The Little Juggernaut That Couldn’t

The April 2016 Banned and Restricted List announcement has arrived. It has affected only a single card in Vintage, but that card is arguably the most important card of the past six years.

The announcement in full:
We continue to see an imbalanced metagame. In particular, Mishra’s Workshop–based decks continue to be significantly overrepresented, reducing the competitive metagame. While this issue could be solved by restricting the namesake card, if possible we would like to keep the deck at a competitive level, but played to an extent that the format is more diverse overall. Lodestone Golem leads to some of the less-interactive games. We are hopeful that limiting Workshop decks to one copy of the card leaves the deck at an appropriate strength. For that reason, Lodestone Golem is restricted.

Before we examine the impact of the restriction of Lodestone Golem, let’s parse the reasoning given by Wizards. There seem to be three elements of reasoning that come together to form the argument. First, Workshops are overrepresented. Second, Lodestone Golem is non-interactive. Third, big-mana artifact decks would likely be undesirably weak if Mishra’s Workshop were restricted.

The first point strongly implies that the DCI is looking at Magic Online data as the primary source of Vintage results. Online, Workshops has not dipped much below 30% of the metagame, while in paper 30% of results sustained over time would be a historic high (see for example So Many Insane Plays Podcast Episode 51, which discusses this difference in depth). The shift to online results is likely inevitable; sanctioned, high-frequency Vintage play primarily exists online. Online play produces abundant data from Daily Events as well as ample large-tournament data from the Power 9 Challenge series. Online play is also the natural home for Vintage should Wizards want to increase support and visibility for the format. Wizards can profit from paper Vintage play, but it is more natural and direct for them to profit online, where they can sell the cards used to play the game directly to players. As a result of these factors, it’s likely that Wizards would eventually have to focus their support and format management on online Vintage. One interesting result could be the diplomatic immunity of Auriok Salvagers. If Wizards is overwhelmingly concerned with online play, Salvagers could have a relatively free hand in paper magic. Auriok Salvagers and other strategies based on infinite loops are potentially powerful in paper but often unplayable online. While a restriction would follow total dominance, Auriok almost certainly has more leeway than other cards in the immediate future.

The second point of the restriction announcement is alternately minor or troubling. Lodestone’s purported non-interactivity could be simply a normal criterion used to select the ban/restriction target in an offending deck. More worrying, it may be a sign that the Vintage Super League has an outsized influence on restriction considerations. The Vintage community in total plays the format differently than do Randy Buehler and his VSL friends; consequently the community has come to different conclusions about the nature and health of the format. Three-round mini-tournaments against opponents known in advance encourages very active metagaming rather than building all-rounder decks. If ten Magic pros, Hall-of-Famers, and Vintage champions conclude that Workshops is unbeatable, that does not make it so. High-profile Magic with vastly more participants can take months to find the Caw Blade deck, or to break Necropotence, or to divine the existence of Lantern Control. On the other hand, perhaps Lodestone is simply the target of normal restriction considerations. The air of inevitability surrounds this aspect of the decision as well. So long as Lodestone Golem was unrestricted, Workshops applied incredibly more pressure and disruption than they had prior to Lodestone. Rack and Ruin and Viashino Heretic have long since disappeared from the anti-Workshop arsenal. Players have been forced to turn to more extreme options like Ingot Chewer, Hurkyl’s Recall, and even Pulverize. By restricting Lodestone Golem, slower but arguably stronger spells may once again become the favored tools for the Workshop matchup. That level of pressure was likely to forever warp the format, and if so it seems inevitable that sooner or later Workshops would hit an upswing big enough to provoke the restriction of Lodestone.

The third and final claim of the restriction announcement is that restricting Mishra’s Workshop would neuter the archetype with undesirable consequences. Of course, the destruction of an archetype is an undesirable consequence in and of itself. If players want to play Oops, All Spells or Cephalid Breakfast or Enchantress (as many Legacy players do) the purported non-interactivity or linearity of those archetypes should only be a factor if the decks are also successful in tournament competition. Instead, the desires of those players should be encouraged or at least tolerated – this is a game, after all. A version of the Mishra’s Workshop archetype which is “fair” in tournaments is therefore desirable by default. Moreover, Shops has some degree of a format “Sheriff” role. It preys on Gush-based Aggro, Storm, and other decks which are inherently greedy for mana. Without some deck filling that role, there is no metagame backstop against the impulse to develop more aggressive manabases and more resilient, explosive yet costly win-conditions. This threatens to invalidate the control and tempo decks of the format. Thus inevitability rears its head again. As long as Mishra’s Workshop is desperately needed to cast Sphere of Resistance in Vintage, it enjoys a degree of safety and latitude. This is to some extent the old “Pillars of Vintage” argument, but broken out from the idea of fixed pillars and instead targeted to address and control the metagame. Mishra’s Workshop was probably not spared by virtue of nostalgia for the Black Lotus that lacks an “off” switch but rather by virtue of the need of Wizards to maintain realistic safeguards in the format. Behind locked glass and marked “emergency only” there needs to be something stronger than Mindbreak Trap. Lodestone Golem unlocked the case, wiped away the emergency markings, ate food after midnight, and went on a rampage but Mishra’s Workshop may yet prove a useful emergency tool.

The timing of this restriction is unfortunate. The targeted archetype just suffered what was meant to be a major restriction, with somewhat diminished play as a result. Nonetheless, it seems inevitable. It is inevitable that Wizards’ primary focus shift to online play, and likely inevitable that Lodestone Golem face restriction. The more exciting and interesting question is: what next?

Possible Futures

The biggest and most obvious winners are the splashy, mana-hungry decks of Storm and Mentor. Because very few options could potentially replace Lodestone Golem by applying both pressure and disruption, the midrange Workshops decks will diminish one or both attributes. With less disruption, Storm is more able to race. With less pressure, it is better able to develop mana and deploy trumps to the Workshop strategy such as Hurkyl’s Recall and Rebuild. Largely the same analysis holds for Monastery Mentor. While Storm may face additional sideboard slots worth of hate, the Storm sideboard is already tuned to beat the most likely candidates.

Dredge is a surprising winner. While the decline in prominence of Workshops will free up sideboard space, Dredge already has an outsized share of the typical opponent’s sideboard. It seems unlikely that large amounts of additional graveyard hate will see play. Even if hate were vastly increased, the “Pitch Dredge” strategies that Lance Ballester and I have popularized are somewhat immunized against widespread hate. The success of these decks already relies on a perverse incentive: blue-based opponents who sideboard in seven functionally blank hate cards are worse off than those who bring in merely five. Lodestone Golem paired with land disruption was one of the few openings that could really threaten every Dredge variant in game 1 of a match, so removing most of that threat is a favorable development. Similar to Storm, a slower tempo clock from Workshops against Dredge will more fully allow sideboard strategies such as artifact destruction or Dark Depths to operate.

Oath of Druids is a likely loser. It is generally unfavorable against Storm and Dredge, and seems unlikely to gain favorability against Monastery Mentor as a result of this restriction. Sideboard cards like Grafdigger’s Cage, Nature’s Claim, and Abrupt Decay are often meant to hit Oath of Druids as well as other metagame targets. With fewer of these targets, Oath could be targeted more squarely with Containment Priest, Karakas, or simply more of the most effective options such as Abrupt Decay.

The Eldrazi are possible winners as well. The consensus seemed to be that the deck was interesting and powerful, but simply less effective than Mishra’s Workshop decks. With the restriction of the best artifact creature, we may see some bifurcation among the colorless, big-mana creature decks. The Workshop Affinity / Tiny Robots deck may be the creature-spam aggro deck of choice, and Workshop control strategies will probably continue to exist. In the middle however, there may be space for the Cthulhus to claim a midrange territory.

Hate-bears and disruptive aggro like Merfolk and BUG Fish could join the Eldrazi in cannibalizing midrange Workshops’ metagame share. These decks were generally worse at presenting a combination of disruption and pressure than the Midrange Shops decks. Without the long shadow of Lodestone Golem, these decks might have a better chance to come out into the light.

Finally, I think Delver and small-mana Gush decks with Young Pyromancer will experience a somewhat negative movement. They gain as Oath of Druids is less played, but all the other metagame shifts are negative. With a robust suite of answers, these decks can fight Storm as aggro-control and try to gain metagame percentage that way, but they are less well-equipped to do so than the true disruptive aggro decks, against whom Delver struggles. Every other metagame adjustment seems negative for Delver.

A long and significant chapter of Vintage history closes with the restriction of Lodestone Golem. A new, and exciting chapter opens. It promises to be one of greater diversity, tinged by the threat of Storm, but nonetheless bursting with possibility.