Well, I did.
Some of you have probably wondered why my article is late this week, and well, I pre-emptively asked for a delay so that I could write about Sunday’s
Legacy Open(s) and Cedric was happy enough to oblige me given the New Jersey Open. You see, I was really excited to see what would happen in the first
event with Khans of Tarkir legal as I was fully expecting a deck with four Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time to take home the trophy if anybody had the guts to run the playset in spite of the naysayers.
Yes, an Ancestral Recall that asks you to get Threshold first is still that good.
Yes, even at sorcery speed.
I guess I have to thank Bob Huang for being the one guy that actually listened to me and made my day:
I mean, I can’t guarantee Bob was the only one to jam the full set of Treasure Cruises, but my impression from the coverage was that just about everybody
else was hedging their bets by running only a copy or two – if that – of either delve spell to see if they’re actually good enough. Turns out Treasure
Cruise is, at least.
Bob’s deck is a brilliant week one deck. His UR Delve-Delver (sorry, couldn’t resist) list really goes all in on getting to cast Treasure Cruise as soon as
possible with full playsets of not only Brainstorm and Ponder but also Gitaxian Probe, ten fetchlands in a seventeen land manabase and a mana curve that
mostly ends at one mana if we accept that delving for seven is easy. Not that he was sacrificing anything, those are cards I’d love to put in every single
one of my Legacy decks, Treasure Cruise or no.
His creature base also reflects the dedication to cheap spells. Delver of Secrets is an obvious staple in aggressive blue decks, and his two other
creatures become ridiculous if you can always cast a spell for every land you have in play. We all already know Young Pyromancer as the slow-roll Empty the
Warrens that he is, but Bob’s third threat shows that he has taken a good hard look at Khans of Tarkir and been rewarded for it.
Monastery Swiftspear is a card I totally overlooked in my set review and one I wasn’t too
impressed with while seeing it on coverage – it seemed to be attacking for one and two a lot, with the occasional three thrown in to allow it to deal
roughly as much damage per turn as Goblin Guide. Then I came to my senses and realized that Goblin Guide in and of itself is definitely a playable Legacy
card already. Getting one that could sometimes be bigger and wouldn’t be drawing the opponent extra lands against the Daze deck actually sounds like a big
improvement, especially given the fact that Swiftspear can easily get in much larger surprise swings in the midgame due to Delvecestral Recall sitting next
to it while Brainstorm, Ponder, and Gitaxian Probe already have a tendency to chain into one another.
I asked Bob after the event why he had chosen to go with U/R instead of the Sultai list I’d have expected of him and it appears he was hedging
against the expected Rest in Peace in postboard games – which is literally terrible against the U/R list but already quite solid against Sultai Delver even
before considering Treasure Cruise – while also enjoying the ability to instantly go over the top post-Cruise with burn (to the face).
Bob’s list is as focused as possible on enabling and abusing Treasure Cruise as you can be without adding bad cards like Thought Scour. So why am I calling
it a brilliant week one deck instead of just a brilliant deck? Well, the deck does everything I’d want to be doing when people aren’t actually ready yet. I don’t see a Delver deck that is more efficient at moving cards from the hand to play or into the
graveyard as the average amount of mana you spend on your spells is lower than it is even in Temur Delver thanks to the four Gitaxian Probes, and the only
spells you can’t fire off at your leisure are the playsets of Daze and Force of Will.
This crazy efficiency comes with a price though: while the cards you’re playing with aren’t bad, they sure are weaker than something like
Stoneforge Mystic and Hymn to Tourach. As a result, you’re banking on Treasure Cruise a lot to take care of your lategame. That means that, for this deck
to really be the optimal choice, you have to expect that you’ll be the only one riding the full on Cruise train in the majority of the games you end up
playing. I suspect that now that Bob has proven that Delvecestral Recall does indeed work, that assumption isn’t going to be as overwhelmingly true as it
was for Bob.
Why? Well, to answer that question, let’s start with the assumption that Bob’s deck was going to see widespread adoption. How do you fight it? There are
essentially two methods. The first one is to do something unfair. I’ve always been quite happy playing ANT against U/R Delver simply because the deck plays
so few interactive cards, just Daze and Force of Will. It isn’t all that hard to cut a path through that minimal amount of disruption before they’re dead.
You can see that in action in Bob’s finals match against Reanimator. His opponent managed to go off in enough games that he should have won the match. It
just turned out that his combo (put Griselbrand into play) wasn’t actually good enough in one of those cases. I can guarantee that a Tendrils for twenty
wouldn’t have been raced by a wild assortment of Insectile Aberrations, Young Pyromancers, Elementals, and Monastery Swiftspears after the fact (though
that was a beautiful thing to see, don’t get me wrong).
Doing something unfair doesn’t have to be that extreme even. Look at that list again. What happens when Chalice of the Void for one hits the field or
Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top is established? Yep, Bob suddenly is playing a twelve card deck, only four of which actually threaten the opponent
in any way. That sounds beatable, Ancestral Recall or no.
So one good way to beat a deck like this is to blank a large swath of it. But what about more fair strategies, ones that rely on trading evenly with
removal while playing their own threats? Well, if the U/R player is the only one casting draw 3s for one mana, trading, even efficiently, will simply put
you behind. The easiest solution to that issue? Take your own pleasure cruise to the land of the ancestors, obviously. Dig(ging) Through Time should be
another efficient way to keep up, seeing as there’s a decent likelihood that at least one of the Treasure Cruise cards is a superfluous land or otherwise
blank. Without the ability to decisively outdraw its opponents, how would Bob’s deck beat a pile of more powerful creatures backed by removal spells like
Jeskai Delver? With difficulty is what I’d expect the answer to be.
and Gerard Fabiano, the other two players who carried Delver
strategies into the top 8 already, participated in dipping their toes into the stream with two Cruises and a Dig Through Time respectively. Now that the
cat is out of the bag, I expect those numbers to rise sharply if only to keep up in the card advantage arms race. The different Blade variants, the Delver
strategies, and just about anything else that we consider part of the fair spectrum of blue Legacy decks will likely be forced to either join the club or
fall by the wayside.
Expect most blue non-combo decks to be packing playsets moving forward as being the first one to resolve your draw three is important enough to risk
somewhat awkward draws involving multiple delve cards in your opening hand (similar to how Miracles is fine running 6+ miracles).
Now, this is the point where I’d usually discuss what those that can (want to) either ignore nor play these cards should be doing. The best way to fight
Dig and Cruise is to counter them (because it keeps the yard and hand nice and empty to stop the next one from coming down) so Imperial Painter
with its maindeck Red Elemental Blasts is probably a reasonable bet (as are maindeck blasts in most decks that can support them, actually, with or without
your own delve spells). Outside of that particular deck, however, I’m not too hot on trying to be the one to solve the delve issue with anything but a
If my Vintage experience has taught me anything, it is that it’s simply much better to be the player trying to cast the broken card drawing spells than the
one who is trying to hate on them. Yes, Rest in Peace will make Treasure Cruise terri-bad. However that presupposes these things a) come down before Cruise
is fired off, b) resolve and stay in play and, most importantly, c) that they can’t beat you without Cruise when you spend mana and a card on playing
something that was bad enough to not have in your deck before Khans. There’s a reason people don’t board in Tormod’s Crypt to fight Yawgmoth’s Will in
Vintage. To make a long story short, drawing three for a single blue mana is good enough that you’re likely better off joining them than trying to beat
them or to play something that is naturally advantaged against the kinds of decks that can support the new cards (the main examples being Miracles
and, to a certain extent, fast combo).
Beyond the New Blue Overlords
It isn’t all blue news though. The deck that secretly delivered the most ridiculous performance of the weekend doesn’t actually sport any lands of the
Island variety and consequently isn’t delving at all. Elves took four of the top 4 spots in Indy (as in all of them), a performance not even one
of the omni-present Delver decks has managed to pull off yet as far as I remember, with another three placing inside the top 16 in the New Jersey.
Why is Elves doing so well when most other non-blue decks seem to struggle? Well, first and foremost, it’s a very efficient fast combo deck that has an
awesome backup plan of swarming the board and draining for four, six or even eight points a turn with (un)tapping Deathrite Shamans.
That isn’t the whole story though. The reason blue decks are so good in Legacy is that they have one extremely powerful yet subtle advantage over the
competition: their cantrips allow them to be a lot more consistent than their opponents. They suffer far fewer instances of mana screw and mana flood and
simply get to do what their deck was designed to do at a higher rate. If any other deck could match this consistency, one would expect it to end up
matching or exceeding the blue decks performances, depending on how powerful the plan it was trying to enact actually is in comparison.
Well, look at the Elves deck. Between Green Sun’s Zenith, Glimpse of Nature, and the Elvish Visionary/Wirewood Symbiote engine, the deck can
actually match the blue decks’ consistency easily*. And I don’t think anybody is going to claim that being a turn 3 to 4 combo deck isn’t a good enough
plan to hang with the big boys.
*I really wish Wizards would make the effort to give White, Red, and Black a similar amount of decent library manipulation tools they have given
to Green over the last couple of years. It would do a lot to equalize the balance between the different colors in the Eternal formats and at essentially no
cost. Library manipulation is fun, after all. It means you get to do what you planned for your deck to do, not sit around ripping the
fourth land in a row of the top of your library. I don’t think anybody would complain about that latter thing happening less, to be honest. End rambling.
Given the deck’s vulnerability to other, faster combo decks, Umezawa’s Jitte and, most importantly, a huge load of spot removal spells, I’m not sure how
the deck is going to hold up when all of the blue decks suddenly have access to card advantage that rivals that of Shardless Sultai, but for the moment I
wouldn’t necessarily bet against it. If you don’t stop the pointy-eared tree-huggers, you’re probably dead before your oh so broken draw spell even comes
online, after all.
When the Khans spoiler was completed, a lot of Eternal players were grumbling that we had once again gotten another Theros – that is to say a set with
nearly no relevant cards whatsoever other than price-reducing reprints. I think Bob’s performance with eight Khans cards solidly proves that Wizards’
latest effort does in fact shake things up, probably at least as much as Innistrad did with Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage. So what is it going to
be? More complaining, this time about the ridiculousness of the new cards? Or are we going to embrace the new kids on the block to see how far we can push
them and what they’re gonna do when we are actually ready to react to them. I mean, I might not see a reason not to play them – I love drawing
cards significantly more than the next guy though (and the guy next to him too).
If they end up breaking the format in half, well, they’ll be gone in time. There’s a banned list for a reason, after all. However, if they don’t (and even
if they do, let’s be honest here), they’re going to be awesome. Getting to draw three cards for a single blue mana is one of the big draws to playing
Vintage, and we get to do so without a restricted list to limit the fun.
Don’t forget that Cruise in Delver is just scratching the tip of the iceberg. This is week one! Dig Through Time wants to go in a
different kind of deck, either a mid-speed combo deck or something more control-focused, and I can see a lot of strategies that don’t care about a puny 3/2
flyer wanting Ancestral Recall too. Just think what it could mean if a strategy as focused on pure card advantage like Shardless Sultai doesn’t have to
rely on mediocre cards like Shardless Agent and Ancestral Visions. Suddenly, almost everybody can do it and the world is our oyster. I know that I, for
one, can’t wait to join in the fun!
PS: The organizers of the awesome Prague Eternal event I went to back in July have asked me to let you all know that the second edition of the event will
happen on November 7-9. All I can say is that the last one was awesome so I’ll be trying to go again, and I suggest you do the same if you
have the time and inclination. You can find more information on the event here.
PPS: Huge props to Joseph Scalco,Andrew Baeckstrom and Stephen Speck for taking Jeskai Ascendancy lists to solid results in
the first Open Series events of the Khans Standard season. Keep doing awesome things!