Researching Vintage: A Look at Dissension

Much as I predicted in my review of Guildpact in Vintage, the impact of Ravnica Block on the format has been middling at best. Bob has shown his face in a variety of decks, and Razia is nicely settled as Akroma’s backup in Oath.

The Flame Fusillade combo with Time Vault was actually seeing an increase in Top 8 play until Wizards of the Coast quashed it with errata, relegating the sorcery back to trade binders everywhere. Shattering Spree and Leyline of the Void have been seeing minor sideboard and maindeck play, but nothing, well, earth-shattering.

Quite possibly the only new deck type enabled by Ravnica has been Friggorid. The popular Extended deck relies on dredge cards like Golgari Grave-Troll and Stinkweed Imp to fill up the graveyard with creatures such as Ichorid and Ashen Ghoul. Stephen Menendian piloted a Vintage version of the deck using Bazaar of Baghdad to a Top 8 on the first day of the Star City Games Power 9 tournament in Richmond last month. This is the deck's first major showing; whether it will have a lasting place in the format has not yet been determined.

Overall, though, the outlook for Ravnica block has looked weak in comparison to the multiple deck types spawned from the Mirrodin and Kamigawa blocks.

The slow trickle of spoilers from Dissension started with an affirmation of that outlook. The first card spoiled, Gobhobbler Rats, looked like the beginnings of a strategy that offered marginal advantages far outweighed by the disadvantage of being handless. Vintage players were almost ready to nod off at the overcosted stuff that appeared to dominate the set.

Then the second card with Hellbent snuck out, with the effect of a wake-up slap to the face.

What did Infernal Tutor say
to the Vintage player's face?
Darn that Infernal Tutor!
When it comes to spotting potentially broken cards in Vintage, “Tutor” in the name is almost as good as “Mox.” Before Dissension, there were five restricted cards out of 13 Vintage-legal cards with “Tutor” in the name.

And then there were 14.

The text box of Infernal Tutor contains one of the most sought-after phrases in Magic: “Search your library for a card.” Its casting cost is :1mana::symb:. It certainly seems like Demonic Tutor. Then all that extra text comes into play about what happens when the player’s hand isn’t empty.

Infernal Tutor fits best into decks which meet two criteria: being able to empty the player’s hand completely and make it Demonic Tutors two through five, and those who play enough four-ofs to derive use from its non-Hellbent text. That effectively rules out most control decks such as Gifts, which typically hate being stuck with no hand and don’t really want to spend two mana during the main phase just to get another copy of something they already have.

Combo decks such as Long appear at first glance to be the best starting points for Infernal Tutor, as they’ve frequently sought to break every tutor in the format in the past (including getting Burning Wish restricted). However, I believe Infernal Tutor will eventually prove incompatible with the deck, as its non-Hellbent text isn’t useful. Long has few cards it wants to have to pay to see more than one copy of. Playing Infernal Tutor for another Dark Ritual is at best a break-even proposition that simply increases the storm count by two, and, lacking a fetchland, grabbing a second Brainstorm isn’t particularly valuable either. Searching for a second Duress may not even be necessary, and the Long player won’t know if he made the right choice by doing so until he’s already played the Tutor and the first Duress.

Long may still be able to get some use out of the Hellbent text in the right situations. A well-timed activation of Lion’s Eye Diamond will obviously making fetching and playing Yawgmoth’s Will a breeze, and if the deck should ever get stuck in topdeck mode, it can recharge itself by searching for Necropotence or Yawgmoth’s Bargain.

I believe Infernal Tutor will eventually find a home in some of the more unusual combo decks in the format and improve their reliability. Kobold/Clamp frequently sputtered out due to only being able to resolve one Glimpse of Nature, thereby making playing a kobold a break-even scenario for card advantage. The second Glimpse is frequently what pushed the deck “over the top” by providing enough card advantage to secure a win. In this context, even the non-Hellbent text on Infernal Tutor is a boon: fetching the second Glimpse, then playing both with some Kobolds in hand could prove to be a key play for the deck.

Four Quarters make more than a whole
Continuing in the theme of “almost looks restricted” cards, reading Ghost Quarter and stopping right before the last sentence would be the same experience as reading Strip Mine. It’s that last sentence that raises not only some slight limitations, but also a completely different use when compared to its stepfather and older cousin.

Obviously Ghost Quarter is at its most useful against a deck with no basic lands; letting the opponent search for a basic land isn’t a problem when there’s nothing to find. Barring such fortuitous situations, sometimes turning a highly threatening nonbasic land like Tolarian Academy, Bazaar of Baghdad, or Mishra’s Workshop into a basic land is almost as good as destroying it.

Ghost Quarter can also be used in a pinch as a “mana fixer” by turning one land into a basic land needed for a particular situation. While this isn’t usually an advantageous trade (losing two lands to retrieve a basic land), in dire situations it does give Ghost Quarter an ability that Strip Mine and Wasteland don’t have. This is unlikely to ever become the primary use for the card, even when combined with an indestructible land. (Also note that Ghost Quarter can’t be used in this way by targeting itself; the target of the ability won’t be in play when the ability tries to resolve, so the entire ability will be countered.

Realistically, this card will never replace Strip Mine in any deck. The ability to destroy any land in the game without qualification will continue to make it the leading land destruction card in Vintage. However, in decks that are already playing Wasteland, Ghost Quarter makes a solid sideboard card as additional land destruction against vulnerable decks.

But is there a maindeck home for Ghost Quarter? Yes, and that home is 1050 Uba Stax Ave. With so few colored cards in the deck, Uba doesn’t mind only being able to get colorless mana from Ghost Quarter. In a low-life situation it can “trade in” a Barbarian Ring for a basic Mountain. It gives the deck additional answers to basic Islands, which have been problematic for it when it doesn’t have Uba Mask out to interfere with Mana Drain.

Swallowing angels
Ever since Forbidden Orchard catapulted Oath decks back into the limelight, they’ve had the annoying problem of needing a third creature sometimes. Akroma, Angel of Wrath and Spirit of the Night/Razia, Boros Archangel all have the problem of being vulnerable to Swords to Plowshares and bounce spells, both of which can really put a damper on the deck at the time it’s supposed to be winning.

The two sideboard creatures to fill this spot have traditionally been Iridescent Angel and Pristine Angel. Both are considerably slower than the two main creatures with 6 power and haste: flipping one over by itself means waiting as many as five more turns to win the game. Iridescent is vulnerable to artifact forms of removal such as Duplicant, whereas Pristine Angel can avoid such removal but requires a lot of “babysitting” in the form of playing spells to keep it untapped.

Enter Simic Sky Swallower. While it still doesn’t have haste, it does have 6 power, flying, and trample. It kills a turn faster than either Iridescent or Pristine, and in the likely scenario that the opponent has put themselves at 18 or lower thanks to fetchlands or Force of Will, it’s a full two turns faster.

That's Triple-S, not to be confused with
Sarah "Big S" Silverman or Triple-H.
All that is gravy compared to the two real benefits of Triple-S. First, it’s completely untargetable by any of the opponent’s spells or abilities. Duplicant can’t touch it, Swords to Plowshares can’t touch it, and bounce can’t touch it. Untargeted creature damage can kill it, but cards like Hurricane and Inferno see so little play in Vintage that they are not a concern. Diabolic Edict can still take it out, but unless they also have a way to remove the Swallower from the game then Gaea's Blessing will make sure it comes back in another couple of turns.

The second advantage of Triple-S is that, unlike almost every other creature that gets played in Oath decks, it can realistically be hardcast without relying on Black Lotus. The deck is already geared to produce Green and Blue mana; even with a meager boost from draining a two- or three-mana spell, the casting cost actually becomes manageable. This can be quite a boon in games where Oath has to play around Chalice of the Void with one charge counter, and can’t Brainstorm its creatures back into the deck.

Research is a Wish your science makes
Now we come to another Green/Blue half-card that breaks a design rule. Previously, any effect that retrieved cards “from outside the game” (which, in Vintage, translates to, “in the removed-from-game zone or in your sideboard”) did so on a one-for-one basis: Ring of Ma'ruf and the Judgment wishes all removed themselves from the game once they did their job.

The Research side of Research // Development breaks that trend, not only by staying in the graveyard once it’s resolved, but also by grabbing up to four cards from the sideboard. The tradeoff is delayed gratification: the cards are shuffled into the deck.

While this makes Research far less breakable as a “tutor” than, say, Burning Wish was for Long, it still has a few narrow applications. Instinctively, the best fit for such a card is a deck stocked with tutors and card draw, maximizing the chances that the cards introduced into the deck find their way to the hand where they can be useful. Gifts Ungiven-based decks seem like a natural choice, however the Green mana requirement proves to be a deal-breaker for decks such as Meandeck Gifts.

The color combination does, however, lend itself well to Oath and Grow-a-Tog deck types. While Oath’s ability to bring up answers from the sideboard is limited, Research can double as insurance against much of the “remove from game” removal such as Duplicant and Swords to Plowshares that have proven problematic.

Grow-a-Tog, while not a Tier 1 deck at the moment, can certainly derive a benefit from Research thanks to its voluminous card drawing abilities. Flavors that include Intuition can easily bring in three answers to the opposing deck and force the opponent to deal with one of them.

There are other numerous corner cases in Vintage in which Research has, at the least, an amusing effect. Assuming a couple of cards have been removed over the course of the game, it can serve as a stall tactic against Worldgorger Dragon combo by buying an additional turn or two. It also combines with Doomsday, potentially allowing some interesting seven-card stacks that can be accessed with a draw-7.

Development, regrettably, is not particularly powerful and playing that half of the card will be extremely rare. The Blue/Red color combination effectively limits the card to Control Slaver, which has little use for the token creatures and far more synergetic draw spells in Thirst for Knowledge.

Psychic among those, possess you with one go

Following in the vein of cards that break design rules, Psychic Possession is the first Aura in tournament-legal Magic that enchants a player. The effect is huge: piggybacking off the opponent’s card draw . . . all of it for free. When this resolves, the opponents suddenly has to reevaluate his entire hand and board position. Cards such as Ancestral Recall suddenly become symmetrical; Brainstorm and Bazaar of Baghdad actually become better for the Psychic Possession player than they do for the enchanted opponent. Use of cards like Yawgmoth’s Bargain becomes almost unconscionable.

The casting cost for this Aura isn’t even that unrealistic; most decks that can produce two Blue mana can probably play this fairly easily. The problem is what happens before the Possession player gets to untap and really start enjoying those extra cards. Vintage today is really defined by large single turns winning the game: storming into a Tendrils of Agony, using Gifts to set up Tinker for Colossus followed up by two Time Walks, hitting the opponent with Mindslaver. Resolving Psychic Possession early means there probably won’t be much mana left over to actually play anything drawn with it, giving the opponent the chance to get that one big turn.

Psychic Possession certainly has an effect strong enough to see play in Vintage, but it may take a new kind of deck to really use it to its fullest potential. The metagame also has the ability to shift somewhat should it become too popular: “pseudo-draw” spells like Dark Confidant, Necropotence, and Impulse can work around it. It’s probably the weakest of the cards discussed in this article, but it still has quite a bit of potential.

Swift Silence: What could have been
I would like to discuss a card I consider the failure of what could have been a great design. Before rumor season started, I envisioned a card for Azorius that looked something like this:

Echoing Counter
Counter target spell and all spells with the same name as that spell.

This would have made perfect sense in block as a counter to Izzet’s spell-copying tricks, and would have the added benefit for Vintage of being a respectable foil to Tendrils of Agony as well.

At first, I was elated when I found out something like this was actually in the set, and then disappointed when I found out what had been done to “balance it.”

Swift Silence took that basic idea, made it potentially even more powerful in some situations by countering all spells on the stack . . . and then had a card draw tacked onto it to justify a bump in cost. The positively atrocious casting cost of :2mana::symu::symu::symw: effectively guarantees that combo decks are going to be able to snap off a lethal Tendrils before this is playable with anything other than Black Lotus.

And so we face . . . the final curtain
Dissension has certainly wrapped up the Ravnica block with a bang. This set packs more Vintage-playable cards as the other two sets combined, and the star of the set might just be the first card since Champions of Kamigawa to spark a truly new deck design for the format.

Despite grumblings over the recent errata to Time Vault, Wizards of the Coast is sure to regain a bit of momentum in the Vintage format thanks to Dissension.

In just over two months we’ll see if that momentum carries forward into the orphaned child of Ice Age block: Coldsnap.


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