Magical Hack – Worlds: The Home Stretch

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As this goes to electronic print we’ll have seen Standard play out at Worlds. Half of the drafting will be completed as well, leaving only one draft and five rounds of Legacy standing between us and the cut to Top 8. Legacy is an interesting beast, and one left unrecognized in the public spotlight since Flash decks did in fact break the metagame. The question has been asked repeatedly just what the differences will be when you let the “Pros” at the metagame, and we’re about to find out.

As this goes to electronic print we’ll have seen Standard play out at Worlds, with the beginnings of an idea as to what kind of decks will be wreaking havoc on the Standard metagame for the next few months. Half of the drafting will be completed as well, leaving only one draft and five rounds of Legacy standing between us and the cut to Top 8. Legacy is an interesting beast, and one left unrecognized in the public spotlight since Flash decks did in fact break the metagame. The question has been asked repeatedly just what the differences will be when you let the “Pros” at the metagame, and we’re about to find out.

For years, Legacy has been an interesting but somehow not quite innovative format; cards came in and restrictions changed, but your Goblin deck was always pretty competitive. The same general host of combo decks (Salvagers combo, Storm combo of both the Brain Freeze and Tendrils varieties, Charbelcher combo) battled the Goblins and the same general host of aggro-control decks (Threshold, now with 100% more Tarmogoyf) and the occasional “true control” deck (mono-White or Red-White control, Landstill). The Legacy players of the world have been very happy with their format, and at reasonably interesting tournaments along their circuit they saw it evolve and change… just not particularly much, nor particularly quickly. We saw a huge influx of decks and ideas at the incredibly broken “GP Flash” tournament, many preying upon the Flash deck and its possible exploits by ensuring they have the ability to disrupt that opponent naturally while playing their own game. Each of these, however, may be one-trick wonders… metagamed as they were to live in a world where not Goblins but instead Flash decks were the “big fish.” Whether any truly new innovations will persist following up at Worlds is anybody’s guess… will the professionals jockeying for position in the Player of the Year reach any truly innovative conclusions about the format, or will it be the same Goblins — Threshold — Combo metagame we’ve seen for so many years?

If you listen at the right corners, you can learn a lot. Patrick Chapin is talking about wanting Time Vaults, which makes it sound like there’s indeed something interesting going on as the combo deck that used to play the card… and which StarCityGames.com resident Vintage expert Stephen Menendian played at the first Legacy Grand Prix two years ago… has since been errata’d into ineffectiveness. Brian David-Marshall was discussing some interesting Legacy testing that turned out to be a pretty standard Threshold-versus-Charbelcher Combo matchup, but whether that was mere exploration of the format that exists or a “settled on” deck choice awaiting perfection was not exactly discussed in the anecdotal evidence.

I, for one, have been sitting on a Legacy deck of my own creation for some time… a creation I originally innovated for the first Legacy Grand Prix, then battled to an X-1-2 record that missed Day 2 play by one point (and probably tiebreakers) because I had played very, very slowly with my weapon of choice, unsure of my decisions at a Grand Prix level since I’d only returned back to ‘active duty’ as a spellcaster a few months before. I’ve played it occasionally since then and always had reasonable success, and watched the addition of new sets require further alterations and innovations — after all, every Green and Black creature in a new set is a creature I have to at least consider adding to my deck, and sometimes paradigm shifts do happen.

One such shift that I find makes me happy indeed is the printing of Thoughtseize. But let me introduce you to the original, and we can work our way through the technological advancements from there… there’s a reason I think this deck is the first to well and truly profit by the printing of Thoughtseize instead of ‘just’ using Duress; Vintage is so creature-poor that it’s not so relevant that it’s clearly unique, Standard can’t choose between Duress and Thoughtseize, and Extended has this annoying problem with losing too much life to your own lands to start taking damage from spells, too. This leaves us Legacy to make our mark, and there aren’t an awful lot of decks floating around the Legacy format that played Duress prior to the printing of Thoughtseize. When you see where the deck started, we can start adding sets and go from there…

A few years back I published “Leaving My Legacy Behind Me”, a bit of a Grand Prix report introducing a Green-Black Survival deck that tried to marry an “Aggro Rock” beatdown draw capability to a powerful Survival of the Fittest engine, one that can disrupt the opponent heavily instead of ‘just’ gaining incremental card advantage off of Survival of the Fittest… or, if appropriate, ignore them and “combo off” quickly and lethally. These are all ambitious goals, and one that tried to solve the problem of “so what does your deck do if it doesn’t draw Survival?” by having a generally-aggressive creature suite attached to the disruption package of Duress + Cabal Therapy. Careful tinkering and tuning brought me to within striking distance of Day 2 off zero Byes, and earned a bit of attention on the back-pages of forums such as The Mana Drain only to see the deck fade to obscurity because, well, no one else played it.

The deck is conceptually sound, and I eagerly renewed my work on it for the Grand Prix in Columbus. Ultimately I decided not to attend, with two very unfortunate turns of fate in the works… first, the “dropping of the bomb” that changed the metagame into a Flash-centric metagame instead of the one my deck was designed to face, and secondly the “critical fail” that was my financial status at the time. If I could have afforded to go, I’d have put in the further work that was needed to reassure myself that I could face that altered metagame.

The beatdown curve is fairly consistent… you have a small Madness engine adding aggressive power to the Wild Mongrel draws, mana acceleration and discard spells, plus the game-win-in-a-box that comes from resolving Survival of the Fittest and having a creature in hand. All of these things require careful attention, because you are a disruption/beatdown deck if you don’t draw Survival, and thus your choice of ‘silver bullets’ would benefit by likewise matching the beatdown curve so they can participate as warm bodies when you don’t draw Survival. It’s intended as a marriage of consistency with power, even if unfortunately it’s a Green deck whose Tarmogoyfs would be mediocre to poor because it can only reasonably expect to get a land, creature, and sorcery into the graveyard. Thus it plays without Tarmogoyf, even if he is (with the proper diet) the best creature in any format he’s played in, just by his cost-to-size ratio.

I’d gotten some practice in before Future Sight and was well accustomed to the deck at that time, doing well in an online tournament as well as proving promising indeed in all my testing for GP: Columbus back when it was going to be a ‘fair’ tournament. Lorwyn, though, sort of changed things… the game-one matchup against Goblins heavily depended on not drawing Duress, as it is utterly useless if not played on the first turn on the play, and Thoughtseize asks for two life more but can be played absolutely anywhere in there to good effect, widening the targets from “Aether Vial” to “Any Spell.” It also made the Threshold matchup much happier since they tend to struggle if they can’t keep a creature in play, and all-in-all I found it to be a wonderful improvement… either I wouldn’t need the two life because I was playing against a spell-heavy deck, or I would be glad to be able to take a creature even at the cost of two life, so really it was thumbs-up all around.

There’s a few other cards of note as well… including as you might guess the now-ubiquitous Shriekmaw, who by the way feels dirty indeed with Genesis in a way that its predecessor Bone Shredder just never quite got around to, limited to every other turn as it was by the timing interaction of Genesis and Echo. Tweaks and tunes brought me to the following list, which by the time of your reading will have been run through its paces at a high-intensity “playtesting session” called the “Win a Car Qualifier” Legacy tournament at Worlds… just because I’m already qualified for the Friday-night playoffs tournament doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be interested in skipping right into the fray on Sunday, after all two chances are better than one.

Some of these cards you’ll need to read. After all, I’m quite used to being the only person in the room with a Sadistic Hypnotist in his deck, a quirky fact I am at this point quite proud of.

I’ve spoken about the deck before, so it’s not exactly a shocker that I might still be interested in it… I don’t believe in doing fair things if I can do unfair things instead, and while that doesn’t lead me to try and blow through the opposition with a Storm-based deck it does mean I am happy to have welded some “patently unfair” to my aggressive Rock-like deck. Survival decks have had a continual presence in Legacy, but they have folded under the pressure because of several key questions left unanswered. How many colors can you really try and play, in a format where the most commonly played deck has both Wasteland and Rishadan Port to mess with your mana? What do you do if you don’t draw Survival of the Fittest?

The existent Survival decks have all been Red-Green decks, with the potential to explode with Rofellos + Anger if Survival starts going, sort of welding a bit of an aggressive frame onto a Survival deck but really not answering the “so what do we do if you don’t draw Survival?” question. Combo Survival has always been a possibility… Tempest Block Constructed brought us the “Horsecraft” deck that assembled a strange combo, as the first Survival-ish combo deck, and the ever-charming “Full English Breakfast” taught us that Volrath’s Shapeshifter could be a devilish card if left in the hands of a judge like Paul Barclay to bend the rules near the point of breaking in a quest to beat down out of nowhere. If you wanted to build a combo-Survival deck you can add Recurring Nightmare and use the un-power-errata’d Urza’s Block creatures to ‘go off’… but if you really want to play a combo deck there are less fragile engines, so the real advantage of having a Survival deck is the ability to completely overpower the opponent if you just stick your broken Enchantment.

This deck does that by chaining a stream of Basking Rootwallas, then using the free warm bodies to power up Gaea’s Cradle and start chaining out a stream of Arrogant Wurms as well, with the denouement of using the Cradle to pump the army of Rootwallas to swing for the rafters seemingly out of nowhere. It finds some additional use for them (and the Madness theme) by playing Wild Mongrel, previously the best creature ever printed costing 1G before they made that silly Blue card, Tarmogoyf. A solid disruption package plus a solid beatdown package is the foundation for a pretty solid if unimpressive deck, and it’s what the deck can do when it starts spinning the Survival around that gives it a really amazing potential.

Designing the deck and balancing between “what can I do if I draw Survival?” and “what do I have to work with if I don’t draw Survival?”, to have a beatdown curve and thus solid plan even if I don’t draw Survival, is where the real key is. Survival decks are devilishly hard to build, but in this case we pick utility creatures that are generally inexpensive and can contribute to the board and turn sideways, while also potentially answering a goodly number of possible questions the opponent could pose. Ultimately, however, it uses Survival of the Fittest aggressively and as part of a proactive strategy instead of just reacting and limiting the opponent’s board presence as was the fashion of older Survival decks… that is what is the novel approach, letting you attack the game from multiple angles if you get Survival going, all of which generally lead in the direction of winning the game.

Some of these cards have never been played in Constructed, and often didn’t make the cut in Limited for that matter. But a Survival deck uses the tools it has at its disposal, and it just so happens that in context an odd Odyssey Block uncommon happens to be “tutor for Mind Twist” given what else the deck is doing. But theory can be so dry… which is why we’ll be putting the deck through its paces at the World Championships, at the Legacy “Vroom!” event that might let me skip the Standard tournament Friday night that I qualified for to go directly to playing Standard on Sunday for the big prize. While we’re at it we’ll look for any new innovations or unexpected twists and turns in the metagame, like the fact that as of Wednesday night the dealers were running out of Cephalid Illusionists (… and heck if we know whether that is for the Extended PTQ on Friday or for Legacy in the main event, though I’m tending to suspect that the PTQ players weren’t shopping for cards in a strange city they traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to on the Wednesday night before Worlds) and there was a run on some pretty strange cards out there.

… Pretend that we’ve just fast-forwarded a day, since that’s at least what I did, and we can have a quick look at the format in motion at the Thursday Legacy event. A fair number of players were playtesting decks for their friends at the event… which had a large percentage of Tarmogoyf-based Threshold-style decks and literally no Goblin decks to be found anywhere. You could find an Aluren deck, and a High Tide deck, and plenty of other flavors of strange brews, not limited to just my own Survival deck but including a variety of flavors of other Survival decks including a more “traditional” (for the Legacy community, at least) Red-Green Survival deck which used Magus of the Moon as a powerhouse to the format’s manabase along the way. One of those Threshold-style decks got my chocolate in their peanut butter and was a Threshold-Survival deck, with a limited creature suite plus the willingness to “just” get more Tarmogoyfs and some card advantage with Squee.

To say that there was a lot of Threshold-style decks would be an understatement, however, especially as the rounds drew onward and the final cut loomed. Threshold-based decks were probably the top competitor, numerically, and also happened to be the best decks at the end of the day… I put up a respectable 5-2 at the end of seven rounds, but unfortunately that included a 1-2 against the three Threshold decks I faced. I would say the deck performs acceptably against Threshold, since the matches were fairly close and the fight of disruption versus countermagic was an interesting one that could have played out either way… it was one Force of Will away from a 2-1, after all. What was most disheartening however was losing the Survival semi-mirror against that Survival-Threshold-Goyf design, as when we played each other it became apparent that I was sorely outclassed (Blue cards are better than Black cards) and drew Survival less often than I would have if I’d had Brainstorm and Ponder like they did, too.

So there is the danger that the deck is skirting disaster, just to “play with cool things,” and we all know the danger of “cool things.” While it is certainly true that the Survival-Rootwalla-Cradle engine was potent… five matches won does suggest that there is something there… it’s possible that the Survival and Threshold archetypes don’t have to be as distant as they presently are. If we are to see at least one innovation then this afternoon I would expect that it is perhaps this Survival-Threshold combo strategy that bears watching as a new deck in Legacy, though there was little reason to suspect that truly new technologies to be played at the Legacy portion of Worlds would actually be snuck out for “testing” the day before. Whether the Threshold wave will be cresting to fullness or whether we might actually see some Goblins fighting them down will be interesting to see, as the Threshold versus Goblins match has been powerful but not lopsided in either direction prior to the printing of the best Blue creature ever printed (y’know, Tarmogoyf) and I would expect that the same elements that punished the matchup before (Wasteland and Rishadan Port) might continue to do so.

Threshold decks at the top table covered the spectrum, with the only guaranteed combination being Blue and Green. Three or even four colors were stretched to in the quest for Tarmogoyf-based goodness, with Red for Lightning Bolts and friends, White for Plow or Black for Bob and Thoughtseize, and Counterbalance + Top was the leading strategy if you asked the fifty or so players at the Legacy tournament come Thursday. With exactly that pairing having just won the last Extended Pro Tour, I think it’s not beyond imagining that it might branch itself out into that wider format as well and claim a powerful home in the Legacy format at Worlds. It’s already begun to do so at the less well-covered Legacy events since the printing of Tarmogoyf, and was the key element distinguishing Grand Prix winner Steve Sadin deck (built by Top 8 Magic Resident Genius Billy Moreno) from the hundred or more other Flash decks playing in Columbus six months ago.

It should be an interesting five rounds… especially if you’ve come prepared for the Tarmo-Threshold mirror match, as Remy Fortier did when he packed a few Threads of Disloyalty into his Pro Tour: Valencia-winning deck.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com