Eternal Europe – Legacy Fundamentals

To truly understand Legacy, one must get at its fundamentals: what makes it tick and what makes decks viable in it. Carsten Kotter covers these for both new and old players.

Considering the responses (and number of Facebook likes) my last article about budget decks received, my suspicion that there are a lot of people who would like to get into Legacy seems to be well founded. There is much more to getting into a format than just having a decklist that is viable, though. To successfully play any format in Magic, a strong understanding of the fundamentals defining it is a necessity. Without such an understanding, it is impossible to correctly map out the probable routes of development a game is going to follow and play accordingly (something I sadly realize whenever I venture forth into Standard for whatever reason).

To illustrate this, early in 2004 I was playing Psychatog in Vintage, enjoying it very much. Tog was also putting up solid results in Extended, so I decided I wanted to give the deck a try there. When I started testing the list, I lost again and again because I overvalued the impact casting Psychatog would have on the game. You see, in Vintage the deck had Moxes and Cunning Wish for Berserk so resolving Psychatog generally threatened lethal a turn or two later. Not so in Extended. Without the mana acceleration and ability to double the little Atog’s power, Psychatog became a threat only long after I had established true control of the game, and as such I threw away a ton of games because I focused too much on connecting with Tog instead of controlling the game as I should have.

This is only one example of how the inherent differences between formats lead to game-deciding misconception of all kinds, be it misassignment of role, valuing cards incorrectly, or not mulliganing/mulling too aggressively. One of the hardest things for me when I started playing Legacy, coming from Vintage as I did, was to correctly judge the pace of the games, both in how my deck would play out and how my opponent’s game plans would develop. It took me nearly a year to be comfortable enough with the format to make correct decisions on the fly and be able to build/modify decks in ways that actually made sense in the context of this different format.

As such, today I’ll be talking about the truly basic qualities of the Legacy format and about the cards that cause these conditions to exist. In contrast to what I did here, I’m not going for a metagame snapshot or trying to help you understand what your deck needs to be able to do to fight what you’re likely to see in a tournament. Today’s goal is much more fundamental. I’m going to talk about the things that make Legacy and what that means for anybody who wants to play the format.

One of the most defining parts of any format ever is the available mana. What mana-fixing exists, which mana acceleration exists, and how manabases can be attacked paints every single game you’re ever going to play and will dictate which kinds of decks can even exist.

Duals & Fetches

The first and most important thing to take into account about Legacy is the existence of dual-fetch manabases. Now, everybody is aware of this fact (if only because of the price tag), but a lot of people haven’t really internalized what it actually means: You need a very good reason to ever run a mono-colored deck. By themselves, duals and fetches have such minor drawbacks that running more than one color generally ends up being 99% as stable as running multiple colors. That being the case, the question in Legacy isn’t why you would splash a color; it’s why you wouldn’t. Only a deck that doesn’t want anything another color could offer or that has to make room for other particular lands (say artifact lands in Affinity) is one that shouldn’t splash (though Affinity splashes anyway for different reasons).

The fact that duals and fetches allow for such painless mana-fixing also has another implication because of how they fix colors: it’s easier to build a stable three-color manabase for a deck that has one base color and splashes two others than a two-color manabase that wants to support double-colored spells from both colors. The reason for that? Well, first it’s easier to draw any land plus a fetch to make sure you have all your colors available, and second there is the next card that influences manabases in the format:


Wasteland may be only a single card, but it massively influences the way Legacy works. It gives every deck that wants it a cheap land destruction spell that doubles as a mana source in a pinch (or the other way around, depending on what deck you’re running the card in). This means not only are specialty lands (like Cloudpost—a big reason that deck has never been a problem in Legacy the way it was in Modern) much easier to answer than they are in smaller formats, but you also have to expect losing non-basic lands early in the game. This can be backbreaking if you’re trying to build up towards mana for a high-cost bomb and is one of the big reasons Wrath of God is much weaker here than it is in smaller formats and why high-cost cards in general see very limited play.

As for how Wasteland makes it easier to support double splashing instead of heavy color commitments when using dual-fetch manabases, you can set up a board of all basics that casts all your spells quite reasonably if all you need are the three basics your fetches can get. For a true two-color deck, you won’t have all your spells online while remaining immune to Wasteland before you reach four lands. and you’ll likely have to fetch for duals anyway.

Mana Acceleration

The last particularity of Legacy as far as the mana is concerned is that there is a lot of fast mana, but it is, essentially, archetype bound. In contrast to Vintage, where every deck that wants it can play an accelerated game by running Moxen, Sol Ring, Black Lotus, and Mana Crypt, Legacy acceleration is far more demanding as far as deck construction is concerned.

There are four basic forms of acceleration that see play in Legacy:

One-Shot Acceleration:

Examples: Dark Ritual, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Lotus Petal, Elvish Spirit Guide

These are the accelerators that feel closest to the brokenness of Vintage acceleration because of how much mana they allow you to produce during a single turn very early on. As a result, they fuel the fastest decks in the format, archetypes like Storm and Belcher that have a significant chance to win the game on the first or second turn. This means that building long-game decks that don’t run blue (for countermagic) or sideboard heavily for combo matchups is a very difficult endeavor in Legacy.

Extra-Cost Acceleration:

Examples: Chrome Mox, Mox Diamond, Ancient Tomb, City of Traitors

These accelerators also do something quite dangerous, though it isn’t as game-breaking as the burst mana provided by the one-shots. Instead of going all in during a single turn, these cards allow you to trade resources for the ability to play slightly more expensive spells a little earlier than they’re supposed to be played. All of these provide you with extra mana early but end up costing you a card in the long run, be it because you have to invest one directly (the Moxen), they die when you play another land (City of Traitors), or they can only be tapped a limited amount of times (Ancient Tomb because you die otherwise).

What these cards mean is that decks that can work around their disadvantages can do something that is hard in Legacy—run a rather high mana curve and still expect to cast their spells early enough to matter.

Creature-Based Acceleration:

Examples: Aether Vial, Springleaf Drum, Noble Hierarch, Green Sun’s Zenith (for Dryad Arbor)

What I’m talking about here are either creatures that produce mana, cards that rely on creatures to do so, or cards that accelerate a limited class of cards, typically creatures. In a way, these are the most powerful accelerators because they both work long term and don’t need you to invest additional cards. The reason they play out much fairer than the other forms of acceleration mentioned above is that they’re slower because they cost mana and take time to come online.

Land Drop Cheating:

Examples: Exploration, Manabond

These are similar to the extra-cost accelerators in that they ask you to invest a card to accelerate your mana development but are different because they keep accelerating you after the first time you use them. They’re also dependent on having additional lands to play instead of providing mana themselves. Note that, in a way, Mox Diamond fits here as well as with the extra cost accelerators because what it essentially does is let you make another land drop the turn you play it. I still classed it differently because it’s a one-shot effect.

Do you notice what is absent from this list? Exactly, acceleration that card-advantage-conscious decks, control decks in particular, would want to run. Every other archetype from combo to aggro-control to straight aggro to prison has the possibility to speed up the game from the normal one land drop per turn development. Control on the other hand has to play fair in this department, which is the biggest reason Legacy control decks play out like actual control decks and not like Vintage combo-control decks.

Another major effect this has on control decks is that they can’t rely on high-cost bombs like Gifts Ungiven or Fact or Fiction for their card advantage (Jace, the Mind Sculptor is different because he doesn’t have to be played in a card-advantage slot* in your deck; he serves as the typical “expensive win condition” control decks tend to use just fine). Because of that, actually drawing cards is quite hard in Legacy, something I’ll take a more detailed look at later.

*Speaking of “slots” in your deck: I often use a system of “macro deckbuilding” in which I use a generic skeleton and choose cards to fill certain roles when I’m designing decks. If that way of deckbuilding is something you’d like to hear more about, let me know in the comments. Even if you don’t, I might write an article about it in the future.

Does that mean control can’t compete? No it doesn’t because there is another way to accelerate your own game: Make your answers cheaper. Which leads us to another defining characteristic of Legacy: Free spells.

Free Spells

The strongest example of making your own spells cheaper is the glue that holds the Eternal formats together, Force of Will. Yes, you’re investing an additional card like you would with something like Chrome Mox, but the fact that you trade for a card and your opponent’s mana investment makes all the difference here. The fact that Force of Will often works out as a Time Walk as well as an answer to a threat does so much to keep you in the game that it is on a completely different level as investment-heavy mana acceleration. That and a late-game Force isn’t a dead card like a Chrome Mox would be but can be played as a sweet counterspell for its “alternative” cost of 3UU.

Most importantly for the topic of this article, though, is the presence of not only free countermagic but free spells in general in the format. Daze and even things like Misdirection and Pact of Negation mean that you can’t just play your spells with impunity whenever the opponent is tapped out, and it also means decks aren’t as limited by their available mana supply on either offense or defense. This changes in-game dynamics massively. Control and aggro-control decks can tap out to develop their board and still keep the threat of countermagic alive. Being able to win on turn 1 or 2 doesn’t actually translate into a sure win any more, and even if your opponent clearly isn’t running the blue spells, spells like Pyrokinesis, Fireblast, or Spinning Darkness can turn a play that seems to be correct into a blowout for the other side.

In short, the presence of powerful, free spells means you can’t ever assume you’ve caught the opponent with their pants down. They might just be ready and waiting, mana or no mana. As such, there are few times you don’t have to be on your toes.

Free spells aren’t the only way to get things cheaper, though. The very definition of Legacy (a format in which you can play every card ever printed other than a very few banned cards) means just about everything you want to do is available for a lower cost than non-Eternal players are used to.

Card Pool Size

The main result of a card pool as huge as that of Legacy is that effects can be gotten for cheap. The two areas this is most apparent are creature threats (generally from the modern period of Magic, as WotC has cranked up the power level in that area significantly in recent years) and defensive spells, especially creature removal (most of that is from the early days of the game, which probably has something to do with my huge dislike for playing creature strategies).

Creatures like Tarmogoyf, Stoneforge Mystic, and Knight of the Reliquary are powerful enough that it has become nearly impossible for threats to cost more than three mana and be a viable choice in the format. There simply aren’t more expensive spells that are powerful enough to justify the slower development and higher susceptibility to mana denial/mana screw (cue in Wasteland again).

Cheap threats aren’t limited to creature assaults, either. Low-cost combination wins like Show and Tell into Emrakul or Painter’s Servant and Grindstone (both of which also profit from the above mentioned Sol-lands, Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors) mean that very powerful things are bound to happen early on.

In a similar vein, Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, and Lightning Bolt are such excellent removal options for a single mana that running anything that costs more than one mana is generally hard to justify, especially when taken in the context of fetch-dual manabases described above. Actual cheap countermagic like Counterspell (not to mention Force of Will and Daze) has a similar if slightly less extreme impact on non-creature spells.

These extremely cheap answers further reinforce the fact that (creature) threats that cost more than three mana are generally not worth it in the format, with the exception of a few cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, and Natural Order that are extremely hard to interact with and generally win the game in short order when active.

The resulting low mana curves also have two other effects: smaller manabases and reduced variance. When even a control deck doesn’t need more than four mana to cast just about any spell they might draw, running land counts in the high twenties like Standard decks leads to a lot of flooding. This is one of the reasons even very good players getting into Legacy consistently start to call for people to play more lands. Running 22 lands in your control deck is sure to screw you in a format in which you need to get to Titan-mana ASAP, while that land count is perfectly reasonable for most Legacy decks in which even the finishers cost four or less. Mana curves extremely condensed in the one- and two-mana slot make this possible. (One of the reasons Mental Misstep was so insane in the format. When almost every deck runs on 20%+ one-drops it starts answering a hell of a lot of spells in every matchup.)

As for the reduction of variance, if most of your deck is active of off two lands, getting totally mana screwed is much harder. Especially with answers being as cheap as they are, it is very hard to run away with the game against a land-light opponent—even if they may not be able to significantly pressure you, they’ll at least be able to fight whatever you’re trying to put them away with.

The overall result of the availability of such cheap threats and answers (and various ways to accelerate one’s plays) is very compressed games in which a lot happens in the first few turns. Not to the point of how things go in Vintage because of the unconditional mana acceleration (games essentially start in what most players would consider the midgame) but still significantly different from what most non-Legacy players are used to. As a rule of thumb, if the core of your deck isn’t operational by turn two, you should probably rethink your decklist.

This often leads to newcomers feeling like the format is random and opening hand dependent. What they don’t realize is that, whatever strategy you’d like to implement, the tools are available to build your deck in a way to be capable of interacting during these turns with just about any combination of cards your deck contains. You just have to make sure to actually build your deck in that way.

The one thing that doesn’t exist cheaply enough to fit into these compressed games is actual draw effects that come online early in the game. This leads us to the last defining feature of the format: the dominance of cheap library manipulation instead of actual card draw.

Card Quality Over Quantity

Because Wizards of the Coast realized very early on that drawing lots cards is one of the most powerful things you can do in Magic, there are very few cheaply costed spells that actually produce card advantage, and most of those have ended up on banned and restricted lists. As a result, Legacy, in spite of its huge card pool, doesn’t have a consistent* way to refill players’ hands during the early stages of the game.

*There are options to actually draw extra cards early, like Standstill, Dark Confidant, or Thoughtcast, that are seeing play, but all of them are conditional/easy to answer or preempt in some form and need players to shape their deck around them, at least to a certain extent.

The solution players have found to this problem is to use library-manipulating cantrips, which are available for a single mana, instead of true draw spells. The most ubiquitous of them is Brainstorm, which has a lot of synergy with the fetchlands that are so omnipresent in manabases (put back two useless cards, shuffle, and, voila, you’ve virtually drawn three cards. Obviously that only works if you still have useless cards in hand when you cast Brainstorm), but Ponder and even Preordain are seeing significant amounts of play, as is Sensei’s Divining Top.

What this means is that Legacy blue-based combo, control, and aggro-control decks are the most consistent decks available in any format bar none. These decks may not be able to massively outdraw you like control decks in other formats, and combo decks may not have the same ridiculous bombs Vintage combo decks have (Necropotence anyone?), but they make up for this with the ability to have the card they need when they need it, at least if given a minimum of time. As such, it is much easier for these decks to rely on either powerful singletons with limited applications or a small core of game-breaking cards to sculpt their game plans around than it is for decks in other formats. Once you cantrip, you’re much more likely to find them than would seem reasonable otherwise.

On the flipside, because even control-decks have a hard time filling their hand anything that actually produces card-advantage for low amounts of mana is very powerful. The prime example for this is Hymn to Tourach. When your opponent is unlikely to be able to refuel, a straight 2 for 1 for two mana is very powerful indeed.

A Holistic View

Let’s recapitulate what we now know about Legacy. Threats and answers are extremely efficient (both cheap and powerful), and splashing colors is easy, which means players generally get to use the best tools possible for just about any job they need done. In addition, significant mana acceleration is available, though it comes with very real disadvantages and is therefore limited to archetypes that can work around these disadvantages.

All this means the format is very fast, and a lot of gameplay is compressed into the very early turns of the game. As a result, mana curves are low, which in turn leads to comparatively small manabases and a lowered influence of variance on how the games play out.

The one thing that is not available as cheaply as everything else (or rather in similarly restrictive ways as mana acceleration) is card advantage, the end result of which is that card quality has largely supplanted it. Therefore many decks are highly consistent, but few can actually draw ahead on cards to the point of taking over the game (other than by sticking a Jace or just winning with Ad Nauseam). Due to this fact, anything that actually does produce even marginal card advantage at a low enough cost to make it competitive in the compressed games of Legacy is extremely powerful.

The resulting format is one in which very fast combo and aggro decks threaten to end the game early while aggro-control and control decks use superior consistency and flexibility to keep up with the threats they face. Games are fast-paced and range from blitz blowouts to long and grinding battles of attrition in which every card counts.

Because of the low curves, compressed games, and library manipulation involved, Legacy games also tend to punish mistakes massively and make correct decision-making—especially on the fly—incredibly important. Playing the wrong land on turn one can mean the difference between losing on the spot and winning the game fifteen turns later.

If this sounds like a format you’d like to play in, go ahead and start proxying and testing. If you prefer a slower pace, with a buildup phase before things get heated with everybody throwing haymakers, this may not be the format for you, and you should probably invest your energy (and money) elsewhere.

If you’re part of the former group, I hope today’s article has given you the tools to start understanding what you’re getting into when you decide to enter the format. To all of you who are already enjoying Legacy, I obviously could only scratch the surface—or rather the bottom—of the incredibly complex entity that is Legacy. If anything I said was unclear to you or if you think I represented Legacy wrongly in this piece, let me know in the comments.

Until next time, whatever you do, make sure you have a firm grasp of the fundamentals!

Carsten Kötter