A Different World: Vintage, Explained

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The only known cure of burn-out is a change of pace. That's solid advice for life in general, but it was also my approach to testing frustrations. As I discussed last week, I spent the latest Magic Online (MTGO) All-Access Pass period extensively testing Pioneer. It wasn't a fun experience, so to break it up, I also played more Vintage in two weeks than I had in the past two years. It's something I'd recommend to every player, but there are some eccentricities that they need to be ready for before trying Vintage.

Today, we'll explore what makes Vintage special, dispel some myths, and review the format's rules of engagement as I've come to understand them.

The Moneyed Format

Most players are at least aware of Vintage, and for those that aren't, Vintage is where (nearly) every card in every expansion in Magic's history is legal. Rather than banning cards, Vintage restricts them to a single copy. For many hideously broken cards, it's the only format where they're legal for play, Commander included. Therefore, it is the most powerful format in all of Magic.

That power is not without cost. Literally: Vintage is the most expensive format in Magic, no ifs ands or buts. For a player looking to buy into Vintage, it's going to cost a minimum of $10,000 to get a competitive deck. That's because the cheapest deck by far is Vintage Dredge which requires a playset of Bazaar of Baghdad, the best price for which is (at time of writing) $2.422.48 a pop.

Thus, the format remains firmly outside 99.99% of the general public's price range. And even for those wealthy few who could buy into Vintage, there's not much reason to do so. Vintage events are few and far between these days. There was a time when they were kept afloat by allowing proxies and Wizards officially unofficially allowed it. There's been a crackdown, and now there's no market for paper Vintage events.

Online Opportunity

For this reason, it is only really possible for most players to experience Vintage on MTGO. Which is unfortunate, as MTGO isn't popular, at least relative to Magic at large. Players generally don't like paying real money for intangible cards, and most that do want to play the formats they play in paper. The MTGO-only formats being niche at best demonstrate this aptly.

However, I'd argue that playing online Vintage is the best value for money in all of Magic. In terms of relative price, online Vintage is as cheap as it gets. The Dredge deck I linked above is currently $11,753.86 in paper and $349.94 (tix and dollars are roughly equivalent), or 33.59 times cheaper. It only gets more extreme from there.

Online Vintage decks cost about the same as online Modern or Legacy decks. However, that's deceptive, as all the expensive cards in Vintage decks are expensive because they're also Legacy and/or Modern staples. Vintage-only cards cost pennies on the dollar. You can get the whole Power 9 for about $35. Since Vintage-caliber cards extremely rare, decks rarely need updates or rotate. Buy once, play forever.

Money Where My Mouth Is

I am speaking from experience here. I bought my paper Death and Taxes deck on MTGO in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, on the belief that I wouldn't have to put much money into Legacy and could just play forever. That was true for about six months, until I caved to collective wisdom and joined the Yorion, Sky Nomad crowd. Since then, I've paid for City of Solitude both in paper and online and all the initiative cards online.

During that time, whenever there was an All-Access event, I'd have a Vintage Taxes deck made up to dabble with on the side. I updated it for the first time ever this time with the white initiative creatures and was having a blast when I had an epiphany. The only cards for the Vintage deck I didn't already own from Legacy were the Vintage-only cards. And I could have them all for about $40. So, now I'm playing Vintage Initiative.

I literally hadn't updated the White Taxes deck I'd proxied up online for All-Access events from 2020 until 2023. That had been my entire plan in buying Legacy Taxes online. Frankly, from a bang-for-buck stance, buying Vintage from the get-go would have been a better plan. Having to update a Vintage deck at all is quite rare, and most decks have barely changed in the past ten years. It's incredibly stable.

Enter the Unknown

So now that I've intrigued at least some new Vintage players, it's time to throw out a big BUT FIRST! Vintage doesn't work like other formats, be they competitive or casual. All players will recognize elements they're familiar with, but things are happening in ways which would be considered impossible and/or terrible in their home formats.

Trying to play Vintage like normal Magic is a recipe for frustration and failure. The rules of engagement are different. What matters is different. There are cards that are define Vintage are are garbage elsewhere, Paradoxical Outcome foremost among them, Slash Panther an example from the not-too-distant past. Vintage must be played like Vintage.

The Cause

The issue is the restricted cards. Generally banned in every other format, these are the most powerful cards ever printed in Magic's history, and they're game-defining. Commander players are used to playing with singletons and some playgroups may even allow Vintage restricted cards up to and including Black Lotus. However, thinking that Commander in any way emulates Vintage is wrong.

This isn't gameplay like (most) players are used to. There are an entirely different set of rules for deck construction, hands to keep, sequencing, and even win conditions. New players have to get used to the fact that Vintage requires them to do things that are not only wrong in normal Magic, but sometimes actively bad. However, they work in Vintage.

I'm no Vintage expert with special insight. Every one of these rules is something I've worked out over the years sticking my toes into Vintage, and they have become clearer since I actually bought in and started playing more often. As I understand them, here are the rules of Vintage in roughly the order I discovered them.

Rule #1: Bazaar of Baghdad Breaks Every Rule

I think my first exposure to Vintage was watching Luis Scott-Vargas videos. His reaction to seeing Bazaar played against him was always, "Whelp, time to lose game 1." That would proceed to happen, and Luis would have to mulligan for graveyard hate in games 2-3. Didn't seem to matter what deck he was playing, that was how it always went.

There is no deck that works quite like a Bazaar deck, for no other deck has a card more central to its gameplan. Bazaar decks don't work at all without the namesake. Their gameplan: mulligan and use Serum Powder until Bazaar is found in their opening hand. Then, activate Bazaar and continue to do so until the opponent is dead. There really aren't alternative lines, as the deck doesn't pay mana for spells.

There are many types of Bazaar decks. Some are souped-up Dredge decks, some feature Hollow One engines, and then there are the weird decks. Some have tons of interaction, while others have combo kills. Don't sweat the specifics. These decks are operating on an axis unlike any other in all of Magic, and make their own rules.

Rule #2: The Mana Curve Doesn't Exist

There is no mana curve in Vintage. Decks still play cards of many different mana costs, and the balance is tilted to the low end as in other constructed formats. However, they're not looking to play the cards on curve, and the expectation of doing so is detrimental to success. It's easier to show the reason visually than write it out:

These zero-mana artifacts are collectively known as Jewelry and their job is to jump decks up the curve. They're very good at it, especially when coupled with all the other restricted artifact mana available. It is possible and desirable to try and play as many spells as possible in one turn, or simply dump all the mana into an end-game bomb on turn one. Trying to play a normal game means immediately falling behind.

Every Vintage deck can play any number of these cards and needs very strong reasons not to do so. So strong that the only decks that don't play at least a few Moxen are instead playing Bazaar. (That card makes its own rules.) Everyone else is obligated to sport some Jewelry.

Consequence #1: Aggro Doesn't Exist

In normal Magic, aggro decks work by being faster than anything else. They're utilizing the mana curve to tempo out the slower, more powerful opponents before the high-cost spells overwhelm them and the slower decks win. Against combo, aggro is utilizing its more reliable win speed. That isn't going to happen in a format where Jewels allow slow decks to jump the curve and combo to win on turn 1.

That's not to say that it's impossible to win with creatures. Initiative and Bazaar decks deny that idea. However, these decks are either using creatures as part of a combo kill or heavily incorporating disruptive elements. There are no pure drag-race creature decks. They're all creatures plus something else.

Consequence #2: Life Total Is Just a Number

It's an old principle in Magic that the only life point that really matters is the last one. While I've pushed back on that idea before, the principle is still sound. No format demonstrates it more than Vintage. Thanks to the lack of pure aggro and the overwhelming bombs that get dropped fast, life doesn't really matter, and decks are quite loose in dealing themselves damage. Sometimes a deck will kill itself when things go poorly, but usually they're not bothered. Games are over too quickly. This causes Rule 3.

Rule #3: There Are Three Win Conditions

There are many different ways to win a game in Vintage. However, they will all be via one of three roads:

  1. Combo kill
  2. Lock pieces
  3. Card advantage

The first is the most obvious. When most players think about Vintage, they think the absurd combo decks. They're not wrong; combo is the easiest way to win in Vintage. These are the drag racers of the whole format.

That lock pieces are a win condition far less obvious. While I play many creatures and attack with them, White Initiative actually wins by locking out the opponent long enough to win. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Archon of Emeria, and Phyrexian Censor keep the opponent from doing anything so I can claim victory. Out of the sideboard, there's Null Rod.

The fair decks win the third way, by overwhelming the opponent with card advantage. Ancestral Recall is the poster child of this strategy, which wins by being able to do more than the opponent. This is usually achieved by having more answers in hand than the opponent has spells to deploy, but can take many forms. The game will be over well before any real damage has been dealt.

Rule #4: Artifacts are King

One of the longtime pillars of Vintage is Mishra's Workshop. Almost every deck has lots of artifact mana. Artifacts are everywhere, define every deck by their presence or absence, and are some of the most powerful threats in Vintage. That means:

Consequence #4: All Cheap Artifact Removal Is Playable

Steel Sabotage is main-deckable because it answers anything out of Workshop decks for one mana. It also bounces a Blightsteel Colossus tutored into play by a card advantage deck's Aeronaut Tinkerer. Every deck needs ways to escape from prison pieces and/or disrupt the opponent's artifacts. Null Rod is a game-winning card for a reason.

Rule #5: Mulligan Aggressively

Bazaar players are an extreme example, but all Vintage players need to be willing to mulligan aggressively. Every deck has something busted it does, so every decks needs to either have the means to do the busted thing in their opening or some way to answer the opponent's busted thing. For example, consider the following hand from my Initiative deck:

This is an almost perfect hand for Legacy Death and Taxes, as it can Thalia turn two and answer any creature turn one. However, this is Vintage, and this hand is a mulligan unless I know I'm against Bazaar. It's unlikely that I'll need to kill a creature at all, much less on turn one, and playing Thalia turn two is too late. By then, the opponent will have dumped their Jewels if I'm on the play or killed me if I'm on the draw. Meanwhile, this hand:

Is a snap-keep in Vintage and quite questionable keep in Legacy. There, the turn 1 Censor is likely to get Lightning Bolted, at which point I'm out almost all my cards and am hoping for a land to cast Dungeoneer and that it isn't just Daze. It's perfect for Vintage since creature removal is very sparse and a turn 1 Censor will stop cold the typical opening for most opponents. It's imperative that Vintage players keep hands that are not necessarily good by normal standards, but that do something broken.

Fairly Busted

Vintage takes some getting used to, and I can't say that it's for everyone. However, those players that are already online and are paying into the card market really have no excuse not to maintain a Vintage deck on the side. It's much cheaper than whatever you've already bought, and unlocks plenty of events, not to mention fun and additional opportunities for success. The key is to that fun and success is to never forget what makes the format Vintage.

2 thoughts on “A Different World: Vintage, Explained

  1. Most of the problems with Vintage came with the proliferation of counterfeits that were disrupting the secondary market creating big headaches for collectors. It seems WotC had enough of that and shut it down completely. And the idea of reprinting cards for the format has been universally rejected by players. Vintage will remain a niche format for the time being. That could change in the future being the most difficult and challenging.

    1. So long as the reserved list exists, there’s no saving paper Vintage, regardless of other problems. The only way to keep any interest up is to get more players playing on MTGO.

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