Sullivan Library: The Sullivan Solution to Vintage

In last weekend’s SCG Power 9 Rochester tournaments, Day 1 saw a rogue deck, designed by Adrian and piloted by Tommy Kolowith, take the top honors. Adrian is no stranger to deck success. Both Eminent Domain and Kooky Jooky made a splash in their respective Standard scenes. Want the lowdown behind this fresh and funky Vintage creation? Card analysis, decklists, and matchup info… only a mouseclick away!

One of the things I have to thank I@n DeGraff for is a kick in the ass. For months now, I@n has been working on me, trying to get me interested in Type 1. I know, I know, the proper term is Vintage (or is it Classic?), but I’ve been playing Magic for so long, it really is hard to use all of these new-fangled terms. Over the course of this article, I’ll probably make a lot of comments that would clearly be gaffes to the Type 1 community, but please understand, I’m new to all this.

Fresh Eyes

Newness, however, can sometimes be a huge strength. There are a couple of ways that this can play out. The first is the element of surprise, or “rogueness.” When you show up with something new, people often haven’t had the chance to evaluate what you’re doing or think about countermeasures. Not to be overlooked, however, is the idea of fresh eyes. Coming to an environment with eyes that aren’t clouded by what are the “accepted” methods, or what things are truisms, can be a huge strength.

I’ve talked about the out-of-print board game Titan before, but when considering the idea of “fresh eyes,” I have to say I’m strongly reminded of the first few times I saw a new player come into my old, defunct Titan playgroup. The first time was when lawyer/gamer extraordinaire Dave Northcutt showed up with a hyper-aggressive “dead-end” strategy that quickly seemed so obvious to us, but at the time was a revelation. In a lot of ways, it was like Jay Schneider introduces the world to the Sligh-style of deck. The next time our mind was blown open was when Pro Tour Top 8 player Dustin Stern showed up with what he called a “starvation strategy”, which could be considered vaguely analogous to a Chris Cade Prison strategy from way back in the day.

These approaches were not new to either of these players, but they certainly were not something that our environment was at all equipped to handle. We were pretty resoundingly blown out that first time that they showed up, but we adapted fast. After that first time, all of us integrated those strategies into our own, and they simply became a part of the landscape of the game for us, something I think that my deck I made for Rochester is likely to do. I don’t know if I lived up to the ManaDrain.com’s Matt (“Post like a butterfly, Mod like a bee”) when he commented that I was one of the people he thought could “break” the format, but, for what it was, I do think I “solved” it.

The “Sullivan Solution” to Vintage

Now, “solving” a format is not the same thing as busting a format wide open. Busting a format wide open usually requires something so explosive and powerful that it cannot reasonably be expected to lose if someone hasn’t already put the deck in their sights. Busting a format wide open usually requires a response from the DCI. Solving a format means something quite different: making a deck for a given metagame that will usually beat all of the expected decks. Zvi’s “The Solution” wasn’t the most powerful deck for the format back at Pro Tour Tokyo; it was simply the deck that could expect to beat most of the field.

Here’s my Solution, in its original form as I gave it to ICBM.

The Sullivan Solution (or “The S.S.”, for short)

Before I go into the specifics of card choices, I’d like to revisit the building of the deck.

Taking a Moment to Listen

First of all, back to I@n (whose insistence on this spelling of his name I will honor). When I was preparing the Eminent Domain decklist for States, he was there every step of the way, eventually getting some Kokushos into the deck, and mentioning Vintage all along the way. After we both did so well at that tourney, he kept expressing to me his desire to work with me on Vintage too. Eventually – what can I say? – I caved.

The first step of looking into the process was to listen. And listen. And listen. I had I@n go through all of the decks with me, but not give me decklists, just descriptions. I wanted to know the most powerful cards, the most powerful archetypes, and why they were so good. Obviously, a card like Yawgmoth’s Will is going to be an incredible beating, and Ancestral Recall is good, but what are the subtle cards that are more powerful than I might realize?

The first thing that he impressed upon me about the environment was the power of Brainstorm. Now, I already love Brainstorm. This has been one of my favorite cards for years now, and according to I@n one of the most powerful cards in the format. I had already believed in the power of Brainstorm, but to have him be so radically in love with the card (he makes some crazy sounding comments about Brainstorm), I decided I want to use the card. Besides, being in Blue would give me Force of Will, a card that I already felt was one of the best cards in the format.

As I@n talked to me about decks, I asked him why Dark Confidant wasn’t seeing any play. Card drawing seems so relevant in the format, and I hardly saw any mention of Bob Maher’s Invitational card. I was certainly one of the people out there who had thought that the card was bad when it first came out. Well, I was wrong. (Currently, I have Dark Confidant in my Top Five cards of Ravnica Block Draft.)

According to I@n, most of the time Dark Confidant was relegated to the sideboard of various Black-based combo decks as a means to build up threats or recover over a long game, plus simply as a means to make a Tendrils kill all that much easier (each swing is one less Storm count needed for the Tendrils). This seemed like a huge hole to me. In a format with Moxes, Bob has to be insane. And, I have to say, he is. The desire to play Bob played right into the interest in Brainstorm, and that in turn led me to a pet card of mine; Erayo, Soratami Ascendant.

On Erayo

I’m kinda in love with Erayo. For the Sullivan Solution, Erayo is the card that people seem to notice the most. I started playing Erayo in the Standard metagame leading up to Grand Prix: Madison, and I loved how it played in the sideboard of my version of Owling Mine. After the Grand Prix, I was turned on to Bryan Lynch’s Niv-Mizzet deck, and included it in the sideboard there. For reference, here is my version of Standard Niv-Mizzet:

Lynchian Niv-Mizzet
Brian Lynch/(Adrian Sullivan)

1 Mana Leak
3 Disrupting Shoal
4 Remand
4 Hinder
2 Muddle the Mixture
2 Rewind
4 Compulsive Research
4 Repeal
4 Electrolyze
3 Keiga, the Tide Star
2 Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
3 Volcanic Hammer

4 Steam Vents
4 Shivan Reef
2 Izzet Boilerworks
2 Mountain
8 Island
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds

4 Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
1 Muddle the Mixture
2 Pyroclasm
3 Shadow of Doubt
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
3 Twincast
1 Volcanic Hammer

Erayo does some crazy stuff just in Standard. Let’s use the control-on-control war as a simple example. Before Spell Snare, the only way you had to counter an Erayo on the play was to have a Disrupting Shoal. Even jamming it out there against two mana almost demands a Mana Leak. So, like Jushi Apprentice, an Erayo for the control war can be a card you can expect to be able to get down on the table.

Let’s give these two cards a side-by-side.

Clearly, Jushi Apprentice is liable to be a relevant card against any opponent, with one small caveat: you have to have the time to activate it. When properly played against, a Jushi Apprentice can be hard to activate very often. By pacing your threats, that three mana can be a real burden, and forcing your opponent to spend that mana on countermagic instead can be a great strategy. In addition, even if they are able to activate the Apprentice, this will usually leave them tapped out, and over longer games gives opportunity after opportunity for it to be killed. An active, unanswered Apprentice is awesome, but it does have some comparative problems.

Let’s look at Erayo, on the other hand. Erayo isn’t all that hot until it flips, but when it does, not only is it a monster, but it doesn’t hog your mana resources. For most opponents, an Erayo wouldn’t be a particularly potent threat (take Zoo, for example), but a flipped Erayo is a scary prospect indeed against decks with counterspells. These decks are generally very low in threats, and often win their matches based on setting up their upcoming turns and using countermagic to control opposing threats. Sounds a bit like a large number of Vintage decks, doesn’t it? So what does a deck like this do against an unflipped Erayo? If you cast a second spell in a turn, do they counter it? If they do, when you counter back (if you even have a counter), it will flip Erayo. If they cast a threat, and you cast a counterspell, do they counter to protect the threat? If you have a counter back, it will flip Erayo. And if the Erayo does flip, how do they win another counterspell war? How do they get a threat into play? What on earth do they do?

I can say, unequivocally, that I have never lost a game where I flipped an Erayo early.

And it is even better in Vintage. How can it not be? With cards like Moxes, the crazy power of Lotus or Ancestral, and the other abundant card draw, Erayo becomes an even better card, but not a universal card for Vintage. I’ll get more into this in a while.

Dimir Cutpurse — the “extra” Bobs

Dimir Cutpurse is the other card that people pay a lot of attention to. Initially when I made my decklist, it looked something like this:

4@ Brainstorm, Force of Will, Duress, Hymn to Tourach
4@ Hippie, Bob, Erayo
Mana? Dark Ritual?

Pretty rough. My basic idea was to compound the job that Bob was doing by having other creature-based card advantage, giving you a card advantage engine as well as victory conditions. I still like Hypnotic Specter, at least in theory, but the problem with the specter became clear: it was clunky. Sure it could get in there and totally wreck an opponent, but the double Black was actually hard. Wasteland exists in Vintage, and running two Swamps to support a castable, un-Wasteable Hippie meant that you might not actually be able to cast your Blue spells. It almost begged the question of definitely including Dark Ritual, a card that quickly became less and less powerful as each turn progressed. Too often, it just sat there.

Cutpurse snuck into the deck. At first, I scoffed at the idea. I@n hated the Hippies in my deck, but he suggested I try out the Cutpurse as an alternative. “At least then you could discard it to Force of Will.” I think he was mostly joking.

Cutpurse, to be fair, sucks. It’s a bad card. Ask anyone who has played against Cutpurse in Standard. It’s bad. Here, of course, is one of the major traps in deckbuilding: misapplying information from one format to another. In Vintage, Cutpurse is a walking Ancestral Recall Machine. Every time he hits, you’re up two cards. That’s an Ancestral’s worth of card advantage. The thing is, there are practically no blockers in Vintage. In Standard, Cutpurse is facing a world full of creature elimination, and worse, blockers. Cutpurse is not exactly a creature ready to get into a fight; it doesn’t mind skulking about, but going mano-a-mano ain’t really his style. What’s worse, he’s slow. By the time a Cutpurse gets out there, you have to work your ass of to get him to do anything, because your opponent has had plenty of time to get going themselves. Vintage is a different world. No real blockers, Moxes, and Force of Will. Sure, Cutpurse sucks, but sometimes they suck so good.

The Erayo/Cutpurse lock

Erayo and Cutpurse also form the pseudo-lock of the deck. If the first spell of each turn is countered, and Cutpurse keeps you from getting a hand built up (unless you run Flashback), you can easily get stuck in a place where you are unable to play any spells for the remainder of the game. Even when you haven’t been “locked” yet, having both out is incredibly damning. Let’s look at the Erayo side first.

With a flipped Erayo, regardless of any other cards, one of the major portions of most Vintage decks is turned off: the filler/set-up cards. Watch Vintage decks play out, and they do all kinds of preparation. They cast Thirst for Knowledge or Brainstorm at the end of your turn. They Mystical Tutor. They Gifts Ungiven. Casting all of these spells becomes incredibly hard. Essentially, you have to either cast them at undesirable times like your main phase, or you have to build them up. Either way, if you want them to resolve, you have to be resolved to lose one of your set-up cards, be it mana or the manipulation spells. The funny thing is that even when you get these cards to resolve, they don’t matter. Losing a Mox to get an Ancestral Recall to resolve feels really good and all, but think about what has happened? You’ve spent two cards to draw three. Not all that hot. Meanwhile, unless you do other things immediately, you’re still in the same place you were the turn before.

A Cutpurse on the table quickly diminishes your opponent’s hand. Again, the opponent is in a situation where they either have to give up their resources in hand, or give up their resources on the table by not laying mana. In the meantime, you are building up more and more card advantage engines or disruption. Often, people will lose a land to keep their cards that “do something” in the game. This often simply plays right into the Duress/Force of Will cards that you’re building up in the meantime.

If you do get locked, what can you possibly do to escape? Well, it’s pretty grim. You’d better have a Deep Analysis in the mix, though any Flashback card will do. Flashback your card from the grave (in the case of Deep Analysis, drawing one, casting it, and then Flashing it back will do), and then immediately play cards to win the game. That’s it. Remember, though, if your opponent has been drawing cards with a Dimir Cutpurse, they probably have a Force of Will, so good luck with that.

Why Erayo sucks too (the implications of the Sullivan Solution)

I’ve already mentioned that Dimir Cutpurse, in theory, sucks. Erayo sucks too. After I’d been playing the Sullivan Solution around the Madison and Chicago area, I saw a few people try to put the card into their Fish decks. It doesn’t exactly work out too well. Without the implications of a soft lock, Erayo loses a lot of its punch. In addition, there is one other big factor that is going on: an attempt by this deck to crack the resource war of Vintage open. Tendrils decks appear to be the only major archetype that doesn’t do a lot of prep before the win. Other than that deck, most decks need their land and they take a bit of time to build up resources.

A flipped Erayo will start you down a path to win a resource war, but the rest of the deck needs to be interested in fighting that war too. Cards like Isamaru and Meddling Mage do not fight resource wars. They put on a clock. Putting on a clock is a fine thing, but it doesn’t exactly help Erayo. This is one of the reasons I always hated Erayo in Affinity. Affinity wasn’t ever in the business of fighting resource wars; it was in the business of putting on a clock. Also, how does one flip a late-drawn Erayo if you aren’t on the receiving end of some kind of card advantage engine?

Erayo, Bob, and Cutpurse all go after that same mission, but they get extra help from Stifle and Shadow of Doubt, as well as Wasteland. When an opponent is having their resources implicitly held back by Erayo and Cutpurse, Wasteland and Stifle can be incredibly crippling. Typically, there are two ways to try to use Moxes if there is the threat of an Erayo. The first is to get it out quickly for mana, and the second is to hold onto the card as a means of getting through a spell when Erayo flips. Unfortunately for the Erayo opponent, the correct play is going to be, at best, a guess, unless they know what you hold in your hand and what you are going to draw.

It’s all of these cards together that make Erayo work. Erayo isn’t simply a card that you can pop into any old deck. For Vintage, as a format, it looked to be one that was defined primarily by the preparation for powerful moments. Building up to a winning Will. Getting a Slaver to decimate your opponent. Whatever the case may be, Tutors and other manipulation, in combination with building up resources, seemed to be the key to the format at large. The Sullivan Solution attacks this whole way of being head on.

Matchups and the other cards

Aside from the core of “solving the format” cards, the deck does have to recognize that other decks exist. With the card draw and library manipulation, you can pretty much figure out a way to find nearly any card, though having some small amount of pseudo-redundancy helps. There is a small suite of cards in the deck to handle permanents that get out there:

1 Engineered Explosives
1 Darkblast
1 Chain of Vapor
1 Rushing River
4 Stifle

Stifle, while a part of the resource war portion of the deck, can also be considered a part of the permanent-handling portion. It is mind-blowing how much of the format can be Stifled. I could give you a list, but if you think about the format, you’ll quickly be able to find a large number on your own. Stifling Oath, Mindslaver, and Welder is usually enough.

The two bounce spells shifted around numerous times, but essentially they were chosen with the highest versatility in mind, as well as being a pair of ways to get rid of Chalice of the Void. The bounce is especially good, with Dimir Cutpurse and Erayo both putting pressure on cards that go back into someone’s hand.

Darkblast was the most recent addition, a nod to the fact that Goblin Welder is an incredibly defining card in the format. There are only so many times that you can Stifle or bounce a Welder, and eventually, you’ll have to either simply win, or kill it. It has a bunch of other random uses as well, knocking off Orchard spirits or being useful against Fish decks.

Engineered Explosives started out as a way to answer someone who gets ahead on mana with Moxes (or just destroy them, if you’re lucky), and as a catch-all answer to every random permanent that was reasonably cheap. It (like the bounce spells) has the added benefit of helping to flip an Erayo.

Versus Control-Slaver

This is one of the decks that the deck is especially designed to defeat. Long games do not bode well for anyone playing against the S.S., and all of the ways this deck is designed to abuse get punished severely by the S.S. This is probably the easiest matchup.

Versus combo of all sorts

Most of the combo decks have one thing in common: they hate Stifle. Tendrils hates Stifle. Worldgorger Dragon hates Stifle. They aren’t very fond of Duress or Force of Will, either. The slower combo decks hate Erayo and Cutpurse, while the faster ones are even more vulnerable to the Force of Will than the slower ones are. These are all good matchups.

Versus Oath

This deck does not like Oath game 1. It can win, sure, but it is probably at a 40/60 disadvantage for game 1, maybe slightly more. The upside? Game 2 is incredibly good. So much so that it feels overwhelming for most Oath players. Bring in Planar Void, Diabolic Edict, and Skullclamp (with Rebuild as well, if you expect Null Rod). The games tend to all play out the same: if they get an Oath out, you get some combination of Void and Skullclamp. The Void makes every elimination spell you hit them with permanent, and they lose out on the recursive element of their deck. If you get a Skullclamp going, you are virtually guaranteed to draw into the “trifecta,” as well as every other relevant card in your deck. Game 2/3 are very difficult for Oath.

Versus Fish

Here, you run Black. Black brings with it Darkblast and Massacre. These two cards are incredible wrecking balls against Fish. While Fish is not so incredibly vulnerable to a flipped Erayo, it does become problematic when bounce (or other elimination spells) starts going to work, mostly from a mana-denial standpoint. Fish is pretty tight on mana, and isn’t always able to do things like double-threat. I’m still not sure how big the advantage is here, but I do know that the record lies heavily toward the Sullivan Solution.

Versus Welder

There are a bunch of different versions of this deck, and I don’t really know the format well enough to differentiate between them all. I’m told that Stax decks might be a real issue for this deck, but I haven’t had a chance to playtest that at all. On the other hand, the most typical versions that run things like Sundering Titan and Mindslaver tend to be in pretty rough shape, winning well less than 40% of the time. Before I put Darkblast into the deck, I was going 50/50 versus the much more old school Juggernaut versions of the deck, but I understand that those are much more passé, and besides, I didn’t have Darkblast yet.

The present and the future

I gave this deck to ICBM for the StarCityGames Power Nine event in Rochester. I don’t know how it performed on Day 2 (early reports have it as going 5-2 and 5-2), but only two people played it on Day 1, with Tommy Kolowith winning the whole thing. Apparently, he only lost four games all day. I@n DeGraff took the deck to a 5-2 record. If everything is correct, that would give the deck as 23-6-2 record, which is no mean feat.

I’ve had this kind of results with decks before, with Eminent Domain for States this last year (played by three people, putting three people into Top 8 at various States, and winning one), and Kooky Jooky (my Kiki-Jiki Control deck for States) the year before (receiving, out of five people, a 1st, 4th, 6th, and 12th place). Kooky Jooky was a deck that did not survive the loss of Affinity as its expected opponent, but essentially was a really resilient deck, while Eminent Domain is very much a deck that can perform in select metagames, and is very easy to defeat, if you choose to.

The S.S. deck is much more like Kooky Jooky. Essentially, the deck doesn’t have particular aspects of it that can be attacked more than any other deck in the metagame. I expect that the deck is likely to see a lot of play, now and in the future, and it should continue to perform so long as the format rewards a slow accumulation of resources.

I hope everyone enjoys the deck. Congrats, once again, to Tommy!

Adrian Sullivan