Null Rod is at the absolute apogee of its power. It is the strongest it has ever been in the history of Vintage. That’s an incredible achievement given the fact that Null Rod has been, from time to time, a pillar of the format along the lines of cards like Mishra’s Workshop and Mana Drain.
It’s not just that Null Rod performs the standard function of stopping Moxen and other artifact accelerants, cards which are seeing play in record numbers. It’s that cards like Yawgmoth’s Will, which feed on the use and reuse of Black Lotus and Lotus Petal and are fueled by Moxen, are stunted, perhaps beyond repair, by Null Rod. It’s that in a format where Brainstorm and Ponder are restricted, people are running Sensei’s Divining Tops in record numbers. It’s that the standard win conditions for most decks now are artifacts with activated abilities: cards like Time Vault and Grindstone.
The potential for a budget-based Null Rod decks in Vintage has never been greater. Two weeks ago, I showcased a re-designed and reconceived Suicide Black deck, built around Null Rod and Chalice of the Void. Today, I’m going to present another deck which is more advanced and a teeny bit more expensive, but even more powerful in the metagame (and themed for the holidays!): R/G Beatz.
Like Suicide Black, R/G Beatz has a long pedigree in the format that goes back to the earliest iterations of Zoo, featuring the earliest aggro decks. Here is a list from the 1996 Type 1 Championship:
3 City of Brass
1 Library of Alexandria
4 Strip Mine
2 Tropical Island
3 Volcanic Island
2 Gorilla Shaman
4 Kird Ape
4 Savannah Lions
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Black Lotus
4 Black Vise
1 Diminishing Returns
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
2 Mystical Tutor
3 Psionic Blast
1 Swords to Plowshares
1 Time Walk
1 Wheel of Fortune
Scott Johns did not pioneer the “Zoo” concept, nor was he the last to play it in Vintage.
Most recently, Vintage enthusiast Jamison Bryant has made something of a name for himself piloting R/G Zoo-like decks to tournament victories. His most recent conquest was a 136 player SCG P9 tournament a year ago (November in Chicago).
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Skyshroud Elite
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Tin Street Hooligan
- 2 Stingscourger
- 3 Magus of the Moon
- 4 Tarmogoyf
The basic conceit of the deck is simple: use the most efficient, aggressive creatures in Magic’s existence and couple it with a ton of cheap burn spells to win games. When that isn’t enough, include a package of disruptive cards and some spot removal.
Jamison’s deck is unusually aggressive for a Vintage deck. It has plenty of burn and a bunch of beaters. It is important to note that Jamison beat a field of Grow decks, at the height of the Gush era. He positioned himself in between the Workshop decks and the Grow decks and emerged victorious.
In the power-heavy format to which we have returned, such a deck would get stomped by TPS or would have great difficulty stopping a control deck from assembling the Time Vault combo.
As with Suicide Black, I have decided to clean these archetypes of their detritus. First of all, pure burn spells strike me as completely outmoded. That isn’t to say that powerful burn spells can’t inflict a lot of damage, but the first goal should be survival. Cards like Black Vise, Price of Progress, Lightning Bold, Seal of Fire, and Shrapnel Blast are all powerful. But the first 19 points of damage don’t matter if your opponent just Tendrils you before you can inflict the 20th. As a corollary, and secondly, pure beatdown creatures are outmoded, as a general rule. Cards like Skyshroud Elite and Kird Ape are cards that Jamison and his predecessors used, but they are cards that I view as antiquated.
It is these two modes of attack, the overuse of beaters and the inclusion of ineffectual burn spells, that I consider to be the key conceptual handicap holding back the design of modern R/G Beatz. Just as Suicide Black pilots can’t seem to let go of Hymn to Tourach and Sinkhole, it is time to let go of Kird Ape and Lightning Bolt.
The deck I’m about to present is, in some ways, a polar opposite from standard R/G Beatz decks. This deck doesn’t race opponents, it ambushes them. You want to play cards at opportune times for maximum impact rather than trying to dump your hand as quickly as possible. That might be a bit of a challenge for people who regularly play R/G aggro decks and requires a completely different mindset from the deck that won SCG Chicago.
Normally, I would try to find some way to outline this article by organizing various card options into discrete categories. However, with a deck like this, almost every card serves as a form of disruption. There are two creatures in Vintage that are solely used as beatsticks, to club your opponent over the head with damage: Darksteel Colossus and Tarmogoyf.
Tarmogoyf is obviously one of the greatest creatures of all time. Goyf is so powerful that he’s actually counter-worthy for being nothing more than a source of damage. Goyf serves as the core beater in this deck, and the primary win condition. In a sense, this deck is just designed to be disruptive as hell until Goyf can join the battle and clean up. Many of the card choices will be made with that in mind. In selecting disruption for an R/G deck, we have the entire Magic database at our disposal.
Some of the debates that followed my Suicide Black article focused on the fact that too many players did not see the value or the point of Null Rod and Chalice, either in their inclusion generally, or the inclusion of maximum quantities.
Is it little wonder that these budget decks have not been winning?
The purpose of Null Rod and Chalice of the Void are to give you space, breathing room to interact. They are the price of the admission ticket to play Vintage. They create game parity so that you can interact with your opponent, and play an actual game of Magic without getting blown out.
I forcefully made the case for both Null Rod and Chalice in the Suicide Black article, so I’ll merely quote what I said there:
The major strategies in modern Vintage are Yawgmoth’s Will and Tinker strategies. These are the two most powerful restricted cards. The best decks maximize use of these cards. In addition, there are very powerful Mishra’s Workshop strategies, Ichorid decks, and most recently, Mana Drain fueled Tezzeret decks.
Until I conducted that experiment, I didn’t quite realize how really format defining Chalice was. That wasn’t to say that I didn’t know how good it was, aside from Tezzeret, it was the only card I’ve written an article about before it was printed. That article really brought home how powerful Chalice was.
Yawgmoth’s Will is a strategy that heavily relies on use and reuse of Moxen and cards like Black Lotus. Chalice is actually more of an anti-Yawgmoth’s Will card than a direct graveyard hoser like Tormod’s Crypt. That’s because Yawgmoth’s Will, as a strategy, is more than simply playing the card and resolving it. There is a line of play that leads up to the resolution of Yawgmoth’s Will. In Meandeck Gifts that would begin with Scroll, through Gifts, and finally culminate in Will itself. Chalice, unlike Tormod’s Crypt, slows the line of play that leads to Yawgmoth’s Will, not just the play itself. Thus, a Control Slaver player or Tezzeret player can’t play turn 1 Thirst off of two Moxen and a land if you’ve played turn 1 Chalice for zero first.
Chalice, at least on the play, and to a larger extent than one might expect on the draw, is also an anti-Tinker card. If an opponent can’t get their Moxen onto the table, they will have a much more difficult time playing Tinker. It will narrow their Tinker sacrificial targets to Sol Ring and Mana Vault in most cases. This makes Tinker more conditional and contingent.
But in a format where Painter decks and Time Vault Tezzeret decks make up the core of Mana Drain decks, and thus, the core of the format, Null Rod is a savage bomb.
Let me go further: It is arrogant to run less than a full complement of Null Rod/Chalice. To me, it suggests that the pilot believes they can win games and matches against the best Vintage decks on inferior cards. They can’t. Would a control deck run less than 4 Force of Will? Would a storm deck run less than 4 Dark Rituals? Would Ichorid run less than 4 Bazaar?
One additional note: unlike Suicide Black, Chalice set at one is a play this deck can make without incurring very much pain. But Chalice on zero is our default.
This suite of cards is an incredible complement to Null Rod and Chalice. If you have turn 1 Chalice on zero, their only opportunity to develop mana will be to play a land. A good deal of the time, that land will be a dual land which you can then Wasteland. Automatic inclusions that require little explanation.
My initial conception for this serious on Vintage budget decks had Pithing Needle paired with Chalice and Rod. However, as I explained in the launch article on Suicide Black, the demands on turn 1 were too great. You’d much rather be playing Duress/Thoughtseize or Dark Ritual. And by the time you did play Needle, it would be less effective since there is a good chance they’ll have broken a fetchland by that point.
Consider this sequence of plays, my favorite with the deck:
Chalice of the Void (at zero).
Pass the turn.
Your Opponent: Play a Polluted Delta, tapped.
You have just Sinkholed their Delta for 1 mana, and also turned off all subsequent lands. From here, you have a solid tempo advantage and should have little trouble cleaning up.
Even without each other, each card is very powerful.
The whole purpose behind Pithing Needle here is to give a mutating tactic whose use changes as the game evolves. In the early game, you should consider using Pithing Needle to stop fetchlands. If you know you are playing against a blue deck, play turn 1 Pithing Needle on Polluted Delta. If you have Root Maze in play, just wait to see what Fetchlands they play first.
Root Maze is probably one of the most disruptive Green spell ever printed. Just consider its interaction with your opponent’s fetchlands. They first have to put the Fetchland into play tapped. Then when they break the Fetchland, the new land comes into play tapped. It will be three turns before they can even use a land with Fetchland! In addition to making Pithing Needle more powerful, Root Maze allows you to Wasteland Fetchlands. It also functions similarly to Chalice in totally neutering Yawgmoth’s Will turns. It buys you a lot of early tempo.
Another use of Root Maze is as an anti-Yawgmoth’s Will card. The Yawgmoth’s Will pilot will not be able to take advantage of the card draw and new mana to continue to replay their graveyard. Even Black Lotus comes into play tapped, and can’t be used that turn.
The downside to Root Maze is that the longer the game goes, the less the tempo advantage matters. It has a good deal of synergy with Pithing Needle, but if you decompress the game, then the effect it creates matters less and less to the ultimate outcome.
This card is the breakout hit of Planar Chaos. He is terrific versus almost every opponent. His primary function is to deal with “Plan B”: Tinker for Darksteel Colossus or Sundering Titan. Since your Chalice and Null Rod will have cut off most opponent’s ability to go off with Yawgmoth’s Will, Tinker will be the obvious outlet for their aggression.
This card will be waiting to ambush them. I view it as a mandatory inclusion, and I wouldn’t run less than three maindeck
The only real weakness is against Tez decks that don’t manage to get a Tinker off, where he’ll just be sitting in your hand until the very late game. He is also good against Ichorid. I can play him, bounce a Narcomoeba to my opponent’s hand, then not pay his Echo cost and remove all the Bridges from the graveyard. The opponent not only loses the zombies he could have generated from the Narco, but he also loses his token generating Bridges from Below.
Stingscourger is also useful in aggro matchups. In the Goyf standoff, he will bounce the opposing Goyf and then allow you to stomp through. If you do this enough times, you can make an alpha strike and take your opponent out. I’ve bounced many different creatures with Stingscourger, including Triskelavuses that are shut down with Null Rod.
The biggest timing question with Stingscourger is often when to play him. Since his echo cost is steep, there is a good chance that if you play him mid-game, you’ll need to pitch a Spirit Guide to keep him in play.
Who needs Moxen? Lotus Petal is restricted for a reason, and this deck gets to effectively play nine of â€˜em. With so much uncounterable mana available, first turn Null Rods are an easy reality. Not to mention they can help power out a fast Magus of the Moon or Stingscourger even if a Sundering Titan has blown up most of your mana.
Four Simian Spirit Guides are an obvious inclusion, especially given the possibility of drawing a Red Elemental Blast or Pyroblast with one in an opening hand. It feels sort of like drawing the lone Misdirection in TPS when your opponent goes for turn 1 Ancestral, and they think they are in the clear.
But testing has proven that all eight Spirit Guides are really worthy of a spot in this deck. If you include Root Maze, and play it on turn one, your only mana will be the land you played on turn one, since your turn two land drop will come into play tapped. It is here that Spirit Guides can help you accelerate out a Goyf or a Null Rod.
Beyond their acceleration function, they can even be pressed into service as chump blockers/late game aggro. Once you have the game sealed up and locked down with Null Rods, and protected with Stingscourger and Pyroblast in hand, you just need to find Goyf to finish your opponent off. At that time, you can play the excess Spirit Guides to help hasten your opponent’s demise.
Magus of the Moon would be near the top of the list for consideration for any R/G aggro deck in Vintage. Blood Moon is a card with deep roots and a long history in the format. Weissman’s â€˜The Deck’ at times used a Blood Moon sideboard to shut down an opponent’s multi-color mana base. Magus of the Moon sees play in formats like Extended because of its hosing capacity for similar reasons. In recent times in Vintage, Blood Moon has suffered a decline in play and playability. A big culprit is the printing of the Onslaught fetchlands, which allows players to play a bunch of basic lands in a multi-color mana base. However, Blood Moon does have the small upside of turning Fetchlands into Mountains, even if it is now easier for opponents to find basic lands in the first place, by a huge margin.
Magus of the Moon is a fantastic printing. It’s harder to remove a Blood Moon from the table, but Magus of the Moon deals damage, so sticking around indefinitely matters less. Many of the R/G Beatz decks played in Vintage run full complements of this creature, and for good reason. The disruption is incredible. Mana Drain decks are often cut off from Black mana entirely. Workshop decks have to compete on equal terms. Ichorid decks can’t use Bazaar again.
The primary drawback of Magus of the Moon is that it undermines the deck’s other forms of disruption, such as Root Maze, Pithing Needle on Fetchlands, and Wastelands. The R/G pilot will have to choose between the Magus package or the Root Maze/Needle package.
This guy does not get nearly the press he deserves. Every time I play with this guy, he is just incredible. It’s Uktabi Orangutan that only costs two mana, blowing up Moxen and furthering the mana denial program.
But it also serves as a quasi-Stingscourger. Stingscourger is needed since your opponent will try to Tinker out something. A good deal of the time, the Tinker target will be Sundering Titan. This guy can blow up Sundering Titan immediately. Even more impressively, if you have your opponent locked out with Chalice so that they have a difficult time pulling Tinker off, this guy can take out the few 1cc artifacts that managed to slip into play. He’s a very, very strong contender for inclusion, and more than just a few.
The difference is simple, but subtle: Pyroblast can target non-Blue spells. Red Elemental Blast cannot. The reason is in the phrasing of the card text. Pyroblast says: Counter target spell if it is Blue. Red Elemental Blast just says: Counter target Blue spell.
This difference has caused these cards to be included or not included for various reasons. In the Black Vise era of Type 1, Pyroblast was preferred because it allowed you to more easily lower your hand size.
The relevance of the difference is this: Pyroblast can be played targeting anything in play just to ramp your Tarmogoyf. So, if you are playing against a non-blue deck, you will not use Pyroblast to counter spells, but to give Tarmogoyf +1/+1. This deck will not have many maindeck instants, so if you are playing against a Workshop deck or another beatdown deck, or even the Elves! Deck, this may be the only instant in a graveyard.
Your opponent will question the play, and you’ll have to explain the difference.
The card does deserve some maindeck presence, simply because you will want it to counter cards like Tinker and to shield early Chalices and Null Rods. It can stop bounce spells, counter Forces, and even combo with Simian Spirit Guide on turn 1 to play like Force of Will.
The problem is that beyond a few key early spells, you won’t really need to force much into play. You may need him to protect a Stingscourger, but it is as likely that you won’t. By the time he comes up, Null Rod will hopefully already be in play. In any case, he does nothing to stop your opponent’s spells, and on that account, he is not really good enough. If you run Greater Gargadon, his value increases. But I’m not sure he’s really good enough.
Mogg Fanatic is sometimes under-whelming. I have tested and run him because he serves a number of purposes. He is probably the best one-drop creature in these colors for this concept. Although he is not a significant source of damage, he does deal enough so that Tarmogoyf’s arrival only requires a couple of swings.
The importance of Mogg Fanatic is really his versatility. He’s a Bob-hunter, kills Welders, pumps Goyf through sacrifice, and is useful against Ichorid, since he will remove all opposing Bridges from game. He can kill a two-toughness creature. He’s even formidable against some Fish decks since they run a lot of one-toughness creatures. His only real drawback is that he doesn’t speed up the clock much. He’ll usually just do 2 or 3 damage in combat then be sacrificed for one reason or another.
It is somewhat incredible to consider how good basic Disenchant has become again. In a format where Time Vault decks and Painter decks are at the heart of everything, simple Disenchant can be quite potent. This card sits on the table and so it must be bounced before the Time Vault combo can get going. It also is an enchantment, so it synergizes with Tarmogoyf.
One of the decks more tenuous matchups is Oath, and this card helps tremendously in shoring it up. It functions similarly to Tin-Street Hooligan at times, and combos with Chalice on zero to prevent the opponent from being able to Tinker. The number of Seals included will probably relate to how many Tin-Street Hooligans we include.
I think it would be very easy to underestimate this card, but actually, this effect is just very good right now. You have to play with it to really understand.
Thorn is another powerful potential two-drop. It has enormous synergy with the archetype since most of your spells are disruptive creatures. It is a serious contender for any R/G Beatz list, whether maindeck or sideboard.
This is a card I couldn’t settle on. If I had sideboard targets of value, I would seriously consider including this. I’m sure the sideboard could be built with it, but I am not sure what to include. It’s an option to consider.
Should there be one between the maindeck and sideboard somewhere? I’m inclined to think so. I’d include one in the board for combo.
After testing all of these cards, here was my initial list.
2 Tin-Street Hooligan
This list was working very well against a wide range of decks. But after playing game after game after game, it slowly dawned upon me to test something else over Root Maze. While Root Maze is an incredibly powerful card, this deck does not take enough advantage of the tempo boost. Sometimes, I would find myself trapped under my Root Maze in a tight spot. But most of the time, although Root Maze would prove a valuable play in the beginning, as the game progressed its effect became irrelevant. The games went so long that the early tempo boost ultimately never mattered. Although Root Maze is still an option, it wasn’t working in the model I was aiming for. The only reason I share this list is because I wanted you to see something very different.
Here’s what I settled on.
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Elvish Spirit Guide
- 4 Simian Spirit Guide
- 4 Stingscourger
- 4 Magus of the Moon
- 4 Tarmogoyf
The sideboard remains untuned and tentative, but it’s more sophisticated than it looks. I would very much like Grim Lavamancer for the mirror match, and other aggro matches, but it may just be that Pyrokinesis efficiencies wins out. It also burns up Elves. Lavamancer is better in the Fish match, though. Needle is too strong to omit entirely.
Vintage Elves is a nascent archetype with a fairly consistent turn two combo kill. This deck actually has a good matchup against it. First and most importantly, you need only resolve a Chalice on 1 and protect it for a modest amount of time to pretty much win the game. The vast bulk of their deck will be 1 drops. Mogg Fanatic will help buy time, and Goyf will clean up. Chalice on 0 can also help in stopping Summoner’s Pact for them to find a way to destroy Chalice on 1.
This deck is designed to prey on this archetype. It is critical to resolve an early Chalice or Null Rod. A Chalice on the play is one of the most best plays you can pull off. Use Pyroblasts as disruption, Tezzeret Removal, and as protection. Null Rod will shut off their Time Vault combo and their acceleration. Get it Null Rod down ASAP, but don’t be greedy. If you can wait a turn to protect it, it’s worth it. Magus of the Moon, under the right circumstances, can be quite disruptive here as well. Seal of Primordium is also very solid in this match. If they Tinker for Colossus, as many Tez decks do, you will be happy you have four Stingscourger.
This deck has less tools to fight Ichorid than the earlier versions with Pithing Needle. Mogg Fanatic is one of the most important, by taking our Bridges from an opponent’s graveyard. Post-board, take out junk like Null Rod for 4 Leylines.
Courier Capsule Slaver
Cards like Null Rod are great against this deck, shutting down huge parts of the deck. The problem is post board when they bring in stuff like Ingot Chewer for your Chalices and Rods, Pyroclasm for Magus of the Moon, and Threads of Disloyalty for Tarmogoyf. Be ready! You are going to want more cards in your deck than you have space. You have the tools to win, but if your opponent plays tight, it will be close, but fun.
They will drop Spheres to try and squeeze you out. You may only get one opportunity to get a key card into play. If you are debating between playing a threat or a card like Seal, you probably want the Disenchant effect. You may never get another chance to try for it. Post board, you bring in a bunch of Ancient Grudges and keep them off kilter the whole time. The Spirit Guides are your trump here. They will give you the edge you need to defeat their mana denial tactics.
This deck is a bunch of fun. The biggest trick with it is timing. You do not lead with creatures. You want to get your disruption down as quickly as possible, but you also want to maximize the chances that it will be sticking around. In general, you want to hold cards like Stingscourger in hand and ambush your opponent when they walk into your trap. The order of plays, therefore, also matters quite a bit. You will want to be careful to bait your most important spell with something counter worthy.
I never imagined that a true budget deck could be this fun to play and this good at the same time.
Stephen Menendian (with special thanks to Troy Costisick for his thoughtful feedback and insight).