The Long & Winding Road – M10 Success and Vintage Revival

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Monday, August 31st – This is a really exciting time to be playing Magic. M10 has been a huge success, the Standard format is relatively healthy (despite some degree of dominance by Vivid Land / Reflecting Pool decks), interest in Legacy and demand for Legacy events is higher than it has ever been, and the Vintage metagame is going through a state of flux.

My intention for this week was to discuss the Edison, NJ PTQ. Instead of playing in the tournament, I spent the day with Nick Coss, enjoying a chance to see what it’s like to attend a PTQ on the other side of the dealer’s table. I actually had a great time, and I think there’s a lot of valuable information to be discussed as far as the dealer/player relationship.

That article is going to have to wait.

This is a really exciting time to be playing Magic. M10 has been a huge success, the Standard format is relatively healthy (despite some degree of dominance by Vivid Land / Reflecting Pool decks), interest in Legacy and demand for Legacy events is higher than it has ever been, and the Vintage metagame is going through a state of flux. Local, regional, and national tournaments in all formats are re-emerging with a lower overall emphasis on the Pro Tour. These are all good things for the health of the game itself and for its individual formats.

Wizards: Doin’ it for Themselves

Remember the immense skepticism over the health of the game that boiled over when we lost States, and when the number of Pro Tours was reduced? How about when the M10 rules were announced, and the changes to set sizes, and introduction of Mythic Rares and lands in Booster packs?

I think it’s time that we take a step back and look at the surprising run Wizards has been on in 2009.

First and foremost, just about everything that Wizards did related to M10 has been a home run (except, obviously, printing enough — we’ll get to that shortly). The elimination of the chaff that normally comes in these bloated, boring, white-bordered Core sets is a distant memory. Although the bomb Uncommons of M10 sealed are an acquired taste, I have enjoyed drafting this set, and the new cards make it much more interesting than Core set drafts have been in the past. The elimination of some staples, like Wrath of God, has led to a fresh and rapidly changing metagame for the PTQ season. The introduction of new cards in the base set, along with a very solid set of returning favorites and playable Mythics, has further driven demand for M10. Even some of the touches added for casual players, like the new Tribal lords, have been successful. The new dual lands are particularly well-designed for Standard and should hopefully address the glut of mana fixing once Reflecting Pool rotates out this fall.

Wizards made an excellent decision when they aligned a Standard PTQ season with the release of M10. The need to acquire the new duals, among other cards like Honor of the Pure and Elvish Archdruid, for the major PTQ decks has driven an insatiable demand for M10 product since launch. PTQ attendance is up across the board, with PTQs on the East Coast blowing past 200 players and in some instances surpassing 300 players. Players have been clamoring for this season for a long time, and keying off that desire with a well-designed core set was a stroke of genius. It seems so obvious that you can’t help but wonder why this wasn’t something Wizards has been doing all along.

(As an aside, I did get to play quite a few games of Magic this Saturday, and have been running Elf Combo against the field. Admittedly it loses to prepared Five-Color Control decks, but as the field diversifies again, isn’t it time to bring this deck back? From a power level standpoint, that deck is so far beyond most Standard decks that it almost isn’t fair. I especially like the version with the singleton Gilt-Leaf Archdruid.)

The marketing related to M10 has also been terrific. The release of the Xbox 360 game has to be considered a win for everyone involved. The foil Garruk is moving in the secondary market at over double the cost of downloading Duel of the Planeswalkers, so for players of the physical card game, picking up the 360 game is a no-brainer. Because the actual printing and mailing of this foil card is a low-cost endeavor, it lets Wizards have a game that dominates the Xbox Live Arcade leader-board without having to spend a ton on advertising. Further, the Duel has reached Xbox players that have played Magic in the past but stepped away from the game for a while. At the M10 pre-release and during M10 drafts at GenCon, I talked to multiple players who came back to Magic due to the release of the Xbox 360 game. Running Duel on a giant screen at events like GenCon is also a powerful way to draw in new and casual players.

The rules changes that launched a million internet flame wars have become second nature far faster than I anticipated. Magic still feels like Magic. Losing damage on the Stack hasn’t upset the balance of the game nearly as much as everyone worried it might. The changes to mulligans already feel like second nature. Other changes, like Lifelink and Deathtouch, are basically niche changes that affect casual players (who often already played the game the way the rules changes made it work) or are corner cases in Limited that tournament players figured out very quickly. Whether or not the M10 changes actually accomplish what Wizards wanted to accomplish — that is, more intuitive rules leading to easier acquisition of new players — remains to be seen, but it seems like the changes have done little to drive existing players away from the game.

Wizards has also done a great job creating interest with the Duel decks, the From the Vault series, and the upcoming Planechase rules addition and Slivers premium foil deck. For an extended period of time, decisions related to Magic were driven almost exclusively by the tournament scene. Whether by choice or corporate overlord decision, Wizards has wisely chosen to diversify their portfolio by better balancing their focus between collectors, casual players, and tournament players. As tournament players, we might not like it, but the overall health of the game and parent company is imperative if large-scale tournaments are to continue.

In fact, probably the only mistake Wizards made in all of this was in their estimation of how much product they could sell. So many people hit the company with a non-stop barrage of negativity, much of it deserved (see: bungling MTGO V.3, botching the communication of changes to the Pro Player system and the elimination of States, etc), that even when they actually got all their ducks in a row with M10 (creating a superior core set product, making it black bordered, introducing new cards, driving demand and buzz with rules changes and an Xbox game, aligning a Standard PTQ season with the release of the new core set), apparently they didn’t have faith in their ability to succeed. Then again, there have been some benefits to M10 shortages, such as the ability to sell prize packs at far better amounts than one typically sees, and strong prices on the singles for a brief period of time. As everything about M10 was different than the usual core set, it’s hard to fault Wizards for not printing enough product, but of course, we still will. We’re Magic players.

Although I don’t spend too much time on MTGO, it appears that life there continues to improve. Wizards is making the wise decision to ramp up their online tournament support, including larger cash events and PTQs. A successful MTGO should be very important to Wizards, as it can be a huge cash driver for them and it has so much untapped potential. Continuing to offer online-only promos and online-only cash tournaments, and providing as much online coverage for those events as possible, should pay dividends for interest in MTGO. Hopefully this will create some resurgence in the online singles market.

Finally, I can’t help but be impressed with the way Wizards is printing cards that have ripple effects throughout Eternal formats. Qasali Pridemage has single-handedly shaken both Eternal formats, giving aggro decks in Vintage a terrific way of combating fast mana and lock pieces from Shop decks, and providing a main-deck out to some of the best cards in Legacy, like Phyrexian Dreadnaught, Counterbalance, Standstill, and so on. Many of the creatures in Shards block, especially the Mythic Rares, have Eternal applications. Progenitus, Empyrial Archangel, and Hellkite Overlord have all seen Legacy play (in decks like Natural Order Rock and Threshold, and the Archangel in Dredge); in Vintage, Shards block has provided new Tinker targets in Sphinx of the Steel Wind and Inkwell Leviathan, and some awesome Oath targets in Hellkite Overlord and Empyrial Archangel. Obviously Tezzeret has seen serious Vintage play, but even Elspeth and Ajani Vengeant made the top 8 of a StarCityGames.com Legacy $5K in Boston. Recent sets have offered a wealth of cards with Eternal applications, from Life from the Loam to the entire Dredge mechanic, Dark Confidant, Pact of Negation, Ad Nauseam, Warren Weirding, Painter’s Servant, the core of Elf Combo, and so on.

Vintage: Shake off the Dust… Arise

Relatively speaking, I’m pretty new to the Vintage scene, or at least the modern Vintage scene. I started playing Vintage again just under a year ago, as Tezzeret was beginning its ascent to the top of the Vintage metagame. For months, players clamored for Wizards to do something about the domination of Time Vault and Voltaic Key. Vintage tournament top 8s and tournament wins were dominated by the Tezzeret archetype, and repeatedly players claimed there was no recourse available — Tezz was unstoppable, too good. This, despite the fact that Ichorid and Gro both made the top 3 of this year’s Waterbury. This, despite the fact that 5C Stax made back-to-back finals at two large events in Philadelphia. This, despite the fact that anti-Tezzeret Fish archetypes performed admirably overseas.

I strongly believe that the restriction of Thirst for Knowledge didn’t “break” Tezzeret, and in fact it is probably still the best deck in Vintage. However, it did shake people out of their comfort zones enough that they started to try other decks. Stephen Menendian pointed out that many budget decks fail not because they are budget, or unpowered (or underpowered, as it were), but rather because the best minds in Vintage don’t work on them. Lo and behold, the G/W Beats deck was developed by one of the best deck-building minds in Vintage, and tuned continuously from there; it is well-positioned to tackle a metagame dominated by Tezz and Workshops. Workshop decks themselves, 5C Stax in particular, has a favorable match-up against most Tezzeret decks, especially against pilots unfamiliar with the match-up or without sufficient sideboard slots dedicated to it (which is often the case, as Tezz has to devote a significant portion of its sideboard to the Ichorid match-up, and now more than ever needs to focus much of the rest on beating Null Rod strategies). Ichorid itself was criminally underplayed for much of the year, as the metagame was extremely favorable to it, and in the mid-Atlantic it had an extraordinary conversion percentage into the top 8 at several large events.

To some extent, I think that the metagame was beginning to shift slowly before the restriction of Thirst. Despite what many Vintage players suggested, the metagame never really tried to adapt to Tezzeret. Instead, almost every good Vintage player just picked up the deck, leading to stagnant tournaments full of mirror-matches. Obviously in this morass of Tezzeret, somehow players like LSV (Remora control) and Menendian (Gro, TPS) still won or made top 8 at events using different decks; players like Nick Detwiler collected power with 5C Stax; and Paul Mastriano was busy wall-papering his house with all the power he won playing Tezz decks geared toward winning the mirror.

With TFK restricted, the metagame is shifting in full gear. Tezzeret is still the top dog, but older players like Workshop Aggro and MUD are popping up to supplement 5C Stax. Workshops were extremely prevalent at Vintage Champs (as well as the Prelims and Power Tournament) and dominated day 2 of the Steel City tournament. Although no TO report ever hit the Mana Drain forums, Shop Aggro had a coming out party at the last Blue Bell tournament, with the deck winning the event and placing three players in the top nine spots at the end of the Swiss rounds. As the meta opens up, TPS becomes a better choice; additionally, a more dedicated Time Vault combo deck, the Steel City Vault Deck, has the potential to be a new, legitimate Vintage combo deck, having won the Steel City tournament on day 1 and placing 3rd at Vintage Champs this year. Oath of Druids decks in 2nd and 3rd place. Oath is another deck that may gain ground in a more diverse meta, especially one that involves more creatures. Budget decks continue to evolve, with G/W doing very well, and Red/Green still a viable alternative (Ryan Glackin piloted a R/G/B beats deck to a 5-2 record at Vintage Champs, for example). In all of this chaos, as sideboards fluctuate, Ichorid will continue to lurk and pick its spots, preying on the meta whenever it is unprepared.

This is not the stagnant Vintage scene we saw over the first half of 2009.

Despite concerns over the format’s health, there are plenty of exciting Vintage events for anyone who lives in the Northeast. I am looking forward to Vintage events on 8/29 in Long Island, and two in Pennsylvania, one on 9/5 in Blue Bell, and 9/12 in Oaks, all of which are for pieces of power.

Looking ahead for Legacy, there are two huge events coming up this fall: the StarCityGames.com $5K in Philadelphia and a great event in Vestal, NY, as well as a tournament in Somerville, NJ on 9/5 and one in Oaks on 9/12 (same location as the Vintage event).

Vintage: My Iron Lung?

Vintage is a niche format, supported by a dedicated and vocal community. This is true today as it has been for years. Considerable debate seems to spring up every few months, with concerns over tournament attendance, the impact of proxies, the rising price of power and questions over potentially declining supply, and so on.

One point Stephen Menendian has made that deserves repeating is that it is not scarcity alone that is driving the price point on power. The number of pieces of power printed in Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited is a known quantity, but the number that remains in circulation today is unknown. On the surface, it is reasonable to wonder if enough power has been taken out of circulation that scarcity is the main driver for the price point on power.

It is pretty clear that this is not accurate. More than enough power exists in circulation for every Vintage player who wants it to acquire it. At the PTQ in Edison, NJ, one dealer had an entire set of power for sale with some duplicates, and several other dealers had various pieces including some that was black-bordered. I had the chance to sit on the other side of the booth for this event, and there were several players who were considering selling their power and were taking estimates on it from dealers. This suggests quite clearly that power is out there and available to buy — the price isn’t being driven by the fact that no one can find power, but simply market demand versus supply. There is obviously a limited supply — no more is being made — but the flat price point on power until 6-7 years ago (when Vintage tournaments began to reappear, coinciding with a dramatic shift in the dollar/Euro balance that led to Europeans investing heavily in the format) clearly suggests that demand for power is the key driver in the price.

Why all the concern for Vintage, then, if the high price of power suggests high demand for it? Certainly attendance at American events has been hit or miss this year. I think some of us have underplayed the role Tezzeret played in cutting back on Vintage tournament attendance. For better or worse, Vintage is a labor of love for a lot of players. For many, the EV of the event isn’t the driver of attendance, which is humorous given that for many, it is strictly better than what you find in other formats. Instead, many people who play Vintage just love the format for whatever reason, and many have a “pet” deck that they’ve played for years. Interspersed with these players are hardcore tournament players, both Vintage specialists and people who play other formats as well. While many of the “multi-format” players have continued to play Vintage (as they aren’t in it as much for the “love of the format” and enjoy the EV the tournaments offer), I have noticed that locally, many of the regulars who used to come and play the same deck (regardless of its strength in the meta) have been MIA of late. Because their deck had no shot against Tezzeret, they just stopped coming.

Hopefully this is beginning to change. Many of the Null Rod decks that are strong against Tezzeret are vulnerable to older Vintage decks (Shop Aggro, MUD, TPS, Oath, and so on). A shifting and diverse meta is much healthier than one dominated by two decks many people consider to be the epitome of “unfun” in Tezzeret and Ichorid.

Long-term survival of the format depends on the community itself: players and TOs. One thing that needs to change is the fact that we have only one large non-proxy event each year in the US. A Vintage event run at US Nationals was non-proxy and had miserable attendance. This is unfortunate — but these events need serious marketing on sites like StarCityGames.com and The Mana Drain to ensure their success, as people don’t tend to assume non-proxy events are occurring anywhere outside of GenCon, once a year. I strongly believe that the Vintage player base COULD be motivated to attend a Vintage Champs-type event that did NOT occur at GenCon, especially if it had legitimate prize support. Something with prize support on the level of the ICBM tournaments should draw Vintage players from all over the country, especially if a trophy is involved. Vintage players do love to play for bragging rights.

If someone aimed higher, it is possible that we could even pull some players from overseas, if the tournament was in the right location (since we know that some Americans are willing to travel to Europe to play for some of the outrageous prize support they have). We need a TO to step up and take a chance, and then we need the community to actually show its support. One of the byproducts of the maturation of the Vintage tournament scene is that players have keyed off more on the prize support compared to entry fee and travel costs, and are less willing to travel just to support the format and see some long-term friends. If this is the place Vintage has ended up, then so be it, but I still think that the Vintage community is different than that of other formats, and that players can and will travel somewhere to sling actual power and get bragging rights for a year, especially if solid and guaranteed prize support is offered. I know that personally, I’m working on shifting my Magic collection around so that it is more heavily weighted in Vintage cards. I’m three proxies away from fully-powered Double Dragon Oath, so you better believe I’ll be playing my best at the next few events to try and finish my set.

I have no intention of selling it any time soon. I still believe that there will be a time when a TO runs events where having actual power is worthwhile.

And… yes, it looks freaking awesome to actually play with the real stuff. I’ll admit it — I’m hooked. It was ridiculous to see all the power floating around GenCon. There absolutely is a difference between proxy and non-proxy Vintage. Don’t misunderstand – I still stand behind what I wrote earlier this year.

Vintage TOs need to continue to offer a mix of proxy and non-proxy events. Proxy events help with player acquisition, while non-proxy events help with player retention. Both are necessary, and both should continue — hopefully what we, as a community, can work on is the balance between the two.

I’ll conclude by referring you to this upcoming, fully-sanctioned Eternal weekend in October. Hopefully this is a sign of changing times…

Bonus — Double Dragon Oath Update

This is what I’ll be playing this weekend. The sideboard is still in flux, but the list below is serviceable. Some of my playtest partners are considerably more enamored with the Vault/Key version I posted a few weeks back, but I’ve been happy with this list in testing. It is more similar to the James King list from Steel City, with a special Oath creature we’ll discuss next week:

Matt Elias
[email protected]
Voltron00x in the forums (SCG, TMD, The Source)