2006 Vintage Year in Review, Part 1

Vintage has undergone a lot of upheaval this year. New decks, new cards, new rulings on old favorites… the Vintage Mage has never had it so good. Today we have part 1 of the Vintage Year in Review, an overview of the first six months of 2006 from the most vocal writer in the format today. The cards may change, but Vintage remains constant. Love Vintage? Then you’ll love this…

2006 flung open the door to the boundless possibilities of Vintage magic, giving us a peek at the formats inherent potential. The trifecta of Gifts, Stax, and Control Slaver defined the 2005 Tier 1. In 2006 that balloon popped. The Vintage Tier 1 exploded into a proliferation of competitive archetypes. Vintage, at its highest echelon, is the most diverse that it has ever appeared.

Not only has Dark Ritual finally broken into the top ranks, but it has joined its Mana Drain and Mishra’s Workshop brethren with some powerful Bazaar of Baghdad sub-archetypes and fresh aggro-control and Blue-based control strategies as newcomers to the throne. Half a dozen different decks may easily inhabit the upper Vintage crust at the moment, and lots seem capable of taking home a Black Lotus. Twice that number regularly Top 8. And although there appears to have been some closing of these possibilities in the waning months of 2006, we should see this more as a function of player choice and deck selection rather than obsolescence of the possibilities that we gleamed early summer. The potential is there for 2007 to unearth and exploit.

Ironically, although the Vintage metagame has dramatically diversified, it has become harder and harder to perform. With such a diversity of decks to choose from, skill and experience have become far more important than the weapon you wield. And although you have a wide variety of decks to choose from, they are all grossly unfair by any conventional standard. The slightest miscue can leave you in the dust.

Let’s take a moment to reminisce over 2006 and see how far we’ve come. 2005 was an exciting year that saw Gifts Ungiven take hold in the format, Stax come into its own despite the restriction of Trinisphere, and the entrance of Portal into an unwary community heralding the return of combo. You can read about these developments and more in my 2005 Vintage Year in Review Part 1 and Part 2.

January, 2006 – A Mystery and Some Fresh Faces

Hardly a week into the Calendar year, a Milwaukee tournament report was posted that would foreshadow some of the major stories of 2006 and leave us with a mystery to solve. Conspicuously missing was the decklist piloted by then-unknown Eric Becker under the enigmatic name Intuition-TPS. What exactly was “Intuition-TPS”? The rumors began to swirl.

The center of gravity shifted as Vintage entered 2006. Out of the heartland emerged a new generation of names that would dominate the Vintage circuit in 2006 from such fringe teams as GWS and ICBM (I Can Beat Meandeck). Foreshadowing one of the most successful runs in Vintage history, Tommy Kolowith put his name on that tournament splitting the prize with Mr. Becker. Tommy Kolowith is easily the Vintage player of the year, having piloted virtually every major archetype to tournament success in 2006. Mr. Becker was no slouch himself, having racked up nearly half a dozen SCG Power Nine Top 8s this year.

Not to have its thunder stolen, the January Waterbury – held in the icy grip of Connecticut – once again reminded everyone why it is a bastion of Vintage in the heart of Winter. 184 people slumbered out to the Marriott hotel to sling cards.

Perhaps as a tribute to greatness past, or a strange twist of irony when the evolutionarily throwback makes one final dash at glory – as when Rocky stages one final comeback in the ring before his eternal retirement – Psychatog demanded one last day in the limelight. The finals proved to be a war of the Togs.

Josh Meckes walked away with the Black Lotus and a handsome trophy.

Without taking away from Josh’s amazing Top 16 run, it should be mentioned that Josh snuck into the Top 16 as the final seed through tiebreakers with a 6-0-2 record. Once there, he had no trouble dispatching with four opponents to take home top honors. This may explain why GroAtog failed to repeat this performance. It may be the kind of deck particularly suited to fighting its way through a heavy Blue-based elimination around, but may have some difficulty negotiating its way through a swiss in which more than one loss will eliminate you from Top 8 contention.

Traditionally the home of Control Slaver in not only the New England area but the world at large, CS had vanished from the Waterbury competition while Gifts Ungiven control, picking up some of the slack, made a solid run, although coming up a bit short. The highest placing Gifts player was Michael Heatherington, one of the new generation of Vintage players that came of age this year, at seventh place. The Gifts list that was popular in New England was the outgrowth of the Brassman Gifts. This Gifts list originally ran Mana Severance and Goblin Charbelcher as the primary win condition, but had switched over to the far more efficient Time Vault and Flame Fusillade kill.

February – The Case for Flame Vault Gifts

Another tournament organizer decided to try their hand at the Power Nine tournament structure and organized a Power Nine event in upstate New York. Ben Kowal managed to secure the Lotus playing the Gifts list that he and others in the NE area had been advocating for some time:

Here is what Ben said about the decks primarily combo:

Flame Vault is the most superior two-card killing combo in the game. It has an extremely low mana cost, with only one specific color involved. Both halves of the combo are immune to Red Elemental Blast, and given the high amount of colorless mana in the costs, these spells are very easy to protect with Mana Drain. Given the high concentration of tutors in the deck (3 Gifts, 1 Demonic, 3 team card disadvantage tutor), assembling these two cards in the early turns with a disruptive hand will win pretty much any game. Many people have made their arguments for Tendrils in their Gifts list– Maybe in YOUR Gifts list, it works great. But it’s a f*****g terrible way to win in the ideal Gifts build. There’s a ton of setup involved (and anybody who says differently is blatantly lying – playing nine spells and still having 2BB open requires a whole lot of assembly, and putting four mana artifacts, a Rebuild, and a Tendrils together is just a two card combo that costs far more than Flame Vault, is not immune to Red Elemental Blast, and has the added drawback of needing Moxes to play) and it’s far simpler to disrupt. If you are playing the kind of hand that can "go aggro" with Tendrils as you can with Flame Vault, you could be killing people with pretty much anything, since the requirement to do that is a busted ass early will, or a hand of like, Rebuild, Tendrils, Sapphire, Jet, Crypt, another mana artifact, and X.

Strong words indeed! Thus, the rivalry between Meandeck Gifts and Brassman Gifts took the level of a full-fledged competition for best Gifts list.

I ran an analysis of all of the Gifts lists that Top 8ed in 2005 and found that the Meandeck Gifts variant (using Merchant Scroll and Misdirection as the primary markers of that list) had the slight edge: this can be seen here and here. The central contention that I had made in designing Meandeck Gifts was that Thirst For Knowledge was suboptimal in Gifts. Ben Kowal, Michael Heatherington and company were now making the case for their list and for Thirst For Knowledge over Merchant Scroll in Gifts.

The rest of the Top 8 decklists can be found here.

And the Top 8 breakdown:

1. Brassman Gifts
2. Brassman Gifts
3. Stax
4. Bomberman
5. Control Slaver
6. Confidant Control
7. Meandeck Tendrils
8. Brassman Gifts

Notice some small changes from Roland’s famous 2005 Championship list. He has cut Thirst for Knowledge entirely from the deck and has added a single Bazaar of Baghdad, an innovation that Robert Vroman developed in Uba Stax.

Unfortunately, Roland lost to none other than Michael Heatherington in the semi-finals. Mr. Heatherington went onto lose to Ben in the finals. Is Gifts Ungiven the deck to beat? Is Control Slaver dead?

Not so fast.

March – Ichorid Unleashed, a Mystery Solved, and Control Slaver Resurgent

The trash-talking had begun. The anticipation had been building for months. This would be the first stop on the StarCityGames.com Power 9 Circuit 2006. Not only would StarCityGames be handing out a set of power, they’d be awarding two by making the tournament a double header. To top it all off, Director of Research and Development at Wizards of the Coast, Randy Buehler, would be flying in from Wizards headquarters in Seattle, Washington to participate in what was destined to be an orgy of Vintage insanity.

A hundred and fifty players marched on Richmond in one of the fiercest and most exciting Vintage events in recent memory. After a grueling eight rounds of swiss, a Top 8 emerged and a mystery was solved!

Day 1 Decklists.

The mysterious “Intuition TPS” list finally came to the light.

Eric Becker posted double Top 4 results with this decklist! His teammate also managed to make Top 8 and wrote a primer on the deck.

Eric managed to find another way to abuse Grim Tutor. But in the process, he designed a deck that put Remand into Vintage for the first time. The Intuition Tendrils deck was the combo deck for the Stax and Fish metagame. Although it had a slightly weaker Control matchup that Grim Long, Becker managed to slice and dice his way through the metagame by storming his way to victory!

Another story coming out of StarCityGames.com Richmond was a new Ubastax variant piloted and partially developed by the up-and-coming Colby Evenpence. Colby cut Null Rods for Jester’s Cap. Having identified a weakness in the metagame, Colby and his development partners realized that most of the decks in the metagame fold to a single Cap activation. Unfortunately, the one deck that didn’t was the deck that just won’t stay down!

Control Slaver, entirely absent from the 2006 metagame since its modestly successful finishes in Rochester three months earlier, reminded everyone that Slaver may be down, but it is never out. Control Slaver posted an absolutely dominant performance in March managing to snag not only first, second, and third place on Day 1, but also the Black Lotus from Day 2. The moment that the metagame counts Slaver down, it will always find a way back out. This should be a cautionary tale for those of you who are thinking about playing in the Jan. 07 Waterbury.

The most exciting breakout contender of the March SCG P9 was undoubtedly Meandeck Ichorid. Although a half a dozen meandeckers, including Randy Buehler, piloted the nascent Ichorid list in the event, only myself managed to take it into the Top 8 where I fell to some nasty play errors against Jeff Anand and his Control Slaver.

Ichorid was the first deck in Vintage history that can win without ever casting a spell. Highly disruptive and extremely aggressive, I think that my team and I created the premiere Aggro deck in Vintage. No other deck can ignore lock components and laughs at counterspells quite like Ichorid. Many other teams tried to abuse Ichorid, but according to Andy Probasco who counts himself in that lot, they focused on the wrong things. I wrote a primer on the deck and a Top 8 report explaining how it works.

This deck has grown even more important over time. I made some modifications mid-summer by adding Leyline of the Void and Unmask.

These developments, as well as the original list my team presented, have become the foundation for what is now several different powerful Ichorid archetypes that are on the very cusp of breaking through into the Vintage elite. Many of these Ichorid lists use Time Spiral’s Dread Return as a way of summoning up the largest, meanest monster you can imagine.

Day 2 Decklists.

After scrubbing out on Day 1, Ben Kowal once again made the case for his Gifts list. The key portent for Day 2 is the return of Grim Long to the metagame. This would lay the foundation for one of the most important developments in 2006. Based on the theory that Grim Long was the deck best equipped to fight the Control Slaver resurgence, my team made the switch from Ichorid to Grim Long. Although only I made Top 8, Justin Droba fell just outside of the Top 8. During the swiss I proved the point that Grim Long crushes Control Slaver by beating Day 1 Champion and most-experienced Control Slaver pilot Rich Shay in a soul-crushing match in which I defeated him on turn 1 of games 1 and 3. Here is how Rich Shay put it:

My other match loss was to Steve. It went to three games, but two of those games involved my not getting a turn. Chalice of the Void and Duress and Tormod’s Crypt are all perfectly good cards against Grim Long, but not so good if you don’t step foot inside your main-phase. Steve played the many amazing cards in his hand well, and main-phases became nothing more than a dream for me. As did making another Top 8.

In the game that I lost, I had another turn 1 kill, but since Rich had gone first, he managed to thwart my attempt to goldfish over him by countering the six mana before I could cast Mind’s Desire!

April – Deus Ex Errata

After such an exciting turn of events, the metagame seemed to be in chaos. Whereas Gifts and traditional decks like Stax seemed to be continuing the 2005 trend of cleaning up the metagame, the convergence of East and West and North and South in Virginia left us with a vastly different metagame picture. Control Slaver once again asserted itself as a deck to beat. Ichorid and Intuition Tendrils broke out of the box as new metagame contenders. The question for them was whether they would have staying power. Either way, Combo was clearly a metagame presence in both IT and Grim Long. The question posed by SCG Chicago as to whether Dark Rituals would find a niche in Vintage had been definitely answered in the affirmative. And the lingering question of Brassman Gifts versus Meandeck Gifts seemed submerged under the battles being fought in the SCG Top 8. However, this debate, however pressing it may have become, was quietly dealt a death blow through a seemingly innocuous Ask Wizards column.

Mark Gottlieb announced without much fanfare that Time Vault was going to be errated in a manner that would make it ostensibly consistent with the templating of Mana Vault so that it could only untap on the upkeep, if at all. With the stroke of a pen, the Vintage community divided itself into warring camps. Nonetheless, most Vintage players felt that there was something wrong with this decision, even if they personally disliked the Time Vault plus Flame Fusillade combo. Others felt more viscerally that Mark Gottlieb was pulling the rug out from under them. A number of complaints later and Mark Gottlieb reversed course and Time Vault was errated once more, this time supposedly to remove the power level errata on the card. The irony is that the new card text completely undermined the logic of the April errata.

Either way, Flame Fusillade Combo with Time Vault was now dead. What would that mean for the Brassman Gifts versus Meandeck Gifts divide? It turns out it would merely revise the terms of the debate. No longer would the argument revolve around the superiority of one victory condition or another. The focus now shifted to draw engines alone. Many Gifts players, including those in Europe, continue to prefer the Thirst for Knowledge engine, perhaps spiced up with a few Meandeck Gifts Merchant Scrolls. And on the other side, Meandeck Gifts advocates continue to run their Scrolls and Misdirections, finding Thirst to be subpar.

May – Consolidating Gains, Staxless Stax and a New Fish List

Having been born of the Midwest, Ichorid and Intuition Tendrils make gains in the insular metagames of the Northeast. At a tournament in Myriad Games, Ichorid and IT find advocates in the Top 8

Waterbury tournament organizer Ray Robillard wins an event, marking the emergence of his pet Staxless Stax project, arguing that Smokestack is a bad card. As Ray puts it:

Here is a new card coming out in Coldsnap. I’ll tell you what it does and then you can tell me if it is good Vintage.

It costs four mana (more than Yawgmoth’s Will, Necro, Tinker, or Thirst for Knowledge)

When you play it, here’s what it does:

You pass the turn. On your opponent’s turn it does:

You take your next turn. You put a counter on it. Then, guess what it does:

You pass the turn. On your opponent’s turn (now four turns later) it does:
The worst Misguided Rage ever.

Okay, big deal. You spent four mana, four turns, and a card to make your opponent sacrifice his worst permanent. It can’t get worse, can it?

On your next turn, you sacrifice a permanent as well. Ladies and gentleman, this card is worse than Misguided Rage.

Are you ready for the real surprise? As the more astute of you have already noticed, this is not a card from Coldsnap. On the contrary, it is a card you all have already been using without questioning its merit: Smokestack.

Yes, I am using this forum to suggest that Smokestack is a hands-down terrible card in Vintage. I will continue my argument and submit for critique a deck discussion about a Staxless build I have been tearing up Vintage tournaments with.

Judge for yourself, but Ray has made a solid case for alternative cards in Stax.

Finally, IT designer Eric Becker has already found a new pet deck to play around with: URBana Fish. In Chicago, Mr. Becker split a Mox Sapphire with this new Fish variant:

Eric is clearly intent on bringing Remand technology to Vintage. Before Mr. Becker, many Vintage players had never heard of the card, in spite of its popularity in other formats. Mr. Becker was bringing black splash Fish lists into the Vintage fold in order to abuse another favorite of his: Dark Confidant. Although Dark Confidant is arguably the greatest black creature to see print, it has had fits establishing a home for itself in Vintage. Mr. Becker put his money on it in a Fish shell.

June – Behold: A World of Possibilities

Spring was blossoming into Summer. The crisp mornings and clear skies of Spring would soon become little more than the gentle buzz of cards shuffle and snapping of Moxen and Fetchlands on plastic tables. Vintage players around the country were gearing up for a battle royale in Rochester, New York for the second leg of the StarCityGames Power 9 circuit 2006.

SCG Rochester would bring with it a migrant wave of players from our Canadian neighbor, hoping to instill some fear and respect into arrogant Americans of the Great White North.

Head Judge Matt V posted a notice for this tournament:
Preregistration for this event is now available here.

Brian Demars: I’ve already called and reserved my slot in the Top 8, but luckily for you guys there are still seven left.

Peter Olszewski: You mean three left, provided you manage to make it. At least half of the Top 8 is auto-reserved for players North of the Border – I thought everyone knew this?

Rian Litchard: Assuming we let you in the country.

Then again, we let Steve Menendian out of the house…

You should all meet Rian’s mom. Lovely woman. Great cook.

Where was I?

I published a guide to the upcoming tournament, whose most salient point was to emphasize this fact:

Control Slaver: 12 (11.11% of the previous Rochester metagame)
3 made Top 8
25% of the Slaver decks made Top 8
Control Slaver also won both Richmond tournaments. This is clearly the deck to beat. It is the best performing deck in Vintage, as well as the deck that last won the tournament in this area. My advice would be to look at the winning Slaver lists from Richmond to see the Slaver lists you are most likely to face.

The metagame was a collection of aspiring newcomers like IT and Ichorid, old favorites like Stax, Gifts, and the dominant Control Slaver. The neutering of the combo Gifts variants and the complete dominance of Control Slaver left a whole in a metagame that could now focus on the enemy. It was Control Slaver’s time to take a beating.

And a beating it took.

Take a peek at this Top 8:

1. The Sullivan Solution
2. Grim Long
3. Control Slaver
4. Bomberman
5. Dragon Combo
6. Dragon Combo
7. Grim Long
8. Control Slaver

The Canadians made good on their threat and put up half the Top 8 in one of the most astonishing Top 8s we have seen in recent history.

First and foremost, putting Grim Long back on the map in back in Richmond on the theory that Grim Long was the deck best equipped to wreck havoc on Control Slaver players everywhere heralded the permanent establishment of Combo into the Vintage Tier 1, a development that we live with today. For the first time, other people than myself put Grim Long into a SCG Top 8. And not only did Jimmy McCartney manage to get second place with it – a feat even I, the deck’s creator, wasn’t able to accomplish – but another pilot managed to make it into the Top 8 as well. Grim Long had now proven that it wasn’t a deck that only a handful of people could play. It was now a combo favorite of a much larger player base. And on Day 2, just for good measure, I managed to add a third Grim Long player to the Top 8 notch for SCG Rochester, making three Grim Long decks in two Top 8s.

1. Stax
2. Gifts
3. Dragon Combo
4. Grim Long
5. Control Slaver
6. Bomberman
7. Bomberman
8. Control Slaver

Importantly, one of the bits of technology I developed for this tournament was something I shared with Jimmy the night before the tournament: adding Force of Wills to the Grim Long sideboard as a way to answer threats like Blood Moon from Control Slaver. This move would lay the groundwork for one of the most important technological innovations of the year.

Grim Long was far from the only breakout story of Rochester.

Adrian Sullivan had imparted a deck he designed to team ICBM. Vintage Wunderkind Tommy Kolowith trounced through the metagame like a maniac with a baton. In the end, he beat Grim Long pilot Jimmy McCartney in the finals to make the Sullivan Solution an established part of the Vintage metagame.

The Sullivan Solution brings Dark Confidant and Erayo together in a Fish-like Aggro-Control deck that it full of disruption and answers in a tight design. When Erayo flips the deck can achieve a hard lock using Dimir Cutpurse. Most of the time, it’s just extremely disruptive. This deck had managed to beat the most fearsome speed combo deck in the format at the time in a riveting finals match. Indeed, Adrian Sullivan provided a solution to the Vintage metagame. Split Second answers may only make this deck stronger in time.

And then there is the French Canadians.

Here is what I wrote about my Bomberman piloting Top 8 opponent:

Laney had an enormous jar of pretzels. Periodically, he would reach into it and start munching. I was jealous. Laney was French Canadian, and he had his entire crew with him.

Bomberman made a huge splash, putting three players into two Top 8s, the same as Dragon and Grim Long. Take a look at this fascinating decklist

Deriving its name from the abuse of spellbombs, Bomberman is an aggro-control strategy with a serious control tilt and a combo threat. The deck will attempt to out-counter you and then beat you down. Instead of needing a full blown combo, once the Auriok Salvagers plus Black Lotus combo is online, the Bomberman pilot doesn’t actually need a “bomb” to kill you as it can just draw most of its library, kill all of your permanents, play a mess of Trinket Mages and Salvagers and wipe you out after playing Time Walk with a hand full of countermagic. This is a deck that has managed to perform well the rest of the year. Major props are owed to the Canadian designers who have managed to put another archetype into the tier one.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say some words about Dragon. Scott Limoges and Peter O had been quietly working on a stunning new Dragon variant. Take a look at this

Mark my words: This deck is fantastic. It has an edge against the Grim Tutor decks in this format. By the time Gencon came up, even Control Slaver master Rich Shay was playing this. Scott and Rich dominated the Gencon prelim tournament and due to some unfortunate luck missed out on Top 8.

This deck is most definitely one of the best decks in Vintage and certainly in the Tier 1. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. It is incredibly underplayed and I have no doubt that you will see it Top 8 multiple times in 2007. The technological advances in Dragon are enormous: Read the Ruins and Deep Analysis are huge improvements in deck construction.

The hidden story of Rochester is the overwhelming rejection of Oath as an archetype.

Prediction: About 10%
Actual Turnout: 13.4% (15 oath decks)
Performance: 0 in Top 8. Hell, zero in Top 25.

As I said, this was a terrible choice. There was a lot more Oath than I expected. During the first few rounds, the buzz in the tournament was the huge amount of Oath. The Oath decks are pretty much clustered in the middle page of the tournament results.

A great deck in theory, a horrible deck in terms of tournament outcome.

SCG Rochester is the most pivotal turning point in 2006. It opens up numerous paths to the future, establishing the trajectory upon which the drama of 2006 and even 2007 will be staged. Some of this future is determined in the finals match of the Vintage Championship. This future, however, depends less upon the decks than upon the community and the individual decisions of the player base.

Tune in next week as we take a look at the second half of 2006.

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian