[Editor's Note: Stephen Menendian writes almost exclusively for the Premium side of the website, but making this interview Premium-only somehow felt weird, so I've made this available to all readers of our site. Premium members should consider this a Premium article for the day that everyone else gets to read. Non-Premium members - consider this a sample of what you would see on the Premium side of the site nearly every day. This article features a former Pro Tour winner and the Director of Magic R&D discussing tech with one of the finest deck designers Vintage has to offer, not something you see with consistency anywhere else, but our Premium members get tech talk like this on a regular basis across nearly all formats. Enjoy.]
Randy Buehler is a man who needs no introduction but deserves one anyway. He is a former Pro Tour winner who went to work for Wizards Research and Development department around the time when Urza's Block was out and has since climbed the corporate ladder to become the head of Magic R&D. A fiercely competitive individual, when he's not hanging out with his lovely wife Del and daughter Kira, Mr. Buehler is known to play some poker, but even after all these years he's still quite passionate about playing Magic. He can be seen drafting with all comers during the evenings at Pro Tours, and recently he has been making sojourns to unsanctioned Vintage events on the West Coast in search of worthy opponents and glorious booty. [Prizes people, not strippers. - Knut, clarifying for the often adolescent audience]
Randy recently took a slightly tweaked version of Meandeck Gifts to a local forty-man Vintage tourney, depriving the northwest community of a Beta Mox Pearl in the process. I took the opportunity to get Randy to talk about Gifts and pick his brain in the process. If you are curious how Randy Buehler took the top spot or if you are interested in improving your game with Meandeck Gifts, you'll want to read this article.
Last month I presented, compared, and analyzed the variances in Gifts decks developed up to that point. I tested all the Gifts lists that had come before and based upon my testing and analysis of the options available, I came to some conclusions which were pretty different from what had come before. In the process, I discussed the differences in each of the draw engines, win conditions, disruption and compared them. What I didn't do was discuss how to play the deck.
Meandeck Gifts is a fairly complex deck. It has inherent power, but the deck is mostly made up of cards that require decisions. Every time you play Gifts Ungiven or Merchant Scroll, there are options. I couldn't think of a better way of discussing how to play Meandeck Gifts then by sharing and exploring Randy's tournament experience with you. Randy is one of the all-time greats. Time to learn from the best!
Q: Talk about the changes you made to the deck.
Randy Buehler: I'm not sure if I made the deck better or worse with my tweaks. I am convinced I made it more my style, and it clearly worked out well for me, but the deck is so complicated that I am positive I made mistakes in most and quite possibly all of my rounds. I'm starting to get a sense of most of the things that can be accomplished when resolving a Gifts Ungiven, but I haven't played nearly enough games to understand the optimal ways to maximize its power. The only thing I'm sure of is that the card is way, way more powerful than Thirst for Knowledge and that makes this deck pretty much strictly better than Control Slaver.
Here's the way I ran it:
4 Gifts Ungiven
2 Merchant Scroll
1 Fact or Fiction
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Burning Wish
1 Yawgmoth's Will
1 Time Walk
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Echoing Truth
1 Darksteel Colossus
4 Mana Drain
4 Force of Will
I really hated tapping out main phase for Merchant Scroll so I changed two of them into Impulses. I felt like I was betraying you when I did it, but I just wasn't happy drawing two Scrolls. After you've gotten the Ancestral, the second one is only ok. After playing a full tournament with Impulse I'm pretty sure you want at least one of them because it's a reasonable Merchant Scroll target (better than Brainstorm if you don't have a reshuffle effect) plus it's a very reasonable card to throw into a card advantagey Gifts. I tended to sideboard out the second one because once I know the matchup I can choose more powerful cards. But if you don't have a good read on the metagame it's reasonable to run more than one main, I think.
I also suspect that my metagame and my style don't lend themselves well to Misdirection, so I cut one of them. (Again, knowing that it was kind of a betrayal of what you've been arguing, but I kind of like running two copies of cards when they are my redundant copies of some key deck element.) This let me run both the Vampiric Tutor and the Echoing Truth. Misdirection was rarely exciting for me and I just felt safer having both a second bounce spell in the deck and an extra tutor to go get whatever I happened to need.
The really meaningful decisions are all about the sideboard though. I almost always sideboard out the Misdirections because even if they're potentially good in a given matchups, your opponent is so likely to have access to Red Blasts that it just doesn't make sense to sink two cards into one Blue spell. I usually keep Force of Will in against Red Blasts, but pretty much never keep in Misdirections. Vampiric is another card I often sideboard out for the same basic reason - after sideboarding you're less likely to want to sink two cards into one spell. You keep it in if you have a silver bullet for the matchup that they can't answer, but against control, say, Vampiric doesn't make the cut after 'boarding and Mystical only stays in because it's a Blue card to pitch to FoW.
So I'm happy with my main deck tweaks and I would probably run it that way again. (My most likely change would be to change to 6 Fetches / 4 dual land instead of 5 and 5, but I'm not sure I'd even do that.) But the sideboard needs some attention I feel like the sideboard has the potential to be a much more powerful weapon than what I ran:
2 Stifle (should have been 4 Duress and 1 Stifle)
1 Old Man of the Sea
1 Rack and Ruin
1 Shattering Pulse
1 Pithing Needle (not sure exactly to use these or how good they actually are ... I could be underrating them dramatically)
2 Red Elemental Blast
1 Tendrils of Agony
I have not yet seen a Fish deck played by a decent player so I cut an Old Man from your sideboard. I probably should have also cut one of the two Pyroclasms. I expected a lot of TPS here as that's what I've seen at the two other tourneys I've played (and it gave me my only loss at both those tourneys), so I knew I wanted more sideboard cards against it than you have. I'm honestly not sure what the best board card is against them. I was running Arcane Laboratory in my Slaver 'board, but they board in Red Blasts, so I wasn't all that happy with the Labs.
Stifle seems amusing, but I always fear that if they can go off then they can also clear my hand, so I don't love that plan either. I decided to go with Duress, figuring it's okay to fetch for an Underground as my first land in game 2 when I know my opponent doesn't have Wastelands. The Duresses turned out to be amazing for me. I never got a TPS opponent, but I did get the Gifts mirror multiple times plus a couple of Oath combo decks and a Mono-Blue Control. Duress was awesome against all of them. The Mono-Blue guy complained that he always beats Gifts, but my Duresses and Impulses made me into the better control deck. Note that I wasn't using Duress to force anything in particular through, it was just very efficient disruption that helped me win control games in the long run. I'm actually growing to hate Mana Drain. It's probably the worst card in the deck right now and I sideboard out 3 of them with some regularity. I'm actually tempted to start Duresses instead of Drains, but I'm sure that's wrong since it's a) not a Blue card and b) will lead me to want Undergrounds early even against opponents running Wastelands. I read your argument against Duresses, but I just don't buy it. I think I must play the deck a little less aggressively that you do.
I never missed the Eye of Nowhere ... Two maindeck bounce plus the extra tutor main led me to feel okay about cutting it and then I never wanted to wish for anything except Tendrils or an RFGed Walk.
Q: I heard one of your matches took one and a half hours. What happened? Was it just that intense? Can you tell us any cool plays or interesting tactics?
Well it was the semi-finals and it actually took a full two hours because it was an almost card for card Gifts mirror that went to three games. All three games were fairly deep and interesting. The best story is probably game 2 where I play Duress and my opponent plays Gifts as a response. I give him Mana Drain and Red Blast off the Gifts, figuring reactive cards would be easiest for me to play around, sending Merchant Scroll and some other card advantage card to the graveyard. When my Duress resolves I see that he also has Yawgmoth's Will in his hand, which is obviously what I Duress away. I have enough mana left to play the last relevant card from my own hand before, which is a Gifts of my own, before he can untap and bring Mana Drain online. What do I get? I wound up offering up Duress, Red Elemental Blast, Merchant Scroll, and another Gifts. He gave me the Duress and the Blast and on my next turn my hand cancelled out his hand as expected. That put in both in top-deck mode, though he got to go first. He whiffed, I whiffed, and then he top-decked Merchant Scroll for Ancestral and off to the races he went. I have to think there was a better Gifts for me there, especially given how schizophrenic the one I went with is. I guess I need to wind up with a card that can turn into two business spells somehow. I had two of those in the split so I guess I should replace either Duress or Red Blast with like a Fact or Fiction or maybe even Impulse. Anyway, I lost that game but won the third through an avalanche of Gifts-fueled card advantage.
Q: Tell us about the rest of the tournament.
Randy: The first round I played against a Red burn deck and my first draw was bad enough that he was able to Bolt, Bolt, Fireblast me out. Game 2 I accidentally played Tinker while Darksteel Colossus was in my hand. How embarrassing! My 10-month old daughter [awwww!] had gotten me up very early that morning ... that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. I managed to win anyway, but I had to Misdirect a Red Genju onto my own Volcanic Island to do it. [Nice play!] He actually got it back thanks to Boil, but by then I was in control and game 3 was a fairly pedestrian Gifts win.
Round two I played a Gifts mirror, Misdirections and Merchant Scrolls and all. Game 1 I managed to deplete my opponent's hand despite him getting an Ancestral early while I didn't, but with both of us empty handed he top-decked a Gifts. I didn't win from there. Game 2 I had him empty-handed again, but he Brainstormed into Mana Drain, FoW, and a Blue card to prevent me from actually winning right away. His deck may have loved him, but I still had a Gifts left so I was able to rebuild. Game 3 I just Tinkered for Colossus on turn 1 because that's what my draw said to do and it worked.
Round 3 was against Oath of Druids using Auriok Salvagers. I don't remember much about game 1 other than that I won. In game 2 he comboed me out (Auriok Salvagers to recur Black Lotus/Lion's Eye Diamond to generate infinite mana and use Pyrite Spellbomb to draw the deck) mostly only because he had Phyrexian Furnace in play. If it wasn't for the Furnace I could have gone for a fast Tendrils kill and never had to let him Oath. Even with the Furnace I can still go for the Tendrils / Yawgmoth's Will win but I have to spend a turn Recouping the Will, have him pop the Furnace, and then I Burning Wish the Will into my hand. I didn't have that turn to play with, though, so I lost. I won game 3, though, just as time expired for the third straight round. At this point I was happy to be 3-0, but my brain hurt and I had to go to the bathroom (which required a walk across the parking lot to the Toys-R-Us so it would have to wait for next round).
I lost round 4 to a homegrown Stax variant. It was sort of close, but he was always on the brink of locking me up and I was never close to winning. At least he beat me fast enough that I could head for Toys-R-Us. It's funny - I'd been having lots of success against Stax with Control Slaver and I thought this deck would be even stronger (since it has maindeck Rebuild, Tutors to access it, and in general Gifts can win faster than Slaver), so I cut some artifact removal from the sideboard. This match made me regret that.
In round 5 I played against a Mono-Blue Control player who said he had never lost to Gifts because he was better set up as a control deck. However, my Impulses and especially my Duresses after sideboarding destroyed his hand and I was able to win an easy 2-0 match.
I then drew into Top 8 where they did a deck-check and it turns out when I made my last minute decision to run a second Stifle in order to test them out against TPS (cutting Duress #4), I forgot to change my deck registration sheet. So not only was I playing with an inferior sideboard (I really wanted a 4th Duress in this field), but I also got a game loss in the quarter-finals for my trouble. I asked if I could switch to the sideboard I had written down and they said that I could not. Game "two" of the quarters-finals was rough. It was against the same Oath player from before and he was one of the guys in the field with Pro Tour experience. He had a great draw and I couldn't stop Oath from hitting the table. He then dug for a Forbidden Orchard on his next turn. I had the tools in hand that I needed to win, but it was going to take me a turn to set up with Gifts so I had to say go and let him Oath once. "Come on, Phyrexian Colossus!" I knew I would get another turn if he hit the Colossus instead of the Salvagers. I also knew I could get another turn if he hit Salvagers without spilling enough goodies into his 'yard. He hit the Colossus! So I got the turn I needed to kill him.
Game "three" was another toughie. I couldn't stop Oath from resolving, but I had randomly drawn Echoing Truth and Time Walk so I was able to buy myself a lot of time to set up shop. He also had Phyrexian Furnace out, which made things quite complicated. First, I had to decide whether to go for a Colossus win or a Tendrils win. If it wasn't for the Furnace then Tendrils would have been much easier, but with Furnace out I had to spend a long time on a Brainstorm trying to set up like three full turns. I was one mana short of being able to Tinker and Walk that turn, which meant I was going to have to say "go" once, which meant I had to keep the Echoing Truth and bounce the Oath. So I had to use the Walk turn to set up the Tendrils kill. I was able to Gifts both a Lotus and an Academy into my graveyard and access Yawgmoth's Will via Mystical Tutor. When I played the Will the best he could do with his Furnace was to pop the Lotus and try to screw me on Black mana, but the Academy gave me enough Blue that I could Merchant Scroll for Rebuild just to be able to untap my Jet.
The semi-finals were discussed in the answer to the previous question. The finals was against the same Oath deck, this time played by the other guy in the Top 8 with Pro Tour experience. My draw in game 1 was really nice. There was probably some way to get a second turn kill out of it, but I couldn't find it so I had to settle for Tinkering out Colossus and giving him a second turn (all he had in play was a single land so this wasn't all that scary). Once I got an untap, I had both Time Walk and Recoup so we were quickly on to game 2. Game 2 his draw had everything, but I was able to stop Oath from hitting the table. He immediately top-decked a second Oath and I had to do a desperation Impulse praying for another Force of Will. I found it! That left us both completely empty-handed. I proceeded to top-deck absolutely nothing while I attacked him with the one spirit token I had gotten from his early Oath attempt. I did my best to look like I had a grip full of counters and he decided to sit on Mana Drain mana instead of using his card drawing as aggressively as he could. We stared at each other for like ten turns while that once spirit nibbled away at him. I was holding nothing but Moxes. He drew into a Salvagers and tapped out for it. My buddy who was watching his hand said he could have killed me immediately if it had occurred to him to Tinker up a Lotus and then use that for mana for the Salvagers and its ability, but he might have been short the first activation cost so I'm not sure. In any case he passed the turn and I proceeded to draw Burning Wish off the top ... this was exactly why I was holding all my Moxes instead of playing them! Out of absolutely nowhere I went Mox, Mox, Mana Crypt, Burning Wish for Tendrils, kill you! And that was the championship match.
Q: What was your most frequent Gifts pile?
Randy: It became obvious to me by about round 2 that I wasn't the only one who reads Star City Premium. There were several other Gifts decks running around and I played several mirrors in addition to a couple other control on control match-ups. That meant that I almost never got to Gifts for restricted cards because I was always fighting card advantage wars. By far my most common play was to Gifts during their end step planning to go get some combination of Brainstorm, Impulse, Merchant Scroll, Gifts Ungiven, and Fact or Fiction. My next most common Gifts (by far) was to go get mana. If I already had access to Yawgmoth's Will I would often go get the Lotus, the Petal, and some combination of Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, Sol Ring, or Moxes of colors I cared about given my hand and graveyard. Even when I didn't already have access to Will I would sometimes do the mana Gifts if I had a lot of spells in hand but only 4ish mana just so I could develop my board position. Out-landing a controllish opponent is really useful, so in these situations I wouldn't go for the Black Lotus or Lotus Petal, but would instead throw actual lands into the split, along with Moxen for acceleration. I'm not sure I ever figured out the most punishing way to Gifts for mana cards - there's got to be something better I can wind up with than two lands or two Moxes - but for me that's one of the coolest things about the deck.
Even after nine rounds of play and a tournament win, I'm not sure how to play it. I'm not sure I've ever held a more skill-testing, decision-intensive deck.
Q: Did you play Gifts Ungiven mostly on your opponents' turn or on your turn (off of a Drain or other acceleration)? Sub question: did you ever Gifts multiple times a turn? If so, what were the circumstances?
Randy: Definitely end step of my opponent's turn. I almost never get Mana Drain to resolve. People are just so good at playing around it these days, especially in control matchups, that I'm not sure the card is even good anymore. I like being able to leave up two Blue as a bluff so my opponent won't do anything, but you don't even really need the card in your deck to be able to do that - you just need your opponent to think you run it. I think the only double Gifts I had was an end step when I got the second Gifts in the first one. I got yet more card advantage cards with the second one and pulled way ahead in the match. I probably could have gone for it with the second one, but the win seemed inevitable either way and cementing my control position seemed safer.
Q: If you were in a Mana Drain mirror, how often did you take advantage of the fact that Mana Drain mana is used on the second mainphase to strategically play spells on your opponents turn that they would be less likely to counter?
Randy: Probably not as much as I should have. It's something I always think about when I have a Mana Drain and I want to play a spell on my own turn. Of course, it's a dead giveaway against an intelligent opponent when you just randomly declare that you're in your own second main phase for no particular reason, so I usually look for something I could do with the mana rather than give that tell. What I really need to start doing is bluffing. I need to move to main phase two when I don't have the Mana Drain or go for spells during my opponent's first main phase when I can't defend them. But my chops aren't quite in that good of shape right now. Having played a total of three Vintage tournaments now in the last six years, I only see these plays after the fact, when talking about the situations.
Q: If you had to play the deck again, what would you change?
Randy: My sideboard was only okay, so I would definitely update that. I expected a bunch of Storm decks because that's what I saw at the other two tournaments I played this year (and it dealt me my one loss at each tourney), but they just weren't there this time. Instead the metagame was all about control decks with combo kills (three copies of Gifts in the Top 8 along with two Oaths ... the other three included a Goblin deck, a Mono-Blue Control (Ophidians, Back to Basics, etc), and I don't know what the 8th deck was). So next time I plan to scout a little better, both during deck registration and by reading the 'Net and try to tune my sideboard a little better. I know I'll keep the Duresses and add a fourth as they were amazing for me in the control mirrors. I'll also cut one Old Man at a time until I actually see a good player running a creature deck (Fish or otherwise).
Tendrils is required. Those two artifact destruction cards are the minimum, in my mind, and I might want more depending on the metagame (I also really wish one was a Sorcery I could Wish for). The three Red Blasts seem like the minimum and more might be worth it so I can take out more Blue counters in the control mirrors. I will run 4 Duresses next time. Once you know your opponent doesn't have Wasteland, I think they're much better than Mana Drains. One Pyroclasm seems correct since you can wish for it, but other than that I'm not sure what the rest of the sideboard should look like. Eye of Nowhere was definitely cute tech, but I never missed not having it. I never missed Rebuild #2 either. Pithing Needle was really powerful against the Oath decks I ran into three times as they couldn't win against Needle on Auriok Salvagers, but after the first time they started sideboarding in lots of Disenchants against me. Ironically, they had so many Disenchants in against me that the illusion of 3 Pithing Needles in my board may have been more powerful than three actual Pithing Needles. I kind of wanted to Needle their Phyrexian Furnaces too, but again it might be even better to fill their decks with a bunch of useless Disenchants. I did go off and win via Will despite a Furnace in play on two separate occasions and I only lost to a Furnace once. Furnace is annoying, but it's by no means a game ender against Gifts and I don't know if it calls for sideboard attention of not.
As far as the maindeck goes, I was pretty happy with it ... I did win, after all. I don't feel like I truly understand everything the deck is capable of yet so I'm hesitant to tinker with too much. I would definitely run at least one Impulse next time, and I think I'm very likely to stick with my two and two split. Having those two Impulses is what talked me into running only 25 "lands." I had a 26th mana card in the deck for a while, knowing that I always like more land than most people. Plus I always believe I am a well above average player for the field so it would be correct to minimize mana screw losses, figuring it's much easier to play my way out of a flood situation. Anyway, I figured since Impulses can be mana cards when you need them to be, this build gave me an effective "land" count of 27 but I also got to have 35 business spells so it was the best of both worlds. Vampiric Tutor was never amazing for me, but it still seems correct in theory so I'd probably keep that tweak as well. I really liked being able to Gifts to set up a Will that I already had access to rather than having to have all the mana that's necessary to go off when you Gifts for Will and Recoup. I can't say it actually came up all that much, but I believe I would run it my way again. My mana was 5 fetches and 5 duals (and the four Islands). 6 fetches would probably have been better. [I'd suggest 5 Islands, 5 Fetchlands, and 4 dual lands - Steve].
Q: Tell us about the other tournaments. What did you play and how did you do?
Randy: The first one was the one that was previously covered in my interview with JP Meyer where I won a Black Lotus with my version of Control Slaver.
I played a second Vintage tournament at Regionals with the same basic Control Slaver build. There were about forty people again and the first prize was a choice of a Time Walk or Mox Ruby while second was a Collector's Edition Black Lotus. I was undefeated in the Swiss, drew into Top 8, and lost the quarter-finals in three tough games to TPS. In game 1 I didn't know what he was playing and he kept thinking about countering each of my spells, playing Blue lands, and doing not a whole lot else. So while I was setting up my hand with a Brainstorm I thought he was a Mana Drain deck and I decided to shuffle away a Mox that would have given me enough mana to activate Mindslaver the same turn I played it and instead kept a Mana Drain that would help me defend the 'Slaver. He let Slaver resolve, untapped, and killed me through my Mana Drain. Oops. If I go for it there, I destroy him (he admitted afterwards he had no defense available that turn) and win game 1 easily, but I had no scouting report on him so I guess I have to call that game loss a judgment call that was defensible, but didn't work out.
In game 3 I have Sphere of Resistance in play and Arcane Lab in my hand. I have access to 4 mana and he showed me both Pyroblast and REB while I was winning game 2. That means the Lab is good, but not devastating as he does have a number of ways to remove it. My hand is juicy (Tinker, Ancestral, Mana Drain, assorted other spells) but no further land. This is particularly annoying with the Sphere in play. I decide to go for a main phase Ancestral (main phase because I want to find more land). This allows me to leave Mana Drain up on his turn and cast an end step Brainstorm if he doesn't make me use it. Anyway, he once again kills me through my Mana Drain. Although the Sphere makes it really close and tight, he pays one for each of his Mind's Desire cards and gets the Storm count high enough to send me to one life. In the process, I Mana Drain one copy of Tendrils and survive at one life. This should be fine, since I can untap, Tinker, and drop a Lab, and his hand is now completely empty. However, one of the cards he played off the Desire just to up the storm count was a Time Walk. He takes his Time Walk turn, top-decks Timetwister, goes off again and kills me. Grr ... Again, I asked him later and on the crucial turn he had no defense for the other play I could have made but decided against. Tapping out for Lab would have killed him.
The third one was just recently where I took your Gifts Ungiven deck, which I read about on Star City, and piloted it through 6 rounds of Swiss plus a Top 8 to win a Beta Mox Pearl.
Q: Are you going to continue to play in the local Vintage events if you are able?
Randy: When I find out about them and my schedule allows, yes.
Q: What do you think Wizards can do, if anything, to continue to help Vintage grow?
Randy: Not a whole lot. It doesn't make sense for our business to sanction play with proxies so I think the best we can do is keep maintaining the B&R list, holding championships, and printing the occasional card that shakes things up a bit.
Q: Did you ENJOY playing Vintage? As a subpart, do you think that the brokenness when it balances out balances well because of other reasons?
Randy: Yes, I enjoy playing Vintage. Magic is just such an awesome game that I love finding any excuse to play it. Even if I was allowed to play in sanctioned tournaments I would still play some Vintage. I was the North American Type 1 champion in 1998 and played at quite a number of random Type 1 events back in the day as well. I have a lot of fun feeling the raw power of the format coursing through my veins and it presents some unique challenges both from a deck building and a gameplay point of view. I do think the format is hideously "broken," but all the broken stuff balances out and becomes the primary feature of the format so it's fine.
Q: Do you finally feel that Vintage is more closely approximating a real format in terms of development, or do you think it still has a ways to go?
Randy: What's a "real format"? People have fun playing Magic and a metagame exists and good playskill and good deckbuilding are both rewarded ... isn't that enough? I do believe that if there was a Type 1 Pro Tour then much tighter, more focused netdecks would exist. I also believe that would make the format less fun for just about everyone involved. But that doesn't mean it isn't already a "real" format. In some ways, it's more real than Standard or Extended, where no one has to figure things out for themselves.
Steve: Thanks for taking the time to share your experience and insight. I hope that the format continues to grow and thrive and I hope you continue to enjoy it.