A Vintage Year in Review

Posted in Feature on January 4, 2005

By Stephen Menendian

The Vintage format (also referred to by its older name, "Type 1") has undergone an important transformation this year. Last year it rose from the ashes, and now it has become part of something one can only describe as the Vintage PTQ Circuit. What does this mean and what can we learn from Vintage in 2004? Read on.

For some time Vintage was widely regarded as a dead format. In recognition of the format's resurgent popularity, Wizards decided to add a Vintage Championship at Gencon. This year was another important step in the development of the format. Star City Games and a few other bold individuals like Ray Robillard hosted tournaments across the United States that attracted hundreds of players because of their attractive prize structure. The tournament scene has grown and there are important strategic consequences that follow.

Before this year, the idea in Vintage was to find the best deck and play that deck at every tournament. There were two reasons for this. First, the card pool is so deep, the theory went, that there was almost always going to be "one best deck" and anything else was just second best. Second, there really wasn't a metagame, as such. Aside from Origins, Gencon, and the online metagame, Vintage tournaments were mostly local store events, with no trend or top 8 that one could point to nationally as defining the format. New decks were emerging, slowly but surely, but people generally didn't change what they played – they just tweaked.

That has all changed.

In this article I'm going to trace the shifts in the Vintage metagame over the past year and suggest what this will mean for the next year. With such clearly defined metagame roles and shifts (as you will see) there is a lot that can be learned about this format simply by looking back on how we got here.

Generally speaking, there are two things that drive change in Vintage more than anything else: new card sets and restrictions. New sets create brand new decks that the existing field must contend with. Restrictions generally remove decks from the format and as a result transform the whole metagame landscape and dynamic. As 2004 opened up, both types of changes dramatically altered Vintage.

Mirrodin

Mirrodin Block In Vintage

Mirrodin Block hit Vintage. Hard. Mirrodin itself was the benchmark, adding no less than twenty playable cards to the format. Many of the cards have become entire new decks like Mindslaver and Goblin Charbelcher. Others are just great utility, like Platinum Angel in Oath or Duplicant in Workshop Aggro. In other cases, they are all-purpose hosers like Chalice of the Void or Damping Matrix. In my opinion, Mirrodin hasn't even fully had its impact felt. I believe Skullclamp will continue to grow in popularity, first in Kobold-Clamp decklists abusing Glimpse of Nature and secondly in Mike Long's Vintage Suicide Virus deck which uses Artificer's Intuition to recur Myr Servitors, which you clamp to generate tremendous card advantage.

At the beginning of 2004, with just Mirrodin released, the struggle was to find the best way to abuse it. Almost immediately, two variants of Mindslaver decks emerged: one used Mana Drain and the other used Mishra's Workshop. In the end, the Mana Drain build is still popular and quite successful, while Mishra's Workshop found a more comfortable home in other decks. Although both Control decks, the Mana Drain variant is commonly referred to as Control Slaver and the Workshop deck is known as Workshop Slaver.

Control Slaver

This deck first appeared in the German "Dülmen," in which over a hundred players compete in a monthly tournament held at a store called "Trader." The deck was later popularized in the United States by Rich Shay (who, incidentally, finished in the money at Pro Tour Columbus and did quite well at Nationals this year). This list was to become a major hit over 2004, eventually winning the Vintage Championship at Gencon. The deck basically played like a Control deck with a combo finish. It would counter your spells with Mana Drain and Force of Will and then draw cards with Thirst for Knowledge, a new draw engine. It would then try to get Goblin Welder to weld in a discarded Mindslaver and start recurring the Mindslaver enough times until it could find Pentavus to create an infinite Mindslaver lock. At that point, the deck would generally win with Pentavite tokens or, frankly, however it wanted.

Workshop Slaver

This decklist played very similarly to the German build, but instead would accelerate out with Gilded Lotus and Mishra's Workshop to achieve the same Mindslaver lock. The difference is that it was playing with more fun restricted cards to achieve that goal more quickly.

Perhaps the most important thing to happen to the metagame as of January 1, 2004 was the restriction of Burning Wish and Lion's Eye Diamond. Very rarely does the DCI find something so abhorrent that it feels it necessary to restrict two parts to the deck. Well, that is precisely what happened to Long.dec. Randy Beuhler talked about the deck in his article on the bannings, Classic Developments.

Simply put, this deck was designed to win on turn one or two by casting Burning Wish (finding Yawgmoth's Will in the sideboard) while sacrificing Lion's Eye Diamond in response to pay for the Yawgmoth's Will. The Yawgmoth's Will would then permit you to replay the Lion's Eye Diamond, which would hopefully permit you to cast Tendrils of Agony. Since the Lion's Eye Diamond, Burning Wish, and Yawgmoth's Will combo costs four spells (you play the LED twice), you are halfway toward lethal storm at the same time. This is often how Long would play out, assuming a normal turn two kill:

Turn One:

Gemstone Mine, Brainstorm.

Turn Two:

Play a City of Brass.
Tap the City of Brass for black to play Dark Ritual. Play Duress. Storm Count 2.
Play Lion's Eye Diamond. Storm Count 3 and floating.
Play Mox (of any color, let's say Mox Emerald). Storm Count 4.
Tap the Gemstone Mine and the Mox and play Burning Wish. In response, sacrifice the Lion's Eye Diamond for discarding your hand, including Tendrils of Agony. floating and storm count 5.
Retrieve Yawgmoth's Will from the Sideboard and play it leaving floating. Storm Count 6 and floating.
Replay Dark Ritual. Replay Lion's Eye Diamond and sacrifice it for Blue. floating and Storm Count 8.
Replay Duress, leaving floating.
Replay Brainstorm, leaving floating. Storm Count 10.
Now play that Tendrils from your graveyard for 22 points of damage.

A Sign of Things to Come - January, 2004

The first major tournament of the year was the Waterbury. The Waterbury is a quarterly tournament held in Waterbury, Connecticut by the esteemed Raymond Robillard. Ray has steadily built up a player base over the course of the last two years and now he regularly breaks one-fifty. He rents out a major hotel ballroom, and this time 192 players came to compete in the first major US tournament of the year. This, to date, was the largest Vintage tournament in the US probably since the format has been called "Vintage".

Metagame Going In

The northeast is renown for being control heavy. Long.dec, at its peak, was barely seen out there. Workshop decks are as scarce. The best players play Mana Drain Control decks – that means lots of Keeper (very heavy control) and Landstill (a control deck that uses Standstill and manlands) variants. To be honest, the real concern in that field was how well Worldgorger Dragon combo would perform.

With Long.dec out of the format, the metagame was almost entirely Aggro, Aggro-Control, and Control and a reconstituted GroAtog deck played by Scott Limoges sounded the opening volley into the Vintage New Year.

GroAtog

This decklist was reconstituted with Accumulated Knowledge. The most dominant deck of 2003 was 4-Gush GroAtog in terms of the number of players it put into top 8s. It was as a result of this deck ancestor that Gush was restricted. This deck was slower, but proved it was still potent at growing massive Quiron Dryads.

Take a look at the Semi-Finalist decklist:

T1 Dumptruck

The top 8 was:

  1. GroATog
  2. DumpTruck
  3. Workshop Slavery
  4. Bazaar of Baghdad Stompy (mono green Madness)
  5. Landstill
  6. Bazaar of Baghdad Stompy
  7. Psychatog
  8. Tools ‘N Tubbies (Workshop Aggro With Survival of the Fittest – hence, "Tools")

As you can see, this field is composed entirely of Aggro, Control, and Aggro-Control with the only two Aggro-Control decks to make top 8 placing first and second. The one commonality the two winning decklists had is that they were aggro-control. Aggro-Control was the touchstone of this tournament as it beat both Aggro and Control. The northeast has historically been characterized as lovers of Control. As a result, the Northeast metagame tends to split into Aggro designed to beat control and Control decks. GroAtog and EBA were good choices because they beat both archetypes. These two Aggro-Control decks managed not only to do that, but they beat all the other aggro-control decks in the field. You might be curious how Quirion Dryads and Exalted Angel could best aggro? Both GroAtog and Dumptruck play as tempo decks in Vintage. They counter to buy time and finish you off before you can win first. Exalted Angel is quite powerful at reversing the beatdown player's plan by gaining life while it is killing you. Dragon was heavily hated out because everyone had Tormod's Crypts in their sideboard.

This tournament doesn't really tell us much about how the format will shape out the rest of the year because of the heavy metagame distortions of the Northeast: few Mishra's Workshop, lots of Aggro decks, and a tremendous amount of blue based control. But that isn't surprising. Look at the tournament data from January in 2004 on Dr. Phil Stanton's charts over at Star City Games and you will see an unpredictable grab bag of winners. The metagame was in flux and lacked national coherence.

The importance of the Waterbury is that it set the tone for the rest of the year in terms of tournament size. Vintage continues to add players at an astonishing rate.

The Best Kept Secret - February, 2004

A little February tournament in Columbus, Ohio had shockwaves that are still reverberating. Michael Simister played in a field of twenty with a new Goblin Charbelcher deck running on two land.

2 Land Belcher

 

Goblin Charbelcher
How does this thing work? Quite simply, it tries to play Goblin Charbelcher and kill you as soon as possible. That's why it only has two lands. The pilot may well have played Land Grant to find one of them. The hope is that by activating the Goblin Charbelcher, they will be able to do 20 damage before seeing the other.

The deck might play like this:

Remove Elvish Spirit Guide from game to play Tinder Wall. Play Mox Pearl. Tap Mox Pearl to play Chromatic Sphere. Sacrifice Tinder Wall for . Tap and activate Chromatic Sphere for blue mana. Draw a card. Play Brainstorm. Now play Land Grant finding Bayou. Tap Bayou for black mana. Play Dark Ritual. Play Goblin Charbelcher. If they counter it, then you can use the remaining red mana to play Goblin Welder. Hopefully by now you'll have enough mana to activate the Belcher.

In the United States, this deck would virtually disappear until mid summer. The Germans were much quicker. Team CAB rode this monster to first place at the very next Dülman. They made two or three card changes and started putting up unbelievable numbers. Goblin Charbelcher is a very interesting deck. The deck goldfishes (wins without an opponent) an amazing amount of times on turn one, and nearly every other game on turn two. However, the deck has serious consistency problems and is easily disrupted. Nonetheless, Simister had his revenge by getting third place at the Vintage Championship by winning in a field of Force of Will and Trinisphere – no small feat and a testament to the creator's skill with the monster.

The Return and Demise of the Tog

 

Psychatog
By late March, Psychatog was cleaning up. Psychatog was the most successful tournament deck in the United States and Europe at this time. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the Psychatog deck might have "strategic superiority" over most of the other Vintage strategies. Psychatog was a huge wall against Aggro decks. Yet it was a wall that would turn into a vicious killer at the drop of a hat. The tog player might be holding back the Tog only to have drawn that needed Gush and suddenly the Tog has lethal damage with the simple play of Cunning Wish for Berserk. Tog had a stronger card draw engine than any other Vintage deck with the Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge engine. Tog was potent against Aggro, Control and Aggro-Control. The Tog was bigger than any beatdown creature. Psychatog needed no utility or answers because the Psychatog was defense and offense. As a result, it had no dead cards in the control mirrors. In combination with the best card advantage engine in the format, Tog had little trouble dispatching Control mirrors.

Now the metagame seemed to be coalescing. Psychatog was clearly the prime target. But what would be the answer?

Rich Shay believed that Control Slaver was the answer. Mindslaving someone with Psychatog is truly a brutal thing to do. You not only discard their hand, but you remove their hand and graveyard from the game. On March 20th, Rich Shay clawed his way to first place on the back of a few broken Psychatog bones.

Andy Stokinger, hoping to emulate the success of Ray Robillard, put up multiple pieces of "power" (AKA "The Power Nine" – Black Lotus, the Moxes, Ancestral Recall, etc.) for prizes at Newington, Connecticut to draw out nearly a hundred and fifty players. Here's what shook down:

The Top 8:

  1. Control Slaver piloted by Rich Shay
  2. U/G Fish
  3. Psychatog
  4. Control Slaver
  5. Rector Trix
  6. Food Chain Goblins,
  7. Dragon
  8. Food Chain Goblins

Three decks here made Top 8 on the strength of their argument that they beat Psychatog. Rich Shay managed to take the first, but not his last, win with Control Slaver at a major tournament. This persistence of Rich with this deck would have ramifications that would be felt throughout the year.

With this tournament, we also get our first hint of how good Fish might be. Take a look at the 2nd place decklist:

Worse Than Fish.dec

This decklist marks the beginning of a trend that would continue throughout most of the year. Cheap beats, efficient counters, and Null Rod proves to be a strong archetype. It would be some time before we would fully understand Fish's true power and place in the metagame.

By April, everyone wanted a piece of the Tog. Food Chain Goblins, it was claimed, would beat Psychatog and had good matchups against many other matchups. This extended import certain made its impact:

Goblin Chains

For an extensive explanation of how to play this deck, you can read a detailed primer here.

Food Chain Goblins was ascendant! At the next Waterbury (150+ players), in the same month, there were over four Food Chain Goblins decks in the Top 8, including the winner.

Two other decks are worth mentioning. A revised and retooled combo deck was beginning a long climb upward in Europe: The Perfect Storm. This deck was designed to beat Control and did it quite well. This deck would continue to put up numbers the rest of the year, but was never quite be able to win the big tournaments in the US the way it was in Europe.

The Perfect Storm

You might be curious, where are the Mishra's Workshop decks? If you've been paying attention to Vintage in the last six months, you know that Mishra's Workshop is a hot button topic. However, before April, Workshop decks that weren't built around Mindslaver weren't putting up any numbers. Trinisphere is the card that brings Mishra's Workshop back into the fold.

Trinistax Pre-

Despite a number of high profile tournaments with the results that I just cited, we weren't at the point yet where we could say that a Vintage metagame was developing on a national scale. The only constant was a constant attack on Psychatog. Psychatog was holding back other multi-color control decks from doing well. As a result, two trends started at the same time:

The Rise of Fish and Four Color Control

Star City announced a trophy and power to players who would attend the East Coast Championship, to be held in Washington D.C. with Grand Prix D.C in April. This tournament signaled the beginning of a long tournament season that would end with the Star City Games Power Nine Tournament III, Chicago.

90 Players showed up. Something around 20 of them were playing the Workshop Slaver list. Workshop Slaver had just been publicized as one of the decks to play and as a result, everyone came prepared to beat it or play it.

Star City Games East Coast Championship Top 8:

  1. U/R Fish
  2. Psychatog
  3. Worldgorger Dragon Combo
  4. The 7/10 Split
  5. Psychatog
  6. Landstill
  7. Psychatog
  8. U/R Fish

The most important feature of this tournament is that Marc Perez won the tournament with U/R Fish. This was the first trophy of the season that Fish would take home, but not the last. It would be some time before we'd learn our lesson. The top was mostly Tog, Fish, Dragon and a new breakout deck: the 7/10 split. Despite the overpowering numbers of Workshop Slaver, it failed to muster a single Top 8. Team Short Bus took our Workshop Slaver design and cut Mindslavers for large men, such as Sundering Titan (hence the name seven ten split). Out of this tournament, you have two archetypes that will come to define the format for the rest of the year: a Workshop-Aggro deck with Sundering Titans and U/R Fish.

This Top 8 was going to be repeated in the next tournament. My team was stubborn. We had tested against 7/10 and Fish and decided that Tog was the best deck to play. We felt that Tog was the "objectively" best deck in the format. This may be, but Tog loses to Fish. A lesson I, and many others, would learn the hard way.

Central Coast Championship
North Carolina, USA
6-12-04

The Top 8 lists were:

  1. 1) Fish (Marc Perez/ The Phantom Tapeworm)
  2. 2) Fish
  3. 3) Tog
  4. 4) Tog (me)
  5. 5) Tog
  6. 6) 7/10
  7. 7) 7/10
  8. 8) 7/10

Once again, Marc Perez took home a trophy and a Black Lotus.

This tournament was a centrifuge for the top decks. It should have demonstrated to everyone Fish's dominance. The Top 8 decklists after the Swiss did not have such a clear breakdown. I was first in the standings with Tog. Both fish players played a Tog deck and a 7/10 deck – so it wasn't as if the Tog decks knocked out the 7/10 players and then got killed by Fish – Fish dominated both Tog and 7/10. This tournament could not have produced a clearer result. Fish was the deck to beat – although nobody believed it. While Fish continued its meteoric, yet mysteriously unnoticed, rise in the United States, Europe was quickly discovering Four Color Control, Steve O'Connell and a few Germans's radically redesigned inheritor of Weissman's "The Deck." Four Color was winning tournament after tournament in Europe. Finally, Four Color was to get its due in the US.

The Discovery of Workshop Aggro and the Unholy Trio

Star City announced a huge tournament in Virginia where the top 8 would draft power nine (hence the name of the tournament) for July. The tournament came and the result was:

Star City Games Power Nine I
7-17-2004
167 players

And the top 8 was:

  1. Four Color Control
  2. Workshop Aggro
  3. Fish
  4. Fish
  5. GroAtog
  6. Fish
  7. Meandeck Titan
  8. Landstill

Here is the first place deck:

4 Color Control

Looking back on it, this tournament was probably the most important tournament of the year. There were four key lessons from this event:

1) Fish dominated this tournament. There were 14 Fish, 14 Four Color Control, and 13 7/10 Split decks. Four Color Control took the top spot, but the next highest finishing 4CC player was 13th. Fish placed 3 of its numbers in the top 6. No 7/10 actually made top 8.

2) The breakout deck of the tournament was Eric Miller's The Man Show. Eric has been playing Workshop Juggernaut decks for some time, and his unique design enabled him to go undefeated in games in the swiss. Not only was he running the amazingly powerful one-two punch of Trinisphere and Crucible of Worlds (in combination with Wastelands) but he also had some cards like Chains of Mephistopheles to stop control decks.

In retrospect, it was obvious why Aggro-Workshop was winning. This deck simply cannot lose to Fish. Juggernauts, Trinispheres and Crucible of Worldss + Wasteland are three absolutely devastating cards to a deck that plays 1/1 creatures and manlands.

 

Crucible of Worlds
This was the breakout of the Trinisphere + Crucible of Worlds combo. Darksteel and Fifth Dawn finally make their full impact, creating the unholy trio of Mishra's Workshop, Trinisphere, and Crucible of Worlds (aided by Wasteland).

The most powerful card in this whole tournament seemed to be Crucible of Worlds. Lots and lots of decks in this tournament used and abused Crucible of Worlds, including Marc Perez with Fish.

3) This was also the peak of Four Color Control. Four Color Control had been winning numerous tournaments in Europe and was quite strong here as well. The highest placing Four Color Control player had intelligently metagamed to beat Fish and did so while many others floundered. Four Color Control happens to have a good match against Aggro-Workshop and won the tournament as a result.

4) Titan had at last found its home. Not in Workshop decks, as had previously been thought, but in a Mana Drain deck. The idea of using Sundering Titan with dual lands seemed counter-intuitive, yet made perfect sense when actually played.

The metagame was pretty well-defined at this point. Aggro Workshop beats Fish pretty soundly. Fish was still strong and had good games against everything else. Four Color Control was still a powerful control deck and performing well everywhere.

Therefore, it is obvious why I played Mono Blue Control at Gencon. Back to Basics destroys Four Color Control and Fish and my sideboard of Energy Flux dispatches any Workshop deck. I also ran Control Magic, Propaganda and Blue Elemental Blast to deal with Workshop decks.

Gencon had arrived. The first major Gencon tournamament occurred on Friday afternoon. This heralded the arrival of the first fully tuned Workshop deck to pack both Crucible and Trinisphere.