So Few Insane Plays – The Vintage Apocalypse: Demolition Slated For 6/20/08

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Tuesday, June 3rd – Yesterday saw the most sweeping changes to the Vintage Banned and Restricted list for a number of years, with a swathe of Blue tournament staples becoming mere one-ofs in future decklists. Today’s renamed So Many Insane Plays sees Vintage World Champion Stephen Menendian analyze the changes, and evaluate the disappearance of Brainstorm and pals…

On Monday, Wizards announced the most sweeping changes to Vintage since the Academy era. In case you hadn’t heard, effect June 20: Brainstorm, Flash, Gush, Merchant Scroll, and Ponder all join the Vintage restricted list. (The remainder of that list can be seen here.

To put these restrictions in perspective, a breadth and boldness which is unprecedented in this century, it may be useful to see how the format has evolved from a restriction perspective over the last ten years.

1999: Crop Rotation, Doomsday, Dream Halls, Enlightened Tutor, Frantic Search, Grim Monolith, Hurkyl’s Recall, Lotus Petal, Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, Mind Over Matter, Mox Diamond, Mystical Tutor, Tinker, Vampiric Tutor, Voltaic Key, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, and Yawgmoth’s Will are all restricted.

(See the fascinating explanation here.)

2000: Necropotence and Demonic Consultation are restricted.

2001: Fact or Fiction is restricted.

2002: No restrictions.

2003: In March, Entomb and Earthcraft are restricted (the latter because the effect was to ban it in Legacy). Three months later, Gush and Mind’s Desire are restricted. Later still, Burning Wish, Chrome Mox, and Lion’s Eye Diamond are restricted.

2004: No restrictions

2005: Trinisphere is restricted. It is also announced that Portal will become legal, and that Personal Tutor and Imperial Seal will be restricted when it does.

2006: No restrictions.

2007: Gifts Ungiven is restricted.

2008: Brainstorm, Flash, Gush, Merchant Scroll, and Ponder are restricted.

In 1999, the massive influx of combo parts and fast mana came to a thunderous crescendo followed by the largest wave of restrictions since the origination of the format. The following year was cleanup. The restriction of Necropotence marked the beginning of modern Vintage. The combo era was over. The format before 1999 looked structurally very different from 21st century Vintage.

Between 2000 and 2007 there was incredible dynamism in Vintage accompanied by unbelievable structural stability in the format. In 2000, Vintage was considered by the broader Magic community to be a completely ‘dead’ format. And for all intents and purposes, it was.

It was at this time that I returned to Magic. I discovered a nascent community of true believers, mostly adherents to Brian Weissman’s “The Deck.” But it was a group of people who loved Vintage and were open to new ideas. The stagnation was over and the innovation was about to begin. It was a cross-fertilization of ideas from across the Atlantic ocean. In Germany, players were trying Workshop Aggro decks in ways that hadn’t been seen before. In the United States, hyper-aggressive mono-Blue Morphling decks using Back to Basics, Misdirection, and a full complement of Fact or Fictions were tearing up tournaments. Granted, this young tournament scene was not very competitive, nor was it very advanced, but it was the seed of something to come. 2002 and 2003 saw incredible growth in the player base and innovation in the format, with Illusionary Mask, Stax, Dragon and Grow decks coming of age, followed by much more.

But the most important developments in Vintage during this period was not the printing of the storm mechanic in 2003, it was the printing of new fetchlands in Onslaught in 2002. We can mark the printing of Onslaught as the crucial turning point, for it is here that Brainstorm became central to the format. It was here that the race to abuse Yawgmoth’s Will took on its visible contours. GroAtog was banned with the restriction of Gush, but Long.dec and others took its place using Burning Wish and Lion’s Eye Diamond to use Yawgmoth’s Will even faster, and more resiliently with Gifts Ungiven. From here, things were constantly changing, but for the better. Innovation flourished and the community grew. StarCityGames.com announced its Power 9 tournament series, which grew ever larger.

The most amount of Vintage activity — from a tournament perspective — occurred in 2004, 2005, and 2006. The tournament scene, while not dwindling, has remained quite stable since. The important point to make, however, is that the tournament scene thrived and the metagame constantly changed despite the fact that there were almost no restrictions during that period. Aside from restrictions that accompanied the entrance of Portal into the format, there was really only one restriction in this time period: Trinisphere.

The DCI policy since 2001 through May of 2007 can be characterized as hands-off, careful, patient, and above all laissez-faire. Change came only reluctantly and as a backstop. Any restriction that occurred was essentially a minor change to the list as a whole. At the same time, it was a period of remarkable growth and structural stability for a format that had been considered ‘dead’ a decade earlier. It demonstrated that Vintage can take care of itself; that decks are best put in check by metagame changes and new printings rather than policy changes.

That cautious, hands-off approach came to an end (or was at least foreshadowed) with the June 2007 announcements. Although only Gifts Ungiven was restricted, a move that was considered by many – although not all – Vintage players to be a mistake (if not the restriction itself, the timing), Gush was also unrestricted.

These moves set off large shockwaves that rippled through time and across space to the effect we see today. The truth is that Gifts Ungiven was the wrong target. Merchant Scroll was and is the superior tutor. If they had hit Merchant Scroll and not Gifts, I doubt the changes that were announced on Monday would have occurred. Flash would have been a more modest deck and the Gush-bond engine would never have returned as it did.

And with this wave of five restrictions, we have the largest single day change to the restricted list since 1999. In fact, more restrictions are to occur this month than in the previous half decade combined. These changes not only mean fundamental reappraisal of the format, but also a shift in policy in the DCI towards Vintage. In the rest of this article (and next week), we will work to deconstruct and evaluate these changes.

I will begin by evaluating the impact of each restriction in its own terms. Any given restriction has the power, by itself, to transform the system. When we apply systems theory principles we see that Magic deck and Magic metagames are complex, adaptive systems. Decks themselves contain numerous internal and interactive elements, which then play out against a constantly shifting metagame. Here is a model I graphed of a few of the internal interactions within a Legacy Flash deck:

Follow The Arrows

Two forms of change in a system are positive and negative feedback. In systems theory, positive feedback is an intervention into the system that transforms the system: it is a catalytic change. Certain restrictions have the potential to be transformative. Of all of the changes today, Brainstorm and Merchant Scroll are the most transformative.

Before exploring what these changes might be, it is also critical that I make two other points. First of all, many of the changes that will occur will not be immediate. There will be secondary and tertiary consequences that will occur only after the immediate impact has settled in. There will also be multiple effects, and these effects will interact with each other to create secondary and tertiary effects. For instance, the restriction of Merchant Scroll may help Workshop decks a lot in the short run, since there will be fewer bursts of early card advantage, fewer cheap tutors for Hurkyl’s Recall, and the like. But the format that stabilizes in the long run could be far less hospitable to Workshop decks. Gush decks powered by Scroll engines were inherently weak to Workshops, but preyed on slower Mana Drain decks like Control Slaver. If Control Slaver makes a comeback, Workshops might not get very far. This is what I mean by the interactivity of effects and the fact that there will be secondary and tertiary effects.

This leads to my second point: the law of unintended consequences. DCI decisions cannot be perfectly predicted. Changes to a system will inevitably have unintended consequences. The unrestriction of Gush was explained by a lack of fear of cards like Psychatog. But it had many unintended consequences, such as driving Mana Drain decks from the format while simultaneously boosting Workshop decks. It also served to keep Flash in check.

Merchant Scroll

If I were running the DCI, this is the move I would have made. But that is all I would have done. Restricting Merchant Scroll has many consequences, but two above all:

First, it neuters the Gush-bond engine. As I explained two weeks ago, the Gush-Bond engine hums so well because of Scroll. Without Scroll, Gush would be a niche card, used in decks like GAT, but not in combo decks like Oath, Painter, or Storm.

Second, it weakens Flash. Much of Flash’s strength is derived from using Merchant Scroll as an unrestricted Demonic Tutor. Granted, this point is now moot by the restriction of Flash itself.

From here, there are many other consequences.

The third major consequence of the restriction of Merchant Scroll is that it will now be played as a one-of in basically every Blue deck until the end of time. All Vintage Blue decks will now start:

4 Force of Will
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Merchant Scroll

Merchant Scroll was not simply the best unrestricted Tutor in Vintage, it was also by itself and in combination the best draw engine. The restriction of Merchant Scroll will open the door to the return of old draw engines, like Thirst For Knowledge and Intuition + Accumulated Knowledge/Deep Analysis. That’s the fourth consequence of this restriction.

It also follows that I believe that Grim Tutor will become the best unrestricted Tutor in Vintage. It will remain to be seen how heavily played Grim Tutor will be, but it will see more play than it has in the last 12 months, although probably less than it did in 2006.

In terms of the impact on specific decks from this restriction alone, we can name names. From my Vintage primer, Flash is wounded, GAT is wounded, Tyrant Oath is seriously wounded, the Painter deck loses the Gush-bond engine, and the Tropical Storm is dead.

If just Merchant Scroll had been restricted, I would have continued to test GroAtog with one Scroll, running 1 Imperial Seal, and maybe two Mana Drains in the other two slots, but the Gush-bond engine would have disappeared from Vintage. I think it is possible that Tyrant oath with 4 Gushes and only 1 Scroll may have lingered, but I doubt that the Painter decks would have continued to use it, and I am certain that the Doomsday and Tropical Storm decks would have disappeared, since they wanted Scrolls even more than the other decks.

I think the metagame would have shifted quite a bit, almost all for the better. I think that a lot more balance would have returned with just that restriction. Oath decks would still be viable with Ponder, thus keeping Workshop insanity in check. Painter decks would still exist, keeping what remains of Flash well in check and helping check Gush decks. My heavy Duress GAT lists would have also, in turn, checked Painter decks. Shops would still punish people from playing the best draw engine (Gush), and Ichorid decks would continue to round things out.

I was working on a metagame analysis article, summarizing the tournament results from March and April, when suspected that restricted list changes might be in the offing. I think that if you restricted Scroll and Scroll alone, you would have retained the best elements of the metagame from last year and increased the diversity and health of the format. From that move, a number of safe and interesting changes could have followed: unrestricting Fact or Fiction, unrestricting Mox Diamond, unrestricting Dream Halls (a given), and even re-errata on Time Vault (which is no more dangerous than Grindstone + Painter).

But Wizards went much further than that. The biggest change, a change likely never to be reversed, is the restriction of Brainstorm.


Three weeks ago, I wrote an article listing what I felt were the top 10 unrestricted spells in Vintage. At the top of that list was Brainstorm, even above Force of Will. I think of all the restrictions, this will be the one that will produce the most unintended consequences and secondary and tertiary effects. Its place in the format is so central that its loss will be crippling for everyone and no one at the same time. Workshop decks, by far, are the big winners here.

So, in terms of impact:

1) Mishra’s Workshop decks get a huge edge. Their mana denying impact of Spheres will be much more painful without Brainstorm. At the same time:

2) Mishra’s Workshop decks will be hurt, somewhat. Manabases will increase as the format slows under the weight of 9spheres. The loss of Brainstorm will mean an equivalent increase in lands. Decks that naturally fold to Workshops will also be disqualified from contention.

3) The biggest impact will be the slowing of the format. Brainstorm is probably the number one card responsible for making this a format that revolves around turn one-and-a-half. It is better to spend your turn 1 mana to find a card that you want to play on turn 2 rather than wait to draw it on turn 3. Brainstorms loss will mean a slowing of the format.

4) Design will matter more.

Brainstorm is strongest when you combine all three of its elements:

A) Tempo/hand sculpting
B) Digging for restricted cards or other important cards like land and forces, and…

C) Trading junk for gems.

Decks that have more junk and less consistency can’t rely on Brainstorm as a fixer-upper. Inherent consistency will matter for more now.

5) Anti- Yawgmoth’s Will decks get better across the board. For a very long time, you could divide 95% of the decks in Vintage into Yawgmoth’s Will decks and decks that fought those decks. On one side of the divide you could place Control Slaver, Gifts, Long, GroAtog, Storm decks and the like. On the other, you could place Stax, Fish, Ichorid, Goblins and the like. The loss of Brainstorm means a boon to the decks that fought the decks that raced towards Will. I think that the biggest boost could potentially be for Fish. Null Rod will return as a powerful play in Vintage. Relatedly:

6) Vintage will be a lot more expensive to play. The Gush era actually made Vintage cheaper to play because off-color Moxen were less relevant. The killing of Brainstorm and Ponder means that decks will need full complements of Moxen for consistency. I think we will see the return of Null Rod for that reason.

7) Bazaar of Baghdad and Sensei’s Divining Top become more important in Vintage. Bazaar of Baghdad had, for some time, seen increased play in Vintage before it became essentially an Ichorid engine. It initially saw play in Worldgorger Dragon combo, as a way to discard Dragons and find Animate Deads. Then it saw play as part of a Squee draw engine in Blue-based control decks which saw modest amounts of play in Europe. Then it saw play in Aggro decks like Madness and Oshawa Stompy, a heavy Green Canadian deck using Madness parts, Root Maze, and Null Rods. Then it saw play in decks built around Intuition and Goblin Welder. But there are many more places for its use as well. Consider this:

This may be the Vintage deck of the future — not so much this particular deck, which I think is robust, but this sort of deck. It features the soon-to-be restricted cards as singletons, but abuses recent printings in a recent shell, retrofitted.

This deck runs four Deep Analysis so that a turn 1 Bazaar can mean some turn 2 plays, either flashing back Deep Analysis or casting Oath. In addition, you can cycle dead draws for good ones. Deep Analysis also synergizes with the Tyrant. With a Tyrant in play, you can begin the process of bouncing spells until you can Brain Freeze your opponent out after a massive Yawgmoth’s Will. I’ve included a Fire/Ice on the assumption that Goblin Welders will be heavily played in this environment, and a Tormod’s Crypt for Long decks, Slaver decks, and Ichorid besides. This deck should have the tools to combat both Ichorid and Workshops, which I see as the center of the new metagame.

Next week, I will take a look at the rest of the restrictions, examine what I think their impact will be, and then take a cumulative look at the interaction of all of these new restrictions. But first, a few words about this new direction in general.

If I were running the show, I would have done things differently. Last summer, I would have restricted Merchant Scroll and unrestricted Gush and Fact or Fiction. I have never been opposed to the restriction of Brainstorm in principle. The impact of such a decision, however, is so broad that it would be hard to pinpoint what effect it would have, if any. I felt that a restriction could be justified, but it was a decision for the policy making body.

On Flash, I don’t think Flash needed restriction. But, again, I’m not opposed to its restriction, just surprised. Why wait this long? The timing, once again, seems to be the most mysterious element. Restricting Gifts when they did last year made very little sense. With Gush unrestricted, Gifts would have seen little play. Gush and Gifts would not have been in the same home. Also, why wait over two years to restrict it? By the same token, was it really Reveillark that put Flash over the top? The tournament data strongly contradicts that. Flash has been about 10% of Top 8s since its re-errata with a bump in January and February. If it should have been restricted, why not either last June, with Gifts, or in March? Why wait until now? It is mystifying.

I had felt that some Vintage players had decided not to play the game as long as Flash was around. That reason alone is enough reason to restrict it. But again, restricting Scroll would have really hurt Flash. Restricting Brainstorm would have done this as well. It’s very difficult to imagine that Flash would have been overly problematic without Scroll. But given the sweep of the other restrictions, a dramatically slowed format, I can see how remaining Flash would be too big a risk, particularly from a design standpoint. Once you take out Scroll, Brainstorm, and Gush, you almost have to take out Flash. Otherwise, design will just gravitate towards Flash.

I have long since given up allowing myself to become too emotionally connected to what I feel is correct policy or to the high point of managing the restricted list — the period from 2000 through 2006. I can tell now that the guard has changed in the DCI, that new voices have emerged. So long as Vintage continues to benefit in terms of popularity, it doesn’t matter to me whether I disagree in principle. My principles are based on the notion that a hands-off approach is the healthiest approach for the format as a whole, since bad restrictions can do more damage than no restrictions. I support restrictions on two grounds: obvious brokenness/format dominance (See the Scroll engine or Mind’s Desire) or simply unfunness that drives people from the format (see Trinisphere or Flash).

I think my strongest objection would have to come from Ponder. Ponder is not a card that I think in any way warranted restriction. It will be very hard to ever get Ponder off that list now that it is there. Although I did list Ponder in my top 10 unrestricted spells of Vintage, I think that Ponder was a safe Brainstorm. It was slow enough to not be a headache for Workshop decks, and fairer than Brainstorm in that you didn’t get three new cards directly into your hand. It doesn’t trade junk into good cards.

There is something to be said for “shaking things up,” but again, there were other ways to do that. Fixing Time Vault, and unrestricting Fact or Fiction and Mox Diamond were all other ways to re-energize the format without leaving a legacy where most Blue decks will now begin Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Brainstorm, Ponder, Merchant Scroll until the end of time.

The period that runs from now through the Vintage Championship is an unprecedentedly wide open format. It should be a deckbuilder’s paradise, within the constraints imposed by Workshops and Ichorid. Although I’m sad to see this period pass, a period in which I felt only a minor tweak was needed but was otherwise a golden age, I am optimistic about the future. The changes aren’t nonsensical. But they do feel a bit disconnected from reality. I can’t imagine a similar change would have been made in other formats. It’s hard to understand why Ponder was restricted other than “in principle,” or on the theory that if Brainstorm should be restricted, then Ponder following as well isn’t a leap of logic.

I think the danger of mass restrictions is illustrated quite vividly by the 1999 wave. In 1999, 18 cards were restricted. It has taken a decade, but more than a few of them are now unrestricted: Voltaic Key, Doomsday, Mind Over Matter, and Hurkyl’s Recall. A few more don’t deserve to be there: Mox Diamond and Dream Halls stand out, among others. When you sweep with a broad brush, you are likely to sweep out the good (or irrelevant) with the bad. In this wave of restrictions, I think that Gush and Ponder were safe and undeserving. Restricting Scroll and Brainstorm means that Gush-bond as an engine is dead and buried.

Long live Vintage.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian

P.S. Here is a deck that should be updated from the past: