I was actually surprised by the reader reaction (both in comments and personal correspondence) to last week’s article that so many wanted more information on my Cephalid Breakfast deck from the StarCityGames.com Open Series: Baltimore featuring the Invitational.
So that’s what you get this time around!
(Without all the introspection, navel-gazing, and bumbling into beat cop back seats.)
First things first; this is the deck I actually played in the Legacy portion of the Invitational, as well as a couple of rounds in the Legacy Open on Sunday before dropping:
- 4 Nomads en-Kor
- 4 Cephalid Illusionist
- 3 Narcomoeba
- 1 Murderous Redcap
- 1 Lord of Extinction
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 The Mimeoplasm
I suppose I made a basic assumption that everyone knows how the deck works, which may or may not be accurate.
The super basic combination is this:
You can target the Cephalid Illusionist any number of times for zero mana with Nomads en-Kor, which causes you to "Millstone" the top three cards of your deck. You can rinse and repeat as many times as you like (up to and including the entirety of your deck into the bin), which has lots of nice things in store for you.
First off, you will (probably) get to flip one or more copies of Narcomoeba.
Let’s assume you’re a miser and you get all three copies of Narcomoeba as freebies. If you had a Nomads en-Kor, this would give you five creatures in play, which is exactly enough to play both your Cabal Therapy for free and your Dread Return.
What to Dread Return?
The last time I played Cephalid Breakfast, the combo was:
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror-Breaker, and
Karmic Guide brought Kiki-Jiki, Mirror-Breaker back.
Kiki-Jiki would then hastily copy Karmic Guide, which would bring back Sky Hussar (which would then untap Kiki-Jiki). Hilarious shenanigans would ensue, and you could end up attacking for infinite that turn.
I didn’t credit him in this video:
… But I got the combo I actually used from Michael Lanier (@mlanier131 on Twitter).
Instead of Kiki-Jiki, Mirror-Breaker, Karmic Guide, and Sky Hussar, I used the three-card combination of The Mimeoplasm, Murderous Redcap, and Lord of Extinction. Basically you make a huge graveyard, target The Mimeoplasm with Dread Return, at which point you remove the other two; The Mimeoplasm comes into play as a huge Murderous Redcap with the might of Lord of Extinction, and you brain your opponent for 50+…ideally on the second turn or so :)
As with any changes we make, there are advantage and disadvantages to this switch.
The main advantage is that you no longer need to attack. I had lost a game before to a Dueling Grounds (actually for Goblins but also held off my army of hasty tokens). In addition, you get a high utility piece in Murderous Redcap, which you can end up casting or Vialing quite often…every third match or so. It doesn’t come up nearly as often, but you can just Vial in Lord of Extinction as a huge guy.
The main disadvantage to moving to this three-card combination is that it’s no longer infinite. Previously it didn’t matter how high the opponent’s life total; you could always do more. Now you’re bound to about 50-70 realisticallyâ€”typically 2-3 times as much damage as you would have to do in most matchesâ€”just not infinite.
It can be very annoying to pull one or more copies of combo pieces, but that’s where Cabal Therapy comes in. Unless you get really unlucky, you can usually Therapy yourself enough times to actually get your combo off in time.
What’s innovative about this build is the inclusion of Stoneforge Mystic.
What some players don’t realize is that this deck has the entire functionality of Tom Martell Grand Prix-winning deck minus Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It can do essentially everything proactive Tom’s deck can do! That’s massive, because you can win both "fair" and "unfair" fights.
Tom’s deck was already the best "fair" deck in Legacy (could win on card advantage and grinding against other decks that relied primarily on the same kinds of pedestrian stuff). Obviously not having Jace is a bit of a minus sign, but the trade-off is that you have a potential turn two kill and an Aether Vial suite.
You really can’t say enough about Aether Vial.
If you know how I approach Magic in 2012, I pretty much try to figure out the best cards and strategies and just jam them in my opponent’s face. Aether Vial makes a card like Stoneforge Mystic even better. You can be playing a mirror match…except your Stoneforge Mystic is an uncounterable instant. Sound peachy?
Anyway, I just want to restate this so it’s super-clear. The Innovator Breakfast deck can do basically everything an Esper Stoneblade deck can do offensively, from gathering equipment (even better, especially in game 1 actually) down to getting free 1/1 flying creatures a la Lingering Souls (Narcomoeba can carry a Sword!).
Some players have puzzled over Stoneforge Mystic over Steelshaper’s Gift but have probably missed the point. Stoneforge Mystic is a massively unfair engine card that’s particularly awesome in an Aether Vial deck that’s set to set to two. Steelshaper’s Gift…is not as good.
Just one game play note before we move to the SWOT of the deck.
Jon Finkel only ever gave us two big sound bites for how to play Magic better. One of them is that between two similar plays, the best play is generally the one that preserves the most options.
Some players think I’m flashy or trying to trick someone by using an Aether Vial on two on my upkeep. The reality is, all other things held equal, that’s the "good practice" time to use it.
Because sometimes you actually want to put a third counter on your Aether Vial!
Not necessarily this game (especially if you’re planning to win this turn), but in some future game. If that’s the case, it’s better to anchor and reinforce good play and good practice, and that means using Aether Vial on upkeep.
All other things held equal, it’s better to tap the Island so that you get in the habit of tapping Island whether or not you have a Swords to Plowshares in your hand. If you’re lazy about which you tap, you’re more liable to make the wrong land tap when it matters.
Now sometimes it’s right to tap Glacial Fortress; say it’s Legacy, and you’re worried about Choke. By all means tap the Glacial Fortress! But under most circumstances? If there’s nothing else that matters bearing down on you? Using Aether Vial on upkeep preserves the option of adding a counter the same way tapping an Island over a Glacial Fortress preserves the option of tapping for white…if not this game, some game in the future.
I already said I play out Murderous Redcap about once every third match, and I did so at least two or three times in Baltimore. Usually you don’t tap lands to do that, at least not in this deck.
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.
Strengths are positive and internal, whereas Weaknesses are negative and internal.
Opportunities are positive but external, and Threats are negative and external.
You typically have the most control over your Strengths; good SWOT analysis allows you to figure out how to move your Weaknesses and Threats to Opportunities.
Here is a super fun example that I used when teaching systematic marketing last year:
Take Bella Flores’s hero, Tony Stark.
Tony gets blown up!
He has shrapnel in his heart!
The whole "my heart could give out at any minute" development (an internal negative or Weakness) now threatens to kill him!
Tony, being an inventive genius, shifts the Weakness to an Opportunity. He makes a new technology to alleviate his whole "I’m going to die" scenario, and in Iron Man, actually brings it all the way to a Strength.
In Magic, we usually make Strengths for ourselves and get handed Opportunities by the other cat.
Cephalid Breakfast is more-or-less the fastest deck you can play. Certainly it’s the fastest deck that can play Force of Will.
No matter what else you want to say about Cephalid Breakfast, you must acknowledge that if the opponent doesn’t have interaction, he’s going to die very quickly. This deck can go Nomads, Illusionist, and that’s it on the second turn.
The Stoneforge Mystic inclusion in this build gives it the incremental offensive capability of other viable decks like Esper Stoneblade. I would argue that between the Vials and the sideboard hate bears (especially Dark Confidant), it does a great impression, especially with Dark Confidant making up for the absence of Jace.
The most glaring potential weakness is this deck’s mana base.
You can actually say some nice things about the mana base. Like, it doesn’t have any green.
This starts to border on Opportunities, but previous versions of this deck played with Worldly Tutor, Eladamri’s Call, or Living Wish. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I have been Cabal Therapied for one of those cards; they just aren’t in the deck. Stoneforge Mystic for Shuko makes up for a lot of Tutoring (while adding power), though the deck doesn’t have a great way to get Cephalid Illusionist beyond Lim-Dul’s Vault.
That said, the deck only has seventeen lands, and none of them are basic.
It’s therefore extra weak to Path to Exile; the only "legitimate" loss I posted in Legacy in Baltimore involved an opponent, on the play, drawing and Dark Confidanting into three Wastelands in the first four turns. I actually had a potential kill but had kept a non-Vial hand…and lost never really having two lands in play. With such a low land count, it’s obviously even more vulnerable to a heavy Wasteland draw than the average Legacy deck (which to be honest can be pretty vulnerable).
The deck is also potentially weak to fast point removal in general.
Patrick Sullivan once joked to me that I couldn’t beat an active Grim Lavamancer (more on that later)… The man has a good point: there are any number of fast, interactive removal spells that can be effective against the Breakfast combo.
My counter-argument is that Breakfast is so fast, and that most opponents can’t afford to leave up tons of mana open to disrupt…not when getting clocked or combo-threatened. You can literally find and hold one Force of Will and deal with all the mana most non-blue decks have right there. It’s a lot like playing Exarch Twin last year. People could make all kinds of arguments going the other way, but really the only important question was about the mana; it wasn’t hard for Twin to spike even what looked like a scripted Caw-Blade draw just by getting the right edge in on the mana.
And really? Is the argument your broken deck of plenty is going to lose in a battle of one-for-one in the span of three-to-four turns? That sounds like the classic theory of the flustered fair deck shaking his head and his fist…regaling you with the tale of his stupid loss to a stupid combo deck even though he drew a Duress. I MEAN COME ON!
Here’s a death-defying example of where I used the baseline functionality of my cards to make up for the scarcity of mana (remember, my deck is quick!) to combo through not just removal but an active Grim Lavamancer:
I knew the opponent’s hand from Cabal Therapy, and I assembled Nomads en-Kor, Cephalid Illusionist, Stoneforge Mystic, and Aether Vial. Of course he had Mr. Grim, but he only had one Mountain. It’s important to note he could’ve had 300 red point removal cards, but he only had one Volcanic Island or whatever… It’s Legacy, and you can’t have never-ending red and that fancy Tundra every time now can you?
Nope; that didn’t draw out a Spell Snare nor prompt the use of the Lavamancer EOT.
Do you see the dilemma? He can try to light up the Nomads, but I had Narcomoeba to move the damage to!
On my turn, I ticked up Vial again and moved to main phase.
I then hard cast Stoneforge Mystic.
You gonna Spell Snare this?
People are generally pretty obligated to Snare a Stoneforge.
I didn’t care so much, but I knew about the Snare, and I wanted to clear a known blue card in case he had Brainstormed into Force of Will.
Only then did I Vial in Cephalid Illusionist (and you can guess what happened next).
Of course if we let games go 100 turns, decks like Breakfast could fall victim to plain old point removalâ€”but the whole point is we play super high-quality spells and figure out half a dozen ways to cheat on mana so they don’t go 100 or even 10.
My favorite Opportunity is the popularity of Esper Stoneblade. That matchup is extremely easy. I don’t think I’ve ever lost a game 1 where they don’t play Wasteland (which might contribute to my historical success), and your sideboard gives you any number of ways to get the jump on them.
There are a fair number of decks that are of medium popularity in Legacy (High Tide, Dredge) where you have a truly massive advantage. I would categorize both of those matchups as "essentially the mirror but where you have more disruption and/or Force of Will (and they don’t) and you’re at least a turn faster."
All great opportunities.
Now there’s another flavor of Opportunity, and that’s the stuff we can do to change our Weaknesses and Threats into Opportunities. Just for the flow of the article (rather than the proper order of the SWOT acronym) I’m going to tack some of those ideas onto the end rather than putting the cart before the horse.
One thing I noticedâ€”and probably should’ve dealt with in testingâ€”was some contextual vulnerability in game 1.
Like Abeyance is this ridiculous sideboard card, especially against fair decks. It’s absolutely insane against High Tide (far superior to Grand Abolisher as it can act like a cantrip Hymn to Tourach [or more!]), but Abeyance is unbelievable against fair decks. Abeyance in response to your Jace, the Mind Sculptor / Elspeth, Knight-Errant? I’ve never seen such flustered opponents. Abeyance really shines when opponents think they have an inevitable spot, lining up a squad of Scavenging Oozes and Knight of the Reliquary. These are going to keep him from going off!
No, they’re really not.
Now that said, just as Esper Stoneblade’s popularity translates into Opportunity, Scavenging Ooze’s popularity in RUG Delver (but even more in Maverick variants) is a Threat in game 1. That is, I built my deck in such a way that I would tend to lose to Scavenging Ooze in game 1; my only plan was to be faster, and when you have a massively more powerful plan that isn’t really a great plan.
I think the right play is to add a Grand Abolisher to the maindeck.
Unfortunately I’m not 100% sure what card to cut; my sense is Ponder is the right card, but this actually brings up what was the hardest choice/cut for me in making the deck…
What should the 60th card be?
Lim-Dul’s Vault (catchall replacement for any and all green cards) is awesome because if you cast it, you often just win the next turn. That’s awesome.
But that said, mulligan Tutors have a lot not going for them, you rarely want two in your opener, and the deck only has seventeen lands; this is why I eventually went with Ponder #4… Ponder, at one mana, lets me get away with my low land count and ultimately keeps more hands.
All that said if you don’t do something Grand Abolisher to the maindeck, your plan against Maverick has to be based on Mystic, and they’ve proven they can hang with that strategy (especially the Punishing Fire kind).
Okay… What’s next?
Like I said, the maindeck hole to Maverick was known before the SCG Invitational, but I just kind of chose to ignore it based on maybe getting there with Stoneforge Mystic + knowing I had a massive advantage against their slowed down offense with Abeyance after boards.
First of all, it’s the worst Sword. It’s embarrassing to play. I thought the most important stuff to get through was Tarmogoyf (and all his buddies) and Delver, so I wanted the evasion. In hindsight, I think I just want another Jitte.
Jitte in the maindeck is awesome because Jitte is pretty good against the all x/1 decks, so deuce on the legend rule. I find additional functionality based on the cheaty face Stoneforge hybrid structure of this build… I think you want to run with that, especially as your Mystics are better than Stoneblade’s Mystics due to Aether Vial. You can just legitimately beat them in a little guy shootout.
Structurally those are the cuts and pastes.
But I would do one more thing, which would be to gut the combo!
Yes, yes… I was all excited about hybridizing with The Mimeoplasm, et al. But I think there’s a better way now:
Same three-card, compact kill suite.
I loved the additional functionality of Murderous Redcap + the not having to actually attack for the win; disliked the loss if infinity. Here we have three layers of actual utility and a return to infinity.Â Â Â
Though Murderous Redcap is clever (catching the opponent on the Vial is deeply gratifying in a Jonny way), that doesn’t suddenly transform it into a high-powered Legacy card given context and other options. Reveillark, on the other hand, is a hair under Cruel Ultimatum. There are lots of spots where a four-power flyerâ€”that the opponent is afraid to killâ€”can be plenty functional. Especially carrying a Jitte!
Each point of the new triumvirate has something going for it.
Hapless Researcher is a one-drop attacker that can fix your handâ€”and you don’t care if it dies! Going to the graveyard is fine! And you might get something out of it! There are tons of games I just use my Nomads as beaters, and Happy actually does something.
Laboratory Maniac gives you so many new angles. Like, if you have it in hand or a Vial on threeâ€”or you just get it out (sometimes with a lucky grin on your face)â€”you can defeat High Tide unexpectedly. In a sense, little Lab Maniac is like the ugly cousin to Meddling Mage; at the very least, it has to be answered before a decking deck can deck your deck.
More than that, there are whole universes of victoryâ€”billions of them I would guessâ€”that become possible when you shift to Lab Maniac versus other kill squads.
A week ago the United States was set afire with lottery fever over a Mega Millions jackpot of unprecedented hundreds of millions. In reality, the jackpot would’ve had to be three-to-six times its height before even strategic and "in contention" arbitrary purchases could legitimately become worth talking about.
Do you know what the chances are of hitting the Mega Millions?
Look at that little card and the little boxes you pencil in. Most pocket calculators don’t even have enough slots to describe the chances so small.
Have you any idea how much more complicated the first four turns of a game of Legacy are?
There might be viable and distinct decks that rival the number of little boxes on that lotto ticket. And each opening hand? Variable. Or should I say, "Variable, variable, variable, variable, variable, variable, and variable?" Each land played and individual choice? Variables one and all. Each opens up more and more branches of possibility.
Think to yourself what a Scalding Tarnâ€”opponent unknownâ€”might mean to you on the first turn. What if it doesn’t get cracked, and he passes? What about that moment he does crack it? What are you expecting? An Island, a Tropical Island? Let’s be honest… You’re thinking Volcanic Island from the outset.
How might your evaluation of your keep reinforce or change based on whether you read his unfetched Scalding Tarn as High Tide or RUG Delver? How many universes unfold as you assess each play you might make against each card you might top deck? Across each deck?
"Well, aren’t they just going to Bolt your Lab Maniac?"
Really? Are they? Are they just going to do that?
I would consider saying sure, maybe,but that’s too obvious; of course there’s the chance of a dead Maniac at an inopportune time, leading to an embarrassing loss. It isn’t like the guy has an impressive figure against a huge Murderous Redcap or anything. But are you really worried about point removal after the fact, when they probably could’ve broken up your combo before you revealed how you were planning to win?
So my response instead is bad em-effin’ map.
Think to a simple, probably "common" universe.
Imagine your opponent keeps.
He is quite fond of his hand and plays Mother of Runes.
You play an Aether Vial.
Maybe he curses himself. Maybe he shakes his head a little. Maybe you even make out his mouthing, "… and this was such a keepable hand…" But clearly, these were not the droids he was looking for.
On his turnâ€”still yammering to himself about how keepable his hand wasâ€”does the nigh unthinkable… and attacks you with Mother of Runes.
You tick up the Vial and play your second land. You wish to God that you could’ve just warped in the Nomads, jammed down the Illusionist, and killed him while he’s tapped out…only you don’t have it. Yet. You pass.
He untaps. You meet gazes and realize he’s fully aware of what might happen next and would actually consider it a lotto win of his own to trade here. But no; you don’t give him the satisfaction. Mother gets in for another.
When he plays his third land, you make a mental note of it. He probably had the Plow anyway. He shakes his head about "missing a point" and taps out! For Green Sun’s Zenith! His Stoneforge is chillin’ there, doing nothing, certainly not getting in for one.
Now is the moment…
Look at the decklist I posted up top.
What are our chances of beating Gaddock Teeg in game 1?
You smile to yourself because you know what to do. He’s tapped out. You give him the soul-read. He doesn’t have a Plow. He has a Jitte; it’s still in his hand…but he doesn’t have a Plow. He didn’t get Ooze; he got Teeg… He’s worried about losing THIS TURN. Why didn’t he just wait a turn? Leave up Stoneforge and another white? Why not? Simple: He. Doesn’t. Have. A. Plow.
The best of all universes would be you warping in Nomads en-Kor, untapping, ticking up the Vial, warping in Illusionist, and going off during your upkeep… Wait, that doesn’t work.
But this is still a winnable game.
You need to get your Laboratory Maniac, but you can do this.
You need him to not have a Plow, sure, but you’re pretty sure he doesn’t have it. Now you start to tick off what you need to see, mentally, as you tap the mana for your Lim-Dul’s Vault…
Lab Maniac actually gives you a reason to go off on upkeep some games. Can you get to three Vial counters? You can theoretically circumvent having to cast Dread Return, meaning cards like Gaddock Teeg, Scavenging Ooze, and Bojuka Bog don’t matter. That’s massive functionality.
Think about all the things I left out of that little story.
What was our first land?
What was his first land?
I thought long and hard about two Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrublands[/author] versus four Underground Seas; I tested them both. I found I liked leading with the Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author], because even on Vial I felt like people were putting me on B/W Equipment.
They change how they play and what they’re willing to do on the first turnâ€”the decisions they makeâ€”all based on tiny bits of revelation. The directions of so many possible universes unfold in these brief moments of imperfect information. Choke gets a little bit worse.
All our destinies are forged in the moments of decision.
Even seemingly identical ones like Civic Wayfarer versus Borderland Ranger can affect some remote corners where Eyeblight’s Ending is relevant. Which art you pick for cards can even matter because so much occurs not on the table but in your opponent’s imagination.
I find that the deck designers I admire mostâ€”the incomprehensible language of a Patrick Chapin that’s really the secret cheat codes to the universe; the efficiency of a Gerry Thompson (so obvious in hindsightâ€”why didn’t I think of that?); or the awareness of a Mark Herberholz that the metagame isn’t some smooth marble wall but an ugly thing of patchwork and ill-fitting bricks that he can fill in and smooth over with the right plasterâ€”comes down to this: every decision any of them makes has plusses and minuses associated. They win some games others won’t but lose some games others won’t.
When they get it right, the first number is bigger than the second number.
And that’s why, if it were me, tomorrow I’d switch to Laboratory Maniacs.
I believe there are millions or billions (really lots and lots) of games I could win with Lab Maniac…that I probably wouldn’t without it.
And Reveillark? Like I said before, it’s a half-tick less than Cruel Ultimatum in my mind. Less, sure, but still so powerful. A great combination with Cabal Therapy. A flyer in the world of equipment.
Man, Lim-Dul’s Vault can do a lot of things.
It isn’t even subtle.
In the demi-transform games, the Happy/Maniac/Lark team is just better. You can go Hate Bears Sideboard… and still have some semblance of your combo intact. You might only have two Cephalid Illusionists in your deck, but hey! All the games you can win are the sum total of all the games you can win, including the corner ones.
And the opposing sideboards…the Crypts and the Extractions, the Zeniths for Oozes, Knights, and Teegs?
All of them are worse against this plan.
To summarize, I would recognize that there are lots of things you can do in Legacy. Some are powerful. Others are puzzling. I still don’t really understand not how Maverick keeps putting up finishes, but why good players keep choosing Maverick.
Breakfast is no less powerful than more common choices.
I think you can see that it’s actually substantially faster and more powerful than most. Breakfast is a deck of plenty in a world of grinding. It’s vulnerable to some stuff more than other combo decks (like, you know, a Swords to Plowshares), but especially combined with Stoneforge Mystic, it pays you back in many other ways.
In sum, Mikey Likes It.