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The Vintage Advantage – GenCon 2014 Review

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

08_12 The Vintage Advantage

My Gen Con plans didn’t come together until the last minute this year, when on the Monday before the convention, my wife, Elizabeth, told me I should just go.

I had to ask her if it was a trick. I had already spent a weekend of debauchery away at a college reunion and didn’t think I should spend the time or the money on another.

“No, really. You should go. All your friends will be there and you don’t want to miss out on those experiences.”

This kind of thinking earned her the moniker “The Hero of Gen Con” from one of my friends.

So I started figuring out a plan of when and how to get there. I couldn’t go earlier in the week because of work, but I could take Friday off. The room was easily arranged (for me) since several friends already had space, and as it turned out, fellow Vintage Magic: The Gathering player Matt Hazard would be leaving Friday as well and wanted to get there in time for the lone scheduled Vintage event at 1 p.m.

Everything had fallen into place.

A Brief History of Magic at Gen Con

For the uninitiated, Gen Con calls itself “the best four days in gaming,” and it easily lives up to that name. It was started in 1968 for wargames by Gary Gygax in Geneva, Wisconsin (whence the “Gen” in Gen Con). Gygax later developed Dungeons & Dragons under the TSR company, and Gen Con fell under that umbrella, moving from Geneva and settling in Milwaukee in 1985. More and more games were added. Magic made its first appearance there in 1993, after having debuted at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, a few months prior.

When TSR was bought by Wizards of the Coast in 1997, the Gen Con property went with it, likewise when Hasbro acquired Wizards in 1999. Wizards’ founder, Peter Adkison, bought Gen Con from Hasbro in 2002 and made it an independent entity. The next year, the convention was held in Indianapolis for the first time and has been there ever since.

Magic has always been an important part of Gen Con. The inaugural World Championship was held there in 1994 (you can read Mark Rosewater’s account here). The first World Magic Cup was held there in 2012, and 2013 saw the 20th Anniversary Draft, with players culled from eight tournaments of different formats played throughout the weekend. The Anniversary Draft players drafted packs from every set ever (at the time), Alpha through M13 and built their decks from the contents of those packs. The winner received one pack of each set ever printed, a prize that showcased the history and longevity of the game.

The Vintage Championship (and Legacy Championship) had also been held at Gen Con, increasing their importance when Wizards began producing over-sized versions of the Power 9 and giving them away as trophies to the winners. The first of these—appropriately Black Lotus—was awarded to Carl Winter in 2003. Ten Vintage Champs were crowned at Gen Con, until Wizards decided to make the tournament its own event, turning over the reins to Nick Coss, who created Eternal Weekend in Philadelphia in 2013. (Information on this year’s Eternal Weekend and Vintage and Legacy Championships can be found here).

In 2013, with Champs gone, there were two larger sanctioned Vintage events scheduled, and they were relatively well attended, with 83 and 45 players respectively. A smaller tournament was also held on Sunday, though many players already heading back home. I wrote about my experiences at Gen Con 2013 here and Eternal Central had a writeup of the smaller Saturday event here.

This year’s Gen Con had considerably less to offer with regard to Vintage. According to the published schedule of events organized by Pastimes, there was only one Vintage tournament, the Friday event that Hazard and I were planning to make. That was disappointing (and Hazard mentioned more than once that if there’s only one Vintage event scheduled next year he would likely skip out on the convention altogether), but it’s always exciting to get an opportunity to play sanctioned Vintage. Gen Con’s Vintage participants are among the more dedicated players of the format: they’ve bought into sanctioned Vintage and have traveled to play with nothing more on the line than a couple of From the Vaults.

It was no surprise, then, that when the tournament organizers took a straw poll during round two of the Friday event, asking who would play if more Vintage tournaments were held, all the players raised their hands. Additional Vintage tournaments were scheduled for Saturday (with uncut foil sheets of Modern Masters as the prize) and the usual Sunday morning event with packs for prizes. Again, Jason Jaco and Eternal Central were there, capturing all the action, with decklists, photos, and metagame breakdown from the tournaments on Friday and Saturday. I’ll be referencing these links as I do my own analysis, so I highly recommend checking them out.

Friday Breakdown – BUG Invasion

I was only able to play in the Friday event. There’s simply too much other fun going on at Gen Con to spend multiple days out of a scant three in the Magic: The Gathering hall. I played Bomberman for three rounds, losing a close match against Steven Stierman and 5C Humans, winning against a kitchen-table Vampires player, and conceding to my BUG Fish opponent after round three. My final round consisted of a 40-minute second game that wore me out physically and mentally. With a loss already and a draw on the way, I was fine with conceding.

Looking at the metagame breakdown provided by Eternal Central, things looked pretty much how they should for sanctioned Vintage: lots of blue decks. It’s similar to what’s being played on MTGO right now.

Out of 62 decks, 39 were playing blue, and 10 of those were playing either BUG Control or BUG Tempo. The allure of combining Force of Will with “the littlest planeswalker” Deathrite Shaman or at least the uncounterable Abrupt Decay was strong. Even the four-color decks played by Sam Krohlow (to second place) and Mith Rao (13th), and the Oath deck played by John Mayes (15th), were doing basically the same thing with a twist.

Various blue-white decks also made appearances, encouraged by Swords to Plowshares and other white creature removal and powerful creatures, but only Michael Swailes cracked the top 16 in third place. These decks might be relying too much on high-cost creatures like Trinket Mage, Restoration Angel, and Auriok Salvagers and can’t keep up with the more efficient threats provided by BUG, even if their answers are better.

Adding red for Lightning Bolt and artifact removal was another popular choice for blue players, but the Grixis decks that have put up strong results at previous Gen Con events were just also-rans in this event. It’s difficult to pinpoint specific problems with lists that include the cream of the Vintage Restricted List, but it could be that some of the technology has since been outmoded. Abrupt Decay beats Time Vault, for example; Lightning Bolt isn’t quite the savior it needs to be; and Dack Fayden is still hard to resolve against Mishra’s Workshop decks.

Speaking of Workshop decks, out of the eight played, six used Kuldotha Forgemaster, and two of those made the final rounds. This isn’t really a surprise; Forgemaster makes the archetype more reactive, can’t be removed by Lightning Bolt or Abrupt Decay, and is at the very least a 3/5 in a creature-heavy format. Smokestacks were absent as a control piece, but I suspect the Null Rod Stax list cited was control heavy, aiming for two-drops rather than four.

Also nine players played Oath of Druids and three of them made top eight. The deck is resilient, straightforward, and filled with threats, making it difficult to beat even for players who are anticipating it. Getting Oath to stick and trigger against most BUG decks is tricky with Abrupt Decay and Grafdigger’s Cage in a lot of opponents’ 75s, but it can be done, and it’s easy to dominate the game if Griselbrand enters the battlefield. We’re also starting to see more Misdirections and Show and Tell here because of Abrupt Decay and other targeted removal.

Seeing no Dredge at all is surprising at a sanctioned tournament, mostly because a set of Bazaar of Baghdad is relatively cheap compared to the dual lands and Power needed to play blue decks, let alone Workshops. Still it takes the right mindset and lots of practice to play the deck. The Dredge game one is usually easy, but games two and three are a challenge as you play through or around numerous hate cards of various types. It may be that no one felt expert enough at the deck to want to take it out for this event.

Saturday Breakdown – Dega Dudesweats

Twenty-six players signed up for Vintage on Saturday, and the overall breakdown was similar except that the presence of BUG decks decreased drastically. However, that still didn’t stop one of the two BUG players, Mike Kravitz (my round-three opponent from Friday, coincidentally), from winning the whole thing. And the eighth-place Oath deck played by Max Schroeder was also a BUG build.

The hole left by BUG was filled by Grixis, representing three out of the top eight, including Benjamin Ball’s third-place Gitaxian Storm deck. Again, since these decks are built around finding, using, and abusing Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will inside a shell that includes Black Lotus, Time Walk and Ancestral Recall, they are always going to have powerful plays to make. More impressive is that the three builds that placed were radically different: Aaron Swerdlow’s control build, Chris LePay’s novel Show and Tell (and Reanimate!) deck for Griselbrand and Blightsteel Colossus; and Ball’s storm list, which played discard instead of counters to make sure its spells would resolve.

Second place in the event was Sean O’Brien with a BRW Dega Dudesweats list that’s worth looking at:

I’m speculating, but Sean may have applied what he saw in the metagame on Friday and applied it to building a hate strategy. This makes sense with back-to-back events. Having so many creatures, especially Stoneforge Mystic into Batterskull, helps beat opposing creature decks like BUG builds (even though they failed to materialize). Spirit of the Labyrinth is strong against Gush and Jace, the Mindsculptor, without disrupting his own Dark Confidants, and Sean can tutor for answers to Oath of Druids with plenty of creature removal, Wear // Tear, and Aegis of the Gods.

However, the most significant adjustment would probably the removal of most dedicated graveyard hate, since there was no Dredge on Friday. Sean would have had a Rest in Peace, Rakdos Charm, and Grafdigger’s Cage to tutor for, as well as some Wastelands and creature removal, but that’s not much in most post-board Dredge matches. Cutting anti-graveyard cards gave him more room for answers to the rest of the metagame.

Everything Else

Beyond Vintage, Gen Con was a blast. I got to see and play lots of different board games. My favorite to play was Fortune and Glory, which has a 1930s serial adventure movie theme that I loved. I was also able to recover two relics, deliver a secret package to New York from London, fight Nazis, and win the demo I played, so that might have something to do with my enjoyment. My favorite to watch was Sails of Glory, which even in the demo did a decent job of replicating factors like weather gauge, shot type, and maneuvering for 18th and 19th century sailing warships. I didn’t get to play it, but I’ll look forward to it next year. Still, the game I was most excited about was one I brought from home, Sentinels of the Multiverse, a cooperative superhero game with mechanics that Magic players will understand quickly.

I also got to meet and play Vintage against Adrienne Reynolds, the MTG Ethnographer. She has a three-year mission to study Magic: The Gathering culture and society by participating in different events, groups, and situations, competitive and casual, before, during, and after the games. While on the surface this sounds like a great opportunity to hang out with people and play Magic for a few years, she does also have to take notes, draw conclusions, and write up findings about it, so it’s an incredible amount of work. You can hear more about the plan on the Deck Tease podcast, here. I’m very much looking forward to reading Adrienne’s reports. The game has been a significant part of my life for almost two decades, so by virtue of that alone it’s fascinating to me. If you’re interested in her project and how you can get involved, contact her.

Foodwise, I missed most of the big group meals my friends went to, but I did make it out to Punch Burger again. They’re a few blocks from the Convention Center, but it’s an easy walk past the Soliders and Sailors Monument and convenient to the Sheraton, where we were staying. They have well-cooked burgers and fresh toppings in innumerable combinations, including their specialty burnt cheese and burgers made from duck meat. It’s definitely worth passing up Steak ‘n’ Shake for this place.

Intimidated by the choices, I went with the Hawaiian burger, which included pineapple, ham, and barbecue sauce. It was quite tasty, especially washed down with a pitcher of the local microbrew and another one donated to the cause by Serious Vintage podcast fan, Jon Hammack, who also made top-16 with Grixis Control in Friday’s Vintage event. Thanks, Jon, and well played!

I’ll cut the article here and end with a hearty recommendation for attending Gen Con whether you play Vintage or Magic or just games in general. There are plenty of options and events going on of all types. Definitely check it out if you’re interested.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you at next year’s Gen Con!

Nat Moes

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