Kowal, GP Houston ‘02
t's a sad day when a good friend leaves town. In less than two weeks, Pro Tour Columbus will be upon us, and my good friend Brian Kowal will be leaving town. He'll be off to the far off and fabled “East Coast” to run a game store, but in the mean time, we're doing what we've done for some time – we're playtesting for a tournament. This time around it's States and the Last Chance at Columbus.
During the course of all of this frantic playtesting, Brian came over to check out the new changes to one of the decks we were working on. The next day, he e-mailed our mailing list with a joking slam on me:
silly sully really likes this card but i think he is just trying to fill a void in his heart. every time he got the top out i had to watch him fondle the deck for long periods of time. siiiiiiiigh.
He's right; there is a card that fills a void in my heart. And that card is Sensei's Divining Top.
If you were to talk about the things I really like from my cards, library manipulation has always been the biggest, brightest thing to me. I've loved Brainstorm, Impulse, and Intuition (even if it wasn't being used to get Accumulated Knowledges). But definitely, the granddaddy of all of these cards for me is Sylvan Library, the card that I always hope will come back, but never does. (I knew I shouldn't have poked fun at Mark Rosewater! This is his little vendetta!)
The constant card selection of Sylvan meant that you would be continuously getting quality cards into your hand. Even the simplest of shuffle or searching affects could guarantee that with each successive turn, you were getting the good end of whatever your library had to offer. Now, Sensei's Divining Top is no Sylvan, but it still has plenty to offer.
What it is, What it is
Well first of all, the card is rock steady. At one mana, the card is a cheap cast. Finding a moment when you have the extra mana to put it into play is easy. In the same way, finding the free mana to activate it is easy too. Generally, that means that the top of your library is going to be much better than you might otherwise expect (perfect when you don't want to have cards in your hand yet because of discard).
One of the most powerful ways that this impacts the game is through land. Land is the cornerstone and fuel of every single deck. Anytime you miss a land drop, you can be very likely to find it by simply activating the Top. While it is true that you might occasionally miss, usually you'll hit, and on the next turn, you can spend two mana (one to drop the Top, and one to activate it) to do the same thing if you need to. On the other hand, the other big issue with land is getting too much of it. Here, the Top works wonders as well. Just activate the Top and move land further into your deck. At some point, you might build up more than a few cards you don't want to draw, but hey, we do have other cards in our deck that we can use to spin it.
One important Top technique was nicknamed “stack tricks” by another one of my playtest partners, Adam Kugler. If you're lucky enough to know that you want the top card of your library (and we'll definitely be getting to that!) in your hand and you don't want the Top for a little bit, using the stack can accomplish this for you. First, activate the one mana reordering ability of the Top, and then in response activate the card drawing ability on the Top. When both of the abilities resolve, you'll draw a card and put the Top on top of your library, and then the second ability will resolve and you can take the Top off the top of your library and place it farther in. (Is it just me, or do you think that Rosewater and company knew people would be saying “Put Top on top?”)
The top can be incredibly useful in just cleaning up the “day-to-day” draws that you get from a deck. And all of this without doing anything to spin around the order of you library.
Spinning: not just for insiders any more
Once you start shuffling the deck, the power of the top begins to increase greatly. If taking the best cards out of three is generally good, taking the best card out of six (or more) is great. Sure, Myr Mindservant
will give you a shuffle, but there are far
better options out there.
Typically, it's hunting for land that makes for the best shuffling. Kamigawa brings us one of the best mana cards for constructed Magic that we've seen in some time: Sakura-Tribe Elder. The card is subtle, but very rich. It provides a fast blocker and then gives you another mana. With the Top, it's even better: you'll always know whether or not you'd prefer to sacrifice him for mana or to forego the mana in favor of a good card. Solemn Simulacrum is another Standard legal card that is very similar, however you don't get the ability to delay your decision. Other land searches are out there, from Journey of Discovery to Wood Elves, but these are probably the two best of their type. Sylvan Scrying and Reap and Sow have already been proven to be good at finding Cloudposts or Urza's Lands, but besides that, they toss in a shuffle as well. And don't forget Kodama's Reach, also from Champions of Kamigawa and also outstanding.
Once you make the foray towards older cards, the possibilities open up quite a bit. The most efficient option is the Onslaught fetch lands – cards such as Polluted Delta and Bloodstained Mire – but these aren't the only things available. I always enjoyed the card selection that came from Sylvan Library and Thawing Glaciers, and there's no reason you can't use this too.
Another good way to clear off the top of your library is other library manipulation. Commune with Nature, Peer Through Depths, Impulse, and Tainted Pact can all get rid of some of the dead weight on top of your library and replace it with something new and good. Simple card drawing like Accumulated Knowledge or Fact or Fiction can accomplish the same task. Between land-searching cards and generally card drawing, it's easy to get the Top to look at new cards. Because of this, my current 5-color deck happily plays Tops just because of “deck spinning” cards like these. Very often, you'll find that you'll end up ditching the Top to draw some really powerful card and then shuffling it away, but most likely, it will have held its own in the meantime.
One great shuffle effect is the Tutor. There are a bunch of great tutor affects in Extended. Sadly, they all make you wait to get the benefits of your learning. Well, no more. Cast your Mystical Tutor, cast your Enlightened Tutor, cast your Vampiric Tutor, cast your Reclaim, whatever. The Top can get you that card in your hand with no waiting. Long-Term Plans is a long wait. Well, no more.
It's your future… I see a cab ride…
One of the other things that is fantastic about knowing what you have on top of your library is simple planning. If you know that you can expect a particular quality spell at some point in the next several turns, you can make far more informed choices when it comes to any of the difficult decision we make each turn. Knowing that you have a Nekrataal or a Viridian Shaman on top of your library makes deciding whether or not to kill a creature (or which creature) much easier.
But beyond simply making it easier to make the right call, there are a whole slew of cards that become far more impressive if you can just make the top of your library have a particularly decent order. And I'm not just talking about the new Deceivers from Kamigawa, either.
– Many years ago, I tried to make use of Vexing Arcanix
in a really terrible Orcish Spy deck. Being able to always guess correctly was great, and you could generally expect that most people aren't going to get their own guesses correct, so it could double as a damage source in a pinch. Top is like a better Orcish Spy
– It's not just a Pierce Brosnan movie, it's also the name of a slew of Kamigawa spirits that like to find land on top of your library. While this is much more of a Sealed deck and Draft trick, it's still good to know that you can put that land on top of you library to make a Deceiver work.
– Timesifter is a hugely risky card. If you whiff with a Timesifter out, your opponent gets an extra turn, and that isn't good. The Top can keep the most expensive of each three cards on top of your library to make the Timesifter far more likely to lock your opponent out of the game. Just make sure you keep your library well-stocked – it will mill that expensive card away.
– You know me, I love burn. Keeping a Rorix handy on top of your library until you get to the mana to cast it is great. Getting rid of it to do 6 damage? Also great.
Call of the Wild
– I remember playing a Call of the Wild years ago when I was but a wee lad. People made fun of me, but I still won a $1000 tournament with the deck. I had Sylvan Library back then, you have Sensei's Divining Top now.
– When building an Archmage deck, sometimes you can simply stall out on artifacts that you can cast. With the Top, find a good artifact to keep going, and then draw it. When you cast the new artifact, you'll draw into the Top. Play the Top again, and draw another card. Coincidentally, you'll already know what it is (since you arranged it just a bit ago).
– Oh, Future Sight. I get a small little shiver of glee when I think about this card. Future Sight has always had one big problem, though. Glutting on lands. You'll have already put as many land into play as you can, and one just sticks right there, annoying you. The Top can help move these about a bit. With a bit of mana, it can work much like the Vedalken Archmage trick to push into your deck – when you get that extra unplayable land on top, draw it and then replay the Top from the top of your library with Future Sight. Repeat as often as you can afford.
One final neat trick with the Top: drawing a card with the Top is an effect, but so is putting it on top of your library. If your Top is in the graveyard before your card draw resolves, that's fine – you get to draw your card anyway.
This can be very useful if you just want a new card, but don't want a Sensei's Divining Top to be your next draw (it does happen sometimes…). Any number of cards can make this happen, and they all generally include the phrase “Sacrifice an artifact”, though not all of them do. In Extended, this includes Atog, Goblin Welder, and Shrapnel Blast, among others.
Well, all that said, I can't help it, I'm going to make a burn deck. I've been restraining myself long enough…
I think I'll go with Online Extended, mostly because I realize I haven't made a deck for Online Extended yet. Also, that let's me do a bunch of fun tricks…
Besides the fun burn cards, there are burn cards with Top tricks! Shrapnel Blast/Sensei's Divining Top is only a weak combo, but Erratic Explosion is a great spell when it can regularly do 6 damage (Slice and Dice, Rorix Bladewing, Chartooth Cougar). Solemn Simulacrum and Chartooth also provide some nice shuffling affects while they give you more mana. Forgotten Cave and sacrificing a Solemn Simulacrum to Shrapnel Blast both can give you a card put on top of the library immediately. I also get to cheat a tiny bit with my mana because of the Top. Normally, I wouldn't feel comfortable going below 24 with a deck like this (even given the Solemns and Cougars), especially with Temple of the False God and Forgotten Cave, but here, the Top can help guarantee that I keep in the mana enough to get the rest of the mana going.
One of the things about building any deck with Top is that it isn't going to be the centerpiece. The Top is a helper card. All library manipulation is, by its very nature. Only Psychogenic Probe kills anyone for simply moving their library around, and nothing really kills your opponent for just moving it around. What it does do is make sure that the juice you squeeze out of your deck is more worth it.
Good luck to everyone that is playing in the various Champs events this weekend! I'll be in Wisconsin, playing with a Top.