Another GenCon has come and gone and another Vintage Champs is in the books. It is now official - as far as Vintage is concerned - 2009 has been the year of the Time Vault. A headline from Twitter pretty much summed it up in one brief statement: “Vintage Champs 2009: or how Time Vault ruined Vintage.” Yet as I sit in this caf almost three days after the event has concluded and reflect upon my experience at the Con I can’t help but feel this statement is an oversight. Vintage Champs 2009 was one of the most exciting championships I have experienced (and this was my 6th consecutive appearance in this tournament) not to mention it was an extremely varied field where a multitude of different archetypes crept up to the top tables and made a run at a much coveted Top 8 slot and a shot at the Mox Emerald painting. When the dust had settled Time Vault and his good friend Mana Drain stood victorious - and secured its rightful place in Vintage history as one of the best decks ever; even in spite of the loss of Thirst for Knowledge a few months before the event. But I’m not going to bore you with tales of the Tezzeret deck but rather am going to give you the skinny on the new “Steel City Vault” deck that I piloted to a third place finish at Worlds - a deck that I believe may become a major player in the post Champs metagame. In the two last events I have played (Vintage Champs and the Steel City Power tournament) I have racked up a total match record of 13-2-2 (the two draws were intentional) playing this deck list.
- 1 Black Lotus
- 1 Lotus Petal
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Memory Jar
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Time Vault
- 2 Voltaic Key
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 2 Ancient Grudge
- 1 Brainstorm
- 1 Fact or Fiction
- 4 Force of Will
- 1 Gifts Ungiven
- 2 Impulse
- 1 Misdirection
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Rebuild
- 1 Thirst for Knowledge
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Merchant Scroll
- 1 Ponder
- 1 Regrowth
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Timetwister
- 1 Tinker
- 1 Transmute Artifact
- 1 Wheel of Fortune
- 1 Windfall
- 1 Yawgmoth's Will
How Steel City Vault Got To GenCon
The story behind this list starts just after the restriction of Thirst for Knowledge when Patrick Chapin and I began building and testing new decks for the Vintage Championship. The two of us quickly determined that the metagame has shifted into two major strategies - Time Vault decks and Null Rod decks - and that a well-tuned aggro-control style deck tended to have very favorable matchups against the Tezzeret decks. Chapin’s Five-Color Fish/Hate deck (the one he talks about in this article) quickly arose as our front-runner as the solution to the metagame as it performed very well against the three most popular archetypes: Mana Drain Mishra’s Workshop and Dredge.
As an experiment to combating this extremely hateful Null Rod deck Patrick proposed that we try to construct a Time Vault deck that had game against the hate deck. I had played at the ICBM Open the weekend before with a Tezzeret/Mana Drain deck and was absolutely slaughtered by BUG Fish and GW Aggro… and was insistent that Mana Drain was not the most efficient way to fight against Null Rod decks with a clock. The deck that Chapin initially threw together as an answer to this riddle was pretty wild and included 3 Grim Monolith 4 Thoughtcast 1 Stroke of Genius 3 Voltaic Key 2 Ancient Grudge 1 City of Brass 1 Magma Mine (LOL) and Timetwister. The outcome of our first round of testing was surprising - the new Time Vault deck performed favorably in spite of having some clearly underpowered card choices - Magma Mine was the first to go - and we had stumbled onto an entirely new and unexplored Vintage Archetype. The key to the deck was that unlike Tezzeret which is a reactive deck with Mana Drains the new Vault deck was by and large a deck that wanted to goldfish - and only interacted by destroying Null Rod with Ancient Grudge!
Unfortunately I had to leave the following morning for the Steel City Power 9 tournament in Pittsburg and Patrick for GP: Boston and that was the extent of the testing that we got to do on this particular list. When I went home I worked for a little while on the deck list and determined that what made the deck so powerful was that it played with lots of card drawing and ways to destroy Null Rod. With this in mind I changed up some of the card choices and opted for more Draw 7s and other restricted spells. On the way East to Pennsylvania I picked up SCG’s own Legacy phenomenon Doug Linn in Ohio and told him about the list I had brewed. After about three minutes of conversation about the deck some of the choices and the fact that Chapin was the other deck-builder behind the project he enthusiastically decided he also wanted to play the deck at the tournament.
Stephen Menendian Paul Mastriano and I all have a game we play after we register our deck-lists and before the player meeting at a Vintage event. Paul and I always battle against one another and every time we draw our opening hands Steve looks over both our shoulders and calls out the number of restricted cards that are in each. Before the Steel City Event I commented to Steve that I couldn’t possibly lose the restricted cards in my opening hand game to anybody in the room because my deck topped out at 31 restricted cards! This count boggled Steve’s mind a little and after checking his iPhone he provided me with the statistic that there are only 46 cards currently restricted in Vintage. Our deck was literally playing over 2/3 of the restricted list!
The deck performed better than I could possibly imagine at the Steel City Power 9. I won every single round I played and was able to easily draw into the Top 8 where I was the tournament champion without losing a single game in the playoff and racking up two first turn victories. Doug Linn the only other player piloting the deck also made the Top 8 of the event making Steel City Vault far and away the best performing deck in the room.
I also had an epiphany during the tournament. In the second round I had a feature match against my teammate and friend Stephen Menendian. We had both performed extremely poorly the weekend before at the ICBM open which had been dominated by the presence of Null Rod Fish. As we sat there shuffling up our decks me with the restricted list and Steve with BWG beatdown it was clear that two very good deck-builders had attempted to break the metagame in different ways. He had built a Fish deck to beat Fish decks and I had built a Time Vault deck that played a critical mass of broken cards and lots of ways to destroy Null Rod. It was also interesting that Stephen a player notable for playing combo decks had switched over to GW beatdown while I a player who almost always plays Mana Drain Control had switched over to Draw 7 combo. If somebody had come back in time from the present and visited me three years ago and said “Brian three years from now Stephen and you will play in a feature match. You will be playing Draw 7s with no Mana Drains and Stephen will be playing GW beatdown. And you will win the match” … well I would have believed that I would win the match but I never would have believed those deck choices! The fact that I wouldn’t believe the decks we were playing in an event actually strikes me as a very good thing for Vintage in general because it means that things are being shaken up and that there is actually room for the metagame to change and evolve in the same way that it does in a Standard format. Much more slowly than other formats mind you but that the metagame does shift and change.
How Null Rod Beats Time Vault And How Time Vault Beats Null Rod
There are a few important innovations at work in the Steel City Vault deck that makes it such a good performer in tournaments. The first is that it takes advantage of the way that certain decks are positioned in the metagame and the second is that it plays with cards that when stacked up against the competition are simply more powerful. Patrick and I already knew that the primary way that non-Vault decks beat Tezzeret is by playing and protecting a Null Rod while applying pressure to the board. Having Null Rod in play is the best way to combat the Time Vault combo (since it makes it not work) but Null Rod also hoses Yawgmoth’s Will by shutting off the Vault player’s access to fast artifact mana. However without a Null Rod in play Fish decks are very vulnerable to the big mana and broken spells that a Time Vault deck is capable of producing.
The preexisting Time Vault decks bank hard on using Force of Will and Mana Drain to stop Null Rod from ever entering the battlefield… but should it ever slip through there is usually a big problem. Fish’s beatdown plan against Time Vault decks is only ever very good when there is a Null Rod in play since the Vault player is trying to race the beatdown player by drawing lots of cards and either Key-Vaulting or Yawgmoth’s Will-ing. The Null Rod slows down the ability of other decks to utilize their mana therefore limits the amount of draws and therefore limits the odds of actually finding an answer to the Rod resulting in the Fish deck having time to execute its beatdown plan. It is also significant that most Drain/Tezz decks are primarily Blue and Black two colors that lack any good way of destroying an artifact that has slipped into play. Most Drain/Tezz decks try to beat a resolved Null Rod by bouncing with via Hurkyl’s Recall and/or Rebuild and then trying to win on their next turn. The reason Hurkyl’s Recall is a bad answer to Null Rod is deceptively complicated. The obvious reason is that bouncing a Null Rod doesn’t actually destroy it and that it is very likely that if you don’t win on the next turn that they will just replay it. The fact that bouncing a Null Rod puts the Vault player in a position where they have to win next turn is problematic because it means that he or she must assemble the combo and have a bounce spell. However it is very difficult to assemble the combo and have Hurkyl’s recall when the Null Rod makes it difficult to draw cards especially when the Rod enters play in the first couple of turns. In addition the Fish decks are able to execute their game plan of drawing cards with Dark Confidant and pushing through damage completely unharmed by the Rod. After losing to Null Rod Fish three times at the ICBM open with Tezzeret I nicknamed this particular dance of Rod versus Hurkyl’s “Hurkyl’s and a Prayer.” Frequently my prayers went unanswered that day…
All of the best solutions to Null Rod in Time Vault combo I have been able to test thus far are Red cards. The more Red cards you have the better your chances of overcoming a Null Rod. In particular the best card for killing Null Rod(s) by far is Ancient Grudge. Ancient Grudge allows you to for the same amount of mana as Hurkyl’s Recall actually destroy a Null Rod with value since it can be flashed back later. The problem with Ancient Grudge is that it costs Red mana and in order to be truly great on the flashback also requires Green. Most Drain decks are not equipped with a manabase that can reliably access Red and Green when it is under a Null Rod already. The solution to this manabase problem was easily answered by the five-color manabase master Patrick Chapin via the addition of multiple copies of City of Brass in the main-deck as well as playing with one Tropical Island to search for with fetchlands. When I played against Stephen at the Steel City event both Null Rod and City of Brass were my saving graces against his GWB Time Vault hate deck. In our second game I was able to overcome 4 resolved Null Rods with my Ancient Grudges and in our third game I was able to Key-Vault him off my lone City of Brass with Choke in play!
In addition to the two main-deck Ancient Grudges I also opted to pack a Rebuild and two Goblin Welders three more cards that are also capable of removing Null Rod from the game on top of having four Force of Wills to counter the game-breaking artifact. The fantastic thing about Ancient Grudge and Goblin Welder is that in addition to giving me a plethora of outs to Null Rod all of these cards are not only good but great in a wide range of matchups as well as having tremendous synergy with the rest of my deck. My ideal first turn play is to cast multiple Moxen and a Draw 7 like Wheel of Fortune Windfall or Tinker out a Memory Jar. Being able to discard an Ancient Grudge so I can flash it back later is obviously an awesome source of card advantage and discarding Inkwell Leviathan Memory Jar or Time Vault was often key since I could play a Welder later and then bring those cards back from the graveyard. Goblin Welder also allowed me on multiple occasions to use my Gifts Ungiven or Transmute Artifact to intentionally bin powerful artifacts to be immediately Welded back into play. On one players end-step I cast Gifts with a Welder and two Moxes in play and searched for Time Vault and Voltaic Key both into the grave. I then brought back Vault on his turn untapped and brought back Key on my turn and took the rest of the turns.
Traditionally as a long time champion and re-vitalizer of the Vintage Control Slaver archetype it doesn’t really take much to convince me that the addition of Goblin Welder would be a great boon for almost any deck. I won many games at the Steel City Open and at Vintage Champs on the back of this 1/1 Red monster. In particular Goblin Welder plus Memory Jar was lights out for many an unfortunate opponent as was Voltaic Key or Vault plus any Tutor or Entomb effect once the Welder was active. The Welder was also worth his weight in gold and more against Mishra’s Workshop decks as he allows me the opportunity to turn his relevant lock components into less harmful artifacts in his discard pile. At the Steel City event I only played one Goblin Welder but he proved so versatile and powerful at that tournament and in my subsequent testing that I opted to run a second at Worlds. There is also a lot of synergy between Goblin Welder and the decks Draw 7 effects. I surprised multiple players by Welding in artifacts much later in the game that they had forgotten were even in my graveyard. Most notably my Goblin Welder produced an Inkwell Leviathan against Benjamin Carp during the combat step to block a Dark Confidant; and my Goblin Welder was able to get back a Helm of Obedience after I cast a Leyline of the Void in an important game 3 against an Oath player. At the very worst being able to produce extra Black Lotuses or swap Moxes in and out of play to make mana was always helpful in casting my spells.
Sideboarding Guide For Steel City Vault
From my experience the main deck seems pretty favorable against many of the key matchups which means that the deck doesn’t need a ton of help against any particular deck. The exception to this rule is of course Ichorid where I board in a crippling ten cards! To be helpful I have decided to include the way I would most likely sideboard against the key matchups you will face in a tournament.
Dredge: Game 1 is pretty dismal. Many of the deck’s best opening starts in the dark are going to cause instant losses. Consider the implications of casting a turn 1 Wheel of Fortune or Windfall on the play… They discard their hand and then dredge 7 times… But don’t worry; after sideboard it is almost impossible for them to fight through our endless stream of hate cards. I have ended up with a record of 3-0 against Ichorid in two tournaments and beaten very competent opponents such as Tommy Kolowith and Jim Gaffney.
5C Stax: This matchup is good in the first game and better in the second and third. Having two Ancient Grudges game 1 is likely to get you more than a few raised eyebrows from an annoyed Stax pilot but that’s only because they know they are most likely losing their best two cards in play. Post board I am in favor of bringing in Leylines which are deceptively good against their whole deck and shuts down all of their engines: Bazaar Welder and Crucible. In addition it is very unlikely they will have any way of removing the Leyline aside from Smokestack. Also I am in favor of bringing in the Helm of Obedience whenever I bring in Leyline of the Void. The two cards in play together end the game just in case you didn’t know (my round 5 Oath opponent at Worlds definitely did not know…).
Mana Drain Decks: I have always found this matchup to be very good pre-board. Basically you just bring in the Blasts to fight against their permission and I bring in an extra land. Your Welders are really good against Drains since you can assemble Key/Vault through permission. Also recurring Memory Jar is a very straightforward path toward one-sided permanent and card advantage.
-1 Ancient Grudge
-1 Lotus Petal
Fish: If they have Blue I bring in my Red Elemental Blasts but either way I bring in the rest of my artifact destruction spells to remove their Null Rods. I also have a Naturalize in the board to combat Choke and Leyline of the Void.
Oath: This match up has seemed fantastic every time I’ve played against it. Post sideboard it gets even better with the Leylines Helm and REBs.
TPS or Long: I sideboard the exact same way against long (besides for the Naturalize/Mystical Tutor) as I do against Oath.
I am also in favor of sideboarding out my Windfall on the draw against every single deck in the format that isn’t based on Dark Ritual.
A Few More Notes
A few of my Meandeck teammates (including David Williams Paul Mastriano and Jerry “Yangtime” Yang) opted to try out the deck at Worlds but unfortunately none of them managed to place in the Top 8 this year. All three said that they really enjoyed the deck and would more than likely play it again at a future tournament. Dave Williams even revamped my deck-list and played it again the following afternoon! He ended up cutting the Impulses from the main deck in favor of a Darkblast and an Intuition both choices I support as being really good right now.
Also it is good to keep in mind that the deck has more ways to win than is apparent at first. Obviously attacking with Goblin Welder or Inkwell under Time Vault lock can win the game as well as Helm of Obedience and Leyline of the Void. However it is also possible to with Timetwister if you get all of those victory conditions somehow removed from the game. In the main deck it is possible to once you have infinite turns use Timetwister Regrowth and Fire / Ice to burn an opponent out. And post sideboard it is possible to deck an opponent via Leyline of the Void Timetwister Regrowth and Wheel of Fortune. Every time you cast Wheel of Fortune it will Exile 7 of their cards from the game and you can Timetwister to put Wheel and Regrowth back into your deck. It doesn’t come up often - but it is good to know.
Finally I would like to inform individuals who might consider playing this deck in the future of a few of its weaknesses so that they can be prepared for them. First Leyline of the Void is a gigantic problem and although it isn’t unbeatable it provides a lot of problems as it shuts down our Welders and can provide circumstances where Time Vault can be exiled from the game. Second one of the most difficult cards to actually beat turns out to be Gorilla Shaman as one of the major ways that the deck wins is by making a lot of Mana with Jar and Draw 7s. The deck doesn’t always win right away and sometimes banks on the fact that it is generating lots of card advantage through Moxes. Much of your progress can be undone by a well placed Shaman to destroy all of the Moxen. And last if I had to say that the deck had one worst matchup it would be Chapin’s “The Deck” that he wrote against last week a deck that I would like to go on record as saying will most likely be one of the major players in the new metagame.
I hope that everybody enjoyed this article and that some of you might even enjoy playing this deck list at a future event.
May all your Timetwisters draw your opponents into zero Force of Wills!