Building A Legacy – What Modern Needs (And Legacy Doesn’t)

Drew Levin points out the one major difference between Modern and Legacy: the state of control in both. In this article, he argues that Mental Misstep is too good in Legacy but not too good for Modern. What do you think?

Ever since Modern was announced as a format, the whispers have circulated. Is Legacy going to die? Is Legacy over? Will people still play Legacy?

Yes, people will still play Legacy. After all, it’s the only real format where you can play Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and people love that guy. Besides, everyone loves casting Brainstorm and Force of Will! Just look at all those people winning all those tournaments casting Brainstorm and Force of Will! It must be lots of fun! If I wasn’t friends with Pat Cox, I’d probably forget about the non-blue decks in the format.

“What non-blue decks, Drew?”

Like Zoo! And…uh, that Life from the Loam deck that sometimes does well! And those Knight of the Reliquary decks that sometimes don’t play blue! See how diverse the format is? Plenty of non-blue choices! So many non-blue choices that you almost forget about how all the successful non-blue decks still play Mental Misstep!

Oh. Yeah, forgot to tell you; every deck in the format plays Mental Misstep nowadays. Don’t believe me? Here, I’ll make this easy for you and give you a bunch of numbers. Here are the Top 8s for the last few SCG Legacy Opens. Tell me how this looks to you:

Boston: 27 Mental Missteps, 8/8 decks had at least one; the only non-blue deck had 2

Richmond: 17 Mental Missteps, 5/8 decks had at least one; one blue deck played 0 and one non-blue deck played 4

Pittsburgh: 16 Mental Missteps, 4/8 decks had at least one

Seattle: 27 Mental Missteps, 7/8 decks had at least one

The last time I wrote about how bad Mental Misstep is for Legacy, Patrick Sullivan showed up and articulated the major reason why Mental Misstep’s ubiquity is bad for the format. Since I can’t put it better than he did, here’s what he had to say:

“I think Legacy is going to become less popular over the long term because of Misstep and the StarCity circuit. It might take a while to get there, but I feel the writing is on the wall. When Legacy is at its most miserable (maybe not for the Spikes or people who post on The Source, but for the average casual dude), it’s when one player is forwarding his game while free-rolling (or close to it) answers to whatever the other person is doing (Force, Daze, Pierce, Snare, Stifle, etc.), and Misstep is the most obnoxious of all of these offenders by far. Beyond that, Misstep is especially hateful towards creature/tribal decks, which is what a lot of people want to rock anyway.

Legacy began to explode when it appeared the format was about everything; Misstep is another blue card that makes the format about very specific things. And now with StarCity providing the incentive for people to actually figure out what the good decks are, I fear the great, unsolvable mystery that made Legacy so popular is not long for this world.”

Mental Misstep has warped the format around its presence—as Patrick said, it’s now about very specific things. Building your deck to minimize the impact of one card on one spot of your curve? That’s not fun for most people. Legacy has always been a format where you can do really interesting things, where there are a bunch of fascinating interactions, and where free blue counterspells hold things in check.

The problem is that Mental Misstep doesn’t “hold things in check” so much as “make blue decks unbelievably strong.” Given that Brainstorm was already the best card in the format, there is now a real big disincentive to play non-blue decks.

The reason that Legacy will do better without Mental Misstep is that it will force every single deck to care more about interacting on early turns. Mental Misstep lets blue decks have eight Force of Wills for an Aether Vial, eight Swords to Plowshares for a Wild Nacatl, and eight Brainstorms for a Duress.

Granted, it’s worse than each of the cards it’s trying to approximate in those situations, but it’s still an incredibly diverse card for the price you pay. If Mental Misstep didn’t exist in Legacy, we’d see control decks that would have to play a real control strategy instead of a “jam every free-roll card we can find into a deck” strategy.

After all, what is UW Stoneblade? It’s just a collection of the best possible blue and white cards in the format. Sounds fine, right? Except for the fact that all of these cards are either incredible card advantage or mana free-rolls that let you fully realize all of your card advantage spells’ value. Stoneforge Mystic is a four-mana Tinker; Force of Will and Mental Misstep buy you a turn each; and Ancestral Vision and Jace, the Mind Sculptor let you commit mana on one turn and peel a ton of cards later in the game that allow you to use all of your mana to answer their position and require no further mana investment for all those cards you’re getting.

Control strategies aren’t the only place where Mental Misstep is a problem, though. If it were just a sick control card, people could say, “Well, it turns out Jace is a really filthy card, and we can’t have him getting played in Legacy, time to show him the door.” But the control shell isn’t the problem—it’s that Mental Misstep sees play in combo decks, too. The problem with Mental Misstep in Legacy combo decks is that it’s an incredible protection spell against almost everything that isn’t Force of Will. In Legacy, there are three basic approaches to stopping combo: Force of Will, an aggressive clock, and targeted hate. Mental Misstep slows down an aggressive deck’s best starts while also countering all sorts of Red Elemental Blasts and Stifles and Duresses. Furthermore, it gets to do this for free.

In many ways, I fear Mental Misstep in a combo deck more than I fear it in a control deck. In a control deck, it’s just another Counterspell, albeit a very good one. In a combo deck, it’s almost a one-card Force of Will. The nature of combo decks is to narrow the subset of cards that are relevant in a given matchup. Because the combo deck is prepared for that narrower matchup, its cards are (theoretically) going to be better. Take, for instance, Splinter Twin in Standard:

Anders had 4 Dispel, 2 Mental Misstep, and 1 Twisted Image next to only 2 Mana Leak. He knew exactly what he needed to fight over and built his deck to have an advantage once his opponent narrowed their deck as best they could. He didn’t care about Mana Leaking an Emeria Angel since he could just flash in Deceiver Exarch and kill his opponent if they were ever foolish enough to commit that much mana before turn eight.

Similarly, we can look at Ben Swartz Hive Mind deck from Seattle:

Ben knew that he’d have to fight through Duresses, Red Elemental Blasts, and Spell Pierces. Fortunately, Mental Misstep covers all of those while also occasionally countering their one-drop for free. In other words, it does everything.

So why not just ban Force of Will? If Mental Misstep is really good and it slows the game down, why can’t blue players make do without Force of Will? Mental Misstep and Force of Will occupy similar niches in Legacy, to be sure, but Force of Will truly is the glue that holds everything together. Without Force of Will around to keep everything in check, someone would build a degenerate combo deck that plays no critical one-mana spells and start killing people on turn two. It would probably involve Lion’s Eye Diamond. It might look something like this:

Goblin Charbelcher (but really, Lion’s Eye Diamond) is the best argument for why Force of Will needs to stay in the format, even though Mental Misstep is legal. Getting killed with a bunch of zero-mana spells into two-mana spells into a kill spell is not great Magic. Belcher is a fine deck, but it’s only fine because a lot of people play blue and have Force of Will 40% of the time in their opening hand. Without that presence, turn two combo decks would make Legacy a far worse format. Legacy has survived as a format for more than five years now largely because of Force of Will’s presence. Banning it because a similar card has created a critical mass of broadly playable free counterspells is a poor idea. Mental Misstep is the major offender in this situation, and Legacy would be healthier without it.


As much as Legacy needs to get rid of Mental Misstep, Modern needs Mental Misstep. I understand that the format has had no major tournaments, and so there is no concrete data to back up these assertions, but Mental Misstep is a much fairer card in Modern than it is in Legacy. Mental Misstep’s enablers—Ancestral Vision, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Brainstorm—are all gone. It’s just a counterspell that gains a mana of value at the cost of two life, which is a pretty eminently fair card. There are no wildly powerful blue engines outside of Gifts Ungiven in the format, so Mental Misstep’s presence wouldn’t create the same “free-rolling” problem in Modern that it has in Legacy.

According to Wizards’ announcement, Mental Misstep was banned for the pressure that it would put on beatdown decks. The problem with this assessment is that it ignores the consistent presence of Legacy beatdown decks at the top tables of tournaments. Granted, it doesn’t win a tremendous amount of the time, but Legacy beatdown decks have to fight through Mental Misstep, Stoneforge Mystic, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Force of Will, Swords to Plowshares, and control decks that have nearly pain-free mana bases! In contrast, Modern control decks have access to none of that except for Path to Exile as a poor Swords to Plowshares proxy. If Modern control decks want to get ahead, they have to play Thirst for Knowledge or Gifts Ungiven, but both of those are a huge amount of mana to spend in a format as fast as Modern.

The power of card-drawing plus cheap interaction was pointed out in Wizards’ rationale for banning Ancestral Vision, a banning that I believe is correct and well-justified. However, that logic is not consistent if you ban both halves of the Legacy blue control deck formula of “cheap card draw” + “free counterspells.” Either one is fine on its own—indeed, I think that Jace and Ancestral are too powerful for Modern, while I think that Mental Misstep is too powerful for Legacy. The intersection of both elements leads to a dangerously slow and blue-heavy format, while the absence of both elements leads to a dangerously fast and combo-heavy format.

The power of Modern’s one-drops is undeniable—Noble Hierarch, Aether Vial, Thoughtseize, Wild Nacatl, Goblin Guide, and Grim Lavamancer are all incredibly strong cards that lack control-based analogues. There is no Force Spike, Mental Misstep, Daze, or Force of Will in this format. The cheapest counters are Spell Pierce and Spell Snare on turn one, Rune Snag and Mana Leak on turn two, and a whole host of counterspells on turn three. The problem is that without cards like Mental Misstep or Chrome Mox to progress a control deck’s game plan, many aggressive strategies—in conjunction with a control deck’s mana base—will prove to be too fast to be answered.

The problem with having very few control strategies as strong options is that combo decks will prey on the beatdown decks of the format. Given that this is a turn-four format by design, it is very likely that there are a number of less-stable turn-three combo decks worth exploring. After all, Wizards decided to ban Ancestral Recall but not Black Lotus, so there is no shortage of fast mana in the format.

Given how fast Modern looks to be, Mental Misstep seems like exactly the sort of card that would balance the format by slowing it down. In a format with no free counterspells and no real mana acceleration beyond Mox Opal, control decks seem to be perpetually behind in a battle against beatdown and combo.

Legacy, on the other hand, would be much better off without Mental Misstep. Its midrange and beatdown decks need fewer obstacles, not more, and there shouldn’t be this many free counterspells in one nonrotating format.

I’m as excited for Pro Tour: Philadelphia as anyone else, but I would be very surprised to see a successful control deck come out of the tournament. As for Legacy? Well, I’d be very surprised to see a Top 8 that lacks a dominant control deck.

Until next week,

Drew Levin
@drew_levin on Twitter