Unlocking Legacy – Fundamentals at Grand Prix: Chicago

Read Legacy articles every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, January 29th – Looking ahead to GP: Chicago, Christopher Coppola puts the current diversity of Legacy in context, analyzes current metagame trends, and makes some predictions about the major archetypes at the tournament.

I. No New Surprises

Now that Conflux is revealed, the character of GP: Chicago is coming into focus. There are no archetype-changing cards in the new set (although there are a few very good ones), meaning that the current age of Legacy will continue into Chicago. The effects of Shards of Alara haven’t been felt fully, so Chicago will be bringing the innovation of two sets’ worth of new tools to the format. Some of the better cards to enter the format recently are Volcanic Fallout, Relic of Progenitus, Master of Etherium, Ad Nauseam, and Knight of the Reliquary.

The current trends in the format are all still largely defined by designing around Threshold. This has been a success for many decks, and Legacy may be more diverse and open than it has ever been, but there are still best choices and strongest strategies. Legacy is not as open as it seems, and success in Chicago will depend on isolating the best strategies and planning to either play them or defeat them at the top tables.

II. Aggro

Counterbalance remains one of the least appreciated cards in the format. After it was printed it lay dormant, in Threshold sideboards for months, while the format hesitated to drop Counterspell. Eventually a few players began to play the engine maindeck, and reported spectacular results. It was overshadowed by Flash, but still the card began to see more play. This culminated in the adoption of the tech the at GenCon 2007 by the designers of the Threshold deck that eventually won the tournament, making the card a sensation and causing nothing less than a Counterbalance frenzy. It went from underplayed to overhyped in a matter of months. It was incorporated very well into several builds of Threshold, but largely the effort to fight Counterbalance was not in the mirror. It came from players moving away from classic mana curve structure, and many older decks which had suffered because of this suddenly found themselves being developed and optimized with new advantages.

This involved players taking notice of some very underrated cards that are not brand new but still untested by many players. Terrageddon became Aggro-Loam with help from Countryside Crusher. RGBSA added Thoughtsieze and Eternal Witness to become the very successful modern Survival deck. Landstill added Tarmogoyf and was able to play a much more flexible game against Aggro. Eva Green and Team America made very good use of Tombstalker to get through Counterbalance and fly over Tarmogoyfs for two mana. More recently, Affinity players are still incorporating all of their gifts from R&D, giving more tools to support a mechanic which is already good against Counterbalance.

Consider this deck which runs the very mana-intensive Life from the Loam engine:

MKM Loam
Christian Donner

4 Countryside Crusher
4 Dark Confidant
1 Eternal Witness
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Devastating Dreams
4 Duress
4 Life from the Loam
2 Raven’s Crime
2 Seismic Assault
2 Engineered Explosives
4 Mox Diamond
2 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Badlands
1 Bayou
2 Bloodstained Mire
2 Forest
3 Forgotten Cave
2 Mountain
2 Taiga
3 Tranquil Thicket
1 Volrath’s Stronghold
4 Wasteland
4 Wooded Foothills

1 Offalsnout
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Jund Charm
3 Krosan Grip
1 Devastating Dreams
4 Chalice of the Void
2 Engineered Explosives

Brainstorm, Force of Will, and Daze are among the most commonly played cards in the format currently, sometimes as support cards for Counterbalance. In an attempt to mitigate the power of these spells, players are playing with bigger creatures, higher casting cost threats, or just higher threat density. The result is that there are less Counterbalances and Counterspells, and more big threats and Tarmogoyfs. Tarmogoyf has become overrated in the process of trying it in every deck (which is a good practice). While Tarmogoyf is one of the best creatures ever printed, it does not win the game on its own and casting it is not a strategy. However, the trend towards Aggro decks to deal with all the disruption in the format is a strategy, and one that has had a big effect on Legacy. Playing more aggressive decks with land destruction instead of disruption is creating a big opportunity for one of the most powerful cards in the format — Lion’s Eye Diamond.

III. Storm

In my opinion, Counterbalance has become underrated again. It is not universally played in Threshold, and it is not always used in the best manner in the decks where it is played. It should be played as a four-of with support cards to make sure that it resolves early in the game. Counterbalance is not an overpowered card due to the redesigning of many decks to deal with it, but it can still generate significant card advantage even in matchups where it is not ideal. Your opponent must still make sure they do not play into Counterbalance, and even if they slow down and give you more time to set up, you will still end up countering a few spells anyway.

But as underplayed as Counterbalance might be, it is still not nearly as underappreciated as Lion’s Eye Diamond. Lion’s Eye Diamond not played enough partially due to the difficulty of mulliganing and the number of complex decisions required to play Storm decks, but it should be played due to its strength and the decreasing number of Counterbalance decks. Ad Nauseam Storm is fast, and has a good game against those decks with high threat density, land destruction, and mana curves which are somewhat protected from Counterbalance. Ad Nauseam Storm can win early in the game when there is little disruption, or play more safely with Duress and Orim’s Chant to make sure they don’t lose to all those Stifles running around.

Ad Nauseam
Gnesotto Carlo

2 Ad Nauseam
4 Brainstorm
4 Cabal Ritual
4 Dark Ritual
4 Mystical Tutor
4 Orim’s Chant
1 Rushing River
2 Duress
1 Ill-Gotten Gains
4 Infernal Tutor
4 Ponder
1 Tendrils of Agony
3 Chrome Mox
4 Lion’s Eye Diamond
4 Lotus Petal
4 Flooded Strand
2 Island
4 Polluted Delta
1 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]
1 Swamp
1 Tundra
1 Underground Sea

4 Dark Confidant
1 Brain Freeze
1 Echoing Truth
2 Hurkyl’s Recall
3 Krosan Grip
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Duress
2 Tropical Island

Ad Nauseam is arguably the best card for Storm strategies since Infernal Tutor, and the deck is very underplayed. Ad Nauseam is the first combo card in Legacy that largely wins the game on its own if it resolves. Until this point, Storm decks had to rely on the clever chaining of spells to generate the storm necessary to kill the opponent. This either made them very weak to counterspells (Ill-Gotten Gains) or inconsistent and difficult to cast (Diminishing Returns). But with Ad Nauseam, you just need to resolve it with enough mana to make use of the cards you draw. This means that Burning Wish is no longer an essential part of the deck (although burning wish is still very good). The entire Storm engine remains protected by Orim’s Chant. There are enough mana generators at each cost that Counterbalance can’t effectively stop the Storm deck from winning once Ad Nauseam resolves, and it will almost never counter the Ad Nauseam with a Force of Will on top of the library. The Counterbalance deck must either Force of Will the Ad Nauseum directly or have an additional relevant counter, such as Counterspell (Daze is not likely to work). Counterbalance decks do have a favorable matchup, but it’s worse than it has ever been against Storm. And the Storm decks themselves have a much easier time against the rest of the format. Without having to worry about Counterspells, Mystical Tutor for Ad Nauseam avoids discard and ends the game quickly. Orim’s Chant and Duress prevent interference, and stop any other Combo decks from winning first. Ad Nauseam Storm is very good already, but there is plenty of room for refinement and adaptation before the GP.

In addition, the metagame is very favorable for this strategy. Counterbalance and Standstill decks have been popular choices by veterans and pros at recent tournaments in the United States, and these decks are the current design targets of Legacy. Aggressive decks with higher threat densities and land destruction are some of the more popular choices for beating these strategies. Storm, in turn, is a very good answer for these decks.

IV. Old Surprises

Just as older decks have been retuned to fight Counterbalance, some older decks have also been redesigned that have a fair amount of disruption for Storm decks. Stax was played at Worlds, and this archetype has been receiving more attention in the past year in general. 5/3 variants have always been some of my favorite decks, as they generally use two underrated cards, Ancient Tomb and Chalice of the Void. There are a lot of design options for these decks due to the flood of solid threats printed in the last year or two and their strength against the disruption-heavy Aggro-Control decks.

MKM Aggro Stax
Jens Gaudian

4 Aven Mindcensor
4 Exalted Angel
3 Glowrider
4 Windborn Muse
4 Armageddon
3 Oblivion Ring
4 Suppression Field
4 Chalice of the Void
4 Chrome Mox
3 Crucible of Worlds
3 Trinisphere
4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Traitors
3 Flagstones of Trokair
6 Plains
3 Wasteland

3 Magus of the Tabernacle
2 Stonecloaker
3 Aura of Silence
4 Ghostly Prison
3 Defense Grid

Oscar Reoyo

4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Frogmite
4 Master of Etherium
4 Myr Enforcer
4 Ornithopter
4 Somber Hoverguard
4 Force of Will
4 Thoughtcast
4 Chalice of the Void
3 Chrome Mox
4 Cranial Plating
4 Ancient Tomb
4 Darksteel Citadel
1 Island
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Wasteland

2 Echoing Truth
3 Mana Leak
2 Powder Keg
4 Thorn of Amethyst
4 Tormod’s Crypt

Consider this deck built around Pernicious Deed, one of the strongest cards in the format but hardest to support in its colors:

Legacy Rock
Manuel Heiler

4 Dark Confidant
1 Eternal Witness
1 Genesis
4 Shriekmaw
4 Tarmogoyf
1 Tombstalker
4 Troll Ascetic
2 Putrefy
4 Duress
4 Thoughtseize
4 Pernicious Deed
2 Sensei’s Divining Top
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
4 Bayou
4 Forest
3 Polluted Delta
3 Polluted Delta
3 Swamp
1 Volrath’s Stronghold
4 Wasteland
3 Wooded Foothills

2 Extirpate
3 Krosan Grip
3 Engineered Plague
4 Leyline of the Void
3 Pithing Needle

These decks enjoy high synergy and have very good plans against both Counterbalance and Storm decks. They also have a great surprise value, as your opponent is not likely to know the cards either in your deck or your sideboard. However, they may be weaker or less consistent than more well-known decks. Affinity may also struggle with artifact hate, but 5/3 and Rock are not likely to. There are a large number of designs such as these that can easily incorporate strong new cards while still maintaining a large surprise factor.

Adopting cards from the last two sets can change matchups and sideboarding plans significantly, so there is still a lot of potential to revive older strategies. GP: Chicago is going to have a fair amount of Aggro-Control decks, but also popular will be the Aggro decks designed to ignore the Counterbalance engine and trump Tarmogoyfs in various ways. Tombstalker is starting to be used in amounts more appropriate to its power, and 5C Zoo and Affinity decks have a wide variety of new creatures to play with from the last year or so. I think we will even see the revival of some decks built around Aether Vial, possibly even a new Faeries build. Goblins will of course be present, but in numbers lower than we have ever seen at a GP before due to the strong Aggro presence in the format.

V. Fundamentals

Legacy is still experiencing a period of unprecedented diversity. However, tournaments in North America have been smaller and less frequent, which has the effect of metagame fragmentation, and gives the illusion that the diversity is more stable than it really is. This has been a very fruitful time for design, and many new areas are being explored. In fact, there are so many new ideas that the best cards in the format are being underused. This is going to become apparent at the GP when the decks built around the best cards perform more consistently over a large number of rounds. In my opinion, success at Chicago will depend on how consistently the Storm decks can be played, and how well designers of decks with high threat density can deal with Storm decks and still handle Counterbalance effectively.

Christopher Coppola

Editor’s Section – Vote For Unlocking Legacy!

It’s StarCityGames.com Awards season, and time for you to make your votes heard! The poll below contains five of the Unlocking Legacy column’s most popular articles from 2008. Cast your vote before Sunday and choose your favorite… it’ll then go head-to-head with a host of other articles to determine the StarCityGames.com 2008 Article of the Year!

Thanks for your input on this, guys. Every article this week will contain a similar poll, so be sure to vote for your favorites!