Unlocking Legacy – Living in the Threshold Metagame

Read Legacy articles every week... at StarCityGames.com!Monday, February 18th – Threshold is here to stay, and it has begun to cast a Counterbalance-sized shadow over the metagame. Kevin is here to light your way and present his thoughts on how to deal with the Tarmogoyf menace.

I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.
Charles Darwin

Threshold is the best deck. Hardly anyone disputes this anymore; the deck has proven itself both by showing up everywhere and by taking Top 8 slots and tournament wins in the places that it shows up. More importantly, Threshold has a format-warping effect in the same way that Goblins does. Not in a “this deck should be banned” way but in a “if you expect to do well at a tournament, you need to know how to deal with Threshold and its anti-decks” way. Counterbalance fundamentally changes the way midrange decks, or decks that play a board control position against Threshold, attack Threshold. With an active Counterbalance, or even the threat of Counterbalance, it becomes difficult for the midrange player to play a game of attrition and finally land one big creature. The rule “it’s always the last fattie that kills you” is stretched when the first two or three fatties, like Tarmogoyf, were all stopped by the same card. And even if you build a deck that beats Threshold every time, you still have to cope with all the anti-Threshold decks that are popping up, playing cards like Blood Moon, Back to Basics, and Pernicious Deed.

More on Threshold and Threads of Disloyalty

I did not take my analysis to the logical conclusion last month, so it is time to correct that. I spent a lot of time talking about how evasion creatures are the logical trump in the Threshold matchup. And yet I still have Threads of Disloyalty in my sideboard. Don’t misunderstand, Threads of Disloyalty is a ridiculous card, and I will gladly side them against the mirror, even if he only has Tarmogoyf to steal with them. (Aside: What’s the proper plural for Tarmogoyf? I could support Tarmogeese, Tarmogoyfs, Tarmogoyfim, or even Tarmogoyf as the plural of Tarmogoyf. It’s really awkward to discuss without a good syntax. End Aside.) There is nothing more unfortunate than seeing a Tombstalker or a Mystic Enforcer you cannot deal with, and frowning incessantly at the Threads of Disloyalty in your hand. I’ve started looking at alternatives instead, and there are two good ones: Control Magic and Sower of Temptation. I had initially discarded Control Magic as an option because I thought that four mana was far too much to pay in the Threshold mirror, but after a lot of mirror testing I started realizing how slow the mirror actually is. These two options have two main advantages: the first is that they can steal larger men, and Sea Drake and Fledgling Dragon are gaining popularity from Threshold. The second is that you’re less likely to be randomly countered by the opponent flipping up Threads of Disloyalty or Krosan Grip through a Counterbalance. Many opponents will float a three-mana spell to counter Krosan Grip, but they are less likely to have fours; they will only have the possibility of Enforcer or Dragon and if they board into Control Magic or Sowers. The general disadvantage is that fours are significantly easier to Daze out of the game than threes, because making each additional land drop is harder. Then again, I have rarely had a problem getting up to Mystic Enforcer mana, so I’m not convinced that is a huge downside.

The main difference between Control Magic and Sower is what they lose to. Control Magic loses to the uncounterable Krosan Grip just as hard as Threads of Disloyalty does. Out of the standard 75, that is all Control Magic loses to. Sower is immune to Threads, but it is vulnerable to Stifle and Swords to Plowshares/Lightning Bolt/Ghastly Demise. Personally I am working to find a good mix of Threads and Sower for the metagame. At least I can counter a Swords to Plowshares on my Sower…


At Grand Prix: Philadelphia, Chris Pikula played a BW disruption deck built around punishing Legacy players for their terrible manabases. That was part of a cycle of Legacy with Goblins fulfilling the same role. First, some deck like Goblins (or BW Confidant) has a high profile finish. Then as Goblins’s legacy grows, peace settles across the galaxy. People build decks with more solid manabases, avoiding extra splashes to keep a good game against Goblins. Consequently the disruptive decks fall off the radar because their prey is not nearly as vulnerable as it used to be, and those decks stop making finishes. Then people start to get complacent and build stronger, multi-colored decks. You all know this part of the story: “A new horrible menace threatened the galaxy. Goblins was needed once more.”

Back when Wizards of the Coast printed Tarmogoyf I pointed out this cycle and warned players to be cautious of it. History repeated itself differently, and it may be enough to break the cycle. What’s different? Threshold is playing the mana denial game. Stifle and Wasteland has been a common occurrence in high-placing Threshold lists since Worlds, and this keeps other decks honest. Even mono-colored lists can be caught with their pants down by a judicious Stifle. Stifle is nothing new, but Stifle plus Wasteland in a deck that has a reasonable Plan B has been a significant deterrence to lax manabases.

The combination of Stifle and Wasteland has solidly put me on the weird Dan Spero Threshold manabase with fetchlands to access basic lands of all colors. Too often in testing I lost because I needed to fetch a superfluous land to cast something like Threads of Disloyalty, got Wastelanded off Swords to Plowshares or Tarmogoyf mana, and lost. Here is a common situation in the Threshold mirror where the manabase pays off. Work with this starting hand: “Island, Flooded Strand, Windswept Heath, Ponder, Tarmogoyf, Force of Will, Swords to Plowshares “…? The safe play is turn 1 Island, Ponder. On turn 2 play out one of the fetchlands and pass. On turn 3, you play the other fetchland and crack it to play Tarmogoyf. If you can fetch a basic Forest here, you are in a much better position. If you do not have the Forest, your opponent can easily Wasteland you off an entire color of mana, and suddenly you have to spend vital draw phases on lands instead of powerful spells. I lost games in testing because I did not have the basic land to get, my opponent Wastelanded my Tropical Island and I was cut off from Green and lost. Now yes, this example is constructed to show something specific, and the exact situation does not come up often because there are only 2 Windswept Heaths. It works the same way if you play a turn 2 Counterbalance. You end up having to choose whether to fetch a basic Island, a Tropical Island, or a Tundra (or whichever your splash is). You risk exposing one of your colors to Wasteland and falling way behind.

The disadvantage of playing this way is that it is difficult to access Counterbalance if you fetch out basic Plains and basic Forests. This is a decision you have to make how to play based on your hand, but it is better to have the option to play Wasteland-immune. This definitely helps in the Goblins matchup in particular. Then again, I often try to lead out with Counterbalance because it is better earlier.

Last month I said, “for a time I was enamored of Patrick Chapin four-color build of Threshold, until I started dropping games to Dragon Stompy because I had zero basics.” Right after that article went to the presses, the Hatfields – Threshold brother sages – put Blood Moon into Threshold. Their manabases had 4 basics as well; they eschewed a basic Mountain though. Apparently you do not need a basic Mountain if you are running Blood Moon. Go figure. The point is, you can no longer afford to build terrible manabases and use fetchlands as a crutch. Anyone else remember Chapin’s Aluren deck with 12 fetchlands but only 10 lands to fetch with it? That deck may be able to find its way around a Wasteland, but it gets completely wrecked by Blood Moon. There is also a huge difference between Blood Moon and Wasteland. I have been in many situations where my opponent could have Wastelanded me out of the game, but they did not because they needed the mana; casting Wasteland does not fit into their plans. Expect Threshold players to be far more aggressive with their Blood Moons than their Wastelands.

There is one good thing to be said about the presence of Blood Moon in a lot of decks; it forces many people off Wastelands. There were two ways one could direct their Threshold build: with multiple basics, or with Wastelands and no basics. If you are running or expect many Blood Moons, you have to run the basic lands. For you, you can afford to be a little looser with your fetching in many circumstances because while the manabases will get better on the whole, the number of Wastelands will go down. Especially the deck that tend to run Blood Moon will not tend to run Wasteland. It does not often come up, but sometimes remembering that fact will help you win. Sometimes you need to fetch nonbasics against a Blood Moon player, so it is good that they cannot punish you uncounterably.

In the same way, expect to see a fair amount of Dragon Stompy popping up in recent months. This was the Ancient Tomb-based Big Red deck that a handful of pros played at worlds. It is actually a fairly inexpensive deck for Standard players, because the staples are all common to the Constructed formats: Chrome Mox, Umezawa’s Jitte, Pithing Needle, Demonfire, Sword of Fire and Ice. The rest of the deck are cheaper rares and uncommons, and in fact there is a movement to port the deck to Extended. But seriously, Arc Slogger, Blood Moon, and Jitte? Virtual immunity to Counterbalance and the ability to smash with monsters that Threshold cannot handle? It laughs at Threshold’s Blood Moons and eats Tarmogoyfs for breakfast. I suggest not taking all the Red Elemental Blasts out of your sideboard.

So What Do I Play?

Threshold. No seriously, when asked earlier this week to define the Tier 1, I said “Threshold.” When asked to define the Tier 2, I think I asked, “Do I have to?” There are not many decks I would not want to play because with the right sideboard cards, you can do quite a bit of format wrecking. Blood Moon is one notable example, but other suggested cards include Thoughtseize, Extirpate, and even going into the Dreadnought/Stifle combo. So seriously guys, play the best deck.

… Still here? Okay, if Threshold is not for you, I have some other suggestions. There has actually been a fair amount of Aluren popping up in the last few days. I was always sort of a fan of Aluren, but it seems like an easy way to break around Counterbalance. With Walls you can block Nimble Mongoose forever and go to Man o’ War to bounce Tarmogoyf whenever it becomes a problem. All you would have to do game 1 is force an Aluren down and find an off-casting-cost way to remove Counterbalance. Harmonic Sliver is seeing play for this exact reason. All the relevant cards in the deck (Intuition, Imperial Recruiter, Harmonic Sliver) cost three and will never lose to Counterbalance, so you only need to get a Cavern Harpy to resolve. Postboard they get Krosan Grip, but the games are going to go even slower so you have ample time to find Cabal Therapy or Duress. They get Krosan Grip and you get Pernicious Deed. It hardly seems fair.

Right now, three-mana cards, and to a lesser extent fours, are my favorite tools to beat Threshold. At one point a few weeks ago I was in love with Trygon Predator, and in fact a few other people have caught the bug. You know what also costs three? Countryside Crusher and Terravore. I think the word is out, but let me be completely clear: Countryside Crusher is absolutely ridiculous. I went all-in on turn 2 with Countryside Crusher against Threshold, lost all my lands to Wasteland but still won, smashing through five or six creatures. You know what is even better with Countryside Crusher and Terravore? Life from the Loam. Sadly, Life from the Loam has poor synergy with an opposing Counterbalance set to 2, but not everybody can win all the time. The deck practically builds itself out of powerful cards with synergy that Threshold hates to see: Countryside Crusher and Terravore (giant men Tarmogoyf beats), Tarmogoyf, Life from the Loam, Volrath’s Stronghold (Threshold hates recursion), Shriekmaw (un-Counterbalanceable way to remove Goyfs). In my testing I went Blue for Force of Will and the ridiculously powerful Intuition, but I could also see Gifts Ungiven to better get around Counterbalance, or black to get access to Thoughtseize and Cabal Therapy or Duress. Here was my list:

1 Forest
1 Island
2 Wasteland
4 Wooded Foothills
3 Lonely Sandbar
1 Maze of Ith
4 Polluted Delta
3 Tropical Island
3 Volcanic Island
1 Underground Sea
1 Volrath’s Stronghold
1 Academy Ruins

2 Shriekmaw
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Terravore
4 Countryside Crusher

4 Mox Diamond
2 Engineered Explosives
4 Force of Will
4 Brainstorm
4 Intuition
1 Life from the Loam
4 Daze

Surprisingly, the biggest problem for this deck is Stifle rather than counters or Counterbalance. You can get around Counterbalance easily, and Intuition resolving is usually a green light to cast your spells. It is a kick in the junk of nuclear proportions when Intuition resolves, you fetch Engineered Explosives, Engineered Explosives, Academy Ruins and your opponent Stifles your Explosives. If they get ahead on board, it becomes easy for them to Stifle your Strongholds or give you slow Intuition stacks in order to keep beating with Tarmogoyfs.

That was just Aggro-Loam with a lot of the horrible or situational cards removed since today you cannot depend on Life from the Loam ever resolving. Cephalid Breakfast is a great combo deck, but it suffers from running headlong into Counterbalance. I have another suggestion that is more off the wall, but first, the best advice I can possibly give you. Want to get better at Magic? Play Magic! And I do not just mean play more Legacy, but play Magic whenever you can. If you pay attention, you get information and analysis from playing all the other formats. Extended and Legacy are particularly close right now, the only noticeable differences are some of the rituals and artifact mana, Force of Will, Swords to Plowshares, and Mind’s Desire. Extended prompted some close looks at cards we are not currently playing like Meekstone (Breakfast?) or Sower of Temptation. But what about Doran the Siege Tower and Extended powerhouses? This gem actually comes from playing Elder Dragon Highlander, which is a format that interests a lot of judges. Judges tend to be intensely creative and clever people who watch a lot of Magic and have a lot of ideas but not necessarily tournaments to play them in. In other words, a perfect idea mine. (To read more about EDH, check out Peter Jahn article here) A deck in EDH is often an answer to the question “How would you build around one creature if you could be guaranteed to see it.” It turns out that Doran the Siege Tower is good place to start. Daru Spiritualist combos well with Doran, and then you might as well add en-Kor creatures. All of a sudden I had a Legacy deck: putting Doran the Siege Tower into the life decks. Why not? Your kill takes up less space you get access to more disruption, including Thoughtseize to buy time. Lightning Greaves protects you from Swords to Plowshares, and with Doran in the deck instead of gaining infinite life you can just bash for a billion. You still get access to Aether Vial, but thanks to the wonders of diversified casting costs, you can cast things around Counterbalance if you need to, or remove it with Krosan Grip or Harmonic Sliver. Your backup plan is slightly better than just beating down with Tarmogoyfs. The other neat thing is that you can play Shuko. Before Doran comes down, Shuko is actually quite good since your Tarmogoyf will always be bigger than theirs. You also get access to Survival of the Fittest to access the entire combo.

I realize that not everything in this article will appeal to everyone. This is sort of a progress update on the decks I’ve been working with. Some of the ideas I have been having a reasonable amount of success, like the Crusher deck with Intuition. Some, like the Doran deck, just seem like interesting ideas that I may not have time to develop, so I am posting it in the hopes that other people will get success out of it. Good luck!

Kevin Binswanger
[email protected]