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Vintage 101: Thieves!


Introduction

The weekly format challenges have begun on Magic Online, and the first of the Vintage events occurred this past weekend. Other than a problem with the Top Eight, the event was a success. Apparently the event was accidentally programmed without a cut to Top Eight and the event simply ended after the scheduled Swiss rounds. Eventually Wizards came up with a fix for the issue and the Top Eight did occur, so all was not lost. 

In the past I have covered these events in detail. Generally I briefly discuss most or all of the top decks. Although I believe that the "shotgun" approach to covering those events has its place, I also feel remiss by not breaking each deck down further. Since these events are going to be occurring weekly from this point forward, I have decided to try something different this time. I have chosen to feature the deck that won the event, and I'll go into much deeper detail about it in this article. 

The Greatest Thieves in the Multiverse

The first weekly Vintage Challenge event ended up being won by Grixis Thieves, a deck that hasn't seen widespread popularity since Robert Greene took second place with it at the 2015 Vintage Championships. Here's Robert's 2015 list for comparison purposes:

The winning pilot was mourning palace and they were playing an updated Thieves list. It's worth noting that Greene's 2015 list only ran one Thirst for Knowledge as it was restricted at the time, and mourning palace's deck could have played four copies yet included none at all!

There are a fair amount of differences between these two builds of Grixis Thieves but the central core of the concept remains unchanged. This is a "big blue" combo/control hybrid. Mana Drains, Force of Wills, Mental Misstep, and Flusterstorms comprise the bulk of the control package. The combo part of the deck focuses on classic Vintage staples like Tinker, Time Vault, Blightsteel Colossus, and of course Yawgmoth's Will

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Decks such as this have existed for a long time, and they can be traced back to 2008 when Time Vault received it's current errata, making it an infinite turn combo with Voltaic Key. Tezzeret, the Seeker was printed around this time as well, and Tezz played a central role in this archetype. Grixis Thieves is a subsequent evolution of this archetype and it is named for another combo that is featured prominently within. 

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Dack Fayden and Notion Thief give this deck another angle of attack beyond the Vault/Key and Blightsteel Tricks. Dack's plus one ability can target the opponent, and with a Notion Thief in play the net effect is "your opponent discards two cards and you draw two cards." This combo only creates a soft lock, but with support from the many counterspells and Jace, the Mind Sculptor it's quite possible to stay in control and coast to victory. 

The Big Blue Mana Base

In order to support the mana requirements of a deck such as this the mana base is constructed in a specific manner. The trend of trimming lands and running only on-color Moxen that existed during the Gush era simply does not work here. These decks want all five Moxen and more. Sol Ring is important, as is Mana Crypt. This deck doesn't run Paradoxical Outcome or Thoughtcast so it doesn't need to go overboard with the artifact mana, but it does need more than just a few pieces. The artifact mana also helps to power up another important part of the mana base, Tolarian Academy

Tolarian Academy is excellent here as it allows the deck's powerful bombs to come into play much earlier than would otherwise be possible. Playing two Moxen, an Academy, and then windmill-slamming a Jace, the Mind Sculptor on turn one is no joke!

Beyond splashy plays like turn one Mind Sculptors, Tolarian Academy does much more than that. It is critical for Grixis Thieves to have two blue mana available as quickly as possible because it has Mana Drain after all. Usually two to four Drains are used in in these decks, and you don't want them rotting in your hand. 

The extra artifact mana and Tolarian Academy is also very helpful against the various mana-taxing effects in the format. Academy is obviously soft to Wasteland, but if used correctly it can assist in casting a life-saving Hurkyl's Recall before it gets wasted. 

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The rest of the mana base consists of the typical Dual land/Fetch land mana base and a pair of utility lands. Strip Mine is included in the list as it answers problematic lands cheaply and effectively, and the colorless mana it makes is easy to make use of. The other important utility land is my second-favorite land of all time...

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Library of Alexandria is an extremely powerful tool for a control deck to have. By carefully sequencing your extra draws and land drops it is possible to keep drawing extra cards many turns into a game. All of these extra cards are free, costing only a single turn's land drop to utilize. Library also happens to be one of the major reasons that these decks play Strip Mine. Library of Alexandria can be a very powerful card in a blue mirror, so it's vital to have an effective answer to it. 

Control

As I mentioned before Grixis Thieves is a control deck, and as such it runs the counters that you'd expect to see. "Control" as a concept isn't limited to counterspells though. Removal spells are a kind of control card, as are some planeswalkers. Beyond the eleven counters that this list is running there are also two Dack Faydens and two Jace, the Mind Sculptors. 

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The primary goal of these two 'Walkers is to create card advantage, but both of them also have removal-like abilities that lend themselves well to control strategies. Dack's "Steal Artifact" ability and Jace's bounce are both good against many decks in the format. Against Oath decks, Jace can bounce Griselbrand or Emrakul. In mirror matches Dack can steal an opponent's Blightsteel Colossus or Time Vault as well. Sometimes just using a Jace to bounce an opponent's Monastery Mentor for one turn is enough. 

The version of this deck that mourning palace won with does happen to lack main-deck removal though. That is a valid personal choice, but in my opinion it is important to play at least one or two main-deck removal spells (if not more). Robert Greene's deck ran Lightning Bolts and Dismembers to deal with the Young Pyromancers and Delvers that were popular in 2015 Vintage. Nowadays with White Eldrazi and creature-based Workshop decks being so prevalent I feel that removal is even more vital than it has been in the past. 

Mourning palace's deck does have Toxic Deluge in the sideboard as well as Sulfur Elemental. This does give the list some ways to deal with a Monastery Mentor in post sideboard games. In game one this deck will have to rely on only Force of Will and Mana Drains to stop any problematic creatures, and those six cards might not be enough. 

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Combo

Tinker. Yawgmoth's Will, Voltaic Key, Time Vault, and Blightsteel Colossus comprise the instant-win combo portion of Grixis Thieves. Haymaker cards like these are extremely powerful and can threaten to win games out of nowhere, but that explosiveness comes at a price. Most of the combo pieces are useless by themselves so drawing the wrong ones at inopportune times can be devastating. In addition, if an opponent knows which cards are more important to stop in a particular game state they can gain an advantage. 

The Time Vault package also suffers a weakness to artifact destruction and Null Rod effects. This particular list can still win through a Null Rod, but it does make things more difficult when eleven cards in your deck no longer have any text on them. 

This Grixis list does have the aforementioned eleven counters, so it's quite possible to force through your combo plan that way. Blightsteel and the two planeswalkers can also act as win conditions that don't lose to Null Rod, so all is not lost. 

Card Advantage

One of the biggest differences in mourning palace's list when compared to contemporary decks is that the much of the card advantage comes from permanents. There are zero copies of Thirst for Knowledge to be found here, although there is the miser's Gush

There are enough restricted draw spells to comprise a decent-sized card advantage package. When you take into account the four planeswalkers and Library of Alexandria, there are around seventeen ways to sculpt a game-winning hand. Six of these cards are permanent-based (four 'walkers, Library of Alexandria, and Sensei's Divining Top) so the deck should feel comfortable playing the long game if need be. 

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The oddball spell in this category is Timetwister. It's included in this build as it is absurdly powerful with Notion Thief, but on its own it can be very counterproductive. Aside the games where you're able to play multiple Moxen on turn one followed by Timetwister it is generally bad to play a draw-seven effect in a control deck. 

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The Combo/Control Spectrum

The term combo/control is used quite often in Vintage, but it is kind of a misnomer. Except for a few decks like Dark Petition Storm, most decks with a "combo finish" run at least a few counterspells too. The thing that ultimately makes the difference between the various combo/control decks is where they fall on the spectrum of combo versus control. 

A pure control deck would be something like Moat Control or Landstill. Pure combo would be Dark Petition Storm, as it has no Force of Wills. Right next to Petition Storm would be something like Mono Blue Belcher or Paradoxical Storm. Both Belcher and Paradoxical Storm have Force of Wills, but they don't have much more than that in the way of counters (usually a few Mental Missteps or if anything at all). 

Looking at mourning palace's list I would put this deck towards the middle of the combo/control spectrum. Eleven counterspells isn't a small amount, but considering that there aren't any removal spells I feel that this deck is much less controlling than say, Landstill (with or without Dark Depths). Still, this list seems to lean closer to pure control than a Thoughtcast deck like Tezzcast or a Paradoxical Outcome build.

There are benefits and disadvantages to being at any point along the spectrum of course. The closer you are to the pure combo side, the fewer cards you will have to force through your game plan, or to stop your opponent's sideboard cards. The closer you are to the pure control side the less explosive your deck can be. It has been said that in Magic there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers (control spells). The fact that Grixis Thieves leans closer towards the combo side of the spectrum is, in all likelihood, very advantageous. Grixis Thieves gets to play some of the most broken cards ever printed, but it also has room for a robust mana base and sizeable counterspell package. 

All in all I think this deck has potential in the current metagame, but I think that it needs to be built with a better plan against creatures to be successful in the long term. Monastery Mentor might be able to be ignored and raced in some situations, but you simply cannot say the same thing about Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or the Arcbound Ravager/Walking Ballista combo. Some of the best threats that contemporary prison decks have are creature-based, and not having reliable answers to them can be extremely problematic. 

If I was going to pick up this list, I would make a few very minor adjustments and try them out to see how it goes. Mostly I'd just try two main-deck removal spells, Scalding Tarns, and a Mountain in the sideboard. I would most likely need to tune it more afterwards, but that is where I would start. I want to stress that this is simply my opinion; your millage may very. 

Lightning Bolt might not seem that great, but I firmly believe that it is important to be able to answer a Thalia, Lodestone Golem, or Phyrexian Revoker at a reasonable rate. Some people might prefer Sudden Shock as it is better against Monastery Mentor, but the two damage for two mana just isn't very good against every other creature in the format. Bolt also has the ability to take out an opposing Jace or Dack, so it's reasonable in the mirror. Also Lightning Bolt can be used to steal an opposing Blightsteel Colossus if you manage to get a Dack Fayden emblem. I considered Fatal Push for this slot, but ultimately I decided that the utility of Bolt was more important, especially since I didn't allow for much more removal. 

Lightning Bolt is also an easy cut against decks where it's not good, so it isn't messing up the deck all that much to have two copies here. It's also possible to take out a Monastery Mentor with a Bolt, even if it seems impossible. It isn't always possible of course, but my plan used to be to fight over the Mentor with every counterspell I had available and hopefully my opponent wouldn't have anything left to counter the Bolt (or re-trigger the Prowess), and I'd immediately try to kill the Mentor. Without Gush and Gitaxian Probe as four-ofs this plan should be slightly more viable. 

As I mentioned earlier, Grixis Thieves is more towards the control end of the combo/control spectrum. This means that the deck doesn't have as high of a percentage of turn one or turn two wins as something like Belcher or Paradoxical Combo/Mentor might have. This is exactly why I feel the deck does need at least a small amount of removal. If your plan is to just "go off" before that Mentor or army of albino Eldrazi kills you, it just won't be very reliable. 

Beyond simply staying alive to play your broken spells lies the issue of the four planeswalkers in the deck. If your only defense for those planeswalkers is two copies of Notion Thief and a Blightsteel then it's going to be tough to get the incremental value that those planeswalkers are there to provide. 

Conclusion

I had predicted that big blue combo/control could make a comeback in an earlier article, but I was honestly somewhat surprised to see this exact list do so well. I imagined that people would try to pick up Thirst for Knowledge again, and mourning palace's victory appears to indicate that Thirst is not important to this deck. It will take more than one event to really decide whether or not this style of Grixis Thieves will be a lasting contender in the metagame, but it certainly will be interesting to watch it all unfold. 

I believe that it is very possible to build Grixis Thieves to have a positive matchup against Workshops. There's a robust mana base and Hurkyl's Recall is very good in this deck. Hurkyl's Recall is a great answer to someone trying to alpha strike with a hungry Arcbound Ravager, and there are enough combo cards in the list to enable a win in the one-turn window it provides. Dack Fayden isn't quite as good against Ravager Shops as it was against Forgemaster builds, but it's still very powerful there. 

I'm unsure of the matchup versus White Eldrazi, but I think that one is solvable too. Cards like Engineered Explosives can be key in that matchup as it can take out Thorn of Amethyst and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben with one activation. Engineered Explosives is also useful against sphere effects simply because of the way that sunburst works under mana-taxing situations. If you take notice of the tweaked build I posted you will see that I exchanged Toxic Deluge for the Explosives for this exact reason (that and it's great against Workshops too!). 

The color red is another reason to play a deck like this. The inclusion of red allows Grixis Thieves to play with some important cards against Workshops, like Ingot Chewer. It also enables the deck to utilize things like Pyroblast which are important against other blue decks. 

I'm excited by this victory for big blue, and I hope to see more from this archetype in the future. It's refreshing to see an archetype that was all but dead rise from the ashes and take down an event. Hopefully we see even more sweet decks rise from the ashes of the Gush restriction! 

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

 


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