The Vintage Metagame: Shops, Delver… and Oath?

Even though Vintage has been struggling to fire dailies in the last few weeks, it still is a blast to play. Before Power came online I called the paper Vintage scene the “Wild West” which of course sounded hyperbolic, but I still think it is true, or at least was true to this point. And oh boy, the online scene weeded out a couple of decks faster than I could say “I told you so…” Of course people always found excuses for the “weeding” – be it monetary reasons (the rise of Delver because it is “cheap” for a Vintage deck) or decks not being popular in North America, which would be mirrored in online events due to most players being from North America (e.g. Tezzeret). I’m quite sure that some “excuses” had weight, but it was just part of the truth. Yeah, Delver did extremely well mainly because more people had acces to it, but the deck had to stay because it’s consistent while still packing powerful lines of play. Many of the generic, blue, full-powered decks, on the other hand, lacked this kind of consistency and thus started vanishing.

Over the course of this article I will try to explain how and why the meta shifted and what the recent pillars of Vintage look like.

From Delver to Shops to Delver – June to October

From Day One onward Delver was a strong contender. The deck was still relatively new to Vintage as a whole, and being easily portable from its Modern and Legacy counterparts made it spread quickly. Of course the deck was overshadowed by Dredge in the early days of online Vintage as a result of Vintage Dredge being identical to Classic Dredge card for card. Luckily, people were drafting VMA like crazy, and it just took a week or two until enough players had acces to P9 to force a shift in the metagame. Not unexpected, decklists from paper Vintage were copied, and the early metagame was very colorful: We had tons of different attempts on Drain Control, some Oath, some Storm, some Shops, some Dredge, some Delver, some Fish (mainly BUG and Merfolk), some Gush Combo, some UW Blade and varieties of totally different attempts like 4c Humans or GW hatebears. Not only was I surprised about Vintage firing events easily (unlike its predecessor Classic) but also on the many different approaches to battle the expected meta.

The shift came quickly. Just a few weeks of actual Vintage in, people started to prepare for the Online Vintage Championship. While some decks like Shops and Delver kept their numbers, others fell dramatically. Whoever played a Drain Control variant quickly switched to either Oath or Grixis. Meanwhile, LSV refined the Gush Combo deck and did well in a couple of Daily Events, which led to other people copying the deck. Decks like UW Blade, Welder, and 4c Humans suddenly disappeared completely except for maybe 1 player per deck who coincidently kept it as a “Pet Deck”.

Then the actual Vintage Champs Qualifiers came around. These 5-round “every 4-1 or better makes it” events had pretty good EV and some really strong players in them, being the final proving ground for any deck before the actual Championship. While the first few qualifiers still featured healthy and diverse metagames it all narrowed down to RU(G) Delver very fast. There was one guy who played literally in all these qualifiers, despite going 5-0 in his first attempt, and he kept crushing. Needless to say, he was on UR Delver. No matter what kind of deck people built – if they couldn’t handle the threat of an endless stream of Tokens and Lightning Bolts, coupled with 7-8 free counterspells and other cheap counters, they might as well drop after Round 2. While most Vintage decks had high variance in their opening hands and each of their draw steps, the Delver deck worked like a Swiss Army knife and it plowed through the field. Thanks to a high number of Cantrips, Delver hardly was short on answers but also able to follow up with threat after threat if it needed to. Being able to put up a fast clock on the opponent while also never running out of answers was, and still is, unrivaled (and won’t change for as long as Treasure Cruise is allowed as a 4-of. In my opinion the deck has just one little flaw and that is being a port from a Modern deck. Yeah, you get to play Mental Misstep and Force of Will as well as Ancestral Recall and Time Walk, but overall the deck lacks a clear “power play” that other decks have with their Tinkers and Yawgmoth’s Wills. As I said, I think it’s just a little, nay, very little flaw, but it is one that can get you in the swingy world of Vintage.

The only thing that I want to add about Delver is that I wish I would have known how big the impact of Dack Fayden would be on this deck. Dack is a card that when I saw it, I knew it would be good, but I have to be honest– I had no clue how amazing it actually would end up being. I totally underestimated the looting ability in a high-quality-cards format like Vintage. Dack quickly became one of the cornerstones of the deck, and the recent printing of Treasure Cruise put him over the top.

Out of 49 people who were able to qualify for the Vintage Champs, 7 did so with Delver – more than 15%, which, in a format as diverse as Vintage is advertised to be, is very close to dominating.

The other deck that put 7 people into the final playoff proved to be just as oppressive as Delver, if not even more oppressive – the deck or decks based around Mishra’s Workshop. Even though the nature of Workshop decks may might it look like an equivalent to Modern Tron, it is more consistent than it might appear. Except for Dredge, every deck essentially needs to have Force of Will in its opening hand or it’s pretty much boned. While one Sphere effect is quite beatable, multiples are not. Now think about beating a Sphere with 5/3 attached to it… and people seriously questioned the presence of Lightning Bolt in Vintage! To be fair, a 3-mana Bolt doesn’t look that impressive anymore at handling a creature that already dealt 10 to you and cost you a couple of turns by delaying your mana, especially if you take into account that Shop decks also love to run Chalice of the Void, disabling much of the powerful artifact mana; yeah, Shops is broken and the most natural predator of any blue deck in the format. It’s far from unbeatable though – winning the coin flip is huge and being based around mostly artifacts with only very few lands opens it up to getting blown out by a great variety of Sideboard cards. For some weird reason that rarely happens though – like Dredge, Shop decks are good at winning Game 1 which puts them on the play in a final Game 3, and suddenly your out costs between 3 and a million mana. I think Shops gains a lot from Wasteland being a minor player in the format, except for Shops itself and Fish decks; as I already stated, the deck’s land count is low and often you can catch them under their own spheres. There is not much more to say as the deck is pretty straight-forward – get some mana into play and lock the opponent out of playing spells. It’s interesting to note that Shop is not even played in that high of numbers but often takes the trophy home anyway. There is also not much that the meta could do to adjust – fitting Wasteland into a given deck is not an easy task, and aside from that, people already play Force of Will and Moxen which should help to develop mana. But then, why does Shops have this enormous win percentage? I think that one thing that helps Shops is other decks being less redundant than Shops itself. Often it doesn’t make a big difference whether Shop has a Lodestone Golem, a Sphere of Resistance or a Thorn of Amethyst; the opponent is locked out of playing anything relevant, period. Blue decks on the other hand– I guess it makes a big difference between having Force or Misstep or Mana Drain in hand when facing Shops. Another problem for many decks when facing Shops is that they rely on cheap spells and few lands and once these spells become more expensive to cast a deck would need more lands as well, which it doesn’t have. Chalice of the Void also comes in handy to prevent blue decks both from playing Mana and cheap spells. All in all, the redudancy of Shops and the lack of land destruction in most decks turn the matchup towards Shops, even if blue decks win the die roll. After boarding, blue decks need to find their hate (or a solid hand with Force of Will) while Shops just roll as they always roll, and trust me, Shops loves opponents taking mulligans, as even finding the critical piece of hate gets neutered by Shops, making everything more expensive to cast.

It’s no coincidence that Shop decks win tournament after tournament. Thanks to an abundance of mana acceleration and lockpieces the deck is just too redundant. It’s no secret that the deck is super strong and the Vintage community heavily discusses possible changes to keep Shops alive while also cutting of at least some of its power. I will get back to that later, though.

Aside from Shops and Delver the tournament featured a wide variety of decks, and it was interesting to see how the T8 would shape up. Not surprisingly Delver took a T8 slot, but overall Delver didn’t have its best tournament. Another deck which was shy of T8 despite being played in high numbers was Dredge, but I’m not surprised about people being able to deal with Dredge by now, especially after it put up huge numbers in the beginning. Aside from Dredge being a loser, everyone else was a winner. The usual suspects included Oath, BUG, a weird variant of Drain Control (which probably just proves that good cards will lead to wins, even if the deck is not built optimally) and… more Shops. Talk about domination. No matter which flaw a deck has, if it can’t beat either Shops or Delver, it will get crushed at some point of a several-round-long tournament and I’m pretty sure that these two decks single-handedly killed a lot of the diversity that we had in the early days. Which is not necessarily bad, don’t get me wrong here; what is weak has to fall at some point and it just proves my point about the “Wild West Paper Scene”, but if two decks dominate, the meta becomes really boring very quickly and it doesn’t help that Delver gets a new tool in Treasure Cruise, which, while it also helps other decks, doesn’t help them as much as it does in Delver.

Domination

So, my point of view is that prior of the Online Vintage Champs the meta was healthy, but people figured out that Delver is not just a “port” or “budget” but very close to the best deck. The domination of Shops on the other hand is no news and to be honest, I’m happy that the price of Wasteland probably restricts people from playing it in massive numbers, because otherwise the meta might totally degenerate into a slugfeast. In theory, Oath should be in a good spot these days and I can’t really figure out why it is so underplayed on Magic Online. On the other hand I also fear that Oath, no matter how powerful it is, might lack some of the consistency or redundancy that Delver and Shops have.

I really wish I would be able to take up a cudgel for any other possible deck in the metagame, but as I already pointed out, none of them can really keep up with the consistency and redundancy that Delver and Shops offer, no matter how many pieces of Power they are running and no matter how strong their topdecks might be in a vacuum.

There is also good news, though: People just play what they like to play (especially in random 4-round Daily Events where the stakes are low). No matter how strong a certain deck actually is, there will always be enough people who still play their petdeck or are just behind on tech. Even though the meta might be skewed toward Delver and Shops, there are still enough other options that people will take into battle. Luckily people love sweet and fancy cards and tend toward finding both Delver and Shops boring – which is understandable, because as I already stated Delver is playable in so many other formats already and Shops… is just dull. No offense to Shop players, and I’m happy that such a deck exists, but it’s not interactive and has no control over its draws – so there is always a good chance that a given metagame does not reflect the power that single decks might have.

It’s now been several weeks or even months since the Online Champs happened, and at least prior the printing of Treasure Cruise the meta went back to healthiness. I feel like Shops got more popular after its big win, while Delver declined. Sadly we weren’t able to fire many events since then; for whatever reason making Vintage Dailies fire on Magic Online is hard work now. Anyway, the last events that fired didn’t show any sign of dominance. But this might change very quickly. While I am writing this article we are just 2 days away from the biggest annual Vintage tournament in the world: The Vintage Championships! In anticipation of this tournament TheManaDrain.com already tried to hold an online tournament, but it shaped up rather disastrously. Only 14 people total showed up, and 50% of the metagame was on Delver… exciting. Oh, and Shops took it down. If this is any foreshadowing on the Eternal Weekend then something has to be done about these 2 decks… my biggest fear is that Treasure Cruise might be dominating in the Delver deck, but not so much in other decks, which might prevent a restriction. Yeah, you read it correctly – I want that card to be restricted. Similar to Dack, when the card first got spoiled I knew that it was somehow playable, but again I underestimated it, or to say it differently, I underestimated how easily a grave can be filled and how ineffective hate is against it. While Cruise might be too slow for the really swingy games, it’s an A-Bomb in any other game. And while other decks can fill their graveyard, none can fill it as fast as Delver can (poor Dredge, maybe you should run lands).

While I am at it, I also want to talk about the previously mentioned idea of weakening Shops at least slightly. Restricting something out of Shops is a tough balancing act, as restricting the wrong card might make the deck close to unplayable (think of Workshop itself or Lodestone Golem) and I can guarantee you that the DCI won’t touch any of the Pillars. Most of the Vintage community pretty much agrees on Chalice of the Void getting restricted, which I could totally see, it would keep the deck strong while mitigating the hilarious nutdraw of Turn 1 Sphere followed by Chalice for 0. It would make sense from a design perspective for me as well: Why allow people to play their Moxen when one deck just forbids them anyway? Restricting this one card would give every other deck in the format a better fightning chance while still maintaining the status of Shops as a tier 1 strategy.

Vintage Champs and its impact

Finally, the Eternal Weekend just happened. Due to time zone restrictions I was only able to watch the live coverage until Round 8, but what I see was mostly what I expected – Delver and Shops plowing through the field. Unlike on Magic Online, enough people showed up with Oath and my fear about Oath not being able to keep up with the two big names was unneccesarry – it ended up taking down the whole thing! All in all the Top 8 consisted of 4 Delver, 2 Shops and 2 Oath – talk about diversity. I guess I shouldn’t complain, because I’m actually quite happy that no Delver took it down. Of course I still secretly hoped for some different-looking T8, but I guess the format was too easy to figure out. Like every eternal format these days: Just play Delver in Modern, Legacy and Vintage and exchange a couple of cards between them ;)

So, will there be any impact of the results of the Eternal Weekend for the Vintage metagame on Magic Online? I say yes, Oath will see more play. Actually, the day the Vintage Champs took place I jumped into a daily event and what did both me and my buddy Montolio face in round 1? Oath. I guess the next step was so logical that it already had an impact before the Champs fully resolved. Or maybe we were just unlucky to meet exactly the 2 out of 16. Who knows?

Aside from Oath maybe taking more slots in the daily events now, I don’t think that much more will change. Delver being one of the cheaper decks and easy to port actually just means that if new blood enters, they will very likely be on Delver.

To be honest, though, the momentary metagame across the eternal formats will keep me away from playing too much. Of course I will still try to make at least the weekend Vintage Dailies fire, but for now I’ve lost all interest in Legacy at least. Modern is probably the most healthy format, I guess Delver not having access to free counterspells makes it still quite fair compared to other options. For Vintage though, restrictions have to happen at some point. Even if some people might argue that a base of “the best blue spells + P9″ coupled with 10-15 different cards for each archetype is just faux diversity, it’s still more diverse than having 2 or maybe 3 decks dominate the format without many options to even differ in playstyle or deckbuilding.

Before I’m going to finish my view about the state of Vintage and the (online) metagame I want to spare a few words about the Oath deck that took down the Vintage Championship. It’s interesting to see how different the 2 Oath decks in the Top 8 looked– the winner eschewed Dig Through Time but opted to run 3 Show and Tell along with 3 Griselbrand. I haven’t played Oath much yet, so I didn’t know there would be different approaches to that deck. I can imagine Dig through Time to be very potent, especially as Oath just needs one activation to fill its grave, but then once you Oath, do you really need to Dig? On the other hand, having 3 Show and Tell and 3 Griselbrand allows for some extremely brutal opening sequences, like adding more Tinkers to any given deck. It’s also a way to up the threat density, something that we know a couple of Vintage control and combo decks lack.

Aside from that it was also a pretty foreign build, not only did Maelstrom Pulse look a bit uncommon, but if you attend a 9-round tournament full of restricted cards then I guess a catch-all answer can’t be bad! No, it also left out Yawgmoth’s Will and the Vault-Key combo! I guess this list goes for an approach like the Legacy Show and Tell decks in just being able to dump a Griselbrand onto the battlefield as soon as possible without any nick-nack or unreliable stuff that looks cool but is hard to assemble. I don’t know about you, but I will definitely give that Oath build a shot, as it looks pretty sweet in the anticipated online metagame, but I would at least try to maybe find room for Yawgmoth’s Will.

This shall it be for today. I’m really looking forward for how the metagame will evolve, if Delver and Shops stay dominant and if eventually any restrictions happen. Until next time, see you in the Dailies!

 
  1. I don’t see chalice of the void being restricted soon. In a real tournament (I mean, non online) any budget non-dredge deck needs to run it in 4 copies.

  2. Hey David! Welcome to the MTGOAcademy family! This was a well thought out article. I think you missed the popularity of the Slaver Deck in the lead up to Vintage Masters Champs. Maybe you simply called it “Grixis”, but I like to think of those as 2 different decks.

    Also, I believe Oath is not played in large numbers on MTGO for 2 reasons. The deck is not as consistent as Delver and Shops (for the reasons you cite), but also I think people absolutely hate playing the mirror. If I knew that no one else would play Oath, I would probably run it no questions asked, but seeing that now Oath is a supposed predator to the “top 2 decks”, I won’t even pick it up because of how miserable the mirror is.

  3. Crazy stuff. Amazing, with all those cards out there, what ends up being the decks people play and use to win.

    It was pretty well-written, and while I know almost literally nothing about the “older” Eternal formats, I can follow along. However, it’d be nice for just a tiny tad bit of information for potential readers that are totally unaware of the decks and whatnot. Thank you for the article!

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