Number Crunching Type I: Designing Cards For Vintage

Last month there was some discussion of designing cards for Type 1, or whether it was even possible to do so. Last week, I took ten major T1 tournaments and analyzed them for what they told us about the metagame, and this time I decided to take the same Top 8s and see how sets in the past have managed to sneak their cards into Vintage.

Last month there was some discussion of designing cards for Type 1, or whether it was even possible to do so. Last week, I took ten major T1 tournaments and analyzed them for what they told us about the metagame, and this time I decided to take the same Top 8s and see how sets in the past have managed to sneak their cards into Vintage.

First, the data (less than 100% due to rounding and the exclusion of basic land):

Pre-Mirrodin Card Counts Sorted By Set

26.2% 786 Alpha/Beta/Unlimited (with 196 dual lands)

7.0% 211 Urza’s Saga

5.5% 164 Onslaught (with 127 fetchlands)

4.9% 148 Tempest

4.8% 144 Ice Age

3.9% 118 Antiquities

3.8% 114 Judgment

3.5% 105 Alliances

3.2% 95 Odyssey

2.8% 83 Urza’s Destiny

2.7% 81 Weatherlight

2.6% 79 Urza’s Legacy

2.6% 78 Scourge

2.6% 77 Arabian Nights

2.6% 77 Nemesis

1.9% 58 Torment

1.8% 55 Exodus

1.8% 54 The Dark

1.8% 54 Mirage

1.7% 50 Mercadian Masques

1.6% 48 Visions

1.6% 48 Invasion

1.5% 44 Legends

1.2% 37 Planeshift

1.0% 29 Apocalypse

0.6% 18 Promos (Mana Crypt)

0.3% 11 Stronghold

0.3% 10 Legions

0.3% 9 Fallen Empires

0.2% 6 Prophecy

0.1% 4 Homelands (Merchant Scroll)

0.1% 4 Portal (Sleight of Hand)

N/A 0 Mirrodin

Post-Mirrodin Card Counts Sorted By Set

26.3% 790 Alpha/Beta/Unlimited (with 232 dual lands)

7.0% 210 Onslaught (with 144 fetchlands)

5.2% 157 Alliances

5.1% 152 Urza’s Saga

4.8% 145 Ice Age

4.6% 139 Tempest

3.6% 107 Scourge

3.4% 102 Urza’s Legacy

3.2% 95 Mirrodin

3.0% 90 Judgment

2.9% 87 Antiquities

2.8% 84 Arabian Nights

2.4% 71 Legends

2.4% 71 Mercadian Masques

2.4% 71 Odyssey

2.3% 68 Torment

2.2% 65 Visions

2.1% 62 The Dark

1.8% 54 Apocalypse

1.7% 51 Weatherlight

1.5% 46 Exodus

1.5% 46 Nemesis

1.1% 32 Mirage

0.9% 26 Planeshift

0.7% 22 Urza’s Destiny

0.5% 16 Invasion

0.5% 14 Promos

0.3% 8 Fallen Empires

0.2% 7 Stronghold

0.2% 6 Legions

0.1% 4 Prophecy (Spiketail Hatchling)

0.1% 2 Homelands

0% 0 Portal

In Type 1, virtually every set regularly appears. The numbers above show that most sets so far have eked out at least one percent of the space in Type 1’s winning decklists. This is no mean feat: cards first printed in 1993 still hold over a quarter of all deck space, and every released set makes that space tighter. Clearly the stereotype that few new cards make it into T1 is false, even though the oldest cards still remain the best in many ways.

There are a few sets that have significantly less or more than the normal impact, and these are the most instructive for any future design effort.

The Losers: Fallen Empires, Homelands, Stronghold, Prophecy, Legions

These are the sets with less than one percent of both the pre- and post-Mirrodin metagame. In each case, there are just a couple of cards that have seen play. Homelands is naturally the exemplary case; every one of its six appearances was a single Merchant Scroll. Fallen Empires had eleven Hymn to Tourach and six Goblin Grenade. What do these sets have in common that makes them incompatible with Type 1?

(1) Creature Focus

Thrulls, Minotaurs, Spikes, Avatars, or Goblins – in Type 1, they’re all useless (well, except for Goblins; half of all Legions cards used were eight Goblin Goon). In each case, the set’s spells are either primarily directed at creatures, or don’t exist at all in the case of Legions. The reason that spells related to creatures don’t work in Vintage is that they face too much competition. The best removal is from 1993 and the best creatures are, ironically, not in these creature-centered sets. To make this a trend and not a hunch, I counted for a few extra hours.

Stronghold doesn’t look like a weak set at first glance since it has two restricted cards, but a quick count yielded 131 creature or creature-related cards, counting removal spells, which for all practical purposes are creature-related. Compare this to a well-received set like Judgment, where I count 113. That’s twelve unrelated spells for one and thirty for the other. Sometimes this doesn’t work precisely, due to one or two abnormally good cards, but it’s a very strong indicator in small sets. Large sets can’t follow this rule because they automatically have so many utility spells, cycles of nonbasic land, and so on.

Small Expansion Creature-Centeredness*

57.7% 49/85 Antiquities

74.1% 106/144 Alliances

74.1% 106/143 Planeshift

75.6% 90/119 The Dark

76.7% 128/167 Visions

77.6% 111/143 Apocalypse

77.6% 111/143 Scourge

78.3% 112/143 Urza’s Destiny

78.3% 112/143 Torment

79.0% 113/143 Urza’s Legacy

79.0% 113/143 Judgment

81.8% 117/143 Exodus

82.1% 64/78 Arabian Nights

82.6% 138/167 Weatherlight


83.2% 119/143 Prophecy

85.2% 86/101 Fallen Empires

86.0% 123/143 Nemesis**

86.1% 99/115 Homelands

91.6% 131/143 Stronghold

100% 143/143 Legions

* I ran into some ambiguous cards like Thelon’s Chant, which I counted as creature-related, since it’s clearly designed for a metagame with creatures. There’s some margin of approximation to my counts due to cards which could conceivably be used without creatures.

** Nemesis is the one that breaks the dividing line thanks to Seal of Cleansing, Tangle Wire, and Accumulated Knowledge.

You’ll notice that the dividing line is fairly clear between the”Losers” and the other sets. I was surprised by this, actually. I expected all of the older sets to have wacky counts of everything, since they were designed before Limited existed. This trend isn’t solid enough to make it a rule, but it does show that when design is less focused on creatures, it does better in Type 1.

(2) High Casting Costs

Baki’s Curse would be overpriced at a single Blue mana, let alone 2UU. I feel guilty for not calculating the average converted mana cost of every small expansion, but I figured that I was already endangering myself by not getting enough vitamin D this week. Suffice it to say that we’ve all seen the Hand of Justice, Book of Rass, and Avatar of Might sitting in our pile of”I feel confident this will never, ever be good” cards. These”Loser” sets have bunches more cards like that than most. Prophecy has two whole cycles at eight and nine mana. I’m not saying this is”bad” for Wizards to print – casual players buy plenty of packs, too – I merely assert that this negatively affects a set’s Type 1 viability.

The Winners: Alpha/Beta/Unlimited, Ice Age, Tempest, Urza’s Saga, Onslaught

These are the sets with over four percent representation both pre- and post- Mirrodin. We all know these are influential sets, but certainly Ice Age and Onslaught may raise a few eyebrows among the company of restriction-filled sets like Saga and Alpha, or even just the undercosted Tempest set. What makes these”Winners” stand out?

(1) Efficient Bombs

Each of these sets contains one card or a small group of cards that singlehandedly forms much of the set’s presence and defines modern Type 1.

1576 ABU cards – 46.1% (726) = 298 Moxen + 428 dual lands

289 Ice Age cards – 48.1% (139) Brainstorm

287 Tempest cards – 45.7% (131) = 86 Wasteland + 45 Intuition

363 Urza’s Saga cards – 41.6% (151) Duress

374 Onslaught cards – 72.5% (271) fetchlands

These Constructed bombs are what set the”Winners” apart from other successful sets, but they don’t fully explain what differentiates them from the”Losers”.

(2) Niche Cards

Type 1 finds uses for what other environments would find to be utter chaff, and since every one of the”Winners” is a large set, they have the advantage of more random utility spells finding uses. Animate Dead and Dance of the Dead are useless unless they’re in the same format as Worldgorger Dragon. Verdant Force, being a useful transformational sideboard card, actually finds a place in Dragon decks. Karn, Silver Golem is an amazing win condition in all-artifact decks, where most formats don’t have enough good artifacts to make any use of him. Future Sight slips in as a one-of to some control builds. Naturalize makes it easier to run a White-less control deck like Hulk Smash. These niches are where almost all advancement in Type 1 originates, since it’s so rare for a card to be purely more powerful than everything before it.

(3) Nonbasic Land

Over a quarter of ABU, and the vast majority of Onslaught cards appearing were the fifteen key manabase components in Type 1. Onslaught is the only set that has competed with Arabian Nights and Antiquities for the title”Best Non-basics in an Expansion,” and it shows. It cannot be stressed enough how key nonbasic land is to Type 1. Fetchlands are now so ubiquitous that Stifle is considered to”never be dead” and acts as”Strip Mine numbers six and seven” in mana denial arsenals. Good non-basics are always welcome to Vintage, even though their non-basicness is a drawback here, where in other formats only occasionally will that matter.

Others have sketched out theory for designing cards slanted toward Vintage. Blue or artifact cards that cost less than four, instants, anything that produces mana efficiently, searches through your deck, or attacks nonbasic lands – all of these are automatically spotlighted for Vintage. Others aren’t nearly so obvious, and even most of the cards in the categories listed don’t make the grade. Every once in a while something really good makes it through design that’s good in every format but is not, apparently, restrictable, such as Duress or Brainstorm. Otherwise, every set sneaks us something, and I’m increasingly a member of the camp that says designing cards directed at Vintage is a dangerous gambit, which can cause unhealthy complications. I think the numbers give a few general guidelines to ensure that sets continue to provide new cards for Vintage, and they also show that no specific effort is necessary for those cards to find use.

Philip Stanton

prstanto at uiuc.edu

“Dr. Sylvan” on themanadrain.com and starcitygames.com