Today, we’re going to talk about cards that matter and why Brainstorm is the best card in Legacy. Before that, I’ll set the table a bit.
Last weekend, I got in some testing with Ad Nauseam Tendrils (ANT) and Thopters, specifically the more traditional U/W Thopters, with a red splash for
Pyroblast and Firespout. These are both powerful decks, and I think they’re among the upper tier decks in the format. That being said, both can
be difficult to pilot optimally, and I’m far from an optimal pilot in general, thus the need for practice.
ANT is a combo deck, pure and true, while Thopters is part of a larger class of Legacy Counterbalance/Top control decks. Thopters in particular is
notable for its use of Enlightened Tutor. In general, most control decks in any format seek to create card advantage, while Enlightened Tutor does the
Despite being set at opposite ends of the archetype spectrum, these decks share something in common beyond their mana base. Both decks have another
foundational card that accounts for their mutual power: Brainstorm.
Have you ever stopped and thought about how really, truly powerful Brainstorm is?
Brainstorm itself wasn’t always the Brainstorm we have, today. Alliances gave us Thawing Glaciers as a reliable way to shuffle decks, but it’s
really the Onslaught and Zendikar fetchlands that make Brainstorm the powerhouse that it is in modern Legacy. The ability to sculpt draws, dig for
mana, hide important spells from discard and otherwise sandbag cards on top of the library, accumulate combo pieces and shuffle away extraneous cards,
build storm count, maintain blue spell count for Force of Will, dramatically increase the raw quantity of cards seen in a match, cheat down land
counts, cheat down copies of specific cards, while simultaneously digging for said cards at critical moments… Brainstorm does it all.
Honestly, it is so good that it is almost, well, broken.
I think Brainstorm may be the most powerful card in Legacy. In terms of influence, it is a key card that enables a significant percentage of top-tier
decks to exist in the form that they do.
I’ll say that again: Since 2007, even if you discount Sadin’s win and consider the format that emerged after as the birth of modern Legacy,
every single Legacy Grand Prix–winning deck has played four copies of Force of Will.
For those interested, the finals matches looked like this:
Columbus 2007: Flash defeats Goblins
Chicago 2009: Counter/Top defeats Counter/Top
Madrid 2010: Reanimator defeats Ad Nauseam Tendrils
Columbus 2010: Merfolk defeats Counter/Top
Looking at the full Top 8s of those tournaments, we find that there were 76 Brainstorms out of a maximum of 128. Force of Will was right behind, with
68. Each tournament has a bit of its own flavor; consider that Madrid had no Aether Vial and no Wasteland in the Top 8, for example.
As points of comparison, these Top 8s contained 38 Wastelands and 35 Sensei’s Divining Tops.
I love Zoo, and I love Elves and Affinity, but if I were going to Grand Prix Providence, I would 100% for sure be playing a deck with Brainstorm. If
the option is available to you, you should strongly consider it, especially in a long, grinding tournament like a GP. The format isn’t
particularly hostile to Brainstorm decks, and the fact that Brainstorm makes your deck function at a higher, more reliable level cannot be
underestimated. If you are playing Brainstorm, and your key opponent is Merfolk, that deck is absolutely beatable provided you are playing the correct
Brainstorm deck and practice the matchup.
Are there good reasons not to play Brainstorm? Yes, there are. A high-powered, linear deck, like Dredge—combined with some favorable pairings and
some luck—can definitely power you to a strong finish at a Grand Prix. The same can be said for playing the correct aggro deck; people like to
gloss over the fact that three Zoo decks made the Top 8 of last Legacy Grand Prix where Mystical Tutor was legal. Having battled through so many
rounds, there being three Zoo decks in that Top 8 carries significant statistical weight, more so than the playing of the elimination rounds, even if
most people don’t like to view things that way. And, decks like Junk with solid across-the-board matchups have often rewarded strong pilots at
Legacy GPs regardless of what is otherwise going on with the format.
Still, right now, today, I would play Brainstorm.
One thing I noticed when playing with Thopters and ANT last weekend is that my win percentage in games where I started with Brainstorm in my opening
hand was considerably higher than in games where my opener did not have Brainstorm. Brainstorm is really that good, when you play it with any degree of
Ponder and Preordain, as good as they are in a deck like ANT, can’t hold a candle to Brainstorm. They’re somewhat similar, sure, but in
terms of power level? The difference is so considerable that one shouldn’t even need to write about it. If you try to imagine a Legacy without
Brainstorm and think that Ponder would fill the gap, you’re mistaken. The format would be significantly different.
Perhaps that’s an interesting thought exercise for another day.
Think about everything that you can do with ANT, so much of which can be set up best by Brainstorm. Extra cards in your hand that are stopping you from
getting hellbent? Tendrils in your hand at the wrong time? Need to build storm count or hit threshold? Too many Infernal Tutors in your grip? Not
enough Infernal Tutors? Brainstorm does it all; hands with Brainstorm, in my experience, are far more likely to win on the second turn of the game than
those without. Brainstorm isn’t just digging for cards; it is literally sculpting your hand into what you need it to be.
In Thopters, Brainstorm and Sensei’s Divining Top allow the deck to control the game even when operating off the top of the deck; Thopters
doesn’t need to have cards in hand to function. Once the deck gets running, it’s impressive how quickly it can effectively lock out an opponent.
Thopters isn’t a tap-out control deck, but it also doesn’t grind card advantage like a traditional control deck.
Most of what it does breaks down to an ability to find Counterbalance and abuse it or to find powerful trumps to break an opposing deck. The first line
of defense against most of the format is Counterbalance and Top. However, Counterbalance itself is potent in this deck, independent of Top; Brainstorm
can function as a quasi-Top, and Jace can make sure you have a specific-cost card on top. Enlightened Tutor, in combination with Counterbalance, can
undo the card disadvantage of the topdeck tutor by turning it into a functional Counterspell for one white mana. In fact, some people have really
sought to abuse the power of Enlightened Tutor in the deck by ensuring that they have costs zero through five covered with artifacts and enchantments.
Not only can it set up a soft lock with Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top, Thopters can also soft-lock certain decks using Sword of the
Meek and Thopter Foundry. It runs powerful trump cards—such as Ensnaring Bridge, Moat, and Humility—cards that can lock out some decks
completely; some builds play both Jace and Tezzeret, pulverizing the opponent in the late game with actual card advantage and not just virtual
advantage. Cards like Pithing Needle and Runed Halo can similarly blank opposing strategies on their own. Part of the reason I like Thopters is that
it’s a reliable control deck that can score free and easy wins due to the power of these trump cards and the ease of finding them in a deck with Top,
Brainstorm, and Enlightened Tutor.
Top is part of the key engine of the deck, but Brainstorm is the glue that holds it together, lets it cheat on land count, and is the reason why it
always seems to have the answer it needs, when it needs it.
I don’t want your takeaway from this to be that playing a non-Brainstorm deck is wrong. You just better have a damn good reason for doing so.
Playing something that preys on Brainstorm decks, like Merfolk or Junk, is a valid reason. Card availability is an unfortunate reason but also a valid
reason (and is a reason why I try to discuss powerful non-blue decks).
I prefaced this article with a conversation on Brainstorm because I want to make sure everyone realizes how good Brainstorm is. It may often be correct
to Mental Misstep a Brainstorm. It is okay to Daze, Spell Pierce, Pyroblast, or otherwise interrupt a Brainstorm from functioning.
Brainstorm really is that good.
If I were going to make a list of the top 10 most influential cards in Legacy, in terms of the dominance they exert over the format, Brainstorm would
be number one. In fact, that sounds like an interesting exercise, so let’s go ahead and do that.
Note that I am not including duals or fetches because it is my list, and I make the rules.
These are the cards that make Legacy what it is.
Articles have been written on how to play Brainstorm correctly, and you should read them. Maximizing your Brainstorms can and will win you games. Using
Brainstorm incorrectly will cause you to lose games.
Something to keep in mind, heading into this Grand Prix, is an idea ingrained in many people through years of force of habit: it is acceptable to keep
one-land hands provided they have Brainstorm. For years, players have cheated land counts and used Brainstorm to try and dig out. Merfolk is one
example of a deck that has preyed on this bad habit, and at this Grand Prix, Mental Misstep is really going to punish people who do this.
When you consider the fact that Brainstorm is very good at helping you avoid flooding out and the fact that Merfolk with Mental Misstep is likely to be
popular, it may make sense for you to consider adding an additional land to your blue deck for this Grand Prix.
One point I want to make here regarding Mental Misstep: there are a number of decks that could, in theory, profitably play Brainstorm. Consider
Saito’s Merfolk, for instance. It’s in blue, and it plays fetchlands, so it seems logical. You can try to jam Brainstorm into Elves, or Burn and
think that you can reap all the benefits that natural blue decks get from using Brainstorm. However, you’ll often find that the cost of playing
that card over another, and the cost of one mana worth of development, is simply not worth it in those decks.
When you realize that not every deck that can play Brainstorm wants to play Brainstorm, even though it is the best card in Legacy, you can then
understand why not every deck that can play Mental Misstep (which is literally every deck) would want to play Mental Misstep.
Sometimes referred to as the glue that holds the Eternal formats together, Force of Will makes sure that first- and second-turn combo decks don’t
overrun the format. It gives blue decks like Merfolk and Threshold the ability to exist, as they would otherwise have real issues competing with aggro
at all and enables slower but steadier combo decks like High Tide and Painted Stone to exist.
One interesting thing to consider is that it’s not uncommon to see Force of Will moved to the sideboard for games two and three in some matchups, but
Brainstorm, to my knowledge, is always best left in the deck as a four-of.
Because of the power inherent in multicolor strategies and the availability of nonbasic mana fixing in Legacy, Wastelands will always be powerful. They
are a foundational card for Aether Vial decks, in that keeping land parity while ramping Vial gives you a tremendous lead in resource and on-board
development. Wasteland is also one of the format’s leading ways to score “free” wins, due to players cheating on basic land counts
and keeping borderline hands, counting on finding a second land using Top or Brainstorm. Earlier Merfolk builds (and precursors like CounterSlivers)
were designed specifically to prey on decks in this way.
4. Sensei’s Divining Top
It isn’t just that Top is half of the undeniably dominant Counter/Top strategy; it sees play in decks beyond that, including Junk. Current Junk
decks make fantastic use of Top to smooth what can otherwise be awkward draws, as well as managing damage from Dark Confidant.
5. Aether Vial
Decks with Aether Vial and Wasteland are a natural foil for Counter/Top decks, at least in theory. Vial is an exceptionally powerful card, and because
of the way the Legacy metagame functions, it will often be a viable strategy.
6. Lion’s Eye Diamond
I’ve constantly been surprised by the lack of respect given to Lion’s Eye Diamond, especially in American Legacy. In terms of raw power,
LED is near the top of the Legacy format; however, the popularity and strength of Counter/Top knock LED down the list, at least in my mind.
LED fuels the broken combo decks in Legacy, including ANT, TES, Belcher, LED Dredge, and Painted Stone. It is a cornerstone card of the format and in
many ways is the one chiefly responsible for the speed at which Legacy decks need to interact.
While I was inclined to leave this off the list, recent games with Thopters have reminded me that it isn’t Top alone that makes this card so
broken, although obviously those two cards are often inseparable. The goldfish speed of Legacy combo (as fast as turn one, reliably turn two) and
Legacy aggro (can be tuned in a vacuum for as fast as turn two, reliably turn three) forces decks to interact quickly and thus carry a large number of
low-cost spells. Counterbalance decks then prey on these strategies.
When Counterbalance becomes too popular or too metagamed against itself, you can beat it by simply playing decks with more expensive cards (Knight of
the Reliquary, Natural Order), or preying on its mana, or by playing Aether Vial (or a combination of these things). Many of these anti-Counterbalance
decks are soft to aggro, as are some Counterbalance decks themselves, and in turn, these decks lose to combo. So, in theory, that is how Legacy
maintains a functional metagame despite having decks that appear to be widely spread across a raw power-level axis.
Swords is the premier removal spell of Magic, and in all likelihood, that will never change. For control decks, giving an opponent some extra life
points is almost always irrelevant, as your strategy is designed to set up a position from which you cannot lose, at which point you can then get to
work on actually winning the game.
Just because I wrote an article saying Mental Misstep isn’t the best card in Legacy doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the top ten cards in
the format. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Misstep push decks like Merfolk and Dreadstill back to prominence. It’s an exceptionally strong blue
card. In Dreadstill, Misstep does insane things like protecting Dark Confidant and Dreadnought or Counterbalance from a preemptive Thoughtseize, in
addition to improving already strong matchups against Dredge, Storm, and Elves.
He may not carry as much weight as he used to, but I think most of that is due to the emergence of combo and the corresponding lack of value in a
simple (giant) vanilla creature. As Counterbalance decks reemerge, Goyf will probably return to prominence, and over time, we are likely to rotate back
into aggro decks that rely on Goyf as a cheap, efficient threat.
You might challenge me on some, especially Glimpse of Nature, but I think time will only increase that card’s power. I mean, Wizards is going to
print more creatures, right? They’re going to print more Elves?
Ancient Tomb should definitely be on the list, but it isn’t, so complain about it in the forums.
I think talking about the cards that matter is a good way to prep for the Grand Prix. Next time, a look at the last few StarCityGames.com Legacy Opens
headed into the GP, plus a look at what Bazaar of Moxen predicts for the Grand Prix.