Many players are surprised to note that Vintage Magic the Gathering has a wide and vibrant metagame, despite many of the cards, namely Power, being auto-includes for most of the decks. There are decks and strategies for everyone. Combo and control (counterspells, discard, and prison) are the most evident and best known, but aggro and hybrid strategies are also present. In fact, many decks transition between major strategies quickly, so they’re flexible and a ton of fun to pilot.
Traditionally, Vintage is divided into “pillars,” broad categories that help define decks from a very high level and create a framework around which the format is built. These pillars, named after important cards from their representative decks, are: Drains, Workshops, Bazaars, Rituals, and Null Rods. Broadly explained, these are blue control, artifact-based prison, graveyard-based aggro-combo, restricted-list combo, and aggro-control.
One thing to note is that the five pillar framework of Vintage is not the same as the rock-scissors-paper metagame that is frequently used as a hypothetical model elsewhere. Each pillar does have advantages and disadvantages against the others, but it’s rarely a binary, win-lose relationship. Every deck will have its powerful plays and anti-strategies that will compete with or counter the opponent (or attempt to).
At any event, you’ll probably see and may have to beat any or all of these pillars, so be prepared. Obviously individual events and local metagames vary, but the proportions of each pillar will usually scale down from Drains and Workshops at a near even amount, followed by Bazaars, Rituals, and Null Rods. Currently, Rituals are on the rise thanks to the development of the Burning Oath list, which I’ll look at in the second part of this article next week. Bazaars and Null Rods are both powerful and necessary parts of the format’s structure, but many players choose to overlook them based on playstyle preferences.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to the first two of Vintage’s five pillars. For each one, I’ll show you a decklist or two and explain how they work, and then I’ll link you to some different decks that would follow in the same vein. This should serve as an introduction to Vintage’s major players. You can play these decks if you like or keep them in mind as you brew your own (which will be a topic in a later article).
Circling the Drain
Mana Drain, recently imitated but not duplicated by Plasm Capture, is the hallmark of the Vintage “Big Blue” deck. Drains may or may not be present in every Big Blue deck, however; the true constants are four Force of Wills, Ancestral Recall, and Time Walk. Frequently, they will also run black for a tutor package (Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor) as well as Yawgmoth’s Will, a devastating spell that allows the caster to replay all of the advantageous spells cast since the beginning of the game. Finishers in the Drain deck often include, but are by no means limited to, Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Tinker into a large artifact creature (usually Blightsteel Colossus); a combo of Time Vault and Voltaic Key; or simply attacking with Dark Confidants and Snapcaster Mages.
These decks should be attractive to Vintage players new and old because they offer access to the format all-stars mentioned above, draw spells and tutors to ensure you can find them, and counters to ensure they resolve. Blue decks are historically at the top of the heap for power level in Vintage.
Vintage Drain by Patrick Wild
A typical Drain deck, Patrick’s deck combines a number of the hallmark blue cards into a powerful combo-control deck, able to use counters equally to defend itself and to force through its big threats: Tinker for either Myr Battlesphere or Time Vault; Yawgmoth’s Will; and Jace. Dark Confidant and Jace are particularly powerful in combination, since Brainstorming with Jace protects you from Bob (so you don’t reveal Myr Battlesphere, for example) as well as draws three cards a turn. The Lightning Bolts are good against most non-tinker Target or Oath creatures and are great for removing Workshop’s biggest threat, Lodestone Golem.
Post-sideboard, most cards are to combat either Dredge or Workshops. Leyline of the Void, Nihil Spellbomb, and Echoing Truth all work against Dredge, either hindering their primary graveyard-based strategy or buying a turn by bouncing their zombie tokens. Ingot Chewer also helps against Dredge by removing their Bridge from Belows, but their main purpose would be to serve as a one-mana artifact removal spell that’s not affected by Thorn of Amethyst. They, the Hurkyl’s Recall, the Echoing Truth, the Pithing Needle (usually for Wasteland or Kuldotha Forgemaster) and the Mountain would come in against Workshops to prevent their locking you out before you can win. Think about playing Hurkyl’s Recall on their end step, then untapping to play Tinker for a giant artifact creature.
Against other Drain decks, the maindeck should already be strong. Mental Missteps counter important setup spells like Ancestral Recall and Vampiric or Mystical Tutor as well as defending against minor counters and removal. Dark Confidant helps stay ahead on cards to win counterwars. Bringing in Flusterstorm and Pyroblast helps maintain that advantage.
Creature-based decks, the Null Rod archetype I’ll talk about later, vary widely, so boarding against them won’t be quite so straightforward. The maindeck Lightning Bolts will help for sure. Post-sideboard, bringing in Hurkyl’s Recall would work against decks that up their creature threats with artifact lock pieces like Null Rod or Chalice of the Void. Pyroblast removes or counters blue creatures like Meddling Mage, and Echoing Truth is sort of a catchall.
Drain decks take many forms, from heavy control decks like UR Landstill to grindy Goblin Welder decks like Baleful Control to Bomberman, which plays all roles equally well. Historically, Big Blue decks have included things like Control Slaver, the Gifts deck, and various Oath of Druids-based decks.
Mishra’s Workshop, in a deck built of mainly artifacts, is essentially like having a Black Lotus to use every turn. This raw power makes several strategies possible, but the most common one is a prison deck that increases spell costs with Sphere of Resistance, Thorn of Amethyst, and the ridiculously good Lodestone Golem. These cards might be augmented by cards like Chalice of the Void, Smokestack, Tangle Wire, Crucible of Worlds, and Wasteland, all of which help ensure that the Workshop deck gets and keeps an advantage in available mana and spell-playing ability. To deal with blue’s biggest threat, Tinker, Workshop decks frequently play Phyrexian Metamorph to copy the big artifact dude or Phyrexian Revoker to shut off Time Vault (or Jace).
Including Metalworker also makes even larger creatures fairly easy to cast, so Kuldotha Forgemaster, Steel Hellkite, Wurmcoil Engine, Myr Battlesphere, and Sundering Titan are possibilities. Metalworker also combines with Staff of Domination and three artifacts in hand, to make limitless mana, gain limitless life, and draw a ton of cards.
Vintage Workshop by Blaine Christiansen
Blaine’s deck, a version of Espresso Stax, which uses Serum Powder to help find a powerful hand, exemplifies the power of a prison strategy. He plays nine Sphere of Resistance effects, including Lodestone Golem and the restricted Trinisphere, to make spells cost more, and then denies his opponent mana so they can’t pay. Lodestone Golem is supplemented by Phyrexian Metamorph and Mishra’s Factory to kill the opponent, but I’m sure Blaine also gets numerous concessions to hard locks created by Smokestack, Crucible of Worlds, Wasteland, and a Sphere effect.
One thing to note for new players is the interesting way the triggers on Smokestack and Tangle Wire interact. Since the controller owns all of the triggered abilities, he or she can stack them in the most advantageous way. Normally that means having opponents sacrifice permanents to Smokestack then apply Tangle Wire with fewer permanents to tap on their turn. Likewise, the controller can add counters to Stack after sacking and can remove counters from Wire before tapping on their own turn.
A Stax deck like Blaine’s should be well prepared for most Drain decks before boarding, but Oath (either combo or control) will be a problem; Oath of Druids is an easy-to-resolve threat that often comes down on turn one or two, with Griselbrand following soon after. Grafdigger’s Cage out of the board won’t stop Oath from triggering, but it will prevent the creature from coming into play, buying important time. Ratchet Bomb can also be used to blow up the two-drop enchantment (or the Forbidden Orchard tokens that trigger it), an improvement over the earlier Powder Keg.
Grafdigger’s Cage is also an important weapon in the war against Dredge, along with Relic of Progenitus and three Tormod’s Crypts. Bringing in eight pieces of graveyard hate is made extra effective by the maindeck Serum Powders, which can help find an opening hand full of hate.
Against creature-based decks, which have a lot of permanents and can keep up with Smokestacks, this deck can bring in a huge trump in Wurmcoil Engine. Resolving even one of these mechanical menaces not only provides a deathtouching threat that deals with things like Tarmogoyf, but also gives a way to stay out of damage range with lifelink. Duplicant is effective removal (more so than Metamorph, since it gets rid of the target permanently), but is often just as good as a 2/4 blocker against weenies. Here, again, Ratchet Bomb can clear the ground of small threats, particularly flipped Delver of Secrets and their 0 mana cost.
Workshop decks are often distinguished by a few powerful card choices and whether they choose to include a color. Goblin Welder is a natural inclusion as a way to put big artifacts into play and to restore destroyed lock pieces, as in MUD Marinara. Metalworker usually guarantees a mono-brown MUD deck, but may lead either to lock pieces or to a combo finish with Kuldotha Forgemaster and Staff of Domination. Earlier Workshop decks often ran five colors to have access to Tinker, Balance, Crop Rotation for Strip Mine and Welder.
That seems like plenty to absorb for one week. Most Vintage metagames have larger proportions of Drains and Workshops decks than the remaining three anyway, so you’re more than halfway there anyway. Next week we’ll look at the remaining pillars: Bazaars, Rituals, and Null Rods. After that, it will be time for GenCon! Maybe you’ll have time to put what you’ve learned into practice there, eh?
Also, as a note, the decks listed here are just chosen as examples, similar to something you might play or play against. They aren’t necessarily the best or most current versions, though they are culled from Vintage tournament top eights, so they were pretty good at the time. Feel free to edit or adjust cards as necessary for your preference or metagame.
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