Guess what the most played spell in the Top 16 of the StarCityGames.com D.C. Legacy Open was?
It was Brainstorm; it always is. And the second most played?
Tarmogoyf. Nice format we’ve got going here, right? And the third most played?
Force of Will. How predictable. And right behind that?
Green Sun’s Zenith. Yeah, we all saw that one coâ€”
So how can we explain the sudden metagame shift from Counterbalance to Green Sun’s Zenith? What unifies Zenith decks in such a way that we can easily
explain their success? Is it their ability to go over the top? Maybe they all played another, more devastating spell — Natural Order, perhaps?
Unfortunately, our answer isn’t so easy. Of the five decks that played Green Sun’s Zenith in the Top 16, only two played Natural Order — Alix
Hatfield’s G/W deck and AJ Sacher U/G deck. There were two Zoo decks and one G/B/W midrange deck that also played Zenith to a strong finish. To
understand why Green Sun’s Zenith is such a strong Legacy card, let’s break down the deck that finished twelfth — AJ Sacher U/G Natural Order / Show
and Tell deck.
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Progenitus
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Terastodon
- 4 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
- 1 Fauna Shaman
When Josh Rayden beat me with the deck in the seventh round of the Indianapolis SCG Legacy Open, I knew I wanted to put down my Rhox War Monks and pick
up my Emrakuls. AJ designed the deck for Grand Prix Columbus, piloting it to a Top 32 finish. It played eight mana creatures (4 Birds of Paradise, 4
Noble Hierarch), eight bomb spells (4 Show and Tell, 4 Natural Order), and seven huge creatures (4 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, 2 Progenitus, 1
As AJ and I explained in our deck tech,
the deck’s design genesis came from finding the intersection of two very powerful plays in the format: a turn 2 Show and Tell into Emrakul or a turn 3
Natural Order into Progenitus. Progenitus was one major intersection of those strategies, but the mana creatures were even more important. Starting the
game with a turn 1 green mana accelerant would set up all of the deck’s game plans perfectly.
The innate strength of this deck is its power against creature-based decks. By just playing two of the best creatures in the game, we could get a
decent number of free wins by racing their attackers with our two-turn clocks. Since Emrakul and Progenitus dodge almost all of the removal spells that
conventional creature decks are packing, it becomes a race. Once it turns into a race, our mana creatures and Dryad Arbors regain a ton of value as
chump blockers, enabling us to live long enough to untap and send our behemoth across the battlefield a second time.
With the addition of Green Sun’s Zenith, the power of Dryad Arbor jumps up a few pegs. The card was already very strong in the deck, performing
multiple roles admirably. Sometimes, it would act as a blocker for Goblin Lackey, jumping in and taking one for the team to allow for more setup time.
Sometimes, it would act as an attacker, picking up Noble Hierarch’s exalted triggers and bringing the opponent to fifteen, the perfect number for a
single Emrakul shot to the dome. Sometimes, it would be the sacrificial lamb used to call forth the Soul of the World.
Once I added Green Sun’s Zenith to the deck, I realized that I really wanted a second Dryad Arbor, given how many functions the card fulfilled.
Besides, on the rare occasion where we’d draw the Dryad Arbor, it was important for Zenith to retain its functionality on X = 0.
Although I’m sure you’ve had your fill of the card for quite a while, it’s important to notice the Ancient Tombs in AJ’s mana base. With a two-color
mana base in Legacy, there’s a ton of room for specialty lands. After adding a ton of fetchlands, the full four dual lands, and a basic land of each
color, there were still multiple slots left. Some were filled by Dryad Arbor, but the deck wanted twenty lands. Since the two most important spells in
the deck had multiple colorless mana as part of their casting cost, AJ saw very little opportunity cost in adding Ancient Tombs. I chose to play City
of Traitors over Ancient Tombs, but the effect is very similar: it provides a way to jump the curve when trying to cast Show and Tell or Natural Order.
When you’re building Legacy mana bases, keep deckbuilding concepts like this in mind.
One major problem that I ran into during testing was that it had very polar card values. I loved drawing multiple Show and Tells, but I hated drawing
my second or third Birds of Paradise. Noble Hierarch attacked for a point, at least! I looked around for a suitable substitute for Birds of Paradise,
finally hitting on the perfect card: Green Sun’s Zenith.
The most common line of play with Green Sun’s Zenith is to treat it as a Llanowar Elves. In that regard, it’s very close to a Birds of Paradise in
functionality — it gets you to three mana on turn 2 and four mana on turn 3. But it has a huge amount of upside!
I knew that I wanted to be able to Green Sun’s Zenith for “value creatures” — things such as Qasali Pridemage to blow up Ensnaring Bridges or
Counterbalances. To that end, we played a tutorable Orim’s Chant-on-a-bee and an Eternal Witness against all the two-for-one B/G decks. It wasn’t until I talked about the deck
with a teammate, Damon Whitby, that the most interesting Zenith target made its way into my deck. He suggested Fierce Empath as a way to more reliably
set up both Show and Tell and Natural Order.
Of course, AJ outdid us both when I took the idea to him during the player’s meeting on Sunday. Instead of Fierce Empath, AJ just played Fauna Shaman,
giving himself faster tutoring functionality while also giving himself greater access to Llawan, Cephalid Empress against Merfolk.
The shift from AJ’s and Josh’s Dazes to my Spell Pierces was inevitable. When your game plan is to assemble a sorcery, a creature, and the mana to cast
your sorcery, the last thing you want to do is return lands to your hand. Getting Wastelanded hurts enough already without adding cards like Daze to
the mix. Since the deck’s plan is to play the ultimate creature-based trumps, it shouldn’t care that much about countering creatures.
You still need a secondary counter to protect your big spells, though. You can’t always have Force of Will protection. Beyond that, a Counterbalance is
actually somewhat difficult to beat. Why would a Counterbalance be hard to beat if we’re playing a bunch of three- and four-mana spells?
Remember when I said that the deck has very polar card values? In short, that means that certain cards are, practically speaking, worth less than a
card, and others are worth more than a card. For example, how many cards is Show and Tell worth? Probably around two, right? You’d be willing to
mulligan to six every time if one of those six was always a Show and Tell. But would you always mulligan to six if I promised you an Ancient Tomb in
your opening hand? Less likely.
Card filtering and card selection are hugely important in a deck that needs to construct a Chinese-lunch-special hand. So what does this mean as far as
our vulnerability to Counterbalance is concerned? Well, it means that this deck relies heavily on resolving its cantrips and maximizing their value. If
I Ponder into Birds of Paradise, Misty Rainforest, and Progenitus with no Show and Tell in hand, I’m going to want to shuffle. But if they counter my
Ponder with Counterbalance? I’m drawing dead for three turns.
So is Green Sun Zenith’s success owed entirely to its ability to tutor for Dryad Arbor? Well, not really. It’s not that it plays well with Natural
Order; it’s not that it gets Tarmogoyf; and it’s not that it can get specialty creatures like Qasali Pridemage or Cold-Eyed Selkie. Rather, it’s that
it can do any of them.
Green Sun’s Zenith is the green Brainstorm. It lets you have a plan and adapt it to the circumstances. The plan might change from one turn to the next,
but the card fits into any plan. Instead of being just a Birds of Paradise on turn 1, Zenith gave me mana acceleration on turn 1, a sideboard Xantid
Swarm on turn 2, a Tarmogoyf on turn 3, and an Eternal Witness on turn 4. If you have City of Traitors, Tropical Island, and Forest, you don’t want to
draw Birds of Paradise. But if your hand got Hymn to Tourach-ed away, and you have a Natural Order sitting in your bin, wouldn’t it be nice to have a
way to get that back and have a creature to sacrifice to its additional cost? That’s Green Sun’s Zenith for you.
When we left Indianapolis, though, the big story was that “Counterbalance is the King of Legacy!” So how do these two things correlate?
Counterbalance was probably the worst card in my deck, Josh Guibault’s deck, and Ben Wienburg deck. The decks we played were good because of
Progenitus, Academy Ruins, and Grim Lavamancer, respectively. They were looks into the different ways of approaching the format: I went over the top
with a 10/10; Josh built the best long-game control deck in the room; and Ben built a control deck that fought aggressive decks all the way up the
curve. Counterbalance was a common card in our lists, but it wasn’t the best card in our lists.
As Gerry asked me a few days after the tournament, “How many spells did you counter with your Counterbalance?” I thought for a moment. “Probably ten over the course of the tournament.”
“Yeah, and people think that card is good. It’s garbage.”
I’m not generally one to take others’ word without a healthy measure of skepticism. In this case, however, Gerry had a point — Counterbalance really
was dogsh*t! Since I was considering resorting to such extreme measures as Dueling Grounds in an attempt to beat Goblins with the Rhox War Monk
Special, I scrapped the idea of Counterbalance altogether. In a format of Aether Vial, Emrakul, Mother of Runes, and Ancient Tomb, where was its edge?
What was it supposed to beat? All of its prey had disappeared, replaced by predators.
What we saw on Sunday, then, was a showcase of the most powerful things the format can do. There was a deck with Tendrils of Agony. There were multiple
decks with Natural Order just outside the Top 8. There were two decks with Emrakul, the Aeons Torn in them. There was a deck with Painter’s Servant and
Grindstone. There were too many angles for a Counterbalance deck to cover, and so only Adam Prosak (God bless him) made it through the gauntlet of
degeneracy into the Top 16.
Green Sun’s Zenith gave Zoo decks speed on turn 1 and flexibility on later turns. Gone are the days where a Counterbalance deck can sit back, Firespout
away two or three creatures on turn 3, cast a Tarmogoyf, Counterspell a Path to Exile, assemble Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top, and win.
Nowadays, there is an unending parade of Knights and Tarmogoyfs that a midrange control deck cannot possibly deal with. Even if you build a deck that can beat three to four large green creatures each game, guess what? You’re going to lose to Emrakul. Or Progenitus. Or Rishadan Port. Right now
really is a bad time to be a control deck in Legacy.
So where does that leave us for the next month of StarCityGames.com Legacy Open events? With more degeneracy, of course! Until someone builds a control
deck that can contain Progenitus, Aether Vial, Tendrils of Agony, and Goblin Lackey, Legacy is going to look like the Wild West. There really isn’t a
good reason to play fair in this format. Wild Nacatl may get some people to the Top 8, but I don’t think it will fare well in a field of Emrakul,
Progenitus, and Tendrils of Agony.
As for me? I’ll be looking to add another card to that list of boogeymen.