Building with Legends

I’ve been teaching some of the kids at the Youth Club how to play Magic. Tobias, one of the kids, likes Snakes. One game, we were drawing our first seven cards, when Tobias piped out in surprise. He revealed his fledgling hand, pointing angrily to a pair of Sosuke, Son of Seshiro. There must, he told us, have been a mistake. Two of the same legendary creature in one deck? How had that happened?

A few weeks ago, I was down at the youth club where I work. Over the past year and a half, I’ve been teaching some of the kids there to play Magic. This night, we were just starting up a three-person game, and one of the youngsters, Tobias, had chosen his favorite deck from the club’s communal collection. Tobias likes Snakes. Yep, a Kamigawa block budget Snakes deck. In the little world of the youth club, just about everything is budget. Well, we were drawing our first seven cards, when Tobias piped out in surprise, “Hva’? Quick as a wink, Tobias revealed his fledgling hand, pointing angrily to a pair of Sosuke, Son of Seshiro. There must, he told us, have been a mistake. Two of the same legendary creature in one deck? How had that happened? Since I had been the one to build the deck, the answer was fairly obvious.

Tobias argued that it was foolish to run multiple copies of a single legend. After all, when you draw more than one of them at time, it’s card disadvantage. My attempts to justify my decision to place three Sosukes in the deck fell on deaf ears. He simply huffed and played his first land. A little while later, the third player at the table, Thomas, used removal on one of Tobias’ key Sosukes, and Tobias spent his following turn happily putting another Sosuke into play. Tobias was well aware that it’s a lot easier to win with Snakes when you have out either Sosuke or his pop, Seshiro, the Anointed. Nevertheless, he was unable to understand why either of these legends deserved more than one deck slot.

At first glance, this appeared to me to be the ultimate beginner’s mistake. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that the reason why Tobias’ logic was so terribly flawed was because he had been playing a Kamigawa block budget Snakes deck. The power level of the average card in such a deck is extremely low; most of his creatures are only good when paired with Sosuke or Seshiro. Generally though, the matter is far more complex. Tobias’ deck was neither a creative casual deck nor a tournament worthy construction. But what if it had been, and instead of Sosuke, we’d been discussing Kodama of the North Tree?

In this article, we’ll take up just that discussion: If there’s a legendary creature that would help out your deck, whether it be casual or competitive, how many copies should you run? To start with, I’ll break up legends into a number of useful, vaguely-familiar categories:

*Flagship (for example, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Circu, Dimir Lobotomist)
*Silver Bullet (for example, Arashi, the Sky Asunder and Dosan the Falling Leaf)
*Finishers (for example, Kodama of the North Tree and Keiga, the Tide Star)
*Just Plain Solid (for example, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV and Lyzolda, the Blood Witch)

The first of these categories, Flagship, is the simplest. A deck built around Kiki-Jiki or Circu should be able to win without drawing its flagship legend, but the job is that much harder when the big man doesn’t show up to do his duty. In most cases, when your deck is built around a particular legend, you should be running four copies of that legend.

In the case of Circu, your deck will mainly be trying to stall the game until it can put the Lobotomist on the table. You’ll be countering and bouncing threats, transmuting like a maniac, doing whatever is necessary to stay alive long enough to get hold of Circu. Often, this means that you’ll be accruing card disadvantage while you wait, and this card disadvantage will be far less pleasant than that which you’ll receive when your opening hand contains two Circus. Even that extra Circu may well come in handy if its twin meets some unenviable demise at the hands of your opponent. It’s all rather straightforward: Play a full set of this kind of legend.

Back in the Mirrodin-Kamigawa Standard era, R/G Kiki-Jiki was a deck that both had good game against Affinity and was fairly strong against a variety of other decks. Most deck builders chose to run four copies of the precocious, costly goblin, but there was a significant minority opinion that held that three Kiki-Jikis were sufficient. The idea of the deck was, after all, to gain long-term card advantage off of creatures and spells that were powerful in their own right. Even if Kiki-Jiki never entered play, Hearth Kami, Eternal Witness, Magma Jet, and Plow Under could win the game. By only including three Kiki-Jikis, some of the deck’s intense mana pressures were lowered, and there was less temptation to run otherwise sub-par options like Rootrunner. Kiki-Jiki wasn’t quite the flagship that Circu is, and in some games, the goblin would be just plain solid. I understood this view, yet I never accepted that it was the right way to go. Potentially-flagship legends like Kiki-Jiki; Erayo, Soratami Ascendant; and even Circu are long-term card advantage machines. So what if you have an additional Kiki-Jiki stranded in your hand? That Kiki-Jiki which is in play will – via Hearth Kami, Eternal Witness, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Rootrunner, or what have you – be gaining you a card (and then some) each turn. Even disregarding the use of supplemental Kiki-Jikis as potential replacements for their killed counterparts, it’s worthwhile to run four simply to increase your chances of drawing a copy and doing sick things. That’s the way flagship cards are; if you’re bothering to build a deck around them in the first place, you sure as hell ought to take every chance you get to put them in play.

Silver bullet legendary creatures don’t work quite the same way. Arashi, the Sky Asunder is great at what it does and is a decent creature to boot even without its activated ability, but it’s an unusual metagame in which you’d want to maindeck a full set of this spirit. Dosan the Falling Leaf is even more extreme in this regard as you’ll rarely be happy with a two-mana 2/2 unless it’s disrupting your opponent. The interesting thing here is that it isn’t actually all that significant that these creatures are legendary. As silver bullets, you’ll either plan on running them as one-ofs and tutoring for them with something like Chord of Calling, or you’ll keep substantial numbers of them in your sideboard against tough match-ups. If your Green deck’s big problem is opposing flyers, then it may well be worth your while to run four Arashis out of the board: Against a deck stuffed to the gills with flyers, you’ll never run out of uses for Arashi. The same is true of Dosan if you’re unhealthily afraid of counterspells: A single Dosan has the possibility of netting you massive virtual card advantage by keeping those pesky counterspells in your opponent’s hand. This isn’t the place for me to write about silver bullet/toolbox theory, but it’s important to realize that legends that fall into this category might as well be non-legendary.

What about finishers? Here, it’s necessary to engage in further categorization, yet rather than breaking the cards down into sub-groups, we’ll differentiate between different kinds of decks: the Aggro deck and the Control deck. Aggro decks will most frequently be running legendary finishers because beefy legends tend to be beefier than their everyday Joe equivalents. There is, for example, nothing supremely unique about Iwamori of the Open Fist. A Standard R/G Aggro deck will have access to Rumbling Slum, Giant Solifuge, Cytoplast Root-kin, Stampeding Serow, and a number of other viable monsters at the same casting cost. Assuming the metagame isn’t teeming with other legends, a single Iwamori is, in most cases, superior to each of these other options. Against Heartbeat or Rakdos, I’d prefer Iwamori to Rumbling Slum or Stampeding Serow, even though the power differential between these three creatures isn’t all that massive. The trouble is, when you’re playing a legend as just another beatdown creature, as just another hunk of fat, you have to question whether stocking up on four copies is worth the risk of drawing multiples. Again, assuming the appropriate metagame, I’d probably place a single Iwamori in my deck, running it alongside the other monsters. Beatdown decks want consistency and don’t want cards stuck in their hands. A hand consisting of one Iwamori and one Rumbling Slum is simply so much better than a hand consisting of two Iwamoris that it usually won’t be worth the admittedly remote risk of getting weighted down with multiples of the legend.

Still considering Aggro, Kodama of the North Tree represents somewhat of a different case. Unless you’re willing to wait out the extra two mana for Simic Sky Swallower, Kodama of the North Tree is unique. Like Iwamori, Rumbling Slum, Gleancrawler, and so many other Green creatures, it has a great power-to-mana ratio. Unlike these others, it’s untargetable. A deck like the U/G Stampeding Serow proposal I recently made is already full of fantastic monsters, of creatures on par with North Tree’s beatdown ability, but it’s particularly vulnerable to targeted removal. Although it still won’t be fun if you get stuck with two North Trees, a single North Tree not only will tend to end the game quickly (even more quickly than Iwamori), but it will also give you a boost against some of my poorer match-ups. A North Tree that isn’t dealt with will grant you victory, and there are very few means of killing this legend without at least granting you card parity. With this in mind, holding an extra North Tree isn’t a disaster, as your board position once the initial legend is killed will probably be better than before that first spirit entered play. When a legend has the tendency to win games outright, the disadvantage to running it in multiples decreases. I still balk at running four copies of North Tree, but this is simply because – on the power-to-mana ratio side of things – there are so many nice alternatives at the moment.

An exception here is a card like Rakdos the Defiler. If you’re playing this monstrous demon as a finisher in an Aggro deck, there’s really no disadvantage to running a full set. Once Rakdos attacks, whatever other high-mana cards you have in your hand will likely be uncastable anyway.

In Control decks, you have to judge potential finishers a bit differently. Even if your Control deck has a heavy Green component, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to run the all of the amazing Green finishers available; if you place Iwamori, North Tree, Rumbling Slum, and Giant Solifuge in a deck, I’d be inclined to doubt that you were really set on playing Control. Let’s take a look at a sample Control deck for Standard, recently suggested by Rogier Maaten:

At the moment, U/W Control has access to a number of fantastic finishers: Meloku the Clouded Mirror; Keiga, the Tide Star; Yosei, the Morning Star; and Windreaver. As it would be foolish to play all of these creatures, even in a non-Control deck, deckbuilders are forced to pick and choose, and the general consensus is that Keiga and Meloku are the two best finishers in Standard. Both are legendary. These creatures hold certain, peculiar advantages over one another: Meloku is relatively cheap to cast, permitting you to leave counterspell mana open, and when you have oodles of mana, it’s practically removal-proof in the sense that, even if your opponent removes it, you’ll still have produced a number of 1/1 flying tokens. Keiga, on the other hand, only eats up your mana on the turn on which you cast it, does not die to Char, and if it does die, might to be able to steal an opposing creature. All else being equal, I personally feel that Meloku is the better finisher, particularly as the dreaded Char is hardly overrunning the metagame and as this legend is better against opposing Control decks than Keiga. But hey, as I said, both are wonderful options.

The nature of a U/W Control deck like the one listed above is that it will rarely play out more than one threat at a time. There are two main reasons for this: 1) Because you want to load the deck with counterspells and removal, there won’t be much space for redundant finishers, meaning that, often, you’ll only ever draw one or two threats over the course of a game. 2) After that first threat is on the board, you’ll want to spend your mana protecting that threat from your opponent; playing out another threat (one that has summoning sickness) is usually inferior to keeping your initial threat alive. Regardless of whether you’re running the non-legendary Windreaver or the legendary Keiga, you’ll usually be killing your opponent with only a single threat in play. Most of the U/X Control decks being built nowadays split their threats in the manner of the above deck. Rather than running four Meloku and one Keiga, or four Keiga and one Meloku, they provide the two finishers with an about even number of deck slots. If the legendary status of a Control deck’s finisher is largely irrelevant because you’ll rarely play out more than one threat at a time anyway, why are deckbuilders opting for this even split rather than focusing on the finisher they believe is best? This is primarily explained by the presence of Cranial Extraction in the Standard cardpool. Although Cranial Extraction is no longer seeing the amount of play it once did, the mere risk of it urges Control players to diversify their threats. Once Kamigawa Block has left Standard, I suspect that such diversification will decrease, and certainly, if you’re playing Magic at a non-tournament level, and Cranial Extraction isn’t an issue on your kitchen table, there’s little reason to be indecisive about which finishers to run. If the best finisher for your Control deck is legendary, then by all means, run four copies of it.

The most difficult legendary creatures to judge are those that are just plain solid. Take Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, for example. In the right kind of deck, this fellow’s effect can be enormous. Is it, however, sufficiently enormous for you to run the risk of getting stuck with multiple copies in your hand? Unlike Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Augustin represents card advantage only indirectly. Unless Augustin plays a special role in your deck – if you’re focusing on mana denial or trying to play a mana-intensive combo – it probably won’t be worthwhile to run too many copies. So, what number of copies is perfect? If you just run two, you’ll only infrequently be nagged by Augustin’s legendariness, but it will happen occasionally. Unfortunately, there’ll also be many games in which you never draw the legend because it represents just one-thirtieth of your entire deck. The safest route may simply be to run but a single Augustin: As with Iwamori of the Open Fist, when you draw your lone Augustin, you’ll be happy, and when you don’t draw it, the remainder of your deck will still be highly consistent. This isn’t the kind of advice I enjoy giving. I am, after all, a sucker for redundancy, and if I can run eight or twelve cards that serve essentially the same purpose, I’ll do so. Still, a legend like Augustin is the perfect of example of a creature that will always be useful but that you never want more than one of.

Lyzolda, the Blood Witch is another matter completely. Some experts consider this creature a flagship card, but I appreciate Lyzolda more than most and view it as just plain solid. It seems to me that, even when your deck isn’t filled with multicolored sacrificial lambs, Lyzolda can dominate. “Merely” doing two points of damage or drawing card when damage is on the stack is great, and the fact that Lyzolda is a 3/1 for three mana (not too shabby) and can sacrifice itself is simply icing on the blood sausage, especially as it negates any negative impact connected with this creature’s legendary status. The primary argument against Lyzolda seems to be that it is incredibly easy to kill, and you need to have reached five mana prior to being able to cast it and sacrifice it in response to removal on the same turn. I’m a huge fan of must-kill creatures, especially in a deck like Rakdos, which can run so many must-kill creatures. Sure, Lyzolda dies to just about everything, but with the exception of Electrolyze, this death will always either be a one-for-one trade or a mass removal death in which every other prominent Rakdos creature would die as well. There’s plenty of excellent removal in Standard at the moment, yet decks can devote only so many spaces to targeted removal. Lyzolda, Rakdos Augermage, Hypnotic Specter, Dark Confidant, and Rakdos Pit-Dragon are all must-kill creatures against many decks. If Lyzolda bites it, so what? That’s one less piece of removal that can be used against one of your other amazing threats, and I’d run four copies of Lyzolda for the same reason that I ran Fangren Firstborn in Mono-Green Aggro: Forcing your opponent to spend mana and a card on one of your many threats is both a tempo boost and a form of protection for your other creatures. Even though Lyzolda isn’t a finisher like Kodama of the North Tree or Keiga, the Tide Star, it will still win the game for you if it goes unanswered. The only thing holding me back from playing four copies of Lyzolda is that there’s so much competition from other Rakdos three-drops.

Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into how to evaluate legendary creatures and in what quantities to place them in your decks. I know, at least, that I’ll be showing this to Tobias.


Adam Grydehøj
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