Blog Fanatic: Vintage Restricting Vintage

Last week, Stephen Menendian wrote an excellent article about removing several cards from the Vintage restricted list. Much discussion ensued, both on StarCityGames.com and TheManaDrain.com forums. All through the debates about what should or shouldn’t be unrestricted, I saw an underlying question that fuelled the entire debate, but was never spoken out loud: I wrote my article as a response to Stephen’s article, and finally the right questions were asked – though not in the way you might have thought.

Have you ever been really engrossed in a book? I mean really engrossed – you can’t put the book down, you put off going to sleep to turn the next page, you carry the book with you into the bathtub – that sort of engrossed? And then, just when you’re about through, the author of the novel throws you a major curveball – which is not so much a “surprise twist” as the author taking the book to an ending different than the one you expected.

If you’re a fan of comics, Garth Ennis did this with his Preacher series (which I highly recommend, but with the caveat that it is both adult in nature not for the weak of stomach – the book can get very graphic at times). The back story is easy – Jesse Custer is a minister in a small backwater Texas town who is struck by a supernatural entity, which may or may not be more powerful than God Himself. This enables Jesse to speak with “the word of God” – it gives him the ability to command people and they must follow his words. Throughout the book, Jesse travels with his girlfriend, Tulip, and his new best friend, the vampire Cassidy. It turns out that God left heaven the second the “Genesis” entity was “born” and fused with Jesse. Jesse goes on a quest to get answers from God.

This is oversimplifying the plot, but it’ll give you a general idea of what’s going on.

So Jesse and Tulip and Cassidy are searching for God, and lots of things happen (no spoilers here – if you want to know, read the books!) to the three of them. After 1,200 pages of comic, the story draws to a close – but not in a way most readers expected. While Garth Ennis was building up this great search for God over the course of the entire book, the payoff isn’t so much about God as about something else entirely – something that makes completely sense given the pages that proceeded, and something that is in no way, shape, or form a “surprise twist ending” like you’d get in The Sixth Sense or any other M. Night Shyamalan film.

This doesn’t make the ending any less satisfying. It is, in many ways, so much more potent because it reflects more on the nature of the characters rather than any plot that the characters are put through.

My friends, Monday’s article was not about whether Mishra’s Workshop or Dark Ritual should be restricted. Instead, it was about something much different and much more meaningful. Read on:

Last week, Stephen Menendian wrote an excellent article about removing several cards from the Vintage restricted list. Much discussion ensued, both on StarCityGames.com and TheManaDrain.com forums. All through the debates about what should or shouldn’t be unrestricted, I saw an underlying question that fuelled the entire debate, but was never spoken out loud: I wrote my article as a response to Stephen’s article, and finally the questions were asked – though not in the way you might have thought.

Let me introduce a few quotes from the forums, discussing my article:

Kika said: “People play Type 1 for a reason, and for me, that reason is I want to play with broken cards. I play T1 at least once a week with friends, and yes I have been on the receiving end of a turn 1 kill or a turn 1 Workshop-Trinisphere lock. So what? It happens. Likewise, I’ve also had turn 1 wins with Meandeath. It happens. Deal with it. This is why you play T1. If you don’t like it, don’t play it.”

Mon_Goblin_Chief said: “The true problem with both cards is turning the game into something resembling Black Jack or Poker, where you hope to have a single card from your deck, which you can’t play more of simply to not lose the game. One by deck construction; one by dumb luck. Whenever that happens, something’s wrong.”

Ravager7 said: “Ritual does not need to be restricted, there is no reason for it. Type One is meant to be broken, and if you kill Ritual, you may as well kill Force of Will, Mana Drain, workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, and all the other good cards. Quit complaining and go play type 2 if you’re going to cry about good cards.”

Xequecal said: “What exactly are you trying to prove with this statement? By this logic, we don’t need a restricted list, because the most broken deck will just lose to itself! Or are you just pulling at random scraps to try and one-up Ben?

“Mishra’s Workshop is broken. It’s not just Workshop-3Sphere; there are so many broken plays off Workshop that basically guarantee a win. Turn 1 Tangle Wire or Crucible of Worlds followed by Wasteland are also almost unbeatable. It lets you accelerate out Mindslaver ridiculously fast – a card that basically wins the game if it activates.”

Slick Benny said: “Ben, I respect you as a writer, and I’ve always liked you as a writer – but this is Type I, and broken things happen. If you don’t want to play here, then don’t turn Vintage into Legacy. There’s already a format like that: It’s called Legacy.

“The current metagame is balanced, as evidenced by recent tournaments with 8 different decks in the top 8. And with respect to Doomsday, that deck is ridiculously complicated. It is nigh-unbeatable in the sense that if you take the time to figure out the stack, you can win from any situation… But it takes a brilliant player to do well with it. Don’t believe me? Play the deck. Too complicated? Then stop whining when someone with more talent than you is able to grind out win after win. Because Magic is about skill, not restricted cards.”

whateverWorks said: “2.) ITS VINTAGE TYPE 1!!! TYPE 1 is the Format with BROKEN PLAYS… and BROKEN CARDS… and BROKEN ANSWERS!!!”

Xeldor said: “I’d like to see what would happen to the metagame if Wizards unrestricted everything – and I mean everything – in Vintage.

“Wouldn’t that be awful?

“What would we have to kvetch about then?”

Should Mishra’s Workshop or Dark Ritual be restricted? That’s not the question that people should be asking, and it’s not the question I am interested in answering myself. Instead, there’s a more important question that I feel has been ignored, and that question is simplicity itself:

“What is Vintage?”

Here is the definition of Vintage from Wizards of the Coast.

127. Vintage Format Deck Construction

Vintage tournament decks may consist of cards from all Magic card sets, any extension of the core set, and all promotional cards released by Wizards of the Coast, with exceptions listed below. New card sets are allowed in Vintage tournaments as described in section 104.

Cards from the following sets are not allowed in Vintage tournaments, or any DCI-sanctioned tournament, unless it has been reprinted in a Magic Core or Expansion card set:


Portal: Second Age

Portal: Three Kingdoms


The following cards are banned in Vintage tournaments:

Any ante card

Chaos Orb

Falling Star

The following cards are restricted in Vintage tournaments:

While that’s a very pragmatic definition of the rules of Vintage, it doesn’t do much to answer the question of “What is Vintage?” Sure, you could use the above to explain to someone the rules of Vintage – but that would be like The Tin Man, walking with a body but lacking the heart. Given the fervor that many show have for the Vintage format, I don’t think they would settle for such a soulless definition.

If not by the rules, then, how do you define Vintage?

Is Vintage defined by its restricted list? Are the cards that you can or can’t play four of the main indicators of what makes the format? Should we image restricted list as a totem about which all the other trappings of the format twist, like garland around a Christmas tree? I don’t believe this is fully case – as though Vintage is the only format to have a restricted (as opposed to an outright banned list shared by multiple other formats), the restricted list is constantly shifting and changing. It is defined through Vintage itself – the cards and power level of the decks that are played in Vintage directly affect the restricted list, which in turn affects which cards are played and are of a certain power level. While this is cyclical in nature, the rules of a game do not define the nature of the game.

If not by the rules, should we define Vintage as the format in which broken things happen? Is what sets the tone for Vintage the very nature of the cards themselves – that some are so powerful that they cannot be played at all in other formats, and are never going to be reprinted for play in other formats?

Again, I don’t believe this to be the case, as there exists a restricted list for a reason – there is a line (though one that cannot be clearly defined by the nature of thousands of cards interacting in different ways with one another) that clearly has been drawn between the restricted and unrestricted cards. I believe all would agree that Vintage, without any restricted list, would be the format most capable of having “broken things happen.” But it would quickly degenerate into a madness of first-turn kills and a complete lack of interaction between players.

It seems paradoxical that the format could both be defined as a format in which “broken things happen” and yet has an arbitrarily-drawn line as to what’s too broken to still allow in a format where “broken things happen.” This is not to argue for or against this being part of the attraction of Vintage – instead, it is to argue that it can’t be the meaning of Vintage, because you’d never have any two players agree on the level of brokenness that would define the format.

Is Vintage defined by the players who play Vintage? Is it the individuals, each with their distinct personalities, which give meaning to the format? Once again, I don’t think so. Just as Vintage has several colorful players and writers, so do formats such as Booster Draft, Standard and Extended. While these players give a human face to each format, such as Stephen’s initial article on unrestriction, or Nick Eisel latest draft recap, they are both catalysts and products of the format. Without them, Vintage would still exist – even if nobody was playing the format, the concept of Vintage would still be there for others to play.

This is not to say that people should abandon Vintage, or that I discredit in any way, shape or form the amazing amounts of energy and emotion people have put into Vintage over the years – the players have shown very much that they care about the format through both their words and deeds. Instead, I would make an analogy to an automobile – even if there is no driver, a car will still exist. A driver might give a car a purpose, but it does not give a car meaning.

So what is Vintage? I don’t believe that’s my question to answer. There are thousands of players who have been entrenched in the format for years now, who have breathed the format week in and week out. Some write in public places, others do not. Some play in tournaments, others play casually, and others only play through online means such as Apprentice. To them, I come bearing questions, but ones founded in the discussion above.

What defines Vintage?

Should Vintage be known as the format where “broken things happen?” and where turn one kills are statistically relevant?

What defines a healthy format?

Jairobent, I felt, hit the nail directly on the head in his forum post:

“Now, surely you think, ‘Is this guy nuts? He talks about the cards as if Bleiweiss knows anything about Vintage’ – and no, Mr. B doesn’t know a thing about Vintage, he has no clue, but he does know a lot about Magic. And ladies and gentlemen, Vintage is Magic.

“That’s right – other formats would already be worried about a dominance like the one Mishra’s Workshop has in the format, it has as many archetypes as storm has archetypes – but in the end of the day, the decks share about half of the cards. That’s dominance, and it cannot be considered healthy in real formats if it doesn’t go unpunished. If those two cards get restricted, I can honestly tell you: I don’t care. I will still play Vintage and the life will go on. If you tell me they’re going to ban Yawgmoth’s Will, we’ll deal with it when it comes – that’s what players do.

“Do you remember how many people in the message boards mocked about the Type 1.5/Legacy players because they ‘whined’ about the changes in the restriction list?… Well you won’t see me on that side of the bench. If change comes I embrace it – in fact I do love change and we should at least be open to it, especially if you felt that whining about what you wanted in the first place is wrong. Do you want a healthy format?”

Ask yourselves this: If Dark Ritual and Mishra’s Workshop were restricted on December 1st (and I have absolutely no foreknowledge either way), would you stop playing the format? Would these restrictions ruin Vintage for you? If yes, why? If no, why? What does Vintage mean to you? Is it defined for you through the banned/restricted list, or does it mean something so much more?

What I saw when I read Stephen’s article was a man who cared deeply about his format, but sought to bring about change in the format based on the mechanics of the game. My Monday article was intended to bring this to the other extreme – taking away instead of giving. In both cases, I saw many arguments both for and against Stephen and I. Given that Vintage games can often be decided on the first or second turns, I felt the wrong questions were being asked – the format, as it exists, cannot ever be “balanced” in the same way as literally every other format in Magic, as these formats are partially defined by an extended gameplay and the removal of all cards that would cause 100% inevitability or completely player non-interaction in a short game.

The question is not what restrict or what to unrestrict – the question I thought people should be asking is “What is Vintage, and what do we want Vintage to be?”

Ben can be reached at [email protected]. I also want to publicly apologize to Stephen Menendian who took offense at me joking around about his name. I have nothing but respect and admiration for you, Stephen, and I truly did not think you would take it in any other way than as light joking. My words have caused you hurt, and so I apologize for them and want to let you know that I had no malicious intent at all in writing them.