Vintage Deckbuilding

In a recent article, I elaborated on some of the obstacles you might encounter at your first Vintage tournament. In that article, I gave some very brief advice concerning what deck you ought to run. That is a point which deserves further elaboration with respect to the Vintage format. Therefore, in this article, I will explain some intermediate-level strategies in selecting a deck and building a deck in Vintage. While I understand that there are a number of general rules for deckbuilding, I believe there are some subtleties that ought to be known with respect to Vintage in particular.

The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.
The first thing that you need to do when building a deck is selecting what sort of deck you want to play. There are a few things that can constrain this choice. First, you may just not know enough about Vintage to have any idea about what you should play. In this case, you are probably best off selecting a deck that is forgiving above all else. By “forgiving,” I mean a deck that you can still potentially win games with in spite of making mistakes. On the “Mother Teresa” end of the spectrum I would put Fish and The Mountains Win Again, while on the “Darth Vader” end I would put Gifts (prior to the restriction of Gifts Ungiven) and Doomsday decks. In short, you need to be making your opponent beat you rather than you beating yourself. As a general rule of thumb, the more creatures a deck has, the more forgiving it is. If you still have absolutely no idea what to play, I would recommend trying Fish or Bomberman in the current metagame, as they are fairly simple decks that can still be very difficult to deal with at times.

But what if you already know a thing or two about Vintage and are ready to take the “next step” in your path? First, above all else, you need to consider your collection in light of the proxy rules you anticipate playing under. While I know some people just go out and buy a deck, I would not recommend this. If you are going to buy some cards, I would recommend getting the bigger Vintage staples first (Force of Will, Polluted Delta, Yawgmoth’s Will, Vampiric Tutor, etc.) before you get the cards that are generally only found in specific decks, though they may be fully Vintage worthy (Oath of Druids, Goblin Lackey, Sphere of Resistance, etc.). Also, consider the number of proxies that will be available to you (which is typically 10, although it varies). If you want to run a deck that you need 11 or 12 proxies for, you can probably get away with cutting Time Walk, but more than that will probably be too much for your deck to handle.

That tangent aside, you need to decide whether you want to play an established archetype or a rogue deck (meaning, a unique creation of your own). If you opt to go rogue, more power to you. However, understand that it will be difficult to do and your efforts could very likely yield a suboptimal deck or even an already established deck! (I know from personal experience that I’ve “created” what essentially was GroAtog through my optimization attempts). It is also very time-consuming in general.

If you decide to go with an established archetype, the next step is to find an appropriate decklist of the most recent definitive build. The best places for finding these are on TheManaDrain and StarCityGames. Try to find a few lists so you can get some idea of which cards are mandatory and which cards are matters of local metagame or personal opinion. Once you’ve done this, you need to try to find a recent discussion concerning the deck. Your best bet here is definitely TheManaDrain, which, in spite of team secrecy, still has an absolutely incredible knowledge base for the format.

It is at this point that it is absolutely crucial that you play the original, unmodified build of the deck before “improving” the deck. Whoever built the original version of your chosen deck had a reason for each and every card he put in it. While there may appear to be choices that are suboptimal in the decklist, you really cannot get a true feeling for these without at least taking the deck for a test drive around the block a few times. More often than not, something that you thought was bad will, in fact, turn out to be good or will interact with the other cards in the deck in a way you did not anticipate. Hence, your “improvements” could actually turn out to be undesirable and you may not even know it.

The preceding paragraph is not meant to imply that you should never modify a deck. It is simply a word of caution that should be heeded in the deckbuilding process. Once you think you have a basic understanding of a deck and how it is trying to win, it’s time to try to apply some of your own ideas. If you have a specific sort of card you are looking for, you can type that card’s information into Gatherer and see if a card has been printed resembling what you are looking for. I am sure there is an older card out there right now just waiting to be broken by such an inquiry. If you’re not up for this method, there are a number of other sources to consider. The Banned and Restricted list is a logical place to start, as there are a number of cards there that are very good, but are sometimes forgotten or unable to be implemented because a deck doesn’t have the right mana base (Channel comes to mind). Other decklists of other archetypes might provide some ideas. A compiled list of Vintage staples, either in a post, an article, or a running tally, such as the one found on the site, is also a great place to get all kinds of ideas. A look over some recent set reviews for Vintage, which can be found on StarCityGames and MTGSalvation among other places, are another good place to get some ideas; they essentially do the work of going through the spoiler for you if you don’t think you’re able (or you’re too lazy) to do it on your own. Finally, you can literally just comb through your own collection and see if anything catches your eye. I personally have all of my “good” or “interesting” cards separated from the rest of the cards that I own. Sometimes if I’m looking for another blue spell and nothing comes to mind, I just look through the cards I’ve set aside to see if anything strikes my fancy. The point is, there are a lot of different sources out there that you can use to help make your deck optimization easier; you don’t have to do it all on your own.

It’s just not fair.
Next, you need to test what you build, for a couple of reasons. For one, you want to just get more familiar with the deck. If you’re playing a combo deck, goldfishing (playing against an imaginary opponent who doesn’t do anything), is a great way to get better and more efficient kills. You can even start pretending like he always has a counter for your first major spell, forcing you to find ways to work around that problem as well as giving you an idea of how fragile the deck is. Second, testing will tell you if what you have built is better than the original deck and how it can be further improved.

In general, you need to be asking yourself five questions when improving your deck:

1. What is the goal of my deck and how can I further my deck’s ability to accomplish that goal?
2. How will my deck handle the most prolific deck in the metagame?
3. How will my deck handle the “better” decks in the metagame?
4. What are my weaknesses?
5. Can the deck’s weaknesses be addressed, and if so, how?

Question one essentially addresses how you intend to win the game. Nowadays in Vintage, this can take a number of forms, although generally it will fall into categories such as combo out (e.g., Long), control and hold on (Fish), lock down the opponent (Stax), or just beat quickly for the win (Ichorid). Determining this for your deck should be relatively obvious for you, although a deck such as Bomberman or Sullivan Solution might allow for multiple avenues to victory.

“Furthering your deck’s ability to win” really means “winning faster or more securely.” Essentially, look for ways to make the deck run a little more smoothly or for a better way to protect your position. Winning faster can come in many forms, such as adding more mana acceleration to your deck or by adding more win conditions (or ways to get to the win condition). This is not to say you should drop four Tendrils of Agony in your deck and say that this makes the deck better because there is a higher probability of drawing the win condition. Instead, understand which cards you need most urgently and others whose presence is not as necessary until later (if ever). With respect to protecting your position, generally the cards of choice are Force of Will, Misdirection, Mana Drain, and Duress. There are many other perfectly viable choices out there, such as Xantid Swarm, Mana Leak, and Orim’s Chant, but the cards I just mentioned are the generally accepted ones.

An important distinction here is between those two items I discussed above and “winning more.” Winning more is when a card, while it may appear to contribute to a deck’s success, in fact tends to just perpetuate wins (or make them flashier) rather than actually creating the wins. An example of winning more would be adding Nether Void to a Stax deck that already has no problems locking an opponent down in a reasonable amount of time. While the player may be able to get Trinisphere or multiple Sphere of Resistance in play with ease, he might insist on adding Nether Void just to make it such that his opponent can really do nothing. Nether Void is not actually contributing to the win in this situation. Note that this is just an example and Nether Void very well could be a viable choice in Stax. Ultimately, you want to avoid doing this. Sure, it might be fun to do at home or online using Magic Workstation, but in a tournament setting, your deck needs to be working at maximum efficiency, not maximum flashiness.

The focus of question two (“How will my deck handle the most prolific deck in the metagame?”) used to be “How will my deck handle Fish?” but that is no longer the case. Of late, the question has more generally been directed at Ichorid and combo (namely Long and Gifts). While your deck may be able to handle the best decks, if it struggles with an “inferior” deck that is popular, your tournament success may be limited because you won’t be able to get out of the first and second rounds without a loss. Back when I played Fish two or so years ago, the defining card of the metagame (at least in my opinion) was Goblin Welder, bar none. A successful deck had to be able to deal with Goblin Welder. My solution was running four Icatian Javelineers and four Swords to Plowshares. As a result, Welder essentially had no chance of remaining in play, ever. Because I was able to neutralize Goblin Welder, I was able to neutralize most deck strategies of the time, making for a much easier tournament. Note that my choice to run eight cards as an answer to Goblin Welder was not solely for the purpose of stopping Goblin Welder, as the cards answered other threats as well. Regardless, try to find a way to make your deck at least able to tolerate the most popular deck of the metagame. Additionally, being ready for the most popular deck may not even require an actual change in your deck; instead it might just imply an awareness of how the popular deck functions and how to disrupt it.

Question three (“How will my deck handle the “better” decks in the metagame?”) is in the same vein as question two; it simply requires that you be aware of the dangers of the metagame from another angle. While the popular deck is more likely to get you in the earlier rounds, the better decks are more likely to show their faces in the later rounds, assuming you have success early on. Again, know what these decks do and know how to disrupt them.

Every deck has its weaknesses.
I separated questions four (“What are my weaknesses?”) and five (“Can the deck’s weaknesses be addressed, and if so, how?) because I wanted to place emphasis on question five. While identifying the goal of your deck and achieving that goal easily should go hand in hand, neutralizing weaknesses is not necessarily something that should be pursued. Why? Because sometimes it takes so many card slots to minimize a weakness that you give up too much in another area to make the sacrifice worthwhile. A classic example of this would be splashing for a fourth or fifth color in order to allow for an off-color sideboard answer. While this might make your deck more robust against one weakness, Wasteland will begin to have a field day against you as the number of nonbasic lands in your deck goes ever higher. Ultimately, you have to understand that no deck is perfect. Every deck has its weaknesses, some of which can be addressed, and some of which cannot. While you are the final arbiter on what goes into your deck, understand that sometimes you just have to accept that your deck will not be able to handle certain types of situations.

Following on this idea, when looking at decklists online, do not show as much respect to others’ sideboard selections as you would the maindeck. First, sideboards notoriously do not get the attention that they deserve from deckbuilders (myself included). While deckbuilders will agonize for hours over the sixtieth slot of a deck, they will oftentimes throw the sideboard together in half an hour, if that. Second, the threats that their sideboards are designed to stop may not be the same threats that you need to stop, either because your metagame is completely different from theirs or because too much time has passed since the construction of the original deck. That being said, the old sideboards definitely have their uses in providing some ideas; just don’t get carried away in implementing them.

I want to reemphasize that the most important thing with Vintage deckbuilding is to buy cards only within your means. Use the proxies; that is what they are there for. White-bordered cards also work just as well as black-bordered cards. After that however, the choices are yours and are virtually endless, especially with the gigantic card pool available to the Vintage player. While playing the game itself is fun, choosing and building a deck can also be a fulfilling activity if you go about it in the right way. I wish you well in your deckbuilding endeavors.


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