The Vintage Roundup: A Look Ahead

Stephen looks at the issues and strategies coming up for the rest of 2005 – including a look at the overall metagame, the deck that requires the least skill to pilot (and why this matters), how to use Gifts Ungiven properly in Meandeck Gifts (it’s not what you’d think), and his take on Pithing Needle. All that, and a brief look at the potential pitfalls of the 2006 Vintage Season!

There are only four StarCityGames Power Nine tournaments and the GenCon Championship to carry us Vintage addicts through the year. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend SCG Chicago at the end of the month, but I hope that everyone make a good faith effort to show up at these events. People aren’t concerned with 2006 just yet; most of you are probably more concerned with the upcoming Power Nine events.

But it’s my job to look ahead and see what’s in store. The format has had a fantastic year and it’s only half-way done… but the format needs to continue to grow.

I can’t even imagine how much work Pete puts into these P9 tournaments, but I know it is not a small amount. He’s got to find the Power Nine to put up, decide to put them up instead of selling them, to organize and pay for the hall, then hire a coverage team to document the whole thing… it’s got to be a huge stressor. It is an enormous undertaking. You have to carry a huge inventory many miles away. You have to plan out the whole thing and make deals.

And it is risky. Cards could get stolen. Attendance could be shoddy.

The Premium service probably helps support the coverage team a bit, but putting up power is an increasingly pricey proposition. Luckily, the tournaments have grown proportionately. The first SCG Chicago was a good twenty players more than last November’s. And SCG Richmond keeps getting bigger after the implosion last year. And SCG Rochester/Syracuse was the largest SCG Power Nine event yet!

The possibility that SCG Power Nine won’t continue next year is real. (I’ll let Pete handle that question in the forums — T.F.) Imagine you wake up and it’s January 1st, 2006. You enjoyed a nice New Year’s and now your thinking about the year ahead. At some point, your thoughts might come to magic and you’ll wonder what’s in store. You might even think about Vintage.

And then you have to wonder: what’s in store for Vintage this year? If SCG decides not to hold more Vintage events, Type One will be seriously hurt. The only large North American events would then be the Waterbury and GenCon (and GenCon is shrinking for Vintage purposes because it doesn’t permit proxies). It is a serious problem. The SCG Circuit is basically a miniature Grand Prix. If Vintage doesn’t have something like it (or something to replace it), you can pretty much guess that the price of Vintage cards will slow as well.

I know that the price of Vintage cards is strongly correlated to the popularity of Vintage. The price of Mox Sapphire remained stable (if not deflationary given its rarity) from 1996 to 2002 at about $125. In three years, it has quadrupled in price. That is not a coincidence. If Vintage were to end tomorrow, the price of power would stop going up and probably fall. Think about Juzam Djinn; that was a card I thought would never go down. It was $200 when I quit Magic in 1996. When I got back into the game in 2000, it was barely $100. These cards can and do drop in price. The prices are sticky, but demand is important.

Vintage was a joke in 2001 and 2002. If you spoke to someone about Vintage, they’d look at you like you were crazy. Ice Age Block Constructed was a more “real” format in 2001 than Vintage. I remember an old friend, Jes Means, telling me in 2001 to “give it up — Type One was dead.”

I had just gotten back into Magic. Good thing I didn’t give it up.

I think that I’ve contributed a lot to the format. Who would have thought that three years later we’d have our own mini-Grand Prixs (not just SCG, but Waterbury too) and a sweet GenCon tournament with an awesome painting prize?

But more than just that, people talk about Vintage. Pros played Vintage this year. R&D played Vintage last year and this year. Forsythe and Buehler picked up their power and played in some events. That alone speaks volumes.

The point I want to make is simple: if we just go through the motions this year and enjoy it like any other year, we may wake up one day with a cold dose of reality. We need to be thinking ahead to adjust and make course corrections now while we still can. Six months from now may be too late. I’m not trying to be a doombringer, but we need to think ahead now and begin a dialogue while we have all of our options on the table.

Turning to the tournament scene….

StarCityGames Chicago and the Vintage Championship at GenCon will be virtually twin tournaments. The Vintage Championships at GenCon will probably just be a smaller version of StarCityGames Chicago. Seeing as they are both in the same state, you can expect a huge overlap in players. The metagame will be mostly the same despite the proxy differences as well.

Having A Good T1, Wish You Were HereOne of the things that astounded me the time I played in SCG Chicago last year with Doomsday was the sheer quantity of Mishra’s Workshop decks. For a city with no visible Vintage scene and an unknown player base, there were a very surprising number of Mishra’s Workshops. I swear that someone in Chicago was hoarding them when the Europeans were buying them all up in 2001-2003. Illinois is a haven for Workshops.

The top eight of GenCon last year was fifty percent Workshop decks. The top 8 of the last SCG Chicago was fifty percent Workshops (although they were in 5th through 8th place). It’s true that Trinisphere has been restricted, but in my opinion, Mishra’s Workshop decks are a baseline deck for Vintage… But let me explain what I mean.

The skill level involved in Vintage decks is a huge barrier. It is nothing short of amazing that a format as heavy and old as Vintage is really defined by play skill, but it is true. Control decks have been really marginalized by several forces (as marginalized as the Mana Drain archetype can be when it is 40%+ of the field). One factor which has marginalized Mana Drain decks is that they are really difficult to play well. You can’t just pick up Control Slaver or Meandeck Gifts and win with it. The second factor impacting the success of Mana Drain decks is that Fish is really good right now. And Fish is here to stay for a long time.

There is no Trinisphere to get in the way of Fish, and Juggernauts are weaksauce in the face of Wild Mongrel + Umezawa’s Jitte. Mishra’s Workshop decks are a baseline deck because Mishra’s Workshop decks are the most powerful deck you can play without having to go through complex contortions every match. They are straightforward, have some synergy that requires good decision-making…. but they are generally proactive and compensate for mistakes.

In other words, Mishra’s Workshop decks are not a deck that a fantastic player plays to show off his skill. They are used for brute force. And they win a lot. “Chalice of the Void for two” is going to be an increasingly popular play in the face of all this Fish and the rise of my deck, Meandeck Gifts.

Meandeck Gifts is really good. I played it at Origins in two tournaments and lost a total of one game in two tournaments doing a four-way split for a $500 prize in one and winning two byes at the GenCon Championship in the other. Former teammates Koen van der Hulst and Arthur Tindemans played Meandeck Gifts in the Lieden tournament with forty players and a top 8 and made first and second place. And I’m sure other good players will be putting up similar results.

Here are some lessons I learned with Meandeck Gifts. First of all, Library of Alexandria was really bad. I cut the third Underground Sea and the third Volcanic Island for a fifth fetchland and Library… and every time Library came up, it was horrible. I watched Kevin lose a game to Rich Shay because he played it on turn 2. It got cut immediately after the $500 Vintage tournament. I’m not sure if six fetchlands with four Islands is right — five fetchlands with five Islands may be the better configuration.

Kevin wanted to test the Tendrils in the maindeck over the Burning Wish, which taught us the true value of Burning Wish. Burning Wish is much more than just a way to find Tendrils of Agony or replay Time Walk. In my finals match, I played turn 1 Ancestral Recall and then dropped Black Lotus and Mox Ruby on turn 2 to play Yawgmoth’s Will and replay the Ancestral and the Lotus and then pass the turn. Several turns later, with a graveyard fat and juicy, I wished for the Yawgmoth’s Will again and replayed it! The only thing better than one Yawgmoth’s Will is two Yawgmoth’s Wills!

The “Burning Wish for Eye of Nowhere” play also won me a mirror game, while Burning Wish for Pyroclasm removed some pesky Goblin Welders. It is way too good to cut.

Another thing I noticed is that I almost never Gifted for the “usual” cards: Time Walk, Yawgmoth’s Will, Tinker, and Recoup. My Gifts were highly context-specific. For example, in a match against Chalice Oath, he had Chalice for zero and Chalice for two in play with Oath of Druids and Phyrexian Furnace in play. I won that game.

How? I Gifted for cards to build card advantage and thin my deck.

Another thing that puzzles me is when people say they are going to cut Lotus Petal from the deck. If you are holding Yawgmoth’s Will, there are few things better than just Gifting for mana. If you don’t have the black to play it, then you can force them to give you black if you Gift for Mox Jet, Black Lotus, Lotus Petal, and Tolarian Academy. You can so the same if you need Red, except substitute Mox Ruby for Mox Jet. Having three accelerants of the color of your choice means that they can’t stop you from getting it with Gifts.

Since I played lots of control matches, I would say that my most frequent Gifts was something like this:

Brainstorm, Merchant Scroll, Mystical Tutor, Time Walk

If they give you any of those cards, you are in good shape. I literally was using Gifts just to get card advantage… and it was surprisingly powerful for that purpose. The card advantage you gain becomes enormous and overwhelming card quality.

I was also playing quite controllishly in most of my matches. The proper role for this deck is control until you can just force a Gifts through and then win. Try playing this deck as the control deck. The difference between this deck and say, BBS, in terms of playing Control is that this “control” deck can just win by turn 3 against Food Chain Goblins.

Take a look at Koen van der Hulst’s tournament report because it mirrored my experience quite a bit:

Round 2: Food Chain
Game 1: His hand didn’t even matter, ’cause I had almost the best hand available: it had artifact mana, Academy, Ancestral, and Walk. I won with fifteen-plus life.

Game 2: Again I had a very explosive hand with a first-turn Fact or Fiction that turned up five broken cards. On top of this, he was manascrewed even after mulliganing to five, so we never really got into any of the games.

Round 3: Dragon
Game 1: I win with him having only Mountain + Sol Ring in play, and I have no clue what he is playing, so I board in Blue Elemental Blast.

Game 2: He has to Tutor for every combo piece, and that takes up a lot of time. I have a very controllish hand and when he tries to go for the Animate Dead, I have the BEB ready to hose his counters and he loses all his permanents.

Meandeck Gifts can be very explosive…. but the thing is, you can and do win the control matches. I played against two very slow control decks and beat both of them simply by playing Gifts at the right time (in one case on his first mainphase so he couldn’t properly Drain and use the Drain mana).

The vast majority of the time when I Merchant Scrolled before playing Yawgmoth’s Will, it was for Ancestral Recall or Gifts Ungiven. There was only one case where I Scrolled up Fact or Fiction — and it was the perfect time for it. I had cast Gifts a turn or two before setting up the win. I had Recoup and Yawgmoth’s Will in my hand, but my opponent had just gotten a short burst of draw and was back in the game. I needed to test the waters before comboing out…. so I Scrolled up Fact and played it and countered his counterspell. My Fact was Merchant Scroll, Mana Drain, Force of Will, Mana Drain, and land.

That is what Fact is good for: protection. It is much less focused than Gifts and overall a weaker, less explosive card… but it is a better digger. It hands you quantity, not quality. Fact is best used to protect your combo.

However, my use of Merchant Scroll is very different after playing Yawgmoth’s Will.

Most of my games ended with me playing Yawgmoth’s Will. The result would be that I’d have five to eight artifacts in play by the time I played the Tolarian Academy that had been Gifted into my graveyard…. so I’d tap the Academy and all of my non-sacrificing artifacts, generating like twelve mana. I’d then do the obvious plays; Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Tinker, but at that point it would usually go like this:

Brainstorm. Put back some lands. Merchant Scroll for Mana Drain. Then I’d take my turn and untap with a full hand of countermagic. In other words, after my Yawgmoth’s Will turn they would have absolutely no chance of stopping the second swing with Darksteel Colossus even if they had a way of dealing with it.

The one element of this deck that I hadn’t talked about before (because I wanted to keep some technology secret) was the sideboard.

Here was the sideboard I ran at Origins:

2 Rack and Ruin
1 Rebuild
3 Pithing Needle
1 Tendrils of Agony
1 Eye of Nowhere
2 Pyroclasm
2 Old Man of the Sea
2 Red Elemental Blast
1 Pyroblast

TEEN GIFTS SQUAD!I really, really wanted a second Rebuild. Rebuild is sooo good. It’s actually better than Rack and Ruin against Workshop decks for three reasons: First of all, the only time that Rack and Ruin is better is if you are forced to play the anti-artifact spell on your upkeep. If you have to Rebuild on your own upkeep, they’ll just replay everything and you’ll have to tap it all back down on your next turn. Second, Rack and Ruin doesn’t stop Goblin Welder from Welding something back. Third, Rebuild is never dead: it combos with your Tendrils plan.

So my sideboard plan against Workshop decks begins with:
-3 Misdirection
+2 Rack and Ruin
+1 Rebuild

So I kept in the one maindeck Rebuild and the maindeck Echoing Truth.

With that many solutions, I wouldn’t worry about Chalice for two, but Chalice for three is probably a serious threat.

I never decided whether Pithing Needle would be good against Workshop decks in dealing with Goblin Welder. I think I sideboarded out Fact or Fiction for one Needle, and sideboarded out something else for one Pyroclasm as well… but it never came up, so I never could figure out which was better.

My plan against Control decks constantly shifted, but my preference for the late game and for having control with a combo finish made me want to sideboard out the Tinker/Colossus combo for the Tendrils and Red Blasts.

I ruined Fish with my Old Men, Clasms, and Tinker.

I keep hearing people complain about Fish beating them. That is absurd. Your plan against Fish is easy: make Island drops. Play Islands and you will win against Chalice for zero. They have no speed at all, and they can’t Rootwater Thief out your win conditions fast enough since you have Burning Wish and Colossus. And if you Gifts just once, you can save the Burning Wish from their ability to find it.

The Brainstorm/Fetchland combo is very powerful. It enables you to see a lot of your deck very quickly, as Adrian Sullivan once noted. You have two tinker targets under Chalice for zero: Mana Vault and Sol Ring. You should have no trouble finding one of those or some other solution to the Fish problem by turn 5 at the latest. Let them resolve the stupid stuff, then use your Misdirections to protect your answer. Then untap and combo out.

The Workshop players will realize that this deck is a threat to them. You have Rebuild and Echoing Truth maindeck, a rock-solid mana base with five Fetch and five Islands (or some combination thereof), and you have four Merchant Scrolls to find your bounce spells. They will undoubtedly try to use Chalice of the Voids to stop you. Your sideboard plan will take care of that and realizing that that will be there plan will keep you one step ahead of the game.

It should be noted: I play this deck very judiciously and cautiously. I did preach to play it aggressively, but time and again the deck demonstrated to me that Gifts is a source of card advantage — it is much closer to Fact or Fiction in that regard than we admit. Gifts is truly broken. Play conservatively. If you need to, then Gifts for Misdirection, Force of Will, Mana Drain, and Merchant Scroll or some combination thereof.

The reason I never Gifts for Ancestral Recall is because that is almost always a spell you want to actually play, not go to your graveyard. There is almost no other spell you card about getting to your hand more. Tolarian Academy will eventually come into play — you don’t need it immediately. Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will are Recoupable. So don’t worry about them being in your bin.

In your slow control matches, it’s all about card advantage. Just be very conscious about how many cards are in your opponent’s hand. Then make sure you have enough counterspells to trump anything they can do. Wait until they make their move — and then move at instant speed to trump them. Because whatever they do won’t be as devastating as your Gifts, I promise.

Control Slaver will try to combo you out. They will try to play control for a little bit if they can get away with it by holding up Mana Drain hoping you will walk into it so that they can play multiple Thirsts for Knowledge. Don’t let them take advantage of you.

I put Pithing Needle in my board specifically for Rich Shay. Pithing Needle on Tormod’s Crypt and Goblin Welder is very powerful.

Control Slaver relies upon being able to use its Thirsts effectively. If they go turn 1, Goblin Welder…. And if you go turn 1 “Pithing Needle, naming Goblin Welder,” they will seriously reconsider what they are going to do with that massive artifact in hand and that Thirst For Knowledge.

The normal thing to do would be to Thirst and dump the artifact into the bin. However, now you have them in a bind. If they Thirst and dump the artifact, they have to at least consider the question: are they throwing away a needed threat? And that may make them more likely to pitch a Mox instead. And if that happens, you’ve just won half the battle.

That’s how good Pithing Needle is.

If you are still uncomfortable with Gifts, here is my advice:

When you play Gifts Ungiven, pull out any likely Gifts targets to the top of your deck:

Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, Tolarian Academy, Time Walk, Merchant Scroll, Brainstorm, Recoup, Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, Gifts Ungiven, Fact or Fiction, Demonic Tutor, Mystical Tutor, etc. Then, with all of those cards in front of you, start deciding which four you want to get.

If you have a black mana source in play, one powerful Gifts is Demonic Tutor|, Merchant Scroll, Time Walk, and Brainstorm.

There are many permutations of possible Gifts that are just game-breaking without using the “sick” cards. Sometimes you should throw Tinker into a Gifts, not because you want it, but because you know they won’t give it to you — so you can force them to give you something you do want. That is a fun trick.

So to summarize a bit: Chicago and GenCon will have tons of Workshop decks. Expect Vroman’s Uba Mask. Expect lots of Juggernaut decks with Chalices and bit beaters. And expect some traditional Stax lists. Workshops are arguably even stronger than they were when Trinisphere was restricted, because Fish is so damned good right now.

Fish gets lots of new tools in the last few sets, and their arsenal continues to grow… But what’s more, the technology has improved. If my teammates Ashok Chitturi and Jacob Orlove had used Chalice of the Void + Aether Vial Fish lists pre-Trinisphere restriction, Fish never would have went away and Trinisphere would have been much weaker. A turn 1 Chalice for zero + Vial makes “Workshop, Trinisphere” a recipe for defeat by Wasteland and Vialed-out men. Trinisphere would have looked a lot weaker when you get Wastelanded and your opponent has Vial and Chalice for zero in play.

The Fish decks have also gotten Jitte — arguably the best equipment in Vintage. The card is just absurd. It gets two counters. Jitte is a really powerful solution to cards like Juggernaut…. but then, so is Basking Rootwalla and obviously Wild Mongrel. Jitte murders Welders as well. I tested the Oath matchup and was shocked by how good of a game Fish has. Not only are its creatures solid against Oath (Meddling Mage, Thief, and so forth), but Jitte can run over anything you Oath up.

So in summary, I see the metagame as Fish aimed at Workshops and Drains, Workshop decks aiming to beat my Gifts list and Fish, and then two Drain decks: my gifts list and Control Slaver. Control Slaver is always strong in heavy Workshop fields because their Goblin Welders and Force of Wills create fundamental weaknesses in Workshop decks. Mindslaver plus your opponent’s Goblin Welder is a combo.

If you are playing Gifts, just be aware that Control Slaver is likely to try to use Tormod’s Crypt to stop you. Don’t worry that much. If that’s the best they have, you have little to worry about. The Gifts deck has so much flexibility in terms of what it goes for because it is loaded with bombs that you can just go for Tendrils or use the Burning Wish to protect yourself. And don’t forget Pithing Needle.

What shakes out in Chicago will be the precedent for GenCon. I have no doubt that Gifts will be a very strong contender. I also don’t see combo interfering at all — not with Workshops and Fish being so popular. Just be prepared to beat Chalice Fish, Chalice-heavy Workshops, Gifts and Slaver and you should have no trouble at all!