Vintage Magic: The Gathering has a reputation for being a turn-one format entirely dependent on the coin flip. Hopefully, by reading these articles or being exposed to the format by the Vintage Super League and other streams, or by playing the format online or in paper, you’ve realized that’s not remotely the case. Most games last many turns, with meaningful interactions and powerful plays from both sides throughout. It’s a skill testing format for sure, and it flexes different muscles than those the other, younger formats call for.
But what if players decide to push the limits?
Vintage has several decks that do strive for the legitimate turn-one kill—faster than Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus, flashier than a turn-one lock out with Trinisphere, and more nuanced than Mox, Forbidden Orchard, Oath of Druids. Having played Belcher for years, I can say that for any of these turn-one decks it takes surprising skill to evaluate opening hands, navigate hate, and calculate the best way to proceed, even when the coast is clear.
I’m going to look at a couple of different versions of Belcher, as well as Rogue Hermit Combo (known as Oops, All Spells in Legacy ), Ad Nauseam, and Turn-One Tendrils. These decks have always had problems with Force of Will and Workshop prison, but major changes—good and bad—came for them in New Phyrexia with Mental Misstep and Gitaxian Probe. Misstep is a nightmare for many of the fast mana effects, tutors, and cheap cantrips that fuel these decks. It’s especially bad because it serves an an easy second counterspell to backup Force of Will and (along with Mindbreak Trap) can be played in any deck.
Gitaxian Probe, on the other hand, is an easy include in fast combo decks. Obviously, as a free cantrip it builds storm and reduces the effective size of a deck, albeit to a minor degree. Moreover, it makes topdeck tutors more potent since you can draw the card immediately. In decks with Chrome Mox, it can even provide a valuable and easy-to-pitch source of blue mana.
Most importantly, though, it shows exactly what your opponent is holding, giving critical information on what counters to play around, what win condition you should go for, even whether you have a turn to wait or not.
You’ll see as we look at the decklists that they’re very similar:
- Lots of fast mana (Dark Ritual, Rite of Flame, and so on) and very few lands, if any. What’s the use in having more than one land if your opponent won’t be around long enough to see you play them?
- Limited powerful threats. This often makes mulliganing very important. You’re trying to find a hand that has a game-winning threat to play on turn one. Force your opponent to interact.
- An aggressive game plan. These decks never, ever want to be the control deck in a matchup. It can be a difficult mindset to get into at times, especially if you’re used to the opposite.
- Little to no disruption. Disruption reduces threat and mana density, so many of these decks pass on it entirely. The hope is that drawing multiple threats, rather than protecting one, will be the right path to victory.
- Certain lethality. Whatever they think of a turn-one deck as a tournament choice, opponents have to respect the danger of playing against it. Glass cannons may be fragile, but they will still kill you. You’ll see better players mulligan deeply to find a Force of Will or other early disruption, which can be an advantage if you keep a full grip.
Turn-One Tendrils, known in some versions as Meandeck SX (“storm 10” for you Latin scholars), was developed in 2005 by Team Meandeck as sort of a thought experiment. The idea was to push the limits of storm combo as far as they could go. You can read about their work putting the deck together here (including additional links) and an update here. The deck was pronounced not tournament viable, despite its alarming 66% first-turn goldfish rate, simply because it’s so difficult to play correctly and so unforgiving when mistakes are made.
The lists in those articles have to be updated for 2015, of course. The deck hit a nice high point in 2008 when both Brainstorm and Ponder were legal as four ofs, but now we have Preordain and Mox Opal to add to the mix. Here’s an example:
Turn-One Tendrils 2k15
If you read the earlier articles, you’ll see that the idea of one mana, one card, one storm still holds true. This is actually one reason why I haven’t made room for cards like Manamorphose and Street Wraith. Chromatic Sphere and Manamorphose are functionally similar (they cost two mana to fix a color and draw a card), but Manamorphose doesn’t also fuel metalcraft for Mox Opal. Street Wraith, of course, doesn’t build storm, and in this deck it makes evaluating the opening hand especially difficult. Preordain solves many of its problems simply by looking at three cards.
The deck plays fairly well through counterspells, but postboard you can bring in Force of Will and to help navigate that minefield and add the easier-to-resolve Necropotence. The real threat is playing against Mishra’s Workshop decks and others with onboard disruption on the draw. Having Leyline of Anticipation and Force of Will mitigates this somewhat, and the additional mana will help cast Hurkyl’s Recall, as well as carry out your plan through Sphere of Resistance effects.
If you decide to play this deck (it’s a blast to goldfish in any case), consider mainly that your goal is to have nine or more storm, BB2 in your mana pool, and Tendrils of Agony in hand. The interactions between the cards and the deck’s construction become more evident. Spoils of the Vault is risky and works best with mostly four-ofs, but you can still use it to get singletons in pinch. Use a mini Tendrils if you need to cast Spoils a lot. If you need storm, try to find Repeal; if you need to see cards, go for Preordain. You can use Gitaxian Probe or Chromatic Sphere to get cards put back with Brainstorm or Preordain. It’s great practice for thinking through other combo sequences.
Ad Nauseam is sort of the spiritual successor to Turn-One Tendrils. Instead of making little loops and living on the edge of having just enough mana and storm and cards, you can simply cast Ad Nauseam, draw nearly 20 cards and win the game. The deck is similar to versions played in Legacy, but you have more permanent off-color mana thanks to the Moxes. Black Lotus is a big help as well, obviously.
Ad Nauseam Tendrils
The above list, played by Roger Riera in a 41-player event in has four Duress and four Pact of Negation—a lot of disruption and protection for a fast combo list. The average mana cost in the deck is only 1.18, so Ad Nauseam should draw around 16 cards regularly. With all the free mana and tutors, that should be plenty. It also slows it down a little. There are many hands that might have to play a setup spell, like Preordain or a tutor, to put mana together or find Ad Nauseam itself. Against some opponents, it would also be worth holding off on your bomb spell to play a Duress or find Pact, just to make sure things proceed as planned.
Again, this deck will have a lot of trouble against Workshops. Pact of Negation is significantly worse than Force of Will against permanent-based disruption played before you start to combo. Postboard, Elvish Spirit Guide and the additional Island will help pay for the four-pack of Hurkyl’s Recalls. Also postboard, Xantid Swarm is a must-counter for any opponent relying on counterspells. Combo players love to see an opponent covered in bees, so that’s a common card in combo sideboards.
From Beyond the Grave
I was surprised that Gatecrash produced both Balustrade Spy and Undercity Informer, two cards that were so similar and so quietly powerful. The combo is the same as the old Hermit Druid combos (hence the Rogue Hermit deckname proposed by Stephen Menendian) except that you don’t have to wait for summoning sickness to wear off: empty your library into the graveyard and win with cards from there.
Here, emptying the library into the graveyard returns the Narcomoebas to play. You can use those to play Cabal Therapy twice, getting two zombies in the process from Bridge from Below. When the coast is clear, you sacrifice zombie tokens to Dread Return Angel of Glory’s Rise, who brings with her all the humans in the deck, most importantly Laboratory Maniac and Azami, Lady of Scrolls. Tap LabMan and Azami to draw cards and win with LabMan’s replacement effect. Easy as pie. You even have Pact of Negation to protect yourself.
The deck is surprisingly reliable. The most difficult part with most hands is making sure you have access to one of your rogues and not too many cards in hand that have to be in your graveyard. The Cabal Therapies also help with that second part since you can target yourself if necessary. Handily, the creature-based combo plays through many common counterspells like Spell Pierce and Flusterstorm, as long as you can get to that point.
Postboard, rather than going on defense, the deck just changes its offensive strategy. The Rogue Hermit combo is so reliant on the graveyard, for which hate is plentiful in Vintage thanks to Dredge, that it’s beneficial just to avoid the graveyard entirely. Let’s play Belcher instead!
Fire Ze Missiles!
Charbelcher Combo wasn’t my first Vintage deck, but it is still the deck I have played most often—in every tournament I entered between 2006 and 2010. There are a couple of versions I want to discuss here, the first being the red-green version, similar to that played in Legacy.
This is the deck that inspired this article. I made top 16 at a 100 player tournament with this deck, I wrote a decent primer a while ago, and I played this build to a top-four finish around this time around Christmas in 2013. Red and green! What could be more festive? Anyway, it’s what I would play if I were taking Belcher to a tournament tomorrow. It’s very satisfying to activate Belcher and just flip your deck over.
This build is very consistent. Many players are dissuaded by the eight “free” cantrips, saying that they make opening hands too difficult to evaluate. In reality, as long as you have Belcher, Empty, Wheel of Fortune, or Memory Jar in your opening hand, you can cast launch one of them. Between the Empty the Warrens and the Welders, it plays well through counters, especially if you can bait your opponent into biting on the wrong ramp spell. Moreover, with eight spirit guides, it’s not impossible to play through a Workshop deck’s Sphere of Resistance effect. Postboard, Leyline of Anticipation helps with the latter matchup, and Xantid Swarm works well against the former.
Andy Hebermehl gets the credit for the initial version of this list, though Tobias Egelhof played the above list to a top four in Germany in November. Significantly, Hebermehl had Time Spiral in place of Tezzeret, the Seeker, taking advantage of the untap mechanic to make scads of mana with Tolarian, to use with the seven new cards. Tezzeret has benefits as well, of course: it untaps artifact mana (or Time Vault); it tutors for Charbelcher (or Time Vault); and, importantly, it provides a win condition that doesn’t get shut down by Null Rod, should the game come to that. Both builds make great use of Mox Opal and Grim Monolith as artifact accelerants.
The big benefit to Neo Academy over other versions of Belcher is the mono-blue color scheme. First, that allows several powerful plays, starting with Brainstorm and Ancestral Recall and going to Tinker, Timetwister, and Mind’s Desire. Second, this list can reliably play Force of Will to defend itself, a huge boon to any fast-combo list.
Remember that there’s really no shame in playing a turn-one combo deck in Vintage. Opponents are aware of the possibility of dying on turn one and should be prepared to combat it. You’ll have to be smarter, faster, and more resilient.
So, in 2015, May all your first-turn plays be game winning.
Happy New Year!
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