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Vintage 101: Leovold, the Sultan of Sultai

Ravaging the Vintage Wasteland

These days there is a Construct from Aether Revolt walking all over the competition. Walking Ballista is the best card to be printed for Mishra's Workshop players in some time, and that's saying something. In the past year we've seen Thought-Knot Seer, Skysoverign, Consul Flagship, Fleetwheel Cruiser, and Inventors' Fair enter the format and while each of those cards is incredible in its own right I sincerely believe that Walking Ballista is more important than all of them. Ravager Shops has regained its post as the top deck in the format by Daily Event finishes, and it's largely due to the power of the Ballista. 

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Workshops have been a great archetype all along, but they're especially good against several of the most dangerous decks in the current meta. Gush Mentor and Paradoxical Outcome combo both have the potential to defeat the MUD menace, but it is surely an uphill battle to say the least. Because of this I've noticed a trend of people picking up lesser-played strategies in an effort to "next level" the latest crop of Ravager Shops builds. Just recently a Daily Event featured two different BUG Fish decks (or "Sultai Salmon" if we're using the modern-day vernacular).

Sultai Salmon (BUG Fish)

The two BUG Fish decks shown above aren't identical, but the core of the list is the same. The archetype is built upon a rock-solid mana base, Null Rod (main deck or sideboard), Wastelands, Deathrite Shaman, and Abrupt Decay

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The combination of cheap threats, mana producers, and an ample land count make it difficult for a Workshop deck to lock the Fish deck out. Since these decks are also heavily into blue they get to utilize Force of Will and the rest of the broken blue Vintage spells. This is a very powerful combination, and the only thing that's ever really held these decks down is that their draw engines haven't been the best in the format. 

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In the past BUG Fish decks always ran four copies of Dark Confidant, and that was their big draw engine. "Bob" provided the deck a cheap attacker that kept the cards flowing. Dark Confidant also happened to be decent against Workshops decks as it can be cast through a Thorn of Amethyst. Unfortunately, Dark Confidant comes with its own set of issues. in the current meta with Walking Ballista wrecking low-toughness creatures I suspect that Dark Confidant is quite poorly positioned. 

Dark Confidant also damages you each turn, so it's risky to play too many expensive spells. The inclusion of Dark Confidant didn't allow the Fish decks to play Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time. Cruise and Dig are powerful, yet very likely lethal when "drawn" with Dark Confidant. For these reasons the latest batch of BUG Fish decks have been going "Bobless" in favor of a newer card-drawing spell.

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Painful Truths has seen fringe Vintage play since it was printed, but it has never been widely adopted. I think that it's always been a great card, but it has a few limiting factors. Painful Truths is just not as good as Gush in the abstract,so it has to be adopted into a deck that can't be designed to properly utilize Gush. Second, the card has to go in a three-color deck. Technically you can fuel Painful Truths with just an Island and off-color Moxen, but it's not guaranteed to work. Nothing sucks worse than having your Painful Truths turned into a Divination because you only drew two colors of mana. 

Even with its limitations there are some significant benefits to using Painful Truths as your draw engine. The biggest boon is that by trading Dark Confidant for Painful Truths you are now free to run the two best draw spells in Vintage not named Ancestral Recall. Cruise and Dig are so good that it's nearly criminal to not play them in a deck with blue mana. Running Truths instead of playing a Gush package means that you don't have to worry about how many Islands you're using. That means that you can use non-blue dual lands, Wasteland, and basic Forests and Swamps without a care in the world. In a format where Workshops is doing well it pays to have a deck that can sport basic lands and their own copies of Wasteland

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Another thing that I like about these BUG decks is that they get to play Trygon Predator. Trygon hasn't been seeing a lot of play in Vintage lately, but if you're running a deck that can support the color requirement it's a solid choice. Trygon is obviously great against Workshops, but it can do a lot of work against other decks too. Most decks in the format have some artifacts in them that are worth destroying. Against Oath decks if you can resolve a Trygon Predator before an Oath of Druids hits the battlefield, it's very hard for the opponent to ever activate their Oath. 

If you had asked me about BUG Fish a year ago I probably would have said it wasn't the best deck to be playing. Things have certainly changed since then, and I think it's in a much better position now than it was previously. The archetype is good against Workshops, it has Null Rods for Paradoxical Outcome, and it's even good against Oath. Oath of Druids is a good choice for battling against Shops, and I can tell you from experience that BUG Fish is tough on Oath. The combination of strong counters, efficient threats, and Abrupt Decay to take out the Oath itself makes the deck a nightmare for lovers of Griselbrand

Of course one of the biggest boons to BUG Fish is Leovold, Emissary of Trest. Leo is basically a three-mana hatebear for Gush strategies. The Gush Mentor decks can't do anything profitably without dealing with Leovold first, and Leo turns removal into a point of card advantage anyway! The abilities on Leovold also happen to line up well against Storm and Paradoxical Outcome combo. Any combo player who attempts to go off without dealing with Leovold first risks filling their opponent's hand full of cards and providing them with an answer. 

Snapcaster Gearhulk Control 

BUG Fish isn't the only recent Vintage deck to take advantage of Leovold, Emissary of Trest. Let's take a look at Rodrigo Togores' Four-Color Control deck from the Vintage Super League! 

This deck is very unorthodox to say the least. The main control decks in Vintage these days are variations of Landstill or Gush decks with oversized control packages and little to no creatures. On the fringes of the format there's Blue Moon as well as the various combo/control hybrids. Rodrogo's deck has very little in common with all of those with the exception of the removal and counters. 

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Most blue decks in the format play some number of cantrips, These spells help to dig you closer to stuff you need, and their low mana cost makes sure you have something to do in the early turns of the game. The decks that don't play cards like this usually use Standstill, Thirst for Knowledge, or something else to keep up a steady flow of new cards in hand. This deck eschews that type of play and instead it aims to play reactively during those turns. 

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There are three Mana Drains in the deck to go with the usual Force of Wills, Flusterstorms, and Mindbreak Traps. These cards should be able to stop most threats from resolving. If the opponent should manage to resolve a creature spell there's a health dose of removal spells to dispatch them in a hurry. Swords to Plowshares is the premier removal spell in Vintage these days as it kills pretty much anything. There's also a singleton Abrupt Decay that acts as an uncounterable answer to a wide variety of permanents. 

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The creature package here is also a bit unusual. In keeping with the theme we have everyone's favorite Legendary Elf Advisor, Leovold, Emissary of Trest. Then there's a full playset of Snapcaster Mages and a "fifth Snapcaster"; Torrential Gearhulk

Snapcaster Mage is powerful in any format where it's legal to play, but in Vintage it is especially broken. The defining feature of Vintage is the restricted list. These restricted cards are considered so powerful that the DCI doesn't allow more than one copy of each per deck. Recursive cards like Snapcaster basically make a mockery of the restricted list by allowing a player to cast Ancestral Recall twice in the same turn, or to take three turns in a row with Time Walk. Even when you're not replaying a Power Nine card there are things like Dig Through Time or Brainstorm to flash back. 

Torrential Gearhulk is basically the fifth Snapcaster in this deck, but it's also large enough to be a substantial threat. The Gearhulk is more limited than Snapcaster as it can only replay an Instant from your graveyard, but the spell becomes free to cast. Torrential Gearhulk is a great way to spend your Mana Drain mana as well. The blue Gearhulk isn't a popular Vintage card right now, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it become more of a player in the format some day. 

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Rodrigo's deck has some heavy color requirements as evidenced by the Supreme Verdict in the sideboard. Being in four colors is a boon for card selection but it does make things tricky when trying to assemble the proper mana base. The solution to that problem can be found in the three copies of Mana Confluence. Rainbow lands aren't played that often in Vintage as they don't mix well with the typical fetchland mana base, but they are very efficient color fixing. 

Mana Confluence enables this deck to play Abrupt Decay, Swords to Plowshares, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor in the same deck. The key to success with a control deck is having the best answers to all of the best threats you expect to face, and being in more colors definitely helps with that. You don't need to be in four colors to be a successful control deck though. Landstill is still a viable strategy in Vintage, and I think that Sultai Landstill could be be in a good position in the current metagame. 

Leovold's Sultai Landstill

This list is untuned, but it is merely meant to represent an idea. I took an existing Landstill deck from a tournament result and made room for Leovold, Emissary of Trest. While I would probably make some further changes to this configuration, I still think it is quite close to what a contemporary Sultai Landstill deck should look like. 

BUG Landstill already had most of the tools that it needed to be successful in the format. Leovold simply gives the deck one more way to stay ahead of the competition. If this deck is built with two or three Leovolds and the usual four Standstills it should have a lot of game against the cantrip-spewing Gush decks. 

Another important aspect of this type of control deck is that it drops Mana Drain completely. Mana Drain is quite possibly my favorite card that I always end up cutting from my decks. On the surface it seems like such a good card, but more often than not I end up wishing my Mana Drains were another counterspell when I'm actually playing a match. The problem is that it's much harder to hold up two blue mana than it seems. 

Sultai in Vintage

Sultai Landstill has a lot of the same cards as BUG Fish, and I think that's a good indication that it could be a good choice for a control deck in the current metagame. I don't think that playing a fourth color is necessary anymore either. Swords to Plowshares is still the best one-mana creature removal spell in the format, but BUG now has access to a similarly powerful card in Fatal Push

I know that there are some Vintage players who aren't very high on Fatal Push right now, but I still think it's very good. Most of the disdain for Fatal Push comes from the assumption that it is too difficult to trigger Revolt. The ability to trigger Revolt is important, but even without it the spell takes down some important creatures. The most important example I can find for Fatal Push being effective without Revolt is when you're facing down a Walking Ballista. Since the Ballista has X's in it's mana cost it is considered to have a converted mana cost of zero when it's in play, so it always dies to Fatal Push

Sultai decks happen to be built with an abnormally high number of ways to trigger revolt though. There's Wasteland and Strip Mine, fetch lands, Standstill (in some decks), Gush (in some decks), or even Sensei's Divining Top. There is a chance that you won't always be able to use Fatal Push for the maximum value, but I think you can safely run two copies and end up happy with that. 

Wasteland is another reason to play BUG colors. Many decks can utilize Wasteland, but land destruction is very much at home in BUG decks. I think that with all of the Workshops and Ancient Tombs in the current metagame it's a great time to be Wasting people. 

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Abrupt Decay has been underplayed for a long time in my opinion. The color combination of Decay hasn't been a popular choice for a long time and that has hurt the spell's playability tremendously. While it is true that a spell costing B/G isn't the easiest thing to cast in a blue-centered format, the effect of the spell is amazing. Short of Mindbreak Trap or Misdirection there isn't really a way to stop Abrupt Decay and that makes it a very powerful answer to a wide variety of threats. 

The Sultai-colored Fish and Landstill decks have existed for a long time, but it's almost as if they were tailor-made for the current metagame. I fully expect to see more decks in this vein in the coming weeks, so you'd better be prepared! 

That's all the time I have for this week, I'll see you in seven days. If you have any questions or comments you can find me on Magic Online, TMD, and Twitter @Islandswamp 

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