Hello! Before I get to this week's Allied Color Week article I wanted to give R&D developers Erik Lauer and Mike Turian more space to talk about the recent Vintage format restrictions. (If Vintage isn't your bag, feel free to skip ahead to my article below.)
Adding five cards to the Vintage restricted list is something the DCI does only after extensive analysis, thought and debate, so we wanted to take this chance to go in-depth on the individual cards from the recent announcement and, along the way, show some of the issues the DCI takes into account when working to keep Vintage healthy.
One of the important functions the DCI provides is to continually analyze tournament formats to make sure they are healthy. The DCI pays particular attention to the trending of Top 8s from larger and stronger tournaments, because they are good indications of where the metagame is headed.
A healthy Vintage format generally has a reasonable diversity of deck types in the Top 8s of its tournaments. Over the past several months, the Vintage format has become significantly less healthy, with Top 8s having a significant overrepresentation of a couple of blue combo decks. These decks generally use a core of blue deck manipulation to search for either Fastbond or Yawgmoth's Will. The exact win condition (whether it be Tendrils of Agony, Brain Freeze, or something else) gives these decks different names, but in this case it's the overrepresentation of the underlying deck manipulation engine that's the issue. The goal of restricting cards is to get the format back to a healthy state, and with Vintage in particular the issue tends to be keeping combo decks reasonable relative to their format while also watching for cards that make restricted cards too easy to find quickly. With that in mind, let's look at each of the cards specifically.
The Flash-Hulk deck needs just two mana plus two particular cards in hand (Flash and Protean Hulk) to win the game. The frequency of turn-one and turn-two kills this card enables exceeds other combo decks that have faced restrictions. While the Flash combo requires some other combo elements in your deck, its speed and consistency contribute to an overpowered deck. This deck has also been getting noticeably more powerful as extra sets are added. Future Sight added Summoner's Pact and Pact of Negation. Morningtide added Reveillark and an instant speed kill which allows the deck to use Pact of Negation on Turn 1 and then win on the second turn's upkeep. While Flash hasn't dominated to the same level of some of the other cards on this list, the ease and quickness with which it allows first and second turn kills means it is too powerful to leave unrestricted.
The most efficient unrestricted tutor in the format, Merchant Scroll was problematic even when it "just" acted as four more opportunities to get Ancestral Recall, Gush, a combo piece like Flash, or whatever countermagic was needed to force through your big turn. Merchant Scroll will continue to fetch Ancestral Recall or the likes of Mystical Tutor, which in turn will fetch other cards from the restricted list like Yawgmoth's Will, Tinker, and Time Walk, to name just a few. When Gifts Ungiven was restricted Aaron Forsythe wrote, "Powerful spells that tutor for a single card are generally restricted in this format." Merchant Scroll's flexible power to find cards on demand, including restricted cards, has led to increasing dominance in the format, so Merchant Scroll will be an exception to this principle no longer.
Brainstorm has been under scrutiny as one of the most powerfully efficient cards in the format for many years, and has long teetered on the edge of restriction. For one mana, at instant speed, it fuels an unacceptable level of consistency and searching to dig out whatever is needed at the time, and it is particularly powerful in combination with the many shuffling effects in the format. Arguably the most efficient unrestricted card in Vintage prior to the June 1 announcement, it is stronger than many of the cards that have been restricted over the years instead of Brainstorm.
Furthermore, while Brainstorm is good in many decks, it is particularly powerful in combo decks. For one mana it finds combo elements that might have been as far as three turns away, while putting unneeded duplicate combo elements back on top of the deck. These decks often win before having to redraw those cards, or shuffle them away with effects like Onslaught's fetch lands. Restricting cards like Brainstorm, Ponder, and Merchant Scroll may also allow other cards to stay off the restricted list in the future now that they are harder to find so quickly.
While veterans of the format may agree or disagree about Brainstorm getting restricted, it probably comes as no surprise that it was at least considered. Ponder, on the other hand, would naturally raise more eyebrows. The reasoning behind this choice was overall health of the format. The increasing dominance of blue combo decks playing two to four copies of Ponder has demonstrated that in a Vintage context, Ponder's ability to filter to key powerhouses contributes an excessive consistency to blue combo decks and has become a significant factor in their overrepresentation. While Ponder is less efficient than Brainstorm, it is still very powerful in Vintage. Having the most efficient unrestricted deck manipulation card left in the format be a sorcery would inherently power up combo decks (which don't mind tapping mana on their own turn) while hurting the control decks (which really don't want to tap mana on their own turn) that are important for keeping the overall health of the format in balance.
Gush and three other cards were unrestricted last year. As we announced at the time, the DCI knew this was something that would need to be watched carefully. At first this went well, but recently the Gush + Fastbond engine has proven to be unhealthy with an ever-increasing dominance in Vintage Top 8s. With Fastbond out, Gush plays as a 0-mana instant that draws two cards, adds UU to your mana pool, and costs 2 life. This often finds another deck manipulation spell that finds another Gush, then another Gush, creating an avalanche of free cards while gaining mana in the process. Increasingly, Vintage tournament results have demonstrated that decks can put this powerful engine together too reliably for the format to have good diversity.
As always, Magic is a game of change and Vintage in particular is a vast format where an incredible number of things are possible (part of what makes it so exciting). The changes the DCI has made will be watched very closely, and the DCI will continue to listen to feedback and analyze the results that come in so that it maintains a healthy, diverse Vintage format to play with.
Why Are Dual Lands Usually Allied-Colored?
What I mean is that for each enemy-colored dual land in Magic, like UR Shivan Reef, there are far more allied-colored dual lands, from WU Flooded Strand to UB Darkwater Catacombs to BR Molten Slagheap to RG Highland Weald to GW Wooded Bastion. But why is that?
In short: why are dual lands usually allied-colored?
It's a question that takes us to the heart of what the phrase "allied colors" even means. To answer it, first we need to take a look at the places in Magic where dual lands are not allied colored.
Non-Allied Lands: Block Themes
The creative team works hard to ensure that each block's basic lands convey a unique sense of place that forms the backdrop for the entire plane. Mirrodin Plains, Ravnica Plains, and Shadowmoor Plains are incredibly different in their look, feel, and tone. The creative team does the same thing with a block's dual lands, using it to embody and communicate something essential to the plane that houses them. The name and art of Sacred Foundry shows something fundamental about Ravnica's Boros guild, while Wanderwine Hub shows you something fundamental about Lorwyn's merfolk.
Just like the creative team sets up the art of dual lands to communicate deep-seated elements of the block's look and feel, developers often do the same thing with dual land rules text, using them to communicate deep-seated elements of the block's mechanics. We sometimes do this within the structure of allied-color dual lands. But sometimes this means branching out from that allied-color structure to use different color pairs that support the block themes.
With Apocalypse the only "enemy-color set" to date, we reinforced that theme with powerful enemy-color dual lands. With Mirrodin an artifact block, we made its "dual lands" into dual-mana producing artifacts instead: the uncommon Talisman of Dominance cycle.
Time Spiral's dual lands are the uncommon Dreadship Reef cycle of storage lands, which use counters to track their powering up over time, coinciding with the overarching block theme of using time as a weapon, including Thallids, vanishing, and suspend. In keeping with Future Sight's theme of showing Magic cards from the future, Future Sight has five different dual land designs showcased from potential dual land cycles from future Magic sets. One of those Future Sight dual lands from the future has already been revealed in its native home, bringing in Shadowmoor's five hybrid lands to surround Future Sight's Graven Cairns.
Lorwyn's dual lands flow from its deep-rooted tribal theme. On the plane of Lorwyn, knowing which colors are "allied" is actually redefined by the structure of the two-color tribes. Instead of Magic's classic allied-color relationships and enemy-color relationships, there are allied-tribe relationships (shown on Marsh Flitter) and enemy-tribe relationship (shown on Warren-Scourge Elf.) That's why Lorwyn's five dual lands don't follow Magic's traditional allied colors or enemy colors at all. Instead, Lorwyn's dual lands show Lorwyn's redefinition of which colors of mana are allied on that plane, bound together by the tribes. In a very real way, the allied color pairs of Magic on the plane of Lorwyn are actually white-blue (linked by Merfolk), blue-black (linked by Faeries), black-red (linked by Goblins), green-black (linked by Elves), and red-white (linked by Giants).
And in the present-day, Shadowmoor's substantial hybrid theme is reinforced by its hybrid dual lands. Since Shadowmoor has a strong allied-color theme, it actually reinforces the allied-color dual land trend.
Non-Allied Lands: Sets with Ten Dual Lands
Every once in a long while, we do Magic sets with dual lands of all ten color combinations in the same set. Beta is the first example of this, with the ten-land Tundra and Scrubland double-cycle. (A misprint in Alpha yielded an accidental mis-cycle of just nine dual lands in Alpha. Sorry, Volcanic Island!)
Tempest is another example of a set with ten prominent dual lands. In this case, the Tempest designers chose five allied color lands and five enemy color lands, then used entirely different mechanics for the allied-color uncommon Mogg Hollows lands and the enemy-color Pine Barrens cycle. Ninth Edition and Tenth Edition each have all ten Adarkar Wastes–style painlands, across the allied and enemy combinations. And Ravnica block has ten equally cycled Watery Grave rare dual lands and ten equally cycled Rakdos Carnarium common dual lands
If you do ten dual lands in the same set or block, it makes a lot of sense to map them to all the color combinations, whether using different mechanics for each cycle like Tempest does, or using the same mechanics for all ten lands like Tenth Edition does.
But these ten-dual-land sets or blocks are the exception rather than the rule. It's not often than we would want to do ten dual lands in the same set. Using ten rare or uncommon slots just on mana-fixing lands threatens to drown out the other rares or uncommons by sheer weight of numbers. For people who don't want Lantern-Lit Graveyards, extending that uncommon cycle to ten uncommons in Champions of Kamigawa would mean a huge proportion of the uncommons someone opens in that set would be Lantern-Lit Graveyard equivalents. (We do have to fit in a couple of spells, after all!)
Five and Dime
So far I've just been talking about five-card or ten-card dual land cycles. Why not a set with seven dual lands? Or three? I'm sure some of you cringed as you contemplated as the idea of a set with seven dual lands flashed through your mind. Magic cycles are strongly associated with the number five. You can deviate from five-card cycles in a Magic design, but you'd better have a really good reason.
Some sets indeed have those good reasons. Since Lorwyn was structured around eight tribes as much as it was around five colors, many of Lorwyn's cycles are actually eight cards wide, from its cycle of eight Sunrise Sovereign lords to its cycle of eight Gaddock Teeg legends. And Ravnica's 4-3-3 guild structure led it to have cycles of three or four cards (including three or four dual lands) in those sets, as part of overarching ten-card cycles across the block. Torment's "black rules" theme led it to some four-card "black infects each of the other four colors" cycles, including a four-card Tainted Peak cycle of WB, UB, BR, BG dual lands.
But for sets that don't have a specific reasons to do four-card, six-card, or seven-card cycles, having four, six, or seven dual lands in the set would be awkward, jarring, and bizarre. It would be feel as wrong as randomly having seven "Rith, the Awakener" legendary Dragons in Invasion instead of five. The deepest underlying structure in the game is that of the five colors of Magic. Five colors fit five lands.
Likewise, if a block theme like Lorwyn or Ravnica is not steering the dual land allocations, it would be jarring and bizarre to have Odyssey's five dual lands be something neither allied-color nor enemy-color, like RG, GW, UR, WB, and RW.
Allied Philosophies Yield Allied Mana Bases
So block themes sometimes steer dual land cycles in their own directions. Dual land cycles in a set or block are almost always five-card or ten-card cycles. And a five-card cycle that's neither allied nor enemy colors feels jarring and bizarre unless it has a good reason to diverge.
So the question becomes: when a set has room for exactly five dual lands, and there is no block theme overriding the color choices, why do we choose allied-color dual lands over enemy-color cycles?
It comes down to frequency. We do both allied cycles and enemy cycles at different times. But there are reasons to do allied cycles more often.
As columnists have explored in a variety of different ways during Allied Color Week and in the past, the allied colors' philosophies have much more in common than the enemy colors' do. And the enemy colors' philosophies have much more inherent conflict. Richard Garfield's Alpha hammered home the conflict between enemy colors from the beginning with a large number of color-hosers, from Karma to Red Elemental Blast to Deathgrip to Black Knight. He knew that just having the flavor of colors being each other's enemies would be something that some players would ignore, but putting that conflict into the cards' mechanics made the conflict real to everyone.
While Alpha showed the enemy-color relationships primarily through enemy-color hosers, the designers of Ice Age explored the flip side, mechanically emphasizing the increased harmony of allied colors with literally dozens of cards that showed allied colors mechanically working better together, like Kelsinko Ranger and Zuran Enchanter. Whereas Beta had ten dual lands across all color combinations, the Ice Age teams extended the concept of the allied colors working better together mechanically by having five rare allied Underground River dual lands, and then committed fully to the fact that allied colors of mana work together better than enemy colors by adding a second cycle of five rare allied dual lands in the same set: the River Delta cycle.
We've never again gone so far as to have two five-card dual land cycles in the same set at the same rarity both be allied-color dual lands. But the fundamental principle has rung true throughout all the years of Magic: that allied colors work together more smoothly than enemies in philosophy, and this is mirrored by allied colors working together more smoothly than enemies in their game play. You can build enemy color decks in any year of Magic, past, present, or future. But often the allied colors decks' mana will be smoother.
We know players love building enemy-color decks. I love building 'em too. And we like providing tools for those enemy-color decks to be powerful. Enemy-color black-green Elves have notably fewer dual land options than allied-color black-red Goblins do. But black-green Elves have enough mana-fixing with Gilt-Leaf Palace and Llanowar Wastes, enough tools, and enough power that they just won the Standard Pro Tour–Hollywood.
In recent blocks like Time Spiral, Lorwyn, and Shadowmoor, several of the top-tier mana-fixers are intentionally tribal color pairs or allied color pairs. We also wanted to provide mana-fixing tools for people to fix their mana and play their spells in whatever other color combinations they want, outside of tribal pairs or allied color pairs, So we added a variety of mana-fixing tools to assist in that, from Lorwyn's cycle of uncommon Vivid Creeks, to Time Spiral's common Terramorphic Expanse and Prismatic Lens, to Shadowmoor's huge number of hard-to-color-screw hybrid cards.
Dual lands help the themes of Dissension, Future Sight, and Lorwyn flow into the very roots of gameplay. And in true Magic fashion, if you feel like it, you can always shove those themes aside, put together a red, white, and blue deck with your favorite cards, and make it all work.