The Return of Meandeck Gifts

With the recent changes to Time Vault, Stephen feels that Meandeck Gifts – his most treasured creation – is once again viable in Magic’s most powerful format. Today’s article is a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of certain cards and matchups. Looking for an edge in your local Vintage metagame? Look no further!

A little over a year ago, I unveiled one of my proudest creations: Meandeck Gifts. At the time, the Gifts lists that existed were of two varieties. First, they were the “Mana Severance plus Goblin Charbelcher” combo, aided by Goblin Welder, such as the deck that with which Ben Kowal won the Spring SCG P9 Chicago. Second, they were of the European variety, mixing Skeletal Scryings and Thirst. My testing found that both lists had too much dead weight. Most importantly, they failed to understand the power of Gifts Ungiven. Designers were using Gifts as a tutor – running only two – instead of an engine. Meandeck Gifts did not make that mistake, and it ran a full complement.

The design process for Meandeck Gifts began with my contention that Thirst for Knowledge was bad in a deck that doesn’t run Goblin Welder. Discarding a Mox or some other artifact is just poor. The fact that Thirst actually lets you see three cards does not make it worthwhile. Ideas Unbound lets you see three cards for one less mana.

For nearly a year, I’ve been adamant that my Gifts creation – Meandeck Gifts – was the best Mana Drain deck in Vintage. Of course, I haven’t been able to prove it because I’ve been playing Grim Long (with Ichorid) since the Vintage Championship last year. However, a metagame breakdown I performed in December seemed to support my point. The hallmark components of Meandeck Gifts: Merchant Scroll, four Gifts Ungiven, and Misdirections, showed up in a majority of Gifts lists.

Yet those people who have been playing Meandeck Gifts in the meantime truly know the power of the deck.

Just to bring you all up to speed, let me remind you of how Meandeck Gifts operates.

It runs the maximum amount of artifact acceleration permitted in Vintage, so that you can power out an early Gifts Ungiven. The problem with playing so many Gifts is that it is a juicy counterspell target. In order to make the plan work, you need to have a way of achieving enough mana to power out Gifts while having the card resources to protect it. Merchant Scrolls in combination with Force of Wills and Misdirections provide just that function.

Thus, the Gifts game plan looks basically like this:

Step 1: Merchant Scroll for Ancestral Recall and resolve it.

Step 2: Play Gifts and resolve it.

Step 3: Play Yawgmoth’s Will and win.

The Meandeck “Gifts” piles are extremely malleable, but the standard pile looks something like this:

Yawgmoth’s Will
Time Walk

If they give you Time Walk and Tinker and you have five spare mana, you win on the spot. You Tinker up Darksteel Colossus and Time Walk. Then on your Time Walk turn, you Recoup the Time Walk. Hopefully, you’ll have enough mana and resources to tutor up the Burning Wish so that you can replay Time Walk.

There are lots of Gifts piles however. You can make piles like this:

Ancestral Recall
Black Lotus
Yawgmoth’s Will

If you are holding another Gifts, a Gifts of this nature is very powerful:

Black Lotus
Mana Vault
Mana Crypt
Tolarian Academy

Then you can use the mana from that Gifts to play another Gifts, and when you play Yawgmoth’s Will, you’ll have a ridiculous amount of mana.

The most frequent criticism I heard at the time was that Misdirections and Merchant Scrolls weren’t that good. What people failed to understand is how design in Vintage truly works. Synergies are what bind a deck design together.

The constraint of a sixty-card deck imposes a heavy burden on design in Vintage. Once you have established a basic foundation for your deck — that is, once you know you are going to play Mishra’s Workshops or Mana Drains, or the like – there are cards that automatically fill your decklist. As a consequence, there are generally between 15-25 actual choices to be made in most lists. The rest are either mana, which depends on your spells, or they’re included because they are too powerful to omit.

Take Stax. There are several approaches to Stax at present. But the question of whether to include Chalice of the Void has a huge impact on the remaining card choices. Tangle Wire’s presence is often paired with Goblin Welder. Without Tangle Wire, Goblin Welder simply isn’t as worthy as a four-of. Without Welder, you are presumably running: 3-4 Sphere of Resistance, 1 Trinisphere, 3-4 Chalice of the Void, 3-4 Crucible of Worlds, and 4 Smokestack. Which of those cards are worth Welding or will need to be Welded in? Probably just the Trinisphere and the Smokestacks. But if you run Tangle Wire, then suddenly Welder becomes a lot better. In addition, if you run Tangle Wire and Goblin Welder, there simply isn’t room for Chalice of the Void unless you start cutting into the meat of the deck.

By the same token, Thirst for Knowledge requires a certain density of non-accelerant artifacts. Thus, Thirst for Knowledge simply isn’t a four-of — it takes up 7-9 slots in your deck. That’s what I’m talking about when I say that cards are paired.

Similarly, four Merchant Scrolls, four Gifts Ungiven, and three Misdirections are paired. The presence of each one enhances the synergy of the others. Misdirections help ensure that you can protect your early Scroll for Ancestral, which gives you the resources to shoot off early Gifts and the resources to use more pitch countermagic to protect those Gifts. It’s a ball of connected synergies.

Objectively speaking, the critics may be right in saying that Merchant Scroll isn’t that great-sounding, but when you put it altogether you have a different animal. People who try to deconstruct the deck piecemeal won’t understand that the components are paired. If you remove one, the whole deck just doesn’t work.

Why do I bring all of this up now?

A few months ago, the Time Vault combo was errated out of existence — this was the primary competitor to my Gifts list, and it was known as “Brassman Gifts.” It was extremely popular in the Northeastern United States, which has a highly visible metagame. As a consequence, it was perceived as the only Gifts list worth playing.

That was until one of Andy Probasco teammates ran my list at SCG P9 Charlotte and won!

He made a few debatable changes, but it seems to me that the debate is finally over. Thirst for Knowledge simply is inferior in Gifts to the variant I created. Nate’s changes were:

– Fourth Merchant Scroll
+ 1 Vampiric Tutor

I can’t really fault him for playing with Vampiric Tutor — Vamp is arguably the best tutor in Vintage right now — even over Demonic. Why? Because it is instant speed and beats Duress and can be timed perfectly. It also finds Black Lotus for one Black mana.

However, I strongly disagree with cutting a Scroll. The Scrolls have great synergy in multiples. The marginal value of a scroll is quite high.

You are playing against Grim Long and your hand is this:

Mox Pearl
Merchant Scroll
Merchant Scroll
Mana Drain
Gifts Ungiven

Do you see how good this now is?

You can turn 1 “waste” a scroll to find Force of Will. Then you will have a Scroll later on so that you can find Ancestral Recall.

This is one of the reason that speed combo decks like Grim Long should fear Meandeck Gifts above all other Gifts lists.

Nate also ran with:

– 1 Fact or Fiction
+ 1 Skeletal Scrying

There is nothing inherently wrong with running Scrying. The Scrying gives you a little bit of stamina against a control mirror if you feel like you need a different draw spell. However, I would argue that Mind Twist is almost as good in that slot.

On the other hand, Fact or Fiction is far too powerful to cut. There is a reason it is restricted. It serves a different role. Fact or Fiction is the card that solidifies a foothold one has on the game. It provides a nice split of mana and draw and countermagic for you to choose from.

Here is a Fact I had in tournament:

Merchant Scroll
Mana Drain
Force of Will
Mana Drain

That is what Fact is good for: protection. It is much less focused than Gifts and overall a weaker, less explosive card… but it is a better digger. It hands you quantity, not quality. Fact is best used to protect your combo.

It seems to me that is what Nate wants in Scrying, so why not just run Fact?

The only other changes were:

– Third Misdirection
+ Third Bounce spell

This is not new — the Italians that have been playing my deck have been doing this for months.

And then:

– 1 land
+ 1 Library of Alexandria

I have no quarrel with that choice.

Finally, he went up to 61 cards to support Lava Dart. Dart does deal with lots of annoyances: Confidant, Welder, and Xantid Swarm… Although I don’t agree with a 61-card decklist.

Meandeck Gifts is the strongest Mana Drain deck on the market. However, there are several weakness. First and foremost is skill. The deck is a tutor-based deck. Almost every card presents choices. Choices mean lost of opportunities to screw up.

For instance, I played a game against Stax using a two Chain of Vapor bounce configuration in the main, and the Stax player has a Smokestack out and a Sphere of Resistance. I’d resolved a second Gifts (my earlier Gifts had gotten Black Lotus and Lotus Petal) for Mox Jet, Mox Sapphire, Tinker, and Mana Crypt. It didn’t quite work like I hoped, and in the ultimate moment as my board was being wiped, he gave me the Mana Crypt and the Tinker so that I’d Tinker up Colossus which would promptly die to his Stack. Instead, I Mystical Tutored for Yawgmoth’s Will. Both our boards were destroyed. We were then both in topdeck mode. I drew: Mana Vault. At this point, he topdecked a Welder and played it off the land he drew. So I’m holding four cards: Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, Tinker, and Yawgmoth’s Will. Then I draw Volcanic Island.

Seems pretty simple right? All I do is Tinker up a Black mana source.

Look at it:

Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, tap both: four mana floating. Play Volcanic Island. Tinker away Mana Vault for Lotus Petal, Play Yawgmoth’s Will and win.

The problem was that I had already Gifted away all of my Black mana sources. If I had thought that I may need that Mox Jet down the road, I wouldn’t have put it in my Gifts pile. I could have fetched Mox Pearl instead. The point is that this deck is hard to play — a small error like that cost me the game.

The second weakness is the mana.

Meandeck Gifts wins every game where it gets its mana online. Even with an amazing fetchland and basic land manabase, it still is somewhat top heavy. To combo out, you need a critical mass of mana and protection. That’s the only trick.

I highly recommend this deck. It has great matchups against the entirety of the upper tier: Dragon, Control Slaver, SS, and Grim Long. Its weakness is Fish type decks. This matchup can be seriously ameliorated by a proper sideboard. Your options include: Pyroclasm, Old Man of the Sea, and The Abyss, among others.

To me, it’s clear that Meandeck Gifts has returned. It is a very powerful Drain deck for the motivated player. I anticipate we’ll be seeing much of it in the near future.

Best of luck,

Stephen Menendian