This week’s article will be different from recent weeks’ articles. It’ll have a few decklists, sure, but I’m more interested in
discussing how to create decks for a specific purpose.
There are two major methods of deckbuilding: top-down and bottom-up. The philosophy behind a top-down approach is that you have an idea that seems
particularly powerful or interesting, and you want to make a deck that exploits that idea. These decks tend to be pretty linear. My Pump Infect list
from last week is a good example of such a deckâ€”it’s not built with a specific metagame in mind. The Bloodchief Ascension–Mindcrank deck is
another such top-down listâ€”nothing about it is particularly aimed at beating Caw-Blade or Valakut; it’s just a strategy doing its own
thing. As all decks do, they have good and bad matchups in a given metagame, but that’s not where the idea for the deck starts.
Bottom-up decks, on the other hand, are created to beat certain decks, strategies, and even specific cards. These decks are viable in specific
metagames where certain decks predominate. Sometimes, these decks are Glass Cannonsâ€”decks that can’t beat some decks and can’t lose
to others. These decks are not Jund, Faeries, or Caw-Blade: if someone really wants to beat a bottom-up deck, they will. My deck from Charlotte is a
good example of a bottom-up deck:
To understand the deck, we have to understand the process and motivating factors of bottom-up deck design.
I played a very similar list in Boston to the one I played in Charlotte. I did not do well in Boston. I was pretty frustrated coming out of the
weekend, as I felt that the deck was good, but I wanted a deck that could really beat up on Junk and Merfolk. Furthermore, I believe that Merfolk will
be the deck that benefits most from Mental Misstep and will be the deck to beat in the first few weeks of the New Phyrexia Legacy metagame.
I called my friend David and asked him if he was in the mood to brew. Being the good friend he is, he said yes. We went to a local cafÃ©, where I
had brought my long box of Legacy staples with me. I handed him the box and asked him to pull out every single card that is good against Merfolk. He
went through the box and pulled out maybe forty different cards. There were multiple decks in here: Painter-Stone, Zoo, Show and Tell, and Junk.
Conspicuously absent, though, were the Force of Wills, the Dazes, the Ponders, and many of the other blue midrange and control staples. Brainstorm,
Llawan, Spell Snare, and Thopter Foundry were there, but that was about it.
We started in on the pile of cards, initially building a deck that looked a lot like Gerard Fabiano Team Italia deck. It had Grim Lavamancer,
Dark Confidant, Stoneforge Mystic, and Swords to Plowshares. We got greedy, however, and added blue for Brainstorm, Thopter Foundry, Ponder, a few
Spell Snares, and Force of Will. I asked him how the mana base would hold up against multiple Wastelands. He told me that if we wanted to beat Merfolk
and Junk, we would probably be playing a fairly greedy mana base.
The Problem With Beating Merfolk
The above deck is really bad, but it’s instructive. The major problem with the above deckâ€”besides its atrocious mana baseâ€”is that it
still wouldn’t beat Merfolk. You can play a bunch of amazing cards in your blue control deck against Merfolkâ€”reusable removal, Dark
Confidant, Thopter Foundry + Sword of the Meek, Sword of Fire and Iceâ€”but without a coherent strategy, the fish will still get you.
The two major problems that blue control decks have with Merfolk are a lack of inevitability and a shortage of ways to get ahead. When building a deck
to beat Merfolk, you have to win the short game or the long game. If you can’t do either, it doesn’t matter how good your deck looks
against Merfolk. You’re going to lose.
Merfolk has inevitability over misbuilt blue decks. Blue decks that rely on blockers instead of a heavy removal suite (see: Natural Order Bant) will
get run over by Merrow Reejerey or Lord of Atlantis. You can line up three Tarmogoyfs, but if all their Merfolk are 5/5 or 6/6, and they cast a
Cursecatcher with three Merrow Reejereys in play, you’re dead on the spot. They could even just cast a Lord of Atlantis, and you’d be dead
Blue decks that rely on damage-based removal are in a pretty tenuous position as well, since they aren’t really built to go long with a Merfolk
deck. In Boston, I watched Reid Duke grip a hand of useless Bolts as he got run over by blue 4/4s. If you have damage-based removal, you have to cast
pretty much every removal spell as soon as you draw it, lest it become useless a turn down the line. If they have Aether Vial, your Chain Lightning
might be a blank from the turn you draw it, since they can Vial in a Lord, untap, Vial in another Lord, and cast a third to make a trio of 4/4s.
Blue decks that rely on guaranteed removal fare a little better than the others against Merfolk, but they’re still behind. I played Team America
for a month on the Open Series and lost several close matches to Merfolk. The problem with black removal is that it’s all one-for-one, which
raises the necessity of having a way to get ahead on cards. Gerry, of course, figured out that Dark Confidant was a much better strategy than
Tombstalker against Merfolk and Top 8ed Dallas because of that realization. Meanwhile, I lost to Scott Barrentine’s Merfolk because I still
hadn’t figured out how to build my deck.
The actual way that Team America would end up losing to Merfolk is that they would cast a Silvergill Adept, and then I’d lose. I mean, it took a
little bit longer than that, but that was the first domino. Once they had a free 2/1 against a deck of one-for-ones, it was only a matter of time
before I drew one more land than they did, and they had a two-card advantage on me. If I didn’t draw an extra land, they could just Wasteland me
off of my colored sources and keep me from playing my spells. Either way, their innocuous 2/1 was my real downfall.
Against blue decks that rely heavily on one-for-one-ing aggressive decks, it is essential to have ways of getting ahead on cards. Hymn to Tourach sort
of counts, but if they ever really care about it, they’ll probably Daze or Cursecatcher it. In the aforementioned misbuilt blue control deck,
Dark Confidant was a nod to “getting ahead,” but in real games, the deck would probably get Wastelanded off of the mana to cast all of the
spells it was flipping off of Dark Confidant.
Cat Zoo is the perfect example of how to build a deck to beat Merfolk. It has 10-12 removal spells, large creatures very early in the game, a source of
card advantage in Grim Lavamancer, and many ways to keep Grim Lavamancer active. It doesn’t want to go long with Merfolk, but it doesn’t
have toâ€”it’s a very threat-dense deck with a consistent mana base and at least fifteen cards that kill their creatures.
The reason why my Charlotte deck beat Merfolk, on the other hand, was that it couldn’t win the short game but rarely lost the long game. In a
format as big as Legacy, there are all sorts of resource wars that are rarely fought. Very few people choose their deck based on an ability to get an
Emrakul off of the board, but the Emrakul player knows what decks have that capability. In a similar vein, Merfolk can’t beat an Ensnaring
Bridge. Some lists play Energy Flux or Echoing Truth in the sideboard, but I have never seen Merfolk win a game where its opponent resolved an
The problem with this strategy is that it loses a bit with the addition of Mental Misstep. If our plan is to find and resolve Ensnaring Bridge while
Merfolk has Mental Misstep, our Enlightened Tutors might as well have gigantic bull’s-eyes on them. My strategy of going up to three Ensnaring Bridges
against Merfolk and other non-green aggressive decks will have to become the norm if a deck like this is to survive in the new metagame. Of course,
there are other cards that Mental Misstep makes even more appealing than Ensnaring Bridge…
Control in a New Phyrexia Metagame
Kyle Boggemes beat me to the punch in his article this week about how much Standstill gains from Mental Misstep. The best draw engine in Legacy gains a
lot from Mental Misstep, but how can we best abuse it? What are we drawing with this undercosted Concentrate?
Calosso Fuentes played this Landstill deck to ninth place in Charlotte:
The card that excites me the most in that deck is Pernicious Deed. The problem with Pernicious Deed up to this point has been that there hasn’t
been a deck that could play it profitably. Almost every recent black and green strategy in Legacy has been heavily permanent-based, making Pernicious
Deed a poor fit. The card has always overperformed in Landstill decks, but Standstill has been a very weak card in the last few months. Mental
Misstep’s appearance will help blue decks fight Aether Vial in a way that gives them room to play more powerful cards like Standstill and
Pernicious Deed, as opposed to Ponder and Inquisition of Kozilek. Besides, Pernicious Deed is pretty good against Merfolk.
So what does a Landstill deck look like in a world of Mental Missteps? One direction:
This style of deck has been absent from the Legacy metagame for months. Blue decks have moved toward Hymn to Tourach and Dark Confidant as their
two-drop of choice. If Standstill proves to be as viable as I believe, it will act as an effective foil to those two strategies. This deck is, I admit,
a bit soft to a Confidant on the play, but it has Pernicious Deed into Standstill to get back into games where it’s behind on multiple resources.
This deck also has the ability to cast Enlightened Tutor for value at any point in the game. If it’s behind, it can get Pernicious Deed or
Engineered Explosives to bring the board to parity. If its opponent has no board presence, it can find Standstill and get ahead on cards. If it’s
already ahead on cards, it can find Sensei’s Divining Top or Crucible of Worlds to draw more counterspells or Wasteland-lock a nonbasic-heavy
The reason why this deck only plays one Sensei’s Divining Top is that mana has always been at a premium in Standstill decks. The premier card in
the deck typically needs a stable board position before it can be cast. If the deck pumps a lot of mana into Top in the early turns, it’s likely to
fall behind on board, at which point Standstill gets worse, and the deck loses a lot of value. It’s possible that the deck could sideboard a second Top
for the games where it wants to become a Counterbalance deck.
The sideboard plan is fairly straightforward. Standstill decks have had a historical vulnerability to combo decks, and this one is no exception. Since
you want to cut four Swords, three Deeds, one Innocent Blood, one Creeping Tar Pit, and one Engineered Explosives, the deck should be playing ten
sideboard cards for combo. As we’re already playing a Sensei’s Divining Top main, the deck can sideboard in the last two Enlightened Tutors
and become a somewhat less-consistent Counter/Top deck. The curve is important to keep in mind when sideboardingâ€”while Crucible of Worlds is not
particularly strong against combo decks, the Crucible will need to stay in as the deck’s three-drop in sideboarded games so that Enlightened
Tutor can act as a Counterspell in conjunction with Counterbalance.
Against Merfolk, the first card I cut from almost every blue control deck is Force of Will. Since almost all of their spells do the same thing,
it’s an easy way to put yourself down a card. In this deck, it’s a little closer because you have Standstill and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
With our sideboard, though, it can come out. Dark Confidant is very strong against Merfolk, especially since they’ll have no ways of removing him
from the board. Since we have Pernicious Deeds, an Innocent Blood, and a Humility as ways to turn him off, it would be pretty rare to see him turn into
a liability in a long game.
It’s important to remember that Merfolk will bring in Back to Basics if they have it, so keeping mana open on their turn will be very, very
important in games without Force of Will. I would cut four Force of Wills, one Crucible of Worlds, and one Engineered Explosives on the play against
Merfolk, while on the draw I would cut two Standstills and leave in two Force of Wills. In both cases, I would bring in the set of Dark Confidants, the
Pithing Needle, and the Humility.
The deck is inherently strong against Hymn to Tourach decks already because of Standstill, Jace, and multiple recursion cards. The only real way to
lose to decks like these is if they land a quick Dark Confidant or a Choke into a lot of tapped mana. Given that, I would cut the Mental Missteps for
Dark Confidants, since we don’t really care about anything that they’re doing on one mana anyway. If they kept Swords to Plowshares in, you
can cut the Confidants and two Force of Wills for Counterbalances and Enlightened Tutors in game three.
The Legacy metagame will shift quite a bit in two weeks. I think that attacking Merfolk is a good place to start for deck designers who want to build
bottom-up decks. For those interested in building top-down decks, New Phyrexia has no shortage of role-playing cards that fill holes in a ton of
different archetypes. Check back with me next week for a broader New Phyrexia set review. If you have any questions about building decks for specific
metagames, I’d love to hear them in the forums or on Twitter.
See you next week!