A New Blue Mage’s Diary

Ari Lax tries to play blue cards in Legacy, the ones everyone says are the best. He learns some interesting new things and comes out with some unique decklists before settling on an answer.

Saturday, December 10th:

On my flight to Charlotte, I experienced some unfortunate delays that bricked my plan to fall asleep in Detroit and wake up south of the Mason-Dixon line. Somewhere in the hours of boredom, I decided I wanted to feed the trolls on The Source regarding Brainstorm. One of the current issues being discussed is that Brainstorm decks are just compilations of all the best cards, so I decided to just make a sixty-card pile without as few of the awkward conditional cards that always pop up. No Dazes, no Stifles, just pure value.

Before anyone asks, yes that mana base is a joke. The verbatim list from the flight has “19 Hope and Prayer” right after the spells.

Despite the deck being designed without caring about synergy, there are some cool things that popped up. Green Sun’s Zenith is both a card you can reveal to Delver and a threat, and Knight gives you more shuffle effects for the cantrips and for if you need a new card after peeking with Delver.

Had I built this more than 18 hours before I needed a list, I might have tested it for the Invitational. As it was, I decided against trying to make fetch happen and stuck with things I knew were reasonable like Dark Rituals. There were still a few too many questions to be answered, like why play Green Sun’s Zenith and Knight of the Reliquary without a toolbox.

Sunday, December 12th:

After dropping some close matches with Storm in the Invitational to tempo decks and getting trashed in the Legacy Open by more blue decks while playing Reanimator, I decided it was time to take a break from Underground Seas and try some Delving. I had tested the U/R Delver versus Storm matchup and been impressed by the speed of the deck, but after playing games against Maverick, I was unimpressed by some aspects. Most notably was the fact I was extremely favored when I drew Delver and unable to win games without Delver. If I instead had a turn-one Goblin Guide, things got close, but it wasn’t great, as Guide would trade with any two-drop, not just Tarmogoyf.

U/R Delver was light on cheap threats. It was basically the same deck as Burn Zoo but was severely cheating on one-drops. Burn Zoo has around 20 ones; Delver has 11. Brainstorm, Ponder, and the power of Delver of Secrets can’t make up a twofold difference.

Burn Zoo aka Cat Sligh is good and all, but it has some serious issues as well. Most notably is how draw dependent it can get. Sometimes you get them to three and rip the Bolt. Other times you draw all lands and Cats.

One deck wants more Cats; the other deck wants more card selection. Ctrl + C; Ctrl + V. Maybe GoodStuff.deck should have a real game plan.

Key Points:

Steppe Lynx and Wild Nacatls are true Red Deck heroes. Remember that part about Goblin Guide running into random two-drops and dying? The difference between 3/3 and 2/2 is huge in a world of Snapcaster Mages, and a 4/5 Lynx turns most early Knights and Goyfs into hero blocks. Lynx can also go bigger if you accumulate fetches in play, a trick from the old Standard Bushwhacker Boros days. While they don’t necessarily have the staying power of a creature with flying, they do enough. Also, if you cut all these Dazes, what else do you need to Brainstorm away on turn four?

Magma Jet is another way to set up Delver as well as find fetches for Lynx later on. Fireblast could tag in here if it was determined the mana worked, but I had heard complaints about Fireblast in U/R Delver. You don’t run out of cards quite as often as Zoo, meaning you don’t need the four damage for one card and would rather have utility.

Tuesday, December 13th:

Ended up going to test Legacy for a couple hours late tonight. Scrapped the above deck because I was sick of getting double Bolted or Plowed out of games. While back in the day that used to be variance and acceptable, Snapcaster Mage now says otherwise.

That said, the results of tonight make me believe Snapcaster Mage is going to usher in a period of true control being viable in Legacy. Let’s be clear here; none of these current blue decks are close to pure control, not even BUG or the Blade decks. They just hope their removal and counters lead to a board state where the opponent is out of gas while you maybe have 1-2 mediocre cards left and a guy on board. There is no real refuel, no real card advantage, and I have always hated Legacy blue decks because of it. They are basically all The Rock, and probably one of the worst things ever is being The Rock. You “establish” control, but all that means is you are ahead now and hope your opponent doesn’t rip some busted card and put themselves back ahead if you hit bricks. Without restocking your hand, you have no backup. Real control should always have the next answer in line.

The shift back to the Misstep-era engine of Ancestral Vision was a Kurtis Droge innovation*, but for once he is correct. Just out-card the other blue decks, and everything works out fine. His initial build was splashing for Tarmogoyf and Lightning Bolt, but Swords to Plowshares is infinitely better, as it handles a Knight of the Reliquary, and Stoneforge Mystic is clearly on the same two-drop level. Here is the first build of how I would approach U/W Blade.

Some of the differences between the more recent lists and this one:

2 Batterskull – The Brian DeMars plan. I don’t want to spend space on a bunch of equipment, as I don’t want to play the suit up a Snapcaster game, so why not just have only the good one? This makes the deck a bit stronger against hand disruption, especially as you can find one Batterskull if needed then Mystic up the second. I might move towards one Umezawa’s Jitte, as that card is pretty savage, but none of this Sword nonsense.

4 Ancestral Vision – The best real card advantage in the format. Yes it gets Stifled and Spellstutter Sprited, but I really don’t care. If they don’t Stifle my lands, I get to Jace them, and Sprite is good Spell Snare fodder. Being able to fight with all your mana to resolve your card draw spell is so crucial.

4 Wasteland – People forget about the free wins this card just hands you. Also, this deck needs a real answer to utility lands and manlands other than trying to block them.

3 Spell Snare – Rarely want to draw more than one of this situational card, especially as you can just Snapcaster it back. I’m a huge fan of maximizing utility at all points.

* – A list of some prior Kurtis Droge innovations: Playing Martyr of Sands in the format of Thepths, playing Ghost Council of Orzhova and Hand of Cruelty earlier in that format at the Pro Tour where Hypergenesis and Dredge were also things, playing Squadron Hawks and Stoneforge Mystic until Sword of Feast and Famine was released then promptly never doing so again, almost top eighting Nationals the year of 32 Great Sable Stags while playing Sage’s Dousing, top eighting the Midwest Masters event a couple years back by Rite of Replication-ing Frost Titans (actually that last one was pretty sick).

Wednesday, December 14th, 2:30pm:

Looking back on last night, Stoneforge Mystic was terrible in blue mirrors. Their one removal spell has no other targets, and you never get to Batterskull them. It basically is a two-cost Unhinge once you get around to shuffling the Batterskull back in to a Brainstorm. If Mystic untapped, you probably were fine anyway, and if it had been any utility spell, you would have won; whereas if you need a utility spell, Mystic isn’t going to cut it. New no Mystic list coming right up.

Comments on the new cards:

Oblivion Ring – There was no way to deal with non-creature permanents in the first list. Fixed.

Pyroblasts – The deck can afford to splash, as you only need the basic lands in play to get Jace down through a Wasteland, and you don’t have any double-white spells you need to cast. Black as far as I can tell only offers Perish and Inquisition of Kozilek; green offers Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary; and red offers Pyroblast and Grim Lavamancer. The easy cut is black, as the cards don’t add any extra utility. I have access to Perish-style sweepers, and I don’t want to have discard spells in my deck where I plan on going long every game. The green cards are interesting, but if I start down that road, the deck is going to end up completely different. What I would have is a Maverick-style green-white deck splashing Jace, Brainstorm, and Vendilion Clique and trying to win on threat density. Pyroblast seems like the most exciting card, especially as I want a trump for Jace mirrors and probably need more removal in the Fish matchup.

Preordain – I wanted one more spell to Snapcaster and didn’t want it to be in any way conditional. I came up with this and Ponder as the real choices and would rather have the reliable option than the one that is better if I have a fetch in play.

Ajani Vengeant – I was looking for a fifth Jace, and this seemed to pop more than Elspeth. I think it is mostly that all three abilities appear relevant as opposed to just one. Of course, it is possible that Elspeth’s +1 does the same as all three of these abilities at once, and I’m just playing this guy because he is a boss.

Crucible of Worlds – I wanted a big card advantage effect that was a bit smaller so that I could more effectively set a game state where I could then establish a Jace. The last part of that excluded Beleren from being an option, so I went digging. Vedalken Shackles and Crucible were the two that came up, and Shackles seems poorly positioned against a field heavy in Pridemages. This could very easily change.

Wednesday, December 14th, 11:30pm:

Results of random local event: Crushed some people.

Relevant results of random local event:

3 Vendilion Clique main might be ambitious. I definitely would board the third in often, but the matchups Clique is bad in, you have the least time to sculpt your hand and find more answers.

Crucible of Worlds was miserable and win more. If I devoted more space to manlands it might be worth it, but I would rather have castable spells than the ability to live the dream sometimes.

Ajani did some cool things like Helix down Jaces but didn’t solidly prove himself better than Elspeth. The Crucible is going to become a copy of the Knight-Errant. When in doubt, 1-1 split and see what happens.

The sideboard Meddling Mages turned into Wrath of Gods before the event and proved amazing. Two of the problems I expected with this deck were shroud guys and Aether Vial, which Wrath can reasonably handle and are likely more of an issue than Dark Rituals.

On the subject of Aether Vial, this deck is fairly cold to Goblins. That’s probably the one matchup I would want Mystic for, as I can’t imagine Fish being able to beat ten one-mana kill spells plus Snapcasters post-board without drawing three Kiras or something. Even then, still had all these Wrath of Gods. Humility is probably the best response here, as I can’t imagine them not being able to set up Siege-Gang Commander in the face of a Moat. You lose access to Snapcaster under Humility, but the reason you were losing was a combination of Matrons and Ringleaders, plus the fact Piledriver can’t be blocked by any of your guys.

Sunday, December 18th:

After a few days more of testing/failed events, I’ve come to a few general conclusions about the deck and as to why I never liked blue in Legacy.

First, let’s go down the specific road.

My dismissal of Stoneforge Mystic was matchup specific. I was testing mostly against what I viewed as the “good decks,” which basically came down to decks with Lightning Bolt and combo. Stoneforge Mystic is at best borderline against both of those things. Against combo, you need all of your cards to actually interact, and tapping out for a Mystic is just a quick route to death, especially compared to if it was another relevant card and even more so compared to an interactive threat like Snapcaster Mage or Vendilion Clique. Against Lightning Bolt, you are turning on a card that is otherwise only marginally better than Lava Spike against you. All of your other options to Bolt result in a profitable interaction. Mystic getting Bolted puts you up a “card,” but that card is usually something you just want to Brainstorm back.

Against other decks, Stoneforge is a boss. The current list had a lot of issues with artifacts that provided a long-term advantage, like Aether Vial or Sword of Fire and Ice. I was searching for a profitable answer for them that I failed to find, but Stoneforge lets you fight them on (or above) their level.

Moving forward I would consider cutting Stoneforge in some metagames and would likely sideboard Ancestral Vision, but in a large event, I would maindeck the equipment package. To join AJ Sacher in the world of Day[9] paraphrasing: What do you do when your opponent is doing something strange? Just go kill them. There’s a ton of assorted garbage in Legacy that dodges your random answers but likely isn’t as powerful as what you are expecting. If they want to scale back on the power, just slam your broken card on the table and make them deal or die.

Bridging into the general part, I’m starting to realize why I didn’t like blue decks in Legacy.

Control decks have to play a lot of efficient but conditional effects most of the time. All the Swords to Plowshares, Doom Blades, Spell Snares, and so on. The usual way they deal with this in other formats is having some less efficient but sweepingly powerful effects to make up the virtual card disadvantage here and the tempo disadvantage associated with the card selection they play to assemble this. The Wrath of Gods, the Fact or Fictions, the Cruel Ultimatums. In Legacy, Wasteland makes these massive effects much less attractive. The general power of threats also makes them less effective. You are required to match your opponent’s every action most of the time and have less time to do something silly like Fact or Fiction. This issue is also exacerbated by Force of Will putting you down on cards, which, given the lack of strong card advantage effects and the prevalence of conditionally dead cards, adds up fast.

This means Legacy “control” most of the time against fair decks just creates a window of opportunity where it is marginally ahead and exploiting it. You rarely have these crushing end games you see in other formats. Of all people, it seems like I should appreciate this because of Faeries, but that deck had a set of raw power plays that it could just go kill people with. Most Legacy decks’ power plan is “hit you a few times with Tarmogoyf.” That isn’t enough for me. Delver and similar styles exist, but it isn’t a flexible plan. Mystic is close to a proactive plan A that can help you swing a game but as I mentioned above has some weaknesses. The only card I almost unconditionally like here is Jace, and he even borders on clunky.

It isn’t all bad for blue though. The fundamental issue of needing to regain tempo after using card selection doesn’t exist in Legacy. Thanks Brainstorm! Jace locks up games in about a million different ways if you set him up. Also, your conditional answers are all unreal in tempo terms.

I don’t have a list for where I want to go, but I have a list of things I want:

-Four Jace. This is your Cruel Ultimatum.

-Some efficient threat that helps me push if my opponent isn’t putting up top notch action and can hold the fort. Knight of the Reliquary and Stoneforge Mystic are the top options.

-Things to do with all this extra mana that Brainstorm and Swords just hand me. Preordain was exceptional at this but might clunk up the curve with a move to more “real” threats.

-No Dazes. No tempo garbage. Just good cards.

I’m not done with combo by any means, but it’s time I considered my options. Things change; I should be more ready if and when they do.

Top 5 Most Deserved Props of 2011

I figured this should be done by year’s end, as I have chosen to defer it from the more traditional end of tournament report position. Here we go:

5. Sam Pardee

Scooped to me in the last round of Nagoya when he had me dead on board, and the only thing on the line was 1 extra Pro Point for the winner. I was positioned to use it and in the end finished the year on exactly 20 points. Thanks again for being a fan of maximizing net expected value.

4. The Up and Comers

Simply put, a lot of the newer Pros this year are awesome people, and I’ll be glad to see them around in the future. Special shout outs to Matthias Hunt for aiming high and hitting the target as well as Reid Duke and Christian Valenti for generally being awesome people. As for a name no one knows, props to Ann Arbor local Matt McCullough on virtual top 16ing his first Pro Tour in Philly in a very deserved manner (scooping the last round in an easy matchup to help a friend level up) and for going from that kid who 0-3ed all the drafts to one of the people I most want to playtest with for major events.

3. The Philosophers and Theorists

There’s no way I would have gotten as far as I have in Magic without the proper framework to build logic on. There’s also no way I would have been able to take as much of what I learned and apply it to real life. Notable honors to Patrick Chapin, Gavin Verhey, and Travis Woo, who as of now are the best of the best in the Magic world.

2. Steve Sadin, Evan Erwin, Glenn Jones, and the rest of the StarCityGames.com staff

Thanks for giving me a soapbox to stand on, even if at times it is me just feeding my own narcissistic tendencies.

1. Pam from RIW Hobbies

The level of support you have given to the local competitive players goes beyond what I have seen or even could expect from a store owner. Thanks for everything from the PTQs back in the day to helping me get to Seattle the time it counted to now.