Unlocking Legacy – The Third Age of Legacy

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Monday, June 30th – Christopher Coppola analyzes where Legacy is today, looks back at the path it took to get here, and predicts what the future has in store for Threshold and the rest of the format.

I. Revolution

In the fall of 2004, Legacy was just beginning to take shape, and with such a broad design space, archetypes from all formats and periods were built and tested. However, it was not long until players built early Goblin decks, and discovered how well they performed against everything else. Soon, Goblins would dominate tournaments, and occupy the attention of designers and players for the next two years. The early and enduring success of Goblins defines the first age of Legacy, when the format’s major cards were still being discovered, and more complex and subtle design was slowly accumulating.

In the spring of 2007, Legacy experienced a significant change. Like an earthquake, this shift was the result of stress accumulated over a long period of time and suddenly released. I wrote several articles about this event in the summer of 2007. The improvement of Combo through innovation and new cards had chipped away at the overwhelming field fractions of Goblin decks, and the clever and ubiquitous use of anti-Aggro sideboard cards impeded the remaining decks’ trips to the Top 8. But the real change was not the decreased viability of Goblin decks; it was the substantial recomposition of tournaments as Goblin players put the deck down and began playing other decks, particularly Threshold. This deck which had been ambiguously comparable to Goblins got substantially better with some new cards; with Aether Vial and Goblin Ringleader mostly out of the way, it rose to prominence, replacing the previous format champion and becoming the new design target, and starting the second age of Legacy.

Now, in the summer of 2008, the format’s designers and players are responding with unprecedented creativity and diligence to the popularity and consistency of Threshold. Unlike the slow and gradual response to the success of Goblins, Threshold is being attacked directly, with completely new archetypes as well as old decks which are returning to take advantage of the current environment. Legacy’s successful response to Threshold signals the beginning of the third age of Legacy. However, even as Threshold’s hold on the format is being weakened, no third leader is apparent, suggesting the possibility that Legacy design may now be the most open proposition any format has ever had.

II. Just Beneath the Surface

Deck design in Legacy exists on a space of around ten thousand cards. In order to design and metagame successfully, an effective knowledge of the entire card pool is necessary. This is clearly a difficult task, and one result of such a large card pool is that designers must conserve memory and knowledge of the card pool by focusing on a small number of powerful cards such as engines and mana sources. This has both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that new card sets, new decks, and new environments can be analyzed quickly, possibly allowing for a temporary technological advantage over less-informed opponents. This also allows players to reduce design to a few simple rules and goals; using a simplistic model is risky but it conserves attention and focus for predicting and outplaying others. However, the disadvantages of this practice are substantial.

One disadvantage is that familiarity with technology or design which is not immediately useful is decreased in order to make room for pressing ideas. It requires an impressive memory to maintain all of the design pieces in mind while analyzing new combinations and cards. However, this is precisely the skill which Legacy rewards, and this will become even more important in the new environment. If Wizards continues to print sets as useful as the last two years’ have been, incorporating new cards will become the primary object of Legacy design, as it has been since the beginning of Time Spiral block.

The difference in power level between the most and least successful Legacy decks is small compared to the number of decks, and there are many decks to choose from. This creates an environment where decks only need a small advantage, either through metagaming or technology, in order to become the best deck for a given tournament. These advantages are small, but they allow for diverse tournaments and reward preparation and knowledge of the game.

III. New Contenders

New cards have spawned a large number of new decks in the past year, and several of them are directly relevant to the transformation of the format into its third age.

The first card that has substantially affected the format is Painter’s Servant. One of the most impressive new designs in Legacy is the latest version of the Painter’s ServantGrindstone deck, which recently placed 2nd at a 35 person tournament in Gloucester.

Imperial Painter
Jim Waters

4 Imperial Recruiter
3 Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
3 Magus of the Moon
4 Painter’s Servant
4 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Active Volcano
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Pyroblast
4 Red Elemental Blast
4 Chrome Mox
4 Grindstone
4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Traitors
10 Mountain

4 Shattering Spree
4 Blood Moon
4 Tormod’s Crypt
3 Trinisphere

This deck has high levels of synergy and speed, which makes it an ideal deck for Legacy. It can use the acceleration to cast the combo and just win the game on the second turn, with protection from the Red blasts of course, or it can tutor for and play Painter’s Servant, make everything Blue, and stop the opponent from doing anything until it can win the game. Or, barring either of those scenarios, it can just draw and play the Red blasts against the huge amounts of Blue in Legacy at the moment, shutting down draw engines and disruption, and hoping to draw into the combo pieces. This is an excellent new standard for combo decks and I expect cheaper versions to become popular.

Another card which is seeing heavy play is Countryside Crusher. This card is surprisingly costed for its effects, and is exactly what the Aggro-Loam deck needed as a threat, Life From The Loam enabler, and library manipulator. A Red-Green-Black version of this deck recently placed 2nd a 76-player event in Badalona:

Aggro Loam
Xavier Muntada

3 Countryside Crusher
4 Dark Confidant
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Terravore
4 Burning Wish
3 Devastating Dreams
3 Life from the Loam
4 Thoughtsieze
3 Seismic Assault
4 Mox Diamond
1 Badlands
2 Bayou
2 Bloodstained Mire
1 Forest
3 Forgotten Cave
3 Taiga
3 Tranquil Thicket
1 Volrath’s Stronghold
4 Wasteland
4 Wooded Foothills

3 Extirpate
2 Krosan Grip
1 Pyroblast
2 Red Elemental Blast
1 Deathmark
1 Devastating Dreams
1 Hull Breach
1 Life from the Loam
1 Reverent Silence
2 Pernicious Deed

Aggro-Loam takes advantage of many of Threshold’s weaknesses. Chalice of the Void is an amazing card against Threshold, as it has always been. The land destruction in this deck is very good as well, especially since it is cheap and works seamlessly with the recursion engine. Playing three-casting cost threats would be strong on its own, but the creatures in this deck are all bigger than Tarmogoyf, and this makes them devastating. Aggro-Loam is also very consistent, since Burning Wish enables regular access to key spells and answers.

Ichorid is a deck which has been known for some time now, but it is becoming more prominent, and it especially relevant to the decline of Threshold. Multiple new cards enabled this deck to emerge, mainly Bridge from Below and Narcomoeba. Ichorid significantly challenges the viability of blue-based Control and Aggro-Control decks, but it susceptible to hate cards, although it is not typically popular enough to warrant this. The decklist has not changed substantially since the key cards were printed. Here is a slightly older first-place list from the 94-player Finale Emilia on April 27th:

Alvise Gorghetto

1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
1 Cephalid Sage
1 Flame-Kin Zealot
4 Golgari Grave-Troll
2 Golgari Thug
3 Ichorid
4 Narcomoeba
4 Putrid Imp
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Careful Study
3 Breakthrough
3 Deep Analysis
3 Cabal Therapy
3 Dread Return
4 Bridge from Below
4 Lion’s Eye Diamond
4 Cephalid Coliseum
4 Gemstone Mine
4 Underground Sea

1 Simic Sky Swallower
2 Echoing Truth
4 Chain of Vapor
4 Leyline of the Void
4 Pithing Needle

These decks are a significant departure for Legacy in terms of format evolution. They will all likely remain viable decks even after their design target has been reduced to more normal levels, and therefore represent a more permanent kind of change.

IV. Returning Designs

It is not just new decks which are challenging Threshold. There are two older decks which may experience a distinct resurgence in this newer environment, due to the new environment.

The first is Landstill. Landstill has traditionally been a weak deck because it was unable to deal with the tempo generation and land disruption of Goblins decks, but Aggro is not prevalent at the moment. However, at the same time that Goblin levels are low, the diversity of the format is becoming higher, and this rewards Landstill for having general answers and being able to respond to different strategies. Landstill has already found a strong design in UBGW, and it may become a much more successful deck if Legacy continues to open up:

Christopher Coppola

4 Force of Will
4 Counterspell
4 Swords to Plowshares
3 Stifle
2 Crucible of Worlds
3 Fact or Fiction
4 Standstill
4 Brainstorm
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Pernicious Deed
4 Mishra’s Factory
2 Wasteland
4 Polluted Delta
3 Flooded Strand
4 Tropical Island
3 Underground Sea
3 Tundra
1 Island

4 Duress
4 Blue Elemental Blast
3 Engineered Explosives
4 Engineered Plague

Another older deck which may return is actually Goblins. Many new cards have been printed that may allow Goblins to reform and become less susceptible to hate cards, and several decks are becoming popular which have weaknesses to Goblins’ strategy. Goblins is still an efficient deck, but it needs a slightly unprepared environment with few combo decks in order to succeed.

Weird Goblins
Christopher Coppola

4 Aether Vial
4 Goblin Lackey
3 Mogg Fanatic
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Warren Weirding
4 Goblin Matron
4 Goblin Warchief
4 Goblin Ringleader
3 Siege-Gang Commander
3 Wort, Boggart Auntie
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Badlands
4 Mountain
4 Wasteland
3 Rishadan Port

4 Thoughtsieze
4 Thorn of Amethyst
4 Leyline of the Void
3 Earwig Squad

IV. Design in the Third Age

Now that there are no clear design targets, the format may become even more varied. There was already very little definition in the format previously, even during the times when there was “dominance” of any one deck over another. Legacy is characteristically different from smaller formats in that there are few legitimate trends in tournaments (and few large tournaments), and when there are, they require long periods of data to substantiate.

This scenario will require that players pay attention to local metagames more, but it also allows more freedom in design. There are currently a large number of decks which are viable at the highest level, and I think experience and preparation will be the determining factors of tournament success more than anything else. Now is the time to experiment with decks that are older or have had weaknesses to the more popular decks, since it is now more difficult than ever to predict tournament environments.

Christopher Coppola