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Raga-not-banned?

Raga-not-banned?
Written by:
  • Max Gilmore

📅 December 09, 2021

⏱️7 min read

It's really hard to not have an opinion on the state of Legacy post-MH2. Are the cards too good? Is a particular deck too good? Am I having fun? Are my opponents having fun? I'm going to attempt to stay objective in this article while assessing whether Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer should get banned from Legacy, and if it did, what would happen.

I'm writing this the week of December 6th, the day that players expected that if WotC were to update the Legacy B&R list, they would have done it. Eternal Weekend came and went, and WotC has had more than enough time to look at the results and draw conclusions. Those conclusions seem to be to maintain the status quo, at least for now.

On Sunday, December 5, I tweeted out an informal poll about whether players think a ban should happen and whether they thought it would actually happen today. About 80% of responders thought there should be a ban, but only 25% thought a ban would actually happen on Monday. This 25% number on whether a ban would happen was consistent across both "should ban" and "shouldn't ban" voters. When 80% of responders want something, but 75% don't think the thing will happen, something is likely amiss.

Here's the problem: Since MH2 was released, UR Delver has about a 52-53% win rate in challenges and premier events (thanks Joe Dyer & the Legacy Data Collection team!). Some tournaments it's a little higher, some it's a little lower. Despite its overall win rate just being a little above 50% (and only halfway to the 55% that was cited by WotC as being problematic during the Wrenn and Six ban announcement), "UR Delver is the best deck" is repeated as if it's an indisputable fact. Consequently, it's also between 15% and 25% of the metagame, which means it's the most played deck by a factor of at least two. That tracks, since if people think it's the best deck, they're going to be heavily biased towards playing it. As another factor in its metagame penetration, unlike decks like Elves, Lands, or Doomsday, it plays very traditional proactive Magic. It's got threats, removal, countermagic, and the cantrips to find the right tool for the right job. That means that multi-format grinders with strong Magic fundamentals are likely to pick it up. As it's pretty straightforward, it's also not very intimidating, so players not super familiar with Legacy will hear it's the best deck and also pick it up. So we've got a deck that is the general consensus best deck in the format, but its win rate doesn't quite support that claim. Week-to-week, several different decks (that tend to have favorable matchups against Delver) post higher win rates, including 4c Control, 4c Green Sun's Zenith, 8-Cast, Elves, GW Reclaimer, and even Oops All Spells.

So why are people saying that UR Delver is the best deck when its performance is slightly above middle-of-the pack? The most obvious answer is that the deck has legitimate weaknesses, and they're things that the most winning decks can capitalize on. The decks on top are on top specifically because they're good against Delver, which is such a huge portion of the metagame. Since it can essentially be assumed that Delver will be by far the most played deck, a lot of people are then picking decks that sport a favorable Delver matchup, and the decks that are good against Delver become highly represented as well.

In Magic colloquialisms, this phenomenon is called being "hated out." Normally, when a deck is hated out, it can get hated into irrelevance. Take a deck like Dredge, for instance. When Dredge is a major player in the metagame, people pack a ton of graveyard hate, and Dredge basically gets thrown back to the stone age. Against Delver, however, the adaptations that would normally crush a deck that's 15-25% of the metagame merely function to temper it. Instead of dominating everything, it's merely a "good" deck. It's performing among the better decks, but it's not at the top.

The function of bans, for the most part, is to knock a deck down when the normal metagame adaptations can't succeed in doing that naturally. When Wrenn and Six was banned out of RUG Delver, for instance, WotC said it was the best-performing deck in the format, with a win rate over 55%, and a positive matchup against 9 out of the 2nd-through-11th-best performing decks.

In Legacy right now, the metagame appears to have successfully adapted without needing a ban. And that's not even bringing up the fact that if something were to get banned, the community can't seem to reach a consensus about what should even happen.

I tweeted out another poll about what people want banned, and used the 4 poll options to hit combinations of the cards I've heard mentioned the most: Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Expressive Iteration, and Murktide Regent. Since pretty much everyone has shortcutted discourse regarding a potential Legacy ban to be "when's Ragavan going to get banned?," I assumed that Ragavan would be the top pick by miles. While it was the top pick of the options, it was a little less than 25% of responders who wanted a Legacy ban. That means over 75% of people would be less than fully satisfied if they woke up tomorrow to read that Ragavan, and Ragavan alone, were banned. More people had a ban preference that I didn't even list (e.g. Daze, fetchlands, Brainstorm, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben) than who want Ragavan specifically to go. Another ~25% of responders want Ragavan to go along with either Expressive Iteration or Murktide Regent, which now brings us to a whopping 50% of voters, which also means the other 50% of voters wouldn't be super pleased with any of these bans.

For what it's worth, the most popular option of "ban Ragavan" would likely just serve to make UR Delver an even better performing deck than it is now. When you replace the 4 Ragavans with the remaining 2 Delvers and a pair of Brazen Borrowers or True-Name Nemesis, the matchups against Elves, D&T, GW Depths, Lands, and 8-Cast all get better. Flying Tribal is better at closing out without a playset of 2/1 ground creatures, and suddenly there's room for Brazen Borrower as a main deck answer to Marit Lage or Chalice of the Void. While we know that the UR Delver deck can currently be kept in check by metagame adaptations, I'm not sure that would be the case for this "Raga-banned" version, and then a followup ban would be inevitable.

I'm also okay with Delver being the "in a vacuum" best deck. It's proactive, it doesn't kill turn 1, and it plays traditional Magic. It's got creatures, removal, counterspells, aims to win in a very palatable way, Legacy format considered. Palatable probably isn't the word that comes to mind when thinking of Ragavan, though, which is fair. Ragavan is fucking disgusting. When paper Magic came back and my local game store (Spellhold Games in Orange, CA) opened up, I played against a nice dude on Aluren. I attacked with my Ragavan, flipped an Ice-Fang Coatl, and the poor guy deflated. (This is probably a good time to mention that Spellhold is great and does sanctioned Legacy on Tuesday nights at 7:30pm. We usually get between 16-24 players and it's an awesome crowd.) Sadly, our weekly attendance is at least one lower than it would otherwise be, because I haven't seen that Aluren player since, and I suspect Ragavan has something to do with it.

So yeah, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is fucking brutal. Do you know what else is also brutal? Chalice of the Void. Allosaurus Shepherd. Marit Lage. Combo decks killing you on Turn 1, backed by disruption. Endurance being evoked in response to your perfectly reasonable Turn 1 Doomsday kill. Legacy is fucking brutal. There's a term for the Legacy decks that aren't doing absolutely disgusting things: Tier 3.

Ragavan has the unique attribute of being high variance due to the random nature of flipping the top card of your opponent's library. Is it a Brainstorm? An essential combo piece? A random land? You don't know until it connects, which means that as a player you have to prepare for the worst, but when the worst actually happens, it feels particularly unlucky. In my experience, if there's one thing Magic players hate, it's feeling unlucky, so the Ragavan hate makes sense. I personally wish the card had never been printed, but here we are.

So what should be done?

I don't fuckin know. 80% of Legacy players seem to want something to happen, but we can't reach a consensus as to what. As far as deck viability goes, there's 16 different decks with a win rate over 50%, as well as Death & Taxes, as reasonable choices. The deck with the highest metagame share plays proactive Magic in a traditional way.

Perhaps the root of the problem for these 80% of people is that Legacy doesn't feel like it used to. Decks are so disgustingly powerful that if you give anyone an inch, they take a mile. If you're in the boat where you're able to rationally accept that perhaps Legacy is balanced right now, but you're still not having fun, I'm going to gently suggest dipping your toes into Modern. I heard someone say that Modern now feels like Legacy did 10 years ago, which piqued my interest. After playing 10 or so leagues in the format, I'm inclined to agree. You don't need to quit Legacy or anything, and I sure haven't, but perhaps diversifying your play experience will help you have more fun.

Mark Rosewater once said something along the lines of "Magic players are good at recognizing problems and bad at solving them." I'm hesitant to end this article with any specific proposed solution to the problem, since I'd rather not detract from the rest of this article in favor of readers poking holes in whatever I propose. Maybe something needs to happen, but perhaps it doesn't, and the format is just moving much faster than a lot of us would like.

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