Unlocking Legacy – Theory and Practice

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Kevin Binswanger takes a look at two of the most discussed cards from Lorwyn and tests out whether they help against the most important deck in Legacy. Then he tries his hand at explaining theory in the context of Legacy.

Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance.
William Shakespeare

None of you care what I’ve been up to, or whether I go to clubs and meet girls. You don’t want to hear anything about how I’ve been working on Constructed or Bring Your Own Standard for the Invitational. You certainly don’t want to read about Mental Magic, Type Four, or even Skittles (Best. Casual. Format. Ever). Consequently, I will be writing about triple Master’s Edition draft. HAHA! A funny joke! Hopefully no one is clicking away right now. Seriously though, from the Unlocking Legacy writers, you simply want to read about Legacy.

So here’s a thought. Previously about Red Death, I had these negative comments to say, “If you’re behind against Threshold, behind to event versus combo and ahead versus Goblins, why not just play Thresh?” Yes, that embarrassing typo was in the original. I figure if I screw up while giving someone criticism, I deserve to be called out for it. Anyway, there is a card spoiled from Lorwyn that I believe changes this, and I want to use Red Death to prove it. For those not in the know:

Target player reveals his or her hand. Choose a nonland card from it. That player discards that card.
You lose 2 life.

In Legacy, Thoughtseize is thousands of times better than Duress, for the simple reason that Thoughtseize can take away a Tarmogoyf or Nimble Mongoose.

A few notes on Thoughtseize:

* Thoughtseize says target player, so you can choose yourself to discard combo pieces if necessary. You still reveal your hand.
* Thoughtseize is Misdirectionable. You still choose the card to discard (and reveal your hand).

The worst feeling in the world for a Black disruption player is to lead with turn 1 Duress, only to see that your Threshold player has the man draw. Most of those decks like B/W Confidant or B/R Sui (Red Death) had issues with Threshold because they have incredible trouble beating a Tarmogoyf or a Mongoose. Consequently Thoughtseize has the potential to change the balance of power between creature decks and disruption decks.

… It has the potential, but does it? I wanted to see what Thoughtseize would do to the Red Death versus Threshold matchup, just to illustrate the potential power of Thoughtseize. I used Anwar’s decklist here for Red Death, and I used David Caplan’s U/G/R Threshold list from Legacy Champs. I then updated the lists for Future Sight. Red Death got 4 Thoughtseize in place of Duress, and U/G/R Threshold got 4 Ponder in place of the Opts. I then played a ten game set, alternating play or draw. Neither player had knowledge of the other player’s deck before mulliganing, and then only obvious assumptions based on archetype, such as “Play around Lightning Bolt with Phyrexian Negator.” I piloted both decks and just did not take knowledge of the other player’s hand into account.

The results came out fantastically in favor of Thoughtseize, but rather terrible for Red Death. There was one game Red Death won by virtue of turn 1 Thoughtseize taking Tarmogoyf, which was Threshold’s only business spell. There was another situation where Thoughtseize got lucky and took Tarmogoyf that the Threshold player had drawn and could cast next turn. I was looking out to see how relevant the life loss from Thoughtseize would be, and it was not at all. There were no situations where Red Death needed the one turn or Threshold won with burn out of nowhere suggesting that the life loss was not likely to be a significant issue.

Unfortunately for the Black deck, Red Death did not win the set. In fact Red Death lost 7-3 by virtue of having inferior creatures. Interestingly it seems like the matchup got worse for Red Death post-Thoughtseize, but this is really the effect of the introduction of Tarmogoyf. I want to present my conclusions from the matchup, not because I think Red Death is a bad deck (Dystopia and Umezawa’s Jitte out of side are nice), but because I think the results of the matchup held shed light on the format.

* Land destruction was rather laughable in the matchup. Threshold was constantly fetching out nonbasics in the face of Sinkhole and Wasteland, simply because there was no credible threat. As long as Thresh kept two Tropical Islands or a fetchland out, it could answer anything Red Death could do with a freshly drawn Tarmogoyf or Nimble Mongoose. Threshold’s Wastelands were useful once, to randomly screw Red Death out of red mana for Lightning Bolt. Stifle was somewhat more useful since it wrecked Red Death’s curve or stopped its ability to beat Daze. More often than not though Stifles clogged the Threshold’s player like cholesterol.
* Red Death’s creatures are not good enough. Red Death has to pay twice or three times as much mana for comparable (or bigger) creatures relative to Threshold. It was David and Goliath all over again, only David costs three and Goliath costs two. The only way Red Death was beating Tarmogoyfs was by losing two cards. If you want to beat Threshold, you need creatures that can get into a fight with theirs. And when I say “get into a fight with theirs,” I mean “have a whelk’s chance in a supernova of beating them in combat”.
* Hymn to Tourach was really bad. It’s obviously bad for Threshold if it resolves, but Spell Snare and Daze were simply too potent to stop it. Also because Hymn was random, it would not take the most relevant spells from Threshold’s hand. I think Red Death would really rather Duress there as a one-mana spell, or even Cabal Therapy to take creatures before Red Death played them. The majority of games Threshold won were by turn 1 Nimble Mongoose, so Red Death needs more attractive ways to beat that opening, and hopefully those answers will not cost two. Edicts and Innocent Blood are both interesting ways to stop Mongeese. However Red Death can only contort itself so far to beat Threshold’s men before it stops being a strong aggressive and it becomes a controlling deck.

The difference between Br Sui (Red Death) and B/W Confidant (Deadguy Ale) the way they try to win the game. Red Death is a much more aggressive deck; it aims to beat down as hard as possible and stop the opponent from being able to respond. The problem is that none of its creatures can put enough pressure on the opponent right now since they are like the two and three of Clubs (small and easily trumped). The evolutions of the Sui Black archetype have taken it in a more controlling direction. Partly this is because a large number of Legacy players are those unfun control freaks who want to stop your opponent from doing anything interesting, grinding the game to a halt until we can finish you at our leisure… and partly this is because Threshold does everything Red Death wants to do but better. Red Death can only beat down, but Threshold can be the beatdown deck or the control deck and often both at once. If you want to be able to win fights with Threshold, you need to find good trumps, which are either too situational or too slow, forcing the deck into a controlling role. Because of its removal and counters, Threshold can often match Red Death creatures one for one, and win off superior power and toughness. To beat this, you either need to speed the deck up and make it overwhelm the opponent, or slow it down and generate long-term advantage. Personally, I think the second approach is more interesting. You lose the awkward Hypnotic Specter and the two mana 3/3s, but you get to keep Phyrexian Negator and Nantuko Shade. Hypnotic Specter is the opposite of Jessica Alba right now (uninspiring), since the opponent will just use all the relevant cards in their hand killing the Specter rather than get hit by it. Therefore they will almost never have anything useful to take when Hippie connects. On the other hand, Nantuko Shade. I would cast the Shade turn 2 and when I was attacking turn 3 I had enough mana to beat up Tarmogoyfs. Seriously, Nantuko Shade is so good I almost want to play Order of the Ebon Hand, just because it reminds me of Nantuko Shade. Of course this is crazy since it would cost seven mana or more to win fights with Tarmogoyfs, but on the gripping hand, it would be better than having no chance to win that fight. While we’re on the topic of overly expensive cards that make giant monsters, has anyone seriously considered Nightmare Lash? It’s like a Nantuko Shade, only it doesn’t cost mana each turn… and it takes an extra card and some life loss and it takes 4 to get going.

Remember the part where I hated having Lightning Bolts or Chain Lightnings in my hand because they were useless against every card in Threshold I wanted to kill, which was all of them? Yeah, it sucks. Deathmark seems like a decent alternative in addition to the cards that have already been hashed to death, since apparently we only kill white (Nomad en-Kor) and green (Tarmogoyf) creatures nowadays. The whole thing is rather complicated by the untargetable Nimble Mongoose, so maybe we’re all just better off playing Innocent Bloods and Diabolic Edicts.

The real question is, “What is the right build of Threshold to play?” I’m going to save you the trouble of reading the rest of this paragraph and say, “It depends.” There was one U/G/W Threshold deck in the Top 32 of Legacy Champs, and one U/G/W/R; the rest were U/G/R Threshold. Red gives you Ancient Grudge, Fire / Ice, Red Elemental Blast, Pyroclasm, and Lightning Bolt. White gets you Meddling Mage, Jotun Grunt, Swords to Plowshares and Mystic Enforcer. The main difference is a loss of percentage in Goblins matchup with U/G/W, and a loss of percentage against aggro-control and many Survival decks by playing U/G/R. So it comes down to a metagame decision. Told you it depended. After the results of Legacy Champs, Goblins will probably be on the decline for a while since U/G/R Threshold is at an all-time high. This probably makes U/G/W Threshold the better choice for a while, until the Goblins decks come back to take advantage of the metagame gap. We have seen this cycle before, but there is a twist now: the Threshold decks are playing Landstill. If things continue the way they are going, Threshold + Wasteland will keep players honest with their manabases, and Goblins will not make an obnoxious comeback.

For kicks, I tested my most recent Aggro-Loam deck against Threshold to see how it fared. I have not been getting the results I wanted from Aggro-Loam, and I was hoping Thoughtseize would help neutralize opposing threats. Interestingly enough I got similar results to Red Death, which is probably because both decks I only have 8 consistent threats in the deck: Terravores and Tarmogoyfs. When Threshold has counters, those simply are not potent or numerous enough. The other interesting thing I found was that the life loss from Thoughtseize was very relevant. Loam decks do not play nicely with their life total; constant use of fetchlands hurt. I am definitely considering trimming some of my more clunky pieces like Devastating Dreams for cards like Werebear or even Ravenous Baloth. The games Threshold lost, with the exception of an embarrassing mulligan and a very profitable Cabal Therapy, tended to be the games where Aggro Loam stabilized and won with three casting cost spells. This led me to an interesting realization about Thoughtseize: the card is evolutionary, not revolutionary as I just suspected. It will be prevalent, but it is on a comparable power level to Cabal Therapy and Hymn to Tourach.

The other incredibly exciting card to come out of Lorwyn is this creature:

Gaddock Teeg
Legendary Creature – Kithkin Advisor
Noncreature spells with converted mana cost 4 or greater can’t be played.
Noncreature spells with X in their mana costs can’t be played.

Remember that this creature works like Meddling Mage, meaning that you cannot respond to a spell by putting Gaddock Teeg into play and expect it to be affected.

Interestingly enough, I feel that Gaddock Teeg will not affect Legacy much, while Thoughtseize will. Most people seem to think the exact opposite, that Gaddock Teeg is the Legacy card and Thoughtseize is the Vintage card. I see Gaddock Teeg the most useful in two matchups: Landstill and Belcher. With Teeg on the board, Goblin Charbelcher has only Burning Wish as maindeck outs; it stops both the primary plan of Belcher and the secondary plan of Empty the Warrens. The other matchup Gaddock Teeg seems good in is Landstill, but I think the pressures of Goblins has already made Landstill better against Teeg than it was a year ago. Teeg can stop Humility, Wrath of God, Nevinyrral’s Disk, Crime / Punishment, Force of Will, and Fact or Fiction. Browsing the Top 32 decks from Legacy Champs, most of those cards are no longer being run. The most popular sweeper by far in Landstill is Pernicious Deed, which Gaddock Teeg does not affect. Yes, Gaddock Teeg has some minor effect against decks like Threshold where it removes their Force of Will. Unfortunately, this firmly puts Gaddock Teeg in the mosquito category: it is a card that has a minor effect against a good many decks, but that effect is too minor to really be effective. I would love to be proved wrong because I think Gaddock Teeg is an awesome, well-defined card, and I look forward to playing it in Vintage, but I think Teeg is simply not going to find a home in Legacy.

One other thing I want to try is including a few snippets about theory in each of my articles, as well as a way to illustrate this. Let me kick it off with tempo. Tempo is one of the hardest theory terms to define simply because there is no unit of measurement. You can gain tempo relative to your opponent and you can lose tempo relative to your opponent, but there is no way to say, “I have five tempo units.” The concept of tempo stems from the mana curve and the idea that the best way to play Magic is to use all of your mana each turn. Gaining tempo is just doing more things with your mana each turn than your opponent. This is the reason why aggro-control decks are so keen on Force of Will. Force of Will lets you neutralize an opponent’s card for no mana. This means that you can spend all of your mana developing your board and then make the opponent waste all the mana they spent on a threat without costing your development. Another common way to gain tempo is through the use of cheap removal. If you spend three mana on a Serendib Efreet, I can negate that three mana with just one of mine, by use of Swords to Plowshares.

Just because you spend less mana answering a threat than your opponent did making it does not mean that you automatically gain tempo. If you spend your entire turn 3 casting Serendib Efreet and I spend my entire turn 3 casting Swords to Plowshares on it and passing the turn, I have not gained anything. There is only a tempo gain if I get to do something else too, like play Tarmogoyf. There is another classic tempo example I want to look at. Suppose I lead with turn 1 Tundra and pass the turn, and my opponent plays Wasteland and activates it, targeting my Tundra. Tempo gain? No. The worst possible way this can go for the Goblins player is if I respond to Wasteland by casting a cantrip. Now we’re both exactly where we were before the game started, only I have improved my hand slightly. This is not to say this plan is not a good idea; sometimes your opponent has to keep a low land hand. But it’s pretty terrible, tempo-wise.

I also wanted to introduce a concept I’ve been mulling over in my head and see if anyone else finds it useful. As we all know, the deck with inevitability is the one who is more likely to win a given matchup the longer the game goes on. Inevitability is determined based on the cards in the decks only. When I play Magic, I’ve been noticing how much things come down to initiative, which appears to be the same thing Kyle Boddy calls momentum, although the term “momentum” seems to be too attached to cards changing zones. Anyway, I define initiative as a related concept to inevitability. Based on the current board state, the player/deck who would win the longer the game goes on is the player with initiative. A non-inevitable deck can have initiative based on a commanding board state. What does this mean? Basically, the player with initiative is the one who must be answered/disrupted. If I am ahead on board, I have initiative. The reason this is important is for matchups where the interactivity occurs on board: aggro-control matchups are prime examples. The dynamics of a matchup change when a player gains initiative because it means the other player must change their game to answer the first player. If I’m playing U/G/R Threshold versus your U/G/W and I play Tarmogoyf, it doesn’t matter that you have more ways to win a Tarmogoyf fight than me. You still have to do it.

Initiative works on the psychological and the interactive level. On the interactive level the longer the player with initiative keeps it, the likelier they are to win the game. If you play a Tarmogoyf and I counter it, we are nowhere. But if I have my own threat on your board and I counter your creature, I’ve just gotten in extra points of damage. Duh, right? Maybe not. I use this concept to explain my love of Dark Confidant in aggro-control matchups. When I build U/G/x aggro-control decks, I line my creatures up against theirs and make sure mine can compete. The remaining creatures I run are purely to develop initiative. If we both have no creatures on the board and we draw cards, it does not change much. But if I get to draw a few cards and attack for two, it puts you on the back foot. Suddenly you’re in danger of losing the game! This is also where the psychological aspect of initiative comes into play; players who are losing on board are more likely to get flustered and make mistakes. Try as you like, you cannot cast Swords to Plowshares on a Brainstorm and fail to save it for my Tarmogoyf. Players who are fighting to regain initiative are more likely to sacrifice long-term gain for short-term stability, even when it is not necessary.

Now it is possible this whole tangent about initiative is worthless, and no one will find the concept interesting. However, when I have tested aggro-control mirrors, I find that the first player to get initiative usually wins the game, because it is so difficult to steal it back from a player with 40+ of the same cards as you.

Here are some further readings on inevitability.

Special Note to Players
I don’t know whether this information has disseminated to the general tournament crowd, but it is important, so I wanted to point it out. With the latest document update on September 1, the rules regarding looking at your sideboard have changed. Looking at your sideboard, even accidentally, was considered Cheating – Outside Information, which is a DQ-able offense. Because this infraction was sort of arbitrary, the DCI changed the rules so that you can look at your sideboard any time, as long as your sideboard is clearly distinguished from your hand and library. Just be careful of accidentally drawing from your sideboard!

Rule 122: Sideboard use
Before each game begins, players must present their sideboards and allow their opponents to count the number of cards in their sideboards (face down), if requested. Players may look at their sideboards during a game only if the sideboard remains distinguishable from other cards. If a player is resolving a spell or effect that refers to “choosing a card from outside the game,” the player may look at his or her sideboard. (See section 103). The sideboard must be clearly identified and separated from all other cards in the play area. The sideboard may not be kept where it could be confused or switched with other cards.

That’s all I have for this month. I’m very interested to get your feedback this week, since I did a few things differently. I can be found in all the usual places. I’d love to talk to anyone, whether you have praise, criticism, feedback, questions, article suggestions or anything.

Kevin Binswanger