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Shop Class: Plugging the Leaks to Opening the Floodgates

By Jostin Rodriguez • June 5, 2017

On April 24th Wizards of the Coast released their Banned & Restricted update and it was only half of what most players were expecting:

Gitaxian Probe is restricted.

Gush is restricted.

Their explanation was this:

“In Vintage, the metagame has come to a bit of a standstill as Monastery Mentor decks face down their main predator, Workshop decks. The primary issue seems to revolve around the prevalence of free draw spells for the Mentor deck that let it churn through its library for no mana while creating an abundance of tokens. We believe by removing these free draw spells—and the perfect information that comes with Gitaxian Probe—we will significantly weaken Monastery Mentor–based strategies. Hopefully the move away from "free" spells in the Mentor decks will lessen the impact of the Workshop deck's various Sphere of Resistance effects, opening up the metagame.”

In the explanation, they restricted Gush so as to curb the prevalence of Mentor decks in the format, and allow the format to “open up”.

The problem has always been that the blue control decks that beat workshops don't beat Gush, and this is due to Gush decks adopting the Turbo Xerox engine (which WoTC explained in an article by Mike Flores which can be found at http://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/feature/ub-trippin%E2%80%99-2005-04-21). Big Blue plays more lands which helps the shop match-up but gets beaten by Gush which can find their counterspells and action cards faster and more consistently. As Gush began to win more matches, more player began to play Gush, until Gush was the deck to beat. Gush is the reason Shops did so well, as it was the strategy's natural predator. Statistically, Shops has been only saturating 10-20% of the metagame while Gush decks have been saturating 20-40% of the metagame. As Gush decks are more frequently played, there are more Gush mirror matches played, which drives the win percentage closer to 50%. Shop decks percentages don't suffer from as many mirror matches because there aren't as many matches played, and so they ‘re percentage of wins isn't as affected by mirrors as it is affected by other matches, the greatest percentage of them being Gush decks, their favorable match-up. It's no wonder that the Shop archetype has been putting up strong numbers while Gush has been archetype that dominates the numbers. In a sense, the restriction of Gush to curb the dominance of Shops was a referendum on Blue players to play more lands to address the match-up.

Many people are happy that Gush is gone, as they predict that many other draw engines will become viable now that Gush is restricted. Since the restriction, players have been testing playing Thirst for Knowledge, Gifts Ungiven, and Paradoxical Outcome in its place. However, what traditionally had the best longevity against the multi-sphere strategy are permanent based draw engines that provide incremental advantage. So while many will try to prove that Thirst and Gifts will make a comeback, it has been card advantage permanents like Dark Confidant, Jace the Mind Sculptor and Mystic Remora that have stood the test of time. Against the taxing strategies, it is strategically better to resolve a card once through spheres that will net you advantage than to have to cast multiple cards to net that same advantage.

There are a number of Vintage players and enthusiasts who were upset at the timing of the Gush restriction, and how it seemed to reinforce the idea that the Vintage Super League is an influence on the DCI, whose players utilize their public platform to advocate their ideas on restrictions to greater effect that the masses who regularly play Vintage, whether it be online or in actual paper tournaments. In season 6 of the Vintage Super League, there were many people advocating for Gush to be restricted, including Randy Beuhler and Eric Froelich. This is similar to what happened just prior to the Shops restriction, where the VSL was essentially an echo chamber where its participants, who are all prominent and have had major success as Magic players, advocated for Shop restrictions and are credited by many in the community with helping get Lodestone restricted. These blue players are upset that Gush was taken from them without the data to prove this was a justifiable move, which is exactly what happened with the Lodestone restriction.

There are also a number of people who are quite upset with the actual restriction of Gush. Stephen Menendian is one of the most vocal opponents of the restriction (although if I wrote a book on the card, I would be too). Many people felt (including myself) that Gush was a fair strategy, and that it was Monastery Mentor that pushed the archetype over the edge. I have always felt that there were ways to gain an edge on both Shops and Mentor and that the issue was that players did not want to move out of their comfort zones to do it, whether for right or wrong. In addition, many players felt that Gush should not have been the target of the restrictions, feeling that it should have been Monastery Mentor, and that by nailing Gush during this announcement, they left the real culprit to continue to dominate the format.

In the “So Many Insane Plays” podcast episode 65, at 56:17 where Kevin Cron began to express his concerns with the way that Gush was restricted, and how it was similar to the Trinisphere restriction. Before he could finish his thought, Stephen Menendian dismissed the comparison: This clip of the show hits all the points as to why I am bothered by the restriction. The first part is how Kevin Cron acknowledged that 4x Trinisphere decks did not reach the percentages of top finishes necessary to warrant restriction, which is historically accurate. The card was restricted because it was unfun. In a previous article (which can be found at http://www.mtgassist.com/article/V-101-Repercussions-of-the-April-3rd-Announcement-and-a-View-of-the-New-Vintage-Landscape) I argued that the DCI treats broken strategies much more kindly than what it considers un-fun strategies, even if those broken strategies are known to be format warping. I am not going to go through the examples as the article was exhaustive enough, but the DCI has taken that stance clearly and decisively time and time again. The second part of that exchange was how curt Stephen Menendian dismissed the Trinisphere restriction as having any comparison to the Gush restriction.

Sean O'Brien of the TuskTalk podcast gave his view on what exactly pushed Gush to dominate the way it has. In episode 18 of the TuskTalk podcast, at the 41:33 mark, Sean shared how Gush was relatively obscure for a year when it was last unrestricted, only having success at large tournaments as part of the Gush-bond (Gush + Fastbond) combo engine to power combo decks. He asserted that Gush was only played in combo and in Delver variants, both of which were kept in check by Shops, and that is wasn't until the printing of Young Pyromancer that Gush could gain more value from generating tokens than the constraints Gush places on deck building, including its low land count. Once the deck can generate tokens off of playing spells, Gush decks begin to homogenize, being able to run up to 16 non-mox free spells (Force of Will, Mental Misstep, Gitaxian Probe, Gush… what he refers to as the “Blue Stew”) and that the printing of Dack Fayden drove that engine into overdrive, and was further rewarded by the printing of Dig though Time, Treasure Cruise and Monastery Mentor, which took the Gush tokens strategy from a 3 turn kill to a 1.5 turn kill. Sean argues that although Gush may be the best of the “Blue Stew” spells, he feels that Phyrexian mana was a design mistake, and advocated for Gitaxian Probe and Mental Misstep to be restricted, to increase the opportunity cost of playing Gush decks, reduce the boring play patterns of the Mental Misstep wars that generate tokens, and reduce the constraints that Mental Misstep places on efficient removal spells in the format which would make it easier to deal with Mentor and Pyromancer, at least in theory.

Aaron Forsythe, in his explanation of the Vintage restrictions, never once in his statement mentioned that Gush was being restricted because of its format dominance. In fact, he does not reference the card Gush in the restriction explanation at all. The insinuation that Gush is dominant and format warping (which I do agree with for the most part) was made on the part of Vintage players who have stated that Gush decks push out other non-Gush blue decks. The data has shown this to be consistently true. With that being the case, players were complaining about the format not being enjoyable to play, as players complained about the lack of competitive deck choice in a Gush vs Shops meta. Many who complained about Shops being oppressive asked for more pieces of the deck to be restricted without care or consideration that Gush was the strategy that made it possible for Shops to perform with that level of success. Those who sought ways to beat Shops complained that they could not consistently beat Gush strategies as well.

When 4x Trinisphere was legal, it had imposed serious constraints to deck building. With four of them in a deck, a blue player would be incentivized to mulligan into hands with Force of Will, play multiple basic lands and/or Wastelands of their own, or risk being Time Walked out of their first two turns of the game, if not longer. For blue decks to be competitive in that environment, they needed to adapt or lose. By that same notion, blue players have largely found that Gush has imposed constraints on deck building and how one must construct their deck in order to adapt, most notably by running Gush themselves; they needed to adapt or lose. Viewed from that perspective, the Gush restriction is exactly like the Trinisphere restriction. However, the abrupt curtness in that section of the podcast is par for the course when a historically blue-centric player who has been a vocal critic of the Shops strategy and subtly inferred disgust in its play patterns when compared to the play patterns, skill and strategic complexity that is demanded by blue strategies. For Steve, Trinisphere was an acceptable restriction, as was Chalice of the Void, as was Lodestone Golem, but not Gush.

I simply have to disagree with that assessment and attitude.

If anything, playing the Shop mirror, especially in the era of Arcbound Ravager, has proven to be insanely skill intensive, as stacking and responding to multiple Ravager activations and modular triggers while managing your board against an opposing Ravagers and Ballistas requires surgical precision to achieve flawlessly.

If anything, that podcast clip shows that there is serious bias amongst players with regard to the popularity and favoritism amongst archetypes, and my feeling is some small part of the reason that players were upset when the Gush and Probe restriction did not fall in line with their Vintage purview, which would vary based on archetype biases. Many people were happy to see Gush go, but the question is whether this restriction would be effective.

I have mixed feeling about it. On one hand, I do want the format to become more diverse and for tournaments to be more interesting. On the other hand, Shops were positioned by Gush to be dominant despite having lost so much power. Now that decks will be forced to play more lands, the real flaws in Shops will be revealed and exploited. I predict this restriction will push blue players to play more moxen and return to including Mana Crypt and Sol Ring in their decks. Many players say that Shops will still be as oppressive as ever, but I strongly disagree. To be clear, I am not nearly as afraid that Shops won't being as competitively viable as much as I am afraid of what could happen to the rest of the format if Shops were to not remain competitively viable.

During the 4x Chalice era of Vintage, we have seen blue decks push their artifact destruction spells to 2 and 3 mana in order to avoid being locked off by Chalice of the Void set to 1. Moxen were regularly shut out by Chalice of the Void set to 0. These decks still persevered and won through multiple Chalice of the Void because they ran enough lands to beat Shops. We'd play Lodestone Golem. They answered with Mana Drain. We'd play Tangle Wire to tap them down. They'd respond with Ancient Grudge on our Sphere or Thorn. It was a beautiful and skill intensive song and dance to see whether the Shop deck could put the game out of reach with a well-timed Tangle Wire, Smokestack or Sphere or if blue player could delay long enough to put the game away with Jace the Mind Sculptor, Tinker for a huge threat or take infinite turns with Time Vault. This doesn't even include the period of this era when Goblin Welder was playable… for either side of the match-up.

Since then, we have seen an abundance of lean, efficient Shop hate. However, shop hate isn't what pigeon-holed the shop archetype's deck constraints: it was Dack Fayden. Dack Fayden is the first piece of efficient Shop hate whose primary utility is gaining an edge in the blue vs blue match-up and whose secondary effect was one of the best Shop hate effects ever printed. Because of this, it is a card that is in nearly all blue lists on account of the improved card selection being instrumental in both the mirror match and the Shops match-up. Shop decks relied on 4x Lodestone Golem and 4x Chalice of the Void to fend off Dack Fayden, sometimes to no avail, which is the reason why Shop decks have adopted Arcbound Ravager: it prevents the theft of Shop's mana sources and creatures. Otherwise, Shop decks risked having its permanents stolen, for Dack to then charge up for a turn or two and do it again. With this restriction, Shop pilots now have to face Blue control decks without being able to reliably draw either of these tools, especially in the quantities needed to fight them. The lack of multiple Chalice of the Void means that Shop pilots cannot stop both the artifact mana AND the cheap cantrips used to fix the blue deck's mana development, thus making spheres and thorns mere road bumps instead of the roadblocks they once were. In this new metagame, the check on the format isn't a prison strategy, it is an aggro strategy; one that Shop decks have been forced to adapt to in order to remain competitive. The techniques used to beat aggro strategies have been utilized since the earliest days of the game, so it is only a matter of time before the format adapts and Shops are once again struggling to be competitive, just as it was during the 4x Thirst for Knowledge period (where the Time Vault & Voltaic Key strategy was so oppressive that Thirst for Knowledge became restricted).

My biggest worry is with the future of the format balance of Vintage. There is a very popular saying in Vintage, which is that “Force of Will is the glue that holds the format together.” While that believe that was true for most of Vintage's history, I do not think that it true anymore. I honestly think that Thorn of Amethyst has been responsible for more interactive games than Force of Will. Let me explain.

Vintage has an ever growing card pool, and as more mistakes get printed in Magic, they make their way into Vintage cardpool. The most egregious the mistake printed, the more likely it is to see play regularly in Vintage. Most Vintage playables have been seeing regular play is as niche cards to address specific match-ups, not as inductees to the pantheon of brokenness that becomes the core slots for their respective strategies. So, when a card is so obscenely powerful that it gets the nod over other cards, even as a 1-of across a breadth of different strategies, the number of flex slots remaining in its strategies or pillars get smaller. With enough time, these mistakes will begin to consolidate decklists, despite having a restricted list. As more free artifact mana has been printed (Chrome Mox and Mox Opal) and as more efficient tutors, draw spells, and card filtering spells have been printed (Dark Petition, Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise, Paradoxical Outcome, Painful Truths, Ponder, Gitaxian Probe and Preordain), and threats become increasingly oppressive and efficient (Young Pyromancer, Monastery Mentor and Managorger Hydra), the ability for Force of Will to keep all those cards in check diminishes greatly, especially when decks have become so lean that they also use Force of Will themselves to protect these cards. As Force of Will becoming less potent in disrupting un-interactive decks, I am (ironically) finding that Thorn of Amethyst, Sphere of Resistance and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben are doing more to slow down the format and force interactivity on the board and stack. We've seen strategies like Ponza, Prison and combo get slowly pushed out of Standard from 5th edition through 8th edition which has greatly reduced the diversity of viable strategies in Standard. Since then, the Standard has devolved into a spectrum of aggro-control decks, where one deck is established as the best deck, and other decks are just flavors of the best deck. In such a metagame, there aren't enough established inflection points to attack that deck and the rest of the metagame from completely different axes to maintain a balanced metagame, to create a format ecosystem where multiple decks not only thrive, but the pillars are so far removed that they create decks in the spaces between pillars, cultivating more diversity in that format.

In Vintage, there are multiple pillars, but they do not all grow or evolve at the same speed. Strategies like Shops and Dredge have not been evolving at the same pace as blue, nor have they been evolving at the same pace as Storm as of late. I am unsure as to how that will pan out for the long term. Since the Gush unrestriction, Blue decks have gained enough efficient card filtering and card advantage spells to string together an impressive draw engine without relying on more than restricted singletons. This then begs the question as to whether restrictions will be as effective for blue decks moving forward. When Gush was first restricted, Fact or Fiction, Thirst for Knowledge, Gifts Ungiven and Dark Confidant all stepped in as the next most efficient draw engines. When Gush was again restricted, these previously explored card advantage spells resurfaced as the most effective thing control players could do to develop their game to win. Now that Gush has been restricted a third time, these spells have been unrestricted for some time and are nowhere to be seen. The only thing that has changed has been the infusion of Gitaxian Probe, Preordain, Treasure Cruise, and Dig through Time, two of which have been restricted before Gush was unrestricted. This tells me the power level has again increased in Vintage to where Thirst for Knowledge, Gifts, and the other aforementioned card advantage spells are no longer good enough.

It may not seem like an issue now, but the game is already 24 years old, and if Vintage remains on pace with the influx of newly printed restrictions, it will only be a matter of time before blue control outpaces other archetypes to the point where other archetypes start becoming obsolete. Although some have been clamoring for restrictions against Dredge and for further action to be taken against Shops, but it is my belief that given enough time, those decks may be pushed out of viability anyway, unless something changes.

Take Dredge for example. Although the Dread Return targets that “win the game” change with the needs of the deck and improve with new printings, the “engine” of the deck was all printed in a single block. Golgari Grave-Troll, Stinkweed Imp, Golgari Thug, and to a lesser extent Darkblast and Life from the Loam were all printed in the same block. The engine of the deck is essentially a “one-block wonder” whose namesake mechanic may never see the light of a MTG printing press again. This is no different than the UG Madness Deck of 2002, which despite using Lion's Eye Diamond and Bazaar of Baghdad to play lightning fast creatures, it ultimately was just another “one-block wonder” deck that leaned on an abundance of key cards from that block to have success in Vintage. Although madness has continued to be a thing, the power level of madness now compared to the power level of madness during that block has been “fixed” and so we will not be seeing any experimentation on madness effects like to Basking Rootwalla ever be printed again. What's the difference between dredge and madness as “one-block wonders” in Vintage? Vintage has exceeded the power level of available madness spells and enablers, but has yet to exceed the power level of available Dredge spells and enablers. In Vintage, all it takes for that to happen is time. Why does this matter?

As formats evolve, strategies will come and go, but archetypes usually remain as a constant. They ebb and flow in power as new cards become infused into its respective formats (or leave them for non-eternal formats), but there are certain structural pillars that define the basic tensions in a format, which develop the metagames in those respective formats. For modern, its tensions are derived from the omnipresence of shocklands. In Legacy, it is Brainstorm and Wasteland. In Vintage, it is the moxen and restricted list, which is mostly blue. Magic R&D doesn't try to reinvent the wheel every time they design a block. Their formula to success is to find an inflection point, and use that as the focal point of set design. So, instead of reinventing the wheel, they just create different versions of that same wheel. With the Mirrodin blocks, the inflection point was an oversaturation of artifacts. With the Ravnica Blocks, it was the overabundance of multicolor spells and easy mana fixing. With Theros block (and Urza's block to an extent) the inflection point was enchantments. With Zendikar, it was lands. With Time Spiral block, the inflection point revolves around turns. Every block is based off an inflection point of the game of magic becoming the fulcrum that R&D designs their set with, and the tensions they want the players to solve. Shatter was an amazing removal spell in Mirrodin, often an early pick. If it was printed in Zendikar, it would be the 15th pick every time.

Eternal formats don't evolve, so sometimes the inflection point of cards developed in one set will work against the inflection points by which another set was designed. It was safe to print Thorn of Amethyst in a block that was all about playing an abundance of creatures for their tribal synergies. That card would never be effective in that block as it doesn't tax the one thing the block was all about… creature strategies. Now, introduce it in an artifact block or a spell-based block and watch that card put in a Thoughtseize caliber performance for that rotation. Sometimes the inflection points of one set align synergistically with another. Treasure Cruise was a very good card in Khans of Tarkir, and would often get played as a 3-5 mana draw spell, which is pretty much on-par for a spell that draws 3 cards. If Treasure Cruise was printed for a set with the dredge, cycling, or another discard mechanic, it would have been banned with the next B&R announcement. This is not an issue with formats that rotate (set rotations manage these issues), but can be damning with formats that don't, and so the deeper the cardpool a format has, the more likely it is for interactions to occur that R&D never saw coming. Dig through Time and Treasure Cruise were fair in standard, but have been nothing short of broken in Vintage. The “blue stew” of free spells has definitely pushed Blue strategies to another level of power and consistency. However, even with the restriction of Gush and Probe, I feel there are a high enough threshold of blue spells on the Vintage restricted list to enable the “blue stew” card draw / cantrip engine permanently. If this is indeed the case (and that has yet to be seen), it would make sense for players to continue to use Preordain, Dack Fayden and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy to stitch the “blue Stew” engine together. My fear would be that this engine of restricted cards stitched together by efficient card filtering would eventually replicate what players have hated about the last 2 years of the Gush era… discovery of an efficient card engine whose power outclassed all other card advantage engines causing Blue decklists to consolidate. The only difference is that this list would consist of cards that are already on the Restricted list, essentially neutering the effect restriction have had in preventing Vintage from becoming stale, the exact reason cited by Aaron Forsythe for the Gush restriction.

I will acknowledge that the sky is not falling for Vintage and that it will take time for these things to take place. However, if we Vintage players truly love the format, we need to begin to acknowledge the strengths in having a diversity of archetypes instead of complaining about it. We really need to reconsider our biases against archetypes we don't play and appreciate the checks and balances they enforce upon the format. We need to stop complaining about how Oath of Druids is a one card combo and appreciate how it checks the Workshop decks in the format. Let's appreciate how spheres are a check against Paradoxical Outcome lists, which allow non-Outcome Mentor decks to exist. Let's appreciate how decks like Landstill and Bomberman continue to be competitive outliers in the format. Let's appreciate how Dark Petition Storm can play through Null Rod (which is extremely well positioned right now) and win games that Paradoxical Outcome decks can't. Let's appreciate our format diversity while we still have it, because there may come a time when we don't.

Lastly, I feel that this restriction shows that there is an argument to be made for Wizards to pay attention to large tournaments that allow “playtest cards”. While there are now two annual Vintage Championship tournaments and the Bazaar of Moxen tournament series, the majority of large Vintage venues, and arguably the main driver of innovation in Vintage is the US metagame, and more specifically, the Northeast Vintage metagame. I am fortunate to live in a region where I am no further than a 2 hour drive from any weekly Vintage tournament of 30-50 players, and which regularly host larger level events which attract more competition. People in the Northeast are lucky to have TOs like Nick Coss, Calvin Hodges, Alan Paperin, Elizabeth Ann, Nick Detwiler, Ray Robilliard, and more who have offered and maintained a vibrant vintage scene for our Northeast community. Our events bring in an abundance of data to the Vintage community, which is then filtered through websites like TheManaDrain.com, MtgGoldfish.com, MTGTop8.com and TCDecks.com, and much of which is broken down by our own Vintage players to the benefit of the whole community. The abundance of tournaments comes with one big drawback: most are not sanctioned as they allow playtest cards.

There is an abundance of data that goes untapped that can be extracted from these tournaments. I'm pretty sure Wizards doesn't give credence to this data because it would somewhat legitimize the use of playtest cards for Vintage and begin to undermine Wizards's policy of requiring real cards for tournaments. There is real applicable data that can be pulled from these tournaments and which may be better than many sanctioned tournaments of the same size. By allowing playtest cards, these tournaments better replicate what Vintage would look like because there would be fewer issues pertaining to card access. The Power 9, The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Bazaar of Baghdad, Mana Drain, Force of Will, dual lands, and even some fetchlands are so expensive that, were tournaments sanctioned, many players would not be able to build optimized decks, choosing to stay home instead of playing in the 0-X bracket and wasting their time and entry fees. Both the European Vintage Champs and EE6 took place after the release of Aether Revolt, which looked to shake up both tournaments with an infusion of Vintage playables. When you compare both tournaments, Vintage European Champs lacked the innovation that EE6 did. A single tournament doesn't establish a trend, but with the recent split of Vintage Championships into two tournaments (one for each region), we can theoretically begin to measure the speed of format development between Europe (which generally plays only sanctioned Vintage and hosts fewer tournaments) and North America (which traditionally has used playtest cards for the majority of its tournaments, but hosts many more). Tracking decklists and results could provide a very strong argument that the use of playtest cards, while providing more access to more players to play Vintage, is also accelerating the pace of format development.

While some can argue that MTGO could do the same, both platforms (digital and paper) are not equal. Players are not timed individually for their play in paper, and shortcutting is not allowed in the digital platform. Such differences disincentives players from playing strategies like Bomberman combo and Dragon combo for fear of losing due to timing out while executing their combos, when the game was essentially won, because in certain situations, their opponent can relying on that player's clock to expire as a legitimate means to win a match. Such actions are perfectly legal online while constituting cheating in paper tournaments, simply because MTGO does not use Judges in their Magic platform. Also, the timing of when Vintage tournaments fire online can be an issues for players who live in different time zones, which seem to better service some regions over others. The point is, there are issues that still keeps the online meta from mirroring the paper meta. While the data that has come from MTGO has been good, it will never be a perfect substitute for paper Vintage.

If Wizards were to see the data that these unsanctioned tournaments produce and compare that volume of data to what players are saying on the ground, we may have had different cards become candidates for restriction. At the very least, they would have been able to get the volume of data that would have corroborated what most players had been saying for months, and get a diversity of opinions to better understand what players were most concerned with. As always, time will tell as to whether they got it right with this restriction or whether more action is needed. Since I began writing this article two local Vintage tournaments have taken place: the Top Deck Games Monthly 1k event and the Clash at the Cradle Vintage & Modern event. In our next article. I will get into the results of local paper tournaments and describe my crazy brew that took a lot of people by surprise. There should also be more tournament data to look at to see how the Vintage meta is shaking out. At the very least, the next 2-3 months should be an exciting time for Vintage players to try new decks and find out which strategies will come out on top.

Until next time, may you bluff like poker and play like chess.

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