And lo! the Powers That Be decreed that the small yet vocal Legacy community be given a third Grand Prix with which to test their deck construction and metagaming prowess. Things couldn’t be better.
In preparation for GP: Columbus, I’ll be examining the current Legacy metagame and summarizing the decks that define it. This article is primarily written for Legacy novices, but I’ll be sure to add enough detailed analysis to make it worth the time of format regulars. You know who you are.
I. An Extremely Abbreviated History of the Legacy Format
September 1, 2004
Motivated by a massive impending rotation in Extended, Wizards of the Coast gives the small “Type 1.5” community what it had always wanted: a Banned list separate from the Vintage Banned & Restricted list. (Aaron Forsythe discusses the changes here.) Though it would be a couple of months before “Type 1.5” came to be known as "Legacy."
The format is distinct unto itself, and comparisons to Vintage or Extended usually fall short. The format is marked with the functionally largest card pool in the history of Magic*. But with a relatively small number of players mining Magic’s past, there are bound to be numerous gems waiting to be unearthed.
(* Technically, you get to play 39 more cards in Vintage, but realistically, the gravitational pull of many Vintage-legal but Legacy-banned cards precludes a large number of cards from ever seeing the inside of a KMC sleeve.)
The Legacy environment is characterized by an odd mixture of modified Extended imports (e.g. Goblins, Threshold/Gro, Survival), some Vintage imports (e.g. Fish, Gro-A-Tog) and some very cool decks that are unique to the Legacy format (e.g. “IGGy Pop,” an Ill-Gotten Gains storm-combo deck and “Golden Grahams,” an infinite Spellbomb combo deck built around Auriok Salvagers and Gamekeeper).
II. The Tournament History of Legacy
Back in January, I began to collect and organize data on all of the major Legacy tournaments in the United States and log them in a thread at The Mana Drain. Though I didn’t know when, I knew that data would eventually make its way into one of my articles, and that time has finally arrived.
All of the "1"s below denote an appearance in the Top 8 of one of the fifteen (15) U.S. Legacy tournaments, with fifty (50) or more players, from July 2005 through October 2006.
Legacy Tournament Top 8 Appearances
July 2005 – October 2006
Goblins 11111 11111 11111 11111 11111 1 (26)
Threshold 11111 11111 11111 111 (18)
Solidarity ("Reset High Tide ") 11111 11111 1 (11)
Landstill 11111 1111 (9)
Survival 11111 111 (8)
Angel Stompy 11111 (5)
Rifter (“R/w Control”) 1111 (4)
Deadguy Ale (“B/w Disruption”) 1111 (4)
IGGy Pop (“Ill-Gotten Gains Storm Combo”) 111 (3)
Golden Grahams (“Salvagers-Gamekeeper”) 111 (3)
Reanimator 111 (3)
Affinity 111 (3)
Mono-Blue Aggro 111 (3)
Life from the Loam Control 11 (2)
Sligh 11 (2)
B/r Suicide 11 (2)
B/g(/w) Control 11 (2)
U/G Madness 1
Mono-Blue Control 1
Mono-White Control 1
Mono-Brown Aggro 1
G/W Enchantress 1
U/W Fish 1
R/G Beatdown 1
U/G/W Aggro-Control 1
43 Land 1
U/R/g Mesmeric Orb Combo (really, don’t ask) 1
(Links to lists of each of these decks can be found in the thread mentioned above.)
So when you hear that Legacy is dominated by three decks – Goblins, Threshold and Solidarity – this is where it’s coming from. For reasons that I’ll explain later, these decks have what it takes to repeatedly dominate events.
What’s more, with only two exceptions, these are only three decks that have taken First Place at each of these fifteen events.
Legacy Tournament First Place Winners
July 2005 – October 2006
This is somewhat misleading since I’m including two first place splits here, one of which favored Threshold (splitting with Solidarity); and another between Solidarity and Mono-Blue Aggro (“Skies,”) where the combo deck was overwhelmingly favored.
The other exception is Roland Chang’s First Place finish at this past Legacy Worlds with U/G Madness. You can see his report here and you’ll notice he had the good fortune of dodging Goblins for eleven straight rounds. Subsequent performances by this deck have been lackluster, at best.
The remainder of this article will be an analysis of how and why the three leading Legacy decks consistently win. And over the next few articles I’ll cover other important decks in the current metagame.
III. The “Big Three”
Despite vastly different strategies and card lists, the Big Three share several noteworthy characteristics: mana stability, consistency of execution, strategic hybridization and resilience to hate. I’ll cover my explanation of hybridization in the appropriate sections below, since that’s difficult to discuss broadly, but the others are easy enough.
Possibly their most important shared feature is the stability of the mana of these decks. Two of the three decks I’ll discuss today are mono-colored (though one occasionally splashes White or Green) and that goes a long way to being to able to consistently deploy their plan in fields with a high concentration of Wasteland and other sundry forms of non-basic hate. It also means they’re far less likely to mulligan or lose to a color-screwed hand.
Threshold is the only true polychromatic deck of the bunch, but both the high number of color-fixing cantrips and fetchlands (together comprising the engine of the deck) give Threshold consistent access to all of its colors.
As for “consistency of execution,” I’m referring to the ability of these decks to reliably replicate their strategy, game after game. Goblins achieves this with its impressive threat density. The deck is literally thirty or so Goblins, four Aether Vials and land.
Both Threshold and Solidarity consistently accomplish their plans with cheap and synergistic card drawing. Solidarity uses its draw spells to fix its hand in the opening turns and then for storm count and to keep its combo flowing when it’s “going off.” Whereas Threshold relies on its cantrips to make land drops in a land-anemic shell, fill its graveyard and dig for its control cards and namesake beaters. But the result is the same: while the specific path needed to win may change every game, finding the road there is easily enough accomplished.
Finally, these three decks share a resilience to the sideboarded and maindeck hate aimed at them. Despite how many Engineered Plagues, Tormod’s Crypts and Gaea’s Blessings (or whatever) are in the room, these decks can usually fight through it to advance to the top tables.
Chris Coppola (Machinus)
1st place at StarCityGames Duel for Duals tournament
Roanoke, Virginia, United States
October 15, 2006
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Goblin Matron
- 4 Goblin Lackey
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 4 Goblin Tinkerer
- 4 Goblin Piledriver
- 4 Gempalm Incinerator
- 2 Siege-Gang Commander
- 4 Goblin Ringleader
Going by the numbers, Goblins has the strongest performance of any deck in Legacy to date. But why is it so good?
For one, it has great cards up and down its curve. Solid turn 1 plays include Goblin Lackey, Aether Vial, and Mogg Fanatic; Goblin Piledriver and Gempalm Incinerator (cycled) at two mana; Goblin Warchief and Matron at three mana; the absurd Goblin Ringleader at four and topping off with Siege-Gang Commander and Kiki-Jiki at five mana. I’ve already mentioned the deck’s consistency due to its unmatched threat density and the stability of its mana (supplemented with Aether Vial). But what makes the deck truly great is Goblins’s strategic hybridization.
Whether it’s due to laziness or ignorance, people often refer to Goblins as an “aggro deck,” where in reality, it’s a hybrid aggro-combo/control deck. How can it be all of these things when we’re just dealing with a bunch of red dorks?
Goblins as a Combo deck. Consider these opening turns against a harmless goldfish.
Turn 1: Mountain, Goblin Lackey**.
Turn 2: Mountain, attack with Goblin Lackey (1 damage), play Siege-Gang Commander (SGC) off Lackey trigger; post-combat play Goblin Piledriver.
Turn 3: Mountain, swing with your army (17 damage), fling a dude with SGC (2 damage). You win.
If the Goblins draws the right combination of cards in its opening hand, the deck can cheat on its mana costs and explode in a way reminiscent of a more traditional combo deck. (See also, Affinity.) The fact that it can even draw these hands (i.e. Goblins’s potential for brokenness), also gives this deck a lot of points.
** Incidentally, what exactly is the flavor of Goblin Lackey anyway?
Main Entry: lack·ey
Etymology: Middle French laquais
1: someone who does menial tasks or runs errands for another
2: a servile follower
I guess the art fits the card name, but Mons’s Goblins Raiders is more in line with an actual “lackey.” Functionally, Goblin Lackey is more of a recruiter than anything else, which would probably make Goblins Recruiter into Goblins Librarian or Researcher or something. It’s something to ponder, but only for a moment or two.
Goblins as a Control deck.
When Goblins doesn’t get the nutz draw, it can play a surprisingly convincing control game. With Wasteland trading for duals and other non-basics and Rishadan Port tapping everything else down, Goblins slows opposing control and combo strategies by a turn or more. And if its cards align in just the right way, it can even lock its opponent right out of the game. With Aether Vial in play, it can even do so without sacrificing its own tempo. But mana disruption is only one aspect of the deck’s control game.
Goblins can Demonic Tutor (Goblin Matron) for a necessary card; remove blockers or threats with Lightning Bolts that cycle (Gempalm Incinerator) and can cast Fact or Fictions that mysteriously leave behind a 2/2 hasted beater (Goblin Ringleader). It’s madness I say!
And just when you think you’ve beaten back the last of their stinking hordes, here comes Siege-Gang Commander and his “lackeys”—all of which can be sacrificed for eight damage to your opponent at the cost of eight mana.
Importantly, almost every card in Goblins, alone, is capable of netting significant card advantage.
Goblins as a Beatdown deck.
When all else fails, Goblins can sit back and play as a solid aggro deck that beats down with impressive efficiency. In the absolute worst case, the deck can resort to swinging with two Fanatics and a hard-cast Incinerator. While that’s not the most elegant thing to watch, it’s often good enough.
The difference between a mediocre Goblin player and a great one is knowing which strategy to adopt at each phase of the game. But the best plays often involve combining each strategic subset to crush the opposition or eek out a tight game.
The secret to Goblins power, tribal synergies, is also one way people choose to attack it. While an Engineered Plague set to “Goblins” or resolving Tivadar’s Crusade is a huge speed bump, it’s often not enough to keep them down.
Chatting on AIM the other night, I asked Chris Coppola (Machinus) how he deals with Engineered Plague now that he’s switched back to mono-Red and without hesitation he replied: “I just beat them.” That is, drawing any of the three-mana answers isn’t guaranteed before it’s too late to have a meaningful effect on the game. But when you also consider Goblins’ considerable mana disruption, you can see what he means.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s an excerpt of one of Dave Price’s (a.k.a. Quicksilver) reports from The Source, playing against Machinus, of all people, in the quarterfinals of the most recent SCG Duel for Duals (08 October 2006). Dave was playing R/G/b Survival.
“Round 3: He starts off with double Waste, double Port, Fanatic for my Werebear, and Incinerator for by Birds. I get up to two mana for one or two turns but never get to three. He beats me with Matron for like 10 turns until he gets a second Mountain and plays out Piledriver and Fanatic. I die with only two lands and he has double Port, despite the decent amount of mana I drew that game. He asks to see my hand at the end and I lay down a hand of Baloth, Stomphowler, Survival, Burning Wish, and triple [Engineered] Plague. God, I wish I could get to three mana against a deck that only destroys land as a side plan, despite me drawing plenty of mana.”
Commenting later that the mono-Red list lacks an answer to Engineered Plague, Price answers more succinctly: “He had a great answer to Engineered Plague: double Wasteland, double Rishadan Port and removal for every creature. He never let me get to three mana and I died with three Engineered Plagues in hand. That’s a pretty good answer if you ask me.”
Something that’s far easier to resolve against Goblins is Pyroclasm. At 2/3 the cost of Plague, and against a deck where nothing has a butt larger than x/2, that’s one of the strongest answers to the deck. But few decks run Pyroclasm outside of control and those decks usually get mauled by Goblins, except Rifter (“White/Red Control”), which gets crushed by any and all forms of combo.
While I’m on the subject, a certain breed of four-mana White defensive enchantments are also difficult for Goblins negotiate; namely, Worship, Humility, Moat and Powerstone Minefield. But again, their casting costs makes it doubtful these will make it onto the board.
David Gearhart (Deep6er)
4th place at a StarCityGames Duel for Duals tournament
Roanoke, Virginia, United States
October 7, 2006
Solidarity, sometimes referred to as “Reset High Tide,” is a storm/mana combo deck very loosely based on the High Tide decks from Days of Yore. In Legacy, in addition to High Tide, the deck gets to run the previously obscure Legends uncommon Reset that allows Solidarity to reliably combo out, at instant speed, on their opponent’s turn.
Solidarity’s plan is to develop its hand and mana whereby it can “go off,” chaining draw spells and untap effects to generate a massive amount of mana and high enough storm-count for a fatal Brain Freeze or a lethal Stroke of Genius. Of all of the combo decks in Legacy to date, it has proven itself to be the most resilient, popular and consistent.
Being mono-colored means it is never colored screwed, and its numerous cantrips allow Solidarity to fix its hand and make up for any deficiency it may have when it starts its combo (draw spells, untap effects, tutors, etc.). If forced, the deck can go off as early as turn 3, but it would prefer to wait as long as possible, playing more lands and sculpting its hand to reduce its fizzle-rate.
Being creatureless grants Solidarity a significant amount of virtual card advantage in a creature-dominated format, as Swords to Plowshares, Pernicious Deeds, Wraths of God and the like might as well be pinochle cards in their opponent’s hand. It also means that, outside of bounce effects or just winning, any and all forms of creature damage are likely to connect. But against any deck that lacks some form of direct damage, Solidarity can comfortably go down to one life before milling its opponent into oblivion.
Also necessary is a thorough understanding of all of the deck’s tricks. “Countering” your own Brain Freeze with Remand, while leaving the storm copies on the stack, and then recasting the Brain Freeze is one example.
Being a top-tier deck, most people usually board in some amount of hate for this deck. One can go after the storm-mechanic with Arcane Laboratory or Rule of Law. One can also attack Solidarity’s mana development with Glowrider or Armageddon.
Gaea’s Blessing is another option, but note that the Blessing effect goes on the stack when the card hits the graveyard and can still be responded to with Stroke of Genius, etc. Against a competent player, Gaea’s Blessing isn’t as crushing as it might appear. Ditto for Trickbind.
One of the more difficult cards for Solidarity to negotiate is a Meddling Mage chanting against “High Tide.” The actual kill cards are still active, but Solidarity has a hard time going off quickly if it can’t generate the mana it needs to pull off its combo. This is only made worse when the Solidarity player is under heavy board pressure, say, in the forms of a Nimble Mongoose and Werebear. Against slower decks, like Landstill, Solidarity can more easily work around Meddling Mage since it will have nearly twice as many turns to play land and tune its hand.
In any case, combo typically falls prey to well-built aggro-control decks and Solidarity is no exception. Which leads us to…
C. U/G/w Threshold
By comparison, Threshold is the most “fair” of the decks we’re covering today. A typical first turn for this deck is playing Polluted Delta to fetch a basic Island to cast Serum Visions. Not exactly the sort of turn that’s going to make your opponent crap their pants in terror. But this minor sequence of plays is deceptively potent. You’re getting two cards in the graveyard for a turn 3 or 4 threshold, setting up another land drop, as well as your turn 2 play, and getting Daze online, should anything ugly happen on your opponent’s turn. Fetching a basic Island, instead of a more flexible dual land, also has the benefit of making you immune to Wasteland, which is critical as you deliberate on your turn 2 play.
As for how this deck works, I’ve written at least 16,000 words on the deck for this site alone. But a brief recap is in order.
Threshold is a bundle of powerful inner-synergies. With cantrips replacing lands, filling the graveyard for achieving threshold, being chained together to rip through the deck to find something important (Meddling Mage, removal, a counter, etc.), or merely forming mini-combos with each other – the cantrips, along with Threshold’s high fetchland count – give the deck a surprisingly stable mana-base, considering its low land count and complex mana demands. Furthermore, the plethora of free counters allows the deck to play out threats and still maintain its counter-shield. The best removal in the format (Swords to Plowshares) supports the deck by removing blockers or menacing threats.
Also notable, again, is the degree of the deck’s strategic hybridization. The deck is designed to cast draw spells, deploy enormous beasts and counter opposing spells, as early as turn two, all on the same turn, and do so turn after turn. It is these polymorphous roles that make the deck play superbly: the ability to maximize its resources in such a way that it plays the game on two strategic fronts simultaneously. In a nutshell, that’s the reason why Threshold is such a strong competitor in the current field.
In terms of deck-building, Threshold is model example of efficiency. This is also seen in the deck’s win conditions: untargetable 3/3s for one mana, 4/4 mana elves for two mana, and 6/6 protection from Black flyers for four mana. Size to mana cost ratio, Threshold’s creatures are some of the most efficient in the history of the game.
The “bonus” effects on Threshold’s creatures (Nimble Mongoose, Werebear, and Mystic Enforcer) are also notably relevant. The Fanatic / Incinerator / StP / etc.-proof Nimble Mongoose, for instance, is a perfect foil for a first turn Goblin Lackey, even when on the draw. Even if the two cards trade, the Mongoose has done his job. But as early as turn 3, Nimble Mongoose is poised to take down almost any threat in the format and live to tell about it.
Werebear’s mana ability is useful in deploying other animals (useful in conserving Blue mana for Counterspell), as well as accelerating a third-turn Mystic Enforcer, should the need arise. While Enforcer’s protection makes him a monster against Black removal, Psychatog, B/w Confidant, and also a critical game-winner in the mirror. With evasion and six power, he’s also a deadly threat that your opponent needs to answer or die trying, assuming they’ve survived your one and two mana creatures.
The weaknesses of Threshold are well known, and most opponents choose to attack Threshold where it derives the power of it namesake beaters: the graveyard. With Tormod’s Crypt, Jotun Grunt, Loaming Shaman, Leyline of the Void and even Haunting Echoes seeing a significant amount of play, navigating the current field requires knowing how to play through and around the hate.
For instance, the last time I took U/G/w Threshold to a tournament, I faced three straight rounds where each opponent boarded in three to four Tormod’s Crypts against me, followed by another opponent running four maindeck Leylines of the Void. And you know what, I won each of those matches. In the case of Threshold, playing through graveyard hate means properly sandbagging Mental Notes and fetchlands, or dropping a proactive Pithing Needle on Crypt or Withered Wretch, when the situation demands it.
Probably the most difficult form of hate for Threshold to manage is an assault on their heavily skewed mana “curve.” I put quotes around “curve” here since Threshold’s spells form more of a straight-line than anything resembling a normal distribution curve.
Analyzing the curve on Mr. Nightmare’s list above reveals the following distribution of spells:
0 cost spells: 7
1 cost spells: 24
2 cost spells: 10
3 cost spells: 0
4 cost spells: 1
I don’t think I need to explain how absolutely backbreaking a turn 1 or 2 Chalice of the Void, set to “1,” can be for this deck. The same goes for a first turn Trinisphere. If Threshold is on the play, the ability to get off a single cantrip and have Daze ready is a huge advantage. But if “Chalice for 1” is on the stack while Threshold is on the draw and can’t answer with Force of Will, the game is practically over. If Threshold can find its Engineered Explosives, it can begin to dig out of its hole, but with the deck’s draw spells effectively turned off, that’s not all that likely.
Before I close, let me reemphasize that the existence of strong hate doesn’t invalidate Threshold or any other deck covered today. Assuming you have a contingency plan, hate mainly has the effect of transferring the burden of “optimal play” from one player to the other.
That’s it for today. Join me next time when I’ll examine the extent to which Legacy is a rock-paper-scissor format and begin to cover other important decks that comprise the Legacy metagame.