Vintage Metagame Primer, Part One: Combo

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With convention season in full swing and the Vintage Championships this past weekend*, we're coming up on this year's Vintage season. I, personally, am not going to GenCon, so I won't be in the Vintage Championships - but Dragon*Con in Atlanta is having a 15-proxy Vintage event open to all comers.

*Expect a detailed recap of the event next time in Part Two!

(The full Dragon*Con Magic schedule isn't complete yet, but here is the initial event listing.)

Fifteen proxies may seem like a high number at first, but with the Power using up 9 slots, and a playset of one of the high-dollar cards (Mishra's Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, Mana Drain) taking up 4 more, there really aren't that many slots left for proxies of random expensive cards like Moat or Library of Alexandria available - but better 2 than none, and 15 isn't so high of a number that it allows people to play nothing but proxies. I'll be pricing decks using's low price.

With this in mind, approaching the format requires us to first look at the existing archetypes and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Vintage is known as the land of the turn one kill. This assessment is generally regarded as inaccurate by those who play the format regularly, but it provides us a useful starting point, because the existence of turn one combo does define the things that other decks have to be able to handle. In addition, other combo decks exist, and it's important to discuss their impact on the metagame.

Goblin Charbelcher

While not a good deck, Belcher provides a useful baseline. The most recent complete list I could find from a real event is a top 8 list from a 20-man event in Manila:

This deck stacks up at over $5000, over $1000 of which comes from a single Black Lotus. Once you proxy the Power, Lion's Eye Diamond, and Mana Crypt, the cost of the deck drops to a far more manageable $175, with proxies left over for things like Chrome Mox, Sol Ring, or Wheel of Fortune if you need them to make the deck even cheaper.

This version includes some interesting sideboard technology - the Leyline of Anticipation in the sideboard exists so that when Belcher is on the draw against a deck which threatens Chalice of the Void, Trinisphere, Sphere of Resistance, or even Duress, Belcher can win during the opponent's upkeep.


Vintage Tendrils bears some similarity to Legacy Tendrils - the most relevant thing being that it is not a turn one kill deck, but a deck which aims to use the first turn or two to set up a kill. Many of them are actually control decks which have a combo kill finish.

The Tropical Storm

This won a 49-man event in Mayo.

(Some versions of this deck don't run Tinker and Blightsteel Colossus.)

The cost of this deck is, again, through the roof. Seven thousand dollars is an absurd amount of money, but proxies make it a great deal more tolerable. Unless you're already a Legacy player, it's still going to be close to $1000 to put together - the dual lands, Jace, and Forces being the primary culprits.

With 7 counterspells and 2 bounce spells as well as the Fastbond+Gush engine, this can serve as a passable card-advantage control deck capable of disrupting other combo decks in the mirror. Unlike the Legacy version of this deck, there isn't a huge stack of Infernal Tutors, Grim Tutors, and Lion's Eye Diamond - getting the combo kill is more straightforward. You can Gifts Ungiven for Yawgmoth's Will, Regrowth, and the 2 cards you actually want; you can Mystical Tutor for a combo kill; use Mystical Tutor (perhaps even via Merchant Scroll) for a Tinker kill or to set up the Gush-Fastbond engine, and you can use Demonic Tutor to set up Yawgmoth's Will for the recursion victory.

The one thing I find odd about this list is the missing Ponder. If I were going to cut a card for it, I'd lean to one of the Repeals or a Mindbreak Trap, depending on my prediction for the metagame. If you need to save a proxy, a Mana Drain would probably be the best thing to cut. The deck may also be able to survive cutting a dual land for a fetch, or turning one into a slightly-cheaper Bayou.

The sideboard of this deck seems a little unfocused and generic. There are other versions with red splashes for Ancient Grudge in the maindeck and Ingot Chewer in the sideboard alongside Leyline of the Void, Red Elemental Blast in addition to some of the cards in this deck.

Ad Nauseam Tendrils

This list placed top 8 in Alcobendas during a 58-man event in April.

Rather than taking the control role as The Tropical Storm does, Ad Nauseam Tendrils aims to disrupt the opponent and close out the game with a combo finish quickly. As a result, it plays a lot like the Legacy deck, but with more powerful cards. As for cost, it's a lot cheaper since it doesn't have Force of Will and Mana Drain alongside a base of Power and Duals - this deck actually drops to $650 with a mere 5 proxies (Black Lotus, the two Moxen, Mana Crypt, and Ancestral Recall). The remaining 10 proxies can fuel dual lands, fetchlands, and the like.

The first thing that jumps out here isn't anything in the maindeck - it's that wonderfully bizarre sideboard! City in a Bottle is almost certainly intended to be used as an alternative way of attacking Bazaar of Baghdad-based Dredge decks in a manner which they aren't expecting. They've got counter-hate cards for Leyline of the Void and Yixlid Jailer, sure, but is Dredge really going to board in Ancient Grudge or Ingot Chewer to blow up City in a Bottle? Incidentally, this makes later printings of City of Brass and Kird Ape superior in game to the original Arabian Nights (and Chronicles) printings. Other relevant cards affected by City in a Bottle include Library of Alexandria and Drop of Honey (though ANT doesn't care about that one!).

Serenity and the white mana sources seem like an incredible counter-strategy to the mono-brown decks and their piles of cost-increasing effects. I'm a bit concerned about the blue matchup with this deck: there's no Xantid Swarm or similar effect, and only 5 (or 6 post-board) discard spells plus Pact of Negation to force the combo through. That may be why this list runs a staggering 4 copies of Ad Nauseam- a number which would be downright suicidal in Legacy! The lack of aggressive creature-based strategies in Vintage might make this reasonable, but I'd be looking for a way to cut that down to 3 if at all possible.

Serenity and the white splash is standard, but by no means universal. Other versions are opting for Kataki, War's Wage to put some pressure on as well, while a few more recent lists simply max out on Hurkyl's Recall and Steel Sabotage post-board and eliminate the white splash altogether.

Back to the maindeck - the use of Ad Nauseam renders Blightsteel Colossus unplayable, but if you really wanted you could use Tinker to nab Time Vault or Voltaic Key if you really want a backup plan. Eating 3 cardslots for that is highly suspect, and is probably wrong. As a result, this deck is all-in on Tendrils of Agony. If you can't handle that, you shouldn't play it.

I suspect this list came from a no-proxy event; if you have access to proxies or Imperial Seal it's got to be better than Mystical Tutor at minimum, and you probably run both.

I'm suspicious of the 3 Chrome Moxes - Legacy ANT started out with 2 and Ari Lax and I independently ended up cutting them to zero before the Mental Misstep-induced metagame shifts killed the deck outright. It might be correct in Vintage, but I'd definitely be looking to cut one for another fast mana source. Mox Opal is almost certainly too greedy in a deck with this low of an artifact count, and 12 lands doesn't suffice for Mox Diamond, but I'd be inclined to run Mox Pearl since it supports the sideboard splash and acts as a "colorless" source for the deck's main focus.


Bazaar of Baghdad gives this a great boost over what Legacy players are used to, and this serves as the primary Bazaar deck. As with Legacy, there are both mana-driven and manaless variants.

Manaless Dredge

Legacy players should be right at home with this manaless list that won a 72-man event in Spain, with Bazaar turbocharging the dredging and Cephalid Sage letting Dread Return chain into a blisteringly fast turn. Street Wraith and Ichorid play nicely together, and the life loss is largely irrelevant in Vintage. Dryad Arbor in conjunction with Reverent Silence or Emerald Charm is your out to Leyline of the Void, which is otherwise back-breaking.

The cost? At around $1000, $900 or so of which is Bazaars, this is one of the cheapest decks in Vintage. As such, it will very likely be overrepresented at no-proxy events. With 15 proxies building Dredge for cheap is downright trivial.

Mana Dredge

This variant uses Petrified Field to get around Wasteland as well as allow you to swap it for a millled Bazaar. The Undiscovered Paradise and Bloodghast engine is one I am not a fan of, but this deck is geared towards a slightly longer game than the manaless list above thanks to Chalice and Leyline providing a strong disruption suite. Naturally, Leyline puts it over the top in the mirror, but this is by no means unique to the mana variant - manaless lists can use the same tech.

The cost is similar - this deck costs a bit more without proxies due to the moderate expense attached to Undiscovered Paradise, Chalice of the Void, Unmask, and the like, but people who have the ability to proxy them can build the deck for the price of a stack of commons and uncommons.

Oath of Druids

Oath of Druids plus Forbidden Orchard is a combo that tends to get played in a control shell, like this list that won a 55-man event in Spain:

Untitled Deck

(Note: this has a 59 card maindeck. I was unable to find the 60th card. The same player later made top 8 with a version of this with multiple Thoughtseizes, so a straight up comparison is useless.)

As you can see from the staggering number of 1-ofs, the strategy here can readily be summarized as: PLAY ALL THE RESTRICTED THINGS!

Okay, there's a bit more to it than that - the restricted cards obviously have a great deal of power, and they fit the deck's core strategy. The Key-Vault combo is a natural fit here, and the 1-of Faerie Conclave provides a nice alternative way to win, especially under Key-Vault conditions where the Oath of Druids target has been removed.

One thing I find interesting about Oath lists is that they seem incredibly vulnerable to cards like Sadistic Sacrament and Jester's Cap, which aren't showing up in many sideboards. It's possible that Oath is simply beatable easily enough by other means (or not popular enough to bother), but if you really want to beat it, a single Cap can readily take out all the win conditions. Remember that leaving Time Vault is an option- if they don't have a way to win while taking infinite turns, they'll simply deck themselves.

What about the cost? This is even more expensive than Gush Tendrils, but 12 proxies takes care of all the Vintage-only money cards, putting the cost at around $1000 and leaving room for 3 proxies for dual lands or Force of Will.

"Minus Fifteen" / Dragon

A blast from the past, Dragon took down a 33-man event at Blue Bell Game Day #15. Jake Gans's list transforms into being a Mana Drain/Jace, the Mind Sculptor control deck postboard to dodge the combo hate. In addition, Gans has made 2nd twice and top 4 once - all in the past few months. These were 30-45 player events ranging from February 26 to July 31- a respectable record for a deck that few people are playing.

The other Bazaar of Baghdad deck, Dragon is notorious for being one of the few decks that can force games to draw when it can't win, and it probably goes to game 4 more than any other deck. (That's right - the rules aren't actually "best of 3", it's "first to 2 wins".)

For those of you who aren't old-timers, here's how the Dragon combo works: You play Animate Dead, or one of the analogues, targeting Worldgorger Dragon. When the Dragon enters the battlefield, it exiles all other permanents you control - including the Animate Dead. When the Animator leaves the battlefield, the Dragon goes back to the graveyard, which returns everything else to the battlefield. Animate Dead's return brings back the Dragon, and while the Dragon's "exile everything" trigger is on the stack, you get to use all your untapped lands. Bazaar of Baghdad flips your deck into the graveyard (except for 1 card if you're on an odd number - don't want to deck yourself!), while your other lands tap for mana. If you're on an odd number of cards left in your deck, you can Intuition, Brainstorm, Thirst for Knowledge, or Read the Runes before Bazaar empties your hand, then continue getting infinite mana and milling yourself out. Once you've gotten ten million mana and you've milled Oona, you make the Animate Dead effect bring back Oona, Queen of the Fae and exile your opponent's whole deck, then let them take a turn and die. Ideally, you don't flip every single card out of your deck - leave at least 1 (2 if you could get on an even number) so that you can take one turn to attack them with Oona's tokens and win if they have a way to restock their deck somehow. Furthermore, leaving 4 is a lot safer than 2 since it lets you dodge an Ancestral Recall. Of course, if Oona's the bottom card, you do what you have to and maybe they kill you on the spot, but there's nothing you can do in that case.

Now, here's where things get sticky. If you don't have Bazaar of Baghdad and there's no other creatures in any graveyard, then Animate Dead on Worldgorger Dragon causes an infinite loop that can't be broken. Even if you have Echoing Truth, you aren't required to cast it to break the combo. However, if another creature is in a graveyard, you're required to specify a number of times to use the Worldgorger loop, then Animate that other creature instead. Since creatures don't often hit the graveyard except where Dredge is involved, a clever Dragon player can use this to turn a lost game into a drawn one.

The transformative sideboard (hence the "Minus Fifteen" name) gives it incredible potential. Since Dragon is vulnerable to the graveyard hate everyone has to wreck Dredge with, it largely disappeared from the metagame. However, siding into Jace/Tezz Vault with the Tinker+Blightsteel Colossus kill gives it a game plan that completely avoids the hate. I'll discuss Jace/Tezz Vault in part two of this primer. The cards that get taken out in the transform are the 4 Bazaars, the 5 Animate effects, and the 3 Dragons. That leaves 3 more - typically it's the Intuitions and Oona, but depending on what you're playing against you might wish to change that up somewhat.

So, what's Minus Fifteen going to set you back? If you can't proxy anything, around $8000, on par with Gush Tendrils and Oath. Proxying up the maindeck Vintage uniques and the sideboard Time Vault uses 14 proxies and still leaves the deck at a ridiculous $1700. The problem here is that the Power, Bazaars, and Mana Drain simply take up too many cards to proxy out, and the dual lands plus Force of Will are still a fair chunk of change. You're going to have to buy something if you want to play this deck. Mana Crypt and Mana Drain are the cheapest options, letting you proxy the Power and Bazaars. Even with proxies, Minus Fifteen is unfortunately inaccessible to anyone except dedicated players.

Other Combo Archetypes

Painted Stone, Dark Depths, and Bomberman all make some appearances in Vintage as well.

Painted Stone is a Painter's Servant and Grindstone combo deck, which should be familiar to Legacy players. Its primary function in the metagame is as an anti-blue deck, which gets to play Red Elemental Blast in the main. Most lists include Tinker into either Blightsteel Colossus or Inkwell Leviathan, and the Key-Vault combo makes an appearance here as well. Some lists splash black for Dark Confidant, and Mystic Remora makes an appearance in some builds. One amusing list I found plays Spellstutter Sprite and Skullclamp- talk about value! The deck is typically expensive and doesn't proxy as well as some others - once you proxy Power you've still got Forces, Drains, and dual lands to contend with. For Legacy players this isn't a big deal, since they can proxy Drains and play the rest, but others may have difficulty.

Dark Depths is really a hybrid deck - almost every list has the Leyline of the Void+Helm of Obedience combo (and the one that doesn't has Rituals and Tendrils of Agony), making this deck's position in the metagame a "maindeck Leyline" one. Much like how Painted Stone is good in a blue metagame, Dark Depths/Helm-Line is an excellent choice in a Dredge metagame. This is actually a very cheap deck - many lists run minimal Power (Lotus alone, or Lotus and Mox Jet) and the deck is monoblack so there's no dual lands. If you're new to Vintage and want to play a "real deck" without dropping a ton of money, this is a serious contender since it can be played completely Powerless. There's a lot of $20-$50 cards in it, but if you're a Legacy player there's a good chance you'll have it all save for the Helm of Obedience. The deck can be upgraded with Imperial Seal and Grim Tutor, but if you don't have those you can play Necropotence or some other card-draw effects. Here are some Dark Depths lists for you to examine if you're interested in this archetype. (Bonus points to the Sadistic Sacrament player!)

Bomberman is the name given to the Auriok Salvagers+Black Lotus (or Lion's Eye Diamond) infinite-mana combo, so named because it used to win via Pyrite Spellbomb. Modern lists use Aether Spellbomb and win by playing most of their deck and Time Walking or using Voltaic Key and Time Vault to take an extra turn and win in combat. Pyrite Spellbomb is otherwise a dead card, whereas Inkwell Leviathan and Sphinx of the Steel Wind can be Tinkered into. Assembling Key-Vault with enough cards left in the deck is game, and since you can do other things in the middle of the Salvagers combo with infinite mana, this shouldn't be hard - Aether Spellbomb recursion plus Trinket Mage is the simplest method. One list uses the infinite mana to fire off a Tendrils of Agony kill with Mystical Teachings to set up the win.


As we can see, Vintage has a great many options for combo players. While Key/Vault are so easy to slot in that they show up almost everywhere, other combos require varying degrees of dedication to the win. The existence of these decks is what gives Vintage its reputation as land of the turn one kill - but games rarely end on turn one due to the sheer amount of disruption other decks play. My next article will cover the rest of the metagame.

Joshua Justice

@JoshJMTG on Twitter

3 thoughts on “Vintage Metagame Primer, Part One: Combo

  1. The Tendrils list posted doesn't strike me as typical of "TPS". Take a look at Sperling's and DeMars' articles on SCG if you're interested in that sort of deck.

    1. TPS and The Tropical Storm aren't the same deck. I omitted TPS because my general impression (and this could be wrong) is that TPS has been superseded by TTS with the unrestriction of Gush enabling the Gush-Bond draw engine.

      I wrote this article before the Vintage champs – looking at the top 8 shows us that the Tendrils deck was a Tropical Storm deck (though that is of course just one event).

      (For reference:… is the top 8 coverage. Decks are Slash Panther MUD; Minus Fifteen; Painter with Tinker,Jace, Vault, and Mystic Remora; Tropical Storm; Dredge; 2 Meandeck Bob/Gush; 1 BUG Tempo with Null Rod.)

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