Unlocking Legacy – The Tutelage of Thich Nhat Hanh, Part 1

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The key to success in any competitive endeavor is the Will to Win. This is a disposition of the mind to overcome obstacles, maximize incremental advantage and prevail victorious in the face of unfavorable odds. It is, in essence, a psychological mindset. A positive attitude to win comes more naturally to some people than others, but everyone has bad days and winning in the long run requires a certain mental training in this area.

I. “You Must Defeat Sheng Long to Stand a Chance”

It was a cold, mean day, and my mood was not much different. As I turned the corner down Northwest Fourth Avenue, the falling raindrops seemed to grow even colder and meaner. My destination: Ground Kontrol, a vintage arcade only two blocks from new job.

The front door alcove smelled vaguely of urine, as do most of the storefronts that offer some privacy to the homeless and shelter from the rain in this part of town. A loud cacophony of videogame bleeps and blips fills by head as I pass through the doorway, but I am interested in the sounds of only one game here: Street Fighter II.

The average Ground Kontrol patron is much like myself: late 20s, early 30s, wears glasses, a little nerdy and for whom the newer video games are not as interesting or are downright lame (DDR and its ilk). I’m sure some of these people play Magic, but we are not here for that.

Strolling through the aisles, one gets the sense Ground Kontrol is a hands-on museum of the video pastimes of decades past; where you can play Galaga, Frogger, Tron, and Burgertime in their original cabinets. They even sell beer. Basically, this place is a little slice of heaven, on a nondescript side-street just off Burnside in Northwest Portland, Oregon.

What the hell does this all have to do with Magic? Hang in there, we’ll get to that eventually.

I insert my quarter and select the default character: Ryu. Round 1: Blanka. Please, this Tarmogoyf look-alike can sometimes be an annoyance in rounds 6 or 7, especially if he does that blood-sucking thing and cuts your life bar in half; but he’s a pushover at earlier points in the game. I sail through the next couple of rounds with ease, though Guile in round 4 threatens to steal my quarter. Regardless of whichever character I’m running through the game, Guile is my Max McCall (a.k.a. Frogboy), the guy that seems to have my number and can beat me even when I think I have the game locked.

Regardless, I pull it through. The joystick is a little sticky, making Ryu’s Hadouken (fireball) hard to pull off, but I can play his Shouryuken (dragon punch) with not much difficulty.

After getting 20/20 in the “Falling Barrel Challenge Round,” I make a bloody mess of Edomondo Honda in round seven before my game takes an unforeseen downward spiral.

It is halfway through my match with Balrog, and up a game, that some bearded fellow, wearing a stained hoodie and stinking like a cross between a filthy biker bar and a locker room, saddles up next to me. He grumbles a slurred greeting under his breath, drops a quarter into the machine and selects Ken. A mirror-match it is!

Fighting in the Las Vegas scene, the guy might smell like a drunk be he certainly has a grasp of the fine art of Ansatsuken street fighting. In the first game, I finish him with the classic jumping fierce kick to the skull, into a crouching punch to the groin followed by the fireball to the face combo. Absolute devastation. In our second game we trade punches and fireballs but I leave myself fatally exposed after a fierce Shouryuken when I should have jabbed instead and am thrown across the screen for a loss.

It is in the third game that the wheels fall completely off. I take a few hits when I thought I had priority and lose my focus, react to his offense, fail to recover the initiative and am Shouryuken’d into a stupor. Ultimately I lose my composure and the Will to Win. That was my downfall.


Spending the first half of my lunch breaks at Ground Kontrol over the past couple of months has internalized a few key points about competitive game play, whether it be with a classic arcade beat-em-up, a game of chess, Magic or pretty much anything else where the stakes include winning or losing.

One of the best features about SF2, aside from innovating its genre to a phenomenal degree, is that it’s a slow game. If you let it, there are times when the A.I. will stand around, waiting for you to make a move. What this affords, unlike its successors where kinesthetic memory and pattern recognition are key, is that you can more readily observe competitive psychology in action. In games where the pace is quicker, it’s not as easy to assess your mental state in the midst of complex battle lines.

Key to success in any competitive endeavor is the Will to Win. This is a disposition of the mind to overcome obstacles, maximize incremental advantage and prevail victorious in the face of unfavorable odds. It is, in essence, a psychological mindset. A positive attitude to win comes more naturally to some people than others, but everyone has bad days and winning in the long run requires a certain mental training in this area.

In the canon of Magical writing, this is a fairly well-mined topic. Standout articles include Ted Knutson excellent “The Boxer’s Mentality,” Jon BeckerTomfidance” and John Rizzo’s “Stuck in the Middle with Bruce.” Quoting a salient point from Knutson’s article:

“Notice the phrasing of ‘I will not lose.’ See how it doesn’t say, ‘I can’t lose.” Many boxers say ‘I can’t lose. No one can beat me. I am undefeatable.’ That’s the wrong way to think, for a multitude of reasons, not least of which is that it leads to overconfidence.

“When you step into a ring, you have to believe that you can win, if you execute your strategy, if you exploit your opponent’s weaknesses, if you have prepared yourself properly for the fight, and if you don’t give up somewhere along the way. … In fact, it really makes no sense to have any other attitude.”

To me the attitude boils down to: don’t lose the game before you start to play or before it’s over, which is – for some – easier said than done.

I’ve found the best way to do this is to practice what Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls Mindfulness. Quoting the monk himself: “To be in the moment, to be mindful of every action or inaction you take will bring an understanding of the interconnectivity of all things.” By staying focused in the present moment and not letting my mind dwell on thoughts that are not helping me win, it’s much easier to see opportunities to maximize advantages I have on the board or exploiting vulnerabilities my opponent exposes in the course of a game.

Another trick I’ve learned from playing SF2 is that of visualizing victory before the game begins. I tried this approach after I lost a heart-breaker to Vega when playing Chun-Li. The round seemed to be over before it began and I was stunned by the loss, since it is one of her best match-ups. In the brief time before the next game began I took the time to imagine Chun-Li doing her giggling, jumping school-girl victory thing over Vega’s bloodied unconscious body. I went on to win the next two games with ease, because I saw no other option than beating Vega to a pulp.

About a year ago, I remember applying this approach to a game of Magic in a local Legacy tournament. After beating some combo deck in Round 1, I was paired against the winner of our local Grand Prix: Philadelphia Trial. I was playing U/b/g Gro-A-Tog and he was playing 4-color CounterSliver.

I lost Game 1 in a spectacular fashion, my life total was deep in the negatives and his was at something like 29. But I could not understand how I lost. It was all sort of dreamlike. While sideboarding and shuffling up for Game 2 I resolved Not to Lose. I wasn’t sure how it was all going to come together, but I was determined to win. The next two games were a total blow-out in my favor and I never lost the conviction that it would be any different.

It’s difficult to constantly regulate your mental state and maintain the Will to Win over the course of many hours where doubt and fatigue can get the better of you; but I’m certain this is a trait of the most successful competitors; that is, the able to maintain the composure to win and even when at a clear disadvantage.

Again, what does any of this have to do with Legacy? Honestly, not that much. But these are some of the thoughts I’m mulling in my mind as I prepare for a Legacy tournament this weekend. In fact, this entire article documents how one Legacy enthusiast thinks about and approaches this format just before a tournament.


Doug Linn dropped this off-handed comment at the end of one of his excellent articles: “Through all the testing for this, I realized how hard it is to create a good gauntlet for testing in Legacy. Clearly, some sort of Threshold ends up in the fray, but what else? With such a broad format, it’s hard to test against everything or even every strategy. If you have ideas on this, please share them in the forums.”

I shared my thoughts in the discussion thread for the article, but I’ll develop my points here.

The rotating Constructed formats are far more popular than Legacy can hope to be. Their popularity, high volume of quality tournament data, along with the reads on each format that the MTGO Premiere Events offer, yields metagames that are fairly known quantities. Of course every new set and rotation has an effect on individual decks and sometimes entire archetypes (e.g. Ichorid/Dredge), and surprises do happen, but it is possible to study Top 8 results from qualifiers, the last Big Event (be it a Pro Tour, etc.) and large MTGO events to construct a fairly representative gauntlet of the decks you can reasonably expect to face at a particular tournament.

In the early rounds of a large PTQ you’re far more likely to face the random decks you haven’t tested against, but those decks have tendency to fall out the more Swiss rounds they must endure. Of course there will be exceptions; I’m referring to the relative predictability of, let’s say, a large Standard tournament once the season is in full swing.

Legacy, on the other hand, is a far different animal. This is a format where world champions can play through eleven rounds near the top of the standings and never once play against the acknowledged Best Deck in the Format at the time (Goblins). Legacy also attracts a lot of the quasi-competitive Johnny types that don’t have the drive or inclination to compete in the high-REL Standard, etc., events and that introduces another layer of randomness to the Legacy “Metagame.” Remember, these people hate to play netdecks.

Trying to make sense of a competitive Legacy environment – say in San Diego, upstate New York* and Northern Virginia – to me, there are roughly three kinds of decks one can expect: Acknowledged Good Decks, Unacknowledged Good Decks, and Random Stuff. The Acknowledged Good Deck is the deck the format regular is familiar with**, both in strategy and the usual card choices. These are the decks that have undergone substantial refinement and optimization in the both public settings and private testing sessions (which become public knowledge when Top 8 decklists are published).

* Be proud, Syracuse: home of the 2007 World Rock-Paper-Scissors Champion!

** Think Threshold, Goblins, Landstill, Survival.

You probably haven’t heard much about the Unacknowledged Good Deck and you almost certainly haven’t tested against it (unless you’re friends with one of its designers or play against it on MWS) but this is the sort of deck that might become a contender in the right environment and with the proper development. The Unacknowledged Good Deck is a deck you don’t really plan for and hasn’t undergone the intense optimization of more popular decks, but it can certainly crush your “Good Deck” if you get paired against it. One example of this sort of deck is Feldman/Hill’s Green/Black Chalice Elves deck from Grand Prix: Flash/Columbus. It rolled to Goblins, but had a strong active plan against a lot of the upper crust of the format and wasn’t on anyone’s radar before the GP. How and why Unacknowledged Good Decks take off and gain a critical mass of popularity for the public to acknowledge their “goodness” will forever remain a mystery.

Random Stuff is everything else that, barring some unusual upheaval in the format, won’t make much of a dent in the format any time soon, though people insist no playing these decks regardless. These decks include everything from Mono-Red Burn, 9-Land Stompy, Trix, and most of the oddball rogue decks that don’t have a sunny future. Given the random strategic nature of these decks, they are impossible to test against as a class.

So what is the enterprising Legacy tournament player supposed to make of this situation? For one, you can attempt to predict the environment of a particular tournament and build your gauntlet accordingly. You might, for instance, look at the decks in Legacy Metagame Forum at The Source and test against Goblins, Ichorid, Red Thresh, Landstill, The Epic Storm (TES), Tarmogoyf Sligh, Survival, Life from the Loam control, Belcher and Mono-Blue Control. Good luck with that.

Assuming you play a bare minimum of ten pre-boarded and ten post-boarded games, you’re dealing with no less than two hundred games. If you have time for that, more power to you. But note that you’re unlikely to face even half of these decks in the same tournament.

For those who don’t have the luxury of testing Legacy as their full-time job, I recommend doing what I do: construct a gauntlet that considers the dominant strategies you’re likely to encounter, taking into account the random nature of the format. Doing so will expose the weaknesses of your decks to particular strategies, rather than specific decks that are changing on a monthly basis and have little consensus on what is “best.”

Since I have a natural disposition for building decks that consistently smash combo, I don’t go too far out of my way to test against those – I freely admit this is partly a concession and a prioritization of my time, though my tournament record against combo since I started playing Legacy still stands at something like 10-0. I’m mainly interested in seeing how all of my decks (and my playing skills) fare against fast aggro, slow aggro, mid-range/disruption, and slow board control strategies, since those decks give my typical homebrew the most grief.

Accordingly, my personal Dining Room Table Gauntlet is composed of my explosive R/G beatdown deck; a slower Mono-White Aggro deck with Cataclysm, creature removal and equipment (think Angel Stompy); Vial Affinity; midrange B/w with a copious amount of hand disruption, creature removal, and land destruction; and U/w control. Believe me, it won’t win any awards for the ideal Legacy testing gauntlet, but there’s a broad enough spectrum of represented strategies that I can tell if a deck is a complete donkey or worthy of continued work.

If my new decks can pass through my Dining Room Table Gauntlet intact, next up are randoms on MWS and then teammates and friends who are competent players and using optimized lists of the flagship decks we all know (e.g. Goblins, Threshold, etc.)


Author’s Note: This next section is going to be a bit heavy on the decklists. My intention here is to go through my thought process on deck selection and put some strong lists into the public domain.

Going through my personal tournament report archive, since I started playing Magic in 2003 after a six-year hiatus, I see that I’ve played White-Splash Threshold seven times and piloted Loam-A-Tog, U/W Fish, and Gro-A-Tog to respectable finishes once each.

By this point, anyone who sits across from me at a tournament can reasonably guess I’m the guy playing Threshold. While not a terrible liability on its own, it is getting a little boring to play the same thing every chance I get. For a change of pace, and in preparation of the December 2nd Legacy tournament in Vancouver, Washington, I decided to test a few other decks that catch my fancy.

A. BHWC CounterTop Fish

I spend my first couple of testing hours with Jason Jaco’s, et al.’s CounterTop Fish.

I don’t think this is Jaco’s list card-for-card, but it’s the version I like best and the one I built. On paper, I found this list brilliant. It pretty much has everything going for it: superb disruption, some of the my favorite creatures ever printed, the Counterbalance-Divining Top combo, Umezawa’s Jitte, a slick manabase, no reliance on its graveyard and a sideboard to drool over.

It’s possible that I didn’t test it enough or play it properly (probably), but in actual performance the deck didn’t really come together in my hands. I was probably expecting too much, but the deck struck me as underpowered, which is odd considering how sexy it looks. My wins against aggro seemed to be “skin-of-the-teeth” affairs and Counterbalance/Divining Top, together, were often garbage against some of the control decks I played against. On the other hand, this deck is a combo-crusher and I admire that. The CounterTop plan is exceedingly potent against a number of popular decks in Legacy, but its true potency is somewhat match-up dependent.

Ultimately, and despite my high expectations, I lost confidence in my ability to do well with it and moved on to other decks. I’ll own up to whatever claims of pilot error are thrown my way.

B. Goyf-A-Tog

It’s always a matter of time before I sleeve up and shuffle some Psychatogs into my decks. I understand why he’s lackluster in the format on a theoretical level, but I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t depress the hell out of me. After breaking apart the Fish deck, I reconstructed GAT with some new toys:

This is one of my favorite decks to look at and play. Ponder is a nice replacement in the Serum Visions slot and in other tempo-oriented low-mana, high threat decks; where Thoughtseize is a balanced creature-killing Duress that offers the kind of flexibility this deck thrives upon.

GAT has always been strong against combo, but didn’t give me the kind of results I was looking for against my aggro decks. Sometimes it was able to dominate the board with an early Tog or Tarmogoyf and gain incremental advantage as the game wore on. A few times the deck was able to win on turn 4 or 5 with the Tog + Wish/Berserk plan; other times the deck got horribly steamrolled. As above, the deck never seemed to have that little something special I was hoping to find.

In my efforts to tune it to a satisfactory place, I cut the expensive cards (Wish, Deed, Tog) for Nimble Mongoose and other fast cards and found my deck had morphed into something very similar to Chris Coppola’s excellent Black Threshold variant.

C. Black-Splash Threshold

You can click on the link above to see a stand-out example of this deck. Anyway, I tested with this deck for a day before I realized how similar it was to the White-Splash CounterTop Threshold deck I took apart to assemble Jaco’s Fish deck above. I found the Black and White versions of the deck played out very similarly, with Black Thresh trading in White Thresh’s superior spot removal (Swords to Plowshares) for maindeck Thoughtseize and better sideboard options (Engineered Plague, Dark Confidant, Yixlid Jailer).

Not wanting to end up where I started, I decided to abandon Threshold for the upcoming tournament as well as the entire aggro-control archetype and focus the remainder of my testing time on control decks. (As I’ve said before, I don’t do combo. Never have; never will.)

D. Mono-Blue Control

Like a sadistic bastard, the deck that fueled my early love for Magic: the Gathering was my ever-evolving Mono-Blue Control deck. Ah, the simple joy of Mana Draining into that third-turn Mahamoti Djinn! So, finding that MUC can do well in Legacy really makes me smile.

What follows is a slightly modified version of Takamizu Tomohiro Top 8 list from the “Ancient Memory Convention No. 29 tournament” in Akihabara, Japan on October 28, 2007.

The real innovation here is two off-color splashes to make the maindeck Engineered Explosives more, um, explosive, and the light splash in the sideboard for Swords to Plowshares and Extirpate. This is an elegant approach to getting a better handle on a board gone awry, which has historically been a problem for MUC. I don’t think I would have ever come up with this solution on my own and is one very good reason to follow interesting developments oversees. Deck designers in every other format have been hip to innovative Japanese ideas for years, so why shouldn’t Legacy players follow that trend?

Other than the joy of playing of MUC, Back to Basics is the most compelling reasons to play this deck in Legacy. In the right metagame, when people think the menace of non-basic hate has waned and with manabases get riskier, B2B can be a crippling surprise to drop on the board. (Root Maze is another card that doesn’t seem to garner much attention.)

As with the Fish deck above, my results against aggro was poor with this deck and I didn’t see any good way to tune it and retain the other positive match-ups it enjoys. I also doubted my ability to play this deck competently all day. Eventually, I lost my amateur spark to play this deck after two days and decided to put together Landstill.


For reference, my starting point was Leif Whittaker’s (a.k.a. “Tacosnape”) 4-color Landstill list that you can see here. When experimenting with a new list, unless something looks appallingly weak, I’ll start with the recommended list from someone with experience with a deck before I begin to tune numbers and drop and refill slots.

After about ten games, I found the 2/2 Spell Snare / Stifle slots weren’t pulling their weight. There were definitely times when a well-timed Stifle spared my otherwise tenuous manabase from Wasteland-induced color-screw. There were also times when Spell Snare countered an otherwise game-busting Tarmogoyf or Dark Confidant. But there were also a lot of times that these cards clogged up my hand and whose best use was getting pitched to Force of Will.

Since a lot of the value of Spell Snare was answering Tarmogoyfs, I had the idea to play an active threat in that slot rather than reacting to opposing threats, and what better card to fill that role than Tarmogoyfs of my own?

That was my first experimental change:

-2 Spell Snare
-2 Stifle
+4 Tarmogoyf

Oh man, did that have all sorts of awesome effects on the deck. In a world where Extirpate is lurking in sideboards and maindecks (less so) far and wide, losing my Mishra’s Factories can be a disaster. The possibility of losing the activated ability of Nantuko Monastery to a Crypt effect, Leyline of the Void, etc. is also lessened with other win conditions. Graveyard effects would still hurt, but not as badly, since I’d at least have my opponent’s graveyard to power up Tarmogoyf. Maindecking the green bugger also helped free up some sideboard slots as I’d already carved out space for them there.

With counters and removal for opposing creatures, fetchlands, and spent Standstills, Deeds and Explosives, Tarmogoyf almost always comes down in the mid-game as a 5/6 or 6/7. But I’ll point out that you don’t usually want to play them like Threshold, where you’ll drop them onto the board as soon as you can and swing for the win. Tarmogoyf in this deck is played as an early game blocker than can occasionally go on the offensive and as a mid/late game finisher that fits snugly into the “Tarmogoyf, Standstill, go” turn while keeping Counterspell mana up. Strategically, Tarmogoyf also adds a useful aggro-control dimension to the deck, allowing Landstill to become the beatdown deck earlier than usual.

With the Tarmogoyfs happily in place, I began scrutinizing the Diabolic Edict slots. I certainly understand when and where they’re good: when your opponent doesn’t have a choice which creature to sacrifice and when the other cheap black removal won’t get the job done (e.g. Nimble Mongoose, Mystic Enforcer, etc.). For all of the benefits of non-targeted removal, there are also liabilities, like when you want to smoke a Goblin Warchief and your opponents sacs their Matron instead. In general, Edict is second-rate against any swarm deck where you don’t have the luxury of clearing the board with a sweeper effect first. Besides, giving your opponent choices should be avoided whenever possible.

To see if the hype is justified in Legacy, the first card I tested in the Diabolic Edict slot was Shriekmaw. In theory, Shriekmaw is a source of card advantage (potentially), doubling as an evasive late-game finisher or early-game removal spell. Like Tarmogoyf, diversifying the deck’s win conditions is an attractive thought, but this needs to be weighed against the sorcery-speed removal effect. I was optimistic at first and figured the upsides of this card over a traditional one-for-one removal spell would compensate for its drawback, but I was less convinced after a dozen games.

In many ways, Landstill plays as a draw-go deck. When possible, it wants to keep its mana open until the last possible moment, whether it be for an end of turn Fact or Fiction, Counterspell, Brainstorm, etc. Playing a Standstill or Deed in your mainphase is never pleasant, but those cards at least provide a powerful effect for their inflexibility. Shriekmaw, however, pales to drawing three cards for two mana or removing all of the annoying and menacing permanents on the board (sans Planeswalkers).

It often came up in testing that my opponent was forced to break a Standstill when I had plenty of mana open and where I really wanted to play an end of turn removal spell on their threat, rather than letting available mana go to waste. In a deck like this, instant speed removal is simply a better investment of resources than the alternative. I still think Shriekmaw is a fine tutor target in Survival of the Fittest decks, but I found him lackluster when compared with the alternatives in Landstill.

After a number of games, Shriekmaw was dropped for Smother. This was a tough call and I can easily see going back to Diabolic Edict, but Smother is probably Black’s most flexible two-mana targeted removal spell. Ghastly Demise is half the cost, but can’t be used to kill a Dark Confidant, Arcbound Ravager, Psychatog, Phyrexian Negator, or a gargantuan Terravore. Smother can take down a Tarmogoyf of any size, and that’s what I’m looking for at the moment.

By far, my favorite slot to tinker with was the singleton Life from the Loam. After a dozen games, I noticed that I hadn’t cast it a single time, which told me it’s not all that critical to the deck’s operations. This is partly owing to the addition of Tarmogoyf in the deck and being less reliant on the manlands to win games.

The word count for this article is well over 5,000 words, so I’ll spare you all of the details of how I ended from where I started. What I will share, taken from my notes, are all of the cards I tested in the Life from the Loam slot, in order: Crucible of Worlds, Maze of Ith, Faerie Conclave, Crime / Punishment and Vedalken Shackles. Looking back at those days of testing, I regret not having testing Garruk Wildspeaker. In the end, I replaced the Life from the Loam with a single Beta Island. The deck has a voracious appetite for mana and I figured another land would help grease the deck’s gears.

Lastly, I replaced one Pernicious Deed with another Engineered Explosives. I’m not sure this was the correct call, but I often found Deed unplayable in the early game, due to the fickle color demands of the deck. In its own way, Engineered Explosives is a weaker Deed that you can play and activate off U, UW, UB, UG, UWB or UWG. It should also go without saying that Explosives are easier to play in the face of random color screw or targeted land-destruction and Rishadan Port activations. Explosives will also let you clear a swarm of fourteen Empty the Warrens tokens on your second turn when you only have a Tundra and Mishra’s Factory on the board.

At the end of my week-long testing session, I ended up not far from Leif’s excellent list.

This is clearly not a budget option for a competitive Legacy environment. The manabase alone costs roughly $450, plus another $250 for the maindeck money cards and $90 for the sideboard. So, we’re talking nearly $800, which is far from cheap.

Parenthetically, it is the insane cost of polychromatic Legacy manabases that will keep the format from enjoying widespread popularity. Unless Wizards does something dramatic and unexpected, there aren’t enough Revised dual lands in circulation to keep the format reasonably accessible if the demand for Legacy staples becomes too intense. But this isn’t an “issues” article, so I won’t belabor the point. I’ll add that monochromatic decks will always have a place in the format and, properly tuned, can be very successful in the right hands.

This is where we end for today. Join me next time when I’ll walk you through a local Legacy tournament, in all its grizzly detail.

Dan Spero
“Bardo” around the Internet
Team Reflection