here's four from me:
52 "Control Slaver Emerges" - Tog vs Slaver
My very first Vintage tournaments were just before and just after Onslaught, in a local metagame that was insulated enough to not be overwhelmed by top-tier netdecks, until Eric Dupuis showed up to our store during the last days of GAT and showed us how deep the Vintage rabbit hole could go. I attended the first Vintage Champs which was won by Psychatog/"Hulk Smash", and I don't feel like I really ever got to know a deck before that one. Hulk Smash was pure distilled blue deck, with 2-3 Psychatog and the rest entirely mana, counters, draw spells.
Psychatog-based lists were popular for a while but mostly dropped off the map as blue players migrated to Control Slaver, mostly on the strength of tournament wins and articles written by Rich Shay. I'm a big fan of Control Slaver, but I still felt most powerful behind the wheel of a Tog deck. People at large were afraid of a Mindslaver'd Psychatog discarding your hand, but that was a fundemental misunderstanding of the matchup. You died when you got Mindslaver'd no matter what, so you were better off building a deck that could contain your opponent and stop them from ever doing it, and nothing contained another player like Tog. As Goblin Welder ate more of the metagame, my Tog deck got better and better as people cut their draw spells for Lava Darts and Tormod's Crypts. Tog taught me how to play a control deck, taught me how to form my own metagame opinions, and won me my first power tournaments. I played a lot of different decks during that era, but Tog was my favorite ... until Champions of Kamigawa ushered us into an era we'll talk about later ...
71 "End of the 2nd Gush Era" - Flash vs Gushbond
What a rush. Gifts Ungiven was restricted in the same announcement as Gush's unrestriction, but the Gifts deck never would have survived. Gushbond decks came out of the gate stronger than they were the first time, and players hopped from Quirion Dryads to Tarmogoyfs to Oath of Druids to Painter's Servants as the metagame approached a fever pitch. The games got shorter and shorter, but instead of eliminating decisions like Trinisphere did, the Gush-Flash dynamic was a singularity, compressing more and more complex decisions into the same turn. It was a pressure cooker that forced rapid and dramatic evolution. People began to use their 75 cards as an entirely new sort of resource. Rich Shay boarded in 8 Leylines against Flash decks; I ran Encroach, but only in postboad games on the play, to punish the streamlined strategies that were effective against me on the draw; And Manaless Dredge, of course, broke every rule of magic we had learned up to that point.
Era #71 is the culmination of this format, right before the biggest restriction upset I've lived through as a player. I picked this as my favorite because it marks the tragically short life of MS Paint, the Gush/Painter deck I played to win the very last SCG Power 9 Series event ever held. I have never built another Vintage deck where I felt so far ahead of the curve, and so overqualified to handle a field. In the top 8 of that tournament I beat a Dredge player in two games by Pyroblasting their Bazaars, I beat a control mirror after I mulliganed to three, and in the finals my opponent had turn one Orchard-Oath-Force-backup on the play, so I killed them through their counter before they got a second turn.
But a better example of the times might be an event from #68, the 2007 TMD Open/Waterbury finals between Rich Shay on Gush and Justin Timoney on Flash, when people were just starting to get an idea of how different things were going to be. The finals match took all of fifteen minutes, and for some people that was a dealbreaker, but I watched the match in person and I was completely spellbound. Justin and Rich sat down and shuffled up. Justin is a chatty, playful trash-talker most of the time, and on this day very possibly had some chemical help. He's smart player who can always find the complex lines, but sometimes plays so fast and loose that he misses them. Rich is talkative but very disciplined. He's friendly and polite but a stickler when it comes to precisely applying layers and stacking triggers. They're both fun to watch play and I'm looking forward to settling in to see their dynamic. Both players know each other well and exchange pleasantries. Both players keep conservative hands, Rich opens with land-Brainstorm-go and Justin does the same. Everyone's waiting to see how the match is going to play out, each player surrounded by excited teammates. Justin's second turn takes about 3 seconds "draw, land, pass". Rich cracks his fetch on end of the end of Justin's turn and ...
That's it. The game's over. Justin plays Flash in response, both players have a flurry of countermagic but Rich is one Mana Drain short of winning the fight, one Mana Drain he can't cast with a fetch trigger on the stack. While we were waiting for the game to start, several critical plays had already been made and the outcome was locked in place. This was not a miscalculation for Rich. Rich was among the best Vintage players in the world. This was a quarter-second lapse in judgement that Rich made and Justin didn't. The game was different now, we were playing for keeps.
54 "The End of Type 1" - Slaver vs Gifts
The first time I played Gifts Ungiven in a tournament, my opponent said "Oh cute! That's the bad Fact or Fiction people talked about on TMD, right?"
They read the card and quickly picked which two I got to keep. I reached for the pile and they said "oh wait no, if I give you those you can combo". I smiled as they picked another two and then took it back, and it slowly dawned on them that they had already lost. This exact interaction happened every match that day. The second time I played Gifts Ungiven in a tournament, they knew better. The early days of Gifts were thrilling to me. There were a thousand ways to build the deck: Charbelchers, Slavers, Welders, Damping Matrices, Tinkers, Tendrils, Merchant Scrolls. In a few months other players started catching up and creating their own variants. Smmenen and I wrote point-counterpoint articles about the critical differences between Brass Man Gifts and Meandeck Gifts. I played the same archetype for years but it never felt like the same list twice.
65 "Manaless Dredge Arrives" - The Gifts Mirror
If Psychatog was my first love, and Gush was a passionate unhealthy college fling, Gifts Ungiven is "The One"
My favorite era to play Vintage was really this huge stretch of time, starting with the printing of Gifts Ungiven, rising in a slow boil until Gifts was restricted (#67). This was a two and half year stretch where I played so many decks that I loved that it feels impossible to pick a favorite. If I had to narrow it down, it's #65, the age of the Gifts Mirror, the peak of Vintage for me.
The Gifts mirror is a delicate dance where both players are trying to hide who's leading. It requires all the discipline of Keeper player, saving their counters for the spell that matters ... all the working memory of Storm player, tracking lines 5 tutors in advance. The decision density of a deck with Brainstorm, Merchant Scroll, and Gifts Ungiven is just massive. I can vividly remember testing mirrors in Ben Kowal's living room, discovering how you could win the match by strategically starting counter wars and losing them, at just the right time. Your opponent having no idea that their Force of Will on your Ancestral Recall just cost them the game.
It's impossible for me to separate the actual games of Vintage with this time in my life, when I met so much of the Vintage community, when I took 14 hour road trips to play Vintage every weekend. For better or worse, the SCG Power Nine series was my college experience, and I spent my brain's peak math-solving years figuring out Gifts piles.
It was Keeper (and the inimitable Control Player's Bible) that got me to enter my first Vintage tournament, and it was Tog that made me feel like I was a part of the Vintage Community, but Gifts made me feel like Vintage was a part of me.
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