Crafting a Vintage

Posted in Latest Developments on June 26, 2009

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

Magic's Eternal tournament formats, Legacy and Vintage, include all Magic cards by default. Legacy only has a banned list. Vintage also has a banned list, but it adds a restricted list; a player can play at most one copy of each card on the restricted list in a deck. Philosophically, the difference is that in Vintage, no cards are banned for power-level reasons. In fact, cards are banned only for causing logistical problems. For example, Chaos Orb requires manual dexterity, Contract from Below discusses ante, and Shahrazad creates subgames. All of these things would cause problems in tournaments, so they are banned. Only twelve out of over ten thousand cards that have been printed with black borders are banned in Vintage.

The logical consequence of only banning cards for logistical reasons is that Vintage is full of very powerful Magic cards. It is the only format in which Black Lotus, the Moxes, Balance, Yawgmoth's Will, and so on are free to roam. We love that there is a place where Magic players can play with almost every card we've printed. However, we are also wary of Vintage, because we know how crazy a place it can be. At various times in the format's history, there have been very fast combination decks that were extremely difficult to disrupt. Sometimes those decks can win consistently, even through resistance, as quickly as turn two. Decks that strong make for unhealthy metagames, because it's hard to justify playing any other deck.

R&D's primary impact on most formats is designing new cards. Making new Magic cards that are both strong enough to impact Vintage and a natural fit for a new Magic set is very difficult, so we do not often attempt this. Instead, the restricted list is the tool that we use to govern the format. When things go wrong in Vintage, Magic R&D identifies problems and recommends changes to the DCI.

I began playing Magic in 1997. The first tournament format I played seriously was Vintage. Back then, Vintage followed a pattern: every few years a massively powerful deck would appear, one or more cards would be restricted because of it, and the process would repeat. Cards were never removed from the restricted list, so the list kept growing and growing. I assumed that the logic was that if a card was powerful enough to make it onto the list, there was no way it would ever be safe to let it off.

One of the single largest additions to the restricted list for Vintage (then called Type I) came in September 1999. Tolarian Academy and Time Spiral had already been restricted, but many other cards from Urza's Saga, Urza's Legacy, and Urza's Destiny were still combining to create onerously broken Vintage decks. The DCI responded by restricting a whopping eighteen cards. Here's the text from the actual announcement:

Crop Rotation is restricted
Doomsday is restricted
Dream Halls is restricted
Enlightened Tutor is restricted
Frantic Search is restricted
Grim Monolith is restricted
Hurkyl's Recall is restricted
Lotus Petal is restricted
Mana Crypt is restricted
Mana Vault is restricted
Mind Over Matter is restricted
Mox Diamond is restricted
Mystical Tutor is restricted
Tinker is restricted
Vampiric Tutor is restricted
Voltaic Key is restricted
Yawgmoth's Bargain is restricted
Yawgmoth's Will is restricted

That's a lot of restrictions all at once. Let's see what the DCI had to say about them.

Over the past year, the Type 1 format has been dominated by very fast combination decks. Using these decks, players can win so quickly that they have little or no interaction with their opponents other than a finishing Fireball or Stroke of Genius. Although combo decks are an important part of any tournament environment, they shouldn't be so fast that opponents can do nothing to stop them. The new restrictions, designed to slow down fast combo decks, can be grouped into three broad categories: fast mana, combo engines, and combo searchers.


Stroke of Genius

It's clear that the speed of Vintage games was a serious problem. The DCI felt that the format was in a state of emergency and that immediate action was required. To make sure that the problem was solved, the DCI chose to restrict a lot of cards.

Many of the cards that the DCI restricted here were correctly identified as being very powerful. Tinker and Yawgmoth's Will are still defining characteristics of tournament Vintage even though only one copy of each card may be played per deck. Vampiric Tutor, Mystical Tutor, Mana Crypt, and Mana Vault are also all still Vintage staples. However, other cards on their list were less offensive as individual cards. Does Voltaic Key really require restriction if Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, and Grim Monolith are also restricted? Is Mox Diamond even powerful in a deck that wins so quickly it only wants to play eleven lands?

It makes perfect sense that the DCI in 1999 would choose to restrict more cards than necessary so that it could be certain that its combo problem would be solved. The format was not fun, and something needed to change. However, because unrestricting cards was not something that happened often, all eighteen of these cards stayed on the restricted list for many years even after they no longer posed a danger.

In the modern era, we have a more nuanced understanding of the Vintage metagame. The four tournament Vintage archetypes that we have identified revolve around four cards: Dark Ritual, Force of Will, Bazaar of Baghdad, and Mishra's Workshop. In the current Vintage metagame, Mana Drain is by far the most powerful unrestricted blue card other than Force of Will, so almost all of the Force of Will decks are also Mana Drain decks. In order to keep a diverse metagame, all four of these archetypes need to have a real shot at winning a match and the archetypes need to stay distinct.

Late this spring, we identified that Force of Will / Mana Drain decks were winning in Vintage much more consistently than the other three kinds of decks. One cause of this was the removal of power-level errata on Time Vault. That card combined with either Voltaic Key or Tezzeret the Seeker now results in the Mana Drain player taking infinite turns on the spot. Before, Mana Drain decks had to spend many slots in their decks on making sure that they had a way to win games. With Time Vault, they only need to spend a few slots on this, which allows them to be much stronger.

We announced last Friday how the format was changing. Here's an explanation of each choice we made.

Thirst for Knowledge is restricted.

Thirst for Knowledge

Most Vintage decks contain large quantities of restricted cards. In fact, the only unrestricted blue cards that most Mana Drain / Tezzeret decks played four copies of were Force of Will, Mana Drain, and Thirst for Knowledge. Restricting Force of Will would be ruinous. Restricting Mana Drain might eliminate blue as a deck entirely, and it also would take away a large part of what makes Vintage special to many of its players. The only other blue card that Mana Drain / Tezzeret decks played more than one copy of was Tezzeret the Seeker. Most decks play two copies of Tezzeret, but reducing from two copies to one would not have hurt the deck significantly. Thirst for Knowledge was the only card that made sense for us to restrict.

Thirst for Knowledge was the strongest unrestricted blue card-draw spell in Vintage before this restriction, but it was not the only one. Mystic Remora already saw some play in the modern era, and the combination of Intuition and Accumulated Knowledge has been strong enough in the past. We expect that Tezzeret-based Mana Drain decks will still be strong, but that they will be weakened. This will leave room for Mishra's Workshop, Dark Ritual, and Bazaar of Baghdad decks to catch up.

Some players have called for the banning of Time Vault. This would solve the Tezzeret problem cleanly, but it would break the fundamental principle that Vintage does not ban cards for power-level reasons. Banning Time Vault would prompt many uncomfortable questions. For example, if Time Vault is worth banning, what about Yawgmoth's Will? Is Ancestral Recall too good? Deciding where to draw the line is complicated and messy, and we don't want to try. We do not plan to ban cards in Vintage.

We can also use the restricted list to change the format by removing cards from it with the goal of strengthening particular decks or creating new ones. We chose to unrestrict four cards in this announcement.

Entomb is unrestricted.


Entomb found its way onto the restricted list thanks to decks built around Worldgorger Dragon. The combination of Worldgorger Dragon and an Aura like Animate Dead created an infinite loop that produced infinite mana, and Entomb helped put Worldgorger Dragon in the graveyard quickly. Worldgorger Dragon decks also used Bazaar of Baghdad. Modern Vintage dredge decks built around Bazaar of Baghdad, however, are just as fast and in some ways harder to disrupt than Worldgorger Dragon decks were, because of how bad Counterspells are at fighting Ichorids popping out of the graveyard. We aren't sure whether or not Entomb will enable a deck that can challenge Tezzeret. However, Bazaar of Baghdad-based dredge decks are kept in check by powerful hate cards, and those same hate cards would also work against any Entomb-based graveyard deck should a powerful one appear.

Grim Monolith is unrestricted.

Grim Monolith is a fast-mana card that found itself on the chopping block as part of the September 1999 restrictions I discussed earlier. However, it is weak compared to both Dark Ritual and Mishra's Workshop, two unrestricted fast-mana cards. An unrestricted Grim Monolith may help enable a Metalworker-based Mishra's Workshop strategy, or it may create decks built around the Power Artifact / Grim Monolith infinite mana engine. Either way, the decks it strengthens will not be Time Vault-based Mana Drain decks.


Grim Monolith
Enlightened Tutor

Enlightened Tutor is unrestricted.

Enlightened Tutor was also part of the September 1999 restrictions. However, the single available copy of Enlightened Tutor has gone almost entirely unplayed during the past year. We're not entirely certain what decks this might enable, but we do not expect that they will be Mana Drain decks.

Crop Rotation is unrestricted.

Crop Rotation

We recognize that Crop Rotation is the most potentially dangerous of the cards we chose to unrestrict. It was originally restricted because it found Tolarian Academy, which was one of the strongest fast-mana cards in the format. Now, some Dark Ritual–based decks don't even play the single copy of Tolarian Academy because they do not have enough artifacts to power it. If a Tolarian Academy-based combination deck appears, it will be different enough from the Dark Ritual decks that kill with Tendrils of Agony that it would be a new deck.

Of course, there are plenty of other lands for Crop Rotation to find. Mishra's Workshop decks are poised to make the most of this capability. They already played Crucible of Worlds and Wasteland, and Crop Rotation will enable them to find their single Strip Mine more consistently to go with the Crucible. Of course, sometimes that same Mishra's Workshop deck will simply want to find its namesake card, or perhaps it will want to find a singleton Bazaar of Baghdad, The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, or some other goofy land.

The net effect of the Vintage restricted list changes will be to weaken Mana Drain decks and strengthen other decks in comparison. If any one of the unrestricted cards becomes a problem, we will not hesitate to place it back on the restricted list. However, we are excited about the shrinking restricted list. On a very basic level, we like it when Magic players can play with their cards. We currently have the shortest restricted list that we've had since 1999, and thanks to the ever-increasing number of Magic cards in existence, we also have by far the lowest fraction of Vintage-legal cards on the restricted list. We hope that Vintage players continue to enjoy the format, and we look forward to seeing the results of this year's Vintage Championships at Gen Con!

Before I go, we made a single change to a Magic Online–only format that I would like to address.

Kaleidoscope: Anathemancer is banned.


Kaleidoscope is a Magic Online format that requires that all of the nonland cards in a deck be multicolored. Many formats contain cards like Blood Moon that punish you for being excessively multicolored. Before Alara Reborn, none of those cards were themselves multicolored, so they would not get in the way of Kaleidoscope. Then, Alara Reborn contained Anathemancer, which is just such a card. We understand that the format could have adjusted to Anathemancer's presence. However, it seemed inappropriate for a format that was designed to encourage multicolor play to contain a card that put pressure on players to only be multicolored to a certain degree. The Magic Online Banned and Restricted Committee chose to ban Anathemancer rather than put that tension on the format.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into how we approach formats like Vintage that use large numbers of existing cards. Next week, Magic 2010 previews begin. Remember when I said last week that it would take careful consideration and extensive playtesting before Lightning Bolt could come back?

As you might have seen in the Visual Spoiler or in Mike Flores's article yesterday, we considered carefully and playtested extensively. Come back next week to see what else we've been up to!

Last Week's Poll

Do you plan to purchase Duels of the Planeswalkers, or have you already?
No, I don't have an Xbox 2122 65.2%
Yes 752 23.1%
No, I have an Xbox but do not plan to purchase Duels of the Planeswalkers 380 11.7%
Total 3254 100.0%

We're all very excited about Duels of the Planeswalkers. It's Magic's debut on Xbox LIVE Arcade, a place that Magic has never been before but that we're happy to be part of. We're also proud of how well it's been received by the larger gaming public. It currently has a Metacritic score of 79 out of 100 and user reviews with an average of 8.8 out of 10, which is phenomenal. I'm glad to see that two thirds of the Xbox owners who responded to the poll have bought it. Duels of the Planeswalkers is also a great way to introduce people to Magic. If you have a friend with an Xbox, direct them to Duels of the Planeswalkers and you may find yourself another person to play Magic with.

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