What Next for Legacy? Coming and Going
By Finn on June 18th, 2008 · Filed in Legacy (Type 1.5) · Comments not available just now
So Wizards went and turned Vintage on its head. The forums are aflame with speculation about how this could put an end to the Vintage metagame in its current form. Oh well. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, a little revolution now and then is a good thing. In this case, I'm just glad it isn't happening to me. And frankly, I don't see it happening to Legacy any time soon. Wizards has created an amazingly stable (perhaps too stable) environment in Legacy despite the presence of a lot of seriously powerful cards. It is on this topic that I would like to spend some words taking a hard look at where the Wild West Format is headed. And since it is my habit to do so, I intend to spin some yarn reminiscing where it came from, and where it has been.
I wonder how many players recall hearing about Paul Sligh's deck from Atlanta in 1996. I know I do. The Sunday after, I picked up a friend who was returning from the event, and we talked about it all the way back from the airport.
"He had Goblins of the Flarg and Dwarven Trader?"
"He went to the finals with it?"
The deck, designed by Jay Schneider, introduced the world to what is now a given - the concept of mana curve. Sligh took advantage of the turns before Ernham Djinn came online. It filled the board with creatures before Armageddon could seal the game. And it made Necropotence decks lose the game for paying too much life for cards. Until that day in April, nobody ever designed a tournament deck considering what Mike Flores put into words when he asked "Who's the beatdown?" We were all just looking for that killer combination of cards to establish some form of control. "Creature Decks" were supposedly destined for failure. But this strategy would not have been possible at the dawn of the game. There simply were not enough cheap burn spells and creatures available. It took a brilliant designer to recognize this. He was willing to give up end game strength for a full frontal assault to alter the paradigm we all clung to. And his deck did so permanently, the metagame rapidly forming around it.
Almost exactly a year later, another game-defining deck appeared in Paris piloted by Michael Long.
While he was not the only person to be aware of such a deck, this was the first time it came to center stage. Prosbloom was the first tournament-worthy combo deck ever. There had been plenty of synergistic interactions and even game-ending combinations in the past, but none were ever present in a deck that focused every single card to getting the combo to function - and worked. It was such a revolutionary concept that I can recall seeing the cards spread out in front of me and still needing to see the combo run through several times before appreciating quite how it could succeed.
The lasting heritage of this innovation has been, among other things, the concept of aggro > control > combo > aggro...While there is a lot more fluidity to this axiom, the fact remains that aggressive deck elements are a foil to control, disruption gets in the way of combo, and fast combo outpaces aggro. It is important to recognize that it was the printing of certain cards that made this possible. Pandora's Box was opened with Mirage Block, and again we saw a deck design feature permanently etched upon the face of the game. Magic was maturing.
Home on the Range
In Legacy there are so many exceptional cards at your disposal that you can easily add some aggressive features to your combo deck or some disruption to your attack squad. There is so much availability in fact, that there are some peculiar design niches available. This has the result of creating an open range upon which to graze when looking for deck ideas. Interestingly, and perhaps unfortunately, it is that vastness that has actually been systematically narrowing the field.
10-land Stompy can still win a tournament on the back of its quick offense but only if the opponents aren't prepared. They usually are. The same is true for Burn, Illusions-Donate, and Suicide Black. These were all successful designs in bygone days of other formats that could routinely win if only their Achilles Heels weren't so easily taken advantage of. Successful modern Legacy designs include contingencies for so many situations that the one-trick ponies find there is always something standing in their way. Let me show you what I mean.
This deck, perhaps a bit outdated with the printing of Tarmogoyf, was developed right here on MTGSalvation by Stephen Judd. It's primary kill mechanism is the combo of a fast Hunted Horror with any of the assorted methods of taking care of the drawback including destroying the tokens with Despotic Scepter (yes, this works). Then it hunkers down and plays disruption just long enough to deal lethal damage. But it just as often simply beats down using stolen critters via Gilded Drake. It can then pop the Drake it just gave you, perhaps to do so over again with your next creature. When Stephen began his research (original deckbuilding in Legacy often requires searching old decklists and even older sets for the right cards) he went through a lot of iterations before settling on blue and black. This setup gave him access to the library manipulation and defense he needed to get his simple combo to flow properly. It also gave him outs to many of the tremendous variety of opponents he could expect to face. Rather than go straight combo, he needed several fallback plans and a modicum of disruption to compete. In its current form the deck plays aggro/combo/control.
Here's another strange one. Breakfast, or Cephalid Breakfast by the Hatfield brothers has a primary kill of a reanimated Sutured Ghoul. But with the recent rules change making Tarmogoyf's power and toughness set to something other than zero even while it is not in play, Breakfast can occasionally switch gears and pound with the Tarmos that are usually reserved to power up the ghoul. It has just enough disruption in the main to matter, and can call in far more from the side board. Now there are pure combo decks floating around in Legacy. But these are the sort of guerilla tactics that the latest batch of Legacy combo decks tend to employ. Is this one really combo? Ahh, usually. Taken as a whole though, it plays combo/control/aggro.
Straight aggro is essentially unheard of, so even White weenie has to play this game in Legacy as well. This is one of my own.
While it plays in some ways like a typical white weenie deck, almost all the creatures are disruptive in nature, especially to the graveyard. It is not as fast as conventional white weenie. Instead, it relies on tricks like bringing Hokori in and out of play with Karakas and Aether Vial or saving a Jotun Grunt with too many counters via Stonecloaker. Also, if the pilot gets recurring Mangara activations going by returning him to hand with his ability on the stack (yep, this works too), it's rather easy to see where the match will go. So it is usually the better choice when you consider the metagame. Straight-up White weenie just does not cut it in an environment featuring graveyard manipulation on the order of Narco-Bridge-Ichorid and Loam control as well as Belcher and storm combo which can kill you before turn three in most games. Even if you play aggro, you have to be able to exert control. This one is aggro/control/combo.
Even Goblins, long distinguished as the stalwart aggro deck of the format, has had to change course in the face of improved opponents.
This one is, in fact, not quite the standard build. I was unable to locate anything resembling a standard build, since nobody can agree on how far the control elements have to go to successfully fend off combo and Tarmogoyf. Earwig Squad and Chrome Mox are hardly a given, but I have played this version, and it does fight combo quite well while retaining the entire core of the deck. It is now an aggro/control deck with enough synergy to provide a touch of its own combo.
Enter the Ranchers
It is this Jack-of-all-trades state of decks that stymies attempts at something like pure combo or pure aggro. And in many ways it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you expect the field to be populated with decks capable of disrupting your cool Swans of Bryn Argoll and Chain of Plasma combo, you would be wise to include something like discard or countermagic yourself. You would in effect be disrupting their disruption since running in guns a-blazing will get you shot off your horse. Hence the trend feeds itself. In fact the trend is continuing into very strange territory lately. It is not uncommon to find aggressive creature-laden decks with Pernicious Deed or 3-color Threshold designs featuring Blood Moon (and only a few basic lands). The far-reaching effects offered by these cards teeters on the fence between disrupting your own plan and burying your opponent. And yet they are just the sort of catch-all hosers that constitute Legacy designs. When you must account for so many possible opposing strategies, you need effects that cast a wide net. So while the number of viable decks continues to expand, the variety of their constituent cards is diminishing. With that kind of barbed-wire fencing, what you end up with is six flavors of Landstill, four kinds of Threshold, and four distinct combo decks featuring Tendrils of Agony as its primary kill condition.
Take this example. When Tombstalker was released, I found myself drawn to take advantage of it. With an identical converted mana cost, it's a hard sell when compared to Tarmogoyf. And it does not take a genius to see that they fight over the same resources like cowboys and Indians. So the trick was to find the right spot for it. Pernicious Deed is an excellent place to begin. But it did not take long for the entire community to come to the same conclusion.
Despite the giant assortment of cards to draw from, we all recognized the same thing. Pernicious Deed + big creatures + hand disruption = power. These days, you would find Shriekmaw and Thoughtseize on the short list for inclusions here, but the idea is still the same. We all knew that the Deed beats the snot out of random opponents. Oh, and it's also one of the premiere sweepers in the game. It was just a matter of fitting a highly synergistic offense into an existing control suite to provide that spark. So while Tombstalker seems to have numerous applications, it actually has very few that matter.
The Long and Winding Road
So where does that leave us headed? Well, there are a lot of new and interesting combination kills in the format right now. The Swans I mentioned are one. Another is Painter's Servant with Grindstone. In fact, Painter's Servant has plenty of really powerful interactions with cards such as Stromgald Cabal (with Eight-and-a-Half-Tails lending a hand) or even a simple Red Elemental Blast. But even the ideas floating around for those decks are packed to the gills with the same disruption cards found in other decks of the format. This Spring, Mosswort Bridge, Phyrexian Dreadnought, and Protean Hulk were combined with some combination of fetchable creatures by iOWN and crew in an ingenious and complicated way to make a fast kill. And again, fallback plans and disruption make up most of the cards in the deck.
You know, I hear a lot of talk on the net and at the local shop these days about banning Tarmogoyf. The mechanic on Tarmo has the interesting effect of making it grow into a bigger fish as the pond it swims in gets bigger. So if you are unfamiliar with Legacy, just figure that it is usually a 3/4 or a 4/5 when it first attacks on turn 3. As you can imagine, this has had a dramatic effect on the format. With disruption so high in power, Legacy needs creatures that are equally powerful. Up until recently, the short list of best creatures in the format included no cheap beaters. They were either disruption or acceleration enablers (think Meddling Mage and Goblin Lackey types). Perhaps with enough pressure coming in from more fatties of this sort, aggro can again come into prominence. That way, you can take advantage of all that the open prairie has to offer without all those pesky barbed-wire fences.
But I don't think that will happen. Instead I think that the narrowing of the field is part of a larger phenomenon. It's true that the purity of those early decks has shaped design forever. Mike Long only had 4 defensive spells in the main deck of Prosbloom. But while today's pliable Legacy combo decks, which are quite capable of switching roles during the course of a single game, are rooted in that static creation. They don't really resemble it in function very much. Similarly, Paul Sligh's purely aggressive concoction probably could not beat a decent draft deck these days. Even with updated cards and stuck back into Legacy, the static design would be pounded by a few good sideboard slots. But aggro-control with an element of combo can be done only if the cards you employ are of a sufficiently high power to manage it. Well Legacy has that in spades. It is testament to the zone the game has entered. I don't know if it is the end zone, but we have crossed the threshold into a format in which single role decks have faded entirely, and dual-role decks are disadvantaged. Because it is not just aggro-control that is winning games. It's aggro-control with a twist. There are just so many amazing synergies to provide that spark - that hidden combo component. And the more I see of all the wonderful strategies and synergies players come up with, the more it looks like Legacy will be pointed in this direction indefinitely.
By Finn on June 18th, 2008 · Filed in Legacy (Type 1.5) · Comments not available just now
Finn is a lifelong deck designing junkie.