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Unlocked Insider: Winning in Vintage Masters Draft

As you know, this series is focused on playing smarter and investing smarter to build your portfolio and get more from your dollar on Magic Online. With Vintage Masters launching at 1pm ET today (not that I’m counting down the hours or anything…), I’m going to take a break from the “investing smarter” part of this series to focus on “playing smarter.”

While I am no Limited master, I have played long enough to have battled with almost all these cards. What’s more, I was able to get a hold of enlightened tutor Simon Goertzen to help us make sense of this mind-bending format. Simon (@simongoertzen) is a Limited specialist, Grand Prix champion, European commentator, and produces great analytic content at MTGO Academy and Star City Games. Stay tuned!

Grand Prix champion Simon Goertzen is a master at breaking down new formats.

Breaking Our Rule

Drafting is awesome, but I actively discourage it for folks who are trying to build their portfolio. Drafting is essentially “consumption”–it’s a good way to spend those tickets you are making through other means. But as we have discussed in past articles, chaining drafts is a good way to break the bank. Especially drafts that cost 25 tix each.

The exception to the above rule is during the first two or three days of a new set release. Singles prices are high and there are often opportunities to exploit under-recognized strategies before the draft junkies break the format. If you can stay ahead of the curve you can net some tix at the set release, all while having a blast.

The next few days are going to be the only reasonable time to draft VMA without bleeding tickets. As I analyzed in last week’s article, the price of almost all cards will drop off quickly. In a week or two VMA is going to be negative EV, though still with high enough variance that people will play the Power 9 lottery.

But for a limited window, you should be able to chain drafts by winning 50% of your matches and making the most of rare drafting. The first 72 hours is when I plan to do most of my VMA drafting, unless prices stay unexpectedly high or they offer a phantom option down the line.

Today we’ll offer you some strategies for winning more VMA drafts. But first, before you go on, if you haven’t read my last piece on VMA prices, check it out here. Be prepared to unload the cards I mentioned quickly. Got it? Ok, let’s get on to the fun stuff.

The Structure of Vintage Masters

If you want to win drafts you better focus on commons and uncommons. This is always the case, but especially true with Vintage Masters because this is a massive set. There are 30 mythic rare and 105 rares in VMA, compared to 15 mythics and 53 rares in Theros (more typical of modern design.) That makes it much less likely that you will open a particular rare or mythic in VMA.

Sure I would love to draft the crazy Oath of Druids deck as much as the next guy, but it’s probably not going to happen. Moreover, those board sweepers at rare are less likely to show up than Supreme Verdict was in DGM. For the purpose of Limited analysis, we might as well ignore them these rares and mythics altogether.

The 80 uncommons in VMA will show up less often than THS uncommons, of which there are only 60. That means that you are 25% less likely to see that “build around” uncommon in a VMA draft than you would in triple THS draft.

In contrast, you will see each common as often in Vintage Masters draft as you did in Theros Block. These commons are the building blocks of the format, and understanding their power level and the synergies between them is critical. That’s where we’ll focus our attention.

The Floor Is High

[pullquote]“The question of when to raredraft will be a lot more important than in regular draft formats…When in doubt, take the money.”[/pullquote]The other key consideration is that the power level is “insanely high,” to quote Simon. Almost none of these cards would make it past pick five in their native format, but something has to get picked 14th.

That means that you will have no shortage of playables, and can take some swings for the fences. If you don’t lock up the strategy you were aiming for, there will be plenty of fallback options. This also makes rare drafting a much stronger consideration. The “value over replacement card” (VORC?) for each pick is low, so if I can nab something worth 2 tix or more I’m going to do it.

As Simon puts it, there is a “raredrafting subgame” in which “the question of when to raredraft will be a lot more important than in regular draft formats, and making the pick that maximizes your EV is not trivial. When in doubt, take the money.”

Because you won’t have any problems finding that 23rd card you should feel free to draft sideboard cards relatively early. Keep an eye out for cards that trump other decks and help shore up weaknesses in your deck.

Rareshifts

[pullquote]Rareshifted cards can give us a signal about what we should be doing in the format.[/pullquote]Vintage Masters was liberal in downshifting uncommons into commons and rares into uncommons. Marshall Sutcliffe had the opportunity to interview Max McCall and Ian Duke, the lead designer and lead developer of Vintage Masters, who told him that rareshifts are extremely important to understanding how to play the format. You can bet that if a card was rareshifted it plays a particular role in the format, and can give us a signal about what we should be doing.

The following cards are now common in Vintage Masters:

These cards became paupers overnight

Addle
Afterlife
Arrogant Wurm
Battle Screech
Beetleback Chief
Brindle Shoat
Chainer’s Edict
Circular Logic
Claws of Wirewood
Dauthi Mercenary
Elephant Guide
Elvish Aberration
Exile
Gilded Light
Goblin Commando
Goblin General
Killer Whale
Mana Prism
Mistmoon Griffin
Predatory Nightstalker
Skirge Familiar
Skirk Drill Sergeant
Soltari Emissary
Tangle
Tribute to the Wild

Most of these cards were uncommon for a reason–they’re frickin’ powerful! Soltari Emissary and Exile were even rares. Many have powerful effects that you don’t see at common, and speak to the overall power of the set.

Breaking Down the VMA Commons

[pullquote]Because the set was initially spoiled without rarities, just reviewing the following list and knowing cards are common can give you a leg up over the competition.[/pullquote]This is a format that will really reward those with what Simon referred to as “historical knowledge” based on Constructed or Limited experience. Since the power of some of these cards is not readily apparent, it’s worth taking a look at some of the magnificent specimens that the R&D team pulled from their cryogenic vats.

Simon pointed out that because of the way that Vintage Masters was spoiled–via the Card Image Gallery without appropriate rarities–“lots of players will not have a good idea of card rarities.” Just reviewing the following list and knowing cards are common can give you a leg up over the competition. Marshall Sutcliffe has an article this week on the power uncommons which you should check out as well.

White

White seems very strong at common. It has three common removal spells plus several aggressively-costed threats.

White Commons

Afterlife
Battle Screech
Benalish Trapper
Benevolent Bodyguard
Brilliant Halo
Deftblade Elite
Exile
Gilded Light
Gustcloak Harrier
Mistmoon Griffin
Noble Templar
Phantom Nomad
Radiant’s Judgment
Renewed Faith
Seal of Cleansing
Shelter
Soltari Emissary
Soltari Trooper
Teroh’s Faithful

Battle Screech is card advantage plus aggression in a tidy package, and may be one of the best commons in the set. It also combines very nicely with cards that boost all your creatures, like Rites of Initiation or Pianna, Nomad Captain at uncommon.

The common removal package of Afterlife, Exile, and Radiant’s Judgment give white tremendous versatility.

A lot of white’s creatures look innocuous but are anything but.

Don’t overlook Gilded Light when it wheels in the pack–it’s one of the best answers to Storm out of the sideboard. Mistmoon Griffin, Shelter and Brilliant Halo have built-in card advantage, and the Griffin may prove a high pick in the black-white reanimator deck.

Blue

Blue has both strong tempo and control plays, as well as key combo pieces for the Storm deck, making it the most versatile color in VMA.

Blue Commons

Aquamoeba
Brainstorm
Choking Tethers
Circular Logic
Counterspell
Deep Analysis
Frantic Search
Keeneye Aven
Killer Whale
Krovikan Sorcerer
Man-o’-War
Obsessive Search
Ophidian
Owl Familiar
Repel
Rescind
Scrivener
Skywing Aven
Temporal Fissure

Counterspell is going to teach a new generation of Magic players about its value in Limited. Control and tempo decks will both take advantage of its raw power.

Aquamoeba is obviously best in the Madness deck, as are Circular Logic and Obsessive Search. None of them are high picks outside of its natural habitat.

Deep Analysis is one of the few sources of pure card draw in the format, and is very potent in the right deck. But its mana cost plus life loss means that it probably won’t be a high pick since you rarely want multiples.

Frantic Search and Brainstorm are best in the Storm deck, helping to increase card selection and boost storm count. Krovikan Sorcerer may also play a key role in the deck. Temporal Fissure has only one home, and will probably come late since you don’t want more than one or two. (Brainstorm isn’t an all-star in Limited, but may be worth a ticket early in the format so snag it if it’s there late.)

Ophidian and Man-o’-War are old friends, united at last. I don’t think everyone’s favorite mystic snake will perform up to expectations, but I could be wrong.

Bounce seems especially strong in this format since there are so many powerful auras floating around. Repel sets them back a draw step, and Rescind has extra versatility with cycling. These cards fit into aggro, combo, and control strategies.

Skywing Aven was better when damage used the stack, but is still resilient and versatile.

Scrivener could be a key card in control decks. There are so many powerful instants and sorceries that the mnemonic bear is going to do some serious work in the format.

Choking Tethers is an underrated trick; it’s primary mode is as Ice, tapping down an opposing creature and drawing you a card–but it can also act as a falter late-game to set up a lethal attack.

Killer Whale was a premiere finisher in his day–at uncommon. It is not as aggressively costed in this format but remains a powerful card. Few decks want him, and he will often be a one-of, so he should come around late.

Black

At first glance, black seems extremely aggressive, but it has plenty of tools to play a grindy game as well. Black-red will be the fastest deck in the format, while black-green, black-white, and black-blue can excel at the long game.

Black Commons

Addle
Carnophage
Chainer’s Edict
Choking Sands
Dark Ritual
Dauthi Mercenary
Death’s-Head Buzzard
Expunge
Fallen Askari
Fledgling Djinn
Mesmeric Fiend
Nightscape Familiar
Paralyze
Predatory Nightstalker
Putrid Imp
Skirge Familiar
Spinal Graft
Tyrant’s Choice
Urborg Uprising

Black aggressive strategies get a lot of redundany with Dauthi Mercenary, Carnophage, Fallen Askari and Fledgling Djinn. They are backed up with tempo plays like Spinal Graft, Choking Sands and Paralyze, and some reach in the Tyrant’s Choice (a “choice-less choice” in draft.) You better be prepared for this deck or you will lose to it.

Mesmeric Fiend and Addle are not great cards but can be useful in clearing the way for all-in strategies like Storm and suicide black/rakdos.

Speaking of Storm, the deck gets Dark Ritual, Nightscape Familiar, and Skirge Familiar. It will be interesting to see how this deck comes together and which picks are important.

Control decks get some quality removal in Chainer’s Edict and Expunge.

Predatory Nightstalker is a great two-for-one, though a bit pricey. Urborg Uprising is too expensive except in the grindiest decks, but man–what an effect!

Finally, Death’s-Head Buzzard will fly under the radar but could be very important given all the one-toughness creatures around. Make sure to get some for your sideboard.

Red

Red has a strong Goblin subtheme to compensate for its overall weak creatures with tribal synergies. Still, it’s not clear that Goblins will be the best red strategy. Four common removal spells allow it to deal with a variety of threats, but its overall power level seems somewhat lower than other colors.

Red Commons

Aftershock
Beetleback Chief
Chain Lightning
Chartooth Cougar
Falter
Giant Strength
Goblin Commando
Goblin General
Goblin Matron
Goblin Patrol
Hulking Goblin
Kindle
Orcish Lumberjack
Reckless Charge
Skirk Drill Sergeant
Skirk Prospector
Solar Blast
Spark Spray
Wall of Diffusion

Goblin Commando, Goblin General, Goblin Matron, Goblin Patrol and Hulking Goblin are really only good in the–you guessed it–Goblin deck. If you are playing Skirk Drill Sergeant and Skirk Prospector in a non-Goblin deck you are digging deep and may want to try your prospects elsewhere.

Kindle and Solar Blast were once first-pick removal spells but are a bit underpowered considering the average card strength in the set.

Orcish Lumberjack is the best common accelerant in the set, and can be used to power out green fatties on turn two. But with all the strong removal in the set, that may not be enough.

Reckless Charge packs a wallop and was a key card in its day. As a sorcery, it’s best played on cards with evasion, and pairs nicely with blue or white.

This set pulled no punches for its “falter affect.” Falter is a late-pick role player that can be a nice finisher in base red aggressive decks.

Spark Spray and Wall of Diffusion are late picks that will be key for the sideboard. Spark Spray may find its way into main decks since so many creatures in this format have one toughness and the opportunity cost is low. Wall of Diffusion will be key in the controlling red decks; even without its ability it ties the ground down nicely.

Green

Green, as usual, brings the beef, and has a “provoke” sub-theme that allows it to compensate for its lack of true removal.

Green Commons

Armor of Thorns
Arrogant Wurm
Basking Rootwalla
Brindle Shoat
Claws of Wirewood
Elephant Guide
Elvish Aberration
Fyndhorn Elves
Giant Mantis
Jungle Wurm
Krosan Tusker
Krosan Vorine
Nature’s Lore
Provoke
Simian Grunts
Sudden Strength
Tangle
Tribute to the Wild
Wild Mongrel

VMA creatures are aggressively costed, but there aren’t many big creatures at common. Green gets almost everything that is 3/3 or bigger.

Wild Mongrel, Arrogant Wurm and Basking Rootwalla are the premier green commons in the madness strategy, but will be in high demand.

Brindle Shoat could be a key piece in the B/G rock deck. He’ll buy you a couple turns until you can get your machine running. Giant Mantis slots right into this deck.

Elephant Guide is one of the premier auras ever printed, and pairs nicely with provoke creatures in green and with evasive creatures in blue and white. Side it out against blue, which has three common bounce spells.

Fyndhorn Elves: you know what they do, and how good they are at doing it.

Simian Grunts will teach a new generation of players to respect three untapped mana on the green player’s board. The average creature size is pretty small actually, so a 3/4 is a very relevant body.

Armor of Thorns is very flexible. Play this on a Deftblade Elite on turn two and see your opponent wince. Not clear whether it is better than Sudden Strength, though.

Jungle Wurm is the biggest common outside of the landcyclers. Worth noting here that the drawback doesn’t trigger unless there are two or more blockers, which doesn’t happen often in formats with this much removal.

Krosan Vorine is undersized, but provoke is a powerful ability against some decks.

Nature’s Lore doesn’t really fix you, though the acceleration is nice in two-color decks. I think this will be at home in the G/B rock decks and the R/G ramp decks.

Tangle is an interesting choice at common. In defensive decks this could really slow down an adversary. It will come late, so don’t reach.

Claws of Wirewood is a great card out of the board, and can even be maindecked.

Artifacts and Lands

Artifacts and Lands round things out. It’s worth noting that unlike in Modern Masters there is not a lot of fixing or ramping at common, so building a four- or five-color good stuff deck will really depend on getting some key uncommons and rares. (There is a common set of “basic-land cycling” creatures but these aren’t true fixing because they only search up one land type.)

Artifact and Land Commons

Barren Moor
Forgotten Cave
Lonely Sandbar
Secluded Steppe
Tranquil Thicket
Mana Prism

Some summary thoughts on commons:

  • Virtually all these cards are powerful. The question is not “Is this card good?” but “In what deck is this card great?” That was the question that drove picks in Modern Masters, and finding those synergies will separate the winners from the losers.
  • The creatures in this set are powerful, but they tend to be small. There are few sweeper effects, but Famine at uncommon will wipe the board against everything but green’s team.
  • There’s a lot more premium removal than we are used to in modern limited design. Attrition and control strategies are likely to get a boost.

What Archetypes Should You Draft?

Wizards has provided us with ten core archetypes for Vintage Masters, but they have also said the set is not like Modern Masters and will offer multiple pathways outside of these main “designated” decks.

  • Green-Blue— Madness
  • White-Blue— Control
  • White-Black— Attrition
  • Red-White— Weenies
  • Green-White— “Little Kid”
  • Blue-Black— Storm
  • Blue-Red— Counter Burn
  • Black-Red— Rakdos Aggro
  • Black-Green— The Rock
  • Red-Green— Fatty Ramp

(For a more detailed breakdown of these archetypes, check here.)

Once a draft format is well established it is possible to read signals and figure out what is open. But what do you do before pick hierarchies are established?

When I asked Simon what archetypes he thought would be strongest he noted that “the power level of all cards is insanely high, as we saw with Modern Masters. Some of the cards need synergy (Arrogant Wurm), others are great on their own (Battle Screech). I expect the best archetypes to be synergy-driven, followed by good stuff decks. You don’t want to end up in generic aggro or a theme deck that’s missing the key cards.”

One of the best ways to end up in a “generic aggro” deck is to try to draft a deck that’s not open. In every forum in which Vintage Masters is discussed I see players jonesing to play U/G Madness. It’s a powerful, linear strategy with enough tricks and tools that it will be a force to be reckoned with. But it is also going to be among the most overdrafted archetypes. Moreover, many of its key cards (e.g. Wild Mongrel, Basking Rootwalla) are good in other decks. So I would be very wary about moving in on Madness unless things are open.

[pullquote]“How easy it is to ‘see’ and pursue an archetype will dictate if people pick up on it.”[/pullquote]Simon agreed. “With Arrogant Wurm at common, I agree that U/G Madness is going to be very popular in the beginning. How easy it is to ‘see’ and pursue an archetype will dictate if people pick up on it. Once you know the best two commons in each color, or the best common first pick for each archetype (I don’t know what these will be), it will become clear what players will tend towards.”

What decks are likely to be under-drafted? “Anything that is reactive, or a bit more obscure in their synergy,” speculates Simon. “Can you build a G/B deck around cards like Brindle Shoat and Death’s-Head Buzzard? Can you abuse Provoke on Deftblade Elite? Is there a die-hard W/U control deck?”

[pullquote]“Can you build a GB deck around cards like Brindle Shoat and Death’s-Head Buzzard?[/pullquote]

Best friends?

Brindle Shoat
Death’s-Head Buzzard

A lot of people have mentioned the power of Token Aggro. Battle Screech and Beetleback Chief can create an army that can be buffed up with Pianna, Nomad Captain and Rites of Initiation. Rites is an extremely explosive card and this deck will be hard to deal with, especially in a climate with little mass removal.

One deck on my radar is Blue-White Tempo. While this is not one of the “designated” decks, I suspect it will be very strong. Both colors get a lot of aggressively-costed beaters, removal, tempo spells, and counters. Between flying and shadow this deck has so much evasion and puts opponents on a short clock. If people try to get fancy you’re going to eat their lunch.

Tempo FTW?

Benevolent Bodyguard
Deftblade Elite
Soltari Emissary
Soltari Trooper
Phantom Nomad
Benalish Trapper
Skywing Aven
Man-o’-War
Gustcloak Harrier
Battle Screech
Choking Tethers
Counterspell
Repel
Rescind
Shelter

Speaking of getting fancy, Storm and Cycling (Rift/Slide) will be awesome decks when they come together, but are not for the faint of heart. You need to have just the right balance of enablers, defensive cards, and win conditions. Every draft deck will be capable of powerful things, so you are going to be run over unless you can get your shields up. This is the deck that Simon is most excited to draft, and I can’t wait to see what a 3-0 storm or cycling deck looks like.

For the Cycling deck there is no shortage of cyclers, but you will need the uncommons–Lightning Rift and Astral Slide–to make the deck viable. The Astral Slide version of the deck will also need good comes-into-play abilities. In red and white the best commons and uncommons are Flametongue Kavu, Teroh’s Faithful, Goblin Commando and Goblin Settler. Dipping into blue or black gives even more options.

Slide Into This

Flametongue Kavu
Teroh’s Faithful
Goblin Commando
Goblin Settler
Beetleback Chief

Ramp is a powerful Cube strategy, but in VMA I am just not seeing it. The only accelerant at common is Nature’s Lore, and it doesn’t fix your mana. The five-color green deck from Modern Masters isn’t going to be an option, but we could see plenty of three-color “good stuff” decks. They will need to be built to withstand the early rush.

Will a dedicated control deck be possible? Simon is not sure. “Teroh’s Faithful was really really good in Torment. I think that U/W control is viable, but I’m reluctant because of the high power level of opposing decks. In Modern Masters, proactive strategies were generally favored. Vintage Masters has more powerful countermagic, so it might be easier to control the board.”

Sol Ring will remain unbeatable though.”

That’s it for now. Stop reading and get drafting!

-Alexander Carl (@thoughtlaced)

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article noted that there are only 100 commons in Vintage Masters, compared to 121 commons in Theros, but that is because THS contains 20 basic lands.



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28 thoughts on “Unlocked Insider: Winning in Vintage Masters Draft

  1. It was pointed out to me that there are actually the same number of commons in THS as in VMA–the extra 20 commons I counted in THS are actually basic lands (which have their own special rarity, always appear exactly one per pack, and will never take up the other 10 common slots). So commons appear in the same prevalence in VMA as they do in THS.

  2. Sorry to nit-pick, but it should say something to the effect of “triple THS” rather than “Theros block” when you talk about how likely it is that you’ll see any given common in VMA.

    Similarly, DGM should read “RTR”, because Supreme Verdict simply isn’t in DGM (and the math doesn’t hold up for full-block draft).

  3. Glad this got unlocked. These types of articles are great. Speculators who are on the fence on this site might appreciated the depth of articles like this. You knocked it out of the park on this one Alex. I’m off to join a pre-re now.

    1. Thanks Jesse. We are trying to add value in all sorts of different ways, and are glad you found it useful.

      1. So I drafted the nuts Simic madness deck. It was awesome. The highlight of the gameplay was winning a game off a 4 card mull. On a side note, the second time I drafted a Simic Madness deck, it just didn’t pull together the correct pieces and I only made it to round 2.

  4. Not sure that I agree ramp isn’t viable, but I guess you mean 5 color ramping (which I totally agree on)

    I found R/G open in a VMA draft and drafted 3 Orcish Lumberjacks. I was able to steal games by cast Beetleback Chief or Pillaging Horde turn 2 pretty often.

    Either way, great article! Very helpful pro-perspective.

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