We're not really playing "Old School" Magic

Written by Ron Saikowski, February 13, 2018

Of course that's what we call it, it's what we say we're playing, it's what we tell everyone we're playing, but it's not what we're playing.

Last week I sat down and watched a series of videos from Vintage Magic where Brian Wiessman talks about his current version of "the deck" in what we all call the Old School format. Lots of fun to see how and why he picks the cards he does for his deck and how it's changed over time. I posted my thoughts on the video series here. Well worth watching even if you're not a fan of "the deck."

A topic that came up in those videos was the use of Strip Mine in his deck. Playing with EC rules, Brian runs four of them in his deck. Without derailing the videos entirely, it was easy to see there was more to be said on the topic of Strip Mines and their restriction vs unrestriction in the format.

The topic of Strip Mine
A few days later, Brian took to the Old School 4 Life Facebook Group and posted a piece detailing his thoughts on Strip Mine. A great read that looks at Strip Mine and the pros and cons for restricting it (as the Europeans do) vs leaving it unrestricted (as the Americans do). If you haven't read it, please do yourself a favor and go read it if you're a member of the Facebook Group (it's pinned at the top) or you can click here to read the document.


Okay, found some time to give this subject a worthy response. Here goes, this is going to be pretty lengthy.

The question of whether or not to restrict Strip Mine in your version of "Old School Magic" comes down to one fundamental question: how closely do you want your games to match those that were actually contested in that era? Do you want to preserve the entire feel and flavor of that venerable format, including its warts, or do you want to alter it to suit your own personal fancy?

Truthfully, enough things are different about Old School format already that it is quite different from the game we enjoyed and innovated in a quarter century ago. The basic rules of the game have changed, from the way the stack is played, to the timing rules, to the ways creatures interacted with each other. Instants and Interrupts were distinctly different in 1994, causing strange situations where you could draw a card in response to something happening, but not actually use it. Mirror Universe was the strongest kill condition in the game, due to the fact you could mana burn during the untap step, and that you didn't die until the end of a phase. As many of you already know, Mishra's Factories were much weaker, since tapped blocking creatures didn't deal combat damage. There were other major differences I won't detail here.

However, the biggest changes involve the restricted list, which fundamentally defines the format. Without question, the biggest difference is the restriction of Mana Drain. This single restriction completely warps the Old School landscape, rewarding aggressive strategies, making reactive ones more precarious and inconsistent. The single Mana Drain in a deck still shows up often enough to alter the course of plenty of games. Just imagine what it was like having multiple copies of the card in hand on a regular basis! Mana Drain loomed so large over “Type 1” as it was called from 1995 onward that many of Old School’s favorite creatures were all but unplayable. The creature range that includes Serendib Efreet, Hypnotic Specter, Juzam, Su-Chi and Erhnam Djinn was simply too risky to use if you were serious about winning tournaments. For the record, I support the restriction of Mana Drain, the card is too powerful.

But Strip Mine is a completely different story. Not only do I support keeping the card unrestricted, but I think it is vital for the health of the format. The explanation is fairly complex, so bear with me.

Strip Mine serves an indispensable role as a sanity check on Old School. The card was omnipresent back in 1994, but it actually wasn’t used as a four-of by most players until later. In fact, published lists of my deck didn’t include four copies until mid-1996 at the earliest. I opted instead to go with the Blood Moon approach, using seven main deck basics and only three Strip Mines. This was wrong in retrospect, I should have used four Strip Mines no matter what.

There is a huge issue with Mishra’s Factory in Old School communities right now. Strip Mine’s scarcity is one of the primary contributors to this problem. In a format with restricted Strip Mine the decision to run four Factories is easy and automatic. That card offers irresistible upside at minor cost, which is the primary reason many cards wind up on the restricted list in the first place. A set of Factories bolster the defense and offense of any deck that includes them, to the point where most regard them as an auto-include.

This wasn't always the case. In fact, in the 1994 era, there was tremendous tension behind the decision of which colorless lands to run. I can unequivocally state that there were zero high tier competitive decklists in that era using both Strip Mines and Mishra's Factories. This was a huge net positive for the format, because it increased diversity in deck design, and it actually challenged people when constructing their mana bases.

In Old School format, with Strip Mine restricted, there is no reason not to use four Mishra's Factories. This means you see the card everywhere, to the point where many are calling for its restriction. If you had told anyone in 1994 that one day people would be clamoring for restricted Mishra's Factory, they would have laughed at you.

Strip Mine is needed to keep people honest when deciding what spells to include in their decks, especially if they intend to also include Factories. Loading your deck with Hymns and Juzams and Specters and Counterspells and Mana Drain and Erhnams and Sinkholes and whatever seems fine in retrospect, but it gets a lot more dubious when your opponent goes after your colored mana. I'm all for people trying to try to play these "good stuff" strategies in the post-Mana Drain era, but those strategies shouldn't also be able to employ Mishra's Factories with zero consequence.

Additionally, restricting Strip Mine also massively boosts the power of an already ban-worthy card: the Library of Alexandria. I talk extensively about the issues with this card in my videos with Daniel, it is something I've pretty much hated since I started playing competitive Magic. Library of Alexandria is just plain stupid, often granting a skillless, auto-win to the person lucky enough to start with it in their opening hand. The card wins many games against opponents packing four Strip Mines, it is beyond ridiculous when that number is reduced to just one.

Because of how broken and decisive Library is, there are two scenarios surrounding it I consider "healthy". The first is having the card legal, but counteracted by four Strip Mines. The second is having Strip Mine restricted, and Library banned. Obviously I prefer the former scenario. Not only is that what we played back in 1994, but it's also the most skill-testing interaction. Against four Strip Mines, you can't just run your Library out there on turn one. Instead, you have to pace the card, testing the waters, only playing it when you're fairly confident the coast is clear. Conversely, you can't just Strip your opponent's lands indiscriminately at the start of a game, because if they're sandbagging the Library you're going to be in deep shit when they play it.

I've yet to hear a valid argument for the situation the Swedes have chosen, with both Library and Strip Mine restricted. To me, this is the worst of both worlds, counterfeiting a sizeable portion of games when one person draws an early Library and the other person doesn't draw their 1-outer to stop it. This interaction has resulted in the most absurd of band aids: lots of people main-decking one or two copies of Stone Rain. Not only is Stone Rain a terrible card if you're not using it to kill a Library, but it's not even a reliable solution. By the time you've managed to cast a three-mana sorcery, your opponent is likely to have already won the game from the Library, or they'll just have countermagic to stop you.

I've seen a few people on Facebook complain that Strip Mine results in lots of non-interactive games where one person winds up with no lands, unable to cast any spells. Having played many thousands of games in the format, I can assure you that situations like that are extremely rare, and are often the result of a concerted effort by one person to constrain the other's mana, using a lot more than just Strip Mine. Additionally, gross starts like that are generally enabled by other problem cards in the format, like Ancestral Recall and Library of Alexandria. There is no inherent advantage gained from trading your lands one for one with your opponent's, and sometimes that strategy is self destructive. I've seen many games lost by one person zealously stripping away the opponent's mana, only to watch that opponent cast Balance off of pure artifact mana a few turns later.

Strip Mine was ultimately restricted following US Nationals in 1996, but that was only in Type 2 (now known as Standard), and only because it was included alongside tons of other insane, abusive cards like Hymn to Tourach and Necropotence. It would have stayed unrestricted in Type 1 indefinitely, but for the printing of Wasteland in 1997. Once Wasteland entered the format you suddenly had eight copies of the Strip Mine effect, and restricting the Antiquities version made sense. At no point in time between 1994 and 2018 were you only allowed one Strip Mine-type effect in a Type 1 deck.

Strip Mine helps to rein in some of the other problem lands in Old School, like Workshop, Bazaar, and to a lesser extent, Maze of Ith. The card is an instrumental, indespensible part of that era of Magic. If you truly want to call your format "Old School", or 93/94 Magic, you have to allow four copies of one of its most defining and skill-testing tools.

I hope this lengthy essay does a solid job of outlining my arguments for keeping Strip Mine off the restricted list. I welcome discussion and comments on what I've said, looking forward to reading that.

Just as important as the document itself, read the comments if you are a member of the Group. All of them. The discussion that follows is both civilized and brings up some additional great points. To have this kind of discussion on a topic like this is rewarding to read for those of us just getting back into the game.

Strip Mine seems to have become the defining card in differentiating between EC and Swedish rules. The former allowing it, the later restricting it. Brian outlines all the reasons he believes it should not be restricted in his document and I won't go over all of them here. He does it much better himself.

Today is not the same as back in the day
Brian makes the point that what we're playing today, "Old School" as we call it, is not the same Magic we played all those years ago. We all want to say we are, we think we are, but we aren't. We can't play the same way we played all those years ago. It's just not possible.

For a number of reasons. Everything from how we view the game and it's different mechanics (the stack, tapped blockers doing damage), to the availability of cards today vs back then (let's not even get into card cost!) to the ever connected online community we're all part of today. All things that did not exist in the beginning. All things that have an impact on how we play today.

Reliving the past is the wrong approach
I think we look back at those days long ago through rose colored glasses. We look back and remember the good times we had, the fun we had playing and we long to recapture that here and now in our "Old School" games today. Makes sense to want to. I'd love to go back to those days and play all afternoon like I used to with my best friend.

Trouble is, it can't be done. Doing so only sets you up for failure. If you were lucky enough to have been there and played back then, the best you can do now is look back loving on that time and be happy you were there. Don't be mad or upset that it's gone; be thankful you were there to be a part of it.

Share the stories you have with new players and those who weren't there to inspire them to play today. Share the stories to show new players how far we've come from those beginnings and the craziness you probably experienced to get where we are today. Let them know that we are where we are now because of those times.

While "Old School" certainly owes its origin to those first days, it is not those days. Those days are gone to those who were there. The better option is to play the game as we know it today.

Embracing Old School as the here and now
The question is not do we ban this card or that card.
The bigger question we should be asking ourselves is how do we want "Old School" to look as a format? As it was mentioned in the comments by Stephen Menendian, "...if the primary goal is to create and promote a balanced and diverse metagame, both Strip Mine and Mana Drain should be restricted. If, on the other hand, players are more interested in experiencing historical Type 1, then for consistency, neither should be restricted."

We can't recreate those days long gone. Sure, we can mimic the exact banned and restricted list for a specific period (and even those lists changed regularly back then), but that does not mean we will have the same games as we had back then. Old School is a great format. There is no doubt it owes its history to the very beginning of Magic, but Old School is its own format.

The variety that exists in the format right now is healthy. All the influences over the past 25 years have been healthy. The decisions we make today will affect those playing in the years to come just as the ones made all those years ago affect how we play today.

Our task is not to attempt to rebuild the past. That's as easy as implementing the exact rule set from a specific time period. Our task is bigger than that. Ours is to build the Old School format into something for here and now. Something that is faithful to its origins while accounting for what we've learned over the past twenty five years.

Related Reading:
Learning from "the deck" deconstruction
Is Old School Magic really that exciting?

Image credits: Photo Illustration by me. Cards from Wizards of the Coast.