The Vintage Mailbag

Stephen dives into a sack of correspondence, answering letters from Vintage experts and beginners alike! He shares his view on a couple of decks that are currently off the radar, talks about the processes he uses when preparing for a large event, shows us the importance of the testing team structure, and tells us his favorite archetypes and decks!

Today, I open the mailbag and answer some questions from y’all. No preamble… just dive straight in!

What is your opinion of the Canadian decks [Worldgorger] Dragon and Bomberman, and why do you think they aren’t as popular in the American metagame?
For those of you who don’t know what he’s talking about, Worldgorger Dragon combo is a combo deck that tries to get Worldgorger Dragon into the graveyard and then generate infinite mana using Animate Dead with the Dragon’s comes into play and leaves play ability creating a bounded loop. Bomberman is code name for the Auriok Salvagers combo deck. It gets its name from the little Mirrodin Spellbombs.

Let me say straight away that Dragon is a fantastic deck. Dragon can beat Control, Fish, and any aggro deck. But most importantly, Dragon has an edge against Storm Combo Grim Long and Pitch Long. It has more interactive cards and requires virtually no mana to combo out. As Rich Shay puts it, Dragon plays with seven “Yawgmoth’s Wills.” By this he means that each Animate for Dragon functions like Yawgmoth’s Will.

When Dragon opens with the play:

Mox, Mox, Land

Any Long Variant is going to either lose or fight a tough battle. Here’s the problem: the Dragon player is going to play Intuition. As a result, they will Intuition for the cards they need to win the game and throw in a Deep Analysis to draw and protect the combo if necessary. Regardless, Dragon will either a) outright win on turn 2 or b) present a mass of disruption on turn 2 and win on turn 3.

So, the Dragon player may play: Intuition, EOT, for Dragon, Dragon, Deep Analysis. If you give the Dragon player the Deep Analysis, they can draw 4 cards. What they Intuition for will be based upon what you have done and how threatening you appear.

Rich Shay and Scott Limoges both made top 4 at the Vintage Preliminary tournament, and I was pretty sure that one of them would make top 8 and possibly win the Vintage Championship. Rich got knocked out by a very odd Juggernaut deck and some other deck that I am unaware of.

The redesign of Dragon has made it a serious competitor. The real and only problem for Dragon is the power of hate. It isn’t that hate can’t be beat, but it’s still nasty.

Bomberman has seen a lot more play, but will never be “popular.” Unless we speak broadly about archetypes such as “control,” “Stax,” or “combo,” nothing is really “popular” except for, perhaps, Control Slaver. This has more to do with familiarity, expertise, and historical performance more than anything else. I would argue that other decks should be more popular than Bomberman, but they aren’t. Popularity isn’t really something we see in North American Vintage magic anymore on a wide scale. There are too many decks and too much diversity for a deck to really easily qualify as “popular.” I’m not even sure we can say that Stax, a deck which frequently makes up 10%+ of the metagame is “popular.”

Thus, within the constraints of the knowledge needed to play Dragon, the expertise needed to perform, and the natural card constraints of needing Bazaars and full power, I think Dragon is doing very well in American Vintage.

Bomberman is also a solid deck. One of the most impressive things about the deck is how the Canadians took out the unnecessary final win condition. They realized that putting into play 8 2/2 creatures and then taking a time walk and wiping our your opponents board while drawing your deck is more than enough to win. I can easily see it making top 8 due to its efficiency, high counterspell density, and capacity to combo out. The problem with Bomberman, in particular, is that it competes with lots of other Drain archetypes and it has the softest combo match of all of the Drain archetypes. If you own Mana Drains and full power, what reason do you have to play Bomberman over Meandeck Gifts or Control Slaver?

When testing (fine tuning) your decks, what procedure do you use? Do you just play a bunch of games and record what happens, or do you create situations? In other words, do you set up scenarios where you have to play around a Null Rod? Do you do thing like always putting a card in your opening grip just to see how it performs in that situation? Or do you base a large portion of your decision making on intuition and logic? I am just curious as to what methods you use to decide which cards are the best ones in each slot of your deck and sideboard.

I am not sure that I use the best testing procedure, but almost all of my fine tuning has come from a single process. The procedure looks like this:

I call up my good ole playtest partner Joe Bushman. He always runs a Mana Drain deck. In the old days he ran Tog. Now he plays Slaver. We sit down and test for 3-4 hours straight. The best way to describe what occurs during those games is feedback testing. I switch some cards, then play a spurt of games to see how it plays out. If it works as I thought it would based upon intuition and logic and prior game experience, then all is good. If it doesn’t, I now understand why it doesn’t and try something else or revert back.

It is important to test primarily against Mana Drain decks when fine-tuning your maindeck. This is true for many reasons I can articulate and many I am sure that haven’t even occurred to me. The most important reasons are that most of any given field is Mana Drain decks. Second, Mana Drain decks are the one deck that gives you the most time to develop your game plan. Joe plays Control decks so well that I know if I were to beat him I’d be beating the vast majority of the Mana Drain field. I have won most of my power off Joe Bushman’s back. That is, testing against him was the requisite preparation for my tournament experience. Where I come up short I look back and realize that I didn’t ask Joe to test before hand.

The design of Meandeck Gifts occurred in the course of a single night of testing against Joe Bushman. I called up Joe and asked him to test against me while I played Shortbush Severance Belcher from April of 2005. It had Goblin Welders and all of those components that existed in Shortbus Severance Belcher. I played a few games with it. After a few games, I cut some cards I didn’t like for some cards I did like. We played a few more games, and I cut some other cards I felt were terrible. Then we played some more games and I began to understand why some cards didn’t work while other cards did. I added one card, which made me want to add other cards. Pretty soon I had Meandeck Gifts.

Taking Ichorid. My testing against Joe showed me what won and what didn’t. So I emphasized those elements that won and removed those that didn’t.

The only drawback to feedback testing is that it is very time intensive and you must trust your playtest partner intimately. You can’t be second-guessing their play, or else you can’t really rely on your decision making.

In the end, you need to find a formula that works. For me, feedback testing is the process that produces the best results.

Thoughts on Mana Drain being used to stop Brainstorm? Would you ever Force of Will one, if you would when would it be (play scenario). The reason I bring this up is because I get mixed results from playtesting. Often when I test against Gifts (Meandeck of course) I find that Mana Draining an early Brainstorm can shut down their land drops and leave them with expensive cc cards in hand. Have you tested something as mundane as this?

Most of the time I would have Mana Drain up and my opponent is playing Brainstorm, it is the control mirror. In the Control mirror, Mana Draining Brainstorm is fraught with risks. First and foremost, the purpose of Brainstorm is often to smooth draws. This has two components: fixing your hand early and making land drops. As to the former, this has several components in itself: building a defense and getting rid of dead cards. The problem is that draining Brainstorm early will negate the need to serve most of these purposes. The only one problem that I could see occurring is mana screwing them. Since the control mirror is often a slow game, draining brainstorm will not stop them from seeing those cards on top. Instead, you have made the other elements of Brainstorm less necessary. If you’ve used a Drain on B: rainstorm, you are less likely to have another Drain and thus your opponent will be better suited to fight you in the mid game. The only time I would readily consider Draining Brainstorm is against Combo – and given the circumstances of the game, it is often a good play and sometimes bad. I think the worst part about Draining Brainstorm is that you aren’t getting very much mana out of Drain. Mana Drain is very powerful and using it on a 1cc spell is something to be avoided if possible.

What is your favorite archetype to play? What is your favorite deck to play? What is your favorite deck you’ve ever played? What deck do you hate to play against the most?

My favorite archetype to play is Combo because it is so exciting. There are, literally, so many insane plays. It makes for extremely memorable games and memorable plays. The reason to play Vintage is the card pool. Playing combo takes advantage of this sweet card pool. Also, Combo maximizes my skill set and gives me the most opportunity to outplay my opponent. However, it also gives you the most opportunity to outplay yourself.

My favorite deck to play is, ironically, mono-Blue control (think Buehler Blue in Vintage). It is a crushing control deck that makes a total lock of the game. I sit there with my little snakes (ophidian) and tap them and say, in the most innocent but grating voice: “draw.” Over the course of many turns as I attack with Phids and say “draw” people want to concede the game. Unfortunately, mono-Blue control is completely unviable at the moment.

My favorite deck I’ve ever played is original Long.dec. I used to be absolutely amazing with it. I picked it up more recently to see how it would run against modern decks and every game it just fell apart in my hands. I wasn’t used to playing and playing around 4 Lion’s Eye Diamonds. I used to be able to pilot that thing in my sleep. I guess playing combo isn’t like riding a bike.

The decks I hate to play against the most are surprises – decks that I have no idea what is in them.

How important is the "team factor" in Vintage Magic? Should a player who is entering the format be vying for a place on an established team? How would they best go about this?

The team factor is important over the long run. In the short run, it probably won’t make that much of a difference to any given individual. In the long run, it adds up to many advantages of varying significance. The most practical examples are the advantages of being able to easily prize split due to having pre-arranged agreements. The support of teammates is very helpful as well. Playtesting is a very useful aspect of being on a team. The organization of a team structure beats the ad hoc approaches of friends testing. The other main advantage of being on a team is the ability to pool ideas. This has several important aspects. First, when developing a deck, you get feedback from a limited number of people without having to share your idea or technology with the community at large. Second, you post your idea on a board or in a forum where the idea can sit. Over time, those ideas may percolate in the minds of your teammates and develop into something truly useful. I don’t think that being on a team is necessary, but it is certainly an advantage. Most tournament winners in Vintage magic are on major teams, with a few notable exceptions.

A player who is entering the format should not necessarily vie for a place on an established team. They need to think about their level of commitment and interest and then think about which team may be the right fit for them.

I think the best way to go about getting on a team is this: if you really want on a team, you should write one of the team-members and essentially submit your resume and cover letter, so to speak. In other words, write about yourself, why you want on that team, and what you would contribute. If you get rejected, at least ask for feedback why you didn’t make it and you’ll be able to use that when you try on another team. Teams are probably very willing to hear anyone out and the smaller teams are probably happy to pick up willing, interested, and enthusiastic teammates (see GWS, for example).


White Lotus Cost: 0


Tap; Sacrifice White Lotus:
Add WWW to your mana pool.
This mana can only be spent to
play mono-white spells."

Would this card bust up the Vintage Format, or change the Metagame?
Would it create any new viable decks, or push any current ones over the top? Would it make White Weenie undeniably viable? Is it "unplayable", and if so, why? Which modifications would make it more balanced?

The card would be absurdly broken and require (emergency) restriction. It could be used to play Academy Rector very consistently on turn 1. Mox, White Lotus, Land would easily enable turn one Academy Rector and Cabal Therapy with Flashback. At that point, you’d put Yawgmoth’s Bargain into play and start drawing. When you see more Rectors you could play them off of more White Lotuses and get Illusions of Grandeur into play or just Tendrils of Agony kill off of Dark Rituals.

It would create several new viable decks but it would push them over the top. It would definitely not make White Weenie viable. A modification that would make it more balanced would be any modification that makes the card worse since that would only make the card fairer, by definition.

Back in 2005, you discussed at length the deck I consider brilliant: Meandeck Tendrils.

Based on playtesting, which admittedly would not match your own, I have found this deck quite powerful. Again, I have confined my testing to MWS, and the quality of players there is not always consistent.

In your opinion, why has this deck never really won any major tournaments?
What prevents the deck from succeeding in the current metagame?

Why has Meandeck Tendrils never won any tournaments? There are at least a few reasons for this. First and foremost, Meandeck Tendrils is also known as “Mensa combo.” Second, it has the potential to fold to virtually any disruption. Third, there are better combo decks to play. Sure, Meandeck Tendrils is faster than any other combo deck, but you trade off a little bit of speed (say a turn) for a lot of resilience.

Finally, there is this latent question of why Combo doesn’t win tournaments. In Vintage, combo has never won a major tournament with 8 rounds of swiss. I don’t know why. It could be that the player base isn’t quite sufficiently good with combo. It was over a year of Trinisphere’s presence in the format before Stax won its first major tournament. Perhaps it will take as long for Combo to start winning large-scale Vintage events.

As far as my question, what do you feel is the appropriate path for aggro control in this format? There have been so many different variations of Fish ranging from Rods, Chalices, Rods and Chalices, Chalices and Vials, full acceleration, U/W, U/B, U/B/W, U/*/R, with disruption from Daze , Duress, Stifle to Mana Leak and Rune Snag and creatures from Cutpurse, Confidant, Ninja, Erayo, Voidmage, Meddling Mage, Kataki, Mox Monkey, Lavamancer, Azorius, Stormscape, Bouncer, Javelineer and even the WTF and Bird Sh** variants that there seems to be absolutely no consensus on what the best approach is in a metagame that can expect Gifts, Slaver, Oath, Long, Stax , Ichorid as well as dark horses like Salavagers, Dragon and Workshop Aggro. If you had to take a "fish" deck to Gencon what it would look like?

I will caveat my answer by saying that I don’t put much thought into aggro as I probably should. My teammates often come up with some great aggro concepts that more often than not do not see the light of day – simply because we don’t publish them.

My view on Fish therefore reflects what I fear to face. I think that these cards are the card suite I fear most:

Null Rod
True Believer
Meddling Mage
Jotun Grunt
Kataki, War’s Wage
Dark Confidant

Any fish list that I built would start with those cards. The only thing missing from that list is a way to deal with Darksteel Colossus. Thus, you’ll probably want the Guildmage as well.

The W/U/B fish card suite has gotten so powerful that it is hard to imagine how there is not a combination of cards that can’t consistently win. The most underestimated card is True Believer. It stops both Gifts and Tendrils. Jotun Grunt combines speed and disruption. The one card that has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared is Null Rod. Null Rod is just as powerful as it’s ever been. I don’t know why it is no longer seeing play.

If Wizards were to ban Darksteel Colossus (and Not Tinker)…

How would this change the metagame? Obviously Slaver would not be dramatically affected, but would it basically blow Gifts off the map (or would they opt for a different Giant Big artifact)? Do you think, Fish would emerge as one of the strongest decks in the format?

How would it change the viability of Storm based Combo? Would it simply go without the alternate win condition? Would U/B (SS style) fish simply be too strong for a deck like Grim Long to exist without the game 2 and 3 Tinker->DSC?

Gifts would take a dramatic loss, but it would probably substitute DSC with Sundering Titan. This Gifts pile, the standard MDG pile: Tinker, Recoup, Time Walk, and Yawgmoth’s Will often assumes that your opponent cannot give you Yawgmoth’s Will. Thus, they’ll give you Tinker and Time Walk. Thus, you Tinker up Colossus, Time Walk, then Recoup Time Walk and win. If you lose the Tinker for DSC play, then Tinker for Sundering Titan becomes a turn slower, but it would probably become the norm (or perhaps Platinum Angel). The biggest drawback would be that you’d lose a lot of “umph” in the Fish game. I might just go ahead and put a Tendrils of Agony maindeck in Meandeck Gifts (keeping the Burning Wish as well) and try to combo using Hurkyl’s Recall and Tendrils more often.

It would have no practical effect on Storm combo one way or the other. Memory Jar is a more useful win condition, so to speak, than DSC. I think it is almost always a mistake to sideboard in DSC with Grim Long or Pitch Long. It’s much better just to bring in bounce to slow down SS and UB Fish and win the traditional way.

Fish would certainly be the primary beneficiary of banning DSC, but I don’t think it would improve Fish’s game against Combo one bit.

Which vintage teams do you think are the most influential? Which teams do you think are "tier 1" teams?

The original vintage “team” was Team Paragon. Team Paragon split into two teams: Team Meandeck and Team Shortbus.

Team Meandeck is and remains the most influential team in Vintage history (does anyone really dispute that?). Our decks have proliferated through Vintage over a long period of time. We have won half of the Vintage Championships and Legacy Championships. Aside from that, there are a number of teams that are influential not only because of their players but their decks.

Team Shortbus imploded and their teammates either became consumed with WoW or joined other teams.

Team Reflection is one of the teams I respect the most because, although they may not have the winning streak of ICBM at the moment, they have their act together. They are organized and thoughtful. They are consistent. Team Reflection, it is rumored, has team meetings once a month online. They have very nice team boards I’ve heard and they have team tournaments of varied formats to amp up their skills and keep their minds sharp. They also have a deep influence on Legacy as well as Vintage.

Team ICBM (Stands for I Can Beat Meandeck) has risen to the challenge this year and consistently placed well. Tommy Kolowith is probably the best player in Vintage at the moment. The other major team I think worth mentioning is Team GWS. There are many other strong teams out there that have potential and others that have been in a slump (Team GGs for example).

Hypothetically, Wizards could print an N/N artifact creature for one colorless mana, where N is any integer. What values of N make the card Vintage worthy, which break it (it’s a 4-of in ~50% of most top 8 decks), and which make fish stronger without enhancing control or combo?

Well, we have plenty of good one colorless 1/1 as is so that wouldn’t change anything. A one colorless 2/2 wouldn’t break anything in Vintage, but it would see play. A 1 colorless 3/3 would make serious waves (straw golem sees a bit of play). I think a 1 colorless 4/4 would be the straw that broke the camels back. However, this final condition: making Fish stronger without enhancing control or combo isn’t really a realistic condition. A 1 colorless 4/4 would be at home in a very powerful aggro control deck. I could see a Gro type deck like this:

5 Moxen
1 Black Lotus
1 Mana Crypt
9 Land
4 one colorless 4/4
4 Brainstorm
4 Force of Will
4 Misdirection
4 Merchant Scroll


1) Do you think Dream Halls could be used in any storm based combo deck efficiently?
2) Do you think Black Vise would be healthy in today’s metagame if unrestricted and why?

I wrote an article in late 2004 entitled “A Look at the Remaining Chaff on the Restricted List.”

What I said about Dream Halls then remains true today:

Dream Halls

Now we are in the realm of broken cards. If you’ve ever seen Zvi’s Type Two deck:

Zvi Mowshowitz
The Dojo test deck, e-mailed April 9, 1998

9 Island
4 Crystal Vein
4 Svyelunite Temple
4 Ancient Tomb
4 Lotus Petal
4 Dream Halls
4 Intuition
4 Meditate
4 Sift
4 Ancestral Memories
4 Mana Severance
4 Memory Lapse
1 Counterspell
1 Impulse
1 Lobotomy
1 Inspiration
3 Gaea’s Blessing

4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Abeyance
4 Hydroblast
1 Dismiss
1 Inspiration
1 Lobotomy

The idea was to recycle Inspiration to deck your opponent in a single turn after resolving Dream Halls.

Why It Should Stay Restricted
Dream Halls produces an enormously powerful effect. The potential for abuse is definitely there and without a mana constraint holding one back, and with the huge card pool of the format, it is very likely that one should win the turn 1 resolves Dream Halls.

Why It Should Be Unrestricted
Although Dream Halls may well cause you to win when it resolves, the realities of deck construction are ugly. First of all, if you are using lots of overcosted spells to abuse Dream Halls, like Temporal Cascade, you are going to be holding lots of dead cards until you get it to resolve. Therefore, getting Dream Halls to resolve is the trick.

Unlike Doomsday, which I think was a much more dangerous card to unrestrict than Dream Halls, Dream Halls can’t be cast off a simple Dark Ritual. It needs not only three colorless, but also UU. That’s the problem. 4U would be even easier to cast than 3UU. Getting UU basically means that you need two lands that produce the blue mana, and likely three so that you can use the other to play Dark Ritual.

A Dream Halls deck would undoubtedly have a Storm finisher because that is the most logical win condition – but there are much easier ways to win with Tendrils than having to resolve a five-mana, double-colored spell.

I think another fundamental problem is that Dream Halls combo is so much worse than basically 95% of the combo decks out there. Just as an example, Academy Rector/Cabal Therapy combo isn’t even played anymore because Academy Rector is too expensive. What does that tell you about Dream Halls? Moreover, Dream Halls combo is probably not at all faster than turn 3, which makes it slower than Belcher, Dragon, MeanDeath, Doomsday, and even Rector. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

As for Black ViseBlack Vise would have the primary effect of harming Control and imbalance, further, the advantage of going first. If someone could go turn 1 double of even triple Vice, that is a tremendous unfair advantage. This is a card that probably wouldn’t really dominate the format if unrestricted, but what it would do is squeeze the fairest decks from the format. Not recommended.

More mail to come….

Stephen Menendian