Bannings and Boredom
This weekend, I commentated for the first time at the TCGplayer Open 5k event in San Diego. It was incredible fun, and I can't wait to do it again. Congratulations to Brian Kibler and James Shirley on their excellent run! And thank you to everyone who watched it live on Twitch.TV; I'm glad you were able to enjoy yourself, register spur-of-the-moment URLs, and so on, even though we experienced some technical difficulties. The coverage archive may be found here.
This was TCGplayer's second-ever attempt at live coverage, so we would love to hear about what you liked and what you would like to see us do differently. Let us know at TCGLive@tcgplayer.com, and we'll be sure to keep your wishes in mind.
Delver Is In the Details
Kibler's Naya Pod may have won our tournament this weekend, but Delver won the war. Not only did it place first at the SCG Invitational, but Yuuya Watanabe piloted it to his sixth GP win in Manila.
Watanabe's Mutagenic Growths and Runechanter's Pikes look like they were ripped out of a meta from four months ago, but these cards are obviously still relevant! In fact, that's the strength of Delver (and, really, of this Standard format): There is such an abundance of powerful cards, that if you make a logical choice about a few of them, you can't go too wrong.
You know how certain puffed cheese snacks market themselves as “dangerously cheesy”? As though you were putting yourself in Harm's Way to experience this flavor sensation. And I mean, in the long-term, you might be. But for now, are you going to be found guilty of possession? Or by association with savory characters? Well, I think Delver is “dangerously synergistic.”
It's always comprised of the same basic shell. Delver of Secrets. Ponder to set it up. Probe to see what you're doing. Mana Leak to make sure you can't do it. Vapor Snag to make sure you still can't do it. Snapcaster Mage for more spells. Restoration Angel for more Snapcasters. Moorland Haunt, just because.
These are some solid card interactions, but the part which puts them over the top is the fact that each card also has plenty of off-label uses. As long as you have a good idea in your head about your macro-level game plan, you can wield your cards in such a way to make it happen.
Recently, Adrian Sullivan compared Restoration Angel to Flametongue Kavu because of the way it pushed creatures out of the format. When FTK was being played, you couldn't play four-toughness creatures that cost more than a couple mana, because they'd just get eaten. Notable cards that have been almost completely pushed out of the delicate ecosystem include Hellrider and Dungeon Geists. I'm sorry—did you play a 3/3 for 4? At sorcery speed? In the words of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, “People don't do such things!” Except that instead of having problems fitting in with the other Norwegians, your trouble will be in staying out of the loser's bracket.
Not only is your creature bad, but the worst part is you don't know when it's bad. Any time your opponent has 4 mana available, the choice rests on you. Whether you should or should not have attacked, the outcome of the game is entirely your fault. However, the downside of Angel blowout is so much worse (in general) than the possibility of doing an extra three points of damage, then you might as well not have the option at all. Why build your deck with cards that are seldom useful? Moreover, if you're playing a 4-drop that isn't Restoration Angel, you'd better have a pretty good reason why.
By the way, this isn't the first time Delver has shaped the meta in a big way. Remember the sixth titan, Wurmcoil Engine? It's been quite a while since that gentleman has seen play—and frankly, he's a house. To summarize the problem: Vapor Snag. Vorapede got the same treatment as a big, expensive dude that didn't do anything when it hit the board. Why spend so much mana on something your opponent can remove for between one and three mana, while also hitting you for one?
Here's the part that really kills me: you know what Delver does after it's suckered you into playing only creatures with immediate value? It goes and makes a copy for only two mana! You can kill it with Kessig Wolf Run all you want, but it's already done its job with a comes-into-play ability. You made sure of that, Vapor Snag.
What this all adds up to is a powerful aggro-control deck that can do downright mean things in the right hands. In the wrong hands, maybe not. But that's why we see Delver being played at a higher percentage at the most cut-throat level of competition. The SCG Invitational this weekend was one such example, with Delver's percentage of the field approaching 50. Players at the very highest level, in general, like to equip themselves with decks that give them as many options as possible. More options mean more possibilities to outplay the opponent.
Although, just this morning, I witnessed a Turn-1 Delver, Turn-2 Delver-Delver, Turn-3 blind flip all of them. This is an extreme case, but it illustrates the raw power and speed of an aggro-control deck. Classically, if you wanted the most options, you'd just play control. And yet, when your aggro-control deck is as jam-packed with abilities and interactions as Delver is, there seems to be little reason to give up on speed. When played optimally, Delver seems to have all of the options it could ever want.
Memoirs of a Standard Format
There's one final reason that Delver is getting played at percentages higher than ever before, and that's simply because the format is reaching its Natural End. We have almost all the cards to which we'll ever have access in this Standard format, with the exception of a brief showing of M13. We pretty much have it down pat. We know what cards are good, which ones aren't, and we know the optimal creatures to play at each spot on the mana curve.
When we're young, our lives are full of firsts. We make vivid, detailed memories of these experiences because we're learning so much at the time. Once we get older, we pretty much have all this stuff down, so time seems to pass more quickly. We have lots of heuristics and habits in place, so we can autopilot through life instead of spending a bunch of time and effort learning about new things. That's just what happens when things are no longer new.
I'd argue that our hive-mind digital memory functions in exactly the same way. As a format ages, our choices become solidified and self-reinforcing.
Right after Zendikar block cycled out of Standard and Innistrad came in, there were myriad archetypes seeing play. Tempered Steel, Humans (either mono-white or with blue), Solar Flare, Birthing Pod, Green/White, Mono-red, Delver, red, white, and black flavors of Ramp, Puresteel, Grixis Control, Illusions, Mono-Green. Martin Juza even won GP Hiroshima playing Overrun! We were learning so much and trying out so many different things.
At Pro Tour Dark Ascension, the format was similarly diverse, and RG Aggro, Spirits, Zombies, and Frites were added to the mix. Meanwhile, other decks began to fall out of favor. This was still a high point for diversity, but we were starting to figure things out.
Flash forward to Avacyn Restored. Notable cards added to the format include Restoration Angel, plus a handful of cards that are not really deck-defining unless you want to go deep on one of the Block archetypes we saw in Barcelona.
At this point, we basically know everything. We've been honing a few archetypes for months, and we've got a pretty good handle on which ones perform well. We have enough habits in place that time seems like it's moving very fast. Our brains don't have to work through the complexities of each match if they've been in a similar situation dozens of times. We know our decks, know their matchups.
To put it simply: We're bored.
I have a feeling Wizards understands the non-linear way we view time, and how it relates to the spacing of expansions. Currently, the first set is out for about four months, the middle set for three, and the final set for about two. The final three months of the year are spent on Core Set, which is a big enough change that we can draft it for a few months, or go back to the expansion if we don't feel like Core Set.
Banned/Restricted Day is Coming! Have You Bought Your Gifts Yet?
The things Delver does can be nasty, but they're not exactly Unsporting Conduct—Major. So what infraction is it really committing? Why are we so eager to see a card banned tomorrow?
It's boring us to death. (I'm pretty sure this is going to be in the next version of the IPG.)
We don't think the cards are necessarily too powerful, but we want them banned anyway. We just want some excuse to play a different format.
Looking at the cards people want banned is a perfect illustration of our operating emotions. Delver of Secrets? C'mon. Delver doesn't even always play Delver anymore. After all, it just flies into Restoration Angel and has to come out for the mirror! Snapcaster Mage? This card is more of the problem than anything else, but... well, we paid $25 each for those guys! Plus, Tiago looks so cute with his cyber-cane. All right, surely we can think of something... hey, how about Ponder? It will nerf every blue deck in a subtle way, but at least we didn't pay an arm and a leg for them.
I don't think banning any of these cards will solve the problem. The format is so full of powerful cards right now that removing any of these will just mean we tag in a different choice. No one card makes or breaks Delver except possibly Snapcaster Mage, but that's a chase rare that players all over the world invested a lot of time and money into getting their playsets. I could actually see Restoration Angel being a card to go, but it's also found a home in many decks and grown the price tag to match.
Wizards has already set a precedent by banning Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. We've come to believe (and hope!) that they'll solve all of our problems by erasing them for us. But, although we might not know how to differentiate our emotions from real, endemic problems with the format, Wizards does.
During the Caw-Blade period, the deck became oppressive because if you weren't playing it, you weren't Top 8'ing. That was pretty much the jist of it.
You could play whatever deck you wanted, but Caw-Blade had such a higher win percentage than the other decks in the format, that it became the only choice. Compare that to today, when Delver is approaching 50% of the meta and comprises about 50% of Top 8's. That doesn't indicate an overpowered deck; it indicates complacency.
Additionally, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a card whose value peaked at $87. The fact that a playset was required to be competitive in Standard meant that we saw attendance decline in a big way. The cost and availability of that card was a significant barrier to entry, and it showed. Today, the game is experiencing growth, even while players clamor for a ban.
If any card is banned tomorrow, it won't be because Delver is overpowered. It will be because Wizards wants its players to be happy, and they believe that changing the format will result in more happy players than upset ones. Because of the psychological principle of loss aversion, I don't believe they'll find a ban to be in their best interest. People tend to be more afraid of loss (like sudden changes in Organized Play) than they are excited by gains.
So how can we reconcile our boredom with the current Standard situation?
Boredom is associated with depression, and especially with learned helplessness. Traditionally seen by administering shocks to dogs, learned helplessness can also be found in humans subjected to repeated Delver beatings.
After a while, you start to feel like nothing you do can stop the suffering. We stop looking for solutions, and our understimulated minds grow bored. Learned helplessness and boredom are really dangerous that way, as they become a self-fulfilling Prophecy. We tend to view boredom as a common occurrence and think little of it, but it can be a serious health problem, leading to depression, Hostility, and early death.
One of the best things you can do is keep yourself stimulated. A good way to feel more in-control is just to view the situation differently.
Some people are already doing this, playing Miracle and Infect decks that are more fun, even if they aren't Tier 1. They're still competitive enough to be a worthwhile deck to consider if you're very bored by your other options. When what you really want is to take your mind off of a stale format, a cute combo might just do the trick.
Alternatively, try to mix it up with the deck you're already playing. Hybridize your deck with another archetype or experiment with nonstandard sideboard cards. Find a group with which to test and discuss ideas; that way, you won't be throwing away tickets on Magic Online for the sake of innovation.
If you have to, just take a break! Play draft, cube, or EDH. Go for a jog. (I'm serious—exercise is a mood enhancer.) One of the worst things you can do is force yourself to keep doing something if you need a break. If burn-out is bad for work, surely it's awful for fun.
Regardless of what Wizards decides is best for Standard, I hope I've helped you view things in a different light. Sometimes, changing perspectives can be the most helpful action we can take.
Love and Battle,
@JackieL33 on Twitter
www.twitch.tv/JackieL33 – I'll be streaming some drafts this week, in preparation for GP Vancouver, so please join me!