Unlocking Legacy — The Pet Deck

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In a format as wide open as Legacy, there is a lot of room to find a deck you love and stick with it. This week, Adam discusses why this is a bad idea, and shares some insight into how this folly contributed to some serious scrubbing out. Plus, decklists!

“Never let your persistence and passion turn into stubbornness and ignorance.”
~ Anthony J. D’Angelo, The College Blue Book

My name is Adam Barnello. I am an addict. My drug of choice? The Pet Deck.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a Pet Deck is simply a deck that a particular player will play no matter how difficult the matchups versus the field, whether there is a better choice or not. Often, the deck could be described as rogue, but could very easily be a tier 1 deck that happens to have been hated out of viability in a particular metagame. Although, to some extent, the rotating formats can experience this phenomenon, the natural flux of the formats and the attention brought to them through the Pro Tour both work against it, as players don’t have as long an opportunity to get stuck in a rut with their favorite deck.

Because of the unique combination of characteristics that define Legacy (Eternal format, so a casual player or Extended player can use all of their cards regardless of rotation schedules; Lower power level than Vintage, so no “one turn game” stigma, etc.), the format is more prone to be the format of transition for long-time kitchen table players who want a more challenging tournament experience. Most of the time, the Pet Deck phenomenon is experienced by newer players who hold an affinity for either their deck ported from another format, or a deck they play in their casual playgroup that does well against the similarly powered decks in that environment. As they make the transition away from the table and into the Legacy metagame, they hold onto the idea that that deck can still be successful, regardless of the performance in this new environment. As much as it pains me to admit it, I have the rating history to prove I was as much a victim of this misconception as anyone else. Not every deck can be successful in every setting, and stubbornly holding onto a deck that cannot compete with the decks it plays against is a recipe for failure.

On the other hand, having a pet deck is not a problem in and of itself. For me, Turboland was always my pet deck.

U/G Turboland — Not viable, but fun nonetheless…

4 Exploration
3 Horn of Greed
3 Crucible of Worlds
4 Accumulated Knowledge
3 Brainstorm
2 Impulse
4 Force of Will
4 Counterspell
2 Constant Mists
2 Hail Storm
1 Upheaval
2 Time Warp
2 Gaea’s Blessing

4 Tropical Island
5 Island
3 Forest
3 Flooded Strand
2 Windswept Heath
4 Wasteland
3 Mishra’s Factory
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds

I know it’s terrible these days, due to a number of factors – it’s extremely vulnerable to graveyard hate, and in particular it cannot win through Extirpate. I still love the deck, and taking infinite turns has a lot of appeal to my Johnny side. However, I would never bring it into a competitive field, because winning appeals much more to my Spike side. It’s a pretty clear-cut example of making the decision to set the pet deck aside, and focus on being formidable in your current surroundings. The complications come when the line between cool and competitive is murkier.

In my last article, I posted a bit of introduction to Legacy’s newest true combo deck, Cephalid Breakfast. From the day the article hit the press, I noticed a significant change in my local metagame. Suddenly, people were much more prepared for me piloting Breakfast. They had their hate lined up, and had clear-cut ways to improve their decks’ matchups — between maindecked Leylines, Extirpates, Yixlid Jailers, Elephant Grass, Ground Seal, Maze of Ith, and Glacial Chasm – suddenly it was becoming much more difficult for me to successfully reanimate my Sutured Ghoul to a victory.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this kind of metagame shift. In fact, it happens almost every time a new combo comes to center stage. When my team began to develop The EPIC Storm (TES), a sudden outbreak of Stifles and Rule of Laws sprung up. Threshold made way for Chalice of the Void. It’s nothing new, so I should be prepared, and expect it. And yet, at the last large event I participated in, I blindly walked into the event with the same build of Breakfast I have been playing for months, assuming I could dodge or fight through whatever hate cropped up. Unfortunately, I was severely mistaken. Combining the large tourney and the local event right after it, I managed a meager 3-2 record, followed by a miserable 1-3. I don’t believe the deck, or my piloting of it, are accurately reflected in these records, but I realize that I overlooked an important facet of successful tournament play. I allowed Breakfast to become my pet deck, and blinded myself to the vital signals that had been encroaching for some time. There is a shelf life for any combo deck in Legacy, and without significant changes over time to adapt to a metagame which will adapt to you, you cannot hope to maintain a winning percentage against a much more prepared field. In essence, a combo deck works best when given the element of surprise. Once you lose that advantage, you cannot assume the deck will work the same as it did when you had it.

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s complicated. You face a difficult decision between adapting the deck to beat the hate, and shelving the deck to circumvent it. Both strategies have merit. Certain decks are more adaptable than others, however. With Breakfast, for example, I found mere sideboarding extremely difficult — in fact, sideboarding strategy is the most frequently asked about topic on the deck — because no matter what cards you take out, you are hindering either the consistency of the combo, or the ability to fight through disruption. Finding the right balance of the two in a deck so tight on slots is hard enough to begin with; doing it on the fly while trying to predict the hate you’ll face in the next game is downright migraine territory. A deck like this has a rough time trying to adapt to a metagame shift, because so much of the deck is “canon.” On the other hand, a combo deck like TES has a plethora of adaptable slots that it can use to facilitate an improved matchup vs. decks like Landstill; due in no small part to its 5-color manabase (giving it access to the best spells of every color for protection) and Burning Wish (giving it access to a larger variety of specific answers, even in game 1). Still, even the most adaptable decks can simply find themselves in a metagame that simply is not worth fighting through. Recognizing this to be the case is one of the most important insights you can make as a competitive Legacy player. It’s an insight that I, unfortunately, missed.

The EPIC Storm — Bryant Cook

4 City of Brass
4 Gemstone Mine
2 Undiscovered Paradise

4 Simian Spirit Guide

1 Diminishing Returns
1 Ill-Gotten Gains
1 Tendrils of Agony
4 Lion’s Eye Diamond
4 Infernal Tutor
4 Burning Wish
4 Dark Ritual
4 Rite of Flame
3 Empty the Warrens
4 Brainstorm
4 Chrome Mox
4 Lotus Petal
4 Orim’s Chant
1 Cruel Bargain
3 Abeyance

1 Diminishing Returns
1 Ill-Gotten Gains
1 Tendrils of Agony
1 Empty the Warrens
1 Cruel Bargain
3 Pyroblast
1 Hull Breach
1 Shattering Spree
1 Goblin War Strike
1 Cave-In
2 Red Elemental Blast
1 Duress

Part of the reason I missed the signal (to use Limited jargon) is my personal focus on the overall Legacy metagame, as opposed to my local metagame. While many of the players in my area are versed in the National metagame as it’s portrayed on this site, TheSource, TheManaDrain, etc., the majority of the players are playing decks specifically tuned to beat the decks in our area — in other words, metagaming for the players, not the decks. It’s not unheard of for a local meta to focus this way, especially if you can consistently predict what each individual is playing week to week. You start saying to yourself, “Matt is here, he always plays burn! I should put Chill in my board!” Obviously, that kind of choice is a poor one in large events — it leads directly to the scenario above where you go into a tournament unprepared for the decks you’ll likely face. Sure, you’ll beat Matt if you play him, but you have a 50:1 chance of that actually happening. On the flipside, I was playing a deck which dominates in an unprepared metagame, or an open one (like at a large event) where I’m unlikely to run into a significant amount of hate across two rounds. Regrettably, that isn’t what I was playing in. I was playing in a more inbred meta, where people could see me walk in the door, and toss the Extirpates in the board. Because I failed to recognize that this is what was happening, I was unprepared, and lost.

As they say in AA meetings, or in our case PDA, recognizing you have a problem is the first step toward recovery. I’ve made the right first step, and now can move toward solving my problem. The next step should be analyzing the metagame I will be playing in, and finding a way to exploit it.

In the Syracuse, NY metagame, we can judge that on a given day, we’ll see the following:

2-3 Landstill, all UWb
1 Enchantress
2-3 Threshold or other Blue aggro-control
1-2 BWx aggro-control
1 Land-based control/prison
1-3 Storm combo
0-2 Goblins
1-4 Survival of the Fittest
1-3 Breakfast

Along with all the random decks you would see at a local event. It’s a good mix of the top tier and the metagame decks that hate on them. On the other hand, it’s a nightmare field for the Breakfast players. In my opinion, there are two decks in the metagame that have already found workable solutions to the metagame, and are doing well week to week because of it. Both of these decks are relatively unplayed in the overall Legacy metagame, but are on the fringes of Tier 1 themselves.

The first deck, Enchantress, is enjoying some renewed attention due to the success of its boisterous pilot, Zach Tartell. After picking the deck up and making three straight Top 8s in high profile events, Zach took some time to learn the ins and outs of the rest of the decks Legacy has to offer, before returning to his Serra’s Sanctums for another Top 8 last month. With the unbanning of Replenish, Enchantress found itself a way to play through its two greatest foes once again — permission and mass removal. Since it runs a slew of cards that make graveyards and creatures impotent, it can fight through decks like Breakfast and Ichorid with ease. Its marginal combo matchup can be detrimental, but it’s assisted by the presence of Solitary Confinement and In The Eye of Chaos. Experimenting with five colors, here is Zach’s latest Enchantress build:

EPIC 5C Enchantress — Zach Tartell

1 Taiga
2 Plains
2 Serra’s Sanctum
5 Forest
2 Bayou
4 Windswept Heath
1 Tropical Island
3 Savannah

4 Argothian Enchantress

1 Moat
2 Ground Seal
4 Sterling Grove
1 Seal of Doom
2 Replenish
1 City of Solitude
4 Enchantress’s Presence
1 Seal of Primordium
1 Aura of Silence
1 Words of War
1 Sacred Mesa
3 Solitary Confinement
4 Utopia Sprawl
4 Exploration
2 Sylvan Library
1 The Abyss
4 Elephant Grass

2 Karmic Justice
2 Choke
2 Chill
1 In the Eye of Chaos
4 Leyline of the Void
1 City of Solitude
1 Humility
1 Dovescape
1 Aura of Silence

The second deck I’d like to draw attention to is the Land-based Prison deck, Eternal Garden. This deck is one of the most interesting I’ve had the experience of playing or seeing in action, and as it plays many of the cards in my own Pet Deck, I’m drawn to it as a substitute for Turboland. It was also designed by my partner-in-crime and co-creator of the above Turboland build, Colin Chilbert.

Eternal Garden — Colin Chilbert

4 Exploration
3 Crucible of Worlds

3 Intuition
3 Crop Rotation
1 Life from the Loam
2 Sylvan Library

4 Swords to Plowshares
3 Engineered Explosives
2 Humility
1 Constant Mists
2 Smokestack
3 Trinisphere

4 Mox Diamond
4 Ancient Tomb
4 Windswept Heath
3 Tropical Island
3 Savannah
1 Academy Ruin
1 Glacial Chasm
1 Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
1 Maze of Ith
1 Cephalid Coliseum
1 Nomad Stadium
1 Riftstone Portal
2 Nantuko Monastery
1 Mishra’s Factory
1 Wasteland

4 Chalice of the Void
3 Krosan Grip
3 Meddling Mage
3 Tormod’s Crypt
2 Pithing Needle

This deck is a blend of some of the best that Legacy has to offer. Like Landstill, it can control the game through a barrage of creatures with Humility and Engineered Explosives, but adds Constant Mist lock (Mists plus Crucible of Worlds for permanent Fog), Tabernacle, and Glacial Chasm for added support. It has an extremely powerful draw engine in recurring Cephalid Coliseums and Horizon Canopies. It can dominate board position with Smokestack and multiple recurring Wastelands in a single turn. It drops turn 1 or 2 Trinispheres to stall out combo while it sets up a dominant board position. It runs Maze of Ith (and tutors for it) to shut down Breakfast’s combo. The options and paths to victory are extremely versatile. The deck is a bear to play – on both sides of the table – but tight play is well rewarded, as Colin’s success can attest.

As I’ve said before, having a pet deck doesn’t have to be a negative. I’ve played most of the decks that make up the “Upper Tier” of Legacy at one point or another. I’m drawn to certain decks for their power, or their style of play. I’m drawn to others for the ability to control the pace and tempo of a game. One of the best parts of Legacy is the variety you can experience from week to week, even if you play in a metagame with very few players. In fact, in such a meta, variety is even more important than elsewhere — you can’t afford to allow your opponents to metagame for you. The more experience you get with different archetypes, different decks, and different strategies, the better you will be with all of them. The more you can keep your competition guessing, the less likely you are to trap your Sutured Ghoul in the Maze of Ith.

Until next time, keep your stick on the ice.