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Vintage 101: Islandswamp at the Waterbury

Islandswamp at the Waterbury

As I mentioned in last week's article, this past weekend was the Mana Drain Open 17, commonly referred to as "the Waterbury." I made the five-hour trek from my home to Oakville Connecticut to play Vintage with 126 other players, and it was a fantastic day of Magic. I was able to meet a lot of people who I only interacted with on social media or Magic Online, and it was really nice to be able to put a face to these names I've come to know. 

I went to the event thinking I was going to play Dark Petition Storm, but in the end I audibled to Griselbrand Oath. I had played Storm online, and in some casual testing in paper, but I ultimately decided that I'd be better off playing something I was more familiar with. I picked Oath because I still had most of the cards, and I've played well over one hundred matches with it in the last year. 

After a rough start, I managed to end the event with a 5-2 record, which was good for 26th place. While I would have liked to do better, I'm still happy to have a winning record, and my deck felt like it was in good shape all day. Here's what I registered for the event.

Sphinx of the Steal Wins

Most of the card choices are the same as a typical Griselbrand Oath deck. I did make a few changes to my list for this event as a response to an evolving metagame. The last time I was playing Oath a lot, Lodestone Golem was unrestricted. Back then the average Workshop deck looked much different than they do now, and there were no Eldrazi decks to speak of. 

One of the hate cards that Workshop decks would bring in against me was Karakas. I was always on the lookout for ways to avoid losing to Karakas, a card that's even more prevalent these days due to its inclusion in White Eldrazi. The solution I came up with was Sphinx of the Steel Wind

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The Esper Sphinx has a lot going for it. It can't be stolen by Dack Fayden, it doesn't die to Lightning Bolt or Snuff Out, and most importantly it can't be bounced with Karakas. The abilities it has are all very relevant, and it compliments Griselbrand nicely. Sphinx is also an artifact creature so it can be cheated into play with Tinker

Most of the time Griselbrand is still better than Sphinx, so there's only one to increase the chances that an Oath activation brings a Griselbrand to town. The worst-case scenario with Sphinx of the Steel Wind would be if I cheated it into play with either Tinker or Oath of Druids and it died immediately to Swords to Plowshares. This weakness is a real consideration, but I think it's an acceptable risk. Having Sphinx in the deck meant that I could cheat more than one creature into play, and having two creatures with lifelink helps you race an opponent's token army. 

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I played Tinker in this build, which is something I had rarely done in the past. Usually I relied on three or four copies of Show and Tell. For this event I went with one Show and Tell and one Tinker, which opened up another slot in the deck. In the past I was able to get away with running zero main-deck removal. Cards like Eldrazi Displacer meant that I had to run at least a miser's Abrupt Decay in my main deck lest I fall victim to the dreaded spaghetti hatebears. 

Tinker also let me have a second way to get free wins with Time Vault and Voltaic Key. Being able to quickly find a fattie or combo piece is critical against fast combo decks. Against Workshops or other decks packing prison elements like Thorn of Amethyst, I was sometimes able to fire off a turn-one Tinker to steal a free win that way. 

The Sideboard

I used a sideboard that was within a few cards of what I'd used in past BUG Oath decks. There's Nature's Claim and Abrupt Decay for taking out problematic permanents. Hurkyl's Recall is great against all manner of Workshop decks, but it's particularly good against Arcbound Ravager

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Strip Mine is a great utility land, and it comes in against a variety of decks. I bring Strip Mine in against Shops, Eldrazi, Dredge, and especially other Oath decks. Taking out your opponent's Forbidden Orchard can help you activate your Oath before your opponent does. 

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Toxic Deluge is for Hatebears decks, Eldrazi, Mentor, and anything else that packs a swarm of creatures. During the event I used Deluge to take out a single Reality Smasher, and I was still happy to do so. There are other sweepers available to BUG Oath decks, but this one is the best in my opinion. I'd run more if I was in a smaller event and anticipating more decks with a large volume of creatures. 

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is mostly for the Dredge matchup, but it's also good to bring in against creature decks. Dredge has a hard time winning with Elesh out, and other decks often lose all their creatures when it enters the battlefield. Swapping out a Griselbrand for an Elesh Norn also allows you to activate Oath three times in a game

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Ravenous Trap is my only dedicated piece of Dredge hate, which is honestly pretty skimpy. I do have four other cards to bring in in that matchup, so it's always been enough. The plan is to use these traps as speed bumps for your Dredge opponent. Hopefully that will give you enough time to assemble Vault and Key or get an Elesh Norn in play.

Storm decks were always trouble for my Oath lists, so I built this one with an artifact-heavy mana base and Tolarian Academy. This allowed me to run Trinisphere in the sideboard. The plan is to Tinker for or cast a Trinisphere as soon as possible against Storm combo. It should be difficult for Storm to win without first dealing with the three-ball. 

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My Takeaway

I'm confident that I made the right choice when I played Oath even though I didn't finish higher. I say this not because I believe it to be the best deck, but because it's a good deck that I've played countless times. I would run this list back if I had the chance, although I might make some small changes. The deck seemed solid the entire time, with most of the losses due to my play choices or variance.

Having Tinker and Sphinx of the Steel Wind in the deck was great for me in testing and at the tournament. The only tension this caused was in the matchups where I boarded out Time Vault and Voltaic Key. If you've only got a Sphinx in your deck for Tinker, then Tinker can become a dead draw if you're unable to put a drawn Sphinx back in your library. Most of the time I kept the Vault/Key combo in so this issue didn't come up much anyway. 

I did feel like I could use a Sensei's Divining Top because it seems like it would be a good fit. Top plays well with the artifact/Tolarian Academy package, and it can help you keep your fatties in your library when you need to. Sensei's Divining Top also combos with Voltaic Key to draw extra cards. I'm not sure what I'd cut to put it in, but I'd definitely like to try it. 

Although Oath isn't on most people's short list of top decks in Vintage, it does have a lot of game against arguably the best performing deck in recent history. Workshops decks were very successful in this event, with many Shops pilots ravaging their way to the top tables. White Eldrazi and Tribal Eldrazi decks are also prevalent in the meta, and I feel pretty good about those matchups. It wouldn't even take much work to make the matchups against various Eldrazi decks even better, although that would probably come at a cost to the Gush matchup. 

Force of Will Magrann

The real story of the day was the phenomenal performance of Will Magrann. Will won the last TMD Open and thusly started the event as king of the hill. Playing Arcbound Ravager/Thought-Knot Seer Workshops, Will Magrann ran the tables all day and never relinquished his crown. In the end, he won the whole thing with tight play and a brutally powerful deck. Winning a Waterbury is just about the most prestigious thing a Vintage player can do, and winning two is phenomenal. On August 13th, 2016 Will Magrann became the first individual to win back-to-back TMD Opens, and that is the stuff of legend. 

Mishra's Workshop was quite prevalent in the event (second most popular overall), with Ravager/Thought-Knot being the default version played by most Shops pilots. According to the data collected by Raymond Robillard and parsed by Ryan Eberhart, Workshops had a 65.6% win-rate on the day. You can read Ryan's complete metagame breakdown here on the Mana Drain.

Mishra's Workshop decks have been varied in the past, usually with one sub-archetype being the most prevalent. Nowadays you're often hard-pressed to find a list without Arcbound Ravager, and nearly every deck plays Thought-Knot Seer. Will Magrann's deck was one of these Ravager/TKS lists, and it preys on the centerpiece of most blue decks, Gush

Will wrote an excellent tournament report about winning the tournament with Ravager Shops that you can read here. Congratulations to the first back-to-back Waterbury champion! 

"But you have to return two Islands to your hand!"

Grixis Therapy Session

The elephant in the room all day was Gush, a card played in the most decks by a wide margin. The buzz amongst the Vintage community is that Gush is actually pretty good. 

Gush decks weren't quite as successful as Workshop decks, but there were almost twice as many of them in the event. Grixis Therapy is probably the best Gush Aggro/Control deck in Vintage right now, but ultimately all of the various Gush token decks are strong. There are some other Gush decks in the meta like Doomsday or Storm decks running Gush and Fastbond, but the vast majority of these decks are homogenized around Monastery Mentor or Young Pyromancer

Craig Masley took second with his Grixis Therapy list. This result is reminiscent of the finals of the most recent NYSE event where Andrew Markiton's Ravager Shops defeated Tom Metelsky's Grixis Pyromancer deck. It seems like the Grixis lists are better at fighting the blue mirror than they are at combating prison and aggro/prison decks. Still, playing what is arguably the best Gush deck in the metagame is a good choice for the Waterbury. 

Doctor Doomsday

With all of the Workshop decks in the field, it was somewhat surprising to see a Doomsday deck make the Top Eight. David Nunez ran this deck very well in the event, eventually having his run ended at the hands of Arcbound Ravager and friends. 

Doomsday decks play a very powerful win condition in their namesake card, but they also have a very small mana base compared to most Vintage decks. This list has eighteen maindeck mana sources (not counting Dark Ritual). Eighteen sources is great when you're facing other blue decks, but it can lead to major issues when you're facing Thorn of Amethyst

Similar decks often use Trygon Predator to survive the Workshop matchup, but this particular list looks to be geared more towards beating other blue or combo decks. There did end up being more Gush decks than Workshops in the event, which I'm sure helped this particular build succeed. 

JacoDrazi Strikes Again

The Eldrazi aren't content to be bit players in Mishra's Workshop decks. The infamous tentacled monsters have proven themselves worthy of the Vintage format with yet another Top Eight appearance. In eighth place, here's John Lafreniere's Tribal Eldrazi.

Every time I see an incarnation of Jason Jaco's Tribal Eldrazi deck do well in a larger Vintage event it makes me extremely happy. As much as I love Vintage for the Power Nine cards, the fact that a Powerless deck can do well is great.  This deck doesn't need any Dual Lands, Power, or even Mana Crypt. One of the only cards in the list that's even on the Reserved List is Null Rod. There was some debate at first as to whether or not Eldrazi Tribal was a real deck, and it's quite clear to me that yes, this deck is legit. It's done well enough for itself to be considered established, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that it wins an event in the near future.

You can view the rest of the Top Eight here, but for now I'd like to take a look at a few of the other decks that performed well. 

Monte-Zuma's Revenge!

If you recall from last week, I wrote about a crazy Oath/Two-Card Monte hybrid played by Joshua Potucek. JP Kohler had similar ideas and took them to the Waterbury. Helm of Obedience and Oath of Druids were good enough to land Kohler in eleventh place. 

The great thing about playing a deck like this is that your opponent isn't going to be prepared for it. The cards in the deck might seem janky, but they're all very strong. People aren't playing that many cards that are good against the Helm combo, and with Oath being one of the least popular archetypes, there isn't as much hate for that either. The current meta is very focused on Workshops, Eldrazi, and Gush, which creates openings where other decks can steal some games. 

Eldritch Moon in Vintage!

Vintage players have grown quite fond of Thalia, Guardian of Thraben over the years, and now there's even more of her to go around! The new version of Thalia introduced in Eldritch Moon is a great fit in the White Eldrazi lists that have become common. Here's Andrew "Brass Man" Probasco's fourteenth place "Thalia Tribal" deck. 

If playing four Thalias in a deck never felt like enough to you, than this is your deck. White Eldrazi is a vastly improved version of Mono-White Hatebears or Vintage Death and Taxes. Having Thought-Knot Seer at the top end gives the deck a lot of muscle, and this list also gains access to Batterskull

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"White Trash" Vintage Hatebears has always been a decent deck, but it tended to struggle against the broken strategies and vast card-drawing suites that most decks utilize. "Thalia Tribal" gets to force their opponents to play on their own terms much like a Workshop prison deck does. You also get Cavern of Souls to negate counterspells, and access to colored mana (white and red in this list), which allows for greater flexibility in the spells you're able to cast. 

The Greatest Show on Earth

Playing at my first Waterbury tournament was the most fun I've ever had playing Magic. I've played in a lot of Magic tournaments over the years, and none of them were as enjoyable as this one. On one hand the room was full of talented players and the environment was extremely competitive, but on the other hand there was a relaxed and friendly feel that I never got from grinding Pro Tour Qualifiers in my youth. 

During the event there were door prizes given away, and there were other contests as well. Even players who dropped early were able to join a free side event that had a Mana Drain as a prize. When I was heavily into the tournament scene in my youth, I'd always drop once I wasn't able to make Top Eight in an event. At the Waterbury there really was something for everyone, even if you weren't winning. I was incentivized to stick around because there was plenty to do and the people were great. 

I was also able to meet a lot of folks that I'd met through social media, podcasts, or through my writing. Meeting these people was the highlight because everyone was so friendly. The tournament organizer Ray Robillard has said that there will be another event at some point in the future, and I'll be sure to be there. If you've never gone to an event like this and are on the fence about it, take it from me you will absolutely love it. 

I'd also like to thank the Vintage community for being so supportive. A lot of people helped me get a deck together for the event, and I probably wouldn't have been able to play without them. That's the coolest thing about all of this. These people love the format so much that they'll go out of their way to make sure that more people are able to play. It's unlike anything that I've ever been a part of. 

That's all the time I have for this week. I'll see you in seven days. You can follow me on Twitter @josephfiorinijr - Islandswamp on Magic Online

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