Vintage Magic: The Gathering is a rewarding format to get into. The community is cozy and tight-knit, there are excellent pre- and post-tournament meals, and the gameplay itself is exciting and challenging, often in wholly different ways than are found in other formats.
Vintage can also be difficult to get into. Cards are unfamiliar, for one, covering the whole history of Magic. Decks in Vintage are unlike those in other formats, but many decks in Vintage share the same framework of cards. To the uninitiated, Big Blue decks will all be similar, and many Workshop decks will look alike. Even after starting on one deck, it can be difficult to switch to another that shares 50 maindeck cards with it because they can play totally differently.
So, how does a player—novice or experienced—select a deck to play at their next event? And how do new decks get developed?
As with any complicated decision, there’s a lot that goes into it.
For one, Vintage decks have a lot of history behind them. My teammate Jake Hilty pointed me to this topic. His thesis was that Vintage players, moreso than in other formats, are likely to look back at previous decklists for inspiration. However, unlike in Legacy, where a deck like Threshold can have list of events essentially allowing card-by-card changes to be tracked over years, a Vintage deck’s pedigree will be spottier. Vintage players will pick up an old deck as they think the environment is right, or a new card has been printed (or unrestricted) that might help the strategy, but it’s not a direct lineage. There will be branches, some that merge and some that end abruptly. There will be flashes as a new card makes an old deck suddenly playable again for a time. Part of this is simply because there aren’t as many Vintage players, so decks are less likely to be continuously championed as things come and go.
Players might also pick up old decks simply because they enjoyed playing them. Many Vintage players have played the format for a long time, and of course they’ve built preferences for what they like to pilot, either because of tournament successes or just because they like how it runs. As a result, many players gain reputations as “Workshop pilots” or “blue players” or “combo artists,” and are likely to gravitate toward those options when they’re available. (If you ever play against Nam Tran or Mark Trogdon, for example, they’ll be on Workshops nine times out of ten. You can keep that in mind when mulliganing, but it probably won’t do any good.)
This approach to the format has benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, sticking with one archetype makes one into an expert quickly. After a few events you become familiar with not only the ins and outs of your own deck, but also those of your opponents’ reactions. As you experience situations, you’ll naturally remember what worked and what didn’t and be able to refer to those memories in future scenarios. Consider it a bag of tricks.
The downside of course is that opponents will learn your tendencies too. If you play combo constantly, for example, opponents will start to mulligan to Force of Will every game or work harder to open with a Sphere of Resistance and Chalice of the Void. This is exactly what I ran into playing Belcher for years; anyone who knew my reputation knew to expect a turn one combo. Thus, I had a harder time, despite my focus. (I also maindecked five Pyroblast effects.)
And as opponents fall into a groove against you, you can consider switching decks to throw them off, but you may find your skills with other archetypes have fallen. When I switched off of Belcher, I played everything too aggressively, trying to attack everything head on as I had been doing, despite for once being the control role in some matchups. It took a lot of practice and a lot of losses to get into other decks.
Matt Hazard’s articles on this website demonstrate the historical nature of Vintage decks and their future development well. For his modern-day poopdecks, he draws inspiration from previous decks in Vintage and other formats, pointing out where strategies and cards changed and developed. He synthesizes everything into a new (somewhat) playable deck, taking into account the current metagame and available cards. Part of the difficulty comes in being aware of all the relevant, available cards. Sometimes this can mean crawling through Gatherer looking for specific keywords and abilities.
I’m actually a big fan of taking old decks, updating them for the current metagame and card pool, and seeing how they go. Usually it’s because I thought it was neat the first time it was played, but I didn’t get a chance to try it because I was too busy playing Belcher. Sometimes (Five-Color Stax, Uba Stax) this doesn’t go well. If I’m lucky I discover the problems in testing and can put the deck aside for another year. Other times (Tyrant Oath), I can point to some success. Maybe opponents were unprepared or unfamiliar with whatever I was trying to do. Maybe decks with powerful cards continue to be playable longer than we give them credit.
This is partly why, when Gifts Ungiven was unrestricted, I started my testing with Meandeck Gifts, one of the decks from Gifts’ previous reign that best used the card. Of course I had to make some adjustments because Merchant Scroll and Brainstorm are still restricted, but the lists are obviously similar, including the one-of Recoup for Gifts piles. After testing, the old-style deck was evidently behind the power curve compared to other current lists, but it was close. Adding more powerful cards—like Gush, or Stephen Menendian’s suggestion of Snapcaster Mages—was, and still is, next on the block.
Interesting, two cards that I don’t think got the full development treatment were Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise. Treasure Cruise was immediately recognized as having Vintage potential, but that potential was immediately funneled into Delver decks and never went any further. Cruise draws three cards for one mana with a drawback of playing other Magic: The Gathering cards, so its surprising to me that its use never really progressed beyond an obvious deck that already existed when Cruise was printed.
Dig Through Time was handled similarly. Again, this is my opinion, but that card is criminally underplayed, especially in light of Treasure Cruise’s success and eventual restriction. The top seven cards of a Vintage deck are generally awesome, and key cards in the format for blue decks have traditionally been one- and two-card combos like Tinker, Oath, and Time Vault-Voltaic Key. It’s an instant to boot, but few people seemed to be testing with it as a four-of. Or perhaps people were trying it and not having success.
Maybe that’s changing. I played it as a four of in the Gush Tendrils list I wrote about here. Now, Kai Budde and Luis Scott-Vargas are playing a full playset in the Omnitell Oath decks they’re playing in the Vintage Super League, and Menendian has all four in his Monastery Mentor Control list. Probably the better, more abusive use of the card is in the Oath deck, where it can be used to find Oath of Druids or put Show and Tell together with Omniscience or a fat creature.
Omnitell Oath by LSV
That’s just a neat, fun looking list. It definitely has some powerful plays, and the addition of Boseiju is a great one that hasn’t gotten a lot of play in Vintage. It also segues nicely into metagaming. Boseiju is a great card against opposing blue decks, dropping huge uncounterable bombs on an opponent without significant drawback. It’s not as good, however, against Workshop decks; first because of Wasteland, and second because they won’t counter your spells anyway. Playing Boseiju, then, is a reaction to the expected Vintage Super League opponents. Having one of the two postboard Boseijus would be a huge coup against the mass of counters played by Delver and Mentor decks.
It’s an oversimplification since choosing one card doesn’t equate to choosing a deck, but a good read on the format like this makes choosing a deck easier. Maybe you want to play Workshops in a room full of Gush decks with light manabases; maybe you want to play fast combo against a bunch of Workshop decks with no counters; or maybe you want to build a hate decks specifically for the metagame you expect. There are plenty of targeted hate cards in all five colors for Vintage’s common chokepoints: card drawing, tutoring, cheap spells, artifacts, non-basic lands, and so on. As the format homogenizes around good decks (say Workshops and Delver) it gets easier to focus an attack.
If you’d rather focus on what you’re doing and not worry about your opponent’s deck, Vintage also gives you the option to make some very cool plays. If you need a venue to Channel into Kaervek’s Torch (or Emrakul), power up your High Tide deck with Frantic Search and finish with Mind’s Desire, or play Wheel of Fortune with Notion Thief in play, definitely check out Vintage. In fact, check out this deck:
Glass City Vault by Geoff Moes
Want to draw 15+ cards a turn?
Find the broken cards you like and go nuts.
As in other formats, of course netdecking is a tried-and-true method for finding something to play. However, if you’re new to Vintage, you might need a source. Checking tournament reports on The Mana Drain is a reasonable place to start, and Morphling.de and MTG Top 8 aggregate those lists as well, making them searchable.
There are a few potential choices right now that are not only powerful but are also accessible, if you’re coming from other formats. I’d recommend checking out UR Delver with Young Pyromancers and UW Monastery Mentor, as well as Martello Shops with Kuldotha Forgemasters and Ubg Griselbrand Oath. These decks have straightforward gameplans, powerful cards that will keep up with the format at large, and tactics that will build on those people are familiar with from other formats.
Of course, if you want to dive right in with more broken cards and really get the true Vintage flavor, I’m not one to discourage. (Those cards are more fun anyway.)
Ultimately, there are a lot of options in Vintage. You can play to win with a top-tier deck or a laser-focused hate deck; new cards or the same thing you always use; or just for the experience of doing something crazy. The best part is that, at most local events, even an “fun” deck can get lucky and win its rounds, as long as its craziness is also game winning. The best way to learn is just to pick or build a deck that speaks to you and give it a shot.
Trackback from your site.