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Innovations – Physics, Menendian, Legacy, and Seeing the Future

Thursday, January 13th – How do we predict the future? Patrick Chapin, Magic theory expert, analyzes the Kansas City Legacy metagame and tries to do just that. Come out to San Jose this weekend to make history!

The StarCityGames.com Open Series came to Kansas City this past weekend, our first big chance to see what the Legacy community would do with the new format. “New Format” in Legacy is an interesting term, because while Legacy doesn’t rotate like Standard and Extended, each key banning or unbanning has a cascading effect across the format.


“A system is
different

from the sum of its parts.” –Stephen Menendian

This may seem obvious to some, but you might be shocked at how much accepted “wisdom” in the world is based on the idea that everything can be understood by looking at things at the smallest, closest level. Even many of Isaac Newton’s ideas about the Universe are founded on the idea that if you can understand each thing’s smallest component, you can know everything about the Universe. This is an idea that seems more and more dubious as Quantum Physics seems to be slowly but surely winning the battle with Albert Einstein’s General Relativity (a theory much more in line with Newtonian Physics).

Before I get too deep into some of the more abstract ideas I’d like to discuss today (primarily involving Physics, Stephen Menendian, and Seeing the Future), I want to give you an escape option. Simply
Ctrl-F “

decklists” to skip to the discussion of the Legacy decks that performed well at the StarCityGames.com Open in Kansas City this past weekend.

Aside about Quantum Mechanics and Einstein’s Relativity

For those not familiar, there are two really important systems of Physics for describing the physical universe, and both seem to be extremely accurate but strangely mutually exclusive. Classical Physics is based on the ideas of Newton and seems to work very well for “large” objects, that is, objects that are
at least

as big as an atom (potentially much larger, such as an apple, or the sun, as well). Quantum Physics is one of the most accurately predictive theories (“rightest”) theories mankind has ever produced but only seems to work with the
very

 small, that is, at subatomic levels.

Both of these “ways of looking at things” (theories that are much like Magic “theory”) are useful in their respective domains, but the fact that they break down when they approach one another reveals that there’s much more at play. String Theory, a particularly fascinating subject in my humble opinion, is an attempt to reconcile these two ways of looking at the universe.

Unfortunately, String Theory is beyond the scope of this article, as all of this talk of Quantum Physics and Relativity is just to say that the Newtonian idea of just looking at each atom is useful in the right contexts, but in the grand scheme of things, the interactions between things aren’t the same as the basic building blocks themselves. To paraphrase one of Menendian’s favorite examples, we can know nothing of “water” merely by looking at hydrogen and oxygen. It isn’t until we examine the emerging properties resulting from the higher level of complexity that we can even begin to discuss what water is like. Can you make liquid hydrogen? Absolutely, but it certainly doesn’t behave the same ways that water does.



End Aside

Legacy is a very complex system indeed. Even a single domino can trigger a chain reaction that changes everything. Up until a few weeks ago, the entire format revolved around Survival of the Fittest. Now, with Time Spiral replacing Survival, the format to come isn’t just a simple matter of looking at which cards are best, or even which combos, or even which “decks.” Many people would argue that Merfolk isn’t on the same power level as a deck like Ad Nauseam. Why is it so much more popular and successful?


Time Spiral replacing Survival has this first level of effect where there are less Survival decks and more Time Spiral decks, which is obvious, but then it rewards people that have decks that beat Spiral or that lost to Survival (since that was all of them, it especially rewards the decks that were worst against Survival). Next we see an increase in success and popularity of those strategies, which in turn incentivizes players to play still other strategies. In effect, the metagame is a market, and the competing strategies are like competing products.

While the format is in flux (basically as long as the format doesn’t reach an equilibrium), the metagame market continues to call for new or different decks or cards to be played to solve the demands from the previous weeks. It’s generally pretty easy to anticipate “simple” cause-and-effect situations, such as if you touch a hot stove, you’re likely to be burned, or if there are four Dredge decks in the Top 8 of the previous major event, graveyard hate will gain in popularity. Where things get tricky (and this is perhaps where Menendian and I begin to slightly diverge) is in the possibility of accurately predicting complex systems.

Mankind has a long and sordid history of trying to predict the future. If we understand cause and effect, why is the future so hard to predict accurately? There are
so

many variables. Even in something as simple as a sports game with only two realistic, possible outcomes, there are such an incredible number of factors at play that the vast majority of people that attempt to predict them fail to succeed (often roughly) the 55% of the time that’s needed in order to “beat the bookie,” so to speak, at sports betting.  

I believe we can do better than 55%. Just as there are some who are able to “beat the odds,” whether it is in negative games (beating a bookie in sports betting) or positive games (outperforming the stock market), it’s possible to be able to predict the future accurately
enough,

if one understands the system well enough. In Magic, there’s a big difference between the job of us as players (to break and solve formats, i.e. beat the game) and the job of Wizards of the Coast as a governing body (to make their customers as a whole happy and interested in the use of their product, generally translating into DCI format control trying to create diverse, interesting, and fun metagames that seek to limit “monopolies,” or broken decks, and occasionally promote the common good, or banning a card that’s so unfun that no one actually shows up to events).

Menendian is famously generally skeptical of individuals’ (particularly policy makers’) abilities to accurately predict the effects their actions will have on complex systems (such as in Magic, the effects of bannings and restrictions). Perhaps somewhat ironically, Menendian’s view on bannings and restrictions is fairly libertarian, in that he seeks minimal “legislative” interference, generally preferring that the metagame market sort most issues out (a stance that I whole-heartedly agree with in theory, if not always in execution). Regardless of how proficiently we think Wizards of the Coast are at predicting the implications of actions such as the changes with Time Spiral and Survival (and Mystical Tutor and Grim Monolith and Entomb and Dream Halls and so on), as players and deckbuilders, we seek to exploit the system that they’ve laid out for us, for the time being.

By studying the system as a whole, we can make much better estimations of where the metagame will go in the future, what decks should gain in popularity, which should decline, and which cards are being summoning by the metagame market. Equally important to attempting to understand a system as complex as the Legacy metagame isn’t only the cause and effect of physical Magical elements such as more Goblins leads to more Engineered Plagues but also the psychology involved in Magic and Legacy specifically. Card availability, personal preference, what’s being hyped, how clever of an idea the latest new thing is, ease of play, familiarity, and much more. Not every popular strategy is popular because it’s
that

good. There are a lot of factors that we have to try to consider to be able to make good estimations of what the future will look like, and a big part of that is being able to not only evaluate what will happen as a result of any one simple factor but to evaluate how relevant each potential single factor is.

For instance, you may think it’s a big deal that Goblins won the SCG Open in Kansas City this past weekend. However, if you’re about to play in a Legacy event in Madrid, it’s not likely to have as big of an impact as it will in San Jose this upcoming weekend. We can’t possibly list every single factor that goes into the dynamics of a metagame, so instead we’ll look for general strategies to assist us in finding ways to be able to evaluate what’s important in each new system that presents itself to us.  

We’ll examine each of the trends and events we’re observing and consider what the “next” level of the metagame will be, as well as how many levels deep we ought to look at the moment. For instance, maybe we think that Deck A will be good when Event B happens (such as a particular card being banned or a deck no longer played much). Then, rather than waste our efforts working on tuning Deck A for that unknown eventual future, we can instead note what it would take to bring about that future, then turn our efforts to more immediate concerns (while remaining vigilant for when “the stars align.”)

Where this becomes particularly relevant is when preparing for an event that’s more than a week or a single event in the future. When the event you’re preparing for is the “next one,” then you’re generally best served focusing on what “one level” into the future is. On the other hand, if you’re preparing for a PTQ three weeks from now, perhaps a single level deep isn’t far enough. This becomes a matter of evaluating how rapidly the future is evolving, a task that’s very approachable.

When amateur players discuss the metagame, they tend to say things like:

“Jund is strong”

“Stag is good against Faeries”

“White Weenie is bad”

“Five-Color loses to Faeries”

“There is more aggro than combo”

“There are lots of decks”

“This format sucks”

“Wargate is a bye”

When professional players discuss the metagame, they tend to say things like:

“I like Faeries”

“I like Teeg and not losing to Teeg”

“I don’t like Wall of Omens right now”

“I like decks that actually beat Faeries”

“I like attacking”

“I like Thoughtseize right now”

“This format is exploitable”

“We are basically scooping the red matchup at the moment”

Compare these statements and reflect on them carefully. The answers of why are found from within. It isn’t about agreeing with or disagreeing with the statements (as most of them are missing vital context). The key is the very sort of statements being made reveal the underlying thought process behind the player making them. So many people want to have everything cut into bite-size pieces. The truth is you already know the whys behind each of those differences between amateurs and professionals.


“Decklists”

The Kansas City StarCityGames.com Open saw a nice mix of strategies at the top tables with the Top 16 breaking down into:

Top 16:

4 B/x Disruption (2 Junk, 1 B/W, 1 B/G)

3 Combo (1 Time Spiral, 1 Dredge, 1 Painter Servant)

2 Goblins (1 R/G, 1 R/B)

2 Merfolk (1 Mono-Blue, 1 U/B)

2 CounterTop (1 Natural Order, 1 Four-Color without NO)

1 G/W Aggro

1 Bant Good Stuff

1 Affinity

Particularly interesting is that five of the Top 8 decks revolve around Aether Vial. Everyone knows that Aether Vial is a freaking monster,
but seeing five Aether Vial decks in the Top 8 is certainly well above expectation. Understanding why Aether Vial did so well this weekend is a very worthwhile goal, so let’s start by examining those decks that did Top 8 with it. First, the old Legacy standby, Goblins:



Goblins is certainly the sort of strategy that often does better at the beginning of formats or once people have forgotten about them. Goblins also tends to do well against Counterbalance decks (and other “fair” decks). Finishing first and third, both pilots showcased some notable card choices.

Goblin Tinkerer is a pretty sweet card, aimed primarily at Aether Vials and Sensei’s Divining Tops, as well as kicking the tar out of Affinity, just to name a few uses. This is a card that should see a lot more play in the weeks to come whose relative value has changed as a result of Scars of Mirrodin.  

Boartusk Liege’s creature type is often forgotten, but he does make a potent Matron target in the right matchups. Not exactly groundbreaking but good to be aware of. Mindbreak Trap out of non-blue decks is nothing new, but it’s important to keep this possibility in mind whenever playing Storm combo decks. Tuktuk Scrapper is a new one, and I’m not positive of its main application, but it certainly seems good against Engineered Plague decks and removal-based decks.

Finally, black mana out of a Goblin deck should be the signal that they have Warren Weirding. This is particularly important if you’re relying on Iona or Tarmogoyf to protect you.


This Merfolk list is almost identical to Saito’s list with +2 Llawan, Cephalid Empress, +1 Mindbreak Trap, -1 Tormod’s Crypt, -1 Engineered Plague, -1 Submerge being the functional changes. Alex Bertoncini also Top 16ed with his long-time deck of choice, Mono-Blue Merfolk. Merfolk is quite popular and has been for quite some time now, but it really isn’t that hard to gain an edge over, if you try. Outside of typical weaknesses to cards that prey on blue, it’s also remarkably vulnerable to cards that abuse creatures, as well as troublesome permanents. Still, its speed and permission base give it decent chances against everyone, even when it’s an underdog.


G/W?

Yeah, so first of all, two things:

1) G/W was insane last month, so don’t act like this is a new thing.

2) Laskin is an Open Series bada** and is playing the deck for a reason.

In true Legacy fashion, some players have called this deck “Green and Taxes,” as a play on the “hilarious” Legacy name for White Weenie (Death and Taxes). In real life, this is a G/W Aggro deck (which means a G/W Vial deck, since this is Legacy) after Conley Woods‘ heart (a man that has an unrivaled love for Mangara of Corondor). This strategy revolves around abusing the original best legendary land in Magic, Karakas.

Once a Karakas is on the table, Mangara of Corondor gives you buyback Vindicates, which is particularly synergistic with Aether Vial (giving you uncounterable buyback Vindicate). Additionally, both Gaddock Teeg and Mangara make excellent blockers when Karakas is on the battlefield, as well as being difficult to remove with cards like Swords to Plowshares. Knights of the Reliquary and many copies of Karakas help ensure the G/W Mage gets to play his A-Game.

Knight of the Reliquary, Mother of Runes, Stoneforge Mystic, Tarmogoyf, Qasali Pridemage, and Jotun Grunt fill the deck out with powerful and disruptive creatures that can each take over a game on their own and/or provide crucial interaction (a feature often lacking in G/W decks). This is a very cool deck and one that I have a feeling has the potential to evolve in great ways in the days to come.


Yet another Aether Vial deck, this build is somewhat similar to the G/W deck’s B-Game, but featuring actual Vindicate instead of Mangara, as well as discard instead of the Karakas theme. Overall, I kind of think this is a list only Paul Rietzl could love, but it does have going for it the highly customizable nature of B/W. You can build a B/W deck ultra-aggro, you can build it ultra-controlling, or you can build it somewhere in the middle with a bit of The Rock or Fish sort of feel. Personally, I’m not sold on playing just B/W, as I feel a third color probably adds more than it costs. It’s interesting to note how much Stoneforging is going on these days…


Finally we get away from the Aether Vial decks, though there isn’t exactly a ton of new ground being explored here. Junk was one of the best performing decks of the last season, despite its poor Survival matchup, making it an obvious choice to try now. It isn’t going to break the format open, but Junk is a respectable deck that should put up numbers all season. The only note I want to include on this list is that I love the Sensei’s Divining Tops here. Many Junk players decline the option, but I think that’s a big mistake. Outside of just being an awesome card and working well with Dark Confidant, the Top (with fetchlands) is a very potent way to make yourself not run out of gas in the midgame.

It gives you
so

much velocity!*


Another classic, Counterbalance with Natural Order is a fine choice that should hold steady in terms of popularity. Safety mechanisms exist in the format should it ever grow too popular. Ponder over Preordain is notable and in my opinion correct. Preordain is a better card (yeah, I said it), but Ponder synergizes not only with fetchlands but also with Counterbalance (turn 1 Ponder, arrange it so that a two will be the top card when you play Counterbalance next turn). Additionally, Terastodon is an important Natural Order target to remember (Woodfall Primus is also a possibility).


People have been talking heavily about Affinity ever since the printing of Mox Opal. Glimpse of Nature has become industry standard, meaning that every Affinity deck has eight Thoughtcasts (though Glimpse is often much better). Mox Opal gives a heavy power boost and improved color production. Etched Champion is a pretty sweet new weapon, especially when combined with Cranial Plating to form a nearly unstoppable two-turn clock (or less).

While some players have cut the Disciple of the Vault combo from the deck, I’m a fan of it and glad to see it here. Master of Etherium doesn’t make the cut in Dru’s build, which is surely a controversial choice but a very defensible one. The one element I don’t really get is the one Sword of the Meek and one Thopter Foundry. That seems so out of place here. In fact, it’s crazy enough that I’ll be tracking down some answers before cutting it from my update of the list, despite how obviously wrong it seems. It’s because of how crazy it is that I want to be sure I’m not missing something.


Jacob finished thirteenth, but it’s worth listing his deck, as it’s our first real taste of Time Spiral in action. For more on this archetype,
check this out.

Where does this leave us? If this is the latest data, what are we to extrapolate from it to use for our decision-making moving forward? What can we predict about the next week and next month of Legacy?

This is something that most everyone is going to disagree with, which is a big part of the reason not everyone shows up with the same decks. Here are some initial observations:

1) That is a
lot

of creature decks. What strategies prey on creature decks, particularly decks that have fat, ground creatures like Knights or Goyfs or decks that have tons of disruptive creatures like Teeg or Sculler, or decks that have powerful tribal synergies, like Merfolk or Goblins?

2) That is
not

a lot of combo decks. Why aren’t combo decks doing well? What are the combo decks of today? What are the combo decks of tomorrow?

3) That is a lot of diversity! This is probably not the time for some sort of hate-deck. Intrinsically strong decks are probably the order of the day.

4) Where are Reanimator and Ad Nauseam??? Yes, Mystical Tutor is banned, but is that really keeping them completely out of the spotlight?

5) Will Aether Vial continue to climb in popularity? This Aether Vial trend is certainly suppressing Counterbalance decks. What else is it doing? For instance, can decks like Elf combo make a move? It doesn’t have much game against Counterbalance or Engineered Plague but has lots of other good matchups.

6) What is next for the evolution of Time Spiral?

7) This format is so wide-open; it seems an excellent time to play something just a tiny bit under the radar. There’s so much play in Legacy right now. There seems to be excellent opportunity for players well-versed in their deck to gain an edge in-game, as well as be able to gain an edge in deck choice by being a creative deckbuilder.

8) What is the format missing?

9) What beats these decks? Now what beats
those

decks?!

10) Legacy seems kind of awesome right now, even by Legacy standards!

Yeah, I don’t have a ton of answers for you today, but sometimes the right questions are worth a lot more…

Before I go, while it’s not really in line with the general theme of this article, I’d like to clarify my stance on a subject that has been brought back into discussions. Many players’ first instinct is to use Esper Charm to destroy Bitterblossom, seeing as Bitterblossom is the “best card in their deck.” This was basically unquestioned until the technique of just drawing two, instead of destroying the Bitterblossom, was pioneered in late 2008. Manuel Bucher original idea was that he wanted to try every possible line of play to see if there were dynamics of the 5cc vs. Faeries matchup that we didn’t understand as well as we thought we did.

The result shocked us. Sure enough, we were consistently winning more by drawing the cards instead of destroying Bitterblossom, which led to our sharing this important tactic maneuver with the community,
such as in the discussion on the topic here.

Now, that discussion has been referred back to, but there is real risk of confusion if one isn’t careful. We weren’t advocating never destroying Bitterblossom with Esper Charm! Rather, we advocated considering which way was better to fight them in any given game, a decision where we tended to favor drawing two instead of Demystifying about 75% of the time in that format.

Times have changed!

Faeries often doesn’t play as much card draw as it used to. Five-Color Control often plays even more card draw than it used to. Five-Color used a very different selection of cards than those played today (and indeed, many key cards from today weren’t even printed yet, back then). Finally, Five-Color decks aren’t all the same, nor are all decks that play Esper Charm. The best strategy is to keep an open mind and ask yourself which mode is actually most likely to translate into victory. Right now, the way I play 5CC in this format (when I play 5CC in this format), I tend to destroy Bitterblossom with Esper Charm most of the time (on turn 3, anyway), unless my opponent has the ability to play a Scion of Oona, and I don’t know that he doesn’t have them.

Thanks for joining me today. Good luck to everyone competing this weekend! See you on Monday!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

*Velocity is a term in Magic that isn’t particularly popular primarily because it doesn’t actually mean much to most people, outside of the people that actually know what it means. Velocity is how quickly you’re able to look at/access (drawing or choosing whether or not to draw) cards. It’s basically your speed in the direction of moving through your library. The velocity of a deck can provide us with useful information, particularly for deckbuilding, such as the relative impact of miser’s cards (which have effectiveness somewhat corresponding to the amount of velocity a deck possesses).  

For instance, Wargate decks have an incredible amount of velocity, as Ponders, Preordains, Wargates, Jaces, Cryptics, and more let you rip through your library very quickly.

Mono-Red, on the other hand, doesn’t feature much velocity, as you basically just see one card a turn (with a slight decrease in your land count as games continue as a result of fetchlands).

Card advantage isn’t the same as velocity. For instance, it’s very possible to build a Pyromancer Ascension deck with no card advantage at all (beyond a triggered Ascension or Cryptic Command). This deck likely has far less card advantage than many Jund decks, yet it has far more velocity (since it looks at so many more cards). Faeries (as most currently build it) doesn’t possess much velocity (some Cryptics, maybe some Jaces or Vendilions, isn’t a lot). Five-Color Control possesses a 
lot 

of velocity, using cards like Preordain, Esper Charm, Mulldrifter, Cryptic Command, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Cruel Ultimatum, and more.