The Long & Winding Road – Zendikar: Vintage Predictions

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Monday, October 5th – I’ve purposefully avoided writing about Zendikar, because if you’re like me, you can only take so many preview articles before you tune out completely. Despite my intent to avoid writing such an article, I have had a large number of requests to discuss the set in reference to Vintage (and specifically any changes to Ichorid and Oath), so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

This has been a good year for Magic, but not such a good year for music. Or perhaps I’m becoming an old curmudgeon? Possibly, and probably, a bit of both. Admittedly the Christmas season has become a five-week explosion of the biggest music releases of the year, but outside of Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and the release by the Dead Weather (which I expected to dislike but have enjoyed immensely), I haven’t really been impressed with most of what I’ve heard this year, even from bands I normally enjoy (both the new Muse and A.F.I. were disappointing). I do have a big pile of stuff that needs another listen — for example, the new Arctic Monkeys seemed promising — but usually there are far more releases that “grab” me.

I’m also convinced that the Black Eyed Peas have some type of soulless, horrifying deal with Satan, because no matter how much I resist, I hear Fergie rapping about chickens in my head for weeks every time I hear even a fragment of that stupid song on the radio.

Wait, you’re here for Magic content, aren’t you? Probably a mistake, but that’s a whole different topic.

I’ve purposefully avoided writing about Zendikar, because if you’re like me, you can only take so many preview articles before you tune out completely. Despite my intent to avoid writing such an article, I have had a large number of requests to discuss the set in reference to Vintage (and specifically any changes to Ichorid and Oath), so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve had only minimal testing time, as work and personal obligations have cut into my cardboard time the past two weeks, so this is mostly based on conceptual thinking given my experiences this year with the decks in question. Consider this a supplement to the excellent set review Stephen Menendian wrote last week. Overall, I think Zendikar will have a relatively deep influence on deck design in the middle and lower tiers of competitive Vintage.

Let’s do this thing…


There are a few conceivable homes for this card in Vintage. The most obvious application is in Ichorid, either to supplement Ichorid itself, or as a replacement. I have some concerns with this plan. My current build of Fatestitcher Ichorid runs 11 lands, including Bazaar of Baghdad. However, in pre-board games, it is highly unusual to play any lands after turn 2. This means that any Bloodghasts that would have a chance to come into play would have to be in the Graveyard by the second main phase. This is far from ideal. However, there are ways around this problem.

One option is to slot this card into a Mana Ichorid deck instead, although those lists tend to be even tighter than the mana-less versions. The more lands in the deck (and the more the concept of playing lands is already present in that build), the better Bloodghast becomes. In fact, I have to wonder if there aren’t advantages to running a spread of all of the creatures (Narcomoeba, Ichorid, Bloodghast), perhaps as a 4/3/2 split. Unlike Narcomoeba, Bloodghast isn’t dead if you draw it in your opener, and it has actual offensive capabilities. However, it deals less damage than Ichorid, has only conditional Haste, doesn’t automatically die to generate Bridge tokens (which can be good or bad, depending on the board state), and can still be a dead card if you don’t have a land to trigger its Landfall ability. There’s potential here, but I think serious testing would be required to determine whether there’s any actual advantage to running this in addition to, or in place of, some number of Narcomoebas or Ichorids.

It might be possible to alter Fatestitcher Ichorid to support Bloodghast by adding extra land and Crop Rotations. This is an interesting premise. For example, you could potentially remove Serum Powder and instead run a package of 3 or 4 Crop Rotation, plus full play-sets of Unmask and Cabal Therapy, and perhaps even supplement with a singleton Dakmor Salvage. This would likely guarantee that Bloodghast would be successful — but what does one gain from this? Current Fatestitcher lists are fast and disruptive, and are mostly only held in check by significant sideboard action. A list relying on Bloodghast has these same issues. A Crop Rotation plan is also vulnerable on the draw, and is weakened by printing of Spell Pierce (which is likely to see play, especially for the first few months). Sadly, I have trouble believing this card will have much of an impact on Vintage Ichorid, despite being a terrific card.

Another option is to utilize Bloodghast as a draw engine via Skullclamp. This idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds — consider the following deck, developed by Wiley from the Mana Drain:

There is also a version that splashed Black for tutors, and played Squee with Bazaar to create a draw engine, but I unfortunately I cannot locate that list (so if anyone has it, please post in the forums). Although I like the idea of this deck, it is still rough and is light on threats. There are interesting possibilities here for a card like Bloodghast, as this deck is already running Life from the Loam and Bazaar of Baghdad. Adding something like one Dryad Arbor and some Skullclamps is an intriguing possibility and could replace AK as a draw engine, although this is problematic given that the deck runs Null Rod as part of its disruption package. A move into red instead of black might allow for other artifact-hate options, such as Gorilla Shaman or Ancient Grudge (which plays well with the deck’s use of Bazaar). Another possible use for Bloodghast would be to look at Shop decks that run multiple Bazaars, and consider Bloodghast as another threat in those decks, especially as one that comes into play regardless of how many lock pieces are active; it could also function as another card to help sustain Smokestack.

The main problem with all of these concepts, especially the idea of a draw engine with Skullclamp, is that the principle idea is S-L-O-W. You need to have Bloodghast in hand, discard it to a Bazaar of Baghdad, and then play a land. If you’re setting up a draw engine, you also need to find and resolve Skullclamp, and then continue playing lands to recur the Bloodghast. Once the engine goes online, the card advantage is insane, but in a format like Vintage, you would need to be running some serious mana denial to ever reach that point. Again, it is possible that a Workshop deck or an intensive mana-hating deck like the Snake Pit list above could utilize Bloodghast, but it is somewhat difficult to envision those options being stronger than what is already played.

Iona, Shield of Emeria

Iona has been discussed mostly in reference to Oath of Druids as far as Vintage goes, so I’ll offer some thoughts. Here are my concerns with playing Iona in Vintage Oath:

1. There are some decks where Iona does very little. For example, what do you name against 5C Stax? Does Iona really help you win against most Workshop builds? I would say no — if you’re already ahead, Iona probably wins you the game against a deck like Workshop Aggro that actually is invested in red, but if you’re behind, Iona is probably tapped down by Tangle Wire and eventually sacrificed to Smokestack, and it does very little against many Shop decks (for instance, not much of a winner against MUD). I also think it’s a weak card against Fish in general, as they’re spread across colors and play bounce spells, often supplemented with some sort of creature removal.

2. There are also decks where Iona’s impact on the game isn’t as devastating as it needs to be. Against Ichorid, you would need to have Iona hit play very quickly to have any impact on the game. Against TPS, you can name Black (which would mean they cannot win), but that doesn’t take away their bounce spells; if you name Blue, there is a possibility they could still just win with mana spells, tutors, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Tendrils.

3. Against a deck like Tezzeret, Iona can be pretty good, as it strips many Tezz decks of their win conditions (Tezzeret, Inkwell Leviathan, Sphinx of the Steel Wind) as well as their bounce spells and counterspells. However, you then run into the issue of figuring out how many you want to play. Running two Iona means that you can only ever activate Oath once, and your clock is therefore three full turns. If you mix Iona with other creatures (for example, two Hellkites), then you take away the benefit of running multiple haste creatures, which is a guaranteed fast clock, and reintroduce randomness to the deck.

This isn’t to say that Iona isn’t good — I believe that it is a solid card. The question really is whether the drawbacks (irrelevant in some match-ups, slower clock, introduces randomness) are outweighed by the benefits (very good against Tezzeret, buys time against TPS, outrageous in some match-ups like Suicide Black and Elves). Only testing and tournament results will show whether Iona is worth running main deck, or should instead be in the sideboard. The amount of internet chatter the card has generated suggests that we’ll be seeing it in Oath lists in the coming months.

Sadistic Sacrament

I actually like this card a lot, because it gives budget decks in particular a real shot at competing. Cards that don’t directly influence the game state are always problematic, and admittedly this card does next to nothing against some decks. However, against many of the top-tier Vintage decks, resolving this card in the first few turns ends the game immediately. Tezzeret, Steel City Vault, TPS, Drain Tendrils, and Oath of Druids are all extremely vulnerable to this card. There is still a two-fold problem: what decks can play this card, and how many do you run?

The obvious answer to the first question is that any deck that already plays Dark Ritual and/or Cabal Ritual may want to play Sadistic Sacrament. Here’s a list of decks that meet that requirement:

• TPS (The Perfect Storm)
• ANT (Ad Nauseam Tendrils)
• Drain Tendrils
• Ritual Tezzeret
• Suicide Black

Not the longest list, to be sure, but there are viable decks there that do win Vintage tournaments. I would definitely consider running this card main in Suicide Black, and it is at least worth of sideboard consideration in the other decks. Any time you can basically pull an “Oops, I win” on the first turn, I think you should at least have the option of doing so. Keep in mind that in a deck that plays 4 Cabal Ritual, you have plenty of ways to play this card on the first turn.

Mindbreak Trap

I’m still not convinced this is going to be more than a sideboard card in Vintage for times when Storm decks are seeing significant play. It isn’t good enough in most non-Blue decks because it is such a conditional card, and if the opponent is aware of it (via Duress or Thoughtseize) they can play around it relatively easily. In Blue decks, it is definitely better, because the ability to Exile Time Vault is interesting, but I still don’t see this deck seeing massive adoption in place of something like Misdirection.

Ravenous Trap

This card is going to mess with the minds of Ichorid players for the rest of time, but it also has some serious drawbacks. The benefits of Ravenous Trap over other options are numerous:

• It ignores Chalice of the Void. (Technically it is countered by Chalice of the Void on 4, but if your Ichorid opponent has 8 mana in play and resolves a Chalice on 4, it might be time for both of you to consider a different hobby)
• Because it doesn’t sit in play, it is unaffected by cards like Chain of Vapor, Wispmare, Pithing Needle, Emerald Charm, Contagion, and other common answers.
• Unlike Extirpate, which also has those same advantages, Ravenous Trap resets the Ichorid player’s Graveyard completely.
• Once you’ve played one Ravenous Trap, or if your opponent thinks you might have access to it, they are going to have to play more cautiously. In some ways, it’s like having a Tormod’s Crypt in play at all times, whether you actually have anything or not.
• Ravenous Trap is best in decks that are active and have their own fast clock — something like Oath of Druids, TPS, or Elves.

Ravenous Trap isn’t all upside, however:

• The existence of the Trap means that Ichorid players are going to have to start playing an answer. The best two options are Unmask and Force of Will — personally I’m a fan of Unmask, because it is so good in post-sideboard games on the play, and in match-ups like TPS where you need to race. A deck running 4 Unmask has the ability to handle Ravenous Trap without any tempo loss.
• While Ravenous Trap played at the right time can end the game against a careless Ichorid player, it will often only buy time, similar to Tormod’s Crypt or Relic of Progenitus. For a deck that is slower, such as Tezzeret or Workshops, an option that actually shuts the Dredge engine down (such as Leyline of the Void or Yixlid Jailer) is probably still the better option.
• Trap can be tutored up easily via Mystical Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, or Demonic Tutor, however doing so will buy even less time, because it just requires the Ichorid player to play Cabal Therapy or Unmask. This does not compare as favorably to something like playing a first-turn Demonic Tutor or Trinket Mage for Tormod’s Crypt and then playing the Crypt.

Ultimately I expect Ravenous Trap to mix in well with the existing Ichorid hate in Vintage. The simple fact that it exists at all is going to make waves for Ichorid players. As with most Ichorid hate, running one or two of these in combination with other options will make life difficult for your Ichorid opponents. I do think this card will see play for years, and therefore foils would be a wise investment.

Spell Pierce

I love the fact that this card was printed, and the fact that the art is terrific and looks amazing when Foiled doesn’t hurt. There are specific decks in Vintage that really want a card like this, and none of them are Tier 1. Obviously Workshop decks and Ichorid won’t play this, and I can’t imagine it will see much play in Tezzeret, because the current spread of Duress / Force of Will / Mana Drain achieves exactly what Tezzeret is looking for. Similarly, TPS and Drain Tendrils need certainty in their card choices, making this an unlikely option. This eliminates most decks that would be considered the first tier of Vintage.

However, the second-tier decks, such as Oath of Druids, should be all over Spell Pierce. Oath lists often run weaker counterspells like Mana Leak or Negate because they cannot utilize Mana Drain, and Spell Pierce gives them a much better option — and one that is blue and helps support Force of Will and Misdirection (which additional Duress effects do not). It can be used aggressively to help resolve Oath of Druids, but also defensively to counter lock pieces from Shop decks. I’d be surprised if Spell Pierce doesn’t make its way into many Oath builds. For a deck like Oath of Druids, Stephen Menendian was spot-on in calling this a “blue Duress”.

Similarly, it is an excellent card to play in something like Noble Fish, where it combines early protection with the ability to resolve key threats like Pridemage and Tarmogoyf, and fits into the light mana-base perfectly. From an investment perspective, this is going to be a hot foil as it should see play in many formats.

Enemy Fetches

The enemy fetches will really have one major impact on Vintage: allowing Blue decks to splash a color without increasing vulnerability to Wasteland. For example, Tezzeret decks have often ran Red or Green (or both), even though it made the mana more dangerous and extremely vulnerable to Wastelands coming from Workshop or Null Rod strategies. With the new fetchlands, it becomes possible to run a singleton basic land (such as a Mountain) either maindeck or in the sideboard, so that a color splash is easier to manage. Similarly, sideboard color splashes become more feasible. For example, consider a Tezzeret deck sideboarding Oath of Druids, two creatures, and a Forest with Misty Rainforest main, or a Tezzeret deck running Rack and Ruin and Red Elemental Blast in the sideboard with a Mountain and Scalding Tarns main; both become more manageable with the new fetches.

They will also make a few minor updates possible. For instance, it would be possible run a singleton Forest in Oath of Druids instead of the singleton Island that was necessitated by the Onslaught fetchlands. However, because Oath decks actually run very few green spells outside of Oath itself, the singleton Forest doesn’t make much sense in the current environment. However, if a shift were to occur that led to Magus of the Moon and Blood Moon seeing significant play, this move would make perfect sense.

Finally, in base-blue decks it also becomes possible to run a double-splash singleton Dual Land, something like a Taiga in Oath of Druids — a land where both of the colors wouldn’t have been accessible with the previous fetchlands. For example, in Oath splashing Red, you could play something like this:

1 Strip Mine
1 Wasteland
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Pearl
1 Black Lotus
4 Forbidden Orchard
3 Misty Rainforest
2 Scalding Tarn
3 Underground Sea
2 Tropical Island
1 Taiga

Although this list has no basic lands, in an environment light on decks with Wasteland, this would allow Oath of Druids to easily sideboard or maindeck some powerful red cards like REBs or Ancient Grudge, while taking almost no hit from a color standpoint.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this set definitely has more than the expected number of Vintage playables. For those looking to make a few bucks, I would seek out foil versions of Spell Pierce and Ravenous Trap, especially foreign foils. Sadistic Sacrament is also a low-price card at the moment, and could increase in value if it sees any amount of play in Vintage — look at the price of foil Sphinx of the Steel Wind, for example. While I think some of the cards in Zendikar are being over-hyped in reference to non-Eternal formats, this really is a pretty strong set for Vintage and Legacy.

Next week: Tournament report from the Vintage tournaments on 9/12 and 10/3.

Matt Elias
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Voltron00x on SCG, TMD, and The Source forums