StarCityGames.com


Right / Wrong - A Non-Vintage / Vintage Split Article
by Patrick Chapin

Wrong

"The striking thing about herding is that it takes place even among people who seem to have every incentive to think independently, like professional money managers. One classic study of herding, by David S. Schartstein and Jeremy C. Stein, looked at the tendency of mutual-fund managers to follow the same strategies and herd into the same stocks. This is thoroughly perplexing. Money managers have jobs, after all, only because they've convinced investors that the can out-perform the market. Most of them can't. And surely herding only makes a difficult task even harder, since it means the managers are mimicking the behavior of their competitors."

-James Surowiecki, "The Wisdom of Crowds" p. 49

Now read the above paragraph again, but substitute Magic strategy writers for professional money managers, deck recommendations for stocks, readers for investors, and metagame for market.

What Scharfstein and Stein realized was that money managers (Magic writers) actually have to do two things. They have to invest (recommend decks) wisely, and they have to convince people that they are investing wisely. The problem is that it's hard for investors (readers) to know if their money manager (Magic writer) is actually investing wisely. If the investor knew what was the best choice, they wouldn't need the money manager.

Many players need more evidence that a Magic writer's recommendations are reasonable. The answer? Compare his recommendations to those of hi his peers. If he's following the same strategy - recommending the same decks - then at least the readers know he's not irrational (well, in this regard at least...)

The result? How many Magic writers, this summer, recommended various Steam Vents or Godless Shrine decks? This is not a dig at Magic writers. Steam Vents and Godless Shrine are / were the two best shock lands. Besides, there are those "overconfident" Magic writers who are willing to break conventional wisdom. We'll get to them in a minute.

This is a reminder that decks en vogue are often over-hyped because it is "safe" to recommend them. Nobody ever got fired for recommending Vore or Hand in Hand.

The Magic community is served by a combination of both "safe" articles (or common decks) that are certainly good, and "risky" articles that make bold claims such as "Skred is the best card in Standard" (which I disagree with, for the record). The risky articles typically suggest a lesser strategy (averaging all risky articles together), but they offer higher highs and innovation (John F. Rizzo and Ichorid).

You, as a player, are served by distinguishing between the safe and risky articles. Take the safe ones for what they are - further explorations of existing theory and a reminder of its viability. They don't necessarily mean that the strategy you see written about every single week really is (that much) better than others.

The risky articles are the equivalent of someone making a suggestion to you. Considering suggestions leads to long term profits, especially if the source has a proven track record. Adopting every new tenet as gospel is at best a path to mediocrity.

Counting on someone like Michael J. Flores is like counting on Warren Buffet. He has a track record far longer than most, and has proven himself in another league from most of his peers. However, despite the incredible skill and research of the Warren Buffets of Magic writers, even Flores is off or flat out wrong - a lot.

What to do? Decide how much weight to place on each Magic writer's ideas, or better still, ideas in specific areas. This won't make your decisions for you. It merely gives you a context in which to view their writing. Then, when you read the bold claims made by the Resident Genius, or Stephen Menendian, or Richard Feldman, you can have some perspective on how seriously to consider Wrath instead of Electrolyze in Wafo-Tapa, or Gifts Ungiven over Mindslaver in your Drain deck, or Birds of Paradise in Tooth and Nail.

Even people without proven track records should be heeded, but when one of the great Magic writers that has proven himself consistently above the curve, ahead in tech, or even just very in touch with now, suggests something outlandish, consider this:

If this strategist has had success with new and innovative ideas in the past, and is now going so far as to back something that will obviously be laughed at or at least controversial, might it not serve you to give it serious thought?

Michael Flores, Stephen Menendian, and Richard Feldman have erred plenty before. However, their batting averages are phenomenal and they all hit home runs from time to time. Most of them don't even use steroids.

Does this mean only listen to select few Magic writers? Of course not. There is a wonderful diversity of Magic writers here at StarCityGames.com and (gasp!) elsewhere (though I wouldn't know).

Variety is the spice of life. As mentioned here, the better variety of ideas, the smarter the group, even if many of the ideas are even, how shall we say, "not good."

In short, it means consider any and everything that resonates with you, assuming you have the time, but be wary of jumping on every bandwagon. Pay special attention to "risky" ideas from your favorite sources. Don't necessarily bet the farm on them, but take the time to consider things like: is Skred broken? Are hard-cast non-Blue / non-artifact four-drops unplayable in Vintage? Can Ghost Dad and Hand in Hand be profitably hybridized in Standard?

If they're right, you'll be techer than techerson. If they're not, you will still have learned something valuable. After all, the sky may not be falling, but even Flores needs to be hit in the head by something to think it is.

A few random comments before this half resolves:

First, let the record show, I invented the term "Magical Cards" back in '94, bringing it to the Pro Tour in '96. Thanks Team Sped, CMU, edt, Flores, and everyone else who helped popularize it. Thank goodness I can never be accused of originating "Clouded Mirror of Victory." Forget breaking formats... slang is where the real tech is at!

Second, thank you to the community of players keeping 1.x in discussion. I greatly appreciate all the help with various incarnations of Shredder.dec. We will all be ahead of the crowd come Winter and the return of Extended (though it sure would be nice if all of us could compete in tournaments...)

Besides, it's fun to play / explore a format that isn't as ruthlessly over-played as "current formats" can get. The best time for advantages due to deck tech is in an under-developed format. Think of all the sets that have been added to 1.x since it was "the format." Guildpact, Dissension, Coldsnap, and Time Spiral have to offer so much new and interesting.

Ever notice how Pro Tour decks are always so poorly developed compared to the best PTQ decks in the following season? People who wait until 1.x is the format of choice will have less time and experience then those who have been playing in the off-season.

Finally, it is just fun to play new formats. Each time a new set comes out, it changes things. If you only play "the formats," you will miss out on a lot of cool and fun games of Magical Cards.

Or…

Right

Right? As in most of Stephen Menendian's Ten Principles of Vintage.

By the way, I Ancestral Recall myself. Force of Will your Misdirection.

Oh, where was I?

So Vintage is pretty wrong, but that is what makes it so right. Vintage is a subject very near and dear to my heart, as it is one of my favorite formats, a beautiful other world where everyone is truly free.

I have more to say on Vintage than I could possibly begin to write here. Since I must pick a starting point (and no, I won't be talking about Vintage every week, lol) I would like to discuss what I feel is a very important and elegant document put together by Stephen Menendian.

I do not fully agree with him on all of his positions, but I do feel he has a subtle grasp of the format that I haven't seen in modern talk of Vintage. It is a different format with him around than it was in my day. When I was last able to compete, you could count on 90% of players in major Vintage tournaments having no chance at all. He is not solely responsible, by any means, but he is a factor to the highly increased competition.

Anyway, my thoughts on Stephen Menendian's Ten Principles of Vintage:

1. Tendrils of Agony and Darksteel Colossus are the principal win conditions in Vintage.

This is 100% true. Vintage has always had one “best creature” with which to win, and one “best non-creature.” Serra Angel, then Morphling, then Psychatog, then Colossus. Mirror Universe, Kaervek's Torch, Stroke of Genius, Tendrils. You don't have to play them, but they define top deck construction.

2. Yawgmoth's Will and Tinker define the format.

Here I must add Ancestral Recall and Black Lotus. I understand Stephen is talking about what decks are trying to accomplish and these being the most broken cards, but they are merely the most powerful (aside from Bargain).

Ancestral is number 1. Black Lotus is second. Will is third. Tinker is fourth.

See, the difference (aside from cost) is that Ancestral and Lotus are how you start your degeneracy. Will and Tinker are the degeneracy.

Why is Ancestral the best? Black Lotus is the only card that comes close to Ancestral's win percentage. If you count all the games in which one side resolved Ancestral first and tally its win percentage, that tells you Ancestral's win percentage.

Then do the same for Lotus.

Tinker clearly loses this game.

Will may have the best percentage, but it only counts if you didn't already play Ancestral or Lotus. Remember, if Ancestral'ing wins you 98.5% of games (as it does in highly skilled Drain on Drain), then the Will is just your kill (albeit the best one).

Since Will is obviously a different kind of card than Ancestral or Lotus; let's look at those two.

I have played a lot of Vintage over the years, and recently I found Ancestral Recall and Black Lotus to have the two best batting averages for "first trump" cards. Ancestral's is slightly higher, but that is not the important issue.

The keys are:

A) Ancestral trumps Lotus more than Lotus trumps Ancestral. Obviously, Lotus is better in Long, etc., but I am aggregating all Tier 1 decks.

B) Merchant Scroll exists. As does Mystical Tutor. I Tinker up (or Grim Tutor to) Black Lotus more than most, but it is just harder to access Black Lotus than Ancestral. In Vintage, a card being in your deck has a lot of value, not just when it is in your hand.

Starting with Lotus is arguably on par with starting with Ancestral, but which gives you a bigger advantage, the 88% of the time you don't draw it? Ancestral, of course, since if you want, you have access to it on turn 2 in a million ways.

In my opinion, the only strategies that can realistically overcome Ancestral Recall by MeanDeck Gifts are Mishra's Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Necro / Bargain. Even those three are extremely difficult.

From my perspective, there are two strategies. People who seek to Ancestral and people who try one of the three “counter-techniques” listed. Everyone tries to Lotus. Further, all decks can then be divided by building towards Will or trying a secondary strategy.

No, I am not underestimating Workshop Prison. Believe you me, Stephen Menendian, I most definitely do not underestimate Prison.

There is much to say on trump cards, but it must wait for another day. I do want to clarify:

A) Ancestral doesn't win 98.5% in all matchups. It is very high in all matchups, but Drain on Drain (any variety) more so.

B) That includes games when the opponent answers with Black Lotus, Mind Twist, Balance, whatever.

C) This doesn't mean Vintage is dumb. Far from it. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but knowing how and when to get your Ancestral and get it to successfully resolve targeting yourself is the single most important skill in Vintage. It doesn't apply to all decks, but it matters more than any other manoeuvre. Since it is the key to so many of the best strategies.

Back to the list.

3. Force of Will is the glue that holds the format together.

While I respectfully question the origin of this phrase, it is certainly true. Perhaps Brian Weissman and I got it from Mr. Menendian, back in '97. I honestly don't remember. Brian used to say that, after I convinced him Vintage was playable if you used four Force of Wills. I would play four Mana Crypt, four Mana Vault. He would play… well, "The Deck." Not that it matters, but it amuses me that slang might be the first way Smmenen ever influenced me, heh.

Menendian's analysis of Force of Will is articulated perfectly.

4. Mana Drain, Mishra's Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Dark Ritual are the stone edifices of Vintage.

Again, spot on. All four should be restricted for power, except they all keep each other in check and encourage a variety of decks (as long as they use at least one of these, and yes I know there are a few exceptions).

One thing I'd add is that the scale is unbalanced right now. Ideally you always want 2-3 of these "good" cards, and right now all four are good. However, Gifts is broken in Mana Drain decks, and needs restriction (eventually).

I do agree that Vintage "appears" healthy right now, as there is much deck diversity and many alleged Tier 1 decks. However, this is a function of Vintage being so hard; it only exacerbates its already relatively slow evolution.

I would venture to say that out of 15 million or so players on Earth, the players that can play Gifts proficiently number in the hundreds. Same goes for Pitch Long / Grim Long, for that matter.

Gifts is unbelievably hard to maximize. Most players will never fathom how broken it currently is. I say this with the greatest possible humility, but I pray, I pray, that Gifts is unrestricted next year.

It won't be in 2008.

5. Brainstorm is the best unrestricted card.

See my thoughts on Gifts. Other than that, I agree. I side with the camp that like its existence. It is a huge skill tester. Sure, it requires some skill while playing, but the real skill is playing with it at all.

If you want an automatic edge over a lot of people (and a way to equalize an edge for the rest) play 4 Brainstorms. Good decks Brainstorm (well, Ancestral decks anyway. Again, the only realistic alternatives are Workshop or Bazaar).

I love cards like Brainstorm because I can count on so many people to not play it, and I know I'll have four.

6. Gifts, Grim Tutor, Bazaar, and Thirst for Knowledge are the best engines.

Agreed, though Gifts is broken.

7. Spells that cost 4 or more must be Blue, Artifact, Storm or have an alternate casting cost.

Correct. Vintage is a metaphor for all Magic. Blue is everything. The primary exception to this rule is Bargain.

8. Expertise is a path to success. You can play the same deck for years.

Agreed. The "safest" concept to get good with is Drain. It will always be great, and they will never restrict it. In fact, often it seems Wizards's policy is to restrict cards until Drain is great. Fine by me!

9. Skill is king.

Oh, the big one. This one is highly controversial. Much can be (and has been) said, so I'll try to keep it short.

Skill is king. Vintage is one of the more skill-testing formats. The real questions are:

A) What skills?

B) Does the more highly skilled player actually win more than in other formats?

The first is obviously a different set of skills than other formats. In no other format (Mental Magic aside) does one have so much control over their access to any resource or effect imaginable, at any point in the game. It is truly a battle of wits.

In addition, deck construction is a different sort of skill in Vintage. Aside from infinite options, there is more value from tech than in many formats, though if your opponent knows your tech, you are typically worse off than copying a Net deck and changing 2-4 cards to hose your local metagame.

This is an interesting tension.

In addition, Vintage forces you to make exponentially more decisions that cost more percentage points. Playing your Lightning Helix wrong is rarely as devastating as playing a Grim Tutor wrong. You think Bathe in Light requires planning? Play Rebuild.

It is not uncommon to make double digits worth of decisions turn 1 with some decks, each of which may cost you 20% in points. The thing is, it is too hard for anyone to play Vintage as well as people play other formats.

The true Vintage master realizes he makes more mistakes than he can possibly notice. He instead focuses on doing the best he can, given the circumstances, and looking for ways to exploit the countless mistakes his opponent is making.

Vintage isn't forgiving in that you could topdeck Tinker or something. Tinker is in your deck. In Vintage, you only have to play a card in your deck for it to have an impact (just think about how an opponent who plays Force of Will changes everything, even if he doesn't have it).

If Tinker is in your deck, it is already part of the equation. You weren't really in that bad a position if drawing Tinker could turn it around.

The reason Vintage appears forgiving at times is because both sides will make many mistakes. If you screw up and lose 20% points, you may actually be able to get them back. Sure, broken cards are the tools you use, but opponents' mistakes provided opportunity, otherwise you weren't really losing.

The perspective that argues Vintage is not skill-testing emphasizes the degree that random events radically skew the game. The better combination of cards is huge in Vintage.

However, what many miss is that it is like poker in that there is this facade of luck defining every hand… but in reality, the better poker players win in the big picture. The better Vintage players win.

The real question is do the better Vintage players win more or less than often than top players in other formats. That I cannot be sure of, as I have not been to a Vintage tournament since 2002. However, skill was definitely king back then.

Yes, Ancestral essentially wins the game for you for a single Blue mana, but if you don't appreciate the skill that goes into selecting the number of Brainstorms, Merchant Scrolls, and Misdirections to play, or the chess-like battle to successfully find and resolve one… well, you just won't "get" this format.

In no other format can one so thoroughly prepare and be assured of a technological edge over the field.

What if you "get lucky" and draw Ancestral in you first seven? Well, the odds of having Blue mana and Ancestral in your opening seven are like 10% of those… and how many will Force of Will? Misdirection? What if you are on draw and the opponent plays Cabal Therapy, Unmask, Duress, Black Lotus, Trinisphere, etc.?

Remember, I said whoever draws 3 off Ancestral wins, not whoever draws it, or even casts it. There are two types of decks in Vintage. Decks that win when they Ancestral and decks that probably win when they Ancestral. This is why the "Ancestral Recall sub-game" is the most important skill set in Vintage.

In short, skill is king. That doesn't mean the best players will win all the time. Vintage is so hard, and most people have no clue how little they really know about it. I hope this is not misconstrued as a dig at Vintage players. After all, they are playing a ridiculously hard (to play proficiently) format that brings magic to the game (no pun intended). It's not a dig at non-Vintage players either. It's just my opinion. I know I certainly don't know everything about Vintage. That's part of the beauty of Vintage. No one does.

10. Scour the card pool. Find tech to beat your local metagame.

Again, I agree. The maelstrom that is the Vintage metagame eternally offers opportunities to outwit and out-tech your opponents. With all the tutors, every bullet is magnified by ten.

All in all, I tip my hat to Mr. Menendian. This list is far and away the most useful introductory piece of literature I've seen on modern Vintage. Anyone who wants to get into or better understand Vintage would benefit by contemplating these principles. Anyone who doesn't "get it" probably isn't going to from an article (don't worry, I'll convert Flores in person).

Finally, I would like to back up my claim that Ancestral Recall is better than Black Lotus by suggesting a friendly challenge to Stephen.

Stephen, I'm sure you will agree Ancestral is better in Slaver, and I concede Lotus may be better in Long. Since we both prefer your MeanDeck Gifts, and since it relies both on Ancestral as its early draw mechanism (other than Gifts) and Lotus in order to break Gifts, Tinker, and Will, I suggest the following:

Some time when we are both free, we play a series for ante. We both play your MeanDeck Gifts. I will remove my Black Lotus and use it for ante, replacing it with another card. You remove your Ancestral Recall and place it up for ante, replacing it with another card (Vintage, so no Contract from Below).

Considering your experience with your deck and the secondary market value of the cards, I'd say them's good odds for you. This is the real test, as it is not who draws it, but who has it in their deck at all. Ooh! And no proxies!

Alternately, we can settle the dispute with Mental Magic if you prefer.

By the way, I want to apologize to Stephen and anyone else who missed me. Sorry I fell off the map in '02. I've sort of been bound to an unforeseen set of circumstances preventing me from participating in the excellent SCG events or the recent Championship.

Thanks for at least giving me some credit for '96-'02, Stephen. So, how many cards have you gotten restricted?

Okay everyone, it's been fun. I hope at least one of these two halves is playable for you. Holla back!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"

PS: Tendrils you for twenty. I win. I told you my Ancestral would win it for me.