Unlocking Legacy – Design Patterns

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Monday, May 19th – Designing competitive decks is difficult. It requires building something better or at least as good as the best decks in any given format. The best decks represent the gold standard of which any new deck aspires to be. These decks can provide a wealth of information about how to build decks and why their designs work.

Legacy Design

Designing competitive decks is difficult. It requires building something better or at least as good as the best decks in any given format. The best decks represent the gold standard of which any new deck aspires to be. These decks can provide a wealth of information about how to build decks and why their designs work. Careful examination of the card choices that make up the best decks can be instrumental when designing new decks or just improving existing ones. The best decks can and sometimes do use the same cards to accomplish different strategies. The question is — is this happening in Legacy?

Tarmogoyf is an example of a card appearing in many different decks in Legacy. Whether they be aggro, combo, or control they often choose to use this Green creature to implement their strategy. Are there other cards like Tarmogoyf appearing in many different decks?

The interest in this topic was sparked during a playtesting session I had with Chris Coppola. We were testing 5 color Threshold versus Eva Green, a Suicide deck splashing Green for Tarmogoyf and Seal of Primordium. Many games would start with Thoughtseize on either side. Then there were the games where turn 2 Tarmogoyf was answered by Tarmogoyf. Drawing more Tarmogoyfs than the opponent could easily be the determining factor in any given game. It was during this playtesting session that Chris suggested that every deck was playing the same cards. In this matchup, both decks were playing Thoughtseize and Tarmogoyf.

After reviewing some of the Top 8 decklists of the past few months, it is not difficult to come to the same conclusion. Let’s take a closer look at some of the cards being used by many successful decks in Legacy.

The Same Cards but Different Decks


Tarmogoyf is the most obvious example of the same card seeing play in the different decks to great effect. Tarmogoyf with its non-restrictive and low mana requirements provides a card that is easily accessible to most decks in Legacy. This accessibility is combined with its potential to be easily the biggest creature on the board at any given time. These two qualities make Tarmogoyf an optimal selection for many Legacy decks.

Eva Green as a Suicide deck tries to disrupt the opponent and then uses that opportunity to play efficient and deadly threats that defeat the opponent before he or she can recover. Tarmogoyf is one of those threats and it is easily one of the best. Eva Green usually tries to play Tarmogoyf as soon as possible so that each turn can be used to attack as well as disrupt the opponent.

Threshold plays Tarmogoyf as well, but its strategy is somewhat different. Threshold spends the first couple of turns playing cantrips and it often doesn’t play Tarmogoyf as soon as Eva Green would. It often spends the early game using cantrips to find more lands, cantrips, and answers to an opponent’s spells. Threshold is also more likely to use Tarmogoyf defensively to answer opponent’s Tarmogoyf or another creature.

BGW Rock decks also utilize Tarmogoyf and they do in a way that takes advantage of their slower and more powerful spells like Pernicious Deed. They also play discard similar to Eva Green, but their strategy isn’t to take immediate advantage of this disruption. After playing discard and removal to stall an opponent’s offense, Rock decks then play creatures that can dominate the board such as Tombstalker; Doran, the Siege Tower; and the ubiquitous Tarmogoyf.

Yet another deck that plays Tarmogoyf is RGB Survival Advantage (RGBSA), which has multiple uses for Tarmogoyf. RGB Survival Advantage is based on using the powerful Survival of the Fittest to create overwhelming board advantage and to make the opponent’s plays largely irrelevant. In general this deck is much more defensive in the early game as it takes time to setup and exploit the power of Survival. Tarmogoyf is often used to stall opposing creatures to allow the game to continue until Survival can come online. Tarmogoyf works even better once Survival is in play as it can both be pitched to Survival to find the optimal creature or be tutored for in multiples to create a commanding board position.

Landstill lists are by no means standard and they vary to a large degree, but some 4-color versions have begun adopting Tarmogoyf as part of their deck. This is an interesting development as it addresses one of the main weaknesses of Landstill, which is winning quickly the game after taking control. Tarmogoyf conveniently provides both a creature to block other creatures as well as a win condition that can end the game quickly when the board is clear.

It’s The Fear is a relatively new, and at first glance it is similar to both Threshold and Landstill. It uses similar removal as Landstill such as Swords to Plowshares and Pernicious Deed. It has cards that are often found in Threshold specifically Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top. It also has its own unique cards, specifically Intuition, Psychatog, and Vedalken Shackles.

This deck like Landstill often uses Tarmogoyf as an early blocker for an opponent’s threats and can use them in the later game to attack an opponent once the opponent’s threats have been neutralized. It can add a Psychatog or another Tarmogoyf to put a quick clock on an opponent, similar to the way Threshold can.

Cephalid Breakfast is a combo deck based around using Nomad En-kor or Shaman En-kor to repeatedly target Cephalid Illusionist to mill your entire library, or at least most of it. By doing this a few things happen, Narcomeobas get put into play, and Dread Return can be flashbacked returning Sutured Ghoul (some versions use the Kiki-Jiki/Karmic Guide/Sky Hussar combination).

As a combo deck based around putting two creatures in play, it spends most of it cards on the combo itself, cantrips to find the combo pieces, and a few spells to protect its combo. Tarmogoyf plays a unique role in this deck, as it is part of the combo. Not only does he have a high power to make the Sutured Ghoul lethal but he also protects the combo as a En-kor can redirect damage that might be directed at it to the Tarmogoyf. Tarmogoyf may or may not survive, but it means that the En-Kor will survive so that it can target a Cephalid Illusionist. Tarmogoyf also provides an alternate road to victory. When facing hostile conditions for assembling the combo, searching for and playing Tarmogoyfs can be feasible and often does work especially against decks that might be too focused on preventing the combo.


Thoughtseize is the newest discard spell to really affect Legacy in a significant way. It is best compared to Counterspell as it proactively answers any non-land card for 1 mana and 2 life. It does so with the added benefit of seeing your opponent’s hand and what strategy he or she is trying to employ. The facts that it costs half as much as Counterspell with virtually the same effect makes it a powerful tool for any deck that incorporates discard as part of its strategy.

Eva Green’s disruption package is to a large degree based on this card. Against combo decks this card prevents them from assembling the combo before Eva Green can attack with its creatures to win. Unlike Duress, its utility is not diminished against aggro decks as it can take their best creature, and against control decks it takes the best answer they have, or even a card advantage spell like Standstill. Hymn to Tourach, Sinkhole, and Hypnotic Specter support this strategy but it would not really work without Thoughtseize.

Some versions of Threshold utilize Thoughtseize as well. Thoughtseize, since it is the only discard spell used, is more like another counterspell than anything else. Unlike Eva Green, Threshold does not rely on combining discard with land destruction to disrupt an opponent; instead, it uses this card to support its other control measures which usually come in the form of other counterspells, namely Force of Will, Daze, Counterbalance, and sometimes Counterspell and Spell Snare.

BGW Rock decks use hand disruption in the form of Hymn To Tourach, Cabal Therapy, and Thoughtseize to prevent the opposing player from implementing his strategy. Since these decks lack the aggressive nature of Eva Green, they are merely trying to delay an opponent’s strategy while they can take control with their more expensive spells such as Pernicious Deed and Doran.

RGBSA utilizes Thoughtseize in a similar manner to the Rock decks, as it tries to slow down an opponent’s game plan, but its plan is not to get to some sweeper like Deed or large creature like Doran into play, but to set up Survival and take control of the game in that way. Thoughtseize can help to protect a Survival against countermagic. Cabal Therapy and Burning Wish support Thoughtseize, in that they can also help to answer any early plays an opposing deck would make.


Brainstorm’s power lies in its ability to transform a given hand at the cost of one mana. Drawing three new cards and being able to put back two previously drawn cards is often game-changing. This is especially important when those two cards are particularly poor in a certain matchup or in a particular part of the game. When combined with a shuffle effect, Brainstorm is perhaps the best card quality spell in Legacy, and even in Magic.

Threshold makes use of Brainstorm in many different ways. Like the other cantrips in the deck, it helps Threshold to find the cards it needs in any given matchup. Brainstorm is also used to finds lands, as Threshold plays a low number. It also helps to build Threshold for creatures such as Nimble Mongoose, Mystic Enforcer, and others. Finally, Brainstorm can also set up a Counterbalance to counter an opponent’s spells.

Unlike Threshold, Landstill uses Brainstorm to usually find more answers or card advantage spells. It almost never uses it on turn 2 to find lands, as Landstill plays many more lands than Threshold. It is almost always saved for when Landstill needs an immediate answer to an opponent’s threat.

It’s the Fear can use Brainstorm either like Threshold or Landstill depending on game state. It can use it find lands if need be (like Threshold), but it can also wait to use it to find an answer to an opponent’s spell (like Landstill). It also has the ability to use it with Counterbalance similar to Threshold. Its use in this deck seems to be a bit of mixture of the two other decks.

Cephalid Breakfast uses Brainstorm mostly as a way to find the combo pieces it needs to win the game. It also serves as a way to put back cards that you cannot have in your hand to win the game (Sutured Ghoul, Dragon’s Breath, etc.) In certain situations it can even be used to find multiple Tarmogoyfs and win that way, especially when it is unable to assemble the combo.

The Epic Storm (TES) is a 5-color storm combo deck that wins with Tendrils of Agony and Empty the Warrens. It uses tutor cards such as Infernal Tutor and Burning Wish to find card advantage spells like Ill-Gotten Gains, Diminishing Returns, and Infernal Contract, or a storm spell to win the game.

Like Cephalid Breakfast, Brainstorm helps to find the necessary cards to assemble the combo and win, but in this deck the combo involves building storm and playing Tendrils of Agony or Empty the Warrens. With very few shuffle effects, knowing when to play Brainstorm can be difficult as there is very little chance of shuffling away the cards that have been put back.

Fetchland Tendrils is another storm deck utilizing Tendrils of Agony/Empty the Warrens, but unlike TES it is similar to Iggy Pop. Unlike Iggy Pop, instead of always relying on Ill-Gotten Gains, this deck incorporated more cantrips so that it could more reliably find the cards it needs in any given matchup. This use of cantrips is very similar to Threshold use of cantrips except that Fetchland Tendrils uses them to assemble a lethal storm instead of finding Tarmogoyf or Force of Will. Brainstorm in Fetchland Tendrils is similar to Cephalid Breakfast and TES, but unlike TES it can shuffle away the cards on top of the library.

Force of Will

Force of Will is the most relevant counterspell on turn 1 since it can answer any spell, and that makes it indispensable. It provides a way to contain combo decks that can win on turn 1, as well as other decks that can make powerful opening plays. Any deck playing enough Blue cards to support it usually chooses to do so.

Threshold uses Force of Will to thwart a combo player’s attempt to win early in the game, or to an answer a spell that is very difficult for it to deal with, such Aether Vial or Standstill. It usually uses this spell in a defensive manner by preventing the opponent from winning or gaining an overwhelming advantage. There are times that it uses it to force through its threats such as Tarmogoyf so that it can win the game. It can also force through Counterbalance, which in certain matchups can completely swing the game in Threshold’s favor.

Like Threshold, Landstill generally uses Force of Will in a defensive manner to answer some threat an opponent is trying to play. Unlike Threshold, it almost never uses it to resolve a threat of its own. The main reason for this is that Landstill has very few threats (most of them being lands). Another reason is that Landstill wins in the late game where most of the opponent’s threats have already been answered, and there is no need to protect a win condition. It can also use Force of Will to help set up its draw engine. Being able to Force an opponent’s opening play and then dropping Standstill can be an effective way to neutralize an opponent’s opening play without being left with too few cards to continue controlling the game.

It’s the Fear, like Threshold and Landstill, generally uses this card in a defensive manner to answer an opponent’s threat. Similar to Threshold, it also can use it to resolve a threat like Tarmogoyf or Psychatog. If it has a removal heavy hand with cards like Engineered Explosives and Pernicious Deed then it will most likely use the card to answer an opponent’s threats, like Landstill.

Cephalid Breakfast mostly uses Force of Will to protect its combo. Unlike the three previous decks, its primary use of Force of Will is to help it win against an opponent’s attempt to disrupt its combo. While Threshold, Landstill, and It’s the Fear would try to counter Cephalid Breakfast’s attempts to resolve its combo, Cephalid Breakfast would be using Force of Will to counter their counter. Cephalid Breakfast would rarely bother countering a threat like Tarmogoyf or other creatures unless that creature somehow disrupted its combo. Cephalid Breakfast can sometimes use Force of Will to answer an opponent’s threat, especially against other combo decks that can win before it can.

Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual is one of the best accelerants ever printed. It generates a net gain of BB as early as turn 1, and has no other drawback. It gives Storm combo decks a way to win early as turn 1, and Black-based decks a way to power out early disruption such as Thoughtseize and creatures as powerful as Tombstalker.

Eva Green uses Dark Ritual to accelerate both its disruption and its creature into play as early turn 1. It allows for plays like Dark Ritual, Thoughtseize, and Nantuko Shade, allowing the deck to accomplish two goals on turn 1. Multiple Rituals can wreak even more havoc, such as Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Hymn to Tourach, Hypnotic Specter, or even Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Tombstalker (requires the use of a fetchland). While some of these plays are unlikely, the fact that Dark Ritual allows the deck to make them, makes the card vital to the deck’s strategy.

TES often does not play Dark Ritual on turn 1 as it saves it for the turn it will attempt to win. The deck uses Dark Ritual both to generate mana as well as to build Storm. It also provides Black mana to cast spells like Infernal Tutor and Tendrils of Agony. It is combined with mana accelerants to allow it to play its tutor spells or a win condition.
Fetchland Tendrils uses Dark Ritual in very much the same way that TES uses it.

Different Cards and Different Decks

There are other Legacy decks that do not utilize any of these cards. They use different cards and have their own strategies. The design of these decks makes it difficult for them to use these cards effectively.

Vial Goblins

Vial Goblins is an example of deck that utilizes none of these cards. The deck requires a high goblin count to make the interactions between the cards powerful enough to make them worth playing. Using non-goblins cards would only dilute that synergy.


Enchantress is a combo deck based around playing enchantments. Since none of these cards are enchantments it would be difficult for this deck to play them. Drawing non-enchantments would stall the drawing of more cards and make winning harder.


Many of the successful decks of Legacy choose to play some of the very same cards as part of their design. While they function somewhat differently in each deck, their effect is great in each case. The wide use of these cards suggests not only that they are powerful and irreplaceable, but also that they can be effective across a wide variety of deck types. The builders of new decks and the optimizers of old ones should take a strong look at incorporating these cards into their designs.

Not all decks will be able to use these cards, and if a specific design cannot make use of these cards that does not mean the deck is not worth pursuing. The examples of Vial Goblins and Enchantress prove otherwise.

The fact that many of the decks choose to use the same cards may also suggest a possible weakness that many or all them maybe susceptible to. Potential weaknesses are easier to exploit after realizing that many of the decks have similar designs.

Whether the goal is create new decks or to improve old ones, considering the design of current decks as well as trying these cards is a good place to start.

Anwar Ahmad

AnwarA101 on The Source, StarCityGames.com Forums

I would like to thank Adam Barnello for giving me the opportunity to write for Unlocking Legacy. I would also like to thank Christopher Coppola for providing helpful suggestions about the article.