The Adapting Metagame: Sweet Sixteen

Thursday, April 28 – Carsten Kotter reviews the entire Top 16 of SCG Open: Boston, one of the most innovation-filled standings recently. If you’re looking for some new, viable decks to play this weekend in Charlotte, check here!

It seems my crystal ball is in acceptable working order, as I really enjoyed the Top 16 of SCG Open Boston—tons of innovation and a perfect showcase of
adaptation. With combo cutting through the last two Opens, we now see the backlash: a ton of decks adapted to the new threat.

What is particularly enjoyable to me is that the Top 16 contains the old standbys but also innovation in both its forms. There are essentially new (or
long forgotten) decks clearly built to interact with spell-based opponents as well as the decks people know and love modified to fight non-creature
threats better.

Today I’ll be looking at those decklists, give you a short appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses (pure theory, I obviously haven’t had time to
play with them yet as I’m writing this on Monday), and, maybe most importantly for all aspiring Legacy-deckbuilders, explain how they have adapted to
the combo threat and why their adaptations worked. Knowing how to successfully adapt is obviously a very important skill, even more so in a format with
as many options as Legacy—there are simply more angles of attack that need covering.

For those of you that couldn’t care less about four-day-old decks when there’s a new set out (I understand, I feel that urge to read and reread the
spoiler, too), take a look at the bonus section. You might find some of my observations interesting. But now let’s get back to our regularly scheduled

The Old Guard

Even a tournament that’s a shining beacon for the effectiveness of innovation always contains a large number of known decks, and SCG Open: Boston is no
different. A full half of the Top 16 decks are old standbys, many not even updated much from previous versions. Almost all of them are either fast
enough to compete with combo or naturally disruptive enough to make it a game. Those decks are still worth a look, if only to understand why they were
still successful.


While I started off talking about innovation and adaptation, Alex Bertoncini stood at the ready with his trusty Merfolk deck to make sure the title
wouldn’t go to one of the upstart decks. His list is shockingly close to the one he won with in Memphis back in March. He simply switched some aggro
and midrange hate for dredge-hate in the sideboard (Relic of Progenitus instead of Back to Basics and a Hydroblast) and was ready to take down another
Open. Paul Lake in fifth place didn’t even go that far, only tweaking Bertoncini’s old maindeck with a miser’s Jitte, moving the singleton Spell Pierce
to the sideboard to dwell with its brethren.

With people adapting to combo, Merfolk is clearly well positioned, as it’s, in a sense, the exact opposite of combo. Merfolk is hurt by large creatures
and spot removal while preying on decks that are geared for spell-based interaction. In addition, though combo isn’t a particularly good matchup for
Merfolk (at least against a capable combo player), the deck is no pushover like regular aggro or midrange decks either. So while this isn’t exactly
innovation paying off, being in the right position in the metagame will pay huge dividends, as we all know.


I’m not surprised that the single combo deck that managed to crack Top 8 was Elves. While being neither the fastest nor the most consistent combo deck
around, Elves has a different advantage: If the opponent is ready to beat combo by making the stack a hostile environment, Elves will simply say, “I
guess I just have to bash your head the old-fashioned way, then?”

The version Nicolas Malatesta played is far less of a combo deck than the one that Top 8ed Atlanta and very reminiscent of what Matt Nass brought to
San Jose. Instead of running any true kill card for the combo turn, it incorporates an IntuitionFauna ShamanVengevine backup plan. Vengevines and
Elves provide a perfectly reasonable and, most importantly, resilient clock in matchups where comboing is near impossible. The inclusion of four Elvish
Visionaries as another draw engine shows that Nicolas was aware that many of his games would be won by grinding, instead of blowing through the deck in
a single turn.

The deck can still win the turn it Glimpses by kicking a Joraga Warcaller for a lot and deploying all its Vengevines, probably attacking for lethal
with Plants and those Elves that were in play at the beginning of the turn (untapped by Quirion Ranger/Wirewood Symbiote if necessary). Even if it
doesn’t really kill the opponent for some reason (say they have blockers), dumping 90% of your deck on the table is not something those decks usually
have an answer to. And against the others, well, you’re still an excellent grind-out tribal deck.


Mark Quackenbush’s ninth-place list doesn’t show innovation and is therefore not of much interest at the moment (though the sideboard Null Rods are a
nice touch). Yoni Skolnik on the other hand innovated and was rewarded with a second-place finish, so let’s take a closer look at his non-standard

The way he adapted to the metagame was by cutting Vindicate, a versatile but clunky card, for Green Sun’s Zenith. With Zenith doing a convincing
impression of Llanowar Elves, the deck can deploy faster, thereby putting a better clock on combo (Zenith also means that he will draw threats more
often, leading to an even faster clock). The tutorable Teeg is an excellent way to capitalize from the few turns discard will usually buy against
combo, exactly what Junk was missing against those decks before. The lighter removal count is compensated for by the stronger creature suite (sure,
there are only three Goyfs, but with Zenith, you’ll still be “drawing” them more often than by just running four) and the Pridemage providing
artifact/enchantment removal.

This is probably the most efficient tweak I’ve seen pulled off lately, as the deck’s curve remains fundamentally the same while gaining additional
acceleration; situational cards (Teeg and Pridemage) are kept to a minimum without sacrificing flexible removal, and the higher effective creature
count even allows the deck to trump non-combo decks by running Jitte.

On an unrelated note, I’m happy* to see Thrun making an appearance, as I think he has a ton of potential as an answer to Legacy’s control decks, which
usually don’t have all that many ways to deal with the last of the trolls (if any).

*Well, not really, as most decks I enjoy running really hate Thrun.

Dredge/High Tide/Painter

The bogeymen of three weeks ago held their position in the lower ranks of the Top 16. Obviously combo isn’t going to fall off the face of the
earth—only because people now play decks that can beat it (I mean, there was Zoo in the LA Top 8, too), but its time of dominance seems to be over (for
now). Not much new to see, though I’m glad to note that the last clunky Mind Over Matter has been dumped for the far more efficient Preordain in the
High Tide deck.


Alex Maag clearly decided to let others deal with combo, while he fed on its predators. Goblins is another deck that’s incredibly difficult to beat
using stack-based control elements. The maindeck Sharpshooter delivers some protection against Elves, and the Pyrostatic Pillars in the board might
steal a game against Tendrils once in a while, but he is still incredibly soft to combo (three Red Blasts and triple Pyrostatic Pillar help against
High Tide, though). Goes to show that even in an environment with a marked combo contingent, just beating everything else will sometimes lead to

Old Ideas, New Forms

Now, innovation follows a sliding scale. Sometimes all you need to do is add a playset of cards to your deck to reach the functionality you want.
Sometimes you need to build something totally new. And sometimes you end up somewhere in between, where your deck is pretty close to something old and
known but also plays differently enough to seem like a completely different deck at times. You want examples? Well, here they are, fresh from Boston:

R/U StifleNought

AJ Sacher seems to enjoy running aggro-control decks that can dump a big fatty into play to just end the game, giving those decks a combo finish.
Earlier this year, he modified Natural Order Bant by turning it into more of a combo deck; now that the metagame is heavier on combo, he decided to
base his deck on Next Level Threshold instead, pushing the early game interaction with additional countermagic instead of removal, and a full set of
Grim Lavamancers as his main means of board control.

The result is a list that I enjoy quite a bit, as Tarmogoyfs (just dumb beaters anyway) leave the deck, and with them the green mana (aside from one
Tropical Island, the only use of which is getting Engineered Explosives to three counters—or bluffing Tarmogoyfs). AJ’s use of Fire / Ice over
Lightning Bolt (!) indicates that he clearly didn’t expect many three-toughness creatures or turn 1 Lackeys on the draw. The ability to tap and cycle
is obviously quite relevant against non-aggressive decks (as is being blue for Force of Will) and also stalls bigger creatures more efficiently than a
Bolt would. An ambitious choice, but one that makes a lot of sense at first sight, though it has to hurt against Merfolk.

The real heart of the deck is the Trinket Mage package, though. Sensei’s Divining Top (the one card I really wanted to add to the original NLT lists)
and Engineered Explosives are standard fare, providing removal and card selection. Basilisk Collar had already proved its worth in Next Level Threshold
and, with a full set of Lavamancers, provides a solid means to achieve full board control here, compensating for the missing Tarmogoyfs. The final
trinket is one that seems pretty heavy for a 2/2 to carry around, Phyrexian Dreadnought. Using Stifle on the comes-into-play trigger keeps the
Dreadnought around to deliver a very fast knockout punch once the game is under control, keeping the opponent from recovering from all the disruption.

The most notable card in the sideboard is the sweet Meekstone, a card I think is criminally underplayed in Trinket Mage decks. An easily accessible
singleton, it slows decks like Junk to a crawl at nearly no cost, especially as the Trinket Mage gets to chump-block. Icing Tarmogoyf when there’s a
Meekstone out is also quite the sweet play.

Thopter Sword

This updated version of the CounterTop Thopter deck is my favorite deck of the event. I actually had a list that was pretty close to Adam Barnello
while I was trying to find a way to make Caw-Blade work in Legacy but didn’t manage to get to sixty cards without sacrificing important options. Adam
found the cut I didn’t see—Squadron Hawk. While I love those birds (I’ll be talking about them soon, most likely), they aren’t necessary in a Thopter
Foundry shell. If you need a random guy to carry one of the expensive Swords, just turn a random artifact into a Thopter!

By starting with the Enlightened Tutor control shell instead of Caw-Blade, the deck gets to run all the sweet silver bullets you could want, have
access to Counterbalance-Top against combo, and play a powerful control game. Adding Stoneforge Mystic to the mix cracks the code, though. Suddenly,
you don’t need to always play a long game because you can just ram a Sword down the opponent’s throat repeatedly or use a protection guy to hold the
fort while Jace does his thing. Having another tutor for Sword of the Meek also gives you about a million different ways to set up the combo. The
resulting deck retains the late-game power of the original CounterTop deck but provides far more blowout victories and ends games markedly faster—a
good thing considering the deck had some problems with timing out in its original incarnation.

The Truly New

Now we come to the deckbuilder’s holy grail, decks so different from established archetypes that they can be considered totally new decks. Now, “new”
in a format as powerful as Legacy rarely means completely undiscovered synergies, and that holds true here, too. But every one of these decks does
something that hasn’t been seen in Legacy in that form before (or for a long time), at least not on the big stage (foreshadowing).

StifleNought Countertop

Now this is disruption! Similarly to the Dreadstill-deck from my last article’s bonus section,
this has everything spell-based decks hate to play against—mana denial, countermagic, discard, and to top it all off the Counterbalance lock.
Essentially, this deck is like Team America without the stupid creatures. Once the disruption puts the opponent behind, Dark Confidant and Jace make
sure you pull ahead on cards, allowing you to find more disruption so that the opponent won’t get back into the game.

The deck is rounded out by a smidgeon of removal (Swords to Plowshares), a Trinket Mage package similar to AJ’s above (no Basilisk Collar, obviously,
as there are no Lavamancers), and Phyrexian Dreadnought, which makes another appearance to turn late-game Stifles into game enders. I particularly
enjoy Eli Kassis maindeck Cursed Scroll, an uncommon sight in control decks for sure (to me, it still feels far more like a red card, thanks to
Tempest-era Standard), which allows him to significantly strengthen his tribal matchups.

One could argue this is actually a Dreadstill deck in disguise, but getting rid of the whole Mishra’s Factory plus Standstill plan in addition to
cutting all but one Dreadnought changes the deck enough to make it an unknown quantity in my opinion.

The Enlightened Tutor toolbox in the sideboard makes excellent use of deck space by allowing you to add redundancy to your CounterTop lock while
providing consistent access to silver bullets that will blow out those decks that are vulnerable to certain cards like Tribal, Affinity, and Dredge, an
approach I’ve been enjoying a lot lately. With all the different decks Legacy throws at you, fifteen cards feel awfully tight.

Two copies of a formerly unknown deck doing this well speaks of successful team effort and suggests that the deck is here to stay, at least until the
metagame clock advances another step. You’d do well to respect it.

Team Italia

Gerard Fabiano sweet disruptive aggro deck, complete with the punny Gerrard’s Verdict, is probably the most innovative deck as far as bringing
previously unused color combinations to the table goes—but sadly feels like old hat to me personally. Truth is one of the more successful players in my
local metagame has been running something that’s about three cards different from Team Italia for months now.* Though that means the deck appears less
innovative than it is, it also makes a strong case for how good the deck is—after all, this “new” deck has been played successfully by others before.
For a deck that’s all small creatures, discard, and removal, you get a surprising amount of staying power thanks to all the card advantage provided by
the little men, Equipment, and Hymn to Tourach.

*This is no knock on Gerard’s deckbuilding skills, simply another one of those cases where different people come to the same conclusion independently.
Happens all the time; get over it. Someone here in Germany having the same idea doesn’t make Gerard’s achievement any less valuable.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t really an aggro deck, even though it might look like one because of the low curve. In a
large number of matchups, you’re actually the control. While Gerard came to this list after being inspired by Team America (hence the deck name), in my
mind, it’s actually a lot closer to Junk—only with a much lower and therefore faster curve, and you should choose your role accordingly.


I refuse to call this NO Bant as it was labeled in the coverage, as it clearly isn’t Bant at all, Noble Hierarchs be damned.

Among these sixteen decks, I think Reid Duke has the most raw potential, judging it initially (yes, I kept the best for last). Why? If you remember
my article about combo control
, I mentioned how ridiculous a combo-aggro-control deck is if it works. That’s what this is, combo-aggro-control!

Why do I call this a new development when it looks very much like AJ Sacher NO Bant list from Memphis on first sight? Well, once
you look at the details, difference emerge. Both decks have eight accelerators (Zenith and Hierarch), seven pieces of countermagic, a comparable number
of maindeck removal spells, and cantrips to find what they need. The big difference? AJ has two Goyfs and a bunch of green utility creatures that can
sometimes beat down but mostly provide cute advantages, making his deck nearly pure combo. Duke on the other hand has just mana acceleration, a set of
Goyfs to provide the beatdown, and four (yes four) Vendilion Cliques, in spite of its being legendary.

There has to be a reason for that, right? Running legendary permanents as four-ofs is usually a bad idea because you’ll have stranded copies in hand.
In this case, though, you’re far less interested in the 3/1 body than in the enters-play ability. Clique isn’t a creature; it’s an instant speed Duress
that allows you to punch through your four-mana combo the turn after.

This is the sequence the deck is built around:

turn 1: one-drop accelerator

turn 2: EOT Clique you, take your counter

turn 3: Natural Order, say hi to big daddy Progenitus

And for that sequence to come up as often as possible, you need to run four Cliques. Even the choice of countermagic shows us the deck’s different
focus. AJ has Spell Pierce, much better later on but really bad when you’re trying to set up the line above. Reid’s Dazes on the other hand protect his
Natural Order perfectly, no hassle.

Now, Natural Order isn’t the best combo ever, no question about it. Turn 3 Progenitus is sufficiently powerful to beat most Legacy decks, though, so
clearly as a combo deck, the list works just fine.

How about as a control deck? Well, it’s again Vendilion Clique to the rescue. If you need to take the control role (mainly against faster combo), the
presence of Vendilion Clique means you have eleven maindeck disruption pieces, all the while attacking from two different angles (discard and
countermagic). Remember last time?
Yep, that’s exactly how to correctly put pressure on your opponent.

Finally there is the aggro role. How can a deck that plays only eight creatures with power be aggro? Well, first, there really are more than eight
creatures because the Zeniths allow you to fetch up Tarmogoyf after Tarmogoyf if necessary. That’s not all though—look at the deck’s removal. Yes,
there are eighteen points of burn in this deck. Once you add in the cantrips and opposing fetchlands, just taking them from nine to zero with those
Bolts after attacking with Clique a few times doesn’t seem all that farfetched. Even the presence of Noble Hierarch over Birds of Paradise (clearly the
better pure mana creature for the deck) indicates that Reid was very aware of his deck’s aggressive leanings. An exalted Clique kills in five swings,
not seven.

Over all, the deck is a thing of beauty. You can take every possible role with reasonable grace, and while you aren’t broken in either, you’re good
enough for this flexibility to take its toll on the opponent. I’m pretty sure this is going to leave a lasting mark on the format, whichever direction
the metagame moves.

That’s Sixteen

Overall, Boston more than fulfilled my expectations. I thought people would find ways to beat combo—and find them they did. More than that though, in
the process of searching for decks for this very different metagame, people created decks nobody had seen before in this form. And why not, combo
hadn’t been the dominant archetype in Legacy (or at least as far as I can remember) before the last few months.

So where do we go from here? Well, first off, New Phyrexia is going to shake up the format quite a bit (for my opinion on a few cards, go to the bonus
section). In addition, people are going to adapt to this new breed of deck. How? Well, the whole Top 8 looks rather soft to a well-built
hyper-aggressive Zoo deck with one-drops and lots of burn. I think a Zoo deck with a strong anti-combo sideboard could do well in this metagame, and if
the new breed of disruptive decks push combo back down, the metagame might even go full circle back to Vial decks crushing the Opens like in January. A
true cyclic metagame? In Legacy? Hell yeah!

I think Mental Misstep is probably going to throw a monkey wrench in the works there, though, because suddenly blue decks will fold to turn 1 Vial
significantly less often, which screws up that balance. What happens then? I don’t think we can do more than wait and see; there are just so many
factors that have to be taken into account. Maybe my dream comes true, and we get the first control-dominated (and I mean control, not aggro-control)
Legacy metagame in modern memory. Probably not—that somehow never happens. But I can dream, can’t I?

Until next time, remember to learn from what the pioneers have done!

Carsten Kötter


Bonus Content: New Phyrexia’s Most Exciting Offerings

I’m tempted to write my first ever set review for New Phyrexia, actually, as there are quite a few cards with potential. I might still do that,
depending on how much is left to say the next time I get the chance, but for now, you’ll have to be content with comments on three cards that really
tickle my fancy.

Mental Misstep

Well, I actually don’t have much to say about this that Drew Levin hasn’t already, but I agree with
him about how important it will be. This card is going to change Legacy big time. While I don’t think the format will turn into Misstep decks vs.
anti-Misstep, every dynamic we’re used to could be turned around depending on how widespread of an adoption the card will see. I think this is probably
the biggest change a single printing has caused to an Eternal format ever since the original fetchlands appeared in Onslaught and changed Vintage

For control decks, Misstep finally provides an answer to Aether Vial that isn’t dead against Goblin Lackey and Wild Nacatl. At the same time, though,
Sensei’s Divining Top is suddenly a lot harder to get online, Swords to Plowshares might not be enough to answer Lackey anymore, and even Brainstorm
loses some of its power—you rarely want to blow a Force on it, but chucking a Misstep to keep the opponent from semi-Ancestral-ing seems pretty
reasonable though.

In general terms, this card is definitely going to hurt combo because it’s the only archetype that really doesn’t want it maindeck, as it does nothing
about Force of Will. In addition, every single deck can now interact with Rituals and High Tide if it so chooses, so the aggressive matchups suddenly
become a lot more swingy. In everything else, including Misstep has its costs and benefits, but I think that in many cases, Misstep is too powerful a
turn 1 play to be left out.

Beast Within

Vindicate in green? What the hell is going on with the color pie in this set—first Phyrexian mana, now green creature removal? This is a really sweet
card, for multiple reasons. First, I finally have a Cunning Wish target for CAB Jace that can kill planeswalkers. Other than that, though, this is a
strong multifaceted card.

It’s easy to splash removal for just about any annoying permanent that conveniently shares the color of Tarmogoyf, and there are a ton of decks that
won’t really care about the token. As a pure removal spell, though, think about how often you’ll be targeting creatures. How much better is this than
Pongify? Yeah, exactly.

What makes this card spicy is the fact that you can blow up your own permanents. That means you can respond to an opponent’s removal by replacing your
soon-to-be dead creatures with a 3/3. It also means that this is never going to rot in your hand as a useless solution when you’d prefer to be
aggressive—chuck it at one of your lands and start hitting them over the head with your shiny new Beast. In control decks, you suddenly have the
ability to go aggro-control. In aggro, your removal is never dead. Pretty sweet.

That isn’t it, though. As Beast Within is an instant, you’ll often be able to set things up in a way that allows you to have your cake and eat it, too.
Imagine the opponent attacks with a Goblin Warchief or some other creature with less than three power. Once attackers are declared, you blow up your
land, kill their guy, and still have a 3/3 left over. Even worse, once they know you play Beast Within, they may have to play around it. Imagine how
much damage you prevent if Goblins can’t just run their guys into you as long as you have three mana untapped. Pretty sweet!

Praetor’s Grasp

Didn’t expect that one, did you? Praetor’s Grasp is a wicked card, the bastard child of Extract and Word of Command. Extract effects are usually pretty
bad, as you spend mana and a card without actually changing the game state. This, on the other hand, actually cycles in a weird way and is just Grim
Tutor in the mirror.

While that doesn’t sound broken, in the Tendrils mirror, it’s actually the nuts. If they have only a single Tendrils like standard U/B ANT, you get the
Extract win. Even if they happen to have the Tendrils in hand or run Burning Wish, you get a Grim Tutor that doesn’t cost you life, largely negates
their discard effects, cuts them off from their most efficient engine piece, and plays really well with your Lion’s Eye Diamonds. If your hand has two
lands, a way to cast Grasp turn 1 and an LED, you’re guaranteed to resolve Ad Nauseam turn 2 while they’ll have a lot of trouble killing you that early
without their Ad Nauseam (e.g. Dark Ritual into Grasp turn 1, grab their Ad Nauseam, and drop your LED into play, next turn drop the second land, crack
the LED, and cast this from exile).

The fact that it can grab things like Force of Will, Sensei’s Divining Top (very interesting for Doomsday) Time Spiral (should be enough for ANT to win
with, too) and other random things from opposing control and combo decks even suggests possible larger applications. As long as you’re playing against
a stock list, you should be able to figure out what they have in hand, too. This is definitely the best pure Extract-effect yet and will probably
change the dynamic of combo-mirrors quite a bit. 

This cards main potential lies in Vintage, though, because it’s utterly ridiculous in anything that can cast it early. In a format as heavy on tutoring
as Vintage, where many decks rely on one ofs to get the job done, stealing an opposing Ancestral Recall is cute (and quite solid early on), but taking
their Yawgmoth’s Will or Time Vault not only removes one of their few good paths to victory, it also but also sets you up to blow them out.

There are two kinds of Yawgmoth’s Wills in Vintage: early game Wills to pull ahead and late game Wills that just end the game. Before Burning Wish was
restricted (and removed from game became exiled) you could build your game plan around resolving that early Will to push you ahead far enough to Wish
it back and resolve the backbreaking one shortly thereafter.

After years without this ability, Praetor’s Grasp revitalizes that strategy, even though it only works against other Will-decks. People haven’t
sideboarded heavily for control-matchups in Vintage because there simply isn’t anything with an impact similar to Leyline of the Void or Ancient Grudge
against blue decks. Now there is. If you have a Vintage scene, get your hands on these.


There is much more in New Phyrexia that is worth exploring for Legacy (quite a high percentage compared to your ordinary small set, I think), Phyrexian
mana in general seems like it will do some things that don’t really feel natural when you’ve played Magic long enough to be used to the color pie. Oh,
this is also a free spell ability—how many of those that didn’t cost you cards in hand did Wizards manage to print that didn’t break somewhere? Yep,
exactly. Seems like we just have to figure out which card will be the culprit as history indicates that something wicked will be happening soon.