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Vintage 101: History on Repeat


History Repeats Itself

I think I've started two or three articles in the last few months with a paragraph about how well Mishra's Workshop decks have been doing. I tried very hard to distance myself from that sort of topic as I dislike sounding like a broken record. However, the latest Magic Online Power Nine Challenge has finished, and the results are a little skewed toward the brown end of the spectrum. I would be remiss to ignore these results, and it would be a disservice to all Vintage players.

The reason I've made an effort to focus on decks other than "Shops and Storm" is that I sincerely believe Vintage has a lot more than just those two decks. I'd prefer people experience a broad and vibrant format instead of living in the two-deck echo chamber. Unfortunately the results of the most recent Power Nine Challenge do not lend themselves to providing fodder for an article devoid of Mishra's influence. So, I feel it's necessary to address the ten-thousand pound brown elephant in the room.

Power Nine Challenge Top 16

Eight of the top sixteen decks played four Mishra's Workshops. There were more copies of Thorn of Amethyst (50%) in the top sixteen than Force of Will (25%)! That's significantly different than what is usually seen. Clearly Shops was a beast on that fateful day, owning half of the top of the field. Oddly enough, the one deck that went undefeated in the Swiss, ending up in second place, was a Dark Petition Storm deck. That particular Storm deck is reminiscent of the deck I featured a few articles ago, played by JDPhoenix. Packing two copies of Hurkyl's Recall in the main deck and two in the side is pretty important if you want your Storm deck to stand a chance against Workshops. 

Other than the aforementioned Workshop decks, there were two Storm decks in the top sixteen. Dredge placed three copies, two in the top eight and one that didn't quite make it. One of those decks was the "Pitch Dredge" variant and the other two were traditional Dredge. There were two Gush decks, one being a Mentor deck similar to the one that won the previous Power Nine Challenge, and the other was a Jeskai Delver deck. A single spot went to a BUG Fish deck, notable for playing two Noble Hierarchs. 

Although there were a handful of decks represented in the top portion of the field, it is quite clear that Workshop decks dominated the competition more than usual for this event. Two hard-working and talented Vintage players, Diophan and Chubby Rain did a complete breakdown of the event, and their results show that Workshops made up almost 23% of the field, and had over a 61% win percentage. Their results and calculations are posted on the archived version of TheManaDrain.com, and if you haven't checked them out I recommend doing so. 

Here's the second place Storm deck:

And of course, our new champion, thediabetical, playing Workshops:

Both of the decks are fairly stock lists. The Dark Petition Storm deck is within a few cards of almost every other list played in the last few months. There is a playset of Hurkyl's Recall between the main deck and sideboard, but other than that there aren't a whole lot of cards to make the Workshop match up better. I think that Storm is a very powerful deck, but if you look at tournament finishes, Dark Petition lags behind Arcbound Ravager considerably. 

The winning Workshop deck is of the aggressive variety, just like the most successful builds since this year's Vintage Championships. A year ago Workshop decks played more lock pieces than they do currently. The trend towards  more aggressive lists started as a tactic to give the decks an edge in the mirror match against the similar Kuldotha Forgemaster Shops lists that were popular at the time. Brian DeMars and Paul Mastriano played Hangarback Walker MUD at Vintage champs, and those decks were already cutting cards like Chalice of the Void as they were the least useful against other Workshop decks. Those two players and Rich Shay accurately predicted the high prevalence of Shops at Vintage Champs 2015 and reaped the benefits, each having very good finishes. 

 

What Do these Results Mean?

It's tough to make a judgment based on one event, but it is quite clear that Workshop decks are really, really good. Personally I still think that Vintage as a format is fine right now, but I understand why some people have the opposite opinion.

Interpreting the data isn't a perfect process. There are a lot of factors that can skew results. Everything from the caliber of players playing a specific deck to which match ups certain decks end up facing. I watched a little bit of one of the replays from the last Power Nine Challenge, and I saw an important Shops mirror match in which one player had their Workshop Wastelanded. That unlucky player didn't end up drawing a land for several turns and lost the game. That may not seem like much, but such negative variance can cause people to win or lose matches that would normally have the opposite outcome. 

Player skill or negative variance can only account for so much though, especially when you see a broad trend of one archetype performing well. The results of the tournament seem to confirm what I've been saying all along, Mishra's Workshop decks are one of the best decks in Vintage. I don't feel that they are too good. The restriction of Chalice of the Void has been a boon to decks fighting against Shops. Without Chalice on zero, slow-playing your Moxen (casting them for one or more mana to build up your mana base) is a much more reliable strategy. Prior to the Chalice restriction, you couldn't keep a hand on the draw with a lot of artifact mana and only one land as a turn-one Chalice of the Void meant lights out. 

The thing is that even with Chalice of the Void restricted, slowly playing out a handful of Moxen to build up to a Hurkyl's Recall still isn't a guaranteed path to victory. In response to the restriction, Workshop decks have lowered their mana curve and many employ a far more aggressive creature package. Lodestone golem has always been a beating, it is ever present in the Vintage metagame and it is as deadly as ever. A 5/3 presents a quick clock, especially against a creatureless deck like Storm. That ticking clock makes it hard to survive long enough to dig yourself out from under a few lock pieces.

I try not to go too much into talking about which cards I think need to be restricted or not, but I will say that I disagree with those who would argue that Workshop decks need to suffer another restriction. Lodestone Golem is the usual suspect brought up in discussions about the restricted list, and I'm of the opinion that the Golem and the Workshops archetype itself are too important to Vintage to be removed. 

Vintage is a huge format, and it is a format of extremes at times. Other than Legacy Belcher, Vintage is really the only place you're going to see decks with only twelve or thirteen lands, or without lands at all. I think it's fantastic that you can power a deck in Vintage, providing all the mana you'd need, without running a single land. However, playing a deck without many lands shouldn't be a free ride. Do you really want to play in a format where someone can play with just one land and never have to suffer any consequences for it? Mishra's Workshop decks, and other decks that run Wasteland help to provide a penalty for players playing greedy mana bases. This effect is much like Blood Moon in Modern. I love duals lands as much as the next person, in fact I probably like them more than a lot of people. I traded for a set of Scrublands once just because I wanted to own forty original dual lands. That doesn't mean I think that playing dual lands should always be a free ride. Basic lands deserve to be slightly relevant in every format! 

Magic has in it a system of checks and balances, much the same as the United States government. If you push one way, another force can push back. This is why "color hosers" and hatebears exist. This reality is not a bad thing, and it prevents any one deck or strategy from coming into absolute power. The times in history where one deck or one type of deck was absolutely better than everything else were the darkest times in competitive Magic. Think about the Ravager Affinity days, or the Caw-Blade days; those were not good times. Having a diversity of decks and broad archetypes is important to the health of a format. 

As always, there are two sides to every story. If we take time to look at the situation in Vintage from the opposite perspective, we can see that Shops has been a dominant force for a long time. The nature of the way matches against Workshops play out makes the deck feel very oppressive. Not being able to cast any spells while your life total is being chipped away at feels like being in a sleeper hold. This issue is exacerbated in new Vintage players because Workshop decks are unlike anything they've ever faced before. I know from a personal standpoint I had to learn how to navigate and win a Workshop match up through trial and error. I've had more than my fair share of frustration at the hands of the artifact army. 

As I previously stated, the Chalice restriction has helped make Shops a little less oppressive. I don't think that anything else needs to go from the deck, but it is worth keeping an eye on. If tournament results like this most recent Power Nine Challenge keep happening, then it is probably time to start the conversation about restricting something again. Hopefully it doesn't come to that, and things will balance out as time goes on. Time will tell though, and I've certainly been wrong before. 

Blood Moon Rising

Keeping with my pledge to shine a light on Vintage decks that are outside of the box (or should I say Sphere?), I've got a really sweet-looking deck for all of you. If you've ever played Modern, you're probably well aware of "Blue Moon," the Izzet-colored control deck built around Blood Moon. Well, in Vintage having someone resolve a Blood Moon against you is still a beating. 

Here's Vintage Blue Moon by SeanOhh:

Just like in Modern, this deck has control elements; Counterspells to fight on the stack and Blood Moon to attack mana bases. There are several planeswalkers in the deck, and plenty of mana acceleration in the form of moxen, Sol Ring, and Mana Crypt.

I have never seen a six-mana planeswalker in a Vintage deck before, and not since Elspeth, Sun's Champion has one made an impact in constructed MagicChandra, Flamecaller makes a surprise appearance in this list, and I'm guessing she's very effective. Ramping to six mana is easy in this deck due to the full load of artifact mana it plays. Once you've ramped to six mana, Chandra provides a very quick clock and acts as a repeatable and scalable Pyroclasm. I'd love to hear the deck creator's thoughts on including Chandra; she looks like a house. Of course, Chandra also gets to hang out with Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Dack Fayden, so she's never lonely. 

Batterskull is another card seemingly ported from a Modern U/R control deck. The 'Skull isn't seen all that much in Vintage, but it's great in this deck. Lifelink helps to stabilize against other decks, and five mana isn't hard to reach in this deck.

I'm sure everyone reading this is well aware of how dangerous Blood Moon is to many decks, but if you've never thought about the card from the perspective of a Mishra's Workshop player you should do so now. Just like how Modern Tron, Amulet, or Eldrazi need their special lands to do broken things, Workshop decks rely on their namesake card. 

Workshop decks get a huge tempo boost each turn just for making a land drop. It's also a form of card advantage when you think about it. One Mishra's Workshop does the work of three moxen or a single Black Lotus. Unlike Lotus, you don't have to sacrifice Mishra's Workshop. Every time you use a Black Lotus you're trading a massive tempo swing for a little card disadvantage. Shops decks get to have their cake and eat it too, as they use their "Lotus" each and every turn. 

All of those big-mana shenanigans stop when all of the Shops player's lands become basic Mountains. They can still ramp a little bit with artifact mana, but it isn't nearly the same. Mishra's Workshop is the backbone of the deck, and Blood Moon hurts it badly. 

I hope to see this brew pick up a few more victories, and I'd love to take it for a spin personally. I think that this type of list represents a great way to beat existing archetypes, while playing something out of the ordinary. 

That's all the time I have for this week, see you in seven days! You can follow me on Twitter @josephfiorinijr - Islandswamp on MTGO 


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