Legacy’s Latest #2 – How to Build an Anti-Creature Deck

In my last article, I wrote about how to build creature decks. I probably should not have done that. The truth is, I really hate creature decks. I don’t have the right knowledge and skillsets to play them correctly, and they have a sort of foul odor to them.

The power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can’t kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you.” – “Ender’s Game”

In my last article, I wrote about how to build creature decks. I probably should not have done that. The truth is, I really hate creature decks. I don’t have the right knowledge and skillsets to play them correctly, and they have a sort of foul odor to them. I’m not saying I’ll never play Goblins, but at heart I’m what our esteemed editor would call a Wake player. I play decks that are too complicated for me because I buy into the myth that they let me “outplay my opponent”, when in fact I’m sort of a bad player. So when I write an article for StarCityGames and try to make everyone’s creature decks better, I feel like I have betrayed everyone who wants to tap two Islands and play Counterspell. Here we go, Control players. It’s time to turn the tables.

When I talk about anti-creature decks, I’m referring to decks that take aim at creature decks in the format and pull the trigger with lots of removal, or ways to make the creature strategy unviable (Moat, Humility). Despite my personal dislike of the deck, Rifter makes a good example:

That is a lot of mass removal. There are only four real pieces of spot removal; Swords to Plowshares makes the cut, but even the iconic Lightning Bolt fails to even make the sideboard. Why all the mass removal, with Lightning Bolt and Magma Jet crying on the sidelines? In my last article, I talked about the distinction between decks with lots of creatures, and decks with good creatures. The two main creature (Goblins and Threshold) decks in Legacy fit one each into each category. Goblins is far and away the most popular deck in Legacy, and it is of the former; a deck with 32 creatures. Rifter has the potential to absolutely destroy Goblins just by removing Lackey, clearing out the early drops with Pyroclasm and then gunning everything else out with Lightning Rift. Every creature in Vial Goblins dies to a Shock, and consequently, to an activation of Lightning Rift. Threshold has fewer creatures, and you plan to overwhelm their counters with Swords to Plowshares and then doubling up your burn to kill their creatures.

This discussion concentrates on the interplay of anti-creature decks mostly versus Goblins, since it’s by far the most prevalent deck in the predominantly-United States dominated Legacy format. (As an aside, if you have information on tournaments, especially tournaments outside the United States, please drop me an e-mail). The power of Rifter is that it has the same game plan against every creature deck, so you aim to play the Angel Stompy matchup or the Zoo matchup the same way you play versus Goblins. Threshold becomes trickier, both because of their fat men and their countermagic; Pyroclasm is not enough to kill threshed Werebears. You can afford to devote multiple cards to removing each of Threshold‘s creatures, since they have fewer of them, but staying ahead on cards becomes more important. At least one card is going to trade for countermagic, which means it might take three of your cards to remove two of theirs. Play around Daze and the trade becomes more equitable because they will have to pitch to Force of Will. This is also why Lightning Rift (and later Astral Slide) are so potent, because they come down before countermagic can be searched for. The other benefit is that once Lightning Rift comes down, half of your deck removes creatures without the cost of a card. But I digress…

I’ve become interested in the curve of removal in control decks. One of the reasons that Landstill started to suck against Goblins was its mana issues. Not only did Goblins start using Rishadan Port and Wasteland to wreck that awful manabase, but Wrath of God is just slow. Goblins wants to win by the time Wrath of God comes online. Back in September, you would see Landstill decks with only four Swords to Plowshares and four Wrath of God for removal, and Goblins would just roll them over before the Landstill player ever hit four mana post-Wasteland and Rishadan Port. The Goblins player could also hold back a Ringleader to use post-Wrath, using Aether Vial to beat counters.

Look at the removal curve of Rifter:

1: Swords to Plowshares (4)
2: Pyroclasm, Renewed Faith (5)
3: Lightning Rift, Slice and Dice, Rune of Protection: Red (7)
4: Humility, Decree of Justice (6)
6: Akroma’s Vengeance (2)

The mana cost and number of cards looks about right for an aggro curve. This is not a concept most people have paid attention to in Legacy. They either crammed in Swords to Plowshares and Wrath of God and hoped, or they loaded up on Lightning Bolts and Magma Jets, with the occasional Pyroclasm. In terms of designing removal, Wizards of the Coast has done a good job of balancing mana cost to effect. If you only have one-mana pinpoint removal like Bolt and Swords, or if you only have mass removal like Wrath of God, you will lose to Goblins. Rifter‘s continued success is a testament to the necessity of having removal to stall until it can bring its game plan online.

One of the key things that has come out during discussion of Rifter is that one of the keys to the deck is Humility. Humility is a bomb in every aggro matchup because it drastically cuts the clock of the aggro decks. Most aggro decks have no way to remove Humility, and they tend to lose if they cannot play their neat creature tricks (Survival of the Fittest, I’m talking to you). Against Goblins, Rifter can easily ride Humility to victory, especially game one. But we’ve discussed before that four-mana is a lot, especially with double colored. Rifter has 16 ways to stall until it hits four mana. Rifter seems to be the first Legacy deck to use Swords to Plowshares and Pyroclasm as a tactic instead of a strategy. Landstill died out because it said, “If I do not deal with every threat you play, I lose.” Rifter says, “Lackey? Eat StP. Ringleader, meet my friend Pyroclasm. Oh, and those four other Goblins? Sure, I’ll take a hit or two, because your days are numbered.” The difference between Rifter and Landstill or MonoWhite Control is the difference between casting Time Walk on an open board, or casting Time Walk with Darksteel Colossus in play (Hello Vintage. I play you occasionally!). One of them is nice because it gets you an extra card and an extra land drop. The other wins the game. Given the choice, I’m going to win the game.

I promised you my personal choice for best anti-creature deck. It’s nothing special; I scrubbed out of the Duel for Duals with the deck, and have since written about it at The ManaDrain and The Source. I scrubbed out not because the deck is bad, but because I’m an awful player and because I didn’t understand the theory of the deck at the time. I had awful cards like Eternal Dragon because they are card advantage engines, when I should have been playing more early removal. The whole point of the deck’s engine is that you win in the late-game, now just hurry up and get there.

This is the most comprehensive analysis of the deck anywhere. It was brought to my attention that people didn’t understand the role of cards like Wall of Blossoms in the deck. I actually started the decklist with Wall of Blossoms instead of Sakura-Tribe Elder. Remember last time that I talked about Nimble Mongoose? I jumped for joy when I realized that you can play Wall of Blossoms on turn 2 and block a threshed Nimble Mongoose on turn 4. Now that’s tempo!

Here’s the deck. I feel that it runs the strongest engine currently in use in Legacy. It obviously has extremely strong game against Goblins, and my testing has been positive against Blue-based control. It also has game against BW Confidant post-board because Compost is such a wrecking ball and they have nothing to bring in.

The real reason I’m using this deck as an example is because it epitomizes the concepts I’ve been talking about above. Game 1 especially, Confinement Slide has strategic superiority against every deck. Only Reset High Tide is prepared to deal with Solitary Confinement, especially with multiple avenues to maintain it. Over half the format will just scoop to Confinement plus support, especially if you have a clock on the board. The problem is that the lock is slow to set up because it requires at least two other cards and a lot of mana. This requires balancing specific removal needs with a minimum of slots.

This deck beats up on aggro decks for two fundamentally different reasons. It has the two engines that will just beat down on aggro, either by attrition (Astral Slide plus Lightning Rift) or just cutting off their ability to kill you (Solitary Confinement). The problem is that Lightning Rift takes until turn 3 to be able to do anything, and Astral Slide won’t be ready until turn 4. To that end, the deck features 11 ways to Time Walk to turn 3: Sakura-Tribe Elder, Wall of Blossoms and Swords to Plowshares. Turn 2 when you drop Wall of Blossoms, the writing is on the wall for Goblins. Wall of Blossoms will block anything but a Piledriver and survive. They can’t burn it away except with a massive Incinerator (and oops, you get to Slide out their guy). Sakura-Tribe Elder is even worse; it’s going to absorb a hit, kill a guy and get you one mana ahead.

Let’s assume that once you get Lightning Rift plus cycling cards set up, you win versus Goblins (not an unreasonable assumption). If they go turn 1 Goblin Lackey and you answer with Swords to Plowshares, the result is obvious. You’ve both spent a card to leave a neutral board state, except you both have an extra land in play. This means in two turns you’ll win the game, where as they will still require at least three turns. Here’s a more subtle example. What if they open with turn 1 Aether Vial, and you play land, go. Then they make Goblin Lackey turn 2 and you answer with Swords to Plowshares. They’re going to be a few turns ahead because of Aether Vial; taking “two” turns after an untap, while you’re still on turn 2. You know what? It doesn’t matter. Turn 3 you’re going to drop Astral Slide or Lightning Rift, and win.

There are two limiting factors for an aggro versus control matchup. Number 1 is your life total, and others smarter than I have discussed that into the ground. The other limiting factor is the number of cards the aggro player has in hand. Think about it for a minute. Assuming you can negate Piledriver, either by sticking chump blockers in front of it (and maintaining that with Slide or Witness) or burning it out (Lightning Rift plus Swords to Plowshares), each individual guy is at worst going to shock you. Goblins can only take so many turns making two creatures before they run out of cards. After a certain amount of time, you can guarantee that you’re going to be able to remove a Goblin per turn, because your engine is just that good.

The best-case scenario is when Goblins tries to burn your creatures out. Hope they forget and use their Gempalm Incinerators on your guys, because they trigger Rift and Slide for you. Every Fanatic they use on Sakura-Tribe Elder, and every Incinerator they turn on Wall of Blossoms, is a free card for you, and a creature they aren’t sending into the red zone. We’ve established that once you get your engine going, you win the game, so every single point that doesn’t go to your dome is the equivalent of a creature that isn’t dealing you damage next turn. After a certain point, you’ve guaranteed you can stop any topdeck they have, so winning becomes elementary. That’s not even counting the possibility you do something broken, like play a Loxodon Hierarch and start blocking and sliding it out. Hierarch can easily negate three or four Goblins by itself.

If you want a hacked up, buzzword-heavy explanation, here you go. Treat your disruption package as a separate deck component from your engine, with a separate Fundamental Turn. You have 11 anti-aggro cards with a Fundamental Turn 1-2, and each one at least guarantees parity. Goblins is turn 4-5 deck, so being able to say with conviction “I can stop the Goblins deck before it wins” is essential to doing well. Even without the Green walls, you could beat Goblins since you have a chance to set up before they win (just barely though), as Rifter proves. The point here is that not only does Wall of Blossoms provide a killer card advantage engine and a way to maintain Solitary Confinement, it becomes a big hurdle for Goblins to overcome.

I hope this article was helpful for you. I’m not trying to break any theoretical grounds with the article series; I’m just trying to express important concepts in easy-to-understand ways. We all fall into the trap of adding cards because they’re good, but writing and working on this article series has helped me place each card in my decks into a plan. If your goal is to get down Lightning Rift or Astral Slide and burn out every creature Goblins plays, it makes sense to run Swords to Plowshares instead of Wrath of God: it’s faster, and once you get going Wrath of God does nothing against the Ringleader plus Warchief plus Piledriver plan, where Swords to Plowshares is ideal.

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