On Sylvan Mentor



  • I am writing about this deck because I think it is an exceptionally good Vintage deck. There is already some material out there on the deck: The videos-on-demand on my Twitch stream show me playing the deck quite a lot recently. However, I have not yet seen a good written account of the deck.

    On Saturday, I won the Vintage Power 9 Challenge on Magic: the Gathering Online. Prior to that, I played the deck in quite a few Magic: the Gathering Online daily tournaments. According to MTGGoldfish, in April, I went 24-4 with the deck in Dailies. I also split a Mox Pearl with the deck at Pandamonium in Cambridge, MA.

    Here is the list I used to win the Vintage Power 9 Challenge.

    // Mana
    1 Sol Ring
    1 Black Lotus
    1 Mox Emerald
    1 Mox Jet
    1 Mox Pearl
    1 Mox Ruby
    1 Mox Sapphire

    // Land
    2 Flooded Strand
    2 Misty Rainforest
    2 Scalding Tarn
    1 Polluted Delta
    1 Island
    2 Tropical Island
    3 Tundra
    2 Volcanic Island
    1 Library of Alexandria

    // Counters
    4 Force of Will
    1 Flusterstorm
    1 Pyroblast
    4 Mental Misstep

    // Draw
    1 Ancestral Recall
    1 Brainstorm
    1 Dig Through Time
    2 Gitaxian Probe
    4 Gush
    1 Ponder
    2 Sylvan Library
    1 Time Walk
    1 Treasure Cruise
    1 Snapcaster Mage

    // Threats
    1 Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
    2 Dack Fayden
    4 Monastery Mentor
    2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

    // Removal
    1 Ancient Grudge
    1 Supreme Verdict
    1 Swords to Plowshares

    // Sideboard
    2 Ancient Grudge
    4 Containment Priest
    1 Dragonlord Dromoka
    2 Nature's Claim
    1 Supreme Verdict
    1 Swords to Plowshares
    4 Tormod's Crypt

    A Note on Gush

    I'm only going to mention briefly why Gush is so good. No need for an entire book or anything. The ancestor of today's Mono-Brown Mishra's Workshop decks were created with a specific target in mind: Gush decks. Gush decks, in the grand Turbo Xerox tradition, reduce land counts and use cantrips as a vital part of their mana bases. In today's Delver decks, Preordain often lets the Delver pilot select between a land and a spell. More than one-mana cantrips, though, the central card of the modern Turbo Xerox deck is Gush. Gush is card advantage that dodges wasteland. Gush also lets one simulate an additional land drop by letting one float mana, Gush, and then play another land. In this way, one can cast a three-mana spell using only two lands and a Gush, all while netting card advantage.

    Mishra's Workshop decks could fight that plan, using Sphere effects to make that manabase collapse under its own weight. However, with the recent restriction of Lodestone Golem, Mishra's Workshop decks have gotten worse. I believe that they will emerge as a tier-one deck, but it is undeniable that they have taken a hit in their power.

    Given that, if one is going to play a blue deck, I don't think it is any longer a question of whether one should play Gush. A non-Gush blue deck is at a considerable disadvantage against a Gush-based blue deck. Evidence of this is that the current most-successful non-Gush blue deck is Blue Moon, which tries to transform opposing Gush-based Blue decks into fellow non-Gush-based Blue decks. In times past, one could argue that the non-Gush blue decks offered a more resilient manabase against Mishra's Workshop decks. However, this no longer seems like a valid concern. Further, as we will discuss in the next section, one needn't use a small manabase in order to utilize Gush.

    Sylvan Mentor and Kelly Oath

    Understanding Sylvan Mentor requires first understanding that it is a Brian Kelly deck. While Brian Kelly won the Vintage World Championship with an Oath deck, many of the principles underlying Kelly Oath and Sylvan Mentor are the same. Here is Kelly Oath for reference.

    Note the four-color manabase. That manabase is greedy in terms of playing four colors, but quite robust in terms of the number of cards in the deck dedicated to providing mana. Delver decks and other Turbo Xerox decks build virtual card advantage through minimizing the number of cards in the deck dedicated to providing mana. Landstill decks create virtual card advantage by using lands with utility effects (i.e., manlands and Wastelands). Brian Kelly decks dedicate a large number of card slots to providing mana, and don't require that the mana sources provide much utility beyond that.

    In exchange for spending more card slots on a robust manabase, Brian Kelly decks gain two benefits. First, they get to cast more expensive spells than decks using smaller manabases. Four-mana Jace is a much better card than Two-Mana Jace if you get him onto the table. A larger manabase facilitates casting that larger Jace. The second benefit of a more robust manabase is that Brian Kelly decks can run four colors. This means tapping into a larger proportion of Magic's card pool. For example, Ancient Grudge is leagues beyond any other anti-Workshop card. It's so strong that I've been consistently including it maindeck. At the same time, it is a spell that requires two colors that don't cast Gush or Mentor.

    A reasonable question is whether our larger manabase costs us games against decks with smaller manabases. For example, Delver has far more live topdecks than Sylvan Mentor, assuming that neither side has anything going on. Sylvan Mentor uses permanents to mitigate its draws. Sylvan Library and to a larger extent Dack Fayden help ensure that Sylvan Mentor draws more live cards and fewer useless mana sources. Yes, you do have games where you choke on the large number of mana sources you run. But you can often use your resources to filter your draws, getting value out of both drawn lands and lands returned through Gush. That is to say, Dack Fayden is an essential part of the deck's manabase.

    With a large manabase, Ancient Grudge, and Dack Fayden, Brian Kelly decks have strong Workshop matchups. And with a very deep pool of card advantage, they can often out-draw and therefore eventually defeat their Blue rivals as well. But this requires that we be able to leverage card advantage into a win. We will discuss that in the next section.

    It's Mentor's World

    When Mishra and his robots ruled Dominia, Oath of Druids was likely the best win condition. It didn't win two Vintage Championships in a row by accident. Oath is a two-mana win condition that requires no further mana or spells. It is especially strong against creature-based strategies, which Lodestone Golem had ensured most Workshop decks were.

    In a post-Lodestone metagame, however, the criteria for best kill mechanism have shifted. We can more reliably chain together spells and may not as reliably face opposing creatures. Both of these factors help to make Oath of Druids a little worse, and make Monastery Mentor a little better. Further, without as many Workshop decks in the metagame, there are more Blue mirrors. In these blue mirrors, the dead draws of a Blightsteel Colossus or a Griselbrand can become magnified. Whereas, Mentor carries no such baggage, and helps us out-draw our opponent.

    Sylvan Mentor is designed to out-draw other blue decks and it is quite good at this. As noted above, while it has more mana sources than a deck like Delver, an active Planeswalker or even Sylvan Library can help it mitigate mana flood. In blue mirrors, it is common for the Sylvan Mentor player to be ahead on cards, but behind on board. How can the Sylvan Mentor player dig out from this situation? There are two key cards for this. The first is Supreme Verdict. The uncounterable sweeper is perfect for the blue Token mirror. Opposing token decks tend to be light on non-creature threats and will often be behind on cards by the middle of the game.

    Supreme Verdict is a great way to avoid losing, but we still need to win. The most powerful way in Vintage today to leverage excess card advantage into a superior board position and soon a win is Monastery Mentor. As noted above, Mentor as a win condition doesn't require any blank cards like Voltaic Key or Oath monsters. And while Pyromancer grows wide and Quirion Dryad grows tall, Mentor grows in all directions at once. He very quickly dominates creature combat and very quickly kills the opponent. A first-turn Mentor is about as game-ending as a first-turn Tinker, and a late-game Mentor is far more resilient than a late-game Tinker.

    Putting the Pieces Together

    Now that we've covered the theory behind the Sylvan Mentor deck, we can consider some of the individual components. We want to have a Gush-based deck with a robust manabase. And we want Mentor himself to be the primary win condition. The large manabase of seven fetchlands and seven dual lands has been very effective for me. Blood Moon convinced me to run a Basic Island, and Library of Alexandria fits our card-draw theme.

    Having ten counters has felt correct. Pyroblast edges out the second Flusterstorm because it handles opposing Planeswalkers. I don't think the fourth Mental Misstep is absolutely necessary, and could see it becoming the third Gitaxian Probe.

    The draw engine starts with six restricted draw spells. To that we add Gitaxian Probe, which helps us make much better decisions in this decision-intensive deck. Snapcaster Mage is situational, and at times does nothing useful. However, Time Walk is so good in this deck that we include a single Snapcaster Mage to flash it back.

    In addition to one-shot bursts of card advantage, we have several recurring sources. These cards hover between being card draw spells and threats, in the grand tradition of Ophidian. Sylvan Library is the deck's namesake card, and is why we are playing Green in the first place. This card can provide a burst of card advantage, and lets us use our fetchlands to filter our draws for the rest of the game. Dack Fayden lets us filter our draws and turn Gushed-back lands into more spells. The fact that he often auto-wins against Workshop decks is a further bonus. Finally, Jace himself lets us win so long as we can protect him, and he also lets us kill opponents through cards like Moat.

    Erayo deserves special mention in this shell. Matt Murray convinced me to try her and I've been pretty happy with her. She can be a blank, but she can also shut down opponents single-handedly. The Storm matchup can be difficult, and she gives us a proactive way to lock up Storm players. She's not a card that is necessary to the functioning of the deck. However, she's also a card that I don't have any intention to cut at this point.

    Finally, we get to the removal suite. Removal spells are, by definition, sometimes useless. Therefore, I am including only a variety sampler of removal spells, and storing redundant copies in the sideboard. I have enough respect for Shops that even in its decline, I still maindeck an Ancient Grudge. I also include a Supreme Verdict and a Swords.

    As always, a control deck must be adjusted for an expected metagame. There is no "right" build of the deck. I've almost always tinkered with the build before playing it, hoping to tune it for today's metagame and not leaving it optimal against yesterday's metagame. This notion of constant change goes all the more for the sideboard. Don't just copy and paste what I'm doing. Take it and make it your own. I'm going to give you a few pointers, and help you understand my philosophy with the sideboard.

    First, respect Workshops in the sideboard. Even with Lodestone being less popular, I still bring in four hard artifact-removal spells and a Swords. This combines with the maindeck cards and large manabase to give a fairly positive Shops matchup. Second, the sideboard has to respect Dredge because the maindeck is weak against it. Dredge can beat us fairly quickly, and so I have eight graveyard-hate spells. Cards like Strip Mine (a fine sideboard choice) are at best marginal against Dredge. Having eight actual hate cards is a better approach, if you can spare the room. Since Dredge decks have taken to running Mental Misstep, I am avoiding one-mana hate. Tormod's Crypt is great with our large draw engine, because we can draw into it and cast it for free. Containment Priest serves as Oath hate as well as Dredge hate, and even when the opponent kills her, she takes all of the opponent's Bridges with her.

    Now we'e used up 13 of our sideboard slots. I consider being able to go up to 2 Supreme Verdicts important post-board. And for the final slot, I opted for Dromoka herself, which was instrumental in the finals. She is extremely powerful against Delver and Landstill, as well as various other decks that attack your life total. I didn't include any specific Storm hate, which turned out to be a reasonable metagame call. Ethersworn Canonist is a great one-of if you anticipate more Storm.

    Conclusion

    And so, that is Sylvan Mentor. The deck has been very strong for me, and I suspect that it will continue to be a top deck in this metagame for a while. If you like drawing cards, you might just like it too.


  • TMD Supporter

    Nice write-up. I like this deck a lot, and I'd probably even play it if I had the cards still.


  • Administrators

    You've been crushing it with this deck, I suspect people to be playing the list until they can't.



  • @Brass-Man said:

    You've been crushing it with this deck, I suspect people to be playing the list until they can't.

    God, I hope that is in two months...



  • @ChubbyRain ... because Chalice gets unrestricted... Oh I live in hope.



  • Fantastic write-up, Rich. Thanks for sharing.



  • is it actually worth running green just for library and friends? why not remora instead?

    why the lack of tops?

    thoughts on running library, especially in a 4 color deck? after all it is an awkward card with gush.

    how relevant is grudge today when shops is nonexistent online?



  • @mediumsteve said:

    is it actually worth running green just for library and friends? why not remora instead?

    Yes. Sylvan Library is deceptively powerful, Ancient Grudge and Nature's Claims are insane in the right matchups, and Dragonlord Dromoka was the reason Rich won game 2 in the finals against double Dread of Night. Remora is IMO not a very good card.

    why the lack of tops?

    They get countered by opposing Missteps, shut off by opposing Revokers, only generally draw 1 card, and are more mana intensive over the long run.

    thoughts on running library, especially in a 4 color deck? after all it is an awkward card with gush.

    The deck is a control deck designed to draw a large number of cards over a prolonged game. Gush is actually great with LoA as it allows you to reactivate LoA. Again, watch game 2 of the finals.

    how relevant is grudge today when shops is nonexistent online?

    Shops is not nonexistent, though obviously a bit on the downswing. In any case, the card also has a place against other artifact-based Blue decks. Watch the semifinals match for an example of how vulnerable those decks are to the 2 for 1 afforded by Ancient Grudge.


  • TMD Supporter

    @The-Atog-Lord said:

    No need for an entire book or anything.

    If you say so, Rich.

    Thanks for the great writeup!



  • thanks for the article. if you run green why not including a fastbond in the main? I get that misssteps are quite abundant at the moment but don't you think that it would still be worth to add it ?



  • Great write up, its great being able to see the thought behind the more control-style Mentor lists. Just one question: what is your general strategy for sideboarding in the mirror? It seems like Verdict and Plow are solid options, Dromoka possibly as well, but past the main deck Ancient Grudge I'm not sure what I should be taking out.


  • TMD Supporter

    Thanks once again for your contribution to our world with this kind of deep strategy thoughts that allow us all to go a little further in our game.



  • Was really hoping you would write about the deck and this primer is a fantastic read - thanks Rich and congratulations.

    I'd been following the iterations of your list with each new DE and it's good to be able to follow your reasoning. How would you weigh up the inclusion of that fourth Mentor? It had seemed, that by trying cards like Gideon and previously Dromoka in the main, the deck was looking for something of a trump in drawn-outs. Ultimately, is just having more Mentors the best trump?

    Also, I like the inclusion of a controlling two-drop in Erayo. But do you ever miss the inclusion of a bit of lifegain - especially with Dromoka also relegated to the sideboard?

    Anyway, fantastic deck, fantastic result. Look forward to trying the list out!



  • Did you think about propaganda or ghostly prison instead of supreme verdict?
    Should win the mentor mirror and should be very nice vs dredge (in addition to the traditionnal package)
    @artsncrofts : you should cut an island. beside this, removing 1 FoW is an option.



  • @ChubbyRain said:

    @mediumsteve said:

    is it actually worth running green just for library and friends? why not remora instead?

    Yes. Sylvan Library is deceptively powerful, Ancient Grudge and Nature's Claims are insane in the right matchups, and Dragonlord Dromoka was the reason Rich won game 2 in the finals against double Dread of Night. Remora is IMO not a very good card.

    I would prefer a good explanation of why remora is "not a very good card" when it is a 1 mana card that can either stop an opponent dead or draw multiple cards, in a deck that can easily pay the mana for it for multiple turns.

    Young Pyromancer can also win through Dread of Night and is not green.

    I suspect that Rich won because Rich is a skillful Vintage player, not because this list is optimal. I had the same theory about his "Odd Oath" list as well.



  • @mediumsteve I dunno. Watching his finals match, Rich was playing to his outs correctly the whole time. The key cards in the matchup were the uncounterable fatties - Supreme Verdict and Dromoka.

    The point was that he HAD outs to play to. Other than Dromoka, I'm not sure what he would have drawn that would have sealed the deal. Pyros? He would have run into the opponent's token swarm and not had the same clock post-wrath.



  • @mediumsteve Rich is a skillful player. Deck selection is a skill. He seemed to have a pretty good deck. He seems to think it's pretty good. I don't think you could ever say a thing is perfectly optimized, since that probably doesn't exist in the real world, but that weapon looked pretty well sharpened to me.



  • @mediumsteve said:

    I would prefer a good explanation of why remora is "not a very good card" when it is a 1 mana card that can either stop an opponent dead or draw multiple cards, in a deck that can easily pay the mana for it for multiple turns.

    It's a mana-intensive, misstepable, version of Standstill that your opponent can reasonably expect to wait out and doesn't stop your opponent from running out creatures in an increasingly creature-centric Vintage metagame.

    Young Pyromancer can also win through Dread of Night and is not green

    The Sylvan Mentor deck runs more lands, artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers than your typical Young Pyromancer deck, making it relatively worse in this shell and likely unable to race other Pyromancers and Delvers, which Dromoka can do by virtue of also having lifelink. While immune to Dread of Night, it is not immune to Illness in the Ranks, Virulent Plague, Moat effects, and counterspells.

    I suspect that Rich won because Rich is a skillful Vintage player, not because this list is optimal. I had the same theory about his "Odd Oath" list as well.

    Optimal? No list is optimal as each must exist in the context of a changing and regional metagame. Also, yes Rich is indeed a skillful Vintage player, as is Brian Kelly - the original creator. Don't you think skillful players such as these will gravitate towards the best decks over time? Rich has stuck with Sylvan Mentor basically since Restriction and I don't think he would have done so if he felt there were better options or more "optimal" lists out there.



  • Thanks for the great feedback, folks. And great responses, Matt.

    I'll go through some of the points here.

    Matt has already covered why I prefer Sylvan Library to Remora in this deck. And I do love Mystic Remora as a card -- just not in this metagame.

    Grudge remains worth running because as soon as we put away our Shops hate, Mishra will return. I don't want to get caught off guard by someone running a Shops deck into an unprepared field. So, the Grudge stays on. It's not like it is dead against a field where a lot of opponents are running a full set of Moxen.

    The manabase is scary-looking. When I first started playing this, I took Brian's four-color manabase down to 3 colors. But I realized that stretching the manabase for Red actually improved the Workshops matchup. After that, I haven't looked back.

    Regarding Fastbond -- I've run it before and it was strong. I prefer Sol Ring currently in that slot, but running Fastbond wouldn't be wrong. Fastbond is a higher-variance card than Sol Ring, but when it works it works really well.

    Tito is right -- the fourth Mentor is something of a flex slot. It could easily be Thing in the Ice, Gideon, Dromoka, or one of a number of other threats. Running the fourth Mentor has the most raw power, but at the same time it means you are even more vulnerable to further Mentor hate like Dread of Night.

    Propaganda is not nearly as good as Supreme Verdict. Propaganda doesn't protect your planeswalkers, can be removed, and can be fought through. The exception is the Dredge matchup; but I have eight full-on graveyard hate spells in the sideboard for that. MaximumCDawg is right that the uncounterable nature of Verdict is a huge factor in its power. I wouldn't be running Wrath of God if Verdict weren't printed.

    And finally, as Matt said, this list isn't optimal. Decks aren't generally optimal. But the deck is good, and I've been happy with how I've been tuning it.



  • well if you take the assumption that you're mostly going to be playing gush mirrors, which is what the metagame has devolved in to, I think remora > library. it's not Standstill, it's a one-sided Standstill. eventually you will draw into enough artifact sources to sustain it, find a mentor, and go off. if your opponent misses land drops, they have to start thinking about discarding or letting the opponent draw cards.

    once you remove the assumption that green is necessary you can continue to play your usual artifact hate in the board if need be.

    that's just my general opinion of the deck.



  • @mediumsteve I can see the remora player tapped out to pay his remora. you play mentor (which does not trigger remora). The Remora player has to stop playing with remora and get ride of the mentor. If not, mentor player can "go off" end of turn and end things on his turn...


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