Sometimes it's the bad experiences that we learn the most from. Of all of the Legacy tournaments I've played this year, the one for which I prepared most was the Magic Online Championship Series qualifier back in January. For almost a month, I did nothing but play Legacy on MTGO. I even went so far as to track the opponents and decks that I played against in an attempt to gauge what the tournament field would look like.
As always in Legacy, there was a huge diversity of decks being played. However, the more I played the more one thing became clear: this tournament was going to be all about combo. There was Show and Tell, Storm, Elves, Dredge - these and every other flavor of combo were being played in disproportionately large numbers. So I did the natural thing, I set my sights on having a favorable combo matchup and started grinding games.
For this MOCS, I wound up playing B/U/G. I found that to truly have a good matchup against the fast combo decks, I had to be sleek and efficient with as few dead cards as possible. I found no room for Dismember, no room for Baleful Strix, no room for Umezawa's Jitte, and I even found the Ancestral Vision strategy to be too slow to fit my goals. My deck was Tarmogoyfs, Dark Confidants, a boatload of discard, and some support cards to round things out... in short, an anti-combo killing machine.
I went into the event happy and confident. I'd done my homework, knew what to expect, and had a great plan against the combo decks, which were the matchups I cared most about.*
What happened in the tournament? Well, I lost to a Jund deck that featured four maindeck Huntmaster of the Fells. Huntmaster shines in creature mirrors, and against B/U/G in particular, since its main removal spells are Abrupt Decay and Liliana of the Veil. However, Huntmaster is also a painfully slow card, and one that could almost never come down in a relevant timeframe to help against a combo deck.
At the time, I was fuming. How could someone register such a deck when combo strategies were so popular? How is it fair that this person should get paired against, and beat me, instead of losing on turn two round after round? This was my attitude at the time, but I was dead wrong to think this way.
In a Magic tournament, players are allowed to play with whatever cards they want to play with. Different players have different preferences, different priorities, and different predictions of what it will take to win a tournament. These factors combine to mean that a tournament field is always more diverse than any one individual might think that it ought to be.
Strictly speaking, my opponent didn't make a mistake in playing a deck so different from mine. I made a mistake in being caught off guard by an alternative strategy.
I titled this article “Choosing Your Battles,” but really, a more precise title might be “Not Choosing Your Battles.” Was I wrong to prepare for so much combo? Not exactly. Should I have geared my deck to beat Jund with four Huntmasters? Absolutely not. What I should have done, though, was to focus more on myself and not get lost in trying to predict what every other player in the tournament would do.
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 Gaddock Teeg
- 1 Dryad Arbor
This is the deck that I played this weekend at the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Indianapolis. I constructed the deck by following the advice I've offered above to a tee: I focused on myself and not my opponents. I built the deck with the cards that I wanted to play with, cards that contributed best to my own strategy. I came out with a finished product that had a few weaknesses, but it also maintained a powerful, consistent, and efficient game-plan that would reliably lead to a win if I was allowed to play my game.
You'll notice that the maindeck has very few cards dedicated to beating combo, despite Sneak and Show, Elves, Reanimator, and Storm being among the most-played decks in Legacy.
Once I decided to play Bant, I faced the decision of whether to restructure the deck to fit in Force of Will and an adequate number of blue cards or whether to accept an unfavorable Game One against combo. I decided to maintain the powerful G/W creature base of the deck, and to accept an unfavorable Game One matchup against combo.
I tend to object to the expression “concede the matchup,” or “concede Game One,” because it can be misleading for players who don't have extensive tournament experience. What I've learned after playing thousands of matches in hundreds of tournaments is that there's no such thing as a 100%-0% matchup, no matter how things might look on paper. In Magic, people mulligan from time to time, they miss land drops, their decks don't always cooperate. This is especially true when it comes to combo decks. So I didn't “concede Game One” against combo, but what I did do was leave my tournament in the hands of my sideboard, my pairings, and the luck of the draw in my bad matchups.
For the weaknesses I've mentioned in particular matchups, Stoneforge Bant has a number of inherent strengths that hold true no matter what you're playing against.
The biggest thing is consistency. The deck features Brainstorm, Ponder, Green Sun's Zenith, Noble Hierarch, Wasteland, and Horizon Canopy—all cards that can represent either mana or business, as needed. Consequently, Bant mulligans infrequently, rarely gets manascrewed, and rarely gets flooded. Even in the rare cases where you do get an awkward draw, the individual power of cards like Knight of the Reliquary, Stoneforge Mystic, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor can allow you to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
This deck tends to be quite strong against any “fair” strategy. A creature deck which does not have access to Swords to Plowshares, particularly something like R/U/G Delver, can struggle a great deal against Knight of the Reliquary. Control decks have their hands full against the combination of fast mana, powerful creatures, and noncreature threats like Jace and equipment. In all of these matchups, you gain an advantage in the fact that your deck is not cluttered with Force of Will — card disadvantage — and awkward, low-impact cards like Spell Pierce.
The Combo Matchups
I will not claim that Stoneforge Bant has the best combo matchup of any deck in Legacy, and indeed Game One is quite bad. However, I did defeat Reanimator three times and Elf Combo once in my twelve rounds at the Legacy Open, and I feel that it's worth describing exactly how these matchups play out. There are a number of ways the Bant deck can win, not the least of which is the opponent getting an awkward draw. With the size and power of Knight of the Reliquary, Bant has a remarkable amount of power to punish an opponent who stumbles. Wasteland and Daze also provide a very basic level of protection.
These days, combo decks involving Griselbrand are the most popular and successful in Legacy, and as such Karakas (and Knight of the Reliquary to find it) is a powerful tool. In Game One of my first match against Reanimator, my opponent was forced to set himself back by Force of Willing an early Knight. Unfortunately for him, Green Sun's Zenith represents copies number 5-8 of the powerful three-drop and I was able to put a Knight into play the following turn and ride it to victory. In a later match, a single, intrepid Knight of the Reliquary was able to vanquish a turn-two Griselbrand that stayed in play for the rest of the game!
Beyond Knight of the Reliquary, Green Sun's Zenith gives Bant access to a toolbox of disruptive creatures — Scavenging Ooze, Gaddock Teeg, and Qasali Pridemage — which can help in a variety of situations. Stoneforge Mystic for Umezawa's Jitte is a solid plan against Elves and other tribal decks.
It's in the sideboard that you'll find the missing copies of Force of Will. Coming in with them are a variety of blue cards that help in combo matchups, including Meddling Mage, Vendilion Clique, and a number of situational counterspells. One sideboard card that I'll be testing for future tournaments is Swan Song.
The final card I'd like to mention is Humility. This is one of the most powerful and unique cards in the game of Magic, and it has a lot of potential for the Legacy field right now. Of course, it comes with a lot of baggage, including “how will I survive long enough to get this into play?” and “how will I win once it is in play?” But it is one of the most effective ways to stop Griselbrand decks, and can be conditionally quite good against Elves.
All of these tools combine to give you a fighting chance against combo decks. I still don't look forward to my pairing against most of them, but I don't dread it enough to abandon a deck that is otherwise quite good.
Being Proactive in Legacy
Have a plan, and play to your strengths. These are the things I had lost sight of when I built my B/U/G deck for the MOCS. Deathrite Shaman into Thoughtseize into Abrupt Decay is a fine start, but it's not the best thing you can be doing in Legacy. After all, you can do it in Standard! Simply put, it's not a plan that leads directly to winning a game. The reason that Gerry Thompson's Shardless Agent/Ancestral Vision build of B/U/G has outperformed my own is that it's a more goal-oriented deck, with a proactive plan for pulling ahead in the midgame.
If there's one secret to Legacy, it's to have a strong proactive plan. I believe that it's best to start each game with a plan in mind for what you'd like to do. Naturally, this can change as the game develops and as you learn what your opponent is up to, but you need to have a goal of your own instead of just reacting to your opponent. The format is too large and diverse to try to gear your deck for every matchup individually. Instead, do what you do the best, in the most efficient and consistent way that you can.
Is the lesson that you should always skimp on your combo matchup? Certainly not! Quite the contrary, I believe that choosing a deck with an inherent strength against combo (say Reanimator or Delver) is a great decision. However, I believe that it would be a mistake to try to compensate for a weakness by adding a bunch of hate cards to your maindeck. Focus on your own game-plan, play to your strengths, and let everything else fall in place.
I can't say for sure what deck I'll be playing at the Legacy Grand Prix in Washington, D.C. next week. However, the one thing I know for sure is that it'll have a strong, proactive game-plan. Personally, I'll be trying to avoid underpowered reactive cards like Spell Pierce and Stifle. If that means that I have to be an underdog against Sneak and Show then so be it, and the same goes for any matchup in Legacy. All I want is a powerful weapon that can get me through fifteen rounds of just about anything.
*: This is simply a story used to illustrate a point, and it references Legacy as it was nine months ago. It isn't necessarily a recommendation for what you should do for a Legacy tournament today.