How Tenth District Legionnaire Enables Heroic Strategies In War Of The Spark Standard

A Theros-era Heroic strategy brought Ross Merriam great success on the SCG Tour. No wonder he’s hyped up for Tenth District Legionnaire! Will this Boros card bring him even more glory?

Four years ago, almost to the week, I made a last-minute decision to change decks before a Standard Open in Cleveland. The Sultai Whip deck that I had been playing to moderate success seemed to struggle too much against the rising Esper Dragons deck, and to be honest, I was tired of the deck’s plodding nature and inconsistent mana.

I decided on the car ride the night before to get the cards together for Bant Heroic, a deck that Tom Ross had only recently unveiled and seemed to me to be both powerful and well-positioned, despite Azorius Heroic’s rather poor reputation at the time. The green splash added a powerful and synergistic removal spell, and the fetch-heavy manabase enabled Treasure Cruise to help reload against Esper Dragons.

Now, we all know that switching decks last minute is a recipe for disaster, but sometimes things work out just like you plan:

Ross, this is the least subtle humblebrag I’ve ever seen.

Hey, someone’s gotta remind the folks at home that I occasionally win matches of Magic.

Now, normally when you win a tournament, you’re happy not just because you won, but because you’re now confident that your deck is strong and you can skip the anxious, “What am I going to play?” portion of the testing process. But I let all the Heroic naysayers get to me, and I actually never picked up the deck again.

In hindsight, I think that was one of the most underrated decks in Magic’s recent history. It was powerful, proactive, synergistic, had the best removal spell in Standard, and, most importantly, had four copies of Treasure Cruise! I registered a wildly unplayable Izzet Prowess deck a year later almost solely because the allure of playing four Treasure Cruise was too great.

So when I saw Tenth District Legionnaire on the card list for War of the Spark, I immediately thought back to that glorious weekend in Cleveland (not a phrase I’d ever thought I’d type) and one of my biggest Magic regrets.

The card compares favorably to Battlewise Hoplite, which was among the more powerful heroic creatures and only limited to a single copy in my (read: Tom Ross’s) Bant list for mana considerations. That’s a good start, but the immediate worry with a card that is effectively a rerurn from a prior block mechanic is that it will end up a fish out of water, unable to succeed because all the enablers for heroic included in Theros block aren’t available now or their replacement versions aren’t as powerful.

I largely dismissed Tenth District Legionnaire for that reason, but once Feather, the Redeemed was previewed I had to try, since the Angel represented another threat that synergized nicely with pump and protection spells. That initial list made its way onto VS Live! last Thursday, which you can watch in the second video here. The Grixis list that Todd Anderson put up against it did have significant issues, but beating a pile of removal, including a maindeck Edict effect in Angrath’s Rampage, struck me as impressive, and since then I’ve been hooked.

Before we get into the lists, let’s consider exactly what we’re looking for in a Heroic deck, especially one that only has one actual heroic creature.

First, I want a relatively even mix of creatures and spells. The deck will try to protect key threats, so I want each threat to be able to do something powerful on its own or in conjunction with the various pump spells we elect to play. The Bant list above has seventeen creatures, 21 spells, and 22 lands, and I see no reason to deviate much from that script.

Second, we need some source of card advantage. The key card in every Heroic list was Ordeal of Thassa, which created a significant clock on any creature and helped ensure you could find protection for that clock or another threat to follow it up. Heroic decks play a more patient game than something like Mono-Red Aggro, but they still need to end the game, and without some sort of card draw or selection, it’s likely to stall in the mid-game with a glut of pump spells and nothing much to do with them.

To that end, we can’t play cards that do nothing but generate card advantage. In order to apply pressure while holding up protection for our threats, we need to be able to draw cards without sacrificing much tempo, which is a difficult proposition and what made Ordeal of Thassa so powerful.

And lastly, I’m looking for removal spells that are synergistic with the rest of the deck. The Azorius Heroic decks of old lacked that effect, and Bant gaining Dromoka’s Command was huge, allowing it to compete more effectively against aggressive decks and clear away annoying blockers. Finding space for removal in synergy-driven decks is always difficult, but critical for the deck’s success, so removal spells that also add to the engine are at a premium.

With these three principles in mind, here’s how I would update the list from VS Live! going forward:

Here, the card advantage is coming from the creatures, namely Dreadhorde Arcanist; Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin; and Feather, the Redeemed. They combine with the pump spells, in particular Samut’s Sprint, which lets Arcanist and Krenko trigger on the turn they enter the battlefield, while recouping the card disadvantage of casting a pump spell, whether by casting a second spell or making a pile of Erik Smith Goblin tokens.

Feather comes in for more long-term card advantage, especially in combination with Defiant Strike and Sheltering Light, a combo which drastically narrows the range of relevant interaction from your opponents.

As for the removal part of the equation, Reckless Rage is perfect. It triggers Tenth District Legionnaire, thereby granting the key third point of toughness for the two-drop to survive; can easily be recast by Dreadhorde Arcanist while still being powerful enough to handle bigger creatures; and triggers Feather, the Redeemed to machine-gun the opposing battlefield. Still, given the lack of one-drops, I wanted more cheap removal to catch up against aggressive decks, hence the Shocks, which also provided some reach – important in a deck with lots of haste creatures and pump spells that often has to scrape by acting like a bad Burn deck when its draw is broken apart or otherwise doesn’t come together.

Intervention completes the package, offering a split pump-removal spell that is perfect in small numbers. Neither mode is as powerful as the other cards in the deck, but it ensures you have the kind of effect you need by effectively adding both, and that consistency boost is important. The deck mostly gets its consistency from the twelve scry effects, and normally I’d say that’s enough to shave a land, but this deck has a higher curve than the old Heroic decks and Feather really pushes the mana.

The high curve worries me, but since there isn’t a suitable one-drop, we have to make the best of it. But making the best of it could be turning to a more aggressive plan, utilizing a couple more of the Boros cards from Guilds of Ravnica:

Swiftblade Vindicator obviously pairs well with pump spells, and Tajic provides not only another pump spell but a way of protecting your other creatures from damage-based removal and a haste creature to keep up the aggression.

The increased ability to race means I moved the Shocks to the sideboard to fit in a higher density of creatures and pump, though loading up on more copies of Intervention still gives you the opportunity to burn the opponent out.

A more aggressive bent means Feather is less important, which frees the mana from one of the Boros Guildgates, though the shame of the other still remains. Without any one-mana creatures, the enters-the-battlefield-tapped land isn’t the worst, but every time I play with them I feel like I’ve failed.

Getting the last gate out of the deck will require pushing hard towards white mana (and with Dreadhorde Arcanist and Samut’s Sprint being so effective in the deck, I’m unwilling to do that), or splashing a third color and hoping the wealth of other multicolor lands can make the mana work. That seems much easier and opens up a number of other juicy cards for the strategy.

First, let’s look at splashing green:

This list gets to play fewer actual creatures than normal because several of the spells function as additional threats. Thrash, like Reckless Rage, is a removal spell that functions with Tenth District Legionnaire and Feather, but also an extra body when you need it. The specific split between threat and removal spell is great, since you often need more threats in the reactive matchups where your removal is at its worst.

Assure is another split card that hits two key roles for a Heroic-style deck, though it’s much less efficient and thus relegated to a single copy. And lastly, there’s Collision, which is the most powerful pump spell in any version of the deck, and though it’s also the worst removal spell, there’s enough pedigree for Collision to make it an auto-include.

With the number of other removal spells in the deck, Reckless Rage becomes less important and moves mostly to the sideboard. I’m somewhat concerned with how consistent the split cards will be able to kill relevant creatures, but when this version of the deck is humming, it’s definitely more powerful than the Boros lists.

Lastly, let’s look at a list that splashes blue for Curious Obsession and Dive Down:

Dive Down and Curious Obsession are considerably better in their roles, protection and card advantage, than the options in other colors, and between the fliers and trample creatures there are plenty of good targets for Obsession, even if it’s not coming online on Turn 2. Swiftblade Vindicator is particularly nice there, and also serves to help this deck close games more quickly, because it doesn’t have the same removal as the others to play from behind.

Teferi, Time Raveler, the other major addition from the blue splash, is great at protecting your creatures, and while we don’t take any advantage of the +1 ability, the other two do the heavy lifting on that card anyway, and even with one loyalty after using its -3, an opponent that spends any time answering it is likely to die to a flurry of pump spells.

My primary worry with the blue splash is how awkwardly Dive Down and Curious Obsession will play together. With only twelve blue sources, you’ll often be casting Obsession without Dive Down mana, so perhaps the split should favor Sheltering Light more.

Relative to the Heroic decks of old, these lists won’t be as consistent in getting their engine going, but the pieces are more individually powerful, since there are split cards with dual modes and more powerful standalone threats like Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice. But the biggest change is the addition of so much reach by being based in Boros rather than just white.

Finding space for removal in synergy-driven decks is always difficult, but critical for the deck’s success, so removal spells that also add to the engine are at a premium.

Against Heroic decks of old, opponents could bide their time in setting up their removal spells, knowing that stabilizing at one life would be enough. These decks not only have burn as reach, but a myriad of haste creatures and Samut’s Sprint that, in combination with other pump spells, can produce a pile of damage out of nowhere. That kind of pressure is valuable for a deck that wants to assemble a creature with protection, rather than just throw a pile of threats onto the battlefield.

That fear makes opponents play more conservatively and buys you time to set up more resilient plays. That fear is what has made Tom Ross one of the most successful players in SCG Tour history with decks like Heroic, Infect, and Boss Sligh, all of which are synergy-driven aggressive decks that are scary to play against because they are capable of stealing games out of nowhere if you’re not careful.

These updated Heroic decks have that capability to instill fear, and it’s really Tenth District Legionnaire that does the heavy lifting there. Adding haste to Battlewise Hoplite changes how the card operates and lets it play better on its own. Lagonna-Band Trailblazer and Favored Hoplite need help or they are embarrassing Magic cards. Past Dreadhorde Arcanist, the threats in these decks are all capable of standing on their own.

I’ve said for years that synergy in Constructed decks is meant to take already good cards and put them over the top. Decks that are completely built around a certain mechanic, like Bant Heroic, can be powerful enough to make playing individually weak cards acceptable, but the former case is the ideal, because it makes it that much harder to pick the deck apart.

Kill their Seeker of the Way and take away their Ordeal of Thassa, and Azorius Heroic wasn’t going to be up to much anytime soon. Kill that Tenth District Legionnaire, and you may be staring down a Krenko or Aurelia with no answer. But save the removal spell, and that Legionnaire represents a real clock, even with a single pump spell. It’s really the power of Legionnaire that pushes the deck in this more aggressive direction and ties the room together, which is why it’s the only threat that is a four-of in every list.

With Izzet Drakes and Mono-Blue Aggro, “protect the queen” strategies have been enjoying a lot of success in Standard, and that doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.