“Vintage is the hardest format to play.”
“Vintage is the easiest format to play.”
These two sentences are completely contradictory, but both are believed by a significant number of people. Obviously, only one of these is correct… right? Which one? The goal of this article is to find examples of Vintage games and determine just how hard/easy Vintage is to play.
Vintage is clearly the easiest format to play. You get the dumbest opening hands of any format.
Example hand #1:
Your opponent is playing something without Wasteland. You won the coinflip.
Pretty straightforward, no-brain win here.
Even if Trinisphere was countered, you could have Welded it back in. Congratulations, you're the champion of Vintage.
Example hand #2:
Your opponent is playing an unknown deck, and you lost the coinflip. After you draw for turn you have…
You lay your nuts on the table, stand on your chair, and move on to game 2. I wish I was as good at Vintage as you are.
So it's established that you get stupid good hands that win you the game. You don't even have to think in those games to win. Someone playing Vintage for the first time could have figured out those games.
That's not even all; you can also play like crap and still win the game. You can make the most bone-headed plays ever. Tutoring for Wasteland instead of Strip Mine while playing Stax. Fetching duals when Wasteland is on the table. Forgetting to attack with Darksteel Colossus. Walking into Mana Drain with a Fact or Fiction. It might look to bystanders that you are trying to lose. Congratulations, you ripped Yawgmoth's Will for the win. You're awesome. Obviously, Vintage is the easiest and most forgiving format.
Vintage is clearly the hardest format to play. It requires out of the box thinking that formats with “the attack step” usually don't have.
Here's an example that I witnessed. Eric Becker was playing Pitch Long Mat Endress playing Bomberman. Becker played a Necropotence when Mat was tapped out and it resolved. He drew a bunch of cards and ended with this hand:
Becker has a bunch of cards in the graveyard from earlier turns, and some lands and Moxen on the table (I don't remember exactly, but assume there's enough). Becker also has Black Lotus on the table. Becker is running only one Tendrils of Agony in the deck. Endress has a Tormod's Crypt in play, seven cards in hand, and two Blue mana open. Endress is at twenty life.
Can Eric Becker win this game right now?
Yes he can. Here is what he did:
Becker breaks Lotus and casts Yawgmoth's Will (storm count 1)
Endress activates Tormod's Crypt in response. Crypt Resolves.
With Yawgmoth's Will still on the stack Becker now gets priority. He casts two Dark Rituals and then passes priority. (storm count 3).
Endress Mana Drains Will (storm count 4)
Becker casts Brainstorm (storm count 5) and doesn't hit anything relevant
Becker Misdirects Drain (storm count 6)
Becker replays Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Brainstorm and casts a Tendrils of Agony for 20 damage and stands on his chair in excitement. Endress throws a hissy fit and calls someone to whine.
Becker was able to assume Endress didn't have a Force of Will since Necropotence resolved. Well, Endress could have drawn it last turn. The chances are pretty low, and if he did he's the absolute champion. You must assume he doesn't, because more often than not he didn't… and if he did you simply have no way to win unless you Brainstorm into the absolute nuts. He also had to make sure he had enough mana (which he did, but I don't remember the specifics so I didn't write them), and, most importantly, storm. He was able to use a Yawgmoth's Will while Tormod's Crypt was on the table, and play through Endress's counter. In my opinion, it was a damn good play and one most people (including most Vintage players) wouldn't have seen - especially if they are used to turning guys sideways.
You should probably take a break from reading. The next section gets a little complex if you aren't paying attention, or if you are talking on AIM or whatever. Have a Pepsi (Coke sucks) and then come back.
The smallest choices can make or break a game. Here's an example.
You are playing Gifts. By this time you have eight cards in hand, this is what they are:
What do you do?
Gift's option A. Put a land on top of your library and a Demonic Tutor on top. You can then Demonic for Tinker, cast Tinker for Darksteel Colossus on turn 2 with Force of Will backup if Gifts is taken out of your hand. If Mana Crypt is taken, you can Demonic for Black Lotus, Force of Will, or Ancestral Recall depending on your opponent's plays. You have turn 2 Gifts (if you DT for Lotus) with Force backup, Ancestral Recall with Force backup, and a turn 3 Gifts.
You are playing Grim Long. Your remaining cards are:
What do you do when you see your opponent's hand?
Grim's option 1a. You take the Gifts since he has turn 2 Gifts with mana left. You can then opt to Brainstorm or not.
Grim's option 2a. He left Gifts in his hand? Why? Does he have nuts on top of his library? What could he have put there? Does it matter if I take the Gifts? He probably didn't put back mana acceleration, so what bomb did he put back? Can he race me? Should I take his Force of Will and Twist to reset the game? After all, I have a higher chance to draw7 into a kill for next turn than he does. Should I take something, then Duress again?
Gifts option B. Your opponent has no idea what you are playing. You can probably assume he is playing Five-Color Grim Long. If you put back Gifts Ungiven and a land, what other deck does it look like you are playing? Pitch Long. This may screw up his plans, make him mis-assign his role, and give you the win.
Grim option 1b-i. Take his Demonic Tutor. It is his gas spell.
Grim option 1b-ii. Why did he leave Demonic Tutor in his hand? Why did he not Force of Will my Duress? What did he put back on top of his library? Should I take the Mana Crypt hoping he needed it for a draw7?
Grim option 1b-iii. Does he have the win next turn with Force of Will backup? Should I go for the win? My hand isn't the greatest, but it has a chance. Should I take his Force of Will and Timetwister, possibly winning this turn and screwing up his (perceived) next turn kill?
Grim option 2b. Pitch Long usually has one island, so is it Gifts? Take the Demonic Tutor, since that is his gas.
Grim option 3b. Is he playing Gifts, why did he leave Demonic Tutor in his hand? Does he have a Tinker sitting on top of his library? Does he have Ancestral Recall? He has another Brainstorm in hand, so he will have access to both cards he put back. Does he have Tolarian Academy and something nutty? Even Merchant Scroll (a 4-of so it should be definitely considered) under Academy could find Ancestral Recall, Force of Will or Gifts Ungiven. If he finds another Mox, he could make the strong play of Merchant Scroll for Mana Drain for double counter next turn. Is my opponent just plain terrible? Should I take his Mana Crypt to prevent something stupid like turn 2 Gifts or Fact or Fiction?
Gifts option C. Force of Will the Duress. I don't want my opponent knowing what I am playing. Besides, my cards are pretty good and I don't want to lose any of them.
Grim option 1c. What is my opponent playing? Gifts or Control Slaver. He must have something insane if he Forces a Duress.
Grim option 1c-i. Play Petal, Duress again. I want to know what's in his hand. Pass turn.
Grim option 1c-ii. Play Petal, Duress again. He might have put more nuts on top of his library. Lotus, Timetwister.
Grim option 1c-iii. He probably doesn't have another Force. If he does, he will set himself back a lot. Play Petal. Play Lotus and Timetwister.
Grim option 2c. What is my opponent playing? He is playing aggro-control. He must have something he thinks can stop me if he Forces a Duress.
Grim option 2c-i. He can play a turn 2 Null Rod or Chalice. I'm afraid of Rod. I need to cast and use my artifact mana now. Play Petal. Play Lotus and Timetwister. He has a Chalice of the Void he thinks will be good. He can cast it for zero or one. If I play my artifacts, he will cast it for one. If I don't, he will play it for zero. Both are tough to go through, so I have the same result. Play Petal. Play Lotus and Timetwister.
Grim option 2c-ii. He can play a turn 2 Meddling Mage or True Believer (off Pearl or Lotus) and doesn't want me to know it. Or he is just acting smurfy and wants to bluff. Play Petal. Duress to se what is going on. Future plays based on what I see.
Grim option 3c. What is my opponent playing? He is playing Pitch Long. He has the nuts for next turn.
Grim option 3c-i. He has the nuts in his hand. Duress again to remove either his mana or bomb. He might need all his cards for next turn so he couldn't hide them all.
Grim option 3c-ii. He has the nuts in his hand and can afford to put them on top of his deck. He Forced it because he's smurfy and wants to psych me out. I can see through it so I play Petal, Lotus, Timetwister.
This is turn 1, folks.
Two spells have been played this game, and they will be the breaking point in this game. The entire game hinges upon what two spells the Gifts player puts back. After that, the game can still swing either way depending upon the Grim Long player's guess as to what deck he's playing against, and what card he takes. By definition, there is only one best play for Gifts, but which one? Grim Long has one best option for each situation. Which is it? If either player chooses an incorrect choice, he will probably lose this game. One small facet of the game will determine who will win it. One small mistake on turn 1, during the resolution of the two most common cards in the format, will determine who wins the game.
I could have made that even more complicated. Since it was City of Brass into Duress, it is obviously Grim Long 99% of the time. What if it was Underground Sea into Duress? Then Gifts has to go through another set of questions guessing what he's playing against - Pitch Long, aggro-control, Control Slaver, Gifts are all options. My head would have exploded trying to analyze that, so I stuck with one player having an obvious deck. I'll let you mentally factor in another set of choices. Don't forget, each player must play “at a reasonable pace” or they will be called for slow play. Since slow play calls aren't affected by the complexity of the play, each player must go through the options and make their choice in about a minute.
Clearly, Vintage is the hardest and least forgiving format.
What about tournament performances?
Statistically, every time you get a stupid broken play, your opponent will get one. This makes Vintage random. You could just get lucky and skate your way to a Top 8. I doubt anyone could skate their way through eight rounds of Block to a Top 8 if they are playing terrible Magic. Still, the same names keep coming up in Top 8 after Top 8. These are the players who make the correct small choices and win those games. However, Randy Buehler failed to make Top 8 both days at StarCityGames Power 9: Richmond. Does this mean that Randy Buehler is bad? Yeah, right.
To quote Randy Buehler on the SCG forums:
Steve (Menendian)'s point, if I understand it, is that Vintage tournaments tend to be won by the most skilled players who show up. Despite all the brokenness that flies around (and despite lots of matches where there's only actual interaction in one of the three games), skill is still king and the good players tend to win the Moxes.
Mike (Flores)'s point, if I understand it, is that Vintage seems less skill-testing than other formats. Because it is possible to be totally saved and have all your mistakes forgiven by a timely top-deck, the format seems less skill-testing than, say, Standard or Limited.
You can both be right.
In particular, I personally believe you are both correct. I believe that Vintage is less skill-testing than many other formats but it is still plenty skill-testing enough for good players to win consistently. (I also believe Vintage to be a lot of fun, for whatever that's worth to the current debate.)
What does this tell us? I think it was Doyle Brunson that said, “short term, poker is a game of luck; long term, poker is a game of skill.” So is Magic, and particularly Vintage. So how does this answer the question proposed in the beginning of the article? Is Vintage the most or least skill intensive format? This paragraph, the last one, and Randy's quote have nothing to do with skill intensity. They deal with tournament results. The two are related, but not directly correlated. Each round in Vintage can have completely different complexities - from next to none to the highest. People tend to forget this. They then use whichever complexity level they feel like when debating. This is a huge logical fallacy I see people make when they are arguing over Vintage and skill complexity. You simply can't try to use the “points” illustrated by Randy or me, because they really aren't points that have anything to do with whether or not Vintage is the hardest or easiest format to play. They are talking about tournament results, not the mechanics of a single game. There is a difference and it's a very important one. Don't forget it.
I'm glad we've come to a resolution on this argument. I hope you enjoyed the article. Peace out yo!
Wait, nothing was determined? We still have no idea how easy or hard Vintage is to play? This is why I chose the title I did. I believe Vintage is both the most skill intensive and least skill intensive format. I believe Vintage is the most and least forgiving format. It can't really be, but it is. Vintage is a weird beast where decks can kill on turn 1, but has more games go to time in a round than any other format. Vintage is a paradox.
Thanks to the community for giving me the idea to write this article, and to my teammates who gave me examples to use.
Teh Absolut Balz
Moxlotus on SCG and TMD