Unlocking Legacy – Playing The Fool

Read Legacy articles every week... at StarCityGames.com!
In several of his articles, Mark Rosewater has suggested the book “A Whack on the Side of the Head,” by Roger van Oech, as a staple for those wishing to be more creative. Naturally, as a writer, deckbuilder, and player, being creative is important for success. One of the most interesting chapters involved playing the fool. Van Oech exhorts us to question everyday things that we take for granted and ask if we can do them other ways. Questioning common routines and ideas can lead to fruitful avenues of creativity.

In several of his articles, Mark Rosewater has suggested the book “A Whack on the Side of the Head”, by Roger van Oech, as a staple for those wishing to be more creative. Naturally, as a writer, deckbuilder and player, being creative is important for success. I picked the book up a few months ago and it’s definitely worth a read. Much of the content is the “blindingly obvious but too obvious to think about” variety, and it’s useful to jog the brain into the creative mindset. One of the most interesting chapters involved playing the fool. Van Oech exhorts us to question everyday things that we take for granted and ask if we can do them other ways. An example he gives is that instead of adding cream to coffee after we pour it, why not put it in the mug first and then save us from washing a spoon when we mix it? Questioning common routines and ideas can lead to fruitful avenues of creativity.

With the fool in my head (and it’s not that hard for me to get into a foolish mind!) I began looking at what we know about Legacy and questioning the basics. We know at the moment that Threshold and Cephalid Breakfast are both quite good decks; tournament results all around the country and the world can back that up. They aren’t overwhelmingly powerful, but they certainly represent. Threshold, as we know, carries a lot of mildly disruptive elements, but only has four hard counters. The same is true of Cephalid Breakfast. Both decks, however, are bolstered by Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top, adding a really strong control element to the deck. As Legacy decks move to speed up, Counterbalance and Daze will be much stronger as they find good targets to punish people for their speed.

This brings me to my first fool thought: what if a deck slows down? Can a deck effectively play around Daze all game long and still have a chance against fast tempo decks? As a corollary, can a deck run bigger mana cards in the face of Daze and Counterbalance and still be competitive? Furthermore, what would such a deck look like? One would need to slow down the opposing deck and have threats of sufficient power to make up for all that lost tempo. It would probably have to pack control elements that also functioned like Time Walks.

What would the deck have to do to make up for all that time? What spells are possibly worth all the mana and effort? My mind went to Type Four and some of the amazing cards and combos to be found there. Panoptic Mirror with Time Stretch is really neat, but too much mana. Memnarch is also great, but when you have to pay retail for the card and its abilities, fourteen mana to jack a permanent ends up being marginally too much. They’re in the right vein though. Colorless cards, and especially cards that are not creatures to avoid the eponymous Swords to Plowshares, would be key.

Perhaps one of the most brutal ways to spend ten mana is playing and activating a Mindslaver, and having Academy Ruins to back it up is gravy too. Academy Ruins in general is a great card because we’ve been blessed with some artifacts worth recurring recently. Mindslaver is at the top of the list, but Engineered Explosives is also superb. To round out the list of cards worth spending epic mana on, we can include Sundering Titan (since he still does work even if he runs into Swords to Plowshares) and Platinum Angel. The latter is fragile on its own, but comes into its element when it has other cards applying pressure. In addition, what may potentially be a difficult matchup like storm combo or Cephalid Breakfast turns a little easier because resolving and protecting Platinum Angel is a decent strategy against those decks.

My mind naturally drifted to Urzatron decks. I’ve been very impressed at how they controlled the game in Standard and Extended, being able to stick to a gameplan that involved just staying alive until the player could resolve something back-breaking, powerful, and expensive. Richard Feldman and Zac Hill wrote some excellent pieces on Tenacious Tron that I read several times apiece. Even if you will never play a Tron deck, their articles are fantastic in general for laying out how a deck is developed from the beginning to the end; how to make choices of cards to add and cut, building a sideboard, and how to let go of those cards we like but don’t cut the mustard. Check their respective archive pages by clicking on their names above… you won’t be disappointed.

Unfortunately, Legacy has a very relevant card that Extended doesn’t, and that card is Wasteland. Here’s another fool thought, and it’s very foolish: can a deck relying on getting three different nonbasic lands out even have a chance versus decks potentially packing Wasteland along with other very fast cards? We are certainly against the wall with Wasteland in the environment.

To run a Tron deck effectively in a deep environment like Extended or Legacy, Blue seems essential. We are gifted with lots of powerful draw spells as well as counters that get the job done and buy time. Facing down Wastelands cutting off colored sources as well as Tron components, the deck would have to be almost exclusively Mono-Blue; being able to sit on basic Islands and still cast spells to find missing land components is a nice thing indeed.

Playing Mono-Blue Tron would be stable, but we would cut ourselves out of the truly strategy-killing power of Engineered Explosives coming back every turn off of the Ruins. We’d need a color that had splashy cards that were not color-intensive. White was the forerunner; it gives you access to Decree of Justice and Wrath of God, and still somewhat important, Exalted Angel. The power of the Tenacious Tron decks was their ability to turn Gifts Ungiven into a card that would pull out the entire Mindslaver combo by going for Mindslaver, Crucible of Worlds, Academy Ruins, and Petrified Field. I liked the elegance of it, but ultimately, I found that Gifts cost a single mana too much for the format at the moment, and that needing Petrified Field at any point was incredibly slow. Playing White demanded that we’d need to run Crucible and Petrified Field to get anything done (unless we wanted to go for more marginal cards like Argivian Restoration or Argivian Find).

The solution was to run Green for one card: Life From The Loam. It facilitated running Intuition instead of Gifts Ungiven so that one could go for Mindslaver, Academy Ruins, and Life From The Loam and end up with a plan that was faster and essentially less counterable. Life From The Loam is not the best card to be running, but it’s a good workhorse and lets you rebound against Wastelands. A single Cephalid Coliseum turns Life From The Loam into a card-drawing engine. Additionally, because the core of the deck would hinge on recurring artifacts with Academy Ruins, dredging the card would often prove profitable if it binned a giant artifact that you didn’t have to subsequently draw.

I had considered Black for the deck, but there aren’t many amazing Black spells that don’t require a big commitment to Black mana. The playable cards are very efficient but lack swingy effects, like Dark Confidant or Duress. Otherwise, they deliver for the cost like Haunting Echoes or Hymn to Tourach, but can’t be played very well in a colored-mana-light deck. Red was also a strong consideration while Goblins was still very relevant. I’ve been playing around with Tron for a long time, and I had considerable success with a list that ran four Pyroclasms and an Earthquake and had Burning Wishes to go get Rolling Earthquake or Demonfire or a host of other amazing Sorceries. Ultimately, it won far too many games at one life for me to be comfortable with, and it was not as elegant as committing almost completely to Blue.

Why should we consider Tron now, when it hasn’t been doing so well in the past? Two cards from Lorwyn made me rethink the archetype. Ponder is far better than Brainstorm in a deck like this, bereft of shuffle effects. It usually pulls out that second land or gets that missing Tron piece, and being able to shuffle the cards away makes me love it in ways that I never loved Brainstorm in its spot. I’m no Extended expert, but I can see Ponder making a splash there as well, since it is very good at what it does and can’t screw you over the way some other draw cards can.

The second card, and probably the strangest choice, is Wanderer’s Twig. It’s a marginal effect, but it is very cheap, it’s colorless, and it’s an artifact. It lets one keep hands with two Tron elements and no colored mana sources. Why not play Signets instead? I found too often that they would be Dazed, or run into Spell Snares, or be just too slow. There would be hands where I’d have my land Wastelanded and never be able to play that critical Signet. The Twig comes down for the right price and will always be relevant to some degree. I liked it over Wayfarer’s Bauble (and oh em gee, I love that card) because I could draw it in the midgame and activate it for an untapped, colored mana source.

The Twig being an artifact helped because the most efficient draw for the deck is Thirst for Knowledge. I learned from the Extended deck that sometimes you need to see raw card quantities in hand, and being able to toss out big robots for real cards ameliorated the problems of having to sometimes draw your Sundering Titan. For further artifact punch, I decided that Phyrexian Furnace would make an excellent card for the maindeck. It fills an increasingly important role of maindecked graveyard hate; playing one in the first three turns against Threshold decks means that they will rarely ever get the necessary seven cards in the graveyard to go stupid. It cycles against decks where you don’t need the effect or it goes away when you Thirst for Knowledge.

The most important outcome of playing the Furnace (aside from me making truly endless Fiery Furnaces references) is that it single-handedly shuts down a lot of the scary elements of Cephalid Breakfast. The power to nab that Dread Return slows them down considerably and often resulted in the opponent turning into a bad aggro deck. Much easier for a Tron deck to handle! They can Abeyance, but that takes time to find and may end up being countered.

Since we’re running Blue, you didn’t expect that we’d skip out on the counterspells, right? Force of Will is mandatory in the deck, and some element of other countering is required. My mind comes to the two “Time Walk” counterspells, Remand and Memory Lapse. Remand is dynamite in the early game, but later on it can be a dead draw when the opponent has enough mana to blank the card. Memory Lapse comes with better art options, frustrates the hell out of the opponent to play against, and most importantly, puts opposing Force of Wills back on top of the deck instead of back in hand, avoiding the chance that they can reload it with another Blue card. It can be further complimented with Condescend, which not only buys time, but pulls up those other Tron pieces.

I rounded out the deck with a pair of Repeals; they answer any permanent that I’m worried about and I’m always happy to see them. I ended up cutting the trio of Condescend that I was running for three Moment’s Peace. I don’t like the card any more than you do, but it represents two free turns of doin’ ya thang against most decks out there. It can’t really be Duressed away by Cephalid Breakfast, so that’s a nice plus. The Green mana can sometimes be hard to come across, but ultimately it’s a good enough effect that I’m willing to flirt with manabase greed.

For the manabase, four copies of each Tron piece were critical. Feldman and Hill agreed that twenty-three lands were a good number, and I tried to follow that. I was happy to have five Islands at my disposal; the manabase I settled on felt comfortable enough. I also included a pair of Tolaria West, which granted, are slow at times, but grab Engineered Explosives or missing pieces of land. One of the slots occupied by them vacillates between Tolaria West and being a Lonely Sandbar, which is better with Life from the Loam but less flexible in general.

The deck, in totality, ended up looking like:

There’s another angle that I dearly wanted to take the deck towards. Chalice of the Void is an incredibly potent card and blanks a lot of cards in other decks. While it was great in previous versions of this deck that I had built, I couldn’t justify running it with Ponder and the Twig. As I had cut Chrome Mox awhile back since it wasn’t doing enough, I couldn’t make the best use of a blind Chalice for one on the play. Luckily though, Furnace made a decently good substitute, as much of the combo around today is graveyard-based instead of storm-based.

Through all this tweaking, there was plenty of testing to go along with it. I found that the deck had a great game against Cephalid Breakfast, even lists running Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top maindeck. The Furnaces and moderate control elements held them in check until the Tron came together and I took total control. I was also showing fine results against Threshold lists without Wasteland. Their counters were the scariest part of the deck, and as long as I didn’t walk into Daze, I would usually win.

However, U/G Threshold with Wasteland was a particular problem. The Wastelands were just crippling enough to irrevocably slow me down. So much for that foolish idea. It was strange to me to see this phenomenon happening; with previous iterations of the deck testing against Goblins, I could weather two or three Wastelands and still pull out a win, so what was the difference here? In short, Tarmogoyf let them continue their plan in the face of my Furnaces and light control and put me to dangerous life totals very quickly. Threshold could more optimally use its Wastelands than other decks because it didn’t suffer when it went down a mana source and it had cards that more than made up for the loss.

That testing experience opened my mind up to a whole host of fool ideas. I’d considered replacing the Moment’s Peaces with Tarmogoyfs of my own. They would be strong buffers against opposing Tarmogoyfs. Unfortunately, they would also turn on opposing creature control elements. I haven’t made a final decision on this, but I feel fated to add them in.

My other, even more foolish idea, was replacing the Tron lands in a Tron deck with non-Tron lands. I’d take out the twelve lands and replace them with Islands. It would give stability but be ever slower. I found that this made the U/G Threshold matchup much easier! Hitting thirteen mana against them seems like an impossible solution for a Mindslaver lock, but you absolutely have inevitability in the matchup. Most games were solved by recursive Engineered Explosives until I could Intuition up some bombs or I hit Life from the Loam to get a draw engine going. However, the change made the deck slightly worse against Cephalid Breakfast, because the plan of getting Platinum Angel into play and riding it was less possible now.

In the end, I found the deck to be just a little too much of a gamble on Wastelands to consider playing it seriously. “But Doug, I read this far into your article and you’re not going to deliver anything useful?” Oh no, there’s plenty to glean from this. Big Mana Blue decks can certainly work, but I haven’t found the perfect equation to do it. Further, a plan that involves getting twelve mana and an Academy Ruins in play can and does work, but you need to adjust the deck to be more of a tempo stealer than an actual control deck. You don’t need the Tron to pull it off, but it certainly helps out.

Of everything in the deck, I was most pleased with Memory Lapse, and I’d like to use it quite a bit more in Legacy. In the current environment, I foresee it being incrementally powerful. Imagine Lapsing something as simple as a Ponder! I have to be careful though, that may just be the fool talking again.

I can imagine a fine Big Mana Blue deck that Transmutes Tolaria West to get The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale and plays Chalice of the Void for bone-crushing numbers. It doesn’t counter as much as stall for time to build up to an inevitable lockdown. It would probably look very close to my U/G Tron deck, but I wonder if we need to see more cards in new sets to really make it pop. It would specifically avoid most answer cards like Vedalken Shackles or Control Magic or things like that, aiming to further its own plan and lessen dead cards. Maybe the deck runs Exploration as well to make all those Life from the Loam recursions extra-powerful. If you can find the key combination of sixty cards, I’d be happy to know!

Of course, Tron is all hanging in the air as a decent archetype anyway because Gaddock Teeg may just invalidate the whole thing if it sees play at all. I doubt we’ll see too much of the Kithkin in Legacy because G/W has not, historically, been an amazing color combination. It remains to be seen, however, if it’ll see play in enough numbers that, combined with Wasteland, make big mana tap-out decks as what I was going for here a complete waste of time.

There are several lessons from this; first, playing the fool can be very helpful for testing things that we take for granted, like whether Legacy is too fast for certain strategies. Further, it’s good to know that the right kinds of cards can skirt the speed creep in Legacy at the moment and can prey on the Counterbalances and Dazes going around. There are also cards that are strong enough to justify tapping out on turn 5 for something huge. The greatest lesson I learned from this is that while building a deck from scratch is very hard, making the decision to kill it instead of deluding myself by thinking it is good is much, much harder. We all invest a lot of time when deckbuilding in foolish ideas. Looking back on them critically for positive elements is what makes us stronger deckbuilders as time goes on.

Bonus Section! Lorwyn’s Art is Bad!

I enjoy art, and each new set is like a mini-museum of art that I have a chance to look at. Going through StarCityGames.com excellent card sorter and looking at the images is a treat for me. Unfortunately, Lorwyn suffers from having nothing that really pops to me, while at the same time, having very boring cards.

Let’s start with the good. Avian Changeling is an interesting card because of the contrast between that sandy color and the sky, which is a color combo that I really like that is also underused in a lot of art. Cenn’s Heir has a quiet, but not still, look to it, and I fancy that too. Herbal Poultice has enough abstraction and drama in contrast that I come back to it again and again; this is very effective art. I have actual pity for Nath’s Buffoon; it captures that fear that an individual Goblin has in a way that paints the creature with dignity instead of idiocy.

But what about a giant eye surrounded by wood(?) or flesh(?) tells us anything about what Colfenor’s Plans are? Elvish Harbinger comes very close to good, but the gray used in the art is the same shade as that of the text box, so it looks like it’s almost sketched onto the card. Ethereal Whiskerwill looks more like a sea creature than an elemental. I was hoping that Elementals would have a more abstract appearance like Chisei, Heart of Oceans, instead of “chick on fire” like Fire Elemental.

So many of the cards have art that is just similar enough to cause mistakes. For example, the Flamekin cards all show essentially the same character. There are plenty of cards showing Faeries tricking Giants. Are we going to see another embarrassing reprise of a situation like when Kai accidentally Morphed a Whipgrass Entangler, thinking it was a Daru Sanctifier because of the art? I had hoped we would see a little more variation in the themes in this set. I predict a lot of problems when players mistake one card for another because of too-similar art.

While the Goblin Boggarts make an interesting diversion from regular Goblins, I had hoped we could shatter other fantasy stereotypes in art as well. Specifically, I had hoped they would portray Giants with some of the wisdom that they must certainly possess as being the longest-living creatures in the world. Instead, we get mostly portrayals of dopey, big-eared, and starry-eyed oafs who blunder around for comic effect. At least the Elves finally got a concrete dose of the arrogance and hubris they have, being paired with Black. I support the decision to color them that way, as it’s a good diversion from the stereotype of forest-loving, kind, proud elves that support good and light and all those boring things. I’m happy to see them be prideful and a little bit evil.

Thanks for being with me this week, and I hope you enjoyed reading this exploration as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Doug Linn
Hi-Val on the interwebs
Thanks to the proofreading elementals at TheManaDrain