Unlocking Legacy – The Case for Board Control

Read Legacy articles every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Monday, August 4th – When you have a gauntlet of ten decks, it’s pretty easy to test the ten against each other, make a metagame prediction, and pick a deck. When you have a wide open metagame, picking the right deck is important. But how do you approach a format in order to pick the right deck?

When you have a gauntlet of ten decks, it’s pretty easy to test the ten against each other, make a metagame prediction, and pick a deck. One of my favorite activities in Legacy is to try and find a new tweak on a deck that beats all the decks that I think are relevant. For the past few months I’ve been working towards building a deck that beats Threshold, Goblins, Dragon Stompy, combo and the Intuition-based decks that have sprung up. This is not an easy task, and it’s harder still to find the right approach to as diverse and wide-open as many Legacy metagames are. They key to selecting a deck might very well be examining how we pick decks in the first place. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot on, so I want to share my approach and get feedback. This is a mostly undiscussed topic, and I think I can learn a lot by explaining my process and hearing similar stories from readers.

I wanted to write about something different this week, I even did a fair amount of trying to tune the Survival list I presented at the end of the column last month. For established decks, the Imperial Painter deck is more interesting than any mono-colored deck deserves to be. I even spent several hours talking theory and trying to re-draw the Metagame Clock in a way that can differentiate between a Black control deck and a Blue control deck. Ever try to plot items in a space composed of three or four distinct axes? It’s kind of hard to draw. The problem with these ideas is that I don’t think they are strong enough to take to a large tournament. I keep coming back to the same idea: make winning easy. There are many ways to win a game of Magic. You can cast a lethal Tendrils of Agony or Brain Freeze with a high storm count. You can attack with creatures; you can cast Glimpse the Unthinkable a few times. Now that Eventide has hit the streets, you could even cast Helix Pinnacle and pay 100 mana! Despite actually causing you to win the game, most of these strategies don’t work in the real world. How much work does it take to put 100 tower counters on Helix Pinnacle versus something as simple as tapping a Marsh Viper enchanted by Power of Fire five times? And if you can poison your opponent, you can probably kill them with Tarmogoyf even easier. To me, trying to put together Painter’s Servant + Grindstone is a lot like Marsh Viper + Power of Fire. It’s really awesome and might win you games, but it takes a lot of work to do the same thing that just swinging with Tarmogoyf does. And if you think Painter’s Servant feels bad by the comparison, just imagine how much Jugan, the Rising Star must have hated Meloku the Clouded Mirror. Show-stealing little punk.

Goblins saw significant play longer, I think, than it was mathematically correct to play the deck. That is to say if you can accurately predict the metagame, you want to choose the deck that has the best possible Expected Value over the entire field. I think Frank Karsten explained this concept better than I can or need to, so if you haven’t read his superb article “Theory Games,” check it out here. Why play Goblins if there is another known deck that is better? I think the main reason is ease of play. There are some tricky things the deck can do, and a good Goblins player will definitely outperform a poor Goblins player, but at the end of the day, the deck is not hard to play at a level that will Top 8 a medium sized tournament. Goblins wins a lot of games from just playing guys on turns 1 through 5 and then reloading with a Ringleader when the opponent is out of cards. When playing Mono-Red Goblins, it is impossible to counter the wrong spell, fetch the wrong land, put the wrong card back with Brainstorm, or try to go off too early and fail to make Tendrils of Agony lethal. Playing an “easy” deck will make it harder to make game losing misplays, especially later in the day as the rounds drag on. I’m not advocating Goblins, partly because its difficult matchups are no longer easy, and partly because its easy matchups are also easy matchups for other decks. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if Goblins won a few tournaments just by making fewer misplays than a lot of more complicated decks.

Nearly four years ago, when Champions of Kamigawa was legal with Mirrodin Block, I used to play weekly Standard tournaments. Occasionally then-local Ted Knutson would stop by the store and game with us. This was, of course, before he moved to paradise to be fed peeled grapes and fanned by beautiful women. At the time I was playing Mono-Blue Tron with an added Gifts Ungiven engine. I had a string of Top 8s at this local tournament but, at the time, no wins. I felt like I was one of the best players in the room and deserved to win, so on one occasion I asked Ted for advice. His answer was fairly succinct: “You’re playing decks that are too complicated.” While it was possible to execute correctly, the game-winning play would often require the right four Gifts Ungiven cards, and then to accurately manage Arcbound Reclaimer, Sensei’s Divining Top, Skeletal Shards, and Mindslaver. Even if I was the best player in the room, I would have to execute that sequence perfectly in order to win. If I screwed up, often the other guy merely had to count to 20 damage. The simpler and possibly better form of the deck eschewed Gifts Ungiven in favor of extra control elements and more straight-forward draw instead. You also had the advantage of not running nearly as many recursion creatures that were bad when Lantern Kamis were beating your face in (hey, this was 2004!). The lesson here was to play as complicated a deck as you needed to outplay your opponent, but no more!

I do think there is a modern equivalent to the notion of a “dumb” aggro deck: Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top. In most matchups there’s no pressure to land the combo (unlike something like Painter’s Servant + Grindstone), but doing so is cheap and often very easy. If you play both cards and untap, you will win most of your matchups. Yeah, there are some matchups where Counterbalance isn’t worth the ink they used to print it (which is actually quite a bit – that artwork is stunning, even though it looks very little to me like the rest of Zeleznik’s work), but it’s worth it overall. And even in the matchups where it’s bad, like Dragon Stompy, the card isn’t a blank. Counterbalance revealing a land is actually relevant against Gathan Raiders; countering a morph with Counterbalance is easiest way to make a Dragon Stompy player cry. Double that if it’s a basic land. (And please, make them cry. I hate that deck, but more on that later.) But it’s possible I like Top more than most people; I’ve seriously considered playing it in Goblins just to stop drawing lands. (Has anyone tested Countryside Crusher in Goblins? Might help the deck beat Tarmogoyf.) Can you play Threshold without Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top? Our northern neighbors (or southern and eastern neighbors to those of you in Alaska) certainly believe so; the Threshold variant “Canadian Thresh” eschews these cards in order to play a much more tempo-oriented game with Stifles, Wasteland, and Spell Snare. My question when looking at those decks is, “Why would you want to?” The builds that rely on Stifle often get into race situations with Tarmogoyf, where they do everything they can to keep the opponent from developing to get just enough Tarmogoyf swings in. In testing and games that was always far too much work for me. Tarmogoyf is another card like this. You might be able to win by playing another creature, but fighting off the opponent’s Tarmogoyf and not having your own is just too much work. And even when Tarmogoyf is your “backup strategy,” most of the time Tarmogoyf just wins for you. In a way, fighting Tarmogoyf is like fighting Goblin Lackey (in a world without Tarmogoyf, of course). You can do it, and you probably have to. But even if you do it most of the time, it’s a lot of pressure and a lot of work just to not lose.

I am constantly looking for blowout cards or strategies like Counterbalance + Top, and there are a few more. These cards and strategies are just stupidly good; they can easily win or put you significantly ahead just by resolving them. And I am not just counting cards that provide a huge advantage; if you resolve Fact or Fiction you are going to get some good cards, but you are only putting good cards into your hand. Your ability to get ahead is still predicated on your ability to translate “good cards in hand” into “winning the game.” For this reason I gravitate towards decks with significant board control tendencies. Several players have exploited the power of board control and its power to beat just about everything but combo. A well-placed Pernicious Deed will win almost every game. The goal is to not lose in the cases where your Deed does not get there. You want to go to Deed to win 50% of your games, and use Counterbalance and Tarmogoyf to win the rest.

All of this just gets us to where Dan Spero left off several months ago, with VoroshStill. I’ve previously discussed the deck here. In summary, the deck is basically Tarmogoyf, Force of Will, Counterbalance, Sensei’s Divining Top, Pernicious Deed, and Standstill, with all the accompanying accoutrement (I’m uncertain if this is redundant or not, but it’s fun to write). For a long time I’ve held the belief that not playing Force of Will in your Legacy deck is a mistake. In a format that is potentially this random, you do not want to lose round 1 to the nightmare matchup because one person missed the memo that Humility has not been good in years. So in total, I’m sort of philosophically locked into either VoroshStill or It’s the Fear, because I think the best deck right now has all of the listed cards (with the exception of Standstill). I am vaguely dissatisfied with both decks, which has lead to me to explore as much as I can within the given core. There are three points of concern for me. The first is Dragon Stompy, a deck which I loathe. The second is the ever-increasing threat of Extirpate, both on your Tarmogoyfs and potentially on your Intuition target. The third threat is opposing Counterbalance decks, especially ITF and Vorosh. I already have this deck that does well against most of the field, so all I have to do is tweak it to improve in these few areas.

Blood Moon = bad times. Since its conception, I’ve gone from thinking the deck is a cute concept to believing it to be a relevant deck, to hating Blood Moon and all the unfortunate crimson tides. While Magus of the Moon was a big enabler for the deck, for a heavy three- or four-color control the worst card to see is the original Blood Moon. In the common maindeck configurations, only Engineered Explosives and counters can deal with Blood Moon, where you have an extra piece of maindeck removal to kill the Magus. Without enemy colored fetchlands, your Polluted Deltas and Flooded Strands cannot access the most desired second basic land, Forest. With Island as your only basic land in the maindeck, you literally can’t beat a Blood Moon; they run six or more so it is potentially a big problem. To deal with Blood Moon you either have to just hope to counter Blood Moon or run a Plains or Swamp to try and cast Engineered Explosives off a “Mountain” and two basics. The third option is to bastardize your manabase to try and get Green fetchlands and a basic Forest into the deck. None of these are good enough, but it was an important starting place. Without doing much to the deck, all you can guarantee is that you’ll find a basic Island before Blood Moon comes down. Or at least, you’ll have the Island in the games that are winnable. Matt Hargis helped me come up with a lot of interesting Intuition stacks, but none of them are good or efficient enough compared to just having Blue Elemental Blast, and they’re all mostly too bad to take up maindeck slots. The other problem is that all of the non-Blue Elemental Blast hate is only effective against either Blood Moon or Magus of the Moon. So if the sideboard plan is definitely winning on Blue Elemental Blast + some sort of Chalice of the Void removal, how do we make game 1 tolerable? The simplest answer is to include a few Cunning Wish in the maindeck; you don’t even have to change your sideboard. You also get access to Extirpate to beat the Loam decks game 1. You can make room by cutting the 3rd Engineered Explosives and the 4th removal spell.

And if that’s where things ended, this would be a pretty poor experiment. After all, as Dan Spero put it, Cunning Wish for Extirpate is basically Cranial Extraction. While I’ve wanted to play Cranial Extraction in Legacy, it’s not the kind of strategy that really excites me. Some ideas are The Dark Knight exciting; Cunning Wish in an already moderately slow deck is about as exciting as Mamma Mia! Maybe it’s even the right choice, but it’s certainly not something that gets my blood pumping. So I tried taking a cue from Threshold and including the fifth color. You can easily make room for a Magus of the Moon in the deck; sure it tears your manabase up, but at least you’re prepared. You can try to include the basic Forest, but even without, in the mirror they can’t beat a Magus. All you have to do is kill opposing Tarmogoyfs and drop Magus of the Moon onto an empty board. Then if you’re prepared to get red in the maindeck, you have answers to Blood Moon. More specifically, you can run Pyroclasm or Firespout to answer Magus of the Moon. Blood Moon is harder, implying that you need a creature in the maindeck you can cast through Blood Moon. On the flip side it needs to be castable without Blood Moon. Earlier I started exploring the idea of running 3 Demigod of Revenge in the sideboard of an Intuition build; if they can only beat you by playing Blood Moon, then your post-board plan just needs to beat their Blood Moon draws. If you run an Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in an Intuition build you can accommodate the Magus of the Moon and still cast it under a Blood Moon. So at the end of my experiment, I ended up with this list:

2 Island
4 Polluted Delta
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Tropical Island
3 Underground Sea
2 Tundra
2 Volcanic Island
4 Flooded Strand
1 Academy Ruins
1 Volrath’s Stronghold

4 Tarmogoyf
3 Demigod of Revenge

4 Brainstorm
1 Life from the Loam
1 Engineered Explosives
2 Collective Restraint
1 Gifts Ungiven
3 Pernicious Deed
3 Intuition
3 Counterbalance
4 Force of Will
3 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Swords to Plowshares

The Gifts Ungiven is probably better off being the 4th Intuition, but Gifts is potentially a more exciting card. You have seven different cards in the maindeck you might want to access, with the possibility of Magus of the Moon and other creatures in the sideboard as well. Your first Intuition is probably going to get Life from the Loam, Urborg and Volrath’s Stronghold. Gifts would be nice because it can set up multiple plans at once. And Collective Restraint was an oddball suggestion from Matt that is turning out to be fairly decent; it costs one more than Propaganda but it costs them one to two more mana on average and doesn’t get nuked by most Engineered Explosives settings. There is also an advantage to having a non-zero number of cards with converted mana cost 4; you can actually Counterbalance all the way up the curve.

Is this the best deck ever? No, but I think it has a lot of potential. Mainly I think that the deck is on the right track in terms of positioning itself in the metagame. It does lose to Extirpate, but at least it can overwhelm the deck with targets… to a certain extent. Pernicious Deed is probably the best card in Legacy, so I think the best decks will do everything they can to exploit the card. It’s only real weakness are Blood Moon decks and decks with heavy recursion engines; this is on the right track to addressing both.

Kevin Binswanger