Playing Strategically - Wheat vs Chaff

Hi all! So had this chat with some friends recently and wanted the high level take on it. It’s sort of a big, potentially contentious thing but I Think it is ultimately a strategy question, and one that has probably appeared before. But, given metagame shifts and the current vintage playing field:

What marks a “strong” player of a particular deck in vintage vs a “weaker” player beyond the vagaries of varience? Given the exact same list what is the difference between say - a strong shops player vs a weaker or less experienced shops player, and the same for Dredge, Jeskai, Oath etc.

Mind you, we’re not saying weaker meaning people who have no clue what they are doing, miss their big triggers etc, but rather people who may being playing Okay but who are not tuned to whatever nuance or elegance separates excellent play from merely adequate in piloting a particular deck.

Then, a question follows, are there particular plays in particular decks or matchups that you believe demonstrate a Vintage “maturity” and are a tip off that someone is evincing particularly excellent gameplay?

Finally, when are there times that an excellent player with even a marginal or fringe deck (Red Hatebears, Merfolk, Belcher, et al) by dint of sheer gameplay, has the most opportunity to win against a low to moderately skilled player with a top tier deck?

Two things jump to mind:

  • Great players can correctly tune a deck to a given meta. I’d recommend listening to Andy Markiton’s post-Champs interview with SMIP as an example of this; he gets into some interesting discussion of how he arrived at his 75.
  • In-game, they don’t really make mistakes. It’s not about brilliant, unseen lines of play so much as always correctly (and quickly!) evaluating their options and the consequences of each game action.

I would say, from a broad perspective, that proper role acknowledgement throughout the course of a game and sequencing are the two biggest factors that differentiate players in the W&L columns.

@bandswithothers said in Playing Strategically - Wheat vs Chaff:

Then, a question follows, are there particular plays in particular decks or matchups that you believe demonstrate a Vintage “maturity” and are a tip off that someone is evincing particularly excellent gameplay?

obviously i will mostly be talking dredge in my examples here

so the basic level of dredge play is simple enough to describe. mull/powder to bazaar, don't miss triggers, activate bazaar on upkeep in response to ichorid to find (more) black creatures to exile it. sacrifice your bloodghasts before playing a new land, attack with your creatures before sacrificing them unless the sacrifice involves a combat-relevant dread return. basic use of cabal therapy. for the most part this can be considered mechanical play.

the level of play past this involves knowing when to break those rules. when to keep a non-bazaar hand, or mulligan a hand instead of powdering it. when to not activate bazaar on upkeep, or to skip dredging for draw step, because you only lose if your opponent has ravenous trap. sacrificing some of your creatures to get zombies before attacking with the others which will give your opponent the opportunity to break bridges. advanced use of cabal therapy.

the third level of play is when you do the basic line anyway after considering the alternatives

so in dredge, here's a simple example of the different things a player might consider, and do accordingly: your opponent is at 18, tapped out, 4 cards in hand, no blockers. after bazaaring, you have a bloodghast in play, another in the graveyard, as well as 2 bridges, a therapy, a dread return, and a flame-kin zealot, with a land in your hand, land drop remaining. the mechanical play is simple: flashback therapy naming force of will off the ghast, play the land, sac the 2 ghasts and a zombie to dread return FKZ and attack for 18.
now, the level above that: it's possible their hand contains misstep+force+blue card, in which case attacking with the ghast precombat nets you damage for the same resultant board(5 zombies). if you have a strong enough read on your opponent having those cards in hand you might attack for 2, then cast therapy, play land, cast dread return.
past that, you might realize that your opponent doesn't have a reason to force a post combat dread return the way they would a pre-combat one(this is often the case when it's just putting power and toughness on the board and not, say, iona). as a result even if you think they have the misstep+force+blue card you decide that the 2 cards in their hand are worth more than the 2 damage and go for it precombat like anyone playing dredge for his second tournament ever would.

I'd taxonomize levels of Vintage mastery into three levels:

Competent: You understand how your deck works, its strategic objectives, and that of your most common matchups. You make few tactical errors and can recognize and capitalize on those of your opponent.

Skilled: Beyond mastery of your deck's basic tactics, you can draw inferences about your opponent's likely hand, deck, and sideboard from the flow of play, and play around the most likely threats and to your outs. Your experience with the metagame and specific matchups is deep enough that you comfortable with the deepest aspects of Vintage play: sideboard construction, sideboarding strategy, mulligan decisions, and (as per wfain) proper sequencing.

Master: You can "read" individual opponents, and adjust to their style and psychology of play.

It's important to stress that Vintage players are, for the most part, excellent players of the game, despite the complexity of the format. The average Vintage player would probably be considered "very strong" by the standards of the broader Magic community: patzers don't invest the time and money to play Vintage.

It's hard for me to pinpoint specific plays that identify a Vintage master, but I know I'm facing an excellent player when they play as if they could see my hand: countering the right threats, naming the right Therapy targets, etc. It's easier to spot negative evidence of mastery: tapping the wrong lands, mistiming spells, poor threat assessment, dubious sideboard decisions, etc.

I find that mastery is not always about winning but looking for improvement in every game. Sometimes it is experimentation and sometimes is it mentoring players no matter who they are.

I played a lot in the lead up to SCG Con and I lost some games because I showed my opponents how to beat me, I wanted them to play their best game and I needed to see how to counter it. I out played some high level people and still lost, but I still had fun. I also just won some games because in Vintage your deck will just crush people.

When playing at a level where everyone you play against is a master it is easy to see your flaws. That is where you truly need to notice your weaknesses - engagement, timing, sequencing, strategy, etc...

To me a true master, is someone who knows their deck and their own limitations. We all have limitations and it important to know them and so that you can expand your game and your range.

I mostly play Vintage but sometimes I play Legacy and Modern. I typically play at a high level but those formats do not keep me very engaged and I tend lose my motivation after a bit in large events.

I find that I am playing at my highest level when I am having fun. When I am playing only to win at any cost and I am not having fun then I am not a player that anyone wants to play against. It is important to have more purpose than just winning, I find that is not just good for playing Magic but generally good in life.

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