In discussion on part of my last article (the part that wasn’t deck lists) it became clear that I may not have communicated some of my opinions on Vintage accurately or clearly so I will try to do so this week in greater detail.
As explained in forum discussion some thought I was advocating for the DCI to hand over management of Vintage’s restricted list to the player base. This is not the case; I’m suggesting they revise their policy not relinquish ownership of that policy.
I was not suggesting that the DCI should listen to the “chicken littles” out there that throw their arms to the sky and demand the restriction of every card that beats their choice of deck. Restrictions shouldn’t come from player crusades that pop up every few months. I think the exact opposite: the DCI needs to unrestrict a number of cards and tell Vintage players that they must learn to adapt and metagame as players in other formats do.
While I don’t believe the DCI should listen to players that advocate for specific restrictions I do believe they should listen when people say they overstepped their bounds in 2008 and I believe they’ve continued to hold onto restrictions that are driving players away from Vintage.
The DCI should listen to the player base when it says that the current Vintage experience is not what they want it to be especially when that feedback has been consistent for nearly two years and from a number of sources intimately involved in competitive Vintage; the way the format exists at the moment is not “fun” for a lot of players despite the fact that it is relatively balanced.
This is a key point. While a format that is completely unbalanced is not fun for some players a format that is balanced through forceful mismanagement is also not fun for some players.
For many people Vintage no longer “feels” like Vintage. There’s no denying that Vintage attendance has steadily declined and certainly some of this has to do with price barrier and proxies etc. – but why does the DCI get a pass? Why has no one suggested that the DCI has failed to use their powers as the policy-makers of Vintage to create and maintain interest in the format by creating a dynamic changing format?
You might say that Wizards doesn’t really care about Vintage – and if so that’s fine but if they don’t care shouldn’t they be more inclined to give the players what they want without trying to adhere to a strict academic policy of balance at the cost of interest excitement and fun?
This is a game right? Not an exercise in strict academic policy review?
This is a format that doesn’t impact PTQs Nationals Worlds FNM City Champs or any other relevant structured DCI program. Of all of the “major” formats Vintage is the one that you could best argue is a niche format kept alive by a dedicated group of long-term players that are playing the format to have fun.
I’m definitely not advocating for the removal of the DCI and the creation of player-generated Restricted lists. I don’t want Vintage to turn into EDH or 5 Color (no knock on those formats it just isn’t the path I want for Vintage). I’m asking that the DCI reconsider their established criteria for “balancing” the format given the result of that policy over the past two years. If the format is balanced to the point that no one wants to play it any more what was really accomplished?
Similarly Wizards should not make decisions without relying on tournament data but I think this idea that Wizards makes their decisions using tournament data currently is badly misconstrued by those who make it and I’ll describe how later on in this article.
This is how things are done at the moment to the best of my knowledge:
After an unspecified arbitrary amount of time reviewing tournament results using methodology not known to us the DCI may restrict any number of cards to “balance” the format across an unchanging set of archetypes they have chosen and which they will never change.
What does this mean for us as Vintage players?
We never need to adjust to format changes the way players in other formats do; stated another way we don’t have to solve the format. The “solutions” to the format have been dictated to us in advance as the pillars that are to be kept in harmonious balance. In fact if you “solve” the format by creating a deck or engine outside of the “pillars” then your deck is subject to being restricted out of the format. We don’t really need to metagame in the same sense as other formats; we expect to be able to play any given pillar deck and have success through minor maindeck and sideboard adjustments. For example: If I’m playing a deck and I can’t beat Tezz with Thirst for Knowledge then something’s broken. You can’t expect me to adjust and pick up an entirely different deck because I won’t. Unlike in other formats where people might have put down a deck from week to week based on metagame changes in Vintage the range of pillars decks should all be kept viable and in balance at all times; people shouldn’t have to change pillars to forcibly adjust thegame.
Again look at Tezzeret with Thirst for Knowledge and this idea that it was “too good” and needed to be restricted based on posted results. Never mind that people who played Dredge started to top 8 consistently in March-June 2009 by preying on Tezz. Pay no attention to the fact that NYSE build a 5C Stax list that pummeled Tezz and propelled Nick Detwiler on the hottest streak of his Vintage career. Never mind that Paul Mastriano played a Tezz list built to beat other Tezz decks that ran 0 Thirst for Knowledge in the main. Never mind that any number of anti-Tezz strategies like Meandeck Beats and Noble Fish weren’t established yet or that key printings to support other archetypes like Lodestone Golem Spell Pierce and Thada Adel didn’t exist yet. Forget all those things: I just want the DCI to fix it for me. I expect my specific deck because it is on that list of pillars to always be competitive.
This clearly runs counter to other formats where decks are allowed to dominate a format for years. Consider Faeries two-year run through Standard or Jund’s two-year run. Sure restrictions will push those decks out of the format but they dominated for literally years; in the case of Faeries however at some of the highest level events the deck actually bombed out because the field adjusted to become exceptionally hostile. This shows two things that don’t happen in Vintage. One the deck was allowed to dominate for two years. TFK Tezzeret was given under a year to rule the roost. Two the DCI does not expect Vintage players to adjust by adapting other decks to combat domination by one pillar; Dredge players will play Dredge but we shouldn’t expect non-Dredge players to switch to that deck to balance the format (as we saw with players picking up Red decks to succeed at Nationals for example).
Once the DCI makes a decision to restrict if a subsequent printing or deck development unbalances the format the answer is to balance through further restriction; the DCI seeks to balance Vintage through subtraction rather than addition. For example the Dark Ritual pillar has been arguably the weakest pillar for going on a year plus having been pummeled both by new printings (Mindbreak Trap Ethersworn Canonist) and metagame shifts (use of Mystic Remora the strength of MUD). Rather than try to balance Dark Ritual decks against the rest of the format by unrestricting something like Ponder or Burning Wish (the latter of which might admittedly be too good) the DCI operates with the assumption that a better solution would be to review the cards currently in play in the format and find another to restrict if in fact that are really trying to balance the format at all (and the weakness of Storm decks for such a long time period potentially pokes holes in that theory). The assumption seems to be: the only time cards should be unrestricted is when we know their impact will be minimal (see: Mind Twist Crop Rotation Enlightened Tutor Entomb).
Interested in this format is always going to be self-limiting and glacially slow to change compared to other formats because the DCI won’t use the Restricted list to shake up the format and keep it fresh they will only use it by adherence to an arbitrary policy of balancing arbitrarily chosen historical archetypes. The DCI could choose to force change and forward momentum onto the format by actually using its ability to restrict and unrestrict cards in three-month intervals. Understand I’m not saying they should just restrict and unrestrict cards every three months as that is also unbalancing and chaotic; however I don’t see any reason why the DCI wouldn’t be interested in giving Ponder a shot in the format or Merchant Scroll without Gush Gifts or Flash or Flash and Gush without Merchant Scroll and Brainstorm; they’re adhering to a previous balancing effect solely for the sake of adhering to policy. How do we know that Thirst for Knowledge’s supposed strength isn’t mitigated by the increase in power of MUD Fish and Dredge? Why do players need to run retro events to play Gush decks or Flash? Would it be that terrible to use the restricted list once a year to shake up the format and reintroduce old “players” that might be “fair” now that time has passed? There will always be a best deck especially in a format that purposefully avoids normal metagaming like Vintage. The current solution seems to be restricting cards until everything “broken” (some might use the term “fun”) everything that makes Vintage well Vintage is restricted and relegated to the format’s past.
Decks that don’t fall cleanly into the pillar system will always be in jeopardy of being restricted out of the format. For instance Gush decks were Force of Will decks but because their engine wasn’t part of the pillar structure that entire system of decks was banished from Vintage. Similarly Oath of Druids decks are sometimes Mana Drain decks and almost always Force of Will decks but one suspects that if the archetype were to dominate the format (to an arbitrary degree for an unknown amount of time) Oath of Druids might get restricted killing an entire selection of decks and removing them from competitive Vintage play.
never be able to generate interest in our format the way other formats do – our ability to generate “buzz” to write exciting articles blogs drive traffic on message boards create interested players for Tournament Organizers will always be neutralized because we’ll always be writing about subtraction rather than addition; any great deck will always have the potential to “unbalance” the format and be legislated out of existence faster than it would rotate out of a rotation format. Because Vintage will almost always have the smallest percentage of playable cards from any given new set it is very hard for Vintage players to “get excited” about most releases. Lately Wizards has done a great job putting new cards into play in the Vintage pool and that certainly helps – but the cards they’ve printed generally are propping up tent-poles (Dredge MUD Fish) that are already being propped up by their restriction policies. At what point does Tezzeret’s inability to win tournaments suggest that maybe we should give it back Thirst for Knowledge? Or will the decision instead be to restrict Bridge from Below or Lodestone Golem to weaken those strategies? In other words should the DCI’s policy be to balance by subtraction or to balance by addition? Balancing by addition can create excitement – instead of having to rebuild decks without their favorite cards or neutralizing entire strategies because they’re off the list of “sacred cows” someone arbitrarily chose for the format players can instead build new decks and modify existing archetypes with additional cards. It is much more exciting to write about resurgent Storm decks with Ponder or strengthened Tezzeret with TFK or the re-emergence of a pillar with Gush than it is to have to constantly discuss and debate weakened versions of the existing card pool.
On the Mana Drain my last article revealed two schools of thought as far as how the DCI is and should be running Vintage.
One school is that the DCI has established its policy named its pillars and established its control criteria: the pillars are to be balanced. That is how the format shall be run. Unbalancing cards are removed from the format either individually or in offending groups. The DCI has no need to listen to the players; its decisions are final and questioning them is futile because the laws of the format have been publicly dictated.
I think this is absolutely the worst possible policy as it is arbitrary adherence for the sake of consistency. The way to address a failing policy is not to double-down on that policy.
Another school of thought is that the DCI should monitor tournament results and use those to balance the format. Using what we assume should be a fair and consistent system the DCI will monitor global Vintage results and check for evidence of an unbalanced format. Regardless of whether or not the resulting format is actually fun or interesting to players the DCI should use these results to seek balance.
I have a number of problems with this policy as well. As I noted above I don’t think Vintage players are tasked with self-regulating their format nearly enough; in the case of Tezzeret there was plenty of evidence that some players were finding ways to beat Tezzeret with Thirst for Knowledge and yet the DCI acting quickly to restrict Thirst even though R&D was creating cards that would obviously influence the format: Thada Adel Spell Pierce Lodestone Golem Iona Bloodghast. Additionally the DCI has shown that it will overreach in its attempts to balance (see: restriction of Merchant Scroll with Gush and Ponder with Brainstorm) and will not address these overreaches until years down the line once the cards are irrelevant (see: Mind Twist). Further if we are to believe that this school of thought is currently in effect how does one explain the gaps in the data?
For instance where is the tournament data showing that Tezzeret with Thirst for Knowledge is still too good against Bloodghast Dredge Thada Fish and Lodestone MUD? Where is the tournament data that shows that TPS with Ponder is too dominant even though Mindbreak Trap now exists? Where is the data that shows that Gush decks are too good in the Time Vault metagame with or without Merchant Scroll? Without Gifts and Flash is there any reason why Merchant Scroll should be restricted? Where is the data to prove this? Someone please produce an excel graph to defend these policies.
Even when restriction decisions are defensible in the data restriction decisions need to be fluid and flexible and not considered lifetime bans especially in today’s age of Eternal formats where R&D are either purposefully or accidentally releasing solid playables into the format with each set release. Failure to occasionally reintroduce borderline restrictions from the past is poor policy lazy policy and frankly indefensible with a “restrict using data” argument because there is no data upon which to make a decision.
I suspect some of you are already preparing counter-arguments like this one:
“Okay Matt Elias then using your logic why don’t we give unrestricted Mind’s Desire a shot? We never even got to try that! Why not unrestrict Yawgmoth’s Will?”
I feel like I shouldn’t have to address this argument but I will do so preemptively so that you don’t need to waste your time and mine proposing this in the forums.
There are a number of cards that have been unrestricted in the format chief among them Flash Trinisphere Gifts Ungiven Thirst for Knowledge and Gush which have resulted in the creation of a “best deck”. While some of these cards were allowed to interact with each other often the restriction of one led to the dominance of another or engine cards (like Merchant Scroll and Brainstorm) were removed from the format along with the problematic cards so that no true gauge exists of how one piece would impact the format without the other.
This isn’t the case with cards like Mind’s Desire Yawgmoht’s Will Black Lotus Ancestral Recall and Time Vault. We know these cards are too good to have access to four. A small number of sample games will make it clear that combo decks “break” when those cards are unrestricted. While there is still a self-regulating influence in a format even with access to no restricted list or even no restrictions of any kind (and Stephen Menendian wrote an interesting article on this topic some time ago) that isn’t what Vintage is meant to be nor is it in any way an affordable format to the extent that Vintage is affordable in the first place.
What isn’t clear is the effect of releasing a few previously restricted cards over the course of a year. If Ponder were released then Gush and then Thirst for Knowledge over the course of a year what would be the result? Would Gro decks become competitive again? Would Tezz regain dominance of the format with access to TFK despite strong Storm decks playing Ponder Gro decks with Ponder and Gush and the new technology available to Fish Dredge and MUD? What deck gets the most help from unrestricting Brainstorm: Tezz Oath Gro (provided Gush comes back) or TPS? What version of Oath would be best if Brainstorm and Gush came back those using Iona or those using Tyrant?
[Side note on Brainstorm: I don’t believe this card should be unrestricted at least on a permanent basis. I think it gives way too much incentive for people to be in blue at the expense of other colors decks and strategies. Still for the sake of argument would I be open to Brainstorm being reintroduced to the format for a period of time and then re-restricted later? I would yes; Brainstorm is a skill-testing and fun card to play.]
You can offer your opinion on all of these subjects but you can’t prove them – players can prove it through tournament results they WANT to prove it through tournament results and the polarizing popular heated debates that spring from these conversations proves that.
Theorizing about these things is exciting and interesting and fun – these debates energize players and result in furious forum participation.
In short these conversations have a lot of what is lacking from Vintage: interest excitement fun.
Bonus – Updated MUD List
I realized after the fact that the MUD list I posted was somewhat out of step with the resurgence of Oath of Druids in many metagames. If you find yourself playing Vintage somewhere that Oath is out of control I’d suggest the following deck instead:
4 Lodestone Golem
3 Karn the Silver Golem
4 Tangle Wire
4 Thorn of Amethyst
4 Sphere of Resistance
4 Chalice of the Void
2 Crucible of Worlds
1 Strip Mine
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Pearl
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Crypt
4 Mishra’s Workshop
4 Ancient Tomb
3 Rishadan Port
2 Mishra’s Factory
1 City of Traitors
1 Tolarian Academy
I’m pretty happy playing Trisk and Metalworker but those cards are liabilities against Oath; maindeck Smokestack and the extra Karn help you win even if Oath resolves early. Some things here may seem odd such as the exclusion of Trinisphere but I’m borrowing some ideas from successful lists in Europe (although I’m not yet on the “no Lotus in MUD” train).
Consider it an extension of the rest of the article: rethink what you think you know about Vintage.
Voltron00x on SCG TMD and The Source