Unlocking Legacy – The EPIC Control

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This week’s Unlocking Legacy brings you the latest creation from Legacy’s leading innovators, The EPIC Syndicate. If you’re looking for some brand spanking new Legacy technology, then look no further. In part one of his series on the deck, Adam shares the decklist and explains some of the theory and reasoning behind the card selections of TEC – The EPIC Control.

“If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”
Mario Andretti

For all intents and purposes, Legacy players are some lucky guys (and gals, if there are any of the three of you out there…). See, while all the Standard players are up in arms with excitement or dismay over the recent changes to the legality dates of new sets, Legacy players are meeting these adjustments with a resounding “Meh.” For as much as many of us complain about the availability of tournaments, in this one instance we are unaffected, as Limited players are to our banned list. We have, in essence, infinite time to go about amassing our playsets of Standard fare, which allows us to wait until prices stabilize before we make our collective purchases. More often than not, this works greatly to our advantage. Sometimes, like with Tarmogoyf, it comes back to bite us if we don’t get the message in time. Yet, with this new policy, I foresee the benefits greatly outweighing the potential costs as far as the eternal community is concerned.

Where am I going with this? My point is basically this: With each new set, Legacy has an influx of new, potentially playable cards, in the same way that Standard or Extended does. The ratio of signal to noise is smaller, certainly. However, there is still the potential in each set for a number of the cards to impact the format in one way or another. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of experimenting and testing for the cards to demonstrate their worth, even if at first glance, the cards seem like they have to fit, somewhere. Recently, I’ve arrived at a decklist that takes a very time-tested theme in a new direction, thanks to a slew of Standard-legal cards, and I’m absolutely bursting at the seams to share it. My team and I are very proud of this deck, and we feel it sparks a new and exciting direction for the format.

At heart, I’m a pure control enthusiast. One of the most important moments in my history as a Magic Player was the moment I completed my first playset of Force of Wills. Since that day, I have always felt naked and exposed without the ability to say “no” on turn 0. I am absolutely at home in the control mirror, which is a trait I proudly share with very few people that play this game. I could sit for hours (and have) fighting counterspell battles over Crucible of Worlds and fighting for that last scrap of card advantage. Because of this bias, I naturally scan the newest sets for any cards that could impact the relevance of control in Legacy. With Lorwyn, I believe I’ve found a few diamonds in the rough, and they inspired the decklist I intend to discuss today.

The list began as a traditional Landstill build, although I was running Counterbalance instead of Counterspell, and Sensei’s Divining Top in a few of the variable slots. While this was fine in theory, practice showed that my likelihood of actually countering any spells with Counterbalance was rather low, as the curve of the deck was all over the place, and Landstill is, by definition, full of lands. So back to the drawing board I went, until a 3am conversation with a teammate brought some new insights to mind. The problem was the win conditions. Between Eternal Dragon, Decree of Justice, and Manlands, you’re forced to run a gazillion land to optimally utilize your threats. Dragon costs seven mana, which means you’re sunk extremely late into the game before you can use him for anything but mana fixing. Decree gets more powerful for every land you have in play, so once again, the more you can put in play, the better. Your manlands effectively cut off your supply of mana producers, at a rate of two or three lands per guy, every turn. They force you to decide early on if it’s more important to protect yourself or to play spells. All of these things I saw as weaknesses in the design of the deck I was attempting to create, and so I scrapped the lot of them and started from zero. There had to be something better that we could run, and Lorwyn was happy to provide.

The first of the inspirational Lorwyn cards, Hoofprints of the Stag, has been flying low on my radar for some time. I first saw its wealth in Limited, and knew there had to be a way to break the card open. The obvious first pairing was with Brainstorm, which — when played during an opponent’s end step — allows you to “charge up” Hoofprints for a single Blue mana, at the same time that you sculpt your hand. No other non-Vintage format has this capability. Brainstorm is already arguably the most powerful instant in the format, and now there is a two-mana win condition which plays quite nicely with it.

Brainstorm aside, Hoofprints is the kind of win condition Blue control loves to have. It’s a relatively marginal investment — a mere two mana, followed by three mana at some point in the future — which incrementally provides card advantage for barely any cost, outside what you would already be doing from turn to turn. You like drawing cards, and generally, this is perceived as a good thing to be doing while playing control. You love win conditions that you don’t need to protect, because they allow you to render your opponents’ removal basically worthless. No matter how many Swords to Plowshares or Smothers they have in their hand, eventually, a Flying Goat will stick. Hoofprints is a card which genuinely rewards you for the natural progression of your game plan, and that’s a rare commodity, even in Legacy.

The second group of Lorwyn cards on which my attention focused is the Planeswalkers. We looked at the pros and cons of each of the five ‘Walkers before coming to the eventual conclusion on which one to use. First off, we could rule out Chandra, since she simply doesn’t fit the plan of the deck we were creating. Beyond that, the five mana price tag doesn’t strike me as a benefit, by any means. For the same reason, Liliana Vess was dismissed. While her disruption and tutoring abilities are interesting, they aren’t exactly what we’re looking for in our Planeswalker. Her ultimate ability is also underwhelming, as it’s generally only going to be a backbreaker against decks like Goblins or Survival. In any control on control match, or against Aggro-Control, you’re unlikely to get more than one or two creatures with this ability. It seems like you should be getting more out of that kind of investment of both your time and mana.

This left us with three possibilities. As Standard can attest, Garruk Wildspeaker is incredibly strong. Effectively costing two mana, he allows you to come out of the gates in a huge way, and he makes an army on his own. His ultimate ability eventually will win the game, as a sea of beaters comes crashing through the defenses. However, his strategy is much too aggressive, and while the untap ability plays into your game plan extremely well, allowing you to play sorcery speed spells and untap for counterspell mana, the other two abilities just aren’t what you’re looking for. On the other hand, Ajani Goldmane has most of the qualities we’re looking for in a control oriented Planeswalker. The lifegain is highly relevant, as you’re looking to sink further and further into the lategame to take full control of the game. The Vigilance ability works extremely well with your traditional control win conditions, like Decree of Justice or Mishra’s Factory. The ultimate ability of Ajani is a powerful win condition that generally wins the game the following turn. However, he suffers from the same weakness that Garruk does — the reliance on the red zone for the game winning blow. Ideally, having access to at least one win condition that operates outside the attack step is desirable for this deck. Certainly, Ajani and Garruk are cards worth keeping an eye on, but for now, our decision is seated firmly on Jace Beleren.

Jace has a wealth of things going for him that are exactly what we’re looking for. First off, and most glaringly obvious, is that he’s Blue. That’s right, folks, Jace pitches to Force of Will. While this isn’t usually a large portion of any argument for a card’s worth, it never really hurts. Second, he costs three mana, the least of any of the existing Planeswalkers. As we had already made the decision to run Counterbalance in this deck, this is an extremely relevant converted mana cost to have. These are two excellent qualities, and we haven’t even looked at what he does yet.

Draw a card. He says it. Twice. How much better an ability could you ask for in a control deck? Jace is the only Planeswalker that cantrips. The choice of being a more effective Howling Mine, or a slow Ancestral Recall, is completely up to you. If you want, mix and match! Generally, you’re able to deal with whatever your opponent would be drawing from your Jace (you are playing control, after all), so the card parity is rarely an issue. If it is, then go -1, instead of +2. Either way pairs extremely well with the other Lorwyn card we’ve decided to run. Getting a flying 4/4 every other turn seems like a fine bargain to me, especially when you’re drawing two cards per turn.

Jace’s ultimate ability is a backbreaker in any match that could potentially come down to cards left in one’s library, such as the control mirror or versus aggro control. There are a finite number of win conditions in any deck, and milling your opponent for 20 is a fair way to rid yourself of some of them. Obviously, this strategy is not useful against every deck, or there would be a whole lot more Traumatizes seeing play. You don’t want to mill your opponent for twenty on turn 1, only to realize they are playing Cephalid Breakfast, and you’ve just won the game for them. However, there are plenty of matchups where this is by no means a bad strategy, and in those matchups, Jace is a draw engine that wins you the game, literally. Outside those matchups, he’s a draw engine that wins you the game, figuratively.

So we have two Lorwyn cards. Let’s fill in the rest of the deck. Something I hope you’ve noticed about the above cards is their respective card types. It’s not often that you find yourself with both Tribals and Planeswalkers in a decklist. I’m sure you know what that means – 4 Tarmogoyf. Now, I apologize to any of you out there who are groaning at the sight of the card, thinking “does EVERY deck have to have 4 of this guy in it?” I feel for you, believe me I do. As I said at the beginning of this article, it’s a pretty cruddy situation that he’s put us in, as his price tag is an inhibiting constraint for many players. Yet this is not a budget column, to my knowledge, and I assure you my intent is to play with the best available cards in the card pool, regardless of the price. This is one of the reasons I choose to play Legacy, and I work under the assumption that serious competitors in any format feel the same way. Enough about that. Back to card choices.

Aside from adding to the price tag, Tarmogoyf provides two things this deck desperately needs. Certainly, there are other cards that could provide them, but nothing out there does it as efficiently, at the same time. First, the deck needs protection from an early rush. Decks like Goblins, Goyf Sligh, etc. can put a huge amount of pain on the table very, very quickly. Dropping a Tarmogoyf early allows you to stem the bleeding, and potentially put the aggro deck on the defensive, which is usually an awkward place for them to be. This can help you live into the mid- to late game, where your deck excels. Second, it provides an efficient late game win condition, which can often end the game in a turn or two. Sometimes you can get complete control, but simply lack a means of victory. There aren’t many things in the format right now that are better at just killing someone than a well protected ‘Goyf. These two important roles make the Tarmogoyfs well worth the inclusion.

As I mentioned earlier, the decision was made early on in development to run Counterbalance, and its sidekick, Sensei’s Divining Top. Counterbalance is ridiculous in the format right now, as we all know. As the speed of the format increases, the power of Counterbalance increases as well, due to the reduction in mana cost of the spells being played. The curve of this deck can be well suited to capture the important spells played by most decks.

As far as Sensei’s Top goes, it’s the heart and soul of the deck. The card lets control do things it simply shouldn’t be able to do. You can play through all kinds of Black disruption by hiding things on top of your library. You can counter basically anything with Counterbalance. Paired with Fetchlands, you have access to an exorbitant amount of card quality. It allows you to spend a single colorless mana to add counters to Hoofprints of the Stag. With no other constraints, you can tap it at opponent’s end of turn to draw a card, and replay it on your own turn. With a pair of Tops, you generate an insane amount of counters, one for every mana you have access to.

Alright, I’ve danced about quite enough. Let’s have that decklist you’re itching to see, and then we can discuss some more choices.

While the overall removal package is fairly standard for Blue-based control, the addition of the pair of Vedalken Shackles allows your removal to be a threat in itself. Originally added to the deck to fill out the three mana slot, it quickly proved its worth in both the control mirror and the aggro matchups. Against other control decks like Landstill or Mono-Blue, the threat base is small enough that the Shackles must be answered for them to win the game — it’s difficult for them to win through it. Against aggro, it tends to be a reusable two-for-one, stealing their creatures to block each other. Since I’ve been playing Shackles in this deck, I’ve stolen everything from Goblin Lackeys to Morphlings — it’s an extremely versatile card that has use versus the majority of the field.

Standstill, a card control decks have been built around since the day it hit print, finds a home in this deck in a different way than it does in decks built around it. It’s important to notice that unlike Landstill, TEC cannot drop a Standstill on turn 2 and ride it out for a win, while operating underneath it. As such, the focus of the card has shifted to allowing you to more adequately protect your threats. Your ideal scenario is to drop a turn 2 or 3 Hoofprints, Goyf, or Jace, and then follow that threat up with a Standstill on the same or the next turn. This allows you to apply pressure on the opponent from beneath the Standstill, and more readily protect those threats from the opponent’s answers. The interaction between Hoofprints and Standstill should be apparent.

As I said earlier, I hated the manabase of the Landstill deck I started from. Landstill decks that are being run these days are three to four colors, running zero to two basic lands, and up to as many as nine lands that don’t produce colored mana. To me, that seems atrocious. If your control deck literally loses to a resolved Magus of the Moon, then you need to strongly reconsider the choices you’ve made for your manabase. Regardless of color requirements, there’s no excuse, as far as I’m concerned, for such a shoddy base. TEC’s base is much more robust, even with fewer lands, and has the ability to completely shrug off a typical land disruption suite. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’ve included a pair of Underground Seas with no Black cards in the maindeck. Rest assured, this is not a typo, but it does allow you access to Extirpate, Engineered Plague, etc. in the sideboard. Game 1 they still find use as a fourth color for Engineered Explosives, should the need arise, and they serve as excellent bait for opposing Wastelands. The deck can be run without the Black splash, though, and if you determine it to be unnecessary in your eyes, they could be replaced by another Tropical Island and a basic Island or the fourth Delta. The off color mana constraints are so minimal, however, that you can essentially use the Trops and Seas as Lotus Petals. You’re rarely going to find that you’ve run out of resources to play the spells you want to play if you focus on fetching out the basic lands, and only use the duals when you need or draw them. Recently, another group of players in my area have developed a land destruction deck featuring seventeen Sinkhole effects (not including Wasteland + Life From the Loam recursion). I managed to fight through five land kill spells in the first six turns before eventually succumbing to defeat after Liliana Vess assured that I would never be seeing another land. Aside from such a freakishly absurd amount of land destruction as that deck possesses, you should feel quite safe versus any number of Wastelands.

As far as sideboarding is concerned, it’s up to an individual to be selective about what is relevant in their particular metagame. Even so, I’ll share with you some ideas and choices based on options I’ve tested. There are some obvious inclusions, such as Krosan Grip and Extirpate, which I consider to be staples in my sideboard, but aside from them, there is a lot of room for finesse in the board.

One of the difficulties I’ve found when playing in my area is the ability of Blue/White Landstill decks to more fully utilize my Standstills or their own than I can. For this reason, I’ve often run two to three Decree of Justices in my sideboard when I expect a lot of Landstill matches. If it isn’t expected, then many times you can play the traditional game of turn 2 Standstill, and your opponent will let you ride it out, expecting you to need to break your own Standstill to win the game. This works well as a surprise factor against more than just the control mirror, but the idea is focused mainly on that matchup.

Goblins is an issue. I’ll go right ahead and put that out there. You have a tendency to lose the attrition war with them, especially now with Goblins running Wort, Boggart Auntie. A lategame topdeck of Goblin Ringleader can be game ending, as can the early nut draw. Most of the time you can stabilize, but your life total is an issue. There are two things I’ve attempted to solve this issue, the first of which is a combination of Engineered Plagues and Humility. Both are excellent at turning off the Goblin hoard, in combination they are lethal. Generally, I run three Plagues and two Humilities, although the Humilities are fairly useful all around, and could be a three of themselves. The second method is to run some number of COP: Red in the board, which affords you a better matchup against the recent resurgence of Burn decks, as well. While this is a fine solution, it does have the unfortunate issue of being vulnerable to Pithing Needle, which the Humility/Plague option does not. It’s a decision of whether the Burn or non-Goblin aggro matchup is more important.

I hope I’ve sufficiently explained my choices on the deck enough for you all to gather some appreciation for the work I’ve put into it. Legacy is an exciting format right now, and there’s such a lot of good development coming down the wire. With any luck, this will inspire some of you to dive head first into the newest sets, and come out with a few new ideas of your own.

Watch out for part two next month, where I’ll be going over some matchup analysis with the new deck, and explaining some in-game decision trees to give some insight into how this puppy runs. Until then, Happy 2008, and keep your stick on the ice.