Tweaking Death and Taxes in Legacy
By Caleb Durward on June 10th, 2009 · Filed in Legacy (Type 1.5) · Comments not available just now
I don't want a straightforward deck for tournament play. Simple decks make me lose focus. Nor should it be too complex, or my tired noggin will start miscalculating. The deck has to be viable, preferably with playable matchups against both tier decks and randomness. Finally, something a little off the radar is good. If I'm more familiar with my opponent's deck then he is with mine, I have a huge advantage. The difference lies in my ability to make the correct plan and his probability of choosing the wrong one. Bad matchups are overcome if I have the right plan, and good matchups are lost if I lack one. My favorite type of deck is able to fluently switch from one plan to the next, based on new information. Intentionally, it is one of those decks that this article discusses. Death and Taxes, or D&T, is a ponderously slow deck that wins through high levels of interactivity. The name refers to its inevitability, as the only sure things in life are Death and Taxes. Eventually, a Mangara of Corondor + Karakas lock will be established, and the opponent will run out of permanents. The deck has problems when faced with a deck that features an abundance of tempo, like a combo or aggro deck. If a deck wins fast enough, inevitability no longer matters. D&T has always had the solid plan of Silver Knight + Umezawa’s Jitte versus the aggro decks, such as goblins, but until recently has lacked a maindeck plan for combo. Ethersworn Canonist provides this plan in a two-drop hate creature that drastically impacts the tempo of opposing non-Vial decks. Even if the combo deck can Wish for an answer from the sideboard, Canonist necessitates that they're going to have to wait a turn to use it. This change in the combo matchup alone is reason to reconsider D&T for tournament play.
There are a few decks that change the tide of inevitability that D&T rides upon to win. Decks that utilize Standstill are good examples of this. The D&T player can break the Standstill to cast something like a Mangara of Corondor, but the cards drawn will probably give the opponent an answer. If the D&T player doesn’t cast the Mangara, the Standstill player will eventually draw into some manlands and beat down for the win, giving the Standstill player the inevitability. There are other decks that change the rules of inevitability, such as Enchantress, but I focused my efforts on Standstill decks since they are the most prominent and problematic.
I had a great deal of trouble adapting D&T for Landstill. I was fed up with the old plan, which was boarding in three Cataclysms in the hopes of using it like a pseudo-Armageddon and praying the opponent doesn't have land recursion or countermagic. The prayers were rarely answered. I wasted time testing other reactive cards like Seal of Cleansing when I should have been thinking about the decks in theoretical terms. The problem with fighting Landstill is that you can't just throw four hate cards in your sideboard and call the match improved, as you might do with Tormod's Crypt against Dredge. Rather, you need to fundamentally alter the deck's strategy.
This meant I had to tackle the problem of inevitability, or find a way to out-tempo Landstill consistently enough to win 2/3 of the games. Rushing a control deck in the format is difficult for a mono-white deck to do, and it will lack the effectiveness and resiliency of the Goblin or Tarmogoyf decks. One path I have seen someone take with D&T is to load it up with Savannah Lions and other cheap beaters, making it more of a weenie deck and hoping to win more games on tempo. However, the added non-interactive beaters weakened the deck’s strategy against most of the field, so an alteration to fast tempo wasn't the path I wanted to take. The following list is what I came up with:
This deck is unique in a few ways. It is one of the few versions of D&T that still runs Silver Knight instead of Serra Avenger, and this decision has nothing to do with beating Landstill. Rather, it is simply because I wish to consistently beat Goblins, and having a winnable game one is a large part of that. Sure, you can luck out with the mana denial strategy, and Flickerwisp some opposing Aether Vials long enough to build up enough tempo to win. However, when both decks are performing, the Goblin deck always has superior tempo due to Goblin Lackey and Goblin Warchief. The green men also have superior inevitability due to the sheer number of creatures that Goblin Ringleader and Siege-Gang Commander provide. This means that D&T's best chances game one are with a Silver Knight carrying a Jitte. In this sense, Silver Knight and the sideboarded Tivadar of Thorn are efficient at handling both tempo and inevitability issues.
Most players are happy running Serra Avenger's main, with a Burrenton Forge-Tender/Cataclysm sideboard plan against the goblin menace. That's a perfectly fine way to go, as both of those cards are useful against a variety of decks. I'll even go so far as to admit that Avengers main could be the more accurate choice, as much as I dislike the card. However, the 1/1 nature of the Forge-Tenders makes them vastly inferior at permanently stopping hoards of Piledrivers/Warchiefs than the 2/2 Knights/Tivadars, and the deck's ability to cast a 4cc sorcery in time against a blisteringly fast deck that runs four Rishadan Ports and four Wastelands is less easy than it sounds, and to me it doesn't sound that easy.
Most lists have also stopped including Mana Tithe, which could be a mistake. Even if the opponent plays around this card, the net result is that it slows down the game. For this deck, slower is better. Many opponents don't expect Tithe, or don't want to lose tempo playing around an imagined card, and end up walking game-breaking spells into it. It supplements the deck's general mana denial strategy, making Rishadan Port relevant longer than it has any right to be. Maindeck Tithe also helps shore up the matchup against the combo decks, which have historically been D&T's worst matchup. Rarely does an Iggy player calculate Mana Tithe mana into his Ill-Gotten Gains loop. Even if he does, the time he spends playing around Tithe gives you more time to draw a Canonist, further disrupt his manabase, or simply draw more Tithes. Most D&T lists instead run Orim's Chant in the sideboard, which is little use game one and expected game two. An Ad Nauseam player will usually try to Thoughtseize before going off, making Tithe and Chant roughly equal in a lot of cases.
Both of these disparities, the Knights and the Tithes, have different reasoning behind them, yet I'm using the same bit of theory for both decisions. Whenever I have a deckbuilding problem, I ask myself the following question: "Is this card slot better served with a card that involves tempo, or inevitability?" The decision is made clear with most D&T choices, as the deck's Karakas-Mangara engine supplies infinite inevitability, so most cards should influence tempo in some way. There are other times when the decision is much murkier. Fortunately, as the following example proves, hindsight is 20/20.
Back when I was fresh on the tournament scene, I had the pleasure of butchering a sideboard for a mid-sized Extended Pro Tour Qualifier in the Twin Cities. I was packing a GB aggro deck with Chrome Mox, Dark Confidant, and plenty of removal. I knew that my Affinity matchup was bad, and was debating whether to sideboard a playset of Relic Barriers or Pernicious Deeds to even the match out. A friend of mine ridiculed me for even considering the Relic Barriers. Even though my deck ran Chrome Mox, the Deed would still be more useful against the other aggro decks in the environment, he argued. It was then that I made the largest mistake of the tournament: I listened to him.
What I didn't know at the time, and thus couldn't vocalize to my friend, is that Pernicious Deed is an inevitability card. Turn four is a poor time to start being relevant, tempo-wise. Looking over my list, inevitability wasn't the reason I was losing to affinity. Eventually, Nantuko Shade would grow larger than Myr Enforcer, Dark Confidant would draw more cards than Thoughtcast, and Umezawa's Jitte would just kill everything. What I really needed was something to balance out the opposing tempo, similar to why I now run Silver Knight in the D&T deck. Relic Barrier did this, Pernicious Deed did not, and that's why I lost a tournament to Affinity. I don't blame my friend (unless he's reading this, in which case he is still very much at fault), as any decision someone makes in a tournament is that person's responsibility. If the conclusions that someone else reaches are different than mine, then sure, I keep that in mind while testing. When I go to a tournament, though, I act based on my own results first and foremost, no matter who disagrees with me. I know that the more I took responsibility for my mistakes, the more I realized that following the crowd is a poor method of decision making. Yes, tournament statistics and forum-posted decklists can be useful, but only in that they are information that needs to be analyzed through active thought in order to be relevant.
Getting back to D&T, it's important to notice that eight cards in the sideboard are devoted to the Landstill matchup. Mishra's Factory, Crucible of Worlds, and Decree of Justice all serve the purpose of increasing the deck's inevitability and resilience to Standstill. The standard Landstill list has four to six manlands and three to four Wastelands, or seven to ten interactive lands total. Having the four Rishadan Ports ensures that D&T wins the manland battle with 12 interactive lands post-sideboard. Remember to board out spells for Mishra's Factory, as Decree of Justice needs 27 or 28 lands to be effective in a deck without a draw engine. An amusing thing to note is that the opponent's strategy necessitates that he answer an Aether Vial whether the D&T player has creatures in hand or not, so decreasing D&T's dependence on Vial makes the match inherently better. My sideboard plan tends to go along the lines of -4 Swords to Plowshares, -3 Silver Knight, -1 Ethersworn Canonist - although this will change depending on the style of my opponent's play and their build. For example, some Swords to Plowshares can stay in against Dreadstill or builds with green for Tarmogoyf. Canonist will be worse than Silver Knight against red Landstill, those old school versions that run Lightning Bolt, Fire//Ice, or Pyroclasm.
Newer builds of D&T have picked up on the manland strategy, pulling Rishadan Port from the maindeck in favor of Mishra's Factory. This helps even the playing field a little, but it doesn't necessarily give D&T inevitability. The D&T player is now able to attack under a Standstill, but the Landstill player is running the same number of interactive lands, if not more, and probably has some form of maindeck Wasteland recursion. Meanwhile, with the removal of Rishadan Port, the deck loses much of what made it viable. A great deckbuilder once told me that Aether Vial is a good card, so long as you're doing something relevant with your mana. Both Factory and Port fill this role, but the laws of Magic necessitate that one will be more relevant than the other. While putting pressure on the opponent is important, it's not worth losing the disruption, especially for a ponderously slow deck like D&T that relies upon interaction to win.
Another strategy that appears much more promising is the addition of Weathered Wayfarer to the maindeck, allowing the deck to fetch out whatever the situation needs. I remember disliking the card when I first picked up D&T, but that was back when Pyroclasm and Fire//Ice saw play. The Wayfarer-plan sideboard includes the searchable Boseiju, Who Shelters All to help cast the three also-boarded Cataclysms. On the surface, the plan looks solid. Part of me is hesitant to rely on a 1/1 that needs a turn to activate. On the other hand, every Swords used to off a Weathered Wayfarer is one less removal spell pointed at Mangara. I guess my main concern is Engineered Explosives, which will be set on one for Vial anyway. While I haven't had the time to test this plan as extensively as I would like, I have played it enough to know that it looks promising.
I always prefer qualitative match analysis over quantitative. This is because matchup statistics are fairly useless to players of differing skill level than the test group. Also, when it comes to the Landstill archetype, the decklists are as varied as the number of viable sweepers, color schemes, and win conditions. Thus, quantitative information becomes somewhat useless out of context. So far I've done some testing, seven to fifteen matches, against:
The match is favorable, even though their manabase is good against Wasteland. Playing this matchup thoroughly will give you a good idea of how far ahead you should be thinking in these games. When you need to resolve a spell, it's often correct to set it up over the course of a few turns. Mana Tithing a spell, Porting a land, untapping and Porting another land, then dropping multiple must-counters on the same turn is a good way to get through a wall of countermagic. I've found Mana Tithe to be more useful here than against other variants, although this will vary with different pilots. Some players will never tap out if they know you run Tithe, while others will regularly. Sometimes I'll Tithe a turn one Brainstorm, if only to see how the opponent plays for the rest of the game. If your metagame includes lots of slow, basic-land-heavy control decks like UW, I recommend trying out some Ghost Quarters in your list. Like Wasteland, they kill opposing manlands, and the combination with Crucible has won me its fair share of games against this archetype. A 24-land deck with seven manlands and seven sacklands still only has ten basics, which means that you can successfully deny your opponent a color after a few turns of Crucible recursion and some Rishadan Port assistance. Also, Ghost Quarter will be just as good as Wasteland against some decks, just look and see if they fetch basics after noticing your Wastelands game one. If they don't, they might not have any.
This has always been workable from the D&T perspective, as the deck runs a total of 14 maindeck ways to deal with a Phyrexian Dreadnought. Before, Dreadstill could win matches against D&T by behaving like a normal Landstill deck, playing control and taking advantage of Standstill. D&T's new sideboard strategy makes this match fairly one-sided, as it leaves Dreadstill without plan or backup plan. Keep a turn two 12/12 trampler in mind when making mulligan decisions, and you should do fine. I have yet to drop a match to Dreadstill with my new list.
A Ubgw version with Vedalken Shackels, Pernicious Deed, and Tarmogoyf. Since the four-color Landstill variants only run a few basics, the post-board inevitability lies with D&T. However, a 7/8 Tarmogoyf can be quite scary, doing combat math against an active shackles can make your head spin, and Deed destroys the D&T board if it resolves. Keeping all of these in mind, the important thing is to keep the opponent off of green mana through shrewd use of Wasteland, Port, and vialed-in Flickerwisp triggers. Four-color Landstill is generally going to be much more skill-intensive and dangerous than the above two decks, but it is still winnable. Playing this match has shown me that the new sideboard plan is not foolproof, as there are still some builds of Landstill with a high enough power level to overcome D&T's newly found inevitability. However, the simple fact that D&T can have winning chances against these decks is reason enough to test this sideboard. Aside from the normal Landstill boarding, Mana Tithe should be boarded out, and Relic of Progenitus in. Relic of Progenitus has been my favorite method of dealing with Tarmogoyf to date, and it has the side benefit of hurting a Landstill player's land recursion engine, if he runs one.
Ah heck, here's the list I used:
I'm in love with this list. It's very finely tuned for an aggro metagame, so I would definitely rework the sideboard if I were to bring it to a larger tournament, maybe dropping the Witnesses and Enforcers for some Ethersworn Canonists. The deck has proved to be a very valuable addition to my testing gauntlet, and I recommend it to anyone that wants to test their aggro or aggro-control deck against dedicated control.
After beating my head against a wall trying to defeat the Landstill problem for so long, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a hapless opponent forced into breaking his own Standstill in desperation. If anyone has questions about my article or card choices, I would be happy to answer anything in the forums.
By Caleb Durward on June 10th, 2009 · Filed in Legacy (Type 1.5) · Comments not available just now