The Triumvirate

Carsten identifies the triumvirate of archetypes that are dominating Legacy right now and provides some suggestions for fighting them at #SCGBALT.

One of Legacy’s big selling points is how vast the number of viable decks it contains is. You could play against any of dozens of different decks whenever you sit down at the tournament table. This sweet fact comes with a cost though. It can be incredibly hard to metagame against the field you’re expecting. When people might bring whatever, how do you choose a deck that’s actually well positioned?

The secret—aside from playing something that just wins on raw power—is to target overarching similarities and archetypes instead of specific decks. With that approach, we actually look to be in a great period for metagaming right now. That is because in spite of the awesome variety we’re seeing the most successful—and most widely played—decks in the current format form a triumvirate. They’re all built around one of three main game plans, independent of which cards exactly they use to implement said plan. Beat those game plans and you’re likely to hit a large percentage of favorable matchups throughout the day.

What I’ll do now is present you with a breakdown of the decks I consider to form Legacy’s ruling triumvirate, at least as far as metagame saturation is concerned. Let me insist on this though. These are the macro-archetypes that seem to bethe most played and successful right now. I’m not claiming these are hands down better than anything else in the format, nor am I claiming that you need to be playing one of these to have a shot at winning a big event. Just that they are among the best decks in the format and also see significantly more play than most other archetypes, giving us a decent shot at actually doing something useful by trying to game the metagame.

Enter The Triumvirate

Alright, I mentioned three game plans that form the foundation of the current most common macro-archetypes in the format. Put simply, if you aren’t playing a Daze / Stifle tempo shell, a Deathrite Midrange shell, or a heavy cantrip combo shell, you’re going rogue.

Let’s look at these three one by one and check which decks make up the majority of each of them.

First Triumvir:* Stifle / Daze Tempo

*Yes, Triumvir is actually what you call a member of a triumvirate. And yes, I had to Google it.

The classic deck among these is RUG Delver, but lately the tempo family has branched into three distinct decks that follow similar game plans but use different tools to implement them. Here are the three big players I’ve been seeing pop up in results.

RUG Delver is the classic tempo deck we’ve come to expect to run into. A mana curve that begins and ends at one (well, sans Tarmogoyf) containing efficient threats, red removal, and a boatload of disruption. If you haven’t seen this deck before, you must have been living under a rock for the last two years.

The BURG* deck (aka Four-Color Delver) is really only a (greedy) adaption of the RUG Delver shell. Tarmogoyf is one of the clunkiest cards in the RUG deck, and its value varies a lot depending on what you’re playing against. Sometimes it’s your best card, and sometimes it costing two is too much to be worth it just to get power and toughness.

*BURG is a great name for this deck. It correctly reflects its colors and also means "castle" in German. How could one not love this beautiful blend of Legacy naming conventions with the more common color-based approach?

Deathrite Shaman, on the other hand, is a great way to get ahead on mana in the early game and a great interactive tool and reach-based win condition as soon as you can stop playing things on your turn. The mana acceleration it provides is surprisingly powerful in a deck with such a low curve—playing more spells usually means you win more, and extra mana is especially nice when you also plan to Wasteland a lot.

As a result, you play a somewhat less aggressive game with a stronger focus on holding the opponent back until they have succumbed to all the little cuts you’ve been giving them. Of all three tempo decks, BURG has the strongest combo matchup in my experience and holds its own almost anywhere RUG does. The lower Tarmogoyf count does cost it against linear creature strategies like Goblins, though there’s Fire Covenant in the board to make up for this to a certain extent.

I’m honestly not sure why this version of the deck hasn’t taken off on the other side of the pond (aka in the US) as it trades some minor strength in swarm matchups for additional power against combo and grindier decks, which seems like a reasonable plan all things considered.

Someone finally figured out how to bring Standard’s feared Delver of Secrets / Geist of Saint Traft tag team to Legacy for good. You end up with a slightly higher curve but a lot more raw card power compared to traditional tempo decks. I mean, if your opponent already had trouble dealing with a Nimble Mongoose in six turns against all your disruption, how exactly are they going to deal with a Geist of Saint Traft in just three?

This manifestation of the tempo strategy combines the two best removal spells in the game with a game plan that laughs at all the graveyard hate people have access to (*cough* Deathrite Shaman and Rest in Peace *cough*) and the most ridiculously non-interactive threat I’ve seen cast in a long time. Seems solid.

Note that I could have also included Team America (BUG Delver) in this section, but for some reason that deck seems to have dropped off lately. Not sure why exactly, as it should still be reasonably well positioned, but people play what they want to play after all is said and done.

Time to take a look at these decks together. The first thing that jumps out is that they all use small purely nonbasic mana bases. The heavy fetch-dual focus allows them consistent access to all three colors while remaining able to run off of as few as fourteen colored sources. In addition, all three decks run a heavy mana denial / taxing counter disruption base. Clearly they plan to attack your fundamental resource—mana—to stop you from acting as much as possible.

In addition to that, their mana curves are almost exclusively focused on one-drops and free spells, making it easily possible for these decks to cast two or three spells per turn from the word go. By doing so, they get the ability to out spell their opponent to the point that the game will often end before the other player has managed to deploy even half the cards they have access to. This concept—deployment advantage instead of raw card advantage—is what has given the tempo shell its name. After all, what is tempo but the ability to bring more of your cards to bear faster?

And finally, there’s the creature base. All of these decks have the overwhelmingly aggressive one-drop that is Delver of Secrets to provide the best early game threat imaginable, one threat that can actually stand up later in the game when an opponent might manage to sneak something through (Stoneforge Mystic for U/W/R Delver, Tarmogoyf and Deathrite Shaman for the green-based lists) and one hard to interact with threat that helps them beat an overload of cheap spot removal, the uncounterable Abrupt Decay in particular (Nimble Mongoose and Geist of Saint Traft). It all seems pretty close, doesn’t it?

Second Triumvir: Deathrite Midrange

Next up is the class of decks that has been replacing true control decks in both Magic and Legacy for a while now (thank you, creature power creep): midrange. The power level of recent printings—Deathrite Shaman in particular—has given rise to the Deathrite Shaman / Abrupt Decay shell that currently defines the most successful midrange decks.

The quintessential midrange deck in the Magic universe at this point, Jund does what you’d expect it to do. It attacks your hand with discard, plays a million removal spells (in part thanks to the common inclusion of Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows) to control the board, and combines it all with a selection of creatures that will usually both help you pull ahead and provide a solid amount of pressure on the opponent.

Alright, what happens when you think Tarmogoyf just isn’t good enough? Right, you start playing Stoneforge Mystic. After some time of observing more dedicated Golgari mages have all the fun with the best mana elf ever printed, Stoneblade players decided they wanted in on the deal. Instead of trying to be a blue control deck with a couple of two-mana 4/4 lifelinkers, they’ve started to turn themselves into full-on Blue Jund. Rather than getting ahead by cascading and Hymning, Deathblade uses Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Snapcaster Mage to grind value while copying not only the Deathrite Shamans but even the Dark Confidants from Jund.

Given that all this deck does is get ahead in raw card count, it should be no surprise that this is exactly the kind of deck I really enjoy—well, aside from all the creatures that give it its midrange bend. A few early answer cards aside, everything in the deck is designed to provide value, be it Hymn to Tourach killing their cards in hand, Shardless Agent cascading into more stuff, Ancestral Vision straight up drawing three (yummy), or the planeswalkers and Deathrite Shamans generating value turn after turn. Winning with a seven-card hand while your opponent is on empty is my favorite way to win, and that’s exactly what this deck excels at.

This is, by the way, a good description of what all of these decks are really trying to do. They’re reasonably slow creature decks with a decent amount of disruption that just seek to gain value—as in card advantage—turn after turn after turn, with the card advantage easily turning (hah! #4) into a board advantage because it is often tied to small bodies. You keep doing that and the opponent will just get buried after a while.

Once again we see very few to no basics, though this time in combination with an extremely high land count (for Legacy). This is necessitated by two of the three decks trying to cast cards with strong conflicting color requirements, while the third simply goes ahead and adds the forth color because mise.

In addition, all three decks share the same underlying structure: some discard (and sometimes countermagic) to keep the opponent pinned back, cheap removal to kill what they have, four heavy hitters to actually kill people with or stall ground assaults, and a bunch of creatures and spells that produce card advantage to fuel a game in which you keep doing the same thing (trade cards one for one with your opponent while casting things that allow you to get ahead on cards).

Because that kind of value usually costs mana, these decks have comparatively high mana curves but also topdeck incredibly well. The overall card quality is so high that almost every nonland you rip off the top of your deck is just going to be better than whatever your opponent is going to find.

Third Triumvir: Cantrip Cartel Combo

One of the first articles I wrote for this here website was a reflection on the raw power of what I dubbed the cantrip cartel: Brainstorm, Ponder, and Preordain. These spells played together give a deck unmatched consistency and the ability to find whatever it may need. It shouldn’t be surprising that combo decks are the ones most easily poised to take advantage of this kind of digging power—they’re looking for combinations, after all.

There are two main strains of combo that have been popping up: Tendrils of Agony based storm engine combo decks and Show and Tell based traditional multi-card combo decks. With nice symmetry, each of these approaches gives us two different decks at the top of the heap.

I have written a full article on the differences between these two versions of Storm already, so I won’t spend time describing their detailed differences here. Feel free to click on the link if you want to know more. The basic game plan both decks go for is to set up a hand that has enough fast mana and a tutor to cast one of their engine cards, which will provide more mana acceleration and tutors to cast this turn, leading straight into a lethal storm spell, be it Tendrils of Agony or Empty the Warrens.

Ever since Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Griselbrand were printed, just getting the dumbest fatties ever printed into play has become almost the equivalent of a game win, and that’s what this deck is focused on doing. Access to eight enablers and eight ridiculous fatties makes it so that they have a critical mass of each combo piece; add a smattering of countermagic and as many cantrips as you can find room for to ensure both pieces turn up in time. Voila, Sneak and Show.

While deploying Emrakul or Griseldaddy usually leads to a game win, there are a couple of ways to interact with them or simply lose during the turn or two it takes them to actually close the game out. There have always been those unsatisfied with such a comparatively weak combo finish, and a number of different comb kill enchantments have helped to remedy that. Lately, though, there’s finally a winner among those contenders for the instant-win Show and Tell deck: Mono-Blue Omniscience.

This is probably the least interactable (as in can be interacted with) deck in the whole format. A monocolored deck with an almost pure basic land mana base, a couple of free counterspells, a combo that generally ends the game on the spot when a single spell resolves, and an incredible fourteen cheap draw effects for consistency, this deck is perfectly set up to make the exact same game happen every single time you shuffle up.

The disadvantage? The full kill either requires three cards or five mana to work. To win, you need to either resolve Show and Tell into Omniscience or Dream Halls. You then use these to cast Enter the Infinite, draw your deck, and win with whatever you’ve decided to use for that purpose.

The reason a dedicated 2.5 card combo deck is even viable in the format is the amount of redundancy you have for each piece. Dream Halls and Omniscience both take care of the mana part and both work well with Show and Tell to make the kill happen for a lowly 2U. Cunning Wish, on the other hand, does double duty as utility and additional Enter the Infinites once the free spell engine is established (get Intuition from the board, which will then find Enter the Infinite). This setup leaves you with seven pieces for each necessary combo piece, though one of them always needs Show and Tell as an additional third card (hard casting Omniscience is very much a pipe dream).

What connects these four decks is that they try to find an exact combination of cards that when resolved will lead to the opponent’s demise and use a large number of cheap library manipulation spells to make that happen. They basically spend their turns spending all their mana on drawing better cards than you will before trying to just kill you where you stand.

At the same time, their spell-based nature makes it so that many traditional interactive tools—well, the one big one, creature removal—are totally useless against them, as is trying to get them to attack or block in any way that doesn’t involve huge flyers or a dozen or more Goblins. These are the decks that force interaction in Legacy—because if you don’t, you’re dead.

Drawing Conclusions

Ok, I’ve shown you the triumvirate. The question now becomes what is that good for? Happy you asked! While I won’t go deeply into metagaming theory or anything like that today, there is an easy and straightforward way to profit from that kind of knowledge. It allows us to figure out what any deck we want to play needs to be able to do and where common areas of attack can be found. Let’s make a (non-comprehensive) list, shall we?

Most of these decks are quite weak to hard nonbasic hate.

While the Show and Tell decks are reasonably resilient to a fast Blood Moon, everything else will find itself hard pressed to cast spells the way it’d like to. All of the non-combo decks other than Jund will straight up stop casting spells as long as you can kill a Deathrite Shaman. Even if you can’t go as far as Blood Mooning them out of the game, other ways to attack their mana like Life from the Loam and Crucible of Worlds (with Wasteland) are quite powerful. Actually, just having Sinkholes and Smallpoxes in your deck might prove pretty solid.

Interacting on the board alone is just not good enough.

If all you want to do is cast creatures and removal spells to see who will be the last person standing (last fatty wins, etc.), this isn’t the format for you. The combo decks will straight up laugh at you, and even the fair decks have so many powerful spells that trying to just jam another creature down can easily lead to trouble.

As a result, you deck needs some way to keep the opponent from going about their business, be it by casting discard spells, countermagic, or simply prisoning them in between hate bears, artifacts, and enchantments of your choosing. Actually, the more disruptive your deck is, the better you’ll likely be as long as you can also beat a Tarmogoyf or Delver of Secrets.

Resilient mana is important.

While this is mainly predicated on the tempo archetype, make sure you play (a little more than) enough mana sources—the more basic lands, the better. Against the tempo decks, one main way to straight-up lose the game is them Stifling and Wasting you down to nothing, so focusing on one’s mana is already very important right now. Add to that the power level of the combo decks and the incredible late game of the midrange decks and it should be obvious why your mana base needs to work without any hiccups.

Truly large creatures are scarce; utility creatures are MVPs.

Looking above, the biggest creature a removal spell will actually do anything against is a lowly Tarmogoyf. Now, don’t get me wrong, he’s big for two mana, no question, but compared to what Knight of the Reliquary once was and the stuff we see played in Standard, he’s still pretty cuddly. Instead, most of the creatures seeing play are included for their spell-like properties.

This reliance on small creatures has two results; removal like Lightning Bolt will kill almost anything that needs killing, and creatures that are bigger than Tarmogoyf are quite insane right now as long as you can find a way to make them work without losing on a different metric.

The preponderance of Dark Confidants, Deathrite Shamans, and such also makes removal in general particularly important. It’s very hard to win a game in which the opponent draws twice as many cards as we do (or whatever similarly unfair thing their guys do), so if you aren’t planning to win before that effect kicks in, make sure you’re always ready to kill.

This also means that mass removal is actually quite good right now. You aren’t taking enough damage to force you to sweep any one threat, and getting two or three of them at once is a nice way to reset the card advantage they have created.

Two of the three triumvirs are actually quite bad at defending against combo.

The midrange decks with their relatively low disruption counts are easy prey for a deck that can just win during a single turn—killing them negates all the advantages those decks try to grind out for themselves. Assuming your combo deck is also disruptive enough to keep itself alive against the onslaught of other combo decks, it should be well positioned to take advantage as long as it doesn’t lose too harshly to the tempo decks.

Making Suggestions

And now, to round things out, a couple of suggestions as to what one might run to fight a metagame like that (just to get your creative juices flowing).

I’ll be honest with you—I have no idea if this is a good version of Dragon Stompy, but it’s the version I’ve found with the most results in recent times. The plan (and angle of attack) here are similar to that of a combo deck. Drop a turn 1 Blood Moon effect, Chalice of the Void, or Trinisphere and see the opponent cringe. That’s when you drop a big guy and kill them before they can get out. The multitude of ways a list like this preys on the triumvirate should be quite obvious, I believe.

Instead of knocking them over the head and kicking them while they’re down, you can also go for the opposite approach; answer everything they do and "combo" them out. How to combo them out in a deck without any combo? Well, I suggest you read Entreat the Angels again. Against anything fair, Entreat plus five mana might as well be a combo kill. Against anything unfair, it usually isn’t too hard to finagle Counterbalance plus Sensei’s Divining Top into an effective kill before you figure out how to actually end the game with Jace, Vendilion Clique, or a couple of Angel tokens.

Speaking of comboing people out, it looks like it’s time for the tide to rise again. Against the combo decks, you’re slightly slower but you have Force of Will and Flusterstorm maindeck with Merchant Scrolls to find them. Just take the control role, find as much disruption as you can manage while making land drops, and once you draw into High Tide and Time Spiral, naturally go ahead and kill them.

Against the midrange decks, on the other hand, you get to play combo. Your turn 4 kill might be slow compared to the other combo decks, but it’s still far ahead of anything Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, and Stoneforge Mystic are capable of doing. Use cantrips wisely and protect your hand with countermagic and you’re good to go.

The one problematic matchup could be the tempo decks. While you aren’t a total dog, any start involving Delver of Secrets is usually problematic. Having your lands Stifled is horrendously bad, but at least they won’t ever Wasteland you. Can’t have all good matchups, can we?

You Know What’s On Top—You Know What To Do!

And with this triumvirate of decks to answer our current rulers, I’ll check out for today. We’ve seen how multiple decks can actually be different manifestations of the same underlying game plan and how three of these macro-archetypes occupy a large part of the top spots in Legacy tournaments right now. Your job, if you choose to accept it, is to bring something to the next tournament that will make our overlords cry.

I’m off to Gamescom this weekend, so don’t expect me to answer any comments before Monday, but still let me know if there’s something you feel like telling me, as I’ll be reading them as soon as I’m back. Until next time, go forth and triumph!

Carsten Kotter