You know how you can tell there is a problem with the format? Conley Woods played Caw-Blade in Grand Prix Singapore…
When we last left our hero, he had just finished an only slightly uncomfortable ode to Caw-Blade and was about to get down to business at the
StarCityGames.com Invitational. The first of two SCG Invitationals this year, the format was split between Caw-Blade the format and Legacy. Discussion
on SDW, the crazy rogue brew we cooked up for Standard can be found hereÂ (SarcasmDeckWins).
Legacy was a different animal. The volume of education I received during Grand Prix Providence was astounding, even just in gains of tactical
understanding. I was satisfied with my choice from last week but suspected the format would probably overcompensate a little from the advent of
Stoneblade decks, especially considering that the mixed nature of the Invitational ensured that half the Legacy players would already have Caw-Blade
built. My test partners for this event, Gerry Thompson and Drew Levin, were pretty set on U/W Control (with no Mystics), but I wanted to play a
graveyard combo deck that didn’t lose to Mental Misstep.
Mental Misstep has been every bit as format-warping as its most vocal advocates predicted, and the wholesale slaughter of combo decks followed in its
wake. In just a couple weeks, combo has gone from being over a third of the field to just a fraction of that. Most combo decks rely on spells that cost
one, and the surviving combo decks generally don’t die to a Mental Misstep (Hive Mind and Natural Order) or use Mental Misstep to great effect
(Painter’s Servant). Entomb, High Tide, Nettle Sentinel, Nomads en-Kor, Manabond, and Putrid Imp have all been hit hard. One of the consequences has
been a major drop-off in graveyard hate.
Combined Total of All Graveyard Hate in Top 8 of Providence and Top 8 of SCG Invitational
That is an average of 1.63 graveyard hate cards per player, which is not very much. Frankly, I don’t blame them. I didn’t play any graveyard hate in
Providence or Indianapolis, for the exact reasons listed above. When you have Force of Will and Mental Misstep, you already have a pretty good plan
against graveyard combo decks anyway, and if they are good players who know to draw first (so they can discard against your blue deck), you’re probably
not beating them even half the time anyway.
So why not play a graveyard combo deck? A good question, but what kind of graveyard combo deck?
Dredge is still as miserable as ever when you want to leverage your own play skill to win matches. Mental Misstep hurts more than one would like to
admit, and honestly, Force of Will is actually pretty annoying too. Now that so many players have access to Batterskull, letting them set up a pretty
quick soft lock, this is not where you want to be. Turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic demands an immediate Cabal Therapy, or else Batterskull hits. Batterskull
is not only excellent at holding the ground while starting an offense, it also locks out Bridge from Below. A Stoneblade player has but to pay three to
make their Germ token die from Batterskull withdrawal, taking all the Bridges from Below with them.
Reanimator is generally considered the most sophisticated of graveyard combos, but the threat of Mental Misstep continues to loom. Additionally, the
combination of Swords to Plowshares (or Go for the Throat, Diabolic Edict, and Innocent Blood) and Jace, the Mind Sculptor ensures that Iona, Shield of
Emeria is nowhere near the hard lock she has been. Besides, Reanimating fatties isn’t even that powerful these days compared to landing a Batterskull.
Who do you think wins if you play Stoneforge Mystic on two, and your opponent matches by Exhuming Iona, let alone Reanimating it? (Spoiler: you do.)
Breakfast comes from the Flash school of deckbuilding. You play a bunch of dead cards and are vulnerable to every kind of hate (graveyard, creature
removal, discard, permission, everything). In exchange, you get a turn 2 kill deck that plays more disruption and library manipulation than anyone else
does. Breakfast is often discussed but never totally mainstream. When you need two cards in order to do anything and you play seven blanks, plus are
vulnerable to just about every type of interaction, it’s not hard to end up with a deck that struggles with sideboard games. Of these three types of
graveyard decks, Breakfast was most alluring to me for this event, since the other two lose to Batterskull.
A little while back, I was adorned entirely in ninja attire, lurking in an MTGSalvation forum, when I found myself in an interesting discussion about
an alternative graveyard combo deck. The Four Horsemen is a Breakfast-esque graveyard combo deck revolving around assembling the combination of
Mesmeric Orb + Basalt Monolith, featuring seven “dead” cards. Here is the list I would have played at the Invitational:
We’ll break down how the deck functions in a moment, but first, the history of this deck is actually pretty interesting. While a few of us discussed
this combo when Basalt Monolith first lost its power-level errata back in 2006, we never did anything with it, as it appeared to be just a bad
breakfast combo. Why spend 2+3, when you could spend 1+2?
Fast forward to modern times. Twenty-one sets have been released since then. That is a lot of new cards and new interactions. One of the most beautiful
components of Legacy is the continual discovery of unintended interactions between cards printed more than a decade apart. The 4Horsemen deck is just
such an unlikely combination made possible only because of obscure interactions between cards printed in 1993, 1996, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, and 2010,
as well as the divergent thinking and brainstorming of a whole host of players who dared to imagine what might be possible. Conservative decks built by
masters are bad nine out of ten times. This is the exact sort of deck that’s generally a “stupid idea” and actually turns out to be bad 49 times out of
50. True deckbuilders are not afraid of “stupid ideas,” however. As it turns out, they actually found a way to hit that 2%.
The name “Four Horsemen” is in keeping with the age-old Legacy tradition of naming decks colorful and dysfunctional names built on a one-time inside
joke that no longer even accurately references what the designer intended (like Team America or Anything and Taxes). The deck’s lead designer, Finn,
originally used a less compact kill revolving around reanimating four fatties (hence the name) and set about tuning this exciting new concept with the
other forum dwellers.
This was a perfect example of how successful pro teams often tune ideas. A focus on constructive criticism, feedback, testing, questions, and
suggestions rather than on credit, ego, hyperbole, or negativity led them to sharpening the kill condition to such a razor-sharp edge that I believe
they may have actually taken a fringe conceptâ€”written off by the few people who even knew it existedâ€”and given it a niche in the metagame.
See, what a lot of people miss about building “another breakfast” (or any other deck that is an analog of an existing deck) is that there needs to be a
reason to play the new version, instead of the old.Â
“Never, ever play a bad something else.” â€”Michael Flores, The Prime Directive
To understand how they avoided just having a bad breakfast deck (costing 2+3 instead of 1+2), we should start by breaking down how the combo works.
The most straightforward and non-interactive line is:
Now, you can tap the Monolith for three mana, then use that mana to untap itself (thanks to the errata on Basalt Monolith that prevented this from
being lifted back in 2006). Each time you do this, you get to mill a single card. Ever since the printing of Narcomoeba (and just before it, Dread
Return), being able to mill your library has been able to be converted into a kill. Currently, the “best” Breakfast kill uses three Narcomoebas, a
Dread Return, a Karmic Guide, a Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, and a Deceiver Exarch to end the game. If 4Horsemen relied on this kill, it would be in
clear violation of the Prime Directive on mana cost.
However, the savvy deckbuilders that engineered 4Horsemen realized that their engine (Orb + Basalt) has several advantages over Nomads en-Kor plus
Cephalid Illusionist. First of all, it revolves around colorless artifacts instead of colored creatures. Aside from possibly easier mana and different
tutors, this doesn’t inherently involve creatures like Breakfast does, and they can mill one card at a time at will (which is a bit different from
The kill that they ended up finding is brilliant in that it ties
these features together and manages to completely dodge creature kill, when executed properly! That may not sound like a big deal, but it’s actually
incredibly important. Â
The Top 8 of the SCG Invitational featured 49 maindeck creature kill cards and just 4 artifact kill cards. Imagine you’re playing a turn 2 combo deck,
and you can slow yourself down almost a full turn in exchange for blanking an average of six hate cards per deck. For a lot of these decks,
that leaves them with next to no meaningful disruption. Slowing your goldfish by almost a turn is not actually a very big deal in a format full of
midrange decks, with the aggro decks generally unable to win before turn 4. Yeah, there are some faster combo decks, but with the amount of disruption
we’re able to play in here, we are generally going to be very well suited to those matchups, anyway.
This is where the brilliance of the 4Horsemen kill comes into play. You don’t actually have to play a Narcomoeba that’s milled, so what you can do is
mill one card at a time until you have a Narcomoeba trigger on the stack. That Narcomoeba isn’t actually on the battlefield; it’s still technically in
your graveyard. Now, if you have a Cabal Therapy in your yard, it’s fine to put the Narcomoeba onto the battlefield and, keeping priority, immediately
sacrifice it to Cabal Therapy naming Force of Will (or whatever). If you don’t have a Therapy yet, continue Mesmerizing yourself one card at a time
until you do (with Narcomoeba’s trigger still on the stack). If you hit Emrakul, you start over (shuffling Narcomoeba back in, instead of playing it).
This is fine, as you can keep doing this as long as it takes (which is not very much time at all).
After you’ve Therapied them and seen what they’re working with, you can repeat this with another Therapy (if you need to name both Force of Will and
Swords to Plowshares, for instance). Because you have Emrakul in your deck and you have a never-ending stream of Narcomoebas, no amount of Lightning
Bolts, Jitte counters, Grim Lavamancers, or Dismembers disrupt you in the slightest. If you need to, you can Therapy yourself to get Emrakul (or
anything else) out of your hand.
Once your opponent has been stripped of counter-plays, you can now mill all three Narcomoebas onto the battlefield, then mill yourself until you have a
Dread Return, Sharuum the Hegemon, and Blasting Station in the graveyard (you may have to try a couple times because of Emrakul, but this won’t take
much time at all).
Now, Dread Return Sharuum onto the battlefield, bringing back Blasting Station. Since you can mill yourself at will, reshuffle indefinitely, and never
run out of Narcomoebas, you have unlimited fuel to sacrifice to the Blasting Station (which untaps each time another Narcomoeba enters the
battlefield), letting you deal an arbitrary amount of damage.
In the event that you have to exile Narcomoeba (or Sharuum) to Force of Will, you can always just Lim-Dul’s Vault through your library to find the
Blasting Station to just hardcast it. Additionally, it’s possible to just hardcast Dread Return on Sharuum (rather than flash it back), if you set it
up. This also lets you get around games where you have to play a couple Narcomoebas to block, and one ends up getting Plowed. All you need to go off is
a single Narcomoeba and Emrakul, as long as you have the three artifacts on the battlefield.
Interestingly, there is an alternate kill available, which appears to be worse but may actually be useful depending on how you want to transform after
sideboarding. Instead of Sharuum and Blasting Station, you can actually play Academy Rector and Goblin Bombardment. The main disadvantage to this is
that you need to save at least one Cabal Therapy to sacrifice the Rector to, so I would be sure to play four Therapies in such a build. Additionally,
the backup plan of casting Blasting Station is a little easier than casting Bombardment, and Sharuum is a better backup card in this deck (getting back
pieces of the combo and blocking) than Academy Rector. The main advantage to the Rector is that if you decide to sideboard into an Academy Rector deck,
maybe with Form of the Dragon, you are one step
Using Lim-Dul’s Vault can take a little practice, and this deck actually requires a little bit more care in that department because of Mesmeric Orb. If
you have a Mesmeric Orb, it’s crucial to bear in mind that you’re going to have to mill yourself if you untap, so an end-step Lim-Dul’s Vault may need
to have two or three “blanks” above the card(s) you actually want. Additionally, being mindful of the order of the cards as they go to the bottom can
be useful if you need to loop all the way around your deck. If your library size is not a multiple of five, the second pass will give you different
looks than the first.
Another important difference between Lim-Dul’s Vault and Enlightened Tutor is that Vault lets you set up a whole bunch of disruption first, if you
aren’t on a short clock. For instance, if you need Mesmeric Orb and eventually settle on Orb, Therapy, Narcomoeba, Brainstorm, and Island, you can
stack the Brainstorm on top and Island on the bottom. When you Brainstorm into the others, you’ll be able to lead with Therapy, then Narcomoeba and
immediately sacrifice it for a flashbacked Narcomoeba to clear the way.
Mesmeric Orb is a tricky card itself. While Cephalid Illusionist aspires to provide an extremely mediocre blocking defense, Mesmeric Orb is actually a
card drawer and a tutor in this deck. You’re generally going to want to mill yourself as hard as you can every turn, so feel free to tap all your lands
on your opponent’s end step every turn.
If it’s safe to let Narcomoebas enter play, this can give you a source of additional blockers. This also finds you Cabal Therapies that you can
sacrifice the Narcomoebas to, if you need a little more disruption. Additionally, sometimes you’ll actually be able to set up a natural Dread Return or
The more cards that go to the graveyard, the more information you have about your library to make decisions. Mesmeric Orb provides a nice way to get
rid of the chaff you don’t want from Brainstorm, Ponder, or Lim-Dul’s Vault.
I haven’t worked with it yet, but another idea I had was to use an Academy Ruins and a Life from the Loam. Both of these cards are fine in their own
right and take up minimal space (as long as you can produce the green mana). This would give you another way to back up the combo and go long. Being
able to cast combo piece turn after turn is very exciting against blue decks, and Life from the Loam would be very potent against Hymn to Tourach and
Such a change would surely prompt me to experiment with a couple Intuitions, which could do Demonic Tutor duty and also set up some sweet Loam piles.
For instance, if you have the time, you can Intuition for Loam, Ruins, and the combo piece, letting you play it over and over. Alternatively, if you
already have Loam or Ruins, you can actually put both combo pieces into the pile.
Gifts Ungiven could be an option instead of Intuition, but I doubt it’s where you want to be, as it’s so much slower and less reliable.
Intuition is just such a strong card and opens up a lot of interesting lines of play.
For instance, it’s probably a stupid idea, but you can Intuition for two Fatestitchers. Since you only found two cards, they both go to the
graveyard. If you have a Mesmeric Orb on the battlefield, you can go off without Basalt Monolith. You just pay a blue to unearth one, then use it to
untap your Island. Now unearth the other and begin the chain; have them untap each other as many times as you like.
If you happen to get stuck with one in your hand, you can always just Intuition for a Cabal Therapy, a Narcomoeba, and the other Fatestitcher.
Remember, if Narcomoeba goes to your graveyard from Intuition, it still counts and slides into play. Intuition for Narcomoeba is actually a plan in and
of itself, but it’s conceivable that with an Intuition base, you might end up wanting a Deep Analysis.
The Fatestitcher combo is cute, but I opted against it to keep creature kill dead. I’m not sure what could be done with this form of the combo, but
it’s something to keep in mind. Seeker of Skybreak and Aphetto Alchemist are cheap Basalt Monolith alternatives, but both are creatures that suffer
from summoning sickness, making neither particularly appealing.
Another library manipulation option available to us is Careful Study. Finn and the think-tank working on the deck on MTGSalvation seem to like it, but
this is one area in which I kind of disagree with them. Careful Study is a very powerful card, and it’s certainly possible that it’s right to play it,
but in my experience with the deck, looking at as many cards as possible is the important factor. Dead cards get filtered through with Brainstorm,
which does a better job. It’s possible you’d want more, but cutting the list down to 60 can make it tough to find room for everything.
While we do dodge creature kill and have enough library manipulation and disruption to fight through discard and permission, there’s still the matter
of graveyard hate, as well as the occasional artifact hate (such as Krosan Grip, Qasali Pridemage, and Null Rod). As Michael Flores is quick to remind
us, transforming is inherently the most powerful sideboard strategy, if you can pull it off. The lite-transformation into Show and Tell helps totally
dodge the graveyard hate and artifact hate, though it’s certainly possible to play both combos at once. Keeping your opponent guessing can be a huge
advantage. Comboing off with three Emrakuls in your library takes a few more shuffles but is still fine. It’s obviously adorable that the maindeck
Emrakul saves you a slot on the transformation.
Meltdown can randomly answer cards like Relic of Progenitus, Tormod’s Crypt, Pithing Needle, and even Null Rod (though requiring more care).
Additionally, just having access to one can radically change a few matchups like Affinity. Lim-Dul’s Vault is exceptional at finding bullets, and
Meltdown can be a nice one. Relic of Progenitus is the most popular graveyard hate card by far, so Mental Misstep helps in this regard.
Llawan, Cephalid Empress has a similar theory behind it. It’s very hard for a Merfolk deck to board Dismember in against you, making the one Llawan
especially deadly. Not only do you have a lot of ways to find her, but you also don’t have other creatures to justify a proper defense against this
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is probably not a surprise and provides another alternative game plan if someone hoses you. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if
the right play is to board in a lot more Jaces.Â Mystic Remora seems to
surprise people every time, but it really shouldn’t. It remains a much underrated counter to discard like Thoughtseize and Hymn to Tourach.
Crippling Fatigue is a necessary concession to decks with Gaddock Teeg and other annoying creatures. It’s definitely nice to be able to combo off into
Big Daddy Gaddy without the usual headaches that go with him.
As I said, I was going to play 4Horsemen, but unfortunately I did not decide this until Friday before the event. I had been talking about the deck for
weeks but never actually got around to testing it. My theory on Friday was that I would play a few games with it, almost surely decide it sucked, and
just play Gerry and Drew’s U/W. The funny thing, though, was that it was performing really well for me. After my fourth opponent, I realized it was the
real deal and set about building it.
Jon Medina had my back on a number of the key cards like Lim-Dul’s Vaults and Cabal Therapies, but unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on any
Mesmeric Orbs. I considered just playing Breakfast, but the vulnerability to creature kill was just too big a turnoff for this event. Looking back,
obviously I should have figured out what I wanted to play earlier, but I still would’ve preferred to play Breakfast than U/W, as I did. I’ll save the
commentary for Gerry or Drew to discuss, but suffice it to say, it was Ancestral Visions/Jace U/W with no Stoneforge Mystics anywhere in the 75. I
If I had to play U/W, I should’ve just run back Mark Herberholz advice from GP Providence, “Play Stoneforge Mystic. It’s not that complicated.” More
likely though, I should’ve set aside U/W and played BUG Still (similar to Paulo). If I could play in the Denver Legacy Open, I would definitely be
rocking 4Horsemen; however, I have the pleasure of teaming up with Joey Pasco to host SCGLive, so be sure to catch up with us there.
As for this past weekend’s Invitational, I ended up 13th, despite my mediocre 4-3 record in Legacy. I had an unintentional draw early in one of my six
Standard Caw-Blade mirrors, ending the game with a Jace, two Emeria Angels, a lot of Birds, a Stoneforge Mystic, a Batterskull, and a nearly full grip.
My opponent managed to stretch the last few turns out long enough to leave us unable to finish the game, but it was my own fault for half-assing it, so
to speak. If I was going to play ridiculously fast (as I attempted to), I should have played even faster so as to actually be able to finish. I was
playing so fast that I made a couple sloppy plays that cost me some damage, and if I wasn’t going to play “fast enough to finish,” I should have just
played at normal speed instead of at lightning speed, so as to at least not punt as many games. If I had been taking my time, I certainly wouldn’t have
missed the extra damage, but then again, we never would have finished game two.
Out of fourteen opponents, a somewhat disturbing eleven of them featured Batterskull (despite half of the event being Legacy). I’m not sure what this
means for the future of Legacy, but I have a feeling that Stoneforge Mystic + Batterskull will just turn into a staple component of the Legacy format.
It will continue to be good, but it’s unlikely to break or unduly warp anything.
The real threat is Mental Misstep, the first card printed in a long time that could actually threaten the long-term health of the format. Remember when
we said it might be better than Force of Will? Remember when we said the sky was falling and people would be jamming Misstep into non-blue decks?
Remember when we said it would define the format? Well, we are already seeing this all come true. It has such an honest and “good” theory behind
itâ€”after all, why not slow down the format? That sounds good, right?
I guess I just hope Mental Misstep isn’t the beginning of the end of Legacy. There is a part of me that believes that Legacy has been the awesome
format it has been for so long because of an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement to play “bad” decks. Mental Misstep appears to be threatening this
arrangement. It actually reminds me a little bit of fifteen years ago when players discovered that their Standard Necro decks beat their Vintage
5-Color Control “The Decks.”
It’s not that Mental Misstep makes blue too good. Blue was already too good. It’s just that a lot fewer people are playing bad decks compared to last
month and last year. Once everyone starts playing real decks, I suspect the format will lose some of its appeal. I hope Mental Misstep doesn’t begin
the end of this age of innocence that has kept Legacy fresh and young, creative and fun.
As to end on a high note, it’s important to remember that this is not a complaint and not me spouting doom and gloom. We should be so lucky as to have
a format that’s so awesome that the major concern is whether it will continue to be as awesome in the future. Being able to play whatever you
wantâ€”with your cards never rotatingâ€”is just awesome. The SCG Invitational Top 8 was beautifully diverse ,Â and though half the event was
Standard, it would appear that Legacy is not just alive and well but super enjoyable.
Make sure to check out the SCGLive coverage of the Denver Open, with Joey Pasco and myself holding down the fort! It’s the last week before the banned
and restricted list announcements. Could this be Caw-Blade’s final dance in Standard? Are there any heroes left at all?