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August 30, 2017

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The Pillars of Vintage: Banned and Restricted?

Prologue

The Standard boys came early to the announcement.

It was still morning when the first three or four of them posted to the chat group, content as cats with no changes to their format. A thin line read, “No Changes”, to all other formats but there was a blemish on the announcement due to power creep. They picked their way through the reasoning, and along past the date to the line addressing Vintage, where the gallows stood waiting.

In much of the discussion leading up to the latest Banned and Restricted announcement, several people brought up one of the acknowledged Pillars of Vintage: Mishra’s Workshop. I did a little parody of Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth to start this piece because I consider Mishra’s Workshop as one of the key defining cards of the format.

When I first starting playing Vintage, after a few years hiatus from the game, it was at a tournament at Algonquin College. I had no idea of what the format looked like, and the last time I played a serious event was in 1996.

I went in blind with a horrific red-green deck built around Giant Growth and Blood Lust. While I won a few games in that event, I didn’t win a single match. One of the matches was against a Workshop deck that day, and it ran four Trinispheres. Needless to say, I got crushed hard.

In March 2005 Trinisphere was restricted. Even then, people complained that they thought it should be Mishra’s Workshop getting restricted. Workshop decks evolved, adapted, and stayed as an important force in the metagame. It felt balanced.

A little over two years later, Workshop decks were granted another boon. At the time, this new card was just a small thorn in people’s sides. It promoted the use of creatures, but in the end, Thorn of Amethyst was just another perfect lock piece for Workshop decks. Even then, the format wasn’t unbalanced.

When Wizards saw how good blue decks where, they nerfed five blue spells at the same time in 2008. Blue Mages everywhere took a massive hit and the consistency and power of blue decks dropped dramatically for close to two years. Many people quit Vintage over this change, but it’s important to note: Workshops didn’t lose a single card!

Just a scant two years after blue decks got hammered, an amazing artifact was printed in Worldwake called Lodestone Golem. That fall, in testing for the 2010 Vintage Championship, I jumped on the hype train so hard I almost derailed it. I jammed the golem in my Workshop deck and ran it to the top four in that event. At times, I had hands that were completely unbeatable. Mishra’s Workshop, Black Lotus, and Thorn of Amethyst followed by one of the best finishers in Lodestone Golem ended games before they began.

All this time, Wizards kept printing great cards for Workshop decks and not a single thing was done to slow down the mono-brown train. More support cards were printed and Workshop decks began to operate like finely tuned machinery. Something had to change. It took a long time, but five years after Lodestone Golem was printed, something did.

Wizards said that Chalice meant too many games were decided by the first turn, or that players couldn’t play their moxes and that is bad because that’s why the format exists. It got restricted. I would have just accepted that the power level of the card was too high because of the acceleration available in Vintage. Whatever excuse Wizards wanted to use, I was on board with it. But was it enough?

In April 2016, the answer came and it was no. Lodestone Golem led to many non-interactive games and joined Chalice of the Void. I hated the restriction, but only because I have fond memories of the golem leading to many non-interactive games in my favour!

Here we are, twelve years after the Trinisphere restriction, and the same arguments are resurfacing. Some pros are calling out Workshop as the problem. There has always been some merit to that conversation, but I’ll always disagree. From my very first day back, I’ve regarded Mishra’s Workshop as one of the defining cards and pillars of the format.

Wizards tends to agree. They want to keep the deck playable, but promote diversity. I appreciate the slower, more measured approach to restricting the artifacts that make Workshop decks so good. It allows the player base to adapt to the changes over a longer period of time and not drive people out of the game in anger.

Alas poor Thorn of Amethyst! We had a lot of fun together but now instead of seeing you on a regular basis, we’re down to once a game at best. It’s not me, it’s you? So harsh!

Whose line is it anyway? “Monastery Mentor is restricted.” That is quite the line, and about time for this overpowered creature. Wizards has been pushing the power level of creatures for years now. This culminated in taking the Storm mechanic and adding it to creatures in the form of Prowess. And if that weren’t enough, they printed a creature that generates creature tokens with Prowess as well.

This powerful creature barely needed any help slotting into Vintage. When even a Mox can trigger Prowess and generate a Monk token, Monastery Mentor became a standout performer of all the finishers in Vintage.

Untapping with a Mentor in play was close to game over. Each spell provided small, incremental advantages and you might need to only cast two to three spells to finish off your opponent on the penultimate turn.

There aren’t many creatures worthy of restricting in Vintage, but this is a trend that might continue given how Wizards has been pushing their power level. Monastery Mentor and Lodestone Golem deserve their spots on the restricted list.

But wait, there’s more!

If you’ve played any of the Storm decks in Vintage, you were likely running two enchantments in your deck – Yawgmoth’s Bargain and Necropotence. One of them, not a bargain by casting cost,  always felt like a more guaranteed win than the other. That’s not to slam Necropotence, as it is one of the all-time greats.

In the explanation of why Yawgmoth’s Bargain was unrestricted, Wizards made some decent points. There are some other powerful draw engines that have been printed. Griselbrand is chief among these win conditions, but I feel like the boat might have been missed a bit on this one.

Using the two draw engine examples provided by Wizards, Griselbrand and Paradoxical Outcome place certain design constraints on decks containing them.

For example, most decks have no interest in actually casting Griselbrand. They use cards that would cheat the big demon into play, and on that axis, you can attack that strategy. There are some outliers that try to use Griselbrand in other ways, but nothing to any great success.

With Paradoxical Outcome, a deck needs to play a lot of low costing spells to be able to return enough permanents to draw cards. Many of these come in the form of artifacts. This is one of the axis you can attack this deck from. Null Rod and Stony Silence are two such ways to shut off the artifact mana that’s required to keep this deck going.

Yawgmoth’s Bargain is very different. It slots into already existing Storm decks and increases the threat density. After playing Paradoxical Storm, it felt like there was a lot of fluff and it took a lot of cards to get anywhere. That’s not how Yawgmoth’s Bargain works. At any remotely healthy life total, there’s no Sword of Damocles hanging over your head.

Maybe that’s what Wizards is hoping for though. Have they printed enough strong creatures that you are unlikely to have a healthy life total when Yawgmoth’s Bargain resolves? Perhaps they think that cards like Flusterstorm have made such a big impact vs Storm decks that a little extra dab of threats still won’t do ya?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. Only time will tell. It does seems strange to weaken Workshop decks by restricting a prison element at the same time as giving Storm decks more raw power. I’m looking forward to jamming multiple Yawgmoth’s Bargains in an attempt to find out!

Until then, I welcome our new Phyrexian overlords! (uh, can I borrow a die for Storm count?)