The Magic Origins banned and restricted list changes were announced on Monday, just before 11 a.m., and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. There were no changes in any format, and for Vintage this is a positive thing. It signals that Wizards believes that the format can adjust to the player-perceived dominance of Shops or Delver (depending on which you play), or that they’re waiting until after the Vintage Championship in August to make any major decisions. More data is good in these situations, and looking at the year’s largest sanctioned Vintage event certainly won’t hurt.
I’m surprised that nothing was restricted out of the Preordain into Gush into Dig Through Time draw engine, but there are a few things holding it back: it comes online slowly, can be hurt by mana denial, and is currently the number-one target among blue decks. This last element was evident from the results of the NYSE Open, where control decks like The Answer and Landstill made top eight, but Gush-based Delver and Mentor decks were largely absent. Dig Through Time is still an absurdly good spell, but perhaps it is slowed enough by mana cost (namely double blue) to keep it within the realm of Vintage acceptability.
I’m also relieved that no Workshop cards were restricted. Workshop based decks became truly competitive with blue-based decks only when Lodestone Golem was printed in Worldwake, giving them a clock as well as a tempo/lock piece. Workshops’ position as a significant threat has to be respected, and opponents have to be prepared to react quickly to stay afloat, rather than waiting to build mana before playing a midgame Hurkyl’s Recall or another sweeper to get out from under Sphere effects and win the game.
In short, Workshops are here and they’re here to stay. At a good-sized tournament, players will have to face them more than once, but they’re a linear strategy with plenty of available answers across colors and mana costs.
Of course, on updates with no changes, one has to ask, “Was there anything that could have been unrestricted?” With Day’s Undoing and Artificer’s Epiphany in Magic Origins, this could have been a great opportunity to get Windfall or Thirst for Knowledge back into the format. Windfall might be an aggressive choice, giving blue players a potential nine three-mana draw-sevens on turn one, but its power level drops off significantly as the game progresses. Thirst for Knowledge is probably safe in the current environment, where drawing two cards is a free effect thanks to Gush.
Reducing the current state of Vintage to just Workshops versus Delver is a great oversimplification, though. There are many decks available to play, and a couple of nice juicy targets to aim at during construction.
It takes a certain mentality, I think, to want to sleeve up a Goblin Charbelcher deck and play it, much less take one to a tournament. Belcher is unlike other decks, requiring unabashed bravado or a good dose of willing blindness to certain challenges to pilot through several rounds. At times, when you may have nothing otherwise, you just have to bluff your way to victory. Just know that your opponent can’t or won’t counter that one critical spell.
I had one game playing Legacy Belcher (coincidentally at the same Columbus SCG Open that my cousin Geoff made top eight with 15 Islands in his sideboard) that went exactly this way. I had won game one easily with Empty the Warrens, and game two went long, leaving me with nothing in play but a Lion’s Eye Diamond. As my final turn approached, I played Gitaxian Probe (going from eight life to six) and saw Spell Snare, Spell Snare and Flusterstorm. I took another attack (to three) and had to go for it, knowing I should lose right here since my hand was Spirit Guide, Spirit Guide, Spirit Guide, Desperate Ritual, Pyretic Ritual, Pyretic Ritual, Goblin Charbelcher. I needed to resolve a Ritual through three counters to win. I couldn’t, but if I did, my opponent wouldn’t be able to stop Belcher. I pitched two Spirit Guides and played Desperate Ritual (since it had the most fitting name).
“Okay,” said my opponent.
I picked my jaw up off the floor, pitched the third Spirit Guide and played Belcher. When my opponent tried to Flusterstorm, I pointed out that it could only counter instants or sorceries. “Oh,” he said. “I guess it’s time for me to go home.” I activated with Lion’s Eye Diamond and didn’t miss.
Sometimes that’s just how it has to happen. You meet an overtired opponent who completely fails to stop a straightforward line of play.
But Belcher is the epitome of a glass cannon—extremely fast and powerful but so fragile that one well-placed piece of disruption can shatter its dreams.
Because of this, I normally try to keep my Belcher thoughts (obsessions, really) to myself. It’s easy for me to give an inflated impression of the deck, especially to new players, but also to experienced ones. (I once convinced Anthony “Twaun” Michaels to play Belcher at a big tournament in Chicago. He was goldfishing it in the car, while driving, on the way there.) Mostly, Belcher is a novelty deck: fun, yes, but there are better options. It is good simply because of its aggressiveness and can take games and matches thanks to good hands, opponents who stumble, and the unprepared—namely the people who don’t mulligan to Force of Will. That said, Belcher does have a role in keeping the metagame honest, especially where someone (like me) is liable to play it just for fun.
That’s one of the reasons I feel justified in writing about it periodically.
I played red-green Belcher at a small Ohio tournament recently and got a lot of questions afterward. My final record was only 2-2, losing to Forgemaster Shops and, coincidentally, Academy Belcher. I beat Jeskai Ascendancy and UW Mentor. Here’s the list I played:
RG Belcher – Nat Moes
I should pause here to point out that RG Belcher, the version that runs Goblin Charbelcher and Empty the Warrens is the only version of the deck that I have significant experience with. The Academy Belcher list designed by Andy Habermehl and popularized when Randy Buehler played it in the Vintage Super League, is also fast and powerful, but if I’m going to play a Vintage deck with blue cards, there are other decks I would rather sleeve up. I do enjoy the brute-force approach of the black-based Belcher lists that use Dark Rituals and eschew Empty the Warrens for tutors, making Charbelcher itself the primary win. These are closer to the original lists played by Michael Simister and later Justin Droba, and they average faster wins, though they’re less consistent. Obviously, others should feel free to play what they want, and I’m happy to talk about Belcher (or Vintage) whatever shape it takes.
The list above is similar to the lists I was playing in 2008 and 2009, and the strategy is very much the same. If you’re interested in taking it on, I recommend reading the primer I wrote then: “Be Aggressive, B E Aggressive.” The primer also talks about the history of the deck and some of the card choices. The basic idea is to mulligan to a win condition and hopefully have enough mana to launch it turn one. You play through Force of Will with Empty the Warrens, Guttural Response, and Goblin Welder; everything else you race.
My recent tournament experience is another reason to write about Belcher right now: the current Vintage environment is pretty conducive to the deck, for a couple of reasons.
Reason 1: Delver
Belcher is pretty good against most tempo decks, which often have creatures taking up room that would be spent on counterspells, especially against an unexpected deck. Yes, there’s the problem of Force of Will, and now Mental Misstep, but the deck can usually play through one counter without too much difficulty, especially with Guttural Response, Goblin Welder, and some sideboard cards. In the early game, when opponents have limited access to counters and their draw engine hasn’t come online yet, that’s the perfect time to put a dozen Goblins into play or construct a cannon.
The first time I played Belcher, from 2006–2009, included the height of the second Gush era, when GAT was a top deck. GAT players bolstered their Force of Wills with discard, making going second or passing the turn without playing a threat a risky proposition, but the idea was the same and worked similarly. On turn one, opponents really had access to only the four Forces, appearing in the opening hand less than half the time. Gush (and now Dig Through Time) is really a third-turn play, so Belcher players have a little breathing room before those draw engines kick into gear and can find too many counters to overcome.
Playing through counterspells is never impossible and is made easier by Gitaxian Probe, which can tell you how much and what kind of disruption you’ll be facing, as well as build storm for Empty the Warrens. One important thing to remember is that it won’t get easier. Holding back on playing things because they’ll get countered won’t get rid of the counters; your opponent will just draw more counters. Hit them hard; hit them early; and hope they don’t have a hand that goes crazy making tokens if your plan is to Empty the Warrens.
Reason 2: MUD
Surprisingly (and despite my performance) Workshop decks are not a terrible matchup for RG Belcher. Winning the die roll and being on the play is important but not critical, and there are many workshop plays that don’t do much, including normally threatening openers like Metalworker. Having eight Spirit Guides means Sphere of Resistance effects and Chalice of the Void are less painful, and Lodestone Golem can be a non-issue as well, thanks to the amount of artifact acceleration.
Of course, being on the play is the real coup, as Workshops don’t play counterspells and typically can’t react quickly to an early, lethal threat by tutoring or drawing an answer. This is also where Leyline of Anticipation in the sideboard makes itself useful, since having it on turn zero typically lets Belcher respond to an opponent’s first lock piece by going off (with additional storm provided by the Shop deck’s plays). There is some risk now that a Workshop opponent will be well-prepared for Monk and Elemental tokens, and therefore Goblins too, but that’s why Charbelcher continues to do work.
Another one of my favorite Belcher-playing experiences came against Workshops, at a large event on the east coast. It was round three, and we were both at 1-1. I was on the play in game one and played a few spells into Channel and Belcher—an easy turn-one kill. “Pretty lucky!” said my opponent, adding “No accounting for skill with your deck.” Then he won game two with turn one Trinisphere into double Lodestone Golem. The irony was not lost on me.
Neither was the match, though. Goblin Welder and 14 token friends got there in the third.
Anyway, with Delver-based tempo decks and Workshops making up half of the Vintage metagame, it’s not exactly an unfriendly field for Belcher. And, as for other opponents, the plan is always to get in before their gameplan or counter tactics come online.
Overall, and with years of experience, Belcher is a more nuanced deck than people give it credit for being. There are definitely lines of play that people miss (including being able to block and potentially kill creatures with Tinder Wall, which is a thing), and it is an excellent deck to play when you want to take a break from the usual Vintage fare of Force of Wills or Forgemasters. You can often catch players off guard, at least for a few rounds.
Whether you try Belcher or not, the Vintage format should be primed and in place for any sanctioned events at Gen Con and going into the Vintage Championship. It’s a good time to get into the format and get some exciting large events under your belt. Let the testing begin!
Thanks for reading!
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