Vintage is the format where Magic’s most hideous and broken cards find an eternal resting home. A home where figurative muscle is flexed, razor wits are honed, and the bonds of normalcy are broken. To outsiders who are not intimately familiar with the savage design mistakes and patterns of Vintage play, the common refrain seems to be “don’t people just die on the first or second turn?” and “why is Card X or Card Y not restricted?”
On the former, while the occasional spectacular turn 1 kill is possible, it by no means likely, and there are usually more complex decision trees and resource skirmishes packed into a compressed time frame – more so than in any other format. A symphony of blades clashing, gears grinding, and graveyards churning is what fills the air of the Vintage battlefield. Many cards can be played and hit the stack before the second player has even taken their turn, but that’s often just when the game begins to get interesting. Many decks and strategies in Vintage will seek to exert their influence on the game as soon as possible, and after the initial clash of expended resources you begin to see how players will use their remaining resources to disrupt the opponent’s game plan, while simultaneously buying time to execute their own strategic goals.
On Mishra’s Workshop & Lodestone Golem
Addressing the second most commonly asked question, “why is Card X or Card Y not restricted?” requires a more holistic examination of the Vintage format. Vintage is home to the most efficient and broken spells ever printed, but more often than not those cards are instants and sorceries, and are most frequently blue. The other colors do their best to contribute what supporting appendages may ultimately serve the strategic goals of a deck, as well as mitigating the opponent’s actions and reactions. Because of the nature and imbalance that colors Magic’s card pool, many of these powerful cards are restricted to one copy per deck, but with the abundance of card draw, manipulation, and tutoring available to reduce variance, these cards are still easily found and cast with exacting precision and frequency.
Decks based around narrow cards like Mishra’s Workshop generally do not play most of these powerful spells available in Vintage, because of the nature of what Mishra’s Workshop does. Workshop lets a player cast otherwise underpowered artifacts (when compared to what Blue Mages are casting, for example), and the Workshop strategy lends itself more to trying to prevent Blue players from executing their game plan long enough for the Workshop player to attack through with creatures, or to set up a battlefield presence that’s increasingly tough for the other player to overcome. Most of these cards (such as Sphere of Resistance and Tangle Wire) are embarrassingly low on the power level when compared to the rest of Vintage, but the Workshop player relies on narrow but powerful lands to repeatedly cast enough incremental disruptive components to hopefully be competitive in a game, or to accelerate out more (relatively underwhelming) artifact creature threats.
This strategy is a very important one to Vintage, because these Workshop-based decks often do a better and more dedicated job to preventing combo decks from running wild. Historically blue decks have helped to turn back the tide of combo, but if the last 10 years of modern Vintage have taught us anything, it’s that hybridized strategies utilizing blue disrupting elements and combo finishes in all shapes and sizes are blurring the lines of control and combo, and rarely can they keep each other in check. Workshops have morphed from simply casting Juggernauts and Su-Chis to becoming the bulwark preventing blue and/or combo from taking over the format entirely. Lodestone Golem in particular is an important feature in these decks because it pushes them from just being a pile of passive speed bumps (I’m looking at you, Thorn of Amethyst, Null Rod, and Tangle Wire) to a threat that can actually provide a quick clock and close the door on an opponent ultimately waiting to cast Hurkyl’s Recall, Ingot Chewer, and the like.
Without unrestricted access to Mishra’s Workshop and Lodestone Golem, these artifact-based decks would cease to be competitive. Ancient Tomb is a decent substitute (which is already played, and necessary), but half measures like City of Traitors and Crystal Vein are poor impostors that frankly cannot cut the mustard. The artifact control decks of modern Vintage need to be able to quickly and reliably cast their permanents to the battlefield in the first few turns, as they are fighting an extremely uphill battle to begin with when compared to opposing mages casting far more powerful spells like Dack Fayden, Tinker, Show and Tell, Oath of Druids, Monastery Mentor, Yawgmoth’s Will, and so on. Well, if the opponent is even casting spells, that is.
On Bazaar of Baghdad
One strategy that is unique to Eternal formats is Dredge, which relies on attacking the opponent from a wholly unique angle. By virtue of the Dredge mechanic introduced in Ravnica, a player can quickly dump tons of cards from their library directly into the graveyard, and with mechanical triggers from cards like Bridge from Below, Ichorid, Bloodghast, and Narcomoeba, they rarely even have to spend mana to cast spells. This ability to dodge placing spells on the stack is one that Dredge mages rely on to be competitive, as their decks are also full of otherwise underpowered cards like Golgari Grave-Troll and Serum Powder that are barely even draftable in Limited formats.
Is the card Bazaar of Baghdad itself inherently unfair? For the cost of a land drop it lets you draw two cards, albeit at the cost of immediately discarding three cards. Mechanically this is by no means “broken,” but it is certainly great at what it does in very narrow scope. Bazaar is a necessity that is the key to these decks remaining competitive in Vintage, as it allows the Dredge mage to quickly deliver loads of underpowered but synergistic cards to the graveyard in a quick and efficient fashion. Just like Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad fuels an important and unique archetype that attacks the metagame from an entirely different angle than blue RestrictedCards.dec variants.
The Necessity for Diversity of Strategy
It’s quite easy to find pithy complaints of Magic players in all formats, but one of the most common we see is that of people lamenting the fact that they have to devote “half their sideboard to Dredge,” or “6+ cards for Workshops.” This is always quite amusing to me, because these same players typically have 0-1 cards in their main decks devoted to combating graveyard strategies, and 1-3 cards in their main deck devoted to specifically combating artifact strategies. The strategic orientation of most is to fight near-exclusively on the stack, and fill their decks full of narrow cards like Mental Missteps, Flusterstorms, and Pyroblasts. While those cards are great at making sure your Ancestral Recall resolves, they obviously do quite a poor job of fighting Bridge from Below and Sphere of Resistance.
But this should be viewed as a feature in Vintage, and not a bug. Countervailing strategies are key to keeping Vintage open and not simply becoming inbred blue mirror matches round after round, highlighted by decks with tons of the aforementioned narrow counterspells. As fun as that may be for some of us who grew up playing and remembering Magic that way, it is not healthy for any format to be so single-minded and exclusive. Magic’s creators have actually printed many more unique but situationally powerful counterspells such as Spell Pierce, Steel Sabotage, Annul, Negate, Dispel, Swan Song, and others. Ironically, the more narrow that Vintage tournaments may become if blue decks are made the de facto and dominant deck choice, the fewer choices spell-slingers will have to build their decks with.
While you may not have fun playing with or against Dredge or a Workshop deck, the rest of the community and players that think differently about Magic may have different feelings. Vintage cannot be a home to only the Blue mage, as many players don’t find it very fun to simply sit on a pile of counterspells. Formats should have more strategic diversity to offer if they want to remain healthy in the long term.
The Blessing and Curse of MTGO, Magic Pros, and Social Media
Over the past couple of years the Vintage Super League (VSL) and Magic Online (MTGO) have helped expose thousands of new viewers to the Vintage format. The slight majority of new Vintage players I have personally met at tournaments and playtest sessions who have gotten into Vintage have been as a direct result of this exposure, which delights me to no end. New player expansion is one of the keys to keeping the format alive and healthy.
The additional exposure and spotlight, coupled with the explosive reach of social media (such as Twitter and Facebook) has carried with it more scrutiny and public opining than ever before. While social media platforms provide an ability to connect and share ideas with friends and strangers alike, they also provide out-sized megaphone capabilities for more popular persona. Randy Buehler (@rbuehler), Kai Budde (@kaibudde), Chris Pikula (@meddlingmage), Sam Black (@SamuelHBlack), and Tom Martell (@tommartell) have all registered various forms of dissatisfaction with Vintage on social media or the VSL stream recently. To be fair, a number of these players are opinionated and pithy about a lot of other formats and cards as well. Here are just a few of the latest examples:
@rbuehler yeah man it is just not fun or interesting or anything.
— Chris Pikula (@meddlingmage) March 26, 2016
@rbuehler you know my stance. It's absurd that Workshop and Bazaar are unrestricted.
— Sam Black (@SamuelHBlack) March 27, 2016
@SamuelHBlack I won't bother playing the next VSL if that doesn't get fixed, that sums up the amount of fun vintage is right now for me.
— Kai Budde (@kaibudde) March 27, 2016
Lost in the finals of the Power 9 Challenge – 2nd is so much worse than 1st 🙁 Please restrict Mishra's Workshop so Vintage can be fun again
— Tom Martell (@tommartell) March 27, 2016
Randy and a few of the VSL personalities (with those loud megaphones) have recently been complaining about the efficacy of a number of cards such as Mishra’s Workshop, Lodestone Golem, Gush, Bazaar of Baghdad, and occasionally even Dark Petition. This is no different than the past 10+ years of Vintage, where we have witnessed serious calls for restriction of everything from Psychatog to Oath of Druids to Goblin Welder to Tezzeret the Seeker. The only difference here is that the voices are increasingly amplified by social media and the fact that they are recognizable names, even though they may not play as much Vintage as many other hardcore enthusiasts in the community who are drowned out, and have less umbrage with the Vintage Banned & Restricted List as currently constituted.
I am personally thankful and grateful to Randy Buehler for being an advocate in the community and online for Vintage, as well as his longstanding contributions from CMU decks to his influence and employment at Wizards of the Coast. He’s open, engaging, and a thoughtful dude who simply loves to game. I agree with him on many things, but in the current case I must register my most respectful yet vociferous dissent.
I have lost far, far more games against cards like Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, Time Vault, and Oath of Druids (most of which are already restricted!) than I ever have against Lodestone Golem. Workshop decks are good and still well positioned in the current Vintage metagame, but they are not some unbeatable panacea. In the latest March MTGO Vintage Challenge Worksop players barely won 50% of their games, which was an incredibly steep drop from the previous month’s impressive performances. This has mirrored paper Vintage tournaments over the past few months as well. We are only about six months in to the post-Chalice/post-Dig metagame, and as it continues to unfurl and players continue to experiment, I think we can expect to see even more of a balancing of the metagame at large as players adjust to the new landscape, and as new sets are printed. As Stephen Menendian and Kevin Cron recently detailed in their 2016 Q1 Vintage Metagame podcast, there is absolutely no case to be made that any of these cards or strategies are statistically dominant, by any metrics you want to analyze.
The (Current) Status Quo is Good
No strategies are dominating, and the metagame of Vintage continues to wax and wane with the highs and lows of Mentor Gush, Time Vault decks, Oath, BUG Tempo, Dark Petition Storm, Dredge, Delver, Landstill, Bomberman, Workshops, and various unique iterations of those and more. As Danny Batterman astutely highlighted in his recent article In Defense of Mishra’s Workshop, the overall health of the Vintage metagame is probably better now than at any point in the past 5 years. Vintage is not as simple as rock/paper/scissors, but each deck has numerous weaknesses that can and should be exploited by other decks seeking to prey on them. This is how a healthy metagame in any format functions, and for most people, Vintage is in a great place right now.
I would hate for anyone in the DCI or at Wizards of the Coast to take hasty B&R List actions based on a vocal minority, rather than looking at the Vintage format results, data, and looking at the format holistically. Here’s a newsflash for those who need a brief reminder: the beloved 4 Misstep/3 Flusterstorm Gush-based blue decks aren’t going to be favored against every single deck and archetype in Vintage. Every deck has weaknesses, and by having a range of strategies and angles of attack viable in Vintage, this creates a much better tournament experience than blue mirror matches round after round. And while you may be dishonest with yourself, if the DCI restricted Lodestone Golem, Mishra’s Workshop, or Bazaar of Baghdad, that’s likely exactly what we’d see. That may appease a small handful of players, but it would kill the recent gains and momentum that Vintage has gained in terms of net player growth. Far better would be to take a patient approach, and let the status quo be for now. That means zero changes to the Vintage Banned & Restricted List, and to let Vintage players continue to adapt and police themselves.