So Many Insane Plays – Pitch Burning Tendrils, Other Brews, and Three Tournament Reports

Stephen Menendian’s latest weapon of choice is revealed here, in an epic 45 page primer and three tournament reports (including the Vintage Championship). A compelling read for Vintage enthusiasts and experts alike, Stephen’s nuanced and characteristically detailed analysis of the critical trends in the late 2013 Vintage metagame, innovative deck designs, and updated favorites like Maniac Doomsday, are all part of a must read, end of year Vintage strategy article you won’t find anywhere else. His latest deck is, in his view, the best deck in Vintage going forward, and the perfect weapon for upcoming tournaments.

[Begin Free Excerpt From So Many Insane Plays – Pitch Burning Tendrils, Other Brews, and Two Tournament Reports]
What an incredible year 2013 has been for Vintage! A new marquee event launched (the NYSE Open), the Vintage Championship was relocated from GenCon to Eternal Weekend with much acclaim, fanfare, and record attendance, and Wizards of the Coast announced that the Power Nine would be released on the Magic Online platform next year. There is much to celebrate and much to look forward toward.

The Vintage format suffers from benign neglect from Wizards of the Coast and most tournament organizers, and as a consequence, inaccurate stereotypes and a general lack of understanding of its dynamics or metagame trends. There are very few experts who not only understand the format at a fundamental level (meaning an understanding all of the basic tactics and important interactions), but have the experience to understand its long-term trends. Of those, only a small subset is able to convey these insights to wider audiences. And those who can, in most cases, develop an unfortunately insular perspective, unable to recognize the parochial nature of their perception of the format, shaped largely by their attachments to certain Schools of Magic (such as the Weissman School) or developed play-styles.

Vintage is particularly susceptible to the last kind of bias, since the Schools of Magic that define the format are so ripened with trained disciples, many of them unwitting. My long experience in the format, research, and innovation and efforts within each of the Schools of Vintage, I believe, gives me a rare perspective on the Vintage format.

This is an omnibus article, touching on a broad range of subjects relating to the Vintage format. In this article, I will describe my view of the Vintage metagame up to the Vintage Championship and beyond, as we look towards 2014. I will describe some of my observations and insights derived from copious amounts of testing and preparation for the Vintage Championship. I will share with you a few brews and deck innovations, including my latest efforts with Control Oath, Pitch Long, and a new Burning Tendrils list. I will also share my updated Doomsday decklist, which I played to a Top 4 finish at a Vintage Championship preliminary tournament. I will then share three tournament reports, including a 2nd place finish at Eudemonia with my updated Burning Tendrils deck, my Vintage Championship report, and another Top 4 finish from the following Eudomania tournament. I close with some final observations and insights.

The Fall 2013 Vintage Metagame

In my Vintage Championship preview article, I described six major pillars of the Vintage metagame: Dredge, Workshops, Combo-Control (like Grixis and Esper Control), Slower Control (like Landstill and Keeper), Aggro-Control (like RUG Delver and BUG Tempo), and Combo (like Doomsday and Burning Tendrils). I suppose I left out Grow, which is Aggro-Control-Combo, but a big chunk of what Grow does tactically can be captured by RUG Delver decks with Pyromancer. What’s missing is the GushBond engine (refer to my book Understanding Gush for more on this). Blue Angels (which I mentioned) and Bomberman are also Control-Aggro archetypes, and there is, of course, Humans decks, or hate bears decks, which are a beatdown deck class of their own, but constitute the Aggro archetype of Vintage.

Every major permutation in Magic, Aggro, Aggro-Control, Control, Control-Combo, Combo, and Aggro-Control-Combo, can be found within these strategies, and others besides, in the current Vintage format. Each of the incipient Schools of Vintage are also embodied within these archetypes. Workshops are the O’Brien School come to life. Dredge is modern Reanimator. And the Weissman School is alive and well in both the Grixis Combo-Control decks as well as the slower Control decks. All of these basic approaches in Magic are viable in contemporary Vintage, and see play in most of the larger Vintage metagames.

While presented as a matter of fact description of the current metagame, this fact is remarkable. Vintage is a hostile format to new strategies and the bar to viability, not just success, is set quite high. The diversity of strategies, archetypes, and Schools of Magic currently able to make Top 8s and win tournaments is perhaps unparalleled or unmatched in the history of the format. It is the most diverse Vintage format, at its highest levels, perhaps ever.

The strategic diversity of Vintage is now on broad display, and I think increasingly highlights some of the deficiencies of Legacy. While Legacy receives much praise for its broad diversity and countless individual archetypes, I think Vintage is more strategically diverse, in the sense of having a broader array of strategic possibilities as well as far sharper differences at the strategic level among archetypes. This makes Vintage a more interesting format in my judgment.

Despite having a greater number of individual archetypes, Legacy is strategically narrower in the upper tiers. Legacy is basically dominated (in the sense of composing a majority of Top 8 appearances) by two strategies: Aggro-Control/Tempo and Combo-Control. Reading Bob Huang’s excellent November Legacy metagame analysis on Eternal Central, we see that two Delver decks are the most popular archetypes in the format. Shardless BUG is not far behind, and that’s simply yet another Aggro-Control strategy. While there are a greater number of individual archetypes to be found Legacy, it is far less diverse strategically, since the format is dominated by two basic strategies: Blue Combo decks (like Reanimator and Show and Tell) and Aggro-Control/Tempo decks. There are other viable options, but they tend to be the millionth iteration of the hate bears deck, Counter-Top, or the Storm/ANT deck.

Even the different strategies, while having relevant differences, are much more functionally similar than you see across the array of strategies in Vintage. In Legacy, one deck may have Tarmogoyf, whereas another has Stoneforge Mystic in that slot, and supplement with Nimble Mongoose, while another uses Goblin Guide. The Bant deck uses Noble Hierarch, while the BUG deck uses Deathrite Shaman. The deck with white uses Sword to Plowshares while the deck with red uses Lightning Bolt. Secondary and tertiary colors are dropped or added for marginal advantages and metagame positioning while retaining the same basic strategic orientation. One deck might have Show and Tell with Sneak Attack, while the other uses Dream Halls. The sharpness of the differences in Vintage, in contrast, can be found between a comparison of MUD and Landstill, Grixis and Dredge, Doomsday and BUG, despite the fact that cards like Force of Will and Mox Sapphire are omnipresent. After a while, Legacy becomes boring for having the same basic archetypes compete against each other, as a color is dropped in favor of another, or as one tactic falls from favor as another, similar tactic fills its slot performing the same role.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the mana acceleration of Vintage actually generates more strategic diversity. You have decks that use no artifact acceleration, like Dredge, decks that only use a few (like RUG Delver, Landstill, and BUG), and decks that use them all (the rest). The acceleration makes possible decks that aren’t viable in Legacy, but without rendering the Legacy strategies (like RUG Delver) unviable, which also have Vintage specific boosters, like Gush.

Careful management of the Vintage Banned and Restricted List has produced what I believe is probably the best Vintage format ever by any empirical metagame measure. It is at a high point in terms of the range of possible strategies thanks to several years of carefully planned unrestrictions, and reluctance to follow the impulse to restrict. This has given players a chance to develop tactical responses to many of the most oppressive strategies, as people have figured out reliable solutions to Workshops and Dredge. Unrestricting cards like Gush has let Gush strategies flourish along with Confidant/Jace decks, and yet compete alongside pure control decks like Landstill.

As the Vintage Championship approached, I perceived long-term and short-term trends converging to render the format…
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Editor’s Note: This product has now been grouped together with the rest of our Burning Tendrils products in to a revised combined product titled So Many Insane Plays – The Burning Tendrils Bible!