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Ban Top

Dear Sensei’s Divining Top,

We’ve had fun over the years, but we’ve reached a point where you have to go. Matt Sperling might not be ready to cut the chord yet, but the time has come.

Logistics

This is the big one, but it seems ridiculous to ban a card for time concerns. After all, the onus of responsibility is on the player to play at a reasonable pace. It’d be different if we had some kind of precedent for banning cards for being time-consuming.

Ah right, Top was banned for exactly that. Check out this excerpt from the September 2008 B&R Changes:

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. In the past the DCI has banned such cards on those grounds alone (Shahrazad is a good example of this, with Land Tax and Thawing Glaciers also having been banned for similar reasons) but in conjunction with the Top’s popularity during the last Extended PTQ season, the decision was to ban the card from the format it was harming.

Of course, there are a lot of tight players out there who can spin a Top at a reasonable pace and rarely go to time. The problem is that as a society we have to do some amount of catering to the bottom denominator. If we were all fantastic drivers, we wouldn’t need speed limits, but there you go.

It’d be a little different if we had more consistency in slow play penalties, since then the players that consistently end up with unintentional draws would either change their habits or get weeded out of contention. As is, slow play is loosely defined with a lot of interpretation left to individual judges, and it’s one of the harder calls they have to make.

Matt points the blame at fetchlands, and he’s right. Heck, Wizards cited fetchlands back in the 2008 banning. Without fetches, Top doesn’t have the critical mass of shuffle effects to be a reliable filter engine, and we wouldn’t have nearly as much time spent shuffling.

But we all know that there’s no way fetchlands will get the ax. Yes, banning Top only addresses the symptom, but even if we can’t attack the problem at its source, we should patch what we can.

Top doesn’t just slow things down for a single match. By causing more unintentional draws, it bogs down entire tournaments. I don’t think we should ban every card or deck that goes to time, but it’s different when the card or deck in question becomes one of the most popular in the format.

By banning Top in Modern but not Legacy, we’re saying that we’re fine with Legacy tournaments going further past time and ending later, leading to Legacy players having an objectively worse tournament experience.

Sperling might be fine with the erosion of the format, of treating Legacy players as second-class, and of the mass clubbing and extermination of adorable baby kittens, but any decent person can see that’s not a fair stance to take.

Coverage

Personally, I care more about the commentary than the matchup, but in general people hate watching a player spin, tank, fetch, and shuffle for long periods of time. The presence of Top makes things harder on coverage teams.

There are other decks that are comparably tedious to watch, but they aren’t tier 1.

Power and Diversity

Top is more than a filter effect in Miracles: it’s an enabler, setting up the instant-speed Terminus as well as a soft lock with Counterbalance. Both of these things have a stifling effect on the development of the format, and decks need to have a plan for both the CounterTop soft lock, and an instant-speed sweeper for a single white mana.

Unlike many combos, there’s no punishment for drawing Top alone like there is for a card like Show and Tell, which is part of what puts Top over the top.

Recent printings push, rather than curb, Top’s power level, and it combines with Monastery Mentor to create an explosive amount of power out of nowhere.

In my Catching Up With Legacy article, I talked a bit about how Miracles has been the top performing deck for two years running, taking up the largest percentage of winning decks. Two years is a long time for Legacy, and longer than Pod’s dominance in Modern.

Top is the linchpin of Miracles—the glue that keeps it all together. Without it, the format would have more space for new decks and ideas.

Gameplay

Historically, Top has done good things in Legacy. As a colorless filter, it gave black-based midrange decks a way to avoid flooding out in the midgame. While Top always takes time, there were a reasonable number of no-brainer situations in those decks that looked something like:

  • Dead discard spell
  • Dead land
  • Single relevant card

It also helped that these decks could end the game quickly once ahead, and they had a reasonably high threat density.

These days, Top is mostly an enabler for Miracles.

And that’s coming from a Miracles player!

One of the problems with the deck is that it operates on a number of soft locks. If you’re facing down the CounterTop combo, there are a lot of times where you can’t scoop because the opponent hasn’t actually won the game yet (this feeds into the logistics issue as well). On top of that, one of the primary win conditions for the deck is Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and getting fatesealed out by Jace is the definition of misery.

There’s no tension in those games. You either draw out of the soft lock or you don’t—and you probably won’t.

Wizards wants their game to be fun and exciting, and if you follow the reasoning for any decision back far enough it can be translated into “fun.” Why is a balanced format important? So that people have a better game experience. If people still loved Magic and bought cards with an unbalanced format, we wouldn’t need a banned and restricted list.

This is one of the weaker arguments against Top because “fun” is relative. That said, just because people have different tastes doesn’t mean that there aren’t common trends. While the rare person might enjoy getting poked in the eye with a stick playing against Miracles, and others don’t mind (especially if they have a good matchup), most people detest getting soft locked, hitting redundant land drops while the opponent spins Top, and waiting for the opponent to find a win condition.

Counterplay

Some cards have a lot of natural counterplay to them. A creature is soft to spot removal. An expensive spell is weak to countermagic. Other cards are naturally resilient with a very narrow range for counterplay. Counterspell has nothing on Thrun.

Because Top can simply tap to draw a card, it avoids all non-Krosan Grip spot removal, which is why Wizards targeted the Counterbalance half off the CounterTop soft lock when they wanted to print a hoser (Abrupt Decay).

Pithing Needle is widely considered the best hoser for Top because it’s efficient, useful in other matchups, and can also hit Jace, but it has its problems. One is that it doesn’t actually remove the Top, so a future Wear // Tear or Council’s Judgment can free Top. Another is that if you draw Needle after the opponent has assembled CounterTop then it’s almost impossible to resolve.

Meanwhile, if you draw your hate card and the stars align and it actually does its job, then your big payoff is that the opponent has to play a fair Jace control deck. In some cases, the opponent can even Brainstorm away the dead Top.

Not only is Top difficult to hate out, but it’s also difficult for Wizards to print a proper hoser—and a banning is the most reasonable answer.

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