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By: EpsilonMinus, Michael Petersen
Dec 17 2013 12:39pm
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Greetings, Classic fans!  It’s been a very interesting week as my last column generated quite a bit of response from the community (which is good!): most of which was positive, a bit of which was more critical.  Sadly, I was not quite as successful on the front of actually playing the game.  I was going to do more of a two-part column on both my experiences in the Last Chance Qualifier last Saturday as well as my follow-up to last week’s article, but unfortunately there is not much to say about the first part.  I took a risk by taking in my rogue control build I wrote about here and, as they say about risks, sometimes it pays off and sometimes you fall flat on your face.  If you would like to see videos of the matches, you can find them here, but in brief, I went 0-3.  This poor performance was probably on the back of perhaps underestimating the explosiveness of some of my opponents’ decks when I made mulliganing decisions, a couple terrible misplays, and some good old-fashioned bad luck.

However, before returning to the Restricted List discussion of my last article, I’d like to comment on the new time slots that Wizards gave to Classic.  Namely, that they suck.  We were able to get to about eight players on the Saturday afternoon slot, but that was it and I am not optimistic that it is going to improve with time, especially if the events continue to fall short and people stop putting in the effort.  From what I know of the Classic player base, it tends to be older players with disposable income and who have been playing the game for a while.  They are often married, have fairly demanding jobs, as well as often having kids to boot.  They don’t have a bunch of time to drop everything and play whenever that a high-school age Standard player might have, which makes timing all the more important.  I have no idea why Wizards would eliminate the one successful time slot in which Classic events at least semi-routinely fired.  The whole rationale for maintaining Classic Dailies as opposed to Pauper or Momir events was to give players access to a Vintage-style experience until the release of Vintage Masters, but honestly, I think Classic would have been better off if Wizards had decided to go the Pauper/Momir model of monthly Premier events, presuming an actual time slot Classic players could make, rather than three meaningless Daily slots stuck in the middle of the day.

This provides the perfect segue for returning to the Classic Restricted List discussion I began last week.  I wanted to clear up one misconception that some people might have had.  I am not calling for the Classic community to manage its own separate B&R List from Wizards.  In fact, even if I thought it were a good idea in the abstract, it would do nothing to help the greatest problem Classic is undergoing right now, which is the lack of attendance in Classic DEs.  The attendance for PREs tends to be at least generally decent, thanks to the additional flexibility it gives, so I don’t think changing the Restricted List for PREs would really help, and in fact, would probably hurt by driving away Workshop players who feel as though they were being unfairly targeted and confusing new players about the format (if new players even really know about PREs in the first place; PREs tend to cater to those already ‘in the know’).

The genesis of last week’s article came out of Pete Jahn's opinion column from a month and a half ago and my question as to why Legacy DEs were firing and Classic DEs were not, despite the similar monetary barriers. One topic that came up from respondents was the dominance of Workshop decks stifling diversity in the format. This complaint definitely resonated with my own experiences of the format, although it is not enough to drive me away, and I eventually went in and did an analysis of the tournament data we had available. If it were the case that the data contradicted the popular narrative and the data showed that there were multiple archetypes with a more or less fair shot, I would have been the first one to shout it from the rooftops, as the whole reason I put in the time to do my columns is to promote the format, but the only real viable conclusion from the data is that the popular narrative is largely correct, which honestly makes it pretty hard to promote the format, especially to skeptics who believe that Classic is all Workshops + Oath.  Obviously, the dominance of Workshop archetypes isn’t the only reason why Classic DEs are having difficulty firing (see second paragraph of this article), but is one of the things that could potentially be changeable about the format.  (The other reasons that came up were largely related to budgetary concerns and Classic not being a paper format, neither of which is likely to change.)

As for my own aims in writing the article, it was to compile the data in one place and spur Classic players to action. Whether that action will work or not, I have no idea, but I know that if I didn't do it and didn't try, that the next B&R cycle will pass without incident, because the DCI is not going to pay attention to Classic on its own accord and I do believe that, whether you think something is off in the format or not, that the fact that the DCI is not even paying attention is a bad thing.  I think Wizards is too quick to just write off Classic.  If they presumably want Vintage to be a success online, why start from scratch by scorching a format to nothing due to Restricted List neglect, suboptimal time slots, allowing staples to explode in price, no official support, etc?  Certainly Vintage being released online will carry its own cache, but if Wizards continues the current stance, the novelty will wear off and we will all find ourselves writing the same old articles five years down the line.

To return to the issue of the actual health of the format divorced from concerns of who should be managing the Restricted List, there was, I think, general agreement that the numbers were worrisome.  However, thewoof2 brought up a counter-point in the comments that I will reproduce here:

“On decks used, only WOTC can look at the DE's, but if in a DE 40% of the people used STAX/Affinity then it would make sense that 40% would place in the top. So without knowing the field you are potentially missing a critical factor in why the results look as they do.”

I argued that a static proportionality of that height is a problem in of itself for a format, but I also took the time between the writing of last week’s article and this week’s to investigate the matter further.  Only WotC has full access to the field for Daily Events, but the Player Run Events I looked at all had the relevant information publicly available.  (I linked to all of those events in last week’s article and would rather not do it again, so please go back there if you would like to check my work.)  The numbers for Workshop decks were as follows:

Season 1 QT #3: 7/41 decks were Workshop decks (17% of the field), 4/8 Top 8 slots were Workshop decks (50% of slots)
Ham on Rye II: 12/104 decks were Workshop decks (11.5% of the field), 3/8 Top 8 slots were Workshop decks (37.5% of slots)
Season 1 QT #4: 12/41 decks were Workshop decks (30% of the field), 6/8 Top 8 slots were Workshop decks (75% of slots)
Classic Invitational: 7/21 decks were Workshop decks (33% of the field), 4/8 Top 8 slots were Workshop decks (50% of slots)
Season 2 QT #1: 4/28 decks were Workshop decks (14% of the field), 1/8 Top 8 slots were Workshop decks (12.5% of slots)
Season 2 QT #2: 8/38 decks were Workshop decks (21% of the field), 3/8 Top 8 slots were Workshop decks (37.5% of slots)

I think it is safe to say from those numbers that, outside of the outlier of Season 2 QT #1, the percentage of Top 8 slots being taken by Workshop decks is not a function of proportion to their representation in the field in regards to PREs.  Only Wizards could definitively answer the question of whether it is different in Dailies, but I am highly dubious of the notion.

Another criticism, brought up by Cronin in the discussion of the issue on last week’s episode of Yawgmoth’s Soap Opera (which I’d recommend listening to), was that there are two very different Workshop archetypes in prison Stax and aggro Affinity and that by lumping them together, one misses the overall picture of the format.  I am definitely aware of the difference between the two decks, although I do believe it is defensible to call them both ‘Workshop’ decks in the same way that I lumped FishyFellow’s mono-white deck and the MTGO Academy Orcish Lumberjack ramp deck from the last QT (which are much more radically different in their card selection) as ‘Fish’ decks.  However, far from being a saving grace for the diversity in the format, I think the existence of these two decks is a nail in the coffin.  If the numbers were about just Stax or just Affinity, I think there might still be some hope that the meta might be able to shift and adjust. 

However, in looking at Vintage, it is clear that the decks that emerged to fight against Stax decks were the slower Mana Drain control archetypes like Landstill and Bomberman in conjunction with tempo/aggro-control builds like RUG Delver and BUG Fish.  However, those are the same types of decks that Adrian was able to demolish with Vintage Affinity in his run to the Top 8 of the NYSE Open.  However, the decks that Vintage Affinity was weak against, Tendrils strategies and dedicated Tinker/Vault combo-control decks, happen to be the exact types of decks that 1) lose the most from Classic to Vintage and 2) get crushed by Stax decks.  Both archetypes are also weak to different strategies.  Cards like Nature’s Claim and Ingot Chewer are excellent against Stax decks where the primary concern is mana efficiency, but are less stellar against Affinity decks that can put four to five permanents on the field by Turn 2 and they just flat out suck once Arcbound Ravager hits the field.  Therefore, one has to resort to mass artifact kill strategies such as Kataki, War’s Wage, Serenity, Energy Flux, Seeds of Innocence, etc.  However, outside of Kataki and, possibly, Serenity, a lot of those cards are just too expensive to get over the mana denial of Stax decks, especially on the draw and without Moxen available in the format.  Thus, one has to either commit to an overwhelming and diverse suite of hate just to compete or ‘pick your poison’ and hope for the best.  We are seeing this in the meta shifts that have occurred since QT #4.  Stax archetypes have clustered around Null Rod to fight Affinity, blue archetypes have clustered around Oath of Druids as the only win condition reliably quick enough to compete with Affinity and reliably cheap enough to resolve against Stax, and creature archetypes have largely become Shop-Oath hate decks.

The final comment I’d like to address came from dangerlinto, who wrote:

“I would have liked it more if you had gone into detail on what you would think would be the best card to restrict. Your main culprits are Lodestone, Tangle Wire and to a less extent Cage.”

I tried to avoid going into detail in regards as to what I think is the best card to restrict, mainly because my chief concern was looking to build consensus about the metagame being off and partially because I think that is the job of the DCI.  However, I realize that bringing up the problem begs the question of what I think needs to be done.  Moreover, although not mentioned in this comment, some have also pointed to Workshop itself.  I think restricting Workshop would be problematic for reasons I outlined in the comments of my last article.  Workshop decks (particularly Stax decks) are the main thing holding back some very potentially nasty Storm and Gush Combo decks that I think would run rampant throughout the format if Stax decks were to just disappear, which restricting Workshop would likely cause.  There is some persuasiveness to the idea that the problem might Workshop itself and that restricting stuff like Tangle Wire and Lodestone Golem is as futile in dealing with Workshop decks as banning Dark Ritual and Demonic Consultation without touching Necropotence was in dealing with the old Extended Trix decks.  However, Classic is only going to be around for another six months.  This isn’t an excuse to do nothing, but at the same time, there isn’t going to be time to work out what would be required to radically transform the format from its roots.  For that reason, I think restricting Workshop is a non-starter.

As for Grafdigger’s Cage, I think Oath and Dredge are more or less fine and seem to be the only non-Shop decks capable of winning a Daily Event.  Although Cage definitely played a role in the current dominance of Shops by improving two of its weakest matchups, I feel Cage brought the imbalances of the format to the forefront as opposed to actually causing them.  I’d like to see greater diversity in the form of non-Oath blue control decks and aggro-control style decks returning to the format rather than a reshuffling of the Shop/Oath/Dredge deck we currently have right now.

This, of course, leaves us with Lodestone Golem and Tangle Wire, which tend to be the most popular culprits in the eyes of many in the Classic community.  There are, of course, good arguments to be made about both cards.  Lodestone Golem is a card explicitly designed for Vintage, the card was intended to be at least somewhat balanced by the fact that opposing decks could still play their Moxen unhindered.  Needless to say, the designers of Lodestone Golem were probably not envisioning a metagame where Workshop decks were part of a format without any Moxen at all and where not taking that into consideration when designing the card in 2009, before MED IV was a blink in anyone’s eye. It’s also a very devastating clock capable of ending the game quickly in addition to hindering the opponent.

However, if I personally had to choose one card to be restricted, it would be Tangle Wire.  Lodestone is undoubtedly powerful and worth consideration for restriction in its own right, but at least it has a few saving graces.  First of all, it’s rarely a Turn 1 play.  Second of all, it’s a creature, opening it up to more removal options.  Finally, unless it is the rare occurrence where Lodestone comes down on Turn 1, it likely won’t lock you down by itself.  Montolio, one of the premier Stax players online, outlined how to beat the deck in the discussion on YSO I linked earlier.  If you can withstand the early play by countering the first Sphere or getting a first-turn mana dork out, you can take control of the game.  However, with Tangle Wire in the format, it just isn’t enough.  You can counter that first-turn Sphere of Resistance and develop your mana, but if a Turn 2 or 3 Tangle Wire comes out, you are screwed.  You basically have to sit there and hope the Shop player draws dead for 2 or 3 turns and gives you an opportunity to get back into the game.  Multiple Tangle Wires are even worse: Wire into Wire could easily lock someone out for 4 or 5 turns.  (For visual evidence of how powerful multiple Wires can be, check out Game One of the quarterfinals between PlanetWalls and Montolio in the last QT: PlanetWalls did everything you are supposed to do: landed a mana ramper, hit his land drops, played basics, but it was all futile.)  I challenge anyone to go into the Casual Room and beat one of the decks there without doing anything but playing upkeep instants for 4-5 turns, much less a deck as powerful as Classic Workshop decks.  With Affinity, it is even worse.  An opening as innocuous as Genesis Chamber and Signal Pest can mean almost certain death if followed up the next turn with Tangle Wire and another small creature.  The idea of Shop decks being ‘fair’ enough to be allowed into the format is predicated on the idea that Shop decks have to give up the ability to manipulate their library and generate card advantage in the mid-to-late game in exchange for an advantage in acceleration and explosiveness in the early game.  In a format without Moxen, the fact Tangle Wire has turned into Time Stretch has turned this logic upon its head.

I applaud the fact that Wizards has decided to keep the Classic list separate from the Vintage list.  There are certain cards like Thirst for Knowledge, mentioned last week, that are extremely powerful with the acceleration provided by the Moxen but more or less safe in a format without.  However, the logic cuts both ways.  If you are going to manage a separate format, you also need to take into account that other cards may cut the opposite way, being perfectly fine in a format with Moxen but completely broken in a format without.  The DCI has not done this over the past year or even given the indication that they’ve thought about the issue at all, to put it mildly.  And, as I said earlier, 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.


LODESTONE by Clan Magic Eternal at Tue, 12/17/2013 - 16:44
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PlanetWalls's picture

...with 4 Tangle Wires, 4 Sculpting Steel, and 4 Phyrexian Metamorph. In the time it takes me to stack the triggers each upkeep, an entire XCOM squad could die.

You also have to play 4 by EpsilonMinus at Wed, 12/18/2013 - 10:01
EpsilonMinus's picture

You also have to play 4 Smokestack and 4 Staff of Nin. :)

Well reasoned piece, and I by Bazaar of Baghdad at Thu, 12/19/2013 - 12:42
Bazaar of Baghdad's picture

Well reasoned piece, and I agree on favoring a Wire restriction, but would be happy with either.

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