Disruptive tempo decks with mana-denial elements are racking up wins in the Legacy portion of the SCG Open Series at the moment so I thought this would be a good time for a piece that addresses how to best play around disruption suites.
A word of warning: Many of the things I mention will only apply for the kinds of decks I play with regularly that is to say cantrip-based combo decks (think ANT orNBS) and blue-based control decks (thinkCounterbalance or CAB-Jace). First those are the kinds of decks I have the most experience with so what I say is more likely to make sense. In addition I believe that most aggressive decks don't really have the luxury of playing around the disruption; they just have to play through it. Their game plan is so focused on their own tempo that giving up time to play around things like Stifle just isn't a good idea usually. Instead those decks will have to try to brute force their way through the disruption making it moot through application of pressure so that stalling for time is a losing proposition for the opponent anyway. If your hand is bad enough for the disruption decks to be able to forestall your coming out of the gates with guns blazing the game is already over most of the time.
As Sun Tzu suggested one of the most important things if you want to defeat an enemy is to understand him. So let me introduce you to the public enemies as far as this article is concerned:
These decks are not land-destruction decks in the classical sense that try to destroy every land an opponent has. Sure there will be games in which your first four lands are Stifled and Wastelanded and you die without any chance to do much. These games are a minority though the equivalent of nut-draws that pretty much any other deck in the format can produce. Instead tempo decks use a combination of early mana denial and countermagic to create a situation in which a fast powerful threat will put the game away before the opponent can recover sufficiently to deal with it. Oftentimes that will mean cutting the opponent off of one of his colors for a significant amount of time or keeping him on low enough mana that Daze or Spell Snare can counter any significant play he could make. The disruption is meant essentially to create a window of opportunity and capitalize on it.
There are three elements used to implement this strategy: mana denial (Wasteland Stifle) cheap countermagic (Daze Spell Snare Force of Will) and discard (Hymn to Tourach Vendilion Clique). When the tempo decks are working every one of these cards will create a Time Walk holding the opponent in the same situation he was in a turn before while the tempo decks made up in large part by very cheap spells develop their own game plan unhindered.
So how do you keep this plan from wrecking you? For aggro decks the answer is comparatively clear-cut: you apply pressure (with anything from Wild Nacatl to Aether Vial ticking up) meaning the disruption doesn't actually create Time Walks because the time spent disrupting you comes at the cost of life total the resource you as the aggro player use to count time anyway.
For other decks the issue is more complex and can be broken down into a few different steps:
- establishing a mana base
- finding something worth resolving and keeping it
- getting that something down through tithe effects
This issue needs to be dealt with through both play and deck construction. The more lands you play the more basics you have access to the fewer colors you need and the cheaper your own spells are the better prepared you will end up being for the battle over mana. There are essentially two viable ways to approach the tempo matchup: blanking the mana disruption or overloading it.
When you try to blank the disruption the goal is to cram as many basic lands into your deck as possible while running spells that hopefully aren't color-intensive. A mana base like Merfolk's made up of thirteen basic Islands will laugh at an opponent's effort to shut down their mana generation with Stifle and Wasteland – those cards may have targets in the matchup but they certainly can't stop Merfolk from paying for its spells. Similarly the two-color Enlightened Tutor-based variants of Counterbalance usually run between six and ten basic lands and a very low number of high-cost threats blanking Wasteland for large stretches of the game. And while NBS runs a huge number of fetchlands to profit from “free” shuffle effects other High Tide players prefer to run a significantly higher number of basic Islands instead because that makes them largely immune to Stifle.
If your deck has at least three colors though it becomes increasingly difficult to actually blank opposing mana denial. For your mana base to work you need a good number of dual and fetchlands already meaning Stifle and Wasteland are likely to find a target no matter what. In those cases it often becomes more reasonable to simply try to overload the mana denial. Instead of trying to keep Wasteland from finding a target you embrace the fact that you'll likely get Wastelanded and hit by Stifle and rely on an even higher number of nonbasic lands and lands in general. The other important element of this strategy is cheap reactive spells exactly because you're likely to lose some of your early lands. If you can't deal with the opposing threat even with your reduced resources there's a solid chance you'll just die to it.
CAB-Jace is a good example for this line of thought. The deck needs a lot of mana to be fully active but has only three basic lands as fetchland targets an Island to make sure you can't be wasted out of your library manipulation as well as a Mountain and a Plains to make sure that your cheap removal is online. After that your only answer to mana denial is to play more lands – which is one of the reasons the deck has a whopping 25 of them. Maze of Ith introduces additional resilience to Wasteland in this context because Wasteland can only either hit your mana or your Mazes – if they hit the mana Maze will usually buy you the time necessary to find more; if they hit the Mazes they've given up on trying to keep you from playing the game.
A similar effect can be achieved by having at least one dual that combines your secondary and tertiary color because it allows you to double up on all of your colors with only three lands thereby preventing the opponent from cutting you off of a color with a single Wasteland. To illustrate: Let's say you play a U/r/w control deck. If you run Volcanic Islands and Tundras the lands you probably want in play a single Wasteland can always cut you off of one of your colors. Once you introduce a Plateau to the mix a theoretically inferior land for what you're trying to do you're immune to that scenario if you simply set up a board of Volcanic Island Tundra Plateau.
So much for what you can do before you sit down to play; what about in-game decisions? The first step in playing around Stifle and Wasteland in decks that use cantrips is to set up a basic Island. If they ever give you an opening where they can't Stifle (say you're on the play or they tap out turn 1 for some cantrip of their own) crack that fetch for an Island. No other land will matter more in the long run because if you can dig you can find additional lands.
If they don't give you that kind of opening make them pay for their Time Walks. Don't crack your fetches and try to play things until forced to. Instead just sit around playing lands as long as they don't clock you. The longer you sit around with uncracked fetchlands the longer they have to leave up blue mana for their Stifle(s) – instead of getting Time Walked you're now actually Time Walking them!
If you want or need to play something – say removal for their threat or library manipulation so that you can continue making land drops – it's often best to play a dual from your hand instead of trying to crack a fetch for your basics. That way they'll have to Waste before it really does anything but keep you from building up mana and they still have to keep the Stifle up afterwards. The turns you want to get Wastelanded are those turns when they don't have a clock (anymore).
Other than that try to make them use Stifle when it is most inconvenient for them to do so. A good moment to start the Stifle war is the opponent's upkeep. This may seem counterintuitive because you give up the use of those lands during your turn but that way even if they do get to Stifle your lands you at least made it less likely that they'll be able to use their mana to also create a clock right there and then. Note that this is significantly stronger if you plan on fetching up basics – that way they can't use the turn to Wasteland you either.
As far as Wasteland is concerned again try to minimize its impact. The earlier you get Wastelanded the better for you usually. Opening the game with your duals is often correct even though you might be tempted to avoid getting hit by Wasteland.
If you play a dual turn 1 and they Wasteland it on their turn essentially nothing has happened. If on the other hand they've just played a Tarmogoyf you can't deal with without getting another land down after the one you play now Wasteland represents a free turn of attacks for them. To give you an example if your hand contains an Ensnaring Bridge a basic Island a basic Plains and a Tundra playing the Tundra on turn 1 may lead to their Wastelanding it on the spot. All that has done is trade one of your cards for one of theirs. If on the other hand you play your basics while they also play lands they might drop a Tarmogoyf on turn 2 and you are now in a position where playing a dual land that gets Wastelanded represents another hit from Tarmogoyf (assuming you plan to play around Daze with your Bridge). In the first case they only gain something if they actually manage to mana-screw you out of playing your spells completely; in the second Wasteland is essentially a Time Walk even if you have more lands to play. Note that they can just hold their Wasteland until it will work as a full Time Walk here but many players tend to Waste ASAP – why not give them the chance to make a mistake?
Fighting for Business: Dealing with Discard
For regular Legacy players this part of the article may be a little of a duh experience but judging from what I see happen regularly it's still worth elaborating on. It astonishes me how many players use their cantrips early against tempo decks to improve the quality of their own hand because fighting discard is mainly about maximizing the protective value of your library manipulation.
The most obvious example is slow-rolling your Brainstorms. If you can answer discard effects by putting your most important cards on top of your library their hand disruption loses a lot of value. Similarly if you have a Sensei's Divining Top out and don't plan on cracking a fetchland any time soon the correct place for the best card you have access to is on top of your deck not in your hand. The classic example here actually comes up most often against combo decks: floating Force of Will. If you're playing against U/B ANT similar to Ari Lax's list drawing mediocre cards while keeping a Force of Will on top of your deck is almost always the correct play. That way Duress and Thoughtseize won't work to pull it out of your hand when the opponent tries to go off allowing you to blow them out with a flip of the Top (just take care to actually stock up on other blue cards so they can't disable FoW by stripping your hand of those). In the same vein if you're playing against Team America you can avoid having Hymn to Tourach hit all of your lands simply by not drawing them before you're ready to play them.
This is slightly more difficult in the long term if you run the blue cantrips but can still be done. In something like NBS I'd go so far as to keep a mediocre card on top with Preordain and draw that to be able to leave my important business spell on top of my library for another turn if I suspect this is the turn they're ready to Hymn me (say they didn't have BB available yet). Ponder in particular is excellent at setting up situations in which you'll draw the spell/land you need only during the turn you actually plan on playing it.
Essentially what fighting discard boils down to is patience. The longer you wait to run out your cantrips the higher the likelihood you can avoid having your best cards stripped from your hand. Cantrips make your hand better and discard makes your hand worse. The worse your hand is to begin with the lower the impact of discard-based disruption. As such you want them to hit you with discard before you've maximized the quality of your hand; that way you can repair the damage afterwards.
This fight of library manipulation against discard is a balancing act though. If you allow your hand to become too bad compared to theirs because you're afraid of getting hit with discard they won't even need the discard to beat you. The exact timing is very dependent on the actual game state and you'll only be able to master this process after actually playing these matchups a lot. When you start playing against tempo decks though most of you would do good in simply assuming you're playing your manipulation too early.
Fighting Through Tithe-effects: Dealing with Daze
I'm not going to treat Force of Will in this article simply because that works the same whatever deck you're up against and I don't want to talk about dealing with countermagic in general. Playing through and around Daze though follows very particular dynamics and is something I really think needs to be addressed when talking about beating tempo decks.
The first thing you need to do when playing against a deck that has Daze is to figure out what your plan is similar to how playing against Stifle/Wasteland works: do you blank it or play through it? You can aim to make Daze a dead card by always keeping additional mana up when playing your spells or you can play the game expecting to get something Dazed anyway. Which approach is correct depends both on the deck you're playing and the hand you've drawn.
As far as in-game decisions are concerned there isn't much to say as far as blanking Daze is concerned: just don't play anything if you can't keep up additional mana to pay for Daze. The one important interaction to be aware of here is Stifle. Don't trust that a fetchland will actually allow you to pay for Daze as long as the opponent has blue mana available. Many a player has been blown out by playing around Daze by keeping up a fetch only to have that fetch hit by Stifle when cracked in response to Daze. If you plan to play around Daze crack your fetchlands before you even cast your spells so that you know if you'll have that mana available or not.
When following this approach to deal with Daze you accept the fact that you'll grant the opponent a Time Walk from the word "go" simply because he put Daze into his deck a sacrifice that's often as bad as simply having something countered by Daze anyway. If you follow a line of play that tries to get around Daze by keeping mana up you also open yourself up to a particular blowout if the opponent happens to have drawn multiple Dazes simply because he gets the best of both worlds – you've slowed down your own development massively to get around Daze and Daze still turned into a Force of Will.
Because of these issues with blanking Daze techniques for playing through Daze are far more important to master in my opinion. Instead of trying to completely blank Daze it's usually preferable to try to minimize its impact similar to how you minimize Stifle and Wasteland.
There are a few ways to do that the easiest being to completely ignore Daze and just accept that the opponent has four additional free counterspells in his deck. While this means that you'll lose business to it a hand full of powerful spells strapped on mana will often manage to just power through Daze anyway. This also has the benefit of gaining you maximum value if the opponent simply hasn't drawn a Daze.
An extension of this technique is to play around Daze only with those spells that are actually vital. By doing this you continue to develop normally for the most part while not granting your opponent a free Time Walk in case he hasn't drawn a Daze but you also protect your high-impact spells from trading for a lowly Force Spike. This is something I do a lot in CAB Jace typically by blowing Forbids and Punishing Fires I've drawn early with no additional mana open on targets that are good enough to have value for my opponent but also aren't game-breaking if they resolve/survive. If my opponent Dazes I can now drop a Jace on four mana with a reasonable chance that they won't have another Daze. If they don't Daze I just dealt with a threat I would've had to find some way of dealing with anyway buying additional time to allow me to actually blank Daze by building up more mana.
In addition you can draw out Dazes by intentionally setting up situations where spells you don't really need can be Dazed seemingly for value. Providing your opponent with Daze bait in this way allows you to get rid of the Dazes as early as possible so that you can play unhindered afterwards.
A perfect example would be to play your turn 2 cantrip before making another land drop even though you have enough lands in hand. That way it looks as though you're digging for land making that cantrip an enticing target for countermagic while also allowing for it to be dealt with through Daze a card the opponent is often looking to find a good target for anyway because it will lose its value at some point.
Another way to lessen the impact of Daze is to carefully choose moments to expose yourself to Daze when the cost of their returning a land actually matters. If they Daze you on turn 1 after just playing their land they just turned whatever spell you played into Time Walk – pretty reasonable. If on the other hand they get to Daze on turn 2 after playing a Tarmogoyf they'll just replay their land next turn and be back on two mana – the amount they need to be fully active – and therefore was allowed to counter something at essentially no cost.
Another example because forcing them to Daze on turn 1 can be pretty difficult for a lot of decks: If you can't deal with a Natural Order yet but you're reasonably sure the opponent could cast one once he reaches four mana playing something tempting into Daze while they're at three mana (say by tapping out to Swords their Goyf at end of turn) is a reasonable way to delay that Natural Order for another turn in which you get to dig for an answer to their actual threat (the Order) or can make an additional land drop to ignore the threat of Daze hitting your answer (something that comes up again with Forbid in CAB Jace – if they NO after your fourth turn you get to Forbid while being immune to Daze. If they play it turn 3 Daze gets you).
Disruption Dealt With
As you can see there are many intricacies to playing against tempo decks in Legacy; you've just read more than 3000 words dealing only with their disruption package after all. There are many other points to take into consideration concerning these cards – Stifle in particular as it doesn't only deal with fetchlands. There are some matchups where you actively want Stifles to hit your lands simply to be rid of them as soon as possible. Playing CAB-Jace or Landstill against Canadian Threshhold for example your biggest problem is usually dealing with Nimble Mongoose. That being the case you'd much rather lose a fetchland to Stifle than have them hit an Engineered Explosives/Pernicious Deed because you have a ton of lands in the deck but only four copies of EE.
Still this gives you a rather solid overview as far as general play against the mana-denial / discard / taxing-counter package is concerned. I have the impression that much of Team America's success in the latest SCG Opens is based on the fact that many players are unfamiliar with how to play against that kind of deck – not that the deck isn't naturally powerful anyway – and I hope what I outlined today will provide some help for those struggling with the matchup. Let me know if this was too basic for you in the forums or if you actually learned something from this detailed exploration of how to deal with one of Legacy's most common disruption engines.
That's it for today; see you next time! Until then always fetch before casting a spell into Daze!
P.S. If you'd like to read about something in particular let me know in the forums. I'm writing these articles for your enjoyment after all so I need to know what you're interested in.