“Future wars may begin in the air, but they will end in the mud.”
- George Smith Patton IV
I. Ad Initium
Each of the five pillars of Vintage has strengths and weaknesses. Mishra’s Workshop grants you the ability to drop a multitude of lockpieces on
the board with ease. The strength of Workshop—the ability to stop an opponent dead in their tracks before they have a chance to control the
game—comes with a cost; while you may be able to control the board, your strategy is permanent-based. You aren’t able to respond to your
opponents’ threats at instant speed – you can’t be reactive; you must be proactive.
To take that a step further, one of the pratfalls of playing Workshops is in the lack of a draw engine. Mishra’s Workshop doesn’t naturally lend
itself to playing many colored spells (like, say, the Mana Drain pillar does). Players’ natural inclinations (especially if they’re former blue
mages) may be to try and fight this, to fit a draw engine into the deck.
The cost of that draw engine is pressure. Those cards occupy slots in your deck that should be devoted to locking your opponent out or providing you
with the mana to do so. While many Shop decks look basic (in that they run so many playsets of cards), don’t let yourself be fooled. The
necessity of playsets of given cards doesn’t permit wasted space. Remember – draw spells aren’t actually threats; they merely represent the
potentiality for threats. You won’t achieve a lock because you’ve drawn cards; in fact, by allowing your opponent time (because you spent time and
resources in casting that draw spell), you may permit your opponent to seize the initiative and the control of the game or the match.
5C Stax pilots from years back knew of the Ancestral Recall trap – keeping a hand that had a turn 1 Recall, with no real pressure. You’d
lose games with those hands. Don’t let yourself become a victim of good intentions with poor understanding.
II. Divide et Impera
Shades of Workshops
For most of its time in Vintage, Mishra’s Workshop has lent itself to two different kinds of strategies – Shop Prison and Shop Aggro. With
the rise of Two-Card Monte, and various Metalworker/Staff builds, we can now say that there’s a Shop Combo subset as well.
Still, the two most common iterations of Workshop decks are Shop Prison and Shop Aggro. These strategies differ in important, yet subtle ways. First
off, though: know your goal.
A Shop Prison deck is a deck that seeks to create a hard lock – a board state from which the opponent cannot recover. There are various ways to
achieve this, and no given card is needed, but some of the cards that you see in Shop Prison decks include:
If you look at that list, you may remark that many of the cards on that list are cards that you commonly see in Shop Aggro decks. There’s a fair amount
of overlap between the two builds, but the goals are different, and it’s important to keep that in mind when building your Shop deck.
A Shop Aggro deck may run the full complement of Sphere effects – 4x Sphere of Resistance, 4x Thorn of Amethyst, 1x Trinisphere and 4x Lodestone
Golem, whereas the various Shop Prison builds may run one or two less. The Shop Aggro deck seeks to use the various Sphere effects as a series of Time
Walks, which, when combined with aggressive creatures, will do the requisite twenty points of damage before an opponent is able to establish a mana
base and adequately handle your threats.
Both decks run Tangle Wire, though they do it for different reasons. While Tangle Wire will tie up an opponent’s resources for both Shop Aggro
and Shop Prison, the Shop Prison deck generally is better at hating an opponent’s resources, as it will run cards like Smokestack, which the Shop
Aggro deck will not. Tangle Wire serves the same role as the myriad Sphere effects of the Shop Aggro deck does – it serves as a Time Walk (or
several Time Walk), which gives the Shop Aggro deck’s creatures time to kill the opposing player. The Shop Prison deck is far more concerned
with the opponent’s ability to cast spells, and thus, they’re more concerned with the amount of mana that the opponent has available to them at
any given point in time.
Finally, while there are Shop Aggro decks that run Karn, Silver Golem, Karn is generally better suited to the Shop Prison strategies. First off, an
early Karn is able to control an opponent’s mana from their Moxen. Second, Karn can serve as a fast kill, letting you turn your Tangle Wires,
Spheres, and Smokestacks into cards that both denied your opponent the mana needed to break the lock as well as beaters that threaten to do twenty
When Karn hits the table for a Shop Aggro player, the Shop Aggro player may have already landed their first threat – a creature that will attack.
The Shop Prison pilot has spent their mana ensuring that the opponent has been unable to use the resources that they have (their lands may have been
targeted with Wasteland, Strip Mine, or Rishadan Port; their spells may be sitting in their hand due to Sphere of Resistance, Thorn of Amethyst, or
Tangle Wire; they may not be able to build their mana because of an active Smokestack, etc.). Karn allows the cards that the Shop Prison pilot runs to
serve two functions – to deny the opponent the ability to use their resources and the ability to turn all of those cards into independent threats
that can end the game. While Karn may see play in Shop Aggro builds, he’s better suited to the Shop Prison deck. He gains far more utility there,
as he allows many cards to serve two roles efficiently, in lieu of just one well.
III. The Rise of Metalworker
One of the most popular builds of Workshops right now is the Metalworker Aggro build. Last weekend, I ran the Grudge Match II, and Sam Berse’s
‘Elysian Fields’ (great name, Sam, I’m a fan) won the event.
Here’s his list:
Fabian Moyschewitz recently Top 8ed a major German Vintage tournament running MUD. Fabian’s list looked like this:
Historically speaking, a Shop Aggro deck uses creatures like Juggernaut to kill opponents. One of the most important printings for Shop Aggro lately
was Steel Hellkite. The Hellkite allows a Shop Aggro pilot to play two roles – aggressively attack an opponent’s life total while also
controlling an opponent’s permanents. Hellkite, unlike Juggernaut, has evasion. The opponent is less likely to be able to handle an attacking
Hellkite than they are an attacking Juggernaut, especially due to the proliferation of Dark Confidant as the draw engine of choice of blue pilots.
There are very, very few flying creatures that are playable in Vintage, and because of this, there are very few answers to a resolved Hellkite beyond
destroy and bounce effects. Conveniently, one of the only flying creatures that sees play – Trygon Predator – can be answered using Steel
Sam’s list is close to what I think the ideal version of an American Metalworker MUD deck would look like, though there are a few things that I
would change. Fabian’s list is prepared for the slightly more aggressive European metagame. If I were going to play a Metalworker MUD build,
I’d run something like this:
The focus of a Metalworker MUD deck is to drop one big threat, either preceded or followed by a series of Sphere/Wire/Waste effects that all
effectively serve as Time Walks. This may sound as though it’s easily disrupt-able; what happens if the opponent handles the one major threat
that you drop? Still, it’s more resilient than you’d imagine, if only because the propensity of hate that the deck is capable of dropping,
and the speed with which it drops it, is reminiscent of a blitzkrieg style of play. The games are over before you know it.
I’m an advocate of Espresso Stax, but there’s no debate that Metalworker MUD is the hottest deck in American Vintage right now. The sheer brutality of
an unmolested Metalworker is worthy of serious consideration when building your Vintage deck. Blue decks must pack Nature’s Claim, Hurkyl’s
Recall, and more (potentially Rebuild) in order to stand a chance.
A good Shop Prison pilot knows that any keepable hand must be capable of ‘double threat-ing’ the opponent – dropping at least two
threats on the board, preferably by turn 1, that will prevent your opponent from developing their mana base. Metalworker MUD has access to such a
wealth of mana that it is, at times, able to do more than what Shop Prison pilots seek to do in ‘double threat-ing’ the opponent in the
early turns of the game; the Metalworker MUD pilot may be able to ‘triple threat’ the opponent. Follow that up with any more business
– a well timed Wasteland or Strip Mine, a Tangle Wire that keeps them off the mana that they need for one or two turns, or a Sphere that pushes
the opponent’s Hurkyl’s Recall’s out of reach – and Metalworker can’t help but win. And it does.
Metalworker MUD is a Shop deck that’s so brutal that it doesn’t even really feel like a game. The rise of Metalworker MUD has had another serious
effect on Vintage – it has, paradoxically, pushed Trygon Predator out of the metagame to a degree.
There are Trygon Predators in the metagame but nowhere near as many as there were over the summer of 2010. The logic behind this is simple enough
– your opponent may have difficulty pushing his Trygon Predator in for damage when the MUD deck is capable of dropping a Steel Hellkite, or
Duplicant, on the board by the second turn. Given the choice of trying to resolve a three-mana creature or trying to resolve a one- or two-mana destroy
or bounce spell, blue pilots have been choosing the cheaper, instant-speed response lately.
Metalworker MUD is a major player in the metagame right now, having travelled across the Atlantic and made its way to the US. If you were considering
picking up a Workshop-based deck, this is a strong choice.
IV. Corpora Lente Augescent Cito Extinguuntur
The basics of playing Shop Prison are widely known, but there are subtleties, especially to Shop Prison decks.
The first order of business for any Shop Prison pilot (and the central tenet of the deck) is to cut your opponent off from as much mana as possible on
any given turn. This is an oversimplification; there are nigh on infinite board states that you can be presented with, all of which demand different
responses, but it retains its truth. An opponent with access to their mana is an opponent who can kill you. If you can stop them from using their mana,
do so, and stop them from using as much as possible at all times.
Don’t be afraid to cast your Tangle Wires aggressively. There’s no such thing as “full value” out of a Wire when gaining such
“value” permits your opponent to bounce you. A side point: while even successful Workshop pilots get bounced, they’re bounced on their
terms. An opponent will bounce them to save their lands from being sacrificed to a Smokestack or save them from dying to a Lodestone Golem. You can win
after being bounced if you ensure that they’re not setting up their kill and bouncing you proactively and not reactively.
Furthermore, if you’re running Espresso Stax, don’t forget to use your Rishadan Ports in conjunction with your Tangle Wires in order to gain an
extra tap out of your opponent. You’re able to respond to the trigger of the Wire by tapping an opponent’s land with your Port, and this may
necessitate an opponent tapping a Mox or something that they would’ve otherwise left untapped (because they needed it).
Experienced Workshop pilots, please bear with me as I address some of the basics to playing Workshops:
Know the stack, and know how to use the stack. Knowing the stack is one of the two most important things to know when playing a Shop Prison deck.
Improper use of the stack can grant the opponent an opportunity to break through the lock that you’re looking to create.
To address this point specifically, let’s imagine a given board state. On your end of the board, you have a Smokestack with one soot counter and
a Tangle Wire with three remaining fade counters. Your opponent has an Island, Underground Sea, Tropical Island, and Mox Jet on the board. If you
announce “Smokestack on the stack, Tangle Wire on the stack,” your opponent will then be able to tap three permanents, sacrifice a tapped
permanent, and have an untapped mana source. If you stack this correctly, “Tangle Wire on the stack, Smokestack on the stack,” then your
opponent will effectively be denied all their mana, as they will be forced to sacrifice a permanent and then tap three permanents. When thinking about
the stack, remember; first in, last out.
Shop neophytes, remember this acronym: APNAP. It stands for Active Player, Non-Active Player. It’s the order that effects go on the stack on any
given turn. Your opponent’s effects (a flip off a Dark Confidant for example) don’t resolve first because it’s their turn. Your effects do.
Furthermore, just to reiterate some aforementioned points – you control your effects. Your opponent doesn’t get to choose the order in which your
effects go on the stack or the order in which your effects resolve. They’re your cards, and one of the benefits of playing Workshops is in playing a
deck that abuses the stack in this fashion. (To finish the example with the Dark Confidant, your Smokestack would resolve, resulting in their sacrifice
of their Confidant, followed by the resolution of their reveal trigger.)
The second rule when playing Shop Prison is to know your order. There’s a right play and a wrong play, and while much of the game comes down to feel
(am I running my spell into their Force of Will, or other counter? Does my opponent have Nature’s Claim in hand? Etc.), there is a proper order
to your threats – and it almost always comes down to what cuts off the most amount of mana possible on any given turn. For example, when given
the option of playing a Tangle Wire against an opponent with two untapped lands, or playing a Sphere effect, it’s almost always correct to play the
Wire. If you spend your turns casting the spells that cut off the greatest amount of your opponent’s resources, you’ll be more successful than
those who don’t.
You have a proactive game plan. If you execute your game plan, your opponent won’t be able to execute theirs. You’ll win.
V. A Nativitate
A Year in Prison
The first iterations of Espresso Stax were played with the release of Worldwake, nearly a year ago. The Forino brothers and I were avidly awaiting the
release of Lodestone Golem. N.Y.S.E. 5C Stax, which had performed exceptionally well for both Raffaele Forino and I over the course of the early spring
to late summer of 2009, was officially dead. 5C Stax is best when responding to a concentrated metagame. Come the fall of 2009, we had Dredge, Oath,
Storm Combo, and the new Tezzeret builds to respond to. It was too much for 5C, as there were too many directions in which we had to take the deck. It
may sound absurd, but it’s true; the restriction of Thirst for Knowledge did more to hurt Workshop decks than any other restriction in recent memory.
Blue pilots were forced to play Dark Confidant, a much more efficient draw engine against Workshops that was far more difficult to handle.
On March 20 of 2010, Raf played the following list to a top 4 finish at one of my N.Y.S.E. events:
There are important differences between the list then and the list now.
While we had tested with Rishadan Ports, we believed Ghost Quarters to be the better call. Although there certainly is a metagame in which Ghost
Quarters are the better call, I wouldn’t recommend them now. They’re far better suited to coming out of the sideboard, where they can attack
Dredge, various Shop decks, and Oath’s Forbidden Orchards far more effectively.
Raf didn’t bring up the idea of Maze of Ith, which was originally brewed by Shop Master Robert Vroman, until a few days after the event when we
spoke. Trygon Predator had become a thorn in our side, as it avoided all but three of our Sphere effects.
Additionally, Duplicant had not yet made the maindeck, an important difference between the early Espresso builds and the more recent ones.
Every card in the deck is either an outright threat or the mana to cast it. With the exception of one: Serum Powder.
As was mentioned earlier, there’s no effective way to run a draw engine in a Shop Prison deck without sacrificing space needed for lockpieces that you
must run in multiples. A Shop Prison deck with insufficient lockpieces is a Shop Prison deck that won’t be at the upper tables towards the end of a
A Shop pilot who draws an opening hand with a sufficient mana and threats is far more likely to win the game than a Shop pilot who has drawn a
preponderance of one and a lack of the other. Crutching on one or two threats, or one or two lands, will lead to disastrous results. When a Shop pilot
draws a hand that has both mana and hate, they’re far more likely to win the game.
You cannot run an effective draw engine in this style of deck. But what if you could reduce the variance and searched for hands that had all that you
required? Players have mentioned that Serum Powder is “an awful topdeck,” and to a degree, they’re correct. But it’s not about
what you’re topdecking when you keep a Powder hand. When you keep a hand, it should be because you believe that you have what you require in
order to achieve victory – more than adequate threat density. If you kept the hand without the proper tools to win, it’s irrelevant that
Serum Powder is a bad topdeck. And if you kept a hand that had all the pieces that you needed, then Serum Powder is, once again, an irrelevant topdeck.
Workshop decks have suffered through the variance of not having Workshop in their opening hands for many, many years. The point of Serum Powder is to
reduce the variance and find a hand that’s capable of doing what you need it to do. This is the sole role and function of Serum Powder. It does serve
other roles when you need it to – as a mana source (albeit an expensive one), as a permanent to sacrifice to a Smokestack, as a 3/3 beater with a
Karn on the board – but the primary role of this card is to reduce variance and help you find the tools that you need in order to win the game.
MUD is about brutality; it’s not about art.
VI. Faber est Quisque Fortunae Suae
Here is the list that I ran at Waterbury on 9/11/2010:
VII. Animis Opibusque Parati
“I didn’t invent the rainy day, I just own the best umbrella”
In addition to having Espresso Stax built, I believe in having a stock of staples that I may need again in the future. If you’re interested, this
is some of what I currently have pulled off to the side in my “Shop binder”:
2 Ray of Revelation
3 Seal of Cleansing
4 Leyline of Sanctity
1 Ancestral Recall
4 Blue Elemental Blast
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Demonic Tutor
4 Goblin Welder
3 Gorilla Shaman
4 Red Elemental Blast
3 Ancient Grudge
3 Greater Gargadon
1 Crop Rotation
1 Black Lotus
4 Tormod’s Crypt
4 Relic of Progenitus
3 Ratchet Bomb
3 Spawning Pit
1 Thorn of Amethyst
1 Crucible of Worlds
1 Silent Arbiter
3 Razormane Masticore
3 Steel Hellkite
1 Platinum Angel
1 Sundering Titan
1 Barbarian Ring
3 Bazaar of Baghdad
4 Bojuka Bog
4 City of Brass
4 Gemstone Mine
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Maze of Ith
VII. Ad Finem
Brothers in Arms
The most important thing that you can do is test. If you test under game conditions (which include sideboarded games against quality opponents), you’ll
better prepare yourself for the surprises that will be thrown at you on the day of an event.
The results from events in the Mid-Atlantic corridor show that a Shop pilot should be ready to fight Tyrant Oath, Bob Tendrils, Dredge, Metalworker
MUD, and the occasional Noble Fish deck. Prepare for events, proxy out the decks, and get some games in. Find the best players around you, and play as
many games as possible with them. Keep your eyes open, and don’t be afraid to test things, even if they seem crazy.
It’s a great time to be playing Vintage; I hope that you join us, pick up a deck, and come down to a tournament.
“L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace”
Frederick the Great
- Prospero on www.TheManaDrain.com