The Long And Winding Road – Mythbusters: Vintage Edition

Friday, March 4 – How do you win Vintage tournaments, and how is Vintage similar (and different) from other formats? The answer is simple. Matt Elias explains. (And don’t miss the two bonus decklists at the end!)

How do you win Vintage tournaments, and how is Vintage similar (and different) from other formats? Simple:

  1. Vintage is still Magic. You win by using correct technical play and making informed deck choices.

  2. Vintage has some differences from the other formats of Magic.

  3. As Vintage is still Magic, games are decided by one player advancing down their specific victory path ahead of the other player, but some Vintage
    decks allow and reward those who like to develop multiple paths simultaneously.

  4. Vintage is not more complicated, or more complex, than other Constructed formats.

Every way that you succeed at Vintage is the same way you succeed in other formats: by being a prepared and technically competent player. Still, some
explanation is probably in order, both for Vintage players and for Magic players who do not play Vintage.

Vintage is still Magic. You win by using correct technical play and making informed deck choices.

Sometimes I feel that Vintage players believe they’re playing a different game from people who play other Constructed formats. And, I often believe
that people who don’t play Vintage think it’s more or less an entirely different (and much worse) game.

Vintage is still Magic.

The same mistakes that are common in other formats are also common in Vintage, and in fact, they can be far more devastating to your success at
Vintage. Consider mulligan decisions, a part of the game that is challenging for many players of all formats.

I’ve found that Vintage, as a format, rewards aggressive mulligans as a general rule. This is a format where things happen quickly. As in Legacy, games
of Magic can be literally won on turn 1 in Vintage. They usually aren’t — this is not a format of turn-one kills — but games sometimes do end that
quickly. As this is the case, keeping an opening hand that’s able to compete immediately, on or even before one’s first turn, is exceptionally
important in Vintage. Yet, many Vintage players neglect this aspect of the game completely, keeping hands that clearly aren’t going to be successful
against even moderately strong opposing hands. 

Similarly, as in other formats, your mana base is important. Vintage is full of powerful cards, even broken cards, but you still need mana to play
them. (Unless, of course, you’re Dredge, but even that deck does require some consideration of the mana base.) While Workshop decks are undeniably
powerful at the moment, some of their success also comes from the fact that many Vintage players are not using functional mana bases. Unlike in
Standard, where decks are ground through the ringer of thousands of tournaments, and a functional mana platform is basically handed to you, in Vintage,
you often need to lay your own foundation in terms of mana. Just because there is fast mana available in Vintage doesn’t mean that you can escape
understanding the principles of building a functional mana base.

Technical play matters in Vintage. Preparation matters in Vintage. Over a large set of games, the better player is likely to win more games, taking
matchup into consideration.

Is there luck present in Vintage? Of course, it’s Magic! This isn’t chess. In any version of Magic, there are elements that the players cannot control.
Vintage is not about coin-flips, or winning die rolls, any more than other formats. Are some matchups highly dependent on who goes first? Sometimes,
yes, but this is true of matchups across the spectrum of Constructed Magic. As a Vintage player, it’s critical to not fall into a trap of blaming
repeated poor performance on luck.

Consider some of the players who have been mentally invested into the Vintage format, currently or previously, such as LSV, Ochoa, Matt Sperling,
Williams, Turtenwald, and Patrick Chapin. These are pro players who are able to consistently perform at Vintage just as they do in other Magic formats.
Why? Because luck is a factor, but not the factor, in Vintage, as is the case elsewhere. I’m not sure if the sometimes degenerate gambling of
Pros reinforces or weakens my case here, but generally I believe that these players would not find Vintage as appealing if it were simply War, or Pogs.

Perhaps more interesting to me is that some of these players came up in the game immersed in the Eternal formats. There may be some benefit to you, to
your understanding of the game, in playing Eternal formats, which have different challenges than Standard or Draft. Then again, there are also some
potential pitfalls.

If you’re playing Vintage, don’t fall into that trap of writing off losses to luck. Sometimes, you can get legitimately hit by variance and lose
because of it. If you find yourself, loss after loss, chalking it up to luck, then you’re probably either playing poorly or your deck is not sufficient
to win. In the two recurring Vintage tournament series in which I compete, Blue Bell and NYSE, the same players have a tendency to perform well in
event after event. Many of these players have been putting up strong finishes in this format for years. They understand that you may sometimes win or
lose due to luck, but the aggregate of your results is driven by your performance as a player, the strength of your deck, and its position relative to
the field.

Players that prepare, that play strong decks, that play their deck well and play their opponent well, and that know the rules of the game and the
boundaries of the metagame, these are the players that win. Same as in any other format, really.

Vintage does have some differences from the other formats of Magic.

While Vintage may not be more complex in general, it is most certainly different from other formats of Magic. There are skills you need to
develop to win at Vintage, and lines of play you need to master, that you will not experience elsewhere.

For example, I had the pleasure (term used loosely) of watching Alex Bertoncini play Vintage against Max Brown at a PTQ last month. As the reigning
Player of the Year in the StarCityGames.com Open Series, there should be no doubt that Alex is a competent Magic player, but watching him durdle around
with my Vintage decks was a reminder that even strong Magic players take some time to get acclimated to Vintage.

This is not a knock on Alex; Vintage is different. Games develop very quickly, even when compared to Legacy. While there are decks in Legacy
that are designed for blazing speed and turn 1 / turn 2 wins, the average speed of a deck in Legacy is still slower than Vintage, often by a wide
margin (depending on the Vintage metagame in question) because of the Power 9. Because of the strength of the cards involved, especially mana
acceleration, games can seem swingy, like heavyweights throwing haymakers back and forth. This makes Vintage exciting; unwinnable games are sometimes
won on the strength of running topdecks, as a Vintage deck can go from almost no resources to game win in a way you don’t see elsewhere.

I’ve noted the ways in which Vintage is not as complex as other formats; how is it more complex?

The complexity is on the stack, and in your library.

Vintage appeals to a lot of long-time Magic players because it feels a lot like how Magic used to feel. In other words, spells rule Vintage, not
creatures. To use flavor terms, a lot of modern Magic feels as though you’re the president (dictator?) of a country, using an army (creatures) and
generals (planeswalkers) to fight for you. In some Legacy matchups and often in Vintage, you get a rather different feeling. You’re not using creatures
to win; you’re using spells, and you’re often interacting with your opponent in the moment, on the stack, as spells are played.

Instead of an on-the-board puzzle in which the pieces are all present, Vintage presents a much different challenge, where you need to change direction
mid-course. Access to instant-speed tutors changes how games play out, and it moves complexity from the board to the stack and by extension, into the
library. Think about Vampiric Tutor or Demonic Tutor; these are cards that can target any card in your deck, so the decision tree related to choosing
the right card can be massive (although often, it isn’t — see below). One reason why I enjoy Vintage and Legacy so much is that many decks have far
more ability to sculpt their draws, to find the right tools from inside their deck, than Standard (although this specific Standard is bucking that
trend to an extent).

Games also move quickly toward the endgame because of the mana acceleration and library manipulation available in the format. That doesn’t necessary
mean that games end more quickly; I always feel that the amount of time I have after Vintage rounds is generally the same as that of other formats.

However, it does mean that games reach full velocity as quickly as turn 1. That’s what happens in a world where one player may open with Mox Jet,
Forbidden Orchard, Oath of Druids, and the opponent may respond with UndergroundSea, Dark Ritual, Necropotence. In this scenario, these two decks have
achieved their objectives and are moving into their endgames immediately, and yet in both instances, turn 2 should be an exciting slugfest between
long-term cornerstones of the format.

Vintage is also different in that the format has some paths to victory that are so powerful that the format bends around them. In order to do well at
Vintage, you need to learn and understand these plays and how they develop.

As Vintage is still Magic, games are decided by one player advancing down their specific victory path ahead of the other player, but some Vintage decks
allow and reward those who like to develop multiple paths simultaneously.

Perhaps to some extent, I take an overly reductionist view of Vintage, but part of the reason I like Vintage is that some strategic plans are simply
far superior to others, so the format bends around a few specific action plans. As a player of the format, this means that in order to win, you have to
be able to recognize these plans, know where you stand, and measure the progress your opponent is making along their plan. If you can do this, you can
win consistently. In fact, some people win frequently at Vintage simply by finding one deck whose plan they can execute with precision, and the nature
of the format allows them to continue to do this over a longer period of time than they could in rotational formats like Standard or Extended.

For example, consider the strategic plans of most Vintage blue decks. These are the common paths to victory:

Most of the cards in blue Vintage decks are there simply to set up and resolve one of these plans of attack. Each play, each decision is designed to
advance one or several of these plans of attack or to thwart an opponent from doing the same. Thus, we see many cards in Vintage decks that are not
blue are designed to attack these plans.

Null Rod makes it difficult to generate enough mana for Yawgmoth’s Will to be effective and shuts off Time Vault. Chalice of the Void prevents the
replaying of fast mana from the graveyard, while cost modifiers like Thorn of Amethyst and Sphere of Resistance can make Will ineffective. Qasali
Pridemage attacks the Time Vault / Voltaic Key combo. Dredge neutralizes the ability of blue decks to use countermagic to stop themselves from losing
before a win condition comes online.

Vintage comes down to central, powerful, specific lines of play that develop over and over again; while the tools may change as new cards are printed,
Restricted, or un-Restricted, the existence of the Power 9, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Tinker result in blue decks that have the same lines of development,
more or less. Although you might think this could get boring, for a lot of people, it doesn’t. There’s a definite skill to achieving these victory
conditions; Vintage has considerable action wherein players need to feint and parry, where players need to sniff out what matters and determine which
spells let their opponent move too far down a key victory path.

While I’ve mostly laid out the way blue decks win, blue players experience the same activity with regard to their opponents. Which resistor needs to be
countered before MUD can push the game out of reach? When does Nihil Spellbomb need to be used to stop a Dredge player from establishing too much
advantage on-board?

When you play Vintage and test Vintage, you’re engaged in a battle that’s gone on for years, between strategies considered to be pillars of Magic’s
oldest format. There’s something exciting and enjoyable about that, but it’s also a skill-testing format where repetition allows for you to become great at a skill set that doesn’t change dramatically over time. Some people prefer that, while others do not.

Obviously, in Standard, the same thing is happening; decks are functioning along a victory axis and trying to reach the end before an opponent.
However, rarely do we see so many interlocking victory conditions achievable in one deck as we see in Vintage. Vintage decks vary wildly in this
respect; while MUD and Dredge are moving down one axis only, Tezzeret or Gush advances multiple plans at the same time. Some people really enjoy that
feeling of working on several puzzles at once. For example, a deck with Tezzeret the Seeker, Time Vault / Voltaic Key, Blightsteel Colossus, and
Tendrils of Agony really has only five cards dedicated to actually winning the game (with two of those forming a combo that locks out the opponent’s
turns but doesn’t literally win), and the rest of the deck is an interactive puzzle to using those cards to win the game.

That’s why Magic is so great; it isn’t that one thing is better than another, but rather, it’s terrific that the game lends itself to formats where
different skills are tested.

Vintage is not more complicated, or more complex, than other Constructed formats.

If you think that it is, you’re doing yourself a disservice and the other formats a disservice. I’ve been around many Vintage players who talk about
how complex various decision trees are in the format, as if those same decisions don’t exist elsewhere. This is an excuse, a mental crutch, which
people use to explain away poor play.

Don’t do it.

Are there complex decisions in Vintage? Of course there are. In fact, I just noted that some Vintage decks are perhaps unique in how many ways they can
win with so few cards devoted to actually winning. That doesn’t necessarily mean the format is more complicated as a whole. All forms of Magic have
complex decisions.

Consider for a moment all that goes into your basic booster draft. Each time you make a selection in a booster draft, you’re not only building a deck
from the ground up, you’re gaining information about the literal composition of the field in which you’re competing. Based on the cards you’re not
seeing, you learn about your opponent on one side, and based on the cards you’re feeding, you’re (hopefully) influencing your opponent on the other
side. You have to, on the fly, make complicated decisions about how to select your pool based on imperfect information about the other players. Then,
you need to correctly build a deck out of the pool you’ve drafted and then play it correctly on top of that. Drafting is immensely complex!

The current Standard format contains a number of elements that a disconnected Vintage player might be surprised to see. There is a lot of mana fixing
available, including fetchlands, as well as library manipulation like Ponder, See Beyond, Preordain, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The format also has a
lot of tutors and pseudo-tutors like Primeval Titan, Green Sun’s Zenith, Stoneforge Mystic, and Squadron Hawk. There’s nothing like the stack or
library complexity that one sees in Vintage or Legacy, but in terms of on-board complexity, the current Standard format is brutal. Games are won and
lost based on equipping the right creature, or using a fetch at the right time, or sending the right creature at the right planeswalker; when you have
multiple planeswalkers on both sides interacting alongside creature combat, things get immensely complex in a hurry, in a way that never happens in

From a card pool standpoint, Vintage is also relatively easy to master compared to a format like Legacy. While the literal cardpool available to both
formats is extremely close in size, the actual quantity of cards seeing play in your average Legacy tournament is considerably broader than that of
Vintage. There are far more interactions possible, and interactions one needs to learn, to feel comfortable in Legacy than there are in Vintage.
Similarly, Legacy decks are more likely to emulate Standard or Extended in some matchups, where one is far more likely to see things like combat tricks
(Vial in a Lord of Atlantis, use Pridemage to pump a Tarmogoyf, Path to Exile during a double-block) and interactions with equipment like Umezawa’s
Jitte. Combat can be much more complex in Legacy than it is in Vintage. Legacy is impressively skill-testing in that you can play a linear deck and
face eight opponents in eight rounds who each give you a unique challenge.

I’m paraphrasing, as I can’t find the exact text, but someone once said that “The average Vintage deck is more complex than the most complicated Legacy
deck.” I couldn’t possibly disagree with this concept more, and in fact, I think that in terms of complexity, a deck like Caw-Blade is as complex as
most Vintage decks. They’re just complicated in different ways.

Complex combat math, as we can see in Limited formats even, is not present at all in Vintage. Where the format gains complexity in some areas, it gives
in others. Yet, those situations do come up from time to time in Vintage; I have had to win Vintage games by playing around Icatian Javelineers or by
calculating significant combat math involving Karn, Silver Golem. I have seen games won and lost because of a single point of damage dealt by a
Spellstutter Sprite to a Tezzeret the Seeker. Playing more Magic than just Vintage can help you be a better Vintage player by letting you experience
these lines of play.

And, playing Vintage can help open your mind to seeing complex decisions trees that don’t play out on the board; Vintage can really help you learn to
see turns play out in advance in other formats. The library manipulation and tutors available in Vintage have analogues in Legacy, which has many decks
with similar levels, or even higher levels, of pilot difficulty and complexity, and (along with card availability) help explain why many players move
successfully between the two formats.

However, failing to understand that all the formats are complex, but in different ways, reveals a flawed and incomplete understanding of Magic, and I
think it’s actively detrimental to your development as a player to hold onto these opinions. Don’t be a Vintage player and get upset that people think
your format is luck-based, but then denigrate those who win using complex decks in other formats.

If you were hoping for a secret, I’m sorry to tell you that there isn’t one. Practice, correct play, and a powerful deck chosen with an accurate read
on the field: this is how you win at Vintage. Anything said to the contrary, anything that makes Vintage seem “special” or more complex than other
formats, is a fraud and an excuse that will hold you back and push you off the right track.

Bonus: Two Hot Decks

Our first hot deck today comes courtesy of John Jones. John broke this deck in at a few Bloomsburg events and has had a breakout stretch, winning a
Blue Bell Game Day and an NYSE in back-to-back weekends. The deck is called Turbo Tezz:

The goal of this deck is pretty simple: get Tezzeret the Seeker into play in a hurry. This deck has five planeswalkers in it and a ton of fast
artifact mana, including two Mox Opals and two Grim Monoliths.

The other deck is an updated version of Minus 6, the innovative Worldgorger Dragon deck Chris Browne developed late in 2009. This deck transforms into
a traditional Tezzeret deck in post-board games. Nick Coss updated the list and won a Bloomsburg Vintage on 2/5, and Jake Gans followed that up with a
finals appearance at NYSE VIII on 3/5:

There’s your weekly dose of tech to hold you over, until next time…

Matt Elias

[email protected]

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