Vintage Metagaming for Beginners
To play any Magic the Gathering format, it helps to identify the significant threats so that you can prepare for them. This might mean having removal for a format’s premiere creatures, playing a counter (literal or otherwise) for a powerful spell, or simply smashing through a slower strategy using a faster deck. Vintage, the home of Magic’s most powerful cards, is no different. Learning the most popular win conditions and different ways to beat them will allow you to better choose a sideboard and maindeck to win a tournament.
This becomes especially important if you decide to get into Vintage by playing creatures and disruption.
As I mentioned in my previous article on the Pillars of Vintage, playing a “Fish” or “Beats” deck is commonly recommended to new Vintage players because these strategies use more of the skills the players are used to from younger formats like Standard and Modern. These decks are also generally cheaper, often limiting themselves to only on-color Power. They exemplify the Null Rod pillar, even though they might not be playing the card, and I’ll refer to them as Null Rod decks.
Here’s one example from a friend and Team Serious teammate:
Vintage Junk, by Jake “Garbage Aggro” Hilty
There are many other examples of Null Rod decks, and they all work similarly, more or less. I like this one right now, and it’s conveniently already metagamed for my area! I chose it as an example because it has so many answers to Vintage’s biggest questions, namely Moxes, Yawgmoth’s Will, Workshops, Oath, Dredge, some of the best creatures ever printed, and especially Tinker.
If you don’t like this particular build or color combination, please look up lists for Bant or Noble Fish, WG or Four-Color Humans, Wizards!, RG Beats (Christmas Beats), The Mountains Win Again (usually RW or RWB), Merfolk, and White Trash.
The Junk deck features some nice synergies and has multiple answers against an average Vintage metagame that consists mostly of blue control and Workshops, with some Oath, combo, and other aggro-control lists. This list can slow the game down with things like Stony Silence; render its opponent’s lines of play meaningless with Grafdigger’s Cage; answer the format’s biggest threats with Swords to Plowshares, Abrupt Decay, and Qasali Pridemage; and tangle with just about anything in the red zone.
However, as I mentioned this is a difficult way to get into Vintage. While your opponents play turn-one 5/3s that tax your spells or pay 1G for 7/7 demons that draw seven cards or sacrifice artifacts to make indestructible 11/11s, you’re playing bears and answer cards. Your creatures, especially in a group, are more effective than that (or they should be), but you see my point: you’re playing fair in an inherently unfair format. When you can’t overpower your opponent, you need to be cagy, outsmart them, figure out how to make them play on your terms.
Understanding the best decks’ strategies and predicting the metagame is critically important here. You’ll have to be prepared starting on turn one, maybe even before!
Beating Vintage Mana
The thing that sets Vintage apart from other formats first and foremost is its mana: the five original Moxes, Black Lotus, Sol Ring, Mana Crypt, Tolarian Academy, and Mishra’s Workshop, as well as dual lands and fetches. These things also separate other Vintage decks from Null Rod decks, which get their name from their long-time answer to these Powered manabases. Null Rod turns off all artifact activated abilities, including those that make mana. Against these cards, Powered decks not only lose their artifact mana in play, but also draw dead Moxes and other mana artifacts. They may have shot forward in the early game, but the Rod brings them back in line.
In Junk, Stony Silence is better than Null Rod. It is as easy to cast and has the same effect on the game, preventing opponents from getting ahead on mana using artifacts, but as an enchantment it faces less hate than an artifact would. Many decks will only have one catch-all bounce spell like Echoing Truth or a one-of Nature’s Claim to deal with it, and Workshops really can’t deal with it at all beyond something like Smokestack.
Once Stony Silence is working, Wasteland and Strip Mine become a factor, shutting an opponent off a particular color by hitting dual lands or keeping them off lands entirely. If Silence isn’t available, Qasali Pridemage and potentially Abrupt Decay also work to keep an opponent from using artifact mana. Leading with a threat and following up with a combination of mana denial can be difficult for a Vintage deck to overcome.
All of these keep the opponent from getting too far ahead, but Elvish Spirit Guide and Deathrite Shaman, “the littlest planeswalker,” can do a similar job by pushing a creature-heavy deck forward, making mana for additional threats or control early. Both cards also maintain their utility as your mana builds naturally. The Spirit Guide is still a 2/2 attacker, and Deathrite Shaman is still taking and gaining life and hating the graveyard in a format that has Yawgmoth’s Will, Crucible of Worlds, Snapcaster Mage, and Bazaar of Baghdad.
Stopping Vintage Spells
Almost any spell on the restricted list is worth a counterspell when possible, but not every deck has or needs counterspells to compete.
The two most notorious spells from a Mana Drain deck will be Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will. Tinker has been a staple in Vintage since it was first combined with Memory Jar as another draw-seven or Darksteel Colossus to win in two turns that ignore most creatures and damage-based removal. Today, Blightsteel Colossus is a definite upgrade to that, since it kills in one hit with poison counters, unless the opponent has blockers. This is a painful loss when it happens early (for example, Island, Mana Crypt, Tinker), and being able to defend against it is immensely important for the Null Rod deck player. Tinker is a snap to set up, relatively cheap, requires little investment of resources, and is lethal. Building a deck like Junk should start with not losing to Tinker.
Fortunately for the Junk player, Grafdigger’s Cage answers both of these threats simultaneously for just one colorless mana.
That was easy.
Grafdigger’s Cage also severely hinders Dredge decks, Oath of Druids, Kuldotha Forgemaster, and Snapcaster Mage, among other things. It’s incredibly useful at blocking multiple paths to victory, turning cards dead in hand, and forcing opponents to deal with it before they can move on.
Any Tinker target would also be answered handily either by Stony Silence (which shuts off Time Vault, Memory Jar, and Black Lotus) or Swords to Plowshares for any large creature. And the mana-denial plan helps prevent Yawgmoth’s Will from getting out of hand with even more mana to play spells from the graveyard.
Killing Vintage Creatures (and Oath)
Vintage’s notorious creatures are the best ever printed and are usually cheated into play with either Tinker or Oath of Druids. Smaller creatures like Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage, Vendilion Clique, Delver of Secrets, Tarmogoyf, Young Pyromancer, and Goblin Welder show up as well, but they can be handled with many of the options listed below, as well as things like Abrupt Decay or in the combat phase, where Porcelain Legionnaire is a star and Bitterblossom helps block all day. Illness in the Ranks can also come in against Young Pyromancer decks.
The real creatures to worry about are Blightsteel Colossus and Griselbrand. The most effective spells against these creatures (and most others) are white spells that remove them from the game: Swords to Plowshares or Path to Exile. Either will make the job of an aggressive or tempo deck a little more difficult, but they will get rid of your problem for good.
Obviously Griselbrand is a problem not merely because of its 7/7 flying, lifelinking body but because the seven cards that come with it. Since Griselbrand usually enters play via Oath of Druids, it’s best to stop it there, before it hits the battlefield. That low-cost enchantment is, by its nature, a huge problem for any deck planning on winning the game by attacking with creatures. As previously mentioned, Grafdigger’s Cage is key here, but Abrupt Decay, Qasali Pridemage, and Nature’s Claim work here as well by just removing the Oath.
The current most common version of the Oath of Druids deck is Burning Oath, which is at heart a storm combo deck that can win on turn one or two even without resolving its namesake enchantment. Other combo lists also exist that aim to play multiple spells on one turn, including Gush Tendrils, Belcher, and Ad Nauseam. Non-blue Null Rod decks like Junk have to be able to react on the draw to a Vintage-level turn-one storm play without running blue for Force of Will.
Stony Silence and Grafdigger’s Cage are already good here to stop fast mana artifacts like Moxes and Lotus and to prevent easy storm wins with Yawgmoth’s Will, but most of the hate for these decks comes out of the sideboard for Junk. Leyline of Sanctity is a turn-zero play from the opening hand, and can be accelerated out otherwise with the help of Deathrite Shaman or Elvish Spirit Guide. It stops several combo plays (including Gifts Ungiven), but its main target is Tendrils of Agony.
Mindbreak Trap is a good catch-all sideboard answer for plenty of powerful spells that require a buildup of resources. It probably won’t be played for its manacost in Junk, but nailing multiple copies of Tendrils or Mind’s Desire on the stack is awesome. It’s unfortunately weak against a Forbidden Orchard, Mox, Oath of Druids opener (and similar plays), but that’s okay. Plus, many storm players will discount your having counterspells if you didn’t show them blue cards in game one.
Mishra’s Workshop decks are usually the second-most popular archetype, after the blue combo-control decks of the Drains pillar. Most of these decks are constructed entirely of artifacts, focusing on Lodestone Golem, Thorn of Amethyst, Sphere of Resistance, and Tangle Wire to make casting spells difficult, if not impossible.
The Junk deck has some advantages here and can bring in more postboard with Dismember for the Workshop deck’s big threats and Illness in the Ranks for tokens from a Genesis Chamber deck. I’ve already mentioned a lot of the artifact hate—Qasali Pridemage, Nature’s Claim, and Stony Silence (especially against Kuldotha Forgemaster) are obviously going to be great here.
There are a few surprise standouts, though. Elvish Spirit Guide’s pitch ability helps play early spells through Sphere of Resistance effects, as does Deathrite Shaman. Porcelain Legionnaire plays through Lodestone Golem and Thorn of Amethyst with no problems and has the added bonus of, not trading with, but killing Lodestone in combat! Bitterblossom likewise makes effectively infinite blockers for Workshops bigger, slower threats, buying time to find more permanent removal.
Vintage Dredge gets a bad reputation because of its dominant game-one plan of finding Bazaar of Baghdad with Serum Powder and mulligans and then just winning the game without much interaction. The Junk deck can actually win game one versus Dredge because of its three maindeck Grafdigger’s Cages, for which the Dredge deck might not even have maindeck answers. Deathrite Shaman and Wasteland can also slow Dredge down to buy some time.
Postboard, Rest in Peace can completely take over the match against Dredge. Not only does it empty the opponent’s graveyard, but it also keeps them from loading the graveyard in the future. (Works great against Tarmogoyfs too!) The trick, though, is to find the Rest in Peace and then be able to win before they have removal for it. Usually in this deck that means having multiple pieces of legitimate hate, since you can’t protect things with counters.
Two Ravenous Traps are good out of the board as well. It removes the whole graveyard for free and is difficult to play around, especially since the deck relies on Bazaar of Baghdad. And since Trap isn’t an on-board trick like Tormod’s Crypt or Nihil Spellbomb, it catches many Dredge players off guard.
Playing Fish or Beats decks from the Null Rod pillar in Vintage is a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge and sometimes necessary, especially in sanctioned environments. Stopping the common, major Vintage threats is key, and the tactics and strategies presented here work across the spectrum of Null Rod decks.
Jake Hilty’s Junk list, as with any online Null Rod deck, should be treated as a starting point. It’s rare to be able to transport a winning metagame deck from one area to another and expect the same results, since the opposing decks and players present will be different.
Search your selected deck’s colors for ways to beat the advantages of other players’ Powered manabases, Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will, Blightsteel Colossus, Oath of Druids and Griselbrand, Time Vault, Workshop decks, and Dredge decks. The answers exist in every color, but they require an honest and accurate assessment of the metagame you expect to face to apply properly. That means you have to go into an event expecting to play winning decks all the way through to the final round. Don’t try to beat everything that might show up; pick your targets and play flexible answers.
Good luck, remember to at least not lose to Tinker, and I look forward to hearing about your experiences.
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