Vintage Avant-Garde – “Mana Drain Is Back!” In Control with Vintage Control

Tuesday, December 21st – Brian DeMars concocts a sweet Vintage Control deck which he uses to win a local proxy “20-man/all-ringers” tournament. Who doesn’t love a good Mana Drain?

I was talking to Kyle Boggemes yesterday night at a Standard tournament, and we got to chatting about Vintage. He mentioned that he saw David Williams battling games of Vintage in between rounds at Worlds in Japan with Matt Sperling, and that DW had a sick-o Mana Drain deck with Nihil Spellbomb and Ancient Grudge. I just chuckled: “Can you guess who shipped the list?”

Kyle laughs: “Obviously—I should have known.”

Last weekend I attended a ten-proxy Vintage tournament at R.I.W. Hobbies in Livonia, Michigan. Being a Michigander, it isn’t every day that there’s a quality Vintage event right in my backyard, and I was excited for the chance not only to play my favorite format and possibly add a minty Time Walk to my collection—but, also to try out the new brew I had been working on for the past couple of weeks.

My expectation was that attendance would be on the sparse side, probably in the league of twenty players, but that the level of competition would be extremely high. The ole “20-man/all-ringers” Vintage format is by far and large my favorite, as it allows a player to test their skills against other talented players right from the start of round one until the finals; and I was not going to want for lack of talent at this particular tournament.

Many of the best in the Midwesterners showed up to battle with their Gushes, Workshops, and Dark Rituals on that cold, blustery Saturday afternoon: Steven Menendian, Michael Bomholt, Justin “Jdizzle” Droba, Jerry “Yangtime” Yang, C.J. Moritz, Paul “Hitman” Kim, The Moore Brothers, Stu Parnes, and Kevin “CHA1N5” Cron, all talented Vintage notables, rounded out the field.

The deck I chose to play was a modified version of the Control Slaver deck that
I wrote about in my article

a few weeks ago. My good friend and all-around Vintage master, Paul “Mr. Type 4” Mastriano had played the deck to a Top 8 finish the week before, and his friend and fellow Meandecker Justin Morford had managed to crack the Top 4, which gave me the benefit of their experiences to make corrections to the list based upon their field-testing and suggestions.

In spite of the fact that Paul lives twelve hours away and that we only hang out in real life a couple of times a year, he’s still my number-one playtesting partner for Vintage—which is a funny thing to say considering we don’t actually “playtest” games of Magic. One of the most vital resources in the Vintage deckbuilder’s toolbox is having another player or players, whose opinion about Vintage they trust, to talk through the process of interpreting metagames, decisions about deck construction, and specific card choices.

Especially when it comes to “pillar decks,” the mainstays “Workshop,” “TPS,” or “Blue Control,” actually playtesting games becomes a less profitable endeavor than theorizing potential plans and making sure that there is a plan for every probable matchup. Who actually has time to test a rogue deck against every single matchup? Sometimes it seems like there are so many rogue decks or possible variants that it would be impossible to test the gauntlet even if one wanted to.

With so much work to be done, having somebody to talk through possible problems or to assess possible strengths and weaknesses is a huge boon for building a good deck. Another pair of eyes is always useful for spotting things that one might not have noticed before, and having somebody to point out “Hey, by the way, you don’t have a single relevant card against a Marit Lage token…” is an invaluable asset in the final stretch of tuning decks for tournament play. Having plans for potential opposing decks is obviously important in every Constructed format, but it’s especially advantageous with regard to Vintage because having the correct card in your pool is so important with so many tutors. Simply having the card to get with a tutor can often be the difference between victory and catastrophe.

One suggestion that Paul made about the Slaver build was that he almost always wanted to adopt the control role in almost every single matchup and often wanted to remain in that role longer than most blue decks do before switching gears and executing their endgame. Paul’s insight here was very keen, and as we talked out why such a tendency might be the case, it became apparent that most decks are ill equipped to adopt such a stance and hold it for more than a turn or two. As it turns out, the Vintage Control deck’s endgame, similar to “The Deck,” is actually to grind out its opponent’s resources and take away their potential outs, but at the same time, it also has the ability to combo kill an opponent by taking all the turns with Key/Vault.

One other trend I noticed that explains why controlling the game with Mana Drain seems to be a strong tactic at the moment was that there has been a recent trend for blue players, particularly Gush and Lotus Cobra decks, to bank heavily on Spell Pierce and Duress rather than hard permission as their primary form of disruption. The early-game disruption of Duress and Spell Pierce is thus coupled with strategies such as Trygon Predator, Neo-Gush/Bond, or Jace strategies that take longer to develop and are incrementally less tempo warping than the endgames of the blue decks we have seen in previous years and metas. The trend of playing Trygon and Jace-based blue decks, as opposed to Tendrils of Agony, seems to correlate directly to the dominance of Mishra’s Workshop decks over the past year. (Of course every blue deck probably has Time Vault and Voltaic Key; however I would argue that Vintage Control is first of all better at Key-Vaulting than any other mainstream blue deck and secondly better at defending against Key-Vault than any other blue deck).

The realization of these two trends created the perfect storm for the emergence of a newly tooled deck that has the capability to prey upon not only Shop decks but also blue decks that are tweaked to beat Workshops. The key lies in the fact that in envisioning this new deck, the emphasis is upon having the correct bullets to crush our Workshop overlords, and against blue decks, we sought to have strong permission that trumped their situational disruption.

I finished up a lengthy conversation with Paul around 7 pm on Friday night and promptly went into my mad scientist laboratory. At around 7 am and after five or six rough drafts, I was confident I had built and brought to life a monster. (“Mad Scientist Laboratory…” “Built and brought to life a monster…” sick, right?).

Here is the deck that I ended up playing:

The first interesting aspect about this deck is that it has almost exactly the same mana base as the Time Vault combo “Steel City Vault” deck I designed well over a year ago—and despite the two decks being very different in game plan, the near identical mana base works fine in both strategies. The “Steel City” four-color mana base may also look familiar to some Vintage experts because it’s very similar to the one that Patrick Chapin advocated for his “The Deck,” except that his version cut Academy and added Strip Mine and Wastelands. The “Steel City,” or City of Brass four-color mana base allows players to build their core deck around the usual suspect “U/B core cards” and get Ancient Grudge and Nature’s Claim, the stone-cold best anti-Workshop technology, on the splash.

Truth be told, if you look closely at “Vintage Control,” much of the core overlaps with that of “Steel City Vault.”

Here’s the last Steel City Vault decklist I worked on over the summer that predates the release of M2011 and thus Preordain.

Here are the maindeck upgrades; on the left are the cards that came out from SCV, and on the right is what replaces them in Vintage Control:

Steel City Vault

Vintage Control

Inkwell Leviathan

Myr Battlesphere

Goblin Welder

Nihil Spellbomb

Voltaic Key

Sensei’s Divining Top



Wheel of Fortune

Merchant Scroll

Memory Jar






Lotus Petal


Mana Vault

Mana Drain


Mana Drain

Transmute Artifact

Mana Drain

Fact or Fiction

Jace, the Mind Sculptor


As we can see from looking at the overlap, the control deck is much sleeker than its predecessor and is going to have more consistent-looking draws because of its access to Preordain and Mana Drain as multiple copy cards. What Vintage Control gives up in explosiveness by shedding a slew of “draw sevens,” it makes up for in extremely efficient card selection and hard permission.

Brief Tournament Summary

Round 1: Justin “Jdizzle” Droba, playing The Tropical Storm

Game 1: I win the die roll. Justin is more than likely playing a Storm deck, which makes me a little bit nervous. When I was brewing Vintage Control, I suspected that fast, disruptive, combo decks are likely to be one of my biggest weaknesses. Luckily, I open up a hand with Force of Will, Mana Drain, Preordain, and lands. I Preordain into a second Force of Will, and Justin is never able to draw enough gas to power through my permission.


-1 Nature’s Claim, -2 Ancient Grudge, -1 Myr Battlesphere

+2 Duress, +1 Red Elemental Blast, +1 Pyroblast, +1 Nihil Spellbomb.

Game two: I have what should’ve been enough of an advantage to establish control, but I make a very costly mistake. After Red Elemental Blasting his turn 3 Timetwister, I untap with two lands in play and Ancestral Recall and Mana Drain in hand. My hand also has a bunch of other slower gas (Preordain, Merchant Scroll, Brainstorm, and Jace). I don’t have a third land, so I decide to play A-Call to try and hit a land, but end up finding only air. Backed up in a hole that I led myself into with my poor play, I am now locked into another bad play, as I now

to Brainstorm to find a land to not have lost egregious tempo or a Force of Will to not be way behind. I find a land but no Force of Will or Duress and am forced to pass without a counterspell available. On his turn, Justin plays Sol Ring, Underground Sea, removes Elvish Spirit Guide for a green… I already know I’m dead, “You have Bargain and exactly six, don’t you?”

Game three: I make a small sideboard adjustment.

-1 Goblin Welder, +1 Doom Blade.

(I saw Elvish Spirit Guide in game two).

I play out a turn 1 Preordain and settle in with Force of Will, Tinker, Red Elemental Blast, Doom Blade, and Mystical Tutor. He Preordains on the first turn. I untap, play a land, and pass. He plays out Xantid Swarm, which bites it to my Doom Blade (I had the read). He then plays Voltaic Key and passes. I untap and Duress him, take his Dark Ritual, leaving him with spells he can’t really use, and pass the turn with Force of Will in hand. He draws, plays out a Mox, and casts Tinker (presumably for Time Vault). I Force of Will to stop his Key-Vault, then untap and cast Jace and Jacestorm into Nihil Spellbomb. The game quickly ends thereafter, and Justin tells me that he was annoyed to have topdecked Yawgmoth’s Will the turn after I played Nihil Spellbomb. Doom Blade and Nihil Spellbomb were both extremely key in this victory against a touch matchup and a tough opponent. Never underestimate the “role” players, because when you’re on a “roll,” it’s usually because the “role” players are getting the job done…


Round Two: John Wilkerson, playing Belcher

So, I am two rounds in, and my opponents are two fast combo decks…

Game one: Luck is on my side, as I win the die roll (sometimes you have to win the die “roll” to get the ball “rolling”) and open up with the nuts. We all need a little help against Belcher sometimes… My opener has double Force of Will, double blue card, and mana. I win.


-1 Tinker, -1 Nature’s Claim, -1 Goblin Welder, -1 Myr Battlesphere

+2 Duress, +1 Engineered Plague, +1 Pithing Needle

One thing that I’ve noticed and would like to add to the sideboarding notes is that with a deck like this, and against decks like Storm or Belcher, I like to side out almost all of my victory conditions in lieu of anything that makes it more difficult for the combo deck to actually kill me. Such a plan usually leads to a lot of awful situations where it’s really difficult and awkward to finally finish off my opponents. With that being said, most of the time in spite of the awkwardness, it’s actually possible to somehow win the game, so the gamble pays off.

Game two is one of these types of games.

Game two: I establish control on the third turn with my opponent nearly empty-handed and have committed a Pithing Needle naming “Goblin Charbelcher” to the battlefield. I untap and cast a gigantic Yawgmoth’s Will. Here’s where it gets awkward; coming out of my Yawgmoth’s Will, I use my Demonic Tutor to fetch Engineered Plague in case he plays Empty the Warrens, and my Vampiric Tutor to get Time Walk. I realize after the fact that I don’t actually have a Key, a Vault, or a Jace. Basically, I can draw a bunch of cards—but my Tutors are all blown, and I don’t have any part of my combo; although I do have a lot of permission. So I draw a bunch of cards and don’t really get anywhere—and by anywhere, I mean Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Key-Vault. We start playing draw-go.

Much to my chagrin, John starts casting Spirit Guides… Finally, the fourth consecutive Spirit Guide resolves, and I proceed to draw chaff, as he begins to slowly and steadily attack my life total. I get down to two before I finally draw Jace and use it to bounce his 2/2. On his turn, he replays it, and I don’t have a counter for it, so I use Jace to Brainstorm looking for permission and play my Engineered Plague naming Spirit. On his turn, he attacks me down to one life (shutting off my two Cities of Brass and a Polluted Delta in play) and passes. On my next turn, I bounce his Spirit and counter it on the way down. I’m out of permission, at one life, but I have Jace. Now, here is where things really get awkward. My deck is starting to get kind of small, and I realize that even if I’m able to assemble Key/Vault, that depending upon how long it takes and how many cards are left in my library, that I might not have enough cards left in my library to ultimate Jace and survive his drawing the cards that he puts back… So, I just start Jacing and get him the fair way. Fateseal, Fateseal, Fateseal, Fateseal, Fateseal, Fateseal, ULTIMATE JACE…


Round Three: Paul Kim (Hitman on TMD) playing TPS

The tournament had a small attendance, so we’re only playing four rounds with a cut to Top 8. We intentionally draw but play out the match for fun, and I beat him 2-0.

So, I’ve essentially 3-0ed my worst matchup… One thing that I came to realize was that Mana Drain is not only good against blue decks that have essentially slowed themselves down, have added more lands, and play more reactive cards, but is also good against combo decks that also follow suit. Sure, Storm decks have draws that are extremely difficult for Time Vault decks to beat, but the thing is that, because they play more lands and more bounce to beat Workshop, they statistically have less of these matchups; this means that in the current meta, a Drain deck’s percentage is perhaps statistically better against most viable “fast combo” than it has ever been in the past.

Round Four: Steven Menendian playing Gush Oath with Tidespout Tyrant.

We intentionally draw into Top 8 but play out the match for the wicked thrills and sick brags.

Game one: Steve wins the die roll, and I keep my opener. I feel pretty good about it, as it has all of the necessary tools: Force of Will, Preordain, two lands, a Mox, Demonic Tutor, and Thirst. Unfortunately, he has a better hand with his own double Force of Will. The first Force pushes through Oath on turn 2, and the second seals the deal by stopping a Time Walk that was trying to set up a Yawgmoth’s Will. Steve’s deck goes off on the next turn.

The neat thing about Steve’s deck is that when it goes off, it
goes off…

Once he has the Tidespout in play, he can play a Mox to bounce another Mox (floating a mana first, of course) to make infinite mana. If he’s found Mox Sapphire, he can make infinite blue mana. Once he has infinite blue mana, he can cast Jace and bounce a Mox back to his hand and use one of Jace’s abilities (Fateseal you? Bounce your creature? Brainstorm?). The cool thing is that he can replay his Mox and bounce the Jace and then use some of his infinite mana to replay the Jace, bouncing the Mox again. You see the trick? He can draw his whole deck and Fateseal a lot. Kind of tricky…


-1 Goblin Welder, -2 Ancient Grudge, -1 Merchant Scroll, -1 Sensei’s Divining Top

+2 Duress, +1 Pyroblast, +1 Red Elemental Blast, +1 Nature’s Claim

Game two: Steve keeps a hand on the draw that is Black Lotus, five lands, Jace. I Red Elemental Blast his Jace. How embarrassing…

Would you keep a hand that is literally “turn 1 Jace or go home” on the draw in game two already up a game?

Game three: We’re both apparently inspired by Steve’s alleged bad keep and both keep questionable mana-heavy draws in this game. I peel land after land, as does Steve. We both have six lands in play before Steve peels a Gush and chains it into more Gushes and Preordains. I have stone nothing and wait to see another card, yet another blank, and concede to his overwhelming advantage.


QUARTERFINALS: Steve Menendian with Gush Tyrant Oath

Rematch time, but this time I win the die roll.

One thing we discussed after our last round was how important drawing Preordain to smooth out draws appears to be in the Blue vs. Blue matchup. Luckily, I draw lots of Preordains in our first game and basically am able to sculpt a hand that’s the complete and utter blade thanks to a turn 3 Yawgmoth’s Will for tremendous value, the best of which is Time Walk, untap, play Jace, and Brainstorm. Steve untaps and kills my Jace with his Jace. Steve tries for an emergency Will on his next turn, which bites it to a Force of Will, and I untap and take all the rest of the turns.

Same sideboard plan as before.

Game two was an awesome game. I have a pretty good draw but am plagued (blessed?) by the fact that the only mana sources I have drawn are City of Brass. However, I have the distinct Preordain advantage, having played all four copies by turn 5, as well as a Ponder. The card selection has been very good, as I am able, over the course of the game, to Nature’s Claim both of the Oaths of Druids that Steve has drawn. As the game winds down, I get a Jace into play and Brainstorm and am forced to pass the turn with good action but no mana or permission. Steve has two cards in hand after he draws for the turn, and obviously his turn consists of playing the Oath he has topdecked that turn. Oath is awkward because I’m at exactly five life, which means that a swing from a Tyrant is actually lethal. On my turn, I Ponder and then Jacestorm looking for a Voltaic Key to pair with my Tinker but hit Time Vault, which I’m one mana off from comboing out with because my Ponder and Jacestorm didn’t yield a land. I think for a moment and decide to leave myself with a hand of “Tinker and Gifts Ungiven,” and leave Time Vault on top of my deck. On Steve’s turn, he predictably Oaths up a Tidespout Tyrant—but, luckily no Flash of Insight or Ancient Grudge comes along with the blue beater. Steve draws for his turn (he has two cards in hand) and casts a Mox, which can bounce a Mox, and makes infinite mana. Finally, when he’s done making infinite mana, he returns the Mox to his hand once again for safekeeping and casts Thoughtseize and bounces my Jace. He sees a hand of: Jace, Tinker, Gifts.

Steve goes into the tank and several hours later decides he has to take the Jace. I flip up the Time Vault on the top of my deck, and he concedes.

SEMIFINALS: Marland Moore playing Bant Fish

You may be wondering after reading this report thus far: “Nice Ancient Grudges, Welder, and Battlesphere technology… At least they make the decision of what to board out easy…” From the quarterfinals on, where I actually played against board-presence decks, these cards absolutely took over and dominated.

Game one: I win the die roll and power out a Welder and some artifact mana. Marland puts out a Noble Hierarch and a Mox. I draw, play a Nihil Spellbomb, Preordain, and another land. Marland plays Null Rod, which bites it to Ancient Grudge. I play Mystical Tutor for Tinker and produce a Battlesphere. He plays Elspeth and makes a token. Battlesphere attacks Marland and domes Elspeth…


-1 Nature’s Claim, -1 Nihil Spellbomb, –Merchant Scroll, -1 Gifts Ungiven

+2 Doom Blade, +1 Engineered Plague, +1 Pithing Needle

Game two: Marland leads off with a Hierarch, and I lead off with a Tinker for Battlesphere. On his turn, he tries to Disenchant the Battlesphere, and I counter with Force of Will. Battlesphere goes the distance.

FINALS: Michael Bomholt with Metalworker Mud

I win the die roll.

I play land, Mox, Preordain, and pass. He plays Workshop, Sol Ring, Chalice, and Lodestone Golem. I play a land and pass. He attacks, and I take it; he then plays another Lodestone Golem, and I Ancient Grudge his tapped Golem in response. I untap, play a land, and flashback Grudge on his Golem, and cast Preordain. He untaps and plays Steel Hellkite. On his end step, I cast Mystical Tutor and get another Ancient Grudge, then untap and throw it at the Hellkite. Mike untaps and plays another Hellkite, which gets Grudged from the bin. He’s out of cards as I untap and Tinker for Battlesphere.


-1 Merchant Scroll, -1 Nihil Spellbomb, -1 Vampiric Tutor, -1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

+1 Nature’s Claim, +2 Doom Blade, +1 Artifact Mutation

Game two: Michael takes a mulligan to six cards and leads off with Mishra’s Workshop and Sphere of Resistance. I play a land and pass the turn. The next several turns closely mirror the first turn of the game—Mike plays a land and a Sphere, and I make my land drop. Eventually, I add Mana Crypt to the mix and am effectively above his tide of Spheres.

The funny thing is that both of our life totals begin to fall into trouble. Mike has been tapping away on his Ancient Tombs to cast his Spheres through more Spheres, and I’ve been pretty unlucky flipping with Mana Crypt. Eventually, Mike gets around to playing a Lodestone Golem, which I’m barely (with the help of Mana Crypt) able to destroy with a Nature’s Claim on his end step for the low, low price of a green and seven colorless. I untap, make another land drop, and pass. Mike has two cards in hand but no play on the following turn, so I assume that he has a Hellkite or a Triskelion that he must be locked out of playing because of all the spheres. On his end of turn, I Mystical Tutor for Tinker, untap, play a land, Tinker out my Mana Crypt for Battlesphere, and put Mike on a one-turn clock to find a blocker. He finds Lodestone Golem, which ends up chump blocking the Battlesphere for a turn before the circle of death finally ends the tournament on my following turn.

It was an extremely fun tournament, and I’d like to thank everyone who came out and played because it was a very fun event.

Hopefully, the tournament report gives players a feel for how the Vintage Control deck works and why it’s a pretty well rounded deck for competitive Vintage play. One thing that’s really interesting about Vintage right now is that decks that are more interactive seem to have a big advantage in the field, especially against decks that are linear and try to avoid interaction—for instance, Mud or Oath. Many of these strategies tend to rely on key cards to do the brunt of the work — in the case of Oath, Oath of Druids, or in the case of Mud, Lodestone Golem or Steel Hellkite — and being able to answer these key cards consistently on the spot gives a player a huge advantage.

My final reflections on Vintage Control card choices:

My All Stars

Nihil Spellbomb — I didn’t even play against Dredge, and this card was awesome for me. At the very least, it always cantripped for value, and at its best, it shut off my opponent’s ability to get any value whatsoever with Yawgmoth’s Will. Another non-arbitrary interaction is that against a graveyard-reliant deck, such as Dredge or even Dragon, Vintage Control has the ability to assemble the mondo-combo of Welder + Spellbomb to lock an opponent out of the game. At the very least, Spellbomb also turns Goblin Welder into a creature with “Tap: Draw a card.” Looking forward, I don’t think that it would be out of the question to sub the Sensei’s Divining Top for a second Nihil Spellbomb.

Doom Blade — The card continues to impress me, and Doom Blade is certainly in contention for a maindeck slot in this deck. I feel that although the deck has a lot of broken lines of play, some draws are particularly weak to creatures—specifically Gaddock Teeg. Nothing feels better than boarding in two Terrors against a creature deck.

Engineered Plague — I was surprised at how much utility and flexibility having a copy of this card in my sideboard afforded me. It was money against Empty the Warrens, it was useful as a sideboard card against Oath (to kill Orchard Spirit tokens), it was even a reasonable board-in against the Fish player who had Elspeth, Cold-Eyed Selkies, and Noble Hierarchs. I was glad to have it in my sideboard. The actual reason that I had it was that I wanted a good utility card against Dark Depths/Hexmage decks, which I think are a real struggle to beat for many blue decks. Many of the brews I’ve seen for Hexmage are mono-black, which means that they can’t remove the Plague, and if you name Vampire, they can never make a Marit Lage. Combating Marit Lage was also the reason I opted for Repeal in the maindeck as opposed to Doom Blade.

Ancient Grudge — making life so easy for the control mage. Double Stone Rain? Double Terror? Double disrupt your Time Vault? All of these things in one card? Yeah, it is.

Gifts Ungiven — With so many options to get, this card almost always wins the game. The only reason that I play with Merchant Scroll (which I consider the absolute 60th card in this deck and probably the weakest link) is because it gets Gifts Ungiven (just like the olden days…), and Gifts Ungiven is… well, there isn’t even hyperbole in my vocabulary to accurately describe my fondness for Gifts in this deck. To say Gifts is “insane” or “bonkers” would be doing the card a great injustice.

Mana Drain — It’s like in a romantic comedy, or a Taylor Swift top 40 hit, when the protagonist realizes that the person who was there all along and was overlooked is really “the one,” and that everyone and everything else was merely part of the path that led up to it. I love you, Mana Drain.

All in all, the Vintage Control deck exceeded my expectations, and playing with Mana Drains again was an awesome experience in and of itself. I hope that people enjoyed reading the article and that some people maybe even try playing control in Vintage in the future.

Happy Holidays,
Brian DeMars