Frozen Out: Coldsnap in Vintage

In the midst of Ravnica block, which has had less impact on Vintage so far than the two blocks preceding it, Wizards of the Coast announced the third set in the long-passed Ice Age block: Coldsnap.

Players’ imaginations leapt; this was the block that introduced some of the most well-known cards in the format, ranging from cards that can break a game open (Necropotence) to cards that prevent the game from breaking (Force of Will, Gorilla Shaman) to consistent card draw (Brainstorm). Would the block’s final installment continue this legacy?

The spoiler is in, and the answer is: no.

This set is clearly designed with casual play in mind. There simply isn't anything here that's going to significantly shape up Vintage. There aren't even really any solid new sideboard cards as we got with Guildpact and Dissension.

With that in mind, let's look at the very few cards that have a chance of causing a ripple. And no, none of them have the keyword I just mentioned.

Can Counterbalance counter Balance?

Counterbalance begs comparison to Chalice of the Void, and at first glance it has some advantages. It’s asymmetrical; the Counterbalance player doesn’t have to worry about playing around his own cards. It’s an enchantment, making it less likely to be answerable by the opponent in game 1 as it can’t be dealt with by Goblin Welder or Gorilla Shaman.

With Chalice of the Void, both players know what’s going to get countered before they even cast a spell. The Grim Long player knows he can’t safely cast Dark Ritual or any of his 1-cost tutors until he deals with the Chalice in front of him; with Counterbalance, he might have resolved Imperial Seal last turn but still might not be able to keep that Duress on the stack.

This card can't decide whether it wants
to be Chalice of the Void or Fire // Ice.
It’s this variability which is Counterbalance’s strongest and weakest point. In a deck with varied casting costs, Counterbalance has the capability to answer far more opposing cards than a Chalice of the Void with the same two mana invested in it. However, that Counterbalance can't necessarily be counted on to stop any particular casting cost at any given time.

This weakness becomes most apparent in decks playing Counterbalance with a large spread of casting costs. Force of Will is a likely inclusion in these decks; if the opponent can “test the waters” with an inconsequential spell and learn that only his five-cost spells will be countered this turn, he could very well proceed to seal the game without regard for the enchantment.

Therefore, the decks in which Counterbalance is most likely to make an appearance are those that can change the top card of the library during the opponent’s turn. Brainstorm and the “topdeck tutors” (Vampiric Tutor and Mystical Tutor) are the most commonly played cards that allow control over this; a well-timed casting can not only provide the powerful effect these cards normally carry, but potentially counter an opponent’s key spell at the same time. Fetchlands and other shuffle effects, while not as reliable, can also be useful for disrupting an opponent.

Fish is a somewhat likely candidate; most variants play at the least Brainstorm and fetchlands. It’s difficult to say whether this card can truly contend for Chalice of the Void’s slots in that deck; Fish’s best play with Chalice is usually for 0 on the first turn to shut down opposing Moxen, and barring mana acceleration of its own, this card can’t fulfill that same purpose.

Simpsoncallifragilisticexpiala *annoyedjotungrunt* ocious

Thanks to the rise of the Blue/Black "Sullivan Solution" Fish variant with Dark Confidant and Dimir Cutpurse, Blue/White Fish is currently seeing a bit of an ebb in popularity. The draw capability of U/W variants is weaker without Confidant as an option, and anti-graveyard sideboarding is substantially more difficult without access to Black mana for Sullivan Solution's preferred choice, Planar Void. As most Blue/White variants play either AEther Vial/Chalice of the Void or Null Rod, playing Tormod's Crypt isn't feasible either. This forces the deck to play substandard options such as Samurai of the Pale Curtain which doesn't have a substantial effect on Grim Long, or Leyline of the Void which it can't possibly play it if it's not in the opening hand.

Jötun Grunt gives the deck usable anti-graveyard tech, on a cheap 4/4 body. The card seems almost tailor-made for squaring off against Ichorid decks; not only can it put Ichorid and Ashen Ghoul in a nearly un-dredgable position on the bottom of their owner's deck, it can also block and kill one of the attacking creatures and hang around for more. The ability to continually answer new creatures dredged into the graveyard makes it more effective over the long game than a one-shot effect like Morningtide.

It also helps shore up matches against sideboard cards which have been a problem for Fish in the past. Most creatures in U/W Fish can't get past Old Man of the Sea, whether it be getting past the 3 toughness or dealing with getting important creatures stolen. The Grunt is not only theft-proof against Old Man; it can also kill the Marid in combat. Grunt is also one of a very few creatures U/W fish can play that can survive a Pyroclasm or Massacre, both of which are becoming popular board sweepers in sideboards.

However, the real test of the Grunt will be how it performs against well-established decks which rely on the graveyard, most notably Worldgorger Dragon combo and Grim Long... and in these matches it appears wanting. While it can interfere with Dragon's use of cards such as Deep Analysis, a smart player can just hold the Dragon in hand until he's ready to go, and win all in one turn before the Grunt player gets another upkeep. Grim Long can do the same, and of course doesnt' even necessarily have to worry about the graveyard at all with a Tinker into Darksteel Colossus play or a good hand that doesn't need Yawgmoth's Will.

Phyrexian, Orgg. Orgg, Phyrexian.

If any card in Coldsnap will actually inspire the creation of a new deck that card will be Phyrexian Soulgorger. It lacks the need to circumvent the onerous “as it comes into play” requirement of Phyrexian Dreadnought and the need to resolve a restricted card to get it into play as with Darksteel Colossus. The only trick required to get this 8/8 into play is tapping Mishra’s Workshop.

If this guy ever winds up at the Oscars
with David Letterman... hoooo boy.
It’s the turn after that where things get interesting.

The cumulative upkeep effectively guarantees that it’s not just going to be a simple toss-in to an existing Workshop aggro deck. This guy is going to demand support: cheap creatures that will allow it to stay in play, and easy ways to reset its age counters.

Quite possibly the best way to make the Soulgorger useful is to give it haste. Three unblocked attacks are enough to seal the game; haste means it will only consume three other creatures on the way there. Historically, the two ways to give creatures haste in Vintage have been Anger and Lightning Greaves. Neither sees play currently, however Lightning Greaves in particular seems to be a good fit for an artifact-heavy deck.

Beyond giving it haste, creatures can be easily and cheaply supplied. Everyone’s favorite 0-cost creature is potential food, as is the easily recurred Myr Servitor. Resetting the age counters is also a breeze with Goblin Welder.

Unfortunately, even with its very own deck this card will likely not still make the cut. The Tinker -> Colossus combo is nearly ubiquitous in Vintage these days, with a large number of different ways to set it up (see Grim Long and Gifts Ungiven) and no need to mess with cumulative upkeep.

Miss Cellany

A few other cards deserve a mention, but don’t need quite as much dissection:

In any deck currently expecting to play Mana Leak more than once per game, Rune Snag is a clearly superior adjunct or replacement. It’s unlikely to replace the slot taken by Daze in some budget decks as that card is still far more useful in the very early game.

Commandeer, while initially talked up quite a bit, is simply not going to find a home in the current environment. Very few decks which actually play Blue can comfortably fit this and two other blue cards in hand at the same time... and those that can will be giving up quite a bit of draw or counter power to take control of a single spell, limiting Commandeer's use to only must-answer spells. Despite this card’s obvious ability to swing games when resolved, both costs are simply too unwieldy to make it reliable.

Yes, Ohran Viper lets you deal damage and draw a card. That doesn't make it strictly better than Ophidian. The ability to destroy a creature it damages in combat is negligible; the most-played creatures in Vintage are either indestructible or only have one toughness anyway. Besides, how many competitive Vintage decks can actually produce two Green mana in a turn? Not any that would actually want to play this.

Arcum Dagsson requires sacrificing an artifact creature, not just any artifact. Therefore, the effect of this “living Tinker” is too slow and limited to be of use. It makes a quaint answer to an opponent's Darksteel Colossus, but is no better at this job than the much cheaper and generally more useful Goblin Welder.

Spiraling out of control

Unfortunately, there really isn't much more to say about this set. Its lasting imprint on Vintage will be extremely limited, if even existent. It is an ultimately disappointing cap to a block that brought the format some of its most important cards.

With the last year providing such a small number of useful cards (only now is a deck making significant use of Ravnica-block cards becoming popular), Vintage players again find themselves looking to to the next set for a new challenge. Perhaps Time Spiral's return of Teferi will yield interesting cards where a return to the land of Jaya Ballard and Arcum Dagsson has failed.


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