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Vintage 101: Deep Blue


Welcome to part three of my intro course on the oldest Magic format, Vintage 101. The first article discussed the "pillars" of the format, and the second had a few decks at different price points. Today things get more advanced. Vintage is a deep format and people have actually written entire books on single cards. These articles help provide insight for a beginner, but many people will choose to seek out further information.

Never Stop Learning

If you build a Vintage deck and start playing, you may find yourself overwhelmed at first. This "lost feeling" can be exacerbated if your only Magic playing experience is Standard and Limited. Modern has some additional interactions (beyond that of Standard) that get a little more complicated, but Vintage takes things to a whole new level. Vintage games sometimes involve "stack fights" where players each add multiple spells to the stack at the same time, trying to gain an advantage over their opponent. That happens in Modern too, but not to the same degree. Stack fights (sometimes called "counter wars") are just one thing that you're bound to run into while playing a match. The level of knowledge required to become adept at this format goes beyond the limited space I have to work with in a single Magic article.

One thing I recommend you do is to seek out and read a primer on the deck you're going to build. If you've already built the deck it isn't too late to read a primer, even if you've been playing with it. The tips and tidbits I put into the last two articles only offer a cursory explanation of what to expect. Once you start playing, you will outgrow the information quickly, and you'll likely need or want to know much more. 

One of the best places to find primers on Vintage decks is The Mana Drain. The Mana Drain (TMD for short) is a forum that has been around for a long time, and some of the best Vintage players in the world have posted valuable information there. Membership is free and required to post on the forum. You can also find tournament listings, rules Q&A's, and other things of interest to members of the Vintage community. I highly recommend that you join TMD if you're interested in becoming a Vintage player.

Other than TMD, there is a forum called The Source that also has Vintage material. The Source is primarily Legacy-oriented, but you can have some good discussions about Vintage as well. Facebook has many groups dedicated to Magic: the Gathering and there are at least two that are focused on Vintage.

Other than reading, the best way to learn about a Magic format is to get some real-life experience playing it. If you're a Magic Online player there is a great way to get some free, low-pressure tournament experience. is the hub for player-run tournaments on Magic Online, and there's a free bi-weekly Vintage tournament listed there. The events have prize support donated by Cardhoarder and they're a lot of fun. There's also a prize for the best performing budget deck, so even if you haven't fully invested in Vintage, you can try it out. There have been some talented players in those events, and you'll be getting worthwhile practice for Daily Events or your local paper tournament. 

Gush - by Kev Walker

Many new players will pick up a Blue-based deck because many of the iconic restricted cards are Blue. However fun drawing lots of extra cards may be, that only takes a player so far. There's a lot more to playing Blue than just casting Ancestral Recall or Timetwister. To give the future Blue mages of the world an idea of what to expect, I'm going to go over a few cards and tactics to be mindful of when you're playing a Vintage match. Today I've decided to focus on Counterspells and "Blue Decks."

Stack Battles and Missteps

Many of today's Standard players are only familiar with forms of countermagic like Cancel or Dissolve. Counterspell itself hasn't been in a core set since 7th Edition, and Mana Leak was last in Standard when Magic 2012 was legal. Playing around your opponent's counters is a lot different when they cost less than three mana, and it becomes even more difficult when the counters cost one-mana or less. Zvi Moshowitz wrote a terrific article on the subject of playing around counters for Daily MTG. I'd suggest it to anyone who wants to go deeper on the subject.

A quick point to playing against counters is to use "bait spells." Play a card that you don't care about losing first to draw out your opponent's counter will increase the chances that your more important spell will resolve. The more you play the format, the more apparent it becomes which cards are important in different matchups. This experience in turn allows you to make better choices on how to sequence your spells. It may seem like your opponent has an infinite supply of countermagic, but trust me, they do not. You can beat them if you apply the correct methodology. 

Another thing you will need to be aware of are the types of counters you're likely to see. Vintage has some Counterspells that are not legal in any other format. If you aren't cognizant of what they are, you can set yourself up for defeat.


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The most iconic of Vintage Counterspells is probably Force of Will or Mana Drain. Mana Drain is the classic example of a powerful CounterspellMana Drain plays out much the same as cards like Cancel, but it is only two mana and provides a huge upside that Cancel does not. Mana Drain "drains" your opponent's mana. When you use Mana Drain, the converted mana cost of the countered spell is added to your mana pool during your next main phase. Playing into your opponent's Mana Drain could end up helping them cast one of their powerful spells, leaving you on the backfoot. 


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Mana Drain into Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a classic Vintage play.

Force of Will is one of the most powerful counters ever printed. It is also one of the weakest. Being able to unconditionally answer any card is very powerful, especially when you're not paying any mana to do so. However, anyone familiar with the concept of card advantage will realize that trading two cards for one can put you behind. In general, if you can counter a spell without wasting a Force of Will then that is the better choice. The last thing you want to do is burn up all of your Forces on something unimportant, only to lose to a freshly-drawn bomb from your opponent.


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Mental Misstep is a card that's unique to Vintage. That's because it has been banned in every other format it is eligible in. The card is viewed by many people as a mistake. Any deck can choose to play Misstep. Even in Vintage I've seen people call for it to be restricted, but I don't see that happening any time soon. Having Mental Misstep in the format means that your one-drops are not safe against a tapped-out opponent. Even if your opponent isn't playing Blue, there is a chance they could be playing the card. Because of this you may want to consider playing a bait spell to try to make your opponent waste their Misstep if they have one. One example is to lead with something like a Preordain or Thoughtseize to clear a path for your Ancestral Recall or Dark Ritual

If your deck is packing Mental Misstep, you can use them to counter your opponent's Missteps to ensure your more important spells resolve. Some people burn their Mental Missteps on the first legal target that they see, and I think that is a mistake. Sometimes countering a Preordain with a Misstep is correct, but often times you can find better targets for the Misstep. If I notice my opponent has missed a land drop, then I'll almost always counter any Preordain, Ponder, or Brainstorm they play just to stay ahead on lands for as long as I can.


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Another card that sees a lot of Vintage play is Flusterstorm. Flusterstorm is only legal in Legacy and Vintage. The nature of the way Flusterstorm works makes it very difficult to counter.

Flusterstorm uses the storm mechanic. The way storm works is that it adds multiple copies of the card to the stack. The amount is tied to the number of spells cast that turn. This mechanic has two potent effects. First, the more spells that have been played that turn, the harder it is to pay for Flusterstorm. Secondly, unlike every other Counterspell, Flusterstorm cannot be answered with just one card. It is the second point that makes Flusterstorm the blowout that it is. In a normal counter war, the person with the most counters is almost always going to win. Flusterstorm can beat a tapped-out opponent even if they have multiple copies of Force of Will. This interaction occurs because you would need a different card to counter each copy of Flusterstorm. Flusterstorm is extremely valuable in the Blue-on-Blue match up. A crafty mage can bait an opponent into casting Force of Will just to gain an advantage with Flusterstorm. Trading two cards for one with Force is painful enough. Losing your Force to a Flusterstorm is even worse.

Sometimes you won't be able to prevent a Flusterstorm blowout. The case could be that the card you need to counter will kill you if it resolved. When that's the case, you just have to hope they don't have Flusterstorm. It's possible to counter someone's Flusterstorm with your own copy, but it can be tricky. You'll need to calculate how many copies your Flusterstorm will have, and you'll have to make sure that each copy can effectively counter the opponent's copies. Remember to wait until all copies of Flutterstorm are added to the stack, that way your opponent will have already chosen targets for them.


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Mindbreak Trap is another card that can really ruin someone's day. It's also the only card (that sees play) that can counter a Flusterstorm besides Flusterstorm itself. This isn't a spell that's widely played at the moment, but it is important to watch out for regardless. If you suspect Mindbreak Trap, you can try to play around it by only casting two spells a turn. Keep in mind Mindbreak Trap works by exiling spells, so it can effectively counter uncounterable spells like Abrupt Decay or Supreme Verdict.

It's also important to remember Mindbreak Trap and Flusterstorm are the only counters that can stop a Storm deck's win condition, Tendrils of Agony or Empty the Warrens. On the surface countering a Tendrils may appear to be their primary use, but in fact these two spells are used to counter normal spells far more often. Storm is not a large a part of the Vintage metagame these days, but Flusterstorm certainly is. 

Other widely-played forms of countermagic include Spell Pierce and Pyroblast. It is fairly common for Blue decks to splash Red, and Pyroblast / Red Elemental Blast are two bonuses for doing so. Spell Pierce sees play in Legacy and Modern, so you're probably familiar with it. Both spells are susceptible to Mental Misstep, so they are not a guaranteed trump in a stack battle. 

A Tale of two "Blue" Decks

If you look at various Vintage decks, you'll notice many decks play Blue. Many new Vintage players are attracted to the flashy and powerful Blue spells in the format. Broadly speaking, decks of this ilk tend to get a lot of attention. But to say they are all the same is fundamentally flawed. Most of the decks people refer to as "Blue" have many distinct differences. Let's take a look at a couple of different decks with a similar Blue core: 

Here we have a Grixis Control deck. Decks like this are referred to as "Grixis Thieves" due to the combination of Dack Fayden and Notion Thief. Dack is the "greatest thief in the multiverse" according to his lore, and Notion Thief is apparently just a thief. With a Notion Thief on the battlefield, you can target an opponent with Dack's +1 "loot" ability, which causes him or her to draw two cards and discard two cards. Notion Thief "steals" the two cards your opponent would draw, and they end up discarding two cards as well. It's like casting a free Mind Rot and Divination every single turn, which needless to say, is back-breaking. 

This build of Grixis is running three copies of Mana Drain. Playing with Drains in your deck means you're going to want to keep at least two Blue mana up whenever possible. Grixis decks have "free" counters like Force of Will and cheap counters like Spell Pierce, Flusterstorm, or Pyroblast, but they are not "tap out" style control decks. 

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If you look at the mana base, you will see that Grixis Thieves is running an expansive suite of artifact mana. All of the Moxen, Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, and Sol Ring found in this list help accelerate the broken plays the deck is capable of. A starting hand of Moxen can create some powerful openings, and sometimes you can win on the spot. This explosiveness does come with a cost. Playing such a large amount of mana-producers can lead to flooding out. Many Blue decks play a similar number of mana artifacts, but others do not. Whether or not a deck will choose to play all of the Moxen depends entirely on what the deck is trying to do.

Grixis Thieves-style decks want to resolve one of their powerful, game-ending bombs. Many times the correct line for the deck will involve waiting for the opponent to make a move and countering the spell with Mana Drain. The extra mana that Mana Drain provides can be pumped into cards like Tinker, Time Vault, or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The drain also has the effect of freeing up a few lands to cast Counterspells on your own turn to protect your bombs. 

It's possible to win quickly with a deck like Grixis Thieves, but more often than not this deck will take a more controlling role. Ideally, you'll either sculpt a hand that enables you to force through one of your game-ending bombs, or you'll draw multiple bombs and overpower your opponent's counters with the sheer volume of threats.

The second Blue deck pictured above is very different from Grixis Thieves even though the decks share two of the same colors. Vintage Delver is a tempo deck and an aggro-control deck. This style of deck doesn't mind tapping out most of the time. Leaving one mana open is often plenty for the defensive cards it employs. 

The threats that a deck like Delver plays all have a low converted mana cost. This trait allows the deck to take a more aggressive role in many match ups. By themselves, these spells are generally weaker than the "bombs" some other decks play, but the rest of the Delver shell adds to their power level. Young Pyromancer quickly spirals out of control for opponents, and even if it is dealt with quickly, it leaves a horde of Elemental tokens behind. Delver of Secrets will transform into the formidable Insectile Aberration very quickly as these decks are composed of thirty or more instants and sorceries. 

The low mana cost of Delver's threats, coupled with the synergies that Delver and Young Pyromancer have with instants and sorceries means that artifact mana sources would be detrimental. That's why you see Delver decks running only a Black Lotus, Mox Sapphire, and Mox Ruby. Even when these Delver decks splash a third color, they often choose not to run a Mox for that color. 

The low mana count of Delver decks creates "virtual card advantage." That is to say when this deck plays an Ancestral Recall, each one of the cards drawn is less likely to be a mana source and more likely to be something useful. The low amount of lands means that this deck often uses its main draw-engine Gush for more than just drawing cards. Gush can be used as a sort of "ritual" effect. For example, it's turn three, you need to cast Dack Fayden, and you have yet to draw a third land. With a Volcanic Island, any other Island, and Gush, you can get three mana. You simply "float" the two mana (one Red, one Blue), cast Gush for its alternate casting cost, replay one of the lands, and tap it for the final point of mana. You should be familiar with this play when playing with Gush as it comes up quite often. 

Much of the time taking an aggressive role will be in your best interest. There are few decks in Vintage that play more creatures than a Delver deck, and the control-combo decks and straight control decks need to be overpowered with a steady stream of efficient threats.

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Two very different shades of blue

Piloting a Grixis Thieves deck is going to be very different from piloting Vintage Delver. While they both share several of the same cards, the fundamental strategy behind both archetypes is more different than the card selections alone would suggest. If you can't grasp the differences, it becomes difficult to understand which lines to take. 

If you're playing Grixis Thieves and decide to get aggressive with an early Tinker into Blightsteel Colossus, you might find your Colossus stolen by Dack Fayden. If instead you build up a hand with multiple counters or a Time Walk, that Tinker is more likely to win the game. 

Delver decks don't have cards that take infinite turns or cheat out a creature that kills an opponent in one shot. Delver wants to kill someone quickly before they can resolve a bomb. Delver decks do play a healthy amount of card-draw and countermagic, but I find it's best to use those spells to keep an opponent on their back foot while attacking for three each turn.

Sometimes people talk about Vintage derogatorily by saying, "Everyone plays Blue." I always counter with, "Blue is not a deck." Delver is a deck. Grixis Thieves is a deck. Control Slaver, which shares many of the same cards as Grixis Thieves, is a distinct deck. To call all these decks "Blue" and treat them the same way is a recipe for disaster. There are a ton of different archetypes that share a Blue core. Fetch lands and the original dual lands make multi-colored decks incredibly easy to make. They're the norm.

It makes sense that people would confuse different archetypes in Vintage because many decks do share quite a few cards. That rationale is to be expected when you have a format with cards so powerful they're limited to one copy per deck. Once you learn about the intricacies of each archetype, labeling decks as "Blue" looks silly. 

"Blue decks" are also not the end-all, be-all of Vintage. Next week I'll touch on some of the decks without Islands that make up the format. 

See you in seven days! You can follow me on Twitter @josephfiorinijr or Islandswamp on Magic Online. 

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