This week, I'll endeavor to keep you up-to-date and at the forefront of the Legacy format by exploring what's happening to Legacy as a result of Mental Misstep and looking at three key trends: the emergence of Landstill, sideboard strategies for and against Merfolk, and an examination into the resurgence of Dredge.
Landstill: What, Why, and How
While I tried to caution readers against overestimating the penetration of Mental Misstep in Legacy beyond blue decks, I hope that I was able to do so in a way that didn't minimize how powerful this card actually is when played on-color.
Consider two key lines of play that Mental Misstep enable in this deck, which fundamentally change the way a control deck can approach the Legacy format.
The first occurs on the play. With Mental Misstep, this deck can confidently play a land and pass; Mental Misstep can cover a spell played for one, and in this way, it acts as a bridge to Counterspell. The use of Spell Snare enables the Landstill deck to still counter a sequence like “Land, Mox Diamond, Hymn to Tourach” on the play without necessarily relying on Force of Will.
Once the first play is countered, Mental Misstep bridges into Spell Snare or Counterspell for the second play, or an immediate Standstill. Another option is to Repeal the next play to bridge into Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Few things are as depressing as an opponent untapping with Jace TMS and then resolving Standstill.
The other line of play is similar, but unique to Mental Misstep. Now, on the draw, the Landstill deck can cover its first turn using Misstep (to stay at card parity) or Force of Will (if the hand has no Misstep or the opponent is accelerating via Mox Diamond, Chrome Mox, or Ancient Tomb) and bridge that into Spell Snare and Counterspell. This prevents the opponent from ever establishing a board presence; one of the key ways to beat Counterbalance is to aggressively resolve threats underneath the soft lock before established, or over top of it once resolved. With this Landstill deck, Mental Misstep bridges into immediate counters and draw engines, so you can't easily deploy under this deck or ahead of it.
Crucially, the decision not to play Daze enables this deck to confidently build toward Jace TMS on turn 4, on curve, should all go according to plan. This deck uses what I suppose would be considered conditional hard counters, rather than strictly conditional counters like Daze or Spell Pierce.
While Jace hasn't run rampant over Legacy, it has seen play and will likely see much more now that control decks have a more traditional and reliable way to direct the flow of a game from turn 0. It would not surprise me at all to see Jace begin to see considerable play in Legacy, now that Misstep enables a much stronger pure control strategy.
I know many people hate to talk about tempo, but that concept—whatever it means to you, I don't want to debate it—is built into this version of Landstill. It confidently attempts to counter your offense cheaply and with minimal investment of actual cards, to build toward a draw engine. Standstill and Jace both can steal critical turns from an aggressive opponent, leading unfamiliar players right into the type of board state this deck needs in order to win. Repeal is not only a clever tool that reinforces this strategy but is also a key weapon against a resolved Aether Vial, as well as any similar type of resolved annoyance like Pithing Needle.
What isn't clear to me, outside of a lack of time investment or card availability issues, is why this deck didn't utilize some cards that allow Counterbalance/Top decks to beat theoretically “soft” matchups like Merfolk.
For example, Ensnaring Bridge is a card that I've found unbelievably useful in any Counterbalance/Top deck playing Jace—but it won't function correctly here. Unlike those Counterbalance decks, this one actually draws cards and strongly attempts to build card advantage over a long game, whereas Thopters happily dumps its hand to play off the top of the deck, living via the soft lock.
What would work, however, is Peacekeeper.
It's probably worth sideboarding a Plains and three-ish Peacekeepers to lock down the Merfolk matchup; not only does Merfolk really struggle against Peacekeeper, but other matchups struggle as well. Against Affinity, one need only resolve Peacekeeper and counter any Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas that might come up, in order to win the game. Some builds of Reanimator can't beat Peacekeeper unless they sideboard expecting you to have it. Many versions of Elves can't beat Peacekeeper in their entire 75.
Failing that, I used to utilize Propaganda against both Merfolk and Goblins (and Dredge!) when I played a Counterbalance/Painter's Servant deck; while that deck had Ancient Tomb to resolve Propaganda more quickly, this deck has a much better set of counters to keep the board clear until Propaganda resolves. Merfolk struggles to attack effectively with one in play. With two, well…
Personally, though, I would use Peacekeeper, for a number of reasons. Merfolk, with Mental Misstep, is going to be popular for some time. You don't want to lose to that deck, and Peacekeeper is a card that most builds have trouble beating.
Affinity is a deck I'd consider playing specifically because of Merfolk with Mental Misstep. MM has little value against Affinity, and pitting the two decks, I'd rather be Affinity in that matchup; and, few people are packing hate for Affinity, as the deck has receded from the limelight. As noted, Peacekeeper is also very effective against Affinity—and Affinity is probably an interesting matchup for Landstill, as it deploys threats very quickly and can push past the conditional hard counters like Misstep and Spell Snare; it's also difficult to Repeal a Frogmite or Myr Enforcer that sneaks through the counter wall.
As far as looking at decks that beat Landstill, that deck has a clock best described as glacial. Draw, Dredge, Discard is a tough strategy for Landstill to beat. Just don't bother to cast anything, and they probably can't beat you if you're playing Dredge, especially with the version as listed. Peacekeeper can make that strategy less successful, as it gives Landstill a trump in the matchup and means Landstill can win even with a glacially slow clock.
Counterbalance, Merfolk, and the Metagame
I have posted about this briefly, but to expand on some previous thoughts: please realize that not all Merfolk decks have good matchups against all Counterbalance/Top strategies. Merfolk decks, in general, are designed to attack the things that CB strategies want to do; however, as a strategy, Merfolk is incredibly soft to certain cards.
One option we've seen is Grim Lavamancer; this card is a nightmare for Elves in particular but also quite effective against Merfolk when resolved quickly. Personally, though, I would avoid RUG Counterbalance/Top; Mental Misstep is obviously disruptive to the Grim Lavamancer plan.
If you still believe that the Counterbalance soft-lock is a powerful weapon in a huge, open field like a Grand Prix, I would advise you to look at the strategies able to play EnsnaringBridge. Note that you don't need to be traditional Thopters with Enlightened Tutor to play EnsnaringBridge, although those strategies do go together well. The Tezzeret versions of CB/Top can also win through EnsnaringBridge, and Jace and Tezzeret functioning together under a Bridge can get pretty outrageous. It's also important to consider that playing planeswalkers—especially Jace TMS and Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, but also even ones like Elspeth—gives your Counterbalance deck a leg up on opposing Counterbalance strategies.
[This is as true, today, as it was in June 2009, at the first Boxborough Legacy $5K, when a Planeswalker Control deck tuned to beat Counterbalance made the Top 8.]
Playing a U/W Thopters build against Landstill is not something I would recommend doing for fun; then again, although the games take forever, usually one deck can pull ahead pretty quickly. For Thopters to be competitive, it needs to have real counters and threats it can play at instant speed. I really like using the Vendilion Clique and Karakas engine as a fallback plan in this type of deck, and splashing red for Pyroblast and Red Elemental Blast can also help not only this matchup but the Merfolk and High Tide matchup as well.
In any case, there are any number of cards one can utilize to make life hard for Merfolk, if in fact that is the deck you expect to face repeatedly and want to beat with your Counterbalance deck. One option is to move some, or all, of your copies of Counterbalance to the sideboard. Another is to remember that Mental Misstep can counter Aether Vial and that, without Vial, Counterbalance is still a live card. Pithing Needle is still a potent card against a good chunk of the format.
In light of Mental Misstep, Merfolk decks certainly have a better matchup against Zoo, but that matchup is still a battle. If I were to play Zoo, I would most definitely be packing a lot of Gaddock Teegs in my 75 (as they're highly disruptive to much of the format right now), but I'd also strongly consider playing as many as three or four Pyroblasts and Red Elemental Blasts in my sideboard. Remember, you only have four Mental Missteps, and as good as they are, if your opponent has four instant-speed Vindicates for one red mana, you're still in a hole.
If I were going to play Merfolk, I would probably still be splashing a color, probably white or black. Black gives you Perish and Nature's Ruin, as well as potentially critical spot removal to get rid of Llawan, Cephalid Empress or Peacekeeper. White gives you removal options as well and also allows you to expand your removal options into artifact and enchantment removal, should you want to do so.
Of course, you can also stay in blue for those effects and rely on cards like Echoing Truth, Wipe Away, Submerge, Repeal, and Sower of Temptation. Regardless of what you choose, remember that Merfolk isn't a real control deck, and real control decks may be able to resolve things that you can't beat. Having outs is important.
You should specifically be aware that many people are attacking the Merfolk matchup with an approach of “resolve Llawan, protect Llawan,” so your sideboard should be developed with that concept in mind.
What's the Deal with Dredge?
Seriously, does anyone know? I was pretty sure that deck was catastrophically and categorically bad in this format.
Well, that's not really true. This is one time my overemphasis for dramatic effect came back to haunt me.
I significantly underestimated the extent to which people—myself included—were willing to pretend Dredge was not a deck and similarly underestimated how many people would take the opportunity to play combo when other popular writers and metagame trends all had Counterbalance left out on the curb.
Further, the type of combo that people chose to play—specifically things like Painted Stone and High Tide—operate at a speed that's often slower than Dredge. Even ANT is only slightly faster than Dredge and is perhaps slower when compared to Dredge with Lion's Eye Diamond.
When you combine these factors—less combo than expected, slower combo than expected—with a wide-open field populated heavily by Aether Vials, Dark Confidants, and the like, the result is a field that is more predisposed to beating traditional Ritual combo (if we consider High Tide a blue ritual) at the expense of a weakness to graveyard strategies.
Additionally, decks that set out to use Wasteland and Stifle to blow out your lands and then bash you with Tarmogoyf dried up; while a lot of dredges will deny it, those decks often had a pretty reasonable matchup against Dredge. Daze your first-turn enabler, Force your Breakthrough, Stifle your Coliseum, Wasteland you. Have any more lands? No? You lose because I can race your slow-dredging.
During 2010, it was actively profitable to carry graveyard hate, so things often didn't improve in game two or three; generally, they got worse because if you lost game one, you probably brought in reactive and/or preventive measures for game two, just in case.
That's no longer the case. Not only has that entire Stifle/Wasteland/Beaters strategy receded, but the concept of even bringing graveyard hate to the battle has disappeared. Dredge may be unlikely to win the war, but it's winning an awful lot of battles. The recent win percentages it's posting in the Legacy Opens are probably its all-time high since these things were tracked; the days of sub-40% are long gone.
Recently, a number of people have advocated not even bothering to play answer cards in Legacy Dredge, and by and large, I think they're correct. You definitely need to have some kind of plan post-board, mind you. Don't just shove fifteen Forests in there. Whether you want to race combo with Winds of Change, fight combo (and hate) using Leyline of Sanctity, or beef up your resistance with Unmask, you should be able to do something post-board that changes your matchup against combo.
Outside of that, all you need is some generic outs to cards that incidentally disrupt you, like the aforementioned EnsnaringBridge or Peacekeeper.
Look, people are still playing two Tormod's Crypts. Why bother? You don't need to bring in eight cards to beat two Tormod's Crypts. If people are playing a deck that has a bad matchup against Dredge, they really need to purposefully strategize against it or accept that they're likely to lose to it. And, as a Dredge player, you have to get comfortable with hands where you're literally going to do nothing but draw, discard, and dredge for the entire game.
I don't think that Dredge decks have really gotten that much better, although a few pieces of technology and strategy have improved; rather, the metagame has dramatically shifted to be favorable to Dredge. When Reanimator was a boogeyman terrorizing the format through word more than deed, people dramatically increased their graveyard hate. Did Reanimator do well in some events for a period of time? Sure. Dredge has put up a few months of consistent results as well. The differences are that Dredge hasn't actually won yet, and players that you recognize haven't put up results with it.
I'm not joking about that latter piece, which actually, really matters.
If Drew Levin swam up to the next SCG Legacy Open, made top 4 in the tournament, leveled up to “Aquaman Jr.” or whatever and proclaimed that GT's new Dredge deck the “stone-blade” or “nut high” or “Excaliber!” or whatever the kids proclaim these days, this would significantly change the mindset on Dredge. I truly believe it would. I believe that it would have a two-fold effect in that first, more people would view the deck as legitimate and pilot it for a period of time, and second, people would knee-jerk against it and start packing hate—as an overreaction but also as a legitimate reaction to an infusion of Dredge into the format.
In the meantime, Dredge is sitting in this really sweet spot. Other decks are worried about beating blue decks, not Dredge. Reanimator is a fringe deck (at least as of this writing), and Survival is a moldy corpse—so much so that I've been told on the Source that 2010 was “nonexistent,” as if it were a bad LSD trip we all shared, and now we've had DCI-prescribed Methadone and twelve-step programs and can get back to really living. And this new, better version of life gives very little incentive to worry about the graveyard. Graveyard hate overlaps to some extent against Ill-Gotten Gains combo, but by and large, it isn't remotely necessary to survive in this format, outside of the occasional pairing against Dredge.
And, blue decks think they can beat Dredge by just adding a new counterspell, pretending that Dredge can't literally beat that plan by just never playing a land and never using the printed top-right-hand cost of any of its cards.
It isn't that Dredge has gotten better, folks; it's that all of you have allowed this to happen.
Welcome to Zombieland…
Reviewing the Results of Mental Misstep Aggro and Mental Misstep Goblins to Date