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Vintage 101: Strategic Complexity

Strategic Complexity

I've been playing Magic: the Gathering off and on since 1995. While there was a large gap in which I did not play Magic, I still followed the game, and I developed a lot of skills playing in tournaments in my youth. Even though I had learned quite a bit about playing the game, none of that really seemed to prepare me for the eternal formats. When I started playing Legacy I had a ton of stuff to learn and I suffered a few blow-outs at the hands of Daze and Stifle. When I started playing Vintage the level of complexity was even more severe, and it took a lot of trial and error to get to a point where I could hold my own against the talented players I faced on Magic Online

Vintage is tough. It is the most complex format I've ever played, and even when you do everything right you can still lose to an opponent who peels a Yawgmoth's Will off the top. This tightrope is part of the beauty of the format. Vintage is an exciting format with epic stack battles and intricate sequencing. I play Magic because I like a complex battle of wits, and the formats with the largest card pools offers that in spades.

Because Vintage is such a difficult format to master, it can be frustrating for new players. Many folks are initially drawn to flashier decks with big crazy spells. I was one of those folks drawn to the most degenerate decks. The first decks I played were Storm decks and then Oath of Druids. I didn't have much luck with Storm at the time, and although I had some success with Oath of Druids, I soon found myself being utterly destroyed by that deck too. Eventually I switched to Gush-based creature decks and things started to turn around. 

At first I was apprehensive towards playing decks like Delver or Mentor because those decks didn't seem to encapsulate my preconceived notions about the format. I had lost quite a few matches to Delver decks while playing combo decks, so I figured I should give them a try. Once I was playing these Gush-based aggro decks I started to learn a lot about the fundamentals of Vintage. It was a turning point for me. I've since branched out to other decks, and I have since picked up Storm and Oath again. 

I see a lot of new Vintage players on Magic Online doing the same things I did, and I've seen people who are reluctant to pick up a deck like Delver or any of the various flavors of Workshops because they don't seem "broken enough." I'm here to tell you that what matters is who won and not so much how they got there. There's a lot to be gained by trying different types of decks. For a while I piloted Forgemaster Shops, and I learned a lot about the inner workings of Workshop decks from that experience. Shops wasn't my first choice, but the knowledge gained from playing it was priceless. 

Single-Card Strategies

There are a lot of cards in Vintage that are deceptively simple and lead players to make little mistakes. In a Vintage match, a little mistake or two can easily be the difference between winning a game and losing. I'm going to briefly go over a few common cards and some tips for playing with them. 


Gush is a centerpiece of many contemporary Vintage decks. At its heart Gush is just a card that refills your hand for no mana cost. Even though the card is simple on its surface, playing the card is not always intuitive for new players. There are a few tips I've picked up while playing the card that should be useful to newer players. 

First of all, Gush doesn't cost you mana, but it is not free. The card costs you two land drops, which can be worse if you don't utilize it correctly. Casting Gush on turn two is almost always a bad idea. Cast on turn two and Gush leaves you with no lands in play and no way to replay the bounced lands. On turn three it's possible to cast Gush and replay one of your lands. 

If you're casting Gush on turn three and replaying one of those lands afterwards, I try to make sure I play one of the lands I bounced from my hand. The only reasons I'd use a different land for my third land drop is if I needed a different color of mana, or in rare cases if I was using a fetch land to put more cards in my graveyard to enable Dig Through Time or Jace, Vryn's Prodigy.

I see a lot of opponents Gush and follow it up with a fetch land on turn three. When they make this play, I'm counting their hand and subtracting two cards in my mind. That's because those two cards are dead. They are obviously lands, and I'm now focusing on the number of unknown cards. Imagine for a second your opponent played Gush and made their third land drop with a fetch land, then passed the turn with four cards in their hand. I know that they only have two mystery cards in their hand. If one of them is a Force of Will and the other is a Blue card, I know I have a very good chance of resolving my bomb if I lead with something like a Duress. If my opponent has a Mental Misstep or any other counter, they can counter my Duress, or I can take their Force or Blue card and still resolve my spell.

The above example has cases where the cards in your opponent's hand can change the outcome, but the point remains the same. If you give away any extra information it will hurt you. Good players are always calculating what you could have in your hand, and there's no reason to make it easier for them. 

Gush can help you make use of otherwise unused land drops later in the game as well. Most Delver and Mentor decks only need a few lands out when facing non-Workshop decks so extra lands can be discarded to Dack Fayden and replaced with relevant spells. 

The card type on Gush is most definitely an Instant, but the prevailing wisdom says that your best move is playing it on your own turn. There are times where you may have to dig for a counter or avoid having your opponent's Wasteland take out one of your dual lands, but more often than not Gush is best played on turn three or four to use up extra land drops. 


I learned how to play Brainstorm properly when I started playing Legacy, but it's important in Vintage as well. You might say that playing Brainstorm correctly is even more important in Vintage because the card is restricted. If you waste your one Brainstorm, you won't likely get a second chance. 

Brainstorm (and to a lesser extent Jace, the Mind Sculptor's Brainstorm) is a far worse card without a fetch land to shuffle your library after playing it. You are drawing three cards and putting your worst two cards back on top of your deck. Casting a Brainstorm with no way to shuffle away your worst two cards is something referred to as Brainstorm locking yourself. 

In an intense Vintage duel the last thing you want to do is spend the next two turns drawing bad cards. Often times cantrips are used to find lands because Vintage decks are light on lands compared to other formats. If your opening hand hinges on finding another land drop with only a Brainstorm, things might not go well for you. 

The key is to stop thinking about Brainstorm as a cantrip. You should really think about Brainstorm as Ancestral Recall number two. Just like how you don't want to waste your Ancestral if at all possible, you should not waste Brainstorm. Talented Legacy players say you should wait as long as you can before playing Brainstorm to maximize the value it creates, and I agree completely. The more cards you have in your hand, the more likely you are to have cards you want to shuffle away. The longer the game goes, the more information you have to decide what cards are right to put back on top of your deck. I always try to use up my Preordains and my Ponder before I use my Brainstorm. Let your less-powerful one-drops soak up your opponent's Mental Missteps. 

There's also little reason to cast Brainstorm on your opponent's end step. Sometimes you may have to cast it in response to one of their spells, but for the most part it is better to draw one extra card for your turn before casting Brainstorm. This tip is counterintuitive for players who are adept at Standard and Modern. They're taught to save instants for use on their opponents' turns. Brainstorm is just so cheap that there's usually no reason you can't cast it on your own turn.

Mental Misstep

Mental Misstep is one of the most polarizing cards ever printed. It's legal only in Vintage, so it's something that new players are not used to playing with or against. Whether you love Misstep or hate it, the simple fact is that it is a large part of the Vintage format. Even decks that don't play Islands will run Mental Misstep, which is part of the reason so many people dislike it. Misstep gives non-Blue decks a way to access countermagic. It's free to cast, and it takes very little life to do so. It's very narrow, but there are a ton of good targets for it in Vintage. 

When I play a game of Vintage, I'm not trigger-happy with my Mental Missteps. I'm unlikely to burn one on a Preordain because there are many, many spells that are much more powerful for one mana. If, however, I know my opponent is desperate to hit a land drop, I will Misstep their Preordain. Otherwise I would rather save my Mental Misstep to counter something else or to protect my own important one-drop from my opponent's Misstep 

Vintage is in a state where most decks that are playing Blue will run four Mental Missteps. Running four copies of the Phyrexian counterspell is great against other Blue decks, as well as Dark Ritual-based Storm decks. The downside is that Misstep is bad against Workshops, which make up a large portion of the field. How many copies of Mental Misstep you choose to run is up to you, but I wouldn't run less than three in most decks. If you end up facing Workshops you can always pitch your Misstep to Force of Will.

Force of Will

Force is one of the most iconic counterspells in Vintage, and it is a counterspell that I see new players waste all the time. Always try to keep in mind that you're trading two cards for one when you Force something, so the card you counter better be worth it. The kind of spell that is worth countering varies wildly from matchup to matchup and at different points in the games, but I've learned some points about playing Force of Will that I think are important. 

One thing I see people do all the time is try to aggressively counter their opponent's draw spells. In theory this play makes perfect sense. Card advantage is one of the key tenets in Magic and allowing your opponent to gain card advantage over you is bad for you. It does make sense to try to counter draw spells by trading one of your counterspells for your opponent's draw spell. Where this logic starts to break down is when your only option to counter your opponent's draw spell is using a Force of Will

Let's look at the most efficient draw spell in Vintage, Ancestral Recall. When you use your Force to counter your opponent's Ancestral Recall, you're simply turning their play from a +2 card gain into a +1 card gain. Ancestral is -1(Ancestral) +3(cards drawn) = +2 cards in hand. Forcing that play is -1 to your opponent (Ancestral lost with no gain) and -2 to you (loss of Force and one Blue card). By Forcing your opponent's Ancestral you've saved yourself from being put two cards behind from where you were, but you now have just wasted the most efficient universal counterspell in the entire game of Magic

My theory is that if you allow the Ancestral Recall to resolve, you'll still have Force of Will left to defend yourself from any bomb that they may have drawn. Often times players will try to bait a Force of Will out of their opponent's hands because Force can counter a lot of things that few other counters in Vintage can deal with. Ancestral is probably the best bait card ever printed, and I know that I've used it to clear the way for my Oath of Druids on many occasions. 

There will be situations where Forcing your opponent's draw spell, whether it's Ancestral or something else, is correct. The point is to make sure you evaluate your decision properly before you blow your Force and snap counter your opponent's draw spell. For instance, if your opponent has an active Goblin Welder on the battlefield and casts Thirst for Knowledge, that play is a good reason to use your Force of Will. Allowing your opponent to use the discard clause on Thirst for Knowledge to provide fodder for their Goblin Welder is an extremely risky proposition. 

Another reason to be careful and thrifty with your Force of Wills is that losing your Force to an opposing counter is very bad, especially if your opponent only had to trade one card for it. Casting Force of Will when you or your opponent is tapped out is common, but be careful doing so when your opponent has access to Blue mana. One Blue mana is enough to Flusterstorm your Force, and if you are tapped out there's nothing you can really do. On the flip side, baiting your opponent into playing their Force of Will into your counterspell is a great way to grind out an advantage. 

Using your less-flexible countermagic first is important. Other than Mana Drain, Force of Will is the only spell in a Vintage deck that can counter anything. It makes sense to save it as long as humanly possible. 

Netdecks and Chill

Since everyone was patient learning about various Blue Vintage staples, I figured I'd get back to showcasing the stuff people really want to see: sweet Vintage decks! 

Here's an interesting brew that pops up on Magic Online from time to time:

This deck is really neat. It borrows a lot of ideas from past decks such as Steel City Vault, Control Slaver, or Grixis Control. The idea here is to take infinite turns with Time Vault, and the deck will draw cards in a hyper-aggressive fashion until it achieves that goal.

Instead of playing a suite of countermagic to protect the deck's combos, this Blue-Red Welder deck takes a page from the Storm player's book. This deck just throws bomb after bomb onto the table until something sticks. I'll be completely honest, I saw this list before I ever played against it, and I didn't think much of it. The deck looks like a glass cannon with an over reliance on artifact mana. After playing against it I can assure you that it is brutally fast and can topdeck a win out of nowhere with one of its four draw-7s (Timetwister, Time Spiral, Wheel of Fortune, and Memory Jar).

There's Gitaxian Probe to dig through the deck and to check if the coast is clear to land a threat. The deck also plays Defense Grid to protect itself, with an additional copy in the sideboard. Trinisphere is a nasty card in this deck because it can easily ignore such a card. Imagine Tinkering for a Trinisphere against a Storm deck; that's going to put you in a great position to dominate the game. 

In the sideboard there's three copies of Force of Will, which I'm a fan of. 

To me the craziest thing about this deck is the fact that it only plays 11 lands. That's a risky move, but obviously it paid off as this deck list went 4-0. 

Dark Times Ahead ...

Here we have a non-powered Vintage deck called Dark Times. There have been fully-powered Dark Times decks that have cashed Daily Events before, but I wasn't able to find those lists. Since this one is unpowered, I thought it would make a good example of something a person could pick up to get their feet wet in Vintage. 

Dark Times is a bit like the Turbo-Depths decks in Legacy. As you can see this one is even closer to those decks due to the lack of Black Lotus and the Moxen. The point of the deck is to be highly disruptive while assembling the Dark Depths combo. If Marit Lage doesn't show up, you can still win games with creature beats. This list has Dark Confidant, Deathrite Shaman, and Vampire Hexmage to do some attacking, as well as provide an advantage. 

Most versions of Dark Times have been mono-Black, but splashing other colors gives the deck the ability to handle a wider variety of opposing permanents. Dark Ritual gives the deck speed. Dark Confidant is a card advantage machine. Necropotence is also a great way to stay ahead of your opponents, and if you combine it with Chains of Mephistopheles, it can stop your opponent from catching up.

Chains of Mephistopheles is great at negating your opponent's card-drawing spells while not effecting yours. The card-draw spells in Dark Times don't technically draw cards, so you're free to get extra cards. 

If you've thought about making the leap from Legacy to Vintage, but you're not ready to go for a powered deck, Dark Times is a cool deck to check out. 


Is there a card in Vintage that you have a question about? Let me know in the comments. If you have any questions or suggestions for things you'd like to read about, be sure to speak up!

That's all the time I have for this week, thanks for joining me. You can follow me on Twitter @josephfiorinijr - Islandswamp on MTGO

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