The last two SCG Legacy Opens have seen two rather unusual decks in the finals: Caleb Durward's UB Tezzeret list with Sol-lands (City of Traitors and Ancient Tomb) and Signets - I like calling it SolTezz - and Jeremiah Rudolph's UG Cloudpost deck*.
*I considered writing about the UG deck anyway after just throwing it a single sentence in my last article but then Jeremiah decided to take it to the top anyway. With publicity for the deck insured I feel like I can safely shift the focus of this article a little.
I think it's interesting to observe the success of these two archetypes because as different as they are they share one thing: they're big mana decks. What I mean by that is that both decks are a rare beast in Legacy - ramp decks. Instead of being built around efficient spells or powerful interactions these decks just do one thing: they accelerate madly and drop overwhelming threats.
Why is that interesting? Well usually the role of ramp strategies is to function as a softer-hitting version of combo which generally limits their value in Legacy - we have real combo decks after all. So ramp doing well - remember that there are very few of these decks in a typical Legacy tournament making back to back top 2 performances particularly surprising - should tell us that something is up in the metagame.
Today I plan to examine what it is their performance is telling us. I think that one of the most important skills for someone wanting to become better at Magic is the ability to understand why certain decks succeed in certain metagames. To me the best way to do this is to take a look at different decks that share particular characteristics and do well when they haven't before.
The perspective you want to take here is strategic that is to say don't look at particular cards and say "Wow that card is busted it must be the reason deck X is good." Instead what you'll want to do is to say "OK decks A B and C have all been successful lately. What do they have in common that has helped them succeed?"
The benefits to be gained from doing so? Well first and foremost you get to know the strengths of what is likely to be an up and coming class of decks which in turn should help you defeat them. In addition you get to look for (or try to build) other decks that can exploit the same holes in the metagame.
OK time to get to work. Let's do our best Sylar impression and figure out what makes our two candidates tick!
Here Comes The Sun
Going at it chronologically here is Caleb's list:
There are a few too many cute one-ofs in the list for my liking but nonetheless Caleb's work shows an impressive amount of out-of-the-box thinking and an admirable readiness to kill his darlings. What we're looking at is a blue deck that plays an absolute minimum of countermagic and disruption no Brainstorms and fills up on accelerators that are widely held to be bad in Legacy like Talismans and Signets.
Instead of being reactive like a typical Legacy control deck SolTezz takes the fight to the opponent from the word go. Built around the powerful sequence of turn 1 Sol-land into Talisman turn two Planeswalker the power of the deck's punches is reminiscent of an actual combo deck. Think about it. How many decks in Legacy are really able to compete with a turn 2 Jace the Mind Sculptor or Tezzeret especially on the draw?
Even if you can somehow deal with the first Planeswalker in spite of 5/5s Unsummons and simple loyalty ramping it isn't like the deck invested even remotely enough into that play to have to worry about running out of gas.
That doesn't mean you have to hit this plan every game. Without this ideal "beatdown" draw the deck still plays an incredibly powerful value game. Baleful Strix Thirst for Knowledge and Solemn Simulacrum all keep the cards flowing allowing the deck to continue ramping while buying time until it can deploy even more ridiculous threats than "just" Jace and Tezzeret (like Karn Liberated).
Between the Planeswalkers focal to the deck's gameplan and the other threats there are few decks that can match or trump the deck's late game - which thank to the ramp will often be online by turn three or four. And because a lot of its ramping capability is part of the natural manabase thanks to the Sol-Lands there is easily enough room for carddrawing to avoid the traditional pitfall of ramp-decks - drawing nothing but ramp once the mana is online. In all honesty if I'm bringing a deck that is playing remotely fair this is probably the last thing I'd want to run into.
The one thing the deck is actually truly soft to is any deck that can just easily go over the top of anything it does. If your opponent is planning to have you dead by turn three all your redundant threats just won't matter while your pitiful amount of interactive cards isn't likely to actually get you there.
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
One of the few dedicated Cloudpost fans in Legacy Jeremiah Rudolph has a lot of experience under his belt with UG Post. Given his involvement in developing and pushing the deck on the source it's only fitting that he's the one to put the deck on the map in a SCG Open. Let's take a look at his list:
Instead of the super-explosive "ramp into turn two bomb Planeswalker" plan Caleb uses Jeremiah focuses on consistently reaching truly absurd amounts of mana to actually hardcast the dumbest card ever. This is one deck where Karn isn't a big enough game as hard as that is to swallow. Nothing but a Great Old One will do.
As a result the way the deck executes its main gameplan feels a lot more like a traditional ramp deck - complete with Standard-dominator Primeval Titan and all. Stall for a while with Repeal Glimmerpost lifegain and Glacial Chasm while searching Cloudposts. Once you have the mana to drop an Eldrazi into play the game generally won't take much longer.
In addition to the Cloudpost plan Jeremiah has Emrakul's traditional companion Show and Tell all ready to take the opponent to school. Very different from other Show and Tell decks though his lessons aren't about cheating tentacled fiends into play. His dream-drop is a simple PrimeTime making the omg-so-broken sorcery into not much more than a super-ramp spell that will allow him to access his actual end game that much faster.
What makes the Cloudpost plan such an excellent way to ramp is once again deck space and flexibility. As with the Sol-lands Cloudposts ramp simply by being part of the manabase eliminating the need for pure ramp spells like Rampant Growth or Sakura-Tribe Elder. Obviously you might claim that Cloudpost actually does run its own equivalent of those cards - Crop Rotation and Expedition Map. These cards aren't ramp though - they're just a bunch of tutors! While Crop Rotation Expidition Map and Primeval Titan are obviously meant to find those Cloudposts in the sky they're perfectly capable of shutting down combat (Glacial Chasm) gaining a bunch of life (Glimmerpost) putting opposing Tentacle Monsters and Demons where they belong (Karakas) or cleansing graveyards (Bojuka Bog). The final insult to the opponent is that they even get you to where the Old Ones lie waiting in endless sleep (the Eye of Ugin obviously).
All of this leads to one simple fact: the Cloudpost player is likely hardcasting an Eldrazi by turn four or five if you don't interact with him in meaningful ways. Given that the main thing Legacy decks can actually do about Cloudpost is to Wasteland it -- and that the deck not only has maindeck Pithing Needles but also far more ways to find Cloudposts than other decks have to find Wastelands -- keeping the Eldrazi from happening eventually is nigh impossible.
So what does that mean? Well once again we have a deck that will simply crush anything remotely fair it runs into though a few well-placed Wastelands might slow the real big mana engine down enough for some aggressive threats to get there. Generally speaking though this deck is soft to exactly the same things Sol-Tezz is soft to: decks that kill it before its own plan can take over.
All Together Now
That still leaves us with the question why these decks are performing this well right now. Obviously there is their inherent strength. They're powerful they're fast and their library manipulation and inherent ability to create card advantage makes them consistent - one reason I much prefer them to typical ramp-decks like MUD that will regularly find themselves with a bunch of uncastable sixes when their Metalworker gets killed.
In addition while these decks are slightly slower than combo decks they have a combo-like gameplan that relies on permanent mana sources and high-power single-card threats instead of actual combinations. As a result they're a lot more resilient when faced with disruption like countermagic or discard then a true combo-deck would be. Once the mana is established any threat that comes of the top of the deck will do after all. No waiting for that elusive second combo-piece or missing accelerator required.
That can't be the whole story though. There has to be some reason they're popping up now. The answer to this question is as always in such cases obviously based on what we call the metagame. Remember the weaknesses mentioned in the breakdowns above? Good the following observations should fall into place quite naturally then:
Aggressive decks have slowed down or disappeared . Between the rise of Griselbrand-fueled Show and Tell decks cheap board-dominating creatures like Stoneforge Mystic (with his Batterskull) or Knight of the Relinquary and Counterbalance making a comeback -- complete with a one-mana Wrath of God effect in Terminus -- Zoo is seeing less play than even during the Misstep era while truly aggressive swarm weenie strategies like Affinity are suffering*. Other than Burn variants (MonoR UR) there really isn't much outside of combo that will have you dead before your ramp matters. As a result just racing up the mana-ladder instead of spending a ton of valueable deck real-estate on defensive cards is a viable option.
*I'm well aware Goblins is alive and kicking (the crap out of most of the format). The truth is though outside of Lackey-draws Goblins isn't really that fast. It is very powerful and can hit really hard true. Goldfishing by turn 4 isn't its biggest strength though.
The nature of heavily played combo-decks has changed . Some time ago if you heard the term combo you'd automatically start keeping track of spell counts and mana pools in your head. With Thalia and tons of extremely cheap counterspells in the meta - not to mention Counterbalance - only the truly dedicated Storm mages still bring those decks out to play.
A big part in this transition is also a consideration of skill cap versus power level. Black-based Storm decks and High Tide are hard to play while Reanimator and Show and Tell decks are easy - as far as Legacy standards go anyway. With Griselbrand leveling the playing field as far as raw power is concerned it is only natural for players to pick up those decks if they decide to do unfair things.
That leaves us with a metagame with a very small presence of truly hard-to-fight combo with its metagame share taken up by the likes of Show and Tell Dredge and Reanimator. And while those decks are good they are much easier to stall for a few turns than a storm deck is. Instead of countermagic you can make sure you have access to graveyard hate and ways to keep ridonkulous big guys under control for a turn or two and your matchup against them will end up at least reasonable - if you can take advantage of those few turns that is. And taking advantage of that kind of window is what ramp decks are truly good at.
Disruption has become conditional. With most decks streamlined towards as much early interaction as possible taxing counters and targeted discard have replaced harder countermagic and Hymn to Tourach almost completely. Even decks built to thrive in the lategame like EsperBlade and UW Miracles often eschew hard countermagic for Thoughtseizes Inquisitions and Spell Pierces. Canadian Thresh has exactly four Force of Will to interact with an opponent that has more than enough mana in play. As a result land-based ramping is not only hard to stop for most decks it also conveniently blanks most interactive capabilities anybody you run into might have.
People try to actually control the game now. While there still is an aggro-control deck in Canadian Thresh Legacy looks much different from when Tarmogoyf was the undisputed king. Instead of 1001 different Goyf-based aggro-control decks duking it out for the spot of "best counterspell deck" most blue decks actually show some dedication towards going long by including Jace the Mind Sculptor and envisioning the hardcast Batterskull. By doing this they leave themselves totally open to just getting ramped out of the game.
Fixing a Hole
So now that we know what hole these decks are exploiting can you think of anything else that fits it perfectly? Because I sure can:
Don't look at the sideboard; that decklist is more than a year old after all and had to deal with quite a different set of opponents. (Remember when Hive Mind was big enough to make Sundial of the Infinite a reasonable sideboard card?)
The maindeck though does exactly what we've been looking for:
Lands that give us inevitability in the lategame? Valakut and Grove of the Burnwillows check.
The ability to make enough landdrops to ignore soft counters while staying alive? 26 lands and a Loam-engine check.
The ability to just overwhelm opponents by doing ridiculous things shortly after ramping for a little bit? Prismatic Omen (and Valakut) Intuition into Loam a set of Jaces and Scapeshift - definitely check.
I'll be honest there are a few things I don't like about Marshall's list. Force of Wills with only twelve blue cards only a single cycling land to draw cards with Loam and no ways to interact with Show and Telled fatties easily top the list.
Yet I've playtested that deck before and it works beautifully as long as it isn't being overrun or Tendrilsed out. It probably needs a bit of tweaking for the current metagame but the basic idea behind what it was doing seems just as well positioned currently as UG Cloudpost and Sol-Tezz. Giving this a try definitely seems like a solid idea doesn't it?
You Know What to Do
There definitely are other decks out there that can do what these decks try to do - Nic Fit comes to mind though that deck ramps quite tamely all things considered - and your mission should you choose to accept it is to find one of them that catches your fancy and play the hell out of it.
Even if you definitely don't want to join the ramp club - and there are good reasons not to do so such as your opponent tapping Underground Sea to pay for a Dark Ritual - be aware these decks exist and see if you can find some way to mitigate their strengths. With the way the meta is shaping up right now it seems all too likely that we'll see more ramp popping up in the near future and you really don't want to be left out in the cold when it does. I mean nobody wants to have Legacy to look like Valakut Standard right? Right?
More than anything though I hope this little exercise in deck performance analysis was as fun and informative for you to read as it was for me to do. Let me know in the comments if I forgot some necessary element if you disagree with my conclusions or if there's anything else you'd like to share. Until next time turn the mana up to eleven!