Legacy’s Allure – Building Gifts for a Merfolk/Zoo Metagame

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Tuesday, February 2nd – Inspired by the consistent success of both Merfolk and Zoo in Legacy, Doug presents a deck that attempts to tackle both of those decks by treating them as poles of the metagame. Using the powerful Gifts Ungiven and a relatively new win condition, his deck attempts to wallop the common aggro decks while maintaining flexibility in the face of the diversity of the format. Find out how to build a deck that mixes board control with combo kills in this week’s Legacy’s Allure!

This week, I’m going to share with you a deck that’s been a source of interest and frustration for me for the past two months or so. It’s a control deck, utilizing Gifts Ungiven and a lot of board control, built in an attempt to beat a Zoo-Merfolk metagame. I chose these two decks because they are very, very common in Legacy right now and if I could design something that could readily beat them, I could include enough elements in the deck to also beat slower or more unusual decks. Then, of course, we get to Gifts Ungiven — it’s a blatantly powerful card and it enables all sorts of 1-of tricks in a deck. Further, it set up the Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combination handily, and that combo, I’ll tell you now, is the best way to beat Fish and Zoo.

I started by thinking about why those two decks are good, and what their weaknesses are. Both can deploy a very early stream of small creatures and have relatively low mana curves, meaning that they are consistent. Both Zoo and Fish have ways to make “mere creatures” (or mer-creatures!) a fine gameplan, with Zoo packing burn spells and Merfolk packing disruptive elements. The downside of both decks is that they rely on creatures that are individually weak. They’re susceptible not only to spot removal, but also burn spells. Why is this important? Burn spells in Legacy come with a lot of added value compared to just removal. For example, Firebolt can kill two guys (though it’s not typically strong enough to run), and Firespout can clear a whole board. The two banner cards, though, are Lightning Helix and Punishing Fire. The former is practically removal and a counterspell against Zoo, as it negates their Lightning Bolts and gets you out of their burn range. It also kills everything that Merfolk plays. The latter, though, requires a little explanation…

Punishing Fire first made its impact in Extended, both in Rubin Zoo and in Punishing Control lists piloted by several players, both utilizing the burn spell and Grove of the Burnwillows to return it. The combination gives you a machinegun against small creatures. Granted, a number of cards in both Merfolk and Zoo can resist a single Punishing Fire, but I found that if one used it in conjunction with some spot removal, there was plenty of time to get the lands to double-Fire something. That Punishing Fire returns with Swords to Plowshares was also fantastic. With Grove, Punishing Fire is a midgame sweeper akin to Wrath of God, but costs no cards and works at instant speed.

Most of my early lists started with 4 Lightning Helix and 4 Firespout, but then morphed around to accommodate the Punishing Fire combination along with some more intense blue elements for Spell Snare and Counterspell. One early list that I saved looked like this:

4 Brainstorm
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
3 Gifts Ungiven

4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Path to Exile
2 Engineered Explosives
1 Meekstone
3 Punishing Fire
2 Threads of Disloyalty

1 Regrowth
1 Argivian Find
1 Life from the Loam
1 Tormod’s Crypt

1 Thopter Foundry
1 Sword of the Meek
1 Gigapede

2 Forbid

2 Chrome Mox

4 Scalding Tarn
3 Flooded Strand
2 Tropical Island
1 Taiga
1 Island
1 Snow-covered Island
1 Academy Ruins
1 Secluded Steppe
1 Lonely Sandbar
4 Tundra
1 Wasteland
3 Grove of the Burnwillows
2 Volcanic Island

One thing was for sure about this list, it beat up Zoo all day long. The deck didn’t play as a Landstill-style control deck where it wanted to answer everything you played and then beat down with a Mishra’s Factory. Instead, it aimed to stay alive just long enough to resolve a Gifts Ungiven in an endstep and make Thopter Foundry rebuy all the lost time and invalidate an opponent’s threats. If Zoo didn’t have a blazingly fast start, one that overpowered a responsive Swords to Plowshares and then an Engineered Explosives, it didn’t stand a chance. This deck would eventually Threads of Disloyalty a Wild Nacatl and, to quote The Juggernaut, beat you with your own pimp.

I ended up tinkering with the list a lot, because it actually struggled against Merfolk if they had three disruption pieces that they could make matter against you. For example, the manabase here is actually awful and got retooled for the final version. Cards like Threads were great against Zoo but only so-so against Merfolk. I changed the Threads to Control Magic, which was actually a fine card. As an aside, four mana looks like a lot in Legacy, and it definitely is. However, for a deck that can last until it can make that mana, the 2UU is a removal spell and a powerful summoning spell on your side. Control Magic enabled things like taking a Tombstalker and going crazy. Eventually, I found that it was soft to enchantment removal like Qasali Pridemage and that the alternative, Dominate, cost too much mana to be effective. If I were building this deck from the ground up again though, I would certainly look at Control Magic.

Somewhere along the line, I cut Regrowth because I always just wanted Argivian Find over it when I cast Gifts. That’s because, with Academy Ruins in the mix and Brainstorm and Top, I could find one half of the Thopter combo and just have to Gifts for the other. The White mana cost and instant speed was also superior. I swapped out Life from the Loam for Crucible of Worlds, which is a card that actually reads “3: draw another card each turn and shuffle your library.” Oops! I inadvertently cut all the Green cards from the maindeck! This was the second major step in the deck for me: making a solid manabase. I found that with a URW deck, I could use Flooded Strands and Scalding Tarns to pile up on basics. Since the deck lacked many cards that had double mana symbols, it was strangely unreliant on dual lands. A solid manabase meant that I could fight Wasteland-aggro decks much more effectively.

The final version I came to in testing was the following list:

There’s a lot here, so I want to unpack it bit by bit. First, we have a card selection engine that’s quite robust:

4 Brainstorm
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
3 Gifts Ungiven

With these cards, you can pour out a consistent stream of answer cards like Swords to Plowshares and get to the endgame setup with Thopter Foundry. I found that I only infrequently cast Gifts Ungiven if I was poking around for removal spells, but the pile of Argivian Find, Humility, Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile was very good.

My teammate Brian Demars recently broke down for me that there are three kinds of Gifts piles: Gifts for answers, Gifts for value, and Gifts for the Combo. The first scenario often involves the kinds of cards I just listed above, but can also include Engineered Explosives, Academy Ruins, Crucible of Worlds and Argivian Find for permanent removal. The “value” Gifts is often employed when you have the Gifts, aren’t under a lot of pressure, and need some more cards but can’t get the combo out yet. An example is the Gifts pile for Brainstorm, Forbid, Gifts Ungiven and Crucible of Worlds. That will generate a good deal of card advantage immediately. The “combo” Gifts usually entails Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek, Argivian Find and Academy Ruins. It’s critical to note that you can throw in cards like Punishing Fire on a Gifts Ungiven and bring it back, which is a little synergy that gets employed often in the deck.

Next, we’ll look at the removal suite:

4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Path to Exile
3 Punishing Fire
2 Engineered Explosives
1 Humility
1 Firespout

The factor to consider with the Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile numbers is how many removal spells you need. In this case, I needed five, so I used all four Swords and a single Path. Swords to Plowshares is obviously better because you don’t care about how much life your opponent has and it returns with Punishing Fire. If I needed only four removal spells, I would run three Swords to Plowshares and a Path to Exile, because the Gifts for spot removal is crucial and I’d rather have that option than the fourth Swords.

In testing, I found that any less than three Punishing Fires meant it was an inconsistent card to find, and the opportunities for casting two actual copies of the card decreased dramatically. This was important because you don’t always have Grove of the Burnwillows in play. Three copies meant that I usually had one in hand early in the game and I could get two to make my alternate win condition of recurring Fire happen. You’ll find, incidentally, that it’s actually easy to Fire someone right out of the game, even if they’re at about 35 life or so, because you can get people in positions where there’s just nothing they can do. It costs 2RRRR to cast two Punishing Fire and recur them from one Grove of the Burnwillows, which will deal three damage to an opponent.

I liked having broad answers in cards like Moat, Humility, Meekstone and the like. Firespout is a good sweeper that could easily also be Wrath of God. Humility got the nod over Moat because it answers Progenitus and Qasali Pridemage better, and does insane-o cool things with an active Punishing Fire. Since you’re attacking with a bunch of 1/1 Thopters to win anyway, the downside of Humility is meaningless.

Now, we’ll look at the (minimal) counterspells in the deck:

1 Forbid
3 Spell Snare
2 Counterspell

One of the major downsides of board control decks like Rock is that they have a hard time interacting with the stack. A topdecked Armageddon or Tormod’s Crypt from an opponent can really cripple a deck like this one that aims to use the long game. Thus, I wanted some quantity of counters. These numbers varied wildly and at one point, included four Counterbalance. Spell Snares are a critical way to stop Qasali Pridemage and have plenty of targets all across the format. I used to have four Counterspells, but found that I didn’t want to find two blue sources to cast them that often. They’re handy to have, but you have to use them in a strategic way by only countering what you absolutely cannot stop otherwise. Forbid was an early addition that stayed around because of how unbelievable it was with a Punishing Fire. With only a single Fire, you could turn the card you drew every turn into buyback fuel for Forbid, and with two, buying back the spell cost only the Punishing Fire recursion. Against decks that could not interact with the stack, Forbid was game-over.

Finally, we’ll look at general utility and the win condition:

1 Pulse of the Field
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Crucible of Worlds
1 Thopter Foundry
1 Sword of the Meek

One advantage of Grove of the Burnwillows and Swords to Plowshares is that they make Pulse of the Field so much better. If an opponent is at 32 life, you can come right up to where they are with Pulse and create a buffer that even something like Price of Progress cannot touch. Pulse is a trump card against aggressive strategies and invalidates a lot of cards that they draw. Be very careful with when you cast it, though, as smart players can burn you out in response to it.

I included Tormod’s Crypt because I continually lost to other decks that went to the long game. Survival of the Fittest decks could sit on their Squee and Genesis and bury me with the three cards per turn that they were drawing. A single Crypt was a nod to that. The Crucible of Worlds allows fetchland recursion to give you crucial shuffles with your Sensei’s Divining Top and allows for a Wasteland lock if you need it. The deck really wants to draw a land and a spell every turn and Crucible makes that happen. The Thopter Foundry combination makes piles of life and unanswerable attackers; it is, I think, the reason why this deck did well. Attacking with something like a Baneslayer Angel or manlands is just too risky of a win condition, while the Thopters get around every spot- and sweeper-removal there is.

The manabase is worth noting because it runs a full six basic lands. Like I wrote before, the deck has very few actual needs for colored mana, so you can just run out basics if you need to. If you’re on a budget, the deck can shave away a lot of the dual lands, provided you have Flooded Strands and Scalding Tarns to make the mana work. I rotated though the deck some utility lands like Cephalid Coliseum; if you like them, they’re fine to play. You can also run a single Tropical Island to enable a broader sideboard. The deck has a hard time getting Punishing Fire back without three Grove of the Burnwillows, so don’t cut back on those.

I played around with a lot of cards on the sideboard, mostly working around the idea that decks are going to bring Krosan Grip in against me. That made cards like Peace of Mind and Circle of Protection: Red weaker. One card I did stick with was Counterbalance; with four of them on the sideboard and four Tops maindeck, you can bring them in against low-cost curves like Zoo, BG Suicide, Enchantress and more. They’re a total surprise and change the way an opponent will sideboard later. Diversity in a sideboard is key, so I ran another Tormod’s Crypt, a Relic of Progenitus, a Ravenous Trap and assorted other graveyard hate cards to throw Dredge and Life from the Loam decks a curve. The board changed every time I tested, so I can’t give you a definite one, but a look through your playables box will give you a good idea of what you can run.

In the end, I thought this was a pretty good deck, but I stopped playing around with it. There were a number of factors that go into it (beyond my short attention span) that make the deck challenging to play in competitive Magic. For example, it’s a total dog against combination decks. It’s best when built for a specific metagame that’s predictable. Also, it was troublesome to play perfectly at all times. There is a certain margin of error built into the deck, thanks to cards like Thopter Foundry and Firespout, but some wrong decisions were just too bad to recover from. With a control deck, it’s a lot easier to play the “if it moves, kill it, if it doesn’t, counter it” game than one that requires you to know just how much damage you can take right now or whether to Gifts Ungiven for control elements or go for a combo. Finally, I thought the deck would be a lot better with community input, since I was reaching a point where I couldn’t develop it further. That mainly comes from the fact that card choices in this deck are so interconnected that removing one changes so many others, like a game of pick-up sticks. Cutting the Fires? That means cutting Forbid. Running Moat? No more Gigapede! Do I want to exploit all those basic lands by running Ruination from the sideboard? I was faced with so many possibilities that I couldn’t make up my mind.

So at this point, I turn the deck over to you, reader! Tune, tinker, play with or discard it, but email me or post in the forums with your feedback about it!

Until next week…

Doug Linn

legacysallure at gmail dot com