Should Sensei’s Divining Top be banned in Legacy, as it is in Modern? I don’t think so.
Ecosystem Effects and the Price of Tinkering
Tinkering with Legacy is so inherently dangerous that the card Tinker itself is banned! Checkmate, Caleb.
But seriously, the fact that I regard a format as crazy powerful as Legacy as “fun and interesting” flows from two sources: the crazy cool stuff you can do, and the other strategic choices people make that keep the crazy cool stuff in check.
A Magic format as an ecosystem must present the “do the cheapest, fastest, broken-est stuff” decks with the threat of facing a punishing counterpunch. Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top is in many ways the format’s counterpunch to decks that rely heavily on spells that cost 0 and/or 1. Your AEther Vial deck doesn’t die on turn 1 or 2 often enough to make it unplayable because some of your Storm or Reanimator opponents were knocked out the previous round by a Miracles player using Counterbalance + Top to compensate for the disadvantage of having to use a 2-for-1-myself effect like Force of Will. CounterTop is one of the reasons to play Force of Will, and when we tinker with the incentives to play Force of Will at the same time we tinker with the disincentives to play all 0 and 1 casting cost cards, everything is naturally going to speed up.
As good as Top is, it doesn’t dominate. On pure power level there’s no need to add Top to a list of cards that are truly broken (Tinker, Mana Vault, etc.). Legacy is like a European beach, it’s okay to go topless.
Abrupt Decay does the job it was designed to do of keeping cards like Counterbalance in check. Decks like Lands and Cloudpost go almost literally over-the-Top. The question without Top in the ecosystem becomes whether cheap, fast stuff is incentivized to the exclusion of other strategies. Why take a chance?
It Slows the Game Down, but that’s the Fetchlands’ Fault
The answer to “why take a chance?” that seems most credible to me is that Top creates a gameplay experience that barely even functions within the rules of a game where players share a 50-60 minute clock and must collaborate in some way to complete 2-3 games in that allotted time. Top players are constantly messing with their own library and annoyingly repositioning things, then shuffling, then doing it again.
As with the Ban Brainstorm campaign, this is all the fetchlands’ fault! I remain convinced that the fetchlands are the biggest development mistake in Magic’s long history. Doubling and tripling down (printing enemy fetches and then reprinting original fetches) baffled me. Besides leaving me flabbergasted, they robbed from the notion that these cards could feasibly be banned. Economic and public confidence concerns with banning this cycle of cards from Onslaught became insurmountable when the target became “ban this cycle of cards from Onslaught, Zendikar, Khans of Tarkir, and Battle for Zendikar.”
Okay so we can’t do the right thing and ban fetchlands, but we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, right? We can ban Sensei’s Divining Top and/or Brainstorm, which would lessen the terror that the fetchlands are inflicting on the world.
You know what? I’m on board with that for Modern, but not for Legacy.
The Thing About Legacy Is…
Legacy is a format made up of decks and cards that almost don’t function within the explicit or implicit rules of the game. Name a rule and it gets broken:
• The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale (& the rest of The Reserved List) break the rule that winning and losing should come down to strategic choices and random elements of the game engine rather than whether one was born into high nobility and can afford a particular card.
• Chains of Mephistopheles breaks the implicit rule that both players should be able to understand what the cards do.
• Sylvan Library makes the order/identity of the cards in your hand significant—it basically doesn’t function if you Brainstorm upkeep then Sylvan in the draw step, but we just wave our hands and hold the active player responsible for tracking and publicly indicating things the rules all but explicitly permit you to not track or publicly indicate. Consider that nonsense while also giving you a more complex Top-activation and incentive to shuffle every upkeep.
• The Four Horseman combo deck doesn’t break any rules but you can’t play it anyway, because it forces you to break rules about slow play, or something.
• In terms of compounding what the fetchlands do, Stifle adds a nice 5 seconds to each activation with the upside being more playable, blue Sinkholes.
• Lim-Dul’s Vault is like 20 Top activations stapled together. One of multiple playable cards that tempt the opponent to respond with, “while you resolve that, I’ll be on smoke break outside.”
• Vendilion Clique doesn’t function within the priority shortcut rules. Don’t believe me? Let’s say you want to play your Vendilion Clique after your opponent draws a card and passes priority in the draw step, but before they enter their main phase. You don’t want to alert your opponent of your desire to do so ahead of time. Your opponent draws a card and begins to think. Are they in the draw step or the main phase? Extirpate targeting Clique in your ‘yard makes this stuff pretty damn hairy. There are sets of assumptions that can get us through the shortcut quagmire, but cards that are really effective when cast during the opponent’s draw step are horrific for competitive play. Sudden Shock during the opponent’s upkeep creates another potentially delicate dance. These cards function but are annoying—remind you of anything?
Let Top continue to coexist with these other “breakdowns,” the fun of the format is that bannings happen very rarely. Players can relax a bit without worrying that their overprotective parent will storm in and drop the ban hammer unless truly warranted. With that as the fundamental backdrop of the format, Sensei’s Divining Top should just be left alone. It didn’t prevent me from having a ton of fun at the last Legacy GP I flew to, and part of that fun I had was playing with and against powerful, wacky, broken stuff. Top is a frustrating tool in many ways, but Legacy has self-regulated just fine for years and will continue to do so.
In Legacy, the fear of dying too quickly, or too slowly, is up to you to control. You have the tools to shape your matchups. These fears are real. But the fear of WotC constantly banning cards and invalidating your deck six weeks after you finally got your last Tundra is not supposed to be one of them.
I like that trade-off.
[Editor’s note: This article mistakenly stated that the original fetchlands were printed in Odyssey. They were printed in Onslaught.]