The Long & Winding Road – One Fish, Two Fish, Noble Fish?

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Monday, January 18th – There are a few key creatures in almost all of the popular Vintage archetypes. Dark Confidant’s use has dramatically increased as that card is now the de facto draw engine of Tezzeret post-Thirst for Knowledge, and Tezzeret also typically plays one large robot as a Tinker target (Sphinx of the Steel Wind and Inkwell Leviathan being the most popular).

Creatures are viable in Vintage. You might think I’m stating the obvious — most Vintage decks include creatures to some extent.

There are a few key creatures in almost all of the popular Vintage archetypes. Dark Confidant’s use has dramatically increased as that card is now the de facto draw engine of Tezzeret post-Thirst for Knowledge, and Tezzeret also typically plays one large robot as a Tinker target (Sphinx of the Steel Wind and Inkwell Leviathan being the most popular). Goblin Welder certainly still sees play in Stax, and Oath of Druids decks include creatures (Hellkite Overlord and Iona, Sheild of Emeria are the two most common choices at the moment). And, technically, Dredge decks are loaded up with creatures. Many TPS decks even include one creature target for Tinker.

Clearly, none of these are creature-centric decks in the traditional sense. Has Vintage largely moved beyond the creature?

Not at all.

One of the most common comments I hear when discussing Vintage with non-Vintage players is that the format is devoid of decks that play creatures and turn them sideways. While this can’t really be said of most European metagames (where Fish decks are very popular), it does seem to be a relatively accurate statement about American Vintage. Certainly in the mid-Atlantic metagame, creature decks are not common, and generally the top 8 of Blue Bell and Philly Open events is made up of Tezzeret, Oath of Druids, Stax, TPS, and Ichorid — almost never Fish or other creature decks. The short blip that BUG Fish had on the Vintage radar over the summer seems like a distant memory now, as outside of the ICBM event, the deck has struggled to catch on or post results. The recent success of the Oath of Druids strategy is also a definite deterrant to creature-based decks.

What incentive could there really be to run a creature-based strategy in Vintage? Such a deck would need to be able to hold its own against Tezzeret, Oath of Druids, and Stax decks, and have the ability to sideboard against Ichorid (and TPS in some metagames). BUG Fish has not really shown that it is capable of doing so — but thankfully, there are other options. Although these options have not been popular, they are most definitely viable, and by all rights should see more play than they do. I’m going to focus mostly on my current favorite, but I will try and include the majority of creature-centric decks in the world of Vintage that have been posting results.

The Noble Fish deck, above, is a deceptively powerful Fish deck that is well-positioned in most current Vintage metagames; this is a slightly updated version of Mykie Noble’s winning deck from Blue Bell a few months back. Any Vintage deck, including a creature-centric approach, needs to have even to positive match-ups against Tezzeret, Oath of Druids, and Stax. Let’s see how this deck achieves those results.

General Theory

Stephen Menendian would argue that all decks are metagame decks. I don’t disagree, but to some extent, we should acknowledge that there are decks that are more metagame dependant than others. I would suggest that Noble Fish is one of those decks. For example, most Tezzeret decks have a significant core of cards that will only change if the metagame shows dramatic adjustments, while Fish decks are exceptionally fluid — Fish decks from different metagames are markedly different. As far as Noble Fish, the card choices in this deck are specifically assembled to attack the current metagame leaders, Tezzeret and Oath of Druids, so where the deck plays cards that are not powerful in the abstract (even compared to BUG Fish), the overall effect is that the pilot can expect positive match-ups against much of the field.

Defeating Tezzeret

The key difference in the Tezzeret between this deck and BUG Fish is Qasali Pridemage. If you’ve been reading my articles recently, you know that I have a lot of love for this card – it is surprising how powerful this creature is in modern Vintage. Against Tezzeret, Pridemage plays a number of roles. If Pridemage resolves, the entire nature of your game against Tezzeret will change. With Pridemage in play, the Tezz player is unable to execute the Voltaic Key / Time Vault win condition. Many Tezzeret lists play Fire/Ice and Repeal, but unless the Tezzeret player is lucky, they need to expend time and resources to find those cards — and Noble Fish is quite good at making it hard for Tezzeret to do so. Null Rod is able to force a fundamental turn on the Tezzeret player’s side very quickly.

Pridemage can also be used to extend the attack on Tezzeret’s mana; Noble Fish is designed to keep Tezzeret locked in Phase 1 by preventing any type of meaningful board development. Stifle, Pridemage, Trygon Predator, Null Rod, Wasteland, and Strip Mine combine with counterspells (which can go after fast mana or draw spells to keep the Tezz player off their game plan) to make life difficult for the Tezzeret pilot. While literally stifling Tezzeret’s development, Noble Fish can establish a fast clock, either by stacking up Exalted triggers or by bashing in with a large Tarmogoyf (or, often, both).

Noble Fish includes a full set of four Null Rods, which function as both mana denial and a way of defeating Tezzeret’s main win condition of Time Vault / Voltaic Key. Spell Pierce has also been a clutch addition to this deck, and in the early game will function as a hard counter, particularly if a Null Rod resolved. You may notice that Noble Fish has fewer accelerants for first-turn plays than a deck like Meandeck Beats. In the past, this deck banked on Stifle and Daze to survive the first turn without an accelerant, but in my experience, Spell Pierce has really pushed this deck up the competitive ladder and opened up its strategic options in the early game. You can use Pierce to protect your hand against Thoughtseize / Duress, counter a fast-mana spell like Sol Ring or Black Lotus, or use a mana accelerant on turn two to play Null Rod or Pridemage with Spell Pierce back-up (in addition to Daze and Force of Will).

Where this deck does fall short is in battling the Tinker plan. Should Tezzeret resolve a Tinker, Noble Fish is ill-equipped to win the game — although in a Sphinx-heavy metagame, it would be possible to use Swords to Plowshares out of the sideboard. Athough this seems like a low-EV plan to me, if a Tezzeret pilot was using a full set of Confidants, it doesn’t seem totally out of the question. Regardless, the Noble Fish player always needs to guard against Tinker. Some builds include cards like Mystical Tutor and Rebuild in the main, and it is also possible to sideboard something like Curfew in place of Swords to Plowshares / Path to Exile.

Defeating Oath of Druids

I’ve played a lot of Oath over the past 12 months, and if there’s one deck I don’t want to play against, it would be Noble Fish. In addition to everything that Qasali Pridemage does against Tezzeret, it also destroys Oath of Druids, making it one of the best cards available in a field saturated with Oath players. Noble Fish also includes Meddling Mage, a card whose value I question at times — but never in the Oath match-up. Spell Pierce, Force of Will, and Daze can keep the Oath player from resolving an early Oath, and the longer the game goes on, the less able the Oath player is to win the game, as cards like Trygon Predator prevent the Oath plan, and Pridemage and Null Rod keep the Time Vault option off the table.

Although Oath of Druids can sideboard cards against Noble Fish, many people do include such cards only sparingly (myself included), because Noble Fish is (for whatever reason) under-played compared to other Fish archetypes. The only Fish match I’ve lost in tournament play with Oath was to a B/U/W version that included Meddling Mage and Spell Snare; normal BUG Fish has not been a problem. Cards such as Firespout and Pernicious Deed are often marginally effective against Noble Fish, as Meddling Mage can turn them off; they are also highly susceptible to Spell Pierce and Daze, and Noble Fish often has enough preventative counter-magic to keep such cards from resolving.

The inclusion of Meddling Mage and Qasali Pridemage, and plenty of counterspells to get those cards to resolve and stay in play, makes this match-up a nightmare for Oath. The threat of Swords to Plowshares out of the sideboard, whether utilized or not, forces the Oath player to carefully consider going all-in on the Oath plan. Most Oath decks are also relatively light on mana, which is understandable when you look at the average converted mana cost of the cards that deck plays. This results in Oath decks that are vulnerable to disruption by Null Rod and Wasteland. Finally, the ability to sideboard into a full set of Trygon Predators can be back-breaking in this match-up.

Of course, if you really want to stick it to the Oath player, just add Ray of Revelation to your sideboard. Although in my experience this list can struggle to hit WW in the early game, True Believer is another potential sideboard option should you be overly concerned with the Oath match-up.

Defeating Stax

While Noble Fish is designed to beat Tezzeret and Oath more so than Stax, this deck is very competitive against most popular Stax configurations. Because the overall Vintage metagame is light on creatures, many 5C Stax players utilize Thorn of Amethyst, making their mana denial plan less effective against a deck like Noble Fish. The cheap and free counterspells in Noble Fish allow the deck to survive past the first few lock pieces and gain enough tempo advantage to develop a board presence, and most Stax lists are ill-suited to clear a developed board that includes a number of creatures.

Again in the Stax match-up, Qasali Pridemage is an all-star, clearing the board of lock pieces long enough for Noble Fish to stay on the offensive. Noble Hierarch is also a key player here, as creature-based mana sources are few and far between in modern Vintage. Probably the best weapon against Stax is Trygon Predator. The version I posted above acknowledges the Stax presence in my metagame by siding into a full set of Trygon Predator and adding additional outs to Chalice of the Void — a resolved Chalice of the Void with two counters is a major impediment to victory for Noble Fish.

When considering 5C Stax, the Fish player again needs to be aware of the power of Tinker in this match-up to avoid being devastated by Sundering Titan or Triskelion. Null Rod has only marginal value against Stax, and mana denial cards are not a good idea against a deck that wants nothing more than to attack your mana, so this is a relatively easy match-up to sideboard. One advantage of Noble Fish is its built-in resistance to Tabernacle of the Pendrell Vale — keep that card in mind when deciding how to use Wasteland and Strip Mine in games two and three against Stax.

Defeating Dredge

Dredge is certainly a strange beast. Throughout 2009, Dredge posted consistent and impressive results in Vintage, and this has accelerated of late as that deck gained strategic options with the printings of Bloodghast and Iona (as well as a variety of different versions including some that utilize Fatestitcher and Shaarum, and others that are closer to mana builds). Of late, I’ve wondered if the printing of a variety of anti-Dredge cards has paradoxically allowed Dredge to improve its results in Vintage. On the surface, running a varied attack against Dredge seems to make sense — but with many decks, the end result is actually an overall decrease in the effectiveness of post-sideboard games. For example, cards like Ravenous Trap, Tormod’s Crypt, and Relic of Progenitus all have the same effect against Dredge by themselves: they set the Dredge player back a few turns, the first time they’re used. However, the use of Force of Will in Dredge sideboards means that current Dredge decks are well-suited to defeating these cards, and they lose value in the third game of a match (where Dredge decks may have Unmask, and are definitely going to play Bazaar and be able to dig for Force of Will to counter the first hate card). Further, decks that increase the creature count, such as those with Bloodghast, Narcomoeba, and Ichorid, force the use of Tormod’s Crypt / Relic of Progenitus / Ravenous Trap much earlier than in the past.

With this in mind, my Noble Fish sideboard is designed to do one thing and one thing only: find Leyline of the Void and protect it. When looking at Vintage sideboards of late, a common theme is that Stax decks still bank on Leyline of the Void in the sideboard (and bring in Red Elemental Blast to counter Chain of Vapor), but most other decks are mixing and matching and not relying on the Leyline plan. In my opinion, based on the sideboards we’re seeing Dredge players run, this is a poor choice. A deck like Tezzeret is better suited on a plan that involves finding Leyline of the Void and Yixlid Jailer, which prevent Dredge from functioning, and protecting them long enough to win, instead of relying on tempo choices like Ravenous Trap (which make much more sense in a deck like TPS, where you only need to survive for a few extra turns). Regardless, the shift away from Leyline of the Void has resulted in Dredge sideboards that acknowledge the existence of Leyline but focus on flexible solutions to a variety of cards.

Noble Fish is quite good at protecting Leyline of the Void through the use of Daze, Spell Pierce, and Force of Will, and unlike most Vintage decks, it doesn’t rely on bullet cards or singleton win conditions. This allows Noble Fish to go completely all-in on the Leyline of the Void plan to the extent that I have included Serum Powders with the sole purpose of finding a turn-zero Leyline of the Void and winning the game before it starts. Noble Fish is further able to disrupt Dredge decks through the use of Wasteland and Strip Mine on both Bazaar of Baghdad and the colored mana that is required to play spells that counteract Leyline of the Void.

While game one is nearly unwinnable against Dredge, the match-up has been favorable post-board.

Defeating TPS

This specific version is not focused on defeating TPS, but that doesn’t imply the match-up is unfavorable. Noble Fish has more than enough disruption to survive through the early game against TPS, and cards like Null Rod and Meddling Mage, supported by counterspells against bounce spells like Chain of Vapor, result in a more than acceptable match-up.

That said, another Zendikar card is available if you want to play Noble Fish in an area where TPS is common: Mindbreak Trap. Adding Trap to Noble’s arsenal of disruption and counterspells can give Noble Fish an edge in this match-up as well. Additionally, True Believer is a potential option. This card is better suited to G/W and Meandeck Beats because of the WW mana requirement, but with a little tweaking of the mana base, True Believer can be a solid role-player in the sideboard that also hits Oath players.

Weaknesses of the Noble Fish Strategy

Noble Fish has a few key weaknesses. Chief among these is its vulnerability against other creature-centric decks. A match against decks like G/R Beats or even a Vintage version of Zoo will be nearly unwinnable for Noble Fish; ditto extremely creature-heavy Null Rod decks like Goblins. I would not advise Noble Fish in a metagame where these decks are common. Similarly, don’t expect to beat a Standard Jund deck with Noble Fish — it has very specific metagame targets.

Noble Fish also lacks Thoughtseize and Duress. I have grown accustomed to having these types of effects at my disposal when playing with Oath of Druids or testing with Tezzeret and TPS. Information is absolutely vital in Vintage, so playing without these cards takes some adjustment. This is one of the reasons why Vendilion Clique is a solid role-player in this deck, but obviously it comes into play more slowly than Duress or Thoughtseize. This lack of information can lead to play errors when you’re first picking up Noble Fish.

As with most Fish decks that lack Dark Confidant, and similarly to Vintage Landstill, Noble Fish is banking on certain cards to carry its match-ups; compared to most Vintage decks, Noble Fish is lacking in both card draw and filtering or tutor effects, so with most hands, what you see is what you get. This deck requires, and rewards, the player who knows when to take an aggressive mulligan. However, some players have had success building a draw engine into the Noble Fish shell, specifically Cold-Eyed Selkie, as a way of addressing this problem. This version is sometimes called Selkie Strike or Selkie Slam. Against Tezzeret and Oath of Druids, Selkie is usually unblockable, and even a single Exalted trigger can result in an unbeatable draw engine. Here’s an example of a build that includes Selkie and won a 49-player tournament in December:

Noble Fish
Alex Yus

4 Noble Hierarch
3 Qasali Pridemage
3 Tarmogoyf
3 Meddling Mage
4 Cold-Eyed Selkie
4 Force of Will
3 Daze
3 Spell Pierce
3 Stifle
3 Null Rod
1 Brainstorm
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Rebuild
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Pearl
4 Wasteland
1 Strip Mine
3 Tropical Island
3 Tundra
3 Flooded Strand
1 Polluted Delta
2 Windswept Heath
1 Island

3 Swords to Plowshares
3 Tormod’s Crypt
2 Aven Mindcensor
2 Trygon Predator
1 Meddling Mage
1 Kataki, War’s Wage
1 Relic of Progenitus
1 Echoing Truth
1 Umezawa’s Jitte

Creature strategies in Vintage extend far beyond Noble Fish, of course.

Blue/Red Fish

This Blue/Red Fish deck just won a 119-player tournament in Hanau on January 3rd. This deck moves the use of Null Rod to the sideboard, and takes advantage of a completely different mana denial strategy including Magus of the Moon and Gorilla Shaman. While some inclusions are interesting to me, this is an interesting deck that shows how different Fish decks are in different metagames; this is also a Fish deck that will have more of a “Vintage” feel to it. The possibility of a Cold-Eyed Selkie equipped with a large Sigil of Distinction is exciting.

BR Fish
Julien Roy

1 Black Lotus
1 Mana Crypt
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Sigil of Distinction
1 Sol Ring
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Brainstorm
4 Daze
4 Force of Will
1 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Inkwell Leviathan
1 Mystical Tutor
3 Spell Snare
1 Time Walk
1 Tinker
3 Vendilion Clique
4 Cold-Eyed Selkie
2 Fire/Ice
2 Gorilla Shaman
2 Grim Lavamancer
4 Magus of the Moon
1 Reckless Charge
3 Island
1 Misty Rainforest
1 Mountain
1 Polluted Delta
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Strip Mine
3 Volcanic Island
2 Wasteland

1 Grim Lavamancer
1 Hurkyl’s Recall
3 Null Rod
1 Pithing Needle
1 Pyroblast
3 Ravenous Trap
1 Shattering Spree
1 Sower of Temptation
1 Spell Snare
1 Trinisphere
1 Umezawa’s Jitte

Meandeck Beats

Stephen Menendian wrote several articles on Meandeck Beats in 2009, including a very interesting set of games against the Tezzeret deck that won Vintage Champs in August. As these articles are available to all readers, I won’t go in-depth on the deck, but I will provide the list I’ve used in testing:

Meandeck Beats

4 Null Rod
3 Thoughtseize
2 Duress
3 Diabolic Edict
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Demonic Consultation
3 Elvish Spirit Guide
3 Aven Mindcensor
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Qasali Pridemage
4 Dark Confidant
4 Gaddock Teeg
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Pearl
1 Black Lotus
3 Wasteland
1 Strip Mine
4 Verdant Catacombs
3 Windswept Heath
1 Forest
1 Plains
1 Swamp
2 Savannah
2 Bayou
2 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]

1 Krosan Grip
1 Seal of Primoridum
1 Oxidize
3 True Believer
2 Swords to Plowshares
2 Yixlid Jailer
2 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Relic of Progenitus
2 Ravenous Trap

There are notable strategic differences in Meandeck Beats as compared to Fish decks. While this deck also uses Qasali Pridemage, it has disruption in the form of Aven Mindcensor, Gaddock Teeg, Thoughtseize, and Duress, and the ability to play tutors like Vampiric Tutor and Demonic Consultation. It also has less vulnerability to Tinker due to the use of Diabolic Edict. I’ve personally found that I would rather have access to counterspells to protect Null Rod in this metagame, but your mileage may vary. Again, the results you get from these decks are highly dependant on the metagames in which you play.

The sideboard for this specific version yields an excellent match-up against Oath of Druids. For those that were unaware, the Oracle text on Oath of Druids was changed and Oath now targets players again, so if you have True Believer in play, it stops your opponent from being able to Oath. After sideboard, in addition to the Pridemages and Diabolic Edicts in the main, you have access to True Believer, Seal of Primordium, Krosan Grip, and Swords to Plowshares. While Meandeck Beats is capable of a Leyline of the Void plan similar to that of Noble Fish, it lacks the counterspells to protect it, making it less advisable. Against Ichorid, I would sideboard out the removal spells and Null Rods to bring in Jailers and the artifact-based hate and Ravenous Traps. This deck’s fast-mana means that you should be able to play Relic on turn 1 with mana up to activate, and Jailer provides a clock and doesn’t shut off your Goyfs the way that Planar Void does. MD Beats does have some built-in resistance to Dredge in the form of Wasteland / Strip Mine and its heavy creature-base (and resultingly fast clock).

Green-White Beats

While the addition of black provides strategic options, Green/White has some devoted adherents as well. Here is one example I pulled from the Green/White discussion on The Mana Drain:

Green/White Beatz

Ben Kowal

4 Aven Mindcensor
4 Qasali Pridemage
3 Gaddock Teeg
3 Elvish Spirit Guide
2 Kataki, War’s Wage
2 Jotun Grunt
2 Vexing Shusher
2 Ethersworn Canonist

4 Null Rod
3 Thorn of Amethyst
2 Choke
2 Enlightened Tutor
1 Seal of Cleansing

1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Pearl

1 Strip Mine
3 Wasteland
3 Horizon Canopy
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Windswept Heath
4 Savannah
2 Forest
1 Plains
1 Karakas

3 Exalted Angel
3 True Believer
2 Samurai of the Pale Curtain
2 Wheel of Sun and Moon
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Vexing Shusher
1 Seal of Cleansing
1 Swords to Plowshares

Mono-Black / Neo-Black

Updated versions of Mono-Black are extremely competitive in Vintage. For one example of this type of deck, see Max Brown’s winning list from the 64-player Blue Bell tournament earlier this month. Max chose move Null Rod to the sideboard in favor of maindeck Leyline of the Void and Helm of Obedience, but a variety of option are out there and are proving to be versatile and powerful, although still only sporadically played.


One of the key features of the decks I’ve listed above is their accessibility to players in proxy tournaments, especially to Magic players already invested in Legacy. The fact that these strategies see so little play in the American Vintage metagame is, in my opinion, detrimental to the health of the format and also perpetuates a warped understanding of what Vintage is.

Among my (Magic) goals for 2010 is to vary the decks I play in Vintage events to get a better, tournament-level feel for the variety that exists in the modern Vintage metagame, and to help publicize this variety, especially when the decks in question are more accessible to newer players than decks like Tezzeret, 5C Stax, TPS, and Oath.

I hope that other Vintage players out there will do the same and give these decks a chance — believe me when I say that they are 100% viable and capable of winning any given Vintage tournament when a player is willing to invest the time in them, as they would any “regular” Vintage deck.

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