Vintage is a true gem. I discovered it on Magic Online. While most people haven’t played the format because of its monstrous paper card prizes, it’s pretty cheap to buy into the format on Magic Online and—at the moment at least—even cheaper to play than Standard. Throw in the fact that the Vintage Challenge is the best EV-tournament on Magic Online at the moment, as well as the endless possibilities in deck building, and you can comprehend my love for the format.
Playing Vintage isn’t as simple as those who first glance at the overpowered and unbalanced cards may think. Vintage offers lots of interesting games and decisions, even though, admittedly, you also get stomped from time to time by the good draws.
Vintage, similar to Modern and Legacy, is a pet deck format. Decks and metagames don’t change as fast as Standard, and the power levels of available decks are pretty close, so it pays off to pick a deck that fits your play style and learn to play it as well as possible. Of course, you can predict the metagame and make good calls and adapt, but Vintage is harder to play than it looks. In my experience, you earn better results by optimizing your sideboard and how you play with the deck rather than by switching decks.
The online metagame is pretty comprehensible—there are four heavily played decks (U/R Pyromancer, Ravager Shops, Dredge, and Outcome Storm) and five decks you see way less often (Survival, Oath, Sultai Midrange, Jeskai Mentor, and Eldrazi & Taxes).
Easily put, there are blue decks exploiting the blue power pieces—Ancestral Recall, and to a much lesser extent Time Walk—and there are decks that prey on slower blue decks by choosing a strategy that is hard to interact with for blue.
To complete the rock-scissors-paper trinity, there are combo decks that top the speed of the anti-blue strategies but are somehow easier to keep in check with Force of Will and other counters.
My personal path to enlightenment started with Ravager Shops, evolved into Null Rod Shops, and then dipped into Oath, Dredge, Storm, Jeskai Mentor, and U/R Pyromancer for a few tournaments. For the last few months I’ve been playing Sultai Midrange, and arrived at the deck I have my best results with. Needless to say it’s also the deck I enjoy playing the most, and in my opinion is one of the best and most adaptable strategies you can choose in Vintage. My results with the deck were insane—I Top 8’d more than half of the Vintage Challenges I played with the deck, and have an average win percentage of 70% with the deck. (Side Note: While I’m usually a humble deck builder, sometimes you have to brag around with your results to make readers understand that your list isn’t just a funny deck but a powerful one as well).
In terms of matchups, it plays similarly to Jund. You have a below average game 1 against most decks, but you’re a favorite in post-board games.
When building my main deck, I tried not to include too many cards that were completely useless in certain matchups. Blue situational cards like Flusterstorm or Mental Misstep are easier to include due to the fact that they are blue and can always get pitched to Force of Will if you don’t need them. Since most decks play blue, I tried to build my main deck in a way to encounter other blue decks. You could add more main deck cards to fight Dredge or artifacts, but since those cards are quite specific, you give up a lot against other decks. You could compensate situational cards with looting effects (Dack Fayden, baby Jace), but I prefer a solid core with strong sideboard options.
Here’s my current list:
But wait, where’s Black Lotus, the poster child of the format, as well as the best and most expensive card of all time? You noob!
Well, I played a lot with Lotus, and it disappointed me in this deck. With cards like Deathrite Shaman and all of your card draw, you’re looking for constant mana sources you can use each turn. Don’t get me wrong—Lotus is powerful and can lead to explosive starts, but not in this deck. Even if you have it in your starting hand, it doesn’t help cast your Leovold earlier, so the best thing you can do is ramp out a 2-drop. You can also do this with an off-color Mox, but your deck consists of many colorful mana requirements, so having colorless mana isn’t appealing either. This deck also wants to grind, so trading card disadvantage for tempo is often not the key to victory.
There are other cards in the list that might look odd, so feel free to ask about them. Cards I had in prior versions of the deck include Mana Drain, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, baby Jace, Managorger Hydra, more Dark Confidants with off-color Moxen, red for Dack Fayden and Pyroblast, Hydroblast, Assassin’s Trophy, Vampiric Tutor, Toxic Deluge, Worship, Thrun, Propaganda, Infernal Reckoning, Steel Sabotage, Sol Ring, and probably some more. As you see, I tried some fancy stuff.
No sideboard changes.
Let’s start with the closest and trickiest matchup. This matchup plays out a lot like a mirror match—you both try to draw cards and counter your opponent’s actions. The main difference: You have the better threats, and they have Pyroblast. While Blast is great in counter wars, it doesn’t really deals with your threats, which are—with the exception of Leovold—non-blue. U/R has a hard time dealing with Tarmogoyf, and if they cannot Force it, their best way to handle it is to feed it with Pyro tokens. Keep in mind to keep it out of Lightning Bolt range. Tarmogoyf is also an insanely good proactive play against Dack Fayden. They usually have two Lightning Bolts to deal with Shaman and Bob, which sometimes just aren’t enough.
On the other hand, Pyromancer is a very potent threat against you. While you can usually block the first few tokens, an unchecked early Pyro is a huge problem. You are usually a favorite in the early to midgame, so try to be the aggressor in the matchup.
The Thoughtseize should come out on the draw as pictured. If you’re on the play, consider replacing it with another Dark Confidant.
The bad news: If you lose the die roll, you can basically just reach out for your sideboard if they keep their opening seven. Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but honestly, game 1 is pretty rough. Usually you’re one or two turns behind and cannot handle their threats in a timely fashion.
The good news: Shops has no library manipulation or card draw, so they sometimes produce very average draws. And things get a lot better for post-board games. Your plan is to trade 1-for-1 and pull ahead with your draw spells. Tarmogoyfs are very effective at holding back most threats since as soon as the first robot hits the bin, they grow to at least 4/5 and force some Ravager action to push through, which you can easily punish with your cheap removal spells. Energy Flux is an important card to tutor or dig towards in the midgame since it deals with Hangarback Walker and its tokens really well, which can be an issue.
Blue decks traditionally have a hard time beating Dredge in game 1, but Sultai has some tools to interact, especially on the play. Your easy wins involve Pithing Needle, wasting their Bazaar, or them mulliganing to oblivion. The more interactive ones are Deathrite against either their Narcomoebas and Ichorids, or Deathrite against their dredge enablers. Either way, expect to lose approximately 75% of your pre-board games.
Post-board games take place at two levels. The first level involves you taking mulligans until you see a hate card, and trying to sneak it into play. Don’t hesitate on shipping fine hands without a plan back to your library. They have the same amount of countermagic as you do, so keep that in mind when trying to stick a non-Leyline threat. Level two is protecting your hate against Nature’s Claim and Chain of Vapor while not dying to Hollow One.
Again, the counters are very relevant at doing both, so even though Dredge plays out in a rather noninteractive fashion, you have to keep the counters in your deck. Cage is a good tutor target that can save you when your opponent already dredged a bunch, while Needle is the much better card to disrupt them early, turning off Bazaar.
This matchup is also a very interesting one. Try to grind as much as possible by killing their artifacts and answering their card selection over applying pressure. Tarmogoyf is too slow against them—you are mainly looking to grind them out. Leovold and Confidant are very good threats since they pressure their life total and at the same time help you gain or keep card advantage over the game. I like keeping a Decay in the deck to have an answer to a Confidant getting out of control. The thing I’m most afraid of is Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus. Many lists don’t run them since Colossus is vulnerable to Dack Fayden and Phyrexian Metamorph but if you expect lots of them, feel free to add a tutor target like Jace or Steel Sabotage to your 75.
If you’re looking for an interesting Magic puzzle, try to come up with a good sideboard plan against this deck. I was really overwhelmed the first few times I encountered it. Every card in your main deck and most of your sideboard can have some good applications, and good sideboarding depends a lot on what your opponent brings in. You could bring Grafdigger’s Cage or Leyline against Vengevines, and you could bring Fatal Pushes against their weenies—sometimes they bring Thalia, sometimes artifact removal against your Needles, and so on.
In the end, you need to have a plan against Bazaar and Survival. Somehow you don’t want to overboard into destroy-Survival-cards because it generates value once it hits the battlefield. You prefer to counter or Needle it whenever possible, although destroying it also works in the early game.
Bazaar is weird in this deck. Sometimes you have plenty of time to interact with it, but if they draw Squee or multiple Vengevines, it becomes a real nightmare. Then you also need solutions to Hollow One and Rootwallas. Tarmogoyf is your best friend in doing so. And Nature’s Claim is excellent since it works double-duty against Hollow One and Survival.
I kept losing first matches against the deck, but I felt like things improved a lot when you got a feel for it. At the moment I think that it’s even an above average matchup.
This matchup plays out similarly to the U/R matchup, where one part is fighting over key spells and drawing cards, and the other one is sticking and protecting your threats. Oath is a much deadlier threat than Pyromancer, but if you have removal for it, it will not give them leftover value like Pyro. Also, they accidentally give you threats by playing Forbidden Orchard. The tricky part of this matchup is when to slowroll your creatures when you don’t have an answer to Oath and when to throw them into the ring and hope for the best. Most of the time, you just want to apply pressure as fast as possible, even though you prefer your threats to have some grind abilities if they stick, which is the reason why Tarmogoyf gets cut here.
Again, we have a blue midrange matchup that plays out pretty much like the others. This one is the most interactive one of them since the value of your threats change a lot based on what your opponent does. Dark Confidant, for example, is one the scariest threats and can easily run away with the game if unchecked, but if your opponent has a Tarmogoyf going, you wish for something else. Tarmogoyf isn’t any good when both players have Shamans in play. You constantly have to re-evaluate and adapt. Also, Deathrite duels are great.
No sideboard changes.
There are two versions of Jeskai Mentor out there. One plays exactly like U/R Pyro, with the exception of Monastery Mentor and 1-2 Swords to Plowshares, which are pretty good against you. Other versions try to abuse Balance and go for the full Moxen package, Mystical Tutor, and baby Jace, against which you might want Null Rod and an extra Needle. In the end, both versions play out like U/R Pyro.
Eldrazi & Taxes
Last but not least, here’s another deck that tries to prey on blue decks. With Lavinia in the mix, these decks have gained some popularity. This deck is usually quite good against blue, but Sultai has a better matchup against them than the other blue midrange decks—mainly because of Tarmogoyf, which is a house in the matchup. They bring in Swords and Rest in Peace, so you can leave some number of Missteps in your deck. Nature’s Claim is important to help deal with the latter, since that one shuts down Tarmogoyf, Shaman, Snappy, and your delve card draw.
That’s it. I hope you enjoyed the article. If you like decks like these, give good old Leovold a shot. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.