The Philosophy Of Fair

Before SCG Legacy Open: St. Louis this weekend, find out why Andrew will probably be putting Death and Taxes back on the shelf after Grand Prix Paris.

I’m writing from my team’s swanky apartment in the center of Valencia, where I’ll be spending the next week drafting and playtesting Modern in preparation for Pro Tour Born of the Gods. Currently it’s day four of my eleven-day European Magic adventure. I’ve been briefly reflecting on how patently absurd it is that "hanging out in Spain to prepare for a Magic: The Gathering tournament" is a real thing I get to say when describing my life, and putting things in that perspective has cheered me up and put me in the right spirit to get things done.

Why did I need cheering up? Because the first leg of my trip took me to Paris this past weekend, where I played in the Grand Prix and got completely demolished over and over. I chose to battle with my updated version of Death and Taxes, which I discussed with Nick Miller at the recent SCG Open Series in Nashville, and came away with a sour taste in my mouth after facing nothing but bad matchups and opponents well prepared to answer some x/1 creatures. I managed to win the first round after my byes, defeating Goblins, and then ran afoul of True-Name Nemesis for two rounds before being eliminated by Elves, a matchup so abysmally bad that even sideboarded Zealous Persecutions don’t give you a chance.

For reference, here is the list that I played:

I made exactly one change from the Legacy Open to the Grand Prix. In brewing up the initial list, I had cut a land from the deck to reflect the fact that my list substantially lowered the deck’s curve. After playing one tournament like this, I realized that the Rishadan Ports and Wastelands made the deck rather mana hungry regardless of how little its spells cost, so I cut the fourth Spirit of the Labyrinth to restore the 23rd land that is in nearly every stock version of the archetype. Aside from the one minor change, I was basically just giving the deck another shot after I’d failed with it the week before, and my experience in Paris certainly did nothing to sway me from the idea that Death and Taxes is simply not a well-positioned deck at the moment.

The Legacy metagame shifts so subtly and so slowly that it’s often impossible to notice it happening. When I first picked up Death and Taxes back in December at the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas, It felt like a fine metagame call. The deck’s best matchup, Sneak and Show, was still riding a wave of popularity and at the time was the default combo deck. One of the deck’s biggest problems, True-Name Nemesis, was a known quantity but had yet to become completely ubiquitous.

Now True-Name Nemesis decks make up almost a third of the field, and as a result everyone has committed sideboard space to things like Zealous Persecution, Engineered Plague, and Golgari Charm, cards that also happen to wreck Death and Taxes. Combine that with the fact that the combo deck of choice has now shifted to Elves and it’s looking like hard times indeed for Thalia and the gang.

I’ll offer a few quick notes on my list’s two biggest "gimmick" features because a lot of people have been asking. First, Spirit of the Labyrinth is a very good card and has plenty of applications in Legacy. Its problem is that it doesn’t actually end the game against anyone and only sort of inconveniences them. It doesn’t help that all the blue decks that should fear it the most can just jam True-Name Nemesis into play and not concern themselves with drawing any extras.

Its stat line is also very unimpressive. Filling your deck with 3/1 ground pounders does nothing toward solving your problem matchups. The deck’s best solution to an opposing True-Name Nemesis is to put Equipment on a flier and race, a trick that’s not feasible with a 3/1 nonflying enchantment creature. The Spirit’s status as an enchantment is also a legitimate drawback. I had my Spirit Disenchanted in Paris, and it being an enchantment in the graveyard has grown my opponent’s Tarmogoyfs many times.

The other standout feature, the splash for black, has also been a little unimpressive. The deck needs a certain number of Plains to function in a Wasteland happy metagame, which limits you to just a few black sources. So in order for the Zealous Persecutions to affect the outcome of a game, you have to find one each of splashed spell and splashed land in a deck that has no library manipulation whatsoever. Even if you do jump through both of those hoops, you still run the risk of being too late. Maybe the True-Name Nemesis already has an Equipment attached. Maybe the Elves player has some Wirewood Symbiotes and Deathrite Shamans in play and can quickly rebuild.

I still enjoy playing the deck and could see myself returning to it in the future, but I think it’s time for me to put Death and Taxes back on the shelf for a while. When I first picked the deck up, I had been playing Dredge in every Legacy event for about a year, and after a string of poor performances, I decided I needed a drastic change of pace. This is kind of my mode when it comes to selecting Legacy decks. I play one thing until I’m sick of it and then switch it up to something radically different. It’s my contention that Death and Taxes is simply too fair for the current Legacy field and I need to be doing something broken.

People throw around "unfair decks" a lot as an umbrella term, but it’s not always clear what is or isn’t being included. The simplest explanation is "unfair deck = combo deck," but even that definition isn’t particularly helpful in clarifying how the unfair decks position themselves in the metagame. You could say instead that unfair decks try to ignore the opponent and "not play Magic" by doing something intrinsically powerful. Unfair decks don’t play fair. Simple enough, right?

Things get weird though when you consider just how many Legacy decks fit this description. While we did just describe a Tendrils of Agony for twenty and a Show and Telled Griselbrand, we also just described True-Name Nemesis; Knight of the Reliquary; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Fireblast; Batterskull; Aether Vial; Thalia, Guardian of Thraben; and Life from the Loam. Frankly, if you aren’t playing intrinsically powerful spells, you aren’t playing Legacy. The reality is that no one in Legacy is playing fair at all.

All that said, there certainly is room to discuss decks like Storm, Dredge, Reanimator, Elves, and Show and Tell in broad terms. When you register an unfair deck, where are you positioning yourself and what are you trying to accomplish?

The central tenet of the unfair philosophy, likely the single biggest identifying factor that separates them from other assorted powerful card strategies, is that a true unfair deck ignores the opponent. Players have been putting this forward as the reason to play combo decks for years now, going back to the original Pros Bloom decks ignoring the opponent’s Lightning Bolts, Swords to Plowshares, and Dark Banishings.

The classic matchup of creature removal spell against a deck with no creatures is the purest example here, but it finds weirder applications in Legacy. All of Reanimator’s creatures are too big for Abrupt Decay. Dredge doesn’t draw a card during its draw step, ignoring Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s fate seal ability. Storm’s Lotus Petals and Lion’s Eye Diamonds mean that it can often proceed as normal through a Blood Moon or Back to Basics.

This is not even touching the vast subset of cards that are simply too slow to matter against an unfair clock. The opponent could have very effective means of interaction and still lose if the unfair deck can execute its game plan too quickly for that interaction to matter. This is a recurring factor because most unfair decks abuse certain cards that are designed to gain an enormous mana advantage. For example, Storm and Dredge get to ignore the steep drawback of Lion’s Eye Diamond, allowing for explosive starts. As another example, the card Show and Tell itself is simply a variable ritual, virtually adding 4BBBB to your mana pool for the low cost of 2U. Most unfair decks first emerge as a method of abusing a fast mana engine.

I should add that at least as many unfair decks emerge as a method of abusing a fast card draw engine or card filter engine. We don’t end up spending as much mental energy on these decks, however, because they usually get banned. This is why we get to play with Sneak Attack and Lotus Petal today but not Necropotence, Memory Jar, or Survival of the Fittest.

So we’ve established that an unfair deck is fast and non-interactive, but again nearly every deck in Legacy is fast and non-interactive in its own way. What truly separates an unfair combo deck from a deck designed to cast a Nemesis and equip a Jitte to it is that in the classic Mike Flores sense an unfair deck wants to be the beatdown. When an unfair deck sits down to play against any other deck in Legacy, the unfair deck will be trying to end the game quickly, and it’s the other deck’s job to stop them.

It may feel a little odd to use the term "beatdown" since we traditionally associate it with the Jackal Pups of old, but in a format like Legacy the aggressor has simply evolved to match the hyperefficiency of the card pool. Whether your plan is Plains, Savannah Lions or Swamp, Entomb, Reanimate, you’re still adhering to the same broad game plan: show your opponent the cards that kill them and make them sweat it trying to figure out how not to lose.

The big difference of course is that a traditional beatdown creature deck aims to ignore the opponent’s interaction with redundancy, whereas a Legacy combo deck hopes to position itself in a way that the opponent’s interaction simply isn’t relevant. You may have heard some people refer to decks like Legacy Burn, Modern Infect, or the Bant Hexproof decks from last year’s Standard as combo because they take this approach.

Consider what it’s like to take G/W Aggro to a Standard tournament. You want to win your games by being faster than your opponent. You want to ignore your opponent’s expensive cards by killing them before they get to cast them. You hope that your opponent taps out to play spells like Underworld Connections or Ephara, God of the Polis because you don’t care about those cards at all. If you play Selesnya in Standard, you’re essentially taking the only "unfair" role available to you. At its core, an "unfair deck" wants to avoid matching its cards up with the opponent’s cards and rather end the game either too quickly for the opponent to react or simply on a different battlefield than the opponent anticipated.

The Death and Taxes deck I’ve been playing for the last few months is the complete antithesis of unfair. It’s not particularly fast, and every single one of its cards is meant to be interactive. More pertinently, it’s a fundamentally reactive deck choice. The defining characteristic of Death and Taxes is that its threats are chosen because they are also answers to the threats presented by unfair decks. I tinkered with the deck to try to align my answers properly, but the solution (as it always seems to be for me) is to turn the table and be proactive.

I don’t yet know what this means for me specifically, but I will likely be the beatdown the next time I play Legacy. I’m always looking to try out new archetypes, and one of the decks I’ve always wanted to play but never had a chance to is Elves, which fits the unfair bill perfectly. I’m also interested in Reanimator and in various Dark Depths strategies.

I’ll have to experiment a little to see which one I like the best, but for now I need to focus my efforts on solving the other Eternal format. Hopefully by this time next week you’ll have already seen me or one of my teammates hoisting the Pro Tour Born of the Gods trophy!