Today, I’d like to approach Magic strategy articles from a somewhat unusual direction. What you’ve come for is new tech, innovative decklists, that
kind of thing. Instead of following that beaten path, I’ll explain to you why I think that certain established archetypes are simply not worth playing
for the experienced Magic player and give you concrete reasoning why.
Note that I don’t say these decks are bad per se – all of them have placed well in tournaments, and they all have their champions. As such, I
pretty much expect to get quite a bit of flak for telling people not to play them – still, these are decks I wouldn’t touch outside very extreme
cases of metagame distortion, and if you feel you know how to play solid Magic and have some experience with Legacy, I think you should avoid them,
Just badmouthing these decks isn’t the main reason for me to write about them, though. You should see this as a deckbuilding tool and a way to help you
make better decisions as to what deck to play. By looking at these decks and uncovering their inherent flaws, we get to learn at least as much about
them as we would by investigating their strengths. When you play a deck (or against it), knowing its limitations is at least as important as knowing
Hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll be aware of some of the more common problems decks tend to have, allowing you to identify stinkers for
yourself, adapt your play more rapidly when testing decks that have these flaws all the while being able to avoid succumbing to the same pitfalls when
developing your own creations.
Also, for all the criticisms I’m going to throw at them, the decks I’ll deconstruct can sometimes serve as the foil to a particular metagame or have
qualities that make them excellent choices for either newer players or players who are good at Magic but don’t know Legacy. For those of you trying to
get a foot into the format, this article has the additional benefit of presenting you with lists for decks you might want to try out, even if they’re
Case 1: Belcher
Let’s start with a doozy! This deck has probably the highest turn 1 “win”-percentage in the format – how could this be a deck that
shouldn’t be played?
Well, the deck has two problems. First the quotes around win are there for a reason: the deck doesn’t actually win on turn 1 that often. It kills on 1
with Belcher about 20% of the time; the rest of the time, it produces a large number of Goblins through Empty the Warrens. While having twelve to
fourteen 1/1s on turn 1 is quite a beating, it isn’t unbeatable (Engineered Explosives, opposing Combo, Zoo having tons of one-drops, etc.).
Considering Belcher literally has to go all-in to pull those tokens out of its hat, the opponent stabilizing doesn’t usually end well.
If this was the only problem, the amount of time the tokens do win would make it negligible. It isn’t, though. You see, Belcher is really a one-trick
It goes all-in on a big play really early and hopes that’s enough to win, thereby putting immense pressure on both players’ opening hands (you need
something that interacts on the spot or you die).
To be able to do this, though, the deck gives up any form of stability. A full three-quarters of the deck is mana, but at the same time, almost all of
these are one-shot. As such, the deck isn’t able to build up resources throughout the game; it topdecks horribly (as long as you’re not trying to
topdeck one-shot mana) and is generally unable to interact with the opponent in any way but by killing them. If its first assault is stopped, Belcher
Because of this, the deck is really weak to blue, more specifically the card Force of Will. In my experience, Belcher almost never beats an in-hand
Force of Will. In game one, if they have it, they have it, and you die (outside of extremely rare situations or opposing misplays). Game two and after,
you bring in countermagic and Xantid Swarm to try and get around this problem, but this doesn’t really work all that well. To bring in the disruptive
cards, Belcher has to slow down (both by boarding out mana and needing additional mana to go off protected), which means suddenly all kinds of cards
you’re supposed to ignore because of your speed become relevant. Essentially, your sideboard deals with Force of Will, but you now lose to the
opponent’s other cards. Considering that pretty much any tournament is at least a quarter base-blue decks, this is quite a big strike against Belcher.
It doesn’t end here, though. Belcher is probably the only deck a relatively simple computer program could play. Playing Belcher is math and statistics,
not much else. You look at your opening hand, see if it can go off turn 1; if you can’t, mulligan. You repeat this process until another mulligan hand
would be slower than the one you have, and you’re done. Once mulliganing is over, all of your decisions for this game should already be made; the hand
you kept simply follows the scripted line of play (or waits for the missing pieces). I guess you see why this might be a problem – there’s nearly
no room to outplay your opponent!* If you’re good at Legacy Magic, this can’t be good for you, so stay away from this deck.
*Note: I fully expect Belcher supporters to tell me how you can outplay people with the deck and what a difference play skill makes towards success.
I’ve played Belcher before (I was actually one of the people that made it popular in Vintage in the days of yore, so I probably know more about the
deck than half the people playing it), and quite honestly, as long as you know how to goldfish correctly, you’ll get at least 95% of the wins that a
player would get having played the deck for years. Some value you’re getting out of your assumed play-skill advantage there.
So when is Belcher good? Belcher is good either when nobody plays blue (good luck finding that metagame; there are just too many players who love their
countermagic) or when you aren’t good at Legacy Magic. If you aren’t very good at Magic but know how to count, the extreme focus on the early game (and
the near-immunity to anything non-blue) will allow you to do better with Belcher than with anything else. If you simply have no idea what’s going on in
Legacy and would make a million mistakes during your games because of that, Belcher is also an excellent choice. Goldfish it enough to know which hands
are likely to get there, and you’re good to go.
Case 2: Stax
This one even won a 5K! May I remind you I never said these decks can’t succeed? If they were useless piles, what would be the interest of me writing
so much about why you shouldn’t play them? Surely you can recognize that a deck full of Squires and lands won’t be good on your own. What I want you to
take away from this article is why I think these decks aren’t worth it; I’m not amusing myself by bashing random crap.
So why shouldn’t you play this?
First and foremost, Legacy Stax is inherently inconsistent. It needs to drop lock pieces early to reduce the opponent’s options to zero before dying.
To do this, it needs both fast mana in its opening hand and the necessary components themselves. The lands it needs to run have substantial drawbacks,
like blowing themselves up or slowly killing you when used.
In addition, Stax doesn’t win faster than the aggro decks and doesn’t complete the lockdown early enough to just ignore the few threats the opponent
can resolve before the lock. As a result, the deck not only needs mana and the lock components, it also needs to run creature defense, which means it
has an even higher chance of simply not locking the opponent out of playing spells before it’s too late. Because of all these factors, Stax
needs to mulligan a lot and has to draw exactly the right mix of mana and its two kinds of business spells.
This kind of inconsistency is annoying in opening hands but even worse for a deck planning to play the long game – like Stax. Its biggest fault
in this context is the inability to run relevant card draw or filtering. You’re trying to control the game and make it go long, but you have no way to
make sure your draws are actually good throughout the game. Instead, you have to hope your draw step will get you there unaided. The more time you give
randomness to bite you, the more likely it will. Sadly, buying time is exactly what Stax does. The aforementioned lands, which become useless with
time, don’t help, either.
Finally, because the goal is to keep the opponent from playing spells, the die roll is incredibly important. Being able to run out its Chalice for one
before the opponent gets his first turn is often the key to winning or losing (just think of Aether Vial or Goblin Lackey). This means one of the key
points during the match is an element you have no control over.
Moving away from these inherent issues, artifact hate is going to be present in most decks, and losing even one lock component often reverses the
entire game, making this a real problem. Krosan Grip is widely played because of Counterbalance; Qasali Pridemage is extremely common, and most control
decks have artifact sweepers in the form of either Engineered Explosives or Pernicious Deed. So not only does the deck have trouble with itself, almost
everybody is going to be able to disrupt its plans in a meaningful way.
Which leaves us with the question of when you should play this: Honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend this deck in any metagame (if every deck plays
eighteen or less lands and twelve cantrips, maybe) or for any particular kind of player. Everything it does, some other deck does better (Lands, I’m
looking at you! Artifact Stompy decks at least try to put the game away fast), and at the same time, Stax is far from easy to play. I guess if you
insist on playing mono-white, Stax might be the right deck for you.
Case 3: Faeries
Again, another deck that made it to the Top 8 of a SCG Open. As I said, these decks definitely have a reason to exist. Faeries even has everything I
like – countermagic, library manipulation, tons of ways to interact with the opponent – what’s not to like?
Well, the first problem is the power level of the cards it runs. Sure, Spellstutter Sprite is technically card advantage. A flying 1/1 is not really
worth a card, though, making it more of a conditional counter with a minor upside. This may be good in Standard and even Extended, but in Legacy, we
have actual Counterspell, and even that is often omitted.
Next up is Bitterblossom, the big boogeyman of current Extended. I’m not sure I would play this in Legacy even if it didn’t cost life; getting a 1/1 a
turn is all nice and dandy but really doesn’t do much against the opposition. If you’re on the defensive, you get a Forcefield that only works on one
creature a turn; if you’re on the offensive, you get a seven-turn clock (admittedly one that’s hard to remove completely). Neither seems particularly
powerful in a format where Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary are the baseline offense, not to speak of the shenanigans more unfair decks can pull
But this is a tribal deck, you might say. Looking at the cards in a vacuum doesn’t do them justice! That would be true if the deck actually took
advantage of those synergies. I mean Bitterblossom enables what, Spellstutter Sprite? Even fully powered up Sprite isn’t that impressive. If you’re
talking tribal synergies, I think of 2/2
haste Fact or Fiction, 2/2
[card name="Crusade"]Crusades that make your guys unblockable[/card] or 1/1s that turn your other creatures into Dark Rituals. What I’m definitely not thinking of is “my counterspell now
also makes a 1/1.” Sure, the deck has Jitte, and that card is really good with Bitterblossom. You know what’s also good with Jitte? Any creature
*Well, it should be able to deal damage and be equipped, admittedly.
Ignoring the missing synergies, there’s a larger issue – the deck doesn’t know what it wants to do. Its clock is anemic, and there’s a ton of
removal and countermagic – must be a control deck. Sadly, Bitterblossom is more dangerous to you than to them in a true control deck; quite a few
of its cards are underwhelming late game (hello, turn 10 Stifle and Daze), and its card advantage is severely lacking (aka there’s no card drawing and
only six filter effects. The only way this actually gets ahead, if the opponent doesn’t overextend, is by getting free 1/1s).
But there are Stifles and Wastelands; if it isn’t control, it must be a tempo deck! Well, if the deck’s clock weren’t so slow, the tempo plan might be
worth it. As is, you’ll often put the opponent into a hole early on only for him to climb back out because you can’t kill him in time. In the end, the
deck tries to be two decks at once but isn’t good at being either.
When to play this: The one thing this deck has going for it is the fact that it’s quite resistant to spot removal and even sweepers. If you get a
Bitterblossom down, the opponent will need more than just Swords to Plowshares and Firespouts to stay alive. Also, as much as I’ve mocked the poor
stuttering sprites, they’re quite solid when almost any relevant spell costs one mana (making them Counterspell) – so if you expect tons of
creature removal and decks regularly topping out on two, this might have its place. Most of the time, though, I’d rather be playing Fish (if you want
tribal synergies backed by countermagic), Canadian Thresh/New Horizons/Team America (if you want to play the tempo game but with a real clock), or
Dreadtill (if you want something that can play both tempo and control), leaving this without a real place to fill.
Something along the lines of the deck presented above is also probably a good starting point if you’ve played a lot of Faeries in Standard/Extended
before and are looking for something familiar to get your feet wet in Legacy, though.
Enough negativity, let’s see what we can learn from these exercises in deck bashing. Condensing the criticisms I’ve voiced so far into a generally
applicable list, we get this:
- Ease of play is not necessarily an advantage. At some point, the fact that you can’t deviate from your plan just
means you’ll have difficulty outplaying your opponents. (I’d like to mention that Burn has this same problem.)
- A focused game plan is a good thing, but too much focus hurts. If you become too focused, though, you restrict
your options when your opponent forces you to interact. At some point, you can’t even meaningfully sideboard any more.
- If you can’t manipulate your draws, playing for the long game is a flawed strategy because the longer the game
goes, the further you fall behind an opponent that can.
- Similarly, unstable decks want to end the game fast. The fewer turns are being played, the less likely the
inconsistency is to catch up with you. This is particularly true because you have a way to manipulate your card quality during the early game for
whatever deck you play – the mulligan.
- Just because something is incredibly broken doesn’t mean it’s good enough. Especially in Eternal formats, answers
are so efficient that just doing something utterly unfair once isn’t necessarily enough. It’s being able to do it one more time than the opponent can
stop it that matters.
- The lesser the influence of factors outside your control (play or draw, sideboard cards available to the
opponent, the opponent running nonbasic lands, etc.) the better.
- The individual power level of the cards you play matters. You won’t always be able to make the deck work as a
coherent whole, be it because of your draws or your opponent’s interaction. When that happens, just having cards that are better than the opponent’s is
- If you’re trying to exploit synergies, make sure they’re worth it. Magic has a nearly infinite number of possible
interactions; if you build around one or a set, make sure the benefit is worth the cost in card quality.
- A deck needs a coherent game plan. That doesn’t mean your deck can’t do more than one thing, but it’s important
that the elements work well together. In addition, if your deck can follow multiple plans, make sure it’s actually good enough at each to be able to
win if it gets to execute that plan.
Now this is obviously not a complete list of possible flaws a deck might have, but it gives you a solid starting point, and having seen the process I
used during the case studies will hopefully help you find your own methodology for analyzing decks in this manner.
Note that simply because a deck violates one or more of these criteria doesn’t necessarily make it a bad deck. Even the best decks often exhibit some
of these characteristics; just look at some of the decks that have been doing well in Legacy: Goblins’ creatures suck on their own (overreliance on
synergies), TES has a tendency to put all its eggs in one basket (doing it once, though the disruption helps), and Dredge is definitely too focused for
its own good (see: graveyard hate).
This doesn’t disqualify any of them from being perfectly viable choices for a Legacy tournament; it just means they have one particular weakness. Some
decks can make up for suffering in certain areas by excelling in others; the important thing is to realize these weaknesses and to try to address them.
At some point though, the weaknesses overwhelm any strengths the deck might have in other areas, rendering the deck inferior to other options.
Looking for weaknesses is also an excellent way to get a meaningful first impression of a new deck you happen to see or to judge if the deck you’re
trying to build is worth the time you’re going to spend on it. If it has too many weaknesses, chances are the deck will crash and burn; however cool it
may look on first sight.
Finally, taking this kind of approach to unknown decklists helps you identify both the correct way to play the deck (and against it) and whether it
suits your play style. If you hate mulliganing, you probably shouldn’t play something inconsistent and explosive. If you tend to milk your cards for
maximum value, you probably shouldn’t play something that uses weak cards to reap the rewards of synergy. You always hear “play to your
strengths.” I think it’s at least as important to play “away from your weaknesses.”
I hope you enjoyed this little switch around of how decklists are supposed to be used in articles. I’ll be looking for feedback in the forums. You’re
also welcome to flame me for deriding your favorite deck if it makes you feel better. I might even respond if I feel like having a little
confrontation. See you next time; until then look for the weak spots!
Bonus CAB – JaceTM section:
Why Treasure Hunt is better than an additional Loam engine
(For those who actually read my answer in the forums, you know most of the arguments I’m going to present already. The thing is I don’t hold back any
information when answering questions, so if you follow my threads, chances are that you already stumbled over a lot of what I’ll add in these bonus
In every forum where
I posted a link to the article
, someone suggested I run Life from the Loam. Unsurprisingly, we had that idea, too, and tested it but decided Loam didn’t do what the deck needed. The
first problem with Loam is that you need green mana, meaning you want a second Tropical Island to make it harder to cut you off. That doesn’t really
wreak havoc on the mana base but has its costs (in this case, you likely need to cut the Sea and therefore the Extirpate, as well as a W or R source).
The second problem is speed. Setting up the Loam engine needs five mana, three for Intuition and two to cast Loam. Compared to the three mana you need
to make Treasure Hunt work (Brainstorm/Top activation plus Treasure Hunt), this is pretty much a full turn slower. Now, obviously Loam provides you
with more advantage in the long term, but that isn’t what you need. Your late game is already insane; making it stronger at the cost of the early game
isn’t where the deck needs to go.
Lastly, Loam doesn’t provide what the deck really wants, regular card flow plus lands to play. With Loam, you can either go straight for the endgame or
use it as Treasure Hunt is used now, as a way to make sure you have lands to play. The difference between Treasure Hunt and Loam in this context is
that Loam replaces one of your draws with more lands while Treasure Hunt gives you lands to play while cycling into your next business spell. This is
important because you aren’t Lands.dec. You really need those spells to keep the game under control while you make your land drops, and drawing them a
turn late because you had a Loam instead can cost you big time.
There are a few additional problems, such as suddenly having your only non-Jace draw engine be vulnerable to graveyard hate post-board (most people
have a lot to pull out but not much to put in – no need to grant them additional value by making more sideboard-cards good) and running the
danger of milling all your Jaces (minor, but it did come up for me).
Now a lot of this happened before I played with Fire/Grove, so maybe the presence of that combo changes things. If you want to try out a Loam variant,
I suggest you do the following:
Scroll Rack is only slightly weaker than Top when drawn naturally but pretty broken if you can set up Ruins, Loam, Scroll Rack with Intuition. That
way, you can at least turn those lands you recur into spells at some point. Try it out, and let me know how it went; maybe our testing was flawed, or
Fire/Grove changes the dynamics completely. I love Loam, and I’d be happy to be proven wrong if it allows me to play with that sweet card.