Format-warping is just about the highest praise a card can receive besides being banned. Cards that warp formats are generally so powerful they stir controversy. People who don’t play the card get annoyed that they have to think about it so much when they design their decks. They get annoyed how often they lose to it despite designing their deck to beat it. People who do play the card shrug and suggest their opponent try playing with the best cards once in a while. Like most Magic jargon, format-warping is mostly meaningless and wants very much to have its meaning reclaimed.

Compared to playable, however, format-warping looks like a concretely defined banality. While format-warping cards are controversial, people argue over the very words playable and unplayable. When we call a card playable (as in, Well, it’s playable…), what we are really saying is that the card is bad, and you probably shouldn’t put it in your deck. When we call a card unplayable or wildly unplayable, we are saying basically the same thing. In the literal sense of the word, ever card legal in a format is playable in that format. While we rightfully give the people who obnoxiously point this out a good slap, truth is on their side. Playable sounds like it should mean that a card could be played in the format. Really, what we mean is that card should be played.

The reason we use playable as a backhanded compliment (or, in other terms, an insult) is because generally cards around which lingers even a question of being good enough for the format are not the cards we want to be playing. If we even have to ask ourselves if a card is playable, it’s probably not good enough to actually be played. We don’t want a deck full of playable cards, we want a deck full of format-warping cards.

I suggest to you that most cards that see large amounts of play in a format are format-warping. The term does not extend only to the broken standouts. When Treasure Cruise was Modern legal, it was format-warping. But so were Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer. Because of them, Birthing Pod and Abzan players were maindecking Darkblast. And the reason Delver and Pyromancer were popular enough to demand Darkblasts was not that Treasure Cruise was broken. The boat could have left port with Goblin Guide or Tarmogoyf. People played Darkblast because Delver and Pyromancer were better than Goblin Guide and Tarmogoyf.

Format-warping cards are good enough to affect other people’s deckbuilding decisions. They are cards good enough I know I am going to face them in my next event, so I better have accounted for them in my preparation. Meanwhile, I’m never changing my decklist because of playable cards.

Some people do. Some people make the mistake of having a plan for everything. It’s Vintage after all, and things happen. Cards get played. You run up against a Moat. You cross paths with Blightsteel Colossus. You get blown out by Massacre. All emminently playable cards. And the person who sits down and thinks about how to not lose to Moat or how to not lose to Blightsteel Colossus or how to not lose to Massacre would argue all these cards are format-warping because they certainly warp that person’s format. I’m not denying that person’s reality– though maybe their perception of reality is warped– but I am saying they are making some conceptual and design mistakes.

And it’s not that their opponents are necessarily wrong for playing Moat or Massacre or Blightsteel Colossus. Moat and Massacre are fine answers to the problems they address. They are neither easy to play around nor to sideboard against. It’s just that despite their utility, I might play against one those cards once every ten matches, and I probably won’t.

Focus only on what matters. – Jon Finkel

There are three things that matter. Well, three things, at most. Life, mana, and card advantage. All cards can be measured on an efficiency of mana and card advantage. Cards have baseline rates that bound how good or bad they can be independent of context.

Some cards create card advantage and do nothing else. We fondly call them draw spells. In Vintage, we get to play with the best ones: Ancestral Recall and Treasure Cruise. Three cards for one mana is so golden a standard it’s not really edifying to measure against. Our standard should be something more realistically attainable, something humble.

Divination isn’t great, but it illustrates the underlying metrics of pure card advantage. One blue mana is the cost of cycling a card, two generic mana is the cost of netting a card. Both mana costs are pretty well established in the game, even if our particular format is too powered for fairly costed cards. We see two mana as the cost of netting a card reflected in things like Jace’s Ingenuity, the kicker on Into the Roil, or the cost of sacrificing a Clue token. There are several variants of Divination, one of which just came off the restricted list last Autumn.

When we examine draw spells, we want to look at two major metrics, two minor ones, and then account for two “cosmetic” ones.

The two major metrics are mana and net card advantage. Together they determine a card’s base rate of efficiency.

The two minor metrics are velocity and selection. Velocity is the number of new cards that enter our hand. It differs from net card advantage because it doesn’t subtract discarded or reshuffled cards. Brainstorm and Ancestral Recall have identical velocities.

Selection is exactly what it sounds like. It is the number of cards we get to choose between. Dig Through Time has the same velocity and net card advantage as Divination, but it has significantly greater selection.

The two cosmetic factors are speed and color. These things matter, but only barely. We don’t really care that Treasure Cruise is a sorcery or Demonic Tutor is a black card. When cards check enough of our other boxes, we don’t care about the cosmetic factors.

Thirst for Knowledge, assuming it always nets you a card, is clearly more powerful than Divination. It costs the same, but it gives you more selection, more velocity, and it’s instant speed, which is usually something that costs an extra mana. Putting a card in the graveyard is usually better than putting it back on top of the library, as well. So, we’re getting Divination with instant speed and a loot attached for free. That’s a pretty good deal, by Divination standards.

Read the Bones, like both Thirst for Knowledge and Divination, costs three mana and nets us a card. It gives us slightly more selection than Thirst for Knowledge but less velocity. It’s also sorcery speed and black, which means we can’t pitch it to Force of Will. And the two life we lose has relevance, we just don’t know how much.

Painful Truths, for the same amount of mana, nets us a whole additional card. If we are willing to pay three life and play it at sorcery speed, we get a Divination that cascades into another Divination. The tricky thing about card advantage spells is that a draw three is actually worth twice as much as a draw two. When we draw three cards, it’s as if we cast a Divination that drew us a card and another Divination, and then we cast that other Divination. Each draw two actually cycles one and nets one. A draw three cycles one and nets two. We’ve netted twice as many cards. You knew this already, of course. I repeat it only to highlight how tremendously mana efficient Painful Truths is compared to Divination. If you’ve ever Demonic Tutored for Ancestral Recall, you have cast Painful Truths. It’s not that bad. The fair price for netting two cards is five mana, and that price has gladly been paid in many a Standard format. Trading three life for two mana is pretty good deal as well, as Phyrexian mana has established that in Vintage we’re generally willing to pay two life per mana.

No one in Vintage is really playing any of these cards. They show up on occasion, but they certainly fail to qualify as format-warping. Divination stands pretty far afield from the level of efficiency we demand our Vintage spells to have. You can tack on all sorts of bells and whistles. If we care about net cards per mana spent, it’s much easier to increase efficiency by reducing mana than increasing cards.

The best Divination is Gush. Gush nets us one card and doesn’t cost any mana. Often it generates a mana. That’s a good rate of mana efficiency. The difference between Gushing into a spell and Thirsting into a spell is that because Gush costs no mana, we can cast the spells we draw immediately. The opportunity cost of spending mana to net cards means we aren’t affecting the board. Gush lets us do both. It makes playing things like Thirst for Knowledge or Gifts Ungiven look pretty silly. They are just so far off the pace.

There’s a weird thing about Vintage in that some people care a lot about which Divinations they play. As someone very new to the format, the yearning for specific Divinations over others makes very little sense to me. No one gets emotionally attached to what removal they play or what counters they play. No one desires that Swords to Plowshares would be restricted so that less efficient removal could rule the day. There’s just something about those draw spells.

We all eventually reach the point in our lives where we realize we’re blue mages. –Patrick Chapin

People like drawing cards. We get excited when we get to draw cards. We don’t get excited when we exile a creature. We don’t get excited when we counter a spell. Because we really like drawing cards, we form emotional attachments to draw spells that don’t necessarily exist with most other types of cards.

And this extends beyond Vintage, certainly. A certain type of Modern player deeply identifies with Cryptic Command and Remand in a way they’ll never feel about Mana Leak. No one gets excited about Mana Leak. But staple “Draw a card” and two more mana to a counterspell and you get one of the most beloved spells in the game’s history.

Cryptic Command is about more than the draw a card mode though. Cryptic Command is all about options. Every combination of modes is reasonable, and any player who has played with Cryptic Command enough will proudly tell you she has used all six combinations of the card. We love Cryptic Command because it gives us so many decisions. It’s basically four mana, do whatever you want to the gamestate. It’s pretty close to being an actual wizard. Ultimately, we love drawing cards because drawing cards gives us more decisions.

People love getting more options. And they should. More options correlate closely with winning the game. People love creatures and planeswalkers too. Part of it is having an actual character with a face and a personality. But it’s not just that. There’s a lady on the best version of Swords to Plowshares and a gentleman on Force of Will, but we don’t emotionally invest ourselves in those characters. Magic players like creatures and planeswalkers so much because they give us so many decisions (and because modern R&D has told us that’s what we enjoy). We can attack, we can block, we can activate abilities. Jace, the Mind Sculptor, is beloved by Patrick Chapin because controlling Jace every turn creates just an absurd number of options. Considering that Chapin has played, written, and thought about more Magic than almost anyone, his favorite card seems like a relevant data point.

Non-blue decks have plenty of decisions, also. Each creature you play creates its own decision tree. Abzan Charm was the best card in the Standard decks it belonged to because it created so many options for its pilots. Ravager Workshops has been the best version of the archetype for the past year because Arcbound Ravager and Triskelion generate a huge number of options. Umezawa’s Jitte is famously the most obscene Limited card ever because it bestowed upon any old creature deck the gift of tremendous choice.

When Patrick Chapin says we all realize we’re blue mages, it’s half tongue-in-cheek. In many formats, certainly in Legacy or Vintage, blue provides more options than other colors. But in Modern and Standard that’s not always the case. Contemporary Magic design has strayed more and more from blue always being the color with the most choices. Chapin’s theoretical blue mage is really just the type of wizard who will play whatever deck provides the greatest number of choices. Historically, including the historical moment in which Chapin made the statement, blue mages actually played blue cards. In Vintage and Legacy, they still do.

We all realize we’re blue mages when we realize decisions are what we like about Magic. Decisions are the fun part. The reason people complain about Dredge or Workshops is because those decks don’t give them many decisions. It isn’t any fun to not have any options. It doesn’t feel like playing Magic. WotC R&D has commonly stated that players hate Draw-Go control for the same reason. It’s not any fun to have all your spells countered. It feels like you didn’t get to make any real decisions. We want choice, or at least the illusion of choice. People hate playing against ramp decks because such decks so loudly destroy their opponent’s illusion of choice. “Nice Wild Nacatl, cute Tarmogoyf, here’s an Emrakul, game two?” People hate playing against aggro decks because aggro decks destroy their illusion of choice. There’s a reason market research has led WotC to shape a Standard format in which the only viable archetype is Midrange.

Magic is a game of options. Generally the better play is the one that preserves the most options.
Jon Finkel via Mike Flores — How else are you going to cast your Esper Charm?

All good Magic decks are control decks, they just control the game in different ways. Aggressive decks control the game by limiting the number of cards and amount of mana their opponent gets. They can do this using burn spells, creatures, or combos. They try to win fast enough that it doesn’t matter what cards the opponent is trying to cast or what plan the opponent has for the game. Meanwhile, controlling decks try to answer anything their opponent does. They counter and destroy and remove any threats their opponent deploys. They have card advantage, so they have more answers than their opponent has threats. They reach a point where it’s irrelevant what their opponent draws. And there are, of course, all types of hybrids between aggression and control, and we give different types of decks more specific names like combo and midrange and prison. All decks, properly built, are designed to reduce the meaningful decisions available to their opponent to zero.

Fast decks are trying to make their opponent’s decisions meaningless. Slow decks are trying to make their opponent’s decisions meaningless. Counterspells and removal say this pretty clearly. “If your spell matters, I will counter it. If it doesn’t matter, I will let it resolve. But I am making the decision, not you.”

Aggressive decks sing a similar tune. “I am going to kill you next turn and you have two lands in play. It doesn’t matter what three mana spells you have in your deck because you are never going to cast them. You are going to get three turns this game and about three total mana when we account for this Thorn of Amethyst. You are going to get to make about three or four decisions this game, and this Reality Smasher is going to make most of those decisions meaningless anyway.”

Any good deck is capable of making most of your decisions meaningless. This is what makes us feel like we didn’t get to play Magic. When our opponent Storms out on turn 1 because we didn’t have a Force of Will in our opener. When our opponent casts a turn one Chalice of the Void shutting off our entire hand of one drops. When our opponent has three counterspells in their top 10 cards, and we can’t resolve something as innocuous as a Ponder. When Thought-Knot Seer is put into play off a Cavern of Souls and takes the only card in our hand that could remove it from play. When Wasteland bins our only land. We usually have more decisions than we think, but it often feels like there was nothing we could’ve done differently that would’ve mattered.

All decks try to reduce the number of decisions their opponents can access during the course of a game. Conversely, if we make more decisions than our opponent, we are likely to win the game. There are some plausible corrolaries that don’t actually follow. For example, we don’t necessarily need to build decks that maximize the amount of decisions we make, we just want to make more decisions than our opponent. If we can make one or two decisions but prevent our opponent from having any at all, that’s just fine. It’s called Trinisphere. It’s called Blood Moon.

Decisions come from having mana and having spells to cast with that mana. If we have too much mana and nothing to cast, we don’t have many decisions. If we have not enough mana to cast any of the cards in our hand, we don’t have any decisions. The more cards we can cast, the more decisions we have. The reason Gush is so absurdly better than Thirst for Knowledge that it triggers me when people say the latter is not played for metagame considerations is that Gush increase our mana supply and our card supply, and Thirst only increases one at the cost of the other. We get mana advantage and card advantage, what else could you want.

Gush is deeply addicting for exactly this reason. Like Cryptic Command or Jace, the Mind Sculptor, it provides many more decisions than is reasonable for a Magic card. The reason people yearn for the days of Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven is that those spells also involve a lot of decisions. Thirst is a higher velocity spell than Gush, and we get to make an additional decision about discard. When we just compare Thirst and Gush directly, and ignore the mana component, Thirst looks like it gives us more decisions. If we imagine ourselves with infinite mana (which is how most Vintage players imagine themselves when they think about what cards they want to play) we would never pick Gush over Thirst for Knowledge. And Gifts Ungiven is just the most decision intensive card ever printed.

The mana you spend on a spell can’t be spent on other things. The basic way that draw spells are balanced is that spending mana to do something other than affecting the board generally comes at a loss of tempo. When you spend mana on Divination, you can’t spend that mana interacting with your opponent. In a normal format, draw spells are balanced against the tempo loss required to cast them. Treasure Cruise and Ancestral Recall are broken not because they draw three cards– plenty of spells do that– but because they do it so cheaply.

So many people did not and continue to not understand Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Worse than Snapcaster, much worse than the Mind Sculptor. Why would you play this card over any of those? Or Dack Fayden? The Prodigy is all about mana. He’s cheaper than any of those cards. That means I get to play him earlier in the game and it means I get to loot and use his abilities earlier. It means my entire decision tree expands sooner. Not having haste might matter on turn ten when I have infinite mana, but on turn two when I have two mana, not having haste is pretty irrelevant. During all the important turns of a game of Vintage, you will be choked on mana, not cards.

If you have two mana on turn two and six one mana cantrips in hand, there are 30 permutations of spells that you can cast, ignoring the fact that your first one mana cantrip creates even more possibilities. A faerie godmother comes along and gives you the choice between two more lands and six additional one mana cantrips, doubling either your mana supply or your cards in hand. If your goal is to maximize your number of decisions, you should take the two lands. You now have 360 different possibilties. By comparison, doubling your hand size yields “only” 132 possibilities. Early in the game, mana matters more than cards in hand. This relationship flips in the midgame, and this properly defines the transition from early to midgame.

You are playing a typical draft format. You start with three lands in your opening hand. Instead of drawing a card each turn, you are given the choice of Lotus Petal or Divination.For the first couple turns, you would choose Lotus Petal, eventually transitioning to Divination. Once you transition to Divination, it is unlikely you would ever choose Lotus Petal again. Most normal games of Magic have a moment where your chokepoint changes from mana to cards. Our basic requirement for keepable opening hands is that they indicate our chokepoint will change. If they have too much mana, it looks like we will be flooded and will always be choked on cards, and we will probably mulligan. If they have too few mana sources, we consider the possibility of manascrew which is the state of never transitioning to being constrained by the number of cards we have.

Interviewer: “Why do Germans play one more land than everyone else in the same decks?”
Kai Budde: “I think we just like to cast our spells more than everyone else does.”
Tom LaPille – Lands Are Awesome

The problem is that Vintage players habitually underestimate the importance of mana on their decisions. It comes from a lifetime of accelerating out their plays with moxen. When Vintage players look at cards, they see the casting cost reduced by one or two mana because they have so many easily available memories of multiple moxen in their opening hand, or playing second turn Mind Sculptors off of a first turn Sol Ring. It’s a very real cognitive bias that presents itself whenever Vintage players try to evaluate cards. They are overly optimistic. They often imagine best case scenarios where they have four mana on turn two. “Ok, so let’s say you play this card turn two off a mox or something.” Vintage players have a strong tendency for underestimating how much equity they gain from having artifact accelerants in their opening hands. They transfer the equity belonging to moxen onto the spells they are casting with them. Accordingly, the emotional investment becomes attached to the spell rather than the mana used to cast it. In reality, the spell is much more replaceable than the mox. Rather than be emotionally attached to Divinations, they should be emotionally attached to their thousand dollar moxen.

This behavior is not limited to Vintage players, but moxen exaggerate it and make it different than the cognitive bias present in other formats. Professional competitive formats have become disciplined about land counts because the stakes are high enough that people actually play the right amount of mana in their decks. Conversely, the most common mistake of amateur deckbuiders is not playing enough lands and color sources to support the spells they want to cast.

The emotional attachment to expensive blue draw spells is basically an error in card evaluation. Many Vintage players think Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven are fantastic cards, only slightly behind Gush. The reality is they are barely played in Modern or Legacy, and Gush is banned from the latter. Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven are only ok draw spells. They are only marginally better than Read the Bones and Divination. It’s the moxen that are powerful. The only times Gifts or Thirst have been format-warping, Gush has been restricted.

Vintage requires a truly broken draw spell to allow blue decks to be fair. Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts decks are always combo decks because the tempo loss from playing expensive Divinations is so severe that you need a game-winning combo to overcome the unfavorable position you’ve put yourself in. Gush allows Force of Will decks to be fair, combat-based, and adhere to the principles of normal Magic. Gush is a strongly positive force in Vintage because it rewards an understanding of mana and punishes this cognitive bias. It is a skill-intensive card that simultaneously makes the format more accessible and rewards good deckbuilding from both its pilots and its opponents. Gush decks are fair and good Magic decks. Comparing the good Gush decks of today with the dominant combo decks of past Gush eras is disingenuous at best. Gush today is neither oppressively controlling nor oppressively aggressive. It results in a bunch of midrange decks. And incidentally that’s probably exactly why Vintage veterans aren’t in love with it.

All we really want are decisions. More options, more choices. Whenever people want to restrict a card, it’s because they think restricting it will create more deckbuilding decisions. That’s a universal commonality to restriction and banning arguments across formats. When people ban something for being too good, they ban it for restricting too many decisions available in a format. When people get annoyed at format-warping cards, it’s because they feel those cards restrict their deckbuilding options. But this is exactly what good cards do. They restrict our opponent’s decisions. That’s how we win a game of Magic. Chapin said it, remove the opponent’s option to continue to play the game. Good cards create options or they destroy our opponent’s.

Sometimes we complain about things because we don’t understand where our decision was.

I’ve been playing and testing two versions of Delver. Both have 4 Delver of Secrets and 4 Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. One deck, we’ll call it the Pure deck, has 4 Young Pyromancer. The other deck, the Split deck, has 2 Young Pyromancer and 2 Monastery Mentor. I’m not married to either the Split or the Pure versions, and I go back and forth between them based on metagame considerations. The Split version makes better use of Black Lotus and has a better midrange game against other Young Pyromancer decks. The Pure version has a better Plan A and is a better aggressive deck. The decks were otherwise identical. They had identical mana bases. Three moxen, fifteen lands, and Lotus.

I felt like the Pure version was clunkier than the Split version. I would constantly be put in situations where I had to choose between Young Pyromancer and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. It felt like I was stumbling on mana. I tended to choose Young Pyromancer because the value of free countermagic is a lot higher when a token maker is on the table, and because Jace is a great card to pitch to Force of Will when you have four of them in your deck. And sometimes I won and sometimes I didn’t, but it felt awkward and clunky.

The Split version ran more smoothly. Often I would curve out turn two Jace into turn three Mentor. I would get to flip Jace on turn 3 and pull ahead. It felt like my mana was much better, and it felt like I was winning more games.

Something struck me though. It is impossible that the Split version had better mana than the Pure version. The Split version had the same mana base and a higher curve, with the two Mentors costing three mana as opposed to Pyromancer’s two. How could the more expensive deck run smoother?

In reality, the Split version rarely presented me with the decision between casting Jace or casting Mentor. When I had two mana I had to cast Jace. Then later I would have three mana, and I would cast Mentor. The Pure version forced me to make a decision between my two mana creatures. The Split version often made the decision for me. It’s not that the Pure deck was clunky, it was just that it gave me more decisions about how to spend my mana. But the very presence of a decision made the deck feel like it wasn’t running right. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Pure version was better. Mentor might be worth it anyway. But I learned to be wary of making a decision based on which deck felt like it was running smoother.

It’s easy to misidentify phenomena in Magic. Where are your decisions really located? Are you trading options in deckbuilding for options in the game? If you give yourself free range in card choices and just play whatever underpowered cards you feel like, you are going to end up with fewer decisions in the actual games. Conversely, if you hold yourself to highest standard of card quality, you will end up with the best cards in the game and the mana to cast them. The best cards are the ones that create decisions for us or destroy those belonging to our opponent.

And just as Vintage players often misappropriate their evaluation of card quality, stripping it from moxen and bestowing it upon expensive draw spells, they translate higher variance in the actual game to more decisions in deckbuilding. When you play cards with liberal casting costs, you might have more deckbuilding options, but your in-game decisions are going to be more dependent on the variance of drawing your restricted cards.

Decisions are great, but if we aren’t winning, we often retroactively dismiss many of the choices we had. When we win, it was because we made great decisions and we are happy. When we lose, it was because we got unlucky, we flooded or choked on mana, and the few decisions we did make didn’t really matter because we drew the wrong number of lands. The ability to dismiss losses as luck and victories as skill is what makes Magic more addictive than either games of pure skill (Chess) or pure luck (flipping a coin). The game succeeds at it’s very root because of this cognitive bias.

Vintage is so fascinating because it combines the highest variance cards in the game’s existence with the most powerful tools to hurdle the uncertainty those cards create. In low variance Limited formats, it’s much easier to lose to mana screw or flood than it is in Vintage. We have Preordain. It’s also much harder to lose to Black Lotus in Limited than it is in Vintage, but Vintage has Force of Will. The health of Vintage depends on the balance between the tools available to overcome variance and the restricted cards responsible for it.

Gush is so positive for the format because it is among the best possible tools for balancing out the luck of who draws their restricted cards. The Thirst of Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven versions of Vintage depend to far greater degrees on drawing your restricted artifact mana. Gush separates your ability to gain card advantage from the good fortune of drawing a mox, and that is incredibly empowering to you as a pilot. While you might lose deckbuilding decisions because Gush is better than all those other expensive draw spells, you gain so many more decisions in the course of every game that would otherwise be lost to the wild variance of the restricted list.

Diversity is just what happens when enough cards are of similar enough power level that people can’t decide what’s optimal.

Be mindful of what decisions you are actually making and where you are really making them. I love Vintage not because it has the most diverse set of deckbuilding decisions. I am an extremely conservative deckbuilder. I want to only play the best cards. I always play 3 or 4 Gush. I always play 3 or 4 Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. All in all, there’s close to 50 cards I always play because they are just better than the other cards. I gladly trade deckbuilding decisions for in-game decisions. That’s a personal preference in how I approach formats. Other people do otherwise. However, when their self-granted latitude in deckbuilding fails to yield desired results, they should remember the trade-off they made rather than complain about the format.

There are formats where you can have an absurd number of deckbuilding decisions. Legacy has many more options than Vintage. Modern is incredibly diverse. Commander is celestial. Vintage has the largest card pool, but it’s among the most restrictive formats. Every card has to survive under the geological pressure of fifteen thousand. Vintage has the most literally playable cards but the fewest that are format-warping. When it comes time to actually play the games, that’s a very good thing.