Legacy Openings

Carsten presents you with a number of opposing opening plays and goes over what his thought process would be if he were facing them in a Legacy tournament.

There is a classic quip about the Eternal formats: the early game is deck construction, the midgame is mulliganing, and the late game is turn 1. While this is obviously an overstatement, a lot of important things go on during the first couple turns of a Legacy match. And important things going on in Legacy means a lot of minute decisions that will win or lose you the game.

What makes these decisions particularly hard is the fact that many of them are context dependent. Imagine your hand has Thoughtseize, Deathrite Shaman, and Liliana of the Veil in it. If you’re playing against a fast combo deck, you’ll want to Thoughtseize on turn 1. Against another Deathrite deck, on the other hand, you likely want to at least give yourself the chance to drop a turn 2 Liliana, so the correct way to start off is to deploy Deathrite on turn 1 and go from there.

To get these kinds of plays right, you need to know what your opponent is playing. Assuming you don’t get to scout the whole field as early as round 1, there are some ways to use your opponent’s first turn play to glean a lot about their deck choice as well as what cards they have in hand.

What I’d like to do today is present you with a number of opposing opening plays and go over what my thought process would be if I were facing them. Hopefully, this will help you sharpen the identification and inference skills that are so important in this format. Sound interesting? Good, let’s get started.

Good Old Island

You sit down for round 1 of the tournament, shuffle up, and your opponent thinks for a while before keeping seven. They start the game with:

Play Island, cast Preordain. Push both, pass the turn.

What does that mean?

Got your answer? Good, because here’s what would be going through my mind:

The first thing to look at is the land drop: a naturally drawn Island. The number of decks with enough Islands to regularly make that play is already relatively limiting—Ad Nauseam Tendrils, for example, plays only one or two Islands. The most likely candidates for opening hand basic Islands are Merfolk, U/W Miracles, Omni-Tell, and High Tide.

Now let’s look at the spell our opponent cast: Preordain. There are very few decks in Legacy that get to run Preordain, with the superior Ponder and Brainstorm usually taking up enough room to make also running Preordain a tough option. High Tide, Omni-Tell, Ad Nauseam Tendrils, and sometimes Sneak and Show generally are the only decks that do.

Combining these results, I’d probably put my opponent on either High Tide or Omni-Tell from what I’ve seen so far, which gives us a lot of information to work with. We already know our opponent is likely playing a combo deck, though one that is very unlikely to win before turn 3. High Tide usually can’t win of off two lands—absurd Cloud of Faeries build draws aside—and the Omni-Tell deck only has three City of Traitors to even attempt winning on turn 2.

This helps us a lot in deciding how to sequence our disruption; we can probably wait until next turn assuming we have a solid turn 1 play of our own to make (say a Delver of Secrets or Deathrite Shaman) and know what we need to dig for. We also know that we probably want to drop Thalia, Guardian of Thraben over Qasali Pridemage (maybe we were on the play) and that Noble Hierarch is going to be a better one-drop than Mother of Runes in this particular situation.

Finally, our opponent’s hand is likely still missing something important—either lands or a particular combo piece—because they shipped both cards with Preordain. The other option is that they’re holding the straight nutter butters.

The pushed cards might have just been redundant lands or combo pieces, so this inference is by no means a safe one. Generally speaking, though, when your hand is solid, you will regularly find something you can use with Preordain and keep it on top. It’s when your hand is so good that very few things will still make it better or when you need something specific that you’re most likely to just push as deeply into your deck as possible.

This is where our opponent thinking for a while before keeping comes in. First, this is often a sign of them playing a combo deck. Because you need to figure out what you’re missing and how likely you are to be going off soon, those are the decks that most often require pondering your mulligan decisions. Second, they’re likely still missing something assuming the Preordain didn’t find it yet. If they had the nuts, they wouldn’t have had to think about keeping. Finally, I’d expect my opponent to not have too many additional cantrips because both combo decks pretty much always keep hands that have an Island and three cantrips, once again meaning they wouldn’t think too much about their mulligan.

The Big Bad Underground Sea

Scalding Tarn, fetch Underground Sea, Brainstorm.

What do you make of this one?

Once again, we should start with the lands we’ve seen. Scalding Tarn is played in a multitude of decks, though the Underground Sea likely means we’re once again facing a combo deck. Why? Because almost any other deck running Underground Sea is going to be a Deathrite Shaman deck, which in turn means they usually have access to Bayou, meaning they want Misty Rainforest over Scalding Tarn any day of the week.

The fact that the follow-up play is a turn 1 Brainstorm reinforces this interpretation—there are very few reasons to Brainstorm turn 1 main phase with your typical fair Underground Sea deck. Just based on the lands I’ve seen, I’d put my opponent on Ad Nauseam Tendrils, The Epic Storm, Goryo’s Vengeance Reanimator, or traditional Reanimator here because those are the combo decks that run Underground Sea.

But we’ve seen more, so let’s keep thinking. First, the main phase Brainstorm is very unlikely to be a good play for Reanimator. At best, the deck is running four Lotus Petals to generate mana after this Brainstorm, and Reanimator would have to hit two of them to be able to make any valuable plays here—not generally a high EV play to look for. As such, our opponent is likely to be on one of the other three.

While there isn’t anything to help us clarify exactly which deck our opponent has brought, we’re reasonably sure they’re on a very aggressive combo deck, and we can figure out quite a bit about the quality of his hand too! A first turn main phase Brainstorm only makes sense with a very strong hand—one that is essentially one piece away from just winning. Our opponent didn’t find that single piece in their Brainstorm—otherwise we’d be dead—but is quite likely to be ready to go off once they untap and get to play a second land.

In combination with this knowledge, the fact that the first fetchland found an Underground Sea imparts some additional information. Our opponent might need the black mana from Sea to go off; otherwise, getting an Island would have been a much safer play, though only Ad Nauseam Tendrils and possibly Goryo’s Vengeance Reanimator could have made that play. They also likely don’t have access to many more lands either. Land-heavy hands very rarely are broken enough to win turn 1 or 2, making the Brainstorm play lackluster.

Finally, the fact that we’re still alive means that our opponent is still unlikely to win with only a single land, so if we have Wasteland available we probably want to use it here.

Opening Black

Polluted Delta, fetch Bayou, Thoughtseize.

Well, once again we get to look at the fetchland dual combination as well as a first turn spell. Bayou into Thoughtseize already means we’re most likely looking at a Deathrite Shaman deck of some sort, be it Jund, Shardless BUG, Esper Deathblade, or BUG Delver. The added information of Polluted Delta makes it very unlikely our opponent is on Jund and is rather on one of the blue-based options. Esper Deathblade is the least likely of them simply because that deck rarely has a reason to fetch Bayou as its first land. Similarly, BUG Delver is blue mana hungry enough (and needs Islands for Daze) that fetching a Bayou on turn 1 is a very real cost. As such, I’d assume my opponent is playing Shardless BUG for now.

Obviously, the resolving of the Thoughtseize would tell us quite a bit more about our opponent’s hand and game plan, but as we’re ignoring our own deck today, this is a consideration outside the scope of this article. We can, however, learn a little more about our opponent’s hand. First, they most definitely have at least one but probably two other mana sources in hand, both of which can access blue mana. BUG Delver and Shardless BUG are heavy blue-based decks and would likely concentrate on assuring access to blue mana if they didn’t have it already.

In addition, I expect there to be neither Delver of Secrets (should the Shardless BUG read be slightly off) nor Ancestral Vision available to our opponent—assuming they don’t know for a fact that we are playing a fast combo deck—because the value of playing these cards turn 1 is high enough to likely trump Thoughtseize for the turn 1 play. For the same reason, I doubt they have Deathrite Shaman and a strong two-drop available. Curving Deathrite into discard plus two-drop is good enough that an opponent would probably rather delay the discard spell for a turn to get Deathrite Shaman active.

Oh the Golden Lands

Gemstone Mine, go.

Well, this one is quite simple but also quite telling. Only a few decks run Gemstone Mine—Dredge, The Epic Storm and Adam Prosak version of Ad Nauseam Tendrils—so this makes our opponent’s unfair intentions quite apparent from the start. Only a very bad Dredge player would keep a hand that has a gold land but no discard outlet (or they would have gone for the draw, discard, dredge plan), so I’d ignore that possibility, leaving our opponent on one of the fast Tendrils decks. The Epic Storm is the significantly more likely option simply because Ad Nauseam Tendrils will both draw Gemstone Mine more rarely and is less likely to keep a hand that has to open on Gemstone Mine without actually casting a cantrip.

Most interesting about this one, though, is how much we can learn from our opponent’s turn 1 play—or rather the absence of one. Given that he is on a fast Storm archetype, his being inactive on turn 1 is very surprising. Those decks are early game focused enough to generally at least have a cantrip or discard spell on turn 1. That leaves two options here: our opponent either has a Brainstorm they’re waiting to cast at the end of turn or a very good hand that is either missing a minor piece of acceleration or needs to make a second land drop to go off.

Assuming they just have to make the second land drop, the other land in hand is likely another gold land—no need to play the self-depleting land first if a better one is available.

If they’re missing a single piece, it can only be mana and not much of it. If you don’t have cantrips to dig, keeping a hand without business is usually a pretty bad idea. You just don’t see enough cards to ensure finding a tutor or straight business spell. I’d expect my opponent to be exactly one mana short of making something happen; any mana draw—including a land draw most likely—will probably end the game.

Finally, if they have the Brainstorm, we’re likely going to see it during the end step because even a hand with Brainstorm needs to be quite close to going off to make Gemstone Mine, go a valid turn 1 play. The only way you’d want to wait with your Brainstorm until turn 2 comes around is if you have a fetchland available. In that case, though, you’d want to play a fetchland, not Gemstone Mine, to play around possible Wastelands—so that option should be out too.

An end step Brainstorm here likely means our opponent is playing The Epic Storm and needs both red and black mana to start going off. The reasoning? Well, usually with a hand that is close enough to winning to make Gemstone Mine, go a reasonable keep, you would want to Brainstorm on your own first turn. After all, you might hit the missing piece and just kill them. Once you need two different colors of mana to go off, though, it becomes nearly impossible to hit the win off of Brainstorm on turn 1. At that point, you might as well wait and see if Brainstorm can help you play around discard while you’re waiting for your second land drop.

Mongoose Sighting

Polluted Delta, fetch Tropical Island, Nimble Mongoose.

The most telling thing here is obviously the Nimble Mongoose. The only decks that play that card are Stifle / Wasteland / Daze tempo decks, first and foremost RUG Delver but also the German B/U/R/G deck and, quite rare today, old-school BUG Delver (essentially RUG with Dark Confidants instead of the red burn).

The Polluted Delta serves to clarify that we’re likely not playing against the B/U/R/G deck—that deck needs to run a Taiga to make its mana base as stable as possible and Polluted Delta can’t find that. Other than that, we can’t learn more about our opponent’s deck choice from this opening play, though the much higher amount of play RUG sees compared to other tempo decks would lead me to believe that’s what we’re facing here.

The Mongoose isn’t done telling us things either. Nimble Mongoose is usually the worst turn 1 play for the tempo decks. Delver is more likely to rake in damage, so that would definitely be played first if possible. Similarly, the early damage output of a Mongoose is low enough that keeping up Stifle in case the opponent uses a fetchland on turn 1 is generally a much better play than dropping the creature.

Even holding up a combination of Lightning Bolt and Spell Pierce—assuming an additional green land is available to drop the Mongoose later—or a simple Ponder would be better turn 1 "plays" in many situations (the Ponder in particular if our opponent kept a one lander). As a result, I’d assume our opponent doesn’t have a Stifle or Delver in hand right now, probably has access to another land, and because I assume a lot of cards aren’t in his hand, I’d make particular efforts to try to play around Daze—what they’ve done so far perfectly fits a line that has Daze backup.

Go Forth and Reason

As you can see, there is a surprising amount of information that can be gathered from just the few cards you get to see on your opponent’s first turn. Being able to draw conclusions in this fashion is a very important skill in Legacy; as mentioned before, the format is fast, and decks are both unforgiving towards misplays and punish giving them openings incredibly harshly.

I hope today’s article has done its job in helping you read your opponent’s opening play for all it’s worth. Note that for a lot of the assessments made above that the fact the opponent didn’t mulligan is relatively important. The fewer cards a player has in hand, the more likely they are to be forced into suboptimal lines of play—and suboptimal lines are much harder to read.

Note also that this kind of understanding assumes your opponent knows what they’re doing with their deck; once again, suboptimal lines are much harder to read because they don’t make sense.

I hope you enjoyed this focus on the very early action you’ll see in each and every Legacy match. Let me know what you think and where you disagree with my assessments in the comments.

Until next time, pay attention to the little things!

Carsten Kotter