Eternal Europe – What Legacy Needs

Carsten Kotter comments on the directions he’d like to see Magic go in with a primary focus on Legacy and wants to hear your feedback. Get ready to play Legacy this weekend at SCG Open Series: Kansas City.

Legacy is big, bigger than any non-Pro Tour format ever has been, thanks to the SCG Open Series and simply how awesome the format is. As a result, Wizards R&D has lately been doing something they said they weren’t doing much before: designing cards with Legacy in mind. They made it very clear that Mental Misstep was envisioned as a way to give non-blue decks turn 0 interaction in Eternal formats. Fundamentally, I’m grateful and happy they take us old timers into enough consideration to try to design cards mainly aimed at us. Yet the end result of this effort ended with another card on the banned list.

Why talk about this once again? It’s simple: Wizards has repeatedly stated they won’t test cards for the Eternal formats, which is totally reasonable. Given the fact that the community of Legacy players as a whole usually needs months to figure out the impact new cards have on the format, making sure the cards they print is fair in what is, in spite of its growth, still a minority format just doesn’t make much sense.

There is one problem this creates, though. Because they rarely (if ever) get to play the format, R&D’s familiarity with Legacy remains severely limited. As a result, R&D ends up designing cards that threaten to not just be good but that can break the format in half. The above-mentioned Mental Misstep is the poster child of these cards created with good intentions that end up being problems.

As such, it is our job as players to let Wizards know what we think the game needs, not to try and force them to do as we tell them but simply as means to let them know what we as players enjoy. Their goal is to make the game as good as it can be. Our job as players is to let them know what we actually consider good and what we’ve had enough of.

That’s what I’m going to do today: comment on the directions I’d like to see the game go in, with a primary focus on Legacy (as that’s the environment I know the most about) but also with some comments on Magic’s direction as a whole. Let’s jump right in!

Things We Need

Controlling One’s Destiny

One issue a number of players raise whenever the Legacy Banned and Restricted List is discussed is that of color balance. While I don’t believe color balance is important enough to ban to achieve it—here’s what I think should govern bans for those interested—it’s still something a lot of players find desirable, myself included, assuming it doesn’t come at a significant cost in more important areas. In Legacy, the usual complaint is simple: blue is a main color in more decks than anything else and, in particular, a lot of players prefer playing blue decks to anything else, leading to a format that at the very least looks dominated by blue at times.

There are two reasons for this: Force of Will and library manipulation.

Force of Will is something many players don’t feel safe without simply because fast combo exists in Legacy. Ways to actually replace it are quite limited and finding a way to give actual turn 0 protection to the other colors has proven quite difficult so far outside of very specialized cards such as Mindbreak Trap. That being said, most combo decks have proven less ridiculous than they appear on first sight. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Scavenging Ooze in particular show us how to allow non-blue decks to deal with the combo threat—they are two-drops that are good enough against the field in general but are particularly powerful against the so-called unfair decks. A few more cards of this caliber covering other strategies or placed in other colors (I’m looking at you, red) and this "need" for Force of Will many players feel might lower.

Library manipulation, on the other hand, is what draws most people towards blue even in combo light metagames. It isn’t even that having library manipulation makes your deck better than anything else—though some way to make sure you draw your good cards is definitely powerful—but that players, especially experienced players, often hate being totally dependent on the top of their deck to shape the game. Having library manipulation means you’re losing fewer games to being mana screwed or mana flooded or to your relevant disruption hiding at the bottom of your deck. In short, library manipulation is something players like to have access to because it makes them feel in control of their destiny. Giving the same type of ability to the other colors would both resolve the blue "dominance" issue and make Magic more fun for more people—seems like all upside.

Now, just bleeding one of blue’s main abilities into the other colors wouldn’t feel right. If cards that feel "blue" suddenly end up in all the colors, it would just feel like the game is losing its edge, not as if things are getting better. Luckily for us, there is a better way to spread the love around, and there are a few examples of where Wizards has gotten it right to learn from.

The prime example of non-blue library manipulation done right is Green Sun’s Zenith. It provides flexibility and reduced randomness while still feeling absolutely green.

Figuring out ways to give all colors access to some form of cheap and efficient library manipulation that still feels appropriate for that color should be a priority for R&D, not only for Legacy but also because so many players enjoy the ability to adjust what their deck is doing to what is going on in the game. As such, I’m very happy to see Looting bleeding into red (though it could use a slight push in power level compared to what it’s at right now), and I hope Wizards continues to seek ways for other colors to influence which cards end up in a player’s hand or in play. It’s fun and makes skill matter more—what’s not to love?

Abusing Context

Another problem that often plagues R&D is that the power level of Eternal formats is so high that cards that are straight up good enough to make it into these formats will (close to) break Standard in half if printed. After all, there’s a reason Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Stoneforge Mystic, Delver of Secrets, and Snapcaster Mage are fine staples in Legacy but a itsy bitsy bit overpowered in Standard, even if some of them haven’t totally ruined it.

As such, ways to print cards that are good enough for Legacy and Vintage while protecting Standard from their impact are at a premium. But despair not because there are a few options.

First and foremost, there are some things that have support in Legacy that don’t have the same kind of framework to benefit from in Standard. The latest successful examples are Avacyn Restored’s miracle cards. A card like Terminus is quite innocuous if the only way to use it is to naturally draw it off the top, but it’s infinitely more powerful if it can be set up with manipulation like Brainstorm or Sensei’s Divining Top.

Another successful example is Tombstalker, which feeds on Legacy’s abundant card flow to become a two-mana dragon while it was too slow and clunky to even see much play while hanging around in Standard. Knight of the Reliquary also has really come into its own with the support of a million powerful specialty lands while it was merely very good in Standard.

Exploring more avenues to create similar effects seems like an effective tool for Wizards to cater to us old schoolers while not endangering the success of the game as a whole. Some ideas are already exemplified above, but one area that hasn’t been explored enough are heavy multicolor requirements with a concomitant pay-off (we’re going back to Ravnica now, right?) as well as basic land type abuse (think Wild Nacatl). Eternal mana bases are so much more powerful than Standard mana bases that pushing the envelope in these areas should allow for cards that are hard enough to play in Standard to remain balanced while scaling up significantly in Legacy. 

Another area Wizards should aim to explore here is the abuse of Standard’s rotating nature. Because the environment of the smaller format is generally sculpted around certain mechanics (graveyard: Innistrad, artifacts: Mirrodin, etc.), this opens the door for printing significantly above the curve cards that simply don’t fit the current Standard environment. One—sadly too rare—example of this is Past in Flames. Without effective Ritual-style mana acceleration, the card hasn’t even left a blip on the radar in Standard but is finally coming into its own in Legacy now, bringing Tendrils of Agony strategies back into the spotlight after quite a period of absence. This approach could provide tools for Eternal formats at a very low cost—just a rare here and there that absolutely doesn’t fit into the Standard format master plan but will find the support it needs in a non-rotating format.

Similarly, just looking out for opportunities to slightly adjust cards so as to interact better with known old cards should be done more. I mean, would it really have been that bad to make Faith’s Reward cost three mana so that it could serve as another copy of Second Sunrise in Egg decks (the mana cost being important so that it can be played of a single Lotus Bloom)?

Rewards for Color Commitment

With all the mana fixing available in Legacy, it’s easy to stuff whatever single colored card you want into whichever deck you want to put it in. Tarmogoyf and Stoneforge Mystic are the prime examples of high-powered threats that basically every deck that wants them can play. That wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that there really isn’t much that rewards you for not doing so.

I’m totally fine with having powerful splashable cards to provide threats for decks that need them. What I’m not fine with is that there is no way to actually beat the efficiency of these cards even if you decide to commit to running only a single color. If you want to build a mono-color beatdown deck, your best threats are likely to still be Goofy or SFM, even if you have to splash for them. How is it possible that every single creature that costs UU, WW, BB, RR, or GG is actually worse than creatures that cost U, W1, or G1? Shouldn’t being harder to cast mean you’re getting something that is actually better?

See, Hymn to Tourach is a cool card. If you’re heavy black, you get to play the best card advantage spell in Legacy. If you’re not, too bad for you. Sadly, these kinds of cards are few and far between (and in this case actually very old). Knight of the Reliquary was a big step in the right direction—you commit to two colors and as a result you get something that actually beats out the less demanding creatures in a fair fight. Why hasn’t anything since even come close to matching that awesomeness or was printed at a cost that made it easy to splash instead?

The Flipside: What We Don’t Need

Bleeding the Wrong Way

Blue has always been the color of powerful on-stack interaction, library manipulation, and card advantage, usually balanced by it getting far below the curve threats. I can’t think of any good reason why the best aggressive one-drop in the game (hint: it’s Delver of Secrets) should suddenly turn up in that color.

The problem isn’t even just that that kind of design makes blue even better than it already is; it also reduces variety in the game as a whole. When blue gets good cheap creatures in Standard, its traditional strong suite—spells—has to be toned down further and further to make sure playing blue doesn’t become a requirement in the smaller formats. The result is that blue slowly but surely turns into yet another aggressive creature color, a role usually reserved for green and white (red being aggressive because of its spells backed by mediocre cheap drops, another element that seems to be slowly dying with creatures being power creeped while spells are hamstrung).

In the same vein, why are the best pump Lords (just take a look at Elvish Champion, Goblin King and Lord of Atlantis Master of the Pearl Trident next to each other) and the most played "removal" spell in Standard blue (Vapor Snag)? Let colors be good where they’re supposed to be good instead of turning all of them into the same thing. There is no point of having a color wheel or colors at all if you make all the colors play out similarly anyway.

Over-Efficient Threats

Back in April Zac Hill—someone whose articles I usually enjoy very much—wrote one of the most disturbing articles I’ve read out of WotC in a while. In it he claimed that "you can prove mathematically that creatures were too weak for most of Magic’s history" and identified Mana Leak as a main culprit behind U/W Delver’s overwhelming performance in Standard at the time.

While I’m sure there is a reasonable argument to be made that creatures didn’t goldfish fast enough compared to spells from a pure "card type power level" perspective, there is no way to mathematically prove what essentially boils down to a matter of taste. The question of how fast games should be ended by the main type of durable threat the game has—creatures—isn’t a matter of math. The only thing that really matters for that question is what players are most comfortable with and what power to cost ratio and durability makes for the best game play, not which one makes all card types equally powerful in a goldfish scenario.

Contrary to what Zac said in that article, for me, personally, cards like Delver of Secrets (I really seem to hate that guy, huh?) and Geist of Saint Traft are the true offenders, not Mana Leak and Snapcaster Mage. I’m fine having a spell countered as long as I’m not being beaten down by an evasive three-power one-drop or a six-power three-drop that is incredibly hard to kill outside of creature combat.

Creatures were too weak, I get that. Heck, the name of my original Vintage team (now sadly largely defunct) was CAB: Creatures Are Bad. Still, there is a point where cheap durable threats push the speed of the game to a point where it just isn’t fun anymore. But instead Mana Leak—countermagic, the classic bad guy—made it into R&D’s sights as the culprit behind players’ unhappiness with Standard.

You know how many reasonably experienced players I’ve heard complain about Mana Leak lately? I can count those on one hand. Flipped Delver of Secrets? More than I can easily remember.

The game states these kinds of cards produce are often one-sided, boring, annoying, and, by and large, non-interactive. Do you have the removal/blocker right now? No? Ok, you’re dead. That isn’t the Magic I learned to love more than a decade ago.

Magic shouldn’t be a constant race to who can win first (though that definitely has to have its niche) or who can put down the bigger, better threat; it should allow you to play whichever way you want to, from all out aggression and creature combat to absolute defense and spell-based control to setting up suddenly deadly combinations after spending the game behind while moving into position to pounce.

Spell-based ways of ending the game should goldfish faster than creatures—you need a reason to put all your eggs in one basket, after all. If you’re winning with spells, you need to shape your whole deck around whichever spell-based angle you’re trying to implement. Every single creature, on the other hand, has the potential to end the game as long as it isn’t dealt with. The inherent card advantage of one single card being able to win the game on its own independent of anything else you have in your deck should have a cost; it shouldn’t come as a freebie.

Fatty Too Boom Boom

A similar issue is that of cards like Emrakul, Omniscience, Griselbrand, and the whole Titan cycle. I talked about these kinds of permanents already when I presented the skeleton for the now-established Omni-Show deck, but this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning them again.

Ever since Rise of the Eldrazi came out, high cost permanents have become so splashy and powerful that they tend to just end the game when they make it into play. It’s a testament to the resilience of the Legacy card pool that Griselbrand has been kept in check, yet the kind of dynamics created by these cards is still unhealthy for the game as a whole.

First and foremost, "X hits play, you’re dead" isn’t all that much fun to play with or against after the first twenty or so times you’ve done it. As exciting as having Emrakul or Griselbrand in play may be, that excitement fades through repeated exposure and leaves mainly boredom.

While that is a phenomenon other combo decks can also create—and make no mistake, decks using these cards are effectively combo decks even in cases where they don’t actually set up combinations—these cards create a kind of game play every bit as bad as cards like Time Spiral or Tolarian Academy ever did.

Because the only way these cards are balanced is through exceedingly high mana costs, the plan for using them is always the same. Find a way to cheat them into play (or, in the case of the Titans, accelerate to six mana in a reasonable time frame) and you win the game.

Both deckbuilding-wise and game play-wise this limits options, which means decks revolving around these cards are boring to build and (comparatively) easy and monotonous to play. In the context of Legacy, the low skill requirement is a particularly huge problem because one of the big ways the format stays fair is complexity.

Let me tell you a secret: the reason why storm combo hasn’t been a huge player in the format for years isn’t because the deck is weaker than the other top tier archetypes. It’s because the skill-cap of that deck is so high that even very experienced players will end up losing a lot of games they should have won given perfect play. And there aren’t all that many truly good storm players to begin with because of the amount of work it takes to learn to play the deck.

The same is true when building decks. It took me mere days after Omniscience was spoiled to build a deck that, with minor adjustments to the disruption suite and win conditions, crushed through Day 1 of GP Ghent. In comparison, engine combo decks like Doomsday and Ad Nauseam took months or even years to reach a level where they were actually powerful enough to hang in there. Cards like Time Spiral, Gifts Ungiven, and Future Sight are deckbuilding challenges. Emrakul and Griselbrand ask for, essentially, plug and play deckbuilding.


I didn’t write this article to bash Wizards and R&D. They’ve given us a great game that has captivated me since I first laid hands on a starter of German Revised. Magic is bigger than it has ever been and, as far as I know, is still growing strongly. What started out as a minor diversion has become a full-fledged subculture and in some cases even a way of life. All of that is a sign of how awesomely Wizards has taken care of this game we love.

Yet, as a member of both the community and the Magic customer base, I think it is my, no our, right and duty to let Wizards know what we want out of the game, which developments we enjoy and which we despise. Their goals and ours are the same—to make Magic as awesome as it can possibly be—and as such it is important that those that make the game know what those that play the game want. That means me—with my sweet soapbox right here—and it means every single one of you.

If you agree with me, post that in the comments or find some other way to let Wizards know. If you disagree, post that, too. We’re in what is essentially the perfect position: we have something we deeply care about that is controlled by people that want to make it as perfect for us as it can possibly be. To do that, though, they need us to let them know what they’re doing right and where they missed the mark.

Magic is rich and flexible and can be shaped in a million ways, developed in a million directions. It is up to us to decide where it goes from here—for all of us.

That’s it for today. Until next time, make yourself heard!

Carsten Kotter