Unlocking Legacy – Scepter Chant

Read Legacy articles every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Kevin presents the deck he believes is the best choice for the upcoming Legacy championships. He’s been tuning a combo-control deck for over five months, and he’s finally ready to share the results…

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.
Thomas Jefferson

There is no such thing as luck. There is only adequate or inadequate preparation to cope with a statistical universe.
Robert Heinlein

I do not want to misrepresent myself, so let me begin by saying, “This deck is not perfect.” It has been testing extremely well, and a lot of smart people have helped me build it. However, the deck is not 100% done, nor does it beat everything. I would pay attention to the sideboard and the manabase/mana ratios when tuning the deck. That said, this was one of two or three decks I was considering for Grand Prix: Columbus before Flash broke out. Here is my latest decklist:

So why Chant? During testing for Grand Prix: Columbus, The Mana Drain Legacy Adepts and some of the moderators were experimenting with some new combo-control style decks. The emphasis during development was to make the decks more explosive and more proactive during the early game. My theory was that you could probably make a killer Psychatog deck that traded into the late-game and dominated on the back of Psychatog and Black disruption, but why would you want to? The decks that are successful now owe their strengths in large part to their explosiveness. Look at the ridiculous things Goblins or TES can do based on the opening hand, and then compare that to what Landstill can do. The deck’s best plays merely involve playing Standstill on turn 2. That play may win you the game, but it’s not dominating in the same way as Aether Vial. In discussions, I called this the Just Win factor; the more you can do to make your deck just able to rip a perfect seven and blow through your opponent, the better. This is the reason why I added more Ancient Tomb and shied away from slower elements like Decree of Justice. Decree of Justice is a great card if you live to hit fifteen mana. I want my cards to make my opponent cry NOW instead of later. You’ll see this focus driving many of the changes I made. Here was Doug Linn‘s original preliminary list:

25 mana sources incl. Chrome Moxes
4 Isochron Scepter
4 Fire/Ice
3 Lightning Helix
4 Force of Will
4 Brainstorm

4 CS
4 Orim’s Chant
2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
3 Cunning Wish
3 Wrath of God

There are very few situations where you actually want to pass the turn holding countermagic mana up; you would much rather tap out to do really awesome and powerful things. I also worked to make the deck more consistent. A lot of random cards flitted in and out of the decklist, including Pyroclasm, Signets, Wrath of God, and Muddle the Mixture. Those cards are very good in specific circumstances, but they are not consistently good. The main issue with making the deck more flexible and therefore less consistent is that you already run the most powerful strategy in the format. To really succeed with the deck, you want to make it more consistent.

The deck is pretty simple. You have three main paths to victory in the game one configuration: you can imprint an Isochron Scepter with Orim’s Chant and force a concession, you can imprint Isochron Scepter with Lightning Helix and race, or you can force your way into the midgame or late game and win with Pristine Angel. Postboard you have an additional seven creatures to complement twelve points of reach to become a decent aggro-control deck.

After I made one final change a week ago, I feel pretty solid about the maindeck. The manabase has slowly evolved to make the deck more powerful and explosive; the original counts were 4 Chrome Mox and 1 Ancient Tomb, although I’ve toyed with the counts of both. If you think you can fit it the deck originally had 1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea. Mikokoro isn’t bad, but it is colorless and hopefully you have something better to do with your mana than to tap three and draw a card. You simply cannot support more inconsistent mana sources.

Despite costing six mana, Pristine Angel really does seem to be the best finisher. The mana cost is not an issue because you only want it when you need to play a traditional blue-based control deck; most of the time you want to win on incremental advantage and Isochron Scepter. I’ve considered a variety of different cards for that slot, but nothing has trumped Pristine Angel. You need Pristine Angel as backup in case your Isochron Scepters get Extirpated. You need a card there that can win the game on its own while being immune to Gempalm Incinerator and Swords to Plowshares. Optionally you could sit a Flaming Gambit in the board, but Pristine Angel is also nice because it gets around hate that could shut down burn.

I used to run Fire/Ice in the main instead of Swords to Plowshares, but there are very few times you need the split card. In the abstract it is nice to have twenty points of burn available, but every time I stuck Fire/Ice on a stick I was unhappy with it. You cannot race or kill creatures with the way you can with Lightning Helix, and it is pretty mediocre as a draw spell. It is a card that sacrifices power for flexibility in a deck that wants to win on power.

Some notes on how the different cards in this deck interact:

Starstorm can be imprinted on an Isochron Scepter, but you cannot pay X and therefore it will not do anything, not even cycle.

Meddling Mage only stops the named card from being played, so Meddling Mage blocking Lightning Helix will not stop Lightning Helix imprinted on an Isochron Scepter.

Both the imprints of Isochron Scepter and Chrome Mox can be Stifled.

The spell copied by Isochron Scepter can be countered, and it has to be played like a normal spell, just without playing the mana cost. If you are Chanted or Abeyanced, you cannot play the spell.

The sideboard is not set in stone. I recently decided how to fill the last few slots (currently occupied by Abeyance and Fact or Fiction #2). You really want a bounce spell in the sideboard, more Grunts and plenty of other tools, but there simply is not room. Depending on your metagame, there are ways to gain an advantage by going to specific anti-combo and anti-control tools. The non-negotiable tools are:

1 Fact or Fiction: Gives you generic utility.
1 Orim’s Thunder: This can be anything, but you need a way to deal with Chalice of the Void at 2, and possibly other issues like Survival, Humility or Blood Moon. Thunder is a much better tool than Dismantling Blow or Rebuild. This slot would be Echoing Truth but sometimes you need to deal with a Chalice for 2 which Disenchant and Echoing Truth cannot.
1 Enlightened Tutor: Useful in matchups without countermagic to guarantee the Chant lock
1 Orim’s Chant or Abeyance: Both this and Enlightened Tutor help you to just win
The 4th StP and Starstorm are both cards that get sided in; the fact that you can access them with Wishes is just gravy.

You only have two Cunning Wishes, so it is unlikely that you will ever wish out both Fact or Fictions. There are two so that you can board one in and still have access to the other by Wish. You win most control matchups through raw card advantage, and going up to three Fact or Fiction when most decks only have cantrips gives you a powerful advantage.

Enlightened Tutor only gets Wished for against decks with no countermagic. When you have an opening against Goblins, it can be advantageous to EOT Wish for Tutor, untap and fetch Isochron Scepter and cast it. The same play against Threshold is begging to get one-for-two’ed.

Meddling Mage rarely comes in, but it is a good catch-all answer to combo. Depending on the opposing combo deck, you might want Abeyance, Daze, Pithing Needle, Red Elemental Blast or other hate. Meddling Mage is not as good as a specific hoser against a specific combo deck, but it’s not bad. You’d rather not have Red Elemental Blasts against Belcher, for instance.

Why no Teferi? For a while Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir was even in the maindeck where Pristine Angel now lives. Teferi is obviously horrendous against Goblins since it’s a five that cannot block Piledriver, but it surprising was not bad against Threshold. He could hold off Nimble Mongeese all day and could race a Werebear with the help of other cards. The problem is that Tarmogoyf is much better than Werebear, and the new Green monster put the nail in Teferi’s coffin. If you have a lot of instants you need to shut down (gets you the hard lock) or end up facing a lot of High Tide, you will like Teferi… but he really does not do enough.

Oh my god, Starstorm is one of my favorite cards in the deck. I kept waiting for a deck that could actually utilize the card, and I finally have one. Starstorm requires being able to get RR through Wasteland and at least 4 mana, but if you can fulfill those requirements it is infinitely better than Pyroclasm or Wrath of God because it is an instant. There is a significant advantage in being able to wait to cast your mass removal. The obvious advantage is that you can beat the end of turn Warchief, untap Ringleader Piledriver Matron Piledriver and bash for lethal. The other nicety of being able to wait is that you can often catch your opponent with their pants down because they add extra creatures to the board with Warchief for a hasty alpha strike. Often with Wrath of God the initial Goblin onslaught is too mediocre to waste Wrath on, but the Goblins player makes one big turn and bashes for most of your life total. Starstorm fixes that. The other great thing about Starstorm is that you do not have to decide whether to use Wrath until they declare attackers; if you are saving Starstorm until they commit more men to the board and they do not, you can use that mana to cast Fact or Fiction instead.

Starstorm is also much better at dealing with Empty the Warrens, since that only requires three mana instead of four. That extra mana is often significant since Belcher can generally Empty the Warrens for enough to kill in two swings, which means that turn 4 is too late. Starstorm is also better against Landstill, since it allows you to kill their manlands; 99% of the time the Landstill player is not going to expose their lands to a sorcery speed Wrath of God. On the flip side, Starstorm is much worse against Threshold. Cycling aside, Wrath of God costs four mana to kill any of their creatures. Starstorm costs anywhere from five to eight mana. Yikes! Fortunately you do not need Starstorm to be good against Goblins, and you can sideboard it out anyway. If you do not expect many Goblins players, feel free to swap the Starstorms for the Jotun Grunts. You are unlikely to ever catch Threshold in a two for one even if you have Wrath, and at least Starstorm cycles. You have Swords to Plowshares to fight Tarmogoyfs and Mystic Enforcers.

A few people have suggested Thirst for Knowledge in place of Fact or Fiction. The cost is one less, but you rarely get card advantage out of it. You only run seven artifacts, and you never want to discard Isochron Scepter. The problem is that to make TfK you need either situational artifacts or artifacts that you do not want to draw. The very presence of those artifacts in your deck makes the deck less consistent.

Goblins is a favorable matchup. Chrome Mox really helps you dodge Wasteland, especially because you can imprint Lightning Helix and have a Plateau. If this matchup did not exist I would strongly consider running the third Ancient Tomb, but the lifeloss tends to be too risky in this matchup.

The matchup plays out fairly straight-forward, much like any other Blue-based control deck. You want to keep your life total high enough to buy you time set up a devastating Isochron Scepter. On the play you want to have Stifle for their first fetchland, on the draw Stifles are pretty mediocre in the early game and you are likely to imprint them on Chrome Mox. Stifle does not shine here until the mid game when you get to use it to counter Ringleaders. Beware of Tin Street Hooligan since it can kill your Scepter on turn 2. On the flip side, it requires Green, so you can see it coming. Hooligan also cannot kill a Scepter out of a Vial. In my testing against Tinkerer Goblins, Tinkerer never killed anything of mine.

I’m not 100% on my sideboarding plans; as the sideboard changed I tested a lot of different plans. It can also be difficult to see the benefits of 4 Swords to Plowshares versus 3, especially when many of the wins simply come down to Starstorm or Scepter blowouts.

-4 Force of Will, -2 Cunning Wish, +1 Swords to Plowshares, +1 Starstorm, +3 Jotun Grunt, +1 Orim’s Chant

The reason you cut Force of Will is because there is only one or two cards that are relevant other than being a warm body: Goblin Warchief and Goblin Ringleader. You have Stifles to answer Ringleader and removal to answer Warchief; throwing away two cards to their one is a horrible way to beat Goblins. There are two different ways to deal with Goblin Warchief. If you do not have Starstorm ready, you probably want to kill it as soon as it comes out. Generally they will play or Vial in Warchief on their main phase and then play a creature; kill Warchief in response to that creature so they do not get the cost reduction for their second creature. Sometimes it can be correct to let them play Warchief and over-extend into Starstorm, or even to tap them out so you can untap and win the game. It is not uncommon for a Goblins player to play Warchief, tap all their Wastelands and Ports to play Ringleaders, and let you win the game on the spot when you untap.

Threshold is also a favorable matchup, although the addition of Tarmogoyf makes it a little worse than before. Because you have inevitability in the matchup, you force Threshold to play the beatdown deck, and unfortunately the widespread adoption of Tarmogoyf makes this much easier for the green deck. On the other hand, Tarmogoyf has prompted many players to move to Engineered Explosives in their few maindeck slots instead of Pithing Needle. EE is much easier for you to deal with because you can Stifle the ability as well as usually getting one last activation out of your scepter. This matchup is one of the main reasons I moved Swords to Plowshares into the maindeck instead of Fire/Ice, because StP is a fantastic card to have when facing down Tarmogoyfs (especially without Scepter in sight). Helix is less good here because the only good target is your opponent or the occasional Meddling Mage (unless you have two), but they need six points of power to race Helix on a stick. The other interesting thing about this matchup is that just about every card is equally good imprinted on Isochron Scepter, so Scepter becomes an amazing test spell. If you have something to imprint on it, it is probably right to run it out as long as you can play around Daze. Your whole plan in this matchup is to trade equally or to your advantage until you can land a bomb and just win; depleting their countermagic will do this.

-3 Starstorm, -1 Lightning Helix, +3 Jotun Grunt, + 1 Fact or Fiction

Jotun Grunt is really good here, Starstorm is prohibitively expensive and Lightning Helix is kind of mediocre.

The third matchup I have tested the most is Barnello Landstill: UGW Landstill as described here. The matchup seems unfavorable, but it feels like it should be favorable. All the games are close, and the matchup can be determined on playskill very easily. I suspect with more experience and discipline the matchup is favorable (generally I notice a mistake several turns later that put me behind). That said, the one thing to be prepared for is how long the matchup goes. A large factor in the matchup is how much countermagic they draw versus how many non-removal spells you draw. Even if they get lucky with Stifles and cut you off your mana, it is very difficult for them to win before you can get back into the game; their win conditions are very fragile. Also, their only out to Isochron Scepter + Orim’s Chant is Engineered Explosives, which means it’s very easy to set up victory. Unlike other control matchups they do have Stifle, which means you have to be more careful with your Scepters. This matchup makes me want Echoing Truth or some sort of Regrowth effect in the board to reuse Scepters, but eventually the ability to get Fact or Fiction is going to be much more powerful.

You are the control deck in this matchup based on your more powerful inevitability. They have to win or you will eventually just overwhelm them with an unstoppable finisher. This means they have to go beatdown with Mishra’s Factories, which gives you ample opportunity to point Lightning Helixes at them. Unless you have to, don’t point a Swords at a Factory; you need to save those for the more difficult targets like Monastery or Dragon.

You have two different ways to sideboard against the deck, depending on what you think they are going to do with their removal (mainly the Humilities). The Starstorms definitely come out; in their place you either want to bring in Jotun Grunts, or 1 Fact or Fiction, the Abeyance and another random card (probably a Grunt or Mage). Grunt is solid and shuts down Crucible; he also makes Nantuko Monasteries unlikely to come out. However you do not want to have to fight a battle over Humility. You do not want to have useless Grunts stuck in your hand and have to go get Orim’s Thunder to deal with it.

So, combo. I’ve tested these matchups less, both because competent players playing these decks at tournaments is less likely, and also because there is only so much value to be gained by testing yet another UWR deck with Force of Will and Meddling Mage (and even Chant, at times). Things change wildly depending on sideboards, deck variations and draws. That said, I want to outline the way things work.

Ill-Gotten Gains combo and TES you can treat somewhat similarly; they just differ on how much they rely on Tendrils versus Empty the Warrens. The one thing I would note is how much worse Orim’s Chant is against IGGy than against TES. If you have a Chant in hand against Iggy you probably want to cast it in response to a mana source rather than an Ill-Gotten Gains. If you cast Chant in response to Ill-Gotten Gains, it’s very easy for them to take a few points of mana burn and win on the next turn. The only exception would be if you have Meddling Mage or can set up Isochron Scepter recursion.

Sideboarding against these two decks depends based on their protection. Against TES you want to bring in Meddling Mages and the Abeyance (leaving the Orim’s Chant in the board to Wish for). I would take out 1 Starstorm, 3 Swords to Plowshares, and 1 Impulse. You want to leave in a few Starstorms in case they go to Empty the Warrens. I’m not terribly worried about the possibility of going to Tomb of Urami; you have Swords out of the side to deal with it and it loses to all the same hate that Tendrils does, like Chant lock and Stifle.

Against IGG you want to board similarly, but be flexible. If they have Xantid Swarm, leave some Swords to Plowshares. If they do not have Empty the Warrens, pull all the Starstorms. If you have extra cards to bring in, board in Jotun Grunts.

Right now, I see Threshold as the most important deck to beat, Goblins as the second most important deck to beat and combo as a far more distant third. The issues with aiming for combo decks is that there is a wide variance in the combo decks, which means that having a strong Belcher matchup but a weak TES matchup can be either very good or very bad, and it is almost impossible to predict which until after the fact. Threshold sets the bar for Force of Will decks; in order to suggest playing a non-Threshold Force of Will deck you need to have a better expected performance at a tournament than Threshold. Scepter Chant does that. You have a much better Goblins matchup than Threshold, a much better Threshold matchup, a better Landstill matchup, and a weakened combo matchup.

But maybe you think I’m wrong. Feel free to change the deck; if you can find ways to improve it, let me know. I honestly feel like it is a good choice, and while I cannot make GenCon, I strongly consider it. Chant has traditionally been a good choice in Extended formats, especially those dominated by aggressive decks. Without a metagame wrecking ball like Ichorid and Aggro Loam being very prevalent, Chant has the potential to be a strong force.

Thanks to everyone that worked on the deck with me. Doug Linn got the ball rolling and was one of the main people I bounced ideas off. Josh Silvestri and Max McCall provided the foundation for my thoughts on Scepter-Chant with their work on the deck in Extended. Matt Hargis, Rich Shay, and Jacob Orlove provided ideas and helped refine my thoughts.

Kevin Binswanger
[email protected]