At the time of writing, Vintage Masters will debut in Magic the Gathering Online in less than a month’s time. For me, that’s exciting and good news. I think it will be a boon for the offline format, and the online players are getting an awesome opportunity. Surprising to me, though, is that so many other players have mixed or outright negative feelings about the venture.
First, I should note that I’ve never played MTGO beyond the demo I played several years ago. I also can’t really say that I’m planning on investing in it now, even though I would like to just to support Vintage. Magic is very much a social game for me. As much as I enjoy the challenge of building decks and playing cards to win, I get more enjoyment out of hanging out with friends before, during, and after an event. Plus, I spend enough time sitting in front of a screen that taking one of my major non-computer hobbies and putting it online isn’t really what I want to do.
Concerns I’ve heard from others include complaints about the MTGO software, problems with the set’s contents (especially the scarcity of Power), and the potential negative effects that the rise of Vintage online will have on the real-life Vintage culture.
These are all valid concerns, but I don’t think the potential dangers pans out in the long run.
As I said, I haven’t played MTGO, but I can see nothing frustrating the release of Vintage Masters more than having to contend with programming implementation and reliability issues, even with the excitement of Power 9. This would be akin to buying a sports-car but being limited to driving it on roads riddled with potholes. The potential is there for great speed and handling, but you won’t get to experience it in your environment.
The counter to this problem is that MTGO makes Magic available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For this kind of flexibility and constant access, especially for a format like Vintage that can be difficult to find opponents for offline, some sacrifices might have to be made. Players who have put up with MTGO’s finicky nature for this long, as well as those looking to buy into Vintage Masters specifically, are hardly going to balk at this. Of course, the real hope is that Wizards revamps the platform to eliminate these issues for good.
Complaints about the sets contents mostly stem from the apparent scarcity of Power that will be created by its distribution as special rarity, even more mythic than mythic. If the biggest complaint about offline Vintage is that the barrier to entry is so high, owing to $350 format staples with limited availability, shouldn’t Vintage Masters try to improve on that for MTGO?
Vintage online has an opportunity to reintroduce a great format that had been previously inaccessible to many players. Instead, the paper version might still be more playable, thanks to the prevailing culture of proxies that exists, lowering entry significantly if not entirely.
For this problem, I have to believe that Wizards has realized the issue and is planning to manage it appropriately. The door is already opened as far as having Power online is concerned, so they have plenty of options to make the special rarity cards more available—releasing them in other sets, doing promotions, maybe even doing them as prizes, putting a Power 9 tournament series online. I’m sure they’re also anticipating the Vintage Masters drafting experience being good enough that players will open plenty of packs and put lots of Power on the market.
Finally, regarding the negative effects that Vintage online will have on Vintage offline, that’s a complex issue. Those who are most worried about it have explained it thus: Vintage as a format has a long, rich history and a culture that has been developing as long as Magic has been around. There are traditions and stories and personalities and biases and stereotypes—both positive and negative—within the format. Within its little enclave, longtime Vintage players are well aware of these facets of the format.
The fear is that new players who find Vintage through MTGO won’t properly revere or understand the environment they’re walking into. They won’t know the decks to play and won’t bother to learn the metagame well enough, so they’ll just port in Legacy and Modern decks alongside some online Classic creations. Things like Delver and Stone Blade and Jund just aren’t Vintagey enough for some paper players. It’s really the old-timey Magic player’s equivalent of, “Darned kids, get off my lawn!”
There was a similar transition (so I’ve been told) when Vintage tournaments started allowing proxies. Players had to specify whether they were playing sanctioned Vintage or proxy Vintage, then proxy Vintage became the norm, and the grandeur of sanctioned Vintage dissipated to a few large tournaments a year. There’s a chance it could happen with paper Vintage versus online Vintage. Will the existing history of Vintage Magic the Gathering be forgotten if using the term “Vintage” automatically implies the digital version?
Again, it’s difficult to worry about this. For one thing, the metagame in Vintage changes regularly though slowly and has already begun shifting toward more creatures. Wizards has accelerated the power of creatures to be more in line with the early spells—look at Lodestone Golem, Snapcaster Mage , Dark Confidant, even Oath of Druids and reanimation targets like Griselbrand, Blightsteel Colossus, and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Don’t forget also that Merfolk (still a classic Magic tribe) won the most recent Vintage Championship. Pretending that creatures don’t exist and that Vintage is the same as it was five or ten or fifteen years ago won’t make it so.
New players will learn the traditions too, if they’re interested; likewise old players aren’t going to forget what they already know. It’s unlikely too that distanced nature of online play will have quite the impact that putting a roomful of Vintage players together does, as far as creating new stories, but new things will undoubtedly be brought to the table through MTGO.
So, hindsight might make me an optimistic fool, but I see nothing but upside for the release of Vintage Masters and putting Vintage in the online queues.
The goal of the Vintage community over the past several years has mainly been to encourage the existence of the format by recruiting players. Unfortunately, Vintage exists in variously sized pockets within the U.S. and around the world. There are a dozen or so regular Vintage players in Ohio, for example, (some more regular than others) and we can pull from neighboring states to get tournaments of 20 or so participants. Sometimes we hit 30. In New England and along the Atlantic Coast, they regularly hit 40 players and can do even better at large events like the NYSE Open (June 21-22) and Eternal Weekend (October 24-26), with extensive prizes that people will travel from across America and from overseas to play for.
Some of you who regularly participate in SCG Opens or Grands Prix are laughing now, and rightly so. Twenty-player events are ridiculously small. They’re what we have in Vintage, though, and we’re glad to have them. They also explain the need to grow the format however possible and help fill the gaps that exist between regions, filling in the network.
I’m confident that the freshness and power inherent in Vintage will be alluring enough that some MTGO players will seek out real-life Vintage, just as some paper Vintage players will pick up the format online. Both populations—online and offline—will grow; Vintage is too much fun for that to not happen.
Vintage Masters also introduces the format smartly, by allowing players to draft the cards rather than simply opening them. There’s so much going for this set release; Modern Masters was intensely popular, and Vintage Masters copies that model; it’s also similar to the Holiday Cubes, which were popular when available. Beyond that, who doesn’t want to first-pick Necropotence or Balance, let alone Ancestral Recall or Black Lotus? Plus it’s also been revealed that several cards from Conspiracy will be released online through Vintage Masters (and not otherwise), so that will be a draw as well.
I’m also excited to see what increasing the size of the Vintage hive-mind will do for the format. The current players of paper Vintage are very good at what they do, but I think that comes alongside some tunnel vision and over-specialization. Adding some fresh minds and new experiences to the format en masse could shake some things loose—new decks, new cards, and new strategies. The Vintage metagame has plenty of room to grow, and that kind of development should be positive online and off.
Vintage has seen a resurgence in the past couple of years. Dedicated players are making efforts recruit new players, and tournament organizers are putting on events that encourage people to join the format. Opening the Vintage Championships by moving it outside of GenCon gives the format another marquee event and prevents it from getting buried under the other convention activities. And the growing popularity of Magic in general has lifted Vintage along with everything else.
The release of Vintage Masters comes at an opportune time to keep this resurgence going. As long as the MTGO platform remains playable (and it should), Vintage online should be a fun and exciting experience for anyone who wants to partake. I’m eager to see where things go from here. The future of Vintage looks bright!
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