Life In An Aquarium: Learn To Be A Predator

Vintage is full of Fish lately. Where does that leave us? We live in an environment without predators, instead allowing those lower on the food (power) chain to go unchecked. Why is this? The Fish have been the ones putting all the work into innovating and really getting down to the nitty-gritty. An important deck building skill is to examine the popular decks and figure out what exactly their weaknesses lie.

Vintage is full of Fish lately. Where does that leave us? We live in an environment without predators, instead allowing those lower on the food (power) chain to go unchecked. Why is this? The Fish have been the ones putting all the work into innovating and really getting down to the nitty-gritty. An important deck building skill is to examine the popular decks and figure out what exactly they are weak to.

Control Slaver was dominating for a short period to the point where I was even calling out for the restriction of Goblin Welder! As we all know, Goblin Welder didn’t ruin the format any more than Trinisphere did… Erm…


This will go great with my Guitar Rock double CD set.

Where was I? Oh yes, innovation. Recently on TheManaDrain.com there has been a thread about a “new” deck known as Slaver USA. I’m really not sure what it’s all about; my only guess is the dude picked up a playset of Isochron Scepters and wanted to play with them, which is completely understandable considering how cool the “Mana Drain Shield” is.

The poor guy has been the brunt of a lot of very negative criticism, though it does seem at times like the guy wants to get that kind of attention. I doubt it though: he’s probably just new and wants to play with the big boys, and the best way to do that is get their attention by building an awesome deck. Trying to innovate does not include making your deck horrible. The starting list had no Brainstorms, eventually added Black for Yawgmoth’s Will, but no Demonic Tutor. I have no clue what direction the deck went in from there.

However, the Fish as of late have been working overtime to break the format… I guess. Generally when you think of breaking the format a deck like Meandeck Tendrils or Doomsday comes to mind, but in this case they’re playing cards like Meddling Mage, Aether Vial, and Ninja of the Deep Hours; good cards, but nothing like Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Recoup. Mmm… Recoup.

Anyway. A whopping four Fish made the Top 8 in Rochester and those kinds of numbers haven’t been since the introduction of Meandeck Oath into the metagame. The archetype (this includes Worse Than Fish and U/w Fish) comprised nearly a fifth of the overall field, something we haven’t seen since the days of Control Slaver which was like, a couple of months ago. The Top 8 was half Fish, but only a fifth of the field. I think that really goes to show just how strong the archetype is and the effectiveness of its strategy.

Null Rod was the original hoser of choice for the little aquatic creatures, but it has largely been replaced by Chalice of the Void to enable use of the Extended and former Standard powerhouse, Aether Vial. The jury is still out on which is the better choice, but it’s really completely metagame based. The Rochester Top 8 was evenly split between the two, but the Null Rod versions performed better than the Vials did. In the Chambers vs. Rosu match, Vial gave Chambers a huge advantage which was only mildly hampered by Null Rod. In the mirror I think that Vial is superior by far, even if they do get out their Rob an attempt to bludgeon you with it.

Just saying that Rod Fish performed better than Vial Fish in the Top 8 isn’t an accurate indicator of which deck is better – that sort of info is easier to see by the way the elimination matches played out. Vial also has the added bonus of completely bypassing the Mana Drain-based strategy that so many decks are using at the moment.

We also saw a huge spike in the numbers of a card that many feared would be the death of Vintage as we knew it: Chalice of the Void. In some cases, this is true. I’m reminded of Darren Di Battista’s OSE which stood for Old School Expulsion. It’s goal was the overthrow Keeper which, at the time, was the dominant deck, and had been for some time. Ahh, those were the good old days, which sadly many of you missed. If you want to have a good time, proxy up some of the old Magic Invitational decks that were played during the Vintage portion of the event. They were a riot, and the famous Obliterate-Yawgmoth’s Will that Finkel pulled off is still talked about every now and again.

I digress so good.

But yes, Chalice. It has, as I predicted, greatly changed how we as deck builders construct our decks. Chalice set for zero or one can be crippling to many strategies, from Mana Drain Control to Storm Combo. Set to zero, Chalice obviously shuts off Moxen and it’s other zero mana accelerators, but in many cases I feel that setting it to one will be the optimal play. Shutting off Brainstorm can be much more devastating than turning a Mox or two off. Many opening hands are kept on only because of Brainstorm. Playing a Gifts Mirror against Liz yesterday I had kept a land heavy hand because I had a Polluted Delta to accompany my Brainstorm. She read me correctly and Force of Willed my Brainstorm, giving her the time she needed to draw out of her mana-light situation to take the game.

It is unclear how good Chalice is versus Rods and vice versa, but in the mirror match, playing a turn 1 Aether Vial and then following it up with a Chalice of the Void for one gives you an extremely strong advantage, cutting off their Vials and whatever one-mana dudes they’ve got. It also makes your opponent’s Standstills nearly dead whilst your own will still be as potent as ever.

The Fish didn’t stop there, they even began to look into beating the mirror. It started off with Rich Shay’s tech, Old Man of the Sea, but then moved into a more defensive, yet also aggressive angle of attack by utilizing Kira, Great Glass Spinner and the dreaded Umezawa’s Jitte. Joe Weber also ran Flametonge Kavu, though I’ve never been a huge fan of the card against the Fish archetype. Getting four or five mana against a deck packed with Wastelands, Spiketail Hatchlings, and Dazes is extremely difficult, and you will probably want to be doing other things instead.

Kira is amazing at shutting down opposing Old Men, but it interacts horribly with Umezawa’s Jitte. It can be shut down by an opposing Jitte as well, provided it has three or more counters on it. In conjunction with Old Man, the Jitte can allow Kira to be taken by the wily old Marid. Umezawa’s Jitte has it’s own disadvantages, as it can easily be shut down by Null Rod and Seal of Cleansing, a card becoming more and more popular as a result of Stax and Workshop Aggro showing how powerful they are. Kira also requires you have four mana to equip Jitte to one of your own men, though removing a counter and attempting to give one of your own men -1/-1 is a nifty way of breaking the bubble.

Speaking of Seal of Cleansing, Fish has almost always been running the artifact wrecking powerhouse that is Energy Flux, but the Seal has been catching on. It’s amazing against Vial and Jitte and has the benefit of being able to be played at your own convenience rather than waiting for your opponent to drop one of the powerful artifacts that you’re aiming to destroy. It also acts as a psuedo-Wasteland against an opposing Mishra’s Factory. Adam Chambers, unable to consistently have White mana available to cast a Seal of Cleansing, merely splashed White in the form of a single Tundra to enable the use of an oft under looked sideboard card: Ray of Revelation. It’s an incredible answer to Oath of Druids, as is Seal of Cleansing, but it has the advantage of being able to used twice because Flashback is awesome like that. It also happens to be decent against Dragon, though that seems to have fallen out of favor as of late.

The creature choices have also changed a lot in the past few months, where formerly Spiketail Hatchlings attacked alongside Grim Lavamancers, they have been replaced by the versatile Meddling Mage and the sneaky but awesome Ninja of the Deep Hours. The addition of 2/2’s has improved the deck dramatically. One of the most powerful sideboard cards against Fish was Lava Dart, another piece of Rich Shay tech. Weber’s deck was the sole exception, still running Grim Lavamancer, but also using Gorilla Shaman, an amazing card that doesn’t get nearly the respect it deserves.

So while Lava Dart is no longer as potent a sideboard option, the deck’s clock has sped up a great deal while not costing much more than their predecessors. Grim Lavamancer required a continuous cost to activate and at times couldn’t even use it’s ability, and Spiketail Hatchling was, well, Spiketail Hatchling. Meddling Mage fills the role Spiketail played, only it completely shuts off those few spells that you really care about such as Gifts Ungiven, Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, etc. while also providing a much quicker clock. Meddling Mage doesn’t synergize nearly as well as Spiketail Hatchling and Grim Lavamancer did with part of the deck’s draw engine, Curiosity.

Enter Ninja of the Deep Hours, a card that has proven to be very efficient at almost no loss of tempo thanks to Aether Vial. The Ninja also speeds up the clock while serving as threat and Curiosity wrapped up into a neat package. All of these changes have made the deck even better than it used to be. The same old disruption combined with a more streamlined, versatile, and powerful clock mean the deck is more of a threat than it ever was in the past.

Now the question is, how do the rest of us beat this damn thing?

Scales.  Filled with Fish.

Four Color Control had an amazing Fish matchup, provided they didn’t draw more than two Wastelands and Strip Mine. Even now, Exalted Angel still spells out “Good Game”, and Swords to Plowshares is still a versatile answer that also provides a small amount of tempo for a cheap cost. The deck will be forced to adapt however, possibly running ABM standby Devout Witness to serve double duty, taking out Vial and holding back 2/2’s on the other side of the table. Fire/Ice also helps combat the Chalice for one problem while also being able to cycle. By far the deck’s most potent weapon against Fish is Balance, The Destroyer of Fish So Good (Kind of sounds like the name of a legend from Kamigawa Block to me). The deck has long been considered dead, but I believe that it could make a comeback, provided it packs the old mana denial component of four Wastelands, Strip Mine, a few Gorilla Shamans, and maybe even Crucible of Worlds.

My favorite deck at the moment is Gifts Belcher. Team Meandeck (well, and everyone else, really) figured that the best way to combat Fish was to boil them with Pyroclasm, a cheap Wrath of God that can even be Burning Wished for. The only problem with it is that it doesn’t deal with either Wild Mongrel, Mishra’s Factory, or a creature with Umezawa’s Jitte on it. There has been a lot of debate over Engineered Explosives, Pyroclasm, or even other cards like Powder Keg and which would best combat the Fish menace while possibly being decent against other decks in the format.

My choice is still Pyroclasm, but Engineered Explosives is very strong as it can also deal well with Oath and, if you’re clever, can deal with Chalice of the Void set to zero. How, you may ask? Use some colorless mana, ala Mana Drain or one of the colorless mana producers to set the cost to one, two, or whatever, but putting no charge counters on it!

Mono-Blue has it’s own set of options, being unable to run Engineered Explosives or Pyroclasm, and has to run cards like Control Magic, Powder Keg, and Old Man of the Sea. I suggested Masticore to Ben Bleiweiss before the event began, but he reminded me about the Null Rod problem. Masticore can still attack and block, but the upkeep will put too much of a strain on you, and Powder Keg will just sit on the table and look pretty, especially if you have those nifty DCI Promo ones. So, Old Man of the Sea or Control Magic are probably the deck’s best option.

As for Storm Combo, I think that Rebuild is the best choice. TPS has used it to great success for months, so it should also be fine in other Storm decks such as Meandeath. I’m also a big fan of using its Cycling ability alongside Mystical or Vampiric Tutor.

Waterfront Bouncer and Swords to Plowshares in versions of Fish that run White have been giving Oath headaches for months. I think just running maindeck Pristine Angels, or even Morphling will work out better. Besides, Morphling has been dead for far too long (sorry for killing it with Trenches Keeper in 2003 everyone), but she wants back in the ring and I think she deserves her day.

I’m guessing that there are going to be a lot of Fish mirrors in the coming months. Serendib Efreet might be decent, and Old Man of the Sea will probably be good, but if Kira keeps on making appearances Old Man will be outdated and much less useful, though he still makes a fine blocker. Efreet on the other hand is larger than everything in their deck, and it can’t be blocked by WTF’s Wild Mongrels. Just something to chew on.

So here’s a short list of what makes Fish so darned effective.

Aether Vial

Null Rod

Chalice of the Void

Meddling Mage
Wild Mongrel

Mishra’s Factory (This alongside Vial is really tough for Mana Drain based decks to deal with.)

Umezawa’s Jitte

Energy Flux



Now, to counter this, here is a short list of cards that are effective against Fish.

Old Man of the Sea


Lava Dart (It’s still okay)

Engineered Explosives

Powder Keg


Exalted Angel


Serendib Efreet (Possibly – I make no claims as to its awesomeness)

Oath of Druids

Notice I left out the traditionally used Flametonge Kavu. As I said before, I don’t think it’s a very good card against the deck, and I would much rather invest my fourth turn in flipping an Exalted Angel, casting Pyroclasm with Mana Drain backup, or sitting back, twiddling my thumbs, hoping to Mana Drain something, and probably casting a Brainstorm and getting distracted by the sandwich I have yet to finish because my opponent is playing slowly.

So basically, what we have on our hands is a cheap, effective, and annoying as hell deck that will be showing up a lot over the next few months, mainly thanks to proxies. Fish is exactly what Vintage needs. It is keeping the broken decks in check while providing players just entering the format with a budget deck that is actually viable. The deck is winning Power. That is only the stepping stone for many players. Once you’ve gotten a taste of the Power, you will only be driven to either win, buy, or trade for more, and this will be much easier thanks to the investment the Fish player made a while back by picking up Force of Wills and the requisite dual lands that they will either use or trade for ones they need.

I admit, I’ve never played more than a few games with the deck, but I’ve been playing against it for long enough that I feel very confident in my ability to understand it and prepare to face it. The lists I provided are far from comprehensive, and I’m sure that people will start working harder on their sideboards and work to find tech that will possibly bleed over into other decks, which would be a good thing.

Carl Winter
Team Meandeck

Burninator of Fish So Good