Building A Legacy – Innistrad Blue Set Review

With cards like Snapcaster Mage and Skaab Ruinator, Legacy is getting plenty of love. With the absence of Mental Misstep, things look a lot better for brewers. Check out what decks get a boost in Innistrad for the SCG Open in Indy.

The arrival of a graveyard-centric set has been a long time coming for the Legacy community. Since the format’s creation, there have been several strong strategies that abuse graveyard interactions. Players have loved Volrath’s Shapeshifter turning into Akroma, Angel of Wrath and Phage the Untouchable; they’ve loved Reanimate targeting Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur; and [some of them] have loved “discard Golgari Grave-Troll, dredge it, play Gemstone Mine, cast Breakthrough, flip my deck and kill you.” All by way of saying that graveyard sets have something for everyone.

Instead of commenting on every card (or anywhere close to every card), I want to approach the set from the vantage point of putting cards in decks. There’s little more enjoyable than brewing, and it would be irresponsible of me to tell you why something is awesome without giving you a starting point for its use.

That said, there are no guarantees that any of these decks will be tournament-winners. Believe me, I wish I could make a tournament-winning deck showcasing four of the newest set’s card after every set release, but Legacy is a tough format to break into. It’s very easy to look at a card and tell people why not. It’s much more challenging (but rewarding) to look at a card and see all of its potential. That’s what I’m here for.

The SCG Indianapolis Open Weekend is mere days away, and everyone is looking for an angle on Sunday. If you have Candelabra of Tawnos, go ahead and play High Tide. For those of you who enjoy casting Brainstorm but don’t have the dough for the most expensive card in the format, may I suggest starting with Snapcaster Mage?

I was just kidding about starting with Snapcaster Mage. Always start with Brainstorm. That said, reach for your Snapcaster Mages very shortly after that. Tiago Chan invitational card took a few years to come to fruition, but it looks like it was well worth the wait.

Snapcaster Mage is the latest version of “cards that make it clear why blue is real good.” It’s always going to be value; it’s nearly impossible to play around in Legacy; and it’s going to create incredibly sweet stack interactions. Before I start telling you everything that Tiago can do for you, let me go over three important things that he is not allowed to do:

That said, Snapcaster Mage can give you that same Phyrexian mana discount on Dismember. He can let you cast a storm card from your graveyard and get the storm copies. Perhaps most importantly, he can block.

The truly important question about Snapcaster Mage’s playability is how valuable the 2/1 body is. If a 2/1 isn’t worth a card in this new Legacy format, Snapcaster Mage probably won’t be that great. In a format that’s this fast, though, I definitely expect to see creatures that Snapcaster Mage will be able trade with. In fact, Snapcaster Mage represents the missing piece of a matchup that has given me a decent amount of trouble over the last year—the BUG (Team America) versus Merfolk matchup. I’ll explain:

Everything in Team America is designed to trade with a card or kill your opponent. There are very few ways to legitimately get ahead—that’s why Hymn to Tourach is one of the best cards in the deck, why I played Predict for weeks, and why Sylvan Library was occasionally worth playing.

The problem was that Merfolk had a threat density that your removal spells couldn’t match. Daze and Force of Will were very bad in the matchup and could be total blanks as early as turn one if they had Aether Vial. Stifle was even worse. The matchup often came down to drawing your good cards, playing threats early, and maximizing Brainstorm to always shuffle away two of the above twelve cards. In games where Team America would only draw one threat, though, the worst card to see from an opponent was Silvergill Adept.

The cantrip 2/1 for two—as Alex Bertoncini put it, “the Merfolk Brainstorm”—would break the equation. Team America could keep trading one-for-one, but it would die two points at a time to Silvergill Adept. It couldn’t burn a removal spell on the 2/1 for fear of losing to any real creature—after all, Merrow Reejerey tapping Tarmogoyf makes for a short and unfavorable race, Lord of Atlantis is almost always the game, and so on. Silvergill Adept was a card that Team America just didn’t have access to—until now.

Snapcaster Mage fulfills a role that Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Predict, and Sylvan Library can only dream of—he stabilizes the board when you cast him. Predict gets you two cards, and Jace is a Swiss Army knife, but having an actual blocker is incredible. Let’s look at what Snapcaster Mage can do for the BUG tempo strategy:

It’s fairly common for Legacy BUG decks to diversify their removal, but it’s even more important to understand why that’s conventional wisdom now that we have Snapcaster Mage. Given how much card selection we have, we will see multiples of whatever card we want to. Given that, do we want to draw two Ghastly Demises against Dark Confidant and Vampire Nighthawk? Do we want two Dismembers against Zoo? Two Smothers against Tombstalker? The marginal value of diversity is worth occasionally drawing the wrong removal spell in the wrong matchup. We play two Go for the Throat because it is our best removal spell right now—it’s not terribly common to see Affinity, plus we have Pernicious Deed as a sideboard option to completely crush the matchup.

Snapcaster Mage wants us to have options. If we have a really good removal spell, Snapcaster Mage lets us use it twice. Playing with flashback makes maindecking Darkblast less appealing, but it’s still a great sideboard slot against Mother of Runes, Dark Confidant, and Vendilion Clique, and I wouldn’t leave home without a couple. It’s entirely possible that Victim of Night is a correct call, but I don’t know that I want to cut any of my three two-mana removal spells, and I definitely want two one-mana removal spells.

BUG isn’t the only home that Snapcaster Mage can find in Legacy, though. If you do happen to have four golden tickets to the Wonka Factory playing High Tide, there may well be value in boarding four Snapcaster Mage instead of some of the more conditional wish-board slots. For reference, my list from last week:

If you cut Snap, Twincast, and Repeal from the sideboard, four Snapcaster Mage could have a lot of surprise value. What are they going to do, NOT attack with their Ethersworn Canonist and Gaddock Teeg? Are they really going to keep in Path to Exile? Sure, they can have the Lightning Bolt, but they could also not have the hate bear. The key here is that Snapcaster Mage is still pretty good value if you aren’t using it as interaction—flashing back a Meditate or a Turnabout is a pretty big game when the spell you’re holding would have otherwise been a conditionally useful card like Snap.

The beauty of Snapcaster Mage is that you can double up on your bounce spells, making it that much harder to lock you out of the game on pure volume. Sure, they can have three different hate cards, but you can have Echoing Truth, Rebuild, and Snapcaster Mage! At Snapcaster Mage’s worst in this schema, you get to fog a Tarmogoyf for a turn and cast another Brainstorm.

If you’re not into using Snapcaster Mage to further the forces of evil and eighty-minute rounds, I’m sure you can imagine what a U/W Control list with Snapcaster Mage would look like. Since Ancestral Vision is too slow again, it’ll be back on Stoneforge Mystic and Jace to provide value. If you decide that you don’t want to play Counterbalance, though, you get options on Riptide Laboratory and a Faerie Wizard shell.

A group of savvy Maryland players—Kurt Speiss and Tim Pskowski featuring prominently among them—figured out that flash creatures have a great deal of value when you can untap into a Sword hit, then untap again into a game-breaking spell. When you add Snapcaster Mage into the mix as a way to maximize both your removal spells and your mana off of Sword of Feast and Famine triggers, it gets dirty. To give you a rough sketch:

This deck has a lot going on with it, but anything with Riptide Laboratory gives us a lot of options. I want the ability to hold one-drops off with Engineered Explosives, as I’m fairly confident that I’ll win a long game where I have a lot of resources available and I want to focus on getting there. The seventh colorless land is normally pretty daring, but that sketchiness is exactly why I upped the land count to 25.

It may be that twenty-five land is just too many for Legacy, but the deck will always have a lot to do with its mana, so it feels pretty hard to get flooded. Besides, as Gerry lectured me once, “Brainstorm gets a lot better when you don’t have to fire it off like a maniac on turn three looking for your second land drop.”

The rest of the card choices are all the little things that are worth remembering when you do something like put Engineered Explosives in your deck:

  • add the third color for sunburst (black, since you’ll want sideboard options against Goblins, graveyard decks, and combo, all of which black does best),
  • put in a second Engineered Explosives so that you can get value from Riptide Laboratory-ing your Trinket Mage (you might even want a third…),
  • include zero Dust Bowl or Wasteland since you’re a long-game deck that has a ton to do with its mana every turn and wants to do multiple things every turn,  and
  • include an Academy Ruins to recur Engineered Explosives and any destroyed equipment.

It’s possible that Snapcaster Mage isn’t worth playing in a deck where he’s “only” flashing back Brainstorm and Swords to Plowshares, but I think those are fine spells to want and that any other spells need to stand on their own, not rely on Snapcaster Mage for inclusion. Even as a three-mana Silvergill Adept, Snapcaster Mage seems more than adequate at getting this deck to an endgame. When you start flashing back Force of Will, the game should be well in hand.

Enough about Snapcaster Mage, though. There’s much more to blue decks in Legacy than focusing on putting sweet spells in your graveyard. Instead, we could focus on putting sweet creatures in your graveyard! As soon as I saw Skaab Ruinator, I knew I wanted to reimagine what Dredge is doing in Legacy.

One of the ways that control decks can beat Dredge is by attacking their creatures. In Providence, for instance, my plan against peoples’ draw-discard-dredge strategy was to Repeal and Jace their Narcomoebas, Swords to Plowshares their Ichorids, and Wasteland my Mishra’s Factory if their Bridge from Below was ever going to trigger. Since they only had four Ichorid and four Narcomoeba as “real” creatures, this was actually a fine strategy. If they had had more creatures, I would have been dead.

Skaab Ruinator gives you the ability to present pressure without committing to a Dread Return or to having its Bridge from Below triggers resolve. The deck can still cast Dread Return and still gets good value out of its Bridge from Belows through Ichorid and Cabal Therapy, but now Dredge can just cast Skaab Ruinator and go to town. So what does that look like?

Zoo is actually a decent game one deck against Dredge, given that it can kill its own creatures and never give Dredge a Bridge trigger. Against this deck, though, Zoo would have a much harder time. This deck plays a real number of mana sources and can grind a game out much better than another Dredge deck.

My return to Lion’s Eye Diamond is not accidental. Aside from having the filthy turn-one “land, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Breakthrough-respond-with-LED-activation” option, Lion’s Eye Diamond lets you cast Skaab Ruinator from your graveyard. Against combo decks, having Lion’s Eye Diamond means that you can board in a few Deep Analysis, maybe a Sphinx of Lost Truths, and a Flame-Kin Zealot to race them. Alternatively, given how blue the deck is already, the deck could board in Brainstorm and Force of Will and have 19 blue cards. Regardless of the direction you choose to take, I believe that Lion’s Eye Diamond makes your Dredge deck better than the alternative.

On the other end of the spectrum, this deck can also just grind out games by casting its spells. It can dredge Dakmor Salvage and then Life from the Loam to get to enough lands to cast its Stinkweed Imps, Skaab Ruinators, and Golgari Grave-Trolls. It also has the ability to explode out of a stalled midgame with a Cephalid Coliseum activation set up by Life from the Loam. By including this plan, I’ve also gone up to 13 dredgers, making the deck more consistent both in terms of having more lands and having more dredge cards.

Regardless of whether you end up playing Skaab Ruinator in your dredge deck, there is a new sideboard card for any Dredge pilot out there. I would have glossed right over Memory’s Journey but for Damon Whitby telling me about it last Saturday. It looks like it could be the answer that Dredge has been waiting for against Surgical Extraction. The problem with current “solutions” to Surgical Extraction is that they all involve letting your opponent resolve the spell against you, which is often crippling to your game plan. For the low, low price of one mana, you can instead fizzle their Surgical Extraction and shuffle your card back in. If you have any Narcomoebas in your graveyard, consider that a sweet added bonus.

Before I wrap blue up, I want to give you guys a brew I’ve been working on ever since I saw Mindshrieker. Yeah, the 1/1 flier that does things. The idea is to play it like an Erratic Explosion with Draco. This is almost certainly just a worse idea than Cephalid Breakfast, but it seems pretty sweet if there is ever a Legacy deck that routinely Bolts itself—say, by paying one mana for Dismember? My current version has Lightning Bolt as a way to help Mindshrieker along, but there may well be a better way. Here’s where I’m at:

Of course, once you’ve assembled all of these pieces, you might as well actually kill them instead of Galvanic Arcing them or Keldon Championing them, but you also might not be in this for the Lion’s Eye Diamonds.

If you are in it for the Lion’s Eye Diamonds, though, come back tomorrow. I’ll be reviewing the rest of Innistrad, focusing a lot of time on what many people have claimed is the best Storm card since Ad Nauseam. How does Past in Flames change the way people build Storm in Legacy? I’ll have all of that and a little bit of Restock, Null Rod, and Meddling Mage for the second half of my Innistrad Legacy review.

Until tomorrow,

Drew Levin
@drew_levin on Twitter