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Vintage 101: The Format Conundrum

Howdy folks! It's time yet again for another edition of Vintage 101! I'm your host, Joe Dyer, and this week we're going to be taking another high level look at Vintage as a format and the tenets of Banned/Restricted Philosophy, and the current health of Vintage as a format. In addition, we have two Vintage Challenges to talk about, as well as our Spice Corner.

Without further ado, let's dive right into the thick of things!

Format a La Format

There has been a lot of discussion going around lately about Vintage as a format, and notably how Vintage is managed from a higher level perspective in regards to the Banned/Restricted list. The Companion mechanic has stirred such conversations amidst the following post reply by Mark Rosewater on his Tumblr blog.

Vintage as a format has long been a format where nearly every card in the existence of the game is available to play, in some capacity. The very concept of the Restricted list promotes that and allows the format to solve problems by restricting them to a single copy in the deck. This is at the core, one of the pieces of format identity for Vintage. Now, let's talk about Mark's response here. Yes, there are cards that are currently banned in Vintage. Those cards are specifically cards with Ante, cards that have manual dexterity issues (Chaos Orb, Falling Star), and Shahrazad (which has a whole mess of logistical issues with sub games), and Conspiracy cards (which were never intended to function with Constructed formats). Cards have never been banned in Vintage for any other reason before. Mark's response here however, does not quite give much of an indication that a ban would be considered based on power level, but it does bring up an interesting conundrum of how do you approach banning a card in a format where the typical philosophy is to not ban?

There have been a few interesting conversations on this topic floating around and how Companion might fit into those. Companion represents a uniquely positioned mechanic and range of cards within the format since restricting the cards does not accomplish anything. The cards (especially Lurrus) are played as one-of's in the sideboard anyways, so restricting them effectively does nothing to them. So what is the correct answer if there is a real problem with one of these cards?

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One argument is that banning one of these cards goes against the identity of Vintage as a format, viewing the ban of a card like Lurrus as a power level ban. Banning the card would become a slippery slope, as strong arguments could be made against other cards to ban and Vintage would no longer be Vintage. Another argument is that the Companion mechanic itself should be banned, making the cards playable in the format but only in a capacity where they have to be drawn and cast from hand, not from outside the game. It is believed under this ruling that the identity of Vintage could be kept intact. Even further of an argument is to errata the Companion ability in general (as the cards themselves don't have any rules text on the pregame procedures with a Companion) to where the player has to bottom a card from their hand prior to the beginning of the game in order to have a Companion.

We're going to take a look at each of these options.

Changing the Mechanic via Errata

Let's talk first about changing Companion as a mechanic via errata. One of the proposed functionary changes across all formats has been whether or not Companion would ultimately be balanced if the mechanic itself were errata'ed to have the player with Companion start with one fewer card in hand. The idea behind this is ultimately a way to address how powerful having a functionally eighth card in your opening hand is. While it is possible that this could help balance the mechanic for newer formats, the older formats go back it is possible that this still doesn't address how strong having a freely available card is. Furthermore, I suspect that this is a change that would only be driven by Wizards if Standard were in extreme dire circumstances by the mechanic itself, which is currently being shown as not completely on fire thanks to Companions. This is the option I see them pursuing the least as Wizards tends to handle things for various formats on a very case by case basis.

While Wizards does occasionally make some sweeping changes, one such that comes to mind is the removal of the Planeswalker redirection rule, these changes often are typically made with the release schedule of a new set and generally for some forward-thinking reasoning. The Planeswalker redirection rule was primarily removed as a method of allowing these rules to be processed a little better by Magic Arena, and generally returning to intended card text for simple cards such as Lightning Bolt.

Banning the Mechanic in Vintage

Another argument that has been made has been around banning the Companion Mechanic or also possibly having a "Banned as Companion" list for the format. There is talk here in regards to there being a precedent for this kind of argument, with Wizards having banned the Partner mechanic for 1v1 Commander on Magic Online, or for Commander itself having a Banned as Commander list originally. Under this sort of change, the individual cards would remain playable as main deck cards, thus somewhat preserving the format identity of Vintage as being a format where you can play nearly every card available.

This is an intriguing possibility, but it has a few downsides. One downside of this is that by banning the mechanic itself is that it essentially soft bans every Companion from the format entirely. While some might be fine with this and it is interesting to consider, the only Companion that has proven to be exceptionally pushed has been Lurrus. Others such as Lutri have proven to be interesting deckbuilding exercises, while the others that seem playable haven't really had a chance to show whether they're fun and interesting cards yet because of the overpowered nature of Lurrus. Many of these cards (Lurrus included) are just not playable as a main deck card without the Companion ability. Lurrus alone could potentially still see play, but then the deckbuilding cost would be "it has to be in your deck and then you have to draw it" which makes it a bit more fragile than with the Companion function.

Furthermore, utilizing a "Banned as Companion" function would likely be fine, but that in a sense makes the banned list more complex, something that Wizards likely would not wish to pursue in the interests of keeping things a simple as possible.

Banning the Offending Card

The final argument to discuss is whether it makes sense to just ban the card that is causing the problems. In this case, the card we are talking about is obviously Lurrus. The obvious nature of banning one of these cards does entail how this affects Vintage overall and its format identity and whether this would break Vintage's identity as the format where you can play almost any card in the game.

I actually don't believe this to be the case now that banning a card like Lurrus would actually be a huge break from Vintage's format identity. One of the things we talked about earlier is how cards have never been banned for basis of power level reasoning, and that is where I approach the possibility of Lurrus being banned not for those reasons. There are numerous reasons a card can be banned, and they're not always for power level in other formats. Occasionally things are banned for purely structural reasons. For example, in Legacy, the card Sensei's Divining Top was not fully banned on the basis of power level, as the card itself was not so excessively egregious, but when paired with Counterbalance it was made into a prison engine. Top was banned largely on the basis of structural integrity of the format, as it led to events where the very clear best deck to play was Top Miracles. Furthermore, cards like Deathrite Shaman filled a similar ban role in that format, as it homogenized deck construction.

I believe Lurrus to be in a similar position within the format currently. Structurally it makes sense to build a deck around Lurrus and its restriction in the current metagame. Now there are a few different Lurrus shells (which we'll talk about later), but for the most part you are going to be building around a specific subset of cards with Lurrus as the companion. Structurally this creates some issues for the format overall as decks move to centralize around this card.

I can definitely see that potentially just banning Lurrus as a very extreme structural reasoning, and that this would long term be fine for the format and would be acceptable as a solution for the format being preserved in its format identity.

Is Vintage Healthy?

This is the question that has been the topic of a fair number of conversations as of late. Is Vintage actually healthy or are changes necessary? I'm of the mind that the format is not currently healthy, due to the fact that highly repetitive play patterns exist with Companion. While there is a small measure of diversity within the Lurrus shells, diversity does not always equal healthy if there are archetypes that are being forced out of the format (primarily non-Blue archetypes) or homogenization across archetypes occurring.

We will be going on next to discussing the data from this week's events to help illustrate where the format seems to be right now.

Vintage Challenge 5/2

We had two Challenges this week, so let's take a look at the Top 32 Metagame breakdown of the first one of the weekend.

This event was pretty dominated by the presence of Lurrus PO, along with a few other Lurrus decks here or there, and a small smattering of Non Companion decks. The Top 8 however was all Lurrus.

Deck Name Placing MTGO Username
Lurrus PO 1st Yamakiller
Lurrus PO 2nd Treno
Lurrus PO 3rd LSV
Lurrus PO 4th ThePowerNine
Lurrus Lavinia 5th Blubberburg
Lurrus 4C 6th Exavie
Lurrus Lavinia 7th KillerSUV
Lurrus 4C 8th Svaca

Lurrus PO converted insanely well in this event, taking up the entirety of the Top 4 of the event. The winner of the event, however, was multi-format crusher Yamakiller on a red slanted Lurrus PO build.

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This deck leans well on the Sprite Dragon fulfilling the same role as cards like Managorger Hydra or Monastery Mentor in variants without Lurrus instead of having black for Tendrils of Agony. This seems pretty strong overall.

The Second, Third, and Fourth Place lists are all Esper colored and utilize Tendrils as a kill however, and includes folks like LSV and our friend Justin Franks (ThePowerNine) among the rest of the Top 4. Let's just run down their lists here.

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There's a lot of minor similarities and differences in these lists but their game plan is all pretty similar for the general win condition of utilizing Storm as the combo kill with PO.

In Fifth Place we a Lurrus Lavinia build.

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I have to imagine playing four Urza's Bauble likely had to do with the general price of Mishra's Bauble on Magic Online at the moment (roughly 50 tix or so), but this list does seem pretty cool. I'm relatively surprised that these lists playing Baubles haven't yet taken any inspiration from Legacy and started playing cards like Meddling Mage. The information gained off Bauble activations is a great way to utilize this card, and you still have Gitaxian Probe as a 1-of for information.

In Sixth Place we have a Lurrus 4C DRS deck.

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This deck is basically a Bob/Dreadhorde Arcanist pile, utilizing the card advantage off these cards to attempt to bury the opponent and then finish them off with Deathrite Shaman much like the Czech Pile of olden times in Legacy.

In Seventh Place we have another Esper Lavinia list.

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This list is pretty similar to the other, outside of not utilizing the Baubles at all.

Rounding out the Top 8 we have the master of 4C himself, Tomas Mar, on a Lurrus DRS 4C build.

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Now let's take a look at the 2019-2020 cards in this event as well as the Companions. A reminder that we are only looking at 2019 cards if they have 10 of more copies.

Card Name Number of Copies
Lavinia, Azorius Renegade 32
Lurrus of the Dream Den 24
Force of Negation 18
Soul-Guide Lantern 18
Sprite Dragon 13
Underworld Breach 5
Thassa's Oracle 4
Klothys, God of Destiny 1
Lutri, the Spellchaser 1
Yidaro, Wandering Monster 1

Lavinia was the queen of the 2019-2020 cards this event, with more copies than I've really ever seen her at in the past, but it makes sense with everyone playing Lurrus to be on this card. It's also nice to see Soul-Guide Lantern up there as that card is much better than people initially considered it to be upon release.

Now for the Companions.

It's no surprise that decks containing Lurrus were a big part of this event. While there are different Lurrus shells the card fits into, we will talk later on in Companion Watch about the effect I feel this card is having on the format overall.

Vintage Challenge 5/3

Our second Challenge of the weekend proved to be just as equally filled with Lurrus. Let's take a look at the Top 32.

Lurrus PO was a huge portion of this event, with 13 copies of the deck in the Top 32, converting 5/8 of the deck into the Top 8. Let's take a look at the Top 8.

Deck Name Placing MTGO Username
Lurrus PO 1st GnorilGrande
Lurrus PO 2nd Billsive
Lurrus PO 3rd CNewman
Lurrus Breach 4th AnziD
Lurrus DRS 5th ABR_
Lurrus PO 6th Ecobaronen
Lurrus Breach 7th WWolf
Lurrus PO 8th Shorak123

This was a crazy Top 8, with plenty of familiar names in it. PO was certainly overpowering here, however. At the end of the event it was none other than Andrea Mengucci (GnorilGrande) who took down the event on Lurrus PO.

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Again, this list (and the Second/Third Place lists as well) all generally are leaning on Tendrils at the win, with cards like Lavinia bolstering that plan.

Moving down to Fourth place we have another familiar face in Anuraag Das (AnziD) on Lurrus Breach.

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This list is pretty powerful and definitely shows how good Breach can be. Whether this is the beginning of Breach showing its true power level in the format is unknown. The Sprite Dragon game plan in the sideboard shows up yet again, which is pretty strong.

The other unique list in the Top 8 was in Fifth Place by ABR_ on Lurrus DRS.

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This list is pretty strong too, as cards like Tarmogoyf and Deathrite Shaman are excessively powerful cards. One cool thing in the sideboard is Bitter Ordeal. Way cool.

Now let's take a look at the 2019-2020 cards and Companions in this event.

Card Name Number of Copies
Lavinia, Azorius Renegade 29
Lurrus of the Dream Den 26
Force of Negation 24
Sprite Dragon 24
Soul-Guide Lantern 14
Underworld Breach 12
Thassa's Oracle 2

Again, Lavinia seemed to be the hot card of the weekend, showing truly how good the card is in the format. It's worth noting that both Challenges this weekend did not meet the threshold for cards like Narset to appear, the lowest I've seen the card since its printing.

Now for the Companions.

The format was strictly Lurrus vs Non Lurrus this event, with no other Companions showing up at all.

Companion Watch

Now let's take a look at the overall Companion presence in the format, based on the Challenge events that have been published over the past few weeks. I am solely looking at Challenge events as League data is heavily curated while prelims are inconsistent data (they don't always fire, 3-2's and etc are published as well). Challenge events provided a great metric for looking at trends.

This is definitely telling that Lurrus has most assuredly asserted itself as the most dominantly played Companion and card overall from Ikoria in Vintage. In analyzing this data, one of the things that became glaringly apparent is the fact that while there are multiple Lurrus shells that exist, in all reality those shells look very much the same. There are roughly a few distinct powerful Lurrus shells, such as PO, Breach, DRS, and Lavinia. A conversation I was having with someone over the format (who is outside of the format) was looking at the Lurrus lists and genuinely asked the question "How do you really classify all of these? They all look the same."

That got me really thinking and looking at the lists and I realized ultimately that they were right. While there are some people trying out different things with the card, the overall metagame has coalesced into one of those four cards as a measure to win the game. This has also pushed out the Lurrus Shops variant almost entirely over the past few weeks as well as players become better acquainted with the format and what is good. Now, is this a measure of players just wanting to play the best deck and not innovating any? It is possible that this is a thing that is occurring. Players want to play with the new cards and thus they see play, but Companion has proven to be such an incredibly format penetrating mechanic since its release that I'm not sure anymore. Since the release of the set, we've got basically two weeks worth of Challenges every weekend, so being able to see the trend of this mechanic has been pretty interesting.

I will continue to be watching this data, but I do expect we will see changes before too long. Whatever those changes entail, we shall only have to see.

The Spice Corner

MTGO user mosh110 posted a cool list with Lurrus Bant!

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Wrapping Up

That's all the time we have this week folks! Thank you for supporting the column with your readership! Join us next week as we continue our journey into Vintage!

As always you can reach me on Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, and Patreon! You can always reach me as well on the MTGGoldfish Discord Server and the Vintage Streamers Discord.

Until next time!

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