Chasing the Mind’s Desire – Looking Ahead to the September 2011 Banned-Restricted List Announcement

The next Banned and Restricted List announcement will be delivered September 20th 2011, if this announcement is in keeping with the timetable established over the last three years or so. About three months ago Stephen Menendian, a former Vintage World Champion, and I co-wrote an article outlining why Fact or Fiction should be unrestricted for Vintage play. Unfortunately the importance the DCI felt in addressing the problem with Standard, where they banned both Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, prevented them from focusing their attention on the other formats. In the intervening time we’re seen the birth of a new format, Modern, which has already been played at the highest level in Pro Tour: Philly. Including the shift in Standard due to rotation as Innistrad enters, I think there is the possibility that each of the formats (Standard, Modern, Legacy, and Vintage) look very different on October 1st than they do today.

In this article we’ll target Vintage specifically, as it’s a format I believe is ripe for potential changes. Join us as we delve into a look at the Vintage landscape, and what ramifications possible changes could have as we analyze some of the weaker cards on the Vintage Restricted List.

The Vintage Championships at GenCon occurred recently, producing Mark Hornung piloting Dredge as the 2011 Vintage World Champion. The rest of the top eight in this event held two Bob-Gush decks in second and third, Cat Stax Fever in fourth, Gush Storm/Control in fifth, Minus 6 (Worldgorger Dragon combo) in sixth, Painter in 7th and BUG Fish in 8th. All of the deck lists can be found here. Of the major Vintage engines there was a fairly balanced spread: 8 Bazaar of Baghdads, 9 Mana Drains (four of which were sideboarded in Minus 6), 3 Null Rods, 4 Mishra’s Workshops, 8 Jace, the Mind Sculptors (two of which were sideboarded in Minus 6), and 13 Gushes. The only main “engine” card not appearing at all in the top eight of this event was Dark Ritual. There was similar diversity if we look back at the 383 player Bazaar of Moxen Vintage event from May, although with a different assortment of decks (BoM 2011 Top 8 decks can be found here ).

Considering that the Vintage metagame is quite healthy currently I would not advocate for the restriction of any card. But if we go the other way and want to explore any unrestrictions, the question we need to answer for each unrestriction candidate is: would unrestricting this card diminish format diversity by contributing to a dominant deck, either by strengthening a deck currently present or enabling a new deck not present in the current meta?

Fact or Fiction
It was my belief three months ago that Fact or Fiction not only ‘could’ be unrestricted, but ‘should’ be unrestricted. Stephen and I argued that Fact or Fiction was a card somewhat diminished by time, and no longer capable of fueling a dominant deck. Futhermore, our contention was that Fact would not be paired with what was at the time the primary Blue engine, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, because they fell at the same spot on the curve and would essentially compete for spots in similar decks, while Jace offered more versatile choices and would probably be more universally adopted. We observed that Gifts Ungiven, again a competitor for Fact, was not seeing universal play in the Blue decks that might play it despite being an arguably more powerful spell than Fact. It seemed unlikely that decks not playing Gifts would opt for multiple copies of Fact if Fact were unrestricted. I don’t think the evidence supporting any of those beliefs has changed in the last three months. Fact also offers interaction on levels beyond that of its competitors, Gush, Gifts, and Jace. Beyond the interaction to determine whether each of those spells resolves, the action of resolving Fact requires each player to make decisions using public information, very flashy and very cool for onlookers to observe.

However, there are two new cards who I feel deserve discussion in the context of potentially unrestricting Fact or Fiction. The first is the card Flusterstorm, which was released in the Commander boxed set. Flusterstorm is an amazing card that was recently among the short list of cards Matt Elias recommends you should be playing. I think that the printing of Flusterstorm makes playing Fact or Fiction more risky, because you have to invest four mana into the Fact and then have to try to ram it through a potential Flusterstorm, which cannot be done with merely a Force of Will. Obviously you can play Flusterstorms of your own, but tying up a ton of mana just to resolve a Fact or Fiction is pretty subobtimal. Fact is poorly positioned due to Flusterstorm in comparison to Jace, the Mind Sculptor, since Flusterstorm cannot target Jace. In the face of Flusterstorm casting Gush is also a much better option, as the caster of Gush will most likely be floating two mana anyway before casting Gush for free, making it more likely to resolve when squaring off against a deck with Flusterstorm.

Another card that interacts with Fact or Fiction, this time more positively, is the recently spoiled Snapcaster Mage, Tiago Chan’s long awaited Invitational card. The initial concepts presented by Tiago were deemed unprintable by Wizards of the Coast, but this version still looks like a winner. I personally feel that Snapcaster Mage can be amazing in Vintage, home to some of the most powerful and undercosted effects in Magic. Snapcaster Mage’s interaction with Fact or Fiction is such that one can have their cake and eat it too: revealing both an Ancestral Recall and a Mage to a Fact makes creating piles potentially a lose-lose for the opponent. Do you put Ancestral in the pile of three? Or the Mage? What if some other bomb is revealed? Do you put Recall and the Mage together in a pile of two, which allows the opponent to get six cards and a body for four mana and the cost of binning a bomb? What if that bomb is ALSO an instant or sorcery? However, all of these situations seem to be win more. You’re apparently already resolving Fact or Fiction, so what if Snapcaster Mage gives you marginally more resilience and consistency?

It is still my opinion that unrestricting Fact or Fiction would be a net positive for Vintage and would provide more diversity to the format without warping it.

Simply put, Preordain is significantly better than Ponder when paired with Gush, and equally as good when paired with Jace (either bottoming cards or shuffling after Jace-storming). Ponder might be better suited to Dark Ritual fueled Storm combo, given the slightly higher prevalence and reliance on bombs, but Rituals are the section of the metagame that most need help, so I doubt Ponder would turn those decks into an issue.

The next logical question then becomes, “would having access to both Ponder and Preordain in the same deck be an issue?” My intuition tells me no, given that the two don’t play too well together, and given that better options are available, so decks don’t need or want eight or nine cantrips. Additionally, Preordain and Gitaxian Probe are currently both legal as four-ofs without issue, and these cards are all competing for limited deck space. Certainly there may be diminishing returns when casting multiple Probes, but still an arrangement of cantrips like 4x Preordain, 1x Brainstorm, 1x Ponder, and 2-3x Gitaxian Probe is currently an option that is closely comparable to 4x Preordain, 1x Brainstorm, and 4x Ponder. Finally, in a completely rational observation of a format with both Preordain and Ponder legal as four-ofs, if there was an issue, which one would be more deserving of restriction? Due to the inertia historically governing management of the Restricted List nothing would surprise me more than an unrestriction of Ponder followed by the restriction of Preordain.

It is my opinion that unrestricting Ponder would have only marginal impact on Vintage, with no undesirable consequence.

Mind’s Desire
Mind’s Desire is a card of truly enormous power, and a personal favorite of mine (providing the very name for this column!). Desire’s power is also exponential in the number of copies legal, due to the potential for flipping one Desire with another. Part of Desire’s great power comes from being essentially uncounterable thanks to the Storm mechanic. However, it is the Storm mechanic that offers a potential reconciliation, with again the new card Flusterstorm. Desire’s uncounterability was only in comparison to singular bombs like Tinker or Yawgmoth’s Will. Desire can be countered by Stifle or Mindbreak Trap, but not by the counterspells you wanted to be playing, Mana Drain and Spell Pierce. With Flusterstorm, the game has changed dramatically. Flusterstorm is both capable of saying no to Tinker or Yawgmoth’s Will as an uncounterable counterspell, and at the same time stopping Desire and all of the storm copies it generates.

I don’t feel that Flusterstorm alone is sufficient to make Mind’s Desire safe by any means, but I think it could be used as justification if the DCI wanted to make a potentially risky experimental unrestriction. Also, it may not be fair to essentially force all Blue decks to include three or four Flusterstorms by introducing another powerful Storm option. It is my opinion that unrestricting Mind’s Desire would be dangerous, but exciting, and would certainly shake up the metagame.

Burning Wish
In June of this year, Stephen Menendian posted a thought provoking exercise about the Burning Wish, Regrowth, and Demonic Consultation are the three least restrictable cards in the framework of Stephen’s question, and said “[They] would be played as a 4-of in some decks within a limited number of archetypes. [They] would generally promote format diversity by aiding underperforming archetypes without contributing to their dominance.”

Burning Wish has long been the low-hanging fruit of restricted cards available for the DCI to placate players with. Since the M10 rules changes reduced Burning Wish’s functionality, many players have felt that Wish is safe to unrestrict, and I would agree. I think the crucial point to evaluate Wish on in Vintage is, with so much deck manipulation available, what sorcery would you want to put in your sideboard but not in your maindeck?

Burning Wish was previously used in conjunction with (at the time unrestricted) Lion’s Eye Diamond to power out a quick Yawgmoth’s Will with tons of mana floating, and the ability to keep rebuying Yawgmoth’s Will and other good cards from your removed from game pile with additional Burning Wishes. Now that the functionality of the Wishes have been neutered, and Lion’s Eye Diamond has been restricted, Burning Wish has essentially become useless.

While Burning Wish might once again make an archetype or new deck style playable, I certainly don’t think it would be dominant or give people reason to think it should once again be restricted. Providing more options and potential diversity is a good thing.

When Snapcaster Mage was spoiled some players said essentially, “remind me why Regrowth is restricted again?” And it’s hard to disagree, since as I said previously, Mage has the potentially to be very good, and just happens to be Blue. I think my response, if limited to one word, would have to be, “Gush.” Regrowthing a Gush with Fastbond out is very similar to Merchant Scrolling for a Gush. Regrowth costs the two mana you get from replaying your lands and allows you to Gush again. Regrowth is obviously weaker than Merchant Scroll in some ways: it’s not Blue, it can’t be cast preemptively, and it is much less useful on a Yawgmoth’s Will turn, but the similarities remain.

Regrowth is also more versatile, grabbing fetchlands, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Black Lotus, or other cards, provided they’re in your graveyard. One of the things I heard Stephen say about Snapcaster Mage and Regrowth during the Team Serious Open live stream last weekend was (roughly): “They’re cards that exaggerate variance. If you’re lucky enough to start with Ancestral Recall, or resolve it early on, then Mage/Regrowth allow you to very costlessly compound that advantage.”

While I don’t think that Regrowth would contribute to a dominant deck I agree that its potential for exaggerating variance is not what the format needs. I’m certainly not among those who think that unrestricted Regrowth would have only a marginal effect on Vintage, and it would probably not be a net positive for the format.

Demonic Consultation
In my post I made an extra allowance on Demonic Consultation, which I felt might contribute to a deck (fast Ritual combo) that players might consider unfun. Consultation’s context has also changed considerably since my post, given the printing of Mental Misstep and (yes, again, each of these mentions has been deserved), Flusterstorm, as well as the recently spoiled card Laboratory Maniac, which combines with Consultation (hint: name a card not in your deck) to form a fragile but potentially game-winning combo. Given these changes I would have to re-evaluate Consultation before forming a definite opinion. The potential with Laboratory Maniac in particular should give pause to anybody thinking that this card should be unrestricted.

Imperial Seal and Library of Alexandria
In the past I have commented on Imperial Seal and Library of Alexandria, but it’s my opinion now that the DCI simply would not unrestrict these cards. Seal and Library are so valuable monetarily that unrestricting either presents financial concerns. Ideally Vintage (and Magic) would be a game where the wealth of the players does not factor into their competitiveness, but Wizards is a company whose mission is to make money for their parent company and Hasbro’s shareholders, so we the players are straddled with the Reserve List policy. Technically Imperial Seal is not on the Reserve List, but I would expect reprints of Seal to precede its unrestriction.

This is an exciting time for Vintage, with a number of engines and archetypes available to the Vintage deckbuilder, and I’m hopeful that there will be some action from the DCI to discuss after the 20th. I believe that a number of cards are good candidates for unrestriction, and look forward to seeing what affect (if any) their announcement has on Vintage. Either way you’ll be seeing another Vintage article from me before the TMD Open 15 in early October.

Thank you for your time,
William Winger
DubDub on TMD