How Chalice Of The Void Teaches Deckbuilding

Beginning with an idea, Drew explores life without Brainstorm in Legacy as he prepares for St. Louis. See the format through non-blue eyes!

Today, I want to talk about Chalice of the Void.

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled about how good Brainstorm is, all of its applications, and the various three-color aggro and midrange and tempo and control decks that you can build because you have Brainstorms and fetchlands and dual lands.

This article is going to go in the other direction.

Part of it is because I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how to articulate thoughts since I wrote my five-part series on Ancient Tomb decks, but part of it is that I haven’t seen anyone else talk about Chalice of the Void when it’s clearly a very powerful card. As a result, I want to spend some time reminding people that there are non-fetchland, non-dual land ways of building manabases and ways of evaluating cards that don’t force us to build a hyper-aggressive deck, a flexible (probably blue, probably Brainstorm-based) midrange deck, or a blue combo deck.

Legacy has been getting stale lately. The exact same seventy-five cards won Kansas City and first/second placed Las Vegas. To say that Legacy is diverse is true, but we can no longer say that you can win with anything. For reference, the enemy:

One contributing factor to this problem is that Magic Online has not fired a Legacy Daily Event in about a month. In the Mental Misstep era, we had tons of data from StarCityGames.com Opens, as well as half a dozen four-round events over the course of the week. Since the online death of Legacy, the metagame has slowed down. It’s inevitable: less data means less adaptation and less growth. Given a clear target and a month to find ways of attacking both the card Delver of Secrets and the strategy of aggressively mana-screwing the opponent, I am eager to see what Legacy deckbuilders have in store for St. Louis.

The beauty of Legacy is that every card and strategy has an answer. For every Natural Order/Progenitus, there’s a Perish. For every Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, there’s a Karakas. No deck can dominate Legacy forever because adequate countermeasures exist to suppress it. Chalice of the Void is our best way to fight a preponderance of Stifle, Brainstorm, and Wasteland aggro-control decks.

An article format that has been hammered to death over the past few weeks is that Brainstorm decks are simply too good and that Brainstorm should be banned. That discussion is done with, thankfully, and I’m not here to reignite it. I have another theory for what’s going on behind the doors of Legacy blue-blooded deckbuilders.

I believe that people are not willing to put in the work necessary to learn how to build decks that punish Brainstorm players. This could be due to one of two major reasons:

1) The Brainstorm + fetchland + old dual land shell is flexible and fun to tinker with, so you get to do almost anything you want with your other cards.

2) It is a proven quantity with a baseline power level that is going to win you a few games on its own, provided you sleeve up reasonably good cards to accompany your Brainstorms.

Brainstorm’s combination of flexibility and power makes it an easy call for amateur and professional deckbuilders alike. It promotes creativity and allows you to do what you want with your deck. But if we want to beat Brainstorm, Chalice of the Void is our best bet.

To understand how to build a deck with Chalice of the Void, we must first ask ourselves why Chalice of the Void is good. After all, it’s a bit of a contextually good card. If all it did was counter Brainstorm, no one would play it. Similarly, people didn’t play Chalice of the Void in Modern at Worlds, a format where everyone knew that Zoo was the best deck and that people would be jamming a ton of one-drops, Lightning Bolts, and Path to Exiles. So why Chalice, and why now?

Chalice of the Void is good because it attacks an opponent’s ability to be consistent. Imagine, for a second, a spectrum of Legacy decks that range from “very powerful, less consistent” on the left end to “less powerful, very consistent” on the right end. Belcher is a great example of the former, while Zoo is a perfect example of the latter. If you move inward a bit, you find blue combo decks—TES, ANT, Reanimator—on the left and blue midrange decks—RUG Delver, U/W Stoneforge, BUG—on the right. So why does this matter?

As the format’s speed shifts, different decks will get better and worse. If there’s a ton of combo running around, Counterbalance control decks and Stifle/Wasteland/Daze tempo decks will rise up to attack them. If those tempo decks are running around crushing everyone, properly-built Chalice of the Void decks can come in and attack the blue decks’ consistency.

I want to return to my earlier point about Chalice not being worthwhile if it only counters Brainstorm, because there’s a lot to unpack there. A fundamental part of that assertion is that we should always be setting Chalice of the Void on one counter, which I believe to be true. If decks with a lot of powerful two-drops are dominant, that’s fine—they are always capable of losing value to Spell Snare and Lightning Bolt (and Wild Nacatl and Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares and and and…). If one-drops are dominant, though, it’s a bit of a problem. Wizards created a card that gained value on countering a one-drop, but it turns out that that was a bit of a mistake.

We have a great way of dealing with one-drop-heavy aggressive decks for value, but far fewer ways of attacking the cantrip engine that makes tempo decks tick. Counterbalance/Top is one way, but playing eight cards that suck up a ton of mana and aren’t good in multiples isn’t the best way of beating a blue flying Wild Nacatl. Chalice of the Void, then, is an ideal answer to metagames where decks heavy on one-mana spells are dominant. The problem, of course, lies in its symmetry.

If we are also locked out of playing one-mana spells, that changes a lot about how we design decks. We probably don’t want to play Brainstorm or Ponder or Sensei’s Divining Top, for instance. We don’t want to rely on being able to play Swords to Plowshares or Lightning Bolt or Red Elemental Blast, since we can Chalice for one and still need those cards against two-mana, three-mana, or four-mana cards. Put simply, we have to find a whole new realm of “good cards” that fit a new definition of what “good” means.

Part of our reevaluation process is going to be our mana. If one of the reasons we’re playing Chalice of the Void is to set it on one counter every time, it makes a lot of sense to maximize the number of times that we can cast it on turn 1. With a few exceptions, a fetchland + dual land manabase is not going to be ideal. As a result, we’re going to want a lot of two-mana lands, Spirit Guides, and/or Chrome Moxes, which doesn’t leave a ton of room for fetchlands and dual lands. Beyond that, we also don’t really need to shuffle our deck a whole lot, given that we aren’t manipulating the top of our library with Sensei’s Divining Top, Brainstorm, or Ponder.

Cutting fetches and duals for colorless lands, Moxes, and Spirit Guides is going to limit our options on what colors we can play. For instance, I have heard of no successful three-color deck that plays more than one two-mana land. If you want to play a two-color deck with two-mana lands or Moxen, be aware that your mana will still be much worse than a fetchland/dual land manabase sporting three or even four colors. If you’re building a two-color Chalice of the Void deck, then, be aware that your mana is likely to look pretty ugly. A few points to keep in mind:

– Odyssey filterlands exist. You may not remember what these are (or they may be before your time), but Ravnica block allied-color signets used to just be lands. If you want to play two colors in a deck with City of Traitors or Ancient Tomb, be aware of Darkwater Catacomb, Mossfire Valley, Shadowblood Ridge, Skycloud Expanse, and Sungrass Prairie.

– You’re less likely to care about whether a land is fetchable, since the deck thinning and shuffling is likely irrelevant, while the life loss is not.

– The above point can lead you to find some good lands that don’t see as much love in Legacy as they ought to. If you need a starting point, I recommend Time Spiral Block.

A far easier solution is to simply play one color in your Chalice of the Void deck. This means that you’re going to end up playing a lot of basic land. Since you aren’t getting much value from your lands outside of casting artifacts early, it’s probably worthwhile to play some sort of mana locking disruption—Blood Moon, Back to Basics, and Choke are all good examples. The mana acceleration in your deck that’s letting you play your Chalice of the Voids on turn one will also help you play your three-mana enchantment on turn 1 or 2.

The biggest weakness of the deck becomes obvious when you look at a hand without Chalice in it. The first instinct of many deckbuilders is to double down on the Chalice of the Void lottery by playing Trinisphere. “After all,” they reason, “if I really want this one situational card on turn 1, why wouldn’t I want this other, somewhat-similar situational card on turn 1 for the times whne I don’t have the first one?” Actually, I don’t know what their reasoning is, since Trinisphere is a Bad Card and you should Not Play It. Here’s why:

Chalice of the Void is great because it stops them from playing their one-mana spells for the rest of the game. Trinisphere slows the game down, but eventually lets them play their spells.

Chalice of the Void costs two mana, which you can get from any number of combinations of two-mana lands, Spirit Guides, regular lands, and Moxes. Trinisphere costs three mana, so you probably don’t have that many cards left with which to play Magic. To go deeper:

Trinisphere slows the game down while putting you far behind on cards. You also built your deck in a way that forces you to be weaker in the late game (since, you know, your mana sucks and you aren’t playing any cantrips to find action), so you’re forcing the game to go late while also building your deck to be worse in that stage of the game. The one situation where that isn’t true is where an opponent needs cantrips to find land. This means that…

Trinisphere is just the worst Stifle/Wasteland ever. Really, if you want to manascrew people, why not at least play the good versions of the cards that manascrew people?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you not to pick up the Trinispheres. Let’s move on to how we figure out the rest of our deck since, as I alluded to a while back, we have to reevaluate cards in a world where we’re playing zero one-mana spells.

Playing an aggressive deck is not impossible with Chalice of the Void, but it is going to look a lot like All-In Red. This is because all of our best threats cost more than three, and so we’re going to have to play a lot more mana acceleration than other Ancient Tomb decks. This means that, while we can occasionally produce a turn 1 Arc-Slogger or Rakdos Pit Dragon, our opponent can also just win the game by having Force of Will or Dismember in their opener. Not that appealing, but some men just want to watch the world burn.

For the non-maniacs among us, we have a major question we need to answer: how are we going to kill them? We can’t just play a bunch of value-oriented 2/1s and grind them out while beating down with Coral Merfolk and Goblin Piker. We should be playing to our strengths. We have mana acceleration that almost no other deck can touch and have the ability to play a dominating game on turns 2, 3, and 4 if we build our deck to do so. If we aren’t going to win a longer game, we should be looking to take over the game early and build an insurmountable advantage before the Brainstorm decks can get off the ground.

The best way to build insurmountable advantages in Magic is planeswalking, the truth of which Patrick Chapin has incessantly reminded us. No matter which color you are, there’s a planeswalker you can be playing that just buries your opponent. Koth of the Hammer might be the weakest of the bunch, but he’s still very strong in conjunction with a Blood Moon. Of course, making double-colored mana work for each planeswalker is a bit of challenge, but there’s nothing better than resolving a turn 2 planeswalker.

If we’re not interested in grinding people out with creatures like Tarmogoyf, the next question becomes “How do we beat a Tarmogoyf?” After all, what are they going to kill us with that’s more threatening than a Tarmogoyf? It’s very possible that we could be taking four or five a turn from a Tarmogoyf starting on turn 3, so having a plan for how to beat a two-mana beater is pretty important.

Thankfully, Ensnaring Bridge solves nearly all of our problems, provided we’re willing to constrain our deck a little more. It turns our biggest negative into a positive and protects our planeswalkers without requiring any colored mana. As long as we keep our hand empty (which we’ll already do, since our deck is packed with explosive power but long-term card disadvantage), our opponent just can’t attack. Meanwhile, we can use our planeswalker to either kill them around the Ensnaring Bridge or build an insurmountable force on the other side of the Bridge before drawing up to enough cards that our strike force can kill them in one turn.

I’ve been brewing with a bunch of different Chalice of the Void colors and builds for a few weeks now, and I’m pretty confident that I won’t be playing Brainstorm in St. Louis this Sunday. If you have any feedback or questions, drop me a line either here or on Twitter. I look forward to hearing from you, and I can’t wait to show you guys what I’ve been working on come Sunday!

Until next week,

Drew Levin

@drew_levin on Twitter

By the way, for value: http://bit.ly/sICFgK