Recently, I put together a Vintage Esper Control deck—essentially Esper Stoneblade—after some teammates and I had realized that Esper Charm is a three-mana, instant-speed draw two that has other uses as well. I included three of those and backed them up with four Stoneforge Mystics, four Dark Confidants, and some counters and removal, including four Mana Drains.
The deck tested well and did a decent job controlling the game. Esper Charm was a solid inclusion and was unexpected by opponents, usually drawing cards to catch up or forcing discard on upkeep to stay ahead. (I never played against Oath where the enchantment removal mode would have been relevant.) Unfortunately, my record at the first tournament was a paltry 1-3-1, mostly because its mana didn’t work with my plan for playing out turns.
I realized after looking through notes that my games were much better when I resolved a Stoneforge or Dark Confidant early. This may sound obvious; they’re excellent cards, so resolving them should be step one on the path to victory. However, the deck was simply not ideal for doing that. Opening with land and Mox made playing them easy enough, but playing them after turn one, when my opponent had mana for more counters and revmoval, put either creature at risk to get countered or killed. I had a few free and one-mana counterspells for protection, but my Mana Drains were useless here until I had double blue to go along with the C1 for the creature, by which point it was often too late.
Mana Drain was too slow and cumbersome. The double blue mana was sometimes awkward in a deck that also wanted to progress to UWB, and frequently, I would see a creature countered on two or three while I held a Mana Drain I couldn’t afford. Furthermore, without acceleration, I was often presented turn-two situations where I could either play one of my creatures or hold up (and telegraph) Drain. Neither seemed appealing. Moreover, the Drain mana I had hoped would power me into Jace or hardcast Batterskull usually went to waste.
Before the next tournament, I dropped the Drains and expanded my one- and zero-mana counter suite. Here’s what I ended with, just as a reference:
Vintage Esper Stoneblade
I finished 2-2-1, missing top eight, but barely. My counters better supported the cards I was playing because I had the mana to play both in one turn. Now it’s more likely that the Esper Charms are the problem, which was, honestly, not unexpected.
Mana from Heaven
One of the major differences between Vintage Magic the Gathering and other formats, even Legacy, is how mana develops. In younger, smaller formats, mana frequently develops one per turn; you draw lands and play them, aiming to play a one-drop on turn one, a two-drop on turn two, a three-drop on turn three and so on. Some formats and decks skip turns with acceleration—mana dorks, mana rocks, Explore effects, and so on—but the overall pattern is fairly consistent. A format’s speed is depended more on the top-end spells and how decks plan to get to their finisher.
In Vintage, however, because of the Moxes, Black Lotus, and other cheap or free accelerants, mana development is more seamless. Early plays, even on turn one, can include two-, three-, and four-drops. As such games can progress from early- to mid- to late- to endgame strategies quickly, skipping some steps altogether.
This can be a boon and a hindrance for deck designers. More emphasis is placed on powerful potential early-game plays that can be played off of one or more off-color Moxes (those that don’t match a deck’s main colors and that essentially tap for one colorless). Dark Confidant is a great example and a common first-turn play; other examples include Tinker and Gifts Ungiven. Cards with multiple colored mana symbols may be passed over unless they’re powerful, like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or they have a synergistic spell, like Dark Ritual into Necropotence.
Priority is also often placed on blue and black spells, where the bulk of the Restricted List resides. Not including blue is outside the scope of this article and usually pushes a deck into a creature-based aggro-control build. Not including black is often a matter of consistency, using more cards in multiple and making black’s powerful tutors less necessary. Consider a deck like A.J. Grasso’s second place list from Champs, which used four-ofs with the draw power of Gush.
Many decks in Vintage run a full set of acceleration—five original Moxes, Black Lotus, Sol Ring, and Mana Crypt. Mana Vault sometimes still shows up, though it often gets cut for another land because of Workshop decks and because three colorless mana isn’t a common need after Gifts Ungiven’s restriction. Lotus Petal is also common, though not being a permanent limits its use somewhat. Looking at how these cards work can help players understand how Vintage decks function and how you can build one to make it do what you expect.
Vintage decks may also delve into Dark Rituals for a more combo-oriented game, like Reid Duke’s fourth place TPS list from Champs; Deathrite Shamans as a mana-fixing mini planeswalker; or Gushes, which act as mana fixing when they allow you to replay lands you’ve already used as well as draw into additional ones. They’re a bit more involved than the scope of this article, but that just means I can cover them in the future.
One Mana, the Loneliest Number
Keeping a hand with only one mana is a calculated risk in any format, but you might choose to do so if you have a few one-mana draw spells (hello, Ancestral Recall), probably Force of Will, and maybe a one-mana counterspell. It’s especially risky if you don’t know what your opponent is playing, or if that one mana is a Mox (usually Sapphire). Workshop decks and some aggro-control decks are built to punish any decks that stumble on mana; if they prevent your first draw spell or eliminate your mana source, you might be sunk.
As a recommendation, having a hand with lots of mana against Workshops is generally good. Lands are free and uncounterable; hopefully you’ll be able to continue playing spells after a few Sphere of Resistance effects and Wastelands. However, keeping a hand with only lands and no additional acceleration isn’t uncommon, and there’s no shame in playing the one mana, two mana, three mana game in Vintage. Decks have plenty of one-mana options to lead with or threaten, from Thoughtseize and Spell Pierce to Vampiric Tutor and Ancestral Recall. Opening with Delver of Secrets or Deathrite Shaman will put you on a path to victory as well, since an otherwise defensive hand will let them win the game almost on their own.
Two Mana, How to Tango
As a five-of in a 60-card deck (six if you count Mana Crypt, seven with Lotus Petal) there is a better than even chance that a seven-card opening hand will include a zero-mana accelerant that allows you to play two mana spells, or two one mana spells. Frequently, however, your second mana will be effectively colorless: Mox Emerald or Pearl in a Grixis deck, for example. This makes powerful C1 two-drops like Young Pyromancer, Dark Confidant, and Oath of Druids distinct possibilities to come down on turn one, very much the sweet spot of Vintage. Any of these cards, and others like them, makes an important establishment early in the game since the advantages they create should grow as the game progresses.
Two on-color mana open up one-mana plays as well. You might be able to Vampiric Tutor for Black Lotus and draw into it, for example, giving you an extra mana (see below) or allowing a five-mana turn two. Even multiple unrestricted cards like Preordain, Spell Pierce, and Spell Snare can put you far ahead, digging into cards you need or stopping cards your opponent wanted to resolve.
Having two blue mana in particular opens up the possibility of a turn-one Mana Drain, which, though it isn’t as commonly played as it once was, is still a card that doubles as a defensive and aggressive spell. It used to be terrifying to see an opponent open with Island and Mox Sapphire. Countering even a minor spell with Drain not only sets a player back with a one-for-one trade (more efficient than Force of Will) but also provides mana for one’s own game plan next turn.
Three Mana, Best Friends that Anybody Could Have
With two Moxes (or Mana Crypt, or a Mox and a Sol Ring), the previously described situations are possible, either separately or in combination, along with some new possibilities. I’ll mention, though, that it’s often beneficial to hold unusable mana in your hand as a bluff. You may surprise your opponent with a four-mana spell next turn or simply have more cards in hand to threaten extra counters or action. That said, it’s also better to play out mana against a Workshop opponent to step up quickly against Spheres and avoid potential problems with Chalice of the Void.
Three-mana (and more) opening hands are often tricky because more cards that make mana also means fewer cards that do stuff. Better options include playing one of the two-mana threats like Dark Confidant alongside counter backup, if you can. As three-drops, Trinket Mage or Vendilion Clique both play the aggro-control role well, though Clique’s mana cost is difficult, and Trinket Mage is often better at opening a toolbox for answers than getting generic spells, even Black Lotus and Sensei’s Divining Top.
What you want on the play is one spell that can end the game quickly. Tutoring for and playing Ancestral is pretty good, but you really want Tinker. Launching a first-turn Tinker is a direct route to victory for any deck playing it, since an unanswered Blightsteel Colossus is fatal. Before the opponent has had a turn, their best chance to answer is limited to four Force of Wills and some one-of maindeck answers that are unlikely to be in hand. This is significantly better than a turn-two Tinker or even Tinker on the draw. By that time, an opponent will have mana in play that opens up additional counters or allows them the opportunity to draw or tutor for an answer.
Four Mana, the Noble Truth
Opening with Black Lotus and a land is a huge advantage, effectively putting you on turn four while your opponent is on turn one. Obvious plays include turn-one Jace, following Dark Confidant with Time Walk, or comboing with Time Vault and Voltaic Key. If your deck is geared for it, you might even be able to go off with Yawgmoth’s Will into Tendrils of Agony. Even defensively, an opening Lotus allows a player to hold up multiple counters, including Mana Drain, or a counter plus an instant-speed tutor or draw spell for next turn.
Keeping a hand that leans on Black Lotus can be tricky, however, because there are some players who will counter that spell on turn one. The leap forward that Lotus provides can be worth stopping, especially with a one-for-one limited counterspell like Spell Pierce or Steel Sabotage that won’t necessarily be able to deal with what might get played off of Lotus.
Investing an extra card in getting Jace into play can be risky as well. Jace getting Forced there is an even trade then, and even if he does resolve, the advantage Jace gains is slow and might be overwhelmed by a more aggressive draw from the opponent. There’s also the risk of opening with Jace, using his +0 ability hoping to find some counters, missing, and watching him get hit by Lightning Bolt (or Phyrexian Revoker, or another answer) next turn.
The Steps You Take
For most decks, against an unknown opponent, with most opening hands, it will be preferable to take an aggressive stance rather than a defensive one. Basically, unless your opponent has signaled otherwise by presenting a must-answer problem, or unless your deck is more reactive in general, like Landstill, it will be better to present a threat for your opponent to either beat or answer. Hands that put you automatically on the defensive would be those with mostly mana and counterspells, perhaps including some card selection like Brainstorm, Sensei’s Divining Top, or an instant-speed tutor that will help find answers you need. And if things turn around (your opponent’s plans or development stumbles, for example) any of those selection spells could be used to find threats quickly.
Against known decks, you’ll need to gauge your threats and control against your opponent’s. This is basically knowing your role in the “Who’s the Beatdown” framework. Having access to Tinker or a direct route to Vault-Key will make you the beatdown, while against decks like Burning Oath or Kuldotha MUD, you’ll usually be the control as you try to answer their threats, whatever form they take. Vintage decks transition from one role to the other quickly as cards are drawn or tutored. Even having Dark Confidant in play on turn one—normally an aggressive play—can be defensive if your extra draws are primarily mana or reactive spells. At that point, you just want to attack for two every turn and prevent your opponent from doing something better.
Vintage follows the same rules as other Magic the Gathering formats, but its speed, generated by mana acceleration, gives it an entirely different feel. Because many blue decks run so many tutors and a variety of different draw spells, evaluating an opening hand is often a matter of experience determined by trial and error and knowing a few common play patterns. Keeping your deck’s goals in mind is critical. Mine, for example, wanted to end the game on advantages from Stoneforge Mystic and Dark Confidant; others might want to use Tinker to win with Blightsteel Colossus or Time Vault; others might want to play Yawgmoth’s Will into Tendrils of Agony. Observe how mana will allow you to progress your plans while hindering your opponent’s.
And don’t be intimidated by how quickly some plays can develop. Properly built, Vintage decks will be well-suited to play against each other, either accelerating at the same rate or bringing the opponent back into line with disruption. The plays are powerful, but the available cards in the format help balance it. If you watched coverage of the Vintage Championships and are interested in trying the format, I encourage you to proxy up some of the top eight decks and play them against each other. You can learn a lot quickly, and will have some fun doing so.
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