So Many Insane Plays – A Time For Grixis Control and Other Thoughts on the Vintage Metagame

The night before the Vintage Championship I struggled to decide what I would play. As recounted in my GenCon Vintage Champs report, I had decided I would play Cobra Gush in the prelim tournament, based upon my conclusion that it was the best Gush option. Despite my strong performance, I still sensed – inchoately – that UBR Confidant/Jace Control might actually be a better option, especially in a Workshop heavy metagame. I had just such a list drawn up and ready for testing that night.

I said in my report:
“I entertained the idea of playing a URB Control deck with a pair of Goblin Welders and 4 Dark Confidants and 4 Jaces, similar to my Strix Control deck, but decided that Cobra Gush was still my best bet to bring home a painting.”

What I didn’t say in my report was that I had actually built, sleeved, and tested that list with Brian Demars in the hotel room that night. The RUG Delver match was close – too close for comfort. My Cobra Gush list had a much stronger Delver matchup, and having gone 3-0 against Workshops in the prelim tournament with Gush Cobra, I decided not to audible.

One of the things that I had inchoately perceived was the importance of mana accelerants like Mana Vault. I wanted big mana plays like Mana Vault and Tolarian Academy. By the end of the Vintage Championship, I could better understand why: the last time that Workshop decks were dominant in Vintage, the answer was Turbo Tezzeret.

Turbo Tezzeret decks maxed out on mana acceleration like Mox Opal, Grim Monolith, and Voltaic Keys to be able to accelerate around Lodestone Golem. The printing of Phyrexian Revoker gave Workshops a simple answer to the Tezzeret, but the basic design principles of maximizing artifact acceleration to evade Workshop prison tactics remains the same.

At the same time, these decks have great matchups against Dredge because they have plenty of hate, and can even maindeck tactics like Nihil Spellbomb.

Only a few rounds into the Vintage Championship I regretted my decision not to audible to UBR Control. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out exactly how to tune it. Although I had created a succesful Baleful Strix deck a few months earlier which had seen adoption by others, I knew I didn’t want to play with Baleful Strix for this tournament. Nonetheless, I had a pair of Goblin Welders in my deck , largely for tactical reasons (which I will explain later). Yet I wasn’t confident in a lot of my choices, and did not have much time to ruminate and reflect.

After my disappointing performance in the Vintage Champs main event, I decided that I would play the deck I had built for the Vintage Championship in my next Vintage tournament. That opportunity arose at Vacaville, California, at Olde World Games. About a week before the tournament, I drafted up this list:

Grixis Control, by Stephen Menendian

[Business] (36)
Dark Confidant
Jace, The Mind Sculptor
Force of Will
Flusterstorm
Mana Drain
Tezzeret the Seeker
Time Vault
Voltaic Key
Tinker
Blightsteel Colossus
Yawgmoth’s Will
Ancestral Recall
Time Walk
Hurkyl’s Recall
Demonic Tutor
Vampiric Tutor
Mystical Tutor
Merchant Scroll
Thirst For Knowledge
Brainstorm
Ponder
Nihil Spellbomb
Goblin Welder

[Mana Sources] (24)
Black Lotus
Lotus Petal
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Mana Crypt
Sol Ring
Mana Vault
Tolarian Academy
Scalding Tarn
Misty Rainforest
Polluted Delta
Underground Sea
Volcanic Island
Island
Library of Alexandria
[Sideboard] (15)
Leyline of the Void
Yixlid Jailer
Red Elemental blast
Pyroblast
Ingot Chewer
Lightning bolt
Mountain

Card Explanations

4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Jace is simply the best unrestricted blue draw spell in Vintage, and I’m pretty sure everyone knows this by now. When you have as much mana acceleration as I have, and Mana Drains to support, you want to max out on Jace to give yourself the best chance of playing it as early as possible. Jace superiority is one of the keys to contemporary Vintage, and I want to have the Jace edge in every blue mirror.

The feature of Jace that I find problematic and troubling is the fact that the person who gets Jace on the table first has such a tremendous advantage in the Jace war. Playing a Jace when your opponent has one in play already does nothing more than simply remove theirs, and yet they’ve already moved ahead of you in card advantage by replacing the Jace with a Jacestorm, or card quality by fatesealing you.

It actually amazes me that so many players run just 2-3 Jace. In my view they just don’t get it. Not only is Jace one of the most important cards in contemporary Vintage, but the marginal cost of additional Jace is quite low. Not only can you pitch additional Jaces to Force of Will if you feel you can protect your Jace on board, but more importantly, Jace allows you to naturally put additional Jaces back into your library.

4 Flusterstorm
Some players have asked me why I play 4 Flusterstorm, since I appear to be the only person doing that currently. My honest response to that is: good. Like Jace, I think one of the keys to contemporary Vintage, and the blue mirror in particular, is Flusterstorm superiority. My Cobra Gush deck and Doomsday lists reflect this simple fact.

8-10 years ago, the key to the blue mirror was Red Elemental Blast superiority. The Control deck that could feasibly run more Red Elemental Blasts/Pyroblasts than the opponent usually had the edge in the control mirror. My 2003-2004 era Psychatog decks would bring in 5 Red Blasts post-board as a trump. Today, Flusterstorm is that card. But unlike Red Elemental Blast, you can maindeck Flusterstorm as it’s great against everything except for Workshops.

Flusterstorm has many advantages:

  • The ability to generate card advantage by countering mulitiple spells on the stack.
  • Being virtually uncounterable.
  • Being a virtually hard, one mana counter for early Ancestrals, Tinker, and Yawgmoth’s Will.

While most people view Flusterstorm as a defensive card, Flusterstorm is actually one of the best proactive counterspells for certain kinds of threats, and Jace in particular. Here’s key point though: If I play a Jace, there are only a limited number of counterspells my opponent can use: probably Force and Drain. Flusterstorm is probably the best counterspell you can use to protect a Jace. It’s a one mana hard counter that will almost guarantee your Jace resolves. I explained this point in my Vintage Champs/Cobra Gush report, but it’s true here as well. Given how central Jace is to my deck’s game plan, I want Flusterstorm to protect it.

The reason I can get away with 4 maindeck Flusterstorms, while most decks can’t, is because I have 0 Mental Misstep. I can also get away with 0 Mental Misstep because I don’t run Snapcaster Mage. Decks with Snapcaster Mage probably have both Mental Misstep and Lightning Bolts maindeck. Since I run neither, I can go next level and just play 4 Flusterstorm for counterspell superiority. This makes my deck more controlling and dominant in control mirrors.

2 Mana Drain
Mana Drain is an excellent way to accelerate out a Jace. I could even see playing 3 in this deck. Mana Drain is truly a hard and versatile counter, and great against Workshops as well. Mana Drain and Force of Will are my first line of defense in the sense that they can target anything. Flusterstorm backs them up, and gives them a harder, firmer edge.

1 Tezzeret, the Seeker
Tezzeret is the next best Planeswalker and unrestricted blue bomb (although Gifts Ungiven is close, albeit Restricted). As you know, Tezzeret tutors up and activates Time Vault. What I like about Tezzeret is that it will win the game the next turn as long as it remains in play. I wanted 2 Tezzerets, but couldn’t justify it against non-blue decks. Tezzeret also has the feature of being able to find a Nihil Spellbomb, which I run maindeck.

1 Thirst For Knowledge
Thirst is one of the most broken draw spells of all time, and people still don’t appreciate how insane it is. With a Nihil Spellbomb, and max artifact acceleration like Lotus Petal and Mana Vault, Thirst is a premier draw spell and almost always played for maximum value. The Goblin Welder interaction is just gravy in this deck.

1 Goblin Welder
Goblin Welder is technically the 60th card in this deck. Welder does the following things:

  • Recurs Nihil Spellbomb against Dredge (and for a slow source of card advantage).
  • Serves as an answer to opposing Blightsteel Colossus.
  • Is highly disruptive against Workshop decks.
  • Recurs countered and aggressively played Time Vault combo pieces (and lets you be more aggressive about assembling this combo).
  • Helps generate mana by recurring Black Lotus or Lotus Petal.

It’s the last ability that is not well appreciated. I can appear to be entirely tapped down, and can Weld Black Lotus or Lotus Petal into play to cast Flusterstorm or Mana Drain. These trick plays can actually lead directly to game wins. And they are a big reason I play Lotus Petal.

I lost in the top 4 in a very close match to a Grixis Control mirror that came down to 1 mana in the two close games. In the first game, my opponent had turn one Swamp, Duress, Mox Sapphire, Ancestral Recall, and turn two Jace, and I still almost won that game. I assembled Key/Vault, but lacked the mana to activate it that turn to win. In game 2, I Drained into a Jace to easily win. In game 3, I was able to drop a turn three Jace with Mana Drain protection, but my opponent was able to force through Key & Vault (with the help of Mana Drain mana from Mana Draining my Mystical Tutor on his previous endstep), and a blind Top activation found the mana he needed to go off and seal the victory.

Closing Thoughts

I think this deck and variants of it are very well positioned going forward. The most popular variants of Grixis Control have more Snapcaster Mages and use Lightning Bolt and Mental Misstep. I appreciate the synergies there, but I also appreciate their limitations. Those decks may be better suited against Delver decks, but I prefer this configuration in the mirror.

As I wrote in my set review, Rest in Peace is the best card in Return to Ravnica, and also significant for how it rearranges the color pie. Rest in Peace is such an attractive option that once Ravnica is in Vintage, we may very well see decks with more white for Rest in Peace and Swords to Plowshares. This may make Rest in Peace not simply the best card from Return to Ravnica, but arguably the most important white card in Vintage.

Until – or if – that happens, I expect Grixis Control to continue to be the dominant strategy in Vintage. It has the best combination of Dredge, Workshop, and blue matchups in the format. My list is built on some unorthodox options, but nonetheless effective ones.

Until Next Time,

Stephen Menendian