So Many Insane Plays – Vintage and Old School Banned and Restricted List Recommendations (2020)

As Banned and Restricted List debates are a perennial topic of discussion, I decided a few years ago to limit my commentary under this header to a once-a-year article, released sometime mid-year, spelling out my criteria for restriction, and my preferences for managing the formats I play, namely Vintage and Old School formats. Here are my 2019 recommendations, and here are my 2018 recommendations. Prior to that, I simply wrote ad hoc articles on the subject, such as this one from 2011, or many others on StarCityGames.com.

In this article, as before, I present my preferred Banned and Restricted Lists, and recommended changes to official or heavily used lists for Vintage, Old School ’94 (more commonly known as “93/94”), Old School ’95, Old School ’96, and Old School ’97. Unlike last year’s article, I have no new recommended changes to any of these Old School formats, but I do offer some additional elaboration and argumentation in favor of my lists, partly in response to changes from other organizing entities.

The most novel and exciting part of my Old School discussion concerns a relatively new Old School format, Alpha 40, also known as Alpha Constructed or Alpha League, another niche Old School format I have fallen in love with. The discussion over this format will occupy a disproportionate swath of my analysis here, and should be interesting even to those who have no interest in playing the format. It’s an interesting thought piece on how to design a Banned and Restricted List for just a single base set, let alone the most famous set of all time.

Regarding Vintage, I am pleased that many of my recommendations from last year have since been adopted. Although some were obvious (e.g. Mystic Forge), the change I was most pleased to see occur was the unrestriction of Fastbond, a card I had recommended unrestricting in each of the past two years. Unrestricting Fastbond opened up interesting design space in the Vintage format without creating a dominant or otherwise problematic deck. I devoted a lengthy segment on behalf of this proposition in my last two articles in this series, and I am happy that my forecast for that card proved accurate.

Regarding Old School, I am also glad that Eternal Central has unrestricted Maze of Ith in Old School 94, 95, and 96, and restricted Demonic Consultation in 95, two changes I also advocated last year, and have since been adopted. I can only hope that further changes recommended here are adopted by organizing authorities.

In last year’s article, I presented five criteria for restriction (or banning) in Vintage, and three principles to guide the application of those criteria. To briefly recap, the five criteria were: Metagame Diversity (Quantity of Competitive Decks), Competitive Balance (Match Win Percentage), Dominance (Sustained Win Rate), Counterplay (Interactivity), and Polarization. That article explains these criteria in detail, and provides examples or precedent. The three principles for applying these criteria are 1) Tame, But Don’t Kill, 2) Minimize Splash Damage, and 3) Preserve “Build Around” Cards. These principles were explained as well. Rather than recapitulate those explanations, I direct you there.

Let’s begin our format journey with Vintage.

My Suggested Vintage Banned and Restricted List

The following cards are banned in Vintage:
25 cards with the Card Type “Conspiracy.” Click here for list.
9 cards that reference “playing for ante.” Click here for list.
Cards whose art, text, name, or combination thereof that are racially or culturally offensive are banned in all formats. This list is a work in progress. Click here for the list.
Chaos Orb
Falling Star

The following cards are restricted in Vintage:
Ancestral Recall
Balance
Black Lotus
Brainstorm
Chalice of the Void
Channel
Demonic Consultation
Demonic Tutor
Dig Through Time
Flash
Golgari Grave-Troll
Gush
Karn, the Great Creator
Library of Alexandria
Lion’s Eye Diamond
Lodestone Golem
Lotus Petal
Mana Crypt
Mana Vault
Memory Jar
Mental Misstep
Merchant Scroll
Mind’s Desire
Monastery Mentor
Narset, Parter of Veils
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Opal
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Mystic Forge
Mystical Tutor
Necropotence
Ponder
Sol Ring
Strip Mine
Thorn of Amethyst
Time Vault
Time Walk
Timetwister
Tinker
Tolarian Academy
Treasure Cruise
Trinisphere
Vampiric Tutor
Wheel of Fortune
Yawgmoth’s Will

Differences between my suggested list and the official DCI Vintage Banned and Restricted List:

Lurrus the Dream Den

The companion mechanic has created unusual turmoil in Vintage, among other constructed formats. It was banned from Vintage on May 18 2020, due to its dominance. Just two weeks later, however, Wizards announced power-level errata to the Companion mechanic as a whole. By tacking on an additional cost to activate Companion, Wizards reduced the overall power level of Companion.

It is a source of puzzlement and frustration that Lurrus remains banned. It is functionally a dissimilar card. Imagine printing Black Lotus, banning it, and then issue errata that increases the mana cost by three, but then not unbanning it. That’s basically what’s occurred here.

There may be some legitimate concern that Lurrus may still see widespread play, but keeping it banned without testing that proposition undercuts the vision and spirit of the format, that cards generally should not be banned for power-level reasons unless proven necessary.

The banning of Lurrus was the first power-level ban in Vintage since February 1, 1996, when Mind Twist was banned., more than 23 years ago. It is moot to debate whether Lurrus needed to be banned in the first place. The Companion errata makes that banning presumptively unnecessary, and it should be swiftly reversed.

Windfall

Although many players think that Imperial Seal is the safest unrestriction in Vintage, I think that honor goes to Windfall. It sees zero play today, and would see only marginally more play if unrestricted. There are already plenty of Draw 7s in Vintage, from Day’s Undoing to Time Spiral.

Draw 7s are at their all-time nadir in the format, thanks to the gradually expanding supply of free countermagic, like Force of Negation, on top of cards like Mindbreak Trap. It’s harder than ever to capitalize on a Draw 7, and break symmetry.

Imperial Seal

I once regarded Imperial Seal as a risky or at least an unrestriction of uncertain effects. My concerns were around assembling two-card combos or finding other absurd restricted cards, like Tinker. Yet, Imperial Seal sees very little play, despite its raw power. And plenty of other tutors are available for a Tinker deck, like Personal Tutor.

Top deck tutors are generally uninspiring in contemporary Vintage, especially with cards like Surgical Extraction seeing so much play. At the same time, cards like Gush and Gitaxian Probe, which can plop the tutored-for card to hand immediately, are restricted.

The vast hive mind of Vintage players have apparently concluded that Imperial Seal has more cost than benefit. I imagined it would be quite strong as a Lotus-tutor in the brief Lurrus metagame, but the evidence never lent support for that hypothesis either. Imperial Seal may one day become useful, but that day seems remote. It makes sense that my colleagues like Rich Shay regard it as the safest unrestriction. It should be unrestricted.

Shahrazad

As I said last year, this card was legal in Vintage for years before it was banned again. Although the reasons it was banned are not ridiculous, there are reasons to reconsider it. As Ian Duke said on behalf of the DCI in the context of Nexus of Fate, “we prefer [work around alternatives] to making a ban based on logistical reasons rather than balance reasons.” The same reasoning applies to Shaharazad. If this card is actually a problem for space and logistical reasons, then it should be restricted. Competitive players won’t play with it anyway, but it should be allowed to exist in Vintage, especially now that most Vintage play is on MTGO. I would unban it again, and then evaluate it for possible restriction if need be.

Mox Opal

Paradoxical Outcome has a strange relationship with Vintage. One week, it seems like the best deck in the format, and another, it dips to a sub-40 percent match win rate. More qualitatively, it can seem unbeatable when playing it, and other times it feels like a clunky mess. It vaults a consistent pod of players into the Vintage Championship Top 8 every year, but only once took down the top prize in four years. It’s hard to know what to make of PO overall.

There have long been calls to restrict PO, but those have mostly abated in recent years. But those calls haven’t always rested on its performance, but on its non-interactivity and speed. PO can win blazingly fast, and feel frustrating to face, even if the game is close. It can also just win out of nowhere, by topdecking a PO even if the opponent is far ahead on board.

The data supports the position that PO occupies a healthy perch. In the month of June 2020, since the Companion errata, there were 8 Vintage Challenges, and PO appeared in 14 percent of Top 8s from those events. In other words, it was well-represented, but not dominant.

I argued last year that Paradoxical Outcome should not be restricted. And I happen to agree with that position today. But I do think that this archetype could stand to be taken down a peg for two reasons. First, I think it is better than the overall data pattern suggests. Some of the best players in the format play this deck, and when they are gunning for victory, PO is extremely deadly. This is why it does so well at the Vintage Championship every year. When it really counts, PO shines.

Secondly, the deck has simply reached a saturation and evolutionary point of peak maturity. The deck has been essentially hyper-tuned by the hive mind, and it is no longer novel, cute or metagame balancing. The real costs of unfun, especially when PO gets a lucky opening hand of three artifact accelerants and a land, and simply “goes off.”

The solution is simple: restrict Mox Opal. The mainstay PO deck runs three Mox Opals, and restricting it would slightly slow the PO deck down. Mostly, it would greatly reduce the chance of a turn 1 PO, especially one that can cascade, as the PO player would need a Sapphire to keep going, or the lone Opal.

The case for restricting Mox Opal extends beyond the application in PO. Mox Opal is the best Mox not printed in Alpha, and both Mox Diamond and Chrome Mox were restricted at one point. And it is more widely used than an artifact accelerant that is still restricted: Lotus Petal. In many ways, Opal is better than Lotus Petal.

Also, restricting Opal would zero out any risk engendered by unrestricting Windfall.

That’s what I would do in Vintage. 

Additional Note on “Racist” cards:

The issues raised by the “racist” card bannings are beyond the scope of this article, as this article is focused on issues of competitive balance, metagame diversity, etc. In general, I applaud Wizards for making an effort to ban cards that they believe or have reason to believe foster a hostile environment, but I will avoid the enormous challenge of trying to assess whether this principle was appropriately applied in each case, and whether there are cases they missed. Such an analysis would not only swamp the space in this article, but is better suited for a different one altogether.

My Suggested Old School 94 Banned and Restricted List

Here is the Banned and Restricted List I would personally recommend for Old School 94 (more commonly referred to as 93/94; I simply adopt the term Old School 94 as a convention that extends to later years).

The following cards are banned in Old School 94:
Bronze Tablet
Contract from Below
Darkpact
Demonic Attorney
Jeweled Bird
Rebirth
Tempest Efreet 

The following cards are restricted in Old School 94:
Ancestral Recall
Balance
Black Lotus
Braingeyser
Chaos Orb
Channel
Demonic Tutor
Library of Alexandria
Mana Drain
Mind Twist
Mishra’s Factory
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Regrowth
Sol Ring
Strip Mine
Time Walk
Timetwister
Wheel of Fortune

For reference, here are:
The Swedish Old School ‘94 Rules
Eternal Central ’94 Rules
The Atlantic ’94 Rules
Pacific ’94 Rules

Differences between my suggested Old School 94 Banned and Restricted List and other Old School Format Banned and Restricted Lists:

Mishra’s Factory

I would restrict this card, for reasons I gave in my article last year. The case is even stronger in metagames were Strip Mine is also restricted.

Strip Mine

I would restrict this card, for reasons I have given repeatedly, but reiterated last year. My most elaborate explanation is in the 2018 article.

Recall

I prefer to have this card unrestricted, for reasons I have given before. Nearly all rules sets except EC have unrestricted this card. In September of 2019, however, EC provided a more elaborate explanation for why it would not unrestrict this card.

There are three elements in the EC explanation: the looping, repetitive behavior and play sequences it enables, the types of decks that make use of it and lack of diversifying upside, and the advantage-padding blowout effect of the card. I take issue with all three points, and will present the counter-arguments here.

First, while I certainly agree that Recall, in decks like TwiddleVault or MirrorBall or any other combo deck can create looping, repetitive sequencing (much like Paradoxical Outcome can do in Vintage), that is not what Recall does in the main, or even broadly speaking. Recall is widely used, and not just by a narrow slice of Combo decks or The Deck, but by various control decks of all types, including UR Counterburn and mid-range or Aggro-Control decks. In those strategies, Recall generally presents something of a unique set of options.

The caster has to consider what to discard, and what to retrieve, and whether to try for just one card, two or possibly more. Targets vary enormously. At best, I’m often simply using it for Ancestral Recall (which isn’t nearly as card advantageous as Regrowth). Sometimes, I’m using Recall just to find a Counterspell and/or a Red Elemental Blast. Other times, I’m using it retrieve a removal spells, like a Shatter or a Chaos Orb. And Under EC or PAC rules, it’s not unheard of that I’d use it to pick up a pair of Strip Mines.

The point is that Recall is used, not to further a banal and repetitive sequence of plays, but as a more general purpose utility effect, involving multiple simultaneous decisions.

Second, I take issue with the claim that “The presence of an unrestricted Recall also does nothing to open up Old School formats to a wider array of healthy decks.” In particular, the EC explanation cites TwiddleVault, Underworld Dreams Combo, URx Control, and The Deck. I would agree that URx Control and The Deck are strategies that use and can use multiple Recalls, and that boosting these strategies is not in the interests of diversifying the format. But I completely disagree that TwiddleVault and Underworld Dreams Combo, among other strategies, are not strategies we want to boost.

Old School ’94 has a distressingly small quantity of Combo decks making Top 8s. It is routinely in the single-digit figures of Old School ’94 Top 8 data. If Recall makes these combo decks better relative to the field, even boosting their Top 8 presence by a few percentage points, that is a major argument in favor of unrestricting Recall. Now, perhaps the EC explanation emphasis in the quoted sentence is not on “opening up” but on “healthy,” and EC takes a dim view on combo being a healthy part of the metagame. That would explain why EC maintains unrestricted Strip Mine: Aggro, Aggro-Control, and Combo constitute a much larger portion of the EC metagame than in formats where Strip Mine is restricted.

I take the opposite view: I think that the metagame is healthier when there is more overall diversity, not more Aggro or Aggro-Control, and believe that the EC metagame has too much of this, and too little combo. The EC metagame is precisely the metagame that could use more TwiddleVault.

Third, I also disagree that Recall is a blowout leading and advantage super-boosting effect. Very often, it is an excellent come-from-behind card, where you can exchange two superfluous lands for two immediately useful effects, like a Chaos Orb and a Lightning Bolt. Even where you have an advantage, Recall generally does not feel like it turns a small lead into an insurmountable one. Rather, it feels like a small, but palpable uptick on the advantage bar, not the swing that the EC explanation implies. Because of the exchange of cards called for, Recall does not turn a 50-50 game into an unbeatable position.

To add to these arguments, I would note that EC is now an extreme outlier in the Old School community, which has uniformly unrestricted Recall without incident or complaint. I begin with the default position that all cards should be unbanned and unrestricted unless they need to be. But the EC explanation appears to begin with the opposite premise: that the unrestriction of Recall must have some great upshot that merits unrestriction. That assumption would be remarkable in Vintage, where cards are routinely unrestricted when they slip beneath the high threshold meriting restriction.

Recall should be unrestricted.

Time Vault

I prefer this card to be unrestricted, for reasons I have given before. I called for this in 2018, and it has since been adopted by both Atlantic and Swedish rules.

Mishra’s Workshop

I prefer this card to be unrestricted, for reasons I have given before. Here, the Swedish rules are the outlier.

Additional note: I want to acknowledge that EC has since unrestricted Maze of Ith, a card I have been arguing for unrestricting for many years now.

My Suggested Old School 95 Banned and Restricted List

Here is the Banned and Restricted List I would personally recommend for Old School 95.

The following cards are banned in Old School 95:
Bronze Tablet
Contract from Below
Darkpact
Demonic Attorney
Jeweled Bird
Rebirth
Tempest Efreet 

The following cards are Restricted in Old School 95:
Ancestral Recall
Balance
Black Lotus
Braingeyser
Channel
Chaos Orb
Demonic Consultation
Demonic Tutor
Library of Alexandria
Mana Drain
Mind Twist
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Necropotence
Regrowth
Sol Ring
Strip Mine
Time Vault
Time Walk
Timetwister
Wheel of Fortune

Differences between my suggested Old School ’95 Banned and Restricted List and Eternal Central’s:

Strip Mine

The same reasoning given for why I believe this card should be restricted in Old School ’94 applies here.

Recall

The card is not dominant, does not support a dominant strategy, and is even less compelling in Old School ’95 because of Forgotten Lore. Even if EC believes Recall should be restricted in Old School ’94, I strongly believe that position should be reconsidered for Old School ’95. Recall gets much worse as more sets are included, not better.

Necropotence

See my explanation in 2018.

Time Vault

Why do I restrict Time Vault in Old School 95, but not 94? Ice Age creates an absurd bevy of combination options that make it much more dangerous. There is an excellent write-up of this here.

Additional Notes:

Demonic Consultation

This is no longer a difference. I advocated for this last year, and EC has since decided to restrict it in their format as well.

Maze of Ith

EC also unrestricted Maze of Ith in Old School ’95 since last year’s article.

My Suggested Old School 96 Banned and Restricted List

Here is the Banned and Restricted List I would personally recommend for Old School 96.

The following cards are banned in Old School 96:
Bronze Tablet
Contract from Below
Darkpact
Demonic Attorney
Jeweled Bird
Rebirth
Tempest Efreet 

The following cards are Restricted in Old School 96:
Ancestral Recall
Balance
Black Lotus
Braingeyser
Channel
Chaos Orb
Demonic Consultation
Demonic Tutor
Library of Alexandria
Mana Drain
Mind Twist
Mystical Tutor
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Mystical Tutor
Necropotence
Power Artifact
Regrowth
Sol Ring
Time Vault
Time Walk
Timetwister
Wheel of Fortune

Differences between my suggested Banned and Restricted List for Old School ’96 and from Eternal Central’s Old School ’96 Rules & historical Type 1:

Necropotence

As with 95, I recommend Necropotence’s restriction. There is no doubt that the card has tremendous upside, but what it does is polarize the environment and crowd out other interesting deck ideas. If Old School ’96 got large and interesting enough to see regular play, then it might be OK, but for a small gathering, if even a few people play Necropotence, it creates a very warped field. I think, at least for the time being, it needs to be restricted.

Mystical Tutor

See my 2018 explanation for why Mystical Tutor should be restricted.

Demonic Consultation

I note that Consult is now restricted in EC’s Old School ’96, but was not in historical Type 1. The reason is the same as for ’95, but in additional it makes both MaskNaught and Power Monolith way too consistent, and I believe Demonic Consultation should be restricted here as well.

Additional Note: I do not restrict Strip Mine in Old School ’96, the only Old School format with Strip Mine permitted in which I keep it unrestricted. I explained why in 2018, but basically it is not quite as obnoxious due to the speeding up of alternative strategies and there are many specialty lands that it can help address.

My Suggested Old School 97 Banned and Restricted List

Here is the Banned and Restricted List I would personally recommend for Old School 97. 

The following cards are banned in Old School 97:
Bronze Tablet
Contract from Below
Darkpact
Demonic Attorney
Jeweled Bird
Rebirth
Tempest Efreet

The following cards are Restricted in Old School 97:
Ancestral Recall
Balance
Black Lotus
Braingeyser
Channel
Chaos Orb
Demonic Tutor
Library of Alexandria
Mana Crypt
Mana Vault
Mind Twist
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Mystical Tutor
Necropotence
Power Artifact
Regrowth
Sol Ring
Strip Mine
Time Vault
Time Walk
Timetwister
Wheel of Fortune
Vampiric Tutor

So far I can tell, there is no organizing entity with a published list of Old School ’97 Banned and Restricted list aside from the actual historical Type 1 list of the time.

Differences from Old School ’96:

Mana Drain

This is the first Old School format with Legends where I think Mana Drain can be safely played as a four-of. Mana Drain can now be unrestricted given the fact that non-control decks were boosted by the more recent sets permitted in this format, such as Tempest.

Mana Crypt and Mana Vault

In 2018, I wrestled what to do about the Prosperity deck. In that year, I recommended restricting Prosperity instead of Mana Crypt and Mana Vault. This follows from the “narrow tailoring” principle described earlier. Last year, I reversed my judgment on that for several reasons.

First of all, keeping Prosperity unrestricted keeps the deck concept alive. But restricting Mana Vault and Mana Crypt helps rein this strategy in significantly. Mana Crypt is already powerful on its own, especially with cards like Browse, and may be worth of restriction even outside of the Prosperity deck. I think this produces a healthier format.

Vampiric Tutor

Vampiric Tutor is restricted. It’s even better than Mystical Tutor, and needs to be restricted for the same reasons.

Strip Mine

Strip Mine is restricted again because Wasteland is in Tempest. Having a format with 8 Strip Mine and Wasteland effects is far too many. Strip Mine was restricted in early 1998 for this very reason.

My Suggested Alpha League Banned, Restricted, and Moderated List

Banned List:
Contract from Below
Dark Pact
Demonic Attorney
Mind Twist

Fast Mana Group
You May Play One of the Following (and not one of each):
Black Lotus
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire

Power Group
You May Play One of the Following (and not one of each):
Ancestral Recall
Balance
Chaos Orb
Timetwister
Time Vault
Time Walk
Wheel of Fortune

Restricted List (you may include one of each of the following:
Armageddon
Braingeyser
Channel
Copy Artifact
Demonic Tutor
Earthquake
Fastbond
Howling Mine
Mana Short
Mana Vault
Nevinyrral’s Disk
Regrowth
Sol Ring
Stasis
Winter Orb
Wrath of God
Badlands
Bayou
Plateau
Savannah
Scrubland
Taiga
Tropical Island
Tundra
Underground Sea 

Moderated List (You may play a maximum of 3 of each of the following):
All Rares
Berserk
Black Vise
Copper Tablet
Counterspell
Hurricane
Hypnotic Specter
Icy Manipulator
Juggernaut
Lightning Bolt
Orcish Oriflame
Psionic Blast
Sinkhole
Swords to Plowshares

This portion of the article is going to take a bit more work to explain, so you might start by perusing the beautifully rendered “official” current Alpha 40 B/R/M Lists, created by a few guys associated with the “Northern Paladins.” The design of the format is thoughtful, original, and bold.

Having fallen in love with regular Alpha 40, the league rules were surprising, but also surprisingly balanced. I found them well calibrated to a fun experience and to the goal of making it competitive for much less expensive decks, relatively speaking.

The format is a blast, and having played in the June League (tournament report is forthcoming!), what stuck out to me most was how deep the Alpha card pool really was to create such a wonderful set of game experiences. I had games resolved by decking, by combinations of prison cards, by strange and wonderful combos, by skill and by sheer luck.

Take a minute to study their rules, and familiarize yourself with the structure of the format rules before studying my suggested list. It is important to note that cards not on these lists can be played in any number, which means that most commons can be played in sets of 10 or 20 or even more. 

Differences between the Northern Paladin Alpha League Rules & Mine:

Category Consolidation

The designers of this format have too many darn categories, eight of them. I’ve consolidated that down to six. I absorbed their “Draw Group” and “Destruction Group” into other groups. The next two items pertain to this.

Chaos Orb, Balance, Nevinyrral’s Disk, and Armageddon

Chaos Orb and Balance are of a totally different power level than Armageddon and Disk, which are just obnoxious and annoying. I would move Chaos Orb and Balance to the Power Group, and Disk and Armageddon to the Restricted List.

This separation does a number of things consistent with the original rules. First, it means that players can’t play both Chaos Orb and Balance. But it also means that if they want to play Chaos Orb, they can’t play with any Blue Power Nine. This takes Chaos Orb out of the hands of the most powerful Blue or U/x strategies, something that I feel is sorely needed. Under the Northern Paladin rules, these strategies are slightly over-powered. Alternatively, the highly powered U/W deck has to choose between Chaos Orb, Balance, or Ancestral Recall. If the U/W player, however, elects to play Chaos Orb or Balance over Ancestral Recall, then as compensation, they can now run Nevinyrral’s Disk as well as Wrath of God. I feel these are fair trade offs, given the structure of the format.

Disk is also very interesting with Sedge Trolls and Uthden Trolls. Under this rule structure, the Troll deck can run both Disk and Chaos Orb, something it couldn’t do before. Again, I am comfortable with that.

Braingeyser, Howling Mine, and Jayemdae Tome

These cards are all strange and interesting in this format. Jayemdae Tome is a strange card in Alpha 40.  The problem with Tome is that it is not a card you would really want to play more than 2-of. So it’s nearly restricted by itself. It is also not a card you’d play with Howling Mine, so it’s silly to have in the same group. Having played against Tome enough in this format, I don’t think it’s over powered. But if you want to restrict it, I’m also cool with that. But I don’t think it should be in its own group. I would just moderate Tome as a rare, and restrict Howling Mine.

Howling Mine is a fun and exciting card in Alpha 40, and a card that I feel should be encouraged to see more play, just not in multiples. By putting Howling Mine in the same group as Tome and Braingeyser, it discourages its play more than I feel it should be. Howling Mine can’t be permitted in multiples in a format with just 40 card decks and such great removal spells, but I don’t think it needs to be “super-restricted.” I don’t think players with Braingeyser or Jayemdae Tome would event want Howling Mine, and vice versa.

The harder card to fix is Braingeyser. It is immensely powerful in a format with mostly 40 card decks, and is an unbelievable win conditions for a deck that survive long enough. It certainly needs to be restricted. But I don’t think it needs to be in some special group. Just restrict Braingeyser and Howling Mine to prevent a deck from deck the opponent too easily.

I admit to having some reservations about letting players have both Ancestral Recall and Braingeyser together, but that is already permissible. If I were to make any change here, it would be to add Braingeyser to the Power List, but I think it’s probably acceptable just as a restricted card, which is mostly how it’s played at the moment anyway.

Fastbond

The best thing you can do in this format with Fastbond in this format is play Fastbond and then cast a Timetwister or Wheel of Fortune on your first turn. This is not possible under the Northern Paladin’s rules, which is why Fastbond sees zero play. My recommendation is to remove Fastbond from the “power” group, and simply restrict it. Even in this way, Fastbond can’t be used with both Wheel of Fortune and Timetwister. Players have to choose just one. I think that’s fine, to have this happen once in a blue moon.

The next best thing you can do is probably use Fastbond with other draw spells, like Howling Mine or Enchantress. Again, that’s also fine with me, and I don’t think creates a competitive imbalance. Howling Mine benefits an opponent first, so even if it makes Fastbond better, there is a decent risk that it backfires as well.

In fact, not only would I not put Fastbond in the “power” group, I’m not even sure it needs to be restricted. If you open a hand with Fastbond in Alpha, it is not like you are going to be swamping your opponent that same turn. In an 8 card opening hand, the most you are likely to be able to do is play three more lands and cast a three-mana spell, which makes it a weak Dark Ritual. Historically, Fastbond wasn’t restricted in Type 1 until 1996, so it was never among the cards that were most feared back in historical Magic. And this was when you could play Fastbond with both Wheel of Fortune and Timetwister. Moreover, I would love to see an Alpha 40 deck with 3 Fastbond and 3 Enchantress.

In a non-Enchantress 40 card Alpha deck, how many would you play if you could play no more than 3 (all rares are “moderated”)? I’m not sure. Maybe the full 3, but I simply don’t find that scary. Unless there’s something I’m missing, Fastbond should either just be restricted or moderated. But it doesn’t need to be super restricted into the power group. For the time being, I recommend just restricting Fastbond, and taking it out of the Power Group. But after assessing that experience for a while, I would consider unrestricting it entirely.

Mana Vault

I’m sorry, but Mana Vault isn’t nearly as good here as it is in, say, 93/94. You can’t use Mana Vault with Transmute Artifact, and although you have Juggernauts, Juggernaut is good, but it’s not actually that fearsome. It is answered by almost every deck in the format, with Paralyze, Bolt, Plow, etc. I don’t think players should have to choose between a Mox and a Mana Vault. Mana Vault isn’t even in the same class. Moreover, how can Mana Vault be super-restricted, but Dark Ritual unlimited? It doesn’t make sense. I would just restrict Mana Vault, and study its behavior from there. But putting it in a group with Sol Ring means it is never going to see play, and it is effectively banned.

Fork

One of my opponent’s in the June league said that Fork was the worst card in his deck. Fork wasn’t restricted in historical Type 1 until 1995, and that was in a format with a much larger and more obnoxious card pool. Fork is not an obnoxious card, but a reactive one. In Alpha 40, Fork has precious few targets, and even fewer with the stringent deck construction rules. This is not a format with a lot of big, bombastic plays, like in Vintage or even historical Type 1. This is a format where most players are durdley or removal spells. Fork seems well within the parameters of the format. I would unrestrict Fork entirely, and let it be moderated naturally as a rare.

Disrupting Scepter

Disrupting Scepter is a great card, but it is incredibly mana intensive. Unlike Jayemdae Tome, which hits peak power when you have plenty of mana, Scepter is strongest in the early game, when the mana investment is most costly to your development. I don’t know how firm the basis to restrict Scepter was, but I would treat Scepter the same way as Hypnotic Specter, and moderate it as a rare.

Sinkhole, Stone Rain, and Ice Storm

When I first started composing this article, Sinkhole was permitted in unlimited quantities in the Northern Paladins league rules, a gaff of histrionic notability. A deck with 15 Sinkholes is not acceptable or balanced. Thankfully, that error-by-omission has been corrected, but sadly overly so.

In addition to moderating Sinkhole, the format stewards also moderate Stone Rain and Ice Storm, two cards that have not, to the best of my knowledge or based upon the explanations provided, produced dominating league decks. Rather, this decision was based upon the concern that, with Sinkhole moderated, someone might build a heavy Stone Rain deck with similar results.

Count me as a skeptic. Sinkhole is immensely powerful not just because of its mana cost (costing a full mana less), but because it can be played in a hyper-efficient mono-black deck. A first turn Ritual, Hypnotic Specter can be supported by an endless supply of Sinkhole for victory, with the opponent having no chance to recover. That same sequence is not as feasible with a mono red deck, or even a R/G deck with Elves to facilitate Ice Storm and Stone Rain. I’ve got such a deck built, and it’s just not the same thing. Even worse, I think this has negatively impacted some budget Ponza decks that relied on a few more Stone Rain, at no real harm to the metagame.

The Sol Ring Problem

I’ve saved the most controversial – and the most important – topic for last: the Sol Ring problem.

The format is very well designed to make it possible for “budget” players to compete, a laughable term, I realize, for a format where the cheapest card is like $20, but by this I mean that the format is competitive players who don’t own Power Nine or dual lands. The restriction of dual lands makes it extremely difficult for players to easily build 3 or 4-color decks, as would otherwise be the case, and dominate a mono-color budget player.

The problem is that for players who own Power, or who can optimize any deck, the design of the format effectively bans Moxen and Black Lotus. Why? Because for the vast majority of decks, Sol Ring is just far better than even Black Lotus. I’ve considered a number of Alpha League decks, and Sol Ring is just so much better than the alternative. The only exceptions I can think of where you might want a Lotus or on-color Mox over Sol Ring are in the case of a mono color deck (and not just any mono color, but probably of just a few colors). For example, if you are playing a Stompy deck, then Lotus or Emerald is probably better than Sol Ring. But even in some of the cases just mentioned, Sol Ring will be just as good, if not better.

This creates a problem, in my opinion. And the problem is that the construction of the rule results in the de facto ban of Moxen and Black Lotus. Why is this a problem? Part of the fun of Alpha is seeing these sweet, older cards. Moxen create a spice and excitement. Yet, we don’t want game play to get out of hand. So what’s the solution?

The solution is simple: remove Sol Ring from the fast mana group. Allowing a player to build a deck with Sol Ring and an on-color Mox is not going to imbalance the format. Sol Ring is already by far the most accessible card in these groups, and a player without an on-color Mox is not going to too disadvantaged over the course of a match. If anything, the problem is that when one player has Sol Ring, it’s hard for the other player to compete. Giving them another chance to draw a Mox to catch up may improve competitive balance overall.

In an ideal world, I would make players choose between Black Lotus and Sol Ring, because my vision of fair here is for players to be able to play a Sol Ring and a Mox. But I can’t think of a way to administer this that doesn’t create another grouping. My goal is that I think players in Alpha 40 should be able to build a deck with a Sol Ring and one Mox, and this amendment to the deck construction rules facilitates this objective.

Conclusion

The management of formats is no easy or simple matter, but good management is vital to the health of a format. There is no single approach to managing a format through the Banned and Restricted List, but a range of possible philosophies. Without purporting to suppose that my approach is the only or the best approach, I strive to be clear on what my goals are, and transparent in how I rank those criteria. A more aggressive or even more libertarian approach could produce interesting and fun formats.

The best that a format manager can do is consider all of the evidence, weigh the pros and cons, and monitor the effects of their decision against their hoped-for-outcomes, and make adjustments as necessary. You can’t please everyone all of the time, but it should be possible to foster a diverse and balance format without too much difficulty.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian