Legacy’s Latest #4 – Five Simple Tips Towards Becoming a Better Player

I have spent a lot of time telling you what decks to run, but I’ve abandoned you after the deckbuilding stage. I have examined metagames, brought forth the hot tech unto my readers and talked about how to build good decks. My failing was not realizing that not everyone plays as often as I am. Not everyone plays Blue control mirrors for hours at a time or knows how to optimize Brainstorm to see the most cards. Even the best deck in the world is worthless if you do not know how to play it optimally…

"The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it."
Benjamin Disraeli

I have spent a lot of time telling you what decks to run, but I’ve abandoned you after the deckbuilding stage. I have examined metagames, brought forth the hot tech unto my readers and talked about how to build good decks. My failing was not realizing that not everyone plays as often as I am. Not everyone plays Blue control mirrors for hours at a time or knows how to optimize Brainstorm to see the most cards. Even the best deck in the world is worthless if you do not know how to play it optimally. So I’m going to take this article and the next one and try to make my readers a better player. This is not all Legacy specific; only the section of putting your opponent on a deck applies solely to Legacy. The point is just to take some tips that I’ve learned through playing and talking to other people, and try to pass them on to you. You may know some of these, but I hope everyone will take away something new from this article.

#1) Playing Your Draw Spells Properly

The first portion of this is Brainstorm. There is no rule that says, "Brainstorm must be played turn 1." If you do not have an immediate need to cast Brainstorm (such as digging for Force of Will or hiding from Duress), don’t. Brainstorm gets much more powerful if you have a way to remove the cards from the top of your library and if you have excess cards to throw away. Throwing away two lands is much less useful on turn 1 when you still need those lands. If you cast Brainstorm and then draw one of those cards back, in most cases you’ve wasted a full draw step. If you wait until you can shuffle immediately (or cast Mental Note), you get a free card. In almost every case you don’t want the next card, because if you did, you would put some other card back. If you are finding that you do not have extra cards to pitch to Brainstorm, you can probably benefit from not playing every land you draw. Having lots of lands in play is nice, but it makes Brainstorm worse and leaves you vulnerable to Armageddon. If you have enough land in play and your opponent cannot tell that land from a Force of Will or Swords to Plowshares, you probably do not need to play it. But if your opponent knows it is a land (through Dark Confidant for example), you probably can play it. And in a similar vein, remember which cards your opponent knows are in your hand!

The other important factor is to remember that main phase Brainstorms are sometimes correct. If you keep a one-land hand with Brainstorm and you cast it immediately (on your turn or their End of Turn) and you do not see a land, you probably lose the game because you know that for three turns, you do not see land. But if you wait until your second turn to cast Brainstorm, you will see four cards by turn 2, not just three. You might even draw the second land off the top and be able to play a two-drop on turn 2 and keep the Brainstorm for later.

The order you play your draw spells is important. If you have a choice between sorcery speed draw spells and instant speed draw spells (Serum Visions versus Brainstorm), play the sorcery speed ones first to keep your options open later in the game. This is especially true because Brainstorm will show you three new cards when you need it to, but Serum Visions depends heavily on the top of your library. Brainstorm into Serum Visions is bad, but Brainstorm into Mental Note is good. Serum Visions into Brainstorm is good.

The question most people ask me when playing a Life from the Loam deck is, "When do I dredge?" The answer is, "Almost always". If you have at least one cycling land in your graveyard, dredging Life from the Loam is not actually taking any cards away; it costs a little extra mana but it makes every Life from the Loam much better because it seeds your graveyard. One of my favorite plays in Confinement Slide is to cast a blocker turn 2 and cast Life from the Loam turn 3 to make my third land drop by recurring a fetchland. Often I’ll dredge on turn 4 even when I do not plan on casting it anytime soon, just to get Life from the Loam back and make Eternal Witness better. This becomes even more critical if you need to support Jotun Grunt, since the Grunt gets hungry early. Obviously if you only have a singleton of an important card left in your deck you want to be careful dredging (Jotun Grunt helps here), but I find myself dredging every time it provides me advantage, and often even when casting Life from the Loam is a neutral play (recurring one cycling land).

#2) Using Fetchlands Optimally

I know, I know. I tend to write a lot about manabases, but there’s a reason for it. If you build a poor manabase, you end up more susceptible to Wasteland and give up free percentage points. Fetchlands are one of the best tools for a deck, because they fix your mana, give you land destruction immunity, and obscure your archetype. "Polluted Delta, go" is an opening that could be played by Tog, Aluren, High Tide, Threshold, Madness, Ill-Gotten Gains or any number of rogue decks. On the contrary, "Island, go" screams a High Tide build of some sort. The problem is that fetchlands give you a lot of options as to what land to get, and therefore give you lots of chances to make mistakes. As an easy first tip, make each basic of each type identical, so you don’t give away anything. If you use Fact or Fiction and get a land from it and then play the same land with a different picture or edition, you’ve told your opponent one of the cards in your hand for free. That’s giving away advantage for nothing.

If you have a fetchland and another land in your hand, you almost always want to play the fetchland. The only time you do not want to use the fetchland is when you would want to fetch out a dual land to play a card now and it would hurt you if you get Wastelanded.

Example Hand with U/B/G Psychatog, turn 1 on the play:

Island, Polluted Delta, Brainstorm, Pernicious Deed, Psychatog, Force of Will, Counterspell

You would never want to use that Polluted Delta to play the turn 1 Brainstorm. Excluding the fact that it eliminates your ability to shuffle the bad Brainstorm cards, it makes it almost impossible to play Pernicious Deed. Unless you know your opponent does not run Wastelands (and in this scenario you do not know), fetching a turn 1 Underground Sea or Tropical Island could easily get you Wastelanded, setting you back critical turns. If you fetch a basic Island with the Polluted Delta, then you need to topdeck a fetchland or Black source for Psychatog, and you need to somehow get sources for both off-colors in order to play Pernicious Deed… and in many matchups you need to get Pernicious Deed online quickly.

The catch is that you do not actually want to cast turn 1 Brainstorm. The proper play here is to lead with Polluted Delta, and pass. On turn 2 depending on what you draw, you play Island and have the option of an end of turn Brainstorm or Counterspell. The only way you play the Brainstorm turn 1 is if you find yourself needing to dig into a second Force of Will.

If the Polluted Delta is actually a Flooded Strand, this hand is even better in a subtle way. Obviously Polluted Delta makes the mana better, but Flooded Strand is more likely to guide your opponent into making the wrong plays. If your opponent puts you on High Tide or Threshold they may be more likely to try and play against those decks, setting you up for a critical misplay. It also stops you from fetching out a basic Swamp, which in this hand is a mistake since it cuts you off from Counterspell for multiple turns (depending on if you have to dig to find another Island).

Example Hand with G/W/R Confinement Slide, turn 1 on the play:

Windswept Heath, Wooded Foothills, Lightning Rift, Astral Slide, Life from the Loam, Swords to Plowshares, Tranquil Thicket

Again, you do not know if you are playing against a deck with Wasteland, so you have to assume you are and go for basics. If you’re not familiar with Confinement Slide, it has four Windswept Heath and two Wooded Foothills, four Forest, two Plains, and two Mountains. You definitely want access to all three colors of mana by turn 3, and you do not want to lose to Wasteland. You have a very good tempo hand, as long as you do not get crippled. The reason I am presenting this hand is because it helps illustrate which colors you want to fetch and in what order. You want to play turn 2 Lightning Rift, turn 3 Astral Slide if you can, so your first play is Windswept Heath. You want to wait until your second turn to crack the fetchland, unless you have to Swords to Plowshares Goblin Lackey or Akroma, Angel of Wrath. If you draw a third mana source, you know for sure what to fetch out, otherwise you get a Forest. Basic Plains are much easier to get in this deck (six ways) than basic Mountains, and you do not want to fetch a dual land. Forests are the easiest thing to get, but you’ve already seen three lands, and may need to cast Life from the Loam turn 3 to hit your third land drop.

#3) Putting Your Opponent on A Deck

This is the main area where people give up free percentage points. If you know the metagame you will automatically perform better. If you’ve played any Legacy at all, you know that Goblins plays Wasteland, and a turn 1 Goblin Lackey opening means to play around Wasteland. But what about if your opponent opens with Flooded Strand? For example, the following decks have Wasteland:

B/W Confidant
Some Loam decks (more Tog than Confinement builds)
U/G Madness

That accounts for all five colors. It used to be that a turn 1 Windswept Heath would signify freedom from Wasteland, but Roland Chang had to go and win GenCon. Thanks a lot for spoiling our fun, Roland!

It’s worth noting that the only decks that have an incentive to not crack their fetchlands immediately are the base Blue decks running Brainstorm or sometimes Sensei’s Divining Top.

If your opponent opens on a Mountain (or fetchland into Mountain)
There are three types of decks that will open on a Red-producing land (not a dual land): Goblins, Burn, and Sligh (or RDW or R/G Beats). Goblins and most forms of Red aggro decks will run Wasteland, but Burn will not. If your opponent opens with a Red land or a Red fetchland and passes without a play, chances are they are burn with an end of turn Lightning Bolt. More often than not, the Red decks will have a turn 1 play, and you can sort them according to Goblins, Burn, or Red Aggro depending on their drop. However, the vast majority of decks that open on a Red land are going to be Goblins.

If your opponent opens on Island, Underground Sea, Tropical Island, Volcanic Island, or Tundra (or fetches into those) and plays Serum Visions, Mental Note, or Portent
Those cantrips uniquely identify Threshold, either U/G/W, U/G/R, or U/G/B.

Your opponent opens with Bloodstained Mire (and does not crack) or a Swamp, or Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author] or Badlands
If your opponent leaves a Bloodstained Mire uncracked, they are probably playing B/W Confidant or B/R Suicide. Fetching out a Swamp or appropriate dual will guarantee your read. It is possible that a Wooded Foothills or a Bloodstained Mire could also signify Goblins (as well as Badlands, although almost no Goblin decks splash Black). Regardless, a Red fetchland indicates to play around Wasteland.

If your opponent opens with Windswept Heath, Wooded Foothills, or a Green dual land besides Tropical Island
These decks are potentially the most varied. This could signify some sort of Green aggro build, a Survival build (most likely). Luckily, almost all base-Green decks crack their fetchlands immediately to make a turn 1 play. Aether Vial or a mana producer almost certainly decides on Survival, where an aggro creature will point you in the other direction.

If your opponent opens with Polluted Delta, pass
If they do not crack the fetchland immediately and give you no information there are a few possible decks, aside from the eminent randomness. I have ranked them from what I consider most likely to least likely. This is a combination of factors including how many Deltas versus Strands they play, and how likely the deck is to show up. In the early rounds this ranking is very close, but as the day goes on and you look towards the top tables, this ranking becomes more and more pronounced (as the bad players and decks tend to fall away):

Tendrils Combo
High Tide Combo

Tendrils builds seem to run four of each fetchland, but if they have both – or a land and a fetchland – they’re more likely to lead with Polluted Delta to keep Sinkhole and Wasteland protection up. Tendrils combo is also seeing a rise in popularity after Worlds.

Threshold builds (U/G/W and U/G/R, which are the most common by far), either run four Polluted Delta and four Flooded Strand, or a weird mix of fetchlands. If it is Threshold, they aren’t running the good manabase package, which means they don’t have any basic Forests or Plains (and are going to suffer versus Goblins with reduced access to Tivadar and his Crusade). While there are still builds running eight Blue fetchlands, most builds max out on Flooded Strands and then turn to Windswept Heaths. It seems like if they are turning to Polluted Deltas, it means that they are running U/G/R Threshold or U/G/r/w Threshold (since they do not card about getting basic Plains), but U/G/W Threshold is still the most common build by a large margin.

It’s also worth nothing that some U/G/B Threshold variants can run the same manabase as U/G/W but in reverse (Deltas in place of Strands, Swamps in place of Plains). If your opponent leads with Polluted Delta into Underground Sea or Swamp, they could be U/G/B Threshold. This is however much more unlikely than the next two decks.

Reset High Tide combo runs six Blue fetchlands, usually in a 3/3 split but occasionally 4/2. Which fetchland gets the majority is irrelevant to the build and tends to reflect what the player owns, so if you recognize your opponent as a notable Vintage player (who love themselves some Underground Seas and Polluted Delta), it means that a turn 1 Polluted Delta is marginally more likely to reflect High Tide. Most lists that don’t run a 3/3 split run four Flooded Strands, which is either card-for-card copying the original lists, or trying to mask as Threshold. Regardless, you will find out very quickly whether the opponent is on Tide. Tide is much more likely to open with a turn 1 Island than a fetchland, and High Tide is still marginally outnumbered by Threshold decks.

Since Madness runs no Black or White cards, either fetch can represent Madness. Madness’s place on the list is justified only because as it won GenCon Legacy, it is likely to pick up a few players here and there.

Psychatog decks run five or six Blue fetchlands and benefits the most from having a Polluted Delta, since most of the builds run a single Swamp to fetch. Most Psychatog decks will lead with turn 1 Polluted Delta, but since Tog shows up only rarely at tournaments, most decks that open on Polluted Delta are not going to be Tog.

Finally there’s Aluren, the only deck with less percentage than Psychatog. It’s worth mentioning because Matthieu Durand most recent article makes seeing Aluren at a tournament a strong possibility. Even with the article, the number of Aluren players especially at the top tables is likely to be low, since most people seem to either not put in the time to learn it, or they negatively modify the deck.

If your opponent opens with Flooded Strand, pass
This is the same category as before, but I’m changing the analysis slightly to reflect the different fetchland.

High Tide Combo
Tendrils Combo

Threshold is much more likely to open with Flooded Strand; every build of the deck runs 3-4 Flooded even if they do run non-Blue fetchlands. They are also more likely to open on a fetchland to fix their mana than a dual or a basic land.

Because U/G/B Threshold is more likely to prioritize its lands, a Flooded Strand opening might reflect U/G/B Threshold, although it is much less likely than the White or Red variants.

Most High Tide combo decks that do run a 3/3 split on fetchlands run four Flooded Strand and two Polluted Delta.

Tendrils Combo that run Flooded Strand run four, in addition to four Polluted Delta, but not all builds will run a full eight fetchlands, and Tendrils Combo is still underplayed compared to the builds above it.

Madness is much more likely to appear as a netdeck than Confinement or Tog builds which have performed much worse in comparison.

Confinement Control is worth mentioning, especially the newer builds with Jotun Grunt and Vinelasher Kudzu to stay in three colors (instead of splashing black for Grave-Shell Scarab and Dark Confidant). However, Confinement builds are still dramatically unplayed compared to the decks listed above. It’s worth mentioning since it is very easy for the Confinement decks to open the first few turns, like U/G/W Threshold.

Psychatog will almost never open with a Flooded Strand, since at most they run two. You will know soon, but it’s worth keeping in your mind that Flooded Strand could signify Pernicious Deed if an Underground Sea comes up.

If your opponent opens with Island, Brainstorm (even if the Brainstorm is on your end step) or fetchland into Island, Brainstorm
Only strongly base-Blue decks will start getting Islands early. An opening of Brainstorm points away from Threshold (unless they’re digging for Force of Will to answer Lackey), since turn 1 Brainstorm negates most of the power of a turn 2 Serum Visions. If it is Threshold, it means that they have a few extra land in hand to make all their colored sources. It more likely points to High Tide, especially if they fetchland on turn 2 to get another basic Island.

Which decks are possibilities based on an opening of which dual land

Taiga: R/G Survival, Goblins
Plateau: Goblins, Burn
Badlands: B/R Sui, Goblins
Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]: B/W Confidant
Underground Sea: Tendrils Combo, Psychatog, Goblins, Aluren
Tundra: Threshold, Confinement, Landstill
Tropical Island: Threshold, Psychatog, Confinement, Aluren
Volcanic Island: Threshold, Landstill, Psychatog

Decks running discard
B/W Confidant and variants (including things like Sui Black and B/R Suicide), some Goblins builds post-board, Tog, U/G/B Threshold, Aluren, some Tendrils builds.

Decks commonly with access to Pithing Needle
Vial Goblins, Threshold (U/G/W pre-board, all post-board), U/G Madness.

Decks with Force of Will
Threshold, High Tide, Aluren, Psychatog, U/G Madness, some Tendrils builds.

#4) Shuffling and cutting in tournament settings

This tip is short and non-Legacy related. Other writers have covered this before, but it still bears mentioning. When you think you are done shuffling, keep going! I used to do about fifteen side shuffles (removing the bottom half of my deck and meshing it back into the center of the deck), pile shuffle into piles of seven, and do fifteen more side shuffles. That is not enough. I was consistently running into problems because my deck clumped. Now I do about double that. I try to do twice as many side shuffles, and pile shuffle both before and after normal shuffling. My draws improved significantly after this. Did you ever call the Magic Workstation or Magic Online shuffler bad? It’s probably because you are not shuffling enough.

Here is the meat of this section. After you shuffle, you present your deck to your opponent. It is not rude to shuffle your opponent’s deck! Shuffling your opponent does not mean you are accusing them of cheating, or that you do not think they shuffled their deck enough. It is just a good practice to get into. Maybe they did not shuffle their deck enough and would have gotten the nuts. Or maybe your opponent has compensated for their bad shuffling habits by adding extra land, so a proper shuffle will flood them. Yes, and it is possible that you shuffle them onto the nuts. Those are the risks of randomness. If you get into a habit of shuffling your opponent’s deck every time, you run less risks of cheating and the risks of your opponent not having a sufficiently randomized deck.

#5) Clock management in tournaments

Another quick tournament tip to end this portion of the article. There is almost no excuse for going to time in this format. Fifty minutes is sufficient time to play three games, especially with the majority of decks because creature-based. This involves some clock management and lots and lots of practice. There have been some slow play argument arising over some recent Vintage rulings. I will not go into that there, but something from the Vintage forums rings true here: "A tournament is not the time to learn your deck." If you are playing Reset High Tide for the very first time and every time you play it you need to decide whether to Cunning Wish for Meditate or to Stroke of Genius yourself, chances are you are not going to win that tournament. The first part of making sure you can finish every match on time is by being certain that you can play your deck at a reasonable enough pace yourself.

Do not be afraid to call a judge. You are not accusing your opponent of any wrongdoing or cheating. Slow Play is just a failure by a player to play at an adequate pace. Stalling is actively manipulating the clock in order to gain an advantage. Taking fifteen minutes to resolve a Brainstorm is Slow Play. Running the clock down in order to go to time and get a draw is Stalling, and therefore cheating. At most Legacy tournaments, Slow Play is penalized with a Warning; Stalling will be penalized by Disqualification without Prize. If you are calling a judge for slow play, you are not (or should not be) asking for a penalty to be assessed. The responsibility to assess the situation and give out penalties solely belongs to a judge. When you call a judge, you’re just asking them to help make sure the game moves at a steady pace. To start this process, just call a Judge! When they arrive, say something on the order of, "Please watch this match for slow play." The judge may not assess a penalty or even say anything, and they probably will not stay to watch the entire match. However, that’s not a problem, since your only request is to make sure the match finishes on time. You might be saying to yourself, "But I need the judge to assess a penalty, since the match clearly is not going to finish on time." My response to you is that you need to call a judge early in the match when it seems like slow play is going to be a problem, not in the last five minutes or so.

If you are having problems going to time, stop playing slow decks. I was going to time often when I was playing U/W Landstill simply because it took too long for me to win the game even when I had control. Playing a fetchland and cracking it, animating a creature, swinging and passing can all take time, especially when you have to figure out how many creatures to make, how to deal with opposing creatures, and whether to play draw spells. When I switched to a faster deck, I stopped going to time. The other aspect of this is knowing how much time is on the clock. When you are starting game 2 and there are only ten minutes left on the clock, you need to change your sideboarding dramatically to speed up your deck, especially when you are behind in games. Even control decks will find themselves boarding in all the aggro elements they have available to win games. I once won a close match with U/W/r Landstill because I brought in Exalted Angel and Eternal Dragon and got the beats started to win a quick game 2 to turn a potential draw into a win.

Sadly, I’m not perfect, nor am I omniscient. If you have your own tips, post them in the forums. Like I said above, I don’t think this is rocket science, but they are things to think about that can make you a better player.

Kevin Binswanger
Anusien here, there and everywhere
kbinswanger at gmail dot com