Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Banning Delver

Last week, I told you all that I planned on doing an article on mulligans today, to help newer players with some of the more common mistakes that are often made before the game even starts. However, I’d like to put that article off till next week and instead focus on something more pertinent to this week: the subject of bannings.

The next announcement for the Banned/Restricted list is scheduled for tonight at midnight. In it, was can expect to see some manner of changes to formats that we all know and love. Recently, there have been two archetypes in the crosshairs in two different formats, and there’s a reasonable chance that either could see a ban.

I’ve been following Legacy for the last month or two, since it was decided that I’d be traveling to Atlanta for the Legacy GP that’s happening the weekend after next. In that time, we’ve seen Griselbrand take over the format before it settled back down. Having spoken to a number of people who play legacy much more than I, I’ve been assured that Griselbrand is not a fair card, and never played in fair decks. Once resolved, a Griselbrand leads directly to a victory more assuredly than Emrakul or Progenitus ever could. A flying, 7/7 Lifelinking Yawgmoth’s Bargain on demand is not a card that I would expect to remain unbanned for long. Yawgmoth’s Bargain is banned, and Griselbrand is simultaneously more powerful and easier to get into play. I don’t know if I’d expect him to be banned with this announcement, but certainly would expect him to be banned within the year.

That said, there’s a reasonable case for this week’s results showing that Griselbrand’s influence may have been overstated. The amusing StarCity Legacy Open featured Elves vs Goblins in the semifinals, which included both players mulliganing into oblivion and putting together a good approximation of a Duel Decks series.

I’m not going to lie – the twitter feed was pretty hysterical. I’d watch for the SCG Sweet Tweets article this week. It’s going to be pretty funny.

However, Legacy isn’t going to be the focus of the article today. I know we’ve heard a lot about Delver in recent weeks, but this is the time to lay my cards on the table.

I don’t know if they should ban something.

There are a ton of articles posting one opinion or another. Kibler went on record on his stream saying that he didn’t think Delver merited a ban. Chapin has come out publically saying that Snapcaster Mage is too good and must be banned. We’ve had #BanPonder on twitter, and WotC developers hint that Mana Leak is too powerful for modern development rules. There are results from multiple weeks indicating that Delver is currently taking up more than half of the metagame. (109 players using UW Delver at the SCG Invitational, with another 10 players on the ‘Delverless’ Delver build.) Delver has consistently been putting up results that nearly equal Caw-Blade in dominance.

And yet…

Solar Flare wins twice in back-to-back SCG Opens. Brian Kibler takes down a 5k playing Naya. Only one of the three World Magic Cup Qualifiers in the USA was won by Delver. If it was ban-worthy, shouldn’t it be everywhere? I mean, everywhere?

Let’s not mince words here. A ban in standard is just about the worst case scenario for Wizards of the Coast. They are a business, and their job is to make money. Thankfully for fans of the game, they have decided to take a long-term stance, and try to retain customers for as long as possible. Having an overpowered deck dominate the format may sell more packs (take a look at Worldwake), but ultimately it will lower tournament attendance and make people stop playing the game. This is a long-term net loss for the company, and so it is in their best interests to present a healthy format for us to play.

So, is UW Delver overpowered and worthy of a ban? Let’s take a look.

MTGPulse.com - UW Delver by Gerry Thompson

This is UW Delver in its most recent incarnation, as played to a third place finish at the SCG Invitational. It is designed as a UW Tempo deck that relies on cheap, efficient threats backed up with counter magic and bounce. Post-board, it has the ability to morph into a very respectable control deck and answer a wide variety of threats. Many run equipment to give the deck late-game sustaining power. The deck is a natural merging of the neo-Caw decks that came about when Zendikar rotated and the Illusions deck pioneered by Todd Anderson. As the Illusion core gave way to a more familiar set of Delver of Secrets/Snapcaster Mage/Geist of St. Traft/ Invisible Stalker, the core of the deck began to form.

The revelation came at the hands of Gerry Thompson, Slayer of Formats. Responsible in part for Angel Delver, Dredge, the new Hypergenesis deck, and a number of other decks in their time, he is one of the best players in the game at the moment at doing exactly what he did – taking a powerful deck and tweaking it until it looks unbeatable.

He added Restoration Angel.

It was an unorthodox choice. None of the creatures in Delver would benefit from the blink effect – so perhaps he was only doing it to save them from bounce spells. (Edit: It has been pointed out to me that Restoration Angel has significant synergy with Snapcaster Mage. The rest of this point still stands though.) The truth was more powerful than that. Gerry was attempting to recreate the Faeries dilemma. I pass the turn with four mana up – do I have Mistbind Clique or Cryptic Command?

I pass the turn with 4 mana up. Is it a Restoration Angel or a Snapcaster Mage/Mana Leak?

The results were spectacular, and in the weeks since, many have been calling the format solved. They say that Angel Delver is the pinnacle of what is available to the Standard card pool, and the only improvements that could be made would be to skew the deck to fight the increasing number of mirror matches. They say that this is reason enough to call for a ban. They may be right. I certainly wouldn’t mourn the banning of any card in the deck. I’ve faced delver more than any other deck in these past few months. I’ve messaged WotC representatives, explaining that I’d prefer a metagame where half of my matches aren’t the same game – over and over. I’d love a more diverse metagame, and a ban would surely accomplish that.

On the other hand, it may not be necessary. The 2013 core set releases in two weeks, which could shake up the format a bit. Even a small addition to a deck such as Naya, G/R, or Wolf Run could unseat Delver. Beyond that, we have rotation in three short months, banishing all of Delver’s Phyrexian Mana spells to the depths of Mirrodin’s Core – along with Ponder, Mana Leak, and every Sword that’s left in Standard. Delver will lose a ton from the Return to Ravnica rotation, and while the core of effective creatures will remain, that’s hardly the monstrosity that we’ve had the last months.

Come to think of it, let’s take a look at that term as well – monstrosity. The deck is certainly good. I don’t think that anyone could deny that. It can be aggressive or controlling. It can answer any threat in the format and attack from multiple angles. It gets to fight with superior card selection and card advantage. It does everything that a Spike player could want a deck to do. It’s the type of deck that speaks to professional players – “Play me, I can show your skill. With me, you can gain an advantage with prodigious ponders, and cunning counterspells. Choose me, and your mulligans will impact you less than anyone else. Your probes will give you perfect information, and you will win.”

So professional players have been picking up Delver, and playing, and winning. Part of that is because of the deck. Part of that is because they are professional players. Sam Black took a Delverless Delver list to the finals of a World Magic Cup Qualifier, and LSV won a similar tournament with his version. However, if you take their decks out of the equation, is anyone surprised to hear that LSV and Sam Black did well at a tournament? Is anyone shocked that Gerry Thompson and Todd Anderson have put up good results piloting any deck at a Star City Games open? The players who are playing Delver are also the players who are most likely to win as-is.

So, maybe that’s what this is – an echo chamber. Gerry breaks the format with Angel Delver, and people start jumping on the bandwagon. Once there, they find a list they like, and they keep innovating on it. The best minds in the game are all relentlessly brewing and trying to find the tweak that will give them the edge in the matchup. Blade Splicer over Geist of St. Traft? Switching back to Invisible Stalker? Switching to Esper Colors, or Izzet? Where is the edge? How do we win?

Can you honestly say that Naya Aggro has gotten that much attention? It seems to me that Brian Kibler has been the deck’s only proponent, despite his high win percentage with it. He beat a number of Delver decks to get to the top of the $5k that he won last weekend. Was that luck, or is Delver just not as dominant as things seem, because most of the brewing attention in the format has been pouring into a single deck?

And should we ban a deck because a lot of people are playing it, even if it’s not necessarily over-performing? Delver took five of the top eight slots at the Invitational – but it was also nearly 50% of the field. You would expect 4-6 of them to make top 8, especially in a three-day, multiple format tournament. That’s not ban-worthy – that’s statistics.

But the fact is that half of the room is sleeving up Seachrome Coasts every weekend, and it doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. Wizards has a chance to intervene for the health of the format, but it’s questionable if they will – or should. Delver could be unseated in the coming weeks. Perhaps a green deck, featuring Hexproof attackers and Thragtusk, could take over. Perhaps an exalted deck, utilizing the new Ajani in a Bant shell? There are options in M13 that could make me accept a ‘no bans’ verdict. Delver would fade, becoming a smaller (though likely still powerful) deck, and the format goes on.

Or maybe it doesn’t – Delver remains a powerhouse, fed by the attention of most of the major grinders poring over every card selection in countless daily events. We wait for three months, and all collectively rejoice when it’s finally the day of Rotation. We’ll crack open our Shocklands in Return to Ravnica, and cheer that we’ll never have to put up with Swords and Vapor Snag again.

Three months may be too long to wait for that though. Tournament attendance could suffer, which will ultimately be the trigger point for Wizards. If they think that banning Delver will increase tournament attendance, they will do it. If they believe that it will be neutral or hurt instead, they will not.

Here’s hoping that they make the right choice, whichever it is.


What do you think? Is Delver too good? Does it deserve a ban? If so, what do you think should get the Axe? Sound off in the comments – I’d love to get some community feedback on the topic.


  1. Myself and a friend who runs/partially owns my local card shop like to do videos covering FNMs, feature decks, etc. Last week we recorded some audio where we had this exact discussion and bring up many of the exact points that you do. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PlvIdtWYMss&feature=g-user-u

  2. In regards to "Brian Kibler takes down a 5k playing Naya." this past weekend here in San Diego, he actually requested a tie with James Shirley, because he 'was really hungry'.