Legacy Grand Prix have a tradition of being positioned at just the right moments for major turning points in the format. Grand Prix Columbus '07 took place immediately after the power-level errata of Flash was lifted. Despite no Legacy GP in 2008, the format began growing at a shocking rate. In 2009, we saw another Legacy GP, taking place right after Progenitus was printed (radically changing cards like Natural Order and Show and Tell). The following year, WotC expanded the GP circuit to include a second Legacy GP. The first gave us a true taste of what was possible with the newly unbanned Entomb. The second was our first glimpse Survival of the Fittest with Vengevine legal. It's nearly a year later, so what is the radical new card that changes everything?
Well, that would be the easy answer. It is the best Legacy card in the set, but since most people realize how good it is, it balances out a bit. Don't get me wrong; this has obviously caused a huge shakeup to the format, with classic standbys—like Countertop, Goblins, and High Tide—getting wrecked because of it.
Mental Misstep is one of the ten best cards in the entire format. The thing is, this topic is pretty old hat at this point. If you're playing a non-combo blue deck, you probably want four Mental Missteps. If you're playing combo, you might want some number. There is another card in the set that has caused such a monumental shakeup to the format that the entire power structure has changed.
Is the best creature in Magic white?!
The other New Phyrexia format-changing card for Legacy is Batterskull!
Batterskull is going to revolutionize the format. The ability for Stoneforge Mystic to get Batterskull (not to mention a Sword or a Jitte) completely changes the nature of tons of matchups. For instance, Merfolk decks used to have edge over blue decks, and now they gain the excellent Mental Misstep. Yet, now the threat of Batterskull singlehandedly slants the matchup in favor of whatever deck uses Stoneforge Mystic. A turn 3 Batterskull is very hard for Merfolk to try to power through, especially if you can keep Lord of Atlantis off the table.
The day before the Grand Prix, Brian Kibler and I were playing some games with him on Junk and me on U/W Stoneblade. After a number of very impressive Batterskull games, I asked him why he didn't play Stoneforge Mystic. He remarked that he had tried it and wasn't impressed. I asked if he had tried it with Batterskull. He agreed that Batterskull did appear to change things so radically that he ought to reconsider. He immediately put together a version with it, and in a true sign of the times, at least one of his cuts was a Tarmogoyf.
This is going to sound funny, but it's easy to forget sometimes that Standard completely revolves around the Stoneblade deck. There are Magnets, Inquisitions, Nature's Claims, Divine Offerings, and more. The Legacy format is not nearly so hateful (yet), and on top of that, the Stoneblade player gets to play Force of Will and Brainstorm. To appreciate just how good Stoneforge Mystic is in Legacy now, let's break down what she is like, power-level-wise.
To begin with, in many ways, she is a 5/6 vigilance, lifelink creature for 1 W with echo. This is only a crude approximation obviously; after all, a 4/4 and a 1/2 is not the same as a 5/6, especially with lifelink, but it gives you an idea of how much power you are getting. Not only do you get Tarmogoyf-sized stats, but if it dies, you can just pay three to get it back in your hand (and if Stoneforge is still in play, it only costs two more to put it back, which is to say nothing of just sliding the Skull over to the Stoneforge). Rather than paying echo on your upkeep, you can actually wait to pay whenever you feel like it, such as two turns later if you are busy. You can flash it down during the attack step, which is great against Vindicate and other sorcery-speed effects, not to mention Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
This is just the beginning though. Stoneforge Mystic provides more shuffling for your Brainstorms and Jaces and is a way to make additional threats uncounterable. This is to say nothing of all the other amazing Equipment you can go get, such as Sword of Fire and Ice, Sword of Feast and Famine, and Umezawa's Jitte. Batterskull is so incredible that the "best" Equipment in Legacy barely cracks the top 5 now! Batterskull might just do a better job of what Jitte aspires to do.
With Stoneforge Mystic at an all-time high, combined with Tarmogoyf dipping in utility, the best creature in Magic might actually be white, at least for Legacy today. Don't get me wrong. Tarmogoyf is still amazing—one of the best—it is just that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is so good against Tarmogoyf; not to mention it's now understood that 5/6 for 1 G is just this thing people get to do. Remember, though, a turn 2 Tarmogoyf usually isn't that big, so the delay before Batterskull can attack isn't actually very significant. In fact, Kibler noted in testing that his Mox Diamonds look better when he plays a turn 1 Stoneforge than a turn 1 Goyf.
Leading into Grand Prix Providence, I had been primarily testing Block and Standard, but the Legacy testing I did was pushing me to play a BUG deck of some variety. My go-to deck was a fairly straightforward Team America build that seemed consistent, powerful, and did many of the things I wanted to be doing.
The other strategy I was giving some thought to was some version of BUG Landstill. Here is my version, which is in the same vein as what Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa played:
I was pretty up on the first list, but the week before the GP, the SCG Open made it abundantly clear that everyone had realized just how good the strategy was, and people were going to slant their decks to fight it. BUG is a resilient strategy, but Back to Basics, Misdirection, and so on can all be very annoying.
In the days leading up to the GP, I was encouraged by Gerry Thompson to work on Stoneblade decks, and historically, there are few people with a better finger on the pulse of the metagame. I had seen Sam Black and others working with Stoneforge Mystic, but without Batterskull, I wasn't impressed.
The more I thought about U/W Stoneblade, the more I liked it, but it is always dangerous to audible out of the "best deck in the format" for an untested brew. To avoid this, I dedicated the day before the GP to actually testing the brew, which worked out great. It did not take long before I saw that I was indeed very happy with the deck as a whole and set about tuning it. In theory, it would have been great to have hours, days, weeks more with it, but in real life, we don't have an infinite amount of time for every event. You have to prioritize, and helping people work on Block for Japan was priority number one.
Here's what I shuffled up this weekend:
A few explanations are in order, so let's start with the maindeck. To begin with, many players' first question is "What about Umezawa's Jitte?" For the most part, Batterskull just does a better job of doing what Jitte aspires to do, defensively.
If you want the removal element, Sword of Fire and Ice is generally a more potent threat. This is not to say that Sword of Fire and Ice is the definite second piece of Equipment (as Batterskull is definitely the first and the default against most non-combo decks). Sword of Feast and Famine could also move in to the maindeck or switch places with Fire and Ice. Interestingly, it is the protection from green that we value most, here. Being able to actually punch through Tarmogoyfs and Knights of the Reliquary can be important. Overall, though, I favor the Sword of Fire and Ice main, as it is good against everyone, while Sword of Feast and Famine is actually pretty weak against a number of opponents. Looking back on the matches I played this weekend, Fire and Ice definitely seemed the better maindeck choice.
Batterskull is a card that takes a lot of getting used to. It has so many abilities, giving you so many options; it is easy to overlook a number of lines of play. For instance, when I first started playing with Batterskull, it was easy to forget that I could just move it around like an Equipment. I would get Stoneforge + Batterskull going and spend a turn to bounce my Skull, then replay it to get another Germ. My test partner at the time, Jason Ford, had a similar board to mine but just moved his Batterskull on to a creature to attack immediately (and for a larger life swing). My Germ was going to be able to break through that!
Lifelink, the blinking ability, moving around the Equipment, vigilance (which lets you use the Stoneforge again, if need be), using the Skull with "haste," that particular increase in body, making two Germs by moving a Sword on a Germ then blinking the Skull—the list goes on and on. There are just so many ways to play this card. It can't be stressed enough how important it is to practice with it. It is the best, though. If you're not sure what equipment to get with Stoneforge, get Batterskull.
I had been talking with Gerry before the event, and he had been advocating two or three Vendilion Cliques. Vendilion Clique carries equipment pretty well, provides additional disruption/filtering, answers other Vendilion Cliques, and is very effective against Jace, the Mind Sculptor. During my day of testing before the event, Vendilion wasn't looking that good, so I cut the two I had for a Crucible and a Blinkmoth Nexus (as well as cutting a Spell Snare and a Scalding Tarn for a pair of Wastelands). While Crucible was cute and looked nice against Hymn to Tourach decks and Jace decks, it was probably the wrong way to go and should have just been Vendilion Cliques. The Blinkmoth Nexus performed well, since someone needs to carry a Sword, but again, Vendilion Cliques are probably the better way to go.
It is very tempting to add Dark Confidants, under the theory that someone needs to carry the equipment, and he is one creature that might be better in Legacy right now than Stoneforge Mystic. Stretching the mana isn't actually that hard, but it isn't clear if he actually does what you need. It's just that you don't want the black removal in this format, and if you want discard, you get pulled towards Hymn to Tourach (a very different deck). I wouldn't be surprised if Darkblade sees a fair bit of play in the near future, just as I wouldn't be surprised to see it lose to classic U/W (against all odds!) in a battle very reminiscent of recent Standard.
Ancestral Visions is another card that may catch a number of readers by surprise, but after this weekend, the cat will surely be completely out of the bag. Ancestral Visions is a much misunderstood card that most pundits were quick to dismiss out of the gate, concerned it was "too slow" to ever see play. As time has shown, Ancestral Visions can work beautifully in a deck that can match an opponent's plays turn after turn. Keep it up for just a few turns, and you are actually getting an Ancestral Recall.
Why wasn't Ancestral Visions good last month? Counterbalance counters it very easily, combo decks are too fast, and aggressive decks can attack so fast that we don't have time to wait. So what's changed?
Mental Misstep actually does a number of subtle things to hurt CounterTop. First of all, it obviously makes it far easier to actually counter a Sensei's Divining Top. Second of all, it leads to very attrition-y battles that tend to favor Hymn to Tourach, Stoneforge Mystic, Life from the Loam, and so on. The whole CounterTop strategy just aspires to lock players out of ones and twos (for the most part), but Mental Misstep already does that for you (to a degree), while taking far less work. Decks with Mental Misstep, Daze, and Force of Will quickly lead to battles where no one has time to set up CounterTop due to the sheer tempo-oriented nature of the format. Besides, in the attrition-based world of Mental Misstep, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is king, a far better trump and endgame than the soft CounterTop lock.
CounterTop is also hurt by the shift in the metagame. BUG decks with Mental Misstep perform well against it (and have soared in popularity); Merfolk gains a powerful tool (making it even harder for CounterTop); and many combo decks have fallen way off (which were generally CounterTop's best matchups). In addition to all this leading to a world with less CounterTop (so less free ways to counter Visions) and less fast combo (which are hurt by Mental Misstep), Mental Misstep also gives us a natural way to defend ourselves on turn 1 from the most dangerous threats in the format for us, like Aether Vial, Putrid Imp, and Goblin Lackey.
Finally, it should be noted that the increase in Hymn to Tourach decks, Spell Snare decks, Daze decks, and Mental Misstep decks helps give Visions even more purpose. It is just fantastic against all of those cards!
The tension between Ancestral Visions and Standstill is pretty interesting, if you ask me. Obviously you aren't going to want to use both, as few combinations are as bad. However, they do serve similar functions. Standstill is a little better against aggression and many combo decks, whereas Visions is much better against another control, midrange, and other "slow" decks.
Playing Ancestral Visions against opponents with Standstill can be kind of surprising. It can feel strange, knowing you're going to break the Standstill in three turns. However, it isn't actually that easy for them to counter your Visions. Misdirection would obviously be a disaster, but Force of Will generally requires two cards, which gives you most of the value. Actual Counterspell can be fought with Spell Snare. They could have Mental Misstep, but so could you, and so goes the battle. Besides, it isn't as if their Standstill were "uncounterable." You could have just countered it that turn. All I'm saying is that if you are going to break a Standstill, I can think of few better ways than drawing three cards during your upkeep with all your mana untapped.
Brainstorm and Force of Will require no explanation on why they are four-ofs, and players seem very willing to accept Mental Misstep as a four-of (easily one of the five or ten best cards in all of Legacy); however it would appear that not everyone has gotten the memo about Jace, the Mind Sculptor yet. Jace wasn't an auto four-of before Mental Misstep, but this is one of the consequences of WotC "slowing down the format" (and helping rectify any possible misconceptions about non-blue decks being good). If you are playing three Jace, the Mind Sculptors in your Jace, the Mind Sculptor deck, you are that guy that we read about fifteen years later and laugh at how he played only three Necropotences.
This is the exact same argument we had a year ago when tons of people argued that you should only play three Jace, the Mind Sculptors in Standard. How many does Gerry play in Legacy, these days? LSV? PV? It isn't as if they all play the same decks. U/W Standstill, Stoneblade, BUG-Still—all of them have four Jaces when those guys play them. Will some people continue to do well with three or less? Sure, I mean there was a Stoneforge Mystic deck with just two Stoneforge Mystics in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Paris! Moving on, if you play three Jaces, do yourself a favor and ask yourself why. It is possible you have a perfectly good reason (just unlikely).
Spell Snare is a tough nut to crack. Countering twos is second only to countering ones. One mana is the perfect price. The hidden downside? It gets Mental Misstepped. I still don't know if I'm going to add a third or even fourth Spell Snare. It is such a good tempo play; it is just unreliable because of Daze and Mental Misstep. An interesting dilemma that comes up is the turn 1 Visions or hold up Spell Snare, on the draw. You have to already know what you are going to do if the situation arises because if you take turn 1, then ship with a blue mana up, you are telegraphing like you wouldn't believe. Against an unknown opponent who leads with turn 1 Polluted Delta and passes the turn, I generally like holding up Spell Snare instead of suspending Visions if you think it will work (aka not get Mental Misstepped or Dazed). That said, if you have a Plow backup, you might need to draw out the Mental Misstep anyway. If they will just counter your Snare anyway, perhaps it is better to wait and get to draw three that much sooner. It's kind of funny, but Counterspell costing two instead of one is an amusing advantage because of how many more Mental Missteps there are than Spell Snares.
Repeal is one of those cards that almost everyone finds themselves cutting from decks (it is just so easy to cut them!). I am a fan of staying disciplined, though. They give you possible solutions to problem permanents that you don't expect or struggle with, like Solitary Confinement, Vedalken Shackles, or even just Jace at thirteen loyalty. Don't get me wrong. If you are playing BUG, you don't need this sort of business, as Pernicious Deed is miles beyond what Repeal could ever hope to do. I'm just saying that if you can't get rid of random permanents, Repeal is solid and slightly underrated. That said, it isn't amazing or anything, so if you do cut it, it isn't the end of the world. It's a small value card with a small cost.
As I finish writing this, my tournament is over. I took all three of my losses on day one to Merfolk, leading me to wonder if the Merfolk matchup is really as good as it looked in testing with the guys. It seems like my opponents had generally above-average draws, but losing the same matchup three times without making any obvious punts makes you wonder. Looking back, the mistake was definitely the sideboard. As this deck was built and tested in just one day, it was constructed without the benefit of testing sideboards (a crucial element of preparation). Luis Scott-Vargas, who audibled from Darkblade to BUG-Still last minute, said he suspected that Stoneblade very well might be the best if we had another week of preparation, but he didn't feel comfortable without a tested sideboard in such a rapidly changing format. My matches against Merfolk really helped me realize how unprepared I was for sideboard games.
To begin with, I didn't even board in Path to Exile against them until the second time I hit the matchup. Additionally, the test games were looking good against Merfolk, so I had a false sense of security, cutting a Pithing Needle, a Path, and a Llawan from Gerry's suggestions. Now that everyone has Dismember, I don't think going all-in on Llawan is necessarily a must.
I was a huge fan of Wrath of God and would love to have had more against Merfolk. Wrath is also excellent against Goblins, Knight of the Reliquary decks, and Affinity. I am planning on going to at least two or three Wraths, moving forward. (If I played three, I would probably make one a Day of Judgment for Meddling Mage and Cabal Therapy defense.)
Teferi's Response is so greedy, but the dream is so attractive. Obviously it was designed as a response to Wasteland, but it also counters a Plow on your Mishra's Factory carrying a Sword. I didn't end up using it this weekend, but I am not ready to give up on it yet.
Stifle was a surprise tool to help combat Pernicious Deed and gain a little edge in Landstill-type battles. It is pretty sweet, but it is somewhat limited in effectiveness on account of costing the same as Mental Misstep.
The second Batterskull was disappointing, and I think I'll likely move away from it. It is a fine card, but the diminishing returns are so high. At that point, you might as well just have a Jitte instead (and I am not convinced you want any of that business, instead of just making room for more Wraths).
The Vendilion Clique should just be maindeck, as discussed above, and while it's fine to play some sweet miser cards like Misdirection, there were surely too many in this build (as we really do need to make room for more white removal).
By the time this sees print, the results from the Grand Prix will be available. It will be really interesting to see the texture of the Top 8 of this event. How many Mental Missteps will there be? Is the format more or less diverse? Is Stoneblade actually going to take over Legacy as it has Standard and Extended (and most likely Modern)?
The StarCityGames.com Invitational is this upcoming weekend, and there is much to discuss. What effects will this weekend have on the Legacy metagame? The Invitational's Legacy portion is only part of the puzzle, though. What about Standard? Will Mike Flores and the last few rebels fighting the "good fight" succeed against the greatest Standard deck of all time? Will anything be banned? Does anything need to be? Things are coming to a head very soon, and all eyes will be on this weekend's event. See you guys later this week, as I check back in before the Invitational.
Parting question: Is Stoneblade the real deal in Legacy or a fad?
Part 2: Is Mental Misstep having a positive or negative effect on Legacy?