This post will discuss why the current Vintage metagame looks the way it does. I will discuss the theory behind why Mentor and Ravager Shops appear to be so dominant. I will conclude with some suggestions for restrictions. I am including this in the Strategy section because it is mostly about strategy, though it contains some "Vintage Community" text as well.
Turbo Xerox Across Formats
It was 20 years ago that Turbo Xerox theory was introduced to the Magic universe by Alan Comer. Turbo Xerox remains the most powerful approach to building Magic decks today. In this missive, I will advance the notion that the current Vintage metagame is being warped around a powerful incarnation of Turbo Xerox. Reviewing Turbo Xerox theory helps us understand why Monastery Mentor is the leading Vintage deck today, with Ravager Shops as a close second.
Turbo Xerox theory is, briefly, the construction of a manabase with a suite of cantrips. A traditional deck might use 36 spells and 24 land. A deck built around the principals of Turbo Xerox Theory might have 20 land, 28 regular low-cost spells, and 12 cantrips. Here, a cantrip is defined as an inexpensive spell that replaces itself, often with a bit of library manipulation. The idea is that replacing lands with cantrips allows for much greater control over draws as the game progresses. Fewer land means fewer dead draws as the game progresses. More than that, the deck-manipulation cantrips mean that each drawstep is much more valuable to the Turbo Xerox deck than the traditional deck. Turbo Xerox Theory enables decks to maximize each draw step, while minimizing variance each game.
Turbo Xerox decks can be observed wherever there are sufficient cantrips. Consider some of the best decks in Modern. The Grixis Shadow deck has Thought Scour, Serum Visions, Street Wraith, and just 19 land. The Modern Storm deck has 18 land, along with Manamorphose, Sleight of Hand, and Serum Visions. In both cases, these Modern decks minimize their land count and dedicated win conditions in order to make room for cantrips. Similarly, in Legacy, some of the most powerful and popular decks utilize Turbo Xerox Theory. The leading Legacy deck is Grixis Delver, featuring 18 land alongside full sets of Brainstorm, Ponder, and Gitaxian Probe. The Legacy Miracles deck, before being hit with a Top banning, had Brainstorm, Ponder, and Top. Even the Legacy Storm deck is a Turbo Xerox deck, with a fairly large number of cantrips. What we are seeing is that across large formats, Turbo Xerox Theory is the centerpiece of some of the most powerful decks.
Turbo Xerox and Vintage (Mostly Mentor)
This brings us to Vintage. The Turbo Xerox deck of Vintage is Monastery Mentor. The Mentor deck tends to run a large number of restricted cantrips along with a full set of Preordain. These Vintage decks run a fairly low mana count, a lot of cards to dig through the deck, and a fairly low number of actual business spells. While the cantrip configuration of the Vintage Mentor deck differs from the cantrip suites found in the above-mentioned Modern and Legacy decks, it is clear that the theoretical approach of these decks is similar.
Two salient observations emerge from this. The first observation is that while other formats have tended to have a diversity of Turbo Xerox decks, Vintage Turbo Xerox decks have consolidated around Monastery Mentor. While the three mana required by Monastery Mentor might be more difficult for Turbo Xerox decks in other formats, Moxen in Vintage help make Monastery Mentor much easier to cast. Further, Moxen help provide free spells to turn Mentor into a quick threat. Mentor works so well with the combination of the Turbo Xerox engine and Moxen that it appears simply incorrect to make another other form of Turbo Xerox deck in Vintage. This is especially true when Monastery Mentor itself is very difficult for other Turbo Xerox decks to answer -- Monaster Mentory is in many cases the best answer to Monastery Mentor.
The second observation is that this highlights why Wizards was wise to restrict Gush. Turbo Xerox is the most powerful approach to deck construction, and Gush is the pinnacle of a card that Turbo Xerox abuses. Gush rewards a low land count and provides actual card advantage for no mana investment. In other words, Gush helps the Turbo Xerox approach far too much, and that approach did not need the help. Turbo Xerox decks are still very good with one Gush. With four Gushes, the Turbo Xerox decks had pushed all other blue decks out of the format.
Fighting Turbo Xerox
Tackling Turbo Xerox decks head-on with a fair deck is a losing proposition. As described above, Turbo Xerox decks are more consistent and extract more value from average draw steps than traditional full-mana decks. Therefore, there are only a few ways to fight Turbo Xerox approaches consistently.
- Winning Fast: One can attack Turbo Xerox decks by winning before they get online. This first approach to fighting Turbo Xerox takes advantage of the fact that Turbo Xerox decks generally spend their first couple of turns using cantrips to sculpt their hand and library. While Turbo Xerox decks are in this early cantrip stage, they are vulnerable. The obvious way to leverage this window is by playing a deck that wins the game in the first few turns. However, Flusterstorm and Mindbreak Trap provide very powerful tools for Turbo Xerox decks to combat fast combo decks. Further, Monastery Mentor provides such a fast clock that if the fast combo decks stall even a little, they can find themselves overwhelmed by Monks. An example of a successful implementation of winning quickly against Mentor decks is Dredge. A Dredge deck can can win on the second turn; and even when it does not, by the time a Mentor deck gets online, it is often too late against Dredge. That said, Containment Priest being printed in the same color as Monastery Mentor has done nothing to help Dredge.
- Going Over the Top: A second approach to beating Turbo Xerox decks is presenting a powerful threat that goes over the top of their gameplan. This is observed in Modern in the Tron decks. These Tron decks in Modern can present enormous threats that launch over the top of the Death's Shadow decks. In Legacy, Lands can do something similar: A recurring Life from the Loam is a threat that Legacy Delver decks structurally cannot handle well, even once their engine is online. However, there is no analogue to this approach in Vintage. In Modern and Legacy, these decks that go over the top of the Turbo Xerox decks rely heavily on one-drops. Expedition Map and Exploration and Crop Rotation are all cards that help decks go over the top of Turbo Xerox decks; however, Mental Misstep invalidates these strategies in Vintage. While on the surface it may appear that Mental Misstep hurts low-to-the-ground decks, looking at how these over-the-top decks are actually constructed, I believe that Mental Misstep is keeping them out of the format.
- Taxing: The third approach to combating Turbo Xerox decks is to attack their game plan directly. The underlying assumption of a Turbo Xerox deck is that a manabase can be constructed out of cantrips. Sphere effects directly attack the Turbo Xerox plan. By making each cantrip cost more, a Thorn or a Thalia breaks the very game plan of Turbo Xerox decks. While there are large problems with the above two approaches to answering Turbo Xerox decks, the Taxing approach to Turbo Xerox is actually finding success in Vintage. Workshop decks, Eldrazi decks, and even Remora decks are all examples of using Taxing to attack the Turbo Xerox engine. I believe that the Ravager Shops deck is so popular and successful because it is a deck that can answer the Turbo Xero Mentor deck well, while also being viable against a broad range of other decks. The need to answer Monastery Mentor itself is likely preventing Taxing and Workshop decks from having greater diversity, as having access to Walking Ballista is vital for being able to address Mentor himself.
In summary, Turbo Xerox Theory is likely the most powerful approach to building decks in Magic. Turbo Xerox decks are dominant in Modern, Legacy, and Vintage. However, while other formats have space for multiple Turbo Xerox decks, in Vintage, Monastery Mentor has collapsed the space of viable Turbo Xerox decks. These recommendations are based on the observations made above.
- Restrict Monastery Mentor: Restricting Gush helped to open the door for Blue decks other than Turbo Xerox. That is good and important. However, Turbo Xerox decks are still too good, and there is no way that another Turbo Xerox deck will be feasible as long as Monastery Mentor is present. Restricting Mentor would push down Turbo Xerox decks, allowing non-Turbo-Xerox decks to be more feasible. In addition, restricting Mentor has the possibility of creating the space for more than one Turbo Xerox deck to be viable.
- Restrict Mental Misstep: As noted above, in other formats, a viable approach to defeating Turbo Xerox decks is to go over the top of those decks. In Vintage, any viable over-the-top strategy is invalidated by Mental Misstep. As soon as I begin to think about a Vintage Cloudpost deck or a Vintage Lands deck, I am struck by how Mental Misstep would invalidate such a deck. Restricting Mental Misstep may not make these decks good, but it would at least make them worth considering. Further, restricting Mental Misstep would hinder Workshop decks. Rather than being forced to play 3 or 4 cards that don't interact with Workshops at all, Blue decks will be able to include more cards that actually have some impact in that matchup.
- Don't restrict anything from Workshops right now. Workshop decks are looking like a dominant deck. However, as I've described above, I believe that this is because Workshops is one of the few viable ways to attack the Turbo Xerox Mentor deck. If anything is hit from the Workhsop deck right now, the only result would be to collapse and condense the metagame further. In other words, the strength of Turbo Xerox Mentor decks is causing Ravager Shops to occupy an outsized portion of the Vintage metagame.This is because Ravager Shops is the best response to Turbo Xerox Mentor.
- Don't restrict Preordain. Turbo Xerox is extremely powerful, and in its current form is dominating Vintage. However, with the restrictions of Monastery Mentor and Gitaxian Probe (and the continued, much-needed restriction of Gush), I believe that the archetype will no longer be as dominant. The goal is not to kill off Turbo Xerox decks, but to bring them closer to alignment with other archetypes. Therefore, I think that Preordain should remain. I expect Turbo Xerox to be a Tier One approach with four Preordain, even with restricted Mentor, Probe, and of course Gush.