Gifts and Belcher – two strong decks, that promise an interesting matchup. I thought it would be fun to run these decks up against each other and see what happens. I'll run a set of five games, all pre-board.
I'm running Andy Probasco's hybrid - but Empty the Warrens centered - Gifts variant that he won the Waterbury tournament with in January. For the Belcher list, I'm running Nat Moe's list that I published last week.
Here are the decks again, for reference:
- 1 Black Lotus
- 1 Lotus Petal
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Tormod's Crypt
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 4 Brainstorm
- 1 Dark Ritual
- 4 Force of Will
- 3 Gifts Ungiven
- 1 Hurkyl's Recall
- 4 Mana Drain
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Pyroblast
- 3 Repeal
- 1 Skeletal Scrying
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Empty the Warrens
- 3 Merchant Scroll
- 1 Recoup
- 1 Tendrils of Agony
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Timetwister
- 1 Yawgmoth's Will
4 Xantid Swarm
1 Bazaar of Baghdad
1 Mishra's Workshop
1 Tolarian Academy
1 Tin Street Hooligan
1 Uktabi Orangutan
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Shattering Spree
1 Gorilla Shaman
1 Goblin Welder
Let the fireworks begin.
Die roll: Belcher wins the roll 19 to 16.
Belcher's opening hand:
This hand has too many dead cards and not enough stable mana to make it playable. If the Tinder Walls were Moxen or one of them was Black Lotus, I might keep this hand simply because there are two draws through the Stars.
This hand is definitely keepable, but folds to Force of Will. Let's see what the Gifts player does.
Gifts player's hand is very explosive, but has no Force of Will. It's:
Aside from missing Force of Will, I see no compelling reason to throw this back.
The series of plays here seem pretty obvious. Can you see what should be done?
With Black Lotus, Elvish Spirit Guide, and Rite of Flame, we have five mana. The question is: how do we cast the Belcher and ensure that we can activate it, as there are no sources of permanent mana in hand? The answer is found in Living Wish. Wish for a land will provide us with a permanent source of mana. Although Mishra's Workshop provides more mana as an accelerant, it can't be used to activate the Belcher, which is where our bottleneck lies.
Hence, the only series of plays here is:
Pass the turn. So long as we see one more mana source in the next two cards, we probably win next turn.
Gifts draws Black Lotus!
There are a plethora of options available. Without putting too much thought into it, the play that sticks out to me is to use the Academy and the Jet to Scroll for a bounce spell to bounce the Belcher. For three mana, Scroll for can find Chain of Vapor to bounce any threat. Unfortunately, Andy's Gifts list is misbuilt. Why? Because he doesn't have Chain of Vapor.
Chain of Vapor is one of the better cards in Vintage and by far the most efficient bounce spell. Not running it is pure blunder.
The idea of just Scrolling for Chain and not doing anything with the Gifts this turn is based upon the presumption that any use of Gifts preceding Scroll for Bounce will essentially have to at least be mana neutral. Otherwise, we won't be able to bounce the Belcher. What that means is that waiting to Gifts should produce a more productive Gifts. The hope is that bouncing the Belcher will slow the Belcher deck down substantially.
The problem is that we have to blow the Lotus, since Andy's list doesn't have Chain of Vapor. We can't even Repeal because we don't have enough mana.
Belcher and Chromatic Star go up to the Belcher's hand.
Belcher draws Mana Crypt.
Belcher player is faced with two options: play Belcher immediately, or play Chromatic Star and break it
It's not really a real choice. You play the Belcher.
Belcher untaps and draws Channel!
Belcher taps Ancient Tomb (14 life) and Mana Crypt, and plays Chromatic Star and activates Belcher.
Note: Taiga is the 15th card down. Fortunately, the Belcher player still wins. Belcher doubles the number of damage done if the card you reveal is a Mountain. The Taiga is a Mountain, doubling the damage total.
Gifts fans open:
This hand has no stable source of Blue. If there were a way that we could Ancestral on turn 1, this would be keepable. It doesn't, so we have to throw it back.
My hand of six is almost worse:
This hand has no game.
Mulligan to five:
This hand has Force and a Blue card. It's definitely keepable.
Belcher mulls over keeping:
In the end, Belcher mulligans into:
Gifts: Volcanic Island, go.
The rationale for not playing Brainstorm is that we will want to weigh the risk of Brainstorming versus the need to be able to play Force of Will. There is a chance that we may not even have to Force on turn 1 at all.
Belcher: It seems clear that the bottleneck is the Seething Song.
The right play is probably to lead with Land Grant to give the Gifts player an opportunity to Force the Land Grant instead of the Seething Song.
Play Land Grant. It resolves. I find the Taiga and play it. Play Tinder Wall. Remove Elvish Spirit Guide. Play Seething Song.
Force of Will pitching Repeal.
Gifts: Land, Mox, Go.
Belcher: Draw simian Spirit Guide. Pass.
Gifts: Island, go.
Belcher: Draw Land Grant, pass.
Gifts: Draw Gifts Ungiven. Pass
Belcher: Draw Goblin Welder and pass.
End of turn, play Gifts. The momentum has clearly shifted to the Gifts player. Let's see if Gifts can lock it up.
I'm going to go the control route: Gifts Ungiven, Merchant Scroll, Brainstorm, Mana Drain
The Belcher player gives him Mana Drain and Gifts Ungiven.
Gifts draws another Force of Will!
Belcher: Draws Mox Sapphire. Pass
End of turn, Gifts plays Gifts: Brainstorm, Merchant Scroll, Yawgmoth's Will, Black Lotus
Belcher gives Gifts Brainstorm and Black Lotus.
Gifts draws Mox Sapphire.
Tap Volcanic Island and play Ancestral, drawing the two cards I put back and Repeal.
In spite of the fact that I may want to hold these Moxen for Empty the Warrens, I want to play the Moxen so that I can play Drain and Force of Will the hard way.
Belcher: Play Mox Sapphire. It resolves. Tap Mox and play Chromatic Star. Pass.
Gifts draws Dark Ritual and passes the turn.
This is going to be tricky. We really want the Channel to resolve, but we have to expect that the Gifts player is in full-blown control of this game. We have to somehow win through attrition, and Channel is our big bomb.
Play Wheel of Fortune. Hard casts a Force of Will.
Gifts draws Underground Sea and plays it. End of turn, Belcher taps Welder and targets Sapphire and Star. The idea is that Belcher will use the Welder next turn to draw a card. However, the Gifts player sees this and plays Repeal on the Chromatic Star, drawing Brainstorm.
Belcher: Draws Pyroblast. Tap Taiga to play Chromatic Star. It looks like the game is about to end. Tap Welder to bring back Sapphire (drawing Lion's Eye Diamond).
End of turn, Gifts plays Brainstorm drawing Pearl, Pyroblast, Delta. Put back Pyroblast and Delta.
Gifts: draw Delta and break it.
Belcher: Draw Land Grant. Useless.
Tap Welder and bring back Star for Sapphire (after drawing a mana out of Sapphire). Sacrifice Star for Green. I draw Simian Spirit Guide.
Tap Taiga and play Channel. Gifts plays Force of Will.
Remove Simian Spirit Guide to play Pyroblast.
Gifts plays Mana Drain.
Gifts is now out of countermagic.
Gifts draws: Flooded Strand and plays it.
Belcher: Draw Living Wish. Play it for Mishra's Workshop. Play it and pass.
Gifts: Draw Lotus Petal
Attack for six. Belcher goes to 14 life.
Belcher: Play Belcher off of Workshop. Weld in Lion's Eye Diamond for Mox Sapphire and activate it. Activate Belcher. Belcher wins.
I am honestly astonished. Gifts went turn after turn without drawing anything useful. I thought for sure that Gifts would have sealed the deal. Instead of drawing more business, Gifts continued to draw mana.
Admittedly, there were alternative lines of play. The most obvious alternative line of play would have been the second Gifts – where I could have found Recoup instead of Yawgmoth's Will. That play may have enabled me to Recoup a Scroll for Mystical Tutor. However, that would have led to a very different series of interactions that may not have won the game even had I done that. Even so, if I had drawn much differently, that Gifts wouldn't have mattered.
I think this game just goes to show you how faulty the control role continues to be in modern Vintage.
(Note: As I begin this game, I'm sitting with my laptop at Boston's Logan International Airport getting ready to board for Columbus! I can't wait to go home, yay!)
I have Belcher on the play – we will alternative going first instead. That way both decks have similar chances to go first, even if one deck is winning most of the games.
Elvish Spirit Guide
Simian Spirit Guide
Rite of Flame
This is the sort of hand that I really would like to keep. It has some stable and efficient mana sources. Unfortunately, it lacks any of our key cards: Empty the Warrens, Goblin Charbelcher, or Wheel of Fortune / Memory Jar.
It has to go back.
I draw up:
Excellent six-card hand. Keep.
This hand is a very serviceable Gifts hand. Let's see what happens.
Mox Ruby. Resolves.
Mana Vault. Resolves
Remove Simian Spirit Guide.
Play Seething Song. RRRRR1 floating
Play Seething Song. RRRRRRRR floating.
Play Empty the Warrens.
Burn for four!
Put ten tokens on the table.
Let's see if Gifts can race ten goblins.
Gifts: Draws Volcanic Island.
There are several options. We can play Scroll here or Timetwister. If we Twister, there is a very real possibility that we'll just be giving the game to Belcher. Belcher can draw Pyroblasts, Belchers, and even more Empty the Warrens. I don't think that is a viable play.
Let's see if Gifts can win first.
Gifts draws Lotus Petal. This is an excellent topdeck as it is reusable with Will. Now, we'll have to win with the Will. Ancestral will have to get us a Black mana source.
Tap Volcanic Island to play Ancestral Recall, drawing: Brainstorm, Mana Crypt, Underground Sea
Aside from actually drawing the Yawgmoth's Will. Will, I don't see how you can get much stronger.
Play Mana Crypt, play Lotus Petal. Storm is three. At this point we have several good options. 1) We can go all the way and play Demonic Tutor for Will and try to win. The problem is that we don't have enough colored mana. We will have to see Black Lotus or something like that off of our post-Will Ancestral. 2) We can DT For Empty The Warrens and match the goblins that are on the table. This will help us survive. All we need to do this is just to play the DT and Warrens and we'll have ten men on the table. 3) DT for something like Black Lotus and then go for Twister and hope to just be able to play a lethal Tendrils.
I feel like option 1 is just too risky. In fact, there is no indication that it does anything. Option 3 is also a bit silly to try blind. Option 2 is the most sensible.
Tap Sol Ring and Underground Sea for Demonic Tutor for Empty the Warrens. Tap Mox Pearl and sacrifice Lotus Petal for R. Play Empty the Warrens for ten men. Threat answered.
Belcher draws Memory Jar and goes to fifteen from Mana Vault.
The question is whether to attack now or wait. I see now reason to wait. I want to clear the board of the pesky goblins before Andy's deck can somehow win. I swing in, and the Gifts player blocks all ten.
I see no reason to bust the Star just yet. There is little I could draw that I could make immediate use of.
Gifts: On Gifts' upkeep, it wins the Mana Crypt die roll. It draws: Pyroblast.
Gifts could Brainstorm right here, but I think it would be wiser to wait a turn or so. Gifts plays Island.
Belcher draws Mox Jet and goes to fourteen life from Mana Vault.
I'm going to wait one more turn, or until a Repeal is cast, before busting the Star.
Gifts wins the Mana Crypt die roll again, draws Repeal, and passes the turn.
Belcher draws Rite of Flame. Belcher plays Mox Jet and breaks the Star for Green drawing Pyroblast. Burn one to twelve and pass the turn.
Gifts wins the die roll again, and draws Library of Alexandria.
At this point, Gifts has two real options, strategically. It can try to find the Will now and go for the win, or it can continue to sit in the control role. Even if Belcher should manage to get a Belcher on the table, it would be a small matter to Repeal it. I think, however, that the only hitch in this is the fact that Mana Crypt is on the table – it represents a limit to the amount of time the Gifts player has. It has been fortunate to win three consecutive coin flips. I think the play now is to go for it. We've waited long enough.
Note that we have to Repeal before Brainstorm because we see more cards that way, unless we see a shuffle effect post-Brainstorm. I float mana off Mana Crypt, and Repeal it, drawing Mox Ruby. Tap Volcanic Island and play Brainstorm.
Response: Belcher taps Ruby and attempts to Pyroblast the Brainstorm. If I had a regular land instead of Library of Alexandria, I could Drain the Pyroblast. As it stands, I'm stuck.
Belcher draws Living Wish. Damnit! Now I need that Chromatic Star.
Gifts draws Force of Will and passes the turn.
Belcher draws Pyroblast (now at 10 life) and passes the turn.
Gifts draws Gifts! It's time to win.
Tap the Volcanic Island, Sol Ring, and the pearl to play Gifts Ungiven. Belcher tries to Pyroblast it. Gifts Forces.
Gifts for Black Lotus, Dark Ritual, Yawgmoth's Will, and Recoup.
Gifts wins on the spot. No matter what Belcher gives the Gifts player, it can DT for Tendrils and kill Belcher post Will.
Gifts is on the play:
This hand is utterly nuts!
Lion's Eye Diamond
Elvish Spirit Guide
I'd like to keep that hand on account of the Welder plus Star synergy, but it's not fast enough.
Elvish Spirit Guide
Empty the Warrens
Lion's Eye Diamond
I will keep that hand.
Gifts: Mox Sapphire, Mana Crypt, Mox Jet, Mox Pearl. Tap them all.
Play Hurkyl's Recall on the artifacts. B2 floating. Replay the artifacts. Tap the Mox Sapphire and use the two colorless to play Timetwister. B floating and Jet, Pearl, and Crypt untapped.
Awful. I hate this list. Not having 4 Gifts Ungiven and 4 Merchant Scroll is ludicrous.
I have two options, given this predicament. I can Scroll or just drop Library of Alexandria. I can Scroll for Ancestral, but I can't play it until next turn. Alternatively, I can Scroll for Force of Will to try and protect myself if Belcher tries to go off on turn 1. However, Scrolling means I won't be able to use Library next turn because I'll have to play a Blue land this turn. On the other hand, Scrolling now means that I can have Ancestral and Drain up next turn. I think I'll do that. I play Underground Sea and Scroll for Ancestral, and pass.
Belcher Twisted into:
Rite of Flame
Simian Spirit Guide
Elvish Spirit Guide
However, it draws Channel.
This hand has now become ludicrous.
Play Taiga. Remove Simian Spirit Guide from game and play Rite of Flame. Remove Elvish Spirit Guide from game and play Channel. Use a Red to play Goblin Welder. Pay a life to play Chromatic Star. Pay five life to play Memory Jar.
Sacrifice Jar drawing: Black Lotus, Elvish Spirit Guide, Simian Spirit Guide, Mox Pearl, Tinder Wall, Mox Jet, and Goblin Charbelcher. Note that Gifts drew a Force of Will.
Pay a life, going to 13 to sacrifice the Star drawing Mox Ruby.
Play all the mana, the Belcher is Forced. Use the remaining mana to hardcast Simian Spirit Guide and Elvish Spirit Guide. Pass the turn.
Gifts is incredibly fortunate to be holding the Tormod's Crypt.
Gifts draws Force of Will. It taps Mox Sapphire to play Ancestral into: Black Lotus, Island, and Polluted Delta. (By the way, it won the die roll again).
Play Tormod's Crypt. Play Library to draw a card (Flooded Strand). Play Black Lotus. Use Tormod's Crypt on Belcher player. Attack with Elvish Spirit Guide and Goblin Welder.
Gifts takes five, going to fourteen.
Gifts wins the Mana Crypt die roll (again) and draws Recoup!
Now it wins on the spot.
Recoup Demonic Tutor. Play Mox Emerald. Tutor for Yawgmoth's Will. Storm is 3. Play Yawgmoth's Will off Lotus (with BB floating from the Lotus). Replay Lotus. Replay Tormod's Crypt. Play Repeal on Sapphire and replay it. Storm is 8. Sacrifice Lotus for UUU. Play Scroll for Mystical Tutor. Play Mystical. Play Ancestral into the Tendrils and win.
I'm beginning to think that it is nearly impossible to predict who is going to win these games.
The irony is that the Jar is what helped Gifts win here, but Gifts seems like it should have won after its incredibly explosive first turn anyway.
Belcher's opening hand:
Simian Spirit Guide
Gifts keeps the incredibly explosive:
I play Land Grant for Taiga.
Plays Tinder Wall and then Chromatic Star generating G, drawing Goblin Welder. Remove Elvish Spirit Guide from game. Play Channel.
Pay four life to play Goblin Charbelcher. Activate it and win the game.
So, in our final game, Belcher wins on turn 1. Even if the Belcher had been countered, Belcher had turn 2 Welder. It's not clear if that would have been enough given how explosive Gifts hand is, but that hand wouldn't be so explosive if it had to use Force of Will.
In the end, it was really difficult to predict who was going to win. In games 2 and 3, I would have predicted a different victor. That is, I thought Gifts was going to win game 2 and lose game 3, and the opposite occurred. Similarly, in game 4, it appeared that Gifts was going to win at first, but then it seemed that Belcher was almost assured to win. Then Gifts ended up winning.
This is a rocky matchup, but it does appear that the Belcher deck has the upper hand. One of the biggest reasons for this is the presence of Pyroblast. For instance, if Belcher had both Pyroblast and Simian Spirit Guide in its opening hand in game 4, Gifts would not have even had a real shot. On the other hand, Empty the Warrens – although very nice – isn't as huge of a threat against Gifts as it is against decks like Stax and the like.
I think that a Belcher list with Blue would probably fare better against Gifts than this list or one with heavy Black.
A number of people, in response to my article last week, suggested that Black is an obvious and good inclusion. Their reasoning leaves much to be desired. Last week I spoke to this question with some level of specificity, so I won't reiterate what I already said there. I will add this, however: it is true that Demonic Consultation and the like are amazing cards, but the Black acceleration isn't really as necessary since we now have a critical mass of Red and Green acceleration. In addition, the biggest Black bombs – like Necropotence and Yawgmoth's Will - are not as great in here as you might think. The primary reason is that Necropotence requires a Ritual to even be castable. Yawgmoth's Will is not actually that hot in here either. A turn 1 Will has little to recur since this deck isn't full of Draw7s or similar threats. The remaining Black spells (the Tutors) aren't necessary either, now that we can run Empty the Warrens. There is no real reason to add Black, but adding Blue has a lot of potential. I think the critics of this list just don't agree that Empty the Warrens is a potent enough threat. In theory, even control decks like this Gifts list can race it – as game 3 exemplified. However, in practice, it's better than the alternative of running Black, at least in my view. In some ways, Belcher is no longer a Belcher deck – it's an Empty the Warrens deck that has Belchers and Welders. And that is as it should be.
If I pick up Belcher again, I would be tempted to try it with the Blue splash that I offered up last time. I am far from convinced that any of these Belcher decks even approach an “optimal” build. It will take time and a lot more testing and tuning to fully explore the possible iterations and decide on a more perfect list. The fact that Belcher seems to have a solid advantage already speaks to the concept's inherent power and should motivate players to improve upon what is already here.
Finally, I think that skill is a huge part of this matchup. Both decks have to grapple with the reality that the mulligan is an important tactical and strategic element of this matchup. The Gifts player has to either have an aggressive hand, or one that can effectively respond to early and powerful turn 1 threats. Similarly, the Belcher player has to think about where its bottlenecks are and yet keep hands that add early pressure but hopefully don't fold to turn 1 Force of Will. The old saying that the early game is the shuffle, the mid-game is the mulligan, and the late game is turn one is not too far off in this matchup.
Last week many players inquired into mulliganing with Belcher. To be honest, I think that the more difficult decision is how to mulligan with Gifts here. With Belcher's newly expanded suite of turn 1 threats, mulliganing with Belcher is actually somewhat mechanical. If you have Empty the Warrens, Belcher, or a turn 1 Draw7 – you probably have a keepable hand. If not, you probably don't. Those are arguable presumptions of course, but they are the general rule. One exception to the rule might be something like this:
Elvish Spirit Guide
Simian Spirit Guide
Rite of Flame
I would probably keep a hand like that with Belcher, especially if I were on the draw. I'm going to see at least three more cards. Chances are one of those will turn into a card I can use to win the game.
Until next time,