Deathrite Shaman is the real deal.
It may be obvious now, but when I began writing this article, there was still a lot of doubt. However, long-time fans know how dreadfully awful I am when it comes to actually finishing and publishing articles. It's been a while, dear reader. How are you? How were your holidays? Family doing alright? Any planned attempts at world domination?
The printing of Deathrite Shaman made all forms of BUG shoot right up to the top tier of Legacy. I don't feel the need to explain why, as I'm sure there are many articles selling the merits of our little friend. Let's just say that when they printed Noble Hierarch, I thought it would be some time before we saw another better Birds of Paradise. Whoops.
Some people are playing less than four, to which I say, "C'mon, dude" and give a disapproving look accompanied with a shake of the head and a roll of the eyes.
Beyond the four Deathrite Shaman and four Brainstorm, the rest seems to be all over the place. It would seem that every other slot of the deck is up for grabs among numerous potential contenders. One could easily become overwhelmed at all of the options available to them while perusing successful decklists, but fear not! For, in reality, there is only one true option to start with and almost the entirety of the rest of the deck will fall into place once that decision is made. Or, at the very least, some of it will, and you will be pointed in the right direction for the remainder. Just...read on. You'll see what I mean. Trust me. I'm a doctor. Of candy. A candy doctor. No, not a doctor made of candy; I'm a doctor of can—you know what? Just go to the next paragraph.
The biggest difference between the BUG decks is what I refer to as the advantage-creature slot. Basically, there are three camps—three distinct styles of BUG—that essentially boil down to whether a given build is designed for Snapcaster Mage, Shardless Agent, or Dark Confidant. The differences between the builds, besides the fulcrum card mentioned, are merely the result of that single card choice. Each of the options has their own distinct advantages to utilize, disadvantages to mitigate, and varying demands in terms of internal synergies. Today, we are going to examine some of those factors.
It is worth noting that there are two more distinct BUG variants that also exist, sometimes with some overlap. These are on the two polar opposites of the aggression spectrum, while the versions we are discussing today all fall somewhere in the middle. For reference, those two alternatives are as follows: using Delver of Secrets in a tempo-oriented aggressive build and using Standstill (or similar) in a dedicated control build (although the latter is less likely to be a Deathrite Shaman build).
Like Shardless Agent and unlike Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage immediately gives you value when it comes into play. This means that even if your guy is killed, you generated some sort of advantage already. In fact, Shardless Agent can sometimes hit a discard spell against a hellbent opponent or removal against an empty board, but Snapcaster Mage will always give you what you intend to get.
As will be explained below, it also gives added utility to a varied spell suite, allowing for more pinpoint accuracy when entering the late game. Oh, and operating entirely at instant speed when you want to is quite nice as well.
The vulnerability to Deathrite Shaman is certainly a concern with the completely justified steep rise in that card's popularity. Even things like Surgical Extraction and Rest in Peace are concerns for the little Ashcoat Bear that could. In addition to the potential for blowouts, Snapcastering a spell is also just straight up expensive. It's not exactly a high velocity play to be spending all of that mana on the key turns of the game tacking 1U onto your spells. If you're using it to flash back an Abrupt Decay, you have to ask yourself if the added utility is worth the simple fact that, theoretically, you could've just cast a Jace, the Mind Sculptor instead of Nekrataal. Something to consider.
Effect on Deckbuilding
Because you are operating at instant speed (and without cascade), you're not a slave to sorcery-only disruption. This means that you can play things like Spell Snare and Spell Pierce without disharmony. In fact, Tiago plays quite well with those cards. Snapcaster also gives you much more utility and flexibility in your late game, allowing a player to skimp on a unique type of effect due to the ability to convert one instance of a certain effect into two. For example, rather than having to play an optimized removal suite, you will be more rewarded for varying your kill spells because, thanks to having Snapcaster in your deck, in the situations where one kill spell is substantially better than another, you can cast it twice! You're giving up the marginal value on the first go-round for better options entering the late game.
Having Snapcaster Mage in your deck also tends to push your deck towards playing more cantrips. Besides the obvious (so you can have them to flash back and not have Snapcasters stranded in your hand), they also allow you to power through your deck more efficiently, finding that one card (or type of card) you need in a given game state/matchup, which then is doubly as effective because, ahem, you can cast it twice. Thought Scour in particular almost acts as some percentage of a Tutor when you're playing Snapcaster Mage with silver bullet-esque spell slots.
In these builds, it is important to shore-up your early game weaknesses and take into account your inflated converted mana cost price tags when filling out a deck using Snapcasters.
Unlike Snapcaster Mage, Bob is a high velocity card. There are rarely any qualms about having to save it for a certain situation or just generally not being able to play it because it won't have enough value; you just cast it when you can, and it does what it does. That "thing" that it does is supplying a near insurmountable advantage in a relatively short amount of time for basically no investment. Surely the option with the most "free wins," you can easily catch opponents with their pants down and ride Bobby all the way.
Get your mind out of the gutter and recognize the fact that if they don't have a counter or removal spell, Dark Confidant will likely take over the game.
The time that Dark Confidant awards you in its mana efficiency makes operating in the early to midgame much easier. Just jamming a Bob on turn 2 instead of having Snapcasters in your hand gives you a lot of space in which to operate. So much so that going back to Snapcasters after playing with Confidants feels like you're handcuffing yourself.
Bob is the only option that doesn't give the caster value against Abrupt Decay, Swords to Plowshares, and the like. If you play your guy and they kill it, then that's that. It's also possible to enter end game scenarios where you need a specific type of card (a discard spell, counter, piece of removal, etc.), and while Bob is quite good at getting you through your deck in the hopes of finding whatever it is you need, Snapcaster Mage would simply be what you need it to be.
And there are some matchups where the life loss can matter a fair amount. This honestly isn't a major concern, but I feel this section would be incomplete without mentioning it.
Effect on Deckbuilding
The most obvious effect Dark Confidant has on deckbuilding is creating the desire for a leaner curve with a lower average converted mana cost to minimize the life loss taken throughout a given game. For reference, the Snapcaster Mage example decklist has an average CMC of 1.333, the Shardless Agent example decklist settles at 1.266 and the Dark Confidant build is as low as 1.166. Not a massive difference, but I assure you that is no coincidence.
A corollary would be to ease up on the other forms of incidental damage you do to yourself. Splitting your Thoughtseizes into Inquisition of Kozileks is a fairly common way of doing this. Easing the number of fetchlands you use can also help, though you have to strike a balance with Deathrite Shaman's needs, wants, desires, hopes, and dreams. Shaving (or even cutting entirely) your Force of Wills is also not a bad idea, as they do have a converted mana cost of five despite being "free" and cost you a life to cast the usual way.
Another step along the same path tells you to build your deck in a way in which you'll be able to preserve your life total or even gain it back. Cheap and plentiful removal along with maybe Umezawa's Jitte to supplement your Deathrite Shamans are the types of things you should look to play.
Moving away from the more natural conclusions to slightly more sophisticated ones, decks with Dark Confidant tend to be leaner and more straightforward.* There are many axes on which a deck can fight—particularly in Legacy with its massive card pool. Plus, these types of middling control decks are often multifaceted in their approach to the format, as a given matchup, draw, opposing draw, etc. can alter the role its pilot will assume. Understanding that, you may think it strange to describe one of these decks as lean and straightforward. While obviously not as much so as a true linear deck, such as Enchantress or Charbelcher, it is relatively so in comparison to the alternative builds discussed in this article.
Dark Confidant itself is a lean, straightforward card. You cast it when you can (there are obviously exceptions), and it generates a huge advantage if maintained. Simple enough, no? Well, it also enjoys the company of other lean, straightforward cards. The type of game that a Dark Confidant player wants to play is one of A) direct interaction in the form of cheap one-for-ones and B) hypothetical Time Walks. Observe two true statements that illustrate these respective points:
A) If both players are empty-handed but one has a Bob in play, they are a huge favorite.
B) If a player has a Bob in play and can negate an opposing player's turn expending equal resources, they have generated a significant advantage.
That is why these decks tend to err on the side of direct tempo plays ("direct" meaning "as close to Time Walk as possible") in the form of Wasteland, Spell Pierce, Stifle, and the like as well as simple, clean one-for-ones in the form of all of the aforementioned along with discard and removal.
In essence, discard will be playing double duty (heh, duty) since it both protects Bob and lets you cash in your extra cards with their cards on a one-for-one basis. Removal does it all: preserves your life total for Bob triggers, buys time to generate an advantage, and clears the way for your Human Wizard who could all while also allowing you to exchange a card for a card. Hopefully, it's clear why this is advantageous. If not, leave a comment and I'll consider writing more on the subject. For now, I'll describe it thusly. I hope you're a chess player. In Magic, one-for-one-ing them while having a Bob is exactly like wanting to trade off and simplify the position when you're up material in chess.
There is also the idea of overloading removal** by putting Delver of Secrets, Tarmogoyfs, and Tombstalkers alongside your Dark Confidants. It's kind of like saying, "I know Dark Confidant is an insta-snap-must-kill that gives me no value when destroyed, but I can fill my deck with those. How many Abrupt Decays / Swords to Plowshares do you have again?" except in a less attitude-ridden way. But as I said, this is more a topic for another day.
As was mentioned in previous sections, Shardless Agent is a proactive card with little restriction to keep you from just casting it when you can that also gives immediate value upon casting. The opponent can't simply kill your creature and be even on the exchange. Abrupt Decay and Swords to Plowshares are pretty embarrassing here. Also, if your Snapcaster Mage id countered, that's it. Cascade, however, doesn't care whether or not Shardless Agent resolves.
Having artifacts that can pretty easily find their way into your graveyard is also nice in a deck utilizing Tarmogoyf.
The biggest plus to the mechanized man, though, is simply the access to the card Ancestral Visions. I'll discuss this a bit more in a couple of sections, but I will say that I'm fairly certain that the only reason Gerry Thompson ever bothered tinkering with Shardless Agent in the first place was so that he had an excuse to play Ancestral Visions in Legacy. And who can blame him? Certainly not me. That card is sweet.
The first disadvantage you feel in gameplay compared to the other two is the lack of control over the outcome. You may argue that you don't control the outcome with Dark Confidant either, but it feels different. My current theory is that even though you don't choose what cards go into your hand, you choose when you cast them and have all of the mana in the world available to you in the meantime. This can be slightly offset by using Brainstorm to set up your cascades, but I have some qualms about that.
First of all, it puts additional strain on your Brainstorms that are already pulled razor thin. Having your best card be overloaded is not where you want to be, by which I mean you don't want to rely on them too much or expect too much of them. If Jace, the Mind Sculptor is in play (thus you have access to more than just your four Brainstorms), then you should be winning anyway, and any interactions with Shardless Agent are simply win more.
The biggest downside to playing Shardless Agent is that you have to account for cascade when building your deck, which will be discussed in the next section.
Effect on Deckbuilding
As stated, the biggest drawback to playing Shardless Agent is that you have to build your deck with cascade in mind. The implications of this are fairly simple but greatly limit your options. No Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, Counterspell, and certain sideboard cards. Less significant but still worth mentioning is that you can't do things like play maindeck Darkblast or Surgical Extraction, while you have more space to be a little creative in the other builds (particularly Snapcaster Mage builds). Equally as bad as not being able to play these cards is that your opponents [should] know that you can't play these cards and thus don't have to worry about playing around any of them.
Also as stated, cascade lets you cheat on Ancestral Visions. This is one of the bigger pulls towards the Agent. The draw spell is already bordering on good enough for mainstream play in BUG, a deck that is quite good at playing the one-for-one game, and offers a cheaper, less fragile alternative for the nail-in-the-coffin, pull-ahead-to-close-it-out card than Jace, the Mind Sculptor (I say "alternative," but perhaps "supplement" would be a more meticulous word choice).
If I had to create a super simplified version of this article, it would boil down to three main qualities—three traits of which these cards each have two. It's time for some serious MS Paint action.
Final Notes and Conclusion
Once you make your choice about which shell you want to look into, a few more card choices will become apparent. And once those cards are in your deck, more decisions will sort of be made for you. These all snowball fairly smoothly if you know what you're doing, and you'll end up really close to a completed decklist with only a few decisions to make as to the final build.
Snapcaster Mage means you want more cantrips and have a better late game. A better late game and a higher blue count mean that you want Force of Wills and can support them. A better late game and Snapcaster utility mean you want various and numerous cheap removal spells and countermagic. You sort of start in the middle and let the cells divide and duplicate until you have an entire shell prepared through mitosis. Then it's simply a matter of filling in the numbers and tweaking them.
Thanks to their differences in temperance and style, each one of the advantage-creature options presented today has matchups/metagames where they will thrive and others where they will struggle. An illustrative oversimplification would be that Snapcaster Mage decks give you more removal spells and a smoother stabilization transition, giving you edge against aggro. Meanwhile, Dark Confidant shells are more proactive, give you a wider range of disruption, and are the most lean and mana efficient, giving you the leg up on combo. Finally, Shardless Agent builds are more value-centric and have a greater density of high-impact cards and strict card advantage, giving you domination over control decks.
These principles are loosely true but are of course overgeneralizations, as these things often are. This is particularly true in Legacy, where there are innumerable variations on each core archetypical strategy and a blending of their locations on the aggression spectrum.
I want to thank you all for reading and apologize for taking so long to complete another piece of material. I especially want to thank the fans that made me know that my content is in demand; it's always nice to feel desired, and it greatly motivated me to actually put pen to paper. Granted, I continuously quit before finishing and publishing anything, but I hope that will change soon. No promises, though. Don't hold your breath. Or do. I don't care. You'll pass out before you die anyway. I'm not going to feel bad for you. You can't manipulate me like that. Not anymore. I don't care. It doesn't matter.
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*In Magic, the word "leaner" usually has connotations of tempo-orientation. That is a slight oversimplification but is essentially correct. I have a piece about this in the works, but only Nicol Bolas knows when I'll get around to finishing and publishing it. This asterisk is merely probing the audience (psst, that's you) to gauge interest, as well as publicly state intent to hopefully motivate myself into writing it for fear of guilt and shame.
**Another article I have an outline for that I'm hoping will become more than a skeleton soon. I think it's quite an important aspect of deckbuilding that is often misunderstood or simply not known at the lower levels. Thinking about it now, I'm going to work on it as soon as I finish this one. And, yeah, please leave a comment if there is any interest in one of the potential articles I alluded to, as that makes it much more likely that I will actually work on them.