Deckbuilding Breakdown—Vintage Champs *5th*

For years I’ve wanted to play in the North American Vintage Championship (previously the Vintage Championship) but things didn’t line up. I was playing Grand Prix and Pro Tours and there’s only so many weekends one can devote to Magic while maintaining any semblance of balance in their life. So flying to Vintage events was out. Now that I’ve hung up my spurs as a Pro Points grinder, I have room in my schedule for local Old School meetups instead of practicing for the next pro event, and flying to Eternal Weekend to play my first Old School 93/94 tournament, in addition to Vintage and Legacy championships, didn’t seem so absurd.

I’ll get to Old School in a minute, but it did inspire me to book this trip. Once I booked it though, the prospect of playing paper Vintage was what I found myself looking forward to most. I’ve been playing Vintage for years. I still play it online, and I was going to be able to practice online in the leagues.

Let’s take a look first at the deck list I ended up playing and then I will dive into the deckbuilding process and decisions that led me there. I think there are deckbuilding lessons here that apply to any format, so if you’re someone who is trying to build better decks, I encourage you to read more than just the list.

Pyromancer Control

Matt Sperling

For the more visual among you:

I went 8-0 before two intentional draws gave me the #2 seed. I eventually lost to Rich Shay’s Aggro Shops deck in the quarterfinals. A disappointing loss for sure, but my preparation that got me to that Top 8 is more interesting than the details of those nine rounds I played.

If you’re curious about what I faced in those nine rounds: Two Leovold-based B/U/G decks, one Grixis Thieves (which made Top 8), two Shops, one Paradoxical Outcome, one Eldrazi, one Standstill (which made Top 8), and I forgot the last deck—maybe I played against another Mentor Paradoxical deck?

Metagame Considerations

Vintage always has a bit of a rock-paper-scissors dynamic going on, even if they tend to get exaggerated a bit when people discuss them. When I tested straight Blue-Red Pyromancer with no splash, it had at least two obvious weak matchups: Oath and Eldrazi (mono-brown or white—both are bad matchups). But here’s the thing—Oath is bad right now. It struggles against Paradoxical Outcome and that’s the most popular blue deck. Eldrazi is bad right now. It struggles against Shops and Shops is plenty strong and plenty popular right now.

This doesn’t mean that a deckbuilder is wise to ignore these decks or for you to assume that you won’t be paired vs. them (as we’ll see), but it means that choosing to play U/R Pyro means that your weaker matchups will have trouble staying atop the standings. As you win, your odds of playing versus these poorly positioned decks should go down. This is commonly referred to as a “winner’s metagame” dynamic. More specifically, someone might say, “I expect people to show up with Oath, but I don’t expect much of it in the winner’s metagame [the top tables as the tournament approaches and reaches the Top 8].”

The Light Bulb/Eureka! Moment

Not literal Eureka—sorry to get your hopes up. I was trying out a U/R Pyro list that was doing well online. It barely touched green (two Tropical Island) in order to flashback Ancient Grudge, which is an incredible card in a field where Shops and Paradoxical Outcome are the two top dogs. I kept getting hammered into the ground by Oath, and I played against Survival Bazaar a few times too. They had their own 1G enchantment that you couldn’t beat in Survival of the Fittest (if you haven’t seen that deck, it’s really cool).

Well, I’m playing green in my deck. Could I swap out the traditional four Shattering Spree in the U/R Pyro sideboard for four Nature’s Claim? This was the light bulb moment. Nature’s Claim is obviously weaker than Shattering Spree against Shops, but with three Snapcaster Mage it’s actually quite reasonable and the instant speed comes up a lot. If this swap lets me have more meaningful game against Oath of Druids, Survival of the Fittest, Sylvan Library, and Experimental Frenzy, which I think will end up tier 1 at some point, then great. I’ve just shored up a major weakness.

Why U/R Pyro and Not U/W/R Mentor?

Snapcaster control decks can take many forms but the two most popular at this moment in time basically split along whether white and Monastery Mentor are used, or whether Young Pyromancer (which is weaker but unrestricted) is used. I have found Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor to be very similar tools once you give up on playing all the Moxes, as I did early on. Mentor is stronger, but it does cost an extra mana, which is a big deal in a deck with less fast mana than most opponents. More importantly, you can play more than one copy and you don’t have to play Tundra in your deck.

I quickly realized that the two Young Pyromancer in the stock U/R list was not enough. Want to jump ahead in a mirror? I hope you drew Young Pyromancer without having to dig for it. Want to shrug about two Vengevine attacking you rather than scooping to them? I hope you drew Young Pyromancer rather than having to dig for it. Having three changed the way my deck played out for the better. I ended up playing three Young Pyromancer and if I was refining the list further, I still believe three to be correct but I am closer to four than two.

Why do we play three copies of this, four copies of that, twotcopies of something else?

The fundamentals of deckbuilding are important to understand deeply and intuitively if you want to become a great deckbuilder. “Two copies means I kind of like it, three copies means I like it a little more, four copies means I love it” is sort of on the right track, but we can go deeper.

We typically play two copies of a card when drawing that card is good but not essential, and perhaps drawing multiples provides diminishing returns. Three copies usually means that we want to draw one but not two. Four copies means that we want to draw one every game, and usually means that drawing two is significantly better than drawing none.

The Elephant in the Room: 4 Dack Fayden

That brief intro to deckbuilding fundamentals and number-of-copies heuristics segues nicely into a discussion of why I decided to play 4 Dack Fayden when basically everyone else who plays it plays two or three. If you read the previous paragraph, you already know. I wanted to draw one every game, and I felt that drawing two was significantly better than drawing none. It’s blue, so you could pitch the second copy to FoW, but that doesn’t make every blue card a four-of.

Its own +1 ability allows you to draw two discard two every turn, and that’s significant. Also significant is how often I found myself a) winning when he was on the battlefield, and b) wishing to topdeck one when I didn’t have one. If you plan on tuning decks, you must be able to harness an intuition for tracking these frequencies. The card that you play two of but always miss when you don’t have it is a card you need to at least consider playing more copies of.

There is another fundamental aspect of deckbuilding we should talk about. Why is the fourth Dack better than the second Jace? As I briefly mentioned when discussing Mentor vs. Young Pyro, 1 mana is a huge difference in any Vintage deck, and especially in those with fewer than five Moxes. If Paradoxical Outcome is the current format-defining card, and it all but wins the game for 3U, we better all but win the game if we invest 2UU. We know Jace TMS is capable of that—it’s an all-time great card. Well, I was finding in testing that Dack Fayden all-but-wins-the-game a high enough percentage of the time that it was doing a Jace, TMS impression but for 1 mana less, i.e., 1-3 turns earlier (you don’t know exactly when the 4th mana will arrive, or when your opponent’s Wasteland or Strip Mine will first, for that matter). If Young Pyromancer and Dack Fayden are providing the impact of Mentor and Jace at a savings of 1 mana, then our deck is simply more efficient and a sharper sword at creating a control-advantaged board state. We want to use four Mental Misstep, two Pyroblast, and three Fluster/Pierce in the blue matchups, and it can be absolutely critical—not just a luxury—to loot these cards away into relevant action in the other matchups. This is why I played three Young Pyro and four Dack when stock lists had two and three, respectively.

No Sacred Cows

“Everyone plays two Flusterstorm” is not a valid reason to play two Flusterstorm and zero Spell Pierce. Not if you want to really tune your deck. Again, I found myself facing those same potent Oaths, Survivals, and Experimental Frenzies, as well as Sphere’s of Resistance and opposing Dacks and Jaces. I found that when I had four Dack, my opponents, who just threw their Moxes onto the board with reckless abandon, weren’t lasting long. The wiser opponents who held their Moxes until a key turn were trying to cast setup spells on earlier turns that could easily be Spell Pierced. Occasionally, Flusterstorm would counter something that Spell Pierce could not, but it was rarer than you might think. So I started playing one Spell Pierce. Then two. And I regret that I didn’t get to three. If I played this list again I would be playing zero Flusterstorm in my main deck.

Gush and Library of Alexandria were the truly two sacred cows that I ended up abandoning. When I told Steven Menendian after the Swiss rounds (once deck lists were going to be published anyway) that I was playing three Young Pyromancer and zero Gush, his jaw hit the floor. But I got there by trusting my instinct about the card and what was happening when I drew it. I find Gush to be slow. Even players who love it admit that it is slow. You can’t cast it turn 2 with barely any fast mana in your deck and hope to win. You can cast it turn 3 and end the turn with 1 land in play but even that is a fool’s errand. Fine, so we’re talking about a card you cast late in the game—what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing is inherently wrong with that, but the bar is extremely high for cards like that. I’m only playing 1 Jace TMS for the same reason. It’s not that I don’t enjoy having Jace in play—it’s just a slow card. Gush is nearly as slow as Jace but without the upside of really taking over the game. I’m not super duper extremely confident that it’s worse than Jace but like I said, I had to trust my experiences in drawing both and being frustrated by Gush and not frustrated by Jace. Picking up two lands really sets you back. One of the great things about “draw 2” (or draw 3 put 2 back) is the likelihood of making more land drops to cast more spells. Yes, you can discard extra lands to Dack, but that’s true of whatever you play and I’ve found putting a Jace next to the Dack that they already couldn’t counter or kill is more powerful than Gushing with a Dack out.

Library of Alexandria is just a complete trap in a control deck without fast mana. Here’s what happens much of the time: you keep a borderline hand because it has Library of Alexandria. Your opponent does something incredibly powerful in the first turn or 2 (they might have even been encouraged to do it by the presence of your Library!) and you either fall hopelessly behind by not interacting with what they’re doing, or you decide you have to interact, say, by using a Force of Will, and now you have a lovely Blasted Landscape in play that you’re staring down. God forbid this all happened when you were on the play or you mulliganed. I’ve seen these play patterns way too many times to believe that they are exceptions rather than the rule. Also, what if you have that Spell Pierce or Flusterstorm that would perhaps prevent your opponent from doing the broken things they signed up to do? Your Library could easily trick you into not having those tools available.

Are there scenarios where Library of Alexandria takes over a game and you win easily? Of course. The mirror especially can turn into a lopsided affair if one player has an unchecked Library. But the opportunity cost is high. The Wasteland I played over the Library helped me choke opponents on mana all weekend. It helped me in a metagame where there were two Bazaar of Baghdad decks, not just one. And it forced players to commit Moxes to the board for one of my four Dacks to steal. I’m happy with Wasteland over Library—nothing is sacred if you really want to tune a deck.

More About the Lands

I just covered Wasteland over Library. There was actually another decision I made late in the tuning process: Mountain over Wasteland #2. This wasn’t easy for all the reasons I just went over on why Wasteland is great. Having three total Strip Mine/Wasteland changes the way you can play the deck. Young Pyromancer and Spell Pierce can sort of stand-in for Delver and Daze in a traditional Delver-style game play familiar to many Eternal format players. Cutting that action down by 33% in the Strip/Wasteland department changes the dynamics.

But so too does having a 2nd basic land main deck, and first Mountain, change the dynamics. For every opponent trying to tempo or lock you out with Wastelands, the Mountain can be key. Turns where you want to cast both Young Pyro and Bolt come up more often with the 3rd colorless land than with the Mountain. I stared at this one a long time and played Mountain.

The Forest in the sideboard is part of what you commit to when you swap Nature’s Claims for Shattering Sprees in the sideboard. two Trops aren’t going to cut it since you want to be able to use Nature’s Claim early without exposing your green source, which will very likely be used in the near future to pay a flashback cost (either Snapcaster on that Claim or the back half of an Ancient Grudge). It always sort of hurts my soul as a deckbuilder to sideboard land (sideboard slots are so valuable), but Vintage is a special exception given that some players will be trying to send you packing with Sphere of Resistance and Wasteland, and you simply have to be prepared to go to war in that context.

What Would I Change Going Forward?

I’d be looking at that Flusterstorm spot and trying to figure out whether the third Pierce of third Grudge is better. I’d be wondering whether the fourth Nature’s Claim was better off as a fourh Grudge or first Spree. These changes depend on the metagame that follows Vintage Champs and I don’t have access to what that would look like, but these are things I’m thinking about.

What Was I Going to Play in the Old School 93/94 Tournament on Sunday if I Didn’t Top 8?

A quick note on 93/94, which I have been enjoying (I can’t recommend it over Vintage and Legacy but if you have time for all three, it’s a fun format). I had prepared for that tournament as well and I worked with a great deckbuilder, Mark Herberholz, in building an Atog deck that I later spent some time tuning, but didn’t depart too far from where Mark and I had left off.

Here is my Atog list in 93/94:

The Ankh vs. Tablet debate is heated in some circles. I’m a Tablet guy for sure. In any event, “What are you at?” is a fun question in every format, and I recommend this list in 93/94 Old School.

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