Unlocking Legacy – Built On Squares

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When in the course of deckbuilding, sometimes you end up stepping back from your project and asking why you’re even trying to make a new deck. Players get all sorts of satisfaction out of Magic, and much of that can come from tinkering with new ideas. Timmy, Johnny and Spike all get a chance to play. I admit that all three kids come play with me when I want to make something new. Do I want to play with ridiculous cards like Mindslaver, Timmy asks? Spike wants me to beat everyone in the room. But I succumb the opiate whispers of Johnny, telling me that together, we can be clever.

When in the course of deckbuilding, sometimes you end up stepping back from your project and asking why you’re even trying to make a new deck. Players get all sorts of satisfaction out of Magic, and much of that can come from tinkering with new ideas. Timmy, Johnny and Spike all get a chance to play. I admit that all three kids come play with me when I want to make something new. Do I want to play with ridiculous cards like Mindslaver, Timmy asks? Spike wants me to beat everyone in the room. But I succumb the opiate whispers of Johnny, telling me that together, we can be clever.

I want to beat my opponents. While I want to Sirlin to victory all the time and trounce people with my superior decks, I want them to get blown out, not by Force of Will, but by Disrupt. I want people to pick up the cards I play and read them. I want people to look at my sideboarded one-ofs and reach for reasons why I would possibly play that single card. I want my lists to look like Coco Chanel elegance. Legacy is the ideal format for this. The deepest cardpool in the game peanut butter-with-chocolate bangs into the most diverse deck options around.

A good deck doesn’t look vulnerable. It looks flashy and fluid, with no painfully narrow cards or dangerous what-if-you-don’t-draw-thats. Especially in a format where you’ll run into anything, safety is important. Too many cards can shut down strategies for me to commit to gambles like Dredge decks.

Ideally, I’d be playing combo. It can roll over most strategies and handle a good deal of randomness that will invariably show up in an event. Legacy combo is mostly not powerful enough, however. It has unfortunate vulnerabilities to counterspells and Duresses that Vintage combo decks avoid (mostly due to the recharge power of Ancestral Recall).

No, the safe route for a player who wants to be clever is to run control. The archetype mostly avoids those silver-bullet cards that can come up and can deal with most problems through efficient removal. Good control decks don’t play the lategame, they dominate it. I wanted to play a different control deck than what was out there already. Landstill, in all its flavors, seemed somewhat slow to me and had times where you’d just give games away because the opponent drew something that pulled them out while you were still trying to kill them. Tog isn’t really much of a control deck, more of a control-combo deck; it wants to regulate things until it can drop Herr Doktor and win in a turn. However, that method relied on Psychatog being good, and with all the pinpoint removal in the format, I didn’t feel it was strong enough. I wanted something like my Tron deck I wrote about last month – more stable than the risky Urza lands, but still capable of setting up lategame grind-outs

Legacy’s linchpin is attrition battles. When one can survive the early game, the victory goes to the person who reloads quickly or grinds down with threat after threat. Efficiency is key. That’s why Coutnerbalance is the cock of the walk lately – it does a whole hell of a lot against decks that mostly run one- and two-cost spells, which is the entire format.

Ideally, the control deck runs no dead cards – selections that are only great in one or two matchups and Rules For Stud and Draw Poker cards (“you’re supposed to remove these from the deck!”) in other situations. Sometimes, you make concessions like Engineered Plague in Tog to beat back Little Red Men, and sometimes that’s exactly the right thing to do. I’d like to avoid it if I could, though.

Something else I’ve been hip on lately is really swingy cards like Tarmogoyf or Vedalken Shackles. They end up doing a lot more than a single card should. Flametongue Kavu also just invited his black cousin to the party. His name is Shriekmaw.

Doug: Shriekmaw looks pretty sick.
Spencer Hayes: It’s good in Standard
Doug: it has fear? whaaaaaat
Doug: Every time I read that card, it has another ability.

So it Terrors, beats just about every relevant dude in the format excepting Mascara Bob, beats for three AND gets through just about all the time. This is a card control decks are looking for.

As long as I’m citing IM conversations, this was the one that set me completely in motion:

Doug: thoughts on Garruk in Legacy
Tom Lapille: seems awk
Doug: it dodges Disk and Deed and is pretty hard to kill, untaps to put counterspell up. Maybe in a landstill shell?
Tom: that doesn’t sound awful

Garruk Wildspeaker looks really interesting for Legacy. For four mana, you get a nigh-infinite source of Beasts and the recharge ability is one worth playing. I was surprised at how, unchecked, it could warp games. Having a little dude sit around and cast spells for you for free is neat like that. I was immediately enamored at the idea of Garruk and board sweepers and making people think I was clever for spotting that interaction.

How do I fit it into a control deck, though? Mono-Blue control is promising, but seems somewhat underpowered by eschewing all the nice splashable goods in Legacy. Landstill is always a solid option. I don’t like relying on Standstill to power up my draws, and this is coming from someone who has played the card for four years. Standstill and its named deck require specific other reactive cards to excel. I think it’s time to start mostly from the bottom up.

I’d turned my mind to what other cards I’d slot into a control deck. Blue cards of all shapes would work. I’ve also been consistently impressed with Phyrexian Furnace. It singlehandedly shuts down whole strategies from Threshold and Breakfast decks and usually does something significant against everything else. Most of all, it’s maindeckable (but not really worth sideboarding because other cards are faster). Team Meandeck had an Oath deck in Vintage that ran Chalice of the Void, Furnaces, and Thirst for Knowledge, and I was always happy with that shell. While Chalice isn’t as good right now in Legacy as perhaps it could be, the Furnace/TFK interaction was good enough to build off of.

I also figured that Force of Will was good enough to run as a four-of, since I’d need to be stopping very early threats. I feel a little silly explaining why I put Force in, actually. I also picked four Brainstorms in the initial list. While I was playing with Green, it was worth it to pack Tarmogoyfs. While I didn’t have Swords in my deck, the Tarmistake was effectively creature removal, grinding attacks to a halt. Hey, it answers opposing Tarmogoyfs too! I liked that it was a creature I could basically not care about losing because of the low mana investment, but it still ended games in a stupidly rapid fashion. Control often suffers from the problem of having dominated the board but unable to kill for a really long time. It has to draw the Psychatog or put the opponent away with Mishra’s Factory or Rainbow Efreet. The Green Giant solves that problem by being both expendable and expeditious.

I ended up throwing in some other cards like Engineered Explosives because they’re hot right now, along with Fact or Fiction and Repeal to do that Blue drawing thing. I found that my two Garruks in the deck were neat, but didn’t really do much. Often, I’d Brainstorm them back and play Tarmogoyfs instead. The dream of playing Garruk and untapping lands to hold up Counterspell didn’t really happen. Cranking two Green mana in a deck with only Tropical Islands was also hard to swing. I took him out of the deck, but I’m convinced that Garruk has a place somewhere in Legacy.

In spite of Garruk being The Goggles, the deck performed a lot better than I had thought. I had fooled around with the manabase a little; I dropped one copy of each dual land, because I didn’t need the fourth copies with six fetchlands. With initially ten Islands, I felt like I could cut some of them for techy cards while maintaining a solid number of basic lands. To this end, I put in Academy Ruins. Combined with Engineered Explosives, it > Legacy. I tossed in two Tolaria West to go find it; I’m not thrilled about them in the deck and could probably cut one because I had only 24 mana sources and didn’t want tapped ones. However, they got the Ruins or the Explosives if I needed one or the other.

I also played around with the idea of storage lands from Time Spiral. I fell in love with them in the Block format. I’m hip on the idea of spending what is essentially nothing to charge up your lands on the opponent’s endstep. I settled on two; more than that makes Counterspell a lot weaker. I didn’t fear Wasteland on my storage lands either; when playing them, you don’t really go out of your way to charge them up in lieu of casting actual spells. They were very handy for situations where I would want to play Shriekmaw and hardcast Force of Will in the same turn. The jury is still out on them. I like drawing Dreadship Reef, but the extra mana might not be necessary enough. That’s that clever thing I was talking about earlier.

Mishra’s Factory is nice in Landstill because you sneak it past counters and lots of removal and it eventually wins games. I was not happy with tapping mana on my own turn for it, though. With two Tolaria West to hunt it down, I put in Urza’s Factory instead. Yes, it needs eight lands to do its thing. However, to think that Legacy games never reach a point where one has eight lands betrays the fact that said thinker hasn’t actually played much Legacy recently. I may be overly attached to its cuteness, but Urza’s Factory has also been very relevant in many of the games I have tested. One game comes to mind where I had Phyrexian Furnace down early against Threshold, denying them the seven graveyard cards all game. However, a combination of factors brought me to a precariously low life total, where even the 1/1s would kill me in short order. The Factory snuck down under a wall of counters and turned the tide, where little else could have done the same (Decree of Justice probably could have got there as well). Along with the storage lands, Factory represents to me spending essentially zero resources for an effect. It may or may not have a place, but I’ve been happy to see it.

I fooled around with those last few slots until I had something that looks like… Landstill? Tog? Mono-Blue? I’m not sure what it looks like. Many elements bear a striking resemblance to Dan Spero Voroshstill list that he posted many moons ago. In any case, here’s the raw version:

There’s plenty of room for variation in the list as well. One could cut a Repeal or Thirst for Knowledge for another Fact or Fiction if there are a lot of control wars to be fought. The Forbid was there as the generic 9th counterspell in the deck; I rarely buy it back, but it dodges Spell Snare and Counterbalance, so the casting cost works to the player’s advantage. It could easily be replaced with Dissipate or something completely different. I also wanted to try a single Mystical Teachings; the play of getting Force of Will or Counterspell coming and then Fact or Fiction going looked neat, provided one has arbitrarily large amounts of mana. Maybe Mystical Teachings is another article.

One of the difficulties that I ran into while designing from the bottom up was how to manage all of the cards that I wanted to fit in the deck. I was fond of the concept of maindecked Threads of Disloyalty because they would make me look like a clever metagamer. Vedalken Shackles are the dogs bollocks compared to Threads, though. They are light years better in the Breakfast matchup, where they trump the combo whenever they need to.

The provisional sideboard I used while testing was the following:

4 Ghastly Demise
2 Damnation
2 Krosan Grip
1 Shriekmaw
1 Vedalken Shackles
4 Duress
1 Forbid

I considered the deck to be a dog against Goblins, but I could live with that. Maybe Lorwyn will reinvigorate Goblins, it’s too soon to tell. I wanted every advantage that I could in the match though, and one of those advantages included being immune to opposing Tranquil Domains and Krosan Grips expectantly sided in for Engineered Plagues. The Demises and Damnations were Goblins cards; they can decently hold the fort until you can get some sort of control over the game.

The Duresses were there for combo and other control; they’re good at what they do and they replace Furnaces at times. In Furnace, I had a card I always wanted in game 1, but sometimes never wanted later. To that end, I wanted packages of four cards that I could slot in for them if need be. One or two Thirst for Knowledge also came out with the Furnaces, as they were less potent without artifacts to toss.

Against many decks, I found that I was only sideboarding a few cards in. Krosan Grips were nice against Landstill, but I didn’t need much else against them. Similarly, another Shriekmaw and a Shackles were useful where Furnaces or Counterspells were not.

I found in extensive testing that you win most of the games against Threshold. That’s comforting, because the top tables are always filled with the Green men and it seems to be the most popular deck at events. It also held up quite well against Breakfast combo, which is becoming very popular in my area and is more devastating with maindecked Counterbalance/Sensei’s Divining Top control elements.

It’s hard to test against Landstill because there are so many varieties of it. Against most blends though, the strategy remains the same. You’re the beatdown and you have to keep making threats. Phyrexian Furnace is amazingly annoying in this match; it neuters Crucible of Worlds and blows away errant Eternal Dragons. You have the advantage of much more instant-speed draw. That said, Landstill is really good at what it does, and like most control-on-control matches, this one comes down to whoever is the better player.

The compelling reason to play this over any other deck in the format is that it’s a very safe deck to play and uses some of the best cards in the format. It is customizable to the player and has a good deal of power, while not relying on one specific card or strategy to win. The downside is that it doesn’t have a neat name that makes it trendy.

Through all the testing for this, I realized how hard it is to create a good gauntlet for testing in Legacy. Clearly, some sort of Threshold ends up in the fray, but what else? With such a broad format, it’s hard to test against everything or even every strategy. If you have ideas on this, please share them in the forums.

If anything, it makes tuning up sideboards difficult, which is why I suggest you don’t copy what I did and instead, figure out what would work best for you. The adage about not running Tividar’s Crusade because you might not hit Goblins is apt. Consequently, sideboards should probably err on the end of general but less powerful answers instead of narrow blowout cards. With decks that have a good deal of general power, like Landstill or this deck, perhaps there is a little leeway for narrower answers, though.

If you like the deck, I hope you customize it and play it for fun and profit. If you have ideas for Garruk in Legacy decks, please post them in the forums. The Eternal formats are always a little slow to adopt new cards (like the YEAR it took for Gifts Ungiven to take off in Vintage). I’d be happy to see Shriekmaw spend a little time in the jacuzzi with the rest of the Legacy gang.

As always, thanks for reading.

Doug Linn
Hi-Val on the interwebs
Thanks to TMD for proofing and brainstorming

Postscript: my spellchecker says that “snuck” is not a word and I disagree. Along with her obvious error in using “staunched” instead of “stanched,” J.K. Rowling’s use of “sneaked” really bothered me in her books. [Stanched?! What the dickens is that about? — Craig, amused.]