Law of the Draw: A Critical Look at the Vintage Restricted List
By Ted Dickinson on March 16th, 2006 · Filed in Vintage (Type 1) · Comments not available just now
Much like the Wild West once was in the United States, Vintage is regarded by many as the lawless, "anything goes" region of tournament play.
Games, like gunfights, are often decided by the opening draw. The best players develop reputations that precede them, sometimes to the point where forum patrons guess what weapons they'll bring to the next shootout.
Besides the rules to which all constructed formats are bound, one law of the land prevents Vintage decks from descending into anarchy: the restricted list. Unique to Vintage, a card's presence on the list limits it to one copy between deck and sideboard in construction. The list is used by the DCI to prevent any one deck or strategy from becoming dominant, while still allowing players to use (almost) all the cards in which they've invested.
Before there were Legends: The Limited List
Always a work in progress, the restricted lists of old may not necessarily appear sensible to today's players. In its earliest incarnation, the "limited list" governed the only Magic tournament format that existed at the time, what we consider Vintage today. With inconsistent release schedules, the ideas of Block tournaments or even anything resembling Standard were years in the future.
Here's the first "limited" list culled from the first DCI floor rules.
(Note: For the remainder of this article, all dates refer to the days on which list updates were announced, not necessarily to the days on which the updates took effect.)
Clearly a problem
The Power Nine and Sol Ring were identifiable early on as problem cards, and are the only ten permanent fixtures on the list. Time Vault was a frequent visitor to the list as WotC believed they had found a wording to prevent degenerate combos, only to find they overlooked a combo and relisted it. Some of the cards left over, though, can't help but elicit laughs. Ali from Cairo restricted? Turns out too many players complained about having to include Swords to Plowshares in their 40 creature/20 land decks. (See Michael G. Ryan's article "The Leader of the Banned" for comments from R&D members and creator Richard Garfield on a slightly later version of the list.)
After twelve years, numerous set releases, and the division of the tournament formats into what we know today, we arrive at the current Vintage restricted list.
I always wanted a grip fulla TwiddlesIn the last two years, a total of only six cards have been removed from the restricted list. Mind Over Matter, restricted in reaction to the infamous Combo Winter of the Artifact Cycle (Urza-block), was unrestricted as combo had moved on to faster, cheaper win conditions. The rest of the cards (Stroke of Genius, Braingeyser, Doomsday, Earthcraft, and Fork) were largely an artifact of the days when the Vintage and Legacy lists were connected. Cards couldn't be banned in Legacy until they were restricted in Vintage, so the DCI restricted cards that hadn't significantly impacted one format for the sole reason of banning them in another. The DCI finally divorced the two lists in September 2004, allowing these cards to be unrestricted.
There is still work to be done, as no less than three cards still on this list simply do not belong.
Not Everything is Chrome in the Future
Randy Buehler, former director of R&D and lead developer, justified the restriction of Chrome Mox in his December 19, 2003 article "Classic Developments":
The restriction of Chrome Mox was simultaneous with the restrictions of Burning Wish and Lion's Eye Diamond. The latter two cards were correctly restricted because Long.dec, a storm combo deck centering on Yawgmoth's Will and Tendrils of Agony, was becoming dominant in the format. Burning Wish was allowing players to put Yawgmoth's Will in the sideboard and have four cheap tutors for it, whereas Lion's Eye Diamond was fueling huge Will turns.
Cards that provide more mana than they cost are simply too powerful in Type 1, and it doesn’t seem to matter how severe their drawbacks are. That’s the same reason we went ahead and restricted Chrome Mox. Mirrodin hasn’t been out long enough for us to see definitive evidence that the card is definitely a problem, but when it comes to fast mana cards in Type 1, we don’t need to see any more evidence. You should expect us to continue to print fast mana cards with interesting drawbacks (like Chrome Mox) when we think they will be interesting cards in Standard, Extended, and/or casual play; but you should also expect us to immediately restrict them in Type 1.
On the surface, Chrome Mox's restriction appears to be a logical extension of the concern over combo dominance, but the distinct lack of evidence (by Buehler's own admission) shows this card may have been restricted prematurely.
Early indications were that the drawbacks of Chrome Mox were severe. The removal of a colored card from the game guaranteed weak synergy with Yawgmoth's Will. A player wanting to actually cast something on turn 1 by combining Chrome Mox in a land was already down to four cards before they even cast the spell. Having the card in multiples in the opening hand was almost a guaranteed mulligan.
The metagame was also wrong for Chrome Mox. Combo had experienced enough of a setback by the restrictions of Burning Wish and LED. Chalice of the Void started to see plenty of experimental use almost as early as it was spoiled, and its eventual place in the format guaranteed that 0-cost artifact mana wasn't quite as overpowered when the Chalice player goes first. The deck other than combo that could really benefit from Chrome Mox (Stax) was playing its own Chalices, and often didn't even have a colored card in the opening hand to pitch.
Today's metagame isn't much different. Stax still can't guarantee a colored card in the opening hand, and storm-based combo has largely been marginalized in the face of more disruption-proof decks based on Gifts Ungiven. Quite possibly the only deck that could stand to gain from this unrestriction is Oath, further enabling the powerful opening turn of Forbidden Orchard/Mox/Oath of Druids. However, in that the deck the limiting factors are often having the Forbidden Orchard and Oath in hand at the same time. Having the 0-cost artifact accelerant isn't much of a problem as Oath can already potentially play enough to effectively guarantee seeing one in the opening hand if it wants.
Unrestricting Chrome Mox is unlikely to be the tipping point for any deck which would actually play it. It's time to free Chrome Mox.
A Grim Situation
Grim Monolith was restricted in a sweeping September 1, 1999 announcement where three cards were unrestricted, two cards that led to excessive amounts of game draws (Shahrazad and Divine Intervention) were unbanned, and eighteen cards were restricted.
The unrestrictions and unbannings were primarily "cleanup" of cards that were rarely seeing play in the format. The restrictions were a clear and decisive reaction by the DCI to the infamous Combo Winter. Grim Monolith was restricted along with a large number of other cheap artifact mana-producers such as Mana Vault and Mana Crypt. All of them are still restricted (except Doomsday, Hurkyl's Recall, and Mind Over Matter), and all of the others deserve to stay on the list. Grim Monolith, however, does not.
Grim Monolith is the only "artifact accelerant" on the restricted list that costs two mana. This severely restricts its explosiveness in the opening hand: an initial investment considerably greater than that required for Black Lotus, a Mox, or even Mana Vault is required to see an increase in production of only one colorless mana for the current turn. While there is the ability to "bank" two mana now for three next turn, there are too many more powerful two-mana plays on the first turn (Oath of Druids with a Mox and Forbidden Orchard, for example) to warrant that as a reason for restriction.
As it stands, virtually no competitive deck in the format is playing Grim Monolith as a singleton. Stax already finds itself with considerable amounts of colorless mana on the first turn, such that there is little need to dilute prison components for the addition of such a minor boost. Combo would rather go for the greater net mana return offered by non-permanent accelerants like Dark Ritual and Cabal Ritual. Both instants offer far better synergy with Yawgmoth's Will than an artifact which is both difficult to untap, and difficult to get out of play without Goblin Welder.
There is currently no deck which stands to gain an edge in the format by playing four Grim Monoliths. Therefore, the restriction of this card as a reaction to a tournament season long since passed is no longer necessary.
Black Vise was restricted alone on June 1, 1997. At the time there was no DCI policy of including brief comments on explaining list changes, nor were articles posted later with indepth analysis. A survey of decks in use at the time show a dominance of "permission"-based decks such as mono-blue control and Brian Weissman's "The Deck," which resembles modern Keeper decks with Serra Angel as the win condition.
In that context, it's obvious why Black Vise would be dangerous. When decks built on constantly maintaining full hands dominate the format, cheap artifacts that asymmetrically punish the opponent for having a full hand can be problematic.
That was nine years ago. This is now. The environment is simply not the same as it was. One of the two undisputed Tier I decks in the format (Stax) has no qualms dumping its entire hand into play on the first turn, making Black Vise little more than a colorless Lava Spike. This same deck can't adequately employ Black Vise either. In Stax it is the true definition of a "win more" card: it doesn't prevent the opponent from casting spells, and in fact is only useful when the rest of the deck is working correctly.
It's been argued that unrestricting Black Vise would make it an automatic 4-of inclusion in aggro decks. Can aggro afford to cut four cards that can kill Goblin Welder for four cards that can't? And even if such a statement were true, aggro hasn't been Tier 1, or even Tier 1.5, for quite some time now. If the unrestriction of a card can actually increase the number of viable decks in a format, then leaving the unrestriction in place is antithetical to the purpose of the restricted list.
Laying Down the Law: Possible Additions
When the topic of conspicuous absences from the list comes up on various message boards, the first card name proposed is often Mishra's Workshop. This card has long been a sticking point for the DCI. It was unrestricted on Sept. 1 1997 (the date on which it was originally restricted is unavailable), and there have been calls for its restriction repeatedly over the last several years.
Both Buehler (in the aforementioned "Classic Developments" article) and Aaron Forsythe note that people in power have been taking a close look at Mishra's Workshop. In Dec. 2004, Forsythe wrote in "December Bannings, or Lack Thereof":
Five months later, Forsythe offered a longer explanation in "Future, Present, Past" essentially stating that restricting the small number of powerful individual artifacts (namely Trinisphere) from Mirrodin block was preferable to restricting Mishra's Workshop, and that while Mishra's Workshop was "crazy powerful," it is fairly close to the norm for mana devlopment in the format.
If trends continue, something will have to be done about the unholy trio of Workshop, Trinisphere, and Crucible of Worlds. We're not there yet, and perhaps we never will be, but if current trends continue we will have to react. Again, I don't want people living in fear that the DCI is after their favorite cards, but I also don't want players to think we aren't aware of one of the biggest hot-button issues in the format.
Changes to the environment since then are not significant enough to warrant a change in policy. While Robert Vroman's Uba Stax is showing up in Top 8s, the more aggro-oriented Workshop-based decks relying on creatures like Juggernaut and Sundering Titan that were popular a year ago have largely fallen off the radar.
Then there is the perennial question of banning Yawgmoth's Will. Currently the only cards banned in Vintage are those referencing ante and the two "dexterity" cards: Falling Star and Chaos Orb. The latter are banned because the exact mechanics regarding their use are so complicated, and so prone to starting disputes, that a judge would have to oversee each and every use of the two cards in a tournament.
However, Will is the one card players keep coming back to as the potential exception. There is currently no single card in the format which has the potential to swing games as much as this card does. With a sufficiently well-stocked graveyard, a player at 1 life and no hand can topdeck this card and win before the opponent gets another turn. The potential for abuse is rampant: replaying multiple other restricted cards (typically Black Lotus, any Moxen that may be in the graveyard, Ancestral Recall, and Time Walk are a good start), creating explosive mana with multiple Dark Rituals... the list continues.
If any card warrants banning solely for power reasons, it's Yawgmoth's Will. However, banning this card could potentially open up a Pandora's Box for the format. The standards for restricting cards, while somewhat flexible, are decently defined. If one card can be banned simply because it's "too broken," then what's the standard for determining where that line is drawn? Such a banning, if it happens, could open the door to call for banning other format-defining cards like Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall.
The hallmark of Vintage is the ability to play with one's entire collection. Of course, as with any other tournament format, the finite number of viable decks ensures that not every legally playable card is necessarily a good idea. Banning Yawgmoth's Will would be the first step in breaking that idea, and could potentially lead to the blurring of the format's separation from Legacy.
Every Gun Makes Its Own Tune
Twelve years after the first limited list, the current restrictions have done a solid job of maintaining a bit of civilization in an otherwise lawless frontier. With a little deeper investigation, they might even be able to afford promoting some older-model weapons and making the environment a bit more interesting.
By Ted Dickinson on March 16th, 2006 · Filed in Vintage (Type 1) · Comments not available just now