Succeeding in Magic the Gathering is never a simple matter of owning the best cards or playing the best deck, knowing all the rules or being rested and staying hydrated for a tournament. All of these things help, of course, but the key is to practice, practice, practice. Testing games of Magic, one deck against another in realistic situations and matchups, means you encounter and recognize situations and opportunities as they appear in tournaments. You’ll learn what cards in your deck are best against those in your opponents’ decks and how best to apply them. Decisions become faster and easier, meaning you can spend less time and mental effort on the common plays and more time thinking about complex ones.
In smaller formats like Standard or Modern, there are frequently a handful of decks that will deserve attention at any one time. You might be able to test against three or four common lists and be reasonably certain those will be the ones you face in the next seven of ten matches, and anything else will be someone’s weird homebrew.
In Vintage, because the format changes slowly and because there are so many cards to choose from, there’s a wider variety of decks even though they’re often broadly categorized under five groups. (I looked at these in a two-part article here and here.)
Looking just at Mishra’s Workshops, for example, there are probably five variations you might face: Genesis Chamber Affinity; Martello Shops with Kuldotha Forgemaster; more aggressive Forgemaster Combo; Espresso Stax; and Terra Nova. These are all game-winning lists that all play differently. They exist at different points of the combo-aggro-control spectrum and attack with wildly different methods. A player might pick up any one of these lists depending on what they were expecting or enjoy playing.
Similar variations exist in other archetypes too. So when you’re building and testing a Vintage deck, you actually want to try them out against a sizable gauntlet that includes some variations on the five big archetypes. You won’t reasonably be able to test against all the variations, but you can get a sense of how your deck will function in common situations.
I recommend the following formula, making sure to include one or more decks from the following types. It’s basically the one a friend and I used when we put together a set of proxy decks for newcomers to play and to test against. We printed off eight decks of paper proxies and sleeved them up with basic lands. We’ll probably have to update the lists in a few months, but they’ve been good for now.
Beat the Best: Restricted-List Control
These are going to be blue-and-black decks, probably with a third or fourth color splash, that will try to win with Tinker or Yawgmoth’s Will. They frequently have Jace and will deal the final blow with Blightsteel Colossus or by locking the game with the Time Vault and Voltaic Key combo. These decks win on the relative strength of their cards. Though they may have various forms and be effectively different decks, they’ll make up the bulk of most metagames— often more than 30%.
What you want to test against here is how well your deck can deal with the format’s most common threats: Blightsteel Colossus, Time Vault, and Jace. If you can’t beat these cards with regularity, your deck will probably have a difficult time making top eight at an average Vintage event.
There will be a range of these decks along the control and combo line depending on how many colors, how many creatures, and how many counters there are, and it’s good to have a representative from both ends of the spectrum, if you can. Of course, because of all the counters and draw, any of these decks is going to be flexible enough to switch from control to combo quickly as different cards appear.
Our gauntlet, which we put together this winter using decks from the top eight of the Vintage Championship in Philadelphia in November and the previous summer’s GenCon top eight, includes Kevin Cron’s four-color Deathrite Shaman Control list and Marc Lanigra’s Grixis Control list.
Breaking Through: Heavy Control
Blue-based lists that eschew Tinker and Time Vault in favor of more control cards play very differently from those that do have them. Instead of having a final turn that involves turning Blightsteel Colossus sideways, these decks will win incrementally, often countering anything that matters and winning with creatures. However, those creatures won’t be purely aggressive, like Delver of Secrets or Tarmogoyf; they’ll have an ability that helps maintain control, like Aven Mindcensor, Gorilla Shaman, or Snapcaster Mage recurring a counterspell.
Probably the most easily recognized of this type of deck is URx Landstill, like this one played by Riley Curran in Columbus. Lots of counterspells, mana sources, and removal, and few win conditions. The deck is happy to have games go as long as possible because most opponents will simply run out of reasonable threats. Having so many lands (especially basics) also makes Landstill strong against anyone playing Wastelands.
Test against this kind of deck to see how well you can handle a dense wall of counters. If you’re playing a deck with a mana-denial plan, see how well it works against a deck with a lot of basics. They can be challenging matches, for sure, and frustrating if you’re bothered by the idea of counterspells.
Our gauntlet has Taylor Pratt’s Blue Angels list from the Vintage Championship, which uses Trinket Mage as part of its control package. For a more recent list, you could use the UW Flash deck by Rich Shay et al., which I wrote about in another article.
Resistance Training: Workshops
Some players don’t like testing against Workshops, but it is vitally important. Workshops make up 30% of the metagame in some areas, and they’re powerful, so you can often count on playing them in both the swiss and elimination rounds.
One thing to note, however, is that Workshop decks exist on a spectrum too. There are several decks that abuse the power of Mishra’s Workshop for slightly different goals: Terra Nova and Espresso Stax are both controlling, looking to lock out the opponent first, then win with creature attacks; Martello Shops is in the middle, using Kuldotha Forgemaster to get bigger robots but still in a shell of lock pieces; other Forgemaster Combo lists, often with Metalworker and Staff of Domination or Blightsteel Colossus and Lightning Greaves, just want to win, even without protection.
I recommend testing against two versions of Shops: a slow version that looks to grind away your resources, and a fast one with Kuldotha Forgemaster, so that you might have to deal a Workshop deck that can tutor to respond to you. Playing against Workshops will tell you whether your manabase is any good or not, since Wasteland, Sphere of Resistance, and Chalice of the Void will push everything to their breaking point. You also want to be sure you can deal with Lodestone Golem, the common thread in all modern Workshop lists.
It’s also very important to test sideboard games against Workshops. Don’t assume that just because you have some Hurkyl’s Recalls and some Nature’s Claims to bring in that you’ll be ready to go. You might need more cards or different cards, depending on whether your gameplan is going to be to control the game against them or have one critical turn to win.
Oddly enough, the Vintage Championship had no Workshop decks in the top eight, so both of the ones we put in our gauntlet came from GenCon: Jordi Amat’s Forgemaster Aggro and Anthony Michaels’s Terra Nova (also linked previously).
Digging Deep: Dredge
Dredge may be annoying to play against, but it’s still a critical part of the Vintage metagame, often coming and going with the presence of hate. Like Workshops, it can appear in several variations, but its gameplan is single-minded enough that testing against a middle-of-the-road version is usually adequate.
The test is whether you can deal with a graveyard-based deck in games two and three, so you need to have a version of Dredge that will have several kinds of answers for whatever hate you might bring in against it: artifact removal for Grafdigger’s Cage and Tormod’s Crypt, enchantment removal for Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace, maybe even Mental Misstep for Surgical Extraction and Pithing Needle.
Playing this matchup also helps you learn when and how to apply your hate cards. For example, Surgical Extraction can be exceptional, especially in combination with Snapcaster Mage, but you need to hit the right cards at the right times. And Rest in Peace is one of the best cards there is, but it doesn’t work if you can’t cast it early enough and it gets taken from you by Cabal Therapy.
Ahead of the Pack: Aggro Control
Vintage is a format characterized by big spells and effects, but those strategies are frequently undermined by the most unassuming creatures. Aggro control lists in Vintage usually come in two flavors: with and without blue. Both can present a challenge, especially as they are able to put together several different kinds of hate simultaneously. Some versions of aggro control, like RUG Delver, also play powerful cards like Gush along with a suite of counterspells and a formidable clock.
They can be tough to beat, especially if you’re unprepared for a swarm of creatures and their disruption is well timed. You might end up one turn away from winning because their Wasteland set you back too far or they topdecked a Force of Will to go along with the Tarmogoyf beating you down. Regardless, creatures are an increasing threat in Vintage, so you’ll want to practice against them.
We picked RUG Delver (linked above) for our gauntlet, but we easily could have chosen more. I’d recommend one blue and one non-blue if you have room for both.
Picking up Speed: Combo
Similar to being able to deal with Tinker and Time Vault from the restricted-list control decks, it’s also important to be able to deal with a combo list that wants to win before turn three. There are many different kinds of combo lists: Belcher, Gush-based (like I featured in my previous article), and Gitaxian Probe-based. All of These decks want to hit a critical mass of cards and spells and then win as soon as possible.
So, though Vintage is not a turn-one format, you still need to be prepared to answer broken turn-one plays. Testing against combo most often means stopping not only the first threat but stabilizing and stopping the second threat and beyond as well. There are often many ways to do this—directly, by countersrpells; mana-denial; discard; even winning first—but it might take a few tries to see what works.
Our gauntlet contains a Burning Oath list played by Stephen Menendian. This list has Tendrils of Agony, Griselbrand, and Time Vault in an Oath of Druids shell, so it has plenty of challenges for an opponent.
Oath of Druids deserves its own section, but I’m going to cover it here. In addition to the Burning Oath-style deck above, there are also Golden-Gun Oath and more controlling blue-based lists, which could fit into the Restricted-List Control section above. Vintage decks need to be able to handle the Oath of Druids itself, stop the trigger (usually dealing with Forbidden Orchard), or handle the creatures that get brought into play.
Playing against the common decks or strategies of a format is important to build skills and ensure that you and your deck are ready to face the challenges ahead. A testing gauntlet should include representatives of the expected metagame.
In Vintage, those are blue-based restricted list decks; heavy blue control; fast Workshops with Kuldotha Forgemaster; slower, prison-style Workshops; Dredge; aggro control, preferably with and without blue; and fast combo. And at least one of those builds should include Oath of Druids. In general, you want to be able to beat Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus; Time Vault and Voltaic Key combo; heavy counterspells; heavy mana denial, especially Lodestone Golem; a disruptive group of creatures; an early win; and Oath of Druids.
The lists I’ve linked here (which I chose simply as representatives; there are plenty of similar options from other tournaments and players) should get you started on putting together a gauntlet of your own. Of course I recommend highly-placing lists from recent large events, wherever possible. Search for the Vintage Championship at Eternal Weekend, Bazaar of Moxen, the NYSE Open for significant results. Morphling.de will also have plenty of ideas.
Finally, I’ve gotten a few mailbag questions sent to me but not enough for a full article. I know people are getting into Vintage now that it’s available online, and there are still plenty of real-life tournaments going on too. You can post questions here, tweet @GrandpaBelcher, or email email@example.com.
Until then, keep testing!
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