Success and Failure At The Invitational

Thopter Foundry fueled one of the most degenerate Extended decks in recent years. Michael Caffrey played it at the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Charlotte to a less than spectacular record. Where were the problems?

Thopter Foundry. Spell Snare?

Alright, I’ll play Academy Ruins and put it on top.

Thopter Foundry? Handshake.

At that moment, I beat current Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald in the first round of the StarCityGames.com Invitational.

Three rounds later, I was sitting at two wins, two losses. Not where I wanted to be after the format I felt strongest about. Three rounds more, and I was dead, at 3-4.

What factors led to my success… and later, failure, in the Invitational?

First, let’s look at the deck I played for the Legacy portion of the Invitational:

This is not an original list. It is based heavily on a deck developed by Dave Gearhart that he played at the StarCityGames.com Open in Edison, NJ earlier this year.

Legacy, as a format, is cyclical. At that event, the dominant decks included Knight of the Reliquary strategies in the form of Junk and Stifle-based strategies in the form of Team America. The tournament was won by Alex Hatfield, with Spiral Tide. It pays to be able to handle a variety of different strategies.

This is an Enlightened Tutor deck. Enlightened Tutor’s value as a card increases with the randomness of the format. Right now, the format lacks an overall direction. While Delver of Secrets and Stoneforge Mystic constitute a very clear top tier of decks, past that are a tremendous number of other options. Decks such as Reanimator, Sneak and Show, alternative combo decks such as Past in Flames have all emerged as viable alternatives to the top tier. While these decks may not be pulling in the top 8 numbers that top tier strategies have, players will be piloting them at any given Legacy tournament. Enlightened Tutor lets the deck find and play a variety of individual cards tailored to the metagame.

The Enlightened Tutor package in the maindeck is modest, a variety of high-impact value cards. Moat, Humility, and Ensnaring Bridge are all a means of slowing an attacker, providing breathing room for a planeswalker to take over the game. Sometimes, jamming the Thopter Combo into play with Enlightened Tutor can win games quickly.

The one thing I don’t like about the deck is the four two-drops, the only targets for Spell Snare in the deck. Thopter Foundry is the way to attack the format. Outside of getting caught up with Spell Snare at the wrong time, Thopter Foundry is very difficult to answer, once it’s on the board. With the rise of Surgical Extraction or Purify the Grave as the graveyard hate of choice, even black decks have been playing suboptimal graveyard hate to interact in the matchup.

Tezzeret is the most fun you can have playing this deck. Draining somebody for the full twenty life off of Tezzeret happens far more than one would think, as the deck has a large number of artifacts that contribute to the main game plan.

One of the most broken turn ones in Magic involve casting Sensei’s Divining Top and activating it on the first turn. With Mox Opal and Chrome Mox, this line of play does happen… and a turn 2 or turn 3 planeswalker happens, with some frequency.

Take Possession is hardly a new card to Legacy, but it serves the same goal here as it has in the past: neutralize Jace, the Mind Sculptor as a viable win condition. Against the Stoneforge Mystic decks, the primary game plan of Thopters is to deploy a lock piece that neutralizes their equipment. Once that card has resolved, the game becomes a subgame centered around planeswalkers. Resolving Jace, Elspeth, or Tezzeret on an open board is game over, regardless of who lands the walker.

The second Academy Ruins in the sideboard is for opponents with Spell Snare, as it can recur Thopter Foundry long enough to eventually stick one and win.

Why did I play this blast from the past of a deck? Various metagame factors created an environment where this deck thrives.

1. Delver of Secrets decks are powerful

Delver RUG and by extension UR Delver have incredibly fast clocks backed by disruption. Thopters counteracts this through running Sensei’s Divining Top and a relatively high number of mana sources, combined with permanent-based lock pieces such as Moat and Humility to slow their advance to a halt. Many of their cards can be blanked, such as their Lightning Bolts and Spell Snares until the final stages of the game.

2. Stoneforge Mystic is poorly positioned against this deck

Stoneforge Mystic and Batterskull are powerful tools, except when they are locked out of attacking. Similar to Delver of Secrets, playing permanent-based lock pieces makes it very hard for their deck to execute its primary game plan. Stoneforge Mystic decks give this deck even more time than RUG Delver, as Batterskull is only a minor inconvenience. This deck can kill an opponent from 40 just as easily as it can kill one from 4. Once the board has been locked up, Thopters only takes a handful of turns to close out a win.

3. Storm combo is a “bad deck”

Storm combo is weak against both RUG Delver and Stoneforge Mystic strategies. This has caused a metagame shift, where fewer people are playing storm and other unfair decks, and more people are playing fair decks with creatures. The combo decks that are being played tend to be slower decks, such as Sneak Attack / Show and Tell, which are easier to match up against.

4. People aren’t playing the hate they used to play

Krosan Grip, the once ubiquitous Legacy catchall answer to troublesome permanents, has faded away for the value play of Ancient Grudge, combined with flashback. Most Legacy decks can’t remove or beat a resolved Humility at any stage of the game. Even Ensnaring Bridge is enough to hinder an aggressive opponent and provide time to play four-mana planeswalkers and bombs to take over the game.

These factors contribute to a metagame that is rife for losing to a Thopter Foundry based deck, and this is one of the most consistent decks at assembling the combo.

Despite what I perceived to be a well-positioned deck, the end result was disappointing. I made small mistakes throughout the tournament that cost me games and matches.

Round two, the board is stabilized, against Death and Taxes. I won game one, with a timely Engineered Explosives destroying four of his permanents. I’m sitting behind Ensnaring Bridge, while my opponent has a Phyrexian Revoker on Thopter Foundry, three Mother of Runes, and a Stony Silence. I tick Tezzeret up to five. Draw an artifact on the next turn, play it, and ultimate Tezzeret to deal 20 to him. He taps a white mana. He left in Swords to Plowshares.

Some stories just can’t be made up. His logic was Aether Vial wasn’t particularly strong when boarding in Stony Silence… but in a deck with only a handful of tutors and Stony Silences, turn 1 Vial is still very potent.

Round three, my opponent is playing B/W Deadguy with Aether Vial. He has some creatures on the battlefield, and I need to resolve a Moat. I know he has Tidehollow Sculler in hand, and I have Enlightened Tutor and Sensei’s Divining Top. I cast the Enlightened Tutor, intending to Top into my Moat and cast it. However, when I look down, I see that I have a fetchland, a white source, and two non-white sources untapped. He has the opportunity to Vial in his Tidehollow Sculler in response to a fetchland to blow me out.

I make yet another mistake here. I see the way I can lose the game and concede—rather than making my opponent play optimally.

This wasn’t the only error I made; with Ensnaring Bridge out, I turn my Sensei’s Divining Top into a 5/5 and leave it back to block. My opponent casts a Swords to Plowshares on my Sensei’s Divining Top. I respond by tapping it to put it on top of my library, drawing a card in the process. By not paying enough attention to the game state, I drew up to two cards in hand from that interaction, letting his Mirran Crusader connect. He missed the interaction, keeping me in the game longer.

In the third game, I play a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and tick it to 11, with Ensnaring Bridge out, while my opponent has Dark Confidant. He plays a Phyrexian Revoker, naming Jace. I top into a Swords to Plowshares and use it to take out the Revoker and move Jace to 13. He finds another Revoker and names Jace yet again. A turn later, I don’t find an answer, while he finds a Vindicate to attack me down to zero.

Round four was BR Goblins. I E-Tutor for Moat, then stop his Siege-Gang Commander. Two pretty simple games. The middle game, however, took a different tack. I have Humility in play, while he has a Warren Instigator. I am at five life. My hand is Enlightened Tutor x2, Thopter Foundry, Ensnaring Bridge. I have four lands in play (assume any combination of mana I need). I try to optimize my mana by casting Ensnaring Bridge first, with the intent of using Enlightened Tutor over the next two turns. He attacks with the Instigator and then flips over two Tarfire. Dead.

In the Legacy Open, I played against Affinity in round one, where Cranial Plating jumping onto an Ornithopter beats Ensnaring Bridge twice. I win a close game against RUG Delver, where he can’t actually beat a resolved Humility. In round three, I played against Merfolk. Game one is dominated by Moat and planeswalkers, as can be expected. Game two, I have a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and take it up to nine. I let him keep a Null Rod, as I’m sitting comfortably behind Ensnaring Bridge. I elect not to Force of Will the Null Rod, as I can win comfortably with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Jace goes to 11, and he casts a Coralhelm Commander to join the two Lord of Atlantis on the battlefield. I Force of Will the Coralhelm, as the only way I see myself losing is to draw another card I can’t play to go up to three cards in hand on the following turn. He has a maindeck Echoing Truth the following turn to bounce the Ensnaring Bridge and win, despite Jace at thirteen.

Game three involves a Null Rod as soon as he hits a second land, and my manabase of Tundra, Tundra, Seat of the Synod, Seat of the Synod, Mox Opal can’t cope with it.

Where did I go wrong? I knew the metagame I was facing and knew what I had to do to beat it. Several poor decisions in-game hurt my chances, but more importantly, I didn’t hit the particular metagame elements that I expected to see. Phyrexian Revoker is very poorly positioned now, as it doesn’t pair up well against anything; it dies to Grim Lavamancer, Fire / Ice, Punishing Fire, or Umezawa’s Jitte, while being an undersized creature the rest of the time. There are no top-tier decks where Phyrexian Revoker is difficult to deal with and powerful as a card.

My Merfolk opponent boarded in three Pithing Needle and three Null Rod against me. I am thoroughly confused what led him to play either card, as again they don’t answer any common metagame elements effectively. Sure, the argument could be they are good against Stoneforge Mystic, but Tower of the Magistrate also stops Batterskull just fine.

Still, even with my opponents playing cards that aren’t positioned well in the metagame, I decided not to run a Seal of Cleansing or Oblivion Ring to deal with troublesome permanents, since I didn’t expect any decks in the metagame to actually have permanents I cared about. In the end, I played against decks that simply had the tools to beat me.

Here’s the bottom line. In Legacy, people have the ability to play whatever decks they desire. While there is a top tier of decks, the remainder of the metagame is filled with a variety of fringe strategies people refuse to let go of. In seven rounds of play, I played against typical metagame decks twice: U/W Stoneblade and RUG. The other five rounds, I played against Merfolk, Affinity, Goblins, B/W Deadguy, and Death and Taxes—a collection of decks that died months ago with pilots invested too deep into their success.

An aside about Thopter Foundry

In at least three rounds, I had opponents bring in weak graveyard hate against the Thopter-Sword combo. In case you haven’t played the deck in past Extended seasons, I’ll say it here. Permanent-based graveyard hate, such as Tormod’s Crypt or Relic of Progenitus, is not an effective foil to Thopter Foundry. Especially with how high the artifact count is in this build of Thopters, by leaving mana up while Sword of the Meek is in the graveyard, I can simply sacrifice another artifact to keep my Sword of the Meek in play.

Surgical Extraction and Faerie Macabre are slightly more difficult to play against, as they will come as a surprise, but can be played around in a similar fashion. Surgical Extraction has value if you are playing a deck that can counter an early Thopter Foundry and remove the rest of the copies from my deck.

Extirpate, Wheel of Sun and Moon, Planar Void, and Leyline of the Void are the only graveyard hate cards worth boarding in, as it is impossible to actually play around them.

Sometimes, things don’t always turn out like you think they should. The Invitational was still a well-run and fun tournament, and I’m grateful to have been able to participate in it.

Michael Caffrey

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