'Tis the season for Legacy, as the friends that read my work and those that live in the Hampton Roads area here in Virginia prepare for the Grand Prix in Washington DC this weekend. Since Legacy is one of those formats that is very pricy and hard to jump into, a Grand Prix or Invitational is the highest level event you'll see that supports the ancient format.
Invitationals are much easier to prepare for in general because of the common trends of StarCityGames.com Open Series players. Walking into a big SCG event nearly guarantees a metagame filled with combo and Stoneforge Mystic decks, but when strolling into a 1500-man, GP you'll have a range that may be too big to plan for. There have been Legacy events that have been easy to prepare for in days past, such as when Hulk/Flash or Mental Misstep were legal or even when Griselbrand / Entomb where joined for the first time. This event coming up has no such menace to prepare for.
On the contrary, the current Legacy format is as healthy as it has ever been. One round you'll fight against little Merfolk, and the next you'll face down a turn 2 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. People love formats that support all aspects of the archetype wheel. The only debatable difference is the absence of "true" control, and the closest you'll see is something like my Esper Stoneblade list or a BUG deck that has a bunch of Tarmogoyfs in it.
Once upon a time I battled with cards like Kjeldoran Outpost . . . but I also remember not winning a whole lot back then. In today's Legacy the average mana cost of your deck better be around one due to the speed and inherent power of the cards. I want to give you a brief rundown on the pros and cons of running the Stoneblade of old and what to expect when battling in DC.
What's So Good About Deathblade Anyway?
Legacy continues to evolve as new sets are released. Whenever an expansion is added to the mix, the Legacy metagame is rocked a bit. New sets rarely change much—a card may be added to this deck or an old archetype improved slightly—but Return to Ravnica did a bit more damage than that. When Abrupt Decay and Deathrite Shaman were printed, I made it a point to gather as many as I could because their power in older formats would guarantee the value would not only be high but shoot through the roof when the set is no longer being printed.
Deathrite Shaman in particular burst onto the scene with a vengeance, making an old BUG Control deck into something powerful and feared in the Legacy world. Not only did Deathrite Shaman become a major player in that deck, but it also made people begin to ditch Stoneblade one by one in favor of running the hybrid mana accelerator. You could run the old Esper Stoneblade deck and just add Deathrite Shaman, but it wouldn't run the same. You would be tempted to run Dark Confidant since black is a heavier part of the deck, and then comes Hymn to Tourach, and so on. The Esper Stoneblade list that I have run for a few years now is a deck that can be tailored to any mage willing to take on the challenge, but it seems like the days of my dear old Stoneblade are done.
Deathblade provides a faster more powerful alternative to my version of Stoneblade. The addition of Dark Confidant, Hymn to Tourach, Wasteland, and Abrupt Decay give more weapons to rain upon enemies round after round. These additions do not come without a cost however. Taking a three-color deck and then adding a fourth color and Wasteland is asking for trouble. That said, the same players that did well with Esper Stoneblade have done well with Deathblade, and that is no coincidence. I would even argue that if those same players kept on trucking with their original lists before the likes of Deathrite Shaman infiltrated the ranks then they would be winning just as much.
With this give and take you have a choice between power and consistency. In a format like Legacy and with a deck like Esper Stoneblade, I will choose consistency every time. I don't lose to cards like Stifle, Wasteland, Blood Moon, or even general mana screw nearly as much as my Deathblade counterpart. Esper Stoneblade has more basics and access to two copies of Ponder that allow smoothing out of resources and answers to problems far and wide.
When combining the power of Brainstorm and Ponder together, it not only allows you to keep some rough hands but also gives you a higher chance to dig to all of those one-ofs that you play. In Legacy we can't simply run four of every card we want, and since we have access to all of the best cantrips, it only makes sense to run fewer of them. That one-of Supreme Verdict has played such a major role in the maindeck when battling the aggressive decks because of my ability to find it with superior card draw.
Deathblade has Dark Confidant, but Bob is either too slow (against combo decks where you need the answer now) or gets killed by a removal spell that would normally have no good target. I love the matchup against Deathblade because of how effective my Sword to Plowshares are, and even Brian Braun-Duin was slain by my "outdated" Esper Stoneblade deck a couple Invitationals ago on the way to the last Top 8 I made! Even though BBD is a champion of GPs and just a great Magic player, he has had a great deal of trouble besting me in the Legacy format.
I don't think running Deathblade over Esper Stoneblade is a travesty. It is simply a choice you have to make, and when playing in a fifteen- or sixteen-round tournament, I believe consistency and tight play is the best formula to be truly successful. With all of this in mind, I know that most people will choose Deathblade because most of the competitive world believes that Esper Stoneblade is extinct. Let's prove them wrong!
All I Hear Is 45%
For years people have said that Esper Stoneblade has a 45% chance to defeat the field. There is this rumor that you are never favored and you have to just play extremely well and get a little lucky to claim victory. That is simply not true. Playing well with the tools Stoneblade provides puts you well above 50% against an array of different decks. I love writing articles and playing Magic, but I really enjoy winning money just like many of you. With that being said, I tend to jump at the opportunity to prize split when arriving to the Top 8 instantly.
In one Invitational Top 8 I was in, a player refused the split, and I made the Top 4 after defeating Michael Hetrick. I was ready to split the prize money between the remaining four players (me, Ross Merriam, BBD, and Gerry Thompson), but then I realized that I was paired against Ross playing Elves. For the first time in many years, I was the one who refused the split. After seeing my matchup against Elves, there was no way that I would not risk thousands of dollars when battling against my "best" matchup in the whole world.
When I mentioned my ability to defeat Elves on Twitter, I got some negative feedback from players that choose to battle with little green men whenever they are able to. Elves is a great deck that has the combo element combined with the power of aggro, but it just doesn't have the ability to defeat Stoneblade on a consistent basis if wielded by an experienced player.
The combination of four Sword to Plowshares, three Snapcaster Mage, Umezawa's Jitte, Batterskull, Supreme Verdict, and of course Force of Will makes game 1 tough enough. After sideboard you add the fourth Force of Will, the second Supreme Verdict, Perish, and the ability to drop the few dead cards makes the matchup a literal nightmare for anyone choosing the side of green. Stoneblade has a couple matchups like this that include Maverick, Goblins, and 99% of the "rogue" decks that happen to find their way to you.
Since Esper Stoneblade comes equipped with some of the most powerful cards the game has ever seen and as it is in the form of a control deck, it is bound to have an edge over the random decks. Sometimes I'll see Tezzeret, Painter, MUD, etc. and just roll right through them with the stock Sword to Plowshare removal suite and the range of different counterspells and early win conditions. This is where we hear a lot of that "45%" talk, and in my mind it has come to mean that it is never less than 45% against the field.
When Stoneblade gets paired against creature decks, everything feels right as rain. Using the additional sweepers in the board combined with the Sword to Plowshares, Engineered Explosives, and the maindeck Supreme Verdict creates a formula for mayhem against any who would dare try to win with Tarmogoyf or any creature-based strategy. This is another reason why Elves is such a good matchup because not only do you stop them on the spell side with countermagic but all of your removal spells are live. Combo decks are also easy game after sideboard because of the mentioned machine Stoneblade turns into after sideboard. The tough decks or the ones that give us the most trouble are definitely packing some amount of Ancestral Vision and Hymn to Tourach.
Does Esper Stoneblade Have A Bad Matchup?
When I think of bad matchups, I think of decks that I need a vast amount of luck to defeat, and luckily for us there is only one. Shardless BUG is the last remaining prominent Legacy deck that we have to worry about defeating if you choose to run Esper. When I saw Gerry defeat BBD 3-2 after starting off 0-2 in the Invitational Top 4, my heart sank because I knew what I was up against.
He was playing BUG before anyone else with the new Ancestral Vision phenomenon that is pretty good when it's casted off of cascade. While looking through his decklist, I noticed that he also had four Hymn to Tourachs, and the combination of those eight cards made the matchup nearly unwinnable for me. Luckily for us they printed a card soon after called Notion Thief that has allowed us to get right back in the game with just a little thievery.
Notion Thief is the shining star that prevents not only Ancestral Vision but Jace, the Mind Sculptor's +0 ability and any other card draw used from being effective. Not only does it stop the planeswalker Brainstorm and regular Brainstorm, but it also forces them to put two cards back of their own as you steal their card advantage from right under them! The minute Notion Thief was spoiled, I went on Twitter and ranted about its play in Legacy, and it has not disappointed. The beauty of the 3/1 for four is that it has flash (for sneaky purposes) and it cannot be Abrupt Decayed.
No matter how down in the game you get, Notion Thief provides an out (as I've done to a few players in the Open Series against a Jace gone wild or right before an Ancestral Vision kicks off). The Shardless BUG decks after board don't pack Force of Will and obviously don't have countermagic that is cheaper because of the chances of cascading into them. This allows Notion Thief to be impossible to prevent besides some well-timed Hymn to Tourach. I currently have two of them in the sideboard, and with all the cantrips you'll easily find one before it is too late.
Just because BUG is the only bad matchup it doesn't mean you don't have others that can provide a challenge. Sneak and Show, Reanimator, and Dredge can all be tough if you don't provide tight play and/or they kill you with a god draw. That's Legacy. There will always be unfair decks that can kill through a ton of hate, and that's something we have to accept when getting the privilege to use super-powerful cards.
Stoneblade has the ability to transfer all of the dead cards out for a sideboard that has been tested to the limits. Each card in the board has a big job to do, and they each do that job well. You'll have some that poke fun at the Blue Elemental Blast, but against a Blood Moon, Sneak Attack, and various burn, it is a saving grace. Rest in Peace is often a card that has some merit to join the ranks, but the Snapcaster Mages in the maindeck play an important role, so Surgical Extraction will do just fine. This sideboard hasn't really been much altered for years, but to be honest neither has Legacy.
Legacy: The New Format Is Same As The Old
Legacy is a format that doesn't change drastically. We aren't going to wake up one morning and decide that Sword to Plowshares is a weak card or that Jace, the Mind Sculptor just doesn't do enough. The same decks that have been around since the beginning of the SCG Open Series are still around and kicking. This doesn't mean those decks are a tad weaker than they once were or have changed a bit, but it does mean that when you are choosing what to play you need to be aware of all of the different matchups you could face. GPs are tournaments where this is a huge factor when determining what to battle with.
Since the power level and definition of "good" cards is pretty constant in Legacy, we have to follow trends in order to adapt our deck optimally. I added two Cabal Therapys to the sideboard in order to match the growing number of combo decks, especially during the last GP I played in where Reanimator was everywhere. Decisions had to be made with dropping Sword of Feast and Famine or an extra copy of Umezawa's Jitte due to the reduction of mirror matches. Here and there we can and must tweak the sideboard in order to adapt to the trends of Legacy, but the maindeck has been solid through and through. I do enjoy the "if it ain't broke" mentality to an extent.
This Esper Stoneblade maindeck has only gone through maybe three or four changes since it was conceived, and that is because the cards involved in the victory process keep producing results. The one-of Intuition is still a superstar, the three Snapcaster Mage are still punishing opponents, the one of Counterspell is just a perfect card to draw at any point in the game; the list goes on and on. The only thing I would ever be willing to cut is one of the Ponders, and that is only if the format gets a bit faster and we need another answer to an aggressive strategy.
There is one other reason that Legacy doesn't change too often: the cost. If you spend two thousand bucks on a RUG Delver deck and its power level gets slightly worse, are you going to decide to just buy/build another deck? Absolutely not. Esper Stoneblade is my baby and continues to produce, but if it didn't I would be hard pressed to jump into a completely different deck due to the cost factor. This doesn't stop pros; if uncle moneybags Cedric Phillips were in the same situation, he would gladly make the financial investment and swap decks in a heartbeat.
This, however, is the real world, and ain't nobody got that kind of money to make a hard swap, especially in a format like Legacy where just the mana base can set you back a grand. With this in mind, think about how a GP metagame in Legacy would be affected. People on the East Coast here in DC may borrow cards and craft different decks, but the vast majority of combatants have most of the cards for one deck and work to crash the tournament scene with their expensive investment. The cost of Legacy is a huge factor in how a metagame looks, so when you sit across from your first round opponent and they play an Ancient Tomb dropping a Chalice of the Void for one, don't be shocked.
This weekend is the moment of truth for many Legacy players. It isn't every day that we have an opportunity to make a significant amount of money and qualify for the Pro Tour at the same time using one of the oldest formats available. For this reason the decision on what to play is a very important one. Sure, you could battle with a combo deck (that seems to be the weapon of choice for most SCG personalities) or maybe brew up an aggro deck that has a fighting chance against opponents casting Brainstorm. I still hold my ground on playing the most consistent control deck that Legacy has ever seen. Counterbalance and old BUG Control were cool, but the introduction of Abrupt Decay makes the cute combo null and void and the introduction of Shardless Agent made old BUG an outdated relic.
This leaves Stoneforge Mystic as one of the few options for control mages to get behind in order to be competitive in Legacy. Do you want power or consistency? That is a question that only you can answer, but I hope my reasoning behind why I enjoy consistency helps in some way. For those of you that will be in DC, I hope to see you there, and feel free to come on up and say hello. If you've met me at an event, you know I don't bite and enjoy meeting readers, fans, and even critics of the control lifestyle. One thing is for certain though—in a world of good versus evil, we all know which side control resides on. See you all next week!