Winning without a Win Condition



One fine day in 2005 or so, my friends and I headed to a local Vintage tournament. The prize was a piece of power, a Mox Jet if I’m remembering correctly, and I was excited to play some Vintage.

I was bringing my trusty Burning Gifts deck to battle, a deck I’d used to great effect locally. Every month, there was a tournament somewhere in the bay area for a piece of power and I’d been playing this deck for months. The scene had a lot of regulars and people were well acquainted with what my deck was up to (which ended up being very important).

From memory, this is what my list looked like:

Burning Gifts, circa 2005

1 Ancestral Recall
1 Black Lotus
1 Duress
1 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Brainstorm
1 Burning Wish
1 Darksteel Colossus
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Fact or Fiction
2 Flooded Strand
4 Force of Will
4 Gifts Ungiven
3 Island
1 Lotus Petal
1 Mana Crypt
4 Mana Drain
1 Mana Vault
4 Merchant Scroll
1 Misdirection
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mystical Tutor
2 Polluted Delta
1 Rebuild
1 Recoup
1 Snow-Covered Island
1 Sol Ring
1 Time Walk
1 Tinker
1 Tolarian Academy
3 Underground Sea
1 Vampiric Tutor
3 Volcanic Island
1 Yawgmoth's Will

Sideboard

1 Eye of Nowhere
2 Rack and Ruin
1 Energy Flux
3 Pyroblast
1 Duress
1 Mind Twist
1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
Pyroclasm
2 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Engineered Explosives

Note that this has a 14 card sideboard, which is where the fun begins. See, I had put the deck together, and when I saw I had 14 cards in my sideboard, I was like “sweet, extra slot.” I tossed in a Deep Analysis, because value, and registered for the tournament.

That was a huge mistake.

Without going into a full deck tech, the way this deck wins is by casting Gifts Ungiven and getting a pile like Black Lotus, Yawgmoth’s Will, Demonic Tutor and Recoup. Since Recoup has flashback, your opponent can’t stop you from getting Yawgmoth’s Will somehow, at which point you can cast a whole ton of spells. The way it actually wins is to Burning Wish for one copy of Tendrils of Agony.

The Tendrils of Agony I didn’t have in my sideboard.

Tendrils of Agony  Darksteel Colossus

The Tendrils of Agony that was the only win condition except the main deck Darksteel Colossus (which you Tinker for). The tournament starts, and I win round one without incident. When I cast Burning Wish with 10 mana floating and 16 spells played, my opponent just conceded, because obviously I was going to get the Tendrils. In fact, at this point I didn’t even know I didn’t have a Tendrils to get.

Off to a good start

Round two was the same, but while I was de-sideboarding, I suddenly realized - there was no Tendrils in my sideboard. I had a moment of panic, but then I thought about it. My first two opponents just conceded to Burning Wish, because everyone there was well-versed in what my deck did and didn’t see a need to waste time. It was so convincing that I fooled myself even, and because it worked twice, why wouldn’t it continue to work?

Had I not won two rounds already, I’m not sure if I could have pulled it off, but I already had proof that this plan was viable.

I went into round three much more nervous than the prior two rounds. At some point, my opponent was going to ask to see the Tendrils, right? Right? What was I going to do, pull out a Deep Analysis and dig a few cards deeper in my deck?

Deep Analysis

Well, they didn’t. I was careful to not actually say that I was going to get a Tendrils, instead just saying things like “I’ll cast Burning Wish, with five black mana floating and 11 spells played.” My opponents kept scooping to that, and in fact, most of them scooped even before that point, because once you cast a Yawgmoth’s Will with 15 cards in your graveyard, it’s mostly a formality. Between that and the games won by Darksteel Colossus, which was a viable win condition, I found myself able to draw twice into the Top 8.

Nobody in the tournament knew I was on the no win condition life, except my two teammates, Jeff Huang and David Ochoa (who weren’t going to spill the beans, of course). I sat down for one of the funniest (and most stressful) Top 8 matches of my Magic career at the time, though I’ve played for higher stakes by now.

I managed to pull out a close match, though out of caution, I didn’t go for the Wish into
“Tendrils” kill in game three. I set up an elaborate Gifts into a Tinker for Colossus, despite it giving my opponent two extra turns of life. There was just no reason to risk it, and having it all fall apart at the very end was too painful to contemplate.

Top 4 split leads to the win

I won my match, and accepted the Top four split (something I rarely did those days - I was an arrogant little punk, which is much better than my current status as an arrogant large punk). I breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow, without a win condition, I had split the tournament, and was the proud owner of a Mox Jet, or part-owner at least.

It came out after the tournament that I never had a Tendrils, and the local Vintage crew reacted with a mixture of disbelief, amusement and a theory that I was playing on the next level. I was not - in fact, I never ended up in that situation again.

At the end of the day, I got some winnings, some excitement and a hell of a story.

Author: Luis Scott-Vargas

Magic the Gathering Hall of Fame, Member of Team CFB UltimateGuard

Luis is one of the most accomplished players in Magic: the Gathering history. His journey with Magic began in 1994, when he and his friend Seth bought a starter deck of Revised and two packs of The Dark each. Little did he know that this was a life-defining moment, as once he opened a Fire Elemental and Wrath of God, he was hooked. Learn more about Luis.