Tweaking Meandeck Gifts

In this excellent and comprehensive article, Stephen takes us through the latest developments of his most potent Vintage creation – Meandeck Gifts. The tweaks he suggests leads to a considerable tempo advantage over the old lists, and he backs up these changes with detailed match analysis. Another wonderful article from the master of Vintage writing.

If you haven’t already, I’d like to bring to your attention a new series of introductory Vintage articles by Jonathan Wang. Jonathan is doing a great job of explaining Vintage with a language that may make sense to those of you who aren’t Vintage regulars. Check it out.

This week, I’m going to unveil a couple of tweaks to my proudest creation – Meandeck Gifts – and then talk a bit about the deck as well as show you some in-game analysis.

[Note: I’d like to request that premium readers do not post this list elsewhere until this article becomes freely available to all StarCityGames.com readers. Thank you. ]

Admittedly, this deck doesn’t look that much different from the list I unveiled over a year ago. But the changes in place reflect a slight change in philosophy of play. Let me explain the changes before I turn to some in-game analysis.

Bounce Suite

The original bounce suite in the list I introduced was Rebuild and Echoing Truth. As originally conceived, the deck wanted at least two bounce spells. In the first published list, however, I hedged and said that I wasn’t sure whether the second bounce spell should be Vampiric Tutor. Some European versions of this decklist cut the 3rd Misdirection for a 3rd bounce spell. I see nothing wrong with that choice, but I’d rather have Vampiric Tutor than a third bounce spell, and there really isn’t room for both.

The rationale behind the two bounce suite is this: You want one bounce spell that could clear the board of pesky artifacts like Null Rod, Sphere of Resistance, Trinisphere, and Chalice of the Void. Yet, you also wanted an out to threats like Meddling Mage and True Believer. Echoing Truth and Rebuild seemed to be the perfect combination. First of all, Echoing Truth is one of the strongest bounce spells in Vintage. It can remove multiple cards in one fell swoop. Echoing Truth also seemed to have the advantage over Chain of Vapor in that your opponent didn’t get an opportunity to bounce your permanents. Thus, if you have Darksteel Colossus in play and you just wanted to bounce some Juggernauts, they wouldn’t be able to return your Colossus to your hand. With Rebuild, it seemed to be better than Hurkyl’s Recall for two reasons. First of all, it was never a dead card. You can cycle Rebuild to draw a card. Second, it isn’t shut off by Chalice of the Void for two. Thus, it appears, at first glance, to be the superior anti-Stax card. I felt that, at the time, the combination of Rebuild and Echoing Truth was what you needed to ensure that you didn’t lose games to Fish and to Stax. These two cards were bolstered by the versatile Burning Wish for either Pyroclasm or Eye of Nowhere.

However, over time I came to realize that the bounce suite should be used just as much on your own cards as your opponents. Playing combo for a while has made me deeply respect the power of Chain of Vapor. Consider this board:

Mox Jet
Mox Ruby
Mana Vault
Underground Sea
Volcanic Island

Let’s say your hand is:

Chain of Vapor
Force of Will
Vampiric Tutor
Lotus Petal

You can tap the Mox Jet for Black to play Vampiric Tutor. You can tutor up Tendrils of Agony and put it on top of your deck.

You can tap the Island for Brainstorm to draw it.

Play the Lotus Petal.

Now tap the Volcanic Island for Blue and the Underground Sea for Black. Tap Mox Ruby and Mana Vault as well. UBR3 floating.

Play Chain of Vapor targeting Mox Jet. You storm count is 4. Sacrifice your Island to copy it to your Ruby. Sacrifice your Volcanic Island to copy it to your Mana Vault. Sacrifice your Underground Sea to copy it to your Lotus Petal.

Play the Mox Jet. Make sure it resolves.

Play the Lotus Petal. Make sure it resolves. If both of those cards resolve unimpeded, you can play the Mana Vault and then the Mox Ruby. You may want to Force of Will your own Mox Ruby just to add to your storm count.

You should have either 8 or 9 storm, depending upon if you had to counter your own spell. The Tendrils of Agony you play next should be lethal.

Chain of Vapor is one of the strongest storm enablers in the format. In addition, it can get you out of a very tight spot that Echoing Truth can’t.

Consider this hypothetical where your opponent is playing Pitch Long, post board.

Turn 1:

Opp: Fetchland, Bayou, Xantid Swarm
You: Island, Mox, Merchant Scroll for Chain of Vapor.

Turn 2:

Opp: Plays some spells, but doesn’t go off.
You: Land, Chain of Vapor the Xantid Swarm. Merchant Scroll for Force of Will.

Now, you may not win this game. But at least you can stop your opponent far more readily than you could with Echoing Truth.

Chain of Vapor is also threatening in other ways. First of all, it is a serious threat to the Dragon combo. Imagine:

Turn 1:

You: Island, Mox, Merchant Scroll for Ancestral Recall
Opp: Mox, Mox, Island, Intuition for Deep Analysis, Dragon, Dragon

Turn 2:

You: Play Island, tap it for Ancestral drawing Chain of Vapor

Opp: Animate Worldgorger Dragon.
You: Chain of Vapor targeting Dragon with comes into play trigger on the stack.
Opp: Force of Will.
You: Force of Will

Result: they have no permanents.

The Europeans and others have all switched from Echoing Truth to Chain of Vapor, including our new Vintage Champion, Travis Spero.

For another example of why Chain is probably necessary, look at Game 3 near the end of this article, specifically at turn 2.

The other change I have made, however, is cutting the Rebuild for Hurkyl’s Recall. The advantages of Rebuild are often clear. You can cycle it to draw a card. This has often useful synergy with cards like Vampiric Tutor and Mystical Tutor. In addition, it is much harder to play Chalice of the Void for three than it is for two. At the moment, however, I prefer Hurkyl’s Recall. Here’s why:

Let’s say your board position is this:

Mox Sapphire
Mana Crypt
Mana Vault (tapped)
Mox Ruby (tapped)
Mox Jet (tapped)
Island (tapped)
Volcanic Island (tapped)
Underground Sea (tapped)

You have just resolved Yawgmoth’s Will but you have only two colorless floating and a Lotus Petal in your graveyard in addition to the untapped Mox Sapphire. You can use your Mox Sapphire and Mana Crypt to play Merchant Scroll. You can then find Hurkyl’s Recall and play it with the Petal and last floating colorless. Rebuild would cost you one more mana that you may not have.

I may not be right about this, but I’ve been pushing the deck harder and harder to give me faster and faster kills. Playing Hurkyl’s Recall helps me do that by shaving a mana off here and there. If you play Hurkyl’s before your Yawgmoth’s Will, you can shave two mana off that you couldn’t with Rebuild. That makes the difference in a hand like this, which can win on turn 1.

In April of this year, I posted this screenshot on my team boards. Justin Droba quickly found the fastest route to victory, only to conclude that you are two mana short of a first turn victory. A few months ago, I posted this on the Mana Drain to see how the broader community would react. Within the first few days, the analysis was strikingly shallow. Most replies focused on the objective strength of various cards rather than an analysis of the potential lines of play. After this deck won the Vintage championship, with renewed interest in the deck, I once again raised the question and a much richer analysis emerged.

Take a moment to think about this situation. What can you come up with?







Now, assume that Rebuild is Hurkyl’s Recall, Echoing Truth is Chain of Vapor, and Burning Wish is Tendrils of Agony. How does that change your analysis?

Here is Justin Droba’s solution.

Okay, assuming he has no FoW, this wins this turn:

1) Crypt (storm: 3)
2) Vault (storm: 4, C)
3) Ruby (storm: 5, C)
4) Rebuild (storm: 6, RCC)
5) Sapphire, Crypt, Vault, Ruby (storm: 10, RC)
5.5) Tap those b*tches to make this easier (storm 10: RRCCCCCCU)
6) Gifts for Petal, Jet, Will, Lotus (RRCCC)

I assume I get Petal + Jet.

7) Play them, tap the Jet (RRCCCB)
8) Recoup targeting Will (RCCB)
9) use Petal for black (RCCUB)
10) Will (RB)
11) Lotus, Petal, use Lotus for UUU (RBUUU)
12) Rebuild using RUU (UB)
13) Sapphire, Jet, Ruby, Crypt, Vault, tap them (UUBBRCCCC)
14) Play Petal and let it sit there
15) Gifts for MT, VT, DT, and Mox Emerald (UBBRC)

You’ll probably get Emerald and …

No matter how I do this, I’m one mana short.

There is Justin’s analysis.

I generated two additional mana by using Hurkyl’s over Rebuild and I only had two extra mana at the end. That’s with Tendrils maindeck. That is, I’ve saved four mana over JDs solution by running Tendrils and Hurkyl’s, and I have two extra mana where he was one short.

If you play in a heavy Stax metagame, then I would probably stick with Rebuild. But in the control and combo metagame we are playing in at the moment, I think that the advantage of Hurkyl’s is worth it.

The turn 1 kill solution, (admittedly, assuming no disruption from the opponent) was not possible under the old configuration. Only with either Hurkyl’s Recall maindeck or Tendrils over Burning Wish can we make the win happen.

Now, even though you’ve performed all of that analysis, that doesn’t even tell us whether we should do that play. I would go for this play because if they counter anything, it will likely be the Gifts. You will then have Scroll on top. You can then do the exact same play next turn by Scrolling for Gifts again.

Burning Wish versus Tendrils of Agony

Early on in the process of developing Meandeck Gifts, I was intrigued by the idea of running Tendrils of Agony maindeck. Many of my teammates, notably Doug Linn and Willie Milton, continually suggested that we run the Tendrils maindeck. For over a year I resisted on the grounds that it was “training wheels.” That is, there was no situation that I had encountered where the Tendrils maindeck would not have been a “win-more” play. This may still be true, but that belies an even greater truth: Meandeck Gifts is really, really hard to play. Anything that makes the win a littler easier and a little faster is actually worth the cost. Running Tendrils of Agony maindeck actually speeds the deck up more significantly than any other major change to the deck. I am convinced that this is the right swap. It is not that Burning Wish isn’t a strong card. I’ve used the Burning Wish to replay Yawgmoth’s Will, Time Walk, and even Recoup (in a very bizarre game state), let alone the obvious play of finding Pyroclasm. Nonetheless, I think that goldfish speed is now more important than ever. The switch in bounce spells mirrors this philosophy.

Philosophy of Play

Now, I’ve gone through all of this discussion about tweaking the deck without even discussing some of the more radical ideas teammates and others have entertained. I won’t go down that road because I think discussing (any further) the various permutations of this core decklist is simply not as valuable or worthwhile as another more important discussion: how to play this deck.

I think the most difficult decision in Vintage right now may be constructing optimal Gift piles. Under the DCI Floor Rules you generally have up to sixty seconds to search your deck for a card. Building optimal Gifts piles is enormously complex.

Take the example I demonstrated above. Do you honestly think it is possible to come up with that solution in under a minute?

Something that was obscured by the presentation of the solution is this: I sacrificed the Lotus Petal for Black. But, if I were on the fly and figuring out the win as I was playing without having comprehensively analyzed the game state first, I would probably sacrifice the Petal for Blue. If you do that, you lose. You need three Blue and three Black post-Yawgmoth’s Will otherwise your opponent can bottleneck you after you Gifts. It is just an oddity of the way that the numbers add up that you can’t get both three Blue and three Black without sacrificing the Petal for Black before playing Yawgmoth’s Will.

Here’s what happens if you sacrifice the Petal for Blue at that crucial step:

1) Play Ruby, Crypt, Vault and tap them: R4
2) Tap island for Hurkyl’s. R3
3) Replay all that stuff: Sapphire, Ruby, Crypt, Vault
And tap ‘em: RRU7
4) Play Gifts: RR4 floating
They give you Jet and Petal, like JD predicts (the two cards you don’t get are Will and Black Lotus)

5) Tap Jet and sac petal for BLUE so you have UBRR4 floating.

6) Play Recoup target Will: R3BU floating.
7) Play Will: UR1 floating
8) play Black Lotus and Petal from yard. Now here, I’ll go down two routes.

8A) Sacrifice Black Lotus for UUU -> UUUUR1 floating
8 B) Sacrifice Black Lotus for BBB -> BBBUR1 floating

9) Hurkyl’s Recall again:

9A) UUUR floating
9B) BBBR floating

10) replay all artifacts (Sapphire, Jet, Ruby, Crypt, Vault, and Petal) and tap them:

10 A) UUUURRB4 and unused Petal
10B) BBBBRRU4 and unused Petal

11) Gifts using U3 leaving:

11A) UUURRB1 floating and a Petal
11B) BBBBRR1 floating and a Petal

You gifts for Vampiric Tutor, Mystical Tutor, Demonic Tutor, and Mox Emerald.

Under 11A, you lose if they give you Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor because you won’t have enough Black to win.

Under 11B, you lose if they give you Mystical Tutor and Mox Emerald because you won’t be able to play both the Mystical and Brainstorm to draw the Tendrils.

The point is this: you have to have foreseen all the way at step 5 that you’d need to sacrifice the Petal for the Black or else this wouldn’t work. That is very hard to see. Even if you work all the way through it, it is a minor thing to overlook. A slight mistake and you lose.

I’d like to step back for a moment and draw your attention to an article I wrote some time ago about Doomsday. Anyone who has tinkered around with the Doomsday combo deck for more than a few games will eventually realize that building Doomsday piles is far more complicated than would appear at first blush. In an article I wrote a year ago April, I went through eighteen different Doomsday piles built for various in-game board states the combo player was likely to face. That’s eighteen different piles out of potentially dozens, or even hundreds.

I have some bad news for you: building Gifts piles is harder. Doomsday piles will always have certain key components: you’ll need a way to win now. Gifts piles can be four completely different cards every time. Gifts piles are the most involved and context dependent series of connected decisions stemming from a single card to be made in Vintage. Sure, Yawgmoth’s Will can lead to more decisions, but they don’t need to be made within the span of the time allotted to a single card. You can spend fifteen minutes playing your Yawg Will turn if you’ll take that time playing thirty spells. Gifts demands much more.

You need to leverage asymmetric information to induce a mistake in your opponents split. You need to craft piles designed to advance your game and ruin your opponent. You have to consider what game plan is optimal: the control role or the combo role. You have to figure out exactly how fast you can go off with a possible pile and how controlling you could be with another. Yet, you also have to consider all of the potential interactions between the cards you may get. And perhaps most frustrating of all, you have to consider the effect of your current Gifts selection upon future Gifts. It is not uncommon to Gifts three times in a game against certain decks. Your first Gifts needs to account for what future Gifts piles are likely to be. Keeping in mind that there is only one optimal Gifts pile and that you have do perform these operations within a reasonable time, this is a virtually impossible task.

I wish I could write an article similar to the Doomsday Pile article, but it’s simply too context dependent. That isn’t to say that you can’t build good and strong Gifts piles most of the time, but it is frustrating to realize that we may not be building the best or the optimal Gifts piles. It isn’t even clear which criteria we should be using. To illustrate these points, I am going to post four test games I recently played against my trusty test partner, Joe Bushman. Joe was piloting our version of Control Slaver (which I posted two articles ago). I was playing the decklist in this article. We played four games.

Joe won the die roll so he elected to play. We alternate playing first.

Game 1:

My opening hand is quite broken:

Black Lotus
Mox Sapphire
Mox Emerald
Flooded Strand
Merchant Scroll
Mana Drain

Just looking at this hand, it enables an early Scroll for Ancestral with protection in Misdirection. It’s a very strong hand. It has powerful Control elements as well as plenty of acceleration.

Turn 1:

Joe opens with:

Joe: Island go,
Me: I lucksack and topdeck my tutor target: Ancestral Recall

Aside: In response to my article last week, Mike Flores questioned whether Skill really does determine Vintage matches – how can that be true in such a busted format. He also reminded me that most players make mistakes every turn. This is a good way of illustrating the latter point.

I played Sapphire, Emerald, Strand. Then I moved to my second main phase and played Black Lotus.

The reason I did all of that was because I wanted to be able to Mana Drain a Force of Will targeting my Black Lotus. I think that this may have been a play mistake. I knew before I even played the Strand that if I drew or tutored for Tolarian Academy this turn, I would want to play it. I played the Strand based upon the seemingly logical play of seeking to protect my Black Lotus and, were Force of Will to be played, I would gain five additional mana from it next turn.

The problem isn’t that this is the wrong play, but that it is so hard to tell whether this is the right play or not. What criteria do we use? We don’t know what our opponents have in hand, and so we operate from a place of imperfect information. The usual answer is: do the math. But my retort is: what math? What math are we calculating? Thus, although Vintage is possibly a forgiving format in some respects, it is virtually impossible to play it perfectly.

I tapped the Sapphire for Ancestral, which resolved.

I drew:

Tolarian Academy
Merchant Scroll

It is possible that I’ve already made several play mistakes. What are the potential lines of play?

I could have just played Sapphire, Emerald, and Lotus.

If I just did that and tapped the Sapphire for Ancestral, if he had played Force of Will or Misdirection, I would have needed to use the Lotus to play Mana Drain. Thus, even if I drew Academy, I’d only be able to tap it for two, assuming I draw no more artifacts. If he has both Misdirection and Force of Will, I could be in a world of hurt. Perhaps the correct play is to Scroll for something else or to leave Mana Drain mana open and pass the turn? I can’t say.

What I ended up doing was simply playing Merchant Scroll for Gifts Ungiven with the remaining Mox and Strand –> Underground Sea. But if I had waited to play a land, I could have played Academy, tapped it for three mana, and then played both Scrolls. I could have scrolled for Gifts as well as Scroll for either another Gifts or another card like Brainstorm.

This is merely turn 1, and the game is already enormously complicated.

Turn 2:

Joe is not content to let me walk all over him. He plays an Underground Sea of his own and taps his Island for Sol Ring, which he taps for Demonic Tutor.

He considers what to get, for a moment, and then lays Black Lotus on the table.

This is not surprising. Black Lotus is incredibly strong. It is a frequent tutor target in decks like these. For Joe, Black Lotus means a better Yawgmoth’s Will (which he has in hand) as well as reuse with Goblin Welder (should he draw one).

He sacrifices the Lotus for Blue and plays Fact or Fiction with the remaining colorless from Sol Ring.

I can’t resist. I break my Black Lotus for UUU and put Mana Drain on the stack targeting Fact or Fiction. It resolves. I burn one Blue but gain four colorless on my first main phase. This game is already over.


I untap and draw another Island.

I tap Sapphire and play Gifts Ungiven using three of the four colorless. Keep in mind that I have Underground Sea and Mox Emerald in play with Academy in hand and another colorless floating. Joe concedes the game.

But I raise the question here: knowing that I also have another Scroll in hand as well as Drain and Misdirection, what is the optimal Gifts pile?

Post your responses in the forums and I’ll discuss them with you. This is the crucial skill. How would you have gone about this Gifts?

I’ll lay out some ideas: One Gifts would be just artifact mana. You can double your mana with the Tolarian and use it to Scroll for another Gifts and play that Gifts. Another possible route is to just get the broken suite: Yawg Will, Tinker, Time Walk, and Recoup. Another route would be the control route: Brainstorm, Gifts, Fact, and Scroll. Or you could do combinations thereof. Any thoughts?

I will send a prize, a cool card from my collection, to anyone who can come up with the absolute optimal Gifts pile in this situation and convince me that it is the best Gifts pile.

In game 2, I’m actually forced to construct a Gifts pile.

Game 2:

My opening hand is:

Mox Emerald
Tolarian Academy
Time Walk
Mana Drain
Gifts Ungiven

Remember that I am on the play this game because we alternate going first.

Turn 1:

I play:

Mox Emerald, Tolarian Academy, and Time Walk.

The idea here is to dig. The bottleneck is mana. I need to see as many cards as possible to make sure I can live if he drops his own Academy.

I untap for my Time Walk turn and draw Mana Vault.

I play Vault off the Emerald and think.

I can play:

a) Brainstorm
b) Gifts Ungiven, or
c) hold up for Mana Drain

If he plays his own Academy, I will not have time to respond and I’ll be completely cut off. I decide to play Brainstorm followed by Gifts.

I tap Academy for UU and Brainstorm into:

Sol Ring

Here we go again into the land of the extremely difficult. Sure, I can make a good play here, but what about the best play? How can I decide what to put back until I’ve figured out all of the possible Gifts permutations and their consequences? You can’t. There isn’t time. So I put back Tendrils and Recoup, rightly or wrongly and proceed.

I tap the Vault for Sol Ring and play Gifts Ungiven. Now is the trick. I’m holding another Brainstorm and I’d like to play a land this turn, which, if I can resolve Brainstorm, I’ll likely see.

I lay out half of my deck and think about possible piles. Joe hasn’t even gotten a turn. I have no idea what’s in his hand. Obviously, my goal is to win. But if I try and go for the gusto and win next turn or even now, I could be shut out by a single Force of Will he is holding, or a Tormod’s Crypt on his main phase. If I go for the Control route and grab a ton of Blue spells, he could drop Academy and shut me out of the game mana-wise, or worse, draw me into a long game that he wins one of several different ways. What a headache.

I think about it for a while and I decide to take a middle route. Here is what I get:

Mox Sapphire
Merchant Scroll
Gifts Ungiven
Yawgmoth’s Will

Here is my thinking: If he gives me Scroll and Sapphire, I can Scroll this turn, which I assume he’ll see. In all honesty, I’d probably Brainstorm instead and hope to see a land with which I can Scroll. That seems good. I’d be able to Gifts later on for the mana and Recoup to play the Yawg Will.

If he gives me Gifts and Scroll, unless he has Academy, I’m going to annihilate him next turn with Gifts and then Scroll for another Gifts or countermagic.

If he gives me Yawg Will, all I need is to be able to Brainstorm into the requisite Black mana source and win.

I thought about Tinker, but the best use of Tinker here would be to tutor up Black Lotus. I even thought of what would happen if I put Hurkyl’s in a pile. I thought about Mystical Tutor, but it is worse than both Scroll and Gifts. This seemed like a strong middle course.

He gave me Sapphire and Yawgmoth’s Will. This wasn’t entirely surprising, after my lengthy analysis. It seemed that he wish to give me the combo tools and then out-counter me. He knew that if he gave me Scroll and or Gifts, I’d have a lot more firepower. He also tried to cut me off from Blue spells so that I wouldn’t be able to use pitch magic.

The trick and the real power was that I had another Brainstorm. Thus, I played:

Mox Sapphire, Brainstorm. Almost as soon as I had announced it, I realized it may be a mistake.

I Brainstormed into:

Mana Drain
Flooded Strand

I put back Mana Drain and Yawgmoth’s Will (with Will on top) and played Strand holding Drain and Misdirection.

If I had waited until after my next draw step to play Brainstorm, I’d be able to protect Will with double counter-backup without eating up most of my mana. I didn’t think about that beforehand. Clearly this was a mistake. Oh well.

It didn’t matter, because he finally got his turn and did this:

Joe: Land, Ancestral Recall, which I Misdirected to myself. He scooped on the spot.

Notice how many turns these two control decks have given each other. Joe has had three turns in two games.

Game 3 and 4 are interesting, so I’ll show them here, but I’ll spare the detailed analysis.

Game 3:

My opening hand is weak:

Gifts Ungiven
Mox Pearl
Lotus Petal
Volcanic Island

I kept this hand because it has turn 1 Brainstorm and turn 2 possible Gifts.

Turn 1:

Joe: Flooded StrandVolcanic IslandAncestral Recall, causing him to discard Slaver. Boo hoo.

Me: I draw an Island. I Brainstorm into Fact or Fiction, Tendrils of Agony, and Merchant Scroll. I put back two lands and play Mox Pearl and pass.

Turn 2:

Joe plays a land and plays Goblin Welder. He then plays a Mox Pearl of his own and passes the turn.

Me: At this point, I fear getting Slaved next turn. If he Slaves me, I’m going to lose despite the ill quality of my hand. He can play Gifts and do silly stuff for himself, not to mention get a free Time Walk.

I think carefully. I have three options:

1) Gifts
2) Fact
3) Scroll

Within those options are further options.

If I Scroll, I can get:

A) Ancestral
B) Force of Will
C) Bounce for his Welder (this didn’t really occur to me, although it’s probably the right play)
D) Other

I Scroll for Ancestral, which he Force of Wills.

Turn 3:

Joe: He draws a card, and here I fear imminent Slavage. I am relieved to see that he passes the turn. I am reprieved.

Me: I play a third land. I can play either Fact or Gifts here, but if he Drains, that will give him the mana he needs to activate Slaver. Instead I simply play the Petal and pass the turn. On my end step, he plays Thirst for Knowledge (recall my article discussing the power of Thirst as a tempo card). I can play Gifts here, but the only two relevant cards in my whole deck are Chain of Vapor and Force of Will. I could put any two other cards in the pile, and he won’t give me the Chain or the FoW. Thus, I Fact and hope to see Chain of Vapor. I do not. His Thirst resolves and he Slaves me as predicted on turn 4. I lose.


First of all, it is highly probable that I made plenty of mistakes this game. First and foremost, my hand was crap. I probably should have mulliganed. Second, my biggest mistake was probably not playing Fact or Gifts on turn 2. Instead, I played Scroll. Third, even if I were to play Scroll, I probably should have Scrolled for FoW or for Chain of Vapor.

Game 4:

I mulligan to six, and my hand is:

Polluted Delta
Merchant Scroll
Merchant Scroll
Fact or Fiction
Gifts Ungiven

Turn 1:

I go Land, go.

Joe: Black Lotus, Underground Sea

He also drops Tormod’s Crypt.

Turn 2:

Me: I draw another land. I play Delta and break it for Sea and play Merchant Scroll. It resolves. I get Force of Will, much to his surprise!

My plan is to use Force of Will to protect myself here, and then Scroll for Ancestral next turn and play it. That is the whole reason that Merchant Scroll is so good! It has positive marginal utility.

Joe: He plays Strip Mine on my Sea. Ugh!

Turn 3:

I draw Tendrils and play a land. I decide not to play Scroll for some reason.

Joe plays a land and passes.

Turn 4:

I draw Tinker and pass.

Joe: Draws and passes.

Turn 5:

I draw Gifts and pass.

Joe: Draws and passes.

Turn 6:

I draw Brainstorm.

I think for a while. I can Scroll here, or hold up mana and try to Brainstorm. Although Scrolling is solid, I need to develop my manabase. Thus, I need to Brainstorm here or soon. I may have made the wrong decision, but I Brainstorm. I see Misdirection, Mana Drain, and Vampiric Tutor. I put Tendrils and Vamp on top. My hand is:

Fact or Fiction
Force of Will
Gifts Ungiven

Mana Drain

He goes for it: He plays Gifts Ungiven off the Lotus. It would set him up for the win. I Force of Will it. He plays Force of Will. I Misdirect it, pitching Fact.

We play draw-go for a while. He topdecks Ancestral, but I Drain it.

Eventually, I play Gifts Ungiven for:

Time Walk
Mox Jet
Mana Crypt
Sol Ring.

He gives me Sol Ring and Mox Jet, and I Tinker into Colossus. He draws a card and passes. I swing for 11. He topdecks Echoing Truth and bounces the Colossus. However, I am holding Chain of Vapor and Tendrils, and I draw Brainstorm and am able to kill him with a Tendrils for eight through his counterspell.

I may have messed up the last game a little bit because my notes became sketchy. I debated my final Gifts for some time, but I decided to just go with the Colossus kill and hope it went all the way with Tendrils for backup.

Before leaving, I have one example of a huge misplay I made at the last tournament I played in. I made Top 4 and did a four-way prize split at a local tournament in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago with this deck. My only loss in the tournament was Mark Trogdon. It was game 1, and I know he’s playing his Workshop contraption that almost made Top 8 at Gencon.

He wins the roll.

My hand is:

Mox Ruby
Chain of Vapor
Mana Drain
Mystical Tutor
Demonic Tutor

I keep it, because he mulliganed.

Turn 1:

Mark: Mountain, go.


Me: I draw Merchant Scroll

Now, what do I do?

I play Island and Mox and consider my options.

I have several options:

1) Brainstorm

2) Scroll for
a) Ancestral
b) Force of Will
c) Other

3) Mystical Tutor

4) Wait to see what he does.

I think about it for a while. If I Brainstorm and hit a land, I can upkeep Mystical Tutor for Ancestral and play it next turn. I ignore the risk of what happens if I don’t see a land.

After some thought I pass the turn. I figure I could way to see what he does before making more of a move. The only real risky card here is Strip Mine, which Brainstorm answers as best it can either way.

Turn 2:

Mark: Mountain, Mana Crypt, Su Chi.

He passes.

I think. Su Chi is a 4/4 beater, which means I have 5 turns! I can play Mystical right now and play Ancestral next turn.


Brainstorm into a land, upkeep mystical for Ancestral. Then play the land and Ancestral.

I’m not scared of his Su Chi, with Chain in hand.

I play Brainstorm and whiff. I see: Brainstorm, Mana Drain, and another Scroll.

I untap, draw a card I’ve seen, and play another Brainstorm, seeing two new cards – but still no land.

Guess what he does?

Turn 3:

Mark: he attacks with Su-Chi sending me to 16. He plays Synod Centurion and Strip Mines my Island.

It’s all over.

I know that my next card is not a land, and even if I draw a land the following turn I can’t get out of this in time.

Now, all of these plays, I think, were seemingly good. Yet they were completely wrong. It wasn’t that my plays didn’t have a logic behind them. but that the logic was incomplete.

In retrospect, the strongest play I could have made was turn 1 Scroll for Ancestral. That gives me turn 2 Ancestral and very possibly turn 3 Tinker (by playing Mystical for it).

Mark’s hand was slow as hell. Su-Chi and Synod Centurion are not significant threats. The problem is that the critical Strip Mine blew me out of the water.

This is what I mean by making play mistakes costs games in Vintage. This is the ultimate refutation of the point that Flores was critiquing in the article feedback thread to my article last week. Sure, there are tons of broken cards in Vintage, but execution is key. If you make a single misstep, your opponent is able, often, to step in and wipe you out.

It is extremely frustrating, to me, that I make so many play mistakes all the time. Yet, what can we do? We have to learn from them. There were several lines of play from which I win that game.

The problem is that once I passed my first turn, my only two options were Brainstorm or Mystical. When forced to choose, Brainstorm looked like the relatively stronger play. Had I confronted this choice on turn 1, I would have leaned toward Scroll. But I didn’t. I passed the turn in an effort to gain more knowledge – to better react to what he was playing. In doing so, in making a misstep because of my fear of uncertainty, I boxed myself in and made an even worse decision. That isn’t to say that Scroll wouldn’t have opened me to more problematic plays. I was concerned that if I Scrolled for Ancestral, he could have dropped Chalice for one. But, in retrospect, even Scroll for Force of Will would have been a better play than the one I made.

Closing Thoughts

At SCG Richmond I played some of the best Magic I’ve ever played and I was rewarded for it. Vintage is really tough. A slight miscue of the kind I just elaborated against Mark Trogdon leads to game losses in this format. That’s why Skill is King. And Meandeck Gifts is the hardest deck in the format.

Let me be frank. Vintage is run under the same rules as every other format. Yet, the game is compressed into five or so turns per player. The decision of what to Gifts for is a momentous and crucial decision, and yet you have a very limited time to decide. Playing optimally under these conditions is the real challenge of Vintage. Meandeck Gifts not only has to choose what to Gifts for, but it has other tutors, not the least of which is Merchant Scroll. Merchant Scroll is one of the strongest cards in the deck, acting as a veritable Blue Demonic Tutor. In this article you’ve seen me Scroll for half a dozen different cards. The goal in Vintage right now is not to find the new best deck. It’s not to find the new tech. The goal is to get good. The goal is to master a deck and learn its subtle nuances, as well as its complex intricacies. Meandeck Gifts is not simply a challenge to the opponent, but a challenge for the pilot. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian