“Le Roi et Mort. Vive le Roi!”
When Mystical Tutor was banned in Legacy I was concerned that the format might get bogged down into a morass of Counterbalance/Top and Lands slow and methodic decks built to prey on creatures. As usual my predictive powers failed miserably just as they do with most everyone else who writes about Legacy.
Instead creatures seem to be defining the new Legacy metagame. Rather than Zoo or Goblins these creature decks are base blue with resistance to combo possessed of the ability to use Force of Will against critical opposing spells. I'm talking about everyone's favorite “bad” deck Merfolk and its upstart cousin Madness. Let's take a look at each deck track their dominance in the post-Mystical Tutor format and think about what decks and cards might lie in wait as the format evolves.
Grand Prix Columbus
There's been plenty of coverage of this tournament the first major event for Legacy after Mystical Tutor was banned. Much hubbub was made about the seven copies of Emrakul in the Top 8 but it appears that three other decks in this tournament are the most important. You're probably familiar with them but just so we're all on the same page: Saito's Merfolk Durward's Madness and Cook's TES.
Legacy Champs was the first large American Legacy event after Grand Prix Columbus and the Top 8 was wide-open reflecting eight different decks and a metagame still in flux. Merfolk was present in this Top 8 but Madness was not. Legacy Champs is known for having a wide-open metagame that often differs from other Legacy events of similar size; consider that 2009's event was won by Dredge and 2008's was won by Meathooks (also known as Counter-Slivers).
StarCityGames.com Legacy Open: Denver
This was the first StarCityGames.com Legacy Open event after Columbus and here we start to see the ascendance of the three decks I linked to earlier. The winner of this event was Merfolk (in this case mono-blue) while Madness again made theTop 8. As with Legacy Champs Goblins was a major player in this event presumably due to its strength against Merfolk Counterbalance/Top and Emrakul decks all of which were key performers at GP Columbus. Cedric Phillips discussed the reasons why one might choose Goblins and how you might build it in his recent article Goblins in Legacy. TES also put Bob Yu in theTop 8 of this tournament showing that Bryant and Ari's results at the Grand Prix weren't a fluke.
StarCityGames.com Open: Minneapolis
This tournament is probably where people started paying serious attention to Madness as it put two players into the Top 8 and another three into the Top 16 for an impressive total of five of the top sixteen spots. Merfolk missed the Top 8 here but had two players in the Top 16. Goblins and Zoo together held only three spots with Zoo in particular showing a sudden and dramatic decline in the post-Mystical Tutor format.
StarCityGames.com Open: Baltimore
Here come the decks with which I started this article: Merfolk Madness and TES. In Baltimore we had a Madness vs. Merfolk finals with Merfolk (this time U/W) taking home the trophy. Madness took four of the top sixteen spots in this tournament while Merfolk had five and TES two; together these three decks accounted for nearly 70% of the Top 16.
Rather than analyze these decks as has already been done I'm going to instead take a look at how the metagame may react and how it's already reacted to the ascendance of these decks (in the case of Merfolk and Madness) as well as some further examination of TES and why it is a player in this format.
Merfolk – Actions and Reactions
Merfolk's theoretical strength comes from its ability to disrupt and defeat Counterbalance decks and combo decks and its weakness theoretically comes from a poor matchup against other creature decks. Zoo has often been a foil to Merfolk due to its abundant removal and larger creatures while Goblins has been able to out-draw Merfolk and out-maneuver it using Goblin Piledriver and Siege-Gang Commander.
One of the first major changes for Legacy Merfolk is Coralhelm Commander a card which has largely replaced Merfolk Sovereign and has given Merfolk the ability to defeat a resolved Moat. Commander is a perfect fit for Merfolk decks that use Standstill which at this point is mostly all of them.
Saito-style Merfolk from the Grand Prix attempted to address these weaknesses using a U/B build of Merfolk with black supplying Engineered Plague for Goblins and Perish and Nature's Ruin for Zoo. Instead of buying time with Submerge Saito just took it to the opposing creature archetypes with straight-up removal.
Paul's build using white instead of black is actually a really impressive metagame choice. He's used U/W Merfolk before including to a Top 16 finish at StarCityGames.com Open: Philadelphia (actually ninth on tiebreakers); Swords to Plowshares gives his deck an edge against opposing Merfolk decks as it has a removal spell for the lords and for Llawan Cephalid Empress out of the sideboard. It also means that this build has maindeck outs to Goblin Piledriver and Tarmogoyf and he has preemptively adapted to the use of cards like Peacekeeper.
Beyond StP Paul made a number of interesting choices in his sideboard. While he lacks Engineered Plague he again played Absolute Law. This card is pretty ridiculous against Goblins and also gives your creatures immunity to Firespout burn spells from Zoo and even more importantly Grim Lavamancer. (So you can hold your Plows for the large green monsters.)
Even more sublime: Hibernation. Yes go ahead and hover your cursor over it; I'll wait.
Certainly this is useful as a broad Submerge to clear a Zoo player's board but I'm relatively certain the real purpose is to Time Walk Madness players. Keep in mind this is all green permanents so you're hitting Survival of the Fittest as well as all the creatures inclusive of any mana creatures. It also hits Progenitus against Natural Order decks.
For whatever reason Merfolk has long been a deck that internet writers have loved to hate even when it has proven itself as a serious competitor again and again. We may start to hear a different tune as Merfolk continues to win tournaments: the meta may acknowledge and react to Merfolk instead of vice versa.
So what are Merfolk's weaknesses?
One easy way to foil Merfolk is to play most of the Painter's Servant decks as those decks have traditionally played a large number of Red Elemental Blasts and Pyroblasts. When I played Painter's Servant for almost a year I looked forward to the Merfolk matchup.
Merfolk's lack of removal and mostly conditional counters makes it rather vulnerable to Painter's Servant strategies whether they are more combo-centric like Ken Adams' winning deck from Minneapolis or more of a control version such as the Counter Painter deck Nick Walters used to hit Top 16 in Baltimore. There are also cards that discourage attacks such as Peacekeeper Ghostly Prison Ensnaring Bridge and Propaganda that are powerful options against Merfolk and easy to splash given the abundance of mana-fixing in Legacy.
In many respects Madness is a potential foil for Merfolk. The decks operate in a similar design space utilizing a fast clock with the support of blue counterspells and a light mana-disruption package. Madness has a reasonable Counterbalance matchup and a lot of flexibility by nature of its design including the ability to tutor for bullets like Llawan Cephalid Empress in the Merfolk matchup. Once a Survival hits the table most Merfolk builds aren't really able to do anything about it. Did you notice the Scryb Rangers in Blake's sideboard in Baltimore?
Merfolk has benefited from being a deck people didn't respect but as time goes on Merfolk will have to adapt to the fact that people are actively sideboarding against it including other Merfolk decks and Madness decks. As Zoo continues to recede from the format players are likely to continue to replace Zoo sideboard cards with those that target Merfolk.
Whether Merfolk can continue to flourish in a format that finally acknowledges it and turns hostile to it remains to be seen.
If the metagame acts as it normally does and should — if players turn from generic creature answers (like Firespout) to cards specifically good against Merfolk (like Peacekeeper) or to decks with inherent strength against Merfolk (like Painter's Servant) — those adjustments have repercussions in other matchups; specifically it seems likely that the format will adjust to Merfolk and open itself back up to Zoo to some extent.
Peacekeeper may dam up the Merfolk but it doesn't lock down the Zoo. I suspect Emrakul decks deprived of their Zoo victims will remain minimal players in the format as well again opening the door to traditional creature strategies. Additionally as graveyard hate ebbs Dredge is always waiting in the wings poised for a breakout tournament.
Madness – Actions and Reactions
The Madness deck is one of the more exciting developments in Magic this year. I'm not at all surprised that the deck has taken off as U/G decks have always been popular whenever they're viable. Madness decks give you the protection of Force of Will in a deceptively fast and aggressive deck and the shell itself is highly customizable. Within a few weeks of the Grand Prix there were already versions trying to incorporate a number of cards including but not limited to:
A reasonable backup to Survival obviously slower but still a game-winner in some matchups where you have time to develop. Helps support the use of a bullet strategy closer to normal Survival decks.
Intuition is a powerful and flexible tutor for a strategy like Madness. Intuition for triple Vengevine helps give the deck an alternate method of binning and triggering Vengevines. It can also tutor up Force of Will Survival or sideboard cards (such as Natural Order).
Many Madness players are using the Natural Order and Progenitus combo out of the sideboard sometimes paired with a Dryad Arbor. Progenitus is a nice fit in this deck as even without Brainstorm you can shuffle it back into your deck using Survival.
The lack of Brainstorm in this deck is a bit of a hot-button issue. Some people suggest that keeping hands with Brainstorm and without Survival just tricks you into misplaying with the deck while others suggest that Brainstorm smooths out some of this deck's awkward draws.
In Baltimore Eli Kassis ran a white splash for Swords to Plowshares giving his build of Madness a removal spell that traditional versions lack.
So how can the field adapt to Madness?
No seriously tell me how the field can adapt. This deck is getting out of control y'all.
You were hoping I was going to tell you? I guess that is kind of my job. Let's see what we can come up with.
One thing that makes this challenging is the fact that this deck isn't done evolving yet. In case you missed it amongst the coverage from Baltimore here's Alix Hatfield's mono-green take on Madness.
A good place to start is in figuring out what this deck lacks; while Eli added white for Swords to Plowshares most Madness decks don't have removal. They're aiming to win by exploding ahead in resources and using Wonder to bypass any blockers. Jitte attached to a flying creature is the closest thing to removal you'll usually find in these decks.
This suggests that cards like Peacekeeper are effective against Madness just as they are against Merfolk. In addition some Madness players are cutting Trygon Predator (which was missing from Eli and Alix's builds in Baltimore) so cards like Ghostly Prison and Propaganda may also be effective against Survival as they are against Merfolk. Unlike Merfolk Madness makes use of two things that can be attacked: Survival and the graveyard.
Destroying or countering Survival itself significantly slows Madness down so perhaps Annul is an option worth exploring as it's hardly dead in other matchups. Pithing Needle is a potential preemptive option and Meddling Mage is rather disruptive again due to the deck's lack of removal.
Scars of Mirrodin offers a powerful option in Leonin Arbiter one which seriously impairs the function of Survival; could this possibly be a tool for U/W Merfolk and Counterbalance decks against Madness?
Similarly graveyard hate can prevent the Vengevine engine (which is really the heart of the deck) from ever going online either by way of Tormod's Crypt or Relic of Progenitus or even further through the use of cards like Leyline of the Void. Another nice option is Extirpate which can strip away the entire Vengevine engine. Unfortunately graveyard hate is often mediocre against this deck as it can always just cast creatures and beat you; other creature decks always have to acknowledge that this deck can win via other routes including going aggro with Jitte or siding into Natural Order to side-step your graveyard and Survival hate.
Probably the sickest thing to do is to play Gather Specimens and just take all the creatures but good luck making that happen on turn 2.
Madness is a versatile powerful deck that can dodge and play around most attempts to shut it down. Still the deck isn't nearly as resistant to combo as most blue decks. That brings us nicely to…
TES (The Epic Storm)
I wrote about TES recently after playing it in a local forty-player tournament where I enjoyed it enough to bring it to the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Baltimore. Going into this tournament there were a few different versions Storm to consider all with different strengths and weaknesses. Note that this specifically refers to non-Doomsday builds as those involve a completely different set of decision trees and deck construction options.
Option 1: U/B/g
This is actually the farthest from the Bryant Cook Five-Color TES model from Grand Prix Columbus. Ari Lax's version isn't quite as explosive relying instead on a critical mass of cantrips and tutors including the rarely seen Grim Tutor necessitated by the lack of Burning Wish. It also needs to bring the Ill-Gotten Gains into the main and lacks Empty the Warrens.
What do you get in exchange? This deck is more resistant to mana disruption as it has the extra Preordains that can dig for mana and actually plays more lands (seventeen versus TES's lower count of thirteen) and five basics. The fact that this deck can steadily deploy lands including basic lands makes it more resistant to the conditional counters played in Merfolk; Dark Confidant and Thoughtseize out of the sideboard give the deck even more weapons for post-board games. A green splash in the board gives this deck nominal resistance to Counterbalance but without Pyroblast or Orim's Chant.
Option 2: U/B/R and Option 3: U/B/R/g
This version takes Bryant's deck and cuts the five-color lands for a more traditional fetch/dual/basic land setup. The actual land count doesn't change here so you're still using Chrome Mox where Ari's version has extra lands but it at least gives you some resistance to Wasteland to help in the Merfolk and Madness matchups. This build replaces the Orim's Chant/Silence package with a set of Thoughtseizes or possibly three and one more land. An alternate take includes a Tropical Island in the sideboard for access to Krosan Grip and/or Xantid Swarm.
Option 4: Five Color TES
Thus far this is still my favorite version of the deck. Orim's Chant is such an incredibly versatile card giving you a functional Ill-Gotten Gains against Force of Will decks; against decks like Zoo and Goblins Orim's Chant can buy you the single turn you need to win the game. Still if hate for Storm is supplanted by hate for Merfolk and Madness a build designed to combat those decks specifically might be the right call.
The key card that gives TES a shot against Merfolk and Madness is this little guy Xantid Swarm:
Note that the correct flavor text for this card is actually as follows:
“Bees! Bees! Bees in the car! Bees everywhere! God they're huge and they're sting crazy! They're ripping my flesh off! Run away your firearms are useless against them!”
If you choose to play Xantid Swarm over say Pyroblast you're basically accepting an even worse Counter-Top matchup in exchange for a potentially much better post-board matchup against Merfolk and Madness. Remember those decks generally lack removal and if they do have it there's a good chance those Swords to Plowshares are coming out. Additionally for those of you not inclined to researching such things the number of Counter-Top decks among the Top 16 of the last three SCG Legacy Opens is as follows:
Overall that's only five of forty-eight or 10.4% and excluding Denver that drops to 3.1%!
Still math only gets you so far. What eliminated me from Top 8 contention at Baltimore? Counter-Top Depths.
It'd be really awesome if there were some way for Imperial Recruiter to not cost a trillion dollars as that card being readily available would do some sweet things to Legacy such as making Imperial Recruiter Bomberman and Aluren considerably more accessible and probably more popular. There's no real point to this section as there's no easy fix for this situation that doesn't ruin the people who bought Recruiters. I just wish that there were.
Is there an Affinity build waiting to break out in Legacy? The archetype has picked up a number of relevant cards over the past few years and Scars is likely to provide a few more. All builds of Affinity have more explosive power than ever with access to Mox Opal an accelerant and color-fixer all rolled into one. Every time I've seen someone suggest such a thing he's been dismissed on the argument that Zoo is a “better” aggro deck. It's true that when pitting Zoo against Affinity you'll generally find Zoo winning thanks to ample removal Path to Exile with no drawback damage no longer on the stack and Qasali Pridemage.
Is this really the point though? Even on its more popular days Zoo represents around 10% of the field and considerably less as tournaments go on; while this may change that's the metagame we're in right now for most of the larger tournaments. This is highly relevant because comparing Affinity to Zoo is counterproductive. We need to look at Affinity against the other popular decks and see if there's any merit there.
For example I could see an explosive Erayo version as being plausible. Such a build could support Force of Will out of the sideboard and might look something like this:
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Frogmite
- 4 Master of Etherium
- 4 Memnite
- 3 Myr Enforcer
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
One of the main issues for Affinity was Zoo in that Zoo had better guys and removal spells but with Zoo on the decline Affinity can leverage its strengths. It's faster than Merfolk dodges Counter-Top and can utilize hate cards like Relic Tormod's Crypt Thorn of Amethyst and Chalice of the Void easily and effectively when the metagame calls for them.
For the creature-centric matchups you have access to the same green sweepers as Goblins and Merfolk and can also leverage Engineered Plague against Goblins. An aggressive version of the deck now has access to not just Shrapnel Blast but also Galvanic Blast.
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Frogmite
- 3 Master of Etherium
- 4 Memnite
- 4 Myr Enforcer
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Disciple of the Vault
This version has considerable reach playing off the early beats Affinity has always been able to hand out and then pulling out of the red zone to win with burn spells that hit for four and five plus Disciple. I suspect this version would play better against opposing creature strategies as Affinity has never had a burn spell for R that deals four damage before.
Also a mix of Memnite and Arcbound Worker or just one or the other might be better in this build; one of the things that has changed for Affinity is the lack of damage on the stack making modular not as powerful but testing would be needed to determine whether the faster deploy on Memnite is worth the absence of modular here (as in the Erayo version you obviously want the free robot).
I also like how this deck can sideboard selectively to make great use of Chalice of the Void on one.
Other options include running more of the anti-green board sweepers to hedge our bets against Zoo using Pithing Needle or Pyroblast out of the board looking at Thoughtseize or Extirpate… There are a ton of options with the Affinity strategy as the builds now have terrific color-fixing at their disposal and don't need to play anti-hate cards as they did in Extended.
Neither of these decks are tested so they may be terrible or just in need of refinement but it's really exciting to think about how truly wide-open the Eternal formats are right now. Brainstorming in these formats is entertaining surely but it should come with some caveats as well.
More on that next time…