Vintage is in a trough right now in terms of its popularity and energy. For three years, Vintage was in a perpetual state of expansion. Every other month a new deck emerged that seemed to shake up the format. The first half of 2005 was no exception. Uba Stax, Gifts, and a plethora of new Drain decks emerged as contenders in a constantly fluctuating field. Vial Fish briefly surfaced as a great metagame deck and Oath has been in a constant state of revision. Several things have come into play in the last few months that have negatively affected Vintage. You need to know what they are and how they affect your metagame.
The Impact of Legacy
The Grand Prix announcement for Legacy sucked a significant amount of brainpower out of Vintage for a brief while. Innovators and tuners that had previously been working only on Vintage were now intrigued by its new cousin. The result has been impressive and disappointing. I believe that I came up with a genuinely broken Flame Vault deck in Legacy and others have created some nifty gems as well, but Legacy has not taken off like I thought it would. What I once believed would be a stable format that would rival Vintage, I now see as something far more embryonic. It is possible that the Grand Prix will create a huge surge in momentum, but that momentum hasn’t come yet. That doesn’t mean it won’t, but I am beginning to think that it never will. Vintage has such a special allure - it isn’t only the unique card pool and broken restricted cards, but I think the heightened metagame development of the past three years creates a sense of tension and excitement that you can’t get from Legacy at the moment. Take a look at this incredibly scrubby Top 8 I found.
The first place deck has both Mishra’s Workshop and Mana Drain. The second place deck has Mana Drains, Mishra’s Workshops, and Bazaar of Baghdad. Although the mana base is atrocious and the deck looks pretty terrible, I’ll bet it was fun to play for a few games. The high level of development that the last few years brought means that even a few steps backward is ridiculously broken. A “casual” Vintage deck looks like the first or second place deck in that tournament: a powerhouse that is still capable of winning despite being clearly suboptimal.
The Price of Vintage
Related to the first reason, the second thing that I think really hurt Vintage is the prices. The price of Vintage staples has doubled and doubled again in the last few years. Mana Drains were once stable at $40 and are now $120+. Black Lotus is well on its way to a grand.
Imagine you are new to the Eternal formats. You have been watching Vintage as a casual observer and you now see this new format, Legacy. You look at the prices of Vintage staples: you see Blue duals at $30+ and Goblin Welder at over ten dollars and you see Legacy with Goblins and High Tide Combo for far cheaper than any Vintage deck. Even Fish requires that you drop nearly $100 on Force of Wills, the same on dual lands and a good chunk of change on Null Rods.
The popularity of Vintage has made 10 proxy tournaments necessary, but the price of basic staples are so exorbitantly high that it is just not realistic for people to try and get into Vintage and play it consistently. The introduction of Legacy has just made this fact so apparent that it has sucked many local Vintage metagames dry.
Also, the price of Vintage cards has increased the incentive to sell out.
The bottom line is that Vintage has been bleeding players, like it always does, but the difference this time is that new players aren’t entering at the rate that good ones are leaving.
The Skill Required for Vintage
Now, you sit down to test out some decks from both formats before deciding which to invest in and you discover that your Vintage opponent locks you down on turn 2 with Smokestack off of a Mishra’s Workshop, or Mana Drains your spell into Gifts Ungiven and you never get another turn, or your opponent Animates a Worldgorger Dragon and combos out on turn 2. Suddenly, you think this Vintage format is too much.
Vintage is undoubtedly the most brutal format. It is relentless as it is fast. A single misplay as minor as breaking a fetchland at the wrong moment can spell certain doom. There is no room for error in Vintage and the quantity of tutors and compressed speed of the format multiple the opportunities for game ending errors.
Moreover, the speed and power of the format requires expertise to succeed. Perhaps one of the most interesting factors at work in Vintage at the moment is that Control decks are actually now the second most difficult archetype to play. I’m basically talking about Control Slaver and Gifts Ungiven decks here. Traditionally, the easiest (although there is widespread misperception that Mana Drain decks require the most skill), Mana Drain decks are now nearly impossible to play perfectly without significant experience and understanding. Moreover, just picking up a Drain deck without knowledge of the metagame and intimate understanding of the internal workings of your deck and justification for various card choices is bound to leave you with a suboptimal design and metagame choice. Gifts Ungiven has introduced a new level of difficulty to the format. Gifts is a highly interactive card that tries to create non-interactive game states. Finding the right Gifts pile is often as challenging as Vintage can become. One only need Randy Buehler’s original report with Meandeck Gifts to understand that.
As a result, Mishra’s Workshop decks are now the easiest deck to play with full power. But that’s not saying much. Mishra’s Workshop decks lack Force of Will and the inherent shield that Blue-based control provides. The lack of Brainstorm means that you have to maximize every bit of power and juice your deck hands you. Design becomes even more important. And experience in various matchups is equally essential. How you know which hand is going to be good enough when you have never tested the matchup?
Vintage is expensive, difficult to master, and Legacy looks more alluring.
Lack of Innovation
The biggest thing hurting Vintage though, above all else, is the lack of energy. Innovation is a very powerful driver in Vintage. Competition creates its own incentives and the lack of innovation creates a feedback loop in which innovation becomes less and less necessary. The lack of innovation also stunts development by diminishing the incentive to play Vintage based upon its allure as a dynamic and exciting format.
The result? The Top 8 of Gencon. The most successful decks were the most inbred decks — the decks that used their main deck flexibility for metagame spots.
This brings me to my first big lesson of Vintage as it exists at the moment of the Legacy Grand Prix:
Control Slaver is the Best Deck in the Format
I have always been down on Control Slaver. For a very long time I felt that Control Slaver’s success was the by product of a cult of personality and personal expertise on the part of Rich Shay. After that, I felt that other decks were just better, including Goth Slaver — the Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge draw engine in Slaver. The reasoning was pretty simple: Intuition/AK was more robust. Although the inclusion of that draw engine ate up slots, I felt that the “flexible” slots that Rich Shay ran were more than compensated by the additional drawing power and renewed focus on Yawgmoth’s Will that Intuition/AK provides.
I believe I was right at the time. This is no longer that time. Control Slaver has several very important things going for it.
First of all, it is incredibly consistent. Consistency, per se, is less important in a constantly dynamic metagame were new decks are emerging to upset established expectations. When things remain very constant and the metagame appears to be sickly stable, consistency becomes something measurable on a different scale and directly comparable. I am willing to trade a small amount of consistency for metagame power. Now no such trade off is readily available.
Second, Control Slaver can now run Gifts Ungiven. Control Slaver lists have always been looking for a way to fill up some final slots. Mark Biller ran Skeletal Scryings in the Vintage Champs of 2004. Rich Shay has run Duress. Gifts Ungiven is ridiculously broken in Slaver because Yawgmoth’s Will is the best card in the format. Gifting for Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, Vampiric Tutor, a Tinker is as powerful as it is devastating. Add in additional options like Tolarian Academy, Black Lotus (imagine if you have a Goblin Welder in play), and Mystical Tutor or Thirst For Knowledge and you have a truly broken play. Gift Ungiven completes the power of Control Slaver by harnessing the most broken blue card from Champions for Control Slaver.
Third, Control Slaver is the most flexible Drain deck. The entire reason that I disliked Control Slaver when objectively compared to Goth Slaver is precisely the reason that Control Slaver is so potent in a stagnant metagame. I highly endorse running a Gorilla Shaman or more as suggested by Brian Demars. I also think running a Rack and Ruin maindeck is very solid. In addition, I like a maindeck Echoing Truth.
Fourth, Control Slaver is very explosive. Gifts is slightly more explosive, but Control Slaver, well built, can combat Gifts. People just don’t realize it yet. Control Slaver needs to run a full cadre of Red Elemental Blasts in the sideboard. There is nothing Gifts loses to more than a fist full of Red Elemental Blasts. Control Slaver also has the ability to go nuts on turn 1 or 2 and the final tweaks in design with Gifts and the like make that happen more often than ever before.
What about Gifts? I think Gifts is very broken, but I just think that the overall consistency and flexibility of Slaver make it a slightly stronger choice until innovation returns to the format.
I also think that Gifts needs to be rebuilt. Gifts has undergone continuous innovation since it was realized that the card is broken. Shortbus Severance Belcher became Gifts.fr which evolved into Meandeck Gifts. Then SSB took the best parts of Meandeck Gifts and became a new step in the evolutionary design. The next step waits.
The most important thing that the Vintage player needs to understand in the current state of Vintage is the importance of your region. The global Vintage metagame has collapsed. Europe appears to have undergone a severe contraction. Italy appears to still hold major tournaments, but Europe, by and large, strongly opposes proxy tournaments. The result is not surprising. The metagame appears highly under-developed according to our standards and is not expanding.
The American metagame has also collapsed. A good part of the local metagames are dead or dying as Legacy replaces them and the remaining places dry up or remain highly scrubby. What has replaced this is a highly fractured regional metagame. What exists now is basically two metagames. The first is what I’ll now call the Midwest metagame. This metagame is characterized by StarCityGames Chicago and Gencon. This metagame has a few very important characteristics:
1) It is represented by the world’s densest number of Mishra’s Workshop experts. Kevin Cron, Robert Vroman, Roland Change are a few names that spring to mind. Moreover, for some reason, Chicago and that area generally has a huge number of Mishra’s Workshops. Workshops are present and always high performers.
2) Control Slaver and Gifts are constant staples. You will see players like Brian Demars and now Rich Shay playing Control Slaver in this area. You will also see the same faces playing Gifts variants. These decks are popular everywhere, but there are name players playing these decks in the Midwest as well. The Colorado crew performed spectacularly with Control Slaver at Gencon.
3) Dragon Combo is always lurking in the background. The stagnant metagame and focus on Workshops and Slaver/Gifts decks presents a metagame opening for an old favorite. We witnessed Dragon combo maul its way into the Gencon top 8 and it will probably be a permanent staple in this metagame, even if its presence is light.
The second major American metagame is the Northeast metagame. Local stores appear to have stopped holding consistent Vintage events, but major tournaments like the Waterbury will continue to be barometers of the Northeast metagame. The Rochester StarCityGames events will also share this metagame. This metagame is characterized by two major features:
1) A huge amount of Mana Drain decks. This is has always been and will probably always be the predominant feature of this metagame. Not only are Mana Drains huge, but people are far more experimental with Mana Drain decks. You see decks like Top combo tested and tried in environments like this. You see lots of Mana Drain decks originate from this metagame due to the experimentation.
2) Randomness. The Canadians are a big player in this metagame and they often bring whatever they feel like playing. This often involves Dragon decks, but it also will involve a smattering of other decks.
Generally, the randomness will be trying to fight Mana Drain decks. So you will see Fish variants attempted, with diminishing success.
What you do not see in the Northeast metagame is the Mishra’s Workshop decks. There was one Mishra’s Workshop deck in the last Waterbury, and it won the tournament. I’m going to have you take a look at the decklist. Go ahead and try that deck out. Test if you want. I’m not even going to comment on it because it is laughably bad in terms of design. Nonetheless, Travis Laplante is a very strong player and good Mishra’s Workshop players tend to win wherever they are — it just so happens that there are almost none in the Northeast.
The stagnation in the metagame means that you will probably see more and more weird decks performing in various metagames such as R/G Beats and even Sligh in some circumstances. This will be less true in the Midwest metagame because Workshop decks force out the budget aggro decks.
This stagnant metagame will not continue indefinitely. Pretty soon Vintage is going to get its momentum back as the energy returns to the format. The lack of recent development will create a rush in development as not only Portal filters its way into the format, but people discover the broken gems from Ravnica. I don’t foresee the return of a national metagame, however. I think that we will see a stable and thriving Northeast and Midwest metagame that will probably even grow a bit. But until Europe learns to accept proxies, I would expect to continue to see Top 8s like this. The future of Vintage will be Waterbury, Star City "Power Nine" Rochester, Gencon, and Star City "Power Nine" Chicago, and that is a stable mix. That’s a good number of very large and worthwhile Vintage events a year. That is a sufficient incentive to create a thriving player base and enough to drive innovation and maintain interest.
The hope is that the recent lull will help remind people why they loved Vintage in the first place at the same time that the stagnant and even dipping prices of Vintage power might help alleviate, at least in the short term, the barrier to entry.