Unlocking Legacy – More Than Mere Survival

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Monday, May 26th – Do these decks have what it takes to survive? Doug pores over four new Survival of the Fittest builds, evaluating their potential for current play and seeing if they solve the problems that have typically plagued Survival decks. Should you play the straightforward Survival Advantage deck, planning for a consistent stream of Green men? Is the classic Full English Breakfast kill worth revisiting? What would it take to make Slivers playable in Legacy? All this, plus the hottest Survival tech cards in this week’s Unlocking Legacy!

What an exciting beginning to the summer! In my personal life, I’ve matriculated to Indiana University Law School, furthering my theory that in ten years, all magic players will be lawyers. In the Magic scene, I’m thrilled because I’ve been seeing the resurgence of one of my favorite deck types, Survival of the Fittest builds. I’m looking forward to showing you four very different decks this week and exploring new directions.

Survival of the Fittest provides a deck an amazing lategame, but at the cost of a lot of mana each turn and some dedicated spots in a deck for things like Squee. The classic foil to the strategy is to overwhelm the deck before it can stabilize, usually accomplished through Goblins or making ten spells and storming someone out. The former strategy is on the decline, and storm decks have historically rarely represented much of the metagame.

The other problem faced by Survival builds is what to do when one does not have access to its namesake card. R/G Survival Advantage took care of this problem with playing generally strong creatures, while other builds that relied more on the combination aspect of the engine card supported things like Brainstorm or Sensei’s Divining Top. The decks that I am investigating in this article all reasonably pass the worst-case test where one doesn’t draw the enchantment.

The first that I am presenting placed 5th in a 34-person event in Pawtucket:

There’s a divergence from the classical RGSA plan of Flametongue Kavu and Ravenous Baloth, and we’ve got Tarmogoyf to thank for that. It allows the extra mana for things like Thoughtseize and Cabal Therapy. The deck has really benefited from being able to move away from Duress into more aggressive discard elements. We end up with a deck having more power and less tricks, which I think is a good thing. There remain potent plays like a Big Game Hunter coming out of nowhere to kill a Goblin Piledriver, or a Burning Wished Tsunami clearing a player out of the game. One of the most destructive plays in the deck involves an early Thoughtseize followed with a Cabal Therapy. On top of this, the lucky player utilizes Eternal Witness to regrow the Therapy and completely strip out the opponent’s hand with two more castings. That can buy plenty of time to Wish for a bomb or play a Survival and dominate the board.

The sideboard could use a few improvements. It seems that Primal Command is out of place here; paying seven mana for any two of those abilities seems like a huge investment. I have an irrational love of clever things, but I’m sure that spot could go to something else. Shadowmoor was not, if I remember right, legal for this tournament. If it were, I’m sure we’d see Gleeful Sabotage over the Hull Breach and even perhaps Firespout over Rough / Tumble. I’d also be interested in integrating Faerie Macabre somewhere in the deck or sideboard; I’m unsure of whether Survival decks go for the singleton silver bullet or run four.

Spike Feeder may, in the future, become Kitchen Finks. One trades control over the back end of the lifegaining for a three-power pounder that just can’t stay down. I see Kitchen Finks actually revolutionizing a lot of RGSA-style decks, since it beats face and the lifegain really pulls one out against more aggressive strategies. It’s like the Wall of Blossoms or Spike Feeders of the past, except that the lifegain is in the Loxodon style. I’m not sure if Heartmender would be just too cute for such a deck, but apart from Swords to Plowshares, I don’t see how you stop that recursion outside of several removal spells at once. It’s certainly a strategy worth exploring further.

The next deck we’ll look at won a 44-person Duel for Duals in Valencia:

Things that I love in this include the presence of Pernicious Deed and Recurring Nightmare. The former gives a scary reset button at a cost that’s hard to Counterbalance out in the metagame. The latter enables some truly backbreaking card advantage. Note that Paco didn’t play any cards like Yosei that are only good when Nightmared out. I’m big on this; when you have recursion happening two or three times a turn, just recurring Shriekmaw and Loxodon Hierarch should do the trick.

I’d be interested in how the Vexing Shushers actually worked out. They’re not thrilling to me, to be honest. The deck is already tight on mana and it can be easily answered by decks that actually care about the Shusher. Since they seem best against Counterbalance, my inclination would be to find something like Indrik Stomphowler or Wispmare to handle the problem more directly. If a deck is countering spells not named Survival of the Fittest, it really doesn’t hurt the Survival player’s odds of pulling out the win, especially with pounders like Tarmogoyf lending support.

Some of the other cards seem out of place, such as Doran without helpers to pump up. I’d look at Kitchen Finks or even something like Tombstalker for that spot if someone is just looking for a cheap beater. Spore Frog also makes an appearance. Look, I get that some decks just crumble to this, but it’s four mana a turn that needs Survival to get in place! Four mana gets me a Tarmogoyf every turn with a spare nickel for a Coke. It gets Eternal Witness for a spent Swords to Plowshares. Apart from Dredge making an army of darkness and mobbing you, I don’t see how Spore Frog is actually more productive than just getting huge dudes.

All that said though, I think it’s a well-thought-out recursion deck and I’m pleased that it shies away from being clever. I like the simple manabase, with twenty-one lands providing a consistency in the face of Wastelands. I’m also big on the maindecked Swords to Plowshares, a theme we’ll see recurring in other decks in the article.

Let’s shift gears and look at one of the more combo-y Survival builds, Full English Breakfast. This build placed second in a 30-person event:

Full English Breakfast essentially combos thusly: put a Volrath’s Shapeshifter into play. Attack with it and make it look like Birds of Paradise to fly over blockers. Then make it play Phage and kill the opponent. It’s a cute trick but I’ve dismissed it before, due to the utter failure of the deck if you don’t actually see Survival.

This deck gets around such problems, thanks in a large part to the innovative Stifle-Nought plan that gives a solid B game. The deck also supports enough Blue cards for Force of Will. Between that and Stifle, I’d say this deck has a solid anti-combo game in the maindeck. With the combination kill, it doesn’t need much setup to actually seal the deal, meaning that it can sneak wins out from under aggressive decks.

To me, there are still a lot of cute cards in here. Hypnox is the most egregious; the goal with it is to have it in the graveyard when one resolves a Shapeshifter, blanking the opponent’s hand and never giving it back to them. I can’t remember if I’ve ever actually seen this resolve or matter. There’s also a lot of just general support and combo spots that seem weak. I get that Akroma flies, tramples, and has protection from a lot, but the most relevant ability there actually seems to be Haste. I’d like to see something with Haste and Shroud, something like Giant Solifuge, in that spot. The Dimir Infiltrator is an acceptable level of cuteness, fetching the Survival, pitching to Force, and sending Phage right for the heart. I’m not sure I understand the Mosswort Bridges, though. The ten power is only going to come from Dreadnoughts; it can be activated in response to the Dreadnought’s comes-into-play ability, but it doesn’t seem like it actually helps a whole lot. I suppose it puts surprise Akromii into play, but is that what the deck needs?

I would feel comfortable playing Full English Breakfast in an unknown metagame, since it allows for a lot of tricks and easy wins in the face of completely weird opposing decks. The Blue support in this deck gives it an extra punch, containing randomness and power plays. All in all, I think it’s built quite well, to Anne Cnossen’s credit.

The last deck we’ll look at placed 7th at the Pawtucket event discussed earlier. It follows:

Take some time to look at it. Admittedly, the first time I looked at the build, it seemed awful. All I do is play out synergistic creatures and weakly use Survival? Clearly, it can attack and ape a sliver beatdown deck in the absence of the engine card, but what’s the best it could do? The deck seemed like a worse RGSA deck, especially lacking in disruption elements.

It has one amazing card that it can support, however, and that card is Aether Vial. It seems like the reason to play the deck. Apart from fixing the manabase supremely, Vial also enables some savage Sliver combat tricks. Throwing down surprise Muscle Slivers to win attacks or effectively counterspelling a removal card with Crystalline Sliver are just some of the available options. Because of this, opponents should be very wary of an untapped Vial with two counters.

On the face of it, Slivers are kind of a poor strategy in my mind because all they do is get bigger and attack and sometimes fly. Nothing spectacular, indeed. They can be Counterbalance locked, Wrathed away, or simply stormed over. This changes with the ability to play more than one sliver a turn, due to Aether Vial, and the possibility of running singleton bullet slivers to shore up problems or create new threats. These two factors minimize the problem of a lack of disruption. To speak frankly, disruption may be overrated in the current metagame, at least in non-critical quantities. Sacrificing a series of one-for-one swaps for a stronger overall plan is doable, especially since Legacy isn’t terrifically fast at the moment.

The deck above, as it stands, needs a lot of changes. I talked about this with my teammate Rian Litchard; upon seeing the list, his first reaction was “why isn’t the best sliver in there?” Upon probing, he said he’d swap Plated Sliver for Virulent Sliver. This is a fantastic idea. Rian points out that you only need to get in for ten at that point. I did a bit of testing with this and Virulent Slivers give the deck an explosiveness and reach that it previously lacked. Okay, now you can kill the punk with a trillion life, but that’s not the appeal. It’s those times when you lead with Virulent Sliver on the first turn, a Muscle Sliver on the second and a Survival on the third or fourth turn, pulling up a second Virulent Sliver or maybe the Winged Sliver to get the poison into the veins. It’s not a potent sliver by itself, but with two or more in play it becomes terrifying. Any attack that gets through will be putting the opponent at a precarious place, and it makes chump attacking and trading in combat much more advantageous for you. The player with huge threats on his board is still trembling when each unmolested attacker brings him a fifth closer to dying. I’m not sure whether Virulent Sliver is hot-dog-awesome or moonrise-over-the-Earth awesome, but it’s pretty rad in any case. I’d rather have it than Plated Sliver any day.

There are a few other cute Slivers that I’d want to cut down on or eliminate. Root Sliver gets you around Counterbalance, but Aether Vials and Harmonic Sliver do the same; I wouldn’t devote such a dead spot to that Sliver. Quick Sliver is an ersatz Aether Vial, enabling those flashy combat tricks just the same. I’m not sure I’d ever actually fetch one up, though. The same with Talon Sliver; it just doesn’t seem to do the job where one of the eight pump slivers would fail. If it did not cost a brazillion mana, Fury Sliver would be an absolute pounding, especially with newly-poisonous slivers. Sliver Legion borders on poor, but retains the possiblity of “hay guise, im a 9/9 lol.” For five mana, that’s pretty good, and it makes for an awful mean trick to fetch up and end the game on the spot. I am partial to adding Necrotic Sliver, since it can kill annoying lands and creatures that cannot be ignored. The casting cost is rough, but Gemhide Sliver pays for a lot of it and Aether Vial can solve that problem completely. The three extra mana to activate is also hard, but not prohibitive. I mostly like it as an alternative to Harmonic Sliver for certain situations. The latter doesn’t have “may” in the clause, meaning that, lacking other targets, your slivers will vibrate your Survivals and Vials off the table.

My final changes were -4 Plated Sliver, -1 Root Sliver, -1 Talon Sliver for +4 Virulent Sliver, +1 Necrotic Sliver, +1 Tropical Island. More lands are always gravy in a Survival deck and this is no exception. I want to get the Worldly Tutors off the sideboard in favor of something else; it seems that they’re there to be quasi-Survivals, but I get the feeling that Ponder would just be better. That raises the question of whether you’d actually want to board in Ponder against anything. Stifles make for a good anti-combo match, but as long as we’re being hit with Tendrils of Agony, I’d like to explore bringing in more Darkheart Slivers. I remember many games with older builds of Survival decks, facing down the storm-playing opponent and killing them because a Spike Feeder and a Ravenous Baloth made for a serious extra life buffer against storming out. I could see maximizing the potential for Darkhearts in here; leading with a Virulent Sliver and following up with a Darkheart Sliver seems like a perfectly reasonable play. Many combination decks in Legacy can easily make ten storm, but suffer when they have to make fourteen or fifteen copies. This strategy exploits it. Also, hey hey, it’s good against that guy who always plays burn.

In any Survival deck, the sideboard probably must include Krosan Grip at this point. Though I’m unsure of the eventual impact of Painter’s Grindstone decks (outlook: not rosy), they’re an immediate threat and one needs suitable answers to it. More exploration is necessary for the Evoke mechanic; you’ll see several decks listed above running Evoke creatures, and this is fantastic. They’re a cheap solution to annoying problems and they can be recurred with Genesis. I dig Faerie Macabre as well, and it’s bordering on mandatory for the main deck these days. A great perk of Survival decks is that each set brings a new host of creature to put in the toolbox. I hope we see even more in the future. Let me know what you think in the forums!

Thanks for reading!

Doug Linn