2008 has signaled dramatic shifts in the Vintage metagame. The tectonic plates beneath this format are moving, slowly but surely, in a discernable direction. Let’s see what they portend.
In this article, I carefully inspect all of the Vintage tournament data from January and February and aggregate it so we can see what’s winning, what’s hot, and what’s not. For my input, I’m only looking at tournaments with more than 32 players so that there are six rounds of swiss before cutting to Top 8. That way, everyone is forced to play at least four rounds of actual Magic before drawing into the Top 8.
Writing these articles is difficult primarily because of the difficulty of categorizing the various decks. It’s not hard to lump GAT and GATr together — the problem comes when you have a nearly perfect hybrid between, say, Workshop Aggro and a Stax deck, or a deck that we might label as “MUD” but with a very slight color splash. Some MUD decks have a lot of creatures, but would be better thought of as pure Prison decks. For example, a MUD deck with 4 Metalworkers, 4 Duplicant, 2 Karns, and a Sundering Titan has 11 creatures, but it’s really a prison approach, especially if it has 4 Smokestacks. Where should these decks fit? Are these MUD decks or Stax decks, or what? The honest answer is that I don’t have a good way to organize them. I need to both represent them as Workshop decks so you get a sense of the percentage of Shop decks in the metagame, but I also need to know whether they are more prison-like or more beatdown oriented. In the recent past, Workshop Prison decks have been far more popular and successful than Workshop beatdown. That trend has completely reversed since Lorwyn. This trend isn’t captured by the general label “MUD” or “Workshop deck.” MUD just tells you whether it is mono-brown with Metalworker or whether it uses Red and other colors.
To be as honest and faithful to the source data as possible, I’ve applied a categorization scheme that bases the data off the name the pilots gave to their decks. In addition, I’m trying to stick with the scheme I’ve been using for the last 9 months to make these metagame analysis articles as comparable as possible. In addition, I’m going to present the data in several layers to try and overcome these difficulties. First, I’m going to present the data by raw archetype. Then I’m going to organize it and break it down a bit more before showing you the percentages.
Here was the metagame breakdown from November and December. Out of 128 decklists from 16 tournaments:
19 GAT: 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 5, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 7, 8, 8
12 Shop Aggro 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 6, 6, 7, 8, 8
10 MUD 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 5, 8, 8
10 Gush Storm and Empty Gush: 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 7, 8, 8, 8
9 Stax (and Staxless Stax): 2, 3, 4, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 8
6 Storm Combo
4 Deez Naughts
There were 31 Mishra’s Workshop based decks and 30 Gush based decks. November and December signaled the first time that Workshops overtook Gush in total numbers. Nonetheless, GAT remained ahead of both colored Workshop Aggro or MUD in terms of archetype performance. However, if you were to aggregate the MUD and Shop Aggro decks, a perfectly legitimate thing to do, then they did better than GAT. As I tried to explain, figuring out how to categorize these decks is a big trick. If you overgeneralize, you can lump almost anything together. The more specific your archetype definition, the fewer numbers you’ll have. That’s why I think it’s important to represent the data in all the ways that make sense. Most MUD decks are Workshop Aggro decks, but they have very different approaches in terms of design, tactics, and strategy. That’s also why I separated out the “Stax” decks as their own category.
Here’s how November and December broke down in terms of percentage of the metagame:
So, where are we now?
Our data set this time is also 16 tournaments totaling 128 decklists from January through February. This should be helpful when making comparisons to the last time period. The decklists can be found in the appendix. Here’s what we have, by pure archetype:
12 Oath (11 Tyrant Oath (1,1,1,2,4,5,6,6,7,8,8) + 1 Akroma Oath (5))
12 GAT (2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 7, 8, 8)
12 Workshop Aggro – 10 Mono Red (2,4,4,5,5,6,6,7,7,7)+2 5c Shop Aggro (4,7)
11 Flash Combo (1,1,1,2,3,5,5,5,6,6,7) (note that 1 was Rector Flash)
11 Aggro MUD (1,1,2,2,3,3,4,7,7,8,8)
9 Mask-Naught Variants (Dark Illusions/UB Mask-Naught (3,3,6,7,8) + BUG Deez’ Naughts (1,1,2,3))
9 Ichorid (1,1,2,2,2,5,5,8,8)
7 Storm Combo (Umbrella for Tropical Storm/Gush Tendrils, Super Long, TPS) (2,3,4,4,6,6,7)
6 Mono-Gifts Control (1,3,4,5,6,8)
5 MUD Prison (2,2,5,7,7)
5 Empty Gush (1,1,3,4,8)
4 Stax (and Staxless Stax) (4,5,6,8)
3 Control Slaver
2 Counterbalance Goyf
2 Confidant Control
1 2-Land Belcher
1 R/G Beatz
1 Tyrant Blue
1 PT Junk w/ Goyf
Now, here is a more organized version of the same data:
32 Workshop Decks (25%)
— 16 MUD variants
— — 11 Aggro Mud
— — 5 MUD Prison
— 12 Mono Red or Red Splash Workshop Aggro variants
— — 4 Multi Color Prison
— — — 2 Stax
— — — 2 Staxless Stax
The Rest: 27.5% of the metagame
Note that this matches up very well against November and December except that instead of Fish, Goblins, and Ichorid following the Gush and Workshop decks, it’s now Flash, Mask-Naught, and Ichorid. This is a much more frightening, but more sensible position.
1) The Party is Over for GAT
GAT was still the number one performing archetype last month (even if we aggregated Aggro MUD and Workshop Aggro decks, they were less than 19 total), even though Workshop decks slightly edged out Gush decks in terms of their total percentage of the metagame. This time it’s clear as a bell. GAT is no longer the clear best deck.
2) So What IS The Best Deck?
Well, it depends on how you look at the data. Any of the top 4-5 decks actually have a reasonable claim that they are the best deck, or at least tied for that honor. The way you interpret the raw data matters in a way that I have never quite seen before since I’ve been doing these articles.
Although the archetypes GAT, Oath, and Workshop Aggro are tied with 12 representatives each in this Top 8 data, Flash and Aggro MUD is only one copy out of a 5 way tie. If you separate out the Tyrant Oath lists, there were only 11 copies, putting it on a tie with Flash, which would make GAT and Workshop Aggro the top two decks with 12 genuine representatives each.
On the other hand, it could be argued that I am making a mistake by not aggregating Workshop Aggro deck with Aggro MUD, since they are both the same basic concept, just with implementation differences. If we add the numbers for Aggro MUD and Aggro Workshops, then Aggro Workshops are clearly the best deck, by a huge margin. I think that may make a lot of sense.
But then, why not add Tyrant Oath and GAT? Both are Gush based decks with 1G win conditions.
Here is another little anomaly of this data that adds to the confusion on this issue: although both GAT and Workshop Aggro have one more copy in the Top 8 sample than Flash or Tyrant Oath (12 to 11), both Flash and Tyrant Oath have three tournament wins whereas GAT and Workshop Aggro have zilch. That raises the question: how can a deck be the best deck if it doesn’t win tournaments? Showing up by one more copy than another deck in Top 8 data doesn’t seem more persuasive than 3 tournament wins.
To add one final wrinkle to this already complicated question: although neither GAT nor Workshop Aggro have any tournament wins, both Flash and Tyrant Oath, the two 11 copy decks with the three tournament wins have only 5 of their 11 copies in the top half of the Top 8. In contrast, Aggro MUD, although it only won two tournaments, had seven of its eleven copies in the Top 4.
What does that mean? If we accept the idea that tournament placement matters, at least in some ways, more than just raw representatives, then perhaps that argument extends to distribution within Top 8 here to give Aggro MUD the nod over Tyrant Oath and Flash. All three decks have 11 copies in Top 8s, but although Tyrant Oath and Flash each have three tournament wins to Aggro MUD’s two wins, Aggro MUD kicked Oath and Flash’s butt in terms of making it to the Top 4 in a more consistent basis.
I think the key point here is that there are a number of ways to look at this data, and many of them are valid. Flash, Tyrant Oath, Aggro Workshop, Aggro MUD, and even GAT all have grounds for claiming that they are the best deck. Whether you find their claims persuasive will simply depend upon how you look at the data.
I find it pretty amusing that two of the top 6 decks were made possible by errata (Flash and Mask-Naught (they all run Stifle)), two were made possible by unrestriction (of Gush), and the other two are just Workshop based decks.
3) Mask-Naught Returns to the Top Tier!
It is too early to see whether this is a fluke or ephemeral, but Mask Naught has clawed its way to the top of the metagame. The deck in Europe is called “Dark Illusions” and it uses Dark Confidant, a full complement of Stifles, a few Illusionary Masks, and plenty of Phyrexian Dreadnaughts. Team ICBM’s “Deez’ Naughts” is the American complement to it. It runs Green as well (for Tarmogoyf) and only one Dreadnaught, which is found via Trinket Mage. The errata on Phyrexian Dreadnaught so that it now combos with Stifle has made it a serious metagame player. With Oath on the rise, there is a good chance that this deck will see more play and be a more serious contender in the near future.
4) Workshops and Gush decks STILL Make 50% of the Metagame!
Despite all of the turmoil since November and December, with GAT being displaced, Flash and Mask-Naught on the rise, if we add up all of the Gush decks and all of the Workshop decks they both make up 25% of the metagame a piece. It’s incredible that this is basically identical to last time period. It’s almost as if “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” So, in some ways the picture is changing dramatically, but the pattern or frame is the same.
If you look at the metagame from the level of archetypes, it’s incredibly diverse. From a competitive perspective, you couldn’t have a more balanced situation than a virtual five way tie for first place. But from an engine perspective, that diversity falls away. The engines are the same, but the implementation varies.
In a sense, this is a quasi-duopoly metagame. Neither Gush nor Workshop decks are dominating Top 8s, but they are 50% together. I can’t help but wonder that even despite the printing of Thorn of Amethyst, Shop’s success has to be significantly attributable to the presence unrestricted Gush. This is true for obvious as well as subtle reasons. The obvious reason is that Workshop decks punish Gush decks light manabase. But Gush decks also drive Mana Drain control decks from the metagame, the natural predator to Workshop decks.
In response to my article about potential unrestrictions a few weeks ago, a chorus of voices explained how they felt that unrestricting Gush has proved to be the right decision. In many ways, I may have contributed to that. The truth is that I’m deeply ambivalent about it.
On the one hand, I believe that the unrestriction of Gush was a mistake. That doesn’t mean I think it was either a bad thing or something that should be reversed. Let me explain my paradoxical view.
Gush was the only card in really the last 6 years of Vintage magic, since I’ve been playing it competitively, that had ever really dominated in the sense of just making up about nearly 40% of Top 8s for nearly six months. It was restricted for a very good metagame reason when other cards were not restricted for reasons as sound as that card. Gush also has theoretical problems. Its efficiency and natural placement in a light manabase deck has inherent advantages over the entire Vintage format. Gush, as a draw engine, is both a fantastic combo enabler, but it is also cheaper than anything else since it is free. A light manabase in a format where all you want to do is get a control the game with Pitch countermagic and Duress effects finished off by Yawgmoth’s Will combo is at its most potent and most natural home in a Gush shell, and extremely difficult to compete against, especially with a full range of color options and card choices. No other deck will have as many Force of Wills or such a natural tempo advantage in a Blue-based shell. There are other reasons as well for thinking that unrestricting Gush was a mistake. There were probably a dozen safer cards, including cards that would never even be mentioned as possible unrestrictables and which I will not mention now.
That said, the metagame and format has dramatically changed for the better as a result of the unrestriction of Gush. How? First of all, unrestricting Gush completely transformed everything. It made a deck that could compete with Flash and keep Flash in check, which was a huge necessity after the errata. Second, it destroys UB combo decks as well as Mana Drain decks with a pseudo combo. These decks were the natural best decks in Vintage until Gush was unrestricted. This created a huge transformation in Vintage and reoriented everything. For example, a third effect was that it made aggro decks good again. That opened the door for a lot of massive changes in Vintage. By keeping combo in check, it made the format actually more interactive. We see the benefits of that playing out now. Decks like Oath are actually good. In Vintage. That’s saying something. Storm combo doesn’t even seem playable to me at the moment, and unless you are playing a Gush storm deck, it’s not. One of the other things that a lot of people say is a good thing about the unrestriction of Gush, and for obvious reasons I find myself unable to disagree, is that it has rewarded good players in a way that maybe the format didn’t quite do as effectively in the Control Slaver, Stax, or Gifts Ungiven years of 2005-2006.
That said, from the point of decision, I do not think it can be truly said that unrestricting Gush was right. And, although the metagame is pretty diverse and the player base seems to really enjoy the format at the moment, I can’t really say that it was the right move. We are talking about a quasi-duopoly. Although Top 8s are pretty diverse, Gush decks are no less than 25% of the metagame for the last 9 months, and really, a substantial amount of the success of Workshop decks as the other 25% can be directly attributed to the presence of Gush.
If I were the DCI, and I were concerned about Gifts decks back in May of last year (a ridiculous concern considering that they were, in contrast, about 18% of the metagame when they restricted Gifts), I would have restricted Merchant Scroll instead. Scroll was the superior tutor and the better card. Gifts decks would be good, but not nearly as powerful as they were then. A Gifts deck early game pretty much entirely revolved around Scroll. Scroll right now is the core of the Gush-Bond engine, enabling you to continue to combo out, right into Yawg Will. It also holds Flash together by providing a perfect tutor. Then I think unrestricting Gush would have made more sense. If they had restricted Scroll, the metagame would be even more interesting right now, I think. Gush decks would still be good, but not godly like they are now. Finally, Flash decks would have taken a big hit. I think it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle. The DCI should let things continue as they are as everyone seems to be having a good time.
It isn’t that the DCI isn’t doing a good job. They are doing a very good job. I just expect perfection. I would have restricted Scroll, left Gifts unrestricted, and unrestricted Fact or Fiction. Mana Drain decks early game weakness leaves them open to being tempoed out by Fish decks and Goyf decks and Grow decks, but Gifts and Fact make them strong enough to compete both against Workshops and hopefully give them enough staying power to fight combo. I think the metagame, as interesting as it is right now, would be even better. The only difference is that Mana Drain decks would be an appreciable component of Vintage, of which they are currently not. Mana Drain decks may show up in a few GAT lists, but by and large they are currently not in the top 7 decks in the format.
5) What’s Next?
I think the key things to look for in the next three months are going to be: how Tyrant Oath fares up when it is being metagamed against. It seems to have a weaker combo match, which could really create some metagame tensions with people trying to figure out where to position themselves. Another important question is whether Flash will continue its surge upward, remain in roughly the same spot, or fall back again. Also, will Aggro Workshop decks continue to perform in the face of an Oath uprising? Finally, I will be very interested to see whether Mask-Naught decks continue their upward momentum.
These metagame reports usually end up dead last in the premium selection every week. When Dr. Phil “Sylvan” Stanton retired from regular Vintage data reporting, there was an important void in terms of raw data. I genuinely care about the format and write because I want to share that love and enjoyment. These articles provide an objective basis for evaluating the metagame. They are important not just for players as they evaluate their deck choices, but for policy makers and for opinion leaders as they formulate their views on the health of the format and the changing trends extant in the metagame.
I hope you have found this to be an insightful and illuminating article.
Until next time…
1) Dark Confidant
4) Mono Gifts Control w/ Dark Confidant
5) 5c Stax w/ Dark Confidant
6) Bomberman w/ Confidant
7) Mono Red Workshop Aggro
8) MUD w/ Red Splash (with just Simian Spirit Guides to cast Welders)
(The Italians love Dark Confidant!)
2) Salem, MA (43 players)
January 12, 2008
1) Tyrant Oath
2) Tyrant Oath
4) Staxless Stax
5) Mono Red Workshop Aggro
7) MUD — Prison Style
3) Cartagena, Spain (51 players)
January 13, 2008
1) Empty Gush
2) MUD hybrid, more Prison style
3) 4c Landstill
4) Empty Gush
5) Hulk Flash
6) R/W Workshop Aggro
7) Dark Illusions (UB Mask-Naught)
8) Mono Gifts Control (Intuitive Gifts)
4) Madrid, Spain (51 players)
January 19, 2008
1) Rector Flash
2) Hulk Flash
3) UB Mask-Naught
4) Mono Red Workshop Aggro
5) Manaless Ichorid (Dredge)
6) Gush Tendrils (Tropical Storm)
8) UB Mask-Naught
7) Badalona, Spain (78 players)
January 26, 2008
1) Empty Gush (Gush Tinker)
2) UW Landstill
3) Empty Gush (Gush Tinker)
4) Control Slaver
5) Control Slaver
6) UB Mask Naught
7) UR Landstill
8) New Berlin, WI (38 players)
January 27, 2008
2) Counterbalance Goyf
3) Deez’s Naughts
4) 5c Workshop Aggro w/ Goyf and Confidant
5) MUD — Prison style
6) Hulk Flash
7) 5c Workshop Aggro w/ Goyf and Confidant
8) Empty Gush
9) Bilbao, Spain (33 players)
February 16, 2008
1) Mono Gifts
2) MUD (Prison style)
3) Aggro MUD
4) Tropical Storm Combo
5) PT Junk w/ Goyf and Maralen!
6) Tropical Storm combo
7) MUD — almost perfect hybrid between Prison and Aggro style
8) UW Fish
10) Stratford, Connecticut (87 players)
February 16, 2008
1) Tyrant Oath
5) Tyrant Oath
7) UR Workshop Aggro
8) Hybrid UB MUD
13) Alicante, Spain (58 players)
February 17, 2008
1) Aggro MUD
2) Deez’ Naughts
3) UB Mask-Naught
4) UW Fish
5) Mono Red Workshop Aggro
6) Mono-Gifts Control w/ Confidant
7) MUD — Prison Style
8) Control Slaver