Scoping Out Vintage – A Focus on the Things That Matter

More than just a discussion about Zvi’s forays into Vintage ahead of this weekend’s Star City Power Nine tournament, it also includes rules to follow for Vintage deck design, Zvi’s list of Control Slaver, Hall of Fame discussion and more!

Preliminaries: Additional comments from last time

I got a lot of feedback on my last article and I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that almost all of it was not just positive but helpful. Helpful feedback is one of those things that I can never get enough of, and I wish more people would offer it. Notes are available at the end of this article, but for now let’s dive into Vintage. It’s so cool! Vintage is a strange beast in some ways, but it is still Magic. It still has to obey all the usual Magic rules. You still want to follow the basics, and build your deck along the lines of rules like:

1. Play the good cards.

2. Take advantage of the heart of the format.

3. Focus only on what matters.

4. Play in your house.

5. Never play fair.

Those are five good reasons to use when choosing your deck, and I’ve been keeping them in mind.

1. Play the good cards

What are the good cards? In Vintage they make it easy to know what the best cards are because most of them are restricted. Some of them are not, like Goblin Welder and Force of Will and Mishra’s Workshop and even Brainstorm, but most of them are. Look at the good old TRL and find the cards that are good for what ails you. Black Lotus, Demonic Tutor, Ancestral Recall, Sol Ring, Yawgmoth’s Will and friends are hard to beat. The more of these cards you take advantage of the better, and the more you get out of them the better. The best part of this is that the more restricted cards you play, the better they all become – especially Yawgmoth’s Will. If you don’t play as many of these cards as possible, then you absolutely, positively must take advantage of some of the other broken stuff to compensate you.

2. Take advantage of the heart of the format

The heart of Vintage is the restricted list and all the broken cards on that list. That should come as no surprise, as these cards are explicitly acknowledged to be broken. It is hard to argue that the core is anything else, as the good cards actually do form a strategy among themselves. They let you flow through your deck like lightning, replenish your hand, search your deck and in general go completely nuts as early as turn 1. Those who attempt to fight against an attempt to use as many restricted cards as possible are facing an uphill battle even when they get cards like Mishra’s Workshop as compensation. The question then becomes, what takes best advantage of the heart?

There are three basic approaches. You can take the combination approach, in which case you end up with TPS or another similar strategy. This is the most pure way to capitalize. If you get more out of your broken cards by attempting to go crazy as quickly and ruthlessly as possible, why not go all out? The reason as far as I can tell is that it leaves you more vulnerable by taking away your ability to play a “normal” game. It also can be considered overkill because you’re doing more work than you have to in order to kill your opponent when Mindslaver would do the trick instead.

So Yawg watches Yu-Gi-Oh, eh?

If you go the control route, you don’t want to waste space and time on anything you don’t need. Mindslaver is a pure way to win the game. It doesn’t actually kill your opponent most of the time, but it comes close. I have yet to lose a game in Vintage where I activated a Mindslaver, and there have been a bunch of them where I had very little else going on when I did so.

The problem with the control route is that the more I played with the deck, the more I felt like I was still playing a combination deck. My combination was Mindslaver and four mana to activate it. If I pulled off the combination, I won. I could use Force of Will and Mana Drain to control the game, and I’ve won some games without Mindslaver, but the rest of the deck feels like it is just setting up a Yawgmoth’s Will. I approve of that sort of thing. I had Goblin Charbelcher in my deck for about fifteen games, but in none of them did I gain anything from having access to that kill. If you pull off a massive Will, isn’t Time Walk, Mindslaver and Goblin Welder just as effective as Goblin Charbelcher and Mana Severance, provided you have enough mana to pull that one off? You need one of the cards to be around somewhere, but that’s not a tall order. You make yourself a little vulnerable, but not so much that I am too worried about it.

Then there are those who focus on the heart by trying to kill it. Like many other formats, Vintage has a set of cards that are clearly best and most of the best strategies share important liabilities. To protect yourself you would have to sacrifice some of the strength of your deck to guard against something most opponents will not attack: Your mana base, your casting costs, your graveyard, your artifacts. This leads into the third principle.

3. Focus only on what matters

What matters in Vintage is doing something ridiculous or stopping your opponent from doing it, and doing that quickly. Those who try to do something broken right away know exactly what to focus on. Then there are those who plan to win by attacking where other decks are weak. There are several weak points for Vintage decks, and if they don’t guard against those weak points they could find themselves rich in cards and/or mana but unable to accomplish anything.

The better you make your deck in terms of pure power, the more vulnerable you are to the hate.

A. The Graveyard

Yawgmoth’s Will is one of the most powerful cards in the game and Goblin Welder is one of the best unrestricted ones. There’s also Crucible of Worlds, Worldgorger Dragon and any number of other things. Many decks depend on the graveyard for their strategy or even for any ability to win and the grave is one thing that can be shut out. Phyrexian Furnace is an excellent maindeck response and after sideboarding you can bring true hate if you want to. If your opponent’s build of his deck is sufficiently narrow, this alone becomes a serious threat, but it is dangerous to rely on these strategies because opponents can avoid opening themselves up on this problem far easier than they can choose to dodge the others.

B. The Mana

This won me many Vintage tournaments back in the day, both with and without power. The main weakness used to be that opponents would have almost all nonbasic lands, leaving them highly vulnerable to Back to Basics or Blood Moon. That’s still true, and there was always also the bigger and more basic problem that these decks tended not to have enough land in them. I understand how it happened. There is a lot of card drawing and a lot of cards you feel like you need to include, which puts tons of pressure on players to cheat on their mana ratios. It also comes from the group of players involved. It is a well-known fact that professionals tend to put more mana in their decks than amateurs. Gorilla Shaman is not what it once was, with Chalice of the Void now in that role. Players need to understand how often their mana will be attacked, and if anything it is not being done anywhere near often enough.

C. The Artifacts

This goes along with the mana, but the direct artifact attacks seem like they should happen more often. Energy Flux is around, why does no one use it? It renders all the mana artifacts two-shot deals if you count Yawgmoth’s Will and takes down a number of other cards that it is very hard to spare two mana for. It single handedly murders a number of strategies, and if you add in Wasteland, Strip Mine and a little more pressure on the basic lands there is not much mana left in a lot of decks. There can’t be that much mana left, because if you were okay without the artifact mana you’d flood all the time when you had it. This is always going to be an option.

D. Chalice of the Void

This should get its own category. When you’re in a rush, the Chalice is clearly very strong against you because it’s going to take out a lot of the cards in your deck. There is no deck in Vintage that likes seeing a first-turn Chalice, and if you didn’t mind one then I’m going to say that your deck is terrible.

This of course ignores the other, much bigger side of this principle: Don’t be distracted by all the things you can and do the things that matter. Either way, it seems like you have a choice: You can play your own cards or you can play their cards. If you play your own cards, you’re risking them choosing to play yours and then that can get you into trouble.

4. Play in Your House

One of the best things you can have going for you is home field advantage. Teams play entire halves of seasons for the express purpose of having two extra games at home when it counts. In Magic, the playing field is the cards, not the physical location, and you need to be prepared (as I’ve said before) to play in your house. When you pick up a deck blind, you’re playing on the road. When you know your deck inside and out, you’re forcing them to play in your house. Vintage is no different from any other format. You have to play what you know. The latest P9 champion knew this lesson well, and played a deck he knew even, if it wasn’t the best choice for anyone else. Luckily for me this doesn’t restrict me too much as I’m at home playing every deck in Vintage that I know about. I’ve been around so long that I understand the principles behind all of them given a few days to prepare.

5. Never Play Fair

This has always been my guiding principle. You would think this wouldn’t be a problem in Vintage, but there are those who want to play fair. One of my best friends in Magic intends to play a deck that is fair. It’s not just fair relative to other Vintage decks, it’s actually fair! Why even show up, I say. Whatever deck you play, you have to know why it is unfair.

Deck Overview: Slaver/Belcher

Vintage players have a lot of deck names to describe a wide variety of decks, but they also make finer distinctions than they should. It did not take long to realize that a bunch of different names were being used to describe the same core strategy. Belcher is Slaver. Of course it is Slaver! The two decks are trying to do the same thing, and Belcher includes a different card drawer and a quicker kill card. Since when does that make it worthy of a separate name? All this talk about one having “strategic superiority” and all of that is humbug. Slaver is the right name for this superstructure because this is what makes these strategies unique. At the same time, there’s something very non-unique about what you’re up to. That’s what drew me to the deck. It’s the strategy of having… no strategy at all.

Yo Willis, whachoo talkin' bout?

I can see all you Vintage players wondering what the hell I’m talking about. Allow me to explain. The goal of Slaver is the most basic of all Magic goals – You want to draw lots of cards and generate lots of mana. That’s all. Eventually the game is going to ask you to do some cleanup work like killing your opponent or otherwise winning the game. Such things are overrated, and Slaver recognizes this fact by devoting only a minimal number of slots to such strategies. Force of Will is too good not to play, and stops your opponent from doing things that would get in your way. Mana Drain helps out in that goal and it also helps out with your mana, but after that the only cards that aren’t just fueling the engine are two Mindslaver, a Pentavus and Goblin Welder. Goblin Welder helps out your mana, especially when you’re about to use Yawgmoth’s Will. They also can be considered to be part of your mana base because they save you the need to pay for Mindslaver and Pentavus.

That is how I ended up viewing the deck after playing a bunch of games with it. All I wanted to do was draw cards. I wanted to draw more cards, I wanted to draw them quickly, I wanted to play cards that let me get more mana. Then the moment I could, I wanted to activate a Mindslaver because that would win me the game.

Here is the list that I like right now:

That list could be described as Belcher without the Belcher, or as a Gifts Slaver deck, or anything else you want to call it. I admit I’m still a little bit light on the lingo, but this list seems to do what it needs to do and do it rather well. The downside is that you’re exposed, as I noted before, and a little disruption in the wrong place can be very bad because you don’t have any outs to deal with such problems beyond the one Chain of Vapor. I have to say there have been a few times that I worried about my opponent starting a chain with it, but so far no one ever has. As long as everyone is content to make it a one-mana bounce spell, I am content to keep using it.

I consider it highly unlikely that I will be running this deck, and that’s why I have not yet built the sideboard. You have a lot of card drawing and mana, so you can do pretty much anything you want to. There’s nothing stopping you from transforming into a deck that kills with men, for example, if that is what you want to do. With the current state of the game, especially in Rochester, this deck ends up with the disadvantages of playing a deck like TPS without the advantages. You need the engine cards to make your deck work, making you vulnerable to cards that stop them, but unlike TPS, you have to give them at least a turn or two every time and often considerably more than that to disrupt you. I felt like I had to worry about all the cards that would worry more direct decks without much compensation for that. Sure, you can “play it as a control deck” for a while, but I don’t buy that this should be effective. All you have are eight counters without backup. If that can control your opponent, what is he doing?

That is not to say that these decks are bad, but they seem like they have to be a dominating strategy even when people aren’t “prepared” for them, as I have heard people are these days. You have to be prepared to deal with just about anything, and you need to be able to deal with it before learning what you are up against. That is a formula for disaster. What I am also rapidly learning is that without the ability to see one of these tournaments in action, I won’t have a good grasp on what is actually going on.

Hall of Fame: On the Third Ballot

Juniors don’t count. Oops. I had been under the impression that they were going to count, which would have put me on the first ballot. Instead I’m going to have to wait for year three and compete for four slots with Kai, Randy, Nicolai, Rubin, Kibler and Turian. That’s no walk in the park. In the meantime, I’m going to have to settle for being an elector. The first of the five votes are trivial: Anyone whose ballot doesn’t start with Jon Finkel ought to have their privileges revoked because they obviously have no idea what they’re talking about. The other four are up for grabs even if they shouldn’t be, because it is an open question what criteria people will use. I hope we can avoid turning this into a popularity contest.

Postscript: On Last Time

In my analysis of Kamigawa block, I don’t think I was as careful as I should have been to make sure my bias was clear. I don’t know many casual players, so I want to make sure everyone understands that this is how the format looked to me and those I know. I’ve talked to a number of owners of stores, and learned enough that the question of what went wrong becomes worth asking, but I don’t have the survey results. Take my opinion for what it is, an opinion.

I also want to talk a bit more about the four rules of Cyberpunk – in particular rule number one – which if viewed correctly was arguably the block’s real problem. All of them relate to each other, of course, combining to form a philosophy. I don’t live by it, but it has a lot to recommend it if used sensibly.

1. Style over Substance

I was planning on talking about how this rule was broken, as well as wildly misunderstood by everyone I worked with on Cyberpunk. It is a symptom of trying to live by rules, that even if you are very in step with their philosophy, often you don’t understand quite what the rules are saying. Style over substance was taken by everyone to mean that style was king, or that at least in the right situation it could be king. That’s not what this is saying, but this took me a long time to realize. What it is saying is that style works only when there’s substance to put it over. Style over substance is cool, and makes things better. Style without substance is just chrome, and when you make style the point what you end up with is chrome. I had that written and cut it out, leading to some possible confusion, so here it is. Vintage has lots of style, but it also has a ton of substance, which is something that has been a pleasant surprise. All those flashy cards interact in fascinating ways. I’m hoping it stays that way.


I figure that while I’m going to stick my head where it does not belong I would also talk about keywords. Mark Rosewater latest article notes that making sweep a mechanic was a mistake, although he defends channel. I think that channel should not have been a mechanic, but not because it was not on enough cards or was not powerful enough. I think that it compares badly to cycling. As for sweep, I expected more out of that mechanic to the extent that I wrote the reviews of several cards assuming that there would be additional sweep cards in the other colors. This was reinforced by my traditional tackling of White first. I go back and change things as I see the rest of the set, but I still write my set reviews without having seen the remainder of the set in any depth and sometimes without having seen it at all. Seeing a card for the first time is exciting, or at least that is the hope, and it helps get the creative juices flowing.