It is well understood that Vintage is home to degeneracy far beyond any other format in Magic. Today, we will take a look at two of the most degenerate decks in Vintage and how they match up versus one another.
Aside from what advantage one held, we will seek to explore what truly decides this matchup, as Vintage is home to more mis-assignment of value than most other formats. In addition, we will examine what edges can be gained that will actually have an impact on the match, as well as how much skill really goes into this contest.
The matchup we will be looking at today is, of course, Gifts versus Stax. Yes, Pitch Long and company are degenerate as well. However, we have to start somewhere. I chose Gifts as it is my strategy of choice (well, and Pitch Long), and Stax as I have been accused of underestimating Prison (that joke never gets old).
First, the decklist I used for reference:
- 4 Brainstorm
- 4 Mana Drain
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Yawgmoth's Will
- 4 Force of Will
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 4 Gifts Ungiven
- 1 Burning Wish
- 3 Merchant Scroll
- 1 Chain of Vapor
- 2 Misdirection
- 1 Tinker
- 1 Rebuild
- 1 Black Lotus
- 1 Recoup
- 1 Lava Dart
- 1 Lotus Petal
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Balance
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 1 In the Eye of Chaos
- 3 Sphere of Resistance
- 2 Seal of Cleansing
- 3 Crucible of Worlds
- 1 Trinisphere
- 4 Smokestack
- 1 Tinker
- 1 Crop Rotation
- 1 Black Lotus
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
- 4 Chalice of the Void
The Gifts list is essentially Nate Pease (-1 Repeal, -1 Skeletal Scrying, +1 Merchant Scroll), and unbiased as possible when drawing conclusions. To this end, I decided to first play a twenty-game set (eight pre-sideboard, twelve post-sideboard), recording opening hands, mulligans, what appeared to decide each duel, and the entire sequence of plays of every game. Then I went back and looked for any patterns of note, such as how do wins correlate with Play versus Draw, mulligans, sideboarding, and individual cards.
What I found was a little surprising, though logical, as well as convincing and useful. First of all, while I am a firm advocate of Ancestral Recall’s status as the best card in Vintage (Contract from Below is a savage beating), Ancestral is certainly not the only factor. Ancestral Recall may win 98.5% of the time in Drain on Drain, but as I have said, it can be fought by Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Necropotence / Yawgmoth’s Bargain.
The key to fighting Ancestral is to fight it in a different arena. Workshop may not be as powerful, but it is faster. It makes all of your other cards better. You may say, “well isn’t it really the Workshop that is so powerful, not the Smokestacks, etc.?” Correct, but you must also consider that Workshop has the rather significant drawback of forcing you to play with a bunch of unrestricted, non-Blue cards. This is a hefty price to pay. Ancestral only asks a small Blue mana supply, hardly an unreasonable request in Vintage.
I knew going into this matchup that Ancestral Recall would not be at its best, as Workshop is quite against it and Stax’s Ancestral is certainly not the best. However I did not fully appreciate what this matchup was actually about until I analyzed this data. What did I find? Yeah, I know, the suspense is frightening.
The actual card-sequence logs are quite dry, so I will only list a few to give you an idea of how the games went.
|Sol Ring 4||–|
|–||Strip Mine 12|
|Snow-Covered Island 7||–|
|Underground Sea 8||–|
|–||Sol Ring 10|
|Sol Ring 17||–|
|Mana Crypt 32||–|
|Chain of Vapor 41||–|
|Mana Crypt 48||–|
|Burning Wish 52||–|
One more note before I get into the matchup: while I play both decks proficiently, Gifts is my weapon of choice (as well as Pitch Long). While I don’t think it has biased my results it should be kept in mind that I play Gifts exceptionally tightly, whereas I am not positive on all the subtle nuances of Stax.
Still, Gifts is clearly a harder deck to play, though Stax is no walk in the park. This is not just “my deck is harder than yours, etc.” As you can see from the logs, Gifts just makes far more, complex, decisions.
I know I lost at least one game with Gifts that was a direct result of misuse of Force of Will on turn 1 (versus a double mulligan, no less). I’m not sure how I could have forced any extra wins with Stax, using these hands, but there is always the question of when to mulligan. I certainly made plenty of mistakes on both sides. This is Vintage, after all. I just don’t know if they would have swung the games.
Wait! Doesn’t that mean Vintage is not skill testing? No, actually there was plenty of room for error in the majority of games. Out of twenty games, I would say fourteen could have gone either way, depending on the players. Six were relatively simple, such as turn 1 lock or Colossus. Even these could be lost if their pilot didn’t know his/her basic plan.
While theoreticians such as Michael Flores might point to this 70% skill, 30% luck ratio and compare it to the “alleged 90/10 ratio” of some other formats, remember you will win half the 30% luck games, leaving the more skilled player having up to an 85/15 chance of winning per game.
This doesn’t even factor in such considerations as knowing how to mulligan, sideboard, or which deck/version to run.
I still love you, Flores!
Actually, I suspect the reason some (such as Flores) dislike Vintage because they prefer “fair” Magic. After all, Michael notoriously builds fair decks. In Vintage he is constantly finding himself hopeless unable to play a spell/take a turn or on the flip side, he wins so overwhelmingly and immediately he is unsatisfied. There are plenty of reasons people don’t like Vintage – this is just an observation or one that many overlook.
I suspect if Gifts remains unrestricted for a while, I will be able to help Michael develop a fondness for playing it in Vintage.
1. He like playing a deck with game versus everything.
2. It has a fair amount of interaction.
3. He likes winning.
Back to the matter at hand, the Gifts / Stax matchup. I will list what I have found point by point, then make some conclusions. I played eight pre-sideboard, twelve post-sideboard, alternating play/draw.
The final score was 11-9 (55%) in favor of Gifts. While the Gifts side could have won another with tighter play, it already had to play superb to win that many. This score can be broken down in a variety of ways.
Gifts playing 6-4 in favor of Gifts
Stax playing 5-5
Pre-sideboard 5-3 in favor of Gifts
Post sideboard 6-6
Whoever took a mulligan… 4-1 in favor of the mulligan!
What does this tell us? It is no surprise that playing is a small edge. Also, sideboarding helps Stax, which brings in 3 Red Elemental Blast, 2 Tormod’s Crypt, and 1 Jester’s Cap. Gifts brings in just 2 Rack and Ruin. The most important thing we see is that mulligans clearly do not hurt in this matchup as much as in others.
Still, all of these results were relatively minor fluctuations that could be noise. What does correlate with victory, then? After reviewing all the matches, opening draws, power plays, and so on, the answer was clear.
Stax win % with Workshop in opening hand: 8-3 (73%)
Stax win % without 1-8 (11%)
That is astronomical! That means Workshop is more relevant than all other cards combined!
The only game Stax won without Workshop, it had Black Lotus on the play in a post-sideboard game. Meanwhile, Gifts only wins were two by Ancestral plus Mox, the other by three jewellery powering turn 1 Gifts, all three on the play.
Gifts playing v. no Workshop 3-0 (100%)
Gifts drawing v. no Workshop 5-1 (83%)
Gifts playing v. Workshop 3-4 (43%)
Gifts drawing v. Workshop 0-4 (0%)
That means sixteen out of twenty (80%) of games were decided by the presence of Workshop (which is certainly how it felt). Remember, again, this assumes tight play on both sides. Workshop doesn’t kill by itself, and Gifts certainly doesn’t go off for you. I had a few turns last thirty minutes apiece, primarily planning.
While Workshop was the biggest factor by far, there were some other interesting statistics. Keep in mind, twenty games isn’t a huge sample size, but a couple of sets of cards seem to jump out.
Moxes appear twelve times in winning hands for Gifts, versus only four times in losses. This means a crude approximation of the Win Probability Added (WPA) of a Mox in your opening hand (versus a random card) is +20% (75% – 55%). That is huge! Of course, I am counting multiple Moxes, which really give diminishing returns, but it is enough to see that a Mox is arguably the most important advantage a Gifts player can secure. Ancestral Recall or Black Lotus may be better, but this is too small a sample size for one-ofs.
It is startling when looked at under the following microscopes. All twenty games can be broken down by three factors. In order of importance:
1. Does Stax have Workshop?
2. Who plays first?
3. Does Gifts have a Mox (Stax – Lotus)
Aside from Stax breaking serve with a Lotus on the play, all games went as follows:
A. Stax had no Workshop and lost.
B. Stax had a Workshop on the play and won.
C. Stax had a Workshop on the draw and Gifts had no Moxes, so Stax won.
D. Stax had a Workshop on the draw and Gifts had a Mox (and a card drawer), so Stax lost.
This means that the match is primarily determined by the three edges listed. If Stax doesn’t have a Workshop, she has little fight, especially on the draw, and must have a broken hand to compete.
However, if Stax does have the Workshop, the question becomes, “who played first?” If Stax did, she is nearly unbeatable. If she has the Workshop on the draw, the question becomes, does Gifts have a Mox and a card drawer (even Brainstorm is enough)? If so, Gifts can overcome, otherwise, the Workshop typically wins it.
Some valuable conclusions can be reached from this, which we will get to in a moment. First, some stats, for what they are worth:
What can we gather from all of this and how can we put it to use? To begin with, we will examine things from the perspective of Stax.
Obviously, this matchup revolves almost entirely around Mishra’s Workshop. As you only have a 44% chance of seeing one in your opening hand and it is extremely difficult to win against a tight Gifts Player without it, you need to do something (Crop Rogation helps, but it is obviously weaker from card economy and the risk of getting it Forced.
The solution is obvious: Mulligan to Workshop.
This is a risky strategy. You could very well not get one in your new hand and just be down, and each mulligan offers worse odds of a Workshop and an increased chance of a Workshop hand that just isn’t good enough.
However, let’s see what effect an aggressive mulligan strategy would have on things. First of all, if the Stax player mulligans at the same rate I did, they are likely to get a little better than 50% appearances by Workshop.
Now let’s say the Stax player mulligans 67% to 75% of hands that don’t contain a Workshop. If Stax is willing to go all the way (double or more), she can increase her odds to over 60% appearance in single mulligan or regular games. Doubling into a Workshop is still usually better than seven without, and a triple or worse is the price you pay.
Even if you mulligan away your hand into hopelessness, you were almost surely going to lose anyway. Remember, we are talking about the bottom 2/3 to 3/4 of Workshop-less hands. The most powerful 30% or so should be tried on their own merits, but you are still an underdog.
Once you commit to the mulligan plan you lose a lot of room to outplay your opponent / let him make mistakes. As such, it is less effective versus less skilled opponents. If you think they are an easy match on your skill advantage, then it may not be appropriate.
I estimate a skilled Stax player could add 10% points to this matchup when facing skilled Gifts, by adopting this advantage. This is critical, because with tight play from both sides, and an even distribution of Worksop, I’ve got Gifts wining 60% (without aggressive mulligans by Stax).
The matchup does get progressively better for Stax the less skilled both players are, so keep this in mind. While this technique can level the playing field for high-level play, it is less useful when you suspect the Gifts player may blunder on his own.
By mulliganing aggressively, Stax loses the ability to even offer a real fight in a significant percentage of games, which many players will dislike. However, if your Gifts opponent is very strong, it increases your odds of having a draw he cannot play around.
I suggest taking mulligans with at least 2/3 of Workshop-less hands, versus a very strong player. If Gifts is reasonable with their deck, but doesn’t know the matchup, mulligan half of the hands with no Workshop. If you have a significant play advantage over your opponent with Gifts, you should still look to mulligan as much as 1/3 of hands with no Workshop, assuming he is any good at all.
Double if you have to, and even a triple is better than a bad double. Once you’ve gone that far, there’s no sense in getting scared. You could always get a two-card hand of Black Lotus and Balance, or Workshop and Trinisphere.
Obviously, you will lose a small percentage of games this way, when you might have won versus a very weak Gifts hand, but the number you win from mulliganing aggressively will be higher. Don’t mulligan all the non-Workshop hands. You need to “keep your opponent honest,” after all.
What about when I want to mulligan and have a Workshop in hand? This is going to be very, very rare. After all, you should count Workshop as a land and two Moxes. If you still want to throw it back, fine, but remember you are going from nine to six.
That means you typically need at least three terrible cards in hand to consider a mulligan like this. A rule of thumb – if you have a Workshop and a spell you can cast, it is probably a keeper.
As far as actual play goes, it is relatively straightforward from the Stax side. Disrupt Gifts’s mana supply, typically building towards a hard lock. If you have a choice between slowing them at all now or doing anything else, it is usually better to slow them.
If Gifts is unimpeded by its second turn, Stax is in serious trouble. If you are holding Wasteland or Strip Mine, use it immediately. With only fifteen land, there is a very real chance Gifts doesn’t have another and was counting on his Brainstorm, etc.
So, we have a back and forth matchup that begins to favor Gifts with tight play, but are where Stax can equalize with intelligent mulligans. What exactly can Gifts do to fight back besides “play better”?
This one is tricky, as the ball is in Stax’s court most of the time. Gifts won’t even know if Workshop is present until mulligans are over. As such, Gifts cannot develop an ultra-aggressive mulligan strategy.
Really, all you need is three mana sources and a way to find Ancestral Recall / Brainstorm. This isn’t a must either, but it is a useful guide for minimums. The key is to make sure you still have a strong enough hand to win the no-Workshop games, while giving you the best fight when they do have it.
When you are on the draw, mulligan as usual. If they have a Workshop in their seven, there is little you could anyway. Mise well call their bluff. If you are on the play, you should be looking for a turn 2 Ancestral or turn 3 Tinker (as a backup plan).
Ancestral leading to Gifts leading to Will is the primary plan here. Tinker to Colossus is what you do if you are desperate. Stax has many answers, but sometimes all you can do is Tinker and hope. Force of Will plus Tinker is almost unbeatable.
Mana Drain is incredible if you ever get three Blue sources in play, but if you can ever cast Mana Drain, Stax was already losing. While the late game favors Gifts in almost every matchup, Stax certainly has fight to the very end.
Many times the Gifts player will find himself in a bind with a puzzle to solve. If he can find the path, he can often “come back.” Against heavy disruption, it is usually sufficient to just draw cards and play more, countering a little disruption here and there.
When you are ready to “go for it,” the typical play is end step Rebuild followed by Yawgmoth’s Will. This is usually game and Stax has no over-trump plan. If Stax doesn’t disrupt immediately, Gifts will just kill turn 3 or so.
Gifts should play its Moxes immediately, as Stax has more Chalices than Gorillas. Also, Gifts for four mana sources is a common tactic in this matchup. Misdirection is obviously dead, so it is what goes for Rack and Ruin. After sideboarding, Stax will usually have REB. Don’t play around it unless convenient. It just isn’t feasible. Tormod’s Crypt can be battled by using Chain of Vapor to build Storm count (on Moxes). Also, late in the game, it is not uncommon to have enough action to bounce or destroy the Crypt, then go off anyway. Burning Wish is good anti-Crypt tech.
The Gifts / Stax matchup is an important one in Vintage these days. My conclusions is that it is nearly an even matchup, but one that can swing 20-35% on skill and 10% on more for ultra-tight play by Gifts or aggressive mulligans by Stax.
I don’t suggest any additional sideboard cards for either side. Gifts is already set fine against it, and you don’t want to dilute it. To get much better it would have to transform, which isn’t worth the space.
Stax could add more Caps, etc., but I think it has already reached the point where additional sideboard slots may be excessive. Still, another Cap or two could help versus Long and Gifts, as well as some other combos.
Please, let me know if this approach to analyzing a matchup was useful, as well as what matchup, if any, you’d want to see. Special thanks to sikonawt for inspiring me to begin developing this system. Vintage is the ideal place to develop such a system, as its landscape develops more slowly, and some information will always be useful (Ancestral Recall versus Lotus, Gifts versus Workshop).
These are still very much in their early stages, but I believe we can learn much from tracking larger amounts of data from long series of games, then looking for patterns.
Obviously, twenty games is not a huge sample size, but even there some clear patterns emerge, as we have seen. I would like to have played more, but just these twenty took me over thirteen hours, over the course of three days.
I would like to try experiments in the future such as R/G versus U/W playing twenty or more with Kird Ape plus six random versus seven random, etc. While gathering information this way is much slower, it can be very valuable.
By the way, Mr. Menendian, I must have missed your reply to my ante challenge. You know I have tremendous respect for you and agree with most of your positions on Vintage, but you gotta give me this one… I even sided with you over Flores, leaving him none too happy. Just acknowledge that Ancestral Recall is better than Black Lotus and we can save ourselves a lot of bother, hehe. Then again, I did just write an article about how Prison is hard on Ancestral. Of course, I’ve found Prison to be hard on people in general, so there you go.