Nonbos: Using a Legacy Lens to Analyse Anti-Synergies
📅 July 07, 2017•
⏱️9 min read
The First Straw
At a fateful win-and-in some time ago, I was playing Legacy Grixis Delver against my old nemesis, Lands. I had convinced myself that I had finally figured out how to play the matchup, and after quickly losing to a Marit Lage in the first game, managed to rally back and Surgically Extract all of my opponent's win conditions in Game 2. Opening hands for Game 3 were drawn, and I felt great. I had a Deathrite Shaman, a Surgical Extraction, a Wasteland, and enough other lands to not randomly lose to a Wasteland of theirs. My opponent opened with Taiga, Crop Rotation into Ancient Tomb, Chalice of the Void for 1.
I was floored. Their deck has Gamble, Exploration, Crop Rotation, Manabond, and sometimes even Molten Vortex, and their Chalice just turned off all of that! It appeared my opponent brought in some spice for Game 3, and I was not prepared. Chalice wasn't even on my radar, as I had seen their whole deck with my Surgical Extractions in the game prior. After losing the game convincingly, I wished my opponent good luck in the Top 8, and ventured off to complain to a friend about what I had just experienced.
My friend's response to my complaint that the Lands player's Chalice turned off most of his own spells: “Does it matter?”
Does It Matter?
I thought about it a little bit, and realised that it didn't. Sure, the Lands player couldn't resolve a good chunk of his deck, but I couldn't resolve the spells I needed to beat him. Turns out that's a pretty good trade-off on his end.
On a whole, the avoidance of anti-synergistic elements, or “nonbos” is one of the most overstated concepts in competitive Magic. Human nature, and particularly our affinity for pattern recognition, drives us towards the line of thinking that synergy is inherently good and clashing elements are inherently bad, but this is often not the case.
For better or worse, a match of Magic is not actually just about one's deck doing a particular thing cleanly or elegantly. While many good decks “do a thing” very cleanly, it's not a prerequisite for a good deck, and many bad decks are about as cohesive as they come. To take this argument to the kitchen table, we have all encountered a new Magic player's first constructed deck. Usually, they are extremely synergistic decks that “do a thing” very well, revolving around a mechanic like +1/+1 counters, tokens, lifegain, or their favourite tribe. The vast majority of the time, despite being synergistic, they aren't any good.
What does a deck need to do in order to be good? It just needs to win a lot, full stop. It doesn't need to be elegant, synergistic, or anything of the like. If a deck matches up well against the expected field of opposing decks, that's all you need. If the cards that are giving this deck good matchups across the metagame don't necessarily play synergistically with each other, and even clash at times, this is usually okay.
Now, when we look at anti-synergistic elements, such as putting Swords to Plowshares in your Legacy UWx Delver deck, Rest in Peace in the sideboard of your deck containing 3-4 Snapcaster Mages, or Path to Exile side-by-side with Mana Leak in Modern UW control, you'll see this inherent clash and it will bother you on a fundamental level. This is normal. In fact, when Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time were spoiled, many people dismissed them out of hand because they “played poorly” with Snapcaster Mage. “These Blue Delve spells need cards in your graveyard to eat, while Snapcaster Mage wants a variety of options still in your graveyard to be any good,” they would say. As we can all agree at this point, it didn't quite play out that way.
When judging two cards with anti-synergistic elements, you have to ask yourself the following:
- When does this anti-synergy matter?
- How much does it matter?
- Is the power of each of these cards sufficient to offset the times when the anti-synergy matters?
Let's first look at what is probably the least controversial example: Rest in Peace in with your Snapcaster Mages:
The anti-synergy comes up when you have resolved your Rest in Peace, and now your Snapcasters are unable to Flashback any more spells in your Graveyard, relegating them to “Ambush Viper” duty. Clearly, this weakens the power level of your Snapcaster Mages, and since there are other Graveyard-hate cards that don't negatively affect your Snapcaster Mages, such as Surgical Extraction, it becomes necessary to justify playing Rest in Peace over these other options.
Surgical Extraction is the most commonly-used piece of Graveyard hate in Legacy, and really plays quite well with Snapcaster Mage. Surgical-Snapcaster-Surgical is a 2-mana (and 4 Life) play that can be backbreaking against most Graveyard decks. However, the difference between Surgical Extraction and Rest in Peace is the raw power of the effect. Surgical Extraction is a precision tool that can be used to hit critical pieces of Graveyard decks, but can be played around or pushed through. Rest in Peace, however, is closer to a sledgehammer.
In the matchups where you bring in Rest in Peace, such as Reanimator, Dredge, or Lands, if you have resolved a Rest in Peace, you're a huge favourite to win the game. No longer being able to flash something back weakens the Snapcaster Mage, but does not very much affect your likelihood to win, which is all that matters. At the times where you have not resolved the Rest in Peace, Snapcaster Mage is fully functional. If Rest in Peace gets removed, Snapcaster Mage will gradually increase in functionality until it hits its normal ceiling. You can even use Snapcaster Mage to Flashback a cantrip and dig for your Rest in Peace! The value call, then, is if a much harder-hitting graveyard-hate card is worth the backlash on your Snapcaster Mages. If you look at this GP Las Vegas Top 16 list, Mitchell Nguyen's answer was a measured “yes”. He diversified his graveyard-hate suite with 2 Rest in Peace, 1 Surgical Extraction, and 2 Containment Priest as a way to allow these sideboard slots to also dip into other matchups, such as Rest in Peace against Shardless BUG, or Containment Priest against Sneak & Show. Paraphrasing Mitchell, when I asked him about the tension between Rest in Peace and Snapcaster Mage: “Yeah it's fine. You can't Flashback spells but they don't have a graveyard, and Ambush Vipers still beat 0/1 Goyfs or Dredge.”
Swords to Plowshares + Delver of Secrets
Moving on to what is likely the most controversial played “nonbo” in Legacy, I'm going to take the time to thoroughly address Swords to Plowshares in a Delver deck. Many players, some of whom are very good at Legacy, believe putting Swords to Plowshares and Delver of Secrets into the same deck is just wrong, and that there is no reason to do so as long as there are other options available.
The root of the issue the issue seems to stem from the term “Delver deck” itself, taken to mean “a tempo-based strategy where one plays an inexpensive threat and leverages mana denial, countermagic, and removal spells to protect the threat until the opponent loses.” If you accept this definition, then Swords to Plowshares in this deck would be awful. The life gain from Swords to Plowshares could easily add a turn or two to the clock, giving your opponent more time to draw answers and the lands to cast them. If Swords to Plowshares reads like a Time Walk for your opponent, then putting it in your deck is not a winning proposition.
While that definition of “Delver deck” certainly holds up for traditional evolution of Canadian Threshold, a.k.a. RUG/Temur Delver, most decks playing Delver of Secrets today are not nearly as reliant on the aforementioned game plan. Grixis Delver, the Best Deck™ in Legacy, has two common builds of the deck: one version with Stifle, and one version with main-deck Cabal Therapy.
Grixis Delver with Stifle
The version of Grixis Delver with Stifle is certainly capable of playing the “Canadian Threshold” game where you restrict mana development and prevent spells from resolving while whacking away at the opponent's life total, but unlike its RUG counterpart, it wins a lot of its games through grinding. Grixis Delver is often happy to trade resources with an opponent, and ends up winning because the cards that Grixis Delver plays are just more efficient than most opposing decks.
Grixis Delver with Cabal Therapy
The version of Grixis Delver with Cabal Therapy in the main-deck fully embraces the deck's ability to grind. Cabal Therapy, in and of itself, is a very tempo-negative card. You're spending mana to remove cards from your opponent's hand before they have to invest any resources into casting them. In the aforementioned “Canadian Threshold” game plan, Cabal Therapy would be next to useless, since you don't care what spells are in your opponent's hand when your primary plan is to shut off their ability to cast spells in the first place. In a Grixis Delver deck that's fully accepted its desire and ability to trade resources efficiently, however, Cabal Therapy is incredible. Ask anyone who's gone Young Pyromancer -> Gitaxian Probe -> Cabal Therapy -> Flashback Cabal Therapy how that game went, and their eyes will light up.
The classic definition of a “Delver deck” is obsolete, and Delver of Secrets is played in decks with far more versatile gameplans than Canadian Threshold evolutions. This is where Swords to Plowshares comes in.
When UW Delver took down Grand Prix D.C. in 2013, the deck was praised highly, and many people played it to great finishes for a time thereafter. For a short while, it was considered the best deck in the format, since it seemed to beat almost everything. Its 7-8 efficient main-deck removal spells, combined with a Stoneforge package and a couple True-Name Nemesis, make the deck a bane on creature-based strategies. When people talk about how Elves or Death & Taxes have good “Delver matchups,” they're not talking about playing against UWR Delver. Meanwhile, the speed of Delver of Secrets, coupled with overpowered White sideboard cards (Meddling Mage, Ethersworn Canonist, Rest in Peace) tear apart most combo decks.
Eventually, UWR Delver fell out of favour as Miracles grew into the powerhouse it became, since it sports a laughably bad matchup against the menace. Time passed, people looked back on the UWR Delver lists of old, and determined that the reason UWR Delver stopped performing well was because of the clash between the abstract goals of Delver of Secrets and Swords to Plowshares, some echo-chambering happened, and this assessment became “common knowledge.” Fast forward three years, and we're in the present. Sensei's Divining Top is banned, and Delver of Secrets can perhaps once again rekindle its love affair with Swords to Plowshares.
Post Top Ban
I've been playing around with a bit of a brew recently: Esper Delver feat. Lingering Souls and the Gurmag Quartet. Over three leagues on MtGO, I've gone 4-1 twice and 5-0 once, playing against a pretty full gauntlet of Legacy decks, and demolishing many decks which are supposed have good Delver matchups!
I brought this deck to the attention of a Delver-based Facebook group chat, and after a bit of disagreement about the inclusion of Swords to Plowshares with Delver of Secrets, Ethan Gaieski, a.k.a. morticiansunion on MtGO, decided to put these cards to the test. He digitally sleeved up his own take on UWR Delver and instantly rattled off the “easiest 5-0 of his life.” Perhaps Swords to Plowshares in some builds of Delver is perfectly fine. Let's take a more nuanced look as to why this could be.
People often forget that Swords to Plowshares's drawback is only as large as the creature it's removing. In Legacy, the majority of creatures you're going to send farming don't have much power, such as Deathrite Shaman, Stoneforge Mystic, and Young Pyromancer.
For the ones that do give a lot of life, I have some good news: that thing was probably going to kill you, and now it's tending to its crops. Examples: Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, Gurmag Angler, Dark Depths.
In a Delver deck suited to trade resources and grind, having an efficient, unconditional removal spell is huge.
Rarely, even with a grindy Delver deck, you may find yourself in the classic “Canadian Threshold” scenario, where you are clocking away with a Delver and the life gain matters. If you do end up in that situation, I have more good news: you don't have to cast the Swords to Plowshares if it doesn't benefit you to do so. In this scenario, just clock 'em out!
A good deck in Magic is one that has good matchups against the field. It doesn't need to look pretty. If those two clashing cards are so powerful that playing both wins you more games, you should be doing it. It's human nature to be drawn to things that fit together nicely and to be repulsed when they don't, but elegance is not a prerequisite for a good deck. If you overlook decks with anti-synergistic elements, you might be missing out on something broken.