The Curious Case of Mishra’s Workshop

With 5 out of 8 spots consumed by shop decks I thought I’d post some thoughts that I’ve been boiling for a year of so now, since the restriction of Chalice of the Void.

If you objectively looked at Vintage Champs this year, were unencumbered by budget or cardboard loyalty concerns, and had to choose a deck of the ‘known’ options, Mishra’s Workshop Aggro was a great choice. Workshops are always a good choice when ~50%+ of the format is on 3.8 Missteps, 1.2 Flusterstorms and half a Pyroblast game one. But how did we get to where we are? How can we destroy the current dichotomy?

The current duality (plus Dredge) of the format was largely unchanged by the restrictions. It is largely decks with Mental Misstep, and the deck that ignores it – Workshops. On MTGO you have 31% of the field, 40% of Top 8s as Workshop decks, but Mental Misstep still being played at north of 85% of its apex (about 3.2 out of 4) in *all* non-taxing decks (with even Dredge now even caving to the incestuous nature of Misstep). If you lump in Pyroblast you are north of 90%.

A common retort is that Force of Will is played (slightly) more than Misstep. No sane person is advocating a Force of Will restriction. This is an inaccurate comparison. A quick look at building a deck from scratch reveals this. Nobody discards a card from contention in a list because it gets countered by Force of Will. Nobody omits a card from a deck because it can be Force of Willed or Mana Drained or Spell Pierced or Spell Snared or even Flusterstormed. Mental Misstep alone wears that crown of shit. Go listen to or read any Vintage focused set review. They are littered with sighs, ‘oh wells,’ and qualifications about what a waste of time a 1 mana sorcery speed spell in the face of a hail of Missteps. So why does this even matter? What has been left on the scrap heap of deck building due to being a massive tempo blowout when a +1 mana, 2 life instant gets exchanged for your actual mana?

Misstep oppresses many cards that can tactically fight Shops and Mentor/Blue Stew, especially post-Thorn restriction. Those cards either aren’t worth sinking mana in to, or you are sucked in to the same endless vortex that got it banned everywhere else: Misstepping the Misstep that Misstepped the Misstep. Unlike Force of Will, more Force doesn’t beget more Force. But the best way to fight Misstep is Misstep, because in Magic nothing beats free. This is worth reiterating, we are at 4 Missteps because of how the card and resulting play pattern operates. If no one plays it its efficacy wanes, but once its adoption grows it spreads everywhere because there’s nothing more efficient than no mana. So what cards are stranded in purgatory? Remember Goblin Welder? Thoughtseizing the Mentor or lock piece? Pithing Needle? Deathrite Shaman? Noble Hierarch? Fatal Push seems great against these Aggro Workshop builds. Illness in the Ranks in your board? Hate Delve…RIP Dryad Militant! None of these cards are earth shattering but they litter the growing graveyard of interesting cards that get cattle bolted on the drawing board. Additionally you can play these cards but are then burdened with stuffing your deck full of the ubiquitous Misstep.

Along the way we’ve had several pariahs cast out and burned – cards like Gush, Chalice of the Void, Lodestone Golem, and Gitaxian Probe. These cards may have in fact needed to go but it’s tough to understand which were the real offenders, because of some of the irreparable ‘mistakes’ that WotC has made like the Delve and Phyrexian Mana mechanics.

So how did it come to this? New Phyrexia was around for years before Misstep reached almost 4-of everywhere. In my opinion Delve / Dack / Tokens was the lever that when pulled opened the dam, and really got the blue stew boiling. It also pushed Gush back to being the dominant tactic, and made Mental Misstep and Gitaxian Probe’s usage skyrocket. When free was just free it was pretty good, and people played some Missteps along with their Steel Sabotages and Spell Pierces. But when free nets you +1 mana for your delve spell, and Mentor and Pyromancer become too good. Once the usage went up there is a ‘stickyness’ to Misstep because of its incestuous nature. In the period before Khans in some of the largest events ever where Gush, Thorn, Chalice and Golem were legal, and we’re talking about massive ~250+ person events like Bazaar of Moxen, Gush was barely a footnote and Workshops were far from dominant. The winning blue decks largely centered around Dark Confidant (BUG Null Rod Fish, Grixis control, etc.), or Tinker and Time Vault. Even a notoriously busted card like Gush was a bit player in these events circa Spring 2012 and 2013.

Bazaar of Moxen VII 2013 (294 players, 3 MUD, as the blue decks begin playing 3 MM + Fluster)

Bazaar of Moxen VI 2012 (326 players, 2 MUD, 0 Gush, 4 other very different blue decks)

Let’s go way back to the first major Vintage event post New Phyrexia, Bazaar of Moxen V 2011. This was a 483 person event, to this day one of the largest Type 1 events ever. Workshops with 4 Lodestone Golem and 4 Chalice of the Void put only ONE deck in the Top 8 in a paper event bigger than Vintage Champs. Let’s step back, 483 players. 1 Workshop deck in the Top 8 – with access to 4 Sphere of Resistance, 4 Thorn of Amethyst, 4 Chalice of the Void, 4 Lodestone Golem, 1 Trinisphere, and 4 Phyrexian Metamorph. Makes you scratch your head right?

Why? Because those blue decks aren’t mired in 4 Missteps, X Flusterstorms, and so many other dead cards main deck. Look at the winning deck. 4 Thoughtseize, a Steel Sabotage and 2 Hurkyl’s Recall. Cards with actual text against Workshops! We had 2 big Tezzeret decks, 2 Gush Storm decks, 1 Workshop deck, 2 Dredge decks, and a Painter deck make Top 8. So why didn’t all of those decks run 4 Missteps? It’s because the ancillary benefits of filling your yard for Delve didn’t exist, token makers weren’t ubiquitous, and if nobody is playing Misstep its benefit wanes.

The format has narrowed to Misstep and taxing effects, and has been since Delve ‘RoonedMagic4Ever’. The confluence of Phyrexian Mana, Delve, Dack, and insane token generators has done such irreparable damage it’s nearly impossible to untangle the impact and craft a solution. Mentor was miserable, but it didn’t change much as a 1 of – it’s still become Workshops vs. Missteps. I predicted those 3 spots would become a couple of Pyromancers and a random shitty creature, or a Null Rod / Stony Silence, since you may cut Moxes, and that largely seems to have become the case. These blue stew decks were all over Champs. Even decks with a perceived commitment to compete in Game 1 against Workshops like RUG Delver have to play 4 Missteps to resolve their Insert Wizard. Despite 3-4 Strip effects, Lighting Bolts, Abrades, and even Null Rods, Game 1 is a slog.

Now we have ongoing mumbling about restricting Workshop. It’s bizarre how some people want their cake and want to eat it. When you propose some main deck hate against this supposed predator of the format you are typically told it’s a blue format, and that blue decks can’t give an inch in the blue stew mirror. Why not? Why is there an inalienable right to build decks with 6-8 cards that are text-less against 1/3 of the field? Another argument thrown back is that Workshop decks themselves play dead cards against Shops Game 1. This is very true as Spheres, Chalice, and Trinisphere can range from awful to mediocre depending on play/draw, and who draws more mana. Even these cards which are typically quickly sideboarded out are far from Misstep which reads as being Blue and occasionally getting a stray Sol Ring.

If you believe in trying to force a “blue deck” to have spells with text against a deck that’s a 1/3 of the field game one, which I’m not necessarily defending, then Misstep needs to go. It will also open up deck building space for the natural Workshop predators to reemerge. Decks like BUG Fish, which could actually resolve a Deathrite or Thoughtseize without a Misstep war. Other creature based Null Rod decks have a shot to establish their creature base without spinning their wheels wasting main phase mana against a wall of Phyrexian idiocy. Whether or not the new deck building space gets claimed remains to be seen, but I have confidence that the format’s deck builders will take full advantage.

The argument that some aggregate combo deck like Ritual Storm will slaughter us all if we have only 1 Misstep are unfounded. Taxing and Null Rod decks are a natural predator for these decks. In addition to Flusterstorm and Mindbreak Trap, there have also been half a dozen hate bears that completely stone Storm. Compounding the fear are newcomers, especially MTGO only players might not even remember Vintage deck construction before the 4 Misstep era. Another argument is that a resolved Ancestral will dominate every match. To that I simply say, welcome to playing something other than blue! Vintage survived 4 Merchant Scrolls with Ancestral, and it will be fine with 1 Misstep. Pre-MTGO Vintage players could even experience the occasional joy of Misdirecting an Ancestral.

It just sucks. I remember flying to Europe in 2013, so excited to play Vintage. The floor was littered with tons of different decks. Noble Fish, StoneBlade, BUG Fish, Bomberman, GushBond Storm, Doomsday, Null Rod Shops, Metalworker Shops, Dredge, Oath, Grixis Control, Welders, Standstill, Budget Junk, and Merfolk decks littered these events. Get rid of Misstep and free the dozens of interesting cards on the cutting room floor, and open up deck design space for players to innovate. Free Vintage from the mistake of Phyrexian mana.