The Long & Winding Road – Introducing Two Card Monte: A Vintage Primer

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Thursday, February 11th – It is extremely hard to innovate new strategies in Vintage. Although Vintage is the most inclusive of the Magic formats in terms of raw card pool, in reality it has a relatively small pool of playable cards. Vintage is made up of only the best of Magic, resulting in a set of decks that have minor differences, but are built around the same core of cards.

It is extremely hard to innovate new strategies in Vintage. Although Vintage is the most inclusive of the Magic formats in terms of raw card pool, in reality it has a relatively small pool of playable cards. Vintage is made up of only the best of Magic, resulting in a set of decks that have minor differences, but are built around the same core of cards. The consolidation of the different Mana Drain strategies (Slaver, Painter, and so on) into Tezzeret over the past year has made it even more difficult to find space to innovate.

American Vintage in particular has seen a precipitous decline in combo decks compared to European Vintage, where TPS and Blue-centric combo variants are still having success (and where Fish is much more popular). If there were a playable combo deck, it would open up the format considerably and help weaken Tezzeret’s hold on the format by forcing a diversification of sideboard cards. At the moment, Belcher and Ad Nauseam Tendrils (ANT) see little play due to their weakness against Tezzeret. Combo decks such as these are a good foil for Dredge decks, because they’re faster — and they’re one of the reasons why Dredge traditionally had to run disruption like Chalice of the Void, Leyline of the Void, and Unmask. Modern Dredge decks are moving away from a disruption package for greater consistency, as Dredge has become the fastest deck in the format. At the moment, the metagame on the east coast is shifting toward Time Vault strategies (Tezzeret and Oath of Druids) against Dredge, with the Dredge decks built with an eye on consistency and hate-resistance.

Today, I’m going to present to you a combo deck that looks different than anything played in modern Vintage. I don’t consider this a finished product, as there are a number of ideas and strategies that I haven’t been able to text extensively. However, the deck is already viable enough that I feel comfortable discussing it:

The idea for this deck started out on The Mana Drain, in the Vintage Improvement section. The original build was posited as a Turbo Painter/Grindstone combo deck that also included Key / Vault and had 3 Leyline of the Void in the main, along with Dark Rituals for acceleration. While I’ve often wanted to play a Painter/Grindstone deck in Vintage that utilized Mishra’s Workshop to power out the combo quickly, I could never figure out a way to get it to be competitive. The answer came in adding a second two-card combo, Leyline of the Void and Helm of Obedience, along with Serum Powders, tons of fast mana, and a few key pieces of resilience such as Goblin Welder. The development of this deck was aided significantly (although begrudgingly) by members of Team D3G, especially Steve Nowakowski.

I’m hoping you’re still reading at this point. Hear me out – this deck isn’t a joke.

A full four copies of both parts of each combo were included with the exception of Grindstone, which is dead on its own. Tutors and Serum Powder allow the pilot to dig for pieces or pitch away hands that didn’t work without being exposed to unnecessary mulligans. The end result is a deck capable of consistently turning in second turn wins, with first-turn wins a definite possibility. The deck does this with a degree of resiliency much higher than something like ANT, due to its use of Welder and Red Elemental Blast. The key difference is that unlike Storm decks or Belcher, this deck’s mana sources are mostly permanents and not spells. While your win condition is still vulnerable to counterspells, your mana generation is not, and you are able to win as soon as you draw into another combo piece. There’s no need to rebuild your mana base or spell count if your opponent stops your first attempt. Additionally, this deck doesn’t “fizzle” the way that Belcher can, as you aren’t revealing cards off the top — there’s no luck in the equation. I believe this deck is as fast or faster than most current TPS builds, and depending on how aggressive you play your hands, it can be almost as fast as ANT and Belcher.

The fact that the win conditions are all artifact-based puts the deck in an interesting position in post-Lodestone Golem Vintage. Two Card Monte is resistant to early lock pieces from Stax decks and is almost unaffected by Lodestone Golem. The use of so much fast mana alongside full sets of Workshops and Ancient Tombs results in plenty of mana available for playing win conditions, even in the face of Spheres/Thorns and Lodestone Golem. The secondary combo is vulnerable to Chalice of the Void, but the primary combo is resistant to it. Graveyard hate is inefficient against TCM, because it only affects Welder — this deck is not a graveyard-based combo deck and does not play Yawgmoth’s Will.

A few words on each “pocket” of cards:

Win condition — Primary: (12)
4 Leyline of the Void
4 Helm of Obedience
4 Serum Powder

This is the main combo of the deck, and the mechanism for making sure the deck opens up on turn zero Leyline of the Void. For those that aren’t aware, the interaction between Leyline of the Void and Helm of Obedience works in such a way that with Leyline in play and a Helm activation with X equaling one or more, the Helm will Exile the opponent’s entire library in one shot. This combo is not only powerful, its easy to get into play on the first turn on the game as Leyline is free and Helm is easily cast off Mishra’s Workshop.

If you open up on a seven-card hand with both Leyline of the Void and Helm of Obedience, there is a high likelihood that you’ll at least be able to get Helm into play on turn one, and it is quite possible that you can activate immediately for a first-turn win. Should you have access to Red Elemental Blast, it is possible to win through a Force of Will on the first turn. Because the deck contains two different combos and plenty of tutors, you can use Serum Powder aggressively to hunt for this combo in your opening hand. Serum Powder is also the reason why the Time Vault / Voltaic Key combo is excluded. The great thing about this combo is that neither piece is dead on its own. Leyline of the Void in the main is decent against both Iona Oath and Stax builds, and obviously should give you a huge advantage against Dredge. Helm of Obedience is also a solid card — against Tezzeret you can use it to counteract top-deck tutors, as well as stealing Dark Confidants or, even better, Tinker targets. The only issue with the Helm combo in this particular version is that without Dark Rituals, it can be difficult to cast Leyline of the Void if it isn’t in your opening grip, but rainbow lands and the ability to tutor for Lotus and reuse it with Welder help mitigate this problem.

Win condition — Secondary: (7)
3 Grindstone
4 Painter’s Servant

The Painter/Grindstone combo is the back-up win condition in the main deck. It is very easy to play out both on the first turn using a Mishra’s Workshop, and often you will be able to activate on the second turn of the game — although sometimes this combo can also fire on the first turn of the game given sufficient access to fast mana (this typically requires Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, or Mana Vault). The inclusion of Red Elemental Blasts is a nod to both opposing counter-magic as well as the ability of Painter’s Servant to turn those cards into removal spells (for things like Null Rod, for example). The drawback of this combo is that it is more mana-intensive than Helm, and Grindstone is a mostly dead card without Painter’s Servant (although it can also counteract top-deck tutors). Note that this combo often makes use of Serum Powder for mana — for instance, you might open on Mishra’s Workshop and a Mox, and cast Grindstone and Painter’s Servant. You then untap, play a rainbow land and cast Serum Powder off Mishra’s Workshop, giving you access to three mana to activate Grindstone.

Tutors / card draw: (6)
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Demonic Consultation
1 Memory Jar
1 Tinker
1 Ancestral Recall

These cards represent your ability to manipulate the deck and complete either of the combos or dig for protection (or a Goblin Welder). Tinker also becomes an alternate win condition post-sideboard against decks that use Null Rod. Demonic Consultation is particularly explosive in this deck, because both of the combos are full of duplication and safe to find using Consultation, and it puts the card you need immediately into your hand.

Protection / Resilience: (8)
4 Goblin Welder
3 Red Elemental Blast
1 Sundering Titan

My original build included 4 Thoughtseize and 4 Pact of Negation, but the set of cards above actually better serve the deck’s needs. Red Elemental Blast is an efficient anti-counter measure that gains value because the deck plays Painter’s Servant. Goblin Welder is a better anti-counter measure than Thoughtseize, as if Welder resolves, it essentially blanks all the future counterspells. If the game goes long, Welder is extremely valuable to the deck, and in match-ups like Tezzeret, it provides double-duty by combating Key/Vault (as you will often be able to dump cards into your opponent’s Graveyard using Helm or Grindstone). Sundering Titan is the tertiary win condition, and is easy to cast as well as Tinker into play. You can approximate a control deck to some extent by using Welder to bring Titan in and out of play and crushing your opponent’s mana.

Fast Mana: (19)
1 Black Lotus
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Crypt
1 Lotus Petal
1 Mana Vault
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Pearl
1 Tolarian Academy
4 Mishra’s Workshop
4 Ancient Tomb

Rainbow Mana: (8)
4 City of Brass
4 Gemstone Mine

Sideboard: (15)

4 Dark Confidant — These come in specifically for Tezzeret or similar control decks. The combined CMC of the maindeck is actually only 84, or 1.4 on average, but will decrease slightly when you board in the Confidants in place of Powders.

2 Tormod’s Crypt — Additional protection against Dredge, which can be recurred with Goblin Welder if necessary.

1 Pithing Needle — Further protection against Dredge, this card can also come in against decks with Qasali Pridemage or to combat Wasteland or Key/Vault.

2 Ancient Grudge — Comes in against Workshop decks as well as decks with Null Rod.

2 Nature’s Claim — Combats Null Rod as well as Oath of Druids.

1 Hurkyl’s Recall — Anti-Stax card that can also provide double-duty against Null Rod.

1 Balance — All-purpose board sweeper against Fish and other aggro decks like Goblins.

1 Echoing Truth — All-purpose bounce spell.

1 Darkblast — Primarily an anti-Dark Confidant and anti-Welder card.

Odd Exclusions:

Dark Ritual — My original build included 4 Dark Rituals, but I kept reducing the number because the deck had too many mana sources and not enough action. Ultimately I cut the full playset, and I haven’t really missed them. Including Dark Rituals, Draw 7s, and Yawgmoth’s Will is certainly an option, but then the deck more closely approximates TPS.

Yawgmoth’s Will — Will seems like it should be an auto-include, but without Dark Rituals, it actually just doesn’t do that much in this deck. The most important problem is that you very rarely want to tutor for Will, because you usually have half a combo and want to find the other piece, and not Will.

Thoughtseize / Duress — These were included in the original version but were ultimately cut in favor of Welder. What I learned while testing the deck is that you don’t want to keep hands with mana, a tutor, and Thoughtseize, because they don’t pull together fast enough. That’s not what this deck is about. If Thoughtseize or Duress are mainly included to combat counterspells, Goblin Welder is the better man for the job. It could be possible that Thoughtseize is better in some metagames than Red Elemental Blast, or that it could be in the sideboard.

Enlightened Tutor — The rainbow manabase supports Enlightened Tutor, which is now unrestricted. I’m still on the fence about including this card and how many I might want. The black tutors are all superior because they find lands and Welder. There might be room for these somewhere, but as of this writing, I can’t make this card fit.

Ponder / Brainstorm — These cards were tested and found to be lacking compared to straight-up tutor effects. I’m actually still on the fence regarding Ancestral Recall, but cutting it just feels so wrong.

Timetwister / Wheel of Fortune / Windfall — There’s a lot of merit to playing Draw 7s in this deck. I have tested the deck briefly with these three cards in the main and another land in place of the Serum Powders, and it is definitely explosive. I’m not yet sure if the trade-off is worthwhile. Draw 7s might also better than some of the tutors or even Ancestral Recall. Regardless, the use of Welder in the deck means that Memory Jar is an auto-include.

Playing the Deck

For the most part, playing Two Card Monte is straight-forward. If your opening hand contains Serum Powder and you don’t have Leyline of the Void, AND you don’t have Painter AND Grindstone (or one of the two plus a tutor you can play immediately), you probably want to exile those seven and draw again.

Chaining Serum Powders isn’t really a concern given the amount of duplication in the deck, although if you hit three of a combo piece, you may want to consider a mulligan instead of a Powder (depending on what you’re playing against and what the rest of the hand contains). In testing, there were several games where I chained two or three Serum Powders into a hand that was a first-turn win.

Generally speaking, you want to “go for it” on the first turn of the game, with a few exceptions:

• If waiting one turn will allow you to use Red Elemental Blast
• If waiting one turn will allow you to play Goblin Welder against a control deck

That said, you often want to go for it if you have it. The way the deck is built, it isn’t the end of the world if one combo piece gets countered, because you play so many more and you have a full second combo. Additionally, Welders are there to reassemble whichever piece got countered. It isn’t uncommon for this deck to go for a first-turn kill, have it get countered, play a tutor or Welder on turn two, and still win on turn three. The deck is fast and brutal, and unlike Storm decks, everything overlaps and win conditions are abundant. A resolved Sadistic Sacrament impacts the deck but in no way prevents you from being able to win.

If you find yourself being dragged into a longer game, use Helm of Obedience and Grindstone to your advantage. Activate Helm at the end of the turn, so that your opponent can’t sneak in a top-deck tutor. Don’t be afraid of “burning” a Helm if you don’t have a Leyline, as most decks have creatures you actually want to get into play, and you can use Welder to get Helm back. For example, hitting a creature against Oath can win the game, and against Tezzeret, stealing Dark Confidant can help you gain advantage. Against Fish, if you Helm into a Pridemage, you can use it later to destroy Null Rod. Generally speaking, of course, you never want to find yourself in these situations — your objective is to win as quickly as possible.

Regarding Painter’s Servant: you very rarely want to name “blue” with Painter’s Servant in the dark, because you enable easier Force of Wills on the opponent’s side for minimal gain on your side. Having said that, you might occasionally be forced to do so in order to use REB as a removal spell. Additionally, NEVER cast Painter’s Servant against Oath unless you’re ready to win the game immediately. Not only could it activate their Oath of Druids, you’ll lock yourself right out of the game if they Oath into Iona.

Is this deck for real? What I can tell you is that it holds its own against the top-tier of Vintage decks based on my testing against Tezzeret, Oath, 5C Stax, Fish, and Dredge. Of those, the Tezzeret match-up is the most difficult game one but improves dramatically with the Dark Confidants out of the sideboard (as you get much more value out of a consistent source of cards than an aggressive mulligan-assistant), while the Fish match-up is relatively difficult both pre- and post-board depending on how aggressively they mulligan and how many Null Rods they’re using. Playing this deck, you have the advantage of wielding a deck that is new to the format and will probably be underestimated. Outside of that, you have at least even match-ups against most of the other Vintage decks that see play, and with Dredge being so popular, you have an inherent advantage over one of the more common and powerful decks. The Workshop match-up also seems very positive, although Shop decks with Null Rod would be much harder to beat than those without.

Again, I’ll discuss in more detail next week, but I played this deck in Harrisburg on 1/31 and was able to open up 3-0 (defeating Workshop Aggro, Dredge, and Tezzeret) and draw into the top 8 before losing a close match against a Dark Times deck.

Does Worldwake have anything to offer this deck? The key card you gain from Worldwake is also probably the best Vintage card in the set: Nature’s Claim. This card is one of the most versatile sideboard cards ever made and will exert considerable influence on Vintage sideboards going forward. Nature’s Claim is simply amazing in this deck, as you don’t care about your opponent’s life total at all. This card allows you to free up space by consolidating your Oath, Workshop, and anti-Null Rod cards into one card. However, if your opponent is playing Nature’s Claim, your life will get much harder, as it can destroy every single combo piece in the deck. In a post-Nature’s Claim world, some redesigns to the sideboard may be necessary.

Suggested Sideboarding:


Out: -4 Serum Powder, -1 Demonic Consultation
In: +4 Dark Confidant, +1 Darkblast

In this match-up, you need to deemphasize speed and increase resiliency. Dark Confidant can keep your hand “reloaded” and gives you resiliency through card advantage. Fire/Ice and Darkblast are the two cards you fear when you sideboard like this, but playing early Welders and Dark Confidants before attempting combos gives you a much better win percentage. I’m not a huge fan of Consultation in this match-up because some of the games have a tendency to go long.

5C Stax:

Out: -3 Red Elemental Blast, -1 Sundering Titan
In: +2 Ancient Grudge, +1 Hurkyl’s Recall, +1 Darkblast

You have an inherent advantage in this match-up because this deck is so fast. Because 5C Stax does not play Null Rod, and this deck is relatively resistant to lock pieces and Trinisphere, limited sideboarding into some relevant anti-artifact flexibility and a Darkblast is all you really need. Bringing in Pithing Needle is certainly an option here as well.

Mono-Red Stax, B/R Stax, Workshop Aggro:

Out: -3 Red Elemental Blast, -2 Goblin Welder, -1 Tinker, -1 Sundering Titan
In: +2 Ancient Grudge, +1 Echoing Truth, +1 Hurkyl’s Recall, +2 Nature’s Claim, +1 Darkblast

Due to their use of Null Rod, additional anti-artifact cards are required against these Stax decks. It is critically important in this match-up that you have Leyline of the Void to trump their use of Welder and Crucible of Worlds, as you will otherwise have difficulty keeping the board clear of Null Rod.

Noble Fish:

Out: -4 Serum Powder, -1 Demonic Consultation
In: +1 Echoing Truth, +1 Balance, +2 Ancient Grudge, +1 Hurkyl’s Recall

The Fish match-up can be quite difficult, particularly Noble Fish. The key advantage over those decks is speed, but you lose some consistency siding out the Serum Powders. Needle is an option to come in against Noble Fish (for Pridemage, as a bullet target) but is less necessary against BUG Fish. In the Fish match-up, your goal is to use Welder to get your threats into play past counter-magic, and then win using a bounce piece plus REB if a Null Rod is in play.


Out: -1 Painter’s Servant, -1 Demonic Consultation, -1 Sundering Titan
In: +2 Tormod’s Crypt, +1 Pithing Needle

Obviously the key to beating Dredge is just finding Leyline of the Void and protecting it with Red Elemental Blast long enough to win. Because you’re going to be using Powder aggressively to find Leyline, you can deemphasize the Painter/Grindstone combo to make room for additional hate. Tormod’s Crypts are reusable in this deck thanks to the presence of Goblin Welder.

Oath of Druids:

Out: -2 Serum Powder, -1 Goblin Welder
In: +2 Nature’s Claim, +1 Echoing Truth

Oath of Druids is an interesting deck to sideboard against, because most builds are reasonably disruptive (with Thoughtseize / Duress and potentially some number of Wasteland) as well as counterspells and sometimes a very fast clock. This combination is what makes Oath both appealing and successful in modern Vintage. To combat Oath, and as a nod to their use of Force of Will and other counterspells, I bring in some hate to even the playing field. Generally I prefer to keep in all of the powders or remove them all, but because there are multiple versions of Oath out there, all of the cards have varying degrees of value.


Please understand that I’m not claiming to have “broken” Vintage, or that this deck is the best deck in the format. I do believe that this deck is competitive, and probably good enough to win a Vintage tournament. It’s been a while since this type of deck was viable in the format, so if you’ve been searching for a fast and brutal Vintage combo deck, this deck might be for you.

This is an expensive deck, and not easy to build without proxies or for a low-proxy limit, and that may limit its appeal. I’m also reasonably sure that this build is not the optimal build, as I have only been playing the deck for a short period of time. The exact tools that should surround the core of the deck (Leyline of the Void, Helm of Obedience, Painter’s Servant, Grindstone, Serum Powder, Mishra’s Workshop, Ancient Tomb) may require some tweaking before the deck is optimized. For example, Intuition might be a powerful addition to this style of deck — if Welder resolves, then Intuition sets you up for the win quite easily. With cards like Darkblast and Ancient Grudge in the sideboard, it only gets more powerful post-board.

Two Card Monte is vulnerable to Nature’s Claim and Mindbreak Trap, so if the deck does catch on, the tools to beat it are readily accessible. It would be very difficult to beat a Remora Control deck running both of those cards, for example. The fact that Mindbreak Trap exiles the card it counters becomes hugely relevant for a deck like this because it counteracts Goblin Welder.

I hope you enjoyed the deck and the primer — give the deck a shot and see if it fits your style. Trust me, you’ll have a blast with this one.

Next week, I’ll take a look at my experience playing it in Harrisburg on 1/31.

Matt Elias
[email protected]
Voltron00x on SCG, TMD, and The Source