Balancing Vintage: the Banned/Restricted List



In the wake of the recently approved Banned/Restricted List discussion on TheManaDrain (a topic typically banned because it can become, well, unfriendly), I have been putting some thought into what sort of criteria should be used in making B/R decisions. While numerous criteria have been put forth in the past, I decided that I would try my own hand at this.




As is known by probably anyone reading this, Vintage games are played with two players, one against the other. Each player has an equal opportunity to use any cards prescribed by the rules, namely four of any unrestricted card, one of any restricted card, no banned cards, and unlimited copies of the basic lands and Relentless Rats. The importance of equal opportunity to the cardpool is absolutely crucial in examining the B/R. After all, that's kind of the whole idea in Vintage. "Well, while my opponent may get to do incredibly broken strategy X, I get to do incredibly broken strategy Y to combat that, so it's all good." Further, if strategy X is strictly better than Y, or any other strategy, the player using strategy Y is free to change to strategy X. In spite of this possibility, the B/R still constantly changes. Why is this? Well, there are a number of reasons. Typically, though, the idea is that sometimes a strategy becomes "too good" and something needs to be done.

But wait a minute. How can a strategy be "too good" if both players have access to it? In chess, both players have exactly the same resources at the beginning of the game: a perfectly balanced game! But this is actually not the case. Why? Because the light colored pieces get to go first in chess, which brings up my an important point:




Even if both players have access to a very good strategy, one player gets to use that strategy first in Magic. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of turn-based games is sometimes the fact that there are turns; one player gets to go, then the other. While in chess this advantage is relatively trifling, in Magic (and especially in Vintage), the advantage provided by going first cannot be underestimated. Even though one gives up card advantage by going first, players unanimously say "play" when posed with the question "Play or draw?" This is ultimately where the game can break down and the necessity (and, I believe, the philosophy) of the B/R becomes apparent.


There are two things in this picture that Magic
is not about.
The first turn win is not something that is valued by the Vintage community. This is because the player on the draw essentially gets no opportunity to win, or even play! Such wins are often attributed to luck (either by the opening seven or the roll), but they can also potentially be attributed to skill if a player comes up with an ingenious and consistent enough deck. However, even if such a deck required an incredible amount of skill to pilot, the Vintage community would most likely still find it unacceptable if it could win on turn one consistently. Furthermore, even if a player isn't winning on turn one, the player who goes first gets additional mana, an additional set of main phases, and an additional combat phase. This initial advantage persists throughout the game. So, in one respect, the B/R is about getting to turns two through five and beyond, if possible. By getting to the later turns, skill, rather than luck, is often allowed to determine the winner of the match. It is probably worth noting here that "skill" incorporates both play skill and deckbuilding skill (in case someone tries to make the distinction).

Ultimately, what I'm trying to get to is the idea that the B/R is trying to achieve fairness for the players involved. But how do you define that? I would suggest that pushing the game more toward skill and away from luck is how that is defined in Magic. That's really the whole point of playing the game: to determine a winner by skill rather than luck. Otherwise, whenever you win a tournament, your numbers just happened to come up for the Mox Lottery that day. Where's the glory in that? I think the ideas of "objectively overpowered" and the infamous "unfun" associated with Trinisphere fall into this category, pretty much no matter how you slice it. The above paragraph is what I think Mr. Forsythe meant about Trinisphere rather than the one word explanation that has now become irreparably associated with the card. In the DCI's opinion, Trinisphere pushed the game too far toward the Mox Lottery. Now whether that is true or not is certainly a topic for discussion, and reasonable minds can differ. For the record, though, I personally am of the opinion that Trinisphere belongs on the Restricted List for this reason. It's about "unfair", not "unfun."




Okay, so let's assume that the B/R has solved the fairness problem. This alone, however, is not satisfactory to the community unless some other things are considered. This is because we value something often referred to as "deck diversity". Deck diversity is kind of an awkward thing used to justify B/R changes in that it's not about fairness, which in my mind unequivocally should drive the rules of any game, Magic or otherwise. Instead, deck diversity is about some other quality of the game that is also valued by the players. This almost certainly is derived from the nature of Magic in particular. The game is premised on the idea of playing with different cards and different strategies. Even when the Vintage community is given all of the mechanics of the game, a world where only one or two decks are winning is perceived as being somehow wrong, even if skill is driving who wins the matches and the events. It just isn't really "true" Magic for some reason.


It's unacceptable for this guy to run wild…
The deck diversity problem brings in a whole mess of issues. If one card is restricted (or unrestricted!) to open the door for other decks, what will that do to fairness? Will the change even solve the problem? What other strategies will suffer collateral damage? At what point will we reach a sufficient level of deck diversity? From my own perceptions, the one or two dominant decks need to be making up less than 40% or so of the Top 8's in order for the metagame to be considered diverse. Any higher than that and people are unhappy. As can be seen from the questions I suggest above, trying to balance the metagame through the B/R is very, very difficult. Further, even if the equilibrium is found, the metagame will inevitably shift further, causing another change to be required, either by restricting or unrestricting a card. Then again, that's the whole point of periodic B/R changes: adjusting to the current needs of the metagame.




Another thing driving the B/R is the idea of maximizing card availability. While this is important in all formats, the whole idea of Vintage is that you can use all of your cards, so it takes on a special significance in the format. Card availability, as of right now, is the idea that the number of cards in the cardpool ought to be maximized, namely by keeping the Banned List as small as possible and, given that, keeping the Restricted List as small as possible. Note how I worded that definition. Keeping the Banned List as small as possible and then keeping the Restricted List as small as possible.


…yet this monstrosity is free to roam where it
pleases.
What? A card hasn't been banned in Vintage since 2001 (they weren't even ante cards). How can I even bring that up? Because Yawgmoth's Will and before that, Tolarian Academy, (see this if you're not old school enough to know about this) have been allowed to stay unbanned, in spite of their complete warping of the metagame. As has been iterated by a number of people in the past, if Yawgmoth's Will were banned, a number of cards could probably come off the Restricted List. But apparently this isn't what we want. We value being able to play one copy of Yawgmoth's Will over playing four copies of some other cards. Consequently, the Restricted List plays second fiddle to the Banned List, in spite of the fact that it is currently blank right now (since ante cards and dexterity cards can never be reconciled with the current state of the rules, or economics for that matter).

So, given the premise in the above paragraph, we try to minimize the size of the Restricted List. However, this isn't usually done by, say, counting the number of cards that could come off the list if we restricted such and such card, or the number of cards that could also come off if we also unrestrict another particular card. Decisions have almost always been made on a card-by-card basis rather than anything else. Honestly, I can't say whether this is good or bad. Just be aware that there are other ways to think about these things. Suffice it to say, though, we generally value "unrestrict" over "restrict."




In the same vein as card availability is the idea of sacred cows. Dictionary.com defines a sacred cow as "an individual, organization, institution, etc., considered to be exempt from criticism or questioning." Some cards, such as Dark Ritual, Mana Drain, Brainstorm (although some question its status, currently) and Mishra's Workshop (more on this card later) have received a special status as being unrestricable because they define Vintage in some sort of abstract way. The format just would not be what it is without these cards. As a result, no matter how damaging they may be, they too are allowed to persist, similarly to Yawgmoth's Will.


Fun fact: Zodiac Ox has the most solemn image
of a bovine in Magic.
Sacred cows are a difficult issue. I too sense this idea of how Vintage "should be" and it does seem to require the presence of some of these special cards. Some point to other concerns for preserving the sacred cows, often coming back to fairness or deck diversity. For example, Force of Will will never be restricted because it keeps combo as a deck archetype in check in a way that no other card really could. It also perpetuates the idea of fairness by keeping early wins in check. The necessity of Dark Ritual though - I'm not sure that I buy it. But the community seems to value Dark Ritual for Dark Ritual; that's how it is, so that's how it should be, evidently. I don't think this is unreasonable, but it is something that I think should be thought about in light of the other issues I have brought up here.




Finally, there is the idea of a static Banned/Restricted List. The players seem to generally value the B/R being a relatively static object. A dynamic B/R ruins hours of deckbuilding and playtesting. Beyond this, the secondary market can take serious hits from B/R changes. While it wasn't actually banned, I would point to the errataing of Time Vault as being a perfect example of this sort of thing, as prices plummeted upon the announcement. Mishra's Workshop, without a doubt, is the poster child for the static B/R. Once it became unrestricted, the DCI basically gave up all power to restrict it again because of the secondary market. Yes, they'll tell you this isn't a concern, but it is, for better or for worse. If for no other reason, Wizards has a vested interest in keeping their players happy, and ruining the value of Mishra's Workshop is not a part of that strategy. Furthermore, the card supports the prison archetype. While there are possible substitutes in Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors, Mishra's Workshop is still the king.

Vintage, again by its very nature, wants to be a relatively static format; it's just one more thing that makes the format attractive to its players. Ultimately, I think this B/R concern lies more with the DCI than with the players in that a dynamic B/R indicates incompetence on the part of the decision makers. However, it does have value to the players, too, for the reasons listed above. Also, don't construe this as indicating that the B/R list should never change. Instead, it's just irritating if things get shuffled up every three months. If Vintage players wanted that, they would be playing Standard instead.



So, finally, with all that being said, we can get to the point: what should the Restricted/Banned List policy be? I've already outlined the five possible values, so now it's a matter of ranking them. From most important to least important, I would rank them in the following order:

1. Fairness
2. Card Availability
3. Deck Diversity
4. Static Banned/Restricted List
5. Sacred Cows


The scales need to be tipped in favor of fairness.
Obviously, other people will place different values on the ideas I have listed above, or may even value some things that I haven't listed. Fairness is of the utmost importance in that it is what drives the game. Once the game becomes unfair, that is, becomes driven too much by luck, players will stop playing and the game will suffer. The glory is lost to a lucky champion. Now, what threshold of "not luck" is required is certainly a subjective thing. Does the format need to be pushed to a universal fundamental turn of four? Honestly, I can't say. I can say, however, that a game which is drawn out a little almost certainly leads to more opportunities for both players to show their skill. Yes, luck is a fundamental aspect of the game. However, that does not mean we should just embrace it blindly.

Card availability has to be ranked above the remaining values because I think that's what makes Vintage Vintage. The whole point of the format is that you can play with all of your cards; taking that away somehow just taints the format. Regarding the idea of banning cards, I'm really on the fence. A few months ago, I probably would have said it was time for Yawgmoth's Will to finally be banned. However, now I'm not so sure. I ranked deck diversity ahead of a static Banned/Restricted List because I don't want the former to be at the mercy of the latter. The current metagame definitely shows signs of why I think this. While Gush was just unrestricted, perhaps it is time for it to be shown the door again. Finally, I just don't value sacred cows that highly. While they do have value, I think there are too many other competing priorities of greater importance that should not be taking a backseat to this relatively abstract value. That being said, I can see why people would disagree, so I included it in this article.

The Banned/Restricted List is the defining aspect of Vintage. While other formats simply say "enough is enough", Vintage does not, no matter how bad it gets. Because Vintage is worth protecting, a coherent and logical B/R policy is essential to the survival and health of the format.

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