(Editor’s Note: this article was co-authored by Stephen Menendian and William Winger
Almost ten years on, the time has come to reconsider Fact or Fiction‘s restricted status. As difficult as it is for us Eternal enthusiasts to believe, Fact or Fiction has now inhabited the Vintage Restricted List for half of the game’s existence. Announced December 2001, and effective January 1st, 2002, the restriction of Fact or Fiction demarcates the midpoint in the life of the Vintage format and the game itself, the fulcrum between 1993 and 2011. This fact underscores the need to reconsider whether it still deserves to be restricted. We make the case not only that Fact or Fiction no longer deserves that status, and can join the ranks of cards like Gush and Frantic Search which have safely returned to the format unrestricted, but that its unrestriction would be a net positive, promoting the strategic diversity of the format and generating interest, enthusiasm, and good will throughout the format.
For the last five years, the DCI has undertaken a concerted effort to clean the Restricted List from detritus and debris that have accumulated over time. This campaign has been, in spite of all of the other challenges Vintage has faced, a success. Fifteen cards have been unrestricted, more in that five year span than in any other similar time period in the format’s entire existence. As a result of these efforts, Vintage players have more toys to play with than ever, and the format’s strategic options have been immeasurably enhanced as a result. Being able to play with all your cards has never been more true. Cards like Gush and Frantic Search now share the table with more recent printings like Dark Confidant and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The format now better captures the spirit and long history of Magic, and is far more interesting and fun as a result.
Back to the Future
Fact or Fiction was printed in the beginning of the modern era of Magic, when Invasion was released in the fall of 2000. After just a year of play in Vintage, the DCI had seen enough. Effective January 1st 2002 Fact or Fiction was restricted in Vintage (known as Type 1 at the time) and banned in Legacy (Type 1.5 at the time), as dictated by the connection of the two lists at that time. The announcement and explanation are chronicled here. Here is the text of the explanation:
“Combining card drawing, tutoring, and graveyard-filling power, Fact or Fiction is clearly a potent card. When you throw in the fact that it is an instant and has only one Blue mana in its casting cost, Fact or Fiction becomes too strong for the Classic environment.”
This was undoubtedly true at the time. Fact or Fiction found a dominant home in this deck:
Legend Blue (July 2001), by Edward Paltzik
4 Back to Basics
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Force of Will
4 Mana Drain
4 Mana Leak
1 Time Walk
1 Ancestral Recall
2 Powder Keg
Mana Sources (26)
1 Black Lotus
1 Sol Ring
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
2 Powder Keg
2 Nevinyrral’s Disk
4 Blue Elemental Blast
Although Legend Blue owed some of its success to the crippling power of Back to Basics, it was not just there that Fact or Fiction was dominant. Two other very powerful Blue decks in the format at the time, Oath and Keeper (multi-color control) also used 3-4 Facts to generate overwhelming advantage.
The dominance of Fact or Fiction in 2001 has to be understood in the context of where Type 1 was at as a format. At the time, Stroke of Genius and Braingeyser were the best blue sources of card advantage after Ancestral Recall. Stroke of Genius and Braingeyser were both restricted, and their restriction at the time was well deserved. Compared to those two cards, Fact or Fiction was far superior. The next best option, Frantic Search, was also restricted. The fact that Stroke, Braingeyser and Frantic Search were restricted, but not Fact or Fiction was incongruous. Fact or Fiction was not only more efficient at generating card advantage than either X-spell (getting a minimum of 3 cards for 4 mana), but was a bona fide draw engine, and could be built around. It also not only generated card advantage, but helped fill one’s graveyard in preparation for a game-ending Yawgmoth’s Will. Another competitive card drawing engine was the combination of Intuition and Accumulated Knowledge or, later, Deep Analysis. Fact or Fiction was more efficient and superior than either Intuition draw engine.
Fact or Fiction was dominant at a time when Braingeyser and Stroke of Genius were not simply useful sources of card advantage, but popular and deserving of their restricted status. We are far removed from that historical context. Today, Frantic Search, Stroke of Genius, and Braingeyser have all been safely unrestricted and are unplayed. These spells have been far surpassed in efficiency and utility by more recent draw engines like Gush, Dark Confidant, Night’s Whisper, Gifts Ungiven, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. We will now compare fact or Fiction to these effects, and it will be clear that Fact or Fiction is no longer too strong to be unrestricted in Vintage. Besides competitors, some cards printed since Fact or Fiction was restricted see Vintage play that we would classify into two buckets with regard to their interaction with Fact or Fiction: enablers and antagonists. Some of these cards will fit into more than one bucket, but we feel that it will be clear that the competitors and antagonists to Fact or Fiction printed since its restriction vastly outweigh its enablers.
It is easiest to begin with the direct competitors to Fact or Fiction; cards that are included in Vintage ‘Blue decks’ with the primary goal of generating card advantage. The closest and most relevant competitors are, in order of printing: Gush, Gifts Ungiven, and Jace the Mind Sculptor. Gush was printed before Fact or Fiction, but only became unrestricted again in September 2010, so we feel it merits discussion.
Perhaps it is unfair to list Gush as a competitor to Fact or Fiction, because Gush is not usually played by paying its mana cost. Indeed, Gush’s drawback can be advantageous in many situations, especially in combination with Fastbond, when it can net its caster cards and mana at the cost of life. Due to Gush’s ability to be cast for free and potential to net its caster mana it synergizes very well with other spells that cost mana and help to find additional Gushes (most notably, Merchant Scroll, which was restricted in part due to the potency of this synergy). In contrast, Fact or Fiction requires a positive investment of mana. Part of the opportunity cost of playing Fact or Fiction is not being able to play other spells for want of mana. For this reason Fact or Fiction is less well suited than Gush to being the engine of a Vintage deck.
It is definitely unfair to argue that Fact or Fiction is safe for unrestriction by comparing it to Gifts Ungiven, another restricted card that is rightfully restricted. Hence, brevity: Gifts Ungiven does everything that Fact or Fiction does better. Except, because Gifts Ungiven is better at immediately ending the game, Fact or Fiction better promotes meaningful interaction between players. The average Fact or Fiction is a value play, not a game-ender. When splitting Gifts Ungiven piles there is typically no right choice, whereas when splitting Fact or Fiction piles one has a chance to meaningfully interact. Finally, almost every deck would want their one copy of Gifts Ungiven before adding copies of Fact or Fiction, so the downward pressure Vintage exerts on a deck’s curve will naturally limit Fact or Fiction first as the best cards fight for already tight space in decks.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Fact or Fiction has three advantages over Jace, the Mind Sculptor (hereafter ‘Jace’): it is an instant, it costs only one blue mana instead of two (at the same converted mana cost), and it sees five cards immediately with the unchosen cards filling your graveyard (to potentially be abused later with Regrowth and/or Yawgmoth’s Will). Jace however has a number of advantages over Fact or Fiction which can be summarized as: versatility, and being an engine unto himself. If you want to win immediately (and your opponent is obliging) Fact or Fiction may be marginally better than Jace, because of the additional cards seen immediately, and because the unchosen cards go to your very accessible graveyard. However, Jace is a much better choice when you want to win inevitably and more independently of your opponent’s actions. Equally as valuable as Fact’s ability to fill your graveyard is Jace’s ability to exchange marginal or poor cards in hand with cards from the top of the deck. Because Jace’s abilities can be used every turn without an additional mana investment, each turn Jace is in play contributes to the inevitability of winning the game. Fact or Fiction is a much narrower card than Jace , and the average Fact or Fiction ends up being a value play. While a single activation of Jace is a value play, multiple activations constitute a one-card engine, and typically prove to be a game ender figuratively (overwhelming advantage) or literally (using Jace’s ‘ultimate’ ability to remove the opponent’s library and deck them).
To quote Luis Scott Vargas, a prominent professional Magic player and Vintage enthusiast,
“When Jace came out, we realized pretty quickly that I’d rather cast Jace than Fact or Gifts in Type 1 right now. That’s why my storm combo decks have Jaces in them. It’s just the best thing you can do for 4 mana in Vintage, and that’s saying a lot.”
It is not inconsequential that Fact or Fiction represents a budget alternative to Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Certainly cheap cards shouldn’t be given a pass due to their low price alone, but proxy Vintage has become not only a budget alternative to non-proxy Vintage, but at this point a budget alternative to Legacy. Even non-proxy Vintage players who already own power and expensive Vintage staples will appreciate the opportunity to play against new Vintage players with competitive decks who proxy their Moxen and have substituted Fact or Fictions for Jaces. The ability to competitively play more than one Fact or Fiction is an opportunity players currently do not have anywhere since Fact or Fiction is not competitively played in Legacy, currently restricted in Vintage, and effectively restricted by the highlander nature of Commander (aka EDH).
Why is Fact or Fiction the Right Card to Unrestrict?
There might be a concern that Fact or Fiction, if unrestricted, would join forces with Gush and/or Jace to form a more powerful and dominant deck. However, Fact or Fiction would truly be a competitor to those cards. Gush’s ability to generate small bursts of 1-2 mana per cast synergize much better with cantrips like Preordain than with Fact or Fiction. Since Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Fact or Fiction both cost four mana the downward pressure Vintage exerts on a deck’s curve will ensure these two are truly competitors. No competitive deck will have room for playsets each of Fact or Fiction and Jace.
The most important thing to consider is that Fact or Fiction is more interactive than the competitors named above. Gush is only interactive with respect to whether the first spell in the combo chain resolves. Generally once the combo chain begins the game quickly ends without further interaction. When resolving Gifts Ungiven the opponent is presented with only trivial decisions about piles; any split will include a pile that rapidly leads to the end of the game. Only Jace’s controller decides which of Jace’s abilities to use, and some of his abilities are explicitly non-interactive. When controlling your opponent’s draws it is advisable to limit their options as much as possible. Jace’s ‘Brainstorm’ ability is deciding based on hidden information which cards to keep or put back, while your opponent just watches. In contrast, Fact or Fiction is important enough to combat if able, but not so powerful that the game always ends immediately following its resolution, which is often why it is not played currently even as a singleton. Fact or Fiction’s resolution involves both players making decisions based on public information. Revealing five cards, splitting them into two piles, and choosing a pile together constitute a splashy effect that can draw in spectators. Players and spectators can debate how they would have split the cards, or which pile they would have chosen. Few cards both offer a way to get players interested in Vintage and learning opportunities for new players where experienced players will engage in debate.
Another point in Fact or Fiction’s favor is that it no longer constitutes an engine. Steve said in his 2008 article about Fact:
“But the most important difference between Fact or Fiction restricted and Fact or Fiction unrestricted is the engine aspect of Fact. In modern Vintage, Fact or Fiction is infrequently played as a random draw spell (though it has seen less and less play in the past two years).
Unrestricted Fact or Fiction is a highly synergistic engine. While I loathe to draw a comparison to Mind’s Desire, it is perhaps the best example to explain this point: one of the advantages of Mind’s Desire is that there is a chance you’ll Desire into another Desire. Fact or Fiction digs so deeply that there is a very good chance you’ll see another Fact soon, if not immediately.”
The Vintage of 2011 contains sphere effects with a 5/3 body attached (Lodestone Golem), free spells like Gush and Frantic Search, free activations of Jace available after an initial investment, one mana counterspells like Spell Pierce and Dispel, and more efficient utility spells than ever before. Mana is now more valuable than ever before. As a result, revealing a second Fact while resolving your first is no longer a backbreaking play. It no longer represents the progression of an engine. Certainly the second Fact still offers value, but it requires a second investment of four (or more) mana, now a more dear investment indeed. The comparison to Mind’s Desire now rings hollow, since a second revealed Desire can be played for free and will always return greater value. Gush is much improved in multiples because the opportunity cost of running the otherwise dead Fastbond is lessened, and you can run fewer lands and more business spells due to Gush’s ability to generate mana and consistent land drops. Fact or Fiction does not have these advantages and so does not threaten to become a dominant engine if unrestricted, when comparing it with available alternatives.
There have been 38 Vintage events since October 1st 2010 with 32 or more players recorded on Morphling.de. Among the 304 decks that made the Top 8 of these events 161 fell into the broad category of ‘Big Blue’ decks; anything from Oath, Slaver, Jace-Control, and Storm Combo (both Gush and Dark Ritual varieties) that might consider including Fact or Fiction. Since Gush and Jace are unrestricted, a maximum of 644 copies of either could appear in these 161 decks, while only 161 copies of Gifts Ungiven or Fact or Fiction could appear. In reality there were 191 copies of Gush (29.7% of the maximum that could appear), and 202 copies of Jace the Mind Sculptor (31.4%). There were 93 copies of Gifts Ungiven (57.8%) and only 17 copies of Fact or Fiction (10.6%). Unrestricting Fact or Fiction would increase diversity because it might then gain ‘market share’ against Gush and Jace. Gifts Ungiven’s high usage rate while restricted continues to suggest that it would be excessively prevalent if unrestricted, but the numbers indicate this is clearly not the case for Fact or Fiction.
There have been many Vintage worthy antagonists to Fact or Fiction printed since 2002, which fall into three groups. The first group of cards is ‘sphere effects’; in particular Sphere of Resistance, Thorn of Amethyst, and Lodestone Golem. Each of these artifacts act to increase Fact or Fiction’s mana cost beyond an already-high-for-Vintage four. More often than not, when facing a deck built upon Mishra’s Workshop, Fact or Fiction is going to be uncastable, as two or more sphere effects will likely be in play by the time the first Fact or Fiction is cast. Since Fact or Fiction is a value play, and not an auto-include bomb or game-ender like Gifts Ungiven, the value it offers must be weighed against both its mana and opportunity cost. Fact or Fiction then is not a particularly attractive option against Workshops. If you’re able to resolve a spell with printed converted mana cost four against Workshops it should be a spell that solidly puts you in a winning position. Jace can unsummon creatures that threaten him, and doesn’t require mana for future activations, and the fate-sealing ability will often prove lethal to an opposing Workshop pilot, making it a much better choice in this matchup.
The second group of cards that antagonize Fact or Fiction is ‘efficient countermagic.’ Many cards in this group have been printed recently, let alone since 2002 when Fact was restricted. While Dispel deserves a brief mention, it primarily appears as a sideboard card. Several copies of Spell Pierce are maindecked in most Vintage decks that want countermagic at all. Spell Pierce makes investing in expensive spells like Fact or Fiction more dangerous due to the loss of tempo when countered. Fact or Fiction’s instant speed is more relevant against countermagic than against sphere effects, but the opportunity to bait with Fact or Fiction at the end of the opponent’s turn adds a test of skill to Vintage play (“Do I counter or not? What else does he have?”). We would prefer additional tests of skill to having the Blue-on-Blue matchup continue to revolve around resolving sorcery speed bombs that more immediately end the game (Yawgmoth’s Will, Jace, Tinker, Time Vault, Demonic Tutor, etc). Since the printing of Spell Pierce we have seen it compete with Mana Drain as the complement to Force of Will. With fewer Mana Drains in the format, costly spells (in the Vintage context) like Fact or Fiction lose value because they’re less likely to be cast with ‘Drain mana,’ and less likely to resolve in the face of efficient countermagic. At the same time efficient one-mana spells like Thoughtseize, Preordain, Nature’s Claim, and Steel Sabotage have increased the pressures to play inexpensive spells. ‘Big Blue’ decks that want the combination of Fact or Fiction and Mana Drain will diverge from decks that maximize 1-on-1 efficiency in each card.
A third group of cards that antagonize Fact or Fiction, though less directly, is ‘efficient graveyard control.’ One part of the explanation from Fact or Fiction’s restriction announcement was ‘graveyard-filling’ power, which has been much diminished by the spate of printings that efficiently control the graveyard. Nihil Spellbomb, Ravenous Trap, Bojuka Bog, Relic of Progenitus and many other cards have been printed to deal with decks abusing the Dredge mechanic (the whole host of Dredge cards having been printed themselves since 2002). Though undoubtedly potent in 2002, Fact or Fiction is among the least abusive ways of filling the graveyard that’s competitive in Vintage today. Frantic Search was recently unrestricted along with Gush, and has so far not contributed to a graveyard abusive deck that rivals Dredge or really seen consistent competitive play, even being one mana cheaper. Dredge so demands attention that other graveyard centric strategies suffer badly from splash hate. Fact or Fiction, even potentially in combination with Frantic Search, makes use of the graveyard seem exceedingly fair in comparison to Bazaar of Baghdad and the Dredge strategy.
Simply put, no card acts more as an enabler for Fact or Fiction than its competitors. An enabler would assist in finding Fact or Fiction, casting Fact or Fiction, or resolving Fact or Fiction once cast. Preordain is good in blue decks generally, but is better with each of Gush and Jace than with Fact. Preordain is a cheap cantrip that can be cast from the mana Gush generates to find more Gushes and keep a chain of spells going. Preordain’s Scry ability is powerful in conjunction with Jace, the Mind Sculptor (guaranteeing that you’ll see fresh cards next turn after using his 0 loyalty-cost ‘Brainstorm’ ability, and that the cards you don’t want are on the bottom of your library). Spell Pierce is good at protecting Fact or Fiction but also good at stopping Fact or Fiction.
One card that is enabled by Fact or Fiction is Ancient Grudge. A revealed Grudge is guaranteed to be available either from the hand or the graveyard through flashback. However, similar value can be gained currently through fetching one or more Ancient Grudges with Intuition. Intuition is a tutor so it can always find an Ancient Grudge when desired. The Intuition-Ancient Grudge interaction is good but not currently too damaging to Workshops, and it’s unlikely the Fact or Fiction-Ancient Grudge interaction is any more dangerous, since Fact costs more than Intuition, and less reliably finds copies of Ancient Grudge.
What Was Learned Quenching the Thirst for Knowledge?
Thirst for Knowledge was restricted in Vintage effective July 1st 2009, after fueling Tezzeret decks for nine continuous months to unprecedented levels of dominance (as measured by tournament performance) in the Vintage format, at least in the modern era. If Thirst for Knowledge was so dominant, some may be concerned that Fact or Fiction is similar enough to Thirst to produce similar results. We feel that such a fear would be unwarranted. Obviously the most immediately apparent difference is that Fact costs slightly more than Thirst, though that alone is not a guarantee that it is a weaker card. Also, Thirst during its run of dominance did not have to compete with Gush (which was restricted at the time) or with Jace, the Mind Sculptor (who had yet to see print), nor were people ramming it into Workshop decks with 13 ‘spheres.’
The whole of Magic is based on the synergies between cards. Some particular synergies are so powerful as to immediately end the game, like Leyline of the Void coupled with Helm of Obedience, or Painter’s Servant and Grindstone. Some synergistic combinations provide a value neither card can alone, like fetchlands and the original dual lands. With the massive number of unique cards available in Vintage only truly broken individual cards and cards that offer a particularly attractive synergy can compete.
It was Time Vault, and the Tezzeret decks built around it, that made Thirst for Knowledge so potent. During Thirst for Knowledge’s run of dominance it was highly synergistic with the rest of the Tezzeret deck. Time Vault had just had its power level errata removed at the same time its perfect companion, Tezzeret the Seeker, was printed. Unrestricted, Thirst for Knowledge was perfectly suited to churn through one’s deck, largely composed of artifacts, to either find a Tezzeret the Seeker and the resources to play him, or find a truly broken spell like Time Vault itself, Tinker, or Demonic Tutor. Thirst for Knowledge also had amazing synergy with Goblin Welder. With an active Goblin Welder Thirst for Knowledge could be better than a draw three without drawback, putting an expensive and powerful artifact into the graveyard for Welder to return to play. Fact or Fiction does not share those same synergies with Time Vault decks, although it does share the synergy with Goblin Welder.
Thirst for Knowledge is a uniquely powerful, synergistic, and efficient draw spell in Vintage, whose drawback has been turned, by virtue of the dominance of artifacts in the format, into an advantage. If unrestricted today, it’s dominance would likely be magnified by the printing of Mox Opal and unrestriction of Grim Monolith, both of which see play in tournament winning Vintage decklists, including resurgent Tezzeret decks that are winning some of the largest Vintage tournaments. These decks are all focused around Time Vault, and accelerating out Tezzerets. Thirst for Knowledge is, by far, the best draw engine for decks like these. At three mana, it curves up nicely to Tezzeret. Fact or Fiction, sitting at 4 mana, competes for the same mana curve slot as both Tezzerets.
By comparision to Thirst, Fact or Fiction is a quaint, and one might say, antiquated draw engine. It remains stronger than the Intuition + Accumulated Knowledge engine, but not necessarily stronger than Thoughtcast or Mystic Remora, and certainly no better than Dark Confidant, Jace, Gush, or other restricted draw engines.
If Fact or Fiction were unrestricted, it could very well have the same effect that Frantic Search has had unrestricted: very marginal play, but pleasing to the Vintage community. All things being equal it is better for marginal cases like Frantic Search to be available unrestricted. Frantic Search has by no means proven to still be dangerous, but has performed in a particular deck that wants that effect, Madness. Fact or Fiction would likely find a home in a particular deck without becoming pervasive throughout the family of blue decks. Alternatively, it might appear to perform as Gush has done most recently: Gush has won tournaments, but it’s considered fair and fun. In any case, the day for Fact or Fiction’s unrestriction has come.
Fact or Fiction was king of the Vintage format at a time when Stroke of Genius was one of the Best blue draw spells in the format. After a decade on the Restricted list, Fact has long been surpassed by cards like Jace, Gush, Dark Confidant, Thirst for Knowledge, Mystic Remora, and Gifts Ungiven. We are confident that Fact can be safely unrestricted. But also that unrestricting Fact or Fiction would contribute to diversity within blue decks, since it does not synergize with existing engines Gush or Jace, and so would compete with them. Any ‘Big Blue’ deck considering one or more four mana instants to generate card advantage is likely to choose Gifts Ungiven first, so the downward pressure on mana cost Vintage applies will heavily constrain Fact or Fiction. Fact or Fiction would not contribute to a dominant deck due to the large number of antagonists printed since 2002 which efficiently combat Fact or Fiction without losing value against the rest of the meta, but it will likely find a home in a particular deck that can be a metagame player like Frantic Search in Madness. Fact or Fiction offers a splashy effect that isn’t game ending, a combination that will make Vintage matches more interactive and fun, and will draw spectators to watch Vintage. Unrestricting Fact or Fiction is long overdue, and will be a net positive for Vintage as a whole.