Blue-Free Control in Legacy
By Andrew Brennan on July 18th, 2007 · Filed in Legacy (Type 1.5) · Comments not available just now
Preface: This article was largely written before the bomb that was Flash exploded the format, which coincidentally invalidated all of the points made here. Now that that particular demon has been vanquished, it is safe to assume that what is written here is actually relevant again. – Andrew
First off, let me say that this article is primarily geared towards two audiences: first, those who may wonder what Legacy is and second, those who know what the format is but want to read up on it anyway. For those of you who fall into the latter group, you can safely skip this section and move on to the next one. For those of you in the former group, I’ll give a brief rundown of what the format is about.
Legacy is a format in which all of the cards in all of Magic’s sets to date are legal, with the exception of the ones that aren’t (check the Banned and Restricted Lists if you’re interested). Because of this, there are a wide variety of decks and strategies available to the Legacy player and some of them can even be tournament-competitive if properly tuned. So what does this boil down to in terms of the “gist” of the format?
It’s actually fairly straightforward: Legacy is a format polarized primarily between aggro decks (read: Goblins) and "other" decks, i.e., combo and aggro-control decks, each with obviously separate goals and strategies. Combo decks attempt to “race” the aggro decks by going off before the aggro deck deals critical damage – some fine examples of this would be TES or CRET Belcher, both of which are fast decks that use red "ritual" effects to generate lots of fast mana to play either a huge turn-one Empty the Warrens or another spell (Tendrils of Agony in the case of TES and Goblin Charbelcher in Belcher's case). Aggro decks will either attempt to race the combo decks by hoping they can amass a gigantic army before the combo player can do what he or she does, or the aggro player will simply pack hate cards (like Pyrostatic Pillar) and hope to disrupt the combo player for long enough to smash them into the ground. The classic (and only) example here is Goblins, which operates like the Goblins decks of the Onslaught Standard environment, but with a lot more power and speed thanks to Goblin Lackey, Goblin Ringleader, and Aether Vial in addition to a sizeable mana disruption suite and powerful beats.
I get bigger. Much, much bigger.There’s a third category of deck I mention in there: the aggro-control deck. These decks attempt to disrupt combo with their control elements while either racing aggro decks or overpowering those decks with better creatures. The classic example of this is Threshold, which runs counters and draw spells while attempting to reach – you guessed it – threshold in order to turn its normally unimpressive creatures into gigantic beats.
A fine example of all of these decks can be found here. Note the first four decks on the page give you a look into the decks considered “Decks to Beat,” although I would argue that Homebrew is no longer the menace it once was because the strategy behind that deck is rife with flaws, and Solidarity has been on the decline recently. One further thing to note is that those lists are over a year old and many new advancements have been made in all areas of the format. Unfortunately, the most recent large-tournament data was warped by a card that is now banned (*cough**cough*Flash*cough*). Since many of the decks that did well there are not representative of the “normal” Legacy format, I’m leaving Columbus out of this. Of course, the caveat to that statement is that Legacy is different from Standard and Extended in that it is primarily a “metagame” format where the composition of the field can vary widely from region to region. This is due in part to the relative lack of high-level (and high publicity) tournament support from the DCI and in part to the occasional difficulty of finding and acquiring Legacy’s “power cards” used in tier one decks.
Control and the Legacy Player
You may have noticed (those of you that read it, anyway) that there was a distinct lack of discussion of “pure” control decks in my previous description. Even in the list of top eight decks from last year’s major Legacy event, there’s only two decks that can be counted as control decks, compared to three combo decks, one aggro deck, and two aggro-control decks. Both of the control decks listed look incredibly strange and even, dare I say it, random when compared to control decks in Standard or Extended. Why are there no Draw-Go decks or Pikula knockoffs? No Astral Slide board control decks? Is control only good in Legacy if your deck looks like the tortured creation of someone who just couldn’t settle on a good list of four-ofs?
Well, no, not really. There are a few things to keep in mind about playing pure control in Legacy (NOT aggro-control, that’s a different beast altogether). First, there’s the polarity of the format to consider. Combo decks and creature decks obviously take different strategies to beat. Counterspells and discard are only so good against aggro, as those decks can usually win any attrition war you start since they probably run more threats than you have answers. Board sweepers and targeted removal are generally bad against combo decks, as these decks tend to have very few permanents in play before they win: lands and maybe artifact mana acceleration. This means that the successful control deck in Legacy will have to do one of three things:
1) Play all of the above strategies at once, but in a more diluted fashion, or
2) Gear the maindeck to excelling in one matchup and make a sideboard to beat the other, or
3) Pray you don’t hit any of the decks that are bad matchups for you.
You can generally pull off number three in a metagame dominated by one or the other type of deck (i.e., mostly Goblins with some combo, or mostly combo with some aggro). However, when going to a big tournament or competing in a more balanced field, your control deck needs to be able to handle the entire spectrum of archetypes. What to do? You have a couple of routes you could take here, but they basically all boil down to two things: play aggro-control, or play some form of BoardControl.dec. As much as I may not like to admit it (for reasons of personal taste), the former is a lot more prevalent and may even be more viable in the long run. This style of control has already been considered in depth by other authors, so I’ll just cover it briefly here. If you want more information, I’d recommend you look for articles on Legacy aggro-control on Star City Games, or head over to www.mtgthesource.com and browse the forums there.
Basically, aggro-control decks try to make up for control decks’ major weakness: slow clocks. Aggro-control decks in the Thresh mold can be broken down into four parts: the mana (duh), the guys, the draw, and the control. This last usually manifests itself in the form of counterspells of one stripe or another (Force of Will, Daze, good old Counterspell) and spot removal (Swords to Plowshares, burn, Ghastly Demise, and others). However, it is important to note here that the guys these decks field are also part of the deck’s control suite. These types of decks typically field incredibly efficient creatures, on the order of 4/4’s for two mana or 3/3’s for one. Even Goblins is hard-pressed to deal with those kinds of monstrosities, and attacking into a wall of men who are all bigger than your men could be generally described as “suicidal.” Blocking therefore becomes a form of creature control for the aggro-control player, and as an added perk, those same blockers can go on the offensive for massive damage when it is advantageous to do so. Against combo decks fielding few to no creatures, the aggro-control player’s men will simply smash face for the win in much the same way as a straight aggro deck does, but they have the added advantage of disruptive control elements to alleviate some of the need to race.
Thus, an aggro-control deck, as its name suggests, can function as either an aggro or a control deck, and usually as both, in any given matchup. This flexibility and power is unmatched by even the nastiest of control decks. So why is a purer form of control still playable in the format?
"...as long as it isn't more than fifty The answer lies in the three options discussed earlier for the directions a control deck can take, more specifically option number one (the “Jack of all trades” option). Note that both of the control decks in the link above have a few things in common: their focus on control of the board, and their color choices. Both lists run white, green, and black. What’s so special about these colors, and why does one deck opt to skip blue entirely (the default color of control in many players’ minds)? The answer lies in the superior strategic synergy between white, green, and black, which invalidates the need for blue. Most often, blue in a control deck plays two roles: counterspell source, and efficient draw spell source. Every deck wants efficient draw spells, so let’s analyze the other, more unique forte of blue: countering stuff. Counterspells in the modern Legacy metagame are weak, to put it mildly. For one thing, the best deck in the format (Goblins) runs four copies of two different one-drops that nicely circumvent the control player’s counters: Aether Vial, and Goblin Lackey. Either one of these generally requires a Force of Will in your opening hand on the play or draw, and maybe a Daze or Force Spike if you’re lucky enough to be on the play. Unfortunately for blue, these first eight must-counter cards are just the beginning of the story. Goblin Piledriver, Goblin Warchief, Goblin Ringleader, even Siege-Gang Commander are Bad, Bad News for the mono-blue control mage. On the other end of things, competent combo players can play through two or three counters (or even more, sometimes), so relying on your counters alone for that matchup is dicey. To further complicate matters, many sorcery-speed combo decks like TES are packing Xantid Swarms now to completely invalidate the blue counter-control strategy.
minutes, cuz then we'll go to time."
But let’s get back to the issue of white, green, and black in lieu of blue in control decks. Each of those colors have something control decks want: board sweepers and the best spot removal in the game in white, board sweepers and discard in black, and big face-smashers in green (Note: I am aware that Pernicious Deed is green. Let’s ignore that for now). Discard essentially replaces counterspells in the combo matchup, with the theory being that it will be rather difficult for the combo player to do their thing when their hand is kind of, you know, empty. In the aggro matchup, discard acts like worse spot removal by removing scary men before they hit play, but it also nukes scary non-men cards like equipment or the aforementioned Aether Vial. Should the opposition get some creatures to stick in the face of discard and spot removal, you can reset the board with any number of good options in these three colors: Wrath/Damnation, Pernicious Deed, Infest and friends, or even Fog-type effects to stall. And of course, green fat helps speed up your win against combo, working with hand disruption and occasionally mana disruption for a lethally effective game.
So is blue not playable in control decks anymore? Yes and no. As evidenced by the presence of Landstill, blue can still be a major contributor to a control deck. However, blue can’t go it alone anymore simply because it needs the other colors to cover its weak bases, mostly in the board control department. The control decks of the future will be relying to an increasing extent on non-blue disruption strategies. With that said, what would these control decks look like?
Rifter: the Anti-Goblins Deck from Days Gone By
Well, okay, this isn’t really a deck with much of a future for it. However, understanding the past is the key to predicting the future, right? This was once a beast, when combo was not too common and Goblins were overrunning the format. Now, though, Rifter has a weak combo matchup, especially against Solidarity, so the deck is forced into functioning essentially as an anti-aggro deck in the main and an anti-combo deck of sorts in the sideboard.
Strengths: As anyone who played Rifter against Goblins during the deck’s heyday knows, Rifter does things to Goblins that are normally confined to the insides of federal prisons. The deck fares pretty well against aggro-control decks too, since it has a very strong anti-creature suite and the deck is built around redundancy, making the occasional Counterspell or Force of Will irrelevant.
Weaknesses: The Legacy Combo Player’s Association recently endorsed Rifter as being the Best Control Deck for Legacy in 2007, and the reason should be obvious from looking at the list. Game one is essentially a bye for combo, with lots of dead creature control cards and no anti-combo cards to speak of. Sideboarding changes some of that, but you’re not out of the woods yet, especially against Solidarity. Anti-combo cards like Orim’s Chant, Abeyance, or Rule of Law do nothing to change the fact that your opponent has the win in hand and can simply go after exhausting your hate cards. Racing was never really Rifter’s strong suit.
Stax: a Vintage Favorite in Legacy
Stax operates as a “prison” deck, which means its ultimate end goal is to completely lock its opponent out of the game, then win. Compare this deck to another prison-type deck that would probably be familiar to the modern Extended player: Scepter Chant. Scepter Chant tries to lock its opponent out of the game by preventing them from doing anything with Orim’s Chant, and some versions turn this soft lock into a hard lock by completing the Scepter-Chant duo with Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. Stax, on the other hand, takes this strategy one step further by trying to completely obliterate its opponent’s board, the theory being that it will be rather difficult to do anything when you have no permanents in play. This version opts to play white as its primary color, but I have seen Stax decks for Legacy in every color but green. As an aside, this is probably the one type of control build which could successfully go mono-blue, although its counter control would be redundant to a certain extent. The MUC Stax list I have toyed with, for example, runs no counters.
Strengths: No deck, be it aggro or combo, likes to have its permanents completely wiped out. In that sense, the Stax strategy is probably the one “universal” control strategy that works equally well against all archetypes, which means that the deck can be very good in any given matchup with little tweaking. This list runs the best artifact anti-combo tools in the game in Trinisphere and Chalice of the Void, and Smokestack and Tangle Wire act to slow down the aggro hordes and eat lands in combo. Exalted Angel is also an incredibly powerful finisher.
Weaknesses: This deck’s mana curve basically starts at three mana and goes up from there. Without all of the land and artifact mana acceleration, this deck would be painfully slow, and even with said acceleration, it isn’t the fastest deck out of the gates. The deck hopes to make up for it by having an unstoppable late game once it stabilizes, but surviving to that point can be difficult, to say the least. The white version of the deck also doesn’t have any dedicated card draw, although this is mitigated somewhat by the fact that almost all of its artifact disruption pieces can generate real or virtual card advantage.
Confinement Slide: Rifter Reloaded
Confinement Slide is essentially a Life from the Loam-enabled Rifter deck. It uses Astral Slide to turn Eternal Witness into an Infinite Recursion Engine, Loxodon Hierarch into an Infinite Life Engine, and the Onslaught cycling lands into an Infinite Draw Engine. While it gives up some of the redundancy and creature hate of Rifter, it has a much stronger game against combo thanks to Solitary Confinement and a good clock. Also note that the deck’s creator said this list’s sideboard is fairly fluid.
Strengths: Confinement Slide has a number of advantages over Rifter, the first being its superior creature base. All of the deck’s men do something useful, be it recur cards, gain life, grab lands, or even just block…speaking of which, the addition of Slide to Lightning Rift allows for quite a few blocking shenanigans (block your Piledriver with my Witness, put combat damage on the stack, Slide out Witness. Bye, Piledriver). Confinement makes the combo matchup less of a goldfish for the combo player and more of an actual, you know, game.
Weaknesses: Like many other Life from the Loam based decks, this one is susceptible to graveyard hate targeting either your cycling lands or Life from the Loam itself. Losing Life from the Loam is a nuisance, but losing your cycling lands cripples the deck’s various engines. Hate cards like Leyline of the Void are especially bad things for you, as they cannot be worked around and require speedy removal before they compromise the deck too much. With many people packing sideboard hate for Threshold, relying heavily on such a graveyard dependent strategy is a liability. Solitary Confinement stops the most common hate card (Tormod’s Crypt), but there are still plenty of ways that ‘yard hate can ruin your day with this deck, such as the aforementioned Leyline and enemy Jotun Grunts. Also, like Rifter, the deck's combo matchup is not fabulous. Solitary Confinement can buy you some time, as can Chant, but Confinement often comes down too late against most combo decks in the format, and any slower combo decks can generally get rid of it (either by bouncing it or destroying it outright).
The Truffle Shuffle: an InfamousBearAssassin Production
Note: an earlier version of this deck was listed as “Thunderbluff” in the Wizards article about last year’s Legacy Grand Prix.
Mmmm, Good_Stuff.deck. This deck is basically the sum total of what I’ve been talking about in white/green/black control: efficient spot removal, board sweepers, and powerful green-based beatsticks to end the game. Black provides the anti-combo disruption in the form of discard, while also bringing Damnation and Deed to the table. Furthermore, black gives the deck a singleton copy of Haunting Echoes as an alternate win condition: resolving one is generally good game, and all but the most masochistic opponents will scoop upon seeing it. White gives the deck Swords and Vindicate, arguably two of the best targeted removal spells in the format, and if it gets worked into the deck, Glittering Wish will allow for an insanely powerful toolbox wishboard. One thing the deck’s creator points out is that this deck is not an aggro deck in any way, despite its massive beats: until the game has clearly stabilized, going on the offensive is a poor decision. Thus, part of the trick to playing this deck correctly lies in knowing when to switch from a defensive to an offensive play style.
Strengths: the deck is the epitome of efficient WGB control in the format, having done well in an open Legacy field at a high-level tournament and posting solid match results against much of the format. There are a number of different control builds in these colors, but I chose to feature this one because it has placed in a major event before.
Weaknesses: Draw power. Or rather, the lack thereof. The deck is forced into relying on Top, Tusker, and fetchlands to ensure card quality, which is not an entirely bad plan, but with only seven fetches it isn’t an entirely good one either. The deck therefore has to rely heavily on generating card advantage through other means (Hymns, Deeds, etc.) in order to get a leg up on its opponent. Therefore, like Homebrew, going into topdeck mode can be a bit risky with this deck (but this deck generally has better quality cards to draw than Homebrew ever did). Another point to watch out for is the mana base, which, like many three-color decks, is easily disruptable.
No one likes me...So, a number of successful control decks, and nary an Island in sight. What does this mean for the future of control in general? You’ll note that many of the featured decks rely far more on proactive control cards instead of reactive control cards: for example, using discard to deal with problem spells, instead of opting to answer them with counters. All of the lists win with fat, fat guys, and two of those lists win with multiple morbidly obese creatures. And finally, all of the lists focus on controlling the board, instead of controlling access to the board as a mono-blue counter-control list would. Why is that last part so important?
Goblins is still a major, even defining, force in the format, and to answer it, an increasing number of combo decks have been showing up lately. Players not interested in playing one or the other have generally been turning to aggro-control decks like Threshold, Meat Hooks (aka Counterslivers), or any of a variety of other aggro-ish decks with counterspell backup. While blue counterspell strategies may be able to handle combo, there are simply too many must-counter threats in the other decks for a Draw-Go deck to survive. However, board control answers these two problem archetypes by allowing the control player to not have to worry so much about stopping problem men from coming into play, and instead focus on countering or ripping with discard the cards that matter. Furthermore, the shift towards a more proactive style of control that this strategy entails is generally a much stronger game plan than a purely reactive control deck. It also allows the control player to include a far greater number and variety of win conditions in his deck, as counter-control decks generally want to dedicate as few slots as possible to winning in favor of maxing out the counters and draw. In the end, winning faster is the preferable route to victory, no matter how controlling the deck is.
After reading a whole article on Legacy control, you may be wondering which of the aforementioned decks I recommend. At the risk of being flamed into oblivion, I would say that the two decks with the brightest futures for them are The Truffle Shuffle and Stax, with the latter probably being the better deck in the long run because of Chalice and Trinisphere. Both of those cards give the Stax player an edge in the combo matchup by forcing the combo player to dig for multiple answers – one for Trinisphere, and others for Chalice – in order to go off. Sloppy sideboarding on your opponent’s part could even put them out of the game if they don’t have artifact destruction that costs more than three mana (as Chalice will usually come down for one and two, covering most bounce and artifact destruction spells. Watch out for Shattering Spree,though). Truffle Shuffle has a better clock than Stax, but relying on discard alone versus combo is not the best way to go about winning that matchup. Besides, Stax’s late game lockout makes the debate over a clock moot, as once you have your opponent under a lock you can kill them at your leisure. Keep in mind that rounds in Legacy last fifty minutes, though.
One other thing to note is that, despite the destruction of Flash.dec at the hands of The Banhammer, fast combo is far from dead in Legacy. In fact, two relatively new combo decks are threatening to shake things up: TES and CRET Belcher. As I mentioned back in the beginning, the former deck is a blue/red/black storm deck that can win off of a variety of cards, including Tendrils of Agony and Empty the Warrens, while the latter deck functions either as a storm deck into Empty the Warrens, or as a classic Goblin Charbelcher deck. The problem with both of these decks is their speed and resiliency to hate, due in part to the fact that Tendrils/Belcher and ETW take wildly different cards to answer in most cases. Neither deck is particularly happy about discard though, so I predict that, in the event Lion’s Eye Diamond remains legal in the format in the next cycle of bannings, control decks will be relying to a greater extent on black as combo disruption and possibly for Engineered Plague as well to hate Goblins and Empty The Warrens. Decks that opt not to splash black will probably need to gun for a turn one Chalice at zero to stop artifact mana accelerants, followed by a Chalice at one to stop Ritual effects.
So what does this mean for the format as a whole? I think in the coming months, and especially in the aftermath of The Flash Fiasco, blue will become increasingly confined to the format’s aggro-control decks, and the purer control decks will move more in a direction like the ones listed here, especially Truffle Shuffle or Stax. Landstill may continue to put up decent results, but in the end these other decks are superior strategically and offer the most room for innovation for the erstwhile control player. And that is probably a good thing, in the end: the mark of a superior strategy is its adaptability to any situation, and the future control decks of Legacy will be no exception.
By Andrew Brennan on July 18th, 2007 · Filed in Legacy (Type 1.5) · Comments not available just now
About Andrew Brennan
Andrew Brennan is a current freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been playing Magic since Mirage and continuously since Invasion, largely as a casual player but recently as a competitive Extended player as well. A Johnny/Timmy sort of fellow, he enjoys smashing opponents to a bloody pulp in unique and interesting ways. His favortie colors are blue and black, with a recent addition of green.