What Next for Legacy? Where the Wild Things Are
By Finn on January 1st, 2010 · Filed in Legacy (Type 1.5) · Comments not available just now
I know I have said so before, but I want to make sure it is understood: Wild Nacatl was the start of a sea change for Legacy. On the shoulders of this little common card, one particular category of decks has erupted in volcanic splendor to reveal a completely new facet to the format - aggro!
Before I get into the importance of the emergence of aggro in Legacy, I am going to admit this up front here: I have a deep fear of Legacy spinning out of control into a cheap knock-off of Vintage. That is becoming increasingly unlikely as Legacy marks its turf in both popularity and understanding amongst players. But in the days before we called it Legacy we had Type 1.5 and it really was just that. The domination of blue was somewhat muted, but the decks were mostly versions of Vintage sans broken search and draw. Yet, when the Type 1 and Type 1.5 banned lists were split, we got Legacy and all of the sudden I got to use lots of my old cards. And there was this sense that any halfway decent card could potentially be playable. My Ydwen Efreet could wield Umezawa's Jitte. The merits of Psychic Purge could legitimately be compared to blue's vast array of spot removal/direct damage spells that have been printed since! Well, not that one so much. But this was clearly my format. The potential swirled around in some sort of unformed primordial soup like a young planet. That world has cooled plenty since then, but there are still virgin forests and uncharted islands awaiting discovery.
The Demise of Aggro
That perception is important to me to cling to as a player and designer. I learned early that Vintage feels like a sinking ship. It kept filling up with water from all the holes, but since they could not bail it out Wizards just kept making the mast and sails taller and taller. This difference is what attracted me to the Legacy format in the first place. And that keen schism was no more apparent than the role of creatures. Until quite recently, there had not been a successful pure aggro deck in any eternal format since the day Zak Dolan beat Bertrand Lestree in the 1994 World Championships. In Vintage, you had your 40 some-odd cards that really should go in just about every deck. They are largely blue, black, and artifact. And not one of them is a creature. Consequently, you had a format defined by a flow of spells that search, draw, counter, discard, accelerate mana, etc. But there were few creatures and even fewer of the Swords to Plowshares type cards which come with that territory. Those tried and true auto-included cards were just so much more powerful than similarly costed creatures that there was just no design space available for something as mundane as the attack phase. The trend towards this actually even predates the original split into formats. This stands to reason since the preponderance of broken cards were printed in Alpha. Probably the first definitive sign of aggro's demise was Brian Weissman's ultimate control tower - The Deck.
Pilots of this deck could expect to fend off creatures for the first few turns and eventually land a Moat. That was usually the game. With superior card economy and countermagic, The Deck could usually hold off attackers indefinitely until it landed a Serra Angel to seal the deal. Remember there was no combo back then, so it usually came down to who established control first. And with only two copies of its hallmark stopper, this one did it best. Imagine that. Moat ended almost all creatures on its own. This deck marked the end of pure aggro in any eternal format for over a decade. Well, Vintage has had Ichorid decks for years. But that deck plays more like a Yu-Gi-Oh! deck than any category of Magic. And Legacy has always had a good Goblins deck. But it, too, is not really an aggro deck. It's part combo. Actually, when facing something like Threshold it ends up taking on the role of control much of the time. I wonder what a creature would have to look like to end control the way Moat ended the beatdown.
Control and Combo Killer Dude|
Creature - Wizard
Control and Combo Killer Dude can't be countered.
Players can't cast artifact, instant, or sorcery spells.
This, of course, is way too powerful. That was how egregious the imbalance of power between Moat and the creatures of the day were.
Actually have you seen what the Vintage metagame looks like these days? You have Ux aggro-control of every stripe, of course Ichorid, and even GWb beatdown. Stephen Menendian's creation is apparently the real deal. There is actually a beatdown deck in Vintage! The attack is back! What has changed to permit this?
Slowly Rising from the Dead
Wizards has tried a lot of different strategies to handle the various levels of power over the years. Actually, it is one of their continuing goals. They have to provide a power-level framework for the rest of us to manipulate. That makes sense. But there has been this huge disparity between the cards from the first few sets with everything that followed. We always just accepted it, "knowing" that early sets had a lot of mistakes in them. Wizards could not clean it up no matter how hard they tried; Vintage was a sinking ship under the weight of all its brokenness, yes. So they allowed it to continue and went about printing "fair" cards. They spoke of power creep as a bad thing. And we all agreed. But there is no way that the recent power creep is simply an extended case of their bad judgment. There is a plan here. I aim to reveal it.
Power creep is definitely happening, though. But creeping up on what? What are we comparing card power to? Well, when Muscle Sliver was printed for Tempest, the Magic world saw an undeniable case of power creep over the previous best deal in town, Grizzly Bears. And certainly Pearled Unicorn is pathetic next to Isamaru, Hound of Konda. Now, even Isamaru is not quite competitive any more. The bar has been raised very quickly in just the past few years. There was some trepidation about the reprinting of Juggernaut. Juggerwho? Many people thought Hypnotic Specter could not possibly be reprinted in this lifetime. Watchwolf, considered a giant leap in power just a few years ago, is not even considered particularly good today. The list goes on and on. And yet the game continues without toppling over. Where is the ceiling? I think I know. And we are getting close. You can see it when you adjust your lens. As soon as you consider that the only cards creeping in power are the ones that are either creatures (Steppe Lynx, Knight of the Reliquary) or creature removal (Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt) it becomes clear. When creatures are able to keep up with the noncreature spells of old, we will have finally completed the journey. That is what we should be comparing them to.
This put a decisive end to combat. With players opting for other routes to victory, even Moat became unnecessary since creatures were all just so weak. This view marked the beginning of the Age of Blue.
I am guessing that this does not mean an Ancestral Recall level of power. So you can forget about ever making the restricted list version of creatures. But it probably does mean Hymn to Tourach. This is very important since it means that Legacy is likely to be the standard for power in sets to come. You might not notice this grand design if you don't play eternal format Magic. But let me tell you, Legacy has changed remarkably with this scheme already. A funny thing to look at are the borders on the cards found in many Legacy decks. The white-bordered cards are largely your lands and noncreature spells while the black-bordered cards are the creatures. When creatures are on par with these other spells, we should eventually see some options for the staples being printed instead of Force of Will and Brainstorm in every blue deck. It has already begun to happen in white. I would not have expected to see anyone play anything over Swords to Plowshares, yet players are opting for Path to Exile in Zoo.
But you are really comparing apples to oranges here. I can't imagine how anybody would ever be able to come up with some kind of a real metric for rating a creature against something like Ponder in relative power. Heck, it is hard to compare Ponder to Mystical Tutor most of the time. That is a tall order to fill. And it changes radically as the rest of the cards in a format shift around. I am glad that is not my job. If this is truly what we can expect, there will likely be a few missteps along the way.
So then this takes us full circle to the current state of Legacy where the dominant category of deck has always been aggro-control. You see, aggro fulfills the same role in Standard that it usually does. There are various versions of control and aggro as always. And the rise in power of creatures has coincided with better creature removal as Wizards planned. This is essentially true for Extended as well. But in Legacy, with the same removal suite as always and creatures all of the sudden getting a big boost, aggressive decks with very little disruption have grown in popularity by leaps and bounds. Counterbalance, the dreaded almost-format-defining card is often too slow to prevent Zoo and Goyf-Sligh from getting an early upper hand and claiming a fast victory. Creatures like Steppe Lynx and especially Wild Nacatl are a real problem for control. They come out early and get big very fast. While at the same time, hitherto beloved spells like Thoughtseize, Ad Nauseam, and Snuff Out now have a very real drawback.
This guy is both aggressive and disruptive. He may be on the level of power necessary to reclaim aggro in Legacy. How much longer before we are there in Vintage?
The Role of... Him
I have gotten this far into the article without even uttering the word. But it can not be avoided. The best creature around still starts with "T" and ends with "armogoyf". But it is not by such a large margin anymore. To use those other creatures you have to devote design space to them, though. In most cases, it's just a color requirement - a nonblue color requirement, and this is important. How many players are willing to dip into four colors in a format crawling with Wasteland and its kind? Actually, with the Zendikar fethlands and this little card I think that goal is very realistic. But this limitation should keep Tarmo the number one finisher of blue-based aggro-control anyway... with a notable exception. Merfolk, which was just my pet deck for hosing those same designs, does fine in a sea of blue. But it has a very tough job dealing with this new breed of pure aggro. The best solution is probably to splash into white for actual removal. But in doing so you take a step away from its control roots in that metagame that has been dominated by aggro-control since its inception.
And that is what seems to be happening all over. In a format in which tempo has always been a major factor, going into the red zone on life has always been seen as a good trade if it bought you board position or card advantage. This will have to change as decks have to deal with bigger, faster threats more often. When it was just Tarmogoyf, we complained that he was such a game breaker. And he was. After all, in an environment with a top playable converted mana cost of 3, how many big creatures could most opponents have? But now, with so many similarly powerful creature cards making their way into a variety of decks, players can't get away with just Thoughtseize, Swords to Plowshares, and your own Tarmogoyf and call aggro handled. Heh - we have been using Thoughtseize for creature removal. You have to have redundant means to handle big creatures these days. This gives cards like Rhox War Monk and Kitchen Finks some serious clout, as they buy you the time aggro would rob you of. It's not just the beaters, either. Getting creatures to do your disrupting has been a direction I have personally put a lot into. Gaddock Teeg, Vexing Shusher, Aven Mindcensor, Ethersworn Canonist, Qasali Pridemage, and plenty of others are getting more aggressively priced over time. Control had better watch out. If the environment continues this way, there may just be a creature that does to you what what Moat once did for you. Yes, sir. This just might be the beginning of the end for The Age of Blue. It's about time.
By Finn on January 1st, 2010 · Filed in Legacy (Type 1.5) · Comments not available just now
Finn is a lifelong deck designing junkie.