Vintage: How to Ruin a Format in Eight Easy Steps

Debate has raged for years over whether the Pros would ruin Vintage if they ever bothered to pay attention to the format. Finally, after an argument over dinner with Randy Buehler, Teddy Card Game had had enough. Armed with one of the most powerful writing forces ever assembled and culminating with the Power 9 Shooting Stars in Rochester on June 11th, he decided to test that theory by asking our Pro Tour writers to work on the Vintage format and see if they can break it. This is an event that simply cannot be missed, as whatever the result is, it will reverberate throughout the Magic community. Appropriately enough, it all starts today with the master of broken decks, Zvi Mowshowitz.

Debate has raged for years over whether the Pros would ruin Vintage if they ever bothered to pay attention to the format. Finally, after an argument over dinner with Randy Buehler, Teddy Card Game had had enough. Armed with one of the most powerful writing forces ever assembled and culminating with the Power 9 Shooting Stars in Rochester, he have decided to test that theory by asking our Pro Tour writers to work on the format and see if they can break it. Appropriately enough, it all starts today… with Zvi.

Vintage: How to Ruin a Format in Eight Easy Steps

Show you how leadership looks when taught by the best? Look no further! Right now, Proxy-Vintage is a wonderful format. It has action. It has drama. It has glorious alien sex scenes. It’s great! True Vintage has a major issue with card access, which the proxy rule has made manageable. However, Ted has a very stupid idea. He thinks that pros should attack the Vintage format in earnest. He thinks this will be good for the format.

He’s wrong.

No good can come of this.

Right now, Vintage is as good as you could hope that it would be, given the obvious dangers. There’s no reason that Vintage has to have more than one viable deck in it, given how many broken cards are available, and I would never have guessed without knowing what is out there that the format isn’t just viable but actively healthy. I can think of various scenarios for how the “Vintage endgame” might play out at the end of a PTQ season, but none of the likely ones end with more than four or five viable options and many have less than that.

If you don't laugh at this one, you have no soul.

At that wonderful Brazilian meat palace we went to in Atlanta, Randy Buehler was warning our fine editor that calling in the pros would ruin the format. Having one of us come in every now and then and play a deck someone handed off is good harmless fun, but if we start taking things too seriously, we’re all in trouble. To those who spend countless hours working on Vintage and think that us so-called experts would be shrugged off, I point to two things. One is the record of formats when they are left alone for a while and then attacked by the Pros. Time after time, diversity gives way to a small number of deadly weapons tuned to within an inch of their lives.

The second is how those who have come from the Pro circuit to Star City’s tournaments have done. My guess is that it wouldn’t be about us coming up with huge innovations or new decks. What we would do is take the current field and identify which decks were the cream of the crop, then make them even better by going that extra mile and finding the right fifty-ninth and sixtieth cards along with improving the sideboard. Soon you’ll be sitting down to your fourth straight match against Control Slaver for the second time in three tournaments, or whichever deck comes out on top, wondering how it all went wrong. Then you’ll think back to this week and you’ll know.

So before I go any further than this initial exploration, I beg of you. Get Ted to pull the plug! Plead with him. Beg and steal. Keep your format for yourselves. Once you open Pandora’s Box, it cannot be closed. However, who am I to pass up the chance to see what happens when I arm myself with Black Lotus and Yawgmoth’s Will and all those other goodies that no sane man would ever give to a Magic player. Alternatively, think of this as a disclaimer: Having people like me think, write about and God forbid test your format is hazardous to its health. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I started without a long-term plan because thanks to the timing of the Pro Tour and the request that I wait to begin, it won’t be long before I have to play. I’m therefore going to try for the quick knockout. If it fails, I’ll know more about the landscape. If it succeeds, even better. While there are several places to look for such a knockout, there is one that demands its own unique approach. Magic, meet Meandeck Tendrils.

Stephen Menendian and Justin Walters wrote a huge three-part article on the proper play of this deck, and I highly recommend it. [Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 – Knut, on point] I didn’t need that level of detail, because decks like this come naturally to me, but even then I found the primer highly useful and most people haven’t wasted a good chunk of their lives acquiring proficiency in such things. I started off by taking five test draws against the goldfish going first, and after two mulligans won the five games in a combined seven turns: One per game plus one for each mulligan. Against the goldfish this is the best deck Magic has ever seen and it’s not even close. When Justin says that you should win on turn 1 more than half the time with proper play, I’m ready to believe him. The one card in the deck that seems odd to me is Hurkyl’s Recall, but I suppose that there are times that it will give you both storm and mana to end the game where no other card would and with Demonic Consultation and Demonic Tutor both in the deck that adds a lot of value. You also got to bounce Trinisphere, Chalice of the Void, or Platinum Angel with it. I’m looking at the card suspiciously, with the flip side of that being that aside from Barbed Sextant, I’m not sure what I would want to insert into the deck. Having four Chromatic Sphere and no Barbed Sextant seems like an oddly round answer to the question of the ideal number of such cards.

The problem came when I tried to repeat that initial performance over time. The deck refused to cooperate. I was trying to see if I could play quicker, or see if the ratios were slightly off, but instead what I found was draw after draw that simply would not work. I wasn’t just fizzling, I was being forced to mulligan and otherwise not even given a chance. I was running out of mana with hands that included Black Lotus. Things didn’t look good. It comes down to the deck having a core of very good cards and a secondary level of cards that are not as high quality. I love drawing the restricted cards even more when I’m playing this deck than I used to when I was playing other decks back in the day. Of course, no sooner did I finish typing that then I shot off two first-turn kills and started feeling better again. This is the central dilemma of Magic testing. I should be taking fifty goldfishes, or a hundred, and that’s after I am confident I’m making correct decisions. Instead, I’ve now done perhaps fifteen.

For now, I will therefore accept Justin’s numbers on how the deck runs when played correctly. They seem optimistic, but not insane. His matchup numbers are in large part a derivative of your goldfish numbers, so those will require more thought and I’ll come back to them when I tackle other decks. If there’s one worry I have it is that Justin essentially assumes that the Tendrils player will play and board the deck correctly. No deck is always played correctly by anyone who doesn’t devote a ton of time to it.

The Limit of Skill

In his article, Justin makes a very interesting statement. He claims that Tendrils can beat anything more than half the time, but against a skilled opponent many decks cannot be beaten much more than half the time and as a result this deck does not have tournament advantage even if it is above 50% everywhere. Mathematically, of course, if you are above 50% every match other than pure mirrors played against nearly perfect players, then you have a greater than average chance to win the tournament. (Quick proof: If you were 50/50 every match, then you would end up in each position the same percentage of the time. Every potential matchup above 50% has to make that chance to win better. QED.) However, there is an upper limit to how good Tendrils can match up against most decks. There are going to be three types of opponents:

I wonder if they get bigger if you add them to a bigger tank.

1) Opponents that let you goldfish

These guys are sitting ducks, and if you know you don’t have to turn 1 them then you can put up very good numbers. It is easy to see that this deck will do very well when given three or four turns before it has to win and it knows that it has them. The more time you have, the better you’ll do. However, this implies an opponent without Duress, Force of Will or anything else that can mess you up on turn 1. If I know one thing about what deck I would choose, it is this: The only way it lets Tendrils goldfish is if I think I can put up goldfish numbers that are at least as good. In that case, either I’m playing the mirror or Tendrils has some stiff competition. Note that after sideboarding you have to fear any number of first-turn sideboard cards and have to strongly consider taking any reasonable shot at a turn 1 kill, even if you know their basic strategy is irrelevant.

2) Opponents that can stop your goldfish, but can’t put you away and lose anyway

Once again, if they have such a bad deck then they’re going down, but those aren’t the players you have to worry about, and most that you shouldn’t have to worry about will still be in the third category. The less you feel rushed against them the better you will do, but still watch out for various ways for them to stop you in the end.

3) Opponents where the matchup comes down to opening hands and coin flips

This is the problem, because most good players will choose decks in this category. There is not much you can do here except play correctly and hope you get the breaks you need.

The good news here is that your skills will be tested by Tendrils, so you get mileage out of knowing your deck and being a strong player. You’ll mulligan correctly, you’ll play cards in the right order, you’ll read opponents for Force of Will. That’s all well and good, but this runs into the same problem that ID19 (my Yawgmoth’s Bargain deck) ran into. If you don’t play it correctly, your results will be awful, but if you play perfectly, bad opponents will still steal a decent number of matches off of you. While you force them to make unfamiliar decisions, you’re taking away the ones they’re the worst at. There is not much interaction, no creature combat, no counter wars and test spells, no tricky Yawgmoth’s Wills. They can only mess up so much, and that limits your advantage. Using Force of Will or Duress with less than perfect precision won’t earn you that much.

The Marx Paradox

Now think about the combined effects here. A bad player can’t play this deck, because he won’t get the goldfish numbers out of it and that takes away the whole point of playing the deck. A good player can play the deck, but he won’t have that much advantage against bad players. He’ll have a large advantage on some, but not as big as if he’d chosen a deck like Control Slaver. A small deck advantage remains in the other matches, but because his opponents’ mistakes are limited, he won’t win that often. Thus as a good player can’t play the deck either because he can do better by using Control Slaver, at least if the reports I hear are true. If you don’t like Slaver, substitute something else. It all comes down to paying about three or four mana for something and then in short order ending the game, one way or the other.

In other words, Tendrils might be the best deck but even if it was and everyone knew that, no one who can play the deck properly will want to: The Marx Paradox. Groucho, not Karl. Therefore, it’s time to name Five Good Reasons to play Tendrils of Agony at your next StarCityGames.com Power 9 event…

1) You hate playing Magic and would rather work on a logic puzzle while chilling with your friends for forty minutes a round.

2) It’s not about how much fun you have, it’s about how miserable you make your opponents.

3) Proxy-based formats are evil and it is your duty to destroy them.

4) If enough people play Tendrils, then everyone has to play it, and when everyone is special then no one will be!

5) You have a pathological fear of the word “go.”

All right, there they are: Five good reasons. Note that number four is the most significant. Suppose that the good players were playing Tendrils. Now you have a choice: You can coin flip against them, or you can… coin flip against them. At this point, you might as well get the most out of those flips as you can. Suddenly Vintage is nothing but players trying to be good enough at flipping to have 55-45 edges… and we’re looking down at Tendrils of Agony or Dark Ritual as another restricted card.

The good news is that I don’t share the requirements for any of the five good reasons, and therefore I won’t be playing this deck. I also don’t feel like putting the hours into learning how to play the deck perfectly against Force of Will, especially after sideboarding. That sounds boring, as does the play. As a bonus, I’d like to point out something else as well…

Why I (Almost Certainly) Won’t Be Running TurboLand

I’m not suicidal.

Oh, that wasn’t detailed enough? All right, I’ll flesh it out. TurboLand wins when it has good matchups and loses when it has bad ones, like every other Magic deck in history that was competitive without being broken. At certain times it might even have been the best Extended deck, and yes it gains from Vintage. Fastbond is great, and you can toss in the Forbidden Orchard engine to go with the Battlefield Scrounger. You make the top three cards Gush, Black Lotus and Yawgmoth’s Will, and if you untap, then things get ugly quickly. If you play one Time Warp you’re going to take infinite turns. If you don’t and just rely on the Time Walk, it shouldn’t matter because this game is over. Mishra’s Workshop can power out Horn of Greed, Crucible of Worlds and possibly even Scroll Rack for you. It all sounds great until you try and think about what is out there.

The first problem is that you’re out of your league. Yes, if you get Horn of Greed, Fastbond, Zuran Orb and Crucible of Worlds is a great combination but that’s the only good trick up your sleeve. It’s hard to compare this to a turn 1 kill deck. Consider TPS’s speed and the fact that it still has Duress, Brainstorm and Force of Will. It is unlikely that TL could run more than twelve non-engine non-restricted cards. To me this strategy seems weaker than its competition. That’s the first problem, and the second is far bigger: Matchups.

TurboLand tends to have the following matchup chart:

Deck Type


Creature Decks (Midrange and Fatties)


Creature Decks (Quick Beatdown without non-combat damage)


Creature Decks (Red or Suicide Black)

Good Matchup

Good Stuff / Utility (Can’t Put You Away)


Good Stuff / Utility (Can Put You Away w/o Oath triggering)

It’s a Match

Control (Can’t Put You Away Without Letting You Oath)

Good Matchup

Control (Can Put You Away at any time)

Bad Matchup

Combination Decks (That Kill You)

You lose, get lunch.

Combination Decks (That Don’t)


It all follows a pattern. You are very strong against those who try to defend against you with control elements, and you are very strong against creature decks. You go infinite for the win, which invalidates many of your opponents’ strategies. The best beatdown decks can threaten you but you generally win all your Oath games and a bunch without it. If they have nothing dead and challenge you directly with good control elements like Psychatog, they can win but you have the advantage; if they’re not efficient at it, they’re a bye like Rock. The matchups you lose are those in which your opponent can go off himself, what he does kills you, and he’s faster at it than you are. Your disruption is minimal and no match for his speed.

A control deck that can win at any time off of Mana Drain is your worst nightmare, because your plan against them is to test spell them into oblivion. If they counter your spells, they run out of them and lose. If they let you develop your engine, their position gets worse until their counters won’t get the job done anymore. That doesn’t work if the moment you cast a Horn of Greed they Mana Drain it, untap and win. Oops.

The natural advantage of playing Turbo-Land is invalidated in this kind of world, which means that the only reason to run it would be if the combination was actually as good or better than the alternatives at winning the game. If Trinisphere were still around, I could see it because that would justify your use of Mishra’s Workshop and you can go off under Trinisphere faster than other combination decks. At least you’d have a shot. Instead the situation seems rather hopeless, and the choice between good mana and mana that counts as lands is not an easy one for you to solve. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be on the lookout for a solution. It’s possible that the deck can be combined with any number of things. Could it be a Landstill hybrid, for example? I don’t know. If I think I can win this way, I’ll do it, but if you’re a betting man then the smart money is on me playing one of the more normal decks.