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The Vintage Advantage: Tales of Woe and Wow

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

08_12 The Vintage Advantage

Vintage Magic: The Gathering is still going through the changes associated with Treasure Cruise’s restriction, Gifts Ungiven’s unrestriction, and the addition of Fate Reforged (namely Monastery Mentor) to the format. There’s plenty to explore, but I want to let things settle into play a bit before diving in. Feel free to experiment on your own; there are already some interesting and powerful Gifts and Mentor lists popping up.

In the meantime—while I play some more in the new environment and develop some ideas with some testing behind them—I thought it might be entertaining to look back at some great and not-so-great plays in Vintage. These stories are presented for your edification and entertainment by the generous members of Team Serious, my teammates, who among them have amassed several dozen wins in Vintage, no doubt.

Most mistakes in Vintage are similar to those made in other formats: a player is distracted or otherwise not paying attention and misses a critical detail or plays into an unwanted counter or removal spell. However, the format also has several errors unique to it. Because of the depth of the cardpool, unfamiliar cards turn up with some regularity. It’s easy enough to consider things like Force of Will or Mental Misstep when trying to combo off, for example, but what if you have to play through Bind or Nix or Dash Hopes? Beginning Vintage players may not even recognize some commonly played cards, or cards that were commonly played a few years ago. Some Vintage cards also have a tendency to be outright dangerous for their controller. Everyone has a story about losing to their own Mana Crypt or watching an opponent mill their own deck away with Oath of Druids.

I suppose the other danger in Vintage is hubris, the excessive pride that the gods punish in Greek myth (as well as Theros block). Many hands and plays in Vintage give the impression of being unstoppable: turn-one Tinker with Force of Will backup, for example, or Mishra’s Workshop into Trinisphere and Lodestone Golem or just activating Oath of Druids going for Griselbrand. Obviously these are strong. Of course they will win nine times out of ten, no question. It’s that tenth game that’s the problem. There are answers to everything in Vintage, and if your opponent can’t stop you, they might just win faster. Winning, of course, being the ultimate answer.

Great tales of victory (and defeat) abound in Vintage. Read some of these—take them as inspiration or cautionary tales, as necessary—then make some of your own. There’s no substitute for awesome experience.

Standstill Is a Confusing Card

Landstill is a popular and powerful control deck in Vintage. It plays tons of counters and removal, plays Mishra’s Factory, and complements all of that with Standstill as an unrestricted Ancestral Recall. Standstill can also be a tricky card, conferring a sense of security that may or may not be deserved. And if you’ve played in Vintage or Legacy long enough you’re bound to see some crazy things as Standstills break (or neglect to break) at different times.

I was playing in an event a few weeks ago, using a Delverless Delver deck with six delve spells. Against UW Standstill in round one, I had struggled but came back in game one after stealing his Crucible of Worlds with Dack Fayden. Game two he played Rest in Peace to knock out part of my draw engine (also shutting down his Crucibles in the process). We played some draw-go for a while and then had this exchange:

Him: Standstill.

Me: Force of Will?

Him: Flusterstorm.

Me: Ugh. Echoing Truth targeting Rest in Peace?

Him: Okay. Standstill resolves?

Me: Yes.

Him: Rest in Peace.

Me: Standstill triggers?

Him: D’oh!

Me: BAOM! [draw three cards] Spell Pierce Rest in Peace.

I should note that, first, my opponent seemed to have a terrible cold and probably wasn’t playing to his full competency, and second, this wasn’t the result I was expecting. I would have been happy to just have Rest in Peace off the board to fight through Standstill later and then potentially follow up with Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time. My opponent forgetting how his own Standstill worked definitely turned the tide in my favor, and I was able to get Young Pyromancer into play and continue controlling the game.

Another good Standstill adventure was related by Josh Chapple, who watched another teammate of ours make this series of plays at Vintage Champs at Gen Con a few years ago. Player one (our teammate) had Standstill in play for a few turns until his opponent decided to pick a fight and cast a spell. Teammate triggers Standstill and opponent casts Stifle on the trigger. (For those of you who may not know, this is a completely legal play that does very little. Standstill will trigger again on the Stifle, or anything played after it as long as the enchantment is in play, and the game would proceed from there.) Teammate thinks about it for while and decides to counter the Stifle, opponent counters back, and teammate gets the last word with a Red Elemental Blast on the initial Stifle.

At this point, a judge who was watching all of this unfold, steps in as the players are going to resolve the REB and says, “You guys know how this works, right?” Opponent draws three cards and then resolves the initial spell too. Our teammate is dejected, hoist by his own petard, as they say.

How to Lose with the Best Cards

I’ve mentioned before that Vintage’s reputation as a turn-one kill format is largely undeserved. There is plenty of nuance in the format and opportunity to outplay an opponent. Of course, sometimes broken things happen, and they’re frequently answered.

In Vintage Champs 2013, Matt Hazard was in a pivotal game three against Vintage Super League competitor Rich Shay. Hazard was thrilled to open with a hand of Tinker and Mana Crypt, which allowed him to put Blightsteel Colossus into play on turn one, all with Force of Will backup. Rich let the Tinker resolve and drew his card for turn. He played Volcanic Island, Black Lotus (crack for blue), Sol Ring, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Hazard Forced, and Rich—without breaking a sweat—tapped his Volcanic Island to play Red Elemental Blast, countering the counter. Jace resolved, bounced Blightsteel, and took control of the game.

That’s two absolutely disgusting Vintage hands smashing against each other. Sometimes, great openers get beaten by something pretty pedestrian.

Jimmy McCarthy and Tommy Kolowith, two great Vintage mages, were paired against each other at a Star City Power 9 event some years ago. In game two, knowing Jimmy was on Grim Long, a fast combo deck, Tommy kept an extremely defensive but risky hand of three Force of Wills, Chain of Vapor, two other blue cards, and Lotus Petal —no mana but plenty of counters. Jimmy had turn-one Tinker and would have had the option to get either Memory Jar or Darksteel Colossus. Tommy let Tinker resolve, and Jimmy (like Hazard), went for the robot because his hand was otherwise mediocre. Tommy drew a land, played Chain, and had plenty of counters to win out from there.

And sometimes average hands get beaten by average hands. At the last Gen Con-hosted Vintage Champs, Josh Chapple (from one of the previous Standstill adventures) was playing a UWB Wizards!, an aggro control list with lots of creature-based disruption that tries to win with 2/2 attacks. His opponent was teammate JR Goldberg, piloting a UR control deck with with Magus of the Moon and no doubt plenty of Lightning Bolts.

Josh led with Black Lotus. Lotus is a tricky card: if it’s going to cast one threat (like Necropotence or Jace, the Mind Sculptor) it’s better to let Lotus resolve and counter the threat; if it’s going to fuel multiple spells (like the pair of bears Josh would drop into play) it’s often better to counter Lotus and set your opponent back. JR let Lotus and the resulting creatures resolve, despite having Force of Will. It was a gamble based on drawing answers. Answers that never came. JR was swiftly dispatched, kicking himself for giving the tempo deck a two-turn advantage so early.

“That was probably the hardest I’ve ever tilted at a friend,” he said, recounting the incident. It put JR off his game for the rest of the event.

Unknown Unknowns

With the size of the Vintage cardpool, it’s possible to be simply blindsided by a card or play your opponent makes. One illustration of this is an anecdote that not only restores some of JR’s legitimacy as a power gamer, but is also one of my favorites. It takes place in late 2006, at a local tournament in Columbus, Ohio.

JR was facing off against the Voice of Vintage, Stephen Menendian, playing UW Bomberman against Stephen’s Meandeck Gifts. This was a contest of how long either deck’s counters and bombs could hold out against the other deck’s bombs and counters. Bomberman had the advantage in counters, but Gifts had the advantage in bombs, so it was close. The match had gone long, so there was a crowd watching.

At last, Stephen had broken through. With multiple counters in hand he resolved Tinker, putting Darksteel Colossus into play, poised to win in short order. JR could do nothing on his turn but cast Merchant Scroll. Stephen considered the mass of counterspells in his grip, figured there was nothing too threatening in JR’s deck, and let it resolve. JR found and cast a spell that had been printed only recently: Wipe Away.

The onlookers thrilled, Stephen was floored, and JR had turned the tide enough to win the game and take the match. Wipe Away wasn’t a complete unknown, but it hadn’t yet gotten significant play in the format and never really took off anyway. I would still be surprised by a Wipe Away today, despite its effectiveness against Blightsteel Colossus.

More recently, at last year’s Vintage Champs, Jake Hilty (who went on to make ninth at the event) ran into an unexpected card while playing Gush Tendrils. He related it thusly in his report:

Game two we are playing back and forth again, and then all of a sudden he slams a Notion Thief, and my hand of Preordain, Gush, Jace, and some sundry other stuff doesn’t seem quite so good. Then he Tinkers for Memory Jar and starts giggling—I like this guy!


“You never forget the first time you get Thief-Jar’d.”

–        Guy sitting next to us


“Almost as good as Thief-Timetwister.”

–        My opponent

I did not win this game.

Anything can happen in Vintage.

And Your Enemies Closer

I’ll finish with another story of my own, showing how easy it is to die to your own cards in Vintage. This isn’t even one of the many examples people shared about losing to having one or more Dark Confidants in play, getting Channel’d to death under Mindslaver, or locking themselves under Necropotence or Yawgmoth’s Bargain.

I was coming of a top-four performance playing Laboratory Maniac Oath but was in the middle of a bottom-four performance using a similar deck. The only change I had made was to cut a card from my previous build for Demonic Consultation, which not only could find Oath of Druids, Forbidden Orchard, or other necessary spells, but also served as a way to win with the Maniac in play, even without Oathing.

My opponent in round two was Kevin Cron, who was on UR Landstill, a deck with a similar amount of control, including several Lightning Bolts that could all be aimed at my Laboratory Maniac. In game one, I tried to put together a win using just Maniac and Demonic Consultation, no Oath of Druids. It was risky, for sure. I resolved Maniac (because why wouldn’t he let me resolve it?) and passed the turn. On my upkeep, I played (and of course resolved) Demonic Consultation for Mountain Goat. My library emptied. Kevin played Echoing Truth going into my draw step. I Forced and he Forced back. Lacking a library and the LabMan who would protect me, I lost the game.

I hope these stories have been both enlightening and encouraging. Enlightening not only in learning from others’ mistakes but also that Vintage is a fun, exciting, and complex format with lots of interaction and options. Encouraging in that you can almost certainly play better than some of the players recounted here.

Thanks for reading!

Nat Moes


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