Schools of Magic: History of Vintage – 2003

For a format whose history stretches back towards the origins of the game, 2003 may well lay claim to being the most dynamic and pivotal year before or since in the History of Vintage. It was a year in which the format was rocked by dramatic restrictions, metagame convulsions, astounding printings and shocking new mechanics, quickened engagement and interest from the DCI and Wizards of the Coast, and the inauguration of a new annual Championship tournament. The investments of the player base in 2002 were bearing fruit, and the innovations and novel strategic developments were accelerating. New strategies were born, and old Schools of Vintage Magic were revived. In a sense, 2003 was a springboard for the evolution of the format since. It marks a transition from historical Type I to the format that would soon become known as Vintage.

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Many Vintage players active in 2003 look back on that year with a special fondness. There was a dynamism that was sometimes approached since, but never equaled or surpassed. To many, including myself, it was the Golden Age of the format. What made 2003 so special was a convergence of factors that could not be replicated, and would be undesirable to repeat. The audacity of the new mechanics and shocking printings certainly generated interest in the format, from Mind’s Desire to Chalice of the Void. But it was not these printings that gave 2003 its dynamic energy. It was the innovations from within the format, the surprising discoveries, the untapped synergies, and the narrative coherence that created a diffuse sense of excitement and discovery. Rather than merely borrowing or importing technology or ideas from other formats, the innovations within Type I in 2003 were often generated from within it, evidencing a maturity that the format had heretofore lacked.

2003 was the flowering of a format that had been marginalized and dormant for many years. When green shoots emerged in the early part of the decade, it was the Type I community, organized through web-based communities, that connected far-flung enthusiasts from across the globe. The Type I tournaments at GenCon and Origins provided a place to compete on an annual basis, but it was the community-based tournaments that revived the format at the grassroots level. When these pockets of activity reached a critical mass, then they became the nodes of regional competitions such as The Mana Drain Open (aka The Waterbury), which in turn, helped make events like the Type I Championship a success. Given the lack of support from Wizards, the Type I format, far more than other formats, was a bottom-up rather than top-down format.

The dramatic changes in the format in 2003 were not always welcomed, however. In many quarters, there was a sense of whiplash, of too much change too fast, of instability and even brokenness. Long-time players could be forgiven for feeling that way, but it found a prominent expression in Oscar Tan’s 2003 State of the Metagame report in late October. Oscar articulates a perspective that seeks balance between the competitive dynamics now evident in the format and the stability, diversity, and fairness that he felt made the format unique. Calling for a host of restrictions, including Mishra’s Workshop, Oscar polled a number of other players with similar sentiment. The table he published, featuring the viewpoints of the format’s most prominent voices, illustrates the spectrum of opinion on what to restrict and why, with Oscar and Brian Weissman on one extreme, and myself on the other.

In an article published around the same time, I attempted to surface the dynamics that were playing out in the format, and the schism between the more casual “Old School” players and the more progressive, tournament oriented “new school” players. I wrote: “Tectonic plates are moving in the Type One community. The fault lines run deep, and a series of quakes – culminating in the debates over Mirrodin – have exposed them.”

Without sharing notes, Oscar offered a similar assessment: “Mirrodin comes at the height of rapid, radical changes in Type I, both in the metagame and in the community. All these changes and a new set with some very powerful cards have combined to bring very strong-and divided-opinions about the state of Type I to the fore.” One aspect of this debate was the prevalence of net decking. Old School players felt that it undermined the diversity and overall health of the format. I was, and remain, in the camp that net decking, far from a negative, was a sign of a maturing format, and allowed the metagame to cohere in ways that were healthy. Ultimately, Oscar called for changes that would slow the format down. As he concluded, “Type I is too fast, and that proposing to slow it down is not a move to make Type I less competitive.”

Oscar was initiating a debate that has never fully resolved, but that no longer simmers. The consensus that won that debate, perhaps by historical default rather than persuasion, was that the speed of the format was a result of its increased competitiveness. This view took the position that the genie could not be put back into the bottle; even with massive restrictions, which might undermine the incentive to innovate and potentially reduce the diversity of the format, the format had fundamentally changed and evolved beyond the casual confines that had defined Type I play for many years. The DCI’s decision not to enact another restriction wave, only targeting Burning Tendrils, set the format on a clear course, indicating that they were comfortable with the speed of the format so long as the format was sufficiently interactive and strategically diverse.

The questions of speed and competition weren’t the only polemical debates that arose in the wake of these discussions. Matt Smith wrote another controversial article that built on these themes, but raised another concern: the degree to which authors such as myself or Oscar influence the metagame, and the degree to which the growing stable of format “experts” and pundits opine, correctly or not, about the future of the format. As he said:

“If there are any guarantees in life, this is one of them: There will always be speculation. You have to decide how much of what you hear is true. I think a recent example of this would be a call for the restriction of Chalice of the Void. Some people are asking for an immediate restriction. I, on the other hand, think it might do the format some good. I know that I would certainly like to see the card in action before I decide whether it needs restriction.”

Both Oscar and I were guilty, along with others, of overhyping some cards or alarmism at times, and certainly less than 100% accurate in our predictions about the future of the metagame. But Matt’s concerns also underscored another change in the format: the emergence of established voices that carried greater influence on not only the metagame, but the management of the format itself.

In my article addressing these issues, I closed by sketching my vision for the future of the format:

“Magic is in its early years, just reaching its stride. As time goes on, the game will continue to evolve, not only in terms of format, but presentation and content. We are seeing little glimpses of the future now – new card face, the popularity of Magic Online, and I imagine some thirty years from now Magic will not only exist, it will be so radically different from what it is now, that it would seem superficially unrecognizable, in much the same way that 8th Edition seems so foreign to Alpha. Unlike some of the great strategy games of antiquity such as Chess or Go, the strength, and a lot of the appeal of Magic comes from the change inherent in the game: New sets, new decks, new abilities, new mechanics, even new rules, and most of all new metagames. […]

As Magic grows older, its roots will become more sacred, more important. While change lies at the very appeal of the game, the foundation must be kept up. While Type Two, Limited, and Extended may be the money centers, Type One is the heart of Magic. It represents a spark of something original, the genius of human creativity. In spite of its gargantuan design flaws, perpetual imbalances, and powerful nature, it also demonstrates that chaos can be tamed. That the very nature of the game allows enough flexibility that nothing in Magic is so badly damaged it can’t be addressed.”

This is a vision of the game and the format I continue to embrace, but I was mistaken in one key respect: the cards may change, the decks may change, the sets may change, the abilities and mechanics may change, even the rules, but the core Schools of Vintage Magic endure. Those schools that emerged in the first few years of the format’s history evolved and revive with new iterations and new cards replacing old ones. 2003 is perhaps the best illustration of this, as almost every major new archetype serves as a historically prominent, if not pinnacle, example of each School. GroAtog for the Comer school. Psychatog Control for the Weissman School. Burning Tendrils for the Restricted List Combo School. Stax for the O’Brien School. And Dragon Combo for the Reanimator School. Each of the great Schools of Vintage Magic found new life in 2003, and the result was a vibrant, fascinating, and diverse metagame, the likes of which the format should always aspire toward.
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