Once upon a time, Legacy was a format where you could play anything you wanted to and still had a chance at winning. Or so the saying went. Whether it
was ever true isn’t important. What’s important is that people believed it. From the day that Survival of the Fittest was banned in Legacy
until the day that Mental Misstep was printed for Legacy, there were actual dozens of “viable” archetypes. The format was a brewer’s
paradise, a new world upon which anyone, pro or neophyte, could make their mark.
“Wait…did you say that Mental Misstep was printed for Legacy? Just what do you mean by—”
After Survival but before Mental Misstep, any deck could—and did—win. Goblins. Counterbalance. Team America. High Tide. Merfolk. Affinity.
Painter. Blue-Red Control. A different winner on the SCG Open Series circuit nearly every weekend… what more could anyone ask for? Every week, there
were multiple deck techs. This was the pinnacle of competitive Magic, right? A diverse format being played at a high level with tremendous visibility
and a vast, constantly fluctuating metagame seems like the ultimate skill-tester, no?
But maybe Legacy was just a little too successful. Player interest and tournament attendance exploded. The SCG Open Series circuit helped grow
and promote the format at an unprecedented rate. The upshot of those positive changes was that, in the past year, prices of major format staples
doubled or tripled. Current Legacy staple prices moved the line on what players could reasonably expect to pay for rares that could be played in
multiple decks. Mana bases cost nearly as much as some powered Vintage decks. Every reasonable thinker believed that the skyrocketing price trend was
The point where opinions diverge is whether Legacy’s problem is one of supply or demand. That is: is the problem that there are too few duals to
accommodate the growing player base? Or is the problem that there are too many players trying to use not enough dual lands? The question seems like a
no-brainer, right? After all, how could the Organized Play department of Wizards want fewer people playing a format, especially one with such
a diverse set of interactions? As it turned out, Legacy presented Wizards with a number of issues that they hadn’t addressed before.
As a way of getting into those issues, it’s necessary to touch upon what drives the shortage of dual lands: the Reserve List. The Reserve List is
a collection of cards, all of which saw print prior to Mercadian Masques, that Wizards of the Coast has pledged to never reprint in any format. The
original ten dual lands and Lion’s Eye Diamond are the most prominent Legacy staples to populate the Reserve List. Their promise, verbatim, is
Reserved cards will never be printed again in a functionally identical form. A card is considered functionally identical to another
card if it has the same card type, subtypes, abilities, mana cost, power, and toughness.
Now, I’m far from being an apologist for the Reserve List—I hate it. I hate that it is the major reason why Legacy can’t really grow
beyond a certain point and that it drives card prices to the point where younger players are priced out of the format, unable to participate in half of
any given SCG Open Weekend. It’s outmoded, obsolete, and a relic of an era where Organized Play couldn’t drive prices, let alone strap them
to a rocket ship and put them on the moon. If Wizards had the decision to publish or reject the Reserve List in front of them today, I’m
confident they would reject it.
Since we live in a world where Legal departments and notions of corporate integrity are vital components of an organization’s structure, the
Reserve List isn’t going anywhere. That argument had its day, but Wizards ultimately doubled down on their promise. The next argument was whether
Wizards could, you know, fudge it a little? Maybe not break their promise, per se… certainly uphold the letter of the
law—no one’s arguing that you need to break that—just… you know… print functionally identical dual lands oh please would
Instead of asking Wizards to break their Reserve List promise, people (myself included) argued for Wizards to circumvent their promise as narrowly as
possible. After all, Wizards said they didn’t like it either, so what’s wrong with printing Snow Dual Lands? Snow-Covered Tropical Island,
Snow-Covered Savannah, and Snow-Covered Tundra don’t technically go against the Reserve List policy. They wouldn’t be functionally
identical cards, which is what the Reserve List said they wouldn’t reprint. And as Patrick Chapin (my advisor from three articles ago) put it,
“They need to be elegant. You can’t just jam a bunch of text onto a dual land and expect people to play it. These things would be forever. They have to be beautiful.”
The problem with breaking the spirit of the law while preserving the letter is that the Reserve List doesn’t have to do with us, the Magic
community. The Reserve List affects us the most, but it isn’t for us. We can understand the difference between a Snow-Covered Island and
a basic Island. The Reserve List’s language is for the lawyers. It’s for the people who, when, and if Wizards ever comes close to breaking
the Reserve List promise, are on either side of the ensuing legal battle over Wizards’ and Hasbro’s corporate integrity. How much do you
want to bet on your chances of proving to a judge that Snow-Covered Volcanic Island is different enough from Volcanic Island that its printing
doesn’t break the Reserve List’s promise?
Let me put it a different way: how much do you—you’re Wizards of the Coast in this scenario—stand to gain or lose from such a move?
On one hand, you can provide greater access and visibility to a format that sells almost entirely out-of-print cards—that is, a format that
doesn’t make you much money at all. Your big dual land printing would make a ton of money, sure, but it would only be really effective once. The
diminishing returns on “We’re printing a bunch of dual lands, come get ‘em!” are enormous. Furthermore, it would solidify
Legacy as a widely accessible format. Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but it comes at the price of several other potentially good
If Legacy were to become “the secondary format” in the way that various Extended and Block formats never did, players would clamor for it
to become a PTQ format. Absent a card availability issue, Wizards would be hard-pressed to deny players the option to play a broadly popular format for
high stakes. The problem is that many card interactions that are powerful enough for Extended are not powerful enough for Legacy, and so fewer cards
would see competitive play. Wizards wants the maximum possible number of card interactions to be competitively viable, since that diversity is part of
what sells the game. Without Extended or Overextended or Modern or Block as a PTQ format, we lose the
opportunity to play tournaments with a lot of cards. That’s not something that I can imagine Wizards being interested in doing.
On the other hand, there is the potential for huge financial and brand downside if Snow Duals get printed. The secondary card market is invisibly
stabilized by consumer confidence in Wizards of the Coast. People buy cards with confidence because they know that their investment won’t be
nuked from orbit with a mass printing of new dual lands tomorrow. A major part of that confidence comes from Wizards’ proven internal dogma of
not attempting to fix or shift any secondary market fluctuations. Since tournament playability, broad appeal, and availability combine to create
consistent pricing, people view older cards as investments. The Reserve List is part and parcel of the strong consumer confidence that drives players
to invest in the history and the future of the game.
A growing demand for an unsustainable format is terrible for Wizards. After all, if the format is unsustainable, then any increase in demand is bad. If
the Reserve List is here to stay, then the format has a ceiling of realistic growth beyond which card prices will become both unhealthy and unstable.
If the format has a population ceiling, then current growth is unsustainable. Anyone watching the secondary market for Legacy cards in the second half
of 2010 could have told you that Legacy card prices would continue to spike. StarCityGames.com’s willingness to offer unprecedented amounts of
prize and prestige to successful Legacy players guaranteed that Legacy’s popularity would go in one direction. So how does that growing demand
get addressed if no further supply is forthcoming?
A card takes 10-12 months to go through from intellectual creation to physical, card-in-hand existence. If Legacy were identified as a problem format
in Spring 2010, it would take until Spring 2011 to come out with a card that could address the format’s issues. Enter Mental Misstep:
Mental Misstep was an obvious player in Legacy from the moment that the New Phyrexia Godbook hit IRC. My article on Mental Misstep was, if anything,
too conservative. What I didn’t know—what no one had any way of knowing—was that Mental Misstep was a brilliant move by Wizards to
suppress the growth of Legacy. As I wrote above, there is a ceiling on the number of players that Legacy’s card pool can reasonably support. So
how did Wizards kick people off of the island with Mental Misstep?
First, let’s establish just who is the target population in this project. They are the people who see Legacy as a format where they can play any
deck they want to and where diverse card interactions are not only possible, but actually competitively viable. These people are the people who play
Pox with Bloodghasts in Legacy tournaments and think that they are anything but dead money. They’re the ones playing decks that, as I described
in my last article, aren’t fully min-maxed. They are, in short, casual players.
Mental Misstep is a card that forces players to build decks around its existence and prevalence. Not everyone had a critical two-drop in 2006, and so
the printing of Spell Snare didn’t warp Legacy. One-drops, on the other hand, are everywhere. They are cornerstones of both good and bad decks.
What Mental Misstep did was shift the criteria of successful deckbuilding. Prior to New Phyrexia, there was no truly dominant strategy or color
combination or correct way to structure a mana curve. With the printing of Mental Misstep, people didn’t need to argue about whether Stifle,
Sensei’s Divining Top, Candelabra of Tawnos, Goblin Welder, or Goblin Lackey was the best one-drop. Once New Phyrexia came out, none of them
was—Mental Misstep became the best one-mana card in the format. Its broad playability and high power level meant that it would see a lot of play
very early on, weakening the results of decks not built with Mental Misstep in mind.
To fully appreciate this point, let’s talk about Lion’s Eye Diamond. Lion’s Eye Diamond is generally considered to be the most
powerful card in Legacy. It is not the most heavily played card in the format only because its strength has elevated the presence of Brainstorm/Force
of Will decks in the metagame. Those blue decks are its natural predators and keep the format in check. Without the constant presence of a large number
of counter-heavy blue decks, Lion’s Eye Diamond would dominate Legacy. Those blue decks play the part of Sheriff in Legacy, keeping the
degeneracy in check. Mental Misstep fits very well into those blue midrange and control decks.
Now for a hypothetical. You’re Wizards of the Coast again. Legacy is appealing to too many people. You need to winnow the player base so that
dual land demand becomes manageable. Since you still want to be left with a competitively playable format, your mission is to make Legacy a format more
hostile to casual players. How do you do that? What types of decks do you want to succeed? How many “good” decks do you want there to be?
And how much skill do you want to be involved in playing the best decks?
Would you make Brainstorm, the best card in the format already, a better card? Perhaps you would give blue decks Mental Misstep so that they can keep
in check any deck overly reliant on a given one-drop. Mental Misstep could then force Legacy deckbuilders to respect its power and prevalence to the
point where their decks would be created with that card in mind. This deckbuilding convention would surely constrain the number of different decks in
the format. This smaller metagame would drive away casual players that were drawn to Legacy precisely because they could see themselves winning a
tournament with their pet deck—long live Pox with Bloodghasts! The best decks in this theoretical metagame would likely play Mental Misstep,
meaning that they would also likely play Brainstorm. If the winning deck doesn’t have Mental Misstep, it’s likely because it was built to
beat decks playing Mental Misstep. But a deck that neither plays Mental Misstep nor is built to beat Mental Misstep? It’ll win a few games, sure,
but the blue decks with Ancestral Vision and Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Mental Misstep will usually beat them.
And then, for better and for worse, this casual player will eventually decide to quit Legacy and just stick to Commander. They’ll decide that
Gatekeeper of Malakir and Lashwrithe are more viable in Standard than Bloodghast and Pox are in Legacy. And they’ll sell their two Bayous and
their one Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author] and their three Dark Confidants and play the Draft Opens on Sundays. It’ll be a drag to lose players, but it always is.
On the other hand, dual land prices will stabilize. Bob Maher’s invitational card might not surpass the value of a Ulysses S. Grant rookie card.
Legacy could level off at a sustainable player population. Tournament organizers like StarCityGames.com could make a tidy profit off of sanctioning
Legacy tournaments without creating a widespread crash of the out-of-print singles market. The demand for Legacy as a PTQ format would subside, and
older prices would hold steady. Collectors would see their collections hold value due to the sustained playability of their older cards in Legacy.
Wizards would have kept the spirit of their Reserve List promise by killing Legacy. In the end, is that such a bad bargain?