I must be crazy for writing this article. There is a stigma against Sensei’s Divining Top as one of the most cantankerous, boring cards to play with and against. Due to time issues, it was banned in Extended back in the day, and more recently in Modern. To see what I mean, here is an excerpt from the explanation that Bill Stark gave back in 2008:
“The constant activating of Divining Top bogs games down, which ultimately leads to an increase in the number of matches that go to time and beyond, which in turn leads to tournaments running much longer than they have historically. Furthermore, the Top encourages players to maximize the number of shuffle effects they play in a deck and the constant shuffling, cutting, presenting to an opponent to repeat the process, and then continuation of a turn exacerbated the situation.”
Bill was right. Playing a Top deck means a lot of shuffling. I’ve heard calls for it, as well as High Tide and Life from the Loam, to be banned in Legacy due to the time the cards can eat off of the clock. I think this is as much the fault of slow players as it is complex card interactions, but it’s an idea that persists within the Legacy community.
In a recent Open in MN, Jacob Van Lunen came up to me after covering one my matches.
“Caleb, I love you to death, but that was the third Top deck we featured in a row,” he said, and I could see the rings under his eyes.
His admonishment puzzled me, as I’d played fast and finished the match with 15 minutes on the clock. On further reflection, his emphasis might have been on the deck, not the card. Since Sensei’s Divining Top builds an incremental advantage over many turns, it flourishes in decks that benefit from extending the game, and those archetypes aren’t necessarily fun to watch. Creatures aren’t bashing into one another, Goblin Charbelchers aren’t being activated, and Lightning Bolts aren’t aimed at the face. Perhaps the slow-paced decks that attract the card, as well as the painful memories of opponents tanking and Topping every phase of the turn, creates a negative association that isn’t wholly deserved.
I never feel that way. When I spin a fresh Top, the feeling is unmatched. Three draw steps of information at my fingertips, combined with the power of manipulation, is everything I could ask of a one-mana artifact. When I watch players Topping, I’m as invested in those cards as I am in their openers. The way the card rewards tight technical play is exactly the sort of thing that keeps Spikes invested in tournament Magic.
Efficient Topping is one of the clearest indicators of experience with Legacy. Since it builds off of previous knowledge, Sensei’s Divining Top is the most difficult artifact to play in the game. People spin, tap, and don’t tap at all the wrong times, and their opponents miss opportunities to limit the Top’s power. Some don’t have a clear plan to win the game, and tanking every turn makes them lose to the clock.
To Top effectively, you need to be able to play the rest of the game effectively too. Topping on upkeep when you need your mana for other things, Topping redundantly, and misevaluating cards in relation to shuffle effects are some of the most common errors, and they all relate to planning your turn and knowing what’s happening in-game. PV once wrote that, at the start of the turn, he plans out all of his decisions. This keeps him from playing a land before activating [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] or other such sequencing errors. Of course you still re-evaluate when the opponent throws a wrench in your plans, but having a plan still helps you play effectively.
In a game with a clock, effectiveness and efficiency can be the same thing. If you know what you need to win the game, Topping shouldn’t take long. Need a land? Boom it’s on top. Need a threat? Boom that’s on top. Nothing you need? Well then there isn’t much to think about, is there?
Tips and Tricks
At a basic level, Top can protect cards from opposing disruption. Perhaps you’re playing against a deck with a lot of discard, and you want to float your Jace on the surface of your library until you can cast it. Perhaps your combo opponent boarded in Vendilion Clique, and you want to keep your countermagic safe for that one crucial turn. Either way, the top cards of your library are less vulnerable than your hand, and this difference is a useful tool.
One of the most common tricks is spinning, then responding with the tap ability. The draw will resolve first, then you’ll get a chance to rearrange the top three cards of your library. This lets you put the Top two or three cards down, as opposed to just swapping it for your next draw step. The trick is handy if you’re going to be using all of your mana over the next several turns and you need multiple of the top cards (one immediately).
Recently, I’ve used it to play around a Thought Scour I knew was in my opponent’s hand, and it can also protect the Top from potential discard. Once, I used the trick to trigger multiple miracles in a row. On the opponent’s turn, I spun then tapped. The tap resolved first, and I revealed and cast a Terminus. On my turn, I revealed an Entreat the Angels. Had I missed the trick, I would’ve had to replay Top and activate it on the opponent’s turn for one less 4/4 flier.
Most people realize the need to shuffle away extra Tops, but sometimes you don’t have a shuffle effect. By sacrificing the artifact in response to the tap ability, you can actually draw a card instead of replacing a card from your library. Thopter Foundry, Goblin Welder, and Shrapnel Blast are all fine ways of sacrificing a Top. In fact, with a Top in play, one in the yard, and a Goblin Welder, you can start a loop going where you draw an extra card every turn. I once Force of Willed a [card goblin charbelcher]Charbelcher[/card] from zero mana and zero cards in hand, because I had double Goblin Welder, a Top loop, and exactly Force + blue card on top of my deck.
Voltaic Key creates a similar engine, where you respond to the draw ability by untapping and drawing again. Currently, this interaction is only relevant to Vintage, though some Legacy MUD lists run Key, and a miser’s Top might go a long way in those builds.
When do you Force of Will a Top? When the game will continue for several turns. In a control mirror, Forcing Top is almost always correct, though there are cases where it isn’t. Perhaps you can stick a [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] next turn, and you’d rather save your countermagic for fighting over the powerful planeswalker. Perhaps you have a Top of your own, and you feel yours has better value, giving you an inherent advantage that you don’t have to risk by falling behind on cards with the Force of Will.
Most of the time, however, that Top is going to be the most important spell your opponent plays, and countering it keeps them fair. When you Thoughtseize your opponent and see removal spell, Top, cantrip, counterspell, try thinking beyond the immediacy of whatever threat you’re trying to resolve. If you take a disruption spell, what are the odds that he can just spin Top and find another one? The exception, of course, is if resolving said card ends the game soon (as in a combo deck). By limiting the turns of the game, you’re limiting the Top’s effectiveness.
Sometimes, tapping to draw involves getting rid of the artifact entirely. Maybe you need to fetch, or cast a Green Sun’s Zenith. The question is, how do you know when it’s correct to cash in the Top or wait a turn? That card you’re drawing had better be crucial to the game. Either it should stop the opponent from winning on the spot, or it should contribute directly to your own win. When piloting Nic Fit, I usually find that one sweet spot in the late mid-game where cashing in the Top lets me put the opponent away a full turn earlier. If you’re putting a Grave Titan into play, it’s worth it.
Playing Against an Active Top
Most of the time, you aren’t going to have such specific answers at your disposal. Still, I see many players miss opportunities to destroy, or otherwise hinder, an active Top. In general, I think people write the card off as indestructible and focus on other things. Or maybe they don’t realize how important Top is to the opponent’s game plan.
My favorite way to get rid of a Top is what I like to call the Submerge method. It’s a common line in Legacy where, if you want to remove an opposing threat, Submerging it in response to a shuffle effect gets it off the table effectively. Similarly, in response to a fetch, a removal spell can force the opponent to tap Top and draw a card. Only, the card drawn is likely irrelevant, or he wouldn’t have been shuffling in the first place, and getting rid of the Top removes a long-term advantage from the board. In the end, it’s typically worth the card disadvantage from popping a Qasali Pridemage or Pernicious Deed.
The flipside of this strategy is that you can sometimes force an opponent to shuffle when he otherwise wouldn’t want to (as with Surgical Extraction or Extirpate). That is, he’s tapping his Top, say to miracle a Terminus on your turn, and you Wasteland his untapped fetchland in response. To keep the land, he’ll have to fetch, and he’ll draw a random (hopefully non-Terminus) card off of the top. If he’s counting on a fetch to pay for his miracle, a Wasteland could serve as a hard counter.
If you don’t care about what the opponent is drawing, and you’d like to get rid of the Top, allowing the draw before targeting the fetch is another fine play. To keep the land, it must be cracked, but this loses the Top. The less valuable the land, the less useful this line, but if you play enough Legacy it’ll come up.
When facing Counterbalance + [card sensei's divining top]Top[/card], resolving spells gets a lot trickier, and can take turns of careful planning. By casting instants on your opponent’s turn, you can figure out what casting costs he has at his disposal, giving you more room to maneuver on your own turn. Baiting with a one-drop can work sometimes, as the opponent might need to tap Top in response to counter the spell. This would allow other casting costs to resolve. In the same vein, [card stifle]Stifling[/card] the draw activation will leave the Top in play, letting you cast other one-drops.
If you do manage to make your opponent tap his Top, you might be lucky enough to Predict it away, counter it the next time it’s being cast, or even hit it with a Vendilion Clique during your opponent’s draw step.
If your opponent is stuck on lands, sometimes you can get away with casting multiple spells in one turn to get around the soft lock, but this is rare. Note that copies of spells placed on the stack will not trigger Counterbalance, so Hive Mind or cards with the storm mechanic can fight through the combo.
If your opponent wants to keep a three-casting cost card at the ready, say to prevent a combo-breaking Krosan Grip, wait until his upkeep. This is what your opponent wants his library to look like when you cast your Krosan Grip:
3 Drop, Card A, Card B
Now, in order to keep the three-drop where he wants it for Counterbalance, he’s going to have to spin before he draws, giving the following order:
Card A, 3 Drop, Card B
To get to the draw step, he has to pass priority. Stop him from drawing a card, let him know you have an effect before he goes to his draw. Now the Krosan Grip should resolve, assuming that he Topped correctly and didn’t have multiple threes on top of his library.
Building Around Top
For one of the most versatile filtering elements in Legacy, the card is underused. Its most broken interaction is with Counterbalance, which is one reason it sees tier one play in UW Miracles. In that archetype, Top not only fills the typical role of filtering, but also a control engine. Having a one-mana artifact that not only sees upcoming miracles, but can trigger them on the opponent’s turn, is insane.
The card has synergy with Mox Opal and the artifact lands (to play and spin on turn one). It’s best friends with Trinket Mage, as the little Wizard not only tutors the powerful artifact, but also acts as a shuffle effect, increasing its effectiveness.
Lately, I’ve been happy with Top as a way of setting up Shardless Agent‘s cascade. You can use the information to hit more powerful spells, similar to the miracle deck, but cascade also works like a scry for Top, shifting away multiple lands and clunky uncastables at a time.
People used to include the card in aggro-control decks as well. Lately, that role has largely been filled by Sylvan Library, but Top is still underused in decks like Stoneblade, BW Discard, and Death and Taxes. If your deck has shuffle effects, and intends to go beyond turn two, it probably wants this card.
There is a combo that is exclusive to Sensei’s Divining Top, involving Future Sight and Helm of Awakening to draw through the deck, culminating in a Brain Freeze kill. Without Future Sight, two Tops and a Helm can still generate infinite storm. On the plus side, half the cards act as a draw engine, and almost all of them can be grabbed with Enlightened Tutor. Unfortunately, it’s still a wonky pile of cards to assemble, and Helm makes opposing spells cheaper.