Crucible of Worlds is the New Library of Alexandria: Constructing a Coherent Restricted List Policy

So when does a card meet the distortion criteria? That’s one of the primary questions I want to address in this article. It requires a close analysis and a careful look. The critical inquiry is whether a card is “excessively” distorting. This is the problem with Crucible of Worlds. Crucible of the Worlds is not an inherently powerful card, but its presence in Type One is disturbing to many players. Crucible presents an important test case for my proposed framework and to that end I’m going to parse out these arguments for and against restriction in detail.

Changes to the restricted list over the last decade are a patchwork of decisions that reveal little about the underlying policies. The need to restrict arises so infrequently (generally about once a year) that one may safely assume that the DCI hasn’t put together a concise framework for restriction. It appears as if they address the issue on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis, as there has been little need or pressure to do otherwise. Even if they were to develop a framework or guidelines for restriction, it runs the danger of boxing them in.

The fundamental problem is that at some point you have got to have a roadmap. The question of restriction becomes too close to address on an ad hoc basis. Without clear guidance and a framework to work with, it becomes harder to justify close decisions.

You can’t formulate a framework for restriction without examining the important policy considerations.

Policy Considerations

I don’t think anyone who says that Mishra’s Workshop, Trinisphere or winning on turn 1 or 2 with Dragon Combo or Tendrils is “fair” is telling the truth. However, these plays and the decks that run them have sufficient weaknesses that they are unable to win enough tournaments or be sufficiently problematic to meet any reasonable criteria for restriction. The aim of any restricted list is to do what is best for the format it affects – and by extension, the game. But what is best for the format? Do we tow the line at keeping the format fun and fair, or where there is a dynamic, balanced and competitive environment, even if it isn’t quite “fair”?

Ultimately, there is only one way to come down. The foundational principle of Type One is that you get to play with all of your cards. Restriction is something which is unnatural to the purpose for which Vintage exists. The format is inherently broken and maintaining a dynamic, balanced and competitive environment is really the best you can hope for, and what should be sought. The fact that you can play one of a dozen wildly imaginative designs with vastly different card pools (okay, so everyone has a few Moxen) and win tournaments suggests that the restricted list policy is working, even if these decks are unfair under any other standard. More importantly, even if the decks are a bit on the degenerate side, the fact that a significant number of Type One matches go to time in a fifty minute round, or that you can play any one of a number of these decks means that the format is competitive and relatively balanced. While it may not be fair, it is really the competition which makes things fun, not the fact that you can get to play any strategy, no matter how weak.

I have proposed what I think is as clear of a framework for restriction as can be developed without being too complex and without straying from the important policy considerations that drive the need to restrict.

My Criteria for Restriction (revised to reflect the 1.5 list separation)

1) Excessive Domination

The first test for whether a card should be restricted is whether it is the essential component of a deck that is excessively tournament dominant in diverse geographical areas for a period of at least one month.

This is the most important criteria. Usually, this card will be a mana accelerant or a card drawer.

2) Excessive Distortion

The second test is whether a card is the critical component of a deck or number of decks that are excessively metagame distorting or whether the card itself is excessively metagame distorting in diverse geographical areas for a period of at least one month.

Addressing what is meant by this criteria will become a major task of this article. The phrasing of the second criteria is broad enough to encompass cards like Strip Mine and Black Vise, whose unrestriction may not lead to a single degenerate deck, but would be sufficiently metagame-distorting to warrant restriction. Crucible of the Worlds is the card to be tested by it.

3) Sufficiently Objectively Overpowered

The third criterion asks whether the card is sufficiently objectively over-powered without reference to specific card interaction or metagame considerations. This criterion should be given much less weight than the first two, and there is a heavy burden on the part of the card to show that it is sufficiently objectively broken. This criterion excludes the question of whether a card is objectively over powered in combination with some other card, but asks if it is objectively overpowered in light of known principles and general knowledge.

“Sufficiently” in this context means something that is so clear that the card would create a dominant, broken deck, that there is almost no room for reasonable disagreement. The poster child for this type of card is Mind’s Desire. The storm mechanic is particularly abusive in a format with zero-casting-cost mana accelerants. This criterion is generally in place so that a card may be restricted before it enters the environment and makes things unpleasant for the next three months.

Some people think there is a need for other criteria such as a test for whether a card is too powerful in multiples, or whether a card produces an irrecoverable early game swing. The criteria I chose are sufficiently inclusive that any other criteria that may be imagined fit within this framework. Taking the irreconcilable swing test, if this covered a deck which won too much, it would be reflected in the other criteria, and would therefore be duplicative.

What Is Meant by “Excessively Distorting”?

It’s very easy to see when a card should be restricted under the first criteria. It’s obvious to see a dominant deck with a card like Gush or Fact or Fiction fueling it. It’s also not too difficult to see the power of a card like Mind’s Desire under the third criteria. The difficulty is figuring out when a card meets the second criteria.

If a card meets the second criteria, that means it’s going to pop up in lots of different decks without producing a dominant deck (otherwise it would meet the first criteria). In Type One, there is very unlikely to be a card like Skullclamp because a) there are many, many different archetypes with significantly differing strategies such that even if Strip Mine were unrestricted, Tendrils combo, Belcher and many other decks wouldn’t dream of running any in the maindeck. The same goes for Black Vise.

So when does a card meet the distortion criteria? That’s one of the primary questions I want to address in this article. It requires a close analysis and a careful look. The critical inquiry is whether a card is “excessively” distorting. What does that mean?

This is the problem with Crucible of Worlds. Crucible of the Worlds is not an inherently powerful card, but its presence in Type One is disturbing to many players. Crucible presents an important test case for my proposed framework and to that end I’m going to parse out these arguments for and against restriction in detail.

Crucible of Worlds Should be Restricted Because…

Here I’m going to present the arguments for restriction. Any criticism of these arguments will have to wait until I’ve laid out the arguments for restriction.

1) Crucible is the New Library of Alexandria

Black Vise is certainly a card that fits the “excessively distorting” bill without necessarily producing a dominant archetype. Some people think Crucible is the new Black Vise. I think not. To say that Crucible is the new Library of Alexandria is a nuanced way of saying that Crucible is “excessively distorting” without going so far as to call it Black Vise. In terms of function and effect, Library is admittedly fairly close to Crucible.

Let’s, for the moment, ignore all matches except the control mirror. There are three cards that commonly break open control mirrors: The first two provide built-in inevitability: Yawgmoth’s Will and Mind Twist. You can have parity until a very late game position when either of those cards will win you the game if they resolve. The third is Library of Alexandria. Library of Alexandria is different, because if unanswered for a few turns in the early game, it will push you so far ahead that you can’t lose. This is particularly evident in control matches where there is no way to deal with it, such as the Tog mirror.

I know that Library of Alexandria would also be strong in decks like Fish, but ignoring that for the moment, unrestricting Library of Alexandria could seem like a plausible argument at first glance because it doesn’t really affect the Aggro or Combo matchups. Library is pretty terrible against Belcher or Tendrils Combo. Most Control mana bases couldn’t afford to run lots of Libraries, but might sideboard some in for control mirrors. Nonetheless, what Library does is sufficiently degenerate that unanswered it will win games by itself. Because Library affects the short-game and not the inevitability of the deck, is it often more egregious in control mirrors when seen than Mind Twist and Yawgmoth’s Will. In other words, instead of forcing decks to duel it out for a while using skill and strategy to resolve your bomb, Library just appears and steals the game early on unless your opponent can kill it.

Crucible is like all three cards. Crucible comes down, and if unanswered and combined with Wasteland will win the game in a very similar manner to Library. However, it is also like Mind Twist and Yawgmoth’s Will. It gives you inevitability, because eventually you will find Strip Mine and win.

Library of Alexandria is a great card to measure against to test the distortion criteria. Suppose Library of Alexandria were to be unrestricted. It wouldn’t shatter the format, nor produce a single dominant deck. Many Control decks would run 2-3 (probably not four, because you need sufficient Blue-producing lands) and most Aggro-Control decks would do the same. Libraries would heavily distort control matches in that the player who gets to abuse Library the most will probably win – making Control matches more luck and design-based than skill-based. It would be played in most control and aggro-control decks and suck the skill from these matches. The real problem is that you have to have a way to deal with it, or lose the game. Therefore, it squeezes out Control decks that don’t have room for 4-9 colorless lands.

Similarly, the argument for restricting Crucible of the Worlds is that it is distorting the format in terms of deck design and in terms of what can be successful and what can’t.

The argument runs as follows. Decks that have multi-color mana bases that don’t intend on winning in the first few turns basically must use Crucible or be prepared to deal with Crucible (much like one must either use LOA or be prepared to deal with it if it were unrestricted). So far, some decks have addressed the Crucible issue by upping their basic land count. A few decks can’t do that. In other words, Crucible could potentially push out decks like Four Color Control unless they also abuse Crucible, turning certain decks into Crucible decks and decks that are immune to Crucible such as Mono–Blue, Control Slaver and Combo. Of course, that says nothing about their capacity to beat Aggro or Combo, but the Control mirror is a very important matchup in Type One. There are many control variants out there and many of the best players play Control such that if you can’t win some of the control matches, you can’t win tournaments. In my mind, this is the most serious problem with Crucible – it effectively distorts what will happen in the control mirror.

Now that we have looked at the control mirror, we need to look at what happens in other matchups.

Combo v. Control: Crucible is probably irrelevant.

Control v. Aggro: Crucible is relatively unimportant.

Aggro v. Combo: Crucible is terrible.

Aggro v. Aggro-Control: Crucible could be important.

Doesn’t restricting because of the Control v. Control matchups seem to go a little far? In other words, if the only matchup which is distorted is Control v. Control, does that make it “excessively” distorting, such that it will warrant restriction under the second criterion? Possibly not. But there is another side to the Control mirror issue.

2) Limiting Deck Design

The second strike against it is that it basically constricts the development of new decks in that any new control deck must be able to deal with Crucibles – much like currents decks must adapt to deal with it. This isn’t as serious as the first issue, but it isn’t irrelevant. I have been working on some new decks for the StarCityGames.com Power Nine tournament, and I have been a little frustrated that my mana bases have to be built in consideration of Crucible. It just means that I need plenty of basic lands. I am not convinced that is a bad thing. Back to Basics and Blood Moon already require the use of at least one to two basic lands in the maindeck, and this card just punishes people who rely on non-basic lands and have a long game.

The one matchup we haven’t looked at yet is Prison or Aggro-Prison.

3) The Final Straw on Mishra’s Workshop’s Back

The wildcard in this debate is Mishra’s Workshop. The third argument is that it makes Mishra’s Workshop too powerful. We have just been through an artifact cycle and while few are seriously arguing that Mishra’s Workshop should be restricted, there is talk that Crucible or Trinisphere should maybe get the axe. Mishra’s Workshop aggro decks are now running Crucible, as are Mishra’s Workshop Prison decks. This expands the range of Crucible usage, but the distortion isn’t really felt in those matchups as much as the intra-control issue. The fact that Aggro is now using Crucible where it can suggests that Aggro recognizes the power of it against Control, and for its own mana stability – one of the true Achilles heels that Workshop decks once had. If you play Workshop, Crucible, you know that you will get a chance to reuse that Workshop, even if your opponent is holding three Wastelands. However, this isn’t really an issue either because Control has to be immune to Crucible or is using its own Crucible, which when used defensively counteracts an offensive Crucible.

All of that is on one side of the ledger, and on the other side are some extremely compelling reasons that Crucible shouldn’t be restricted — reasons that differentiate Crucible from the cards that its been compared with.

Crucible of Worlds should Not Be Restricted Because…

First, Crucible is not objectively powerful (Library is). While Crucible may be most similar to Library of Alexandria in terms of what it does to control mirrors, Library of Alexandria is a land that draws cards. We all know that drawing cards is awesome, and doing it at no mana cost and from a land is even awesomer (if such a word exists). Crucible permits you to play a land each turn in the fastest format in magic. In other words, Crucible may be sufficiently dissimilar to Library that the comparison, while there, may suggest that Crucible doesn’t quite cross that line.

This is related to the second point: many, many decks will just ignore Crucible that can’t ignore Library. Many aggro and combo decks don’t give a hoot about Crucible. Additionally, I see more and more decks emerging on three color mana bases which will be running 4-5 basic lands, not just because of Crucible, but also because of heavy Wasteland prevalence and because of cards like Back to Basics.

Third, no single deck has emerged that has shown that it best can abuse this card. Fish, Stax, and Four Color Control all clearly abuse the hell out of this card, but none of them has established dominance, and the Top 8 of Gencon featured plenty of decks that could deal with a Crucible metagame – a Top 8 that most reasonable people would say was pretty healthy. If the decks that abuse Crucible aren’t actually having the effect of squeezing out decks that don’t run Crucible, then maybe Crucible is too far removed from Skullclamp to restrict on the justification that every deck plays with it. Since when has Aggro done so well, anyway? Who uses the “attack step” in Type One? Apparently the vast majority of the GenCon Top 8ers do.

Fourth, while Crucible has clearly done well, the data just isn’t there yet to support its restriction. Let’s take a look at some of the most recent major tournament results to come from the United States:

· Type One Championships: 8 Crucibles in the top 8

· Waterbury (187 people): 1 Crucible in the top 8

· The Mana Drain Open (90 players): 14 Crucibles in the top 8

· StarCityGames P9 Tournament II: 80 Players: 9 Crucibles in the Top 8

Finally, and most importantly, should we care? Is distortion of control mirrors something we should be concerned about? This real heart of this argument is that the arguments for its restriction are too weak. It may be distorting, but it isn’t “excessively” distorting.

Unlike many of the distorting cards like Strip Mine, Library and Black Vise, Crucible doesn’t actually accelerate the end of the game that quickly. Strip Mine can put you under very quickly – and Library and Black Vise certainly do. Crucible is good because Type One has slowed considerably in the last 8 months: GroAtog style aggro-control has heavily dissipated and fewer and fewer people are playing combo, and Psychatog was put under by Fish. The remaining decks in the format naturally wish to use Crucible or are immune to it. The broader question then is, if Crucible is playing a role in this slow environment, why rock the boat? This is a lie though. Crucible isn’t the cause of a slow environment – Fish is. Crucible plays into that environment.

The most compelling reason not to restrict Crucible is because it doesn’t actually bury an archetype like Vise or Strip Mine would. What it does is distort Control mirrors without actually burying the archetype or visibly harming it in anyway in relation to Aggro and Combo. In some ways the archtype is stronger for having been invulnerable to it. The damage to the archetype is only internal – the intra- Control fights. The best analogy is Library of Alexandria. The primary difference is that almost every Control deck has 5 maindeck, nearly uncounterable ways to deal it naturally (wastelands and Strip Mine). Crucible isn’t uncounterable like Library, but it only costs three and easily comes down on turn two with Force of Will backup.

So where does this leave us? Crucible needs to be carefully watched for the next few months. Here are the signs I would be looking for:

· Does a single deck emerge which abuses Crucible better than any other and which appears to be on the road to domination or, at the least, heavy distortion?

· What sort of numbers are Crucibles putting in Top 8s? If by late October, November, or even December, we are seeing 40%+ numbers in top 8s across the world, then restriction is probably not going to do more harm than good.

· Are Mishra’s Workshop decks abusing Crucible better than Control decks with Crucible across the board? A follow up question is whether those Workshop decks are winning tournaments or losing to Control Slaver or Mono-Blue. If they are losing that cuts against restriction.

· Are multi-color control decks still successful? If they are, then this probably shows that they are adapting.

Restriction is much easier to do than undo. It is best to be absolutely certain that what is being done is correct. I empathize with people who say that they are unhappy with how Crucible has affected Type One – it may have ruined some pet decks and made some matches a little more silly, but restricting a card is something we do when it is absolutely necessary. If Crucible gets restricted eventually, fair enough. But if over the next few months Crucible turns out to be a feature of a particular metagame that we are in at the moment, it would be unfair to restrict it.