Sensei’s Divining Top, Who Did it All, Banned at 13

Sensei’s Divining Top comes with its own host of issues that center around the timely conclusion of matches in a tournament setting. The necessity of repeated Top activations to play the card slows down match play and leads to tournament delays. Coupled with the power of the Miracles deck, this is reason enough for us to take action on Top. Therefore, Sensei’s Divining Top is banned in Legacy.”
— Aaron Forsythe, April 24, 2017 Banned and Restricted Announcement

It won its inaugural Pro Tour, then dominated its Block format via a diametrically distinct strategy.

It went on to Finals the next World Championships in a completely different deck, largely minting a Hall of Fame career.

It committed suicide-by-Red-spell; thought better of it; came back to redefine yet another format.

 . . . All before the card Counterbalance was even printed.

Sensei’s Divining Top’s second act requires little introduction but demands much fanfare. It won a Grand Prix on the first turn in what was considered the Greatest Deck of All Time (and is probably still the best deck ever played in a Grand Prix). Perhaps more impressive than Top itself, the deck itself, was the reputation of the player on the other side of the table.

 . . .  And then there was the long collaboration with White cards and miracles.

“Modern” readers may know Sensei’s Divining Top only by the venom on the tongues of, well, everyone. To wit, my podcast partner:

Sensei’s Divining Top gets no hat tip from me. There are very few cards — probably zero in the history of Magic — that have cost as many human lifetimes as Sensei’s Divining Top.”
— Patrick Chapin, Anointed Procession Makes the Next Infinite Combo

 . . . But longtime readers probably know that in its first year, the word “unplayable” was seen next to the Top as often as not — believe it or not!

No one article, no one eulogy, can do justice to a card whose career has been so long, so varied, so inventive and innovative; but we’ll certainly try.

Kamigawa Block — Kodama’s Reach and Sakura-Tribe Elder

Sensei's Divining Top
Sensei’s Divining Top was first printed in Champions of Kamigawa more than a decade ago; as such, its career — at least its early Block and Standard appearances — would be inextricably linked with the cards Kodama’s Reach and Sakura-Tribe Elder.

While the Top’s Brainstorm-like abilities seem obvious to us given thirteen years of artifact activations, it was considered little more than an inanimate Sage Owl by 2004 Standards. After all, if you were only digging one card deeper (with your draw step), after its first fresh look, Top’s impact would be minimal.

However, if you had some way to change the top card(s) of your library — and that could be as innocuous as a Commune With Nature if you were Adrian Sullivan, Sensei’s Divining Top could help chip away at the opponent’s position over time.

The mathematics of Sensei’s Divining Top became more obvious and easy to embrace given teammates like Kodama’s Reach or Gifts Ungiven. With Green shufflers ensuring your land drops, Top could keep the gas pumping. Or with Gifts setting up your desired spell sequence, constant fresh looks from Top would make sure you had the mana to cast your flashiest spells.

In the hands of Gadiel Szleifer, Sensei’s Divining Top took Pro Tour Philadelphia (defeating another four-Top deck in the finals, piloted by future Hall of Famer Kenji Tsumura):


The Deck to Beat going into this tournament was White Weenie. Theoretically you could have used Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama’s Reach, and Gifts Ungiven to do whatever you wanted . . .  But in this case the sequence of choice was Soulless Revival for Hana Kami into Ethereal Haze.

Soulless RevivalHana KamiEthereal Haze

Or, infinite Fogs.

If the opponent’s objective was just to deal creature damage, assembling this sequence while playing two or more mana sources per turn would make winning (eventually) a trivial pursuit.

On the subject of “doing whatever you want” given the right mana and selection access, Frank Karsten used Sensei’s Divining Top to do something very different at the World Championships:


You’ll note Frank played many of the same “lock” tools Gadiel used in his sideboard, but with access to more / faster cards like Farseek he chose to explore a different engine main deck. One thing he could do was just use all that acceleration to make Kamigawa Dragons . . .  But once he had them in play, sacrificing one to Greater Good would help him lap up huge chunks of positional advantage.

Yosei, the Morning Star could steal the opponent’s next turn while Kokusho, the Evening Star could close out games with dizzying speed (especially for a big spell deck).

It goes without saying that the Finals of the World Championships went a long way in cementing Frank’s road to the Hall of Fame.

The Hardest-Working Tops Ever

Today Sensei’s Divining Top is closely associated with the color Blue due to interactions with cards like Trinket Mage and of course Counterbalance. It shared its set with both Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama’s Reach, linking it with Green from the first.

Yet the Top’s most varied, even essential, place in a deck might have been the Kuroda-Style Red that Josh Ravitz used to make Top 8 of the 2005 US National Championship.

Saviors of Kamigawa Standard | Josh Ravitz, Top 8 US National Championship 2005


Arc-Slogger
Once again, the Deck to Beat going into US Nationals was White Weenie. And it was a heck of a White Weenie if you were a Red Deck . . .  Theoretically. Opponents had access to the life gain, buffs, and debuffs of Umezawa’s Jitte; plus Auriok Champion — combining both life gain and protection from Red — was played main deck. Perhaps worst of all: Worship.

Why then did this big Red deck have such a dramatic advantage over White Weenie?

Sensei’s Divining Top had a lot to do with it.

While not a Green deck (or a Gifts Ungiven deck), Ravitz’s deck could change its top card with a variety of enablers. Wayfarer’s Bauble and Magma Jet were probably the most important just due to costs, but going long both Arc-Slogger and Beacon of Destruction could pretend to be Green shufflers.

A Red burn deck is already an odd duck for Magic — predicated on winning by transforming limited resources (the cards in your hand) into non-renewable packets of damage — but that is only scratching the surface. One Auriok Champion or Jitte can undo any number of cards in hand, for instance. Top did something completely new here though: It gave the Red Deck selection.

Most Red Decks are simply beholden to whatever they draw. If you give a Red Deck a perfect draw, or do too much damage to yourself, you’re likely to die quickly. The problem is that burn is a generally non-renewable. What that means is that for two mana, a Magma Jet will do two damage, ever. A simple Grizzly Bears for the same amount of mana can theoretically do all twenty. Every burn deck kind of starts off with negative card advantage because of this.

Shrapnel Blast
That said, you don’t need very many Beacons or Shrapnel Blasts to win; the challenge is lacing everything together. In this deck, Sensei’s Divining Top could help you draw either the mana you needed or the burn spell to close out the game. In long sideboarded games it could keep lands — including Boseiju, Who Shelters All — flowing to fuel a huge Fireball!

In that sense, the Red Deck “appreciated” Sensei’s Divining Top in a way no Blue or Green deck ever could. Blue and Green get stuff like this every set; Red had simply never had such a nice toy before.

In context, though, Top was even more appropriate.

Sensei’s Divining Top + Shrapnel Blast

Shrapnel Blast typically cost you a card. This deck did not have an overabundance of artifacts for fuel. But you could do this cool sequence:

  1. Tap Sensei’s Divining Top to draw a card.
  2. In response, sacrifice Sensei’s Divining Top to cast Shrapnel Blast.

Because removing the source of an effect does not remove the effect itself, you would still get to draw a card. Cool, huh? It was kind of like a cantrip-sacrifice.

Perhaps even more useful was this combination:

Sensei’s Divining Top + Culling Scales

Culling Scales
Culling Scales has the “disadvantage” that, eventually, it will destroy itself. I mean you can kill a lot of Suntail Hawks and Auriok Champions before that point, but it will theoretically kill itself . . .  Unless you have Sensei’s Divining Top.

If the opponent has a creature that costs two or more that you want to kill, you can flip your Top on the opponent’s turn so that you don’t have a one-mana artifact in play on your own upkeep; this will allow the Culling Scales to target what you want. Or if you just want to keep your Culling Scales around (i.e. the opponent doesn’t have anything interesting to kill) you can start your turn with Top in play, target it, and flip it in response. Your Culling Scales will “miss”, but you will get to put your Top on top. Because you can re-cast the Top [every turn you want to do this] you can keep your Culling Scales around indefinitely. Cool, huh?

Ravitz’s Top 8 might not have been quite as impressive as Gadiel’s opening PT win, but his Kuroda-Style Red does perhaps the best job of showcasing the varied applications of Sensei’s Divining Top.

Legacy, Part One - The Greatest Deck of All Time


If you’re not sure how this deck works, you’re not alone. When Steve Sadin played against Owen Turtenwald in the middle of Day One, he assembled his combo . . .  and Owen forced him to play the convoluted sequence out.

Steve didn’t know how.

Victory — Turtenwald.

But by the time they met again in the finals of Grand Prix Columbus, Steve had learned how his combination worked. And great! He was able to acquit himself nicely with the win.

What makes this arguably the best deck of all time?

1. It could win on the first turn

The simple version of the combination is to just cast Flash. You can of course cast Flash on the first turn with the help of Chrome Mox (meaning it can win on the first turn). You Flash with Protean Hulk in hand, so drop the Hulk.

Oops, you can’t pay the balance on Protean Hulk. It goes to the graveyard. Oh no.

But wait! There’s more! When Protean Hulk dies you go search your library for Karmic Guide and Carrion Feeder. The Karmic Guide buys back your Protean Hulk. You sacrifice the Hulk to get your Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, then can really go to town. Infinite whatever. Two mana. Theoretically just two cards.

There were lots of Flash-Hulk decks at Columbus that weekend. There was only one Champion and for once, it was also the best version. What made this arguably the best deck of all time again?

2. It was actually two decks

Counterbalance
The genius of this version was the inclusion of Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top.

To anyone who is familiar with this combination of cards, the next part won’t be particularly surprising. But casting costs are highly clustered in formats like Legacy. Lots of ones and twos. If all you do is make it so your Flash-Hulk opponent can’t cast Flash . . .  He probably can’t win. It’s going to be tough to hard-cast Protean Hulk, certainly. Further, the mere presence of Sensei’s Divining Top will make it far less likely for you to draw expensive or even un-cast-able fives like Karmic Guide or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker.

Advantages all around.

Now imagine you are playing against another Blue deck — Flash or otherwise. The most likely scenario is that the opponent’s only permission spells are Force of Will and Daze. Since you have Sensei’s Divining Top, let’s assume you can pay for a Daze or three. The trick is just to have a five-mana spell on top of your deck. This can be your own Force of Will, or one of the aforementioned expensive 2/2 guys.

The challenge is just casting Flash. If you can cast Flash, everything else is an activated or triggered ability . . .  You don’t have to cast a lot more spells to “go off” and win. Counterbalance’s presence with Sensei’s Divining Top offers you an essentially zero mana way to force through your combo against even a prepared permission deck.

Finale — Legacy Parts 2-Infinity

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
—Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

It’s hard to peg down when Counterbalance-Top went from scrappy rogue (Sadin) to the force of oppression it has been considered in recent memory. Probably it was sometime after Treasure Cruise went the way of the dodo. Infect something-something.

This is probably how Sensei’s Divining Top will be remembered:


Terminus
Played by Brian Braun-Duin, reigning World Champion, was Miracles at its height.

Sensei’s Divining Top in this deck shows its worst excesses as a clock-waster. There are eight fetches in this deck. They do for zero mana and no spell slots what Gadiel and Karsten and Ravitz paid anywhere from two to six mana to accomplish.

Terminus is especially gross here; the original notion of the Miracles was to make the draw step exciting. Yes, Miracles are super swingy (and super powerful, evidenced by their debut win in the hands of Alexander Hayne), but they also give us immortal Brian Kibler gifs. They are somewhat less exciting (and arguably abusive) if you can regulate your draw step and pick when a Miracle will show up. Worse yet, perhaps, is the ability to draw a card on the opponent’s turn by flipping your Top, activating a Terminus during combat.

Good?

All these decks are good, or were.

Miracles?

Maybe too good.

If nothing else, two copies of Sensei’s Divining Top could do a heck of a lot of work alongside Monastery Mentor.

Clock eater?

Oppressive lock with Counterbalance?

Force of oppression rather than creativity?

Maybe all these things are true of Sensei’s Divining Top, or were, just before its ban.

But don’t forget for a moment all the wondrous innovation this card has wrought along the way. Yes, being banned in essentially the last format where it could be played kind of stinks, but if ever a card could claim to have done it all, Sensei’s Divining Top is that card. It won its inaugural Pro Tour and appeared in the Top 8 of multiple others. It dominated the Grand Prix circuit across multiple formats, and was even central to the greatest deck of all time.

Over the last thirteen years, Sensei’s Divining Top made Tooth and Nail even better, drove Patrick Chapin’s Next Level Blue, paired with Phyrexian Dreadnought in Trinket Mage decks, but never saw for even a moment the inside of a Modern tournament. It proved the most formidable artifact in a Block that featured Umezawa’s Jitte, having shaken the “unplayable” moniker from early on.

And it lived, lived long enough to become the villain.

Much respect and admiration . . .  But good riddance, I suppose.

Love,
Mike


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