Unlocking Legacy – Building a New Legacy

Read Legacy articles every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
Chris takes a look at deckbuilding in the new format, and discusses some of the reasons for the changes taking place. He talks about the shift in power between Goblins and Threshold, and some of the consequences this has on design. Also included is a Landstill decklist!

I. A New Battlefield

Over the past three years, Legacy has evolved from an ambiguous and amateur format to something much more dynamic and competitive. Many medium-sized tournaments have been held around the world, but there has been only one tournament large enough to be truly format-defining. In fact, the innovations in this tournament were ahead of their time, and it took other competitive environments a long time to catch up. Grand Prix: Lille provided new developments that are still being adopted in the most competitive decks.

Legacy continues to struggle with a clear identity because of localization, but the World Championship this year demonstrated that the format has overcome major obstacles to advancement. Legacy is now defined by new threats and strategies, and the standards for design have changed drastically.

Even at the height of its popularity and success, I have always said about Goblins that it was a challenge the format had to solve for itself were it ever to achieve legitimacy and consistency. The change was gradual and came from multiple sources, but it was always accumulating. The quality and strength of decks has slowly but steadily improved and this has made a big difference. The effective deckbuilding and innovation of many players has finally brought Legacy a stable and competitive design environment, and this has really improved the flexibility and consistency of the format.

II. Goblins’ Retreat

There are several coincidental changes occurring in the format, but the most recognizable one is the rapid retreat of Goblins from a dominant position. This change has been anticipated and assisted by players for a long time, but its consequences are only now being explored in detail.

The first major consequence is that the focus of deck design is no longer on first turn threats. Together, the consistency and speed of Goblins were responsible for improving all the decks in the format by forcing them to play efficient cards and consistent strategies, and this was very constructive. However, the popularity of the deck put extreme emphasis on removal, even leading to the creation of several decks that were basically only viable in Goblin-saturated environments. These decks were more successful than hate decks should be, and they represented the factors that Legacy design had to accommodate. As this pressure is being removed, different strategies are becoming the targets of design.

The card pool is very deep and there are plenty of options available for countering Goblins’ strategy, but there was no room for failure in this regard and many decks had trouble balancing these demands with those presented by the other decks in the format. The entire Control archetype failed to succeed in competitive environments, where the threats were too diverse and fast for a consistent counter-strategy to be possible. Goblins’ combination of aggressive tempo generation and land destruction required that Control decks become Aggro-hate decks, which proved unable to handle strong Combo and various Aggro-Control strategies. Legacy is still diverse, and faster than ever, but the severe limitation on Control’s answers is no longer present. Other factors contribute to the increasing viability of Control, which I will discuss later.

Another consequence of Goblins’ declining popularity is the reduced pressure on manabases to rely on basic lands. For a period of about two years, there was a high probability that Wasteland and Rishadan Port would attack your manabase multiple times during competitive events. Basic lands became a common solution to this problem, and many decks ran fetchland configurations that could access multiple basic lands to prevent color-screw due to land disruption. Decks that could function on lower land counts employed these tactics anyway to ensure a secure manabase, but decks that relied on more robust mana development and expensive spells were often at a severe disadvantage, because Goblins’ is also capable of destroying creatures and artifacts designed to supplement this process. In fact, mana denial was a significant reason why Goblins succeeded for so long. Avoiding the problem of mana-disruption often meant restricting the design process and rejecting designs that depended on more vulnerable manabases. The solutions to this problem lowered mana curves across the format, and even if they failed to overcome Goblins, the improved manabases are still going to be very important after this pressure has receded.

Even though Goblins is significantly weakened, there will be some very strong tools available to this deck in the next two sets, Lorwyn and Morningtide. Goblins with a Black splash will be able to take advantage of both old and new cards to attempt to address the weaknesses of the deck in the current format.

III. Threshold’s Advance

Threshold has been a strong deck from the early days of the format, but suffered from a poor Goblins matchup as the earliest versions of the deck used Meddling Mage and no sideboard Pyroclasms. However, the pro players at Lille knew they needed better plans to beat Goblins, and they came through with Worship, Pyroclasm, Chill, and even Galina’s Knight. These tools were more than enough to defeat the Goblins decks, and for one event in late 2005 the format was about winning the Threshold mirror.

The ideas and development highlighted at Lille were only slowly adopted in American tournaments, and it took some time for Threshold decks to emerge that took advantage of the best available technology. During this time Threshold pilots struggled to beat Goblins, and questioned how to design their decks properly. Threshold suffered from an inaccurate reputation against Goblins due to the lack of publicized tournament analysis and rigorous development, and Goblins continued to exploit the suboptimal decks and inexperienced pilots of Threshold until late in 2006. The deck was relatively popular due to its consistency and ability to reward experienced players, but it wasn’t comparable in power to Goblins unless it was built properly to handle the deck post-board. However, the image of Threshold began to change in late 2006, due in part to the printing of some new Combo cards, among them Empty the Warrens.

As with Goblins’ decline, there are several contributing factors to the increase in Threshold’s popularity. The major one is probably the dissemination of proper construction methods, which is made possible by an increasingly predictable metagame in many areas. Another significant factor is the increased diversity, speed, and popularity of many kinds of combo decks, against which Threshold typically has favorable matchups. The decline in popularity of Goblins has probably contributed to more people learning how to play the deck, but the Goblins matchup itself is not an obstacle to Threshold’s success.

As these phenomena occur simultaneously, it is easy to confuse cause and effect. One common misconception about Threshold is that it is successful due to the printing of new cards, in particular Tarmogoyf. The new cards do change the deck, but they are not responsible for the deck becoming stronger in the format.

Tarmogoyf has replaced Werebear in most builds of Threshold, due to its resistance to removal. However, it is not necessarily true that this change makes Threshold better in the format.

First, Tarmogoyf is being added to quite a number of other decks. Whereas Werebear is a card that only Threshold can take advantage of, thereby having a monopoly on 4/4s for two mana, Tarmogoyf is a common threat in other decks. This doesn’t make Threshold stronger, it makes it weaker. The creature efficiency it once enjoyed is no longer an advantage, as any deck can run Tarmogoyfs, and they will be just as big as the Threshold player’s Tarmogoyfs. Being bigger than both Nimble Mongoose and Werebear, this actually makes attacking for the win a more difficult prospect for Threshold.

Second, the Goblins matchup was not problematic enough to account for the lack of successful Threshold decks. Even if it were a bad matchup, Tarmogoyf isn’t powerful enough to change it on its own. Tarmogoyf does improve the Goblins matchup for Threshold, but Goblins was already on the decline because of previous changes in the format. Tarmogoyf being better against Goblins is a nice addition to the deck, but that fact is not responsible for the shifts in strength or popularity between these decks. By far the card that has changed this matchup the most is Pyroclasm.

Finally, Tarmogoyf only became legal in Legacy four months ago. Threshold had experienced much change in success and popularity before this, so it is not possible that Tarmogoyf could have motivated this change.

Many decks run Tarmogoyf, but none of them are as strong as Threshold is now. It is worth asking what qualities Threshold has that make it superior.

One classic reason why Threshold is a good deck is because all if its effects are undercosted. The countermagic is mostly free, creatures at Threshold cost much less than they should, and it plays spells that provide powerful effects for their mana cost, like Brainstorm and Swords to Plowshares.

Another good reason would be that Threshold functions with fewer lands in play, allowing it to play more spells in the maindeck, which means it will draw more spells over the course of a game. This is certainly one reason why Xerox-inspired decks have succeeded in professional tournaments. The cantrip base of the deck has many other advantages as well, such as ensuring the proper ratio of threats and answers, and allowing the deck to execute a very consistent strategy.

However, there is another reason that I think may account for Threshold’s strength specifically in the Legacy format. If you analyze the most popular or successful decks from previous eras in Legacy, you will find that almost all of them have a weak spot that other decks can focus on and exploit with a particular strategy or set of cards. For Landstill, it was land destruction. For Solidarity, it was cheap disruption spells. For Goblins, it was artifact removal and light sweepers. However, I don’t believe that Threshold has such a weakness. The only area which was effectively exploited by hate cards was the Threshold mechanic itself, meaning the graveyard could be removed via Tormod’s Crypt or something like it. However, this was never a complete solution, and now it is barely a solution at all. Nimble Mongoose and Tarmogoyf are both likely to survive an attack on this piece of the deck, which is more than enough to make the strategy unviable.

Threshold does not have a specific engine, and there is no way to focus hate cards in such a way that the deck will suffer overall. Each card in the deck is highly synergistic with each other card, and they rely enough on their combined effect that it is very difficult to combat the deck without restricting one’s own gameplan.

One traditional method, which I have always found excellent, has been the use of Chalice of the Void set at one to counter most of the draw spells and a few other cards in the deck. Of course, this requires your deck’s mana curve be designed to start at two mana, an idea which I thought would become viable much earlier in the format’s development (but GP: Lille did not catch on as soon I thought). Another method is the use of Counterbalance, which is mostly used to dominate the mirror match, but which does have good uses against Combo decks. However, this also requires that your deck has a similar mana curve and color commitment to Threshold, which means you are probably better off just playing Threshold in the first place.

Legacy is of the right speed and power level to make Threshold’s cards and strategy effective in almost any competitive environment.

This is the latest version of the Red Threshold deck I have been playing recently. The Portents are excellent, but will probably be replaced by the Lorwyn cantrip that speeds up the draw effect. The sideboard is designed for a mixed metagame, and it has tools to deal with Aggro, Aggro-Control, and Control. The Combo matchup is very good to begin with, but depending on the deck it can sometimes benefit from the artifact removal in the sideboard. Here are some basic sideboarding guidelines:

-3 Counterspell
-1 Lightning Bolt
-2 Fledgling Dragon
+4 Pyroclasm
+2 Ancient Grudge

This matchup has already received much attention and analysis. The strategy here is to answer Aether Vial with Pithing Needle and Ancient Grudge, and then burn away the critical Goblins with Pyroclasm and Lightning Bolt. Act to preserve your life total so you can win the race when you finally cast large creatures.

-4 Lightning Bolt
-3 Pithing Needle
+4 Counterbalance
+3 Krosan Grip

Counterbalance is the focus of the mirror. This matchup is complicated, but your strategy should be to counter the opponent’s Predicts, Counterbalances, and creature-stealing effects they may have sided in. If you are playing against a version with Wasteland, you will have to stop their early threats, either through counters or superior blocking.

-4 Lightning Bolt
-3 Pithing Needle
-2 Daze
+4 Counterbalance
+3 Krosan Grip
+2 Blood Moon

Landstill has effective tools for forcing the late-game, so you must choose between a risky early race or saving your best cards for the late game. In game 1 I think you are better off pressuring them to take control of the board and taking risks with overextension. After sideboarding, your plan depends on the enchantments that resolve on either side of the table. Blood Moon is a game-breaking card, so protect it and bait with other strong cards before you cast it. Counterbalance is good as well, but its best used as tool to resolve Blood Moon. Pernicious Deed is somewhat of a problem as they will leave it open, but you can force them to break it by threatening with Krosan Grip.

Cephalid Breakfast:
-1 Counterspell
-1 Nimble Mongoose
-2 Fledgling Dragon
+4 Counterbalance

This matchup is complicated as well, but Aether Vial and Counterbalance are pretty important. If you can answer Aether Vial with Pithing Needle, they will have to play through your permission. They have good sideboard cards for this purpose, but Counterbalance solves this problem. Counterbalance also allows you to shut off Cabal Therapies, as it is a permanent and is easy to set at one. There are also a lot of subtle plays one can make if you pay attention, such as using Predict to counter Worldly Tutor, or leaving a Fledgling Dragon on top of your library to counter Dread Return with Counterbalance.

IV. Control’s Return

A fast Aggro deck with heavy land destruction elements can certainly cause trouble for Control decks, and its decline has given them significantly more room to execute strategies for taking control of the game. Additionally, the rise of Aggro-Control decks gives Control another advantage, as its removal and recursion can be leveraged against slower threats without risking defeat via tempo loss.

Landstill is one of the more popular candidates for this return, and quite a bit of development has been done on this deck. At the moment, the deck makes use of some very strong enchantments and has a lot of potential.

One of the strongest additions to popular Landstill decks is Pernicious Deed, which gives the deck an effective reset button if it can survive long enough to use it. With help from Stifle to protect dual lands, this is an effective strategy against different amounts of land disruption.

In an environment without Goblins, Standstill goes from very bad to good. With significantly less pressure from turn 1 threats, Landstill can attempt to counter the opponent’s early permanents, and then play a Standstill, enabling a very cheap draw engine. A good opponent will attempt to destroy the Standstill during the end of turn step, but if used properly it will still yield a significant advantage. Landstill may also get the opportunity to cast Fact or Fiction, which can be very good if you are not concerned about tempo development. The effectiveness of these draw engines depends on the deck’s ability to control the opponent’s threat development, which can be a challenge in the case of Aggro and Combo decks. It is likely that a Control deck will be developed that takes advantage of Aggro-Control’s focus on early tempo, and which also has good matchups against Combo decks.

Here is a Landstill list that combines some commonly successful cards from different versions of the deck. The more flexible maindeck slots are Spell Snare and Engineered Explosives. The sideboard is again designed for a diverse environment, but this is one area where it is very difficult to create a defined strategy. Control decks are already subject to drastic maindeck changes based on the metagame, and the sideboard of such a deck is likely to vary widely over the course of several months.

Landstill needs to begin the game by stopping any early threatening cards from the opponent, either through counters, removal, or attempting to stunt mana development through the use of Stifle. Then the deck should to resolve either a Standstill or a Pernicious Deed, and attempt to control the opponent’s strategy until it has enough mana to start attacking with lands with counter protection. This biggest change from classic Control strategy is the use of Crucible of Worlds to defend against land destruction and recur win conditions.

V. Deckbuilding Standards

As evidenced by the Landstill decklist in this article, deckbuilding standards in Legacy have changed. One very clear sign of this is that Goblin Lackey is no longer a critical threat. It does not have to be answered on turn 1, and design can shift away from fast Aggro strategies.

One consequence of this is that there will no longer be any advantage to playing with hate-decks. These decks won’t be present to skew tournament analysis and prevent Control decks from developing more versatile strategies.

More generally, however, this means that competitive deck design now includes a wider range of strategies than it did previously. The speed of Combo and the quality of Aggro-Control have both improved significantly, but the tools available to fight these decks are more readily available to most decks. Legacy tournaments will be sensitive to developments resulting from innovation or new cards being printed, and it will be possible to analyze tournaments in more detail knowing the archetype concentrations and their success.

The extreme focus on tempo development to the exclusion of card advantage generators is also going to recede, giving a break to many cards that have been too weak to meet Legacy’s very high standards of tempo development. Engines that have been previously excluded will be re-examined and are likely to find strong applications in the deep card pool.

There will be many pros paying attention to this environment in the coming months, and they will be looking for new strategies to deal with the existing successful decks. The best advice I can give to deckbuilders is to go back to the drawing board with all strategies. Design naively, and see which assumptions about Legacy still hold. I am sure there are previously-discounted strategies that will prove very successful in the new environment.

Christopher Coppola