Hi everyone. My name is David Gleicher. You may remember me from missing some Thragtusk Beast triggers or attacking with Grave Titan on camera at the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Milwaukee this past weekend. You also may remember being confused that these things happened . . . in Legacy.
But first, a bit about myself. I’ve been playing Magic on and off since Revised. I was a Johnny from the beginning and still remember getting really excited to build a Merfolk Assassin / War Barge deck in fourth grade when I started playing. Somewhere along the line the competitive spark got lit, and I’ve played all kinds of decks, from Delver tempo to slow control decks with thirteen lands that come into play tapped and five colors. But generating incremental advantage with synergistic cards has always been my favorite thing to do in the game. The card that does this the best in the history of Magic and my favorite card ever printed is Survival of the Fittest.
When I realized a SCG Legacy Open in Milwaukee approaching, I resolved that I’d get back to my roots and play an old-school Survival-advantage deck in Legacy. The only barrier?
Fortunately, there was another option: Birthing Pod. Even though Fauna Shaman exists, Birthing Pod is the card that’s closest to Survival of the Fittest since it actually has a chance of staying on the battlefield long enough to work and can be used the turn it comes into play. I read Caleb Durward’s article about a Birthing Pod Legacy deck a month before the Open, and as it approached I decided I would play it as long as I thought it was even remotely good.
Unfortunately, when I asked Caleb about it, he had decided it was not good enough. However, I played a few games with it, and it seemed ok to me. Moreover, I’d recently rediscovered a fact that I constantly seem to forget, which is that Magic is supposed to be about fun. I personally always seem to do better when I’m having fun playing. I knew I’d enjoy playing the deck win or lose and made sure that was my priority.
With that in mind, I committed to trying the deck out at the Open with only three matches under my belt. Caleb was kind enough to advise me on some card choices and numbers (like a second Recurring Nightmare and a single Green Sun’s Zenith), and I played the following list in Milwaukee:
- 1 Wood Elves
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 1 Bone Shredder
- 4 Veteran Explorer
- 1 Shriekmaw
- 1 Kitchen Finks
- 1 Murderous Redcap
- 1 Glen Elendra Archmage
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Grave Titan
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 1 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Baleful Strix
- 1 Thragtusk
- 3 Deathrite Shaman
Now, this deck certainly doesn’t look like your typical Legacy deck. But upon further inspection, it’s actually pretty close to a deck that already exists: Nic Fit. The goal of Nic Fit is to ramp with Veteran Explorer, control their hand with Cabal Therapy, control the board with Pernicious Deed, and win with a fatty like Grave Titan. The interaction of Veteran Explorer and Cabal Therapy is really the centerpiece of the deck and what allows it to control the early game while ramping to the late game and is a key to the Birthing Pod version I played as well.
The deck really fights on an axis that many decks in Legacy aren’t prepared for by playing big spells that most decks don’t envision having to deal with. I think the blue Birthing Pod version has a lot of advantages over the straight G/B version without Pod. Briefly:
1. You can "bridge the gap" from the early to the late game more easily when your mana gets disrupted by playing small value creatures and Pod. In the normal version, disruption could just lead to just having fatties stuck in your hand and you getting raced by small tempo creatures or a combo.
2. You get to play Brainstorm, an unreasonably powerful Magic card. Between Pod and Brainstorm, finding the correct one-of for a specific situation is not too hard. When you draw cards that aren’t good in a certain matchup, you can put them back into your library and shuffle them away with one of the many shuffle effects in the deck instead of having them stuck in your hand the rest of the game.
3. You get to play Baleful Strix, which is also very strong in this format and obviously works great with Pod. With no Pod in the deck to cash it in, Baleful Strix’s negative interaction with Pernicious Deed would be a lot more glaring.
My goal of having fun was definitely achieved by playing this deck. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself winning matches with it as well. The craziest game of the tournament was conveniently caught on camera: my feature match with Andrew Tenjum playing Shardless BUG with red for Bloodbraid Elf.
The marquee turn was when Andrew tapped both Deathrite Shamans to play a bunch of spells on his turn and I drew Recurring Nightmare with ten mana and a bunch of creatures in play and in the graveyard. At the end of that turn, I had two Grave Titans (one from a Phantasmal Image) and a Thragtusk in play along with a lot of Zombie tokens, a Glen Elendra Archmage, and some other random creatures. I even gave Andrew a free Unsummon on a Beast token I should have gotten from Thragtusk because I’m such a nice guy.
All the other exciting plays happened on the first two turns of several games when I played Cabal Therapy and tried to blind hit a card out of my opponent’s hand. Getting to play with Cabal Therapy was one of the other reasons I was excited to play the deck, as I think it is a very fun Magic card (though I’m sure there are many people who disagree). In Legacy it’s extremely exciting because there are some very powerful decks and hitting on Therapy or not can often determine whether you win or lose—sometimes the very next turn. There are many interesting factors to consider when casting a blind Therapy. Some of them are:
What Can’t You Afford For Your Opponent To Have In Their Hand?
If this is an easy question to answer, you have your choice of what to name right there. In my match against Tenjum after the game had dragged out to a board stall and I had Birthing Pod, I named Maelstrom Pulse. He had already taken his turn after drawing three cards with Ancestral Vision and hadn’t tried to Pulse. However, it didn’t matter—it was the only relevant card he could have had. Maybe he chose not to play it that turn for some reason. The odds were pretty low he had a Maelstrom Pulse, but since it was the only card that could turn the game around, I named it. Usually there are multiple cards that are equally bad, though, so you have to consider other factors.
What Cards Are They Most Likely To Have?
For a format as wide open as Legacy, there are some cards that see a lot of play. Brainstorm and Tarmogoyf come to mind. In round 8, playing against Esper Stoneblade, I blind named Brainstorm on the play and hit. I wasn’t completely sure my opponent was playing Esper Stoneblade, but it was an easy call since even if he hadn’t been he was likely to have been playing a deck with the most ubiquitous card in Legacy. It also helps that if he does have Brainstorm I want to get it out of his hand since it is the most effective counter to Cabal Therapy in the format.
What Has Your Opponent Done So Far?
I was playing against Oops, All Spells! We were in game 3. He was on the play, and I knew he had a Goblin Charbelcher in his deck to instantly kill me if he got it in play and activated it. He went first and played out a Lion’s Eye Diamond and then went into the tank. Eventually he passed the turn. This indicated to me that he had Goblin Charbelcher, which I named and hit. Balustrade Spy was another reasonable card, but it wouldn’t have made as much sense in this particular instance since the Lion’s Eye Diamond isn’t really relevant for it in most situations but is very relevant for Goblin Charbelcher.
Can You Afford To Wait?
Sometimes if you really don’t know what to name, you can afford to wait to try to get more information. Generally I don’t recommend this, though, as your chances of blind hitting are probably higher than you think and people have the tendency to play cards if they’re really good, which means you basically missed with Therapy without giving yourself the opportunity to hit.
I also missed with it in a few cases that lost me games where I otherwise would have won. Against Jund, I named Tarmogoyf simply because my opponent hadn’t played very many spells and I couldn’t figure out what he was playing, having forgotten that Jund was a deck in Legacy. If I’d remembered, I would have named Bloodbraid Elf and probably won the game, but since I whiffed, the card advantage from his big spells was too much.
Against Death and Taxes, he was on the play, and I blind named Stoneforge Mystic and whiffed. He then played Thalia on turn 2, and its taxing effect hampered my development so much that I eventually lost many turns later. I should have realized with the hand I had that Thalia would be much worse for me than Stoneforge Mystic and named accordingly. It was especially bad since a flashback on Cabal Therapy can instantly eliminate the Equipment, which is the threatening part of Stoneforge Mystic anyway.
Casting Cabal Therapy is truly an art form—and one that is well worth trying to master.
The decks I beat in the Swiss rounds were:
Oops, All Spells!
Death and Taxes
Shardless BUG with red
I intentionally drew with U/W/R Delver and lost to Reanimator in the Swiss and Sneak and Show in the Top 8.
I think this was a fairly diverse and representative sample of decks you can expect to play against in Legacy, which makes me think the Pod deck is for real, though the combo matchups need to be improved somehow. I’ll use the last section to talk about potential changes to the deck moving forward.
In the maindeck, I would probably change a Recurring Nightmare to an additional Brainstorm (everyone knows that three is the perfect number of Brainstorms after all). Recurring Nightmare is great but not until later on in the game. Meanwhile, Brainstorm can find you Recurring Nightmare and whatever else you might need.
Though the Bone Shredder was actually decent on the day, the echo cost is fairly rough if you aren’t Podding it away immediately. I would probably replace it with one of these three: Sower of Temptation, Fleshbag Marauder, or Man-o’-War (with an honorable mention to Barrin, Master Wizard).
Some people don’t like Wood Elves, but I stick by it as a way to ramp and make sure you have enough mana since the deck is very mana hungry. It’s also a great thing to Pod away since it gets you a land to activate the Pod.
A note on the lack of an infinite combo: Caleb said when he initially wrote about the deck that the combo cards you’d have to play are just too bad on their own, and after playing the deck I completely agree. At no point would I have wanted to jump through the hoops of making sure I had a Melira, an unpersisted Kitchen Finks or Murderous Redcap, and a sacrifice outlet to go off. That said, I haven’t actually tried it, and another sacrifice outlet could be nice for Veteran Explorer anyway. So overall I would recommend against it but not strongly.
I liked the sideboard except for the Mindbreak Traps and the Sadistic Hypnotist, which is hilarious but unfortunately just unplayable against everything. I didn’t play against Storm so the Traps were bad, but I also think they should just be more versatile anti-combo cards anyway since the deck needs help in many different combo matchups. In addition to a fourth Thoughtseize, the cards I’m currently considering are Headhunter, Nezumi Shortfang, Cabal Inquisitor, and Tarmogoyf. They all have their pros and cons; hopefully I’ll get to test them out a bit.
I think the deck has a lot of potential going forward since Wizard’s design policy for the past four or five years has been to take any cool ability they are able to think of and staple it to a creature, which is great for a deck with Birthing Pod. Adding colors is also an option for the deck but one I wouldn’t recommend, as the stability of the mana is a big advantage and somewhat makes up for the lack of raw power in the deck. I’m fine losing to my opponent’s cards being more powerful than mine or my mana base but not both in the same deck.
One final note about the deck is that it takes a long time to grind out a match win. If the match ends quickly, it probably means you lost. That means it’s important to play and shuffle quickly and try your best to memorize your Pod targets and Zenith targets so you know what’s available to get at any point in the game. This is the peril of having a deck with so many options, but it’s worth it. The deck was a blast to play, and I definitely recommend it.