Unlocking Legacy — A New Era

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Christopher Coppola reports on his performances at two Legacy events, and discusses the dramatic changes currently taking place in the format. He goes into detail about the development of the GenCon 3rd place deck, and mentions his influence on the winning Threshold list!

I. The Shift is Complete

The last time we looked at competitive Legacy, the format was experiencing a dramatic transition. Goblins’ position was being eroded by continually improving anti-Aggro strategies, but it had not yet fallen from dominance. Combo decks, such as the one utilizing Goblin Charbelcher and Empty the Warrens, were pushing all decks to run fast answers to lethal threats, and generally redefining the benchmarks for disruption. The third deck in my analysis, Threshold, already in a strong position in the format, stood to gain the most from these changes.

In the past, Threshold has had trouble beating Goblins consistently, but enjoyed comfortable matchups against most Combo decks. The changes happening in the format generally improved Threshold’s matchups across the board, but there was another factor that would give this deck a big advantage — new technology. The adoption of two new cards to the deck would give it a massive power boost, and make it the defining deck of American Legacy for the first time.

II. Annandale

On August 4th, there was a Legacy tournament in Annandale, Virginia. I can’t travel as much as I would like to, so I have to pick and choose with Legacy events to attend. There were a few reasons why I decided to go this event. First, it was being held in a Fuddruckers, which meant there would be a nice play environment and access to food during the tournament. Second, there would be some very good players at this event, and the quality of play would be high. Finally, I would get to discuss Legacy with players I don’t usually get to talk to, and begin serious preparations for GenCon with my teammates.

I predicted that this environment would have a high concentration of combo and Aggro-Control decks, so I factored that into my deckbuilding for this tournament. I ran a Red Threshold deck with maindeck Counterbalance.

I had prepared to play Threshold at this event. Several of my teammates decided to play the graveyard-based combo deck Cephalid Breakfast at the last minute. I looked at Brian Diefendorf’s build of the deck the night before, and it looked strong, but I was prepared to play Threshold and I was confident in the deck’s strength.

Round 1: Zuhair with G/R/b Zoo

The previous week, Zuhair won the U.S. Nationals Legacy side event with this deck, so I knew he would be a good opponent with a strong deck.

Game 1: Zuhair plays discard spells, but cannot find the third color of mana, and is not able to resolve a creature through my permission. I take advantage of his stall by attacking with Werebears.
Game 2: He plays an early Kird Ape, which soon runs into a Tarmogoyf. I get Counterbalance down and counter several key spells, including one of his Tarmogoyfs.

Even though losing what seemed like lopsided battles, Zuhair was a gracious opponent and wished me luck in the tournament.

Round 2: Jesse Hatfield with Cephalid Breakfast

I was not sure which deck he was playing since I had not spoken to him the night before, but I guessed incorrectly.

Game 1: He resolves an Aether Vial, and I don’t have a hard counter when he plays a Phyrexian Dreadnought. It resolves and he responds with Vial into the second one on either turn 2 or 3. Despite the 12/12 trampler he now has on the table, I am able to put up just enough resistance with my 5/6 Tarmogoyfs to create an out for myself. If I draw a burn spell and he doesn’t play a blocker, I can chump with the first Tarmogoyf, go down to one life, attack with the second Tarmogoyf, and then burn him out. However, he plays a Narcomoeba and my plan is foiled.
Game 2: I make a mistake when he goes for a Sutured Ghoul, and lose the game.

Round 3: Belcher

Game 1: I play an early Counterbalance and counter all of his mana sources.
Game 2: He resolves a few mana sources, but I play a Counterbalance and counter the draw spells.

Round 4: Phil Stolze with Belcher

Game 1: He resolves a Goblin Charbelcher on turn 1. I respond with Pithing Needle on my turn. He has used up his hand on the Belcher and I am able to gain control of the game.
Game 2: He resolves an early Goblin Charbelcher and I don’t have the Pithing Needle. He Belches me for seventeen damage and I still can’t find an answer, so he activates it again.
Game 3: I have Daze and Counterbalance on the play, and he can’t get through my permission.

Round 5: Bryant Cook with Epic Storm

Game 1: He goes for the Empty the Warrens kill and I don’t have an answer.
Game 2: I get out a Counterbalance and stop a few spells. I answer a few Xantid Swarms and keep my mana open. However, I can’t find a clock and he builds up a lot of mana. Many turns into the game he tries to go off. I forget that I have activated my Sensei’s Divining Top to draw a counter, and think that there is a 2cc spell on top of my library. I fail to reveal to Counterbalance and he generates enough mana to cast Tendrils of Agony.

Round 6: Belcher

This was my third Belcher match and I don’t really remember it. I know that Counterbalance was amazing here just like it was in the other two matchups. I win in two games.

Four Cephalid Breakfast decks make Top 8 at this tournament, with one of them eventually winning. The tournament generates some discussion but not as much as it probably deserved. I made too many mistakes to make the Top 8, but I think Threshold was a good choice for the event and I was generally happy with it. I went 4-2 while making serious mistakes, so I attributed my losses mostly to my play and not the deck.

III. GenCon

After the success of Cephalid Breakfast, I wasn’t sure which deck would be best to bring to Gencon. Alix and Jesse Hatfield both made Top 8 in Annandale, and the deck had many strengths in the current environment. It was very good against other Combo decks since it ran disruption and could race their combo. It could consistently win before turn 3 with the help of draw and mulliganing, and the combo itself was not easy to hate out. Given the relatively low profile the deck had, we decided to work more on the deck and bring it to the championship tournament.

The first change that everyone made was to add Tarmogoyf to the deck instead of the Dreadnoughts. They provided almost as much power to the Sutured Ghoul, but had many other advantages. They were good by themselves, made Vial a much bigger threat, and gave the deck a solid contingency plan — Tarmogoyfs backed up by Force of Will and Cabal Therapy.

Alix suggested replacing the Daze’s in the maindeck with other cards. At first I was hesitant about this because Daze is so strong in the early game, but I realized eventually that the deck has a great early game anyway, and Daze just made the dangerous late game even worse. The removal of Daze made room for the remaining Tarmogoyfs. I wanted to move the Stern Proctor to the sideboard since it usually isn’t useful game 1. I had wanted to add the fourth Nomads en-Kor since I picked up the deck, so we put that in its place.

The sideboard was improved as well. Duress and Abeyance were both key cards against permission and removal spells, so they stayed. We added Dark Confidants to supplement the draw of the deck and synergize with Portent, Brainstorm, and Worldly Tutor. These were good sometimes, but I’m not sure if they were the best use of that space since they ended up conflicting with the decks game plan in many situations. The remaining slots went to Crippling Fatigue to answer Meddling Mage when comboing out, and Echoing Truth to bounce whatever problematic cards were being played as well as trump Empty the Warrens if we encountered it.

Although the Annandale tournament was very soon before GenCon, we were a little concerned about playing it in the preliminary byes tournament in case people picked up on it and increased their preparation for the deck in the championships. We decided to play Threshold in the preliminary tournament.

I moved the Counterbalances to the sideboard because I was expecting less mirror matches at the tournament. I added Stifles because I was still a little worried about combo decks executing early before I could get Counterbalance going.

My memory of the convention is very blurry since I played twenty-three long rounds of Magic over three days on about four hours of sleep each night. The event organization was poor at times, as there were numerous long delays and the tournaments lasted a long time. The preliminary Legacy event ended four hours before the championship event began, meaning that the Top 8 ended around 6am. I was incredibly tired. I took notes on some of these matchups but they did not survive the trip. I can’t remember enough of the championship to write a report, but I vaguely remember the preliminary event:

Round 1: G/R/b Survival

Game 1: I counter a Survival of the Fittest and play cheap creatures.
Game 2: He plays several discard spells but I am able to recover through draw and win the game.

Round 2: Epic Storm

Game 1: He attempts to disrupt me but I have the Lightning Bolt for his Xantid Swarm. He can’t put a backup plan together before my creatures win the game.
Game 2: Ancient Grudge out of the sideboard destroys several mana sources, which makes my Dazes even better and prevent him from generating sufficient mana.

Round 3: U/G Threshold, Peter Olszewski

Game 1: Peter uses Wasteland several times to disrupt my mana development. This plan ends up working for him as he draws seven or eight creatures to my two, and simply swarms for the win.
Game 2: I get an early Counterbalance and Peter has a Werebear. He starts the Wasteland plan again, but it slows him down as well as he can’t draw enough blue mana. He goes for a Krosan Grip at the end of one of my turns. I reveal the top card expecting only to set up a Predict, but find a Krosan Grip, which saves my Counterbalance. Soon after I find more mana and win the game.
Game 3: I get a Sensei’s Divining Top along with my Counterbalance this time. I keep his creatures from resolving, and manage to counter his Threads of Disloyalty by keeping a Krosan Grip on top of my library.

Lam Phan came over to watch the match sometime in game 2. After it was over the three of us discussed their build of the deck. I was shocked when Lam told me that he included only twelve Blue sources in the deck, and I expressed my concern about this being far too inconsistent for tournament play. They were also impressed with the strength of Counterbalance in the mirror, and I recommended that they include it in their build. They agreed that it was a very strong card and worth investigating.

Round 4: UGR Threshold, Alix Hatfield

While I was taking advantage of Goblins’ power in Legacy over the past couple of years, Alix has been honing his Aggro-Control game, specifically with Red Threshold. We are playing almost the same list, as we worked on them together before the tournament. I have been playing the deck for a much shorter time, and I expected Alix to have an advantage given his experience.

Game 1: I think we just trade draw spells and counters in the early game. He taps out for Fledgling Dragon, which I Daze. The next turn he plays a second one which I am completely surprised by and don’t have a counter for. I cast Pithing Needle, which would obviously name Fledgling Dragon, but Alix casts Force of Will to set up a win in two turns. I lose two turns later.
Game 2: I get an acceptable hand, while Alix’s is better. He plays a Sensei’s Divining Top, and then a Counterbalance. Then he plays a second Counterbalance. My only chance of winning is for him to become short on mana, which would allow me to force through a Krosan Grip. He is desperately trying to find a Krosan Grip of his own to keep on top, and this prevents him from playing any threats. All of my attempts to play around his lock are foiled and I can’t assemble a good plan. Eventually he gets a second Sensei’s Divining Top and just goes for the kill.

Round 5: Vial Goblins, Mike Tyrpin

I gave Mike some sideboarding advice the night before. It was disappointing to have to play against two people in the same room as myself at such a large tournament.

Game 1: Mike gets an early Aether Vial which I don’t have Force of Will for. I draw a lot of cards but I never find an answer to it.
Game 2: I sideboard in my Pyroclasms and my Ancient Grudges. I manage to draw relevant cards this time around, but Mike has the better plan of Rishadan Port, which lets him resolve two Goblin Ringleaders.

Round 6: Elves

Game 1: I am not sure what I am playing against when he opens with Llanowar Elf, but the Priest of Titania gives it away. I’m actually not sure how I’m supposed to play against this deck and let him resolve a morph. He then flips it on his next attack step and his elves become huge and kill me.
Game 2: I board in Pyroclasms and burn his mana creatures.
Game 3: I play much the same as game 2, keeping him off of creature-based mana and forcing him to chump.

Round 7: UG Threshold, Lam Phan

Lam watched my match with Peter, and knows that Counterbalance is a huge problem for him in this match.

Game 1: He plays well with Stifle and Spell Snare but he can’t find his second Blue source. He is not able to counter all of my threats and they win the game quickly.
Game 2: Being on the play with mana disruption is much stronger, and his position in the early game is very good. I don’t draw a counterbalance so I have to play Tarmogoyfs to block his creatures. I see a window to attack and force him on the defensive, but he is holding more creatures in his hand and he counterattacks for the win a few turns later.
Game 3: I resolve an early Counterbalance, which makes it difficult for him to resolve threats. He does not have enough mana to play around my Counterbalance. It counters several spells and he is not able to recover.

After this match we discuss his build some more. He definitely agrees that Counterbalance should be in the sideboard. I mention again that twelve sources might be a source of trouble, but Lam says something about living on the edge.

Alix and Jesse both make the Top 8 of this tournament, which starts at around 3am. I am already exhausted, and I decide to get some sleep instead of watching the end of the tournament. As it turns out, they made it to the finals and the judge made them play it out to decide who got the byes. Alix ended up winning the match, and Jesse was rewarded with no byes and around two hours of sleep before the championships.

The championship was eight rounds and my notes are severely lacking. We all played the same build of Cephalid Breakfast that we had worked on before the tournament:

I had a pretty bad day with this deck at the tournament. In the first round I played against an R/G deck with Umezawa’s Jitte and lots of burn spells, and I could not go off through it. He sideboarded in Tormod’s Crypt and I couldn’t put together enough redundant combo pieces to make it happen.

I also lost to a fish deck with Umezawa’s Jitte, Swords to Plowshares, Duress, and sideboard Engineered Explosives and Vedalken Shackles. I played Lam Phan again, and we drew the match. There were a lot of random matchups and I didn’t mulligan aggressively enough with this deck. I am sure that the average power level of the hands it can provide is higher than the ones I kept, but I was not familiar enough with the deck to know when to try again. The deck is also awkward at times, and there is probably room for improvement in the tutor engine.

My teammates were more successful. Alix Hatfield was in contention until the later rounds when he lost to Mike Bomholt playing his deck, Il-Gotten Gains, with maindeck Leyline of the Void, which is a big problem for Breakfast. Jesse Hatfield went undefeated in the swiss rounds. He beat Ichorid in the Top 8 in a very short combo match, and then lost to turn 1 Wasteland lock from 42 lands. Look for a report in the near future from Jesse about his 2nd and 3rd place finishes in the preliminary and championship events.

I spoke with Lam Phan and Peter Olzsewsky at the Vintage event, and congratulated them both on their success. They told me they ran two additional Blue sources and sideboarded the Counterbalances, largely based on they matches they played with me. The changes worked out very well for them!

IV. The New Legacy

The Top 8 of the tournament contained four Threshold decks. I don’t have tournament composition statistics, but I doubt the deck comprised more than 20% of the tournament, and likely less than this. Its success at the event is a testament to the strength of the cards, and their consistency in working together every game. Individually, the cantrips and Threshold creatures are very good together, but having so many options for disruption and answers allows the deck focus on the weaknesses of other decks and capitalize on every tempo skip in the opponent’s development. Threshold would be an amazing deck in this environment already, but Tarmogoyf and Counterbalance make it even stronger.

One interesting effect of Threshold’s strength is the room for Control decks to enter the format. Combo and Threshold being popular and powerful decks makes the design challenge of Control much easier, and will certainly result in Landstill variants becoming more focused in the future. If the GenCon tournament is any indication, Landstill will be able to capitalize on Threshold’s success as long as it can maintain a respectable Combo matchup.

The rise of Legacy Combo and its inevitable repercussions have been anticipated for a long time. Currently the format is benefiting greatly from attention and innovation. I expect this trend to continue as pro players prepare for the Worlds tournament and give Control and Combo archetypes healthy redevelopment.

Christopher Coppola