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.
1 Sol Ring
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
2 Flooded Strand
2 Misty Rainforest
2 Scalding Tarn
1 Polluted Delta
2 Tropical Island
2 Volcanic Island
1 Library of Alexandria
4 Force of Will
4 Mental Misstep
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Dig Through Time
2 Gitaxian Probe
2 Sylvan Library
1 Time Walk
1 Treasure Cruise
1 Snapcaster Mage
1 Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
2 Dack Fayden
4 Monastery Mentor
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Ancient Grudge
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Swords to Plowshares
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.
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.