A while ago I wrote a history-piece about the three most important decks ever built. Today I'm going to do something similar but with a twist. To start off, I'll trace the development of a certain archetype and its underlying theory that has done more than any other to give Legacy the face we all know and love: Grow. However, whereas the last article was a pure history piece, there are some recent developments in Legacy that allow us to draw much closer parallels and actual conclusions concerning the current format and its development by fully understanding how Grow came to be and how it evolved, so instead of ending things once I'm done with the history lesson, I'll apply what we've learned to further our grasp of what Legacy looks like today.
Way Back When
Those of you that happened to catch the aforementioned article might remember that it actually mentioned four decks instead of just three - I included the following little beauty that started it all as a runner up:
If you haven't figured it out already, this is the deck with which Alan Comer innovated the enticing concept of replacing lands with cheap library manipulation cantrips that is by now at the heart of essentially all the Brainstorm-fueled blue decks in Legacy. Even back then, the concept was convincing enough that the deck became the first net-deck phenomenon - which is what earned it the Turbo Xerox moniker.
At its heart, this is a mono-blue control deck along the lines of an actual Draw Go strategy - just look at those beautiful nineteen counterspells - that chose a reasonably cheap, efficient finisher that allowed it to also play a disruptive tempo game should it stick early (Waterspout Djinn - yes it was a different time).
The Crucial Missing Piece
While the deck saw widespread adoption (for the time), both deck and concept faded into the background for a long time - until Mercadian Masques came out and Alan re-applied his theory to create a different deck, one destined to turn into one of the best Extended decks ever conceived. The culprit? An innocuous-looking Mercadian Masques common that would go on to be banned in Legacy and restricted multiple times (with intervening unrestrictions) in Vintage:
Alan realized that returning lands to your hand, far from being a cost, was actually advantageous in a deck built around his concept of shaving lands for library manipulation because it allowed you to draw cards for free while also allowing you to take advantage of additional landdrops you'd just have skimmed over without the returned Islands. He also found one beautiful threat that served as the ideal pay-off for playing so many cheap or free blue spells in Quirion Dryad, resulting in this beautiful, highly disruptive aggro-tempo deck:
The deck still borrowed heavily from Counter Slivers and Merfolk - the aggro-control decks preceding it - in running a relatively large creature base and Lord of Atlantis, but instead of focusing on the aggression, the deck cut down on lands to make room for a lot of card drawing and free spells. At this point, the deck still relied on playing the traditional disruptive aggro tempo game of sticking a threat or two and defending them, using its card drawing and mana denial (Winter Orb is insane when mana curves don't end at two) to keep ahead until the creatures had finished their job.
Branching Out Strategically
The final step in Grow's evolution in Extended changed that. Alex Shvartsman and Ben Rubin realized independently that the core skeleton the deck was built around was powerful enough to make such a single-minded focus on playing an aggressive tempo game utterly unnecessary, creating these two lists:
[CEDitor's Note: Shvartsman's list is apparently missing 3 sideboard cards universally in archived versions of this list.]
Alex understood that, similarly to being able to cut lands thanks to the cheap library manipulation, you could also reduce the creature count without severe ill-effects to the deck's ability to end the game. Ben, on the other hand, realized that even the low land manabase could easily support three colors, making it possible to splash for access to actual removal to give the deck a more well-rounded game.
By combining these two observations, Alex then managed to craft the original skeleton of what I consider one of the best decks of all time:
I don't know if Alex realized it at the time, but the combination of low threat count (Meddling Mage is essentially additional disruption and Merfolk Looter additional card drawing), the tiny manabase, and all that countermagic plus some removal allowed Super Gro to decide which role it wanted to play. It could still deploy an early threat and protect it until victory was achieved, but its true power came from the ability to seamlessly start playing a control game and winning through sheer counterpower and card advantage.
All of this happened while I, and most other players I had regular contact with, were over in our corner enjoying the newly revitalized (at the time) Type 1 - now Vintage - format, still jamming our traditional Keeper (aka The Deck)-style control decks. However, I had just gotten to know my now long-time friend and testing partner Maxim Barkmann, who, while fully powered, didn't have much Vintage experience (the Berlin Eternal scene has always been rather small) and convinced him to join me on my next trip out of town to a Vintage event. He was interested but unsure what to play, his options being essentially PandeBurst combo (Replenish out Pandemonium and Saproling Burst for 21 damage) and porting his Extended Super Grow deck. I wasn't convinced Grow was any good - as I said, I didn't have experience with the archetype - but I knew Pandeburst was tier 2 at best, so I suggested he try porting the deck I didn't know was mediocre. He did, and man was the deck good (we met in the finals of said Vintage event).
In playtesting with Maxim, I learned to truly appreciate and understand the absurd power level of a deck that could play aggressively when pressed but was perfectly content to take the opponent into the lategame and bury them in card advantage, even against dedicated control decks that thought they should own the lategame. You see, the correct way to play this deck was not as an aggro deck. Instead you used your creatures to occupy your opponent's attention and resources early in the game while you set up to profit from drawing a lot fewer lands and having free card drawing later in the game. Here's what that deck turned into before Gush was restricted in Vintage (for the first time):
What I've written so far is all that I'd need to make the points I want to make about current Legacy; however, I would be remiss if I ignored the true king of the Grow archetype, created by then Pro-player Roland Bode (independently as far as I know) about two months after Maxim and I had started working on porting his Super Grow deck - Gro-A-Tog (GAT), still a contender for the best Vintage deck ever made and one that dominated two of the three Vintage formats that four Gush were legal in (the current one being the exception). This is the list Roland put the deck on the map with. It survived (and dominated) without any major changes until Gush hit the restricted list for the first time in summer 2003:
What Roland had done to break the format is to identify the incredible raw power of the Gush engine, its synergy with Standard powerhouse Psychatog, and heretofore mostly unused restricted bomb Fastbond, and the opportunity to take utterly absurd Yawgmoth's Will turns that set up provided. This deck is still the only fully realized aggro-combo-control deck I'm aware of and played every single one of these roles with consummate ease. You could drop an early Dryad, protect it and grow it out of control rapidly to rush the opponent down or dominate creature decks; control the game with countermagic while refueling for free and winning at your leisure; or deploy an early Psychatog, cast Gush and Berserk on it for the win as soon as the next turn rolled around. Fastbond even allowed the deck to go off Storm style to set up the whole Psychatog into Berserk line after Fastbond plus Yawgmoth's Will into Time Walk had already taken over the game.
And Now, For Something Completely Different...
So what does all of this have to do with Legacy more than ten years later? Well...
Look at Bob's deck again with what we've learned above in mind. It's a two-color aggro deck that uses free countermagic and an extremely undercosted card drawing spell to get ahead and then stay ahead until the opponent falls over. Sound familiar yet?
I mean, sure, Bob has already applied the "cantrips allow for less threats as well as less lands" knowledge Grow players had to develop so his deck feels a lot more refined than Alan Comer's first build already. However, once you accept that, compare his list to Alex Shvartsman's low-creature count two-color list. The parallels should be more than evident, even given that Alex needed to play green for his threats while Bob had access to red, and therefore, actually decent removal spells.
If you're an observant reader, you already know where that is going and why I've felt foolish ever since Grand Prix New Jersey. Given history, the next logical step to take at that point is to turn Miracle Grow into Super Grow, reaping similar benefits. I wonder what doing that could look like. Oh, wait:
I'm not sure if Brian was aware of what he was doing - from the little I've heard, he simply arrived at his list by tuning from a more control-ish Stoneblade shell - but in reality, that doesn't actually matter all that much. He found Super Grow, Treasure Cruise edition. Better removal, slightly larger, more powerful threats, and all held together by the most tempo-efficient heavy draw engine available.
From looking at the list and the little testing I've done, his list has exactly the same ability Super Grow had to fluidly shift between two opposed yet strangely complementary gameplans. His list can deploy early threats that require an answer ASAP and can even try to go all-in on protecting one of these threats when that seems like the winning line. However the deck still is perfectly poised to play a long game in which the creatures serve as perfect distractions while he sets up to bury the opponent in card advantage. In fact, and you know this if you saw Brian's play at the GP, this card advantage gameplan is actually the deck's primary gameplan even though it might not look it on first sight, exactly in the same way great Grow players would grind me out with my clunky control deck back in 2002-03.
I'm not sure if, like Super Grow in Extended, Brian's list is the first sighting of the tempo-Cruise archetypes final evolution or if there is something even more ridiculously powerful waiting to be found as it was in Vintage. What I am convinced of however is that his deck is head and shoulders above its U/R predecessor in the same way that Super Grow was utterly superior to Miracle Grow back in the early 2000s. By making the hard cut - Delver of Secrets has a reputation for a reason - Brian managed to evolve the Treasure Cruise strategy from the slightly upgraded pre-Khans Delver decks we have been using so far to something that is actually capable of taking full advantage of suddenly having an overwhelmingly powerful, tempo efficient draw engine.
Solutions from the Past?
I'd have loved to use all that knowledge we have about the Gush strategies of the past to suggest effective solutions to attack our current iteration of Super Grow with. There's a tiny problem with that, however:
Grow has never been solved with cards we have access to.
In Extended, the deck that served to keep Super Grow in check was Oath of Druids Control - an easy to resolve two mana enchantment that made winning with creatures impossible meant Oath could concentrate on effectively counteracting Grow's draw engine. However, we simply don't have that kind of thing available to us given that Oath is banned (luckily, given the dumb fatties we have access to today).
Looking at Vintage and how we dealt with GAT is slightly more fruitful, yet still full of problems. You see, even Vintage never actually solved GAT unless certain core pieces of the strategy (Gush historically, Merchant Scroll and Brainstorm today) were restricted. As long as the full engine was legal, GAT was, if not the, uncontested best deck, or at least the clear shaper of the format while still undoubtedly remaining one of the best.
The less useful of the two decks that actually managed to keep GAT somewhat in check in Vintage were my very own The Shining Future Sight combo-control deck (from personal experience, the deck never really saw widespread adoption) that managed to do so by having access to just as much card drawing, slightly more (and more powerful) disruption thanks to being able to abuse Mana Drain, more broken mana acceleration and Burning Wish for Yawgmoth's Will. I've been looking for a deck with similar qualities (heavy control game into turn 3 to 4 combo win potential) in Legacy ever since I started playing the format, and I've yet to find the tools to do something like that, so looking there isn't really an option.
The other solution Vintage players came up with may have some applicability: Stax. Yes, what we know as one of the backbone archetypes of Vintage today earned its spurs as a metagame solution to GAT way back in 2003. With its focus on mana denial and taxing the opponent's ability to actually play spells, the deck is a natural foil to the Grow archetypes reliance on chaining spells, returning its lands, and running an exceedingly low land count to begin with.
Now, Treasure Cruise is a different card from Gush (you get to keep your lands in play when casting it) but the flaws of the strategy still translate reasonably well. If you can't cast your cantrips, Treasure Cruise will simply be uncastable and you rely on the velocity of playing a multitude of spells each turn to find your answers, threats, and mana sources just as much as the Grow decks did.
The problem with that solution? We don't have Mishra's Workshop in Legacy (thank god). However, the basic approach is something that might be easy enough to emulate. Death and Taxes already focuses on playing a mana denial game so that might be a starting point. Thalia is great in the deck so maybe with the increasing focus on combo decks and cantrip-fueled blue decks we're seeing, Thorn of Amethyst is actually a viable maindeck solution for the deck? Similarly, Lands has already received quite the boost from the reduced number of Wastelands floating around and plans to Wasteland its opponents out of the game, so that another thing to look at.
In addition, while we might not have Mishra's Workshop, we do have the Sol-lands to provide a massive colorless mana boost early in the game and Chalice of the Void to take full advantage of it to hurt those low mana curves. Brian punched through MUD twice on his way to the GP title, but I think that might be more related to Legacy MUD (those missing Workshops hurt a lot if your ways to stabilize the board start with Wurmcoil Engine) than the deck's actual matchup against a disruption-focused Sol-land deck. If you aren't a fan of the blue cards, turning your eye towards a two mana land into Chalice of the Void or another disruptive artifact of your choice sounds like a very valid plan. Just make sure you figure out some way to beat Stoneforge Mystic into Force of Will that doesn't cost six mana, and I think you're already halfway to where you need to be.
Finally, let me make sure you understand what I'm trying to say in this part of the article. I was bemoaning the fact that there was very little to learn from the past on how to deal with the next evolution of the Treasure Cruise strategy that can be implemented in Legacy. What I was not trying to say is that there are no solutions.
Look at the VS Video CVM and BBD recorded on Friday to kick of GP New Jersey. Jund crushed Brian's deck convincingly, with Liliana of the Veil and Punishing Fire playing the role of Oath of Druids in old Extended. I don't doubt that there are other strategies out there that can easily hang with or defeat the new Stoneblade menace (his game 1 matchup against combo at least has to be utterly terrible, for example). GAT, the deck that truly defied solving, is a much more powerful beast than Super Grow, and what we're looking at in Brian's deck is very definitely Super Grow, not GAT.
The question is - is GAT still out there somewhere, just waiting to be found?