Workshop Needs To Go

The North American Vintage Championship at Eternal Weekend is one of the most exciting Magic events of the year. Vintage has a feverishly devoted fan base of loyal supporters and for many the event is viewed as the most important event of the year. Winning this particular event is a huge achievement and earns a player immortality in a format that holds history in exceptionally high esteem.

First of all, some congratulations are in order: Andrew Markiton and his Ravager Workshops deck took on all comers in a huge field of Vintage experts last weekend and emerged victorious with the trophy.

Ravager Workshop

Andrew Markiton, 1st place at North American Vintage Championship

If you are a Vintage player, fan, or just curious about the format, take a quick gander at that deck list, because it is the enemy—and the centerpiece of today’s article.

Mishra’s Workshop ran roughshod over the format last weekend in a way that I haven’t seen in a long, long time. There were five copies of nearly identical Ravager Workshops in the Top 8, and a Workshop in the finals.

I also wish that I could report that there was some variation among the non-Shop Top 8 lists. Not so much. Basically, an Oath v. Workshops Top 8 where Workshop exerted its metal will over the format.

First things first. Before I start making my argument for why Vintage is in a fairly broken place, I’d like to insist that it isn’t a slight against the players who showed up and put up strong finishes. Often, broken formats are the place where the most talented players truly get to shine.

LSV with Elves. Floch with Rev. Chapin with Abzan. Smennen with Gush. Roland with Stax.

Name a format. Think of a truly broken deck. There is a photo of an all-time great player hoisting a trophy associated with that deck. Markiton played great on camera and truly earned that trophy and his place in Vintage lore last weekend.

Another caveat: I didn’t attend the Vintage Championship or Eternal Weekend this year. I would have loved to have gone, but I’ve simply got too much travel, preparation, and testing on my plate to squeeze in learning Vintage, Legacy, and Old School for a one-weekend festival. It’s one of two Vintage Championships I’ve sat out in the last 15 or so years.

With that being said, I did follow the event and my friends playing in it with a lot of enthusiasm. Even when I’m not able to participate, I will always be a super fan of the format. I love Vintage, the people who play Vintage, and playing the format when I am able to find the time.

Let’s talk about what I watched from the sidelines.

The Elephant, Er, Workshop In the Room

I don’t know how a person gets around the fact that Mishra’s Workshop is a gigantic problem in Vintage.

Spin. Spin. Spin. Spin. Spin. Fake News. Spin. Spin. Spin.

Anybody can create whatever narrative they please in order to illustrate an argument from a particular point of view. I’d like to think that my opinions and observations are not motivated with any particular angle in mind other than how I see the situation.

I do feel sentimentally attached to certain Magic cards, and that’s natural. I have fond memories of events I’ve attended with friends over the years and to the cards and decks with which I had some success. Everybody loves to win and people like the cards and decks that help make that dream a reality.

With that being said, I’ve always understood that overly powerful decks, cards, and strategies cause stagnation and diminish the overall quality of tournament play. When Sensei’s Divining Top was banned in Legacy, even though Miracles had been my default deck for years, I understood why that change needed to take place and why it was a net positive for the format.

I feel the same way about Vintage right now.

If I would have played in the tournament I would have played a Ravager Workshop deck of some sort without hesitation. I believe that Workshop decks are an arm and a leg ahead of the competition in overall power level and consistency.

The reason is obvious:

There is no reason to Shop around when the obvious answer is right in front of your face.

Ever since Mishra’s Workshop was unrestricted in the early 2000s, the archetype has been a tier 1 pillar of the format. Workshop Slaver, $T4K$, Trinistax, UbaStax, Terranova, Ravager Shops—the list is long.

Mishra’s Workshop decks have the ability to adapt to any metagame or environment. Actually, more often than not, Mishra’s Workshop decks shape the rest of the metagame around them.

The fact of the matter is that Mishra’s Workshop is the most powerful unrestricted card in Magic. The ability to add 3 mana every single turn is obnoxious in comparison to what other decks can consistently do.

It has the drawback of only casting artifacts, but let’s be honest—it isn’t a drawback in these decks that are tuned to pump out a synergistic assortment of artifacts very, very quickly.

Goodbye old friends…

One after another, Workshops toys have been taken away only to be replaced by suitable substitutions:

Hello new friends…

In fact, the Workshop decks of present would be largely unrecognizable to a Vintage fan from the mid-2000s. The majority of the cast of cards are relatively new.

Workshops are perhaps better positioned and more dominant than they have ever been during their lifetime in Vintage. I’m also not sure they will ever really slow down from this point.

Why Workshops Are Better than They’ve Ever Been

Mishra’s Workshop is an insurmountable Vintage problem. First of all, Magic as a game has changed a lot in the past 5 or 6 years. When we talk about Standard or Modern, what is the biggest common complaint?

Why does Wizards only print good threats but rarely ever good answers?

Magic has been transitioning into a game about threats and not answers for a long time. I don’t mean to cast this as right or wrong, or good or bad, but it is an observable trend.

When Wizards prints an answer that is more efficient than a threat, it’s a big deal and has major repercussions across a ton of formats. Look at the dynamic impact that Fatal Push has had in Standard and Modern.

Workshop is not an “answer” deck. Workshop is a threats and prison elements deck. Think about the two lists of Workshop cards I featured earlier in the article: Restricted v. New Printings. Do you notice the difference between them?

Aside from Lodestone Golem (which is clearly a threat) the cards that have been taken away from Workshop decks tend to be the reactive/answer/prision cards and the new mainstays are threats that play to the board.

Magic has become about playing to the board over the past five years in a way that never really applied in the past. Magic, and Vintage, have become about gaining traction on the board and using those advantages to bully your opponent.

The board used to matter a lot less in Vintage.

If you could make the mana of back in the day, you could win the game without ever really generating board related traction. I could sit back, draw cards, and eventually end the game in a flurry of broken spells.

It is hard to do now. But why?

The fun police.

A big difference in Vintage was the printing of these one-mana or free counterspells that make it difficult for combo control decks to resolve their important spells.

In a sense, the game has changed in a way that almost forces people to play for traction on the board because there is ample disruption floating around to stop you from “going big.” It works to Workshop’s favor because there are fewer pure combo control decks in the format to punish Workshops for having adopted a more board-presence-heavy approach.

Workshops now have enough prison-style disruption to prevent the majority of decks from executing their plan while also quickly deploying threats that pressure and close out the game while the opponent is floundering around trying to make mana-inefficient plays. The core to the strategy is the card Mishra’s Workshop, which allows these decks such a huge advantage on access to mana in the first 3 or 4 turns as to bury opponents before they ever get set up.

Another issue to consider is that the Neo-Workshop decks, AKA Ravager Shops, are not particularly dynamic or subject to change.

A few years ago I was the first one to really push the Ravager angle of the deck with Hangarback Walkers. I broke the deck out at GenCon and won the Champs qualifier with it. The next day I handed my 75 to Paul Mastriano and he won the second qualifier. The deck hasn’t really changed very much since then.

The biggest modifications were ones of necessity with the restrictions of Thorns, Chalice, and Lodestone Golem. The deck simply replaces these cards with new printings like Chief of the Foundry, Walking Ballista, and Steel Overseer, and moves on like nothing ever happened.

The issue is that nothing ever did happen. The problem was never that Mishra’s Workshop had too many good tools. The problem has always been that what Mishra’s Workshop does is unbalanced and overpowered, and facilitates one-sided games of Magic.

I don’t want to lean too heavily on an emotional response to Workshops being “unfun.” My favorite matchup in all of Magic to play was Control Slaver vs. Stax. I found that matchup fun and dynamic. I’m kind of a freak, but I enjoy playing against Workshop decks because the games feel like a puzzle. With that being said, my biggest concern isn’t whether or not these games are fun, but the amount of times the Workshop deck is able to win.

The Future of Vintage

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. I’m still a Vintage super fan. I’m still going to play the format whenever I get the chance. Still, the format has a major problem, and that problem is named Mishra’s Workshop.

The DCI can restrict tools and toys from Workshop. They have shown that they are committed to that plan. On the one hand, I respect the fact that they acknowledge that Workshop decks are a problem and are trying everything they can to balance the format in such a way that Workshop decks can continue to exist. I understand that players want to play with the cards they’ve invested in and have mastered over the years.

Will we see the Restriction of another Workshop toy?

Isn’t that the saddest bundle of misfit toys that you’ve ever seen? We are down to only the dregs of the artifact playables being unrestricted and the deck is still mowing down the competition in a fashion typically reserved for Alabama football!

The next step will probably be to restrict Sphere of Resistance, which plays into the standard operating procedure of restricting things until Workshop feels fair in comparison to the other decks. There is already a precedent of restricting taxing effects like Trinisphere and Thorn of Amethyst. Such a fix, in my opinion, is probably just a band-aid on a gaping wound. I don’t see any reason to assume that Wizards will stop printing amazing artifact threats in the future, which means that it is only a matter of time before we arrive at the same crossroads: Mishra’s Workshop is too powerful to exist unrestricted in Vintage.

  • Threats are better than answers in the here and now. Workshop makes deploying threats easy because it creates a lopsided advantage on mana that never stops as the game goes on.
  • The addition of free and 1-cmc permission has created a world where hanging out and “comboing off” out of nowhere is less reliable than it used to be. Magic is more about playing onto the board and creating traction than ever. Mishra’s Workshop decks are among the most adept at playing this kind of game.
  • Restricting “tools and toys” from Workshop to balance it in power level hasn’t worked for over a decade. The problem is and always has been that Workshop is ridiculous. The “tools and toys” are easily replaceable.
  • The restriction of Monastery Mentor really helped Workshop more than the restriction of Thorn hurt it. The reason is that Mentor was the one card that non-Shop decks had to create traction on the board that could compete with Workshop. The problem was that Mentor was pretty clearly a broken card in Vintage that also warped the format and stifled diversity of any kind. Mentor had to go and Workshop profited.
  • Mishra’s Workshop is much more powerful than the majority of cards on the restricted list. Black Lotus every turn? Doesn’t feel particularly fair compared to other unrestricted options.

The last and perhaps most important point:

  • Mishra’s Workshop is a $1,000 reserve list card that has been a staple of Vintage for nearly 20 years.

I’m not going to lie and say that restricting Mishra’s Workshop doesn’t cost something. People will be upset. The format will change in a dynamic way as a result. I don’t like the idea that the DCI is heavily pressured to make decisions based on the secondary market when it comes to expensive cards like Mishra’s Workshop. From a play and metagame perspective it makes a lot of sense to use this moment as an opportunity to make a change.

I’m not sure that is a bad thing. The format hasn’t changed too much since Mishra’s Workshop has been around. Well, at least Mishra’s Workshop hasn’t changed that much. The Ravager Workshop deck has been at the top of the heap for 3 years. It simply replaces the “tools and toys” as they become restricted with new cards from the bench. The bench is deep and Workshop recruits well.

Vintage will see the restriction of another “tool or toy” before the restriction of Mishra’s Workshop. That’s unfortunate, because Vintage could use a change from the stranglehold Workshops have had over the format for over a decade.

Personally, if the decision were up to me, I’d advocate restricting Mishra’s Workshop and unrestricting Chalice of the Void, Trinisphere, Thorn of Amethyst, and Lodestone Golem, and start over.

I don’t think that the restriction of Mishra’s Workshop deflates the colorless threat. The deck could still be competitive in some form. Maybe Eldrazi. Maybe artifacts. Maybe both. But make the games about casting spells and playing Magic, rather than drawing Mishra’s Workshop every game and using it to bully your way to victory over and over again.

Workshop needs to go away. I watched the games. I read the results. I formed my own opinion. Yes, I’ve had this opinion for a while. The fact is that I keep seeing the same type of action being taken (restrict another tool or toy) and the same result happening (Workshop decks just replace those cards with something else and continue to dominate).

When will it be enough? Why are we trying so hard to make the world safe for Mishra’s Workshop when all that the card has ever done is cause problems in the format and lead to one-sided blowouts?

I approached the non-restriction of Workshop this time around with a wait-and-see mindset about how the deck would operate without Thorn of Amethyst. I’ve seen enough. I’m a firm believer that this outcome is doomed to repeat itself inevitably as long as Mishra’s Workshop remains unrestricted in Vintage. Turn the page.

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