Schools of Magic: History of Vintage – 2008

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As the clock turned forward from 2007 to 2008, it would not have been possible to foresee the incredible changes that would occur through the year. The format was rocked by sweeping restrictions, surprising errata, and impactful printings.

A tightly defined metagame allowed a few low key printings to shake the Vintage firmament, including Reveillark and Painter’s Servant. The sturm und drang over the Flash combo, and whether it was the most deadly Vintage deck of all time seemed overheated weeks later with Painter’s Servant making Red Elemental Blast a main deck card, and Dredge making Leyline of the Void the second most played card in the format.

Ultimately, however, the debate over Flash was overshadowed by the so-called “Vintage Apocalypse,” the most sweeping wave of restrictions see in a decade, and then, subsequently, by the simultaneous errata of Time Vault and printing of Tezzeret. Read about all of this and more in this installment of the History of Vintage!

[Begin Free Excerpt From Schools of Magic: History of Vintage – 2008]

The Best Deck Ever?

In his column on StarCityGames.com, Patrick Chapin shared his enjoyment of the current Vintage format, and recounted some pick-up games in Detroit with Brian DeMars (playing Control Slaver) and Luis Scott-Vargas (playing Gush Tendrils). Patrick also relayed LSV’s enjoyment with the format, which LSV characterized this way:

“I like the current format. There are a lot of good interesting strategies and cards. Gush becoming unrestricted surprisingly turned out really well. Storm, GAT, TyrantOath, Flash, Mono-R Workshop and Dredge are all Tier 1 strategies.

I would like to see Gifts Ungiven and Fact or Fiction unrestricted. Drain decks are already underpowered now and I think that with all the Gushes and Spheres floating around there would not be big problems with letting people play these expensive card drawers.”

Patrick revealed that he was still playing Flash, but with the Counterbalance-Top combo, as was successfully accomplished in Legacy (notably by GP Columbus winner Steve Sadin). Patrick had shifted to a theoretical upgrade to the Flash combo deck using a little noticed creature from Morningtide: Reveillark. Here is what Patrick had to say about the innovation:

“The Bubble-Hulk kill is superior to the Sliver kill for a variety of reasons. [N]ow you don’t need an attack phase to kill so you can win at instant speed such as when an opponent cracks a fetch land or in response to a Pact Trigger killing you. This opens up the door to such plays as Merchant Scroll for Flash turn 1. Then Pact of Negation their Trinisphere or Necropotence or whatever. Then Flash on upkeep in response to the Pact trigger. This greatly increases the value of the already amazing Pact of Negations. Being able to randomly Pact anything even a Duress is incredible.”

How does Reveillark improve the Flash combo? Patrick’s explanation remains as pithy as it gets:

“1. Flash a Hulk.
2. Search for a Body Snatcher Carrion Feeder and Mogg Fanatic.
3. Discard whichever piece of the combo you may have in your hand to Body Snatcher (if Snatcher is the piece in your hand just skip straight to Body Double and get the Fanatic when you get Reveillark).
4. Sacrifice Body Snatcher to Carrion Feeder to get back Hulk.
5. Sacrifice Hulk to Carrion Feeder to get Body Double.
6. Sacrifice Body Double copying Hulk to Carrion Feeder to get Reveillark.
7. Sacrifice Mogg Fanatic to deal 1 damage to opponent.
8. Sacrifice Reveillark to Carrion Feeder to get back Body Double and Mogg Fanatic.
9. Sacrifice Mogg Fanatic to deal 1 damage to opponent.
10. Sacrifice Body Double copying Reveillark to Carrion Feeder to get back Body Double and Mogg Fanatic.
11. Repeat steps 9 and 10 until you win.”

In essence, you recycle Body Double over and over again as a Reveillark copy. You sacrifice the Body Double to return itself and Mogg Fanatic into play as many times as you want. Body Double + Reveillark is the engine and Carrion Feeder is the lubrication that keeps the motor running. Hulk is the ignition switch that starts the engine.

As Patrick pointed out, being able to win at instant speed gave a significant boost to Pact of Negation, which could now be used not only to protect the combo, but situationally to disrupt an opponent, and then execute the Flash combo with the Pact trigger on the stack during your following upkeep. The Reveillark kill was not all upside. Unlike the Silver kill, this combo is vulnerable to Tormod’s Crypt. But Patrick provided tips and tactics for playing around threats like Crypt.

The printing of Reveillark, and its incorporation into the Flash combo deck, ignited a firestorm in the Vintage community. Some players were calling it the “best deck ever.” Matthieu Durant, one of my teammates, framed the issue as follows:

“I’ve played Stax with 4 Trinispheres. I’ve played Long with 4 Burning Wish and 4 Lion’s Eye Diamond. I playtested decks with 4 Mind’s Desire before the card got preemptively restricted. I’ve played 4 Memory Jar 4 Tolarian Academies or 4 Yawgmoth’s Bargains back when these were still Constructed legal. I’ve possibly played most of the broken atrocities that have ever been designed in Magic.

Compared to [Vintage] Flash all these broken decks are Block decks. Flash is quite possibly the best deck in the history of Magic. The Reveillark kill has pulled the deck to an extreme raw power level.”

Brian DeMars went further and said that “Flash is the most unfair, absurdly powerful, and non-interactive deck in the history of Vintage.”

By the end of April, the Vintage metagame had indeed shifted quite dramatically. Hulk Flash and Tyrant Oath surged to the top of the metagame, representing 13% and 12% of Top 8s respectively, followed by Workshop decks at 11%, Dredge at 9%, and Storm Combo at 8%. All told, however, Gush decks were still 23.5% of Top 8s. It’s just that Tyrant Oath became the best performing Gush deck and Hulk Flash became the overall best performing strategy.

After deconstructing and rebuilding the deck from the ground-up in a two-part investigation, I asked: “So where does this deck stand in the pantheon of broken and twisted Vintage decks past and present? Some claim that this is more broken than Trinistax Academy Trix or even Long.dec. The comparisons are easy to assert but difficult to evaluate.” Part of what made Flash seem so broken is that it was a fairly linear strategy. Unlike the Academy or Long decks which took circuitous routes to victory, Flash was filled with countermagic and combo parts, and little else. The problem is that it was also uniquely vulnerable to certain forms of hate, such as Leyline of the Void. Ultimately, I drew the following conclusion:

“[O]n paper the argument that Flash is the best deck ever seems plausible, particularly when you compare it to decks that prompted restrictions. But empirically I have not seen it to be true nor do I believe it to be true. It may be true that Hulk Flash could compete or even beat the best decks of Vintage past but that is true of most of the top tier competitors in current Vintage. I’m skeptical of the claim that Flash is the best deck ever let alone the best deck in Vintage the moment. It’s not because I don’t believe them to be true but because I think it remains yet to be determined.”

It would not take long to find out.
[End Free Excerpt]