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Vintage 101: Eternal Champions


The Vintage Championships

This is a special installment of Vintage 101 for a few reasons. First of all, this marks the one-year anniversary of this column. Secondly, there's only a week until the 2016 Vintage Championships at Eternal Weekend. I'm honored to have been able to write this column for this long, and I'm looking forward to what the next year will bring. I wish I could tell you that I'll be in attendance at Eternal Weekend, but unfortunately it's just not in the cards for me this year.The Vintage Championships have been going on since 2003, and it is by far the most coveted prize in the Vintage community. Due to logistical constraints, Vintage (and Legacy for that matter) do not get to be played on the Pro Tour. For the competitive Vintage player, the title of Vintage Champion is the ultimate goal. The tournament is usually the largest Vintage event of the year, and it's full of high-level play and exciting decks. 

This time of year is full of people brewing up secret deck lists and working on figuring out the expected metagame. I'll make a few observations and predictions for the event at the end of the article, but first I think it would be interesting to look at a few of the past Vintage Champions. 

2003 The First Vintage Championship

Carl Winter won the first Vintage Championship in 2003 with this Psychatog deck. I was on a hiatus from Magic during this time period, but luckily for me Carl wrote an excellent tournament report about his victory on Starcity.

As you can see from the deck list, things were much different in 2003. Brainstorm was still unrestricted then, and the wonderful Phyrexian mana spells like Mental Misstep and Gitaxian Probe weren't hindering creativity yet. This deck utilized the Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge draw engine, probably because Gush was restricted at the time.

The format at the time featured decks like 4-Color 'Phid , Keeper , Goblin Sligh, and Flash combo. None of those decks are around these days, due to the evolution of the format. Flash hasn't been viable since it was restricted, and although some people think it would be safe to unrestrict I don't think that's a good idea. 

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Although I wasn't playing Vintage at the time, the research I've done into the format makes me wish that I had experienced it firsthand. Mana Drain is barely playable these days, which seems sad to me. Drain was literally considered a pillar of the format and now it is relegated to a few decks here and there. I very much enjoy contemporary Vintage, but I wish that Mana Drain was as ubiquitous in blue decks as Mental Misstep has become. 

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Psychatog is another interesting card that is no longer relevant to the format. Although the 'Tog itself is gone, I like to think that its design space is still being utilized. Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor have a lot in common with Psychatog and Quirion Dryad. Pyromancer and Mentor both grow into larger threats as a game progresses, and they also lower your exposure to spot removal. 

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Carl received the first ever trophy painting for winning the event, a Black Lotus with reimagined art by the late, great Christopher Rush. For a few subsequent years these Power Nine paintings were redone by their original artists, but eventually modern artists like Volkan Baga were utilized. 

 

 

2005 This Year Belongs to Mishra

In 2005 Roland Chang dominated the field with five-color Stax. 

 

Roland's five-color Stax deck was typical of the era. Before Lodestone Golem and the mono-artifact MUD decks, playing five colors with your Mishra's Workshop deck was commonplace. Even though this archetype isn't your typical control deck, it can feel that way when facing it. Prison elements like Smokestack and Tangle Wire lock down opponents, and Sundering Titan acts as a one-sided Armageddon against dual-land mana bases. 

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Goblin Welder was a much more powerful card before Mental Misstep was printed, and in this era it was truly something to fear. With Thirst for Knowledge you could cheat creatures and expensive lock pieces into play, and you could even recur Triskelion to win without attacking. 

Smokestack is a central part of this deck, and it's also what makes this a pure prison deck as opposed to the aggro/prison MUD decks of today. With Crucible of Worlds or Goblin Welder you can keep Smokestack going indefinitely, reducing your opponent's board state to rubble. 

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Roland Chang 2005 Vintage Champion

2012 The Year of the Twister

Marc Lanigra's Grixis Control deck looks like the predecessor to the Grixis Thieves decks that were popular for a time in 2015. The end-game is the same. Utilize cards like Tinker, Time Vault, or Blightsteel Colossus to end the game quickly. 

The big difference between this deck and the contemporary lists is that the draw engine is much different. Thirst for Knowledge hadn't been taken off the restricted lists yet, so this deck relies on a combination of Dark Confidants and Jace, the Mind Sculptors to generate card advantage. Jace is still a powerhouse in Vintage, but Dark Confidant has waned in popularity in recent years due to the increased prevalence of spot removal. 

Creatures are much better than they once were, and some of them like Monastery Mentor are downright scary. This change has lead people to run even more removal, so it can be harder to gain an advantage from your Dark Confidants. There does seem to be fewer Lightning Bolts lately, due to the fact that it doesn't kill Thought-Knot Seer. People have been opting for cards like Snuff Out instead of Bolt, which could mean that the environment has become less hostile for Dark Confidant

2012 Vintage Champion Marc Lanigra

2013 The Year of the Fish

2013 happened to be the year that I started playing Magic again after being away from the game for a decade. I hadn't yet started my journey towards competitive Vintage, but I absorbed a ton of content in the early months. One of the first articles that I read was about the Vintage and Legacy championships, and I remember thinking how cool it was that Merfolk had won the Vintage title. 

I had a Merfolk deck back in the stone ages. Lord of Atlantis was the only creature lord at the time, and I remember playing Sunken City to have additional creature buffs in my deck. That old Merfolk deck was truly wretched though, unlike Joel Lim's Vintage Reel Fish deck. 

Joel's deck benefited from all the additional Merfolk that had been printed in Lorwyn and M13. The deck has eight two-drop "Lords," but there's also Merrow Reejery and Phantasmal Image which can pump your team even more. Vintage decks often have blue-based dual lands so these beefy fish end up unblockable. Oh, and you can basically forget about countering any of these creatures because Cavern of Souls says you're out of luck. 

To back up the consistent pressure of the deck there's Null Rod and Wasteland to put a stranglehold on the opponent's mana base. The deck only plays Mox Sapphire and Black Lotus, so Null Rod is very one-sided when utilized in a list like this. There are two copies of  Daze, a card that isn't seen in Vintage much. Daze is actually very good in conjunction with all the land destruction. 

Merfolk have never really swam through the Vintage mainstream, but Joel Lim's run proves that the strategy is viable under the correct circumstances. 

 

2013 Vintage Champion Joel Lim

2014 The Year of the Oath

Mark Tocco became the first Oath pilot to win Vintage Champs in 2014. By playing a streamlined, no-nonsense version of Griselbrand Oath, Mark was able to take down Delver and Workshop decks to win the event in style. Notably this list contained zero delve spells, no Time Vault, and no Yawgmoth's Will

 

 

2014 was dominated by a now notorious sorcery, Treasure Cruise. This was the year that Treasure Cruise was completely legal in Legacy and Vintage Champs, and it was everywhere. In Vintage, Treasure Cruise was the perfect card for the U/R Delver decks, and they ended up being half of the Top Eight of the event. In fact, this Top Eight is notable for only containing three different archetypes. 

Treasure Cruise [KTK] (F)

The second big player in the Top Eight was Mishra's Workshop. Workshop decks are great at punishing decks with small mana bases, and the Cruise/Gush decks could easily fall prey to an early Lodestone Golem. With all of the Delver decks at the event, it only makes sense that Workshops were performing well too. 

When Shops and Delver are top competitors, Oath of Druids starts to look like a fantastic choice to play. Oath is great against Shops, and the Delver decks at the time were an easy match as well. Containment Priest had not yet been printed, so Delver decks only had Grafdigger's Cage and Force of Will to defend against an Oath deck. 

One of the lasting legacies of this event is that Griselbrand BUG Oath decks have been referred to as "Fenton Oath" ever since. This list was initially developed by master Oath of Druids pilot Greg Fenton, and he passed on his tech to Mark. 

2014 Vintage Champion Mark Tocco

2015 The Year of the Dragonlord

In 2015 Brian Kelly smashed through the competition with his unorthodox Bomberman/Oath hybrid. The champ showed the entire world that Dragonlord Dromoka was a force to be reckoned with, and he forever changed the way people thought about Oath of Druids.

 

 

By 2015 the Vintage landscape had evolved with the addition of several key cards. Monastery Mentor and Containment Priest weren't a factor in the previous season, but they were most definitely contenders by August 2015. Treasure Cruise had been restricted since the previous Championship, but people realized that they could simply replace Cruise with Dig Through Time. As it turns out, Dig was just as good if not better than Cruise. Mishra's Workshop was the card to beat going in to the event, with various flavors of Gush decks also being very prominent. The Top Eight of the event was much more varied than in the previous year. Amongst the eight finalists there were two Workshop decks, a Dredge deck, Moat Control, Grixis Thieves, Mentor, and Jeskai Delver. 

In August of 2015 I wrote an article about the metagame I expected to see at Champs, and I included the decks that I thought had a chance to make Top Eight. It turns out that my guesses were pretty accurate, although I predicted that Grixis Thieves wouldn't do well and the deck got second place. I mentioned in my article that I thought that traditional Oath was probably not that well-positioned due to the influx of Mentor and Containment Priest, and I used Brian Kelly's Salvager's Oath as an example of what a successful Oath deck might look like. 

Oath has always been a powerful strategy, but the deck also suffers from problems with consistency. When you're unable to draw an Oath of Druids in a timely fashion it can cause you to lose horribly. Drawing your Oath creatures is almost always bad, as they're hard to put onto the battlefield without a lot of mana or [[Show and Tell]. Mr Kelly realized what the issues that Oath had and built a deck to mitigate them.

Dromoka is featured in the deck because she's easily castable in this deck and because she can't be countered. She also protects all of your spells during your own turn. This means that if you play or Oath into Dromoka you can potentially combo off that turn and win the game unimpeded. Aside from all of the combo-enabling that Dromoka provides, she's a big, flying creature with lifelink. It's not impossible for your opponent to race your Dromoka, but it's certainly not easy either. 

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Auriok Salvagers is the other combo card in Salvagers Oath. With Black Lotus and Pyrite Spellbomb you can infinitely recur your artifacts and do an equally infinite amount of damage! The added bonus is that when you Oath into Salvagers there's a good chance that you gain access to your other combo pieces. The self-milling aspect of Oath becomes a boon as you unlock your Black Lotus from the confines of your library. 

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Brian's deck featured a robust mana base which meant that it was much harder for a Workshop deck to disrupt. Cards like Time VaultShow and Tell, and all the powerful black spells were cut from the deck to make room for multiple copies of Dack Fayden and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. All of the powerful planeswalkers gave the deck paths to victory besides the Oath or Salvagers plan. This multi-faceted strategy meant that the deck was resilient to multiple types of hate cards. 

After winning the event Salvagers Oath went from a fringe deck into a mainstream one. From that point on BUG Oath pilots had to consider whether or not they should simply switch to Salvagers Oath, and most of the time the answer is yes. 

 

2015 Vintage Champion Brian Kelly

 

The 2016 Vintage Championships

It's tough to say exactly what this year's championship tournament will look like, but I have a few ideas. The format has definitely evolved in the past few years, but in many ways it's still defined by Gush and Mishra's Workshop. The big difference is that some key cards have been restricted in the interim (Lodestone, Chalice, Dig and Cruise), and in their place new cards have arrived. 

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The Eldrazi have been an interesting addition to the metagame. The White Eldrazi decks are very similar to Workshop decks in some respects, as both archetypes pressure your mana base through Thorn of Amethysts and Wastelands. I fully expect to see at least three or four Thought-Knot Seers in the Top Eight of the event, but it could be more. White Eldrazi decks are still present in the meta, but it seems like most people have figured out how to beat those decks when they need to. 

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Paradoxical Outcome has been making a splash lately on Magic Online and apparently in private testing sessions as well. I think that these decks will be played by a few folks at Champs, but I'm not confident that they'll break into the Top Eight. I'm sure that several of these decks will have decent runs, but I really feel that the environment at the event will be hostile towards this type of deck. Null Rod isn't unbeatable for these decks, but it certainly is a pain to deal with. There are two decks that run Null Rod that I think will be played in large numbers. 

Tribal Eldrazi will be by far the cheapest sanctioned Vintage deck people can play and it features Null Rod and Chalice of the Void. There's usually a bonus prize for the highest finishing unpowered deck, so that might entice even more people to play it. 

Grixis Pyromancer is possibly the best Gush deck in Vintage, and it loves to play sideboard Null Rods. Mentor decks can play Stony Silence, and they probably should make sure to pack a few for this event. Gush decks like these also have a lot of virtual card advantage built in, so they're likely able to counter the first Paradoxical Outcome they see. 

 

Muddy Vehicles

Fleetwheel Cruiser and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship just made Top Eight of Eternal Extravaganza 5 in the hands of Nick Dijohn. I think that this new class of artifact has the potential to reshape the way MUD decks are built. I imagined that Thought-Knot Seer would have to be cut completely in order to run the Mishra's Factorys needed to make Vehicles work. Nick managed to trim down to three Thought-Knots and still run a couple cars in his deck, so I guess he proved me wrong on that. 

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The Cruiser is a very aggressive card for an aggro MUD list. It approaches Ball Lightning in damage output, it's just as fast, and it sticks around to finish off you opponent in a few turns. It also can be piloted by an animated Mishra's Factory or Phyrexian Revoker, so it's easy to get rolling. Skysovereign is a lot like a flying Triskelion, but with a quicker clock. 

Conclusion

I definitely think that MUD and Gush will be defining elements of the event, but beyond that there are a lot of factors that I can't account for. The Top Eight of Eternal Extravaganza had only one MUD deck, which is practically the opposite of the TMD Open. Landstill and Blue Moon made a showing at EE 5, but I don't necessarily expect them to do the same at Champs. 

Beyond the usual suspects, there are a lot of decks that could end up in the Top Eight. I guess I'd be very surprised to see a Grixis Thieves style deck, mostly because nobody seems to play that deck anymore. Big Blue Combo/Control decks get ranched by Gush more often than not, so people just haven't been playing them as much, 

That's all the time I have for this week, I'll see you in seven days. If you're going to Vintage Champs, good luck, have a good time, and look for me in 2017. 

You can chat with me about #VintageMTG on Twitter @josephfiorinijr -- Islandswamp on Magic Online


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