Vintage Avant-Garde – Call It In The Air: “Heads, Tails, Other”

Brian DeMars is learning to control his tilt, even in the face of extreme variance. He also touches on the new Vintage metagame after Champs, keeping your stuff safe from thieves, and why Dredge won despite his prediction.


I was driving to Gen Con with my friends Ari Lax, Matt McClulla, and Kyle Boggemes, and they shared with me a story that a local—and easily tilted—Magic player had told them the week earlier. Basically, this player, after being bounced from a tournament had made the claim that:

“In Magic I feel that 10% of my games are won by skill, 10% of my games are blowouts, and the other 80% of my games are decided by variance.”

I thought about the statement for a moment, did a little bit of math in my head, and responded:

“I know how he feels: it’s like when I flip a coin and 10% of the time it comes up heads, 10% of the time it comes up tails, and the other 80% of the time it lands on its side.”

While I know that coins don’t land on their sides, between the dates of August 4 and August 7 (Gen Con), I wouldn’t have been particularly surprised to see a parade of quarters stand on end.

For me, the weekend was a tough one filled with many difficult but worthwhile lessons. My high aspirations for U.S. Nationals were quickly squelched. I began my tournament with an unimpressive 0-3 record despite the fact that I felt I had a fantastic Standard deck and was playing very well.

One of the goals I had set for myself a few months ago when I re-evaluated my Magic game was to make conscious strides to be a more professional tournament player. In particular, I wanted to be a more gracious loser, not get tilted when I took a “bad beat,” play at a higher level all of the time, and most of all enjoy myself at events.

In the weeks leading up to Gen Con I had the opportunity to test with Michael Jacob and Patrick Chapin (which was a blast) and was lucky to have reaped the rewards of their deckbuilding genius: the RUG Birthing Pod list.

Unfortunately, simply having one of the best decks in the room doesn’t always guarantee a fantastic result; although it never hurts! The night before I had done some testing with the RUG deck against Kyle Boggemes Caw Blade deck and crushed him every game we played. So, you can only imagine how excited I was when my round one opponent led off with Seachrome Coast.

Unfortunately, things didn’t pan out how I expected. My turn one Birds of Paradise was quickly met with Dismember, and my turn two Lotus Cobra with Mana Leak. On three my opponent hawked up some Squadron Hawks and used his spare mana to Dismember my three-drop. On four he played another Hawk and used his remaining two mana to Mana Leak my Hero of Oxid Ridge. He untapped, played a fifth land, and Sword of Feast and Famined me. Ouch, dead. Game two was more of the same: two Dismembers, Leak, Hawk, and Sword on turn five.

Obviously, I was none too happy about the way this match played out. I took a deep breath, pushed the frustration out of my mind, smiled, extended my hand, smiled, “good gamed” my opponent, and wished him good luck. It felt really good.

“These things happen.” I told myself. “I’m going to play well and win next round.”

I sat down in round two and promptly got killed on turn three by a very good Tempered Steel draw. Plains, Mox Opal, Memnite, Memnite, Signal Pest, into Dispatch my Birds of Paradise. On turn two I played Lotus Cobra. On his turn he played an Inkmoth Nexus and Tempered Steel.

I quickly disassembled my opponent in the second game, and then couldn’t find a keepable hand in the third game and was forced to mulligan to four. I couldn’t draw a land for much of the game, but somehow hung around long enough to try and battle back into the game. Unfortunately, on the turn I was able to almost stabilize, my opponent drew a Dispatch and was able to push through exact lethal. I felt frustrated, disgusted, and angry at what had just transpired—but only for a moment. I composed myself and accepted my defeat. “You’ve got me. I am dead.” I extended my hand, smiled, and wished my opponent good luck.

Round three was more of the same. I found myself in a game three against a Vampire player where I was so far ahead that I couldn’t actually conceive that the game wouldn’t end in victory. My next nine draw steps resulted in either a land or a Birds of Paradise, while my opponent’s draw steps produced what seemed to be the exact worst-case scenario card for me every time, and I lost the game and the match.

On the last turn of the game I drew Preordain, cast it, saw two lands, scryed them onto the bottom, and drew a land. 2 Inferno Titan, 4 Birthing Pod, 3 Pyroclasm, 1 Hero of Oxid Ridge were all cards that ended the game on the spot; any creatures allowed me to live another turn—but it was not to be. Once again I was left to politely acknowledge defeat and wish my opponent good luck.

The unimaginable had happened. I was 0-3 in an event that I skipped my favorite event of the year, The Vintage Championship, to play in. To make matters worse for me, all of my teammates were absolutely crushing in Vintage—obviously, I was happy for them, but was now wishing I could be sharing in their triumphs.

Then I made a realization: although I wished that the result had been different, I was not disappointed in any decisions I had made so far in this event. I hadn’t made poor plays; I believed that playing in Nationals was what I needed/wanted to do; and despite a series of really tough breaks I had conducted myself amicably. I wrote an article a few weeks ago where I wrote about becoming a better tournament player, and as I stood in the hall with the worst possible record having taken one bad beat after another, I realized something:

I wasn’t on tilt.

I thought to myself that I had decided to play in Nationals because I wanted to compete against high-level players and gain experience, and I resolved that even if I lost every single round for the rest of the day that I was going to play out the rest of my rounds and try my best.

I ended up winning three rounds in a row and then losing the last round. I played a really hard-fought match against EFro in round five (with a 1-3 record in Standard, I ended up playing against one of the best players in the world in the first round of my draft—seems fair, right?), and I played really well and beat him. One other thing that I realized was that when I was playing against EFro it would have been impossible to know from his body language or attitude that he was 1-3 or 4-0. Rather, he was pleasant and focused—not that I expected anything less, since after all, the last person I would expect to act tilted would be a poker/Magic pro.

Eric composure just further reinforced the idea that being a good sportsman, keeping one’s cool, and being gracious has an invaluable high end—whereas, being tilted, angry, frustrated, a poor sport, etc. only inhibits personal improvement and also having fun. Our match was the one that was not only the most closely contested that I played all day, but also the one that I enjoyed the most.

A quick Eric Froehlich story: I was at Stuart Parnes’ house in Ann Arbor, and we had a game of “Are You A Werewolf?” going on. “Werewolf,” for those of you who don’t know, is a game where all of the players are assigned random secret identities, and the goal is to figure out which players have the identity of Werewolf before the wolves can systematically eliminate the non-wolves. I invited Patrick Chapin to come and have a few drinks and game, and he ended up bring Eric. The two arrived at the event and got into a game of Werewolf. The game started with Stu and me being the wolves. The game had been underway for all of a minute and a half and Eric said: “Brian and Stu are the wolves.” The lesson is: don’t play bluffing games with a poker master! It was uncanny.

My point in bringing up Eric is that he truly embodies everything that is good about professional Magic players, and it reinforced for me the importance of trying hard, staying focused, and good sportsmanship.

After putting up a 3-4 record, I would be really disappointed with myself—but all things considered, although I would have liked to have ended day one in contention, I realized that I had fun and didn’t regret playing Nationals in the slightest.


The first piece of news I learned when I arrived on site in Indianapolis was that one of Vintage’s nicest people, David Williams, had gotten his Vintage deck stolen from right in front of him while he was having a conversation with a friend. Nobody deserves to have their cards taken, and it disappoints me to no end that throughout the weekend friends of mine would continue to have similar negative theft related experiences taint what should have been a fun gaming experience.

Rich Shay, another of Vintage’s nicest people, had his backpack stolen right out from under him; luckily his Vintage deck wasn’t in the bag at the time—nonetheless, it is an unacceptable occurrence.

But, perhaps the most disturbing story I heard was that a fellow Michigan Eternal enthusiast, my friend Kenta, had his Legacy deck stolen from his table right before his match started. He was 5-1-1 in the Legacy Championship playing the last round to make Top 8, sat down at his seat (which was on the end of a table), put his deck on the table, turned his head, and leaned over to adjust his backpack; when he looked up, somebody had grabbed his deck and walked away. It was literally a matter of seconds, and somebody snatched his deck from right in front of him at his table.

Not only did he have an expensive Legacy deck stolen (which is a beating and a half), he couldn’t play his last round and missed out on an opportunity to make Top 8 in a prestigious Eternal tournament. He was thus robbed twice over, of his possessions and of a special experience that he had earned—the right to compete for a spot in Top 8 of a championship.

The most disturbing thing about the theft trend at Gen Con is that it isn’t like the victims of these crimes were being negligent with their possessions. I would be less sympathetic (I would still be sympathetic, just less so) if the story was: “I left my backpack unattended on a table and went to the bathroom for a 15-minute bowel movement, and when I came back—shockingly—my backpack was gone!”

The trend of people having their cards stolen, literally, right out from under their noses is extremely distressing.

One of the coolest thing about being an Eternal player is that we are afforded the great privilege of playing with the coolest Magic cards ever to see print—but, unfortunately, many of these cards: dual lands, Moxes, Black Lotus, etc. are also among the most valuable; which means, it is possible that we are more likely to be victims of theft, assuming thieves know how valuable our cards are, and that when and if we are victimized, our losses are bound to be more devastating.

For instance, Dave’s deck was a completely foil and Beta Vintage deck, the loss of which is easily equal to a car—even more so when one considers all of the painstaking time and sentimental value associated with tracking down and acquiring difficult to acquire rare cards.

I bring this up not to scare or deter Eternal players from playing the game that they love, but rather to remind them that they need to be super aware of everything that is going on around them. Imagine that you had a deck box with $3000.00 cash in it. How careful would you be about what you did with it? Well, in case you couldn’t guess where I am going with this example: when you have a Legacy deck, that is exactly what you have (a Vintage deck might be closer to $8,000.00 or more), and it is paramount that you behave as though it were filled with cash.

We as Eternal players must be mindful of the fact that while we are on site playing a game that we are also essentially carrying around a deck box filled with money—especially, now that we know we are living in a gaming world where card players are known to steal from one another. It is sad, but it is the new law of the land.

Here is the protocol I would recommend.

Don’t bring your extra cards with you, so you don’t need to have a backpack. Only bring a deck box with your deck, which goes into your pocket after the match and comes out when you sit down to play. I feel that this is the safest approach, and this is the strategy I have used for the past year.

If you must bring a backpack because you are going to trade in between rounds:

After every single round the deck goes back into the backpack. The backpack stays on your shoulder at all times in between rounds. When you sit down, the first thing you do is rope your bag around your leg or keep it on your lap. Once, and only once, the bag is secure do you bring out your deck, close the backpack, and play.

It is really, really sad that it has come to this—but, it is much better to be extra safe than super sorry.

Rich Shay suggested a potential partial fix solution to the Eternal card theft problem that I 100% endorse: Tournament organizers might consider roping off the areas where Eternal tournaments are being played, similarly to a Pro Tour or Day Two of a Grand Prix, so that spectators cannot enter the area where players are engaged in games. If thieves are going to be so bold as to steal decks and backpacks from players while they are distracted with their games, this would at least help to protect players while they are in this vulnerable position. If such a measure were put into effect at Gen Con, there is zero chance that Kenta’s deck would have been stolen before his match.

Paul Mastriano also had an interesting spin on ways that theft might be deterred. Tournament organizers could plant “dummy bags” with binders and cards, where the binders themselves are planted with tracking devices to help find and weed out and catch the thieves. It is also likely that it might, if tracked down, lead the police to other stolen collections.

I don’t know the logistics of homing devices and whether or not it is actually practical—but, nonetheless it is clear that theft is becoming a bigger and more crippling threat to Eternal players and that something should be done. At the very least, players can help themselves by being extremely cautious and aware of their belongings at all time; and also, I feel that having roped off areas for large scale Eternal events at large conventions is also probably a “no brainer” precaution that would help.


In between rounds of Nationals, and after my tournament ended, I was firmly glued to the rail watching the drama of the Vintage Championship unfold. The fallout from what transpired at North America’s most prestigious Vintage event is going to be far-reaching and format redefining.

First things first:

Make no mistake about it—Blightsteel Colossus is, without a doubt, public enemy number one. Round after round, match after match, all I saw was people getting killed by Tinker –> Blightsteel Colossus.

Magic’s most deadly robot is without a doubt Vintage’s best victory condition—and it isn’t even close.

Traditionally, blue decks feature a primary victory condition and a backup plan. For instance, in the Gifts Ungiven decks of the past, the most efficient way to end a game was to Gifts into a Yawgmoth’s Will/Tendrils of Agony kill; however, if that wasn’t possible, a Gifts pilot could fall back on Tinker for Darksteel Colossus.

Now, when we approach building blue decks, I think it is safe to assume that nearly every deck’s best direct route to ending the game is Blightsteel Colossus with an alternate fallback plan.

What is interesting (in contrast to the pure stupidity of Blightsteel Colossus being uninteresting and obvious) is that nobody really knows what the objectively “best” backup plan to complement BSC will be.

Three premier blue mages—Paul Mastriano, Steven Menendian, and Rich Shay—all made the top eight of the Championship piloting blue Gush decks with Blightteel Colossus as their primary victory condition; however, all three mages featured very different secondary ways of ending the game.

What is the ideal backup plan to Blightsteel Colossus?

Paul and Steve played identical lists featuring Dark Confidant and Trygon Predator. The only difference was two cards: Steve had two copies of Vendilion Clique to push the beatdown envelope, and Paul’s deck had Time Vault and Voltaic Key. Rich’s deck featured no creatures, but instead used Gush/Fastbond to fuel Tendrils of Agony.

I hate to make the claim that Gush is public enemy #1, but the prevalence of the archetype in top eight seems to suggest that it is. However, it doesn’t seem to me that the card Gush really the issue here; but rather, thus far Gush simply appears to be the best way to consistently produce, protect, and combat Blightsteel Colossus.

For every one game I saw a blue deck kill somebody with Key + Vault, the combat step, or Tendrils, I saw Blightteel fueled victories five times—not an exaggeration.

While efficient at being disruptive, the Slash Panther Mud decks may be outmoded—especially if more blue players move toward the better Blightteel Colossus decks that the Vintage masters unleashed on the world at Champs.

Vintage expert Nick Detwiler sleeved up an interesting Workshop variant that I believe may be an indicator of where Workshop builds need to be heading in the future to compete with the new blue decks. After the event I was speaking to Steven Menendian, and I asserted that in order to compete with the dominance of Blightsteel Colossus, Workshop decks will likely return to packing Goblin Welder. Steve was quick to inform me that Nick Detwiler had actually been playing such a list at Vintage Champs. Nick and the Forino brothers designed a Workshop deck that is quite impressive and well suited to survive and compete in the upcoming months.

Also, note that Nick is playing Mental Misstep out of the sideboard. I would be very surprised if, all things considered, Mental Misstep didn’t become a prominent part of the metagame moving forward.

Here is my Mental Misstep story:

I come home from work and check the New Phyrexia spoiler. I read of a card called “Mental Misstep.” I read the text four times and determine that it is clearly a typo. I take a shower and return to my computer and reread the card a dozen times.

I call Patrick Chapin:

“So, I read the text of Mental Misstep correctly?”


“So, it’s just the best Legacy card since Brainstorm and Swords to Plowshares?”

“It’s also insane in Vintage.”

“Eh, sideboard card probably.”

“Nope, format definer.”

“Doubtful, it’s a dead draw against Workshop.”

“Wait and see.”

And here we are.

I’ll be damned if we might very well be living in a Type One world where Workshops are packing Welders and Mental Misstep. While I may possess the talent to understand where Vintage will be a month or two in the future I am often awed by Patrick’s ability to see three or four months down the road.


STEVEN MENENDIAN: “I don’t always play Magic—but when I do, I prefer Vintage. Stay broken my friends.” (Literally, while drinking a Dos Equis before top eight of Vintage Champs.)

BRIAN DEMARS (ME): “Dark Confidant is awesome in the way that Tarmogoyf is awesome; Vendilion Clique is awesome in the way that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is awesome.”

I reserve the right to cite extreme variance…”

In my last article “The Vintage Survival Guide,” I made the claim that neither Oath of Druids nor Dredge would ever win a Vintage Championship.

Dredge won.

I also said a lot of other things in my article that readers who were planning on playing in Vintage Champs should have taken heed of. For instance, I also said that people should play six cards in their decks to combat Dredge.

My assertion that Dredge would never win a Top 8 was predicated upon two distinct assertions.

  1. Players would have (and I recommended six cards as the appropriate number) sideboard hate to combat Dredge.
  2. Dredge is incapable of beating three good players consecutively who have an adequate plan for beating it.

Mark’s route to top eight is tangential from what my expectation was for how players would prepare for Dredge. His first round opponent has zero cards and no plan for beating Dredge; his second round opponent only had four cards, and his finals opponent only had four cards.

My point wasn’t that people should write Dredge off and snap lose to it. My point was that it is powerful enough that one should devote over a third of their sideboard to it to ensure they can defeat it.

Here is what I wrote in my article:

Since neither of these decks can possibly win I am sure this won’t actually matter, but in the near-impossible event that Oath or Dredge does win, I reserve the right to cite extreme variance.”

var·i·ance noun

  1. the state, quality, or fact of being variable, divergent, different, or anomalous.

My expectation for the quality of deckbuilding and preparedness of players in a Vintage Championship top eight is that the majority of the players have the tools and testing to be good against Dredge after sideboard. I stated that players NEEDED six cards for that matchup in their sideboards—0, 4, 4.  

Hmm. No 6s.


Also, in game three of the finals, the Dredge player had to raw dog topdeck a Chain of Vapor to not die to a Blightsteel Colossus, despite the fact that his opponent had an inadequate sideboard.


I actually have less of a problem with the finals game three four-outer than I do with the fact that people were completely unprepared to beat a Dredge deck. It isn’t the Dredge player’s fault that he made a reasonable decision to sideboard in Chain of Vapor in case he needed it in just such a circumstance. Having live cards and drawing them isn’t a crime, nor is it particularly unreasonable; if anything it’s pretty lucky, but one has to get a little bit lucky to win a big tournament. (In the Vintage Survival Guide, one of my captions was “Be Ready to Run Good,” which, if neither you nor your opponent is punting, can become fairly relevant from time to time.)

If someone would have told me before the event that the metagame was such that a Dredge pilot could play round after round against players who didn’t have the tools to beat it, I would have probably said that: “Dredge will probably just win.”

My expectation was that, because it is common knowledge that Dredge is a deck, the tools exist to consistently defeat it (if you choose to), and the knowledge of these tools is common that people would use this information to their advantage; the fact that they didn’t is baffling to me.

I live in a realistic world, one where I don’t lose to Dredge or Oath of Druids. If other people choose not to live in the same world as I do, well, that is their decision. I told everybody what to do—sideboard six cards for the matchup.

It is unfortunate that nobody wrote a survival guide suggesting ways that players might position their Vintage decks for the Championship tournament…

Congratulations to Mark, the 2011 Vintage Champion!


Yesterday I learned that the format for the next Pro Tour has been changed from what looked to be the most miserable Extended format I could possibly imagine—if I were actually trying to create the worst format imaginable, it would probably look very similar to what the scheduled Extended actually looked like—to what looks to be one of the coolest formats I could possibly imagine, Modern.

Thank you, Wizards.

Modern is without a doubt the closest I will ever get to playing in a Vintage Pro Tour. I am very, very excited about the news and am equally excited to start playing the format.

The banned list for the format is awesome; pretty much every single card I would have banned if I had a choice is banned. A format where I get to play with a huge card pool and awesome old cards and where all of the cards (Bitterblossom, Jace, Stoneforge Mystic, Glimpse, Jitte, Valakut, Hypergenesis, etc.) that have made me hate competitive Magic throughout the years are banned is very welcome news. These cards removed a lot of potential for originality in deckbuilding by virtue of their being better by a large margin than everything else.

Modern looks like a really great format. THUMBS UP!!!!

Thanks for reading.

Brian DeMars