It amazes me how many new Vintage players are out there, and, moreover, how many never played during the Gifts era. In some ways, the Gifts era was the peak period of involvement in the game and the format for myself. It was the height of the StarCityGames Power 9 series circuit, and much more. It was a time of enthusiasm and discovery.
Gifts was a watershed strategy. It was a like a puzzle that was never quite solved. It took more than a year for the best Gifts strategies to finally emerge. Like many of the most notable historical blue draw engines, Gifts commanded the Vintage metagame for a time, although it may not have quite reached the thresholds of dominance (as measured by % of Top 8’s) of cards like Gush and Thirst did during periods of peak performance.
A Short History of Gifts in Vintage
Gifts Ungiven was revealed to the world in October 2004 with Champions of Kamigawa. The most common point of comparison was Fact or Fiction, however, which was better in Type I/Vintage than any other format. Gifts was not unheralded, but it was underestimated. Gifts was viewed as a complement to stronger engines rather than the primary weapon. The most common Gifts decks in the early days used Thirst for Knowledge as the primary draw engine, and supplemented that engine with a pair of Gifts. Gifts was the coup d’grace, rather than the main course.
In 2004, the Germans figured out that Recoup and Yawgmoth’s Will in a Gifts pile meant you always had access to Yawgmoth’s Will. In early 2005, Andy Probasco (aka the Brassman) began experimenting with a different combo finisher that included a second lethal half to the Recoup/Will package with Tinker and Mana Severance (and also first identified the Tinker/Time Walk part as well). No matter what cards the opponent gave him, he’d be able to combo out with roughly 5-6 mana.
One weekend in the summer of 2005, I decided that it would be a fun experiment to see if a more focused Gifts deck could be viable. I was convinced that the core combo was sufficiently potent to warrant a more focused design approach. Rather than build a Gifts deck with 4 Thirsts and 2-3 Gifts, I wanted to find a way to design a Gifts deck starting with 4 Gifts. Working backwards from that premise, I began experimenting. It wasn’t long until Merchant Scroll began demonstrating its counter-intuitive synergy with Gifts.
I recognized that in the early game, Merchant Scroll could find Ancestral Recall for the same amount of mana as Thirst, but that in the mid or late game, it could find Gifts itself and execute the combo. But the key was my discovery that the early Ancestral Recall, which, if shielded with enough pitch countermagic, would give you the resources to execute the Gifts package with protection, which finished the game. Scroll was also versatile enough to find Force of Will, Hurkyl’s Recall, or even a Brainstorm in the right spot.
It wasn’t that no one had ever thought of 4 Merchant Scroll blue decks before – it was that 4 Merchant Scroll blue decks in Vintage weren’t considered very good. Until this point Merchant Scroll was viewed as a marginal card – an oddball printing from a forgettable set. Scroll even appeared in less than maximal quantities in the GushBond decks from 2003 in which Scroll was probably at peak power – it was excellent at setting up and continuing the GushBond engine.
Moreover, this was the era of Mana Drain. Since 2001, virtually every good blue deck featured four Mana Drains. Merchant Scroll, being a Sorcery, was anti-synergistic with this card. Casting Merchant Scroll would often interfere with your capacity to hold up two blue mana. Unless you had a Mox in your opening hand, casting Merchant Scroll often meant not being able to cast Mana Drain.
Nonetheless, playing Merchant Scroll for Ancestral Recall had been recognized as a viable (although weak) play since the mid-1990s. This play was never embraced because of the simple question: what next? The next Merchant Scroll was no longer that useful (which is why it was mostly a singleton), and the blue deck that played Ancestral in that way needed a haymaker of sufficient power and consistency that leveraging Scroll to generate early card advantage would be worth it. Until Gifts Ungiven, the only spells good enough to justify using Scroll in that way had been restricted, including Gush (which was restricted in June 2003).
For that reason, I unveiled MeanDeck Gifts in June of 2005, and it was a paradigm shift. It represented a hyper aggressive Control deck that could linearly follow a straight line from Merchant Scroll for Ancestral Recall, to Merchant Scroll for Gifts Ungiven, to Yawgmoth’s Will for a lethal Tendrils (via Burning Wish) or Time Walk and Tinker to end the game. It could also toggle into a strong control role, using Gifts to generate card advantage and value, by creating piles like Scroll, Gifts, Brainstorm, and Mana Drain.
MeanDeck Gifts, June 2005
The central feature of MeanDeck Gifts was its emphasis on Merchant Scroll, rather than Thirst for Knowledge. The second most prominent feature was running maximum quantities of Gifts Ungiven. MeanDeck Gifts wanted to play Scroll for Ancestral, and then, if possible, Mana Drain spells protecting Ancestral, and then use that mana to fuel Gifts or the Gifts package.
Why Gifts Was Unrestricted
This past month, without warning or clamoring, Gifts was unrestricted. Why was Gifts unrestricted nearly 8 years later? Wizards’ terse explanation requires additional speculation and guesswork, but it’s not hard to figure why.
First, there are more blue draw engines of comparable power in contemporary Vintage than there were in 2004-2007, when Gush was restricted, and Jace wasn’t even a glimmer in Mark Rosewater’s eye. During that time period even Fact or Fiction was restricted. In most blue decks, Jace is often regarded as better than a singleton Gifts.
Second, there is more graveyard hate than ever before. Cards like Grafdigger’s Cage did not exist in 2007, and would surely have been effective solutions to the Recoup combo at the time. Part of the reason Gifts was so strong is that it was so versatile. But Cage would prevent Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will, Gift’s most powerful friends, from doing their dirty work.
Third, there are more ways to prevent Gifts from being cast than ever before. Not only are Workshops far more oppressive with more Sphere effects than ever before (and Gifts is not a cheap spell), but there are more viable effects that prevent you from targeting your opponent (which Gifts does) than ever before. Cards like Leyline of Sanctity neuter Gifts, if it were to become too much of a problem.
It’s also arguable that restricting Merchant Scroll alone, which eventually happened in 2008, could have significantly weakened (if not killed) MeanDeck Gifts, as players would have shifted to older style Gifts decks until Thirst’s eventual restriction in 2009.
Breaking Gifts in 2015
On the other hand, there are (or, rather, were) two big reasons to keep Gifts restricted. The first is Snapcaster Mage. In online debates Snapcaster Mage was the reason that gave me the most pause about potentially unrestricting Gifts. Snapcaster Mage is essentially a Recoup on legs, and a Recoup that can, is, and should be played in more than trivial quantities.
The second reason is the errata on Time Vault. Time Vault makes for an especially attractive set of Gifts packages. It’s not difficult to construct Gifts packages that, undisrupted, end in taking all of the turns (and you don’t need jank like Reconstruction, either).
Any Gifts deck designed in 2015 must be sure to maximize both advantages to Gifts in this era, or they are fighting an uphill battle.
At the same time, any Gifts deck designed today must also be able to address its core weaknesses: it must be able to win through Null Rod and/or Grafdigger’s Cage. This is not an easy set of requirements, as these criteria may exist in some uneasy tension.
I’m pleased to present for your enjoyment my work with Gifts for 2015:
MeanDeck Gifts 2015, by Stephen Menendian
This is neither the time nor the place for a comprehensive explanation of my design choices, but a few key notes are in order.
Like MeanDeck Gifts circa 2005-2007, the focus is clearly on abusing Gifts Ungiven, with a particular emphasis on the Gifts/Snapcaster synergy. This deck runs maximum Snapcaster Mage because you always, always want a Snapcaster Mage in hand when you resolve Gifts Ungiven, or to be able to draw one quickly. This means that you’ll sometimes have Snapcaster Mages in your opening hand. There’s nothing wrong with that. It pitches to Force, it recurs early countermagic and draw, and it also creates some opportunities to attack for damage. I actually began my testing with 2 Snapcaster Mages, and kept adding more over time.
This deck has multiple “go to” combo piles that can win the game as efficiently as ever, if not more so because of Time Vault/Voltaic Key with Noxious Revival. Like Gifts of the past, this deck is focused around resolving Tinker and winning with Blightsteel Colossus, and is a huge Yawgmoth’s Will deck.
The more I played this deck, the more I wanted access to a Tendrils, but I didn’t want it clogging up my main deck. Burning Wish, as a singleton, proved to be the perfect fit, just as it was for the original MeanDeck Gifts. This deck loves winning with Tendrils, especially after a big Yawgmoth’s Will or after beating down for a few turns with Snapcaster Mages.
The deck is extremely mana intensive. It not only has Mana Vault (which is superb in here), but it also has Lotus Petal, an absolute necessity for the mana Gifts piles (Petal allows you to generate a guaranteed mana of your choice with Gifts).
Notice that this deck has neither Recoup nor Mana Drain. Recoup is a vestigial remnant from a decade ago, and should not be used in my opinion. Mana Drain is more difficult to assess. Mana Drain is sometimes a great counter to throw into a Gifts pile, and there is no doubt that Mana Drain and Gifts have great synergy, but Mana Drain is woefully inefficient for the competitive Vintage player. A single or even double Mana Drain could be justified, but I prefer the counterspell configuration I’ve assembled. In testing Mana Drain, and it was hit or miss. I could see running a single Drain in place of the 4th Misstep, if you are so inclined. A singleton Mana Drain may also be good at making your opponent think you have more. But I’m a realist, and it’s probably not good enough.
Thirst for Knowledge was a card that MeanDeck Gifts never ran, and I found it lackluster here as well.
After a good deal of testing, I have been very happy with 59 of the 60 cards. The 60th card is the 2nd Hurkyl’s Recall, but it could very well be any of the following cards (among others):
Tezzeret, the Seeker
Thirst for Knowledge
Empty the Warrens
Sensei’s Divining Top
Ancient Grudge (which would require a maindeck Tropical Island)
I’ve tested all of those cards in this deck. Gush is an interesting and counterintuitive singleton here, but the rationale behind a single Gush is that it is often a great card to put into a Gifts pile, especially a main phase, value Gifts pile. It’s also great with cards like Noxious Revival and Vampiric Tutor, since it can draw the topdecked card immediately, even when you are completely tapped out.
I tested the most with Dack Fayden in the slot of the 2nd Hurkyl’s, but, over time, I decided I prefer the 2nd Hurkyl’s there. Dack Fayden has great synergy with Snapcaster Mage, but Hurkyl’s Recall has performed better overall. This deck uses Hurkyl’s so well for generating storm and mana, and is actually better against Workshops for what this deck is trying to do. Once you resolve Hurkyl’s, you are usually able to combo out or attack with Blightsteel for the win.
Hurkyl’s is also just better than Dack at directly dealing with Cages, which is another reason I have 4 Mental Misstep.
The reason I don’t run Top is because I don’t want this deck to have even more vulnerability to Null Rod, and Top does not have optimal synergy with Snapcaster Mage.
The sideboard is less well tuned. I have both Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast for the simple and important reason that Gifts Ungiven requires you to find unique cards. This fact could justify a bit more counterspell diversity in the main deck as well. I have 2 Pyroclasms because I want to sideboard in one, and keep one in the board to Burning Wish for. The sideboard space is so tight that it could be that a different approach to the sideboard is preferable.
Matching Up vs. Workshops
The first thing I want to say is how great this deck has been performing against Workshop decks. The metagame has changed so much in the last few years that we’ve almost come full circle. The field is so oriented towards Delver decks that it’s incredible how effective it is to just play a bunch of artifact accelerants. Workshop has had a very difficult time keeping me bottled up, on either my hands or my artifact mana. Hurkyl’s Recall is usually very easy to cast.
Even weak hands on the draw can turn explosive with the right mixture of mana accelerants. In one game against Workshops, I kept the following hand:
I played a Scalding Tarn and passed the turn. My opponent played a Mishra’s Workshop, Mox Ruby, and Sphere of Resistance. On my second turn, I played the Misty Rainforest and passed. He then played a Lodestone Golem, and I fetched an Island and a Mountain, and cast Brainstorm in response, seeing Mana Crypt and Mana Vault. On my third turn, I tapped the Mountain to cast Mana Crypt, then tapped Mana Crypt to cast Mana Vault, then played the Tolarian Academy. I easily cast Tinker. On his turn, he played Kuldotha Forgemaster, and I cast both Time Walk and Hurkyl’s Recall on him, to easily win the game from this point.
The key has often been optimal use of Gifts piles. I find myself going for cards like Black Lotus, Tolarian Academy, Ingot Chewer, and Force of Will in Gifts piles against Workshops. An Ancient Grudge would be a wonderful card to put into a Gifts pile, but it would require a Tropical Island in the maindeck.
My sideboard plan against Workshops is:
-4 Mental Misstep
+4 Ingot Chewer
It’s been fantastic.
Workshops are also at a gigantic disadvantage on the draw. In one game I played on Magic Online, my first turn was Mana Crypt, Mox Sapphire, Mox Jet, Gifts Ungiven (with multiple lands and a Snapcaster Mage in hand) for: Ancestral Recall, Tinker, Black Lotus and Yawgmoth’s Will. He gave me Lotus and Tinker, which I think was defensible.
I played Lotus, and cast Snapcaster, Ancestral, drawing: Lotus Petal, Ponder, and Sea. I then played Ponder off a basic Island, and saw Hurkyl’s Recall and Thoughtseize, which I popped into my hand, and cast it off of the Petal, seeing both a Tangle Wire and a Metamorph, taking the former. I went on to play Tinker and then Hurkyl’s Recall his Phyrexian Metaphorph for the win.
This deck has also been doing surprisingly well against Delver decks. The key is getting to 4 mana. Once you get to 4 mana, you are likely able to resolve a Gifts if you time it well, such as when they cast a Preordian or break a fetchland. You want to be sure to play cards like Gifts on their end step, to force them to commit mana on their turn. You can often just bait that way and then resolve your key spell, like Tinker or Key/Vault on your turn, while more of their mana is tied up.
Because I’m so afraid of Cage, I often just generally sideboard in 2-3 Ingot Chewers against any deck I suspect will bring them in. This deck must be most concerned about cards of that nature, including Null Rod. Dedicated graveyard hate is less concerning, although they, too, are good reasons to run cards like Chewer and Hurkyl’s.
As constructed, this deck has no answer to Leyline of the Void (easy to remedy, of course) except to Tinker or assemble Key/Vault. To set them up using Gifts requires a bit of skillful deck manipulation, which I’ll talk about in a future article.
Of course, the key to this deck is constructing Gifts piles, and in just a few short weeks of testing, I’ve constructed countless unique piles. That is also a topic for a future article. Time willing, I will discuss Gifts piles in far more detail in a future premium article, with plenty of puzzles for you to work through.
If you are interested in learning more about Gifts decks of the past or in learning how to acquire a mindset for constructing Gifts piles, I have a number of articles that may be of interest to you. Looking through my article archives, I found the following articles on Gifts Ungiven:
Finding the Gifts Deck (06-28-2005) – This article does the dirty work of comparing all of the design approaches to Gifts at the time, and then makes the case for MeanDeck Gifts, including rebuttals for all of the likely criticisms.
Talking Vintage Tech with Randy Buehler (08-04-2005) – A few months after MeanDeck Gifts debuted, Randy Buehler took down a mid-sized tournament with a hybrid Gifts brew. An entertaining read and a lively tournament report.
Playing Gifts Ungiven in Vintage (08-31-2005) – This article takes an in depth look at the nuances of playing against the format’s key matchups of the time, namely Workshops and Control Slaver. I also have an extensive discourse on role assignment with Gifts.
The Fall Vintage Metagame Breakdown: July through October (12-12-2005) – This article is interesting for the Gifts player because it uses data to illustrate the evolutionary trajectory of the archetype. It shows how Gifts performed in the Vintage metagame, and how Andy Probasco began to incorporate some of my innovations into his own unique Gifts list.
Gifts Dissected, Part I (01-25-2006) & Gifts Dissected, Part II (01-26-2006) – This is a complete analysis of all 47 Gifts lists to appear in a Vintage Top 8 up through January 2006. Fascinating breakdown of the various Gifts shells with a composite list that reflects the most popular choices.
The Return of MeanDeck Gifts (08-09-2006) – After nearly a year of playing Combo, I switched back to MeanDeck Gifts when Nate Pease won a SCG Power 9 event with it. Also has a nifty recap of how Gifts decks had evolved in the preceding year.
Tweaking MeanDeck Gifts (09-21-2006) – This is a very long, and very in depth look at some Gifts scenarios, game play, and an analysis of some minor tweaks/fine tuning to MeanDeck Gifts.
Gifts: The Puzzling (10-30-2006) – A very long article that is the best place to start to get into a mindset of building Gifts piles. There are four nifty puzzles analyzed with comprehensive analysis.
Cashing In with MeanDeck Gifts (10-31-2006) – A detailed tournament report, in which I Top 4 split a local tournament with MeanDeck Gifts. Good to see how Gifts operated in practice. Many notable names and players are featured.
Examining Every Option – A Vintage Tournament Report (11-13-2006) – An even longer tournament report in which I Top 4 split, featuring even more notable players.
Manaless Ichorid Versus MeanDeck Gifts – A Matchup Analysis (01-12-2007) – A lesson in goldfishing with Gifts.
So Many Insane Plays – Gifts versus Belcher (04-09-2007) & So Many Insane Plays – Gifts versus Belcher, Post Board (04-16-2007) – More lessons in goldfishing, or simply playing a hard control role with MeanDeck Gifts.
Suffice to say, I’ve dropped a few words on this card, and spent time considering its usage and applications. I hope you enjoyed reading this article, and will give my version of Gifts a shot. I think you’ll find it as fun as it is broken.
Until next time,