So Many Insane Plays – Winning In Vintage On a Budget

Read Stephen Menendian every Monday... at StarCityGames.com!
Monday, April 28th – Vintage… the Format of Kings. Traditionally, a successful Vintage deck would both require a king-sized brain to pilot, and a king’s ransom to assemble. However, in these modern times, it seems that tournament structure allows a lot more flexibility in deck creation, and the ultra-diverse metagame means there are many options open to the cash-strapped Eternal spellslinger…

For years I’ve received private messages and emails to write about “budget” decks in Vintage. Although the calls have slowed to a trickle in recent times, they still arrive in one of my many inboxes every now and then. My response has always been the same.

Writing about Vintage with the express purpose of trying to find ways to make Vintage playable to the “budget” player is anathema to me.

This is not because I’m a remorseless cretin. Nor it is economic elitism. Rather, my interest in Magic pretty much centers around my fascination with Vintage as a format. To me, Vintage is a game distilled into its purest elements. It is an elegant dance of logical connectives interacting in scintillating and ingenious ways. Finding ways to make Vintage playable to players based on cost considerations diminishes the beauty and fun of the format to me. That’s why I’ve always been a supporter of proxy tournaments (a proxy is a card modified to represent another card — for example, modifying Welding Jar into Black Lotus. The rules can be found here). I play Magic because I adore Vintage and I hope to convey that feeling to others through my writing. My articles, since the very beginning, were an attempt to speak about a format at its highest level, not at its lowest.

Vintage has always seemed budget impermeable. The format since its inception has been defined by the Power 9, cards whose expense is far out of the range of many players. Although that still remains true, a convergence of unlikely events has now put playing competitive Vintage within reach of virtually all Constructed players: unusual metagame oscillations, ubiquitous proxy tournaments, and the convergence of upper tier archetypes that do not run full power have produced a metagame opportunity where the very best decks can be piloted with minimal power and minimal expense. The very top level competitive Vintage decks are now within reach of virtually all American Constructed players, and many European players as well.

So what are these anomalies? First of all, this is the first time in the history of Vintage where there are multiple top tier decks that can be piloted on five proxies. Second, it is also the first time that the most powerful decks, in terms of raw brutalizing strength and speed, are also the cheapest.

The reasons for this are complex, but can be briefly summarized. With the temporary exceptions usually cut short by waves of restrictions, Mana Drain decks have been at the center of the Vintage metagame since pretty much Brian Weissman’s The Deck. Mana Drain decks fueled Keeper, Psychatog (winning the first Vintage championship in 2003), Control Slaver (winning the third Vintage championship in 2004), and Gifts (winning the fourth Vintage Championship in 2006), each in succession. Mana Drain decks not only had to run most of the power – Black Lotus, 5 Moxen, Ancestral Recall, and Time Walk – but they also ran four Mana Drain and usually a Library of Alexandria, all $100+, big money cards. This put even a bare-bones Mana Drain deck, even with 10 proxies, out of the range of most players. And if Mana Drain decks weren’t ruling the roost, Mishra’s Workshop type decks or fully powered Combo decks based around the $100+ Grim Tutor were the most powerful decks. In short, there has never been a time in Vintage where you could play the best Vintage decks fully powered, optimally built, with ten proxies or less.

Moreover, even if you could in the past, your options were slim. For instance, in 2004, UR Fish – a deck that only ran a handful of power – was crushing major Vintage tournaments, including the first, where three were in Top 8. Historically, in the best case situation, there have been a few (perhaps 2-3) budget-oriented but generally underpowered (at least by Vintage standards) decks that can be made to compete with “the big boys.” This is not true today. Not only are there multiple great decks that can be piloted without needing full power and without needing pricy cards like Mishra’s Workshop, Mana Drain, or Grim Tutor, but in fact most of the Tier 1 can be run without needing such cards. Most shockingly, in a ten proxy environment, you can run multiple top tier decks without owning a card that costs over $20.

This is the most opportune time conceivable for budget players to think about playing Vintage. Truth be told, this is not an article that most Vintage “regulars” will be happy to read about. Experienced Vintage players won’t like the prospect of facing you with a deck that you were able to cheaply build that wins on turn 2 through multiple counterspells.

In this article I am going to briefly survey these decks. My hope is that you will be interested in playing these decks in the upcoming StarCityGames.com Mega-Weekend. If you want to win Grand Prix style money, this is your best chance to try Vintage. You can win the next StarCityGames.com Power 9 tournament with a deck that should be cheaper than many Standard decks (thanks, in part, to the expense of Tarmogoyf)!

In Vintage today, it is a common tournament practice to permit players to use proxies, with the understanding that not everyone can afford to buy Black Lotus. Although this is the general custom, it is not the universal custom. DCI sanctioned tournaments, such as the Vintage Championship, do not permit the use of proxies. In addition, many European tournaments will remain no-proxy tournaments. For those players, I will show you decks that can be used to win tournaments without a single power card, or expensive ($50+) old-rare, in them.

The first deck I want to talk about is a deck I’ve been writing about for the last month. That deck is Reveillark Flash.

This deck has the stamp of brokenness. Under the right conditions, all you need to win the game is two mana. This is the deck that Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin swears by as the best deck in the format. This deck does not run all of the Power 9, nor does it have that many expensive dual lands. (For an overview of how to play this deck, check out my Ultimate Vintage Primer.)

In a ten proxy field, the following cards should be proxied:

1 Black Lotus
1 Ancestral Recall
4 Moxen
2 Tropical Island
2 Underground Sea

That leaves the following expensive cards:

4 Force of Wills. These are available for just over $20 apiece. You can also hit up your friends for these cards, as they are very common, especially if you can find some Legacy players in your area who will let you borrow them for a weekend. Many collectors or casual players will also have a playset of these cards.

3 Flooded Strand
3 Polluted Delta
These cards are the other “expensive” cards from the deck. Again, I would recommend that you scrounge around for them, as these cards were only printed a few years ago and see heavy play in Extended and Legacy as well as Vintage. Unless you live in Sassaskatchwan, you should have little trouble rustling up some of these. In the worst case scenario, you may be forced to run four or five fetchlands instead of six… and that’s fine too. I prefer more fetchlands as shuffle effects, but running a few more basic Islands could actually be the better way to go.

Beyond those cards, the only expensive cards that remain are:

2 Thoughtseize
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Misdirection

Thoughtseize is currently in print. If you play Standard, you probably have these. The other three cards will cost you anywhere from $6 to $15, depending upon the condition and version. Demonic Tutor is a very old card, but it’s also not that rare. It was printed as an uncommon from Revised. If you don’t have one, this is a card you certainly will be able to borrow from anyone who has played Magic for more than a couple of years. Almost every older, casual player will have one of these. You should be able to trade for one for a playable Standard rare and a little something besides.

Vampiric Tutor may be a little harder to acquire, but easier to find. It was legal in Extended for a very long time and has been reprinted in 6th Edition. Once again, although it is a worthwhile Vintage investment for the price, this is a card you should easily be able to borrow.

At the time of Grand Prix: Columbus last year, Flash was being bought up for about $1.50 a piece. It was promptly banned in Legacy and is now only legal in Vintage. While many Vintage players are enjoying Hulk Flash, there simply isn’t the demand there once was for Flash in this format. You should be able to find a Legacy player who still has a playset or four of this card.

Most of the remaining cards from the deck are currently in print: Ponder, Reveillark, Body Double, Pact of Negation, Summoner’s Pact, and Bile Urchin (which you can play over Mogg Fanatic). The remaining cards can be cheaply acquired: Merchant Scroll, Brainstorm, Lotus Petal, and Chain of Vapor are all inexpensive cards.

The sideboard is also easily acquirable. Virulent Slivers can be found laying in used Future Sight draft piles or common boxes at your local shop for pennies. Reverent Silence is a quarter card. Leyline of the Void may be a bit pricier, but it is still a very common card.

It won’t be quite like building White Weenie in Standard, but building Vintage Hulk Flash should be a lot easier than building many Standard decks and probably most Extended Decks. More importantly, it will be a lot more rewarding.

Vintage is unlike any other format. There is no substitute for it strategically, and the thrill you’ll get from playing and winning in this format on a budget is an opportunity you shouldn’t miss! If you have never won a game on turn 1 before, this is your chance!

There are also many substitutes that can go into the deck. If you can’t find a Lotus Petal or absolutely need to proxy another card, Elvish Spirit Guide is just fine as another mana source. He can be tutored up with Summoner’s Pact to help you win in a mana pinch. You can also try to use shocklands instead of duallands if you absolutely must. The additional two life you take from Breeding Pool instead of a Tropical Island should make no difference in the world in the long run. Flash is not about a damage race.

I know some of you don’t play Vintage in proxy tournaments. I haven’t forgotten about you. Here is how I might build Vintage Hulk Flash if you are truly the most budget strapped player:

This is about as cheap as I can reasonably make this deck, and it’s pretty darn inexpensive. Obviously, upgrades would include:

Thoughtseize over Duress
Tropical Island and Underground Sea over the shock lands
Reveillark combo over Sliver kill

But this deck is still capable of doing amazing things, including winning the game on turn 1 with multiple counter back-up. If you can afford the Reveillark kill, I would strongly recommend it — it should only cost a couple of dollars more.

The next deck I want to share is a deck you are all probably familiar with. It is also a deck that has increasingly performed well in recent Vintage tournaments. It has several variants, which I’ll share with you.

The first is Manaless Ichorid:

This list placed second in a very large European Vintage tournament, netting the pilot probably a decent amount of prize money. This deck is dirt cheap. The problem here won’t be the expense, as almost everything here can be acquired for well below $5. It will be the effort in rounding up all of these cards that will create the most work.

First of all, Bazaar of Baghdad will need to be proxied. Beyond that, I would use the remaining six proxies to proxy whatever else you can’t find.

My first piece of advice is to find someone who has played Ichorid in Extended and see if you can borrow most of the parts from their deck. Cards like Stinkweed Imp, Dread Return, Cabal Therapy, Bridge From Below, Golgari Grave-Troll, Cephalid Sage, Flame-Kin Zealot, and Narcomoeba can all be found in the Extended decks. In short, well over half the deck can just be imported from the Extended lists. The remaining cards are going to be obscure Vintage oddballs, like Serum Powder, which can be picked up very cheaply, and somewhat more valuable rares like Chalice of the Void, Unmask, or Leyline of the Void. Almost all of the more expensive cards can be replaced with something else. Some players don’t run Chalice or Unmask at all. Take a look at some Vintage Top 8 data or my article archive for other Ichorid lists. Alternatively, just post a question in the Vintage forum to this site and someone will help you out.

If after testing, you decide that this deck is too inflexible for you, I have good news. The Mana Ichorid versions have been doing very well, often winning on turn 1, and are almost as inexpensive for a 10 proxy player.

The main difference between this deck and the Manaless version is that you’ll have to spend more of your proxy slots on the power cards like Black Lotus and Mox Sapphire. Nonetheless, the remaining cards can be easily acquired. Breakthrough and Careful Study are the two big differences and can be acquired very cheaply indeed.

Once again, if you are playing in a no-proxy environment, fear not! Ichorid can still be yours! The Extended Ichorid list can perform just fine in Vintage.

You can run this list:

I would invest, however, in a Lotus Petal and a Lion’s Eye Diamond. A turn 1 Breakthrough responding to the cracking of a Lion’s Eye Diamond means that you should have a good chance of winning on turn 1! Also, you should find a way to add green so that you can run Reverent Silence too.

Flash and Ichorid are widely regarded as two of the best decks in Vintage. There is another deck that is not quite as widely accepted as a top flight deck, although it still has its proponents, including myself. That deck is GroAtog. GroAtog was by far the best performing deck last year. There was a metagame shift to Mishra’s Workshop decks, which has caused many GroAtog pilots to switch to other decks, prominently Tyrant Oath.

Ironically, the more recent metagame shifts with the printing of Reveillark for Flash, the increasing incidence of Ichorid decks, and now Tyrant Oath bodes well for GAT packed with Duress effects. I would even consider running a seventh Duress effect in the mainboard to fight Flash and Oath.

This deck is amazing and a perfect, ridiculously powerful deck that can be played well under 10 proxies if you have the dual lands.

So, between GAT, Flash, and Ichorid, you have three fantastic tournament options that give you an excellent shot at winning power at the StarCityGames.com Mega Weekend.

If those decks don’t appeal to you, there are a few other budget options that you can explore from my Vintage primer. I would also look at the primer for tips, hints, and strategic advice on how to play some of these decks.

The other deck that is very budget friendly is Goblins, now with Earwig Squad courtesy of Morningtide. Check it out:

This deck might be a home for Shadowmoor’s Vexing Shusher.

Today is the day to jump into Vintage. The format is widely considered to be in a golden age of sorts, despite the fact that Reveillark Flash has created some consternation. I expect some of those concerns to fall away with the printing of Faerie Macabre.

Not only is Vintage extremely fun to play at the moment, but it is extremely accessible. If you love Magic, Vintage is a format that you must try. It will feel like a different game, because it is, but it is utterly fascinating. If you enjoy Extended, then Vintage is like an amped-up version of that format. Ichorid is the same, and the UBG deck decks are basically no different. Instead of X Level Blue, you play GAT or Oath.

Given the shape and contour of the current metagame, you have a number of choices with ten proxies so long as you own dual lands. I have focused on the decks that I think might be most advantageous for the budget player to put together, with an eye to cost and power.

If you’ve been curious about this format, or if you regularly read my column but haven’t actually played the format before, I urge you to try it. This is the best moment to get off the couch and try Vintage. The format is fast, fun, and there is nothing like it. Even if you aren’t excited about the prospect of playing Vintage, the cross-training of a Vintage tournament can very well open your eyes to features of Magic that you haven’t encountered before that will help you tighten up your skills and experience a whole new world of magical play.

Our editor, Craig Stevenson, recently messaged me. He had been to an Italian Vintage tournament, and despite years of being forced to read my articles, it took the experience of watching Vintage in person to get him to want to actually play the format. I don’t have the ability, outside of the use of video, to infect you with the Vintage bug. But if you are even curious, I would urge you to consider this to be the perfect opportunity to see what it’s all about in person. Although I’ve tried mightily to convey my passion for this format, a format I believe to be incredibly rich and utterly unique. There is no substitute for the experience of Vintage in tournament play. Don’t make the mistake Craig did and wait until you see it to want to try it. Experience the golden age of Vintage while it lasts.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian