The Long & Winding Road – Catching Up With Vintage

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Monday, November 23rd – After a summer of activity, we’ve hit a lull where Vintage is concerned, with a few mid-size events left in 2009 but nothing large-scale in the immediate future. I’ve turned my focus from Vintage recently to prepare for some local Legacy tournaments, but thankfully Stephen Menendian is around to show that there are subtle but interesting shifts occurring in the Vintage metagame.

After a summer of activity, we’ve hit a lull where Vintage is concerned, with a few mid-size events left in 2009 but nothing large-scale in the immediate future. I’ve turned my focus from Vintage recently to prepare for some local Legacy tournaments, but thankfully Stephen Menendian is around to show that there are subtle but interesting shifts occurring in the Vintage metagame. There are a number of different, interlocking points that are worth discussing, some made clear by Stephen’s article and others revealed in discussion on the Mana Drain forums. Although I’ve broken them out separately, they need to all be considered as part of a larger puzzle.

I’m going to take off my StarCityGames.com writer’s hat for a minute, and talk to you as a guy that plays Vintage and Legacy…

Some of what I’m going to discuss this week will be more easily digested if you’ve read Stephen’s article from last week, which also happens to have some of the most useful information on Legacy match-ups that you’re going to find this year. The amount of work that went into that article is astounding, and if you play Vintage or Legacy, it’s worth the price of Premium to get access to that info. I could easily write three or four articles just on the information that Stephen provided last week. I’m going to attempt to discuss the Vintage portion of his article this week while being careful to respect the Premium nature of said article.

…Writer’s hat back on.

No, there’s no actual, literal hat. Not that I know of, anyway.

Mana Drains and the “Dominance” of Time Vault

Mana Drain archetypes, specifically Tezzeret control, continue to be at the forefront of Vintage, making up nearly a third of all Vintage Top 8s. A slightly smaller percentage of Top 8 decks are running Time Vault, which leads to the question of what decks besides Tezzeret are using Time Vault? The two strategies I know of that have had some success include Oath and Minus 6 (the Dragon deck that has a transformational sideboard into Tezzeret). Interestingly, this means that over two-thirds of the decks that made Vintage tournament Top 8s in September and October did not run Time Vault. This begs the question: how dominant is Time Vault? There is an ever-present section of the Vintage community that still pines for the banning of Time Vault, for a variety of reasons, but the one that is most-often cited (and most likely to lead to an actual fix of some sort by the DCI) is dominance.

Of the eight tournaments that Stephen examined in his article for the September and October metagame report, NONE were won by Tezzeret. Further, of the eight decks, only one was running Time Vault, which was my Oath list from the NYSE III — and I use Time Vault in my build as an alternate win condition, not a primary one.

Admittedly, we’re only looking at a two-month window here, which is just a snapshot — but in this particular snapshot, something has clearly changed. If you refer back to Stephen’s articles earlier this year, particularly before the restriction of Thirst for Knowledge, Tezzeret wasn’t just an obnoxiously large percentage of the metagame, it also had a near-stranglehold on the actual tournament winners. Suddenly, even though Tezzeret is still making up a third of the metagame, it goes two full months without winning a single event? This is obviously a significant change. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Jeff Folinus and I actually split in the finals at the NYSE III, so technically you could call that one a co-win for Tezzeret. Regardless, the playing field has clearly been leveled to an extent that seems difficult for some to accept.

The other claim regarding Time Vault that I see the most is that the format has become stagnant or “unfun” because of the existence of Time Vault, resulting in player loss. This claim isn’t easy to refute, because it’s an opinion, but the fact is that the metagame is much more open now than it has been since Tezzeret was printed and Time Vault returned to the format. It isn’t just that Fish, Stax, TPS, Dredge, and Oath were all around 8% to 12% of the metagame, it’s the fact that these decks are actually winning events; if one were to lump together G/W/x Beats and Fish, that style of play (disruptive aggro Null Rod decks) would make up the second-largest percentage of the field. Again, I would suggest that if the field were truly moving to be anti-Tezzeret or anti-Time Vault, as you’d expect, this shift to people playing (and winning with) Null Rod decks (including the use of Null Rod in Stax strategies) and Ichorid should have happened much faster and been more pervasive throughout Vintage.

There are a number of strategies here that most Vintage players thought weren’t viable in the face of Time Vault, but we’re seeing that this is false. A deck that supposedly doesn’t ever “win” events, Dredge, was able to win two of the eight tournaments with more than 33 players over that two-month period; Dredge also won the 39-player NYSE II at the end of August. Stax players have adapted, with some running a Black/Red build that incorporates a draw engine with Null Rod (see below). Fish players and Beats players have had a number of cards that seem custom-designed to make viable builds for Vintage, particularly Noble Fish and Meandeck beats. And oddly, one of Stephen’s predictions at the beginning of 2009 seems to be coming true at the end of 2009 — TPS is one of the most balanced and powerful decks in the format, and definitely capable of winning any given Vintage tournament, despite facing opposition in the form of Mindbreak Trap.

While I understand some people’s objections to Time Vault, I’m still of the opinion that Time Vault is still just another card. It doesn’t see more play, as far as Top 8s go, than Yawgmoth’s Will, Tinker, Black Lotus, or Ancestral Recall. Dedicated Time Vault strategies failed to win a single large event in September or October of this year. Further, the field finally seems to be adapting to the existence of Time Vault — a process that might’ve taken two weeks in Standard appears to have taken six months in Vintage, but the important thing is that it’s happening and continues to create changes in what has become an active and fluctuating metagame.

Oath: Flavor of the Week?

There’s no denying the fact that Oath is suddenly on the radar again; tournament top 8s on The Mana Drain show an incredible surge in both the number of top 8s the deck is putting up, as well as wins in smaller events all over the US. The majority of these Oath decks are built in the style of Robert Vroman’s deck, along these lines:

Iona Oath
Rob Vroman

4 Misty Rainforest
4 Forbidden Orchard
2 Tropical Island
2 Underground Sea
1 Island
1 Forest
1 Library of Alexandria
1 Mishra’s Factory
1 Strip Mine
1 Black Lotus
1 Mana Crypt
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Pearl
1 Sol Ring
1 Tolarian Academy
4 Oath of Druids
4 Force of Will
4 Spell Pierce
1 Thoughtseize
1 Pernicious Deed
1 Timetwister
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Brainstorm
1 Ponder
1 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Regrowth
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Lotus Petal
1 Time Vault
1 Flash of Insight
1 Yawgmoth’s Will
1 Merchant Scroll
1 Rebuild
1 Krosan Reclamation
1 Gifts Ungiven
1 Voltaic Key
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Vampiric Tutor

1 Oxidize
2 Extirpate
2 Mindbreak Trap
1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
1 Tezzeret the Seeker
1 Pernicious Deed
1 Tinker
1 Trinisphere
1 Ravenous Trap
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Balance
1 Echoing Truth

Vroman Oath differs from my build in that it only runs Iona main, setting up a combo finish using Iona, Krosan Reclamation, Time Vault, and Timetwister. He also maxes out on Spell Pierce while running only a singleton Thoughtseize, and has Regrowth, Gifts Ungiven, and a singleton Pernicious Deed main. His sideboard is more of a singleton list, with Sphinx of the Steel Wind as an additional creature (plus a Tinker to set up an alternate win plan), and a balanced selection of sideboard cards that cover multiple archetypes.

There is no question that this list is powerful, and it continues to pile up results in smaller events, but it is also more vulnerable to hate than most Oath lists. Without additional discard effects, it is vulnerable to Krosan Grip on Oath of Druids; I also know that locally many Tezzeret players are beginning to sideboard Diabolic Edict as an anti-Iona measure, as the Iona player still needs to name “Blue” in order to avoid countermagic and make sure Yawgmoth’s Will resolves. There are also situations where Graveyard hate can come into play and be effective against this version of Oath.

Personally, I’ve come to regard the addition of Red to my list as a driving factor in my back-to-back finals splits; Ancient Grudge has been amazing against Tezzeret in particular, and helps address any lingering concerns about losing after an Oath activation into a Hellkite, and having Red Elemental Blast is also a key driver in improving that match-up. Grudge also helps buy time against Stax, so whatever time you lose by having Iona in the deck against Stax, you can partially make up through the use of Ancient Grudge. Finally, although my list is slightly less concerned about Null Rod than Vroman Oath (as I can win with Oath active very quickly even without Time Vault), the use of Ancient Grudge helps make sure I can remove Null Rod if I need to. I also prefer my build for the mirror, as I have additional discard effects along with Krosan Grip and two Wastelands after sideboard. That said, Vroman’s deck is unquestionably much better against TPS, as he will always Oath into Iona, and has more counterspells and more dedicated anti-TPS sideboard cards.

Regardless of which style you prefer, Oath decks with Iona are going to be a part of Vintage until the metagame adapts. While Stephen Menendian seems to believe that Oath is having a temporary bump before it mostly disappears from the metagame again, as suggested by past data, I believe that this build of Oath is probably going to make up 5-15% of the meta for the foreseeable future. Both Iona and Spell Pierce have significantly increased the power level of Oath, and if it isn’t a tier one deck, it is unquestionably right up there with the most competitive decks in Vintage.

Unfortunately, hating on Oath isn’t that difficult to do. Unlike a deck like Tezzeret, Oath can be hated out with specific cards, as it revolves around resolving an Enchantment. Card like Trygon Predator, Qasali Pridemage, Meddling Mage, Krosan Grip, Spell Snare, Wasteland, Diabolic Edict, Repeal, and Stifle are all effective against Oath in varying degrees. I also used to have difficulty beating Mystic Remora when on the draw. Although the Vintage metagame can be relatively slow to adapt in some ways, hating on Oath is something that can be done relatively quickly and easily if the deck continues to perform as well as it has for the past few months. The positive side of this is that several of these cards only fit into certain strategies, and some of them are narrow and won’t be played when Oath isn’t popular; this suggests that Oath will move into a similar boom/bust type metagame percentage as we see with Ichroid.

Also, I found this interesting: if you follow the links in Stephen’s article, you’ll see that the winning ANT list had a transform sideboard to turn into Oath against aggro strategies, showing that Oath remains a popular transformation strategy for a number of different archetypes.

Reinventing Stax for today’s Metagame

5 Color Stax was one of the big gainers over the summer, as the version played by the N.Y.S.E. team had a terrific match-up against Tezzeret, and Stephen and I both had articles discussing the deck (mine guest-authored by Nick Detwiler). In the time that has elapsed, a different Stax build has been performing well, one that runs Null Rod and also includes a draw engine and Chalice of the Void, making it well-suited to perform against a surge in Oath decks. An excellent primer just went up on this deck on the Mana Drain that I’d encourage any Stax or Workshop player to read it; this deck also has the benefit of being easier to build for proxy tournament play than 5C Stax:

B/R Stax

1 Black Lotus
4 Chalice of the Void
3 Crucible of Worlds
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
3 Null Rod
4 Smokestack
1 Sol Ring
4 Thorn of Amethyst
4 Tangle Wire
1 Trinisphere
1 Darkblast
4 Dark Confidant
4 Goblin Welder
4 Badlands
1 Barbarian Ring
2 Bazaar of Baghdad
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Cabal Pit
4 Mishra’s Workshop
1 Strip Mine
1 Tolarian Academy
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Wasteland
1 Wooded Foothills

2 Maze of Ith
2 Rack and Ruin
2 Red Elemental Blast
2 The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
2 Tormod’s Crypt
3 Relic of Progenitus
2 Viashino Heretic

While this deck lacks some of the explosiveness and flash of 5C Stax, it gains quite a bit of consistency. The addition of Null Rod is a huge factor in the deck’s performance in my testing — instead of relying on Gorilla Shaman and Powder Keg to keep fast mana under control, Null Rod handles that role and simultaneously protects against opposing Time Vaults; similarly, Chalice of the Void can deal with fast mana while improving the match-up against TPS and Oath. The real benefit of this list is the inclusion of Dark Confidant, which gives you an actual draw engine and pairs extremely well with Bazaar of Baghdad, and a more manageable manabase as compared to 5C Stax.

The only thing I would change with this deck after resting with it would be to try and find room for one Vampiric Tutor, to find a handful of specific cards: Strip Mine, Tolarian Academy, Dark Confidant, and Bazaar of Baghdad. These cards have all been instrumental in many of my wins when testing this list, and having one Vamp to increase the chance of finding some of those key cards would be highly beneficial.

Zombie Nation

I covered the Ichorid deck that won the NYSE II and the September Blue Bell a few months back; it’s a mana Ichorid deck that plays no Dread Returns and is based on the idea of stability and not going all-in on Bazaar of Baghdad. The fact that the deck won back-to-back tournaments in the area was impressive, but I still feel like there are significant issues with it. When playing against it, I couldn’t get over the fact that it lost most of the explosiveness of a normal Ichorid deck, as without Dread Return you are guaranteeing your opponent has some time to function — all the disruption is coming from chaining together Cabal Therapies while you win with Ichorids and Bridge tokens. The deck also lacks much of the disruption of a normal Manaless Ichorid deck; my test list for Fatestitcher Ichorid is packing 4 Unmask and 4 Chalice of the Void, for example.

That said, there are plenty of flaws with the Manaless style. As noted above, G/W/X Beats and Fish made up over 15% of the metagame for large Vintage events in September and October; adding in Stax and Oath, you start to get to a relatively high percentage of decks that are running Strip Mine and/or Wasteland, which can be an issue when playing Manaless Ichorid. A Mana Ichorid deck doesn’t have to have as many concerns about Wastelands penetration percentage in Vintage, and the use of Force of Will not only helps against the varied hate we see in today’s sideboards, but also can let the deck beat some otherwise broken draws from Tezzeret (such as a first-turn Tezzeret or Key plus Vault) or TPS (such as first-turn Necropotence or Yawgmoth’s Bargain).

The list below hasn’t been tested extensively yet, but I think it shows some promise as far as bridging the gap between Manaless Ichorid (fast, explosive, all-in on Bazaar) and the FOWchorid decks that were winning a few months ago (stable, not reliant on Bazaar, but significantly slower).

This list includes many of the features of Ron Konak’s FOWchorid deck (discussed briefly here), such as the use of Breakthrough, Careful Study, Putrid Imp, Force of Will, and fast mana, but still includes Dread Return and Flame-Kin Zealot (albeit a smaller such package than Fatestitcher Ichorid). This version of the deck can win as quickly as turn 1, and is probably as capable of winning on turn 2 as Fatestitcher Ichorid; the key difference is that you’re trading more vulnerability to counterspells for less vulnerability to Wasteland and the addition of Force of Will. This list also seems slightly less likely to mulligan to oblivion or to remove key cards with Serum Powder.

G/W/X and Meandeck Beats

Although Stephen’s prediction that a G/W/X deck would win Vintage Champs didn’t come true, the deck did place players in the Top 8 and continues to have success in Vintage tournaments. In my opinion, there are two viable Null Rod decks that are not Stax. One is Noble Fish, which has an excellent match-up against the field and was made even better by the existence of Spell Pierce (see here for a tournament-winning version); the other is the G/W/X-style strategy, and I am particularly impressed with Meandeck Beats. Here’s an example list from the XTreme Games tournament on 11/15 — this deck split with Vroman in the finals:

Meandeck Beats
David Spieler

1 Plains
1 Swamp
1 Forest
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Windswept Heath
2 Bayou
2 Savannah
2 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]
1 Strip Mine
3 Wasteland
4 Gaddock Teeg
4 Qasali Pridemage
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Aven Mindcensor
4 Dark Confidant
3 Elvish Spirit Guide
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Demonic Consultation
1 Vampiric Tutor
3 Diabolic Edict
4 Null Rod
4 Thoughtseize

2 Seal of Cleansing
3 Chalice of the Void
2 Krosan Grip
1 Darkblast
1 Swords to Plowshares
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
4 Planar Void

While Stephen discussed this deck in detail in the past (here is one example — you can see how close this list is to what Stephen suggested), there are elements of it that make it better-positioned now than ever before. Although this deck cannot protect Null Rod the way Noble Fish can, it also has more creatures and more disruption overall. This is one hateful deck! TPS players need to fight through Thoughtseize, Null Rod, Aven Mindcensor, and Gaddock Teeg, and that’s just the main deck — this list packs Chalice of the Void in the sideboard as well. Tezzeret players are going to be disrupted by Null Rod, Mindcensor, Teeg, and Pridemage; almost EVERY card in this list is problematic for Oath of Druids. David has made good use of Verdant Catacombs here and I suspect this deck has a stable and functional manabase.

If I were going to run something other than Oath of Druids or Ichorid, this is probably the deck that I would play. It is deceptively powerful and flexible; I strongly encourage you to try out this deck if you haven’t done so already. This is also a very budget-friendly list for those of you out there considering entry into proxy Vintage.

On the Mana Drain forums, there have been some interesting discussions about the idea of a “hate” or “metagame” deck and whether or not those terms have any value or accuracy. This G/W/X style of deck is a legitimate deck, whatever you want to call it or however you need to compartmentalize it. The various pieces that make up the deck are well positioned to target a core group of strategies — TPS, Tezzeret, Oath — making this a viable and competitive Vintage deck, regardless of any terms you apply to it (and any negative connotations those terms may carry).

Again, I feel that if Vintage were any other format, decks in this style would make up a much larger percentage of the metagame to have a corrective influence on the dominance of Mana Drain decks.

Pure Green/White versions also have their advocates — this is a recent list from TMD:

Green/White Beatz

4 Aven Mindcensor
4 Qasali Pridemage
3 Gaddock Teeg
3 Elvish Spirit Guide
2 Kataki, War’s Wage
2 Jotun Grunt
2 Vexing Shusher
2 Ethersworn Canonist
4 Null Rod
3 Thorn of Amethyst
2 Choke
2 Enlightened Tutor
1 Seal of Cleansing
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Pearl
1 Strip Mine
3 Wasteland
3 Horizon Canopy
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Windswept Heath
4 Savannah
2 Forest
1 Plains
1 Karakas

3 Exalted Angel
3 True Believer
2 Samurai of the Pale Curtain
2 Wheel of Sun and Moon
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Vexing Shusher
1 Seal of Cleansing
1 Swords to Plowshares

Brief Thoughts on TPS

One of the things I took away from Stephen’s article is the strong performance of TPS (or Storm decks in general) despite their small percentage of the overall metagame. Not included in Stephen’s report are tournaments below 32 players, but a number of these tournaments over the past few months have seen TPS players in the top 8 despite a low percentage of overall players in field. I’m not the right person to discuss TPS, but I feel like the deck has solid match-ups right now and should be seeing more play that it does — and solid Top 8 conversion percentages suggest that this is the case. While a lot of discussion about Vintage Champs focused on the winning deck (and rightfully so), not much discussion was made on the second place Drain Tendrils list.

Is it possible that Mindbreak Trap, or the threat of Mindbreak Trap, is keeping players away from TPS? As a card, strictly in terms of combating TPS, is Mindbreak Trap truly that different than something like Stifle?

Final Thoughts

I’m excited for the future of Vintage — I know that I’ll be focusing more in the near future on the idea of Legacy and Vintage players being able to support each other’s formats and the ease of moving between formats. It’s also exciting to see raw data showing that Time Vault isn’t as dominant as many Vintage players believe, and further that non-Tezzeret decks are winning large tournaments and adapting to today’s metagame. Vintage hasn’t seen this many viable, tournament-winning decks in at least a year, making this an ideal time to enter (or re-enter) the format.

Next week, I’ll be recapping the Philly Open IV, which had Vintage and Standard tournaments, to get a look at the current metagame for both formats.

Matt Elias
[email protected]
Voltron00x on SCG, TMD, and The Source