The last couple of weeks have been awkward in Vintage. Tournaments have been ongoing under the specter of incoming changes from both the release of Fate Reforged and possible restrictions (or unrestrictions?). It’s quite possible that the anticipation (across multiple formats) of this week’s B&R update was higher than any point since Caw-Blade dominated Standard in the Spring of 2011. Clearly, the Delve spells from Khans of Tarkir have significantly impacted every format the cards are (read: were) legal in.
The expectation was that the B&R list would bring some changes to Modern where Treasure Cruise was believed to have warped the format in a way that has traditionally led to changes (c.f. Deathrite Shaman, others). On the other side of the Modern coin was a deck that has consistently put up winning results as the highest levels of competitive Modern play, even in spite of Cruise’s perceived dominance: Birthing Pod. In the end, Cruise was simply a better card than more than half of the cards already on the Modern banned list thus for that fact alone it deserved to go. Dig Through Time was just collateral damage and probably would’ve been a very small downgrade for all of the 4x Cruise decks in Modern had it been left unbanned.
Nonetheless, Vintage also saw a profound change once Khans was released. Treasure Cruise quickly found a place in Delver decks, bumping the archetype from “a really good deck” to “one of, if not the, best deck” overnight. Despite many protests to the contrary, Cruise proved to be an absurdly powerful card and Dig Through Time had been picking up steam in certain decks that were more interested in finding Restricted trump cards or combo pieces rather than simply drawing three random cards off the top of your library.
In case people had forgot, URx Delver was already a good deck prior to Khans. Just one look at the Vintage Masters Championship this past August shows that Delver had the legs to stand on its own even without a single Treasure Cruise. Delver isn’t going to go away, rather it will adapt and look eerily similar to what it did before except that it will have 1 Cruise and perhaps other Delve cards in the place of the 3 Cruises. In my last article I mentioned that Temporal Trespass could be useful in Delver decks, even with Cruise as a 4-of. Dig Through Time isn’t in the same league as Cruise when it comes to card advantage, but it is light years better in card quality. The double blue and triple blue in Dig/Trespass respectively are the only real reasons those cards wouldn’t see play in Delver going forward, especially against Workshops. Delver’s manabase is built around being able to cast most of their cards for a single mana, thus allowing them to either find more answers/threats and or play them on the same turn. That said, I expect Delver decks to look something like this going forward:
Looks pretty similar, right? Well, that’s because it is. The Delver formula of cheap threats and answers is still potent. With only 1 Cruise, the deck can’t reload in the mid-game like they have been able to the last 3+ months, but it is still a good deck choice going forward in Vintage. For all those Vintage Delver players on MTGO, I’d avoid selling your cards in the wake of this announcement. Your deck is still good, you just won’t have as many “free” wins on the back of chaining Cruise into Cruise within the first 4 turns of the game.
The easy thing to do is to predict how Delver changes as a result of the Restriction of Cruise. The more difficult part is predicting what might happen to other cards/decks in the format. Going back in time to pre-Khans Vintage, you’ll see a few decks that have virtually disappeared in the last 3 months, namely BUG and Slaver.
I’m no expert in BUG decks, but from my point of view they were forced out of the metagame because Delver was faster and more resilient; in short, Delver Delved harder than BUG could get their game plan going. BUG wasn’t suited to play a critical number of Delve cards and relied on card advantage from Dark Confidant and card quality such as Abrupt Decay, black Tutors, and Jace. Wasteland also fueled opposing Cruise’s and Deathrite Shaman was not nearly enough to curb people from Cruising at will. Thanks to all of the other creatures in Vintage, Dark Confidant rarely lived to see an upkeep with all the removal spells running around, too. It seemed like the perfect storm to push out BUG decks.
With Cruise restricted, I’m still on the fence about BUG decks making a return. BUG decks will have to adapt to not only Delver and Young Pyromancer running around, but also Monastery Mentor. BUG decks previously only utilized a potent 1-for-1 removal spell (Decay) which usually loses the card advantage game against Pyromancer and now Mentor. Only Toxic Deluge is an efficient answer to those decks, but it also wipes out your own battlefield with it, which for a deck that has to attack to win, is usually a losing proposition. I’d like to see BUG decks pick up some other black removal spells (Disfigure, maybe even Murderous Cut?) and maybe even hand disruption, too. I wonder if Tasigur, the Golden Fang might have a home in BUG too, instead of Tarmogoyf or Scavenging Ooze? Deathrite and Delve can help sculpt your graveyard to make Tasigur’s Regrowth ability much more potent. We’ve seen how Snapcaster Mage was hardly affected by Delving with Cruise, so Deathrite might also fit a similar role. Unfortunately Deathrite is a poor mana-dork to cast Delve cards with since it basically reads: “Delve 1 land, add 1 mana of any color to your mana pool.” I’m sure several people out there can’t wait to sleeve up their Bayou again.
The other deck that was seemingly pushed out of the metagame by Cruise was the Control Slaver decks that popped up over the summer. Turns out that paying 2 life and 2 mana to draw 2 cards (Night’s Whisper) is far worse than Delve 7 + 1 mana and draw 3! Obviously, that wasn’t the only reason that deck was pushed out, but it highlights much of what was wrong with Cruise in the first place. Whisper was a perfectly decent card for about 2 months, and it was outclassed in every conceivable way by one card.
So what has changed since those Control Slaver decks were so popular? To be honest, not a whole lot. Presumably with Delver being slightly powered down, Workshop decks and the same Blue decks that were running around this summer will return which is where the Control Slaver decks really shined. I don’t think that Control Slaver decks would want the Delve spells, but a single Cruise/Dig might be fine. Maybe the deck will look something like this:
Aside from the changes that restricting Cruise offers Vintage, perhaps the most exciting is the unrestriction of this card:
In the days of unrestricted Brainstorm, Merchant Scroll, and Thirst for Knowledge, unrestricted Gifts was a powerful engine that consistently put up great results. During its heyday, many an article were written about “Gifts Piles” and primers were made discussing when and where each pile would be applicable. Eventually, all of those cards listed above, including Gifts, would be restricted. Afterwards, Gifts would make an appearance here or there, but it was never a dominating strategy. Additionally, other 4-casts would be printed which would constrain deckbuilding, namely Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but also more recently Notion Thief which plays a similar role to Gifts as an EOT threat.
Another factor that played into the height of the Gifts era in Vintage was how good Mana Drain was to help power-up an unbeatable Gifts pile. I wasn’t around back then, but I can imagine a fairly common play would be to Drain an opposing Gifts and then follow that up with a mainphase Gifts on your turn for virtually free. Drain was such a ubiquitous part of Vintage decks back then because Mental Misstep, Flusterstorm, and Spell Pierce all did not exist. Nearly every deck that I have seen had 8 counter/permission spells: 4x Force of Will and 4x Mana Drain. There were other counters such as Force Spike, but for the most part Drain was a major player. In the last 1-2 years, Drain has been seeing less and less play. Misstep seems to have been the biggest factor in the decline of Drain as the rise of Misstep seems proportional to the decline of Drain. Misstep forces you to play with your own Misstep’s so as to win the “Misstep War” early in the game (fighting over an early Ancestral Recall, for example), before Drain can reasonably be expected to be “online”.
Considering that most of the engine that powered Gifts years ago is restricted and Drain is not as potent as it used to be, how can we use our newfound tool to build new decks? To me, it seems best used as a “combo” tool to find game winning card piles, which admittedly, is similar to how it worked in the past. Gifts rewards players for running other restricted cards as well as flexible singletons. Typically you’d want to search for piles that would include Yawgmoth’s Will and some combination of Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, Voltaic Key, Time Vault, Demonic Tutor, Tinker, Black Lotus, etc. There is also the good ‘ol “value Gifts” piles whereby you search up Force of Will, Mana Drain, Flusterstorm and Mental Misstep, or something similar. Opponent plays a Tinker into Blightsteel Colossus? Fetch out Snapcaster Mage, Chain of Vapor, Steel Sabotage, and Mental Misstep. Need some mana to ramp up to a lethal Tendrils or just force through a Tezzeret? Grab 4 mana sources with your Gifts (Lotus, Mana Crypt, and 2 lands, etc.). Snow-Covered Islands are now back en vogue since you can search up 2 “basic” Islands! The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to building decks and forming Gifts piles!
I really hope a Gifts deck emerges in Vintage that isn’t completely busted and requires an immediate re-restriction of Gifts but adds another element to the overall metagame. Gifts is the most skillful card in Vintage this side of Doomsday. It forces opponents to make perfect decisions with imperfect information. Consider if you search out a pile such as:
Does your opponent know if you have Time Vault already in hand? Can they risk giving you Key and Recall/Walk/Will with the possibility that you already have Vault? These kind of mind games are quite intriguing and why so many people like Vintage in the first place. I’ve seen several people claim that Gifts is their favorite card in the aftermath of its unrestriction.
Snapcaster Mage has created a new set of Gifts packages to work with that hasn’t been fully explored. Noxious Revival, in combination with Snapcaster, is another new card that can extend the reach of Gifts in modern day Vintage by making more focused Gifts piles to target the card(s) you want. The biggest issue with Snapcaster is how mana intensive it is, but it is a strict upgrade to Recoup which used to play a major role in Gifts piles prior to its restriction. Snapcaster can’t be cast from the graveyard, but it can flashback instants while also attacking for 2 and/or being an effective chump blocker. As such, Snapcaster can be used as a way to play your win condition with Gifts, or simply be another part of the “value” Gifts packages listed above.
Another tool in the Gifts arsenal is Regrowth. Similar to Revival, it allows for more flexible Gifts piles to help target the exact cards you need at that moment (assuming you can afford the Sorcery speed drawback). Back when Gifts was running rampant in Vintage, Regrowth was restricted. A typical Gifts Pile with Regrowth might look something like this:
No matter what grouping your opponent chooses, you get access to both Recall and Time Walk (alternatively, insert any other 2 instants/sorceries you may want instead). Worst case scenario you get Snapcaster and Regrowth after having cast Gifts at the end of your opponent’s turn. On your turn you can Regrowth either Recall or Time Walk and then flash back either/or with Snapcaster the following turn (or same turn if you have enough mana).
Are 2-4 Gifts better than 1 Gifts?
The biggest question I have with unrestricted Gifts going forward is not whether the card is good enough for Vintage play. Rather, the question is why would I want to play Gifts now that I can have 2-4 copies in my deck? I see two avenues to take with unrestricted Gifts: Pure Combo or Combo-Control.
Along the lines of “Pure Combo”, Gifts would be used as a double Demonic Tutor to try and end the game on the spot. This can be done by finding the necessary combo pieces to help chain out a lethal Tendrils of Agony. In certain game states you might want to find Dark Ritual, Black Lotus, Gush, Fastbond, Yawgmoth’s Will, etc. Here is a quick and dirty take on what a Gifts Storm deck might look like:
There are many different ways to possibly take such a deck, including adding the more recent evolutions with Young Pyromancer (or now Monastery Mentor) or a Burning Wish toolbox, but each would require a complete retooling of the mana base and would be less reliant on Rituals, Draw 7s, and Necropotence.
The other route to take is a Gifts Control deck. Tezzert-style decks have never had the opportunity to play with unrestricted Gifts and that would be the first place I would look to build a Control deck with Gifts going forward. Here is my first “rough” draft:
Such a deck would aim to play the control game and try to finish the game through Tezzeret (via his ultimate or more likely, Time Vault) or Tinker for (insert your favorite robot here). Gifts is basically replacing Jace in similar lists that have popped up from time to time in Vintage Top 8s. It’s not clear if Gifts is better than Jace in such a deck or not, but it pushes the deck more into the “combo” space than the “control” space that Jace would.
Is Gifts better than Jace?
And therein lies the biggest question I have with unrestricted Gifts in Vintage. Is Gifts any better than Jace? The most interesting aspect of such a question is that 1-2 years ago, such a question would be preposterous: Jace was clearly a better card than Gifts. In today’s creature-heavy Vintage metagame I’m not sure the answer is so heavily weighted in Jace’s favor anymore. With so many creatures running around, Jace’s stock in Vintage has been near (or at) an all-time low. Delver was a particularly brutal deck for Jace to succeed against, be it their cheap efficient creature threats that attack vertically (Delver) and/or horizontally (Pyromancer), counter suite, numerous maindeck Pyroblasts, and of course, Lightning Bolt. Perhaps with the restriction of Cruise, Delver won’t be as omnipresent, but I’m not entirely sure about that. Once people digest the B&R changes and get around to testing Delver with only 1 Cruise, I believe they’ll find the deck nearly as good as it was before. Beyond Delver, there are other Creature-based decks running around that were just as hostile to Jace.
As such, maybe going over the top of those creature decks with Gifts is a better and more active game plan after all? Gifts is almost assuredly going to be better than a 4-mana Brainstorm plus Fog against the creature heavy decks in Vintage that have been preying on Jace over the last year or so, right?
Nonetheless, several deck will still want to rely on Jace instead of Gifts. Consider Bomberman and Grixis Control. Those decks will largely remain unchanged as a result of Cruise’s restriction and neither deck really wants or needs Gifts. I suppose one could argue that Gifts helps Bomberman tutor for the combo pieces. In fact a Gifts pile of Lotus, Auriok Salvagers, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Ancestral Recall seems reasonable, though it requires you to play Esper Bomberman whereas most Bomberman lists these days are strictly UW. Without Yawgmoth’s Will, Gifts piles in Bomberman seem sub-par compared to just casting a Jace. Grixis Control utilizes Time Vault and Voltaic Key and has Yawgmoth’s Will, but Jace seems like a more reasonable and flexible answer that also provides a win condition on its own. I wouldn’t want to be all-in on Tinker or Vault-Key in a Grixis deck.
New hate cards for Gifts
The final piece of the puzzle comes from the various forms of hate that have been printed in the last few years which just happen to also hit Gifts. The biggest offender and found in nearly every deck is Grafdigger’s Cage. While you can still cast and resolve a useful Gifts with an opposing Cage in play, it eliminates those near game-winning piles that include some combination of Snapcaster Mage, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Tinker. Yes, there are tools to fight Cages, but just having to fight through them in the first place is a win for the player playing Cage. Other tools available are traditional passive graveyard hate (Leyline of the Void, Nihil Spellbomb, Rest in Peace, etc.) as well as active Gifts hate in the form of granting a player hexproof (Leyline of Sanctity, Aegis of the Gods, True Believer, Witchbane Orb, and even Aven Mindcensor). Considering most of those cards also hit Oath decks, if Gifts were to ever take off it would likely be short-lived as people adapt their sideboard strategies.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to not state that at the height of Gifts, Workshop decks were nowhere near as powerful as they are today. Lodestone Golem and Thorn of Amethyst had not been printed and most decks involving Mishra’s Workshop were hybrid Blue-Red decks featuring Smokestack and Goblin Welder. They were not the Prison decks that Workshop has evolved into today; their game plan was marketed slower than today’s “get a Sphere into play ASAP” Workshop decks. All these Sphere effects make casting a 4-mana instant quite difficult, to state the obvious, something that makes Gifts less appealing.
A new Vintage
No matter what happens with Gifts, I applaud WotC for taking a risk and unrestricting a card to invigorate a format. If Gifts breaks the format in half, it’s only a couple months until the next B&R announcement. If Gifts does absolutely nothing, or becomes a minor player in Vintage, then it justifies having the card removed from the Restricted list. It seems like a win-win to me. The last couple of years WotC has removed two other cards from the Vintage Restricted list without any serious harm to the format: Regrowth and Fact or Fiction. Hopefully WotC will continue to look at the B&R list and find other opportunities to bring back some cards that are no longer the threats they were when they were originally restricted.
What do you guys think of the B&R Changes? Yea or nay? Would you unrestrict something else if Gifts proves to be a “fair” card in modern Vintage? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
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