This week, I want to talk about peoples' misconceptions about Brainstorm in Legacy. Worlds is this weekend, and Thanksgiving is the weekend after that, so we still have two weeks to go over more deck ideas before St. Louis happens. I've wanted to write this article for a while, but I've been coming up short on finding a strong point of entry into my ideas. Since I'm a statistical analyst, it was pretty hard to resist Jack Elgin's recent analysis of Legacy tournament statistics.
Before I get into Jack's discussion, I want to talk about why I think that from a development perspective, Brainstorm will never get banned in Legacy.
I get that some people don't like Brainstorm. Maybe it's over their head, or maybe blue dual lands are too expensive. Maybe it's just not their cup of tea. But a few weeks ago, Zac Hill wrote an article that perfectly articulated a core format development tenet. He wrote,
I promise you I can host a meticulously balanced, masterfully orchestrated staring-at-the-wall contest. That doesn't mean that anyone wants to participate in it.
If good formats are about having people want to play them, then Brainstorm should never be touched. No other format offers you four Brainstorms! What do people who want to ban Brainstorm want Legacy to become, Modern? Brainstorm is a card that enables more flexible deckbuilding by letting deckbuilders incorporate more cards into their seventy-fives. All of the most egregiously offensive banned cards did the exact opposite to deck design. Survival of the Fittest and Mystical Tutor made people warp their decks to beat overpowered interactions. Mental Misstep, too, warped how people built their decks, forcing them to either overload on ones or stop playing decks that relied on unique ones like Grindstone and Exploration. That, too, is bad for the format.
But Brainstorm lets people play with more cards. It doesn't stop people from playing their Hymn to Tourachs or their Wastelands. It doesn't even always beat the Lion's Eye Diamond combo decks. It is a promoter of diversity and creativity. That it keeps showing up in top decklists is no surprise—it's the best card in the format! But none of the cards that have been banned in Legacy in the last few years have been the best card in the format. Brainstorm has been the best card in the format from the first day Legacy came into existence. As I'll discuss a bit later, the role of a banned list is not to get rid of the most powerful or most played card in a format. The role of a banned list is to promote diversity and fun. Brainstorm doesn't constrain diversity or kill fun. Other cards might do so, and Brainstorm will help people find them more often, but that doesn't mean that Brainstorm is the culprit. It means that it's doing exactly what people want it to do.
A few days ago, there was a thread on MTG: The Source that provided an analysis of Brainstorm's performance in SCG Opens. It can be found here. The original poster is Jack Elgin, a man who I consider a friend and who I believe to be a well-spoken, intelligent, logical, reasonable person. He argues well and conveys his points convincingly and (most of the time) succinctly.
Jack's central point in this thread is that Brainstorm is way too good and should be banned in Legacy. Hardly a new point, but he marshals a whole five tournaments of Top 16 data to support it. He creates pie graphs and line charts, all of which say the same thing:
Since Innistrad, there have been eight Brainstorms in the finals of any given Legacy Open.
Jack points out that since Innistrad's release, Brainstorm has accounted for:
62.5% of Top 16 representation
70% of Top 8 representation
90% of Top 4 representation
…and, of course, 100% of finals representation.
Compelling numbers, right? Jack even pulls numbers from the Mental Misstep era—you know, when blue decks were presumably at their most dominant—to show that blue wasn't dominating that era as much as it's dominating now. “If blue was so good that they had to ban a counterspell,” Jack's implied point goes, “then what chance do green, red, black, and white have now that Misstep is gone and blue is even better?”
The problem is that this is a whole five tournaments of data. As far as statistical significance goes, we still have a long way to go. Besides, as I'll discuss below, there are a few problems inherent in using the SCG Open Series as a medium for analyzing Legacy tournament data.
I want to make a point about the SCG Open Series and a separate point about Legacy as a format. After that, I want to return to Jack's point about Brainstorm and then wrap up with a few ideas about how to fight Brainstorm, if that's what you're interested in doing.
The Open Series incentivizes the best players to play decks that present the best average chance of winning. This creates instances of the following scenario:
Person A likes to brew. They're probably good, but they don't necessarily see the value in just playing the best deck every time. They want to have fun and win, or “break it.” Regardless, Person A believes that there is value in pursuing fringe strategies in Standard or Legacy Open tournaments. Person B is the person taking them to task.
I've listened to about half a dozen iterations of the following conversation:
A: Why shouldn't I play [U/G Ramp/Grand Architect/a non-Brainstorm deck] in Legacy?
B: I'm going to assume you're interested in winning first and having a “fun” or “unique” deck second, since otherwise we're talking about different things. If you want to win on a given week, you basically have two choices. You can play the best deck, or you can try to beat the best deck while not getting beat by some dude who decided that he wants to beat the best deck and happens to also crush you. Alternatively, you could also just play against a deck that never ever beats the best deck but crushes you. In almost all of those situations, you're better off just playing the best deck. Do you realize how many people thought they beat Jund and didn't? How many people think they beat Caw-Blade and don't?
Furthermore, let's say that there is a deck that crushes Caw-Blade. It's really, really good against it. But then you play against Mono-Red, Vampires, and Splinter Twin, and you're just dead. Sure, if you played against Caw-Blade all day, you might have won, but the odds are just against you from the start. And so the problem with trying to “break it” is that even if you do break the format for the week, you might not get your expected pairings; you might mulligan a ton; or your deck might not actually be that revolutionary. And in your absolute best-case scenario—you do really well with this deck—you have to put in a ton of work for next week if you want to stay ahead of the curve, at which point you run the same risks (of losing, of being wrong, of getting unlucky) all over again.
If you just play Caw-Blade or play the Brainstorm deck, though, you're taking a more even road. The power level of these decks is well established, they're a safer bet, and while you aren't guaranteed victory, you have a reasonable expectation that your deck will do what it wants to do almost all of the time. Whether that thing is worth doing this week is harder to say, but you're buying into a consistency model here. By doing so, you're eventually going to run above expectation and make it into the Top 8 of some event. That's why you play Caw-Blade, and that's why you play Brainstorm.
If we were talking about a Grand Prix, it would be a whole different story. For Invitational, Grand Prix, and Pro Tour events, you want to try to break it. The incentive is there, the money is good enough, and there's only one of these. Whereas you want to play a deck that's always a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 in smaller, weekly events, you want to hit home runs and risk striking out in Grand Prix and Invitationals.
This, in a nutshell, is why the best players on the Open Series have consistently cast Brainstorm. Alex was the lone holdout for a long time, playing Cursecatcher over Brainstorm, but eventually he, too, saw that he was unnecessarily handicapping himself. In a format as broad and diverse as Legacy, you want to create as much consistency within your deck as possible. “But Drew,” you might be wondering, “what decks wouldn't want to be as consistent as possible?”
In a format where there are only three or four decks that see play, tutors may not be that great. Card selection may not be very relevant. After all, what are you selecting between? You can just build your deck to beat everything with very few modifications. There's no real reason to play white removal in Standard that isn't Fiend Hunter or Oblivion Ring, since those just solve all of your problems. If people had to play Purify the Grave, Smite the Monstrous, Fiend Hunter, Oblivion Ring, Rebuke, and Slayer of the Wicked in varying quantities, then they would definitely want something like Brainstorm. Since they don't, they just play their best cards and don't waste mana or slots on things like Ponder in a control deck.
That, in a nutshell, is the Legacy deckbuilding problem: you want Force of Will against combo and in control mirror midgames; you want removal against aggro and late against control; you want a planeswalker in a very specific window that can open at any time; you want your conditional counters (Daze, Spell Snare, and so on) in varying quantities at different times; you don't want your sixth or seventh land, and so on. As formats get faster and more powerful, a strong control deck is one that consistently executes a solid game plan. Brainstorm holds Legacy control decks together, as it has done since the beginning of the format.
I promise you I can host a meticulously balanced, masterfully orchestrated staring-at-the-wall contest. That doesn't mean that anyone wants to participate in it.
Something has to be the best in a given format. The beauty of Standard is that there are enough cards to promote metagame dynamism, yet few enough cards that people still have targets to shoot at. Just when it gets a little boring, anew set comes along and revitalizes it, sparking new decks, new archetypes, new technology that changes the way certain matchups work, and so on.
Legacy isn't really like that. There are a ton of core archetypes – B/G/x attrition decks, U(x)(yz) control decks, and so on. New archetypes can see creation when cards like Painter's Servant or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn come along, but Legacy is a format that has been explored quite a bit. New cards aren't likely to shake it up in the way that they change the face of Standard. So what keeps people wanting to play it?
People come to play Legacy because it's incredibly diverse. I have played Legacy Opens where I battle against a different archetype each round—in Baltimore, I played against B/W attrition, Dredge, Esperzoa Affinity, Zoo, Merfolk, U/W Control, U/G/R Delver Counterbalance, and B/G/W Junk Depths. By contrast, I've played Standard Opens where I faced off against Wolf Run four rounds in a row. If you want a format that lets you explore more options, you should be choosing Legacy over Standard every single time.
People also love playing with powerful cards. If you want a format with Lion's Eye Diamond and Wild Nacatl, you have to have a number of decks that can keep them in check. As it happens, Brainstorm is not that powerful of a card on its own. The crux of its interaction with the Onslaught and Zendikar fetchlands is still only part of its true power. The reason why Brainstorm is the best thing people can do in Legacy is because answer-oriented decks need a way to get to their live cards and get rid of their dead cards. There is no card or series of cards that efficiently answers the problems of Wasteland, Wild Nacatl, Lion's Eye Diamond, Aether Vial, Show and Tell, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Golgari Grave-Troll. What Brainstorm lets people do is play a small number of answers to those questions and play a card that lets them play those answers more than they ought to be able to.
So why is that okay? Why should blue decks get to play such a diverse range of answers and a card that seemingly finds any of them when no other deck can? Isn't that insanely overpowered and bannable? Shouldn't blue control decks have to pick and choose which decks they want to fight this week, just like every other deck?
The problem with saying “Brainstorm is too good” is that you need some basis of context and comparison. What is an unacceptable card for the format? The closest point of comparison to Brainstorm is Ancestral Recall. Several professional Magic players have asserted that “the illusion of Legacy is that Brainstorm is not Ancestral Recall.” In the context of that comparison, it is easier to understand why Brainstorm is the most powerful thing you can do in Legacy, assuming that you have built your deck correctly and that you are casting the spell so as to maximize the value you get from it. But again, why not ban it if it's a virtual Ancestral?
The truth about Legacy is that it is about casting very powerful spells. The Eternal formats let us go back to a time where countering something didn't cost three mana; it cost zero or one or two. They let us go back to a time where the spells were as good as the creatures, so today's good creatures have to play against the good spells from ten years ago. Standard Knight of the Reliquary decks never had to beat Force of Will. They only had to beat Mana Leak. Wild Nacatl decks in Modern don't have to worry about Swords to Plowshares; they only have to deal with Path to Exile.
Legacy is the last refuge of Sensei's Divining Top as a good card, the last place where people can cast Counterspell, and one of the two final homes of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. You can cast your 4/5 on turn three in Draft or Sealed, but spell aficionados don't always get a sweet counterspell or an awesome cantrip. For those who love casting powerful spells, then, Brainstorm is the filet mignon. We can't do that anywhere else, and it's the most fun some people can have in a game of Magic. Wild Nacatl lovers may not love seeing a Brainstorm cast against them, but Brainstorm lovers aren't too keen on seeing an Aether Vial or a Wild Nacatl across the table from them.
So if Brainstorm isn't going to get banned, what can people do? Ultimately, it depends on how you relate to the format. If SCG Legacy Opens are a weekly or biweekly event for you, there's little chance that not playing Brainstorm is correct. It promises unrivaled consistency and a ton of skill edge. Why wouldn't you play it?
If you don't play Legacy that often or you aren't as familiar with it, then it might be worth it to play a deck that beats up on Brainstorm decks. The format's best players are all pretty wedded to the card, but that doesn't mean that their decks are without flaws. Jack correctly identifies that the two best Legacy cards from Innistrad are Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets and partially attributes the recent success of blue decks to those cards. His secondary point is that a flying blue Wild Nacatl and a cheap creature that lets you double up on crucial cards in a given matchup may well push blue into strategic dominance. I agree with Jack that Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage are powerful cards, but so are Life from the Loam, Chalice of the Void, Knight of the Reliquary, and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. All of those cards, as it happens, are very strong against both Delver and Snapcaster decks.
Today's Delver of Secrets decks play fewer than twenty lands, four of which are Wastelands. They need to do this because their spells are relatively weaker than the spells in other decks, so it's important to not get flooded out. Since they run so few lands, though, there are myriad ways to attack their manabase. Options include Back to Basics, Blood Moon, Life from the Loam targeting two Wastelands and a Rishadan Port, Chalice of the Void set to one—but very few people play those cards. If you dislike Brainstorm, I can understand that. But what I can't understand is knowing that people are playing decks that revolve around Brainstorming for value and still not building your deck in a way that meaningfully interacts with that aspect of their deck.
Whether you love Brainstorm or hate it, whether you root for it or against it, it's a defining card of the format, and it's here to stay. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the forums and on Twitter.
Until next week,
@drew_levin on Twitter