Legacy’s Latest #1: How to Build a Creature Deck

For those of you that know me at all, you know me as the Legacy guy. Maybe you’ve been paying attention and you’ve seen my litany of projects: Three-Color Astral Slide, Mono-Blue Control, Flame Vault Stax, and Doomsday. Even Ichorid. So today, the Legacy author most known for tricky and controlling decks is going to show you how to swing with creatures.

Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.
– Mark Twain

This is going to be a different sort of article than you’re used to from me. For those of you that know me at all, you know me as the Legacy guy. Maybe you’ve been paying attention and you’ve seen my litany of projects: Three-Color Astral Slide, Mono-Blue Control, Flame Vault Stax, and Doomsday. Even Ichorid. So today, the Legacy author most known for tricky and controlling decks is going to show you how to swing with creatures.

With a few exceptions, Legacy is fundamentally a format with two major conflicts: decks fighting for time, and the fight between creature decks and anti-creature decks. Without broken acceleration, Legacy decks cannot jump ahead on turns like Vintage decks. There are only three viable pieces of permanent, colored acceleration: Chrome Mox, Mox Diamond, and Sakura-Tribe Elder. Ancient Tomb exists, but it’s a little too situational and doesn’t produce colored mana. It has limited applications, but is only tangentially relevant to the discussion at hand. Since control and combo decks are ultimately about generating a lot of mana and using it efficiently, in this format they have to survive to make land drops in order to power out their bombs. An interesting side effect of this is that Swords to Plowshares operates as faux acceleration, since the control deck just wants to survive until turn whatever to play its good cards.

The other fundamental conflict is between creature decks and anti-creature decks. Here is a brief sampling of Legacy according to this dichotomy:

The Creature Decks
Angel Stompy
BW Confidant

Anti-Creature Decks
UW Control
Life from the Loam Control

Let’s go more in-depth on Rifter versus Goblins, as an example of a creature deck versus an anti-creature deck:

Rifter has eleven maindeck removal spells, plus Lightning Rift, Humility, and Circle of Protection: Red. As an aside, Goblins has eight maindeck removal “spells,” plus Siege-Gang Commander; this speaks volumes about the depth of aggro in the format. Rifter wants to stop the early Goblin rush in time to bring its card advantage engine online to deal with all the relevant threats. Rifter versus most aggro decks often ends up in a race to Humility before Rifter’s life total drops to zero. Against Rifter, Goblins wants to get into a race. Especially game 1, Goblins has no outs to Humility other than swinging with 1/1s. Rifter almost can’t punish Goblins for over-extending because it runs maybe two fast board sweepers, so Goblins is going to go all-out versus Rifter, leaning on Ringleaders to reload after Pyroclasm. For game 2 and 3, most Goblin decks are going to bring in either Anarchy or Disenchant to remove Humility, but fundamentally it remains the aggro deck.

The Goblins mirror match is another matchup that bears investigating. I’ve discussed this matchup before, but let me reiterate that logic in the light of some metagame shifts. Goblin King is almost completely out, but Siege-Gang Commander is here to stay. Most Goblins decks are now running three or four Gempalm Incinerators in the main, as well as a Goblin Sharpshooter, and they all run extra removal in the sideboard. The way to win the mirror is to hit the opponent for more damage. You do that in two ways: playing more creatures than your opponent, and killing more of your opponent’s creatures than he kills of yours. Obvious, but it has some implications. The mirror is fundamentally about who gets more Ringleaders and Incinerators, although holding Sharpshooter advantage can be large. Cards like Jitte that seem good in the mirror aren’t, but Pyrokinesis can be a huge tempo boost.

Goblins approaches every creature match similarly. Versus Threshold, Goblins just wants to make a lot of creatures and beat down (notice a trend?). The only difference is that Goblins wants Aether Vial to resolve much more against Threshold than it does against, say, Rifter. With Aether Vial, Goblins can dodge Tivadar’s Crusade and resolve all the Goblin Ringleaders it wants. If Goblins does not keep an aggressive pace, Threshold is going to drop a beefy 3/3 or 4/4 on the board and start eating up creatures every attack.

There is actually a large difference between Goblins versus UGR Threshold and Goblins versus UGW Threshold. Take a look at a typical UGR Threshold list. UGR Threshold is more akin to Goblins with its extra maindeck removal spell. UGW Threshold has Meddling Mages to beat up on combo/control, and Swords as a catch-all removal. By contrast, UGR Threshold has four Lightning Bolt (which is effectively a Swords to Plowshares), but it also has Fire/Ice to kill two Goblins at once. It also trades Mystic Enforcer for Fledgling Dragon, who can win the game just as quickly or quicker. When Goblins faces up against UGR Threshold (even before it gets the efficient Pyroclasm from the board), every time Goblins tries to rush a Piledriver, instead of having the only-good-for-trading Meddling Mage, UGR Threshold is going to throw a Bolt at it, or stop the Warchief and halt your attack.

In the context of designing creature decks in Legacy, I’m going to discuss the theory of how to choose threats. Anwar Ahmad wrote an article on this, so go ahead and read that article. I’m going to discuss and expand on his theory. As I emphasized in my forum responses to his article, discussing potential threats is basically a worthless endeavor since every creature can potentially beat for twenty. The important thing is to look for durable or reliable threats, the kind that scare your opponents when they come down. Nimble Mongoose is my favorite threat in the current Legacy. Why? It can’t be targeted by spot removal. It survives Pyroclasm. It’s easily backed by Force of Will and Daze to avoid Wrath of God, and it’s bigger than every single creature in Goblins once it gets Threshed. It also happens that Nimble Mongoose is the best thing to put in front of a Goblin Lackey turn 1, since it’s immune all the ways Goblins wants to clear a path.

So what makes a creature a durable threat? It has to have toughness greater than two. You can’t rely on anything with a toughness of one unless it has built in untargetability, and even Humble Budoka dies to Pyroclasm. Yes, everything dies to Wrath of God, but Wrath of God is incredibly slow; Pyroclasm is fast. The creature has to have power greater than two. Goblin Ringleader is a good threat, but not because it swings for two. The reason why Werebear is so scary in spite of having no combat abilities is because it hits for a fifth of your life total. And it does it for two mana less than Ravenous Baloth. If it doesn’t hit for a lot, it needs to have a relevant ability. Goblin Piledriver has just one power, but it value-sizes into a beater of Jared-style proportions, pre-Subway. It also has Protection from Blue, which is the next criteria. Evasion and protection abilities are excellent. Regeneration and untargetability make Troll Ascetic far superior to Gnarled Mass, even though the Troll will occasionally die in a Pyroclasm.

Option A for creature decks involves having fewer but far superior creatures; favoring Troll Ascetics and Nimble Mongeese over Goblin Fanatics and Isamaru, Hound of Konda. Even though decks utilizing Option B are fewer, it’s worth mentioning, if only for the fact that Goblins is an Option B deck. Option B is to play a lot of creatures, and overwhelm your opponent. These decks rely more on synergy and cheap creatures rather than the individual merits of each creature. Option B decks are willing to play into Wrath because it shortens the amount of time your opponents have to draw answers. Option B decks cannot afford to play out one creature and make the opponent deal with it, because most of their creatures are fairly weak (Umezawa’s Jitte as an exception). Option B decks rely on swarms and synergy or power-ups. If Goblins didn’t have the friend-finding utility of Goblin Ringleader, or the Form-Blazing-Sword power-up of Piledriver, it would not be the juggernaut it is today.

Threshold (both variations) is clearly an Option A deck. Most builds run fifteen or fewer creatures, and any one of them can go the distance backed by Threshold’s countermagic. Goblins cannot win on the back of one creature; each individual creature has power of only one or two and would have to swing for ten turns with no countermagic or discard. The only “disruption” Goblins has is to put pressure on the opponent by playing more Goblins. This is an okay strategy for now because every time the Goblins player empties their hand, Ringleader summons another clip. Goblin decks are really a one and a half trick pony because they have Wasteland and Rishadan Port as pseudo-disruption, but at the core, all Goblins wants to do is attack.

Anwar presents two Option B decks that use a weird sort of strategy to try and pretend they are Option A decks. Both decks feature three copies of Umezawa’s Legendary Beatstick. With the Jitte (or Rancor/Sword of Fire and Ice) any individual creature can go the distance. Those decks have to take that plan. If they try to man up against the Goblins deck, Goblins is going to overrun them. Goblins has superior card draw and removal, and so the other deck has to run a tempo black hole to try and make its creatures scarier than Goblin Freaking Piledriver.

In any creature matchup short of the 75-card mirror, one of the decks has bigger creatures, and one of the decks has more creatures (these two decks are not necessarily different). This forces a natural sort of strategy; the deck with bigger creatures wants to leave back blockers and hit for a little bit of damage a turn, and the deck with more creatures wants to set up a few big strikes when it gets a huge advantage. Both decks are packing removal, but they’re using it in different ways. The A deck (with better creatures) wants to stop an alpha strike, and it is going to prefer mass removal, like Fire/Ice in the UGR Threshold deck. The B deck with more creatures wants to clear out big blockers, using tools like Sparksmith or Gempalm Incinerator, and swing for a lot of damage. Nimble Mongoose is a natural foil to this strategy, which is another reason why I love it.

I have a deck that actually hybridizes these two strategies. I consider it the natural evolution of creature decks. The idea is that you hybridize between Option A decks and Option B decks. Most swarm decks rely on creatures with power or two or less and rely on synergy. Instead, this deck uses the most efficient but powerful beaters in existence. Of the twenty-three creatures in the deck, only one hits for two damage; the rest hit for three or more.

(You can check out the thread on TMD here.) The basic idea is that your creatures are bigger than any Option B decks, and you run more of them than any Option A deck. You also have a better long-game – via Life from the Loam and Flashback – than any other creature deck. Remember the old adage: “the slowest Zoo deck wins.” From the limited testing I’ve done, that apothegm (what an awesome word!) still holds. You beat Goblins because you can almost match them in creatures (you can put twenty-eight on the board at one time, compared to their thirty-two plus Siege-Gang Commander tokens) but yours are at least twice as big. You beat other Zoo decks for the same reason; most Zoo decks now are focusing on 2/2s for one mana, while you’re concentrating on 3/3s for two. They’ll get maybe one hit in and then your creatures will crush theirs, drive them before you, and hear the lamentation of their Jittes. You beat BW Confidant because you have Life from the Loam to go long, and bigger creatures with cheap mana costs in the short term. Threshold testing is still absent. The theory is that your creatures are slightly smaller, but you have more of them and a better draw engine to continue to have more of them.

So what about anti-creature decks? To beat Humility you have twenty-four points of burn, and the ultimate trump in Nantuko Monastery plus Life from the Loam. Based on the new layer rules, Nantuko Monastery’s power-setting effect applies in the same sublayer as Humility’s power-setting effect. If the Rifter player casts Humility and then you active Nantuko Monastery, you have a shiny 4/4. And even with Humility, you can put a fair amount of damage on the board to finish the work your creatures did when they had actual power ratings. You are conveniently immune to Pyroclasm, and targeted removal does less against you than it does against Goblins. In other words, HULK SMASH!

I want to wrap up with a few predictions… for the future. Blue-based control looks absolutely dead in the format, but there is a confounding factor. Mike Flores has discussed the evolution of formats, with aggro strategies developing first followed by control. The problem is that the aggro decks we have are near optimal; Goblins cannot be more than five slots off from optimal list. It makes a very unpromising gauntlet to throw a control or combo-control deck up against optimal Goblins, Threshold, and BW Confidant lists. Burgeoning deck designers, don’t lose hope. I hope this article has shed some light on how to develop for the current format. Several skilled Legacy players and myself imagine a future of Legacy that is not dominated by Goblins, Angel Stompy, or Zoo. Here’s a quote from Ben Kowal that gives hope for the future, “There has to be something that beats the man plan by virtue of it just being better”.

I hope you enjoyed the article; the next one is going to focus on building anti-creature decks.

Kevin Binswanger
[email protected]
Anusien on The Mana Drain, StarCityGames, The Source

By the way, if you’re not, you need to be watching How I Met Your Mother, with Alyson Hannigan and Neil Patrick Harris. It’s the funniest thing on TV. Monday nights on CBS.