In this article, I will analyze Vintage tournament results from May and June leading up to the June 20th restrictions. I will take stock of a metagame that was rapidly changing thanks to printings in Morningtide and Shadowmoor, and take a snapshot of that metagame just before the restrictions took effect. Finally, I will evaluate the reasons offered for the June 20th restrictions in the context of this data and on other grounds. In the process I will conduct a retrospective, taking a look at the broad sweep of metagame changes from June 20th 2007 through to June 20th 2008.
There were 13 sufficiently large Vintage tournaments (33 or more players) reported from May 1st through the effective date of the recent restrictions on June 20th, giving us a data set of 112 decklists from Vintage Top 8s around the world. I use 33 players as the cutoff so that at least six rounds of swiss were played. This ensures that the decks that make Top 8 face at least four different opponents. Further explanation for this methodology can be found in previous Metagame Reports in my article archive. The tournaments, including links to decklists, can be found in the appendix.
Here are the results. The numbers in parenthesis represent placement within a Top 8 (â€˜2′ = second place). Behold:
Tournament Results — Raw Data
14 MUD (2,2,2,2,4,4,4,6,6,6,7,7,8)
11 Painter’s (1,1,1,1,1,3,3,4,6,7,7)
9 Workshop Aggro (1,1,4,5,5,6,7,7,8)
9 Flash (1,2,2,3,5,7,8,8,8)
7 Tyrant Oath (1,2,4,5,6,7,8,8)
7 Grow (2,2,3,3,5,5,5)
5 Manaless Ichorid (3,3,4,4,8)
5 Stax (3,6,8,8,8)
5 TPS (1,3,5,6,6)
4 Fish (3,5,6,6)
4 Gush Tendrils (1,2,4,5)
4 Masknaught (3,4,5,8)
3 Doomsday (2,3,7)
3 Deez’ Naughts (2,3,7)
3 Control Slaver
2 Mono Gifts Control w/ Bob (2,7)
2 Bomberman (1, 3)
1 Bob Control (1)
1 Gush Control (1)
1 Mono Red Hater (2)
1 Suicide Black
1 RG Beatz
1 BG Suicide
1 Bob Combo
1 Countertop Control
(1) Archetype as a Percentage of Top 8s
While it is important to see how each of these decks performed, the tallied tournament results do not give us a very good sense of proportion. The breakdown by â€˜archetype as a percentage of Top 8s’ is the statistic that tells us how well these decks performed against the field as a whole. Specifically, it tells us the archetype proportion of the total Top 8 pie. It is calculated by dividing the total copies of a deck’s appearances in Top 8s by the total number of decks that made Top 8.
This is the more helpful statistic when looking to see if there is a dominant deck (a monopoly) or a couple of decks that have a stranglehold over the metagame. Here are some helpful benchmarks to keep in mind. In general, if a deck is about 35% or more of Top 8s, we consider that to be a â€˜dominant’ deck. GroAtog circa March-June of 2003 was in this range (see here). If a deck is about 15%-20% of the Top 8s, we consider that to be a clear top deck, but not really dominant. Psychatog circa 2004, Control Slaver circa 2005, and Gifts circa 2006 fell around there when they were really hot.
Here are the numbers from May and June:
Workshop Aggro (8%)
Tyrant Oath (6.3%)
Rest of the Metagame: 49%
The “Rest of the Metagame” category captures all of the archetypes that individually performed less than 5% of total Top 8s into one total number.
(2) A Dispersed and Competitively Balanced Metagame
A) The “Rest of the Metagame Static” Suggests a Tremendously Open Metagame
The “Rest of the Metagame” statistic is an indirect measure of metagame dispersal. Since it captures decks that made up less than 5% of the metagame by themselves, the larger that number is, the more diffused the entire metagame must be. It also suggests that the metagame is more open and balanced when this statistic is larger, since i) more archetypes are necessarily making Top 8 and ii) the archetypes that are making Top 8 in larger numbers makeup a smaller portion of the total pie. This statistic suggests a very open metagame.
In January and February, the “rest of the metagame” statistic was 28.12% of total Top 8s. This meant that over 60% of Top 8 decks were decks that made up at least 5% of the total Top 8 metagame. In March and April, the metagame expanded a bit, and the “rest of the metagame” statistic rose to 33%.
In this dataset, we have an explosion in that stat. It rose to nearly 50% of the field! That means that these Top 8s are possibly the most diverse we’ve seen all year. Of course, it is theoretically possible that you could have one or two decks constitute 50% of the field and the rest of the field is made up of decks that individually make up less than 5% of the metagame. By itself, the “Rest of the Metagame” statistic is only an indirect measure of metagame dispersion. We need to take a look at the number of top performing archetypes and see how evenly distributed or imbalanced those decks were.
B) The Breakdown by Archetype as a Percentage of Top 8 Suggests a Highly Balanced Metagame
There were six archetypes that made up over 5% of the metagame. However, the number of archetypes that make up more than 5% of the metagame does not tell you how balanced the field was. It is possible that one deck was 25% of the field while the other five just hovered above 5%, even with a “rest of the metagame” stat of 50%.
In fact, of the decks that made up more than 5% of total Top 8s, only one made up more than 10% of the field, MUD, and its percentage of Top 8s was 12.5%. This means that eighty percent of the decks that individually made up more than 5% of the field were less than 10% of that field. In sum, you have a high level of competitive balance where no deck or archetype is even close to dominating. With no deck making up more than 13% of the field, you have essentially a wide open field.
There is one other question: although the field appears quite balanced and dispersed, with a great competitive balance by archetype, what about by engine? Specifically, are the Gush and Workshop engines dominating?
(3) Breakdown As Percentage of Total Top 8s by Engine
In this dataset, five of the eleven Painter’s decks, the three Doomsday decks, the four Gush Tendrils, the seven Tyrant Oath and seven Grow decks all used the Gushbond engine. Also, the fourteen MUD, nine Workshop Aggro, and five Stax decks all used the Workshop engine. Thus, breaking the metagame down by engine, it looks like this:
May/June Breakdown by Engine:
Let’s compare those stats to the previous earlier datasets.
In January/Feb, the breakdown by engine was:
The May/June data broken down by engine is almost identical to Jan/Feb, except that the Gush decks performed only slightly worse. If we go back a bit further in time to Nov/Dec, we see almost identical stats there as well:
31 Workshop decks (24.2%)
30 Gush decks (23.6%)
Fast forward to March/April, the breakdown by engine was:
It is remarkable how steady the number of Gush decks were in the metagame. From November through June, the percentage of Gush decks remained constant between 23.2% to 25% of total Top 8s, a range of 1.8%. That is incredibly consistent over a period of eight months.
In fact, the performance of Workshop decks is almost as consistent, with one major exception. For six of the last eight months, Workshop decks performance as a percentage of total Top 8s fell within an even narrower band, an incredibly steady 24.2% to 25% of the metagame. The only exception was March/April where they dipped to 11% of the metagame, which was largely thanks to the huge surge in Flash decks thanks to the printing of Reveillark and switch to Tyrant Oath by Gushbond pilots.
Importantly, since the printing of Thorn of Amethyst, Workshop decks outperformed or tied the Gush decks for most of that time. They outperformed Gush decks for half of that time period, tied with them for a quarter of the time period, and performed significantly worse in the remaining quarter of that time period. Overall though, they outperformed the Gush decks. Some readers might make the mistake of thinking that this was a European trend. The last major American tournament was in Enfield, Connecticut, where Workshop Aggro won in a field of Gush decks.
Although Gushbond as an engine has performed consistently over the last eight months, it is important to note that the decks that make up the Gush decks in this data has changed, often dramatically, from month to month as people switched from Grow and a mixture of Gush Tendrils decks to Tyrant Oath and Doomsday, finally to Painter’s decks and a mix of the rest.
From an engine perspective, neither Gush decks nor Workshop decks have been dominating Vintage Top 8s, although together they have made up half of the field. It is important to note that this is not exceptional.
If we look historically and break down decks by engine, such as Mana Drain decks, we often see numbers that are far in excess of 25% of Top 8s. Here is a metagame report conducted in May/June of 2005, with a table that breaks down Top 8s by engine for the entire preceding year:
Metagame Occurrence (by percentage of all Top8 decks)
(Decks appearing once or twice in the course of the year are sometimes excluded.)
Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, O-N, D-J, Feb, Mar, Apr, M-J.
39.3, 25.0, 25.0, 40.7, 32.4, 38.8, 34.3, 46.5, 39.4, 30.3 TOTAL Drain archetypes
14.3, 12.5, 20.0, 14.1, _8.9, 17.7, 11.4, 14.3, 17.9, _7.8 TOTAL Ritual Archetypes
18.0, 27.8, 32.5, 18.9, 30.2, 22.7, 26.2, 17.9, 19.8, 25.1 TOTAL Workshop Archetypes
14.3, 12.5, _2.5, 12.6, 10.1, _6.3, _5.7, 10.7, 14.4, _9.3 TOTAL Bazaar Archetypes
_0.0, _9.7, 12.5, _4.7, _5.1, _1.3, _5.7, _3.6, _7.2, 17.2 TOTAL Null Rod Archetypes
14.4, _5.6, _0.0, _3.1, _7.7, _3.8, _4.4, _3.6, _3.6, _4.7 TOTAL Other Archetypes
Notice, first, how Mishra’s Workshop decks about average 25% of the total Top 8 metagame for the entire year running June 2004 through June 2005, just as they have from June 2007 through June 2008. But most importantly, just look at how much Mana Drain decks dominated Vintage during that time period. Those numbers, for the most part, are far higher than anything Gush has done since.
When the author isolated North American tournaments in his Jan/Feb 2005 metagame analysis, the results were even starker:
North American Tournaments Only (by percentage)
Jan., Feb., Mar., Apr., May., Jun., Jul., Aug., Sep., O-N., D-J., Feb.
50.0, 50.0, 31.3, 50.0, 37.5, 45.8, 50.0, 29.2, 43.8, 43.8, 54.2, 50.0 Mana Drain Archetypes
25.0, 25.0, 12.5, 12.5, _0.0, 29.2, 12.5, 29.2, 21.9, 43.8, 20.8, 25.0 Workshop Archetypes
_0.0, _0.0, _6.3, _0.0, _0.0, 12.5, _0.0, 16.7, 12.5, _6.3, 16.7, _0.0 Dark Ritual Archetypes
25.0, 25.0, 12.5, 12.5, 12.5, _4.2, _0.0, _4.2, _9.4, _0.0, _4.2, 12.5 Bazaar of Baghdad Archetypes
_0.0, _0.0, _9.4, 25.0, 37.5, _0.0, 37.5, 16.7, _9.4, _6.3, _0.0, 12.5 Null Rod Archetypes
_0.0, _0.0, 28.1, _0.0, 12.5, _8.3, _0.0, _4.2, _3.1, _0.0, _4.2, _0.0 Other Archetypes
For over a year running from January 2004 through February, 2005, Mana Drain decks just dominated North American Vintage tournaments, making up 50% of Top 8s.
In future datasets, I will aggregate Mana Drain decks by engine and see how they perform relative to the Workshop and Gushbond performance of the preceding twelve months.
(4) The Best Performing Deck is Painter’s Servant Combo
In January and February, we had a five-way metagame tie among Tyrant Oath, Grow, Workshop Aggro, MUD, and Flash. That time period was a time of transition as players moved away from Grow to Oath. In March and April, Flash and Tyrant Oath surged ahead of the rest of the metagame thanks to the printing of Reveillark and the huge presence of Workshop decks making people want to play Oath over Grow.
In this metagame report, MUD surged ahead of the competition followed very closely by Painter’s decks. However, despite the fact that MUD had fourteen Top 8 appearances to Painter’s eleven, MUD didn’t win a single tournament. It would be hard to say that MUD is therefore the best performing deck.
This is similar to the situation in the March/April metagame report where Flash had the most Top 8 appearances at eighteen compared to Tyrant Oath’s sixteen, but Flash only won a single tournament compared to Tyrant Oath’s six tournament victories.
Painter’s decks won five tournaments with eleven Top 8 appearances, making it the best performing deck in this time period. This does not mean that Painter’s was definitely the best deck going forward. If anything, the tournament statistics for the last year suggest that the best performing deck as measured by a mixture of Top 8 performances against tournament victories/placement has changed in every single data set this year. In fact, there is anecdotal evidence, which I will discuss later, that suggests that Painter’s would not have been the best performing deck in the next data set.
(5) Workshops Reverse Course
In March/April report, Workshops had fallen to their lowest ebb since the printing of Thorn of Amethyst at 11% of the metagame. In this metagame set they surge back to their Nov-Dec and Jan-Feb levels to exactly 25% of the Top 8 metagame. Workshops are back! I will examine the reasons for this below.
(7) Analysis and Explanation
Magic metagames are complex systems. A single printing, much like a single restriction, has the power to transform these metagames since there are so many interconnections and feedback loops. The printing of Painter’s Servant dramatically illustrates this.
This deck, abusing the most powerful Gushbond Engine, could then run Red Elemental Blasts maindeck. Tyrant Oath and Flash were two decks that were particularly susceptible to Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblast. A Tidespout Tyrant can get destroyed by a single Red Blast and Flash, the main combo component, is even more efficiently countered by a Red Blast. Andy’s deck ran five Red Blasts maindeck. With the rise of Painter’s Combo, we saw the inevitable decline of both Flash and Oath.
This led to two critical feedback loops that moved the metagame in the same direction. The decreased strength of Oath and Flash provided an opening for Workshop decks. Workshop decks were weak to both Flash and Tyrant Oath. The presence of Workshop decks is why Grow players switched to Oath. Moreover, Painter’s decks loaded with Red Blasts and built around the Gushbond combo are inherently weaker to Workshop decks than either Flash or Oath. Red Elemental Blast and Gush are both weak against Workshops since there are no targets for Red Blast unless you have a Painter’s Servant in play already and since Spheres make Gush hard to use.
In summary, here is what happened:
2) As a result, Workshops return. With Flash and Oath under attack, and with REBs flying around, Workshops return in a big way again.
Final product: highly diverse metagame with many decks being played, many holding others in check.
I believe that my final GAT lists with eight Duress effects were strong against Flash, Painter’s Combo decks, and Tyrant Oath, with solid plans against Workshop decks. Workshop decks were strong against Painter’s Combo decks and Gush decks in general, aside from Tyrant Oath. Flash and Tyrant Oath decks were strong against Workshop decks, but held in check by Painter’s combo. Dredge and Mask decks also had a role in this metagame.
A Critique of the June 20th Restrictions
DCI Banned and Restricted List Announcement
September 1, 2008
9/1/08, Effective 10/1/08
Bazaar of Baghdad has been carefully monitored by the DCI for many years now as it has been a source of concern among players, fueling combo decks as a recurring draw engine and combo outlet. With the printing of Future Sight’s Narcomoeba and Bridge From Below, the Vintage dredge deck has now become unacceptably fast and resilient, capable of winning consistently on turn two through most disruption. Bazaar of Baghdad consequently joins the restricted list. It will still see play as a singleton, but will no longer be a problem.
As a general matter, we have restricted hyper-efficient mana sources in Vintage because they promote unhealthy combination decks that overwhelm opponents before they have an opportunity to play spells. Dark Ritual is stronger than a significant number of mana accelerants already on the restricted list and has been a critical mana engine for degenerate storm combination decks. These decks are capable of winning on the first and second turn with alarming frequency. With Dark Ritual restricted, these decks will still see play, but they will be less consistently able to overwhelm an opponent in the first two turns.
While veterans of the format may agree or disagree about Dark Ritual getting restricted, it probably comes as no surprise that it was at least considered. Cabal Ritual, on the other hand, would naturally raise more eyebrows. The reasoning behind this choice was the power of Ritual based storm combo decks. These decks, relying on a hefty portion of the restricted list, are able to win on turn one and turn two with an unhealthy degree of regularity, thanks to the fast mana acceleration provided by Dark Ritual and Cabal Ritual. This is unhealthy for the format. Thanks to fetchlands, early discard and tutors, and draw7s, these decks have little trouble achieving threshold in the first few turns. The restriction of Cabal Ritual should slow down these combination storm decks and ensure that the format slows to a manageable level.
Several years ago, we restricted Burning Wish for its ability to find the most powerful spells in Vintage. Grim Tutor is a similar problem. Not only does Grim Tutor search up Vintage powerhouses like Yawgmoth’s Will, it can search for any card in Magic, including Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, and Yawgmoth’s Bargain. In addition, unlike Burning Wish, it can be replayed after Yawgmoth’s Will to find Tendrils of Agony. As a four-of, Grim Tutor has helped combination decks consistently assemble the Yawgmoth’s Will and Tendrils of Agony engine with degenerate results. As with Gifts Ungiven and Merchant Scroll, “Powerful spells that tutor for a single card are generally restricted in this format.” Therefore, Grim Tutor joins Merchant Scroll on the restricted list.
Several years ago the DCI released Mishra’s Workshop from the restricted list. As we announced at the time, the DCI knew this was something that would need to be watched carefully. Mishra’s Workshop is an uncounterable, recurring Black Lotus for artifact spells. Its tremendous and reusable mana fuels lock components and combo parts that prevent an opponent from ever being able to play a spell. We have let Mishra’s Workshop decks exist for a long time, and over that time period it has become clear that they are simply unacceptably fast and degenerate. With the restrictions announced today and earlier this year, Mishra’s Workshop could easily overpower the field. Restricting Mishra’s Workshop will hopefully bring greater balance and health to the Vintage format.
We look forward to seeing the changes we have announced today work their way through the Vintage format over the coming months and years.
The responses to this enigmatic post were fascinating and fun to read. Although some readers thought I had somehow managed to secure top secret DCI plans for Vintage in September, most recognized my post as parody. I satirized the reasoning of the June 20th restrictions as explained by Mike Turian and Erik Lauer even going so far as to copy their language (see my explanation of Cabal Ritual and compare it to Ponder).
As LordHomerCat (Jimmy McCarthy) pointed out:
Nicely done Steve. It’s scary how the Lauer/Turian explanation can be applied to half the playable cards in the format with only some minor wording changes.
Although there was an appropriate outcry at the initial explanations, which I think garnered more venom than the B&R announcement itself, once the DCI actually articulated reasonable explanations for the restrictions, most people seemed satisfied.
In my view, there are three problems with the June 20th restrictions: the timing, their sweep, and for lack of a better term, the goal-implementation gap.
Assuming that the host of reasons offered in support of the restriction of Brainstorm are true (efficiency, power, ability to find restricted cards, etc.), none of the reasons answer the question: why now? Brainstorm has found restricted cards since its printing. Its efficiency has never changed, and its power has pretty much been a constant since 2005 when the format began accelerating toward UB combo decks, and really since the full implementation of Onslaught fetchlands. It has been ubiquitous in the format since 2003. It is not as though Brainstorm sees more play now than it did six months ago, twelve months ago, or even two years ago. There was no new deck or card printing that made Brainstorm more abusive than it was before. There was no major tournament with Brainstorm predominating any more than usual. There wasn’t a precipitating factor following a long, slow build up of steam or support for the restriction of Brainstorm. In fact, there was nothing. In short, the timing of the restriction is inexplicable.
Merchant Scroll has been the best unrestricted tutor since the emergence of Meandeck Gifts in 2005. More importantly, it has been the best tutor in a format that, prior to the unrestriction of Gush, was defined by two other then-unrestricted tutors: Gifts Ungiven and Grim Tutor. Merchant Scroll was better than both, although it got less attention. Merchant Scroll is the card that gave Gifts a developmental trajectory, a powerful early game, and resilience. Scroll was the first step that built up early card advantage and mana resources to fuel a lethal Gifts. It also gave decks that used it an efficient tutor to answer hate cards or more aggressive decks by tutoring up appropriate solutions. For example, against Stax or Combo, Scroll allowed easy access to early Force of Will. Against Workshops and Fish, you could find your Hurkyl’s Recall or Chain of Vapor. Without Merchant Scroll dedicated Gifts decks would have had to rely on slower cards like Thirst For Knowledge or Skeletal Scrying to claw their way into the mid-game. Hence, the restriction of Gifts Ungiven made little sense to me. If you restricted Merchant Scroll, Gifts decks would have been severely weakened. If Merchant Scroll was going to be restricted, it seems the time would have been then.
Then Flash was printed and Gush was unrestricted at roughly the same time. Both Gush and Flash decks have been using four Merchant Scrolls for the last twelve months, without either seeing a significant bump in performance, as this article’s data analysis demonstrates. If Merchant Scroll was going to get the axe, why not three months ago, six months ago, nine months ago, a year ago, or even fifteen months ago?
Flash has been a constant presence in the format for the last twelve months, but on a fluctuating basis. Flash became â€˜legal’ at almost the same time that Future Sight entered the format and the restriction of Gifts and unrestriction of Gush occurred. In the bimonthly metagame reports since then, Flash has fluctuated from 10.5% of the metagame last July and August, to 5.4% in Sept/Oct, to below 4% in Nov/Dec. Flash jumped to 8.6% in Jan/Feb and then even further to 13% in March/April, but fell back to 8% in May and June. In short, Flash has fluctuated from 4% to 13% of Top 8s over the last year with an average of 8.25%. The biggest spike in Flash came with the printing of Reveillark, but Flash has since fallen closer to its baseline since then, especially with the printing of Painter’s Servant.
If Reveillark is the precipitating reason behind the restriction of Flash, it not clear why Flash wasn’t restricted in March rather than in June. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that a mere 5% increase in performance could justify its restriction, especially when at almost 11% of the metagame last June, it wasn’t strong enough to restrict then. Based upon the data, there is no clear reason to explain why Flash has been restricted now and not three months ago, nine months ago, or even a year ago.
Ponder’s function or role in the metagame has not changed since it saw print in Lorywn. Since then, there have been two opportunities to restrict it, both of which were passed over. The DCI has not been shy about restricting cards at the earliest opportunity in the past (see Chrome Mox). Ponder was apparently not an auto-restrict. It seems then that Ponder’s restriction hinges on the restriction of Brainstorm. That means that all the questions concerning the timing of the restriction of Brainstorm are applicable here.
There have been three other opportunities to re-restrict Gush since its re-entry as a four-of into the format. They could have re-restricted it after the Vintage Championship suggested that Gush was a top flight, if not dominant deck. Even though Gush did dominate subsequent tournaments, the printing of Thorn of Amethyst seemed to check Gush decks to a much larger degree. Thus, they didn’t restrict it in December either. By March, it was already clear that Gush was being used as an engine in many decks, from Tyrant Oath to Doomsday, yet it was not restricted then either. Oddly enough, the restriction of Gush makes the most sense in terms of timing since the Painter’s deck suggests that Gushbond is essentially a ubiquitous engine. However, in terms of performance stats, Gush has remained a constant 25% of the Top 8 metagame for the last eight months. Its restriction now cannot be seriously linked to some sort of uptick in tournament performance.
The timing of restrictions has, in my view, been a constant concern over the last few years. The restriction of Gifts occurred at a time when most felt that the chance of Gifts getting restricted had finally passed. The DCI passed over opportunity after opportunity to restrict Gifts to the point that people no longer even seriously raised the issue. The restriction of Trinisphere was also odd from a timing perspective. They let the Trinisphere metagame sit for a full year before restricting. Many felt that if Trinisphere was to be restricted, it would have been after the Vintage World Championship in 2005, where half of the Top 8 was Trinisphere decks, or in December thereafter, three months afterward. Instead, they waited until March when the call to restrict had lost most of its momentum.
Although the DCI claims to be monitoring Vintage closely, the irregularity of its banned and restricted list policy suggest a haphazard focus, rather than continuous monitoring. The timing of changes in DCI banned and restricted list policy is clearly disconnected from tournament data in any serious way. The timing of restrictions is just as important as the decision to restrict a card. If the DCI is serious about watching Vintage, they should take that duty a bit more seriously by having that be reflecting in their policy-making decisions by making a closer connection between relevant events and their ultimate restricted list announcements.
Although the DCI is clearly empowered to restrict as many cards as it chooses, multiple restrictions which have the same purpose raise questions about the means-end fit. The explanation offered for each restriction primarily focused on the effect, power, and role of each card taken in isolation. Thus, the discussion of Flash focused on its ability to lead to turn 1 and turn 2 victories. And the discussion of Merchant Scroll emphasized its power as a tutor. In fact, the cards restricted on June 20th were highly interconnected. The restriction of any one of them would have had an impact on the use and abuse of the other four. Specifically, in the discussion on Gush and Flash, nothing was said about the impact that the restrictions of Merchant Scroll and Brainstorm would have on the use of those cards, particularly the uses that the DCI cited as troubling.
This is a major gap in reasoning. If the restriction of Brainstorm, Ponder, and Merchant Scroll effectively renders Flash unplayable, then the restriction of Flash was completely unnecessary. The same is true of Gush.
The obvious explanation for the sweep of these decisions is the symbolism of them. Yet symbolism is a poor substitute for reason, especially in a format where symbols quickly fade into the backdrop of metagame realities and the long-term vision of a format where you can play with all of your cards as much as possible.
Vintage players, including myself, feel strongly that cards should not be restricted unless as a last resort. I have campaigned vigorously to unrestrict various cards over the years (successfully in many instances, unsuccessfully in others). The successful campaigns over minor, irrelevant cards such as Fork or Mind Over Matter seem vain and idle if the DCI, in the interests of making a statement, sweep out cards that are unlikely to see play as a result of other restrictions.
I initially wanted to describe this point as a â€˜lack of clear goals,’ following the lead of Eric Dupuis who described it as such. However, after thoughtful reflection I realized that the problem isn’t that there aren’t clear goals. The problem is that the goals expressed do not always have clear routes to implementation.
Maintaining the â€˜health’ of the format or the â€˜fun’ of the format is to me a relatively clear goal, but it is not all evident which policies can be logically devised to implement them. Further specification is required. For example, Erik Lauer repeatedly referenced the goal of weakened combo decks vis-Ã -vis control decks. There are many combo decks in Vintage. Which are safe and which are not? If Flash is a fair target, why is Dragon or Grim Long combo safe?
If the objective was to neuter Blue, that objective failed. The four or five cards that have just been restricted are sure to be replaced (as we are seeing) by several other blue cards and non-blue cards that are primarily abused by blue decks. In any case, “neutering Blue” is not an implementable goal. In a format with cheap and incredibly efficient multi-color mana bases thanks to Alpha and Onslaught, that goal is a fool’s errand. Any deck without Blue can be arguably strengthened with a Blue splash. People also talk about creating more balance to the color wheel in Vintage. There is no real color wheel in Vintage. Since Day 1, Vintage decks have been five colors (see Brian Weissman’s “The Deck” back in 1994).
If the objective was to make the format more interesting, while that sounds great, I think the DCI took the wrong approach. Making the format more interesting could have been accomplished in many other ways. Unrestrictions and targeted unrestrictions could have accomplished the same result without being so intrusive. Specifically, restricting just Merchant Scroll could have accomplished well over 50% (and perhaps as high as 80%) of what the DCI apparently hoped to accomplish with these restrictions. Unrestricting Fact or Fiction could also have served some of those goals, such as giving Mana Drain decks a doorway back into the format without aiding so called â€˜combo-control’ decks in the process.
If the objective was to make the format more diverse, I think that was a failure, although only time will tell for sure. Promoting diversity is a clear goal which is measurable either by archetype percentage of Top 8s or engine percentage of Top 8s. Asserting an interesting in diversity doesn’t necessarily resolve the question of what to restrict or unrestrict. Again, I think that format diversity could have been enhanced in ways I’ve already articulated. I doubt that the format going forward will in any substantial way be more diverse than the format of the past year, as this metagame report amply demonstrates.
What is troubling for me and others who care about the format is pretty much illustrated by my satirical B&R list announcement. The justifications advanced today suggest that almost any good card in Vintage could be restricted at any time on grounds that apparently most people would find reasonable. These decisions were not keyed to tournament performance or format diversity in a way that is supported by the statistical evidence. That is not to say that the DCI cannot act unless there is tournament data to support it. In the case of both Trinisphere and Lion’s Eye Diamond, although there was not very strong tournament evidence to support the restriction of the latter, it was clear that the DCI was concerned about opponent’s being shut out of the game on turn one. Thus, there are valid grounds other than tournament dominance for restricting (although there does have to be some tournament impact). However, even where the DCI acts on grounds other than tournament performance, the timing questions remain.
A Vintage expert, Eric Dupuis, made a comment some time ago that I rejected out of hand at one time, but have increasingly found convincing. He’s suggested that restricting cards in Vintage is like restricting Aces. There will always be great cards.
I am reminded, at time like this, of Sirlin’s great online book “Playing to Win.” In his excellent section on “What Should Be Banned,” he wrote:
The world is full of players who think everything under the sun should be banned. The scrub believes that any tactic or maneuver that beats him should be labeled “cheap” and consequently banned. In actuality, very little ever needs to be banned.
And then later on in the same page:
The rule of thumb is to assume it doesn’t and keep playing, because 99% of the time, as good as the tactic may be, there will either be a way to counter it or other even better tactics. Prematurely banning something is the scrub’s way. It prevents the scrub from ever discovering the counter to the Valle CC or the diamond trick. It also creates artificial rules that alter the game, when it’s entirely possible that the game was just fine the way it was. It also usually leads to an avalanche of bans in order to be consistent with the first. When players think they have found a game-breaking tactic, I advise them to go win some tournaments with it. If they can prove that the game really is reduced to just that tactic, then perhaps a ban is warranted. It’s extremely rare that a player is ever able to prove this though. In fact, I don’t even have any examples of it.
And neither do I. Patrick Chapin recently commented that one of the great balancing features of Vintage is that all threats, no matter how powerful, broken or efficient, have even more efficient answers. Even Mind’s Desire is much weaker in a format that has seen the printing of Chalice of the Void, Trinisphere, Thoughtseize, Thorn of Amethyst, Extirpate, and Trickbind since its printing.
Although I agree with Sirlin’s message as a matter of strict logic, I also understand the overall need to maintain a format’s “fun factor,” which can certainly be diminished by a dominant strategy or combo, which is why I’m not totally opposed to the restriction of Flash. The restriction of LED and Trinisphere on the grounds of ensuring that players get a turn could have easily been applied to Flash, even though Flash was a much weaker tournament deck than Trinisphere Workshop decks from 2004.
Nonetheless, I think the DCI is on much more solid ground when their decisions are keyed to tournament impact in some strong way. When a card is so ubiquitous and clearly so powerful like Merchant Scroll or Brainstorm that it is basically played in every deck that can support its colors, then a serious case for restriction can be mounted, with Merchant Scroll being a more egregious offender.
To take this dataset alone, out of 112 total decks, 47 played at least one Merchant Scroll, for a total of 42% of the total Top 8s! Although Brainstorm saw more play, the reason I describe Merchant Scroll as the more egregious offender is that its impact in shaping the metagame was greater. Brainstorm, which saw even more play than Merchant Scroll, did not have the same metagame effect of making tactical and strategic alternatives inferior. There are fewer design options once you include Merchant Scrolls in a deck than Brainstorm, since Brainstorm, like Force of Will, is a more all purpose card. The overall power of Blue draw, countermagic, and all-purpose answers made Merchant Scroll a nearly insurmountable hurdle for almost anything you could design in Vintage. Brainstorm did not have that same effect since almost everything could use Brainstorm aside from Workshop decks.
The 2008 Vintage Championship is only two weeks away. I will be in Chicago defending my title and my irrelevant Eternal rating (13th in the world, yay!). Next week I will go over my deck choice for the Vintage World Championship.
1) New Berlin, WI (35 players)
May 3, 2008
2) Bilbao, Spain (36 players)
May 3, 2008
1) Bob UB Control
3) Manaless Ichorid
6) Painter’s Combo
7) Control Slaver
3) Rome, Italy (42 players)
May 4, 2008
1) Painter’s Combo
2) Mono Gifts Control w/ Bob
4) 5c Workshop Aggro w/ Stax
5) Suicide Black
7) Deez’ Naughts
8) Mono White Stax
4) Richmond, VA (83 players)
May 10, 2008
5) Richmond, VA (60 players)
May 11, 2008
6) Blue Bell, PA (36 players)
May 17, 2008
1) Workshop Aggro (Mono-Red)
3) RG Beatz
4) Tyrant Oath
5) Workshop Aggro (Mono-Red)
6) Workshop Aggro (Mono-Red)
7) Painter’s Combo
8) Workshop Aggro (Mono-Red)
7) Annecy, France (194 players)
May 18, 2008
8) Madrid, Spain (42 players)
May 25, 2008
9) Manila, Philippines (39 players)
May 25, 2008
10) Iserholn, Germany (35 players)
June 1, 2008
11) Milan, Italy (45 players)
June 1, 2008
7) Countertop Control
8) Tyrant Oath w/o Gush
12) Quebec, Canada (39 players)
June 14, 2008
2) Hulk Flash
4) Control Slaver
5) Control Slaver
6) BG Suicide
7) Painter’s Combo
13) Enfield, Connecticut (112 players) (note, they cut to Top 16)
June 14, 2008
1) Mono Red Workshop
3) BGU Counterbalance Fish
5) UR Landstill with Dreadnaughts
8) 5c Stax
14) Enfield, Connecticut (60 players)
June 15, 2008
1) Tyrant Oath
3) Painter’s Combo
4) Bob Control/Combo
7) Workshop Aggro (Mono-Red)
8) Tyrant Oath