Last week Kennen Haas won SCG Legacy Open: Indianapolis with a deck nobody had seen before—a sort of hybrid deck that combined the controlling elements of Lands and Pox with the combo kill of Dark Depths and Thespian's Stage.
You may remember me for leaving Thespian's Stage off of my "legend rules changes" review, going so far as to say that its interaction with Dark Depths had very little to offer the format. I was wrong. I was not intentionally misleading. I was just wrong. I took an immaturely negative and categorical tone where there was a lot of room for uncertainty, and Kennen Haas proved me wrong in the best possible way. I'm ready to move forward from this humbling experience having publicly learned a valuable lesson.
So let's talk about Indianapolis:
Kurt's avant-garde deckbuilding ability aside, Kennen's deck is clearly a new way to approach prison decks. Instead of waiting around forever for your edges to accumulate with something like Armageddon or Smokestack, it's far better to combo kill your opponent with Dark Depths and Thespian's Stage. There are quite a few reasons to have a compact "kill package" in a prison deck:
First off, it eliminates one of your worst matchups. Prison-style resource-attrition decks have always been "good" in Legacy, but the caveat was that they struggled against an unnamed opponent: the fifty-minute round clock. It was hard for older prison decks to close out games that were locked down but not literally won yet. Old versions of Lands played Creeping Tar Pit. Their plan was to attack for three damage a turn for seven turns. It didn't always work out.
The second reason to play a five-card kill package is that for much of the game those cards don't have to be dead draws. If you have enough efficient ways to trade them off against relevant resources controlled by your opponent, you can use an already desirable recursion engine—in Kennen's case, Life from the Loam—to get them back at no opportunity cost. After all, if you're going to put Life from the Loam and Raven's Crime and Liliana of the Veil in your deck anyway, it kind of doesn't really matter what lands you're discarding and returning for the first few times. Eventually it's nice to be able to return Thespian's Stage and Dark Depths, but they weren't gumming up the works for the first few turns.
Finally, this kind of game plan lets people mess up. Against old-school prison decks—Stax, Lands, whatever—your removal was always the first slot to hit the sideboard. Swords to Plowshares is not good against a deck with zero creatures and 42 lands, you know? If you're getting Mindslavered, you should get those Plows out of there for something that can do real work. Now imagine you're getting 20/20 Gerry Thompsoned. They don't have Chalice of the Void, so you'll always be able to cast it. Some people just really want to not die to their 20/20. Of course, it doesn't have to be the first Marit Lage 20/20 that kills them . . .
So what makes this deck an ideal home for the Depths/Stage combo? Look at the following mana base:
You're looking at 22 lands and four Mox Diamonds that cast a Jund-flavored assortment of spells. It's a little shy on colored sources compared to, say, Thea Steele's 24 lands plus four Deathrite Shamans in actual Jund:
But it's inside the bounds of what you can play. If you add some more lands, they can occasionally be expected to make black mana since you have two Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoths.
My point is that the above cards are your Actual Mana Base. The Actual Threat section of Kennen's deck is what I took out:
You're looking at a two-part 20/20 and four Volrath's Strongholds that return themselves. It's so easy to look at Haas' deck as "just another version of Lands" when the decks' numbers don't compare at all. If you separate out old Lands and Jund Depths into mana, control elements (Punishing Fire, Maze of Ith, Glacial Chasm, and so on), tutors and recursion, and kill cards, you'll see what I mean.
Almost every prison deck in creation has compensated for the weakness of its control elements by overloading on them, and that creates a huge scarcity in the threat department. Think of an Armageddon Stax deck—not only does it have Chalice of the Void, Trinisphere, Magus of the Tabernacle, Oblivion Ring, Smokestack, and Crucible of the Worlds, but it also has Ghostly Prison. How in the world do you ever kill them?
By embracing a more proactive resource-attrition model of prison control, Kennen's deck improves its matchups across the board. Instead of Rishadan Port and a set of Maze of Iths, it has Liliana of the Veil and Smallpox—cards that attack more opposing resources, blank a broader cross-section of cards, and synergize better with the clunkiest parts of his own deck. It can mulligan hands that are inordinately heavy on a single element and use Faithless Looting, Liliana of the Veil, Life from the Loam, and Entomb to balance access to various resources.
It's clear that this shell ameliorates the downside of drawing a solo copy of either Dark Depths or Thespian's Stage. But why play the combo in the first place? It's not like my critique of the combo was off the mark when I first made it—there are a lot of cards that interact with it. It's true that Liliana of the Veil and Raven's Crime and Wasteland clear out most of the relevant interaction, but what about the rest of it? Let's check the tape:
Not to be attempted in metagames with Wasteland, Stifle, Swords to Plowshares, Lingering Souls, Deathrite Shaman, Blood Moon, Echoing Truth, or anything that punishes you for playing lands that don't produce colored mana or more than one colorless mana.
Let's talk about the objections one by one:
No doubt Wasteland is still good against the combo.
Stifle has mostly fallen off the map. U/W/R Delver with eight removal spells and no Stifles is the flavor of the month and has dominated representation in the Delver of Secrets macro-archetype, claiming three of the Top 8 slots in Indianapolis. It's the slowest Delver deck out there, which makes it better in the tempo mirror but worse against midrange decks that can develop their mana and execute their game plan. It beats up on RUG Delver, but it's unlikely to be a favorite against a deck with Liliana of the Veil, effectively five Punishing Fires, and recurring Wastelands.
Swords to Plowshares still exists, but this is no aggro Depths deck. Entombing Raven's Crime is an incredible plan against any deck that would presume to sit back on removal and wait for the game to come to them. And besides, even if U/W/R Delver did resolve a Plow on a Marit Lage, that just gives the Jund deck four (or more) turns to make another 20/20.
Lingering Souls is gone and nearly forgotten. Tom Martell may claim that work was the reason why he didn't go to Grand Prix Washington DC, but we all know the truth. It's hard to win another Legacy GP when 1/1 Spirits have never been worse. In a field of True-Name Nemesis, Glimpse of Nature, Punishing Fire, and multiple combo decks, three mana for a pair of 1/1 fliers is a bad bargain. Its comeback is weeks—if not months—away, and such a comeback relies heavily on a surge in Liliana of the Veil's popularity pushing out True-Name Nemesis and a lot of Stoneforge Mystic strategies.
Deathrite Shaman was nearly absent from the Indianapolis Top 8. Think I'm kidding? Count for yourself—there was exactly one copy in the elimination rounds. Ari Lax wrote a good think piece on why that's the case in the Premium Newsletter. Since he said it better than I could, I'll quote him:
"Deathrite Shaman has seen a drop in popularity since the release of True-Name Nemesis. Jund and Shardless BUG have both been forced out by True-Name Nemesis decks, leaving Deathblade and Elves to represent the team. Both of these decks are soft to tools Loam has at its disposal. Deathblade's mana doesn't stand up to Wasteland, while both decks have issues with Chalice of the Void, Golgari Charm, and Punishing Fire. Elves also pushes a lot of graveyard hate away from Rest in Peace and toward Grafdigger's Cage to stop Natural Order and Green Sun's Zenith, which lets Loam go about its business returning lands and Punishing Fires for infinite value."
As usual, Ari gets it right on the money. The tutorable Punishing Fire does a ton of work against Deathrite Shaman, which opens up the Life from the Loam recursion engine to tear up a basic-light or basic-free mana base. Eventually, they won't have the mana to fight a 20/20.
Blood Moon is nearly absent from the metagame with the decline of Imperial Painter. It's still around, but now that people know what it does and how it works they're more prepared to beat it. Blood Moon is an ebb-and-flow kind of card—people can't be prepared to play against it if you're going to do well with it. The problem with dedicated Blood Moon decks is that people have already adapted to a two- or three-of presence in Sneak and Show's sideboard so ensuring that disruption spells remain castable is on every midrange deck's radar already. This undercurrent of proper mana base construction hurts Imperial Painter since part of the draw to the deck is scoring some number of free wins every tournament by casting Blood Moon early. When those games stop being free, the deck's performance suffers.
I used Echoing Truth as a synecdoche for Ad Nauseam and Show and Tell decks, but the sentiment remains that any deck playing Dark Depths and Thespian's Stage is a slow deck with a middling to poor combo matchup. This is a fairly inescapable reality of playing a two-card kill that requires two colorless lands—it's going to be bad against spell-based combo strategies. Although Kennen's article claims a coin-flip matchup against Show and Tell, I'm not buying it. Whenever a midrange player tells me how they do against combo, I mentally subtract 10%. The reason why I do that is the same reason why most people's playtesting is biased to overvalue control decks—you spend much more time winning than you do losing. I'll elaborate.
If you're a midrange deck and you're playtesting against a combo deck in Legacy, you're going to get killed on turns 1, 2, or 3 some amount of the time. You forget those very easily, but you always remember the games where you spend ten turns retracing Raven's Crime. You spent two turns losing in the first game but ten turns winning in the second, so it's hard to give those the same degree of mental gravity. At the end of a playtest session in which you lose six games and win four, you've spent two hours winning and half an hour losing. Maybe the matchup even feels a bit favorable. Don't fool yourself—you're behind against any combo strategy. The ideal metagame for this deck is tempo and midrange heavy, not one with a ton of combo decks.
All in all, though, it's clear that this deck is a good fit for the current metagame. It—like every Lands deck before it—is a favorite against three-color tempo and midrange decks. U/W/R Delver and Esper Deathblade are both good disruptive decks with bad mana, making them perfect targets for an attrition deck like Jund Depths. Deathrite Shaman decks are on a downswing, which is why so many graveyard strategies did well in Indianapolis. Miracles decks have never been wildly popular in the United States outside of Joe Lossett's living room. All things considered, this deck looks about as real as any other midrange deck in Legacy.
Before we close the book on Dark Depths for the week, I want to discuss another version of Dark Depths + Thespian's Stage. Whereas Kennen Haas' deck is an attrition deck with an incidental Depths/Stage win, this next deck is a full-on Dark Depths combo deck. I've often wondered how to go about getting Gerry Thompson's Dark Depths / Thopter Foundry deck from old Extended into Legacy, but nothing ever clicked. There were too many weird lands, Brainstorm was always underwhelming, and protecting the combo was a chore.
This deck fixes those problems by doing two things I would never think of doing—cutting blue from a combo deck and adding green to a combo deck. The result?
This is a Dark Depths combo deck with a ton of redundancy. The protection is there—Abrupt Decay for troublesome permanents, Pithing Needle for Wasteland and any Aether Vial shenanigans, Rite of Consumption to get around a dedicated anti-creature strategy, and Steely Resolve to combat pinpoint removal. If they have flying blockers, you have Shizo, Death's Storehouse to bypass them. If they have Ornithopter or Batterskull, you can Living Wish for Tower of the Magistrate to target either your 20/20 or their Germ token. If you can't find a Steely Resolve, you can Living Wish for Sylvan Safekeeper. This deck tries to have all the answers, and I'm not sure it misses anything.
The deck plays twelve tutors to find Dark Depths in its maindeck and sideboard. It has Living Wish to find one of seven effective copies of Vampire Hexmage should Thespian's Stage get Pithing Needled. Vampire Hexmage also serves as a way to kill a Liliana of the Veil or a Jace, the Mind Sculptor. On top of all of that redundancy, it plays three Dark Confidants with the ability to Living Wish for a fourth. Sensei's Divining Top and a plethora of shuffle effects help smooth out your draw steps. Because your combo kill is so well protected, you don't play Life from the Loam, ergo you have no reliance on the graveyard, ergo you have no vulnerability to Deathrite Shaman.
I've only seen a decklist like this on a Daily Event screen, so I'm pretty excited to take this out for a spin on Magic Online. I have no idea which Dark Depths deck is better, so it'll be fun to learn that together. Check in later this week when I'll have videos of both Kennen Haas' Jund Depths deck and SebastianStueckl's G/B Depths deck!