Unlocking Legacy – A Legacy Mixed Bag

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Wednesday, September 3rd – Moving to this new Wednesday time slot was very exciting because it meant I got to check out the new Banned list update on Monday. I expected no changes in Legacy, and I was not disappointed…

Moving to this new Wednesday time slot was very exciting because it meant I got to check out the new Banned list update on Monday. I expected no changes in Legacy, and I was not disappointed. There were two relevant changes worth mentioning. For those of you that missed it, check it out here.
Mark Gottlieb removed Time Vault’s power level errata and also banned the card in Legacy. Yes, normally power level errata is an Oracle update and not a Banned List update, but since the two come into effect a week away from each other, the decision was made to synchronize them. That way, the banning and Vintage restrictions of the card make more sense. Time Vault is a card that hasn’t made any impact in Legacy since Philadelphia, so this change should not change things much.

The change I find more interesting for Legacy is the Extended ban of Sensei’s Divining Top. The next major tournament to feature Extended will be Worlds, which is after the Extended rotation. Therefore it seems difficult for me to believe that the DCI banned Top for any sort of power level reasons. Because zero games have been played in the new Extended outside the Future Future League. It just seems to make the most sense to assume (and we’ll know for sure on Friday) that the change was made because of what Wizards of the Coast employees like to call the “Erik Lauer Experience”: repeated manipulation of the library or search effects. Avoidance of this sort of experience is why Endless Horizons searches all at once instead of once per turn like Land Tax. The banning of Top was probably a win for Legacy (at the same time it disappointed a lot of Extended players). People like their Sensei’s Divining Tops; banning it may have been the right decision, but it will fill a lot of players with nostalgia. My hope is that it will lead some players to try a Legacy tournament to play a deck they had taken from them prematurely.

Speaking of high level Legacy play… everything was set this year, so I have to admit to some disappointment to not get a PTQ season. I think the only thing holding Wizards back is their reluctance to take a gamble while in the midst of reorganizations and economic downturn. Unusually low PTQ attendance would look pretty poor, especially following this current block season’s unusually high PTQ attendance (at least in the United States). Wizards’s plan seems to be this:

Phase 1) Give Legacy a unique identity. This is why I’m excited in Legacy for the ban of Top from Extended, because the prevalence of Counter-Top in both formats was something that made the two seem very similar.
Phase 2) Make Legacy not cost the down payment on a house to play. New duals and playable non-Force of Will decks do this.
Phase 3) Get the pros playing Legacy and get some coverage viewers interested in the format. Three Grand Prixes and a two time performance at Worlds will do that. Plus this year Legacy is part of the teams format, which is always one of the most contentious formats. It means that far fewer people will work on it, but there’s more of an incentive to do well I think. Also last year a large number of people seemed to do the Legacy equivalent of just buying RDW from the dealers and hoping to do okay.
Phase 4) Legacy is a real format, which we legitimize by PTQ play. Judging PTQs this format, I talked to a few players about why they never checked out Legacy, when they had the cards for it and seemed sort of interested. The overwhelming response seemed to be, “Legacy seems cool, but without major tournaments there’s no incentive to play.” Legacy seems to have grabbed the casual-competitive market everywhere it can, but there’s a large swath of players it’s missing. Without support from Wizards (possibly coming on the back of the Wizards Play Network) it can never replace drafts or FNM for play of choice (for the cards and foils, mainly). In most areas with a decent number of drafts or standard tournaments, there’s no incentive for a PTQ goer to learn Legacy, since the cost to entry is far higher than the potential gains. Players will invest in it if it can get them boxes or get them on the Pro Tour. But most players won’t buy Force of Wills if it gets them two to three packs every week.

The Helm of Obedience/Leyline of the Void combo is slowly circulating the Internet. Despite it being available for two years or more, it was discovered recently. Despite talking to several people and looking on the Internet, I can’t find the original source. Interestingly it seems like Wizards has known the combo was around for a while (they even included Helm of Obedience in Master’s Edition 2). For those that haven’t seen, the combo works like this: have Leyline of the Void in play and activate Helm of Obedience for any number (at least 1). Because Leyline of the Void replaces the cards going to the graveyard, Helm will never see its condition fulfilled. The opponent’s entire library will be removed from the game, and Helm of Obedience will stay in play. Compare Helm of Obedience to Thought Dissector; Helm of Obedience specifically cares if the cards are put into the graveyard, so if they never make it to the graveyard, Helm of Obedience’s condition will never be satisfied and it will keep milling cards until you can no longer do so.

There is no redundancy to the combo. The closest replacement to Leyline of the Void is Wheel of Sun and Moon, but that card will draw the game instead of win you it (which makes it an interesting foil). Cards like Planar Void do not replace Leyline of the Void; they have a triggered ability instead of a replacement effect. So with Planar Void out, you will mill just X cards which will be removed from the game instead of all of them. A replacement for Leyline of the Void has to be a replacement effect that removes cards from the game. If you could donate Yawgmoth’s Agenda or Forbidden Crypt, those would work also. There are only five cards in Magic with the phrase “If a card would be put into ____ graveyard”, and three of them only apply to the caster of the spell; the other two are the previously discussed Wheel of Sun and Moon and Leyline of the Void. Finding a replacement for Helm of Obedience is trickier since the conditions is merely “Puts a large number of cards from a player’s library into their graveyard.” Thought Dissector doesn’t work because it reveals the cards. Based on some time I spent with Gatherer I’m reasonably sure there is not a replacement for Helm of Obedience right now.

I’m not expecting this card to receive errata with the Shards of Alara release. Helm of Obedience was in the Master’s Edition 2 beta and a bug was filed because the interaction did not work properly (it has since been marked Fixed). So we know that Wizards is aware of the interaction. I’m trying to get someone on the beta to verify that it works now (if anyone reading this is in the beta, please post!) Master’s Edition 2 releases on September 22, and Shards of Alara is updated into Gatherer on the weekend of September 27. It would hardly be worth the time of the development team to fix the interaction if they knew it was simply going to be changed. At least one member of the MTGO team is a high level judge with access to Mark Gottlieb to check up on that sort of thing. And we know that the rules team is talking to the rest of Wizards of the Coast, based on the simul-errata and restriction/banning. So if the combo works now online, it’s likely to continue working.

With all the rules and policy stuff out of the way, is it any good? At worst, this combo costs 9 mana, two of it Black. At best it costs just 5 mana because the Leyline of the Void can be put into play for free before the game. The real advantage to playing the Helm of Obedience combo is that you do not present any targets for Swords to Plowshares. The disadvantage to playing Helm versus Painter’s Servant + Grindstone? Hello, 9 mana. Most of the time, seven mana is way too much, eight mana is infinity, and nine mana is just wacky. (And yes I know people are starting to consider seriously playing Grozoth in a Vintage deck. I prefer not to think about that; it scares me too much). Regardless I think the potential downsides make it too risky to play the combo as a pure combination-oriented deck. There are two reasons to play the combo: 1) you’re already including Leyline of the Void in your sideboard plan and the mix is a reasonable alternate win condition, or 2) you really want to win without creatures. Leyline of the Void is certainly a reasonable card on its own, potentially better than the Painter’s Servant + Red Elemental Blast interactions, and Helm of Obedience has some limited utility fighting Volrath’s Stronghold and Academy Ruins.

Also, unlike Painter’s Servant + Grindstone, you cannot force a draw with some number of Darksteel Colossi in your deck. Darksteel Colossus has two replacement effects trying to apply to it’s put into the graveyard effect (Leyline of the Void and its own), and its owner chooses which one applies. The reason Grindstone can cause a loop that draws the game is because there is an infinite loop with no optional actions; neither player will get priority again. With Helm and Leyline there is an optional effect; no matter how many times Darksteel Colossus’s owner chooses to shuffle it back into their library, eventually in order for the game to continue the Colossus will have to be removed from the game.

The first place Helm of Obedience makes sense is in an Iggy Pop deck. People have been doing all kinds of awkward contortions to the deck for Pact of Negation or Orim’s Chant because of the deck’s vulnerability to Force of Will heavy draws. A few Helm of Obedience can add extra must-counter threats to help you overwhelm control decks. This is a deck that already gets good value out of Leyline of the Void, and has strong amounts of acceleration. Awesomely, the deck has some amount of trouble against Counterbalance and Helm of Obedience and Leyline are both fours. I would start with a maindeck that looks like this:

4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
2 Underground Sea
4 Swamp
2 Island
4 Lion’s Eye Diamond
4 Lotus Petal
4 Dark Ritual
4 Cabal Ritual
4 Mystical Tutor
4 Infernal Tutor
4 Brainstorm
3 Intuition
4 Ill-Gotten Gains
4 Leyline of the Void
2 Tendrils of Agony
2 Helm of Obedience
1 Wipe Away

I took Michael Bomholt’s maindeck from Legacy Worlds and cut the extra two colors for Helms. I could see even making room for the third Helm, but those cuts start to get a bit more difficult.

Some people are clamoring for Helm/Leyline in a Stax shell. Normally I love a Trinisphere, and for a time I would have given a spleen or an appendix for a win condition that didn’t bite to Swords to Plowshares. Then again, I’m becoming increasingly fond of Karn, Silver Golem in that deck since Karn basically has haste (in that Karn enables tons of your lock pieces to shake off the dust and start Lightning Bolting your opponent). There are some exciting cards to experiment with in a Stax shell, but most of them are Blue. The greatest value of Leyline of the Void would be to shut off opposing Crucibles or Leylines. The problem is mainly that I’m not convinced Stax can afford to pay 4 mana for a card that doesn’t really affect the board. If you really want to put Ancient Tombs and 4 drops together, I would look towards Demon Stompy. Thankfully we got to retire a lot of the absolutely terrible Smokestack decks and just started attacking with giant monsters. For those caught unaware, “Stompy” decks in Legacy have come to represent mono-colored Ancient Tomb and Chalice of the Void powered aggro-prison decks. The other word in the name comes from some creature type the deck plays. There is currently a successful Dragon Stompy and Faerie Stompy; Angel Stompy has sort of fallen off the map, and Demon Stompy is waiting in the wings somewhere. No clue where Elephant Stompy is as of yet. Anyway, the giant men in Black are unimpressive compared to the Red and Blue ones because large Black creatures tend to have rough drawbacks and don’t usually have evasion. Juzam Djinn is a fine creature until it gets stopped by a 5/6 Tarmogoyf. Demon Stompy already runs Leyline of the Void in the sideboard, so I think it could easily slot in the combo. This also gives it some outs against things that traditionally give it problems like Moat or Elephant Grass. This might also let players not have to play so much equipment just to compete. If you were willing to pre-board Leyline of the Void (which I’m not convinced you are), you might have something like this:

4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Traitors
2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
8 Swamp
4 Chrome Mox
4 Dark Ritual
4 Leyline of the Void
3 Helm of Obedience
4 Chalice of the Void
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
3 Mercenary Knight
4 Gathan Raiders
4 Priest of Gix
3 Grinning Demon
4 Eastern Paladin
3 Bane of the Living

Then again, the Painter’s Servant + Grindstone combo had the most success in decks built around it. It’s much harder to do that with Helm of Obedience. There are some limited interactions with cards like Portent or even using Helm of Obedience to screw up the opponent’s Sensei’s Divining Top cards for Counterbalance. Many decks simply do not run many creatures, or if they run a lot, each creature is individually very poor. Unless you get their Tarmogoyf, Helm of Obedience without killing an opponent is going to be very underwhelming. Misinformation is also cute with Helm of Obedience, assuming your deck is actually equipped to kill a Tarmogoyf. If you’re willing or need to give up the Helm, Submerge, Consign to Dream, and Memory Lapse all allow you to trade the Helm for your opponent’s best creature.

The Helm of Obedience combo is certainly very interesting, but I do not think it is quite good enough. It is too slow and expensive to slot into a dedicated combo deck the way Painter’s Servant does, and it does not do enough in the meanwhile to replace Jace Beleren or Tarmogoyf in a Vorosh-style deck. If you did not have to sacrifice Helm of Obedience or they print another card that interacts well with either piece, then the combo is potentially a game breaker. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on, and in the meanwhile I hope the lists I provided above serve as a good starting point.

Speaking of Vorosh, I’ve been working on the deck I presented last month. That build was basically Vorosh or It’s the Fear in five colors, with Demigods of Revenge instead of Counterspells. Taking the deck to five colors was an interesting experiment, and most of the time the mana worked. The local metagame is infested with Wastelands and Rishadan Ports, and most of the time it’s not worth stretching the manabase to accommodate Swords to Plowshares. You often run into problems in, for example, the Goblins matchup because you can only reasonably expect to cast one Swords to Plowshares before getting the land Wastelanded. Most players with Wasteland will use them right away even if it might be wrong, so it’s much better to just harden the manabase.

Now that I’m five weeks into the deck and have played and tested it a bit more, I’d like to present an updated list and tell you why it’s actually a reasonable deck to play:

3 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Wasteland
1 Academy Ruins
1 Volrath’s Stronghold
4 Polluted Delta
4 Flooded Strand
2 Island
3 Tropical Island
3 Underground Sea
1 Swamp
1 Breeding Pool
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Demigod of Revenge
1 Shriekmaw
3 Intuition
1 Gifts Ungiven
2 Pernicious Deed
1 Vedalken Shackles
1 Engineered Explosives
4 Force of Will
3 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Counterbalance
1 Raven’s Crime
1 Life from the Loam
4 Brainstorm
3 Diabolic Edict

Sadly, the Blue count is at a paltry 16 cards but that has turned out to not be awful in testing. Basically you want to cast Force of Will once to either force through your own spells or just not die until your superior cards take over the game.

The deck looks significantly more random than it is, because I’ve hedged the numbers a bit (in a very French deckbuilding style). A 4 of removal spell suite became 3 Diabolic Edict and 1 Shriekmaw. Most of the time the cards are identical, but sometimes that singleton Shriekmaw can be significantly better. Especially the Shriekmaw because without it your Volrath’s Strongholds are very weak. The deck is actually very customizable in that way. You could easily change the numbers on the removal, the board control elements and some of the Blue spells and keep a very strong core. Particularly suspect at the moment is the 4th Counterbalance; you just need a low cost blue card there to fit the curve and keep Force of Will relevant.

Raven’s Crime has been nothing but amazing in testing. Once you cast Life from the Loam, each turn becomes: play a land, maybe use recursion land, fiddle with Top, pass. You tend to accumulate many lands into your hand that you simply cannot use because your land drops are either full of Wasteland or just playing Legendary lands. Raven’s Crime fixes that. Any time you cast Intuition on an open board, Raven’s Crime guarantees a win. A large number of games in testing are won by using a Wasteland once and two Raven’s Crime a turn. Intuition basically guarantees that you can deal with one threat a turn, and Raven’s Crime restricts them to one spell a turn very quickly. Similarly Wasteland has been very good; also the deck can run into problems with opposing manlands otherwise.

The three Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth was an addition by (I think) Max McCall, and it is probably the most significant upgrade after adding Raven’s Crime. With the two other Urborgs it is now reasonable to see one before turn 7, making Raven’s Crime and Demigods into more reasonable threats. Plus you need black mana more than green mana, and Urborg makes your colorless sources into something relevant when you need to activate Volrath’s Stronghold and cast a black spell on the same turn (previously a problem). You can now reliably use Stronghold and evoke a Shriekmaw in the same turn, for example. Raven’s Crime also gives you a use for the extras.

The card I most want now is a cycling land, probably a Lonely Sandbar in place of the third Tropical Island. You run into problems where sometimes you’re using your topdeck lands every turn and therefore cannot bring back Life from the Loam to use Wasteland or Raven’s Crime. The singleton cycling land would make it possible, however unlikely, to dredge Loam, cast it, play a land, put a spell on the top of your library and draw it. There’s a high opportunity cost associated so I’m keeping the recommended build stable for now and testing the change offline.

I know, I know. I talk up my decks a lot because they excite me. Otherwise I’d stop playing them. Still after some disappointing games in person in Voroshstill versus Dreadtill, I knew I had to test this deck against some serious Stifles, and I threw it against UGR Threshold with Stifles. After all, it leans very heavily on 8 fetchlands and its Pernicious Deeds. The testing was very encouraging, and I’m far less hesitant to recommend the deck now. In 10 games, the testing went 50-50. At least one game was lost because I was testing with Smother instead of Diabolic Edict, and at least one game was lost because the UGR deck drew all four Force of Will and a singleton Threads of Disloyalty for Tarmogoyf. In other words, the matchup feels much better than a coin flip; the UGR deck had to get very very lucky and the UGB deck had to get very very unlucky or the matchup would have ended closer to 7-3.

The biggest takeaway from the testing was that the manabase worked, and the deck is therefore viable. The Demigod deck only struggled for the right colors of mana once; it flooded more often than it just could not pull together. The main threats were a Stifle on a crucial Pernicious Deed and untargetable creatures. Consequently it may be time to bring back an old friend: Nevinyrral’s Disk. In Stifle-heavy metagames, Pernicious Deed is a significant liability; Stifle on Disk only buys them a turn instead of a potential game win. And in many matchups where Stifle is a threat the extra turn to play it is not an issue. You basically have four dedicated board control cards in the maindeck that are split between Engineered Explosives (for Ruins), Pernicious Deed, Vedalken Shackles and Nevinyrral’s Disk. There’s almost an art to tweaking them so you only ever get the right ones for your metagame. Considering how focused Legacy has became, they are basically almost all the same card; you can’t always tell if you have the right mix or just something passable, but you will notice if you have the wrong combination of control elements.

Kevin Binswanger

P.S., a friend sent me a link to this deck and it’s ridiculously exciting, but I don’t think I could bring myself to play a deck without Tarmogoyf. To me doing so is just begging to lose to an aggressive Threshold draw backed up by Daze. This list got 3rd at the 1st ICBM Legacy Open; consider making the 4th Fire / Ice another Engineered Explosives or even the first Nevinyrral’s Disk:

1 Academy Ruins
1 Plains
1 Island
2 Polluted Delta
2 Faerie Conclave
3 Volcanic Island
3 Tundra
3 Wasteland
4 Mishra’s Factory
4 Flooded Strand
2 Engineered Explosives
2 Fact or Fiction
2 Crucible of Worlds
3 Orim’s Chant
3 Isochron Scepter
4 Swords to Plowshares
4 Fire / Ice
4 Standstill
4 Brainstorm
4 Counterspell
4 Force of Will

4 Meddling Mage
4 Red Elemental Blast
3 Pyroclasm
2 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Shattering Spree
1 Gaea’s Blessing