So Many Insane Plays – Eternal Issues

Read Stephen Menendian every Wednesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Monday, April 5th – In today’s edition of So Many Insane Plays, Stephen Menendian tackles a number of Eternal Magic issues that are close to his heart. There’s talk on his reaction to the new Reserved List, The Legacy Banned List, Bant CounterTop, and The Myth of Power… [Editor’s Note – Due to a fine performance at GP Houston, Patrick Chapin will be here tomorrow!]

A box arrived at my office this week. Take a look at what was inside:


See if you can guess what this is. Yes, that’s right. This is all 2200+ decklists from GP: Madrid. My goal for next week is to type up, at a minimum, the top 32-64 and do a complete metagame breakdown of the field (wish me luck!). I will also be looking for a few other things, such as the proportion of decklists were obviously built under budget constraints. I will take any requests in the forums.

The New Reserved List

When Wizards announced the new Reserved List, my heart sank. It’s one of those awful things you hear about, but try to put out of mind immediately. Except there is no escaping it. The funny part is that a few months ago I really didn’t care about this issue. I had taken it as a given that the Reserved List existed, even though it was antiquated and silly.

When I visited Wizards, the main point I made over and over again was that Wizards needs to act in the best interest of the long-term health of the game. I trusted them to make the right decision, regardless of what it was. It wasn’t until a few months after my visit when I became aware of the incredible price inflation in Legacy staples that it became clear to me that the Reserved List was a potential serious impediment to the long-term health of Legacy. I only wish that the meeting at Wizards had happened a few months later, and I would have made a much more impassioned plea.

Someone on the Wizards forums put it best:

This decision originally began as a 7 year old boy swearing to its mom “I will never like girls, they are icky and gross.” Years later, the boy grew up. Would anyone in their right mind alienate that kid and go “You either stick to your promise or you’ll be a promise breaker! No one will ever trust you again!” Even the original documents founding our country have been amended to fit the growing needs of the country (sometimes this is good, sometimes perhaps not – that’s not the point of the example).

What’s absurd – not simply harmful – about the Reserved List is the idea of an indefinite promise, telling them what they can and can’t print FOREVER – something that is supposed to last for as long as the game lasts (even though the copyright will eventually expire, then anyone can print Taiga). Why should WotC 50 years from now be held to a promise that was first made in the mid-1990s? It shouldn’t. It would be like if I made a promise that I would never, ever drive a Honda, and that promise was enforceable against my children and my grandchildren. Circumstances change. If we’ve learned anything in over a decade and a half of Magic it’s that you can’t predict the future. If laws didn’t change, you’d get the death penalty for stealing and go to jail for using birth control.

If the Reserved List was so important to the survival of the game today, then why hasn’t a single card been added to the Reserved List in over 12 years? For most of the game’s existence no cards have been added to the Reserved List, and yet the game is doing just fine.

The irony is this: Wizards actually changed the Reserved List. They closed the ‘premium’ loophole that allowed them to print cards like Yawgmoth’s Will and Intuition as judge foils. The previous Reserved List exception was created nearly a decade ago. Why change it now? If they weren’t comfortable with the possibility of mass-marketed foil reprints, they could have just decided not to print any more of them, without actually changing the Reserved List’s finer print.

The real blow was the complete lack of explanation. I can’t think of another instance in which Wizards has made such a momentous, profound decision with so little explanation. When they released M10, and altered many of the game’s most fundamental rules, they pulled out all of the stops. Whenever they ban or restrict a card, they give a thorough accounting. For this? Nothing. No explanation whatsoever. Not even a hint. A few tweets is all we got.

Rumor has it that Wizards convened a focus group of high-profile collectors sometime after our visit, and this probably contributed to their decision. I can’t understand their rationale. It’s unfathomable to me. And because of their silence, I can’t even guess at it.

Which brings me to this: Some people take this new Reserved List announcement as a sign to stop talking about it: case closed, right? Advocates of the Reserved List should take little consolation in this change. Wizards’ action here has done more to mobilize people against the Reserved List than anything that happened before it. And if history is a guide, the forces of the status quo (i.e. the forces that support the Reserved List) are most vocal and strongest when the winds of change are blowing against them. To take a polemic example (forgive the extreme nature of the comparison), southern U.S. states were most vocal in their defense of slavery when the institution was under greatest attack, and that’s when most southern states actually strengthened their slave laws. Although disappointed, I’m not surprised that Wizards strengthened the Reserved List when it was facing the greatest peril since its inception.

I am confident that, if it becomes clear in course of time that this decision regarding the Reserved List is producing the harms that we anticipate it might, it will not stand, provided that the Eternal community and the broader Magic community continue to agitate and collectively organize and call for its abolition.

The Votes Are In! Your Poll Responses to Possible Legacy Unbannings

Last week, I made the argument for unbanning six cards in Legacy, in response to a request by Aaron Forsythe to suggest cards for banning or unbanning in any format. I chose a card from each color and an artifact, and made the best case I could for a card that I felt was the safest unbanning in each color. I offered a poll on each card to gauge your opinion, and here’s how you voted:

Poll 1: Do you believe Illusionary Mask can be safely unbanned?
723 votes
Yes: 89.21%
No: 10.79%

This was the most decisive of all six polls. Virtually 90% of you believed that Illusionary Mask is a safe unbanning. Someone on the source argued that Illusionary Mask should remain banned because it’s confusing. Chains of Mephistopheles is confusing. Ice Cauldron is confusing. But those cards aren’t banned. Mask is a wacky card that would bring a fun element to the only format where it would/could see play.

Poll 2: Do you think Mind Twist can be safely unbanned?
648 votes
Yes: 66.05%
No: 33.95%

Two-thirds of you believe that Mind Twist is a safe unbanning. I definitely count myself among them. I think this card would be a very fair card in Legacy, a format that is so defined by tempo. I also think it would see play, unlike Vintage, where it’s been unrestricted for 3 years and sees virtually no play.

Some people complained about the comparison to Hymn to Tourach. In the early game, the comparison is very apt. Hymn gets two cards for two mana. Mind Twist gets two cards for three mana. The difference, of course, is the late game flexibility of Mind Twist. In a format where Top is very popular, I don’t think Mind Twist is that concerning.

Poll 3: Do you think that Earthcraft can be safely unbanned?
596 votes
Yes: 68.12%
No: 31.88%

More than two-thirds of you felt that Earthcraft can be unbanned. Some people said that Earthcraft has been a problem on Online Classic. Others said it’s been innocuous. Most of you seem to think it’s comparable to what already sees play in Legacy.

Poll 4: Do you think that Goblin Recruiter can be safely unbanned?
587 votes
Yes: 51.45%
No: 48.55%

By far the most controversial suggestion, and the comments in both the SCG and the Source forums reflects it. I selected this card only because I feel it’s a safer unbanning than Worldgorger Dragon. If Recruiter were legal, I don’t believe that Food Chain Goblins would necessarily be stronger than Vial Goblins. But there are other legitimate concerns. Some people felt that the ability to stack your deck is too strong in principle. On the other hand, Dwarven Recruiter does the same thing. Many of you felt that this card would eat up too much time. I’m more sympathetic to that argument. In the end, you were very evenly split.

I think the concerns raised for this card may suggest that the framing of the question: is it safe to unban a card is not the same thing as asking whether a card should be unbanned.

Poll 5: Do you think that Land Tax can be safely unbanned?
588 votes
Yes: 82.99%
No: 17.01%

This is the poll with the second greatest proportion of you who voted ‘yes.’ The vast majority of you felt that this would be a safe unbanning. The concern over this card is not whether it would warp or dominate Legacy, but the logistics of the card. Some people felt that the obnoxious way in which this card plays is ‘unfun,’ in that neither player plays lands so as to avoid trigger Land Tax. Other people felt that this card requires too much shuffling.

Poll 6: Do you think that Time Spiral can be safely unbanned?
573 votes
Yes: 71.73%
No: 28.27%

Time Spiral received the third greatest proportion of “Yes” votes. A super-majority of you agreed that this card could be safely unbanned. Still, a non-trivial number of you had your reservations.

In retrospect, I should have added an “I don’t know” option so that we could see exactly how much uncertainty you felt with each card. Some of you may have voted “No,” simply because you weren’t sure.

All in all, this was an interesting exercise and generated a good deal of discussion.

I think a good part of Legacy’s success can be attributed to brilliant management of the format’s Banned list. The original banned list was a work of genius. In the format’s five years of existence, not a single card has needed banning purely on account of tournament dominance. The only three cards that have been banned in 5 years are because of the removal of power level errata (Flash and Time Vault) and logistics (Shaharazad). That’s an extraordinary fact when you think about it: only 3 cards in 5 years, and none for pure tournament power. And it hasn’t been for want of people trying to convince the DCI otherwise. There are just as many Legacy people who complain about various cards as there are in Vintage. The difference is that the DCI has ignored them in Legacy.

The management of Legacy and Vintage is night and day. In that same time period, 9 cards have been banned or restricted in Vintage. The result has been profound. Legacy is a deep and balanced format. It’s very difficult for anything to dominate Legacy since the format is so huge. It’s completely refuted the old idea that the larger a format’s card pool, the more broken the format will be.

Vintage has been managed with the heavy-handedness of a Soviet apparatchik. Legacy has been managed in a laissez-faire style that Milton Friedman would appreciate. And the health of Vintage has suffered for it. If Wizards had restricted the same number of cards in Vintage as it had banned in Legacy in that time period, I believe Vintage would be a much more vibrant format today and people would be much happier with it. Wizards earlier mistakes in managing the Vintage restricted list necessitated further restrictions, which only made people more cranky about it. The lesson is clear: restrictions and banning don’t always improve a format. In fact, ignoring calls to ban or restrict is more often the not the right thing to do.

Discussing CounterTop in Legacy

It looks like Julien took up some of the ‘odd’ card choices I advocated for a few weeks ago in my article on CounterTop, and did very well with them.

Here’s the decklist I suggested a few weeks back:

Julien used my exact manabase and identical sideboard (complete with Hibernations!), and the pair of Grunts and Misdirections. He did change a few cards though. He cut the 3rd Rhox War Monk and the 4th Ponder, and he cut both Path to Exile. In those spots he played 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor and 2 Vendilion Clique.

I am a huge fan of Paths here. I concede that Paths may not have helped him in his elimination match against Zach’s Aggro Loam deck, particularly if Zack resolved Chalice at 1. But if it didn’t, those Paths would have been very helpful. On the other hand, if he had made the finals, that’s where those Path’s really would have shone.

You may recall that Clique is a card that I have long-played in CounterTop decklists. It’s a card that was really strong in the metagame just before and up to Grand Prix: Chicago, but I think it’s much weaker in the current metagame. If I were to play another 3cc creature in addition to War Monk, it would be Trygon Predator. Still, I can’t fault him for making that change.

The most intriguing change is Jace. Jace does a number of useful things. First, it gives you another way to generate late game card advantage. CounterTop is the decks main source of card advantage. Jace provides another. Second, it’s a way to break a stalemate. Sometimes, against Zoo, Merfolk, or the mirror, there will be board states where no player can win the game. It usually involves you having a Goyf wall, but not enough power or removal to start swinging in. Jace allows you to break those stalemates. I also appreciate that Julien probably felt that it could go in the Path slots. Third, a Planeswalker is another way to grow your Goyf, if it is destroyed. Fourth, it’s also a way to win CounterTop battles, by manipulating the top of your opponent’s library. I really like this idea, and I will try a pair of Jaces in my list.

I’m very curious how Julien felt about cards like Misdirection, which Matt Sperling remarked in the forums seemed “bad.” One of the key things I like about Misdirection, which I may not have been completely clear about, is its ability to create 3-for-2s. Everyone knows that 2-for-1s are quite valuable in Magic, but 3-for-2s are also something to look for. For example, suppose they attack you with a Wild Nacatl. You block with Tarmogoyf. They attempt to burn your Goyf. You Misdirect it to another one of their creatures. They lose two creatures and their Bolt and your Goyf survives. Some people have concerns about unbanning Mind Twist, yet turn 1: Duress, turn two Dark Ritual, Mind Twist is the same thing: it’s a 3-for-2.

The changes I’m going to make to my list, based upon his ideas, are to cut the second Path to Exile and the third War Monk for 2 Jace.

The Myth of Power

The banning of Memory Jar is one of the most entertaining Magic urban legends. Memory Jar is the only card in the history of Magic to be emergency banned. It was Spring of 1999, and Wizards had just neutralized ‘combo winter’ by banning a bunch of cards. Twice. It was a valiant attempt to bring sanity to Standard. Wizards was hopeful that the dark days of combo winter were behind them. Then, Urza’s Legacy – the final Urza Block expansion – was released, and the most broken combo deck seen yet reared its head: Jar.

Mike Guptil, level 5 judge, was running a PTQ when news of the Jar deck came to his attention. His staff confirmed the rumors. Then, an eyewitness account reported a combo pilot winning a game through three opposing Force of Wills. That was the final straw. In the middle of the tournament, Guptil called Wizards headquarters and complained. Memory Jar was immediately banned.

Few would deny that Memory Jar is one of the most powerful cards of all time. But was Jar the real culprit? Tinker put Jar directly into play for just 3 mana, and doubled the number of Jars in your deck.

Necropotence is another card that dominated Extended. Year after year, Necropotence was featured in the most successful tournament winning decks. Rather than hit Necro, the DCI banned cards around it, like Dark Ritual. The theory was that Necro’s BBB mana cost would make it difficult to play without Dark Ritual. After another year of dominance, the DCI finally banned the skull. Surely, Necropotence is one of the most powerful cards in Magic history.

If Necro and Jar are powerful, what about Dark Ritual and Tinker?

There are nine Magic cards that are regarded as so powerful that they are called the “power nine.” These cards (Black Lotus, Mox Pearl, Mox Sapphire, Mox Jet, Mox Ruby, Mox Emerald, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and Timetwister) were printed in Alpha and Beta, and are only legal in Vintage tournaments.

Vintage players refer to Yawgmoth’s Will in respectful and incredulous tones. Colloquially called “Yawg Win,” Yawgmoth’s Will evokes awe and fear. For nearly a decade, Yawgmoth’s Will has been the most dominant card in Vintage.

Surely Yawgmoth’s Will is powerful.

And then there’s Black Lotus. The centerpiece of the vaunted “Power 9,” Black Lotus is arguably the single most powerful card ever.

Or, is Black Lotus merely the most synergistic card ever printed?

There are around 12,000 unique Magic cards. Of all the cards ever printed, Black Lotus directly interacts with more cards than any other card. It can be used to play any spell.

There are a few spells — but only a few — where Black Lotus isn’t actually directly synergistic. Black Lotus does produce an effect when it interacts Bridge From Below. However, Black Lotus can be used to play spells like Breakthrough that do interact favorably with Bridge From Below. The same is true of land, the only other card type that doesn’t directly interact with Black Lotus. Black Lotus synergizes with land because they support each other, commingling mana to play another card.

Black Lotus is the most synergistic card ever printed. It has the greatest number of positive interactions, either directly or indirectly.

Gavin Verhey said, “All … power rankings are set because of synergy.” He was talking specifically about cards like Dark Depths or Nettle Sentinel, cards that are relatively weak for most uses, but have unique and specific interactions that make them dangerous. But, his statement is also true more broadly.

All power rankings are really nothing more than a statement about a card’s synergy. What we call power is actually the sum of a card’s synergistic interactions in the card pool relative to other cards. That’s why Gavin titled his article the “Myth of Power.”

Gavin’s point was that ‘power’ is not an objective measure of a card. Power is relative to other cards in a format and contextual, in that a card’s power level depends upon the cards it may interact with.

My teammates savaged Gavin’s article. After all, isn’t it obvious that a card’s power depends upon its context? Isn’t it obvious that Trinisphere is better in a format where you can power it out with Mishra’s Workshop and most spells cost 0, 1 or 2 mana? Isn’t it obvious that Spell Pierce is better in a format with few creatures? Isn’t it obvious that Null Rod is better in a format where Moxen are common, and artifact acceleration accounts for 40% of some mana bases?

Yes, it is obvious. But even recognizing this in principle, Magic players stubbornly cling to the idea of objective power. The ideas that Gavin is trying to expose remain deeply rooted in the Vintage community. Vintage players, by and large, will concede that power is relative and contextual, but nonetheless claim that in a given context and relative to specified cards, power levels are objectively set. So, Trinisphere may not be objectively powerful in a vacuum, but in the context of the Vintage format, it is so.

This sounds plausible. If a context can be defined, then can’t we measure power? Isn’t it then, objective, in that context? The problem is that the Vintage format is not a meaningful context. The Vintage format is merely a set of rules for deck construction. The real context is the actual metagame. And, as any tournament player knows, metagames are very dynamic, constantly shifting. Contextual power can only be objectively measured at a particular moment in time. It’s an objective measurement, but a limited one. In the next moment, the context shifts, and power levels with them. Tormod’s Crypt is great in some tournaments, and weak in others.

Why then is the idea of “power” so persistent? It has to do with the experience of being a Magic player.

Human beings are meaning making machines. Our ancestors peered up into the night sky and saw elaborate drama: they observed mythical beasts and tales of valor. They attributed crop failure or miscarriage to angry spirits or vengeful gods. Even today, we recognizes faces and familiar objects in wisps of cloud.

Only humans see Jesus on a pancake. We create order and significance out of chaos. We organize and try to make sense of the world around us. That’s why our ancestors saw patterns in the stars. That’s also why they believed (as astrologists do) that these patterns – these star constellations – affect our lives. We see patterns where there are none and attribute meaning and significance to these patterns. We are natural taxonomists. We develop categories for everything, and we consciously and subconsciously sort everything we encounter into them. And these categories have meaning. That’s why Gavin said: Magic is a complex game with thousands of intricate pieces. The way we think to help categorize cards and strategies is to sift them, consciously or not, into playable and unplayable categories in our heads.

To label a card as ‘powerful’ is folk taxonomy. It’s akin to astrology. But does that matter? Even though they aren’t scientifically valid, many folk taxonomies remain useful. They convey social knowledge rather than scientific knowledge. Race isn’t a scientifically valid concept, but it is a powerful social identity.

Some people try to anchor their metric for power to a card’s relative efficiency: Ancestral Recall to Concentrate, Lightning Bolt to Shock. We don’t say that a $50 bill is more powerful than a $5. It’s not more powerful. Ancestral Recall isn’t more powerful than Concentrate. It’s more efficient. “Power” is a folk taxonomy. I don’t mind if people use folk taxonomies. They are often helpful. But let’s not pretend that these are scientific labels.

The concept of ‘power’ wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the other mistaken ideas that travel with it. The idea of power is embedded in a broader narrative that encompasses and defines associated ideas. It goes something like this:

The best decks play the most powerful cards. The best deck is the deck that abuses the most powerful cards, the most broken win conditions, and the best acceleration. These decks are typically Black and Blue, and they feature many restricted cards. These are the most powerful decks because they run the most powerful cards.

From time to time, there arises a ‘hate’ deck, or metagame deck. Metagame decks, or hate decks, are archetypes that are designed to have a favorable matchup against the best deck or decks currently defining the format. These decks are not inherently powerful. Instead, they use narrower, less powerful cards that are useful against the best deck. Consequently, these decks may perform well from time to time, but they can’t sustain their success with consistent performances. This is because may fall into the ‘losers’ bracket before they face their intended prey. The hate decks are soft to second tier strategies for whom their disruption is ineffectual. And, even if it does face its intended target, the more ‘powerful’ deck has greater design flexibility. It only needs to adjust a few cards to adapt to the matchup. Consequently, these metagame decks often underperform in tournaments.

In Vintage, the most powerful decks are particularly brutal. The accumulated printings of 16 years of Magic have not only made possible some absurd combinations; it’s produced a whole menagerie of insane decks. You’d have to be crazy not to play with design mistakes like Time Vault.

This is the prevailing narrative of Vintage. And it’s almost entirely inaccurate. It’s a narrative that organizes and provides false coherence to the world of magic, by dividing Vintage into several categories. Because of our experiences as Magic players, most of us come to certain ways of understanding Magic, shared narratives about the game and the Vintage format. It’s our experience that makes this formulation plausible. Thus, the idea of an ‘objective’ best deck, or of the ‘hate’ deck that preys on the best deck, or the characteristics of these decks seems natural. But it’s false.

It’s not very different than the narratives that people outside of Vintage have about Vintage, that Vintage is a format of turn 1 kills and mostly luck-based. In fact, I believe that these are narratives that non-eternal players often use to justify their lack of engagement with Vintage.

Another aspect of the idea of an objective best deck is an objective notion of ‘optimality.’ Optimality is not a function of how strong a card’s internal parts are. Rather, it is a function of how the deck operates in the metagame, and how those parts contribute or detract from its ability to win in the metagame. There is no such thing as an ‘optimal’ list in some abstract sense. A card’s parts are important, but those parts should be selected based upon a consideration of not just their internal synergies, but their outward effects, keeping metagame considerations central.

It is critical to keep the metagame front and center in your card selection process. The idea of an objectively optimal list is an attractive illusion, a dangerous mirage that seduces too many Magic players. It’s a sibling to the idea of objective power.

The lessons are twofold: First, if we emphasized relationships and interactions rather than the cards themselves and some false idea of power, we’d all be better at Magic. Our focus would be on synergy, the thing that truly matters. We’d be more efficient and effective deckbuilders, and we’d have the proper approach to both metagaming and deck design. Second, if we never forgot the dynamic nature of Magic, we’d break out of the static mindset and its notions of fixed optimality, and our performance would improve accordingly. We’d be more flexible and open-minded. We’d be bettered attuned to the dynamic nature of the metagame, and at positioning ourselves advantageously within it. We’d come to recognize that all decks retool themselves, not just ‘hate decks’ or metagame decks,’ because Magic decks, like Magic metagames, are constantly evolving.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian

PS: Mailbag

A few weeks ago I wrote:

Canadian Threshold is at its strongest when it can play spells like Submerge, Force, Spell Snare, Ponder, and a creature all on the same turn. Canonist slows down the game, and takes away their tempo advantage.

Matt Sperling asked:

Submerge your Canonist is pretty easy to resolve in response to your playing any non-artifact spell. Probably just a bad example of what Canonist shuts down.

I understand that the Canadian Threshold pilot can Submerge Canonist easily, but my point is that Canadian Threshold works best when it can play a bunch of spells in a single turn. Canonist prevents them from doing that in a number, but not all, circumstances. For example, if they Ponder and see Submerge, they’ll have to wait until your turn or their next turn to play it. Even worse, if they Ponder into another Ponder, which would then find them Submerge, they are out of luck. Alternatively, if they Submerge your Canonist on your turn, say in response to a spell that you play, like Matt suggests, then you can just replay the Canonist anyway.

In response to the same article, atn on the Source asked:

Steve, how does your deck deal with Reanimator and new equipment based decks? How do you justify not having any maindeck artifact/enchantment hate maindeck ?

I’ve run Trygon Predator maindeck in the past for precisely that reason. I agree that Qasali Pridemage is a great card — there is no doubt of that. But I’d prefer to run Predator over Pridemage because of its reusability and evasion. Post-board, I bring in Pithing Needles and Grips to combat equipment, although if the circumstances were right, I would re-include two maindeck Trygon Predators without hesitation.