So Many Insane Plays – The Ultimate Vintage Primer

Read Stephen Menendian every Monday... at StarCityGames.com!Monday, March 10th – Stephen has been working overtime this week… In today’s edition of So Many Insane Plays, the Vintage World Champion brings us the lowdown on every single playable deck in the format! From the top decks, to the Contenders, to the Marginal Players, to the Dark Horses, this article has it all. Brilliant stuff from the format’s finest…

I. The Top Decks

Hulk Flash

How it Works:

Cast Flash and put Protean Hulk into play. The Hulk immediately dies. You then use its ability to tutor up four Virulent Slivers and a Heart Sliver. Swing in with the hasty Slivers for 20 poison counters, more than enough to murder your opponent. Alternative kills include Reveillark, Carrion Feeder, Body Double, and Mogg Fanatic. Summoner’s Pact and Merchant Scroll function in support roles, tutoring up the combo pieces for consistency. Pact of Negation and Force of Will protect the combo.


The Flash combo is perhaps the fastest and most powerful two-card combo ever enabled in Magic, let alone Vintage. Half of the Professional Magic players on the Magic Invitational chose this deck for the Vintage portion of that event. This deck is also Patrick Chapin‘s preferred Vintage deck. Not only is it one of the fastest decks of all time, but it has plenty of counterspell protection and great Blue search cards like Brainstorm and Ponder to support it.

This deck saw a short burst of popularity after Grand Prix: Columbus, but due to the presence of the highly disruptive GroAtog and Dredge decks, which often maindeck Leyline of the Void, it fell out of favor. Recent shifts in the Vintage metagame have made Flash a more attractive metagame competitor.

The hot tech on this deck is using Reveillark to win at instant speed. It allows you to be more aggressive with your Pacts since you can win in response to a Pact Trigger, but it opens up more vulnerabilities to Tormod’s Crypt and the like. Most Flash sideboard plans are somewhat transformational. See today’s article by Patrick Chapin to get the complete lowdown.


Leyline of the Void makes this deck a three-card combo deck. Because of the prevalence of Leyline of the Void, many Flash pilots have opted for a transformational sideboard strategy, either Tarmogoyf beatdown or Oath of Druids plus Platinum Angel. No matter how consistent your two-card combo might be thanks to efficient supporting tutors, there will always be a failure rate with a 60-card deck. Flash pilots are forced to mulligan to five a lot. Cards like Stifle and Trickbind, which don’t necessarily see a lot of play at the moment but are on the upswing, also create problems for this deck. The sliver kill also takes up a lot of space and is vulnerable to a great number of cards. If your opponent gets a Mogg Fanatic or a Triskelion on the table, you’ll have to remove those before you can combo out. Alternative, and slightly more resilient, win conditions like Reveillark open the door to cards like Tormod’s Crypt, Extirpate, and Krosan Reclamation disrupting the combo. Finally, many players prefer a deck that is more flexible in terms of strategy and tactics, with more opportunities to outplay your opponent or for your opponents to make mistakes. This deck plays to the mediocre player’s strengths due to its single-card weaknesses like Leyline of the Void.

Gro-A-Tog (GAT)

How it Works:

This is a powerful Aggro-Control-Combo deck. Think Next Level Blue in Vintage. You play Tarmogoyf s or Quirion Dryads and Psychatogs or Empty the Warrens as your win conditions. An early Quirion Dryad or Tarmogoyf is followed up with disruption like Duress and Thoughtseize and draw like Gush. At the same time, your Dryad and Goyfs grow larger and eat away at your opponent’s life total. You use Force of Wills to stop your opponent from winning and later to protect your Yawgmoth’s Will. At a certain point in the game, you will be able to use Fastbond to combo with a series of Gushes and Merchant Scrolls. Your Gushes will draw you into more Gushes, Scrolls, and Ponders/Brainstorms, which dig you into more of the same.

The Grow concept is based on the idea of playing a light manabase with lots of cantrips and cheap draw. The deck tutors up Ancestral Recall, and “combos” out with the combination of Fastbond and multiple Gushes finished with the final blow of Yawgmoth’s Will to replay all of those spells once again, including Time Walk and possibly a Berserk to finish off an unwilling opponent. The Gush draw engine and the Merchant Scroll tutor/draw engine is probably the best pair of unrestricted Blue cards next to Brainstorm.

This deck is so difficult to beat because it has inherent card advantage over every single other deck in the format due to its light manabase. It’s also difficult to stop or fight strategically because it can out-counter or prevent any basic counter-stratagem you might try to implement. Ponder and Thoughtseize have been huge additions to this deck. GAT will Brainstorm, Ponder, or Scroll up Force of Wills faster than you can deploy threats. And many threats it can ignore. It can abuse any cheap card printed in the four major colors.


This deck was red hot last year, but looks to have dramatically fallen from favor since the printings of Lorwyn. This was also the deck that won the Vintage Championship last year. Status: Former Best Deck.


The deck’s primary weakness is also its primary strength: a light manabase. With four colors and only 19 mana sources, this deck can’t function with a Thorn of Amethyst or a Sphere of Resistance on the table. A Chalice of the Void at 1 is a truly devastating blow. This deck also struggles against Oath decks. A great Flash pilot should also make a tough match.


More prison-oriented variant:

How it Works:

MUD is a Mishra’s Workshop based hybrid strategy. This deck is a beatdown deck, a prison deck, and a combo deck. The basic set up play is Mishra’s Workshop, Metalworker to generate roughly 12 mana on turn 2 to unload a hand full of artifacts. What makes this deck great is the new printing of Thorn of Amethyst for additional disruption. This deck can play Juggernauts, Trikes, and Ravagers for beatdown, aided by some powerful equipment, while it locks you out of the table with Sphere of Resistance, Thorn of Amethyst, Tangle Wire, and sometimes Smokestack and recurring Wastelands via Crucible of Worlds. It also has combo potential with Metalworker and Staff of Domination. With Staff of Domination, you can generate infinite mana with Metalworker, draw most of your deck, and play a bajillion permanents for one massive alpha strike.


MUD was hot as the solution to GroAtog. It has a roughly 90% favorable matchup over GAT, the clear best deck in the format for the last six months of 2007. Thorn of Amethyst put the deck over the edge. Mono Brown MUD’s advantage is that without additional colors, you gain a lot of consistency through the support of lands like Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors. MUD’s other huge advantage on all other Workshop decks is its abuse of Chalice of the Void. MUD can drop Chalice of the Void at 1 without any drawback. Chalice of the Void at 1 is a crippling play for most of the other decks in the field. MUD can also drop Chalice for 2 and shut out a number of other competitors, including Oath strategies.


MUD’s biggest weakness is its inability to address Hurkyl’s Recall and Rebuild. Without preventing these cards from being played through land destruction and mana denial, MUD can be totally undone by the resolution of a single one of these cards. Energy Flux, while still annoying, can be tactically answered through cards like Eon Hub and by just paying for it with your Metalworker and City of Traitors.

Mono Red Workshop Aggro

How it Works:

A highly disruptive Mishra’s Workshop beatdown/ prison strategy. Juggernauts, Triskelions, and Solemn Simulacrums beat down while Magus of the Moon, Thorn of Amethyst, Sphere of Resistance, Wasteland, and Gorilla Shaman keep your opponent’s mana tied up. This deck is highly synergistic. Goblin Welder works with Solemn Simulacrum as a draw engine and a perpetual fog machine. Solemn Simulacrum also provides mana support. Turn 1 Workshop, Mox, Simulacrum finds a Mountain for turn 2 Magus of the Moon.


This Workshop variant is also extremely popular thanks to the printings of Future Sight and Lorwyn. It’s hot right now because it has a favorable GAT matchup and plenty of tools to combat the rest of the metagame. Unlike MUD, this deck can run Red Elemental Blasts to fight Hurkyl’s Recalls. It also has a favorable MUD matchup, thanks to the red splash’s Magus of the Moon, Goblin Welder, Gorilla Shaman, and Shattering Spree.


The main difference between MUD and Mono Red Workshop Aggro is that you trade off a potential combo finish with Metalworker plus Staff of Domination, a more consistent and explosive manabase with Ancient Tombs, City of Traitors, and Metalworkers, and the use of Chalice of the Void for a lot of resilience with Goblin Welder and Red Elemental Blast and alternative disruption with Magus of the Moon. However, this deck still has a lot of the same weaknesses that MUD has, just not as pronounced. Energy Flux and Hurkyl’s Recall can still wreak havoc, although they aren’t as deadly. On the other hand, cards like Pyroclasm can singlehandedly wipe out your entire board. Cards like Tarmogoyf are more threatening as well. A Psychatog is almost game over.

Tyrant Oath

How it Works:

If you tap Forbidden Orchard, your opponent gains control of a 1/1 spirit token. You may then activate Oath of Druids. Oath of Druids will cause you to put a Tidespout Tyrant from your library into play. Once Tyrant is in play, you may play spells to bounce your opponent’s permanents. More importantly, you will want to play spells to bounce your mana artifacts, like Mox Sapphire or Mox Jet, to generate infinite storm and some additional mana (by playing them into each other). You can then flashback Flash of Insight to stack your deck. Pop Brain Freeze into your hand and win the game! Alternatively, pop Yawgmoth’s Will into your hand to win the game. If your opponent stops your Oath of Druids plan, you can use the “Gush-bond” combo to fuel a Brain Freeze or a Tendrils of Agony.


This is the new “hot” Vintage deck. It has won a string of recent American Vintage tournaments and looks poised to continue that streak. The complement of the Gush-bond engine also gives you the strongest draw engine in Vintage.


Unlike GAT, this deck is not devastated by Workshop Aggro strategies and is very sturdy against Dredge based decks. On the other hand, this deck is much less effective against storm combo or Flash combo because it has fewer disruption spells.

II. Contenders

Dark Illusions

How it Works:

Recent errata on Phyrexian Dreadnaught now enables combining the Comes Into Play Trigger with Stifle so that you can get a 12/12 trampler for a 1U mana. The rest of the deck is powerful UB disruption.


This deck has come out of nowhere and is sweeping itself into Top 8s across Europe. The complement of Stifles and Duresses should be a huge boon in the Oath matchup. It only takes two swings from a giant Dreadnaught and your opponent is kold. Stifles can delay an Oath activation for many turns. Duress can nab an Oath before it can be played, and Spell Snare can keep an Oath from hitting the table.


This deck is still underpowered by Vintage standards. It’s also unlikely to win major tournaments.

Deez’ Naughts

How it Works:

It’s a slightly more complex iteration of the previous deck. This deck runs Tarmogoyf in addition to Dark Confidant and uses Trinket Mage to find Phyrexian Dreadnaught for combo with Stifle. All-star creature support makes for a powerful mixture. Trinket Mage also provides a toolbox to pesky problems.


This deck created quite a buzz when it debuted last year, but it hasn’t maintained that momentum. Perhaps the rise of Oath will shift some players to this deck choice.


This deck doesn’t have the fastest clock and lacks the powerful Gush engine for draw support. It’s vulnerable to a range of strategies, but can compete if played well.

Manaless Ichorid (Dredge)

You’ve been living under a rock recently if you haven’t seen a Vintage Ichorid list.

How it Works:

Step 1: Mulligan into Bazaar of Baghdad. Use Serum Powder to get there. Step 2: Activate Bazaar, discard dredgers. Step 3: On the upkeep of your second turn, dredge using Bazaar. Then dredge again on your draw step. This will often be enough to win the game. Step 4: Flashback Cabal Therapy to clear the way. Finally, Dread Return on Cephalid Sage. Dredge more and then Dread Return again on Flame-Kin Zealot for a lethal swing with an army of Bridge tokens.


This deck always has a lot of fans because of the cool factor. It’s also surprisingly resilient at winning through Leylines. The problem is that it is simply not resilient enough. A lot of the same problems with the Extended version exist in Vintage, but more so, despite the fact that the Vintage version is so much faster.

Mana Ichorid Variant:


This deck is hot right now because it gives players a lot of additional flexibility to outplay their opponent.

Drain Tendrils

How it Works:

This deck is the remnant of the 2005 through the first half of 2006 power UB Combo-Control decks. It uses Intuition plus Accumulated Knowledges, Merchant Scrolls, and Thirst for Knowledge to accumulate card advantage until it unleashed either a monster Yawgmoth’s Will or Tinkers into Darksteel Colossus. Alternatively, it can just Hurkyl’s Recall itself several times and cast a lethal Tendrils of Agony


This deck is gaining popularity as a solid solution to the Workshop infested metagame with a good shot at taking down the rest of the field as well. The Europeans are in love with a variant of this deck they call “Mono-Gifts” Control. Although they often play with Dark Confidants.

III. Marginal Players

Let’s begin with the waning Storm combo decks.

Super Long

How it Works:

This is a classic Tendrils deck, and the heir to the “Long” mantle. This deck is the last non-Gush deck to run the big Vintage bombs: Necropotence, Yawgmoth’s Bargain and Mind’s Desire. This deck beats up the opponent with Duresses, digs with Brainstorm and Ponders, and tries to resolve a sufficiently large threat that it can coast to Tendrils. Cards like Timetwister and Tinker for Memory Jar are key added support. Versions with Red also run Wheel of Fortune and Empty the Warrens.

The Tropical Storm

This is a deck pioneered by Eric Becker of “Previous Level Blue” fame. It is also known in other circles as “Gush Tendrils.”

Here is the list that Luis Scott Vargas played:

How it Works:

This deck is a mix between Super Long and Gush TPS. Everything in the deck is very cheap, so there is no Bargain or Desire, but the concept is the same. Disrupt your opponent, resolve some bombs, Tendrils your opponent. Dark Rituals fuel Necro, Tendrils, Jar and Yawgmoth’s Will. The major difference is the addition of the Gush-Bond engine to help you generate mana and storm while you combo out!


How it Works:

Turn 1 Goblin Lackey or Aether Vial will fuel a very quick goldfish using Goblin Warchief to give your men haste and make them cheaper to play, Matron to tutor up the right mix of men, Piledriver for combo-beatdown action, and Ringleader for amazing card advantage. Now Earwig Squad joins the fun to strip your opponent’s deck of its win conditions. Incinerator and Stingscourger play cleanup as Matron targets to help deal with annoyances and cards like Darksteel Colossus.

Here’s what Josh Silvestri also had to say about the deck:

At the moment, Earwig Squad enjoys a nice overhype in formats like Standard and Extended, where people actually think the Jester Cap effect matters outside of a few matches and 5/3 guys are really good. I think it’s passable in Extended, but things change dramatically in Vintage. For one you can consistently hit Squad turn 2 by playing a one drop and powering the Squad out with artifact mana. The reason for the full set is that Earwig Squad does two important things.

1. The Squad gives you a very good out to decks like Oath and Ponder Long. In these matches you’d have no real chance against them without major changes to the maindeck. Instead you now have a decent chance of getting out turn 2 Earwig Squad and just removing all of the opponent’s win conditions from the game. Even in matches where it isn’t a game win, removing the capability for a GAT deck to ‘combo out’ or the Bridge from Below in Ichorid, Auriok Salvagers from Bomberman, etc. you can do a lot of damage to the finely crafted Vintage decks with a turn 2 Cap effect followed up by a fast clock.

2. A 5/3 on turn 2 in Vintage is still pretty good against a lot of decks. It may not strike fear into the hearts of opponents, but you can pretty consistently destroy Tarmogoyf, Juggernaut and a number of other smaller creatures that cost less than 6 mana. In the framework of the deck itself, you have enough ways to get damage through and never pay full retail price for the Squad that the five mana hard-cost isn’t just an albatross around your neck.


How it Works:

Those of your familiar with Legacy Fish from the Flash era will immediately recognize this deck. It’s almost identical to Vintage Fish except that Vintage Fish also uses Null Rod. All of Fish’s creatures serve as beaters and highly disruptive nuisances, like Meddling Mage, Grunt, or Kataki, or other purposes like Dark Confidant. Aven Mindcensor sometimes joins the fun. Duress, Daze, Stifle, and Force of Will round out the disruption package. Your turn 1 play is going to be a Duress effect, Stifle a fetchland, or Brainstorm, unless you have a Mox and can play a turn 1 creature instead. On turn 2, a Meddling Mage or Kataki can interfere with your opponent’s strategy. A Mage naming Merchant Scroll, Oath of Druids, or even Tinker can be a serious annoyance.

Dawn of the Dead

How it Works:

This deck is another Goyf/Confidant deck, but with a very different approach. It uses Bazaar to generate men with Squee and Zombie Infestation. Life From the Loam also enables both the Bazaar engine and Zombie Infestation.


A major variant is Ray Robillard’s “Staxless Stax.”

How it Works:

Stax is the original Workshop Prison deck in Vintage. It uses the trio of Sphere of Resistance, Crucible of Worlds, and Smokestack to lock up the board and prevent the opponent from ever playing a spell. The suit of tutors enables the Stax pilot to find the card they need most at the moment and run a number of powerful singletons like In The Eye of Chaos and Balance. This deck is very difficult to play correctly and has a long history. In 2005, Roland Chang won the Vintage Championship with 5c Stax.


The lack of Chalice of the Void or the proper abuse of Thorn of Amethyst have in many respects dated this archetype. It remains to be seen whether it can return in new form or revive in old form.

IV. The Dark Horses:


How it Works:

I pushed this deck as a solution to the Workshop and Gush metagame that we had been playing in for the last couple of months. With Psychatog, you retain most of the advantages of Grow, but none of the advantages that have now been turned into drawbacks. Gush and Psychatog are one of the best combos in Vintage. Gush gives Psychatog plus 6.5 damage, almost enough to make him lethal with a Berserk with just a few more cards.

Psychatog by itself is one-stop solution to Workshop Aggro, acting as a virtual impediment when combined with Gush. Psychatog enters the game large, much like Tarmogoyf . A turn 3 Psychatog, even when Thorn of Amethyst is in play, will be large enough to block a Juggernaut or almost any offensive weapon. The combination of Psychatog and the additional mana meant that you can ignore many of the threats that Workshop Aggro can pose and focus your attention on the most relevant ones. Mana Drain gains potency in a Workshop paradigm. The advantage Workshop provides, three mana from one land, can be turned into a liability if you can steal that mana for yourself.

The Gush-Bond engine also provides a combo outlet so that once you’ve cleared the board of pesky artifacts, you can Yawgmoth’s Will your way to victory, capped with a Berserk on your Psychatog.

Psychatog provides a reliable manabase. Running on a 24 mana makes it much more likely that you won’t be shut out by a single Sphere of Resistance. You can continue to make land drops without relying on Gush, and can therefore decompress the game and make cards like Thorn less impactful. Second, you can run a lot of basic lands. GroAtog is a 3 or 4 color deck built on a tiny manabase. There is no room for basics in that shell. Each basic land increases the chance that you’d be color-screwed at any given point. With Psychatog, you can run a full complement of basic lands, ensuring protection from Magus of the Moon and Wasteland type effects.

Dr. Teeth seems to have been overlooked in this era of Tarmogoyf , but this deck is an excellent metagame choice in the Aggro oriented Vintage field of 2008.

Worldgorger Dragon Combo

How it Works:

This is the original Bazaar of Baghdad deck for Vintage. Use Bazaar of Baghdad, Intuition or Read the Runes to get a Worldgorger Dragon into the graveyard. Cast an Animate Dead (or Dance or Necromancy) on Worldgorger and begin the infinite loop. Generate an arbitrarily large amount of mana. It works like this:

Animate Dead comes into play, bringing Worldgorger Dragon with it. The Worldgorger Dragon’s “comes into play” ability triggers and everything else in play must leave play. As a result, the Animate Dead becomes “removed from game.” This causes the Worldgorger Dragon’s “leaves play” ability to trigger, which causes the Animate Dead to return to play. As you can see, this causes a potential infinite loop. As a consequence, the infinite loop rules check and you run the loop an arbitrarily large number of times.

There are several things that can happen at this point. If you have no way to win the game, you can just draw and move to the next game. That’s generally a waste. If you have a Bazaar of Baghdad on the table, the Bazaar will come into play untapped in between each loop. At that point, you can tap the Bazaar to “mill” your library… that is, move cards from your library into your graveyard, to find a win condition. Once you have found Eternal Witness then you can switch the animate to the Eternal Witness to just give yourself Cunning Wish for Stroke of Genius to kill your opponent. Alternatively, if you want to keep things interesting, you can get another Animate effect, re-new the Dragon combo, and use Eternal Witness to put your graveyard into your hand in between loops. Then you can actually just win by Ancestral Recalling your opponent to death with Duress in between to strip their hand in the meantime. It gets complicated, but there are many possibilities. There should be some primers on this deck on the web if you are interested in learning more about this deck.

R/G Beatz

How it Works:

Thematically, this is a throwback to those halcyon days of Vintage past. In design, this deck is hyper-modern. Tarmogoyf plays the lead role of fast beater in a deck full of utility and deadly burn spells. Metagame answers like Tin-Street Hooligan and Stingscourger help address artifact obstacles and creatures like Quirion Dryad, Psychatog, and Darksteel Colossus. Skullclamp is a powerful draw engine, h ensure that your men deal more damage and draw you cards on their way out of the game. Magus of the Moon is a highly disruptive addition, turning your opponent’s lands into basic Mountains while you eat away at their life total. This deck won a major American Vintage event in 2007 in a Grow and Workshop field. This deck could strike, just when you least expect it, to win again.

One-Land Belcher

How it Works:

The idea behind this deck is to play turn one Empty the Warrens or Goblin Charbelcher. This deck is packed with free or extremely efficient mana acceleration. Merely playing a turn one Empty the Warrens will generate enough storm to win within a few turns. A turn one Goblin Charbelcher can be activated to kill your opponent on the first try in most cases. The only land in the deck is a Taiga, which happens to be a Mountain. The fact that it is a Mountain is important because Belcher’s damage is doubled if it “hits” a Mountain. In any case, the deck plays 4 Land Grant to get the Taiga out of the library before the first Belcher activation.

Goblin Welder serves several purposes. First of all, it can be used to return a countered Belcher into play. Second, it can be used with cards like Lion’s Eye Diamond and Black Lotus to generate mana. Red Elemental Blasts protect your combo from Force of Wills. They can be played off of Tinder Walls or even Simian Spirit Guides.


How it Works:

The idea behind this deck is to control the game with Blue countermagic and an assortment of mid-range disruptive and utility men that eventually win the game. Auriok Salvagers can eventually generate infinite mana with Black Lotus so that you can draw most of your deck with Aether Spellbomb and then play all of your men, Time Walk, and win the game. Trinket Mage can find the Lotus to fuel the Salvagers combo. A very nice play is to Trinket Mage for Black Lotus while holding up Mana Drain or Aven Mindcensor. Trinket Mage is also a toolbox tutor that finds situational solutions like Tormod’s Crypt, Pithing Needle, Aether Spellbomb, and Engineered Explosives. Aven Mindcensor shuts down opponent’s ability to search their libraries at will with the plethora of Vintage tutors like Merchant Scrolls, Polluted Deltas, Protean Hulks, and Demonic Tutors. It also destroys whatever Gifts Ungivens and Grim Tutors remain.


How it Works:

Those of you familiar with Legacy may be quick to make comparisons, but the Vintage deck predates the former. The basic idea is to play a slow control deck that can defend the board with recurring manlands, Fire/Ices, and counterspells. Standstill is used to generate card advantage and Null Rod generates mana advantage. It’s a grinding, spirit-crushing control deck.

Landstill is perhaps the deck best equipped in the format to beat Hulk Flash. Its powerful mix of disruption, including Stifle, makes the this a nightmare match for Flash. Rich was the player who knocked Patrick Chapin out of the Vintage Championship in the last round of swiss.

V. Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this romp through Vintage. I included every archetype that I could find, although there are many that I probably overlooked or forgot.

As you can see, there is a lot of overlap in Vintage, as with any other format, but there is also an incredibly amount of diversity. What makes Vintage so fun and exciting is the incredibly rich and fascinating strategies that come with a card pool as old and broken as the game itself. From Tyrant Oath to Ichorid, from Mask-Naught to Worldgorger Dragon Combo, Vintage is anything but dull.

Until next time…