Ideas Unbound – Legacy: Attacking is Miserable

The StarCityGames.com Open Series returns to Atlanta!
Wednesday, April 7th – Fundamentally, the problem with most of Legacy’s aggressive decks is that it is nearly impossible to use creatures with generally combat-oriented abilities to generate favorable interactions against most of Legacy’s combo decks. This reduces the set of interactions those creatures can perform to “reduce target player’s life total by this creature’s power every turn.”

There is a persistent myth that Legacy is a wide-open format with dozens of different strategies and decks, and that you can play more or less anything you want. That claim is just not true. The best Legacy decks are deliberately configured to interact with their opponents as little as possible; therefore, prospective Legacy decks must be capable of either disrupting their opponent’s strategy or be able to goldfish their opponent before he can execute his strategy. Most of Legacy’s aggressive decks can’t do either effectively; accordingly, attacking is completely miserable in Legacy,

Fundamentally, the problem with most of Legacy’s aggressive decks is that it is nearly impossible to use creatures with generally combat-oriented abilities to generate favorable interactions against most of Legacy’s combo decks. This reduces the set of interactions those creatures can perform to “reduce target player’s life total by this creature’s power every turn.” It is quite rare for that interaction to generate a win before the combo deck either kills the creature’s controller or nullifies the creature’s capacity for interaction by locking down the combat step. Further, most of the aggressive decks lack the capacity to cast Force of Will; accordingly, they can only interact with the combo decks via creatures and burn, despite how ineffective that plan is. It is no surprise that the combo decks tend to be heavily favored against the aggro decks.

An example: Your opponent plays Underground Sea, go. You play Wild Nacatl. During your end step, your opponent plays Mystical Tutor, grabs Dark Ritual, untaps, plays a land, a Chrome Mox, and Lion’s Eye Diamond before using Dark Ritual to fuel Ad Nauseam and killing you on turn 2. That game was never remotely close, and there wasn’t a single thing you could have done to win it.

(It is true that reducing a combo player’s life total is relevant with respect to the card Ad Nauseam; however, typically Ad Nauseam is cast on turn two or three, while the combo player is still at a high life total. Combo players also have alternative routes to victory in the form of Doomsday and Ill-Gotten Gains. Similarly, some hate bears are highly effective against Dredge; however, most of those bears start life in the sideboard, and they are vulnerable to Cabal Therapy in game 3.)

Most of Legacy’s aggressive decks goldfish a kill on turn 4 or 5. Most of Legacy’s combo decks (Tendrils, Dredge, Belcher) goldfish a kill on turn 2 or 3. Further, there are additional noncombo decks that can lock down the combat step by turn 3; Enchantress can establish Solitary Confinement with an Enchantress very quickly, and once Lands resolves Intuition for Life from the Loam, Glacial Chasm, Tranquil Thicket with an Exploration or a Manabond in play, it becomes basically impossible for an aggro deck to win. The aggressive decks that don’t play Force of Will get routinely annihilated by all of these decks. Moreover, most of the aggressive have to rely exclusively on their sideboards to have a chance against these archetypes. Because of the diversity and multitude of the archetypes that naturally crush the aggro decks, rarely can the aggro decks find enough space in the sideboard to adequately address each matchup.

It’s certainly true that there are many, many strategies available to Legacy players. However, most of those strategies are underpowered relative to the best strategies in the format, making them pretty loose choices if you actually want to win a tournament. Like, you can build a High Tide combo deck that kills on turn four pretty routinely…or you could build an Ad Nauseam combo deck that kills on turn three pretty routinely. Similarly, you could create control decks and grind out long wars of attrition by using Fact or Fiction and Vedalken Shackles to get ahead on cards, but why wouldn’t you Counterbalance the other guy instead? I understand that Legacy has a huge card pool, but the power level of certain cards dictates the playability of others. There doesn’t exist any strict dominance in the game theoretical sense of the definition, but it is a near thing.

Consider the poles of Legacy:

Aggressive non-Force of Will decks e.g. Zoo, Goblins
Daze aggro e.g. Merfolk, Threshold, Survival of the Fittest-based midrange decks
Graveyard linears e.g. Dredge, Reanimator
Dark Ritual linears e.g. Tendrils, Belcher
Life from the Loam linears, e.g. Lands, Aggro-Loam
Control: Counterbalance
Other linears: Enchantress

These are the “reasonable strategic extremes you can take to a tournament and still expect to win.”

Now consider hypothetical strategies you might build a deck around and compare them to these poles. What aggressive linear strategy is superior to Goblins? Affinity? Goblin Lackey is faster than Affinity, and Goblin Ringleader as a draw engine puts Thoughtcast to shame. All of the combo decks are at various points on a scale that trades resiliency for speed; a new combo deck might occupy a new point on that scale, but no deck is really going to be faster than Belcher or care less about Force of Will than Dredge.

Non-Counterbalance control decks could conceivably become a pole; however, it is difficult to build a deck that has to be able to react against Wild Nacatl, Dark Ritual, Cursecatcher, and Tireless Tribe. You need a certain amount of removal spells against the aggressive decks, you need a certain amount of counterspells against combo, you probably need a source of card advantage as well as Brainstorm to regulate your draws, you need win conditions, and you need enough lands to cast your spells. It’s hard to fit all of that into sixty cards. And once you do, you tend to need to draw the right parts of your deck against the right opponents. Drawing Spell Snare and double Swords to Plowshares is very good against Zoo, but is terrible against any of the combo decks. All of these hypothetical control decks must be Blue, obviously, otherwise they have virtually no chance against any of the combo decks.

It is worth noting that Counterbalance succeeds as a control deck because the card Counterbalance is much more proactive at generating card advantage than something like Fact or Fiction. Fact or Fiction searches for answers to threats; Counterbalance is an answer. It allows the control mage to be more aggressive with Force of Will and Spell Snare to keep the early game in check before setting up Counterbalance-Top and essentially locking the other guy out completely. The Daze aggro decks use a similar plan, hoping to use their permission and Wasteland to buy enough time for their beaters to pull out a win. Crucially, because neither the Counterbalance decks nor the Daze decks are doing anything inherently broken themselves. (Though Counterbalance is close.) Therefore, in order for them to do well, they must be very good at stopping the other guy’s broken plan. In contrast, the non-Force of Will decks are generally incapable of meaningfully disrupting their opponents.

Merely occupying a pole is not a sufficient condition for a deck to be a good choice for a tournament. Give the poles another look. The non-Force of Will aggressive decks are huge underdogs to Dark Ritual and Life from the Loam, and while their Reanimator matchup is fairly close, their Dredge matchup is not. All of those decks naturally crush the aggro decks, and there’s very little the aggro decks can do about it. Tormod’s Crypt out of the board is not nearly good enough against Lands or Dredge, and neither is Gaddock Teeg going to get it done by his lonesome against Tendrils. (It is trivial for Tendrils decks to construct Doomsday piles that include Deathmark to easily kill any hate bear.) Even Enchantress is pretty difficult for Zoo or Goblins to beat; Qasali Pridemage can beat some of Enchantress’ bad draws if Enchantress doesn’t have Replenish, but planning to nut draw your opponent when his draw is garbage is not exactly a long-term plan. And it’s not like the non-Force decks have many autowin matchups to offset all of the bad combo matchups, either; Merfolk is about it.

Even given all of this, non-Force aggro decks remain popular. Zoo is still one of the most popular decks at the StarCityGames.com Opens, and Goblins will likely pick up some steam after its win in Orlando; it is already one of the most popular decks on Magic Online, though I suspect budgetary constraints play some role in that as well. Still, both Zoo and Goblins are clearly capable of winning matches and even tournaments despite certain abysmal matchups. What is the impetus for playing these sorts of decks, and why do they continue winning despite everything I’ve said above?

In my experience, most people who play Zoo claim an exceptionally good matchup against Merfolk and Counterbalance*. Zoo also tends to be very good against most of the midrange decks that don’t occupy any pole but are ubiquitous at most Legacy tournaments. Moreover, according to Jared Sylva, the sum of all Tendrils, Dredge, Enchantress, and Lands decks rarely comprise more than a fifth of the field; some aggro players will naturally dodge their bad matchups and beat up on Merfolk and Counterbalance, which collectively tend to comprise about a third of the field. It’s also my experience that most people overvalue the effectiveness of their hate cards, which implies that people might believe that some Crypts turns their graveyard matchups around, or that they can get a Tendrils player with Gaddock Teeg, and never mind how ineffective a two-mana hate card is against a deck that boasts turn two kills. I know a lot of Zoo players who plan on beating Lands with Price of Progress when Glacial Chasm isn’t in play; I am pretty sure that plan is going to fall apart just as soon as Lands starts playing a second Glacial Chasm and looping them across turns, using Nomad Stadium to pay Chasm’s upkeep.

Of course, attacking is a lot of fun. It’s also much simpler than sculpting Doomsday piles or fighting through Ravenous Trap. I suspect that many players in the Legacy Opens are just battling for value and don’t spend a ton of time playing Legacy. There are obviously exceptions, but it seems reasonable to assume that most players show up to play Standard, and then if they can obtain a reasonable Legacy deck that they will stick around to play the next day. It is not too difficult to pick up Zoo or Goblins without a whole lot of testing and proceed to crush a tournament with some good matchups and good draws. However, the tactics involved with most of the combo decks are pretty intricate, and it’s difficult to play combo against hate on the fly. Hence, the combo decks may underperform, which may help aggro pilots who win their first few rounds dodge them.

Also, sometimes folks just run well; Craig Wostratzky rattled off seven straight wins with a mono-Black control deck that most pundits didn’t believe could win a game. Tom Ross won the Dallas Open by virtue of his opponent receiving a game loss for rules violations in a game Tom could not have possibly otherwise won. These things happen.

There are some who believe that Legacy’s problems would be solved if Tarmogoyf or Sensei’s Divining Top were banned, claiming that Tarmogoyf and Top stifle diversity in deckbuilding. Banning Tarmogoyf is patently ludicrous; making aggressive decks worse is not the way to fix the format. Banning Top removes all of the incentive to play Counterbalance, which is by far the best card in the format against the combo decks. The problem with Legacy aggro decks is not Legacy control decks; the problem is Legacy combo decks.

Without Force of Will or other Blue disruption, Zoo, Goblins, and the like have almost no chance to beat any deck that doesn’t interact in the combat step. Any Legacy deck that wants to shore up its aggro matchups can do so fairly effortlessly, but the aggro decks have very limited options with which to address their bad matchups. I consider aggressive decks without Force of Will to be basically unplayable in Legacy.

Max McCall

max dot mccall at gmail dot com

* Personally, I have found that Zoo has an exceptionally difficult time beating Firespout out of Counterbalance decks, and have enjoyed success against Zoo since moving it to the maindeck. Still, most lists don’t have Firespout main, and I am willing to buy that without Firespout the matchup is favorable for Zoo.