Unlocking the Vault #57: Restricted Access

On Tuesday, February 4 (and less than 48 hours after shaking up Modern), Wizards announced some format-defining changes to the Classic Banned and Restricted list. With one broad stroke of the Ban Hammer, Wizards announced that Lodestone Golem and Sphere of Resistance would be restricted in Classic starting on February 12th. These two cards made up a critical part of Workshop’s “Prison” strategy, and the restrictions significantly changed the way Workshop decks will be built going forward.

Surprisingly, Affinity decks are only slightly affected by these restrictions. Lodestone Golem is only a minor part the Affinity deck, something more akin to “oops, I win,” while Affinity decks have never played Sphere before. Yes, without unrestricted Lodestone, Affinity is more susceptible to Null Rod and Stony Silence, but those cards will likely appear far less frequently going forward. Meanwhile, the most powerful card in the deck, Tangle Wire, has remained unscathed. Affinity will now be able to put the three new card slots available to them to good use. Affinity decks may want to consider playing more Memory Jars or Steel Overseers. Cranial Plating and Etched Champion are two other cards that Affinity decks should also consider for those slots as well. Regardless, Affinity is well-suited for the Classic format. It may no longer be the deck to beat, but I believe it will remain among the best options.

Workshop decks will have to adapt in order to survive, though they will never be as powerful as they used to be. Prior to the restrictions, the best non-Affinity Workshop decks employed a “Prison” strategy with the goal of preventing your opponent from playing spells through a mana cost tax by playing “Spheres”. The 13-Sphere package was comprised of Lodestone Golem, Sphere of Resistance, Thorn of Amethyst, and Trinisphere (with only Trinisphere being restricted). Lodestone was particularly effective since it was both a lock piece and a win condition, something the other 9 Spheres could not provide.

Now, the maximum number of Spheres that a deck can have in Classic will be 7, making the Sphere strategy less reliable. Replacing six key cards from the deck, including nearly 50% of the Sphere strategy, will be next to impossible. That doesn’t mean that Workshop decks will be eradicated as a result of the restrictions, but rather that anything that they choose to replace those cards with will not be close to the power level as Golem and Sphere were. Perhaps abandoning the Sphere strategy altogether will be the best course of action.

There is one Sphere that Workshop decks have generally avoided in the past and might be worth considering as a replacement:

Defense Grid is clearly not as good as Lodestone Golem or Sphere of Resistance, however, it does a lot of the same things that Sphere did, and in some cases, it does those things better. The symmetry of this card is eliminated by the fact that Workshop decks never cast anything at instant-speed. Countermagic against your key spells was one of the largest advantages to the 13-Sphere strategy, and Defense Grid counts as 3 Spheres in that regard. It also slows down opponents’ ability to respond with instant-speed removal on your turn, such as Ancient Grudge and Nature’s Claim.

Where Defense Grid fails horribly is in slowing your opponents down on their turn. Clearly, this is the main reason it has not seen any play in Workshop decks in the past, but if someone wants to explore the Sphere strategy going forward, Defense Grid is really the only option. Against decks without countermagic, the Grid package can be sideboarded out for 4 meaningful cards. I don’t expect this the direction that Workshop decks end up going, but I wouldn’t give up on the possibility that this card could have value.

If the Sphere strategy isn’t the place to take non-Affinity Workshop decks, there are other options that I think Workshop decks can go. Two main strategies I think should be explored are Goblin Welder Workshops and Kuldotha Forgemaster combo Workshops. I don’t think more aggro versions would be viable, such as Slash Panther since Affinity is simply faster and won’t hurt your life total as much… besides, Panther is best at killing Jace, the Mind Sculptor, which is not really as popular these days. That could change if Jace appears in more and more decks resulting from these restrictions.

I don’t need to sing the praises of how many nasty things a Goblin Welder can do, but it’s worth noting that some of those things (such as recurring Tangle Wire) can make up for the restrictions of Golem and Sphere. Prior to the printing of Mental Misstep, Welder decks were a viable tier 1 or 2 option in the Classic and Vintage metagames. However, ever since New Phyrexia hit MTGO, playing a Welder has been a gamble that pays off less often than a scratch ticket. As a result, Welder has been basically eliminated from the Classic metagame. Short of playing with Misstep in a Workshop deck, there is only one card that can ensure that your Welder evades the wrath of Misstep:

As good as making a Welder uncounterable with Cavern of Souls is, he is still going to be vulnerable to the massive amount of creature removal floating around the format, especially Abrupt Decay. This is where Lightning Greaves comes into play. While equipping Greaves to Welder leaves him vulnerable to instant speed removal, it’s the best option available to protect it (Defense Grid would help immensely in this regard!). Once a Welder is suited up with some Greaves, it can start to immediately go to town with perhaps only fear of Pithing Needle/Phyrexian Revoker stopping it.

Kuldotha Forgemaster has always had potential as a combo card in Workshop decks. In fact, several players have played the deck in the past including bactgudz, thorme, and Nagarjuna in previous seasons of the Classic Quarter League. Some of the best “Tinker” targets have been Time Vault, Blightsteel Colossus, Memory Jar, and Sundering Titan.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying out a mash-up of both the Welder and Combo Workshop strategies, though not because I knew there were restrictions headed our way, but rather because the format had become a lot more inhospitable to Workshop decks due to the influx of hate bears and fish. I originally wanted to use artifact creatures that could deal with opposing creatures outside of the combat step. In the past, Workshop decks were limited to using things such as Triskelion, Steel Hellkite, Ratchet Bomb, and/or Spine of Ish Sah. Thinking of way to abuse the graveyard I wanted to explore something different: Masticore, or more specifically, the Masticore family (Masticore, Molten-Tail Masticore, and Razormane Masticore). It just so happens to be that two of those guys occupy the 4-drop void that Lodestone Golem created. Another crazy idea I had was to abuse cards in the graveyard, be it those dumped by Masticores or swapped out with Welder, was to use the other Welder: Myr Welder. It takes the upside of the Masticore’s activated abilities without the downside of having to discard every turn. It’s probably the absolute worst thing anyone can be doing since it can’t imprint on the turn it enters the battlefield, but it can be cast off a single Workshop and dodges Lightning Bolt! Feel free to substitute any other real card you wish.

The deck has shown some promise, but it didn’t have quite the consistency that I was looking for. In the handful of matches that I played, I didn’t seem to draw into a Masticore as often as I wanted, and there were other clunky aspects of the mana base that needed to be worked on. However, it has some promise and might be good enough post-restrictions to be viable.

There may even be some other builds of Workshop that evolve out of these restrictions. It’s hard to predict exactly which way people will go as finding a match in the TP room was hard enough already without accounting for the fact that the restrictions haven’t taken effect on MTGO as of this writing. I’m sure many people will write off the deck completely, but I believe that would be a hasty decision.

Winners and Losers

As with any significant change, there are clear-cut winners and clear-cut losers. There are many factors to take into account considering the historically large percentage of Workshop decks that have been played over the last few years, and of course, how warped the metagame had become around the deck. Here are my opinions regarding who stands to benefit and who doesn’t going forward…

Winner: Deckbuilders

These new changes potentially open up a ton of decks that were otherwise not viable. Not only does this include decks that were pushed out of the metagame due to the omnipresence of Workshop decks, but more importantly, it may allow decks that would have never found their place in a metagame rife with Workshop decks.

Decks will still have to account for Affinity, but no longer do they need to warp themselves around making sure they can cast their spells. Another important factor is that Golem’s 5 power was a serious threat as early as Turn 2. The clock that Golem put on players is going to be drastically reduced, and there is no longer a threat of chaining into Golems, except for those pesky Phyrexian Metamorphs.

Winner: Storm

For years, Storm has been held back by the fact that the Workshop matchup was nearly impossible. Just a single Sphere was usually enough to stop a Storm deck cold in its tracks; two Spheres was a death knell. With the threat of a Sphere dramatically reduced, it’s safe to break out those Lion’s Eye Diamonds and Dark Rituals.

I sold off my LED’s a couple months back, shortly after Vintage Masters was announced. I am confident that LED will be in the set, particularly after Worth Wolpert’s admission of how frustrating it is that “bad Black Lotus” was the most expensive card on MTGO back at the Community Cup in 2013. I don’t want to buy back into LEDs, especially because they jumped up in price even higher than they were when I sold them, but if I did, here is the deck I would play:

For those looking for a more traditional Storm deck, this is where I would start:

With the anticipated rise in Storm decks, players will need to account for the deck in the sideboard. White creature-based decks with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben in their maindeck will be well-suited, but others may have to resort to playing things like Mindbreak Trap, Rule of Law, Ethersworn Canonist, and maybe even Arcane Laboratory, depending on your deck’s colors. Anti-graveyard strategies are also effective against Yawgmoth’s Will, one of the primary win conditions that Storm decks employ.

Winner: Mana Drain Decks

I anticipate a modest shift to Control decks resulting from these restrictions. In particular, Mana Drain gets a solid boost since it won’t cost 3 or more mana to cast against a large portion of the metagame. Standstill may see a bump up in play, but Blue-based Control decks in general should be more viable. Jace, the Mind Sculptor should cost 4 mana to cast without the Sphere tax, while other planeswalkers may creep into the metagame, including both versions of Tezzeret.

Winner: Tangle Wire

This is kind of a roundabout way to claim Affinity a “winner”. Tangle Wire was the best card in Affinity decks, hands down, and managed to dodge the Ban Hammer. Wire can continue to do its thing, which is steal 2 or more turns away from its opponent. Workshop decks will continue to be able to use Wire, but without those extra Spheres, it’s possible that more pivotal permanents will have to be tapped during the “Tangle Wire step” (PlanetWalls’ term for the part of the upkeep that players have to respond to Wire’s trigger) since there will be 3 fewer Sphere of Resistances in the deck that can profitably be tapped.

Winner: Anyone that wants to cast spells!

Yeah, this is sort of a cop-out, but it’s entirely true; 7 Spheres is a lot less consistent than 12 or 13 (depending on the build). Creature decks, combo decks, and control decks can all breathe a sigh of relief. For years, winning the die roll was one of the best strategies against Workshop. Losing the die roll meant likely facing down a Sphere, if not 2 or more, by Turn 2. Now, the luck of the die is no longer one of the most important aspects of the matchup.

Loser: Those players that recently bought into Workshop decks in anticipation for Vintage

Admittedly, this isn’t a large number of players, but it is a non-zero number. There have been a few players who picked up pieces to build Workshop decks to use in Classic while waiting for Vintage to arrive. Those players will have to either switch to Affinity or spend a bunch of time testing many different directions to build Workshop. Unfortunately, they won’t have the same luxury of long-time Classic players to understand the format and what worked in the past, and most importantly, what didn’t work in the past.

Loser: Workshop Players

Another obvious choice, but it needs to be stated. Anyone that has enjoyed success by casting Sphere after Sphere will have to switch decks or sort of reinvent the wheel. The suggestions above are a great starting point, but could prove ineffective.

Loser: Classic players that don’t have a lot of free time

With the format fundamentally changing, it’s going to be harder to attack the metagame, especially in the first couple of weeks after the restrictions take effect. Players that depended on shuffling up the same deck week in and week out knowing that it would always be good against the expected meta may find that their previous deck underperforms. If those same players don’t have a lot of time to playtest, it may be difficult for them to compete until the metagame shakes out. Due to the few number of DEs, “solving” Classic will be much harder than in Standard, where they can fire more DEs in a single day that Classic can fire in an entire month.

Loser: Players that didn’t already have LEDs

LED has been the most expensive card on MTGO for several months, maybe even more than a year. Mirage Block was severely underdrafted and LED is a nearly impossible to pull in a single draft considering it is one of 110 rares in the set. Yes, pulling a single LED in a MVW draft is less than a 1% chance! In fact, even if Wizards took the opportunity to flashback MVW, if 7 drafts fired per hour (an ambitious number, in my opinion) for the entire week, only ~20-21 playsets of LED would be opened. Not an insignificant number, but how many of those would simply go towards bots filling their inventory?

As such, the card increased in price shortly after the announcement and the cheapest bot I could find as of this writing was selling a single LED for 185 tickets. Unless you have a rich uncle or have endless resources, you probably aren’t going to pick up a playset in order to pilot Storm in Classic and/or Legacy for a couple of months (with the very real risk of being reprinted in Vintage Masters). If, by chance you do have LEDs and aren’t anticipating using them, I highly suggest selling them before Vintage Masters spoilers start leaking out. The slightest hint of LED being reprinted in that set should send the price crashing. Hard. Remember, LED is restricted in Vintage!

If there is one factor that will hold LED back, it’s the fact that I don’t think many Classic players actually have a playset of the card and will not spend ~750 tickets to build a deck that they can play in maybe a handful of DEs before Vintage Masters starts getting spoiled (Legacy DEs are an option, though). Still, players need to prepare to see it and pack appropriate hate, as mentioned above.

Final Thoughts

It’s a strange time for Classic right now. With only 4 months left before Vintage arrives, the metagame has been thrown into a state of disarray. My preference would have been to only restrict Tangle Wire, but we have to make due with the changes that Wizards has implemented for us. Time will tell if Workshop is completely dead and Storm is allowed to run amok for the next 3-4 months. Now more than ever, I hope to keep bringing some new video content on the format, provided that we can continue to fire Daily Events as we’ve been doing for the last 4 weeks.

Clan Magic Eternal
Follow me on Twitter @enderfall

  1. Led is restricted in vintage. So you shouldn’t care if its in Gmail, and it probably won’t be.
    Every one should be looking to sell 3 of there copy within the next two months. Beck at 185 a pop , sell 3 and buy 9 power.

    If I had digital goodness you better believe I would be straight pooping on tournaments wit led bob tendrils.

    Any one with led should be jamming this arch type.

  2. Hey, enjoyed the article. Some comments:

    I could end up being completely wrong, but I’m not as high on Storm as some people seem to be. Certainly, it’s a winner in the sense that it is actually playable. But Workshop is still a four of, and although the total 13-sphere lockdown strategy probably isn’t viable anymore, I am more optimistic than you are, I guess, about a more Aggro-oriented non-Affinity build with stuff like Precursors, Panthers, Wurmcoil, etc. packing 4 Thorn + 4 Chalice + 4 Revoker + Sphere + Lodestone + Trini + 2-3 Null Rod being viable in the right meta (i.e. assuming at least somewhat of a shift away from creature decks that don’t care as much about Thorn and towards Storm and Blue Control) and, although it isn’t as hopeless for Storm as the pre-restriction builds, that’s still quite a beating. Affinity decks could also board in Thorns and Cages, which would be tough as well.

    Also on the Storm topic, even if that strategy doesn’t emerge, the fact that Stax is pretty much dead means there will probably be a lot more Missteps and Flusterstorms mainboard and actual incentive to put Mindbreak Traps in the side, cards that aren’t great for Storm pilots to go up against. I agree that non-white, non-blue decks might have a tough time of it, but realistically how much of the format was that in the first place?

    About Affinity, I agree that Wire is the best card in the deck, but I think losing Lodestone hurts quite a bit, especially against Combo, Oath, preventing the Energy Flux from ruining you, etc. It also makes Null Rod actually good against it again. I hated running Null Rod effects in Fish builds against Affinity because they could just drop a 5/3 and start bashing you. (Null Rod worked in Shops because they had their own Golems + bigger creatures like Precursor and Wurmcoil.) With a Null Rod in play, Affinity is basically just attacking with a bunch of 1/1′s and 2/1′s most of the time. I agree with you that it is still viable, but I think it definitely took a hit (though not as much as Stax, obv).

    I like the Welder deck, but why no Chalices, particularly since you anticipating Storm being a big thing?

    Would have been interesting to hear your thoughts on how the restrictions will affect the other main strategies in the format. Obviously, we know Dredge doesn’t care about much in the meta other than grave hate (though if a fast Storm deck becomes a thing, that could have an effect). However, it would have been interesting to hear your thoughts on Oath and creature decks in the new metagame.

  3. Y uppers. Wish I still had my classic stuff but I’m still around. Been playing mostly paper limited and edu for the past two years though. My progenitus deck has taken over my fever for pumping. Been working on it since Halloween 2011 and I think its pretty. 77 foils of 86 . Still need 9 foil fetches. Geez I hope they are reprinted.

  4. Whiffy – Maybe one day we can sling some digital Power together. Hope you are doing well.

    E-: Thanks for the comments. The Shop Aggro deck with panthers and such just doesn’t seem worthwhile to me unless Jace Control decks take over. It’s 2 toughness is a kick in the groin against the numerous creature decks in the format and usually won’t kill a ‘Goyf too often for my liking. 4 Precursor seems OK, but it really only ever shined in the mirror where removal/hate never mattered.

    I might have overstated my optimism for Storm in the article. I expect it to see some play, heck, Darkleebs has been running it pre-restriction, but there is enough hate around to give it some fits. I think experienced pilots, such as cantripping, would probably do well with it, but those less experienced may struggle.

    Affinity never seemed to me like the type of deck that I really cared about the Lodestone tax. One mana was always manageable, it was chaining 2 or more Spheres in Workshop that was the real problem. Maybe my experience is not the same as everyone else, but I am far more concerned with Skullclamp, Jar, Genesis Chamber, and Ravager… and of course Wire. With Wire, Golem just seemed like a Juggernaut to me since I couldn’t cast a spell anyway. In this way, Cranial Plating and/or another Jar might be more difficult to deal with. We’ll ultimately see, but I think it depends on players willingness to try to test it out. If they just throw their arms up and call it a lost cause, then for sure, it’ll die just like the 13-Shpere Workshop deck.

    As for the other decks in the format, I really haven’t had the time to fully evaluate them. This restriction causes such a dramatic shift in the format. As you point out in your PureMTGO article, people will likely be moving artifact hate back into the sideboard from their maindecks. Until we see the best of what Workshop/Affinity have to offer, the metagame is going to be in a state of constant flux.

    Dredge will continue to do it’s thing and is the least affected by this restriction. Dredge basically ignores what their opponent is doing, so their gameplan won’t change. True, sometimes Workshop could lock them out from ever casting Dread Return, so maybe the Fatestitcher build will become the most popular, though it already was. There were some Dredge decks that would maindeck things like Leyline and Unmask, but for the most part, Fatestitcher was the main gameplan and will be even more so going forward, I think. One change might be fewer Deathrite Shaman’s running around, which would benefit Dredge, since mana dorks aren’t as necessary without the critical mass of Spheres…

    Finally, regarding Chalice in the Welder deck, it’s kind of a non-bo if you don’t manage to draw a Cavern. While playing Chalice on zero would be a thing against Storm, it’s not really Lotus Petal that I’m worried about. Dark Ritual, Brainstorm, and discard are more worrisome. Maybe in the future I can use it as a sideboard option if I struggle against Storm or other 0 or 1 drops….