Unlocking Legacy – Scepter Landstill

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Thursday, January 15th – Over a year ago, I wrote about a Scepter-Chant deck I had built after following up a hot tip from fellow Legacy writer Doug Linn. Between the time I built the deck and the time I was sufficiently finished with it to publish my list, a little creature called Tarmogoyf came out. At the time, I did not fully appreciate how difficult Tarmogoyf made it for traditional Blue-based control decks to compete.

Over a year ago, I wrote about a Scepter-Chant deck I had built after following up a hot tip from fellow Legacy writer Doug Linn. Between the time I built the deck and the time I was sufficiently finished with it to publish my list, a little creature called Tarmogoyf came out. At the time, I did not fully appreciate how difficult Tarmogoyf made it for traditional Blue-based control decks to compete. Ironic, really, that I was the biggest lover of the Green animal among everyone I talked to, and yet the monster smashed my UW control dreams. Since then, it seems like all my deck started out with Force of Will, Counterbalance, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Counterbalance, but not anymore.

Literally for months, my friend Jesus Roxas interrupted any Legacy chats I’d have with my friends to mention this Isochron Scepter list he had. It seemed to roll over everything but Ichorid in his testing, and the deck seemed to just accumulate free wins at local events for Jesus and his friends. Honestly, it seemed like very stereotypical “My deck beats everything else in the format” talk that doesn’t stand up to serious play, except for one small problem. Jesus said he watched the creator of the deck, a Chicago-area player named John Knapp, sit down and take a large number of games in a row against Vintage superstar Rich Shay. Rich Shay is probably one of the best American Vintage players, and he has also had a handful of high Legacy finishes with the now-popular Dreadtill deck. And Jesus and Rich are both members of Team Reflection; there is literally no incentive for Jesus to lie about the quality of this deck. And yet I didn’t believe him; how can Scepter-Chant possibly stand up to Counterbalance-Top? The two combos are basically the same, except that Counterbalance stops Isochron Scepter!

It was only after the Scepter deck beat Dreadtill handily in testing that I started to believe in the power of the control cards again. Not only was the Scepter deck winning in testing, but in a real tournament, it would not have the opportunity to steal some of the games and matches that it ended up taking. Because of the time limit in tournament Magic, many of the 2-1 victories the Counterbalance deck wins in testing would be 1-0-1 victories for the Scepter deck in real life.

John Knapp

3 Tundra
2 Volcanic Island
2 Island
1 Plains
4 Flooded Strand
2 Polluted Delta
3 Wasteland
4 Mishra’s Factory
2 Faerie Conclave
1 Academy Ruins
2 Engineered Explosives
4 Swords to Plowshares
2 Fact or Fiction
4 Counterspell
1 Nevinyrral’s Disk
4 Brainstorm
3 Fire/Ice
3 Orim’s Chant
2 Crucible of Worlds
4 Standstill
4 Force of Will
3 Isochron Scepter

1 Nevinyrral’s Disk
4 Meddling Mage
4 Red Elemental Blast
4 Blue Elemental Blast
2 Tormod’s Crypt

When I first saw the list I had a lot of questions, starting with Standstill and Isochron Scepter in the same deck. Yes, playing a spell copied off Isochron Scepter will break Standstill. In a way, I think the card choices can be likened to playing Pernicious Deed in a Counterbalance deck. It’s not important that Scepter does not work well with Standstill because the two never need to interact; if you have Scepter down you’re probably not going to lose. And it’s not like you have to activate Isochron Scepter every chance you get; it would not be unusual to imprint a removal spell on the Scepter and play Standstill while you wait for your opponent to give you a target to kill. Since all your win conditions are lands and almost all your spells are reactive, you literally can wait forever for your opponent to break Standstill from a stalled board.

The deck is not really based around Isochron Scepter, even though it appears that way at first glance. John Knapp said he started with a normal Landstill build and added in Scepters, and later Orim’s Chant after he noticed how well everything can fit on the Stick. It is pretty common to take out the Isochron Scepters when they just serve as a liability; in our Dreadtill testing it seemed right to take out Scepters and just make the fight over Standstill; why create an opportunity to get two-for-oned? This actually works out well because most decks are simply unprepared for Isochron Scepter in game 1 situations. You can have all the Krosan Grips you want in the sideboard, but if I untap with Orim’s Chant or Counterspell imprinted, I’m probably going to win the game. And unlike even Counterbalance, most cards you imprint on Scepter (except Counterspell) help keep you from dying to the existing board position. The only complaint I have with Counterbalance is that it is not uncommon to answer the opponent’s Tarmogoyf with a Counterbalance and die to that same Tarmogoyf before you draw an answer. Most of the spells here, Orim’s Chant in particular, both shut your opponent down and give you time to win. Chant plus Scepter comes together as often as Counterbalance-Top does in decks that run 3 of each spell; the difference here is that you have 3 Scepters and 18 cards to imprint instead of just 3 Tops.

I alluded to this earlier, but it is worth a full note now: winning with two-power manlands is still as slow as it ever was. You do not have to worry so much about bashing over tons of opposing 2/2 bears, but it still takes a full 10 turns to take your opponent from 20 to 0 with a Mishra’s Factory. Consequently you need to play the deck pretty speedily, or losing game 1 is a nightmare situation for you. Luckily the converse is true; if you win game 1 and your opponents do not concede for time when you are in a winning position, it can be difficult for them to win two games straight post-board. And you do have an incredible game 1 win percentage versus the board; most decks in the format are simply unprepared for the overwhelming advantage of an Isochron Scepter. With the exception of a few decks with Grip maindeck, even most anti-Counterbalance tech cards in game 1 situations like Engineered Explosives or Pernicious Deed will wither before an imprinted Chant or Counterspell.

It took years, but I think Faerie Conclave finally has a relevant place in the metagame. It seems like half the Blue decks in the format are drifting towards Landstill. They are becoming increasingly controlling: they use drawn-out recursion engines to grind out the opponent in the long-run, along with Counterbalance-Top (and sometimes Standstill) to stop the opponent from ever playing spells. They get into these awkward ground stalls with Tarmogoyf and only break out of them with whoever can set up their Counterbalance the best. If you put a Threshold mirror next to a Landstill mirror, they tend to play out in eerily similar ways. I first noticed this playing this deck against Dreadtill; both decks were positioning over Mishra’s Factories and Wastelands. The Wastelands and Factories end up a wash in all these matchups, and the deck with Faerie Conclave can just fly over for a few points at a time. It is unreal how good flying is in the current metagame; matches that are not complete blowouts for one player end up in a ground stall over Mishra’s Factories or Tarmogoyfs. In that situation the deck with the Faerie Conclave almost always wins; the other player has to break Standstill or draw unreasonably well to win on the ground with Mishra’s Factories. The advantage granted by Faerie Conclave is not only enough to almost always win Standstill fights, but it completely blanks the opponent’s Standstills. Even if they outdraw you slightly with Wastelands, it is incredibly easy to get parity on the ground. For a player to win a Mishra’s Factory stalemate, the attacker needs two more Factories than the opponent to stop the trade.

The other decks are becoming like Team America: low land count, a few big threats, and a bunch of spells that sacrifice cards for speed. That deck really wants to disrupt you a little bit and hope to go all-in on one major threat. A deck like that gets really uncomfortable with Crucible of Worlds or Isochron Scepter in play. You have enough lands, and specifically enough basics, to not be upset by that sort of attack as long as you have enough time to defend Swords to Plowshares or some other removal.

It helps to think of Isochron Scepter in the same category as a draw spell like Fact or Fiction instead of an essential strategic component like Counterbalance. I don’t like to lead out with Scepter on turn 2 or 3 (dodging Daze) if I can help it; there are too many ways an opponent can just answer with Stifle or Engineered Explosives to cause me problems. In those sorts of Blue matchups, this deck prefers to play control with lands, and lay an early Standstill if you can. Your goal is to trade, trade, trade, and then untap and win with an Isochron Scepter out of nowhere. It is even okay to get the Scepter countered, as long as you gain from the trade, generally by forcing them to pitch a card to Force of Will. Against a deck like Dreadtill, for example, you have Fact or Fiction, Isochron Scepter and Crucible of Worlds that they simply cannot afford to let you get active with. So maybe they counter your Standstill and stop your Isochron Scepter, but you reload with Fact or Fiction. Or they counter your Standstill and Deed away your Crucible of Worlds, but you untap and imprint Fire/Ice onto a Scepter and draw two cards to their one. You win any of those games handily.

Most any deck without Blue is just completely cold in game 1 to Isochron Scepter plus Orim’s Chant, and they struggle with any sort of Scepter lock. You are set up with tons of cards these aggressive decks hate to see. It seems like half the aggressive decks in the format go all in on one or two creatures, and are more vulnerable to Swords to Plowshares and Engineered Explosives, and the rest are weak to Fire. I am so excited to shuffle up Fire/Ice again because of how good it used to be against Goblins back in 2004. While in many places Goblins is on the decline, the split spell does a good job as it ever did, tapping Dreadnoughts, killing Mishra’s Factories, and beating up on the nascent Elf decks.

For all the above reasons, you handily beat on Blue decks that try to play the control game. You have your own Academy Ruins fueling Engineered Explosives and Nevinyrral’s Disk to bust up Counterbalance shenanigans, and you do a better job at being a control deck than they do. Nevinyrral’s Disk in particular is awesome against the decks with Stifle, since it does not require a sacrifice to activate; if they Stifle an activation, you can untap and do it again. Your whole goal in the matchup is to remove their creatures, to keep the board clear and win off Standstill and manland advantage.

The main problem with combo decks is that you cannot put them on a good clock; the advantage is that you have eight counters, Orim’s Chant, and the Scepter plan. Post-board you get Meddling Mages, which are extremely good. The great thing about battling Legacy combo decks is that most of the time you have inevitability; if they give you enough time to set up, you will dominate them with Isochron Scepter. The combo decks are forced to go for it, often before they’re ready to protect themselves. The combo decks have to say to themselves, “If I go off here and the opponent has the answer, I lose. But if I wait, they will just draw more counters and Scepters.” Besides, modern combo decks are making themselves more vulnerable to Orim’s Chant with the reliance on draw step Ad Nauseams fueled by Mystical Tutor and Lion’s Eye Diamond.

Actually, it has been a while since Meddling Mage was good in Legacy, and there are lot of cool things you can do with the creature. Obviously you can name Tendrils of Agony, or any of the main combo tools like Ad Nauseam. Meddling Mage allows you to double up on answers to Loam alongside Isochron Scepter. In testing versus Dreadtill, Jesus made an interesting play and boarded in Meddling Mages. There was no way Dreadtill could win with Factories on the ground; the Scepter deck has Crucible and as many tools with which to fight. Dreadtill could only win with lopsided draws or Dreadnought trampling over multiple Factories; hence, if the deck’s namesake was taken out, the matchup became a real Landstill mirror.

There are a few bad matchups for the deck. Burn is a problem; they don’t have any creatures to remove, and they are virtually immune to Orim’s Chant. In fact, Burn is one of the few matchups where Counterbalance outshines Isochron Scepter. Luckily Burn is not really a contender in most metagames, and will probably not be well represented at Grand Prix: Chicago; if it is a presence in your local metagame, you’ll have to take extra measures. I also found that while you can deal with Tarmogoyf-related issues pretty easily, Nimble Mongoose is a pain. You cannot Ice it to buy time, nor can you Swords to Plowshares it, and often the Mongoose comes down before Counterspell comes online. Your only real answer to Nimble Mongoose is to trade a fully-powered Mishra’s Factory for it, or use an Engineered Explosives. A quick Mongoose with a string of cantrips to get Threshold can be bad for you; a well-placed Wasteland can be even worse. This is really only an issue with actual Threshold decks packing Wasteland, and not with other TarmogoyfCounterbalance decks.

Is Scepter-Landstill right for you? If you like Dreadtill but hate giving up the two-for-ones when your Dreadnought gets Swords to Plowshared, you may want to look into the deck. It is also a powerful option in an unknown metagame with its high game 1 win percentages. I also think you ought to check out the deck in general; it has the same strengths as a lot of the Blue-based control decks but without the liabilities of having to win with Tarmogoyfs and getting stuck in ugly ground stalls. And if you’re nostalgic, Scepter-Landstill is a modern take on all the best cards of the origins of Legacy, like Faerie Conclave and Nevinyrral’s Disk.

Kevin Binswanger
[email protected]

By the way, there’s just one card I want to talk about from Conflux, so click away if you’re bothered by spoilers!

Noble Hierarch
Creature – Human Druid
T: Add U, G or W to your mana pool.

This is one of the most exciting one-drops in a long time. The thing that excites me about Hierarch is that it breaks Tarmogoyf stalemates in a radical way. Not only does it allow your Tarmogoyf to beat their Tarmogoyf, but the effect is not symmetrical. Because Exalted only applies on the offensive, it means there is an incentive to attack and not to block; it permanently eliminates those stalemates by turning them into races. The problem with Noble Hierarch is that it does not make any relevant colors of mana other than Green; all the decks that want mana creatures either need a specific creature type, or more often they want the creature to produce Black mana. The decks that are Blue and Green would rather use Brainstorm and Ponder to find more mana sources rather than Birds of Paradise.

So, in order to get some use out of Noble Hierarch, you need a deck that needs more mana in those colors and not any others. For a long time, I wanted to play Umezawa’s Jitte in Threshold, but not enough creatures in the deck can carry the equipment. With a move to more expensive, bigger creatures you can afford Jitte, and now you have two ways of breaking Tarmogoyf stand-offs. Here’s the deck I’ve come up with that I think provides a useful stepping off point:

4 Force of Will
4 Counterbalance
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Brainstorm
4 Ponder

4 Swords to Plowshares
3 Umezawa’s Jitte

4 Noble Hierarch
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Vendilion Clique
3 Mystic Enforcer
1 Rafiq of the Many

4 Flooded Strand
2 Polluted Delta
2 Windswept Heath
2 Island
1 Forest
1 Plains
3 Tropical Island
3 Tundra