Fair // Unfair

Today Carsten uses a few examples to prove that there is no single deck that is actually interested in playing a fair game of Magic that is viable in Legacy.

Today’s article is inspired by Brian DeMars‘ newfound resolution concerning Legacy that he talked about on Tuesday (check it out if you haven’t!). Quoth the raven:

"Playing fair is no longer in my vocabulary—I hereby formally announce that moving forward I am committing myself to the cause of becoming a combo player"

Welcome to the dark side, Brian! Enjoy your stay in the realms of darkness.

He continues:

"I also hereby commit to never complaining about not liking Legacy ever because it is too broken. It is important to note that I was a sucker mage trying to play fair decks in a combo mage’s paradise. Being a newly transformed combo player, I now embrace and better appreciate a whole new dimension about what makes Legacy a great format. "

The whole line about "playing fair decks in a combo mage’s paradise" reminded me of a baseline observation about Legacy I’ve wanted to talk about for a while now but have never gotten around to: the whole dichotomy of fair and unfair decks in Legacy is totally flawed. In my opinion, there is no single deck that is actually interested in playing a fair game of Magic that is viable in Legacy.

That particular feature of Legacy is something you need to get used to if you want to succeed in (and enjoy) the format, so today we’ll be taking a look at the dark underbelly of the format, checking out a few supposedly fair archetypes to understand how unfair they truly are.

Keep in mind that we’ll be deviating from the common way decks are classified as "fair" and "unfair" in the format because the common usage of unfair essentially boils down to "combo" while fair decks are everything else—which isn’t actually more helpful than just sticking with the combo moniker.

After all, I think we can all agree that the common understanding of "a fair game of Magic" would be something like this: both players play their spells, drop their creatures, and combat happens, and each player tries to get ahead, either by dominating the board or eking out a win before the opponent has managed to stabilize.

Keeping this in mind, have you looked at that "everything else" in Legacy? Our decks simply aren’t built in ways that are meant for that kind of game to unfold. They won’t let you play your spells, and they won’t allow you to jockey for position if they can avoid it. The only reason we actually get to play games is that the person sitting on the other side of the table is trying to do something just as unfair to you as you’re trying to impose on them.

Every single good deck in Legacy is a lean mean killing machine hellbent on making your life miserable on the way to bashing your head in with something you’re utterly powerless to prevent. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at a couple of examples and figure out the different angles decks are unfair on.

Beatdown? Unfair!

White Weenie is the ultimate fair deck, right? I mean, it’s all small white creatures and lands—how could that ever be unfair?

Well, take a look at Legacy’s version of "White Weenie," Death and Taxes:

SCG’s own Ari Lax—who as a lover of Tendrils of Agony can be expected to actually understand what an unfair deck is—won this year’s Legacy Championship in Philadelphia with a very similar list. The first words out of his mouth when asked about playing a fair deck? "I mean, I wouldn’t call this deck fair . . . " (check the coverage if you don’t believe me).

The truth is that Death and Taxes isn’t your typical White Weenie deck. It’s a prison deck, Stax style. All you’re trying to do is to keep your opponent from doing anything meaningful all game, and if they threaten to break out, you start bouncing Mangara of Corondor with Karakas every turn (in response to the activation obviously).

The creatures are chosen largely for their disruptive potential, and Rishadan Port and Wasteland are the first line of offense—the explanation, by the way, as to why Craig Wescoe Wastelanded Sam Black on turn 1 in the #GPDC quarterfinals, something that had the commentators flustered. Death and Taxes isn’t about getting a board presence and beating down; it’s about cutting your opponent off of ever doing anything at all. Killing their first land and hoping to mise given Legacy’s sparse mana bases goes perfectly with that game plan.

It just so happens that your lock pieces also sport a power and toughness, meaning that you can actually beat people down with them instead of just making life miserable. With a good draw, Death and Taxes will deploy Aether Vial on turn 1, Port your land on turn 2, Vial in a Thalia and catch your next fetch land with an Aven Mindcensor, leaving you unable to cast any spells by turn 3 while the white deck has six power on the board. Still sound fair to you?

Another deck that abuses this angle is Legacy all-star Canadian Threshold aka RUG Delver:

Looks like a creature deck with some blue countermagic at first, doesn’t it? Well, if the deck is firing on all cylinders, you’re dying on turn 4 or 5 while you still haven’t resolved a single spell (and probably only two lands in play at best). Between Wasteland and a one-mana Sinkhole (Stifle), it can be very hard to get your mana going, and the plethora of zero- and one-mana counterspells will make sure you can’t do anything about the one-mana 3/2 flyer or two-mana 4/5 bashing your face in. Even if you happen to get some mana to operate on, Nimble Mongoose is there to make sure your removal won’t be good enough to actually keep you in the game.

This deck is most responsible for how terrible almost all 4CC+ cards are in Legacy, and if you’ve ever played against even a decent start from the tempo deck, you know the last thing it’s interested in is playing a fair game of Magic. What it wants to do is goldfish you while making sure you don’t spoil the fun by, you know, playing the game.

In a way, RUG Delver feels very close to an inverse-engine combo deck, one in which you resolve your threat first and then combo out by denying your opponent any and all opportunity to act for enough turns to end the game.

Control? Unfair!

Ok, so admittedly aggressive decks aren’t fair in Legacy. But surely a control deck, something built to take the game beyond turn 10, has to plan for a fair game of Magic, right? Well, judge for yourself. This is Legacy’s truest control deck:

Wrath of God for one mana? Three 4/4 flyers for five? Counterbalance plus Sensei’s Divining Top to counter all the spells? Well, at least it has Jace, the Mind Sculptor—that’s a fair Magic card, right?

Oh, wait . . .

Honestly, the only thing that’s remotely fair about this deck is that it doesn’t kill your lands. Other than that, all it does is once again make sure your side of the board is utterly irrelevant—not to mention mostly empty, the aforementioned lands aside—and once it hits five mana, the game might just be over in the course of two turns when a single card resolves. If you can call that a fair game of Magic without blushing, you’re a much better liar than I am.

Here’s another example of what we consider control in Legacy (though I’d be ok calling it a midrange deck seeing how there’s Tarmogoyfs and Deathrite Shaman):

A couple of creatures, some removal, a bit of disruption . . . seems totally fair—well, Jace, the Mind Sculptor aside.

Uh, hold on a minute.

Have you seen the card advantage suite? Ancestral Vision plus Shardless Agent? Hymn to Tourach? I guess this deck plays fair—if you consider one player always having at least twice as many cards than the other fair. Check out the—admittedly a little dated—finals match between Gerry Thompson and Shaheen Soorani from the SCG Invitational in Atlanta (caution, spoilers to follow!). It involved Tom Martell in the commentator booth—correctly—calling the first game on turn 3, and Shaheen conceding the second one on turn 4 and giving up the last one when Gerry threatened to untap with seven cards in hand to his nothing. Sounds "fair."

Midrange? Unfair!

Alright, all the extreme strategies might be unfair, but midrange is the ultimate fair strategy. Those decks can’t be unfair, right?

Yeah, Hymn to Tourach is a very fair Magic card. It only effectively decides the game on turn 2 from time to time and generally makes sure you don’t actually have cards to play with. So does Liliana of the Veil. Getting a free Shock every turn is the basic definition of fair, right? How about Bloodbraid Elf? Didn’t that guy get banned in Modern (alright, almost anything does, but still)?

What Jund does is to rapidly reduce the game to a topdeck war as soon as possible through heavy discard and killing literally everything that makes it into play on the opponent’s side, a situation in which it is ahead against just about everything imaginable due to its recursive removal, Dark Confidants, and general card quality. While this admittedly comes reasonably close to being a fair strategy, if you’ve tried doing something actually fair against any of the incarnations of Jund, you’ll totally agree that while it looks reasonably fair it really isn’t.

This one, on the other hand, already looks somewhat unfair, though it’s considered a very fair deck by most Legacy players:

Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. Banned in Standard and Modern. Snapcaster Mage definitely flirted with the banhammer during his stint there too. Umezawa’s Jitte—a card so good that decks without creatures ran it in Standard only to trade with an opposing copy (thanks to the old legend rule). And now True-Name Nemesis. Have you put a Jitte on that guy? If you’re playing creatures, I sure hope they’re Emrakul, the Aeons Torn when that happens, as otherwise the game essentially ends then and there. It’s as close to a combo kill as anything that doesn’t actually win the game can come. Even without any Equipment, though, how exactly are you planning to beat 3/1 that is pretty much impossible to kill or block?

No, this deck doesn’t have one particular unfair game plan. Instead, it cuts your strategy to threads with discard while every single other card in the deck is a game plan in and off itself—and that’s what’s unfair about the deck. Miss dealing with any one card and you’ll die to it all by its lonesome.

Everything? Unfair!

Note that the decks I talked about above are generally considered poster children for fair play in Legacy. Other "fair" cards include cards such as a three-mana 8/8 that Wastelands the opponent every turn, a two-mana 5/5 flyer, and a one-mana 1/1 that effectively produces between three and five mana when it connects. The rest of the format is actually trying to do significantly more unfair things than all of these.

Even if they aren’t trying to kill you as soon as the game begins, some decks will lock out 1CC spells with Chalice of the Void on turn 1 and cast a ridiculous planeswalker or even a Sundering Titan on turn 3. Others will play multiple lands a turn and lock you out of mana with Wasteland and Rishadan Port before killing you with a Merit Lage token or just ramp up to enough mana to hard cast an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn on turn 4. Not to mention all the combo decks people actually call unfair.

Yes, those decks aren’t actually considered unfair by Legacy standards. In Legacy, if you aren’t winning by turn 3, you’re playing fair Magic. I doubt anybody outside of the format will agree to that definition of fair though (alright, alright, Vintage players will—they’re used to much sicker moves after all).

The things that Legacy decks are built around are everything R&D is desperately striving to keep out of Standard. Efficient mana denial that threatens to stop you from ever playing a spell. Cheap and abundant countermagic to make sure the spells you do manage to play won’t ever resolve. Powerful discard spells that keep you from even having spells to cast if you get the chance. Disruptive permanents that will make your cards useless or too expensive to cast in the first place. Threats that simply ignore the removal you might try to throw at them or that are so cheap that you’re probably dead when something can finally resolve. In short, Legacy is full of everything that will serve to keep the opponent from playing the game and/or kill them before they’ve even really settled down in their chair.

Unfair? Fun!

The surprising result? People love the format. They actually love it enough for sixteen-year-olds to be carrying around 75 pieces of cardboard that could pay for a car. They love it enough for StarCityGames.com to go back to Legacy Opens on Sundays all the time due to popular demand. They love it enough to lead to some of the biggest Grand Prix ever.

One secret behind the success of Legacy is this: it allows you to live out your darkest secret dreams for world domination, whatever they may be. Just find the particular brand of unfair that your egomaniacal power dreams are made of and there’ll be a way in Legacy to make it happen. Legacy is wish fulfillment.

Magic at its heart is a game built around the idea of being a powerful wizard grinding your foes into the dust. And that’s what Legacy delivers that no other format does for everybody. You can use whatever kind of magic you prefer, and it will be supercharged, very powerful and utterly unfair. Because know what? Being a ridiculously powerful wizard is by definition utterly unfair to everyone else! Well, everyone but other ridiculously powerful wizards that is. Legacy actually allows you to be the irresistible force you’ve always wanted to be and run headlong into an immovable object to duke it out. That’s what you can feel when playing the format and why everyone wants a piece of the cake.

That’s it for today; until next time, if it’s broken, don’t fix it!

Carsten Kotter