Solving Stoneblade From First Principles

If you’re looking for a deck to play this weekend at SCG Legacy Open: Seattle, read how Zvi settled on his list of Esper Stoneblade for the SCG Invitational in Atlanta.

When I decided to go to the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Atlanta, I knew I’d need a Legacy deck. I hadn’t played a game of Legacy since putting together an Enlightened Tutor based Counterbalance deck for Worlds when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. That deck was excellent for that tournament, but the format had evolved quite a bit since then. I’d been watching the SCG coverage every now and then, but there’s a huge difference between watching some matches play out on camera and understanding how a format works.

I asked my team what I should play, and Tom Martell replied right away that I should play Esper Stoneblade and that he would both loan me his copy of the deck and give me a primer on how to play it so that I’d be ready. Tom was doing coverage, so he couldn’t play in the event. Given what a master Tom is with the deck and how successful and powerful the deck has clearly been, not to mention how frustrating card access can be, that seemed like a no brainer.

Little did I realize that by accepting Tom’s deck I was also accepting Tom’s luck, which meant that he would forget his decklist at home and then not share the list with me until it was too late.

Without a decklist and without the advice from the master of the deck himself, I was flying in blind.

The first thing I noticed about all the lists was that they looked almost exactly the same. Without exception, the lists that I looked at had the following 33 spells and eighteen lands (since then I’ve seen Vindicate and Engineered Explosives omitted):

3 Snapcaster Mage
4 Stoneforge Mystic
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Batterskull
4 Brainstorm
1 Counterspell
3 Force of Will
4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Inquisition of Kozilek
2 Thoughtseize
3 Lingering Souls
1 Vindicate
2 Island
1 Plains
4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
1 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]
2 Tundra
2 Underground Sea
1 Academy Ruins
1 Karakas

Remaining lands could involve a Swamp, a second Plains, a third Tundra, a third Underground Sea, copies of Marsh Flats, occasionally Wasteland, and in one case a second Karakas. Land counts were all 21 or 22 (I’ve since seen one 23), so with 33 fixed spells that left at most six spell slots remaining, and if you had only 21 lands, you pretty much had to have two Ponder (or Preordain, which I’ve now seen) and are rather insane either way given Wasteland. So realistically, there are only four nonland cards that ever vary. Those four cards are always chosen from second Ponder / 22nd land, fourth Force of Will, one or two Spell Pierce, one Vendilion Clique, third Inquisition of Kozilek, third Thoughtseize, one Supreme Verdict, and fourth Snapcaster Mage. At the tournament, there were cases I know of that had the fourth Jace, the Mind Sculptor or one Intuition.

Given how many cards are available in Legacy and how much this deck could be doing, it is very surprising to see everyone in such complete agreement. What made this configuration so obviously correct? At first, it seemed like there were so many things to consider doing and that space couldn’t possibly be this tight, but the more I looked, the more the decisions started to look like they were forced. There are lots of restrictions the deck has to deal with.

First, it must fully support Snapcaster Mage and Stoneforge Mystic. Your two Equipment cards come standard and are obviously correct. Brainstorm is awesome enough that you need at least a fifth and would like a sixth to make sure you reliably get your good cards and can use Snapcaster Mage profitably. Discard is necessary to defend Stoneforge Mystic and to provide impactful targets for Snapcaster Mage, especially because many decks have game plans that need to be broken up, but you can’t afford to permanently sit back on counters so overloading on those doesn’t work either.

I feel like the deck wants six discard so you usually have one, although I settled for five and Tom settled for four. The first Counterspell is great because you can use it with Snapcaster Mage and it helps make you unpredictable, but more of them would lead to very awkward situations. In situations where you want more counters after sideboarding, you want to make sure they only cost one mana, so putting more Counterspells in the 75 makes your post-sideboard configurations worse.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is of course better than all, so you’re not leaving home without three copies, although four would mean drawing two too often and the presence and threat of Jace means you need to have Lingering Souls for both that and to ensure having targets for your Equipment. It’s one of Magic’s great cards and does exactly what you want it to do, so much so that I wanted an Intuition to make eight Spirits while having options on other things. Drawing two Lingering Souls too early can force you down a path that you don’t want to be forced down, so your limit on copies of Lingering Souls is three.

The Engineered Explosives confused me for a bit until I thought harder about Academy Ruins and realized how much extra value there was in having access to that and the fact that the deck otherwise has very little removal for permanents and either one or no sweepers. For one slot, you pick up a ton of option value to complement your Snapcaster Mage option value, which you add to with one copy Vindicate, so you maximize your chance of having a solution that will work on the current problem and aid in having enough answers after sideboarding since every sideboard slot in Legacy is solid gold.

That left little room to play with. Discard feels like where you want to be. You have Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, both of which win the game unanswered on their own and are facing a lot of combination decks and spells that answer those cards, so it seems like it’s always great to have one discard spell and often the best way to win is to have lots of them. Vendilion Clique is a great way to effectively have more discard, especially as a setup to Jace, while also getting another body slash clock into the deck, being blue for Force of Will, and not risking you choking on discard at the wrong time, so I knew I wanted it to have the nod.

The fourth Snapcaster Mage is the other card people use in that slot. I definitely respect that, but it’s never super high impact and space is always tight after sideboarding. Again, it’s key to make sure that the deck doesn’t have too much of any one thing. Playing a fourth Snapcaster Mage would be better if one were on the Intuition plan since that allows for Tutoring by proxy for spells even if you have one of them or turning all of your Snapcaster Mages into Swords to Plowshares or Brainstorm, which means you start to like drawing multiples a lot more and have to worry about running out of them later in the game.

Once I added up all the things the deck simply had to have, there was no room left. Twenty-two lands and all the cards listed above plus a third Thoughtseize and first Vendilion Clique seemed mandatory. When I got the word that there would be lots of Storm being played, the first Spell Pierce and fourth Force of Will became mandatory as well, although they made me feel the Supreme Verdict could be in the sideboard.

Intuition was the only card that tugged at me. Could I get it into the deck? If I could, it would be another weapon to make sure you had the right tool at the right time with lots of different ways for it to give you advantage. It’s perfect timing for getting Jace, the Mind Sculptor, if you have Academy Ruins you can go get your artifacts, and all the tricks mentioned above. However, if I was going to go there, it was important to get maximum value, and it seemed like you could only fit one copy at most, so how much could you afford to change your list?

The fourth Snapcaster Mage would be necessary for the maindeck. The sideboard was also standardized to have a lot of single copies or grant you access to exactly two copies of things. You’d have access to two copies of Supreme Verdict. With Intuition, it would need to be three. The same was true of Spell Pierce, and you naturally had one Disenchant and one Vindicate. Using Snapcaster Mage to get them is a great trick, but it’s also not ideal either. The graveyard hate count also seemed problematic for this approach. It was a one-card change, but the effects of it would cascade through the rest of the deck.

The sideboard was somewhat looser, but as always demands far exceeded supply. Sword of Feast and Famine was clearly not negotiable as an alternate Equipment when Umezawa’s Jitte is bad. After that, it was clear that you’d need to be able to increase the number of counters and discard spells to deal with combo decks and especially Storm, which meant some combination of Flusterstorm, Spell Pierce, and Cabal Therapy. I was worried that my lack of format knowledge would make Cabal Therapy problematic and hated that when you want it you also otherwise want to cut Lingering Souls, but I wanted to make sure I had six discard spells after sideboarding, so I decided to take my chances with one copy and hedge my bets on Spell Pierce and Flusterstorm as well.

As I noted with Vendilion Clique, I wanted more discard but didn’t want to choke on it, which was especially true after sideboarding due to Leyline of Sanctity, so I looked to Meddling Mage. I hadn’t seen it in anyone’s sideboard, but it made sense to me as another way to increase the effective discard count without losing if discard wasn’t what the situation called for. Only playing one copy was me not being willing to rely too much on my read when so many have been playing Legacy for so long, but for a while I was flirting with three copies and am not convinced that it would be wrong.

On the removal front, I knew I wasn’t playing without access to at least two copies of Supreme Verdict, which if anything isn’t enough. Perish is cute as the third copy, but Supreme Verdict is a much better card and the Gaddock Teeg argument didn’t seem especially important compared to being universal and uncounterable. The Disenchant allows you to have a reasonable shot at taking out hate without committing you too much in case the hate doesn’t show and combines well with the Vindicate to form a hedge. Surgical Extraction is not the type of card I like to play and I was prepared to not use it at all, but I felt that its Top 8 value was too high not to include one copy. Opponents knowing I didn’t have access to it seemed like too high a price to free up one sideboard slot. It’s important to build sideboards with the Top 8 in mind and plan ahead for opponents who know what options you have available.

Next on my list was graveyard hate. I’d seen cards like Surgical Extraction and Relic of Progenitus, but those seemed like halfhearted solutions. If I’m going to put a hate card in, I want to be as hateful as possible, not make sure I can cycle the card in an emergency! I want their graveyard to be history and permanently; I’ve seen too many graveyard-based decks go straight through a one-time solution.

Thus, I knew I wanted either Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace, but didn’t know which one. Taking out my graveyard is bad, but it’s not that bad when you want theirs dead badly enough and against Tarmogoyf you’re actively happy to have your graveyard gone. One of each copy let me confuse opponents, prevented awkward situations early and late, and let me put in one where the other wouldn’t be worthwhile. It also hedged my bets since I didn’t know which one was better or which decks I’d be facing.

Finally there was Geist of Saint Traft. Initially, I wasn’t sure what it was for, but then I realized that the deck didn’t have that much of a clock. Stoneforge Mystic is a good clock for a two-drop but not all that fast on its own, but Geist will kill most people in three turns, can’t be targeted, and is a blue card to pitch in a pinch, making it an ideal swap for Lingering Souls. It’s also good if you’re short on time, which is a real issue in Legacy, especially for someone who doesn’t know all the shortcuts.

For those counting, that’s fourteen slots in the board. The last card is the one card I’m confident is an upgrade over the standard list: the second Batterskull.

As several of my opponents would say, that’s a lot of Batterskulls.

My theory was straightforward. I’d seen a bunch of matches on camera where the Stoneblade player has his one Batterskull out and is facing down a Goblin deck or other creature deck. Often, it’s not clear if one Batterskull is better than their entire deck, but sometimes it’s not quite enough and your support cards can often not be all that impactful. In those situations, what would happen if you had a second Batterskull? Your second Stoneforge Mystic could get it, or you had two shots to start with one off your first Mystic and play the second one right behind the first one. Then you’d have two copies, and two copies are definitely better than their deck! Even if you draw it without the Mystic, it’s often still good beats, as seen in Modern Jund decks playing Batterskull for value.

There’s also the tiny little issue of what happens if they kill your Batterskull. People love attacking the Batterskull because it’s the center of your entire strategy. Krosan Grip can kill it no matter what unless you can keep an Academy Ruins, and it’s hard to always save the mana to play around other removal like Disenchant or Ancient Grudge or the one Goblin they play that can kill an artifact. Other opponents will hit you with discard. I play Mystic on turn 2, they Thoughtseize to take away the Batterskull, and I show them two copies. Whoops! What could have been a disaster is now a disaster the other way, and even if the other one isn’t in hand, it’s in the deck to be found. This was my final list:

This turned out to be only one card off Tom’s maindeck—a fifth discard spell over a second Ponder—which I found quite reassuring, although his board is substantially different.

I played a match on camera in which I showed my inexperience with the format in multiple ways and ended up going 3-1 in Legacy. I skipped the Legacy Open because I wanted to play in Ascension Immortal, as I placed a high value on the prize and it was a far smaller tournament than the Open. But if I’d played in the Open, I would have played the deck again with minimal changes since I was happy with the configuration.

Going forward, the biggest thing I will be looking at is Rest in Peace as a strategy rather than a single card. There are large portions of the current field where Rest in Peace devastates their strategy singlehandedly. I lost the game in question to mana issues, but Jund decks look pretty sad with a Rest in Peace out given that Punishing Fire, Tarmogoyf, and Deathrite Shaman are all useless. RUG loses Tarmogoyf down to 0/1 and Nimble Mongoose down to 1/1 and can’t use Snapcaster Mage, which makes it very difficult for them to kill you. Dredge of course outright loses if the card isn’t removed, and so on.

People count on their graveyards, but then again so do you! If you’re going to bring in three or four Rest in Peace, you’ll need a way to sideboard that minimizes your reliance on the graveyard, but you can also play the game of “If I have it, I’m way ahead so I don’t care if it’s awkward.” Against RUG, for example, Lingering Souls isn’t even that bad when it isn’t flashed back since it trades with a card anyway and keeping it in lets you play with Intuition to make sure you have the shutdown option available. If you want to play a Souls game, you simply don’t play RIP until after you’re done with that.

There’s also the option to go with Helm of Obedience. This has been used in the Counterbalance shell, but there’s no reason one couldn’t do it in the Stoneblade shell as a transformational sideboard strategy by utilizing Intuition to find the missing half. Instead of trying to lock down the opponent, you’re playing a deck with lots of powerful threats and answers combined with discard for disruption and adapting to the situation. That, to me, is the essence of Esper Stoneblade: it plays better cards! If they answer my Mystic, that’s fine; it’s highly unlikely it didn’t net me a card. That’s just one line of play among many.