Vintage Decksmashing #2 – BUG Fish vs. Forgemaster Shops

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Hi, and welcome back to Vintage Decksmashing, where we take two Vintage Magic the Gathering decks and smash them together. We’ll analyze the matchup and look at how things should play out, including the most important cards, winning strategies, and how to sideboard. Along the way, you can learn about the great format of Vintage. Maybe we’ll dispel some of the myths that surround Vintage. You’ll see that Vintage is interactive and skill intensive, testing skills that go beyond those practiced in Standard, Modern, and even Legacy.

If you’re interested in getting into Vintage, feel free to proxy decks to test against friends. You might even be able to play them in a nearby proxy tournament. Visit www.themanadrain.com for tournament information as well as other Vintage resources.

This week begins a two-part analysis of one of the most popular decks in Vintage at the moment: Forgemaster Shops. Nat Moes pilots the Shops list that has been very popular for the last six months, while Jake Hilty will play a couple of different takes on Vintage blue decks against it to show off the strengths and weaknesses of this popular archetype. This week, Jake played a list a few cards off from the winning BUG Fish list from the first Bazaar of Moxen tournament of 2013. For those not in the know, Bazaar of Moxen, or BoM, is the largest Vintage Tournament in the world every year, averaging a few hundred participants and a prize pool including multiple sets of power!

Let’s take a look at Jake’s list first, similar to that played by Michael Bonde in the November 2013 BoM:

Similar to the Noble Fish deck we looked at last time, this deck represents the Vintage aggro-control or “Fish” pillar of the metagame. As in most of these Fish decks, BUG employs disruptive elements and removal intermingled with acceleration creatures and light prison elements that allow for a strong tempo game.

Unlike Noble Fish, however, BUG Fish has a lot more emphasis on the power-level of individual cards rather than beefy creatures. While BUG doesn’t have tarmogoyfs to dominate the red zone, with four copies of Dark Confidant and Snapcaster Mage, this deck has one of the stronger card advantage engines in the format. It also gets to accentuate the powerful pairing of Ancestral Recall and Time Walk with the best tutors in the format: Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor. These tutors allow for added flexibility in deck construction. There are some powerful singletons that this deck gets to play as virtual four-ofs in the matchups where they are good, but doesn’t get bogged down by them in the matchups where they are not. The goal of this deck is to play a role, similar to that of RUG Delver in legacy, to try to maintain all matchups in the 60/40 to 40/60 range by being flexible and full of some high powered cards found in more traditional blue decks in Vintage.

Now take a look at this finalist from BoM, Forgemaster Shops, as played by Marcel Gelissen:

Here we have it: Forgemaster Shops, a list which has been putting up some of the best results for a deck with four Mishra’s Workshops in it during the past year. This list is powerful for a number of reasons: first, it allows its pilot to switch roles between prison, aggro, and combo in a way that has been typically reserved for the blue decks of Vintage; second, it gets to play a silver bullet package that allows for flexible answers, which, can be used to fuel Kuldotha Forgemaster, just as Blue decks can always pitch un-useful cards to Force of Will; and finally, it gets to play some of the largest threats in the format, which, historically is a winning strategy for Vintage. Mishra’s Workshops, as a pillar, have typically been plagued by not having the flexibility of other decks. Specifically, by having to make up for a lack of power by running a very redundant strategy of overlapping similar cards, this deck gets to escape that, without giving up what makes Workshop decks good.

BUG Fish typically has a decent matchup with decks based around Mishra’s Workshops. Deathrite Shaman softens the blow from sphere effects. In addition, it gets to run Trygon Predator, one of the most powerful cards against these decks. However, because Forgemaster Shops attacks from so many different vectors, one of which involves combos, BUG Fish has a much harder time dealing with it. In addition, this version of Shops also runs Wurmcoil Engine, which is a very hard card (among several other difficult cards) for any creature-based strategy to defeat. BUG Fish needs to get quite lucky to find a way to win this fight, let’s take a look at how lucky it got in this set of five games.

Game 1 – Why Mana Matters

Nat went first with Forgemaster Shops but had to mulligan a hand of Thorn of Amethyst, Chalice of the Void, Lightning Greaves, Mana Vault, Mox Ruby, Metalworker, and Steel Hellkite. While this hand had potential for a powerful opening of turn-one Metalworker into multiple turn-two lock pieces and threats, any answer to Worker (removal, Force of Will, Phyrexian Revoker, Null Rod) meant Nat straight up loses the game. His mulligan gave him Wasteland, Ancient Tomb, Thorn of Amethyst, Lightning Greaves, Sol Ring, and Mox Pearl. While this hand lacked a significant threat, it had rock-solid mana and the ability to hardcast almost anything in the deck; further, the average five card hand would likely be no better.

Jake opened with a mulligan as well, softening the loss of a card for Nat. His opening hand was: Time Walk, Snapcaster Mage, Trygon Predator, Deathrite Shaman, two Wastelands, and a Mox Sapphire. If one of the Wastelands had been a source of green or black mana this would be a snap keep, with all the spells one hopes to see in the matchup. Without any colored sources besides Sapphire, though, it had to be a mulligan. His second hand was: Strip Mine, Underground Sea, Tropical Island, Abrupt Decay, Snapcaster Mage, and Dark Confidant. This hand, while slower, is better than most five card hands.

Nat used the first turn to play out most of his hand: Mox Pearl into Sol Ring into Lightning Greaves, then Ancient Tomb into Thorn of Amethyst, immediately putting Jake on the back foot. Jake drew Spell Pierce and played Underground Sea. Though this activated Spell Pierce, it was almost certainly the incorrect sequence for Jake, who should have led with Strip Mine to play around Wasteland and maximize the chances of getting to an amount of mana next turn that would allow him to start playing spells. Nat correctly punished this on his next turn (and basically sealed up the game) by using Wasteland on Jake’s Sea and playing a top-decked Lodestone Golem (with Lightning Greaves!). Jake tried to fight back with a top-decked Black Lotus, but it was not enough, and he quickly succumbs to Nat’s Workshops.

Game 2 – Surprise!

Now on the play, Jake kept his hand of Force of Will, Time Walk, Trygon Predator, Strip Mine, Tropical Island, Underground Sea, and Mox Sapphire. Nat also kept his opener with Wasteland, Ancient Tomb, three Mishra’s Workshops, Metalworker, and a Kuldotha Forgemaster. Three Workshops will ensure a good start with plenty of mana, and even if Metalworker is countered, a turn-two Forgemaster will be ready to follow-up.

Jake led with Mox into an immediate Time Walk, then drew a fetchland on his extra turn and slammed down Trygon Predator. Things already looked bad, but Nat drew what might be the best possible card in this situation: Lightning Greaves. This draw is so good because it allows Nat to play around Trygon, which would normally wreck a Shops player. Nat smartly played only Mishra’s Workshop and passed. Jake drew Abrupt Decay and Stripped Nat’s Workshop, thinking that it might stifle an already slowed start. Nat drew Mox Jet, played his second Workshop and passed back; he wasn’t under a significant clock and could afford to continue waiting to put together one turn where he can steal this game.

Jake drew Brainstorm and went into the tank. He could sit on Brainstorm plus Force of Will in his hand at this point and hope to draw some more threats, or he could Brainstorm, trying to hit a threat immediately while still, hopefully, keeping up Force of Will. The safer play is to hold off, but after attacking Jake decided to go for it. Brainstorm hit another Snapcaster Mage, a Deathrite Shaman, and a Black Lotus. These are exactly the threats Jake hoped for, giving him a sequence where he could keep Force of Will, have three threats in play, and still draw into a blue card with three mana untapped after a second Time Walk turn. Jake Snapcastered the Time Walk and played Deathrite Shaman. He took his next turn, attacked for four, and left up Deathrite Shaman with his Force of Will in hand.

This aggressive sequence leaving Jake with few cards was just what Nat was hoping for and had been playing toward since his first draw of Lightning Greaves. Nat drew another artifact in Wurmcoil Engine and began his turn by playing a second Workshop. Here is his turn: Metalworker, Lightning Greaves, equip; tap Worker revealing Forgemaster, Wurmcoil, and Mox Jet for six mana. Nat played Forgemaster and Mox Jet, then equipped Forgemaster and activated, sacrificing everything except for Greaves to get Blightsteel Colossus. He equipped Greaves to Blighty and ended the game. Nat had to hit a very specific sequence of draws to win, but Jake didn’t respect the explosiveness and combo potential of Forgemaster Shops, which was well demonstrated in this turn.

Nat noted his surprise at all of that stuff resolving and surviving on his last turn, and Jake admitted he was too aggressive. He likely would have won this game had he sat back on Brainstorm and ridden Trygon Predator to victory.

Nat sideboarded +2 Duplicants, +1 Razormane Masticore, +2 Dismember, and +2 Crucible of Worlds, boarding out Thorns of Amethyst, Grafdigger’s Cage, and 1 Chalice of the Void. His theory is that hate pieces are not good against a hate deck, and instead Shops should focus on removal and threats that are hard to deal with, or in this ideal situation some pieces that count as both, namely, Duplicant and Razormane Masticore. Crucible is a hedge against the BUG deck’s mana removal and Null Rods.

Jake sideboards +2 Snuff Out, +1 Trygon Predator, +1 Steel Sabotage, +1 Island, +1 Wasteland, and +1 Null Rod, taking out Mental Missteps, the Scavenging Ooze, the Flusterstorm, 1 Snapcaster Mage, and 1 Spell Pierce. Jake hopes to customize his deck every time he sideboards to tune his hate cards and turn specifically into a deck against whatever matchup he is in. In this case the most interesting cards are probably the Null Rod and Snuff Outs, as the rest of the cards come in against every Shops deck. Snuff Out and Null Rod help fight the most important cards in the matchup in the form of Metalworker and Forgemaster. In addition, as we saw in game two, Lightning Greaves can be a very powerful card and Null Rod also turns off that route to victory.

Let’s go see how these sideboarding plans worked out:

Game 3 – Stripped of Options

Alternating to the play in game three, Nat decided to mulligan, while Jake was happy with his seven, mostly on the back of a Swamp and two Snuff Outs. Nat opened up with an Ancient Tomb into Chalice of the Void for one, which is normally quite a powerful play against BUG, and almost always the right value for X. (Chalice at two doesn’t stop Abrupt Decay, and BUG Fish only plays three Moxes, so Chalice at zero isn’t that effective.) Jake had a Force of Will and Steel Sabotage, but that was his only one drop in hand, so he let Chalice resolve. Jake started his turn with basic Swamp to play around Wasteland and activate both of his Snuff Outs.

Nat played Tolarian Academy and a Crucible to help dodge BUG’s Wastelands. Jake took his next turn and played a Mox Emerald and Bayou to cast Demonic Tutor, finding Null Rod. This also left mana up to play a Force of Will, even if Nat played a sphere effect as a bait spell. Nat instead played a Lightning Greaves and a City of Traitors, which he combined with his Academy to cast Kuldotha Forgemaster. Snuff Out quickly ended an attempt at equipping with Greaves, and the turn went back to Jake.

Jake, thinking that he had an opportunity to slow down any combo shenanigans from Nat, played his Null Rod but misses his land drop. This is where the game changed direction. On Nat’s turn he floated mana off of his City and then played the Strip Mine he just drew to knock Jake back to one mana source. Then he cast Wurmcoil Engine. Jake had to Force of Will the wurm, and now he absolutely needed to draw mana to get back into this game.

He didn’t. Nat took a few turns to draw the threats he needed to put Jake away, but there was no way Jake was coming back from the Strip Mine plus Crucible, especially with his own Null Rod locking him out from a save via a miracled Black Lotus.

Game 4 – More Bad News

Here is a game where it looked like Jake with his BUG deck had just about the perfect opening after a mulligan: Mox Jet, Verdant Catacombs, and Black Lotus into Deathrite Shaman and Dark Confidant, with Catacombs held back as defense against Wasteland. Admittedly, it relied on Dark Confidant finding some powerful cards, but that is what he does best. Nat now needed to commit threats to the board quickly or risk getting buried under card advantage; instead he could only offer an Ancient Tomb into a Sol Ring.

Jake revealed a Steel Sabotage, drew his card, played a land, and then simply attacked with Bob before passing. Nat played a Workshop and drew out the Steel Sabotage by casting Steel Hellkite. Sabotage also provided the necessary fodder for Deathrite Shaman, putting Nat to a quick 12 life. Next turn Bob failed to reveal anything useful and a simple attack was all the BUG Fish deck could muster.

Then the game turned around. Nat slammed a Wurmcoil Engine onto the board (going to 8 life because of Tomb) and Jake was in some trouble. Time to head to the races! On Nat’s end step Jake blew up Nat’s Sol Ring to set up the following turn. He revealed a Null Rod (16) and passed back. He hoped Nat would make the mistake of tapping his Ancient Tomb before attacking, but Nat made the correct play and just swung. Jake blocked with Deathrite Shaman then flashed in a Snapcaster Mage on Abrupt Decay to remove the Shaman before damage, avoiding the lifelink and threatening to put Nat to 4 on the swing back.

Nat responded by playing a Mishra’s Workshop and dashing Jake’s hopes that he had run out of gas by playing Sundering Titan. Boom. Jake was left with no lands and very little chance, given that he blew up his own Deathrite Shaman. He revealed nothing of note to his Dark Confidant and quickly lost to two creatures whose combined toughness rivals the total power currently contained in his entire deck.

Final Thoughts – Misassignment of Role

This matchup is a tough one for BUG, no doubt about it. However, we saw glimmers of what is required for it to do better than the 0-4 result we saw here. First, BUG needs to play tightly and not at all aggressively. Its creatures are overmatched at almost every turn, so it has to stay in the control role. Every time BUG made a decision to pursue a more aggressive route with its cards as opposed to playing defensively, it was punished. Every game had a mistake like this: leading with Underground Sea into Wasteland; going for Brainstorm rather than Force of Will; playing into his own Null Rod; and using Deathrite on Steel Sabotage instead of saving it for potential Snapcaster recursion.

Secondly, BUG needs for its opponent to not just draw the best cards for each situation. The sequence of cards that Nat drew to end games two and four (not to mention the top-decked Strip Mine in game three) were not unprecedented-the cards are in the deck for a reason-but they were fortuitous. The right cards in the right order will always make a difference, and they did here. Unfortunately, controlling your opponent’s draws isn’t always the legalest thing to do in a Magic tournament.

The most important thing, though, is that unlike against most Workshop opponents that look to lock out mana and spells, Deathrite Shaman is just lackluster here. He can be reasonable if Forgemaster has a prison plan with Chalice, Thorn, and Lodestone (as in game one), but as Jake found out after the games, Nat basically cut all the prison cards to turn into a better Workshop Aggro deck. A popular phrase from early in the annals of Magic theory is “misassignment of role = game loss,” and that phrase speaks volumes to what is required for a win by BUG. Just as in every other format, our chances are defined by our understanding of what role we undertake.

We’ll revisit the Forgemaster deck in the next article as well. It does have its weaknesses. Thanks for reading!

Jake Hilty
@TuringTested

Nat Moes
@GrandpaBelcher

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