For everyone who told me that I was wrong about Wild Nacatl not being good enough right now, I suppose there are four whole Wild Nacatls for you in the
Top 16 of Edison. Go ahead; hang your hat on that. The fact of the matter is that Zoo was good in DC, and it’ll be good by the time Los Angeles and
Atlanta roll around, but it’s pretty horrendous right now.
I know how it looks: it’s weird that all these decks keep doing well, and I keep telling you they’re garbage only days after their “breakout weekend.”
However, when there’s only one of those decks in the Top 16 of the next major event, you might see that there’s a method to my madness. To recap the
last few weeks:
In a tweet on February 23, I told my followers, “Counterbalance is bad right now.” Three days prior, I had played in a Top 8 that broadcast
Counterbalance’s format dominance.
Ben, Josh, and I dominated Indianapolis with Counterbalance with a very clear idea of where the metagame was. We wanted to beat Aether Vial decks. Ben
had Grim Lavamancer, Firespout, and Pithing Needle for those. I had Rhox War Monk, Natural Order, and Umezawa’s Jitte. Josh had Moat, Ensnaring Bridge,
and a zillion basic land. We knew the enemy and defended ourselves accordingly.
By the time DC rolled around, people figured out how to attack both Counterbalance and Aether Vial: play a good Knight of the Reliquary deck. Your
Savannahs could be paired with Lightning Bolts or Thoughtseizes, but the core idea was the same: quickly transition into a strong midgame that shut
Aether Vial and Counterbalance decks out of their overpowering endgames. No real surprise that 22 Knights of the Reliquary made it into the Top 16
By the time I wrote my article last Wednesday night, however, I was confident that Wild Nacatl’s reemergence in the winner’s circle was a one-week
fluke. I advised against playing fair last week, cautioning that Taiga was not the dual land to play if you wanted to win Edison. Why?
Well, did you see the rest of the Top 8? Doomsday, Ad Nauseam, Show and Tell, Natural Order, and Auriok Salvagers? There were two metagame forces that
converged on DC in the aftermath of Indianapolis, both of them aimed at defeating Counterbalance and Aether Vial.
The first was a return to midrange green decks, as shown by the success of Green Sun’s Zenith. The second — and more significant — was a broader
adoption of slow combo decks. When the two trends crashed up against each other in the elimination rounds, guess which ones won? Doomsday, Replenish,
and Ad Nauseam beat Goblin Lackey, Mangara of Corondor, Noble Hierarch, and Wild Nacatl.
Coming out of DC, the clear trend was an upswing in degenerate strategies. Mike Flores and I played a Cephalid Life deck that was probably four cards
off of optimal, but our deck philosophy for the tournament was spot-on: do something very powerful. Edison was not the place to attack for two.
The most important takeaway from the past month is that Legacy is seeing the rise of slow combo. If you’ll note, there are no Goblin Charbelchers in
the Top 16s of the past three events. There are a fair few Dredge decks, Storm decks, and Show and Tell decks, though. So what does it mean to be a
slow combo deck?
The two hallmarks of a successful, slow combo deck are its disruption package and its fundamental turn. Since these combo decks are slow enough to encounter one
truly meaningful threat a game, they play cards such as Duress, Thoughtseize, Force of Will, and Cabal Therapy to push through the nominal interaction
that other decks present. These disruption cards contribute to their slowness. After all, they could be using those slots on cantrips or tutors or more
kill conditions. Since they’re playing disruption (or “protection”) instead, their deck isn’t completely streamlined. As a result, they rarely win in
the first two turns.
The notion of a fundamental turn is a little harder to explain. Legacy’s soft combo decks’ fundamental turn is turn 3. How is that determined? Well, it
needs to be the turn before the format’s premier aggressive strategy can deal 20. It also needs to occur before the format’s premier control strategy
can resolve a spell that forces the combo deck to play on the control deck’s terms.
Right now, the fundamental aggressive turn in Legacy is turn 4. Barring unlikely nut draws, Zoo, Merfolk, and Goblins can all kill on turn 4. This
means that combo decks have to win the game — actually or effectively — by turn 3. If they can’t do that, they won’t be successful.
The fundamental aggressive turn in Legacy hasn’t really changed as of late. What has changed in the last month is the fundamental control turn. You
see, when Counterbalance was heavily played, the fundamental anti-combo turn was two, since that was the turn that a deck could cast Counterbalance.
Without Counterbalance as a great equalizer, the fundamental turn has shifted backward and becoming more matchup-dependent.
In the High Tide versus Kassis Junk matchup, the fundamental turn of the game is turn 4. If Kassis Junk hasn’t cast multiple discard spells and
deployed a threat by then, it’s going to lose. Even if those things happen, it still has to kill High Tide before they cast something like Meditate,
pass two turns, and fire off a Time Spiral at the nearest opportunity. The real problem with the matchup from the Kassis Junk side is that High Tide
doesn’t really care about anything that Junk is doing. Sure, Hymn to Tourach is two cards, and that’s rough, but that doesn’t make High Tide do
anything it wasn’t doing anyway.
If Junk played Ethersworn Canonist and Gaddock Teeg, though, the fundamental turn would shift to turn 2. On two, Junk would cast one of its hate bears
and demand that High Tide either slow down to answer its threat or spend multiple turns taking it off the board. Junk would then get to race High
Tide’s multi-turn answer to those hate bears.
High Tide would have to find two Cunning Wishes, Wipe Away the Gaddock Teeg, and Repeal the Canonist, all while not getting those Wishes and bounce
spells Thoughtseized or Hymned away. Suddenly, the combo deck isn’t playing on its own terms. Instead of Cunning Wishing for Intuition to get High
Tides to power up its Time Spirals, it has to burn spells and mana and time on interaction.
Every point of interaction weakens a combo deck, since its biggest weakness is that its cards aren’t worth a card each. Together, they’re worth a lot
more than a card each, but High Tide the card isn’t worth anything without Meditate or Time Spiral. All that Junk’s disruption does, though, is
push the combo deck’s fundamental turn back. If the aggressive deck can kill the combo deck before that fundamental turn comes back around, the
disruption was good enough. If not…well, I’m sure that was a nice triple-Thoughtseize, double-Hymn to Tourach draw, but sometimes they just Ponder
into Time Spiral and pose for their trophy shot.
Speaking of that Time Spiral deck, I would, but I wrote a whole article about it. A nine-card maindeck difference, cutting a color, and having a better
sideboard isn’t really worth another 500 words. Candelabra untaps the lands; Turnabout untaps multiple Candelabras; Blue Sun’s Zenith is a good way to
get around the “lots of Emrakuls” problem that Brain Freeze sometimes encounters; and Mind over Matter is good with Candelabra and lands that produce a
lot of mana. Nothing really revolutionary here. Credit to Anwar Ahmad where credit is due, since he’s been trying to make sorcery-speed High Tide with
Candelabras work for years and got the perfect early Halloween treat in 2010. In the hands of Alix Hatfield and given a metagame almost entirely devoid
of Counterbalances, color me unsurprised that we saw this deck break out.
“Tell us where it will go next, Drew! Any sweet tech? Can it work without Candelabra of Tawnos?”
I hate to give you the Patrick Sullivan speech, but the reality of the situation is that people will beat this deck if they really want to. They’ll
play two-mana cards that take multiple cards and turns worth of mana to answer, and those inclusions will swing the matchup significantly. Like Patrick
Sullivan’s victory, Alix’s title speaks more to the talent of the player than the strength of the deck in the metagame. Was the metagame ripe for a
deck like this to win? Absolutely. Is it the new best deck? Absolutely not.
Well, if you insist…
The next major dynamic of Legacy metagaming will be the combo decks losing to the Stifle decks losing to the Knight of the Reliquary decks losing to
the combo decks. Of course, all the usual Aether Vial decks and fringe strategies will be in attendance, but this particular Rock-Paper-Scissors
metagame is the natural evolution of Edison’s results.
The reason for this metagame evolution is that the natural predator of combo decks is an archetype based entirely on interaction and cheap threats.
That title used to belong to Counterbalance/Top, but in its absence, the Stifle/Wasteland archetype has claimed the mantle. Dan and Eric decks have
tons of ways to slow down opposing combo decks, giving them the time to drop a Tarmogoyf or an undercosted flier and go to town on the opponent’s life
total while cantripping into additional disruption.
The problem with Eric deck is that it lacks unconditional removal. It can attempt to construct a pea-shooting assassin with Grim Lavamancer, Trinket
Mage, and Basilisk Collar, but seven mana spread over three turns is a lot of tempo to be losing when all of your work can be neutralized by a Qasali
Pridemage. The deck’s absence of real removal means that a resolved 4/4 or 5/5 Knight of the Reliquary can very easily run away with the game. On the
upside, I can’t see ever losing to Merfolk or Goblins with Grim Lavamancers, Fire / Ices, and Lightning Bolts.
The problem with Dan’s deck is the exact opposite: it has unconditional removal, but it’s all expensive. Go for the Throat and Snuff Out kill Knight of
the Reliquary just fine, but eventually there will be a Lord of Atlantis that the deck can’t kill. This consideration is why Dan sideboarded Ghastly
Demise and Darkblast — he knew that he needed one-mana means of interacting with Merfolk and Goblins.
The Knight of the Reliquary decks — especially the Bayou-flavored ones — will have enough prey to remain a real metagame presence. They’ll continue to
lose matches against slow combo decks piloted by skilled players, but they will put up reasonable results in Memphis.
Of course, it might not be the Stifle/Wasteland decks’ perfect time just yet. If that’s the case, expect another week of Time Spiral, Dredge, Storm,
and Show and Tell putting up dominant finishes. Who knows, maybe Merfolk is actually a good deck to play this week! Don’t tell Alex, though. I’ll never
hear the end of it.
The beautiful part of this is that everything comes full circle. Everything is temporary. Counterbalance and Aether Vial are both fairly bad now, but
they’ll probably be fine in April. Here’s my rationale:
For Los Angeles, the metagame will have shifted to adjust for the presence of the threat-light top decks. The aggressive response will be a base-red,
Zoo-style deck with Fireblast, Price of Progress, and maybe even Goblin Guide alongside plenty of sideboarded Red Elemental Blasts to both race and
disrupt combo while punishing the Stifle decks for their greedy mana bases. The control response will be a Jace, the Mind Sculptor-based long game
strategy with a three-mana sweeper supplementing a boatload of removal and a sideboard packed with combo hate. This deck will look a lot like either
Jason Ford Columbus deck or my Columbus deck.
For Atlanta, Counterbalance will be playable again. If it does well, then Boston’s metagame and results will look a lot like Kansas City and San Jose.
Of course, the disclaimer to all of this metagame discussion is that your deck is only as good as your ability to play it. Even if you metagame
perfectly, you still have to cast your spells correctly. If you break a fetchland at the wrong time and strand a Stifle in your hand while giving them
access to their all-important second land, you can lose games that you “should have” won.
Metagaming is important, but there’s a reason we play the matches. Having a good pile of cards going into a tournament is very useful, but it’s just
the beginning. As AJ Sacher, Gerry Thompson, and Patrick Sullivan have told me many times over, “The cards just don’t matter.”
Still, they picked the cards in their decks for very specific reasons.