As AJ Sacher once said in an article title “Things have happened and I am responding to them.”
There's been a lot of chatter about Time Spiral and whether or not the decision to return it to Legacy play was a mistake. Most of this conversation is being held because of the Hatfields Alix and Jesse who have put together two wins and a top four over the past five StarCityGames.com Legacy Opens playing Time Spiral-fueled High Tide combo.
This is an impressive feat for sure.
High Tide (or Spiral Tide) is rather unlike other Legacy combo decks in that it is mono-colored and therefore quite resistant to mana disruption; the deck is essentially immune to Wasteland. In theory it is also more resistant to hand disruption being that it can begin to go off with simply two cards – High Tide and Time Spiral – where most Legacy combo decks using the storm mechanic need many cards the turn they try to win. To find those cards it's packed with cantrips (Brainstorm Ponder Preordain) and tutors (Merchant Scroll). Even better High Tide also plays Force of Will so it has built-in resistance to both hate cards and counterspells. Cunning Wish gives it outs to almost any type of obstacle.
We know that High Tide is going to be extremely limited in terms of field penetration due the cost and scarcity of Candelabra of Tawnos; in addition I'd suggest that it also has a relatively high minimum skill threshold.
As it turns out the two folks who have won Opens with the deck are actually sort of you know exceptionally good at Legacy. Going back to the start of these tournaments and including the 5K and Opens together Alix has made the top eight five times dating back to June 2009 with four top sixteens as well. He also won an SCG Open (or I suppose more accurately a 5K at that time) in September 2009 playing Zoo. Jesse is no slouch himself with four top eights with four different decks.
What about the actual wins?
In Edison Alix took out Eli Kassis who is himself no slouch at Magical cards. Eli drew pretty heavy disruption to take game one and game three was similar coming down to a pretty famous Ponder/shuffle/win sequence by Alix. I'm not one to get caught up in the “what a topdeck!” concept since that's a great reason to play combo decks in the first place and a great reason not to play Junk (but that's another conversation for another time). Before the match Eli seemed to suggest it was a bad matchup for him and with almost no relevant sideboard cards I'd be inclined to agree.
In Atlanta we didn't get to watch Jesse's top four match but it seems like he was en route to losing game two if not for a missed Summoner's Pact by his opponent – although paying for that Pact would've altered the outcome of the game as well. What I'm more interested in is the finals match.
I tend to believe that Dredge is favored against High Tide given stock versions of both decks regardless of whether the Dredge deck includes Lion's Eye Diamond. That said I think the LED version may actually be less likely to win against High Tide in due to more vulnerability to Force of Will which is ironic in that normally LED Dredge has a better combo matchup due to the speed boost the card offers.
This is exactly what happened in game one of the finals. David mulled to six his LED got hit with Force of Will and he was reduced to playing Cabal Therapy on himself and then slow-dredging which isn't going to beat most combo decks even a slower one like High Tide.
In game two Jesse got stomped.
The last game of the match was pretty interesting. David rapidly dredged through his deck and prepared to unload Cabal Therapies at Jesse who responded by using Meditate. David named Force of Will despite having really no cards at that time that would be relevant if countered. On his extra turn (from the Meditate) David dredged some more and then some more again by using Deep Analysis out of the yard something that could have been countered with Force of Will I suppose had David not taken it with Cabal Therapy. The last two Cabal Therapies stole Brainstorm from Jesse's hand then Echoing Truth to protect the Zombie army leaving Jesse with a Time Spiral a Brainstorm and a Turnabout with access to four mana.
Was leaving the Brainstorm and taking the Time Spiral a better line of play? Jesse wasn't getting much going unless he had both Time Spiral and High Tide and would need both in his top four cards. The other danger is Cunning Wish into Brain Freeze but Jesse had only four lands available so that's not as much of a concern.
With Brainstorm but no High Tide his topdeck and then Brainstorm would have to yield High Tide and Time Spiral but Jesse is getting another turn no matter what due to Turnabout. This fact actually makes me wonder if taking Echoing Truth is even correct; if David leads with Cabal Therapy on Force of Will then takes Time Spiral and Brainstorm Jesse gets another turn via Echoing Truth then another via Turnabout so that's dangerous to some extent. Taking Force of Will Time Spiral and Turnabout still results in two turns for Jesse but he's stripped of most of his combo pieces. Echoing Truth is annoying but even David's two measly Ichorids almost immediately threaten lethal again by leaving behind six or eight 2/2 Zombie tokens. Did David sideboard out all of his Dread Return targets (as even Angel of Despair on Island wins the game) or was Jesse even more fortunate in that David Dredged almost his entire deck and whiffed?
And people say playing Dredge is easy!
So two Legacy masters with an impressive resume one topdeck for the win and one unlikely sequence of dredges (or questionable sideboarding) compounded by a possibly suboptimal use of Cabal Therapy into another topdeck for the win.
Two masters both barely squeaking through the finals of two in five tournaments one against a theoretically good matchup and another against a theoretically bad matchup. And that makes this the best deck in Legacy?
“Two Opens in the last month were easily taken down by theTime Spiralmenace and I warn everyone that it will only get worse.” –Shaheen Soorani
I think I have a different definition of the term “easily.”
Do you realize how many words there can be changed around and still leave us with an accurate statement? That sentence is a freaking mad lib.
You get the idea.
What makes Legacy somewhat confounding right now is that it is incredibly broad. It doesn't shock me at all to see the winning decks pinball between strategies and archetypes from Open to Open. It isn't all that hard to beat Dredge Enchantress High Tide Affinity Elves or Merfolk if you want but finding a deck and sideboard that can compete against all of those things? That is a challenge.
Even more problematic is the fact that some good decks like Imperial Painter Aluren and now High Tide only ever make up a small minority of the field making it self-defeating to come overly prepared for those decks. It's awkward to overload on hate for a deck you might not see until the finals if carrying that hate will prevent you from getting to the finals in the first place.
This is why people aren't playing graveyard hate and why people aren't packing Null Rods or Kataki War's Wage and why you don't need to really fear Meddling Mage or Peacekeeper. The format is full of linear decks with plenty of weaknesses but sideboard space in a broad format is so tight that actually packing those laser-focused cards becomes difficult.
As an example I got some games in against Aluren last weekend and that deck is pretty freaking good but sees almost no play in paper Legacy. I think most decks could easily be tuned to beat Aluren but why would you bother?
Thankfully High Tide is at least a combo deck. While it has Force of Will and Cunning Wish for all kinds of things to beat hate bears and the like having to expend that time and energy can buy you the fundamental turn you need to win. It's not like Affinity is messing around these days; that deck still wins pretty damn fast. Plus those anti-Storm cards – things like Ethersworn Canonist for example – at least have value in other matchups and are annoying for High Tide.
Really though we have to take things a step further. If High Tide Elves Painter ANT Belcher and similar decks are doing well do you want to be playing Mother of Runes? Is Natural Order into Progenitus where you want to be? Does anyone fear Mountain Goblin Lackey? Does Wild Nacatl cut it?
Some of these decks can stay competitive by simply changing up their sideboard configuration to stop worrying about decks that aren't in the metagame anymore and focusing on the ones that are.
Let's go a step further though.
Does your Merfolk deck want Standstill or access to Perish? To go along with Ethersworn Canonist does your Affinity deck want Thoughtseize against a combo deck that can topdeck effectively or Mindbreak Trap? Does your Counterbalance deck want Firespout and Grim Lavamancer or does it want Dark Confidant and/or Standstill? Does it want Rhox War Monk and Natural Order or does it want access to Meddling Mage and Enlightened Tutor to make sure Counterbalance hits Cunning Wish? If you're playing Natural Order which is better against High Tide Terastodon or Progenitus? Does your Dredge deck want access to Firestorm or Unmask? Should your Zoo deck have Gaddock Teeg main with more support in the sideboard and how many Pyroblasts is enough knowing that High Tide (and ANT which gets rid of Teeg using only blue cards) is popular?
Both Dredge and Elves had a fantastic shot of winning the Atlanta Open in terms of matchup strength and I mean no offense to anyone when I say that Jesse outplayed his opponents in the top eight and probably earned that topdeck in the finals by playing to his outs against a Dredge deck not particularly suited to winning that matchup (and I say that while admitting that a single Ravenous Trap in Jesse's sideboard might skew things the other way in a hurry).
My point here is this: Legacy is an insanely broad format with a card pool littered with broken interactions. More are going to break as time goes on. There are going to be times when you need a paradigm shift in order to be successful when you need to own up to the fact that your entire strategy is not positioned correctly in the format and a completely new one is required to sustain positive results. Counterbalance's push out of the format is a result of such a paradigm shift. Combo's re-entry into the format is another. As long as these shifts continue to happen the format is fine and the existing card pool is fine.
What this means for you is that saying “I'll just add two Ethersworn Canonists to my sideboard!” is not going to be enough when the fundamental rules of matchups in the format shift around. As much as it is difficult to do at times because of cost issues when Legacy is working the way a healthy format should you're going to get pushed off of decks completely from time to time and will probably be able to return to those decks (or some facsimile thereof) at a later time when things have shifted around again.
Too Much Yapping Not Enough Decks?
Message received. Here are some decks.
Remember that local tournament where I lost in the top eight with Elves? The deck won is a ridiculously sweet deck named “U/B SuperStax” which was played (and as far as I know designed) by Robert Cuellari. His build had some design choices that I couldn't wrap my brain around when I was testing. I spent some time trying to work his shell into something I'd actually want to play mostly tweaking the mana base to add consistency. If you've been aching to play a Chalice of the Void / Trinisphere deck now that combo decks have taken off take a look at this thing. It's still rough but it might get your creative juices going.
WARNING: Be advised that this deck costs roughly one million billion zillion dollars so avert your eyes if that kind of thing makes you rant on internet forums:
So what is this deck doing?
Like most Chalice / 3Sphere decks it's making life really annoying for decks that are full of things that cost one and two mana. It has a lot of acceleration in the form of Mox Diamond City of Traitors Ancient Tomb and Grim Monolith. It also has absurd draw engines in the form of quad Jace TMS and quad Tezz 2.0. Tezz in particular is ridiculous here. You haven't lived until you've played a turn 1 Trinisphere and then a second-turn Tezzeret turning Trinisphere into a 5/5.
The Abyss Smokestack Maze of Ith The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale and Jace TMS help take care of pesky creatures but for people still playing tribal decks Engineered Plague and Explosives in the board can help take care of those matchups. Cursed Totem turns off Qasali Pridemage and Arcane Lab gives you another way to stick it to combo decks in case you don't have enough already.
I love so many things about this deck and what it's trying to do. Robert's original build had four Maze of Iths with two Tabernacles in the main so he was really hating on creatures; I removed those mostly for mana including the Monoliths which give the deck another way to hit three mana on turn 1 for Trinisphere.
If you want to play a control deck I really think Dreadstill is a good call and the version from my Legacy Cookbook is still quite potent in this metagame. Wastelands Stifle Standstill Force of Will and Counterbalance/Top plus a potentially fast clock and Dark Confidant make this deck a formidable opponent for any combo deck and the fact that Rich Shay's most recent builds use both black and white means your sideboard options for pulverizing both combo and creature strategies are only limited by your imagination.
I also think Thopters is underrepresented. Yes it seems to stall out at the top sixteen but not many people are playing it and certainly only a few top tier players are still on the strategy at all. I've tested pretty well with a basic no-frills build that looks like this:
Meddling Mage is a creature I love right now and may be better than Peacekeeper unless Merfolk is still really popular in your area. Another option is to utilize the red splash for Pyroblasts a great option against High Tide and Merfolk. In the sideboard I listed I think Blood Moon might not be impactful enough right now to stay whereas additional graveyard hate or the previously mentioned Pyroblasts or Meddling Mage might be a better choice.
While this test build still plays red another approach would be to change out Volcanic Island for Underground Sea to give access to Engineered Plague in the sideboard. Blood Moon is easily and effectively replaced by Back to Basics. Black also lets you play Dark Confidant if control mirrors become an issue.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
It's been a while since I touched on Vintage at all so I want to do so briefly here.
The April Blue Bell Vintage event ended up falling on a day where I had plans that I could not change which required me to be in the city of Philadelphia at 7 pm. That meant that I could go to the tournament but would need to leave around the time the Swiss rounds ended. Because I won the Player of the Year in the tournament series for 2010 I'm playing Vintage for free this year so I figured I might as well still go hang out and play Vintage which is always fun.
Conceptually though what do you do when you know you're going to leave at a time where making Top 8 is probably the maximum outcome?
Simple: you play this Hermit Druid deck!
- 1 Black Lotus
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Bridge from Below
- 1 Dragon Breath
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 1 Brainstorm
- 1 Echoing Truth
- 4 Force of Will
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 3 Cabal Therapy
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Dread Return
- 4 Green Sun's Zenith
- 1 Ponder
- 3 Preordain
- 3 Thoughtseize
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Tinker
In a lot of ways Hermit Druid decks are the Vintage equivalent of Cephalid Breakfast in Legacy in that they're both neat and powerful graveyard combo strategies eclipsed in modern times by Dredge. The Hermit Druid deck functions as follows.
First you play Hermit Druid. This is pretty easy to do on turn 1 in Vintage and in fact it has become easier now that one has access to Green Sun's Zenith. GSZ is better than something like Worldly Tutor in that it doesn't put you down in cards so that you're able to wield Thoughtseize Force of Will and Cabal Therapy to clear the way for either Hermit Druid or GSZ for Hermit Druid to resolve.
Once Hermit Druid is in play you activate it and as the deck has no basic lands your whole deck goes to your graveyard. This build has Blightsteel Colossus as a backup plan so that will shuffle back into your deck. You'll get some Narcomoeba triggers and return those to play and hopefully the one Bridge from Below will be in your graveyard as well as some Cabal Therapies. The Therapies clear the way of opposing counters or removal/bounce effects as well as putting any combo pieces you have into the graveyard. Bridge from Below makes sure you stay at three creatures required for Dread Return. You then play Dread Return targeting Sutured Ghoul. The Ghoul eats the Lord of Extinction who is enormously large and the Ghoul also picks up Dragon's Breath giving you a giant haste trample Ghoul that wins the game.
This isn't the only combo kill; another is to just steal the Breakfast combo of Dread Return into Karmic Guide into Kiki-Jiki and Pestermite/Sky Hussar. I prefer the Lord of Extinction plan however as I have actually resolved the Lord and even have used GSZ to get it into play. That card is actually really huge at almost all times in Vintage.
To side-step anti-graveyard cards and to have a shot at beating Workshops in games two and three the deck has a transformational sideboard into an Oath deck. To do this you sideboard out the Hermit Druid engine: four Green Sun's Zeniths four Hermit Druids three Narcomoebas Dread Return Sutured Ghoul Lord of Extinction and Bridge from Below. You bring in all fifteen sideboard cards. If your opponent has minimal graveyard hate you can also stay in the Hermit Druid configuration and bring in some Pithing Needles and Nature's Claims to attack their hate cards.
Is this deck better than Dredge? I don't really think so. It's certainly powerful though with a really high rate of turn 2 and turn 3 wins before sideboarding. There are also a lot of other directions to take this strategy such as transforming into a Time Vault deck or using Trygon Predators to attack graveyard hate. Being a graveyard deck that uses mana instead of Bazaar of Baghdad really opens up your sideboard games to things Dredge decks can't do.
I'll end this week with four random thoughts that aren't really random at all.
First AJ Sacher's articles have been fantastic lately. If anything he'd done in the past turned you away from his stuff go read his last five or six pieces and I think you'll change your mind.
Second Guillotine and Zombie Dice are two cheap and fun non-MTG games to play in-between rounds at PTQs or even before you settle into a session of Ascension.
Third Gavin Verhey isn't getting enough kudos for his fantastic work on SCG Live.
Fourth if you have the right people in your “social network” on Facebook getting article ideas is as easy as posing a complex question you know will result in debate. Try it the next time you have writer's block.