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By: EpsilonMinus, Michael Petersen
Feb 10 2014 1:00pm
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Greetings, Classic fans!  It’s been quite a while since I’ve submitted an article for this site.  Almost two months, to be exact, when I talked about (ironically) restriction.  I can’t chalk it up to nothing going on, maybe for the first couple weeks when we were between League seasons and the Dailies weren’t firing.  I can’t chalk it up to scrubbing out, since even though I did poorly in the first two Dailies, I went back to my bread and butter and I’ve actually done relatively well the past couple weeks.  I can’t even chalk it up to simple laziness because I actually spent time composing two articles in the interim, but ended up not submitting them because I wasn’t satisfied.  I can’t even chalk it up to disliking the format, because in spite of some of the harsh words I have below, I did enjoy myself in a way that I couldn’t enjoy myself playing any other format, so long as I wasn’t playing against those decks.  Unfortunately, I always ended up eventually having to play against those decks.  (And why wouldn’t I? They were clearly the best in the format.)

No, the reason I stopped writing is because there was nothing left to write about.  Sure Dailies fired and games were played, but the format had been solved.  The only strategy to give to a potential Classic player with access to all the relevant cards, no personal playstyle preference, and an equal skill level among all the archetypes was: Play Affinity or a Stax deck well-metagamed against Affinity.  And if you didn’t have access to all the relevant cards, didn’t really enjoy playing Workshop archetypes, or weren’t terribly skilled at playing them, your options were: Play Dredge and hope people skimp on their graveyard hate, play Oath and hope you win the die roll and have your combo in hand, or pack your deck with hate and hope you have it in your opening hand (and winning the die roll definitely helps).

Given these brute facts, what else was there left to say?  But then, on February 5th, I got on my computer and…

What happened?

Per the Mothership:

Explanation of February 5, 2014, Magic Online-only B&R Changes
Magic Online Classic: A deck using Mishra's Workshop to accelerate out mana-denial cards has been dominating the format. In Vintage, if the Workshop deck casts a turn one Sphere of Resistance, the other player can cast a Mox for one mana. In Classic, there are fewer options, and sometimes the second player never gets to cast a single spell. That is both very powerful, and extremely frustrating.

Why did it happen?

To put it simply, over the past year, decks featuring 4 copies of Mishra’s Workshop and Lodestone Golem as well as often, but not always, 4 Tangle Wire have completely dominated the format.  I performed a metagame analysis of all the DEs and major PREs from the 2013 Classic Season, which I highly recommend you read here.  However, if you are pressed for time, I will summarize by saying that in 2013, Workshop decks were responsible for 40% of Top 8 slots/DE placements in the format.  This was a higher percentage than some of the more dominating strategies in the recent history of Vintage, all of which eventually led to restrictions, including 4 Thirst for Knowledge Tezzeret Control, Gro-A-Tog decks with 4 copies of Gush, Brainstorm, and Merchant Scroll, Gifts Ungiven decks, Flash decks, Vintage ‘Trinistax’ decks, etc.  You can also compare this to Vintage currently, where Workshops are also the top performing archetype in 2013 according to the statistics at TC Decks, but with only 19% of Top 8 slots, a far cry from what we were seeing in Classic.  This was also in spite of the fact that, as I will detail below, there is much, much more Workshop hate being played in Classic.  (Also see Season 1 QT #4 for an illustration of what Classic would probably look like against “normal” decks, where Workshop decks were 75% of the Top 8 and at one point in the tourney were threatening to be 100% (!) of the Top 8.)

So, what took so damn long?

There had been grumbling within in the community about the oppressiveness of Workshop archetypes, but given the fact that there hadn’t been a date set for Vintage to come online other than “in 2013” (there were rumors that the Power Nine might be released in August for the 20th Anniversary celebration, then there were rumors it would be released during Eternal Weekend in November), most people who thought a restriction was necessary were content to grind their teeth and tough it out until Vintage.  As a result, with Legacy having replaced Classic as the premier online format and Vintage supposedly around the corner, the DCI had little to no incentive to pay attention, especially with no one in the Classic community making any noise about what was going on.  Of course, as everyone well knows, Vintage didn’t come in 2013 and while there were pros and cons to this decision, one major con was that Classic players were left with six more months of a format that had completely fallen apart.  Given this fact, Scott aka enderfall, who organizes the CQ League, put out a survey to find out Classic players’ feelings about the format.  Interestingly, there was no real grassroots clamoring for any B&R changes, although a plurality was in favor.  I followed up that survey with my analysis, referenced above, sent it to both Erik Lauer and Mike Turian, and encouraged Classic players who were concerned about the format to contact the DCI.  One can only assume that this activity spurred the DCI to review the state of the format and that, once they reviewed the numbers, making a change was a slam-dunk decision.

But was it really that bad?  Vintage is coming in four months!  Besides, restrictions are bad, right?

There are many Classic players, some of whom are not Workshop pilots, who reacted to the restrictions by claiming they were unnecessary and the format was perfectly fine.  These people are no doubt sincere in their belief.  They also happen to be very, very wrong.  How bad had the format become?  So bad that people were talking about siding in Bane of Progress as an Oath target against Affinity (thus destroying your own Oath) because Oathing up Emrakul, the Aeons Torn was not consistently good enough.  So bad that there was a serious discussion on using Island Sanctuary as a tactic against Shop decks, the idea being that since most Shop builds had no fliers or enchantment removal, you could land the card, skip all your draw steps, and eventually deck them.  So bad that the two largest League QTs, featuring equal numbers of Workshop decks and the next ‘best’ pillar of the format, Oath of Druids, were both heavyweight ‘showdowns’ so lopsided they made Tyson v. Spinks look like a 12-round slugfest.  So bad that players have trolled the last two QTs by playing 'Red Deck Wins.'  So bad that the awesome ‘combo’ of Chrome Mox and Kataki, War’s Wage was, let it be recorded here, an actual thing in the format because it was one of the few ways to get consistently get effective mass artifact hate down on Turns 1-2 before you were inevitably locked out of the game or overrun by Affinity dorks.  So bad that – wait a minute, I don’t think I emphasized that last one enough – so bad that Hymn to Touraching yourself to play a creature with a worse P/T-to-cost ratio than a FREAKING Grizzly Bears was a legitimate tactic in the format.  [Note: I’m not harping on this interaction as a measure of disrespect to the deck’s creator, who certainly had a method to his madness.  I’m just using the fact that this interaction, which under normal circumstances would be so obviously and massively disadvantageous that even the greenest Magic rookie would not put it in his or her deck, had become – let’s be honest – one of the leading tactics of the format, to illustrate the depths of absurdity to which everything had sunk.]  [Additional Note: This goes for all the seemingly ‘crazy’ ideas I’ve mentioned so far.  They actually made perfect sense in their own way and the fact that they did shows how crazy the format had become.  After all, all of the conventional methods of consistently defeating these decks had failed. Why not get creative?]  So bad that it was only a matter of time before 4 Kataki/4 Energy Flux.dec became a thing (I should know, before the announcement, that was my next project – I’m being serious).  So bad that all this was happening despite the fact that Shop decks were generally only about 25-30% of the metagame.  However, they were so powerful that if you were going to win a tournament, especially one of the League tournaments, you were going to have to go through multiple Shop decks in the top brackets, which necessitated running cards suboptimal against every other archetype, because if you weren’t running the hate, you’d get almost certainly get run over (and, even with the hate, you sometimes got run over anyway).

Due to the awkward timing of the start of the League vis-à-vis the B&R announcement, the first QT of the Season will be played under the old list.  It will remain as a monument to how completely and utterly borked the format was on Feb. 5th.  How messed up was the format, you ask?  So messed up that 60% of the field is composed of Workshop and Workshop Hate decks.  (Not exactly shocking considering the Top 8 of the last QT was 1 Dredge, 3 Shop, and 4 Anti-Shop.)  So messed up that there were more copies of Kataki, War’s Wage, Energy Flux, and Serenity (38) then there were of Mana Drain, Gush, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Oath of Druids (36).   So messed up that there were more copies of Leonin Relic-Warder, Kataki, War’s Wage, and Trygon Predator (46) than Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage, and Delver of Secrets (36).  So messed up that there were as many copies of Pulverize as there were of Tinker.  So messed up that I’m just going to post this comprehensive list of all the artifact hate down below (and this, if anything, understates the amount of hate, as I’m not including non-basic hate, mana ramp/extra lands in the board, or stuff like Student of Warfare or Snuff Out that don’t mention artifacts, but which are anti-Lodestone tactics):

 

This was nothing new.  Here is another list from the previous QT.  Note that this QT had more players, so while the raw numbers decreased, the proportion of hate cards actually increased:

 

In spite of this avalanche of anti-artifact hate surging into the format, which deck won the last Invitational?  Affinity!  Which deck was the last to 4-0 a Daily Event?  Stax!  What were two of the top three archetypes entered into the League along with Mono White Hussar (an anti-Shop hate deck)?  Affinity and Stax!  Which decks are the two best decks in the format?  I mean, best, not in the sense of there having to be some deck that is the best, even if by a smidgen of a percent, but best in the sense of best by a country mile to the point where no sane person could logically argue otherwise (saving the corner case of Dredge on a day where everyone forgot their graveyard hate)?  Affinity and Stax!


The most common complaint among people who didn’t like the restriction (other than Workshop pilots, one of whom called me a “big mouthed idiot” for, I guess, actually using numbers and data and logic and stuff) was that the restrictions were “taking the Vintage out of Classic”, but honestly how much Vintage was there left to lose?  Almost every other strategy commonly associated with Vintage had been shoved to the margins of the format and all we were left with was the ever-escalating battle of Workshops v. Artifact Hate.  In fact, I would argue that Classic over the past year has resembled some bizarre thought experiment of what Legacy would be like if the DCI were crazy enough to unban Mishra’s Workshop more than anything do with what has been going on in Vintage over the past year.

All right, you’ve convinced me.  But did the DCI choices make sense?

Well, here’s where I agree with some of the criticism, because I’d have to say yes and no.  I think Lodestone was utterly deserving of getting the axe.  He was explicitly designed for Vintage with the drawback that your opponent could still play their Moxen, but in Classic, he was all upside and no downside.  I focused on Tangle Wire in my follow-up article on specific cards, but over the past two months I’ve had enough Turn One Lodestone and Lodestone followed up with a Phyrexian Metamorph on Lodestone that I will not miss the card one iota.

Sphere of Resistance, however, was a bit of a head scratcher.  I don’t know of anyone who was advocating for it and, while the DCI might be privy to information we aren’t, I must confess my experience with Sphere is that it’s powerful but a liability where Lodestone is not due to the omnipresence of Wasteland in the format.  The only thing I can think of is that they wanted combo to be more viable again, because I have to admit, even with Lodestone gone, the presence of eight other Sphere effects was going to leave Storm-type decks dead in the water.

However, seeing Sphere go but Tangle Wire left untouched makes me somewhat uneasy.  Affinity, which honestly is even more obnoxious and oppressive than Stax, can pump out so many permanents so quickly that Tangle Wire becomes less of a symmetrical “pause button” and more of a one-sided lockout.  Losing Golem definitely hurts the deck and actually makes Null Rod good against it again (the irony of Classic Affinity is that Null Rod effects, which are usually the solution against Affinity in other formats, wasn’t very good in a non-Workshop deck because they could just drop a 5/3 and beat your face in).  However, I’m worried that the DCI might have unnecessarily killed one archetype (Stax) and left another problem half-solved (Affinity).

Those concerns aside, I must note that I did end the follow-up referenced above by saying that “regardless of your opinion on the power level of Lodestone Golem and Tangle Wire vis-à-vis the rest of the format, I think there is no doubt that the fact that Wizards isn’t thinking about this at all is unhealthy for the future prospects of Classic” and the fact that they acted shows that they are at least paying some attention, which is much, much better than the previous neglect that had turned Classic into the Somalia of sanctioned formats.  Also, even if I think they might have erred on Sphere, restricting Lodestone Golem was a huge step in the right direction and if I had to choose between Lodestone and an innocuous card getting the axe for four months or laboring through the Workshop Hell that existed before the announcement, I would gladly choose the latter 10 times out of 10.

So what’s next for the format?

Well, that’s an article in of itself, one that I will be happy to have reason to write, after not having had a reason to write about the format in some time.  If you haven’t given the format a shot because you tried it before and were tired of being blown out and locked down by Workshop decks round after round if you weren't playing Hate.dec, I highly recommend you giving it another chance.  The Daily Event is Saturday night at 9:30 EST.  Hope to see you all there!

15 Comments

Michael I am sure you have by thewoof2 at Mon, 02/10/2014 - 23:52
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Michael I am sure you have many good ideas/input but I have to say when I read your piece you speak as if everything is 100% fact and you come across to me as very biased. That might be your intentions but for me it is hard to look at your analysis as objective, kinda like hearing republicans talk about Obamacare - way too biased for me (*this is not an endorsement of Obamacare*). I understand everyone is biased, as I am, so maybe it is just the combination of writing everything as fact and not ever considering the other side of the coin.

Bias by EpsilonMinus at Mon, 02/10/2014 - 23:58
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All right, I admit the piece is a little ranty, mainly as a reaction to some of the complaining about the restrictions and assertions that the format was 'fine.' However, I site several statistics as far as hate cards being played, percentages of top 8s, specific examples of how I felt Shops were warping the format, etc. as well as linking to my original article on the subject, which has even more stats about the format. If I'm off, I'd love to hear an actual critique of the statistics I cite, the examples I use, the comparisons I make, etc. However, all I get is people criticizing 'tone,' 'bias,' 'you're the worst player in Classic,' 'you're an idiot,' 'I don't care what the numbers say,' 'the format was fine,' etc.

Glad you see it as somewhat by thewoof2 at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 21:36
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Glad you see it as somewhat ranty, just wanted to let you know that is how I interpreted the piece which is otherwise well written and concise.

I don't think we have to rehash the same old arguments all over again, but seeing as you are very in tune with the statistics and your methods I bet if you tried to take a counter-argument perspective you would come up with many valid points (I understand that won't happen because of your overall stance, just saying). I will say, the argument and stats you made might be the best with the information you have without adding in more qualitative elements. The most obvious is player skill, magic is a complex game and if you look over the many game videos you will see several mistakes that impact game results. There are many examples I have seen of a newer player using affinity or STAX and not doing well perhaps due to play skill/experience. Maybe I am just touting my own horn here but I have played the affinity deck thousands of times and Monty has stax even more, that has to count for something and if you take out both of our wins in your totals I bet the percent drops significantly.

Qualitative Arguments by EpsilonMinus at Wed, 02/12/2014 - 00:56
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The problem with qualitative arguments compared to quantitative arguments, IMO, is that they can kind of be used to prove anything. One of the common arguments against banning Jace in Standard was that even though Caw-Blade was dominating, the most skilled players were doing the best. However, the DCI pretty explicitly rejected that argument in their article explaining the decision to ban those two cards.

I have no doubt you and Andy are skilled players and that there is a definite learning curve to the Workshop decks. However, given that there were 21 DE placements and 11 Top 8 finishes from other people, I don't think the numbers support the idea that the metagame dominance of Workshop in the Classic meta came down to two pilots.

Thanks for the response.

EDIT: Forgot to include the 1st Invi where Calavera and ncsu made T8. Updated the numbers to reflect it.

I have to say as a very very by Paul Leicht at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 00:10
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I have to say as a very very casual Classic format indulger (one could even say "bon vivant"), I am not convinced that Lodestone would be the right target without Sphere of Resistance. The pair locked out lots of possible decks. I played quite a bit of shops affinity a few years ago (though never in DEs) and my feeling was if Oath got its nut draw it could just end the game before I even got going. Affinity never played out that way, itself. I think once in a PRE I got turn 1 Lodestone off Shops + Opal and it was promptly countered with FOW and then my Shops wasted and what land (CoT I think)came next was stripped. (The guy went on to win the whole thing btw.) Locking me out. And the guy didn't even have his good draw. Sure at times you get blowouts with Lodestone but I think the hype was far larger than the actual effect.

Personally, I am not invested in Classic so the bannings don't bum me out so much but I can see why they are engendering some hate. The fact that shops affinity is still playable doesn't make it a problem any more than Oath or Dredge or any other mainstay deck is. And in fact people may abandon it for greener pastures since it no longer has an edge the way it used to.

Oath v. Shops by EpsilonMinus at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 00:21
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I think Grafdigger's Cage really changed the dynamic of that matchup, esp. for Affinity because it gave an out to the Turn One Oath play. As for the Oath v. Stax matchup, I think if you are Oath and you win the roll and have your combo on Turn One or Two, you are in business, esp. in Game One before they board in the hate. However, on the draw, esp. if they have a Turn One Sphere effect and you don't have FoW, it's pretty bad for you.

As for Sphere, I'm not convinced that it was the right card and I probably wouldn't have restricted it if I were the one making the decisions (I think Wire and Golem were the worst two offenders), but I think something had to be done. The Shop decks were just so statistically dominant, even in the face of all the hate. Even in the League this week, which came out after this article, the Shop decks went 6-1 (the only loss being in the mirror) and the final two DEs before the restriction were both 4-0 Shops. Personally, I wouldn't even mind Montolio calling me an idiot or thewoof2's more polite accusation of bias, if they would add some actual statistics cited, counter-arguments, or something.

We're presented with a new format. by PlanetWalls at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 17:02
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Let's bracket, for a moment, all the arguments in this post, as well as the responses. Here we are, presented with what -- I hope -- is essentially a fresh and brand new metagame, regardless of the justice of the restriction decisions.

All the sudden Seeds of Innocence is awesome again. Landstill is again a deck in the metagame. Null Rod and Stony Silence are cards that matter instead of only matter 50% of the time. All the sudden Gilder Brain is ... ... never mind, I'd better take care of something.

For the record, Tower of the Magistrate is an equipment hate card, not really artifacts hate. Though there isn't any equipment in the tournament.

Tower and my criterion for inclusion by EpsilonMinus at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 17:26
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I was just including cards that disrupted/countered/were otherwise useful against artifact strategies, not necessarily saying that those were the only uses (obv, Nature's Claim and Trygon Predator, among others, are both good against Oath) or even the primary, intended uses on the part of the deckbuilders. In this case, Tower could be used for blocking an artifact creature as well as responding to an equip activation. Hope that clarifies things. Thanks for the feedback and I agree about being excited about a metagame shakeup.

I've taken care of some by JXClaytor at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 13:10
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I've taken care of some comments that to me seemed more inflammatory than they needed to be.

Hey Epsilon, I thought the by country hillbilly at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 14:01
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Hey Epsilon,

I thought the article was an interesting read. I must admit I don't necessarily agree with all points, and I'll delve into that in a moment, but I appreciate having more classic content.

Let me ask you a (rhetorical) question: How is dredge kept in check? By hate, right? Look, it is no secret that people need to side 7-8 cards to have a legitimate shot at beating dredge. It is simply too powerful. I haven't done the research here, but I can guarantee there have been DEs and QTs who had such a disproportionate # of hate cards for dredge it would be jaw dropping...

Was there that much hate against *any* of the vintage decks where you cited that were crippled in the past?

Anyways - good read. Keep writing.

Zach

Thanks by EpsilonMinus at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 14:34
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I look forward to hearing what you disagree with me on.

Dredge: I agree that Dredge is kept in check by hate, but the difference between Dredge and the situation before 2/5 re: Shops is that if people pack the Dredge hate, the deck just withers. I have a lot of difficulty imagining the deck could take down 2/3 of the Dailies if the field was full of maindeck Cages and a bunch of people were playing something like Helmline or something, but that's comparable to what you've been seeing with Shops despite all the Katakis, Fluxes, Trygons, Grudges, etc. In other words, it's not just the raw amount of hate, it's the fact that the deck continues to perform as strongly as it does through the hate. (One of the arguments that restriction wasn't necessary was that the metagame needs to adjust. My argument is that it had adjusted and then some, and not in ways that are characteristic of a healthy, balanced format.)

The degree of hate against Vintage decks past: Obviously, putting together the actual hard data to the degree I did in this article is difficult. I know Fish decks with Null Rod were pretty big during 4 Thirst Tez and that Shops were commonly played during the Gush eras to counter that strategy. (In fact, one of the reasons the Stax strategy caught on in 2003 was because its Sphere of Resistances were very effective against Gro strategies.) Flash decks saw plenty of Leylines, especially with Dredge in the format at the same time, which was one of the most effective ways to shut the deck down.

I disagree with your sweeping by country hillbilly at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 16:14
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I disagree with your sweeping generalization that "This is great/ding dong the witch is dead".

I think it is troubling in many ways because we are being treated like guinea pigs. Why would they make a unilateral change against a singular deck (be fair, this affects affinity but completely NEUTERS stax) and not do the same in vintage?

My biggest (see: only) beef is that they restricted sphere of resistance. Talk about overkill.

Shop decks aren't as dominant by GainsBanding at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 20:45
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Shop decks aren't as dominant in Vintage; there were no restrictions needed. Probably because of Power 9 to balance out the other decks, but possibly also because of cost / availability issues. We'll see how big a deal Workshop is when Vintage comes online where the deck is way cheaper.

I hadn't thought about it by GainsBanding at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 20:50
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I hadn't thought about it before this article, but like Epsilon says, Sphere was probably restricted to give storm decks a chance. That way we can have some equally playable pillars again - storm, creatures, dredge, weaker shops. That way it's not just a bunch of Legacy creature decks slamming into each other.

And Oath I guess but I have found Oath to be unplayable over the last couple years because of all the Grizzly Bears with attached enchantment hate they keep printing.

That's fair enough by EpsilonMinus at Tue, 02/11/2014 - 17:04
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To be fair, I disagree with the DCI about Sphere getting the ax and I have no problems with people criticizing them on that front. My complaint is with those claiming the format was 'fine' and Affinity/Stax were 'just another deck.' I think, however, the restrictions are more positive than negative and I think the format needed a change. As for why they didn't make the same change in Vintage, the numbers don't support the deck being a dominating/format-warping force in Vintage. 20% of top 8s is a far, far cry from 40% of Top 8's. In Vintage, because of Moxen, Shops (whether Affinity or Stax) is just another very good archetype. In Classic, it was, IMO, THE archetype to the point where it was difficult to rationalize going with any other strategy if you wanted to maximize your chances of winning a tournament (especially a DE).