I played in my first ever Legacy tournament this past Saturday at Alex Shartsman's Kings Games in Brooklyn, New York. You probably know that once upon a time Alex was the king of the Grand Prix circuit and a crack reporter for The Sideboard (back when they still had The Sideboard), but today his gaming efforts are focused on the Vs. System and in running Kings Games.
Anyway, there was a Grand Prix Trial for Philadelphia there, so Alex's store attracted a lot of non-regulars. The turnout was decent for a Grand Prix Trial not at a major event, with many Manhattan-area players that usually play at Neutral Ground in attendance; the highlights were many: Attendees included U.S. Nationals Top 8 competitor Chris Manning, Sped legend Jamie Parke, and Meddling Mage Chris Pikula. The three of them all work together at the same trading firm. Manning is only two composite points away from a Worlds invitation and decided not to play despite my assurances that his friends would all scoop to him and anyone whom he didn't know was probably a 90% matchup, but he hadn't practiced. Jamie couldn't find Pithing Needles for his Goblins deck in time and elected not to play without an optimal list, but both of them stayed on and playtested the format and hung out during the day.
Personally, I played the Red Deck
I would usually have tested more, but I have mostly been testing Extended for the Pro Tour. I figured that the Legacy format would be split between Landstill, Goblins, and random combo decks essentially representing the trite triangle of control, beatdown, and (surprise, surprise) combo. Decks like Landstill always lose to decks like the Red Deck so I didn't bother testing that matchup. I decided having a million two-power creatures for one mana and a million REBs would be enough against random combo decks, so I just tested against Goblins (specifically the deck that won the Legacy Champs this year).
My testing said that the games were mathematically pretty even in Game One. I was fairly dissatisfied because it seemed to me that the Red Deck was losing these hella close games where it would be turn 12 and it hadn't drawn any burn spell yet and Goblins was on 2. The games the Red Deck won were mostly blowouts where Goblins was either behind on tempo or locked under Cursed Scroll while getting pounded with Fireblasts. Therefore I elected just to side exactly four cards for my Jackal Pups, being the Incinerators.
Oh, I actually tested a slightly different deck than I brought to the tournament:
The night before the tournament I couldn't find any Mishra's Factories and anyway, they kept making me not hit Ball Lightning on turn 3. Chain Lightning was pretty eh (even though it did three damage for one mana) because it couldn't stop a haste attack from Warchief or Piledriver. Conveniently all of mine are in my parents' house in Ohio. Anyway, I like Magma Jet the best, so I figured I could cheat on two lands and just play Jets. Like basically every other player in the tournament I couldn't get Pithing Needles, which is where the Straw Golems originated.
To make a long story short, this deck is super good. However I am super average and went 2-2-1 in the trial.
Round 1 I played against Landstill. It was a fairly easy 2-0. In Game One I actually screwed up and played a non-lethal Fireblast sacrificing my only two basic Mountains. I had all four Taigas out, but then he got Crucible of Worlds and started smashing all my lands. Luckily I ripped another burn spell the last turn and won despite the stupid Fireblast play.
Round 2 I played against Landstill. It was a super easy 2-0.
Round 3 I played against Goblins. In Game 1 kept a one-land hand which was a Ball Lightning, a Mountain, and five things I could cast, but I missed two consecutive drops on the draw and fell way behind. This was probably my fault, though I made a tight-yet-controversial play in the midgame. I was on three lands and he had just played Matron for Kiki-Jiki. He played Kiki-Jiki and was basically out. He tried to copy the Matron; I was pretty sure that I had to kill the Matron or I would be losing to Goblin Ringleader + Kiki-Jiki post haste and sacrificed two of my Mountains to do so, leaving me with only one land and him with only Kiki-Jiki. This was 100% right I think and he was kold for the next several turns; unfortunately my mana situation was so awful that I could never capitalize and he was already too far ahead and my replacement lands took a long time showing up. Game Two I just got blown out by a Jitte, which was awful.
Round 4 I played against James Lee, the guy I met in the finals of the PTQ two weeks ago. I saw he was playing Mountains the previous round and offered the draw, which he accepted. It turns out he was playing the Flame Rift burn deck and if I had known I don't think I would have offered the draw. It's just that there were two other Red Decks in contention and every other player that could make the Top 8 was playing some sort of B/W or Landstill deck and I figured it was better to draw against Mountain and murder Plains the next round.
Round 5 was Mark Schmidt with Goblins. So obviously I didn't get one of the Plains pairings I was looking for... Game One I buried him easily. Game two I got him to six but he had Pithing Needle on Cursed Scroll. He sat on six for three or four turns and I was eventually dead to a Goblins Alpha Strike. Game three I twiddled my thumbs with a hand of Incinerate, Lightning Bolt, double Fireblast against Pithing Needle again while my Cursed Scroll mocked me. He won on like 18 but if not for the Pithing Needle, I was definitely Top 8, winning either of the last two games.
Structural Problems with the Red Deck:
I really like the Red Deck but this tournament clearly shows how I built the sideboard wrong. The main deck is very good, but the sideboard has serious structural flaws. I only tested against Goblins, which I thought to be a winnable matchup that could go either way, so I decided to do an efficiency swap and take out bad Jackal Pup for good Gempalm Incinerator. The reason this is bad is that I tested with Jamie Parke - Sped Red Superstar who won both a U.S. Open and made the finals of the World Championships with Jackal Pup et al - and learned a ton. The Red Deck v. Goblins matchup (from the Red Deck side) is basically about getting active Cursed Scroll online, at which point it can pick off the key Goblins and basically never lose. I was under the impression that I should take out my Pups and just get some card advantage and set up lands and Scrolls. However Jamie pointed out that Pups are good "enough" because they help you get under Cursed Scroll and trade early in a matchup where early game damage is basically irrelevant. Therefore Jamie suggested taking out Fireblast, the card most likely to clog Cursed Scroll (for my Game Three against Mark Schmidt, I sided all the 'Blasts back in because I wanted to be able to finish in the case that he had Pithing Needle again).
The problem arises in that Pithing Needle after boards switches the matchup dramatically in favor of Goblins. The Red Deck's entire strategy revolves around early game attrition and long game Cursed Scroll, but an unchecked Pithing Needle sort of walks away with the Red Deck's basket full of prize-winning eggs.
The secret to correctly sideboarding is in Pithing Needle itself, its missing function in the Red Deck. I originally intended to play Pithing Needle to trump Circle of Protection: Red, an enchantment. My solution was to play a different card to trump Circle of Protection: Red, Straw Golem. It was effective, but the Landstill matchup is so easy I don't think you need a random 2/3 with all the REBs making your spells resolve. However I should have chosen a different Circle trump in Naturalize. Naturalize is actually better against Circle than Pithing Needle provided either resolves (you remove their Circle instead of their potentially removing your Pithing Needle with Disenchant) and it trumps the Goblin plan of Pithing Needle on Cursed Scroll. Red Deck puts all its chips behind Cursed Scroll, which ruins Goblins's day, but Goblins does the same with Pithing Needle. If Pithing Needle leaves play, the game returns to a status quo where Cursed Scroll is trump and Goblins loses again. Meanwhile Naturalize is a cheap instant that can help reduce hands size and kill Aether Vial in the absence of Pithing Needle and anyway, there are several cards that aren't great in the matchup, so it's not an issue of room.
I played Landstill in the tournament twice and it was super easy. [Apparently Mike found a new favorite phrase while he was off last week. - Knut] Further, I tested a ton with Chris Pikula (who made Top 8), and the theories were confirmed. We played maybe six or seven games and Chris only won one of them. After boards Landstill gets a ton of tools, but I was siding as many as 11 cards in some of my matches. I would be perfectly willing to side 8 REB and 3 Naturalize against Landstill, which makes great use of the tempo advantage of the Red Deck. Early game Red Deck has a ton of significant threats for low mana and Landstill is always backpedaling. In later turns the Red Deck can just win a counter war over Circle of Protection: Red or ensure that Cursed Scroll (which can't be stopped by the Circle) resolves. I didn't play against Pulse of the Fields at all, and I'm sure that would make the matchup hairier, but in my experience this matchup is in favor of the Red Deck.
I think that with Naturalize + Gempalm Incinerator coming in for a mix of Fireblasts, Ball Lightnings, and Jackal Pups, the matchup is probably well in favor of the Red Deck, if not a lock. If the opponent doesn't have Pithing Needle, Cursed Scroll is trump and you have 8 ways of digging up land + Scrolls while killing Warchiefs and Piledrivers in the early game; also you can always tag their Aether Vials, which is reasonable.
Random Combo Decks:
8-12 two-power creatures for one mana + 8 REB is bad news for High Tide or Future Sight decks. Unlike decks based on Duress disruption, you have insane beatdown early and close with Ball Lightning and Fireblast. It's kind of like your four-turn clock against their four-turn clock... except you have more countermagic. I haven't ever tested this theory, and in fact I assume you lose the first game the majority of the time, but I won a lot in Extended when High Tide was the king, and the beatdown decks didn't have Kird Ape back then, whereas the combo decks were 100 times as good as they are in Legacy with cards like Time Spiral and Yawgmoth's Will. Do the math. Actually I guess it's more of a logic problem.
This strategy is obviously a lot worse against decks like Charbelcher, but I don't think those are going to show up in great force, nor were there any in the tournament I played in.
The Format as a Whole:
I found the Legacy format to be extremely interesting. Unlike Vintage, where every deck is a partial combo deck, Legacy seems to be a highly interactive and ultimately solvable format. It reminds me of a sequence of Extended formats from Spring 1999 to last year's, both of which were good formats (as were many in-between). Formats like Legacy have many potential decks, but that ultimately doesn't matter because so many of them interact in identical ways. For example there might be Trix, Future Sight, and High Tide combo decks, but you can fight all of them the same way. The non-Blue combo decks are a different story, but I decided to ignore those and didn't get matched up against any of them anyway.
The interesting thing I found was that there is no "real" control deck in Legacy. It was odd to me that a deck like Landstill was the #1 so-called "control" deck. It has barely any counters, can't stop an aggressive deck from hitting it with a Ball Lightning, and ultimately has to sit behind white cards like a Slide deck or something. Pikula pointed out that you can't play a deck like Psychatog - a real control deck - because said deck would have difficulty controlling the opponent, who has cards like Swords to Plowshares or REB to kill its namesake threat.
Ultimately, the Landstill mirror is about the swingingest mirror I have seen since U/R Tinker v. U/R Tinker at PT: New York 1999. It's nearly impossible to figure out who is going to win merely by watching such meaningless things as "who makes or misses his land drops" or "what specific cards each player draws." For example in Pikula's Top 8 mirror matchup, Chris missed his fifth land drop three straight times. In each of the relevant turns, Chris's opponent played Meddling Mage naming "Standstill"... And Chris Tapped Out To Wrath Of God Himself. Multiple times his opponent got some sort of Crucible of Worlds advantage and started going Wasteland happy... But Pikula, who had missed between three and ten drops over the course of the game, ultimately won with a hard-cast Eternal Dragon. Chris mised the Dragon, played it, and the opponent played a Wrath of God, leaving a basic Plains open. Chris assumed the worst but figured he wasn't going to win any other way and Force of Willed the Wrath. Nope, no Swords to Plowshares... they were the last four cards of his opponent's deck.
There is another Grand Prix Trial coming up, next time at Neutral Ground - New York. I think I'll play the same Red Deck, but with this sideboard:
4 Gempalm Incinerator
4 Red Elemental Blast
I hope it isn't the same weekend of the Pro Tour or something, because then that last paragraph or whatever would be moot.
Steve Sadin showed up but, much like Manning and Jamie, didn't play in the Grand Prix Trial. Instead he loaned me 2 Magma Jets, 1 Taiga, and 2 Grim Lavamancers. I loaned him a Savage Beatdown back. I went 2-2-1. He won the $1000 Vs. equivalent of a JSS. Great job, Steve!