So Many Insane Plays – Dear Santa Rosewater…

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Christmastime, mistletoe and wine. Children frolicking in the snow, presents piled under the tree, chestnuts roasting on an open fire… and begging letters sent by children to a jolly old guy dressed in red. Today, Stephen send his own Dear Santa letter to Mark Ho-Ho-Rosewater, listing his ten Vintage Wishes. So, has Stephen been naughty or nice?

Dear Santa Rosewater,

2008 is just around the corner, and I thought it would be as good a time as any to draw up my holiday wish list. In increasing order of want, here is my holiday wish list.

10. Unrestrict Mox Diamond in Vintage

Let’s face it: When it comes to making accurate predictions about what to unrestrict, I’m on the money. Over the last four years, I’ve suggested that you unrestrict Berserk, Hurkyl’s Recall, Braingyser, Stroke of Genius, Fork, Mind Over Matter, Voltaic Key, Mind Twist, and Black Vise, among others, and all of those eventual unrestrictions have proved wise in time. I never would have recommended the unrestriction of Gush, but it hasn’t turned out as bad as I thought. It’s not that Gush is worse in practice than I expected. On the contrary, by any reasonable measure, Gush is by far the best performing deck in Vintage. It just turns out that if there is going to be a “best deck,” having Gush as that deck is a positive thing for Vintage.

Mox Diamond is a card that I have never advocated for unrestriction, until now.

The truth is that Mox Diamond unrestricted would see no play in Vintage. There are a number of fundamental constraints on the card.

First and foremost, combo decks run twelve or fewer land, sometimes thirteen. The chance of drawing a Mox Diamond at the relevant time and no land are too high. Particularly if you just play land and Brainstorm and you see the Mox Diamond. You have to put back this totally dead card. No Blue-based control deck will likely want to run the card. It is possible that Aggro decks would run Mox Diamond, but they would run Chrome Mox first, and very few do.

Second of all, Mox Diamond is a terrible card to mulligan into. And Vintage decks mulligan a lot. The marginal advantage derived by the frequency of improved hands of seven cards with Mox Diamond would be more than offset by the total loss of a hand of six that has Mox Diamond as a dead card. You can still win games with something else in the Mox Diamond slot with a hand of seven, but the functional hand of five is a deficit too severe to overcome.

Third, the principle behind restriction is that you reduce the number of cards that are overpowering in multiples. Mox Diamond is distinctively a card with steep diminishing marginal utility. Imagine an opening hand with two or more Mox Diamonds. That should make you want to puke. If you were to play 4 Mox Diamonds, that’s something that will happen with regularity.

Fourth, the card has been unbanned in Legacy and it doesn’t see play. That right there is pretty strong evidence that this card is harmless. Chrome Mox is so much better and Chrome Mox just doesn’t see that much play in Vintage.

Fifth, Vintage already has plenty of accelerants like this. Vintage decks don’t need (or even want) more. There are better unrestricted accelerants: Elvish and Simian Spirit Guide, Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual, and Mishra’s Workshop. Mox Diamond would be an 8th tier option.

So what are the arguments against unrestriction? Unfortunately, they are meager.

Mox Diamond was a card that I opposed for years primarily on the grounds that it seemed so good with Draw7s. I could imagine building a deck with 4 Diminishing Returns and having Mox Diamond help power them out. With each new hand of seven, Mox Diamond is like a mini-Fastbond. The raw card advantage from each draw7 cancels out the card disadvantage of Mox Diamond. This is not a sufficient reason to keep the card on the restricted list. The experience of Flash in the format has made me re-evaluate many of my fundamental assumptions about power level. Flash as a baseline in Vintage tells you almost everything you need to know with respect to restriction. Flash is absolutely busted, and yet absolutely incapable of winning a big Vintage tournament. If Flash can be legal, so can Diminishing Returns.dec.

The most likely home for Mox Diamond is in a slow base-White deck with Land Tax. And that won’t be a deck that will be problematic for Vintage.

9. Print Third “Un” Set. Make “Unleashed.”

Unglued and Unhinged have been awesome for Type Four. Have you ever seen a Gorilla Shaman munch on a Gleemax? Have you ever used Timmy, Power Gamer to drop a Nicol Bolas into play? Not unless you play Type Four.

Unglued and Unhinged are incredibly flavorful. They are fun to look at and just fun to play.

The collateral, spillover effects of designing an “Un” set are also beneficial. Many of the cards designed will turn out to be fine for regular play. These cards spice up regular set design by adding a unique, eclectic element. Moreover, these sets allow designers like yourself to really flex your design muscles and see what you’re capable of doing. They hopefully inspire you to try new things and motivate you to think outside of the box. That kind of thinking can transform your understanding of design with positive side effects for regular sets.

The “Un” sets are good for Magic, good for designers, and good for Type Four!

Okay, so you don’t have to print it in 2008, but at least get it ready for a 2009 release. And PLEASE make some good Type Four cards: Spike better be the bomb (and not an auto-ban like Johnny).

8. Unban Shahrazad

I feel like a polemist bringing this up, but banning Shahrazad in Vintage was just plain silly. I completely understand banning it in Legacy, where there are tournaments like the Magic World Championship and Grands Prix on the line, where stall.dec is a serious problem for tournament competitors.

But Vintage is fundamentally different in two critical respects. It’s not that considerations of stalling aren’t valid in Vintage, but there is another fundamental rule that those considerations have to be weighed against: the fact that Vintage stands for the principle that you can play all of your cards. We don’t ban cards in Vintage unless absolutely necessary. The two exceptions agreed upon before now were dexterity and ante. In Legacy, it is much different. We ban cards there for a host of reasons. Banning in Legacy should be a much simpler decision, as the banning of Flash showed. The inconvenience of stall.dec simply does not justify the fact that a banning in Vintage is a de facto banning in total for Magic entirely.

And when you actually think about it: the stall.dec tactic is just silly. In Legacy, it could actually be annoying but relevant, where life totals matter (more so, say, than storm count). But in Vintage, this isn’t a stall tactic. The correct response, most of the time, will be to simply scoop the sub-game before it begins. Taking 10 or fewer life for WW is perfectly fair in Vintage. I need only remind you that 1U can win the game with Flash, at instant speed. If someone refuses to scoop, that’s their problem. The functionality of Shahrazad does not justify a total ban on the card in Vintage. If it truly is problematic (which I find virtually unfathomable), then a restriction would suffice.

I play as much Vintage as anyone, and I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about Shahrazad. Banning a card without the feedback of the people who are most dedicated to the format seems like bad practical policy. There are all sorts of huge possible backlash problems. It just so happens that no one really cared in this case. I don’t either. It might as well be Abu Jafar. But it’s the principle of the thing.

I don’t know what the DCI procedure is for a matter such as this, but they can’t take the complaint of some random tournament organizer so seriously that they decide to totally ban a card. (I wouldn’t at all be surprised if some 20-person tournament T.O. in somewhere like New Zealand is the primary complainant.) The DCI should have provided a more detailed justification for its decision. On the face of it, the banning of Shahrazad in Vintage (not Legacy) cannot be properly justified.

7, 6, 5. Unrestrict Personal Tutor, Grim Monolith, and Dream Halls

I’ve already written about most of these at length in other articles here and here. I have little to add to what those articles said. The only thing that is worth mention is that Personal Tutor’s greatest threat is the ability to reliably get turn 2 Tinker for Darksteel Colossus. Turn 1 Personal Tutor, so long as you have a Mox and two land, can start swinging with an 11/11 indestructible on turn 3. I know that you think that may sound like a huge threat, but it’s not. Every single deck in Vintage can deal with that threat. Just look at the most recent SCG Tour® nament results. Every deck in that Top 8, beginning with the R/G beatz deck, has answers.

4. Continue to Print Many Playables

2007 was, by any standard, a banner year for Vintage. Research and Development did an amazing job designing Magic cards.

Cards that seen major Top 8s in Vintage from 2007 include:

Planar Chaos:
Simian Spirit Guide
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Future Sight:
Aven Mindcensor
Bridge From Below
Coalition Relic
Dryad Arbor
Magus of the Moon
Pact of Negation
Summoner’s Pact
Street Wraith
Virulent Sliver
Yixlid Jailer

Gaddock Teeg
Thorn of Amethyst

It’s not just that these cards are good or playable in Vintage, it’s that they are very good in Vintage.

3. Eliminate Mana Burn from the Rules of Magic

Sometime last year, there was a compelling rumor floating around the Magic sites I visited that a major rules change was forthcoming. The most interesting and persuasive guess I saw was that they were going to eliminate mana burn from the rules of Magic.

From the moment I heard that guess, it was as if a light went on in my head. It was like growing up in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and never noticing it until someone pointed it out. It was so profound and so inescapable that I was shocked I’d never thought of the idea before.

Although it never happened, I’d love to see it happen. The reasons for it are numerous:

First, it simplifies the rules. Explaining mana burn to new players is like explaining herpes to teenagers… it’s just grating. The rules of Magic are already ridiculously complex. Teaching people how to play Magic is challenging enough. One less rule that isn’t intuitive is a good thing.

Second, it will save time. Players who don’t want to bluff and don’t want to worry about how they tap every last little bit of mana and can just float the whole of their available mana and then play out from there. I know many players won’t do this, but for those that will, the rule will save time. And in the long run, that will save time for everyone.

Third, mana burn is a stupid way to win a game. In Magic, most cards have trade-offs, either by their presence for the cost for their benefit. For instance, City of Brass trades a point of life at each tap for the advantage of being able to get whatever color you want. Taking damage from City is something you incur because you want the benefit. Taking damage from mana burn — or worse, losing a game from mana burn — is awful. Mana Burn is one of the lamest ways to lose life.

Fourth, it would improve Vintage. The two primary effects, in my view, would be this: First of all, Mana Drain gets better. You won’t have to worry about taking mana burn in your second mainphase or on your next main phase if you don’t use the mana. This won’t actually change the use of Drain that much. Part of the reason to get people to play Mana Drain in their second mainphase isn’t so that they’ll take mana burn but so that they’ll be bottlenecked and have to squander their additional mana. It won’t tactically change the timing so much as just remove a silly cost to the card. The second area in which mana burn comes up is in Workshop decks that play Spheres. When a Workshop deck has turn 1 Sphere of Resistance and turn 2 Sphere, it sometimes takes mana burn there. Workshops will get slightly stronger as a result. Then there are a number of smaller benefits that add up to a lot: Lion’s Eye Diamond becomes even better. If you are tapping all of your permanents down to a Tangle Wire or sacrificing them to a Smokestack on your upkeep, there will be no reason in your upkeep not to just tap the cards for and float the mana into your draw step. It would change Vintage, but only make it better. I’ve won Vintage matches because my opponent mana burned, especially with Mana Drain which they forgot about.

Here are the counter-arguments:

1) It makes Magic less skill intensive. This is a terrible argument. Magic is, and will always be, skill intensive. Taking one additional complexity out of the equation will not change that. Moreover, it’s a skill that’s a whoop-de-do skill. You can count mana. Congratulations. You won’t die to floating too much mana now.

2) Too many cards are designed around it. What would it do to cards like the GG on upkeep card? It may be true that cards were designed with the assumption that mana burn was built into the rules, but that is true of lots of cards preceding rules changes. The entire interrupt mechanic assumed that Counterspells were faster than Lightning Bolts and Disenchants. Now you can Bolt or Disenchant something in response to a counterspell. That changes the strength of Counterspell, but that doesn’t mean that the rules change wasn’t the correct one.

2. Unrestrict Fact or Fiction

I have written a full length article dedicated to this argument. There are no good counter-arguments. The only question is timing. The only reason not to immediately unrestrict Fact (that is, at the nearest B&R list announcement) is to wait until a time when there is a lull in Vintage, and use the unrestriction to shake things up and stir up interest again. I can think of no other reasonable argument against unrestriction. And believe me, I’ve tried.

1. Remove Power Errata From Time Vault

In 1993, some poor sod discovered that Twiddle could be used to untap Time Vault to take additional turns! (According to Santa Rosewater, the problem combo was Living Artifact and Instill Energy.)

Stupified, the nascent DCI (then known simply as the Duelist Convocation) restricted the card in the first banned and restricted list announcement in January of 1994.

Unsatisfied with mere restriction, three months later the DCI slapped the banhammer on Time Vault with a resounding thud that reverberates today.

In 1996, Time Vault was unbanned, but with new errata designed to prevent abuse: In order to take an extra turn, you would have to tap Time Vault and remove a “time counter”. You could only add a “time counter” by skipping a turn. The idea was to provide a wording that would prevent the use of cards like Twiddle to take extra turns.

Time Vault was issued erratum again in 1998 and then again in 2004.

Most recently, in 2006, Mark Gottlieb, in an ostensible attempt to correct a decade’s worth of mistakes, errated Time Vault in an effort to return the card to its original templating, and again a few months later, to remove the vestige of power errata.

Gottlieb failed. Today, Time Vault remains power-errated.

I understand why the rules committee settled on the oracle text it did. Removing the power errata from Time Vault was just too scary. But it wouldn’t be remotely as powerful as Flash. If they can remove the power errata from Flash, they can do the right thing and remove the power errata from Time Vault.

Thanks Santa.

Happy Holidays,

Stephen Menendian