So Many Insane Plays – Reviving Vintage

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Monday, April 13th – Vintage tournaments across the U.S. have generally adopted the five- or ten-proxy environment. The impact on the Vintage card market, especially in regard to the Power 9, has been dramatic, and Vintage tournament attendance is suffering. Today, Stephen Menendian examines a selection of possible solutions to the problems faced by the format…

Over the last couple of months the Vintage community began to take stock of itself. Alarm bells were ringing, and American tournament attendance appeared to be trending downward. It is in this environment that many of the best ideas for reversing this drift emerged. In an effort to build more grassroots support for Vintage, the ManaDrain.com’s (the Vintage community website) moderation staff and Adepts developed and instituted a rankings system (you can read about it here) designed to encourage and reward Vintage tournament attendance and organization.

Early indications are encouraging. Vintage tournament attendance seems to be up 10-20% in the new year in many places, and there seem to be more tournaments being organized. Equally important, more tournament organizers are better about both announcing their tournaments online and reporting their results, in order to take advantage of this program.

In this difficult environment, StarCityGames.com Ben Bleiweiss threw gasoline on the fire by suggesting that perhaps proxies were killing American Vintage. Rather than boosting tournament attendance, Ben argued the virtually universal acceptance of proxies in Vintage tournaments had hurt Vintage attendance. Since one of the barriers to Vintage is the high cost of purchasing power and other Vintage staples, it has been long accepted that the use of proxies increases tournament attendance. Conventional wisdom is that it has made Vintage accessible to people who otherwise could not afford to play it. This gels with my vision of Vintage. I believe that Vintage should be experienced as Chess is experienced, as a game of skill, not wealth.

What Ben suggested, however, was that the use of proxies counter-intuitively propagated incentives which harm Vintage in the long-run. Critics focused on the weaker elements of the article as a way of dismissing, ignoring, or misconstruing his main points. In addition, people used the discussion over this article as a platform to trot out every stale grievance in the Vintage community, including the old ‘Wizards should reprint power’ debate. This produced a disjointed and confused discussion.

In the end, the arguments Ben Bleiweiss advanced, and more importantly, the reasoning — often implicit — that support his arguments, are complicated. Many of the reasons feed into each other, with multiple feedback loops and multi-directional relationships. Even if any given subsidiary point Ben advanced was untrue, his main points had plenty of logical support. Those points resonated with my experience as a long active member of the community and a tournament organizer. But more importantly, they were true.

Without reiterating each of his arguments (I suggest you read his article), here is the crux of them: Proxies devalue Power, Vintage Prizes, and ultimately Vintage itself. While I agree with him, my understanding of what he is saying is neither in the way that Ben is likely intending, nor in the ways that most people would interpret that statement. Proxies have devalued Power not simply in the monetary sense, but in the far more important psychological sense.

In 2002-2004, proxies were used to harness the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding Vintage to draw in new players into Vintage tournaments. The vast majority of these tournaments put up Moxen and other Power Nine cards as prizes. The idea was that players could then win prizes that would reduce their need for proxies as people filled out their collections. Perversely, this trend had the opposite effect. Rather than increasing the demand for power, they actually led to an overall decrease in the demand for power among Vintage players, and consequently power-tournaments.

As proxy tournaments became the American norm, players who owned full sets of power eventually realized that they no longer needed power at all to compete. In time, even the most hard-core Vintage players have slowly sold off their collections. Many of the oldest Vintage competitors no longer own power at all! As disturbing as this trend has been to witness, another equally, if not more, disturbing has accompanied it. Those players that have discovered Vintage in the last few years and have made names from themselves on the Vintage circuit as up-and-comers by winning power and other prizes have not followed the traditional path of power accumulation. These players may be winning fistfuls of power, but rather than holding on to them in order to fill out their collections, they are either liquidating their power winnings for cash at the earliest convenience, or accepting cash-splits in lieu of power. It should not be surprising that Mox tournaments are no longer the norm in Vintage, or even desired. Putting up power for prizes is somewhat pointless when the vast majority of your players have no interest in that prize, but rather are more interested in cash, or converting the prize to cash.

This leads to the most subtle, but perhaps the most important point that Ben makes: Proxies lead to a Sense of Detachment. Here is what Ben wrote:

Ownership of Vintage cards … is in-and-of itself a source of people wanting to play/be involved with Vintage. I’ve seen more than a few people start to let some pieces go in favor of proxies, only to fall down a slope of just not caring about their cards or their deck, and eventually Vintage, anymore.

He is absolutely right. Owning power creates a cycle — a virtuous circle — that increases interest in Vintage and tournament attendance.

People who own power, who physically keep it in their possession, are far more likely to think about Vintage. People who own power have more of a stake in the format just as someone who owns stock has more of a stake in that company, and consequently will follow it more closely and take a greater interest in it. Owning power is like owning a share in Vintage. It not only has value and makes you concerned about its health, it also makes you more interested in it and connected to it.

People who are more likely to think about Vintage are more likely to play it. Owning power also makes people more likely to play Vintage. Every person who is interested in playing Vintage is more likely to get someone else to playtest with them. People who playtest Vintage are more likely to have an interest in competing in a Vintage tournament. This is true for many reasons. Playtesting Vintage makes people enthusiastic about the format, in many cases. But equally important, it makes people more comfortable with the idea of playing in a Vintage tournament. Vintage can be a very intimidating format on account of its speed, complexity, and card/rules knowledge (Time Vault, Illusionary Mask, and interactions like Mana Vault + Necropotence, etc). My experience suggests that card access is overstated as a barrier to playing Vintage. Even if card prices were substantially reduced, I don’t see many new players coming into Vintage. Just because players can buy cards, that doesn’t mean they will. I imagine that the vast majority of players wouldn’t, at least not in the short run. The lack of support and a visible tournament circuit are just as important (granted, both of these relate to the ability of people to access the card pool), but they are influenced by other factors as well. On account of the factors I just mentioned, those players who might be the most likely target market if Vintage were cheaper than all other formats, would inherently, as a group, be less likely to enjoy Vintage. But the more people comfortable with Vintage, the more they will test and the better they will become. These folks are more likely to press for Vintage tournaments and encourage their friends to compete as well. Once people get the “Vintage bug” then they will be interested in traveling to nearby tournaments and competing at the larger events besides.

People who do not own power are much less likely to fulfill the conditions make it likely that they will compete in a tournament: interest in learning the format, competence with an archetype, understanding of common rules interactions, and metagame knowledge. For these reasons, Ben is correct when he points out that proxies do not actually bring in new players. This is a similarly subtle point. Proxies enable players who are already interested in Vintage to compete. But they don’t actually provide the conditions for making otherwise new players interested in Vintage. New players don’t experience the thrill that accompanies both the acquisition of new power (there is an aesthetic enjoyment that comes from owning certain magic cards) and the quest to acquire that power (most Vintage players can remember how excited they were when they got their Black Lotus or first Mox). Thus, when StarCityGames.com increased the number of proxies allowed on its Power Nine circuit from 5 to 10, there was no corresponding increase in tournament attendance, and attendance only declined over time.

When older Vintage players sell off their power because proxy tournaments no longer require that they own power, this leads to the detachment that Ben is talking about. These players can play Vintage — it’s just less likely that they will. And over time that becomes a vicious cycle. A decreased interest in Vintage will likely lead to a less enjoyable tournament experience, which makes it more likely, over time, that those individuals will not attend future tournaments. An old school player may sell off their power intending to compete at the same level, only to discover that Vintage is less fun than they remembered, and may never attend another Vintage tournament again. The demands for time seem amidst a busy schedule more pressing, and other concerns are more likely to take precedence. A Vintage tournament seems less and less like a worthwhile way to spend one’s Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

When 9 times out of 10 a Vintage tournament victor just sell the Mox prize even when they don’t own a Mox, that is a problem. It makes it easier for a player to slide in and out of the format. It makes it less important to that player whether a tournament is being organized locally. If a player owns power and money cards, they will be stronger advocates for more local tournaments, online discussion, community, etc.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes famously said that “In the long run we are all dead.” Not quite so. Proxies may have been instrument in the short-term growth of Vintage seven or eight years ago. They may have opened Vintage to a larger player base. But the long-run costs of proxies has swamped the short-term benefits they created, which are now manifest. We are living in the future that was initiated over half a decade ago. 2009 is the long-run.

A tournament structure of 10 or more proxies is a system that produces perverse long-run incentives. It is a system that strongly incentivizes that tournament winners sell Mox prizes. Even if you have only a couple of pieces of power, it’s unlikely, even if you are a particularly good player, in the near term that you will win the rest. Unless it’s the last (or among the last) of the pieces of power, the system lends incentive to immediate sale. It also incentivizes the sale of power by players who already own power. Most critically, through a series of intervening feedback loops that I have highlighted above, it fails to create the conditions that draw new players into the format.

The incentive structure created by a 1 proxy system is perverse and what is needed in its place is a more balanced system. To that end, I propose three immediate modifications which I, as a tournament host have adopted, and hope to see others adopt as well:

1) Reduce the Standard Number of Proxies to 5, and from time to time, hold zero proxy tournaments.

A five proxy tournament structure breaks the single most destructive perverse incentive that harms Vintage: it discourages long-time Vintage players from selling off their power. These are the players that are most likely to draw new players into Vintage by testing and sharing their enthusiasm for the format. Almost as important, it encourages players who have won power to keep it. Thus, players who have managed to win a piece of power or two will look at the situation and decide to hold onto that Mox or that Ancestral Recall rather than sell it for cash. In fact, they will likely try to find ways to acquire a few more pieces that could bring them within the 5 proxy threshold. We need a system where a Mox is a prize that Vintage players will want to keep and not immediately sell off.

This may sound like a painful solution to many of you, which is why I have paired it with two other recommendations that I will elaborate on momentarily. But I’d like to highlight the reaction of one of my teammates to Ben’s article. Vintage Championship finalist and multi-SCG P9 Top 8er Jimmy McCarthy wrote this:

If you start making all Vintage no-proxy, count me out unless someone is willing to provide me with power. Hell, if they held more SCG without proxies, I probably wouldn’t and couldn’t even play in those.

And yet, aside from finishing 18th Place at Grand Prix Chicago, Jimmy’s most successful tournament result was 2nd place at the 2008 Vintage Championship, a tournament in which no proxies were allowed. Clearly, Jimmy found a way to compete in that tournament, as would many similarly situated players who are interested in playing. In Vintage, there are often deep networks of cards where many players can find cards to borrow if they are truly in need.

I also believe that there is a large cohort of players out there who are far more willing to play in zero proxy environments. The European experience does bear this out, even accounting for their greater population density and geographic proximity. For example, consider the fact that the Vintage Championship, the only zero-proxy tournament in the United States, is also among the most popular with the highest attendance. Another example: Black Gold, a store in Colorado, recently held a Vintage tournament with zero proxies. The turnout was 34 players, a non-trivial increase from their usual twenty-something turnout. While I’m certain that there were players who decided not to attend, I also suspect that there were players who did attend who otherwise would not have. I believe that some players — budget players, ironically enough, may think that they are more competitive in a non-proxy environment than a proxy environment. And believe it or not, they may be right. While my vision of Vintage is more akin to Chess than format where deep pockets decide matches, I do think that there is not a significant harm from missing one Mox or two. Even decks like Oath or TPS can perform without a noticeable difference even if they are missing a single off-color mox.

Since Ben Bleiweiss was the first to suggest this, I would say: have Starcitygames lead the way. The next time SCG hosts a Vintage Power Nine tournament, either do it as a five-proxy tournament or a zero-proxy tournament and see what happens.

In the debate over Ben’s article, some people vented their hatred for proxies, often expressed in emotional terms, and sometimes implicitly elitist terms. Just in case I am accused of being “elitist” for this call, let me say unequivocally that I disagree with that sentiment. I find elitism in Magic to range from distasteful to repugnant. I cherish Vintage Magic as a game of skill, not a game of wealth accumulation. The monetary investment is an unfortunate reality of Magic, but one that is necessary to keep the game going.

In addition, I have been a long-time supporter of Proxies. I convinced Pete Hoefling to expand the number of proxies allowed in SCG P9 tournaments from 5 to 10, and later unsuccessfully pushed him to expand that number to 15. My recommendation now is not reactionary or uncalculated. It is based upon the weight of experience and reason.

2) Allow the use of Collector’s Edition and International Edition Power in unsanctioned Vintage

This is perhaps the most controversial of my recommendations. However, it is a critical move that should be made where possible. I have announced a Vintage tournament in Columbus, Ohio where Collector’s Edition and International Edition cards will be permitted. Allowing CE cards in Vintage tournaments would serve many ends. First and foremost, it dramatically expands the available pool of power cards, and other high-end cards such as Time Vault. There are 15,000 copies of each CE set, effectively doubling the amount of power in existence. Second, it would make it easier to create a fully powered deck with just five proxies. Thus, the first constraint would be less severe. CE Power sells for around $60 a Mox. Third, this power, while not “real” in some sense, does create that enjoyment that comes from playing with real cards, since CE cards are real cards. They are richly illustrated and printed. CE cards, because of their light usage, are actually among the most beautiful representations of the power nine. They will definitely contribute to an authentic experience of Vintage.

Skeptics correctly point to the fact that CE cards have distinct corners which could easily aid cheating or marked patterns, just as foils can. This is true. And this is why steps must be taken to minimize that possibility. While running a deck in toploaders is an obvious solution to this problem, other less obtrusive solutions are available. It should be noted that Alpha cards also have different corners and, like foils, have the potential for cheating, even with sleeves. Yet, Alpha is widely used in Vintage, just as foils are. I won’t pretend to have the answers, but I believe that if we try hard enough and with enough experience, answers will be forthcoming.

At a minimum, tournament organizers who permit the use of CE cards must require completely opaque sleeves, since CE card backs are gold bordered and have a different look. In addition, experience suggests that darker sleeves are better than lighter ones in terms of obscuring corners. Similarly, double sleeving also makes it more difficult to identify CE corners. It may simply be that players who use CE cards may need to replace their sleeves once a tournament, a small price to pay for being able to run CE power.

Ben Bleiweiss suggested this idea in a column last year.

He argued, quite convincingly, for making CE cards legal in Vintage tournaments. Let me take this opportunity to call him out: I ask Ben, right now, to put his money where his mouth is. Have StarCityGames.com lead the way by showing that it can be done. Permit CE cards to be legal at the next SCG P9 tournament. When SCG P9 tournaments adopted proxies, it convinced many others that they, too, should do the same. If you make CE cards legal, you will have many others follow suit. Vintage will be stronger for it. This is perhaps the most immediately impactful change that can be brought to Vintage.

3) Award at least 15-20% of any prize pool to unpowered (however defined) players.

This is a measure that could be taken particularly in zero-proxy tournaments. In fact, I think that Wizards of the Coast would be well served if they instituted this policy for the Vintage Championship itself. This is common practice in European Vintage events that prohibit proxies, and it results in larger tournament attendance. On the StarCityGames.com Power Nine Circuit, SCG could easily award Timetwister or some designated piece of power to the highest placing unpowered pilot. Local tournaments that move to zero-proxy events should specifically designate such an award as well. One problem might be decks like Ichorid which only run 4 Bazaars by choice. “Power” can be defined to exclude Bazaar of Baghdad as well, so that genuine budget players running Elves, Fish, RG Beatz, or decks of that ilk have a genuine shot at a good money prize. In turn, the accumulation of such cards might allow such players to eventually play powered decks.

These recommendations are three steps that can be used to strengthen and build Vintage for the future. They are practical and practicable. Of course, many other ideas emerged in the wake of Ben’s provocative article, many of which are unoriginal or not well thought out. His argument, carefully tailored to a particular kind of problem, was used by people looking to advance other agendas or to justify and support half-baked notions, such as the recommendation that Wizards reprint Power Nine or sanction proxies. My hope is that tournament organizers seriously consider my recommendations. They are designed and tailored to promote the sustained, long-term growth and health the format.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian