When Vintage players put a deck together, it often begins ready to compete against big-blue control decks that win with Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus, infinite turns via Time Vault, or control and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Since various versions these decks (mixing and matching these and other win conditions) often make up 30% or more of the metagame, this maindeck strategy is usually well prepared. With some additional maindeck cards against Workshops, combo, and creatures, you’ll be pretty much ready to go against a typical field. Then you can work on improving your sideboard games against the other decks you’ll face.
Usually when I build a Vintage deck, I try to have a plan against Workshops, Dredge, aggro-control decks, Oath of Druids, and combo. Some of the cards supporting these plans will overlap. For example, Pithing Needle stops Wastelands and Kuldotha Forgemaster out of Shops, Bazaar of Baghdad from Dredge, and Jace, among other things. Likewise Lightning Bolt is good against Lodestone Golem and random creatures; and Surgical Extraction can do work against Dredge as well as against control and combo. The important thing is to have cards available that prevent you from being blindsided by anything but the most oddball outlier opponents.
The goal I start with is to put together 75 cards that will work against most anything, then for each game figure out what 60 cards I want against my current opponent. This includes cards coming in and cards going out, so if you have three Flusterstorms and three Mental Missteps maindeck, you want to have at least six more useful cards to bring in against Workshops, where these counters will be mostly useless. You might even include an additional basic land in the sideboard against decks with Wasteland. Remember it’s all part of the same 75-card deck.
Because Vintage is so broad and deep, there are plenty of options available to disrupt or beat different decks and cards from different angles. If you have time, test your deck and sideboard plan against representatives of each of Vintage’s major archetypes: Blue, Workshops, creature-based aggro-control, Dredge, and combo. This will give you an idea of what goes right and where things might go wrong in each matchup.
Workshops: The Spirit of Smashitude
Playing against Mishra’s Workshops, once you get past the first few pieces, your opponent will likely be running out of cards in hand. Hopefully. So the goal is to act early and often to deal with those first artifacts, and then to be able to get rid of a lot of artifacts in the late game, should something go wrong.
As such, Ingot Chewer and similar one-drop answers like Nature’s Claim are great early game, and evoke lets Chewer get through both Thorn of Amethyst and Chalice of the Void at any reasonable number. Ancient Grudge hits two artifacts for important card advantage. It gets expensive with multiple Sphere of Resistance effects in play, but it can clean up a messy board in a hurry. Trygon Predator can also make short work of most Workshop decks, though it also can be hard to resolve when it costs extra. At least it ignores Thorn of Amethyst.
Compared to these, Steel Sabotage does too little, especially if it has to bounce and not counter. It’s great on turn one and as an answer to Blightsteel Colossus out of a blue deck, but it will have to pull a lot of weight as a plan against Workshops.
The gold-standard of anti-Workshops cards is Hurkyls Recall. It’s efficient and deals with all artifacts at once. Play it on your opponent’s end step and they might even have to discard. You’ll want to have something to follow up with—a combo win is great, Tinker is nice, maybe Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and some counterspells—but you usually buy yourself a couple of turns of freedom, plenty of time in Vintage to put yourself on the road to victory.
Combo: Beating Speed with Smarts
Discussing combo in this context is going to mean nine storm spells and Tendrils of Agony. This strategy, which is used even beyond dedicated combo decks like Burning Long, can be explosive, putting together a win out of seemingly nowhere starting on turn one. More realistically, this is turn two or later, and each disruption card you play will push them back a turn. As such, you want to be able to affect them early and often.
The best effects are usually free counterspells: Force of Will, Mindbreak Trap, and Mental Misstep. Each has its drawbacks, but they support each other well. Many combo decks will play discard or their own counters to answer yours, so having proactive answers will be necessary Playing your own discard, like Duress and Thoughtseize, will not only allow you to hamstring your opponent by taking a critical card, but will also let you see how best to apply the rest of your hate.
For Workshop decks, playing against combo can be tricky. They may beat you on turn one or build up enough resources to play end-of-turn Hurkyl’s Recall, untap, and win. Again, your best answers are going to be more disruption early, and most of your Sphere of Resistance effects are going to be great. Chalice of the Void with zero or one counter will tie up their mana (stopping Black Lotus and Moxes, or Dark Rituals and cantrips), and getting Leyline of Sanctity into play stops Hurkyl’s and Tendrils from targeting.
One thing to avoid is trying to stop one storm enabler, leaving yourself open to other angles of attack. Grafdigger’s Cage and other graveyard hate, for example, will prevent your opponent from winning with Yawgmoth’s Will, but it won’t stop a win through cantrips or other enablers like Mind’s Desire or Yawgmoth’s Bargain. It’s fine to have Cages available, but try not to lean on them too hard.
Oath of Druids: Escaping the Land of the Giants
As with most Vintage threats, you can’t mess around when it comes to Oath of Druids. Oath decks today are built to win immediately, by drawing a new hand of cards with Griselbrand, setting up successive turns with Rune-Scarred Demon, or attacking with Blightsteel Colossus or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, thanks to Dragon’s Breath. Thus, if Oath resolves, you often needs to find and resolve an answer immediately.
Grafdigger’s Cage works great here as a permanent answer to multiple Oath of Druids (as well as to Yawgmoth’s Will). Instead of putting a giant creature into play, your opponent will put the top cards of their library into their graveyard and then draw a difficult-to-cast monster. The only creature that will beat that is the rarely played Laboratory Maniac. Abrupt Decay and Nature’s Claim (as well as other enchantment removal) are good as well, but Decay takes the top spot because of uncounterability. Nature’s falls to Mental Misstep, but its efficiency and flexibility keep it high on the list. For Workshops and aggro-control lists, which have a difficult time with Oath in general, Leyline of Sanctity can be a first-turn permanent answer that prevents Oath from targeting at all.
Creature removal used to be sufficient against Oath of Druids decks as long as it could deal with pretty much everything. Swords to Plowshares and Diabolic Edict were popular. Today, getting rid of Oath’s creatures, even at instant speed, can be too slow. Remember they’re probably going to draw seven cards, maybe to take a second turn and Oath again. Definitely try to stop the creatures from entering play in the first place.
Dredge: Breaking the Bridge from Below
Dredge is a linear graveyard-based deck, and because of that there are plenty of ways to stop its primary plan, make it hardcast creatures, and turn it into an awkward aggro deck. Any card that removes the graveyard or hinders access to it is a candidate for inclusion. It’s important to act fast, though, and the best cards will be unanticipated by the Dredge player, leaving them unprepared. A good dredge-hate package will include several different card types and effects, forcing them to over-commit on hate.
Dredge players are undoubtedly going to be prepared for enchantments and artifacts with removal like Chain of Vapor, Nature’s Claim, Ingot Chewer, and Wispmare, so even though Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void are the most thorough hate, and even though Leyline is the fastest, using them can be risky without a way to back them up like an in-hand counter or Sphere of Resistance effect. Rest in Peace (as well as Yixlid Jailer, another good answer) is also vulnerable to Dredge’s discard; if it doesn’t get played on turn one.
My favorite Dredge hate is instant speed, even though one-shot graveyard removal and targeted removal isn’t always game-winning against the deck. Ravenous Trap is difficult for a Dredge player to play around and can remove everything in response to, for example, Narcomoebas or Bloodghasts coming into play. Surgical Extraction is similarly useful as long as it hits the proper targets, stopping Dredge’s creatures from entering play. Multiple Surgicals and Snapcaster Mages can be very effective. If you want to get really radical, try Honor the Fallen.
Grafdigger’s Cage works to stop most of Dredge’s graveyard use, but it leaves Bridge from Below untouched, so you’ll be vulnerable to zombie tokens if they start hardcasting creatures. Alongside Ingot Chewer to remove Bridges, you’re in decent shape. Other potential graveyard hate, like Scavenging Ooze or Deathrite Shaman, is usually too slow to affect Dredge without backup like Pithing Needle or Wasteland to slow down their Bazaar of Baghdad activations.
Creatures: Let God Sort It Out
With creatures in Vintage, it’s not usually the first or second one that beats you, it’s when there’s a whole board full of them, each shutting down a different path to victory. Many aggro-control decks will focus on tying up your mana with Wasteland, Chalice of the Void, and Stony Silence; others will just back up efficient creatures with counters and disruption. In either case, efficiency is the key.
Since most of the creatures aside from Tarmogoyf will have three or fewer toughness, Lightning Bolt is great as spot removal, even against Lodestone Golem, and especially combined with Snapcaster Mage to recur it. Dismember will likewise remove almost any creature in Vintage, including mid-sized Tarmogoyfs, and can be used in any deck because of the Phyrexian mana. Even Workshop decks have run Dismember to great effect.
For getting rid of a lot of creatures, Toxic Deluge is great, the only risk being that you’ll find it too late to pay enough life to deal with everything. If you do find and play one, though, you can undo several turns of play from your opponent, including difficult creatures like True-Name Nemesis. Engineered Explosives also works along these lines and can work beyond creatures to take out troublesome artifacts and enchantments. Remember, though, that some aggro-control decks will be playing Stony Silence or other effects that shut off Explosives.
Watch out for cards that won’t take care of the problem entirely. Echoing Truth, for example, will work well against tokens and might break a small hole in your opponent’s defenses, but it’s usually too narrow and will leave the cards in your opponent’s hand for next time. Diabolic Edict, which can be great against a lone Blightsteel Colossus, is likewise too small an effect against a deck with several different creatures in play. Giving your opponent the choice of sacrifice is usually going to work out poorly.
There are plenty of other articles and resources for side boarding advice, and what I’ve said here will only scratch the surface in a wide-open Vintage arena that can include almost anything. You might have to combine your Dredge-hate and control cards to beat Worldgorger Dragon (even though they might transform into Oath or Time Vault control postboard), or your creature removal with combo cards to beat Elves!
Of course, the most important advice is to actually test sideboard matches, especially against more difficult match-ups like Dredge and Workshops, where you’re more likely to lose game one. Perhaps this was all just a trick to get people to play more Vintage. Surprise! And good luck.
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