Eternal Warrior #57: Cutting Through Stone

Last fall I featured a Vintage Painter’s Servant + Grindstone combo deck. The deck was fun to play and had a high level of success. However, there is always room for improvement, and because I am considering this deck for the Vintage events at GenCon this year, I was interested in exploring more facets of the deck which had not come up during my matchplay videos, highlighting some potential flaws in the list I originally played.

Part of the nature of this series is that I’m flitting back and forth between as many as three formats (well, Legacy has been a bit boring lately, but we’ll get back there someday) and from one deck to another. Putting in a hundred hours with a deck to master it isn’t really my style. But it has been obvious on the few occasions in this series when I have revisited a deck, the experiences and the list adjustments have consistently yielded a huge improvement. While I don’t intend to spend the entire year working on one deck — something a top player easily could do with a handful of Vintage decks — I do think it is worth giving Painter a couple more passes to see which alternative builds might play better in my hands. Alternative builds of a deck are fun to explore, and if you spend much time on message boards, you’ll know that arguments between fans of a broad archetype can lead to a lot of very silly fights where people vastly overstate the gulf between their respective opinions. It’s like picking your favorite flavor of ice cream within a narrowly-defined spectrum of flavors and then feeling unjustifiably proud about it like you’re some special little snowflake for having sided with a flavor that the ignorant masses have overlooked. Oh, you like New York Vanilla? Well, that’s okay for some folks, but French Vanilla has more cream, which my testing indicates is the deciding factor in flavor superiority in 60% of taste tests.

Painter combo has been around awhile, and some variation exists. But the first step is to examine what problems the deck faces. Unlike some of the decks I’ve played in the past, the Painter list I started with did not have any substantial problems with basic operation — the mana worked, the pieces fit together, there were no horrible non-bos revealed during playtesting. But some issues that exist with the list were hidden because I either dodged them, or the metagame was not currently presenting those problems.

One obvious issue I overlooked the first time around was the possible presence of Gaea’s Blessing in Oath of Druids decks. While Painter + Pyroblast can eliminate permanents standing in my way, Gaea’s Blessing provides my Oath opponent with an uncounterable shield against being milled out.

There is good reason to think this problem isn’t really a problem anymore. If you were a paper Vintage player primarily, you’d be right to point out that Oath has nearly vanished from tournament results in recent months. Online it retains a real presence however, with just over half a dozen Oath lists finishing x-1 or better in February Daily Events. The majority of these have been traditional Griselbrand lists, with only a couple being the new Void Winnower variant known as “Odd Oath”. We could discuss whether Void Winnower poses any particular problem for Painter — but at the moment I’ll simply point out that, most relevant to this discussion, none of the recent lists have included any copies of Gaea’s Blessing in their 75.

If you’ve been around long enough to have played the old Classic format on Magic Online, you would probably remember Gaea’s Blessing being present in many Oath lists of that un-Powered era. While I can’t pinpoint exactly when or why this shift occurred, it may be related to most of the current Oath lists running 3 Oath targets. Whatever the reason, it appears that you might be able to dodge this issue entirely in the current metagame.

Still, the concern has been raised in past discussions of Painter, so I thought I would share and comment upon the best solutions to the card that I came up with in researching this issue, in case you do run into it. Some of these are from other Painter pilots, and some are my own ideas:

  • With the Gaea’s Blessing shuffle trigger on the stack, cast Ancestral Recall targeting your opponent. He will lose on the spot.
  • If you do not have AR in hand but are ready to combo out, and you are splashing black for Yawgmoth’s Will and have THAT in your hand, you can mill YOURSELF at the opponent’s end of turn. If your deck contains one and only one Blightsteel Colossus, the Grindstone will fizzle leaving you with BSC as your only card in the library. Untap, cast Yawg’s Will, then activate Grindstone on your opponent and cast Ancestral Recall out of your stocked graveyard in response to the Blessing trigger. This has the advantage that you will have tons of countermagic available to protect AR, with the downside that you must have Yawg’s Will in hand and leave yourself only one turn to succeed.
  • If you do not have Yawg’s Will in hand, or do not run a black splash, Mystic Retrieval could be an easy solution. As above, mill yourself EOT leaving BSC in your deck, then untap and cast Retrieval out of your graveyard for it’s 2R flashback cost, getting back Ancestral Recall from your yard, then following the original example from there.
  • You could Stifle the trigger, but Stifle is not usually considered to be Vintage-playable, so this is a narrow solution.
  • Graveyard hate. You could activate Tormod’s Crypt with the shuffle trigger on the stack to exile their yard, or simply exile it as a replacement effect with Rest in Peace or more likely Leyline of the Void. Graveyard hate doesn’t really stop Oath from winning or executing its game plan, so it’s not the sort of thing I’d like to bring in against them.

Here is a short list of other issues which I have considered in revising the deck:

Null Rod effects: Last time, I expressed some concern about not having an answer to Stony Silence. It was pointed out in the comments that Pyroblast was always an answer to any permanent that would prevent me from combo’ing off. That is indeed true so long as Painter’s Servant is in play. Whether I can get to that point with my mana gimped was the question in my mind, but I was ultimately convinced that adding Nature’s Claim to the sideboard wasn’t necessary.

Choice of Tinker-Bot: In my original videos, I opted for Myr Battlesphere, as it killed quickly but wasn’t handled with a single Swords to Plowshares as Blightsteel Colossus often is. There is still an enormous volume of Monastery Mentor decks in the online metagame, so StP remains a concern to me. If I’m okay concluding that I will not adapt the deck to fight the possibility of Gaea’s Blessing until I actually see it increase in play, then I see no reason to switch back to BSC. However, it might be worth testing Inkwell Leviathan. The Inkwell kill is sadly much slower, but it is resilient and can ignore the blockers from Mentor decks. The real question is whether Mentor would have more StP or Hurkyl’s Recall post-board against Painter. Hurkyl’s has enormous synergy with their own deck even when it is a dud against an opponent, and it’s certainly no dud against Painter. It’s a factor to watch out for in making this choice. I think BSC is the conventional choice again at the moment, but whether it’s correct will depend on how people are boarding for you.

Should Painter play Vault-Key? The Voltaic Key + Time Vault combo is one of the simplest and cheapest to toss into any combo-control deck as an alternate win condition. Key has a few synergies with cards that the original list already contains, such as Sensei’s Divining Top to get a double-activation and net a card draw, or with the mana rocks. You might normally want your “backup combo” to attack along a different axis than your main combo, and this shares Grindstone’s vulnerability to Null Rod and Stony Silence. That said, your opponent is less likely to name that with a Phyrexian Revoker or Pithing Needle when playing against you then they would against any other Thirst for Knowledge deck, so you might get some mileage out of this.

What about Helm of Obedience? Could it be worth adding Helm of Obedience + Leyline of the Void combo here? It’s always tempting to shoehorn this combo into anything with tons of artifact mana and card draw. Leyline is so easy to justify as Dredge hate, and Helm only costs you a single card in your sideboard. Similar to Key-Vault, it would be something you Tinker up when Grindstone was shut off for whatever reason. But unlike Key-Vault, it shares Grindstone’s weakness to Leyline of Sanctity or Witchbane Orb. I think it’s worth playing around with, but might just be worse than adding Key-Vault.

Do the Mana Drains belong? Mana Drain is getting a bad rap lately for being far too slow to handle the rising Dark Petition Storm combo decks. Painter is, as we noted last time, an expensive combo. It requires 6 mana to go off in a single turn. I think Mana Drain pulls its weight, but I can’t deny that Storm is a faster combo deck and this deck is not optimally equipped to fight it. Some number of Mindbreak Trap should make the 75, but I have found the trap cost is just no reliable enough against the rest of the field. You can always hypothesize turns and sequences where it would be great against ANY deck in the field, but it rarely works that way in practice.

What about that Gush-Bond engine? I think the jury is still out on this. Unlike some Fastbond decks I’ve played in the past, this list has few tutors. Other Painter pilots have eschewed this package, cutting the Fastbond and playing perhaps only 2 copies of Gush, but I’d like to keep it in for now.

Speaking of tutors… I’ve complained about the black splash in this list as not really pulling its weight. If I’m not going to eliminate it, Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor might need a tryout. This is a combo deck, after all. But it exists somewhere on the spectrum between a control deck with a combo kill, such as Oath, and a pure combo deck. The Pyroblasts let it play a reasonable facsimile of a control game sometimes, so perhaps it doesn’t need to go all in.

I think there are a few different directions I could go with this, and they are somewhat well-defined. One is to add tutors, eliminate Fastbond and the Gush engine, cut the Mana Drains, and aim to stay alive just long enough against the faster combo decks to go all in on my own. Another way is to add resiliency with some sort of backup combo, while trying to maintain or increase the amount of control elements present in the deck. Which route is better?

I’ll be weighing these issues over the next two weeks, and will be back with an updated list — perhaps more than one — and a bunch of new video content then. See you next time!