Stifle and Wasteland

Friday, January 7th – The 2011 Open Series kicks off with Kansas City this weekend, and Drew Levin teaches a valuable lesson about Stifle and Wasteland in the format and their usage in various decks throughout MTG history.

I’m a huge fan of the AJ Sacher school of thought when it comes to writing about Magic – I want to teach my readers how to fish rather than standing next to the Bluefin tuna in the supermarket and telling you that this is what’s for dinner. My internal bias against pure decklist articles is why,
in my previous article,

I focused so heavily on card choices and explaining their functions within the larger context of the deck. In all honesty, I think High Tide is a pretty sweet deck, and I wouldn’t be ashamed of playing it in a major sanctioned event. Ultimately, I think my love affair with Counterbalance would probably win out if I end up going to Kansas City, but it would be close. I’ve been known to play High Tides and Resets in major tournaments in the past, so it’s not out of the question.

For this article, I want to go back and look at the history of Legacy as a format and provide some background and insight into a major pillar of the format. As I was saying earlier, I want my readers to understand something new about Legacy after every one of my articles. There are generalizations that Legacy veterans can make about the format –
Lion’s Eye Diamond combo decks are better against Counterbalance than other combo decks but are weaker to the card Force of Will”

– that a newcomer to the format may not understand the basis of. Even if I tell you that Dredge beats Counterbalance while Aluren doesn’t, those facts do nothing for readers of my articles. My goal is to come to those generalizations through decklist analyses, matchup guides, and use of basic Magic theory.

Today, I want you to understand why people play Stifle and Wasteland, why those decks wax and wane, and what effect they have on the Legacy metagame as a whole. There have been an entire group of decks in Legacy to use Stifle and Wasteland to deny their opponents access to mana. These decks have tried to leverage groups of situationally powerful cards – Stifle, Daze, and so on – to keep opponents off-balance and kill them before they’re able to gain access to sufficient mana to execute their game plan. Understanding how and why this archetype exists is an important part of understanding Legacy as a format.

Not so very long ago, there was a U/G/R deck in Legacy called Canadian Threshold. It played a lot of cards that people would call “tempo cards” – Stifle, Wasteland, Daze, Fire / Ice – along with Nimble Mongoose and Tarmogoyf. The idea was to keep the opponent from fully leveraging the power of their cards while killing them with undercosted threats. It played eight “free” counterspells – Daze and Force of Will – because it wanted to be able to tap out and maintain access to a counter suite that benefited greatly from an opponent’s reduced access to mana. It Top 8ed Grand Prix Chicago 2009 in the hands of David Caplan:

Canadian Threshold was considered one of the defining decks of Legacy for a long time. If you couldn’t beat its mana-denial suite (Wasteland and Stifle) in conjunction with its undercosted counters (Spell Snare, Daze, and Force of Will), your deck concept was bound to be poorly positioned. Many top-heavy decks simply never assembled four mana to transition into their endgame via Fact or Fiction-fueled card advantage. Storm combo decks would slip past their Dazes and smash through a Force of Will, only to see their kill spell’s storm trigger Stifled. Anyone who played the format back in Canadian Threshold’s heyday has surely sighed
“Must be sooo nice,”

watching dejectedly as their grinning opponent slapped down their

Stifle of the game on yet another fetchland activation and pushed their Swords-proof 3/3 Nimble Mongoose across the table, ending the game in a flurry of Lightning Bolts and Fire / Ices a few turns later. Since then, the deck has fallen from its prominence. Why?

When Canadian Threshold was a top deck, creatures in Legacy were small. The Tarmogoyf of U/G/x Threshold decks in that era was Werebear. In fact, the earliest incarnation of Canadian Threshold had a creature base of Nimble Mongoose and Werebear, which goes a long way toward explaining the origin of the now-defunct deck name.

At the peak of its dominance, the biggest threats in Legacy were Mystic Enforcer and Fledgling Dragon. These and most other creatures could be dispatched with Lightning Bolt and Fire / Ice. At that point in time, Canadian Threshold’s removal’s power level was about on par with Swords to Plowshares. This made Canadian Threshold’s removal not only passable but actually desirable, given its versatility as game-ending reach. Then along came Tarmogoyf.

Canadian Threshold suffered from two major problems. First, it couldn’t kill a Tarmogoyf. Turns out Lightning Bolt and Fire / Ice don’t quite get you there. Sure, you could attack into their Tarmogoyf and then try to burn it, but that doesn’t always work out well. For example, sometimes they have Counterbalance. Sometimes they just Swords your Tarmogoyf, and you have a 3/3 Nimble Mongoose facing off against a 4/5 Tarmogoyf. Canadian Threshold tried to fight a lot of losing battles with cards that were underpowered in the Legacy format.

Second, Canadian Threshold had literally no ways of recouping cards. All of its cards were one-for-ones (Ponder, Brainstorm, its counterspells, Lightning Bolt, and so on), creatures, or Force of Will. Without any way of drawing cards, it had no way of getting ahead in a matchup against a blue deck. If the opposing blue deck could Ponder and Brainstorm into more land and cast its spells, Canadian Threshold was probably losing. The U/G/W decks with Tarmogoyf could unconditionally remove the U/G/R deck’s Tarmogoyfs, while the U/G/R deck had to rely on persuading the opponent to block Tarmogoyf on Tarmogoyf and try to kill it with a Lightning Bolt or Fire / Ice – not an ideal situation. Without having a Tarmogoyf of its own, Canadian Threshold had zero maindeck ways of using one card to remove a Tarmogoyf. It was forced to use two burn spells in conjunction to remove an opposing Tarmogoyf, opening itself up to a counter on the second spell. Even if both spells resolved, Canadian Threshold would mostly likely be dead to a second copy of the monster.

It was time for an evolution. The red cards were no long powerful enough to warrant inclusion, and Nimble Mongoose was becoming too small to compete in the format. Enter Team America:

Team America was a deck developed by two good friends of mine, Dan Signorini and David Gearhart. It neatly addressed the weaknesses in the Stifle/Wasteland archetype by upgrading Nimble Mongoose to Tombstalker, Lightning Bolt to Snuff Out, Spell Snare to Thoughtseize, Fire / Ice to Sinkhole, and playing two more lands than Canadian Threshold. Because of this last alteration, Signorini and Gearhart ensured that they could reliably hit double-black mana for Tombstalker and Sinkhole while making full use of Wasteland as a land-destruction spell.

The advantages of Team America over Canadian Threshold are manifold. It came about at a time where blue control decks and Tarmogoyf defined the format, and the card choices reflect that reality. It has twelve free spells (Snuff Out, Daze, and Force of Will), allowing it to tap out for its cantrips, disruption, and creatures while still maintaining access to its removal spells and counter suite. Speaking of its disruption, let’s look at what these cards tell us about Legacy at the time that this deck was built:

4 Sinkhole

– Any time this card is playable, it’s because Legacy’s overpowered one-drops aren’t sufficiently played. Merfolk didn’t yet exist as a prominent deck. Neither did Zoo. Imagine how embarrassing this card would be against those decks:

Island, Aether Vial, go.”

Polluted Delta, get Underground Sea, Ponder. Go.”

“Up Aether Vial to one. Island, go.”

Bayou, Sinkhole your Island.”

“Okay, that’s fine. Vial in Cursecatcher in your end step. Untap, up Vial to two. Mutavault, Standstill?”

We can see where this game is going. Sinkhole is probably at least a little bit better against Wild Nacatl, but tapping two lands and discarding a card while not addressing a growing board disadvantage is severely underpowered against a more aggressive Legacy format.

So, coming back to the point, what were people playing that made Sinkhole so good? How about cards like Pernicious Deed and Intuition? How about mana bases so Technicolor that they make Joseph’s coat look dull? Sinkholing an opponent off of a color and following it up with a Wasteland to knock them off of another color is pretty appealing. Since then, Sinkhole has disappeared from U/B/G Stifle/Wasteland decks, but its initial presence is instructive of what tools exist to combat different versions of a Legacy format.

4 Thoughtseize

– This card teaches us a critical lesson about Legacy:
there are relatively few decks that play more than ten ways to actually win the game.

Let that sink in for a second. Team America played four Tarmogoyfs and four Tombstalkers as actual ways to bring the game to a close. Counterbalance decks in Chicago played four Tarmogoyfs and some mixture of Dark Confidants, Sowers of Temptation, Trygon Predators, and Vedalken Shackles. Even as recently as Columbus, the Top 8 was comprised of two threat-dense aggressive decks and six decks that played nine threats or fewer. There are few decks in Legacy that use manlands or which play an abundance of substantive threats. Thoughtseize’s presence thus also tells us that Signorini was far more concerned about attacking control decks’ spells than he was with beating aggressive decks’ creatures.

The reason why Thoughtseize was good in the deck (and part of why Vendilion Clique was a strong choice for Counterbalance decks in Columbus) is that hands in Legacy often hinge around the presence of one card to address a certain issue. More than in other formats, Legacy decks are likely to have an opening hand of one removal spell, one counter, one disruption spell, one creature, and a few lands. If you have a Tarmogoyf and a Tombstalker in your opening hand and Thoughtseize their only Swords to Plowshares, they might just be dead on turn 5 to your creatures and counter backup. Another case could be that you have an opening hand with Thoughtseize, Stifle, Sinkhole, and Wasteland. You Thoughtseize into a hand of two lands and five spells, only one of which is a cantrip. You can discard their Ponder or Brainstorm and very reasonably try to mana-screw them out of the game.

Decks tend to rely on role-specific cards in Legacy. This reliance helps explain the presence of far more cantrips (Ponder and Brainstorm today, although in older days, Portent and Sleight of Hand or Opt) than in other formats. If you know that the absolute best thing you can be doing in your deck is either attacking with Tarmogoyf or countering spells with Counterbalance, why play Werebear and Counterspell over Ponder and Sensei’s Divining Top? It’s far more appealing to pack your deck with ways to find those more powerful cards than it is to play cards that may not always be relevant to the situation at hand.

4 Stifle and 4 Wasteland

– The presence of these cards keeps card selection in Legacy in check. As a thought exercise, imagine the most absurdly powerful Counterbalance/Top deck possible. What would it look like? It’d probably play the best card advantage engine in the format (Dark Confidant), the best creature in the format (Tarmogoyf), the best disruption spell in the format (Thoughtseize), the best spell-denial package in the format (Force of Will and Counterbalance/Top), the best card-selection spell in the format (Brainstorm), and the best sweeper in the format in the sideboard (Firespout) along with a bunch of removal spells for your worst matchup that also double as counters

conditional Vindicates against a pseudo-mirror match (Red Elemental Blast).

I wish I could play that deck. It would be a pretty sweet deck, all things considered. But now think about the mana base for that deck. You’d play a few Cities of Brass, eight to ten dual lands, and at least eight fetchlands. Think about what would happen if you went to activate your Misty Rainforest on turn 2 with a Volcanic Island in play, and it got Stifled. Oh, and then your Volcanic Island got Wastelanded.

These cards are why we can’t have

the nice things. They punish poor deck design by attacking weak mana bases, shutting off access to all those “objectively stronger” spells. They aren’t so strong if you can’t cast them, though, and that’s what Stifle/Wasteland decks rely upon. You see, those Lightning Bolts, Stifles, and Wastelands in Dave Caplan’s deck could’ve been Swords to Plowshares, Sensei’s Divining Tops, and Tundras. The thing is he knew that his deck wouldn’t win most games where the board came to parity on mana and creatures. He designed his deck to be weaker in any endgame by playing eight cards that he could leverage to create games that never got to such a point. His “endgame” was having a 3/3 Nimble Mongoose and a 4/5 Tarmogoyf facing down an opponent’s board of one or two land.

Similarly, Signorini knew that he was an underdog to a resolved Sensei’s Divining Top, Counterbalance, and three lands. He designed his deck to prevent such an outcome, yet also included cards that allowed him to beat the one-two punch. His Tombstalkers would demand a Swords to Plowshares or Force of Will, while his Snuff Outs could kill an opposing Tarmogoyf through a Counterbalance “lock” and clear the way for his own Tarmogoyf to come across for the final few points of damage.

The Stifle/Wasteland archetype was missing a color, though. It took the printing of Knight of the Reliquary for white to get its turn in the limelight of successful Stifle/Wasteland decks. Although Team America didn’t become unviable, a new deck was designed around the synergies of Knight of the Reliquary and the innate strengths of the Stifle/Wasteland archetype. A teammate of mine, Dave Price, created a deck that capitalized heavily upon an incidental theme of the two decks listed above: a huge number of lands in both players’ graveyards.

Dave Price did three things by creating this deck that previous Stifle decks had never done before. First, he played Swords to Plowshares, the best creature removal spell in the format. If a deck is playing exactly four pieces of removal, there ought to be a very good reason for why they’re not four copies of Swords to Plowshares. Instead of playing Lightning Bolts that can’t kill Tarmogoyfs or Snuff Outs that can’t kill Tombstalkers and Dark Confidants, Price just played the cheapest, cleanest spot removal spell in the format.

There’s a reason why successful Stifle/Wasteland decks had never played white before this deck’s creation, though: the secondary creature was never good enough. In the era of Nimble Mongoose, if you played white in your Tropical Island-flavored deck, it was better to just play Meddling Mage and Mystic Enforcer to give yourself a better combo matchup.

The second thing that New Horizons has is a very high threat density for the format through the inclusion of Terravore and then new kid on the block, Knight of the Reliquary. Whereas older Stifle/Wasteland decks would have to frantically dig to a new threat if their Tarmogoyf or Werebear were removed, New Horizons could almost certainly have another creature waiting in the wings. By playing eleven creatures that all require immediate attention – indeed, his secondary and tertiary threats are typically bigger than Tarmogoyf! – the deck could consistently overwhelm the removal suite of opposing blue aggro-control decks. It’s a deck that perfectly fits the Wakefieldian maxim – no matter which one it is, it’s the last green fatty that gets ‘em.

The final and most meaningful innovation in New Horizons is the versatility of its mana base. Stifle decks usually balance their resources on a knife’s edge through careful use of cantrips. One way that they could just lose games, though, is by drawing running mana-producing lands. As a deck that carefully trades Stifles and Wastelands for Flooded Strands and Tropical Islands, drawing three lands in a row is absolutely brutal. In a deck that wants to keep its opponent off-balance by attacking their mana, giving them three turns to draw lands and play spells could allow them to gain a foothold in a game that they were previously out of. The beauty of New Horizons’ Canopy-driven mana base is that you never get mana-screwed early and never get flooded late. It lets you cast Terravores on time and allows you to see extra cards when you have four or five lands in play already.

Stifle decks want to draw multiple Wastelands every game. Indeed, that’s one of the major appeals to playing the deck: sometimes, you draw two Stifles and two Wastelands, and your opponent never gets past one land. With Knight of the Reliquary, New Horizons could Crop Rotation away extraneous Forests for its third and fourth Wastelands. If the opponent has fetched out multiple basics, Horizons can fetch out Horizon Canopy and draw into even more threats. In the meantime, Knight will be be growing to monstrous proportions and preparing to kill the opponent in one or two attacks.

Price’s Knights of the Reliquary are a huge upgrade on Signorini’s Sinkholes. They don’t compare that closely, but that’s because Price built an entire deck around the synergies of his 2/2. It’s hard to build a good deck around a two-mana Stone Rain. Similarly, New Horizons’ 8/8, 9/9, or even 12/12 Terravores look rather appealing when compared to Team America’s Tombstalkers. Because New Horizons’ curve is higher relative to that of Canadian Threshold or Team America, though, it needs five more lands than the red deck and three more lands than the black deck.

Since New Horizons’ curve is higher, it cannot interact with aggressive decks on the same time frame as did other Stifle decks. This necessitates the inclusion of the two Engineered Explosives, cards which buy time against Merfolk and Zoo while the deck hits its third land drop to start casting boom-booms. By cutting low-end spells and adding land, the deck gains an added level of resource management that the other decks didn’t possess.

In a post-Survival metagame, Stifle/Wasteland decks are poised to make a breakout. Their ability to punish greedy mana bases and iffy card selection will stand them in good stead as players look to innovate new decks in a wide-open format. Whatever you end up playing in Kansas City on Sunday, keep these decks in mind. The cards exist to punish greed in deckbuilding, and it would be a shame to see your hopes stifled and your carefully constructed deck idea go to waste.

Good luck!