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The Vintage Advantage: Beating the Bad Guy

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

08_12 The Vintage Advantage
Most Magic the Gathering formats have their demons. I’m not talking about the creature type, though I suppose Griselbrand counts in some situations. No, I mean decks that players should expect to face but that they might not be looking forward to. These are decks that, for the unprepared, may be terrifying. For the prepared, they can be beaten, but it might not be pleasant.
Sometimes it won’t even seem like they’re playing “real Magic.”

Asking a Vintage player about their most hated deck often brings one of three answers: Dredge, Workshops, and turn-one combo. It’s hard to blame an opponent for picking one of these decks up, though. When it comes to Magic, everyone has their own preferences, and it’s not like these decks aren’t legitimately good, so wanting to win is a good enough reason to pick them up. They’re present in most metagames, so anyone planning on making top eight will usually have to plan on facing them at least once per tournament. Beating them is far from impossible, but all of them present quirky gameplans that discourage interacting traditionally, on the stack or on the battlefield.

My feeling, though, is that playing against these is an appropriate challenge in Vintage. The threats they present are linear, or at least expected, and the Vintage cardpool is broad enough to deal with them no matter what you’re playing. I’ll go over some of the basics strategies and hate cards available for each of these dastardly foes.

Horrors from Beyond the Grave

Dredge has a game-one gameplan that involves using Bazaar of Baghdad and cards with the dredge mechanic to fill the graveyard. Then Narcomoeba, Bloodghast, Cabal Therapy, and Bridge from Below team up to disrupt the opponent and fill the board with zombie tokens. As though that weren’t enough, the deck may have a Dread Return-based finishing move, frequently involving Flame-Kin Zealot to win with hasty tokens, Sun Titan for more Bazaar Activations, or Griselbrand leading to more dredging and Laboratory Maniac.

Very few decks will win game one against Dredge. Sufficient graveyard hate is too narrow to play against the rest of the field. Decks that can win game one, like Two-Card Monte or Dark Times, will have Leyline of the Void maindeck as part of their own Leyline-Helm of Obedience combo. A turn-one Tinker or early combo may also get through. Otherwise, you’re looking at trying to win games two and three.

Erik Pentycofe’s top-eight list from Vintage Champs is a straightforward example of a Flame-Kin Zealot build:

The most common tip for beating Dredge is some threshold number of graveyard hate pieces, usually seven or eight. Play more if you expect to see it several times, and you might get away with fewer if you’re playing dedicated combo and can race. That’s pretty good starter advice: the deck is regularly so graveyard-based that stopping it there and still having enough gas to enact your own gameplan is enough to work. This last part—enacting your own gameplan—is important. If you don’t figure out a way to win the game yourself, the Dredge deck will have plenty of time to either answer your hate or hardcast creatures and commence the beatdown.

Looking at Pentycofe’s available answers—the discard, Ingot Chewers, Wispmares, Nature’s Claims, and Chain of Vapors—one should get the sense that Dredge is prepared to deal with permanents. That’s because the most commonly played, and often the most reliable, cards against Dredge are Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, Tormod’s Crypt (and similar artifacts), and Grafdigger’s Cage. Leyline, Crypt, and Cage are colorless or effectively so and can be played in any deck, and Rest in Peace has the benefit of shutting off the graveyard’s past as well as its future.

However, especially because Dredge decks know to prepare against common graveyard hate, it’s wise to have a varied attack against them that includes several different card types. An ideal package might include two each of four different cards. Ravenous Trap can be especially effective since many Dredge players don’t expect it and forget to play around it. And if you’re already playing white for Rest in Peace, consider adding Honor the Fallen, which is really out of left field, but will remove the most critical cards from a Dredge graveyard. Pentycofe’s list also has fewer answers to a resolved Yixlid Jailer (two maindeck Darkblasts and four Chain of Vapors) than it has to enchantments and artifacts. Jailer hate seems to rise and fall over time as the card comes in and out of fashion, but the creature is a very good answer as well.

Secondary hate against Dredge—which usually buys a turn but won’t win the game—includes mass creature removal like Engineered Explosives or Echoing Truth against zombie tokens or pinpoint graveyard removal like Surgical Extraction. Having multiple Surgical Extractions and multiple Snapcaster Mages can be a viable plan, in fact, if you consider that removing multiple pieces early (like Narcomoebas and Bridges) will cripple Dredge quickly.

The Mechanical Menace

The big problem with Mishra’s Workshop-based decks is that you often find yourself watching your opponent build a bigger and bigger artifact prison and eventually losing because you weren’t able to play spells. Typically Workshops will open with a Sphere of Resistance effect and you will hope it’s not one that attacks for five. They might also have Chalice of the Void or Phyrexian Revoker to shut off any artifact mana, Wasteland to knock out lands, or Smokestack to grind away your board. Once you’re crippled, they can beat you at their leisure with one of the aforementioned creatures or any of several others.

Other versions of Workshops will be a more aggressive combo style that attempt to lead Metalworker and follow it up with Kuldotha Forgemaster and other giant-robot insanity. Tangle Wire becomes particularly threatening here and may act as multiple Time Walks for them if you don’t have many permanents. These decks are looking to put hard-hitting threats into play fast and then win quickly. They may have minimal disruption, but they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Barni Gabriele’s deck, played at a 30-player event in Europe is a good example of what you might face:

Beating Workshops game one, again, means having a quick finisher, possibly combined with a counterspell or removal for some early artifact plays. Many decks will play a maindeck Ancient Grudge or something similar, and Force of Will and friends work here unlike against Dredge’s triggers, so the game-one prospects aren’t terrible.

Postboard, the artifact-heavy nature of current Workshop decks means they’re linear enough to attack directly with artifact hate. Climb the ladder from Nature’s Claim or Ingot Chewer to [/card]Ancient Grudge[/card] or Hurkyl’s Recall to longer-term solutions like Trygon Predator, Viashino Heretic, and Energy Flux. Having a variety of spells and effects also helps play around Chalice of the Void, which may be part of a Workshop player’s plan postboard. Consider how your chosen removal spells work with your gameplan too. Blowing up artifacts with Ancient Grudge has a different function than bouncing them with Hurkyl’s Recall, for example. Grudge is better for dealing with big individual threats and trying to win a longer game; Recall is great when you need one turn to win, making it very effective for storm builds or leading up to Tinker and Time Walk.

Creature removal is also an important option in Workshop matches since they’re planning on winning in the red zone. All Workshop lists are going to play Lodestone Golem, so the number we’re looking for is three damage. Lightning Bolt is very playable in this matchup and comes in handy elsewhere as well. Removing Kuldotha Forgemaster is also important, so playing Dismember or Swords to Plowshares will cover all your bases.

More important than spot removal, though, is making sure your mana will be effective. Look for stability and quantity, and remember that having more mana means playing more spells for removal or to find more. Lands are free and uncounterable (i.e. not affected by Spheres or Chalice), and basic lands can’t be hit by Wasteland. Playing a maindeck basic Island or two is a start, and you may want to play a Mountain or Forest in the sideboard (and appropriate fetchlands) if you plan on resolving Ingot Chewer or Nature’s Claim reliably in games two and three. If you can open with a Mox or two (or play turn-one Sol Ring), all the better since they’ll help you play through Spheres.

The Incantations of a Madman

Many players who have heard of Vintage but haven’t played it are terrified of getting first-turned by a combo player. Aside from expense, Vintage’s detractors (often speaking from an outsider’s perspective) cite speed as its biggest drawback. Broken things can and do happen—Burning Oath, Belcher, Ad Nauseam, Rogue Hermit (Oops, All Spells), and traditional storm are all playable, among others—but it’s rare to lose on turn one. Vintage decks are prepared to interact first turn, and the broken decks still have inconsistencies that keep them fair, relative to the format anyway.

A typical Burning Oath list, like the one below played by my teammate Jerry Yang, for example, can have turn-one wins but is more likely to go off on turn two, after Duressing or when Oath of Druids triggers.

Since combo decks come in so many different shapes and sizes, and because many of them have such varied construction, it can be difficult to have a fool-proof gameplan involving specific hate. You could stop a Yawgmoth’s Will win with Tormod’s Crypt but watch your opponent use Hurkyl’s Recall to play and replay Moxes to build storm. You could play Grafdigger’s Cage to stop Oath of Druids, but your opponent played Wheel of Fortune into a handful of gas. Pithing Needle might shut off Goblin Charbelcher, but it won’t touch Empty the Warrens. You get the picture. Most fast combos share a few traits, though: they play a lot of spells and they need a lot of mana.

Playing spells is easy enough to stop. Force of Will, Mental Misstep, and Mindbreak Trap are all going to be playable even before you drop a land, and limited counters like Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, and even Steel Sabotage, used judiciously, can hamstring a combo at least enough to buy another turn. Flusterstorm has taken the place of Stifle as the storm counter of choice and is great if they don’t Duress first. Discard, too, can keep a combo player in check as you deny them whatever resource they need most, usually whatever big spell they’re going to hope to resolve. Of course, discard combined with counters also helps you know what to counter.

Since combos are also typically mana intensive (one of the reasons the Oath of Druids route in Burning Oath is so dangerous), limiting that will also help stop an opponent. Even better, it will prevent them from being able to play multiple bombs in one turn. Wasteland is helpful here, as it might also be able to cut off a color, but better answers include permanents like Null Rod, Stony Silence, and Chalice of the Void. Null Rod and Stony Silence are easy since they shut off artifact mana and may hit something bigger like Memory Jar or Charbelcher.

The question with Chalice is whether to play it at zero for Moxes and Lotus or at one for Dark Ritual, Rite of Flame, and similar spells. In a vacuum, Chalice at one is probably stronger since it hits cantrips and topdeck tutors as well, but it has the drawback of shutting off a lot of one-mana counters you might be playing. Certainly Chalice for zero comes down before an opponent has had time to play Moxes and it leaves mana open for additional answers. It’s a game-time decision you’ll have to make, knowing that you might not have time to recover from a mistake.

As with any format, beating tough opponents in Vintage is a matter of preparedness. Having the right tools available is the first step, knowing how to apply them correctly comes from experience. The basics for these three decks are here, but books could be written and still not cover all the interactions. Dredge, Workshops, and combo decks might not be particularly enjoyable to play against, but the matchups are just as important to test as those you find more fun. Learning how they play in testing will also build your confidence for playing against them under tournament conditions. Proxy whatever you need and play both sides of the match to really learn the ins and outs. Don’t forget to have fun!

Good luck!
Nat Moes

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