The Finest (?) Vintage:
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
- Florian Koch
Vintage decks are typically "broken" in a good way. But when you look around at what people play, you can't help but notice that some designs are literally broken in the sense of "not working (as well) as intended." Let's investigate the how, the why, and the why not; find fixes and learn a lesson or two.
This article is going to be a bit of rant. I'm not planning on doing this frequently, but I tried two decks over the past few weeks, and there is not much to sugarcoat, I was disappointed with both of them. The plan was to circle back to another Bazaar deck, follow it up with Shops again in the next installment of the series, and then present a few more blue decks. My choice for the Bazaar deck was Hogaak Vine and at the very beginning things were going well, very well indeed.
Bazaar in Action and Inaction
Unfortunately, while the deck tempts you every once in a while with an opener like this one, it is actually super inconsistent. Let's take a look at a decklist and then discuss the deck's flaws by comparing it to the benchmark Bazaar deck, Dredge.
Dredge's main appeal is its incredible consistency. The deck almost never fizzles and the vast majority of hands goldfish by turn three or four. In contrast, Hogaak Vine can win on turn two, which for Dredge is only a theoretical possibility, but you also fizzle a great deal, and then there is not much you can do about it. You can mulligan more aggressively for good hands, but unlike Dredge this strategy actually requires some cards in hand. Stinkweed Imp plus Bazaar is an amazing two-card hand for Dredge. With Hogaak Vine, even if you could choose any three cards from your deck, you would not have a half-decent starting hand.
Another big issue is that, while Dredge has quite a bit disruption, Hogaak Vine has basically none at all. Something that appears to speak in favor of the Vine deck is that it can actually cast its stuff and thus should be more resilient to graveyard hate. But even that doesn't really seem to be the case. If your opponent has grave hate, you can still cast a few things from hand, sure. Are Bloodghasts and Rootwallas really going to win games against any opponent's who didn't keep Leyline with only a bunch of air to accompany it, though? Is a 4/3 haste creature that you can cast around turn seven going to improve things by much? Who are we kidding?
The one thing that I kind of like is that you can cast Hogaak against Grafdigger's Cage. That might win a few games where Dredge would be hopeless against Cage unless it finds Force of Vigor. On the other hand, Dredge very distinctly has the edge when it comes to recovering from graveyard removal. A well-timed Tormod's Crypt can already be rough for Hogaak Vine as the deck needs resources to work and is really slow in building up new ones. Dredge in contrast doesn't care about resources at all. The second you find a new dredger, or even just discard one you held back, it is almost as if they never disrupted you at all.
What I described above comes down to reflecting on how the deck performs, but you can also just analyze the decklist and find flaws in the construction—underpowered and unsynergistic cards—that you usually don't see in good decks. Let's start this with a card that is missing from the deck. Did you notice that Hogaak Vine doesn't run Cabal Therapy? This is a deck with Stitcher's Supplier and no sac outlets, a deck with Basking Rootwallas that don't do much besides triggering Vengevine, a deck with Bloodghasts, a deck that has access to black mana but also wants discard all the time, and finally a deck that has no disruption and could really use some. In other words this deck here is the perfect home for Cabal Therapy yet it can't afford to play it. Why? Because the deck is so inconsistent as is, that it just can't expend the slots.
The deck does include Stitcher's Supplier, despite lacking ways to sacrifice it and in blithe defiance of the fact that it has so few black sources that it cannot even cast the card a fair amount of the time. Milling yourself and providing a cheap body is synergistic with what you want to, but you cannot get around it: this card is severly underpowered. The deck also runs Deathrite Shaman although it doesn't want to play a long game and although it needs to deploy Bazaar of Baghdad on turn one, meaning Deathrite Shaman usually only comes online on turn three.
Looking at synergies there is the problem that you sometimes have Hollow One in your opening hand but cannot play it on turn one, because, if you did that, you would not have two creatures to play on turn two, leaving your Vengevine(s) cold. The same goes for Basking Rootwalla of course, but you don't expect to get much damage out of these anyway. Meanwhile losing 4 damage from not casting Hollow One actually hurts. Bloodghast doesn't have any synergy with the whole Vengevine part of your deck either. The icing on the cake is that the deck manages to run into mana issues despite being just two colors, and yet most people add a third color for the postboard games. The one powerful card you get, Deafening Silence, people don't even want four of, and then they use sideboard slots to splash Swords to Plowshares into a black deck.
Excuse me, but none of this computes. Why do people play these shambles of a strategy?
Shopping for Alternatives
As you may have noticed I was not pleased at this point. I really wanted to present a Bazaar deck, but especially these days, I suggest to move on if playing a deck makes you hate your life. So instead of looking for another Bazaar option, I decided to pick up a deck that has convincingly proved its mettle. Golos Stax is always one of the Top 5 decks on MTGGoldfish and another Mishra's Workshop build was next on my list anyway, so this is what the rest of the article will be about.
When I started playing Ravager Shops a while ago, I complained that the deck was not working for me and that Golos Stax looked like a much more coherent deck. Little did I know. The ever-helpful Vintage community explained to me that Ravager Shops usually outperforms Golos by far. A few dozen matches with Ravager Shops later, I had to admit that they were probably correct in calling this a strong deck; I had just misplayed it on a strategic level. I still didn't know what made them shun Golos, though.
As you might have guessed from the introduction, my view of Golos quickly declined from full of hopes to really annoyed with the deck. It's hard to play, at least when you aren't dropping turn one Trinisphere and I made my fair share of mistakes, but that was not it. The deck's main problem is that all these Spheres can easily backfire on you. With Ravager Shops I was often hindering myself by playing Spheres too early, but with Golos Stax there is no real alternative. What are you going to do instead? If you don't have Crucible of Worlds, you will play nothing on turn one, Golos on turn two, and only then drop your Spheres? I don't think many opponents will be impressed by that. No, you have to try to deploy a Sphere on turn one, but then, if your opponent has a Wasteland, you won't do anything meaningful for a very long time. This play pattern should make you realize that you must protect your Workshops as well as you can, but you don't always have access to multiple lands that produce more than one mana. In many cases you will just need to play your Shop and hope for the best. Even if they don't have Wasteland, though, you still need an exceptionally strong hand to follow up Sphere of Resistance with a meaningful play on the next turn.
There is also the issue that getting wasted is not only a huge tempo blow, it's also extremely rough on your resources, making it difficult to get to the five or six mana for Golos at all. Normally lands and moxen provide mana on a one-mana-per-card basis, but Shops and Tombs break this pattern, essentially providing a form of card advantage. If you think about it this way, getting your Shop wasted is like being triple stone rained.
The Starting Point
|Sample Golos Stax|
This is what a typical Golos deck looks like. The specific list is what LORiWWA, a Golos regular, played a while ago. In this case the creator of the deck went big on grave hate in the main deck, but otherwise this is a standard exemplar of the archetype.
Rather unsurprisingly this deck is a strong favorite against any Bazaar deck; even Dredge preboard was a piece of cake. On the flipside you don't win a lot against blue decks. Your natural impulse might be to cut a few Cages and replace them with cards better against blue decks, but you should not expect to make huge strides with what you get. The next best generic cards available to you are Stonecoil Serpents, a maindecked Mystic Forge, or a fourth Crucible of Worlds. These are all fine cards, but none of them is going to turn around a matchup like Doomsday, and the combo matchups are all bad for you. What you do annoys them, but you give them ample time to find Tinker and get something devastating like Blightsteel Colossus. Postboard an end of turn Hurkyl's Recall often sets up an explosive, usually lethal turn for them.
Looking at decklists, most Golos versions play the exact same 23 lands and eight plastic mana cards, and there is little reason to deviate. The core hate pieces of four Sphere of Resistance and the restricted taxing effects are also part of the deck's identity, filling another nine slots. Then we have the namesake card, Golos, which accounts for another four slots. Some people do not run Phyrexian Revoker, but usually you also find four of these. On Crucible of Worlds the numbers differ, but nobody plays fewer than two. You should also have at least one each of Null Rod and a Grafdigger's Cage. These cards are extremely powerful in the right matchups and are cheap enough that they make for a mini-toolbox off Inventors' Fair. This leaves the deck with eight slots that people fill with their own ideas.
What should we look for in the remaining cards?
I think you should make sure to beat graveyard decks. You are inherently the best deck in the format against those but not great at beating blue decks. So you should only play Golos Stax anyway if you think there will be plenty of graveyard decks. If that is the case, the cost to make you an overwhelming favorite in these matchups is actually quite low (see LORiWWA's list above). Sorcerous Spyglass is another card in your arsenal that almost beats Dredge by itself, but this one even has good applications in most other matchups. On the play it happens rather often that a Spyglass threatens game over by freezing their only fetch land. Even if they have another land, this might cut them off from searching a basic Island, making them very susceptible to your Wastelands. The card is also rarely dead as almost everybody plays a few planeswalkers, Sensei's Divining Top, or artifact creatures with dangerous abilities. Two should be a good number, but this is not set in stone. Everybody runs Spyglass, but the numbers vary wildly.
God-Pharaoh's Statue is another card that many people play as a one-of. It might look a bit weird that you would play exactly one copy of a card that is not restricted and that doesn't appear to be your average tutor target for Inventors' Fair. However, it turns out there are games where the Statue is exactly what you do want to tutor for. Especially in combo matchups you are often able to disrupt them heavily with your Spheres but cannot lock them away completely. It is only a matter of time until they will break out with Hurkyl's Recall. However, they don't attack your mana at all, so you'll quickly end up in a spot where you can tutor for the Statue and still have the mana to cast it through your own Sphere effects on the next turn. In most scenarios this is enough to lock them away, but try to win soon anyway. Generally speaking what you do is incredibly good at preventing them from casting multiple spells in a turn. If you give them too much time, they might find the mana to cast one spell, though, and if that spell is Hurkyl's Recall, it often leads directly to your downfall.
For the remaining five slots I would prioritize proactive cards because the deck often faces the issue that it can create an initial lock state, but then is treading water, not finding any business, and eventually most opponents manage to disentangle themselves. A third Crucible is a good idea in a metagame where many people have Wastelands. In these matchups turn one Crucible is often the best thing you can do. I wouldn't play four though as double Crucible hands are undesirable preboard when you don't know if even one is any good.
Stonecoil Serpent is big and dumb. These days in Eternal formats you expect your win conditions to contribute in more ways than just dealing damage. Stonecoil Serpent doesn't, but at some point a package of sublime efficiency and flexibility is hard to deny. With just two lands you can often make a 5/5 Serpent and in the late game the Serpent needs two swings at most. If you pretend this is monobrown's Tarmogoyf, I don't think you are that far off. Anyway, I think you should run two or three, and complaining about the lack of business above, I choose to have three. The last card will be a Relic of Progenitus. Grafdigger's Cage is better against the graveyard decks, but Relic is good in the mirror where you often have these Crucible battles, and it is usually more convenient against blue as you can recoup the card.
Two cards that I don't play should be mentioned. The first is Mystic Forge. I really don't like this card very much. It looks so appealing with Golos wanting to play a long game and the deck full of artifacts, but I found that my opponents often didn't win when they had it. When I had it, I was often forced to choose between generating value off the Forge or doing what I wanted to do, using cards from my hand, thus forfeiting the value the Forge should provide. I may have too much of a personal preference against the card, but regardless of that I don't want Forge in my main deck.
The other card that you sometimes see is Mana Vault. I recommended that one for Ravager Shops, and you could argue that the card is even better here, enabling turn one Golos and the like. You also often have a mana to spare on turn one, which makes the card even more appealing than is apparent at first glance. Still I don't think you should play it. You lose so many games to your Mana Crypt already and Ancient Tombs quickly become unusable that you really don't want to compound these problems. In a deck like Ravager Shops, that needs the card less, these problems are much less pronounced as Mana Vault helps to set up a board that wins one or two turns later, making the pain negligible.
You would most like to improve the blue matchups with your sideboard. That works decently against decks that play a lot of artifact mana, but against Doomsday and fair decks the number of tools available is extremely limited. I was desperate enough to give Jester's Cap a closer look, but of course the card is way too narrow and probably also too expensive for the Doomsday matchup where the effect would otherwise be strong.In this case building a sideboard is rather easy in a way. We have some dead cards in most matchups, and we just need to figure out what we want to replace them with. In the Dredge matchup for example, there are eight cards that almost don't do anything. In the Shops matchups we don't want the Sphere effects, and Grafdigger's Cage is useless, thus we have at least seven cards to replace. As we don't want to fill our sideboard with cards for these two matchups exclusively, we should look for cards that overlap between these matchups. Regardless, I'd be planning for three Null Rods.
A naturally overlapping card is Relic of Progenitus. Considering the number of tools you have postboard against Dredge et al. you don't need to shut them down completely like you would do with Grafdigger's Cage. The card also plays much better against Force of Vigor, but there are still a lot of people who run Oath of Druids, and I want Cage to beat this deck, too. Between your main deck and your sideboard you probably want six or seven grave hate effects in total with the distribution depending a bit on the metagame.
In a more subtle way sideboarding creatures also overlaps between Shops and Bazaar matchups. Business is always good in the mirror and you often need one or two creatures to win a against the graveyard decks too, because you cannot always shut them down completely and/or right away. Hollow One in particular wants to be blocked. Here I am torn between having access to the fourth Stonecoil Serpent or playing Wurmcoil Engine. The Engine is a clunker, but with all the Force of Vigors and Shattering Spree running around, the resilience against artifact destruction effects is extremely welcome, which made me opt for two Engines in the end.The final card with overlap is a third Sorcerous Spyglass. The card is not all that great in the mirror but still serviceable to shut down whichever effect you currently don't have access to, be it Wasteland, Ghost Quarter, Inventors' Fair, or even Relic of Progenitus. Besides Dredge, Spyglass shines against Ravager Shops and Deathrite Shaman decks.
Against Dredge a second copy of The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale is desirable to have a backup against their Wastelands. Finally there is Ensnaring Bridge, a card that we want for our mini-toolbox anyway and that has its moments against Dredge as well. The final pieces for Shops matchups are a source of card advantage and the fourth Crucible, which I think you just need for these matchups as so many games revolve around the Crucible mini-game. As I already pointed out, I'm not a fan of Mystic Forge for the card advantage job, but after trying Coercive Portal (bad against Force of Vigor) and even Mazemind Tome (bad with your own Null Rod) I grudgingly re-added one Mystic Forge, at least to the sideboard.
This leaves us with one slot, which we should fill with a card that is good against combo. I chose Mental Misstep because I dislike Mindbreak Trap. Everybody plays around it all the time and Misstep disrupts them too, although in a more subtle way I suppose. Maybe the saner choice is just looking for percentages in other matchups or playing Mindbreak Trap after all. Trap is pretty bad against a capable Doomsday player, but at least it's good against Outcome.
The Finished Product
|Golos Stax, Updated|
Riding the Beast
I find Golos Stax is one of the more difficult decks to play well and that starts with the opening hands. You are looking for a threat, disruption, and good mana in your opener. Threat and disruption are just boxes you can tick off, but what constitutes good mana can be deceptive. A hand with no Shops and no Tombs is rarely keepable, escpecially in game one. Don't be afraid to mulligan. You need a lot of resources, and not having access to the good lands means you have less resources, which is essentially the same as taking a mulligan. From that standpoint a six-card hand with a Workshop is a "card" up compared to a seven-card hand without any good land.
Postboard you should evaluate your hand against the game plan you have for the matchup, just like you always should. If you are playing an opponent with Wastelands, then the priority to have Shops and Tombs is much diminished. You will probably not get more than one use out of these lands anyway. Instead assign a higher priority to the hand having Crucible, preferably one that you can cast against a Wasteland or two. Approach these games expecting your lands to get wasted. Don't play Workshop at all if it doesn't propel you to a significant play. Turn one Shop into Crucible is great of course. Making a Workshop to cast Golos is perfect, but don't expose your Workshop for plays with little impact or to save some damage from Ancient Tomb.
Against Bazaar decks it is of utmost importance to take care of Bazaar right away. If you can only either waste them or play Grafdigger's Cage, then waste them. Otherwise, if they have Force of Vigor or Force of Will, it is game over right away. On the other hand, if you have four mana, Cage, and a Sphere on turn one, the decision gets harder. If they don't have Force of Vigor, a green card, and a mana source of their own, there is not much they can do if you play the Sphere first and then the Cage. The other card that is extremely annoying to them is The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. If you cast Golos, search for Tabernacle, and this is not literally the only thing you do, then you will usually win.
In the combo matchups you'd like to drop as many Spheres as possible and kill them as quickly as you can. Unfortunately in most cases that is not very quick and that's what makes these matchups unfavorable. Fair decks are often even worse. They either have Deathrite Shaman, which gives them extra mana and makes your Crucible all but useless, or they have Wrenn and Six, which also makes Crucible lines much less appealing.
The strategies as outlined above are not that complicated to execute. So why did I find the deck difficult to play? Phyrexian Revoker and Sorcerous Spyglass require a lot more consideration than they would in Ravager Shops. Playing Ravager you would just turn off some mox or planeswalker they have in play and hope that the advantage gets you over the finish line. With Golos you have to plan for a longer game, and thus you need to determine if the thing in play is more relevant than a thing that might come up later. For example against Outcome you will always have a mox to name for Revoker, but if you are not certain that this will keep them out of the game, it might be more sensible to choose Sensei's Diving Top. Planeswalkers and Deathrite Shamans can also be more relevant than the cards already in play.
A decision that is even more difficult to make is what to choose with Golos and Inventors' Fair. With Golos you would very much like to get a Strip Mine right away to keep your opponent under lock and key, but then you only get a one-shot effect off your best card. Still, sometimes that's exactly what you need to do. If you choose Karakas instead, you have created yourself an engine, but your opponent might hurt you badly with that extra mana. With Fair you have similar options. If you want to create an engine, you search for Crucible of Worlds, and afterward you can tutor every turn with enough mana, or you can waste your opponent turn after turn. Sometimes you might also search for Golos and start the engine from there, but there are also scenarios where you need something effective right away. This is easier to figure out, though. If you are about to die to creatures that Ensnaring Bridge would stop, guess what, search for Bridge. You see, these parts of the deck all fit incredibly well together and chain into each other, but you have several ways of getting started, and I must admit that I was not always sure of the best course of action. Of course in many cases you just win when you get your engine going, even if you only pursued the second-best plan, but we should try not to make a habit of that.
Considering that I built the sideboard by laying out the matchup constraints above, I'll skip the boarding plans in list form this time. A few unsorted closing thoughts and comments:
This deck is not really my cup of tea. However, it offers a style of play—prison—that only was a thing in the 90s. You might enjoy it either to relive that time or because it offers a very unusual experience to anbody who wasn't around back then.
If win percentage is your primary concern, then I'd recommend this deck for metagames heavy on graveyard decks. Lots of Ravager Shops is fine, too.
I am hopeful that this deck will see new additions in the future. It is rather modular and Wizards design new cards for Standard, not with Mishra's Workshop in mind. When an artifact makes its rounds in Standard, chances are it may provide something to this deckas well. Also, there are these weird sets that gave us cards like Coercive Portal.
Grafdigger's Cage prevents people from casting cards from their library. This rarely comes up in other formats, but in Vintage it is quite relevant, preventing your opponents from going crazy with Bolas's Citadel and yourself from using Mystic Forge.
Grafdigger's Cage is currently bugged on Magic Online. By currently I mean for about two months now, and by bugged I mean that it does not prevent creatures from entering the battlefield off Oath of Druids. It is not cool that Wizards still haven't fixed this, but fortunately the Vintage community is mostly nice. People can choose not to use Oath even if they have fewer creatures, and this is precisely what everybody does. At least I have not yet played against anybody who abused the bug.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.