Unlocking Legacy — The Banned Facts

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Since the Flash fiasco, Legacy players have been paying more attention to the Legacy banned list. Christopher Coppola reviews the progress made since his recommendations last September, and responds to the latest statements given by the DCI about the banned list

I. A Wild Card

Last September, I wrote an article on the Legacy banned list and the serious lack of attention it was receiving from the DCI. I suggested that six candidates deserved unbanning and gave brief arguments for them.

After the Flash incident, the DCI did briefly review these cards and decided to return two of them to Legacy. Mind over Matter and Replenish became legal a month ago, and are currently entertaining deckbuilders, although they are absent from the tournament scene.

Aaron Forsythe briefly explained these changes, mostly focusing on the brokenness of Flash. The DCI typically makes changes to Eternal formats in small increments, so I was expecting only a few cards to be taken off. I was a little curious about why they chose Replenish over some of the other cards, but I was happy to have it back and felt confident that they would come to similar conclusions about the remaining entries. Imagine my surprise when I read that they left Land Tax on because it was too good:

Not only is the card incredibly powerful, but the games involving it are agonizing and boring.
Aaron Forsythe

I didn’t know where to begin with the “incredibly powerful” judgment, but I was piqued by the part stating that games involving the card were agonizing. I wondered, “what kind of games were being played exactly, and what was boring about them?”

Any environment where the correct play involves not putting out your first land should be avoided, and with two Moxes available for anyone’s use as four-ofs, I’d expect those decks to pop up.
Aaron Forsythe

I don’t expect the DCI to have the time to accurately test Legacy when it’s a minor consideration, but I couldn’t make any sense out of this analysis. It is not such a hard matter to investigate, so let’s take a more detailed look at this card.

II. Theoretical Considerations

I would like to briefly mention some Magic theory here before going into serious Legacy analysis. The DCI must base its decisions partly on theory because it does not have the resources to test and tune competitive decks for Eternal formats. As designers and developers, I am sure they can often see the consequences of a cards’ power or role without knowing exactly how it will manifest itself in any given environment.

This is a useful technique that has been mostly successful in the past, although there are certainly counterexamples to show that it doesn’t always work. However, Legacy is a unique format, and many of these ideas are far less applicable in it than they are in more traditional formats. The disconnect between these ideas is evident when players or analysts unfamiliar with Legacy attempt to use them to make sense of it. Extended and Vintage are frequent targets of comparison, but there are really fundamental differences between them that make these analogies weak, if applicable at all.

This is relevant to Land Tax because it is being evaluated in a more conventional Magic environment, which has different implications for its power level. It requires setup and mana investment to take advantage of, but the deficiencies of the tempo requirements of this card will be evident in the matchups I present later. Consider only that the premium placed on card advantage in other formats, and even in the whole of Magic design, is almost completely ignored in Legacy due to its unique characteristics.

The following cards are legal in Legacy but see dramatically less play in this format than they have in others where they have been legal, precisely because it is so different:

Fact or Fiction
Gifts Ungiven
Thirst for Knowledge
Grim Tutor
Accumulated Knowledge
Dark Confidant
Night’s Whisper

This is just a short list, but all of these cards are well known. They have succeeded in many other environments, yet they see very little play in Legacy, and have almost no impact on competitive tournaments. They are powerful draw spells, but the point is that card advantage itself in all the traditional ways is not good enough in Legacy. They are too slow, and their power is diminished in Legacy’s card pool.

Legacy is built on tempo and utility. Decks have access to very efficient threats and an abundance of mana acceleration in order to deploy them. At the same time, there are no broken cards in the format. All of the dominant cards have been banned (and with them some weak ones too). The effect of drawing cards is weaker in Legacy than in any other format, even with access to many of its most efficient examples.

Land Tax has to be evaluated in this context.

III. The Land Tax Deck

Legacy is quite a diverse format, so while building a good Land Tax deck is a challenge in and of itself, testing it is difficult as well. However, we can gain quite a lot of insight by doing a more limited analysis. Let us make some assumptions about what the Land Tax deck would look like.

First, it would run at least four nonland mana sources that could cast Land Tax on turn 1. For the purposes of this exercise, assume that the deck runs four Chrome Mox and four Mox Diamond, making this number eight.

Second, assume the deck would be base White, because otherwise the deck would be too inconsistent. White lands would be needed to cast Land Tax without artifacts, and White cards are needed to support Chrome Mox. (We could use something else such as Lotus Petal, but we are already stretching the strength of the manabase with eight moxen.) This points to a deck with a strong White component.

Third, the deck needs some way of turning an active Land Tax into useful cards. Without such an engine, Land Tax is just a poor substitute for a proper manabase. There are a few candidates for this: card draw like Scroll Rack and Brainstorm, or discard engines like Land’s Edge. They all require additional investments of mana and time. More importantly, the deck needs either a consistent way of actually drawing the engine (a la Solidarity), or an alternate plan (a la Survival).

These are challenging requirements. In order to test the strength of Land Tax itself, however, we need only look at the optimal scenarios where the card’s full strength is in effect.

IV. Competitive Scenarios

There are three strong and unique Legacy decks that together can provide a rigorous testing environment: Goblins, Threshold, and Belcher. If we make all the strongest assumptions about the build and draws of the Land Tax, we can get some sense of the upper bound of its strength. Keep in mind that is what we will be testing — the best that Land Tax can do.

Let us look at what Land Tax can do when played against each of these decks, first on the play, and then on the draw. In its opening hand, assume that Land Tax always draws two lands, one artifact mana source, one Land Tax, and a draw engine card, along with two unknown cards that will be tailored to suit the deck, depending on the scenario.

Land Tax will have the best chance against Goblins, so let’s start there.

1. Land Tax versus Goblins, on the play

Land Tax opens with Mox Diamond, pitching a land, and then plays Land Tax and passes the turn.

– Goblins plays a land, and is likely to play either Goblin Lackey or Aether Vial and then pass the turn.

Land Tax will then activate on the next upkeep. The deck will then play a land. In hand are the draw engine card, three lands, three unknown cards, and a variety of options. (Compare this to a deck that just plays a land and then does nothing else on turn 1 — at this point it would have two mana in play (the same amount), and six cards in hand (only one less) but it is likely to have at least as many spells.)

It can play its draw engine card and possibly activate it with more acceleration, or it can play some type of threat or disruption. (The interesting play here would be to start using its draw engine card, because if it starts playing threats and disruption, it must necessarily be compared to a deck that runs a tight manabase and threats and disruption that come online on turn 1. The only way Land Tax can be judged better than such a deck is if the extra lands can be turned into a significant resource advantage over the opponent.)

Suppose Land Tax plays a Scroll Rack and then passes the turn.

– Goblins now has the options. If it played a Goblin Lackey last turn, it can attack and put any number of Goblins into play (see my Goblins primer for more details on what Goblins does on turn 2). It can also play a second land and play a Tin-Street Hooligan to destroy one of Land Tax’s mana sources, but this will only slightly stall them as they have much more mana in hand. Goblins could also destroy the Scroll Rack, which would be a strong play in this situation, but let us assume the Land Tax deck gets to execute its strategy. Goblins plays a Goblin Piledriver or more tempo generators, with the goal of overwhelming the opponent with threats while they are drawing cards. If it has at least an average hand, there will now be a significant amount of pressure on the board, and likely the ability to apply more pressure the following turn.

(It does not have to play a land at all, since it already has tempo generators in play, and it would be fine activating them as long as it can without drawing the opponent more lands. However, let us suppose it is going to be as aggressive as possible and attempt to kill the Land Tax player in two more turns, so it plays a land and threats.)

Land Tax now activates once again. Suppose it plays a land at the beginning of its main phase. The deck now has three mana in play, and five lands and four unknown cards in hand. It can activate Scroll Rack for up to nine, but it’s more likely that it will have some relevant plays in hand and want to draw fewer cards. Suppose it activates for seven cards, and finds another artifact mana source and plays it. It now has seven cards in hand and three available mana, and it can start to respond to the game state. (Note that if a deck had made land drops and done nothing else until this point, it would have three available mana and six cards in hand. Even with an optimal draw, the Land Tax deck has had to sacrifice quite a lot of tempo to gain a relatively small advantage.) The problem is that the Land Tax deck has done nothing to disrupt the Goblins player for the last two turns, and they are creating a lot of threats. Land Tax has access to basically whatever cards it wants at this point, but it is going to have to pass the turn, and it has to execute a suboptimal control strategy to stay in the game since it has been ignoring the tempo development of the other deck. It is worth asking why the Land Tax deck couldn’t just be a better control deck, and not have to put up with an inconsistent manabase and redundant engine cards in the first place. It would be in a much stronger position at this point in the game, as it could have cast disruption for the previous two turns, and still had the same amount of freedom to use reactive cards to answer the opponent’s threats.

The hypothetical situation breaks down here as there are just too many possibilities for the Land Tax deck, but you can see how it is already straining its power just to keep ahead of Goblins. It can probably do so here, but the execution begs questions about playing more streamlined control strategies.

2. Land Tax versus Goblins, on the draw

– Goblins will play a land, and is likely to play either Goblin Lackey or Aether Vial and then pass the turn.

Land Tax has a few options in this scenario. It can play both mana sources, and play disruption as well as a Land Tax. It could also play land, Land Tax, and pass. However, as I mentioned in the previous game, Goblins could play its game just fine with one land and a tempo generator, so there is no guarantee that Land Tax would ever activate with these plays. (Those scenarios are non-instructive regarding the effect of Land Tax on the format.) Suppose Land Tax opens with Mox Diamond, pitching a land, and then plays Land Tax and passes the turn.

– Goblins will then enter its normal aggressive mode, playing lands and threats. It is now one turn ahead of Land Tax, so it may have the opportunity to kill the opponent before they get to take advantage of their engine card. Goblins can destroy the artifact mana source with Tin-Street Hooligan, buying an additional activation of either Goblin Lackey or Aether Vial; it can also use Rishadan Port to stall the Land Tax deck for a turn. It can also play Goblin Piledriver or other tempo generators to set up more damage later. Suppose Goblins just plays a creature and passes the turn.

Land Tax activates, and draws three lands. At the beginning of its main phase, it plays a land. The Land Tax deck must now play some disruption, since there is the possibility that it will die before it gets to use its extra cards. Instead of playing its engine card, it is forced to interact with the opponent here.

– Goblins is built to deal with this, and simply applies more pressure. On the play, Goblins’ mana disruption becomes deadly. Since Land Tax is not gaining any advantage from its extra lands, it is effectively playing this game as a crippled control deck. Goblins will attack, exploit its cheap draw engine, and just stall the opponents’ mana until they have lost the game.

By the time the Land Tax deck sets up its engine and actually gets some benefit from the card (if it happens at all), it is likely to be too low on life to effectively gain control of the game.

3. Land Tax versus Threshold, on the play

Land Tax opens with Mox Diamond, pitching a land, and then plays Land Tax. Threshold lets it resolve if they have Force of Will.

– Threshold plays a land and a cantrip and passes the turn.

Land Tax activates. The deck now can play a land and it’s engine card. However, Threshold has access to Daze and Force of Will. It is likely that the engine card would be countered if either of these cards are available. However, for purposes of demonstration we assume that Threshold does not have a counterspell, and the engine card resolves.

– Threshold now has a lot of options. It can try to answer the engine card directly with Pithing Needle or Engineered Explosives. Suppose that Threshold has drawn neither permission nor removal for the engine card. If it manages to draw into permission later, simply deploying its undercosted threats and protecting them may be enough to win the game. Threshold may play another land, but it may be just as comfortable staying at one mana. It is designed to run on as few lands as possible and may simply stay on one land until its threats are maximized, or Land Tax flinches and plays a land first. At this point it is either playing threats or is able to interfere with the Land Tax engine. We want to see what effect Land Tax has on this game, so suppose Threshold plays another land and a Tarmogoyf or Werebear.

Land Tax will activate again. The deck can now start using the extra lands. Depending on the effect, it can draw several extra cards, play another mana source, and attempt to setup a stronger control position on the board. Threshold is likely to counter anything that interferes with its threats. However, the Land Tax deck will have to answer them quickly, as Tarmogoyf and Werebear are very cheap for their size and are likely backed up with burn spells. At this point it is a battle to see whose control cards are superior. The extra cards Land Tax has drawn allow it to find the answers best suited for this situation, but Threshold has also been setting up its hand for two turns. Land Tax only has two or three mana, and it has to resolve a spell through permission. Threshold is going to untap with active threats, and is likely to be able to draw into another disruption card on the next turn. Whatever Land Tax does, it is going to have a tough time fighting the efficiency of Threshold.

Land Tax could certainly find itself in such a strong position and be able to resolve a relevant spell, but it is not likely because of all the disruption Threshold plays. Regardless of the outcome, it is still necessary to ask why a White control deck could not simply take advantage of its tempo opportunities in the early game, and play stronger control cards from the beginning.

4. Land Tax versus Threshold, on the draw

– Threshold opens with a land and a cantrip, and passes the turn.

Land Tax is already in a losing position; it is not likely that Land Tax will ever activate this game. Consider it’s possible plays here:

It can open with Mox Diamond, but Threshold is likely to Daze or Force of Will the artifact mana, in an attempt to manascrew the deck.

Land Tax can play around Daze by playing the land first, but then Land Tax will not activate.

The deck could hold onto the artifact mana and just play Land, Land Tax, but this doesn’t activate it either.

The deck has to do something, so it will probably play the land and then the artifact mana, and resolve the Land Tax.

– Threshold will play another cantrip and pass the turn. At this point is probably has access to at least one counterspell.

Land Tax is still in a difficult position. If it plays more land, Threshold will basically have access to its entire range of operation, and all the setup of Land Tax and the engine cards will be a waste since it will never activate. Land Tax must try to operate on two mana for the time being, and attempts to cast its engine card. This is probably going to get countered, but we assume that it resolves.

– Threshold again plays a one-mana spell, either a Nimble Mongoose, a Pithing Needle, or a cantrip and passes the turn. Threshold’s position only gets stronger as the turns progress, as its cards are all very cheap, and it’s endgame strategy can go online at any moment simply by making a second land drop and casting a very large creature.

At this point the game is effectively over, as Threshold is just waiting for Land Tax to either make another land drop, or do something that requires a change of strategy. When this happens, Threshold will have had sufficient setup time that its threats will be full size and it will have plenty of answers and reach to end the game. Had the Land Tax deck used its resources to execute a different strategy (not involving Land Tax), it may have had better opportunities to generate tempo and answer Threshold’s threats more effectively.

5. Land Tax versus Belcher, on the play

– The Land Tax engine is pretty useless here, and the only way the deck can survive is by playing cards unrelated to the engine. It has a chance in this matchup is if it is maindecking cheap combo hate cards, so let’s assume that it is. The best thing Land Tax can do is play an artifact mana source, have a one-mana disruption card such as Orim’s Chant, and hope that the opponent actually plays a land on the following turn. However, unless it draws a second artifact mana source, there is no guarantee that it will ever activate Land Tax, as Belcher runs two lands in the entire deck and doesn’t really need them to kill the opponent. Activating Land Tax is probably a waste of time anyway, as it requires the time and mana that are needed to answer the deadly threats that are going to be on the board on the next turn. Due to these factors, Land Tax is largely irrelevant in the Combo matchup, but let’s investigate it anyway.

– Belcher can win now with a good hand if there is no disruption. If the opponent plays correctly with the one-mana disruption, Belcher may be stalled for one or more turns. Assume Belcher makes the worst possible play and walks right into an Orim’s Chant. Also assume it played a land.

Land Tax is not really in a better position here. Belcher has lost mana and cards, but it has mana on the board and can topdeck very strong cards. Land Tax still can’t play a land, but it has to play the Land Tax now or else it won’t really have a good opportunity to ever again, as Belcher is just going to draw cards until it has a good chance to go off again. A second Orim’s Chant should be saved, since the opponent’s hand is weakest now and is only going to get better. Assume the deck plays Land Tax and passes.

– Assume Belcher cannot go off and passes the turn.

Land Tax activates. The deck now has three more lands, still one mana, and is still in a terrible position. It is not likely to have the second Orim’s Chant. If it does, it must hold it, but it doesn’t answer Goblin Charbelcher. Land Tax has to play a land and some kind of relevant card, but at this point it is stretching the realism of this thought experiment to assume that Land Tax has such a dedicated combo hate suite.

– Assume Belcher cannot go off and passes the turn.

– In the very unlikely event that Belcher has not been able to produce a relevant threat the entire game, Land Tax is probably going to gain control and deploy its win conditions. Even in this scenario, Belcher can come back from almost any position and activate a Goblin Charbelcher or create a serious attacking threat with Empty the Warrens.

As you can see, it takes some serious acrobatics just to imagine a scenario where Belcher loses to Land Tax, and that’s when Land Tax goes first. The Land Tax engine doesn’t help the deck beat Combo decks; it makes them worse by adding useless cards to the deck instead of disruption.

6. Land Tax versus Belcher, on the draw

– Belcher has no Force of Will to fear, and is likely to execute its main strategy right away. However, let’s assume Belcher is going for a turn 2 win.

Land Tax must plays it’s artifact mana source. It must leave the mana open for Orim’s Chant because otherwise it loses.

– Belcher would realize that the opponent has disruption at this point. Belcher will play one spell and see if the opponent responds. If not, it may play a Goblin Charbelcher or an Empty the Warrens, and create a clock. It could also sit on its mana and cards and setup a stronger win next turn.

Land Tax is incapacitated here. If Goblin Charbelcher has resolved, it is going to lose very soon. If Belcher simply set up again, it can’t change its strategy from the previous turn. The only way to gain an advantage here is for Land Tax to draw it’s second artifact mana source, play Land Tax, and have mana open for Orim’s Chant.

– Belcher has put the opponent on a clock, so all it has to do is accumulate damage from the different sources and win the game.

Land Tax, even with dedicated hate cards, does not function well in this matchup. The strongest position here is simply not to have the Land Tax engine in your deck in the first place.

V. What Border?

Land Tax is weak enough that we are able to easily demonstrate its power by examining its performance against some common decks. However, this is a rare case, and most of the time it is much more difficult to get a clear of idea of the power level of a card. All of the cards that I have recommended, and will recommend, for unbanning are not difficult cases to make to experienced players and format analysts, and Land Tax is certainly one of these. There are a few cards that are very interesting to discuss and may also be safe as well, but I will continue to make a distinction between those cards, and the ones that are clear enough that I would classify them as safe.

Legacy decks in general use cards of a higher power level to Land Tax. The DCI’s power arguments are inscrutable, and I have already mentioned where I think they originate from.

It is an open challenge to Legacy deckbuilders to come up with a Land Tax deck that is good, let alone too good. So far there has been no reason to suspect that one exists, and many to suspect that it doesn’t, such as the comparisons I have outlined above. There is one more comparison that I think makes it completely obvious that Land Tax is safe:

Life from the Loam.

This card is remarkably similar to Land Tax, and in fact it is better in many ways. It is not a conditional activation; it recurs itself; it can be used any time during the turn, and multiple times. Of course, it costs one more, and Land Tax gets cards from your deck instead of your graveyard, which is better in some scenarios. However, it is quite relevant that as comparable as it is in power level, Life from the Loam is nowhere near the top tier in terms of power, functionality, or “oppression:”

If the card’s power level alone made it only a borderline case for banning, the oppressive nature of how it affects games pushes it over the edge.
Aaron Forsythe

In the context of competitive Legacy decks, the format theory I have explained, and the limitations on the construction of such a deck, it is very hard to make sense of this.

The conservative management of the banned list has been a good thing for the health of different formats in the past, and I support this tendency in modern B/R policy. However, with some careful thought and a familiarity with tournament Legacy, it is not difficult to see how some cards on the banned list, such as Land Tax, really are safe to re-enter the format.

Land Tax would have to compete in the scenarios described above just to be considered relevant to Legacy. On top of that, it would have to demonstrate a consistent and significant advantage over them to be called “oppressive.” In my investigation of this issue I have discovered none of these things. I don’t know where this adjective came from, but it is not from any version of the modern Legacy environment. In Magic in years past, Land Tax decks did have some strength in a few formats, but those formats are not Legacy, and are quite far removed from it. In having B/R discussions, we should put our impressions of those times behind us, just as we have put aside our fears of Survival of the Fittest, Tendrils of Agony, Goblin Welder, and even cards like Replenish and Mind over Matter.

VI. The Rest of the List

I had wanted to discuss all of the realistic candidates for unrestriction, but the Land Tax issue was much more important at the moment since it received direct attention from the DCI. Additionally, it has been announced that Day 2 of Worlds is going to be Legacy format, which means that the September B/R is probably a ban-only announcement, as the DCI keeps the possibility open that there is something broken in the format that is as yet undiscovered. I will be sure to discuss the remaining cards in advance of the December announcement.

Christopher Coppola