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Vintage 101: More Power!

Gimme More Power!

In last week's Vintage 101 I mentioned that Lee Sharpe and the Magic Online team had some upcoming news for all of us eternal format players. That particular announcement was released after I submitted my article so I was not able to include any of that info. Now that the info is out, I can say that it is indeed fantastic news for Vintage players!

Starting on May 20th players will be able to play in weekly format challenges! That means Commander, Pauper, Legacy, and Vintage, will all have a large weekly event with fantastic prizes. The Power Nine Challenge has been a popular event for the Vintage community on Magic Online and now we're getting them three more times a month. The prizes are better too; the events pay out in Treasure Chests and Play Points plus sealed sets of Standard-legal expansions (for top finishers). The new prize structure equates to more value than it did when the top finishers received a Power Nine card as part of their prize package. I'll admit that winning Power Nine cards was a neat idea, but adding more of these restricted cards to the card pool each month ended up dropping their value and had a negative impact on the EV of the events. 

The other crazy-cool thing about these events is that the minimum number of players needed for participation is only eight! It is a sad fact that in the past some Vintage Daily Events failed to fire, but if each of those events had only needed eight or more players to fire then they would have gone off without a hitch. Oh, and these tournaments pay out prizes down to the top 32. If you finish between 17th -32nd place you'll win your 250 play point entry fee back. So if for some reason these events don't attract a lot of people then your chance to win at least your entry fee back is extremely high!

I hope that these events are successful, and I have a hard time imaging them not doing well. I also sincerely hope that these get the Vintage format to grow even more online and that it ends up giving us the "critical mass" needed to host a thriving Vintage league. With weekly premiere-level Vintage events I think that the loss of Daily Events would sting less for those that cherished them. Whatever happens, I'm happy about these changes. 

The Red and Blue

The community seems to be picking up on the "Harsh Delver" archetype as of late, even though an optimal list has yet to coalesce completely. The Atog Lord took a version of this archetype to a 4-0 finish recently, albeit with only two copies of Harsh Mentor

The Atog Lord's build is more focused on "Pillar Effects." There's four copies of Eidolon of the Great Revel and a pair of Scab-Clan Berserkers to compliment the pair of Harsh Mentors. 

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Aside from Sulfur Elemental, all of the damage sources in this deck are cheap and efficient. Delver of Secrets and Lightning Bolt offer a great rate and help to close out games quickly. If Eidolon of the Great Revel manages to resolve it is worth at least two damage for two mana, and it can often deal much more than that. Scab-Clan Berserker is the only other card that costs more than two in the main deck, but if it connects and becomes Renowned it will likely deal quite a bit of damage for that relatively small mana investment. 

In my opinion this is one of the best builds of Harsh Mentor that I have seen. One of the problems with playing decks like this is that they're not very broken and sometimes combo decks can just close out games much faster. The Atog Lord's version has some built-in protections against combo though. Eidolons and Berserkers are dangerous hate cards when played against Storm or Paradoxical Outcome combo. 


(Mana) Drain You

Mana Drain is arguably the most iconic Counterspell variant ever printed. As a matter of fact, once upon a time Mana Drain was so ubiquitous in Vintage that people named entire websites after the card. 

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Unfortunately for lovers of Mana Drain there have been many new and powerful Counterspells printed in the last seventeen years. Cards like Spell Pierce and Flusterstorm are less versatile than Drain, but they're also much more efficient and potent in the right situations. Mental Misstep is barely similar to Mana Drain at all but it tends to take up space that would have been devoted to the classic Legends icon.

The Vintage metagame has evolved to the point where it is often difficult to leave two blue mana untapped at all times. Also, in the situations where you are able to hold up two blue mana you could find yourself losing the "stack battle" anyway because your opponent has something like Flusterstorm or Mindbreak Trap. Still, even though Mana Drain has its limitations it is an amazing card. 

Mana Drain is one of the few Vintage-playable cards that has no limits on what spells it can counter. The only other commonly used universal counter is Force of Will, and we all know that Force can be a drain on our hand size. Most Vintage decks lean heavily on Force of Will to counter the many artifact and creature threats that the prison decks utilize, and trading two-for-one again and again simply isn't feasible in the long run. The two mana that Mana Drain costs isn't all that much to pay, especially when countering a large spell to give the Drain pilot a big tempo boost. 

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The metagame is still settling down after the Gush restriction, but I have noticed more copies of cards like Thirst for Knowledge or Jace, the Mind Sculptor popping up. Both spells play very well with Mana Drain as they are good mana sinks for all of that sweet, sweet mana you're draining! Instant-speed draw spells like Thirst for Knowledge, Gifts Ungiven, or even Paradoxical Outcome also play well with Mana Drain. You can hold up mana during your opponent's turn to threaten a Drain, and if your opponent passes the turn without playing anything worth countering you can always play one of your draw spells. 

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I have not seen many pilots playing Mana Drain in Monastery Mentor decks, but that is a combination that I think deserves exploration. I have tried running Drains in my Mentor decks in the past and Monastery Mentor does make a decent mana sink for your extra colorless mana. Additionally, when you're able to cast a Mentor on your turn by tapping only a single Tundra, it frees up the rest of your mana for making tokens or countering spells. 

It's still too early to tell if the small resurgence in Mana Drain decks will be part of a bigger and lasting trend, but I'm excited to see where it goes. In the mean time let's take a look at a few of the Mana Drain decks that have popped up in recent weeks. Up first we have an interesting one that features Paradoxical Outcome and Tendrils of Agony.

In a deck such as this Mana Drain can be used to make extra mana for casting Paradoxical Outcome. The cards drawn with Outcome translate into a higher storm count, which leads to a sudden and untimely death by Tendrils of Agony

This particular deck reminds me of the deck that the European Vintage players refer to as "Supremacy," only with Paradoxical Outcome in place of Gifts Ungiven. This list also omits the Time Vault and Voltaic Key combo in favor of Tendrils of Agony. Both decks play Force of Wills, Mana Drains, and a few other counters, so the control package is fairly substantial for a deck with such explosive combo potential. 

This next list also uses Mana Drain and Paradoxical Outcome, but it is a control deck without a true combo finish. The lack of combo cards doesn't mean that the deck has nothing impressive to do: the Mindslaver effect of Emrakul, the Promised End is pretty amazing when you pull it off. 

I think it's pretty cool that this deck is using Drains and Outcomes simply as value cards. In recent history Mana Drain has been mostly seen in Landstill decks and Paradoxical Outcome has been in combo decks the vast majority of the time. 

The creatures in this deck are also really neat. 

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Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir is a beast of a card. Once you have Teferi on board your opponent can't counter anything you play. The fact that all of your creatures gain flash seems slightly less relevant, but I'm sure it has plenty of advantages too. 

The other creatures in the deck all have "enter the battlefield" effects. Effects like this provide a great value in most situations, but when you factor in the play set of Paradoxical Outcomes, it gets downright degenerate. Trinket Mage helps you find important artifacts, and it provides two permanents for Paradoxical Outcome. Snapcaster Mage can replay Outcome and act as a permanent to bounce for an extra card. Once you start chaining enough of these draw spells and putting more and more artifact mana into play you should be able to cast Emrakul, the Promised End and ruin your opponent's day completely! 

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Emrakul is quite tough to deal with and a thirteen-power flyer with trample ends games in a hurry. You may not even need to attack with Emrakul because the Mindslaver ability could potentially end a game on the spot. The mana cost of Emrakul is likely to be reduced by several points by the time you're ready to cast it. This deck also has Tolarian Academy and Mana Drain to help it ramp up its mana and cast an Emrakul. 

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Another interesting aspect of the way this deck is built is the mana base. There's a lot of artifact mana to power Paradoxical Outcome and Tolarian Academy. but the list still isn't completely dead to a Stony Silence. This list is almost entirely blue and there are four basic Islands in the deck. All of those extra basic lands provide protection against Wasteland and they ensure that the pilot can still play spells through a Null Rod effect. The one Tundra in the list is there solely to support the sideboard Containment Priests. 

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There's also three copies of Cavern of Souls as well. That card is a little unexpected in a deck such as this, but I can't argue with the power it provides. With Cavern, you can force through your Teferi, leaving your opponent helpless to stop anything else you do. This trick also works with the rest of your creatures as they are all human (with the exception of Emrakul, the Promised End). 


One Giant Misstep

I am firmly in favor of the most recent restrictions, even though I also very much enjoyed playing with the two restricted cards (Gush and Probe). I don't believe that a deck has to necessarily meet some arbitrary criteria for dominance in order for a card to be restricted. Gush, in my opinion, warped the format tremendously, and it's restriction was justified.

Things in Magic, as in life, are rarely black and white. They are subtle shades of grey. The Vintage format may not have been as simple as "Gush decks versus anti-[Gush]]" exactly; there were technically more forces at work than just two. However, I feel confident that the Gush versus Prison deck dynamic took up the most of the space in the room. Most of the time it felt like people were either playing Gush or a prison deck (like Shops or Eldrazi), and the rest of the format was almost ignored. When you'd tune a deck you had to take into account that most of your matchups where going to be either Gush or prison. So you either played one of those two options or you tried (and often failed) to find something that could consistently beat those two opposing forces. The restriction of Gush will hopefully serve to de-homogenize the blue decks in the format enough to provide for a more interesting and varied metagame. 

The restriction of Gitaxian Probe actually makes much less sense to me. Personally I don't think that Probe warped the format the way Gush did. The free cantrip, perfect information, and storm-count building of Gitaxian Probe was very good though, so I'm not sad to see it restricted either. I do think, however, that Wizards of the Coast hit on something when they restricted Probe. They admitted that "free spells" were a problem to a degree, and I think that they're right. There is another famous mistake still running rampant around the Vintage format, and it too is Phyrexian in nature. 

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It is my humble opinion that Mental Misstep is one of the most format-warping cards that is currently unrestricted. Truth be told Mental Misstep is probably more format-warping than Gush was. I don't have the exact figures, but I bet that there were more decks playing three or four copies of Misstep than playing 3 or four copies of Gush. Just like Gitaxian Probe, Mental Misstep breaks a fundamental rule of Magic. Spells are supposed to cost mana (for the most part). Free spells can be dangerous because any deck can use and abuse them. Misstep also breaks the color pie as it gives any deck the ability to reliably play a counterspell.

Vintage, like all eternal formats, is based around the most efficient cards available. This drive for efficient cards translates into an abundance of one drops, which in turn makes Mental Misstep even more powerful. People play Mental Misstep to counter their opponent's important spells and protect their own spells from their opponent's Missteps! This creates a vicious cycle where you feel punished for playing less than three or four copies of the card. Some folks have tried to avoid this pitfall by not playing any (or many) one drops, but that leaves you excluding some pretty important cards...

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The number of good targets for Mental Misstep is astounding...

You might be wondering why this is such a problem if everyone can play their own copies of this card. Well, the problem is that you practically have to play Mental Misstep or get crushed by another blue deck. Each Misstep in your deck equates to another brick to draw when you're facing Workshops or Eldrazi. When you factor in commonly-played blue spells like Flusterstorm and Pyroblast, many blue decks end up having eight or more cards to sideboard out when facing Prison. 

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Prison Decks usually have one target for Mental Misstep if you're lucky.

Before Mental Misstep, people used to play cards like Spell Pierce and Spell Snare. Both of those cards are decent and efficient counterspells, and they can both counter at least some of the cards in a Workshop or Eldrazi deck. I also mentioned earlier that Mental Misstep takes up space that could go to something like Mana Drain, and that could help blue fight against prison decks as well. 

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Spell Pierce and Spell Snare also have enough targets against blue decks to make them somewhat useful there as well. The problem is that both spells get clobbered by a tapped-out opponent with.... you guessed it, a Mental Misstep in hand. This is a prime example of how tuning a blue deck to be better against Prison makes your matchups against other blue decks worse. 

Every single Magic format has taken action against Mental Misstep except Vintage. I think it may be time for the DCI to take a good, hard look at what this Phyrexian counterspell does to our format. The only reason I'm not more adamant about wanting to see Misstep restricted is that I admit the card has saved me from a blow-out on many occasions. Mental Misstep does offer a good way to stop your opponent's turn one on-the-play Ancestral Recall. Then there's the issue of Dark Ritual-based Storm combo; Misstep is instrumental in keeping that deck in check in my opinion. 

I'd like to make this clear; I am not advocating for a restriction of Mental Misstep per se. We just barely had two restrictions recently, and the format is still settling down from that. What I am saying, though, is that I think the DCI should put Mental Misstep on a watch list. If the DCI uses the same logic behind restricting Gush in regards to Mental Misstep, then it might be a good idea to take some action there. 

That's all the time I have for this week, I'll see you in seven days! Follow me on Twitter @Islandswamp -- Islandswamp on Magic Online and TMD

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