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By: stsung, Jaroslava Stefankova
Mar 21 2017 12:00pm
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After many failed attempts at figuring out how to tweak non-Mentor blue deck in Vintage to beat Mentor, Shops and Storm I decided to try to see the metagame from the non-blue side but I was reluctant in buying a non-blue deck. I knew though that the moment during which I'd snap and do something reckless would come. So it was no surprise that I used all my tix (I was amassing to buy a set of Rishadan Ports) to buy a deck - Shops.

I ordered Ravager Shops and threw in few Vehicles. This is exactly the deck I did not ever expect to buy on Magic Online because it does not suit my playstyle and in paper I'd never consider playing with it in an event. This deck is very proactive and does exactly the opposite of what I want to do in a game of Magic (sitting back and waiting for the right moment to strike). On the other hand, I have Shops built in paper and I played relatively often with it to see how it fares against Mentor, Delver or other Shop decks which gave me enough insight to know how to beat the deck. Thanks to this experience I wasn't afraid of throwing money down the drain when buying the deck. I knew that Ravager Shops is one of the best decks in Vintage and that I'm capable of piloting it to some extent and that it would allow me to learn more about Vintage and about Shop strategies and strategies used to fight this deck. It would also force me to use skills I'm not very comfortable using which also means they are not developed that well. Waging an attrition war comes naturally to me, but when it comes to counting damage and sacrificing artifacts to Arcbound Ravager I can just lose from a winning position because I can't often even process a board state with creatures and permanents on both sides of the table.

Shops in the past
Mishra's Workshop is one of the cards that was restricted during the year 1994 because simply it was a fast mana card that changed the tempo of the game unhealthily. In a 'no format' Magic of the time this seemed to be way too powerful. The card was unrestricted few years later (in 1997) though and players could start figuring out how to make this card even more broken. This way, since Artifacts cycle, Shop decks became a thing.

These decks are now classified as Workshop decks, with Mishra's Workshop being one of the five pillars of Vintage (more about Pillars of Vintage can be found in one of my previous articles - Introduction to Vintage). Shop decks weren't necessarily mono-brown (MUD) at first because there wasn't enough colorless artifacts at that time that could be used to put the deck together. But it was clear to everyone that artifacts would be getting stronger and stronger and one day the deck could be running just colorless artifacts. I think Wizards of the Coast saw that coming as well and that is also one of the reasons we have true colorless mana that is required to play certain cards (mostly Eldrazi). No one knew when this would happen and that is why players needed to look for colored spells that could help them make a solid Shops deck. Soon it was discovered that the best color to be teamed up with artifacts is not blue but rather red. Goblin Welder was certainly a card that called for being included in artifact heavy decks. 'Mox Monkey' (Gorilla Shaman) was also a card widely played as it eats Moxen for breakfast and can wreck the game for some decks totally.

 

In 2007 with the printing of Thorn of Amethyst there was no need to continue playing Red. Playing 9 Spheres meant that the Shops player also struggled to play their colored spells (since Mishra's Workshop can't pay for them). Switching to colorless artifacts only and playing Sphere effects enabled the deck to gain tempo. It is not tempo that is gained by getting ahead but rather by denying your opponent to get anywhere. You opponent under Sphere effects, Tangle Wires and Wastelands has a hard time to advance the game or even cast a single spell. Decks are usually built around casting spells that need to be paid with lands (or mana rocks). Attacking these sources is one of the ways to gain tempo and it is the strategy Shop decks embraced. The cards Shop decks use gain turns but do not lock the opponent completely out of the game and for that a card that can end the game is needed. That card could possibly be any artifact creature that can close the game soon - for example Juggernaut because it can close the game in 4 turns.

I was in the process of altering cards for Shops and few days before the restriction I finished a set of Lodestone Golems. I was sad to see this card go even though I was usually the one playing against it. During Legacy Challenge I played that month I realized how powerful the card is when your deck nor sideboard can't deal with artifacts fast enough. I finally felt how some players feel about the card, unfair and mercilessly killing you in 4 turns while you can't do much because of the Sphere effect printed on it.

When Worldwake came out everyone's focus was on Jace, the Mind Sculptor dominating everywhere the card could be played. Stoneforge Mystic, a second colossal mistake from Worldwake, found its way to other formats as well, stopping any aggressive decks it encountered. Lodestone Golem is now officially a third mistake from Worldwake as it was restricted almost a year ago.

Lodestone Golem is a Sphere effect but it shares the same power and toughness with Juggernaut. This card can close the game out in 4 turns! It is a very aggressive creature that can find its way into play often on turn 1 in a Shop deck and the opponent can have really hard time to find an answer in 3 turns. And if they do, they may not be able to even cast it.

Shops today
Today Shop decks are still one of the strongest decks in Vintage and come in several variants. The most common one is an aggressive version of this deck which is the most difficult for me to pilot and is the version I chose to try out.

Shop decks rely on their fast mana and tempo and they trade this for something else other decks utilize to achieve consistency. Shop decks have problems running some kind of a draw engine because Mishra's Workshop is not really well fit for a deck that can run colored spells that would allow drawing cards. These decks are not reactive and their plan is permanent based. This means that this deck in order to function needs to be more proactive than opponent's deck. A Shops pilot tries to deny their opponent to cast spells, land a threat and close the game with it.

A friend of mine asked me to join a Daily twice and I happened to play against him in the first round twice. Once it was Aggro Shops mirror but in the second case I faced Martello Shops. Thiim included Blightsteel Colossus in his deck (which isn't uncommon but many players started to cut the card because of ever present answers to it, these are not heavily present today though) and killed me with it on turn 3 because I was unable to assess his threats correctly.

There are two dominant variants of Shops - Aggro Shops and Prison Shops. Many of the cards present in both decks are the same but they are used differently in each archetype. You can easily distinguish Stax from Aggro Shops by seeing Smokestack in the decklist. If you play against it and your opponent does not seem to play creatures it is also likely you play against Stax rather than an Aggro Shops player that kept a bad hand.

Aggro Shops uses its lock pieces to slow their opponent down and deal 20 damage with creatures it runs. Historically, this deck was using Juggernaut to win the game but now we have a myriad of creatures that can do the job similarly fast. There are also new very versatile creatures that give the Shops player many possibilities to turn games gone wrong into a win. The newest addition - Walking Ballista - is certainly such a card. Certain Vehicle type cards also started to see play. It is not uncommon to see Fleetwheel Cruiser in Aggro Shops. This deck depends more on tempo since it cannot hard lock the opponent. If the tempo gained can't be turned into a win soon the deck will struggle because the draws of this deck can be pretty mediocre. All Shop decks rely on their opening 7 cards way more than any blue deck because they can't smooth their draws. That is the reason why a Shops pilot has to learn how to mulligan well.

This is also referred as 'Machine Gun' even though the original term refers to different cards - the combination of these cards still pings for one repeatedly.

Aggro Shops player should also familiarize themselves with the card Arcbound Ravager. This card adds a lot of versatility and value to the deck. It gives another function to not needed artifacts, it can deal lethal damage on its own by putting counters either on itself or on another card. When Ravager dies it can still move all the counters elsewhere (including animated Mishra's Factory). Putting +1/+1 counters on cards like Triskelion or Walking Ballista can end the game instantly or clear the board (requires quite some clicking) if needed.

Prison Shops or Stax decks can achieve a hard lock with its lock pieces. Smokestack, Crucible of Worlds, recurring Wasteland and some Sphere effects usually render opponents powerless. If they do not concede the game can be closed with a card like Karn, Silver Golem, Lodestone Golem or Phyrexian Revoker. This deck is also very dependent on its opening hand but it can often buy more time to draw the cards it needs to win the game.

The general strategy or rather aim of this deck is simple but that doesn't mean that playing the deck is easy because we can get into many different board positions. The pilot should do everything in order to keep the opponent off mana sources because an opponent playing spells can become a threat and kill you. This requires proactivity from the Shops pilot because at all costs the opponent should not get the chance to play something relevant. In order to use the lock pieces to its full potential or correctly one needs to know how to use the stack or stack the triggers correctly. Smokestack and Tangle Wire work well together and in your favor but only if the triggers are put on the stack in the right order. On Magic Online we have to put those triggers on the stack in the right order every single time, but in paper often players do not ask how you stacked them and count with the correct stacking from your part. If you are not yet used to stacking triggers in the correct way and you want to play Shops, learn it. Remember that effects put on the stack will resolve following the 'last in, first out' rule. Note also that we have something like APNAP rule when we speak about triggers. Here is an excerpt from Magic Judges blog explaining it.

[APNAP order rule]. Active Player, Non-active Player means that when there are multiple triggered abilities that are all trying to go on the stack at one time those controlled by the active player go on the stack first, followed by those controlled by the non-active player. If a single player controls more than one triggered ability, they go on the stack in the order that he or she chooses. Because of the way the stack works, those items on the top of the stack will resolve first. This means that triggers controlled by the non-active player will resolve first.


The biggest challenge will be to cast the spells in the right order. This may seem trivial to some but since this deck needs to proactively stop the opponent in casting spells or advancing their game plan this is something that is rather complex. When I was trying to play different kind of hatebear decks in Vintage I learned this the hard way. Even after a lot of time spent thinking about what play stops a deck at what it is good at doing I learned that I was often wrong. One play out of sequence is what made me lose many games. Shop decks are way more explosive and sometimes we have the means to correct our mistake but often we do not. Often we will find ourselves on the borderline of losing or winning the game so such a mistake can be devastating. A Shops player facing a blue deck will be asking themselves questions about whether the opponent is able to cast Force of Will or Mana Drain which makes the sequencing spells even harder. The general rule of the thumb though is to play a card that will hinder your opponent the most.

Note that you also need to be able to operate under your lock pieces. When playing Aggro Shops some players lock themselves out of a game, this is something one should avoid.

A third variant exists that runs a 'combo package'. It is also an aggressive version of a Shop deck but runs Kuldotha Forgemaster package and is known as Martello Shops. The deck tries to slow the game down with its lock pieces and then resolve Kuldotha Forgemaster. It is likely that the card resolves either because of the aforementioned lock pieces or Cavern of Souls. Then by sacrificing three artifacts a win condition can be found and put into play. Cards that are often played are Steel Hellkite and Sundering Titan.

This deck used to be very popular and be THE Shops deck but it lacks in speed that Ravager Shops has which is one of the reasons why this deck is not that popular nowadays. This deck was hit hard by the restriction of Chalice of the Void and Lodestone Golem. The printing of Hangarback Walker and Walking Ballista gave Arcbound Ravager decks way bigger edge over Martello Shops (and Stax). The deck is still strong and has all the means to fight through a tournament though. So if this deck suits you there is no reason not to play it.

Shops decks are very strong decks that were built to fight blue decks (notably Gush decks) but in reality it fights any deck that tries to cast spells. This brown menace is so strong that decks need to board in many cards to fight it. Many decks will be running a lot of artifact hate in the form of cheap spot removal spells like Ancient Grudge, Ingot Chewer, Nature's Claim, Fragmentize. Others will play cards like Hurkyl's Recall or even Pulverize or Serenity. Kataki, War's Wage, Energy Flux are not uncommon. A Shops player needs to keep a certain tempo, to keep the opponent off that one mana they need on each of their turns. This way they can often avoid these cards or postpone them. Hurkyl's Recall is a blow-out for Shops. This card is unavoidable but what the Shops player can do is force the player to play it at a moment they don't want to use the card but have to otherwise they would lose the game. This means that the Shops player needs to proactively put pressure on their opponent and force them to play on their terms.

After all I wrote you may have the impression that Shops is the strongest deck in Vintage. Many players would most probably agree but we still play Magic, a game of variance where each deck has its strong points and weak points. Shops has its weaknesses too. The biggest enemy to Shops are Oath of Druids decks. Oath of Druids is a cheap threat that can be played on turn 1 or can slip through Spheres. In order to win the Shops player then need to keep the board clear of creatures but still somehow manage to win. The ideal cards to help deal 20 damage against Oath decks are Mishra's Factory or a Vehicle. Walking Ballista is also a card that can deal relevant points of damage. This deck as any other should also be ready for Dredge. 4 Grafdigger's Cages are necessary to fight Oath which also doubles as graveyard hate, but even more graveyard hate should be included. The biggest challenge might be piloting Shops against other Shops decks. When playing a mirror match or playing against other Thorn deck Shops become a totally different deck because the game will be played on a totally different level. Shops mirrors are very intricate and show how complex the decks are.

Shops decks were designed to fight Gush decks. Thorn decks (because there are other decks running Thorn of Amethyst-like cards, for example Eldrazi or White Eldrazi) are very important in keeping Vintage metagame balanced. It keeps other deck archetypes in check so we can enjoy a variety of decks. Without it the format would go haywire. Playing against Shops may not be the most pleasant experience for many, but take it as a challenge. New players (not Vintage ones) have hard time accepting even a card like Counterspell. They do not like it when their spells get countered but are fine with their spells being destroyed. Shops is similar to that Counterspell. When the new player gets more experience they will learn that there is a way how to fight counterspells even though if they do not run them themselves. They will eventually learn how to wage an attrition war and win against control. Some will even start to like this kind of game, some won't but the players will learn there is way more to casting counterspells than actually casting the card. We need to learn how to fight Shops too. We need to be prepared for them, not underestimate the deck and then we can play many interesting and rewarding games. If you are on a deck running 2 Flusterstorms, 4 Mental Missteps you really should play cards against Shops that can replace these cards. The archetype is often misunderstood and there is a myth being told - people think it is easy deck to pilot and is often recommended to new players. While a new player can achieve relatively good results meaning they won't be utterly crushed, I wouldn't recommend this deck to new players if they want to understand the metagame deeper. A new player has to first learn what tempo can look like in this format. Without this knowledge there is no way how to correctly play Shops because we won't be able to control the game. Controlling the tempo with Shops is crucial because that is how it operates (if I omit the fact that you find yourself with a really explosive hand, usually containing fast mana and Mishra's Workshop).

This deck is anything but easy to pilot. The decision trees that we face with this deck in our hands are huge and depend on many information that is in most cases hidden and requires the knowledge of the Vintage metagame. Choosing the right decision tree and sequencing our spells is not easy. If you don't see what the deck is capable of, I'd recommend trying it out. It covers so many skills a player may need in Magic that it is worth learning more about this deck. Even if you won't like the deck it will allow you to look at the metagame from a different perspective and will help you understand the balance there is thanks to this deck archetype. We all need Shops to exist, even if we don't like them.