Whenever a deck in any format proves itself to be competitive, it’s only a matter of time before players in other formats take notice and ask themselves two questions:
1) Will my format’s card pool support this deck?
2) Is this any good in my format?
I mean, how else can we explain this deck showing up on Extended?
Extended Blue/Red Fish: 1st Place
Columbus, PTQ (3/20/05), Marshall Arthurs
Look slightly familiar? To Vintage players, sure. But in Extended?
In any case, it didn’t take long for Legacy players to witness the recent reemergence and success of Fish in Vintage and begin tinkering away on deck designs of their own.
(For those who are new to Fish, I’ve included a list of references at the end of the article to get you up to speed on how the deck is played.)
I. What makes Fish good? And why is it popular?
To quote Vintage guru Stephen Menendian: “Fish is a great deck with terrible cards.”
But what makes it great? Individually the majority of the cards in a Fish deck are fair at best, and sometimes, downright awful. But the total effect of these crappy cards creates a powerful set of complimentary strategies: mana denial, superb disruption, and cost-efficient utility creatures that double as beaters. But that’s not all.
(Note: A lot the following applies primarily to Vintage, since that is the point of departure for Legacy Fish.)
Fish is also an attractive deck for the Johnny/Spike players out there, since there is far from unanimous agreement on what the optimal list looks like. Heck, people can’t even agree on the proper color combination! To see what I mean, take a look at the Fish presence in the Top 8 from the most recent SCG Power 9 Tournament (Rochester, New York; 6/11/05): two Blue/White Fish (4th and 5th place), one Blue/Green (6th place), and one Blue/Red/White (8th place).
In other words, there’s something durable about the form, not the specifics of the deck… and there’s where Johnny/Spike comes in. Since Fish is such an open-ended question, the form demands customization and allows Johnny/Spike to create a viable deck that will retain his personal stamp of creativity.
Lastly, Fish has the “Underdog Factor” going for it. And everyone wants the underdog to win, right? It’s the same reason why people cheer for Sligh at a Vintage tournament. And all this isn’t as trite as it sounds. The success of these decks means that even the proles can overthrow the aristocracy and not sell out (or sell in?) to play some absurd combination deck that runs on a $3,000 engine. And people need hope, even if they are going to get crushed by FCG or Stax in the Top 8.
II. The Many Flavors of Fish in Legacy
Having decided to play Fish, you’ll next have to choose which colors to run before you go any further…. and each color combination offers distinct advantages over other colors at the expense of adopting a different weakness against other decks.
Blue/Red Fish is the most common color configuration, and since it only has to support only two colors, U/R’s mana base is as stable as a Fish deck gets. Grim Lavamancer, Mogg Fanatic, and Flametongue Kavu give U/R greater creature control and “reach” than any other version of Fish. And the ability to run Red Elemental Blast in the sideboard gives U/R an advantage against control that U/W and U/G can’t run.
Blue/White, the second most prominent Fish species, trades U/R’s burn for the ability to run Swords to Plowshares, Meddling Mage, and Seal of Cleansing. While U/W is weaker than U/R and U/G in the Fish mirror and against aggro, it is the best deck to combat combination decks, and is equally strong when combating more dedicated control decks.
Blue/Green Fish, an importation of Jacob Orlove’s (Vintage) “Worse Than Fish,” is the new kid on the block, and is the favored deck in mirror and the strongest variant of Fish against aggro before sideboarding.
And forestalling the inevitable emergence of something likely to be called “Suicide Fish” for the time being, that covers the two-color Fish decks. (Me, I’d call it “Sorry, Charlie” — The Ferrett)
I’m convinced most three-color Fish decks start with a Blue/Red (or Blue/Green) player saying: “This is a great deck, but it’s too bad I can’t play Swords to Plowshares or Meddling Mage…”
VoilÃ¡! U/R/W and U/G/W Fish are born!
The price for broader utility is a crappier mana base, greater vulnerability to Wasteland, and a reliance on Aether Vial Â— a card that two-color Fish players will often sideboard out against aggressive decks. Running four to eight lands that produce colorless mana, 3c Fish is about as hard as you can push things before you begin to lose half your matches to manascrew. And the more rounds you have to play, the greater the chances that the gods of mana-screw will take notice and screw you accordingly.
The remainder of this article will be a select survey of the existing Fish decks in Legacy: a lengthy exposition on my unconventional Blue/White deck (Angel Fish), (a more traditional) Blue/Red/White Fish deck, the newer Blue/Green design inspired by Jacob Orlove’s “Worse than Fish,” and a bunch of other stuff that I feel compelled to write about.
A card-by-card analysis of the deck would be a pointless and boring exercise. It’s not like anyone needs to tell you that Force of Will and Swords to Plowshares deserve a slot. Instead, I’ll explain my thinking behind some of my unconventional choices and offer single-card strategies for others.
Exalted Angel plugs two gaping holes in Fish’s armor:
1) Flimsy creatures that fall from the sky to Pyroclasm and/or an active Grim Lavamancer or Cursed Scroll;
2) The chance for your opponent to recover while they’re on Fish’s traditionally slow win-clock.
With her Spirit Link ability, 4/5 body and evasion, Exalted Angel will allow you to recover and win games you have no business winning Â— especially in a field with a high concentration of aggressive, creature-based decks. She’s also a house of bricks in the mirror. And a Jitted Exalted Angel is game for most decks.
(Note: I dropped the Serendib Efreets from my build in some last minute tweaks before I submitted this article. In any case, I’ll leave this here for those who want to try them.)
Serendib Efreet is a possible addition to the deck for much the same reason you’d include Exalted Angel: he has a big butt and allows for quicker wins. And more so than Angel, Efreet fits onto the Fish mana curve perfectly. Also, if your opponent doesn’t know you’re playing them, a Vialed-out Efreet can be a surprise blocker that will survive combat with most common attackers. And even if the element of surprise is gone, your opponent will often be reluctant to attack if you have Vial at three counters, whether or not your Efreets are sitting in the sideboard.
While Old Man of the Sea isn’t the hardiest creature in the deck, he can withstand Pyroclasm and Lavamancer damage, complement your creature control, and can swing for two if need be. Simply, there are too many matches where he’ll completely demoralize your opponent to not include one or two. He also combos nicely with Jitte.
Seasinger, while she isn’t terrible, isn’t an acceptable budget alternative in the maindeck due to her “Your opponent must control an Island” condition. But if you’re anticipating several mirror matches, she’s an acceptable card in the sideboard.
- Cloud + (untap). cast Standstill
- Cloud + (untap). Mishra’s Factory (for defense)
- Cloud + (untap). cast Meddling Mage
- Cloud + (untap, cast and/or equip). Jitte.
But as much as I like Cloud, she really is one of the weaker cards in the deck… at this point in Fish’s evolution, I certainly wouldn’t play her without Umezawa’s Jitte. The Jitte brings out the best in her.
Aether Vial is what Blue Mana Battery should have been. It’s also analogous to Cloud of Faeries in that it conserves your mana, allowing you to get the most out of every turn, especially in the early game. And like Cloud, Vial is also synergistic with Fish’s sub-strategies: it allows you to play Wasteland and Mishra’s Factory while not sacrificing your colored mana requirements for Meddling Mage and Old Man of the Sea; it allows you to play creatures under Standstill, conserving your mana to keep UU open for Counterspell or to play Jitte. It’s also helpful in the mirror and against control decks, since, as everyone knows, Vial makes your creatures essentially uncounterable. And while it’s not the most elegant play, you can always get Vial up to six counters to play Exalted Angel, if you’re having trouble casting her otherwise.
On the downside, drawing multiples or topdecking Vial in the mid- to late-game will make you frown. Furthermore, it can be argued that there aren’t enough creatures in the maindeck to justify Vial’s inclusion. Test it and decide for yourself.
It will be of no surprise to SCG’s readership that Umezawa’s Jitte is a ridiculous piece of cardboard. And while the Jitte vs. Sword of Fire and Ice debate rages here and elsewhere on the ‘Net, I’ll just be discussing how Jitte is better suited than the Sword in Fish. Jitte offers spell-like creature removal under your own Standstill, can be equipped to an attacker as early as turn 3 (assuming a turn 2 Cloud of Faeries), and the life gain will occasionally save you from being burned out of from red-aggro, which are much scarier in Legacy than Extended and Standard due to the legality of Fireblast and Lightning Bolt. And as in other formats, if Jitte goes unanswered for a few turns, it will just win the game for you.
There’s a good reason many writers don’t go into specifics on how to sideboard for your matches… and that’s because the local metagame in Austin, Texas looks much different than in Darmstadt, Germany or Syracuse, New York. Nevertheless I’m going to get specific here, if only to demonstrate general sideboarding principles against common archetypes found in the format.
If you expect a fair amount of Affinity, Energy Flux and Serenity are the real tools to fight Affinity, but that means compromising your other match-ups. Anyway, you are clearly the control deck in this match. Try to contain Ravager and keep Disciple of the Vault off the table. The Seals double as Stone Rain and Affinity has a notoriously shaky mana base when Wasteland is part of the picture. If you play right or get lucky, manascrew can win one game for you, but the other win will have to come from careful play. But Jitte, Angel, Meddling Mage, Swords to Plowshares, and your counters give you the tools you need to deal with their creatures and Cranial Plating.
Angry Tradewind Survival (ATS) & other Survival of the Fittest-based decks
Interlude: The wonders of Cursed Totem
Cursed Totem is the Null Rod of Legacy. Totem’s cheaper casting cost and ability to shut-down mana-abilities gives it the nod over Damping Matrix, in my opinion. Here’s a deck-by-deck list of the creatures it shuts down.
Crap.dec: Elves, random stuff.
This isn’t to say you want to bring in Totem for all of these matches. A lot of times, Totem is an inferior weapon Â— but it gives you something to think about.
Getting back to the Survival-based decks, there’s a lot you need to look out for. Obviously, the first card you’ll want to name with Meddling Mage is “Survival of the Fittest”; failing that (if Survival has already resolved), other good spells to chant against are “Spore Frog” (for the Genesis/Spore Frog lock), “Tradewind Rider” or “Uktabi Orangutan” (to protect your Totem), etc. Play wisely, and recognize they’re playing the prison role, so beat them down accordingly.
Red-based aggro (Goblins, Sligh, etc.)
+3 Blue Elemental Blast
+2 Engineered Explosives
+1 Umezawa’s Jitte
+1 Enlightened Tutor
-4 Aether Vial
-2 Meddling Mage
-2 Old Man of the Sea
-1 Cloud of Faeries
You’ll just about bring in your whole sideboard for this match. If you can stay out of burnout range (ten-plus life), and get a Moat onto the board, you’re in the clear. Jitte and Angel will work overtime, and will often get the job done even if you can’t find Moat.
But this is by no means an easy match. Even on the best of days, sometimes you’ll get run over if your opponent gets a good draw and has a good build. But your sideboard should win you the day, assuming you don’t get manascrewed, and are cut off from access to double-W.
If Goblins are particularly common in your area, you can mine the deep Legacy card pool for some Old Skool tech: Tivadar’s Crusade.
(Budget suggestion: If you don’t want to drop $70 on a Moat, Sphere of Law or Chill can substitute for Moat here, since Moat will set you back some serious cash. Reverence is another option, though one I haven’t tested.)
You’ll want the Seals (and maybe that Enlightened Tutor) to answer opposing Vedalken Shackles, Mishra’s Factories, Crucible of Worlds, Tsabo’s Webs, Back to Basics, Powder Kegs, and Nevinyrral’s Disks, but I’m not sure that cutting the Mages is the best way to make room for them. Since you’re the beatdown here, keep your opponent under constant pressure, all the while holding back just enough so that your board position doesn’t get completely destroyed by a sweep effect.
Like the red aggro match, winning here requires meticulous management of your life and tight control of the board. Given these decks’ reliance on dealing damage with ground-based beaters, Plan A is to get Moat onto the board and protect it with everything you have.
From there, it’s academic: have your Mages chanting against Disenchant effects, control the skies, and send your flyers over their horde for the win. Just struggle to stabilize your position before it’s too late. A well-timed Explosives for “one” or “two” will give you a little breathing. And as in other aggro matches, MVPs for your team will be Jitte, Angel, factories, and Swords to Plowshares.
Madness really seems to be falling out favor, though it’s a good enough deck if played and built right. Your first task is to contain their two-mana madness outlets, Wild Mongrel obviously being the most threatening. An active Cursed Totem will turn their creatures into an even weaker version of yours, so aim to get that online as soon as possible. Just be careful to play around Daze and Circular Logic. If it wasn’t for Wonder, I’d love to board in Moat…. but that’s just not going to get the job done.
Cursed Totem will turn the great toothy monster into an over-costed Squire… but that plan won’t last long, as Tog has ways to deal with annoying artifacts. Anyway, there is great variation in Tog builds, ranging from the old U/B/g lists with Pernicious Deed and Berserk, the newer U/B/r builds with Explosives and Fling, and the two-color U/B versions with Isochron Scepter that look like they were imported straight from Extended.
My post-sideboard strategy is similar to Madness: resolve and protect Totem to stall their offensive, have Meddling Mage chant against board sweepers (or Cunning Wish), and let the Fishies and Angels do their job.
Angel, Old Man, and Jitte give you technological advantage in the pseudo-mirror, but just because you’re favored doesn’t mean you’ll win. A lot of the match will just come down to luck: whoever plays the first Aether Vial and whoever draws the most Wastelands and manlands will usually win. But once you have a Jitted attacker or unmorph an Angel, the game will proceed smoothly from there.
There’s not much to say here, but I feel compelled to give a shout out to my two favorite decks in the format. The Explosives are to remove Werebear, Quirion Dryad, Meddling Mages, Isochron Scepter and friends. If you win game one and Jitte and Factory weren’t too conspicuous (so your opponent won’t be siding in disenchant effects), you might consider the “Moat Plan,” as the only creature that can fly between these two decks is Mystic Enforcer.
Note that actually resolving Moat, however, is another matter.
If you’re playing Pithing Needle in place of Cursed Totem, you’ll bring in those for some combination of Swords, Old Men, and Aether Vial. In this case, you’ll want to play against Belcher all day long.
High Tide Combo
Pray you draw your counters and Meddling Mages (chanting “High Tide” or “Cunning Wish,” depending on the situation), and shuffle away your useless Swords to Plowshares with Brainstorm and a fetchland. High Tide is a hard deck to hate, which accounts for its resiliency. If you’re desperate, you can try to make room for Stifle and Arcane Laboratory in the sideboard.
As you can see, the sideboard is biased to combat aggressive and other creature-based decks. If your metagame is skewed toward combo and control, you might consider this quasi-transformational sideboard:
If you go this route, you’ll want to consider increasing your number of Blue fetchlands to reliably cast Duress on turn 1 if you draw it.
Blue/Green is the most aggressive incarnation of the Fish archetype. Wild Mongrel, Basking Rootwalla, and Umezawa’s Jitte dispel any illusion that Fish is a slow and drawn-out death. There’s little time to hold your mana open for Counterspell, so those slots become Daze. I added Psionic Blast to give the deck some “reach” if your beatdown plan stalls and give the deck some modest board control, which U/G otherwise lacks (apart from Jitte). I’m not all that excited about Ninja of the Deep Hours in Legacy, but I’ll get to him later.
Interlude: Chalice of the Void in Legacy
You’ll see Vintage Fish adopting one of two plans: A) Null Rod, or B) Chalice of the Void and Aether Vial. Either Chalice or Null Rod are requirements, lest Fish be completely blown out of the water by combo or “better” control decks. But Legacy is not Vintage. Regardless, I’m sure people will look at Vintage U/G lists and be tempted to play Chalice, but let’s take a quick look above at the breakdown of the mana curve.
Do you see something wrong with this? Nearly 80% of the decks’ spells are in the one- and two-mana slot. Playing Chalice for zero Â— the main reason to play Chalice in the first place Â— is something you’ll rarely do. Daze is somewhat conditional as well, but is one of the more aggressive counters available to you, and that’s what you’re looking for.
When you take the best of Blue/Red and Blue/White Fish, you get this deck: Meddling Mage, Grim Lavamancer, Swords to Plowshares, and Fire / Ice all in the same deck. Your sideboard options open up considerably as well.
But for all the advantages you gain, your mana base becomes loses stability and you’ll be reluctant to move Aether Vial to the sideboard. You’re also discouraged from running both Mishra’s Factory and Wasteland, since you’ll need all the stability you can get.
III. Pithing Needle and Its Impact on Legacy
The debate on this card is wide, from some proclaiming Needle to be an automatic four-of inclusion in every deck, to others who warn people not to buy the hype and declare Pithing Needle a piece of crap.
Me? I’m somewhat ambivalent. I think Pithing Needle is a good card, but I wonder when people realize it’s not as good as they think it is, will they play it at all?
In Legacy, people who love Belcher and Survival of the Fittest-based decks are a little nervous. There, it is a concern. But what impact will Needle have on Fish?
My U/W takes a few potential hits: Umezawa’s Jitte, Mishra’s Factory, Wasteland, and the fetchlands. Factory and Wasteland will still tap for mana, but a Pithed Jitte is good for nothing. Exalted Angel’s morph ability is static, so she’s in the clear. Pithing Needle to U/G Fish will turn Wild Mongrel into a Grizzly Bear and Basking Rootwalla into a Mons Goblin Raiders. Voidmage Prodigy and Grim Lavamancer in U/R/x will be a lot less sexy, but anyone who Piths a Spiketail Hatchling deserves to be publicly shamed.
If I’m wrong and Pithing Needle is everywhere, Fish has a few easy outs. Maindecking one or two Engineered Explosives or Seals of Cleansing can help, and that isn’t a bad idea regardless, as will diversifying your fetchlands. For U/W it might look something like this:
In the absolute worst case it may be helpful to diversify the manlands, and consider Faerie Conclave, Kjeldoran Outpost, or Blinkmoth Nexus Â— none of which tickle me. Anyway, I doubt it will come to this.
This, of course, leads to the next logical question: should Fish add Pithing Needle to its arsenal of weaponry against other decks? Here, I won’t comment due to lack of testing, but if you want to try it, I suggest starting with the Cursed Totem slots in the sideboard. But unfortunately, Needle won’t give you any advantage over the decks that are already trouble for you.
IV. Kamigawa and the Future of Fish
I have two points to make in this section, one shallow, and a deeper point concerning the long-term viability of the Fish archetype as a whole.
But on the shallow side, let me say this: “Look at all of our cool, new toys!”
Just a passing thought: if Ninja of the Deep Hours was not a ninja and was, let’s say, a “Weasel of the Deep Hours,” would he see much play? Anyway, after a fair amount of testing, I liken this ninja to a crappy, cycling Decree of Justice. (And yes, I’ll probably catch flak for this in the forums.) He’ll eat up some mana, do a little damage, draw a card…. and then sit back on chump-block duty for the rest of the game.
His lack of evasion, small body, and Legacy’s creature-hostile environment means he’s not going to be abused to a great extent. And for the cost, your other men offer evasion or greater utility. I do like that he can be ninjutsu’d under Standstill, but not enough that I’d play with him again Â— even though some people swear by him.
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner is the card you really want for the mirror, but finding room for her when the match is already favorable isn’t necessary. The main objection I have is this: in Legacy, there seems to be as much global removal effects (Powder Keg, Disk, Explosives, Wrath of God, Akroma’s Vengeance, Pyroclasm, etc.) as there is spot removal. That said, Kira is a solid card for Vial Fish, so keep her in mind if you’re expecting a lot of fish mirrors, U/W control, Burninator, et cetera.
Given that you’re running one-mana spells like Cloud of Faeries, Brainstorm, Swords to Plowshares, and Aether Vial, Erayo, Soratami Ascendant almost seems like she has a home here. It’s certainly a cool idea, but will she help you where Fish needs help?
As I see it, a few too many things need to fall into place for an effect that may do more harm to you than your opponent. But it’s her inability to affect board position, before or after she flips, that really makes me doubt her usefulness. In most matches with Fish, the game the person who is best able to control the board and force damage through is the one who wins. And until you’re ready for her trick, Erayo is a dead card; and even if you’re able to pull it off, she still guarantees nothing. It’s a lot of hassle for something cool that isn’t game-breaking.
Kataki, War’s Wage would obviously be an enormous nuisance for Affinity, but Fish has better weapons to combat that deck and other artifact-based decks with Energy Flux, Null Rod, and Serenity. He’ll also wreck havoc on your Jitte and Vials. Cool art, though.
Taken together, these cards suggest something deeper about the future of Fish: R&D will sprinkle every set with a few excellent utility creatures that can be adopted by Fish. It’s only a matter of time before we see Null Rod, Cursed Totem, and Arcane Laboratory on a 2/2 body Â— as we’ve seen with cards like Hokori (Winter Orb) or Dosan (City of Solitude) in Kamigawa block. So, for good or ill, this is an archetype that’s likely to remain with the game for a long time coming, always being refined by R&D’s latest inventions.
Returning to the questions I asked at the outset of this article (“Will the Legacy card pool support a viable Fish deck; and, 2) is Fish any good in my format?”), it should be obvious that the answer to the first question is a definite “Yes.” And after the many hours of playtesting done as research for this article, I can confidently say that the answer to the second question is “Absolutely!” There is something durable about the Fish archetype that transcends formats.
That’s all I have to say for now. Feel free to leave your comments and criticisms in the forums.
“Bardo Trout” on themanadrain, mtgthesource and mtgsalvation
Contact me at bardo49 at yahoo dot com.
Many thanks to Kevin Binswanger (Anusien) for his thoughts on this article and the U/R/W decklist he supplied.
“PTW’s Central Coast Championship Tourney Report,” Mark Perez
“Worse Than Fish – Star City ‘Power Nine’: Richmond *Top 8*,” Jacob Orlove