With little else of interest to do before the Ravnica prerelease, and a month's worth of anticipatory energy building up waiting to see what's in the new expansion, I should have guessed that it was only a matter of time before I got started poking around in the Legacy format. With the most intelligent and interesting articles about Magic these past few weeks being presented by Star City Games' latest gem addition to the writer's stall, Nathan Xaxson, reading turned to thinking, thinking turned to tinkering and experimenting, and out of nowhere (or so it seemed) decklists began to appear scrawled on pieces of paper lying all over the place. In part, it's a history lesson: the Legacy format has the potential to combine the best decks of Magic's past in a format where they butt heads with the most vicious decks of the present day, especially when they are being ported over to the Legacy format from Vintage.
I'll be the first to admit that I know surprisingly little about Vintage, having only played the format once in the past five years. Even when I had the cards to play the format, I didn't; they were used to trade and build a collection to no specific purpose other than because I could. What you can read on the Internet about the format tells only half of the story, and with so much distance between what you can do in Legacy and what is possible (or downright commonplace) thanks to the restricted list in Vintage, it's the historical aspect of Legacy that seems to interest me the most. Mining the past for potential archetypes brings up rather a large list of examples, quite a few of which are downright invalidated by the banning of their key cards. Necro was the best deck for several years, but good luck playing it without Necropotence; same for Necro-Donate. Tinker is only "playable" if you are casting Transmute Artifact, in which case you are probably settling for low-cost cards or compromising too much by thinking of just what you can get if you trade in that Myr Enforcer. You get to play with everything, but there are rules to keep it fair.
At the moment, there are three "real" decks in Legacy: Solitaire (High Tide, which for some reason people still keep calling "Solidarity" instead of "Solitaire", every quote I've heard perpetuates the myth that there is some card game called "Solidarity" that you play by yourself), Landstill, and Goblins. Effectively, we're saying we've found the cream of the crop of aggro decks, control decks, and combo decks. I'm even willing to believe that's true, from a sheer power and consistency perspective - since Goblins is a very consistent beatdown deck with card advantage and combo elements, High Tide is an astounding card advantage deck that focuses on accumulating cards and mana before accidentally killing you as an afterthought, and Landstill is a dedicated control deck that never has to tap mana on its own turn to kill you, and has the strongest suite of tools for controlling what enters play and sticks around, attacking numerous potential weak points that will be exploitable in one deck or another. But we always look at the metagame in terms of these three, and even seem to have time-worn rules as far as what beats what. Aggro beats control, control beats combo, combo beats aggro. But we likewise have tried-and-true rules for attacking stagnant metagames, with such simple concepts as "aggro-control".
And this is where it seems to me that the lessons of the past can bear revisiting, as all that was once good might be good again. When everyone gets to play as unfairly as they want, and only have some general guidelines about how to behave, updating prior contenders to fit a modern metagame only seems appropriate. Admittedly, we're going to have to port this into an established metagame, so we don't want anything that doesn't have a chance against the rest of the field, or that is specifically bringing the wrong tools to the table. While we have an infinite number of possibilities, settling for second-best or using the wrong tools isn't really going to accomplish anything good.
Looking into the past of the Extended format, then, I came to wonder what updates if any could be made to the following archetypes:
Illusions-Donate (covered by Stephen Menendian)
Sneak Attack (a la Fujita)
Illusions-Donate was recently discussed, specifically updating the Kai Budde Trix deck from the Pro Tour it won, under the belief that the best version would be the most consistent and most elegant version of the deck. With powerful card drawing and versatile tools, the nearly-mono-Blue deck that came about following the Extended bannings on card that are likewise banned in Legacy definitely seems like the best place to start, rather than some multicolor concoction using potentially more powerful but less consistent cards to increase the speed of the combo deck (Academy Rector anyone?). And unfortunately it seems to me that Psychatog suffers a significant disadvantage against Landstill, being the less effective control deck and less likely to take down the Red Army. An ignominious demise to a deck that has been the best deck in its format several times in several different formats, in one iteration or another.
That left three distinct ideas on my mind, at least one of which was probably downright ludicrous (Sneak Attack) and the second of which is a questionable call (Pox) vindicated only by the fact that it's hard to go wrong with Duress and Hymn to Tourach as the basis for your deck. The first thought to really gel in my mind, though, was that Miracle-Gro (and its descendant, Super-Gro) took on very similar metagames with much less fair cards running around them and dominated the format that gave birth to Trix in the first place. That's a rather fine pedigree for a deck, especially when a metagame such as that we are currently seeing in Legacy suggests that a powerful aggro-control deck would serve as the ultimate predator.
Miracle-Gro was a direct descendant of Alan Comer's Turbo-Xerox deck, and focuses on using cheap cantrips and card manipulation spells to get away with thinning the deck of everything else: control cards, beatdown creatures, and lands. While his original treatment of the deck had not yet reached the razor-sharp honing that would eventually come about, it was simply a matter of steps before the best aggressive beatdown creatures stepped in for an otherwise lacking creature suite to take advantage of everything the deck has to offer. It's even survived (and flourished to the point of getting certain cards added to the Restricted list) in Vintage, where you got a lot more broken cards and the ability to splash colors much more readily, thus birthing Gro-A-Tog. While Berserk is both legal and unrestricted in Legacy, it doesn't suit the focus of the deck: the idea that very few things your opponent does matter, so playing narrow cards that merely up your clock by a turn are worse than control cards that buy you that turn consistently.
With the ability to play any of our choice of powerful Blue cantrips, and to access lands that had not been printed when Comer first pioneered this creation, we can get the best of the past combined with the innovations of the future... or at least the future as far as this deck is concerned, given the period in which it flourished.
3 Winter Orb
The benefits of playing a deck like this should be obvious to anyone who's ever seen a Gro deck in action, or played one themselves. The card selection effects and cheap card drawing allow you to regulate your draw so that you only draw the kinds of cards you need, browsing at will through your library to fuel your beatdown creatures or search up countermagic. Pitch counters and Winter Orb count as your disruption element, while Swords to Plowshares answers point threats that might otherwise cause difficulty for the Threshold men and their size-shifting friends. Admittedly, there are difficulties - without basic lands, you have some obvious vulnerabilities to Wasteland recursion, and it's always possible to find a draw that just can't pick itself up off the ground and find the cards it needs. In case of difficulty against the Red deck, the Blasts come in to solve whatever problem may come up. Other Green decks, like this one or any of the Survival builds, get Withdraw as the tempo-swinger that can clear the way and seal the deal, as it proved to be the optimal card in the Gro-on-Gro mirror several years ago. Meddling Mage serves to add additional control elements when needed without disrupting the beatdown, such as against Solitaire or Landstill, and a definite argument could be made for replacing Werebear with this in the main... but a 4/4 for 1G is hard to say no to.
Mana disruption, pitch countermagic, and a mix of cheap deck manipulation to help fuel huge monsters and allow for a low land count... what's not to like? Aggro-control is always a key element to an established metagame with strong control elements, and unlike the Goblin deck, this beatdown deck gets a say in what the opponent can or cannot do. Where the Goblin deck deploys a swarm of men quickly, gains card advantage, and pushes through the grist mill your opponent may have set up for you along the way, this deck has a surprising power brought together by the cheap cantrips that fuel its Dryads and structure its design in such a way that the deck can squeak by with a bare minimum of lands.
Now, if you've noticed the same trends I have, there isn't really "fast mana" in Legacy, but you can definitely power out expensive spells quickly if you mix the right Land base and additional mana accelerants. Considering that any one color can start with Ancient Tombs, City of Traitors, the Fallen Empires sac-land and the two-use Mercadian Masques lands for a total of sixteen lands that access two mana (twenty if you count Crystal Vein), getting a lot of mana fast shouldn't be the most difficult task if you try hard enough. What you'd do with all of this mana is another question... but the end of the last Extended season saw at least one possible answer to this question, in the Japanese Sneak Attack deck created by Tsuyoshi Fujita. With ease, you could play the exact same deck in Legacy and just change the creature base to suit your needs, having access to nearly every creature in the game.
4 Dwarven Ruins
4 Sandstone Needle
3 Crystal Vein
3 City of Traitors
4 Dragon Tyrant
3 Symbiotic Wurm
1 Serra Avatar
4 Rorix Bladewing
2 Crater Hellion
4 Through the Breach
4 Chrome Mox
4 Blazing Shoal
4 Desperate Ritual
4 Seething Song
4 Sneak Attack
My thinking was about the obvious problem of decks packing Force of Will, as this was not a deck that was played in a format where countermagic was at all common. It did bad things to good people as early as turn 2, and routinely killed by turn 4. But Force of Will changes a lot of things, and the easy access to Swords to Plowshares can't really be said to help very much either. Thinking about this reminded me of a deck I'd seen at the end of the last Extended season, an odd creation trying to use fast mana and things like Krark-Clan Ironworks to cast Dragonstorm with a significant Storm count. The Dragonstorm began to reveal Kokushos until the opponent died, conveniently enough. It seemed like a clever approach, and one that might benefit from consideration in a deck with sixteen lands that tap for two mana each and all the playable mana acceleration you can squeeze into the deck besides. It also brought to mind the question of consistency, asking how you could make the deck more consistent, and a key problem with the Fujita deck from the Extended testing season was that as often as it did something colossal, its Through the Breaches didn't do enough to carry a game, or Blzaing Shoal sat useless in the hand, incapable of doing its trick to kill the opponent because Dragon Tyrant (or other expensive Red spells) hadn't shown up to help out that game.
In my amusement, I tooled around with the Dragonstorm idea, merged the two into one deck, and came up with the following:
4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Traitors
4 Sandstone Needle
4 Dwarven Ruins
4 Chrome Mox
4 Seething Song
4 Desperate Ritual
4 Burning Wish
4 Sneak Attack
4 Rorix Bladewing
4 Kokusho, the Evening Star
4 Yosei, the Morning Star
1 Bladewing the Risen
It lacks some of the absurd explosiveness of the Sneaky-Go deck Fujita created, but it also asks for a lot less trouble in a format that is defined (at least on the side of the control decks) by Swords to Plowshares and Force of Will. A lot of cards are invested in a Dragon Tyrant who goes Through the Breach thanks to a Seething Song, and attacks with Blazing Shoal removing another expensive Red card from the game. Not a lot of cards, or even mana, are invested in the single Swords to Plowshares that ruins your game. It definitely has game against the Goblin decks, thanks to the access to Pyroclasms in game one, and has resilience to Force of Will thanks to the Storm effect of Dragonstorm. Investing a Chrome Mox, Seething Song, Desperate Ritual, and whatever lands have to go to the graveyard to make nine mana happen as well isn't so bad when the spell at least can't be countered through traditional means... and without countermagic to consider, the Dragonstorm ends the game that instant just as well as the Fujita deck but through means that are more resilient to the cards that are played by control decks in this format.
Having access to four real Sneak Attacks, plus three fake ones (Gamble), four Wishes for a fake one (Wish for Gamble), and the option to wish for Dragonstorm (and three Dragonstorms as well) should help with the consistent problem of having the mana and the creatures but nothing to do with them. As Flores pointed out in his Extended article on the Sneaky-Go deck, playing Rorix turn 2 and swinging isn't the worst plan ever conceived either.
Admittedly, the Dragonstorm deck is a pet idea, but it goes to show that there are a lot of decks out there... and a lot of history to mine for effective and fast decks that can be played within the Legacy format. But the point remains the same that several key decks from Magic's past can be ported over to Legacy, and improved upon (or just played around with in a funky way, such as throwing expensive Storm spells nobody expected you'd ever want to cast in there) to break open a format that is currently mis-assigned as "well known". We're talking about using mostly unexplored territory, with a huge variety of good decks available. I find it difficult to believe that with how many thousands of Magic cards at your fingertips, we've only got three decks to play? And that one of them is a Goblin deck?
I remember rather a long time ago, there was a mono-Black Extended deck based on fast mana, discard, and board control elements that took advantage of some excellent synergy and had potentially broken starts that can truly destroy an opponent, all backed up with a card that is quite difficult to keep resources around with (Pox) and that breaks up cards in hand, lands in play, and creatures on the board rather neatly. Where that deck had to play some cards that by modern standards were suboptimal, the things you can put in now can put rather an interesting spin on the old idea. Using fast mana and some punishing cards, I got the following:
I miss the days when we used to be able to Consult for stuff too, it's true. Poking around here reminds me that there is a lot of good stuff just not being used in Legacy right now, and some powerful decks that shaped formats of old can be found lurking within, waiting to be remembered and updated accordingly. Admittedly, looking at this and the way in which it budgets its resources makes me wonder whether Pox might not be better-suited to a Black version of the Stax deck Christopher Coppola tried to port over to Legacy earlier this week. Both Nether Spirit and Pox seem to fit a resource-management deck using Smokestacks and lock elements, and so it's important to look through the format and see just how vast the possibilities are.
Thinking about a Stax deck had led me to a new, different way of looking at the format: not of trying to take the decks I've known from the past in Extended and Standard and attempting to transport them to this wider card-pool, but instead looking at Vintage for things that can easily be brought across... functional strategies or unexpected card combinations, rather than entire decks. Trying to bring a deck that gets to play with cards like Yawgmoth's Will and Mishra's Workshop across to Legacy seems like something of a futile task, after all. While looking at things in this new way, I got to looking at other things in a new way, using cards as tools for part of a broad-based lockdown strategy... like Pox, in a deck already focusing on forcing a losing battle over lands and creatures in play on the opponent.
The obvious thought is that you can build a different Stax deck for each color of Magic, but unlike in Type One where you can get away with having a little bit of everything at it will work out, your Lands are your mana accelerants and require quite a bit of colorless mana for the most part. Some ideas, like Pox, will require more colored mana. Others may require less, but cause there to be less room in the deck for other colors, and the only "reasonable" two-color strategy I have seen for a Stax deck has been with Goblin Welder and Thirst for Knowledge, as in the progenitor deck. We've already seen a White-based Stax deck, and my looking around for a Black-based Stax deck led to interesting thinking but not enough of a reason to play Black to warrant the level of investment it requires. Red gets Goblin Welder but doesn't really have anything itself that it suggests along with it, while Green can do a lot but doesn't seem to really work with the artifact-centered theme of the deck.
Blue, however, led to an unusual change in perspective... using a card like I had never used it before, simply as a tempo device, to work as part of the lock components that can finish the unsymmetrical effect the Stax deck attempts to create: its ability to still play the game around the crippling lock effects it plays. After working with several different lists, I came up with the following tweaks to a Stax list that I felt could handle a metagame with Landstill, Goblins, and High Tide... and meanwhile be good against whatever else comes up, because of the way it attacks the format as a whole while also focusing on those expected opponents.
Admittedly, the victory condition is astoundingly slow, as it is predicated on a hard lock being set up. A "win" is Sphere of Resistance and Chronatog in play, with a ramped-up Smokestack and Chronatog skipping your turns, or the Sphere and 'Tog with Stasis and either Tangle Wire or Smokestack. Other, softer locks can hold the opponent down for several turns while you set up to wait long enough to draw the right combination pieces, as Crucible of Worlds can help to pay for Stasis indefinitely with a Smokestack on one, and can advance your eventual board position with just a sac-land coming back time after time to put Islands into play to upkeep Stasis. Crucible + Wasteland can be a win against other decks as well, while Stasis can hold the board long enough to kill the offending mana sources if needed. Everything helps feed into everything else, and for protection we get Force of Will and Daze, with the latter being better than usual thanks to the strategy fixating on mana denial.
There is a wealth of untapped potential waiting to be investigated... and everything can be considered a matter of perspective, when looking at cards in new ways thanks to Obscure Cards X and Y that combine to use an old favorite (or an old stinker, for that matter) in a way never really expected before, like the example with Stasis above. There is definitely balance to the format, thanks to the restriction of the truly degenerate cards, but there are still enough hidden gems waiting to be remembered that I find it astoundingly difficult to believe that we can't get more from this format than a Goblin deck, High Tide, and Landstill. Survival of the Fittest decks have been viable in every format where the card was legal at one time or another, even having a brief stint in Vintage with a rather unorthodox concoction. Having access to every creature in the format, powered by one of the most powerful Green cards ever printed, and doing so for continuous tutoring to match your game-plan to your opponents' board position and strategy, has to have at least one deck that is excellent in there somewhere. While the common problem with Survival decks that is cited by people who play against them is that they fall apart without Survival, having little to no real beatdown of its own, even that is just a design choice that can be overcome by altering your perception of what will work in the format.
And then there are the truly hidden gems of the format, the ones that make me wonder where the deck that will abuse them are...
Instant - UB
Look at the top five cards of your library. As many times as you choose, you may pay 1 life, put those cards on the bottom of your library and look at the next five cards of your library. Then remove the top five cards from your library, shuffle it, and put those cards back in any order.
In a format where Tutoring has been aggressively scaled back, to the point where even Imperial Seal is pre-banned in the format awaiting the arrival of the Portal sets, a card that costs two mana for an Instant and that can search your deck (albeit in a technically "limited" fashion) to stack your deck with the cards you need the most right now can't be worthless. Combination decks can easily allocate Blue and Black mana for powerful tutoring effects, and while expensive in comparison to, say, Vampiric Tutor, it's still pretty cheap for its very powerful effect when compared to what they usually think is "fair" to charge for a card that can find the card you need and put it on top of your deck. If nothing else, its existence justifies the potential to see other combo decks, such as Aluren, even if they aren't as fundamentally "pretty" as the elegant High Tide deck.
I, for one, am just beginning to peek into this format, and so unfortunately I don't have anything more new to bring to the table right this moment; I've already stepped out on a few limbs (and invited comments on the feedback boards like "LOL Dragonstorm nice card B!") today and mostly intended to bring food for thought. There's an untapped wealth of ideas and potential waiting to be stumbled upon or worked to, and it hasn't even begun to surface as slowly but surely the lure of a Legacy Grand Prix draws near. When I've done more work on the format, you can expect to hear more from me in the future; in the meantime, here's hoping that there was at least some food for thought here.
-- Sean McKeown
Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don't shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize...
Only be sure always to call it please, 'research'."
-- Tom Lehrer, 'Lobachevsky'