A Date Which Will Live In Infamy
By JACO on June 5th, 2008 · Filed in Vintage (Type 1) · Comments not available just now
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941, it was a stunning act of aggression towards the United States, who was up until that time content to stay out of World War II. Upon hearing the news, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to work on a short speech, in which he addressed Congress and the nation via live radio broadcast. His opening paragraph will forever be remembered by historians marking the occasion:
After the speech, the Senate voted unanimously in support of war, and Roosevelt signed the official declaration of war later that same day. The United States, which had been negotiating peaceful terms with the Empire of Japan up until that time, was thrust into a full scale war.
"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of American was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific."
This week, on June 1, 2008, Wizards of the Coast and the DCI announced sweeping changes to the Vintage format of Magic, which read as follows:
Announcement Date: June 1, 2008
Effective Date: June 20, 2008
Many people had been discussing what it would mean to the format if Flash or Merchant Scroll were restricted, but not many people saw this particular set of moves coming. After the news had broken, it was almost like a surprise attack on Vintage. By reading the comments of others throughout online communities this is the general sentiment I felt, which brought me to the opening paragraph, and how it relates to this stinging development in Vintage:
Original Criteria For Restriction
"Yesterday, June 1, 2008 - a date which will live in infamy - the Vintage players of Magic: the Gathering were suddenly and deliberately attacked by unseen forces of the DCI.
The Vintage players were coming to peace as a nation, and, at the time, were still in conversation within its community about how best to combat problematic enemies, and to maintain peace in the Format."
When looking at the Vintage Banned/Restricted list it is important to examine the cards listed, and to understand why they are banned or restricted. Cards that are banned are usually related to game rules/mechanics problems, including cards relating to ante (such as Bronze Tablet or Contract From Below), as well as cards relating to manual dexterity (such as Chaos Orb or Falling Star). The cards that are restricted (and the corresponding reasons for restriction) usually break down into three categories:
1) Overpowered or undercosted "tutoring" cards (such as Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Imperial Seal, Tinker, etc.)
2) Overpowered or undercosted "fast mana" cards (such as Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, Mox Sapphire, etc.)
3) Overpowered or undercosted "format warping" cards (such as Ancestral Recall, Mind's Desire, Yawgmoth's Will, etc.)
Historically, these have been the three hallmark reasons for restriction that have shaped the policy of restriction and unrestriction by the DCI over the past ten years, within the context of repeated tournament play and strong performance. When cards such as Voltaic Key, Black Vise, and Mind Twist were deemed "safe" for the current environment, they were unrestricted as part of a stated effort to remove cards from the restricted list that are no longer deemed restriction-worthy.
All of this changed on March 1, 2005 when the DCI announced the banning of eight Affinity-related cards in Standard and the restriction of Trinisphere in Vintage. This was different for the first time during the modern maintenance of the Banned/Restricted list because the motives for these changes were not the results of tournament dominance or the standard restriction criteria above, but because of a new reason: emotion.
Removing Objectivity From Governance
As Aaron Forsythe penned in the follow up article to the banning of Affinity in Standard and the restriction of Trinisphere in Vintage, the motive for these moves was made not because of prolonged tournament dominance, but because they were allegedly taking the fun out of their respective formats. The problem with this is that fun is not an objective reason for Banned/Restricted list movement, but rather "damage control" as Forsythe explained. They were simply attempting to keep the respective formats fun. But whose definition of fun is being used, and how will this change from person to person and from week to week? I have fun when I outsmart my opponent, or when my best betters my opponent's best in a given match or situation, or when I come up with a new deck for a tournament that just blows my unprepared opponents out of the water. A good friend of mine would have fun simply by frustrating and confusing opponents (within the framework of the rules), simply by playing cards like Shazrazad or Shared Fate. How do you have fun when you play Magic? How did you have fun when you first started, compared to when you were more casual about games, compared to when you were most serious about tournament play? Emotions like fun, happy, sad, and love are fickle things, and vary so greatly that they are an extremely poor substitute for objective evidence when talking about regulating an international group or body.
Removing or limiting objectivity as the sole reason for banning and restriction, and adding emotion dilutes the pureness of the game. I don't think Richard Garfield would have envisioned or endorsed somebody restricting the use of a card like Ponder because it is similar to another card, yet has never caused a problem in tournament play, nor do I think he would have envisioned or accepted someone banning a land because it is allegedly not fun, where an invisible force determines what is fun for the masses.
Resorting to emotion or non-objective decision-making also calls into question the competence and motives of the governing body. If an objective set of criteria are not used to govern or update the DCI Banned/Restricted list, for example, then what should be used? The daily whims of the members of the Organized Play department, the emails from a few loud individuals clamoring for restricting of a card they don't feel creates a fun environment, or what exactly? Part of the reason is that players don't understand, accept, or trust the actions of the DCI is that there is a lack of transparency in the decision making process by the DCI, whether it is in the form of restricting cards for tournament play, or handing down suspensions to players who have broken rules. Transparent, objective policymaking is what is best for the populace.
Card Quality and Application of Restriction Policy
So how do the things above relate to the current round of restrictions served up by the DCI? Let's look at how the previous criteria for restriction could be balanced against this week's restrictions.
1) Merchant Scroll – this is undeniably a tutor effect, and in the best color in Vintage. It consistently and cost-effectively fetches things like Ancestral Recall, Gush, Force of Will, Chain of Vapor, and more. This restriction follows the tradition of slowly restricting the best tutors when they prove problematic, and when they show up in large numbers over an extended period of tournament play.
2) Gush – while not without drawback, Gush once again emerged as the best unrestricted card drawing engine in Vintage, powering up decks like GroATog (GAT), Tyrant Oath, The Tropical Storm, Next Level Doomsday, and more. While probably not format warping on its own (especially without Merchant Scroll to tutor it up), the DCI apparently saw enough copies in Top 8's around the world to land Gush back on the Restricted list
3) Flash – a very narrow card in application, Flash has never dominated the Vintage tournament scene, is not obscenely overpowered, is not an overpowered tutor, and does not provide fast mana. Similar to Gush, in a format with a restricted Merchant Scroll this card becomes even weaker, and Flash moves farther away from ever reaching status as a dominant tournament performing deck.
4) Brainstorm – not an overpowered tutor, fast mana acceleration, or format warping spell. Brainstorm simply helps to increase consistency in decks in both Vintage and Legacy, and to help dig for answers to problematic spells an opponent has played or will play.
5) Ponder – see Brainstorm above, but Ponder is an even worse card objectively and sees much less play
By re-examining the criteria for restriction above, and seeing that neither Brainstorm nor Ponder fit into any of these categories, one can derive that Brainstorm was restricted ultimately because it showed up in large numbers in Blue-based decks (the bulk of Vintage decks to begin with), and Ponder followed suit simply because of similar ability. In other words, the reality is that Brainstorm and Ponder were restricted simply because they are good reactionary cards, which help to filter a deck and make it more consistent. Think about that for a moment before continuing, because it is important. The DCI has made a break from their traditional methods of restriction policy and how the format is controlled. There is no equal precedent for the restriction of Brainstorm and Ponder.
These restriction decisions were likely made by a few individuals who most likely don't even play Vintage, and who certainly did not have a pulse on the format nor listen to anything the actual players had to say. While this may have been the case with past restrictions as well, it is much better when nothing is being done at all, as it is easier to avoid potential mistakes that individuals make when acting on behalf of the DCI.
In the format with the deepest card pool, the best cards will logically be played most often, thus pushing out weaker cards and strategies to extinction. The game of Magic, like the game of Chess, or the game Settlers of Catan, mirrors Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection in this regard. Vintage is a format where the game's best and most "broken" spells come to lie, which often have never seen combination with each other constructed formats like Standard or Extended. Cards like Brainstorm, Ponder, Force of Will, Tarmogoyf, Swords to Plowshares, Lightning Bolt, Duress, and many other of the game's best cards are just run of the mill, good old fashioned cards. These examples are a few of the best in their specific genres, whether that genre is filtering cards, countering spells, attacking the opponent, or removing creatures. Should those cards be restricted because they are the best at what they do, even though they are not extremely overpowered and do not warp the format in any way? Of course not.
As Stephen Menendian adeptly pointed out in a recent article, the DCI's policy in regards to the Banned/Restricted list has been more or less Laissez-faire, or hands-off governance. I have been drawn to this type of policymaking since I started playing competitive Magic, because Magic was created as a game that seems to put the onus of deck building and decision making square on the shoulders of the player. Every card choice is theirs alone, and their mind and the cards should be all the tools needed to combat the opposing player.
Adam SmithAs author Professor Eric Evans characterized in his piece regarding the Laissez-faire approach, "Left to their own devices, according to this argument, people will develop habits of sturdy self-reliance, but if they are supported by the state, people will rapidly sink into a mode of dependency." This runs parallel to some of the ideas from Adam Smith's influential economic masterpiece The Wealth of Nations, in which Smith lays out the groundwork for the idea of the "invisible hand" which will ultimately help self-govern in a free market system.
Historically, capitalistic countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom have made their greatest strides when operating closest to a Laissez-faire policy. From 2001 to 2007, when Wizards' was least actively policing and changing the Banned/Restricted list, we saw some of the most exciting development and tournament play in Vintage history, due in large part to a similar hands-off approach.
When analyzing the results of Vintage tournaments, people have to realize that the Vintage metagame will be slower to shift in general, when compared to Pro Tour constructed formats (such as Extended, Standard, or Block Constructed), because there is not a high concentration of large tournaments nearly every weekend for a period of months, such as when there are a round of Extended Pro Tour Qualifiers (PTQs). Large tournaments in Vintage occur more infrequently and are spread out across the globe, and the ensuing results reporting often leaves much to be desired (missing or withheld deck lists, lack of metagame breakdown, etc.), so the players take longer to shift their card and deck building choices. Deck technology will come slower as a result, but it usually does come, and will help combat the strongest existing strategies and continue to shift the metagame.
An example of this shift is the meteoric rise of Flash in Vintage. When coupled with Protean Hulk and some assorted creatures that are terrible on their own, Flash is able to win the game for a mere 2 mana and 2 cards total (Flash + Protean Hulk). This is obviously the cheapest combo to cast mana-wise, and with support cards and tutors like Merchant Scroll and Summoner's Pact, it becomes easier to assemble the combo components. Flash decks won a few tournaments here and there, but people are now fairly prepared and dedicated to combating that deck and strategy, as evidence by the omnipresence of sideboard staples like Tormod's Crypt, Leyline of the Void, Yixlid Jailer, Extirpate, and more. You may see a Flash deck in a Top 8 list every now and then, but no more frequently than most other strong decks because people have learned and committed to adapting.
The Future of the Banned/Restricted List
When there is no objective reason for restricting a card, such as repeated tournament dominance, then there frankly is no legitimate reason for restriction in my mind. Hopefully we will see more cards come off of the Vintage restricted list in the near future, but I won't get into what to unrestrict, as there are already enough message boards and forums cluttered with discussions of what people think ought to be unrestricted.
The way you can affect the future shaping of the Banned/Restricted list is by viewing this as a call to arms. If you are not satisfied with the DCI's decisions then let them know. Write articles for websites such as this or MagicEternal.com or others, and email everyone important at Wizards of the Coast that you can think of. Leave no stone unturned if you are unhappy, but do so by crafting a logical and thoughtful argument. Cries of "my Japanese foil Merchant Scrolls are now worthless" will certainly fall on deaf ears, so make your words count.
The other way to affect the Banned/Restricted list is by how you build your deck, and the card choices you make. If you are content to be dominated by Dredge in a tournament, then ignore the threat of it and don't play the appropriate graveyard hate strategy. But if you are sick of losing to Mishra's Workshop or Bazaar of Baghdad, perhaps you can tailor your deck and sideboard to beat those strategies. Action and self-governance by the people is the best reason for the DCI to employ a Laissez-faire approach, and will ultimately result in fewer cards on the Banned/Restricted list.
New strategies are sure to emerge, as well as a few old ones which were previous left to hang in the balance while everybody moved to include Gush in their decks. In our next article we'll examine how this round of restrictions affects existing decks, as well as what it means for the coming year of Vintage. You can expect many cards and synergies to come out of the expansive woodwork that is the Vintage card pool, as designers channel their energies in a new era of Vintage.
By JACO on June 5th, 2008 · Filed in Vintage (Type 1) · Comments not available just now