2005 Vintage Championship

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The letter T!here's an adage within the Vintage community that says the decent Vintage players are the ones who don't take burn from Mana Drain, and the good Vintage players are the ones who actually remember to attack with Goblin Welder.

I'm here to report that the new Vintage Champion is a gentleman who attacked with Goblin Welders, so all went as expected, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. Follow along with me as I recount the happenings from Gen Con and the 2005 Vintage Championship.

Picture if you will, 127 players from around the country and even across "the pond" loaded to the gills with the most powerful and expensive Magic cards ever made. Vintage has grown by leaps and bounds recently, and because of the boom in popularity for the format, prices for old cards have increased dramatically and your average set of the Power 9 will run a person around $3000. Not all decks were fully powered this weekend, but many were, and if you figure that the average cost of a deck in the field is around $3000 (with some decks spiraling well beyond that), you will wind up with a value figure of somewhere around $400,000 for the field as a whole. That figure is more than the total prize payout at a Pro Tour and equates to a recipe for serious gaming.

Now many of you who are not familiar with the current state of Vintage may think that the format is completely broken, consists entirely of decks that are shooting for turn-one and turn-two kills, and that luck rules the day. I am here to quash that notion under the heel of my steel-toed flip-flop. The current Vintage environment is about as balanced as the format has seen in some time, and the Top 8 at Gen Con showed there are a wide variety of archetypes that have the ability to win. Granted, individual games in Vintage are about as swingy as you can get in Magic. This is bound to happen when half of your deck is so broken that you only get to play with one copy of each spell. However, if you use "ability of good players to consistently Top 8" as a metric for whether or not a particular format involves a lot of skill, then Vintage is clearly quite skill-intensive.

Additionally, all of the disruption in the format tends to make most games last at least until turn three or four. Force of Will is the most important card in the format (though Yawgmoth's Will is arguably the most broken) and backing up the Alliances uncommon are spells like Mana Drain, Duress, Chalice of the Void, Sphere of Resistance, Tangle Wire, Smokestack, Wasteland, and the dreaded (and restricted) Trinisphere. In short, when nearly every deck in the environment is packing cards that slow or lock you down, it becomes pretty darn difficult to win in the first two turns of the game.

The Decks to Beat

Looking at the results from Waterbury events in the Northeast and the StarCityGames Power 9 series, the following archetypes represented the best decks heading into Gen Con.


Originally written as $t4Ks, a cute little acronym for a deck called "The $4,000 Solution", Stax was thought to have sounded its death knell when Trinisphere hit the restriction list. Not so fast said Team Meandeck, whose members continued to grind opponents into the ground while on their way to numerous Top 8 appearances.

Stax is the best prison deck in Type One right now and many think it's the best deck period, though it requires considerable skill to master. The idea is to play out an early Mishra's Workshop and then gum up the board with Smokestack, Sphere of Resistance, Chalice of the Void, Tangle Wire or Trinisphere. Also particularly effective (and obnoxious) is the classic first-turn “Crucible of Worlds off of Black Lotus plus Strip Mine" play, designed to frustrate and infuriate opponents everywhere.

To make things worse, Goblin Welders are exploited to exchange various lock parts during players' upkeeps in order to maximize the damage done to the board position. Once you have effectively locked down the board, you either bash with Goblin Welders for one point of damage at a time, wait for one of the big boys to show up so that you can smash face (Triskelion, Sundering Titan, and Karn fill this role), or you wait for your opponent to concede/die from boredom and earn a game win that way. You'd be surprised just how often the latter takes place. Most tournament organizers have actually taken to having medical staff on call if they expect a Stax-heavy metagame.

Recently there was a second Stax variation developed named Uba Stax. Designed by Robert Vroman, all of the principles for this deck are the same (i.e. it's still an annoying prison deck), but in place of the more typical Tangle Wires and Spheres of Resistance, Vroman's deck runs Uba Mask, Chalice of the Void and Null Rod. Originally thought to be some goofy homebrew that somehow made a Top 8, Vroman's win at the Chicago Power 9 in July proved that not only is his deck good, but it might just be the best version of the Stax archetype.

People who pilot Stax may appear polite and generous on the outside, but are secretly evil and ruthless on the inside. Need further proof? Zvi Mowshowitz ran Stax at the last Vintage event he played. I rest my case.

Gifts Control

Gifts Ungiven is clearly one of the most powerful card-drawing spells to come out of Magic R&D in years, and what better format to abuse the pseudo-tutor than Type One? Enter Andy Probasco, the man the Vintage community knows simply as "Brassman." Now there have been a variety of minor Gifts variations to come out in the last six months or so, but Brassman's Severance Belcher version is the version that has achieved the most success since its inception, though it too has evolved to include the Darksteel Colossus win condition originally attributed to Team CAB from Europe.

The basic concept behind this deck is to play control in most matchups until an opening arises for you to cast Gifts Ungiven, tutoring for Recoup, Yawgmoth's Will, Tinker, and Mana Severance. You then get two of the four cards in hand, and are able to access the last via flashback from or outright casting Recoup. The permutations of what you actually need to do when in order to win with this deck are extensive and complex, but Probasco has documented many of them in a primer article located here. Gifts is one of the most powerful decks in the environment, but like any Gifts deck, it is also the toughest to build and play properly. The current decklist for this archetype is listed in the Top 8 decklists section of this article.

Control Slaver

Invented by German Kim Kluck and primarily innovated by New Englander and part-time Pro Rich Shay, at one point earlier this year this was the Vintage deck to play. In fact, at a 200-man tournament in Waterbury, Connecticut earlier this year nearly half the freaking field was Control Slaver. The next day, headlines across Vintage websites screamed, "Run for your lives! Mana Drains and Gleemaxes abound!" Since that time the metagame has diversified, but Slaver still has what it takes to place numerous players in Top 8s of the biggest Vintage tournaments.

The plan for Slaver players is similar to that of Gifts players in that you generally want to play control until an opening arises to "go broken." Where Gifts players are looking to abuse the power of Gifts Ungiven, Slaver players tend to abuse the power of card drawing like Thirst for Knowledge and then Goblin Welder combined with Mindslaver and Pentavus to form either a hard or soft lock over the opponent's turns. Winning with this deck is not unlike making your opponent repeatedly punch themselves in the face until they either give up or are unconscious, and it's particularly painful if said opponent is playing a combo deck. Some people call this sadism, but I like to think of it as good fun for the whole family.

Oddly enough, many "Control Slaver" decks are foregoing the whole "Slaver" part of the name and playing one or zero Mindslavers these days, leading to decks with severe confusion about who they are and what they want to be when they grow up. One deckbuilder from this past weekend even went so far as to drop both parts of the name and replace it with an unpronounceable androgynous symbol seemingly more appropriate for Transmute Artifact decks or Polymorph archetypes. The current decklist for this archetype is listed in the Top 8 decklists section of this article.

Fish/Worse Than Fish

Fish decks have existed in Vintage for years and often act as metagame adjusters when things turn to heavily towards control archetypes. Originally populated with Merfolk, card drawing, and counterspells, the archetype retains its name in spite of playing almost zero Merfolk in current builds. They do, however, run saucy little numbers like Ninja of the Deep Hours, Meddling Mage, Grim Lavamancer, Voidmage Prodigy, and Cloud of Faeries giving the standard Fish deck an interesting array of creatures to match against the field.

The Worse Than Fish variation of this deck was designed primarily by Jacob Orlove, who figured that putting mean green creatures like Wild Mongrel and Basking Rootwalla in the deck while adding Umezawa's Jitte to boot would not only increase his clock, but also give him a better matchup against aggro matchups as well. Those of you interested in additional discussion of this deck can find the most recent article from the creator here.

The basic plan for Fish decks is to get down a creature or a man-land (the beloved Mishra's Factory), cast a Standstill, and see what happens. They all run Force of Will to protect against combo decks, and most run additional disruption in the form of Chalice of the Void or Null Rod to shut down opposing Moxes plus additional free counters like Daze, Misdirection, or Spiketail Hatchling to help destroy an opponent's tempo. Most Fish builds remain relatively stagnant over time, and their success is based more on metagame concerns and the quality of the players running it rather than the overall power of the deck itself.

Cool New Builds

Although these two decks didn't quite break through to the Top 8, the builds were cool enough to warrant a deeper inspection. Dustin Des Jardins' Xantid Swarm deck looks a little bit like The Perfect Storm crossed with a strange Draw 7 deck, and then pre-sideboarded. The prevalence of control decks in the metagame recently has meant that TPS decks are too dangerous to run and expect to win over a lengthy tournament, but putting down a first-turn Xantid Swarm and then going to work on your storm count might be the right call.

Alejandro Escribano's Controlled Squee Infestation is perhaps the most interesting and innovative deck in the Top 16. If you are looking for something funky and off the beaten path to play at an upcoming Vintage tournament or even around your kitchen table, this seems like a fine choice. While it contains the oh-so quaint Tinker-for-Darksteel Colossus win condition present in almost all Vintage decks these days, I prefer to think of its primary method of victory coming via attacking with armies of obnoxious Squee-shaped zombies that increase in volume each and every turn. That's just me, though. You should feel free to develop your own victory fantasy.

Tournament Recap

Results Standings

As mentioned earlier, Vintage is a format that has exploded in popularity in recent years. Pro Tour-Philadelphia champion Gadiel Szleifer played in this year's event, as did Alejandro Escribano, who crossed the Atlantic to participate after winning the Vintage event in his home country of Spain. Among the big names in Vintage that attended were last year's champion Mark Biller, Stephen Menendian, Kevin Cron, Rich Shay, Robert Vroman, Brassman, Brian Demars, and Roland Chang, all of whom are notable deckbuilders, writers, or players with multiple Top 8s at big events in the past year.

The Swiss rounds went about as expected, and while Meandeck stars Menendian and Cron missed out on Top 8 berths this year, the team still placed two members into the elimination rounds. In fact, the Top 8 as a whole was particularly strong this year with Midwestern team GWS placing Mat Endress in the Top 8 to supplement a field of notables playing solid and diverse decks.

Andy Probasco mistakenly drew in the last round with Bob Yu before figuring out that his tiebreaker math was bad enough that it was probably going to cost him a Top 8 slot. The two players realized this just after the round started, but the had already signed the match slip and turned it in to the judge, dooming them to their fate. Unluckily for Yu, his tiebreakers weren't as good as Probasco's, putting Andy into the Top 8 and leaving Yu kissing his sister.

Top 8 Decklists

Joshua Frankelin – Three-Color Psychatog
2005 Vintage Championship Top 8

The Top 8

Quarterfinals   Semifinals   Finals   Champion
1 Brian Demars - Control Slaver   Andy Probasco - Gifts Ungiven        
8 Andy Probasco - Gifts Ungiven  
4 Mat Endress - Oath of Druids   Mat Endress - Oath of Druids  
5 Kurt Walli - Controlicore    
2 Roland Chang - Stax   Roland Chang - Stax
7 Ashok Chitturi - Stax  
3 Joshua Frankelin - 3-Color Psychatog   Simon Hale - Dragon Combo
6 Simon Hale - Dragon Combo    

Semifinals - Mat Endress vs. Andy Probasco (Brassman)

Mat Endress

Brassman took the first game but looked in trouble after Endress cast an Oath of Druids on turn five. Sadly, Endress, a floppy-haired, bespectacled Midwesterner, could not find a token generator to go along with his Oath and was unable to capitalize on this early advantage. Endress cast Balance a couple of turns later, earning a bunch of card advantage by forcing Probasco to dump all but one card in his hand, but gaining little else. Brassman ripped a Thirst for Knowledge off the top of his deck, throwing away Fact or Fiction and Brainstorm, earning a pair of bulging eyes from Endress. With Probasco pitching Fact or Fiction directly into the grumper with a quickness, Endress knew exactly what Probasco had drawn (Yawgmoth's Will), and it was a relatively simple mop-up from there putting the Gifts designer into the finals.

Semifinals - Simon Hale vs. Roland Chang

The first two games flew past for these two. Well, as much as any match involving a Stax deck can "fly." Hale comboed out in Game 1, but then mulliganed to four in Game 2 and was unable to put together the winning pieces of his combo before Chang stabilized the board and wrecked house.

Simon Hale

Game 3 was a marathon affair, although anyone looking at Chang's opening hand would have easily predicted him the winner right from the start. Roland played a turn-one Mishra's Workshop and then cast Trinisphere with both Ancestral Recall and Balance in his hand. Hale was able to build his mana base and then Intuition at the end of Chang's turn for three fatties, including a Sliver Queen and Verdant Force.

Roland then made a poor judgment call, choosing to cast his Triskelion over playing a Tormod's Crypt and saying, "Go." Hale took advantage by casting Animate Dead to bring the Best Fattie Ever Printed to life. The Balance in Chang's hand made recovery simple at that point, as he pinged Hale twice with his Trike and used the last counter to ping itself before casting the two-mana reset button, getting rid of Hale's beastie and token.

From there Hale fought bravely, using Rack and Ruin to twice try to break out of Chang's vise-like grip on the game, but in the end Roland finished him off by making sure he had few mana sources – and using Seal of Cleansing to keep any large men from hitting play again while beating down with spirit tokens generated from Hale's Forbidden Orchards.

Finals - Roland Chang vs. Andy Probasco

On one side of the table sat Andy "Brassman" Probasco, a 21-year-old who hails from Tiverton, Rhode Island and who (when pressed) describes his occupation as "socialite." Across from him sat Roland Chang, a 22-year-old Sales Associate currently living in Oxford, Ohio. Roland is the most recent addition to Team Meandeck, affectionately described as their secret Asian tech. The two players discussed the possibility of splits before the match started, but no one could really figure out how to divide up a prize package that included the uber-cool original alternate art for Ancestral Recall, so they decided to let the spoils go to the winner. Chang is a quiet player who says very little while playing his matches, while Probasco has unnerved more than a couple opponents with his chatty ways and constant banter.

The winner's prize - a 12-inch-by-15-inch original painting of Ancestral Recall.
Both players started the match by dropping most of their hands on the table, hitting the early acceleration draws that the format is known for. Brassman cast a first-turn Duress, stealing Balance from Chang's hand. Tangle Wire from Chang let him Wasteland a Polluted Delta, but his Crucible of Worlds hit a Force of Will. The players played “Draw, Go" for a bit while the Wire was on the table before Chang hardcast a Sundering Titan, wrecking Probasco's mana base and putting him three turns from death. A second Tangle Wire from Chang and a lack of answers for Probasco finished it.

In Game 2, Chang played out an early Goblin Welder and a Smokestack, though Rack and Ruin ended the Stack's threat before it even began. Probasco attempted to cast Merchant Scroll to get his draw engine going, but Chang had the Red Elemental Blast to counter it while his little Welder began to beat down, one excruciating point at a time. Soon Chang had added a second Welder to the board, and while Probasco was flooding on lands, he was forced to watch his life slowly whittled away by the little tinkerers. While this was happening, Chang made a couple minor misplays including outright mistapping his mana, but Probasco could not capitalize, especially not when he was losing Mana Crypt coinflips left and right, turning the two a turn from the Welders into five a turn – a much more substantial clock.

Eventually Probasco cast Merchant Scroll and thought for a long time about what to get with it before finally settling on Gifts Ungiven, saying, "This whole thing is going to be decided by a coinflip." Chang attacked Probasco to four with only a single Welder, and then called "evens" on the die roll, pinging Probasco's life away with Barbarian Ring when the 12-sider turned up a six. And with that, Chang was crowned the 2005 Vintage Champion!

Chang's play was far from perfect throughout the elimination rounds as friends and teammates alike were happy to point out to him after each match, but his deck powered right through his mistakes and gave his opponents few openings for retaliatory strikes. Here's what the two finalists had to say about their decks and what this event meant to them after the festivities wrapped up.

Roland Chang, 2005 Vintage Champion

Roland Chang, your 2005 Vintage champion.

What did winning the event mean to you? What will you be doing with the picture?
Winning the event means a whole lot to me. Since playing Vintage Magic competitively three years ago, it has been my goal to win one of these huge events sooner or later, but I didn't think it would ever be the Vintage World Championships. I've made Top 8 and won a few smaller tournaments, but there's nothing like winning this. As for the artwork, I am going to keep it for a little while. I know there are plenty of collectors out there and I may end up selling it. Like one of my friends said, "Everyone has their price."

Would you make any changes to your decklist?
I would not make any changes to the maindeck, but as for sideboard, I may have to prepare additional support for future Stax hate.

What was the best thing you saw at the event?
The best thing I saw at the event was Zvi Mowshowitz. Simply because I had never really met a Magic professional, and discussing strategies with him prior to the tournament really made an impression on me.

Andy Probasco, 2005 Vintage Championship runner-up

Andy 'Brassman' Probasco.

Would you make any changes to your deck?
If the Championships were held again tomorrow? Probably not. Every metagame is different though, and I'll probably be playing a different sideboard and dropping the Pithing Needles when I'm back home in the Mana Drain-infested Northeast.

What was the best thing you saw at the event?
Ray Robillard has been running tournaments in Waterbury, Connecticut longer than we've had a sanctioned championship and took a hit on most of them before they started picking up popularity. He doesn't have a store, puts up his own power, and puts all of the money he gets back into the events. At the Championships, Ray loaned out his power to another friend of ours and it got misplaced. As soon as we found out it was missing, the entire Vintage community worked together to find it. A reward was put up and dealers were notified. When it looked like the cards were gone for good, a number of players finishing in the money offered to donate their prizes to Ray, and one dealer even offered him a free piece of power. Late into the last round of the Swiss, last year's Champion, Mark Biller, recovered the missing cards and got them to Ray. Seeing the Vintage community come together and help someone in need really reminded me why I love playing this game.

Final Notes

As stated earlier, the Vintage metagame at the Championship seemed rather vibrant, with six different distinct archetypes making the Top 8, including Psychatog, Oath of Druids, and Dragon Combo. You also had some innovation inside the Control Slaver archetype with Kurt Walli's Controlicore deck – a deck that used the basic CS build and then subbed in Masticores for beatdown and creature control.

Aside from the quick adoption of Pithing Needle, few new format innovations came out of Saviors of Kamigawa, but the Kamigawa block as a whole did have some impact on the format and Vintage players everywhere are very excited to see what Ravnica has in store for them. Will Legacy overtake its older brother as the format of choice for people with old cards, or does the thriving community mean Vintage will stay on top for good? Only time will tell.

Once again, congratulations to Roland Chang and all the participants in the 2005 Vintage Championship!

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