What makes a card good in Vintage? What takes a card beyond good and into the realm of restrictable?
When Gifts Ungiven was restricted, I (and a number of other people, I suspect) thought that it would again rise to a dominant role in the Vintage format. After all, it had been the basis for multiple tournament-winning decks in its first go-round. It has a powerful effect and works well with “colorless” artifact mana like Moxes and Sol Ring. And Gush got back into a powerful stance after its unrestriction, as a comparison. Essentially, the card seemed primed for a comeback.
Surprisingly—unfortunately—Gifts’ return came with less trumpeting fanfare and more sad trombones. It was tried and has done reasonably well but certainly hasn’t taken off.
Well, for one, the current Vintage environment is unfriendly to Gifts Ungiven. Perhaps it seems odd that should be the case for a blue instant that tutors for four cards and puts two directly in hand, but there are strikes against it.
It costs four mana, making it relatively slow compared to Delver of Secrets, Oath of Druids, and Monastery Mentor, which are also populating the format. It relies on artifact mana, which can be both a boon and a curse against Mishra’s Workshop decks and their Sphere of Resistance effects and Chalice of the Void. Running more mana also makes it less heavy on business cards, considering that Gifts decks are probably looking for 24 mana or more, and Gush decks are looking for closer to 20.
Gifts is also a relatively difficult card to play in a relatively difficult deck. My teammate Jerry Yang regularly advises that one should let Gifts Ungiven and rely on your opponent to either set-up the wrong piles or play into the counterspell you were going to use anyway. Difficulty isn’t a factor of the environment, of course, but when Delver, Oath, and Mentor decks are similarly powerful to Gifts and easier to play, people are often going to opt for one of them instead.
Of course, in Vintage, as in other formats, environments are temporary. Monastery Mentor already slowed things down compared to Young Pyromancer, for example, making things a little less hostile to Gifts Ungiven (as long as Mentor stays off the board). Likewise, because of most Gush decks’ low permanent counts, Smokestacks have gotten better in Workshops, so blue decks like Gifts, with more mana and permanents, are gaining too.
We might see Gifts decks yet.
At the same time Gifts Ungiven came off the restricted list, Treasure Cruise was added to it, leaving Gush decks to fill in with Dig Through Time, which has proved more than adequate as a replacement. Like Gifts, Dig is a powerful card advantage and selection too, the anchor of several format-defining decks. Could it be destined for restriction, similar to Cruise? I tend to think so, but I’ve played it more than most people.
What Merits Restriction?
There are constant debates in online Vintage forums and whenever a group of Vintage players gets together about cards that merit restriction or unrestriction. For example, Gifts Ungiven had been on the unrestriction radar for years, mostly for the weaknesses I listed earlier. The banned and restricted list revision process is obscured in most cases, but perhaps Wizards of the Coast does gauge the community mindset periodically.
The most common calls for restriction come for cards that players feel are oppressive, creating a deck that falls outside the bounds of “reasonable” as they exist in Vintage. Usually, coincidentally, suspiciously, there are more complaints about Mishra’s Workshops and Dredge than there are about more traditional blue, and even combo, decks.
Lodestone Golem – Lodestone’s printing was a watershed for Workshops and Vintage. Previously, Workshop decks won most of their games either through locking the opponent or by using Goblin Welder or superior mana to play a giant artifact monster. It was a multi-step process, and if opponents could build mana over turns and survive Smokestack, they could play Hurkyl’s Recall and get out of it.
Lodestone combined a prison piece with a finisher at a convenient four-drop cost, easily playable turn one with a typical Workshop build. Not only did Lodestone necessitate cheap, immediate answers from other decks (Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares, Nature’s Claim), but also it pushed colored Workshop decks out of the format entirely. Goblin Welder, Balance, and Tinker didn’t look so hot next to Lodestone’s non-artifact tax, and building with Ancient Tomb, City of Traitors, and Metalworker made decks more consistent.
On the plus side, Workshops are now competitive at a rate similar to the big blue decks of the format. It’s arguable that Workshops have finally earned their place at the table, thanks to Lodestone, asking that they be taken seriously without being overly oppressive. The deck still lacks a draw engine; it’s still weak to Force of Will and Hurkyl’s Recall; and Lodestone Golem is a fragile creature.
Chalice of the Void – Lodestone Golem’s little buddy, Chalice helps negate the “drawback” of Lodestone’s tax by countering the Moxes opponents could play through it. Chalice and Lodestone together on turn one are difficult to beat without Force of Will for one of them. Further Chalices, played on other numbers, can effectively knock out draw engines and tutors, as well as all those one-drop answers brought in to deal with Lodestone. Combo decks that rely on ritual effects and cantrips might straight-up lose to Chalice for one.
In most cases, though, Chalice of the Void can be mitigated simply by playing answers and spells of varying costs: Ingot Chewer, Ancient Grudge, and Nature’s Claim in the same deck, for example. Similarly, Oath of Druids decks often like to play more artifact answers that don’t cost two, because Chalice for two will shut them off along with their game-winning namesake enchantment. Chalice can also be an important part of creature-based budget aggro decks, making it a desirable card to keep in a sanctioned environment.
Dredge – As a deck, Dredge is criticized for being too far outside the scope of “normal” for Magic: The Gathering. It can win without casting a single spell and doesn’t even necessarily have to make mana. Rather than focusing on interacting and playing well, Dredge decks (especially in game one) are linear and could often be played using a flowchart. Since the basic deck is devoted to this single-minded gameplan, it’s difficult to target one card to restrict, but the most commonly called for restrictions are Bridge from Below and Bazaar of Baghdad.
Restricting Bridge from Below would limit the speed Dredge could put creatures into play, fueling up Dread Return, and would also take away a threatening backup plan. This would only affect Dredge and wouldn’t cripple it. Before Bridge was printed, Dredge was already a deck (using Ichorids, Ashen Ghouls, and Nether Spirits), and it still didn’t use mana or play spells, but it was slower and less combo-like.
Restricting Bazaar of Baghdad would change Vintage Dredge into a more Legacy-like list; the engine would still work, but it would be more difficult to get started. It would also take Bazaars away from other potential decks like Madness and Shops with Goblin Welder. These decks have been played infrequently and have never been considered unfair.
The primary consideration with most restrictions will be whether the card leads to an oppressive imbalance in the metagame, but that’s somewhat hazy and subjective. Are there too many decks playing and winning with a particular card? Is the card in question leading directly to wins? Is the environment “healthy” and “fun”? There’s no direct rule or stated guideline simply because a hardline policy would be difficult to justify. Force of Will is highly played in a variety winning blue and combo decks but isn’t directly responsible for wins and helps keep other decks in check. Trinisphere was restricted for being “unfun” despite not reaching a popularity threshold that many people would have considered “too much.”
So, there’s still debate to be had, but looking at the decks, I don’t think Workshops or Dredge or any cards from them are restrictable. Yes, they are large threats that require players to prepare for them or lose, but that doesn’t seem like a problem so much as just a smart deck choice. Furthermore, both of them have plans that make them easy to beat, if you try; Workshops are entirely artifact based, and Dredge uses the graveyard. Dig Through Time still seems like it could be too powerful as both a build-around effect and as a powerful mid- or late-game play in smaller numbers. Also its double-blue mana cost is mitigated by its instant speed. Dig is probably being watched, especially in light of Treasure Cruise.
What Doesn’t Merit Restriction
Unrestrictions are also an option, and Wizards has done a nice job bringing cards back into the game. At a measured pace over the past five years, Gifts Ungiven (2015), Regrowth(2013), Burning Wish (2012), Fact or Fiction (2011), and Frantic Search and Gush (2010) were all unrestricted. All of these have been positive re-additions to Vintage. Most of them have been tested or played to some degree, and Gush and Burning Wish both made significant impressions without either getting out of hand.
Speculating on potential unrestrictions and their effect in Vintage is always a fun way to pass the time. Obviously there are some cards that will be on there as long as the format exists: Black Lotus, Moxes, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will; I don’t see Wizards unrestricting those for any reason. Other cards on the list can be ranked based on their power and the effect they would have on the format in multiples. For example chaining Mind’s Desires together or having more opening hands with Trinisphere would probably be worse for the format than adding smaller effects like Ponder or Thirst for Knowledge back into the mix.
Cards like Balance, Demonic Consultation, and Channel are interesting because they’ve been restricted for so long that most players really won’t have a concept of what they could do as four-ofs. Any unrestriction has ripples of implication. Balance gives white and its great creatures a legitimate power card but is best in fully powered decks with non-creature permanents that can take advantage of its disruptive effects. Demonic Consultation has a huge drawback, but is otherwise a one-drop, instant-speed tutor. Channel costs an otherwise unheard-of-in-Vintage double green but is more efficient than Necropotence at trading one resource for another.
The cards that remain on the restricted list have good reasons for being there; changes should not be called for lightly. However, I’m in favor of Wizards unrestricting cards on a trial basis to see how the community and the metagame react to them. For the most part, this seems to be what they have been doing over the past few years. The process has been handled slowly, carefully, to observe how things shift, but it’s certainly possible that even more aggressive changes could be made this way.
Flash is the most obvious choice for this kind of test, since it was restricted alongside four other cards (Brainstorm, Merchant Scroll, Ponder, and Gush) and the combo may have been controlled enough through those. If Wizards decided to unrestrict Flash and see how it and the Vintage metagame react to each other, they could announce their intentions and then re-restrict it if necessary after six months or a year or whatever. That kind of policy might even serve as a challenge to the Vintage deckbuilding community: can they break it again and get it axed?
As always there’s plenty to discuss surrounding the restricted list. Everyone has an opinion and will be glad to share it. I’ve certainly touched on many points, and rambled about my own ideas here. Thanks for reading and putting up with me. Let me know if you disagree. We can check in again on July 13, for the next restricted list update.
See you then!
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