The Long & Winding Road – Vintage: Gateway Decks

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Monday, February 22nd – As I’ve taken to writing about primarily Vintage over the past six months, one of the most common questions I’ve received is, “I’m interested in playing in a Vintage tournament but I have no idea how to get into the format – where should I start?” My article today is going to cover that topic.

As I’ve taken to writing about primarily Vintage over the past six months, one of the most common questions I’ve received is, “I’m interested in playing in a Vintage tournament but I have no idea how to get into the format — where should I start?” My article today is going to cover that topic. What I’m not going to discuss is how to get interest in Vintage started in an area if you live somewhere that does not have Vintage tournaments. This is an interesting topic and one worthy of discussion, but requires a completely different analysis that I intend to cover at a later date. Today, I’m going to discuss what you can do if you are interested in playing in a Vintage tournament but have not done so in the past. What decks are affordable, competitive, and reasonable to play in your first Vintage tournament? If you’ve played Legacy or Extended and own some of the staples, are there decks that are easy on the wallet but still competitive?

One of the common misconceptions about Vintage is that the cost of the decks is a huge barrier to entry into the format. Obviously this is true on a certain level — if you want to play non-proxy Vintage and play a deck like 5C Stax or Tezzeret, the cost of the deck is astronomically higher than decks in any other format, even compared to the most expensive Legacy decks. However, most Vintage tournaments in the United States are non-sanctioned proxy events. These events allow you to use some number of proxies to represent cards in your deck, which alleviates the cost issue to some extent. The actual number of proxies allowed varies by Tournament Organizer, so when you are looking to attend a Vintage tournament, one of the first things you’ll need to do is identify how many proxies are going to be allowed at the tournament. Generally speaking, I’ve found that most Vintage tournaments in the United States allow between 10 and 25 proxies. When taking proxies into account, there are a number of Vintage decks that have similar acquisition costs as Extended and Legacy decks, and in some instances can actually be less expensive.

My intention is to provide a guide to a few specific Vintage decks that are closer to the budget end of the spectrum while remaining fully viable and competitive in the format. I use the term budget here loosely — these decks can still be expensive, but are at the lower-end of the cost spectrum for competitive Vintage. Again, my goal here is to guide those who are interested in Vintage and find the idea of competing in a Vintage event appealing, but aren’t sure where to start or what cards to acquire. The actual reasoning as far as why Vintage is an interesting format and why the community and events are appealing is a topic for another day.

For each deck, I’m going to explain:

• The purpose of the deck — what is it designed to beat, and how does it do so? What does an example deck list look like?
• The key cards needed for each deck — at different proxy levels, what physical cards do you actually need, and what type of cost / investment is involved?
• A comparison of the deck to similar strategies in other formats — who might find this type of deck or strategy appealing?

Let’s get to it…

Deck 1: Dark Times

What is Dark Times, and what does it do?

Dark Times is an updated version of the Vintage Mono-Black strategy. Mono-Black was a common “budget” deck for Vintage players in years past, but had mostly fallen out of favor until a few months ago. The key change was the printing of Zendikar, and Vampire Hexmage and Sadistic Sacrament. I played against a few decks early after Zendikar was released that attempted to use the Dark Depths combo, but Max Brown’s version is the first one that I feel really takes advantage of the combo in a shell that makes sense in terms of Vintage.

The core of the deck is relatively simple. It plays full sets of both Thoughtseize and Duress, which allows the deck to interact quickly with the opponent and survive past the first few turns. Dark Times also plays a full set of Leyline of the Void. Leyline is an extremely powerful card in the current Vintage metagame. It impairs Stax and combo Oath decks to some degree, and turns off Yawgmoth’s Will as an avenue of victory for the decks that use it (including Tezzeret, TPS, and Oath of Druids). It also gives Dark Times a very good first-game win percentage against Dredge provided that you know your opponent is utilizing that strategy. The fact that Dark Times can actually hard-cast Leyline of the Void is an obvious benefit to utilizing it in this deck.

As with many other modern Vintage decks, Dark Times uses Dark Confidant as its draw engine; the low converted casting cost of the deck guarantees a steady flow of cards with very little chance of Confidant’s life loss resulting in a game loss. The deck also uses a set of tutors in Demonic Tutor, Demonic Consultation, Imperial Seal, and Vampiric Tutor that help it run a number of bullet targets for certain strategies, such as Pithing Needle, Null Rod, and Darkblast. Playing off the use of Leyline of the Void, Dark Times also utilizes a single Helm of Obedience as a combo win condition.

The primary win condition is the use of the Dark Depths / Vampire Hexmage combo. Hexmage actually has a number of interesting applications in Vintage beyond Dark Depths, such as the removal of counters from Tangle Wire and Smokestack. Because the deck has a draw engine with Confidant and a number of tutors, this combo is easy to assemble; the fact that the deck uses Wastelands and Thoughtseize / Duress helps the combo function against opponents that may have their own Wastelands or Stifle.

The deck is rounded out with creature control such as Diabolic Edict, which is excellent against Oath creatures (except for Iona) and gives the deck resistance to Tinker, and mana acceleration. The use of Sadistic Sacrament, the other key printing in Zendikar, gives Dark Times a potential automatic win against many Vintage decks, including TPS, Tezzeret, and Oath of Druids. Although Dark Times is a single-color deck and does not play off-color Moxen, this deck also has considerable mana acceleration in the form of four Dark Rituals, Black Lotus, Mox Jet, and Lotus Petal.

The sideboard is designed to give the deck additional Null Rods against Time Vault, additional Sadistic Sacraments against decks that are vulnerable to it, as well as additional creature control and Dredge protection.

To recap, this deck has a number of overlapping design strategies:

• Interacts with the opponent immediately via Leyline of the Void and Thoughtseize / Duress
• Attacks the opposing manabase via the use of Wasteland, Strip Mine, and Null Rod
• Resistance to Tinker via the use of Diabolic Edict
• Resistance to Yawgmoth’s Will, Dredge strategies, and Goblin Welder via use of Leyline of the Void
• Draw engine by way of Dark Confidant
• High threat-density due to the use of tutors
• Reasonable mana acceleration by way of Dark Ritual and on-color artifact fast-mana

Example Deck List:

This is the version that Max used to win the 64-player Blue Bell tournament in January 2010. I provided an alternative version here — the only change that I would absolutely recommend is to play a Crucible of Worlds in the main to allow the deck easy wins via Wasteland / Strip Mine recursion.

Dark Times by Max Brown:

What are the key cards in Dark Times, and how can it be built using proxies?

Dark Times is one of the most proxy-friendly decks in Vintage. The manabase is exceptionally affordable and probably utilizes the most basic lands of any competitive Vintage deck.

The key cards in the deck that are Vintage-specific are Null Rod, Sadistic Sacrament, Black Lotus, Mox Jet, Vampiric Tutor, Demonic Tutor, Demonic Consultation, and Imperial Seal; Max also includes Yawgmoth’s Will in his deck. The remainder of the costly cards are: Thoughtseize, Dark Confidant, Wasteland, Dark Depths, and Leyline of the Void. These cards are staples of other formats including Legacy and Extended, so for anyone that already owns them, this deck becomes an attractive option.

If you were looking to acquire this deck from scratch, here are some proxy guidelines.

Key Proxies: Black Lotus, Mox Jet, Imperial Seal

These are the major cost-drivers in this deck.

Secondary Proxies: Dark Depths, Wasteland, Dark Confidant, Thoughtseize, Leyline of the Void, Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Null Rod, Yawgmoth’s Will, Strip Mine

The secondary batch of proxies are either over $10 in cost or are Vintage-specific cards.

As you can see, ownership of even some of these cards (such as Wasteland, Thoughtseize, Dark Confidant, and Dark Depths) makes Dark Times a very cheap proxy deck at even the 10- or 15-proxy level.

Who Would Enjoy Dark Times?

Dark Times has several analogues to decks in other formats, such as the Dark Depths decks that are seeing play in Extended; I also think the deck has some similarity to the Doran decks that saw play in Block, Standard, and Extended over the past few years. The deck is disruptive, uses Confidant to draw cards, and has a huge beater that it can get into play very quickly, surrounded by a set of utility cards. Although they have fallen out of favor somewhat, Suicide Black and similar decks (and their later evolutions like Eva Green) are popular with many Legacy players; those players might find this deck similar and a comfortable fit.

As far as being an intro deck to Vintage, Dark Times gives you a taste of Vintage mana acceleration; the key skill tests in this deck are in your interaction decisions: Thoughtseize, Duress, Sadistic Sacrament in particular. Choosing the right card or cards is critical to the deck’s success.

Deck 2: Noble Fish

What is Noble Fish, and what does it do?

Noble Fish has become the best-performing Fish strategy in Vintage, and can be built a number of ways. One of the key differences between the versions is the inclusion or exclusion of Cold-Eyed Selkie. As opposed to Dark Times, which became competitive due to Zendikar, Noble Fish owes its existence to Shards block. The key printings there were Qasali Pridemage and Noble Hierarch. Worldwake gives the deck a powerful new tool in Thada Adel, Acquisitor.

Noble Hierarch provides on-color mana acceleration in a form that happens to be excellent against Workshop decks and also increases the deck’s “punch” due to Exalted. Qasali Pridemage is the glue that binds the deck. The overlapping Exalted triggers with Noble Hierarch ensure the deck can win quickly; most importantly, Pridemage is an on-board threat to decks that want to win via artifacts (such as Time Vault) or enchantments (such as Oath of Druids). As these strategies are among the most powerful and popular in the format, a deck packing main-deck answers and a fast clock is going to be a competitive one.

Around the shell of these creatures, Noble Fish includes a counterspell suite, typically some number of alternate cost or cheap counters such as Force of Will, Daze, and Spell Pierce. These are similar in function to the Thoughtseize / Duress package in the Dark Times deck above, and allow Noble Fish to interact immediately with its opponents. Some builds supplement these counters with Cursecatcher; others include Stifle, which combines with Null Rod and Wasteland to attack the opponent’s mana. Tarmogoyf and/or Jotun Grunt are typically included as muscle; Goyf is generally the stronger attacker while Grunt also packs a punch and is also highly disruptive to some decks.

The three-cost creature slot in these decks offers a lot of flexibility for the pilot to custom-design the deck to attack a specific metagame. The best creatures for the deck are generally some combination of the following:

• Trygon Predator — Predator is highly problematic for Stax and Oath decks due to its ability to nullify Oath of Druids and sweep lock pieces off the board. It has some usefulness against Tezzeret as well.

• Vendilion Clique — Clique gives the deck a way to cycle away extra lands or late-game Stifles or Dazes, and provides a fast and evasive clock. It is very good against combo decks or big-spell decks and in the mirror.

• Thada Adel, Acquisitor — A new piece of the Fish puzzle from Worldwake, Thada is very strong against Tezzeret; powering Thada out on the first or second turn of the game requires an immediate answer from the opponent or they’re liable to lose to their own Key/Vault. Thada also hits Tinker targets and can steal fast mana to gain initiative.

• Aven Mindcensor — Mindcensor is excellent against most Mana Drain decks as it makes their tutors and fetches much less effective (or sometimes counters them completely); it can also function as a type of removal spell against Dark Confidant when unexpectedly “Flashed” into play.

• Cold-Eyed Selkie — Selkie is strongest in the mirror, where it is an unblockable card draw engine, and also against Tezzeret, where it can allow the Fish pilot to out-draw and out-tempo its opponent.

Noble Fish is typically finished off with Ancestral Recall and Time Walk, with some players including a Mystical Tutor and tutor targets like Hurkyl’s Recall to help combat Shop decks and against Tinker. Swords to Plowshares is also becoming more common in the main as it is very good in the mirror, solid against Workshop decks (and Lodestone Golem), and strong against Tezzeret decks that use Dark Confidant as a draw engine and Sphinx of the Steel Wind as their Tinker target.

I recently did a more detailed write-up on this strategy and played it in a tournament in NY; see here and here for more details.

If I was going to play Fish today, my list would look something like this — but keep in mind that this is tailored for a specific metagame:

I really like this list; although I’ve been a fan of Stifle in the past, Swords to Plowshares has become extremely relevant lately and is worth at least testing to see if it is preferable in your metagame.

What are the key cards in Noble Fish, and how can it be built using proxies?

Noble Fish carries expenses typical to Legacy: it requires Blue dual lands (although thankfully not Underground Sea), Force of Wills, Wastelands, and Tarmogoyfs. While there aren’t too many bank-busters and the deck only plays a handful of must-proxy cards for people outside the format, the average cost of the cards is relatively high; cards like Stifle, Noble Hierarch, and the fetch-lands are reasonably expensive if you don’t own any of the cards.

If you’re not starting from scratch and own Goyfs, Wastelands, duals, and Force of Wills from Legacy, the deck becomes much easier to build.

Key Proxies: Black Lotus, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, Mox Sapphire, Mox Emerald, Mox Pearl

At lower proxy limits, playing the deck more or less requires the ability to field real Tarmogoyfs, Force of Wills, Tundras, Tropical Islands, and Wastelands.

Secondary Proxies: 4 Tarmogoyf, 3 Tundra, 3 Tropical Island, 4 Force of Will

Between the primary and secondary proxies, you can cover the majority of the expensive cards at the 20-proxy level, although that does require you to own Wastelands, Null Rods, Swords to Plowshares, Strip Mine, and Noble Hierarchs.

I suspect that a number of Legacy players invested into decks like Supreme Blue and various Counterbalance or Threshold decks actually have the lands, Force of Wills, and Tarmogoyfs covered; for those players, the Null Rods and key proxies can be covered by the proxy limit, and you have a cheap and powerful Vintage deck at your disposal.

Who Would Enjoy Noble Fish?

Noble Fish is just one variation or evolution in a long line of similar decks. At the moment, I suspect Legacy Merfolk is the closest equivalent (although obviously this is not a Tribal deck), although there are some similarities to strategies like Canadian Threshold as well (except without the never-ending string of Brainstorms and Ponders, which are both restricted in Vintage). If you enjoy playing a Tempo/Control deck that still swings with creatures and doesn’t require an overwhelming knowledge of the format, this is a good choice. Despite looking “under-powered” on the surface, this deck has a long history of solid finishes in Vintage tournaments, large and small, all over the world.

Deck 3: Workshop Aggro

What is Workshop Aggro, and what does it do?

Dark Times seeks to interact quickly via Leyline and hand disruption, while Noble Fish utilizes alternate-cost counterspells. Workshop Aggro takes a third route by playing cards like Thorn of Amethyst, Sphere of Resistance, and Tangle Wire to sloooooooowwwwwww down the pace of the game and force its opponent to interact on its terms.

Workshop Aggro was at one time a mainstay of American Vintage but has dipped considerably in popularity over the past 18 months. There is a good chance that we’re about to see a resurgence in the deck thanks to the printing of Lodestone Golem in Worldwake.

The core of the deck is in its mana disruption / lock piece package, which includes: Thorn of Amethyst, Sphere of Resistance, Trinisphere, and now, Lodestone Golem. These cards all increase the cost of opposing spells, and layered on top of each other, make it difficult or impossible for the opposing deck to function. Workshop Aggro often supplements this with Magus of the Moon and Gorilla Shaman. Magus turns off the opponent’s non-basics while Gorilla Shaman eats fast mana that is pushed into play through the Thorns / Spheres; both creatures can slowly tick away the opponent’s life total in a process akin to death by a million paper cuts.

Lodestone Golem is particularly brutal as it makes it even more difficult for the opponent to resolve a Hurkyl’s Recall or Rebuild to reset the board, and the same fast clock as Juggernaut while increasing the density of lock pieces.

Crucible of Worlds is also often included as way of locking out opponents via Wasteland and/or Strip Mine recursion. Tangle Wire helps keep the opponent locked out of the game by forcing interaction during the opponent’s Upkeep, and also taps down potential blockers. Most builds include Solemn Simulacrum as an attacker and quasi-draw engine with Goblin Welder that helps the deck play spells from underneath its own lock pieces.

Many Workshop Aggro decks also utilize Sword of Fire and Ice to speed up their clock and provide a draw engine, and Triskelion as a removal spell and a fast clock. As an example, you can attack for four with Triskelion, and at end of turn, remove two counters to do two additional damage and then have the Triskelion remove the final counter to put itself in the graveyard. You can then use Welder to put it back into play, ready to attack for another four damage the following turn, and repeat this process to end the game quickly.

Goblin Welder is the glue that helps hold the deck together, allowing the pilot to recur Solemn Simulacrum to draw cards and build its mana base, in exchange for constantly having a full Tangle Wire in play to lock the opponent out of the game.

Example Deck List:

This is the Workshop Aggro deck that made Top 4 at the 68-player Vintage tournament in Edison, NJ last November, with Lodestone Golems substituted for Juggernauts:

What are the key cards in Workshop Aggro, and how can it be built using Proxies?

Workshop Aggro is not a cheap deck to build for under 10 proxies, but gets considerably easier from there.

Key Proxies: Black Lotus, Mox Jet, Mox Sapphire, Mox Emerald, Mox Ruby, Mox Pearl, 4 Mishra’s Workshop

Beyond this set of ten cards, Workshop Aggro contains a ton of reasonably affordable cards: Magus of Moon, Goblin Welder, Crucible of Worlds, Tangle Wire, Thorn of Amethyst, Sphere of Resistance, Triskelion, and Ancient Tomb are all reasonably priced and are a safe investment, having held value over the years. Having to purchase all of them from scratch can be intimidating, certainly, but compared to purchasing most Legacy decks from scratch, the lack of duals, fetches, Force of Will, and Tarmogoyf helps keep the cost down. That said, the sheer number of rares needed, as well as Wastelands, Sol Ring, and Tolarian Academy makes this deck more in the “affordable” category than the “budget” category.

Secondary Proxies: 3 Sword of Fire & Ice, 4 Wasteland, Tolarian Academy

This second set of proxies really helps drive down the cost given the large increase in the value of Wastelands lately.

Who Would Enjoy Workshop Aggro?

Workshop Aggro’s style of play should be familiar to many Legacy players; there are obvious similarities here with Dragon Stompy, and to some extent, Trinistax. This deck is a board-control or prison style deck that wins by beating in with creatures — another example of the fact that Vintage is in fact not a format where the creature has gone extinct.

It takes a certain type of player to enjoy this style of deck. It isn’t fast. It isn’t flashy. It takes something of a control role, but is the aggressor in most match-ups; it’s a Vintage deck without Force of Will, Bazaar of Baghdad, Ancestral Recall, or Dark Ritual. As with the other decks in my article today, it is also deceptively powerful and massively synergistic.

If you’re the type of person that enjoys winning games where your opponent is unable to resolve a single spell during the entire course of the game, this might be the deck for you.

Deck 4: Goblins

What is Goblins, and what does it do?

Most Magic players are familiar with Goblins in one form or another. Once the dominant force in Legacy, the deck has cooled considerably in most formats, but is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence in Vintage.

Example Deck List:

Corey Mann played this version of Vintage Goblins to a Top 8 in December 2009 in New York:

Here is an alternate version that made the Top 8 of a 73-player Vintage tournament in Quebec:

I’ve chosen these two decks because they highlight two different Goblin strategies.

Corey’s deck is set-up to attack artifact-heavy decks through the use of Goblin Vandal and Null Rod; Vandal in particular is exceptionally good against Workshop decks (similar to Trygon Predator, but more easily resolved in the match-up). He even went as far as to play Artifact Mutation! This list is tailor-made for the Stax-centric New York metagame. Cory splashed Green for Krosan Grip, which is also exceptionally good against Oath of Druids. Outside of these inclusions, the deck is very similar to Goblins decks that one would see in Legacy or even in previous Extended formats.

Jester’s Goblins is different in that it is very much a “Jester’s Cap” style deck that attempts to land a quick Earwig Squad to remove the opponent’s win conditions, similar to the use of Sadistic Sacrament in Dark Times. It also has more of a “Vintage” feel to it as it includes a full set of Moxen as well as blue splash for Ancestral Recall and Time Walk. This deck puts much less emphasis on the Stax match-up and is more focused on beating decks with limited win conditions such as Tezzeret, TPS, and Oath of Druids.

What are the key cards in Goblins, and how can it be built using Proxies?

Goblins has a number of factors going for it, in that many of the cards are exceptionally cheap or are likely to be owned by players of other formats.

Key Proxies — Corey Mann Goblins: Black Lotus, Mox Ruby

These are really the only two costly Vintage cards in Corey’s build.

Secondary Proxies — Corey Mann Goblins: 3 Taiga, 3 Badlands, 4 Wasteland

Again, many Legacy players are likely to already own or have access to these cards, but at even the 15-proxy limit, this has to be considered a budget deck.

Key Proxies — Jester’s Goblins: Black Lotus, Mox Jet, Mox Sapphire, Mox Emerald, Mox Ruby, Mox Pearl, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, Mana Crypt

Jester’s Goblins requires considerably more proxies devoted to Vintage power cards due to all of the fast mana in this build.

Secondary Proxies: 2 Volcanic Island, 4 Badlands, 4 Wasteland

Players with no investment in Eternal formats would need around 20 proxies to field this deck at a low cost; it is considerably less “budget” friendly than Corey’s version of Goblins, but with the trade-off of having much more of a “Vintage” feel to it — despite being a Tribal Aggro deck.

Who would enjoy Goblins?

The easy answer would be people who play Goblins or have played Goblins in any other format.

Goblins is probably the best example at the moment of a pure, creature-based Aggro strategy in Vintage. I think it’s very good for the format if these types of decks are viable, and without a doubt these decks have solid match-ups against many of the top Vintage decks.

Summing Up

I’ve left a few decks off the list today, notably Dredge and Elves, which I’ve covered in-depth in the past. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of affordable Vintage decks out there even at lower proxy limits, many of which are exactly the creature-based strategies that naysayers insist don’t exist in the format. These are all tournament-tested strategies that are capable of putting up results.

If you want to play Vintage and haven’t in the past, give one of these decks a shot — and enjoy!

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