Vintage is a growing format. Atomic Empire in Durham, North Carolina, hosted a 25-player, 15-proxy Vintage tournament as part of their Eternal Weekend celebration. They streamed the rounds live and have several videos on their Twitch.tv page. Watching to the stream, you’ll see that many of the players were new to the format, playing in their first or second Vintage event ever. It was encouraging, and a lot of fun to watch!
Vintage, like other Magic the Gathering formats, will test all of a player’s gaming faculties. The skills you use in other formats will get used in Vintage. In fact, because of the accelerated mana provided by Moxes, Black Lotus, Mishra’s Workshop, and the like, you’ll have the opportunity to make more decisions sooner, and those decisions will have more impact on the game, thanks to the power-level of the cards involved.
Along with this comes plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, especially for new players who are unfamiliar with some of the cards and interactions. With this article, I’ll try to share some tips and strategies that might help avoid misplays, pitfalls, and other awkward situations. As with most Magic advice, the rules were made to be broken, so don’t follow these blindly without first being aware of the game state and what you want the result to be.
And if other Vintage players have similar suggestions or tips, it would be great to see some additions in the comments!
Play with cards that get you excited
This is especially important opening advice, coming from long-time Vintage player, multiple Champs top-eight’er, consistent rogue-deck pilot, and Cleveland legend, Mark Trogdon. Vintage is an open and flexible format that presents players with lots of options to play cards they like. If you find a deck or card you like, that works for you, and that you have fun playing, don’t let others discourage you from it.
Look for opening hands that make or react to turn-one plays
Vintage games are rarely decided on the first turn, and there’s much more to them than the coin flip and mulligans, despite some misinformed rumors. However, the presence of the Moxes, Black Lotus, and Mishra’s Workshop does mean that big things can happen early. Ideally, your opening hand will either let you answer those things (Force of Will, Mental Misstep, Sphere of Resistance, Chalice of the Void, etc.) or take part in them yourself (Mox, Forbidden Orchard, Oath of Druids; Mox, Mishra’s Workshop, Lodestone Golem; etc.).
There’s also a rule of thumb for Workshop prison decks that says you should be able to play three pieces of hate by turn two; otherwise, it’s a mulligan.
If you need card text, call a judge
Here’s a quiz: If you have a tapped Mana Vault at the beginning of your turn and don’t untap it, when will it deal its damage? This is a pretty innocuous example, but it gets the point across. None of the printed versions of Vault actually have it correct, but the damage comes after upkeep, during the draw step. Go figure.
By its very nature, Vintage consists of a lot of cards, including the proxies that some people have to play and the foreign foils that others enjoy. And many of these versions don’t actually do what they say they do anymore. Time Vault might as well have a big question mark in its text box for how relevant that wording is for how it really works. Anyway, the point is, if you need to confirm text or an interaction on an old, proxy, or foreign card, call a judge.Don’t forget about Dredge
No matter what you’re playing (even if you’re playing it yourself) you have to have a reasonable plan against Dredge. You might choose to run at least (at least!) six pieces of hate for the strategy, or you could plan on racing Dredge with a quick combo. Anything less than that is planning on losing to Dredge, which is a viable, conscious choice, but one that precludes your complaining about Dredge.
Nothing is an auto-counter
Restricted spells are restricted for a reason, but that doesn’t mean you need to go down two cards using Force of Will on them. When your opponent attempts to resolve a purportedly game-breaking spell that you have the opportunity to counter, take into account the complete game state and what other tools you’ll have at your disposal should you choose to let that spell resolve (for one, you’ll have an extra counter in hand).
Is your opponent way up or way down on cards? Three more probably won’t make much of a difference if you’ve got a counter. Do you have four lands and some creatures in play and they’re going for Trinisphere or Tangle Wire? So what? Do you have bounce or Ancient Grudge in hand and they want to resolve Tinker. Maybe you should let them.
Don’t just auto-play cards either
As a corollary, don’t just throw cards into play because they’re good. Time Walk is a lot more effective when you can do more than play an extra land and untap; Ancestral Recall is a very good bait spell for other bombs; Brainstorm is great for defense against discard, finding a late-game counter, or putting a Tinker target back in your library. You might be able to get even more distance out of an already card by waiting a turn or two.
Protect your manabase
Wasteland is a serious threat in Vintage, especially because some of your lands will be spells in the form of Moxes. Some Mishra’s Workshop and Null Rod lists will be able to shut off the artifact portion of your manabase with Stony Silence, Chalice of the Void, and similar cards. As a result, you’ll need to have lands to do anything. For starters, don’t fetch a non-basic if you don’t have to. Get a basic if you need the mana, or save fetches to play around Wasteland or get basic lands if you haven’t determined what your opponent’s playing.
Hold onto zero-drop mana
There are plenty of times when you need the mana bump that a Mox or Mana Crypt can give you, but there are plenty of times when you don’t, too. Except against decks that are likely to play turn-one Chalice of the Void, you can hold zero-drop mana in your hand. It looks like you have more cards, you don’t risk them getting destroyed, you don’t take damage from Crypt, and you can surprise your opponent by playing more or larger spells than they anticipated. This goes double if you’re playing Thirst for Knowledge or Bazaar of Baghdad.
Know what you’re tutoring for
There are lots of tutors available in Vintage: Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor are the most common and the most flexible; Mystical Tutor and Merchant Scroll are both important (note that Scroll can only get blue instants, not Time Walk or Tinker), Kuldotha Forgemaster appears in Workshop decks, and others like Burning Wish, Enlightened Tutor, Imperial Seal, even Crop Rotation show up from time to time.
The best way to use these is to have some idea what you’re getting when you begin your search. You can change your mind if you see something better, but unless you’re on your last legs and need an out, avoid using a tutor until you know what you need. I should say that I’m especially not a fan of using topdeck tutors for Ancestral Recall just because you don’t have anything else to get. Mystical Tutor puts you down a card in hand and fixes a draw step, just to go up three? I’m unimpressed.
Don’t lose your tutored-for cards
This should be familiar to some of you from playing Mystical Tutor in Legacy. Mystical and Vampiric Tutor put the tutored-for card on top of your library. In Vintage, there will be plenty of opportunities where you can play a topdeck tutor and then draw the card, but don’t put yourself in a position to lose it before that happens. This especially means avoiding Imperial Seal when your opponent has Jace, the Mind Sculptor. And remember to crack fetchlands before you tutor if necessary, so you don’t shuffle away your target.
Jace is not merely a Brainstorm machine
I see this one a lot. In Vintage, Jace’s 0 ability, Brainstorm, is very good; the higher power level of the cards means that seeing three more of them frequently ends the game very quickly. However, there are times that his second-best ability, the +2 fateseal, is even better. Lightning Bolt is a real card in Vintage, so Jace might need more than three loyalty against decks with Mountains in play, and having extra loyalty against creatures is a boon as well, so you can Unsummon them if necessary. Likewise, if you have lots of cards in hand and your opponent has few, fatesealing will keep it that way and put you on a legitimate path to victory.
Don’t forget about on-board hate
This should be obvious from other formats too, but artifacts and enchantments can be especially easy to overlook because many of them don’t do anything but sit there, disrupting you. Chalice of the Void and Grafdigger’s Cage are especially notorious in this way.
Don’t let it happen where you go a few turns after Cage resolves then think it’s about time to set up for a game-ending Tinker or Yawgmoth’s Will, so you tutor for it, and your opponent lets it resolve and then points at a harmless looking silver-framed card. Then you sigh and pass the turn.
Don’t auto-scoop to Time Vault-Voltaic Key
Usually if your opponent puts the Time Vault combo together to take all the turns, the game is effectively over. You can ask them to show you a win condition and then move to the next game. However, there are many situations where a Time Vault win is not a guaranteed. Vintage has plenty of cards that deal damage to their controller, and players might be at low life by the time they set up the combo. Let them play it out if they have things like Dark Confidant or Mana Crypt in play. (They don’t call Mana Crypt the ol’ Lightning Bolt machine for nothing.)
Don’t worry about the blowouts
Vintage is a swingy format; the power level of the cards makes it that way. When your opponent can go from no cards in hand to topdecking and resolving Tinker, you’re bound to lose some games accidentally, just as games get lost to mana screw or flooding in other formats. Blowout losses and turn-one kills are infrequent and can be prevented with proper planning and card choices. Let the bad games go, and don’t get discouraged.
As I said, Vintage games are packed with decisions, so there are lots of chances for opponents to outplay one another. (Come to think of it, players coming from other formats are probably better at creature combat than lots of Vintage-exclusive players!) These tricks should help get you started and help avoid some of the more common bonks that Vintage players commit. There will be plenty more for you to learn from experience. Give it a shot!
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