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Vintage 101: Don't Trust Your Secrets to the Sea


Don't Trust Your Secrets to the Sea

With each new set release, Wizards of the Coast updates the Banned and Restricted List for various formats. The most recent update for Eldritch Moon came with absolutely no changes. This move was somewhat of a reprieve, as recent updates have contained a fair amount of changes to the Vintage restricted list. Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, Chalice of the Void, and most recently Lodestone Golem have all been restricted. The Vintage community has contrasting opinions on the state of the format; some folks want more cards restricted; others were happy with no changes. 

There are several cards that people bring up as potential candidates for restriction, but the number one card is Gush. Gush has a long and sordid history with the Vintage restricted list. It happens to be one of the few cards to have been restricted on more than one occasion. I'm more or less fine with Gush being unrestricted, but the arguments against it are not without merit. 

To properly gauge the issue, I think it's important to take a look at the big picture. Today's Vintage player has a wealth of card-drawing spells to choose from. In the span of time that Treasure CruiseDig Through Time, and Chalice of the Void were restricted, former Vintage all-stars Gifts Ungiven and Thirst for Knowledge were released from prison for good behavior. 

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Gifts and Thirst were each the best blue card-drawing spells of their era. Gifts, Thirst, and Gush were even on the restricted list at the same time, from June 2008 to June 2009. In fact, we are now in the first Vintage metagame where Gush, Thirst for Knowledge, and Gifts Ungiven are all completely legal four-ofs. This metagame has a wealth of card-drawing spells available to players, yet one of the spells is seeing significantly more play. 

Since Gifts came back, it has hardly been a blip on the radar of Vintage players. Thirst saw a spike in play immediately following its unrestriction, but it has dwindled down to the point of being a fringe player. The Turbo-Time Vault decks and Grixis Thieves decks were quite popular on Magic Online for a while, but lately these "Big Blue" Thirst decks have all but disappeared. 

If Vintage players have Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven at their disposal, why does everyone choose Gush instead? Is Gush really so much better than any other option as to make all other card-drawing spells obsolete? I don't think that by itself Gush is inherently better than everything else, but when you take into account the environment it currently exists in, it is just better. 

Times Change

In a vacuum, I think that each of the big three draw spells are immensely powerful. The likeliest reason that Gush is the number one draw spell in Vintage is that subsequent printings have been a detriment to Thirst and Gifts. Gush, on the other hand, has greatly benefited from recent printings. 

Gifts Ungiven and Thirst for Knowledge are at the higher-end of Vintage-playable mana costs. Playing for a three or four mana spell is certainly possible, but it's much harder than casting a Gush for free. Cards like Spell Pierce and Flusterstorm make casting a more expensive card much more difficult. If you cast a Gush during your third turn main phase, you can float two mana and pay for a Flusterstorm or Spell Pierce

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During the times that Gifts and Thirst were at their peak, Mana Drain was a much better card. Both of these spells are great mana dumps for your Mana Drain mana, and accordingly the cards were often paired together. Mana Drain isn't seeing much play these days, so there's less of an incentive to play the more expensive draw spells. 

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Grafdigger's Cage is a card that didn't exist during the height of Gifts Ungiven. While it is possible to simply cast Gifts and grab four good cards with it, the best use of the card involves a pile of four cards that wins the game. Years ago, cards like Recoup were used to ensure that you could replay the spells that your opponent put in your graveyard. Since Grafdigger's Cage shuts off your ability to cast cards from your graveyard, it relegates Gifts Ungiven to grabbing four good cards and hoping for the best. 

Graveyard hate has gotten more prevalent and powerful in recent history thanks to the ever-present nature of Dredge in the format. Graveyard hate alone is not enough to stop Gifts from being a good card, but it does put a damper on the overall power level of the card in contemporary Vintage. 

In contrast to the other formerly-restricted draw spells, Gush has seen a wealth of printings that make the card much better.

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Token-generating creatures like Mentor and Pyromancer are great with Gush, as are the similar growing creatures like Thing in the Ice and Managorger Hydra.  The first two times Gush was restricted it was being used with Psychatog, Quirion Dryad, or, later on, with Tendrils of Agony or Empty the Warrens. Mentor and Pyromancer are basically just better versions of Psychatog and Quirion Dryad. The powerful growing creatures of contemporary Vintage might not have unrestricted access to Brainstorm and Ponder, but they've got Preordain, Gitaxian Probe, and Mental Misstep which are nearly as good. Mental Misstep also gives the Mentor/Pyromancer decks a way to protect their namesake creatures for free!

Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor are the best two creatures in Vintage by a long shot. Both creatures incentivize spell chaining, so it only makes sense that you'd want to build your deck with as many cheap or free spells as you can find. The mana efficiency of Gush makes it work better with Probes, Preordains, and Mental Missteps than any other unrestricted draw spell could

Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor would certainly be very powerful in a deck with a non-Gush card-drawing suite, but I doubt they'd be as good as they are now. Gush allows a player to start drawing cards much sooner than Thirst or Gifts ever could. Having the ability to play a draw spell as soon as a token-generator enters the battlefield  ensures that value will be gained regardless of whether or not the opponent has a removal spell. Having to wait a turn to play Thirst for Knowledge after resolving a Mentor is deathly slow. 

Beyond Mentor

I think it's important to acknowledge that Gush gives life to a number of archetypes beyond token-spamming aggro-control. Doomsday combo and Fastbond-based Storm decks all rely on Gush, and these decks would be either nonexistent or far worse without it. Doomsday and GushBond are only fringe players compared to Mentor/Pyromancer decks, but I think it is worth noting that a restriction of Gush would affect many distinct decks in Vintage. I know that some folks are fine with Doomsday or GushBond being collateral damage from a potential Gush restriction, but I would rather those decks get to keep their small slice of the metagame. 

Big Blue or Virtual Card Advantage

Gifts Ungiven and Thirst for Knowledge tend to fit into "Big Blue" style decks better than anywhere else. Both spells are more expensive, so they are easier to cast in a deck with all of the Moxen and some additional artifact mana. These Big Blue decks and their big mana bases are often full of haymakers like Tinker and Yawgmoth's Will. These decks are certainly extremely powerful, and they can top-deck a win out of nowhere. 

Gush decks are usually built with a very light number of lands, and they often play fewer mana-producing artifacts than the "Big" blue decks. Gush enables these decks to play less lands because missed land drops can be recouped by replaying the bounced lands. Playing fewer lands mean that the chances of mana flooding are greatly diminished. This choice creates "virtual card advantage"—each card drawn is more likely to be a spell instead of a useless mana source. 

Most Gush aggro/control decks don't play the typical haymaker spells. Normally not playing instant-win spells like Tinker and friends would be a detriment, but in this case it is not. It turns out that Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor are just as deadly as Tinker. In the case of Mentor, it provides a clock that rivals anything else in Vintage. 

Why Gush?

People aren't playing Gush over other options because the other options are bad cards. I'm convinced that Gifts and Thirst are just not as good as GushGush asks so little from you as a deck builder and provides so much in return. But Gush isn't as powerful as it has become only because of the text found on its face. Gush has become the number one card-drawing spell in Vintage because it works so much better with everything else in the format. Thirst and Gifts want a deck builder to make many special considerations in order to make them function as part of a coherent engine. Gush mostly just wants you to play cantrips, the restricted draw spells, and some token-generators. I'm convinced that the rest of the cards found within a Gush deck have as much to do with it's current metagame position than the card itself. 

Gush works better with Dack Fayden than similar spells. Gush helps you dig closer to your threats, and it can help you squeeze more mana out of your lands. Gush is the card that carries you from turn three into the final stretch of a game, likely turning on Dig Through Time a little earlier than usual. It truly is the best unrestricted draw-spell in Vintage, and I don't think there's a good argument against that. 

As I mentioned, Gush has been suggested as a candidate for restriction by many players. I also mentioned how well it synergizes with all of the spells played along side of it. Well, some folks feel that Gush's partners in crime should also get hit (or restricted, instead of Gush itself). I've heard people suggest that Gitaxian ProbeMental MisstepPreordain, and even Monastery Mentor should be restricted. I'm fairly certain that if Preordain, Probe, and Misstep were restricted people would just play one of each and find replacements. I certainly hope I never have to resort to playing Serum Visions though. 

People on both sides of the Gush restriction debate cite the win-percentages and market share of the decks as reasons both for and against restriction. Some people have made the argument that Gush isn't winning enough to be justifiably restricted. I've also heard the argument that the only reason Gush isn't winning more matches is that so many people picked up Shops or Eldrazi decks to ensure they had positive matchups against the archetype. Basically, the argument is that people are either playing Gush or dedicating their deck to defeating it.  I think this statement is something of a simplification, but I also know firsthand that Gush decks are a horrendous matchup for nearly any blue deck not playing the card themselves.

Personally I don't want to see any of those cards go, and I'm content to see how the current meta develops with Gush still unrestricted. As much as I like the fact that Vintage has a restricted list instead of a banned list, I really dislike having to play too many restricted cards. I like some of the randomness, but too much adds to the reputation of Vintage as "luck-based."

Moving Forward

Gush is here to stay, for better or worse. What does that mean for the immediate future of the format? I've been thinking a lot about the state of the format, and I think that there are a few defining features. Each of these features of the current meta need to be taken into consideration when choosing a deck, whether you're utilizing one of these strategies or brewing something original. The following list is simplified and doesn't cover every corner case, but it's helpful to get a general picture of what is going on. 

Gush

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Gush is simply the best unrestricted draw-spell in Vintage, and you've got to be prepared for it. Some folks will play the card themselves, or they'll try to brew or play a deck that beats it. One thing is certain, no deck can be successfully without having a proper plan to defeat Gush decks. 

Gush/Mentor/Pyromancer decks get to draw a ton of cards, and they don't have to play clunky cards like Seat of the Synod and Thoughtcast to do so. Most of the cards are good at any point in the game, so you're not mulliganing hands because they only have one combo piece. The combination of virtual card advantage, literal card advantage, and consistency make for a deck that is always a contender. 

Tokens

Tokens are mostly a sub-theme of Gush decks as a whole, but they are a pervasive and format-shaping feature. Playing a deck with token-generating creatures provides several benefits. Token strategies are very resilient to spot removal, which is nearly always the most efficient form of removal. If you need to kill one creature in Vintage, you're going to spend one mana, or in some rare instances you'll need to spend two. If you want to sweep the board of Monk tokens you will likely be spending three or four mana to do so. The main exception is Engineered Explosives which can be played for zero, and activated for two mana. Even though there are decent ways to answer a Mentor or Pyromancer, the creatures are much more likely to provide value than a Blightsteel Colossus or Consecrated Sphinx

Mentor and Pyromancer allow a deck to play as if it contains a large amount of creatures even though it only has to dedicate a few slots to them. You can pack three or four Mentors in a deck and pack the rest of your non-mana slots with card draw and control cards. These decks can play an aggro or tempo role in some matchups, while still maintaining complete control over the game. 

 

Thorns

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These defining cards of Vintage are geared toward beating blue decks. In particular they represent a mana-denial strategy that can crush Gush. Workshop Prison, Hatebears, and White Eldrazi all fall into this category. 

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Thorn of Amethyst are great at hosing cantrips and Gush. Without cantrips, a Gush deck will likely miss land drops. When you factor in all the other taxing effects and Wastelands, you can see why this type of deck has a good matchup against Gush Mentor. Mana-taxing is also highly effective against combo, and Phyrexian Revoker is great against specific combo pieces. 

Thorns are also terrific against nearly all forms of combo, so in a meta full of Mentors and Tendrils, playing one of these decks is likely a good choice. 

Combo

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This category includes strategies that are completely dedicated to playing their win-condition as fast as possible. Included are Belcher, all-in Time Vault decks, and Storm. Oath of Druids is a strategy that somewhat fits into the combo category as the deck usually wants to ignore the opponent and use their Oath target as a trump card. Unfortunately, the Gush creature decks have become so powerful that they can often race a Griselbrand or draw enough cards to keep Oath off the table.

The plus side is that Oath is fantastic against Thorn decks. To be successful, Oath will likely need to adapt to either a more controlling strategy or incorporate alternate win-conditions or combos (e.g. Auriok Salvagers). Most combo decks that aren't playing Oath have a much harder time with Thorn decks. Some combo decks can also be crippled with a Null Rod or Stony Silence.

Combo decks exist to try to ignore the opponent. If you're playing combo, you're trying to close games out before your Gush Mentor opponent can out-draw you and overwhelm you with counters. The plan is to have more bombs than your opponent has answers, and often times it works. 

 

Dredge

Instead of playing Magic, some decks play a different game called "Dredge." This force in the metagame shares a lot with Combo. The main idea behind both principles is to ignore what your opponent is doing. Dredge takes things to the extreme and functions mostly through graveyard interactions. Since most cards in Magic aren't concerned with the Graveyard, many decks have no meaningful way to interact with Dredge in game one of a match. 

Dredge decks are usually only defeated by dedicated hate cards. The best cards for beating Dredge strategies just aren't versatile enough to be played outside of sideboards. This difference gives Dredge a great game-one win percentage. Dredge can win games without ever playing a spell, which allows them to ignore the mana-taxing effects of Thorns and Thalias. Dredge is also highly consistent. Any hand with Bazaar of Baghdad can win a game, and with Serum Powder there is a high probability of getting a Bazaar in your opening hand. 

 

Eldrazi

The Eldrazi creatures in Vintage represent a creature-based threat that is not easily dealt with by conventional means. These creatures can take up most or all of the space in a deck, as they do in a Tribal Eldrazi deck. Or they can be used in a Hatebears or MUD (Workshops) deck. Eldrazi are powerful creatures, and many of them ignore forms of removal that have traditionally been Vintage staples. Most decks that use Eldrazi run a fairly large number of creatures, so spot removal is often overwhelmed. Since these creatures are not artifacts they have no fear of Hurkyl's Recall, Ingot Chewer, or Dack Fayden. The presence of these creatures in Vintage has changed the way people have to build their decks and sideboards. 

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Thinking Critically, and Differently

Everyone who decides to build or brew a Vintage deck needs to consider the aforementioned forces in the metagame. Some folks will be content to just pick up whatever deck has been performing the best recently, and others will seek to break the mold and play something new or different. 

Vintage is a format that is defined by a high power-level of its cards. In my opinion playing a deck full of broken cards is often a good place to be. If you try to build a metagame control deck you might draw the wrong answers at inopportune times. There really are no bad threats, but the same can't be said for answers. 

One way to attack a metagame is to build a deck that is powerful on its own, but also contains cards that counteract the prevalent forces of the meta. That is why I've tried out Moat in an Oath of Druids deck, or why someone might play the Dark Depths combo in a Shops or Landstill shell. If your deck can win through either brute force or skillful counterattacks, then you've got something with the potential for greatness. 

I've got a great example of a unique deck that attacks from several angles. Let's take a look at the Two-Card Monte list that Ben Perry used to take down the Team Serious Invitational this past weekend. 

Two-Card Monte is a combo deck named after the two sets of two-card combos it contains. Painter's Servant and Grindstone combine to mill an opponent's entire deck, and Helm of Obedience and Leyline of the Void do the same. Two-Card Monte can kill an opponent on the first turn more often than you'd think, and with four of each combo piece the deck has a lot of resiliency built in. 

Since Two-Card Monte is a combo deck, it's attacking the meta from the angle of trying to overpower its opponents. Beyond that there are some additional factors about the deck that I find interesting. Combo decks are usually bad against the mana-taxing Thorn decks like Shops or Eldrazi. Two-Card Monte is powered by a ton of mana artifacts, and more importantly Mishra's Workshop and Ancient Tomb. Having lands that produce too much mana means you're much more likely to cast your key cards through sphere effects. 

Unlike most Workshop decks and many combo decks, Two-Card Monte gets to play non-artifact cards. MUD decks usually can't interact much during their opponent's turns, and Petition Tendrils has only Duress effects to neutralize threats. Painter's Servant gives this deck a way to deal with spells and permanents by countering or destroying them with Pyroblast


Against other combo decks, this list has Leyline of Sanctity in the sideboard which shuts off Tendrils and Oath. Against Storm you can Tinker for Trinisphere and wreck them. Leyline of the Void in the main deck also puts a huge damper on Dark Petition. It's fantastic to have all of these answers to combo decks, but when you consider the fact that this list can threaten to end the game from turn one onward, it is truly impressive. 

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The main-deck Leyline of the Void also gives the deck a great shot at beating Dredge. After game one, Containment Priest can come in to make things even worse for Dredge pilots (and Oath players as well). Imagine the look on your Dredge opponent's face when you start game one with a Leyline on the battlefield! 

This deck also contains some anti-Eldrazi tech in the sideboard. 

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Against your Eldrazi-wielding opponent, it's time to tutor for Ensnaring Bridge. White Eldrazi has access to artifact removal, but the Workshop Eldrazi and Tribal lists don't have many answers to Bridge. Ensnaring Bridge is sort of like the colorless Moat. It stymies creature decks, and it's very tough to beat. Ensnaring Bridge is also good against Oath of Druids, and it stops all of those pesky Monk tokens from crashing the party. 

I've looked at older versions of this deck played by the same pilot, and there used to be a Robot to Tinker for. While a Tinker is not necessary, if you did choose to run one you can still win with it even with Ensnaring Bridge in play. The key is Goblin Welder. You can use Welders to remove Bridges long enough to attack with a creature as long as you return it to play afterwards. This play isn't needed for the deck to be able to win, but it's nice to know that running Ensnaring Bridge does not preclude you from being able to win through combat. 

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Speaking of Goblin Welder, this little guy has some great tricks up his sleeve. Welder can be a nuisance to opposing Workshop decks by welding their threats into useless artifacts from the opponent's graveyard. You can also use Welder to ramp up your mana by using your Black Lotus more than once in a turn. Goblin Welder also allows you to chain Memory Jar activations, ensuring that you draw into the proper combo pieces. And of course, if your combo pieces get countered you can just weld them right back into play. 

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Defense Grid is a great tool against the Gush aggro decks, and all of the other control decks in Vintage. When you play a Grid, it's likely to either trade for two cards when it gets Force of Willed, or it resolves and you win with impunity. Even in the event it gets countered, you're relatively happy because your opponent likely lost two cards (from Force of Will) and they're much less likely to be able to counter a follow up play. Making your opponent waste their Forces is especially potent in this type of deck because all of your combo pieces are permanents. None of your combo pieces can be hit with Flusterstorm. and only one of them gets countered by Mental MisstepForce of Will is the only commonly-played counter than can even affect Two-Card Monte, so you're often delighted to trade a Defense Grid for one. 

Deuces Wild in Vintage

I make no claim that Two-Card Monte is the best deck in Vintage, but I think it is very underplayed. The more I look at this list, the more I like it. Having a combo deck that has this many answers to key metagame forces seems like a great place to be. 

Another thing I love about the deck is that it takes Mishra's Workshop to a completely new level. Workshop decks are almost entirely MUD decks in this day and age, so it's nice to see colored Workshops doing well. I also like that the deck wins without running Thorn of Amethyst and the associated prison cards. It's refreshing to see Mishra's forces turn from running prisons to running casinos. 

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That's all the time I have for this week. I'll see you in seven days. Hit me up in the comments to tell me what you think of this week's deck. I'd also love to hear what your opinions on the restricted list and Gush are. 

You can follow me on Twitter @josephfiorinijr, and Islandswamp on Magic Online

 

 

 

 


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