So Many Insane Plays – Notes on the State of Vintage, January 2017

Vintage is a singular format. It is a format of deep strategy and broad possibilities. In the eyes of its proponents (like myself), Vintage is the epitome of what Magic should and can be. Years of accumulated printings seamlessly interacting in unimaginable ways. It is the legacy of Dr. Richard Garfield’s vision for the game, and the closest approximation to that vision. As time rolls onward, Vintage players increasingly appreciate that this is a format that can be enjoyed for a lifetime.

But all is not well in Vintage land. In the final months of 2016, a low grade anxiety seeped into the global Vintage community. Although few are upset, many are unhappy with the current state of the format (although Aether Revolt has been a dose of aspirin). In this article I offer a few observations about the evolution of the Vintage format, and seek to diagnose a few less obvious sources of distress.

Change in Vintage

As the quintessential “Eternal” format, Vintage is a format that evolves slowly. This is part of the format’s appeal. Players are able to pick up decks and strategies after long hiatuses and compete at a high level. Core skills are retained as muscle memory, like riding a bike. Strategies and broad Schools of Vintage Magic endure, like the Weissman and O’Brien Schools. At the same time, the format is also deep enough that some tactics are worthy of lifetime study, given the variety and variability of contexts for analyzing them (which explains why I wrote a book on Gush).

As a format that never rotates, change in Vintage is generally precipitated by one of two forces: 1) new printings, and 2) changes to the Banned and Restricted List. Depending on your perspective, new printings either create new decks and strategies, or provide new tools for existing Schools of Vintage Magic. Either way, new printings like Paradoxical Outcome, Thought-Knot Seer, Monastery Mentor, and Dark Petition, help move the format forward. New printings have the potential to transform existing strategies by creating new engines or improve them by providing answers to metagame threats (like Walking Ballista) or new tools for attacking the metagame.

Perhaps the most transformative and radical change in the Vintage format is stimulated by restriction. Restriction is a tool of last resort that limits the use of cards to a singleton. The effect is necessarily transformative because virtually all targets for restriction are heavily played and metagame defining. Restriction is like taking the strongest leg out from under a table, and the impact is always dramatic, even if it is sometimes unpredictable. For example, everyone knew that the restriction of Lodestone Golem would be a huge boon to cantrip and Gush strategies, but few probably predicted that it would open space for Thalia, Guardian of Thraben to become a prominent tactic in the format, as a pseudo-Golem replacement.

These are not the only sources of change in Vintage. Aside from infrequent, but significant card errata, metagames are more than the sum of their constituent parts. Metagame dynamics themselves create spaces for novel approaches, and clever designers can spring new (or old) decks on unsuspecting metagames even without new printings or banned and restricted list changes. Grixis Pyromancer’s brief rise and virtual disappearance last summer is such an example.

Three Change Scales

Change in Vintage may be driven by these underlying forces, but our perception of those changes varies. There are many ways of making sense and understanding these broad changes. For purposes of this article, I will suggest three that capture many, if not most, of those ways.

The first and the broadest way to understand change in Vintage is from the widest possible lens: year over year metagame dynamics, and the eternal battles between the various Schools of Vintage Magic, such as the war of the Weissman School and the O’Brien School or the Comer decks and the Weissman School. From this perspective, there are roughly 2-3 decks per year that define the format. In 2005, for example, those decks were probably Control Slaver and Stax, with Gifts Ungiven decks ascending, eventually toppling Control Slaver decks from the top of the metagame by 2006 (even though Gifts was printed in late 2004). Similarly, the format’s dominant strategy in 2014, Delver/Pyromancer, was gradually pushed from the top of the mountain in 2015 by Mentor decks, and by 2016, the most prominent strategies were Mentor, Workshop Aggro, and Eldrazi.

Seen from this perspective, we can construct a model for understanding Vintage that looks only at the broadest trends, paying attention to the top decks every year. From this perspective, Vintage undergoes visible change year after year, but also has a good deal of stability, as core strategies endure despite evolving archetypes and new refinements.

The second perspective to observe change in Vintage is from more of a quarterly perspective. Instead of looking at the widest possible lens, looking at the strategies that rise or fall year after year, there are a number of metagame cycles that would otherwise be obscured. Examples from last year are the rise and disappearance of both Odd Oath and Grixis Pyromancer, two decks that had big performances and dominated tournaments for a few months, but then disappeared virtually without a trace (at least in 2016). From this perspective, the format seems to move through metagame revolutions, and more quickly, than is apparent from the year after year perspective.

A third perspective from which to observe Vintage is far more granular and narrow. With the advent of Vintage on Magic Online, there is now a platform for playing and enjoying Vintage beyond the confines of local and even regional or national tournaments. Instead, players can battle in daily tournaments for pride and profit, not to mention experience. Here, players make day-to-day adjustments for Rich Shay (aka The Atog Lord) and Andy Markiton (aka Montolio), observing micro-trends in a very well defined metagame. Yesterday’s Paradoxical Outcome winner results in a spate of Null Rods today. After a disappointing 3-3 finish in the January Magic Online Power Nine Challenge, a well-known player by the handle “wappla” privately explained to me that he was “more poorly positioned than I thought,” after going 16-4 in dailies the preceding week, concluding that “the meta shifted pretty abruptly” right before the Power Nine Challenge. From this perspective, the Vintage format looks pretty different than the year to year or even quarterly vantage point.

Impact of Magic Online on Vintage

The third perspective is a relatively new one for Vintage, and it is a way that Magic Online has changed Vintage. Preparing for daily tournaments is a very different effort than preparing for one of a few very large tournaments per year, as was the case in the heyday of the Waterbury tournament. Although there are still players who plan and prepare months before the Vintage Championship, the dynamic in the Magic Online environment is quite different.

When decklists are published on a daily basis, the rewards for taking risks and investing time and energy in novel strategies are greatly diminished. Instead, there is a much greater reward from playing low risk decks and a premium on consistency. After all, the spoils for 4-0ing a daily aren’t sufficient to incentivize the development of new decks over tuning up existing ones and tightening up your play.

This is a fundamental difference between paper Magic and Magic Online. If you examine the metagame breakdowns of larger paper tournaments and the larger Magic Online Vintage tournaments, paper tournaments are more diverse, with more players playing marginal strategies, and even doing well. In contrast, Magic Online events are more homogeneous, with fewer fringe decks.

This is one of the sources of anxiety. The production of daily decklists changes the perception of the format, especially from the quarterly or even annual perspectives. Even two weeks of similar daily results can now result in complaints about the format being monotonous, despite the fact that this would be perfectly normal from a paper Vintage perspective, where events unspool at a slower clip. But, critically, this perception is generated among both Magic Online players and paper Vintage players from simply reading tournament reports.

This points towards another distinction consequence from the arrival of Vintage on Magic Online: the needs of different player groups. Paper Vintage players want competitive tournaments on a monthly basis at their local store, and great regional events with attractive prizes. Magic Online players want regular, but acceptably small 4 round events. Players playing three or four times a week have a very different experience than those playing once a month, or less. And their perception of the format and the metagame is accordingly different as well.

The Homogenization of Vintage

The dynamics that animate player competition in Magic Online are not the only source of greater deck homogeneity in Vintage. There are deep structural features in the format that are shaping Vintage uniformity. To appreciate this trend, first consider the fact that the Vintage Restricted List has quietly receded in prominence and significance in the Vintage format.

The Restricted List is the defining feature of the format, but the number of decks built around key features of the Restricted List have markedly declined from a year-after-year perspective. In 2009, Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Time Vault were among the most played cards in the format. More than that, they were central to the construction of Vintage strategies, such as Gifts Control, Tezzeret Control, and Control Slaver decks from the last decade. But it is not simply that big blue decks, which typically abused such tactics, have disappeared, it is wide swaths of the Restricted List, not simply its greatest hits, which have faded from view.

Cards like Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Merchant Scroll and Mystical Tutor are, just as often as not, unused, even by decks that can play them. Fastbond is rarely used by Gush decks these days. Even staple mana accelerants for blue decks like Mana Crypt, Lotus Petal, and Tolarian Academy are infrequently played.

It used to be the case that the blue and black decks in Vintage were built around restricted cards, while the rest of the format’s decks were fairly homogeneous, built around 4-ofs. That is no longer true. Workshop and powered Eldrazi decks have just as many restricted cards these days as their blue competitors.

The conventional narrative is that this is simply a function of the prominence of Gush strategies, which have a strategic advantage over “big blue” decks that typically feature so many restricted cards. That is an undeniable element in the story of the decline of the Vintage Restricted List, but I don’t believe it’s the most important part. It may be the most salient explanatory variable, but the root cause lays deeper.

Gush was unrestricted in 2010, after more than two years on the Restricted List. But for the first three years of its parole, from 2010 to 2013, the best performing Gush decks used many restricted cards, from Fastbond to Yawgmoth’s Will. There are many parts to the story of what happened, and why tactics like Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will gradually disappeared, but I believe the most important explanation can be found in recent printings.

On the surface, cards like Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer, paired with Mental Misstep, fostered a more aggressive posture while also stymieing the restricted tactics that once dominated. But there was is something deeper going on. A series of powerful answers has gradually changed the complexion of the format. Mental Misstep fundamentally changed the value of topdeck tutors, since the ‘go to’ tutor for Ancestral play was no longer as rewarding when running into a Misstep.

Perhaps the single most important development, aside from Misstep, is the printing of Grafdigger’s Cage, followed by Containment Priest and Dack Fayden. For a single mana, Cage single-handedly answered both Tinker and Yawgmoth’s Will (as well as Oath of Druids, and Dredge decks). Priest reinforced this trend by neutering Tinker and Oath. And Dack Fayden, improving on Trygon Predator, weakened the Time Vault combo, but utterly destroyed Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus, which now risked lethal backfire.

At the same time, cards like Stony Silence, Phyrexian Revoker, Thalia, Thorn, and Sphere all serve to keep speed combo and Storm decks in check as well, perhaps keeping Mox Opal or Paradoxical Outcome from restriction for the foreseeable future.

I believe that a number of recent printings have cumulatively pushed a large part of the restricted list from play. And a byproduct of this is the homogenization of the format. Fewer restricted cards seeing play means that decks are more homogeneous than was historically true of decks in this format. This trend of card homogeneity isn’t restricted to Gush decks or non-blue decks. Even decks like Landstill and Oath, other blue decks in the format, are built around 4-ofs more than restricted cards. They use cards like Standstill and Oath as core engines, and build towards more of the same, rather than restricted strategic objectives like Yawgmoth’s Will or Tinker.

Skill in Vintage

The diminished presence and influence of the Restricted List has many ramifications. It not only makes the format look less diverse, from a strategic standpoint, but it also makes the format look less powerful. Vintage, from a format-wide perspective, is at an all-time low power level. The most prominent cards that are used in Vintage today are not designed to end the game upon or shortly resolution, but rather to attain concrete but tangible advantages that, through gradual accretion, result in victory. This may make the format appear more skill intensive, especially since the luck associated with drawing restricted cards may be minimized. But I worry about the opposite.

One of the corollaries to concerns about a stale format, or a format dominated by either Gush decks or Thorn strategies, is the complaint that experience and skill are no longer as important or influential in determining game and match outcomes. Seen from the wide lens perspective, this complaint has some merit. Skills that were once decisive, such as knowing when to play Vampiric Tutor, and what to tutor up, no longer matter to the extent they once did.

Manipulating restricted cards adroitly, such as chaining tutors, building up and executing a lethal Yawgmoth’s Will or interfacing Gush with Fastbond are plays that require experience and strategic foresight. Deciding whether to play a Vampiric Tutor on your opponent’s end step or your upkeep, and knowing exactly what to retrieve is a dividing line between the expert and the novice.

More broadly, the more homogeneous format is more linear, and defined by the same set of tactics within each broad archetype. Thus, Vintage players are less frequently required to excavate a deep line of play to find a possible out (although LSV did Vamp for Dig Through Time to find Pearl and Balance to defeat me in Season 5 of the VSL, few Gush decks run Vampiric Tutor these days!). Linearity and homogeneity mean that the plays within matches are more intuitive and matches are closer to mirror matches than in years past. When Keeper, Control Slaver, Gifts or Psychatog mirrors were unfolding, the sheer quantity of branching plays, and the implications of each branch were more sharply distinguished. The branches in today’s Gush mirrors are more likely to pose the question whether to bottom a cantrip or draw it and play it next turn.

This is not to say that the format today is not skill intensive. I firmly believe that Gush is one of the most skill intensive cards in Vintage – past, present, or future. But the cards around it and the shell Gush currently inhabits, like many of the other strategies in Vintage, is more linear and intuitive than Vintage decks of eras past.

And, while this may seem like a nostalgic mourning, nothing could be further from the truth. The reputation that Vintage once held, as a broken format where unfair things happen, has rarely been less true. This is a format where Landstill can now win the Vintage Championship (and just did). My concern, however, is with those who pine for Vintage past. Some have found it in Old School Magic, but Old School Magic cannot easily replicate the intensity and high impact decision making found in Vintage of the mid to late 2000s.

Nobody Happy But Everyone Wins

Which brings me to some of the complaints that people have had about the format of late. Even before Lodestone Golem was restricted, a subset of players wanted Gush and Dark Petition restricted with it. Since then, a vocal group of players have hardly let up their complaints about Gush, although splinter groups have also focused on Gitaxian Probe and even Preordain. Restricting Preordain is logical when you compare it to Ponder, a card already on the list, and if you are trying to clip the wings of Gush decks.

But, could it be that a state of affairs where many are slightly unhappy is the best possible outcome? Most Vintage players, myself included, have strong ideas about what should – and should not – be placed on the Restricted List. Some players have preferences that veer dramatically from the current list, and others would prefer just a few tweaks. Some want a bunch of cards restricted, and others would like to see a bunch unrestricted.

But considering all of those various preferences in aggregate, there is no way to manage Banned & Restricted List policy in a way that leaves everyone happy. For everyone person who wants Oath of Druids restricted, there is probably someone that would like Windfall unrestricted. To take a concrete example, with almost 300 people voting, 20% of people in a December poll felt that restricting Lodestone Golem was a mistake, with more than 20% unsure. That means that only 59% of respondents were confident that restricting Golem was the right move, and that was eight months after the fact.

Given the diversity of preferences in the format, it may well be that the optimal state of affairs is where everyone is a little bit unsatisfied, like an auction or sale in which both the buyer and seller feel like they could have done better. Broad, but simmering discontent may be a feature of a healthy format. That’s not just the utilitarian in me; it’s a practical assessment. If 75% of the player base was thrilled with the format, but 25% deeply unhappy, is that really a better state of affairs than if 50% of the player base is a little unsatisfied, but few truly unhappy? I would suggest not.

A format where most players are happy, but a discrete and insular minority are unhappy would reflect, likely, imbalanced B&R List management, favoring some segments over others. Instead, a format where there is a low grade discontentment is probably reflective of a balanced and fair state of affairs.

Looking Ahead

When seen from the broadest lens, the Vintage metagame has been in an ascendant O’Brien School period, especially since the restriction of Treasure Cruise (although tempo-based Gush decks have risen as well, boosted by major printings like Cruise and Dig). Both schools have been hampered by restrictions in recent years. The restriction of Chalice of the Void and Lodestone Golem hurt, but they opened a space for Thalia, which puts this school back on track, and in a position of great strength. The latest printings, however, have been violent salvos against Gush decks. Not only did Kaladesh provide new tools for Workshop strategies, but Paradoxical Outcome has proven itself to be a predatory strategy for Gush decks. Gush decks can adjust to this state of affairs by running more Null Rod effects and more countermagic, but Aether Revolt’s Walking Ballista is perhaps the strongest weapon against tempo-based Gush decks printed for Workshop decks since Thorn of Amethyst. The intuitive answer to these low-to-the-ground Workshop decks is more creature removal, but such tactics are virtually useless against the Paradoxical Outcome decks, even if they feature creatures. As strong as Gush decks are, positioning them against both Paradoxical decks and Workshop decks with Ballista may be an unrealistic tightrope to walk.

On the other hand, as strategically advantaged as Thorn decks are against Paradoxical strategies (on paper, it’s a nightmare matchup), in practice, Paradoxical strategies are possibly stronger against Thorn decks than their Gush competitors. The potential to simply win on Turn 1 or Force of Will a Turn 1 threat and then win on the draw is real, and Ballista strategies will need measures beyond more Thorn effects. This is why, when I played Eldrazi in the January Power Nine Challenge, I ran Null Rod in the sideboard, despite featuring Walking Ballista, as well as a trio of Missteps (Misstep being not simply for Plows, but also to buy a turn on the draw against Paradoxical decks).

Aether Revolt’s arrival may have forestalled or merely postponed a hard reckoning, by giving Workshops a nearly perfect implement against Gush strategies, strengthening both O’Brien School strategies as well as Paradoxical Outcome strategies’ position in the metagame. But the varying expectations of different player segments are going to eventually require resolution. That resolution will require a resetting of expectations and an acceptance of the realities of this format.

For the players that compete day to day or even weekly, the hard part of that resolution is the necessary acceptance that Vintage is not like other formats. As an Eternal format, it is supposed to change gradually. The complaints that some players have about a stale format need to be viewed skeptically, with a better appreciation for the character of a format that is now well into its third decade. This is a format, first and foremost, for players to enjoy in their spare time, and the priorities of the format should be to those players, not those looking for new decks every week.

But for many of the format’s old heads, the hard part is a different form of acceptance. It is the acceptance that printings like Grafdigger’s Cage, Dack Fayden, and Mental Misstep have fundamentally pushed the big blue decks of yesteryear to the margins. That’s why draw engines like Paradoxical Outcome are viable (as were Dig and Treasure Cruise), while Gifts Ungiven and Yawgmoth’s Will are bit players, if played at all.

If history is any guide, there will be plenty of surprises for Vintage the rest of this year. But we would all benefit if we could appreciate and learn from the needs and perspectives of our fellow Vintage player, from the daily grinder to the annual Vintage Championship competitor. For those who feel disquieted about the format, I hope that a different perspective can alleviate some unease.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian