SCG Daily – The Keys to Making Top 8 in Vintage Tournaments

Pure Magic would be a world where there were no card pool constraints on a person’s deck choice, where there were no time limits, where everyone has perfect information as to the decks in the metagame and where no one made play mistakes. Unfortunately, Vintage, as defined by the rules of Magic and the banned and restricted list, doesn’t exist. What exists is a particular variant of Vintage called Tournament Vintage. It is essential to tournament success that you focus upon the actual features of Vintage tournaments, not just the features of the format as defined by the rules. In this article I am going reveal all of my secrets – all of the tidbits of knowledge I’ve picked up from my experience in Vintage tournaments.

Pure Magic would be a world where there were no card pool constraints on a person’s deck choice, where there were no time limits, where everyone has perfect information as to the decks in the metagame and where no one made play mistakes. Unfortunately, Vintage, as defined by the rules of Magic and the banned and restricted list, doesn’t exist. What exists is a particular variant of Vintage called Tournament Vintage.

It is essential to tournament success that you focus upon the actual features of Vintage tournaments, not just the features of the format as defined by the rules.

In this article I am going reveal all of my secrets – all of the tidbits of knowledge I’ve picked up from my experience in Vintage tournaments.

The major Vintage Tournaments are generally Eight Rounds of Swiss

This is huge. Most players don’t even think about this fact. Winning is not just about having a good plan. It’s not just about knowing the matchups and having favorable matchups. It’s about figuring out how to make Top 8 under this simple parameter.

Winning is about figuring out how to get a certain record in eight rounds of swiss. That is your goal.

The simplest way to make Top 8 is to go 6-0 in the first six rounds. Then you can draw the next two rounds and be a lock for Top 8. You can even lose or concede a match in round seven or eight and still make Top 8 because your tiebreakers will be so good.

Think about that for a moment. What that means is that you only have to win the first six matches and you make Top 8. More specifically, you only have to win 12 of 18 games in your first six rounds without losing two games per match!

When I first realized that, I was blown away. Your focus should be figuring out how to do that and that alone.

What can we draw from that? If you only need to win 12 games in the first six rounds, your goal should be to figure out how to accomplish that goal. Twelve games is not a lot of games. You figure you can win at least two or three of those games based upon brokenness. You figure you can win one of those games because your opponent has a terrible hand, mulligans into oblivion or is completely mana screwed. You figure you can win three or four of those games based upon your opponent making play mistakes. You are almost there! How can you win the rest?

Surprises are huge! If you can cause an opponent to lose a game because you have a surprise bomb or a surprise deck, you will likely win a match. Playing a new deck is a huge advantage if you are good with it because your opponent will be unprepared. If you have information they do not, you have a tremendous advantage.

When we first played Meandeck Oath in SCG P9 II, we knew that 5/3, the Workshop Aggro deck that most of Team Short Bus played, actually had a decent matchup despite appearing terrible on the surface. But we also knew that they wouldn’t figure that out until it was too late. I remember hearing Shane Stoots remark that if only he had played his Goblin Welder, he would have won that match. The fear of Oath kept him from playing the Welder that would have recurred Memory Jar to kill the Oath player while Gaea’s Blessing was on the stack.

We also knew that our deck had big issues with Platinum Angel. We only hoped that any Control Slaver players would not realize this until it was too late. For that reason we didn’t have a maindeck solution. The Divining Top Combo that Team Hadley took to Syracuse had no maindeck win condition. They used Cunning Wish to find Brain Freeze. This wasn’t a problem because their opponents didn’t know this.

A new deck can have weaknesses you don’t expect your opponents to figure out and exploit the first time they see it since they don’t have the luxury of testing beforehand. If you can play a surprise deck at every tournament, you will have a nice advantage because every opponent will be in the dark.

Even better is when you can make your opponent think you are playing one thing when in fact you have something else entirely different. That’s why making major changes to an established archetype can be as devastating as playing an entirely new deck.

What this also means is that you should seriously integrate your sideboard and your maindeck. You should design the two in tandem. Your sideboard should have a flow with your maindeck. You may even want to consider putting sideboard cards into your maindeck. A good sideboard is crucial.

50 minutes is generally not enough time to play three full games of Vintage Magic.

This is a fact that people simply do not get. Most people think that Vintage is insanely fast and defined by who can combo out first. People unfamiliar with Vintage would be shocked how many matches go to time. Just because the format takes fewer turns, does not mean that it takes less time. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Although the number of turns per game is certainly shorter on average than the number of turns per game in any other format, each turn takes much longer. A turn one in Limited is often, Draw, Land, Go. In Vintage, it is often, Mox, Land, Brainstorm, etc, etc.

The games aren’t longer – they are more compressed into fewer turns. In fact, they might actually be longer because of cards like Yawgmoth’s Will, the sheer quantity of tutoring effects, and the importance of mulliganing. Yawgmoth’s Will causes the player casting it to replay their entire game. Many combo decks take fifteen-minute turns playing at a reasonable speed! Meandeath can resolve Mind’s Desire and then take 20 minutes just playing all the spells it sees from that and spells that it sees from the cards revealed by Desire playing at breakneck speed.

Shuffling takes an enormous amount of time in Vintage. Every deck plays with tutors and fetchlands. Every fetchland requires a shuffle and the shuffle requires that the opponent shuffle as well. Every player should pile shuffle before the game as well as shuffle the opponent’s library. Doing this takes a lot of time. Moreover, if you take a mulligan, you have to go through the whole process again. Generally, the player on the draw won’t decide whether to mulligan until the first player has resolved all of their mulligans. Since Vintage is a mulligan heavy format, this can take a very long time for a fifty minute round.

Shuffling alone – including pile shuffling, resolution of all mulligans of both players for all three games and in game shuffling can easy take upwards of ten minutes of the match. Each player has three minutes to shuffle at the start of the game. If you have three games and no mulliganing, that’s nine minutes right there. That isn’t even taking into account in game shuffling from fetchlands and tutors let alone mulligans.

So what can we learn from this? Time management is essential. I can’t emphasize this enough. One of the critical lessons in Vintage is constantly paying attention to your time. You must always re-evaluate your plan to win a match based upon the time remaining. One of the biggest mistakes I see all the time is that players do not know when to scoop. That is a huge skill. If you have won game one and you guess that you have a 20% chance of winning game two but the game won’t end for a while and there is only 15 minutes left in the round, you very well may want to scoop. You need to weigh all the risks and chances of winning. You need to figure out if you can afford to draw. Drawing is almost a loss in Vintage. Knowing when to scoop is essential. Knowing when to scoop is the same as learning how to win. If you do not learn when to scoop, you will not win.

At the same time, you need to understand other consequences of a serious time limit. At Gencon last year, I played mono-Blue. Mono-Blue is an extremely slow deck. Every time I won game one, I would seriously consider boarding out win conditions in game two. Why? Because I did not actually have to win. By boarding out Morphlings, I could put more countermagic into my maindeck.

It’s like the episode of Star Trek: TNG where Data is playing this gamemaster at an incredibly difficult strategy game. Data beat the gamemaster for one reason: he wasn’t trying to win. He was trying to draw. When you are trying to draw, you don’t have to make risks inherent in attempting to win in a balanced game.

Game one took over thirty minutes. I knew we would only have fifteen minutes or so to play the rest of the match. By stopping him from winning, I knew I would win the match. If the second game did not finish, I would be the only player with a win and therefore the winner of the match. By boarding out my Morphlings, I put more countermagic into my deck to stop him from winning. That’s exactly how the game played out.

Finally, you need to know how to adjust your game plan based upon the amount of time left. If you are in a position where you really need a win, not a draw, then you should make riskier plays to accelerate your game plan. I made this mistake at Richmond. I was playing against Fish. I lost game one and I won an excruciatingly long game two. We had less than ten minutes left and probably closer to five. My opening hand was something like this: Mana Crypt, Tolarian Academy, Mox Sapphire, Ancestral Recall, In the Eye of Chaos, Vampiric Tutor, Crucible of Worlds, and Gemstone Mine. He played land, go.

I drew a card and played: Mox Sapphire, Ancestral Recall. It resolved which told me he didn’t have countermagic. I drew into Karn, Silver Golem. I dropped Mana Crypt and played In the Eye of Chaos. That’s how I normally would have played that hand. However, given the circumstances, I was in the perfect position to win once we got to time. I had Karn and I had large artifacts. I could be in the space of a turn or two in a position to be swinging at him for nearly ten damage a turn with Smokstacks and Crucible animated by Karn. Instead, I played it like a normal game and my match drew.

People Make Mistakes

This is a hard lesson to learn just from testing because in a more casual environment, people are likely to permit “take-backs” or won’t feel like they are under much pressure, if any at all.

A tournament environment is much different. The pressure and stress of a tournament causes mental lapses. You must be prepared for this and most importantly, you must be prepared to take advantage of it. When a player has made a mistake, they will become flustered and distracted. Without being rude or unsportsmanlike, this is the time to turn up the pressure. You should sit up straight, make eye contact, and play aggressively. This will cause them to make even more mistakes.

Magic is a psychological game as much as it is a game of strategy. You can’t just win the game with the cards – you have to win the mental war as well.

Part of taking advantage of this is also knowing when a person is most likely to a mistake.

I’m only going to say this once. People are most likely to make a blatent error just as they are about to make a game winning play in a long, tense game. I have seen it happen too many times for me to recount now. The stress builds up and up and up until they finally get that card or see that opening. They rush through their phases or rush to make the play and the result is usually a fatal miscalculation. They want to win that game so badly and they have been under pressure for so long that they just want it to end.

I’ll provide two frequently cited examples of this:

1) In the very first Starcitygames Richmond nearly a year ago, I was playing Psychatog against a Fish player. It was game three of an extremely tense match. My hand was Deep Analysis, Mana Drain, and Cunning Wish. I had two or three lands on the table and a lethal Psychatog. My opponent had been blocking the Psychatog every turn because it was capable of dealing 20 damage. As a result, he had almost no creatures left in play. The last creature remaining was Grim Lavamancer. I was a three life. It was his turn. I knew that on my turn he was going to deal two points of damage to me with the Lavamancer as he blocked the Psychatog sending me to one life. He had no cards in hand. I calculated what he could draw that could win him this game and assuming he sideboarded out Fire / Ice, I concluded only Time Walk would win him the game. I had Mana Drain for that.

He drew his card, tapped his mana and played Time Walk. Impressed at my foresight, I eagerly Mana Drained it. I untapped, drew and declared my attack and extended my hand. He was quick to point out that I mana burned and lost the match. He was right. It wasn’t that I couldn’t use that mana. I could easily have just played the Deep Analysis. I just wanted the match to end so badly that I ignored the obvious.

Another example is from that same tournament. Marc Perez was playing Chris Philips in the Top 8. Marc was at one life. He had managed to stall the ground despite Chris’ superior creature count because of Mazes of Ith and a few manlands. Chris, on the other hand, was tight on mana. A Null Rod made his Mox Sapphire useless and his only land was Mishra’s Factory. Marc had a Standstill in play as well.

The game went draw go for an eternity until excitedly Chris played a Flooded Strand. Almost immediately he broke it and started fetching through is library to find Volcanic Island. Almost simultaneously he announced Fire/Ice targeting Marc and a critter for the win. Marc calmly called over a judge. He explained that he was not given an opportunity to respond to the fetchland. The game was rewound and Marc played Stifle on the Fetchland breaking his own Standstill – a play he almost certainly would not have made without knowledge of the Fire / Ice.

Although I have only described the board state, you should have seen the match. Both players were clearly under stress. Chris’ face was beet-red and you could see sweat on his brow.

I could site similar examples, but I’m sure you get the picture.

You Cannot Afford to Make Play Mistakes

The corollary to the point that your opponents will make play mistakes is that you must not. Part of taking advantage of your opponents play mistakes is that you must not. The reason the Pros are so good is not because they make incredibly awesome plays that no one else can see. The reason they perform so well is because their opponents make play mistakes when they do not.

In a Vintage tournament, it is of the utmost importance that you do not make play mistakes. If you do, you will get punished for it. And it will be worse than just losing. It will be a psychological defeat. It will be a game three where your opponents gets the most insane draw in a match you should have easily won.

The point here is that you need to play a deck that you know you will play flawlessly. That means preparation. That means testing. Playing the best deck is not as important as playing a deck you have a shot with perfectly. Mastery with a deck can cause a player to make not just good plays, but excellent plays. It can cause you to make plays based upon experience and intuition. Having experience in any given match means that when you face it in a tournament you will have psychological confidence about it. You will have a plan and know how to actuate that plan. That can make all the difference in the world.