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Vintage 101: VSL Season Five with Randy Buehler!


A New Season of Vintage

It's an exciting time to be a Vintage player. Registration is still open for the upcoming NYSE tournament, the format is in flux due to a recent restriction, and the Vintage Super League (VSL) is set to start up again soon! 

I've written about the Vintage Super League before, and if you've haven't followed the league you really should start. Being able to watch a group of highly-talented players navigate the game's most intricate format can teach us all a lot of valuable skills. If you're not able to catch the live broadcasts you can always catch the replays on YouTube. 

The League was started by Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Randy Buehler and it features a mix of current and format Pro Tour players. There are Vintage specialists like Rich Shay and Steve Menendian, and multiple members of the Hall of Fame that participate in the VSL. 

Season Four

Season Four ended with Luis Scott-Vargas taking first place, defeating David Ochoa. Here's one of Luis's decks, a Blue-White Landstill build: 

Season Five

In the upcoming fifth season, things will be playing out slightly different. Only Rich Shay, Eric Froehlich, Randy Buehler, and David Ochoa have secured their place. There will be a play-in tournament much like in season four, but it will be a mix of former participants and some fresh blood. 

I'm very excited that some of the well-known names from the paper Vintage community will be in the play-in tournament. The 2015 Vintage Championship winner Brian Kelly will be participating in the event and TMDBrassman, Andy Probasco, will also be fighting for a spot as well. Nick Coss, long-time Vintage player and architect of "Eternal Weekend" will get a chance to throw down. Hall of Famer and winner of the Asian Vintage Championship Shuhei Nakamura is also participating. 

Other participants include Caleb Durward, Tom Martell, Reid Duke, Bob Maher, Paul Rietzel, Kai Budde, David Williams, and Stephen Menendian. Season five is looking to be a great show! 

A Hall of Famer Interview

Today's installment of Vintage 101 has a very special treat for all of you. Pro Tour Hall of Famer, former Wizards of the Coast developer, and Pro Tour Chicago Champion Randy Buehler was kind enough to grant me an interview. 

Islandswamp: When did you first start playing Magic, and how were you introduced to the game?

Randy: I was introduced to the game by friends that I played College Bowl with and against, in the summer of 1995, at a weekend retreat up in the mountains of Tennessee. They played mostly multiplayer free-for-all around a literal kitchen table, and they sent me off to face the world at the end of the weekend with an all-commons Pestilence / Circle of Protection: Black deck.
 
Islandswamp: How long did it take for you to qualify for your first Pro Tour?
 
Randy: About a year after I started taking it seriously. I actually Top 8'ed my first-ever PTQ with a Necropotence deck that I had shamelessly copied from a post in a Usenet newsgroup, but then I moved to Pittsburgh (where the competition was a bit tougher) and it took a year of getting beaten by the guys at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) before I finally won one.
 
Islandswamp: What would you say is your favorite constructed deck from your early Pro Tour days?
 
Randy: I mean, I kind of have to pick the Necro deck. Winning Pro Tour Chicago changed my life in all kinds of awesome ways, and I genuinely believe that deck had a significant advantage versus the field that weekend. I also definitely enjoyed all the control decks I played over the years, but the Necro deck has the biggest place in my heart. 
 
 
Islandswamp: Besides being a successful Pro Magic player, you've also worked for Wizards of the Coast as a Developer. How did you end up going from breaking cards to making cards
 
Randy: I knew Mark Rosewater because he made it a point of going to all the Pro Tours and chatting with the players. He would pick my brain about what cards I thought were too good, too bad, etc. and he eventually recommended that I apply for a job in R&D.
 
Islandswamp: What was is like to be elected to the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame
 
Randy: It felt like a vindication of all the life choices I had made for the previous 10-15 years. It still feels great to have that recognition that for a while I was one of the best in the world at a thing I care very deeply about.
 
Islandswamp: Shortly after Vintage Masters brought the Power Nine to Magic Online, you started the first season of the Vintage Super League. What made you decide to start the league?
 
Randy: I've been involved in coverage for almost 20 years now, and I've always loved trying to figure out new ways to tell stories about Magic and Magic players. Ever since Twitch started to get big I thought it was a potentially really good fit with Magic Online, and I was actively interested in figuring out ways to combine the two and create something compelling. Vintage struck me as the perfect place to start as it was something where there was no other similar content out there, and it's probably the most spectator-friendly Magic format around. Plus I also enjoy playing Vintage and wanted to create a place where I could get to play some Magic with real stakes and against world-class players.
 
Islandswamp: How would you describe the experience of running the VSL?
 
Randy: It's been fun. The audience for it was even bigger than I expected, which feels great. It's probably more work than I expected it to be, but I think we've been steadily finding ways to increase the production value so I'm pretty happy with the show, all in all.
 
Islandswamp: How long have you been a Vintage player for
 
Randy: Since before I was a Pro Tour player! I acquired my first power in 1996 and fondly remember road tripping from Pittsburgh to Vintage tournaments in New York City, conventions in Ohio, etc. In addition, when I was at Wizards the rules for employees were that you couldn't play sanctioned events. But most local Vintage events allowed proxies and were therefore unsanctioned so it was actually the only format I could still play competitively (and I won most of a second set of power over the years).
 
Islandswamp: What kinds of Vintage decks do you have the most fun playing
 
I have the most fun playing combo decks. Working out the crazy lines (especially with Gifts Ungiven or Doomsday fueled decks) is something I really enjoy. I probably play these kinds of decks more than I should, though, and this tendency has probably cost me at least 1 and maybe 2 playoff appearances in VSL.
 
Islandswamp: With Magic Online access, visibility from Vintage streaming on Twitch, and large yearly Vintage Championships it feels to me like we're in a Vintage renaissance. What do you imagine the future of the Vintage format will look like
 
Randy: I definitely think Magic Online is an important part of the future. I suspect a majority of the Vintage that is getting played these days is getting played online. That's great for those of us who want to play, though it is a bit of a double-edged sword in that it means the metagame evolves faster and Wizards of the Coast (WotC) may need to be more active at managing the format to keep things interesting.
 
Islandswamp: Prior to Khans of Tarkir and the infamous Delve spells, there were no changes to the Vintage restricted list for a number of years. In the last couple of years, we've seen four cards restricted. Do you feel that Vintage is headed in a healthy direction
 
Randy: Personally, yes. I don't mind having it change. I know some people find it really scary, and I get that, but for me I want WotC to react and deal with anything that leads to one deck being over-represented in the metagame.
 
Islandswamp: Magic Online has enabled many people to access sanctioned Vintage for the first time. Do you have any advice to someone trying to learn the complexities of the format
 
Randy: Watch VSL! At it's base level, it's still just Magic and I think a lot of skills carry over from format to format, but there are a lot of strange situations that come up all the time in Vintage and that format-specific knowledge of cards and interactions is certainly important too. Watching VSL and listening to good players talk through those situations is certainly one way to learn. Just diving in and seeing what happens can be fun too.
 
Islandswamp: The Vintage Super League has spawned "Super Leagues" for several other formats. Is this something that you imagined would happen? Will there be more Super Leagues to come?
 
Randy: I guess I did hope that we could invent a new kind of Twitch show, and that there would be interest (especially from WotC) in funding / sponsoring more of that kind of show. I think at this point we've demonstrated a model that works pretty well, and I do expect to do more spin-offs. For me, though, Vintage is the one I enjoy the most, both because I love the format and because I get to play. It's the one that I'm willing to run just for fun.
 

Randy's 1st Place deck from Pro Tour Chicago

Thanks again to Randy Buehler for taking the time to answer my questions. The play-in tournament for season five of the Vintage Super League begins on April 26th, at 6pm Pacific time.  

The Future of Vintage and the Rise of Monastery Mentor

Very little time has passed since Lodestone Golem was restricted, but the Daily Event results from Magic Online are showing an overabundance of Monastery Mentor decks. I'm no Nostradamus, but my gut is telling me that Vintage will be overrun with token strategies, mainly Monk-based ones. 

Monastery Mentor has been an insanely powerful creature in Vintage since day one, and the only factors that ever held it back are essentially gone. There was a time where you could make a very strong argument for choosing to play a Delver of Secrets/Young Pyromancer Gush aggro deck instead of running Monastery Mentor. At three mana, Mentor is much more difficult to cast. In Vintage, the difference between a converted mana cost of two or three is actually a lot more than it would appear to the uninitiated. It's not unreasonable to cast a two-drop on turn one in Vintage, even in a deck like Delver with only three or four zero-cost mana artifacts. Monastery Mentor takes two moxen and a land, or a Black Lotus, or some combination of Mana Crypt, Sol Ring, moxen, and land. 

The mana efficiency of Delver and Pyromancer made those two creatures and their namesake deck an attractive option back when the Vintage metagame was defined by a four-Chalice, four-Golem Workshop deck. Once Chalice was restricted, relying on a hand of multiple moxen became much more reliable, and the allure of the more-powerful token generator proved very strong. Still, Lodestone Golem and friends did a good job of keeping Mentor in check. Both Shops and Mentor decks were capable of performing well, and neither one seemed like an automatic win over the other. 

The only real reason left to choose a Delver deck over a Mentor deck is that Delver decks have a higher density of non-mana cards. The chances of mana-flooding with a Delver deck are much lower, and this creates a "virtual card advantage." Each draw step, each activation of Dack Fayden, and each copy of Gush have a greater chance of putting gas in your tank, instead of superfluous moxen. Of course, the cards in a Delver deck are overall slightly less powerful than those found in Mentor (and the Big Blue decks of Vintage as well), but the deck is one of the most consistent. 

Some people are still playing Delver decks, and I suspect that Delver will continue to be a top contender, albeit less prevalent than Mentor. Whether people are choosing to play Delver/Pyromancer, Mentor, or any of the fringe "growing" (e.g. Managorger Hydra) creatures in the format, these decks will probably be more popular than other types of Blue decks because Gush outshines every other non-restricted draw spell.

Nothing makes Delver, Mentor, Managorger Hydra, or even Thing in the Ice more of a top-tier deck than Gush does. In 2014 people would probably say that Treasure Cruise (and later on Dig Through Time) was the real broken engine that enabled Delver. The more I think about Gush the more I come to the conclusion that it is really what makes Delver and Mentor the best shells for the Delve spells. Gush is how Delver decks get through the early game, increasing card celerity to race towards the first Delve spell. If Gush wasn't that important, you would think that the Thirst for Knowledge decks would have performed just as well. People did slot Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time into their Grixis Control decks, but it was Delver/Gush that was able to take advantage of Cruise and Dig the most, and the results from the 2014 Vintage Championship proved it. 

Thirst for Knowledge certainly is a great card, but I don't think it can hold a candle to Gush. It isn't really even a matter of opinion. If we take a look at the numbers it is clear that Gush decks win more than Thirst decks. In fact, the Thirst decks that seem to have done the best are actually Gush decks as well! 

The Painter deck shown above runs both Thirst for Knowledge and Gush. This list plays one more copy of Thirst than Gush, but it goes to show how strong Gush really is. Having Gush in a Painter's Servant deck does a lot to help it keep up with the token-generating decks in the format. 

Grixis Thieves, a similar deck to Vintage Painter, has dropped off dramatically as of late. The deck had a top eight appearance at last year's Vintage Championship and there was a brief resurgence when Thirst for Knowledge was unrestricted. Lately there have been only a few Painter decks, a BUG Control deck, and a single Worldgorger Dragon combo deck that have done well using Thirst for Knowledge

 

I'm not sure if Thirst decks will eventually make a comeback now that Workshop decks appear to be on the decline. Big Blue decks like these had a decent match up against Workshops, but they often had trouble with the Gush aggro strategies. If Mentor decks keep being prevalent, I don't see Big Blue Time Vault decks being well-positioned. The only saving grace is that the Thirst decks have a good match up against Oath, a deck that has seen more play (at least online) lately. 

It is worth noting that the Grixis Thieves did get second place at last year's Vintage Championships, and decks in that same vein have had some success in the last few years, but Gush has been much more dominant. 

Besides the continued success of Mentor decks, I'm not exactly sure what the format will look like in the coming months. I do believe that Shops is not dead, and if people start cutting anti-artifact sideboard cards we could see a sudden resurgence of a well-designed Workshop deck. 

Storm decks should have an easier time succeeding in the near future as long as Workshops aren't very prevalent. The rest of the format will have to tune their decks to deal with the barrage of haymakers and Duress effects. Mental Misstep and Mindbreak Trap should probably be standard equipment in decks that can utilize them. 

Oath of Druids has seen more play recently, but in my opinion Oath is better when Workshops are being played more. Shops is probably Oath's best matchup, and Mentor is more of a problem for the Oath decks than people assume. Mentor decks can out-draw Oath decks, and their namesake creature is so powerful it can actually race a 7/7 with lifelink. When you factor in the potent sideboard options available to a deck that plays Tundra it gets even more difficult.

Wrap-Up 

Make sure you pay attention to the results from the Vintage Super League! Your local paper metagame might be insulated from the Magic Online results, but for Digital Vintage players the VSL has a dramatic effect on the meta. Many decks that are common on Magic Online got their first exposure in VSL matches. If you pay close attention to what people are playing you can get an idea of upcoming shifts in the metagame. 

That's all the time I have for this week, see you all in seven days! You can follow me on Twitter @josephfiorinijr - Islandswamp on MTGO


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