City of Brass – Grudge Match 2: A Vintage Love Story

Tuesday, January 11th – Andy Probasco tells an epic tale about a tournament in New York where he played against monkeys and lost five cards from his deck with Power in it, all while playing some exciting matches and making deep plays.

There’s an old joke that gets told by Vintage players. It goes something like this:

In Vintage,
The early game is when you register your deck,
The midgame is when you mulligan,
And the late game is turn one.

The specifics vary year to year. After Dredge decks cropped up, some people switched it to “The midgame is when you resolve pre-game Leylines.” The general idea is always the same: “Ha ha, Vintage is funny because it’s so fast.” This general impression is shared by a lot of Magic players.

Over the years I’ve heard countless back-and-forths between pro-Vintage and anti-Vintage advocates. Some debates are about price, some about “elitism” or tournament support. Most of the time though, if there’s a conversation about whether someone should or shouldn’t enjoy Vintage, it’s a conversation about speed.

The truth is that yes, sometimes the match ends before the round clock is up. Sometimes it ends

before. In the immortal words of Oscar Tan, “This is Type 1. Broken things happen.” For better or for worse, many players have been drawn to, or repelled from, Vintage for this reason. After the last tournament I played in, where I went 0-2 drop with a Dredge deck, I was inching towards the “repelled” camp.

I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to go to the Grudge Match 2. The Grudge Match tournaments are run to draw different Vintage communities together. There’s a scene in New York, New England, and Pennsylvania, but they rarely show up to the same events. The first Grudge Match event was held in New England. Alongside the tournament, a kind of “may the best region win” sub-tournament was held.

Each geographical region gets to vote for three representatives and the three-man team with the best overall record wins. There’s some small additional prize, but the real draw is being able to lord it over the other team’s head. Much trash talking ensues. It’s all in good fun, and the last Grudge Match was great, but sometimes you get stuck in a rut, you know?

The Grudge Match 2 was going to be held in Long Island, New York. I wanted to support it, but I’d also been too busy at work to really prepare for it. What really pushed me to make the trip were you, dear readers. I was hoping that, despite my lackluster performances of late, some part of the event would be salvageable — something would happen that was interesting enough to read.

I was not disappointed.

The Grudge Match 2

I was sick of playing Dredge, but I didn’t have any new lists to work with. I wanted to give Gush a shot at a big event, so I found three lists that I
liked: those of
Rubén González

Mark Lanigra

, and
Brad Granberry

. The night before the event, I laid out the cards for each deck and made a kind of Venn diagram. At three corners, I placed all cards unique to one deck, and in between those, I placed the cards shared by two decks. In the center, I placed each card shared by all three decks. From there, I picked through the cards I liked and the cards I didn’t, weighing a little towards ones that showed up in two lists. I added Jace because, well, I like Jace and ended up with this list:

Grudge Match 2
A tournament in Selden, NY on 1/10/2011
90 players

Before the tournament, I played some casual games with some friends. When making sure my decklist was accurate, I noticed my old, blue sleeves were in rough shape. I asked some friends to help me re-sleeve with the pretty Mox Opal sleeves I got at Gen Con last year. More on this later.

The Late Game: Turn One

In round one, I was paired against a total monkey.

This isn’t a derogatory term for a bad Magic player.

The round one pairings say “table 11 — Probasco, Andrew — Monkey, Belch” (I’m not making this up).

At table 11, I get in my seat, reach down, and dig through my backpack for my deck. My opponent sits down across from me, so I look up to shake his hand.

It’s a monkey. Rather, someone in a realistic, latex monkey mask and a hooded sweatshirt.

I’m not entirely sure what I expected.

“Belch Monkey” wins the roll and elects to go first, using grunts and hand gestures. (I assure you, I’m not making this up.) I have a slow-ish hand with no turn-one play but a Mana Drain and lots of mana.

He puts his cards on the table with a Serum Powder on top and draws another seven. While he’s thinking about his hand, I think about my mine, and it doesn’t feel very strong against a Dredge deck (the most common deck to use Serum Powder). My best chance to win an un-sideboarded game against Dredge is a racing hand. Something with lots of tutors and mana could work or something with Fastbond and a few draw spells. Even a Tinker hand is probably too slow unless it also has a Timetwister to slow them down. This Mana Drain hand isn’t going to cut it.

I want to know if he removed anything relevant with the Serum Powder, so I pick up the pile and glance through it. I flip through the cards one by one and see tons of artifact mana — this isn’t a Dredge deck.

So now this has to be a Workshop deck. You don’t see Serum Powder in Workshop decks around New England, but I hear that it shows up in New York. Now my hand starts to look more interesting. A Lodestone Golem or some fast Metalworker play could hurt me, but I’d be comfortable against a Sphere, Chalice, or Crucible opening with all these basics. It’s not an easy call, but it could be a keeper.

Then I get to the last card of the seven, and it’s a Force of Will. I’m totally lost. The only deck I can even imagine playing Force of Will and Serum Powder is something hyper-aggressive like Belcher combo.

For the new-to-Eternal, a Belcher deck is an unstable, full-speed-ahead combo deck. It runs 2 or less lands total, which means activating a Goblin Charbelcher usually deals somewhere between 25 to 40 damage. A Belcher list will often run four Goblin Charbelchers, four Empty the Warrens, and upsettingly close to 52 mana sources. It tries to win right away and rarely has a backup plan. Belcher has some dedicated fans, but it’s nowhere near as popular as storm combo decks. Storm combo decks are generally considered a bit slower but more consistent and resilient.

This still isn’t much to go on though, as many Belcher lists I’ve seen don’t actually run all of these cards. It just feels like Belcher is the best fit for all three: fast, non-land mana, Force of Will for mana-free combo protection, and the all-in, turn-one card selection of Serum Powder.

Since I can’t be sure, I glance up to see if I can get some obvious read on my opponent. He’s still thinking about his mulligan, and the kinds of mulligan decisions a Belcher deck poses are different than those of something slower.

Of course, at this time I remember that my opponent is wearing a monkey mask. Trying to analyze the thought process of a Magic player in a monkey mask? Well that’s just staring into the face of madness.

I mulligan — it wasn’t that great a hand anyway. I get a Force of Will, Gifts Ungiven, Fastbond, and three lands. Not terrible if he’s on Belcher, not terrible if he isn’t.

He opens with Black Lotus. I’m tempted to Force of Will here. I know many players who would, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it a bad play. If he’s playing Belcher, Lotus is almost definitely the best card in his hand. I tend to play a little greedier against combo though.

My least favorite part of Ritual-based combo decks is this idea that you have to invest multiple cards into one threat. You have all of these awesome mana accelerants and awesome game-ending bombs, but you have to draw them together, or they do nothing. If this is a ritual deck’s biggest weakness, I prefer to attack the deck right there, where it already hurts. In other words, I want them to expend as many spells as I can get them to before I start throwing out counterspells. If you wait too late, and they get too much mana — well you could just lose right there, of course. If you hit them at just the right time though, their deck can just implode.

Black Lotus resolves; that’s fine. He plays a Rite of Flame. That gets him to four mana, which is relevant because of Empty the Warrens, but I’m not afraid of six tokens. Then he plays a Manamorphose and says “Blue Black,” in a voice muffled by his mask. This is a lot more interesting.

Manamorphose is probably the worst card he’s cast, but countering here keeps him down a card while still preventing an Empty the Warrens. The color-fixing effect could turn on blue or black cards sitting otherwise dead in his hand. The Manamorphose I counter, and he passes the turn.

I’m not sure if this was completely correct. I probably could’ve been a bit greedier. If he were sandbagging another Rite of Flame and an Empty the Warrens, I’d have very little chance of racing without that Gifts Ungiven — but I didn’t think he was likely to have that, given the way he played the hand. If he were planning on casting a Belcher, I win by countering nothing but that. Even if he casts a slightly bigger Empty the Warrens, I’d have a good chance of racing that by drawing any mana source — as long as I don’t pitch that Gifts. At the time though, I was pretty sure countering that Manamorphose was getting him at his weakest.

Something I’ve heard skilled storm players tell their young protégées is “Trust your deck; it’s that good.” This advice means to not be afraid. Just cast that Timetwister or Brainstorm and see what happens. It’s a deck filled with broken cards, and you should be confident you can draw into the win. I like this advice. Let me give some similar advice to any young control protégées trying to beat combo:

“Don’t trust their deck; it’s really not that good.” They don’t magically always have the kill; if they did, tournament results would look a lot different. If inconsistency is a deck’s biggest weakness, you’re going to win more games assuming they don’t have it than assuming they do.

So he passes the turn after Manamorphose is countered, which means it’s pretty likely I’ll get a few free turns before he makes another run at it. I draw a Mystical Tutor (how lucky) and play the Fastbond and one extra land. I pass, and he passes right back. At the end of his turn, I cast Mystical Tutor. My fingers reach for Ancestral Recall, but I think better of it and take Timetwister.

People have this idea that Timetwister is a bad card against combo decks. I completely disagree with this. If I didn’t think that seven random cards from my deck were better than seven random cards out of my opponent’s deck, I wouldn’t cut Timetwister — I’d just run better cards. Who says it’s better to Twister in Dark Rituals than Mana Drains? Besides this, combo decks (Belcher in particular) rely heavily on intelligent use of mulligans. Of course, you cannot mulligan a Timetwister hand. Despite this, nearly every player will crack the joke “I’ll keep” or “Can I mull this?” after seeing their new hand — this happens relentlessly.

Even without all that, I have no cards in hand, three lands, and a Fastbond in play against an opponent with a completely empty board, making a Timetwister pretty straightforward. Twister does for me what only Twister can do. I draw into Mystical Tutor, Gush, Scalding Tarn, Mana Crypt, Mox Pearl, Voltaic Key, and Spell Pierce.

Mox Pearl plays Voltaic Key; Tarn gets an Island; Island plays Mystical for Tinker; Gush returns two lands and draws Tinker; Fastbond lets me replay the lands; two untapped lands and a Mana Crypt get me four mana; Tinker into Time Vault costs three, and untapping it costs the last one. Turn 2 kill. Good game, monkey.

In game two, I mulligan another “too slow for Belcher” hand for another with Force of Will. This one looks slightly less explosive than the last. He plays Mox Opal, Mox Emerald, Tinder Wall, Simian Spirit Guide, and Wheel of Fortune, which I attempt to counter. He stops that with Pact of Negation, and we both get a new seven cards.

Remember what I was saying about draw-sevens against a control deck? I get a new hand with Force of Will, which is admittedly a little lucky, and I counter the Mana Crypt he plays. Normally, Mana Crypt wouldn’t be particularly scary, but here it gives him metalcraft for his Mox Opal.

I never saw his hand, but I’m not even sure that second Force of Will mattered. He would’ve needed Goblin Charbelcher, seven mana (and he clearly had no more Moxes, or he would’ve played them), and no lands in the top nineteen cards of his deck, which is slightly less likely than usual after a Wheel of Fortune. He didn’t have enough mana to pay for his Pact of Negation on his next upkeep, and he lost before I took a second turn.

So that’s a turn 2 and a turn 1 kill against a deck designed to win as fast as possible, but don’t get all uppity. If my opponent had been playing basically any other deck, the games wouldn’t have played out that way. Any combination of two lock pieces, counterspells, land destruction spells, or even a single artifact removal spell would have stopped my early kill in game one. Doing literally nothing would’ve stopped it game two. When you live by the turn 1 kill, you die by the turn 1 kill.

The Midgame: Mulligans

In round two, I was paired with from Pete Ingram, who isn’t a monkey. While I was kind of hoping to play costumed villains every round, it was nice to chat with, you know, a human. I win the die roll and look at my hand, and it’s a little tricky.


There’s a Black Lotus, some lands, a Hurkyl’s Recall, a Viashino Heretic, and something slow-ish I forget, maybe a Gush. Against a Workshop deck, this hand would be incredible, but against other decks, not so much. It’s not a no-land auto-loss, but it’s got a lot of cards that aren’t particularly exciting against a bunch of decks. I try to convince myself that a turn 1 Heretic will keep a Tezzeret player off of Time Vault, block some 2/1s, or
mana-screw someone as the worst Gorilla Shaman of all time. I’m thrilled with the idea of dropping
some terrible 1/3

creature on turn 1 and running away with the game. These reasons to keep a hand are, of course, extremely weak.

I’m not the kind of player who likes to cold-read his opponent. I’m not going to gamble that he’s playing a Workshop deck because he’s wearing a striped shirt. Unless I have some specific foreknowledge, I generally want a flexible, functional hand that gives me game in a few matchups — So I’m not really sizing Pete up for that kind of thing. Despite the fact that I know a Heretic really isn’t going to attack twenty times for the win, I’m just drawn to the hand. Apparently against my better judgment, I’m compelled by this hand, and I keep it.

Pete uses Serum Powder and removes a hand filled with Wastelands, Chalices of the Void, and Spheres of Resistance. In my head I’m running laps around the table and giving high fives to the crowd. After he keeps, I play Lotus, Island, Heretic, and he reads the card, eliciting a response of “That seems good against me.”

In retrospect, the decision doesn’t seem so random. Stax is a very popular, very powerful deck. My foray into Dredge has been teaching me that sometimes it’s fine to trade a little “strength across the field” for a few “I just win” games. That’s what keeping this hand is doing, essentially.

Let’s do some number crunching with some made-up numbers. The classic way to evaluate a mulligan is to think “What’s my % chance of winning the game with this hand?” vs. “What’s my % chance of winning the game with a random six-card hand?”

Imagine a random six-card hand from this deck as having say, a 45% chance to win against any deck. Gush is pretty middle-of-the-pack as far as good/bad matchups go, but obviously a mulligan hurts your chances to win.

If I were playing against TPS or some other combo deck, I don’t think the Viashino Heretic hand is going give me 45%. I have the mana to execute a game plan if I draw it but no way to interact and no real way to race. I’m probably looking at something like a 30% win rate (or less) with this hand. That means a mulligan would be pretty strong.

Against Tezzeret or Fish, the hand is only slightly better. There’s a chance that my opponent’s hand is strong because of an artifact. If my Fish opponent is thinking “I’ll just beat him with Null Rod” or my Tezzeret opponent is thinking “Turn 1 Tinker with Force backup? Unstoppable!”, then those dead cards go live, and I get to play a game of Magic. If they’re completely all-in on that artifact, I might even beat them right there. The problem is that they’re more likely to just have a balanced hand. This doesn’t destroy you, but it gives them the advantage. The Heretic hand in those matchups is probably more like 40% to win, which means you mulligan there, too.

Oath and other Gush decks are somewhere in between. They’re a little less likely than Fish to be relying on an artifact, but they’re not as likely as TPS to just win on turn 2 before you’ve had a chance to draw something else.

Dredge works a little differently, but the numbers line up about the same. The Heretic hand is completely terrible against Dredge, but unlike the other matchups, a six-card hand isn’t 45% to win. It’s definitely correct to mulligan against Dredge here, but it’s a low margin of improvement. I’m probably looking a 5% win chance with the Heretic hand and a 15% win chance with a random six.

Against Stax, this hand is obviously amazing. Between turn 1 Viashino Heretic, the Hurkyl’s Recall, and plenty of basic lands (particularly in conjunction with the fact that you’re on the play), you’re a huge favorite to win. I’d think something like 95%: I win barring some bad draws combined with some extremely specific cards from my opponent. 95% is a big bump over 45%, so it’s a snap keep.

Of course, I don’t know what my opponent is playing. Let’s assume a totally balanced metagame with an even split between Workshop decks, Dredge decks, Fish decks, combo decks, and blue-based “control” decks. I want to mulligan against every deck but Workshops, so it would be easy for me to say “four out of five times, a mulligan is correct, so I mulligan this hand against an unknown deck.” But this line of reasoning falls
short. While it’s correct to mulligan against Oath, it’s only a

correct — whereas choosing to mulligan against a Workshop deck is


So let’s do the math — And please don’t run away; I promise you this is short and simple, as I’m an extremely amateur statistician.

If you keep the Heretic hand:

You have a 20% chance that your opponent is on Workshops, which means you get a 50% boost in your chance to win (95% with Heretic Hand versus 45% with Random Six).

You have a 40% chance that your opponent is playing Fish or blue-based control. Any of these matches give you a -5% drop in your chance to win (40% with Heretic Hand versus 45% with Random Six).

You have a 40% chance that your opponent is on Dredge or TPS, which would mean you have a -10% drop in your chance to win (5% or 35% with Heretic Hand versus 15% or 45% with Random Six).

So add it up: (.20 * 50) + (.40 * -5) + (.40 * -10) = +4

Keeping here is 4% better than a mulligan. The 1/3 has it.

Obviously, it would be silly to take 4% here as an exact, correct number. You’d need to know the actual win %s for not only every matchup (which is more or less impossible to calculate) but also for every matchup taking into account your current hand. Considering the sheer number of possible opening hands with a given deck (around 50 million), and the possible number of decks your opponent could be playing (closer to 10^158), it’s an impossible task — you’re forced to estimate.

Even if you somehow had all of these numbers and the ability to calculate them, you’d still be forced to guess at the metagame breakdown (If there are zero Workshop players in the room, that kind of throws off the math a little).

The important thing is understanding the general principle. “A big advantage sometimes” can be better than “a little advantage every time.” You need to know why that can be true to predict when it

be true, so you can make better, game-winning decisions accordingly.

Now I don’t know why that hand was calling to me. Maybe my head figured out the math before I did, Malcom Gladwell’s

-style. Maybe I’m getting better at reading people in my old age, and I just put him on Shops without knowing it. Maybe I just really like 1/3 creatures and I just lucksacked — any of those explanations are as likely as the other.

To Pete’s credit, he came a lot closer to winning than I’d expected. He played a Duplicant on turn 2, killing the Heretic before it ran away with the game but not before it killed his turn 1 Trinisphere. Even the dead Heretic, however, stole his first two turns from him, which is kind of a huge deal in the matchup. With that extra time, it wasn’t hard to lay out a couple lands, ignore a few lock pieces, and counter a few others, and ultimately Hurkyl’s Recall him during his end step. On my turn, I cast Timetwister, which sealed the deal shortly thereafter.

When sideboarding, I went to take out my Jace, the Mind Sculptor, which I swore I was running, but I just couldn’t find it. I assumed my mind was playing tricks on me, so I just took out the six worst cards I could find. Game two, I had a hand that could beat one Smokestack but not two.

In game three, I was able to keep my head above water just long enough to Hurkyl’s Recall through a few Sphere effects at the end of his turn. From there, I was able to Mystical Tutor for Demonic Tutor, Demonic Tutor for Fastbond, cast Gush, and play Timetwister. The Twister gave me a few lands and a Viashino Heretic, which were more than enough to win.

The Early Game: Deck Registration

After the match, I looked through my deck again for that Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but I still couldn’t find it. I really thought I was running one, but maybe I missed it when putting my deck together. I count out the deck to be sure, and it stops at 55. I count out my sideboard, and it’s still just fifteen — five cards are just gone, four besides the Jace. With slowly dawning horror, I flip my deck face up and quickly rifle through it, pulling out Beta cards. Black Lotus is there; it won me game one. I cast Timetwister a bunch of times; that’s right there. I pull them out one by one and get to eight.

A Mox Sapphire is missing.

I frantically lay out my deck, card by card, in piles of four. Mana goes on the bottom, Force of Wills in the upper left, just the way I do when I’m building a deck. The list of missing cards starts to come together.

The Jace that I couldn’t sideboard out. A white-bordered Japanese Vampiric Tutor I’d spent a lot of time hunting down years ago. A foil Annul, which while worth very little, was lent to me by a close friend. A
Summer Magic

Island, one of my favorite cards. A Beta Mox Sapphire.

It’s an odd group of cards, not something obvious that I sideboarded out and misplaced. I dump my backpack out on the table and start digging through my boxes. I don’t want to cry wolf until I’m sure they’re actually gone. My friends are walking up to me, asking me how my round went and telling me bad beat stories, and I’m brushing them off, head racing while I dig through everything.

They’re in here, right? I must’ve just left them in my bag or something.

I looked through every card three times and found nothing. I realized that if the worst had happened, there wasn’t any time to waste. I grabbed a friend and told him what was going on and asked him to double-check my stuff while I went to the TO. I found Nick Detwiler, who was running the event, and told him I was missing some cards. He sprang right into action, and grabbed the store employees, who started looking at their surveillance footage over the past hour.

I went over to Nick Coss, who was the vendor at the event. This is an important step that not everyone knows about. If you think some of your cards have been taken, you need to get the TO and the judge, but also talk to the card dealers there. The bigger the event is, like a Grand Prix or a gaming convention, the more important this is. Lots of cards or collections have pretty identifiable qualities, and you’ll know your cards better than anyone. I only lost five cards, but they were fairly unique. A thief is going to be extremely tempted to get rid of stolen cards quickly, and the best way to turn them into cash is to get them to a dealer. If I get to that dealer first and tell him I’m missing a Beta Sapphire, Summer Island, and Japanese Vampiric Tutor, he’s going to know in an instant if someone tries to sell him those cards. A thief can break up a collection or try to hold out, but the kind of person who goes around stealing Magic cards generally doesn’t have a gift for foresight.

Talking to a vendor is something of a long shot — but if you’ve ever had cards stolen, you know you’re looking for any shot you can get.

My friend can’t find them in my bag either, and things are looking grim, while Nick darts around trying to find out if anyone’s seen anything shady.

I’m not even sure exactly when they went missing. I talk to the two friends who helped me sleeve my deck before to see if they noticed anything, or if the cards ended up with them by accident. One swears he saw the Sapphire get into the deck but isn’t sure, as Moxes pretty much all look alike.

One of them, Ray Robillard, once had a whole powered deck stolen, but thankfully it was recovered and returned to him later that day. “The worst thing” he said, “isn’t the money. I can get more cards; it’s not the end of the world. The worst thing is just thinking someone would do this, and that they’d do it to you.”

In this moment, I knew exactly what he meant. I had already come to terms with the money in a matter of minutes. If I really wanted another Sapphire, I could get one, and I could certainly play Magic with Alara-block basic lands and 6th Edition Vampiric Tutors if I needed to. That was fine. But I still felt horrible, just completely, desperately horrible.

I go back to the table where my friends are looking through my back and flip through the box one more time.

And there they are. In the middle of a stack of one-hundred empty blue sleeves are five cards that never made it into my deck. I was looking for Mox Opal sleeves, but the cards were never missing — they were never in the deck in the first place.

I hunted down the storeowner, the judge, the TO, and the vendor, who were all buzzing around trying to help me. I told them one by one that no, I screwed up; I had them the whole time. I apologized for causing a panic, but none of them seemed upset at all. They were all just relieved and happy that I didn’t lose anything, which frankly, was a little touching.

For the rest of the day, round after round, people who had heard half the story came up to me and asked “did you end up finding your cards?” To each I replied, “I had them the whole time. I feel like a total idiot… but I feel like a total idiot with a Mox Sapphire,” which, I decided, was better than the alternative.

I walked up to the judge. I told him that I’d won my last two matches, but both were with an illegal deck. I wasn’t sure what the penalty would be, but I figured if I got some kind of double-match loss, that would still be better than the alternative world where I lost my cards but stayed in the event.

In general, once a match is over and the slips are signed, the results are the results. If the judge had suspected foul play, I could’ve been disqualified for cheating — but it was pretty obvious I wasn’t trying to gain a tactical advantage by taking out Mox Sapphire, Island, and Annul against my Workshop opponent. I was given a game loss in the next round for having an illegal decklist.

I’ve since talked with a few judges who say that in the same case, they might have just given a warning or even no penalty at all, given the fact that it was in between rounds, and I turned myself in, so to speak. I didn’t have any interest in fighting the penalty; I was still too relieved to care. A game loss seemed more than fair to me, if not a bit too lenient.

As happens in the case of a game loss, I started round three with game two on the play. I had a nice hand, nothing very aggressive but controlling enough to buy lots of time. I saw some basic lands, a Force of Will, a Spell Pierce, a Demonic Tutor, and I glowed a little inside when I drew that foil Annul. It seemed like a decent keep against basically anything. I Spell Pierced his turn 1 Trinisphere and Annuled his Sphere of Resistance on turn 2.

He played a Chalice of the Void for zero mana, but I had no artifacts and wasn’t particularly worried about it. As any Vintage player knows, it’s a scientifically proven fact that any time you choose not to counter a Chalice of the Void at zero, you’ll draw at least two Moxes immediately afterwards. (This isn’t scientifically proven. Please don’t base your decisions on this information.)

He played a Lodestone Golem, which I needed to Force of Will, running me out of counters, but running him down to two cards in hand and nothing relevant on the board. His next play, however, was Metalworker, and the one card he had left was a Steel Hellkite. At this point, I’d been picking up some strong cards, but the win wasn’t quite there yet. A single Ingot Chewer, Ancient Grudge, or Hurkyl’s Recall would’ve answered his Chalice. That in turn would let me play the artifact mana I’d been stuck with, which could cast the Demonic Tutor in my hand, which would’ve likely won. I was drawing to quite a few outs, but a Triskelion came down the next turn and finished me off.

If I’d just drawn one of those seven removal spells.

If I’d just countered that Chalice of the Void.

If I’d just let that Sphere of Resistance resolve, I would’ve had an answer for Metalworker or Hellkite.

I’m pretty sure I messed up in there somewhere, but I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what I should’ve done. That happens, though. That’s Magic, and some plays are better than others. I’m always trying to improve, but I can accept this kind of thing one game out of three. With a game loss, I didn’t give myself a chance to come back.

Anyone can misplace cards, or heaven forbid, actually get them stolen. I felt a little silly about missing them, but there were three people sleeving, and we were in a rush, and well, I understand how those cards got missed. Again, I can accept this.

If you want to feel like a real chump — try playing a tournament without counting your deck for two whole rounds.

I lost that game three hours before it even started.


Early Game: Choosing a Deck

In round four, I play against Dominick Karmiche, who would eventually get second place with Noble Fish.

In game one, we both started slowly. We fought over a few spells, which kept our hand sizes down, but neither of us resolved anything particularly relevant. Dominick had an early Trygon Predator, but my hand wasn’t really relying on artifacts. I had quite a few turns of “do nothing, go,” where Dominick had quite a few of “do nothing, attack you, go.” At low life, I made a desperation play involving Fastbond and Timetwister. It was close but not good enough, and Dominick took game one.

Game two, I was able to execute “Plan A” against Fish. I played a turn 1 Fastbond and a turn 2 Tinker, getting Myr Battlesphere. He had the Swords to Plowshares, but I had the Force of Will. Then I had the Time Walk.

Game three, he plays a turn 1 Cold-Eye Selkie off of a Black Lotus, but I play a turn 2 Jace off of two Moxes. He attacks me to draw cards instead of taking a loyalty counter off of Jace, which implies a weak hand, that he’s digging for something.

I’m excited when he plays an Ethersworn Canonist because I’m able to play an Ingot Chewer at full price and kill it, pushing the advantage to me. I get another turn to use Jace, but he plays a Tarmogoyf, which is a 3/4 that can easily handle my Chewer. I bounce the Tarmogoyf with Jace, buying a little time while I have board position. I assume two loyalty counters keeps Jace safe from the Selkie, but that turn, he draws a Noble Hierarch, which gives Selkie +1/+1 to kill it.

I realize that it’s impossible to win if his Selkie starts drawing him two cards a turn and decide that I need to play towards getting rid of my Islands. I’m playing Gush, which means this isn’t that impossible. I cast a Gush returning two lands and replay only fetches, leaving me with two Islands left. My hope is to draw a second Gush and play it during Dominick’s combat step, taking away Selkie’s islandwalk, so I can block it with the Chewer — and I need this to happen before he realizes what I’m up to. I don’t find the other Gush, which hurts, as each turn, I’m falling farther behind. I pass the turn a little disappointed when I hear:

“On your end step, Strip Mine your Island. Wasteland your Volcanic.”

It takes all my focus to not act excited that my lands are dying — he hasn’t attacked yet, but he does. He comes in with Selkie and Goyf, and I take the Selkie down. I could still win this!

(Spoiler Alert: I don’t win this.)

Without many cards left in hand, again I make a Fastbond, Timetwister play. I have Ingot Chewer to block his Tarmogoyf next turn and seven life, but because of the Selkie, basically all of my lands are fetches. He goes to counter the Timetwister, and I Force of Will back, bringing me to six. The Timetwister resolves and gives me a bunch of cards that would be better if I had more life. I play an Underground Sea, which brings me to five. He Wastelands it on my end step, which forces me to Vampiric Tutor (down to three life now) without knowing what he drew off of the Twister.

I figure my best plan is some kind of small Tendrils of Agony play. If I can get back enough life to stabilize, I can take a hit or two from Tarmogoyf (which is smaller now post-Timetwister) and either grind out the game or draw into some Gushes and win on the spot. I put Demonic Tutor on top, to build up a little storm next turn.

On his turn, he empties his entire hand, playing some artifact mana and putting

creatures onto the table. He attacks, and I have to chump-block his Tarmogoyf with my Chewer. A small Tendrils won’t do much anymore, but Demonic Tutor for Perish does. It’s a total blowout, a seven-for-one — but it wasn’t enough. After getting double black mana, I was at two life. There were certainly cards that could’ve saved me, but all Dominick needed to win was one creature and one attack step. He got both.

I lost round three before it had started, but I lost round four before I even woke up that morning. I knew when building my deck that Noble Fish could be there, and I knew that one Perish, while extremely powerful in the matchup, was still only one card. Two of the lists I was working from ran a handful of maindeck anti-aggro cards, like Fire / Ice and Repeal. I cut these from my list. I added Tinker, which is certainly good there but not a sure thing by any stretch (particularly with Myr Battlesphere over Inkwell Leviathan). I just wanted the deck and sideboard space for other matchups.

I don’t necessarily think it was some huge mistake to cut anti-aggro cards. I was mostly focused on Workshops, and Workshops were there in force. I had some anti-Dredge cards that I never brought in, but I don’t regret running them. Dredge is fairly popular in New York. It’s hard to say if it was correct or not, but it was a conscious decision. I knew Fish would be there in some capacity, and I knew I was taking a risk by cutting cards.

With a bit more testing, I could’ve found some sideboard space I didn’t know I had, either by identifying cards that don’t pull their weight, or cards that have uses in a few matchups. The Fish games I lost were very close. A single removal spell could’ve won either game around for me; an extra Perish could’ve made it one-sided. I can’t exactly get mad for not drawing more outs when I only had one to draw.


Late Game: Afterparty

So I was out at round four, which I can’t say is an impressive finish. I decided to play out the rest of the event, and I had a blast doing it. I was stuck in that rut with New England tournaments, seeing the same people and playing the same matches with the same decks over and over again. I love New England Vintage-ers, but it’s easy to get stuck in the humdrum of the same-old.

The Grudge Match reminded me so much of early Waterburies and Star City Power 9 events. Everyone I was paired up with was really fun to play with. After almost every round, I stuck around and chatted with my opponent, swapping war stories and trading tech. I missed my seat in the last round because I got caught up playing Dominion, and I was having too much fun to double check if the round started. (I’m sorry if you wanted to play, last round opponent!) We stopped for an amazing dinner on the way home, and I rode back, tired and happy.

Despite doing admittedly terrible, despite unplowed highways and tractor-trailer accidents, despite a terrifying twenty minutes without a Mox Sapphire, I was thrilled to be there. It was a great tournament, in the way that only Vintage tournaments can be great.

So you might hear that joke about the late game in Vintage. The old Vintage player in the room might chuckle for a bit, but then quickly rush to defend his format.

“No, no! It’s not like that at all. Games rarely end that quickly; that kind of stuff only happens once in a while. Lots of Vintage games are just like regular Magic games! Honest!”

And you know what? They’re right, to some extent. Plenty of Vintage games play out just like a game of Standard. Players play a land, one turn at a time; they attack, they block, and over the next seven to fifteen turns, they make mistakes. One player makes a bigger mistake, and the other player wins. Plenty of Vintage games are just like that.

Those can be good games.

But sometimes, just sometimes, they’re different. Sometimes they end before the second turn.

Sometimes you win because you know exactly what the other player is thinking. You know what their deck can and can’t do. You win because you don’t even need to see their face to read them like a book, and you can figure out exactly what spell they need to resolve before they finish a single turn.

Sometimes you win because you know the cards. You know which plays beat which decks, and you know the odds. You know where you can eke out the tiniest edge, and you don’t fall for the traps other people might. Sometimes you win because you can do all that before the other player even decides to keep their hand.

Sometimes you win because you just want it enough. You know that there’s more to winning than just casting spells, and you know how to play the

game intelligently. You don’t play sloppy and show up late, mis-register your deck, fail to maintain your game state. You do what you have to to let yourself win, and sometimes your opponent won’t. Sometimes you win because you put in the work, before the tournament even starts.

Sometimes you win because you study the format. You’ve played all the matchups, and you’ve analyzed all the results, and you’re always following the
metagame. You know what’s right to play, you know why it’s right to play, and you know when it’s right to play it. Your opponent might get one
single card

wrong, but you won’t. Sometimes you win because you have exactly the right deck, before the tournament is even


Sometimes you get to play Vintage, and those are


If you haven’t yet, I hope you get to some day.

Thanks for reading,
Andy Probasco