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By: Joe Fiorini, Joseph G Fiorini
Apr 24 2015 12:00pm
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Mental Probing and Gitaxian Missteps

     It's been another seven days, and I have more Vintage and Legacy content for you. Get ready, we've got some good topics to cover. In the past weeks, I've devoted a considerable amount of space to covering Vintage, and Legacy has been slightly neglected. This week, I'm prepared to balance things out. There was a Legacy Grand Prix last weekend, so there's plenty to talk about for that format.

Grand Prix Kyoto - 1,943 Players.

     According to the Wizards website, Grand Prix: Kyoto was the first ever Legacy Grand Prix in Japan. The attendance wasn't as high as some of the bigger Grand Prix that have happened in the United States, but I think the fact that almost two-thousand people played Legacy under the same roof speaks to how popular of a format Legacy is.

    I can't help but wonder how many people would show up to one of these Legacy events if the staple cards weren't so difficult to obtain. That, I'm afraid boils down to a reserved list debate, and this isn't the place for that. I'll suffice it to say that both Legacy and Vintage deserve more support from Wizards. There was something... magical if you will, about those first few sets and editions. People just want to play with those cards, it's as simple as that. 

     Moving on, here are your top eight decks and players: 

     1st Place - Yuuta Takahashi - Miracles

     2nd Place - Kazuya Murakami - Stoneforge Miracles

     3rd Place - Kenta Harane - OmniTell

     4th Place  - Kai Theile - Ad Nauseam Tendrils

     5th Place - Yukihiro Satake - Jeskai Stoneblade

     6th Place - Yousake Morinaga - Grixis Delver

     7th Place - Shouta Yasooka - OmniTell

     8th Place - Kei Umehara - RUG Delver

     Yuuta Takahashi took down the event with Miracles, the premier control deck in Legacy. If you've ever been on the losing-end of a counter-top lock, you'll know why Sensei's Divining Top and Counterbalance are both banned in Modern. 



     In second-place was another Miracles deck, this time sporting a Stoneforge Mystic/Batterskull package, and a playset of my new favorite creature of all-time, Monastery Mentor! I'm excited about this list enough to want to build it and try it out. Miracles is a deck that has always interested me, and I've also wanted to play with Stoneforge Mystic. So, slapping those two things together with Monastery Mentor puts me in Magic heaven.

     The Grixis Delver deck played by Yousake Morinaga should be familiar to any Magic Online players, the deck is the surviving remnant of the U/R Delver lists that sported a playset of Treasure Cruise before the ban. I myself got my start in Legacy by piloting variations of that deck, and the popular splash at the time was black for Cabal Therapy in the sideboard. 

     Once Treasure Cruise was banned, I toyed with running Dig Through Time in its place, but I moved on to other decks shortly after. Well, as it turns out, the deck had a solid enough foundation to keep being a contender after the ban occurred. I'm not really surprised that the deck did well. I had a few games with the Cruise-powered version that I easily won despite never actually drawing a Treasure Cruise. Monastery Swiftspear is a really good card, as is Young Pyromancer. The combination of Bolts, cantrips, Delvers, Swiftspears, and good old Elemental tokens combine to tempo an opponent out before they can stabilize.

     Shouta Yasooka finishing in the top eight of this Grand Prix right after earning second place at the last Pro Tour should show people how incredible he really is as a player. I don't know why I am such a fan of his, but it might be some of the decks he has played. Although the Omnitell list he played at this Grand Prix is a known quantity, Yasooka has shown up to many events in the past with his own unique decks and done well with them. At Pro Tour Theros, Shouta Yasooka was playing a U/B control deck that to me feels like a predecessor to the U/B control decks of this standard season. He played his own updated Dimir control list at Pro Tour: Dragons of Tarkir that was markedly different from the other Dimir control decks most people were playing in that tournament. I have a strong affinity for Islands and Swamps myself, so I'm always pleased to see a player such as Shouta Yasooka do well. Also, I hear that he's quite into Magic Online, and I have to respect that.

     For this event, Yasooka was piloting his take on a deck called Omnitell. OmniTell is a Show and Tell deck that uses the added power of Omniscience to combo out. Whereas the game plan of (Sneak and Show) has always been to cheat a fatty and take it to the red zone, Omnitell has gone through several iterations in its lifetime. For example, many early versions of Omnitell ran Release the Ants as a win-condition. There was even a point in time where the deck ran Dream Halls, the card Inquest Magazine foolishly voted: "Worst Card in Stronghold".

     To win with Release the Ants, the top of your deck needs to be an Emrakul or possibly Dig Through Time . Older lists also played Enter the Infinite, and their plan was to Show and Tell into Omniscience, cast Enter the Infinite for free, drawing the entire library and placing an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn on top as the last card in the library. Then Cunning Wish is cast (also free, thanks to the all-knowing enchantment) to fetch a Release the Ants out of the sideboard. Release the Ants does one damage to the opponent, then is returned to the owner's hand when Emrakul is revealed with the Clash ability. Rinse and repeat until the opponent is thoroughly deceased.

     For quite a while, all of the Omnitell lists that I saw listed online were not using Release the Ants. I was under the impression that the stock lists of the deck had moved away from using that card, largely due to now having access to Dig Through Time.

     With the printing of Dig Through Time, drawing through one's deck by chaining Digs and cantrips isn't difficult.  A mana-free, hard-cast Emrakul triggers the Time Walk ability, and that is almost always enough to seal the deal. Shouta Yasooka and Kenta Harane both played Release the Ants, and almost all of the deck lists that I looked at from Daily Events are running it now. I suppose the fact that you need only one Release the Ants in your sideboard as an alternate win condition that can be wished for makes it a good choice in the current meta.

     I really like the wishboard in this deck, and it seems to have done well for him. Firemind's Foresight must be pretty sweet when you cast it for free, grabbing everything that you need to win the game. It's like getting the utility of a 75 card main deck, without the drop-off in consistency that playing more than 60 cards would cause.

     Before wrapping up, I'll mention that I'm glad to see RUG Delver in this top eight. It's a very strong deck when it's piloted well, and seeing it here is proof. RUG is a deck that just couldn't compete in the Treasure Cruise era, and it's nice to see it back in the limelight. In the Cruise era, nobody wanted to "thresh the goose" when they could eat their own 'yard for fun and profit.

     The results of this Grand Prix finals suggest to me that the metagame is healthy (especially if you love Brainstorm as much as I do). Omnitell has been a good deck for a while, and Miracles as well. I'm glad to see Monastery Mentor getting some love, and I imagine that it will continue to see play as more time passes.

     In Legacy, Monastery Mentor will fit more into mid-range and control decks, and I doubt it would find a home in a tempo deck. I think that Young Pyromancer is a better fit in a tempo shell, due to it's lower converted mana cost. I can honestly say that even though I haven't been playing much Legacy since falling in love with Vintage, I'm really interested in the format right now. There are several decks that I'd like to try, and many viable tier one archetypes exist at the moment. 


"Gitaxian Probe you."

     Reid Duke once wrote an article entitled, "Thoughtseize You", where he discussed the value, and pitfalls, of including Thoughtseize and similar cards into your decks. That article was extremely well-written, and it forever changed the way I think about the card. 

    Today, I'm going to talk about Gitaxian Probe in a similar fashion. I've always had a hard time finding room for Gitaxian Probe in my decks, and it always seemed like everyone else was eager to fit as many copies as they could in their lists. 

     If it's obvious to me that Probe has plenty of potential upside to it, why should it be that I had a hard time cutting any cards for it?

     Back when I was playing RUG Delver, I would tweak my list a little bit almost every day. I'd save different versions here and there, test them out, and see how it felt. I recognized right away that a zero-mana cantrip helped me fill my graveyard and reach threshold faster, which was a great benefit. This piece of the Gitaxian Probe puzzle fit right into the game plan of the deck.

     There was also a real benefit in seeing my opponent's hand. The deck plays a good amount of Counterspells, but with 12 creatures, 4 Brainstorms and 4 Ponders, there was only so much room for counters. This meant that each one had to be used correctly. The information gained with Gitaxian Probe was most certainly helpful.

What good is seeing someone's hand if you can't do anything about it?

     While playing RUG Delver, I would notice at times that all of my Ponders, Brainstorms, and Gitaxian Probes would often times draw me into more cantrips instead of what I really needed. This was especially noticeable when I was attempting to dig into a Force of Will or Spell Pierce

     Cantripping into more cantrips instead of the business-spell you're looking for is the best way to visualize what's really happening in these types of situations. People tend to think of each Gitaxian Probe in a deck as being the equivalent of running that many fewer cards in a deck, as it cycles for free.

     This is simply not the case. The other cards referred to as cantrips, namely Brainstorm, Ponder, and Preordain, all dig a little bit farther in the deck than Probe. That means that they are more likely to replace themselves with the desired card or card-type. Probe does not have that ability, it merely cycles for no mana cost at sorcery-speed. Replacing a Counterspell, or any other card type for that matter, means that you have a smaller percentage of those cards in your deck. 

     This point was driven home when I would be forced to let a spell resolve that would end up killing me. Cards like Tarmogoyf are nearly impossible to kill in game one when you're playing RUG Delver, for example. I remember trying to find room for Spell Snare, and not wanting to swap out a Spell Pierce which was an all-star in the deck. I couldn't justify cutting Ponder or Brainstorm, so Gitaxian Probe was the only card that I could justify removing.

     Once I decided to cut the Probes, I noticed that I had a Counterspell when I needed one far more often than before, because my deck simply had more of them then it previously did. 

     This illustrates the problem with the "deck-thinning" way of thinking about Gitaxian Probe. You see, a deck with four Probes still contains 60 cards, not 56. Let's imagine that we have a deck that has 20 counterspells. I know that 20 counters are an exaggeration, but I picked that number for simplicity. Moving on, if you had 20 counterspells in your deck of 60, you'd have a deck that's one-third counters. Replacing four of those counters with Probes isn't equal to having 16 counterspells in a 56 card deck, it's equal to having 16 counterspells in a 60 card deck. 

     If Gitaxian Probe said in its text box, "you may remove all copies of this card before shuffling, your minimum deck size is now 56." , then the card would have actually shrunk your deck, and made the percentages of your other cards go up. Obviously, that isn't what is really happening.

     Now, in practice, Probe may indeed cantrip into that Force of Will you need. This doesn't change the fact that the percentage of Counterspells in your deck is less if you've replaced them with Probes. If you've ever drawn into some amount of Gitaxian Probe on your opponent's turn, you should be acutely aware of this point. Obviously, if a Counterspell had been in its place, you'd have drawn it instead.

     I've just spent some time telling you why not to run Probe. Now, I'll tell you why you should run it. 

     There are times when the information gained from a Probe is more important than having a slightly-raised percentage of Counterspells (or whatever type of card that's important to the deck). For example, I always liked Probe in my Sneak and Show deck, because it lets me know how to sculpt the perfect hand before attempting to sneak or show my bomb into play. Perhaps you are playing a deck that plays Young Pyromancer, and the free token that a Gitaxian Probe creates important enough to outweigh a slight dilution of the deck's business spells.

     Lately, I've been mostly playing my Jeskai Mentor deck in Vintage, and I haven't felt like I wanted Gitaxian Probe at all. The main reason that I would want Probe in that deck, is just to make a token with a summoning-sick Monastery Mentor, and I'd only want it if I couldn't play a spell any other way. Mentor decks have access to Gush, so making a free monk token isn't that hard to do with the deck anyway. I haven't been convinced to add even one copy of Gitaxian Probe to my list, although I wouldn't exactly fault anyone for doing so, especially if they thought about all of the pros and cons that I've discussed in this article.

     Sneak and Show, my current Legacy deck, is a combo deck. Combo decks make the best use of the information granted by a Probe, because these decks need to execute their plan and get past whatever defenses the opponent might have. There have been versions of Sneak and Show that didn't use Gitaxian Probe, but the lists that have used it are the ones that have been more successful in recent times.

     To recap, the important thing to remember is that nothing in life is free, even Gitaxian Probe. There is a real cost to playing the card, that cost is just hard to interpret compared to other cards, as it doesn't cost any mana. If the potential information gained from playing Gitaxian Probe is more important than having a higher density of more important cards in your deck, then the card is likely a good choice to include in a deck. If lowering the density of other spells in the deck is a significant hindrance to your deck's plan, then it's time to cut the Probes.

Pitfalls and Mental Missteps.

Mental Misstep

     Mental Misstep is a card that I've discussed in my articles on several occasions. This seemingly innocuous Counterspell has been deemed so format warping, that it's banned in every single constructed format, save for the champagne of formats - Vintage. Some people probably detest this little Counterspell for ruining their favorite formats pf years past.

     I was on hiatus from Magic during Mental Misstep's era of destroying Legacy, but I've heard the horrors of every deck (even non-blue decks) needing to run four Missteps just to counter other people's Missteps.

     I believe that Mental Misstep also has an incredible effect on Vintage. Blue is the dominant color in the format anyway, so perhaps that is why the card doesn't seem as out of place. If there were lots of non-blue decks sporting four Missteps, that would be a different story. As it is, I think that Mental Misstep is actually a good thing for the format. Being able to respond to your opponent's plays while tapped out is important in an eternal format like Vintage. Just like Force of Will keeps combo decks in check in Legacy, Mental Misstep and Force are the duo that protects us in Vintage. They are like the fun-police, making sure that the perfect hand from Mono-Blue Belcher can't just automatically roll us over every time.

     If this ability to be reactive on "turn zero" is important, then why do I see so many people mindlessly blowing their Missteps on the first live target that passes in front of their scope? Even if I had several of the cards in my hand, I'd be wary of squandering such a powerful resource. I've played with Spell Snare in Modern, a format that has a wider range of converted mana costs being played. I can totally stand behind countering the first decent two-drop you see when you're holding one. This isn't Modern though, and there are A LOT of cards that can be countered by a Mental Misstep in this format that I would rather save my Misstep for, instead of blowing it on a turn one Preordain.

The Power of One.

     The Vintage format is a collection of the most powerful cards ever made. Period. The only respite players and deck builders get is the restricted list, which serves to dampen a few overpowered cards and strategies. 

     Now, what makes a card powerful? In part, the power of any given card is derived from its effect on a game of Magic. Considering only its effect on a game state, isn't Cruel Ultimatum one of the most powerful cards ever printed? Of course it is, except that we also consider the cost of cards, and in this case, I'm referring to converted mana cost. The reason why Cruel Ultimatum isn't ever going to be played in Vintage, is the mana cost. 

Cruel Ultimatum

So cruel, so costly.

     The power nine all have one thing in common, they are drastically undercosted. Six of them are free, there's the two drop, the three drop, and my favorite one of the bunch, Ancestral Recall sitting at a paltry one blue mana. In my opinion, Ancestral Recall is the most powerful of these cards, although many folks will argue that it's Black Lotus, as Lotus can go in almost any deck. 

Black Lotus

     Ancestral Recall isn't considered so powerful just because it lets you trade one card for three more, plenty of cards can do that, it's powerful because it does so for only one mana. My point in bringing this up is simple: If the law of Survival of the Fittest means that only the most efficient and powerful spells can make the cut in such huge format, then the amount of powerful cards that cost one mana (or less) is going to be quite large. You don't need to Mental Misstep the first one-drop you see, you will most definitely see more.

     There are simply so many great targets for a Mental Misstep that to waste one is a tragedy. Unless I know that my opponent absolutely has to dig for a certain card just to make a land-drop or hit an out, I'm not going to Misstep that turn-one Preordain.

     Do you even know what your outs are going to be on the first turn of game one of a match? I mean, you might, but are you even digging for them at that point? Imagine for a moment that you know your opponent is playing the Omni-Oath deck. Do you counter the turn-one Preordain then? They could be digging for an Oath, an Orchard, or even a Show and Tell, right? I'm sure that everyone would prefer that their opponents aren't able to find those key cards, and might be tempted to take out that Preordain like a trained sniper.

      What if, instead of countering that Preordain, you held on to your Misstep. A turn or two goes by, and your opponent tries to resolve one of their bombs, be it an Oath of Druids, or whatever. You counter that card with something, say a Force of Will. Your opponent casts a Pyroblast that they sideboarded in, countering your Force. Wouldn't you be much happier having sandbagged that Mental Misstep to counter that Pyroblast, and perhaps win the counter-war?

     That is just one example of something you can do with a Mental Misstep that is bigger than just trading one-for-one with a cantrip. Casting a Preordain is a one-for-one trade for the opponent anyway. By countering it, you're spending two life to keep them in a slightly worse spot then they already were. Contrast that with trading one card for a card that would put your opponent two cards ahead of you. I think that the right choice should be clear.

Do I Misstep your Misstep?

     Unless I kept a one-land hand, and didn't have another Preordain or Ponder/Brainstorm in my hand, I am generally a little happy to have my turn-one Preordain countered. If I absolutely had to resolve that Preordain, then I would Misstep the opponent's Misstep. Any other time, I would let my opponent's Misstep resolve and counter my one-drop. In my opinion, I've just Shocked them, and cast Funeral Charm for one blue mana, and I am just fine with that.

     There is another added benefit to not countering an opposing Misstep with your own copy. Many players have seemingly decided that I must not have any Missteps in my hand when I don't counter back with one, because I've had quite a few people cast their Ancestral Recall shortly after an exchange like this. I'm more than happy to finally reveal that I do indeed have a Misstep in my hand, if I get to snipe an Ancestral with it.

Do the ends justify your means?

     We, as humans, tend to look at things such as a game of Magic through the lens of results-oriented thinking. Often times when we win a game or match, we don't critique our own play choices. After all, we won the game, why should we look for mistakes in our play? I'm sure plenty of people (even myself) have wasted a card in the manner that I described in this article and still gone on to win a match. Results-oriented thinking in this case prevents us from seeing that we gave our opponent's an opportunity to possibly win, an opportunity that they wouldn't have had if we had made tighter plays. 

     I'm not immune to any of this, it's quite to the contrary in fact. My results in tournaments lately have not been very good, and much of it was due to greedy plays, sketchy keeps, and the like. Sure, there were a couple of instances where my opponents had drawn better than I did, but if my play had been better on average during the rest of the event, than that would have mattered much less. 

     I consider wasting an important card on something that isn't important to be a greedy play. To me, a greedy play is the opposite of a tight play. Getting greedy is like letting your guard down in a prize fight. The other competitor might not be quick enough to exploit that opening, but if they did manage to win, it's all on you.

     If you get nothing else from reading this article, please at least consider taking an inventory of the decisions that you've made in recent games of Magic. Think about deck-building choices, like thinking about how many Gitaxian Probes you've decided to run in your decks. Think about every time you cast a Mental Misstep, Force of Will, or any valuable card. And when you're considering this, ask yourself honestly if you made the right choices. The other day, a player I met asked me about Misdirecting his Ancestral Recall to target myself, when I could have saved it to make his Abrupt Decay not target my Oath of Druids. The simple fact is that I didn't even think about it at the time. I got greedy, and decided that I wanted to draw those three cards. In doing so, I wasted a valuable asset. In the end, a timely Abrupt Decay on my Oath caused me to lose the match. Getting better at this game involves getting truthful with yourself about such plays. 

My Vintage deck du jour.

The Mentors.

     This past weekend, I only managed to play in one Vintage Daily Event, and that was on Sunday night. I didn't do as well as I'd have liked to, but the deck is in pretty close to where it needs to be.

     One of my losses was in game three of round two, where I kept clicking ok after everything my opponent was doing, and I clicked one too many times. I immediately realized that I needed to have cast a Mental Misstep on that last card played, because that would have stopped my opponent from winning with his Vintage version of Oops, all spells. I had a hand with Black Lotus and Containment Priest, which could have stopped his entire deck.

     I won the first match in two games, and if I'd played right, I'd have won round two as well. Had I not dropped after losing round three to a different kind of Mentor deck, then who knows, maybe I'd have won round four. As I said, I think the deck is looking good. I won most of my test matches, and the list doesn't feel like it has any obvious flaws. 

     There is always more tuning that can be done, so if any of you reading this see anything about my list that you feel should change, I'd love to hear your opinions. Here is what I played:



     That's all the time I have for this week. I'm still trying to reach the next level of my Vintage game. In some ways, I've failed. In other ways, I've gained a lot. My play has become tighter, my deck is getting more honed, and best of all, I've discovered a community of Vintage players both online and off, that have been kind, accepting, and helpful. I've made some great friends, and talked to some incredible people. A lot of them have great attitudes about the format, and life in general, and I could stand to learn a thing or two from them regarding both those subjects.

See you in seven days. Thanks for reading!

Joe Fiorini - Islandswamp on MTGO

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To learn more about Gitaxian Probe, click here:

     A special shout-out to David Woznicki. David, thank you very much, and I'm glad that you enjoy my writing. Everything gets better eventually, I'm living proof. Take care of yourself. 



Counterbalance is NOT banned by Rerepete at Fri, 04/24/2015 - 17:01
Rerepete's picture

Counterbalance is NOT banned in Modern

That's a mistake on my part. by Joe Fiorini at Fri, 04/24/2015 - 17:19
Joe Fiorini's picture

That's a mistake on my part. I should have checked that first. I just knew that the counter-top combo wasn't modern legal, but that is obviously just because of top.

I suppose that without Jace, Ponder, Preordain, or Top, Counterbalance isn't even any good. I haven't played Modern in a long time, so I spaced it out I suppose. Very sorry.

I hope that the rest of the article was to your liking. Thanks for reading.

Yes, I like your writing by Rerepete at Fri, 04/24/2015 - 18:17
Rerepete's picture

Yes, I like your writing style.

Speaking of Inquest, I found a copy of Issue #17 (Sept 1996) the other day and am re-reading it. Number one on their top ten most powerful magic cards of all time was Ancestral Recall. Their criteria eliminated the moxen and lotus because drawing them in late game isn't any good, but AR is great at any time.

Nice! I loved Inquest, I read by Joe Fiorini at Fri, 04/24/2015 - 19:17
Joe Fiorini's picture

Nice! I loved Inquest, I read it all the time. Look at the prices and see how much a Balduvian Hordes was! I had collected four, and thought I was rich. It's a red Juzam with no life loss!!!!!!!

Thanks man! And I will try to fact-check better before I submit next time. :)

Thanks for showing off the by jay85 at Sat, 04/25/2015 - 00:27
jay85's picture

Thanks for showing off the Mentor list, Joe. I now know all your secrets, mwahahaha. But honestly, we need to battle it out again soon. If the Vintage lobby is ever dry and you're dying to play, just shoot me a pm or a challenge.

Sounds good. I cashed the by Joe Fiorini at Sat, 04/25/2015 - 06:52
Joe Fiorini's picture

Sounds good. I cashed the Friday night Vintage daily event with that list. I think it's in a good spot, since I beat 2 other Mentor decks, and a Dredge deck. I lost to Delver, but I played well at least.

Awesome. I feel if you can go by jay85 at Sat, 04/25/2015 - 07:14
jay85's picture

Awesome. I feel if you can go 3-1 in Vintage than that must be like going 4-0 in any other format. Vintage just seems hard to me and the competition is so high. Do you know why you're losing to Delver? I could be wrong but it seems like it's your toughest match up, besides Workshops, of course. Would something like Electrickery or Scouring Sands be an option for you against all those 1/1's?

I had one Slice and Dice for by Joe Fiorini at Sat, 04/25/2015 - 09:45
Joe Fiorini's picture

I had one Slice and Dice for that, which would have turned the match around had I drawn it.

You can't counter its cycling ability with conventional means, so it wipes their board, cantrips, and does so as an uncounterable instant. It's sweet when you draw it.

Pyroclasm is also a good idea potentially.

Yeah, I noticed the Slice and by jay85 at Sat, 04/25/2015 - 09:57
jay85's picture

Yeah, I noticed the Slice and Dice after I posted my comment. You did use it on me in one of the games, and I was like, "Ha, I'll just counter tha...Oh wait, he cycled it. Damn."

You have 2 SB slots open, I by Rerepete at Sat, 04/25/2015 - 09:07
Rerepete's picture

You have 2 SB slots open, I wonder if a couple of pyroclasms in the board would help in your delver match up ... it will wipe the board of all but you Mentors (prowess trigger saves it).

oops! The two slots are by Joe Fiorini at Sat, 04/25/2015 - 09:43
Joe Fiorini's picture

oops! The two slots are supposed to be Containment Priest! Since the site doesn't recognize those cards yet, it must not have added them.

Well scratch that idea by Rerepete at Sat, 04/25/2015 - 21:31
Rerepete's picture

Well scratch that idea then...