So Many Insane Plays – Top 8 at NYSE Open 2, a Tournament Report

(Editor’s Note: This was originally published by VintageMagic.com, and has been re-edited and published here for archival purposes, with the approval of the author and VintageMagic.com).

Vintage is a magical playground. The DCI has kindly done me the favor of unrestricting my favorite toys, including Gush in 2010 and Burning Wish in 2012, for my sandbox. From 2012 through the Vintage Championship last year, I played a combo deck called “Burning Tendrils” (known as “Burning Oath” in some quarters), despite briefly playing a Young Pyromancer Grow deck last summer.

It is no secret that I favor Gush strategies in Vintage, having authored an entire book on the card and strategies designed around it. Beyond my authorial ambitions, I have a strong tournament relationship with Gush decks, having been their principal proponent in 2003, contributing to its restriction that year, and then using it to win the Vintage Championship in 2007 when Gush was unexpectedly unrestricted, just a few months before. And, with Gush’s re-unrestriction late in 2010 (it was re-restricted in 2008), I used Gush to get 3rd place in the 2011 Vintage Championship, and to Top 8 The Mana Drain Open 15 (aka The Waterbury) that year as well.

Gush decks occupy and straddle a very important space in the Vintage metagame. They are naturally advantaged against Blue Control decks and Blue/Black combo decks, but equally weak to Workshop strategies. Since most of the top pilots in Vintage gravitate towards Weissman-style blue control decks, a Gush deck in the hands of an equally experienced pilot is a strong weapon. Gush is also a very unique and widely misunderstood card. Most players think that Gush is merely a source of card advantage, but that is only the most superficial dimension of advantage to be derived from Gush. My Gush book sets out a theory of Gush that explains the four distinct forms of advantage generated by Gush, and sets out the strategic orientations that best achieve these forms of advantage.

In this report, I will describe my latest efforts to abuse Gush in Vintage, and for attacking the Vintage metagame more broadly. I will set out my design goals and metagame considerations in designing an optimal Gush decks. I will also describe my tournament performance at the prestigious $100 entry NYSE Open II, held in New York in June 2014 (with 90+ players!), with a play-by-play account. Here is what I played:

URG Delver, by Stephen Menendian – Top 8 NYSE Open 2

Business (43)
Force of Will
Misdirection
Mental Misstep
Flusterstorm
Spell Pierce
Lightning Bolt
Fire/Ice
Ancient Grudge
Mystical Tutor
Gush
Preordain
Ponder
Brainstorm
Ancestral Recall
Time Walk
Delver of Secrets
Young Pyromancer
Snapcaster Mage
Trygon Predator

Mana Sources (17)
Black Lotus
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Scalding Tarn
Misty Rainforest
Polluted Delta
Flooded Strand
Volcanic Island
Tropical Island
Island
Sideboard (15)
Ingot Chewer
Mountain
Nature’s Claim
Grafdigger’s Cage
Leyline of the Void
Pyroblast

Why Delver?

My Burning Tendrils combo deck performed brilliantly at the Vintage Championship – I only lost matches because of user error and horrendous mechanical errors (such as not playing a legal deck after sideboarding). With that said, there was one matchup that I was increasingly concerned about – BUG Control. BUG’s density of countermagic, removal in the form of Abrupt Decay, and mana denial elements (Null Rod and Wasteland) made that matchup a particular challenge for my combo deck. I decided I needed a weapon that would be strong against this strategy. I didn’t have far to look.

With its efficient tempo threats, burn, and the Gush draw engine, I felt that Delver of Secrets-based tempo decks were an excellent answer to BUG Control. Lightning Bolt could pick off opposing threats more efficiently than Abrupt Decay, and the Gush engine entails a superior draw engine and continuous virtual card advantage. I could more than match BUG Control in terms of both actual and virtual density of countermagic. A lighter Workshop presence in my local metagame made Delver a forgone conclusion.

Examining previous efforts to build Gush-based Delver decks in Vintage, I discovered elements I believed were recurring mistakes. First, Delver pilots were still using Tarmogoyf. With the printing of Young Pyromancer, Tarmogoyf is simply outmoded. Tarmogoyf may be the superior attacker, but it is remarkably one-dimensional by comparison. Young Pyromancer can simultaneously attack and block. You can attack with Pyromancer and any number of tokens, and then generate a blocker at instant speed! In that way, Pyromancer dramatically increases the complexity of any given board state for an opponent trying to calculate whether to attack, or which lines of play to pursue. They must always factor in the chance that you can play an instant, such as a Lightning Bolt or Gush, and generate a blocker.

Pyromancer’s “horizontal” growth capacity also interacts with Vintage in other critical ways. It swarms planeswalkers and eludes removal. It is incredibly valuable against tactics like Tangle Wire or Smokestack, and forms a Moat-like defensive barrier against other aggro decks. Pyromancer may not be as strong on offense as Tarmogoyf, but it more than makes up for this weakness with its defensive properties, capacity to generate board advantage, and other tactical contributions. For example, Pyromancer is much stronger against Jace and removal, like Swords to Plowshares or Abrupt Decay. Young Pyromancer can actually match Dredge’s token production capacity under certain conditions (especially with two Young Pyromancers in play).

For players who seek flexible role orientation and versatile game planning, Pyromancer is vastly superior to the far more limited Tarmogoyf. For players who are more single-minded, or focused merely on tempo maximization, Tarmogoyf may be a better weapon. Because Gush decks constructed on “Turbo-Xerox” principles have such a strong late game, I want my Gush decks to have a strong control role. I am more than willing to sacrifice a slightly weakened aggro-tempo role for a much more solid defensive capacity and the myriad other tactical advantages.

Second, some other Delver pilots were not maxing out on Preordain. Preordain is part of the glue that holds Gush decks together in an environment with both Ponder and Brainstorm restricted. Alan Comer famously discovered a formula for designing blue decks around light mana bases by including a critical mass of one-mana cantrips. This formula allowed the blue pilot to make subsequent land drops on a tiny land count by using efficient cantrips to dig up land in the early game, while creating virtual card advantage through superior spell-quality (both naturally drawn and with cantrips) in the late game. Decks without maximal quantities of Preordain need more land and have a weaker late game. Moreover, with Young Pyromancer, running maximum Preordain is a no-brainer.

With these two gaps addressed, it occurred to me that green was perhaps an unnecessary luxury. I decided to play UR Delver locally. Here is what I built:

UR Delver, by Stephen Menendian

Business (43)
Force of Will
Misdirection
Mental Misstep
Flusterstorm
Spell Pierce
Steel Sabotage
Lightning Bolt
Fire // Ice
Merchant Scroll
Gush
Preordain
Ponder
Brainstorm
Ancestral Recall
Time Walk
Delver of Secrets
Young Pyromancer
Snapcaster Mage
Vendilion Clique

Mana Sources (17)
Black Lotus
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Scalding Tarn
Misty Rainforest
Polluted Delta
Flooded Strand
Volcanic Island
Island
Sideboard (15)
Ingot Chewer
Mountain
Grafdigger’s Cage
Leyline of the Void
Pyroblast

In late January, I took this UR Delver deck to a local tournament, and lost in the finals. I made a few minor improvements, and Top 4 split the next local Vintage tournament with the same archetype. The week before the NYSE Open tournament, I ran a version with Dack Fayden, but skimped on Dredge hate in order to accommodate a bit more sideboard space for Workshops, and was promptly hosed by Dredge in the final swiss round, losing to Workshops the round before as well. I needed to return to the drawing board.

Solving the Oath, Dredge, and Workshops Puzzle
In trying to boost my Workshop matchup, I went from this UR Delver sideboard:
4 Ingot Chewer
1 Mountain
2 Pyroblast
4 Grafdigger’s Cage
4 Leyline of the Void

To this one:
4 Ingot Chewer
1 Shattering Spree
1 Mountain
2 Pyroblast
4 Grafdigger’s Cage
3 Ravenous Trap

The result was disastrous. Not only did I lose to Dredge in two games, but I didn’t even win the Workshop match despite winning the first game.

I decided that if I were to play Delver at the NYSE Open, I needed a new plan. The goal was to have a plan that was solid against Oath, Dredge, and Workshop. The problem is that it is easy to build a plan that is great against one matchup, decent against another, but weak in the third. The trick was that some cards were good in two matchups: Nature’s Claim is good against Oath and Workshop, and Grafdigger’s Cage are good against Oath and Dredge, but you need to accommodate cards that are only good in one matchup, like Ingot Chewer and Leyline of the Void. With a 15 card sideboard, how can all of this be accomplished?

It would seem simple enough to simply run Nature’s Claims instead of Ingot Chewer. There are two problems with this. First, Ingot Chewer is much better – it can be played around both Thorn of Amethyst and Chalice of the Void set to 1. I view both Ingot Chewer and Leyline of the Void as automatic, necessary inclusions for their respective matchups. Second, it’s difficult to justify running heavy green when I am already in heavy red (I’d likely have to add a Forest to the sideboard as well). With a 15 card sideboard, and 4 Leyline, 4 Ingot Chewer, and 1 Mountain already spoken for, that leaves only 6 slots, and I really wanted to keep a pair of Pyroblasts in there if possible. That’s not enough room for Grafdigger’s Cage, Nature’s Claims, and possible Trygon Predators. So I began tinkering with possibilities.

Option 1:
4 Ingot Chewer
2 Shattering Spree
1 Mountain
4 Grafdigger’s Cage
4 Leyline of the Void

This configuration gets additional space by cutting Pyroblast, which weakens me against Tezzeret, Merfolk, other Gush decks, and other blue decks. In this configuration, I am very strong against Dredge, decent against Workshop, but perhaps a bit weak to Oath. Given that I expected lots of Oath at the NYSE Open II that was not acceptable.

Option 2:
4 Ingot Chewer
1 Mountain
3 Nature’s Claim
1 Forest
4 Leyline of the Void
2 Pyroblast

In my first attempt to add green to the deck, I’m amazing against Workshops, decent against Oath (although better with 2 Trygons main deck), and weak against Dredge. I needed a configuration that preserves my blue matchup and gives me strong game against Oath, Workshop, and Dredge. Then it dawned on me.

If I just ran a single Nature’s Claim, and a Mystical Tutor to find it, I wouldn’t need the sideboard Forest. I could run a pair of Trygon Predator’s main deck, as I’ve done so many times before, without having to muddle with my mana base much at all. That way, I could get the boost against Workshops and Oath I was looking for without having to sacrifice my Pyroblasts (Pyroblast is better than Red Elemental Blast because it can target any permanent, and is easier to generate Pyromancer tokens with). That led me to my final configuration (full list found towards the beginning of this article).

Option 3:
4 Ingot Chewer
1 Mountain
1 Nature’s Claim
3 Grafdigger’s Cage
4 Leyline of the Void
2 Pyroblast

With this configuration I felt good against Workshops, Oath, and Dredge. My sideboard plans were as follows:

Workshops:
+4 Ingot Chewer
+1 Mountain
+1 Nature’s Claim
+1 Grafdigger’s Cage
-3 Mental Misstep
-2 Misdirection
-2 Flusterstorm

Oath:
+1 Nature’s Claim
+3 Grafdigger’s Cage
+2 Pyroblast
-3 Lightning Bolt
-2 Young Pyromancer
-1 Ancient Grudge

Dredge:
+4 Leyline of the Void
+3 Grafdigger’s Cage
-2 Trygon Predator
-1 Ancient Grudge
-3 Lightning Bolt
-1 Fire // Ice

The loss was Merchant Scroll (cut for Mystical Tutor), and subbing out Vendilion Clique for Trygon Predators. I didn’t mind any of these cuts. Merchant Scroll is best in Gush decks constructed around the GushBond engine. This deck is not oriented that way. Trygon Predator is a nice defensive card, and immune to Darkblast. It’s also great against Workshops, and decent against Oath. I also added an Ancient Grudge in the Dack Fayden slot. I believed that Workshop pilots would be preparing for Dack Fayden by running lots of Phyrexian Revokers. My plan here obviated that dynamic altogether.

I felt confident and prepared for the NYSE Open, and decided to let my mind focus on other things up until the event.

NYSE Open Tournament Report

You can find all of my opponent’s decklists in the full NYSE Open 2 Coverage here.

Round 1 vs. Roland Chang (playing Forgemaster Workshops)
Being paired up against a respected teammate and former Vintage (and Legacy) Champion is an auspicious start to a long day. Roland is the only player to have won a Vintage Championship with Workshops, and is regarded as one of the premiere Workshop players in the world.

Game 1:
I lost the die roll. My opening hand had multiple lands, Force of Will, and a Trygon Predator. I decided to keep it.

Roland opened with a Mox, Mishra’s Factory, and Thorn of Amethyst. I played a fetchland, and passed the turn. On his second turn, Roland played an Ancient Tomb and cast Lodestone Golem, which I Forced pitching a Mental Misstep. On my second turn, I played another fetchland, and passed the turn. On his third turn, Roland cast Sphere of Resistance, which resolved.

I drew another land, which I decided to play. I cast Ponder, and saw a fourth land, so I put it into my hand, and passed the turn.

Roland played a Phyrexian Revoker (naming Black Lotus), and another Mishra’s Factory. He attacked me with the first Factory, activating the other to pump it, bringing me down to 13 life.

On my turn, I played the fourth land, and broke two fetchlands to cast Trygon Predator, and passed the turn. On his turn, he attacked me with a Factory, and pumped it when I did not block, sending me to 8.

On my fifth turn, I attacked with Trygon Predator, but had to decide which artifact to destroy: his Sphere, Thorn, Revoker, or Sapphire. Each card had its own merits. I felt as if the Sphere was preventing him from playing more threats, so Sapphire even had merits. I ultimately felt that my life was too precarious, so I decided to destroy his Revoker. I played a Young Pyromancer, and passed the turn.

Roland attacked me with a Factory, and pumped it again, sending me to 5. He then played another Revoker, which resolved. I untapped and cast a 1 mana spell just to generate a token. I attacked with Trygon, and destroyed his new Revoker.

He played a third Factory, animated the first two Factory, and attacked. I blocked with the token, and took 3, going to 2. From there, I stabilized with Pyromancer tokens. I attacked Roland and killed his Revoker, and then played more cantrips to generate tokens. Roland had depleted his life total with Ancient Tomb activations, and Roland scooped a few turns later.

I sideboarded in:
+4 Ingot Chewer
+1 Mountain
+1 Nature’s Claim
+1 Grafdigger’s Cage
-3 Mental Misstep
-2 Flusterstorm
-2 Misdirection

Game 2:
My opening hand of seven had no mana but my hand of six had just Mox Sapphire, but Ancestral Recall as well. Normally, I wouldn’t keep a hand like this, but it also had Force of Will. As long as Roland only plays one Sphere or Chalice on the first turn I’ll be able to cast the Mox. And even if he does, there is still a chance I may draw a land. I decided to keep it.

Unfortunately, he had two Chalices. I Forced the first, but the second resolved. He played Wasteland, Mox, Mana Vault, Chalice (which I Forced), and then another Chalice set at 0. I luckily drew a land, and passed the turn. He played a second turn Revoker, and I responded with Ancestral Recall, drawing Lightning Bolt, Ingot Chewer, and a blue spell. Despite resolving a first turn Ancestral, I couldn’t find another land until he had resolved a Golem and a Forgemaster.

In the penultimate turn, I could Ingot Chewer his Chalice, play two Moxen under Golem, and cast Bolt on it, but I’d still lose to his Forgemaster simply attacking me. I scooped.

In retrospect, I still am not sure whether to keep hands like that against Workshops. One of the fundamental problems with keeping “Mox” only hands in this deck isn’t simply the fact that they get ruined by Chalice, but that they make it almost impossible to use Gush. You will rarely hit two lands in a row with a Mox hand to turn on a turn three Gush.

Game 3:
On the play, my opening hand was:
Black Lotus
Young Pyromancer
Young Pyromancer
Lightning Bolt
Lightning Bolt
Delver of Secrets
Gush

Playing a first turn Pyromancer and generating a token is not good enough. I threw this hand back, and drew:
Tropical Island
Delver of Secrets
Delver of Secrets
Gush
Mystical Tutor
Ancient Grudge

This hand is only marginally better than the first, and gets blown out by a Wasteland. I was not thrilled with this hand, but decided not to mulligan to 5. If he didn’t Wasteland me, there was a good chance I could also play a turn two Delver. Plus, I could also Mystical for Force if need be.

Turn 1:
I played Tropical Island, Delver. On his first turn, Roland played Mishra’s Workshop, Tangle Wire. This actually works well for me!

Turn 2:
In my upkeep, I floated a mana, and used Delver ability to peek. Seeing that I had a Volcanic Island on top of my deck, I decided not to play Mystical Tutor here. I drew the Volcanic Island, and played it. I decided not to play my second Delver here. With Gush in hand, I can use Mystical to find a Force of Will, and use Gush to draw it if need be, in case he played a Golem. I also need Gush in case he plays Wasteland, and will likely want to Mystical in that case as well. With the Delver in hand, I could pitch it to Force, if need be.

Walking into my trap, Roland played Wasteland and used it on one of my lands, and I responded by playing Mystical Tutor, putting Force on top, and then cast Gush, drawing Force and a fetchland, returning both of my lands to my hand, saving them from his Wasteland.

Turn 3:
I tapped my Delver down to his Tangle Wire, drew another Delver for the turn, and played a fetchland and sacrificed to grab Island, and then cast the Delver. I passed the turn.

Roland played Ancient Tomb and cast Thorn of Amethyst, which I let resolve. I’d be able to cast Force through his Thorn for likely the remainder of the game, so I wasn’t concerned about that, and once my Delvers flipped, I’d quickly win the game. I just needed to out tempo him now.

Turn 4:
I tapped both Delvers to Tangle Wire, and played Tropical Island, and passed the turn.

Roland played a Chalice of the Void set to 1, and at this point I no longer cared. I let it resolve. He attacked me with his Revoker. I did, however, Force his next Tangle Wire, which Ancient Grudge could remove, but not stop.

Turn 5:
I revealed and drew Time Walk, flipping my Delvers. I cast Time Walk and attacked him for a bunch, then did so again.

In a desperation move, Roland played Steel Hellkite, which was immediately dispatched by my still-in-hand Ancient Grudge, which cleared the path for a final attack with a pair of Delvers. Game over.

1-0 matches, 2-1 in games

In retrospect, I was very pleased with the metagame changes I made before this tournament. Putting the two Trygons and the Ancient Grudge in the main deck, and splashing a tiny bit of green, was the right call. Having played many matches against Workshop, this match reflects my experience of the match – my combination of artifact removal (Chewer, Nature’s Claim, Ancient Grudge, and Trygons) and efficient resources and threats, as well as Pyromancer’s capacity for token generation, give me a strong Workshop matchup. There are few decks in the format that run so many of the best answers to Workshop decks at once, since the best Workshop answers reside in red and green.

Round 2 vs. Ryan Glackin (playing BGW Hate Bears)
Ryan is a regular Vintage player in this region, and is a player I recognize, but have never played against before. He’s performed very well in recent tournaments with Hate Bears, so I assumed he was playing the same thing today. This is a pretty good matchup for me with removal and bigger, more efficient threats.

Game 1:
My opening hand is remarkably strong:
Delver of Secrets
Brainstorm
Ancestral Recall
Scalding Tarn
Polluted Delta
Time Walk
Preordain

Turn 1:
I lost the die roll, and Ryand opened with Mox, dual land (perhaps a Scrubland), and cast Dark Confidant, confirming my suspicions.

On my turn, I drew an Island, played it, and cast Delver of Secrets. Time to get my tempo on, and move in to high gear.

Turn 2:
Ryan’s Dark Confidant revealed a Cavern of Souls, which he played and used to cast Qasali Pridemage. He attacked me for 3 with Confidant (plus Pridemage’s trigger).

I debated playing Brainstorm in my upkeep to flip Delver, but decided against it. I was able to flip my Delver, however, revealing and drawing a Flusterstorm. I attacked with the Delver.

At this point, I had to decide what to do. I could play a Delver and pass, or I could Time Walk, and then play a Delver and Ancestral. I decided for the latter.

I played a Delta, found a Volcanic Island, and cast Time Walk. I untapped, and attacked with Delver again, sending him to 14. I cast Ancestral Recall, and then played another land and a Mox Ruby. I played another Delver, and passed the turn.

Turn 3:
On his turn, Ryan attacked me again to 3, sending me to 15. He then played Spirit of the Labyrinth, and I debated using Brainstorm in response, but decided not to. I just calmly cast Fire on his Spirit and his Dark Confidant on his end step.

I untapped, drew a card, and attacked him to 8. I then played a Young Pyromancer, and passed the turn. Ryan drew a card and scooped.

Game 2:
I don’t think I made any sideboard changes, except perhaps bringing in a basic Mountain.

Ryan opened with Black Lotus, land, and cast Thalia and Vampiric Tutor, to my relief. I opened with fetchland, which I used to find an Island, and cast Mox Ruby.

I was surprised that Ryan didn’t play another creature on his second turn, but merely played a land and attacked, before passing the turn. On my second turn, I played another fetchland, and tapped my Mox and my Island to cast Delver. On my end step, Ryan played Swords to Plowshares, and I responded by fetching out another Island, and cast Misdirection, redirecting it to his Thalia.

On my third turn, I played a Pyromancer, Gushed to generate a token, and cast a second Pyromancer. At some point, Ryan played an Aven Mindcensor, and I responded to it by fetching out one more land. I Lightning Bolted something he played thereafter, and quickly overran him with tokens.

2-0 matches, 4-1 in games

Round 3 vs. William See (playing BUG)
I have never met William before, but he kindly shared that my old StarCityGames articles were responsible for getting him into Vintage. I feel old.

Game 1:
For the third time in a row, I lost the die roll. I remember I used Mental Misstep on his first turn Deathrite Shaman, but he simply played another on turn two, which I killed with Fire // Ice on turn two. I played a Delver shortly thereafter, and simply used my cantrips and draw to find counterspells from thereon out. He went all in on a Jace, the Mind Sculptor that I Forced, and Delver finished him off, with me keeping him under heel with countermagic. I had more countermagic in hand than he had cards in hand at all times.

I sideboarded as follows:
+2 Pyroblast
-1 Ancient Grudge
-1 Trygon Predator

Game 2:
My opening hand was:
Mox Ruby
Volcanic Island
Tropical Island
Flooded Strand
Mental Misstep
Force of Will
Flusterstorm

This is not a great opening hand, but it’s not terrible either. I decided to keep it. He played turn one Mox, land, and Green Sun’s Zenith, and I refused to waste my Force on that. He put a Deathrite Shaman into play.

Fortunately, I drew Lightning Bolt on my turn, and after playing a Mox and a land, I dispatched his Deathrite. He had no turn two play, and I played a turn three Pyromancer. He played a Trygon Predator, but after eating my Mox, he refused to attack further, as I started to generate tokens, and eventually made 4. He Dismembered the Pyromancer (I let it resolve), but I still had four tokens to contend with, preventing him from attacking. Eventually, a Pyroblast ended the standoff, taking down his Trygon. Shortly thereafter, I played another Pyromancer, and his Abrupt Decay was Misdirected to his Mox, and he went from 10 to 2, and scooped.

3-0 matches, 6-1 in games

As noted earlier in this report, BUG is the reason I play URG Delver. I think Delver is very slightly advantaged in this matchup, perhaps by just a few percentage points, but the games are usually fascinating.

It’s my general opinion that URG Delver and BUG are currently the two “best decks” in the format, constituting the top tier. They have the density of countermagic to contend with control and combo decks, and the removal and utility tools to deal with anything else, including Oath, Dredge, and Workshops. Deathrite Shaman is a one mana planeswalker, but my deck uses Gush and Pyromancer. Abrupt Decay has the advantage over Lightning Bolt, but both are strong.

Unfortunately, I’m of the view that the strength of these decks is structural, not a metagame response. Other decks are capable of winning, but none are as consistent or have less variance. Control decks no longer have Brainstorm!

Round 4 vs. Shawn Griffith (playing Oath)
Game 1:
I lost the die roll for the fourth time on the day and Shawn, unsurprisingly, elected to play. I had no idea what Shawn was playing, but my first hand had no mana, so I was compelled to mulligan. My hand of six was weak, but keepable:
Scalding Tarn
Volcanic Island
Mystical Tutor
Ancient Grudge
Trygon Predator
Gush

Turn 1:
Shawn led with a land (Underground Sea, I believe), Mana Crypt, and Time Vault.

I simply played a Scalding, and passed the turn.

Turn 2:
Shawn played another land on his turn, and on his end step, I played Mystical Tutor for Force of Will.

On my second turn, I drew the Force, played the Tropical Island, and passed the turn.

Turn 3:
Again, on his third turn, Shawn did nothing. I could see that Mana Crypt was going to be my win condition. On his end step, I cast Ancient Grudge, targeted his Time Vault, and it resolved.

I leveraged this position to maintain slight control, while he was unable to get anything going. As I drew more and more countermagic, I deployed a Delver and then Trygon Predator to finish him, while Mana Crypt did the rest.

In sideboarded:
+2 Pyroblast
-2 Trygon Predator

Game 2:
The sideboarding above defined this quick game, for when I played an early Young Pyromancer, holding Pyroblast and Gush in hand, he cast Oath of Druids. I could only laugh at my misfortune at not realizing he was playing Oath, but had to give him credit for hiding this fact in the previous game.

I went back in my sideboard, and sideboarded properly:
+1 Nature’s Claim
+3 Grafdigger’s Cage
+2 Pyroblast
-3 Lightning Bolt
-1 Ancient Grudge
-2 Young Pyromancer

I kept in the Fire // Ice here, as it has the capacity to tap down Griselbrand.

Game 3:
My opening hand was:
Mox Sapphire
Island
Misdirection
Delver of Secrets
Force of Will
Gush
Pyroblast

This hand has the capacity to stop an early Oath, but needs to draw red mana to bring Pyroblast online.

As asserted before, the optimal role in the Oath matchup is control, so I did not play an early Delver, in order to maximize my counterspell potential with Force and Misdirection shielding it. This proved wise. I drew a turn two Flusterstorm, which allowed me to counter his second turn Show and Tell (which, I discovered later, was pure bait).

A few turns later, I drew Fire // Ice. At that point I cast Delver, since it didn’t diminish my counterspell potential. I slowly gained complete control. At one point, I played Ice on his Orchard, and he played another Oath, and I played Nature’s Claim on it. He played another Oath, and I used Snapcaster Mage to replay Claim, all the while holding plenty of countermagic.

4-0 matches, 8-2 in games

Round 5 vs. Vasu Balakrishnan (playing Blue Angels)
This is my favorite match of the day. To be honest, I was a bit nervous. Rich Shay had recently popularized this deck with a post on TheManaDrain, but I hadn’t had a chance to test this matchup. Based upon our records, we knew we were about to face each other, and Restoration Angel was a card I was concerned about, since none of my creatures can get by her. In addition, Spirit of the Labyrinth is a fast clock, and stunts my draw engine.

Knowing this was a matchup I might have to face, I had a two-role plan. First, if I could pursue an aggressive tempo role, I’d run that to the hilt, deploying Delvers and Pyromancers as aggressively as possible. But if I couldn’t, I’d focus on two key advantages: using Misdirections on his Swords to Plowshares to remove Angels, and focusing my countermagic on his draw engine (Fact or Fiction), if he has Cavern to make Angel unable to be countered.

Game 1:
I finally won a die roll! I elected to play first, and drew this opening hand:
Black Lotus
Island
Scalding Tarn
Brainstorm
Misdirection
Spell Pierce
Flusterstorm

Turn 1:
I played Island and Black Lotus, and passed the turn.

Vasu played Island in to Ancestral Recall! How lucky! I cast Misdirection, pitching Brainstorm (I wanted two counterspells to protect this play). My first Misdirected Ancestral of the day resolved, and I drew Young Pyromancer, Delver of Secrets, and Gush. He then played Black Lotus, and to add insult to injury, I cast Spell Pierce on it!

Turn 2:
I drew Mystical Tutor for the turn, and couldn’t believe my luck! I played Scalding Tarn, and sacrificed black lotus for UUU. I broke the Tarn for a Volcanic Island, and cast Young Pyromancer, Delver of Secrets, and Mystical Tutor for Time Walk. Before I could even decide whether I wanted to Gush, Vasu scooped. That’s approximately 13 damage inbound on the next turn.

I sideboarded in two Pyroblasts.

Game 2:
My opening hand was:
Island
Polluted Delta
Delver of Secrets
Delver of Secrets
Ancestral Recall
Preordain
Flusterstorm

Turn 1:
Vasu led with Tundra and passed the turn.

Would you believe that I simply played the Delta and passed the turn?

Turn 2:
Vasu played a Karakas, and passed the turn. On my turn, I played my Island, and passed the turn.

Turn 3:
In his upkeep, I tapped my Island, and cast Ancestral Recall. He played a Mental Misstep, and I Flusterstormed it. He played another land, and passed the turn.

I played two Delvers, a land, and passed the turn.

Turn 4:
Vasu played another land and cast Moat! I could only laugh!

On my upkeep, my Delvers revealed a Force of Will, which I drew, flipping them both. I played Gush, replayed a land, and cast Trygon Predator! I attacked him for 6.

Turn 5:
Vasu drew a card, but facing three flyers and my hand completely full, he scooped. Two of the quickest games I’ve ever played with this deck!

5-0 matches, 10-2 in games

Round 6 and Round 7 – Intentional Draws
Being in the pole position to simply draw in to the Top 8, I used this opportunity to rest up for the Top 8, and to see what else was being played at the top tables.

5-0-2 matches, 10-2 in games

Top 8 Semifinals vs. Rob Edwards (playing Oath)
Having drawn the final two rounds, I had ample opportunity to learn what my Top 8 competitors would be playing, including that Rob was playing Oath of Druids. The surge of creature-based strategies in the Vintage format since the 2013 Vintage Championship has strengthened the position of Oath decks in a metagame in which Oath was already a top tier strategy. As noted the tournament preparation section of this report, Oath of Druids was a critical focus of my design energies.

Rob and I had drawn in the sixth round, as the top seeds, but our double intentional draws had caused us to slip a few positions in the standings by the end of the Swiss rounds. Top 8 standing seeding is based on accumulated points followed by a series of tie-breakers, beginning with the opponent’s match win percentage. In this regard, Rob had a distinct advantage over me of several tenths of a percent, but my opponent’s from previous matches apparently played better than his. When the Round 7 Standings were posted, I was only a few hundreds of a percent behind him. Most importantly when the final Swiss standings were posted, I had leaped him, barely giving me the 4th seed (vs. his 5th seed) in the Top 8.

The reason this seeming minutia matters is on account of the relatively new “play/draw” rule, in which higher seeded players in a Top 8 playoff may elect to play or draw. Thus, having leapt Rob in the standings, I was now afforded the decision to play first. I was confident in my game plan and believed that with tight play I would emerge victorious.

Game 1:
My opening hand was superficially insane:
Black Lotus
Mox Sapphire
Ancestral Recall
Preordain
Delver of Secrets
Young Pyromancer
Gush

The most obvious problem is that it has none of the tools that I need to fight Oath, like Spell Pierce, Force of Will, or Trygon Predator. A less obvious problem is that I’m going to spend my initial resources digging for land rather than answers to an early Oath. I thought about it for as long as I could, and still undecided, just elected to keep it.

Turn 1:
I played the Sapphire and the Lotus, and resolved Ancestral and Preordain, but couldn’t find a land. I cast another Preordain, and finally found an Island. Still not having found an answer to Oath (neither Force nor a Spell Pierce), I decided to go all in on playing Delver. The reason is simple: if he resolves Oath, but doesn’t have Orchard, my only chance to win is to resolve Trygon Predator and Time Walk in the same turn. But having used Black Lotus already, that likelihood seemed remote, if not impossible. Black Lotus is the one tool that can make that plan actually work.

Unfortunately, he did have Oath. Yet, the game was not over. Not by a long shot.

Turn 2:
I drew a Volcanic Island, and thought about what to do. My hand had Lightning Bolt, Young Pyromancer, two Gush and two Misdirection. I decided that Young Pyromancer was irrelevant, so I just held back.

He activated Oath on his second or third turn, but his first Griselbrand was 6 cards from the bottom of his library. This meant not only that he couldn’t draw 7 cards, but that he was in danger of decking. He drew a card for the turn, and had only 5 cards left in his library. He had to deal damage at least three times. If I could get a blocker out there more than once, and counter his Memory’s Journey, I could win this game.

Turn 3:
Fortunately, the Delver flipped (revealing a Lightning Bolt). I had one blocker.

He attacked me for 7 on his next turn, and I took it. He played an Orchard and passed the turn.

Turn 4:
I used Gush to draw another Delver, which I played, and eventually flipped.

On his turn, he attacked me again, and I blocked the Griselbrand. At this point, he was about to deck, so he flashed back Memory’s Journey. I tried to Misdirect it, but was told that I couldn’t. He now had two more cards in his library. On his end step, I stupidly wasted my Bolt on his face.

At this very moment, I realized just how dumb that was. I could have blocked the Griselbrand, and then if he tried to give me a Spirit, I could have Bolted it to Oath myself! If I were to Oath into Snapcaster Mage, I could use Ancestral Recall to win the game on the spot!

Turn 5:
Fortune gave me another shot: I drew another Lightning Bolt, and decided to try to execute that plan. I blocked his next attack, but Rob very smartly gave me a second Spirit token on my end step, perhaps sensing something was awry.

To me, this move, giving me extra tokens here, illustrated just how tightly Rob piloted his Oath deck. I believe this decision separates a true expert from a lesser player. Rob foresaw my plan, and denied me an opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Still, I was not done yet.

Turn 6:
With just one card left in his library, I played my final Gush, looking for a Trygon Predator, Fire // Ice, Snapcaster Mage, or a Time Walk. I needed just one more blocker or a Snapcaster, but all I drew was countermagic. What a game.

I sideboarded:
+3 Grafdigger’s Cage
+2 Pyroblast
+1 Nature’s Claim
-3 Lightning Bolt
-2 Young Pyromancer
-1 Ancient Grudge

Game 2:
My opening hand was bonkers:
Black Lotus
Mox Ruby
Island
Grafdigger’s Cage
Grafdigger’s Cage
Trygon Predator
Delver of Secrets

I led with Island, Black Lotus, and Mox Ruby. I sacrificed the Black Lotus for GGG. I cast Grafdigger’s Cage, which resolved. I then played Trygon Predator, which was Forced, and then cast the other Cage. Next turn I played Delver, and the other, which actually went all the way when they both flipped, swinging for 6 damage a turn. He couldn’t find Show and Tell, while I drew more countermagic every turn thereafter.

Game 3:
With my teammates Paul Mastriano and Jimmy McCarthy watching intently, along with a now larger crowd of observers, I drew the following hand of seven cards:
Mox Ruby
Island
Scalding Tarn
Pyroblast
Flusterstorm
Time Walk
Snapcaster Mage

This is a robust hand that has one glaring weakness: it lacks any ability to stop, prevent or destroy Oath of Druids. In particular, I was hoping to see one of the following cards: Spell Piece, Force of Will, Nature’s Claim, or Grafdigger’s Cage. Even a Trygon Predator would be useful in a hand like this because it could be played on the first turn following Time Walk. I considered the merits of this hand against that obvious flaw, and the circumstances in which that evaluation must take place. Being a decisive game three, I had no game to give up on a risky decision with a potentially big payoff. The more I thought through the situation, the more I leaned toward keeping this hand.

The first factor that inclined me to keep is that I was on the draw. Even if he had a first turn Oath of Druids, I would see at least two more cards, presuming Time Walk resolved, to try to find a Cage or a Nature’s Claim. If I drew another Mox, I could take three turns in a row by Snapcasting the Time Walk. Second, he had mulligan to six. Third, even if he had an Oath he may not have the Orchard, which again gave me time to find an answer. A potentially risky keep, I decided narrowly that it was worthwhile.

Reflecting now upon this opening hand, my teammates (Paul and Jimmy) both believed that this hand should be kept, but I still feel the same internal conflict about it believing it to be a close question, even though it turned out to be about as perfect a hand as could be reasonably expected.

Turn 1:
Rob opened with a land and Black Lotus, and paused to consider his options. He seemed intent on breaking the Lotus for mana, but hesitated once, if not twice. Eventually, his mind settled, and he played a Jace, the Mind Sculptor. This I normally would fear, but instead felt relief. My relief was based on the fact that a Jace, here, was much less threatening than Oath, especially since I had an answer already in hand. With knowledge that I run cards like Lightning Bolt, Rob elected to use Jace’s +2 Fateseal ability. Most importantly, he decided to Fateseal me, which may have been Rob’s only mistake in a virtually flawless performance. I believe Rob would have gotten greater value from Fatesealing himself. Nonetheless, he decided to put a card on the bottom of my library, which I soon discovered, amusingly, to be Young Pyromancer.

I drew Spell Pierce for the turn, and felt giddy at my luck at having found one of my best answers to an early Oath. I believe Oath to be a good matchup for my deck for a few critical reasons, and others that are misunderstood. First, I have not only equal if not greater amounts of countermagic, but I have the card celerity (meaning the search and draw capacity) far greater than Oath with the density of cantrips. I also have a much lighter mana base, which allows me to draw more business over the course of the game. My answers are also potent, and protected with Misdirection.

One of the key answers that Oath uses against Cage is Abrupt Decay. As noted earlier, large swaths of this format run Swords to Plowshares, Abrupt Decay, or Lightning Bolt, making Misdirection in my estimation, one of the potentially most important metagame design decisions for this tournament, and one which I was pleased to have made. If I can Misdirect Abrupt Decay to an Oath from a Cage, it will have more than proved its value. In addition, having played UR Delver and having gained some reputation for playing UR Delver, I was hoping to trade on the surprise value of a small green splash. As noted in the tournament preparation section of this report, I hoped to obviate some of the Cage/Abrupt Decay dynamic not only with Misdirection, but by also running a Nature’s Claim (with Mystical Tutor to find it).

As the game goes longer, I feel more and more confident that my deck’s inherent design advantages kick in. But that requires first surviving the scarier early game. Having drawn Spell Pierce here gave me the confidence that I had an excellent chance to win this game. At this juncture, I could have just played the Ruby and the Island, and cast Pyroblast targeting Jace with Flusterstorm protection, but this would leave me in the vulnerable position of being unable to stop a second turn Oath with Spell Pierce. It follows that I needed to lead with Time Walk.

I played Mox, Island, and cast Time Walk. I drew a Gush for the turn. I then played a Scalding Tarn and fetched out Tropical Island immediately to see what he bottomed. I tapped the Mox Ruby to cast Pyroblast on Jace, and it destroyed his Jace. I then passed the turn holding up both Spell Pierce and Flusterstorm protection, hoping he would play Oath if he had it.

Turn 2:
Instead, Rob played a second land and passed the turn.

I drew a Delver of Secrets, but couldn’t play it for the same reason as before, holding up Spell Pierce, and Flusterstorm to protect my Spell Pierce. I needed another a third blue mana source.

Turn 3:
Rob just drew a card and passed the turn.

I drew another fetchland, which I immediately used to find a Volcanic Island. Now I had the additional mana needed to cast Delver. I tapped my Island and cast Delver, which resolved.

Turn 4:
Again, Rob just drew a card and passed the turn.

The Delver flipped (revealing Pyroblast), and I attacked for 3. My confidence was growing. I had Gush, but didn’t want to use it just yet because I didn’t want to have to discard any cards. If I Gushed, I was concerned was going to have to discard at least one card, if not more, at the end of the turn.

Turn 5:
Rob played a Mox and an Orchard, and cast oath of Druids. He had two lands in play, untapped, brilliantly evading my Spell Pierce. Now I faced a dilemma. This was the first truly difficult decision in a game with an unusual number of hard choices (although the mulligan decision was not easy).

1) I had Flusterstorm, Spell Pierce, Gush, Snapcaster Mage, Pyroblast and Brainstorm in hand, but no Force, Nature’s Claim, or Cage. I could Gush in response to Oath, and Brainstorm, looking for a Force of Will or a second Spell Pierce.
2) Or, I could follow my own general rules about Gushing as presented in my Gush book, and Gush on my turn, trying to find a smaller subset of cards (just Cage or Claim or a Mystical Tutor), but I’d be at least one card deeper (due to the natural draw for the turn), and in a position to use sorcery spells to find them as well. In addition with this line of play, I’d not lose mana the next turn from playing Gush on my opponent’s turn. I’d be able to draw upon that mana that turn.

What would you do? Try to counter the Oath now or wait, and try to find an answer to it next turn?

Both of my teammates, Paul Mastriano and Jimmy McCarthy, whom I respect immensely, believe that playing Gush here is the right play. Yet, my Gush book instructs, in its rules on usage, to only play Gush on your turn, except as a response to Wasteland to a guaranteed game winning play. I violated my own rules.

I played Gush, and played Brainstorm, and drew the Force and the Cage. The Gush drew Trygon Predator and Cage, and the Brainstorm drew Force, Preordain, and another Snapcaster Mage.

I was conscious of the dangers of execution here – that I may have to discard a card if I didn’t play carefully, and that I needed to put back the exact right cards as well. Everything at this point had to be meticulously planned. I was also conscious of the sheer quantity of options. With Time Walk, Pyroblast, and Spell Pierce in my graveyard, the Snapcaster Mages had great value, but I didn’t need two. I also didn’t feel like I needed all of this land. With two lands in hand (Island and a Tropical Island), I put back the Snapcaster Mage, and the Island on top of that.

I played Force of Will, targeting his Oath, and pitched Preordain. He countered my Oath with a Flusterstorm that he played off of his untapped dual land. This was the perfect opportunity to use my Spell Pierce after all. I used a floating blue mana to cast Spell Pierce targeting his Oath, countering it.

I untapped, drew the Island land and played the Tropical Island, attacked with Delver, sending him to 14. Unfortunately I had to discard a card, and Island was it. I felt that with the two lands and Mox in play, I would have enough mana for the time being.

Turn 6:
Rob played draw, go.

I drew the Snapcaster Mage, and rather than discard a card, I made what was the dumbest play of the entire match. Holding up Pyroblast and Flusterstorm with my two lands, I decided to use the free Mox to cast Cage. Almost immediately I recognized the blunder. Cage prevented me from using Snapcaster Mage. Had I sequenced all of these plays correctly, I could have used Mage to cast Time Walk! I attacked him to 11, and passed the turn.

Turn 7:
Rob played Oath of Druids, and passed the turn. I couldn’t stop it.

I drew a card, and became agitated. It wasn’t a land. I had two options:
1) I could simply attack and pass the turn, but would lose if he drew Abrupt Decay (since I didn’t have a Misdirection), which he could use on my Cage.
2) Or, I could play Trygon Predator, but lose if he had Show and Tell.

Overeager to correct my error, I played Trygon Predator, tapping out with both Flusterstorm and Pyroblast in hand. I attacked him to 8, and passed the turn.

Turn 8:
When he activated Oath, I began kicking myself. He Oathed the Griselbrand, but Cage prevented it from coming into play. So, he drew it in his draw step, and cast Show and Tell, which resolved. He put Griselbrand into play, and I put Snapcaster Mage into play.

Notice that if I had not discarded Island, or had switched the order of Island and Snapcaster Mage when I played Brainstorm, I would have had another land in play to stop his desperation Show and Tell! But I didn’t.

Nonetheless, being at 8 life, he was greatly constrained in his options. He couldn’t afford to draw 7 cards, as I might be able to attack and bolt him for the win. I could swing back for at least 7 more damage with Trygon, Snapcaster, and Delver. I needed just one more creature.

On my turn, I couldn’t find one.

Turn 9:
Rob attacked me with Griselbrand, going to 15.

I untapped, and attacked him for 7, sending him back to 8.

Turn 10:
We replayed this same sequence as last turn, except that my life fell to 4.

Turn 11:
I played two Preordains, and then cast Gush, but I eventually found Fire // Ice, the card I was looking for. Unfortunately, all I could afford to do was play Fire or Ice, and I wouldn’t have the mana to protect it with Flusterstorm or Pyroblast. I faced several constrained options.

1) I could try to Ice Griselbrand now, praying he wasn’t able to counter it, and then swing for 7, but could only win the game if I drew two creatures next turn or a Pyromancer and some juice, off of the Ice and my next draw step.
2) I could pray that he would overconfidently activated the Griselbrand to draw 7 cards, and I could finish him off with Fire with Griselbrand’s activation on the stack. That seemed unlikely.
3) I could also block with a Trygon, attack him for 5 (with him back at 15), and then try to Ice next turn with protection. The problem is that I wouldn’t be able to finish him off with a final swing, since I needed more power on the board.

None of these options seemed good, but the first seemed like it had the best of a slim shot. I played Ice on his upkeep, but he had Flusterstorm for it. I knew I was doomed at that point, unless I could Nature’s Claim my Grafdigger’s Cage and somehow find the other Snapcaster Mage for Time Walk, but that wasn’t happening either. I lost.

In the final analysis, all of the mistakes in my quarterfinals match were traceable to my timing of Gush. What I should have done was simply Spell Pierce his Oath, forcing him to tap down (giving me a Spirit token in the process). Then I could have untapped, drew a card, tapped my land, and cast Gush. From there I could then play Snapcaster Mage and Time Walk. I’d replay a land, and then on my Time Walk turn, I’d attack him to 5 life. Then I could Brainstorm and Preordain, and cast Cage with Force of Will, Flusterstorm, and Pyroblast protection! Even if he were able to destroy my Cage at that point, it wouldn’t matter! I’d simply attack and kill him.

In retrospect, the proper line of play is so easy I can touch it! And yet, my simple blunder prompted multiple errors: the Brainstorm ordering, the playing of Cage, the discarding of basic Island, and most devastatingly the playing of Trygon Predator. A heartbreaking way to end a fantastic run with so much tournament winning potential.

Conclusion

URG Delver is one of the top decks in the format. It has the countermagic density to contend with anything, the removal to deal with things countermagic can’t or shouldn’t, and the colors and tactical resources to address the format’s menacing bogeymen (Workshops, Dredge, and Oath). And Gush is one of the best draw engines in the format. My money is on this archetype continuing to perform at an extremely high level for the foreseeable future. I just happened to be lucky enough to figure out the right metagame configuration for this tournament, and had the tools, but not the brains, to take it all the way.

Had I only followed the advice of my Gush book. For folks who wish to learn more about this archetype, Gush strategies, or decks similar to or related to this archetype, be sure to check out the Understanding Gush (3rd Edition). It is a step by step breakdown of how to design, build and play Gush decks, with a comprehensive analysis of strategies, card choices, and decision trees, as well as a list of contemporary Gush decks and the Gush Hall of Fame. If you want to master Delver, you’re going to have to learn Gush inside and out. It’s the beating heart of this deck.

I’d like to thank Daniel Chang and Vintage Magic LLC for supporting me and for being a friend. Traveling to the NYSE Open II wouldn’t have happened without him. I’d also like to thank my teammates, Paul Mastriano and Jimmy McCarthy, for doing well enough for us to contend for the team prize, and Jacob Orlove for his support and the food he brought me during this amazing event.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian

Stephen Menendian

One of the most famous Eternal players in the world, Stephen is the 2007 Vintage World Champion, and the Vintage Super League Season 1 Champion. He is also the author of the Vintage books Understanding Gush: Strategy and Tactics, and Schools of Magic: History of Vintage. He is the longest tenured Vintage writer in the world. Stephen doesn't always play Magic, but when he does, he prefers Vintage.