Another Look At the Vintage Restricted List

It’s that time of year again and the pressure to restrict something in Vintage has never been greater. However, there should be no restrictions unless tournament data tells us that something needs to be done. I will briefly list out the winning decks from major tournaments over the last six months and then summarize the relevant data for the six tournaments that will point us toward what we are looking for.

Let’s dive right in.

It’s that time of year again and the pressure to restrict something in Vintage has never been greater. However, there should be no restrictions unless tournament data tells us that something needs to be done. While there are lots of tournaments out there, a few tournaments stand out as a competitive notch above the others: The Vintage Championship, the StarCityGames Series, and the quarterly Waterbury and other tournaments of that stature provide the most important and valuable tournament data.

I will briefly list out the winning decks and then summarize the relevant data for the six tournaments that will point us toward what we are looking for. The tournaments are listed mostly for evidentiary and reference purposes. I have selected what I believe are all the valuable Vintage data from the last six months.

A. The Data

I) T1 Vintage Championship at Gencon: 151 Players – August, 2004


1) Control Slaver

2) Workshop Aggro

3) Workshop Aggro

4) Goblin Charbelcher Combo

5) Mono Blue Control

6) Stax

7) Workshop Aggro

8) UR Fish

Number of Workshops: 17

Number of Goblin Welders: 24

Number of Mana Drains: 8

II) Starcitygames P9, VA – 88 players – Oct, 2004


1) Oath

2) JuggerStax

3) Oath

4) Workshop Aggro

5) Control Slaver

6) Oath

7) Oath

8) Workshop Aggro

Number of Workshops: 12

Number of Goblin Welders: 16

Number of Mana Drains: 20

III) Starcitygames, Chicago – 142 Players – November, 2004


1) Workshop Aggro

2) Workshop 7/10 Split

3) Doomsday Combo

4) Stax

5) Control Slaver

6) Psychatog

7) Workshop Aggro

8) Fish

Number of Workshops: 16

Number of Goblin Welders: 20

Number of Mana Drains: 8

IV) The Waterbury – 202 Players (largest T1 tournament in the U.S. in recent memory) Jan, 2005


1) Goth Control Slaver

2) Goth Control Slaver

3) Storm Combo

4) Storm Combo

5) Control Slaver

6) Control Slaver

7) Rector Trix

8) Workshop Combo

Number of Workshops: 4

Number of Goblin Welders: 16

Number of Mana Drains: 16

V) Starcitygames, VA – 58 – Jan, 2005


1) Workshop Masknaught

2) Workshop JuggerStax

3) Worldgorger Combo

4) Oath

5) Food Chain Goblins

6) T1 Dump Truck

7) Control Slaver

8) Stax

Number of Workshops: 12

Number of Goblin Welders: 12

Number of Mana Drains: 8

This tournament had the lowest number of Goblin Welders of anything seen in the U.S. recently. I attribute to reasons for this. First, the first place deck had functional Welders in Hanna’s Custody. Second, it was a very low turnout due to the weather (Virginian’s don’t handle snow very well – even the pizza joints closed!). [Dude, it was ice – took me an hour to chip my car out after the event… – Knut]

VI) Vintage Evolution at Grand Prix Boston – 64 People – Feb. 2005

1) Control Slaver

2) Control Slaver

3) Control Slaver – Antonio De Rosa

4) Stax

5) Red Burn

6) Dragon

7) Control Slaver

8) Dragon

Number of Goblin Welders: 20

Number of Mishra’s Workshops: 4

Number of Mana Drains: 20

Number of Dark Rituals: 0

Summary of Top 8 Appearances:

Total number of Welders: 108

Do the math. That’s 18 per Top 8. There can only be 32 per Top 8. That’s an average of 4.5 Welder decks per Top 8.

Total number of Drains: 80

13.3 per Top 8

Total Number of Workshops: 65

10.3 per Top 8

Total number of Dark Rituals: 16

2.6 per Top 8.

Notice that the number of Drains and Workshops are close.

B. The Most Played Cards in the Format

Here is the list of the most played cards from Nov-Dec:

180 Force of Will

165 Wasteland

142 Island

137 Polluted Delta

136 Brainstorm

123 Goblin Welder

110 Volcanic Island

109 Chalice of the Void

98 Mishra’s Workshop

96 Rack and Ruin

95 Mana Drain

Take a look at that Top 10 list carefully. Mana Drain and Workshop basically make the same number of Top 8 spots – which is healthy.

Force of Will

The most played card in the format is likely always going to be Force of Will. Force of Will is prevalent but it isn’t a problem. Why? There are several reasons. First of all, Force of Will, by itself, doesn’t create a dominant or distorting deck. It may in fact aid such a deck (as was seen in the decks that abused Gush and Fact or Fiction), but it is not the card that suddenly makes decks possible where they weren’t before.

The real reason that Force of Will isn’t a problem is seen by what would happen in its absence. T1 would be worse than the stereotype – it would make Extended in late 2003 look like a healthy format. Force of Will is the glue to the format and enables actual interaction so that decks aren’t merely trying to combo out. It keeps decks like Meandeck Tendrils from winning.

Wasteland, Island, Volcanic Island and Polluted Delta

Wasteland is the most played land in the format, which is part of the reason that Island is so heavily played. Island, Polluted Delta and Volcanic Island are among the most played lands in the format. As well they should be. It’s almost impossible to construct a deck without Polluted Delta. And most decks that use Polluted Delta are going to want Island.

The simple fact is that the Onslaught Fetchlands transformed Vintage. They enabled stable, multicolor mana bases with lots of basics. That these lands are the most played should be no surprise and no cause for alarm whatsoever.


Perhaps more controversial is Brainstorm. There is no doubt that Brainstorm is restrictable level power. The printing of Fetchlands have made Brianstorm nothing less than a must-play card in multicolor control decks. The problem is that Brainstorm is more like Force of Will than Gush: it makes the format more consistent. A format that can be as fast as T1 relies on cards like Brainstorm to smooth over draws. Brainstorm increases the odds, nontrivially, that the control player will have Force of Will for that crucial turn one combo play. Brainstorm is equally a tool for combo decks – but it is a tool that, again, makes the format more consistent, not less.

Chalice of the Void and Rack and Ruin

Wasteland, Island, Delta, Brainstorm and Volcanic Island are all key building components. Workshop and Drain are two pillars of the format. Chalice of the Void is only there on the strength of its numerous sideboard appearances. It is one of the most commonly used sideboard cards. It is a hoser – an answer. The same is true of Rack and Ruin.

Goblin Welder – The Problem

The card that raises red flags in my view is Goblin Welder. Look at the card count. Goblin Welder sees more play than the most played dual land in the format. It is used in Workshops, Control and Combo (Belcher). It is no answer and it is no critical component of deck construction. It is no fixer. It is no Brainstorm or Force of Will. Goblin Welder is a combo part and a counterspell evader. It is used to recur Mindslavers, Goblin Charbelchers and Smokestacks. It is used to keep Trinisphere on the board.

Is it easy to kill? Sure. That’s why Hanna’s Custody and Lava Dart are now used in maindecks. But as easy as it is to kill, its just as easy to replay. And once Yawgmoth’s Will comes down Time Walk and Welder are sure to follow and it will be too late to stop the little bugger.

If we all agree that dominance starts when you have four or more representative playsets in the Top 8 data, then those numbers would have to be, at a minimum, 16 copies on average in the Top 8, and likely closer to 20+. The Distorting threshold probably triggers around 16 copies and dominating probably around 20+. Any measure of distortion in Vintage surely must recognize that 18 copies per Top 8 is beyond the pale. No format, and especially not Vintage, is consolidated enough to really see any card put up more Top 8 occurrences. As dominant as GroAtog was, enough people actually decided to play other decks such that there weren’t more Gushes in Top 8s than there currently are Goblin Welders.

Now I realize that Goblin Welder isn’t the key component of a dominant or distorting deck. But it sure as hell passes the Skullclamp test. Goblin Welder is a key component of a distorting format.

There were only twenty-four Goblin Welders in the Top 8 at Gencon. That was because Workshop Aggro happened to be a big solution to the metagame of the time. If Gencon were held today, I would think that there might be 28 Welders in the Top 8, if not more. Goblin Welder is just that good.

Now maybe Goblin Welder doesn’t deserve restriction. Maybe we are comfortable with nearly 20 of the buggers in every Top 8. If that’s the case, let it be.

People say: Goblin Welder isn’t the problem. Trinisphere is. Or Mishra’s Workshop is. Mishra’s Workshop does race Mana Drain, but Mishra’s Workshop decks have a pretty poor record against Control Slaver and Goth Slaver variants. Ask Mark Biller from Gencon, who was accidentally bumped into the Top 8 by two guys who drew out of Top 8 contention and then ran a Workshop gauntlet. He used his own Welder and his Force of Wills to turn off his opponent’s decks and waltzed into first place.

Here is an equation you should remember as true as it is simple:

Goblin Welder + Force of Will > Goblin Welder + Mishra’s Workshop

The Role of Mana Drain

I want to talk a little about the other two cards on that list: Mana Drain and Mishra’s Workshop.

Mana Drain is the untouchable pillar of Vintage. It has been since the format’s inception one of its most favored cards. Mana Drain was a part of the famous Weissman archetype.

Yet Mana Drain is broken. Players have become far more efficient at using Mana Drain. If Mana Drain resolves having countered any spell that costs two or more, the Control player, such as it is called, will often have just sealed the game up by funneling that Mana into Intuition, Accumulated Knowledge or Thirst for Knowledge, from which there is no real opportunity for the non-control player to recover as a lethal Psychatog, permanent Mindslaver lock or Yawgmoth’s Will is likely to ensue shortly thereafter.

Mana Drain is consistently one of the most played components in the format constituting a key component of multiple decks such as Psychatog, Control Slaver, and Mono Blue Control. In the dark ages of Vintage, the format generally consisted of five color control decks built around Mana Drain, mono colored aggro decks, and in far lesser numbers, Combo decks such as Neo-Academy or Trix.

The development of Vintage is a history of the development of archetypes that can compete with Mana Drain. The first card to do so is Illusionary Mask-Phyexian Dreadnought. Others have emerged: Bazaar of Baghdad, Mishra’s Workshop, Gush, Dark Ritual, and so on.

The process has made Mana Drain decks more potent. Typical five-color control has given way to more potent, flexible, and powerful Mana Drain decks. Mana Drain isn’t simply a more useful counterspell, it seals the game up in many situations. Mana Draining into Intuition can put your opponent up 7 cards if they are holding an Accumulated Knowledge and will likely draw them a Force of Will to buy them time during the one turn that they are tapped out.

Mishra’s Workshop decks are clearly competitive, but they haven’t always been so. Mishra’s Workshop has been on an unsteady tide. It briefly appeared as an answer to GroAtog, but receded due to vulnerabilities to Artifact Mutation. It also appeared as a solution to Mono Blue Control, but never quite made it in the larger field. Chalice of the Void failed to put Workshops over the top. Mishra’s Workshop decks were seen as inconsistent and vulnerable. If you inspect tournament data after Gencon 2003 through mid-2004, you will hardly find Mishra’s Workshop decks outperforming the metagame. In fact, for the first half of 2004, the primary Mishra’s Workshop deck was Mindslaver based. The printing of Trinisphere gave Mishra’s Workshop its most potent weapon, a weapon that became less dangerous when used with Crucible of the Worlds. Finally, with both components in place, Mishra’s Workshop finally found a way to compete with Mana Drain decks. Now people are calling for its restriction.

The level of animosity leveled at Mishra’s Workshop is far from the level of metagame dominance or distortion it has actually displayed. In the Oct-November, 2004 tournament data, there were 10 Type One tournaments of more than 50 players reported. In that data, there were 98 Mishra’s Workshops and 95 Mana Drains. This was the peak, historically, for Mishra’s Workshop, and yet it only had 3 more copies in the tournament data than Mana Drain.

Mana Drain decks have won both of the Vintage Championships so far, with Psychatog and Control Slaver. They are consistently amount the most played cards in the format. It is not uncommon to hear calls for the restriction of cards that create archetypes which compete with Mana Drain decks. Mana Drain is popular and widespread and in some sense is constitutive of what are considered “good” vintage decks.

The Danger of a Cascading Restricted List

The assumption behind restriction is that restrictions will help restore metagame balance or normalcy. This assumption may be wrong where restrictions aren’t based upon obvious metagame dominance or distortion. This possibility is reflected in Extended bannings of the past – when Necro was banned, Survival went with it. When there is evidence that banning one card would leave the metagame subject to the dominance or distortion of another deck, then multiple bannings are sometimes taken.

Type One is held up by several pillars. Mana Drain and Mishra’s Workshop, as you can see, are the two primary pillars of the format. For a while, Null Rod-based Fish was another. Knocking out one pillar makes the other pillars much more powerful. [Thus giving you an ugly metaphor, but whatever… – Knut]

Let me put the question this way: If we are thinking about restricting a card (Mishra’s Workshop) that performs only about as well as Mana Drain, and historically much worse, at what point do we restrict Mana Drain? And moreover, at what point does this cease to be the format we love and enjoy so much?

I believe it would not be unreasonable, if Workshop and Dark Ritual were restricted, to consistently see Mana Drain putting six or more players in Vintage Top 8s. That sounds like a dream to some players – a return to the Vintage of 2000. But at what cost? Variety. There may well be four different control decks, but is that any more a “healthy” format that the one we have now with Mana Drain averaging about three players per Top 8? Probably some second tier combo decks will emerge and aggro will be stronger, but Mana Drain will be the touchstone of the format and the key distorting element.

If Workshop and Ritual were restricted, Mana Drain would put up far more players in a Top 8 than any other single card for the foreseeable future.

Back to Goblin Welder

Although Mishra’s Workshop and Mana Drain are the pillars of Vintage, Goblin Welder is in both of the most successful Mana Drain and Workshop decks. If that is something we are all comfortable with, fine. But the question needs to be looked at.

Next week I’m going to try to resolve two of the major debates about Control Slaver and Goth Slaver – the Mana Drain-based Slaver decks.