The Long And Winding Road – Resurrecting Vintage Gro

Matt Elias was durdling after dinner one day when a decklist popped into his head in a flash of brilliance. In this article, he attempts to bring back an old Vintage favorite…

Some Background on Yours Truly

At the SCG Legacy Open in Baltimore in late 2010, I played TES. My tournament opened against Josh Ravitz, who was piloting Aggro Loam. In a hugely interactive match, I won both games, giving Josh a total of three turns in the match.

I lost a mirror in the second round.

For round three, I sat down against an older gentleman and won the die roll. I played a land, cast Ponder, and passed the turn. On his turn, he played a Plains and summoned a Savannah Lions. On my second turn, I won the game. While going through the motions of going off with Ad Nauseam, he looked at me and asked, “Do you really enjoy playing decks like this?” My answer was a resounding “Yes!”, but probably not for the reasons you might think.

It isn’t so much that I love combo, per se, and I certainly don’t prefer non-interactive games, or short games. One thing that I do love in a Magic deck is the ability to draw a ton of cards. Thus, some of the decks I’ve gravitated to—such as Elves, Dredge, and TES—have the ability to give you access to huge chunks of your deck over the first few turns of the game, either by drawing cards or “drawing cards,” in the case of Dredge.

It isn’t a love of the storm mechanic, or combo decks, that accounts for my love of TES; it’s the fact that I can see a ton of cards in the early game and then draw a third of my library in one turn. For me, that is fun. I do enjoy that some Magic decks let you do that.

My fondness for the resurgent Reanimator archetype in Legacy should be easily understood by long-time readers, as it combines two of my three Magic loves: cheating the cost on expensive creatures and drawing a ton of cards.

My third love is burn spells, for anyone who is curious or has no idea of my Magic history.

(For the sake of completeness, I did have a fourth love, which is resource denial, and accounted for my fondness for land destruction, Winter Orb, Armageddon, and Stasis much earlier in my Magic career, but that approach to the game has somewhat been phased out of competitive play, probably wisely.)

Subconscious Brewing

“The subconscious is ceaselessly murmuring, and it is by listening to these murmurs that one hears the truth.”
-Gaston Bachelard

At a high level, a conscious level, I have this concept of Vintage that says there are currently three good archetypes: Gush, Dredge, and Workshops. As a generalization, a large percentage of the “best” Vintage players (whatever that means to you) are gravitating towards Gush decks. Therefore, if one wanted to develop a new, competitive Vintage deck, a reasonable plan of attack suggests that there should be a good deck that is constructed like this:

  1. Pre-board, it is designed to do well against other blue decks, specifically other Gush decks.
  2. Post-board, almost all of its sideboard cards should exist to reconfigure into a deck that can beat Workshops and Dredge.

Note that my establishment of this line of thought was all pre-Snapcaster Mage and before the removal of Restriction on Fact or Fiction, so as of this writing, we may find modifications are necessary.

So, even if I wasn’t really focusing much on Vintage, or playing much Vintage, I still formulated an understanding of Vintage that lends itself to a vision of a deck. For some period of time, my subconscious mind was probably computing permutations and combinations that would allow for such a deck.

One night a month or so ago, I was durdling about after dinner, and I suddenly had this strange idea of mashing together two different decks. The first deck is a Rich Shay concoction sometimes known as Shaymora:

The second is a previous Gush-era deck, Gro-a-Tog:

The core idea I had was that I wanted a two-pronged approach against Gush decks. First, I wanted to use Mystic Remora against Gush decks. Second, I wanted to attack opposing Gush decks by dealing early damage to help neuter the Gush-bond engine. Stated differently, I wanted a deck that could actively swing creatures into an opposing Gush player, while playing a similar draw engine (Gush) supplemented by a potential trump (Mystic Remora and early pressure).

Some of you may recall that Stephen Menendian tried to resurrect Gro when Gush was unrestricted. The deck he came up with featured Preordain and Thoughtseize and maindeck Trygon Predator. It was a decent if unspectacular deck that was ultimately trumped by the more explosive Gush decks and victimized by a relatively weak Workshop matchup (as Chalice on one was really crushing against his build). Despite this, there were aspects of that deck that appealed to me. For some reason, I really wanted to play a Gro deck that had Quirion Dryad, Gush, and perhaps Dark Confidant; l reasoned that playing Mental Misstep might give the deck sufficient “free” spells to function again.

Somehow, all of these concepts coalesced into a deck and burst forth into my conscious mind. I mean this quite truthfully. One second I’m watching baseball, the next second I’m looking at my wife and saying, “I need a pen!”

The list I sketched out was somewhat unusual. It had Quirion Dryads, fueled by a bunch of powerful, free spells: Gush, Force of Will, and Mental Misstep. In addition to Gush, it had a robust set of additional draw capability in Dark Confidant and Mystic Remora. It played many of the standard Restricted cards—Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, Fastbond, Demonic Tutor, Time Walk, and Ancestral Recall—but few of the cards one normally equates with Gro, such as Thoughtseize or Preordain. And, the idea of playing Gush and Mystic Remora may seem counterintuitive, and perhaps it is, but that’s the list my mind handed me.

I put the deck together and started testing. I’m fortunate to have some great playtest partners available, and this particular deck got thrown at some notable players like Rich Shay, Mark Hornung, Chris Pikula, Nick Coss, Joe Brown, and Brad Granberry. What I found was that this deck was pretty good at accomplishing my goal of beating blue decks pre-board, and perhaps in some way was validating the high-level approach to current Vintage that I explained earlier. It had a strong pre-board matchup against every blue deck we threw at it: various builds of Gush, blue decks featuring Dark Rituals, and even some more offbeat blue decks such as Faeries. Post-board, the matchup against Workshops was reasonable, and the four Mental Missteps gave it a reasonable Dredge matchup at six hate cards and a quite favorable one at seven hate cards.

Although I made some tweaks, the actual list I settled on wasn’t all that far from where I started:

Before anything else, I’ll admit a few things. I’ve only played this deck in about sixty games, and I haven’t explored whether the Dryads are exactly right in the deck. It’s quite possible that they could be better as Tarmogoyfs, or perhaps being omitted completely in favor of something more like a traditional control deck using this set of draw engines. I also haven’t fully explored all of the sideboard options, and in many metagames where Dredge isn’t popular, I’d suggest cutting a Yixlid Jailer for a Dismember or another Mystic Remora.

Some peculiarities with this maindeck include the one Trygon Predator, which is bleed over from the sideboard, and I’ve considered cutting it for Mystical Tutor, a fourth Mystic Remora, or just swapping it back into the board for another sideboard card. I also don’t have Mana Crypt in this list, which is intentional, as this deck does have a tendency to damage itself enough without really making things risky with Crypt; that said, your mileage may vary.

The initial list had a Tendrils of Agony in place of the Jace, the Mind Sculptor. That became a second Mindbreak Trap, which then moved to the sideboard in place of Jace, which has been very good in testing. Another card I wanted to play but ran out of room for is Sower of Temptation.

So, the real question that needs to be answered is: what are the benefits of playing this deck over another Gush deck?

The Gush matchup is usually favorable, more so than a standard Gush mirror would be. The use of so many extra draw spells, and so much protection against Fastbond or Ancestral Resolving, means that the Gro deck feels much more counter- dense than it actually is. And, Dryad has a way of getting in there for rapidly increasing damage, meaning that you can often take away Gush-Bond as a path to victory for your opponent, forcing them to try to use Yawgmoth’s Will or Tinker to beat you. Once you know the only cards that can beat you, it becomes easy to play around them.

Unlike other decks that attempt to use combat to win, such as Fish, this deck plays the majority of broken cards that you want when you play Vintage. This deck draws a lot of cards, makes very good use of Time Walk, uses Tinker and Blightsteel Colossus, and can draw some busted Gush hands just like any other modern Gush deck.

When playing against opposing blue decks, Mystic Remora is king, and if you find yourself playing in a metagame truly dominated by Gush, add a fourth Remora to the 75. How do your own Gushes interact with Remora? Obviously you don’t want to just be running Gush main-phase if you need those lands to pay for Remora. However, you can often play an initial threat first, like a Dark Confidant or Dryad, and then play the Gush into Remora, or play the Remora and sit on it for a few turns while you ride the creature. If the Remora is going to drop off in your next turn, you can pay the Remora, then Gush with Remora up to untap lands and play some more threats while Remora is still in play; you’ll still have the Remora through your opponent’s turn to protect yourself. There isn’t as much tension in the cards as you might expect, once you get the sequencing down.

Sideboard Strategies

Against Gush:

Out: 1 Trygon Predator, 1 Preordain

In: 1 Nihil Spellbomb, +1 Mindbreak Trap

The deck is already designed with Gush in mind, so you’re just tweaking things a bit. The extra Mindbreak Trap makes Remora more potent and further protects you against explosive starts by your opponent, and Nihil Spellbomb is effectively a counter for Yawgmoth’s Will.

Against Workshops:

Out: 4 Mental Misstep, 1 Mindbreak Trap, 2 Mystic Remora

In: 3 Nature’s Claim, 1 Hurkyl’s Recall, 2 Trygon Predator, 1 Island

Mental Misstep is painfully weak against Workshop decks, and Remora (in this deck) isn’t really where you want to be. While Gush is admittedly not the world’s best card against Workshops, it isn’t that bad in a deck that doesn’t need to chain them together. Rather, you can use them to “counter” Wastelands, untap under Tangle Wire, and keep grinding into your hate cards.

Against Dredge:

Out: 1 Mindbreak Trap, 1 Hurkyl’s Recall, 1 Trygon Predator, 3 Mystic Remora, 1 Quirion Dryad

In: 4 Leyline of the Void, 2 Yixlid Jailer, 1 Nihil Spellbomb

Mindbreak Trap, Hurkyl’s, Trygon, and Remora are all easy cuts, as they do very little in the matchup. Dryad is a fine card, but in the post-board games, you’re drawing fewer cards through Remora and casting fewer active spells, so there’s no huge harm in moving one to the board.

The Future

I wish that I could’ve gone to the TMD Open last weekend. I probably would’ve played this list, but I also have some concerns; Snapcaster Mage decks could be an issue, in that they have blockers for Dark Confidant and constitute a draw engine of sorts which might overwhelm this deck’s defenses. Similarly, this deck isn’t designed to combat Fact or Fiction decks, which aren’t all that vulnerable to Mental Misstep. While Spell Snare might be a way to attack Snapcaster Mage, the Fact or Fiction decks could be a problem, if they become part of the metagame. Just fair warning for you, in case the metagame shifts in such a way that my previous statement about Vintage and how to have success in the format changes with the entrance of those two cards into the competitive Vintage scene.

Concluding Thoughts

Some interesting things happened during the creation and playtesting process for this deck.

This is an example of a deck that a lot of people I spoke with said looked bad on paper, before they lost to it in testing. I’m not saying this is the best deck in Vintage, but it is an example of a time where I could’ve just agreed with the majority of people I talked to and scrapped the deck before I even tested it. Yes, it’s a bit different than the other decks that are seeing play right now, but that’s due to the fact that it is built for a specific purpose, with a specific frame of reference, and tempered by my personal preferences.

As far as the testing itself, one thing I experienced is that my results with the deck have been better than several others that have tested with the deck. I know it isn’t a weakness in my testing partners, so it could be a peculiarity with how the deck plays; I obviously have played more games with it and the deck focuses my understanding of Vintage into live cards. Perhaps this is not that different than several of us who tried Rich Shay Gush deck from Champs and did poorly with it, despite Rich’s excellent results with the list. If you try this deck and struggle at first, stick with it; it isn’t the same as the other Gush decks out there, and understanding the sequencing and which cards you must counter will take some time.

Testing this deck also made me stop and think about playtesting in general, and how people approach it. Generally speaking, when you play Magic with people who have some degree of competency and have had success in tournaments, they’re gaming with the intent of winning as many games as possible. However, in playtesting, this needs to be tempered with an understanding that sometimes, you learn as much from losing as you do from winning.

I shipped this list to someone, who battled with it against another good player. This opponent was testing an interesting Faeries list that had Spellstutter Sprite, Vendilion Clique, and Glen Elendra Archmage supported by the usual cast of good Vintage blue and black cards. The Gro player reported to me that he couldn’t win a single game against the Faeries deck. I wanted to investigate this further, so I took the same Gro list and played the same Faeries player, also with the same deck. I lost the first two games (one due to a punt, one on a mull to five on the draw) before winning the next six games in a row.

There are a lot of things to think about here. It could be that I’m a better player than the first Gro player, the Faeries player, or both (although I don’t believe that to be the case). It could be that in my match, I drew much better hands, or mulliganed more aggressively. It could be that the Faeries player suddenly started drawing cold in those later games. It could be that the Faeries player was overconfident on the back of his early success, or tilted once he started losing. And, it could be that I simply approached the games differently, countering different cards, sequencing plays in a different order, and pursuing alternate lines of play, compared to the first Gro player; this is different than being a better player in the abstract and instead speaks to familiarity with both my list and with the Faeries list (or lists in that style).

I’m not really interested in exploring any of these, truth be told, although I know which ones I believe are true. What was interesting to me was that the person playing Faeries got really upset as the losses piled up, mostly blaming them on bad luck, while ignoring incidences of similar luck (such as opening on Black Lotus or Ancestral Recall), and generally seemed to view the goal of the session as “win as many games as possible.” I know that when I’m testing a new deck, especially something off the beaten path, my main goal at first is determining whether a deck is even viable at all. In that respect, it is perfectly acceptable to lose games, even a whole bunch of games in a row. And, when testing two decks with similar goals (objective: beat mainstream blue decks), there’s something to be said for the fact that the testing doesn’t even really mean anything, or at least, anything useful.

In testing, situations will often come up where you’re going to lose quite a bit. You might test a deck that you know has a miserable matchup, to try to pick up some extra percentage points, or identify gaps in your sideboard construction or strategy. You might be testing a new deck, something in its initial and raw form, which requires significant tweaking, or perhaps isn’t viable at all. All of this is part of the testing process.

It isn’t ok to assume a deck has a bad matchup and then play poorly to validate it, as you need to have playtest partners that play as if they really want to win, but it is fine to lose games in playtesting if there is learning to be had from that losing.

Ultimately, the main takeaway I can offer with this deck as far as the brewing concept is that most of my good deck ideas come when I have a specific understanding of a format and am trying to meet a certain set of objectives. In other words, “building a good _____ deck” doesn’t work for me; saying, “I need to find or build a deck that accomplishes the following objectives within the following criteria” does seem to lead me to success.

I hope that I’ve left you with some insight into the process of building decks and playtesting, and encourage you to try this version of Gro and see how you like it.

Matt Elias
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