When I saw Mental Misstep spoiled, my first comment was that it was going to change Legacy more than any printing in recent history*, comparable to Counterbalance or Tarmogoyf or even the introduction of fetchlands to Vintage.
*With the exception of things that actually broke the format and made bannings necessary. Vengevine I’m looking at you. Something becoming actually degenerate is an event I see quite differently from something that changes the fundamentals of a format but still allows a healthy metagame to evolve.
By now Misstep has been out for long enough that I think we can reasonably take stock of how it has impacted the metagame so far and observe the trends it has caused to develop. Note that I’m not saying the metagame is done adapting, far from it. I do however believe that enough time has passed and sufficient innovation has happened to efficiently contemplate where things stand now and where they will be going. What I’m going to do today is to take a snapshot of the format as I see it right now.
A lot of people, especially those who mainly play smaller formats, tend to examine the best performing decks and use those to form their image of the metagame so necessary for brewing, tweaking, and even choosing decks. In a large format such as Legacy, where you’re likely to run into as many weird decks as known tier decks, I prefer a different approach. Similar to how I built my gauntlets by picking good decks that also expose me to as many different angles of attack as possible, I prefer abstracting a bit more. When trying to understand a metagame, the true goal isn’t to memorize specific decklists and prepare for those; what really matters is learning what you need to be able to deal with in general.
Essentially, while each archetype is unique in what it does exactly, its basic interaction pattern will likely be close to that of a number of others, at least in a significant number of games. By being prepared for the limitations imposed by a format’s strategies, you’ll incidentally ready yourself for other interactions that fall in the same category.
To illustrate where I’m going with this, if my deck is well prepared to deal with a turn-two 4/4 Knight of the Reliquary, that same preparation will allow me to handle a Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur that has been reanimated, even if it isn’t the threat I expected when configuring my deck. Similarly, if I’m ready to deal with a Natural Order getting Progenitus into play on turn 3, I can use those very same tools to deal with an Inkwell Leviathan that has hopped out of my opponent’s graveyard. To give you an example in which Reanimator isn’t mimicking all kinds of other decks, knowing I need to be able to deal with a ridiculous four-drop planeswalker (Jace, obviously) will in most cases also leave me ready for something like Elspeth, Knight-Errant.
The Limiting Factors of Legacy — Post-NPH Edition
There are both decks and single-card strategies that constrain what you can bring and expect to do well with at a tournament. That doesn’t mean that those are the best decks/strategies or even the only viable ones. They are the most focused/extreme examples of a certain angle of attack and thereby set the baseline for what you need to be able to deal with in order to be a reasonable choice for a tournament. They constrict the number of viable strategies by simply dominating everything that either ignores a certain set of interactions in the format or is extremely vulnerable to having a particular strategy blanked.
To count, they also need to be common enough to make that domination into a relevant consideration for anybody planning to attend a major tournament (which is why something like Belcher doesn’t lead to non-FoW decks being utterly unplayable, for example). It is rare that you find a deck that can either ignore or favorably interact with absolutely all of these decks/strategies, and if you do happen to find one, you’re probably looking at one of the best decks in the format, at least in an open metagame (a big reason NO RUG is doing well in my opinionâ€”it just isn’t cold to anything).
The baseline for aggression and removal density. A four-turn creature clock backed by large amounts of removal and reach is something you should at least have a plan against.
Counterstrategies: Combo. Zoo is one of those decks that basically can’t interact on the stack (though it is excellent at dealing with fair permanents like SFM and Batterskull) so just killing them before their creatures can get there is an excellent plan. Control decks and midrange strategies with bigger creatures and a lot of fast removal have also been favored against the deck in my testingâ€”though Price of Progress does a lot to even the battlefield there.
This is the format’s premiere swarm deck and also the fastest aggro-control strategy. Its creatures voltron up to ridiculous size; Vial gives it a very powerful form of acceleration with benefits; and the dozen-or-so free counterspells (further strengthened by Cursecatcher and Wasteland) make it so that opponents will have a difficult time stopping the assault before it’s too late.
Counterstrategies: Better threats and/or oodles of removal. Merfolk’s creatures are unimpressive on their own so killing off most of the fish will let whatever you have in play easily dominate what they have. Similarly, large, cheap threats like Knight of the Reliquary or a Batterskull (off of Stoneforge Mystic) will stall the assault until Fish can either outgrow them or find an efficient form of evasion, buying you time to do something more impressive yourself. Repeatable removal (Umezawa’s Jitte, Grim Lavamancer) or lock-out permanents (like Peacekeeper, Moat, or Llawan, Cephalid Empress) are also particularly good against the deck, as it has very few ways to actually interact with permanents that make it through the countershield (though Dismember helps to an extent).
- 1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
- 4 Lord of Atlantis
- 4 Merrow Reejerey
- 4 Silvergill Adept
- 4 Cursecatcher
- 4 Coralhelm Commander
Ancestral Vision or Standstill, Pernicious Deed or Stoneforge Mystic, hard blue control is back with a vengeance now that Mental Misstep shores up its early game. Typically rather heavy on the countermagic, these decks are the jack-of-all-trades decks of Legacy. A multitude of fast, wide-range answers (countermagic in particular) combine with strong card draw and Jace, the Mind Sculptor to slow the game down before taking it over with massive card advantage.
White variants often use Stoneforge Mystic as a kind of finisher and early game threat (allowing them to suddenly play as an aggro-control deck if they happen to stick an early Mystic) in one tight little package, while BUG relies more on Pernicious Deed to clean up whatever makes it through their faster one-for-one removal and counters. Blowing it during the opponent’s end step also creates a pristine board to deploy a Jace.
Counterstrategies: Because of these decks’ flexibility, there isn’t one particular strategy perfect for fighting them, though there are two big options: Doing something their answers are simply inefficient against (like Life from the Loam or Vengevines, for example; also see Dredge), or being better at one particular part of the game and focusing all your effort there (like punching a Natural Order/Hive Mind through countermagic to just win or being so aggressive that their disruption/removal can’t keep up early when their hand is cluttered with late-game cards like Jace or Visions).
While Mental Misstep has strongly increased the number of bad matchups for more traditional combo options, one deck has risen to laugh at all those players who feel sure they can make their second land drop before dying: Hive Mind. The deck is fast enough to race the aggressive decks (I’d estimate a turn 3 to 4 goldfish, though the deck can win on turn 2 with a good draw) and is naturally resilient to the defensive options most control decks bring to the table (because its mana curve largely blanks Mental Misstep and Spell Snare while Pact of Negation provides free counter-superiority when fighting to resolve a combo piece).
Counterstrategies: Being faster (like TES) is one option, as Hive Mind’s disruption is actually quite sparse when it has to be used defensively. Discard is also quite good against the deck (beware the sideboard Leyline of Sanctity) as is Red Elemental Blast (though you really need a fast clock or significant amounts of maindeck disruption to make them good enough). There are also a number of sideboard cards that are as ridiculously powerful as they are narrow (Angel’s Grace, Sundial of the Infinite). If you want to read more about the deck, may I refer you to this article of mine?
Speaking of decks that can fight through oodles of countermagic, one of the most hated decks in history is a clear beneficiary of Mental Misstep arriving. When the number of decks that wants to interact on the stack rises while the format as a whole slows down, a deck that can win without ever doing anything but take game-actions is obviously poised to profit. As Dredge can shrug off almost anything that doesn’t kill it very early or interacts with the graveyard, it is excellently positioned in the current metagame.
Counterstrategies: The obvious thing to employ against Dredge is graveyard hate. While soft hate like Extirpate and even Tormod’s Crypt can be played through, it is generally still good at buying time. If you really want to punish people for playing the ultimate graveyard deck, there always is the “nuclear” option: Leyline of the Void. It totally shuts the deck off until the player can find some form of anti-hate, if it even has any (Leyline has been comparatively rare, making the plan of just folding to the fully prepared opponent a viable option).
Outside of actual graveyard hate, there are other options, though. You can simply be faster (aka play a fast combo deck) or use a combination of hate in which different pieces support one another. Peacekeeper for example, an old favorite against Merfolk, makes it impossible for Dredge to actually win the game. The deck can answer it by setting up Dread Return on something like Angel of Despair or boarding Darkblast, sure, but if you can Surgical Extraction or Meddling Mage their answer, it becomes very difficult to impossible for most Dredge players to do anything meaningful, even firing on all cylinders.
- 4 Tireless Tribe
- 4 Putrid Imp
- 3 Ichorid
- 4 Golgari Grave-Troll
- 2 Golgari Thug
- 4 Stinkweed Imp
- 1 Angel of Despair
- 4 Narcomoeba
- 4 Nether Shadow
- 3 Gigapede
- 4 Ichorid
- 4 Golgari Grave-Troll
- 4 Golgari Thug
- 4 Shambling Shell
- 4 Stinkweed Imp
- 4 Phantasmagorian
- 4 Narcomoeba
- 4 Street Wraith
- 1 Woodfall Primus
- 4 Bloodghast
- 1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
Tarmogoyf gave Legacy an easily splashable creature that was bigger than anything that could reasonably be cast in the same time frame, invalidating a ton of other options. Stoneforge Mystic is different in that it demands some slots in your deck dedicated to make it good, but in exchange you get an arguably much better Baneslayer Angel equivalent for 1W with echo that can also turn into an even more powerful Equipment if you already have enough bodies to carry it. More than any other threat since Goblin Lackey, Stoneforge Mystic makes it necessary for any kind of fair deck to have ways of dealing with a Squire on turn two. In contrast to the ridiculous Goblin, you don’t have to warp your whole deck around enabling the Mystic, and the actual cards in your hand don’t have to come together to make it good, either.
Counterstrategies: While Stoneforge Mystic is the cheapest of single-card strategies, it is also the most easily answered. Any form of creature removal that kills SFM strands the Batterskull in hand for the foreseeable future, and artifact removal is also a pain (Ancient Grudge, Krosan Grip, and Qasali Pridemage are all solid options). Also, as good as a 4/4 lifelink vigilance is, many decks in the format (*cough* combo *cough*) can just win through it without breaking a sweat, especially as it will almost always start out as a 1/2 for a turn. I know I’d rather topdeck a Tarmogoyf on turn 4 against an aggressive draw than have to wait a turn for my 4/4.
Knight of the Reliquary is the perfect packageâ€”a huge body (thank you, fetchlands) and a ton of sweet utility. Ruining the opponent’s mana base while growing Knight by turning your Forests and Plains into Wastelands is probably the most common line of play, though far from the only one. Maze of Ith can deal with evasive attackers or simply hand vigilance to your Knight (it’s still attacking during the end of combat damage step, which means you can Maze it after damage has been dealt). Volrath’s Stronghold makes sure you won’t run out of threats. Karakas solves any tentacle monster issues you might have. Horizon Canopy allows you to cycle your lands while getting Knight into shape for bashing, and you can even add consistency to something like the Dark Depths combo without ending up with a ton of dead cards in your deck. Tower of the Magistrate is some of the latest tech, allowing an active Knight to invalidate Stoneforge Mystic by helpfully granting protection from artifacts to any creature you wantâ€”making all manner of Equipment fall off in the process.
Counterstrategies: Answering Knight isn’t all that hard. Almost any non-burn creature removal will do the job; it can be countered perfectly well (though it does dodge Misstep and Spell Snare); and a Tormod’s Crypt or Relic of Progenitus cuts it down to size quite handily. What makes Knight really dangerous is the fact that when it goes active, you couldn’t deal with it so farâ€”so what are the chances you’ll be able to do so once it has started going to work on your lands? Late-game Knights (when Wasteland shenanigans are least likely to matter) also have a tendency to be truly humongous (Progenitus-like proportions are common) so even if you are in no danger of getting locked out of the game, just taking twenty in two turns is a very real danger.
Four mana for a 10/10 protection from everything creature seems a little, say, undercosted. Above, I mentioned how pushing through one spell can often be all that matters against control decks, and while getting Progenitus into play isn’t instantly game over, it comes close in quite a few situations.
Counterstrategies: Four mana is still a lot. Some decks can simply apply enough pressure to make Progenitus just another expensive guy that doesn’t really matter while others are perfectly able to keep the opponent from ever reaching 2GG plus a green creature. Even if Progenitus happens to enter the battlefield, he’s still just a (big) man. Protection from everything may make him unblockable and immune to targeted removal, but even the Alaran god succumbs to a mightier god’s wrath, twiddles his thumbs waiting for a Moat to run dry, can be taught Humility, and has to obey certain Edicts. As a Legend he even runs away screaming if he meets a Shapeshifterâ€”like Phyrexian Metamorph or Phantasmal Imageâ€”that has taken his form.
Speaking of ridiculous four-drops, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is probably the best four-mana investment that doesn’t have any requirements other than needing blue mana in your deck. Getting to untap with this bad boy in play is a monumental beating, and as long as the rest of your deck is full of good cardsâ€”as it should beâ€”he will rapidly run away with the game. One of the big things holding back true control decks in Legacy before was that they just didn’t have anything on an appropriate (to the format) power level to capitalize after stalling out the game.
With Jace, if you can create the opening to stick it, you now have a threat that demands an immediate answer or he will take over the game. He is an efficient, disruptive win condition (a six-turn clock with “haste” that deprives the opponent of outs), a ridiculously powerful draw engine, and can even help defend by bouncingâ€”either as a tempo play or an incidental out to Emrakul. Playing a game in which you have Jace active feels unfair in the extreme, and playing against a Jace rapidly leads to a growing impression of impending doom. In the words of Tha Gatherin, he’s “better than all.”
Counterstrategies: Jace is both easy and very difficult to answer. If an aggressive deck manages to do what it needs to do (keep an effective offense going), Jace is roughly a four-mana Healing Salve plus Brainstorm. Not shabby, but not the greatest, either. Different from Standard, there also are a significant number of cards that can either kill or answer him straight up, reaching from flexible maindeck cards like Vindicate, Oblivion Ring, and Maelstrom Pulse through narrower options like Vampire Hexmage (sweet splash-hate from running your own ridiculous combo), Beast Within, and Chaos Warp to widely effective sideboard options such as Red Elemental Blast, Phyrexian Revoker, and Pithing Needle.
Playing combo is another way to neutralize Jace for long stretches of the game (though you might end up having trouble with the rest of their deck) because the opponent shouldn’t be comfortable tapping out if he is likely to just end up dead. Just killing them is still the best answer to anything in the game.
What do you need to do?
Now that we have established them, these baselines can be boiled down to more general points about the format. Here is a list of things that you’d want your deck to be able to do judging from what I just outlined (in no particular order):
- function when faced with large amounts of removal and/or countermagic
- deal with highly efficient (= excellent power-to-cost ratio) creatures
- withstand a swarm of creatures even through disruption
- overwhelm or race significant card advantage
- disrupt the opponent’s graveyard
- stop a protected combination-kill by turn 3
- interact with small creatures by turn 2, better turn 1
- kill large creatures by turn 2 to 3 (large as in toughness > 3)
- neutralize bombs that ignore targeted creature-removal by turn 3 to 4
- fight planeswalkers, especially Jace TMS
Some of these requirements will be adequately addressed when covered by sideboard cards while others are general enough that you definitely want to make sure you have answers in the maindeck. Note that Just Killing Themâ”¢ counts as a plan if you can do so through expected disruption before the respective threat moves the game out of reach.
Something I think is worth mentioning even though it is not a result of the above considerations exactly is that Hive Mind is rapidly becoming the only widely played combo deck that doesn’t heavily rely on the graveyard, which means combination kills are largely restricted to Show and Tellâ€”Emrakul and Hive Mind plus Pact. As a result, point number 6 can largely be dealt with through specialized hate aimed at beating Hive Mind (in addition to the graveyard hate you want for things like Dredge and Loam anyway because of 5) and will allow you to fight most of the combo players in the room at the moment, something that should make fair-deck aficionados rejoice.
I hope this slightly different way of looking at a format was informative and enjoyable. I know it makes it easier for me to get to grips with a new or recently changed format. As to the baselines I chose for Legacy, did I miss anything? Is there something in my list that simply doesn’t need to be there? Are my conclusions wrong? Let me know in the comments!
Until next time, cover your bases!