 points to each copy of the number 1 card to 1 point for each copy of the 10th card, then GAT scores:

1. Force of Will 40
2. Brainstorm 36
3. Merchant Scroll 32
4. Thoughtseize 28
5. Duress 24
6. Gush 20
7. Leyline of the Void 16
8. Dark Ritual 0
9. Ponder 8
10. Tormod’s Crypt 0

Total of: 204

1. Force of Will 40
2. Brainstorm 36
3. Merchant Scroll 32
4. Thoughtseize 14
5. Duress 24
6. Gush 20
7. Leyline of the Void 16
8. Dark Ritual 12
9. Ponder 6
10. Tormod’s Crypt 0

Total of: 200

Under that metric, GAT wins out.

Granted, these metrics don’t count for much — they are just interesting exercises which I did mostly for fun.

Now let me explain the basic premises behind my revised GAT list.

First of all, the number one threat to GAT is Workshop based decks. Duress and Thoughtseize are only marginally effective against these decks. Your best bet, most of the time, is to try and win on turn 1 or 2, which isn’t a very likely scenario.

Instead, I’ve just decided that I want to position myself in the metagame to beat everything else and sideboard the hell out of the Workshop match. To do that, I decided to run 3 basic Islands and 4 bounce spells, including Rebuilds and Hurkyl’s Recall. Last week I talked about how Ponder changed the Storm function of decks like this. I believe that far more than 6 months ago, I should be able to put myself in a position where if I can resovle an “end of turn, Rebuild/Hurkyl’s Recall,” I should be able to untap and win the game, or at least create such an overwhelming advantage that my opponent can never recover with Fastbond and many permanents and a nearly lethal Dryad or Tog.

Second, I believe that my full complement of Duress effects should help narrow or even push me ahead of the Oath matchup. Granted, I will still have great difficulty beating turn one Mox, Orchard, Oath, but I believe I have the tools here to combat the rest of the likely scenarios. Let me explain.

First of all, even if my opponent has hidden an Oath on top of their deck with Brainstorm, my Duress or Thougthseize should be able to clear out additional resistance, so that even if they are able to resolve Oath, I should just as likely be able to Scroll up an Echoing Truth or cast a post-board Naturalize on their Oath. That’s really the most important answer to the question: Duress and Thoughtseize don’t stop people from hiding spells on top of their deck. While that is true, they do help you combat the spells that they’ve hidden, by taking their Duresses, their Forces, etc, so that your Forces and removal can function without resistance.

Second, I will be running a pair of post-board Naturalizes. Initially, I was running Krosan Grips. Although I prefer that over Naturalize, it is too mana intensive. With only three Moxen, it is not entirely likely that I’ll have the third mana when I’m in a pinch. If they go first and play turn 1 Brainstorm, and I play turn 1 Duress, and they play turn 2 Oath, I need to be able to remove Oath immediately. Naturalize helps me do that more effectively than Krosan Grip. With my full complement of discard spells, I shouldn’t have that much difficulty resolving Naturalize anyway.

This leads me to my third point. I’ve cut Red from the deck entirely. There are a number of reasons for this. The most important reason is that there is nothing I want to sideboard out for the Red options offered. I could see maybe sideboarding out a Tog or a Berserk, but that’s really inefficient. Also, my sideboard is already packed to the brim and additional Red Blasts don’t make much sense. They have pretty high opportunity costs here. That means that my manabase is even lighter, with only 18 mana sources. Although I like the fourth Mox for my ability to quickly Scroll or Time Walk or Demonic Tutor, it’s not totally necessary. Without Red Elemental Blast, there is a greatly diminished need for Red in the sideboard. The three other major areas that Red is used for are: 1) Empty the Warrens, 2) Pryoclasm, and 3) Artifact destruction. The third reason is really not important here since my game plan against Shops has nothing to do with attrition. I bring in a ton of mana and just bounce their stuff. The second reason is still compelling, but I lack the sideboard space to use it. The first reason remains the most compelling, but that (ETW) was a card that I felt was most effective in the GAT mirror. Since the GAT mirror is basically non-existent at the moment, I don’t think this one matters all that much. Even if I were to cut the Tog for ETW, I wouldn’t know what to cut for the Mox Ruby.

The rest of my sideboard is used essentially for the Flash matchup and the Ichorid matchup. I am running Leylines for both, and Jailers for Ichorid.

Since I am not running red and since my sideboard is full of narrow, particularized answers, I have cut Cunning Wish and moved the Berserk into the mainboard.

I may make a few small tweaks to the mana base and sideboard before SCG, but I plan on taking this into battle.

The way I see it, this deck could be perfectly poised for this metagame. First of all, Oath is clearly the key metagame threat. While that matchup won’t be spectacular, I have as many tools as a deck can reasonably run, and I don’t it at a very low cost. Duress and Thoughtseize are naturally amazing in this deck. In testing, it’s amazing to discover that I would probably run 10-12 Duress effects if I could. Unless they get the nuts, I should have plenty of advantages. First of all, I have less dead cards. Second of all, I have more spells and less mana, which gives me another natural advantage. I see myself winning this matchup.

The other key metagame threat will be Flash. There is no better tool against Flash than discard effects. While this matchup won’t be a walk in the park either, I should have little trouble dispatching my Flash opponents in a full match, particularly with Leylines post-board.

I think this GroAtog list packs so much power, that basically no Storm deck should really be much of a competitor here.

Workshop are at their lowest ebb with Oath and Flash quite prevalent. My suspicion is that most keen metagame competitors will be targeting Oath decks. GroAtog should actually give me a little bit of a metagame surprise. People ready with hate for Oath will find my deck quite unforgiving.

As for Doomsday, I think a lot of what I said about Oath applies here, but more so. I have less mana and more interactive spells. I don’t see Doomsday winning this match. However, I could pack a few Extirpates into my sideboard, just in case.

I am slightly concerned about Ichorid, but I think that my Jailers and Leylines should work well together. My Duress effects also mean that I should be able to quickly strip relevant threats like Contagion and Reverent Silence from my opponents.

Finally, the Painter’s Servant deck that won in Wisconsin last week is not a deck I’m particularly concerned with. Thoughtseize can break up the Servant combo by taking Painters Servant, and my full complement of Duress effects will mitigate the damage done by 8 Red Blast maindecks.

If my plan doesn’t work out as I expected, I will probably audible into Oath for Day 2, or play something else that strikes me as potentially a good choice, such as whatever wins the tournament on day one.

In any case, I’ll tell you all about it next week. Until then!

Stephen Menendian