The Black Vise Case, and the Popular Way to Ruin Things

Was.

Black Vise was a very potent type II (Standard’s precursor) card. What it’s wasn’t though was a top type I card (93/94 is a Type I format : old school vintage). Like Mg said “It’s not that good against The Deck, as The Deck plays full power to ramp out their hands of artifact mana and then still can operate a Jayemdae Tome with 3-4 cards in hand.” But, he goes on, “It is however a ridiculous (and highly disliked) card against budget decks, and it makes power all that much more important.”. That part seems a bit strange to me, for two reasons. First Mg himself admits that Black Vise is “not a blow-out against powered UR Burn as they will empty their hands to four cards or less within a moment.” But, like WW, those UR decks don’t play much more jewelry to begin with (just two moxes and a lotus usually, since they want to use Energy Flux), conversely they do play two “draw 7” (Wheel of Fortune & Timetwister), which are harder to play when facing Black Vise, and would either put your hand to maximum size or would sit in it upping your card count by their presence. So what’s the big difference ? I don’t think there’s much difference especially considering that, second, the budget decks, on their part, have access to 4 Llanowar Elves + 4 Wild Growth in green, 4 Dark Rituals in black and 1 Sol Ring + 4 Fellwar Stones all-around, or may just play weeny strategies (that’s a very common way to build a cheap 93/94 deck) that dump their hand fast by design. I have much experience playing the Original Type II format, and while Black Vise is a more potent card there, it generally ends up being abandoned after disappointing (and that’s a format without the Jewelry, but with the same budget mana acceleration dorks, Dark Rituals etc). But what if some people were neither playing against competitive decks, nor expensive ones ? It would remain to be seen if those players could suffer from a Black Vise unrestriction. So let’s assume for a while that we have to take care of the subset of players who have the “luxury” of only playing between each other, them budget-deck 93/94 players. To make things harder for us, we’ll assume they play within the strict Swedish rules and can’t afford to buy unlimited Birds of Paradise or Mana Vaults. I don’t know of any such society but it’s a big world, and while I don’t have any numbers it seems a lot of people play 93/94, so let’s entertain the thought. They still might not face much, if any, Black Vises, because if the card is not only usually weak against the fully-powered decks, but also only good against a subset of the budget decks, what would be the point of playing it ? It wouldn’t be much of a factor. Also, when those players face a Black Vise deck I don’t think it would be such a terrible experience, I think it would be a learning one : when you remove those expensive rock mana cards, you’re left, as for the manabases, in a territory that’s similar to the one we have in Original Type II. And in ogt2 Black Vise isn’t all-powerful. It’s competitive, but it mostly oppresses greedy and badly constructed decks -which is a good thing as it pushes people to learn and adapt, and also tends to act as limiting factor to other unpopular strategies, mostly permission ones : the more counterspells I play (and all but Mana Drain are cheap to get) the more Black Vise hurts me. That’s because counterspells need targets, so you play your turn 1 Black Vise, and then you don’t play a spell as long as they have counterspell mana. The counters and removals pile up in their hand, and they have to tap out to play worthless wrath of gods to try to limit the size of their hand, which give you the opportunity to play your killer spell, like, say, an Armageddon. The more I abuse of expensive or reactive cards the more it punishes me. What’s the problem with that ? Black Vise hurting the imaginary permission-heavy player is like an unpopular strategy hurting an unpopular strategy : let those bullies fight it out if you really want to see them as such ! Black Vise hurting greedy decks is the bee’s knees : hurts greed and forces people to think wisely about their mana distribution and spells’ costs ? What more could you ask for ?

But, then again, it would seem the card wouldn’t be played much, so why bother ? Because it would be played, and in some cases as the cornerstone of the deck. Since we need to unrestrict Strip Mine (or, better, to restrict it to 3), by unrestricting Black Vise we make at least a deck competitive : LD-Void (otherwise known as “the O’Brien deck”) !

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LD-Void

That sort of deck, championed back then, and actually to this day, by Sean O’Brien is one of those decks many people would hate. It’s weak to aggro/weenies strategies but when it works it makes people unable to play, it plays lots of land destruction, and it wins with Black Vise on top of that ! And that’s why we need it back. Also : it is a significant and legitimate part of old school history, that even had its own entry in Robert Hahn’s school of magic. Yes, we need more hate, and we need more unpopular stuff in the format. The kind of disneyland approach to mtg that WotC has adopted this past decade has been very successful : the attendance grew, the business soared, and now magic is dying. We have a problem in Magic these days. The biggest one is with the current, ongoing state of affairs at Wizards of the Coast : Standard, the main and natural driving format to sell and produce new cards is faltering. I imagine many of you don’t give a rat’s ass about that, but there are still interesting lessons to be learned there. So yes, I’m going to discuss Standard, the magic business, and even more general stuff now.

More General Stuff Now

For a long while, magic was tough : you had to be able to stomach some very unfriendly strategies. Not only permission went on being strong after the original The Deck and control-Millstone early days, mtg even reached the point where some people almost stopped doing anything else, and they called that very powerful strategy “Draw-Go” : you’d almost never do anything else during your turn than draw and say “Go”, ready to play, or at least pretending to, a counterspell of sorts. Winter Orb, already a very oppressing cards in early Type II Magic the Gathering was reprinted until the 6th edition, making it Standard-legal almost to the end of the former millenium (that is, half a decade) and in fact a very common component of top decks. Millstone decks made some people quite frustrated. Turbo-Stasis was created mostly as a “solution” to Necropotence‘s dominance, but had the side-effect of pissing a lot of people off on the way. Even land destruction, generally a weak strategy got some amount of success in early magic with Nether Void in the Sean O’Brien deck, and then with ErhnamGeddon. Until finally, about a decade ago, WotC finally listened and basically put an end to all of this : hurrah, yippee, the crowds filled the streets with overflowing joy. Not quite, but just like 93/94 today, it was a smashing success, sales went up, attendance shot through the roof, up to the point where Grand Prix -that was a few years ago- regularly garnered several thousands people, with a record of almost 4.5 thousands ! And yet, if nothing changes, magic will die. Lots of people have pinched in with their explanation and this is not the place to extensively reproduce those, but one of the points that resonated in me is that Standard got boring because if you remove all the annoying strategies for too long, people don’t even have to prepare for, think about or just fear them, as they’re sure those won’t exist, or not in a threatening way, and things become actually quite sick under those conditions after a while. In the beginning the change was welcomed, many people wanted it, and any change in a strategy game, if correctly done, will make things interesting, if at least by shaking things up. But then once you’ve ruled out all those unpopular strategies, the room for change dwindles, in other words the change having been assimilated, what we’re left with is a game that has become predictable, to the point where you’re almost sure that what would have been considered greedy strategies in early magic, what I’d call beginner magic (or big-ass creature magic), becomes not just the norm, but essentially the only way to win. That’s too narrow a strategical space to work with, so despite the talent of the wizards of the west coast designers, Disneyland magic unravels live before our very eyes.

At least the artist knows the design hurts the eyes. (Play that in an old school event to get mauled !)

I imagine at some point some analyst at WotC, if not Hasbro (WotC is owned by Hasbro), looked at the data behind his spectacles and was outraged at what he was looking at : “what kind of business are you running there ? Your consumer base doesn’t like much of what you’re doing. They want less counterspells, they hate land-destruction, they hate prison and such and such.. !” And so it was, magic changed drastically, for what looked like clear as rain good reasons. I don’t think that’s the only source of magic’s demise, nor that no other themes have emerged from the discussions, but it is a part of the often subdued arguments about WotC trying to milk the cow, that a part of that was to eliminate any chance of oppressive strategies to be competitive, and in the case of land-destruction and mana development oppression, to pretty much eliminate them altogether.

But the idea that you would make the game forcibly interactive by backing midrange cards and strategies generally if not systematically (aggro isn’t all that interactive, really) had to produce the foreseeable result : people may interact, but by forbidding prison strategies, you’ve created another prison, you’ve confined people in the midrange jail, where they’re forced to interact over and over again. People interacting ! Must be nice ! That’s quite the life ain’t it ? No it’s not. It’s just a part of it. And being alone is sanitary sometime, just as playing non-interactive mtg is. People know how to get out of that jail though, and they’ve done a lot of that. Which means 93/94’s success is flattering in two ways : 1) most versions bow to the people’s taste (the most problematic case being the Strip Mine one) and are therefore exposed to the same risks as contemporary mtg is, 2) it is, ironically, fed by Standard’s quitters (but we don’t know by how much, so quick, let’s do a survey).

The problem with WotC’s approach goes way beyond mtg, or strategy games, it is a philosophical one : do we really want what’s good ? Do we really know what’s good for us ? I don’t have the room or the time to delve deeply into that here, but if you allow me, I’ll transmit some of what I think I’ve learned over time on that topic.

Contrast. Contrast is the forgotten principle of any ideology that wants to give us only what’s supposed to be nice, fun and cool. It’s just too bad that nothing can be nice, fun and cool if you haven’t got the ugly, the annoying and the square. Let’s call heaven the imaginary place devoid of any trouble. I think if you do the mental exercise of putting yourself there you’ll find after a while that it’s an impossible place. And that’s because boredom is trouble, and the absence of any trouble is sure to lead you to boredom. What’s cool is tomorrow’s uncool, what’s fun is tomorrow’s “whatever”. It’s not surprising that the closer you get to suppress any supposedly bad thing in your life the more boring it gets. It’s not surprising that it doesn’t take long for that shiny new acquired good to become forgotten. If you find someone with a stupid amount of luxury cars in their over-sized garage, this is what you’ve found : not someone who likes them, someone who’s bored with them. Football is at risk of making the same mistake : they want to introduce video-assisted judging. That’s what the people want after all (says any poll done the day after a team got a big defeat because of a judging mistake). Do that and the game will be less riveting, will lose its particularity, because there’s nothing like injustice to make people crazy. What’s so bad with injustice, if it puts you in all kinds of state, so long as it’s limited to the mostly fictional space of a competition ? Would you consider watching a movie with no bad guy, no injustice, no suffering ? That’s the kind of nonsense that lack of philosophy is leading us to. Fair football, pleasant decks, and painless lives. Shit.

Magic needs bad guys, that could be me playing control-Millstone, you playing just about any deck against the guy who happens to hate it, or evil incarnate himself, that is, Sean O’Brien -the bad guy of this story. It needs annoying strategies and games to make you appreciate those other games that are more to your liking. And that’s the mistake in asking and listening too much to what people like or dislike. Sure they sort of know what they like, but if you listen too much, you forget that their appreciation for a thing doesn’t exist as a pure abstract idea, but as part of a system filled with lots of unpleasant stuff. That folly is overbearing in our societies, our so-called “democracies”. You can see that in politicians acting on demand of the latest polls, impatient to react to the last surge in opinion, the emotion induced by the latest crime on display 24/7 on the “news” channel, or the revolt of people expected to act on cue to the very same polls supposed to carry their voice, as if an echo chamber could be a replacement for a policy.

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There’s an undeniable allure to it, though.

Lots of people claim that we don’t have enough democracy, whereas the more thing goes the more we choke under the incessant probing supposed to represent and enact democracy. Add to that the excess of a market oriented-society, with the other echo chamber of marketers and publicists working incessantly to concurrently query and shape our tastes and you might see how the democratic-capitalist conflation might unwittingly conspire to make the principle of listening to the people’s voice as a fait accompli : to consider not to listen to our masses apparent wishes is almost unheard of over here, because what could you hear, when living in an echo-chamber ? And that’s how we now know that it’s not just possible to hear without listening, but also to listen without hearing. The confusion between freedom of speech and verbal abuse, the loss of any meaning in the constant chatter, a climate where surveys serve as the default purveyor of ideas, the confusion between asking and answering, all that explains why anywhere if not everywhere people are convinced, and wouldn’t even give it a second thought, that just listening to what people want and reject must be the thing to do (also the thing that, surely, wouldn’t be criticized).

In fact, hearing what people tell you they dislike might tell you what they need to be able to like as in, for instance, non-interactive strategies are what’s needed to like the interactive ones. There can certainly be a point where there would be too much oppression, but if you were objecting that in principle, it would mean you hadn’t read this, and if you were to do it as an argument against Black Vise I’d say that’s strange, cause I don’t see much unpopular strategies being commonly played in the format to start with -even if you wanted to count “The Deck” as such (it doesn’t play that much counterspells really, the deck is unpopular in so far as it represents a stale state of things on the competitive stage but is very much loved as a deck in itself).

And so it would be that with both Strip Mine and Black Vise unrestricted we’d have a somewhat competitive deck in the format that would be disliked, if not hated by many players. Big deal. Big deal if a historical deck which gives the most oppressive deck in the format a run for its money while being weak to aggressive strategies were to become legal.

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