So Many Insane Plays – The Evolving 2018 Vintage Metagame

The end of August is a good time to take stock of the Vintage metagame: to see where it currently is, how it has evolved during the year, and where it might be headed. School is back in session, and Vintage fans and enthusiasts will begin focusing their attention on preparation for the North American Vintage Championship, and the monthly local events that are, in large part, the lifeblood of the format.

Overview of the Vintage Tournament Scene

With the advent of Vintage on Magic Online, the weekly Vintage Challenges are now the best source of information we have on the pulse of the format. Roughly 50-65 players, including former and reigning Vintage Champions, can be found battling digitally on a weekly basis. Because Wizards of the Coast publishes the Top 32 decks from every event, and the Top 32 final standings, we get more information from this event, and it is more consistently held, than anything else in the format.

But there are a number of other places around the globe holding down the Vintage format, including the monthly LCV in Spain, Knight Ware in Los Angeles, Eudemonia Games in Berkeley, RIW in Michigan, Team Serious Opens in Ohio, and many other local hotbeds. These events have their own allure, as playing with friends is part of the appeal of Magic: The Gathering, but the metagames are more diverse and idiosyncratic than the global metagame appearing in the Vintage Challenges.

As important as these local and regular events are, Vintage is anchored by major tent pole tournaments. These “majors” draw players from beyond their local communities and generally offer the most competitive players the best opportunity to prove their mettle. Thus far, there have been 4 such events in 2018: 1) The European Vintage Championship, 2) The Mana Drain Open 19 (aka The Waterbury), 3) the StarCityGames Power Nine Series at SCGCON, and 4) the Asia Vintage Championship. The last, and biggest major of the year will be the North American Vintage Championship held this year in Pittsburgh, PA

These events provide a revealing snapshot of the evolving Vintage format. We lack complete metagame data for any of the Vintage Challenges since March, so I will primarily be examining Top 8 results. Top 8 appearances aren’t as good as win percentage as a performance measure, but they reflect win percentages.

July & August Vintage Challenge Results: A Paradoxical Outcome

If you followed the most recent season of the Vintage Super League, or followed much of the associated online chatter, you can be forgiven for thinking that Paradoxical Outcome is dominating the Vintage format. Although Paradoxical Outcome was second best performing deck (or tied for second) as measured by Top 8 penetration for 4 of the 8 months of the year, there was only one month this entire year (February) where Paradoxical Outcome was the best performing deck. It’s been a solid strategy in the format for most of 2018, and this is especially true of July and August, but by no means dominant.

In fact, the pecking order for July and August is very clear. Here are the results in terms of percentage of Top 8s:

% of July & Aug Top 8sStrategy
28%Ravager Shops
22%Turbo Xerox (Jeskai Mentor/Delver)*
6%White Eldrazi
5%Dark Ritual Combo (DPS/Bargain)

* Jeskai Mentor has 12 Top 8 appearances and Delver had 3 in the TX category

In short, the results are clear: Workshop Aggro is the top dog. In fact, it’s so good that it put up literally 50% of the August 25th Vintage Challenge Top 8, and then was the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th place deck as well, making up 66% of the Top 12. What’s remarkable is Workshop Aggro’s consistency, as it has the exact same 28% of Top 8s in July and August.

If we aggregate Eldrazi and Workshop decks – as O’Brien School strategies – then this basic concept of taxing goes up to nearly 35% of Top 8s in Vintage.

Jeskai Mentor decks are the next best performing deck. Even disaggregated from Delver, they have more Top 8 appearances than Paradoxical Outcome, the next best performing strategy. This category of deck, however, rose from 19% to 25% of Top 8s from July to August.

Paradoxical Outcome (PO) decks are regularly the second or third best strategy in the format, as measured by Top 8 appearances. Averaging across July and August it comes in at 16%, but disaggregated, PO was 19% of Top 8s in July, but fell to 13% in August, so it had a down month.

Oath has nearly disappeared from the Vintage Challenge Top 8s in recent months, giving Dredge the next spot in terms of appearances.

Dredge, however, oscillates wildly over the course of the year, as I’ll elaborate on below. But it averaged a healthy 8% in this time period, even though it was only 3% of Top 8s in July and 13% (tied with PO) in August.

BUG and BUG(R) decks, which almost always have Deathrite Shaman (and often sport Leovold, Emissary of Trest), held around 5%, as did Dark Ritual Combo decks (which did very well in July, but disappeared in August).

The big newcomer on the scene, however, is the Vengevine Survival deck. This is the new breakout deck of the summer for Vintage, with 3 Top 8 appearances in August and, more importantly, a victory over Paradoxical Outcome in the Asia Vintage Championship. Here is that winning deck:

Vengevine Survival, by Ryoji Cross - 1st Place 2018 Asia Vintage Championship

Business (40)
Bazaar of Baghdad
Survival of the Fittest
Hollow One
Basking Rootwalla
Noble Hierarch
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Elvish Spirit Guide
Spell Queller
Squee, Goblin Nabob
Hooting Mandrills
Ancestral Recall
Time Walk
Stony Silence
Thorn of Amethyst

Mana Sources (20)
Black Lotus
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Windswept Heath
Misty Rainforest
Verdant Catacombs
Wooded Foothills
Tropical Island
Sideboard (15)
Containment Priest
Kataki, War’s Wage
Squee, Goblin Nabob
Fairgrounds Warden
Grafdigger’s Cage
Null Rod
Stony Silence
Energy Flux
Chalice of the Void

This deck is a remarkable achievement. With Hollow One, Basking Rootwalla, and Vengevine providing quick offense, and Thalia to keep the opponent pinned down, this is the most legitimate “aggro” deck in Vintage in years. It’s the closest thing we’ve had to a deck in the Bertrand Lestree mold in possibly a decade, largely on the muscle of Hollow One and Vengevine. Dredge may attack, but it’s a Reanimator deck more than a true Aggro deck.

The most succinct way of describing the Vintage format is that it is a battle at the top between Workshop Aggro, TurboXerox decks, and Paradoxical Outcome. A more elaborate and comprehensive way of describing the format is that it is a three-way battle at the top, with viable Eldrazi, Dredge, Dark Ritual Combo, BUG, Lands, and a rising but newly emergent Survival deck. I also believe that Oath remains a contender, even though it’s disappeared a bit from Vintage Challenge Top 8s.

A Look Back in the Year

To widen the lens and put these results in perspective, allow me to summarize the results from the first half of the year: January through June. Here is the breakdown of the Top performing decks (as measured by Top 8 representation in the Vintage Challenges):

% of Top 8s 1st Half of 2018Strategy
23%Shops (Ravager and Stax)
17%Turbo Xerox (Jeskai Mentor/Delver)
2%Dark Ritual Combo

Workshop decks not only have the highest overall Top 8 representation, but also the highest overall tournament win percentage, having won 10 of the 34 Vintage Challenges held this year so far (nearly 30%).

These aggregate results from the first half of 2018 mask some considerable variation over time. For example:
• Shops waxed and waned over the first half of the year, falling to 16% and 13% of Top 8s in February and May, respectively, while rising to 33% and 34% in March and April.
• Paradoxical Outcome had its best month of the year in February, with 28% of Top 8s, and its worst in April, with just 6% of Top 8s.
• Turbo Xerox had their best month of the year in March, with 30% of Top 8s, and their worst in January, at 6% of Top 8s.
• Dredge had its best month in May, at an astounding 22% of Top 8s, and its worst in July, with 3% of Top 8s.
• BUG decks had their best month in May at 16% of Top 8s, and their worst in January and July at 3% of Top 8s.
• Oath shows considerable variation, rising to 19% of Top 8s in January and February, but falling to 0% of Top 8s in May, July, and August.

Dark Ritual Combo decks are a very strange case, since they were 9% of July Top 8s, but 0% of Top 8s in the entire first four months of the year. And a non-trivial percentage of those decks were employing PO, but not most.

Vintage with a Fringe on the Top

The Vintage Challenge Top 8s are considerably more consolidated than paper tournament results, where players enjoy decks like 2-Card Monte, Landstill, and such. But there are still a remarkably number of ‘fringe’ decks that appear in Vintage Challenge Top 8s, and even win events occasionally.

Matt Murray built and piloted a UW Teferi deck that won the May 19th Vintage Challenge. And three different BUG and BUGr decks won Vintage Challenges in May. I see no reason to think that these decks aren’t still viable in skilled hands.

And for players looking for something more old school (circa, say 2012), a Grixis Control deck won a Vintage Challenge in January, and a UW Landstill deck won an event in February.

If you really want to try a fringe deck, then Brian Kelly’s OddStill deck won a Challenge in mid-July (with Brian as the pilot, of course).

Lands has Top 8’ed two Vintage Challenges in the last few months, most recently in late August, getting 6th place.

Lands, by CALL1ME1DRAGON - 6th Place Vintage Challenge #11555877

Business (34)
Bazaar of Baghdad
Dark Depths
Glacial Chasm
Maze of Ith
The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
Life from the Loam
Crop Rotation
Chalice of the Void
Null Rod
Mental Misstep
Ancient Grudge

Mana Sources (26)
Mox Diamond
Mox Emerald
Mox Ruby
Grove of the Burnwillows
Verdant Catacombs
Wooded Foothills
Misty Rainforest
Strip Mine
Ghost Quarter
Library of Alexandria
Riftstone Portal
Thespian’s Stage
Sideboard (15)
Drop of Honey
Hollow One
Mindbreak Trap
Nature’s Claim
Punishing Fire
Ravenous Trap

This deck attacks the format from a very different angle, and is a great Legacy port to Vintage. Although Survival may no longer be “fringe” since it just won the Asia Vintage Championship, it’s still an exciting newcomer.

In short, there are plenty of interesting decks to choose from or play around with.

Looking Ahead

The Vintage format looks, by all outward appearances, more diverse and healthier in 2018 than in 2017 (where Workshops represented 45% of Top 8s), 2016 (where Gush was a boogeyman), 2015 (where Lodestone decks dominated, and Dig Through Time and Chalice of the Void were restricted), or the end of 2014 (where Treasure Cruise dominated the last months of the year). In short, this is probably the most “balanced” and simultaneously “diverse” Vintage metagame we’ve seen since 2014, if not earlier.

I think PO, Turbo Xerox, and Workshops are going to remain at the top of the metagame through the end of the year, barring DCI intervention. But I think that Oath is poised for another strong run, as it is extremely versatile and powerful, and can attack almost any metagame. The rise of PO may have scared off some Oath players, but if PO falls back to earth, then Oath has a big opening.

Workshops are still borderline dominant, and a bit too good for my personal tastes. Despite the emergence of decks that are giving Workshops a hard time – decks like Lands, Survival, and especially PO – Shops are still the “deck to beat.” Although there were 0 Workshop decks in the Top 8 of the recent 154 player Asia Vintage Championship, let’s not forget that Shops was 5/8 of the 2017 North American Vintage Championship Top 8.

In the hands of the right player, PO is a serious tournament contender, and Jeskai decks appear to be the only main stumbling block, along with decks like Survival sporting Stony Silence main deck. I wouldn’t be shocked to see PO win the Vintage Championship this year, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

In the end, unless a player like LSV enrolls, I can’t shake the suspicion that SCGCon probably gives us the ‘truest’ insight into what we should expect to see at the Vintage Championship this year, with a Top 8 dominated by Workshops again, and a few appearances by PO and Jeskai Mentor. If recent Vintage Challenges are any indication, the Workshop deck is not only the best deck, but it’s gearing up for another bruising title run.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian