It is with immense pleasure that I write today about my favorite format, Vintage. In the unpleasant gap between new Standard formats I was looking for a creative outlet. When my good friend and outstanding Magic player Rei Barker told me about the fun he was having playing Vintage online, I decided I would try and get access to cards. The always gracious Isaac Egan agreed to buy the Power and we were off.
A few years ago I wrote about Doomsday-Gifts Ungiven. That deck was built in an attempt to create the most complicated and challenging decisions for the pilot. This felt like the ideal place to start. The deck is good. Well, the deck is okay. It is very quick and a lot of fun to play, but it’s not ever going to be tier 1 and that is because the 2 key cards don’t actually fit in the same deck. Gifts Ungiven wants you to play more mana and is very powerful, but a bit slow. It gives you the opportunity to create favorable situations once you have resolved a 4-mana instant. Doomsday, on the other hand, wants you to be as quick as possible. It doesn’t care about excess mana—you just need BBB. Every turn that goes by is more likely to result in hurdles for your Doomsday kill.
Once I came to this unfortunate realization I decided I had to move on. There were two directions that I wanted to explore: Doomsday without Gifts Ungiven and Gifts Ungiven without Doomsday. The second of these is what I will be writing about today.
So this card is pretty good, right? I had never realized just how easy it was to win games with Monastery Mentor. You just cast it, do some stuff, and all of a sudden you have an overwhelming board position. If Gifts Ungiven was the card I wanted to build around, Monastery Mentor was going to be the way the games ended.
Mentor decks are an interesting mix of combo and control. They play a lot of interaction, but once they get Mentor into play they try and go off. They are blue and white—that much is pretty straightforward—but where they go from there varies a lot. Some people play red for Pyroblast, Lightning Bolt, and Dack Fayden. Others play black for broken Vintage cards and things like Cabal Therapy, maybe Baleful Strix.
Either way, the go-to draw engine is Gush. Gush is great when you have a Mentor in play, but most things are. I didn’t like it very much when you didn’t, though. To me it felt pretty underpowered and clunky. There are a lot of games where you are going to interact a lot over Mentors and you want your draw spells to set you up well. Gush doesn’t really do that. If your hand has Gush as its way of getting things going, you need 2 Islands but you also have to be content with having very little mana at any stage of the game. I think Gush makes sense in these decks, but I wasn’t blown away.
Gifts Ungiven, on the other hand, takes you in a very different direction. This is a straight-up control deck. You need to play a bunch of mana to enable your game plan, so, like control decks in any format, the plan is to set up by playing lands and then turn the corner when you get the opportunity. Sometimes you get the busted Black Lotus–Monastery Mentor draws where you do a bunch of silly things straight away, but for the most part you play lands, cast Gifts Ungiven, and then do silly things.
Gifts Ungiven in Vintage is very different to other formats. You don’t have to fill your deck with cards to go fetch. In Vintage, they are already there. Gifts Ungiven is a really good draw spell—it nets you a card, both the cards you were given are really powerful and, if things went really well, the graveyard is now more appetizing. There aren’t dedicated Gifts piles that you easily fetch—where would the fun be in that? Instead you are trying to engineer a situation where you can cast half a dozen spells, including a Time Walk, with a Monastery Mentor in play.
Remember when I said you don’t have to fill your deck with cards to fetch? Well I did put one in, but it’s not as clunky as these cards usually are.
Rather than telling you how good this cheap cycler is, I will instead show you the sort of Gifts piles that it enables:
With a pile like this, no matter what 2 cards they give you, you get to cast Yawgmoth’s Will. Unfortunately, Wood Elemental got cut very late in the testing process so you’ll need to fill that Gifts spot with one of these mediocre replacements:
This sort of Gifts pile doesn’t set up Time Walk–Monastery Mentor on its own. It is very likely that your hand or graveyard will have a couple of key cards already, but even if it doesn’t, this is the pile that allows you to pull way ahead on cards.
If you are time-poor but resource-rich, then you might look to a pile like:
This is the pile that sets up the combo. You will be able to untap and, with 6 mana, cast Mentor and Time Walk.
A version of the first pile is one that I fetch far more often though. You aren’t assembling a 2-card combo that wins—you are setting up a turn or a couple of turns that win the game. Gifting for resources is generally what will win you the game.
When the game is in an unusual spot, which seems to be very often in Vintage, you will be looking to use Gifts Ungiven to do something specific like finding an answer to a creature:
Or you might be looking for Gifts Ungiven to pull you ahead but you have already cast some number of Yawgmoth’s Will, Snapcaster Mage, and Unearth. This is something that comes up a lot and it’s where the deck becomes very tricky to play. One of the key restrictions of casting Gifts is that you need at least 3 really good things. If there are only 2 cards you want, they are the ones that you don’t get. Not only do you not get them, you can’t draw them or tutor for them in the future.
Let’s just say the game has been interactive and you are now resolving a Gifts that really wants to get a Yawgmoth’s Will, but the Snapcaster and Unearth are gone. If you put Vampiric Tutor or Demonic Tutor in the pile, they’re going to the bin. In this situation, you can’t just set up off the Gifts, so you will be looking to Gifts for value and use that value to find you the cards you need. In these situations, you will be choosing 4 good cards that get you ahead and getting the the worst 2. The cards that most often end up in these piles are Monastery Mentor (usually binned), Ancestral Recall, Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Occasionally this will include cards like Snapcaster Mage, Unearth, or a tutor, but chances are you don’t want to have them put in the graveyard and would rather leave them in your deck to draw into. Your Gifts pile might also include cards like Gifts Ungiven, Gush, Brainstorm, or Ponder if you really don’t want to burn your premium spells.
The other set of Gifts piles occurs when you have Monastery Mentor in play. In this situation you are looking to kill as quickly as possible. I generally Gifts main phase for cards like Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Gush or even Moxen and Gitaxian Probes.
Those who are familiar with Vintage will notice the omission of format staple Flusterstorm. This is for a couple of reasons. First, I think the card is overrated. Against the non-blue decks in the format it’s blank, and it’s not impressive enough against the blue decks to make up for this. It’s great against Storm, you say? Well, I actually disagree. The key cards in the Storm deck are often Defense Grid, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Necropotence, and discard spells. There are plenty of games where Flusterstorm is a problem for them, but if you are playing a card this narrow, you need it to be a problem in a much higher number of games than it actually ends up being. Flusterstorm is at its best against the other Mentor-style decks. It doesn’t counter Mentor or Jace, but it’s a mostly uncounterable answer to most things. It is the best way to counter a draw spell or a Force of Will. I didn’t think this was enough of a reason to play the card, though. The second reason it isn’t in the above list is that it doesn’t protect Gifts Ungiven well. In other Mentor lists their most important spell is Monastery Mentor and casting it with Flusterstorm backup is really good. This requires only 4 mana though. Casting Gifts Ungiven with Flusterstorm backup means 5 mana, and that is a lot. You also don’t have to resolve your key spell in the way the other Mentor decks do because you have lots more of them. If your Monastery Mentor or Gifts Ungiven is met with a Force of Will, you are usually pretty happy with the 2-for-1.
The card I chose to play in this spot is Thoughtseize. This card is far more versatile than Flusterstorm and is live against every deck. Against combo it will interact with their game plan, against aggro it will take a Thalia or a Thought-Knot Seer before they cause trouble. In the blue matchups it will usually take a Mentor or a draw spell and give you the information to find the right lines.
Sideboarding in this format can be complicated. Lists vary so much that you will want to be fairly flexible in your approach. That being said, I will attempt to go through some reasoning behind the sideboard card choices and the types of plans you might adopt.
Scrubland comes in in every matchup. Against combo and blue decks you don’t need the basic anymore so Scrub replaces Island. Against Wasteland decks you want an additional land. Against the really quick decks I cut both Library of Alexandria and Island for Scrubland and make room for an additional spell.
Swords and Path are as efficient as it gets. You want as many of these as possible against decks that try and beat you up. Vindicate comes in a lot. Against blue decks I want to be able to kill a Library of Alexandria or a Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Against Storm I want to kill Defense Grid (or Library of Alexandria). Against creature-based decks I want to have an additional removal spell. Massacre is both for Thalia decks where it is amazing or for Mentor decks. It’s not always great against Mentor since they only need 1 instant but it can also be game-winning. Given you play Tutors, having access to it at timely moments is a real advantage.
This is a minimalistic Dredge plan. If there is a lot more Dredge where you play, you will want more cards than this. If there is a bit of Dredge and a lot of Oath, then play many more copies of Containment Priest and Grafdigger’s Cage. The type of interaction the Dredge player has access to varies a lot. Some just have Chain of Vapor, Mental Misstep, and Nature’s Claim, but others have access to Force of Will. Generally, you want to trim Jace, The Mind Sculptor, Swords to Plowshares, Cabal Therapy, and Unearth, as well as 1 of Thoughtseize, Force of Will, or an expensive card draw spell.
Against blue decks you will often trim Vampiric Tutor due to the card disadvantage and their Mental Missteps. Force of Will is also mediocre—I don’t usually cut all 4, but trimming 2-3 is fairly common. Against Storm you side out a Monastery Mentor and Jace, the Mind Sculptor since you don’t need as high a density of threats. I also trim Swords to Plowshares.
I love playing this deck. I prefer it to the other Mentor decks because I love the complexity that Gifts Ungiven brings and I feel the additional power and card draws gives you a real edge in a lot of matchups. The VSL and MTGO have done wonders for this format and I think it is really healthy. You can do a lot of cool things and the game play is just a lot better than you get in other formats. If you haven’t played a lot of Vintage, I suggest you try it out. The barriers to online are far, far less than IRL, I’m not that up-to-date with the MTGO economy but I wouldn’t be surprised if a top-tier Vintage deck costs less than some Modern decks. If you have played Vintage, consider taking this deck for at spin. You won’t regret it.