The State of Vintage Before and After the Restrictions

Vintage used to be a slumbering bear, gently sleeping through an endless winter. Everything stayed the same for years, and the bear was satisfied as a result, giving in to his dreams of a more or less frozen metagame, until something started to rumble in his caves and he sluggishly woke up from his hibernation.

Hold on, wait?! What are you talking about?! I’ve never heard about a format or a bear called Vintage, and I cannot find it on MTG Arena either. Are you making up stuff?

Vintage is a Constructed format in which you can play almost any Magic card ever printed. Most of them as a 4-of, the more powerful ones like Black Lotus as a 1-of. The format is quite expensive to buy into, as most of the competitive decks cost over $10,000, but on Magic Online you can basically build every deck for a few hundred bucks. Even though people assume Vintage is the fastest and most degenerate format around, games tend to take more turns than in Modern. Vintage is very challenging and offers a lot of in-game depth, metagaming as well as lots and lots of fun. I also like that you can’t find many sideboard guides for most decks.

Traditionally, there are three archetypes in Vintage: graveyard decks that heavily rely on Bazaar of Baghdad, artifact decks powered up by Mishra’s Workshop and blue midrange or combo decks with Ancestral Recall.

An Eventful 2019 in Vintage

I wrote an article about Vintage–mainly talking about Sultai Midrange–earlier this year. Assassin’s Trophy and Paradoxical Outcome already gave Vintage players some new tools to play with, and soon after, War of the Spark came out and shook up the format completely. Narset, Parter of Veils found a home in most blue decks; Dreadhorde Arcanist replaced some numbers of Young Pyromancer in Xerox; Teferi, Time Raveler joined Lavinia in the fight to restore Azorius law and weaken Force of Will amongst tons of other cards; and Karn, the Great Creator, lived up to his name and created some new archetypes of his own. Paradoxical Outcome decks started to feel very uncomfortable in the presence of the new planeswalkers, and white Eldrazi decks suddenly became colorless–using Workshop and Grim Monolith–and Karn and Aggro Shop numbers diminished.

Next up, the London Mulligan was tested and then introduced. What followed was a flood of Dredge, exploiting the new rule to easily find Bazaar of Baghdad and crush unprepared decks right and left. Vintage developed into a format with Dredge and KarnShop mirrors, which were basically about winning die rolls and being lucky with your opening hands instead of playing interesting and interactive games of Magic. Modern Horizons with Force of Vigor and Core Set 2020 with Mystic Force added two new insanely good cards in the mix, so the world as we knew it was about to end. Many people asked for restrictions, claiming the format was unbalanced, uninteractive and frustrating to play.

Did Vintage Need More Restrictions?

Karn, the Great CreatorMental MisstepMystic ForgeGolgari Grave-Troll

Wizards dropped the hammer this week with a new round of restrictions. Karn, Forge, Misstep, and Grave-Troll were restricted, while Fastbond came off the list.

Restrictions and bannings are often discussed in a very subjective manner. If you’d ask scissors, rock would always get the banhammer. I’m aware of the fact that my perception is probably pretty cloudy as well since I mostly played the same *cough* blue decks for quite a while, so take my humble evaluation with a grain of salt.

In my opinion, the Vintage metagame was not that unhealthy and didn’t urgently need more restrictions, even though restricting these cards creates some new archetypes and helps the diversity of the format. On the other hand, you don’t want to completely destroy decks in a format where people spent thousands of dollars to buy in.

Before the new round of restrictions, we had a variable metagame with around eight Tier 1 decks (Sultai, Dredge, KarnShop, RavagerShop, Outcome Storm, Ritual Storm, Jeskai, Survival) that each had their good and bad matchups, as well as some tier 2 and 3 decks. That’s not quite the diversity of Modern, but it isn’t monotonous either.

If it were up to me, I would have slightly nerfed the un-interactive decks. I would probably just restrict Serum Powder and Karn, the Great Creator–Serum Powder because it doesn’t really work as intended with the new mulligan rule and because Dredge should face some inconsistency for being built around a single card–and Karn because he’s simply a too powerful turn 1 play, which completely shuts off some decks. It’s fine to have powerful hate cards like Null Rod, but Karn is also a win condition and hard to kill due to it not being an artifact himself (even though that would enable even more turn 1 Karns through Workshop, again).

I would also unrestricted Imperial Seal, Gush or Fastbond, Lotus Petal, Memory Jar, Merchant Scroll, Windfall, Mind’s Desire and Ponder and maybe, after testing it, even Lodestone Golem or Thorn of Amethyst–simply because I think Force of Vigor could be powerful enough to keep these in check.

To be fair, I should also mention that I’ve only played Vintage for two years now, so I never really experienced the devastating impact some of those restricted cards had, so maybe they are just restricted for a good reason and should stay that way 🙂

The State of Vintage

After Dredge and KarnShop tried to spoil everybody’s fun, Sultai Midrange entered the fray and ensured order. Sultai has a decent matchup against both Dredge and artifact decks, so Sultai was surely a great metagame call. During the last Magic Online tournaments, Sultai Midrange became the most-played deck. I played my fair share of Sultai myself to quite some success, winning the last Vintage Playoffs on Magic Online. Sultai does have its weaknesses and is quite easy to beat if you intend to.

Playing With and Against Sultai

Pyroblast. Sultai is traditionally weak to Pyroblast. At the moment, the best Pyroblast deck is probably Jeskai Mentor. Jeskai is weak to Dredge and KarnShop, but it absolutely crushes blue decks.

Tinker. Even though Tinker is restricted, you can still run the full tutor suite to reliably find them. Tinker involves playing all five Moxen, Blightsteel Colossus or Bolas’s Citadel. Besides their singleton Jace, Sulati Midrange has no tools to beat Blightsteel Colossus. The best Tinker shell is Storm.

Balance. Sultai relies on Deathrite Shaman to fix their mana, on Leovold to deny draws and on Collector Ouphe to turn off artifacts. Balance is very potent at foiling their plans. Balance should be played or sideboarded in every white deck with five Moxen.

Sometimes, it’s correct to join them instead of try beating them, especially if you think a deck is well suited for it’s metagame. Here’s some food for thought:

Always play at least one basic land. In a world full of Assassin’s Trophy and Wasteland, having one or if possibly even more basic lands is crucial.

If you expect lots of artifact decks, consider playing Green Sun’s Zenith as well as a Collector Ouphe in the main. This allows you to basically have access to 3-5 Ouphes preboard, which is a key card in some matchups, but a dead one in others. With GSZ, you don’t have to play that many inconsistent cards in your main.

If you expect lots of Paradoxical Outcome and other blue decks, splash for red for Pyroblast. This can hurt your manabase a bit, especially in a world of Wasteland and Mental Missteps or removal on your Shamans, but it’s a great way to get an edge against blue decks.

The New Restrictions

I’m very happy for the changes they brought to Vintage. Not because I think that they will warp the format in the long term, but because it proves that R&D listens to community feedback.

Karn’s restriction equals a banning. You will not build a Grim Monolith mana base and a sideboard toolbox just for a singleton Karn. Without Karn and Mystic Forge, the go-to Workshop deck will be Ravager Shops again.

Mental Misstep’s restriction will weaken both Dredge and blue midrange decks that need to interact during the first few turns of the game to establish control. Since we will see more Ravager Shops, losing Misstep isn’t the end of the world though, since Misstep was basically a blank against Ravager Shops and was often only played as a 2- or 3-of while Shops was a Tier 1 deck.

Losing Grave-Troll hurts Dredge decks in the short term, but what really weakened Dredge was the sheer amount of sideboard hate as well as Sultai being the deck to beat. Since both of this will probably change at some point, Dredge will be back with basically the same strength it had before the new mulligan rule.

Fastbond is an interesting card. There will surely be a good deck around it, but I fear it will not be able to compete with Storm.

So what happens now?

My first predictions are the following:

Level 1: There will be a flood of combo decks. Paradoxical Outcome welcomes both the restriction of Karn and the restriction of Misstep, while for Ritual Storm, the latter is even more important.

Level 2: Blue midrange decks will rise again and try to keep Storm in check, with cards like Flusterstorm, Pyroblast and maybe even Arcane Laboratory or Ethersworn Canonist.

Level 3: Decks with alternative strategies will emerge. There probably will be a land deck around Fastbond, but to be playable, this probably needs a metagame which isn’t polluted by combo decks. Dredge will come back, as well as Ravager Shop variants.

This doesn’t sound too bad, and hopefully, no archetype will prove unbeatable. I still think Ritual Storm could be overpowered, since it seems more resilient to blue midrange decks, but time will tell. I will enjoy tinkering around for the next Vintage Challenge.

That’s it for today–if you have any questions about Vintage, Sultai Midrange or the dog in my profile picture, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitch, where I often stream the Vintage Challenge on Saturday.

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