A Brief Introduction To What Slaver Is All About
At this very moment, the Vintage metagame is as varied and diverse as I can ever remember it as being. The established deck archetypes, and available card choices for those decks, are numerous (and debatable, depending upon where one is playing). At any given large scale event one would expect to find any combination of Stax, Fish, Tendrils Combo, Control Slaver, Oath, Gifts, Dragon, and even Psychatog at the top tables. And thus, as a result of this wide-open metagame, players must prepare and adjust their decks accordingly. Above all other things, Vintage is a format that rewards an in-depth understanding of the deck you're piloting, and that deck's relationship to the rest of the decks in the format.
Specifically, I would like to discuss one particular deck, Control Slaver (or, as I will refer to it here, CS) - how to construct a competitive build of it, and also how it matches up against the rest of the field.
A few weeks ago, I finished first overall at the 2005 Vintage World Championships in the Swiss, and then ultimately third overall in the tournament playing a metagamed version of CS. Since that time, I have received a lot of emails and questions from Vintage players about developing and playing their own Slaver lists. Since there seemed to be a demand for an updated primer for the deck, and an overall interest in the deck, I thought it would be a great time to share my thoughts with everyone. It is also significant that since GenCon: Indianapolis, I have done additional testing and made some changes in order to create a more optimized deck list for Slaver.
So without further ado, I present the updated CS list.
Why play Control Slaver over something else?
Well, that is a difficult question. However, my tournament results and testing suggest to me that CS is the "deck to beat" in Vintage right now. CS is one of the most powerful and consistent performers in the format because it is extremely efficient at not caring about what your opponent is trying to do. It also answers the threats that hinder it from winning. Much of CS's power derives from the conceptual fact that the main focus of the deck is using Goblin Welder to cheat broken artifacts with expensive casting costs into play at virtually no cost, tempo, or card disadvantage.
With this in mind, it might seem strange that savvy Vintage metagamers would have already adapted to Slaver's presence in the metagame and hated it out - but the truth is that Slaver is so effective at doing what it does that it is almost impossible to hate it out completely. Ever since my good friend Mark "Windfall" Biller won the Vintage World Championships last year with CS, that deck has been consistently among the best metagame choices in the format, and in almost every major top eight. Part of the reason for this is the overall versatility of the deck, and its resilience to sideboard hate cards - but mostly, CS is the deck to play because it has extremely strong main deck synergy between its cards. (It also doesn't hurt that many of the cards within CS that have amazing synergy are among the most broken and powerful cards in the game.)
All of these factors combined make CS the deck to play - or, if you're not playing it, the benchmark deck that you have to be able to compete with. In short, CS is to Vintage what Ravager Affinity was to Standard a year ago; a player must be either playing the deck, or able to beat the deck, in order to have any sort of chance of winning a major tournament.
CS has a variety of factors that work in its favor to make it a great deck. Firstly, it has debatably the best and most consistent draw engine in the format (4 Thirst For Knowledge, 4 Brainstorm, 1 Ancestral Recall, 1 Fact Or Fiction), which combines to allow the CS player to not only see, but draw, a lot of cards very quickly over the course of the first few turns. The deck also packs the solid counter spell base of four Force of Wills and four Mana Drains in the main deck, and in the sideboard adds the additional countering capacity of three Red Elemental Blasts and two Blue Elemental Blasts.
Slaver also wields a steady stream of bombtastic threats - four Goblin Welders, two Gorilla Shamen, a Pentavus, a Triskelion, a Tinker, a Yawgmoth's Will, and of course the two Mindslavers for which the deck is named. It is also relevant that it devotes a few maindeck slots to dealing with problematic cards that hose its strategy. In particular, the trio of Gorilla Shaman, Echoing Truth, Fire / Ice (plus Demonic and Mystical Tutor to find them) deal with almost every problematic situation that a Slaver player could possibly find himself in.
I would also like to point out that one of the great selling points of Slaver is that it is perhaps the most consistent deck in Vintage when it is on the draw. At the Vintage Championships I went 0-7 on die rolls in the Swiss, and won all but one of my matches on the draw. Attempting to win six or seven games on the draw with a deck like Stax or Tendrils Combo, which really utilize the advantage of playing threats before an opponent has any resources would probably have been an impossibility. However, with Slaver it is less of an issue since it isn't necessary to win the game right away - the fundamental game plan is, rather, to live into the mid-game and then win via quality of cards.
With that being said, the largest drawback to the Control Slaver list is that it is one of the slower decks in the format. As a result, Slaver's biggest weakness (and its worst matchups) are decks that try to win in the first few turns. CS's role in almost every matchup is to be the control deck - meaning that it wants to stop an opponent from winning the game early and then set up a superior board position and win on the basis of more powerful cards - generally Mindslaver, Goblin Welder, and Yawgmoth's Will.
My good friend and deck designing partner, Mark "Windfall" Biller, once said about his deck during a match: "I'm not trying to do anything broken, I'm just trying to win the game." This statement has become kind of a CS mantra for me when I design new lists or play the deck in events, and it really summarizes Slaver's strategy quite eloquently. Basically, CS's agenda is to live through the first three turns of the game and play mana sources (lands, Moxes, et cetera) and if it can do this without letting an opponents board become too superior, it can usually just win via its powerful spells. I have been known to draw a comparison between CS and Keeper (the deck it displaced as the top pure control deck in Vintage), because both decks devoted their early game to sitting back and fighting off threats and then completely annihilated their opponents in the late game with overwhelming draw, and more powerful threats.
The list posted above is far and away the most versatile vision of CS I have either designed or played. It has an answer to virtually every counter strategy opposing decks can throw at it - specifically, between the two main deck Gorilla Shaman, the Echoing Truth, and the Fire / Ice, the Slaver player can directly answer every problematic threat in the format. The choice of these very specific narrow cards in the main deck, I believe, is the largest reason I did better than other players who chose to play CS at Gencon.
At GenCon, I main decked this guy and one copy of Rack and Ruin (which has changed since then, as I've moved the second Gorilla Shaman into the main deck and the Rack and Ruin to the sideboard). While I was writing my match report for Worlds, I quickly realized that I boarded out the Rack and Ruin in almost every match up while I boarded in the second Gorilla Shaman in every match up, so I thought it logical to make the switch to the second Shaman main.
The reason that Gorilla Shaman is a better main deck choice is quite simple: In most situations, he is simply more efficient at dealing with the threats that Slaver needs to deal with. For example, if the CS player is on the draw and his opponent casts turn 1 Chalice of the Void for zero, I'd much rather be able to cast a turn 1 Gorilla Shaman and kill the Chalice on turn 3 than try and wait until turn 3 to cast Rack and Ruin. The reason for this is that by turn three Fish, Stax and Oath (the three major decks that play Chalice) will already either have created a far superior board position and have significantly out-tempoed you already, or they will be prepared to stop the Rack and Ruin. But with Gorilla Shaman, you can deal with Chalice of the Void very quickly and without losing tempo, giving an opponent very little opportunity to capitalize on the mana advantage that Chalice of the Void is intended to provide.
Honestly, what can't this little guy do? He unflinchingly destroys the annoying cards that most blatantly hinder CS's game plan, Null Rod, Chalice of the Void, Pithing Needle, Aether Vial, Skullclamp, and Tormod's Crypt, while at the same time giving the Slaver player card and tempo advantage by disposing of opposing Moxes and artifact lands.
It is also a misconception that Rack and Ruin is strictly better against Mishra's Workshop decks than Gorilla Shaman is. While Rack and Ruin can give you a significant boost in tempo and board advantage, the interaction between Gorilla Shaman and Goblin Welder is absolutely devastating to Stax and Aggro-shop decks. The CS player is able to use Goblin Welder to change an artifact of significance into a Mox that the Gorilla Shaman has already destroyed, then use the Shaman to destroy the Mox again. This, folks, is what we call a "revolving door o death," because once these two characters hit the board together, the Slaver player only has to answer threats that directly disrupt the two-creature combo (like Balance, Tinker, and Triskelion) which is easy since CS plays with lots of draw and Force of Will and Mana Drain, whereas Stax has to try to topdeck one of a few cards in its deck before you can find counter spells.
It is also not insignificant that Gorilla Shaman can beat down for one every turn, or block opposing creatures like Goblin Lackey while you're setting up to Weld. At GenCon, I beat Ray "Iamfishman" in the fifth turn of overtime by swinging for one with my Gorilla Shaman after he had cast Rebuild to put my Pentavus and Pentavites back into my hand.
Fire / Ice
This is in the main deck because it deals with a few very specific cards. Against combo decks like Dragon, Draw 7, and 2 Land Belcher, the CS player must immediately answer opposing Xantid Swarms! If the CS player fails to do this, they will undoubtedly lose the game. Since Fire/Ice counts as a blue card in your hand it is almost never dead, even in control matchups where it serves no other function other than pitching to Force of Will, or tapping one of their lands in order to draw a card.
However, in certain match ups it becomes one of the best cards in your main deck. It importantly kills opposing Goblin Welders and Gorilla Shamans in Stax and the Slaver Mirror match, as well as killing key threats in both Fish and Food Chain Goblin decks. Another interesting application of Fire / Ice is that the Ice portion of the card can be used to tap down an opposing Darksteel Colossus for that one crucial turn that you need to get your Goblin Welder online - plus, it nets you a card in the process.
This just may be the very best narrow blue card ever printed. It deals with everything, and is CS's answer to all sorts of ugly threats that slip through its counter-wall. It deals with an opponent's Darksteel Colossus when an opponent plays Pithing Needle naming Goblin Welder, it bounces multiple Chalice of the Void set for 0 and 1 (Chalice of the Void set for one is of grave consequence since it shuts off your Gorilla Shaman), and most importantly it bounces Stax's pesky Enchantment duo of In the Eye of Chaos and Chains of Mephistopheles, both of which severely hinder CS's game plan. Another added bonus is that Echoing Truth is very efficient against Oath's fatties, especially Akroma, Angel of Wrath.
The other change I've made since GenCon is to include a second Darksteel Citadel in place of one of basic Island. My reasoning for this change is twofold: First, with the resurgence of Chalice of the Void in the format, especially in aggro decks like Fish and Goblins, sometimes all you need to do in order to win is play Tinker for Triskelion. However, with Chalice of the Void for zero in play, sometimes it's difficult to find your one-mana artifacts in Sol Ring and Mana Vault. Adding two Darksteel Citadel easily remedies this problem.
And second, with the increased number of Gorilla Shamen in the format, having two indestructible artifacts in your deck is a really techy thing to do. Citadel allows you to use Goblin Welder's ability even when your opponent has a Gorilla Shaman in play.
The Robots (Triskelion, Pentavus, and of course, Mindslaver!)
The Robots in Slaver all serve a specific purpose - and by knowing when to get each one and how to use it, an adept CS player should be able to play his way out of just about any situation.
Personally, I believe that CS's best large artifact is Mindslaver, because it allows the Slaver player to utterly turn the tempo and tide of the game completely in his favor. Activating a Mindslaver and taking an opponent's turn usually means that you will win the game, because Vintage decks are so intrinsically powerful you can often use an opponent's deck to make them kill them. For example, when Mindslavered, you can force an opponent to Dragon Combo and deck themselves, or make a TPS player Tutor for Necropotence and pay all of their life to draw cards. Or, against control matches, Fish decks, or Workshop decks, you can obviously use Mindslaver as an opportunity to completely wreck an opponent's board position to the point that they will have no way to recover.
Pentavus is a great addition to any CS deck, because it allows you the opportunity to create a hard lock over your opponent's turns for the rest of the game. If the Slaver player has two Goblin Welders in play, a Pentavus, and a Mindslaver in the graveyard, Pentavus can make five Pentavite tokens (which can be Welded into five Mindslavers) - and then, once those five Pentavites are used up, the you can weld the last one back into the initial Pentavus again.
Also, Pentavus is a really solid card against Stax decks since each Pentavus can make 5 permanents which can be sacrificed to their Smokestacks or tapped down for a Tangle Wire. Against Stax, this is the card that most often decides the game - not to mention with an active Goblin Welder and some mana, Pentavus can make you four additional permanents every turn.
Another bonus to Pentavus is that he is extremely effective against Fish, especially if they are using Umezawa's Jitte. Pentavus makes numerous blockers to kill an advancing army of Fish's guys, but one of the huge advantages in that match up is that the CS player can make a Pentavite and block a creature equipped with Jitte, and then sacrifice the Pentavite back to the Pentavus with damage on the stack, so that the creature never deals damage and thus the Jitte never gets any counters. Pentavus is a great way to protect Goblin Welder from Jitte.
Triskelion, the other artifact creature in the list, makes the deck because like Pentavus he is also extremely versatile. One reason that a CS deck must play Trike is that he absolutely owns the mirror match. Having a Triskelion on the board means that your opponent can't play his Goblin Welders or Gorilla Shamans until after the Trike has been dealt with. This usually affords the Trike-packing player a huge advantage in tempo and board position, since he can still play his own Welders and Shamans. Also, Trike is a really efficient way to deal with creature beatdown decks like Fish, since he often trades four-for-one against a swarm of weenies, and can be recurred over and over by Goblin Welder.
It is also not insignificant that Triskelion can be Tinkered out on turn one to deal with a Xantid Swarm that has slipped through Slaver's early game counter wall.
The Matchups And What To Do
This is a match up that I have tested and played thoroughly from both points of view, both as the Slaver player and as the Stax player. Although many people tend to disagree with me, I believe that Slaver has a huge advantage here. The fact that CS runs four Goblin Welders in addition to its Shamen, countermagic, and strong draw engine, gives it a huge edge in this matchup; In fact one of the reasons I believe CS to be the premier Mana Drain-based deck in the format right now is that it has a better matchup against Stax and other Mishra's Workshop decks than the rest of the pack because it plays both Goblin Welder and Gorilla Shaman.
The key to winning against Stax is to stop the Stax player from getting ahead in board position early. Force of Will, Mana Drain, and Gorilla Shaman provide CS with a whole arsenal of weapons that make it very difficult for the Stax player from ever really getting anything going early on. Especially in game one, a first-turn Force of Will followed up by a Mana Drain almost always puts Stax so far behind in terms of building its board that it can never recover and win the game.
As I have already pointed out, Gorilla Shaman helps to combat early game artifact threats while keeping the Stax player from building up a large advantage in mana and Mox-based permanents. In the mid- to late-game (provided the CS player continues to develop his mana base, of course), Shaman can be used directly to destroy Stax's artifact lock pieces.
Welder is also huge in this matchup because once active, he almost single-handedly nullifies the efficiency of the Stax player's Smokestack by Welding them out before they ever get any counters on them. Goblin Welder can also Weld in Pentavus over and over again, creating an extreme advantage in permanents for the Slaver player, while at the same time putting Stax on a very quick clock.
After sideboarding, the matchup looks a little bit different. Most good Stax players will bring in enchantments from their sideboard to try and combat Slaver's Goblin Welders and Gorilla Shamans. The three Enchantments that are most devastating to Slaver's game plan are the trio of In the Eye of Chaos, Chains of Mephistopheles, and Choke (which is, far and away, the most devastating).
My sideboard plan for this matchup usually looks something like this:
-1 Fire / Ice
-1 Fact or Fiction
-1 Mystical Tutor
+2 Rack and Ruin
+1 Pyrite Spellbomb
+1 Echoing Truth.
The Rack and Ruin plan is obvious, because it kills two of their expensive lock components for three Mana at instant speed. Since I usually board out Mystical Tutor and Fire / Ice, I bring in Echoing Truth and Pyrite Spellbomb in its place.
Spellbomb is really good in this matchup for a variety of reason: First, it kills Stax's Welders and Shamans. Second, it counts as a permanent and can be sacrificed to Smokestack or tapped down to Tangle Wire. Also, since Stax doesn't have any creatures like Xantid Swarm that need to be killed immediately, CS doesn't need to play the Mystical Tutor for Fire / Ice solution anymore, but rather can play the Spellbomb, which can also be pitched to Thirst for Knowledge.
The last card, Echoing Truth, comes in to deal with the enchantments that Stax will undoubtedly be bringing in against you. Since In The Eye Of Chaos, Chains, and Choke don't actually kill the CS player or his or her permanents, but rather attempt to slow the game down, usually you can wait for a good opportunity to bounce whichever one is holding you back and then explode into a Yawgmoth's Will or Mindslaver activation.
The game plan still remains the same after boarding: keep the Stax player from developing a powerful board position. However, the CS player also has to play with the knowledge that Stax now has bomb enchantments to smash you with. Therefore, you have to play smart and pick which threats need to be Counterspelled and which ones can be dealt with later via the Shamans and Rack and Ruins.
For instance, sometimes when my opponent casts a Sphere of Resistance or a Tangle Wire with enough mana open to play Choke or In The Eye Of Chaos afterward, I will often allow the first threat to resolve if I'm not obviously losing. I choose to do this because I know I will be able to deal with it later, but if the Stax player Chokes me or casts In The Eye Of Chaos after I waste my Counterspell on the Sphere, it will be much more difficult to deal with the enchantment, than it would have been to deal with the artifact.
Essentially, you have to learn which threats need to be countered on the spot, and which ones can be dealt with later; this is a skill that can only be learned by testing the matchup, being able to evaluate your hand and predicting what your opponent is trying to do.
This is a tough matchup for Slaver, especially if your opponent starts with a strong hand. (Well, the same could honestly be said of any Combo matchup.) Most of the time the Gifts player will try and be the combo deck, while CS tries to play the control role. I say this for two main reasons: First, Gifts tends to go off a little bit faster than Slaver, and secondly if Gifts doesn't go off, Slaver will inevitably end up activating Mindslaver and winning the game. Essentially, Gifts can't really stop Slaver activations thanks to Welder, and as a result Gifts has to win before that.
Basically, most of the time Gifts is going to come out of the gate swinging against Slaver, trying to push its draw spells through Slaver's counter wall with Force of Will and Misdirection. The whole matchup is usually decided by who can get their draw going faster, giving one player more counterspells to fight over key spells on the stack.
One of the huge advantages CS has in game one is Gorilla Shaman, because he attacks Gift's fast mana and powers down their Tolarian Academy. Since Gifts is trying to play expensive spells like Recoup and Gifts Ungiven, it makes their work much more difficult if they don't have all the extra mana. It is also significant that most of the time an opposing Darksteel Colossus is a nonfactor, since he can be Welded out for whatever artifact the Gifts player chose to Tinker out. Since Gifts can't reliably use Colossus as a win condition, they have to try and combo out with Tendrils, which means that as long as CS keeps up with Gift's draw, it should be able to use Welder and Mindslaver to win the match.
My sideboarding usually looks something like this against Gifts:
-1 Fire / Ice
-1 Echoing Truth
-1 Fact or Fiction
-1 Darksteel Citadel
+3 Red Elemental Blast
+2 Tormod's Crypt
+1 Darksteel Colossus.
The REBs are extremely efficient at countering almost every card in their deck, and severely slows down Gifts' ability to combo you out. Also, with a Tormod's Crypt on the board, the Gifts player cannot win via Recoup or Yawgmoth's Will. The whole point of this board strategy is to slow Gifts down so that they can't take advantage of the fact that Slaver is a slightly slower deck. I also bring in Colossus because he is a much faster clock when Tinkered up than either Pentavus or Triskellion - and since neither one of those creatures performs any function in this match up aside from beating down, I opt to bring in the better beater.
It is also significant that he can block Gift's Colossus because Gifts will often bring in Pithing Needle to disrupt either your Welders, Crypt, or Shamans while they attempt to go off.
Vs. Combo (Tps, Belcher, And Deathlong)
Any deck playing Tendrils of Agony is Slaver's bad matchup, because they have the potential to kill CS before it has a chance to get set up properly. In this matchup, like almost every other matchup in the format, Slaver is the control and combo is the combo deck. (Obviously.)
Playing the combo matchup when a Slaver player's knowledge and familiarity with his deck is truly tested. In game one, Force of Will, Mana Drain, and Gorilla Shaman are by far the most important and useful cards in the Slaver player's deck. The counterspells are important because there are certain situations with cards where, if they are allowed to resolve, will win the game almost on the spot. (Most notably Necropotence, Yawgmoth's Will, Yawgmoth's Bargain, and Goblin Charbelcher.)
Usually, combo decks attack in waves (especially the ones with Tendrils of Agony); they attempt to go off and either succeed and in the game, or they fail, build up, and go for it again a turn or so later. Gorilla Shaman is amazing in this match up because if you can stop them from winning the first time they try and go off, and then when Combo passes the turn Slaver player can drop Shaman and destroy all of the artifact mana that the Combo deck played while it was trying to win on the previous turn. The fact that Shaman does this is significant because it puts combo all the way back to square one because not only do they need to draw bombs to try and win again, but they also need to draw the mana to cast them.
The other card that Slaver player's need to be wary of is Xantid Swarm. If the Combo player drops the bug, you must counter it or deal with it the next turn; if the Slaver player fails to do this, they deserve to lose during their opponent's next turn. Try Tinker for a Triskelion, or Mystical Tutor for Fire / Ice; either will do the trick quite nicely.
Also, keep in mind that CS can kill combo players simply by activating Mindslaver, then forcing the Combo player to do absurd things like activate Necropotence or Yawgmoth's Bargain until they have no life left.
My sideboard plan in this matchup is usually this:
-1 Echoing Truth
-1 Goblin Welder
-1 Fact or Fiction
+2 Tormod's crypt.
After sideboarding, Slaver gets faster to deal with the speed of opposing combo decks. I board out a Welder because you don't really want him in your opening hand, and you especially don't want him in multiples in this matchup. Also, Fact or Fiction and Pentavus are a little bit slow, so they come out as well.
I like to bring in Tormod's Crypt because it forces combo to try and win without Yawgmoth's Will. Without the Will, Combo decks can't kill you nearly as quickly. The logic is that if you slow Combo down so that they can't win as fast, CS will be able to draw cards in the meantime and either have the Counterspells it needs to stop Combo cold, or activate a Mindslaver before Combo can put the win together.
A Final Note
Slaver is a deck that rewards players who understand how to play and build it correctly. Once a player has mastered the deck, he will find that it can beat anything in the format and that it is extremely consistent... As long as it's being piloted competently. I sincerely hope that I have answered many of the key questions regarding both the building and playing of Control Slaver; and also, that everyone who took the time to read the article found it both entertaining and insightful.