So Many Insane Plays – Are You Down With OP? The Trouble With Shahrazad

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Monday, December 15th – Down the years, Vintage Maestro Stephen Menendian has championed the cause of many maligned cards, cards that have been banned, restricted, or have received errata. Today, he brings us the story of Shahrazad, banned but not forgotten, and presents the argument for its reintroduction into Vintage…

[Editor’s Note – As usual, Worlds has impacted our article schedule. Rest assured that all scheduled articles will appear later in the week!]

The banning of Shahrazad accorded no resistance, no backlash, no waves of enmity. The nearly universal response was apathetic silence. This decision should not necessarily have garnered the wrath or ill-will of any segment of the Eternal community, but it should have been cause for reflection, if not consternation. The DCI acted with the bold sweep and unhinged firepower of a nuclear missile. It was a no-holds barred, take-no-prisoners approach to a particular set of concerns. Even if you happen to favor the banning of Shahrazad on the grounds that it excises an annoying irritant from Eternal Magic, consider with an open mind, at least for the duration of this article, whether there were more sensible alternatives to outright banning in Vintage.

The fundamental principle that underlies Vintage is now a principle that enjoys wide acknowledgement throughout the entire Magic community: that in Vintage you get to play with all of your cards. Vintage is the backstop. It is the grandest and oldest format in which virtually every single Magic card ever printed sees play. In 2000, the DCI unbanned Mind Twist and Channel and moved them to the restricted list. With that move, the DCI legalized for the tournament play the last remaining cards that were banned for power reasons. And then in 2005, the DCI announced that all Portal cards would become legal in Vintage as well. Finally, the very last remaining cards that could be played in Vintage were admitted, with open arms, into the format.

But as with all rules there must be exceptions. Vintage is not just a format, it is a tournament format. That key qualification is sometimes forgotten or obscured. Vintage does not exist to serve the game, it exists to serve a tournament scene. Ante, a mechanic that was integral feature of the initial game design, was not only forbidden by modern tournament rules, it would interfere with game play (causing people to lose cards during the course of a tournament) and possibly violate federal and state laws. Ante cards could not be permitted for tournament Magic. The good news is that every ante card, by its own terms, informs the pilot as such. Every ante card instructs the players to remove it from the deck if you are not playing for ante. The banning of Ante cards merely follows the text of the cards themselves, and in that sense is not really an exception at all.

The other exception that has been carved to the general rule of Vintage is another to which universal commendation has been extended. The problem is primarily administrative and adjudicative. In Magic, there are any number of circumstances that could arise in which players ‘fundamentally disagree about reality.’ That is to say, circumstances in which players disagree about the state of the game or some aspect of the game. When there is no evidence available that would clearly support one player’s version of reality over another, a judge must select one person’s story over another. Dexterity cards (Chaos Orb and such) open the door to fundamental disagreements over the nature of reality that do not currently exist in the game as it is played. Players are likely to dispute whether, for instance, Chaos Orb was flipped from a height of one foot, whether there was a full rotation of the card, and the placement of cards on the table, creating a need for rules to explain what happens when Chaos Orb is played (so that people don’t move cards apart), and requiring, essentially, a judge to observe every single Chaos Orb activation. While these problems do not reach the degree of difficulty as ante cards (being outright gambling or risk of going below a legal size deck in a tournament), they are nonetheless quite serious. These disputes are very likely to arise in tournament conditions and there will be no way to resolve them. There will be no evidence to support one side over the other aside from witness statements or video-taped evidence. There is simply no feasible way to permit the use of dexterity cards without having irreconcilable disputes arise that cannot be resolved without putting an enormous burden on the judging staff.

To these two recognized exceptions, the DCI has carved out another exception: sub-games.

Here is what Aaron Forsythe, speaking on behalf of the DCI, said in support of the decision:

[T]he Organized Play department requested that Shahrazad be banned from tournament play for logistical reasons—it requires more time than can be allowed to play out. Not only does the card make you and your opponent play an entire “subgame” of Magic within the original game, but it also requires you to set aside the original game intact so that it can be returned to at a later time—a process that uses both time and space, resources valuable to tournament organizers and quantum physicians alike.

Because of how much time Shahrazad can eat up, the card is ripe for abuse. The worst-case scenario involves a player winning the first game of a match and then sideboarding in some number of Shahrazads, launching subgames nested within subgames, each with copious and meticulous shuffling until time runs out.

Or, faced with losing the first game or the match, a player could use a card like Burning Wish to fetch up a Shahrazad and attempt to stall the match into a draw right there. This behavior takes advantage of the structure of tournaments in a way that is both unfair and against the spirit of the game, so I have no problem endorsing the banning of the card.

The questionable loophole involving Shahrazad and suspend was closed in the Tenth Edition comprehensive rules update, so I have a hard time imagining any real strategic value to playing the card other than as a pure time-wasting device; to that end I don’t think we’re taking anything away from the “Eternal” formats by not allowing the card. And if you enjoy playing the card casually, feel free to do so.

Consider the list of cards banned in Vintage to now include ante cards, dexterity cards, and subgame cards. Simple.

Simple? Not quite.

Let’s tease out each of the reasons given in support of banning.

First and foremost, it requires a lot more time to play out. The time factor leads to drawn games, stalling tactics, and general tournament annoyance.

The second reason is the physical space problems. There is a limited amount of space at any given tournament table. Shahrazad compounds these problems by potentially doubling the amount of space required.

The third reason offered, related to the first, is that Shahrazad has no strategic value other than to waste time.

Those are the reasons that they give, but there are others that could be imagined.

Fourth, for instance, the card creates a great deal of confusion and complexity. Players not only have to be completely aware of the original game to which they were playing (with perhaps delayed triggers or other sorts of short-term memory game state issues), but also be able to ensure that they are able to take care not to ‘mess up’ their original game. They also will need to be aware of pertinent subgame rules interactions, such as suspend and cards like Tormod’s Crypt and how they interact with Shahrazad.

Fifth, the card also opens the door to cheating. Players may slip a card from the original game into the subgame or may steal a card from an opponent amidst the confusion.

Taken individually or together, these concerns might be legitimate or even important, but they do not rise to the level required to justify a complete ban on a card from the last format in which it is permitted.

Time. Time is a problem inherent in tournament Magic. There is only 50 minutes to play three games. While I’ve heard many people say that that is plenty of time, I do not really agree. While the number of unintentional draws I’ve incurred has dropped precipitously since I stopped taking in-game notes (it wasn’t that the note-taking was taking too much time, but that the distraction slowed my mental processing), going to turns is very common in Vintage. Fortunately for Vintage players, the additional five turns is basically 10-20 minutes of time, so not that many Vintage matches actually become unintentional draws. But the best and most intense Vintage matches are likely to go to time. Two great players battling stand a good chance of going to time, although not necessarily beyond the five additional turns.

The first argument against Shahrazad is that it requires a lot of additional time to play out. A great many commonly played Vintage cards create the same problem. In fact, it is a feature of Vintage that many cards intentionally slow down the game. Many of the best cards in the format are tutors — Polluted Delta, Demonic Tutor, Gifts Ungiven, Tinker, etc. But the biggest and splashiest, Vintage cards are cards that take an extraordinary amount of time. Cards like Mind’s Desire, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Necropotence are all good examples. But even more modest cards are notorious time-wasters: the cumulative use of Sensei’s Divining Top is probably many minutes per match.

Consider the impact of resolving Yawgmoth’s Bargain. The pilot now has potentially nineteen or more cards they can draw immediately by exchanging life for draws. When you factor in likely interactions, such as interrupting those draws with tutors, Brainstorm effects, and other considerations, it is a tortuous, winding road of a turn that probably — when played in full — goes for well over 10 minutes. You could easily play the entire contents of your library in the turn after resolving Yawgmoth’s Bargain.

In many cases, more discrete actions may be compelled as a result of Yawgmoth’s Bargain than Shahrazad. The objection made is that Shahrazad as a spell resolution takes up a lot of time. Bargain’s resolution occurs in a brief moment. That may be a technical difference, but that’s a difference without a meaningful distinction. Technically, I suppose, Shahrazad takes little more time than Timetwister. All you have to do to start a new game is shuffle your library and resolve mulligans and you have a new game. But as a practical matter, both cards create effects that consume a lot of time. For example, Yawgmoth’s Will does not – as a spell – take up a lot of time, but it creates a turn of extraordinary length – and although that is a technical difference, it’s not really a practical difference of significance.

As for the question of stalling, a sub-set of the time problem, this is not a problem at all in Vintage. Here is how Aaron Forsythe described this problem, which he called ‘the worst-case scenario.”

The worst-case scenario involves a player winning the first game of a match and then sideboarding in some number of Shahrazads, launching subgames nested within subgames, each with copious and meticulous shuffling until time runs out.

Far from being the ‘worst-case scenario,’ using Shahrazad to “stall,” in the sense of running out the clock, not slow play, is perfectly legitimate. One of the reasons that it is legitimate is that a stall strategy, as a strategy, is not a viable tournament strategy. You can’t win matches by running out of time. It is a viable tactic, but it is a deeply contingent tactic. You have to actually win game 1 for it to be advantageous. When I played Mono Blue Control at Gencon in 2004, if I had won game 1, I would often sideboard out all of my win conditions so that I would have more answers to their game in the hopes of drawing out game 2. This strategy often worked. So, the only time that ‘stalling,’ in the sense of using Shahrazad to run the clock, works as an optimal tournament tactic is when you’ve already won a game. If it is used in that way, or implemented as a sideboard strategy in that way, that is not really different in kind from numerous tactics that currently exist to ensure that your opponent can’t win a game two, either at all, or in time. It’s just a more extreme version of existing tactics.

In actuality, it’s much less problematic and a lot more skill intensive version of the same problem. If you have won game 1 and you sideboard out of all your win conditions for more countermagic, or bring in Jester’s Caps to take all of their win conditions, there is nothing the opponent can do about it. With Shahrazad, they can just scoop the sub-game before it begins if, in the evaluation of cost to benefit, that is the proper response. This is, actually, the main reason why Shahrazad is a legitimate tactic. Shahrazad does not, as a factual matter, eat up any more time than your opponent permits. They are not forced to play a new game. They can simply announce that they will concede the sub-game before it begins! The opponent has total control over whether to pay half of their life to save time or to risk losing the game, and thereby the match, on account of running out of time. How is that a worst-case scenario? It’s not. In fact, that sort of difficult cost/benefit analysis, whether to forgo half of your life and save time or not is precisely the sort of skill that is so frequently tested in Vintage, and should be tested by the format. Life is a direct resource in Vintage, and Vintage players are accustomed to treating it as such. In addition, knowing when to scoop is one of the key skills of the format. The DCI was not justified in eliminating this from Vintage on the nebulous assertion that it is ‘against the spirit of tournament structure’ or that slowing down the game after winning game one is “a worst-case scenario.” Far from it — properly responded to, it should be no different than having played a WW casting Searing Wind.

The second reason for the banning of Shahrazad, space concerns, is also unpersuasive. There are a great many cards that create all sorts of space concerns. The most obvious is Mind’s Desire. Although the cards flipped with Desire are “removed from game,’ managing them practically requires the creation of a large new zone because these cards can be played for free while other RFG cards cannot. There are also lots of decks with tons of permanents and other decks with very few permanents, all of which create space issues or do not do so. Shahrazad does not create new problems, it only poses possible problems that are potentially more extreme than in existing forms. Magic players are used to managing complexity. People don’t play Vintage or Legacy — the two Eternal formats — unless they have a decent understanding of the incredibly complicated rules system and a grasp of the enormous card pool. Mandatory decisions such as mulliganing and keeping separate numerous zones, such as the library, graveyard, board, hand, and RFG piles already feature the same level of complexity. Playing a Shahrazad adds nothing new to it. It’s only a matter of degree, not of kind.

Aaron does have a point that launching multiple sub-games with Shahrazad could multiply, not simply sum, the zone created space problems. But that does not justify a banning. Rather, it justifies a restriction designed to ensure that players cannot play nested sub-games. If Shahrazad is restricted, there is no way to launch a nested subgame (note that Twincast/Fork produce consecutive, not nested subgames — neither is very practical). Burning Wish is restricted in Vintage, so there is no risk of using Burning Wish to circumnavigate the restriction of Shahrazad. And using Death Wish — even assuming you could — would cause you to pay half of your life in the sub-game — giving an opponent good reasons to scoop the nested sub-game, and resume the original subgame with a huge life advantage. Either way, it’s not a problem.

The third reason offered is that Aaron can’t think of any strategic value to Shahrazad other than to ‘waste time.’ This is the most obviously wrong reason offered, and it makes little sense to even assert it. Shahrazad does not waste time at all, not one second in fact. Unlike cards that actually do consume time, the opponent has an equal say in whether they want that time consumed or not. If they do not, it is not a waste of time, but an opportunity for the opponent to deal some damage by winning the sub-game. If they do consider the sub-game a waste of time, the obvious and proper response is to immediately scoop the subgame before it begins, so that not even one stray second has been consumed.

Aaron’s example of launching sub-games within sub-games is equally ridiculous. If time is being wasted, the proper response is to concede the nested subgame. In fact, conceding nested sub-games will have no effect on the original game, since it will only cause you to lose half your life in the next subgame.

The fourth reason I gave for banning Shahrazad is that it has an unusual potential to create confusion and complexity. Indeed it does. But the complexity it creates is precisely of the kind that makes Magic interesting. Using cards like Tormod’s Crypt or Jester’s Cap to remove cards from game within a sub-game, and thereby remove them from the original game, enables people who enjoy using strategies like the old-Millstone or Stasis strategies of Magic’s great past. People will have to be familiar with the various rulings of Shahrazad.

Read the actual text on the card Illusionary Mask. The actual text of the card is as incomprehensible as the now ubiquitous Time Vault. Now you understand what complexities are inherent in Eternal Magic. Eternal players, and Vintage players in particular, do not shy away from this kind of complexity. If you want to play Vintage, it comes with the territory. Consider just a sampling of Vintage decks. Workshop prison decks require knowledge of upkeep triggers and large swaths of Rule 410. If you want to play some player friendly, budget decks in Vintage, like Ichorid, you will need not only a very solid working knowledge of turn structure, but the ins and outs of playing with dredge cards, replacing draws, and various other interactions, not to mention be a bulls-eye shooter with Cabal Therapy. Shahrazad is a card that Eternal players are, by and large, at least familiar with. I see confusion with respect to the difference between Pyroblast and Red Elemental Blast on a regular basis. Why should we have a higher standard for cards that aren’t even likely to see much play with Shahrazad? If confusion and complexity is a reason to ban cards, Opalescence should have been banned years ago.

Finally, because of the number of actions and all of the other reasons, Shahrazad offers unusual opportunities to cheat. Cheating is, and has always been, a widespread problem in Magic. It is a problem with no easily solution. But the best solution is an educated player base. I frankly do not think that Shahrazad makes it any easier to cheat than any number of other cards in Vintage. Could a player slip a card into their new library? Sure, but they could just as easily palm a card or engage in other shenanigans without Shahrazad. Shahrazad does not give players any more of an opportunity to cheat than any number of other Vintage cards, from Demonic Tutor on. It’s simply another opportunity provided by another card. The solution isn’t to ban the card, but to be more diligent about rooting out cheating generally. Other cards that are in print or will see print present similar problems, and the answer isn’t banning, but to address the problem more directly.

Each of the complained of features in Shahrazad exist in Magic already, and they exist among a great many cards. Shahrazad does not present new problems, but it presents them in a more extreme form and wrapped up in the same card. Ante and Dexterity cards, on the other hand, present unique problems that do not currently exist in magic. Eliminating those problems is a compelling DCI objective.

A useful analogy in considering their action is the concept of ‘judicial review.’ When a Court, or specifically the Supreme Court, reviews government action for Constitutionality, it generally reviews it under one of three tests depending on the subject matter. Bear with me as I lay out these tests. The first test is called ‘rational basis’ review. The gist of this test is that the Court seeks to determine whether the government action makes sense. First, is the objective legitimate? Keeping a format healthy is a legitimate objective. Second, is the means used ‘rationally’ related to the objective which the government seeks to achieve? For example, banning Putrid Imp to deal with Extended Elves would not be a rational means of dealing with the Elves deck, but banning Nettle Sentinel might be. And is that objective a legitimate objective? Most government action passes muster under this level of review.

The second test is called ‘intermediate’ scrutiny. Under this level of review, the court asks whether the government action is substantially related to an important government interest. That is, how strong is the relationship between the means and the ends? If that relationship is ‘substantial’ and if the interest or object of the action is ‘important’ than it will pass constitutional muster.

The most stringent test for Constitutional review is what is known as ‘strict scrutiny.’ Under this level of review, the Court asks whether the government action is ‘narrowly tailored’ to serve a ‘compelling government interest.’ Here, the government objective cannot simply be legitimate or important, it must be truly compelling. In addition, the court wants there to be a tight means-end fit. That is, the means must be narrowly tailored to achieve the objective pursued. It cannot be broader than is necessary and it must be absolutely necessary to achieve the government’s objective. This level of review is invoked when fundamental rights are at issue.

Although imperfect, this analytical framework is very useful for reviewing DCI action. Here is how I would apply it.

With respect to Legacy, I would say that a banning only has to satisfy the rational basis test. In Legacy, the DCI has made it clear that they are trying to support a particular type of format. Bannings in Legacy are justified on a wide variety of grounds, from monetary expense to ‘fun’ concerns. If the objective is legitimate, then the banning should be upheld so long as it makes sense. If, for example, they don’t want people to play super fast and unfair combo decks, the sort of which is tolerated in Vintage, then banning Necropotence and Yawgmoth’s Will makes sense. One could imagine an illegitimate objective, for instance, removing all cards that begin with the letter ‘A’ from the format. But so long as a legitimate and reasonable objective can be articulated, the DCI should have freedom to pursue it.

Vintage is a different animal. As I explained, it is the backstop, the final place where you can play with all of your cards.

With respect to Vintage, I would say that restrictions should have to satisfy a higher standard of review, intermediate scrutiny. That is, in order to restrict a card, the DCI should decide that it is pursuing an important goal and that the means, restriction, is substantially related to that goal. Because of the limited number of policy options, restriction is often more or sometimes less than is called for. It’s a necessarily imprecise policy prescription to a particular problem, but some deference to the DCI should be accorded due to that level of imperfect fit inherent in the restriction device. Examples of important DCI interests are many. The DCI restricted Gush in 2003 because it created a format-dominant deck. Whenever you have a deck or a few decks creating a stranglehold on the metagame, you have the rough equivalent of monopoly power over the ‘market.’ This suffocates the format and leads to only a few viable decks and harms the health of the format in a very serious way. Thus, restriction for metagame dominance is well justified as an important DCI objective. In addition, the DCI has an important interest in keep the format fun. Although Trinisphere was fair from both a diversity standpoint and a strategic standpoint, it created games where people simply no longer enjoyed Vintage. When people don’t even get an opportunity to play cards (not simply cast them and have them countered, but not even get an opportunity to play them in the first place), the DCI may step in and do something about it. Restricting Trinisphere was substantially related to making the format more fun again.

But in the case of banning, the DCI is removing a card from tournament existence. Such a move in Vintage should only be upheld if it satisfies the highest possible standard of review — strict scrutiny. The banning must be narrowly tailored (i.e. necessary and well fit) to serve a compelling DCI objective. Not only must the DCI’s objective be compelling, not simply legitimate or substantial, but the fit must make sense. Restricting ante cards would not solve the problems created by ante. It is illegal whether one Demonic Attorney resolves or four. Similarly, Chaos Orb’s administrative difficulties are present whether there is one activation per game or four. Banning is a policy that is properly tailored to the objective sought. Restriction would not be as effective.

With sub-games, however, restricting Shahrazad would serve the goals of preserving tournament time and space, ameliorating confusion caused by the card and minimizing the opportunities for cheating as effectively as banning. If restricting Shahrazad would serve those goals just as well, then it cannot be said that the banning of Shahrazad was narrowly tailored to the objectives asserted, even assuming that those objectives are ‘compelling.’

According to the framework I’ve laid out, banning Shahrazad in Legacy is perfectly acceptable. It is a format where much more is at stake. The cards that are comparable to Shahrazad are already banned in Legacy. The banning easily passes rationale basis review.

With respect to the banning of Shahrazad in Vintage, neither the interests are properly ‘compelling,’ nor is there a good means-end fit. Many of the reasons offered for the banning of Shahrazad make little sense of their own accord. The others suggest not that the card should be banned in Vintage, but that it should be restricted. Using the ban-hammer to address problems that can be solved through restriction is an improper use of an extreme policy tool.

Bannings, particularly in Vintage, should never serve the lowest common denominator. Vintage is the final home for every Magic card. Shahrazad is an incredibly flavorful part of Magic’s history. It is in fact the framing device for the entire first expansion, as the young woman spins her tales of heroism and valor fighting great evil.

Unfortunately, I cannot escape the suspicion that the card was ultimately banned because some tiny tournament on the far corner of the globe was being ruined by someone obnoxiously playing multiples Shahrazads, and other, less than talented players, complaining about it rather than dealing with it through superior play. Instead, their complains somehow found their way to OP (Organized Play), and now they have basically banned a card from Magic, period.

Let’s be honest — anyone running multiples Shahrazad in tournament Vintage is probably going to get stomped. I’ve been on the tournament scene for years, and in the last decade the only instance I can think of anyone using Shahrazad competitively was Ben Carp bringing in two from his sideboard in his multi-color Stax deck. There was absolutely no evidence that I have seen or heard of that Shahrazad was causing problems in Vintage tournaments. Apparently, the DCI never second-guesses Organized Play. Well, maybe they should. Bannings should always have evidence to support them of format-wide problem. We do not restrict cards in Vintage because one tournament scene somewhere is dominated by one deck. If that were the case, Mana Drains would have been restricted years ago on account of the fact that they dominate Northeastern U.S. tournaments. Rather, there has to be evidence of a problem across the metagame. Banning a card from Magic is such an extreme measure that it should have at least logical scrutiny and evidence for the need for such a banning before the DCI pulls the trigger. The banning of Shahrazad makes little sense on either account.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian