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The Vintage Advantage: Restricted Access

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Vintage

08_12 The Vintage Advantage
The Vintage Magic the Gathering format has been around for a long time. When the Duelists Convocation International, soon to be the DCI, put together the first floor rules in 1994, the format they were creating (at the time just called “Magic” because there was no second type to necessitate Type 1) eventually continued through two decades to become Vintage. The floor rules also instituted the “limited list,” now called the restricted list, and established Vintage as the one format where every Magic the Gathering card is legal for play.

(Except for ante cards, which require their removal in their rules text, as well as Falling Star, Chaos Orb, and Shahrazad, which are… problematic to resolve in a tournament environment, and Un- sets and some promotional cards. I’m going to conveniently ignore these cards. Every Wizards of the Coast-released Magic the Gathering card is legal in Vintage.)

Since then, the restricted list has grown and shrank and changed. In 2004, the Type 1 restricted list and the Type 1.5 banned list were separated, and the formats became Vintage and Legacy. It had been that any card restricted in Type 1 was automatically banned in Type 1.5, but this was inconvenient as there were cases in Type 1.5 where banning one card meant that a second wouldn’t need the same treatment to balance the format.

Wizards has said they want the restricted list (and banned lists in other formats) to be as short as possible while maintaining a balanced format. To this end, cards have been added and removed, and some have been added and removed multiple times. Nothing is banned for power-level reasons, but Vintage players are always looking to develop that next deck that merits a card’s restriction. Many have tried, but few have succeeded.

One of a Kind

Having a restricted list, rather than a banned list, sets Vintage apart from other formats in a few ways, simply because so many cards are legal. For example, Vintage now functions as a crucible for the most powerful cards ever printed: Magic’s greatest cards are playable in Vintage, but the true best cards are restricted to one-ofs. It also expands possibilities, with opportunities for players to experiment and innovate strategies and decks that fit their playstyle and interests. Looking through Gatherer can bring up plenty of new ideas for a creative player to play and play against restricted cards, and the surprise factor still wins games.

A cardpool as broad and deep as Vintage’s also makes the format very resilient. Even when powerful new cards find their way to the format, they integrate smoothly (with the usual reluctance of some players to adjust) because appropriate answer cards are already available. For example, Lightning Bolt—good ol’ Lightning Bolt—got a boost in play when Lodestone Golem and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, entered the format with Worldwake. There were suddenly good reasons to deal three damage to things, and Bolt is a cheap and effective way to do that. And as Young Pyromancer has entered the format, we’ve seen appearances from lots of new cards, from Illness in the Ranks to Izzet Staticaster to Caltrops. Time Vault and Workshop decks even mean that Magus of the Unseen is playable in the right decks. Magus of the Unseen isn’t now and has never been playable in another format, but it’s a surprisingly good hate card in Vintage. This kind of openness helps keep the restricted list short.

The Good, the Bad, and the Broken

Regardless, the flexibility and resilience of the cardpool actually plays back into the size of the restricted list. Because such a variety of cards and answers and strategies are available, fewer cards need to be restricted. Those that do merit restriction are truly troublesome and can be generally categorized, though some of the categories and cards overlap:

Fast mana: Characterized by Black Lotus, the Moxes, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Lotus Petal, and Sol Ring, these cards produce more mana than they cost and put a player multiple turns ahead, usually for the rest of the game. And since all of these are artifacts, Tolarian Academy also makes the list. Having one or more of these early lets you jump straight to playing more powerful spells.

Single card engines: Anything that changes one resource (life, cards, etc.) into another at a too-good exchange rate: Necropotence, Channel, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Mind’s Desire, Time Vault, Flash, and Fastbond. Yawgmoth’s Will could be considered here as well, since it effectively turns the graveyard into a new hand. Generally, resolving one of these leads to victory soon after from overwhelming resource advantage.

Tutors: One of the hallmarks of Vintage is its efficient tutors, cards that search for other cards, especially restricted ones. Demonic Tutor, Demonic Consultation, Vampiric Tutor, and Imperial Seal get anything you need; Mystical Tutor gets the best instants and sorceries; and Merchant Scroll gets Ancestral Recall (or Force of Will, Gush, Mystical Tutor, or Gifts Ungiven). Gifts Ungiven is also a powerful tutor with built-in card advantage, and Tinker tutors too. Basically, being able to find restricted cards too easily negates the value of a restricted list.

Card advantage: The so-called “draw sevens” (Timetwister, Windfall, Wheel of Fortune, and Memory Jar), as well as cards that draw or filter more than their mana cost, namely Ancestral Recall, Brainstorm, Library of Alexandria, Ponder, and Thirst for Knowledge. Again, Yawgmoth’s Will fits in here too, as could Gifts Ungiven, Necropotence, and Yawgmoth’s Bargain. Draw sevens might seem balanced, since both players benefit, but it all depends on timing: resolving fast mana and a draw seven on turn one (before your opponent plays) refills your hand but leaves your opponent with the same number of cards.

Undercosted: Most of the restricted cards fall under this category (since, for example, there have been fairly-costed draw sevens, like Reforge the Soul), but these are especially egregious: Time Walk, Balance, and Tinker. Simply put, taking an extra turn (untapping, drawing a card, getting an extra attack and a chance to cast more spells) costs more than 1U; casting Wrath of God, Armageddon, and Mind Twist costs more than 1W; and casting Blightsteel Colossus costs more than 2U, except in Vintage.

Unfun: Again, when you’re losing to any restricted card, especially some of the more torturous ones (Library of Alexandria, I’m looking at you), it’s easy to call them unfun. However, Trinisphere and Strip Mine cards actually hinder the game of Magic itself, making it hard for opponents to cast spells, especially in decks built to abuse them like Workshop prison.

Restricted Free Agency

Most Vintage blue-and-black-based Drains decks, whether control, combo, or somewhere between, will begin with a somewhat prescribed list of restricted cards: Sol Ring, Black Lotus, the Moxes (“SoLoMox” if you hear that term), Mana Crypt, Ancestral Recall, Brainstorm, Time Walk, Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Mystical Tutor, Yawgmoth’s Will, Tinker, and Tolarian Academy. But thinking this way makes the format out to be simpler than it actually is; Vintage decks are not just “the restricted list plus some mana,” as is sometimes suggested. Building around specific restricted cards to maximize their potential is one of the format’s more enjoyable challenges, since even an objectively powerful card like Necropotence will be lackluster in a deck that can’t properly cast it or take advantage of its draws.

This is sometimes easier than others. Flash, for example, makes a two-card, in-hand combo that will win the game pretty much on the spot in the right deck. Unfortunately the second card—usually something like Academy Rector or Protean Hulk—won’t be particularly good on its own. Tinker is similar but comparatively easier to play, since the cards it combos with are usually Moxes, which are good on their own, even helping cast Tinker! Running a Blightsteel Colossus for the one-hit kill is worth the risk of drawing something uncastable, and Time Vault or Voltaic Key make excellent backup targets.

Usually the deck running the highest number of restricted cards is also the format’s fastest combo deck. Currently, Burning Long is that deck:

This list, played by Bryce Menard at the 78-payer NYSE Open earlier this year, contains 25 out of 41 restricted cards between the maindeck and sideboard. (It’s also not playing Timetwister and could easily include Imperial Seal as well.)

Running a highly threat-dense list like this makes Burning Long a definite threat to sit across from every time. However, because the restricted list cards are powerful but expensive and not necessarily synergistic, the deck is fragile to mana disruption and counterspells. It also periodically loses to its own variance, locking itself out with Necropotence or whiffing on a mid-sized Mind’s Desire.

So even the fastest, most broken combo deck in the format has its weaknesses, brought on, in part, by its own powerful cards.

Unrestricted Fun

What all of this—combined with the wide range of colors, decks, and strategies currently playable in Vintage—should suggest is that Vintage is currently a healthy format. Wizards recognizes this as well, since they keep assessing “no changes” for the list when new sets come out. They did this again with Theros, and this is good news.

Also good news is that each of the restricted list cards sees regular play in winning decks. Even Channel and Flash, the two that require the most deckbuilding considerations, have shown up in different top-eight decks multiple times this year.

Vintage as a format offers a lot of options to its players. Though its decks often get broadly categorized into blue, Workshops, and “other,” within these groups there are several different strategies and many different archetypes and decks. So even when people complain that, “Workshops won again,” or “Big Blue took it home like always,” they may not realize that the winning list was, in fact, significantly different from the list that won the previous week or on the other side of the world.

This also means that players should adjust to regular metagame changes and expectations, just as they would in other formats, rather than waiting for Wizards to correct things for them. A sideboard card that was good last month might not pass muster today, and it will be easier to change your strategy within a matchup than to complain about a problem and wish it out of the format. Things like Workshops, Dredge, and Tinker are rightful Vintage boogiemen in that they’re the decks to beat, but they’re not unbeatable, and they’re not going to be restricted or banned out of existence any time soon.

My feeling, and I know others share this, is that Vintage and its restricted list are in a pretty good place right now. There’s not much chaff that could be unrestricted (though there might be one or two cards that could be tried, discussion for another article), and nothing demands restriction now either. Considering there have been more than 13,000 uniquely named Magic cards printed, and only 41 of them are currently restricted (along with the 12 banned cards), I’d say Wizards is doing well to manage the Vintage format.

Have fun playing it, and always be on the lookout for that next restriction-worthy card.

Nat Moes

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