Building A Legacy – Show And Tell, Gentlemen’s Agreements, And Modern

Drew Levin investigates the growing murmur that Show and Tell should be banned in Legacy. Looking at the history, what would Wizards do (WWWD)? Is it worth a ban?

Over the past month, a number of people have asked me whether Show and Tell is worth banning in Legacy. I mostly just laughed at the question—”Seriously? Do you know how long it took Survival to get banned after it was clear that it was just the best card in the format?”—but once I settled down to think about it, the answer didn’t seem that obvious.

The next Legacy Premier event is Grand Prix Amsterdam in October. There will be a round of bannings in mid-September that could shake the format up. Do I think that will happen? No, I don’t—the format is as diverse as it has ever been; people are playing it more than they have ever played it; and the biggest problem with the format is price volatility of format staples due to low supply precisely because it’s such an awesome format. Still, given the recent success of Show and Tell in Richmond and Seattle, the question is worth asking: Is Show and Tell a bannable card?

The Argument for Banning

Show and Tell is a perfect card for banning consideration—it does something incredibly unfair for a low, color-light cost. Unlike “fair” cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Show and Tell can happen as early as turn one (Lotus Petal plus Ancient Tomb or City of Traitors). When it resolves, its caster wins an inordinate amount of the time as a direct result of the spell’s resolution.

The spell itself can’t be efficiently hated out, although the cards it puts into play can be hated out. Unfortunately for everyone else, those cards can shift from week to week, leaving players holding Angel’s Grace against Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Stifle against Inkwell Leviathan. Even specialty cards that combat similar threats (for example, Phyrexian Metamorph’s application against Natural Order for Progenitus) come up lacking against Show and Tell—you can’t Show and Tell a Phyrexian Metamorph and copy their card, as their card isn’t technically “in play” when your Metamorph looks around for something to copy. It’s possible to win the guessing game of “what will his Show and Tell put into play this week?”, but that’s not a game that Legacy, as a format, wants to promote. There are other, better ways to test deckbuilding creativity beyond “should I expect Hive Mind and play Angel’s Grace, or should I expect big creatures and play Diabolic Edict?”

Show and Tell creates relatively few design constraints for its power level, unlike Lion’s Eye Diamond or Aether Vial. All you need to make Show and Tell operate is have three mana to cast it and have a card in hand that you want to put into play.

Since Brainstorm, Ponder, and Sensei’s Divining Top are all Legacy staples that allow you to create a plan that is relatively immune from hand disruption, Show and Tell’s only real weakness is a specific set of counterspells. Given that Mental Misstep is a very widely played card at the moment and that Show and Tell’s key card sidesteps that fight rather neatly, it’s already in a pretty good spot for Legacy in general. Since Mental Misstep isn’t going anywhere, that makes Show and Tell a much more appealing combo deck than a Dark Ritual deck or a High Tide deck.

Against a generic aggressive opponent, Show and Tell is a combo deck that isn’t susceptible to the usual storm hate, graveyard hate, or control hate. As a result, Show and Tell decks beat non-blue decks a lot. Granted, combo decks beat non-blue decks a lot, but the lack of a way to attack the engine of the deck outside of stack interaction is a big problem that will almost certainly only get worse.

If you think that answering the moving parts of a Show and Tell deck is sufficient, read this:

“In recent months, Survival of the Fittest decks have been outperforming other decks in Legacy. This has caused the competitive format to become significantly less diverse. This has reached a point where the DCI concluded that it is appropriate to ban a card. Other cards were considered, such as Vengevine. However some of the winning decks do not even play Vengevine; instead, they primarily rely on combinations with Necrotic Ooze.”

~ Explanation of December 2010 B&R Changes, Erik Lauer, December 20, 2010

Wizards R&D has a very clear policy of banning an engine and leaving the powerful moving parts for use elsewhere. After all, Ken Adams’s BG Vengevine/Ooze deck is eminently fair, while Caleb Durward’s UG Madness Survival deck is not. Both use Vengevine, but it’s clear which is the broken card.

There are plenty of differences between Show and Tell and Survival of the Fittest, both functionally and historically. Survival of the Fittest had one of the most dominant Legacy runs of any card ever for the time that it and Vengevine were both legal. In contrast, Show and Tell hasn’t put up nearly the numbers that Survival did. However, neither did Mystical Tutor. Three out of eight decks in a single Grand Prix Top 8 (including the winner) is hardly a show of dominance. The then-young StarCityGames.com Open Series proved that Mystical Tutor was not the behemoth that Wizards thought it to be, but it ended up getting banned anyway. I’ll come back to this point later, but the takeaway from this point should be that putting up overwhelmingly dominant tournament results hasn’t always been a requirement for a card to be banned in Legacy.

Perhaps it is unwise to compare Show and Tell to Survival of the Fittest. A more apt analogue to Show and Tell might just be a spell that also costs 2U, is a sorcery, and typically puts a powerful permanent into play well before it ought to be there.

How different is Tinker from Show and Tell? It’s certainly more powerful, since you don’t need to have an otherwise-dead Emrakul or Hive Mind clogging up your hand while you try to resolve your key spell. It’s a Demonic Tutor plus Mind’s Desire, if you’re into looking at cards like that. Show and Tell is, by comparison, “just” a Mind’s Desire. But is that really on par for Legacy’s power level, or is Show and Tell wildly underplayed for how powerful and resilient it is? Perhaps people just want to have more fun than killing their opponent on turn three or four every game…

The Argument against Banning

We are living through one of the most diverse Legacy metagames that has ever existed. There was a period of time after Tarmogoyf was printed where Legacy was incredibly stale, consisting almost exclusively of tribal decks and UGx Tarmogoyf midrange and control decks. We don’t live in that world anymore—we have Stoneforge Mystic, Knight of the Reliquary, all sorts of non-blue midrange decks, a healthy Wild Nacatl presence, and, yes, Show and Tell as the best combo card in the format. Something has to be the best, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth banning. After all, what does Wizards want to accomplish by banning a card?

Perhaps the most telling phrase that Wizards has used to explain the diversity of deck selection in Legacy is the notion of a “gentlemen’s agreement.” For those of you who started paying attention to Legacy after Tom LaPille introduced the term into the community lexicon, here is the relevant section of his article

On the banning of Mystical Tutor:

Our research took another turn, however, when we investigated how Legacy is played in the real world. We discovered something rather interesting, and that is that Mystical Tutor decks were quite rare at Legacy tournaments that did not have tons of money on the line. At Grand Prix and other cash tournaments, people were happy to bust out their Mystical Tutors. However, in the comfort of their home stores they seemed to prefer doing other things that were more fun, if perhaps less powerful. This struck me as being a sort of gentleman’s agreement; everyone knew what sick decks were out there, but they chose not to play them…

…The fascinating thing about the aforementioned agreement is that it seemed that the people who were part of the gentleman’s agreement were having more fun than the people who weren’t. Whether or not they were aware that there was anything special going on, they were experiencing a better variety of decks and a higher quantity of recognizable baseline Magic gameplay—even though they were still playing with nearly every Magic card that has been printed. We saw the world they had made, and we liked it. We liked it so much more than the competitive world that had Mystical Tutor decks that we decided to give that happier world to everyone.

Did you catch that? Right there at the end, pretty easy to miss, but very important in terms of understanding Legacy banned list philosophy: Wizards thinks that people want Legacy to be more “fun” than “competitive” and will make decisions about which cards to ban based on creating and maintaining a world that fits the “fun” paradigm, often at the expense of a powerful “competitive” deck. It comes back a few paragraphs later, in case you missed it:

We expect that neither Ad Nauseam Tendrils nor Reanimator will die entirely as decks. We do expect that they will be less powerful now, and that the format as a whole will be closer to the one that players who are part of “the gentleman’s agreement” have voted for with their deck choices.

So as long as Legacy’s metagame remains healthy and diverse, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Show and Tell is the sickest—maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but who cares? You can sleeve up anything from NO RUG to Zoo to Manaless Dredge to UW Stoneforge and have a shot at playing under the camera on Sunday night. If Show and Tell ever significantly shrinks that diversity, the DCI bounty hunters might come looking for Show and Tell, but that day looks to be far, far away.

Right now, Show and Tell is just another deck in the Legacy metagame. Well-positioned, to be sure, but it’s not unbeatable. Knight of the Reliquary, an eminently fair card, may be the best card against it at the moment, since Knight is the best tutor for Karakas, which answers Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Iona, Shield of Emeria better than anything else. Hive Mind is a bigger problem, but the existence of Vendilion Clique, Daze, Spellstutter Sprite, and Stifle provides a number of ways that blue decks can protect themselves against Hive Mind.

For non-blue decks, Angel’s Grace is probably the best defensive tool against Hive Mind. Red Elemental Blast also comes close, but that’s a sideboard card that doesn’t win the game against Hive Mind in the same way that Angel’s Grace does.

Fortunately, there are plenty of good offensive tools against the Show and Tell menace. For instance, Hive Mind is pretty weak to a Dark Confidant and any sort of disruption package, as it has no way to kill a Confidant outside of five mana in play, a Pact of the Titan, and a bad attack by the owner of said Confidant. A black deck that is content to use Bob as a way to pour on the hand disruption will almost certainly beat Hive Mind.

If you’re not playing black, white, red, or blue, I suppose you’ll probably have a pretty bad Hive Mind matchup, but I’ve never been the sort to advise people to play mono-green in a Legacy event. For every other deck, there exist plenty of ways to beat a Show and Tell; it’s just a matter of whether people want to beat Show and Tell decks that week. By contrast, people really, really wanted to beat Survival of the Fittest and still only beat it 45% of the time at the absolute best. The reality of Show and Tell is nowhere near that, nor will it ever be.

Comparisons between Show and Tell and Tinker are overblown and misguided—Tinker is a tutor as well as a “ritual.” Show and Tell is just a ritual. Granted, Channel is “just” a ritual, but it’s the best ritual ever, so no one feels too bad about having it banned. If you want to look at the actual history of the Legacy banned list, you’ll see a consistent pattern of tutors going onto the banned list and “rituals” of all sorts coming off. How else can we explain the unbanning of Grim Monolith, Metalworker, and Time Spiral? These are all incredibly powerful ways to jump the curve on mana, yet all of them are Legacy-legal. Aether Vial and Lion’s Eye Diamond are still legal, despite their incredible raw power levels. Mystical Tutor and Survival of the Fittest, on the other hand, are both banned. Say what you will, but Wizards bans tutors—end of story.


Like every other sane person qualified for Philadelphia, I was very excited to see that we’ll be playing Modern instead of a very stale Extended format. This sudden change reminds me of a conversation I had with a good friend a few weeks after Nagoya. He was remarking on the shallow nature of Scars Block Constructed and how people had the format more-or-less solved by the time the Pro Tour rolled around.

“What would’ve been much more interesting, I think,” he said, “would have been if Wizards had announced the format on the Wednesday before the Pro Tour. Obviously it would’ve been a logistical nightmare—you can’t just bring all the cards ever with you to Japan—but how much more interesting would the Pro Tour have been if people only had 48 hours to approach the format? Who knows what would’ve come from that process? Whatever the outcome, it would’ve been better than a zillion Tempered Steel mirrors in a row…”

The timeline that players have for understanding and solving this new format is incredibly short, and so it’s very possible that people arrive at the Pro Tour without an accurate idea of what the true pillars of the format are. Magic Online Modern events won’t go live until August 24, a single week before the Pro Tour. The last week will be a flurry of activity, to be sure, but the next week is a full half of the time left before the Pro Tour. How much value does someone sacrifice by saying, “It’s okay. I’ll wait for MODO to solve this problem?” For the first time in a while, people are going to have to figure things out for themselves. Given that this is going to be my first Pro Tour, I’m pretty thrilled by the promise of an unexplored format.

The big question that the format starts with is “How good is Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows?” The next big question is “Does that even matter?” After all, the only two possible answers to the question are “Yes, Fire/Grove is good” or “No, Fire/Grove is bad.” If Fire/Grove is good, people will figure that out and start playing it. This will lead people to adapt their decks away from any sort of meaningful vulnerability to Punishing Fire, making it—you guessed it—bad anyway. So regardless of whether Punishing Fire is “good” or not, it will almost certainly be bad by the time the Pro Tour rolls around. Of course, there will be some sort of glass cannon deck that can’t ever beat a Punishing Fire and can’t ever lose to a Firespout (or whatever the non-Fire answer to Zoo is), but by and large, I don’t anticipate a field where Punishing Fire is going to be as amazing as it was in Austin.

And so, to tl;dr it for the folks at home, I’ll channel my inner Medina and wrap this up by telling you how to spend your money:

Buy Show and Tell. Sell Grove of the Burnwillows. Go brew at least three dozen completely different Modern decks.

At least, that’s what I’m doing. I’m back on a regular weekly schedule with today’s column, so I’ll be back next Wednesday with a topic that’s been waiting almost a year to be written. In the meantime, enjoy your Modern adventure!

Drew Levin

@drew_levin on Twitter