The Finest Vintage: Sultai Midrange

OdinFK

Commonly considered to be all about assembling the most unfair sequences imaginable, there's more to Vintage than a flurry of Moxen, Bazaars, and Workshops. One peculiarly fair deck manages to hold its own. The fairest deck in all of Vintage? Here's how to win with midrange creatures and planeswalkers!


deathrite shaman - black lotus

After discussing a combo deck and two decks, Dredge and Shops, that abuse the freedoms of Vintage in their own unique ways, I wanted to present a deck that more closely resembles normal Magic. I decided to go for Sultai Midrange here in spite of some data I have seen that made Sultai out to be the worst-performing of the major Vintage archetypes. However, sample sizes are small in Vintage, making this a data point to be taken into account but nothing to be too concerned about.

Indeed, when I checked the results of a very recent tournament, Sultai was suddenly near the top. Is this the result of pure variance or a shift in the metagame? To be honest I don't know, but I am confident that Sultai is viable in Vintage, even if it may not be my first choice for trying to win a high-stakes tournament.

The Starting Point


Of all the lists I reviewed this one looked well rounded so I chose it as my starting point.

Deck Deconstruction

Deathrite Shaman quickly proved to be too good for Modern, and eventually it was banned from Legacy as well. But can it hold its own as the backbone of a Vintage deck? I think the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Deathrite Shaman rarely feels busted yet every starting hand is a lot better with it. Don't expect Deathrite Shaman to win many games on its own; a single Shaman cannot rein in Dredge for example. However, and I bet you know the feeling if you ever got to play with it, it helps so much with everything at such little cost.

Despite how good Deathrite Shaman is here, I believe this is not the deck where Deathrite Shaman unlocks its full potential. The card has shown convincingly in Legacy that it enables four-color decks and some people have gone down this route in Vintage as well. In the long run these decks might turn out to be the superior choice if you want to play a midrange deck. Red gives you access to Pyroblast, which plugs up a few patchy spots in your defense, and Wrenn and Six combines very well with the Wastelands you are running anyway. I didn't try this, however, as I wanted to play Sultai and also because building four-color decks is not that easy. With Sultai you balance a few good cards around the cards that you would always play no matter what, and that is that, but with four colors you suddenly have way more good options and then you need to decide where you want to take the deck.


deathrite shaman tarmogoyf

Tarmogoyf is in a bit of an awkward spot in Vintage considering that it is essentially a vanilla creature. All other creatures seen in regular Vintage decks either provide some kind of advantage like Dreadhorde Arcanist or they disrupt the opponent like Archon of Emeria. And indeed Tarmogoyf sometimes falls short, especially in the combo matchups, but being big means something even in Vintage. With Tarmogoyf you will not lose to Dredge's Hollow One when you have Grafdigger's Cage. You will not lose to some random dorks from your Shops opponent after you've cleaned up their important threats. Even against Doomsday, where Goyf doesn't even get to be that big, having a Goyf often means that they have to win the turn they cast Doomsday instead of being able to draw into their pile via their next draw step. All things considered I'd rather have access to Tarmogoyf a little more often than what two copies provide, but I'm not sure you can justify playing three. Maybe a metagame with more Shops would warrant that.

Leovold, Emissary of Trest is one of the cards that draws people to Sultai. Leovold can be extremely annoying to play against, shutting down card draw and punishing Wastelands for example. However, Leovold is not as strong here as it is in Legacy. Neither creature removal nor discard sees much play in Vintage and most decks play less card draw than the average Legacy deck, where every blue decklist starts with four Ponder and four Brainstorm. That said, Leovold is still a decent card. If you expect mostly blue decks and maybe dredgeless Bazaar decks, then Leovold is a very good choice. On the other hand, if you expect a metagame very heavy on dredge and Shops decks, I suspect you can cut one or even both copies.


leovold collector ouphe

Collector Ouphe is another card that can be extremely punishing, maybe even more so than Leovold. Having the Ouphe is usually lights out for Outcome decks. For Breach and Shops decks, especially Golos, it is quite annoying, too. Against Doomsday the matter is more interesting. Their standard pile includes Black Lotus but they can easily build a winning pile without Lotus. If you don't absolutely need the damage output from the Ouphe, the best strategy might be to hold it back until after they cast Doomsday. This can greatly reduce their options if they indeed build a pile with Black Lotus. However, I don't think it is such a great main-deck card. Ouphe annoys you too, and in the matchups where you like Ouphe you will rarely have the time to tutor it up, diminishing its value a bit further because you don't get a virtual extra copy via Demonic Tutor.

Oko, Thief of Crowns is similar to Deathrite Shaman in that he has shown to be out of line in every other format. Though it is not obvious that the card is great in Vintage as well. It turns out Oko is a bit of role player. As planeswalkers are wont to do, the card becomes great when not much is going on otherwise, but the real reason to have Oko is how the card dominates other creature decks. Oko is backbreaking when your opponent has few yet important creatures—either because you are playing a matchup like the mirror or Xerox, or because you have taken care of most threats, which would happen against Shops decks. Finally you will occasionally encounter a White Weenie-style deck, and these matchups you can barely win without Oko.


oko narset

Narset, Parter of Veils seems to be considered a must-include in blue Vintage decks, but she's not at her strongest here. You can defend Narset, which is good, but the card is at its best in matchups where you don't expect her to be attacked anyway. The problem is that the things you are going to find are usually not going to be very special. There is also this weird dynamic where Narset would be extremely strong against the various types of Xerox-style decks, but most of them run several Pyroblasts main and playing Narset into an open Volcanic Island often burns you badly. Nonetheless the combination of card selection and advantage with a seriously annoying ability should be good enough to make you want her.

On the counter front we have basically four Force of Will plus a copy of everything else thats viable. This generally worked for me; however, I was always slightly unhappy with my options against Doomsday. You can of course put a second Flusterstorm into the sideboard, but this often doesn't help against an early Doomsday. In the last league I played I added a single Spell Snare to the deck. Snare can counter Thassa's Oracle and thus gives you an option to fight them in another window than Flusterstorm, which is only really good against Doomsday itself. Of course I wouldn't have considered the card if that was all it did, but it nicely covers a few other bases against which your interaction falls off like Underworld Breach or Wrenn and Six or Oath of Druids. And the card is perfectly serviceable in other matchups too. For example, another good answer to Sphere of Resistance is welcome. Against the white decks you get another good piece of interaction, and this matchup—although not that common—can use some help. The card is really only useless against Bazaar decks, but this goes for many interactive cards, and at least you can pitch Snare to Force of Will. As I said the idea occurred to me very recently, so there is not much practice to back it up, but the addition should be sound in theory at least.


spell snare asassin's trophy

The remaining interactive cards are three Assassin's Trophy. At first I was rather unhappy with the card. Removing something from play that potentially has already done damage, paying two mana for it, and often giving them a land feels terrible. Even the flexibility of the card can be overstated, like, "It's great that you can destroy Bazaar of Baghdad against Dredge." Frankly what will that accomplish? It will not be good enough most of the time, even when Deathrite Shaman is involved. At some point I cut the number of Trophies down to one, but I quickly realized that I needed another board impact spell, and then I was seeking for something that covered all that needed to be covered. I couldn't find anything until it hit me that I had cut the only card that does what needs to be done.

Some people use Abrupt Decay in this spot, but I believe it is quite a bit worse. The part with destroying big things comes up, but being able to destroy lands is the real reason why I want Assassin's Trophy. It can be useful postboard against Dredge when you have additional means to defend yourself. Against Golos, when they start on Workshop and follow that up with a one-mana land, you know that destroying their Workshop will create a huge setback for them. Even against blue decks the flexibility is welcome. Some don't run any basic Island and a mana-light draw is easily punished, some fetch for their Island and Trophy takes care of that while a Wasteland takes out their other land, et cetera. I suppose Decay shines when you expect a lot of Oath.

Then there are your usual blue stars of the Reserved List plus a few Preordain. I never questioned the number of Preordains, but the deck felt smooth and the other cards are all auto-includes so there is not much to do. Sylvan Library is generally a decent card, but it shines in particular when you want to play a longer game against an opponent whose hand you suspect is full of Pyroblasts. In that case even Demonic Tutor for Sylvan Library is a very strong play.


sylvan library grafdigger's cage

That leaves the deck with one flex slot. I kept the Grafdigger's Cage. It makes you win once in a blue moon against Dredge and is also strong against Oath, Breach, and Xerox decks, thus covering a big part of the metagame. If you expect a lot of Shops decks, I would recommend moving a Force of Vigor from the sideboard to the main deck instead.

The final change I made to the original main deck was adding a fourth Wasteland. About half the people only seem to run three, but Wasteland is such a key card against Shops and Dredge and the cost of including number four is so low that frankly I don't understand how that is a thing.

The Sideboard


force of vigor

Against Shops I want four Force of Vigor. People play Energy Flux before they have maxed out on Force, but I think this is a mistake. The games you lose are more often than not those where you never get going. Force is your insurance against getting locked out. Unlike with Force of Will for example, you also don't mind drawing multiple Force of Vigor. Actually the first Force of Vigor often buys enough time that you can hardcast the second, and from there it only gets worse for them, not least because your Mystic Sanctuary will soon make another Force available. Energy Flux is devastating most of the time, but there is no guarantee that you can ever deploy it.

Against Dredge I like a mix of everything. A few Grafdigger's Cages but not so many that it would make sense for them to bring in Force of Vigor. A single Surgical Extraction just to have access to it, although I generally prefer Ravenous Trap. Trap is good because it gives you a very reliable plan even on the draw: they discard three cards, you exile those and waste their Bazaar. This gives you ample time to formulate an actual long-term plan, usually revolving around Deathrite Shaman. The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale works better in a plan revolving around Surgical Extraction because you can then take their Ichorid, and afterward you are safe until they find a Wasteland. I still think you want at least one Tabernacle because Hollow One is so annoying. I actually went for two, but given that I don't go all-in on Extraction, it might sensible to cut one for another Trap.

Now we have room left for two more cards. Mindbreak Trap is a standard option, but I hate that card with a passion. It does nothing; every intelligent opponent plays around it. Instead I went for a second Flusterstorm, providing a strong sideboard option against Doomsday and Outcome decks. The Bloodchief's Thirst naturally comes in against everything with creatures. It got the nod over Fatal Push because it can remove Wrenn and Six. If you don't expect as many of these but for some reason a larger amount of white creature decks, then I'd advise to go back to Fatal Push because you want to be able to kill Archon of Emeria efficiently.

My (Not That Different) End Result


Matchups and Sideboarding

Dredge

You play Wastelands and Deathrite Shamans, thus you can always win against Dredge even preboard. Doing it on the draw is a big ask, though. Aside from "mising" your one-of Cage, the best you can do is waste their Bazaar right away and hope that their first two dredges—until you have Shaman active—don't do anything stupid. Naturally this only works if you are lucky enough to have both cards. Postboard it is the usual question of how many hate pieces you want to dedicate to the matchup. With the hate I have in the board the matchup felt about even, which is fine considering that Dredge might be the most powerful deck in the format right now. If at some point Dredge players decide that they don't need Contagion/Sickening Shoal in their sideboard, I'd suggest switching a few hate pieces for Yixlid Jailer. This will certainly improve the matchup, but the people who have creature removal will bring it against you anyway, so it doesn't make sense to play into that.


Shops

The matchup against Golos Stax is very relaxed. Their mana denial plan is bad against Deathrite Shaman, in fact with your Wastelands it is often them who die under their own Spheres while you are only slowed down a bit. Ravager Shops is much harder. Tarmogoyf is the only card that reliably stops their creatures. Sometimes, when your draw lines up well, you might also counter an early Foundry Inspector and get Oko going before everything becomes hopeless. With the help of Force of Vigor these things work a lot better postboard. Overall the matchup should be fairly good but not as easy as Golos.


Note: Cutting the Gush might be controversial. If you think that only makes for a marginal improvement, then consider cutting one anti-Shops card from the sideboard and replace it with a card against Dredge.

Blue Creature Decks

These are the matchups where Oko really shines. If you can stick him, you will usually win as these decks rarely have multiple creatures and Oko effortlessly dominates any single one. What you take out depends a little on the actual deck. Against Temur and the mirror you obviously want to cut the Grafdigger's Cage, but against Jeskai Xerox you want to keep it because it shuts off their Dreadhorde Arcanist.


Sideboarding
bring intake out

Doomsday

Doomsday is one of the harder matchups, and there is not a whole lot you can do about it. Bringing the Flusterstorm is a no-brainer and we also want to bring the Collector Ouphes, although they mostly don't annoy them all that much.


Sideboarding
bring intake out

Other Combo Decks

In most cases it's obvious if you want the Cage. The only real question is whether or not you want the second one against Breach. I hate drawing two and thus don't bring the second; you don't have other great cuts anyway, but I can see how somebody else might value the Cage more. In that case I'd cut an Oko as the card is often very hard to use effectively against all their Pyroblasts. Against Paradoxical Outcome you probably want to bring a Force of Vigor or two. Their draws are often much less impressive if they cannot rely on Mox Opal and you can also Force in response to Outcome, often resulting in seriously unimpressive outcomes. To make room besides cutting Trophies, Cage, and an Oko, I'd cut the Daze; if you don't have Ouphe, they usually have so much mana that they can always pay one extra.



Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.



4 Comments

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OdinFK
OdinFK(18.03.2021 10:24)

Thanks, I appreciate it :)

turbo15(16.03.2021 20:04)

Nice article, enjoyed reading it.

TimeLord(16.03.2021 17:57)

Some people buy a car, some people buy cards to play vintage;=)

Nice article.

OdinFK
OdinFK(18.03.2021 10:26)

TimeLord As absurd as it is, I think we are getting close to the point where it is more like "some people buy an appartment, some people buy cards to play vintage"...

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