Unlocking Legacy – Deck Check: Welder Survival

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In the wake of Worlds, we have several new and revitalized decks to pore over. Doug takes a look at Welder Survival, long a deck sitting just beyond the horizon in the metagame, and brought to new attention by Worlds coverage. Find out how it ranks and tests and read Stuart Wright’s thoughts on the deck. Also, read about the importance of testing to learn and not to win and what makes a good testing partner!

Happy New Year! The end of the last year brought us the Legacy Worlds tournament, and what an event that was. Kevin Binswanger covered it well several weeks ago. I agree with many of his assessments; the only thing I can really add on is talking about naming conventions. One can be clever or at least attempt to be descriptive when naming decks, and I favor the descriptive over the clever. Let’s try to make things reasonably understandable for people getting into the format…

One of the decks that really caught my eye was Stuart Wright‘s Welder Survival list from the Worlds event. Here it is, for easy reference:

I’ve long had a love for Survival decks; they were what got me into Legacy in the first place. Welder Survival is nothing new, but this list has a lot of interesting changes and decisions that are worth looking at. I have traditionally been opposed to Welder Survival because things like Pentad Prism and Mindslaver and other cute tricks work their way in. Then you end up drawing high-cost awkward artifacts from the top. There’s the fundamental Danger of Cool Things with a lot of Welder Survival lists. Not so in this case.

First, it has a very clear plan: get some ridiculous dude (usually Sundering Titan) into play cheaply. By maintaining a focus on that and running a good mix of artifacts and enablers, it has a fast goldfish rate for landing a Titan. It doesn’t fall to the standard Survival traps of cramming a lot of marginal stuff into the deck. The Genesis is on the sideboard, there’s no Rofellos, and the manabase is more dependent on actually drawing sources instead of tutoring for them.

The Welder option is reminiscent of the Recurring Nightmare plan from days of old. You’re cheating cards into play that have a profound effect on the board. Unfortunately, there’s no 187 artifact creature that does what, say, Nekrataal can do, but at least there’s Triskelion. The greatest advantage of the Welder plan in this deck is that one does not need Survival of the Fittest to get things going with Welders. Though it’s a little awkward to work Intuition into a Welder enabler, you can often get Titan on the board and mattering without ever seeing the green enchantment.

Speaking of Intuition, I’m quite pleased with Cabal Therapy in the deck to go alongside it. I’ve always been a fan of the discard spell in creature-rich decks like Survival, and being able to functionally make four iterations of the spell out of Intuition is serious against control decks. Having four sometimes leads to times where you’ll have one in hand and have no idea what to get with it. That said, against many decks you can just get Survival of the Fittest because the opponent has no counters. The lack of something like Tarmogoyf to get as a solid plan-B with the card dismays me, if just a little.

The manabase warrants further discussion. With twenty-two lands and the Birds of Paradise and Moxes, we’re presented with a rich quantity of mana. One of the failures of Survival decks has classically been a weak manabase. The desire to cram in creatures and creature-mana has resulted in very fragile manabases that can evaporate at the whiff of a Wasteland or the hint of a Mogg Fanatic. I’m pleased that the five-color manabase does, indeed, work here. That said, I found in testing that the Polluted Deltas would be much better served as something that gets Taigas, like Bloodstained Mire. I can vividly recall two games where I would have won, had they been able to snag the haste-enabling Taigas.

I was surprised that the deck rarely has color problems; sporting ten fetchlands and a multitude of other mana fixers means that you can get away with running a full five colors. Okay, White is a concession in the first game because all it does it power up Harmonic Sliver and doesn’t do a lot more postboard. That said, I’m pleased that a truly rainbow manabase is possible in Legacy without City of Brass; if you are looking to cram as many colors as possible into your deck, this is a manabase worth considering.

The oodles of fetchlands also make Brainstorm worth playing; you won’t be in a rush to cast it, but it’s nice to know that the card is there. Having actual card draw means that you can see creatures when you need to Survival or dig a bit deeper to find a key card. This is a valuable commodity in Survival decks; I work in Sylvan Library every time I can because it becomes a huge threat against control when it hits the board. Brainstorm doesn’t have the continuous effect, but it sees cards. I’d consider Ponder (I almost said ponder Ponder) but there are times when you need all three cards in hand. Sometimes it’ll be getting two creatures at once so that you can execute a Welder combo on that turn.

When playing the deck, I found that Anger was of paramount importance to get activated. Goblin Welder has a serious glass jaw. He’ll die to the mere mention of combat or damage, or maybe he’ll take up pastoral pursuits or meet a demise most ghastly. The haste that Anger provides makes it a playable card, since you’ll have the large robotic artifact in play by the time the removal hits him. Things get a lot different, and a lot worse, when you’re facing down something like a Jitte without a Taiga in play.

I had a short interview with Stuart Wright about the deck to get his thoughts on its design and play. He had found that the deck worked well for him and was strong against the expected field. Owing to sideboarding out Platinum Angel a lot, he’d prefer to run Nullstone Gargoyle in its place in the future. I’m inclined to agree; the Gargoyle is a bit harder to remove than the Angel and will have a very similar impact on the board. It makes me wonder, though, whether either are needed. In the occasions when Sundering Titan isn’t going to solve the problem, will Gargoyle or Platinum Angel get there? Against Dredge, the Angel is far superior, though against decks like combo, I would much rather have the Gargoyle. There may be another amazing artifact creature to put in this spot instead. Another possibility is running Sylvan Safekeeper to mostly lock things up with Platinum Angel. This still loses to Umezawa’s Jitte, but not much else.

Stuart emphasized the importance of knowing how the deck operates and has had it built and tested for quite awhile. The major skill he highlighted was knowing how to handle a situation in which one has their Survival countered or plucked out of hand. Again, I agree here. Knowing the routes one should take with Intuition, such as snagging Cabal Therapies or Goblin Welders, will be critical.

Regarding matchups, Stuart felt that Control was his best match, while combo was predictably his worst matchup. With the dearth of combo decks and the explosion of Threshold, Welder Survival is a prime choice for a deck right now. Stuart mentioned that opponents sometimes don’t know what’s going on, so the matches are much easier because of that. Seeing a Goblin Welder on the first turn, a Brainstorm on the second and a Survival of the Fittest on the third would certainly be confusing! You can’t bank on surprise when evaluating whether a deck is good, and with Welder Survival, that isn’t necessary; the deck does just fine as it is.

I’d be happy running Welder Survival against most of the established decks in the metagame. It understandably beats up on Threshold, though Counterbalance can actually be a real pain. The trick to beating Threshold decks packing Counterbalance is to know that they can be playing cantrips and attackers or working the Sensei’s Divining Top against you, but not often both. It becomes a matter of either staying alive versus Tarmogoyfs or expending their mana on a turn so that you can force through a Harmonic Sliver or Survival. If you don’t see the Counterbalance though, your gameplan outstrips Threshold’s. This is another match where Sundering Titan really shines. I’m not sure if Nullstone Gargoyle comes out to play here, or if it even makes the final cut of the deck. More on this later.

Against combo, you do what you can; work the discard and make it count. Decks like Cephalid Breakfast are a bit easier to handle (but by no means easy) because they use dual lands to set up. You can sometimes bank on the nuts draw of turn 1 Welder, turn 2 Mox, Intuition, Titan the world. Against storm-based combo, I suggest siding in 4x Hope//Pray and taking the loss like a man, not a mogg.

Stuart felt that his sideboard was spot-on. It’s a great starting/ending point and handles most of the problems that you’ll encounter. Sideboarding is a minimalist affair; taking out and putting in silver bullets is about the only thing you’ll be doing. Drastic changes don’t happen often. Against Goblins, I can pass on the advice that Cabal Therapy never, ever comes out and is your best weapon against the Red dudes.

Having worked on the common matchups, I decided to test against one of the rising stars in Legacy right now, Dragon Stompy. It’s worth shining some light on the deck since it’s a relatively cheap deck and pretty good to boot. During testing, I found that the notions I had come in with were blown out by what actually happened. While it may seem like a marginal matchup to discuss, it serves to highlight the weaknesses of Welder Survival that players must conform to or exploit in order to play it or beat it.

My testing partner, teammate and friend Rian Litchard piloted Oliver Ruel’s Dragon Stompy list from Worlds:

Coming into this, I had the predictable notion that I would just blow out Dragon Stompy every day of the week. It doesn’t even run counters! Though it has eight Blood Moon effects, my deck had plenty of Fetchlands to find my Forests and other nonland mana producers. And come on, Arc Slogger and Rakdos Pit Dragon aren’t really that scary…

Was I ever wrong. First, Seething Song is ridiculous in the deck. I think that every time Rian cast it, I eventually lost. The turn 1 Arc Slogger happens a lot more than you’d think, and it is enormously constraining to Welder Survival. No longer can you run out a Birds of Paradise or Goblin Welder and just ride that acceleration to victory; you need more setup like Survival of the Fittest and Anger. Coupled with some more cheap heat like Gathan Raiders and I found myself dying a lot more than I’d like to.

One game I remember vividly; it started with Rian casting two Seething Songs off some acceleration into a Simian Spirit Guide with an equipped Umezawa’s Jitte. Somewhat scary, but come on, a monkey with a fork isn’t terrifying to me. This game taught me how constraining it is to stare down something easily capable of killing Goblin Welders; it also highlighted the weakness in Welder Survival that there’s no really cheap piece of fat to throw down and trade with the attacker. I ended up looking for Harmonic Sliver and trying to cast it through Magus of the Moon, but the pressure was too strong.

The Blood Moon effects were not very dangerous; usually I’d have at least one source of Green by the time they hit, so I could easily work through it. The most dangerous part of the deck was managing not dying to an aggressive deck that is bent on getting Hellbent. Rakdos Pit Dragon is, in fact, a large man and is scary on the first turn. With help from the Gathan Raiders (best White Weenie card ever!) and Chrome Mox, I was staring at doublestrike a lot.

Enough on how savagely I lost, on to the winning games! Welder Survival would win when the Dragon Stompy player didn’t see a lot of acceleration. When they are forced to be fair, you can be unfair with impunity. For example, Triskelion really runs Dragon Stompy over. Getting that set up, or putting a Titan in play with another waiting next turn, became unanswerable. Games that opened with Birds of Paradise were usually victorious as well. Something I had noticed after we had tested was that I was underutilizing my Cabal Therapies. The only truly scary card from Dragon Stompy was Seething Song; my plan should have been to strip that out, given the opportunity. There’s a lesson in here as well: sometimes it is the most innocuous of cards that’s the real problem. Adjusting your tactics to eliminating that card can reap game-tipping rewards.

At the end of our many games, Dragon Stompy had more notches on its belt than Welder Survival did. That said, the score would be remarkably different had I played a single card in my deck: Shriekmaw. There were at least four games that I remember where if I had the Elemental, I would have handily won. This is because Dragon Stompy is a very focused deck; it expends quite a lot of resources to make one really strong creature and then rides that to victory. A way of punishing my opponent for openings like Ancient Tomb, Chrome Mox imprinting something Red, Seething Song, Arc Slogger would have assuredly bought me the time to get set up. Incidentally, this is a problem that Dragon Stompy has to work with; when playing against decks with cheap creature removal, the strategy changes a bit to baiting out the removal or locking it away with Chalice of the Void. Rian had a luxury against me in that I had no cheap removal to speak of, so he could run out giants with impunity. Finding a spot for Shriekmaw is difficult, but I’d try it in the Gargoyle/Angel slot.

Incidentally, the two Shield Spheres I had thought were a mistake proved to be just the right number. You’ll often have situations where you need a free blocker in the early game or later on, two artifacts to Weld out. Subtle details like this have enamored me of the deck.

Though the work of tuning the deck was largely taken care of by other people, I still had the need to get to know how it played out and this is where having good testing partners helps. I can’t explain it exactly, but when testing, your mindset should shift from winning the game to learning exactly what’s going on and looking at all of the options. Furthermore, having a testing partner and not an opponent is critical. You want someone who will discuss the game as you are playing it with them and talk about the various options or cards that could have helped. Rian and I always have a lively dialog every turn about what plays have been made, pushing each other to always play perfectly.

If you are playing with someone, make sure that you and your partner are talking things over at the end of the game, if nothing else. Identify where you won or lost the game, what decisions you could have made differently and so on. As with everything in life, you aren’t going to improve your skills by just blindly doing something without analyzing what you messed up on and got right. This is not something that you can do by yourself when it comes to Magic.

Most of all, I find it important to test with someone you can trust. In this sense, trust means that they’ll be telling you without a bias what worked and what didn’t, and that they won’t be playing to win, but instead playing to learn. You can get into insidious situations where the person you’re playing against just wants to win against everything you throw at them. This comes up sometimes when they are playing a pet deck. Either get that person off their favorite deck or find new testing partners. Trade decks throughout testing sessions so the results aren’t skewed by the stronger player.

These roads all point to why testing in practice rooms on MTGO or against random people on MWS are trashy ways to test out a deck. You aren’t actually learning much, just winning or losing. The people you are playing against (not playing with, but against) want to win and they don’t have a real desire to see you succeed. Testing partners, especially teammates, have an investment in you getting better as a player and making difficult decisions about your deck. It’s worth it to track down someone who is good enough at the game to help and willing to partner up on testing.

It’s also important to not waste that person’s time. In lieu of the MWS random testing, which doesn’t actually prove anything other than that you beat Slivers! And Monoblack Control, do some two-fisted work. You can run two copies of Apprentice or MWS on a computer; in my preliminary testing, I often do this to figure out how a deck will perform against the standard decks of the format. If it doesn’t pass muster there, I trash it and I haven’t wasted anyone’s time. If it graduates from there, I talk the list over with other players and testing partners and then if it goes on from there, it’s time to build it up and test against actual people.

A final nail in the coffin of testing on MWS is that you cannot evaluate someone else’s skill level online and that results in bad testing results. When you’re finding that you’re beating Goblins 80% of the time on the draw, it may not be your deck, it could be that the opponent is patently awful. Testing with someone who has a known skill level will save you from committing to bad decks and even worse, expending time and money at tournaments on decks that fail because not everyone is as awful as Yankeesfan879 on MWS.

If there is reader interest in Welder Survival, I’ll continue to write about it in future articles. Post in the forums your thoughts on columns you’d like to see!

Good luck!

Doug Linn
Hi-Val on the interwebs
Thanks to themanadrain.com, Stuart Wright, and Team Meandeck