Building A Legacy – Learning To Love Spellstutter Sprite

Why is U/W Stoneforge losing ground in Legacy? What’s changed? Drew Levin gives you his beat on the story, and then he shows you something more impressive: a good Faeries deck for Legacy that can beat Hive Mind!

A few days ago, SCG Cincinnati Standard Open champion Tim Pskowski asked Facebook why U/W Stoneforge strategies were getting manhandled in Legacy. “Is it just running bad?” he asked, “or is it not good anymore?” His question, while simple on its face, gets right to the crux of how the Legacy metagame has shifted in the past few weeks.

For anyone paying attention to Legacy in the last month, the fall of U/W has been inevitable since Indianapolis. Up to that point, the metagame was filled with decks that couldn’t ever beat a Batterskull—Merfolk and Zoo—or an Ancestral Vision—BUG, Junk, and B/W. The combo decks all lost to Mental Misstep—Breakfast, Storm—and some control decks still relied on Sensei’s Divining Top and Ponder to fix holes in their game. People hadn’t adapted yet.

People didn’t really pick up on Hive Mind when Brian Eleyet finals-ed GP: Providence with the deck; it was considered a flash in the pan. But when Pro Tour Amsterdam Top 8 competitor Tom Ma crushed me with it in Indy, people began to pay attention. After all, here was a combo deck that needed to resolve exactly one spell—a Show and Tell—to more-or-less win the game. The Pact is necessary, but even that doesn’t need to resolve. Nothing important can be Misstepped. It’s a combo deck that, out of the gate, was a heavy favorite against the best blue deck in the format.

SCG Seattle was a showcase of Hive Mind’s power. With three copies in the Top 8 and another in the Top 16, it has proven its resiliency. Tom Ma has showcased his ability to adapt to the Legacy week-to-week metagame within a very tight combo shell, no mean feat in and of itself. The time for people to play a Volcanic Island and two Red Elemental Blasts and expect to beat Hive Mind is over—we need a control deck that is truly up to the task of beating Deep Blue.

U/W Stoneforge and U/W Control lack the tools to beat Hive Mind. To start, they both have too many cards that are awful with Ancestral Vision. With U/W, I would often resolve an Ancestral against Hive Mind or the mirror, draw a zillion cards, and have nothing to do. That’s not where I want to be in today’s metagame. You can still play U/W, but it’s not going to pay the same dividends that it would have in the weeks directly after Providence.

I could recommend my deck from last week, since Gerry and I both designed our versions to beat decks with Islands. My version beats Loam strategies much more consistently, while his beats aggressive green decks a little more consistently. Still, writing two articles about the same deck with no real changes doesn’t seem that useful. Fortunately, I have a bit of a twist on the usual control shell for you. I thought a lot about my sideboard strategy for Cincinnati and realized that the Faeries sideboard plan was actually awesome in a lot of matchups. So much so, in fact, that I just wanted to play it all the time:

Since I hate handing out fish without telling the case-specific version of The Old Man and the Sea, it’s important to me to tell you how I got from U/W Control to U/R Faeries.

U/W Control has a lot of creature-only interaction—four Swords to Plowshares and some number of Wraths or Shackles is pretty heavy. The Repeals usually get aimed at creatures as well. Beyond that, it doesn’t have any ways of proactively progressing the game. It can build edges every time it interacts—it gains a mana on Spell Snare and Mental Misstep; it gains value on its Jaces and Crucible(s); and so on—but the catch is that it has to be interacting. It doesn’t get much value on Ancestral Vision if an opponent just keeps shipping the turn without playing a creature to kill or a spell to counter.

Since it’s a deck with 13-15 counterspells, it can be frustrated by an opponent doing nothing for the first few turns. Fortunately, it has an incredible set of endgame plans, so it was pretty okay with not getting value on its early Ancestral Vision, since that just meant that it had seven cards in hand and a bunch of lands in play. Pretty hard to beat that, right?

For a while, having seven counters in hand and a million lands in play was good enough. No deck in Legacy could really beat that, so the deck was in a good spot. Then along came Hive Mind. Hive Mind didn’t care that U/W Control had seven counters in hand because only three of them were Force of Will or Counterspell—the other four were Mental Missteps and Spell Snares. As a result, Hive Mind could cast Show and Tell with three Force of Wills or Pact of Negations as backup, plow through the U/W Control player’s “seven-card hand,” and kill them with Summoner’s Pact. The U/W Control players had to adapt to a world where they would fight zeroes and threes, then—Misstep and Snare just weren’t good enough anymore.

Enter U/R Control. This deck had the same strategy of gaining value through interactions, but it was much more efficient than U/W Control. It had Lightning Bolt over Swords to Plowshares, preferring to kill Jace, the Mind Sculptor rather than Tarmogoyf.

After all, how often does someone resolve Tarmogoyf anyway? And even when they do, how often can we just Repeal it and Spell Snare it on the way back down? In exchange for the small number of times where they have an unanswered 3/4 Tarmogoyf, we get to Bolt Jace in the pseudo-mirror and pack a bunch of Red Elemental Blasts into our sideboard.

Having REB over Path to Exile against Merfolk or Spell Snare against the mirror or Hive Mind is just fantastic, as the cards that matter are blue. Crucible is a notable exception, but Spell Snare doesn’t counter that anyway, so starting more Repeals is just another way to win the Crucible war in the mirror.

The problem with all of this is that Life from the Loam also won an event, and neither of these blue strategies has a good way of stopping Grove of the Burnwillows + Punishing Fire. I toyed with the idea of playing Relic of Progenitus or Surgical Extraction or some other narrow rubbish, but I realized that beating Life from the Loam strategies was just about attacking their mana base, and since I was more-or-less playing a mono-blue deck anyway, I could add Blood Moon at a very low opportunity cost. I would have to cut Mishra’s Factory, but I was killing people with Jace about 90% of the time anyway.

The problem is that I was still losing to green decks more than I wanted, and I still wasn’t able to proactively disrupt my opponents. I really liked the Vendilion Clique + Sower of Temptation sideboard plan, since Sower seems like an underplayed card in a format this slow, anyway. Vendilion Clique is probably in the Top 5 creatures in Legacy at this point and is definitely the best blue one. As a slight tangent, in case you guys want to argue about it in the comments section, here’s my Top Five:

  1. Tarmogoyf
  2. Vendilion Clique
  3. Progenitus (or Dryad Arbor, if that’s how you want to look at it)
  4. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
  5. Knight of the Reliquary

So if Vendilion Clique is really good, and I want to play a control strategy, what’s the best way I can build my deck? I want to have a four-of counterspell that can stop some key aspect of Hive Mind and isn’t Force of Will, to start. Nix isn’t a serious consideration, by the way, but it’s a start. What counters zero-mana spells and doesn’t lose to Hive Mind? Oh, right, Spellstutter Sprite.

So now that we know we’re playing Faeries, we’ll want to shore up our weaknesses. From a historical perspective, we’re pretty soft to Wild Nacatl decks, although Mental Misstep obviously helps there. We might want a few Repeals or Umezawa’s Jittes, but we can just deal with their Grim Lavamancer or Knight of the Reliquary using cards that have a broader impact. As a result, it’s better to play Firespout and Sower of Temptation rather than Repeal and Umezawa’s Jitte.

The full set of Vendilion Cliques is new, but it was certainly correct in seven-year Extended, and I’m confident that it’s correct now. It’s your best card in a ton of matchups (every control deck ever, every combo deck ever, several removal-light midrange decks where you can use it to protect your Sower of Temptation from their Swords to Plowshares). If it dies, that’s awesome; you’ll probably have another. If it doesn’t, just kill them.

As far as the deck’s strategy goes, you can keep your mana up to play an instant-speed game, proactively disrupting opponents in exactly the way that the U/W and U/R Control decks didn’t. You aren’t playing a card like Stoneforge Mystic that everyone has adapted to. You aren’t playing artifacts that just get Ancient Grudged anyway. No one plays Darkblast or Engineered Plague nowadays. You get to play Ancestral Vision, and you get to counter theirs with a 1/1. Your Mishra’s Factories play worse defense, but in exchange they don’t get Ancient Grudged.

The mana base is pretty straightforward, since you’re playing a mono-blue deck splashing Lightning Bolt, Firespout, and some sideboard cards. You get to play a ton of sweet nonbasic lands and still have four basic Island. The Riptide Laboratory is an easy addition, letting you lock certain opponents with Vendilion Clique in a late game.  The Minamo is a freeroll Island that untaps your Vendilion Clique, something that I promise people will forget to play around at least once per tournament. The rest of the lands are pretty self-explanatory. Since you pretty much never need double red, the fourth Volcanic Island is superfluous. The Minamo might be worse than the 8th fetchland or the 5th Island, but I’d rather give you ideas that you can walk away from than give you orthodox ideas that don’t force you to think through what’s better or worse.

The sideboard is pretty clear-cut in terms of what each card is there for. In lieu of giving you sideboard plans (vomit), I’ll lay out what your role and strategy in each matchup looks like, and you can figure out for yourselves what cards should come in and out. After all, if this whole thing is about teaching you to think for yourself, what happens when you figure out the deck and metagame enough to change cards in the maindeck and sideboard? Strict dogmas seem to work out poorly once you start making real progress.

You’re not particularly well set-up against aggressive red and green decks. Your Spellstutter Sprites are a pretty big downgrade on U/R Control’s Counterspells, so playing a permission game isn’t going to be very effective. You’ll do far better to play a tempo-oriented game where you force them to tap mana inefficiently and at awkward times for little value. If you can get ahead and stay ahead on board, you’re far more likely to win your games. Proper timing on your Vendilion Cliques can make all the difference in the world against these opponents.

If you remember the old adage about how Mistbind Clique doesn’t HAVE to be played in their upkeep, the same applies to Vendilion Clique: you don’t HAVE to play it in their draw step. In fact, it’s very often correct to play it in their Declare Attackers step, since people are unlikely to cast a creature precombat, so your Clique will often let you eat a whole turn’s worth of their mana. You also have a ton of longer-game trumps, so exhausting their resources early will leave you in a strong position to win.

You can play both sides of the beatdown against control. Your permission is better than theirs because you never have to commit a lot of mana in your main phase. You’re a better Jace deck than they are, but they’ll have a better late game due to cards like Crucible of Worlds and Vedalken Shackles. As a result, you’ll need to hold your counters for what matters, even if that means giving them an activation with Jace. After all, if you’re just going to flash in a Clique and kill it, who cares about their Brainstorm? Just remember to Clique them in response to the 0 Loyalty activation if killing Jace is your line of play.

After sideboarding, you’ll have even better counters as well as ways to answer their long-game artifacts. Make sure that all of your counters actually do something meaningful, though, since you don’t want to end up with 20 counterspells and die to Mishra’s Factory attacking ten times. It’s fine to want to win the Jace battle (and you will), but make sure you don’t win the battle while losing the war. Also be aware of their ability to Vendilion Clique you after sideboarding, since those are industry standard in blue 75s nowadays.

Your best matchup is against combo, as almost all of your cards do something very good. You don’t really fear Emrakul or Hive Mind, but I suppose it’s possible to mess up if you flash it in on a turn where you have no reasonable follow-up. You have to have a plan for both their Hive Mind and their Emrakul, so playing around both possibilities is not only doable but necessary. Sideboarding should be pretty straightforward, as there are cards that just don’t do anything and others that do a great deal.

If you have any questions regarding the deck or sideboard, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section. I would, however, ask that requests for information come with an explanation of your own thoughts, where you’re getting stuck, and what your instincts are telling you is correct. I’m here to help you succeed in both a broad and specific sense, but part of that success—I think—will come from learning to be articulate and thorough in your questions and suppositions. I earned several close friends’ respect by presenting well-thought-out arguments in article forums.

If you want advice on how to network, here it is: show people that you can think. Feel free to see the recent shift from an anonymous forum to a Facebook comment section as a way in which you’re more vulnerable—if your comments are viewed negatively, people may be more likely to resort to ad hominem attacks and so on.

However, you are also free to see this shift as an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to analyze and assess the game on a level that commands respect from people you don’t know. If I got a short message on Facebook asking for an updated Legacy list and a long message that makes strong analytical points and asks for guidance on several strategic levels, it’s easy to figure out which one I’d respect and respond to. In a world where SCG has made discussion more public, I encourage you to use that to your personal advantage, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the forums, regardless of whether or not you agree with my decisions.

Until next week,

Drew Levin
@drew_levin on Twitter