Having played Legacy for ten years, well before the recent surge in growth and popularity of the format, I now find myself in the somewhat strange position of being more experienced than the vast majority of Legacy players. Having grown up in the Magic community, I became used to being the young kid learning the ropes, but in the last few years I have had to embrace the new role of grizzled veteran, offering what little wisdom I have gained from my experience.
With the rise of Legacy, one question I have answered more than most is what Legacy deck an inexperienced player should pick for a large tournament like an Open, Invitational, or Grand Prix. Most people only play a handful of Legacy tournaments each year and cannot take the time to gain expert level proficiency with a deck or keep up with the format in the same way they do Standard or even Modern. Still, lack of reasonable preparation has never been an excuse for a Magic player to miss a Magic tournament.
So in advance of the Legacy Open in Worcester, here are the various decks that I would recommend for a Legacy tournament in the current format, categorized by what type of player should consider them. Within each group I will briefly expand on the nuances of the individual decks and what kind of skill set is necessary to pilot them effectively when short on groundwork.
Group 1: I Want to Ignore My Opponent as Much as Possible
Playing something non-interactive is the most common advice offered to inexperienced Legacy players. With these decks you can often reduce the game to solving a puzzle of your own cards and avoid the complex interactions that can come up in Legacy games.
I typically counter with the point that combo decks are not often available in Standard and play less aggressively in Modern. It is easy to watch someone cast Show and Tell into Griselbrand for ten straight rounds and characterize Sneak and Show as mindless, but there is a certain mentality that comes into playing non-interactive decks effectively-a good sense of timing and a willingness to accept high-risk plays.
When playing a combo deck, your opponent is going to act quickly to set up a solid defense along with a means of pressuring your life total. Most players are more concerned with the disruption spells since they get more press. After all, it is the Force of Wills, Thoughtseizes, and Meddling Mages that actually stop you from assembling your combo. However, in most games it is the pressure that matters the most.
If your opponent has no clock, these combo decks are powerful and resilient enough through the use of deck manipulation spells like Brainstorm, Ponder, and Dig Through Time that they can fight through a seemingly insurmountable amount of disruption. Often you will simply choke your opponent on mana by waiting for a key turn where they can only cast 1-2 disruption spells instead of 3-4 or you will simply find enough action to bait their disruption and rebuild. In the absence of a clock, it is the combo deck that has inevitability.
As soon as a Tarmogoyf, Delver of Secrets, or Stoneforge Mystic enters the battlefield, your ability to play around or through disruption is severely hampered. Suddenly you do not have enough time to wait for the necessary land drops to blank a possible Spell Pierce or Daze or to find a second Show and Tell if your opponent has the Force of Will. Once you are under any amount of pressure, you need to stop looking for the sure thing and start looking for the best opportunity. Every turn you should ask yourself one key question:
Is this situation going to get better or worse?
If it is getting better, then keep waiting until you absolutely can't. If it is getting worse, it is time to roll the dice and hope the casino doesn't take all your money. Good luck!
The idea of doing this is off-putting to many people because it seems like your fate is entirely out of your control. In reality you are just maximizing your chances of winning the game. With fair decks there are plenty of key decision points that shape the course of a given game, but often they are not apparent at the time due to hidden information. With combo decks, they are much more often apparent at the time, and accepting this and using it to your advantage is the key to piloting them effectively.
In terms of these three decks in particular, Sneak and Show is the most aggressive. With the redundancy of combo pieces and fast mana, you are often better off going for it before your opponent can find their disruption. This dynamic is furthered by the fact that your "combo" does not win the game on the spot, so you have to allow for the time for your creatures to win the game. Speed is your ally, and you must be completely fearless. When in doubt, let it ride.
Storm is next on the aggression scale. The discard spells not only let you interact with your opponent, they give you key information that lets you sculpt a game to a favorable spot. However, when your draw is mostly mana it is almost always correct to go for it. Storm is thus the most flexible in this respect, determining the appropriate level of aggression based on its draw as well as the amount of pressure it is under.
Omni-Tell is the most deliberate (read: slowest) of the combo decks. You often win the turn Omniscience enters the battlefield either by having a Cunning Wish/Emrakul, the Aeons Torn already in hand or by chaining Dig Through Times and various cantrips into a kill. The large number of deck manipulation spells and relatively few number of combo pieces in Omni-Tell force you to spend more time setting up and digging for the necessary disruption rather than trying to re-establish the combo multiple times. If you still have some fear but want to play a combo deck, I would go with this one.
Group 2: I Want My Opponents To Be Miserable
These are the grindy control decks of Legacy and are appropriate for those players that like to watch the hope slowly drain from their opponent's face as they see their chance of winning the game dwindle to nothing. It takes a special kind of misanthrope to want to do this to people, but let's take a peek at the dark side, shall we?
Get ready to play 30+ minute games regularly if you want to play one of these. As such, the key to playing these decks is the exact opposite of group one: patience. The decks in Legacy are powerful enough to break out of every soft lock, so you have to constantly be watching their window of opportunity to make sure it does not open, not even a crack. Only the most disciplined players can ignore the temptation to go for the kill because they are only 90% sure it will work.
To be fair, Lands has deviated from its glacially slow beginnings of recurring Barbarian Ring or attacking with Creeping Tar Pit to win the game. Nowadays it incorporates the powerful Dark Depths + Thespian's Stage combo, allowing it to end games very quickly if necessary. Still, most of your games will be won by locking out your opponent's meaningful means of interaction and then assembling the kill almost as an afterthought. Your focus should be on stopping your opponent unless you know they have no way of dealing with a Marit Lage token.
Miracles, through the use of Entreat the Angels, may seem to possess a similar means of ending the game quickly, and in some cases that is true, but Entreat's vulnerability to soft countermagic often forces you to play more conservatively either by casting it for a relatively small amount or waiting until you have an extra land or two.
Given how prone these decks are to playing long games, the other key resource to manage in order to pilot them successfully is the clock. It may not seem important that dredging your Life from the Loam or activating your Sensei's Divining Top takes 5-10 seconds more than average, but when you do it twenty or more times in a game those seconds turn into minutes and make finishing a three-game match difficult.
On the razor thin margins these decks control the game with, it is untenable to play too quickly yourself, so what is actually key is learning to manage the mechanics of your game play at a fast pace. Limit your shuffling of cards in hand, do not slow roll your draw steps, and most of all ensure your opponent is playing at a reasonable pace. This is especially true during the later stages of the game when you are insurmountably ahead and are just searching for a win condition. You must be cognizant of every aspect of the match in order to succeed with these decks.
Group 3: I Want to Play the Best Deck
These are typically the decks I suggest to new players because they play familiar styles of games. Some creatures, some removal spells, some counterspells, and maybe some discard. These are familiar types of effects to players that spend most of their time focused on Standard and Limited. I have once again listed them in order of aggression from most (Temur Delver) to least (Shardless Sultai).
These decks also have the most divergent playstyles, so I will largely deal with them individually, but there is a common thread in them. These decks are composed of the most powerful and efficient spells in Legacy, so while they do have preferred plans of attack, they are malleable enough to play outside their comfort zone and succeed. They are the most non-linear decks in the format, and you must always be cognizant of your role in the game. Being able to project how the game is going to play out three, five, or even ten turns later and formulate a gameplan to win that type of game is paramount to your success.
Temur Delver is the default aggressive deck in the format. There was a time when true aggro decks like Zoo could have success in Legacy, but the increased consistency of combo decks combined with the increased defensive capability of midrange decks (no more Werebear nonsense) has forced the aggressive decks to be more disruptive. While Temur Delver can at times run away with a game with an early curve of creatures, the true focus is actually on the disruptive side.
Your aggression needs to be calculated in a way that allows you to keep your opponent from developing out of the early stages of the game for as long as possible. Because of this, the key skill in piloting Temur Delver is in your sequencing. Cards like Stifle and Daze can be made irrelevant very quickly, so you must prioritize getting the most value out of them. Ideally, you will have a creature in play so that each time you trade your 0-1 mana spell for their 1-3 mana spell, you generate an extra attack step that further pressures your opponent and limits their lines of play.
Once the opponent stabilizes, often the only way out is to draw enough burn to finish them off; the best Temur Delver pilots win many games on razor thin margins, often winning on the turn before their opponent stabilizes, using every card in the process.
Whereas Temur Delver is best characterized as aggro, Sultai Delver is the midrange-aggro deck akin to Abzan Aggro in Standard. It sacrifices some coherency with the aggressive gameplan in order to be slightly bigger and more powerful. This makes Sultai Delver better positioned to play longer games because fewer of its cards have high diminishing returns over time. I mentioned role assessment as key to all the decks in this group, but it is particularly true for Sultai Delver. You can win on turn 5 or turn 20 and always make it look routine, so you have to keep an open mind in every game to find the best line and take into account every variable, including your opponent's playstyle. Tunnel vision is more than a bulk rare; it is your sworn enemy.
Shardless Sultai is the preeminent midrange deck of the format. There is some aggressive capability with Deathrite Shaman and Tarmogoyf, but the deck prefers to play a slower, attrition-oriented game. The power of Ancestral Vision means that trading resources will usually result in you pulling ahead; this deck is classic, card-advantage Magic at its finest. If you like to grind your opponents into dust with powerful creatures, removal, and card draw, this is your deck.
As with most midrange decks, the key to piloting Shardless Sultai is knowing when to turn the corner from defense to offense. Unlike a true control deck like Miracles, you will want to be more aggressive in flipping the switch since your controlling elements will only leave you stable for a small window. Fortunately, cards like Tarmogoyf and Deathrite Shaman provide a robust enough clock to end the game in short order. The shift to aggression will further limit your opponent's options as they have to fight to both protect their life total and regain board advantage. As such, it is once you have the opportunity to force them to fight on both fronts that you want to strike.
Group 4: I Am a Ross Merriam Groupie
- 2 Birchlore Rangers
- 2 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 4 Heritage Druid
- 4 Nettle Sentinel
- 4 Quirion Ranger
- 4 Wirewood Symbiote
- 2 Dryad Arbor
I may have set down my beloved Elves, but I still think the deck is powerful enough to compete. From a strategic point of view, Elves is quite the enigma, often generating debate even among its adherents. Some view it as a midrange deck first and combo deck second, while I see things the other way around. Whatever your preference, the presence of both styles creates some interesting games.
Sometimes you play aggressively for the kill and end the game on turn 3. Other times, you ignore the combo elements and play attrition with Wirewood Symbiote and Elvish Visionary while applying some pressure with careful attacks and Deathrite Shaman. The tension between these styles comes from the desire to develop your board to be aggressive and threaten Natural Order or Green Sun's Zenith for Craterhoof Behemoth versus being conservative and holding back for Glimpse of Nature.
When playing Elves, the most important skill is balancing these competing forces and successfully leaving both options open. Elves does not play direct interaction and instead relies on its own array of angles of attack in order to narrow the opponent's range of plays. If you eliminate one or more of these options, your opponent has less to consider and thus, more options at their disposal.
Now obviously these are far from the only decks in the format. Legacy is best known for its diversity, and if your goal is to have fun, perhaps you should look at one of the more, shall we say…unique options. But if your goal is to win as many matches as possible, this guide should leave you pointed in the right direction, a Legacy compass if you will, freeing you from the wilderness of Metalworkers, Goblin Charbelchers, and Golgari Grave-Trolls that are often thrust upon inexperienced and unsuspecting players. Just be sure to pass along your knowledge once you are as grizzled (read: over the hill) as I am.