So Many Insane Plays – What is the LEAST Unrestrictable Card in Vintage?

This month may herald some exciting changes to the Vintage Restricted List. In recent years, the DCI has typically made adjustments to the Vintage Banned and Restricted List mid-year, perhaps with an eye towards the Vintage Championship at GenCon. For each of the last five years, changes to the Vintage Restricted list have been announced, and all of the announced changes to the Vintage occurred in June or September.

Debates over the Restricted List generally follow the same narrative in two forms: a particular card is too dominant, and statistical evidence or player discontent is proffered in support; alternatively, a particular card can be safely unrestricted, because players want it and the unrestriction would have a modest statistical impact on the format given what we know about the metagame. Last week I co-wrote an article arguing that Fact or Fiction should be unrestricted along those lines. In both cases, the argument centers on whether a card would be statistically healthy for the format and the degree of player support for or against a particular change.

But what if we flipped the question? What if, instead of asking “what is the most unrestrictable card in Vintage?,” we flip the script, and ask “What is the LEAST unrestrictable card in Vintage?” Why ask this? If we can answer this question, we will be forced to conceptualize and formulate a clearer understanding of the Vintage Restricted list and the purposes it serves. We may uncover hidden or obscured criteria for restriction or unrestriction. And, this process may help answer the original question regarding what the most unrestrictable cards in Vintage may be. This is likely because, in most cases, a person answering this question will likely begin by working backward.


There are many challenges to answering such a question. Many cards on the Restricted List have been there for years, if not decades. It is far from apparent, even to the most insightful Vintage players or analysts, how a particular card might impact the metagame when unrestricted. The most recent statistical evidence or metagame data for a particular Restriction may have been in the 1990s.Does it even make sense to talk about how the format might change if Black Lotus were unrestricted? How might the experience with those cards be extrapolated, accurately, into the modern Vintage format? Only with great uncertainty. Second, there is a lack of agreement on the criteria for Restriction. Even if we could agree on such criteria, there would be the further difficulties of creating consensus on how to rank order such criteria, and then how to apply such criteria. There are no readily available solutions to these difficulties.

Three Questions

The good news is that I do not need to generate consensus, and I can decide which criteria matter, how to rank order them, and how to apply them. In tackling this question, I decided to answer three questions:
1) To what extent would the proposed unrestriction generate a dominant deck in Vintage (or a deck duoply – i.e the best deck and then the anti-best deck)?
2) To what extent would the proposed unrestriction generate a dominant or omnipresent tactic in Vintage?
3) To what extent would the proposed unrestriction lead to unacceptable frequency of turn one or turn two kills (or functionally won game states), undisrupted?

I realize that these questions have their own semantic ambiguities. What is meant by “dominant?” What is an “unacceptable frequency” of turn one or turn two kills? “Dominant” generally means 40% or more of Vintage Top 8 decklists features that archtype or tactic (although Force of Will meets the latter criteria, at around 66% of Top 8 decks in Vintage). An “unacceptable frequency” of turn one or turn two kills is almost certainly satisfied if it happens more than 25-33% of the time, and it is probably unacceptable to happen more than 15-20% of the time.

Applying these three question to each hypothetical unrestriction, I created a ranked list of cards that I felt would accomplish one or more of these ends. The ranking reflects both 1) my degree of confidence or certainty in one or more of those outcomes and 2) my view as to how dominant such unrestrictions would be relative to each other.

A Caveat

This may seem like a cop-out, but I don’t think it makes sense to include the Alpha mana accelerators restricted in January, 1994 on this list. Why? While we can legitimately evaluate the potential impact of unrestricting any one of these cards, I believe they are as much a context for the format as they are tactics, which may or may not contribute to a problematic or dominant strategy. These cards aren’t restricted because of concerns over format dominance; they already dominate the format. I don’t think it is useful, analytically, to discuss unrestricting any one of these cards, as such a context would dramatically change the background assumptions of the format:
Black Lotus
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Sol Ring

The reason I have not added Mana Vault or Mana Crypt is that, while both cards are very important, they were only Restricted in 1997, after four years of continuous play in the format, and thus do not constitute the same background context as these 7 artifacts.

The Restricted List, From Least to Most Unrestrictable

Time Walk
Ancestral Recall
Demonic Tutor
Tolarian Academy
Mana Crypt
Vampiric Tutor
Merchant Scroll
Yawgmoth’s Will
Mana Vault
Mystical Tutor
Lotus Petal
Imperial Seal
Lion’s Eye Diamond
Strip Mine
Mind’s Desire
Wheel of Fortune
Time Vault
Thirst for Knowledge
Gifts Ungiven
Yawgmoth’s Bargain
Memory Jar
Library of Alexandria
Fact or Fiction
Demonic Consultation
Burning Wish

General Overview

The bottom 4 cards, I think, are safe unrestrictions (Flash, I don’t believe – but could be wrong – could really do anything reliable with Merchant Scroll and Brainstorm restricted). The 5th through 8th from the bottom are cards that one could argue for unrestriction, although I’d be wary of seeing unrestricted. Regrowth may well prove to be a safe unrestriction, but it seems among the most risky of those presented given the possibility of recurring Time Walks or Ancestral Recalls.

The top 10 cards are all cards that would produce dominant tactics in the format, not just dominant decks, and have generally proven this in the past or in the present, even restricted. What differentiates cards at the top from each other is the ease with which I’m confident they would be dominant relative to each other.

Necropotence, Tolarian Academy, and Tinker share the same space near the top of the list because all three seem to represent affirmative answers to each of the three questions asked. In the first place, they would each generate a super-dominant strategy. A 4 Necro deck is virtually impossible to defeat, provided it can play and resolve Necropotence in the first two turns. The card advantage is simply overwhelming. Likewise, a Tolarian Academy deck should have little trouble winning on turn one or turn two, especially in a format with Mox Opals. Tinker is already perhaps the most dominant restricted strategic spell in the format, usually outperforming both Time Vault and Yawgmoth’s Will. The fact that Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus can be answered by Hurkyl’s Recall does not sway me on its rank position because that still constitutes a dominant deck, so much so that every deck would be forced to run many maindeck solutions. I ranked Necro above Academy and Tinker only because it seems to me that a 4 Necro deck should be able to beat the other two. Necroptence’s overwhelming card advantage is only limited by the ability to play Necropotence.

Yawgmoth's WillYou may be surprised to see Yawgmoth’s Will at tenth, below Necro, Tinker, and Academy. If the question were “what is the most powerful card in Vintage?” or “what is the most strategically dominant card in Vintage?” the answer to both questions, at one time or another, may well be Yawgmoth’s Will. However, that is not the question asked. Yawgmoth’s Will is far from a safe unrestriction, but there are features to the card that make it safer than the cards above it. Take a simple comparison to Necropotence. Between a 4 Necropotence deck or a 4 Yawgmoth’s Will deck, I am quite confident that the Necropotence deck better satisfies the three criteria for list placement. First of all, both decks are going to be grossly dominant, but Necropotence is virtually impossible to answer tactically except preventing it from resolving, since Necro supplies the answers to anything that would threaten it. In contrast, a simple Tormod’s Crypt or set of Leylines can slow a Yawgmoth’s Will strategy. More importantly though, Yawgmoth’s Will just isn’t as fast as Necro. A 4 Necro deck with 1 Yawgmoth’s Will seems far more potent than a 4 Yawgmoth’s Will deck with 1 Necropotence. The 4 Necro deck will outdraw and build a larger and more lethal Yawg Will faster than the 4 Yawg Will deck is capable of doing, everything else being equal. Yawgmoth’s Will is a card that wouldn’t even necessarily be desirable in many or even most instances as a four-of. The proper number may well be 3. A Necropotence deck wants all four. Academy, Tinker, and Necro are all just much faster than Yawgmoth’s Will, and consequently, affirmatively answers the third question with greater confidence than Yawgmoth’s Will.

Mana Crypt, Vampiric Tutor, Merchant Scroll, and to a slightly lesser extent, Mystical Tutor, Imperial Seal and Mana Vault, would be hideously dominant tactics. We’ve seen how incredibly dominant Merchant Scroll was in Vintage from 2005-2008, practically owning the format, and not simply in the sense that Brainstorm did, but really from a strategic perspective. Both Vampiric Tutor and Merchant Scroll allow you to abuse the best restricted cards in the format, helping you overcome the limitations imposed by the list itself. Mystical Tutor, while less potent than Vamp or Merchant Scroll, would have a similar, but less magnified influence. The same is true of Imperial Seal relative to Mystical Tutor. Lotus Petal is the Imperial Seal of remaining artifact accelerants.

The next four cards, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Channel, Trinisphere, and Strip Mine are all of the same class: they are here because they generate turn one and turn two kills with an unacceptable degree of frequency, not necessarily because they would each generate dominant decks or even dominant tactics, although I believe they would. Channel and Trinisphere exemplify this. Both cards can literally or functionally win the game on turn one or turn two, but it’s not clear that they would generate unbeatable decks. Strip Mine also functionally wins games, although does so less directly. Lion’s Eye Diamond should never be underestimated as an accelerant. It is incredibly broken, especially in Vintage where it can be used to abuse Yawgmoth’s Will and in concert with Draw7s. Time Vault is also an example of this class of cards. Time Vault’s dominance in Vintage is partly a function of the fact that it is the most efficient way to generate infinite tempo and card advantage for a two card combo, and thus is one of the best strategic endpoints for a Blue deck. The presence of Tezzeret in the format and the heavy use of Tinker also power it up. In other words, it’s a lot like Yawgmoth’s Will. It doesn’t gain as much unrestricted as other cards relative to it gain unrestricted. It’s power is tremendous whether its restricted or unrestricted, and unrestricting it, while powering it up, would not give it the boost that a card like, say, Mind’s Desire would obviously get unrestricted.

Mind’s Desire is also an example of the next class of cards: dominant draw engines, and sits well next to Thirst For Knowledge, Gifts Ungiven, and Wheel of Fortune. Thirst For Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven were each dominant blue draw engines that eventually required restriction. Thirst is above Gifts for two reasons, although Gifts is probably a more broken card. Thirst decks were the most dominant Vintage decks since Merchant Scroll was unrestricted. Thirst is the next most efficient blue draw spell in the format after Ancestral Recall. Gifts Ungiven, while dominant, was not dominant to the same degree as Thirsts decks, and, perhaps more importantly, relied on either Thirst or Merchant Scroll to support it. Gifts Ungiven would no doubt be ridiculous in a Time Vault environment, but Thirst is just as good, if not better. Gifts, being slower and easier to hate, is a safer unrestriction than Thirst For Knowledge, especially with Merchant Scroll and Thirst restricted.

Wheel of Fortune, you may be surprised, is the least unrestrictable Draw7. Timetwister is quite good, but Wheel is better with Yawgmoth’s Will and is easier to accelerate out, since cards like Simian Spirit Guide, Tinder Wall, Desperate Ritual, and the like can power it out (in decks like Belcher). Wheel of Fortune would also go in a wider range of decks, including possible use in mono-red Workshops, where it could be abused with Goblin Welder. Wheel of Fortune is the ideal Draw7 in a Storm combo deck that can splash red.

The number of efficient or free counterspells printed in recent years like Mindbreak Trap and Mental Misstep, and other early game answers, like Leyline of the Void or Leyline of Sanctity have greatly weakened Draw7s, with their inherent symmetry, relative to other efficient draw spells. Five years ago they each would have been higher on this list. This is a major reason why Draw7s have fallen from favor in recent years as combo engines.

FastbondFastbond is a very good card, but it’s a mana accelerant that doesn’t actually generate mana by itself. Fastbond is broken with Gush, Draw7s, and other forms of burst card advantage. It’s also quite good with Crucible of Worlds. Fastbond would do ugly things to Vintage unrestricted, but I don’t have very much confidence that it would generate a dominant deck or a dominant tactic. It would just make Vintage more swingy, and produce some functional turn one and turn two kills. That’s what it shares with cards like Yawgmoth’s Bargain and Balance. Ad Nauseam has proven that Yawgmoth’s Bargain, while arguably the greatest “I win” card in the format when resolved, may not be all that problematic unrestricted. Granted, Bargain is a superior card to Ad Nauseam, but the differences aren’t all that stark.

Balance doesn’t deserve its place on the Restricted list because it would be a dominant tactic or strategy; both are unlikely. The problem with Balance is that it’s so devastating to creature-based strategies, and is pretty much a silver bullet against Fish or aggro decks. Balance also very much powers up Workshop decks, which would take advantage of the asymmetry since Balance ignores artifacts. Balance may also be very good with Planeswalkers. The format could survive the unrestriction of these cards, but it wouldn’t look pretty.

Memory Jar is primarily a Tinker target in modern Vintage (which is why unrestriction wouldn’t be that impactful in terms of Storm combo decks (see Ad Nauseam for a similar spell at the same cost), but it may well do broken things in Workshop combo decks that use Metalworker, and can be annoyingly recurred with Goblin Welder. I wouldn’t unrestrict it, but I have low confidence it would dominate the format.

Brainstorm isn’t restricted because it would generate a dominant strategy, but because it’s a dominant, and unfair blue tactic. I happen to think that it should stay where it is. Many Vintage players disagree. It’s no Merchant Scroll. We can agree on that.

But what about the top of the list? Necro, Tinker, and Academy are three cards that would produce strategically dominant decks. They are fast and hard to stop. The difference between Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and Demonic Tutor, and those three cards, is that the former would be dominant tactics, not just strategies. I had a great deal of difficulty sorting the top three. A case could be made for each. Ancestral Recall is ridiculous in multiples, where each Ancestral can draw more Ancestrals. A format with 4 Ancestrals would be a format where every player has 4 Misdirections. It would be a hideously dominant tactic. Likewise, a 4 Demonic Tutor deck can probably beat anything. The only thing I’d take over a 4 Demonic Tutor deck is a 4 Ancestral or 4 Time Walk deck.

What’s So Special About Time Walk?

A 4 Time Walk deck probably beats a 4 of just anything else deck, and that’s the main reason it’s on top. Why? Turns are the most important resource in Magic, not cards. If you can deny your opponent turns, they can’t possibly win the game. Vintage games are compressed more than any other format, such that most Vintage games lasts between 3-6 turns, with an average of probably around 4.5 turns per player per game. Unrestricted Time Walk is about as close as you can get to a one card Time Vault.

Time Walking into more Time Walks is the only thing more broken than Ancestral Recalling into more Ancestrals. With a 4 Time Walk deck, between 33-50% of the time, I would take 3 turns before my opponent has their first or second turn (depending on who went first). In other words, I would be taking three turns in a row. There is virtually no way an opponent can recover from this. What good is Necropotence if you can’t play it? Necropotence doesn’t matter if you can’t play it, or if you can’t untap having used it. A Gush deck that can play turn one time walk could easily do this. You play turn one time walk, you then cantrip, gush, and voila, you’ve found another Time Walk. Not to mention, the Time Walk replaced itself.

In any case, you probably take, on average, more than twice as many turns per game as your opponent. That’s simply overwhelming. If the average Vintage game lasts 4.5 turns, and I get to turn four or five before my opponent has had their second turn, I have already won the game. In a format like Vintage, where turns are so compressed, there is simply no way to beat this.

A Time Walk deck doesn’t even have to focus on comboing out or taking infinite turns. Merely taking two turns for every one your opponent gets should more than suffice. The resource advantage is so tremendous that a Time Walk deck can easily give the opponent a turn to play something into their Spell Pierce or Mana Drain, and then untap and continue taking turns, or be so far ahead, much as with Necro, that nothing the opponent does matters.

Time Walk denies the opponent the capacity to do anything by preventing them from having the most important resource in the game: a turn. All of the other broken cards are fancy baubles when your opponent is Time Walking. The only thing you can do is try to Force their Time Walks, and cards that can be used against Ancestral, like Mental Misstep or Misdirection, are useless. Mindbreak Trap is even going to be difficult to use against Time Walks. And each Time Walk will increase your ability to play more Time Walks, as you will likely have generated some kind of resource advantage on each turn. I’d much rather have a 4 Time Walk deck than a 4 Yawgmoth’s Will deck. The 4 Time Walk deck will build and set off a game winning Yawgmoth’s Will before the 4 Yawg Will deck can likely do the same.

What do you think? What would your Vintage Restricted List look like, in order of least to most unrestrictable? Speak out.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian