The Vintage Advantage: Deep Analysis

Written by Nat Moes on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Vintage

The Vintage Advantage: Deep Analysis

Nat Moes

Nat Moes lives in Columbus, Ohio, and plays Vintage and Legacy with a group of idiots with the audacity to call themselves Team Serious. He feels partly responsible for spreading the plague that is Goblin Charbelcher and has few Magic the Gathering accolades other than some Eternal Top 8s. He is a cohost of the Serious Vintage podcast and a constant evangelist for the Vintage format.

08_12 The Vintage Advantage
Two of the biggest Vintage tournaments of the year, the Vintage Championship at Eternal Weekend and the Sunday event at Bazaar of Moxen, have come and gone. A total of 485 players—333 at Champs and 152 at BOM—sleeved up real, old Magic the Gathering cards and vied for some of the format’s largest prizes.

I, unfortunately, wasn’t able to make either event. Travel plans to Europe for BOM were out of range this year, at least, and the Eternal Weekend schedule coincided with a conference I attend for work, so I knew long in advance that I was out. As such, I have only second-hand knowledge of the events, as well as the top eight lists from both. Wizards had extensive coverage of the Eternal Weekend events, including some good features on the Vintage community. The Bazaar of Moxen website also provided plenty of information about their events, including the top-eight Vintage decks.

Looking at the two events’ top eight lists as a group provides an interesting overview of the Vintage format, especially considering their similarities and differences. Europe and the U.S. generally have different metagames; their players prefer different decks, and the greater prevalence of proxies in the U.S. leads to different tech being developed. I’ll try to break some of these differences down with my impressions of the decks and what that means for Vintage.

A World of Problems

Mistakes and deck issues hindered some potential favorites at Vintage Champs. I heard tales from several people: Anthony Michaels accidentally sleeved up a 61-card Workshop deck that included two Strip Mines; Paul Mastriano got a game loss for having a Black Lotus and an Underground Sea that were bent enough to cut to; and Stephen Menendian had a misplay that led to his not being able to hardcast Griselbrand and win a game at a critical juncture. Problems like these are bound to happen with large numbers of people over long events, but they’re all preventable with a little more attention to deckbuilding, card quality, and situation. As with all formats, stay on top of your game and don’t take avoidable losses.

Mastriano’s game loss was unforeseen, but it does bring up some interesting issues about sanctioned Vintage. The oldest Vintage cards are turning 20 this year. They can already drive and vote, and soon they’ll be able to drink in the U.S. Some of them are getting worn; they might be bent from shuffling, have creases from mishandling, or be getting soft around the edges. Foil cards and painted alters have issues too, dealing with humidity curving or thickness changes. Should Vintage cards be held to the same standards of uniformity? Of course. No one wants an opponent to get an advantage from deck manipulation, and the cards in Vintage are powerful enough to make that a distinct possibility. As cards get older and more worn, though, this issue could arise more frequently in sanctioned events.

Usually the advice is to check with a judge before an event to make sure that any questionable cards are likely to pass a deckcheck, but what do you do to replace a 20-year-old, slightly bent, $400 card in a hurry? Mastriano was fortunate to have a dealer friend who could exchange the cards for the remaining rounds, but after that, his head wasn’t in the game and was soon out of top-eight contention.

Creature Comforts Are for Winners

There was still plenty of competition for the top spots, though, and many of the decks were playing creatures. In fact, both BOM winner Michael Bonde and 2013 Vintage Champion Joel Lim were playing decks more than a quarter creatures. Lim had a whopping 24 creatures, taking the top spot with an aggressive tribal Merfolk, similar to what you might see at a Legacy event but with some Vintage tweaks (and similar to what I listed in my Vintage on a Budget article). Many of these merfolk were there just to attack and make other attackers better, and they did their job well.

Bonde’s 15 creatures, played in a BUG Control build, had disruptive or controlling effects, being effective in and out of the red zone.

Creatures have gotten better in Vintage in recent years, since there are more creatures available that have aggressively-costed spell-like effects. Compare, for example, Dark Confidant to Phyrexian Arena or Deathrite Shaman to some planeswalkers. Even Cursecatcher, a Force Spike that attacks, will win games that Force Spike cannot. More decks without Tinker or Oath of Druids are winning in the attack step, including five of eight (and the two finalists) at Champs and four of eight at BOM. This includes Europe’s Workshop decks and Erik Pentycofe’s Dredge deck from Champs.

I made the assertion in last week’s article that “creatures are often too slow to impact the format,” but disruption plus a clock is very playable right now.

Removing the Roadblocks

As a result of the influx of creatures to Vintage, creature removal (or creature avoidance) is more important as well. Most evident here are the two RUG decks that made top eight at Champs, played by A.J. Grasso and Benjamin Marleau Donais, both of whom were playing full maindeck sets of Lightning Bolt. In addition, Grasso’s second-place list had only 11 creature cards, but his deck had a potentially limitless supply of 1/1s thanks to Young Pyromancer, which could play offense or defense.

Abrupt Decay, Fire // Ice, Engineered Explosives, Toxic Deluge, Swords to Plowshares, Sower of Temptation, Duplicant, and Darkblast all made appearances as creature removal as well in other decks.

Taking the Oath

To go over or around the creature threat, players played Oath of Druids, Workshop Aggro, and combo. Oath of Druids is traditionally good against creatures since the namesake enchantment is easier to trigger and will bring up a monster that’s generally just bigger than anything else. However, now with Lim’s victory using Merfolk as an aggro representative, Oath is also one of the last major Vintage decks to not have won a Championship. Interestingly, Greg Fenton at Champs and Matthew Harper at BOM took different tacks on the deck, and neither was playing the Burning Oath fast combo deck. Fenton was Oathing into Griselbrands to play control, and Harper used Rune-Scarred Demon to combine Time Vault and Voltaic Key, get Time Walk, or find a situationally backbreaking spell.

Note that the best defense against Oath of Druids is currently Abrupt Decay, which Bonde’s first-place deck was playing as a maindeck four-of at BOM. Lim had four Grafdigger’s Cages in the sideboard for his Oath-playing opponents.

Constructing a Winner

Workshop Aggro decks, those with Lodestone Golem, Kuldotha Forgemaster, and big threats, did not do well in the U.S. at Vintage Champs, but they made their presence known at BOM, where three made the final rounds, including Marcel Gelissen, who placed second, as well as Pierrick Mode and Rasmus Fristed.

The creatures that Mishra’s Workshop and Metalworker can power out in the early game, like the Forgemasters, Wurmcoil Engines, and Steel Hellkites in Gelissen’s deck, are generally bigger than a lot of the creatures in Vintage that get hardcast, making them a good choice against most creature-based decks. Also noteworthy is that a Workshop manabase normally won’t get hit by islandwalk from Lim’s deck, and top-eight competitor Fristed was playing four maindeck Cavern of Souls (frequently on construct, no doubt) to avoid counterspells.

I was surprised to see zero Workshop decks in the top eight at Champs. There were several good Shops pilots at the event, but decks full of artifacts are somewhat linear and can be easy to hate out for that reason. Players at Champs clearly went into the event prepared to beat artifacts, and the results showed. Europeans have also been quicker to take to Kuldotha Forgemaster as the base for their Workshop decks, and having an additional attacker that can also access a toolbox or combo might be better than a more prison-focused build from the U.S.

Racing toward Home

Combo decks are good against creatures because they can race. While the opponent is still playing out creatures or trying to build to 20 damage, you’re just biding your time until you can win. Or perhaps you already have.

Reid Duke took this idea to heart and made top four at Vintage Champs with a blue-black storm deck that used the restricted list to overpower opponents. Definitely check out his report. Across the pond, Doomsday (played by Hendrick Sander), Almost Blue (a Gush-based Brain Freeze combo played by Pau Cantero) and, surprisingly, Sneak and Show (literally a Legacy deck with Power played by Julien Drouard) all made top eight.

As I mentioned earlier, the format’s premier combo deck, Burning Oath, was nowhere to be found after swiss rounds.

The Science of Control

Speaking of Oath again, I also mentioned that it was interesting that the two Oath decks—one in Europe, one in the U.S.—were both more controlling builds. Two more dedicated control decks made top eight at Champs: Blue Angels played by Taylor Pratt, and Four-Color Control played by Kevin Cron.

Legacy and Modern players might be interested in Pratt’s Blue Angels deck in particular, being familiar with Restoration Angel, its tactics and interactions. The deck itself was developed from the Bomberman combo deck, essentially replacing Auriok Salvagers with Restoration Angels and including some additional synergy on those lines. Of the deck’s 10 creatures, six of them have flash, meaning that you rarely have to tap out during your mainphase, except to play one of your four Jace, the Mind Sculptors. Restoration Angel then gives extra distance out of Vendilion Clique and your Trinket Mage toolbox, as well, so you see what you need and have ready access to answers.

Cron’s Four-Color Control deck falls into the classic vein of Vintage decks, and has even been referred to as Keeper by some players. He’s got several examples of the format’s best removal spells and counters available, fueled by Deathrite Shaman and City of Brass and backed by three Jaces. I’m sure he’d be happy to finish the game with Deathrite activations or fatesealing to death, but he can also race to the finish with Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus or Time Vault combo. Cron will probably talk more about this, his third Vintage Champs top eight, on the So Many Insane Plays podcast, so I won’t go into it too much here except that the deck looks like a lot of grueling fun to play.

Dredging Up Wins

Last but not least, we come to Dredge, a common recommendation for new Vintage players as well as “budget” players, since a playset of Bazaar of Baghdad is significantly cheaper than a playset of Moxes. Out of both top eights, only one example of Dredge made it out of the Swiss rounds, piloted by Erik Pentycofe. As with Workshops, Dredge is a linear strategy that can be very easy to hate out, and I suspect that’s what happened here. Opponents were prepared to beat the graveyard decks at Champs and BOM alike, so only one got his name on the leaderboard.

Going through just the top-eight decklists, Dredge had several different cards and card types to play through: Nihil Spellbomb, Tormod’s Crypt, and Grafdigger’s Cage; Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace; Yixlid Jailer; and Ravenous Trap and Surgical Extraction. All of that variety makes it difficult for the Dredge pilot to predict which cards too prepare for in games two and three. Pentycofe’s maindeck Unmasks and Ingot Chewers would have helped deal with many of those threats, both seeing what’s coming and having a maindeck answer to some of the more common ones (an answer that also triggers Bridge from Below), and he dealt with them better than the other Dredge players.

Wrap-up Wrap-up

The coincidence of BOM and Eternal Weekend should provide a fairly comprehensive look at the Vintage metagame as a whole and on either side of the Atlantic. I’ve looked at a lot of decks and why they did well at a high level, but there’s a lot more information to comb through if players and deckbuilders are interested. All of the top eight lists from both tournaments are listed on the websites I linked earlier; tournament reports are beginning to appear on The Mana Drain and elsewhere (including from 2013 Vintage Champ Joel Lim); and podcasts and write-ups should be available on Eternal Central soon.

Hopefully the 16 available lists show just how vibrant the Vintage world is. Several different decks and strategies were able to make it to the final tables, and other decks were still competing into the late rounds. I encourage you to proxy some of these lists and try them out. Playing the decks against each other will teach you much more than I can here.

Good luck!
Nat Moes
@GrandpaBelcher

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