General chatter

Solving Old School

So everyone and their grandmother now knows about the great Magic: the Gathering format of Old School. The format for the really rich, old and casual magic players.

The format is defined by a never-changing very limited cardpool. Only seven sets are allowed (if following the Swedish rules): Alpha, Beta, Unlimited, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends and The Dark. That is very limited building material. Actually you only have a little more than 850 different cards to use. And let’s be honest; many of those really don’t ever deserve to see any play. I’m looking at you Legends Mana Batteries…

The horror!

So this is a format that only changes if the banned/restricted list changes. This is a format with less than 1000 cards. It’s a format that has been around for almost a decade (I know that these cards were available in 1994, but the magic scene, card availability and the deck building has changed a lot since then). So, naturally, the format must have been solved, right? There must be a “best deck” or maybe a couple of “best decks” that dominates? Right? Right?! I mean, the Legacy format was solved at one point, being a rock-paper-scissors format with three “best decks” on top, namely Goblins, Threshold and Iggy-pop Storm. This was a format with only a couple years on its back. There were several thousand different cards, and every time a new set was printed, there were new cards to add to the spicy brew. Oftentimes Standard-formats are solved too. So what about Old School?

It may not be that easy to answer. On the one hand I’d argue that the format actually is solved. The Deck is the deck. I think it stands to reason that the pile of restricted cards, some tomes and a lot of countermagic and removal is the best pile you can assemble in the format. So, surely, if there is a “best deck” it must be dominating every Old School encounter throughout the world, and it must spell the end of the format, as we know that this format can never be unsolved, seeing as there will never be any rotation of any cards.

Contenders and hate!

But it’s not. Dominating, that is. The Deck is – I’d say, and I just did – the best deck in the format, but it is in no way dominating tournaments all over. It is often in top8’s and it often wins, but there are rarely more than one or max two in a top8. Of course this is also a very expensive deck to buy – but let’s face it, all the great decks in the format are. You can play “budget” powerless decks to great results and have lots of fun doing so, but it is no secret, that the powered decks are just better.

The Deck is also a very challenging deck to play. You don’t get to victory easy and you have to think and train, to learn about the best lines of play in different situations. But still, if it really is the best deck, it should be played by many players. So is there a dedicated hate deck? Not really. I mean there are many cards that The Deck has to do something about, and fast. And there are strategies that sometimes just blow The Deck out of competition, but it is really difficult to make a dedicated hate deck, that won’t get killed by the rest of the format.

One deck that tries to hate on The Deck, is the Atog Deck. There are several different types of Atog decks out there, but the trimmed one with restricted cards, burn and Atogs, along with a couple of City in a Bottle is a very strong deck, which very much preys on The Deck. It is also a deck that is great against the rest of the format. So maybe the Atog Deck is the deck to beat?

There is no question, that it is a deck to beat, but again, it is not exactly dominating. Atog decks are often played and placed well in tournaments all over the world, but, without any real data to support my claim, I don’t think it is in any way dominating.

Other decks worth mentioning is TwiddleVault, DiscoTroll and Artifacts. TwiddleVault is without a doubt the strongest “clean” combo deck in the format. It is capable of winning tournaments as it is capable of winning against almost any opponent (even though it can be very hard to win against Atogs).

Example of TwiddleVault deck – not exactly optimised, but still a contender!

DiscoTroll is an old, tried archetype that also often puts up great results. It also preys on greedy decks like The Deck and to some extent the artifact decks.

Artifact decks are on the rise, but when playing with Mishra’s Workshop restricted (as we do in Swedish rules), they remain in the pile of great-but-not-dominating decks. I do think we are beginning to see a worrying display of power and results by these decks, in formats allowing 4 Workshops.

There are a couple of other great decks in the format, and then a wide swath of good and very playable decks. But the point is that, at least in my opinion, there is no really dominating decks.

Why is that?

This is actually rather surprising when you think about it. As I mentioned earlier the format has every component to become a stale, solved, rather unenjoyable format, so why is it, that this is not the case?

I guess there is more than one answer, and I will try to give a couple of my answers.

First of all – and most importantly – the game in its original edition(s) is very complex and actually greatly balanced. Of course the greatest cards ever printed in the history of Magic was printed in Alpha, and a lot of them are blue, and that is why we have a restricted list. It balances the unfair cards – not to an extend where the advantage you get from playing a single Ancestral Recall is negligible, but enough to make games play-worthy. If we imagine a metagame where every player has access to every card, most would probably play blue, but from there – as I just went through above – the decks are not completely similar. The best decks in the format are actually a control deck (The Deck), an Aggro/Burn deck (Atog), a combo deck (Twiddlevault) and a couple of midrange deck (DiscoTroll and Artifacts). It is not a rock-paper-scissors-format where the Combo beats the Aggro beats the Control beats the Combo, but it is a diverse format in terms of what strategy you use to win the game.

The original game of Magic is also a game of extreme variety. We don’t have a lot of one-mana cantrips, so we often have to rely on topdecking the right card. This helps keeping The Deck in check, because even though The Deck has answers to everything – and great draw spells – it doesn’t ALWAYS have that Counterspell or Disenchant for you Blood Moon.

Another important answer as to why the format isn’t a stale The Deck vs. The Deck kind of format is the players and the community. Even though there are many players enjoying playing The Deck, there are even more choosing not to play – even though they have the cards. I am one of those players myself. I own the cards to assemble The Deck, but I simply don’t like the playstyle, and that is also the situation in regards to some of the other above-mentioned great decks. A lot of Old School players simply want to play something of their own making, or at least not the absolutely most well-known decks of the format. In other words, there is still a strong sentiment of brewing – and not net-decking – even among the players playing at the most competitive tournaments our format has to offer.

My DreamyDiamondWalls deck…

Finally, I think the fact that most Old School tournaments are not decidedly competitive makes people play a deck that is less competitive, but more fun. More wacky. More filled with favorite cards and interactions. Basically, more personal.

This means that we, as a community, simply don’t allow our format to become stale. Even though it is arguably solved.

That is it for today. Did I make sense? Is the format really solved? Why isn’t it? Will it ever be?

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