Thirst for Knowledge – All Eyes On Columbus

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Wednesday, July 28th – At this time last year, Legacy was still going nuts over the new-and-improved Phyrexian Dreadnought, and the power of the recently-released Progenitus was all the rage. While it was true that Nassif won the event without either card, it was easy to see that those two strategies were the stars of the show in terms of numbers.

Ah, here we are once again — the week before an American Legacy Grand Prix! Now, as much as I love Standard and Extended, I’ll admit that I have the most fun playing Legacy. Legacy as I’ve known it has always been a diverse and open format that allows for lots of powerful and yet fair strategies and last year’s Grand Prix in Chicago showcased that quite well. Since then, Legacy has had some serious overhauls (unbanning Entomb, and then the banning of Mystical Tutor), as well as gotten a ton more support in the form of the StarCityGames.com Open events. That being said, this format has grown into a true supported format, and more players than ever are buying and selling its staples in attempts to prepare for large events such as this weekend’s Grand Prix. While the diehard Legacy vets may often frown upon the newer players and how “bad” they are at this awesome format, it’s hard to discount the positive impact that new players has on a format that has flown under the radar for so long.

What I’m about to do is go through the decks that I personally find to be the top decks going into the event, but I am well aware of the dangers. Writing about Legacy on this website can often be a fast way to an early grave — whenever one speaks publicly about Legacy it is important that one actually knows what he’s talking about. Unlike the Standard community, the Legacy community usually consists of a higher percentage of “good” players than that of the average Standard scene. I don’t mean to insult anyone here, but let’s be honest: whenever someone writes an article about Legacy and says some things that aren’t quite right, it is hard to ignore the onslaught of forum-goers who spend the next three pages ripping him apart. Now, had that been a Standard article, you’d see probably just a page or so with a few posters chiming in with their two cents.

That being said, I’ve played a lot of Legacy in the past few months and the following thoughts and opinions are pretty well-informed. Disagree with them, certainly, because disagreeing with someone else’s opinion is normal and happens when speaking of any format. But I’m only pointing this out to make it clear to my readers that I indeed do play this format, because I often get the impression from reading forum comments of other articles that the average Legacy player just assumes that those who reach different conclusions than them are “not into Legacy” and “need to play it more to understand it.” In reality (or at least in my case), the real issue is simply that they found different conclusions because they think differently than you do or test better (or worse, depending) than you do.

In any case, that aside is over and out of the way. Onto some discussion!

At this time last year, Legacy was still going nuts over the new-and-improved Phyrexian Dreadnought, and the power of the recently-released Progenitus was all the rage. While it was true that Nassif won the event without either card, it was easy to see that those two strategies were the stars of the show in terms of numbers. Dreadtill had died down a bit since Worlds a few months beforehand, but Progenitus was everywhere that weekend. Going into this year’s American GP, the favored decks are far more varied and it’s much more difficult to nail down a solid expected metagame. The StarCityGames.com Opens have given us a much better starting point than we ever had last year (trust me, I spent many nights crunching numbers on Deckcheck last year), but even then those tournaments had some pretty huge metagame shifts in-between them. One week Merfolk would be on top, and then Counterbalance, and then Goblins, and then New Horizons, and then Zoo, etc. The format had narrowed a bit while Mystical Tutor was legal, but its banning has made for a pretty open meta these days. Aggressive decks seem to have a clear upper hand right now, and they certainly make up a larger part of the metagame than that of the combo decks and control decks. I suppose Wizards accomplished their goal that they had when banning Tutor: making creatures better. But, really, did we need them to be any better? Isn’t Wild Nacatl already pretty insane?

So, to start things off, let’s look at the top creature deck, Zoo:

In any format where Wild Nacatl is a 3/3 for one mana, Zoo will probably be a force. Zoo has been consistently performing well in the Open events, and that was true even during the legality of Mystical Tutor. That being said, the deck is arguably even better now since the Tutor decks have taken quite a hit in power, and that makes Zoo probably what will be the most popular deck in Columbus. I know that I personally have a Zoo deck ready to go right next to me in case I decide to audible (recent unfortunate events have opened up this coming weekend for me, so I will indeed be battling at the GP), and there is good reason for that.

Part of what makes Zoo so good right now in Legacy is that it still has the fastest consistent clock in the format. Not only that, but it is such a difficult deck to disrupt that only cards like Firespout are able to actually keep it in check. In addition, because of cards like Red Elemental Blast, Krosan Grip, and Gaddock Teeg / Ethersworn Canonist the deck can actually overstep its “creature deck” constraints and interact fairly well with the other decks. Merfolk is more interactive, but Zoo has reach and overall better individual creatures. Goblins is more explosive, but Zoo has far more interactivity and, yet again, has better creatures on average. It also again has a burn package in addition to its creatures, and that burn package is simply superb. Price of Progress is fairly substantial in Legacy, and having access to eight functional copies of Lightning Bolt is nothing to shake a stick at. Lightning Helix is a bit better in the mirror than some of the cards that my list is playing, but in a format so focused on speed I’m more inclined to shift my plan a bit toward creatures so that the deck’s clock is faster. I’m also not playing Sylvan Library, but that’s mostly because it doesn’t immediately affect the board and the card I’m playing in its spot (Gaddock Teeg) does a bit more for the deck.

In fact, Gaddock Teeg is one of the key cards in the deck right now. Teeg actually does a lot in Zoo at the moment, as he single-handedly shuts off Force of Will; Dream Halls; Aluren; Dread Return; Moat; Natural Order; Tendrils of Agony; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Engineered Explosives; Goblin Charbelcher; Humility; Wrath of God; Sigil of the Empty Throne; Replenish; Chalice of the Void; Smokestack, etc. The list goes on and on, but it isn’t hard to see why Gaddock Teeg is seeing some play again. At this point I wouldn’t leave home without him, and he’s possibly the biggest driving force behind the push of Zoo for this GP. Well, I mean, that and Qasali Pridemage. Pridemage is easily one of the best creatures in Legacy, and the resurgence of Counterbalance decks (specifically those using Enlightened Tutor) makes it all the better.

The only thing stopping me from just playing Zoo (okay, aside from my desire to avoid attacking with creatures) is simply that it doesn’t perform well against Show and Tell decks, and I personally am not too willing to pilot a deck like that at this event. While Zoo’s clock allows it to race a lot of combo decks, there is next to nothing it can do if its opponent just dumps a 15/15 into play on the third turn. Granted, it’s not as though the Show and Tell decks always get Emrakul into play that fast, but when you factor in Force of Wills and removal spells it isn’t hard to see why Show and Tell decks usually have a pretty fine match-up with Zoo. For decks like that, you can typically beat creature decks if you want to, and I’ve yet to see one that hasn’t addressed Zoo in its sideboard strategy.

Now, on the bright side, most players don’t really flock to the Show and Tell side of things. I’m not entirely sure why, either, as Show and Tell is such a powerful facet of the Legacy metagame that it seems to me that not testing all angles of that card is a mistake. The idea is simply to find the right win condition. The power of this strategy is that Show and Tell is almost always not the main way to win the game, but instead just a way to help enable it. For example, in Dream Halls or Mosswort Bridge, Show and Tell is just another way to set the combo up or a card that plays well with whatever else the deck is doing. In Hypergenesis and Eureka, you’re more or less just trying to resolve one of those two spells, but Show and Tell still makes an appearance because sometimes you’ll just open your hand and see that you have Emrakul and Show and Tell right off the bat. This allows you to simply steal wins that you otherwise would need to combo off to obtain. The trick, then, is finding which of these decks has the best “Plan A” to compliment the “Plan B” of Show and Tell. Is it Temple Bell and Mind Over Matter? No, probably not. Mind Over Matter is simply a pain in the ass to get into play without Show and Tell, and that doesn’t really work well with the whole “don’t let Show and Tell be your main win condition” plan. Hypergenesis might be the best approach, really, given that once you factor in the counter suite and the potential of cards like Unmask you have a very resilient and speedy combo deck, I’m just not sold that the deck has enough raw power to be worth it. Dream Halls is pretty powerful, but again Dream Halls is a bit expensive (though a bit less than Mind Over Matter).

As I said, it’s best just to look at the number of ways that Show and Tell can help lead to a win. The Mosswort Bridge version of Show and Tell allows you to win via Emrakul + Bridge, Dreadnaught + Stifle, or Show and Tell + Emrakul. That’s probably more than any of the other decks, but I’m not really convinced that Dreadnaught + Stifle is all that amazing right now nor am I really liking the consistency of Hideaway even with Brainstorm and Lim-Dul’s Vault. Still, it’s the most popular version of the deck and it’s by and large the one with the best results. Take a look:

As I said, this deck allows you to win in the most number of ways, but how consistent is Bridge even with four copies of Brainstorm and Lim-Dul’s Vault (and to a lesser extent, Ponder)? I will admit that having access to Stifle even just as disruption is pretty great, and Daze is a fine card, but overall I just am not a huge fan of this approach (this concern is only compacted by the fact that your main win condition is susceptible to Wasteland). It seems like the deck’s only true plan is to “steal wins,” whereas in the other Show and Tell decks Show and Tell feels much more like a secondary plan. If your deck’s back-up plan is to dump a 15/15 into play for three mana, then your first plan must be nuts, yeah?

Still, these decks all share the same thing: a shaky match-up with Counterbalance decks. Easily disrupted and always in an uphill battle against countermagic, it can often be difficult for a Show and Tell deck to beat a true control deck. In the average Show and Tell deck, if your opponent can keep you off of Show and Tell, you aren’t going to win very easily. This is mostly why I am hesitant to play a Show and Tell deck that isn’t packing a separate win condition in addition to the Show and Tell/Emrakul plan. I mean, if you’re playing Hypergenesis against a Counterbalance deck, at least you can still cascade into a Hypergenesis and win that way if your Show and Tell is countered. And, likewise, at least you can still put a 15/15 into play with Show and Tell if your Hypergenesis is locked down with a land on top of your opponent’s library. As a note, too, I would not strongly recommend Hypergenesis for that very reason: your “main” win condition is shut down by Counterbalance itself, and I’m not sure if you should play a deck that is beaten by the most popular “combo” in Legacy.

And speaking of Counterbalance, those decks are all over the place these days. Some are Bant builds with Natural Order and Progenitus, some are traditional with just Tarmogoyfs and maybe Dark Confidants, but lately the most successful ones look like this:

Powered by Enlightened Tutor, this new breed of Counterbalance decks have been tearing up the Opens like wildfire. Now, while I feel as though there is some merit to a more traditional build of control decks (such as regular CounterTop or Landstill), this archetype is probably the best choice for Grand Prix: Columbus. The biggest reason for this has to do with just how good cards like Moat are against the field and how much better it is to have a tutor effect when no one else really has one anymore. Enlightened Tutor might not be as good in this deck as Mystical was in Reanimator or ANT, but it certainly does its job well. It functions as additional Counterbalances and Tops, digs up Moat when you need it against the creature decks, and finds your hate cards both before and after sideboarding. Your main win condition, the Thopter/Sword combo, is also just overall pretty strong and positions you well against a number of decks. Of course, the biggest issue with it is simply how slow it can be. You do typically give your non-aggro opponents a lot of time to set up a good offense/defense against you while you craft an army, but this is normally only an issue against the combo decks. In control mirrors you tend to gain a large advantage by using the combo (the inevitability is usually enough to draw the concession), but against combo decks you generally can’t assemble the combo and make enough dudes for lethal before they’ve stripped you of your disruption and are already crashing in with Emrakul or slamming you with Tendrils of Agony.

Granted, you can usually remedy this with a decent sideboard, and cards like Ethersworn Canonist, Meddling Mage, and Extirpate help a great deal. Meddling Mage has increased in value considerably with the absence of Mystical Tutor in the combo decks (since now you can no longer just go fetch your answer without missing a beat), and setting up CounterTop against nearly all the combo decks is most often good enough to give you more than a fair shot at winning your matches. Zoo is still a tough match-up, and unless you land an unmolested Moat you’re going to be in bad shape. Your combo is your biggest asset, but without Firespout you’ll have a hard time keeping all of their creatures in check. The focus on enchantments also makes both Pridemages and Krosan Grip much better against this version than against the other Counterbalance decks, but the upside is that you can of course just tutor for whatever they blow up. The only problem with all that, however, is that the Zoo deck’s clock is still so fast that by the time you’ve re-tutored for another Thopter Foundry you might be pretty dead. Again, though, if you can land a Moat on the fourth turn you can usually buy yourself some time. If you’re going to be on that plan, though, I recommend that you bait out their enchantment removal in some other way before you cast it. Oh, and be sure to kill Teeg on sight. That’s pretty huge when it comes to the newest version of the Zoo deck.

If you want to play a more traditional CounterTop deck like those found at GP Chicago last year, then by all means do so. My only warning though is that there is a reason those decks haven’t done much of anything since that tournament: they simply aren’t really that powerful. In a format filled with broken cards and crazy interactions, those decks are just kind of boring and simplistic in comparison — they sort of play fair, if you will. And, well, in a format revolving around the best way to not do that, why would you want to? CounterTop is indeed still a great combination, but what do you hope to accomplish with it? You’re not assembling a degenerate two-card combo that gains you life and makes tons of blockers, nor are you fetching a 10/10. Tarmogoyf has finally fallen off his throne as the control finisher of choice, and now we’re dealing with huge creatures and alternate win conditions like Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Natural Order Bant still plays Tarmogoyf, sure, but as I said that deck also plays Rhox War Monk, Noble Hierarch, and Progenitus. I think it goes without saying that the format is just not what it was last year. If you want to play Tarmogoyf, play Zoo or something more like this:

New Horizons was one of the breakout decks from the SCG Opens this past year, and for good reason: playfully dubbed “Daze Aggro,” New Horizons is one of the few true tempo decks left in Legacy. Every creature in the deck is an enormous threat, and it’s not too hard to see why this deck did so well in so many events. It interacts well with the combo decks, has bigger creatures than the Zoo decks, and has a higher curve to give the Counterbalance decks a headache. I’ve personally never been a fan of tempo decks in this format (a reason I never really liked Canadian Threshold), but I’m a pretty huge fan of this particular deck. Stifle is at an all-time high given that it can be used to counter Annihilator for a crucial turn in addition to all the wonderful things it has always done in Legacy, and the graveyard-fueled beaters in the deck are simply huge even in the early stages of the game.

The deck’s only real weakness is that it actually doesn’t have much of an out to, say, a resolved Show and Tell. Not only that, but the mana is actually pretty bad. Terravore is double Green, and you need to support three colors while also running a full set of Wastelands. Now, normally that wouldn’t be an issue, but since you want to run Horizon Canopy it becomes hard to make your deck anything but incredibly weak to Wasteland. Granted, you have Stifle in case your opponent tries to Wasteland you, but when you don’t have it you can get into trouble. This was a larger problem when Lands was a more popular deck, but now that no deck is planning on getting you into a Wasteland lock you’re more or less safe to get greedy with your manabase. The only real Wasteland decks left in the metagame are the two tribal decks (Merfolk and Goblins), but with Explosives and bigger creatures you can usually handle those two decks (Merfolk is a bit harder due to Islandwalk).

New Horizons doesn’t do enough in my opinion against the combo decks (though it certainly does more than the other creature-based decks), but it’s still a fine choice overall. As I said, the decline of Lands in the Legacy metagame means that this deck may find itself in a better position moving forward, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a Life from the Loam-powered variant make an appearance in Columbus. There have been murmurs of a new-and-improved Aggro Loam deck, and this archetype could certainly benefit from a hybridization of those two strategies.

There are tons and tons of decks in Legacy, certainly, but ultimately which deck you play is based upon what you feel the best playing. I know that some pros will tell you that you should audible to the “best deck” if you get a good tip, but I feel as though Legacy is one of the few formats where “what you know” will always trump “what is best.” Now, I will agree that if a deck is poorly positioned in the meta that you should avoid it, but at the same time a slightly unfavored deck is reasonable to take to a GP if you know it inside and out and know how to react to every situation with the deck. Legacy, more than any other format in Magic (possibly even Vintage, though I can’t comment on that), rewards the faithful.

As far as the metagame goes, I’d expect Zoo, Show and Tell, and Counterbalance to be the most popular decks, but the neutered versions of the Mystical Tutor decks will still be a force and you mustn’t slouch on your hate for them. ANT will still be there in spades (but they’ll have their Burning Wishes or Grim Tutors in tow), and Reanimator will still be Exhuming Ionas against you (Personal Tutor isn’t that bad, right?). I’m personally not too into playing either of those decks at this stage, but I know for a fact that others will and I’m sure one of the things those players are banking on is the fact that people will skip out on hate simply because a great number of the players going into GP: Columbus are unaware that those decks have survived the banning of Mystical Tutor. Don’t fall into that trap!

The rest of the field will be the usual: Enchantress, Elves, Survival, Mono-Red, Dredge (oh, yeah – you all know this deck didn’t go anywhere, right?), and the tribal aggro decks. I’m actually inclined to say that the Vial decks (Merfolk and Goblins) will be as popular as Zoo, considering that they dominated the Top 16 of the last SCG Open. I feel like Merfolk is the better of the two since it can interact, but Goblins is very fast and regardless of whether or not you’re playing it you should probably at least consider playing Engineered Plague in order to beat it. That card is still really, really good against that deck (and Merfolk/Elves, obviously).

From there, anything is possible. The last piece of advice I have is this: beware of the GIANT elephant in the corner of the room. If you are friends with any number of good players on Facebook, you have no doubt seen all those people asking for Imperial Recruiters. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell you that there is a good reason for that, and I will say that I was one of those people looking for them. I found a set, but they ended up already being in use. That was a bummer. If you have them, you should most certainly be playing them, and a simple glance at the MTGO queues should tell you why.

I wish you all the very best of luck, and I encourage you to introduce yourself to me and say hello if you see me over the course of the weekend. GP: Chicago is still to this day my favorite Magic trip I’ve had, and this one should be just as awesome. Legacy is a great format, and I can’t wait to see what kind of decks perform well. See you all there!

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO