How To Kill Everyone With U/W Stoneforge

The Legacy metagame coming out of the Invi is the best I’ve seen. It has multiple aggressive archetypes, a powerful but not invulnerable control strategy, and several combo decks. Today, I want to talk about what won the Legacy Open.

The Legacy metagame coming out of the Invitational is the best metagame I’ve ever seen. It has multiple healthy aggressive archetypes, a powerful but not invulnerable blue control strategy, and several combo decks that are good but not unstoppable. This format really is the best format in Magic.

Today, though, I want to talk about the deck that won the Legacy Open, UW Stoneblade:

Tony took Chris VanMeter stock maindeck to the party on Sunday, but it worked out rather well for him. If you’ll look:

…Tony played 69/75 of the same cards as CVM. The only changes were in the sideboard, where he cut the Purify the Graves, a single Path to Exile, one of the two Wrath of Gods, and the Wasteland for the full set of Leyline of the Voids and two Geist of Saint Traft. Why would he do that, and why is that a good idea?

First of all, Tony knew that he would have to beat the mirror. There are a number of ways that you can gain an edge in the mirror, but your plan will generally involve outdrawing them on Mystics and Snapcasters (a bad plan) or trumping them with superior deckbuilding and tight play. Think about it: after your Mystics and Snapcasters and removal spells all trade off, what’s left? A bunch of land, a few planeswalkers, some counterspells, and a few fliers, right? So how do you gain edges in that situation?

How to Play Against the Mirror

Both Tony and CVM realized that the first, most obvious powerful thing you can do in the U/W Stoneblade mirror is untap with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Since so many cards are one-for-ones or two-for-ones, drawing extra cards is going to give you the capacity to protect your Jace and ride him to victory, barring some exceptionally poor Brainstorms. Therefore, Jace is your first trump.

The problem with Jace is that he’s kind of vulnerable to fliers. Stoneforge Mystic is pretty bad against him, since he can just make the opponent pick it up and lose another turn or half-turn deploying it for little or no value. Vendilion Clique and Spellstutter Sprite, on the other hand, are virtually immune to Jace’s -1 ability, since they can just come back down on the end step. In addition, Vendilion Clique can be played in response to a Jace Brainstorm, forcing an opponent to have both an open white source and a Swords to Plowshares or else lose their Jace. Spellstutter Sprite operates similarly, although the Sprite requires a Sword or a Mutavault to keep her company on her Jace-killing excursions. Therefore, fliers are your second trump to the matchup, as they beat up Jace.

As a word to the wise: now that Vendilion Clique is very, very common in U/W Stoneblade lists, we need to talk about Stoneforge Mystic activation timing. I know how easy it is to have mental shortcuts for everything: I will Mistbind Clique them in their upkeep; I will Vendilion Clique them in their draw step; I will Brainstorm before I play my land for the turn. But the presence of an instant-speed Duress effect means that it’s very important to think about when you tap your Mystic. If your opponent is tapped out of Vendilion Clique mana and your Batterskull is going to be a game-changer, why wait until their end step? It’s not worth the risk of getting your 4/4 cycled away and losing a turn’s worth of mana. It may feel weird at first, but people don’t always improve just by following the conventional wisdom of the day.

Getting back to the trump discussion for a second, I want to talk about the potential for a splash color. Given that the first two trumps are four- and three-mana blue spells, it makes a lot of sense to consider a light splash for a few Volcanic Islands to fuel a split set of Red Elemental Blasts and Pyroblasts out of the sideboard. If people are just jamming expensive spells on turns three and four, why not tempo them out by countering their important spell and activating Mystic? It would be pretty powerful if you could play Jace on turn five, Brainstorm, and Pyroblast their in-response Vendilion Clique. Dan Jordan did exactly that, cutting CVM’s Tropical Island for a Volcanic Island and playing two Pyroblasts in his sideboard on his way to a 6-1 record in the Legacy portion of the Invitational:

Pyroblast also gives you another counter against Dredge, another removal spell for Narcomoeba, more early-turn interaction with Reanimator, and a hard counter against almost every combo deck in the format. For one mana, that’s a pretty nice bargain. So why not just play UWR with a bunch of Blasts and call it a day?

Enter Elspeth, Knight-Errant. Chris VanMeter has been singing her praises almost as fervently as Brian Kibler as of late. She does everything: she wins a heads-up war with Jace; she stabilizes the board against small aggressive decks; she forces opponents to overextend into your counters and removal; and she’s white. The last part is actually really important, since we just talked about how good it would be to splash red and play a bunch of one-mana Counterspell/Vindicates in this matchup. Elspeth beats Red Blasts and Jaces very handily, which is part of why everyone is boarding up to two nowadays. So what’s the next step in all of this? How do we fight yet another planeswalker?

Tony Chu gave us the answer; although I heard whispers in the tournament hall that it was Todd Anderson technology. Geist of Saint Traft is an incredible card against both planeswalkers; it can’t be bounced by Jace and will kill it through a +2 activation; it can only be Red Blasted on the stack; and it is one of the only cards in the matchup that interacts favorably with Elspeth. After all, if they don’t have a Snapcaster Mage or a Vendilion Clique, Geist will kill Elspeth in two swings and live to tell the tale. Not bad.

As for Tony’s other choice, though, I’m a little dubious. Part of why I believe that Tony got his Geists from Todd is that Todd has been a fervent believer in Leyline of the Void. To give you an idea of the extent to which he loves him a Leyline: Todd asked me for help with a four-color Counterbalance list in St. Louis. I gladly offered my input. When I got to the sideboard, I pointed at the black Leylines and asked him why he wanted to play those in his blue/white/green/red deck. He said, “Everything else is up for debate, but the Leylines are not. I’m playing four no matter what.”

How to Play Against Dredge and Reanimator

I have a bit of a different take on how to fight Reanimator and Dredge from Todd, but my approach comes from months of playing old-school U/W Control with either sideboard Stoneforge Mystics or no Stoneforges at all. That said, I feel that it is an approach worth sharing, especially since I’ve heard many people say that Dredge is very favored against U/W.

In the U/W versus Dredge matchup, my first priority is to ensure that Dredge never gets to trigger Bridge from Below. This sounds difficult until you realize that you only need to kill eight creatures over the course of the game: four Narcomoebas and four Ichorids. Everything else is just a distraction. You have four Snapcaster Mages and four Swords to Plowshares to answer their creatures, two Wastelands and two Mutavaults to knock out three or four Bridges at once, and you can use Batterskull’s “(3): Return to hand” ability as another means of knocking out their Bridges. After sideboarding, you get to board in more one-mana removal spells and some Purify the Graves on top of what you have in your maindeck. Use Purify only on Narcomoeba and Ichorid and you should have no problem with the matchup, barring something like a mulligan to five or fewer. If you view Dredge as a match of attrition where they have only eight relevant cards, you will find yourself doing much better against them.

Given that plan, I can’t really endorse Leyline of the Void or Wrath of God, as they both seem like cards that bail you out of situations you shouldn’t have played yourself into. Gerry would call them “training wheels,” but I’ll stick to “overkill.” Think about it: if your plan against Merfolk or Bant is to play a bunch of mana-efficient removal spells and flash them all back, what are you Wrathing? Their Knight and their Dryad Arbor? Wouldn’t you rather just have your fourth Path? If you’re playing against Dredge and keeping them off of creatures, what does it matter that they have a dredge engine going? They aren’t going to flash back their Cabal Therapies without a creature in play, so who cares if their deck is in their graveyard?

The Reanimator matchup is similar. You don’t want to be all-in on your Leyline haymaker, since if they have Echoing Truth and any action to back it up, you have some counters and not much else to actually win with. I would rather fight the game of attrition that this deck is good at fighting, counter their Entombs and Careful Studies, Purify the Grave any stray creatures that hit their graveyard, and beat them up with a 4/4 or fateseal them out with a Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Why build your deck away from its strengths when you’re already the best attrition deck in Legacy?

Once you approach every matchup as a war of attrition, Purify the Grave over Leyline of the Void starts to make a lot more sense. Since you’re never going to be too far behind, why would you give yourself four dead draws if you have a reasonable opening hand without graveyard hate? If your plan is to beat Dredge’s Narcomoebas and Ichorids and to counter all of Reanimator’s Bury effects and remove their reanimation targets from the game, why go for a grand slam when your deck can win just by getting on base? Purify the Grave beats a Thoughtseize or Cabal Therapy, which is an actual concern to your game plan. Leyline may win more of the games where it hits, but by playing Leyline, you’re taking your own skill out of the game. You’re saying, “Well, I hope this card wins the game for me on its own because if I go to four cards and Leyline isn’t there, I’m really, really dead.” Why not just keep a reasonable seven-carder that has a removal spell and a Snapcaster and Brainstorm into a Purify the Grave

How to Play Against White Aggressive Decks

The problem with GW decks like this:

…is GW is a great anti-UW deck. All of its creatures are relevant in some way; they have a ton of annoying stuff that doesn’t seem important until you realize you can’t ever beat it (whether it’s a Mother of Runes or an Aven Mindcensor); and they have the ability to beat you up with tiny exalted critters just as easily as they can beat you up with a huge Knight of the Reliquary.

Gerry and Michael Jacob took a successful idea from the Top 16 of Grand Prix Amsterdam—GW Maverick with Punishing Fire—and tuned it until no UW Stoneforge deck would ever want to play against it. So how do we fight it?

It’s impossible to get aggressive against this deck. Their creatures match up better against ours at every point on the curve; they have more of them; and they even somehow have more removal spells. They have Punishing Fire going long to keep us from winning with planeswalkers, and they have Mother of Runes to force damage through on board stalls. So where in the game are we advantaged, if neither early nor late?

The key to this matchup, should you care deeply about it, is the midgame. There are a series of turns where, assuming we conserved our counters in the early game, we can punish the GW deck for overextending, Wrath them, and then slam a planeswalker and keep their threats off the board long enough to kill them. It’s not great, and it requires a very different sideboard than what currently exists, but hey—they built the deck to prey on ours. So be it.

So if I were to make a sideboard that shows an active interest in fighting GW decks, I would play no fewer than two Wrath of God, some number of Engineered Explosives, two Crucible of Worlds, and a light green splash for two Krosan Grips. Our answers will occasionally line up poorly against their threats, but that’s going to happen sometimes, no matter how well we play or build our deck. Having the right answers, though, is critical. Being able to kill a Choke is important. Being able to kill Knight of the Reliquary on sight is important. Having all of your removal spells be live (as opposed to blanked by Mother of Runes) is important. Don’t take any of their deck for granted, as all of it is good against us.

Since this is a match of attrition, we don’t want to two-for-one ourselves a lot, nor do we want to play only threats that they have easy answers to. Given that GW decks all play multiple Qasali Pridemages, that Batterskull isn’t as stellar as you think it will be. Crucible might not stick for very long, but the second one should let you get out from under their Punishing Fire recursion and mount an offensive with Soldiers or Faeries. And as always, if you can untap with Jace, the Mind Sculptor on an even board, you’re a heavy favorite to win. Just know that if they have a Grove of the Burnwillows and a Punishing Fire, the board isn’t even.

But what if they don’t have Punishing Fire? What if they’re serving up a different side dish with their white aggressive shell? How does that change things?

How to Play Against Black Disruption Decks

Let’s assume you’re playing against a basic BW disruption deck. They have all the hits: Dark Confidant, Hymn to Tourach, Stoneforge Mystic, a few pinpoint hand disruption spells, and so on. Our counters are only going to hold them off for so long, so what’s the plan?

This one is pretty simple, and I learned it over the course of many, many matches on both sides of the following statement: If you are playing Hymn to Tourach and your opponent Brainstorms with Jace three times, you are less than 5% to win. Without any reach available to them, black decks in Legacy have to either Vindicate, Maelstrom Pulse, legend-rule, or attack Jace in order to get him off the board. After the third Brainstorm, any of that resolving or getting through is exceedingly unlikely. Since BW decks don’t have a lot of beef, Jace might even be able to take a hit or two, stabilize the board, and let you draw into counters for the last of their action.

Just remember to keep Brainstorming when they have zero cards in hand; all it takes is one runner-runner creature stack, and you’re behind in the game again, forced to repeatedly use Jace’s -1 ability to keep the board at parity while losing control over their draw steps. That isn’t where you want to be. You want to have two, ideally three, counters in hand before you flip over to fateseal mode. If they have four cards in hand and aren’t playing any more creatures, so much the better; just know that your creatures are all going to get killed, don’t play them, and go directly for the fateseal kill. After all, why trade when you don’t have to?

Your sideboard plan against black disruption decks is also fairly straightforward: you just want anything that resembles a Divination or is a repeated source of advantage. Crucible is great; planeswalkers are great; and pinpoint removal spells are fine. Your Force of Wills are rancid and your Spellstutter Sprites are unimpressive, given how heavily-focused their deck is on the two-slot. Beating BW decks isn’t hard if you really want to—just hold your Brainstorms to protect your best cards, cast them in response to Hymn to Tourach, and then resolve your planeswalkers.

A side note on playing against early Hymns: always, always, ALWAYS hide your land. I don’t care how awesome your hand is, how much you want your Jace to stay safe, or how you’re planning on killing them with your Stoneforge Mystic. Hide your lands. If you don’t have lands, you will lose the game every time. When you cast Brainstorm in response to Hymn to Tourach, put two lands on top of your deck. BW is a resource-denial/attrition strategy that gets worse when you can cast all of the spells you see off the top of your deck. If you only have one or two lands, though, their discard spells remain relevant throughout the course of the game, letting their powerful creatures win the game for them. Don’t let this happen. Develop your manabase first and foremost, then worry about killing them.

I hope that this approach to deckbuilding and strategic play has been helpful for you, and I would love to hear your feedback both here and on Twitter. I’ve read a lot of messages from people across the world about how to improve my articles, and I hope that this can be the beginning of a newer, better way of looking at a format that we all love dearly. I look forward to hearing from you.

Until next week,

Drew Levin

@drew_levin on Twitter