Deconstructing Constructed — Unlocking Vintage

Read Josh Silvestri every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Right now, the Vintage metagame is an odd anomaly when you look at it from a competitive point of view. On one hand, the best players are winning and making Top 8s at all the decent sized and major Vintage tournaments over the last few months. On the other hand, part of this is because a substantial chunk of the metagame is playing decks that don’t maximize their chances to win. I’m reasonably sure the only four decks that should be seeing play are GAT, Flash, Ichorid, and Stax.

Bananas in pajamas are coming down the stairs.
Banana 1

Right now, the Vintage metagame is an odd anomaly when you look at it from a competitive point of view. On one hand, the best players are winning and making Top 8s at all the decent sized and major Vintage tournaments over the last few months. On the other hand, part of this is because a substantial chunk of the metagame is playing decks that don’t maximize their chances to win. After talking with my team and Rian (Kirdape3), I’m reasonably sure the only four decks that should be seeing play are GAT, Flash, Ichorid, and Stax.

The reasons for this I’ve laid out before, but I’ll repeat for those that don’t like to backtrack. Flash is the best combo deck in the format, and is far superior to anything we’ve had in the last couple of years. Flash may arguably be the best win condition in the history of Magic for how much it costs, the fact that it’s Blue, and because the other piece of the combo doesn’t need to be cast. GAT has been the best deck in Vintage since it was invented, and only the restriction of Gush ever changed that simple fact.

The only reason I list Ichorid and Stax is because they can beat both of the “best decks” with good draws and a little lucky die rolling. Ichorid basically plows the top tier pre-board, but post is basically wrecked if GAT boards in 7-10 hate cards and actually has them in the opener. Leyline, Jailer, and Needle are all threatening in various ways, but most people don’t want to keep them in the deck and rather focus on the mirror. I can’t say I blame them, considering how many people play the deck, but it’s a legitimate concern against someone who can effectively play post-board games with Ichorid. Stax attacks the manabase of both decks quite well, but some games on the draw against Flash or GAT you may as well just scoop to save time. It also suffers from the hate issue, if the opponent is willing to devote room to a few basics and 4-5 slots in the board to it; Stax just rolls over when they find it unless you have an overwhelming board position already.

The biggest issue with playing any other deck is there’s really no strategic reason to do so except for being better with that particular deck than any other. In fighting games this could be a strategic choice to some degree, because a few players are just so fundamentally sound and skilled with certain characters they can make up the massive disadvantages of low tier characters. In Magic it’s possible, but because of the increased variance inherently involved in the game, along with the similarity in strategies used between lower tier decks and higher tier ones, there’s no practical point. Skill can only make up so much ground; even with assumed perfect play, many decks in Vintage will simply always be inferior to GAT or Flash. I’m sure that will cause a lot of random arguing to occur because I bashed other decks that have made Top 8 or won a Vintage tournament somewhere, but if you look at it from a pure strategic and design perspective you’ll pretty much come to this conclusion.

Let’s move back to the original point: why the majority of the Vintage metagame doesn’t consist entirely of two or three decks. Typically, there are three common reasons why people will play other decks that have a lower shot at actually winning a tournament. One is card restrictions. Unlike other formats, even with proxies certain decks are incapable of being created in a short period of time. I’ve been lucky enough to know people with huge collections which allowed me to have a better than average selection of decks. Had I not had these resources at my disposal, I would’ve been stuck choosing between one or two decks at every single tournament until I could afford to switch over to a new design.

The second reason is the “fun” aspect. Personally, I find playing GAT, especially the mirror, absurdly boring and tedious. That said, I’d definitely consider putting in the time to get good with the deck if I was gunning for a major tournament and wanted to maximize my chances at winning. Some people aren’t, and that’s their own call to make. However, this skews the metagame and some of the results. It means in every tournament you can expect to face people playing Deck X in large part because it’s a deck they have fun with and think they can compete with to some extent. David Sirlin literally wrote the book on these types of players, so I’d recommend reading some of the articles for more information.

The final reason is the ideal that many tournament players hold dear, one of sticking it to a format. The idea that they beat the established system with their secret tech, stemming from their extensive research* done in underground laboratories by working with some of Vintage’s greatest minds. Or that they’ve read the metagame so well that they’ve come up with the answer deck that will allow them to cruise to an easy Top 8 berth, where they can hopefully sack through the single-elimination rounds. And the ever-popular course of action where you play a deck you’re comfortable with, and just try to punt a lot less than the other guy.

* More likely just sniffing glue

Typically this isn’t a great decision, and will only take away chances for you to win the maximum amount of games. But now we at least have some logic behind why people will be playing non-top-tier decks. I’d talk about how that affects you, the GAT and Flash players of the world, but to be honest it really doesn’t. You’ll run over most of these decks just by being far stronger than them, since they have to actually draw hate cards just to be in the game and there’s no guarantee of them doing that. The other problem is when the metagame hate decks face off against one another, many of them lack a coherent game-plan and often have to improvise to beat up on one another. This is especially true if the cards aimed at GAT or Flash aren’t effective against something like Oath.

As for my main issue with playing Stax over Flash or GAT, it’s mostly that the die roll is so important to the deck. Cards like Sphere of Resistance, Strips (Including Ghost Quarter), and Aven Mindcensor all can be devastating, but the deck’s strategy seems inherently flawed at this point in time. If GAT gets a chance, it’ll just throw down a creature and let it grow while playing small cantrips. Plus it has the ultimate trump to mana denial in Fastbond, which means you don’t even get a game if the GAT player happens to lay one down early. Flash wins at 1U, so mana denial isn’t exactly an epic strategic position to take even if you’re on the play. Goblins have basics, Goblin Lackey, and Aether Vial, so it’ll ignore the normal Stax BS. Ichorid obviously destroys the deck, Leyline of the Void or no.

Now that I’ve done an imitation of Feldman on the tiered metagame and what I think should and shouldn’t be seeing play, let’s switch gears for the moment.

Things people shouldn’t be getting tripped up by when playing GAT:

1. Aven Mindcensor — Yes the card is good, but everyone should know they can see this guy in reasonable disruption decks from the opponent. Once you assume the opponent might have it, it becomes far less effective since you can limit the amount of damage it can do to you. Typically this will mean main-phasing certain tutors so you can gauge any future moves instead of entering into a shaky plan based around the tutor itself. Also look for any opportunities to respond to spells like Moxen or on an opponent’s upkeep so it’s before he plays his land drop for the turn.

2. Threads of Disloyalty and Control Magic – Not really something to worry about all the time, but in testing people have been bested by this and Control Magic before by not being careful with their creatures. Remember, against aggro-control you have all the time in the world if they aren’t playing Tarmogoyf, so it seems silly to just throw down the Dryad to play defense until it’s big enough to kill. Go ahead and use the life buffer you have at your disposal and then set-up a position where you won’t be getting trumped by 3-4 mana spells. As silly as that sounds, it’s a legitimate threat when you have to trump Magus of the Moon, Chalice of the Void, and other obnoxious disruption spells that can seriously impact the deck.

3. Playing Library of Alexandria — Library has outlived its usefulness in a format where you may not see a turn 2, and where getting two Island out is the number one goal of the best deck in the format. Throwing down LOA turn 1 against any deck is almost always worse than laying a basic Island on the table because of Gush’s requirements, tempo loss, and the general speed of the format. As much as I love LOA, now with Flash and GAT as the big two, I can’t see running it until restrictions slow the format down.

It’s a sad statement about the format itself when Library isn’t even “good” anymore.

4. Not divvying up the game into phases, or always trying to Fastbond combo out — Other than when you just blow somebody out with Fastbond, I’ve taken Shay’s general advice and divided the game into phases. Every game starts with the goal of hitting two Island in play, then getting CA / combo automatons set-up, and finally going and winning the game via a huge Quirion Dryad, Psychatog, or Brain Freeze.

All too often I win GAT mirrors I shouldn’t because people would either play creatures early and attempt to overwhelm me, allowing me to resolve more card draw, and eventually bouncing the creature or playing Tog to block anyway. Or worse, they would single-mindedly try to resolve Fastbond, which would almost always lead to gaping openings for me to get back in the game if they couldn’t turn that into a win right away.

Enough about GAT though, let’s move onto a variant of Flash now.

Another Kind of Flash
Look at me! I’m a Dragon!

By Jeff Rieck — 20th at the GenCon Vintage Champs

Today I’m featuring this variant of Flash, which was made by friend and teammate Jeff Rieck (Methuselahn on TMD). It’s had promising results in testing and did decently at the GenCon Vintage Champs. The big difference between this version of the Flash deck and the normal Hulk Flash version is the movement away from being an all-in type of deck to a slightly slower variant.

The deck has a more stable manabase than the Hulk Flash variants, thanks to number of basics and total number of lands (16).

It has a far better match against hateful aggro decks, because it can hardcast Academy Rector to play defense, threatening to end the game if it dies. In addition, this gives the ability to fetch Form of the Dragon, which means that the Yawgmoth’s Bargain kill, which typically requires a good deal of life to succeed, isn’t relied upon all the time. A Form in play is practically unanswerable by some decks, and even a deck like GAT has few outs, especially when backed by counters.

The main reason to play normal Hulk Flash over this variant is that you give up some of the blowout starts you get with a standard Flash deck. Without the Pacts, you can’t fight through double countermagic as often, or combo out on turn 1 with anywhere near the same frequency as the standard build. And unfortunately, Leyline of the Void still bothers this build as much as the normal variation, which means it still needs to keep multiple bounce spells maindeck and in the board to help out against six to eight Leyline post-board you’ll see from GAT decks.

I’m not going to claim this is a superior version of the Flash deck, or that I necessarily endorse this exact build, but it’s significantly off the beaten path, and I know from first hand experience that it can be more effective than the standard build against certain types of aggro decks. Instead, I offer this as a starting point for people to build upon, and maybe tweak the deck more than 3-4 cards on each Sliver Flash list I find floating around the net. If people are interested in these types of Flash decks, and more discussion around the difference in kills, let me know and I’ll do a more complete write-up next time.

Interview for the week
Each week, in addition to the normal article, I’ll be adding interviews with various Vintage players that have contributed in various ways to the format. This week I interview a fellow writer for another website, Yare.

Veggies – So who are you, and what relevant things have you done in vintage?

Yare – My name is David Earley and I’ve played in a number of events in the North Carolina area over the last 4 years or so. I made T8 at a Richmond SCG a few years back, where I piloted a fish deck that my roommate and I developed on the shoulders of Marc Perez. Now, I write for MTGSalvation.com periodically.

Veggies – What topics do you usually cover over at Salvation?

Yare – I have written a few articles introducing players to Vintage, written two articles on the errata policy, an article on making a good H/W list, and a B/R philosophy article is coming out soon.

Veggies – So mostly topical issues about the format; what interests you about subjects like errata and so forth?

Yare – Well, I have an interest in game design in general, not particular to Magic. I like to examine the issues that are driving the rules of the game just as a personal interest. Part of it has to do with determining which games I’m going to put effort into getting better at, and those that just aren’t worth my time. I also like to examine the analysis applied by the decision makers and how it affects the game and players.

Veggies – So what do you think of the current banned/restricted list and the upcoming update? Do you believe anything should be changed, or has anything been overlooked for unrestriction?

Yare – I was kind of waiting for the reaction to my article before deciding these issues on my own. The idea was that the philosophy of the list should not hinge on any particular metagame but should instead be a general philosophy. However, since you’ve asked, let me take a look at the list to make sure I hit what I want to hit…

Dream Halls can come off for sure. Regarding other things coming off at this time, I’m not sure that I feel it’s the best idea. I’m reluctant for any of the mana accelerants to come off in addition to any card draw, also Trinisphere definitely needs to stay on the list because it goes against my principle of “fairness” that I elaborate on in the article.

Regarding things going on the list, Flash and Gush need to be put on the restricted list. The latest tournament results obviously indicate that Gush should not have been unrestricted. Flash is in the same camp as Trinisphere, in that it’s just kind of a lucksack win; there isn’t a lot of skill implied by either the winner or the loser. Merchant Scroll has always been on my proverbial restrict list, long before the latest deck innovations. I’m personally a very strong proponent of tutor restriction; if in doubt, restrict. Then I suppose there are the issues of Brainstorm, and perhaps incidentally, Dark Ritual because it too falls into the “sacred cow” category. Ultimately, Gush and Flash need to go; otherwise, I’m fairly happy if nothing else changed. Nothing else has really been overlooked in my opinion, other than the above.

Okay, I’m done.

Veggies – Moving on, what’s your main interest in Vintage? Basically, why do you like and play the format?

Yare – I started on Vintage after tripping over the Mana Drain in 2002 or so. I have continued playing Vintage due to time and financial concerns. Because of the static nature of the format, if I have other priorities that require my time, I can blow off the format for months at a time and come back in relatively easily (compared to other formats). Additionally, since I have most of the staples below $30 and a few pieces of power I am already in financially, so I can essentially continue at no cost. The community is also good in that it’s mostly adults rather than the younger kids that tend to play the other formats.

Veggies – The community is easier to relate to overall.

Yare – That’s generally true.

Veggies – Alright, that answers all the biggies, so is there anything else you’d like to throw out there? Perhaps about errata or design flaws or anything like that, this is basically soapbox time.

Yare – I think with B/R discussions people tend to be too persuaded by their loyalties to their pet decks, which I suppose is understandable. Rather than having some objective interest in the “integrity of the game,” or however you want to frame it.

Right now, though, I think Vintage is doing well, as can be seen from the changes in the B/R (whether right or wrong, they show that Wizards cares), the Championship has been held over the last few years, and Wizards unequivocally has heard the community in putting Steve Menendian in the Invitational despite not making it in from the Storyteller ballot.

So things are good!

Veggies – Thanks for the interview!

Bonus – Wow, I absolutely cannot believe that Michigan lost to Appalachian State. Pretty sure nobody saw that coming, and I am suddenly reminded why sports gambling is a bad thing for many people. To put this is a perspective for you card slingers that have no idea what college football is, this win was the equivalent of Evan Erwin winning PT: Valencia.

Playing a homebrew.

While drunk.

While singing the Cap’n Tickles theme song* in the Top 8.

* There is a theme song, right? If there isn’t, there should be, since you have a show that could properly articulate the sound to us.

Seriously, Michigan fans… a dark day for your program. With luck, Carr will be fired by the time this article goes live.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom