The Long & Winding Road – Experimenting in Legacy Against You-Know-What

Monday, December 20th – Survival of the Fittest has become a particularly nefarious villain in Legacy. Matt was convinced that combo was the answer, so he puts it to the test. Three combo decks, three testing sessions. The result…?

One of the fundamental beliefs I’ve held in Legacy during the back half of 2010 is the idea that combo is a good option against Survival. This belief is partially tied to the idea that the versions of Survival that lack Force of Will seem to be growing in popularity. While the U/G Survival Madness deck still sees play, lately more attention has been paid to G/W Survival and Ooze Survival. It’s also important to note that corresponding to the uptick in these decks both in terms of performance and quantity is a decrease in the quantity of Counterbalance decks overall and the absence of Merfolk from the elimination rounds. Again, these are both factors that indicate this is a good time to play a combo deck.

Despite this premise regarding combo decks against Survival, the results Jared Sylva posted recapping the past few StarCityGames.com Legacy Opens suggest that in real life, combo doesn’t actually beat Survival regularly.

This is obviously problematic to my Legacy worldview, and I refuse to fall back on the “player skill” crutch to explain away data I don’t like. Despite the fact that Survival is likely to banned, on the off chance that it’s not banned, I wanted to spend a night throwing combo decks at Survival, if for no other reason than to cement my own thoughts on whether a ban was justified. The resulting process also shed a lot of light on the power of non-Mystical topdeck tutors and the strength of overlapping tutors in Legacy in general.

I suspect that for some of you, reading the word “Survival” one more time in a Legacy article is about as much fun as pouring boiling hot coffee on your bathing suit region, and I get that; if it helps, think about this less as an article on Survival and more of a look at combo decks in action with an eye toward opening up the meta post-Survival and exploring decks on the margins of viability.

It’s also a look at how a single Ethersworn Canonist in a deck with twelve ways to tutor for it can influence combo matchups, based on deck speed.

The Experiment Begins

As most of the Survival players I saw at the StarCityGames.com Richmond Open were playing Ooze Survival, it seemed reasonable to test this version.

Well, that, and I think it’s the best deck in Legacy, but my aim today isn’t to convince you this is the case. This is what we played:

The sideboard was just thrown together, as the cards that interact with anything but combo were largely irrelevant for my purposes. Having said that, this maindeck seemed solid, and I’d recommend playing it.*

Our experiment began by choosing three different combo decks to throw at this Survival deck, which lacks Force of Will and therefore, per my theory, would be vulnerable to combo. For a slower combo deck, I chose Legacy Elves. For an average-speed combo deck, I chose ANT. And, for a maximum-speed combo deck, I chose One-Land Belcher. Part of my reason for choosing these decks was that none of the three are seeing much play, yet all seem viable, at least in theory, and none are particularly cost-prohibitive.

Note that these are small sets of games and are pre-board, so the results aren’t meant to truly determine a matchup percentage or even a “favorite,” but just to get a feel for how these decks interact and what the key pain points are in determining which might be viable.

Case Study 1: Elves

Legacy Elves is a deck I’ve wanted to be good enough for Legacy for a long time, and that feeling has intensified now that the dominance of MUD has made the deck a non-starter in Vintage (for the most part). The majority of the Legacy versions I’ve seen have been either a mix of aggro and combo Elves or have been exceptionally close to the Extended version from Pro Tour Berlin. When I got the itch to try Legacy Elves, none of these versions really excited me. I wanted something closer to my Vintage version, so that’s where I started. From that build, I had to subtract a set of Skullclamps and some singletons like Fastbond, Mox Emerald, and Black Lotus.

Replacing Skullclamp is tricky, as you need to come up with some type of draw engine plus a combo replacement. Ultimately, my final Legacy build looked like this:

In hindsight, it’s possible that Land Grant could replace some of those lands, but I’d have to test that to be sure, since getting blown out by Daze or something would be upsetting. Perhaps a fourth Forest makes more sense than the second Regal Force, but the deck didn’t really hurt for mana. Eternal Witness or a single Gaea’s Cradle would be reasonable for the Regal Force slot as well. Emrakul worked fine as a win condition, as even if you Summoner’s Pact a few times during the turn you combo out, you typically have more than enough mana to pay for Pacts when you untap and still win on your Emrakul turn. A backup win condition with extra functionality, like a Concordant Crossroads or a Mirror Entity, might make sense, but I wouldn’t say it is particularly necessary. Of course, a storm option such as Grapeshot or Tendrils of Agony also has some merit. So, why Emrakul?

Emrakul is awesome, that’s why, and we’re already talking about Elves, so let’s live the dream, am I right?

The combination of Elvish Visionary, Wirewood Symbiote, and Cloudstone Curio might seem weak for Legacy, and I thought it would be too slow and unwieldy for the format, but it does a relatively decent Skullclamp imitation.

Yeah, not buying that? Me either, but I like it better than the alternative of playing lords or some other form of pump action. The ability to go quasi-infinite with Elvish Visionary to draw into what you need to combo “for real” is pretty cool with the added benefit of being a combo interaction many people don’t actually know or recognize.

We played six games, and Elves won two of three on the play and lost all games on the draw. The main problem was that Survival was always able, on the play, to resolve either Enlightened Tutor or Survival of the Fittest and use that to find Canonist. By being all-in on the combo version pre-board, a resolved Canonist effectively ends the game immediately; although even an aggro build probably isn’t going to race Survival.

The two games where Elves won on the play, it played through a slower Thoughtseize and Fauna Shaman draw in one where Survival had mulled to six, and in the other, won a game on turn 2 when Survival was planning to Enlightened Tutor into Ethersworn Canonist but never got a second turn.

In the rest of the games, Survival was able to use Thoughtseize to buy a turn in order to set up Survival to find Canonist or had Enlightened Tutor into Canonist before Elves was able to combo out or establish a board presence capable of winning through combat.

Ultimately, I felt that Elves wasn’t quite fast enough for this matchup specifically, mostly due to that pesky Canonist being in the maindeck. Ignoring that, the matchup would’ve been much closer, perhaps even favoring Elves in game one. I did like the deck, though, as it’s a combo deck that actually can beat control decks in the red zone and has a hate-sidestepping sideboard plan in Natural Order. There are other concerns with Elves, however, such as Engineered Plague, Perish / Nature’s Ruin, and Hibernation; while Plague isn’t that popular at the moment, the others do see some play.

If Survival gets banned, where does that leave Elves? For one thing, it opens up sideboard space, as currently a significant chunk of my theoretical sideboard is designed to attack Survival. Those slots can be used to support a post-board aggro plan, such as some lords, Joraga Warcaller, or Umezawa’s Jitte, or they could be used to bolster games against Counterbalance by including Krosan Grip or bullet Pact targets. From there, it’s a matter of determining the field and whether a relatively fast combo deck with a mediocre aggro backup plan is well-positioned or not, or if you can stomach playing a first-turn Llanowar Elves in a format as brutal as Legacy can be at times.

Case Study 2: ANT

So if Elves was too slow, what about ANT?

This is my favorite Legacy deck at the moment.

As in, this exact moment because this format is full of decks I like even if most of them just aren’t good enough while Survival is allowed.

While ANT has some games where it just cantrips too many times without accomplishing anything, the fact that you get the flexibility of two Ad Nauseams and Ill-Gotten Gains in the main, plus basic lands, and Xantid Swarm and an alternate win plan in the sideboard makes this a really appealing deck. In addition, I find this to be a fun and exciting build and extremely powerful as well. Unlike Elves, it also has the critically important inclusion of Duress and Thoughtseize, which can buy an extra turn, or turns, against Survival.

Again, I played six games, alternating play-draw. ANT split this set 3-3, winning two of three on the play and one of three on the draw. I certainly had higher expectations, but this is obviously a small sample size. Here again, the critical card in the Survival deck was the single Ethersworn Canonist, which can be found easily with almost any opening hand worth keeping.

Looking at the game on the draw, ANT won that by firing off a win on turn 1, avoiding what would’ve been a turn-two Canonist: Underground Sea, Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Ad Nauseam! It’s that easy, kids!

The other draw games were both sad blowouts involving Canonist. One was just an Enlightened Tutor for Canonist in response to a Thoughtseize, while the other was a Birds of Paradise into untap, play Canonist from hand.

On the play, ANT won one game with Ill-Gotten Gains on turn 2 and another with Ad Nauseam on turn 2. The final game looked like a turn-two win, as ANT just needed to draw any Ritual while holding Ad Nauseam in hand, but a Brainstorm managed to failstorm into the second Ad Nauseam, the Tendrils of Agony, and the Ill-Gotten Gains, which were probably the worst possible cards to draw in that situation. Canonist came down turn 2.

Barring that exceptionally unlikely Brainstorm, ANT felt heavily favored on the play, but I would almost give the edge to the Survival player on the play provided that the Survival player was able to determine that the opponent was a storm deck and that Canonist was in the starting sixty. Keep in mind that Enlightened Tutor for Canonist is rarely the obvious line of play against an unknown opponent; thus in a tournament setting, it would make sense to conceal that if possible on the opening turn.

Sideboards for Ooze Survival decks vary wildly. Gerry Thompson sideboard had the following relevant cards:

3 Cabal Therapy
1 Null Rod
1 Ethersworn Canonist

In the build we tested with, Canonist was in the main, but Null Rod and the Cabal Therapies would undoubtedly come in. ANT with a Doomsday board can sidestep Null Rod and even the discard element to some extent, since Doomsday requires far less setup than a win via Storm, but this is where the power of the Ooze deck really comes into play. The amount of discard post-board is intense with ANT trying to face down four Thoughtseizes, three Cabal Therapies, and one Mesmeric Fiend, along with four Enlightened Tutors that can find powerful trumps in Null Rod and Ethersworn Canonist. Just to make things worse, the Ooze deck has a fast clock of its own, probably only a turn slower than ANT, perhaps two turns post-board, when it loads up on disruption.

One huge caveat here: if your Ooze deck doesn’t have Canonist main, you’re probably not a favorite to win game ones. The aggro plan of bashing with Vengevine is often still going to be too slow because Ooze doesn’t play Force of Will, and ANT has a maindeck Ill-Gotten Gains. If you’re going to play ANT, make sure you have a solid grasp on Ill-Gotten Gains and the lines of play involved with it.

In post-board games, the edge is probably with the Survival deck.

To combat the Ooze deck, you’d probably rather play TES, as TES has a higher percentage of turn-two wins and is more threat-dense. However, when facing a version like U/G that has Force of Will and some mana disruption, you’d definitely rather play ANT, which has basic lands and is less all-in. This is the frustrating dilemma of trying to figure out which Tendrils deck to play in a given event.

Case Study 3: One-Land Belcher

So if ANT isn’t fast enough, and TES isn’t right for all possible metagames, what about this saucy little minx?

I wrote about this deck

briefly a couple articles back, but I’m not sure you can really appreciate the speed and brutality this thing brings to the table until you play with it. Almost any six or seven-card hand you keep with this deck will kill the opponent dead on turn 1 or spit out an obscene number of Goblins. This deck is blisteringly fast. Almost never failing on Belcher and never failing if you’ve used a Land Grant really makes your matchup against non-blue decks that much more insane.

In four games against Survival, Belcher went 4-0. Both games on the draw were turn 1 wins. One game on the play was a turn 1 win, and another was a turn 1 Empty the Warrens for sixteen Goblins, which was good enough to get there.

As expected, Belcher still crushes decks without Force of Will.

This is notable in that Belcher is probably not the deck you want to play if you’re trying to beat U/G Survival. And that’s really the problem because you can’t really know in advance which Survival decks you’re going to face; although I suspect that if Survival lives through the December 20 announcement, Ooze will continue to be popular. I’d like to endorse this deck but at random local events where Counterbalance/Top, Dreadtill, and Merfolk may still be played in non-negligible numbers.

The Ooze deck is an exceptionally powerful deck with a far better combo matchup than any non-blue deck should reasonably have. The fact that it trumps traditional creature strategies as well is hugely problematic to the format, and again, the fact that the different Survival decks have soft matchups against very different combo decks makes pinning down the “right” combo deck much harder. It also really breaks Enlightened Tutor wide open, showing that any of that cycle of tutors is going to be broken at times in a format with Legacy’s card pool. At the moment, it’s probably the best tutor in the format.

Does any of this suggest that a metagame pervasive with combo of different stripes might be capable of making life a lot harder for Survival variants, especially those that lack Force of Will? That claim is debatable as Ooze Survival can morph pretty easily into an anti-combo configuration.

If you took nothing else away from this, at least try that Belcher deck. It’s bananas.

* Side note: I didn’t want to turn anyone off from reading on by talking about the strength of that Survival deck, but it’s worth nothing that if you really believe it’s okay for this deck to exist, just literally slaughtering 90% of what used to pass for top-tier Legacy decks for most of 2010, well, I guess we have very different expectations of the format or of what a healthy format is, in general terms.

Legacy Affinity: A Closer Look

Any time I talk about Affinity in Legacy, it seems to generate an equal mix of interested people and dismissive comments, so I wanted to expand on the
build I talked about briefly,
last week.

Let’s assume that, for the sake of argument, one of the following two statements is accurate:

Survival of the Fittest is getting banned,

Ooze Survival is not that popular where you play Legacy.

(The latter is an issue in that Enlightened Tutor for Null Rod is bad times if you’re Affinity.)

If either of these statements is correct, Legacy Affinity may become an interesting option for you. I want Affinity to be a viable deck, mostly because I enjoy playing it but also because I like when aggro decks diversify as a strategy; one of the problems with aggro in Legacy at the moment is that Zoo is the default best aggro strategy that doesn’t include Survival, which means that opponents that want to beat “aggro” only have to beat Zoo. Assuming that Survival is banned, then Affinity is interesting provided that you have a version that can game against creature decks and control decks with a goldfish speed and sideboard plan for combo.

It took some hours of goldfishing and then more hours of testing, but I believe I found a version I like:

If I were going to play Affinity in a tournament today, this is what I’d probably run. There isn’t anything all that flashy about the maindeck; no Glimpse, no Berserk, no Fling, nothing like that, yet this deck still has a goldfish generally faster than Zoo or all but the best Goblins draws. By avoiding Glimpse, we’re committing to a traditional aggro version of Affinity that’s significantly sped up by Mox Opal and one that includes Memnite, which makes Springleaf Drum deploy faster and more consistently. A straightforward build like this is less likely to malfunction on its own, less likely to mulligan, and isn’t crippled by a timely Force of Will.

Avoiding Master of Etherium is an intentional choice. For one thing, I really want the synergy provided by Disciple of the Vault with the sacrifice outlets of Atog and Arcbound Ravager. I found this option to be better than the reach provided by Shrapnel Blast, Lightning Bolt, and/or Galvanic Blast. Sacrifice outlets are also critically important in a deck maxing out on Mox Opals, and minimizing the colored spells helps the deck function consistently.

The other reason I avoided Master of Etherium, beyond avoiding the tension between “max number of artifacts in play” cards like Master and Plating and “sacrifice all your artifacts” cards like Atog and Ravager is that I wanted to use Etched Champion. The reason this deck can explode past other creature-based strategies is Etched Champion, plain and simple. It gives you a removal-proof creature that is the perfect carrier of a Cranial Plating and also lets you go all-in with Ravager counters on a creature that isn’t going to die to removal.

While this deck’s goldfish isn’t designed for maximum speed, as you’re not playing Berserk or Fling, it’s consistently going to kill someone dead by turn 4 and often will do so on turn 3 if it draws a Mox Opal and Cranial Plating or an Atog. This deck is capable of playing an entire hand on the first turn of the game, making it blisteringly fast and difficult for control decks to disrupt; it actually has flying creatures, and deploys before Counterbalance as well as through it.

I’ve tested this deck against Goblins and Zoo, and it’s absolutely favored in both matchups game one and probably continuing into post-board games at the moment, as no one is packing artifact hate in Legacy. The main concern I’d have is with Ooze Survival and its ability to blank all your hate, plus the entirety of the rest of your deck, with Null Rod.

Slight problem, that.

Outside of this potentially minor inconvenience, the deck actually has plenty of good matchups; even the combo matchup is pretty decent post-board considering this is an aggro deck. The fact that Disciple screws up the math for Tendrils decks is actually a nice benefit of choosing this strategy.

The sideboard is what I would play, today, rather than a forward-looking post-Survival guesstimate (since the card might not even be banned). You can bring upwards of ten cards in against Survival, which is fantastic given that Needle and Tormod’s Crypt fit in reasonably well with what Affinity is doing anyway; with no green creatures, Perish and Nature’s Ruin are a one-sided Wrath against not only Survival, but Zoo and other random decks like Elves. Not that anyone would play that deck… right?

In closing, I did something intentional in this article, which is present a few relatively budget decks that are still powerful options, either to combat Survival or to play post-Survival.

Regardless of what happens, I really believe that Legacy is the most exciting format in all of Magic. If you’ve been turned off from the format by this unending Survival argument, keep in mind that your small- to medium-sized local Legacy tournaments are probably not reflective of what you’re reading online. That’s just how it is with Eternal formats.

I played Legacy last weekend, so expect a report on that in the near future, along with some updates on Vintage, as I’m going to be knee-deep in Vintage tournaments in January.

Matt Elias

[email protected]

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