Unlocking Legacy – Black Threshold, Part I

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Christopher Coppola describes the development process of Threshold during the last few months, both due to format changes and strong new cards. He also reports on his finals split from Day 2 of the Mana Leak Open III, and introduces the new Black Threshold deck.

I. A Change of Pace

I have played and worked on the Threshold archetype a few times over the course of Legacy, but my formal and serious development of the deck began in May of this year, after I retired Goblins as my tournament deck of choice. I have already explained in detail my reasons for doing so. I considered several decks as replacements, but I suspected from the beginning I would end up with Threshold. Threshold has been competitive from the beginning of the format, and it has been a design target of mine since before Grand Prix: Philadelphia. Afterwards, it was second only to Goblins in importance. (Threshold was one of the main decks I had in mind when I designed Angel Stax, since I expected Legacy players to adopt that deck quickly and alter the competitive tournament landscape. That didn’t happen, and Goblins remained a successful deck).

I had played White Threshold in tournaments before but it had some problems with slower decks. I remember having difficulty beating RGB Survival when I played an old White list in mid-2005. I was also well aware of the difficulty White Threshold could have in beating Goblins, especially since the sideboard was not very strong for that matchup. I spent some time thinking about how to make the deck work with Black, but Red and White had much stronger cards for removal, finishers, and sideboarding, and I specifically didn’t think Duress was good enough. The first Threshold list I started tinkering with was Red, because the sideboard for that deck was amazing, and it was able to manage at least an even Goblins matchup as well as a very good Combo matchup.

My understanding of theory of this deck was helped immensely by my teammates. Their substantial tournament experience with the archetype allowed me to quickly learn the fundamental design rules and the dynamics of the decks strategy.

II. Design Questions

I had two major problems with the design of Red Threshold when I first began to work on it:

1) Expensive finishers.
2) Situational answers.

The first problem I had with the deck was the threat base, namely Fledgling Dragon. It is very good against Aggro-Control decks, but I never really liked it against Goblins or Combo decks. Red mana is already at a priority against Goblins, and getting two untapped Volcanic Islands during your main phase was a frustrating proposition. My immediate comparison of this card was to Mystic Enforcer, which was of course unfavorable. The size of Enforcer does make a slight difference against Goblins (and other Aggro-Control decks), but my complaint was the mana cost. Mystic Enforcer costs two different off-colors, one of which could be provided by Werebear, two small advantages that I felt made it much easier to cast and use.

The color requirements weren’t even as serious as the total cost – Threshold decks of any color ran finishers that cost four. This always bothered me because the deck wanted to play a land-light game and keep mana open for disruption.

The removal was another problem. Threshold has typically run four creature removal spells, and some other form of general removal such as Pithing Needle. I liked the creature removal, but I hated Pithing Needle. It was good when your opponent cast Aether Vial and you had time to respond and Daze their threats, but even against those decks it wasn’t good all of the time. I have blown up countless Pithing Needles while playing Goblins, and this made me a little worried about relying on it, although it was still strong in combination with Pyroclasm. Against cards not named Aether Vial, it was much worse, and I didn’t like running an answer which varied so much in relevance over common matchups.

Swords to Plowshares was also a little bit better than Lightning Bolt at the time. After Future Sight was released, this obviously became much more important. However, I still preferred Red Threshold due to the large improvements the deck made in games 2 and 3 against many decks.

III. Future Sight Problems

The prevalence and strength of Tarmogoyf led me to consider serious changes in the design of Threshold. One of the questions I had was about the viability of Nimble Mongoose in an environment where everyone’s deck had two-mana 3/4s in it. I knew Threshold had to have very good answers for Tarmogoyf, and I didn’t like the idea of having inferior threats. I think Werebear is a very good card, and I wasn’t quite sure why people were cutting him simply because a better card had been printed. Werebear was still good, and it had two advantages in the scenario it was imagining: first, it would be able to beat 3/4 Tarmogoyfs, and second, it would be able to beat the 3/3 Mongeese that other Threshold decks might be playing. This sounded good enough to me to play Werebear in a few tournaments, but in the end the answers to the Tarmogoyf problem lay elsewhere in the decks design. Nimble Mongoose is the replacement for Werebear, not Tarmogoyf.

To address the problem of the cost of the creature base, I began investigating three-mana threats. I thought that this was the optimal cost for a finisher, and I was sure there were creatures good enough to warrant inclusion in the deck. After substantial discussion, a card that I became very interested in was Terravore. My reasoning was that in the late game he would be even bigger than the flyers, and that he would dominate Tarmogoyfs and even push through damage with trample. In Legacy decks, eight fetchlands is very common, four Wastelands is common, and many decks have ways of putting lands into the graveyard: Life from the Loam decks cycle them there, Threshold decks Predict them there, Landstill decks run factories to block with, and some decks even mill themselves completely. I never got the opportunity to test this plan due to other designs.

As for the non-creature removal, I decided that I’d had enough of Pithing Needle and I was going to try something else. At Gencon, I had a long discussion with Alix and Jesse about how to redesign Threshold, starting from the beginning. One of the viable ideas was to use Seal of Primordium in the place of Pithing Needle. In testing, it was basically as effective as Pithing Needle against Aether Vial, since it cost slightly more but was not answerable. It was also much better against other decks. It pre-emptively answered Standstill and Crucible of Worlds, and could even answer Pernicious Deed in some situations. It pre-emptively answered Counterbalance and Survival of the Fittest, and answered some problematic cards such as Umezawa’s Jitte and Chalice of the Void. I was happy with the change, but I think the more important lesson was that this removal wasn’t quite as important to the deck as it used to be.

Another parallel development that was occurring at this time was my interest in Counterbalance. At the Annandale tournament I replaced Counterspell with Counterbalance in the maindeck, a change which I felt was natural and I ended up being very happy. This change was of course dependent on the rest of the format evolving, but I had already observed and analyzed these changes and I was confident it was the right move. I believed at the time that Counterbalance would become a staple in the maindeck of Threshold decks, and that seems to be occurring.

IV. Lorwyn Solutions

When I first read the spoiler for Lorwyn I was both surprised at the cards, and excited about the effect they would have on Legacy. I knew Thoughtseize and Ponder were both amazing cards and would be heavily played in this format. I was also anticipating the adoption of several other cards from the set, including Thorn of Amethyst, Gaddock Teeg, and Boggart Mob, but they were not on the same power level as the first two.

I was very interested in Thoughtseize and its effects on the format, but I couldn’t tell right away how much it had to offer Threshold. I knew it would be amazing in decks such as Red Death and The Epic Storm, but I couldn’t really imagine the implications for the whole format. Partially this was because I didn’t believe the format was advancing as fast as I thought it should be. I have historically made the mistake of assuming the format develops more quickly than it does, and this has been disastrous for me at times, such as day one of the last StarCityGames.com Duel for Duals tournament in Roanoke in October 2006. However, I have begun to adjust to this, and I now am more skeptical about fast developments in Legacy, although I think the pace of development is speeding up.

There may be an exception to this rule because of a powerful card that has had a much bigger effect than I understood when I first started playing with it. Counterbalance is just as much of a format-defining card as Tarmogoyf, and I will give players the benefit of the doubt in terms of adaptation when the amount of hype and hysteria surrounding new developments affects even the least-experienced players in the community. Counterbalance generates significant card advantage and is powerful enough that it can become a proxy battle for the fight over Tarmogoyf advantage. Assuming this makes it much easier to understand just how important Thoughtseize is.

This pretty much fell into place when Alix casually offered the following scenario: turn 1 Thoughtseize, turn 2 Counterbalance. A Top 8 play of GP: Columbus immediately came to mind, which I think was the first turn of a match between Steve Sadin and Ryan Trepanier. On the draw, Ryan casts Duress on his first turn. Steve responds with Daze, and Ryan Dazes back, forcing through his Duress. Ryan won the game shortly after. They were fighting over Flash, but in this scenario the dynamics are extremely similar. Thoughtseize is a dangerous card to play against if you are trying to resolve Counterbalance, and at the same time it’s a good card to have if you are trying to stop someone else’s.

The value of Thoughtseize is clear in the above scenario, but the strength of Thoughtseize is that it’s not just restricted to plays where Duress would have been equivalent. Thoughtseize also takes Tarmogoyfs or Goblin Lackeys before your opponent gets to play them. Thoughtseize takes Goblin Ringleaders and Cephalid Illusionists before they can be Aether Vialed onto the board. Thoughtseize performs a function very similar to Daze in the early game, while at the same time being useful in the late game.

I still didn’t really feel the power of Thoughtseize until I played with it, but I was aware of its potential to change the way Threshold functioned.

V. Mana Leak Open III

Before this tournament, much of my deck was up in the air. I knew I was going to be playing with maindeck Counterbalance, but I hadn’t really decided what color I wanted to play. I was leaning towards White, but I didn’t want to have to rely on Tividar’s Crusade if I played against Goblins. I was also thinking about Red, but I didn’t really like the idea of playing with Fledgling Dragon again. Then shortly before the tournament, Alix told me about a new list that he had taken to a tournament the week before. It had Counterbalance, Thoughtseize, and the amazing Sea Drake.

I had watched Sea Drake prices explode when people started playing Legacy, but the best utilization of the card until now seemed to be in Faerie Stompy, which was too inconsistent for my tastes despite being a deck that played maindeck Chalice of the Void and Umezawa’s Jitte (two cards which I love in this format). Alix and Jesse played Sea Drake in their Threshold lists at GP: Philadelphia, but stopped using it afterwards, likely because of the prevalence of Lightning Bolt, Gempalm Incinerator, and other larger flyers like Mystic Enforcer.

I immediately loved the deck, even though I made some changes when I played it in Stratford. Having a three-mana threat was exactly what I wanted, and it being Blue was a nice addition. The deck was also lacking any non-creature removal, which was another bonus. This was slightly concerning at first, but as it turns out Counterbalance and Thoughtseize strongly assume the role of general answers and they are very good at it.

The first change I made was to go back up to seventeen lands, as I wasn’t comfortable with just sixteen. I made no other maindeck changes for Day 1 of the tournament:

Day 1, Round 1: Belcher
I don’t really remember this matchup, except that my deck is very good against Combo and he plays cards like Land Grant which let me know exactly what to counter. I win 2-0.

Day 1, Round 2: Goblins
Game 1: He plays Goblin Lackey on the play. I play Polluted Delta and pass the turn. He attacks, and I cast Ghastly Demise. He plays a Goblin Piledriver. On my turn I play a Tarmogoyf. He is forced to play for the late game and I am able to attack through his creatures.

Game 2: I don’t remember much except I resolved an Engineered Plague.

Day 1, Round 3: Mirror, Jesse Hatfield
I don’t want to play against Jesse for a host of reasons, but it’s not as bad as him playing his brother both days at this tournament.

Game 1: I get an early Counterbalance.

Game 2: I think he gets a Counterbalance.

Game 3: We run out of time.

Day 1, Round 4: Permanent Waves, Anwar Ahmad
I have been working with Anwar on his deck for some time now, and we both know it’s a horrible matchup for him.

Game 1: I play all my disruption and he ends up with no cards in hand at one point, while I have Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top.

Game 2: Basically the same as game 1.

Day 1, Round 5: GW Survival
Game 1: He doesn’t resolve Survival and I attack through his creatures.

Game 2: He gets Survival going and I can’t answer infinite Tarmogoyfs.

Game 3: We run out of time.

Day 1, Round 6: GW Elephant Stompy
No matter what deck I am playing, I always seem to lose to Zoo decks. This matchup is already not looking good for me.

Game 1: He resolves a Loxodon Hierarch and gets a Sword of Light and Shadow on it. That has protection from Black.

Game 2: I attack with two Tarmogoyfs and a Nimble Mongoose and counter his creatures.

Game 3: He gets two Loxodon Hierarchs and I draw nothing.

So I lose the match to get into the Top 8, and GW Elephant Stompy goes instead. I am utterly confused by the Top 8, but I resolve not to make as many mistakes on Day 2. I also decided I need the third Sea Drake and the fourth Ghastly Demise, which I add to the deck.

Day 2, Round 1: Goblins, Bennet Toms
I know Bennett from tournaments in Roanoke and Richmond. He is a deceptively good player, and I know he is playing a goblins deck developed by my teammate Eric Darland.

Game 1: He opens with Aether Vial, and I don’t have a counter. I play a Tarmogoyf at some point early on. He develops his mana and starts tutoring for Ringleaders, and I play a second Tarmogoyf. After a while he has enough creatures to alpha strike, and makes a savage topdeck that ends the game. I block with both Tarmogoyfs, and he Vials in another creature and cycles Gempalm Incinerator to kill the first one. He draws Swords to Plowshares and kills the second Tarmogoyf. I have no defense and lose.

Game 2: I play turn 1 Thoughtseize, taking I think Goblin Lackey. He topdecks Goblin Lackey and plays it. I play a Tarmogoyf to stall him, and he is light on mana and I am able to capitalize. I play Engineered Plague and attack thought his small creatures.

Game 3: He gets an early Aether Vial. I draw into a Krosan Grip, and try to get up to three mana to cast it. I Ponder away the second Krosan Grip looking for land, but after I shuffle I draw it anyway. He then plays a second Aether Vial. He is playing his deck optimally, and waits until the end of my turn to use Aether Vials, so I am able to take advantage of split second. During my turn, I Krosan Grip the higher Aether Vial, and pass to him. He increments the second Aether Vial and passes the turn. On my turn I Krosan Grip the second Aether Vial, preventing him from making any big drops off them. With his mana engine destroyed, I am able to counter the rest of his spells and win the game.

Day 2, Round 2: Breakfast
Game 1: He has the early combo but I have counterspells. My Tarmogoyfs attack through his weenies.

Game 2: I get Counterbalance and two Sea Drakes, and use Brainstorm to set the top card of my library.

Day 2, Round 3: Landstill
Game 1: I Ghastly Demise several of his lands, and attack with large Tarmogoyfs.

Game 2: I have the game wrapped up, but forget about my low life total and attack him when he can counterstrike for lethal.

Game 3: I have Counterbalance out, and that stops several of his attempts to draw answers. At one point he casts Brainstorm, and I reveal off of Counterbalance, showing Sea Drake. I am going to kill him next turn, so he has to cast the Pernicious Deed in case I forget to reveal. I don’t throw the game away this time, and win.

Day 2, Round 4: White Threshold
Game 1: I get an early Counterbalance.

Game 2: He plays Gaddock Teeg on turn 2, which allows me to resolve Counterbalance on my turn 2 with double Daze backup.

Day 2, Round 5: ID

Day 2, Round 6: ID

Day 2, Top 8: Cephalid Breakfast, Jesse Krieger
Game 1: I have enough disruption to stop his early combo, and I am able to attack for the win shortly thereafter.

Game 2: I play terribly and allow the game to drag on forever. I have Yixlid Jailers out, but he has enough guys to block and prevent the damage from my creatures. I have to draw into more removal in order to attack through with Sea Drakes. At one point, I Force of Will a hardcast Narcomoeba, which he then gets back with Dread Return (!). However, I find the third Sea Drake and attack through for enough.

Day 2. Top 4: Goblins, Jeff Folinus
Jeff is a very good Goblins player, and I remember losing the mirror to him back in March. After already defeating Goblins twice in the last two days with this deck, I am confident that I can win, but I know it is going to be tough.

Game 1: Jeff mulligans, and keeps one land, Aether Vial, Goblin Warchief, two Goblin Ringleaders, and a Siege-Gang Commander. I Thoughtseize him on my turn, taking Goblin Warchief. With his late game-strategy clearly revealed, I am able to go on the attack, casting two Tarmogoyfs and being very aggressive. His life total drops quickly, but I am not able to kill him before Siege-Gang Commanders start coming into play. I attack every turn as possible, using Ghastly Demise to kill his creatures on my turn and prevent him from untapping with them in play. He only has three lands in play, which strands the second Ringleader in his hand and prevents him from activating Siege-Gang Commander twice. On the key turn of the game, Jeff is at four life, and I attack with two 4/5 Tarmogofys and a 3/3 Nimble Mongoose. He blocks and loses everything but one Siege-Gang, and I lose a Tarmogoyf and the Nimble Mongoose. I flip the top and draw the Ghastly Demise I kept on top to kill his third and final Siege-Gang, clearing his board and stopping his late-game plan. I win the game a few turns later.

Game 2: This game Jeff starts out with Leyline of the Void, but I soon resolve an Engineered Plague, and he is not able to block my creatures as effectively. He destroys my Black source, stranding the Ghastly Demises in my hand, but I am able to keep casting creatures. He isn’t able to block effectively due to the Plague’s effect, and my creatures get through.

Day 2, Finals:
Brian and I ID as we want to get back to Brooklyn at a reasonable hour, and we are happy to split evenly the sum of 520 points in Ray’s store.

Overall, I was extremely happy with the deck. I love the complementary disruption, the cost of the threats, and the strategic flexibility the deck has now. There is much more to discuss about this deck, and I will do that in the second part of this article.

Christopher Coppola