Theros in Vintage
I’ve mentioned before that the barrier for new cards to be playable in Vintage is exceptionally high. Any new card competes with every card printed before it and has to be better, do something new and unique, or combo with them in some devastatingly powerful way.
Vintage players have been fortunate with new printings recently, and there are currently at least two dozen Standard-legal cards that aren’t just playable but are actually played in Vintage, including format definers like Snapcaster Mage, Delver of Secrets and Griselbrand, and important hate like Grafdigger’s Cage and Rest in Peace. Another similarly sized group of cards could make the cut if a player were feeling sassy or experimental.
Of course, Standard will be changing soon, as Theros will prerelease next weekend and knock Innistrad block out soon after. New releases are always an exciting time for Magic the Gathering players, and Vintage players look forward to them just like everyone else.
When gauging new cards for Vintage, there are a few things I look for first:
1.Blue or black spells that cost two or less. The most consistently powerful decks in Vintage use the blue and black cards from the restricted list, so anything that supports those at a discount is probably playable. I’m especially looking for things that draw cards or have a previously unprinted effect.
2.Artifacts, especially those that cost 1 or 3. There have been a lot of ways to use and abuse artifacts printed over the years, so anything new might make it. Tinker, Goblin Welder, and Metalworker make cost a non-issue, but a one-drop’s efficiency and synergy with Trinket Mage and a three-drop’s playability off Mishra’s Workshop make them especially desirable. Here we’re looking for new trinkets and Tinker targets, lock pieces for MUD, and combo potential.
4.Planeswalkers. Vintage already has a couple good’uns in Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Tezzeret, the Seeker; Liliana of the Veil sees play too. New planeswalkers have to be cost effective (usually four mana or less) and have no dead abilities, but that’s not unreasonable, right?
5.Red and green acceleration. This one’s sort of just for me since I always have Belcher together in one or two formats. Mana acceleration will always have its place in Vintage and might hit critical mass for a non-Belcher, red-based combo deck at some point.
6.Good new hate cards. These can come in any color and will pretty much be upgrades on what already exists. For example, Nature’s Claim took Oxidize’s spot since it also destroys enchantments. New cheap, disruptive creatures for Fish, Beats, and other Null Rod decks are also appreciated.
7.Cards that tutor or that draw more than their mana cost. New Vintage-playable cards in this group are few and far between, since they sometimes end up broken in younger formats. They do show up periodically, though, usually with some significant restriction or other drawback.
There are definite possibilities beyond these too, since anything new or unique has the potential to combo with something printed before in Magic’s 20-year history. These are just guidelines, and with them in mind, let’s see what Theros has to offer The Gentleman’s Format.
Men among Gods
Ah, Theros. Some new sets are less exciting for Vintage than others.
Theros looks like a fun and flavorful romp through the attic of Ancient Greece. There are gods and heroes and monsters and tons of historical and legendary references. Unfortunately, flavor hits like these don’t necessarily translate into Vintage playability, where the gods have to be truly godlike, the heroes genuinely heroic, and the monsters crushingly monstrous. There’s potential here, but I think Theros will be a set for the sassy and experimental Vintage players I mentioned earlier.
Let’s look at some cards, though. I won’t go through everything, just ones that I think are most likely to get tested in a tournament environment somewhere, and not everything will align with a category:
Swan Song – This cheap, effective counterspell that gives your opponent a dude will almost certainly see play in some Oath of Druids decks, which will love the way it can support a turn-two or -three Oath as well as help trigger it the following turn. Though nothing compares with Forbidden Orchard for Oath synergy, Swan Song compares favorably with Beast Within in this regard, since the blue counterspell will be more relevant than the green removal in most cases. I have some doubt it will be universally accepted, even by Oath players; it’s not quite as flexible as Spell Pierce (which also works on artifacts and planeswalkers) or Flusterstorm (which is great against storm), and some players will worry about losing to Swan and Spirit token beatdown.
Spellheart Chimera – Vintage loves creatures that reward you for playing Magic. Spellheart Chimera could be next in a long line of past and current stars like Psychatog, Quirion Dryad, Tarmogoyf, and Young Pyromancer that get stronger as you play awesome Vintage spells. Chimera is even a good topdeck, unlike Dryad and Pyromancer, since its power is static. It might show up alongside Pyromancer in a Gush-based shell.
Spellheart Oath by Nat Moes
This deck is definitely in the experimental stage, but Oathing through 20 cards could potentially put 10 or so instants and sorceries into the graveyard, along with a 10/3, flying trampler. Not especially impressive in comparison to Griselbrand, but Spellheart Chimera does have the benefit of being reasonably castable from hand, removing the liability that comes with drawing your Oath targets. The toughness even helps it beat swan tokens. One drawback is that this Oath build is definitely reliant on the graveyard to win, giving it an extra layer of susceptibility to hate.
Curse of the Swine – Mass creature removal isn’t especially hard to come by in Vintage; Balance, Pyroclasm, Massacre, and many others see play from the sideboards of blue and combo decks that might need to remove a boardful of cats, wizards, humans, or other miscellaneous and disruptive dudes. The problem with these cards? They’re not blue! Curse of the Swine allows a mono-blue deck to deal with creatures on a large scale. It’s even effective against larger threats, like Tarmogoyf, Blightsteel Colossus, and Vendilion Clique, as well as against recurring ones. In other cases, it won’t get rid of the attacking power, but it will end the disruptive abilities, which might be good enough.
Pyxis of Pandemonium – Pyxis is cheap and has a mild disruptive ability against things like topdeck tutors and any search card, really. Unfortunately, exiling cards from the library rarely affects the current gamestate. Played in a Workshop deck, the activated ability (probably paid for by Metalworker) could be devastating against blue decks wielding mostly spells. However, exiling cards facedown means that you won’t know if you took your opponent’s Blightsteel Colossus and whether you should or shouldn’t activate. Pandora’s box indeed!
I will say that I’ve lost to decks playing Jester’s Scepter before, and this seems similar, though less powerful. I really want to build a judge’s nightmare of a Mishra’s Workshop deck with Pyxis of Pandemonium, Jester’s Scepter, Jester’s Cap, Knowledge Pool, Possessed Portal, Uba Mask, Staff of Nin, and Goblin Welder.
Ashen Rider – This fits into my third category of cards to look for: Dread Return and Oath targets. Angel of Despair has been played at times in both Dredge and Oath as a way to remove an opponent’s troublesome permanents, and (since casting cost isn’t an issue) Ashen Rider will be an upgrade for that slot. Dredge players will also be able to sacrifice the Rider to Cabal Therapy or a second Dread Return to exile another permanent—a nice benefit there.
Mistcutter Hydra – Beyond the obvious applications of killing Jace, the Mind Sculptor, I’m not exactly sure what Mistcutter Hydra’s role will be in Vintage. As an aggro creature it’s underwhelming, as its mana-to-power ratio is inherently fair, and its abilities won’t protect it from other commonly played removal like Abrupt Decay, Swords to Plowshares, and even Lightning Bolt in a lot of cases. My personal plan would be to sideboard the Hydra in a fast-mana deck like Belcher as an alternate win-condition when the hate comes in game two. Some daring soul might also try casting Hydra as a primary win in a Channel-Lich’s Mirror combo deck.
Destructive Revelry – Red-green aggro-control decks, at times called Christmas Beatings, are fairly common in Vintage because both colors are very good at beating up Vintage’s best strategies: blue and artifacts. Nature’s Claim is probably the first choice here now, but cards like Artifact Mutation and Hull Breach have been used before, and there’s benefit to having two-drop removal to play around Chalice of the Void. Destructive Revelry is more flexible than Mutation and is instant speed, unlike Hull Breach, making it more valuable against Time Vault. Choosing between these types of spells will often come down to player preference, but it’s a good card to keep in mind.
And the Rest
Other cards in Theros just don’t stand out to me as realistic players in Vintage. The gods and their accessories are comparatively weak, and I’m not sure that devotion will happen without building around it. The monstrous creatures and their abilities are underwhelming, and focusing on one heroic creature will often lead to getting raced, swarmed, or removed. Scry as an ability is great (Preordain sees plenty of play), but it’s not something that will be paid extra for and needs to make a good card better.
Some cards that might have had potential are less powerful than other cards already on the fringes of the format. For example, Read the Bones is similar to Night’s Whisper which was played in some Tendrils of Agony storm decks a few years ago but hasn’t been seen much recently, especially since Dark Confidant was printed. The problem in both cases is sorcery speed. Drawing two cards (even with the extra scry) isn’t worth tapping three main-phase mana in a format with easy access to Ancestral Recall.
Similarly, Steam Augury compares unfavorably to Fact or Fiction since your opponent, who doesn’t have your best interests at heart, ultimately decides which cards you get. Digging through five cards is still good, and putting cards in the graveyard in a format with Yawgmoth’s Will, Snapcaster Mage, and Goblin Welder isn’t a drawback, but Augury will still compete for spots after Jace, Gifts Ungiven, and Fact or Fiction.
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, the new blue-black planeswalker has the right mana cost but the wrong abilities for Vintage. As with Pyxis, exiling from the library is rarely effective, and the –X ability probably won’t hit quite enough in a typically creature-light Vintage environment. Even the –10 ability won’t necessarily be a game winner, which is extra disappointing. Only the boldest of the bold will try Ashiok.
Overall, Theros looks on par with many sets as far as Vintage playables go. We’ve been lucky recently with new format mainstays coming out at least one per block, and there is still lots of Theros block to look forward to. Theros itself has some decent role players, as well as cards that give players options and the opportunity to try new strategies. Plus, it’s not unlikely that I overlooked an interaction that will make part of a new Vintage or eternal combo! Regardless, I’ll be looking forward to more flavor from Theros as the block develops.
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