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Vintage 101: There Can Be Only One!


Ali From Cairo, Mark Poole, Arabian Nights

Tremble at the Might of my Dingus Egg!

The other day I went and looked back at the articles I've written over the past year. It occurred to me that certain topics like the Restricted List appeared quite frequently. Mishra's Workshop, Chalice of the Void, Lodestone Golem, and Gush dominated a lot of the discussion. Those cards, for better or worse, were taking up most of the air in the room so to speak. All of those cards were firmly tier one and most other cards and archetypes were hovering just below that in the pecking order. 

Nowadays we the community and the DCI have tons of data to look at when deciding which cards should be banned or restricted. Even so, if you listen to the community, they (the DCI) can't do anything right (sarcasm intended). There's always this dichotomy between the players and the official rule-makers, and the players are often fragmented wildly in their opinions as well. I've had mostly supportive feelings of the DCI's decisions regarding Vintage, but I have also been adamantly opposed to some as well. For instance I did not agree with the Lodestone Golem restriction, but time has proven that it didn't matter quite as much as I had thought it would. 

The most recent changes to the list have been more polarizing than I expected they would be, but I feel that the outlook isn't as grim as some would insist. I also feel that we're lucky to be in an age where the people who make the decisions about the B&R list have real street cred in tournament Magic. Things weren't always this way. Once upon a time, when Magic strategy was in its infancy, the people who made decisions about which cards to restrict didn't have a clue of what they were doing. There just weren't that many "pro-level" players back then, and the people who did have the appropriate knowledge didn't work for Wizards of the Coast.

To illustrate my point a bit, let's take a look at the very first banned and restricted list for Magic: the Gathering. Keep in mind that at this point, in January of 1994, there were no "formats" yet. The Standard format would not be created until much later. 

January 1994 Restricted List

Ali from Cairo
Ancestral Recall
Berserk
Black Lotus
Braingeyser
Dingus Egg
Gauntlet of Might
Icy Manipulator
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Orcish Oriflamme
Rukh Egg
Sol Ring
Timetwister
Time Vault
Time Walk
All cards that referenced the "Ante Rule" are banned from tournament play (unless agreed upon by the event judge). Shahrazad is also banned as a logistic consideration due to the time it adds to a match. 

Many of the cards on that list are still restricted today; famously the "Power Nine" and Time Vault are still restricted. Notably left off of the list are cards like Chaos Orb and Wheel of Fortune, both of which were initially included in the first "Core set" called Alpha. 

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When you look at that list you might see some cards that seem silly by today's standards. "Braingeyser was restricted but Mind Twist wasn't?" you might be asking yourself. Or perhaps you're a newer generation of player and you had to do a web search to see what Dingus Egg even does. 

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In 1994 land destruction was considered a viable strategy. People also tend to hate having their lands blown up too, so the DCI wanted to weaken land destruction strategies. They could have restricted Sinkhole as it was the most efficient targeted land killer, or even Armageddon as it was the most powerful decimator of real estate. Instead they hit Dingus Egg so that people couldn't use it as a horribly expensive win condition in their land denial decks. I'm not sure that this move really had the intended effect...

Orcish Oriflamme, Gauntlet of Might, and Rukh Egg are also pretty odd cards to restrict. There was a misprinted version of Oriflamme that cost less, and that likely caused confusion and led to problems. Rukh Egg was used in some early Reanimator-type decks in combination with Animate Dead (and later on Hell's Caretaker) but in early 1994 it probably wasn't that good yet. Looking at the way the Arabian Nights version of Rukh Egg was templated it's possible that players were incorrectly triggering it when it was discarded, and perhaps that added to its perceived power level.

Gauntlet of Might is a pretty fair card by today's standards. Players and Magic R&D severely overestimated the power of creatures in the early days of the game so cards that seemed to give an unfair boost to your creatures were probably misjudged as well. 

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The First (and second to last) Creature Added to the Restricted List

As I mentioned earlier, nearly everyone involved in either making or playing Magic: the Gathering assumed that creatures were far more powerful parts of the game than they actually were. You can see the evidence of this by simply looking at the costs and effects of cards from the early to mid-nineties. For instance, for one red mana you could get either a Mon's Goblin Raiders or a Lightning Bolt. Creatures like Air Elemental, Serra Angel, and Shivan Dragon were considered highly playable staples while the most expensive targeted removal spells cost two mana (Terror). 

In the midst of this type of creature-centric climate the restriction of Ali from Cairo made sense to the community. After all, Ali did have a unique and powerful effect printed on his card. Ali is basically a "Worship with legs". 

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The reality is that Ali from Cairo is just a bad card from a spike's perspective. You pay four mana for a card that can't really attack or block, and it dies from anything stronger than a stiff breeze. The fact that this card was ever restricted is evidence of how poorly Magic was understood in 1994, and it shows a lot about how far we have come. Specifically I'm mentioning Ali from Cairo here because it relates to recent events in Vintage. You see, little Ali shares the distinction of being a restricted creature with one other card, Lodestone Golem

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Lonesome Lodestone

When Lodestone Golem was restricted it upset a great deal of Vintage players, and it made many others ecstatic. People who were against the restriction were quick to point out that creatures weren't traditionally thought of as restriction-worthy. The reason why is as simple as the hackneyed saying "it dies to removal." Creatures are one of the most commonly-played card types and as such people are far more likely to be packing removal for creatures than they are for any other permanent type. The effect on a creature can be so powerful that it literally stops you from losing a game (like Ali, or Platinum Angel) and still not be too powerful simply because of the fragility of creatures as a card type. 

So Lodestone Golem, with it's infinitely Lightning Bolt-able body, was enough of a dominant force in Mishra's Workshop decks to be considered a restriction-worthy threat. It was deemed fit for the restricted list because the mana-taxing static ability printed on it tends to actually negate the argument that it "dies to removal". After all, your card can't die to removal if nobody can afford to cast that removal spell. In practice if a Workshop deck's opponent did not have either a Force of Will or another immediate answer to a Golem then they were extremely likely to lose that game. 

I happened to disagree with the Lodestone Golem restriction when it first happened. I disagreed with it not because I felt that people were overstating the power level of the card but because I felt that Mishra's Workshop decks are an important counterbalance to the degenerate combo decks in Vintage. I didn't think that Workshops with one Golem could remain a tier one threat. As it turns out I was incorrect, and skilled Workshop designers and players found ways to keep the Workshop Prison archetype alive. Luckily, Wizards of the Coast keeps printing very powerful four-drop creatures, so suitable replacements were found and the archetype was saved.

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Restricting More Creatures

The funny thing about how the original Magic designers used to think that creatures were too powerful is the fact that the modern designers have turned that scenario into a reality. The creatures that get printed nowadays are just insane compared to what we used to get. Think about the difference between an Ehrnamn Djinn and a Siege Rhino and you'll see what I mean. If Wizards of the Coast is going to keep printing such powerful creatures then they also need to understand that they may sometimes push those creatures too much. 

As you may have guessed by now, I'm working my way towards a discussion on everyone's favorite karate monk, Monastery Mentor. This creature has been a force in Vintage (and somewhat Legacy too) since it was first printed, although it did take a while to really pick up steam

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In the past Vintage players had very powerful, but much more fair "growing" creatures at their disposal. Quirion Dryad and Psychatog fulfilled similar roles over a decade ago. In more recent history cards like Talrand, Sky Summoner, Young Pyromancer, and even Thing in the Ice and Managorger Hydra saw some limited amounts of play. 

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Each one of the growing creatures pictured above has seen play in the format. They're all extremely strong cards in their own right, but each one of them pales in comparison to Monastery Mentor. The gulf between the strength of Mentor and anything similar to it is enormous and that fact makes playing anything else a liability. 

It's not just a matter of which growing creature you want to play either. It's very difficult to justify playing any other kind of normal creature-based deck in Vintage. BUG Fish is technically fringe-playable, as is Merfolk, but those decks are hardly a blip on the format's radar these days. Normal creatures all "die to removal", and they generally take up a large amount of space in a deck. Monastery Mentor is just the opposite; it's an extremely compact win condition and highly resilient to removal. 

It's my firm opinion that Mentor needs to go the way of Gush and friends. I spend a lot of time trying to illustrate the depth that this format has, but I'm constantly seeing that things have coalesced around only two archetypes. Everything is Shops and Mentor with a little sprinkling of other random stuff. I'm sure that this stalemate is partially due to the propensity of players to pick up whatever the best players are using, but the results indicate that things aren't too healthy overall. 

The Lunatic Fringe

Even though non-Mentor, non-Workshop decks have become relegated to the fringes of the format I plan on continuing to highlight them. I absolutely do not think that Shops and Mentor are the only playable decks, they just happen to be very solidly tier one. I also think that Mentor and Shops fall into the "easy to learn, difficult to master" category. There is a big difference between the success rate of a skilled player and a new player with either of those decks, but the strength of each of those decks tends to make up a lot of ground lost to a sub-optimal skill level. 

With that said, let's take a look at two interesting decks that I managed to dig up this week! 

IslandSwamps, and Forests

I have to say, it takes real guts to run Zuran Orb and Null Rod in the same deck. All kidding aside, I think that there are some neat things going on here (even if there are some problems to be worked out). 

In many ways this deck is like a BUG Fish deck. You've got Deathrite Shamans, Leovolds, and Snapcaster Mages. There's also some combo cards in the list too though. There's Tinker and Blightsteel colossus, but also a less-known combo. This deck runs Zuran Orb, Ramunap Excavator (instead of Crucible of Worlds), and Fastbond to make infinite mana and gain infinite life. 

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With these combo cards added this deck can go from playing fair to winning on the spot, and as a rogue deck opponents aren't going to expect that. There's more to this story though. When the deck is not in combo mode the three cards pictured above still provide a benefit. Ramunap and Fastbond both play very well with Wasteland. If you can afford to take the damage you can use the Excavator/Fastbond combo to keep your opponent from having any lands in play! 

There aren't many entries for this deck on the results page and this list didn't have a phenomenal record, but I feel like there's a decent deck somewhere in here. I'm sure that with some tuning and testing this concept could have some potential!

Make Goblin Welder Great Again!

The last time I wrote an article I featured Cerebral Assassin. I mentioned how Goblin Welder was a deceptively powerful creature, and I hoped that someone would brew up a killer Welder deck. It appears that this player did just that!

This is Vintage Welder Control, also known as 'Slaverless Slaver. The shell is nearly the same as Control Slaver but with Time Vault and Voltaic Key instead of Mindslaver as a win condition. Vault/Key has the benefit of being much easier to cast than Mindslaver so it enables victories that don't involve Goblin Welder. You can still do plenty of sweet tricks with your Welders though, but you don't have to fret over Mental Misstep quite so much! 

I love the use of Dark Confidant as a draw engine here. It's a little risky considering some of the more expensive cards in the deck, but there is a Sensei's Divining Top and Jace, the Mind Sculptor to minimize the damage from your Dark Confidant triggers. Also Dark Confidant helps dig through your deck faster which in turn makes each Jace activation even better. 

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Baleful Strix is a good piece of removal against Workshops or Eldrazi, and it becomes a draw engine with Goblin Welder. As a creature it sidesteps Thorn of Amethyst and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and it's immune to some commonly-played counterspells. 

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This is definitely one of the cooler decks I've seen in a while. I'm hoping that I get to see more decks like this soon, and hopefully people are able to be successful with them. The main problem with a deck like this is that it's less explosive than Paradoxical Outcome combo while falling prey to many of the artifact hate cards. With proper tuning it could be a contender though. 

 

That's all the time I have for this week folks. I'll be back soon with more sweet, sweet Vintage action! You can follow me on Twitter @Islandswamp

 


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