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The Long and Winding Road – Vintage: Finding the Blue Decks

Friday, December 3rd – Not a lot’s been said about Vintage lately, so Matt’s here to answer your burning questions. In particular, this question: “Where are the good blue decks, and what do they look like?” Is the strength of blue declining?

Vintage players have gone a while without hard data to analyze, and this is never a good thing for those of us who take the format seriously. For the data-hungry among you, I was able to obtain all sixty-three deck registration sheets from the Blue Bell Game Day 10 tournament on 11/20. Reviewing these decks and comparing the results to those of the previous ten weeks provides an interesting review of where Vintage was, and where it’s heading.

Ultimately, I’ll try to answer this question: “Where are the good blue decks, and what do they look like?” This is an important question, as for many people, the best decks in Vintage are always blue, and when that isn’t the case, an unsettling disorientation sets in.

Let’s start with the Top 8 results and go on from there. Note that at the end of this article, you can review the full lists of these decks.

Top 8 Bracket:

Quarterfinals:

Scalzo (Dredge) defeats Keeton (ANT)

Nowakowski (Tezz) defeats Elias (Bob Tendrils)

Dixon (Keeper) defeats Carey (Oath)

Berse (MUD) defeats Reitnauer (MUD)

Semifinals:

Scalzo (Dredge) defeats Nowakowski (Tezz)

Berse (MUD) defeats Dixon (Keeper)

Finals:

Berse (MUD) defeats Scalzo (Dredge)

Before I go into some analysis of the field, let’s talk about these decks in greater detail. Again, full lists are at the end of the article.

Sam Berse piloted a relatively standard-looking MUD deck, as far as the maindeck is concerned. He has a full set of Steel Hellkites and a set of Metalworkers. This is rapidly becoming the standard for MUD decks that are winning tournaments globally, with the exception of Stax decks, where adoption of Hellkite hasn’t yet occurred; however, the balance of Workshop decks is rapidly tilting from Stax, to a blend of MUD Aggro and Stax, to MUD with Metalworker. Sam chose to utilize Sword of Fire and Ice, as well as Memory Jar, to give his deck some draw capability. Known for playing Dredge, Sam has only four cards in his board devoted to the Dredge matchup (not including Tabernacle), which I found surprising. Regardless, this was Sam’s third win at Blue Bell for 2010, and his first with a non-Dredge deck.

Dave Reitnauer, coming off a recent win of his own, was piloting MUD as well. His list has Sculpting Steel, in place of Sam’s Sword of Fire and Ice, and a more traditional anti-Dredge package. He also played Precursor Golem, which some people use against other Workshop decks.

Brian Carey played Elephant Oath with Lightning Bolts, which allow it to have some maindeck flexibility against Trygon Predator, Lodestone Golem, Dark Confidant, and Qasali Pridemage. Bolt can also be a nice surprise for careless Gush players. While I’m not a huge fan of Extirpate, it’s interesting to see Brian using it, as it gives him a huge sideboard package against Dredge; Extirpate can also gut a Gush player’s draw engine. He has Red Elemental Blast in his sideboard, something I’ve suggested to Oath players for over a year.

Andrew Keeton played ANT, using the Serenity sideboard I suggested in an earlier article. In place of the green splash for Xantid Swarm, Andrew beefed up his Dredge hate, which is unfortunate in that he lost to it in the Top 8 anyway. Note that I’d suggest you move the Tundra from the main to the sideboard if you’re going to use Andrew’s list.

Anthony Scalzo piloted a Dredge list, similar to the one I’ve suggested for most of this year, with a few changes. His build is vulnerable to Yixlid Jailer, but in place of Darkblast, he has Serenity, which is a powerful weapon. He also has Sun Titan, which isn’t seen all that often but is a powerful card, albeit a somewhat slow one. Titan can recur Bazaar, creatures, Chalice of the Void, and Serenity.

Tom Dixon played Keeper. As far as I know, every time Tom Dixon plays Vintage, he plays Keeper, and whenever he plays Keeper, he makes Top 8, so he just keeps on playing it. This build has two Leylines of the Void main and a single Helm of Obedience, which is an interesting design decision.

Steve Nowakowski has had success with Tezzeret throughout 2010 and recently has been an advocate of the Trygon Tezz version with a red splash for Red Elemental Blast. REB is a very strong card at the moment, as a counter for Gush, along with its normal uses (which are plentiful). With the strength of MUD, returning to Trygon Tezz makes a lot of sense.

Finally, I played a Bob Tendrils list similar to the ones I played earlier this year. Without having seriously tested much Vintage the past few weeks, I was curious to see how this list kept up with the other blue decks in the format. Theoretically I think it should have a coin-flip matchup against most Gush decks, with a favorable matchup against most Tezzeret builds. I also think it has a better matchup against Workshops than most Gush decks do, although that isn’t saying much. I tried a green splash for Nature’s Claim and extra Hurkyl’s Recalls this time (instead of Serenity) and beat the first two Workshop players I faced before losing to the third: Jimmy Hangley, God of Thunder. Notably, I won the first two die rolls and lost the third, and I never drew Nature’s Claim in any of the three rounds.

Back to the tournament field – let’s look at the deck breakdown:

Breakdown by deck

MUD — 10
Dredge — 7
Noble Fish — 5
Gush Control – 4
Cobra Gush — 3
Oath — 3
ANT — 3
Trygon Tezzeret — 3
Welder Control — 2
The Riddler (U/R Shops) — 2
Dark Times — 2
Bob Tendrils — 2
Keeper / The Deck — 2
Gush Storm — 2
Mono-Red Stax
Mono-Red Workshop Aggro
TPS
Tezzeret with Grim Monolith
Landstill
Snake City Vault
Meandeck Beats
Two Card Monte
Thoughtcast Tezz
Haterator — G/R/W
Affinity (one Mishra’s Workshop)
Mill (with Gush)
Gro (note: this is a Gro shell without the Gro creatures, with Gush, Lotus Cobra, and Trygon)

This is drilling about as far down into deck nomenclature as I’m willing to go and separates out the Tezzeret, Gush, Ritual, and Workshop decks. For a more condensed view that clumps the “like” decks together, see below.

Generally, when I see a field this fractured, it makes me think that I’m looking at a format that isn’t defined, one where the players are struggling to figure out what decks are actually the best. Considering the fear that some had when Gush was unrestricted, it seems that to date, Gush decks are popular but not exceptionally effective. While Gush decks are certainly doing well in some tournaments, thus far Workshop decks seem to be holding them in check, as many people expected.

2010 has in many ways represented the return of “pure” combo to Vintage, after Tezzeret dominated most of the preceding year. The past few Vintage tournaments I’ve played have seen a further resurgence of combo decks, and Gush pushes the format even further in that direction as it blurs the lines between control and combo. Related to this, we see a further erosion of Time Vault’s theoretical “hold” on Vintage, and with this reduction, we find that many players are choosing to skimp on dedicated Workshop hate cards like Nature’s Claim and Trygon Predator.

The reason for this is simple: the matchups between Gush decks, Ritual decks, and Time Vault decks are extremely close, with almost no deck having much of a leg up on the others in terms of their strength against each other, in my opinion. When playing out these matchups, it becomes apparent that cards like Nature’s Claim and Trygon Predator are mostly dead draws, and having too many of these in your deck will absolutely damage your win percentage against decks in this section of the metagame.

This is, perhaps, an odd metagame shift, in that while those decks cannibalize each other, there is a lot of incentive to play Workshops again. Some of the sideboard or maindeck slots that would have had to be devoted to beating Trygon, such as Triskelion, Duplicant, and Maze of Ith, can now be devoted towards Dredge and the mirror. In fact, the attention and effort that Gush, Ritual, and Time Vault decks are expending on each other gives people a lot of incentive to play highly linear decks in general.

Consider that in this specific tournament, there were ten people playing MUD, seven people playing Dredge, and three playing ANT (Ad Nauseam Tendrils). Almost one-third of the players in the field were playing extremely powerful, highly linear strategies that are best combated with dedicated hate cards, the very hate cards that are being squeezed out of tight sideboards as the format broadens.

While Tezzeret’s hold on Vintage has fluctuated to some extent over the past two years, few would argue that it was generally the best deck, and it was also often the most-played deck. Tezzeret won Vintage Champs in both 2009 and 2010. While it’s early to draw sweeping conclusions, the deck seems weaker now than it has in some time.  

The last large Vintage event in the US was the TMD Open at Waterbury in September. That event had seven rounds, cut to Top 16, which resulted in the following decks making the cut:

Tezzeret — 6 (two Snake City Vault, two Trygon Tezz, one white splash, one Night’s Whisper)
Dredge — 2
Bob Tendrils – 2
MUD — 2
Bomberman — 1
Keeper — 1
Mono-Red Shops — 1
ANT — 1

At Waterbury, Tezzeret was the second most-played deck at just under 21% of the field and represented itself well in terms of making the cut-off, but from there things were grim. Six Tezzeret players were cut immediately to two, then one, then none into the finals.

Since that time, Gush has come back into the Vintage landscape, and the result has been an increase in the quantity of Storm decks as well as the diversification of that strategy. Gush decks tend to be faster than traditional Tezzeret decks; they can pack Force of Will and Mana Drain, with a similar disruption package as Tezz but with a draw spell that deploys faster, Gush. They can also use Lotus Cobra, similarly to Snake City Vault, but pair it with Fastbond to create a stronger recurring mana engine. Gush decks also often include at least one storm card, either Empty the Warrens or Tendrils of Agony and sometimes both. This gives them powerful flexibility when fighting against a Tezzeret deck.

The results of the Vintage events after Waterbury tell a story of the decline of Tezzeret. There were twenty events with at least twenty players from 9/11 through 11/21 (excluding the Blue Bell I’m analyzing today but inclusive of Waterbury), and Tezzeret won only one of them. **

Taking a next-level-up view of the field from Blue Bell on 11/20 reveals the following archetype breakdown.

Archetype Breakdown:

Workshops (Excluding Monte) — 14
Dredge — 7
Null Rod Aggro — 7
Tezzeret — 6
Tendrils Combo (excluding Gush) – 6
Gush Storm — 5
Gush Control — 4

As with Waterbury, Workshops were the most played deck on the day, and as with Waterbury and the Grudge Match at Hadley that preceded Waterbury, Workshops won the tournament. Still, at Waterbury, the divide between Tezz and Workshops was slight, with both decks comprising over 20% of the field. At this Blue Bell, Tezzeret was less than 10% of the field, while Workshops were over 20%.

Thus far, there are two Gush decks that have posted results: the NE PA Lotus Cobra deck you can
find here,

and a more control-centric version which you can find later in this article. However, it seems relatively safe to say that Workshops have mostly suppressed Gush strategies that are throwbacks to what Gush did in 2007-2008. The Gush decks that attempt to recreate what Gush did before are finding that, first, their engine isn’t as reliable or powerful when it’s missing Brainstorm and Merchant Scroll, and second, that Workshop decks are considerably better than at any point since Trinisphere was restricted.

How did Gush break down at this tournament, and how did it perform compared to Dark Rituals and Mana Drains, or in combination with those cards?

Pillar Breakdown:


Pillar


Total Field


Top 8

Mishra’s Workshop

15

2

Mana Drain

10

3

Dark Ritual

8

2

Bazaar of Baghdad (Dredge)

7

1

Gush

6

0

Mana Drain / Gush Hybrid

5

0

Dark Ritual / Gush Hybrid

5

0

 

Note that this will total up to more decks than were actually played; the Hybrid columns should be considered independently. Thus, if a deck played Mana Drains, Dark Rituals, and Gush, it’s counted in the Mana Drain column, the Gush column, and both Hybrid columns.

Gush makes the already challenging job of separating similar decks into separate names and archetypes even harder.

Tezzeret, Time Vault, Gush, and the Quest for the Holy Blue Grail

Lastly, what about Time Vault? Considered by many to be the boogeyman of the format over the past two years plus, in this tournament, Time Vault was able to muster two copies in the Top 8 but was shut out of the finals. Overall, Time Vault was present in fifteen decks, or under 24% of the field.

Despite a lot of resistance from the Vintage community, I’ve gone out of my way to note several milestones during which Time Vault seemed to be receding to a lesser threshold of play, where it would plateau at a decreased percentage of the format. A card that absolutely dominated for the first half of 2009, clocking in at nearly 50% of the field in some tournaments, has finally been pushed back to reasonable levels. Even more impressive, non-Tezzeret decks using Time Vault are also being pushed back from the forefront of the format. It’s no longer being shoehorned into Workshop decks or combo decks.

Consider a few of the tournaments over the past year for which I’ve had access to either the decklists or the tournament data:

November 2009, Philly Open IV:

Time Vault is in 41.7% of the decks, out of 68 players. Dredge wins the tournament.

February 2010, Philly Open V:

Time Vault is in 35.4% of the decks, out of 82 players. TPS wins the tournament.

May 2010, Philly Open VI:

Time Vault is in 36.6% of the decks, out of 41 players. Jace Storm, with Time Vault, wins the tournament.

September 2010, TMD Open 14:

Time Vault is in 29.6% of the decks, out of 125 players. MUD wins the tournament.

November 2010, Blue Bell Game Day 10:

Time Vault is in 23.8% of the decks, out of 63 players. MUD wins the tournament.

Perhaps the only major American Vintage event won by Tezzeret this year was Vintage Champs, which was also the only event on the list that didn’t allow proxies, for whatever that’s worth. That isn’t said to discount the significance of Owen’s win with Tezzeret, just an observation. For what it’s worth, Champs events at Gen Con are often noted for strange results.

Consider the winners of the last three Legacy Champs, for example: 2008 — Counter Slivers, 2009 — Dredge, 2010 — Goblins. Few would suggest that those results are indicative of where Legacy as a format stood at the point in time in which they occurred.

In Europe, Tezzeret also struggled in 2010. Bazaar of Moxen and Ovino were both won by MUD, as was D-Day in Florence. You have to go all the way back to February 2010 to find a major European Vintage tournament won by Tezzeret.

A Gush Deck That Wins

While Gush struck out completely at this tournament, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least show you what Gush Control without Time Vault looks like, as it’s a viable deck that has done well in several tournaments (and wasn’t played at all in Blue Bell). This build won a 148-player tournament on October 9 and Ruben followed that up with another win in a 58-player tournament on 11/20:


This deck doesn’t play Time Vault and instead uses Tendrils as the primary win condition; instead of speeding into it as TPS does, it’s more interested in grinding out incremental advantage, while still being capable of explosive wins.

The sideboard uses a strategy of using a basic Mountain to play Ingot Chewer and Viashino Heretic to beat Workshops, while banking on Duress and Mindbreak Trap to beat other Gush decks and Storm decks. Fire / Ice provides removal for Dark Confidant or Goblin Welder, or even Lotus Cobra. A deck like this requires specific tweaking for your local metagame, but it’s an extremely flexible shell that has won three tournaments since the removal of Gush from the Restricted list; because it doesn’t focus on one card or linear, it’s hard to combat. Vendilion Clique is a nice touch.

I’m not a huge fan of the absence of Tinker from the full seventy-five, but I haven’t tested to determine whether my inclination to include it is way off base. It has the tools to beat Workshops, Tezzeret, and other Gush decks. Depending on the popularity of Dredge in your area, you may need to beef up the Dredge hate, as in this build it’s pretty light. You’d be wise to include it in your gauntlet and see if some minor changes can make it viable for your next event.

The Future of Blue in Vintage

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon recently at Vintage events, wherein a number of the best players seem increasingly uncomfortable in the format because they cannot find a dominant blue deck. While some of the versions of blue that have done well over the past year appear to have been made obsolete by the ascendance of MUD, others may be ready to push back against the format and find success.

Based on my testing and observation to this point, I think that the following four decks stand out as the blue decks most likely to succeed:

1 — Gush Control

In the mode of the version that has actually won several events (see above). That’s an ultra-flexible list that has some flaws in my opinion but also looks like something I’d consider playing; the other Gush decks I’ve seen, while powerful, mostly fall under the “danger of cool things” category. This version is the first I’ve seen with a fully functioning and integrated anti-Workshop plan for post-sideboard games.

2 — Trygon Tezz

Going backwards in time to something similar to the deck that won Champs is probably a wise choice for many Vintage tournaments. Workshops, across the globe, are the most popular deck of late, at 20-25% of the metagame, and Dredge and Storm are both often clocking in at over 10%. That means half of the field can be beaten by a Trygon Tezz player with appropriate sideboard cards. Steve Nowakowski’s Trygon Tezz, at the end of this article, is a good starting point. While the Gush matchup is more passable than good, currently the Gush decks seem to be folding quickly at most tournaments due to all the MUD decks, so it’s a question of dodging them and leveraging player skill — which, I think, is the purpose of looking for the “best blue deck” in the first place.

3 — Bob Tendrils

I still think some version of Bob Tendrils is an excellent choice. While my results were less than spectacular at the last Blue Bell, I do think that the basic design of that deck is sound and probably a good choice in this metagame. I often found myself wishing that I had one more Jace, as it is such a centrally important card in terms of beating other blue decks.

4 — Elephant Oath

I experimented a bit with an Oath deck packing Lightning Bolts to handle Trygon Predator, Dark Confidant, and Jace after Champs but gave up on it due to the prevalence of Nature’s Claim in the format. As the format has developed, Nature’s Claim is seeing less play in maindecks, and Elephant Oath may be ready for a return to the format. While Brian’s list has a few sideboard choices I’m not excited about — such as a notable lack of anti-Fish cards — he’s done well with the deck lately, as has Keith Seals with his Peanut Oath, a version of Elephant Oath that uses Tidespout Tyrant. Oath has often had a favorable matchup against MUD, and a build like Brian’s really amps up that strength using Nature’s Claim and Lightning Bolt to suppress Lodestone Golem.

An honorable-mention fifth deck would be some version of Gro, which I wouldn’t rule out yet.

Hopefully I’ve given you some data and deck ideas to chew on. If you have any specific questions regarding the make-up of the decks at the 11/20 Blue Bell, ask in the forums, and I’ll try to research for you.

While the major Vintage events for this year are over, at least in the US, that doesn’t mean you can’t apply these ideas to your local events to win yourself some additional power.

After all, one can never have enough power…

Matt Elias

[email protected]


Voltron00x on SCG, TMD, and The Source

*Appendix 1 — Top 8 Decks, Blue Bell Game Day 10, November 20, 2010








 


**Appendix 2 — Vintage Tournament Winners, 9/11-11/21

9/11 TMD 14, Waterbury (125 players)
Winner – MUD

9/12 Milan (233 players)
Winner — Bob Tendrils

9/18 Bloomsburg (20 players)
Winner — Gro (note: Gush still restricted)

9/19 Xtreme Games (23 players)
Winner — MUD

9/25 Vilanova del Cami (54 players)
Winner — Bob Tendrils

10/2 Ann Arbor (23 players)
Winner — Gro (note: Gush unrestricted)

10/3 Melbourne (28 players)
Winner — MUD (Metalworker)

10/9 Alcobendas (148 players)
Winner — Gush Control

10/9 Melbourne (50 players)
Winner — Mono-Red Stax

10/10 Zurich (38 players)
Winner — MUD (Metalworker)

10/11 Madrid (24 players)
Winner — Tezz (Trygon)

10/17 La Habra (20 players)
Winner — Oath of Druids

10/23 Badalona (51 players)
Winner — MUD (Metalworker)

10/30 Bloomsburg (25 players)
Winner – Dredge

10/31 Lutzelhouse — French Open (69 players)
Winner – Madness

11/14 Zurich (45 players)
Winner — Bob Tendrils

11/14 Durham (35 players)
Winner — Gush Control

11/14 Macareta (28 players)
Winner – Survival

11/20 Floret de Mar (58 players)
Winner — Gush Control

11/21 Eindhoven — Dutch Champs (39 players)
Winner — Madness