Just Go F***ing Kill Him!

Monday, December 27th – If you just play Phyrexian Dreadnought on turn 2, Survival is pretty dead on turn 4. And if you lose the roll, you aren’t tapped out on turn 1, so you can Spell Snare? Don’t worry – just go kill them!

My buddy Veen got me addicted to Starcraft 2 recently. Now, when I start getting immersed in any new subject, I go out and learn as much as I can about it. Starcraft, like Magic, is a game of complex strategies and counter-strategies. There are all sorts of intricacies involved, and it can all be pretty overwhelming. While reading about Starcraft on the internet, I stumbled across the videos of Sean “Day[9]” Plott. Sean has fairly simple advice for players who are bewildered as to what their opponents are up to and can’t figure out what they should do: “Just go f***ing kill him.”

As it happens, “just kill him” is also the response that people have been using against Survival of the Fittest to the best effect. Think about it. People play Survival on turn 2. They spend their third turn activating it a bunch of times. Seasons pass, empires rise and fall, and finally turn 4 rolls around and they start doing something interesting.

What if, while all of this was going on, you just, you know, killed them?

Tendrils of Agony players have been doing that for a while now, and now you’ve got a bunch of people running around with four copies of Black Lotus who are saying “Oh yeah, Survival is fine, yeah, don’t worry about it, the format is perfectly healthy.”

Okay. So I want to have the potential to bust out an extremely aggressive draw, but I don’t want to be vulnerable to some hoser in the way that most
linear strategies are. I also want to play Dark Confidant, because
like I was saying last week

, Confidant is sweet.

As it happens, Sean Ryan bashed me in a local tournament with his take on a U/W/B Dreadtill deck.


Well, if you just play Phyrexian Dreadnought on turn 2, Survival is pretty dead on turn 4.

if you lose the roll, you aren’t tapped out on turn 1, so you can Spell Snare the Survival? Sign me up.

There are twenty-four lands because I want to be able to Wasteland aggressively without being concerned about my own mana count — but probably what’s standing out the most in that decklist is the lone Sensei’s Divining Top.

Although the list doesn’t look it, this deck is actually very mana-hungry. When faced with the decision between holding up Stifle or playing Top on one, it’s typically better to hold Stifle for the blowout. Similarly, when you’re on the draw, you basically have to hold up Spell Snare. Along the same lines, there really aren’t that many opportunities to activate Top. You have Confidant and Dreadnought + Stifle on two. There’s Trinket Mage to play on three, plus Jace on four. You can maybe get one activation in the first few turns while sticking to your core game plan, but one activation of Top isn’t really particularly good value for an investment of one and one in the early turns.

Of course, having Top is still a huge advantage in the midgame, particularly for a Dark Confidant deck…so there’s a lone Top as a Trinket Mage bullet.

The rest of the Mage bullets are reasonably self-explanatory: Pithing Needle helps set up a midgame against Survival decks and the tribal linears that have Aether Vial. It’s also pretty important to set up Pithing Needle on Qasali Pridemage so that you can bust out a quick Phyrexian Dreadnought without fear of getting wrecked by the cat. Tormod’s Crypt ensures that you can Trinket Mage for value against Survival decks even if you’re on the draw; getting the Crypt slows them down quite a bit.

I’ve bagged on Stifle in the past. It’s actually not that hard to beat Stifle through careful play; if you fetch on turn 1 on the play and avoid exposing additional fetchlands to Stifle until your opponent taps out for a threat, you can blank Stifle fairly easily. However, most people don’t really do that, because Stifle isn’t at the forefront of their mind and people get lazy when a card isn’t in the metagame. Further, it’s often correct to not fetch immediately in order to maximize the value of Brainstorm, which leads to more Stifle blowouts. Leaving all that aside, though, even if your opponent manages to play around Stifle successfully, Stifle is never going to be a total blank; you can go find Phyrexian Dreadnought and cheat it into play.

The permission suite is a little lighter than most aggressive blue decks. In particular, there are no copies of Daze. I really like Daze when I’m on the play and I’m resolving a powerful two-drop. However, the lack of Counterbalance in this deck (more on this below) plus having a Trinket Mage/Jace high end makes the tempo hit from Daze more relevant than it often is. If the deck were more aggressive, like Team America, Daze would be much more powerful — but instead, the deck is designed with more of a late game in mind. Instead, Spell Snare fights both Survival of the Fittest and the Tendrils decks that frequently lean on Infernal Tutor and Burning Wish.

Similarly, there isn’t much of a removal package. Overloading on removal is a pretty loose plan in Legacy. If you fan out a hand full of removal spells against Tendrils or Lands or Counterbalance, you probably just lose on the spot if you keep. It’s obviously important to begin interacting early against aggro decks with Plows and such, but you can’t just jam a thousand removal spells into the maindeck. You can sort of cheat this by using Trinket Mage to find Explosives, but it’s usually just better to have the removal in the board for the appropriate matchups.

I tried a different configuration with fewer removal spells and with a full Counterbalance/Sensei’s Divining Top configuration, but there were several problems with the Counterbalance shell.

First, there’s not really a lot of room. If you cut the Dreadnought package, you’re way too slow to fight Survival. Cutting removal just means that you set up the Counterbalance lock and get beat by whatever the other guy resolved while you were playing with the top of your deck.

Cutting the Trinket Mage package doesn’t seem that relevant, but the Trinket Mage plan actually gives you a very robust (and, more importantly, proactive) midgame; without it, you don’t really have much going on.

The mana curve for the deck also isn’t that great for Counterbalance; there are a ton of one-drops, but very few twos, threes, and fours. Counterbalance isn’t that good if it’s just a faux Chalice of the Void. And, like I mentioned, heavy usage of Top in the early game is too mana-intensive.

These are all reasons why I eventually cut Counterbalance. However, the main reason that Counterbalance got the axe is that it’s actually not all that good right now. It’s basically impossible to use Counterbalance to fight Survival, and Counterbalance requires a ton of support to be good against beatdown decks. Control decks have evolved such that Jace and Natural Order are the main threats these days, and both are hard to hit with Counterbalance; regular counterspells are superior. And if that weren’t bad enough, Krosan Grip is everywhere. Sure, Counterbalance is good against Tendrils, but that’s about it.

Some people might be worried about running Dark Confidant and Force of Will, but honestly, the mana curve for the deck is pretty low. If you flip running Force of Wills against the beatdown decks, that sucks, but Force of Will comes out against them and most of the time you’re flipping ones and zeros.

I tried Chrome Mox, but as good as playing a turn 1 Dark Confidant is, the card disadvantage is actually pretty serious. Being able to Trinket Mage on turn 2 is relevant against Survival, but only when you’re able to set up Needle on the play. Being forced to Mox off colored spells makes it particularly difficult to cast Force of Will, as well. All in all, the speed isn’t worth it.

Briefly, the rest of the mana is configured such that you can access all of the colors without being particularly vulnerable to Wasteland. In matchups where you’re being pressured on colors, having Swords to Plowshares is particularly important, so the fetchland configuration skews white. Seat of the Synod is pretty good when you’re trying to set up a turn 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The second copy of Academy Ruins is pretty relevant when you’re trying to Daze aggro decks out with Explosives, as well as for fighting Counterbalance.

Matchups and Sideboarding

U/G Survival: -1 Engineered Explosives, -2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, +3 Pithing Needle.

G/W Survival: -1 Engineered Explosives, -2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, -3 Trinket Mage, +3 Perish, +3 Pithing Needle.

Ooze Survival: -1 Engineered Explosives, -2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, -3 Trinket Mage, +3 Perish, +3 Pithing Needle.

Survival builds all vary quite a lot right now. Basically, Pithing Needle is good against all of them, although it’s not a trump; they can still board in Nature’s Claim, and the Ooze lists can Enlightened Tutor for Seal of Primordium. You want to bring in Swords to Plowshares against the U/G versions with Fauna Shaman, but Perish is generally not as strong against the older U/G versions with Wild Mongrel. Perish is good when the Survival deck is relying on green creatures for beatdown (like the G/W version), or mana (the Ooze version), but not so great against the nut Vengevine draw or even just a Mongrel-enabled Vengevine draw.

It’s pretty hard for Survival to beat a Dreadnought if you have essentially anything to go with it. Obviously playing Dreadnought plus Force of Will on turn 2 is a giant beating, but even just a Trinket Mage to go get Crypt to buy you a turn or so is more than sufficient.

If you don’t have a Dreadnought, you have some grinding to do. Obviously, if Survival gets a bunch of turns with Survival you’re basically dead… But Survival’s mana base is pretty greedy and you can punish it with Stifle and Wasteland. If you can stall Survival for even a couple of turns while you have Confidant in play, you’re going to be in pretty good shape.

Tendrils: -1 Pithing Needle, -1 Tormod’s Crypt, +2 Counterspell

The Tendrils matchup is good but not great. Stifle is actually very effective against Tendrils’ fetchlands, particularly when Tendrils is trying to set up Brainstorm. To beat blue decks, Tendrils usually spends a few turns cantripping and setting up a big turn with a bunch of Duresses and a bomb. Therefore, if you have a fast Dreadnought draw, they’re in a lot of trouble. Alternatively, you can lean on Dark Confidant to keep up with their cantripping. Either way, it’s important to have some sort of pressure; if you just sit on a bunch of counterspells, Tendrils can eventually assemble a hand that beats you.

Counterspell is in the sideboard more for other control decks than it is for Tendrils; if there aren’t very many Jaces in your area, you can jam in Mindbreak Trap or something similar.

(Leave in Swords to Plowshares unless you’re positive they don’t have Xantid Swarm. Even then, there are some lines involving Plowing your own Dreadnought that Tendrils has a hard time beating.)

New Horizons: -1 Pithing Needle, -1 Tormod’s Crypt, -4 Force of Will, +1 Swords to Plowshares, +3 Perish, +2 Deathmark

Usually, you want to pick an attrition fight with New Horizons. If your hand is such that you can get a free win with a Stifle/Wasteland draw, sure, go ahead and take it — but if you just sit there and keep killing everything they play, it’s pretty hard for them to win. New Horizons doesn’t have any real source of card advantage, and all of their actual threats are green creatures. As long as you avoid trading a crucial spell for Daze at a pivotal moment, you’ll be fine.

Zoo: -1 Tormod’s Crypt, -4 Force of Will, -1 Phyrexian Dreadnought, +1 Swords to Plowshares, +3 Perish, +2 Deathmark

The beatdown matchups are harder. You pretty much have to steal game one from Zoo by manascrewing them or by killing with a quick Dreadnought draw. About the only win you can get on the merits involves a line with Swords to Plowshares plus Spell Snare into a Jace that you can protect.

Life is actually pretty good after boarding. Perish is a gigantic beating against all of Zoo’s most aggressive draws, so if they’re playing around it you have a lot more time to leverage all of your card selection and set up Trinket Mage into Explosives for the one-drops that Perish can’t kill.

Goblins and Merfolk: -1 Tormod’s Crypt, -4 Spell Snare, +1 Swords to Plowshares, +4 Engineered Plague, -1 Engineered Explosives, +1 Pithing Needle

The tribal matchups are definitely the worst. There’s not enough removal to blunt the linears, and beating Aether Vial and Goblin Lackey can be pretty hard. You can jam down a fast Dreadnought, sure, and you

get free wins that way… But both Goblins and Merfolk are pretty good at overloading your mana and your cards in the midgame.

Engineered Plague isn’t actually that great against Merfolk, but it’s solid enough against Goblins and there isn’t any room in the sideboard to have cards devoted specifically to each matchup. I tried Umezawa’s Jitte, which has been successful for me against tribal aggro in the past, but this deck doesn’t have enough creatures to effectively use Jitte. (Dreadnought? Sure. But if you have Dreadnought up, you’re winning already.)

I’ve been experimenting with a lot of new Legacy decks while I’ve been bored with the Standard scene, and I think that Legacy is ripe for new exploration. In some ways, the dominance of Survival makes brewing easier; you have a nice litmus test for the viability of any new deck, and the metagame is defined enough that you can really figure out exactly what you need to beat.

And if you’re not sure how to attack the top of the metagame…well…

Just go f***ing kill him.

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com