A Fine Vintage: An Introduction

Posted in Top Decks on June 13, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

With the release of Vintage Masters on Magic Online, the format that really got me into competitive Magic is now going to be much more widely accessible, and that's enough of an excuse to write about it.

Forgotten Cave | Art by Noah Bradley

I really started getting into Vintage back in 2004, only slightly before I played in my first Pro Tour, and playing one or more Vintage tournaments a month definitely got me hooked on playing in Magic tournaments. Competing against other people, for prizes nonetheless, while playing an awesome game? It was exactly what I wanted to do, and, it turns out, it's something I was lucky enough to pursue much further.

The earliest decklist I could find of mine on The Mana Drain was the first deck I really got into, and still is one of my favorite decks of all time. It completely sold Vintage for me, as it let me do all the things I wanted (and still want) to do in a game of Magic. Here's the masterpiece that led to Gifts Ungiven getting restricted almost a decade ago (Brainstorm and Merchant Scroll eventually got restricted because they were just patently ridiculous):

Unrestricted Gifts Ungiven

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I don't want to delve too deeply into this decklist because of how antiquated (and illegal) it is, given that ten years and multiple restrictions have passed, but I couldn't resist showing you the deck that I played almost exclusively for the first year I played Vintage. The win condition is to just cast Gifts Ungiven, where the combination of Yawgmoth's Will and Recoup lets you play anything and everything you want, with Black Lotus and Time Walk often being the other two selections. After generating a bunch of mana and spells, you either Burning Wish for Tendrils of Agony or just Tinker up a Darksteel Colossus.

Besides showing you a ten-year-old decklist, I want to take a look at some of the main paths you can go down when choosing and building Vintage decks. I anticipate the release of Vintage Masters leading to an influx of Vintage hopefuls, and it can be a very intimidating format if you don't have experience with it. I myself even needed to do more research for this article than I normally do, just because of how long it's been since I last played Vintage, much less how long it's been since I actually played regularly.

Luckily, Vintage is an Eternal format for a reason, and the bulk of my knowledge about the format is still applicable; the main archetypes are still all basically there, but the cards in the decklists have changed a little.

I used www.morphling.de to look at recent tournament results from the large events to find representative decklists, each of which will stand for a particular aspect of the metagame.

Mana Drain | Art by Matt Stewart

I figure that starting with the card I started with is a good plan, especially since Drain decks are often what people think about when they think about Vintage. They harken back to the classic days of "The Deck," which Brian Weissman used to teach the world about card advantage and having a solid plan, concepts that were revolutionary at the time. For more on The Deck, take a look here.

Many of the decks I want to look at today have a ton of cards in common, which is a result of the restricted list. As it turns out, cards like the Power Nine, Brainstorm, Force of Will, and Time Vault (among many others) are very powerful, and almost every deck plays some number of them. The difference between archetypes lies in what other cards the deck is built around—the cards that give the deck direction. In this case, it's Mana Drain; in others, it's cards like Oath of Druids, Mishra's Workshop, Deathrite Shaman, or Bazaar of Baghdad.

To the untrained eye, decks that share so many cards seem like they should be very similar, but in practice, the different archetypes play out very differently. It is true that some games are going to look the same, as starting with Mox Jet into Thoughtseize and then casting Ancestral Recall is awesome no matter which deck you are playing, but the fundamental strategy of these decks is really quite different.

On to the decks!

De Schamphelaere Gwen

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This deck's main goal is just value, which is one of the reasons I wanted to start with it. The nominal win conditions are Time Vault plus Voltaic Key; Tezzeret the Seeker (which gets Time Vault and plays the part of Key); Tinker into Blightsteel Colossus; and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but the way the deck wins is mainly by generating value with its sweet blue spells and leveraging that into a mana and time advantage. Once you've drawn a bunch of extra cards and dealt with the opponent's threats, you can kill him or her at your leisure.

Time Vault | Art by Yeong-Hao Han

Of course, this is Vintage, so starts like turn-one TinkerBlightsteel are always an option, but this is one of the longer-game decks in the format. It's trying to win by casting four- and five-mana Planeswalkers, which puts us well into the late-game category, as Vintage goes.

Drain decks are a good place to start if you like control decks. You will need to learn a fair amount of Vintage-specific plays no matter which deck you choose, but the core strategy here resembles control decks of all shapes and formats, up to and including Standard. Yes, the cards are a bit better, but answering threats and playing card-draw spells is not a unique play pattern.

The sideboard of this deck is pretty sweet, and leads us into the next deck I want to talk about: Oath of Druids.

Oath decks are blue decks that are much further to the combo side of the spectrum, mainly because of how powerful, fast, and dedicated the Oath of Druids + Forbidden Orchard combo is. Oath of Druids is a ridiculous card in its own right, but once you add four copies of a land that taps for five colors and immediately activates Oath, the card becomes absurd. This is one of the decks that gets the most free wins and needs the fewest cards, as Orchard, Mox, Oath, is an incredibly hard start to beat and doesn't require a whole lot.

Once Oath is active, the method of winning is pretty trivial, with options including Griselbrand; Iona, Shield of Emeria; Emrakul + Dragon Breath, Rune-Scarred Demon, Terastodon, and even Eternal Witness or Sun Titan.

Here's a list from a recent event:

Oscar Basart's Oath

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This particular win condition is to Oath up Rune-Scarred Demon, get Time Walk, and repeat, assuming you have an Forbidden Orchard to keep your opponent at a higher creature count. If you have just Oath and your opponent naturally has one creature, the first Demon can get a Jace, an Orchard, or even just a counterspell or Thoughtseize, as well as just getting whatever you are missing of the Time Vault + Voltaic Key combo. Either way, winning once you have Oath isn't really the challenge.

The way this deck plays out is pretty single-minded. It has very little raw card-draw besides the ever-present Ancestral Recall and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but it has plenty of tutoring and filtering, so assembling the combo of Oath + Orchard or Time Vault + Voltaic Key is something it can do very quickly. The rest of the deck is disruption to ensure that your combos are safe and to stop whatever the opponent is doing if he or she appears to be doing it faster than you can combo off.

Oath decks are one of the best blue decks to play if you want to start with a blue deck but are light on Vintage experience. It's a great deck, and has the additional advantage of being very forgiving. Given that its main goals are simultaneously very clear and not very complicated, it's the perfect way to get introduced to what is otherwise a very complicated archetype. It also has the bonus of you not needing to really know what your opponents are up to. If they are stopping your Oath, deal with it, and otherwise you can mostly assume you are going to be faster and more broken than them.

Deathrite Shaman decks are still blue decks, but they are blue decks that are essentially "playing fair." They aren't doing anything as obviously broken as Mana Drain into Tezzeret or Orchard plus Oath, as they instead choose to attack the format by playing efficient value-creatures and a ton of disruption. It may sound less exciting than other options, but all of these cards are individually strong and require very little mana, making the deck efficient and hard to disrupt. Other blue decks can be left with dead cards, like Voltaic Key if you counter or destroy Time Vault, and this deck preys on that weakness (with aptly-named cards like Trygon Predator).

Iaconno Alessandro

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Deathrite Shaman is the representative of this deck because of how much it enables the deck to exist. Playing the part of mana acceleration, graveyard disruption, and win condition all in one is huge, and it is one of the better non-restricted cards in the list. Abrupt Decay would have been another fine choice, as it disrupts many of the game plans of other decks in the format, and is generally unstoppable, save hand disruption or Misdirection.

The way this deck generates advantage—besides attempting to strand combo pieces in the opponent's hand—is through cards like Dark Confidant, Trygon Predator, and Snapcaster Mage. They are all efficient and disruptive, the two words that describe this deck perfectly, and are all very powerful on their own, which is another important quality.

Deathrite decks are reminiscent of Delver of Secrets decks in Legacy or past Standard, all of which fit squarely in the aggro-control portion of the spectrum. By pressuring the opponent, they make their disruption much more effective, and instead of trying to deal with every threat like a true control deck, they are trying to kill the opponent fast enough that the opponent doesn't have the time or resources to even play all his or her threats. This deck has access to more pure control elements than most aggro-control decks, just by virtue of cards like Force of Will existing, but it still uses Wasteland and Abrupt Decay to make it difficult for opposing decks to cast all their spells.

If you have experience playing Delver decks, or like aggro-control in general, this is a good fit. It's also a deck that wins via a pretty "normal" route, as attacking with Vendilion Clique, Dark Confidant, and other assorted creatures isn't very different from other formats. One thing this deck does utilize is a knowledge of opposing decks, although you will learn that best by just playing the format. Knowing what to Thoughtseize, what to Spell Pierce, when to value Trygon, and so on is something you will need, as this is a deck that's responding to the more broken things other decks are doing, and can't afford to just ignore them in the same way the Oath deck does.

And now for something completely different:

Johansson Mikael's Stax

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For as long as I've played Vintage, this deck, Stax, has been my bane. Its whole existence is predicated on stopping either player from doing anything sweet, with Mishra's Workshop powering out all sorts of different measures that accomplish that.

This was a deck back in 2004 when it just had Sphere of Resistance, Smokestack, Chalice of the Void, and Trinisphere, and the intervening years have granted it such powerful tools as Thorn of Amethyst; Phyrexian Metamorph; and, most importantly, Lodestone Golem. It's all lock pieces, with a variety of different cards that constrain the opponent's mana and lock him or her out of casting spells, with Lodestone Golem doing all that plus rapidly killing the opponent. If all else fails, it can play Karn and attack for a ton of damage, but that's usually more a formality than anything else.

Stax is a deck that's best suited for those who like the entire game grinding to a halt. I'm not going to lie, I have played this in a few tournaments (when you could play four Trinispheres it was kind of insane not to), but it's not really the kind of deck I love playing. Many people do, and it has always been a solid choice. If you don't want to play blue cards, this is one of the best options, and it does a good job preying on those who do.

The last deck I want to take a look at today is different from not only all these other decks, but from just about every deck in Magic. It routinely mulligans to two and wins on turn three, and is the best Game-1 deck of any deck I can think of in any format.

The deck is Dredge, and it's the boogeyman of Vintage in many ways. When you see six to eight cards in every sideboard dedicated to graveyard hate or Pithing Needles, this deck is why. When you see someone mulliganing four times and not appearing perturbed, Dredge is the answer.

Charles Rolko's Dredge

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Dredge is one of the most procedural decks I can think of, where it does the same things in the same order every game, the first of which is mulliganing every single hand that does not contain Bazaar of Baghdad, with no exceptions. Given that the deck has Serum Powder and really just needs Bazaar and nothing else, it starts with Bazaar in well over 90% of the games, and, when undisrupted, it wins just a few turns later.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of playing with or against Dredge, it's actually not that complicated. Bazaar puts cards in the graveyard naturally, and once you are replacing Bazaar draws by dredging Grave-Trolls and the like, you dump your entire deck into your graveyard extremely quickly. Narcomoebas fly out of your deck, Ichorids devour other black creatures to come back on upkeep, and both get sacrificed to Cabal Therapy to stop the opponent from doing anything. That triggers Bridge from Below, giving you a pile of Zombies, and often that's enough to win by itself. In case it isn't, Dread Return lets you animate a large Grave-Troll or whatever win condition is in the deck (this deck has Laboratory Maniac, but other examples include Flame-Kin Zealot, Iona, Terastodon, or Angel of Despair).

Because most decks don't have cards that interact with the graveyard in Game 1 and can rarely win through Cabal Therapys before Dredge does, the Game 1 win percentage of this deck is very high. If you look at its sideboard, all it's trying to do is stop the opponent from locking it out with Leyline of the Void, Tormod's Crypt, Relic of Progenitus, Ravenous Trap, or any other graveyard hate card. Dredge is not favored post-board against an opponent with eight+ sideboard cards, but it still can easily take the match given its Game 1 percentage.

Dredge is a unique choice, both because it doesn't play lands or cast spells and because it doesn't use any of the cards from other decks at all. If you want a completely different play experience, Dredge may be for you, and it's significantly easier to assemble than most Vintage decks.

I hope this introduction to Vintage gives you some direction if you haven't played Vintage, inspiration if you have, and increased interest in either case. I know I'm excited to get back to casting Yawgmoth's Wills and Ancestral Recalls, and I plan on getting together a Vintage deck as soon as I can. I'll definitely be putting videos up on ChannelFireball.com, and those can unveil more of the awesomeness this format has to offer. I've only scratched the surface today, as this sample of decks certainly doesn't cover everything, and there are tons of interesting plays to be made within each game—plays that aren't like other formats at all.


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