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The Vintage Advantage: Learning Patience and Control

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Vintage

It’s always funny to me, while 4,000+ people are swarming the halls of a Magic the Gathering Grand Prix, to be excited about a Vintage tournament with a turnout of 27 people. Yet that’s what happened last weekend. My hope for tournaments in Ohio has always been 20+, but since we’ve gotten 34 and 27 in the past two events, it might be time to raise my stakes. We’ll just have to get at least 32 (six rounds!) from here on out.

One of my biggest goals for increasing Vintage attendance is always just to get new people to try the format. I think we’re heading for a watershed moment in this regard when Power is released for Magic Online and actual Vintage at last comes to the digital world. In the meantime, though, many dedicated individuals and I are just trying to get Vintage decks (proxy or otherwise) into players’ hands to play some games.

It must be working because the last two local tournaments have also signed up multiple players for their first DCI cards. For Vintage.

New players often come into the format with the impression that the power level of the cards involved makes games too fast, unbalanced, or unfun. Broken things do happen, but the format is still fair (at least within itself); the challenge comes in knowing how best to answer those broken things and create similar opportunities for yourself in turn.

What this comes down to is that there are right and wrong ways to apply any cards, even Vintage’s most incredible ones. Sure, taking an extra turn or drawing three extra cards isn’t ever going to be a bad thing (usually). There are times, though, when they’ll be decidedly better. I’m going to use look at some of the better opportunities to use Vintage control’s most powerful cards.

Take Three

As I mentioned, drawing three cards is never bad—assuming you have three cards left to draw (or have Laboratory Maniac in play), I mean—and sometimes those cards will be awesome and you’ll feel like a god. However, the ability to straight-up draw three cards at once only exists once in any Vintage deck, so it’s often best to save that opportunity for when it’s most needed. After Mystical Tutor or Vampiric Tutor is great, for example. That might sound obvious, but there are plenty of times when someone plays Ancestral right off the rip.

Going just by numbers, it’s better to play Ancestral to refill an empty hand than to make a full one fuller. I mean, (in an oversimplified example) a one-card hand going to three is an increase of 300%, while going from five to seven is only a 71% increase. And the boost from Ancestral is even more relevant compared to what your opponent has in hand. Drawing enough cards to invert the hand-size advantage can be critical and might mean waiting until your opponent will be less likely to answer: when they’re tapped out, in the middle of a counter war when they’re otherwise occupied, or when you have backup.

Ancestral is also a juicy-enough target to be a bait spell. Getting an opponent to go down two cards with Force of Will is sometimes more effective than going up two cards by resolving Ancestral. Likewise, if your game state needs you to get Fastbond, Goblin Welder, or another one-drop into play and you’re worried about Mental Misstep, Ancestral will always draw that out. You might also get someone to Mana Drain your one-drop draw spell at end of turn (and maybe tap out) instead of stopping a bigger spell like Yawgmoth’s Will or Jace, the Mind Sculptor, on your turn.

Made for Walking

Time Walk is my favorite piece of Power because it has the potential to give so much advantage in so many different ways: untapped mana, attack steps, permanent activations, land drops, and a draw step. Many players, though, get so excited by these prospects that they use it on turn one, as a very expensive, slightly more powerful Explore.

The Explore aspect of Time Walk is fine against opponents playing Mishra’s Workshop prison or fast combo, when having extra mana and permanents is most useful. You’ll be better able to play through Workshop’s Sphere of Resistance or Tangle Wire, for example, or turn on an additional counter against combo. It also helps get a second Island into play for Mana Drain (or at least the threat of one), which can be a huge advantage.

In other match-ups, where you usually have more time to develop, Time Walk is going to be better in the mid- or late-game, when the gained advantages are greater. Time Walking with Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, or Jace in play can be backbreaking, for example. Having extra mana and Time Walk can mean letting one big spell get countered and then following up on a Time Walk turn with a second game-winning bomb. You might even be able to Mystical or Vampiric Tutor into it, with that second draw step and all.

Your Local Library

Library of Alexandria has often been thought of as the tenth member of the Power 9, since its draw-a-card ability can quickly run away with the game. Players seem to forget, though, that this ability is an instant and doesn’t have to be used on your main phase. Activating Library on your opponent’s turn without playing any spells means you have eight cards on your opponent’s turn and nine on your own! That’s plenty of gas available to counter their spells and resolve yours.

Of course, you also want to keep Library active for as long as possible, so you’ll also be sandbagging lands or Moxes to keep cards in hand. With an active Library, this will also mean holding Ancestral Recall to refill your hand if you want to play multiple counters in one turn. Obviously you’ll also go to the Library any time you’re about to drop below seven cards and it’s still untapped.

Library on the play is much different from Library on the draw too. Assuming no mulligans or other plays, Library on the draw means you can immediately start drawing with Library as prescribed on your opponent’s turn. On the play, I usually like to play Library and pass, then draw an extra card immediately on turn two to play a second land and go to seven cards. On turn three, then, you can play a third land and pass with seven cards. That puts you on the gravy train with cardboard wheels.

Down the Drain

Mana Drain used to be a lot more prevalent when one of Vintage’s premier draw spells and combo cards was Gifts Ungiven. It’s still powerful and frequently used, though, in decks like Blue Angels and Landstill, where it helps power out Trinket Mage, Restoration Angel, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Today, thanks to Wizards’ extinguishing of mana burn, Mana Drain really is a strictly-better version of Counterspell. Its only real drawback in the quick Vintage format is that it costs two blue mana and, so, doesn’t often come online until turn two.

It’s clear from reading the card that Mana Drain can be simply and effectively used to counter your opponent’s big spell and accelerate into your own on your next main phase, but there can be more to it than that. Since Drain triggers “at the beginning of your next main phase,” you get its mana after your attack phase if you haven’t declared moving to your second main, which can be a problem if you don’t have good colored mana to work with. If you’re using Drain to back up sorcery-speed spells, it’s often worth declaring a null attack with Drain in hand (or to bluff Drain in hand) so you’ll get the mana for your next turn, when you’re untapped.

Since Mana Drain gets better as the converted mana cost of the spell it counters increases, it’s also useful to note that Force of Will is often a counter of last resort for players because of the card disadvantage. That means with multiple counters in hand (especially Force of Will and Mana Drain) it can be better to play the non-Drain counter first, leaving mana open and giving the impression that you don’t have something more efficient. Then, when your opponent has to back up their spell (or counterspell) with Force of Will, you can Drain that for five mana, instead of the lesser amount of their original spell. Anything for an edge.

Tutoring up a Win

Some of the most important spells in a Vintage control deck are often going to be tutors. Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor can get anything you need; Mystical Tutor often gets powerful game winners like Tinker or Yawgmoth’s Will; and even Merchant Scroll can get Ancestral Recall to put you ahead, Force of Will to protect a key spell, or Gifts Ungiven or Mystical Tutor to finish the game. These tutors are best when they’re getting cards at the top end of their potential or critical cards in dire situations. However, it’s rarely apparent early-on what those cards are going to be. As such, it’s often a waste when you have other business in hand, to spend a valuable tutor just to get Ancestral Recall and its three random cards now, rather than a more useful specific card later.

Not to say that getting and playing Ancestral early is always wrong (as I mentioned, going up in cards over your opponent is a good play), but there might be better options if you wait a turn or two to see how your game is playing out. Maybe your opponent has a very aggressive hand, and the Merchant Scroll you used on turn one would have been better spent on turn two getting a Steel Sabotage to answer a Tinker or to get Hurkyl’s Recall when it becomes obvious your opponent is on Workshops. Mystical and Vampiric Tutor are likewise good at finding appropriate situational cards on your opponent’s endstep. Maybe you need to answer Tarmogoyf in a hurry or Lightning Bolt a Jace.

There’s an old adage in Magic that you, as a player, should use your spells and abilities as late as possible, so you have maximum knowledge and options. That advice guides most of these situations and will make you a better Vintage control player in general. However, much of playing these kinds of decks is knowing how and when to switch roles from control to aggro or combo. Because the spells available are powerful, it’s possible to make the change quickly, even just by drawing one card. (Consider drawing Tinker with a handful of counterspells, for example—suddenly you’re in charge.)

And some players are better suited for one strategy over another, so giving advice only goes so far if you determine that you’re the kind of player who would rather build and play decks that eschew Mana Drain and Library, run Time Walk out just for the extra land drop, and rush to play Ancestral to get on top and stay there. Of course, the best way to find that out is to try Vintage for yourself. I hope this helps!

Nat Moes
@GrandpaBelcher

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