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By: wappla, wappla
May 09 2016 12:00pm
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People talk about “beating Shops” or “beating Mentor” as if they were defending queen and country against foreign invaders. This isn’t the Battle of Britain. No assortment of sixty cards is any more Good or Evil than another. 

But we love to personify decks. We talk about Workshops like the Big Bad Wolf, personified perfectly by Lodestone Golem— lumbering, graceless, and overpowering. And then we talk about Gush and Mentor like it’s an Orwellian Big Brother, cold and mindless and monotonous card advantage. It’s something about all those faceless acolytes. I mean just look at that art.

You don’t have to work too hard to hate that monk. Monastery Mentor is such a fantastic expression of what the color white looks like when it’s overpowered. Mentor is white weenie in the nuclear age. He’s the perfect white version of Ancestral Recall. For many Vintage players, a format with so much creature combat is unnerving. Something just seems off. When everything is too perfect, you get this nausea. Complaints pruned the format of all the unpleasant cards, Golem and Chalice. Everything is great now! You can play Sylvan Mentor or you can play Jeskai Mentor. Freedom is Slavery. What's more white than dystopia?

Bad Cards

Illness in the Ranks will never be a playable card in Vintage, and Virulent Plague is worse. Dread of Night is marginally better than either, but only in the way spilling a glass of water is marginally better than spilling a glass of milk.

Illness in the Ranks and Dread of Night and all those awful cards are so awful because you are spending mana and you aren’t doing anything. It’s actually worse than not spending mana at all. The opportunity cost of a card in your deck and cost of the mana spent to cast it are both high, and these cards make you pay both price tags. When you cast Dread of Night you are paying a card and a mana to do incredibly little. If you want to be down a card and a mana you should play Imperial Seal and go get your damn win condition.

Fittingly, the rise of Mentor and of white in Vintage has corresponded with the decline of black. Outside of Dark Petition Storm, which sits on a respectable second tier, black is quite weak. Oath with black cards is not in a good place right now. BUG isn’t much better. Grixis Tinker decks have been outclassed for a year. The respectable black cards like Demonic Tutor and Abrupt Decay are overcosted. Demonic Tutor is almost certainly still good enough, but paying two mana for card selection is weak most of the time, even when that selection is unlimited. 

Part of why I have so much disdain for Illness of the Ranks, Dread of Night, et al, is that they get played in decks that should be trying to win faster than Mentor, not slower. Stop being a coward and race! Part of what makes these cards so bad is that they are being cast off Underground Seas. The whole point of playing a deck with black mana is that you have access to Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Thoughtseize, and Yawgmoth’s Will. I once played against a tragically misguided Storm player who resolved Vampiric Tutor on my end step and proceeded to untap, draw, and cast Illness in the Ranks.

Even the fairer Grixis Pyromancer decks should not going anywhere near Dread of Night. Like their combo brethren, these decks are designed to win faster than Mentor. Isn’t that the whole idea behind dedicating so many slots to Cabal Therapy and Gitaxian Probe? Pyromancer is cheaper, and you can Vampiric Tutor for Time Walk or something. You could play Demonic Consultation. I just don’t get it.

These cards are not good. They are not playable. You should not play them.

In Vintage you are allowed to play basically any card in Magic’s history, and you choose to play Engineered Plague. Why? What makes you do this silly thing?

I’ve only written maybe a half dozen articles about Vintage over the past year, but they probably all have had this card’s picture in them. Monastery Mentor has been really good since before Randy Buehler was saying, “MONASTERY MENTOR! Is this card really Vintage playable? I don’t know…” on VSL Season 2 streams. It’s been the centerpiece of the best deck in Vintage since Chalice of the Void was restricted in late September.

Monastery Mentor was not at that time well understood, and it remains confusing to many Vintage players. And these confused players do confusing things like jam multiple copies of Dread of Night in their sideboard.

The reason why Dread of Night is so awful is because it seems so reasonable. The Mentor player has a three mana 2/2 that spits out white 1/1 tokens. Dread of Night is a one mana card that kills all the tokens and makes the three mana 2/2 prowess a three mana 1/1 prowess. If you draw your second Dread of Night, you can kill the Monk outright!

There’s a lot of problems with this plan. All it takes is a single Pyromancer, Snapcaster Mage, or Vendilion Clique to blank your narrow sideboard hoser. It takes seven Dread of Nights to kill Dragonlord Dromoka. Rich Shay just won the most recent Power 9 event in part because his opponent was five enchantments or three Sudden Shocks short of dealing with his win condition. 

There are other problems, too. Wear/Tear, Disenchant, Repeal, and complicated theoretical stuff like mana investment and tempo all can mess with your foolproof plan of using an enchantment to stop a crusade. But the fundamental problem is that you are playing against a control deck, and your plan for beating this control deck is to bring in cards to kill creatures. When your deck gets diluted with creature removal spells, you tend to get massively outdrawn. You lose to good cards like Gush, Ancestral Recall, Dack Fayden, Sylvan Library, Jace because you are playing bad cards like Sudden Shock and Dread of Night.

No one really understands the format because is so often defies explanation. Playing against Sylvan Mentor and UWR Mentor is now the most important matchup in the format. A lot of people, probably wisely, decide that the mirror is just not for them. This article is not necessarily about playing against Mentor, nor about playing the mirror. Mentor is the best right now, and he teaches Vintage players to behave in a certain way. Or he would like to teach if only they would learn. Monastery Mentor shows us some interesting things about the format. Even fractional understanding of the card does help piloting the deck it is in or playing against it.

Good Deckbuilding

I want to start, however, with Brian Kelly, Vintage World Champion. Brian, in the quietest way a world champion possibly could, sorta kinda revolutionized Vintage deck building. He was doing this long before his title, but his Dragonlord Salvagers Oath deck won so much at Eternal Weekend that it forced us, or at least should have forced us, to pay attention and heed a lesson.

The list, once again:

Dragonlord Salvagers Oath 

I really want to talk specifically about 3 Force of Will. In the week that followed Brian’s victory, a lot of people tried out his deck. Almost all of them made some changes and almost all of them added a fourth Force of Will. I don’t know if all those people weren’t actually right and Brian was wrong, but I am absolutely positive that none of them thought about it as much as Brian did.

Force of Will stops an opponent from doing something to help win the game. Force has a pretty severe cost. It stops the opponent at a net loss of a card. Good pilots only use the card when the thing they are stopping is, in the specific context of the game state, more valuable than the card they are pitching. The incremental advantage gained by the spell’s resolution has to equal or exceed the advantage gained by the card we are pitching.

It gets more complicated, though. If our opponent is trying to resolve Ancestral Recall, they may be able to stop our would-be pitch card from ever impacting the game. Because their spell impacts the game now, while our pitch card only impacts the game later, we are going to be at a disadvantage until we resolve our would-be pitch spell. Force of Will lets us use two cards and zero mana to stop one card and some amount of mana. We are trading our card for their mana.

In certain metagames, like the Workshop-dominated once Brian ventured into in Philadelphia last August, it’s much better as a principle to be the one casting a real spell than the one sitting there wondering if you should Force or not. Against Workshop, Brian found this to be especially true. Brian wanted to be able to do something positive with his mana whenever his MUD opponents gave him a window to do so. He wanted to avoid games where, on the play, he went land, pass, holding up Force of Will for the Revoker his opponent played after Wastelanding his Orchard.

Brian wanted to play more threats and fewer answers. We all know the saying: There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers. This is an old paradigm, but it rang especially true at Eternal Weekend because the dominance of Workshops at that event made mana efficiency paramount. Critically, threats are far more mana efficient than answers. Force of Will is great because it is an answer for zero mana, but when you cast it without being tapped out, it gets a lot worse. When Force of Will is the action you have in your hand, you aren’t spending your mana. Against Workshops, you want to spend as much mana as you have available every turn. You don’t want to waste any.

Another really important deck from that tournament was Ryan Eberhart’s Delver. Ryan played just ten counterspells, and only two that cost mana. This was fewer than anyone had played previously in Dig Through Time Delver. Leading into the event, he cut a Spell Pierce, what would’ve been his eleventh counterspell, for a 15th land. Countermagic that cost mana just wasn’t good in that metagame. Ryan only had a single Flusterstorm and a single Pyroblast. He wanted to spend as much mana as possible on positive actions. Delver is great at spending all its mana because it doesn’t have much to begin with and because every spell costs one or two. The deck becomes so granular that a pilot can use every spare mana she or he has available. Brian, despite a higher curve, achieved similar granularity with cards like Sensei’s Divining Top, spellbombs, Sylvan Library, Ancient Grudge, and Repeal. Dack and Jace are also critical and managing mana.

Both players, who would meet in the quarterfinals, had extremely mana efficient decks. Mana efficiency, when we talk about a card, means a good rate for an effect. Concerning decks, it means that a deck spends as much mana as possible every turn, that it doesn’t waste any. In normal formats, we call this a mana curve. Brian and Ryan both had a mana curve, or what passes for one in Vintage anyway.

Moxen and Mana Curves

All decks need to spend a certain amount of mana to win the game. Monastery Mentor is in part so strong because it becomes a bigger and faster threat the more mana you spend. If your control finisher is Serra Angel, you need five mana to get your threat on board, and then your threat remains a five mana threat even if you later have six or seven mana. Monastery Mentor is a three mana threat, but then it becomes a four, five, six, seven mana threat. And when you get to cheat on mana costs, such as with Gush, Mental Misstep, Force of Will, you get a six or seven mana threat with only a four or five mana investment.

We call this a Grow threat, and it’s nothing new. Most people think about Grow in terms of playing spells. All the spells grow the threat. This is of course true, but I like to think about it in terms of spending mana. If you have more mana and you have tools to prevent flooding, then you can always play more spells. Crucially, in Mentor decks, the choke point is generally mana and not spells.

Mediocre Mentor decks use moxen to accelerate their Mentor and to generate monks after the Boss Monk is on the table. These decks remain mediocre because they lack mana efficiency. They don’t have enough things to do with extra mana besides accelerating their Mentor. Moxen are critical in the mirror, but so are spells. You want the amount of mana you have and the amount of spells you have to line up perfectly. Too much mana and you get outdrawn, not enough and you get overpowered with tempo. The mirror is very similar to the Abzan mirrors in Khans of Tarkir Standard. You need to curve out perfectly to win.

The good Mentor decks are filled with tools to ensure they curve out well. Gitaxian Probe is vital to this endeavor and no Mentor deck should be with fewer than two. The information is nice and sometimes invaluable but often the card is just to smooth out the early bumps in your mana curve. It does this better than Preordain because Preordain can sometimes get in its own way by costing one mana.

The real core cards for mana management are the planeswalkers. UWR Mentor has three or preferably four Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and two Dack Faydens to loot away excess mana and find the right spells to cast each turn. Jace is exceptional because he exemplifies mana granularity. Looting is great, and his minus ability is the perfect tool for using as much mana as possible every turn. He also makes use of moxen in a way his predecessor, Dig Through Time, could not. Meanwhile, the other good Mentor deck, the Sylvan Library version, has a curve that extends beyond Mentor. In addition to upwards of four planeswalkers, it has multiple Sylvan Librarys to filter through mana and spells. Both decks are great at alternatively using their moxen and trading them in for other spells.

The reason Jace and Dack are so great has a lot to do with mana. They both generate free card selection. Dack’s looting ability gives us two additional options per turn. We have to discard two cards, but then we can only do some many things in a turn anyway. Looting might not generate card advantage, but the free selection helps us maximize the amount of mana we spend each turn. Because all good decks have only mana efficient cards in them, the more mana we spend each turn the more positive an impact we are making on the game.

Selection is really good. We know this because of Brainstorm and Ponder and Preordain. But getting selection without spending mana is incredible. Sylvan Library is so great today because it delivers just this. We can pay life for more cards, of course, but even if we never draw a card off it just getting a free Ponder each turn allows us to optimize our mana usage.

Because Mentor scales with how much mana we spend, the correlation between doing so and winning the game is quite high at present. Stony Silence and Null Rod are quite good against Mentor decks because forcing those decks to play on curve makes Mentor a slower and more manageable threat. Stony Silence is a lot like Illness in the Ranks and Dread of Night except that it’s also good against all of Mentor’s threats. Moxen are vital to the deck. They are the reason Mentor wasn’t even the best Gush deck until Chalice of the Void got restricted.

Least Worst Best Deck

Frankly, Gush Mentor is among the least oppressive best decks Vintage has had. I don’t mean that it’s not tough to beat or not dominant right now. It is both those things. Best decks by definition are both those things. Yet, the way Mentor wins games is preferable to the way most decks in Vintage win games. What other master would you prefer? Imagine Dredge, Storm, or Workshops at 40% of the format. Imagine Oath at 40%. Imagine playing Oath mirrors in a third of your games. Are any of these preferable alternatives? Mirrors are always tough. Any deck that gets played too much gets annoying, but Monastery Mentor is, relative to other options, the most interactable overlord we could reasonably expect.

 

It pushes the format to become the most violent, nightmarish Limited environment ever dreamed of, and that’s actually pretty fun sometimes. It doesn’t feel like Vintage all the time. Often it feels like Limited with moxen. I don’t hate it. As in any Limited format, Umezawa’s Jitte is insane. And when Umezawa’s Jitte is good, I get that it’s probably not most players’ favorite version of Vintage. On the other hand, how broken can things be, really?

Heresy

Here’s a card that’s easy to love. Excuse me for a minute, but Monastery Mentor isn’t even the most important white creature in the format. That title is still held by Containment Priest. She is still the best creature in Gush decks. She has been since she was printed. Containment Priest is more important than Monastery Mentor because she singlehandedly invalidates the positioning of the deck that would otherwise prey on Gush creature decks. 

Oath won the past two Vintage Championships because those events featured great Workshop decks and great Gush decks. Recent data does not support theidea that Oath beats Gush. And the data is right, it’s just telling the wrong story. 

Oath appears to lose badly to Mentor and Gush because most people play Oath decks that lose badly to Mentor and Gush. This largely because the Oath deck that doesn’t lose badly to Mentor and Gush loses badly to Magic the Gathering Online.

So we somehow return to Brian Kelly. Salvagers Oath is an Oath deck that evades Containment Priest. It makes great use of the time bought by Gush players who sideboard out some number of Mentors for Containment Priests. It makes great use of the card advantage gained against Mentor players who sideboard out blue spells for Containment Priests. It makes great use of the mana advantage gained against Mentor players who sideboard out sources to make room for Containment Priest. Against Salvagers Oath, the opponent dilutes their deck after sideboarding and the deck is primed to take advantage of this dilution.

Containment Priest is still good against Salvagers Oath, but it’s only good. It’s good the way Wasteland is good against Mishra’s Workshop. But against most Oath decks, Priest is an endgame trump akin to Dack Fayden against Shops. I argued after the NYSE Open III last June that Priest was the most important card for understanding the format. In that article, I explained Priest’s power, writing,

“Containment Priest was a huge boost against Oath. She could be flashed in, she swung for damage, and, as long as she remained in play, she answered all Oaths and all Show and Tells, unlike countermagic or removal, both of which could only trade one-for-one with each of the Oath player's threats. As a permanent playable at instant speed, Priest was both reactive and proactive.”

To expand a bit, Containment Priest is the perfect positional card. That you don’t have to commit mana to Priest until after the Oath player commits mana to Oath or Show and Tell is tremendously powerful. You can cast Priest before Oath, and this is also powerful. Unlike enchantment removal or countermagic, you can cast Priest whenever it fits your mana curve. Priest is a threat in addition to a hate card. This means you never have to commit mana to a win condition. Your defensive anti-combo plan also wins the game by herself. Having flash makes her great against Jace, the Mind Sculptor, the best card in Oath. She’s just a dream creature. Among the best to ever be played in Vintage.

Before Priest, Oath performed well even in a field of Treasure Cruise turbo-charged Delver. Those days are forever gone. Containment Priest broke Oath’s position in the metagame to such an extent that Oath was forced to evolve, and even then only ever became good in times that Workshops was dominant. Containment Priest secured her monk’s position. Without Containment Priest, Monastery Mentor would always have a natural predator.

Lots of cards are powerful, but Containment Priest is so perfect she skewed the format without ever seeing play in game one.  

Forward

An exceptionally designed Oath deck still has game, especially if its pilot gets matched up against people who scoop to the Salvagers loop. The increased usage of Wear/Tear and Nature’s Claim superficially hurts it, but, like Mentor, Oath is really good at winning games by outdrawing opponents with too much removal. Nature’s Claim can’t be pointed at Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

People who get tired of losing Gush mirrors will inevitably play something else. Maybe it will be Standstill or UR Moon Control or Tezzeret or Eldrazi or Four-Color Rally the Ancestors. Maybe it will be Workshops.

Workshops will be back. It might be worse, but the floor is so high. It needs to solve Dack Fayden, but it will be back, and sooner rather than later. It has showed up less often, but it has also won at least two paper tournaments since Golem’s restriction.  When people are playing decks that are bad against Workshops, Workshops is a lot better. When people don’t know the exact plan of their MUD opponent, it gets a lot harder to play against.  You might be playing against a deck with Sundering Titan or you might be playing against a deck with Ankh of Mishra. At the very least, you can always tap your Workshop and cast Umezawa’s Jitte.

2 Comments

agro vs control with mentor by mindlesslemming at Tue, 05/10/2016 - 14:55
mindlesslemming's picture

in this current meta/field of top decks.... how do i know when is too early to cast a mentor? assuming my deck is mostly cantrips and counterspells... is there ever a situation when you can cast a mentor too soon? when compared to delver and pyromancer decks, with which its almost always the correct to drop those 1cc and 2cc crits ASAP. but with mentor, i notice that every time i use a lotus or mox to drop a mentor on t1 or t2, it just gets toasted if i am not packing FOW or misstep. is that just the 'nature of the beast' or should i be waiting until i have protection for my mentor before dropping it? i assume it has to do primarily with how many mentors i am running main deck, if i am agro/control, and my matchup. or do i just always take the risk and drop mentor ASAP?

Entertaining and by Procrastination at Fri, 05/13/2016 - 08:45
Procrastination's picture
5

Entertaining and illuminating. Even if you aren't a Vintage player, there is a lot to learn from this article.

Great job, wappla