a small child's picture
By: a small child, Ralph Wiggum
Jul 16 2014 12:00pm
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Greetings everyone! It’s been quite a while since I’ve written about Magic, but recently I have been getting requests to do a series of articles about Vintage Masters draft in a similar style to what I did for Rise of the Eldrazi draft several years ago. Since then, few limited formats have really motivated me to write. I think Wizards has tended toward simplification (a philosophy described in Mark Rosewater’s New World Order article), which to me has led to a lot of very boring formats where the game has become more and more about creature combat and less about subtle synergy. Vintage Masters, like Modern Masters before it, deviates from this trend to a degree -- although not as much as I’d like. Regardless, I’m back by popular demand. In this article I will lay out the fundamentals of the format and list the archetypes that I will be covering in the next few articles. In each article I will cover one or more archetypes in depth.

I should also note that the purpose of this article series is first and foremost as a historical record. I think a new player can go back and read my articles on Rise of Eldrazi draft and be extremely well prepared for flashback drafts on MTGO. I’d like this series to fill a similar role for VMA. The secondary purpose, of course, is to help readers who are already experienced with the format gain more insight and improve their skills. 


Why should I care about what a small child has to say? 

If you don’t care about my credentials feel free to skip this part.

I am not a pro player. I play online pretty much exclusively, and I have been infinite based mostly on limited since version 1.0. Generally, my limited performance has dropped off in the past few years. While I used to hover in the mid 1800’s rating wise, I’m now usually in the upper 1700’s. Theros has not been kind to me. VMA, however, is a different story. As I write this, my limited rating is sitting above 1940. I’ve done a couple dozen VMA drafts in a mix of swiss and 8-4, and in that time I have only failed to put up a 2-1 or better finish twice. Hopefully that gives me at least a little bit of credibility!


Some basics about how I think about limited 

One of the major points of my first article series on Rise of the Eldrazi draft was that I look at limited in a bit of a different way than many, and I advocated a different strategy for learning how to draft than the BREAD concept that I still see used quite a bit today. I think BREAD is actively bad and leads to bad habits in limited. In my Rise series I introduced the importance of archetypes and the idea of “forks” and “cornerstones”. Archetype focused drafting has become more popular since Rise. Basically the key concept here is that you need to draft a deck that works well towards a common purpose rather than simply a pile of good cards. The idea of a static pick order is anathema to archetype focused drafting; to be successful you must be dynamic and able to look at the big picture of your entire deck and not just the pick immediately in front of you. Additionally, I found it useful to categorize cards into two groups: “forks” and “cornerstones.” You can read about the concept in more depth here, but the basic gist is this: forks are versatile cards that are desired in multiple different archetypes whereas cornerstones are cards that are much narrower in application. Note that forks and cornerstones can both be powerful. To illustrate this concept, consider the following cards from Rise of the Eldrazi:


Staggershock  Flame Slash


These cards are clear forks -- any deck playing red will play these effects maindeck, and some non-red decks might even splash them.


Shared Discovery Raid Bombardment


These cards are great examples of cornerstones. Both are extremely powerful but they only work under very specific circumstances.


Now let’s apply the concept to VMA:


Fact or Fiction  Chain Lightning


Both of these cards are clearly forks. Most blue decks will be happy to run Fact or Fiction ((although not all will take it highly)), and every red deck will play Chain Lightning.


Gustcloak Harrier Goblin General


These cards are a bit narrower. Only white based aggro decks will really want the harrier even though it’s a solid card. Goblin General is an even more extreme example as you really need a strong goblin theme in a heavy red deck to make him work -- but when he does work, boy is he good.


In my initial article series I advocated a strategy of focusing on taking forks early and then using the availability of cornerstone cards in mid to late pack 1 to guide your archetype decision. This approach allows you to maintain flexibility while reducing the chances that you will waste your early picks.


With VMA, I think I may need to update this strategy a bit. I have noticed that in VMA there is a subset of cornerstone cards that are very powerful and in fact completely necessary for their archetype to work properly. If you look at our above examples of cornerstones, none of them really fit into this category. A white aggro deck can be fine without Gustcloak Harrier. Similarly, while pretty much every goblin deck wants Goblin General they can also get by without him. Among the Rise cards there was never really an archetype that needed Shared Discovery. Raid Bombardment is the closest thing mentioned so far to the kind of card that I am talking about, as you can’t really draft a Raid Bombardment deck without the card. That said, you could easily draft a GR or BR tokens archetype and be fine without Raid Bombardment.


Consider the following cards:


Lightning Rift Astral Slide

Brain Freeze Tendrils of Agony


These cards share a couple of defining characteristics. In particular, they are all uncommon and they are all relatively necessary for their archetypes to function. If you don’t have either Astral Slide or especially Lightning Rift, your cycling deck isn’t going to do much. Similarly, storm is pretty dead in the water without Brain Freeze or Tendrils of Agony. However, because of their rarity you can’t really count on seeing them multiple times in a draft. If you open one, you are put in quite a pickle. People like to draft the cycling deck and they like to draft storm, so if you pass these cards they are unlikely to wheel. Storm in particular can’t really support two drafters at a table, so if someone else takes your Brain Freeze you really shouldn’t be drafting storm if you can avoid it. On the other hand, if you take these cards early and force you may be digging yourself into a hole if the archetype doesn’t happen to be open or if something else ends up being even more open.


So what do you do? I think that when confronted with one of these cards early on you have to make a choice based on personal preference. If you really like drafting a given archetype and it has one of these “archetype defining cornerstones”, then feel free to take it early and move in. I like to draft the cycling deck a lot, so I’m fairly likely to take an early Lightning Rift. The same goes for a card like Living Death or Recurring Nightmare. Both of those cards enable an archetype that otherwise doesn’t really work. I hate drafting storm though so you will basically never see me take a Brain Freeze pick 1 pack 1.


The later in pack 1 you get, seeing one of these archetype defining cornerstones is a very strong sign that the given archetype is open. If you see a Lightning Rift or Brain Freeze pick 7, then you can probably safely move in.


So in summary, the fundamental strategy that I am advocating in VMA works something like this:


1. In the early picks of pack 1, try to take fork cards unless there is an important cornerstone to one of your preferred archetypes.


2. In mid to late pack 1, try to settle into an archetype that is open that will still allow you to play your early picks if possible. Sometimes you may need to abandon those early picks, but that’s OK. You can evaluate what is open by looking for cornerstone cards going later than they should.


3. If you took an archetype defining cornerstone early and the archetype is not open, you should be hedging or jumping into something else in mid to late pack 1.


General Characteristics of VMA as a Format 

With that strategy in mind, let's look at the general properties that VMA has as a format. First off, I’d like to suggest that you read Matthew Watkins' excellent overview. I agree with basically everything in that article. Some of the important things to note are that the format is very fast and that it’s quite difficult to draft an unfair deck that is consistently faster than the aggro decks. Despite the presence of power, this is definitely not cube. While five and six drops are fine in small quantities in most limited formats, the bar is set quite a bit higher in VMA. Unless you build your deck to do so you can’t really count on hitting six in every game, so keep that in mind while you draft.


I’d also like to highlight a number of other dynamics that are present in this set that make it quite different from both recent formats and “classic” draft formats: the role of creatures, the role of removal, and the role of card advantage.


In most recent limited formats, the role of creatures has been restricted mostly to attacking and blocking. While creatures do sometimes come with other effects, those effects typically carry an activation cost and the creatures are often in the higher rarities. For every Shipwreck Singer there are many Wingsteed Riders, Nessian Asps, and Minotaur Skullcleavers. This is much less true in Vintage Masters, where creatures often have effects beyond their ability to be effective in combat, and these abilities often come with little to no mana cost. Benevolent Bodyguard is a great example - sure he gets in for a few points every now and then, but his main role is to protect one of your creatures and he can do this at any time, even if you are tapped out. Wild Mongrel’s pump ability is important in combat, but it is even more important as an outlet for your madness spells and occasionally as a way to dodge removal like Expunge or Exile. Few people play Goblin Matron for her 1/1 body. That said, the creatures of VMA are a far cry from draft blocks of yore which were often dominated by common utility creatures. Sparksmith, Timberwatch Elf, Silvergill Douser, Kabuto Moth, and Spikeshot Goblin are all great examples of creatures that were among the best and most common factors in their respective formats. The only real example of a card like this in VMA is Waterfront Bouncer, which is uncommon. Overall, you need to pay attention to utility creatures much more than you do in current limited formats but you also can’t really expect to dominate the board with utility in the way that you often could in some older formats.

Another factor that one needs to pay attention to are the dynamics of creature size and evasion in this set. Evasion comes in multiple flavors, but flying and shadow are most prominent. Only white and black have consistent access to shadow, so in many matchups shadow is nearly unblockable. White also has a pretty strong monopoly on fliers. You can find them in black and blue as well, but not nearly as many. Flying is especially strong as there is very little reach in the format. Giant Mantis is a thing, but it’s not a very good thing. As I alluded to earlier, when you start paying more than three mana for a card it needs to have a high impact, and a 2/4 reach is not a high impact especially against cards like Gustcloak Harrier and Battle Screech.

For the most part, creatures in VMA are small. There are a few exceptions to this in cards like Arrogant Wurm and Kezzerdrix. There are also a number of token producers at common and uncommon. Battle Screech and Beetleback Chief are the two you will see most often, but you also need to pay attention to cards like Deranged Hermit, Grizzly Fate, Dreampod Druid, Aether Mutation and Goblin Trenches. All can put a swarm into play very quickly. If you aren’t prepared to deal with this dynamic, you are going to lose a lot of games.

The theme of small creatures and tokens has even more profound implications when considered alongside the available removal in the format. Removal in VMA is generally pretty bad. Almost all of it is 1-for-1 removal and often a tempo loss. Expunging a five drop is nice, but there just aren’t that many five drops to Expunge. White has access to the excellent Exile at common, but almost all white decks are aggressive and thus can’t make nearly as good use of the effect as you might expect. The only truly cheap, efficient, common removal in the format belongs to red which has access to Chain Lightning, Kindle and the surprisingly decent Spark Spray. However, none of these spells are very good against larger creatures. Sacrifice effects are pretty awful in most matchups. (Chainer’s Edict) can be good, but often times it’s only going to get you a token, Goblin Matron, or some other low value creature. Predatory Nightstalker would be great if it didn’t cost five mana, which means it comes down after Battle Screech and Beetleback Chief, both of which make it look pretty silly. Bounce is also fairly limited. There is no cheap bounce spell, with Rescind clocking in at three mana. (Man o’ War) is solid as a proactive tempo play but not nearly as great as a reactive card. Repel is really bad in some situations and a huge blowout in others.

You are probably starting to notice a common theme here: the removal is very conditional. Just about every removal spell outside of Swords to Plowshares at uncommon is really bad in certain situations. This dynamic makes it very difficult to draft a reactive deck. Attrition and control strategies are very difficult to succeed with because the tools for managing the board are much less consistent than the threats are.

One final factor to consider about the removal suite is that there are very few sweepers. Famine is an uncommon and costs five mana. It also damages players, which makes it a bit less helpful against aggro decks. Claws of Wirewood is noteworthy as it deals well with Battle Screech, but it won’t help you against a goblin swarm. At rare there are a few more options such as (Nevinyrral’s Disk) (which is slow), Winds of Rath (white is an aggressive color), Living Death, and Magister of Worth. The latter two are especially powerful, but as they are rare they don’t come up that often. The general dearth of mass removal means that swarm based strategies are even harder to stop than they would otherwise be.

That brings us to the question of card advantage. There are some very, very powerful tools in this set for generating card advantage. The most obvious are blue, with Fact or Fiction and Gush at uncommon and Deep Analysis at common. One might expect cards like this to provide the backbone of a solid blue based control strategy, but unfortunately this is not the case. The problem is that aggressive decks have just as many ways to generate card advantage in this format as reactive decks do. White and red decks have no problem generating loads of tokens, and goblin decks can also get there with Goblin Matron, Goblin Ringleader and even the lowly Skirk Drill Sergeant in a pinch. Madness decks generally have access to the same card draw but can also abuse Frantic Search. The only common aggro deck that has real problems generating card advantage is black based aggro, and even that has Hymn to Tourach at uncommon. The end result is that it’s very difficult for a control or attrition deck to keep up on tempo and control the board while also getting ahead on cards.

If you consider all of these factors together you are probably getting an idea for what VMA is like as a format -- a fast, aggressive format where most decks want to be on the attack and where swarms of small creatures tend to trump removal. Decks tend to be fair, although it is possible to draft an unfair deck. For a controlling strategy to be effective it has to be very interactive.


Shortly I’ll be continuing this series by going in depth into each of the major archetypes and exploring strategy, matchups, card selection, strengths/weaknesses, and subtypes. The archetypes that I will be writing about include, in no particular order:

White Based Aggro

Red Based Aggro

Black Based Aggro

U/G Madness


Combo (Storm, Tog, Worldgorger, ChannelTorch, etc.)


Gimmicks (RecSur, Reanimator, Ramp, etc.)

If you can think of any other archetypes that aren’t listed here that you’d like covered, please leave a comment!


Glad to see you're picking up by BennyDJazz at Tue, 07/22/2014 - 11:15
BennyDJazz's picture

Glad to see you're picking up again with this type of article series. Your RoE series remains one of the most insightful looks at limited Magic.

On the topic of archetypes, what do you think about Blue Based Tempo as a separate archetype from U/G Madness? This deck would seem to prioritize big hitters (Sea Drake, Serendib Efreet, and anything in the paired color) and bounce/tap (Man-o-War, Repel, Choking Tethers) as opposed to Madness outlets.

Thanks! I don't think that by a small child at Wed, 07/23/2014 - 14:46
a small child's picture


I don't think that Blue Based Tempo is a thing. That isn't to say that there aren't Blue tempo decks, but that these decks tend to use Blue as the support color rather than the base color. I will be covering W/u, B/u, and R/u variations under the relevant articles.

The main reason why there is no real Blue Based Tempo deck is that the Blue creature base doesn't support it. Blue has no real two drop outside of Aquamoeba, which isn't really where you want to be in an aggressive, non-madness strategy. Sea Drake, Serendib Efreet, and Skywing Aven are all fine beaters but your curve can't start at three and you can't rely on the first two as they are uncommon.

That said, you'll be seeing plenty of love for the tempo crew (Man o' War, Repel, and Choking Tethers) in the other articles!