Critical Mass: Why Vintage Needs Bannings Now, And Three Approaches To Help Make It Painless

Burning Desire has shown us the way of the future: There are enough ways to break the rules that they barely exist anymore for a Type 1 combo deck. Granted, I didn’t play during Combo Winter – but I’ve never seen a deck before where drawing the eye-popping three-land hand was considered a serious blow to the probability of that hand being playable (even Gro decks and ten-land Stompy don’t hate drawing their land as much as this). So what can we do about it?

Ever since Aaron Forsythe mail call to the Type 1 community, banning cards in Type 1 has become a sort of pet issue of mine. At the time, Forsythe quoted me advocating the banning of Tolarian Academy – and while my targets have changed names, my position has not. In the format that has been referred to as”the dustbin for all of R&D’s mistakes,” there are some cards that only become dumber over time, and eventually restrictions just don’t have the weight to hold back a card. At all. Since The Mana Drain has been the nexus of the public debate, it only makes sense that I’ll be quoting some of the best-phrased points made there while I try to form a cohesive argument for the necessity of a change in B&R policy for the format.

Type 1 is a sanctioned format. A sanctioned format needs to have some semblance of balance, even in a format like Type 1 where enormous game swings are expected as a regular feature of gameplay. For someone carefully reading The Mana Drain and StarCityGames, it has become apparent that an increasing number of people find additional restrictions to be borderline irrelevant to the format’s speed and power – and this is before Mirrodin has generated consistent data regarding the impact of strong new cards which have received reduced attention thanks to Chalice of the Void (which, at this point, has an uncertain impact).

Let’s look at a list of all the unrestricted cards in Stephen Menendian, a.k.a. Smmenen’s Burning Desire.

4 Gemstone Mine

4 City of Brass

2 Underground Sea

3 Chromatic Sphere

4 Lion’s Eye Diamond

4 Dark Ritual

4 Duress

4 Brainstorm

4 Burning Wish

1 Tendrils of Agony

(Plus sideboard hosers, mostly one-ofs, with four Xantid Swarms and another Tendrils.)

Thirty-four cards maindeck. (It’s a good thing he managed to only use half of the restricted list; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one concerned that my monitor doesn’t have a higher resolution.) Those lands are virtually unrestrictable, and pretty easily replaced if they somehow were. If Cycling: 1 is broken, I think that would be a good day to cry about Magic, so Chromatic Sphere is unrestrictable, despite its high synergy with this deck. Duress and Brainstorm are some of the things fighting against combo from the other side of the table.

LED, Dark Ritual, Burning Wish, and Tendrils of Agony are the only remaining unrestricted cards that have any potential for restriction. So, even if we assume there is no present way to replace the slots these can’t take up if restricted, then we’re left with the thought that if Wizards prints one more accelerant or one more tutor (Chrome Mox and Spoils of the Vault, anyone?), we return to the zone where even people who can stomach hard combo are annoyed. Even after all of these speed-demon cards are restricted, there will be a decreasing number of components needed to resurrect the same consistency Burning Desire is capable of. Also, Dutch-Tendrils (The Perfect Storm) is already a very strong deck using neither Burning Wish nor Lion’s Eye Diamond. I seriously doubt we can, with any sort of certainty, say that R&D will never permit any good search or acceleration out of the printer again.

(Just for the record, Brad Granberry, a.k.a., Rico Suave’s post-Mirrodin build with four Lion’s Eye Diamonds, four Spoils, and four Chrome Mox elicited the following comment from”Grand Inquisitor”:

“I playtested this deck after running forty games with TPS and Long.dec. It is a completely different animal. I am a mediocre combo player, at best, and I was able to win turn 1 about 60% of the time. Once I mulliganed down to four cards, and still went off first turn. I feel with more practice and an intimate knowledge of the synergies of the deck, I could push that percentage to 75% with ease.”)

“FyreStar” said:

“The restriction philosophy is flawed to begin with. Cards that are too powerful skew the game away from skill and towards luck. Restriction of a card reduces that skew but does not eliminate it. As time goes on and more cards are printed, we’re obviously going to end up with good cards that look just slightly different, and they get restricted too. Wheel of Fortune restricted? No it isn’t; the other three copies just have different names: Timetwister, Windfall, and ‘Tinker for Memory Jar.’ What the hell does that solve?”

Precisely. The term”critical mass” has been added to The Mana Drain jargon with a specific implication of a card pool big enough that it can’t be slowed, but I would like to make it a specific term referring to”the point where restricting additional cards has little to no impact on the consistency and speed of a deck or metagame.”

I believe we are at or perilously near critical mass. Burning Desire has shown us the way of the future: There are enough ways to break the rules that they barely exist anymore for a Type 1 combo deck. Granted, I didn’t play during Combo Winter – but I’ve never seen a deck before where drawing the eye-popping three-land hand was considered a serious blow to the probability of that hand being playable (even Gro decks and ten-land Stompy don’t hate drawing their land as much as this).

I think I’ve laid the foundation of a syllogism pretty clearly:

(1) If restrictions can’t hurt combo, it’s not possible to check it by presently available means.

(2) Restrictions will soon have no impact on combo.

Conclusion: Combo will soon be totally unchecked.

Wizards of the Coast and virtually every player have in the past demonstrated consistent support for eliminating incredibly fast combo from every environment, often including Type 1. But the tool for us has always been restriction, and that has always been enough… Until now. The suggestion of bannings in Type 1 is one of the many controversial new issues that have sparked huge debate, with many points to be made on both sides. There are two main problems that various players have with the idea of any banning at all.

The first is the idea that a card banned from Type 1 has been rendered useless; it can no longer be played – it has been banned from Magic. I oppose this on the simplest grounds: There is more to Magic than the DCI. Sanctioned tournament formats are supposed to be about skill. Someone has to go first. First-turn wins, even in Type 1, should be at least somewhat difficult and uncommon – God hands only! A sanctioned format cannot sustain itself if one player can end an ostensibly interactive game before the other player even begins.

So if making the format a playable speed requires excising a few ridiculous mistakes from DCI tournaments, that’s fine. People can still use their cards however they want on their own time. I doubt the DCI is going to send commando squads to your living room to confiscate your banned cards and insist you never take them out for a spin again. Magic exists outside of official boundaries, and within those boundaries it is possible for a card to simply be too detrimental in its impact.

Besides, for as much flavor as I see in a format where every normal card is allowed at least in singles, I think we gain at least as much flavor in the mystical aura surrounding a card so powerful, so incredible that”even Type 1 couldn’t hold it back.” For some reason, the idea of an apocalyptic-power-level weapon that no wizard has access to is very appealing.

“I said it before, and I stand by it. If anything except Tendrils is banned December 1st, I’m moving to Type II so I don’t have to witness Type I’s descent into a glorified Extended. Ban Yawgmoth’s Will, and the precedent is set. Once precedent is set, powerful cards will begin dropping like flies. Academy. The Power Nine. Dual lands.”

– Solaran_X”

This comment about the”descent into Extended” echoes a few others, and was made after an extensive series of posts regarding the potential banning of Yawgmoth’s Will. Basically, I doubt that Wizards will start to use the Ban list frequently or without careful thought. I also submit that cards deserving of banning will meet the following standard: in order to be Type 1 Banned, a card must pose a drastic, demonstrable problem that only gets worse as the card pool expands. This standard would provide Wizard with a pretty solid reason to never touch the Power – they may be insanely powerful, but they pose fixed benefits.

Yawgmoth’s Will, for example, only gets more broken as they print more cheap spells that go to the graveyard, more effects that put cards into the grave, and more effects that weaken the effect of restriction (Burning Wish is a good example). Yawgmoth’s Bargain only gets more and more powerful as they print more cards that interact with enchantments (or more cards that interact with previous enchantment-interactions, like Cabal Therapy). While you might make the same case for instants and Ancestral Recall, the benefit is still fixed at three cards – with Bargain and Will, the gains have no fixed limit. The same applies to Mind’s Desire (and Storm in general) and Tolarian Academy (more artifacts or land protection and it only gets more broken), just to give further examples of cards that would be eligible.

There is no reason to believe that this precedent will be invoked except in the most horrendously unhealthy of circumstances – in other words, when combo decks win routinely on the first and second turns. Even the possibility of dual lands being targeted seems paranoid. I would have no problem seeing Yawgmoth’s Will disappear in December, though I think we should try for one last gasp of restrictions as the only tool.

Please take note: I only want bannings after we’ve finally exhausted the original policy. I just think that the end of that rope is close enough to draw attention to the necessary next step.

There are three alternative ways of augmenting the effectiveness of restriction that could be taken instead of banning – and while I find all of them interesting and think that some of them would be legitimate solutions, banning is the most consistent with other formats. For the sake of completeness, I’ll point out the three ideas I’ve heard at this juncture.

Method #1: Limit The Number Of Restricted Cards That Can Be Used In A Deck

A build of Keeper that Steve O'Connell, a.k.a. Zherbus, posted on October 7th had seventeen restricted cards in it. Smmenen’s aforementioned Burning Desire build had twenty-six in the main deck alone, and three more in the sideboard. At a certain point, using that immense a portion of the restricted list is no longer an effort to use cards appropriate to a deck’s strategy, and becomes an attempt to subvert the power of restriction by creating redundancy with similarly-functioning restricted cards.

Method #1 would place a predetermined cap on the number of restricted cards allowed in a decklist. Regardless of whether that limit was five or fifteen cards, it would make it borderline impossible to replicate modern Storm combo. The lower the limit, the more interesting the overall impact on other decks that employ a multiplicity of these cards. This is the simplest alternative, but I’m not sure how likely it is to be employed, given that many influential blue-based control players would dislike such a threat to the flexibility of their Keeper build.

Method #2: Ban Cards In Combination With Specific Other Cards

This is a very powerful idea, with the drawback that it could lead to quite a long list of disallowed combinations. This would have the drawback of imposing a larger knowledge burden on incoming players – but I think Type 1’s level of”hardcoreness” has been more than proven, and anyone playing at the competitive level would not have a tough time dealing with such a list. One of the upsides is that this avoids much of the uproar about collateral damage. If (Gush, Psychatog) is placed on a list of combinations that can’t be in the same decklist, TurboNevyn could have four Gushes without worry. Some restrictions could also be altered in this manner, such as (Fact or Fiction, Mana Drain). Crippling something like Long would require several such (X, Y) pairings, but the principle is still sound, and would act to augment normal restriction. When I mentioned this on TMD,”Matt the Great” said that it had been considered as early as 1996, but eventually found it would be hard to regulate. Perhaps now that the community’s communication is so strong, it could be considered again, though I doubt it.

Method #3: Change Fundamental Rules Of The Game

By altering variables like sideboard size, life total, or minimum deck size, different ways of slowing down the game are possible. Sideboard size is generally considered the least effective of the three, since it basically just dictates how much hate you can cram together and doesn’t affect an opposing combo deck’s brokenness at all. Altering the life total is somewhat effective, but would also make aggro impossible, not to mention the enhancement to cards like Necropotence, which makes it totally unreasonable to alter this variable.

A minimum deck size would definitely have the most effect, using a similar tack as Method #1: make it impossible to play more than a given portion of the deck from the restricted list. A larger deck minimum, such as 90 or 120 cards, would present challenges to deckbuilders and would make many now-subpar cards playable. A criticism of this is undoubtedly”go play 5-Color instead” – or in other words, Magic is composed of this set of initial conditions, it’s the card pool’s fault if those conditions are too favorable. I find this solution to be the most outlandish, and the least likely to be implemented.

In short, there are alternatives, and the first two definitely have a certain appeal to them, though the second would probably look somewhat clumsy in implementation. However, any of these moves would be unprecedented, whereas bannings are the accepted norm for every other format.

My point isn’t”ban card X now,” though Yawgmoth’s Will is naturally the first card to come to almost everyone’s mind. The point is that we shouldn’t let a sentimental policy of”Type 1 is the format for every card” ruin the balance of sanctioned play; the B&R list policy should be made on the basis of retaining an adequate minimum of fairness necessary for the game to continue to enchant its players and attract new ones. The charm of Type 1 includes the idea of ridiculous game swings, but sometimes it’s too much. The DCI should be unshackled and permitted to consider power level bans to maintain the format so many of us love.

“This format, with the deep card pool and creative minds and teams, is broken. So broken that restricting certain cards is not enough. Yawgmoth’s Will is the primary offender, but the same case could be made for Bargain. These cards are broken beyond the pale of normal broken cards. The format is different and the rules should (will) reflect that change.”

– Anthony Sculimbrene, a.k.a. Ric_Flair

“If they give Yawgmoth’s Will the boot, I will be a very happy man.”

– Smmenen

Philip Stanton

[email protected]

“Dr. Sylvan” on themanadrain.com