Mana In Legacy Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love Basic Lands

Two-time Grand Prix winner Reid Duke writes about the importance of basic lands in “fair” Legacy decks. Study up before the SCG Legacy Open in Oakland, California this weekend!

Mana is the key to Legacy. Legacy is home to all of the most powerful spells in Magic’s history, and consequently each mana spent in Legacy tends to translate into a game-changing effect. Games are fast and explosive, and there’s little room for error. With so much power at the fingertips of each player, if someone pulls ahead on mana at the right time the game can be over quickly.

The battle over mana begins during deck construction. Some decks strive to hit the four- or five-mana mark and take advantage of the game-breaking spells to be found there. Others are designed to function at full capacity off of only two or three lands, taking their advantage in speed and the ability to shuffle away extra lands with Brainstorm. Finally, there’s the question of how each deck tries to produce its mana. Does it patiently play one land at a time, does it ramp with Noble Hierarch or Deathrite Shaman, or does it explode with Lotus Petals and Dark Rituals?

Today I’m going to restrict myself to Legacy’s “fair decks” since the question of mana in combo decks is fairly complex and needs to be handled case by case.

While there might be dozens or hundreds of “fair decks” possible in Legacy, there’s a single dividing line to be drawn that’s more important than any other. This line separates mana-denial decks from board-presence decks.

Mana-denial decks are sleek and efficient and try to stop the opponent from setting up their synergies or resolving their expensive spells. Hallmarks of the mana-denial strategy are Wasteland, Stifle, and Rishadan Port. Board-presence decks, on the other hand, are more interested in outclassing their opponents and winning on the back of haymakers like Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Ancestral Vision.

One could use the terms “aggro” for mana-denial decks and “control” or “midrange” for board-presence decks, but I’ve chosen not to do that for this article. These terms oversimplify things a bit too much, as board-presence decks can absolutely contain elements of aggression and mana-denial decks can frequently shift gears and take a controlling stance. A pure control deck is difficult to construct in Legacy, and even considering that they’re at a low point in popularity right now.

Mana Denial

Far and away the most popular mana-denial strategy is Delver of Secrets decks, though Death and Taxes, Goblins, and Merfolk are also out there. While there are a number of other color combinations that have seen play, the Delver decks to watch out for are RUG and U/W/R.

Over the years RUG Delver has boiled itself down into the most simple, consistent, and efficient killing machine that Magic has ever seen. The deck does not trouble itself with explicit forms of card advantage. Instead, card advantage is built into the strategy in its low land count, its ability to shuffle away superfluous lands, and the potential to strand expensive cards in the opponent’s hand.

Delver of Secrets, Nimble Mongoose, and Tarmogoyf are the most aggressively priced and simplest win conditions available. RUG denies mana and breaks up synergy, and unless the opponent is able to overcome these challenges and do something very special, these creatures will invariably take the game.

U/W/R Delver is a slightly less pure strategy, as it’s marginally slower and its mana curve must stretch up to three. However, the addition of white corrects the two biggest weaknesses of RUG Delver at once.

First, Swords to Plowshares easily answers creatures with toughness greater than three, whereas RUG can have a very hard time against Knight of the Reliquary or an opposing Tarmogoyf, particularly in game 1. As I mentioned above, mana-denial decks need not feel obligated to be suicidally aggressive. Grand Prix Washington DC winner Owen Turtenwald cited his eight one-mana removal spells (Swords to Plowshares and Lightning Bolt) and his comfortable creature matchups as one of the biggest keys to his success.

Second, Stoneforge Mystic offers a powerful and reliable route to victory that does not use the graveyard. If you ever have the chance to talk to someone who once played but has since given up on RUG Delver, they’ll describe to you the feeling of playing against Rest in Peace or Relic of Progenitus and having two-thirds of your relevant cards neutered in one fell swoop.

U/W/R Delver formerly played Geist of Saint Traft, which I’ll admit is very impressive when it goes uncontested. However, I believe that True-Name Nemesis is frankly a better card than Geist. Also, keeping with the theme of a balanced deck, Nemesis plays superb defense against decks like RUG and Death and Taxes. U/W/R might be the deck that gained the most from the printing of True-Name Nemesis.

Board-Presence Decks

The number of board-presence decks possible in Legacy is essentially limitless. They can be built in any combination of colors and with a huge range of approaches to the game. The only caveats are that they must be doing something powerful and must have some way to outclass the Delver decks as the game goes long.

Esper Deathblade is one of today’s more popular board-presence decks. While other players might include Liliana of the Veil, Lingering Souls, or more copies of Snapcaster Mage, Alex Bertoncini chose to lean on Jace, the Mind Sculptor along with the full four copies of True-Name Nemesis and Stoneforge Mystic as his heavy hitters.

This deck makes use of the highest possible concentration of Legacy’s best cards. Nowhere to be found is a card that wouldn’t be considered a defining staple of the format. Alex has expressed his confidence in the deck by saying that it feels hard to lose if his opponents can’t mana screw him with Wasteland, Stifle, and Rishadan Port.

Ironically, this could be seen as an endorsement for mana-denial strategies as well as board-presence strategies.

Shardless BUG is all about grinding card advantage in the midgame. It’s one of the slowest of Legacy’s popular decks, but to leave it at that doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. While a deck like Esper really needs to resolve three- and four-mana spells in order to win, Shardless BUG’s card advantage is substantially more resilient to Wastelands and Spell Pierces.

Ancestral Vision can be suspended for a single mana, and when it’s ready to be cast, its controller will have all of their mana available to fight for it. They may have to tap out to cast a Shardless Agent, but the cascade ability ensures that two spells will go on the stack at once and the opponent will not be able to conveniently answer both.

Beyond the archetype-defining Shardless Agent and Ancestral Vision, BUG also features traditional powerhouses like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Liliana of the Veil.

Basic Lands

Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, but I’ve always found that I enjoy writing most at the times when I disagree with the rest of the Magic community.

All four of the decks featured above share a common feature: zero basic lands. This is not the way I like to do things.

Mana is the key to Legacy. Mana-denial decks are among the most popular and successful in the format. Combo decks like Sneak and Show and Painter’s Servant use Blood Moon to hose unprepared opponents. Why would you put yourself at the mercy of your opponents by playing all nonbasics?

The pervading opinion seems to be “if I can’t operate entirely on basic lands, then I can’t make these cards dead against me, so why bother trying?”

My friends, every cigarette left unsmoked is good for your lungs! Every drink that goes unordered makes you safer driving home! Every basic land you add to your deck protects you from malicious opponents in Legacy!

I’ll begin with Blood Moon since it’s a simpler case. The majority of decks playing Blood Moon are combo decks, which means that they’re not trying to beat you fair and square; they’re trying to steal games from you. You don’t need to be able to fight at your full capacity under a Blood Moon; sometimes all you need to do is to not concede when they cast it. This comes up a lot more often than you might think in the kooky post-sideboard games where they spend a lot of resources to get their Blood Moon into play.

A Sneak and Show player might keep a hand with a Lotus Petal, an Ancient Tomb, and a Blood Moon. They might cast it without a basic Island in their hand. You might Force of Will, and they might Force back. Any way you look at it, odds are that if Blood Moon is their plan they won’t be killing you with the same speed and consistency that they could have in game 1. Sometimes if you fetch a basic Island for your turn 1 Ponder, then even if your opponent resolves a Blood Moon you might be able to beat them to death with a Snapcaster Mage.

These decks do not play much removal if any. They cannot remove a Deathrite Shaman from the board, so if you fetch a basic Swamp and cast a Deathrite you can cast nearly anything in your deck. If you fetch a basic Island and have a basic Plains somewhere in your deck, maybe you can Brainstorm and Ponder until you find it and get your Stoneforge Mystic into play.

Above are examples of when you have a chance to fetch for your basic land. However, in the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Philadelphia three months back, my opponent played turn 1 Blood Moon on the play. I had only one basic Forest in my deck, but I had it in my hand. Was I lucky? Of course! Would I want that to be my primary game plan? Certainly not! However, it’s possible to draw any card that you put in your deck. Isn’t one better than zero? Two better than one? Three better than two?

Blood Moon is going to have a powerful impact on the game any time you’re playing a three- or four-color deck, but there’s no reason why it has to read “2R: Win the game.”

Now let’s take the slightly more complex question of playing against Wasteland. It is true that putting a small number of basic lands in your deck will not make your opponents’ Wastelands dead draws. However, it can allow you to lessen their impact and give you some greater flexibility in planning for the long term.

Every mana counts in Legacy. Fetching a basic land on turn 1 helps ensure that you hit two mana on time. Fetching two basics on turns 1 and 2 helps ensure that you hit three mana on time. These are important thresholds to meet. Your RUG Delver opponent might not allow you to have five lands in play on turn 5, but at least you can still be alive by that point in the game. At least you can play your Tarmogoyf or can cast Swords to Plowshares with mana to pay for Daze.

The presence of a few basics means you can play around Wasteland for the most important turns of the game (the first ones). It also means that you can’t be completely locked out.

As a side note, while Ghost Quarter, Path to Exile, and Price of Progress aren’t the most popular cards right now, you still run into them every once in a while, and it’s nice to mitigate the damage that they’ll do to you.

I’m not suggesting anything extreme. Don’t put a basic Forest in your Esper Deathblade deck. Don’t build your Jund mana base with three Mountains, three Forests, and three Swamps.

But do acknowledge the value of having basic lands. Realize that playing a Savannah in your Elves deck for the sake of one or two sideboard cards does come at a cost. Consider adding one Island to your Shardless BUG deck and maybe even one Swamp also. Know that if you do choose to play a two-color deck with lots of basic lands, you can play games of Legacy in ways that few other decks could ever hope to.

Stoneforge Bant

Mana is the key to Legacy. Every mana counts. This is the reason that I so frequently gravitate towards decks featuring Deathrite Shaman, Noble Hierarch, or Green Sun’s Zenith.

Notice the two basic lands in Stoneforge Bant. It’s not so many that you get clunky draws, and you can sometimes keep a one-land hand with either of these basics—Forest with a Noble Hierarch or Island with a Brainstorm or Ponder. What’s important is that they’re there. You might look at your opening hand and realize that your path to beating RUG Delver this game is to resolve a True-Name Nemesis or Knight of the Reliquary. In this case, it’s critical not to get Wastelanded on the first two turns of the game, and you’re glad for the optionto search for your basics.

Noble Hierarch has fallen out of favor since the printing of Deathrite Shaman. Deathrite Shaman is a better card than Noble Hierarch, but the gap is not as large as most people seem to think. Exalted is a fantastic ability, and the insurance is also huge that you can always get your mana no matter what. Sometimes you just don’t draw enough fetch lands, and sometimes your opponent plays a graveyard hate card—in these cases, Deathrite Shaman simply doesn’t do what you need it to do.

Noble Hierarch should be a serious consideration either alongside Deathrite Shaman or as a replacement if you choose not to put sources of black mana in your deck.

U/W Control

Here’s an example of a deck that thrives on basic lands. There’s little a Delver player can do about Plains, Plains, Island, Island, Supreme Verdict. This deck preserves the key cards from the Esper Deathblade deck but also has a reliable mana base that cares little about Blood Moon and ensures the ability to reach three and four mana even against mana-denial decks. All that and it gets a ton of value from colorless lands!

I like a lot of things about this deck, with the one flaw being that there isn’t a whole lot to do on the early turns, especially in terms of disrupting combo. Mr. Thomason did the right thing by including a number of situational one-of cards like Spell Pierce and Spell Snare; however, I personally just don’t like those cards very much. I’d be intrigued by an Esper deck that maintains the slow controlling nature and high basic-land count of U/W Control but also has access to discard spells as early plays and as a disruptive spell to flashback with Snapcaster Mage against combo.

Basic lands are the best way for board-presence decks to beat mana-denial decks. The slower your deck and the more expensive your spells, the more basic lands you’ll generally want.

I’m not an expert on Delver decks myself, and I believe that those who are have good reason for constructing their mana bases the way they do. RUG Delver, as one of the fastest and lowest-curve decks in Legacy, has relatively less fear of being Wastelanded (except maybe in the mirror match) and no need for basic lands.

However, if I were to play the slightly slower U/W/R Delver deck, I would personally include one basic Island to give myself slightly more ability to play the control role against faster creature decks.

In any board-presence deck, I would try to include at least two basic lands.

Mana is the key to Legacy. Build your mana base to be reliable and resilient and the rest will follow.