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By: wappla, wappla
Aug 26 2015 11:00am
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Vintage has its champion. On Sunday, August 23rd, 460 competitors convened in Philadelphia for ten rounds of swiss. When spells stopped flinging, we had a clean cut to a Top 8. Here were the seedings at the end of swiss rounds.

  1. Brian Kelly - Dragonlord Oath
  2. Michael Herbig - UWR Mentor Midrange
  3. Sullivan Brophy - Dredge
  4. Paul Mastriano - Hangarback Ravager MUD
  5. Rich Shay - Hangarback Ravager MUD
  6. John Grudzina - UWR Planeswalker Control
  7. Robert Greene - UBR Midrange
  8. Ryan Eberhart - URw Delver

Decklists are up at Wizards

In the top 8, Brian Kelly piloted his Oath past Eberhart on Delver, Mastriano on Workshops, and finally Greene on his enthusiastic Grixis list. Vintage had its champion, and that champion was Brian Kelly, and his deck was Oath.

So, in the end, Oath had returned to the top. Kelly’s Oath is dramatically different from Mark Tocco’s winning list from a year ago. In a format that lost Treasure Cruise, and gained Containment Priest and Monastery Mentor, this was continuity through evolution. As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Here is what won:


Brian wrote a tournament report on this archetype several weeks ago. If this deck caught you by surprise or you had never heard of it, I highly recommend reading that article.

The deck benefits from the same positioning that helped Oath perform well at last year’s championship. I have written at length about Containment Priest and Mentor’s adverse effects on Oath, and the archetype has not performed well in the calendar year. Kelly won this event because he was able to couple the inherent strategic power of the card Oath of Druids with a plan for evading, rather than destroying, the hate.

By using Dragonlord Dromoka and Auriok Salvagers, Kelly can just win without needing to do anything about a Containment Priest or a Grafdigger’s Cage. And, unlike more traditional Bomberman– several of which finished in the Top 32– Kelly can win without his Graveyard, lest it be removed from the game via splash Dredge hate in the form of Leylines, Rest in Peace, or Tormod’s Crypt.

It must be said that Oath was better positioned at Champs, especially late in the tournament, than it was at NYSE. This was because Oath did so poorly at NYSE and because Dredge did so well. Dredge had been highlighted by many as a favorite for the championship and several pilots had been putting up results with frightening transformational plans. This wax and wane of Dredge and Oath over the summer made it reasonable to move towards stronger Dredge hate and away from Cage and Priest. Rather than six Cage effects, people shifted towards five and a Rest in Peace or some number of Tormod’s Crypts, and they were entirely correct in doing so. But a window had opened for Oath, once again.

Brian played a similar list at the NYSE Open III, finishing 5-3. He made some significant changes between these two major events. In fact, he cut black entirely. An Oath of Druids list without Demonic Tutor. If that doesn’t strike you as revolutionary, we have different definitions of the word.


“I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m here to rescue you."



Salvagers gives Kelly to win the turn he activates Oath. It also is a win condition that works regardless of what his opponent is doing to fight Oath itself. As he said after the finals match, it’s his version of Vault Key, and boasts significant advantages over that combo. Most importantly, Black Lotus is a much better card than Time Vault or Voltaic Key. Salvagers evades Mental Misstep, Dack Fayden, and artifact removal. Oath often makes it a one card combo, and when it doesn’t, other good stuff is usually going on. Unlike Dromoka and Griselbrand, it wins through Karakas.

Luke Skywalker and Auriok Salvagers have a couple things in common. They are both good at moving around small objects, whether it's an X-Wing out of a swamp or a Lotus out of a Graveyard. They also don’t die to Lightning Bolt.

Not dying to Lightning Bolt or Pyroblast is pretty big game. Brian Kelly generates a significant amount of virtual card advantage by having win conditions that don’t care about Mental Misstep, Flusterstorm, Pyroblast, or the aforementioned Bolt.


“Don’t underestimate the Force.”



Salvagers is a real threat, but it’s not scary the way Griselbrand is scary. Sometimes you just want the biggest baddest guy you can get. If Brian had been all in on Salvagers, then his Oath becomes less scary. Opponents could just attack with creatures and have some grave hate. Griselbrand is what makes Oath a control card. Like Vader, he’s the enforcer. They make sure people don’t get too cute. Against a wide field like the one Brian took down, there are plenty of people who tend to underestimate the power of just Oathing up Griselbrand.


“She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”


Ok, so neither is actually a bird.

Regardless of anatomy, Dragonlord Dromoka, like the Millennium Falcon, will get you there fast. Dromoka is better than a second Griselbrand for a couple reasons. With Dromoka, a second or third Oath activation means that sometimes you can have both Griselbrand and Dromoka in play. In games where just power on board matters, like against a stalled out game against Workshops, that’s two huge lifelink fliers instead of one. Dromoka is also castable, meaning sometimes Containment Priest and Grafdigger’s Cage are just dead cards.

Overall, diverse paths to victory and a good deal of raw power gave Brian the tools to pilot through 13 rounds of Vintage with a single loss. I wanted to celebrate this list a bit, and it deserves more shine than given here. A format whose champion is the only person in the room playing Dragonlord Dromoka, and who goes 12-1-1 through the most oppressively hateful and most degenerate Magic ever devised, is truly a fine Vintage.


“Now, that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time.”




But what I really want to do is talk about Jace. I mean you never really forget about Jace, but we kind of forgot about Jace.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the most powerful unrestricted card in Vintage. Arguments can be made for Mishra’s Workshop, but other than that nothing really comes close. Oath is decent, but only in Oath decks. Gush is really good, but it is not on the same raw power level that Jace is. Nothing is, actually. Go read all the words WoTC printed on Jace again. That card is really good.

We all knew this already, of course. But we had forgotten, perhaps. This year’s final match featured two decks with Jace. That hasn’t happened since 2010, Jace’s very first Vintage championships, the year that Owen Turtenwald beat Bob Maher in the BUG Inkwell Leviathan mirror match. Jace is so powerful he is format-warping, even in apparent absentia. Young Pyromancer is amazing because of Jace. Mishra’s Factory is necessary because of Jace. Pyroblast is maindecked because of Jace. Lightning Bolt is played over Swords to Plowshares because of Jace. Take any one of those examples and there are cascading effects on the format.

If we lived in a world without Jace, and so all these decks just ran Swords to Plowshares, Auriok Salvagers is so much worse. Dromoka is so much worse. Hangarback Walker is so much worse. Kuldotha Forgemaster is so much worse. Monastery Mentor, which actually performed quite well at the championship, would get a lot worse, but not really because Swords can remove it. Mentor gets a lot worse in a world of Swords because once Gush decks run Swords it makes a lot of sense to also run Mentor, rather than Pyromancer. The pure tempo plan is less realistic if Swords is your removal strategy. Gone is the reach of Lightning Bolt, and your opponent will gain life whenever your remove something. The upshot is that a more hybrid control plan with Mentor is more attractive. This makes cards like Sudden Shock, Sulfur Elemental, and Dread of Night more relevant, along with just more basic or strategic anti-Mentor plans. A hypothetical consolidation of Gush token decks to Mentor would make the monk a lot easier to beat. Take any format staple that is played mostly because of Jace, and there are quite a few, and remove it and watch the dominoes fall. Jace, the Metagame Sculptor.

Jace and Hangarback Walker were the breakout cards of Eternal Weekend. The Top 8 had seven Jaces in four decks. That’s a lot. In places 9th through 32nd of this year’s event, there were nine additional pilots running Jace. Last year’s Top 8, by comparison, saw only Tocco’s winning Oath list to run Jace. Oath has gone back to back, but so has Jace.

Jace has actually gone four for six in Championship winning decks since being printed.

  • 2010 - Jace
  • 2011 - Dredge
  • 2012 - Jace
  • 2013 - Merfolk
  • 2014 - Jace
  • 2015 - Jace

That’s almost as good a rate as Ancestral or Time Walk.

Brainstorm is restricted, and Jace lets you Brainstorm every turn. It also is a win condition by itself. It also bounces creatures. Every deck capable of playing Jace, plays Jace. It is no different than Treasure Cruise or the fixed Treasure Cruise, Ancestral Recall. Look at the decks in this year's Top 8 that didn’t run Jace: Dredge, Workshops, Workshops, Delver. The thing they all have in common, outside of not running Jace, is not being able to cast him.

The return of the Jedi is in many ways the natural, long-run outcome of Monastery Mentor. Mentor simultaneously shifted aggro-control up the mana curve both delaying the turn all the tokens arrive and making it possible for some Gush decks to play Jace. In a world of turn 3 Mentor instead of turn 2 Pyromancer, Jace just gets better. In a world with so much white, and, crucially, incrementally more Swords to Plowshares rather than Lightning Bolts, Jace just gets a bit better.

Mentor is far from the only party responsible. In a format where not all the Gush decks rely on artifact accelerants, and a format where Dack Fayden makes stuff like Vault Key less scary, Null Rod gets a lot worse. Incidentally, Null Rod is probably the single best card against Brian Kelly’s winning list. There were just three decks with Null Rod in the Top 32: Hangarback Workshop, Stax, and Landstill. And there were zero in the Top 8. If all your Moxen are always on, paying four mana for Jace doesn’t seem that bad.

In a format without Treasure Cruise but with Dig through Time, Jace gets a lot better. Whereas previously tutoring for Jace is far too much investment for a card that doesn't immediately win the game and cost four mana itself, Dig through Time gives decks the capacity to incidentally find Jace for two mana at instant speed and get another card as well. Compared to Vampiric Tutor for Jace or Demonic Tutor for Jace, both highly questionable lines in the abstract, end of turn Dig through Time finding Jace and anything else borders on the ridiculous.

In some ways, the return of the Jedi is just a return to the natural order of things. Maybe Treasure Cruise was just a strange time best forgotten.

Brian Kelly may well have won the Vintage Championship because his Jace was just better than everyone else's. The best cards against Jace are very bad against the rest of Brian's deck. Lightning Bolt is a stone blank. Pyroblast is fairly weak. Fast creatures are distinctly not the way to beat Oath if you can’t keep it from resolving.

Furthermore, by running just seven counterspells, Kelly’s Jace activations find a ratio of business and control that’s just much better at winning the game than is typical. In most blue decks, Jace finds draw spells and countermagic, and maybe eventually ramps up to threaten ultimate. It can close out the game through value. Kelly’s Jace can do that, but it can also just win the game. Sometimes the Jace won’t be able to stick around forever. Sometimes it is just an expensive Brainstorm, gain three life, or an expensive Brainstorm, target opponent discards a Pyroblast. That one Brainstorm is likely to do a lot in Kelly’s list. It’s significantly less likely to just find a Force of Will than usual. The man played with less than a playset, because all things in moderation.

Kelly has argued that Force of Will is not a very good card. Usually it’s somewhere between a Merfolk Spirit Guide and a Dark Ritual. It allows you to tap out on your turn or spend your mana doing other things, then you pitch a card to generate enough mana to play a counterspell. Consider this example: We have three dual lands in play. Our hand is Yawgmoth’s Will, Dark Ritual, Mana Drain. In the extreme short run, assuming we just want to cast Yawgmoth’s Will and need to protect it, this hand is identical to one of Yawgmoth’s Will, blue card, Force of Will.

In some decks, a blue Ritual is very bad. In some decks, it’s actually pretty good. Brian has 17 land and 25 mana sources; a Dark Ritual really isn’t a card he needs. But in a Gush deck, with 17 mana sources but significantly more card draw, pitching a card to generate some blue mana to play a counterspell is pretty respectable. Force of Will and a blue card is generally just better than counterspell and blue Ritual because the card we pitch to Force generally has more utility than a ritual. It’s easy to see how a hand of Preordain, Force of Will is so much better than a hand of blue Ritual, Counterspell. Force of Will is better than the alternatives, even when it’s a bad card, you still run three because you have to.

What I think Brian realized is that countermagic– not just Force of Will, but the entire class of cards- just isn’t that good right now. In a format of Workshops and Dredge, and decks full of Gush, Pyromancer, Mentor, and Dredge, counterspells just aren’t so great. Once Mentor is in play, for example, it often doesn’t matter if a given spell resolves or not. And on the Workshop side of things, the dramatic moves to Arcbound Ravager and Hangarback Walker, in consideration of the mirror and sideboard cards like Pulverize, also make Force of Will worse. Mastriano and Shay, for example, just have too many threats for Force of Will to contain.

And then, of course, there is the Millennium Falcon, Dragonlord Dromoka. Make sure you read that card before you use the Force on it.


Correction: Brian's overall by wappla at Wed, 08/26/2015 - 12:52
wappla's picture

Correction: Brian's overall record was actually 12-1, not 12-1-1 as stated above. All the more impressive!

Good work as always! Keep it by Joe Fiorini at Wed, 08/26/2015 - 17:13
Joe Fiorini's picture

Good work as always! Keep it up!