Innovations – The Deck 2009: Bringing Back the Glory Days of Vintage!

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Monday, August 17th – At the Vintage World Championships GenCon last weekend, Patrick Chapin played The Deck, updated for the 2009 metagame. However, instead of bringing us a Menendian-style play-by-play, he turns the discussion to the decline of Vintage. The format is diminishing in popularity, and Patrick believes he has the answer…

“Hey Brian, how have you been? Was wondering if you had a minute to talk Vintage?”

I walked out of GenCon, trying to find a quieter place to talk, now that I had him on the phone.

“Sure, it’s great to hear from you. Is there a Vintage tournament coming up?”

I let him know the Vintage World Championships were the next day, and I was brewing a The Deck. This definitely roped him in, as he is always interested in an opportunity to discuss Magic theory, particularly five-color control in Vintage.

For those that don’t know, The Deck was the first truly great deck that was more than just an absurd collection of broken cards. It had a ton of broken cards, no question, but what made it so great was its design. The Deck, as it is affectionately called, is essentially U/W Control, with light splashes of the other colors.

The original The Deck is discussed in my article last week. It was definitely the best and most important deck of 1995 and has been one of the building blocks of advanced deck building ever since. For reference:

The Deck
Brian Weissman

1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Timetwister
1 Braingeyser
1 Recall
1 Amnesia
2 Counterspell
4 Mana Drain

4 Swords to Plowshares
4 Disenchant
2 Moat
2 Serra Angel

2 Red Elemental Blast

1 Demonic Tutor

1 Regrowth

1 Mirror Universe
1 Jayemdae Tome
2 Disrupting Scepter
1 Black Lotus
1 Sol Ring
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Pearl

1 Library of Alexandria
3 Strip Mine
4 City of Brass
4 Tundra
2 Volcanic Island
4 Island
3 Plains

2 Blood Moon
2 Red Elemental Blast
2 Circle of Protection: Red
2 Dust to Dust
2 Mana Short
1 Balance
1 Amnesia
1 Feldon’s Cane
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Zuran Orb

Brian Weissman and I have been friends for a very long time, and though he doesn’t play much Magic beyond MTGO drafting these days, I thought he would be just the person to talk to about updating The Deck for the 2009 metagame.

As I said, GenCon was this past weekend, and I was mostly just hanging out for the good times, though I was planning on playing in the Vintage championship. I may not play that much Vintage these days, but I always like to return to it every so often, as it is a format that definitely has its moments.

Weissman and I used to be two of the last diehard Vintage players, back in the day. Long before the Golden Age and Silver Age of Vintage, long before proxy tournaments or the internet Vintage Teams, there was a massive split in Magic when competitive tournament players were forced to transition from Type 1 being the only format to splitting between Type 1 and Type 2 (Standard).

At first most people resisted Standard, but it did not take much more than a year for Standard to totally take over the mainstream and Vintage to start being pushed into the background. Many competitive players set down their Power Cards and focused on Standard. Extended was the real nail in the coffin. With the creation of the Extended format in 1997, the Vintage format was championed by a very few of us left carrying the torch.

Brian Weissman and I used to play hour after hour of Vintage at each Pro Tour, regularly drawing crowds of 30 or more spectators, lined up several rows deep, surrounding our game, some crouched down, some standing, some on chairs. We both played fully powered Beta decks, playing out over and over the classic struggle: Weissman with The Deck, and me with Combo.

You have to remember, back in those days, almost no-one played combo decks, and if they did, they were usually terrible. Until Visions, just about the only combo deck of the era that could really function was Combo, as it was really just the restricted list and cards that should have been on the restricted list, following the formula that has since become a classic of Vintage: make mana and draw cards until you find your one kill card. With the printing of Visions, Combo really started establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. For reference, here is my Combo deck, as of early 1997:

Patrick Chapin

1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Timetwister
1 Braingeyser
4 Brainstorm
3 Mystical Tutor
3 Prosperity
3 Hurkyl’s Recall
4 Force of Will

2 Vampiric Tutor
1 Demonic Tutor

1 Regrowth

1 Balance

1 Wheel of Fortune
1 Kaeverk’s Torch

3 Barbed Sextant
4 Black Vise
1 Black Lotus
1 Sol Ring
4 Mana Crypt
4 Mana Vault
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Jet

4 City of Brass
4 Underground Sea
1 Volcanic Island
1 Library of Alexandria

As you can see, we had a lot of nice toys before we broke them all. The general idea here is that you start the game by making mana with artifacts, filtering it into Blue as needed with Sextants. You use a tutor to find a Wheel of Fortune and hopefully a Brainstorm so that you can kill on turn 1 instead of having to wait till turn 2. You draw more cards, play more mana, then use Hurkyl’s Recall to make a bunch more mana. At this point you usually Timetwister if possible, and if not, then Prosperity for most of your mana, if not all, though leaving a single Blue is preferred.

Both players draw 7 more cards, then you play out more mana and Hurkyl’s yourself again if needed. More card draw and more mana eventually leads to a Black Vise or two, and you kill your opponent on turn 1. Sometimes you can’t afford to keep giving your opponent cards, so you have to kill them with the Torch.

In those days, there really weren’t very many hoser cards like Trinisphere, so there really wasn’t much need for removal in the deck. In fact, the only two cards in my deck that can remove permanents are the Torch (I killed many a Gorilla Shaman with that bad boy) and the Balance, which was easily accessed with all of the tutors. In fact, against most “fair” strategies, it was usually as simple as tutoring up Balance on turn 1, then turn 2 completely Mind Twist / Wrath of Godding them, putting them down to one land as their only card. You would have a ton of artifact mana, and sometimes a slow trip or two waiting from Sextants, as well as a restricted card on top of your library.

Weissman and I would battle it out, The Deck versus Combo, over and over, for hours and hours (generally, we played most games sideboarded, since game 1 is pretty bad for him). Our matches were epic, and it is in those games of Magic that I really remember the experience that is Vintage.

These days, so many people are just “all 10 proxy all the time,” that they don’t even own most (or any) of the power. I am not judging, bear in mind. I don’t have the power any more either. What I am saying is that, as a community, the Vintage players have let things slip into a bad place.

Using proxies in tournaments is like a drug. At first it feels good and seems like a good idea. I mean, come on, we want everyone to have access to the cards, right? Obviously, I understand that not everyone can afford Moxen and so on, and that without them, it is often difficult to compete. It is painful for me to imagine playing in a tournament and having card availability actually be an issue.

The problem is not with everyone having the cards. I wish more people could have the cards, I really do. The problem is that when you use proxies, you stop caring as much about the cards, the tournaments, the formats, the culture. The games aren’t as exciting. This is very bad for Vintage.

One of the greatest things about of Vintage is the exciting energy that can draw crowds of players, many of whom don’t even play the format. They become captivated and want to see what will happen next, how it will end. It is more than just the broken cards of Vintage, it is also the mystique of legendary cards like Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall, which seem so unobtainable to many, so awe-inspiring.

When you see Brian Weissman topdeck a Timetwister to undo the effects of a turn 1 Balance that left him crippled, the crowd roaring as the players shuffle their libraries, it is back to being a game again, you can feel the energy.

I have been playing Type 1/Vintage for a very long time. How many crowds do you think have gathered to watch us battle in a proxy match? You may say, “well, my proxies have artwork, they look similar to the real cards.” The problem is, at the end of the day, they are fakes. Crowds don’t want to watch fakes. Even if you had the best counterfeit cards in the world, that looked perfect to the naked eye, I promise you, when the crowd finds out they are fakes, you will lose many, if not most, of their attention. It no longer has the significance, the energy, the moxie.

I love Vintage. A lot. I may not play it as much as I used to, but I love it dearly. It is because of my love for this format that I want to see the end of proxy tournaments.

Proxy tournaments have nearly killed Vintage.

Stephen Menendian and Ben Bleiweiss have written some great articles on the subject. If you are interested, check out here and here, as I agree with much of what they both say.

It is not just that people don’t want to watch proxies, or play against them, it is also that proxies heavily encourage people to not get or own power. This in turn causes them not to be invested in the format. As a result, they don’t care as much about it. When you own Moxen, Lotus, Ancestral, Walk, etc, you find yourself playing Vintage more. In addition, you remember it being more fun. You think about it more. You find yourself caring about the format more, the tournaments, etc.

It like when you buy a drink for someone; you may think that it is they who care more about you, since you bought them a drink, but the reality is that it is you who will care more about them, since now you are invested in them. This is a fundamental element of human behavior. Proxies remove people’s investment in Vintage.

It is not just that proxies make you care less, though. The fact that you don’t need/want real Moxen is a very basic economic dilemma that most people resolve by not getting them. Why bother? If no-one else needs to, why do you? Whereas years ago, it was a status symbol desired my many, many mages, nowadays, many never even have the dream in the first place. Power is still a status symbol, no question, but for many, the equation is too much against investing in the format in this way. As a result, the power is not as prized. The hidden cost here is that those are the exact cards that are most commonly prizes for Vintage tournaments.

Vintage tournaments are struggling hard. Attendance is down, and there are a lot fewer tournaments than there used to be, as opposed to other formats where attendance is at an all time high. You know StarCityGames loved running Vintage tournaments. Do you think they don’t wish they could keep running them? The problem is that proxies have crippled the format.

“Wait,” you ask, “Can’t they just stop allowing proxies at their tournaments…?”

In my opinion, the problem is that, even if StarCityGames.com did this, it wouldn’t change the community. The people who aren’t coming now because of proxy impact would still not come, because there would still be proxies everywhere else. In addition, at this point, much of the Vintage community has become reliant on proxies, and would not be able to justify the switch back for just StarCityGames.com tournaments.

As long as the everyday tournament organizer is endorsing proxies, it is exceptionally unrealistic to hold non-proxy tournaments, particularly from a financial standpoint. People are so hooked on proxies at this point that it will be painful to wean them away, and whoever tries to make the move will suffer.

Does this mean that there is no turning back? Is Vintage doomed to slowly wilt, degenerating into a format where a dozen guys sit in a basement and take turns untapping their Elsewhere Flasks with the word “Vault” written on it?

I think there is a way.

The Vintage World Championships is proof that there is still a loyal core, a strong central player base that is passionate about the game. A core player base that considers Vintage not just a hobby, but something they truly love. That core player base is the solution.

Vintage Worlds is no-proxy, and it never will be anything else. What do you get? Over a hundred players and people that care about a tournament, a tournament with true prestige. When the Total rating system was invented, is caused some players that had never been qualified before, like the then-Vintage-World-Champion Paul Mastriano, to become qualified for the Pro Tour. I was talking with Mark Herberholz, Gabriel Nassif, Paul Rietzel, and Matt Sperling, none of whom play Vintage. When asked what they thought of the Vintage World Champion getting an invite to the Pro Tour on rating, despite not winning a PTQ, they were unanimous:

“He is the Vintage World Champion? Inviting him sounds like a good idea. Vintage is not as good as many Standard or Extended formats, but it is an important part of the game’s history. Besides, he is the World Champion. The first World Championships was the Vintage World Championships. He is keeping the tradition alive, and he is the best in the world at his event. They can’t invite the World Champion of every format from EDH to Peasant Highlander, but Vintage is significant enough.”

Do you think they would still feel that way if it was a proxy tournament?

This is the core Vintage community – both the major Vintage teams, like Team Meandeck, Team ICBM, Team Reflection, and Team GWS, as well as others, and then also the individuals like Luis Scott-Vargas and David Williams, as well as the Vintage tournaments grinders. These are the people that can revive Vintage.

The Vintage community needs to band together and stamp out proxies if the format is to survive. Realistically, Vintage is unlikely to ever become a fully mainstream format, but it is going to die unless the people who care about it act.

I am not advocating discontinuing proxies overnight. The community is addicted to them. I am also not giving any orders. I mean, I don’t speak for the Vintage community, and while I love the format, it is not my decision on how it is run.

I am suggesting the best possible course of action that I can see. I suggest that the people who care about Vintage go about reviving their format. Many have chosen to give up and switch to Legacy, but you can do both. There are still enough people who are passionate about Vintage to make a difference. I will surely be criticized by a number of Vintage players who are angered by the audacity that I show by suggesting that TOs stop endorsing proxies, especially when I am not even playing in many of these tournaments, but the truth is, if they don’t do something, the format will continue to wither until there is no one left.

What I suggest is a gradual return to real cards. The first step is for Vintage tournament organizers to stop holding 15-proxy tournaments. This doesn’t have to be immediately, and all of these steps are just suggestions, but if all of the major Vintage TOs vow to take a one-year break from 15-proxy tournaments (ideally it will be indefinite, but this way people can evaluate how they feel a year from now, and decide if they like the impact on the format, the direction it is going… perhaps until the end of 2010), it would be a major step in the right direction.

The second step is for each TO to vow to allow no more than seven proxies in tournaments in 2010. This number is certainly negotiable, but the idea is to all work together to wean ourselves off proxies. Five is an obvious possibility, but seven makes the transition a little easier.

I know that it sounds like I am asking a lot of the TOs, and I suppose I am, as they will be vital to saving Vintage, but I am really asking for the support of players in the form of going out and supporting TOs that are willing to fight for Vintage.

I strongly suggest that players encourage and rally behind TOs that vow to adopt the 10-7 plan (scheduling no new tournaments that allow more than ten proxies, and lowering the ceiling to seven in 2010). I know it is hard, but do it for your culture. Do it for Vintage. Do it because you want to see that which you love continue to grow and to bloom again someday.

I know that I don’t play in a ton of Vintage tournaments, but I am certainly not going to play in Vintage tournaments that allow more proxies than this. I have incredible respect for the TOs that are willing to lay it on the line, risking money and attendance, to do what it takes to save the format. Some TOs will just want to cash in and keep holding 15-proxy tournaments, or even 10-proxy tournaments where you can buy up to 5 additional proxies. I am sure this will piss some people off, but I am really against people that would rather cash in a little now by exploiting the parts of the community that are fighting to revive the format.

If many TOs band together and all take this vow, this one-year experiment, some TOs will see this as an opportunity to make a quick buck by holding proxy tournaments, trying to keep people hooked on proxies and taking advantage of the people that are having trouble getting off them. At the end of the day, Vintage is not the most serious business in the world, but if you care about the format, if you love it, it is worth fighting for. In this case, that means supporting TOs that vow to give a year-long commitment to trying to help fight for the restoration of Vintage.

I am not saying this plan is the way things needs to be. In fact, I would strongly suggest that the Vintage TOs, the regular tournament goers, the active voices in the community get together and talk out possible plans on which they can all agree. Together we stand, divided we fall.

I suggest more than just a slow weaning off of proxies, however. I also suggest that the Vintage TOs fight hard to hold a few sanctioned Vintage tournaments. I know it is hard to hold zero-proxy tournaments these days, but if the community rallies behind these TOs and goes out and supports them on principal, it is possible.

There are a lot of possibilities that could be explored, and it will take a lot of smart people to overcome this. You can encourage people to get real cards by things like offering a first round bye to players that have no proxies, but this will not have that strong a psychological impact on most people, because they need to actually be invested again, to care, and not just punished for not caring.

I guess, if nothing else, I strongly suggest the core Vintage community rally behind TOs that are willing to take public steps towards helping the fight against proxies. I know that there is much to be said about how many people are never going to get to play Vintage if there are no proxy tournaments, but no one will get to play Vintage at all if proxies continue to corrode the format.

Perhaps there is a solution that will allow for proxies periodically. Perhaps the best solution will be Wizards of the Coast someday finding a way to introduce some or any new copies of these cards into the system. I am not advocating reprinting Moxen; I am just saying that maybe there are possibilities that can be explored with getting more cards in the system, such as allowing Collector’s Edition cards, or alternate artwork new frame Moxen as prizes added to the pool for Vintage Worlds, as a bonus to Pro Tour Top 8 competitors, and perhaps even as some sort of Spectral Tiger style bonus in packs. It doesn’t seem totally out of the question to discuss some sort of Ultra Rare system, such as that used in World of Warcraft.

Again, I am not advocating this course of action, just the discussion of it. There are things that can be done, but it will take us working together.

Anyway, back to GenCon. I talked it over with Weissman and found we were on the same page about a lot of things in the current format. He hasn’t play in a Vintage tournament in about a year and a half (tending to draft these days instead), but he generally stays current, reading about the decks and strategies people are playing.

I decided to play The Deck because I wanted to have some fun. What I ended up finding was that it is actually good again.

When I was first preparing for Vintage Worlds, I built a sweet Five-Color G/W deck to beat the “good decks.”

Five-Color G/W
Patrick Chapin

4 Noble Hierarch
3 Elvish Spirit Guide
1 Tarmogoyf
1 Choke

2 Aven Mindcensor
1 Kataki, War’s Wage
1 Aura of Silence

2 Leyline of the Void
1 Diabolic Edict
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Dark Confidant

2 Gorilla Shaman
1 Ancient Grudge

2 Sower of Temptation
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Brainstorm

4 Qasali Pridemage
2 Gaddock Teeg

4 Null Rod
1 Crucible of Worlds
1 Black Lotus

1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Pearl

1 Strip Mine
4 Wasteland
4 City of Brass
4 Windswept Heath
1 Savannah
1 Tropical Island
1 Bayou
1 Taiga
1 Tundra
1 Forest

2 Leyline of the Void
1 Helm of Obedience
12 more cards

From there, I eventually collaborated with Brian DeMars to come up with a Time Vault deck that could actually beat the Null Rod decks. That is the Steel City Vault deck that many have been discussing lately in Vintage circles. I knew that deck was great, but it wasn’t much fun for me while playing, and Vintage, at least right now, is one format where I really want to make sure I am having some fun.

I considered building a Null Rod deck to hose the Steel City deck, but was getting dangerously inbred. I experimented with a variety of decks, ranging from turn 1 Crop-Rotation plus Academy plus Candelabra plus Key plus Time Spiral, to Aluren, to turn 1 Mind Twist, to Entomb-Dragon to Parfait, to countless others. Eventually, I decided to build a The Deck, for fun, only to find that it was surprisingly, very solid.

I tried a lot of cards in it, such as Vault-Key, Inkwell, Tendrils, Thoughtseize, Balance, Aura of Silence, and more, eventually settling on the following:

I ended up going 5-2 in the tournament, defeating two Confidant Tez, Red Stax, Dredge, and G/W Beats. I lost to a hateful B/G/U Goyf/Bob deck, with Null Rods, Wasteland, Daze, Force, Thoughtseize, Loam, and so on. I later lost a tough one to B/G, Rituals, Hymns, Goyfs, Duress, Thoughtseize, etc. I think I may have been able to beat the B/G deck with a different line of play, though I was down a game already. I am sure I could not win the games when I lost 2-1 against Ben Carp playing B/G/U, though I played him in ten more games afterwards, and I think I won four of them.

All in all, I think The Deck is a great choice right now, with the main suggestion I have to work on the match-up against BUG fish decks.

Here is an experimental version of The Deck I want to try:

The main thing is that Meloku was terrible, and I am good enough against Dredge and Stax to shave some percentage. I didn’t love Cunning Wish, but I didn’t hate it either. Helm plus Leyline was totally awesome for me out of the board, and I wished I had it main. It is primarily for match-ups where Sundering Titan isn’t good (Stax and Dredge), which is nice since Leyline is good against both anyway, and this way you have a sweet Tinker target.

Anyway, this article has already run long. I gotta get back to the best four days in gaming. See you guys next week!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”