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Vintage 101: Grizzly Bears and Workshops

When I left you last week, I mentioned there is more to Vintage than just playing Islands. Today's article will feature decks and tactics outside of the realm of Blue magic. Vintage has many types of decks that can compete without using Counterspells, but the decks have to be built to handle an opponent that does play counter magic and contend with the rest of the field. 

"Brown" University

The most prevalent of the non-Blue decks in Vintage are Mishra's Workshop decks. In years past, most Mishra's Workshop decks played with colored spells. Some decks were five-colored "Stax" builds like Roland Chang's Vintage Championship winning deck, and some played less colors. Since the release of Worldwake most Workshop decks have been completely colorless. The move to a colorless Workshop deck was due to this perennial all-star:

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Lodestone Golem punishes non-artifact spells by making them harder to cast. This ability fits with all of the other mana-denial spells that Workshop decks use. 

Here's what a mono-brown (colorless) Workshop deck looks like in today's metagame, with Lodestone Golem leading an army of machines:

Workshop decks have been punishing Blue-based decks for a long time. This theme is especially true in regards to decks built around Gush, like most Monastery Mentor and Delver of Secrets decks in the format. Gush decks are typically as light on mana as possible, and they're centered around cards with a low converted mana cost. Typically these decks have fifteen or more spells with a converted mana cost of one, meaning they were especially vulnerable to a Chalice of the Void set to one. 

With all of the mana-denial effects present in a Workshop deck, they make it very difficult for a deck with only 14 lands to survive. When Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time were running rampant through Vintage, Gush decks with light mana bases became the most prevalent Blue deck. It made sense that Mishra's Workshop decks would thrive in an environment with unrestricted delve draw-spells. Indeed, there were two Mishra's Workshop decks in the Top 8 of the 2014 and 2015 Vintage champs. The ninth place deck in 2015 was also a Mishra's Workshop deck piloted by Brian DeMars. 

On September 2015 the DCI made a few changes to the Banned and Restricted list for Vintage. Chalice of the Void and Dig Through Time were restricted and Thirst for Knowledge was un-restricted. The restriction of Chalice of the Void has led Workshop decks to lean heavily on Null Rod to dampen the mana-production Moxen provide. The number of Workshop decks being played has declined since the restriction, but I still think that Shops decks are very powerful. Losing Chalice as a four-of has had a tangible effect, but that doesn't mean that the deck isn't still extremely potent. 

Using Null Rod to control an opponent's mana production has pros and cons. Compared to Chalice of the Void, Null Rod is expensive at two mana. Then there's the fact that Null Rod also shuts off the Shops player's own artifact mana.

Chalice of the Void was also used as a deterrent for one-mana spells. In the past people tended to avoid using artifact removal with a converted mana cost (CMC) of one because Chalice set to one was an extremely popular play. Shops decks have very few cards at CMC one, so setting a Chalice at one and zero was a common play. Now with Chalice restricted, people are playing cards like Nature's Claim, Smelt, and Steel Sabotage more often. All of this adds up to a metagame that is more hostile towards the popular Mishra's Workshop builds of last season. 

The metagame share that belonged to Workshop decks has declined since Chalice of the Void was restricted, but not all people have given up on their beloved artifact decks. Some Workshop pilots have taken the deck in different directions to try to adapt to the current metagame. Here's a deck that combines prison elements with a powerful combo:

This deck has several angles of attack. Some of the classic mana-denial cards are on this list, but there's also the "Marit Lage" combo built around Dark Depths. Vampire Hexmage can turn a Dark Depths into a 20/20 flying, indestructible token in an instant. There's also Thespian's Stage to unleash the Marit Lage. You simply activate Thespian's Stage copying Dark Depths. The "Legend Rule" causes you to sacrifice one of the Legendary cards as a state-based effect. At that point you sacrifice the original, leaving you the copy which conveniently has no Ice counters on it, and you've got an enormous creature. 

Tangle Wire and Lodestone Golem put pressure on opponents and put the squeeze on their resources. There's the threat of a Marit Lage token at any given moment, so players are left scrambling to try to deal with multiple problems at once. Shops / Depths is deceptively powerful, and Vintage players should be aware of this deck lest it catch them off guard. 


Workshop decks are a a great example of powerful strategies that aren't based on Blue cards. It's hard to argue with the power that comes from playing four lands that produce three mana all by themselves. There's a whole world of decks beyond Workshop decks though. There are various creature-based strategies that can take on Blue decks and also have game against Workshop strategies. 


Humans and Hatebears

One type of deck that many players are familiar with is a "Hatebears" strategy. Hatebears are the prototypical Grizzly Bear with a "hate card" attached to it. Cards like Containment Priest or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben are good examples of Vintage-playable "bears." A deck full of such creatures can apply a lot of pressure to an opponent and be highly disruptive at the same time. This archetype is essentially a blend of Aggro and Prison — aggressive creatures that thwart their opponent's plans. 

Vintage decks play more creatures today than they have at any point in the past. Still, the creature package is only as big as four to ten creatures. Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor are the two best value creatures available to Vintage players. Most of the time people aren't packing a lot of mass-removal. When a deck plays more than just a small handful of creatures, it quickly becomes too much for the small removal packages most Vintage decks use. When faced with twenty or more creatures, nothing short of a mass-removal spell will do the trick. This scheme is how "hatebears" can be competitive in Vintage. They need to have a quick enough clock, overload their opponent's removal, and be disruptive enough to stop someone from simply "racing" the damage with a game-winning combo. 

Here's a Red-White "Hatebears" style deck that has an expansive creature package:


Beating "Blue"

Simian's Mom gets its name from Simian Spirit Guide and Mother of Runes. Spirit Guide acts as early game mana-acceleration that can't be countered, and in the late game it's another body. Mother of Runes makes creature combat a nightmare for opponents. She's also great at making people waste removal spells. To kill a single Mother of Runes takes at least two removal spells, or a play that forces her to tap. Either way, the "point and shoot" method of killing creatures goes out the window with an active Mom on the battlefield. 

This particular deck has a very potent mana-denial strategy. Wasteland and Strip Mine do a lot of work keeping opponents from having the mana necessary to cast their spells. There's an extra Wasteland in the sideboard for the match ups where more are warranted. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben can make it difficult for an opponent to cast his or her spells, especially in conjunction with the multiple land destruction cards. 

Besides the cards that mess with an opponent's mana, there are other hatebears variants the deck can play. Deck-construction and choosing the right creatures is where much of the strategic choices occur. The proper creature selection is directly related to the expected metagame. Creatures like Containment Priest are great in an environment that is heavy with Dredge and Oath but lackluster when those decks are not represented. The best build of this deck for today's metagame will likely evolve, but the fundamental card choices are rock solid. 

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More Human than Human

One card that most aggro decks rely on is Cavern of Souls. Cavern allows these decks to play their creatures with impunity, completely ignoring any Counterspells. This card is one reason many decks will maximize the number of creatures from one particular "tribe" in their deck. "Human" happens to be a popular creature type amongst the various hoser-creatures in Magic

Simian's Mom also has a draw-engine of sorts, which is something not often seen in aggro decks. Prophetic Flamespeaker can effectively draw two extra cards a turn with his ability. Combined with Mother of Runes, this deck can gain a sizeable advantage over its opponents. Spirit of the Labyrinth is great at stopping players from drawing extra cards, but it conveniently doesn't interfere with Prophetic Flamespeaker. The tag-team of Spirit and Flamespeaker needs to be answered quickly, otherwise they'll bury people in card advantage. 

Hatebear decks like Simian's Mom are usually well-positioned against Workshop decks because they play basic lands, and they pack their own Wastelands. Remember, a Workshop deck relies on its Mishra's Workshops to pay the extra mana their "Spheres" require (Trinisphere, Thorn of Amethyst, etc.). Destroying a Mishra's Workshop with Wasteland often means that the Workshop player is buried under their own mana-taxing cards. Leonin Relic-Warder is also great against Workshop decks, or any deck that relies heavily on mana from artifacts. 

Simian's Mom has the tools to beat any deck in Vintage without being full of restricted Blue cards. If you're looking for a Vintage deck, and you want something a little out of the ordinary, I'd give this a try. 

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Conclusion & Thoughts on Sequencing

Every deck in Magic relies on proper sequencing. In non-Blue decks sequencing can be even more critical. You have to understand what is the most important card in each match up and make your plays accordingly.

For instance, say you're playing a Hatebears deck and your opponent is tapped-out. In that case, you should first play your Thalia, Guardian of Thraben with your Cavern of Souls. In that scenario, your Thalia would be uncounterable, and you'd then be free to resolve a different creature because your opponent couldn't pay the one generic mana to use Force of Will's alternate casting cost. This is a simple play that's relatively easy to see, but if you played it wrong, you could've easily lost the game. 

Maximizing the damage done by your attacking creatures is one of the most fundamental aspects of being a good Magic player. This axiom is true in every format, both constructed and limited. The only difference in Vintage is that since the overall power level of cards is so high, any mistake you make is that much more impactful. To put it bluntly, if you lose a turn off of your clock by making a sloppy play, you stand a good chance of losing the game because of it. 

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Workshop decks need nearly perfect sequencing to achieve a high win percentage. It is true that these decks have some hands that are so strong it can be hard to lose, but many other hands will need to be maximized to eke out a win. A turn one play of Mishra's Workshop, Sol Ring, Lodestone Golem, pass is certainly powerful, but it can be stopped with a Force of Will or a combination of Lightning Bolt, Mountain, and any one of the five Moxen. It is often better to lead with a Thorn of Amethyst or Sphere of Resistance on turn one, to make sure that your Lodestone Golem can't be countered or easily removed. 

Sometimes it's possible to play two "lock pieces" on your first turn. If you have a hand that can pull that off it's likely that you'll be able to resolve a third one on your second turn (preferably Golem). At that point you've just about locked up the game. The rest of the game will be about riding that advantage until your opponent is dead. 

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Phyrexian Revoker can double as a lock piece of sorts. Unlike Pithing Needle, Revoker can stop mana abilities. You can use it to shut off a Mox if you need to. If you find yourself playing a Revoker when your opponent has nothing on the battlefield to name and you're unsure of what your opponent is playing, you should probably name Dack Fayden. Dack is seeing less play now than he did last year, but the greatest thief in the mutiverse is bad news for Workshop decks. I've had opponents blindly pick Black Lotus against me when they were playing Shops and that is a mistake. Yes, most decks play Black Lotus, but they only have one in their deck. An opponent who has played a Blue mana source is likely have more copies of Dack Fayden than Black Lotus in their deck. 

The last thing you want as a Workshop player is for your opponent to be able to cast any spells. Problems start to happen for a Workshop deck when an opponent "breaks out" of the stranglehold your lock pieces created. Remember, Workshop decks consist entirely of permanents, which means that they don't often pack answers. Occasionally they might play a few copies of Dismember, but mostly they depend on stopping problems before they even start.


It isn't easy to be successful in Vintage with an aggro deck, or with a deck built out of nothing but artifacts. It takes practice, patience, and an understanding of the expected metagame to succeed. Every year someone makes Top 8 or wins a big tournament with something other than the stereotypical Vintage deck. If you put your mind to it so can you. 

Thanks for joining me. You can follow me on Twitter @josephfiorinijr - Islandswamp on MTGO

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