ThoughtSeizing the Opportunity: Vintage Theory, Part One

Welcome back! This is the first part of what will hopefully be several articles about – you guessed it – the Theory of Vintage. They will focus on many different things – the most important cards, combos, and strategies. I will try to present my view on what makes the decks in the most powerful format work. Expect controversy, confusion, and an occasional intelligent insight while you read these!

It’s All About Ancestral Recall

Ancestral Recall. Possibly the best single card in Magic, apart from Contract from Below. Part of easily the most imbalanced cycle in the game: the infamous three-for-one (Recall, Dark Ritual, Lightning Bolt, Giant Growth and Healing Salve). Balanced versions of the card cost four mana at sorcery speed. Every deck that has reasonable means of producing U should play it. What more should be said? As it turns out, quite a bit.

As the number of Vintage games that one plays out grows, one of the things that becomes apparent is the brute power of the "draw 3" effect. The first turns of numerous games revolve around one (or both) player tutoring for, protecting, and playing Recall. Cards like Merchant Scroll derive much of their brokenness from the simple fact that they can find this powerful instant. Duress can disrupt your opponent’s draw-magic and Pyroblast can counter it. Let’s not even get started about how much of a blow an unexpected Misdirection can be. A large part of why resolving this spell can be so amazing is the simple fact that the average card in your T1 deck will be so powerful that drawing three can easily equal a game win – or near enough one. Even if you and your opponent empty your hands fighting over the big spell, getting a Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will or something similar will nearly always spell gg.

And yet …

Consider the following (very realistic) line of play – EOT, you cast Vampiric Tutor for Recall. You draw, play and resolve it. In effect, you gave two each of life, cards and mana for three cards. Sure, it’s better than a Night’s Whisper, but not by much! If you tutor it up with a Demonic Tutor, you’re getting a better deal – three mana and one card for three cards. A glorified version of Concentrate? What if they Mana Drain it and you Force of Will right back? You gave three mana, one life and three cards, while gaining three new cards and a card from your opponent’s hand. Still efficient, but not far above Careful Consideration.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Ancestral Recall is bad (far from it; see the first paragraph!) or that any of the mentioned cards come close to its power level. What I’m saying is that players should perhaps evaluate the emphasis they’re placing on the broken draw spell. Many a time that Vampiric Tutor should have grabbed a Tinker, a Time Vault, or an Oath of Druids. Or maybe the Demonic Tutor could have found you a Misdirection to disrupt your opponent while he gets too entangled in his own plans. Search up and Duress them just to make them nervous. There’s no problem in going for the U: draw 3 plan, but when you do, do so because you have a plan and you know that it’s the best play in the current situation, not because your autopilot told you to. Think, then act. Trust me, it works.

Love Your Graveyard

The malady.
As unplanned as it might have been by Mr. Garfield when he first designed the game, a player’s graveyard has turned into one of his most accessible resources. This is especially true in Vintage, where the cards like Intuition, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Lion’s Eye Diamond, as well as the simple act of drawing and playing lots of spells, results in graveyards being constantly full of broken toys just waiting to be reused. This is possible with a wide range of effects, ranging from "fair" ones like Goblin Welder and Regrowth, to the completely broken Yawgmoth’s Will, right on to whole decks designed to abuse graveyard interactions – the various faces of Ichorid. The ability to replay the best spell is extremely valuable and used to various degrees in multiple decks.

This means that attacking an opponent’s graveyard can be a very efficient strategy. Most decks pack at least some graveyard disruption in their sideboard (or they just plain lose to Ichorid) and some even pack it in their main deck. I think the latter could be a feature worth exploring in the future, as the ability to lock down two decks (Ichorid and the Iona build of Oath), combined with being severely problematic to others, is possibly too powerful to ignore.

The power of graveyards hasn’t gone unnoticed by the good people at WotC and they have created a large number of "hosers" – Tormod’s Crypt, Relic of Progenitus, Leyline of the Void, Extirpate, Planar Void, Yixlid Jailer, and the newest Ravenous Trap being the most widely played. They are cheap (or can be played cheaply) and efficient, but which one is the best? Leyline and Planar Void are easily the most powerful if unanswered, while Crypt and Relic work best when topdecked. Trap and Extirpate are both quick and unexpected (in theory), while Jailer sticks around and beats down. So which one? I think that this question can’t be answered simply as that because it depends largely on two pieces of information: who is using it and who is it being used against?

If you’re looking for a good sideboarding plan against Ichorid, the best possibility for you is probably a mixture of different answers. Everyone’s favorite BoB slinger will need to find an answer to your hate card, and the best way to do this as simply as possible is to use one type of card. Since you will probably lose game one, you need to win both of the next games. He will usually try and get lucky in game two by sideboarding in some generic hate cards like Chain of Vapor and naming blindly on Cabal Therapy. He can utilize his answers best when you put all your eggs in one basket. The other factor is this: if he only sees one relevant card in game 2 (for instance Tormod’s Crypt), he’s likely to name that when he plays his first Pithing Needle or Therapy. Imagine your embarrassment if you have 3 of them stuck in your hand! If only one of them were a Relic and the other a Jailer … In this case, the specifics of the cards aren’t terribly important because they hurt the other player’s game plan so much more severely than your own that they must answer them or they will lose. Never mind that the Relic of Progenitus, when compared to your Tyrmogoyf, will make a Squire look terribly exciting, but consider that your opponent has been reduced to hardcasting Narcomoeba.

And the cure.
One last thing to note: when considering your sideboard against the Zombie menace, resist the urge of putting in too many cards – this will make your own deck inconsistent and clunky, giving his the time to actually kill you by the weirdest of means (like the aforementioned Narcomoeba beatdown). Make sure that you have enough hate to give him a run for his money, but don’t make your own deck a piece of junk while doing so. This will also ensure that you have enough room in your sideboard against other decks. Having four Leyline, three Crypt and two Jailers in your board will probably mean you’ll win every game against Ichorid, but also that you have little in the way of specific disruption against other decks.

On the other hand, if your goal is only to disrupt the part of your opponent’s plans that relies on his graveyard, the question of which hate card to chose becomes quite different. It should be quick and efficient whenever drawn, should ideally not represent card disadvantage and, if possible, contribute to your own game-plan. A good example of this are the Leylines of the Void in the Steel City Vault decks that use them in combination with Helm of Obedience as an alternative win condition. Another example is Relic of Progenitus in a deck that has no interaction with its own graveyard, as it basically cycles with additional value.

The main point here is that cards designed specifically as graveyard-hate can and perhaps should be used more widely in a format where the zone that represents a depository of used cards in most formats often represents a valuable resource. Hate cards usually fall into two categories – long-term, resilient and card-disadvantageous; or short-term and hard-hitting. Which ones you use depends on your own deck and the deck you’re using it against. Put a little bit of effort into your choice, figure out which cards they’ll be replacing during your sideboarded games and playtest to support or reconsider your decisions.

Two Threats and Lots of Answers

Vintage decks have to be incredibly focused, as well as powerful, to survive. They have a line of attack that is hard to disrupt and will give them the victory within a few turns of it being deployed. Tezzeret has Time Vault, TPS has Tendrils of Agony, Ichorid has Dread Return, etc. They also have a wide range of cards that disrupt their opponents’ plans. Oath has counters, Stax has the numerous Spheres, and ANT has Duress. Decks which fail on either of these fronts will fail to make it in Vintage. They must have a way to prevent their opponent from doing their worst (even Ichorid can’t play solitaire, much as it would love to) and they have to be able to lock the game away quickly lest they give the adversary too much time to recover.

My theory is that every successful deck in Vintage must have two "threats" – one main and one backup – and numerous disruptive elements. They come in all shapes and sizes, though, so let’s go through these pieces.

"There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers," is a very famous piece of wisdom, but one has to understand its context to make use of it. In T1, a threat has to be very quick and powerful, so that the answers to it are as limited as possible. If it’s deemed strong and resilient enough to make the cut, it will often serve as the basis of its own deck: Time Vault for Tez, Tendrils for ANT, Bridge from Below for Ichorid … This primary way of attack, however, should always be supported by a backup plan. It might be the ever popular Tinker + Robot combo, Ichorid beats, resource denial, or Confidant beatdown, but it needs to be there. There are too many cards in Magic which are very powerful at a specific task to rely on a single path to victory. An opponent might Extirpate your Bridge from Below, send your Robot farming, or Stifle your stormy ambitions and you can’t afford to be left standing with your pants down when that happens.

The second important issue I’d like to touch upon here is what I view as a good answer card. It should either be extremely powerful (like Duress, Tormod’s Crypt or Force of Will), or provide some extra value. That value might be something like reusability (Darkblast), card advantage (Fire // Ice), or even the fact that it can help your own game plan (Hurkyl’s Recall in Storm builds). There are some decks that require you to run very specific answers in them because of their own limits - Chain of Vapor only costing one mana in Ichorid being the perfect example – but generally, you should chose answers that provide you with options (Rebuild) or other forms of advantage, as flexibility is one of the things a Vintage player should love to see. And don’t forget to consider the pros and cons of every answer card you’re considering. One might, for example, debate between Darkblast and Lose Hope as their removal of choice. They both kill the same creatures and each provides some additional value. And yet, despite the fact that when you’re only looking to kill one creature with it, Lose Hope is almost strictly better (not much value in instant-speed removal in T1), no one uses it. Why is that? It’s simply because the potential value of a Darkblast in the graveyard will far outshine the "Scry 2" ability of Lose Hope.

Another important thing to remember is that the best threats are those that represent answers (usually proactive) by themselves as well. Preventing your opponent from ever taking a turn again seems like a good way of answering his own threats and casting creatures that tax, annoy, or render useless most of his deck while also providing a swift clock (good threats, remember?) is a solid plan too. Many of the most broken cards fit only into one or the other of these categories, but there are many that do both: Goblin Welder, Iona, Shield of Emeria, Meddling Mage...the list goes on and on. Find these cards and decide whether or not they deserve more serious consideration. You might just find a hidden gem somewhere.

When you put all that I’ve said above together, it should hopefully make you see things a bit more clearly. If not, I hope that at least you will consider them, as I believe that even in a format as well-defined and seemingly stale as Vintage, there’s always room for innovation and progress. Even if your newest crazy idea never turns into anything more than just that, every single one of them will help you understand other aspects of the game. Comparing a new card to an old one might show that the old one is still far better, but you’ll understand the reasons why it’s better and why it was included in the deck in the first place much better. Remember – behind every correct decision are numerous mistakes, failures, and frustrated evenings playtesting against your mates. No great deck was built in one day and even if it was, its designer might not have noticed the brilliance behind it if it weren’t for the countless hours placed into designing it. Also, accidentally stumbling on the perfect solution, incredibly unlikely as it is, still won’t tell you if it’s the right one or if there’s something better out there, or even if you might have been better off focusing on something else completely. And without playtesting, you won't experience the pure joy one can obtain when his or her hard work had finally paid off.

Standard Interlude

Nice kitty bite head off.
I’ve been playing a lot of Type 2 lately so I thought I might write a bit about that as well. With Worlds 2009 having just ended (congratulations to Coimbra, China, and all the fine Slovene fellows out there!), there’s lots of information on the format right now. Despite the numerous predicaments, the dominance of Jund is far from the monster people were making it out to be. Sure, it’s the deck to beat and probably the deck to play when going into a tournament, but there’s practically no limit to other decks one might call upon if mising Bloodbraid Elf cascades all day isn’t exactly your piece of cake. Aggro decks are obviously at their prime right now, but there’s also some very viable control decks and even one or two combo decks.

After trying and failing to like the "Standard Dredge" (aka Crypt of Agadeem deck), I settled on Boros Bushwacker. I was trying hard to find a viable control deck since I’ve been playing aggro for so long that I really wanted a change. Unfortunately, my change of heart came at quite possibly the worst moment in several years so I just chose what I consider to be the best aggressive deck in quite a while. Honestly, how many recent decks were capable of killing an opponent on turn three? It’s also not quite as ubiquitous as Jund, so it doesn’t have as big a target on its forehead.

I also wanted to try Conley Woods’ Magical Christmas Land, but Lotus Cobras shot up in price again right after Worlds and I really didn’t feel like giving up a kidney for a playset of a card I don’t find particularly good anyway. The only control deck I considered was Grixis Control designed by Tine Rus, but I honestly think that the lack of decent instant-speed card draw has made its presence felt.

I played Bram Snepvangers’ list that he used to great success in Rome but I found several things I disliked: Elite Vanguard is easily the worst card in the deck, followed closely by Kor Skyfisher. I tried out some Hellspark Elemental, but am yet to be convinced on Earthquake and/or Terramorphic Expanse. For reference, here’s my current list:

Boros Bushwacker, as suggested by Mitja BosničMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Steppe Lynx
4 Goblin Guide
2 Goblin Bushwacker
1 Elite Vanguard
4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Plated Geopede
1 Kor Skyfisher
4 Ranger of Eos

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Path to Exile
2 Burst Lightning

1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
1 Ajani Vengeant

4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Marsh Flats
2 Teetering Peaks
5 Mountain
5 Plains

The sideboard includes some unusual choices, most of all Ajani Vengeant for the mono-red and Unstable Footing for Jacerator. I really like the deck so far and will continue to test it extensively. Expect a minor report soon!

PS: At a recent Legacy tournament in Trieste, a Slovene player took second place with a very interesting Faerie/Ninja build. Would you guys be interested in hearing more about it? Let me know in the forums!

And remember - when the Opportunity presents itself ... you know the drill.


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