So Many Insane Plays — Time Walking Back to the Future

Read Stephen Menendian every Wednesday... at StarCityGames.com!
The unrestriction of Gush has thrown a spanner in the works of Vintage, with GroAtog deck making Top 8s left, right, and center. Today’s So Many Insane Plays looks at the forgotten draw spell of the format, Fact or Fiction. It’s currently restricted… but should it be? Stephen argues its case. He also explains the difference between Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast, and goes through the math behind popular decks and Top 8 appearances.

Hello there, Magic community!

Although it’s been damn tempting, I’ve decided against writing about my Invitational preparation. The legwork for the Invitational is turning out to be much more involved than I anticipated. I’d love to share with you my progress, but I hope you agree that it would be much more entertaining to read a winning tournament report that lays that all out than for you to read about it now only to give my competitors a leg up.

I’m incredibly appreciative of all the support I’ve received. The Magic community, and the Eternal community in particular, is a fantastic group of people. You are passionate about the game you play.

Once I’ve done all I can in preparing for the Invitational without incurring too many diminishing returns for my efforts, I’ll be turning my attention to Extended. I haven’t decided, but I may write an article on that topic before the Pro Tour, which I’ll be attending.

In the forums last week people were wondering what the fuss was over Pyroblast versus Red Elemental Blast. It’s a good question. The difference is an esoteric, but relevant, Vintage nuance that Evan suggested I highlight in my article this week.

Who could ignore a request from Evan?

Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast are modal; they either counter Blue spells on the stack OR destroy Blue permanents in play.

When Pyroblast was printed in Ice Age, Wizards thought it was printing the same thing as Red Elemental Blast. Remember, Ice Age was intended to be a standalone set. Well, it wasn’t the same thing. There is a slight wording difference: Pyroblast (and Hydroblast) both have the word “if” in their text. Pyroblast counters a spell or destroys a permanent if it is Blue.

By now you should be clear what this means. Pyroblast can target a non-Blue permanent. I can cast Pyroblast on Arcbound Ravager. It won’t do anything, but it can at least target that card. And there is the rub.

Back in the day, “Type 1” players preferred Pyroblast because you could play it on cards like Black Vise or your own Balance to lower your hand size. The prevalence of Misdirection has made Red Elemental Blast the preferred choice. If you are in the “destroy permanent” mode, then Misdirection can’t stop your Red Elemental Blast from murdering your intended target unless there is another Blue permanent in play, an unlikely scenario. In contrast, Pyroblast can be Misdirected anywhere. If you are playing against GroAtog, you’d rather have Red Elemental Blast when facing a Psychatog protected by Misdirection. But if you are playing GroAtog against a non-Blue deck, you’d rather have Pyroblast so you can at least give your Quirion Dryad +1/+1.

My article topic today takes me into the bowels of Vintage history, a seedy past in darkened gaming parlors… or just the Oscar Tan archive.

My teammates joke that 2007 is 2003, part two. Since Vintage players have been reliving the Vintage experience of 2003 for the last three months, let’s Time Walk back 2000 and 2001.

Back in September, 2000 Wizards printed one of the most well conceived and received Magic sets ever produced: Invasion.

A Vintage pundit reviewing Invasion in his StarCityGames.com column wrote:

Fact or Fiction

Use it while it’s there, because if this isn’t restricted then something is horridly wrong. Anything that can be a more mana-efficient instant card draw than Brainstorm and Impulse combined is trouble brewing. There are some cases where this will be superior to Stroke of Genius and Braingeyser, because they can be Misdirected. This is a very powerful card, and can easily fuel a combo deck.

Initially played in five-color control (known at the time as “The Deck” or “Keeper”), Fact or Fiction provided Blue decks with perhaps the most potent unrestricted Mana Drain sink and robust draw engine available at that time. Take a look at what Mike Long played in the Vintage portion of the Magic Invitational:

The Keeper, Mike Long, 2000 Magic Invitational, Type 1

1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Yawgmoth’s Will
1 Mind Twist
1 Amnesia
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Merchant Scroll
3 Impulse
3 Fact or Fiction
4 Mana Drain
4 Force of Will
2 Pyroblast
2 Diabolic Edict
2 Morphling
1 Gorilla Shaman
1 Disrupting Scepter
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Sol Ring
1 Grim Monolith
1 Mana Vault
1 Fellwar Stone
1 Strip Mine
4 Wasteland
1 Library of Alexandria
4 Underground Sea
4 Volcanic Island
2 Tundra
2 City of Brass
2 Island

1 Moat
1 Balance
1 Swords to Plowshares
2 Hydroblast
1 Disenchant
2 Masticore
2 The Abyss
2 Lightning Bolt
2 Misdirection
1 Fireball

What you have to understand is that Braingeyser and Stroke of Genius were both restricted in Vintage at the time. Fact or Fiction was better than both. It gave you more cards per mana than either, dug you deeper, led to a more explosive Yawgmoth’s Will, and was cheaper.

On the other hand, Braingeyser and Stroke of Genius were only playable because the format was essentially mono colored decks (Sligh, Suicide Black, Stompy, Deck Parfait, Mono-Blue) and the five-color control deck (“The Deck” or “Keeper”). In short, the format was extremely underdeveloped. That’s why Braingeyser and Stroke of Genius are both unrestricted today. They’re terrible.

How exactly did Fact work?

First of all, even beyond its raw power, Fact or Fiction punished opponents for making a bad split. From the deck above, you could imagine Fact revealing Volcanic Island, Impulse, Force of Will, Mind Twist, and Mox Sapphire. Correctly splitting piles is a genuine skill challenge. In a format with so many key restricted cards, splitting Fact piles is often a difficult challenge. It’s not a trick challenge like Gifts Ungiven, where no matter what pile you hand your opponent, you are still screwed. Fact piles aren’t so heavily concentrated with bombs, and in some ways that makes splitting them even more difficult.

Second, Fact or Fiction gave the player that resolved it a nice lead. It wasn’t game over, like Yawgmoth’s Bargain or a decently-sized Mind’s Desire, but it’s reminiscent of resolving Ancestral Recall, but for four mana. It’s not game over, but it’s correlated with winning.

Third, Fact or Fiction was a card that required a good sense of timing. In general, you wanted to play Fact on your opponents end step. However, Fact or Fiction was also a card that rewarded you for playing Mana Drain. If you were patient and waited to play your Fact or Fiction, you might be able to get into a small counterwar, untap with some Mana Drain mana in your main phase, and play your Fact or Fiction for virtually nothing.

But what did it feel like to play with Fact or Fiction?

I remember those days!

Most Vintage players can probably deduce the points I’ve made so far just through playing with Fact now.

But the most important difference between Fact or Fiction restricted and Fact or Fiction unrestricted is the engine aspect of Fact. In modern Vintage, Fact or Fiction is infrequently played as a random draw spell (though it has seen less and less play in the past two years).

Unrestricted Fact or Fiction is a highly synergistic engine. While I loathe to draw a comparison to Mind’s Desire, it is perhaps the best example to explain this point: one of the advantages of Mind’s Desire is that there is a chance you’ll Desire into another Desire. Fact or Fiction digs so deeply that there is a very good chance you’ll see another Fact soon, if not immediately.

In this way, playing with unrestricted Fact or Fiction actually resembles the slow roll use of Necropotence, to Necro for 6, and then 5, and then a few more before managing to win the game.

In “Keeper,” Fact or Fiction dug you closer and closer to Yawgmoth’s Will. Fact or Fiction dumped lots of desirable cards into your graveyard so that Yawgmoth’s Will was more than a replay of the game, it was Fact and Fiction – the cards that you drew via Fact and the cards that got shipped to the graveyard.

While the temporary insertion of Fact or Fiction in lieu of Braingeyser and Stroke of Genius (both restricted) in multicolor control proved to be a noticeable improvement, Vintage enthusiasts were not content to simply cut and paste a powerful new engine into an old and popular archetype.

Taking a cue from Zvi Mowshowitz, a duo from Neutral Ground, Ed Paltzik and Yan Margolin, blew away the nascent NYC tournament scene by repeatedly crushing opponents with a deck fully geared to abuse Fact or Fiction while preying on the pre-fetchland manabases so prevalent in Vintage of that era.

Ed and Yan added Back to Basics to the deck that Zvi piloted to a 3-0 finish in the Vintage portion of the Invitational.

Here’s one of their lists:

Legend Blue (Blue Bullsh** a.k.a. BBS) a.k.a. Accelerated Blue
Legend Blue: (July 2001)

4 Morphling
4 Back to Basics
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Force of Will
4 Mana Drain
4 Counterspell
4 Mana Leak
2 Misdirection
1 Time Walk
1 Ancestral Recall
2 Powder Keg
1 Black Lotus
1 Sol Ring
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
19 Island

2 Misdirection
2 Powder Keg
2 Nevinyrral’s Disk
4 Hydroblast
4 Blue Elemental Blast
1 Island

This deck was particularly vicious. This deck existed in the pre-Onslaught era of Vintage, which meant no fetchlands. Fetchlands, as they were known then, came into play tapped.

What that meant is that Vintage manabases were very different from a deck construction perspective. Many manabases started off with four City of Brass. People had to run bizarre configurations of dual lands to achieve the desired result. Running basic land in multi-color decks was an impossibility. Hence, the power of Back to Basics. In a post-fetchland era, Blood Moon is the more powerful card. Every fetchland becomes a mountain and cuts the opponent off from their desired mana source.

The basic game plan of the deck was to lock out control decks with Back to Basics and counterspells, and to lock out aggro decks with Kegs and Morphlings. While this plan was put into effect, Fact or Fictions generated card advantage. Mana Drains powered out Facts and Morphlings. The full suite of counterspells: Mana Leaks, Drains, Force of Wills, Misdirections, and even Counterspells itself protected Back to Basics

Ed’s tournament reports are hilarious and worth reading.

Here is an entertaining excerpt:

I rarely see any Type 1 tournament reports on the Internet.

Instead, I am assaulted by an endless stream of tournament reports from an endless series of “mainstream” tournaments, written by an endless series of mainstream, brainwashed players. Standard. Extended. Limited…

Not only is this relentless flow of sewage boring, it is insulting. I am constantly subjected to mindless tournament reports that appear as if they were churned out in mere minutes by a Macaque on a typewriter. I am repeatedly inundated with the numbing reality of the Magic herd. My senses are overwhelmed by the remarkable propensity of the unwashed hordes to continually surprise me by writing even more atrocious tournament reports than I had previously imagined possible.

But enough of this. I am pleased to report that the more mature, refined, and dignified element that you will find at a typical Type 1 affair will rarely subject a country gentleman such as myself to the tortures of such exclamations as “that was a mad tight mise!”

Instead, a completely unfair and potentially traumatizing topdeck of a Yawgmoth’s Will that turns the game in favor of the player who had seemingly lost the previous turn when his entire hand was Mind Twisted away thanks to the other player’s completely unfair topdecking of a Black Lotus, coming on the heels of a surprising and equally unfair Misdirected Ancestral Recall by that same player who is now playing the Yawgmoth’s Will is typically greeted by restrained applause and hushed compliments, such as:

“Oh degenerate card that is not allowed in any other format except this one, we welcome thy appearance at this sporting match of Magic! Oh Yawgmoth’s Will well drawn! Oh, entire graveyard of abusive cards that have all been restricted because of their unbalancing effect on the game! Oh, art thou 2 Morphlings and 3 Moxes returning to play? Oh, a topdeck well done! Well done, lad, Well done!!!”

You will come to one of two possible conclusions after reading the last few sentences. Either you will conclude that you are confused, in which case you will be completely incapable of making any conclusions, or you may just conclude that a Type 1 tournament is as much fun as being bathed in perfumes and exotic oils in the company of numerous attentive, voluptuous servants who desire nothing more than to feed you delicious grapes imported from an exotic island while you exult in the pleasures of eating grapes that are imported from an exotic island…

Welcome to the pageantry that is Type 1.


Ed mauled his opponents, and no sooner had this deck started to tear up the tournament scene than the Vintage “experts” were up in arms.
This author was calling for the restriction of Fact or Fiction on June 18, 2001. Darren was successful. When it finally happened in December, Darren couldn’t help bragging about his response from Mark Rosewater.

But here’s the rub. It wasn’t six months later that Darren was calling for the restriction of Back to Basics. Oscar Tan made the same argument. In fact, they were so persuasive that Aaron Forsythe wrote to Oscar Tan asking him if Back to Basics should be restricted.

What is your opinion on Back to Basics? Restrict, ban, nothing? People sure do complain about it a lot.

That alone should make you suspicious of the restriction of Fact or Fiction. And although Ed’s tournament reports are entertaining, take a look at what he actually faced:

Rnd 1: Mono Black Nether Void
Rnd 2: Turboland with SB Oaths
Rnd 3: Suicide Black
Rnd 4: Suicide Black
Rnd 5: Draw-Go Mono Blue
Top 8: 5c Control
Top 4: Slight
Finals: Suicide Black

Rnd 1: Invasion Block Draft Deck
Rnd 2: Zoo
Rnd 3: Draw-Go, Mono Blue
Rnd 4: 5c Control (Loss)

Rnd 1: B/G/R Zoo
Rnd 2: G/R Aggro
Rnd 3: Winter Orb/Icy Mana Denial

Yeah… It’s true that BBS dominated Vintage, but look at the competition. B/G/R Zoo? Sign me up!

So, here’s what we can conclude:

1 – Fact or Fiction was restricted, in part, because it was better than Stroke of Genius and Braingeyser, two cards that were restricted at the time, but are unrestricted today.
2 – Fact or Fiction was restricted pretty much on the word of people who later argued for the restriction of Back to Basics.
3 – Fact or Fiction was restricted on the basis of tournament victories in an environment in which the major metagame competitors were of extremely low quality. I mean, Fact or Fiction was restricted pretty much because Ed Paltzik won every single 25-person tournament he played in. There was no Vintage tournament scene like there is today.

If Gush can be unrestricted and it existed when people were playing real decks like Rector plus Cabal Therapy and other modern decks like Stax, then surely Fact or Fiction’s restriction should be called into question. (If Fact or Fiction was restricted because of Braingeyser and Stroke of Genius, and Gifts Ungiven was restricted, in part, because of Fact or Fiction… what does that say about the wisdom of both decisions?)

Which raises the question: Fact or Fiction today, unrestricted… what would happen?

I set out to answer that question.

A few years ago I played a mock tournament called “The Battle of the Banned Decks” — a tournament designed to see how Vintage’s historical banned decks fared against each other. At that time Gush was on the restricted list.

Here is the recap of the 4 Fact or Fiction versus 4 Gush matchup:

BBS versus GroAtog
This match was very tense and close. According to Joe’s notes, Joe got the nuts game 1 with Dryads, Fastbond, and multiple Gushes, winning on turn 2. Game 2 involved Joe being completely locked down under Back to Basics while the BBS deck played multiple Fact or Fiction and finished him off with Morphling. Game 3 was very close, but Psychatog proved too large for Morphling. I think this match could go either way, but today was not the day for BBS.

Now, take those notes. Imagine if BBS was rebuilt given the tools that exist today. I believe that it would be a serious competitor for the GAT metagame.

Imagine… THIS.

BBS, 2007…

U/R Fact Control

3 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
3 Magus of the Moon
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Brainstorm
4 Force of Will
4 Mana Drain
4 Mana Leak
2 Red Elemental Blast
2 Misdirection
1 Time Walk
1 Ancestral Recall
4 Powder Keg
1 Black Lotus
1 Sol Ring
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
4 Volcanic Island
5 Fetchlands
1 Library of Alexandria
1 Strip Mine
6 Island

For this article, I decided to take it upon myself to do some pretty serious testing and update Ed’s BBS deck. This is what I came up with.

This decklist remains rough. And yet, in my testing against GroAtog, while it’s not a total blowout, it’s very favorable.

Test it. Play with it. It looks innocuous, but it’s broken. The thing is, broken it might be, but it’s far more interactive than any top deck in Vintage right now.

The basic substitutions I made were

1 – Magus of the Moon over Back to Basics.
2 – Meloku over Morphling.
3 – Red Elemental Blasts over bad counterspells.
4 – Brainstorms over Impulses.

As Team ICBM has recently demonstrated, Meloku is powerful at clogging up the ground. Meloku just owns creatures. Also, Kegs answer Dryads and Empty the Warrens tokens.

Magus of the Moon pretty much wrecks GroAtog or Empty Gush’s attempts to Gush off Fastbond, as all dual lands are now Mountains.

Arguably this deck should have more Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblasts maindeck, but there is a chance that you’ll play against non-Blue decks.

Back in 2001, Powder Keg cleared away weenies and could even build up to fight Morphling. Today, it is perfect for dealing with cards like Empty the Warrens or Quirion Dryad, so I made sure to include four maindeck. Keg also complements Magus of the Moon by clearing out Moxen that help the opponent play spells.

One of the things that made BBS so good was four Morphling and four Back to Basics. It’s possible that this deck should have four Magus of the Moon.

I’m of the view that the unrestriction of Fact or Fiction would transform Vintage for the better.

It would:

1 – Diversify Vintage. Fact decks would definitely compete with Gush decks.
2 – Make Mana Drain good again. In fact, I could see several Mana Drain decks abusing Fact.
3 – Bring Card Advantage back to Vintage, not just tempo.
4 – Make Fact splitting becomes a critical skill once again.
5 – It would bring a lot of needed interaction to Vintage.

Let’s face it — all Magic players love Vintage when Mana Drain decks are good. Fact or Fiction unrestricted is basically the one card you can count on to do that. I think unrestricted Fact or Fiction would draw a lot of players back into Vintage, much as Gush has.

Unlike Gifts, Fact isn’t a card that Dark Ritual based storm combo would abuse effectively. Investing Dark Ritual into Gifts makes sense since you are tutoring up cards to win the game. That play makes a lot less sense with Fact or Fiction. For that purpose, Strategic Planning would almost be better.

Fact or Fiction was restricted in an era in which Keeper was the best deck. It’s no wonder that Fact was too powerful.

My new BBS deck is fun, fair by modern standards, and a blast to play. Moreover, unlike GAT, it doesn’t have inherent advantages that make it extremely difficult to combat. This deck can be attacked from many angles, but would still be a powerful metagame competitor. It would enrich Vintage for the better.

Until next time,

Stephen Menendian

Post Script

Last week I said something that didn’t make much sense (although no one called me out on it): “Assuming a field of roughly 20% Gush, to constitute 89% of the Top 9 is a truly stunning feat. It is mathematically extremely difficult to execute and would require most of the Gush decks to have knocked each other out because you have to realize that a lot of these players faced each other or faced teammates or other opponents that were also running Gush decks.” Where is Chris Pikula when you need him to harass me for saying stupid things?

The point I was trying to make is that the performance of Gush decks (7 of 8 in Top 8) is mathematically difficult to achieve even where you have very high performing decks and a non-trivial portion of the metagame.

There is a natural and pervasive assumption that there is a one-to-one relationship between metagame performance and Top 8 representation. This assumption is one of the fundamental reasons that inaccurate Top 8 predictions are so pervasive. How many times have you over-estimated the number of a particular deck you thought would be in the Top 8? This is why Mike Flores said he expected the GP: Columbus Top 8 to be all Flash.

Through experience I’ve come to realize that instead there are diminishing returns associated with metagame performance with respect to Top 8 representation. Decks require increasingly greater performance or numbers in order to marginally increase the quantity of any given deck in the Top 8. I can prove it (I think) by sketching some hypotheticals.

Assume a 100-person tournament in which 1% of the field (i.e. one player) is playing Deck A. Further assume that Deck A is the best performing deck and has a 100% match win rate against the entire field and, for simplicity’s sake, that every other deck is a 50% matchup against everything else. You have a seven-round tournament in which winners can draw the last two rounds into the Top 8. What happens?

Obviously, Deck A makes Top 8.

However, as we increase the number of Deck A in the field, then the chance of mirror matches increase so that when we go to three players playing Deck A, there is a chance that one copy of Deck A won’t make Top 8 because it might lose to the other two Deck As.

As we increase the number of Deck As in the metagame, we will see a corresponding increase in Deck As in the Top 8, but it should also be obvious that the slope of the curve changes. The number of Deck As in the Top 8 should increase, but at a decreasing rate. As you go from one to two copies of Deck A in the metagame, you will double the number of Deck As in the Top 8, for a marginal increase of one. But as you go from two to three and then three to four and so on, the marginal rate of increase diminishes because of the chance that these decks will play each other. And as you increase from 29 to 30 decks, the predicted increase in Top 8 representation should increase by a mere fraction.

I’m hoping that someone in the forums with some Howard Garderian Mathematical/Logical intelligence can model what I’m talking about but with different inputs. For example, what is the predicted increase in Top 8 representation of Deck A as we move from 19 to 20% of the metagame?

More importantly, what is the actual predicted representation in the Top 8 with twenty players playing Deck A? What if drop Deck A’s win percentage to 70%? To 60%?

Through experience, I’ve learned that it is more difficult to make up an entire Top 8 than it appears. In fact, in most Vintage metagames there is generally a clearly established best performing deck (in the last couple of years this honor has rotated between Control Slaver, Gifts Ungiven, Pitch Long, and now GroAtog), and in almost all of those cases, the “best deck” ends up only being about 2-3 decks in the Top 8, at most. My limited experience in “real” formats suggests the same. At GP: Columbus, Flash was only three of the Top 8 decklists, despite being the “obvious” best deck and getting banhammered immediately afterward. Until now, the most extreme cases I’ve seen have been three instances in which half of the Top 8 featured one deck. First, at the second SCG P9 tournament, my team came armed with a surprise Oath of Druids deck after the release of Forbidden Orchard. Eight of us played it and four of us made Top 8, including a tournament win. Second, at a January Waterbury in 2005, half of the Top 8 and half of the Top 16 was Control Slaver. The only other time I saw anything like that, aside from the GroAtog era, was the Vintage Championship in 2004, in which half of the Top 8 had 4 Trinispheres, despite being very different Mishra’s Workshop decks. And even in the GroAtog era, as I described last week, GAT only composed about 37% of Top 8s. That was such an extraordinarily high proportion of Top 8s that I labeled that performance “dominance,” and pretty much everyone agreed that it was.

That’s partly why way back in 2003 I defined dominance as being only “40%” of Top 8s. It is almost improbable to get 7 of 8 decks in the Top 8 to be the same deck unless there are unusual extreme features operating, either insanely high win percentages, luck, or an unbelievably high proportion of the overall metagame (logically, for instance, if 99 of 100 players played the same deck, then 7 of the Top 8 at least, must be that deck). Even then, replicating that number over time and across regions is unlikely.

It’s not as if Gush decks are Deck A. They do not have a 100% win rate against the metagame. Take note of the fact that most of the non-Gush decks in the field were actually designed to fight Gush decks.

If Gush decks were roughly 20% of the metagame with approximately 25 copies of the deck in the field, in order to make up nearly 90% of the Top 8, you’d have to have an overall match win percentage that is extraordinarily high. In fact, I’m betting that we can model this if someone were so inclined (any takers?). That means that you’d have to have a lot of the Gush decks facing each other, and a non-trivial percentage of those would be knocking each other out, letting other decks slip in.