Building A Legacy – Liliana, Counterbalance, The 2011’s, And A Lack Of Confidence

Drew Levin admits to making a terrible mistake last weekend at the Nashville Open. What happened and why did it happen? He updates you on both Standard and Legacy, so read up before the 2011’s this weekend.

I made a classic mistake this weekend. It’s the sort of mistake that you don’t really analyze enough because it doesn’t happen in a game of Magic, but it’s every bit as meaningful as that bad attack in Round 5 or the missed trigger in Round 3. Like the other mistakes, it primarily arises from not knowing exactly what you’re there to do or why you’re making certain decisions.

I audibled on both of my deck choices for the weekend. Don’t worry; this article is primarily about the two decks I played and one that I didn’t, but I want you to understand why the last-minute audible is a trap. This is especially important because States is on Saturday, and I’m sure the following exchange will go down between you and your friend on Thursday or Friday night, maybe even Saturday morning:

Him: Hey man, I figured out this sick deck that’s really good; we should both play it.

You: (thinking about all the testing you’ve done with Solar Flare/Mono Red/Wolf Run Ramp/U/B Control) Okay.

The problem for me arose when I let the tone of my weekend be set as “I haven’t played on the Open Series in a few months.” I went into the weekend without a winner’s mentality. I made my decisions based on fear. I had a U/B Control list that was built to play to my strengths as a player. I had added two Curse of Death’s Hold so I wouldn’t lose to Moorland Haunt, and I felt good about my deck.

Then I talked to people who “knew better than I did,” a few of whom told me that my deck was bad and I should feel bad about playing it. So, absent an overwhelming amount of testing, I felt bad for wanting to play my bad deck. Sound familiar?

Well, don’t do it. I know it’s hard to resist the siren call of The Hot New Tech, but you’re going to lose. Your friend doesn’t have the new Tinker deck in their hands, and you still have to play sideboarded games on zero deck familiarity. You’re giving up a lot of edge before your matches, and that’s before we get into how poisonous your mindset has to be to run that gamble anyway.

I was going to run this:

The deck is a basic board control deck with a light counter suite and a deliberately broad selection of removal spells. Snapcaster Mage and Buried Ruin give you the option to rebuy any flavor of removal spell. Your late Stage Three game is pretty tough to beat, since you’re flashing back Ancestral Recall. Solar Flare is a tough matchup, but you’re the control deck in every single pairing, so act accordingly and don’t lose to Sun Titans. It’s a 51%-across-the-board sort of deck, which is what I enjoy playing. If I lose and it’s my fault, I would feel much better than if I were to lose to turn 2 Kor Firewalker, turn 3 Timely Reinforcements, turn 4 double Kor Firewalker, turn 5 Gideon Jura. Getting outplayed is one thing. Getting out-decked is another. My philosophy skews most toward the “play around everything” school of thought, and that philosophy has to start in deckbuilding.

An aside on Kessig Wolf Run:

The deck will need a revamp given the newfound presence of Primeval Titan, Inkmoth Nexus, and Kessig Wolf Run. The Buried Ruins may be cuter than they are good (rebuy my sweeper OR my win condition, how adorable!), and there should probably be more ways to get them dead faster, as beating a Primeval Titan deck in Stage 3 is pretty close to impossible without Sun Titan and Tectonic Edge. As it turns out, we don’t have Sun Titan or Tectonic Edge. We have Ghost Quarter, but that is somewhat less impressive. Besides, Ghost Quarter isn’t really going to help our cause in terms of actually winning the game; it’s just going to make the next Wolf Run they draw that much more lethal. It may be that Sun Titan + Ghost Quarter is the best thing we have to combat Wolf Run Ramp, but I’m holding out for a better answer.

That Kessig Wolf Run has “haste” is a pretty big deal when you are a control deck trying to beat Wolf Run Ramp. It makes the “kill all of their creatures” strategy—a plan that was already iffy to begin with, given Inkmoth Nexus—pretty awful when you now have to have instant-speed removal up at all times, lest you lose to the sandbagged Wolf Run for a zillion. As I said before, the best plan may just be to get them dead as fast as possible—you know, Pristine Talisman into Grave Titan and all that.

That said, your best option might just be to play Wolf Run, as it will take a while for people to figure out good answers to the card (and to the deck). In a few conversations I had this weekend, the sentiment from people far smarter than I went something like this:

“It’s unbelievable that this BS States narrative about playing control gets renewed every year. It’s like people forget that aggro decks are real and that people know how to build a curve, so they create these absurd decks that aren’t anywhere close to beating a one-drop and take them to States and lose, then wonder what happened.”

So for all the “monored lol n00b” or “Primeval Titan? Just play Think Twice!” sentiments that you’ll encounter in the next few days, the right answer may just be to beat down. Besides, how well-tuned is that deck you’re going to audible into? Did your friend test a bunch of games against turn-one Stromkirk Noble? How about Acidic Slime into Primeval Titan? It’s important to have a plan, and to know that your plan works. Without that, you’re just shuffling cards together and praying.

End aside.

So this blue-black deck was probably pretty mediocre, but it had plans. Casting a ton of removal spells into a Wurmcoil Engine is not a bad place to be against aggressive decks. Chaining Forbidden Alchemies into full-value Visions of Beyond is not a bad place to be against control decks. The deck could have used an Elixir of Immortality to get the full control mirror edge (look, I can even rebuy my inevitability with my sweet lands!). It had Morbid Plunder as a Restock in the Snapcaster Mage mirror. It had a lot of answers to a lot of problems. So why did I audible?

I don’t know, but Mike Flores has a way with words. From 9:40 am to 10 am, my decklist went from the above list to:

I showed my U/B deck to The One And Only ~*~*Michael J. Flores*~*~*, who told me that Brimstone Volley is the new Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Then he told me to go buy some Volleys and Sulfur Falls and Dead Weights.

I’m not sure how I got this stupid. I mean, Brimstone Volley is quite the card with Snapcaster Mage, but not in this deck. Brimstone Volley + Mage is not a deck that wants to go super long, while I had built my U/B Control deck to do exactly that. We changed a bunch of cards in about ten minutes, and it ended up not entirely awful, but adapting a two-color manabase to a three-color manabase in that amount of time with zero testing was pretty clearly a joke of an idea.

There’s almost certainly merit to Volley + Mage (ten you, draw another copy of each, ten you again), but it wants its own deck, not to be spliced into an entirely different deck. I very quickly got the 3-3 finish I deserved and dropped to play Legacy.

Speaking of Legacy, I was also planning on playing a pretty sweet U/B deck there. As Jonathan Medina alluded to in his article on Monday, it had four Liliana of the Veil in it. Here’s what I was testing in the days before Nashville:

There are four things going on here. The first one is that this deck can, occasionally, function as a basic Reanimator deck—Entomb this, Exhume that, you’re dead. Without Mental Misstep in the format, Entomb is a very, very strong card again. The second is the idea that a turn-one Liliana of the Veil is a very, very difficult card to beat. More on that in a bit. The third is that, if Reanimator and Storm are Really Good, then Liliana of the Veil is a pretty strong way to attack both, as her +1 is good against Storm and her -2 is clearly strong against Reanimator. The final idea is that Snapcaster Mage is the best way to combat discard-heavy strategies. I’ll come back to that one as well.

When I saw how much success Reanimator had in Indianapolis despite the huge differences between successful players’ lists, I knew that the deck was very real. It made sense, too: in a format where everything is faster, you either want to be very good at doing the least fair thing possible as fast as possible or be very good at stopping someone from doing the least fair thing possible. Entomb and Dark Ritual are the two pillars at the center of the doctrine of Doing Unfair Things Quickly. One of them, however, gets to play Force of Will and has more play in terms of adapting to an opponent’s strategy. Also, as I wrote earlier, I want to play a deck that is “just dead” to as few of my opponent’s decks and draws as possible. Being able to shift gears is nice. Being dead to a Gaddock Teeg is less nice. As such, I decided I would rather play Reanimator.

I’ve never been a fan of Careful Study. Sure, it costs one mana, and it’s blue, but I would rather have a card that does something if I’m ever in a position where I don’t have a reanimation creature in my hand. The more I thought about alternatives, the better Liliana of the Veil looked to me. Her +1 ability functions as a better sort of Careful Study, as you never really want to get rid of the second card. In addition, you now have a four-loyalty planeswalker that can Cruel Edict them twice or continue to Raven’s Crime them! What a deal! The major problem with Liliana is that she costs three mana. Given that your plan to be really unfair is a lot fairer if your fatty hits play on turn four, I realized that Dark Ritual was also a key component of the deck.

Dark Ritual is a key card in both of your turn-one nut draws, offers you Daze protection on turns two and three, and is completely rancid after that. Drawing two is pretty embarrassing. I knew that by adding it to my deck, I was sacrificing consistency for power. Still, I liked Liliana of the Veil (and the allure of turn 1 Dark Ritual, Entomb, Reanimate) more than Careful Study enough to give up Daze as well. If my plan was to get degenerate as fast as possible, why not just power through their disruption instead of trying to pin them on mana if they tap out? Dark Ritual makes the question “Force of Will or no?” better than Daze, as you don’t have to commit your reanimation spell to see if they have Daze—they always have to Daze your Ritual.

Half of the allure of Dark Ritual in this deck is hitting a turn-one Liliana of the Veil. I’m still not sure how many decks can beat a turn-one Liliana, but Legacy isn’t a format that is threat-dense enough to offer much resistance to this new planeswalker. In the games where I got to cast Liliana on the first turn, my deck felt like a Vintage deck. Her ability felt more like Raven’s Crime than anything else, since I didn’t care about most of the cards in my hand. In a fight where I have Liliana and a deck with a bunch of reanimation spells, it’s pretty simple to just +1 until I have two Reanimates to your two cards and then cast my spells. That line of play was something I was very interested in exploring.

The last part of the deck is Snapcaster Mage. Given that Liliana was my tool to beat Storm and the mirror, Snapcaster Mage was my idea for how to beat BUG. I figured that people were going to cast Hymn to Tourach against me and that I shouldn’t fight it. In fact, I should embrace it! If I’m going to lose the cards in my hand anyway—be it to their Duresses and Hymns or to my Lilianas—why not play a few more lands and add ways to rebuy my critical spells? That way, even if they Force of Will my Entomb, I can still flash it back in a few turns. This also led to a few other unique lines of play that the deck has, such as Reanimating on turn two with this hand:

Dark Ritual, Entomb, Entomb, Snapcaster Mage, Underground Sea, Underground Sea, Underground Sea

After all, as I noted in my article last week, Entomb doesn’t specify creatures. It’s just an instant-speed Demonic Tutor for your graveyard. As such, your line with the above hand is:

Underground Sea, Entomb in your main phase for Jin-Gitaxias to play around Daze.

Underground Sea, Dark Ritual, Entomb for Reanimate, Snapcaster Mage my Reanimate, flashback Reanimate targeting Jin-Gitaxias.

The original incarnation of the deck had 4 Dark Ritual, 4 Snapcaster Mage, and zero Intuition, but after several sets of test games I realized that I didn’t want to draw the first two nearly as much as I was, while I wanted to have a few additional ways to tutor up either another Entomb or another Reanimate. Intuition seemed like the perfect card to have in those situations, so I added two. Intuition also sets up your weird system of levers and pulleys designed to let you Snapcaster Mage a Reanimate or an Exhume. For instance, if you Intuition for two creatures and a Reanimate with a Snapcaster Mage in hand, you’re going to get to cast your Reanimate.

Ultimately, though, I chickened out. I ended up playing the safest, most conservative deck I could possibly come up with, which was a super defensive Counterbalance strategy. Here’s the list:

After 2-2ing the Legacy Challenge with my Reanimator deck, I sat down with Gerry, Bobby Graves, Mark Sun, and several others to figure out what sort of blue control deck I was going to play in Legacy this week. I started by writing out a curve:

15 [ones]

11 [twos]

6 [threes]

3 [you get]

4 [the point]

Gerry: “Why are you writing out your curve?”

Me: “To make Counterbalance work. This is generally how I’ve built Counterbalance curves before.”

“That’s not how I’d go about building a blue control deck.”

“Okay, then, how would you do it?”

“Well, let’s start by figuring out what you think you’ll play against. Start naming decks.”

“Merfolk, Reanimator, Storm, Zoo, green midrange BS, and blue midrange/control decks like BUG.”

“Okay, so if that’s what we’re playing against, I want to play Snapcaster Mage, Spell Snare, Counterspell, and Vendilion Clique in my Brainstorm/Force of Will deck.”

“Right, and after those cards, I want to play Counterbalance.”

“Why not Ancestral Vision?”

“Because it’s really slow, and I’ll probably die before I cast it.”

“Sure, but what makes you think that you’re not going to die after you cast Sensei’s Divining Top and Counterbalance on the first few turns? You’re still doing nothing for a while with your card and mana while they’re doing things. Either way, we’re going to go: thing we care about [Ancestral or Top], answer, answer, answer, and then profit. In my deck, we get to peel three, which is like winning. In your deck, you have a Counterbalance, which isn’t even winning against something like Merfolk.”

“Sure, but it’s a much bigger guarantee against Storm and Reanimator. Besides, how many blue mirrors am I going to lose with Top versus no Top?”

“Fine, fine, play Counterbalance if you really want to. The problem is that Snapcaster Mage is better than Counterbalance, and you’re setting yourself up to have artifact answers instead of spell answers, so your Mages are going to be worse.”

“Nah, I’ll figure it out.”

“Yeah, but my Snapcasters are going to be better…”

In the end, I played Counterbalance and liked my deck a lot. I probably should have just played 4 Snapcaster Mage and 22 land, but I didn’t know how much I was going to get flooded with 23 lands. As it turned out, the answer was “more than I was okay with.” Moving forward, I’d definitely recommend that change. I’d probably cut the basic Plains to make room, as you can’t really cut any of your blue sources in a deck where you want to cast Snapcaster Mage + blue spell at some point in the early midgame, or where you want to reliably have access to Counterspell on turn two. Karakas is a very good card given how good Vendilion Clique is and how insane it is against Reanimator.

In case my dialogue with Gerry didn’t address this question, I want to specifically answer why I never really considered Thopter Foundry + Sword of the Meek. This is a deck where every card is very defensively efficient. Everything except for Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top directly translates into a one-for-one card advantage or better. By diluting the deck with more artifact and enchantment do-nothings, we’re weakening Snapcaster Mage and making ourselves even worse against Merfolk. Part of why the deck is actually fine to play now is because Snapcaster Mage gets to match up against Silvergill Adept, and it does so pretty favorably. If you have Thopter Foundry and Sword and Enlightened Tutor instead, you’re probably just going to die if they interact with you at all. I promise, Snapcaster Mage is even better than advertised. Try it out. You won’t be disappointed.

To all of you playing in The 2011’s this weekend, I’ll be on Twitter and Facebook a lot this week looking for ideas and a good deck to play. Don’t hesitate to shoot me a tweet or a message if you have an idea or are looking for inspiration. For those of you battling, I’ll see you in Rockville, Maryland on Saturday!

Until next week,

Drew Levin
@drew_levin on Twitter