Legacy Week – Pox

Reid Duke writes about Pox,the deck that propelled him to the Top 8 of the StarCityGames.com Invitational, for Legacy Week. Find out why Pox is well positioned in the Legacy meta for StarCityGames.com Open: Dallas/Fort Worth.

Today’s Legacy is different from the Legacy of four months ago, which is different still from the Legacy of a year ago. Grand Prix Indianapolis and StarCityGames.com Open: Dallas/Fort Worth are on the horizon, and black is both the best positioned and the least-played color in mainstream Legacy tournaments.

For a crash course in today’s Legacy metagame, I recommend this article by Patrick Chapin. Though a few weeks old, his analysis is thorough and does a nice job of predicting the variety of decks that would have success in the weeks between its publishing and today. The article suggested and results from the StarCityGames.com Open Series confirmed, that blue would continue to be the premier color in tournament Legacy.

So what makes black so well positioned? Why Pox? Blue, in the simplest sense, is the natural enemy of discard strategies; Brainstorm, Ponder, Snapcaster Mage, and Counterbalance all lessen the impact of dedicated hand destruction.

The primary strength of Pox, though, is to prey on green decks. When you sit down against a new opponent, all you want is for their first play to be a Forest…or a Forest/Plains, Forest/Mountain, Forest/Swamp, or even a Forest/Island. A primary focus of Mr. Chapin’s statistical analysis is the way that RUG Delver seems to be gradually absorbing other blue strategies, and that will be the best thing to happen to Mono-Black players until Necropotence is reprinted!

RUG Delver is a chiseled masterpiece and represents the true essence of Legacy. It uses the format’s unbelievably powerful card selection spells (not card advantage: see below) like Brainstorm to smooth its draws and achieve unwholesome levels of consistency. It uses the most efficient threats and answers to find a fast and simple way to kill the opponent. It wins consistently but on small margins, leaving little room for error on the part of the opponent or itself. In other words, beneath the dozens of seemingly insurmountable strengths of RUG Delver, it still plays a “fair” game of Magic.

Playing Fair in Legacy

Legacy is the best format to play “fair.” This may seem strange, as the extensive card pool is home to many impressive synergies and broken combos. However, it’s also home to all (minus the banned ones) of the most brutally efficient single cards in Magic. Goblins can do broken things; Elf Combo can do broken things; Hive Mind can do broken things; but they give up much to do so. They give up Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Delver of Secrets, Swords to Plowshares, Lightning Bolt, and all the rest of the absolute best cards in the format and in the game. Playing a “fair” deck means that every one of your cards is frustratingly powerful on its own, your deck is consistent and streamlined, you can operate on little mana and mulligan infrequently, and your deck is very difficult to attack during deck building and sideboarding.

A consequence of Legacy being a format of fair, well-oiled decklists and also the nature of its banned list, is that the format has very little card drawing. Here I’d like to draw an important distinction: Brainstorm is the most played card in Legacy and contains the line of text “draw three cards” but there is no next gain in raw quantity of cards. So for our purposes, it’s a card selection spell just like Preordain, Impulse, Intuition, or Diabolic Tutor. With the exception of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, the unbanned card drawing in Legacy is too slow. Without the fast mana available in Vintage, playing traditional card draw spells is awkward, and it’s much better to build your deck with the virtual card advantage of a low land count and the speed to win a game before the opponent can play out their hand.

The strength of Pox is that it laughs in the face of such attempts at virtual card advantage. As a Pox player, I would be scared to face a player with 27 Islands and a deck full of Divinations and Concentrates, but those decks don’t exist in tournament Legacy. Pox is built to beat decks that run on small margins and use card selection and efficient “good on their own” cards to win the game. It attacks all resources at once, so there’s no amount of Pondering and Brainstorming that can bring a player back into the game once Pox has done its thing.

When I say that there is no card drawing in Legacy, that’s not to say that there’s no card advantage in Legacy; you simply have to look for it. In Standard, you tend to think of blue control when you think of card advantage, but in Legacy much of the efficient and direct card advantage is in black. Pox utilizes Hymn to Tourach, Liliana of the Veil, Cursed Scroll, Nether Spirit, Smallpox, and Pox to create card quantity advantage and bury any opponent who is playing a fair game with you.

Grand Prix Indianapolis

Beyond the obviously excellent cards I named above, Pox has to devote dozens of slots to spot discard and mana denial to force the opponent into “playing fair.” The most popular decks already “playing fair” just makes things that much easier.

RUG Delver is the most popular and successful deck in Legacy, and it’s a great matchup for Pox. What’s more, Delver is absorbing and holding in check many of Pox’s tougher matchups like Merfolk and pure control.

Even beyond the StarCityGames.com Open Series and local Legacy tournaments, Pox will be an especially good deck choice for a Grand Prix. Indianapolis will draw many players who are not experts in Legacy and will be looking for a safe and straightforward deck choice. I predict the numbers of RUG Delver and other “fair” decks to be inflated.

Mono-Black Pox

Back in December, Mono-Black Pox helped take me to the Top 8 of the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Charlotte. Back then, I wrote a more detailed primer on the deck, which I recommend for anyone considering the archetype. I was extremely happy with the decklist, and the only change I would’ve made at the time would’ve been to trim The Abyss from the sideboard. However, in three months’ time Dredge has become a major player, warranting a fifth sideboard slot, and Merfolk has fallen out of favor, making the maindeck Spinning Darkness and the sideboard Engineered Plagues possible cuts. Cutting the Plagues would have the unfortunate side effect of changing Goblins from a favorable matchup to an unfavorable one (and Elves from a bye to simply very easy).

With RUG Delver being public enemy number one and the innovative Counterbalance/Top transform sideboard that has been showing up, I’ve recommended a pair of Tombstalkers for the sideboard. They can’t be countered by Counterbalance, don’t die to burn, and RUG players shouldn’t have either Submerge or Force of Will in their deck against you after sideboarding. Off topic, I like Tombstalker so much against RUG that I’ve been trying to remember if any other color has an undercosted, unraceable 5/5 flier…

A possible negative of bringing in Tombstalkers is that they might sometimes prevent Nether Spirit from recurring, which is also a powerful tool against RUG. However, Tombstalker itself and Spinning Darkness, which is also good in the matchup, allow you to manage the cards in your graveyard and make sure that you have exactly one creature in there when you need it.

I predict that the Tombstalkers will simply be invaluable for a long tournament in an open field. For one thing, the clock can be an issue for Pox, as you can be winning for twenty or more turns before the game officially ends. What’s more, Pox, as a slow, mono-color deck, simply doesn’t have the ability to answer every card in Legacy. However, with a 5/5 flier backed up by an unholy amount of disruption, you may not need to answer everything; you can simply kill your opponent. Players are likely to sideboard out their creature removal and permission against Pox, making the Tombstalkers devastating postboard even against decks that may have been able to handle them in game 1.

I’ve always been an advocate for the consistency and simplicity of the Mono-Black build of Pox. I like the way it doesn’t rely on the graveyard (or anything else really) to close a game and makes creature removal completely dead. However, the real appeal of the strategy is the way that it makes use of black’s powerful card advantage spells. There’s more than one way to skin a Goyf.

Ali Aintrazi reached the Top 4 of the Washington, D.C. Open with B/G Pox. He utilized the same basic strategy to survive and disrupt in the earlier turns but was better able to bury the opponent in the late game with the powerful Life from the Loam engine. He also made use of an Entomb toolbox that featured Vampire Hexmage and Dark Depths to close a game, much like the Tombstalkers I’ve suggested above.

Once the game was in hand and Life from the Loam was doing its thing, Aintrazi could dredge up or Entomb for a Vampire Hexmage, a Volrath’s Stronghold, and a Dark Depths. Life from the Loam could get back the two lands, and the Stronghold, in turn, could get back the Hexmage. While it seems slow, I can tell you from my experience that the thing Pox has enough of is time. Games can draw out in the extreme, with the opponent unable to assemble any offense. I’ve felt fine using Cursed Scroll, Nether Spirit, and Liliana to grind them out slowly and painfully (have you ever used Liliana’s ultimate three times in the same game?). However, it’s entirely possible that Mr. Aintrazi’s way is better, especially considering the huge advantage Loam would give him game 1 in the pseudo-mirror.

StarCityGames.com Open Series master Joe Bernal didn’t play with the actual card Smallpox, but he employed the same strategy of disruption and card quantity advantage in the recent Memphis Open. His token theme was similarly good at making opposing removal look silly, and yet he maintained the aggressive potential and proactive strategy that is so valuable in an open field. I especially like the way Umezawa’s Jitte, Batterskull, and Stoneforge Mystic offset life loss and made possible the use of Bitterblossom and Dark Confidant.

Finally, we have a deck your parents will remember and approve of: BUG. The archetype was once high in the running for the title of Legacy’s best deck but seems to have fallen out of favor, and I’m not sure why. Innistrad recently gave it two amazing tools in Snapcaster Mage (which Alex Gonzalez used well) and Liliana of the Veil (which I’d like to see in three copies). In a format full of fast, aggressive midrange decks, it can be great to play a slightly slower midrange deck with more card advantage and removal. Like Pox and B/W Stoneblade, BUG has access to the black removal which makes opposing Tarmogoyfs such a welcome sight, but it has the added advantage of the blue card selection which offers consistency and flexibility. Just make sure you can beat Stoneforge Mystic!

Many of you who haven’t tried Pox or seen it in action may doubt that something so different from Legacy’s top decks can be a good choice. You may think that I’m exaggerating about how strong it is against midrange creature decks, or that I’m simply too attached to my pet deck. I assure you that Pox and other black decks will be good choices for a Legacy tournament this weekend, and I do so with as little bias as possible: I won’t be playing Pox at Grand Prix Indianapolis.

But I will be playing a deck that gets slaughtered by it…