You hear it nearly every time you talk to someone about Legacy. It’s pervasive. It’s inescapable.
"The best deck in Legacy is [three random colors] Delver."
There are several very good decks based around Delver of Secrets. That’s true. It’s also true that you don’t have to play a Delver of Secrets tempo deck in order to enjoy or compete in Legacy—you need only look at my archives to see your (plethora of) other options.
For a lot of people, however, Legacy is the last bastion of the True Blue deck. Legacy is the only format in Magic where decks get to play four Brainstorms and four Ponders. Both cards are restricted in Vintage because they’re too good at reducing negative variance, which is an important part of Magic. Sometimes you draw a land, sometimes you draw the wrong card for the situation, and sometimes you draw exactly what you need.
When you’re casting cantrips, you tend to draw exactly what you need a lot more than you draw too many lands or situationally useless cardboard. Brainstorm and Ponder are innocuous to many format newcomers, but they are two of the Top 10 cards in Legacy.
A lot of people are drawn to Legacy because it provides that kind of futzing-with-your-deck experience. People wanted those strategies and playstyles to exist in Modern, and Wizards of the Coast sent a clear message that Modern wouldn’t be about that by banning Ponder and Preordain after the first Modern Pro Tour. Vintage will always be more about the raw power of restricted list cards. Standard and Limited provide more creature-centric experiences. Legacy is the last home of the cantrip-driven blue-spell deck, and I’m going to show you how to build it from the ground up today.
If you’re unfamiliar with how Delver of Secrets tempo decks tend to operate in Legacy, I wrote an entire article on the three major variants of this strategy in the week before Grand Prix Washington DC. Although I look pretty bad in retrospect for trashing the version that won the entire tournament, there’s still a lot of useful information in the article.
The big problem with building Legacy decks is felt most acutely when you start trying to put together any Delver deck. Here’s a stock decklist:
The mana base costs close to $1,500 on its own, the set of Forces is between $200 and $300, True-Name Nemesis is still tough to find for a reasonable price, and even the Stoneforge Mystic package isn’t cheap. But total cost isn’t the real issue. The total cost of a Legacy deck is very rarely an issue if you’re patient and willing to play with suboptimal versions of the deck on the path toward a finished product. The real issue is how to build an enjoyable bridge from $400 in seed capital and a $150/month budget to a $2,000 deck. Some archetypes have clear paths forward, some have easy starting points, and some have both.
Delver decks have neither. This is the roughest first five months that I’ll end up recommending, but once you’re five months in you’ll have a deck that’s legitimately capable of competing in SCG Legacy Opens. Grit your teeth because here’s as close as I can put you on week 1:
This deck looks a lot like the old Standard deck—Delver of Secrets, Snapcaster Mage, Phyrexian mana spells, Ponder, Thought Scour, and a fragile-looking creature base that always seems to just barely get it done. Since we’re investing in Wastelands, it’s important to actually have those upfront. The cost of Wastelands ensures that we aren’t buying Force of Wills, fetch lands, dual lands, True-Name Nemesises, or $30 Stifles or Flusterstorms in our first month.
Since blue isn’t a color known for its versatile removal, we’re hopping into the wayback machine for Gut Shots and Dismembers from our Standard Delver decks. We’d rather have Gut Shot and Dismember than Vapor Snag because we’d end up Vapor Snagging a Tarmogoyf, not a Phyrexian Obliterator. Gut Shot takes care of a lot of creatures and ends up functioning as a four-life Shock in conjunction with Snapcaster Mage to kill Stoneforge Mystic or Deathrite Shaman. Not great to be sure, but we can’t splurge on a removal color just yet.
Although blue can’t provide us with a real removal suite, it can get us pretty close in the threat department. We’re light on beef but heavy on evasion—eight of our threats can ignore a True-Name Nemesis. Snapcaster Mage gives us some staying power and lets us advance our game plan in a world where we need to hold up mana for Snap, Spell Pierce, Disrupt, Dismember, Brainstorm, or some combination of the above.
Thought Scour beats out the third and fourth Gitaxian Probes because although information is power we’re already paying a lot of life to cast our removal spells. We’re saving a few points a game on fetch lands, but Dismember and Gut Shot hurt. Besides, speaking of Thought Scour, we’re going to want something to "shuffle away" our Brainstorms. Again, it isn’t pretty, but we’re playing Delver of Secrets, Wasteland, cantrips, and one-mana counterspells.
The threat suite is an amalgam of cards that are going to be generically powerful and useful in a Legacy collection. You’re never going to be sad about owning a pair of Vendilion Cliques for instance. You can put Snapcaster Mage in Delver tempo decks, as Alex Hayne showed us in Strasbourg:
You can also put Vendilion Clique in Delver tempo decks, as Jacob Wilson also showed us in Strasbourg:
You get the picture. These cards are selected for long-term value as well as general playability. There’s barely any deadweight loss over the course of upgrading your deck.
The original deck’s sideboard is left as an exercise for the reader, but I highly recommend researching Pauper Delver lists for inspiration. For starters, you can check out Divert, Intervene, Piracy Charm, Hydroblast, Pithing Needle, Surgical Extraction, and Phantasmal Image. I’m sure you can get creative with it.
Let’s talk about the first two months of playing the deck. You’ll be playing a deck that’s favored against combo decks, very soft to midrange decks with big creatures and/or Punishing Fire, and that has a lot of interesting games against creature decks where Gut Shot can trade up. In your first two months of buying cards, you’re scheduled for some pretty mundane yet important purchases:
It’s not glamorous, but it’s necessary. We’re building a multicolor Delver of Secrets deck, so we’re going to need some blue fetch lands. They have to be blue because your dual lands are all going to be blue, so your fetch lands need to get all of your dual lands Early on your fetch lands will also need to get your basic Islands, so you’re boxed in pretty hard. If you have these, that’s great. You’re two months ahead of the game. If you don’t, you need to buy these.
Fetch lands shuffle away cards from Brainstorm and Ponder, they let you use Delver of Secrets’ flip trigger as a sort of scry trigger, they protect you from getting locked out by Rishadan Port . . . the list goes on, but the most important interaction right now is improving the quality of your Brainstorms. Get them, play them, and learn how to play around—or into—Stifle. The increased vulnerability in these months feels like downside now, but it will teach you important lessons about resource management when you get around to owning dual lands.
A word to the wise: using fetch lands to "thin your deck" is a farce. It’s a bad joke. Don’t do it. Don’t do it even when you have one draw step left and you really don’t want to draw a land. Brainstorm and Ponder both skyrocket in value when you have a fetch land in play.
In your worst-case scenario, you have one last draw step to draw a relevant card, and you draw . . . a Ponder! You cast it, and you see two dead cards and either another Ponder or a Brainstorm. If you have a fetch land in play, you can shuffle away the two dead cards and cast your cantrip, giving yourself three fresh redraws. If you don’t have a fetch land in play, your cantrip only gives you one new card. The moral of the story is clear—don’t activate your fetch lands without purpose.
Once you get your eight blue fetch lands, it’s time to think about a second color. We’d like to cut our Gut Shots because they don’t kill Insectile Aberration, Deathrite Shaman, or Stoneforge Mystic. We’d like to add removal that kills all of the above and then some. We’d also like to add a real threat to replace Talrand, Sky Summoner. It’s not that I dislike Drakes . . . actually, just kidding, f*** Drake.
The best secondary color for any Delver of Secrets deck is red. It gives us Lightning Bolt as well as either Goblin Guide or Young Pyromancer as a solid second to Delver of Secrets. The three Delver of Secrets decks in Legacy each contain three Volcanic Islands. If you’re playing a tempo strategy that wants to count to twenty, Lightning Bolt (plus Snapcaster Mage) gives you a ton of range. You also get a lot of sideboard options in red that improve a wide range of matchups—Rough/Tumble for aggressive matchups, Red Elemental Blast for control and combo matchups, Smelt or Smash to Smithereens for Stoneforge Mystic decks, and so on. Having a second color is a big deal, and red should be that color.
Month 3 is the worst month unfortunately. You’ll buy two Volcanic Islands. You don’t need to put them in your deck right away. This is the first (and hopefully last) time that I recommend that you spend a month buying something without playing it. Part of the premise of this series is the promise of progress. Month 3 breaks that promise, and I don’t feel good about asking you to play the exact same deck for two months in a row. The problem exists for any situation where you’re getting into a new color—you can either spend your money on spells you can’t cast or dual lands that let you cast spells you don’t own yet.
We solved this problem in month 5 of last week’s article by also buying Deathrite Shamans and gaining utility on our one Bayou by having access to Deathrite Shaman’s green activated ability. This deck doesn’t have that type of opening, and I can’t recommend playing a splash color with only two dual lands to support it. If you’d like, you can pick up some sideboard cards and splash those off of your two Volcanic Islands. At the end of the day, month 3 is preparation for month 4’s payoff.
Finally, we get red into the deck. We can buy the last Volcanic Island—putting us up to eleven red sources—and replace a lot of the suboptimal cards with better red versions. It’s a no-brainer to want Lightning Bolt over Gut Shot, and Young Pyromancer is a better token producer than Talrand, Sky Summoner.
The last change requires an understanding of how the deck exists in its entirety. We’re replacing a lot of the Phyrexian spells, so we can afford to pay more life elsewhere. We’ve also gotten fetch lands since week 1, making our Brainstorms much better. Young Pyromancer has been added as well, a card that we want to cast on turn 2 and immediately put to use. All of these changes support swapping in the third and fourth Gitaxian Probes for the two Thought Scours. We can afford the life, we want to make a token or two on the turn that Young Pyromancer hits play, and we really like being able to hand-check our opponent. Making a Snapcaster Mage a Silvergill Adept more often is just gravy.
The addition of red opens up our sideboard in a big way. Red has permanent answers to Equipment, has hard counters for Legacy’s most popular spells, and offers access to inexpensive sweepers. Again, make your sideboard your own. Experiment with cards, solve local problems with obscure cards, and enjoy the hunt for the perfect sideboard card. As an avid researcher, I know how good it feels to strike gold after an hour of looking for a broad solution to a narrow problem.
Month 4 also allows us to save some money. This is important and intentional. Month 5 is a big deal.
We cut the last of the chaff for our Real Legacy Counterspell. For reference, here is the deck at the end of this five-month run:
This is a real deck. It’s not entirely focused, but it’s something I’d be fine registering at a Legacy Open. It plays good blue spells, good blue creatures, a solid manabase, and a few one-ofs that provide utility in situations where blue and red decks tend to be weaker. Umezawa’s Jitte is great at handling swarms, and Dismember will generally trade with a Tarmogoyf. That’s what we’re in the market for.
You’ll note that we stopped buying Volcanic Island after our third copy. That’s intentional. There are very few Delver of Secrets decks that play all four Volcanic Islands. Most three-color Delver decks play three of each blue dual land, so the fourth Volcanic Island would be $100 that you aren’t using to invest in a third color or $100 that isn’t buying two copies of True-Name Nemesis. If you’re sure that you want to stick to U/R Delver, feel free to buy the fourth Volcanic. For now, keep it at three Volcs.
Branching out into a third color will likely take another couple of months depending heavily on your access to other cards. If you decide to move toward U/W/R Delver, you already have the Umezawa’s Jitte for your Stoneforge Mystic package, so you’ll need to figure out how to sequence spending $300-400 on Tundras, $100 on Stoneforge Mystics, $100 on True-Name Nemesises, $12 on Swords to Plowshares, $15 on a Batterskull, and $15-25 on whatever third piece of Equipment you want to buy.
You can get away with playing only three Tundras and buying three Arid Mesas instead of Flooded Strand or Polluted Delta. All of those decisions will reduce costs for you by around $150, allowing you to move into U/W/R Delver at some point around month 8.
If you want to get into Grixis Delver, you’ll end up spending more on Underground Seas and Dark Confidants and Cabal Therapys. You’ll end up using your Young Pyromancers throughout the process, though, so integrating black into the deck will be a lot more seamless than buying into white cards.
Finally, if you want to play RUG Delver, you should focus on buying Tropical Islands and finding someone who’s willing to lend you Tarmogoyfs while you buy them. You can get some decent mileage out of Snapcaster Mages and Vendilion Cliques while you work on buying Tarmogoyfs, so again I would focus on buying the lands first and integrating the low-dollar cards as soon as you feel comfortable doing so.
You should be able to completely build any of the three-color Delver of Secrets decks by the end of the year. No matter where you want to end up, enjoy the process of getting there. You’ll learn a lot along the way.
This is the end of the line for the Getting Into Legacy series. I knew this would be a well-received set of articles, but the extent of your positive feedback took me by surprise. I’m thrilled by every person who has told me that they’re using one of my articles as a template for buying into this format. Thanks for letting me know when I’m getting it right. It means a lot.
For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter, I have some good news. I’ll be transitioning into a more productive content schedule in 2014. Starting very soon I’ll be writing an article and making a video every week. I want you all to get the most out of my work, and that means tailoring my content production to meet your needs.
Please, if you have a second, tell me what you’d like to see from me in 2014. My articles and videos can be about the same things, but they don’t have to be. Get creative—what would you like to see from me each week in 2500 words and four hours of video?
I can’t wait to see what you all come up with.