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By: wappla, wappla
Jul 13 2015 12:02am
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On June 26th, 150 players sat down in a hotel basement in Plainview, New York to play cards. The name of the game was Vintage; the name of the hotel is not important. There were eight rounds of swiss before cutting to a top 8. Eventually, there was a single winner. High variance as Vintage games tend to be, rather than focus too narrowly on the top 8, I think it is better to simply look at all decks that went 6-2 or better. On that day, there were nineteen of these.*

They were:

  • 4 Martello
  • 2 Frobots
  • 2 Dredge
  • 2 Bomberman
  • 2 Landstill
  • 2 Delver
  • 1 BUG Fish
  • 1 The Answer
  • 1 Tezzeret
  • 1 Mentor
  • 1 Splinter Twin

Blue 11; Non-Blue 8

*Lists of each can be found here, courtesy tournament organizer Nick Detwiler.

 

And the entire field:

 

Expanding our scope to all the top performing decks rather than just those that made the top 8 seems to reveal a predictable metagame. Shops is at a 30% share, about where we would expect it. Gush decks came in at 15%, Dredge and Bomberman at 10%. The only notable absence is Oath.

Oath, of course, was supposed to be well positioned against a field heavy with Gush-based creature decks and heavy with Workshops. At least that was the case at Vintage Champs in October. Meanwhile, 10% of the field was Oath decks— it certainly showed up to play— and yet not one Oath deck finished in the top eighth of the field. This is an absence that demands an explanation.

When I was looking at these top nineteen lists, and thinking about Oath's absence, I thought about how much white was played at the event. Between Bomberman, Landstill and heavy control decks running white, and of course Mentor, the color was a hugely popular secondary and tertiary color. This saturated the field with Containment Priest. Indeed, in those top nineteen decks, there were thirteen Containment Priests in sideboards, all of the white decks ran her. But at the end of the day, Dredge won the tournament, yet Oath was absent from the top tables. Priest was supposed to hate out both. Clearly she did not do her job against one enemy.

Containment Priest

Containment Priest, humble and quiet, then seemed to promise explanations for both Dredge's victory and Oath's dramatic underperformance. So, it was Priest and her good friend the Monk who set me off on a journey to understand just what unfolded in a Plainview hotel basement the Saturday before last.

The Most Important Card of NYSE III

Containment Priest was printed in Commander 2014 and released on November 7th of last year, two weeks after the Vintage Championships. During the weeks that remained in the Treasure Cruise era, Delver pilots had little reason to run white, and the Priest had no impact on the format until January. It was then that Gush pilots began splashing white for Monastery Mentor. Priest might well have been a Fate Reforged card, so closely tied is she to Mentor. Since Fate Reforged, Containment Priest has been a staple of Vintage sideboards.

To understand why people play Priest, we have to go back a little bit further. As I discussed last week, Mark Tocco won the Vintage Championships with a Hybrid Control Oath shell. Oath performed quite well at Champs, preying on a field heavy with Delver. Cruise led many Delver players to play straight UR, eschewing cards like Trygon Predator and Nature's Claim and relying solely on Grafdigger's Cage. That anti-Oath plan soundly failed at Champs. Abrupt Decay laughs at a single cage, Hurkyl's Recall bounces multiples, and Show and Tell just doesn't care. Tocco even ran Maelstrom Pulse as a versatile answer to a lot of things in the format, including multiple Cages. Sometimes Pulse was Hero's Downfall for a Jace that threatened to bounce his Griselbrand. Sometimes it was Echoing Truth for a battlefield of tokens. And sometimes it just was for all those Delvers' precious Cages.

Cage is versatile, and Cage is cheap, but Cage is very weak. Crucially, two of the most popular archetypes, Shops and Delver, are both attracted to Cage for their sideboards. For Shops, it is a cheap artifact they cast basically for free. In sideboard games, opponents need to take out their Missteps, so resolving the Cage is hardly ever an issue. For Delver, one mana is right in the middle of their curve. The problem is that neither Dredge nor Oath are frightened of it. Both evolved to beat it with great consistency and little hassle. Dredge can just dig away looking for an Ingot Chewer, blow the thing up, and generate Zombie tokens in the process. As for Oath, since Tocco's win with a Greg Fenton design, multiple Show and Tells has become a more or less default in the archetype. The controlling versions of the deck, without Tezzeret, generally without Time Vault or Voltaic Key, certainly without Boseiju or Omniscience or Emrakul, have become known as Fenton Oath. They are the most popular Oath variant, the Martello to Omniscience-Emrakul Frobots and Burning Oath's Terra Nova. Show and Tell makes Cage look rather silly.

So, we return to Priest. Now that Gush decks were running white, they had new options for dealing with Oath and Dredge. Swords to Plowshares could technically remove Griselbrand whereas Bolt had been impotent to do so, but resolving a meaningful Swords required getting the Oath player low enough to prevent an activation. Even with Mentor's dynamic scaling, the absence of Bolt actually makes those life total calculations easier for an Oath pilot. Anyway, even if Swords does resolve, the Oath pilot simply regains the seven life spent activating the demon.

For Dredge, Rest in Peace was a card to consider. It was an on-color and castable version of Leyline of the Void, but, like Leyline, it was narrow. Unlike Leyline, it was symmetrical and had quite the lack of synergy with the delve spells, of which most Gush lists were running three or four. How many Rest in Peace's did a pilot want to run? I do not think I've seen a Gush list with more than one.

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. Priest even could be brought in against Workshops. Against Martello, the single most popular Shops deck, she could be flashed in at instant speed end of turn or under a Tangle Wire to help stabilize and somewhat shut off Forgemaster, Martello's namesake threat.

Against Dredge, Priest gave Gush decks even more Cage effects. Slot efficient as they were, running Grafdigger's Cage five, six, and seven was more attractive to most deck builders than running narrower answers to the graveyard. Priest had the added advantage of being a creature. If one Priest became redundant, she could potentially be killed off to remove the Bridges looming in the Dredger's graveyard. More realistically, an evoked Chewer from the Gush player, played with the sole purpose of destroying Bridges, would not destroy one's own Priest as it would one's own Cage. All in all, despite her unannounced and unheralded arrival to the format, Priest was definitely playable and had the trappings of a sideboard staple.

Without Monastery Mentor, however, Containment Priest would hardly have seen play outside Bomberman and hard UW control, which together make up a very small portion of the overall metagame, if a relatively larger one in the Northeast US. But Mentor brought Priest into one of the biggest archetypes of the format.

However, that before Fate Reforged Gush-based creature decks were so popular also requires explanation. Treasure Cruise was partly responsible. Cruise boosted Delver's power level while simultaneously making it play like a Legacy deck. Many Delver pilots ran as few as two Gushes during the Cruise era. The accessibility of Cruise-Delver, however, would have been more or less irrelevant were it not for the exposure the format got from the format's arrival to Magic Online, Vintage Masters, and the Vintage Super League. Vintage Masters and MTGO can be seen, then, as the root driving force in the format. Last year, MTGO became a cost effective way to play competitive, "sanctioned" Vintage. At the same time, Wasteland was not reprinted in Vintage Masters, keeping the price of Workshops decks higher than their blue counterparts.

There was therefore an influx of new Vintage players. It was an accident that so many would become Delver pilots. This was in turn the result of Treasure Cruise and the VSL. Steve Menendian won the inaugural Vintage Super League against one of the game's most popular all-time players, Luis Scott-Vargas, piloting a Delver deck with three Treasure Cruise. Delver seems simple to play, and with the power of Cruise, a pilot could afford to play the deck simplistically. This helped players new to the format pick it up and compete right away.

When Monastery Mentor was released, the number of people interested in playing the card in their Gush decks was therefore artificially inflated. Because of everything that was going on with Vintage in the Fall of 2014, Mentor penetrated deeper into the Vintage metagame than it otherwise would have. Delver pilots in every metagame almost immediately adapted it into their decks, in addition to the new UW and UWR shells that propped up to support it. And everywhere Monastery Mentor went, Containment Priest tagged along. At NYSE III, more Priests (13) appeared in those top nineteen decks than did Monks (11).

 

As a sideboard card, Priest proved herself out on one of two counts. She really is great against Oath. Yes, they can still use Abrupt Decay against her. The ability to answer both Show and Tell and Oath, to do so at instant speed, and to advance the game towards its conclusion while doing so is truly tremendous. Against Oath, with both Cage and Priest, Gush decks simply have more answers than Oath has Abrupt Decays, and a more potent draw engine to find them. That is a sound plan. If the NYSE III serves as any indication, Oath will need to adapt once more. That not a single Oath player— and there were sixteen of them— finished with fewer than three losses is not to be ignored.

Against Dredge, however, Priest failed to live up to her promise. Like with Cage, Dredge could just build up a graveyard, then remove Priest with Sudden Shock or Rending Volley. Priest, at double Cage's mana cost, didn't even stop Cabal Therapy. A Dredge pilot could simply hardcast a Narcomoeba or evoke a Chewer to generate Zombie tokens, then use Therapies to strip the opponent's hand, then proceed on their merry necromancer way. As with Cage, the efficiency and versatility of Priest led players to overestimate their sideboard plan against Dredge. Consequently, Dredge converted two of six decks to the top nineteen, including the winning deck. Simply looking at the secondary colors of the best-performing blue decks informs a pretty accurate description of the metagame.

Color Theory

Top Blue Decks by Splashes:

  • Red 8
  • White 5
  • Black 3
  • Green 2

With so little black and green, it is hardly surprising that Graveyard and Artifact-based strategies did well. This is basic color theory. And with relatively large amounts of white, it is no surprise the Enchantment-based archetype, Oath, failed to perform as might have been expected. Red, of course, fights both blue and Artifacts, and its dominance as a splash color is therefore apparent.

Black truly is the best color against Dredge. Running Black, one can fearlessly use Leyline of the Void but arguably more important is access to Demonic and Vampiric Tutor, which dramatically increase the efficacy of sideboard cards. Black decks can also justify Nihil Spellbomb maindeck, as it cycles and splashes hate onto delve spells. Even pseudo-black cards like Surgical Extraction, Leyline of the Void, and Ravenous Trap are powerful supplements to Priest and Cage. Relying only on the Cage or Priest effects is treating the symptom rather than the disease.

Running black, however, often means running only one of red or green. Dredge remains small enough, regardless of how high it finishes, that being strong against Shops and arguably even against Oath should remain a priority in design. With black and with only Red, Shops remains a challenging matchup and there are no straightforward answers to Oath, although good design can yield highly effective answers to the matchup, using cards like Notion Thief and Jace, or just being faster than Oath. Grixis Control, the Vintage-iest deck of all Vintage decks, is almost as absent as Oath. At 2014 Champs, while not in the Top 8, Grixis placed highly throughout the Top 16. The problem for Grixis Control is that Tinker has never been worse.

There simply isn't a good Tinker target. Again white is to blame. Dack Fayden's continued growth in popularity makes both Vault-Key and Blightsteel Colossus unsound win conditions. Dack is so played in part because Trygon is not. White means no green, and so Mentor means Dack, not Trygon. Even without Dack Fayden, Monastery Mentor can just race Blightsteel, and in some Mentor decks, the shift to more mana means Jace is lurking around to bounce the giant robot as well. If neither of those expensive options are going to work for the UWx pilot, he can just use Swords to Plowshares. Often the sideboard games feature some number of Priests and perhaps even Stony Silence.

Sphinx of the Steel Wind can't get stolen by Dack, but again, the presence of White means Sphinx will just get raced, Jaced, or Swordsed. Inkwell Leviathan is immune to spot removal but is slower than Mentor. The monks are usually just better than Tinker. Unfortunately, unless we are a brave soul willing to play four color, that means Grixis has to win in other ways. Perhaps Grixis needs to evolve past Tinker the same way Gush decks evolved past Fastbond.

BUG Fish has evolved and has proven itself viable. Abandoning Dark Confidant for delve spells and creatures like Tasigur or Baleful Strix, BUG was the only blue archetype to reach the semifinals at the NYSE. With green and black, the color palette supports matchups against Oath, Shops, and Dredge. Abrupt Decay is a natural answer to Monastery Mentor. Without Gush, BUG stills can be outdrawn by its URx cousins, but pilots running Mentor cannot use Gush as efficiently as in the past and are more vulnerable to Wasteland than less ambitious Delver and Pyromancer decks. URW decks running Swords to Plowshares instead of Lightning Bolt are also without the strong tempo plan that BUG itself lacks.

While at least one BUG list did very well at the event, the two most notable attackers of the projected metagame were Bomberman and Landstill. Bomberman attacks the structural weakness of Priest and Cage. They were the graveyard hate people were running, and neither did anything to impose upon Bomberman's combo. Landstill, with all its creature removal and land destruction, is set up to prey on Gush manabases and small critters all day long. Both Bomberman and Landstill found a way to attack the blue pseudo-mirrors outside of the red zone while simultaneously boasting a large manabase for their games against Workshops. Together with one version of The Answer, a UR control deck built along some similar lines, these decks made up more than a quarter of those top nineteen, second among super-types only to Workshops.

Again, Containment Priest and therefore Mentor play a crucial role here. Had so many Gush decks not started running white for Mentor, had those decks not had access to Containment Priest, Oath, generally in BUG colors, would have likely remained the most valid metagame answer for a field heavy with Shops and Gush creature decks. It was Priest's introduction to the format via Monastery Mentor that disrupted the three-pronged top tier we saw at Vintage Champs in October. At the NYSE, Priest essentially swapped in Bomberman and Landstill for Oath as the blue deck positioned well against both Workshops and Gush. Priest, therefore, strengthened Dredge's position twofold. First, she softened sideboards by encouraging players to run an excess of the more versatile Cage effects rather than harder and narrower grave hate like Ravenous Trap, Rest in Peace Tormod's Crypt, or Leyline of the Void. Secondly, Priest significantly weakened Oath's candidacy for high finishes, meaning that late in the tournament, Dredge would be free from one of its worst matchups.

On another axis, UWR deck's heavy reliance on Dack Fayden and preference for Mentor weakened another one of Dredge's best combatants, Grixis. Before Mentor pushed so many decks into running white, green splashes mean that Delver often ran some number of Trygon Predators rather than solely Dack Fayden. Trygon was important for the Oath matchup, then considered quite a bad one for the archetype, and was also a house against Shops. Trygon did not, however, do much to stop an incoming Blightsteel Colossus, and the flying beast was a turn slower at disrupting Vault Key than Dack. Mentor, by replacing Trygon with Dack, weakened Grixis. That UWR decks have a threat better able to race Tinker bots and unconditional removal in the form of Swords to Plowshares is just a bonus. White was such an important change in the format. I have written about Mentor so much because the card is responsible for the broad injection of white into the metagame, and that has had profound and cascading effects. UWx control decks would have run Priest anyway, and they did, but Mentor brought Priest to see play at a critical mass.

As for Dredge, late in the swiss, Landstill and Bomberman were too relieved of their matchups against Grixis, Oath, or more aggressive blue combo, and were free to attack the Gush and Workshops decks they had been designed to beat.

The problem for Gush decks is that neither Oath nor Grixis were especially problematic matchups to begin with. Oath, certainly, is a challenge for Delver pilots who refuse to run green. With green, though, Delver can put together a more than respectable anti-Oath plan with Cages, Nature's Claims, and Trygons. Grixis was never a bad matchup to begin with. Moving to Mentor and Priest, while perhaps increasing the archetype's raw power level, strengthened it in the wrong matchups. Mentor does little to improve Gush decks against Workshops or against Dredge.

The problem, though, was that Mentor was and is a trump in the Gush mirror, making it risky not to run some number oneself. RUG Delver gained a new and treacherous matchup in various constructions of UWR Mentor. With sideboard space already so taxed, RUG Delver really could not afford more than one slot for Mentor, and it's not clear to me that it can even afford the one. Sideboarding into some number of Sudden Shocks and Sulfur Elementals is certainly tempting, but this directly weakens the deck in its games against Oath, Dredge, and Workshops.

Fortunately, UWR Gush deck's weakness to Dredge is far from inherent. It's just that the sideboard plan of running both Priest and Cage is so extremely efficient that it is difficult to resist.

In several ways, therefore, Priest was the single most important card at this most recent NYSE. She had multiple effects on the tournament, and ultimately served to weaken, not strengthen, Gush deck's positioning. Mentor and Priest, by hating out Oath and Grixis, actually created more play space for Gush's less favorable matchups. Going back further still, we see that Priest was only able to see so much play because of Delver's popularity as propagated by Treasure Cruise, the VSL, and, ultimately, Vintage's arrival to MTGO.

New Beginnings

Magic Origins will change the metagame, but it is difficult to say how. I don't think any of the cards people have been talking about will have much of an impact on the format. If Gifts Ungiven were any good right now, Macabre Waltz would be a spell to watch, as its synergy with Snapcaster Mage is tremendous. Short of that, I eagerly await the opportunity to Pyroblast a Day's Undoing and Spell Pierce a Dark Petition.

Macabre WaltzGifts UngivenSnapcaster Mage

At least one of these is unplayable

2 Comments

An excellent if lengthy by Paul Leicht at Mon, 07/13/2015 - 01:36
Paul Leicht's picture
5

An excellent if lengthy analysis of the paradigm shift of the format.

As for the new cards, isn't there a white instant that has some promise to be interesting?

I love the article. It's by Joe Fiorini at Mon, 07/13/2015 - 07:26
Joe Fiorini's picture
5

I love the article. It's in-depth, informative, and it's about the best format ever (my personal bias)! I'm glad to have another Vintage writer to bounce ideas off.

I only have one suggestion: Go to reddit's mtgvintage subreddit and The Mana Drain and post links for your articles. People can't read what they don't know about. I was shy at first about sharing my work, but once I started sharing it I realized that people like it.

Keep up the good work Wappla!
P.S. I also enjoy the work of Elizabeth Moss on Madmen. :)