So Many Insane Plays – Split Article: Debating Vintage/ A Legacy Tournament Report *Top 4*

Monday, April 20th – Last week’s article on Proxies in Vintage caused a stir in the forums… today, Stephen Menendian clarifies and expands on his position. He also shares his latest in-depth play-by-play Legacy report, full of the usual intricacy we can expect from the master…

Alara Reborn is slowly being unveiled, and I’ll have the full Vintage set review for you next Monday. I’ll make sure you know which cards you’ll need to acquire to fill out your collection of Vintage playables, and take a look at possible applications for Vintage Constructed.

My article last week seemed to resonate with the experience of many long-time Vintage players (and resonance is a key component of mind change), but it did seem to create quite a bit more confusion than I anticipated. There seemed to be at least two areas of confusion. First, many people misinterpreted my analysis, which examined some of the problems Vintage faces and some possible mechanisms for improving Vintage, for the main obstacles that Vintage faces. Secondly, although I repeatedly stated that I thought that we should be moving to a five-proxy model, many readers (such as Josh Silvestri and Kevin Binswanger) seemed to interpret my article as a general attack on proxies, and reiterated the importance of proxies to people playing Vintage, points which I acknowledge and take as a given.

With respect to the first category, the problems Vintage faces — or at least the obstacles to growth (whether we characterize them as ‘problems’ or not) — are deeper than the scope of my article last week. Foremost among those obstacles is lack of Wizards support relative to other formats/lack of a visible tournament circuit.

While I won’t say that Wizards can’t do more to support Vintage (they can), my recommendations were targeted to the Vintage community and tournament organizers within it, not Wizards. I would love to see Wizards hold a larger regional Vintage tournament two or three times a year, and/ or have them award prizes at the Vintage championship to unpowered players.

Wizards support makes a tremendous difference. The single biggest factor driving Legacy has obviously been official Wizards Support: 4 Grand Prix tournaments, as well as being featured in team competition and 5 rounds of the last two Magic World Championships. The closest visibility that Vintage has seen to that is 16 players playing Vintage for three rounds on the Magic Invitational. Both formats enjoy a Championship at GenCon, but there is no comparison.

But the central difficulty with this conversation, and one of the reasons it is so dizzying and confused, is the circularity of it. The biggest obstacle to the popularity of Vintage may be the lack of Wizards support. But the lack of Wizards support is directly tied to the availability of Vintage staples and the barrier to entry as a result, which limits the popularity of Vintage as a format. If both ‘cause’ each other, neither can be said to be the primary cause. Rather, they interact.

There are only two possible ways to break this circle: either 1) have Wizards dramatically increase its support for Vintage or 2) find a way to reduce the barriers to entry.

Wizards could increase its support for Vintage, but it would be an awkward thing.* Legacy, even though it often requires dual lands and other $30-$40 cards, has nothing on Vintage when it comes to high-end cards. While both formats share low-end cards like Dark Ritual, Ponder, and Thorn of Amethyst, Vintage has a huge swath of cards that run from Mana Drain to Mishra’s Workshop to Black Lotus, cards that are fundamental to the format, where there is no pricey equivalent in Legacy. The most expensive Legacy cards, cards like Moat or Imperial Recruiter, mostly belong to niche decks or are far from mandatory to compete at a high level. That makes it much easier to support Legacy as a constructed format, without question.

With respect to the second option, the solution the Vintage community has used, with obvious success, is to reduce the barriers to entry by permitting substitutes (proxies), a method which I have long advocated. The price, of course, is that this solution precludes Wizards support in a robust way. Which leaves us where we began. The suggestions I made where framed with this limitation in mind.

With respect to the second category of confusion, people stressed the ways in which a 10-15 proxy standard allows more people to compete, and increases tournament attendance. Obviously, proxies allow more people to play in tournaments and enjoy Vintage than otherwise would.** By making this argument, many of the responses in the forums (such as the response of Josh Silvestri and Kevin Binswanger, who made this point) did not seem to grasp the central argument in support of a lowered proxy limit. This argument hinged on a distinction between the short-term and the long-term. The requirements for growth of Vintage in both time frames is different, even though there are areas overlap.

This principle of the distinction between the requirements for growth in the short term and long run are well understood in business, finance, agriculture, and many other settings. In the short-run, behaviors which maximize growth can actually be destructive to the long-run potential. To take one example of many, consider the collapse of the fishing industry in Newfoundland. It was in the short-term interest of individual fishermen to capture as many fish as they could. They used increasingly sophisticated techniques for tracking and capturing schools of fish until the fish stock collapsed. The same is true of growing crops, where overuse of the soil in the short term can produce erosion. This distinction is central to business and finance. The very idea of investment is recognition that expenditures now can produce greater returns in the future, at the expense of short-term revenue.

My argument was that we need a balance between the short-term benefits of proxies , lowering the cost of entry to play Vintage, and the long-term costs of proxies, such as the disincentive to actually own/acquire any power even among the most successful and dedicated Vintage enthusiasts, and the manifold negative consequences that flow from that fact. Simply put, and the point I was trying to stress, is that it is silly to have hundreds of dollars tied up in a piece of card board, when you can run a functional substitute for free. If it weren’t for the Vintage Championship, I would have sold my power years ago.

The consequences of this fact were elaborated on in great detail last week (from the paragraph that begins “People who own power…” to the paragraph that starts “A tournament structure…”), so I will not reiterate them here. My recommendation was that a 5-proxy model, coupled with the other mechanisms suggested, strikes a good balance. It won’t allow everyone who wants to play Vintage to play the deck of their choice at a local tournament, but it will hopefully offset that loss by creating a deeper commitment to the format, tournament organization, and the community itself while simultaneously making it a little bit harder to just ‘walk away.’ Even if a player is not able to build the deck of their choice, they still have tier one competitive options in Ichorid or Grow with just 5-proxies (thus, answering Kevin Binswanger concern that he can’t play a competitive deck on 5 proxies despite owning 2 Moxen and 2 Mana Drain).

Most people seem to recognize that the disincentive to actually owning any power is a problem, especially when players like myself feel that owning power is a stupid thing in a 15 proxy environment, players who should be most invested in the format. However, some people did feel that these consequences were overstated. Specifically, one reader (“baddotcom”) said that powered players selling their power should not be a bad thing because it results in a net increases the supply of power, and each sale likely goes to someone who is interested in that card for use in Vintage. The answer to baddotcom, in part, is that, while true, this fact explains some of the difference between the American and European Vintage scenes. A substantial portion of the power and other high end Vintage cards sold by American Vintage players has been and continues to be bought by Europeans, whose largest Vintage tournaments are non-proxy. Yet, the European Vintage scene, as Ben Bleiweiss pointed out, is much healthier and larger than the American scene, even accounting for geographic and transportational variables.

But the more I thought about this point, and others like it, which suggested that the negative consequences I elaborated on last week were overstated, the more I kept thinking about how players come to Vintage. Let me explain.

One of the assumptions implicit in this conversation is that if we could reduce the monetary cost of entry enough, then Vintage could thrive (let’s hold constant the question of Wizards support for the moment). I think that this understanding of the barriers to playing Vintage is unrealistic. No Magical constructed format will ever be as popular as Standard is, no matter what. Standard is by definition constructed Magic’s most accessible format in every dimension, from card availability onward and card knowledge onward. In fact, that’s the point of Standard. It is a mistake for Vintage players not to acknowledge the fact that: 1) rules knowledge/metagame knowledge and 2) style/feel of the format were not actual barriers to entry as well.

While I personally find Vintage to be the most interesting format, for a host of reasons, I also acknowledge that there are many people who simply do not like Vintage. While the sometimes quoted joke that Vintage is a format about turn one kills is totally wrong, Vintage is substantially faster than any other format. It also differs from other formats in that it is not, primarily, a creature-oriented format. One of the best creatures in Vintage right now is Inkwell Leviathan, on account of its usage as a high value Tinker-target. People who love playing with creatures and the interactivity of creature combat will not enjoy Vintage.

Most Magic players entered the game playing some rudimentary form of Constructed, even if that meant a sealed deck and a couple of spare cards bound by a rubber band at the proverbial kitchen table. The basic framework within which most people think about Magic is the framework of creature combat. Vintage is a far, far cry from that level of interaction. The primary form of interaction in Vintage is the interaction of spells, the to-and-fro of countermagic (Force of Will, Commandeer, Stifle), discard (Duress, Cabal Therapy), mana denial (Sphere of Resistance, Smokestack), and larger finishers.

Even if Vintage’s monetary cost of entry and tournament support were the same as Standard’s, Vintage would not be nearly as popular on account of these intangible factors. The sorts of players that would be most enticed by a low monetary cost — new Magic players or young Magic players — are precisely those who are most likely to be turned off by the mechanics of Vintage. If you are a young/new player, you are likely to find Vintage somewhat bewildering, if not absurd, based upon what you know about Magic.

This is why I think that one of the three or four greatest barriers to entry, at least directly, is knowledge of Vintage. There are so many interactions, from understanding basic cards used in Legacy like Chalice of the Void and Unmask, to more complicated cards like the interaction of Mana Vault and Necropotence, the errata on Time Vault, how Mana Drain actually works, and how to stack Smokestack and Tangle Wire, and finally basic skills like how to use tutors like Vampiric Tutor and Mystical Tutor optimally.

Someone in one of the forums reminded us that there are Magic players who may not even be aware of the fact that there are Magic cards with pre-8th Edition frames, let alone obscure rules knowledge like what happens if there is a Magus of the Moon and a Tomb of Yawgmoth in play, or if a Tarmogoyf is Duplicanted. Unlike other formats, where format learning is a natural product of testing for a tournament, the lack of visible tournaments and wizards support is a disincentive to ever actually learning Vintage in the first place. Players do not play in tournaments for formats in which they tend to be unknowledgeable, since they will not feel comfortable that they can compete. Without testing, players will not learn Vintage. And without learning Vintage, there is no way to overcome many of the stigmas and breakdown many of the stereotypes about the format.

Those who matriculate into Vintage come to the format for a few predominant reasons. First, all people who are attracted to Vintage love Magic. There has to be that passion for the game. That passion for the game extends to Vintage, which many see as Magic in its purest form. Second, formats like Extended, perhaps even more than Legacy, are springboards to Vintage. People who discover Extended may enjoy the thrills that accompany it, and suddenly realize that there is this even more intense format out there, Vintage. In fact, rather than a spring board to Vintage, I think Vintage tends to be a springboard to Legacy, although that could change. The accumulation of cards like Underground Sea and Force of Will make entrance into Vintage an easy thing for many Legacy players, who may find that they can compete within a 10 proxy limit. Whether they will want to is another question entirely. Third, probably even more common than being springboarded from another format into Vintage is the experience of someone who has just been playing Magic a really long time. Some of them may have started when Vintage was simply the only Magical format, like myself, or someone who was a casual player for a very long time, like LSV, or someone who just loves Magic all the way around, like Patrick Chapin or Tom LaPille, who both discovered Vintage as teenagers.

There are only two ways to increase tournament attendance: 1) acquire new players, 2) retain old players better. It’s a simple stock and flows issue. The pipeline to Vintage flows at a trickle. All of the formats that springboard into Vintage have their own springboards, which makes the flow of players into Vintage much lighter than for any other format. That doesn’t mean that younger players won’t discover Vintage. They are. Up and comers like AJ Grasso are the next generation of Vintage players. And ensuring that the pathways to new Vintage competitors is open is very important.

But it is just as important, if not more important, to find ways to keep older players involved and engaged in the tournament scene. The reason is simple. Acquiring a new player requires overcoming all of the barriers described. But a Vintage Magic player like myself might find ways to play Vintage Magic for the rest of my life. Assuming I play 6 tournaments a year (The Vintage Champs and prelim event, 1-2 Power Nine level events, like the Waterbury or Steel City Power Nine on August 1, and 3-4 local tournaments) for the rest of my life, that’s potentially over 300 tournaments. Although Vintage can experience rapid shifts, as any year in review attests, much of the card pool remains the same. A player who quits Vintage this year can return to Vintage three years from now and pick it up again quickly.

This is the problem with proxies. The current American model, in which it is actually stupid to own power, fosters detachment and fails to create the mechanisms that help keep older players around. Equally problematic, it rusts and decays some of the best pipelines for bringing new players into the format. Let me explain.

It does not belittle the format to call Vintage a niche format. To a certain extent, Magic has become so segmented that every format is a ‘niche’ format. But the fact that Vintage is a niche can be something which Vintage players, the community, and tournament organizers can take advantage of. They have to ask themselves: what are the features of Vintage? In what ways might those features be an advantage rather than a disadvantage?

• Vintage never rotates, per se
• Vintage uses a lot of old cards
• Vintage is complicated and intense

What do all of these factors mean? I think they mean something quite important. The game is literally aging. Some Pro Tour prodigy in the near future will actually be younger than the game itself! Magic players, as a group, are aging. Wizards views this is as a big problem. They view “acquisition” of new players as a priority. Magic seems to be pretty good at keeping around existing players. Magic is much less good at acquiring new ones. The obstacles to learning Magic are substantial, and the game only becomes more complicated over time, a concern that Richard Garfield has pointed out on several occasions. Even among the pool of players who quit, many return to the game years later, since the central obstacle to the game, knowledge of the games mechanics, has already been overcome.

While older players filter out of the game and younger players enter it, players seem to be playing Magic for longer and longer periods of time. At every level, the age of the average Magic player seems to be trending upward.

The aging of the Magic population that inevitably happens as older players continue to play in larger numbers is an opportunity for Vintage. Vintage and Legacy are both more accommodating to the player who wants to learn a format and then play it only a couple of times a year. Pro Tours and the qualifiers that feed them, the primary outlet for competitive Magic, is a constantly rotating one. It requires regular testing, constant accumulation of new cards, new technology, and new interactions. Three months may not seem like a lot to the high level Pro player, who is hopping around the globe from Grand Prix to Grand Prix, but it might mean one tournament to the average tournament player, a PTQ. Because of the infrequent rotations and, ironically, the barriers that prevent too many young players from playing it, Vintage Magic is a format that can specifically cater to people who have careers and families.

We are already seeing this. A ever growing portion of the active roster of my team is case in point (me, Roland Chang, Paul Mastriano, Kevin Cron, etc). Most of my teammates have gone out of the college age and are now in the work force full time and vigorous careers, and even children. And yet, these players, and so many others out there like them, find ways to play Vintage Magic. Personally, I work about 50ish hours a week and find having a full time life and playing in a 8-9 Magic tournaments a year to be very easy.

The traditional understanding of Magic, and Vintage as well, was that people will grow out of it as they leave college and build families. I think, to some extent, there has been a stigma or an understanding that once people reach a certain age, they stop playing Magic, and like a self-fulfilling prophesy, it has happened. There is no reason this needs to be true. Ironically, once players settle down and start a family, it’s actually easier to play Vintage Magic than in those first few post-college years, since people settle into a more regular routine and the stigma of playing Magic while dating is irrelevant once you are married. As for the time commitment, married men do all sorts of activities on weekends that do not involve their families, whether it is golfing, club sports, watching TV, or hopping to the local movie theatre for an afternoon flick. What’s the difference between playing Magic once a month and any of these activities? The usual excuse given is that people say they no longer have time to play Vintage because of “real life” are really just making excuses. They’re actually just doing some other hobby, working on a house project, doing chores, or watching sports. The actual difference is the stigma. Doing those things may seem somehow more ‘legitimate’ or ‘grownup’ than sitting in a card shop with teenagers playing Magic. This is need not be the case, and more and more I am seeing that it is not the case. Instead of hanging out at the card shop, it’s more and more seen as hanging out with your buddies on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Luis-Scott Vargas and Patrick Chapin are about the same age as myself. While LSV might slow down his Magic playing in the near future, I don’t see him ever giving up Vintage. I don’t ever see Patrick giving up Magic, even at the Pro level, unless he is completely thrust into some other intriguing enterprise. It’s a choice that people make to play Magic, and with the overall aging condition of the Magic population and especially the Vintage crowd, it’s a choice that will carry less stigma and seem more sensible over time.

In my opinion, part of the long-term, sustained health of Vintage has to turn on supported by mid-twenty-somethings and older. In fact, that’s a huge advantage that Vintage has over the rest of competitive Magicdom. It’s an older, more mature crowd. Wizards is blind in not seeing the business opportunity here, and it’s something that Vintage (and legacy) should continue to sell itself on. Grand Prix Chicago was the last major open Magic tournament I’ve played in, and I saw precious few kids or younger teenagers there. Everywhere I looked it was adults. I suspect that it was a product of the fact that it was an eternal format. Yet it was still the largest Grand Prix in American history. Adults may have less time, and they may not be interested in Friday night Magic, but they can certainly be sold on the merits of a Sunday or Saturday afternoon tournament once or twice a month. Vintage should and must find ways to ensure that it’s current player base sticks around. It’s simple math. The flows into Vintage are small. The best way to increase tournament attendance is by keeping existing players in the format. Vintage needs to target those players who are reaching the threshold of college age, and might be seeing themselves leave the format. It needs to find ways to keep them around and engaged. If we can do that, Vintage will thrive in the long run.

What does this have to do with proxies? By now the answer should be obvious. When the most dedicated and ‘core’ of the Vintage players sell their power, it contributes to the detachment described last week. It makes it easier for Vintage players to walk away from the format, and not return. There are countless examples of this that I could cite. The fact of the matter is that too many long-time Vintage players have sold their power, and the strata of players that have replaced them in the community have not followed the traditional path of power accumulation. This makes it harder to retain those players as well.

When players own cards, and have decks sleeved up, they are available to test. In 2003-2005 I used to own Mishra’s Workshops, Bazaars, Illusionary Masks, and virtually every playable card in Vintage. A byproduct of this fact was that I’d have most of the Vintage gauntlet sleeved up for people to enjoy. This inadvertently drew many new players into the format. By testing against me using my cards, players became familiar with the format and the metagame. They became comfortable with the idea of playing in a tournament and even had ideas for the tournament that they were interested in testing out. When Vintage players no longer own Vintage cards, they are much less likely to have decks built to test with, since its mostly just proxying anyway. This means that many people that might have been brought into Vintage via the pickup game were lost.

Both of the means by which attendance in Vintage tournaments is determined, bringing in new players and retention of existing players, is harmed by the overuse of proxies and the detachment and disinterest it fosters.

Another thing that people overlooked, repeatedly, was the interactive nature of the recommendations I put forward. So, just like the DCI analyzing the June 2008 restrictions in isolation, people repeatedly fell into the trap of analyzing each recommendation in isolation. This is a mistake. I did not choose 5 proxies simply because of the detachment issue. Rather, I thought about how permitting CE cards in Vintage tournaments would affect the proxy limits. Similarly, I thought about other indirect effects. Back in 2003-4, the Vintage culture still valued owning cards, even though the proxy model was gaining adherents. The culture of Vintage was different then. It was easier to find someone who owned power cards that one could borrow because so many more people owned power then. When there are fewer power sets in the States, there are fewer sets that can be loaned out. If power cards were not simply sold to Europe, there would be more on hand to loan out here in the states. Also, if CE cards were legalized, people who own CE cards could loan them out to help other players get below the proxy limits.

Vintage organizing is just as important as the recommendations I advanced last week. But too many players don’t know how to do it. I’ve learned from watching some of the best TOs in the business. Vintage players need to become better at learning how to reach out to other Vintage players. Posting a tournament announcement is not enough. Vintage players need to individually reach out to other players one-on-one and face-to-face, to encourage them to come to Vintage tournaments. Personal outreach is critical. By the same token, Vintage players would do very well to try and bring other players into Vintage by having a Vintage deck available for them to play with. Invite some buddies over to test. Remind your friends how fun Vintage is. These are the skills that Vintage players should master.

My Post-Chicago Legacy Tournament Report

Today, I’d like to share my first post-Grand Prix Chicago Legacy experience, and some of my views on the post-Chicago format. Here is what I sleeved up:

I explained my card choices in my Grand Prix Chicago report. The only modification, which I hinted at there, was to swap out the 4th Thoughtseize for a 3rd Vendilion Clique.

The biggest controversy was the absence of the 4th Counterbalance. Before Grand Prix Chicago, although some teammates suggested that I run 4 C-Balance/4 Top, none urged me to do so. Being the results oriented creatures that we are, and given how we view reality through the prism of salient events and dramatic narratives rather than how it actually is, the argument in favor of 4 Counterbalance seemed to have greater force — if not urgency — after Grand Prix Chicago. After all, both finalists ran four Counterbalance in their decks.

In my primer (written before the Grand Prix) I attempted to answer Josh Silvestri claim that every list like this should have four counterbalances. My answer devolved into three points: 1) Although Counterbalance is a format defining card (along with many other cards in this deck), it’s not a card that needs to be played ASAP. Counterbalance is simply too porous to lock someone out of the game that early in the game, even with a turn one Top. And even if you have turn one Top available, often Ponder or Brainstorm is the better turn one play (to dig for Force or Daze or to smooth out mana), which makes turn two Counterbalance even less appealing. I explicitly stated my preference for Dark Confidant on turn two against most archetypes. 2) Rather, Counterbalance was used more as a mid-game source of card advantage, a soft-lock to be achieved generally on turn three or later, closer to the way in which Landstill decks used to use Fact or Fiction to swing the game rather than how Ancient Tomb decks use Trinisphere to lock out the opponent as soon as it hits. 3) Being the format defining card that it is, every deck in the format has a plan for addressing Counterbalance. More problematically, the decks which are most difficult for my deck are the decks in which Counterbalance is least effective: decks like Goblins, slower control decks like UW Control, Landstill, Elspeth Control, and “It’s the Fear,” Enchantress, and Ancient Tomb based stompy and prison decks.

For all of these reasons, I stuck with 3 Counterbalance and 3 Tops rather than increase the count to 4 and 4. Yet, in the haze of the post-Grand Prix landscape, it was harder to make this case. Or was it?

While I could not predict how other players would shape their strategies, I did think that many would run Trygon Predator maindeck, as I had. However, rather than focus on cards like Thoughtseize and Vendilion Clique, which I felt were both pre-emptive strikes against other Counterbalance decks while also hitting metagame predators like Enchantress or “It’s the Fear,” the pros seemed to go the slower route of Sower and Shackles. My poor technical play prevented me from making a contrary statement about the merits of the direction I took. My list was built around the Counterbalance metagame, and took an approach that I felt gave me the best chance against mirror-like matches. Given the way that the metagame actually shook out, and the finals in particular, I see no reason to question that assumption. Adding 4th Counterbalance seems like the definition of: Win More. It improves my good matchups while denying me additional tools against decks that are troublesome.

In retrospect, I think I made one excellent prediction and one less good prediction regarding the Grand Prix metagame. I was spot-on in predicting that a lot of pros would play Goblins decks, and Goblins was amply represented on day two. This was true even though Goblins very rarely shows up in local tournaments of 30-50 players. In local tournaments, I probably faced an over-abundance of decks against which Counterbalance is weaker: decks like UW Control, Landstill variants, Enchantress, etc. This perhaps oriented me too far in the direction of undervaluing Counterbalance. When most of my local tournament opponents shrug off Counterbalance, it loses its luster. I was perhaps too much shaped by the local environment and overestimated how widely people would be prepared for Counterbalance. Even if it’s true that I should have been running 4 Counterbalance at the Grand Prix, that does not make the case for 4 Counterbalance stronger in local events. First of all, I am returning to a local scene, where my metagame instincts were formed in the first place. Secondly, the results of the grand prix seem only to reinforce the three reasons I repeated above.

Unfortunately, Professional Event Services moved their Pro Tour Qualifier, the final Extended PTQ, from Saturday Sunday only a few days before the event. As such, they took a good part of our expected crowd, even though this tournament had been on the calendar for months.

Still enough die hards showed up that we had 5 rounds of swiss and a cut to top 8.

Round 1: Bobby

At the last Meandeck Open, Bobby travelled to Columbus with the Akron/Wadsworth Ohio crew playing “It’s the Fear,” the blue based control deck built around Intuition. I thought there was a good chance he’d play something similar.

As the match began, Bobby warned me that there was a lot of White Weenie being played today. I glanced around the room curiously as he played turn one Flagstones of Trokair.

I shrugged and played turn 1 Tundra and cast Sensei’s Divining Top. My opening hand also had 3 other lands, Brainstorm, and Counterbalance, and I drew Force of Will for the turn. I figure I can drop turn two Counterbalance and then shuffle away excess land on turn three.

On his second turn he plays Ancient Tomb, Crucible of Worlds, and I know what he’s really playing. I debate Forcing it, considering the possibility that he may have a Wasteland. But I decide that there is too large of a chance that he doesn’t have a Wasteland, that I can resolve something potent in the meantime, and/or that I’ll need to save my Force for something else.

I course correct from my original plan and play Brainstorm over Counterbalance on my second turn, seeing Trygon Predator! I keep the Counterbalance in hand only to pitch to Force. I play a Fetchland and break it to play Thoughtseize. I see another Crucible of Worlds, Engineered Explosives, and cards that are too expensive for him to cast in the near future.

Bobby appears stuck on Flagstones and Ancient Tomb and plays Engineered Explosives for 1. I couldn’t care less. It turns out he was holding a second Flagstones, which he plays, causing the Flasgstones to knock themselves out and fetches out a dual land and a Plains. I untap, play a third land and cast Trygon Predator.

His only response is to play Magus of the Tabernacle. I briefly toy with the notion of countering it, but recognize its limited impact on the game. I let it resolve.

On my fourth turn, I pay for Trygon Predator and face a potentially critical decision. I can play either Dark Confidant or Tarmogoyf. He has done 6 damage to himself with Ancient Tomb. Which card should I lead with? I decide to play Dark Confidant.

But first, I attack with Trygon Predator, sending him to 12.

On his fifth turn, Bobby pays for his Magus, plays another Ancient Tomb, and taps down and tries to play another Magus of the Tabernacle. At the same time, he blows Engineered Explosives, forcing me to draw a card with Top. This allows me to Daze his Magus!

I pay for my Predator and my Bob Maher on my upkeep and play Tarmogoyf. Bobby scoops shortly afterward, facing lethal damage and being trapped by his Ancient Tombs.

Game 2:

I sideboarded in a pair of Krosan Grips and a Duress for three Counterbalance.

Bobby seems pleased with his hand. I am forced to mulligan into this:

Flooded Strand
Tropical Island

Bobby leads with the predictable, yet powerful, Ancient Tomb into Chalice of the Void at 1. I cheerfully acquiesce, especially upon drawing Force on my turn. I play Flooded Strand and pass, hoping that my Goyf with Force of Will and Daze backup can win the game all by itself.

It will be an interesting test to see if Stax deck starting with Ancient Tomb can beat turn two Tarmogoyf backed up with Daze and Force.

He played turn 2 Plains and cast Ghostly Prison. I responded by playing Force pitching Brainstorm. On my second turn, I played the Goyf.

It turns out that Bobby doesn’t have a third land drop. He does nothing, shaking his hand at the numerous goodies he wishes he could play. I mentally remind myself of the price to be paid for not playing blue spells, and the consistency that cards like Brainstorm and Ponder provide. I play Ponder into his Chalice to pump the Goyf. And attack for 3, sending him to 12. On turn four, he is still stuck on 2 lands. I attack him to 8. He finds something of note, but it’s too late. I have Daze and two swings later he dies.

Round 2: Survival Elves, RG McCaman

My opponent and I exchange pleasantries and begin the match. I win the die roll and elect to play.

My opening hand is:

Underground Sea
Force of Will
Force of Will

I begin the game with Tundra into Ponder, seeing Brainstorm, Sensei’s Divining Top, and another Brainstorm. I draw Brainstorm and pass the turn.

My opponent leads off with Taiga, Llanowar Elf. I consider my hand. If he is playing Elves, I can potentially just cut him off with Counterbalance, but I won’t be able to set it up immediately. My primary concern is that he is playing Elves! And his ultimate goal will be just to overrun me with men. I’d like to stop that now, since getting Counterbalance online will take a little bit of time. I Daze his Elf.

I untap, replay the land, and pass the turn. On his second turn, RG plays Survival of the Fittest. I Brainstorm again, this time seeing Daze and Vendilion Clique. I trade a Daze for his Elvish Spirit Guide, and announce Force of Will, pitching Brainstorm.

I untap and play Counterbalance, leaving Top on top of my library, with Clique in hand. Which only frustrates me further when he plays turn three Elvish Champion, which I Force of Will, pitching Vendilion Clique.

I untap and slam down Top. I am totally spent, but I have a Counterbalance + Top lock going. It will be interesting to see just how effective the lock is when you’re entirely out of gas.

RG (can that possibly be his real name?) tests the electric fence by throwing out a Symbiote, which I active C-balance, and spin top to counter. His follow up play is less docile: Imperious Perfect!, which I cannot stop. A vision of Elven armies battering down my defenses enters the mind’s eye.

I spend the next two turns digging with Top, to no avail. He makes two Elves when I finally find Swords, in fact, a pair of them. The best part is that he tapped down to play Wren’s Run Packmaster, removing a token in the process. I plowed the Imperious Perfect and the Packmaster in succession. That left one measly little token to deal with. After spinning and shuffling for then next few turns, the only creature I could find was Vendilion Clique. After Forcing his Anger and falling to 12 life in the process, RG actually played Squee, Goblin Nabob, just for another beater. I couldn’t bear it. I Plowed the Squee, sending him to 27 life. In return, he sent me to 9 life. After a few more turns, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. No creatures were forthcoming, so I’d have to trade Clique for his token. I cast Clique on his draw step, and imagine his consternation on account of the fact that he just drew Natural Order, which went straight to the bottom of his library.

My Clique traded with his token, stabilizing me at 5 life. Predictably, the first creature that emerges out of the stalemate is Dark Confidant. With trepidation, I go for it. The top three cards of my library are Counterbalance, Daze, and a land. In search of fresh cards and additional creatures, I break fetchlands, putting me at a precarious 1 life. But I hit the mother lode: double Goyf. I am forced to spin top and put top on top to stop him from unloading some creatures onto the table. He passes the turn and awaits my death. I had been saving my Brainstorm for this scenario. I Brainstorm the lands back on top of my library. I play the Goyfs and start beating him down, spinning Top to prevent damage with Dark Confidant. I attack him from 24 to 17, holding back one Goyf just in case he topdecks a creature, given haste by Anger, that might kill me. My hand has 4 lands in it, the accumulative effect of multiple turns of Dark Confidant reveals saved by Top. RG does nothing on his turn, and passes back.

I spin top, reveal a land, and draw for the turn. I spin top one more time, hoping to see just one more land. Instead, I see spells. Realizing I am doomed, I contemplate scooping to save time. I ask the judge how much time is left, and am informed that we have less than 20 minutes in the round. I activate Top to stack the top of my library, and respond by activating Top again to draw a card, putting Trygon Predator into my hand, and play it, giving the posture of a very aggressive board state. I then rearrange the top of my library, and play a second Top for good measure. I attack him from 17 to 10, threatening lethal damage next turn.

RG untaps and scoops. An observer walks away in a nonverbal show of incredulity. I decide to not let on what just happened, and betray no hints.

RG reaches into his sideboard and stuffs a bunch of cards into his deck.

I mulligan into:

Force of Will
Swords to Plowshares
Dark Confidant

Good enough, I suppose, for a six card hand.

RG opens the game with Leyline of the Lifeforce, a brilliant answer to Counterbalance. He leads with Wirewood Symbiote, Llanowar Elf and another Wirewood Symbiote in consecutive turns, and I’m forced to wonder how I might win this game. I plow both Symbiotes both to conserve my life and to allow my remaining removal to function.

On turn three I find a Tropical Island, which allows me to play a Tarmogoyf, and then another. This allows me to keep up with his turn four Imperious Perfect. I Force of Will a Choke. However, an Elvish Champion hits the table, and things look bleak. I play Dark Confidant to accelerate my demise. However, what he does not know is that I’m holding Daze. When he goes for his alpha strike, I play a cantrip, Daze it to return the Tropical Island to my hand, and suddenly his Elves lack forestwalk. I block the monsters with my Goyfs. I am fortunate enough to find my fourth Swords to Plowshares to take the Imperious Perfect off the table before too many tokens had joined the fray. Bashing with Goyfs puts him on defense, and his life falls precipitously, aided by a Clique in the air, which reveals that this time he had drawn Natural Order, but also the Progenitus he needed to use it.

I win.

Round 3: Noah with Enchantress

Enchantress is, by design, a nightmare matchup for my deck, full of Moat type effects and cards like Choke, recurred with Replenish However, I had no idea what he was playing when we sat down to battle.

I boldly kept a 7 card hand that looked like this:

Force of Will
Force of Will
And two more spells.

Mind you, I was on the draw. Still, it’s a greedy keep.

Noah leads with Exploration, and I Force it, putting him on Land.dec. I fail to draw a land for the turn, and expend my second Force on his turn two Enchantress, when I finally understand what’s going on. This is all a prelude to his third turn Choke, which resolves.

I topdeck my first land, and play Thoughtseize, regretting the decision when I see Aura of Silence and Runed Halo.

I actually find a Trygon Predator, which could get me out of this mess, but I am not able to find lands or a Daze to replay lands to get him into play. I draw a land… then another… and sit at two lands while he continues to build up his board, including Moat! However, he can’t find another Enchantress for at least 5-6 turns. I draw my second Trygon Predator, and finally I play Brainstorm to shuffle some junk away and hopefully find Daze/Force with a fetchland. However, I only see one land and no countermagic. Noah finds an Enchantress, and within two turns he is tapping Serra Sanctum for 12 mana and I lose.

I sideboard in double Grip and a Duress. In fact, I sideboard in a Blue Elemental Blast as well, mostly to hit Blood Moon, but also as another blue spell to pitch to Force.

Game 2:

My opening hand is perfect for smashing Enchantress, with double Force, again.

I open with land, go,) and Noah opens with Forest.

I play land, Tarmogoyf. Noah plays Argothian Enchantress, which I counter using Force of Will. I untap and cast Brainstorm on turn three which allows me to play both Thoughtseize and Sensei’s Divining Top. Thoughtseize revealed that he had a bunch of lands in hand.

I drew a second Force off of Brainstorm. His turn three Enchantresses Presence meets it. I Top into a second Goyf, which I play. Noah probably suspects he has with the win with turn four Moat, but it runs into Daze I’ve been holding for it, and that’s that. Goyfs beat in for 6 damage a piece and he scoops.

I was so happy that my turn three Brainstorm hit Thoughtseize. I would have been just as happy to play Clique or Predator there, but it allowed me to curve out so nicely and ramp Goyf.

Game 3:

My opening hand is:

Blue Elemental Blast
Force of Will
And 3 lands

Noah leads with Forest, Utopia Sprawl. I play a Flooded Strand and pass, forgetting to play Ponder (brain fart). He casts Enchantresses Presence on turn two, which meets my Force, pitching BEB. I draw a Krosan Grip and play turn 2 Goyf, and hope, again, it goes all the way.

He plays turn 3 Argothian Enchantress, and I have no answer. I play Ponder on turn 3 and see Krosan Grip, Force of Will, Counterbalance (?). He has no turn 4 plays and passes the turn.

I attack with Goyf for the second turn in a row, and pass the turn. Noah is at 9 life.

This time he plays Runed Halo, drawing a card, and Sterling Grove, drawing another card.

I untap, play my third land and think about my options. I can Grip the Sterling Grove immediately, which will prevent him from finding a silver bullet and playing it next turn to draw a card with Enchantress, even though I can counter the card with Force. Or, I can grip the Runed Halo and attack with Goyf, holding Force to counter whatever he plays next turn.

I Gripped the Halo and beat him down to 4 life.

Noah cracked Sterling Grove on my endstep to tutor up Moat. He untapped, played Moat, which I let resolve. He drew a card and played Aura of Silence, and passed the turn.

I untapped, Gripped the Moat, and killed him, with Force of Will, unused, still in hand.

That’s how you beat Enchantress. No, not simply by drawing lots of Forces and Krosan Grips, but by leveraging Thoughtseizes, Predators, Cliques, Forces and Grips to hit them where they are vulnerable, and clean up the rest.

Round 4 and 5: ID into Top 8

Top 8: Quarter Finals: Michael Sanchirico with Dreadnaught/Counterbalance with white splash, but no Standstill

Game 1:

My opening hand is a bunch of lands and some 3cc creatures and a Goyf. I win the die roll and lead with land, go. I become terrified when Michael plays two Lotus Petals and a Tundra, thinking he’s probably playing a combo deck. He plays Ponder and shuffles his library.

I play turn two Goyf, and plays draw-go.

I Clique him on his third turn draw step:

Michael is clearly flustered by my play. I informed him, after he drew, that I’d like to play a spell in his draw step. He tried to put his card back, but I explained that the draw is the first thing that happens in the draw step, and that it doesn’t use the stack. I said, “after you draw, I will play Vendilion Clique.” He repeated my words and showed me:

Phyrexian Dreadnaught
Phyrexian Dreadnaught
Phyrexian Dreadnaught
Aven Mindcensor

Rather than get him closer to a Stifle effect, I decline to have him put anything on the bottom of his library. He plays a land and casts Cataclysm. I sacrifice my Clique and down to one of my lands. A couple more swings and he’s dead.

He then went to draw a card. I asked him why he drew a card, and he acknowledged the error. We called a judge and they shuffled his library with a warning. Michael was clearly flustered, and remained so for the entire match.

Game 2:

Michael opens with Lotus Petal, Academy Ruins, Phyrexian Dreadnaught, and Stifle. I Force of Will the Stifle, but he has Force of Will backup. I Ponder on turn one and again on turn two, but fail to find a Swords to Plowshares before he has smashed me twice.

Game 3:

My turn 1 Duress reveals that he has a Counterbalance, Aven Mindcensor, and Elspeth, which I take. I have the option of turn two Dark Confidant or turn two Counterbalance. I decide to go for Dark Confidant.

He plays Counterbalance, but I let it resolve. I have turn three Counterbalance. He tries to Force me, but I Force him. He plays a Top. My hand has Plow, two Tops and two Goyfs. What’s the play? He has active Top and Counterbalance. I have Bob and Counterbalance in play.

I play Goyf first, and he spins Top and reveals a Merchant Scroll. I play my own Top and he activates Top to draw a card, revealing Top. I realize that I did it backwards. Had I led with Top, I likely could have resolved Goyf. This mistake proved to be costly.

I passed the turn and he played Dreadnaught + Stifle + Top. I have a Plow in hand, and debate whether to try and pull it off now or to wait for the right moment. I decide to play it in response to Top. He forgets to Counterbalance, a big mistake to match my own. It turns out that he had a Stifle on top of his deck. This only adds to his frustration.

I untap and make the play I should have made the turn before. I play Top first, which prompts him to activate Top. Then my second Goyf slips through his Counterbalance net and beats him into oblivion.

Top 4: Semi-Finals, Aaron Larson with B/w Aggro-Control

Aaron Larson is a player I remember playing waaay back in the day in old PES Vintage side events. Appropriately, Aaron has brought an old school deck to the tournament: Suicide Black, but updated and with a white splash.

Game One is long and complicated. Aaron apparently kept a one land hand. He led with a land and when I Thoughtseized him on turn one I saw this:

Nantuko Shade
Nantuko Shade
Hymn to Tourach
Hymn to Tourach
Hypnotic Specter

The details of the most of this game are a haze. What comes into focus is the critical play of the game. We have beat the hell out of each other this game, and I manage to get Aaron down to 3 life when he topdecks Tombstalker.

I have an active Top going, but virtually no hand thanks to his aggressive discard, such as Hymn to Tourach and Duresses. His land destruction has killed a bunch of my dual lands as well.

I Top and see a Vendilion Clique, which I allow to draw into my hand. Since I now have a card I hand, he plays Hymn to Tourach on me. I response by playing Clique, but I realize my error. If I had let Aaron attack me with Tombstalker, I could have activated Top on his endstep to draw and play Clique, untapping and killing him, costing me the game.

Game 2:

This game is really, really bad for me.

He leads with Dark Ritual, Dark Confidant, and passes the turn.

He Wastelands two of my Tropical Islands in the early game, and then a Hymn to Tourach knocks two Tundras out of my hand in one shot. That leaves only one Tundra and one Tropical Island left in my deck. Fortunately, I fetched out an Island early on, but with an Island and an Underground Sea in play, I am forced to fetch out another Underground Sea rather than one of my remaining alternate dual lands. He plows my Clique, and then plays Nantuko Shade, which starts to beat down along with Dark Confidant.

My hand is empty and all I have is three lands and a Top on the table.

In short:

Aaron has two men, 6 lands, 7 card hand.

I have:

Top, 3 lands, no men, no cards in hand.

Paul Mastriano, who was watching the match, walks away to flirt with the teenage store attendant.

Too bad. Because I won this game.

I let myself draw into two fetchlands, and kept digging. I spun top, seeing nothing, and fetched a Tundra, this time seeing two Swords to Plowshares. I used one on Shade and then another on Bob, and we had a standoff. I managed to get a Goyf down, and rather than Vindicate my Tropical Island, he hit the Goyf.

Our libraries are getting low.

I drew a Clique, but he plowed that too. Then, he gets another Bob down, and I find one as well. His Bob reveals Tombstalker and he is sent to 10 life. I counter his Tombstalker. He lets me attack him to 8 with my Bob. I have plow in hand, but fortune smiles on me and he actually hits another Tombstalker, this time killing him.

We shake since that was such an insane game, and shuffle up for the tiebreaker.

Game 3:

Game 3 is about as long and intense as the first two, but things tilt his way this time. I kept a hand that was all land, Clique, and Predator. It was just a little too slow. He played Seal of Cleansing to kill my Counterbalance, and my creatures will all removed. The first time I saw his hand it was: Hymn to Tourach, Swamp, Nantuko Shade, Wasteland, Thoughtseize, Hypnotic Specter, Vindicate, and Swords to Plowshares. I managed to survive all of that. And the last time I saw his hand it was: Thoughtseize, Thoughtseize, Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Flooded Strand, Flooded Strand. No miracles this time.

All in all, I had a great time on the day, despite making mistakes throughout the day, I continue to enjoy and grow in Legacy. It’s not as intense as Vintage, but the matches are still a lot of fun. Top 4 matches like the one against Aaron are really the best quality games that Legacy can offer.

Join me next week as we explore Alara Reborn.

Until next week…

Stephen Menendian

* Personally, I am a big believer in the potential of budget decks in Vintage. I believe that Chalice of the Void and Null Rod are powerful enough cards to actually support very viable budget strategies. These cards are actually broken. My experiments with a Vintage format that unrestricted every card illustrated just how powerful Chalice/Rod strategies as a format could be. I know from my own testing that they are that powerful in current Vintage. Null Rod has never been more powerful than it is in the Time Vault Tezzeret age we’ve just entered. A year ago, budget strategies were even more obviously viable, as they could support something as absurd as Flash. But at least 95%, and probably closer to 99%, of the innovation in Vintage and the innovative energies in Vintage, go towards improving fully powered decks. As a result, Vintage budget decks remain very underdeveloped. The tools are there. Acceleration like Simian and Elvish Spirit Guide, Lotus Petal and Chrome Mox are all unrestricted. But it would take months of development and far more attention to improve them to a better state. But even then, in a format where 10-15 proxies is the standard, there is no appetitive for that sort of thing. Why play a budget deck when you can play a fully powered deck for the same price? And, even if Wizards supported the format, budget decks could, in theory, face an odd disadvantage. For example, if Wizards hosted a Vintage Grand Prix, and there were 600 players that attended, there might be 250 players that had some power, and maybe as many as 200 that were fully powered. The Null-Rod toting decks would have to not only beat the powered decks for which they were geared, but they would also have to compete against similar decks, but those that ignored the anti-power technology. The Null Rod budget decks would be at a distinct disadvantage since they chose to run Null Rods while their opponents did not.

** But there has to be some limit to this argument. Unlimited proxies theoretically makes it perfectly accessible, yet few people advocate for unlimited proxies. The logic of lowering the barrier to entry has no obvious stopping point.