Deckbuilding Principles of Legacy

Tuesday, February 22 – AJ Sacher lists all the most powerful things you can do in Legacy and shows you how to build a deck based on doing as many of these as possible – see how your deck for SCG Open: Washington DC matches up!

Legacy is my favorite format in Magic by quite a large margin and has been for

some time. I find it extremely skill-testing, and it has the most room
for innovation. At every Legacy tournament, I see at least one thing that I’ve

never seen before. The same could not be said for any of the non-Eternal

There are certain guidelines and theories that I am always sure to keep in

mind when designing decks, and I would like to share some of those with you
today. Specifically, some of the ones that pertain to Legacy. Obviously, it is

not enough to just put a lot of good cards of the same colors into your
deck and call it a day; you have to give your deck certain abilities and

attributes for it to be able to compete. It may seem superfluous to state, but
I have definitely seen decks where the only excuse for their existence is that

their designer did exactly that.

The two decks that I plan on using as examples in this piece can both be found

in the Top 8 of the Indianapolis Open: Josh Rayden, which is an

update of the deck that I Top 32ed GP Columbus with
, and Drew Levin,

which is an upgraded design

from his article a couple of weeks ago

on Counterbalance.

When designing the Columbus deck, I made a list of the most powerful plays

available in Legacy. Then I tried to find overlap and synergy between any of
them. That list was something like:

1. Reanimate an Iona, Shield of Emeria.

2. Assemble Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top in a deck with a good


3. Resolve and protect an early Dark Confidant.

4. Resolve and protect an early Survival of the Fittest with proper fuel.

5. Show and Tell Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play.

6. Resolve Ad Nauseam at ten or more life in an Ad Nauseam deck.

7. Assemble Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek.

8. Kill them outright with Painter’s Servant and Grindstone, or Aluren and

Imperial Recruiter.

9. Natural Order a Progenitus into play.

10. Resolve and protect Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

11. Have an active Aether Vial

I feel like I may have forgotten some, but the idea was to think of the

absolute top tier of powerful plays. The list has changed over time, such as
Flash and Protean Hulk previously belonging in number 8, and number 4 no

longer being legal.

If you look at decks that I have designed in the past, they end up

(coincidentally enough) having at least two if not more of these plays available to

My GP Chicago deck was a G/B/r Survival deck that worked on principles 3, 4,

and 11.

My Orlando Open deck
was U/W Enlightened Tutor Control that incorporated numbers 2, 7, and 10.

My GP Columbus deck had 5 and 9 (and the Indianapolis update adds #10).

Finally, my

Kansas City deck had 2, 9, and 10.

The idea is not to jam as many of these abilities into your deck as possible,

though. You’re looking to streamline your deck and find multiple avenues
of attack that work well together. The Natural Order/Show and Tell deck was a

success because the support cards for both archetypical game plans play
well together:

-The mana creatures for Natural Order also accelerate into Show and Tell.

-If you draw a Natural Order target, you can Show and Tell it into play.

-Both combos want you to have specific cards, preferably early, so the

streamlined filtering is important to both.

Dryad Arbor and the mana guys for Natural Order can stop opposing Edict

effects from getting your Emrakul.

-Both rely on resolving specific cards quickly, so the free countermagic is

good with both.

-The mana creatures offset the alternate casting cost of Daze.

-The Noble Hierarchs and cantrips with fetches and Tropical Islands make you

look like a Counterbalance deck to opponents, often until it’s too late.

And so on. I’m sure you can figure out how the halves of the other hybrid

decks play well together. There are so many different avenues that you will
be attacked from in the format that you are almost always better off doing

something broken rather than playing fair. By this same logic, the more
angles of attack that you have available to you, the more difficult it becomes

for opponents to properly prepare for everything you have the capability
of doing.

Stepping away from the principles of broken plays, another thing that I

consider when building a deck or deciding what to play at an event is the high
power level of the card selection and filter effects like Sensei’s Divining

Top and Brainstorm. Both are so good that there have to be multiple very
good reasons for why they aren’t in your deck. Some people think that you

“have” to play Force of Will or you are at a huge disadvantage in the format.
That is simply not true. In fact, Force of Will constantly gets sideboarded

out or is merely “okay” in matchups. The same can never been said of
Brainstorm or Top.

However, I think that people believe that notion simply because Force of Will

almost always comes with Brainstorm, and that statement about Brainstorm
would indeed be true. (If you are unfamiliar with the absurd strength of the

innocuous “cantrip” or are unaware of how to play optimally with it, might
I shamelessly plug and suggest reading an article on the subject?)

By having Brainstorm and Sensei’s Divining Top in your deck along with the

proper shuffle effects, you’re essentially assuring that you’ll almost never
be mana screwed or flooded ever again if you play correctly. That is a

significant percentage of games that would be auto-losses, but in which you now
get to actually play Magic. Decks like Goblins, Merfolk, Zoo, and such lose to

themselves far more often than those with potent card selection.

Recently, Drew Levin talked about how he believes that Counterbalance decks

should look to be more proactive in this metagame. I agree with him,
although it is slightly awkward that the metagame in Indianapolis was the

polar opposite of what we expected it to be, and a reactive Counterbalance
build won the tournament, but such is Legacy.

I tested a bit with Drew on Friday night and insisted that Knight of the

Reliquary sucked in his deck and that Natural Order was awesome. After beating
him up for a while, he came around to agreeing with me. You see, there’s no

utility in the Knights if you’re not playing any special lands, and there
isn’t room for any special lands in Counterbalance because they just aren’t

good enough to justify making room. That means that Knight of the Reliquary
is just a fat creature in those types of decks, which isn’t exactly what you

want to be doing in a format as powerful as Legacy. And no, a few
Wastelands without Stifles or a Horizon Canopy or two do not make them worth


Knight of the Reliquary is just outdated.

You see, the original purpose of Knight in Legacy was that he acted as a trump

to Tarmogoyf; both players would have Goyfs, and nothing would happen
for a while. Knight just grows until the time is right and then crashes right

past any puny Lhurgoyfs. He was considered the best way to break parity
and was exactly that in his time. However, that plan is outdated for a handful

of reasons:

1. Many Tarmogoyf decks have Noble Hierarchs that, with its aid of exalted,

allow a Goyf standoff to end rather quickly.

2. Many of them also have Knights now, so you just create the same problem.

3. It might as well not have any text on it against aggressive strategies, and

three mana is a lot to pay for a vanilla fatty.

4. Even if you do trump a Tarmogoyf with it, you can still get re-trumped by a

Natural Order for Progenitus.

5. In a similar vein, if you want to trump Tarmogoyf, why not do it with the

best trump possible: your own Natural Order for Progenitus?

However, you still want a power three-drop to shore up the hole in the

Counterbalance curve, the casting curve, and because they are good to have
against other creature decks.

Enter Rhox War Monk.

The card that was originally playing second fiddle to the Knight has

officially earned the starting role. I wasn’t sold on it at first, but Drew was
excited by the idea as soon as he finally cut the Knights and tried it out.

Sure enough, he was right. It really is the natural evolution of that slot:
Since outclassing Tarmogoyf is no longer the job of the three-drop, its sole

responsibility (besides “cost three”) has become to answer creature-based
decks. If that’s all you want from the card, then the best racer available is

a natural fit.

Where Knight often just got tapped by Merrow Reejerey, was evaded with

islandwalkers, or was swarmed past by a ton of Goblins, War Monk disallows such
racing tactics. Gaining life back while eating attackers makes swarming a

losing proposition, and even if you can stop the pancake-flipping rhino from
blocking your aquatic humanoids, he can still punish you by just going on

offense. Add some exalted to his lifelink, and he becomes difficult to

He may be worse than Knight against the Tarmogoyf decks, but we have a very

different game plan for them, which is to simply trump them with Natural
Order. Unlike Knight, which is just rancid in the matchups where it’s bad, War

Monk retains a lot of value in the matchups where it’s suboptimal. A 3/4
is big enough to attack into Goyf at times—especially with the help of some

incidental exalted, meaning it isn’t always just the outclassed creature
like he seems on paper. He’s also perfect fodder to sacrifice on the altar of

the Natural Order in praise of the almighty Hydra Avatar. On top of all
of that, he’s blue and thus can simply be pitched to a Force of Will in the

pairings where he may not be up to snuff, cutting the mustard, carrying his
weight, above par, or worth your while.

Decks with Knights have historically had problems with their relatively low

blue-card counts for their Force of Wills, but that problem needn’t worry
you any longer. Just remember to watch out for Goblin Piledriver, the natural

predator of the armored holy rhinoceros.

Another thing to consider when building a deck is to make sure that you have a

legitimate game plan against the three major archetypes with their two
largest branches: Aether Vial decks (Goblins and Merfolk), Counterbalance

(Tarmogoyf or control), and combo (Fast and Resilient/Consistent). It’s
important to know how each hate-card choice affects your game plans.

Goblins and Merfolk are two of the biggest archetypes in the format, and that

isn’t surprising, as they’re the two best uses of Aether Vial, which is
one of the most powerful cards in the format. There are a lot of hate cards

that are deck-specific, but there are also a few that are good against

Pithing Needle, for instance, is one of the best cards that you can have

against either of them, naming Vial and Wasteland against either, Mutavault
(or Umezawa’s Jitte, or Coralhelm Commander) against Merfolk, and Rishadan

Port (or Goblin Sharpshooter, or Siege-Gang Commander) against Goblins.
Firespout is okay but not especially effective against Vial, Ringleader, Spell

Pierce, Cursecatcher, Mutavault, etc., so you can’t lean on it too much.
Grim Lavamancer is pretty hard for Merfolk to ever beat and is quite effective

against Goblins as well.

The appropriately colored Elemental Blasts and their Greek-prefixed

counterparts are quite good against their respective enemies. Engineered Plague is
great against Goblins but not often that effective against Merfolk. Moat and

Dueling Grounds are solid plans against Goblins. Llawan, Cephalid Empress
is the card of choice against Merfolk and can lock them out of the game

entirely in conjunction with a Pithing Needle on Aether Vial. That’s the plan
that I peddled the most in Indianapolis (which is reflected in the

aforementioned Top 8 lists), as the Needles have many applications, and it’s
important to have your sideboard slots be somewhat versatile. Those Blue

Elemental Blasts (that should all be the subtly but almost always strictly
better Hydroblast) also go way up in value once you have a Needle on Vial

against Goblins.

Counterbalance builds have many variations, including straight control decks

with planeswalkers and/or an Enlightened Tutor package, creature-based
versions like Drew’s or the older Knight of the Reliquary builds, some with

Natural Order and some without, and the more controlling Tarmogoyf versions
with Firespouts and such

like Ben Wienburg winning list. The
only thing that they all have in common is that they abuse the powerful

interaction between Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top. As such,
attacking that should be your first priority.

Aether Vials and countermagic are the most common ways to combat being locked

out by the Coldsnap enchantment in game one. They are followed by the
extremely effective and widely adapted Krosan Grips from the sideboard. You

can also get around it fairly well by having a lot of pressure early or
weird casting costs that are difficult or impossible to match. Qasali

Pridemage is another effective tool, as not only does it slip underneath the
Counterbalance and threaten to kill it, but they can’t even wait around to

deal with it or draw another Counterbalance because it represents a
significant clock in the meantime.

As for the differences in the decks, the creature-based versions are more

susceptible to creature removal (imagine that?), while the controlling builds
have a harder time with additional Krosan Grips and cheap countermagic.

They’re also often much more vulnerable to mana and hand disruption.

Combo decks fall under two categories: fast and slow. Now, keep in mind that

“slow” decks like Time Spiral, Sneak Attack, and my Show and Tell/Natural
Order deck still kill on turn 4 or 5 consistently. The faster builds look to

get you on the first couple of turns and are able to do so with surprising
regularity if left unmolested.

Countermagic and hand disruption are the two tried and true ways to prevent

yourself from dying in such a fashion. Counterbalance is hard for any of
these decks to fight through as well. There are also specific cards that work

against different combos, such as Humility against Emrakul, Engineered
Explosives against Empty the Warrens, Pithing Needle against Goblin

Charbelcher, and so on. Blue Elemental Blasts are quite good against Sneak Attacks
and Burning Wishes. Leyline of Sanctity is a pretty underplayed card that has

some real applications and is definitely worth considering if you’re
having trouble against the combo decks that target you. Mindbreak Trap is

fairly ineffective unless you’re a fast beatdown deck and are against Goblin
Charbelcher. Any other matchup, and it will be mediocre at best.

The until-now-unmentioned tier 2 archetype tree would be one composed of Rock

decks, and this includes the outdated Wild Nacatl Zoo decks on the most
aggressive end of that spectrum. The Brian Kowal design that Brad Nelson took

to an “eighth-place finish” in Columbus is much more recognizable as a
Rock deck. Then there are all of these Death and Taxes variants that also fall

under this category. On the most controlling end of the spectrum would
be the Pernicious Deed, Innocent Blood, Jace, the Mind Sculptor deck.

This entire subset of decks can often be beaten by simply casting powerful

enough spells. As long as you’re abiding by the rule that dictates that you
have to be doing something broken to compete, then you should be fine against

these decks, as they’re making a point of playing perfectly fair. And
that’s why they don’t put up any real numbers despite making up a

statistically significant portion of the field. If you try to play fair against these
decks, they’ll undoubtedly tear you apart. The key is to just make them have

the exactly correct sequence of spells with the proper lands and still
barely find a way to squeak it out.

My final piece of advice would to be to avoid getting too cute. There are a

lot of extremely powerful decks out there that are just waiting to punish
you for pussyfooting around. I have had people suggest decks full of four- and

five-mana planeswalkers under the impression that Swords to Plowshares
would be enough to survive long enough to cast and use them. You have to

remember that this is a world full of Dazes, Forces of Will, Spell Pierces,
Aether Vials, and combo decks that regularly kill very early in the game.

While it’s good to think outside the box, you must also be prepared for the
trials your build is going to have to face.

A big subset of this cuteness syndrome is being taken over by cards that are

brand new. I have had three different people ask me if the new Tezzeret
was good in Legacy. In every single one of the suggested decklists, Jace, the

Mind Sculptor was just far better for many reasons. This isn’t even to
say that it’s bad—just that you can’t be blinded to the better option just

because the other card is new and exciting. You have to be able to take a
step back from what you’re doing and take the card choices into consideration

on their own merit and not based on the hype surrounding them.

The opposite is also true; you can’t choose not to play a card because it

isn’t “the norm” or because of the negative views of the card from the
community. Do you think that I didn’t get made fun of for playing Wall of

Roots? You just have to know what your cards do, what they mean for your
deck, how the games are going to play out, and so on. If your theory is strong

and you know a card is right or wrong, you can’t let the hype-hyperbole
or the negative Nancy’s convince you to make an incorrect decision.

That’s it for me this week. If people like the idea of going back over old

designs and using them to teach lessons about deckbuilding, then I’d be
happy to do another piece going over some non-Legacy decks that I’ve made in

the past and explain the theory behind the successes and the lessons
learned from the failures. Otherwise, I have a couple of other pieces in the

works. Let me know in the forums. Thanks for reading.

AJ Sacher

itterTway: UDbotHay