Unlocking Legacy – Making More Playables: How to Design Cards Legacy Players Love

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Wednesday, October 29th – A few months ago, Chris Coppola wrote an article entitled “Legacy and Alara Design”. I commented on the forums that I thought it was interesting and thought-provoking, but that it needed to become more concrete. In other words, tell us whether you think this is good or not and where design needs to go to make good Legacy cards. After some thought I decided that if he was not going to write that article, I would…

A few months ago, Chris Coppola wrote an article entitled “Legacy and Alara Design”. I commented on the forums that I thought it was interesting and thought-provoking, but that it needed to become more concrete. In other words, tell us whether you think this is good or not and where design needs to go to make good Legacy cards. After some thought I decided that if he was not going to write that article, I would. I think many players have done it: “If only X card existed, this deck would be the best.” In fact, that kind of thinking was what made Tezzeret the Seeker so exciting for me! I had said to a friend, “If only there was a four or five mana non-creature win condition for Stax.” and voila! But this article is not intended as an exercise in wish fulfillment, but a look at recent cards that have been Legacy successful and an attempt to develop some guidelines for developers to create good Legacy cards and players to recognize them.

The first category of Legacy cards is the most obvious: creatures. Recently Legacy has gotten Tarmogoyf, Magus of the Moon, Tombstalker, Shriekmaw, Demigod of Revenge, Painter’s Servant, Wild Nacatl and Qasali Ambusher. Three of these (Tarmogoyf, Tombstalker, and Demigod) are giant creatures; Legacy players are always on the lookout for new finishers for board-control and counter-control decks, and players especially love cheap finishers. Tarmogoyf was a mistake, but Demigod and Tombstalker are well designed cards. They are powerful creatures with weird mana requirements that let them be played earlier than they should given their power level.

Delve especially is a mechanic with plenty of potential for Legacy. One of the omnipresent tensions is the fight to choose spells playable around Counterbalance that will not be stopped by Daze or opposing Wasteland. Delve potentially lets players play spells at weird mana costs and still play them before turn infinity. And because the power level of Legacy is so much higher than Standard, there is a risk that creating Legacy playable creatures makes absolutely broken creatures in Standard. Goblin Lackey was banned even in Extended and Morphling and Psychatog revolutionized entire formats, but Lackey is a fair card and the other two are barely played in Legacy. Any creature cheap enough to see play that could beat Tarmogoyf on the merits would likely be too powerful for Standard, and Wizards of the Coast R&D seems reluctant to print cards only to immediately ban them in the Constructed formats. But Delve is an excellent way to make cards cheap enough to play in Legacy, the home of fetchlands and Dark Ritual powered disruption, while still keeping them expensive enough to be fair in Standard. Delve also naturally complements multiple colored mana symbols on the same card, which lets Wizards print good cards that the blue decks won’t immediately co-opt, if the goal is to make a balanced metagame. Initially the delve cards were dramatically overcosted; Death Rattle costs 6! What about a –X/-X spell or a Disembowel with Delve? Legacy players could remove Goblin Lackey on the draw, but at a cost.

Legacy is predominantly a creature-based format, so creature solutions are often preferred. They can attack, block if they have to, and interact well with already entrenched cards like Survival of the Fittest and Volrath’s Stronghold. Creatures with unique or near-unique abilities like Painter’s Servant, Trinket Mage, or Imperial Recruiter will always be treated favorably. This also allows Wizards to keep them out of the hands of the degenerate Vintage players, since being on a creature’s body forces the cost of the card up out of the range of combo, much like the goal of Beseech the Queen. If the success of Makeshift Mannequin is any indication, these cards will be hits in Constructed. The evoke creatures are huge successes for a similar reason as Delve. Legacy players especially need options. Bringing back kicker creatures would do some similar things, as long as there isn’t a huge jump between the options like there once was. Instead of focusing on a 1/1 for 1 that becomes a 6/6 for 9, what about a 2/3 for 2 that becomes a 3/4 or a 4/5 flying if you pay a few more mana for it. The non-kicked version of the creature has to be playable in order to make an attractive creature. This is why the flips haven’t caught on; not only are the flipped versions not worth the effort in Legacy, but the fronts are all too weak in comparison to Goblin Warchief or Tarmogoyf. Vexing Shusher is a great example; some Legacy players adamantly hate decks that counter your spells. Having more ways to stop counters can only make the format healthier. Gaddock Teeg failed because it was not a good enough creature on its own and you could not protect it with Force of Will; Shusher fits into tribal synergies. Putting a Tribal stamp on many cards will make them more exciting in Legacy. I know this was a block mechanic, but it is definitely worth resurrecting.

A special note on creatures: we don’t get enough well-costed creatures with keywords. Troll Ascetic is one of the few creatures with Shroud that are costed right to see play, and there less than a dozen creatures that see play regularly that fly. With Faeries in Standard right now, flying is everywhere, but good flying creatures, especially with any sort of durability, are at a premium. People have played Tarmogoyf next to 4/3 for 3 with a drawback just because it flies. Suntail Hawk is too weak for the format and Serra Angel is too expensive, but a few good fliers in between the two extremes would likely find a home, if for no other reason than because they fly over Tarmogoyf. Also, Legacy players will be willing to pay more for creatures if they have some durability and have shown a willingness to play otherwise awful creatures because they have a relevant protection ability (like Spectral Lynx). Right now, the two main risks to creatures are Green (Tarmogoyf) and White (Swords to Plowshares). Look in the exact opposite direction as Oversoul of Dusk.

For better or for worse, Legacy is an extremely open metagame. One round might bring a WW port with Soltari Priests and Umezawa’s Jitte and the next might bring Survival of the Fittest and a powerful recursion engine or a Counterbalance-Top deck. Increasingly decks are turning to more inefficient but flexible removal; to complement their counters, people are playing Pernicious Deed, Oblivion Ring, Engineered Explosives and they’re now looking at the new charms that can both kill a creature and remove a Counterbalance. These are good steps, and versatility is always a good way to make spells that can compete with Swords to Plowshares without making something strictly worse or better. I think now is a good time to re-evaluate Treva’s Charm since it can remove a Tarmogoyf or a Counterbalance.

If Wizards were to complete the Volrath’s Stronghold/Academy Ruins “cycle”, the next step is Enchantments. Unfortunately we likely won’t see a card like this in the Alara set (despite the rumors, none of the Shards focus on enchantments), but Legacy players often prefer similar artifacts to enchantments because of Academy Ruins. Such a card would likely be white instead of green which is unfortunate because for the control decks that are unwilling to splash white.

Transmute and Xcycling (Wizardcycling, for instance) were both awesome tutors schemes that have more potential in Legacy. They are often too narrow or expensive to contribute to the Storm combo decks, but they make decks that appeal to Johnnies much more exciting. Tutoring has always been powerful in Legacy; look at the success of Imperial Recruiter or Survival of the Fittest. Again the problem is that as pure tutors, since we have access to the Mirage tutors, Wishes and Gamble, these tend to fall on their faces when the frontside is poor. There are many circumstances where I would be willing to play a narrow tutor if it sometimes also did something cool like kill a creature or draw some cards or remove an enchantment. Almost no one played the Transmute creatures from Ravnica as anything other than a tutor, but they were still played a fair amount. This is a sign to print some good cards with transmute on them. This also gives you an excuse to overcost these creatures slightly in order to help them get around Counterbalance.

Control Magic effects are awesome; Control Magic, Threads of Disloyalty, Sower of Temptation and Vedalken Shackles all see play. What about a similar effect for artifacts or enchantments? Right now the best answer we have for these is either mass removal in the form of Engineered Explosives and Pernicious Deed, or narrow answers like Krosan Grip. Narrow Control Magic for Artifacts or Enchantments might bridge the gap between the hard to play Commandeer and the overly narrow Carry Away. Plus you would get extra mileage in Standard until Alara rotates from such an effect.

With the exception of some narrow Tezzeret or Jace use, Planeswalkers have been somewhat unexciting for us. They seem to cost too much and do too little in spite of being immune to a lot of removal. Even if you play a blocker (and a few of the Planeswalkers can produce blockers), they are too vulnerable to “Swords to Plowshares on your blocker, attack your Planeswalker with Tarmogoyf.” There is some potential here, but most of the Planeswalkers are too expensive for the purely beatdown decks, and the abilities are sorcery speed which is weak enough the reactive decks.

Oh, and draw spells. Fact or Fiction was probably the best fair draw spell ever printed. You keep trying to make interesting cards like that in order to make lightning strike twice. The problem is that they have huge upsides and end up costing 5 mana at sorcery speed. Legacy is really suffering from the lack of a good draw or filtering spell between the 1 mana cantrips like Ponder and the three mana spells like Thirst for Knowledge. There is not a good way to gain card advantage at less than three mana other than Standstill or Ancestral Visions. Truth or Tale was an awesome idea, but you don’t get more than one card out of it, so it suffers in comparison to Impulse, a card which already suffers in comparison to Ponder. Legacy will continue to tend towards the slower Standstill or Intuition based decks until we get playable draw spells; otherwise these decks have no way to compensate for drawing more blanks than an 18-land Threshold deck. Some sort of two mana spell that gets you one more card than it costs would fill a huge gap in the card pool.

I’d really like to encourage discussion in the forums about the kinds of cards Legacy could use. We know Wizards of the Coast R&D at least browsers articles on the Internet, so this might be an excellent opportunity to speak directly to them.

Follow-up on Planeswalkers and Avatars
First, Tezzeret Stax. The design of the Tezzeret deck forces the pilot to be reckless in a way that I didn’t understand even after dozens of matches. Ensnaring Bridge forces you to dump your hand or risk losing your Planeswalker. You have to pitch lands from your hand instead of recurring them with Crucible while at the same time keeping a land in hand in case you draw Mox Diamond. The Tezzeret decisions are also tricky; are you willing to throw away a win condition just to tutor something up? And yes, often the correct play is to throw away a Tezzeret just to get a Trinisphere or a Crucible of Worlds. In many ways the deck is much harder to play than Flame Vault-based Stax builds ever were because the decisions are more difficult and the opposing decks are better.

The common criticism from last week was that there weren’t enough blue sources. This was sort of true; in my testing I only rarely didn’t have enough blue sources. I did make one swap, turning the second Academy Ruins (I have yet to activate this card) into another Seat of the Synod or Tundra. It’s more common to need White and only have a Seat of the Synod. The more common problem is seeing too many Ancient Tombs; a hand with two Ancient Tombs is keepable but only barely. I’ve come to really like Crystal Vein, and I am strongly considering swapping out a Crystal Vein for the 4th Ancient Tomb.

I’ve also been toying with the slot held by Dream Tides and the sideboard. The answer to the first question sort of scares me because of how much better Ensnaring Bridge is than all the Propaganda effects; Ensnaring Bridge has been better most of the time (every match except Goblins, basically). Consequently I’m now running two in the maindeck (in place of Dream Tides), but I’m starting to consider moving over to Moat. I fought this move for a long time because it doesn’t put a resource drain on the opponent, but the opponent paying for Tarmogoyf to swing can simply be awkward. Most of the time two Propaganda effects are enough, and four mana is significantly more than three in this deck, but I’m starting to considering changing directions with the creature control suite. Has anyone looked at Moat or Humility in a Stax shell before?

I wish I had a tuned sideboard for you; I don’t. Not only is making a generalized sideboard a difficult exercise to begin with, but most cards in the deck don’t move in or out. I’ve been considering Stasis, Orb of Dreams, Sphere of Resistance, Powder Keg, extra Smokestacks, and even the Leyline of the Void/Helm of Obedience package against Ichorid.

4 Trinisphere
4 Crucible of Worlds
4 Chalice of the Void
4 Winter Orb
4 Propaganda
4 Mana Vortex
2 Ghostly Prison
2 Ensnaring Bridge
1 Smokestack
3 Tezzeret the Seeker
4 Mox Diamond
3 Seat of the Synod
1 Polluted Delta
1 Flooded Strand
1 Island
2 Tundra
4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Traitors
3 Crystal Vein
4 Wasteland
1 Academy Ruins

Winter Orb was a late addition to the deck but has been absolutely awesome. One of the main reasons to play a deck like this is because of how many mistakes it lets your opponents make. Most Legacy opponents will screw up because they have no idea when to play creatures and skip turns untapping to Winter Orb or when to play creatures versus when they should attack for 1 or 2.

Also, I’d like to thank reader Andrew Knies for pointing out the use of Academy Ruins to maintain a hard lock with Smokestack/Mana Vortex without Crucible of Worlds. He reminds that you can float mana from your upkeep into your draw step (because they’re part of the same Beginning of Turn Phase) so you can tap a Seat of the Synod, sacrifice it to Mana Vortex or Smokestack, then pay 2 mana and use Academy Ruins to put Seat of the Synod back on top. I’ve missed this a few times because I’m too conditioned to love my draw step, but it he is right in that it can be an excellent way to maintain a hard lock. Thanks!

The Demigod-Intuition deck has been awesome for me when I haven’t been toying with Stax. It is still as extremely powerful as it ever was, and the metagaming decisions make interesting challenges. I’d also like to congratulate Max McCall for making Top 4 at a tournament with the deck and convincing more people of the deck’s power. I’ve been playing the deck a lot locally, and I think I really hit on the right combination of cards. I feel very good about my Dragon Stompy matchup: it’s slightly favorable in game 1 situations and better than that in post-board play. Not bad considering the deck could also never beat Dragon Stompy before. The basic Swamp in the maindeck seems like a throwaway, but it actually turns out to be really awesome. On the easiest ways for Dragon Stompy to win games is some sequence of turn 1 Blood Moon, turn 2 giant guy. If you can fetch the basic Swamp, you have tons more outs to this play. A basic Island is still more important, but the basic Swamp is awesome. The maneuvering over Blood Moon in this matchup is very interesting to me. Blood Moon turns off Urborg, which means a Blood Moon can force you to make a sixth land drop to play Demigod in the games where you fetched out a basic Island. This means that counter-intuitively, in the games where they don’t get an early Blood Moon, sometimes it is correct to never fetch a basic Island, mostly in the games where you have an early Tarmogoyf. In these games you can let your opponent play a Blood Moon and do your work for you. The biggest mistake you can make in this matchup is probably to fetch out the second basic Island; this means you can almost never play Demigod through Blood Moon.

The worst matchup actually seems to be Goblins. So many of your opening hands are awkward on the first few turns but quickly sort themselves out mana-wise with Intuition into Life from the Loam. So only decks that can give you problems here start to be real threats, since it becomes nearly impossible for you to lose post-Intuition. Sadly, turn 1 Goblin Lackey turn 2 Wasteland is still as potent as it ever was, and the mana is too untenable to include Swords to Plowshares. I had looked into including Plumeveil into the sideboard, and it was almost awesome. The problem is that the deck is built to just barely get two blue mana together for Counterbalance; three blue mana is impossible. Plumeveil is almost the perfect card if the mana were to come together; you win far far more of the games against Goblins where you draw an early Tarmogoyf, so the goal is to find another way to play a guy on turn 2 that stops the entire Goblins offense. What about Qasali Ambusher? Sideboarding Ambushers and a Savannah will both up your land count to make Wasteland less of an issue and also give you the ability to sit on a fetchland and have an answer on the draw to Lackey draws. I have not heard a lot of discussion about the Ambusher which is sad because I think the Cat is an awesome answer to Goblins. The problem really becomes if you can spare the sideboard slots; in many metagames Blue Elemental Blast serves double time as a Rakdos Pit-Dragon or Blood Moon removal spell.

Kevin Binswanger

P.S. – Raven’s Crime is still ridiculous. Wasteland plus Deception every turn is very silly.

P.P.S. – Don’t ban Sensei’s Divining Top.