I originally titled this article “The Challenges of Legacy,” but I was afraid that would be too vague to pique interest. The fact is, however, that
Legacy is different from every other format in Magic and needs to be treated as such. No other format has even a sizeable fraction of the number of
playable cards or archetypes that Legacy does. Vintage, which technically has more legal cards, is so fast and hostile that only a few strategies can
survive, and most of those share the same shell of cards anyway. In a format where you’ve never heard of many of the cards, let alone had in-game
experience with them, choosing a deck is a daunting task.
There’s no short answer to what you should do to find the right deck. If I do my job, then this article will give you a place to start. However, I can
tell you what you shouldn’t doâ€”try to test all of the decks against each other. Most dedicated players have gone through this process at least a few
times in their careers for one format or another. Anyone who hasn’t will have spoken to friends who have or looked online for tournament results and
metagame statistics. It’s the best way to make an educated deck choice for a format like Standard or Block Constructed. It doesn’t work for Legacy.
Personal Experience with Legacy
Typically, if I have plenty of time to explore a format, I’ll build eight or ten of the top decks and play them against each other for statistics.
Naturally, it’s what I did in preparation for the Legacy Grand Prix in Columbus, Ohio, last year. I spent countless hours and finally found that
Natural Order Bant was one of the best overall decks and also had all of the qualities that I was looking for. Unfortunately, it took so much time and
effort to get to this point that there wasn’t much left for actual practice with the deck. My results and conclusions weren’t wrong, but I would have
been better off choosing any deckâ€”even a “worse” deckâ€”and learning it well. I didn’t have my priorities straight in the big matchups. I didn’t have
experience piloting Bant against unfamiliar strategies. After only six rounds, I had dramatic changes that I wanted to make to the decklist, and I knew
that I hadn’t been playing up to my potential. My problems could have been avoided if I had had even a little bit of tournament experience with my deck
before the Grand Prix. It was one of my most memorable and disappointing failures to date.
So how valuable was it to know that Bant had a 58% win rate against Reanimator? What did it help me to recognize that my bad matchup, Merfolk, lost to
Zoo and Goblins? It was exactly useless. For starters, Legacy is so diverse that, going in, I could expect to play these matchups one or zero times in
a long tournament (only one of my six matches was against a deck that I had tested). More importantly, talking about statistics and percentages in
Legacy is only good for making hot air. It really makes no sense to make a claim like “Junk beats Counterbalance” because it depends so much on the
decklists and the pilots.
Don’t Put Too Much Weight on Popular Opinions or Metagame Statistics
With the abundance of library manipulation, changing even a few cards can drastically alter a matchup. Additionally, between library manipulation, the
variety of permission, and the countless other subtleties of the format, Legacy players are presented with a huge number of reasonable plays on every
single turn. My point is not that Legacy is the most skill-intensive formatâ€”although in many ways it isâ€”it’s that two good players can pilot the same
deck very differently. One player may slow himself down to play around Daze while another may decide that it’s not worth it to do so. One player may
save her Green Sun’s Zeniths to win with Tarmogoyfs while another may want to quickly ramp up to Natural Order. Therefore it’s difficult to use “Sally
beat Tim thirteen games out of twenty” to say anything about the format on the whole.
As an example, after beating Merfolk with Progenitus in a sideboarded game, my opponent explained that I had taken him off-guard; he had expected me to
sideboard out the combo. The game would have been very different if I had sided out the combo. It also would have been very different if my
opponent had expected me to keep in the combo. Neither of us made a mistake, but the match could have been very different if different players had been
Legacy players should spend less time trying to find the “best” deck and more time learning to play the best that they can with whatever deck they
choose. If you find a decklist and a game plan that works well for you, then you can laugh in somebody’s face when they try to tell you that your Team
America deck is “supposed” to lose to Zoo. There are too many variables in Legacy for matchups to be oversimplified like that. Nothing is set in stone.
“Learn one deck very well” is a recurring piece of advice in my writing. It’s a warm, fuzzy sentiment, and it’s a crucial ingredient for success, but
it’s not the only ingredient. After all, not every deck is created equal, and some will give you a better chance of winning right off the bat, and some
will reward the practice you put into them more. In a wide-open format, you should compare your possible deck choices by answering the following
questions about them.
Does Your Deck Use the Format’s Most Powerful (Undercosted) Cards?
Brainstorm, Force of Will, Swords to Plowshares, Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, Wild Nacatl, Lightning Bolt, Price of Progress, Fireblast, Goblin
Lackey, Dark Confidant, Hymn to Tourach, Dark Ritual, Wasteland, Mishra’s Factoryâ€”How many of these cards does your deck play with?
Please feel free to make your own list of the format’s best cards. The point is that a deck built to make use of good cards will almost always be
better than a deck built to make use of weak cards. Why are Goblins, Elves, and Merfolk successful tribal decks while Knights and Zombies aren’t? Part
of it has to do with what each color offers and the synergies built into the tribe, but there’s an even simpler reason. Goblin Lackey, Goblin
Piledriver, Lord of Atlantis, and Llanowar Elves are great cards. Lord of the Undead and Scathe Zombies are overcosted and weak.
Try not to play with cards that aren’t the very best tools for their jobs. Don’t play with Go for the Throat when you could play with Swords to
Plowshares. Don’t play with Wrath of God when you could play with Firespout or Pyroclasm. In most non-linear strategies (midrange nontribal decks), you
shouldn’t be playing with any creatures unless you already have four Tarmogoyfs and four Dark Confidants.
When I played Natural Order Bant, I played with Path to Exile in addition to Swords to Plowshares. I was constantly frustrated by the fact that I had
to give my opponent a land when StP or Lightning Bolt would get the job done for free. I switched to a G/U/r configuration for the last
StarCityGames.com Open that I played in and made it to the Top 8 and was thrilled with the color change.
Naturally, these are only guidelines. As always, deckbuilders are well served to think outside the box. However, if you’re playing with a card that’s
worse than what another color offers, that’s a red flag that you should reconsider your deck choice or deck construction. While this is a useful rule
of thumb for all formats, it’s particularly true in Legacy. Small inefficiencies like your sweeper costing an extra mana or your removal spell not
being a universal answer will be extremely costly over the course of a tournament. Because of how flexible mana bases are, you ought to have a very
good reason to settle for second-best cards.
Does Your Deck Have a Strong Proactive Game Plan?
Having a proactive game plan means that there is something you’re trying to accomplish during the game. Common examples are attacking your opponent’s
life total with burn or assembling an army of creatures. However, there are an endless number of possible proactive game plans.
Here’ an example of a deck with a very strong proactive game plan:
Step one: Get four mana. Step two: Cast Goblin Charbelcher. Step three: Win.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be playing a deck like this in a twenty-round Grand Prix? You know exactly what you have to do every gameâ€”it’s a day at the
office. You don’t care what your opponent is doing unless he’s stopping you from going off. In fact, with this deck, you often won’t even have to look
at what cards your opponent has in play! You don’t have to play with a wide variety of answers because they won’t live long enough to play a wide
variety of threats. If they play a creature you can’t answer, you can just kill them directly.
Here’s something I made up as an example of a deck lacking a strong proactive game plan:
This deck has a lot of cards to stop the opponent from killing you. You’ll often be able to frustrate your opponent by countering everything they play
for the first four or five turns. Then what? There’s no way to quickly seal the game. What if you flood out while your opponent doesn’t? What if they
have an uncounterable threat that you didn’t expect? What if they manage to kill all of your win conditions? For a large tournament, what if you go to
time too often?
You might be able to win a lot of games with a deck like this. You might even be able to get some 60-65% win ratios in testing against the decks you’re
gunning to beat. However, there’s no way you can navigate a large tournament like a Grand Prix or a StarCityGames.com Open with a deck like this. There
are too many things that can go wrong, and when they do, you don’t have a trump card that you can fall back on.
Here’s an example of a deck that employs a similar strategy as “Reactive Blue,” but has a stronger proactive game plan:
Similarly to “Reactive Blue,” a major appeal of “Thopter Control” is its ability to use efficient permission spells to defend itself and prevent the
opponent from applying pressure. However, in addition to his variety of one-for-one answers, the Thopter Control player has the ability to assemble one
of his combos (Counterbalance plus Sensei’s Divining Top, Thopter Foundry plus Sword of the Meek, or Moat plus Humility against a creature deck) and
leverage the advantage into a win. Where the Reactive Blue player won’t realistically beat a board with three or four creatures, the Thopter Control
player can find the Thopter combo and trump whatever the opponent is doing.
In Legacy, control decks with efficient answers, permission, and a built-in combo have a history of success. Counterbalance decks and Natural Order
Bant routinely show up at the top tables of competitive tournaments. On the other hand, for all the years that I’ve been playing Legacy,
non-Counterbalance U/W Control and Landstill variants have been popular strategies that always seem to underperform.
Is It Likely That You’ll Find Yourself in Situations That Your Deck Can’t Handle?
This goes hand in hand with having a proactive game plan. If you kill your opponent on turn one or two, you don’t need to have answers to their
threats. However, if you’re like the majority of us who don’t play suicidal combo decks, you’ll need to be equipped with the tools to win from a wide
variety of positions.
As I mentioned above, it’s invaluable to have a powerful trump card or combo that you can fall back on when things look bad. Aside from that, it’s
important to have answers that are versatile and will rarely be dead. Permission, especially Force of Will, is perfect because it works equally well on
any spell that you need to answer. Discard spells are good also, although they leave you vulnerable to topdecks. Swords to Plowshares stands alone as
the one excellent creature removal spell in Legacy.
So what happens if you want to play a nonwhite deck that needs answers to creatures? Go for the Throat is good, but what about Affinity or Metalworker
decks? Doom Blade takes care of those but can’t kill a Dark Confidant. Diabolic Edict answers anything, unless of course they have two creatures out.
You could play a mix, but then you risk having the wrong one at the wrong time.
The Combo Decks of Legacy
I’ve raved about the value of having a combo in your Legacy deck, so I’d like to close with some advice about how to choose the right combo. Legacy is
home to nearly every Magic card, so it’s home to nearly every combo as well. Why are Counterbalance/Sensei’s Divining Top, Natural Order/Progenitus,
and Ad Nauseam/Tendrils of Agony popular and successful while Swans of Bryn Argoll/Chain of Plasma, Hive Mind/Pact, and Dragonstorm are not? In an
attempt to sort through the dozens of possible combos, you can rate each one on a scale of “Power” and “Simplicity.”
considers both the combo’s speed, and what you get out of it once it’s achieved. Some combos can be reliably assembled on turn one or turn two in
Legacy. Those decks typically devote a lot of slots to fast mana. Once you cast and activate a Goblin Charbelcher, the opponent takes over forty damage
and loses the game. Naturally, that type of combo deck scores very high on
Another way to think of power is: if you and your opponent are both able to do what you want to, who will win? If you can deal infinite damage
or make your opponent draw infinite cards, then you’ll beat anyone, even if they have gained a million life. Situations like that almost never come up,
but it’s quite important to recognize what will win between two combos that don’t kill on the spot. For example, Sneak Attack plus Emrakul generally
trumps Progenitus, which generally trumps Thopter Foundry plus Sword of the Meek.
is a question of how consistently you can assemble your combo, how difficult it is to disrupt, how easily you can recover if the combo is stopped, and
how much you have to hurt your deck to include the combo. Ad Nauseam Tendrils does not score well on simplicity. Essentially, the whole deck is
devoted to the combo. If Ad Nauseam gets countered, it’s almost impossible to set up and try again, and there isn’t a strong backup plan. However, it
could be much worse. Ad Nauseam is quite consistent if it’s not disrupted, and it’s essentially a one-card combo because the fast mana is
The beauty of Natural Order is its simplicity. It’s essentially a one-card combo, and the only cost of putting it in your deck is the one copy
of Progenitus that’s inconvenient to draw. However, a deck with Brainstorm and Vendilion Clique can easily handle having a single dead card ninety-nine
games out of a hundred.
The same is true of Counterbalance/Top, though for a different reason. It’s a two-card combo, but both cards are useful on their own. Counterbalance is
generally a must-counter card, even without a Sensei’s Divining Top in play because of the risk of blind countering, countering with Brainstorm, or
drawing a Top later in the game. Both cards are inexpensive, so there isn’t much to lose if they’re countered or killed.
Unfortunately, there’s no magical equation that tallies up power and simplicity and spits out the best deck. However, using this
framework, I can recommend playing with Natural Order or Counterbalance/Top because there isn’t much cost to do so. I can also recommend the fast combo
decks, so long as they are focused and consistent.
An example of a popular deck that doesn’t look so good in this framework is Show and Tell. It usually doesn’t win the game until turn four or five, so
it still has to play with disruption and answers to opposing threats. It’s necessary to play with a large number of cards that are useless until the
combo is assembled. Finally, it’s still possible to lose even after comboing off if the opponent has a more powerful combo or an extremely threatening
I hope that this article will prove helpful for anyone searching for a deck to play in Grand Prix Providence or the StarCityGames.com Open Series. As
for myself, I’ll almost certainly be playing a U/G Natural Order deck. I’ll end with what you’ve all probably been patiently waiting for: a list of
decks that I would recommend for a large Legacy tournament and a list of decks that I recommend against.
Decks to Approach with Caution: