Prepping for the Vintage World Championship

Stephen supplied this article with the following request: “Do not publish this article until after the Vintage World Championship.” In this revealing piece, he discusses his preparation for the biggest tournament on the Vintage calendar. He explains the tweaks and tech he considered for his weapon of choice, and he gives a lowdown of the tournament metagame going in. His actual thoughts on the tournament proper are coming next week!

By the time you read this, the books will be closed on the 4th Vintage World Championship. Two years ago, I had the cojones to publish the deck I was going to play at the Vintage Championship, and then actually made Top 8 with it. I make no such predictions today. Instead, I’m just going to pull back the curtain and take you through my process of deck selection. If I do well, I’ll have a sweet tournament report to talk about. Otherwise, I’m sure I’ll have some great insight to share about the changes in the format and the direction of the metagame.

A few weeks ago, I began the slow-going process of producing the primer on Grim Long, a deck I introduced at SCG Chicago last October upon the legalization of Portal, and have been piloting almost exclusively in tournaments ever since. Part one of the primer (or manual, depending on how you view it), can be found here.

I’ve done so well with Grim Long that it was a foregone conclusion that I’d play it. I played Meandeck Gifts last year and made Top 16, owing to some miscues and surprises. One thing I observed last year is that Combo seems to have a natural edge at the Vintage World Championship metagame. A young guy playing a variant of Draw7, a deck I built a few years ago, nearly made Top 8, despite having very little expertise with combo. Dragon combo also went 5-0 in the swiss and easily drew into the Top 8.

The Vintage Championship Metagame

The Vintage Championship metagame differs from the SCG P9 circuit and other major Vintage metagame in some important ways. First and foremost, there are no proxies allowed. Contrast this with all of the other major American Vintage tournaments that permit at least ten proxies. In a no-proxy metagame, the most expensive decks get cut out. Grim Long requires 3 Grim Tutors, 1 Imperial Seal, and 1 Timetwister. Just by clicking the links on those cards, you’ll have a sense for the price of this deck. It, along with Uba Stax (which requires both Mishra’s Workshop and Bazaar of Baghdad) will be the most difficult decks to build. The no-proxy metagame also means that people will be playing suboptimal builds of regular lists. That is, some combo player may fudge by playing 2 Grim Tutor, or without Imperial Seal. Some Stax player may be missing a Mox or two. This sort of thing is not uncommon. It makes for a softer field.

But there are counter-intuitive consequences of a no-proxy metagame. Last year, I won the two-round bye and had the opportunity to scout the entire metagame. I was particularly interested in the ratios of certain decks. I was struck by the fact that there was virtually no Fish. Out of 127 players, I counted three genuine Fish decks. That’s it. Why? Like all good scientists, we try to come up with theories to explain the causal relationship. I think I have one: Remember my article on Skill? I talked about a deck’s “average skill level.” I pointed out that the Fish type decks have a high average skill level. The decision-making process in Fish is very simple, relative to other Vintage decks. You have to decide which creature to play first, and then which creature to play second, etc. These decisions will be very easy to make because you will generally be basing them on information that has become available during the course of a game. Thus, the difference in skill between the very best Fish player and the average Fish player is going to be much, much smaller than for almost any other upper tier Vintage deck. The type of player who plays Fish and plays it well comes to Vintage, generally, through Fish. That is, they pick it up, and perform decently. They continue to play it, and thus perform better and better. They then become Fish aficionados. These players probably don’t own power. If they did, they probably wouldn’t have started with Fish or, they wouldn’t have been attracted to the speed and brutality of Vintage in the first place.

Thus, counter-intuitively, the no-proxy environment weeds out the low-proxy decks like Fish.

What’s left is a mess of Mana Drain decks.

So the Vintage metagame looks something like this:

A mess of suboptimal decks
A bunch of control decks
A bit of Stax (although it is still harder to build than a Drain deck)
Very little combo
Very little Fish (aggro-control)

Combo cleans up in this field. Grim Long’s best match is the control match. It’s a matchup so dominating that Rich Shay quit playing Control Slaver, in part, because of it. And the bad news for Control Players is that it just got worse.

From Grim Long to Pitch Long to Post-Board Grim Long

At SCG Charlotte, GWS’ Eric Becker took my Grim Long list and added seven of my favorite cards: 4 Force of Wills and 3 Misdirections. As soon as the rumors started circulating that Eric was playing 4 FoW and 3 Misdirections, I immediately – and correctly – guessed what the modifications were. They were intuitive and obvious:

-4 Duress
-1 Regrowth
-1 Xantid Swarm
-1 Wheel of Fortune
(supported by -2 Elvish Spirit Guides and + 3rd and 4th Cabal Ritual).

These changes gave you a nice, sturdy two-color manabase, which I guessed was:

2 Bloodstained Mire
4 Polluted Delta
2 Underground Sea
1 Island
1 Swamp
Tolarian Academy.

I was wrong about that – Becker used 2 Flooded Strand instead of the Mires.

And thus Pitch Long was born. It takes the frame of Grim Long and in a way shields and protects it in armor of Blue pitch magic. I love it.

The attentive readers will remember will know that I added Force of Wills to the Grim Long sideboard for SCG Rochester, where I made Top 8. The Force of Wills surprised opponents all day long. Over the course of the tournament, I was sideboarding in Force of Wills every match. Someone asked: why not add the FoWs maindeck? I somewhat dismissed the comment on the rationale that FoW requires Grim Long to pitch a business spell. The problem with this is that the cost is high. The reason you have to bring in FoWs post board is because your opponents will bring in hate. Thus, it makes sense to have FoW post board, but not preboard. Pitch Long rejects this logic.

In a sense, Pitch Long is my deck, post-board, with a more defensive manabase.

Which made me wonder: what if I were to take my deck, post-board? What would that look like? Besides the Duresses for Force of Will, the most common cards to get cut post-board are the Green suite: that is, the Elvish Spirit Guides and Regrowth.

I immediately became obsessed with trying to figure out precisely how I could play my deck “post-board.” Since I bring in Force of Will in every single match, it makes sense to just move the Forces maindeck. There is one problem, however. There aren’t enough Blue spells. When I sideboard in the Force of Wills, I always sideboard in another bounce spell (generally a Chain of Vapor) with it, to reach the requisite 17 Blue spells.

I thought and thought about it, and I looked at all the various components:

30 mana
5 draw7s (3 Blue)
5 Bombs (Will, Bargain, Necro, Ancestral, Desire)
1 Time Walk, 1 Regrowth
7 tutors (3 Grim, 1 Vamp, 1 Mystical, 1 Demonic, 1 Imperial Seal)
4 Brainstorm
4 Duress
1 Xantid Swarm,
1 Bounce Spell (Hurkyl’s Recall or Chain of Vapor)
1 Tendrils

My goal is to cut a non-blue card to make room for a 17th Blue spell. The assumption is that I’m cutting 4 Duress for 4 Force of Will.

You can’t cut a draw7. They are all Blue (aside from Jar, which makes Tinker work) or Wheel of Fortune. If I’m going to keep a riskier five-color manabase that looks like this:

4 City of Brass
3 Gemstone Mine
1 Forbidden Orchard
2 Underground Sea
1 Tolarian Academy

… over the nice, neat, and safe two-color manabase, then I need to keep all the bombs.

The whole reason for playing Grim Long post-board over two-color Pitch Long is so that I can use Green utility and Wheel of Fortune.

You don’t want to cut a tutor (the worse one is Mystical, and it’s Blue!) and so that really leaves nothing else to cut. I had to turn to the mana. I thought about Elvish Spirit Guide. The match that concerns me the most is the Stax match. It’s the only match I feel like I may be truly unfavorable in, and it’s the only match that I’ve really lost in a tight spot (it’s knocked me out of two semi-finals matches playing Grim Long). Elvish Spirit Guide is present for several reasons, but one among them is that it helps the Stax match. I thought: if I cut the two Elvish Spirit Guides, I can add an 18th Blue spell with the following consequences:

I’ll have more Blue spells to pitch
I’ll have both Chain of Vapor and Hurkyl’s Recall maindeck, which means that I’ll be able to handle both Fish and Stax better game 1.
I’ll need that ESG mana less since I’m trading out spells that cost mana (4 Duress) for spells that are free.
I’ll be able to run a 5th Force of Will (i.e. Misdirection)

Misdirection is one of my favorite cards in Vintage. Almost every single control deck I play runs it (look at the three I play in Meandeck Gifts). I don’t really like playing Control without it. The chance to play it in here is exciting.

The reason to run five-color Pitch Long over Pitch Long is that you get the benefits of pitch magic, but you get to maximize the brokenness and keep your threat density high.

Thus, here is my decklist for Gencon:

As far as the sideboard goes, all I’ve done is swap out the Force of Wills for a card suggested by my teammate Lyle: Orim’s Chant.

The point of five-color Pitch Long is quite simple: you get all of the power of Grim Long, half the power of Pitch Long, and an ace in the hole for the combo mirror.


My opponent: Mind’s Desire for 9.
Me: response, Orim’s Chant.
My opponent: You sick mofo.


My opponent: Dark Ritual, Black Lotus, Cabal Ritual, Yawgmoth’s Will.
Me: response: Orim’s Chant.

That’s how much fun I’m going to have with Orim’s Chant this weekend.

In essence, I’m playing Grim Long, post board. To accommodate the post-board configuration, I’ve very slightly modified the maindeck to support a second bounce spell and a Misdirection. I’m sacrificing some manna stability that helps the Stax match to guarantee the win in the combo match. I hope my gambit pays off.

By the time you read this, you’ll already know.

Regardless of how well I do, I strongly believe that Long variants, in one form or another, will perform well at the Vintage Champs. Thus, even if my list isn’t the list to play at the Vintage Champs, it will be a serious contender in the aftermath: wouldn’t you want to play the Long variant that wins the combo mirror?

That said, I highly recommend Pitch Long for most of you:

Playing Pitch Long

The benefits of two-color Pitch Long were immediately clear: First and foremost, it is much, much easier to play. The pitch magic makes it unnecessary to induce a stroke over your opening play. You are much more secure in knowing you can protect whatever it is that you have to protect – and each spell you protect is an utter bomb. Duress is truly weak in this metagame: it isn’t good against Control, Fish, or Stax, and not even that good against combo at the moment. Pitch Long has much more obvious plays. Grim Long has to plan far in advance to wear down the opponent with a relentless stream of threats that were precisely calculated. Without such planning, you don’t have the resource stability to ensure that you can throw them out there. With Pitch Long, I feel like a great deal of players can play Long closer to the same expertise that I pilot Grim Long. However, that is not to say that Pitch Long is strictly easier to play. The use of Fetchlands adds another skillset to the table: playing around Stifle, knowing which lands to fetch (and when) are critical skills for survival. Not necessarily harder than knowing how to maximize the suicidal five-color manabase, but different knowledge.

Second, Pitch Long adds the fantastic benefit of Fetchland synergies. Going Brainstorm, break fetchland, Brainstorm is fantastic. The Fetchlands synergizes with the 4 Cabal Rituals in the deck – giving you real power in Cabal Ritual, much like Meandeck Tendrils uses Cabal Ritual. There are other smaller, but important, benefits to Pitch Long: Cabal Ritual power gives you greater outs against threats like Chalice of the Void for one. It can pull you out from under Trinisphere: multiple Cabal Rituals plus Yawgmoth’s Will and Tendrils can make a relatively simple win even under Trinisphere.

The presence of Misdirection will simply take out Control’s most powerful opening play: Ancestral Recall. It also will give Dragon a huge headache, since it is relying on Deep Analysis. Also, a sideboard switch that Justin Droba, Phil Schmidt, and myself simultaneously thought up was: one Bayou, one Tropical Island, and four Xantid Swarm for two-color Pitch Long. It then becomes a simple matter to switch out the two basic lands for the Green duals and Xantid Swarms.

Because of its ease of play, I believe that Pitch Long could well be a sustaining “Best Deck in Vintage.” It is going to be a welcome sight. As this process occurs, I offer my five-color Pitch Long (or Grim Long, post board, if you will) as an alternative for the combo expert.

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian