Ideas Unbound – Survival Doesn’t Need to Be Banned

Thursday, November 18th – Max presents the evidence: Survival doesn’t need to be banned! Make sure you’re not running ineffective sideboard cards; Max tells you which ones you should be using for the upcoming SCG Open in Richmond.

Legacy is the format where you get to play Magic with all of your cards.

There are two parts to that sentence: “play Magic” and “all of your cards.” When Flash was legal, I think it was Patrick Sullivan who pointed out that you adhered to a pretty loose definition if you called playing a combo deck with turn 1 and 2 kills backed up with Force of Will and Duress “playing Magic.” Flash, of course, was banned pretty quickly, but Wizards takes the “all of your cards” part quite seriously. It’s bad for their business model to have cards that exist that can’t be played with, which is why they’re so reticent to ban cards.

Survival of the Fittest is hardly Flash, but decks featuring Survival have been decimating American Magic tournaments for the last few months. The StarCityGames.com Legacy Opens are the premier Legacy tournaments in the United States right now, and Survival has won the last three while taking over half of the Top 8 slots. People have begun to grow concerned that Survival of the Fittest decks are too powerful, and that something from the deck should be banned.

So what’s going on with Survival of the Fittest right now? I’m going to outline why Survival is so devastating against aggressive and controlling strategies, and I’m going to show exactly how badly Survival is crushing the American metagame. Then I’m going to point out that Survival is barely a blip on the radar overseas, and that people aren’t playing the right hate cards in America, and that as a consequence, there’s really nothing wrong with the format, and people are mostly failing to adapt.

I should note upfront that if Wizards decides that the Survival of the Fittest/Vengevine engine is too powerful and does indeed merit a ban, there’s absolutely no way that they’ll ban Vengevine. This has very little to do with the various merits of both cards and has everything to do with the fact that Vengevine is an in-print chase mythic. Wizards can’t acknowledge the existence of the secondary market, but it’s not like they’re unaware that Vengevine retails for $40. Think about the repercussions if Vengevine gets banned. Someone buys a pack, opens a Vengevine. “Oh, great, here’s a card that I can’t play with.” Vengevine is here to stay. If Wizards bans a card, it’ll be Survival of the Fittest.

Patrick Chapin
Matt Elias
have explained elsewhere, Survival of the Fittest decks are abusing several different engines these days, some in combination with each other. There are versions that are ‘just’ abusing Survival to bin a bunch of Vengevines before returning them all to play with some Basking Rootwallas. Some people have Loyal Retainers to cheat Iona, Shield of Emeria and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play. Gerry Thompson and the Hatfield brothers have been tearing up East Coast tournaments by using Survival to set up Necrotic Ooze with Phyrexian Devourer and Triskelion.

Just about everyone has the Vengevine plan these days, and I’d venture to say that most people are moving towards either the Ooze combo or the Retainers package. It’s fairly hard to interact with any of the Survival engines by traditional means; you pretty much have to maul the other guy’s graveyard or you’re going to get crushed by a firing squad of Plants or Aliens. Of course, if you do show your opponent a Tormod’s Crypt, he can just Survival up a Vengevine and cast it, and now you need to beat a bunch of 4/3s and you’re down a card because your Tormod’s Crypt isn’t really doing anything for you anymore.

The moral of the story here is that once Survival of the Fittest is in play, it’s pretty damn hard for an aggressive deck to meaningfully interact with Survival. Further, all of the Survival decks have an endgame that naturally trumps aggressive strategies; twenty power of fliers or Emrakul or Iona or an oozing machine gun by turn 4 is pretty tough to race. Krosan Grip and Qasali Pridemage aren’t even answers to Survival if the aggressive deck is on the draw. Add up all of these factors, and you figure that Survival is going to steamroll the aggro decks. They are.

Traditionally, one way to fight Survival would just be to keep the card Survival of the Fittest from resolving. However, Survival costs two mana. You don’t always win the die roll, so you can’t rely on Counterspell to save you. All of the Survival decks are full of mana dorks, so Daze and Spell Pierce aren’t too effective. You can’t start actively abusing Counterbalance/Sensei’s Divining Top until turn 3. Force of Will and Spell Snare (which is criminally underplayed in Legacy) are just about the only way you can rely on countering a Survival. Almost all of the Survival decks have either Thoughtseize or Force of Will to back up their Survivals, and some versions have Enlightened Tutor and Fauna Shaman to act as faux Survivals and overload opposing permission. So far, Survival’s countermeasures have been pretty effective at pushing most control decks out of the American metagame.

You can see this in Survival’s dominance of the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open Series. Looking at the top eight or top sixteen decks from a given event is a little misleading, because it’s quite rare for eighth place and sixteenth place to finish the Swiss rounds with the same record. Instead, I’ve looked at all of the decks that were X-1-1 or better at the end of the Swiss rounds at the StarCityGames.com Opens:

Minneapolis: Ten X-1-1s, two Survival decks, finishing third and eighth.

Baltimore: Seven X-1-1s, three Survival decks, finishing second, fourth, and fifth.

Nashville: Eight X-1-1s, four Survival decks, finishing first, second, third, and seventh.

Charlotte: Eight X-1-1s, five Survival decks, finishing first, second, sixth, seventh, and eighth.

Boston: Eleven X-1-1s, six Survival decks, finishing first, second, sixth, seventh, tenth, and eleventh.

It’s obvious that Survival is pretty dominant in the U.S. These results actually show Survival as being even more dominant than when you look purely at Top 8 or Top 16 data. Historically, the metagame for most StarCityGames.com Legacy Opens consists primarily of Zoo, Merfolk, Counterbalance, and other Daze aggro decks. All of those decks are good matchups for Survival, so it’s no real surprise that Survival is tearing up the format.

But in Europe, the picture is pretty different. On the other side of the pond, Survival doesn’t have anything close to resembling the dominating metagame presence it does in America. In mid-September, there was a
tournament with 347 people

in Milan. Survival decks finished fourth and sixth, but the sixth-place list was an old-school Survival list with a massive toolbox and no Vengevines or other combo pieces we’ve come to expect. At a
245-man tournament in Japan

no Survival decks made Top 8. Granted, those events are from mid-September, but I can’t find any recent eight-round events, and these results don’t exactly mirror results
from Baltimore. Anecdotal evidence from Europeans on

indicates that the Europeans aren’t too worried about Survival.

So why is Survival so dominant in America while not having much of a presence overseas? One reason might be the presence of European combo decks; fast combo is about the only archetype that Survival is naturally weak to. However, Tendrils has never been a major player in American tournaments, possibly because of the number of Counterbalance decks in America. In Europe, on the other hand, Tendrils has always had a significant metagame presence. The European Tendrils decks may be keeping Survival in check, but since there aren’t as many Tendrils decks in America, Survival is free to ravage the format.

Matt Elias believes that the banning of Mystical Tutor is the reason that no Tendrils decks have risen up to fight Survival in the States. In
his article,

Matt says:

“At present, the most consistent way to attack Survival is to play combo, the same strategy hampered by the DCI with the banning of Mystical Tutor. This is problematic in that there isn’t enough incentive to really push the format to a mass-adoption level of Tendrils decks, which would have probably happened otherwise.”

Essentially, Matt agrees that Survival is vulnerable to combo decks but believes that no one is playing those combo decks because of the perception that the banning of Mystical killed Tendrils, as confirmed by the lack of a big finish by Tendrils even in a metagame filled with Survival decks. I believe that while the Mystical Tutor ban was obviously not

for Tendrils, neither was it remotely close to crippling. Much of the flexibility offered by Mystical Tutor is also available with Burning Wish at least as far as answering hate cards is concerned.

Just as Survival has a big advantage against decks that it has a natural strategic superiority against, Survival is weak to decks it can’t interact with that goldfish faster than Survival. Storm combo decks are huge favorites against Survival; even the versions of Survival with Force of Will can easily be sidestepped by combo decks with Duress. Further, all of the Counterbalance decks that Tendrils struggled so much against have been largely pushed out of the metagame by Survival decks. Right now is an awesome time to be playing combo, and I can’t recommend Tendrils highly enough for the upcoming StarCityGames.com Open in Richmond.

Still, if you’re not going to play a combo deck and want to focus on hating out Survival with more conventional methods, make sure your sideboarding plans are actually effective. Graveyard hate, for example, isn’t particularly effective against Survival. Either they just cast Vengevine and beat you with it, or they cast Survival, tutor for an answer to your graveyard hate, and combo you out as normal. If you’re actively racing and just leaning on Crypt to buy a couple of turns, fine, but it’s important to recognize that you don’t simply trump Survival with a single Crypt or Leyline. To beat Survival, you want to be either racing them or attacking the card Survival of the Fittest. It’s pretty embarrassing when you make, say, Peacekeeper your sideboard plan, then you stick Peacekeeper and lose anyway when they Survival up Shriekmaw.

Krosan Grip and Qasali Pridemage aren’t consistent enough answers to Survival. Assuming that you’re on the draw in game 3, both Grip and Pridemage give your opponent a full turn with Survival unmolested. Then, you get to spend a turn blowing up Survival instead of advancing your board, and all of a sudden you’re way behind on tempo. No. Pithing Needle is a much better approach to actually fighting Survival. Nature’s Claim is another option (and one not vulnerable to Survival’s own Claims), but if you’re leaning on Claim, you’ll need other ways to fight Fauna Shaman. Aven Mindcensor is another option, but, again, it’s important to note that with Mindcensor your opponent will have at least one turn with Survival. If they know Mindcensor is part of your plan, I’d expect them to use that turn searching up Shriekmaw.

Just make sure you attack Survival’s engine directly, not one particular piece of one of the many angles they can attack you from.

I’ve been saying for a long time that it was only a matter of time until some combo deck came along and started pounding all of the miserable beatdown decks into submission. Granted, I expected that combo deck to be Tendrils, not Survival, but the fact remains that it’s not really that much of a surprise to anyone that there are resilient combo decks in Legacy that are ready to pounce at any moment. I suspect that the next few months will be a vivid reminder of that, as Lion’s Eye Diamond decks begin to shine.

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com

(Bonus decklist! While looking at European Top 8 data, I came across another cool way to abuse Survival, this time with Goblin Welder. It looks like an evolution of the deck that Stuart Wright played at Worlds in 2007.)