This weekend I placed third in the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Charlotte. While I used my standard Wolf Run Ramp Pod deck in the top eight, my Legacy deck did much of the heavy lifting in getting me there, putting up a 5-1-1 record in the Swiss.
When my friends would ask me what I was playing, my short answer would be “Mono-Black Control,” but that was a little misleading. Pox is indeed mono-black, and it's a slow, noncombo strategy, but it's nothing like the control decks we've become used to in recent years. Those use defensive cards to survive the early game and card drawing spells or powerful finishers to bury the opponent in the late game. Pox plays nothing like that.
The Strategy: Resource Denial
Pox is a resource denial deck. Largely because of the changing trends in card design, dedicated resource denial decks haven't existed in Standard or Extended for many years. They tend to have extremely simple win conditions and try to starve out opposing decks—which may be much more complex or greedy—and stop them from even executing their game plans in the first place.
Dedicated discard decks can be weak to opposing topdecks. Dedicated land destruction decks can lack defense. However, Pox—both the deck and the card—is the epitome of the resource denial strategy because it attacks all resources at once. The opponent can never count their cards as safe, whether they're in their hand or in play. There's no simple way to beat Pox because it applies pressure from all sides at once.
The Pox player's goal is to bring the game to a “topdeck” situation. Many players will be uncomfortable with that. After all, why play a deck that can still lose to a lucky opponent even after you manage to execute its game plan? The thing to understand is that Pox is built to have a big advantage in such a situation. It has easy mana requirements, cheap win conditions, and is constructed in a way to dead many of the opponent's draws.
Nullifying the Opponent's Topdecks
Take a run-of-the-mill Legacy deck: a three-color midrange deck with creatures, removal, and counterspells. If the Pox player is able to successfully empty both players' hands, what happens next? The opponent can draw a land—no threat; a removal spell—nothing to use it on yet; a counterspell—nothing to use it on yet; or a creature. Pox is well equipped to handle topdecked creatures. Liliana of the Veil and Cursed Scroll are both permanents that protect against creatures coming off the top. Beyond those, my suggested decklist has nine removal spells with plenty more on the sideboard.
A common criticism of Pox is that it can't make good use of discard spells once both players are playing off the top. However, the overabundance of discard spells makes it easy to change “nothing to use it on yet” (recall removal and permission) into “dead card.” Sure, Swords to Plowshares can technically kill a Mishra's Factory or a Nether Spirit, but it never does in practice. Pox's creatures can sit like turtles in the comfort and safety of their shells until the opponent has no hand and then come alive to finish the job. It's perfectly reasonable to “forget” to bring back your Nether Spirit until the coast is clear for him.
The example above even makes the pessimistic assumption that the opponent will have enough lands to cast anything they draw. Such is rarely the case! Between Wasteland, Sinkhole, Smallpox, Pox, hand destruction, and the low land counts of most Legacy decks, mana screwing the opponent is easy. Knight of the Reliquary might be a powerful topdeck, but if they don't have the mana to cast her right away, she's a sitting duck for an Inquisition of Kozilek or even a Liliana +1!
Pox does not win in impressive fashion. It cripples the opponent and watches as Nether Spirits and Mishra's Factories peck away at them like vultures at a dying animal. From other formats, we're used to big, flashy win conditions like Grave Titan and Cruel Ultimatum, but those wouldn't be appropriate for Pox. The deck needs to be able to function on minimal resources because Innocent Blood, Smallpox, Pox, and Liliana affect both players equally.
If there's a single driving force behind Pox, it is its ability to make use of these powerful, symmetrical effects. Smallpox knocks out three cards for only two mana, but other decks can't use it because they can't afford the damage the card inflicts on its caster. However, Pox is able to operate on very little land (a reason for staying monocolor) and has no qualms about playing with an empty hand, as it means Nether Spirit gets to the graveyard, Cursed Scroll becomes reliable, and Liliana of the Veil can use her +1 with no drawback.
Liliana of the Veil: Normally I'd save the best for last, but Liliana is so good in here I have to list her twice! It's as though somebody knew I was working on a Legacy Pox deck and designed her specially for me! The deck works fine without her, but everything is much, much easier when you draw Liliana. With so much removal to back her up, she's nearly impossible to kill, and she can even come down on turn 1 because of Dark Ritual. An opponent playing against Liliana has no good options because they can't save cards in their hand but also can't stick creatures by playing them out one at a time.
Typically, if you're going to use Liliana's +1 ability, you should do it as early as possible so that the opponent has minimal information. However, be very wary of flash creatures because Legacy is full of them. For example, against an opponent with three tapped Islands, you should activate Liliana's +1, discard a Nether Spirit, and then Sinkhole an Island. This way, they might discard their Brainstorm and save their Vendilion Clique, which they'll soon realize they won't be able to cast. However, if those three Islands are untapped instead, you should Sinkhole first, forcing them to cast the Clique right away, and then use Liliana's -2 to take care of it.
The Mana: Wasteland is a no brainer; even if it couldn't tap for mana, it would still rank among the best spells in the deck. Mishra's Factory is critical as a both win condition and creature defense.
As strong as those lands are, eight colorless mana sources is a lot for a deck with so many double (and triple) black spells. That's where Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth comes in. It's very, very nice to draw one copy of Urborg in any game. Even though it's legendary, it can be okay to draw multiples because you can sacrifice them to Smallpox or discard them when you need to. One game in the Invitational, after a couple of Poxes, I looked at my graveyard to find all four copies of Urborg neatly lined up. It had caused me so little inconvenience during the game that I hadn't even noticed I'd drawn all four!
Dark Ritual is a card that I went back and forth on for quite a while, but I decided to play it, and it ended up being an all-star. Beyond providing the potential for nut draws like turn 1 Liliana or turn 2 Sinkhole + Hymn to Tourach, it can be quite strong in everyday situations. For starters, Pox has no turn 1 plays that affect the board, so the Ritual is important for not falling behind against a fast draw. Casting your spells quickly is important so that the opponent cannot amass lands for a Knight of the Reliquary or Jace, the Mind Sculptor and cannot empty their hand and mitigate the pain of Hymn to Tourach. In the later game, it may not sound impressive to use Dark Ritual to activate a Cursed Scroll, but if that Scroll is taking out a Delver of Secrets or a Lord of Atlantis, then you aren't falling behind in card advantage whatsoever.
As strange as it sounds, my suggested decklist has too many mana sources. The reason for that is to provide the option to fine-tune the manabase during sideboarding. In particularly grindy matchups like B/U/G or the mirror, you can't afford the card disadvantage of Dark Ritual and want to sideboard it out. Inconveniently, those opponents will sometimes also have Wasteland, which is why I opted to play 25 lands in the Invitational even though 23 or 24 is plenty when Dark Ritual is in the deck.
Against a deck with all basic lands, like Mono Red, it can be okay to sideboard out all four Wastelands, as black mana tends to be the limiting factor for Pox, and colorless mana is often irrelevant. In most normal matchups, if you decide to leave in Dark Ritual, you can feel free to sideboard out a Swamp or even two.
Against Merfolk, though, all you want is mana, mana, mana to cast your Engineered Plagues and Liliana of the Veils through Wasteland, Daze, and Spell Pierce. It's another reason why maindecking extra lands and sideboarding them out if you don't need them is a good place to be in Legacy. Maybe other decks should adopt a similar configuration.
The Discard: I started my testing with quite a lot of spot discard (Inquisition of Kozilek, Thoughtseize, Duress) but kept cutting down as I learned more about the deck. At a certain point, you have too many weak draws and you can't reliably win the game in a topdeck war, which was the original goal of the deck. The fact is, also, that these cards are simply unexciting in Legacy. At best, they one-for-one with a card the opponent didn't have to spend mana on, and at worst they miss or get laughed at by Brainstorm and Sensei's Divining Top. However, Inquisition of Kozilek is a necessary evil (no pun intended) for Pox because of the lack of one-mana plays. You need to disrupt the opponent quickly or risk being overwhelmed. There's nothing like losing to Storm Combo before you can even cast your Hymn to Tourach!
Hymn to Tourach, on the other hand, is incredible. There's not much I can say that the card's text doesn't say already. It can hit lands, never misses, and virtually always earns a Force of Will if they have it.
The Removal: Innocent Blood, Smallpox, Pox, and Liliana of the Veil is certainly a lot of sacrifice effects. I built this decklist with the acceptance that I would probably lose to creature swarm strategies in game one, but that's what Engineered Plague is for. My one Legacy loss in the Invitational came when I didn't have targeted removal for his Knight of the Reliquary and got overrun too quickly. However, those were extreme circumstances that involved two Noble Hierarchs and strong follow-ups to the Knight. In general, you'll be surprised how easy it is to literally kill every single creature your opponent plays for the whole game.
The Finishers: Nether Spirit is an unbelievable card for this deck. I wish I could play four copies and draw it every game, but it's dangerous to draw it in multiples. If you discard it to a Smallpox or a Liliana, the worst-case scenario is that they kill it with a Swords to Plowshares, which is still a one-for-zero. The best-case scenario is that the opponent has no answer, and it kills them. It's able to hold off a 15/15 Knight of the Reliquary or a whole army of 2/2 weenies all on its own.
Cursed Scroll is unexciting in some matchups, but it's always a reliable win condition at minimum. Against weenie decks like Merfolk, Goblins, or Delver, it's a terrifying threat and the perfect way to lock up the game. If you stabilize against a tribal deck, none of the creatures they draw will be able to live through a Scroll activation. Even against decks with bigger creatures, it can clear the way for a sacrifice effect to take care of the problem card.
A key aspect of this threat suite—Cursed Scroll, Nether Spirit, and Mishra's Factory—is that it allows you to cast the symmetric sacrifice effects with impunity and makes opposing removal virtually dead.
Liliana of the Veil: She's still insane. The best discard spell, the best removal spell, and the best way to lock up the game all rolled into one. See above…
Pox in the Legacy Metagame
A fully powered Legacy Pox deck probably wouldn't perform too well in a Standard or Extended tournament. Cards like Blade Splicer, Kitchen Finks, and Nest Invader would create huge problems for the deck. Luckily, those cards aren't playable in Legacy; Pox is perfect for the Legacy metagame right now.
-How many cards in your hand?
-Two. But don't worry, pretty soon I'll be able to Snapcaster Mage something cool!
-How many lands do you have?
-Two. They're worth $250 if you add them together!
-How many creatures do you have?
-I have a 5/6 Tarmogoyf! That's all I need! Right?
Legacy is so fast and hostile that decks are built to run on few lands, few cards in hand, and aim to win with a single threat. Those are the perfect conditions for a resource denial deck. Pox is excellent against anything that needs to win by attacking with creatures. Playing against W/G/B Junk will feel like a mirror match, except all of their removal is dead, and all of their creatures are comically easy to answer. Playing against Delver of Secrets decks is even better, as they don't have enough burn to kill you from twenty, and they don't have enough creatures to have a prayer of sticking one.
I can't promise that Pox in its current incarnation will still be good a year from now, but for today's metagame, it's great. So if you want to have a ton of fun playing Legacy while also making sure that your opponent isn't having any, Pox could be the deck for you.