Let's say you read yesterday's article about Elves and Death and Taxes.
Let's say you found it compelling.
Let's say you believe that a lot of people are going to play creature-heavy decks to try to overload the pinpoint removal of various Delver decks. After all, they can't Plow or Bolt every single 1/1 for one. Eventually, they're going to draw Spell Pierce.
I stand firmly behind my belief that Delver of Secrets is not what you want to be doing in this tournament. Is it “fine?” Always. Is it powerful? Duh. Is it well-positioned? Absolutely, positively not. It is a victim of its own successes in recent months, and I expect savvy players to prey on Delver instead of playing it.
So you, dear reader, also want to be a savvy player who preys on Delver. But you also want to play Brainstorm and Force of Will, because combo decks are always out in force at the Invitational, and because leaving home without Force of Will just isn't your style. I can respect that. So what do I have for you?
A deck that beats the everloving snot out of Elves and Death and Taxes, of course:
If you've ever wanted Jund but with Force of Will, this is it. Twenty blue cards, a ton of removal, and eight planeswalkers with which to win games. So why is this deck playable, let alone good?
It starts with the basic thesis of “a lot of people are going to play small creature decks.” If you don't believe this to be the case, don't play this deck. If you think a bunch of people are showing up with Humans or Elves or Goblins or Merfolk or whatever else, play this deck. If you think people are going to show up with Blood Moon, I would recommend against this. But if you think people are going to show up with midrange blue decks, this matches up incredibly well. Make no mistake – this is a metagame deck.
The function of the deck is pretty obvious: you have six counterspells, a bunch of value-added removal spells (Punishing Fire rebuys, Baleful Strix draws a card, Liliana of the Veil sticks around, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor is…well, Jace), some cantrips to draw the right cards at the right time, and Deathrite Shaman plus Thoughtseize because they're some of the best disruption that black can play. You win the game with Jace, the Mind Sculptor's -12 ability. Pretty straightforward. Let's talk about specific card selection for a bit.
The manabase is obviously incredibly ambitious – this is a Grixis deck with Punishing Fire. The only green in the maindeck is Deathrite Shaman's activated ability, but a nice upside of Grove of the Burnwillows is that it's not quite a nonbasic Mountain before sideboarding – it gets to cast Deathrite Shaman on turn one. When you're interested in eating Reanimator's monsters or Dredge's Narcomoebas and Ichorids, that's very far from nothing.
To get into the numbers, though, your color availability breaks down as follows:
8 blue duals (including 2 Creeping Tar Pit) = 18 blue
6 black duals (same as above) = 16 black
7 red duals (3 fetchable, with the other 4 being a set of Grove of the Burnwillows) = 17 red
1 green dual that can be fetched by 8 fetchlands plus a set of Groves = 12 green
We can already tell that Badlands is going to be an all-star in this deck on turn three, as it really bridges the gap between Underground Sea and Grove of the Burnwillows. Tropical Island is a little awkward with the fetchland setup, but the only real option is to move to Misty Rainforest over a Bloodstained Mire and lose a little bit of Badlands equity. I'm not sure the sacrifice is worth it.
This deck wants zero basics. Between (B/G) on turn one, UB or 1R or UU on turn two, and 1BB on turn three, the color requirements are super stretched. Trying to beat a Blood Moon is a fool's errand. If they're playing Imperial Painter, you have Thoughtseize and Force of Will to try and beat Blood Moon. If they land Magus of the Moon, you're drawing live to four Punishing Fire. Still, this isn't the manabase you want to be playing in a room packed with Blood Moons. Fortunately, the two decks on the strongest upswing (Elves and Death and Taxes, in case I didn't sound enough like a broken record) are pretty strong against Blood Moon – Death and Taxes perpetually so, and Elves is fine so long as Blood Moon doesn't hit the board on turn one on the play.
In exchange for having awful mana as a control deck, though, this deck gets to play a bunch of sweet cards. What are they?
Deathrite Shaman: This creature is probably just the best in Legacy. Outside of pure combo decks, there aren't many decks that its addition doesn't improve. Control decks like this want the mana acceleration element, but the green ability comes up plenty against Reanimator, Dredge, and various fringe strategies. Deathrite Shaman is the single biggest reason why Life from the Loam isn't terribly viable as a baseline strategy anymore – Dredge 3 doesn't match up well against Coffin Purge every turn, you know?
Regardless, people are going to play graveyard-based combo decks in Columbus. Playing Deathrite Shaman is probably the easier way to score free wins off of them. Sure, they'll have answers, but you have answers to all of their threats and Thoughtseize for their anti-Deathrite cards. Not a bad place to be, all things considered.
Baleful Strix: The little Robot Owl that could first showed up riding shotgun with Shardless Agent. Since then, it has been fairly underappreciated as an “answer” to Delver of Secrets. Sure, you can Lightning Bolt it, but Lightning Bolt is phenomenal against a deck with Deathrite Shaman and planeswalkers – I would love for someone to Bolt my flying deathtouch Robot Visionary.
When they don't have Bolt, however, Baleful Strix trades with Delver of Secrets for excellent value. Seeing as the goal of this deck is to slow the game down to a crawl and beat people with one or two of your eight planeswalkers, Baleful Strix is ideal as a stalling mechanism. This was one of the most exciting cards for me to see in the decklist, considering Baleful Strix hasn't seen much play outside of UB Tezzeret since Shardless BUG's popularity spiked on Magic Online.
Punishing Fire: Talking about Punishing Fire somewhat necessitates a parallel discussion of the absence of Lightning Bolt. I strongly believe that Punishing Fire is a good card right now. I also understand that this deck's issues are not going to be in the late game – they're going to be related to stumbling on mana in the first three or four turns and losing to a threat backed up by a Wasteland. In that sense, Lightning Bolt is a great card – it steals tempo from an opposing deck that is very interested in tightly controlling access to mana.
I also understand that this deck is four Punishing Fires away from having a real hard time with beating an opposing Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Liliana of the Veil. Realistically, I don't know how this deck can beat Punishing Jund, since Jund has Wasteland for our Groves, Grove and Punishing Fire for our planeswalkers, and Liliana of the Veils of their own. It's a nightmare.
Now think of a more winnable matchup – Miracles. Entreat the Angels is still an issue, for sure. But Jace, the Mind Sculptor has always been the best card ever against board-control-oriented, removal-dense decks. Punishing Fire emerged in Legacy both as a way to fight small creatures and as a way to keep Jace, the Mind Sculptor in check. If you replace Punishing Fire with Lightning Bolt, you lose a ton of edge against Miracles, against UB Tezzeret, and against any other deck that can win a game with an untouched planeswalker.
Also, just so we're clear, Punishing Fire is busted against any small midrange creature deck. Absolutely busted. There are entire decks that simply cannot beat Punishing Fire plus Liliana of the Veil or Jace, the Mind Sculptor's minus ability.
Thoughtseize: Thoughtseize is an odd duck to see next to Legacy's very own Shock. After all, you would never play Shock and Thoughtseize in the same Standard deck – either you want to get your opponent dead, or you want to disrupt and attack on a different axis.
It's a little different here. Thoughtseize is the most efficient way for this deck to buy time against combo decks. We absolutely can't cast Hymn to Tourach, nor do we want to cast Inquisition of Kozilek or Duress. Thoughtseize can take a tough-to-beat Batterskull, a Natural Order that can find Craterhoof Behemoth and kill us through a wall of sorcery-speed removal, or a Sneak Attack that would allow a combo deck to beat us from under a Liliana of the Veil lockdown. All we want from Thoughtseize is time – time to activate Liliana of the Veil, time to draw Force of Will or Counterspell or Pyroblast, time to draw cards, just more time. Given enough time, this deck can out-grind almost anyone else.
The cantrips: I've already written plenty on why I think Ponder is a better card than Preordain, but clearly Monsieur Rouz disagrees, and that's fine. I've also written plenty on why I think cantrips are excellent cards to play in control decks that want to have a huge range of sideboarded answers without overloading on any of them. This deck takes exactly that approach, playing a dozen unique sideboard cards that can interact meaningfully with almost any situation. Because Punishing Fire is so low-value against combo and because Force of Will is so low-value against Shardless BUG, having access to Brainstorm and either Ponder or Preordain is important. You need to be able to sift through the chaff and dig up more high-impact cards in each matchup, especially with a deck as slow as this one.
Force of Will: When you're playing a deck this slow, you better have a zero-mana way to interact with damn near anything. There's enough card advantage in the deck going long to recoup from giving your opponent a two-for-one, but this deck needs access to that kind of tempo play in order to survive the early game. Spell Pierce and Flusterstorm and their ilk won't cut it.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Liliana of the Veil: Basically the reasons to build the deck in this fashion. Both synergize well with Punishing Fire, both have abilities that prolong the game, and both have abilities that interact positively for us against combo decks. These are the two best planeswalkers in Legacy, and it's not really close.
Of course, he wasn't the pioneer of that particular tweak. Maxime Gilles played a similar configuration in Grand Prix Paris:
By now, a maindeck Red Blast or Pyroblast is hardly technology – it's merely a concession to the heavily-blue nature of the format. Sometimes it's dead, and that's fine because we have Brainstorm and Jace and Liliana. Other times, it's the stone cold and that's great because a one-mana Vindicate or one-mana Counterspell is obviously awesome. Seriously, how many people aren't going to jam Jace, the Mind Sculptor into an open Grove of the Burnwillows and three tapped lands?
Pyroblast it. Yeah, I maindeck that.
Just to briefly touch on the hidden beauty of Pyroblast over something more generic like Flusterstorm – this deck's manabase is horrible. There are only so many blue and black sources. Being able to interact on the stack by tapping Grove of the Burnwillows is a really important consideration when building a list of interactive spells.
Consider a more obvious situation: Wasteland in Delver decks versus High Tide. Every blue mana in Delver represents access to a counter of some sort – Spell Pierce, Red Elemental Blast, Flusterstorm... whatever you want. Drawing a Wasteland is like drawing nothing at all. It's like not have a land in play. It's a true blank.
Being able to leverage our not-well-positioned quad Taigas against combo is just good deckbuilding. A Counterspell rounds out the disruption suite, giving us a little bit of a security blanket to draw to in the late game.
Where this deck really gets going, predictably, is the sideboard. If you recall my adventures with Ponder Jund (or Delverless BUG, or what-have-you), I was all about the one-of sideboard. That hasn't changed in the slightest. I still love mising people with one-ofs, and – if I recall correctly – we did all right with that deck. Seeing this deck's sideboard templated similarly was great!
What do we want to keep?
Surgical Extraction is a little low-impact, but in a deck this mana-hungry, I can see the argument for a card that can be cast on the same turn that we tap out for a planeswalker.
Pithing Needle is excellent. This deck doesn't have many permanents at all, and people are far more likely to sideboard discard spells and counterspells to beat our interaction than they are to board in bounce spells. Of course, even if they have bounce spells, we have Thoughtseize and Force of Will to protect our on-board stopper, so it's not like they have any good options.
Envelop has long been a personal favorite of mine. We're interested in stopping Show and Tell, Natural Order, Green Sun's Zenith, Glimpse of Nature, Infernal Tutor, Past in Flames, and basically every other powerful sorcery in the game. That said, Swan Song is just better. It stops everything in the Sneak and Show deck while also stopping their backbreaking Blood Moons. I would play three Swan Songs in the sideboard and lean on Liliana and Jace to clean up the Birds that get left behind. Being able to stop Counterbalance and Entreat the Angels out of Miracles is a huge deal as well, given how much we rely on Punishing Fire to keep opposing Jace, the Mind Sculptors in check.
I don't know how many Red Blasts is the correct number, but I can absolutely believe that three is desirable in sideboard games.
For all the reasons that I love Cage and Needle, I dislike Relic. It works against our Deathrite Shamans and Punishing Fires, it's a one-shot effect in a deck that wants to play long enough to really want game-long cards like Grafdigger's Cage and Pithing Needle, and it shuts off our Punishing Fires.
If we're interested in another card that fights graveyard decks, we have plenty to choose from. We could even play another Grafdigger's Cage. If we want to beat Tarmogoyf decks, we have options ranging from Pernicious Deed to Engineered Explosives to Innocent Blood to a bunch of other cards that don't hurt our Punishing Fires.
On the other hand, I can understand the versatility of a card like Relic of Progenitus against Storm, as a way to keep Tarmogoyf in check, as a way to fight opposing Punishing Fires, and as a way to slow down opposing Deathrite Shamans. I just think we can do better.
Lightning Bolt isn't a sideboard card. Sorry. I get that Lightning Bolt is better than Disfigure, but if we're just going to play a one-mana removal spell for the velocity, why not play Innocent Blood? At least with Innocent Blood, we can kill Nimble Mongoose and True-Name Nemesis.
Abrupt Decay is a workhorse kind of card – blows up Counterbalance, is kind of a play-it-safe answer to Blood Moon, kills creatures in tempo matchups, that sort of thing. I could see playing up to three, depending on how much help you want against various problem permanents.
And finally, last but certainly not least, we have Kiora, the Crashing Wave. I think that this is one of the most beautifully excessive sideboard choices ever. It's basically a Liliana of the Veil that ticks up, gets Lightning Bolted, and can win the game instead of sitting around and waiting for Jace to show up. If you ever wanted to sleeve up Kiora in Legacy, this would be the deck to do it in. I would just recommend that you board it in against Tarmogoyf and very few other places.
If you want more spice, I would recommend checking out Null Rod (some jerk is always showing up with Metalworker, plus it shuts off Sensei's Divining Top, Lotus Petal, and Lion's Eye Diamond) and Notion Thief. So long as you write out exactly what you want against your targeted matchups and ensure that your cuts and additions line up well, you'll be fine with whatever sideboard you're packing.
One last word of advice: this is not going to be a great weekend for True-Name Nemesis. If people are gunning for Elves and Death and Taxes, your 3/1 for three is going to get caught in a hailstorm of Golgari Charms, Engineered Plagues, Drown in Sorrows, and Toxic Deluges. Personally, though, I wouldn't want to attack with blue creatures in Columbus. You can do whatever you want.
Whether you're with them or against them, though, I would definitely recommend brushing up on how to play against all those small creatures with activated abilities. You'll see a lot of them this weekend. Good luck!