The Long & Winding Road – The Legacy Conundrum

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Monday, November 2nd – I often tell people that Legacy, as a format, is the intersection of fair and unfair. This is partially the result of scarring from my first Legacy tournament, a Grand Prix Trial for GP: Columbus in 2007. I’ve discussed this story before, but it is worth repeating as it relates to the rest of this article…

I often tell people that Legacy, as a format, is the intersection of fair and unfair. This is partially the result of scarring from my first Legacy tournament, a Grand Prix Trial for GP: Columbus in 2007. I’ve discussed this story before, but it is worth repeating as it relates to the rest of this article.

In the GP: Columbus trial in 2007, I played Affinity, as I had just purchased the deck for Extended and it ports cheaply and easily into Legacy — add Aether Vial, Disciple of the Vault, and Fling, and you’re basically done. I defeated a Psychatog deck in the first round, and lost a mirror match in round 2. In round 3, I faced down Iggy Pop. I won the die roll, and proudly led out with a land, a Vial, and an Ornithopter. My opponent drew his card for the turn, and proceeded to kill me by looping Ill-Gotten Gains with Lion’s Eye Diamond and Infernal Tutor into a lethal Tendrils. The second game, I got to take two turns before being killed. You can imagine my elation.

It would be a full year before I would play Legacy again, at the 2008 Legacy Champs at GenCon. At that tournament, the roles were reversed. I played Belcher combo, demolishing four consecutive non-Blue decks to start the tournament and ending the Swiss rounds at 6-0-2, finishing 3rd after losing in the semi-finals to the eventual winner.

Reaching the Intersection

Legacy has a number of staple cards that act as the guidelines for deck construction in the format. You could also view these as the limiting factors, depending on your perspective. For example, a format with unrestricted Lion’s Eye Diamond, Dark Ritual, and Lotus Petal is likely to have decks capable of consistently winning the game on turns one and two, and in fact we do see this with Legacy. Lion’s Eye Diamond in particular is devastatingly good, and enables no less than three competitive turn-one capable decks: Belcher combo, Ad Nauseam Tendrils (and its various related Storm variants that use Tendrils of Agony as a win condition), and LED Ichorid.

An outsider to the format might therefore find it unlikely that decks like Zoo can be competitive. How can an aggro deck that doesn’t play Force of Will stand a chance in a format like this? The answer lies in the immensely broad metagame that is Legacy, at that intersection of fair and unfair.

Essentially, what we see today is the best control engine, Counterbalance/Top, working to keep Storm combo in check. Aggro, notably Zoo and Goblins, has evolved to have good match-ups against Counterbalance, while aggro-control or tempo decks like Canadian Threshold and Merfolk have also adapted to survive in a Counterbalance metagame. The current result is that the majority of the format is playing reasonably fair, and one of the more common unfair decks, Ichorid, can be kept in check by sideboard adjustments.

However, the more Counterbalance gets hated out of the format, the more the format will begin to skew back toward combo decks riding Lion’s Eye Diamond to fuel broken early plays. In a nutshell, this is the dance we see in the Legacy metagame.

The Legacy Metagame

Hopefully we can agree that the idea that the Legacy metagame is confusing or nonexistent is patently untrue, but because the format is so broad and has really only developed a national metagame this year, there are differences in the way it functions. It helps to recap the development of Legacy from a regional format to a nationwide one over the past few years.

2007 was an interesting year for Legacy, as it had a large Grand Prix tournament in Columbus, featuring a combo deck that was only legal for that event: Flash. The Legacy portion of Worlds 2007 showed two additional combo decks posting good results: Cephalid Breakfast and Belcher. Breakfast has long since evolved into the Ichorid decks we see today, while Belcher became a questionable call due to developments in the metagame (although one that seems to be turning back in Belcher’s favor). It is interesting to note that despite Owen Turtenwald piloting Goblins to a second place finish at GP: Columbus, Goblins began a long and steady decline in the face of these fast, reliable combo decks.

After the Extended season in 07/08, Counterbalance/Top decks began their migration from Extended into Legacy. The entrance of Counterbalance/Top decks into the format, based on Next Level and Previous Level Blue decks in Extended, began to shift the metagame dramatically. Combo decks based on the Storm mechanic have a natural foil in Counterbalance decks, which often run Force of Will and Daze in additional to an engine that locks Storm out of the game. Counterbalance decks seemed poised to dominate the Legacy landscape, and the Dreadtill version in particular put up consistently solid results. The actual engine was ported into the various builds we see today, in more controlling builds as well as interesting Legacy evolutions such with combo win conditions (such as Natural Order / Progenitus, or Painter’s Servant / Grindstone). As is usually the case in Magic, other decks evolved to further shift the metagame in response to the ascension of Counterbalance.

Merfolk is probably the most notable of the early anti-Counterbalance decks that arrived, as it runs a full suite of counterspells, and can evade Counterbalance through the use of Aether Vial. This deck is similarly powerful against Storm decks, as it often runs Stifle in addition to Daze, Force of Will, and sometimes Cursecatcher. Merfolk was therefore well-positioned to combat both Counterbalance decks and combo decks and was a logical evolution of the aggro-control decks that came before it (such as Counter-Slivers).

On the other side of the spectrum, Naya Zoo evolved as an additional attack on Counterbalance decks, one without the weakness to CB/Top displayed by earlier versions like Goyf Sligh or straight Burn decks. The printing of Wild Nacatl in particular gave Zoo an additional threat it could play before Counterbalance was deployed, and sideboard options were developed to give Zoo additional avenues of attack post-board. Zoo also has the benefit of a positive match-up against Merfolk, as its amble burn and larger creatures (along with a solid mana-base) allow it to sidestep most of Merfolk’s avenues of attack. The rise of Naya Zoo has also had a further suppressive effect on Goblins, which might otherwise be well-positioned in a metagame dominated by Counterbalance and anti-Counterbalance decks.

Goblins is in something of an awkward position in that its anti-Zoo maneuvers make it worse in many other match-ups. As cards like Goblin Chieftain and Mogg War Marshall replace Goblin Piledriver (and many players advocate cutting Rishadan Port) in response to the prevalence of Zoo, we see a change in the goldfish speed of the deck and a reduction in its disruptive capabilities, leaving Goblins more vulnerable to combo decks.

These same combo decks, now including the devastatingly fast Ad Nauseam Tendrils in additional to modern Belcher (which is more consistent than ever thanks to Manamorphose, among other cards) and LED-powered Ichorid are in a great position in the metagame. With Counterbalance being suppressed by Zoo and Merfolk, combo decks can have less fear of their boogeyman. Again, as Merfolk attempts to adapt to a metagame flush with new Zoo players, its anti-combo components are often reduced.

On the Side of the Road

Alongside the evolution of these mostly-linear or tribal decks, several Legacy staples stand off to the side.

The most notable of these, and the most interesting Legacy development of 2009 in my opinion, is Canadian Threshold. Threshold decks have long been a part of Legacy, but the most-played version at this point is definitely the Canadian-style, which includes red for Fire/Ice and Lightning Bolt. It is my opinion that Canadian Thresh functions as “The Rock” of Legacy at this point. Don’t misunderstand — Canadian Thresh bears no resemblance to what we’d normally call “The Rock.” However, Canadian Thresh is the rare deck that has exceedingly few bad match-ups in a format as broad as Legacy. Its mana denial suite plays havoc with most traditional CounterTop decks, and its ability to dominate battles over Tarmogoyf (compared to most other decks that play the card) give it a deceptive edge there as well. A skilled pilot with knowledge of the format can put up very solid results with this deck.

Similarly, Suicide Black and its descendants, such as Eva Green (and to some extent later evolutions like Team America that borrow components of this deck in an expanded shell) attack the fragile mana of the format. Similarly, many Legacy decks have become similar to Vintage decks in the way that a single, well-timed Wasteland, Sinkhole, or Hymn to Tourach can produce surprisingly deep disruption. These decks take many forms, but two solid examples can be found in the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Chicago earlier this year. While they see less play (because many players are not comfortable without Force of Will in a format like Legacy), their potency and staying power shouldn’t be understated as they are the more traditional “Rock” decks of the format.

How Broad is Broad?

This brings us, more or less, up to date on the world of Legacy. As Doug Linn noted in his article last week, Counterbalance has seen a dramatic decline as 2009 has gone on. We’ve seen a definite national metagame start to take shape — see Stephen Menendian tracking of Zoo at the Charlotte $5K, followed by its much weaker performance at the Philly $5K as players responded, as an example of how fast the Legacy metagame is moving now. Similarly, the printing and rapid adoption of Path to Exile and Qasali Pridemage has seriously damaged the viability of decks like Dreadtill.

I’ve stated in the past that Legacy is the broadest format in competitive Magic. Why is this true?

Part of the reason is that the divide between the tiers of competitive decks in Legacy isn’t as wide as in a format like Vintage, even though the card pools are almost identical in size. There’s much less consensus on what makes up the best deck, or even optimal builds of a given archetype, like there are in current Vintage where we’ve seen the disparate Mana Drain archetypes more or less coalesce around one deck: Tezzeret. Similarly, most TPS builds are remarkably similar due to the existence of the Restricted List for Vintage.

In Legacy, this isn’t true. You can reference a CounterTop deck, and generally we’ll know what you’re talking about, but the actual engine is used in a disturbingly high number of decks and the win conditions of those decks vary wildly. Similarly, there are a multitude of variations on Storm in Legacy. Some ANT builds play Red for Burning Wish and Rite of Flame, some play Doomsday, and some people advocate TES or Iggy Pop and don’t play Ad Nauseam at all. There are some distinct decks in Legacy — Goblins, Merfolk, Naya Zoo — but there are many decks with all kinds of subtle but significant variations. Ichorid comes in LED and non-LED flavors, and now may be further differentiated into builds that run Bloodghast over Ichorid. The control decks of the format are fractured: various CB/Top control decks, Landstill, Dreadtill, and Planeswalker control all share some elements but are clearly distinct archetypes. Suicide Black, Eva Green, Deadguy Ale, and Team America share some core similarities but are, again, separate entities amongst themselves.

If you trace back Legacy’s roots, you find a format centered on certain regional areas that, until recently, had very different metagames. Of course, this is still going to be true in instances where a remote store that has a meta unto itself runs Legacy tournaments, but as stated above, we do have more of a national metagame now as a result of tournament series like the SCG $5Ks. In the past, though, many of these decks had specific individuals or teams that guided their evolution, and as such there is an almost disturbing list of decks with distinct nomenclatures, giving the impression that Legacy has 20, 30, even 40 individual, competitive decks that are tournament-viable.

I’m of the opinion that this is really untrue, and if you take these decks and logically group them together, you get a more or less normal-sized cluster of first- and second-tier decks, which obviously vary depending on the metagame of any individual tournament.

There is, however, truth to the idea that in Legacy, you never know what you might run into. The Top 8 of the recent Meandeck Open is proof of this, and I suspect Stephen Menendian will discuss those results in more detail in the near future.

My Philly $5K

At the Philly $5K, I played a Natural Order Rock deck based on the one Mike Noble played at the Chicago GP. I added White, for Path to Exile in the board and Qasali Pridemage main (for Counterbalance, mostly), and replaced most of the spot removal with Maelstrom Pulse (which was meant to give additional outs to Counterbalance, but in hindsight probably should’ve been Path to Exile). Although my results were mediocre, I do believe this is a shell that can be further refined into something that’s competitive in today’s Legacy environment:

In the first round, I lost to a Cephalid infinite life combo deck, with Diamond Valley. Somehow, that deck escaped my pre-tournament testing gauntlet.

I then went 3-0, 6-1 in the next three rounds, defeating two Zoo players (including Anwar Ahmad, where I lost an awkward game one where he took a mulligan to four on the play and still won easily), and a Canadian Thresh player. I knew my deck had pretty decent match-ups against those decks, as I’d tested them before the tournament. I then lost round 5 to Ken Adams, playing his Dark Depths homebrew.

Again, I foolishly left that one out of my testing gauntlet.

If I were to play this deck again, I would definitely make some adjustments. With fourteen sources of black mana (plus four Tops), and really nothing that requires double black, Noble Hierarch should probably get the nod over Birds of Paradise (although I’d have to test this to be sure the mana supports it as well as I believe it does — the main difference would be the turn two play of Duress + Cabal Therapy + Flashback Cabal Therapy, made possible by a first-turn Birds).

Maelstrom Pulse was decent in the main, but having a cheaper removal spell like Path to Exile in the main is probably the correct call; Pulse can be moved into the board for games where it’s relevant. I also underestimated the power of Pernicious Deed, and would probably play another in the sideboard. The card in this deck that’s most-derided is easily Wall of Roots. It helps enable the third-turn Natural Order, but the fact that this deck does not run Tarmogoyf and does run Wall of Roots is probably incorrect. I also wonder if Eternal Witness is really the right choice over Dark Confidant in a deck already running a full set of Tops, but the Witnesses do play an important role in the deck. They recur Kitchen Finks again to really put the screws to Zoo and other aggro decks, and help make sure Natural Order resolves. Further, flipping Progenitus off a Confidant trigger, while probably hilarious when related after the event, would be unbelievably awful. In any case, if you find yourself looking for a deck that really takes it to Zoo, this is a great choice. An updated version might look like this:

The Legacy Conundrum

You’ll never be ready for every deck in Legacy. That’s part of the appeal of the format, but also part of what makes it somewhat frustrating to prepare for Legacy tournaments.

Approaching a large Legacy tournament has always been difficult, due to the broadness of the format and the possibilities for the “unfair” that it contains. Consider the following limiting factors one must consider when choosing a Legacy deck. You might face:

• First-turn kills from ANT, Belcher, or LED Ichorid
• A first-turn Hypnotic Specter
• A first-turn Trinisphere, or Chalice of the Void
• A third-turn Progenitus, or second-turn 20/20 Marit Lage token or 12/12 Dreadnought
• A second-turn Counterbalance lock
• A first-turn Blood Moon
• A second or third-turn Painter’s Servant combo activation
• A second or third-turn Entomb/Hulk combo

However, you could equally as likely “only” be staring down a first-turn Wild Nacatl or Goblin Lackey. It’s interesting that a “fair” deck in Legacy like Zoo or Goblins still has the potential for a turn-three goldfish kill. Acknowledging these limiting factors, how do you even approach deck choice in Legacy?

Some players are clearly gravitating to Canadian Threshold and Eva Green-style decks, because of their competent match-ups against most decks, no matter how broad the format may be. Others will continue to evolve the more linear decks they’ve played to this point, upping the amount of anti-aggro components in CounterTop or adding another fast win condition like Natural Order into Progenitus. Zoo decks will continue to evolve to gain an edge in the mirror (see: Jitte popping up in Zoo and Merfolk), and may have to sideboard legitimate hate for ANT (such as Orim’s Chant or Mindbreak Trap) or Ichorid (Relic of Progenitus being one good option with other applications in the format).

Personally, I have few decks I’ve been testing in preparation for three Legacy tournaments in November. I’m actually excited to have so many Legacy events clustered together, as for most of the year I’ve been more of an observer of Legacy instead of an active participant. I’ve always enjoyed Legacy Goblins, but I can’t get over the fact that it smashes CounterTop and Merfolk but has difficulty with ANT and Zoo (the latter in particular being a huge problem right now). Canadian Threshold is in a style I enjoy, but I have difficulty accepting that the low power-level of the cards actually holds its own in the format (even as I know that it does, as I’ve lost to it repeatedly this year in the later rounds of tournaments). I can’t really get behind Zoo, because I feel that the metagame is shifting against it, and the more tech you include for the mirror, the less sideboard slots are available for the rest of the format.

I’m also not ready to jump ship on Counterbalance/Top. I’ve continued testing the engine in two different decks, one combo/control and the other pure combo (but touching into control by way of the inclusion of Counterbalance / Top). The first is an update of the Painter deck that I’ve played most of the year, which has been adapted to have a better matchup against Canadian Threshold and Zoo, which were two weak points previously. In updating this deck, I realized (begrudgingly) that Phyrexian Dreadnought is poorly positioned in today’s metagame. It also became apparent that my deck was vulnerable to Wastelands, and in order to address this weakness, I needed more colored mana, specifically basic lands. Without Wasteland and Dreadnought, Stifle was no longer worthwhile. These open slots allowed me to fun a full set of Tarmogoyf and bring in Counterbalance to the maindeck. Testing this deck has shown it is well-balanced against most popular Legacy decks, and I still think it’s a blast to play as well:

If you think the Mountain looks out of place, you might be right, but Red is extremely important to the sideboard against decks with Wasteland (Goblins, Canadian Threshold) so for now I’m giving it the nod over another fetchland or basic Island. The other card I’m constantly adjusting is the third Fact or Fiction, which is in the board right now, but is often in the maindeck in place of the third REB or Daze.

The other deck I’ve been testing is a slightly modified version of Pat Chapin’s Entomb Hulk deck. I started out with the base list, but realized that one of the cards I immediately wanted to add was Sensei’s Divining Top. In a deck already running so many shuffle effects, it seems like an auto-include. From there I naturally considered playing Counterbalance. Dropping in on the forum for the deck on The Source showed that other people were making similar alternations. Counterbalance actually makes a lot of sense in a deck like this, as many of the cards it doesn’t want to see (such as Stifle) are easily handed by Counterbalance, and the combo of CB/Top is another easy way to score free wins. Its inclusion in a deck like this is not dissimilar to its inclusion in Sadin’s (I suppose that should be Moreno’s) Flash deck from GP: Columbus. I believe the weakest cards in Chapin’s list are the Dark Ritual, second Cabal Therapy, third Mystical Tutor and Pact of Negation (if one includes Top, the card selection available is already pretty insane), and the singleton Deep Analysis. The last card I cut was the remaining Cabal Therapy, to end up with this:

The other option I tried was more similar to Chapin’s original list, with two Tops added in place of one Pact of Negation and one Cabal Therapy, and a Duress replacing the Dark Ritual (so from the above list: -3 Counterbalance, -1 Top for +1 Mystical Tutor, +1 Deep Analysis, +1 Cabal Therapy, and +1 Duress). I also considered adding another land, as some games my initial Ponders and Brainstorms were just to find enough land to function. There’s no reason why the CB/Top package can’t be moved to the sideboard and brought in as a surprise weapon, and one that handles some of the common hate cards this deck has to worry about (Extirpate and Stifle, for example, as well as disruptive cards during the combo such as Path to Exile). One of this deck’s disturbing weaknesses will be Krosan Grip out of the opponent’s sideboard, as it can disrupt Necromancy. Counterbalance can help address this, since it will either draw the Grip, or blank it.

Testing the version posted above showed that it was nearly impossible to lose against aggro decks, especially Zoo. Undisrupted the goldfish is quite consistently turn three, and the games that went longer often involved setting up a Counterbalance + Top lock to freeze Zoo out of the game. I had some concerns that Goblins would have enough mana disruption to slow the Hulk deck down, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Testing against ANT showed a close to 50/50 match-up for the version with Counterbalance, but the version without had a much rougher time. ANT is easily a turn faster, so it was unusual for Hulk to win a race, but it was also possible for Hulk to CB/Top lock ANT right out of the game. Running the deck against CB/Top didn’t go as well, as any time Counterbalance came down, it was extremely difficult (AKA nearly impossible) to win the game. Further concerning is the better performance of Ichorid in events this year, because the more Graveyard hate is in the format, the worse the post-board match-ups become for Hulk. While its nothing that can’t be combated with additional hand disruption, Krosan Grip, Pithing Needle, and so on, I’m not convinced this deck is so good that it can get away with running only answers in the sideboard (which is mostly what we see with a deck like ANT or Ichorid). The real issue with the Counterbalance/Top version is that every extra Entomb is a total blank, and I’m not sure that’s the right way to go. The second version I listed without Counterbalance is probably what I’ll test going forward, with the option to add that package in for games 2 and 3.

Additional options for Entomb Hulk post-board are the “man plan” of bringing in something like Tarmogoyfs, or even sticking with Entomb and going with a Reanimator back-up plan – although a back-up plan that loses to the same stuff as your main plan is a little bit questionable.

I hope you found this look at Legacy, past, present, and future, to be useful in your understanding of the metagame. Deck choice in Legacy is difficult, but as the decks above show, there is plenty of room for innovation and archetypes that have barely been explored… and still a few deck-names left that no one has claimed.

Matt Elias
[email protected]
Voltron00x on SCG, TMD, and The Source forums