So Many Insane Plays – The Most Dominant Engine in Vintage History: The March/April Vintage Metagame Report

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Monday, May 11th – In today’s So Many Insane Plays, Stephen Menendian brings us another of his excellent bi-monthly Vintage Metagame Reports. He collates all the relevant results from March and April, displays it in funky graph form, and draws some surprising conclusions regarding Mana Drain…

I have good news for the American Vintage community. The Vintage Grand Prix circuit has returned to the North American continent. Here are your pitstops:

• July 18-19, The ICBM Xtreme Double Power Nine Open, just outside of Chicago

• August 1-2, The Steel City Power Nine Extravaganza, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

• August 14, the 2009 Vintage Championship at Gencon

If you are a Vintage aficionado living east of Rockies, this Summer is going to be an amazing fun culminating in the prestige of the Vintage Champion title bout at Gencon. A lot of power and prizes are going up for grabs.

If you haven’t made the leap to tournament Vintage, this is the best opportunity you will likely have this year, or in the near future. But more excitingly, the Summer Vintage Tour will provide a snapshot of an evolving, week-to-week metagame. It will be fascinating to watch as the Vintage metagame shifts with the frequency that we are used to seeing in formats like Extended or on Magic Online. This will be one of the rare opportunities we have to see metagame shifts more directly influenced by the metagame itself than simply printings and restriction list policy. What this all adds up to is another awesome year for Vintage.

Today, I’m going to share with you the most up-to-date tournament data, taking a look at what’s winning and what’s not. I’ll show you the best performing decks and engines in the format. Then, I will take a look at possible changes to the restricted list just in time for this blow-out summer.

The March/April Metagame Breakdown By Archetype

There were 15 tournaments of more than 33 players (i.e. 6 rounds of swiss) in March and April, for a total of 120 decks. Here are the results, with placement in top 8 in parenthesis:

24 Tezzeret Control (1,1,1,1,1,1,1,2,2,3,3,4,4,5,5,5,5,5,6,6,6,6,8,8) (1 is Bomberman hybrid) (1 is Tezzeret-less) (1 is Remora Hybrid)
18 Ichorid (1,1,1,2,2,3,3,4,4,4,5,5,6,6,7,7,7,8)
12 Fish (2,3,4,4,4,5,6,7,7,7,7,7)
11 Workshop Aggro (2,2,2,3,3,4,6,6,7,8,8)
9 Remora Control & variants (1,2,3,3,4,4,8,8,8) (one Painter hybrid)
6 Stax (5,5,6,6,7,8)
6 Painter Control (2,3,5,7,8,8) (one Remora Hybrid) (2 have zero Drains)
5 European Control (i.e. Repeal Control or Mono-Gifts Control)
4 Bomberman (1 is Tez hybrid)
3 Ad Nauseam Combo (1)
2 Sligh
2 Goblins
2 Landstill
2 Goyf Control (1)
2 Drain Tendrils (1)
2 Grow
1 Control Slaver
1 Combo Tezzeret
1 Oath (1)
1 Elves Combo
1 Bob Tendrils
1 Madness
1 Missing decklist

For the more visual among you, here is a graph courtesy of my teammate JP Meyer:


Tezzeret is the best deck in Vintage, without a shadow of a doubt. As an archetype, Tezzeret is performing at about the same level as Gifts decks did in 2005 (see the Fall 2005 Metagame Breakdown. It’s not just that Tezzeret was the best performing deck in terms of Top 8 appearances. Tezzeret is the deck that is most likely to win a tournament. Tezzeret won 7 of the 15 tournaments in this data set, nearly half! Beyond that, it’s also an archetype that tends to disproportionately climbs its way through the top 8.

Take a look at this:


This graph provides a clearer view of the metagame by performance.



• As you can see in the first bar graph, Workshop Aggro and Fish have the dubious distinction of being two of the top five performing archetypes that don’t win tournaments. Neither archetype won a tournament in this data set. As you can see from the second bar graph, Fish and Workshop decks tend to cluster in the bottom half of Top 8s.

• The metagame surprise was Ichorid, which put up record numbers in this data set. Long a fringe player, Ichorid was far and away the second best performing deck in Vintage, for the first time ever. Ichorid is dispelling the myth that Ichorid decks make top 8, but can’t win tournaments. More and more, Ichorid decks are not just making top 8, but are winning tournaments.

• On the other hand, although Ichorid only had 3 fewer top 8 appearances than Tezzeret, that fact tends to obscure the performance differential between the two archetypes. First of all, Ichorid had half as many tournament victories. Tezzeret’s average position within a Top 8 was 3.5 place. Ichorid’s average placement was 4.23 place. Tezzeret not won twice as many tournaments, but was more likely to make it to the top 4. Ichorid had a bunch of 7th and 8th place appearances. Tezzeret had one. So, it’s not just that Tezzeret is making past the first elimination round more of the time, it’s also placing more highly in the swiss as well.

• Mystic Remora is without a doubt the breakout Vintage card of the year. It’s actual tournament impact, although pronounced, does not quite live up to its buzz. Nevertheless, Remora Control has gone from being an emerging newcomer to an established tournament competitor. Its trajectory appears to be upward. Mystic Remora has joined the Vintage pantheon of 1cc spells that foster interaction and help keep things sane in this format. Welcome to the club Mystic Remora. One of the features of the European Remora decks is that they run both Dark Confidant and Repeal, since Repeal works so well with Mystic Remora.

• The two archetypes that, for the first time in years, have almost fallen out of the standings are Oath and Control Slaver, which logged only one top 8 a piece (Matt Elias was the sole Oath pilot — Congrats dude!).

Here are the trend lines for the major archetypes over the last six months (it’s too large to post in the article, so click the link to see).

The trendline shows that in January and February, people started to search for anti-Tezzeret archetypes. Stax saw a large spike, just as it did back in the Gifts era. The difference is that Stax was unsuccessful, as were other decks, in combating Tezzeret. In March and April, the metagame looked very similar to the metagame as it existed in November and December. The two salient differences are the presence of Remora Control and the uptick in the performance of Ichorid.

The March/April Metagame Breakdown By Engine

As we know from the Gush era, presenting the metagame by archetype alone can be deceiving. There were 3-4 successful Gush archetypes that appeared to create a balanced and healthy metagame. But when we aggregate by engine, the metagame may look very different. While no one would say that the Tezzeret metagame is ‘healthy,’ per se, since Tezzeret is pretty much blowing the competition out of the water, let’s see what the metagame looks like from the perspective of Vintage engines.

51 Mana Drain Decks (42.5%)
17 Mishra’s Workshop Decks (14.17%)
9 Dark Ritual Decks (7.5%)
18 Bazaar decks (15%)
25 Other Decks (20%)

Houston, we have a problem. No engine in the history of recorded Vintage has ever enjoyed this much dominance over the metagame. It’s not just that Mana Drains are dominating Vintage, it’s 1) the degree of dominance 2) over time.

Why DCI Action is Needed

A little over a month ago, Tom LaPille wrote an article further explaining he DCI’s restrictions last June. Here is what he said:

Ever since Future Sight was released, the most powerful Vintage decks have revolved around one or more of Dark Ritual, Force of Will, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Mishra’s Workshop. These are some of the most powerful unrestricted cards in the format; in fact, some of them are more powerful than cards that are restricted! For example, Dark Ritual is stronger than Lotus Petal, and Mishra’s Workshop is stronger than Grim Monolith.

We are happy despite that apparent inconsistency because each of the four cards I listed creates Vintage deck archetypes. Dark Ritual fuels decks built around the Storm mechanic. Force of Will decks usually build around other unrestricted blue cards; Mana Drain currently fills that role, but Gush, Gifts Ungiven, and Fact or Fiction all spent time in that slot before their restrictions. Bazaar of Baghdad decks abuse Ravnica’s dredge mechanic to win the game out of the graveyard in the first three turns. Mishra’s Workshop decks cast artifacts quickly to lock their opponents out of the game. We acknowledge that these cards are overpowered. However, we value the existence of different decks in a Constructed format, and each of those cards fuels an entire archetype

In early 2008, members of Magic R&D were not happy with the direction that tournament Vintage was going. There were two problems that needed to be solved. The first was that Force of Will decks were much, much stronger than decks built around Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Dark Ritual. The second issue was that Brainstorm and Ponder had a homogenizing effect on Vintage blue decks. Once you put four Force of Will, four Brainstorm, four Ponder, a bunch of restricted cards, and some mana sources in your deck, there simply isn’t much room to put in anything else. This meant that the differences between different Force of Will decks were usually very small, and that hurt the format’s variety.

In short, Tom was explaining that the primary reason they restricted Brainstorm, Ponder, Merchant Scroll and Gush to try to rebalance Force of Will/Gush decks against their rivals, Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Dark Ritual.

Were they successful?

First we have to look at the Gush metagame by engine.

That is the Metagame by Engine from June 20-2007 through June 20, 2008.

(It’s too wide to post into the article, so please click this link.)

If you look at the time in which Gush was unrestricted, June 20, 2007, you see that Gush decks started out as the stronger performers, just above 20% of the field, and then peaked in August/Sept/Oct at slightly above 25% of the field.

In November, Thorn of Amethyst saw print, and Mishra’s Workshop decks were suddenly competing on par with their Gush rivals.

Tom specifically refers to the trends that the DCI saw in early 2008, so let’s focus in on that:


Tom said that the DCI saw that the Gush decks were “much, much stronger than decks built around Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Dark Ritual. ”

Really? The data refutes that. If anything, the restrictions have dramatically strengthened Force of Will based decks against their competitors, Workshops, Bazaars, and Dark Rituals. Mishra’s Workshop decks were performing on par with Gush decks for six of the eight months after the printing of Lorwyn (Ponder and Thorn). The only exception was in March and April, when people started playing Oath and Flash in larger numbers (thanks to the printing of Reveillark), and that really hurt Workshop decks. But they bounced right back and, by the end, they were the best performing archetype in Vintage.

Even so, did those restrictions foster greater metagame balance? Take a look at what’s happened since:

Here’s what that the metagame looks like since:


There is absolutely no question. The DCI took a well-balanced metagame and totally wrecked it. The words that Tom used to describe the metagame in early 2008 do not seem to describe early 2008 at all. Rather, they describe the metagame since those restrictions:

The first was that Force of Will decks were much, much stronger than decks built around Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Dark Ritual.

First of all, Gush decks never went above 30% of the metagame. Mana Drain decks came out of the gate above 35% of the field. Now they are stable around 43% of the metagame, nearly half.

Second, it’s not just the percentage of the field. Take a look at the percentage of tournament wins:


When you look just at tournament victories, the degree of dominance becomes even more egregious. Mana Drain decks won 66% of tournaments in the March/April data set compared with just 42.5% of Top 8s.

In spite of the obviousness of the problem, there are two arguments that are likely to be raised in response to this analysis. First, some people are likely to complain that it’s not so much a feature of Mana Drain decks that explains their degree of dominance, but rather the errata on Time Vault. Second, people are likely to complain that looking at Top 8 data alone does not paint a full portrait of whether metagame dominance is truly at work here or whether it’s merely a function of the proportion of Mana Drain decks in the field.

First, the suggestion that the problem is not Mana Drain decks, but rather Time Vault decks, is refuted by the data. Take a look at the line chart showing the metagame by engine since the June, 2008 restrictions. Mana Drain decks were already ascending to record levels of dominance in the four month period before Time Vault was re-errated and Tezzeret was printed. The only difference is that it is different Mana Drain decks that are being played now.

As for the second argument that it is flawed to look at top 8 data, it doesn’t make any sense for at least three reasons. First of all, the DCI has restricted and banned many cards in the history of Magic, and Vintage in particular, for predominance in Top 8s. For example, Gush was restricted in 2003 for constituting roughly 37% of top 8s, as my metagame report from April/May/June 2003 shows . Many other restrictions have occurred for creating similar degrees of dominance, including Fact or Fiction, Necropotence, and the Academy cards. The argument was not heard, even if it was advanced, that those cards nonetheless should not be restricted because it’s simply a function of the field. In any case, my analysis of the Waterbury results (I have all 120 decklists) and full SCG and Waterbury decklists from the 2006 and 2007 show that Mana Drain decks usually far outperform their representation in the field.

Second, even if a deck was merely performing proportionate to the field, that does not mean that DCI action is not warranted. For example, if Necropotence (or Academy) decks were 50% of the field, but only 40% of top 8s, no argument could be heard that Necropotence is not a problem. It would be an absurd argument, and it’s only hypocrisy that this argument is heard in the context of Mana Drain decks (does anyone doubt that if Dark Ritual decks or Mishra’s Workshop decks or Bazaar decks were performing where Mana Drain decks are today that the community would be outraged?).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, this data is taken over time. If Mana Drain decks were underperforming or performing proportionate to the field, then we would expect the less successful overall decks that were better performing to become a larger part of the field over time. For example, the decks that tend to prey on a Mana Drain metagame, Fish and Dark Ritual based storm combo, should be a larger percentage of the field. If it was apparent that Mana drains were a worse choice than Dark Rituals, then we would expect to see Dark Rituals increase in numbers and mana Drain decks recede as people move away from the inferior choice. They are not. In fact, Dark Ritual decks appear to be in a terminal decline since their peak before the printing of Shards of Alara. If Mana Drain was an ‘average’ or ‘poor’ performing deck, then players would not choose it, once they became aware of this information. Some might dispute this contention, however we have plenty of history with Trinisphere, Gush, and Necropotence to prove that people switch away from Drains when they are not the best deck.

The idea of a metagame is that players in the aggregate choose the best deck for their ability to win (for the most part). It’s the same way that markets work. But when you have 6 months of dominance that has not be self-correcting, then we know that it’s not simply a function of the relative proportions of the field, but of actual metagame performance versus the rest of the field. It’s not that people aren’t trying to beat Mana Drain decks. They are; they just aren’t succeeding. And it’s not that Mana Drain decks are trending down, either. This metagame report shows the greatest degree of dominance in terms of tournament wins in this data set.

What Should Be Done About It?

There are three possible options:

1) Restrict Mana Drain
2) Restrict Something Else (Thirst For Knowledge)
3) Unrestrict Something

With respect to the first option, part of the problem with Mana Drain is that given any strategy in Vintage, whether it is Painter, Time Vault, Tendrils, or whatever, between a viable shell that implements that strategy using Mana Drains and one that implements that strategy using other cards, the Mana Drain shell is almost always going to be superior. That’s why Mana Drain shows up in everything from Slaver, to Painter, to Remora, to Tezzeret. It’s actually like Gush-bond, but worse in some respects.

However, the DCI has tended not to restrict the enabler (Mana Drain, Dark Ritual, Bazaar of Baghdad, or Mishra’s Workshop), but rather the engine. For example, rather than restrict Mishra’s Workshop, the DCI restricted Trinisphere. Rather than restrict Dark Ritual, the DCI restricted Necropotence. Rather than restrict Mana Drain, we have restricted Fact or Fiction and Gifts Ungiven. For that reason alone, I would not restrict Mana Drain.

Every Mana Drain decks uses Thirst For Knowledge. Some might laugh at the restriction of Thirst For Knowledge, but it’s clearly the draw engine that helps Drain decks create card advantage. Aside from the intervals of Scroll + Gifts, Thirst has been the dominant draw engine of Mana Drain decks since its printing, especially since its rivals have been restricted or are too slow (Intuition + Accumulated Knowledge, for example). In decks like Control Slaver, the drawback was turned into an advantage, since the intent is to discard a large artifact and use Goblin Welder to recur it. Also, to look at Thirst as simply a card that produces card advantage +1 misses the way in which it helps digs. Virtually every Mana Drain deck now uses an artifact combo, whether it is Control Slaver, Painter (with Painter’s Servant and Grindstone) or Time Vault. Thirst For Knowledge helps you trade an artifact that will be used later on in the game while digging you closer to Yawgmoth’s Will and Tinker and helping create card advantage that will ensure that you can protect those effects. Thus, it is not a loss to play Thirst and have to discard a Darksteel Colossus or a Grindstone or even a Voltaic Key. Having those cards in the graveyard makes them more accessible than if they were in your library in many respects.

Restricting Thirst For Knowledge would help foster a metagame where Mana Drain decks continue to include more and more singletons, such as 1 Gifts, 1 Thirst, 1 Scroll, 1 Ponder and 1 Fact or Fiction. Some would turn to alternative draw engines such as Night’s Whisper and Dark Confidant or even Intuition + AK/Deep Analysis, once more.

Given these options, my preference would be for unrestriction. I believe that the DCI’s best option is to create a targeted unrestriction that would promote an archetype that could compete with Drains, but more importantly, would trigger chain reactions that would lead to greater metagame diversity. For obvious reasons, I believe that card would be Gush. While other cards, such as Burning Wish or Flash could help create an additional archetype that would compete with Drains, those unrestrictions would not be as powerful as Gush in their secondary and tertiary effects. If Gush were unrestricted, Gush based decks could return to the metagame without the problem of the Gush-bond engine that was so homogenizing. The Gush-Bond engine was the engine that essentially turned every blue deck into the same draw engine. But with Scroll and Brainstorm and Ponder restricted, that engine would remain dead. But decks like Grow or Turboland or Oath would each have a small boost. That boost would then create a series of incentives, such as helping Mishra’s Workshop deck out again.

It’s been 10 months. The June 20 restrictions failed. They not only failed to rebalance the metagame, they backfired and created a more unbalanced metagame. This did not have to be. The problem was that the DCI went too far in its restrictions. If they had just restricted a one or two cards rather than five, they could have tweaked the metagame as it existed without creating the awful situation we are currently in.

I look forward to your responses, and will dedicate a portion of my article next week to addressing them.

Until then…

Stephen Menendian


1) Zurich (53 players)
Tezzeret Control won

2) Helsinki (33 players)
Ichorid won.

3) Grand Prix Chicago Side Event, USA (81 players)
Ichorid won.

4) Levellois, France (57 players)
Tezzeret Control won.

5) Empoli (183 players)
Ad Nauseam won

6) The Mana Drain Open 13 (113 players)
Tezzeret Control won

7) The Mana Drain Open 13, Day 2 (48 players)
Goyf Control Won

8) Catalan Vintage League (71 players)
Ichorid Won

9) Madrid, Spain (44 players)
Tezzeret Control Won

10) Zurich, Switzerland (42 players)
Tezzeret Control Won

11) Blue Bell, PA (44 players)
Oath Won

12) Breda, Netherlands (61 players)
Tezzeret Control Won

13) Madrid, Spain (40 players)
Shaymora Won

14) Catalan Vintage League (73 players)
Tezzeret Control Won

15) Zurich (54 players)
Drain Tendrils Won