The Long and Winding Road – Deck Archaeology with Team R&D

Wednesday, February 9 – Deck lists reveal a wealth of information. They’ll often speak about how that individual viewed the format, and where there were opportunities to exploit. So how can you learn to read decks?

“Surely you know what a deck is.”

“Of course. It’s a stack of cards. And don’t call me Shirley.”

What, exactly, is a deck?

It is, literally, a stack of cards.

It might be the most competitive pile of cards a person had access to, due to card availability.

It could be the pile of cards that someone thought would be the most fun to play in a tournament.

It might be a gamble, a roll of the dice: “I know I beat this deck and this deck, which I expect to see a lot of, and I know I lose to that deck and
that deck, which I think I can dodge.”

Or, perhaps, a deck is one person’s answer, the solution to the question behind every Magic metagame: What is the best deck I can play today, the deck
that gives me the greatest chance to win the tournament?

Deck brewers, builders, and tuners — they’re all trying to answer that question, over and over again. Any time a format is “solved,” it’s usually
unsolved as soon as that tournament is over; in today’s information age, decks can be trumped for the next tournament before the current tournament is
even over. The act of playing with the solution almost always invalidates it as the best solution for the next tournament. (This isn’t to suggest that
playing the same deck back-to-back is wrong, but that generally, playing the exact same pile of cards with no adjustments is often wrong.)

Something you’ll commonly find in my writing is a historical review of decks, or a look at deck evolution. I find it is really important to look at the
way decks evolve, and to understand the factors behind deck-building decisions. In my experience, this is especially true in Eternal formats, where the
card pool is significantly more stable. In these formats, players are more susceptible to a type of atrophy where they settle for the same deck,
tournament after tournament, without even making nominal changes.

When we look at Oath of Druids decks over time,

as I did last week

, what is played in those decks provides information about the format and the available card pool. Going back even further than I did last week, why
did people play Spirit of the Night in Oath of Druids — or later, Simic Sky Swallower? Simple: Hellkite Overlord and Empyrial Archangel hadn’t been
printed. Why did Oath of Druids decks want to use Ancient Grudge, Red Elemental Blast, and Iona, Shield of Emeria? They needed to beat other blue decks
playing Time Vault and Voltaic Key. Why can you look up Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund in Morphling.de and find it in Vintage Top 8s? Because some deranged
person realized you could use it to help beat Tangle Wire in the Workshop matchup.

Very rarely should decks be considered in a vacuum. (I’m inclined to say “never,” but there are probably some times where it is worth considering a
deck in and of itself.)

Instead, for those who are willing to look, deck lists reveal a wealth of information. They’ll often speak about the thought-process of the builder,
about how that individual viewed the format, and where there were opportunities to exploit; a deck reveals a lot about a metagame, in that if one
assumes the deckbuilder was making informed decisions, his or her card choice can reveal what other cards, decks, and strategies were present in the
metagame at that time.

Deck lists are Magic relics, and following the evolution of strategies through formats is a type of Magic archaeology. Understanding what happened in
the past can be a vital part of your Magic experience, today, and can form the base of your Magic success, or failure.

Think about Eternal formats: it is exceptionally rare that one needs to build a mana base from scratch in Vintage or Legacy, yet I see people doing it
all the time. Often, they make basic errors, when a simple review of existing (and proven) builds in the same vein can save time, and costly errors.

Successful decks from past formats explain a lot: how to attack creature-driven formats, or Aether Vial-driven formats, or Tribal formats, or
aggro-dominated formats, or control-dominated formats, what types of cards work best against combo in the mirror compared to control or aggro, and on
and on.

One easy example is looking at hate cards; not every deck wants to use Mindbreak Trap to beat Dark Ritual combo decks, nor should every deck use
Leyline of the Void against Dredge. It isn’t enough to just copy someone else’s anti-Dredge or anti-Ritual package from a sideboard; rather, one should
seek to understand why that specific strategy wanted to use those specific cards in that matchup.

I know that not everyone shares this interest in the study of decks. A lot of people are far more interested in the players. Sometimes, as a Magic
culture, we become far too interested in tech at the expense of understanding correct play. However, the inverse is also true, and I find that people
often become far too interested in the players, the who and the what, at the expense of why and how.

They ask, “What is Gerry Thompson playing this week?” or “What did Luis Scott-Vargas use to go undefeated in Extended Worlds?” Rarely do they ask, “Why
did GT make those changes, or switch to that deck, or play those in his sideboard?” or “What did LSV beat to go undefeated, what was different about
the format then compared to today, and how wide is the (probably massive) gap in player skill between LSV and me?”

Looking at decks — understanding decks — is a critical component in mastering a format. This type of analysis reveals the thinking behind the
decisions, both correct and incorrect. Max McCall recent article discussing the siding out of
Force of Will in Legacy is a great example of this idea. Max took care to walk through the history of Counterbalance decks, explaining where and why
Force of Will might be critical, and where it was irrelevant or detrimental. These decisions were based on what the opponent was playing — and thus, if
we were to go back and look at a tournament report and look at sideboard strategy, we could understand where one might want Force of Will to stay in
for games two and three — not just against specific cards, but against specific types of cards.

Having this understanding will guide you in the future. I still realize that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — but it’s something to think about if
you tend to skip over that type of work or consider it to be irrelevant.

Continuing in this same idea space, two of my teammates on Team R&D were gracious enough to allow me to discuss their decks, and some of the
thought processes that went into choosing these strategies and refining them for tournament success.

Rich Shay — Legacy Dreadtill

Rich Shay is a man who loves Dreadtill. I suppose it isn’t hard for me to understand why; after reaching the top 16 at Grand Prix Chicago in 2009 with
the deck, early in the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open circuit, he made the semifinals at Boxborough in June 2009 playing this version, and recently he has won back-to-back local
Legacy tournaments, after narrowly missing the top 8 at Legacy Champs this past GenCon. The deck has treated him well — and part of this is his
approach to the deck, which is to avoid locking into any set color configuration, and to play whatever quantity of cards seems appropriate; Rich is not
one to subscribe to 4-1 dogma.

In his more recent configuration, Dreadtill feels somewhat like a Vintage deck. It has an explosive win capability for a blue deck, two legitimate
draw engines, and takes a balanced approach to the field, having very few bad matchups. Dreadtill is also fun to play, as it includes many of the
“best” cards available: Brainstorm, Sensei’s Divining Top, Counterbalance, Dark Confidant, Wasteland, Force of Will, and so on. The use of Trinket
Mage, Top, Brainstorm, and Dark Confidant guarantees that the Dreadtill player will see a lot of cards each game.

When Rich was preparing for his most recent tournament, we had some time to chat and discuss the format. Unlike the 2009 list, which had red, his most
recent list was designed to attack a metagame with many Survival decks and some Merfolk. In this article, Rich
re-introduced Peacekeeper to Legacy; many Merfolk decks (as well as other decks like some Affinity builds and some versions of Elves), will fold
instantly to Peacekeeper. He was also loading up on cheap counters like Spell Snare and Spell Pierce as a way of keeping Survival of the Fittest off
the battlefield. And he was playing the maximum number of Phyrexian Dreadnought, as both Survival and Merfolk had difficulty racing that
creature in the early turns.

One very interesting thing about that build is the way the deck can turn into much more of a control deck in post-board games, bringing in stuff like
Swords to Plowshares, Perish, and Peacekeeper. While it feels more like a Counterbalance-Top Tempo deck pre-board, it often feels much more like a
full-on control deck after sideboarding.

But things have changed. Survival of the Fittest is no longer a part of the format, and in early tournaments, Goblins has surged back into the top tier
of decks. Relatively affordable by Legacy standards, Goblins has a long, storied history in Legacy and is one of the safer investments into the format.
The more budget versions — those that go Mono-Red, for instance — are still viable enough to take down small tournaments, and sometimes larger ones as
well. Headed into his last tournament, with

Goblins performing so well in the January
StarCityGames.com Legacy Opens

, Goblins was at the forefront of our minds. It’s rare to play in a local Legacy event without seeing at least a few Goblins decks.

The Goblins Challenge

Beating Goblins can be a challenge for a deck like Dreadtill. Many Goblins players use cards like Stingscourger, Warren Weirding, and Goblin Tinkerer,
all of which are outs to Phyrexian Dreadnought that a deck like Merfolk lacks. Additionally, Peacekeeper is usually a minor speed-bump, as Goblins has
Gempalm Incinerator, Goblin Sharpshooter, and Stingscourger, among other options. Goblins is also resistant to Counterbalance, with varied casting
costs, and as an Aether Vial deck, it can sneak creatures past Counterbalance, Counterspells, and underneath a Standstill.

Stated concisely, Goblins is a unique challenge for all of the things Dreadtill is trying to do. In the past, cards like Firespout and Tarmogoyf could
strengthen that matchup, but the field is rather broad at the moment. Giving up white would mean losing Peacekeeper, giving ground to another
relatively common deck: Merfolk. Losing black would take away Dark Confidant, who is fantastic against other blue decks, as well as Perish, which has a
massive number of applications in Legacy against decks like Zoo, Elves, Bant, and decks looking to abuse Natural Order.

Ultimately, Rich and I agreed that staying in the U/b/w color combination was probably the best place to be in this metagame. While it may not give you
the absolute best answers to every deck, it gives you options and play against the entire format, which is critical.

Keeping Goblins in mind, but also looking at a format with more Aether Vial-based aggro and Tribal decks than we’ve seen in a while, it made sense to
play Swords to Plowshares in the main deck. Rich also decided very quickly that he wanted to move a Pithing Needle to the maindeck as a way of shutting
down Aether Vial.

From there, we started to strategize on cards specifically for Goblins that were in the color combination we’d decided on pursuing. I’ve always
considered Engineered Plague to be the preeminent weapon against Goblins, and many Goblins players are somewhat ill-prepared for it. Those who are prepared are usually banking on Krosan Grip — but Dreadtill is able to end games very quickly via Dreadnought , which sometimes draws out
the Krosan Grip, clearing the way for Engineered Plague to lock out the game.

Ultimately, the updated Dreadtill list looked like this:

And, Rich’s rounds played out like this:

Round 1 — Win 2-0 against CounterTop (UGRW)

Round 2 — Win 2-1 against Reanimator

Round 3 — Win 2-0 against Elves

Round 4 — ID

Round 5 — ID

Quarters — Win 2-0 against Dreadtill (Ubw)

Semis — Win 2-0 against Junk

Finals — Win 2-0 against CounterTop

While Rich did not play against the field we were worried about (i.e., one full of Aether Vial-packing aggro and Tribal decks), the adjustments still
worked out relatively well on the day. In the first round, Rich noted that the Swords to Plowshares he’d moved to the main-deck were critical in both
games. Against Reanimator, Rich lost his only game of the day to a very quick Iona, Shield of Emeria in game one — but in game two, Peacekeeper drew an
immediate concession.

Against Elves, it’s hard to imagine a more stacked sideboard than one with Perish, Peacekeeper, and Engineered Plague. Against Junk and CounterTop,
having Dark Confidant was critical, and Rich also ended up playing a full set of Wastelands, which must have helped considerably in the Dreadtill and
CounterTop matches.

When we are faced with a new or uncertain metagame, it can be common to over-think, and over-react. While the matchup against Goblins is still not
fantastic with this build, it’s certainly improved, yet the overall strategy and performance of the deck in other matchups is not significantly
hindered by the final adjustments. In fact, staying in the colors Rich discussed in his article on this deck proved critical, with Dark Confidant,
Swords to Plowshares, and Peacekeeper all getting a workout throughout the day.

As a parting thought, we must remember that local Legacy tournaments are generally going to have a different metagame than larger events like a
StarCityGames.com Legacy Open. At these small events, issues like card availability and player skill significantly impact the deck selection process,
and one can often predict a good portion of the local metagame just by reviewing the players in attendance. This information is usually more vital when
considering local events than thinking about national metagame trends or breaking tech from online articles.

Brad Granberry — Vintage GushVault

In recent testing with teammate Brad Granberry, he’s unleashed a really impressive Gush Vault deck. While many of you may not know Brad, if you’re a
member of TMD or The Source, you’ve probably read some of his posts (as Rico Suave). Brad was also the leading player in the Blue Bell Vintage Player
of the Year standings last year, until some personal and work obligations prevented him from competing in the last few tournaments.

I took some time to chat with Brad about his current list, which looks like this:

So, Brad, I guess the first question is: Why Gush?

When Gush was unrestricted, it certainly warranted attention because of its track record — so if nothing else, it was worth investigating what a Gush
deck could do right now in Vintage. Workshops are a pretty strong force in Vintage right now, which is bad for Gush, but Gush is also a card that also
fits right up my alley as a player.

One really interesting thread on our team boards involved you building a dedicated anti-Workshop deck to test various hate cards — to determine, I
suppose, a tipping point where a Gush deck could beat Workshops. Through testing, you can determine the smallest number of most effective hate cards,
and then relegate those to the sideboard to create a viable deck and sideboard strategy.

I wanted to see how easy or difficult it might be to hate this deck out — particularly since MUD decks have been dropping cards like Goblin Welder,
which have previously fought hate cards in the past. Part of that was also trying to figure out a way to beat Workshops on the draw.

The biggest problem facing blue decks right now seems to be how to overcome Workshops when they’re able to open with their lock pieces, before we can
squeeze in Moxen. So, instead of playing a normal deck with card X, then trying card Y, and testing card Z, I just decided to gut most of the deck and
play all of those cards. I found that the key part is cheap, efficient removal to get our footing, followed by recurring removal to lock them out. If
the hate deck can’t beat Shops, then there’s no reason to play anything else but Shops…

But if you’ve figured out a sideboard strategy that makes the Gush deck viable in that matchup, then you can start to do what you want — which is to
leverage Gush against the rest of the field.

Now, we know that Gush, today, isn’t the Gush of 2008 — and yet testing against you with various non-Gush decks, it’s clear that Gush is still really
potent as an engine. What pushed you towards a Time Vault / Voltaic Key Gush deck, when others are focusing more on Gush Storm or Gush Control without

Well, I actually started out a few days after the un-restriction, testing Gush in Oath of Druids. I thought Gush with Oath would be well positioned to
fight Workshops… but it actually performed poorly in testing, so I had to go with the results and try something else. I played various storm-centered
builds — and while all of them featured Gush, some would use Dark Confidant, some would use Frantic Search, and some even tried using Top/bounce as a

There was something missing from those builds, too; while I very much enjoyed Dark Ritual with Necropotence, I didn’t like the fact Ritual was so poor
against Workshops. So I moved into some Time Vault and Key builds, taking out Rituals and consequently also Necropotence, but gaining the bomb card of
Tinker. After playing those for a bit, it felt that Gush was more of a decent card draw spell, but it was tough to justify playing it over the
traditional Bob/Jace builds.

Then one day I had another experiment and I was on board again; I think that modern Gush builds benefit from some kind of acceleration, whether it is
Dark Ritual, or Lotus Cobra, or Mox Opal —

— Mox Opal being one of the unique parts of your deck —

— and of those, I feel that being able to play a Mox is very good against Workshops, because it doesn’t fail in the face of Spheres, like Dark Ritual
does, and it only costs zero, so it’s easy to play.

And in addition to this, Top has been a card that I’ve very much enjoyed playing; it not only powers up Mox Opal, but also benefits from the extra mana
we get from playing acceleration.

So suddenly it clicked, but it took a lot of testing and time to find something that worked for me.

: It seems like a minor thing on paper, but I would say the hallmark of your deck is the interplay between Mox Opal, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Gush.
With Opals, you always seem to be ahead of me in fast mana, and Gush and Top means that your top-deck tutors are always much more powerful than mine as
you can draw into those cards immediately.

Yes, with some of the Vault/Key builds I felt Gush was just card draw, but with Top we can manipulate our draws and really start to collect combo
pieces. It’s a lot easier to Top, Fetch, Top, and look at a large number of cards in a turn to finish Vault/Key, or to Gush a bunch of times and Top
and see Fastbond, or assemble Yawgmoth’s Will and Black Lotus.

Let’s talk about how the deck wins. I assume Vault/Key is the primary win condition.

Yes, Vault/Key is the main way to win. Tendrils is probably the second most common, with simple beatdown from a Tinker target (or even Ingot Chewer
from the board) being a distant third.

What do you think is the “right” Tinker target at this point, for this deck?

I haven’t gotten a thorough chance to test the new Blightsteel Colossus — but it’s probably going to be right for a while, because an early Tinker will
win quickly now. During my last tournament, I outraced Tinker-robot twice by completing Vault/Key, one time by saving my Tinker until I could finish
the combo. However, outracing Tinker into Blightsteel Colossus is tough.

It may add yet another explosive win condition to the deck, which has beaten me on turn 1 several times in our testing. Are you concerned with losing
to opposing Tinker-Blightteel? Does that force you to adjust your list at all?

It may. It’s pretty brutal, it’ll probably bring some new dynamics to blue-on-blue matches. I had previously played Sphinx of the Steel Wind and was
sideboarding it out for mirrors and the like, but with Blightsteel Colossus, I’d probably keep it in.

It fits into the deck, as this is more of a combo deck than anything, I think, and a faster, better one that it appears on paper. What the deck does is
impressive. It doesn’t scream out, “Combo!

I think a lot of people in general tend to underestimate just how fast Vault/Key really is.

Well, a lot of that is because of how the format has shaken out. Owen Turtenwald Jace deck from Champs pushed people away from fast Vault/Key decks.

When Gush was unrestricted, and I could play traditional blue control with a real engine card instead of Bob, I was ecstatic. Dark Confidant is great
for building an advantage, but other cards that drew instantly like Thirst for Knowledge and Gush allowed us to create that advantage instantly — and
due to Vault/Key, it’s easy to cement that advantage with an amazing outlet.

Other cards like Gifts Ungiven, Timetwister, and generic cantrips can help to create that same feeling of a high-velocity deck where we quickly find
our appropriate cards… But when we step back, our “control” decks are pretty capable of setting up Vault/Key by turn 3 to 5 on a regular basis.
Bob/Jace will slow this down, while creating more long term advantages.

Tendrils has impressed me greatly in our games, which surprised me.

Vault/Key is often unreliable against Fish, because many of their cards will be able to thwart it, but it’s difficult for them to fight Tendrils.

What this deck does with Tendrils, it does without what we’d normally consider set-up cards. No Dark Rituals, Repeals, and so on. The functioning of
the deck itself simply “turns on” Tendrils.

Yeah, Gush itself will often set up Tendrils in a very subtle way, which means you get the benefit of a back-up win condition, without having to gum up
the deck with set-up cards that fail against Workshops.

I’ve been playing Tendrils in my “control” decks for a long time now. Tendrils, Vault/Key, and Tinker-robot gives me flexibility, which is an important
thing to have. With flexibility, we can sidestep our opponent’s hate cards, which is better than trying to answer them. We can attack them where they
are weak, in the case of when I try to set up Tendrils against my opponent’s Dark Confidant.

So what decks do you least want to see across the table when playing this one?

Workshops would be the one I’d least want to see. Game one can be very difficult — because in order to fight Workshops effectively, it would
drastically weaken the deck against the rest of the field. Games two and three are nearly a transformational sideboard approach and are much better,
but Workshops can still pull out monster openers that shut anybody out. There are times when you’re playing against Workshops and you literally just
can’t win because you didn’t have Force of Will in your hand.

Outside of that, I don’t mind any other match. I’ll still sideboard to attack Dredge, but I still feel comfortable winning that match as a whole.

Thanks Brad.

That’s it for this time. Next week: a brand-new Vintage deck, and a look back at my first hundred articles!

Matt Elias

[email protected]

Voltron00x at SCG, TMD, and The Source