Today is June 2nd. That means the Season 2 Invitational in Columbus, Ohio is eleven days away. That means this will be the most relevant article I can write pertaining to preparing for the Invitational. Luckily for you, I've chosen to write about the Legacy format. Let's start with the basics:
- Decks are expensive. Cards are expensive. Not everyone can switch decks every week, so you get guys like Andrew Schneider who has been playing his UR Delver deck -- for at least three years that I know of -- playing their "signature" deck week-in and week-out. That means that the metagame is not necessarily as fluid or dynamic as it might be in one of the newer formats. I do believe this to be a unique quality of Legacy, although I have neither played nor examined the Vintage format. This, though, is a double-edged sword, because unlike Standard or even Modern, if you do acquire a viable deck like Jund, Death and Taxes, or a Delver shell, you are competitive within five or ten cards for going on three or four years now. It's a great draw to the format.
- Games are rich and interactive. Well, they can be. Sometimes your opponent will cast a Goblin Charbelcher on turn one and kill you; sometimes something like twenty goblin tokens will appear on the other side of the table as early as turn 1. However, if either player is playing blue cards, you have to at least respect the idea of them casting a Force of Will. Next is the Stifle dance you see enacted on SCGLive each week. The first few turns of a game against just an uncracked fetchland can be funny to watch because the threat of Stifle against an unknown opponent is very scary!
Brainstorm plus a fetchland or a Stoneforge Mystic or even a Knight of the Reliquary can help you sculpt your hand, but that's just the beginning. Life from the Loam can clear the top of your deck in much the same way, but Emrakul can shuffle your Brainstorm cards away as well. Then, there are the somewhat clever interactions. For instance, if your Dark Confidant might kill you, then your Brainstorm might save you. If you're holding say, an Ancestral Vision and you have both a cascade spell like Shardless Agent and a Brainstorm, you can ensure that you cascade into the Ancestral Vision! Now Brainstorm is a unique card, but it's just one card in the format. This format is definitely special.
- There are tons of decks and tons of cards to think about when building your own deck. Cool. So what? Well, it means you can't afford to run Tivadar's Crusade in your sideboard no matter how bad your Goblins matchup might be. It means you need to think in broad strokes. A card like Disenchant can kill your opponents Counterbalance if they're sloppy, but it can definitely kill Umezawa's Jitte and Detention Sphere. It can destroy Choke or even Aether Vial if you want; it's versatile. If you can cast it, you can take the versatility theme even further and run something like Vindicate, which can kill just about anything that doesn't have protection from black or white or sorceries or you (Ah... we'll get to that).
This is also why I feel countermagic backed up by some kind of proactive threat, be it a Delver of Secrets or a Mongoose or a Planeswalker, is especially strong in Legacy. For the most part, your counterspells will get what they're aimed at, and that makes them pretty versatile, even if you have to time them correctly to get any value out of them. In some cases, this is going to have you sideboarding out a bunch of cards you'd rate a six for a bunch of cards you'd rate a seven in the matchup, and not having access to anything you'd rate a ten. The tradeoff is that when your opponent is playing a mono-white snow-land control deck that you've never seen or thought about, you will at least have something in your sideboard that might help you.
Now, let's talk about the specifics. This isn't a video game; we can't beat it, but we can correctly anticipate the metagame and build our decks accordingly. We can play clever cards and do clever things, but even if we win the tournament this week, there's no guarantee for next week.
There are SCG Open results to analyze from last weekend, and there's an SCG Open this weekend as well, so people will have different ideas in their mind about what decks are good and what decks are bad going into the tournament. There's also what I like to call the blue-Invitational-bias (catchy name, I know - I'm working on it.) Whether it's a circular logic issue where the players in the tournament think other people will be playing more blue cards so they need to follow suit, or whether they think the blue decks afford them more decisions and thus, more chances to outplay their opponents, the bias exists. It's real. No matter what the metagame looks like going into the tournament, you can bet there will be more blue decks in one form or another.
The last 5 SCG Opens broke down like this:
A full 80% percent of these tournaments were won by Delver of Secrets, but it's worth noting that while the Delver decks share cards and colors, they're not really at all the same deck. In the past, people played Stifle in all varieties of their Delver decks as a way to gain tempo. In addition to actually possibly destroying a land with Stifle, it also makes your Storm-based-combo-matchups a lot better. However, it has largely been replaced by Gitaxian Probe in seemingly all flavors of the deck. I wouldn't say you don't need to worry about Stifle, but it's there and if your shields are down, the next thing you know you might have lost a land and possibly the game on the spot.
As for the actual strategy employed, let's take a look:
UWR Delver employs Stoneforge Mystic to complement its Delver of Secrets. True-Name Nemesis is ubiquitous in these decks and provides a good body to wear equipment, but also a good way to close games out. The rest of the deck is the normal "good spells."
Let's start in NJ:
Four copies of Lightning Bolt, Daze, and Force of Will along with two equipment to search for is standard. Not playing the fourth Swords to Plowshares or Spell Pierce may be okay, and adding Gitaxian Probes might be worth it, but the way you play against this deck is always going to be the same. Spell Pierce and Daze are not particularly scary if they're not attacking you for three in the air. Granted, they can fight a pretty solid "counter-war" even when they're tapped out, but if you play around their main ways to disrupt you, you'll come out ahead most of the time. Daze and Spell Pierce are soft counters. Their value decreases dramatically as the game goes longer. The more lands and resources you have at your disposal, the worse these cards generally get.
Your priority against these decks should be a defensive stance complimented by basic lands. If they are able to Wasteland you once or twice, you might never come back. Wasteland makes their Spell Pierces and Dazes a lot stronger as well. Essentially, if you have Swords to Plowshares in your hand and they've played Delver of Secrets, the ideal time to play it is while they're tapped out with a land untapped. Resolving the Swords to Plowshares (or Lightning Bolt) will relieve much of the pressure they hoped to create with the Delver. I'd note that letting them untap to see their upkeep reveal trigger is not worthwhile here. In general, both RUG and UWR Delver decks have very little access to card advantage. RUG has none, UWR can at least search for equipment with Stoneforge Mystic, meaning cards like Ancestral Visions or Jace, the Mind Sculptor are ideal ways to fight these decks once you've stabilized. In addition, Abrupt Decay shines as ever. Destroying Tarmogoyf, Delver of Secrets and Stoneforge Mystic no questions asked is quite a nice thing to be able to do.
Now, Detroit just for completeness' sake:
In my experience, running a True-Name Nemesis in RUG isn't really where you want to be. Given that you only have eighteen lands, it's not that easy to cast. Morgan obviously does not agree with me here, playing two more in the sideboard for what I would assume are possibly the Jund or other grindy matchups full of targeted removal. Traditionally, fighting the graveyard with things like Relic of Progenitus or Rest in Peace was another successful way to beat RUG Delver, but adding True-Name Nemesis is a good way to counter that, so maybe it has merit - I'm just uncomfortable with an eighteen land manabase supporting them.
In general the idea is the same here. If you're going to fight a counter war, be prepared. If you're going to cast your spells, be thoughtful - try to fetch basic lands. Without Stifle, their "mana-denial" plan is less of a threat, but each successful Wasteland digs the hole a bit deeper when they're already building a board presence. Supreme Verdict is a great card against Delver decks, but it still costs 1UWW. If they get to Wasteland you or if you don't get your basic Plains, you may never get to cast it! It's not good if you don't cast it.
Here's the UR Delver Deck:
Unlike the other two decks, this deck relies heavily on the color red's ability to close out a game. Price of Progress and the full four copies of Chain Lightning spell doom for decks that can't avoid having nonbasics in play. Your opponent might be as happy as a pig in muck drawing free Tundras off of Goblin Guide, but once you cast Price of Progress, they'll be singing a different tune indeed. The same basic rules apply though. This deck doesn't play Wasteland, but you still have to be careful. There are not a lot of non-Delver decks that play Gitaxian Probe, so in general, they will have more information than you about the gamestate on the average turn. You need to already know how to play the matchup better than them just to be on even footing. In general, if you see a Delver and a Goblin Guide, you can move your mindset to this matchup instead of one of the other two types of Delver decks.
Next is the Death and Taxes deck:
- 4 Phyrexian Revoker
- 1 Aven Mindcensor
- 3 Flickerwisp
- 4 Mother of Runes
- 3 Serra Avenger
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
- 2 Spirit of the Labyrinth
- 1 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
I could write an entire article about Death and Taxes, but I won't do that right now. However, if I ever win a tournament with it, I'll consider it.
I played D&T a while ago, before Brimaz was printed and before True-Name Nemesis, which means the deck was a little different than the current incarnations. No longer is Mangara of Corondor a concern. Instead, assume they're going to have a good draw and a smooth disruptive curve. I think Death and Taxes is the most interactive mono-white-creature deck I've ever seen or played, and I don't know how anyone could disagree. For those of you who have played with or against Brian Kibler's "GW Hatebears" deck in Modern, you might have gotten a taste of some of the disruptive elements a white creature deck can present. As a result of the format being significantly lower in power level and the cardpool being smaller--and also the simple fact that Wizards of the Coast doesn't want cards like Wasteland and Rishadan Port running around in Modern--the Modern "GW Hatebears" deck relies upon Leonin Arbiter and Ghost Quarter to disrupt your lands. Both decks have the Aether Vial engine to respond to your spells with annoying things, or make your countermagic worth a bit less than it otherwise would be. If you fetch against three open mana, you can expect to get Mindcensored. Flickerwisp tricks and awareness are what separates the Death and Taxes novices from the experts.
This deck rose to fame when Sneak and Show was all the rage a while back, as with four copies of Phyrexian Revoker and four copies of Karakas, the Sneak and Show players were always hard pressed to make anything happen. A Show and Tell would never end well, and even though all the creatures are small, the damage adds up when you're playing Sneak and Show and trying to draw one of your two Echoing Truths just to have a chance. I've been there. I've seen it.
Now, to combat True-Name Nemesis, the deck has adapted Serra Avenger, which in turn makes it slightly weaker to Lightning Bolt. There are some cool sideboard options as well, such as Holy Light, which people heretofore had not been playing in this specific application as far as I know. White, of course, has the best sideboard cards; from Rest in Peace to Ethersworn Canonist to Cataclysm and Armageddon. In addition to having good matchups, I think Death and Taxes gets a fair number of wins just from being underrated.
If you're wondering how to combat Death and Taxes, you might be thinking to yourself that a combo deck seems like a natural foil to a "white weenie" deck. Obviously, the best combo deck in the format (Sneak and Show) is not a reliable way to threaten the white deck. Instead, I think Mono-Blue Show and Tell ("Omnitell") is an excellent way to sort of flip that matchup on its head in a way that the white deck cannot recover from. Their best hope is to have an Oblivion Ring in a sideboarded game for when the Show and Tell comes down, but Cunning Wish for any number of things can easily beat that. Ultimately, the disruption and the clock together are not enough to beat a "fast" combo deck that can play basic Island on turns 1, 2, and 3. If combo isn't your jam, and for many it sure isn't, I think Jund is a great way to beat Death and Taxes. Punishing Fire shines as a reusable removal spell, but mind your manabase in deck building -- the basics are necessary!
In fact, the Jund strategy brings together a lot of excellent elements to combat all of these strategies effectively. Card advantage in the form of Dark Confidant is a way to gain an edge there against Delver -- the life is valuable, of course -- but it's better than nothing. Conveniently, Dark Confidant can still attack. Abrupt Decay is exactly what we want to kill just about anything and not worry about it. If you know their plan is to go over the top with True-Name Nemesis, then you can easily plan accordingly with Golgari Charm, Edict effects, Engineered Plague and the like. I think Golgari Charm is surprisingly useful in Legacy Jund, and I would recommend maindecking one or at least considering it. Having access to a Maelstrom Pulse is also nice. It makes your cascading even more dangerous (for your opponent) and means you always have a chance to kill their Elspeth, Knight-Errant or their Batterskull or their Moat or whatever troublesome permanent they have chosen to play. The Jund deck's sideboard allows it to be a bit of a transformative weapon. Duress and Pyroblast, as well as anti-creature measures, really let you tailor your plan to whatever your opponent is doing. Plus, you get to cast Hymn to Tourach which is… a sweet card.
Jund has strong matchups across the board in my opinion. It's all "good cards" and the strategy is proactive. It gets access to good (though not the best) sideboard cards, and it can hang in there even with the fastest combo decks with a bit of good fortune (I've beaten Storm at a GP and lost to Jund with Sneak and Show at an Invitational.) But, if Jund isn't really your style and you prefer a more controlling perspective, I would recommend bringing Miracles to battle. For reference, Joe Lossett's list from a month or so ago in Dallas:
This isn't the archetypical list; it isn't the one you'll play against each time, but it's out there, and it's kind of good. Don't be super surprised when your opponent has a Pyroblast or a Red Elemental blast in game 1.
This deck shaves, of all things, Swords to Plowshares from the maindeck in exchange for the blasts and is otherwise somewhat normal. Joe wrote an article that gets into some of the theorycraft behind the deckbuilding decisions, but in a field of Delver, having access to maindeck blasts is attractive; they're about as good as Swords to Plowshares at killing Delver of Secrets, and they're significantly better at killing Force of Will than Swords to Plowshares. In addition, if your opponent agrees with your choice of deck, then having a leg-up in game 1 is a welcome way to swing what might otherwise be a pretty even, lengthy affair. The soft-lock of Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top demands a pretty specific response from your opponent--Abrupt Decay still works--or for them to be playing a deck with odd casting costs (like 3, 15, 4, etc.) I don't mind working for my wins, but I do think Counterbalance/Top is capable of doing a lot of work for you provided your Divining Top (and hands) are nimble and willing. That being said, don't get me wrong, the deck is not that easy to play. Even if it were, you still have to mind the clock! They're generous at the Invitational and the clock is a little longer, 55 minutes per round, but that doesn't give you an excuse to play slowly. This is a deck where your physical operations (untapping things each turn) actually matter, and keeping your permanents organized matters.
My favorite part of Miracles is that it absolutely thrashes the Elves deck that people continue to insist upon playing at the Invitational and other events. Reid Duke disagrees with me vehemently, but I think Elves is maybe the worst playable deck in the entire format, boasting what I consider to be almost no good matchups--it's quite good against Death and Taxes--and as a combo deck failing to dodge creature hate, it really is something remarkable. I do really like the addition of Worldspine Wurm in Elves, but it isn't really enough most of the time and the problems are plentiful.
Like I said at the start of this article, Legacy is quite diverse. The goal was not to educate you on the entirety of the format, but rather to try to give you a way of looking at the piece of the metagame that is currently relevant, and to try to anticipate how people will react to the way the metagame has been shaping up. I didn't talk about Stoneblade or Deathblade, as they aren't decks people are playing right now. It isn't that you don't need to worry about them--Deathblade won the last Invitational and it is technically a blue deck--I just think your efforts are better spent trying to beat the decks people are thinking about, or trying to beat the decks people are going to use to beat the decks that people are thinking about.
Unfortunately, I don't have advanced copies of the T8 decklists from the SCG Open that takes place this and next weekend (at the time of writing), but it would be nice to have an even more complete picture heading into the tournament. As for me, I really like Vendilion Clique these days and I'm going to see if I can't play it in the tournament two weeks from now.