Now that the Dragons of Tarkir release has come and gone, we can look at some of the set’s new cards and how they might affect the Vintage metagame. There are only a few worth mentioning this time around. Creature-centric sets tend to lose something in the translation to Magic: The Gathering’s oldest and grandest format, but it’s rare for a new set to offer no new possibilities. Creatures have always had a role in Vintage, but they’ve taken on a greater one in recent years as Wizards has scaled up their strength, encouraging people to play creatures and push them into the red zone.
Since the beginning of the game, creatures have been a reliable, repeatable source of damage and special abilities. In the olden times, when Vintage was still Type 1—or even just “Magic,” being the only format—creatures were used to finish games. Serra Angel, for example, provided a relatively fast clock, flew over defenders, blocked attackers using vigilance, and dodged removal like Lightning Bolt and Royal Assassin. Juzam Djinn could bring a 5/5 to bear quickly with Dark Ritual and paired with Hypnotic Specter’s discard ability to bury an opponent.
Even the initial restricted list in 1994 contained creatures. Rukh Egg’s 4/4 flyer was considered too powerful and easy to get into play (especially with some hazy rulings on discarding), and the now mostly forgotten Ali from Cairo was ousted for his ability to make a player invincible. No creatures are restricted (right now anyway) since no matter how powerful they are, removal and other answers have been able to keep up.
Later creatures were still important. Morphling and Ophidian were strong elements in control decks as inevitability and card drawing engines. Mishra’s Workshop Aggro decks won with Juggernaut, Triskelion, and later Sundering Titan, often backed up by utility-man Goblin Welder (also an integral part of the prison Workshop archetypes). Oath of Druids was paired with the creature-generating Forbidden Orchard, to power out a number of different win conditions: Spirit of the Night and Akroma, Angel of Wrath; Tidespout Tyrant; Hellkite Overlord; Eternal Witness (returning Yawgmoth’s Will); Iona, Terastodon, and Inkwell Leviathan.
When the dredge ability was printed in Ravnica, those decks won first with Ichorid and Ashen Ghoul before switching to Bridge from Below and Dread Return in Time Spiral block. Of course Darksteel Colossus led to Blightsteel Colossus as a combo-control win with Tinker (also sometimes using Inkwell Leviathan or Sphinx of the Steel Wind), and even Dark Confidant is approaching a decade of feeding people cards.
Under all that was a literal host of tribal decks: Elves (combo versions and non), Goblins, Wizards, Soldiers, Faeries, Humans, and Constructs have been played and still are being played, thanks in part to things like Aether Vial and Cavern of Souls. Merfolk is on the Vintage Super League now, preying on blue decks thanks to a fast clock, consistency, islandwalk, and cheap disruption.
Currently the most popular, best creatures in the format, Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer are being outmoded or augmented by Monastery Mentor in tempo-control decks; Snapcaster Mage and Lodestone Golem are still going strong in their respective milieus; Bomberman (Auriok Salvagers combo) still shows up regularly; and Oath of Druids has been a mainstay for years, now bringing Griselbrand or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, to the battlefield.
There are and were many others—too numerous to list here.
This is all to say that any criticisms of Vintage (mostly weighed by long-time players who find the combat phase confusing and pedestrian) as being too creature focused are mostly unfounded. Creatures have always been there, though they have gotten better and are winning more games more directly now.
Bring some removal.
Plagued with Options
Newly printed in Dragons of Tarkir is Virulent Plague, which could be a powerful answer against Dredge, as well as against Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor. When Pyromancer first hit Vintage, Illness in the Ranks was identified as an answer, and Engineered Plague naming Human or Wizard could stop the Pyro, its tokens, or Delver of Secrets before they got off the ground. Illness and Engineered Plague are less effective against Dredge, of course, though they do make the 2/2 Zombies smaller. The new Virulent Plague costs more than Illness, a significant drawback in a format where decks can combo and win quickly. It’s also ineffective against non-token creatures, unlike the Engineered version, but at least it doesn’t get hit by Mental Misstep like Illness.
As with other new cards, players will have to choose what works for them. Oftentimes, postboard Dredge will deemphasize the graveyard (and therefore the Zombie tokens), opting instead to just hardcast creatures and attack. As such, Virulent Plague will likely remain an option but seldom seen in actual play.
Narset, Transcendent, could find a home in Vintage. Even with the increasing number and power of creatures, the format is still largely spell heavy, and it would be easy enough to build a deck to take advantage of Narset’s +1 ability naturally. Comboing Narset with Sensei’s Divining Top or Jace, The Mind Sculptor, only makes it that much better. Narset’s high starting loyalty also allows her to soak up damage if an opponent feels she needs to be removed, and she starts well on her way to what will usually be a game-winning ultimate.
Narset’s -2 ability is likely to be stronger in Vintage than elsewhere. Getting double doses of spells like Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, Gush, or Dig Through Time through rebound is going to be back-breaking in most games. But, at the point you’ve resolved a four-drop, two-color planeswalker and found and resolved a Vintage-worthy spell, aren’t you already in pretty good shape?
The bigger strike against Narset is simple competition with Jace. There are few times where I’d rather resolve Narset over that particular four-mana, planeswalking benchmark. Jace draws more cards, controls the board more effectively, and has a more disruptive path to a game-winning ultimate. Narset’s most likely place in Vintage is as Jace number four or five in decks that want that many four-drop planeswalkers.
The monk enchantment, Myth Realized, is to Monastery Mentor as Quirion Dryad or Tarmogoyf were to Young Pyromancer. Where the one grows vertically, getting bigger and more able to take on significant threats in combat, the other grows horizontally, swarming into the red zone past defenders and around spot removal.
(Okay, Monastery Mentor and its tokens sort of do both, but still…)
Mentor has already made waves in the format, so it’s perceivable that Myth Realized will too. The difference in casting cost is notable. Though at one mana the enchantment is in range of Mental Misstep, it will hit the board before other defenses come online, most importantly Sphere of Resistance effects. It dodges sorcery-speed removal (a major downfall of Quirion Dryad versus Jace) and keeps its counters over multiple turns whether it’s a creature or not. Myth Realized could easily end up as a complement to Mentor, or as a straight-up replacement in some builds. I expect to see this in play.
Communing with Possibilities
The last single card worth looking at from Dragons of Tarkir is Commune with Lava. This interesting card could serve as an end-of-turn must-counter in red-heavy big mana decks like Burning Gifts. Having access to three or four or five extra cards for next turn should put a player far ahead, if not allow them to outright win the game. The exile clause on Commune is the hangup. On the one hand, consider that any cantrips or other draw spells will translate cards in exile to cards in hand, usable when needed. On the other, woe betides the player who exiles a one-of like Blightsteel Colossus or Yawgmoth’s Will that isn’t immediately playable but would be later.
Probably Commune won’t see serious play, in deference to more powerful cards like Gifts Ungiven, which finds specific cards and combos, as well as lending some idea of where they will end up, rather than digging indiscriminately. However, I’m still anticipating the arrival of a red-based storm combo list with things like red rituals, Past in Flames, Reforge the Soul, and potentially Commune with Lava. It’s probably not here yet, but the cards might be worth sitting on for the future.
Let’s also look at the Command cycle. Vintage seems like a format that would appreciate flexible spells that would be good in multiple situations throughout a game for gaining advantage over an opponent. For that to work, though, most of a Command’s modes would have to be applicable whenever the card is drawn, and they have to be powerful enough to justify the increased cost of having the two abilities together.
The most powerful Command for Vintage, for example, would be Cryptic Command—perhaps as expected. Blue is already the best color. Countering a spell or bouncing a permanent are both going to be relevant regularly; negating a combat phase is going to be especially relevant now; and drawing a card helps ensure that the spell is playable whenever. Unfortunately, the mana cost to do any of that is steep, and triple blue is awkward in a format with Moxes and Wastelands. As such, Cryptic Command sees no play because there are more cost-effective options, even if they’re narrower.
For the new allied-color Commands in Vintage, the problems are similar: the mana cost just doesn’t match with their expected utility.
The most regularly advantageous one would actually be the Kolaghan’s Command. Best in a creature-based deck against a creature-based opponent, it can always be card advantage for just three mana. Depending on the creatures that can be returned, this could be attractive, especially in the black-red color combination. In most cases, though, there will simply be better options cheaper.
If Wizards continues in the same way—boosting creatures’ cost-to-power ratios and imbuing them with powerful spell-like abilities—Vintage will continue to be more creature focused. It will take a lot to unseat some of the more powerful and specialized spells, of course. We won’t likely see the complete disappearance of blue-black restricted list combo from playability, but we will see an arms race of sorts between powerful creatures, powerful answers, and the support cards that pit them against each other.
For example, a few years ago it would have been unheard of to bring a card like Wrath of God to a Vintage tournament. Now, we’re starting to see Supreme Verdict appear in blue-white sideboards to answer Monastery Mentor and its token buddies. It’s a great opportunity for players who are familiar with the nuances of the combat step and creature interactions to get into the format. (Vintage players—myself included—can be notoriously, hilariously bad at combat math.)
Regardless, even when new sets are short on Vintage playables—as Dragons of Tarkir seems to be, especially in comparison to Fate Reforged and Dragons of Tarkir—there is a lot to be learned. New sets always add to the Vintage card pool, even if it’s not evident immediately. And we can always look forward to next time.
Thanks for reading!
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