Last weekend was a feast for fans of Eternal Magic.* Between the Eternal Weekend and the Legacy Open in Minneapolis, we've seen results gather from two huge Legacy events now that people have had the time to accept that Treasure Cruise is in fact a real card.
*Note: I'll be talking about Legacy only today. I'm aware Vintage had one of its few days in the spotlight too, and I'll be getting to my thoughts about the current state of that format next week when I'll hopefully be able to dive into my Vintage preparation for Prague Eternal.
Surprisingly, one thing I found disturbing while watching both events was how hung up the coverage team seemed to be on Treasure Cruise itself. I mean, I can understand the sentiment. Shortly after the release, I found myself arguing for the power level of the card, my mind blown by how ridiculous it seemed. Again and again I had to reiterate to make people understand how good it is. And now, suddenly, a couple of events down the line, I find myself shaking my head about how sensationalist people are becoming about the card. Something strange must be happening here.
Yes, the card is utterly busted. That being said, there are other things going on in the game, ways in which formats fight back and adaption processes starting to stir. Maybe it is because I was among the first to realize the awesome potential of Treasure Cruise and I've had more time than others to calm down, maybe I'm just less excitable because of all the Ancestral Recalls I've cast over the years. Whatever it is, I very much think that, at this point, the public perception of Treasure Cruise is tipping from too dismissive to overly excited.
When I first started testing with the card, I was reasonably convinced it would be essentially impossible to play without it simply because of how powerful Ancestral Recall actually is. Looking at the results coming in, I see interesting trends shaping and a format starting to successfully adapt as weird as it seems to my preconceived notions. Trying to understand what Treasure Cruise as it is used currently actually does to Legacy seems like a much better plan than bemoaning how absurdly powerful it is.
To me, that means it's time to take stock and figure out where things are moving from here - there is a Legacy GP waiting a couple of weeks down the line and personally I need to figure out what I want to be doing at the Prague Eternal tournament, after all. Luckily for us, we have results from two huge events in which players knew Treasure Cruise would be a thing all served freshly just last weekend. So let's take a look.
The Elephant in the Room
Various forms of Delver, the most obvious application of the cheapest delve spell, took six spots in the top 8 of the Eternal Weekend and another two at the Legacy Open in Minneapolis. That's pretty impressive, no question about it. One interesting thing to observe right out of the gates is that between them, these decks cover the full range as to how many Treasure Cruises they're playing. We can see a measly one copy in Eric de Luca's Sultai Delver list, two copies in Eric Markowicz's Jeskai, three in the majority of other Jeskai lists - including that of Open winner Anthony Leen - and the full playset mostly in U/R lists very closely modelled after Bob Huang's original breakout list (like the one Eternal Weekend winner Kevin Jones played) and in what appears to be the new face of Temur Delver as piloted to the Eternal Weekend Top 8 by Ralph Betesh.
As a sidenote, congratulations to Eric for being able to run a budget manabase to success. A glimmer of hope for all those dual-land-strapped players out there for sure.
But just counting Treasure Cruises and staring at all the Delvers isn't going to help us out, is it? Instead what we should do is to try and figure out what Treasure Cruise has done to these decks and how they differ from what they were before Khans of Tarkir.
To me, it essentially looks as if Treasure Cruise has forced the already philosophically different Delver sub-archetypes to focus more on their end of the spectrum. Even before Khans, Temur and U/R (the latter more of a footnote than a full-fledged member of the Delver roster at that point) were the two shells most focused on winning in the early game, be it through pure speed like U/R or through extending the early game for as long as possible with disruption. Sultai and Jeskai, on the other hand, always tried to straddle the line between midrange grindy-ness and the tempo play Delver decks are known for.
From theses beginnings, U/R, the frontrunner among the post-Khans Delver archetypes so far, has morphed significantly. From its role as a glorified Burn deck, it has turned into a dedicated aggressive beatdown machine that is trying to deal most of its damage purely with creature attacks. And pretty flimsy creatures at that, even given the fact that they dish out a lot of damage very fast. It honestly feels a lot like a fast Zoo deck, but one that gets to do awesome things like countering spells and drawing cards.
Temur, the original almost all one-drops all the time deck, has actually raised its curve - if only slightly--by including Young Pyromancer and abandoned the ability to deploy a highly resilient threat (Nimble Mongoose) all the while actually cutting into the creature count to make room. Counterintuitively though, the switch actually leads to the deck being more aggressive than before and less focused on disruption even while running the same amount of it.
Two-drop threats are poison for its efforts to keep the opponent locked in the early game because it means not keeping up Stifle and using Wasteland for mana (gasp!) more often, but at the same time, Young Pyromancer is a much more aggressive threat than Nimble Mongoose. The Mungo is an inevitability tool, chosen because it will keep dealing damage while you're fighting over the opponent's ability to do anything. Young Pyromancer grows out of control really fast but demands a significantly higher mana commitment to come down in the first place (yes, two mana instead of one is significant in a fourteen land deck that wants to keep Stifle mana open).
These sweeping changes in the aggressive Delver strategies aren't born out among the more midrangy ones. Jeskai has moved yet another step closer to really playing as a midrange Stoneforge Mystic shell, cutting early game countermagic and removal for the midgame power of Treasure Cruise, while Eric De Luca's Sultai list already saw play in exactly the same form (minus that one Treasure Cruise) - Thoughtseizes and all - before we got to delve. That shouldn't surprise us, seeing as he is the holdout sporting only a single copy of Treasure Cruise, instead still relying on True-Name Nemesis to serve as his midgame bomb. It remains to be seen if the deck can stick with such a low Cruise count (I still suspect more is better) and keep up anyway and is able to support more Cruises without trouble, or if it simply falls further behind the other Delver strategies because it can't utilize one of the cantrip decks' strongest tools.
The biggest impact, however, isn't in the lists themselves, it's in those list's metagame shares. Spurred by Bob Huang's opening success, U/R has moved from the least played Delver archetype to the pole position and that change, from grindy Delver decks towards predominantly aggressive ones is likely the most impactful result of Treasure Cruise making it into the format so far.
In addition, Jeskai seems to have taken Sultai's spot as top dog of the grindy Delver lists - at least that's what it seems like so far - possibly because Treasure Cruise has strictly no negative interactions with the list and easily slides into the established shell, which means that there's a lot less pressure from Deathrite Shaman and Abrupt Decay than we've seen since Return to Ravnica. Maybe that means we won't feel as foolish anymore playing graveyard strategies and cheap permanents that aren't actually completely replaceable.
New Order Profiteers
I wouldn't be writing this article only to talk about Delver though. Yeah, Cruise is good in decks full of cantrips and that makes already established Delver shells really solid even while forcing them to shift their focus. That much was pretty much obvious after only minor testing, however. What I'm much more interested in is what kinds of changes this causes for the rest of the metagame.
Surprisingly enough, at least judging by the Open Series in Minneapolis, there seems to be much less of a shut-out effect in action than I expected. In fact, a lot of rarely seen entities - or at least rarely seen in the past year or so - take up the other half of the sixteen top 8 slots between the two events. And most of them are decks that are either cunningly innovated to address a delve heavy metagame (more on those below) or simply profit from what Treasure Cruise has done to the Delver lists. I mean, look at these:
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Mother of Runes
- 3 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 1 Scryb Ranger
- 3 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 Voice of Resurgence
- 1 Gaddock Teeg
- 1 Dryad Arbor
- 4 Crystalline Sliver
- 4 Galerider Sliver
- 4 Hibernation Sliver
- 3 Muscle Sliver
- 4 Predatory Sliver
- 4 Sinew Sliver
- 1 Winged Sliver
What all of these decks share is the fact that Wasteland is traditionally at least close to the most important card Delver can bring to bear against them. The Sliver tribe has a higher power-level than Merfolk for sure between a better type of evasion (flying works against everybody and even allows you to block Insectile Aberration), a way to give the whole team shroud, and Hibernation Sliver to fight mass removal like Terminus. The main thing holding it back has always been the atrocious manabase forced upon you by having to run four colors to get access to all that power. Guess what happens if people suddenly only play half the Wastelands they used to?
Similarly, Maverick has enough raw power to outperform Delver strategies in the mid- to lategame - yes, even if they get to draw extra cards, it seems - but struggled to get there in time especially with Deathrite Shaman helping the Sultai lists keep Knight of the Reliquary in check. Now that Punishing Fire and its own manabase are a lot less likely to get messed up by Wasteland and Stifle, the deck might actually have an easier time to shine, even if it has to slog through more card advantage. At the very least, Gaddok Teeg suddenly is a beating against the actual full metagame now instead of being good against just about everything but Delver.
Lands finally is another prime example of a deck that loves there being fewer Wastelands around. While it rarely ended up being manascrewed out of the game, Wasteland was an important tool to get that devastating single swing in through its defenses by taking out Maze of Ith or Glacial Chasm, kept its Dark Depths + Thespian's Stage combo in check, and could break up Punishing Fire once again.
Combine that with the fact that Nimble Mongoose was by far the creature you liked to see the least on the other side of the board (Punishing Fire and Maze of Ith are equally helpless against it), and you can easily see the case that could be made that the new face of Delver is actually much easier to bash in for the deck than the pre-Cruise version. It isn't like Lands is ever going to lose the card advantage war to a low-land count all-nonbasic deck, Ancestrals or no Ancestrals.
What unites these three decks is that they have an endgame plan that is strong enough to defeat Delver no matter how many cards the Delver deck is ahead. As long as it doesn't really happen all at once, all three of these decks could likely take care of literally every single card in the Delver decks making it into play. All they need to be able to do so is to manage, to really start playing their own game. Considering how Delver has evolved and especially how much of its metagame share has turned into a straight U/R aggressive deck, them being allowed to do so has become more likely than it has been for a while. With the Cruise-driven upsurge in Delver to prey upon in a form that is actually weaker against them, these decks seem ideally positioned to take advantage of the current post-Khans metagame.
The other kind of old friend that loves the changes Delver is going through is what I already suggested in my follow up article to Bob Huang's Open win: fast combo.
While these care less about there being fewer Wastelands (well, looking at that manabase, the Painter deck most likely does, which is why I nearly listed it with the three decks above), they very much care about lower disruption counts. All of these decks can easily threaten to win the game before Treasure Cruise is even a factor, they are all fast enough to simply race the new aggressive threat-bases, and all in all would love to play games in which their Delver opponents try to play either like aggro decks or like midrange decks instead of the dedicated disruptive tempo deck. Both of those options are easier to breeze through than the heavy disruption focus of old-school Delver (personally I'm particularly fond of not seeing Hymn to Tourach even in the one Sultai Delver list that ended up being successful as I've found that to be by far the most annoying card to play against with Storm).
Finally, let's talk about the two most exciting lists coming out of these top eights. Why most exciting? Because they've found ways to innovate to beat a Delve-centric metagame by playing to their own strengths.
Zack Dobbin's deck is a clear descendant of Caleb Durward's Tezzerator deck from many moons ago but with an ingenious twist that exactly mirrors an idea from one of our local Tezzerator players: maindeck Leyline of the Void plus a Helm of Obedience (insert your favorite quote about great minds thinking alike, etc). The plan started out simply as a sideboard feature but was already so efficient postboard that Treasure Cruise has given players the perfect excuse to move it to the maindeck.
Chalice of the Void has always been a blow out in the format but is even more likely to completely cripple opponents now and Tezzerator is one of the more consistent Chalice decks out there. Add the fact that with delve taking up a big role in those archetypes that have traditionally not cared about graveyard hate too much - blue tempo and midrange decks - Leyline is suddenly very rarely dead (especially given that this is a deck that can hardcast it in a reasonable timeframe), and you get a deck that to me feels a lot like the old Extended Thopter Depths deck.
You have a small amount of powerful disruption, you can play the card advantage game with the best of them - Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas is some good - and you have not one but two game-deciding combos that attack from completely different angles but just happen to be able to be completed by the same unusual set of tutors (Transmute Artifact and Tezzeret the Seeker).
Darrel E. Feltner's deck might be labeled as Miracles, but it is far from what anyone has ever considered the stock list. Instead of trying to play a regular game enhanced by the awesomeness that is miracle'ing Terminus and Entreat the Angels, Darrel's deck is going full-blown fortress mode. Not only does he have Counterbalance + Sensei's Divining Top to lock his opponent's out of playing spells, he complements those with three Rest in Peace plus two Helm of Obedience and two Energy Fields to either win on the spot or lock the opponent out of dealing damage, respectively (number of outs in most non-Sultai Delver maindecks is zero). In essence, he has given up trying to fight fairly and instead just aims to fully lock the opponent out of the game as rapidly as possible. And his Rest in Peaces conveniently hate on Treasure Cruise along the way.
I know I said that relying on graveyard hate to fight the delve menace was a bad plan, but both Darrel and Zack have found the right way to do so: make the hate part of your core strategy. Instead of having graveyard hate to fight delve, their respective combos and lock pieces just happen to "accidentally" deal with delve all the while being dedicated key pieces of each players strategy in the first place. By doing this they avoid the basic fallacy that makes boarding this kind of hate against Treasure Cruise strategies futile (you spend mana and cards for no immediate gain, essentially letting the opponent get ahead in the first place) and instead end up ideally positioned to rip the rug out under the opponent's lategame just by doing what their deck wants to do in the first place. This is the kind of hateful innovation I can get behind.
Too Much Cruisin'?
There has been a lot of talk about how ridiculous Treasure Cruise is lately and not enough talk about what Treasure Cruise is actually doing to Legacy and what we should be doing. Don't forget Khans has barely been out for a month and Eternal formats are notoriously tough to crack because of their immense cardpool.
While that usually means it's hard to figure out how a new card fits into these formats, with Treasure Cruise things are the other way around. The card just slots so perfectly into our regular old cantrip shell decks that finding a deck to successfully play it in is easy as pie. Instead, the interesting question immediately becomes what the most effective and efficient ways are to fight back and which existing decks actually profit from the ways Treasure Cruise reshapes the established archetypes it goes into.
While the Eternal Weekend top 8 is scary - six Delver decks out of eight?! - the Minneapolis Open top 8 actually looks more interesting than a lot of pre-Cruise top 8s have, and both events have allowed some decks to rise to the elimination rounds that have either been sadly missing for a long time or show signs of very viable adaptation taking place.
Add to that that I've personally found games involving the new delve spells very interesting to play and watch - feel free to disagree, though I think I'm far from alone in that assessment - and it seems to me like we've finally gotten the shakeup we've all been waiting for, even if it is in a form that nobody expected.
Does that mean I suddenly think Treasure Cruise is safe? Far from it. The card is ridiculously good, and I'd be surprised if we didn't manage to make it ban-worthy in the long run, but at this point even thinking about that seems extremely premature. The game is going to be a lot more interesting when we're all working on either making it as good as possible or how to correctly adapt to a metagame that allows some people to draw three cards for a single blue mana than if we concentrate on declaiming its inherent superiority and start to get ready for the ban wagon. We can start that discussion when we've at least figured out what a metagame with the card in it actually looks like, right?
I'm still quite sure Delver is only the first step as the obvious home for the card and that the changes that will ripple through the format with both Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time available will reach much farther than what we've seen - under one condition: we have to not browbeat, scare, and hype everybody into taking the easy way out and picking up a Delver deck. If nobody is working on a solution, we won't be getting one either.
So if you've ever said Legacy is stale, now is the time for you to come and put your money where your mouth is (unless you were just complaining because blue gets to draw cards and you don't). The metagame is drastically changed and even a lot of the decks that looked very similar before are actually quite different. Matchups you've tested a million times suddenly have a completely different dynamic added to them. It's time to learn how the new world works before we can judge if it's shaping up to be a bright future or a horrid dystopia. Time to get cracking!