A few days before the Baltimore Legacy Open, I got a phone call at 2 am.
“Sup fish? So, we're not going to play U/W Control anymore.”
“We aren't? This sounds… I dunno—wrong. Why?”
“Because red is awesome, and white sucks.”
“Okay, I'll bite. Why?”
“Well, all the red cards do what all the white cards do, but better, and you get to play a real sideboard on top of all of that.”
“Sign me up.”
Of course, Gerry and Ben Hayes decided to go to the aquarium that Sunday, so I had to drive to Baltimore by myself. And by “the aquarium,” I mean “my kitchen and eat pancakes for hours.” Just to show them how upset I was, I decided not to play the U/R control deck that Gerry and I had talked about, instead playing U/W to a mediocre finish. I sure showed him, though.
For Cincinnati, I knew I wanted to play U/R, but it was for a very different set of reasons than the ones that Gerry used to sell me on the original idea. The deck:
Blood Moon is a card that is only playable in very specific metagames. For it to be worth playing in Legacy, it has to more-or-less win you the game by itself. If your opponent can still cast spells and gain value from the cards in their hand through a resolved Blood Moon, you messed up somewhere. Maybe you shouldn't have had it in your deck, or maybe you shouldn't have cast it. Whatever the case may be, Blood Moon's power comes from its ability to shut off entire strategic lines of play. If it's not doing that, don't play it.
I wanted to play Blood Moon in Cincinnati for a number of reasons. For starters, I knew my decklist would start with playsets of Mental Misstep, Ancestral Vision, Brainstorm, Force of Will, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I've been called many things over my consistent desire to play a blue control deck in Legacy, but “dumb” isn't one of them. These twenty cards are all very powerful, very versatile, impossible to hate out, and lend themselves to many different strategic approaches. I will likely deviate from this “key” in the future, but I gave myself a challenge for Cincinnati—build a blue deck that can beat Merfolk, U/W, Hive Mind, and Life from the Loam.
The reason I turned to Blood Moon to attack those decks is that I wanted to have the most controlling control deck possible. I wanted to play a completely creatureless maindeck (remember, no Mishra's Factory!) so that people would absolutely board out their removal, making my Vendilion Cliques and Sower of Temptation that much better. I cut colorless land from my deck so that I could hit Counterspell mana on turn two more consistently, giving me control over the game very early. I wanted to protect my Jaces better than any other deck, so I played five Wastelands (well, one costs three mana to activate) and Blood Moon to stop Factories in the mirror. I didn't play Crucible of Worlds because Blood Moon is the best three-mana Wasteland-recursion card in Legacy, and I wasn't interested in spending three mana and a card to buy back fetchlands.
My removal suite was built for the pseudo-mirror while retaining all of its utility against Merfolk and most of its utility against Zoo. Having Lightning Bolt over Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile certainly gives up percentage against Knight of the Reliquary and Tarmogoyf, but killing Jace is absolutely incredible. When I was playing U/W, I would get into situations in the mirror where I had peeled approximately one billion cards, but none of them did anything. My hand would be Swords, Swords, Swords, Wrath, Jace, land, land, and then they would counter my Jace, and I'd lose. Or they'd Misstep my Brainstorm, and I'd want to jump off of a cliff.
In addition, playing a straight U/R deck let me play a bunch of Red Elemental Blasts without getting into horrific situations where I have tenuous mana, get my Volcanic Island Wastelanded, and die with a bunch of sweet uncastables in hand. In case you've been living under a rock, Red Elemental Blast is good. Like, really, really good. So good, in fact, that Alex Bertoncini stopped playing Merfolk. How are the two related at all? He laid it out for me on Saturday night:
Mental Misstep was printed, right? It slowed the format down. Because the format was slower, people could play more Jaces. Because people were playing more Jaces, people wanted to answer Jace, and the most efficient answer is REB [Red Elemental Blast]. If you're going to play REB in your blue-white deck, you might as well play some Lavamancers, right? So now people have Lavamancer and REB, so Merfolk is awful.
I couldn't have said it better myself. But that's just a perspective what REB does to Merfolk—it's also a control player's best card against Hive Mind and a very good card in the mirror. Given all of these upgrades, what does U/W have going for it that U/R can't do better?
As I said before, U/W has better game against green decks because all of its removal is unconditional. It gets to play Elspeth, Knight-Errant and Stoneforge Mystic if it wants to. It is very favored against Dredge, whereas U/R can never ever beat Dredge. It can beat a resolved Natural Order.
On the other hand, U/R has Submerge, more countermagic, removal that misses Knight of the Reliquary but hits Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and the ability to beat Life from the Loam. Submerge is the best shot that U/R has at answering a big green creature, and it's actually useful a lot of the time as a way to turn the deck's heavier countermagic package back on. Without Submerge, I don't think the U/R version of the deck is playable, since your vulnerability to a 4/5 or a 6/6 will catch up to you sooner or later.
Where the deck loses play against midrange green decks, however, it gains a lot against more controlling green decks. A huge part of this deck's inspiration for creation came from Life from the Loam's recent success at the Baltimore Open. After all, Grove of the Burnwillows is not a card that U/W has a lot of answers to, and I didn't want to play control if I couldn't beat Punishing Fire in a long game.
Grove of the Burnwillows + Punishing Fire is a fantastic way to contain Jace, the Mind Sculptor in red/green decks. It's a control-killer and board-stabilizer all in one, and both parts synergize with Life from the Loam. Every relevant spell in the deck dodges Mental Misstep. Given that graveyard hate has been at an all-time low in Legacy, recursion has been a very strong way to beat up control decks. The U/W deck specifically has no real answer to Life from the Loam unless you have something like Nick Spagnolo's Surgical Extractions or AJ Sacher's Relics of Progenitus.
A few weeks ago, I argued that U/W didn't need graveyard hate and that it was capable of containing graveyard strategies through other, incidental applications. I specifically mentioned Path to Exile against Dredge, as that was the premier graveyard strategy in Legacy at the time that I wrote that article. Since then, Life from the Loam has taken off in popularity and playability. Without a way to answer the inevitability of Life from the Loam, Wasteland, Grove of the Burnwillows, and Punishing Fire, U/W Control decks will have a hard time beating Life from the Loam.
It is through this line of thought that I came to Blood Moon. Blood Moon shuts off Grove of the Burnwillows and Mishra's Factory; it attacks three-color green decks in a way that they're not prepared to answer right now, and it stops Merfolk from gaining tempo with Wasteland + Aether Vial and from having greater threat density with Mutavaults. People have been playing Ancient Grudge over Krosan Grip right now, so powerful enchantments are relatively safe for the time being. Additionally, U/W players have been playing specialty lands like Karakas instead of playing more basics. Blood Moon punishes those ambitious players who try to extract every ounce of value from their mana bases.
Since I would have to play a ton of basic Islands to make Blood Moon work, I realized that I could play Vedalken Shackles as another win condition and as another “removal spell.” If players brought in their Ancient Grudges, so be it—they wouldn't ever be able to flash them back, since I don't have a Crucible anywhere. Even better, I could play Firespout to play the complement to Vedalken Shackles—a newer, cheaper take on the old Icy Manipulator + Wrath of God control setup. Firespout kills pretty much everything except for the three big green creatures (Tarmogoyf, Knight, and Progenitus) while not getting shut off by Zoo's Gaddock Teegs.
Once I had Firespout, I realized that I would want to “kick” it sometimes to kill a Vendilion Clique or a Trygon Predator or a Kira, Great Glass-Spinner. From there, I realized that a basic Forest was a pretty small opportunity cost and brought with it the ability to full-value my Firespouts, flashback an Ancient Grudge, and play Life from the Loam against black disruption decks and the mirror. I ended up adding an Engineered Explosives as well, since I wanted to sideboard a third Firespout, but the first Engineered Explosives just seemed better than the third Firespout. In retrospect, all Engineered Explosives might just be better than any Firespouts, since the third color means that I could answer Knight of the Reliquary with a real removal spell, albeit very inefficiently.
I wanted a basic Forest instead of a Tropical Island because I didn't want Blood Moon to shut off my access to green. After all, the basic Forest gave me six non-blue sources, still much more blue than any other control deck I would have played. The basic Mountain comes with a similar rationale, although I would have gone for it first against Merfolk, since getting Wastelanded off of your removal spell's color is the worst feeling in the world. It's very likely that my fetchland split was wrong and that I should have played 4 Misty Rainforest, 3 Scalding Tarn, and 1 Wooded Foothills. Having only four lands that could get me either non-Island basic was a risky decision, and I don't condone it going forward. Wooded Foothills would have had five targets in my deck, so its inclusion would've been fine.
Finally, it's important to understand the role that the four Faeries in the sideboard have on the game. Since this deck is completely creatureless in game one, it's almost impossible to justify keeping removal in for games two and three.
As a result, Vendilion Clique and Sower of Temptation become amazing threats and buy a ton of time that the deck can leverage to win with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Vendilion Clique is a fine game one card, but it dies far too often for my taste. As slow as the Legacy format currently is, it slows down even more in sideboard games, and every aspect of Vendilion Clique gets better. Having a flier is better in a lower-removal game, having flash is better in a game where mana is getting used up less, and “Thoughtseizing” them is better in a game where they're going to have a more streamlined, more committed line of attack. Because Vendilion Clique is so good in sideboard games, I feel that it's worth building a maindeck that maximizes its strengths as a sideboard card. As a result, I have routinely not been playing creatures in my starting 60 so that my Cliques are even better.
This weekend, I took that a step further with Sower of Temptation, since having a likely-unkillable Control Magic that attacks for two is a great place to be against a green deck with no removal. In the coming weeks, I could definitely see Sower making appearances in blue control sideboards.
My tournament results didn't bear out the strong position of the deck, though. I lost a first-round feature match due to a borderline keep in game two and the following situation game three:
Your hand is a Vendilion Clique, Sower of Temptation, Spell Snare, and lands. Your opponent is playing Stoneforge Mystic in a New Horizons deck. You've seen Stifle, Tarmogoyf, Mystic into Batterskull, Daze, and Knight of the Reliquary out of him. You beat him with Blood Moon game one, and he beat you with Mystic, Batterskull, and Goyf game two.
He was on the draw and double mulliganed, so he has four cards in hand after his fourth-turn draw step. He has no board presence and a mana base of Forest, Tundra, and Tropical Island. We didn't Clique him last turn because we had Counterspell for his Knight and didn't want to lose to Force of Will plus Daze, since our hand seems pretty golden if we can just get to a late game. We Clique him this turn. He Brainstorms in response, then lets Clique resolve. We target him; he Stifles the trigger and plays Misty Rainforest, Tarmogoyf; pass with one card in hand.
We draw Blood Moon. What's our play?
Him: 19 life, 1 card in hand.
Board: 4/5 Tarmogoyf
You: 18 life.
Board: Vendilion Clique
So the clear tension here is between Blood Mooning him with Spell Snare backup or Sowering his Goyf. He probably didn't keep Daze in on the draw, but we definitely need to have our Sower stick if we're going to win this game. There's no reason for him to have any removal in his deck, as we don't have Factories and didn't show him Clique in game two, so we aren't going to get Plowed here.
If we Moon him, we have Spell Snare mana for Stoneforge Mystic or Tarmogoyf. He has to have either basic Plains + Knight of the Reliquary or Krosan Grip to punish our Blood Moon. Since we didn't show him any artifacts or enchantments besides Moon, it's unlikely that he has Grips in. Either way, we're still in a fine spot because we cast a Daze-proof Sower next turn and take his best creature.
My other loss came to a U/G Natural Order/Show and Tell hybrid. Going into the tournament, I knew that I was building my deck in such a way as to be completely dead to a resolved Natural Order for Progenitus. I decided to compensate by running 3 Counterspell, 4 Force of Will, 3 sideboard Vendilion Clique, and a host of answers to various Natural Order fodder animals.
Game one, I got Natural Ordered with Force backup. Game two, he ends up being on the Show and Tell plan, so I get to Clique away his Progenitus in response to his Show and Tell, leaving him with a very powerful Misty Rainforest to pass around at recess. Game three, of course, is where the real heartbreaker happens.
He's on the play, and it's turn five. He fetched Dryad Arbor at the end of turn three, giving him his only green creature. I Submerged it on his turn-four draw step, following which he played a Tropical Island and passed. His board at the end of my turn four was Tropical Island, Forest, Island. My hand by turn four, for reference, was Jace, Force of Will, Submerge, Brainstorm, Island, Scalding Tarn. I had Volcanic Island, Volcanic Island, Island, Scalding Tarn in play. I didn't play Jace because he Dazed me game one. I saw Spell Pierce in his hand game two, and he absolutely has one or both of them if he's not Pondering or Brainstorming or Show and Telling or doing anything else on turn three.
He takes his turn, plays Boseiju, Who Shelters All, and passes. I Brainstorm, shuffle, Jace Brainstorm, and miss on Blood Moon or Wasteland. He has Dryad Arbor into Natural Order, and that's my tournament.
Although I wish that my tournament had gone differently, I feel like my deckbuilding process was coherent and that my approach to the metagame was fundamentally sound. Could I have played U/W Control and killed people with Elspeth and Jace? Sure. Did I have fun winning two games with Blood Moon? Damn right I did. Will I be changing it up for the next Legacy tournament I attend? Almost certainly. Who knows, maybe I'll even end up attacking for two…