For the first time in eleven months, I played at Competitive REL this past Sunday. Also for the first time in eleven months, I took the Constructed plunge and brought a deck to a tournament, a Legacy IQ at the Star City Game Center in Roanoke, VA, to be specific. I had a couple of options open to me (a few years ago my mother finished my Force of Will playset as a birthday present — thanks, Mom!), but I went with one of the weirdest thrills the format has to offer: All Spells.
No lands. All creatures and spells. Turn 1 kills.
For those who’ve never seen the deck in action, here’s how it goes. I use sources of mana (Elvish Spirit Guide, Lotus Petal, etc.) to get to four mana, one of which is black. I cast Balustrade Spy or cast and sacrifice Undercity Informer, targeting myself with the triggered or activated ability in either case. As I have no lands in my deck, this dumps my entire library into my graveyard.
The Narcomoebas trigger, going from the graveyard to the battlefield. This gives me the fuel to Flashback Dread Return, targeting Underworld Cerberus. Once the Cerberus is on the battlefield, I Flashback Cabal Therapy by sacrificing Underworld Cerberus. This creates yet another trigger, exiling Underworld Cerberus and returning all other creature cards from my graveyard to my hand.
After the stack clears, I use a Spirit Guide to cast Wild Cantor, and then the Wild Cantor and two more Spirit Guides to cast Laboratory Maniac. From there, I cycle Street Wraith and attempt to draw a card from an empty library, and Laboratory Maniac gives me a win instead of the usual loss.
If all that sounds complicated, it’s really not in practice. The mechanics repeat themselves each game, with only a few odd corner-cases. Those corner-cases are worth goldfishing, though, as you’ll see below.
I went with All Spells because I’d noticed a trend away from Force of Will in the local metagame. (While I hadn’t played Legacy in a while, because of my job with Star City Games, I look at a lot of decklists!) Many newer Legacy players were piloting Death and Taxes or Eldrazi, which have their own pieces of suppression (Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Chalice of the Void, to give two examples) but can’t interact all that well with the Turn 1 Fun that All Spells brings to the table. Other players were running Burn or Elves or Storm, which are totally respectable combo decks … but slower than the Turn 1 Fun.
When players move away from the crucial control provided by Force of Will, that’s the time for speedy combo decks to shine, and I was ready.
Except I wasn’t, because I made a critical deckbuilding mistake.
Scroll back up and look at the decklist. Do you see it?
I didn’t think my metagame call all the way through, and so I didn’t take four crucial cards out of my maindeck.
In order for Pact of Negation to work, here’s what has to happen:
1. My opponent has to be playing Force of Will. Pact of Negation does nothing against Chalice of the Void or Leyline of the Void or any other cards I’m worried about that come down anytime except the turn I execute my combo.
2. My opponent has to have Force of Will in-hand. They’re only 40% to have it Game 1, unless they’ve heard about what I’m playing and aggressively mulligan to find it.
3. I then have to have the Pact of Negation in my hand, and I’m only slightly better than 40% to have it, thanks to my card draw spells.
In any other scenario, drawing Pact of Negation is like taking a mulligan. Maybe Pact of Negation made sense the last time I played Legacy (December 2014, according to my DCI records), but it doesn’t anymore. Either your metagame is vulnerable to attack by All Spells or it isn’t, and Pact of Negation does more harm in the matchups where it isn’t useful (by taking the place of a mana source) than it does good in the matchups where it might be useful.
It’s all well and good to realize that in the aftermath, but on Sunday, I sleeved up four Pact of Negation and got dressed up for my Sunday. (Necktie of choice: black “Degrade” pattern from Versace, my souvenir from shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.) There were 30 players for five rounds of Swiss with a cut to the Top 8, a pretty healthy turnout for a Legacy event on Independence Day weekend.
Round 1: I played a young gentleman who was borrowing Affinity (without Force of Will, score!) because his Enchantress deck was still a work-in-progress. My decision to play Pact of Negation immediately bit me Game 1, as I kept a hand with Balustrade Spy and three mana sources (and two copies of Pact of Negation), looking to draw the magical fourth symbol. I didn’t, though, and the Robot Army slaughtered me.
I got my revenge in Game 2: after seeing the coast was clear with a Gitaxian Probe, I gave my friendly foe a taste of the Turn 1 Fun. Game 3 was a bit on the dicey side, as I ran into the same “why couldn’t this Pact of Negation be a Rite of Flame?!” problem, but this time I drew out of it while sitting at fourteen life (and before my opponent could deploy one of his sideboarded Grafdigger’s Cage).
1-0 matches, 2-1 games.
A sloppy start for me, but I got a couple of the kinks worked out while walking away with a win.
Round 2: This round I faced a StarCityGames.com employee on White Eldrazi. (No Force of Will! Score!) He won the die roll and knew what I was playing, but in Game 1, he kept a powerful hand that could Thought-Knot Seer me on turn 2 and blink it for days with Eldrazi Displacer.
I had the Turn 1 Fun. He never got the chance.
In Game 2, he did some extensive sideboarding. So did I, taking fifteen cards out of my deck, putting them in my deck box, and taking fifteen cards out.
“Now what am I doing?” I teased him. “Am I sideboarding in the Goblin Charbelcher package, or am I running the bluff and staying the same?”
I had in fact sideboarded out the Laboratory Maniac combo:
In its place was my entire sideboard, featuring Goblin Charbelcher (fairly obvious: get to seven mana, cast and activate Goblin Charbelcher, point at opponent’s face, deal damage equal to the number of cards in library because I will never hit a land) and Recross the Paths.
With no lands in my deck, Recross the Paths allows me to stack my entire deck. Really, though, I only care about a few cards. Those stacked cards, from top to bottom:
Over the course of two turns (or one or even zero, depending on whether or not I have Gitaxian Probes; sometimes I’ll substitute Gitaxian Probe for a Street Wraith if I have a Wraith in hand) I will draw Lion’s Eye Diamond and then Street Wraith. I will hold priority until I specifically pass it, stating that out loud to my opponent (this is crucial and the play won’t work otherwise), cycling Street Wraith and then sacrificing Lion’s Eye Diamond for three blue mana.
The Street Wraith draw serves up Meditate, which I cast to draw four cards, a trio of Lion’s Eye Diamonds and another Street Wraith. I cast all the Lion’s Eye Diamonds, repeat the magic phrase “I will hold priority until I specifically pass it,” and cycle Street Wraith before sacrificing all the Diamonds for any color of mana (I usually go with white, because I don’t add that color at any other time). With nine mana floating in my mana pool, I draw Goblin Charbelcher. Spend four to cast, three to activate, and that’s the win. Again, it sounds complicated, but after a few practice reps it’ll come almost automatically.
Back to Game 2. I went for the sideboard package. My opponent, on the play, guessed wrongly, casting Chalice of the Void for X=1. (A Chalice of the Void for zero stops Lion’s Eye Diamond, and thus the Recross the Paths kill, cold.) On my turn, I cast Chrome Mox, imprinting a now-useless Gitaxian Probe, and exiled two Simian Spirit Guides. A Manamorphose gave me the green I needed to cast Recross the Paths and stack my deck. Relevant casting costs: zero, two, and three, with four coming up.
A nice little dance around X=1, if I do say so myself.
He didn’t find the second Chalice for zero in the next two turns, and I Belched him for more than double lethal damage.
2-0 matches, 4-1 games.
Round 3: My preteen foe might’ve been physically small, but his 2-0 record commanded respect…as did his Infect deck, which almost certainly had Force of Will in it. (We’d been seated next to each other in Round 2, and a deck check had given me plenty of time to watch him.)
In Game 1, I punted horribly. I drew my opening hand, and it had Dread Return in it. Normally that’s not a problem; I have two Cabal Therapies for a reason, and that’s to discard a Dread Return or an Underworld Cerberus and still have one left over to sacrifice Underworld Cerberus.
I gave myself the yips, though, forgetting the Dread Return and focusing on purging a Force of Will from my opponent’s hand. I Cabal Therapied my opponent before Cabal Therapying myself, stranding Dread Return in my hand forever. To rub salt in the wound, he didn’t even have the Force of Will!
Once I realized what I’d done, I conceded the game to avoid giving away any more information, but it was a ghastly self-inflicted injury…and in my own way I didn’t get over it for the rest of the tournament.
In Game 2, I stayed on the graveyard plan, not wanting to risk the delayed win with Recross the Paths. I mulliganed and ran into the “Pact of Negation interfering with mana” problem again. Before I could draw enough mana, his Brainstorm found Grafdigger’s Cage, and with no way to cast Dread Return, I had no hope.
2-1 matches, 4-3 games.
I went to get lunch, feeling rather disgusted with myself. Infect is a tough matchup, but I should’ve given myself a chance to win, and somewhere between rust and The Fear, I let myself fail.
Round 4: My foe was a friend to my Round 1 opponent, so he knew exactly what I was playing. On the other hand, he was on Colorless Eldrazi. Once again, no Force of Will to worry about, but there was Chalice of the Void to consider.
Game 2 was just gross. My opponent mulliganed to four, trying to find something, anything. He eventually dropped an Ancient Tomb and passed. Meanwhile, I’d mulliganed to six, but had found a perfect six-card hand:
So he got Belched for the Turn 1 Not-So-Fun. He was visibly crushed, though a perfect sportsman in the post-game. I might have been 3-1 going into the final round, but I wasn’t feeling good about it.
3-1 matches, 6-3 games.
Round 5: When the standings went up, we saw that there were nine people with an X-1 or better record. Had there only been eight, we could’ve drawn safely; as it was, I was in eighth place in the standings, paired with Eric Hymel, a successful IQ grinder and semifinalist at #SCGBALT in April. He would’ve been safe with a draw, as my tiebreakers were atrocious compared to his, but he wanted to play anyway.
He was on Lands (no Force of Will, yet again, yay!) but knew what I was playing (boo!), and he came ready. I won the die roll for Game 1, but once more Pact of Negation interfered with an otherwise awesome hand, and a Gitaxian Probe revealed a Chalice of the Void for one incoming. My draw did not bring a mana source, forcing me to pass, and my foe triumphantly cast his Chalice of the Void, X=1.
That was silly of me.
To be sure, my ordinary combo-off pattern requires a one-mana-cost spell, Wild Cantor. But there are ways around that requirement! I can get blue mana from a Lotus Petal, a Chrome Mox imprinting Gitaxian Probe, or a Manamorphose. That blue mana could float through all my rigmarole, getting spent only at the end.
But why didn’t I try?
I cracked mentally. That’s all I can think of, and all I can say.
The same scenario repeated Game 2. Being on the play, I stayed with the graveyard plan, but my deck went into Braying Donkey Mode, and when I found my Balustrade Spy, I didn’t have the mana for it. On my opponent’s first turn, he had the Chalice of the Void for one again.
Again I conceded prematurely.
Again I was silly.
I bought a couple of bottles of Gatorade and started my hike home.
First, my recommended decklist if you should choose to play All Spells in a future event:
This version drops Pact of Negation entirely (as I mentioned above, if you’re playing this deck, it’s because you think you can tear through a field light on Force of Will and you shouldn’t tune your deck to beat Force of Will players) in favor of a maindeck playset of Rite of Flame. In the sideboard, the third and fourth Street Wraiths maximize the chance of shaving a turn off the Recross the Paths kill.
As for myself, I’m a weird mix of disappointed and okay with how I did. Starting 3-1 is good for one’s first Competitive REL tournament in almost a year, but I could’ve done better. My execution with the deck was sloppy (at one point I forgot to discard my hand to Lion’s Eye Diamond), I punted the match that would’ve let me double-draw into the Top 8, and I let my win-and-in match go prematurely due to… Fatigue? Lack of competitive drive? Frustration? It’s somewhere in between those three.
But there are positives to take away, too. I may be rusty on tournament Magic, but my skills haven’t atrophied completely. I made a good metagame call; granted, I was lucky to face only one Force of Will opponent in five rounds, but with the heavy presence of non-Force of Will decks in the field, I will count a point for myself on that. And I got some reminders of the things I miss about tournament Magic: showing a newer player how an intricate combo functions, rooting for opponents after our match is done, seeing faces I hadn’t in a while.
I won’t be at #SCGWOR; I just don’t have enough time to make plans, and I expect a lot more copies of Force of Will in that field, proportionally as well as in absolute numbers. On the other hand, the Season Two Invitational in New Jersey is coming up in about six weeks. Eldritch Moon gives me a chance to jump back into Standard, and my trusty Affinity deck sits in its box, ready for me to shuffle it up again.
And I do have an invitation.
I thought I knew which way I’d RSVP, but now the Invitational’s calling to me…