Painters, Grindstones, and Blasts, Oh My!
By JACO on May 22nd, 2008 · Filed in Vintage (Type 1) · Comments not available just now
The release of a new Magic expansion every few months means a fresh supply of new cards to play with and fresh challenges to constantly entertain us. Like the cycles of nature cleansing the earth, the new cycles of sets and cards help to cleanse Magic formats of the old decks and bring forth new life. There will be new toys to play with in every Magic format, and many will be swept away to not be seen (or played with) again. For the Vintage crowd, in particular, there will usually only be a few cards each set that will actually make it into the playable rotation of the most expansive card pool available.
The trend in most recent Vintage decks has been to leverage a deck's explosive speed (Ichorid, or Bubble Flash, for example) or to force through a big spell (Yawgmoth's Will, Fastbond, Quirion Dryad, Oath of Druids, or Tinker usually come to mind) in hopes of quickly ending the game. Games and matches are often decided by the tiniest of margins. An increasing number of decks have used the unrestriction of Gush as an engine for potentially explosive plays when the coast is clear or when an opponent has tapped out. This has shifted the focus in Vintage back to a heavily Blue, and specifically a Gush + Fastbond (Gushbond), metagame.
With this trend comes a niche created to exploit the heavy Blue presence, and this exploitation has most recently come in the form of main deck Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast. As a cheap and efficient answer to cards like Gush, Force of Will, Mana Drain, Flash, Merchant Scroll, and Tidespout Tyrant, this is truly the heyday of 'Red Blasts.'
At the same time that this niche has developed, the recently released Shadowmoor expansion has brought us a wealth of new cards, and with it came our new friend Painter's Servant. After seeing the spoiler online, many people immediately devised a simple two card combo with Painter's Servant and an old forgotten relic printed in Tempest, called Grindstone.
When Painter's Servant comes into play, you can name a color, and every card in the opponent's deck becomes that color. Then when you activate Grindstone targeting your opponent, their entire deck will be milled into their graveyard, because it is now a single color. This simple two card combo can win the game for a measly total, spread across however many turns you need to get the mana and protect the combo components. The combo costs are entirely colorless, making it easily splashable across archetypes; and it is not reliant on the graveyard like many other combo decks in Vintage, making it more difficult to hate (and rendering the omnipresent Leyline of the Void useless).
One very interesting thing with our new toy Painter's Servant is how it can be used in conjuction with the aforementioned 'Red Blasts.' When it comes into play, you can simply choose to turn everything Blue, meaning that once it is in play your Red Elemental Blast or Pyroblast can now counter any spell on the stack or can destroy any permanent in play (ala Vindicate), all for the lowly cost of only .
So armed with the knowledge that the Vintage metagame can be abused by maindecking Red Blasts, and knowing we have a cheap and efficient combo shell that doesn't take up much room (and which also makes our Red Blasts even stronger), let's build a deck, right?! Many teams across the globe have already taken up this challenge and have taken tournaments by storm this month with their new creations.
On May 3, 2008 in New Berlin, Wisconsin (USA), Chris Nighbor of Team ICBM won the 35-man ICBM Open #4 with a deck titled 'Scarecrow' (in homage to the Painter's Servant creature type, 'Artifact Creature – Scarecrow'). The deck dropped Mana Drain entirely and used the Painter's Servant + 8 Red Blast plan (4 Red Elemental Blast + 4 Pyroblast), along with the standard Force of Will + Merchant Scroll package in order to blast its way into the Top 8, winning the whole tournament. In a metagame littered with Tyrant Oath at every other table, Nighbor reportedly only lost 2 games the entire day.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, on May 3, 2008 in Durango, Bilbao (Spain), Mario Lopez made Top 8 in the 36-man Liga Vasca de Vintage #5 tournament with a completely different Painter's Servant deck. The deck eschewed Red for more Black disruption but still abused the Painter's Servant + Grindstone combo for an instant win. Lopez used a protection package of 4 Mana Drain, 4 Force of Will, and 3 Duress/Thoughtseize to control the game and opponent. He further enlisted the help of various Tutors and Trinket Mages in order to dig up answers like Engineered Explosives, Tormod's Crypt, and Pithing Needle or to assemble the lethal combo when the time was right (Trinket Mage can fetch the single copy of the Grindstone in the deck).
Elsewhere in Europe on May 4, 2008 in Roma (Italy), Roberto Maffei (aka PiCasso) won the 42-man TPC#9 tournament with his own incarnation of a Painter's Servant + Grindstone combo deck, featuring Gush, Ponder, and Brainstorm for drawing/filtering, as well as 1 Tinker and 2 Fabricate to help search out his artifact game winners. Maffei used 4 Red Elemental Blast, 3 Pyroblast, 1 Misdirection, 4 Force of Will, and 2 Mana Drains for a whopping 14 counterspells main, not to mention 3 more Stifle maindeck (helping him to combat the 3 TPS decks in the Top 8). Maffei could either search up the instant win via the combo or could use all of his counterspells to simply protect his Platinum Angel and ride it to victory.
The following weekend the ever popular Andy Probasco (aka Brassman) won the 83-man SCG Richmond Day 1 tournament on May 10, 2008 with a deck that his crew developed, dubbed 'MSPaint,' short for Merchant Scroll Painter. Using the Gushbond and Merchant Scroll engines for fuel, and the Painter + Grindstone combo for a kill, Probasco used a configuration of 4 Force of Will, 3 Mana Drain, and 5 Red Blasts for protection (and to force through his big spells).
The very next day on May 11, 2008 at the 60-man SCG Richmond Day 2 tournament, Stefan Ellsworth made Top 4 with a nearly identical build, simply swapping out 1 Red Elemental Blast for a single main deck Tormod's Crypt.
On May 11, 2008, The Council hosted their 'Prime Tournament' in Albacete (Spain), and 78 people turned out for a tournament that was ultimately dominated by Painter's Servant. The organizer has not yet published decklists, but per my Team Pataners spies in Europe, there were 4 unique Painter's decks in a Top 8 that looked like this:
1st place (split): Revillark Flash
2nd place (split): Mana Ichorid
3rd place: Bomberman Painter
4th place: Next Level Doomsday
5th place: Gush Painter's/Grindstone combo
6th place: MUD
7th place: Painter's/Grindstone combo (Blue/Red shell)
8th place: Painter's/Grindstone combo (Blue/Red shell)
Also courtesy of Jordi Amat (aka piZZero) and his Team Pataners teammate César Fernández (aka CHaPuZaS) comes this actual 5th place decklist, that was piloted by Fernández en route to his own Top 8 finish that day:
As you can see, many Vintage players and teams have already started to tackle the challenge of fitting the Painter's/Grindstone combo into new decks. Many of the card choices in the decks from recent Top 8's above are different, but ultimately these can be broken down into a few different deck 'shells' that we'll continue to see in tournament play going forward. Let's now take a closer look at a few of these these different deck shells that have been used and also some choices that people will have to make when building decks using this combo. With many cards (such as Ancestral Recall, Brainstorm, Force of Will, etc.) considered to be automatic inclusions when building Vintage decks, space and card slots are at a premium when constructing decks. Many times we will have to sacrifice one card set (or shell) for another in order to be able to fit everything in.
The Merchant Scroll + Gushbond Engine
Decks such as Andy Probasco's MSPaint and CHaPuZaS' Gush Painters have incorporated the increasingly popular Gushbond engine into their deck, both to have more explosive draws and to do more with less mana earlier in the game. Merchant Scroll helps to supplement this engine by searching out additional copies of Gush to fuel more drawing, to tutor up counterspells like Force of Will, or to find removal such as Chain of Vapor or Echoing Truth. Many Vintage decks are currently using this shell, such as Tyrant Oath, GroATog, Next Level Doomsday, and Empty Gush.
Not all of the new Painter variants use this engine because they don't want to dedicate the room to it. Some, like Roberto Maffei's version, are content to load up on cheap cantrips like Ponder and then add more protection to dedictate more energy to controlling the game state.
The Red Blast Plan
When analyzing these decks, we can see lots of similarities aside from the Merchant Scroll and Gushbond engines. Most of them utilize fast artifact mana (Black Lotus, Moxes), search in the form of the Black tutors and Brainstorm, and some form of protection in the form of a package of 8-15 spells, usually chosen from these:
Force of Will
Red Elemental Blast
The advantage to many of the new Painter's Servants decks is that they hope to prey on other Blue-based decks by playing the Red Blast package main deck, to provide cheaper counterspell power than Mana Drain, or to eliminate the card disadvantage of having to constantly pitch extra cards to Misdirection. The most comparable thing to this in terms of mana investment is Duress and Thoughtseize, but those cannot combine with Painter's Servant to remove or destroy cards that are already in play like a Red Blast can.
With the added utility of a Pyroblast being able to blow up any permanent in play once Painter's Servant is out, there is also a greater need for Red mana to be able to cast the spell, and thus more strain on a deck's manabase. Blue decks that choose to run both the Gushbond and Red Blast plan will be stretched to four colors (because they also need to be able to cast the requisite Black tutors and Yawgmoth's Will). The 'Gush Painters' deck above plays 0 basic lands, and Chris Nighbor's 'Scarecrow' deck packed only 1 basic land, but a highly fragile manabase is apparently a tradeoff players are often willing to make for increased flexibility and powerful spells across a wider spectrum of Magic's colors.
The Trinket Mage Package
Because the Painter's Servant and Grindstone combo is entirely artifact based, it's not quite as easy to search for as something like Ancestral Recall, which can be tutored up with the drop of a Mystical Tutor or Merchant Scroll. The fact that Grindstone isn't a very good card on its own will also weigh into deckbuilders' choices. Do we try to assemble the Painter + Grindstone combo as fast as possible by including more copies of a bad card, or do we pack more explosiveness or protection into the deck and minimize the amount of dead cards? This is a question that won't be easily answered, especially in light of the examples that have made Top 8 this month.
Andy Probasco and Stefan Ellsworth were on one end of the spectrum, including 3 copies of Grindstone in their winning decks, while most others were content with just 1 Grindstone to be searched out later in the game. Maffei's deck used Fabricate as a way to search out missing combo components, but Trinket Mage seems better suited to find a singleton when the time is right, as it also provides a 2/2 body for the same mana investment ().
Mario Lopez's deck from the Bilbao tournament on May 3 was a starting point for what these decks can do with Trinket Mage. Similar to Extended decks from the past couple of years, Trinket Mage is often used to search out singleton answers in the form of Tormod's Crypt, Pithing Needle, or Engineered Explosives. These may be critical to have main deck when waging war against decks like Ichorid or Reveillark Flash or when staring down an army of 1/1 goblin tokens from an opposing Empty the Warrens. Trinket Mage can be even more potent in a Grindstone deck, as it can also search out a Sensei's Divining Top to insure that future draws are more gassy, or it can search out the single Grindstone to win the game when the time is right. If you are going to tailor your deck to utilize this plan, then logically it does not make sense to include anything less than the 4 full copies allowed of Trinket Mage, as he will prove to be extremely useful every time he is cast.
Including at least a couple of copies of Sensei's Divining Top in Trinket Mage versions also seems to be a very logical choice, as it will repeatedly smooth out your draws, works incredibly well with fetchlands, and is searchable with the Mage. Aside from the fact that Ponder pitches to Force of Will, there is frankly no reason to ever run Ponder over Sensei's Divining Top, especially in conjunction with Trinket Mage.
Trinket Mage may also lay the groundwork for versions of Bomberman Painter, as there is the potential for incredible amounts of synergy between the strategies. There was a version of Bomberman Painter that placed in the Top 4 of the 78-man 'Council Prime Tournament' in Albacete (Spain) on May 11, so the idea definitely has merit. We'll delve deeper into this strategy in an upcoming article in the near future (hint hint!).
The Workshop/Prison Shell
From the outset of the discovery of the Painter's Servant + Grindstone combo, there seemed to be a collective want to fit it into a Mishra's Workshop or 'prison' type shell. Some people have been working on inserting the combo into the standard 9-Sphere prison shell to try to control the game, then backing the combo with Goblin Welder for resiliency and adding things like Transmute Artifact for additional search capability. The idea is similar to a Blue control shell, but instead of attempting to control the game and opponent with counterspells, the Workshop player would be attempting to control the game state by locking up the board and limiting an opponent's opportunity to cast spells.
Towards the end of one of Stephen Menendian's recent articles, he briefly mentions Painter's Servant and alludes to a Workshop Painter combo deck, which seems to be fitting in the Painter + Grindstone combo into a Workshop Aggro type deck with Sword of Fire and Ice. The problem is that this version doesn't do any one thing very well and isn't really focused on comboing out or locking the opponent out. In Vintage, your deck has to do at least one thing really well in order to compete, and I don't think this deck does anything very well.
I am more inclined to play a Blue shell than a Workshop shell, because the stopping power of Force of Will just seems more effective than Sphere of Resistance in the current metagame. But if I was going to play a Workshop-based version of the Painter + Grindstone combo, why not just make it a total combo deck, using Workshop for acceleration like many decks would use Dark Ritual? I would lean towards including the maximum number of copies of all of the following cards:
Staff of Domination
The key to a Workshop-fueled combo deck is the opening hand. By playing the max number of cards between two nearly instant win combos (Painter's Servant + Grindstone being one, and Metalworker + Staff of Domination being the other), you will maximize your chances of opening with a busted hand that can win you the game in the first couple of turns. Serum Powder's presence is to help aid in the quest for strong opening hands and to reduce the 'debt' created by mulliganing more often to start the game.
Building For the Future
Now that we've seen how some deckbuilders and teams have tried to abuse Painter's Servant and the impact it's already had on the Vintage tournament scene in its first two weeks of legality, people will be taking these various gameplans into consideration when building their own decks to compete against Painter decks. This means a couple of things to the future Painter player.
The first is that opponents will know more of what to expect when facing a deck packing numerous Red Blasts or if they see you shuffling up a Painter's Servant before the match. They will be more prepared and will keep in mind that you'll most likely have an answer to their Flash for only or that you can blast their Tidespout Tyrant into oblivion after they Oath it up.
Another thing it will mean in upcoming tournaments is that you can expect the metagame to adjust slightly. As a knee-jerk reaction, you'll probably see fewer people playing Blue in general, and particularly less Tyrant Oath and less Flash. You'll probably see more Manaless Ichorid, more Workshop Aggro, more MUD, more Goblins, and far more decks packing both Duress and Thoughtseize.
If there is indeed less Blue being played over the next couple of months worth of Vintage tournaments, then this means you should slightly adjust how you build your own Painter deck. This would mean don’t go overboard on the Red Blast plan, as there will probably be fewer overall targets. Instead, maybe divert a few of those slots to Thoughtseize, Duress, or even Counterbalance. Or possibly utilize the Trinket Mage package to grab more answers out of your main deck that can affect the board, such as Engineered Explosives. The best Magic players are often the ones who simply have the clairvoyance to be able to accurately assess where their local tournament metagame is headed and then tailor their decks to exploit the expected trend, which will undoubtedly include a healthy dose of Painter's Servant this summer.
By JACO on May 22nd, 2008 · Filed in Vintage (Type 1) · Comments not available just now