The Mod Squad
Andy Probasco - 5th-8th place,
Power 9 Challenge, January 2017
Lock Pieces (14)
How about that Walking Ballista, huh?
I shouldn't need to tell you by now that Ballista is the real deal, but if you haven't been paying attention, it defined the January Power 9 event, and I strongly suspect it will define the meta until something new is printed or we see a B&R change.
I don't think it makes a lot of sense to write up a play-by-play, I streamed the event, and the entire video can still be watched on my Twitch highlights. Instead I thought I would write-up a little mini-primer on the deck, and why it looks the way it looks.
The day Aether Revolt became legal, I played in a local 20-person vintage event. I was positive to I wanted to play Workshops with 4 Walking Ballista, but I wasn't sure on the build. There are/were three primary Workshop Aggro builds coming into Aether Revolt, Cars, Thought-Knot Shops, and Inspector/Chief of the Foundry.
I decided to build off of an Inspector / Chief list I saw Montolio and i_b_true playing in vintage dailies. All three versions have merit, but I went with Inspector/Chief for the following reasons:
Inspectors and Chiefs have more synergy with Walking Ballista than Fleetwheel and Thought-Knot, so I figured it would give me more useful testing data.
Some of the lists were running Steel Overseer in the sideboard, which is a pet card of mine and also felt strong with Ballista.
The deck looked more resilient to Null Rods, which I knew would be present, and I assumed adding 4 Walking Ballista to a deck would make it weaker to Null Rod. More on this later.
You can't go wrong betting on Montolio
I cut 1 each of Inspector, Chief, Tangle Wire, and Sphere of Resistance to fit the 4 Walking Ballistae. Generally that kind of move is a bad idea when it comes to tuning a deck or sideboarding, but it can be useful if you're testing multiple new cards and don't know which interactions are strongest.
Basically everything in the deck impressed me. I won the tournament, and had a post-mortem on the ride home with Brian Schlossberg, who played a different 4x Walker shops build in the event. As we talked about the cards that over and underperformed for use, the pieces began to come together.
General Deck Philosophy
I'll dig a bit into this later, but this list has a strong focus on running cheaper spells to make early game tempo plays. This goes hand in hand with added consistency. All workshop decks are fairly redundant, but this list has the highest range of "lock piece + threat + enough mana to cast both" hands of any Shops list I've played.
The Null Rod Dilemma
Null Rod is a huge factor for deckbuilders right now, and predicting the amount of Null Rod in the metagame is going to be key for making decisions in the coming months. It would be fair to guess that adding Ballistae to every shops deck would make the archetype as a whole weaker against Null Rod, but so far results haven't borne that out. While Ballista can't throw counters around under a Null Rod, an X/X for XX is not dead against Null Rod, and most of the time ends up better than Triskelion was.
In my experience the weakest Workshop Aggro deck against Null Rod are Car shops lists, with high cost threats that can't be crewed through Null Rod (though sometimes the one Null Rod-proof attack with Fleetwheel Crusier can be pivotal). On the other end of the spectrum, the newer Chief of the Foundry/Foundry Inspector lists are quite strong against Null Rods, even ones running 4 Arcbound Ravager and 4 Walking Ballista. This list is somewhere in the middle.
I've yet to lose to a game with a 4x Ballista deck where my opponent played a Null Rod, though this is a pretty small sample of about 5 tournament matches. The pattern is pretty consistent though. The player with Null Rod, often facing down lock pieces of mine, spends a lot of time and mana playing the card - which either shuts off their own artifacts as well, or precludes them running artifact mana at all, which is otherwise generally strong against Workshop strategies. In response to the Rod, a Ravager or Ballista on my side of the table responds by getting large or picking off a key blocker, and the Workshop deck is able to get there with vanilla creatures in the extra time it stole. In practice Phyrexian Revoker has been a bigger problem than Null Rod has. In particular, Null Rods out of Mentor decks usually aren't coming down until turn 3 or 4 through Spheres, and by then even a Steel Overseer can do something relevant. A turn one Null Rod out of Eldrazi can be much scarier, but if you can follow up with Spheres or Wastelands of your own, you can buy a lot of time for your cheaper creatures to get in there. The Foundry Inspectors out of the sideboard go a long way in games like this.
Of course, there are hands (particularly those with Overseer), that are weak to Null Rod. I have absolutely played games that I would probably have lost if my opponent had Null Rod at just the right time, but didn't.
Due to the adoption of anti-Null Rod Chief/Foundry shops, and the increased presence of Shops in general making Paradoxical Outcome worse, I expect Null Rod to hold steady or drop a bit, even though it hits Walking Ballista. This deck feels to me in a sweet spot between Null Rod counterstrategies, and powerful anti-aggro activated abilities - exactly where I want a shops list to be right now
If that prediction doesn't hold, and Null Rod continues to rise in popularity, it would make sense to alter the deck to be more resilient against the card, probably approaching the Chief/Inspector lists. If Null Rod became entirely ubiquitous, it would probably make more sense to drop the list entirely for Mentor, or to play a far more specialized Workshop build. On the other hand if Null Rod dropped out of the metagame entirely, I still like the deck, but it does make cards like Fleetwheel Cruiser a lot less risky, and therefore tempting. In the unlikely event that people continue to move to decks that are weaker and weaker against Rod, without Rod itself becoming more popular, there's probably a case for a Chief/Inspector list with its own maindeck Null Rods ... which opens itself up to slower Mentor decks, and the great wheel of the metagame keeps spinning!
Consistency basically always comes as a trade for power or explosiveness. An early Fleetwheel Cruiser puts a lot of pressure on quickly, and the trample can reduce your opponents options for good blocks dramatically. A Thought-Knot Seer disrupts the opponent on a non-mana axis, and is naturally immune to Hurkyl's Recall and Dack Fayden, and a quick Reality Smasher gives an opponent almost no time to react. These draws don't happen as often as a turn 1 Steel Overseer, but they're not exactly rare, and when they hit, they hit harder. Still, with most blue decks packing huge numbers of Swords to Plowshares these days, the expensive haymaker cards really aren't much scarier than a Ravager, and going wide with a few 1/1 Servos can actually be harder to answer than a 5/5 Reality Smasher. Still, you lose the opportunity for putting on heavy early life-total pressure with a single card - your Lotus is probably worse than theirs is.
While under the right circumstances, the threats in this list can be quite fast together (I managed to attack for 20 on turn 3 in a vintage daily), on their own they're definitely slower than Cruisers and Smashers. If the metagame shifted in a way where reach became a lot less important than life-total pressure (e.g. if shops and Eldrazi dropped in popularity), cards like Animation Module make a lot less sense.
In non-blue matchups, higher cost threats can be even more devastating, and they're less likely to be removed. Ideally, your cheap threats come out underneath a back-and-forth flurry of mana denial, and over a few turns become strong enough to handle your opponent's 6-drop threats. But if you don't get a few turns, a topdecked Steel Overseer might not be fast enough to answer a Wurmcoil Engine - doubly so if your opponent lands some well-timed Revokers. Basically, if your haymaker-driven opponent has 2 more Mishra's Workshops than you have Wastelands, you're going to be in a lot of trouble. Being on the play with a Mana Crypt or Black Lotus really rewards you for running more expensive cards - and while you can capitalize on those draws with a large Hangarback Walker, a 3/3 Walker on turn 1 or 2 is really not as good as a Skysovereign or Precursor Golem.
So far in my experience, not enough games open that way to be concerned, and even when they do, a well-timed Dismember can save you. If you can hold off just a few turns, sometimes that unexciting Walking Ballista teams up with a Ravager or an Overseer and ends up being able to handle those 6-drops just fine.
Creatures and Mana Curves
Walking Ballista is an upgrade over Triskelion, but it's more than that. The 6 CMC on Triskelion had always prevented me from wanting to run more than 2, especially in competition with cards like Wurmcoil Engine and Duplicant, but Walking Ballista is an easy 4-of for me.
Obviously a 2 cost card is easier to cast than a 3 cost card, but the differences aren't linear. Decks have their own sweet spots, and it's important to look at what kind of spells you want at different points in the game. There's a game-state pattern that comes up a lot in Workshop Aggro. In most matchups you want to keep mana pressure on the entire game, and that usually means playing a Sphere on turn 1, and follow it quickly with Strip-effects, Tangle Wires or additional Spheres. That means there's often a window early where have an extra 2 mana on turn 1 or 2 (Workshop+Mox being the most common), but won't have an extra 3+ mana until turn 5 or 6. Making a 3 drop a lot more costly than a 2 drop.
Consider a pretty average opening hand with Workshop, Wasteland, Sphere of Resistance, "Threat". In a matchup against an unknown opponent, it's safest to lead with the Sphere, and in many cases you're going to want to follow that up with a Wasteland on turn 2. At this point you can play your threat if it costs 2 or less, but not if it costs 3 or more. If your draws include more Wastelands or Spheres or Tangle Wires, there's a chance you're not playing a 3 drop for a little while. If your draws DON'T include Ancient Tombs or Workshops, there's a chance you wouldn't be able to play a 4 drop (especially the Thorn-sensitive Fleetwheel Cruiser or the Workshop-sensitive Thought-Knot Seer) for a long while. If your opponent has their own Wastelands, you might never get that chance.
So two-drops are important in Shops. But they're not so important that it's worth running a bad card over a good one. Porcelain Legionnaire was solid in some metagames, but loses some of its lustre when Triskelions roam the earth, and Thought-Knot is more common than Lodestone Golem. Steel Overseer is an aggro-mirror sideboard card, that's a little too slow to justify running in large numbers. While there were certainly players that liked to run 4x Arcbound Ravager, I was always uncomfortable running more than 3, if that, I tend to see the card as a game-two anti-removal/Dack Fayden card than a true threat in it's own right.
Four Ballistae suddenly changes the value of all of these cards. The 4th Ravager is an easy sell, and it didn't take many games to figure out that the Overseer/Walker synergy I thought would be "cute" was actually just strong. Legionnaire goes from medium to unplayable, but the count of quality 2 drop threats still rose drastically, from 7-8 to 16. This, of course, has other repercussions, which we'll talk about later.
There's nothing notable about the cards in this list, every Workshop deck is running some combination of these cards, and plenty max out on them like I have. Some of my recent workshops lists haven't run all 14 though, (usually only running 1-2 Sphere of Resistance), and even in lists that run them all, it's usually a tradeoff.
Running such a low curve makes it a lot less painful to run as many Spheres as you can. Between Ballista, Walker, and Module, you have a lot of things to do with mana that aren't affected by Spheres or Wires, which is an added bonus. Overseer gives you something relevant to do in a turn where you're spending all of your mana playing another Lock piece, and Module or Hangarback Walker are great at using up the odd mana you have left over at the end of turn. Workshop decks in general are "a pile of cards that are synergistic with Sphere of Resistance", but this list is even MORE synergistic, for whatever that's worth.
All Workshop decks share a lot in common, and building one isn't terribly complex.
4 Mishra's Workshop
3-4 Ancient Tomb
5 Strip effects
6-8 Artifact Mana
If you're not starting with that, there's a good chance you're doing something wrong. I also suspect that the addition of Walking Ballista to the format adds Tolarian Academy to this list.
For this list I wanted the full set of accelerants - all the Tombs and all the artifacts mana. Basically every Workshop deck wants to guarantee they can play a 2 drop on turn 1, but this deck has so many 2s that hitting 4 mana early is very relevant as well. I've had Ancient Tomb deal massive damage to me before, but I don't think it outweighs how good the card is.
If you've decided to max out on all the accelerants, you're basically left with 4 lands in a 26 source deck. Thought-Knot lists can use this to run Eldrazi Temple, or you can fit in powerful utility cards like or Karakas, Ghost Quarter, or Inventor's Fair. My choice to run Mishra's Factory here isn't exactly groundbreaking, Factory is probably the most common card in this slot. It's common for a reason though, and the added synergy with Ravagers and Overseers was too good for me to pass up.
Perhaps notable, perhaps not, while I tend to think of 26 sources as the standard count for a Workshop deck, my lower-than-average curve made me feel comfortable only running 25, hence the 3 Mishra's Factory, rather than 4. Obviously this isn't a dramatic difference, but I think a similar list could get away with even less.
The deck's namesake, alongside Ravager's modular mechanic. No doubt, this looks like a gimmicky card and when I first started playing with it, I expected it to be. My original goal was to build a Servo-centric deck to play on stream in between tournament matches. I quickly realized it was a lot stronger than I had predicted.
Cards that look like this are usually bad. Consider Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek, a pretty reasonable analog. Neither card is dead on it's own, but you're not excited to draw one without the other. When you assemble them both you get a neat interaction, something that gives you a big edge, but doesn't necessarily operate at Vintage scale - Thopter tokens will win a game where both players have average hands, but they won't beat a good hand that has Paradoxical Outcome or Monastery Mentor. Compare it to Time Vault/Voltaic Key and it comes up short, you need a really good effect to justify running cards that are sometimes dead, and Vault/Key doesn't even see the play it used to.
Animation Module is definitely a Thopter-quality effect, and not a Time Vault-quality effect. The reason it works out is that you're not filling your deck with Swords of the Meek. Every card that works well with Animation Module is a card I wanted to be running anyway. You're not sad to draw Ravager if you don't have a Module, but the deck has so many cards that interact with Module, you're not sad draw it without a Ravager, either! Multiple Modules are not dead, but not exciting, either - but I've definitley kept lock-heavy hands with Module and no creatures and been happy with it ... you're going to draw a card that works with Module before the game ends, and you're going to have a little more reach because of it.
Even given the sheer volume of synergy, I don't think I'd be running Module if it didn't cost 1. Remember everything I said about 2 drops earlier? This applies far more to 1 drops, it's just that there aren't a lot of good 1 drops for Workshop decks. It is so common to have 1 mana floating on the first turn, that Animation Module is almost always a freeroll. A Workshop, or an Ancient Tomb with a Mox give you a very pleasing curve of "Turn 1: Module+Sphere, Turn 2: Threat + Servo + (Wasteland or Land + Threat). With nine 2-drops that come into play with counters, this isn't particularly hard to pull off.
When the deck is working, you get out threats that get scarier over time, you get them in play before opposing Wastelands can do any real damage, and you free up your mana for lock pieces and activated abilities. If and when your opponent manages to cast anything scary of their own, Animation Module gives your team the reach to beat it.
There's nothing particularly special about the 1x Hangarback Walker here, I wanted another Ravager/Overseer/Module synergy card and Hangarback was the next best card I wasn't running. If another slot freed up somehow, I'd add another. If I had to cut a card, it would be the first to go.
Sideboard: Foundry Inspector
In a vintage-timescale Foundry Inspector is a fairly new card to show up in Workshop decks. There's a good chance you've seen it around by now though. There are different use-cases for the card, but in my experience I've found it strongest in matchups where my opponent has Wastelands and/or Null Rods.
There are times it acts as an accelerant - with a 4 mana hand it's a psuedo-2-drop, you can play it, and then a Sphere, and then your second turn play out more than you would otherwise. In a deck with more 3s and 4s, like the Chief/Inspector lists, this might be worth a maindeck by itself, but with the overall low curve in this list, that's less important for me - I can play 2 cards on turn 1 and 2 without using an Inspector.
The ability to counteract a Wasteland, Null Rod, or Sphere without spending a turn ignoring my board presence, however, is very attractive in the matchups that revolve around those cards.
Sideboard: Null Rod
Obviously this deck has a lot of cards that get turned off by Null Rod. Still, there are popular matchups right now, notably Car Shops and Paradoxical Outcome, that get hurt enough by Null Rod that you end up ahead by bringing them in. Don't just swap these in without thought. If you're bringing in Null Rod, you're probably bringing in Foundry Inspector as well, and you're cutting some artifacts with activated abilities. Don't cut everything out of desperation though - Null Rod won't be in play every game, every turn, and Walking Ballista still scales based on your mana. Arcbound Ravager can be surprisingly effective if it comes out before Null Rod hits, it still has Modular, and you get to eat up those soon-to-be-dead Moxes in response.
Even if the metagame became weaker to Null Rod, I wouldn't add more to the sideboard or maindeck of this list without changing some of the other cards around.
Mulligans and early game considerations
None of this should be surprising to a Workshops player. What you're looking for against an unknown opponent is 2-3 lock pieces (at least one of which is not a Wasteland), 2 threats, 2-3 mana, and that mana has to be enough to play a lock piece on turn 1, and a lock piece or threat on turn 2.
Against a known aggro opponent (Workshops / Eldrazi), you want 3-ish threats and the mana to cast them, lock pieces are nice but not critical. Against a known non-aggro opponent (Mentor / Outcome) you want 3-ish lock pieces and at least 1 threat.
If you don't have a turn one play and you still have 6 or 7 cards in your hand, mulligan. Once you hit five, I honestly don't know.
Walking Ballista + Arcbound Ravager
Sacrifice some artifacts to Ravager, sacrifice the Ravager and modular those +1/+1 counters over to Ballista, and throw them at whatever you want. If you can attack unblocked (or move the counters from ravager to an unblocked Ballista mid-combat, hint hint), you'll hit them for that damage twice. 10 artifacts in play? Take 20.
People have been doing this with Triskelion for years, but now you can do it for a lot less mana.
Animation Module + Arcbound Ravager
Sacrifice any artifact to Ravager, pay 1 to make a Servo token. Sacrifice the Servo token to Ravager, pay 1 to make a Servo token. Repeat as often as you want to give Ravager a +1/+1 counter for each mana you pay. Terrifying for your opponent whether or not you've drawn a Ballista yet.
Animation Module + Steel Overseer
Module triggers once for every creature that gets a counter, so with Steel Overseer you'll double the number of creatures you have each turn, up to the amount of colorless mana you have.
Animation Module + Ballista, Hangarback
Less exciting, but still good over time. Activate Animation Module for 3+1 to add a counter and get a Servo. With a Hangarback you can get 2 counters and 2 Servos each turn. Walking Ballista + Animation Module won't get out of hand under normal circumstances, but if you happen to have an Academy, things get ugly fast
Animation Module + Tangle Wire
This hasn't come up for me, and I suspect it's rare that you'd want to, but Module can be used to keep a Tangle Wire alive forever. You can respond to the trigger on your own upkeep to add counters before your mana is tapped down. I suspect this could be strong if you had something else to do on your upkeep before tapping your board down, like activating an Overseer or Hangarback Walker.
The fact that Animation Module is a 1-drop permanent that works while it's tapped can be pretty handy with a Tangle Wire out, too.
Animation Module + Null Rod
Not exactly synergy, but an interaction worth knowing. The Servo-generating ability on Animation Module is triggered, which means it works under a Null Rod. Null Rod turns off most of your ways of adding counters to things, but you can still get one Servo every time you play a Ravager, Walking Ballista, or Hangarback Walker.
I haven't tested this yet, but Metallic Mimic + Animation Module combos off entirely under Null Rod - Cast a Ravager or Walker to start things off, then pay X mana to get X 2/2 Servos. Not backbreaking, but possibly worth keeping in mind.
Mishra's Factory + Ravager, Overseer
Not new to this deck but often overlooked. Ravager and Overseer can both put counters on Mishra's Factory which don't go away when it turns back into a land. Where this can give you a big edge is matchups where the opponent wants to do something powerfully anti-creature or anti-artifact on their turn. Factory and +1/+1 counters, if timed correctly, can turn certain defeat into a victory against a Serenity, Pulverize, or Oath of Druids.
-2x Steel Overseer
-1x Animation Module
+1 Spatial Contortion
I've tried a lot of anti-mentor stuff, but Dismember is consistently "alright" and everything else I've tried have been consistently "bad". Mentor being sideboard-resistant is one of the reasons the deck is so strong - so it's best not to hurt your maindeck trying to get too clever. Spatial Contortion acts as a 3rd Dismember here, because casting 3 Dismember in the same game will kill you. I would consider fitting a 2nd Contortion in the board, but there's definitely a diminishing return on removal against Mentor decks.
If you see or strongly suspect Stony Silence/Null Rod, you can also:
-1x Animation Module
-2x Steel Overseer
+3 Foundry Inspector
Most Mentor+Rod lists these days have 2ish Stony Silence and run the Swords to Plowshares/Fragmentize+Snapcaster/JVP plan. The presence of Dack Fayden could make Hangarback worse than Overseer/Module, and if my opponent had 4+ Null Rod effects it could make sense to drop some artifact mana over a creature or two. Opposing Wastelands probably make Crucible better than the last Animation Module.
-4 Thorn of Amethyst
-3 Tangle Wire
on the draw:
-1 Chalice of the Void
on the play:
-1 Tangle Wire
-1 Sphere of Resistance
+3 Crucible of Worlds
+3 Foundry Inspector
+1 Spatial Contortion
I like keeping Spheres around because the mana curve is so low to the ground. Your aggro-mirror cards all cost 1 and 2 rather than the 5s and 6s you often see in Workshop mirrors. Foundry Inspector plays into this plan, by providing an extra threat, but also smoothing out your mana in games where either player is heavy on Wastelands or lock pieces.
Your activated abilities are so good here that I don't think I would board them out even if the Eldrazi player was on Null Rods. You could drop a piece of artifact mana to fit in another Sphere/Wire if you wanted, but I'd be cautious about doing any more than that.
+2 Null Rods
+3 Foundry Inspector
-3 Animation Module
-1 Hangarback Walker
-1 Steel Overseer
Module/Overseer is just way too slow here, and obviously bringing in Null Rods isn't doing them any favors. Inspector isn't particularly good in this matchup, but it's better than what you're taking out. Your goal here is just to throw down lock pieces and never let up, sometimes Inspector lets you get a threat on the table without slowing down the mana pressure, and this is matchup where a 3/2 now is better than a 5/5 later.
-1 Hangarback Walker
-3 Steel Overseer
+4 Grafdigger's Cage
Steel Overseer and Hangarback Walkers are the only creatures in the deck don't either count as a lock piece themselves, or sacrifice themselves at a moment's notice if an Oath comes down. This matchup needs more testing, as Oath isn't very popular online.
-4 Phyrexian Revoker
+4 Grafdigger's Cage
Four cards is pretty small for an anti-dredge package, and I would consider running more in a different metagame. The maindeck here is pretty strong game 1 though, with 5 Strip effects, all the Spheres, and 9 Bridge-Busters. If you drop a Sphere to hold off Dread Return, your creatures should be able to handle quite a few Zombies, Prized Amalgams, and Ichorids.
These decks vary a bit much to have a hard and fast rule, you have to try and get a feel for what they might be running in game one. If Crucible looks like it would be good for them, it's good for you. If they have Null Rods, you want Inspectors. If there are creatures that you can't beat without Dismember, run Dismember.
Post-Event Updates and Conclusions
This feels sacrilegious to type but I have mixed feelings about Crucible of Worlds. Historically Crucible is a huge asset in Shops vs Shops and Shops vs Eldrazi. Unexpectedly, in the games I've played where a Crucible came into play (on either side of the table), it was just too slow to matter. I suspect that Workshops matches are become increasingly about tempo, and that one turn spent playing Crucible, not affecting the board, is getting more and more costly. Crucible has such a strong history that I don't want to be too hasty, but I'm definitely planning on trying other anti-aggro cards in that slot.
I'm very curious about running Metallic Mimic alongside the Animation Module as a further hedge against Null Rod, but I would guess there are some serious consistency issues there, and little space to fit it.
It's hard to predict where the meta will go from here. The recent trend of 4-8 Swords to Plowshares effects makes Thought Knot Seer and Fleetwheel Cruiser a less exciting bargain, but Fragmentize, which is also gaining popular, is less great against either. I expect increased presence of Workshop aggro, and I like this list's position against those decks. Of course, more Workshops means more decks built with resilient manabases and answers to large artifacts, which changes the value of everything in one direction or the other. In the near-term, I think the adoption or falling-off of Null Rod is going to have the biggest impact on how people build Workshop decks.