My original intention was not to discuss Vintage this week but Stephen Menendian’s recent article Reviving Vintage and its accompanying discussion both here and on the Mana Drain forums threw my intentions aside. In his article itself in part a response to “Are Proxies Hurting Vintage Tournament Attendance?” by Ben Bleiweiss Stephen argues in favor of 3 main points to help revive interest in Vintage:
1. Reduce the Standard Number of Proxies to 5 and from time to time hold zero proxy tournaments.
2. Allow the use of Collector’s Edition and International Edition Power in unsanctioned Vintage
3. Award at least 15-20% of any prize pool to unpowered (however defined) players.
While all interesting ideas I would question whether proxies are actually the source of the problem the format is experiencing and further whether going to 5 proxies is a good idea for the health of Vintage. Let’s first examine the main thrust of the idea that proxies are hurting Vintage attendance understanding that this is simply theoretical discussion as without access to a range of national Vintage tournament attendance figures and the knowledge of the causality of changes in attendance we can’t really ascribe the reason for a drop in attendance with any degree of accuracy.
The key argument is that by eliminating the main incentive to owning actual power which is the ability to play the best Vintage decks proxy use discourages Vintage players from owning power and encourages them to sell their existing power or any power won as a prize. Presumably this power once sold is ending up in the hands of dealers collectors and Europeans (the occurrence of proxy tournaments being less in Europe than it is in North America) and represents a net loss to the American Vintage community. Furthermore once an existing Vintage player has sold his power he may experience a loss of interest in the format corresponding to the fact that he no longer has a large monetary stake in it. Once ownership of power is removed Vintage loses something of its mystique and becomes “just” another Magic format.
Why are proxies “bad” for Vintage?
“Owning and being proud of your cards is a subtle but undeniable motivator to play any version of Magic.” – Greg Weiss
Greg made the above statement in the forums and while I agree completely I'm not sure that it IS subtle at all. This is an extremely important point when discussing ownership of power. There is no question that the (general) human tendency is to pay attention to the things and people in which we invest time and money. If one is not independently wealthy owning power requires a significant investment of time (trading one's way up to ownership of Vintage cards work put in at a job) and resources. The normal inclination when one expends their time and money on something is to want to get something back for that expenditure. The argument against proxies is really just that proxies eliminate the justification for expending the time and money to own the actual cards and that one who has spent the time and money to acquire the actual cards will be literally invested in the health of Vintage - they'll want to play Vintage to justify the expenditure. Currently actually owning power is more of a status symbol than something you actually NEED to play Vintage.
Let's say I go out and buy a Sony 50-inch HDTV. That purchase is many things including something of a status symbol but ultimately I've made a decision to convert time and effort spent at work which rewarded me with cash into an expensive piece of electronics. In this imaginary scenario when I get home and watch the rapidly-deteriorating 76ers limp into the playoffs I'm going to want to do so on my new expensive TV. In fact I may find myself watching more television than I had in the previous days weeks and months in theory because I’m enjoying the HD programming but also simply because I want to USE the thing so that I can get my "money's worth" out of my purchase. Yes the knowledge that my refresh rate or contrast is better than my friend's TV might make me feel good but ultimately I bought the TV to well watch TV.
I'd say the same is true with Magic players. Sometimes we buy cards as status symbols (P:3K foreign foils etc) sure but most of the time we ultimately buy cards because we want (or need) to play with them in a tournament. Let’s say I’m conflicted - I want a Mox Sapphire because I’m trying to slowly acquire actual power but I also want a new TV. If instead of buying a new TV I buy a Mox Sapphire chances are I'm going to want to play with that Mox Sapphire in order to justify the purchase. However if most of the tournaments I play in are proxy events there’s no reason to use the actual card. In fact doing so is actually somewhat foolish in that it exposes my Mox to damage and theft for no justifiable reason – I can play my deck exactly the same with or without the actual Mox. At that point whether I’m playing with the Mox or leaving it at home ownership of the card is merely a status symbol. I think most people would agree that I'm better off making a proxy of the Mox Sapphire and buying a new TV because then I get the best of both worlds.
Hopefully we can agree that an environment of 99%+ proxy tournaments fails to justify or promote ownership of actual power. Having said that we need to understand that as long as Magic exists there will in fact always be a certain group of people that want to own real power because ownership of that status symbol does matter to them. However the physical reality of the fact that we are playing a game that involves shuffling pieces of cardboard and that during the period when power was introduced it had little to no value and hardly anyone played with sleeves means that we may well reach a point in our lifetimes where actual power is too valuable and too scarce to even consider using in tournament Magic. Proxies are a necessity if Vintage is to continue on as a viable format. Understand that I’m talking about the long run here – what will non-proxy events look like in 2020? 2040? How many pieces of actual power will remain out of the hands of collectors and be in playable condition?
The only alternative unpalatable now but potentially a necessity in the future would be a reprinting of power as a Vintage-only card with some sort of alternate art or other distinguishing factor to maintain as much of the original print value as possible. This is obviously a topic that deserves an article in and of itself and it isn’t my intention to derail this one with a conversation about reprints as in my mind there is no question that we aren’t in a situation right now where that type of activity is required or warranted.
What is the likely culprit for the decline in Vintage attendance?
This may seem counterintuitive given everything I’ve stated above but I think the role of proxies in the decline of Vintage tournament attendance is being overstated. While use of proxies may discourage players to own power they also have the effect of opening up the format to include a much broader base of potential players. The failure of Vintage is likely due to the format’s inability to continue to recruit and hold onto new players who have no intention of ever owning power. One needs to consider the role of A/B/U/R dual lands in all of this. Consider: at one point these cards were allowed - and one could argue required – for success in Extended a format which has PTQ seasons and Pro Tours. Once these cards rotated out of Extended their home became Legacy and Vintage. As we know Legacy as a format has been criminally under-supported by WotC although it seems to be finally receiving at least nominal support via inclusion at Worlds. However proxy-enabled Vintage may have given players who owned dual lands a reason to continue owning them.
Over time though the reality sets in that Vintage has no premiere level events. Investment in dual lands probably seemed less attractive over time to these players when those dual lands represent monetary value that could be used to acquire Arcbound Ravager during Mirrodin Block or Umezawa’s Jitte during Kamigawa or Tarmogoyf or Bitterblossom – in other words cards that had and still have PTQ and Pro Tour applications. Even if I own dual lands and can play proxy Vintage events and I have a monthly event to play in how long is it before I start to consider selling those duals in order to acquire cards I can use to play in events every week events that may qualify me for tournaments with prizes no Vintage event will ever be able to match?
In my opinion it isn’t the use of proxies that is hurting Vintage nor the B&R list changes that have led to the dominance of Tezzeret decks (although that may be something that needs to be addressed in the near future) or even any sort of claimed stagnation in the format (look up the top 8s from the old SCG Power 9 events and tell me the format is the same…) but rather the absence of an organized tournament structure and rating system. You could argue that this is synonymous with support from WotC but that isn’t necessarily true as we’ve already seen the birth of a similar system driven by the players and TOs. On a smaller level the Vintage TO local to me Mike with CCGames uses his own point system by which players can win free entry to his tournaments for the entire next calendar year. Regardless the lack of any type of tournament structure as we see with say Standard (FNM -> States -> Regionals -> GP -> Pro Tour) is a huge argument against playing Vintage at all let alone purchasing actual Moxen.
The real difficulty in seeing Vintage as a sustainable format is the total lack of support from WotC (including the lack of a rating system and player rewards due to the events being unsanctioned) combined with the difficulty of setting up any kind of tournament structure and ranking system without their support. One could easily imagine an annual season with tiers of competition (10 proxy 5 proxy 0 proxy) where the feeder events were 10- proxy and 0-proxy tournaments leading up to "pro tour" or championship-type tournaments that were 5-proxy events for a large cash prize. This kind of structure would unquestionably grow the format provided that it was properly advertised and had enough visibility. 10-proxy events could offer power as prizes and would add incentive for players to hold onto that power to play in the 5-proxy larger events. The 0-proxy events would encourage those with a full set of power to play and encourage ownership of power in general. The lack of any kind of national structure like this hamstrings the format and stunts its growth in the long-term more than anything else.
What does Vintage have to offer today?
What Vintage has is a growing set of recurring proxy tournaments that offer considerable value compared to the EV one finds at Regionals / States / the PTQ circuit. For example the EV at States with 150+ players and a $25 entry fee with a prize that has no actual cash value and only gains value as the year goes on provided that you play in specific events is laughable compared to a 60 person tournament for a play-set of dual lands for the same entry fee. Generally speaking Vintage offers the best value for your entrance fee of any format of Magic. As an example one need only look to the Vintage side event at Chicago and read all the griping that occurred when the TO took in $2K in entrance fees and only paid out around $900 in prize support. Obviously these are not people accustomed to playing at Regionals or States which often have double the number of entrants and less than half of that level of prize support.
I understand that I'm biased in that I owned power "back in the day" and some of my desire to acquire it again is tied to nostalgia but I don't think proxies are a bad thing for the long-term viability of Vintage. I wouldn't have become interested in Vintage again had proxies not been allowed because I have no intention of allocating my monetary resources to purchasing power. However I also have no intention of selling any power I might acquire through winnings or trades.
Tournaments that allow more than 15 proxies are setting a bad precedent and the fact that I see Legacy tournaments allowing proxies is even more disturbing. I'm not sure that using the Collector’s Edition cards is the answer either as in my mind this is similar to saying that drilling more areas for oil will solve the world’s oil problems. CE cards would at best create a short-term patch by injecting additional mint-condition power into the Vintage market but they fail to address the underlying root cause of the format’s problems. What needs to happen is for TOs to encourage people to acquire and hold onto power by giving them a tournament in which to use that power without sacrificing the players picked up by encouraging proxy events which grow the format in lieu of support from WotC.
When discussing the reduction in proxy allowance I do think we need to consider the current make-up of the Vintage metagame. With Tezzeret being the acknowledged “best deck” a reduction to 5 proxies takes that deck out of reach for the majority of proxy players. However allowing 10 proxies requires that these players own dual-lands Force of Wills and Mana Drains while still giving them the ability to proxy Moxen Ancestral Recall Black Lotus and Time Vault.
Vintage has so much to offer - the history and flavor a generally older and (relatively speaking) more mature player base terrific EV compared to most of the WotC-backed formats a more stable metagame requiring less time investment and upkeep cost and so on. I'm not sure that setting the price barrier for the format at $2K+ is the right move and it sounds somewhat irresponsible to even discuss it given the current economic climate which probably has motivated more than a few people to sell their power. Rather there needs to be a balance between proxy events and non-proxy.
What is Legacy’s role in the sustainability of Vintage?
I strongly believe that any type of growth of interest in Legacy is a positive thing for Vintage. One of the best things to happen lately for Eternal players is the creation of the Total DCI Rating which includes results from sanctioned Vintage and Legacy events. This ties directly into my concern with proxies in Legacy tournaments because it would be ideal for people to be interested in driving their Total rating (which qualifies them for byes at events outside the realm of Eternal Magic) by playing in sanctioned Eternal events and vice versa. It is important not to underestimate the importance of the DCI Rating and how it drives people to play the game not just for the physical rewards (byes qualification for high-level events free Rewards cards) but for the mental reward of seeing one’s rating increase over time.
Fostering local Legacy events might actually be the key to sustaining Vintage - once a player has acquired dual- and fetch-lands they're well on their way to being able to play Vintage in a 10-proxy tournament. This is exactly how I found myself re-entering Vintage. If someone can justify spending $300 for entry into Standard for play-sets of Bitterblossom Mutavault and Cryptic Command with the knowledge that these cards will in no way sustain that value it is not a stretch to imagine someone spending that same $300 to acquire cards like Mana Drains with the knowledge that such a purchase has actually been proven to be a wise investment. I believe smaller and medium-sized proxy events should continue to offer power (and other Vintage-only cards such as Mana Drains and even cheaper Vintage staples such as Force of Will Goblin Welder Tolarian Academy and so on) to encourage people to be able to play with less proxies and that these tournaments should be supported by larger events that allow only 5 proxies and occasionally 0 proxies. TOs should aim to have at least one proxy-free event every year that is sanctioned and maybe even offer byes based on Eternal rating similar to a Grand Prix. If these events prove popular they could be run with increasing regularity using the smaller Proxy events as practice runs and feeder tournaments building up to something larger that justifies the actual ownership of real honest-to-God power.
1. Proxies unquestionably discourage the ownership and use of actual power.
2. Proxies are a reality of Vintage today and their importance will only grow in the future. Until the point in which WotC decides to create reprints (and that time may never occur) the total abolition of proxy use is unrealistic and probably detrimental to the health and viability of Vintage. That said their use can and should be limited to 10 with occasional events with a lower limit to encourage players to purchase collect and hold on to actual power and other Vintage staples.
3. Legacy as a format needs to stay on its current path of growth and the use of proxies in that format should be completely discouraged. The barrier for entry into Legacy is not at an unreasonable point and the largest Grand Prix ever held in North America was a sanctioned no-proxy Legacy event.
4. Vintage players and TOs need to make a point of becoming ETERNAL Tournament Organizers. Legacy players are a fertile ground for recruitment into Vintage. Vintage players need to make a conscious effort to support and suggest cross-pollination of these two groups.
5. High level Vintage events on a National scale with accompanying major website coverage and large payouts are a necessity if Vintage is to continue as a tournament format.
I’m looking forward to reading your comments and thoughts in the forums…
Voltron00x on Xbox Live and SCG Forums