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The Vintage Advantage: Gifts Ungiven Past and Presents

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Vintage

08_12 The Vintage Advantage

Well, I was wrong. I really didn’t expect Wizards to bring the restriction hammer down on Treasure Cruise so soon after it was printed. Khans of Tarkir was released at the end of September 2014, so it took only four months for Wizards to make a decision on the card’s place in Vintage. I don’t disagree that Treasure Cruise was very powerful and may have needed to get restricted eventually, but for a format with as many answers as Vintage, that has historically been slow to adjust like Vintage, four months doesn’t seem like enough time.

With the same announcement, Wizards also unrestricted Gifts Ungiven. Whether this was some reparation for restricting Treasure Cruise or whether they’re just shaking up the format is hard to say. Gifts Ungiven was a significant player in the Vintage metagame starting soon after its printing in Champions of Kamigawa in October 2004 and going until 2007, when it was restricted. A lot has changed since then.

Combined, Treasure Cruise’s restricting and Gifts’s unrestriction should have a notable effect on the format. At the very least, having Gifts back should promote some deck designing, since many players were very fond of the card and still are. Here’s my estimation of how things shake out:

Treasure Cruise:

  • Used the delve mechanic and, as such, promoted playing cantrips and other cheap, efficient spells.
  • Also discouraged the use of running too many permanents. Treasure Cruise decks were relatively light on creatures and mana permanents.
  • Drawing lots of cards was prioritized over finding specific cards, so decks were built for consistency rather than tutoring for one-ofs.
  • Lent itself well to tempo decks like Delver that encouraged the player to establish a lead then rest on some counters and wait for the cards to roll in.
  • Relatively easy to use: delve cards, draw cards.

Gifts Ungiven:

  • Requires four mana to cast and so prefers to have many sources of mana, whether lands, artifacts, or rituals. Strongly encourages the use of Mana Drain.
  • More mana encourages other big spells as well. Should raise the average mana cost in blue decks slightly.
  • Often prefers one-ofs that are either especially powerful (Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will) or may be useful to get with Gifts or other tutors.
  • Lends itself to combo-control decks of various types. The most common lists, variants of Meandeck Gifts, used Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will to win with Darksteel Colossus or Tendrils of Agony. Prevent your opponent from winning then crush them.
  • Can be difficult to use; gifts piles can be very situational and not necessarily intuitive.

So, we should see a decrease in the power and pervasiveness of URx Delver decks. They’ll still be around (perhaps using Dig Through Time alongside the one-of Treasure Cruise), but they won’t be quite as difficult to overmatch in longer games. Decreasing Delver should also help diversify the aggro-control and tempo arena to again include decks like BUG Fish, which couldn’t keep up with the card advantage provided by delving Treasure Cruise.

As for Gifts Ungiven, there’s a lot of room for exploration. This will be the first time unrestricted Gifts has existed alongside unrestricted Gush, for example, and though their general deck construction ideas (mana heavy versus mana light) have been different, they could potentially be combined into a card-drawing and tutoring superpower. Regrowth is another recent unrestriction that could play very well with Gifts, and of course the old lists will have to deal with Brainstorm, Merchant Scroll, and Thirst for Knowledge as one-ofs.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had extensive time to test with Gifts in the modern environment yet, but let’s look at some of the old Vintage builds and see if there isn’t some life in them.

This is the earliest list on Morphling.de that uses four copies of Gifts Ungiven, played by Daniel Huszar to sixth place at an event in Karlsruhe, Germany, in March 2005. It’s interesting to note that when Gifts was first printed, players were tentative about its use in the format. The closest comparison they had was Fact or Fiction, which had been restricted in 2002 and was the lynchpin of the Mono-Blue Control deck. Similar to Fact, Gifts was a four-mana instant and gave the opponent some influence on how it resolved. It only ever found two cards, though, and your opponent could make sure they were the worse two of the cards you tutored for. Players started with one and two copies in late 2004, and it wasn’t until July of 2005 that Gifts really exploded and decks started with four copies regularly.

Huszar’s list is a good one to start with beyond that historical tidbit, though, as it showcases the dual nature of Gifts Ungiven. Not only can it put cards in your hand, it can also put cards in the graveyard. Augmenting that ability with Intuition and Thirst for Knowledge, and complementing it with Recoup, Crucible of Worlds, Goblin Welder, and of course Yawgmoth’s Will, Huszar wouldn’t have cared much where his cards ended up. He’d get them one way or another.

This idea could still work without too much tweaking. Brainstorm and Thirst for Knowledge are restricted, obviously, and a modern version probably wants to be a little leaner overall since setting up and resolving three- and four-drop spells can be problematic against tempo decks like Delver and especially against modern Workshops. However, this would be a strong place to start.

Modern Gifts Ungiven lists will almost certainly use Time Vault and Voltaic Key as a means to victory, but there was a time in the previous Gifts era when Time Vault was used as well. Time Vault had been errata’d to this:

Time Vault
Time Vault comes into play tapped.
Time Vault doesn’t untap during your untap step.
Skip your next turn: Untap Time Vault and put a time counter on it.
T: Remove all time counters from Time Vault: Take an extra turn after this one. Play this ability if only there’s a time counter on Time Vault.

This essentially meant that players could skip any number of hypothetical future turns to untap Time Vault whenever they wanted. When Flame Fusillade was printed in Ravnica in October 2005, it made the perfect combo. With Time Vault in play and Fusillade in effect, players could bank any number of turns, untap and tap Time Vault that many times, and deal that much damage. Gifts, combined with Recoup, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Vintage tutors, was perfect for putting the two card combo together. (Wizards thought the combo was good enough that they errata’d Time Vault again to neutralize it in April 2006, to include a “time counter,” bizarrely. Its wording was changed again to the current version in 2008.)

So, Gifts Ungiven and the proper graveyard cards can put together two-card combos with some ease.

The Gifts Oath deck (talked about by Andy Probasco and its player Randy Buehler here) showed the flexibility of Gifts Ungiven. The deck could win with the usual Mox, Forbidden Orchard, Oath of Druids opening, putting Darksteel Colossus into play, or it could set up a typical Gifts into Tendrils win, or with a sufficiently deep Oath or double Oath it could use Krosan Reclamation to get Yawgmoth’s Will back and win with Tendrils out of the graveyard. Gifts could be used to fill in where necessary in many cases, getting mana or protection for Oath or the combo, if not going straight for the win.

This could be a good direction to take modern Gifts lists, since an early Oath is strong against Workshops and Griselbrand would be a considerable upgrade to Darksteel Colossus in the combo department. One opportunity might be to build the deck with three colors, dropping red and using Regrowth or Noxious Revival to get back Oath of Druids if it gets discarded to Gifts. A simpler three-color manabase would make this even more resilient to Wasteland effects.

Meandeck Gifts was the most direct list to use Gifts Ungiven as an engine. Its gameplan, first talked about here and later updated here was to use Merchant Scroll to find Ancestral Recall, resolve that, then take stock of your situation and use Gifts to get what you needed to win the game. That might mean setting up Tinker for Darksteel Colossus with Time Walk or setting up Tendrils of Agony with Yawgmoth’s Will or Rebuild. The big change—aside from pushing the gameplan with four Merchant Scrolls and Gifts Ungivens—was to include Misdirections to back up the Ancestral, rather than using Duress or other counters. It pushed the deck to win faster and gave an advantage in the mirror because you could grab your opponent’s Ancestral.

One of the biggest upgrades for new Gifts lists, evidenced by this deck and Gifts Oath especially, will be from Darksteel Colossus to Blightsteel Colossus. Playing Tinker and Time Walking once to secure victory with Blightsteel will be significantly easier than getting Darksteel Colossus and needing multiple turns to win.

Pushing the Gifts Ungiven engine even faster, Ritual Gifts added combo-like acceleration and draw sevens into the mix, making Tendrils of Agony the sole maindeck win condition. Not only was this deck more likely to end up with easy non-Gifts wins like Dark Rituals into Demonic Tutor into Yawgmoth’s Will into Tendrils, but it could also set up early Gifts, using Dark Rituals to pay for the colorless costs and then using them to fuel the win out of the graveyard with Will.

Coincidentally, it was decks like this that made cards like Extract and Jester’s Cap worth consideration in Fish and Workshops decks. Before Snapcaster Mage and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, were printed, many decks couldn’t win if you took their Tendrils of Agony and Darksteel Colossus, or their two Oath of Druids targets.

To help combat the Fish and Workshops decks (which had become more proficient at dealing with the Gifts decks’ Darksteel Colossi, reliance on artifact mana, and desire to resolve a four-drop instant), Gifts diversified its threats when Empty the Warrens was released in Time Spiral in 2007. It was surprisingly simple to set up an early Empty for three or four storm with moxes and Repeals, and the Goblin tokens could overwhelm a Fish deck’s defenses or a Workshop deck’s Tangle Wires and Smokestacks. In longer games, Tendrils still worked, as well as Empty into Time Walk, either of which could be Recouped off of Gifts Ungiven.

This was the last major development in unrestricted Gifts Ungiven’s previous lineage. Gifts continued to be a powerhouse in its various forms and was restricted nine months later in June 2007.

I’m anxious to see if Gifts produces these kinds of results again. It has been flexible and powerful, filling in as the main draw and combo engine in several different blue combo-control lists. But things have changed significantly since it was last legal as a four of. Not only have new hate cards been printed—including things like Flusterstorm, Grafdigger’s Cage, Ravenous Trap, and new Sphere of Resistance effects—but also there are new powerful effects to compete with like unrestricted Gush and Dig Through Time. Gifts can be paired with new toys too, even Monastery Mentor might be a good pairing in a combo-control Gifts list.

Vintage will change a lot with the loss of Treasure Cruise and the re-addition of Gifts Ungiven. It’s time to get testing.

Good luck!

Nat Moes


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