Vintage Advantage – Why Proxies Exist

Written by Nat Moes on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Vintage

Vintage Advantage – Why Proxies Exist

Nat Moes

Nat Moes lives in Columbus, Ohio, and plays Vintage and Legacy with a group of idiots with the audacity to call themselves Team Serious. He feels partly responsible for spreading the plague that is Goblin Charbelcher and has few Magic the Gathering accolades other than some Eternal Top 8s. He is a cohost of the Serious Vintage podcast and a constant evangelist for the Vintage format.

Proxies are an interesting thing to bring up right now, considering all the news of Chinese counterfeiters going around. There’s a thin line in some minds between proxying cards for personal use either in testing or Vintage—and now even Legacy—tournaments, but there is a difference. Proxies are meant to be a stand-in for a real card and aren’t made to be passed off (and, more importantly, sold) as real. The proxy-making community is very good about clearly marking proxies if there’s any chance they could be confused with an actual Magic the Gathering card, and most proxies are clearly not real cards.

The Vintage community has a great amount of interest in both proxies and counterfeits for obvious reasons, but in this article I’ll only be talking about proxies. If you’re buying cards, especially out-of-print Vintage stuff, and are worried about counterfeits just remember to be careful: buy from trusted sellers; do light, bend, and water testing if you can; scrutinize everything; and if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. For a reasoned look at the new wave of counterfeits and how to identify them (and others), I highly recommend this article by Cesar Fernandez (you may have to translate, but the pictures are good).

A Brief History of Proxies

Proxies have been around Magic for a long time as replacements for cards you don’t want to get damaged and as stand-ins for cards that you hadn’t acquired yet. Some of you may have heard stories of players keeping their Power 9 on hand in hard cases so they could prove they owned them but using proxies in their decks so the expensive cards never had to get touched, much less shuffled. That was never a legal tournament practice, but some local players or events may have allowed it.

It’s likely that local tournaments probably allowed proxies as well, but the phenomenon of proxy Vintage really took off in July 2004 with the first Star City Games Power 9 event, which allowed players five proxies with the goals of attracting more players and leveling the playing field somewhat by ensuring everyone had access to at least Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and a couple of Moxes. In 2005, the proxy limit at SCG P9 events was raised to 10, so everyone could use all of the Power 9 or choose parts of it along with playsets of Mishra’s Workshops, Mana Drains, or Bazaar of Baghdads.

With the success of the July 2005 SCG event, local tournaments more commonly started doing the same, some on different scales or with different restrictions. Most limited proxies to five, 10, or 15. Some limited options to cards above a certain threshold price, hoping that the store owner could still sell cheaper cards (back when dual lands were $20). Ben Carp, organizing tournaments at various stores in Wisconsin, allowed a threshold number of proxies for free then charged for proxies beyond that number, again incentivizing players to purchase cards. Stephen Menendian soon had Columbus tournaments allowing players to proxy an entire deck, any number of cards, totally eliminating the barrier to entry for Vintage decks.

Today, most mid-range tournaments in the U.S. continue to use some system for proxies. In fact, the only sanctioned Vintage tournaments I can remember are either small (eight-player) local affairs or the big name events that go along with GenCon or Eternal Weekend. Overseas tournaments are less likely to use proxies, but events that use them are available. The conditions depend on the tournament organizer and the group of players they support, but Vintage players are largely comfortable with the concept of proxies and their use in competitive play.

As I’ve written these articles, though, it’s become apparent that non-Vintage players are unfamiliar with proxies used in this way. As such, many are initially put off by the format’s apparent expense, which is, in fact… not that much of an issue.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

There is still much to debate about the proxy system as it exists in Vintage, however. Some longtime Vintage players believe—with good reason—that proxies hinder the development of the format by reducing players’ investment in it. Ben Bleiweiss wrote about this in 2009; you can read that here . The argument says basically that, because proxy tournaments don’t require players to own the cards, players who don’t own the cards feel no investment in the format. They can get out whenever they want because there’s nothing tying them into it, like, for example a collection of $400 cards they can’t use anywhere else.

Going along with this, because of proxies, even players who are Vintage regulars can sell any Power they win, a practice that sometimes means the cards end up unused in the hands of collectors rather than with players. I did this very thing with the first piece of Power I won, a Mox Sapphire. Knowing I wouldn’t need it to play in the tournaments in my area, I sold it for the cash. At the time, the buyer was a fellow Vintage player, so I was confident it would continue getting played, but he has since mostly retired.

There’s also the sense that proxies undermine the legitimacy and prestige of the format. Vintage should be recognized as the grande dame of Magic, where the game’s oldest and most powerful cards are revered and showcased in a competitive arena. That dame’s dress looks pretty rumpled, though, when a handful of Sharpied Islands squares off against a board of black-and-white Mishra’s Workshop printouts. If it’s not real cards, how can it be a real format, right?

The counterargument to all of these is that proxies are necessary to keep the format alive and make it competitive. Stephen Menendian has said many times—including here, in a response to the Bleiweiss article—that games of Magic should primarily be decided by skill, like chess, rather than by money. Proxies eliminate the money requirement without forcing people to play Powered decks, so the format is wide open to everything.

The sanctioned (no-proxy) Vintage environment is different from the unsanctioned (proxy) environment, since the former typically involves more hate decks that prey on Powered decks, which then have to prepare for more hate. It’s difficult to say which is Vintage in its natural state, so to speak, and both versions of the game have their merits and challenges. Still, there’s a noticeable difference between the available decks in each case, and the players without Power will feel it more than those who have it.

The complaint about sanctioned Vintage is similar to that heard in Standard where one player’s mono-colored aggro deck has difficulty competing against the format’s best conglomeration of money rares. The first can simply be overwhelmed, at times, by the stronger cards, which at some point have to be paid for, usually by shelling out money for a stronger mana base and expensive format staples.

Vintage at present is a small format, a few thousand regular players at most, worldwide—a fraction of a percent of the Magic-playing population. However, Vintage wouldn’t exist, even at this level, without proxies. They really do make competitive decks more accessible, encouraging high-level play from those new to the format and innovation from longtime players, who can test cards without buying them. Proxies also make it easier to build multiple decks at a time to lend to new players, which has been the best way to get people to try Vintage.

My Take on Proxies

For most of my Vintage career, I was able to play most decks with 10 proxies. When I first got into Vintage I bought copies of all the non-Power, non-Library restricted cards, and started collecting Force of Wills and blue dual lands. I could play most events without any trouble. Only in 2012 did I start aiming to get Power, starting at the top by trading for Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall and working my way down from there. Now, two years later, I’m a Mox Pearl and a Time Vault away from having a full set, as well as Mana Drains and Library.

This has been a big step for me, and I’ve worked hard to get to this point. I wanted to play in GenCon and other sanctioned tournaments using my own cards, and I figured that, since I had been playing Vintage for almost a decade, it was about time I made it official.

I agree with the idea that proxies devalue Vintage and undermine its legitimacy in the minds of some new players. However, at this point, proxies are here to stay; they have to be. There are still regular players who need them to participate, and I doubt that new players are driven away from the format because of proxies alone. Proxies may not attract many new faces, but those they do attract are sorely needed to grow the format and might not be able to play without them.

Moreover, with the announced plan to release Vintage online, proxies can only help players make the transition from digital tournaments to real-life ones. I’m excited to see what the digital revolution does to the format, but I don’t believe that allowing players to experience the exciting challenges of Vintage online and then showing them a real-world participation investment of thousands of dollars is the way to go about building the offline community.

Returning to counterfeit cards, proxies in the Vintage environment could potentially discourage those as well. There’s no need to worry about introducing a set of fake Power into the community if you can have a set of well-made, clearly-indicated, still-just-as-playable proxies and get the same results in most tournaments. Proxy tournaments mean less risk for the player of getting kicked out for illegal cards, less risk for buying and selling because there’s no pressure to own (so no need to take risks and get swindled), and less risk for tournament organizers because more people can play.

The debate on proxies will likely never end—too many variables to weigh and strong feelings on both sides. If you’re interested in playing Vintage, though, just know that there are proxy tournaments available for you to try your hand without a full investment. The Mana Drain Vintage community boards (www.themanadrain.com) has listings of tournaments around the U.S. and around the world, here. Feel free to ask any questions there or in the comments here. I put together an overview of several good ways to make proxies that are clear and playable, also on this site, so be sure to check that out.

Thanks for reading! I hope to see you at a Vintage tournament soon!

Nat Moes
@GrandpaBelcher

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