Recently (like the last four years) I’ve been a little bored with the Vintage format. There’s still the same fun community that keeps me interested, and has me playing every few months, but the format itself seems to settle into the same patterns. There’s a tempo blue control deck based around Preordain, a combo deck with Paradoxical Outcome, some aggro Workshops with a spattering of lock pieces, and Dredge, which is really Survival. Sometimes there’s a fifth deck kicking around, usually a flavor-of-the-week combo deck that asks people to tweak a couple of sideboard slots. Maybe it’s Lands. Maybe it’s actual Dredge.
And it seems that any time something comes along to upset this beautiful balance, players get angry and ask that it be restricted into submission. This has been a frequent occurrence lately, highlighted by last summer’s War of the Spark, Modern Horizons, Core Set 2020 combo of a one-two punch and kick to the groin. The frustration of seeing cards come and go so quickly hits especially hard for players like me who don’t play as often.
It’s all fine. I still have fun when I play. I’m sure other people enjoy it and find it more nuanced and interesting than I’ve laid it out. If you want to play Vintage, please play Vintage. There are good games to be had there. The existence of the format described in this article shouldn’t be a challenge to the de facto oldest sanctioned Magic: The Gathering format. It’s just a different way to enjoy a game that has more than 20,000 moving parts.
We’ve been playing a new breed of Vintage. Vintage Unleashed (also known as UX, for “Unrestrict X,” where we weren’t initially sure what number of newly unrestricted cards X was going to represent) opens up the regular Vintage format. We unrestricted 31 cards and unbanned Shahrazad and Lurrus of the Dream Den, leaving only these restricted:
● Ancestral Recall
● Black Lotus
● Demonic Consultation
● Demonic Tutor
● Imperial Seal
● Lion’s Eye Diamond
● Mana Crypt
● Mana Vault
● Merchant Scroll
● Mox Emerald
● Mox Jet
● Mox Pearl
● Mox Ruby
● Mox Sapphire
● Mystical Tutor
● Sol Ring
● Time Walk
● Tolarian Academy
● Vampiric Tutor
● Wheel of Fortune
You can hear more about the theory behind the format in Serious Vintage, Ep. 47. Turns out, it’s balanced. Unrestricting this many cards doesn’t per se send games flying out of control. A player can’t fit all of the unrestricted good cards into one deck, and they can’t prepare for all the unrestricted good cards that might appear against them. If you’re familiar with Three Stooges Syndrome, as applied to Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, it’s a little like that.
Vintage Unleashed in Practice
Saturday, July 11 marked the first ever Vintage Unleashed event, held online in the Team Serious Virtual Realm. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been using that Discord server as a place to play Magic while physically distanced. A theoretically bigger player pool potentially also means bigger tournament turnouts.
But we had six people. For a first event, where players don’t really know what to expect and don’t want to invest the time on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon to jump in uninitiated, it’s totally understandable. I heard from a few people who said they would like to play but couldn’t, and more people talked to me after hearing about the event saying they would like to play next time. It’s an enjoyable format, and people will ultimately play it if they enjoy it.
We played round robin style, for a total of five rounds. And the Vintage Unleashed rules currently call for matches as best-of-five (two games without sideboards, three with), so, despite the small turnout, a lot of Magic was played.
Stephen Menendian won the event playing Gush Tendrils, going undefeated. He played a full suite of Gushes, Brainstorms, Ponders, and Mental Missteps, as well as three Gitaxian Probes. He played one copy of Yawgmoth’s Will but would have been allowed up to the full four!
Stephen Menendian, Gush Tendrils – 5-0 (14-3 in games)
Andy Probasco, Bant Mentor – 3-1-1 (13-5 in games)
Nat Moes, Delve-Spell Pyromancer – 2-1-2 (10-7 in games)
Joe Dyer, RUG Elementals – 1-2-2
Rajah James, UX Stasis – 1-3-1
Randal Witherell, 5C Channel Belcher – 0-5
Five out of the six players took the opportunity to play with an unrestricted Gush, which was a drawback to the small turnout (lists are available from Joe Dyer). We know that artifact-based decks are strong, and a Workshop Lock deck would have been particularly effective in this environment. Few of the “obvious” combo decks showed up too. Randal Witherell played a Channel deck that finished with Goblin Charbelcher (also using unrestricted Tinker, Windfall, and Lotus Petal and Balance in the side), but there was no Flash or Mind’s Desire or Mystic Forge in the field, for example.
That said, of the five Gush decks, there were several distinct variants. Menendian’s was the most aggressive combo version, looking to play Fastbond and Gush into Yawgmoth’s Will very quickly. On the other end, Rajah James used Gush and Time Vault to fuel Stasis in a blue control shell. It was a neat deck that probably would have done better if its opponents hadn’t mostly been returning lands to their hands to stay out of Stasis lock as well. Brass “The Andyman” Probasco finished second with a Bant Mentor deck that used Lavinia, Azorius Renegade very effectively against the format. Aside from the insane draw engine, it seemed content to counter spells, let Lavinia do her job, and wait for Monastery Mentor to win.
And in the middle of the combo-control spectrum, Joe Dyer and I played Young Pyromancers. Joe’s Elementals deck used Risen Reef to draw cards and had a combo element in its own right, though it wasn’t necessarily going for a one-turn win (as with Tendrils or Brain Freeze). My deck had Gushes and Brainstorms but was really a delve deck. I ran four copies of both Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise, because I regretted not doing that when they were both unrestricted together, for a few months. Joe and I finished in the middle of the pack, as we both finished with multiple draws (a consequence of five-game matches).
Dig Through Time is Very Good
Here’s the deck I played and some notes on my experience. Please excuse my poor photography.
I based the list on a deck I ran to top four of an event in Columbus in January 2012, where my goal was to play more delve spells. There, I played six—four Cruises and two Digs—but I wished then that I had played all eight. As it turns out (and this is one of the challenges of Vintage Unleashed), it’s very difficult to make room for all the great spells you want to play. I maximized the delve spells and Gushes and Brainstorms, but I probably needed Gitaxian Probe to further fuel the graveyard. And I boarded out a Treasure Cruise at almost every opportunity. Four Digs and four Cruises was just too many.
Other aspects of the deck were solid, so once the erstwhile Best Draw Engine in Vintage got rolling, the deck felt very strong. The only deck that I felt truly outmatched by was Menendian’s. I think some tweaks could put me back in that game, but it might always be an uphill struggle since his bombs are so powerful.
Young Pyromancer was effective at being cheap and difficult enough to deal with, able to be played early and forgotten about as it either won or died. Lightning Bolt was surprisingly relevant, and I had enough counterspells to maintain control, even over other decks with similar draw engines. Six Forces was great, particularly against Randal’s combo. I liked Force of Negation especially for being castable at three mana later in games too. Mindbreak Trap was relevant in every match with all the cheap spells running around, and I used Merchant Scroll to get Flusterstorm more than once.
The planeswalkers (two Narset, one Dack, and one Oko) were effective in their roles. I never lost a game with Dack, who filled the graveyard in the absence of Workshop decks. Oko, whom I hadn’t played before Saturday, turned a few of Brassy’s Mentors into Elk, as well as one of Randal’s Lich’s Mirrors, which was going to be a serious problem otherwise. There were also a couple of matches where he soaked up a few turns of combat damage. Narset mostly got countered, but that’s effective in and of itself.
I cut the Fiery Islet (a known pet card) before the tournament for another Tropical Island. I would probably drop to one Lotus Petal and cut the Mox Emerald in the future as well, though I like Petal for fueling delve spells. Strip Mine was strong, and I could see going to three and maybe four main deck. Menendian was particularly concerned with Strip Mine out of Workshops, but it worked here too. I had both in one game against Joe and was able to set him back enough to crawl back into a game where I was low on blue mana (don’t worry, I get the irony).
My notes get too sparse after round three to do an exacting, blow-by-blow report, but here are a few things of note.
I have a policy of never losing to Belcher, but Randal’s Belcher deck (and I’m sure most of the Channel decks in this format) is terrifying. In game one I countered Manamorphose and Channel, and resolved Treasure Cruise, and he was still able to resolve Tinker. Fortunately Lightning Bolts pushed his Tinker target to Lich’s Mirror, and fortunately I drew Oko. In one game, Randal’s Windfall turned my mediocre hand into a great one. And a sideboard Balance in game three left me with a land and Treasure Cruise, which let me refill my hand and win. Having ready access to free countermagic was critical all three games.
Menendian wielding Gushes is as powerful as ever, and he had the right mix of threats and counterspells to go off when he needed. The one weakness I saw was that he paid so much life between Fastbond, fetchlands, and incidental spells like Vampiric Tutor. In more than one game he put himself into Lightning Bolt range, but he always had an appropriate counterspell. In game three I mulliganed to five, and he had Mental Misstep for my Brainstorm. I was out of my league.
Brass Man’s Mentor deck seemed elegant. Lavinia, Azorius Renegade is a great foil to the Vintage Unleashed card pool, and a lot of my games were spent trying to deal with her. Mentor is obnoxious, but at least I had some answers. I was glad to have Lightning Bolts (I’ll note: my favorite Alpha boon) and grateful to Oko for his help. In many ways they were the cards that kept me in this fight as we fought to a legitimate 2-2 draw over an hour. What a fun slugfest. When people suggest unrestricting Gush in Vintage, this is why.
I regret not being able to see more of Rajah’s deck, because once someone starts talking about Stasis, things get hilarious, and I love it. I countered Stasis whenever I could, and we had some good, complex counter battles. In the end, I think my draw engine was just that much more powerful; I could fight on the stack and reload better. Young Pyromancer and Gush were still effective when Stasis did hit the board since I could return lands, play spells, and get at least one attack in with the token. In a field with other decks, Stasis and Time Vault could be a thing.
I’m glad Joe is making it a point to play Risen Reef in every format, and it looked good in Vintage Unleashed too. Similar to my match with Brass Man, this was a Gush-fueled back-and-forth fight. We would stridently argue over something on the stack and expend all our resources, then see who could topdeck the next most relevant thing. Oh, it was Dig Through Time! You win! I mentioned the game where I had two early Strip Mines, and I would do that again, but we played to a 2-2 draw here.
Overall, Vintage Unleashed was great. It definitely has more interest for me as a format than regular Vintage right now. The plays are bigger and the interactions are more meaningful. My matches with Brass Man and Joe, and indeed all my opponents, had a lot of tense moments and great decision points. I look forward to exploring the format further and playing additional matches. Look for more information soon about another upcoming Vintage Unleashed event.
What’s Next for Vintage Unleashed
For adjustments to the format, there won’t be any at this time. The event was small enough and the format is still wild enough that I don’t want to unrestrict anything further. With some more play, I still think at least Lion’s Eye Diamond and potentially some other cards could be unrestricted. LED would fuel some Dredge builds and potentially open up storm combo with Burning Long and Underworld Breach. I also think it could bring Lurrus into the format, and that seems awesome.
The five-game matches will stay as well, even though we had three draws in this event. We’ll see how it goes next time. I see three ways to solve this problem: Going to three game matches isn’t desired because there would hypothetically be some non-games involving explosive decks, and the longer match smooths out that randomness. A longer match timer isn’t great because, well, tournaments take longer. A shorter match timer might actually be the solution. We played hour-long matches (rather than 50 minutes) to allow for any connection difficulties and to facilitate the five-game structure. However, for the grindy matches between well matched decks, the extra ten minutes just meant more time to get into and conclude game four. A regular 50-minute timer potentially means that more matches would end conclusively at 2-1-1.
On restrictions, Gush seems as powerful and ubiquitous in Vintage Unleashed as it has been anywhere. It turns out a free draw spell that actually accelerates your mana is incredibly strong. When I asked the tournament participants about cards they saw as problems, though, the reaction was instead that Mystic Sanctuary created some repetitive play patterns. Yuk. We’ll keep an eye on both of them, but please don’t worry and continue enjoying their power. That’s expected in this format.
As I mentioned, it should be seen as an aberration that our six-player event had five Gush decks, at least four of them using Mystic Sanctuary. We know other decks are strong, it’s just that no one (except people’s champion Randal Witherell) chose to play them here. Furthermore, many non-Gush decks would be able to fight Gush or Sanctuary either on the spellcasting front (hello, Lodestone Golem) or by racing them (hello, Lodestone Golem). There’s room for a lot in the format, and opponents simply don’t have room to pack hate for everything. Talking about Dredge earlier, for example, I’m not sure it needs Lion’s Eye Diamond, because it might be able to beat decks that have to skimp on graveyard hate to make room for all the other answers. But we’ll see. Someone will play it and tell me how it goes.
Thanks for reading this text-based addendum to the Serious Vintage podcast. If you have any questions about Vintage Unleashed, please let me know, or join us in the Team Serious Virtual Realm and play some games. Continue being safe and remaining healthy. I’ll look forward to any questions or comments here or The Mana Drain or on Twitter. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.