The Best Card in Vintage? Mountain!

Like many people, I am very excited about the editor’s idea of getting the Pros to play Vintage and see if they can dominate in the next big tournament. Being shamefully ignorant of the format, I thought I would have a look at the coverage of the tournament in Richmond this weekend, to see what sort of competition Zvi and the gang would have. I learned all about lots of new concepts such as “Stax”, “TPS”, “Meandeck Tendrils” and “Gifts Belcher”, as well as recognizing some old favorites such as Oath and Fish. So then I thought I’d read the coverage to see which of these decks was coming out on top. And got an odd sense of déjà vu…

Like many people, I am very excited about the editor’s idea of getting the Pros to play Vintage and see if they can dominate in the next big tournament. Being shamefully ignorant of the format, I thought I would have a look at the coverage of the tournament in Richmond this weekend, to see what sort of competition Zvi and the gang would have. I learned all about lots of new concepts such as “Stax”, “TPS”, “Meandeck Tendrils” and “Gifts Belcher”, as well as recognizing some old favorites such as Oath and Fish. So then I thought I’d read the coverage to see which of these decks was coming out on top. And got an odd sense of déjà vu. To quote from the feature match coverage:

“Jesse needed to send his initial hand back, but kept the next six and opened with a Tropical Island, which Zaun destroyed with Wasteland. Crushed, Pinchot had to say “go” without laying a new land.”

“But alas, Zaun had another Fanatic in hand to hit Pinchot for the final point.”

“Zaun played a reduced-cost Piledriver to test for counterspells – and seeing that the coast was clear, went for Recruiter, who also resolved. He set up a stack of three Goblin Lackeys, a Mogg Fanatic, and a Kiki-Jiki, then attacked with everyone.”

Zaun started off with a first-turn Goblin Lackey – but LaPlante didn’t really care, vomiting forth his hand to cast a Thirst for Knowledge, Chalice of the Void for two, and Mystical Tutor for a foily Tinker

[next turn]

Laplante drew his Tinker, thought for a second and packed it in, saying, “That was the dumbest game of Magic I ever played.”

This all sounds awfully familiar – Wastelands being used to mana screw opponents, attacks with Goblins, people whinging after getting beaten by a Red deck – this is like all the other Constructed formats!

There was something odd going on here. I’d read about the combo decks which killed on turn 1, about Yawgmoth’s Will, Mana Drain, Mishra’s Workshop and Force of Will and such great cards as these. So why, at the end of the day, was the Red deck the one which won?

The nearest that I came to playing in a format like Vintage was in Extended, long ago, just after Wizards had printed Memory Jar. I went to the first Grand Prix of the season with my Memory Jar deck, which frequently killed on turn 1 (I had one three-turn match in which my opponent’s contribution was playing a Forest and passing the turn on turn 1 of game two), and just missed the Top 8 because I made a mistake in the final round. It seemed like every deck either had to be a fast combo deck, or play Force of Will – be it in High Tide decks, Blue control decks or multi-colored aggro decks.

Insert Witty Alt Text here.

By the end of the qualifying season, this had the odd effect that decks which could not possibly beat the Memory Jar deck were starting to do well. A mono-Red deck, for example, would roll over and die to a Memory Jar deck because it did not kill until turn 3 or 4 and had little to no disruption, which gave the combo deck player all the time that they needed. But against a Sliver deck, or a mono-Blue counterspell deck, or even a High Tide deck, all of which were set up to fight against combo decks and other Blue decks, the strategy of playing a Goblin and attacking with it, casting burn spells and Pyroblast as needed, was very effective.

There is no reason why anyone turning up to a Vintage tournament would put cards in their deck to deal with a mono-Red deck. There are plenty of other decks which will be present in greater numbers and with more powerful strategies. But looking at the different kinds of decks with the trusty MetaAnalysis Tool, some kind of deck based around playing with Mountains and Red creatures seems like an interesting option.

Against fast combo decks, admittedly, you are at a heavy disadvantage, though you have a few modest ways of disrupting them with Pyroblast/Red Elemental Blast and Pyrostatic Pillar.

Against Fish decks, Worse than Fish decks and others which try to combine small creatures and counterspells, you have a big advantage, because your creatures are better than theirs, you can target their creatures with removal spells, and they usually have a bunch of useless anti-control cards in their deck.

Against artifact-based decks, you have small creatures to put them under immediate pressure, their Goblin Welders will never tap to put an artifact into play before going to the graveyard and you have access to as much removal, both targeted and indiscriminate, of artifacts as you choose to play with.

Oath decks have usually been close matchups for mono-Red decks. You will, of course, tend to lose to openings like Forbidden Orchard, Mox, Oath, but you put them under a lot of pressure very quickly, and have lots of good cards against them, ranging from Goblin Lackey to Price of Progress.

Something particular to bear in mind is that there is an intrinsic advantage from knowing what the main decks which you have to beat are and being able to tune your deck to aim at those decks. This is how decks like Fish, which aren’t able to do anything nearly as powerful as the combo decks or control decks, can prosper – Ninja of the Deep Hours is not as powerful a card as Yawgmoth’s Bargain, but a deck with counterspells and small creatures which draw cards will tend to beat a deck which wins by resolving powerful/degenerate spells.

All of this, actually, flags up something which I think that Mike Flores got wrong in an article which he wrote on MagictheGathering.com recently. He was describing the different kinds of Red Deck, and was trying to do so according to the strategies. So, for example, the difference between Deadguy Red or Deadguy Sligh is “Greater emphasis on beatdown and damage, less emphasis on selective card advantage or specific mana curve” Red Deck Wins versus Goblins is defined by “one is a little slower and the other is bad against Engineered Plague”, and “Ponza today is indicative of mana control.”

I think that in practice trying to understand the fine distinctions between Deadguy Red and Deadguy Sligh, and pretending that Ponza is a legitimate deck with a reasonable strategy are unhelpful in trying to understand the different kinds of Red decks. The aim when I play Magic is to find a Red Deck which can beat at least a decent range of decks that I am likely to encounter. There are two, and only two, different scenarios and different strategies.

The first is where the Red Deck has been pretty much created by Wizards R&D, because the most powerful cards and strategies in the format can be found in a mono-red deck. Onslaught Block Constructed and Tempest-only Constructed are the two most obvious examples of this, and the Extended season just gone is another example. Other people will be prepared to face a Red Deck, and the skill is in tweaking the deck to find little advantages.

While that is always enjoyable, what is a more common situation is where playing just with Red cards is clearly not the most powerful natural strategy. In Kamigawa Block Constructed, White Weenie, Snakes and Legends all have intrinsically more power than a Red deck. In Odyssey Block Constructed, Blue/Green Madness, Psychatog, mono-Black control and Wake decks were the ones which utilized the most powerful cards. And in Vintage, Slaver decks of various kinds (repeatedly reuse a six-mana artifact which lets you control your opponent’s turn, and have access to taking extra turns, drawing cards very cheaply and free counterspells), Meandeck Tendrils (make the opponent lose more than 20 life before they take a turn), Oath (cast Akroma on the second turn, with access to cheap card drawing and free counterspells), utilize cards and combinations of cards which are clearly more powerful than anything which is available to a Red mage.

But just because the Red deck isn’t naturally as powerful doesn’t mean that it can’t win. What it means is that you have to look at the other popular decks and target their weaknesses. So while a Constructed format is new, before there is a consensus about what the best decks are, playing a metagamed Red Deck is not a good idea. You could have an advantage against the best decks, but if most people are playing decks which lose to the best decks but which you are not prepared for then you won’t do well.

That is clearly not the case in Vintage now. There are quite a few different good decks, but according to my editor: “Previously, you would generally get a radically diverse field of decks played even at the larger tournaments, where many holdouts would simply grab their favorite deck and change some sideboard slots, or perhaps tune their favorite archetype for the possible metagame. What you are starting to see now is that the field generally coalesces around a couple of highly-competitive deck types, with variations within an archetype accounting for much of what we would call “diversity” at the bigger tournaments. There are very few Suicide Black, White Weenie, and even 4-Color Control decks running around here today, while the number of players running Severance Belcher, Fish, Oath, and Mishra’s Workshop-based decks is actually pretty staggering.” So how can we take advantage of this? First point is that doing well with a Red Deck is not a short cut – you can’t just pick it up untested and turn up and win…

Well, actually, you can, because that’s exactly what Mike Zaun did, but it is still true to say that the more you know about the metgame and the better you know your deck, the better you will perform. From all the reports, quite a lot of matches in Vintage (as, to be fair, in any format) are decided by player error, and it’s much better to do well because you know your deck and win the odd match which you shouldn’t have because your opponent made a mistake, rather than losing to a Fish deck because you hadn’t practiced. But here are two good places to start tuning your Red Deck, each taken from recent decent finishes in Vintage tournaments. First up is last weekend’s winner:


The changes that Mike suggested were take out the Food Chains and the Taigas for an extra Red Blast, some Mountains, another Kiki-Jiki and a Siege-Gang, which makes sense because the key card is not Food Chain, but Goblin Lackey. Against decks which don’t have creature kill, Lackey allows you to do some very powerful things, as you’ll see from the feature match coverage. The changes take out a combo which is cool but usually irrelevant, and make the deck more resistant to Wasteland and give a better chance of putting a five-mana creature into play with Goblin Lackey, which is the basic aim of the deck.

The other deck worth considering (particularly for those on a budget) is a variant on the one which Dana Renfrew took to a Top 16 finish at Waterbury:






The immediate changes I would make to that list are:

-4 Ankh of Mishra,

-1 Black Vise,

-3 Shrapnel Blast,

-3 Great Furnace,

+4 Price of Progress,

+4 Fireblast,

+2 Mountain,

+4 Wasteland,

+1 Strip Mine,

-4 Mishra’s Factory

I say this because I think that Shrapnel Blast, much as I love it, is just less efficient than Fireblast. Ankh of Mishra and Black Vise don’t do as much damage as Price of Progress can do and Wasteland is better in combination with small Red creatures than Mishra’s Factory. This deck is less powerful than the Goblin deck, but it kills on turn 3-4, has some disruption which might let you steal some games against combo, and flexible sideboard options, particularly against artifact-based decks.

If you have any comments or questions on any of this, please post in the forums. I’ll leave you with this thought. The powers that be are trying to set the next big Vintage tournament up as a battle between the Vintage experts and the Pro players. How good would it be if neither won and the best card in Vintage turned out not to be Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will or Mana Drain, but Mountain?

Take care

Dan xxx


Discussion of Dana’s Red Deck: http://www.themanadrain.com/forums/index.php?PHPSESSID=1259a22daf0babb510f97f81c4f50cf1&topic=22947.0

Interview with Mike Zaun and coverage of his victory: http://www.starcitygames.com/coverage.php?Event=SCGP2005RICH

Mike Flores: Naming the Red Metagame http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=mtgcom/daily/mf39

Grand Prix: Vienna report http://web.archive.org/web/20010223005859/www.thedojo.com/t991/gpvi.990318dpa.txt