Vintage Champs 2017 and the State of Vintage

This is going to be a long article, because there’s a lot to touch on. If you care about nuanced policy, this may appeal to you. If you are turned off by a wall of text, please seek hot takes in the form of social media posts and video clips elsewhere. Policy has far reaching implications, whether I agree with it or not, and whether I enjoy the cards and decks being affected or not. I own all the cards, I test all the cards, I lend out the cards I’m not using. They are a sunk cost, and I’m not worried about the value of them because of policy changes. The truth is I enjoy playing every type of strategy in Vintage, from hatebears to Workshops to combo to Dredge to the broken blue decks that play all of the most fun cards. In my own preparation for Champs this year I tested and seriously considered 6 distinctly different decks for Champs, then narrowed it to 4 in the final days, before finalizing my 75 the morning of.

The Top 8 of Vintage Champs 2017 consisted of 5 very similar Workshop Ravager Aggro decks and 3 Oath of Druids decks. At first glance, this might look quite alarming, but this ignores the changes that are happening in Vintage, and the decks that narrowly missed the Top 8 (both on tiebreakers, or tripping up a single match along the way). When looking at a metagame, results, and policy, I think it’s a good idea to not exclusively rely on Top 8 data (which is already weighted quite heavily), but look at everything.

Vintage does not have a two-deck metagame, and it is certainly not dominated by one deck. We are nowhere near the days of Standard formats where a particular deck may occupy 65+% of a given Top 32 at a StarCityGames Open event full of grinders. The Top 9th-58th decks or so (21-24 points, IE. one win away or different tiebreakers from Top 8) of Vintage Champs contained tons of other stuff, including Mentor/Pyromancer decks of all stripes, Dredge, Grixis Control, Landstill, Paradoxical Combo, Blue Moon, BUG, Mono Red Moon Control, Delver, StoneBlade, and more (see the sortable table titled “NA Vintage Champs 2017 Standings After Swiss – 21 Points or Better” on our coverage page here). These are all decks that were potentially a single match win away from us seeing a much different Top 8, and that’s why I think it’s often a mistake to only zero in on Top 8 deck performance. We are seeing some interesting new decks bubble to the surface in the Magic Online Vintage League events. This format is arguably less much homogeneous than the current state of Legacy, and even many large Modern events over the past couple of years. We’ve seen a rash of Banned and Restricted List movement in Vintage the past calendar year (well beyond historical norms), coupled with a lot of new impactful printings, and I think it’s time to let it breathe for a little while.

That being said, there’s been a lot of bellyaching about Vintage basically since Vintage came to MTGO, alongside the advent of the Vintage Super League. Both of these have helped grow Vintage exposure and turnout, but also have seemingly brought more of a bubbling muck of discontent than ever before with the additional eyeballs on the format, so I’d like to use this piece to discuss a handful of cards and strategies that are front and center. We’re in a place where Workshops has been at or near the pole position in terms of win percentage against the field on and off for well over a year (White Eldrazi and a couple of others providing brief interruptions for monthly analysis). Workshop Aggro has unquestionably reeled off an impressive string of victories in 2017, and proven itself to be one of the apex predators, for the time being. This is not the first time in Vintage history this has been the case, and the metagame has adapted over time, partly because of new printings, and partly because it was given time to do so.

Rational Actors and Deck Building

The next few paragraphs assume, simply for the sake of intellectual exercise, that players would act rationally in their own best interest to attempt to win the tournament they are paying to enter. We know that people don’t always act rationally though, nor do we have perfect information, so take this discussion with those caveats in mind. Some people are just going to jam what they feel like (or play the cards they have access to) and we’ll ignore that for the time being.

The natural argument goes that we logically build our deck to have the best chance of winning a tournament. If blue decks are 60+% of a given Vintage metagame, it would make sense that you tilt your build accordingly to beat what you are most likely to face percentage-wise, and then fill out your deck and sideboard to help address anything else beyond that where you have blind spots. This is a very simplistic way of looking at a confluence of factors that go in to deckbuilding and metagaming, but the sentiment is logical, if you can accurately predict the metagame and specific decks you’ll face in a tournament.

But not all variables are easy to predict, and not all cards and matchups are evenly weighted, even if you luckily manage to be assigned them at a perfectly predicted ratio of their metagame saturation. As such, those blue builds with tons of dead cards main deck might be the absolute nuts against other blue decks, but may be quite miserable against Workshop decks, Dredge, and other things that occupy a smaller percentage of the metagame. What if this makes your blue deck a 30-70 underdog in Game 1 against Workshops? What if it makes you a 10-90 underdog in Game 1? It’s incredibly difficult to win every Game 2 + Game 3 across those matchups if you are consistently getting destroyed in Game 1 by Workshops. And even aside from that, the strategies and individual cards chosen to combat those non-blue decks may be suboptimal in and of themselves. We’ll get in to that a bit later in the discussion.

To put it more simply, in the current state of Vintage the small incremental advantages you gain by having 4-9 cards in your main deck that are only relevant against blue decks, and blanks against Workshop decks, are often outweighed by the fact that you are such an underdog against Workshop decks that they often don’t even sideboard anything against you in post-sideboard games. That’s how much of a leg up they have on blue decks with how current iterations are constructed, and the inherent advantages they hold over blue decks playing a handful of textless cards main deck, and which often operate on mana bases that are too light. The tradeoffs of so much blue infighting may simply not be worth it, and the data seems to be proving this case.

Many of the blue decks are essentially becoming “glass cannon” decks, built to beat other blue decks and combo decks, but incapable of consistently defeating the boogeymen in the room that has the highest match win percentage the past few months, and unwilling to adjust accordingly. That is the tradeoff, or “the cost” of loading up any deck with conditional cards. Blue decks, and Vintage, are not alone in this regard.

Addressing Mishra’s Workshop Itself

I have heard time and time again the misleading phrase “Mishra’s Workshop is a reusable Black Lotus that you can tap every turn!” Can we officially stop with this nonsense? It can’t cast nearly any of the most broken spells in the game, aside from Memory Jar. It can’t even activate a Mishra’s Factory.

What it can do is appear in roughly 39% of your opening hands to repeatedly cast hits such as Arcbound Ravager and Sphere of Resistance. That is wholly unimpressive on its face, in a format filled with the most hideously broken design mistakes in Magic’s history. I’m reminded of Owen Turtenwald’s old article about Mishra’s Workshop, which essentially boils down to the fact that to enjoy the benefits of playing a Mishra’s Workshop + Ancient Tomb deck, you have to play a bunch of pretty weak cards in a vacuum, compared to what the rest of the format offers. Even in light of recent efficient printings, “upgrades,” and restrictions, that is still the tradeoff today. You are entirely foregoing casting things like Paradoxical Outcome, Tinker, and Oath of Druids so you can repeatedly tap a land for colorless mana to enjoy the upside of producing more mana than a generic land, in order to cast embarrassingly fair cards. A recent run of success by Mishra’s Workshop decks doesn’t change that fact. It didn’t change that fact during the previous high points of Workshop’s own success either, from the 2003-2005 and 2008-2009 eras of Vintage. The community learned and adapted from those times, and can do so in the future as well.

If what I’m saying for blue decks above holds true, that they shouldn’t be as self-targeting as they are when constructing their main decks, shouldn’t this also hold true for Workshops? “Why are they playing Spheres if those are just dead cards in the mirror match?” The truth is, even before the restriction of Thorn of Amethyst, these decks were already starting to heavily address the mirror, by dropping lock componentry like Tangle Wire from the main deck in favor of Precursor Golem and/or Steel Overseer, and then adding more creatures and removal in the sideboard. The post-sideboard games become a race to immediately pull all of the lock componentry in favor of more threats, and now that there are far less lock pieces due to restriction, the sideboarding works out much more seamlessly. The reality is that these are aggro decks with a bare minimum of disruption. The newly printed Sorcerous Spyglass is an interesting tool, but is hardly playable in a Workshop deck right now, when you can play more aggressive Robots in that slot instead (or Crucible of Worlds). One of the best ways to prevent your opponent from doing anything meaningful is to give them fewer turns, by killing them faster.

The current Workshop Ravager Aggro decks play relatively similar to Modern Robots (formerly known as Affinity) decks. They are fast, efficient, and brutally unforgiving if the opponent misses a land drop, kills the wrong card, or simply doesn’t have enough speed to keep pace and do something as broken. As evidenced by multiple games on camera at Vintage Champs, the recent restrictions of multiple lock components have forced the Workshop decks in to a far more aggressive stance, capable of killing the opponent as fast as the third or fourth turn with the right draw (and a minimum of disruption from the opponent). Foundry Inspector, Walking Ballista, Hangarback Walker, Steel Overseer, and Chief of the Foundry have teamed up with Arcbound Ravager to come out of the gates extremely fast, and the remaining balance of Sphere effects provide enough of a speed bump to keep the opponent on the back foot long enough for Robots to swarm. Modern Robots decks can also quickly kill with consistently quick draws, with a handful of relatively unimpressive cards in a vacuum, just like in Vintage. Modularity and a ton of 1 to 3 casting cost creatures means these decks can often get blasted by repeated one-for-one removal like Fragmentize or Swords to Plowshares and still have multiple threats on board.

Foundry Inspector is no match for Ancestral Recall, Oath of Druids, or Mana Drain, in a vacuum. But is has to be able to come out consistently quickly, and the presence of both unrestricted Mishra’s Workshop AND Ancient Tomb together is the only thing that makes this viable in Vintage in the first place. Restricting either one of the lands would seriously undermine this as a strategy in Vintage, as it needs the presence of both to reliably find hands that it can keep. Workshop decks don’t have access to the draw spells and sculpting that blue decks (and even Dredge) have access to, and one of the only things they have going in their favor is the consistency of having 9 lands in their deck that allow them to cast their spells on curve. Getting ahead of the counterargument a bit, no, City of Traitors would not be able to fill this void reliably. There are a multitude of reasons it doesn’t see regular play in Vintage, and it isn’t for lack of trying.

Part of the problem with the current approach to combating this iteration of Workshop Aggro is that we’re mostly playing the wrong answers.

Individual Card Choices

Please don’t take this as a personal attack on any individual’s choices. I have made plenty of errors in analyzing and determining what cards and decks themselves I need to play, and I’m simply laying out the data and results as I can read it. Right now as a player base we are not doing nearly enough to deal with the Workshop Aggro deck, and are often times just playing ineffective cards.

Elucidating on this point a bit further, and poring over some of the individual choices that have been floating around Vintage for the past few months, and were being played at Vintage Champs, there are some that people just need to let go. Seeker of the Way is an example of a card that saw its debut in Vintage in the hands of some players on MTGO, and seemed cute for a moment to gain life with, which could then be funneled in to Sylvan Library to draw more cards. Bless your heart for playing it, but this card sucks. It’s like you just spent 2 mana to Time Walk yourself against any combo deck, Workshop deck, or Dredge. It’s embarrassing compared to Jace, Snapcaster, or even something like Baleful Strix. You don’t have time to be screwing around with this in your 3 or 4 color Preordain deck.

Likewise, if you’re playing a mere 2-3 pieces of removal in your blue stew midrange deck, that’s simply not going to get it done. Scrolling through the Vintage Champs decklists, and I see a decent amount of Landstill as well. I cannot comprehend what would drive someone to play a powered Landstill deck in a format full of aggressive creatures. You cast a Standstill, and your opponent casts an Arcbound Ravager and then a Precursor Golem. Or more realistically, your opponent casts a Delver of Secrets or Precursor Golem before you’ve even cast your Standstill, and you want to concede immediately.

I get the fact that Vintage is currently 60+% blue decks, and you want to maximize your chances of beating those to win a tournament. But if you can’t reliably beat Workshop Aggro, it’s unlikely you’re going to win a tournament anyway. You can’t have so many blanks in your deck that you create such a massive blind spot and reasonably expect to win a tournament if 20% of it is Workshop Aggro, and if you can’t beat that deck reliably. I’m reminded of a piece that Stephen Menendian wrote in 2012 that was a matchup analysis of the Burning Oath Tendrils deck, on the draw, vs. Workshops. The entire premise of the article, and of Stephen’s preparation and tuning of the deck for tournament play, was that he realized that he needed to be able to beat the Workshop deck when he was on the draw (and Workshops was on the play). He was likely to have to be able to do that consistently in Games 2 and/or 3, and without nailing that down he probably wouldn’t be able to win a tournament.

If people are going to be able to reliably beat Workshop Aggro decks, they need to change what they are doing. This means more copies of Ancient Grudge, Hurkyl’s Recall, and more unfair things in general. More Tinkering, more Time Vaulting, and less screwing around with fair cards and trying to trade one-for-one removal like Fragmentize with a Robots deck laced with fast threats. You no longer have Monastery Mentor’s insane abilities and token making to shield you while you meander through the first few turns casting Preordain and doing little else. This is probably the least amount of lock componentry that blue players have had to play against from Workshop decks in 10 years. Nemesis’ Tangle Wire was released in 2000. Mirrodin’s Chalice of the Void was released in 2003. Lorwyn’s Thorn of Amethyst was released in 2007. Worldwake’s Lodestone Golem was released in 2010. Mirrodin Besieged’s Phyrexian Revoker was released in 2011. With a restricted troika of Workshop lock pieces (and absence of Tangle Wire in most current builds), you can more reliably cast your spells now than in quite some time.

A half decade ago, Workshops were still incredibly strong, and Time Vault was king. Players like Cesar Fernandez (aka CHaPuZaS) and Brian DeMars started main decking multiple copies of Ancient Grudge, sometimes alongside things like Hurkyl’s Recall, to ensure they wouldn’t lose to these decks, and were rewarded handsomely. Cesar won a string of tournaments, and DeMars’ “technology” was adopted stateside, for a brief time. Cards like Grudge are rarely dead, as they are two-for-oneing your opponent in blue mirrors to limit their mana (or their Paradoxical Outcomes), and are one of the best remedies you can find against Workshop decks. Kill their Ravager, and then flash it back to kill whatever Ravager’s modular counters went on to (or live the dream and kill their Precursor Golem and all Golem tokens). Even against Dredge they now have marginal value because of the printing and adoption of Hollow One. Some of the Oath decks have already begun embracing this, alongside changing their creature suite (although there’s even more that can be done), and some of those very decks were the ones rewarded with high finishes at Vintage Champs this year. Oath isn’t a natural predator to other blue decks by any means (often quite the opposite), but they can hold their own, and can also be positioned to be able to beat Workshops.

Modern Vintage has fully returned to the need for this. Likewise, another of the best remedies it to simply develop your mana base for the first couple of turns, and then bounce all of your Workshop opponent’s board to their hand on their end step, and then untap and go off with Outcome, Tinker, Tezzeret, Yawgmoth’s Will, and more. Workshop Prison is nearly extinct, and Workshop Aggro “Robots” are much easier to resolve a Hurkyl’s (or Rebuild) against. At the very least, Hurkyl’s Recall is a Time Walk. At best, it’s game over. The cost of playing cards like Misstep and Pyroblast in your main deck is that they are totally dead against decks built to ignore them, such as Workshop Aggro and Eldrazi. That is the tradeoff in ratcheting up the blue arms race. But it is extremely aggravating and illogical to do so, when at the same time imploring a Workshop-related restriction with bated breath to “knock the deck down a peg or two.” If blue decks want to identify Workshop Aggro decks as a problem and beat them, it is quite easy to do so, if they are willing to devote the main deck space to do so (let alone additional sideboard slots). We have tons of history of them doing exactly that, when they are willing to sacrifice main deck slots to do so.

Mana Bases

Mana bases also have to adapt. We are no longer in the 4 Gush era, where every land should be an Island to be able to return with Gush on queue on turns 3 and beyond. You don’t need 4 Underground Seas in your Storm combo deck. You need 2, and at least 2 basic Islands and 1 basic Swamp. You don’t need 4 Volcanic Islands (unless you’re playing Pulverize), you need more basic Islands, and that basic Mountain that you’re wasting a sideboard slot with should probably just go in to the main deck. Workshop and BUG decks are more than happy to capitalize on your greed. They are elated in fact.

I feel like I’ve been preaching this for years to my friends, and I know I’m not the only one. I’ve built most of my Vintage and Legacy decks this way since before they were rebranded those from Type 1 and 1.5, but mana bases should be designed with basic lands first and built outward in the face of Wasteland-heavy fields. Having tons of dual lands to be able to cast spells is sweet, but it is much sweeter to be able to fetch out a land (or three) without it getting immediately Wastelanded. The TurboTezz decks of yesteryear had around 4-6 basic lands in them (alongside plenty of fetchlands), and would just make tons of mana and land drops, and then present game-ending threats, and would readily crush Workshop decks.

This is not an indictment of anybody, but rather just a call for further self-reflection of our deck building, and how we think about the tradeoffs of these metagame considerations.

Mental Misstep and the Mistake of Phyrexian Mana

New Phyrexia’s release in May 2011 brought with it a massive breaking of the color pie, and I consider it to be the most egregious mechanic design mistake in Magic’s history (yes, even beyond Delve, Affinity, and Split Second). It brought with it a host of problematic cards, such as Dismember (giving this removal power to any deck, without color, is asinine), Gitaxian Probe, Birthing Pod, and the infamous Mental Misstep. I heartily applaud them for experimenting and creating impactful printings, but this mechanic was one that went off the rails and has already seen multiple cards banned in other formats. Mark Rosewater is on the record multiple times expressing that Mental Misstep in particular was a fatal mistake that he tried to stop from being printed.

The Modern format was created in 2011, and in Tom LaPille’s introductory article he explained was Misstep was banned in Modern from the beginning:
Of blue cards that are legal in Modern, Mental Misstep is the most played in Legacy, and it also has one of the more damaging effects on Modern by sitting on beatdown decks that want to start on turn one. We chose to ban it rather than put that much pressure on beatdown decks.

Misstep was allowed to fester in Legacy for about 4 months before it was adopted by nearly every successful deck, and ultimately banned in September 2011. In Erik Lauer’s explanatory piece about the banning, he wrote:
Force of Will has long been thought of as a card that helps keep combination decks in check in Legacy and Vintage. However, it doesn’t directly help decks that aren’t playing blue. One idea that was floated was creating a similar card that could be played in nonblue decks. When Phyrexian mana was designed, it was an opportunity to create such a card. R&D wanted a card that could help fight combination decks, and could also fight blue decks by countering cards such as Brainstorm. Clearly printing a card like this has a lot of risk, but there is also the potential for helping the format a lot. The risk is mitigated, because if it turns out poorly, the DCI can ban the card.

Unfortunately, it turned out poorly. Looking at high-level tournaments, instead of results having blue and nonblue decks playing Mental Misstep, there are more blue decks than ever. The DCI is banning Mental Misstep, with the hopes of restoring the more diverse metagame that existed prior to the printing of Mental Misstep.

I’m about as laissez faire as it comes with regards to Banned and Restricted List policy making, and always prefer players and innovative deck builders to duke it out, and only advocate any DCI action when absolutely necessary. I enjoy the mix of counterspells and stack battles we see in Vintage battling for supremacy, and the interplay between Misstep, Flusterstorm, Spell Pierce, Pyroblast, Mana Drain, etc. However, I’m not sure that what WotC viewed as problematic about Misstep in Modern and Legacy does not also pertain to Vintage as a direct parallel. The card has been played at an average rate of 3.2 – 3.8 copies per deck across basically all non-Workshop decks for the past few years, and dramatically limits what else can be played. Some people love it, and some people hate it. It’s a blue arms race that I won’t spend your time rehashing, as others have already done so elsewhere, but it’s not clear to me how the presence of Misstep in Vintage is any different than how format warping it was in Legacy, or would have been in Modern. The card costs essentially nothing to counter anything from Goblin Welder to Thoughtseize to Swords to Plowshares to Dark Ritual to Crop Rotation and countless others. This is a far cry from the conditionality of Spell Pierce, Flusterstorm, Mindbreak Trap, or the cost of pitching a card to Force of Will or Misdirection. It’s also not akin to the “Doom Blade argument” (ie. everything dies to Doom Blade so we just shouldn’t play creatures), because Doom Blade also costs 2 mana, whereas Misstep costs none.

Any argument about a potential restriction of Mental Misstep should be untethered from forcing blue players to change their decks and free up more slots to combat Workshop decks. The players should do that themselves – not be forced in to it by the hand of the DCI. If Misstep is a problem worthy of action, it should be argued that it is because it creates a lack of diversity and because of all of the other things it pushes out of the metagame. This is the same standard of review as applied to both Modern and Legacy in 2011. Best of breed cards or strategies always tend to funnel out weaker alternatives in a very deep card pool, but that is treated differently than what we have seen of cards that warp a format. I can see the merits either way, and the onus should always be on those who favor restriction of anything to have strong justification, without fallacious arguments. These are things to think about for the long term if Wizards is being consistent with their previous written statements.

Ponder, Preordain, Cantrips, and Consistency

Speaking of pondering inconsistencies of Banned and Restricted List justification and behavior, cantrips have grown to be a sticky subject for Wizards and competitive play over the past decade. With so many new printings each year, we race towards a critical mass in non-rotating formats. The race towards that game-breaking Delve spell, Yawgmoth’s Will, or combination of two other spells has been something WotC has actively moved to limit across formats (*cough,* other than Legacy). Card selection and consistency is good, but too much consistency too fast and too reliably through card selection is a no-no.

In June of 2008 the Vintage format saw a large wave of restrictions of blue spells, including Gush, Flash, Merchant Scroll, and surprisingly to many players at the time, both Brainstorm and Ponder. Brainstorm and Ponder didn’t fit the normal precedent of restrictions or bannings at the time, usually sticking to incredibly efficient mana acceleration, powerful tutoring, or other undercosted game-breaking effects. It was the first time that a “cantrip” made its way on to the Banned and Restricted List (Time Walk is more than a cantrip, smart aleck). Mike Turian simply wrote:
Likewise the access power of Brainstorm and Ponder make finding the powerful restricted cards in a deck too easy.

The change immediately effected tons of decks, which had relied on the consistency that the cantrips allowed in smoothing out mana and duplicative spells. Fast forward to 2011, and a few months after Modern’s creation, a pair of cantrips once again landed in the DCI’s crosshairs. In the September 2011 Banned and Restricted List, both Ponder and Preordain were hit and landed on Modern’s banned list for good. Erik Lauer wrote of these changes:
A large number of blue-red combination decks kept the field less diverse. One thing that made them so efficient was the cards that would find their combinations. Ponder and Preordain were the most widely used of those cards. Banning these should make those combination decks somewhat less efficient without removing the possibility of playing them.

Ponder and Preordain and very similar in what they offer in terms of sculpting a hand, searching your deck, and each have their own marginal upsides. Ponder digs a bit deeper, while Preordain digs one less card deeper, but offers multiple scry abilities (which have increasingly proven strong, and have been adopted in to official mulligan rules to increase the likelihood of a good game, if only slightly). In Vintage these cards are effectively used interchangeably by most of the same decks. However, one landed on the Restricted List in 2008, while the other has been fairly innocuous in Vintage since its release in Magic 2011. If they are so close in functionality and outcome, does one deserve to be restricted, while the other is not? Should they both be restricted? Should they both be unrestricted?

If consistent policymaking and the health of the format are periodically reviewed from time to time, this is another issue to examine more closely. Is Vintage better off for having 5 of this effect allowable currently, or is it better with 2 (if both were restricted), or with 8 (if both were unrestricted)? Does the presence of one being unrestricted comport with the previous explanation, and is it logically consistent to have one restricted without the other?

For the sake of this intellectual pursuit, what would be the consequences of restricting Preordain? Would blue decks be markedly damaged, and would their current share of the metagame decrease as a result? It’s possible, but probably not likely. The empty slots would likely go to other bombs like draw 7s or Paradoxical Outcome in bigger mana decks, or perhaps shift to smaller cards that are more similar in function, such as additional copies of Sensei’s Divining Top and/or two mana cards like Night’s Whisper or Chart a Course, or perhaps even shift back towards some of the tutors that people often skip now because of deck space and opportunity cost (such as Mystical Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Imperial Seal, or Merchant Scroll).

Conversely, what would be the consequences of unrestricting Ponder? You’d probably have more consistent versions of Bargain combo, Delver, Oath, Jeskai tokens, and Paradoxical Outcome decks. Whether that’s a net positive probably depends on how you feel about these decks now, and about the existing metagame balance. But it would certainly make them more competitive in the face of a metagame where Workshop Aggro stands as the top dog as of this writing. I’m not sure there is a right answer to this, but the logical inconsistency of having Ponder restricted while Preordain is unrestricted certainly bears closer scrutiny.

One last thing to touch upon regarding cantrips is Gitaxian Probe. I won’t go too in depth about Probe, but I don’t think it should have been restricted in the first place, especially if Monastery Mentor was the culprit (which I think it was, and was ultimately restricted when other measures failed). I have always thought Probe was massively overrated anyways. I will just say that the fact that Probe is restricted, but not Misstep or Preordain, deserves a lot of scrutiny if we’re looking at Vintage Banned & Restricted List management holistically.

Banned and Restricted Talk, and Playing the Long Game

Whenever it comes to Eternal formats like Vintage and Legacy, when thinking about policy I try to take the long view, with the rich history of those in mind. Over the years I have read serious calls for restriction of everything from Bazaar of Baghdad to Psychatog to Goblin Welder to Mana Drain to Mox Opal to Oath of Druids to Dark Ritual to Tangle Wire to Griselbrand to Golgari Grave-Troll to Dark Petition. I have read calls for the outright banning of cards like Time Vault, Tinker, and Yawgmoth’s Will. Many of these calls were by the very same people advocating for restrictions this very month. In retrospect, none of these restriction calls were heeded, or necessary. And that is the point. Play the long game.

Despite the recent success of Workshop decks, I think we’re in a great place in Vintage, and an era where you don’t HAVE to play the blue deck to be competitive, which is a great thing. Editing Stephen Menendian’s ongoing History of Vintage series has forced me to revisit many of the ups and downs of the format’s history that I had forgotten over the past 20+ years, and with it I am reminded of the DCI’s relatively light touch (save for 1999 and 2008). With more and more data at our fingertips, and the Internet-driven feedback loop operating faster, there are more calls than ever “to do something,” when often the most pragmatic approach is to do nothing. Let the game and players self-correct, and take it as an opportunity to introduce new impactful printings. Vintage is not Standard, and does not need to be babied to drive Friday Night Magic participation. Containment Priest was a perfect example of Wizards releasing an awesome card to address some of the most broken strategies in Vintage and Legacy, at a time when it was sorely needed. We need more timely and interesting printings, and less reactionary table-pounding.

Patience is a virtue. The card pool and infrequency of large paper tournaments mean that many shifts do not happen at the same rate at which they do in other formats like Standard, which have a very different metagame ebb and flow. This is especially true of Vintage, as premier events do not happen often, and many players do not play Magic Online, leading to some technological shifts happening more slowly (MTGO has reduced this somewhat, but many players still save technology/builds for the few large marquee paper events held annually). Even with the push to make Magic an eSport, WotC should be cognizant of this. Legacy and Vintage in particular are where people seek out the opportunity to do things they can’t do in Standard and Modern, and that is a major part of the allure of them. Banning a card like Mishra’s Workshop would prove to be short-sighted, and lead to an even further saturation of blue decks in Vintage. It’s already been 60+% for nearly two decades, so I’m not sure if advocates of a Workshop restriction are hoping to push that to 85-90+% or what, but that is likely exactly what it would lead to. There would just be very little incentive to play anything else other than “the blue stew.” Some notable Vintage voices have chimed in on this, such as DeMars and LSV being in favor of a Workshop restriction (if not immediately, perhaps down the road), while other luminaries such as Rich Shay are thoroughly against it (“Restricting Workshop is a great idea if your goal is to kill real-life Vintage.”). We already saw a mass exodus of Vintage players during the “blue apocalypse” in June 2008 when the sweeping wave of restrictions to Brainstorm, Ponder, Gush, Merchant Scroll, and Flash also swept away a large wave of players with it, most of whom never returned. Vintage has been growing slowly and gaining traction over the past few years thanks to Magic Online, as well as an aging and maturing Magic community that is entirely different than the grinders of the PTQ circuit.

We have seen the format be ruled for periods of time by Mana Drain, Worldgorger Dragon, Gifts Ungiven, Time Vault, Delver of Secrets, Thought-Knot Seer, and many more cards. People change and adapt to these decks, and to new printings, but it takes time. In a format like Vintage, it is meant to take time. This doesn’t just go for this particular Banned & Restricted List announcement cycle, but every single one. The sample sizes and infrequency of our data as a format is so relatively small, that if history is our guide, we really don’t know what we don’t know yet. The cards, format, and players are a lot more malleable than we often give them credit for, and we have 24 years and counting as our evidence.