The Ten Principles of Vintage

Vintage is the oldest and grandest format sanctioned by the DCI. It has a history as rich and varied as the game itself. Despite that background, it is in a constant state of growth and flux. In today’s article, Stephen reprises his Ten Principles of Vintage, investigating the very cornerstones that underpin Magic’s most broken format.

Vintage is the oldest and grandest format sanctioned by the DCI. It has a history as rich and varied as the game itself. Despite that background, it is in a constant state of growth and flux. In the last year alone, half of the metagame shifted and we are on the upward trend of a brand new metagame cycle.

In the midst of all of this change, some defining features of the format are clear. This article will denote those bedrock principles. In 2003, I wrote an article by (almost) the same name. In the course of soliciting ideas for my mailbag column, it was suggested that I revisit the subject. The sets that have emerged since, in combination with persistent innovation, have pretty much transformed the Vintage landscape. I’m proud to present, again, the Ten Principles of Vintage.

Principle 1: Tendrils of Agony and Darksteel Colossus are the principal win conditions in Vintage

These two cards are dominant in terms of seeing play. They are the cardinal kill cards of the format. Certainly, there are a wide number of finishers in Vintage: Pentavus, Platinum Angel, Mindslaver (yes, that is a win condition), even Eternal Witness plus Ancestral Recall and Meddling Mage beats. Nonetheless, Tendrils of Agony and Darksteel Colossus super-abound.

In the middle age of Vintage, Morphling was the man. He was considered the best creature — he had everything Serra Angel lacked and more! In time, he was replaced by Psychatog. For a time, it appeared that Psychatog was the best and most efficient win condition in Vintage. After all, he’s the inverse Necropotence. Necro turns life into cards. Psychatog takes life using cards. They are both enormously powerful siphons. However, the power of Psychatog is tremendously outshone by the speed and dominance of Tinker for Darksteel Colossus. The threshold number of tutors, speed with which Tinker for Colossus wins the game, and the difficulty of dealing with him make him an omnipresent force in Vintage.

It should come as no surprise that Tendrils of Agony is perhaps the most played and feared win condition in Vintage. For years, Combo players used Stroke of Genius and Braingeyser as a win condition — either using Tolarian Academy and Candelabra of Tawnos to generate lethal mana or some combination of Grim Monolith and Power Artifact. Why would you go to all that trouble to set up a such a difficult kill when you can just play some spells followed by Tendrils of Agony for the win? Why indeed. Tendrils of Agony is not only fueled by the inherent storm found in Vintage (this format is littered with free spells), but also by the Dark Rituals of the format.

Both Colossus and Tendrils are simply too easy, too resilient, and difficult to stop. That’s why they are the principle win conditions of Vintage.

Principle 2: As a corollary to Principle 1, Yawgmoth’s Will and Tinker are the format’s defining cards.

Whenever you hear talk of bannings, Yawgmoth’s Will and Tinker are never far from the discussion. Although the DCI doesn’t ban cards in Vintage for power, if ever an exception were to be made, one of these cards, if not both, would be it.

Players despise the ease with which “Tinker into Darksteel Colossus” has utterly and completely redefined Vintage. With Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Imperial Seal, and Mystical Tutor, finding and playing Tinker by turn 2 is no real challenge. That gives the opponent at most two more turns to stop the big monster. Good luck. It is not uncommon to see U/W Fish decks playing Stormscape Apprentice for the primary purpose of answering this huge bot. Sad, but true.

Tinker is not just predominant because it finds the big man — but because it is so versatile.

Tinker can be found in upwards of two-thirds of all Vintage decks! It’s played in Mishra’s Workshop prison decks to find cards like Karn, Trinisphere, and even components like Smokestack. It’s played in control decks to find Mindslaver and Darksteel Colossus, and it is played in combo to find the busted Memory Jar and even Black Lotus to fuel Yawgmoth’s Will. Tinker is everywhere, and monstrous artifacts aren’t far behind. It’s not just a tutor; it’s a way to cheat. The printing of Darksteel Colossus has clearly put Tinker a little over the top.

Yawgmoth’s Will, in my view, is the most format-defining card. I feel comfortable dividing the format into decks that seek to abuse Yawgmoth’s Will and those that seek to stop Yawgmoth’s Will. I have even argued that the card should be banned.

The real problem with Yawgmoth’s Will is that the first player to find it has probably played the most draw, seen the most cards, and therefore will likely resolve it. There is a reason it is called “Yawgmoth’s Win.” Once played, it generates an unanswerable amount of tempo and card advantage for the caster. The reason that this principle is the corollary to principle 1 is that Yawgmoth’s Will is the critical combo to Tendrils of Agony. It makes Tendrils lethal faster than any other single card in Vintage, even Black Lotus.

Principle 3: Force of Will is still the glue that holds the format together

I coined this phrase, now oft-repeated, in my original ten principles article. I’m not sure how true it is anymore, but it is certainly true that Force of Will is one of the most important cards in Vintage. It sees play in many, many decks and in a sense, it holds the interactivity of Vintage together. The fight to use and defeat Force of Will broadens the battlefield in Vintage from short skirmishes to a far wider spectrum of tactical plays. It shifts the fight from turn 1 to turn 3-4. In doing so, it opens the format up to many other plays and strategies.

Principle 4: Mana Drain, Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad and Dark Ritual are the stone edifice of Vintage.

The vast majority of decks rely on one of these cards. The rest can be categorized as Fish decks, which use a variety of small creatures and Blue disruption or just random decks that don’t fit well into either category. These components are the core cards of Vintage. They make possible a wide swath of decks. Together, they form a delicate balance. The power of Mana Drain strategies is kept in check by the speed of Dark Ritual and the power of Mishra’s Workshop. By the same token, the speed of Mishra’s Workshop is often answered by the tempo swing of Mana Drain. The power of Dark Ritual is held in check by the asymmetrical power of Mishra’s Workshop.

At the moment, the upper tier of Vintage is the most diverse that it has ever been, with Mana Drain, Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar, and Dark Ritual all having a deck in the top tier. Usually, only half of that number finds a place in the Tier 1. The diversity of Vintage is a healthy thing. More checks and more balances help keep the format healthy.

Principle 5: Brainstorm is the best unrestricted card in Vintage.

I often wonder what the best unrestricted card in Vintage really is. This is a card that saw relatively little play in Vintage until the printing of the Onslaught fetchlands. Since, Brainstorm is everywhere.

Mark Trogdon, whose feature match can be read in the Vintage Championship report on MagictheGathering.com, has told me that he wishes Brainstorm was restricted. It makes game plans far more consistent. It permits lighter manabases. It makes it possible to play decks with less efficient design because you know that you can later use Brainstorm to put a weaker card back.

When I was designing for the Invitational, I wanted to badly to use Brainstorm. The lack of Brainstorm meant that I couldn’t just fix a hand that had too many of one card and too few of another with a simple play. I couldn’t return cards to the top of my library to combo with Lion’s Eye Diamond and a cantrip artifact.

Brainstorm makes Vintage more consistent, but also faster and more deadly. It may not be the most powerful unrestricted card in Vintage, but it’s probably the most played.

Principle 6: Gifts Ungiven, Grim Tutor, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Thirst for Knowledge are the best unrestricted Engines in Vintage.

In 2002, Fact or Fiction swept through Vintage. Over time, deck builders got more and more efficient about using Fact. Eventually, a powerful mono-Blue deck accelerated into Fact or Fictions like they were Necropotence. Fact or Fiction dug five cards into your library. As a consequence, you either saw another Fact or Fiction or were much closer to finding another shortly. Many players didn’t play during that era, but Fact or Fiction was one of the most powerful engines in Vintage. Unrestricted, it created overwhelming card advantage synergy that the opponent was cowed into submission. Fact or Fiction was rightfully restricted. In 2003, Gush finally broke Vintage. Gush was used as an engine to make huge Psychatogs and Quirion Dryads, supported with a light manabase and plenty of pitch countermagic finally aided by Yawgmoth’s Will. Gush was a free draw engine that exceeded the power of the previously restricted Fact or Fiction. Finally, in late 2003, Burning Wish finally found a home in several Vintage decks, but the one abusing Lion’s Eye Diamond was found to be most despicable for being able to find Yawgmoth’s Will so quickly. All three cards were engines in Vintage — engines that were too fast and too powerful to be allowed to stand.

In time, IntuitionAccumulated Knowledge proved to be a potent engine, winning the first Vintage Championship. However, that engine was superseded in popularity by Thirst for Knowledge. Today, both draw engines are found wanting by the harsh glare of Gifts Ungiven, Grim Tutor, and Bazaar of Baghdad. Gifts Ungiven takes much of Fact or Fiction and Intuition in a single card. Grim Tutor reminds us of Burning Wish in how it finds Yawgmoth’s Will. Bazaar of Baghdad has a drawback, but it still sees two cards for no mana cost, like Gush. These cards have not yet created a dominant deck like the cards they resemble, but together they make Vintage what it is today. Time will tell whether these engines of today should be restricted like the engines of yesterday, or whether they can continue to play fair in a large sandbox.

Principle 7: For the most part, Spells with a casting cost of four or more are unplayable unless they are Blue, Artifact, Storm, or have an Alternate Casting Cost.

This was also a principle in my original article with a small caveat. For some reason, almost no spells that cost four or more see play in Vintage unless they meet these restrictions. It’s pretty obvious why: Blue spells can be played off Mana Drain. Artifact spells can be played off of Mishra’s Workshop, Tinker, or Thirst for Knowledge plus Goblin Welder. And Storm spells can’t be countered by conventional means. Anything else is just too slow.

Principle 8: Expertise is a Path to Success — you can play the same deck for years

Despite the regular churn of Vintage as new decks enter the format, new cards are printed, and old decks die off, a great number of players have found a way to succeed by playing the same deck for years, tweaking it as needed. Rich Shay, until very recently, had played exclusively Control Slaver since 2004. Roland Chang and Robert Vroman have found no difficulty making consistent Top 8s, playing the same deck with slight modifications. For nearly a year I played Grim Long with only a few card changes, and I made numerous Vintage Top 8s. Playing the same deck and playing it well is a path to success in Vintage. Why?

Principle 9: Skill is King.

Vintage, more than ever, is a format defined by technical skill and format knowledge. Vintage is not a forgiving format. You can’t make mistakes and expect to win. The problem is that most mistakes remain invisible.

Pick up virtually any deck in Vintage and it can win against virtually any other deck. The problem is that you need to know exactly how. A deck like Control Slaver could open three different games with three completely different lines of play. One might be an early Tinker for Darksteel Colossus that ends the game quickly. Another might be a slow Mox Sapphire plus Island play that leads to a long drawn-out control game finished with Yawgmoth’s Will. Another might be turn 1 Thirst for Knowledge, turn 2 Goblin Welder to return a Triskelion. Each deck needs to know how to deal with such a diversity of plans coming from the same deck.

This is compounded by the quantity of options presented in any given game. Each and every single tutor gives you access to your entire deck — a deck filled with singleton options. Imagine what choices Gifts Ungiven presents, or a hand with two tutors. You need to not only think about what cards you can get to play now, but all of the potential interactions that may be possible between the two cards you may get. Remembering that for all of these myriad options there is only one correct or optimal play, it should be obvious why this principle is true. The wrong decision about what to discard with Bazaar of Baghdad, or the timing of when to break a Fetchland, can make or break games of Vintage. Players often feel frustrated by the speed of the format and attribute much success to luck. The problem is that the format is so fast that subtle and virtually imperceptible play mistakes lead to game losses.

Knowing what to do is more important than finding precisely the right deck. Most of the time, there is a solution to the situation before you. There is no room for error in a format where the average game lasts about five and a half turns per player.

Principle #10: Scour through the card pool. Find the technology to beat your local metagame. It’s worth it.

I remain as convinced today as the day I originally wrote this principle of its soundness. Vintage has an enormous card pool. Don’t believe for a second that Vintage is tapped out of possibilities. There are combinations in the card pool that no one has yet discovered. There are deck variants that people haven’t yet figured out. There are ways to make virtually any deck competitive with enough testing and tuning. Sure, some strategies and cards make others obsolete. But with enough of the right card, you can fight many strategies and make others weaker. One of the reasons that people can play the same deck for so long is that the card pool is so deep. A deck that has already proven its worth can be made competitive again with some thoughtful brainstorming and insightful tweaks.

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian