“As you can see, Standard is a giant joke.” – Patrick Chapin (in an article for StarCityGames.com on 6/11/12) Pretty much. But then again, when isn’t it?
UW Delver is running rampant on the national stage. Last weekend’s StarCityGames $5k tournament in Worchester saw 6 out of the top 8 finishers packing the blue and white menace. The deck didn’t actually win the event, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to evaluating the health of a format. A few weekends before in Nashville was no different, and again 6 of the top 8 finishers played some variation of the UW Delver deck. It’s probably irrelevant that most of those players were hardcore pros like Charles Gindy.
Many people are comparing UW Delver to Cawblade (which coincidentally share the same colors), Jund, and Faeries as being beyond a mere annoyance in Standard. Pros and amateurs alike are demanding that the DCI take action and ban something to stabilize the format to allow other decks to compete.
What should be done? If there is a banning, what card or cards should go to balance out the game? In this article I’ll go over the three most popular options that the DCI could take on June 20th, when they release the next Banned and Restricted List. I’ll also suggest a fourth option that I think would completely solve this whole ordeal.
1. Is a banning really necessary?
When Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned, tournament attendance was dropping, people were getting bored, and professional events boiled down to 16 rounds of mirror matches. Today, none of that is happening. There are still other decks winning major events, mirror matches generally take up only 7 of a Delver player’s 16 GP rounds, and tournament attendance is maintaining its vibrancy. At the local level, I have yet to see more than 10% of any given tournament consist of Delver players. But that doesn’t matter. People are bitching. Obviously something must be done. When people bitch about something being overpowered, it has to be true, so Wizards ought to take immediate action to quell the bitching. It doesn’t matter that neutering the Delver decks will lead to a deck like Kessig Wolf Run literally Overrunning the format. Seeing that many UW Delver’s clearly means that Wizards Research & Development screwed up somewhere.
2. What should get the Hammer?
The archetype is called “UW Delver” as in it’s a blue and white deck featuring Delver of Secrets. Makes sense to go after the deck’s namesake, strike right at the heart, and ban Delver itself. A 3/2 with flying for one mana that nearly always flips is busted anyway. It’s amazing how often this guy blindly flips (where the top card is unknown, versus set up with a trick like Ponder), and a couple of these flipping early in the game puts every deck on the catchup plan. The flip contingency is simply not enough of a drawback to have such a powerful creature that early in the game. Wild Nacatl was a 3/3 on turn 2, but it didn’t fly and still required that you actually get the right dual or shock land on turn 2 to make it happen – a much more extensive drawback to justify the green meanie’s existence. Then again, Wild Nacatl is banned in the format it would be played most often – Modern.
Banning Delver would eliminate the Delver archetype for sure, but the issue remains as to whether or not the remaining cards in the deck would still be strong enough to keep chugging over the competition. It is possible, thanks to Sam Black’s Delverless Delver deck (aka the “OkCupid” deck) he piloted to 2nd place in a World Magic Cup Qualifier. Replacing Delvers with bigger creatures and planeswalkers may be just as stompy stompy, so banning Delver of Secrets may have little to no effect on the format.
Snapcaster Mage is known as the “grand enabler” of the Delver decks, since it extends the life of every good instant or sorcery spell in the deck. It can allow a Delver player to cast Vapor Snag up to 8 times in a match, or flashback a Ponder late game to set up a nut draw. Consider light and easy removal spells like Gut Shot and Dismember – with Snappy here you don’t have to carry a full arsenal of death, since just a couple spells brought back with the Mage makes it feel like you’ve got a full set of them. Oh, and then there’s the 2/1 body itself, who can carry a sword or come out of nowhere to block something.
Getting rid of Snapcaster makes Delver play fair and use only 60 cards instead of 64, taking away the deck’s ability to bend the Las Vegas rule of Magic – what goes in the bin, stays in the bin (unless you have Unburial Rites). It would also limit Delver to only have one surprise creature in the deck, Restoration Angel, allowing us to fearlessly attack with our 2 toughness creatures into less than 4 open mana. But if Snapcaster is banned, we still have the problem of a 3/2 flier for one mana that will still be smashing your face in; who cares about the fact whatever gets put in the bin can’t be cast again when you’re on a 5-6 turn clock. Eliminating Snapcaster Mage from the mix also doesn’t deal with the bustedness of being able to set up your next 2 turns and sift through your deck quickly with Ponder, which is also part of the reason the deck performs so well. The money issue of banning this guy isn’t that bad really, since at the time of this writing Snappy was trading at just one Andrew Jackson, a good 25% less than what Jace, the Mind Sculptor was worth when he got axed.
Magic is designed to have some luck factor in it. There is a reason why the Magic rules don’t include the ability to look at the top of your library every turn and decide if you want to draw that card or not. Ponder tramples right over that notion, and gives you two turns of future sight for one measly mana. Sure, there are plenty of 1 mana blue spells that let you manipulate your library in the world of Magic – Preordain, Brainstorm, Sleight of Hand, etc. But most of those are banned and/or restricted in various formats. In other words, it is a well known fact of the game that 1 mana blue deck manipulation spells are overpowered. But in current Standard, Ponder is especially busted, since the format in general lacks a significant number of draw spells to help blue decks push through more cards in their deck. Blue Sun’s Zenith and Merfolk Looter might be the only feasible blue card draw without splashing red for a spell like Desperate Ravings. However, all those spells are mana intensive (or in the case of Looter, time intensive for true benefit) and slow, something Delver decks say ‘no sir’ to. Ponder allows an aggressive deck to have deck manipulation and card replacement for HUGE card advantage – something a control deck is meant to possess. Ponder gives an aggro deck something it simply should not have. Of course, there is also the whol matter of using Ponder to ensure that Delver flips by setting up the next upkeep reveal.
Slamming the banhammer down on Ponder would set Delver straight on the whole aggro-doesn’t-get-good-draw rule while also making Delver of Secrets itself a more fair card, since it would always have to blind flip. On the other hand, ridding the format of Ponder also takes away one of the best card-advantage creators for the decks that deserve to have it – multi-colored control decks. Plus Ponder doesn’t always make a perfect set-up and the shuffle option does get used from time to time. In fact, in my own experience, 99 out of every 100 of my Ponders requires a good shuffle, and I only ever see 3 land on top. Blind Ponder draws are fair, since you’re basically paying one blue mana to shuffle your deck and replace Ponder with something new. Then again, Wizards could just print a bomb like Sage Owl in M13 and Ponder can go away quietly.
3. So make a decision already!
Alright, alright! Realistically, I would posit that 1 of three options happens. My money bet is on nothing happening on June 20th in Standard. I’d give 4:1 odds on Snapcaster Mage getting the banhammer, since someone from Wizards already apologized for creating it back when Avacyn Restored spoilers were coming out. The third option is that multiple cards get banned. If that’s the case, I’d think Snapcaster and Ponder would go together. Delver, while still powerful on its own, would be pretty crippled after losing both 4-of staples in the deck. It would be okay for the format is Delver decks migrated towards a more mid-rangy style, since that would still allow aggressive decks like red/green aggro and naya humans to stay in the game.
4. A Fourth Option
Look at the three cards discussed above. Think about what color they are – Blue. Consider the banned and restricted lists in other formats; what color are most of those cards? Blue. See the pattern yet? Blue as a color is generally overpowered in Magic. So here’s the REAL solution to this problem – ban blue. That’s it…just ban any land that produces blue mana, including Islands. If players want to play blue cards, make them do it the hard and slow way using Birds of Paradise and 3-mana artifacts. Clearly Wizards R&D can’t handle developing blue cards that aren’t broken, so let’s make it easy for them. Ban the blue, and balance you will renew.
It’s hard for anyone to tell what’s going to happen with Standard in the next few weeks. Maybe something will be banned, or maybe it won’t. I’d definitely be playing Delver now as much as possible if I wanted to though, just in case. I also wouldn’t be buying up loads of Snapcaster Mage either, but that’s just me. Play whatever you like to play, as long as it’s fun. Sure, it may lose to the “best deck in the format” all day long, but winning is not as fun when you’re grinding out all day in mirror matches, unless you’re into that sort of thing.
Until next time, may all your Delvers flip, and may all your opponents’ Ponders make them shuffle.