In this interview, I speak with the de facto steward of Legacy's defining aggro-control archetype: Threshold. He knows the format as well as any player alive, and isn't shy about dispensing advice.
I would like to add that I'm so glad that I was able to get Dan to grant me this interview. In many ways he represents my polar opposite in Magic. He selects his decks based on merit, where I insist on competing with my own contraptions no matter what. He is a devotee of Blue, where I strive to make Blue mages pay for their crimes. (Avatar of Kokusho, my true nature is finally revealed!) He sticks with what clearly works. I seek the hidden gems. He is Spike. I am Johhny. I have met many Bardos before, as I am sure he has met many Finns. We do not travel the same path. So naturally his perceptions and opinions are completely different from mine. This just demonstrates how differently players can approach this game.
I guess Andy Warhol was right and everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame at some point in their life. I only wish my fame wasn’t in connection with just about the least popular format of a freaking fantasy-themed collectible card game. I suppose it could be worse, but not by much.
About me, I grew up in southern New Jersey, went to college in Maine and then got sick of living on East Coast, so I packed up my few worldly possessions and drove across the country to Portland, Oregon nearly a decade ago. Importantly, for this interview anyhow, in those few belongings were two old Magic: the Gathering decks, one of them being a dodgy Blue/White/Green aggro-control deck that would eventually turn into something reasonably popular in Legacy.
I started playing MtG during a winter break from school back in 1994. This was when Revised and Fallen Empires were on the shelf. It didn’t take long to realize that Blue had the goods and the day I put together sets of Counterspell, Remove Soul and Control Magic was a good day indeed—well, good for me; not so much for my friends. For the next two years I continually tinkered with my mono-Blue control deck and still remember the joy of Mana Draining into that third turn Mahamoti Djinn. The dude was a house in his day.
When my friends gave up the game, I did too. Seven years later (October of 2003), I was deep in a
Diablo II addiction and when the demands of family-life forced me off the computer, my inner-geek still needed nourishing and MtG seemed like the perfect outlet. By that point, Mirrodin was the set du jour and I started by piecing together what I missed in the twenty-one (21!) intervening sets since I’d quit. Oscar Tan’s article archive really helped me piece the story together.
This is a very good question. If you happen to live in Upstate New York, Northern Virginia or Southern California there are a few meaningful tournaments every few months and other scenes are developing as well, such as in Columbus, Ohio. But I suspect most fans of the format are like me, and just enjoy building new decks and beating up the proletariat and their crappy elf and sliver decks on the MWS network.
But really, the format isn’t very popular, and I’d be surprised if more than 300 people [in the world!] took it seriously, so we’re dealing with a pretty small and passionate crowd that just enjoys the card pool, the open-ended nature of the format, or whatever it is that attracts them to the format. Legacy is a deck designer’s wet dream, after all, and there’s a ton of open space to devise some very cool and innovative things.
Answering your question directly, I think most people build, test and tweak new decks, play the format flagships (Goblins, etc.), play randoms and their friends on MWS or Apprentice and get involved in online discussion forums. It’s a small crowd and most of the people are friendly, more or less.
To set the record straight, Alan Comer came up with the idea of a hyper-efficient Blue-based beatdown deck with loads of countermagic, cantrips and an anaemic land count. It’s an elegant and brilliant idea. The early Comer builds literally ran ten lands. TurboXerox begat U/G Miracle Gro, which Ben Rubin evolved with a white splash for Swords to Plowshares, Meddling Mage and Mystic Enforcer (i.e., Super Gro) to better position the U/G deck against aggro and combo, at least according to this article. In any case, the early Legacy development of Super Gro, for most people, probably started as an import from Extended that got a huge power boost from the Onslaught fetchlands. I, however, came at the deck from the other direction: Vintage.
Back when Legacy was “Type 1.5” and the Vintage list hadn’t been separated, I was playing a Vintage version of Super Gro that Lam Phan and Maxim Barkman were making popular in that format.
Looking at my old deck archives, this is what I was playing in May of 2004, four months before Legacy became what it is now:
Sweet Jesus, that thing is awful! Six fetchlands, Regrowth, two Dazes? What the hell is a Masticore doing in the sideboard? Fish, I guess. Anyway, all of the Power in the deck was Sharpie’d Plains, so when WotC announced the Vintage/Legacy Banned List split on Sept 1, 2004, I already had a deck built. Losing Gush pains me to this day.
In any case, I certainly didn’t “create” Threshold, I’ve just been its most vocal and verbose advocate, since it beats best what I like the least: filthy combo decks. Others deserving credit for the deck’s development include Ian MacInnes, Helmut Summersberger, the Hatfield brothers (Jesse and Alix) and others. It’s been a shared undertaking, even if we all don’t agree on everything (Mental Note vs. Predict, main deck Meddling Mage, etc.)
Also for the record, it was MattH who came up with name “Threshold.” Well, technically, he came up with the name “Three-color Threshold,” or something like that, to distinguish it from the U/G Threshold decks in Extended that ran Wonder and Krosan Reclamation. Realizing that the “Gro” moniker no longer applied without Dryad and not caring for “NQG,” since I don’t like things being named after the things that they’re not, I eventually dropped the “Three-color” part and started calling the deck “Threshold” or “White-Splash Threshold.” If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like nonsensical deck names, I guess you can thank me for that one.
Post-Future Sight, here’s my proposed list:
By Dan SperoMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Serum Visions|
4 Mental Note
4 Force of Will
4 Swords to Plowshares
2 Pithing Needle
1 Engineered Explosives
4 Nimble Mongoose
4 Meddling Mage
1 Mystic Enforcer
|4 Flooded Strand|
2 Polluted Delta
2 Windswept Heath
3 Tropical Island
1 Breeding Pool
3 Absolute Law
2 Loaming Shaman
2 Krosan Grip
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Mystic Enforcer
I haven’t gone through the Future Sight Spoiler completely, but Tarmogoyf is seriously awesome. He replaces Werebear and Werebear’s crappy flavor text. As I’ll get to in a moment, graveyard hate aimed at Threshold is obnoxious and the ‘goyf has built-in resistance to it, since he looks for card types in your opponent’s graveyard too. He’s also nutty with Mental Note. The lone Breeding Pool is anti-Extirpate technology from Brandon LePage.
Nimble Mongoose can stay. Have you ever seen Rikki-Tikki-Tavi? The mongoose is a freaking killing machine. Pure and simple.
The most common hate to encounter with Threshold is Chalice of the Void and Tormod’s Crypt. Trinisphere and Haunting Echoes are crushing, though they see a lot less play, thankfully. “Chalice of the Void for One” is brutal since it attacks the heart of the deck: its removal, creatures and its reason for running so few lands in the first place: its cantrips. With more than half of the spells in my current list costing one mana, well, I don’t need to draw you a map.
Tormod’s Crypt is another obnoxious form of hate since any deck can splash it, it costs nothing and it steals the efficiency of the deck’s creatures, where Threshold derives its power and its name. 3/3s for one mana and 4/4s for two are a great deal, but 1/1s for the same cost are pretty much crap.
As for how you navigate the hate, Engineered Explosives, set to zero, is remarkably effective at blowing up any number of Chalices (except a Chalice set to zero, of course). Krosan Grip, post-board, along with Threshold’s ample countermagic, are also a solution to that thorny problem. Against any deck that runs Chalice, Threshold very much wants to be on the play, so it can be ready to Daze ‘Chalice for One’ as soon as it hits the stack.
There are few ways to work around Tormod’s Crypt, with the easiest being to stockpile a Mental Note and uncracked fetchlands. Another popular option is to proactively drop a Pithing Needle on the thing. Stifle is another means of countering the Crypt trigger, but as Stifle is reactive and more expensive than Crypt, that’s not a terribly satisfying solution, but it works.
See the sideboard discussion under the “Three-Deuce” section in
my last SCG article to see why I prefer Loaming Shaman over Jotun Grunt in my Threshold sideboard. But, since you asked...
Bang-for-the-buck-wise, Jotun Grunt is stellar. A 4/4 for two mana is obviously a fantastic deal, like Werebear. Grunt’s upkeep is also extremely disruptive to a number of decks that treasure their graveyard as a strategic resource. Decks that fall into this category are Threshold, Psychatog, Ichorid and most Life from the Loam-powered decks. I guess there are other fringe recursive decks like Reanimator. But generally, for the graveyard-loving decks, Grunt can be a huge pain in the butt.
When it comes to graveyard disruption Jotun Grunt has one nasty downside: he takes time to get up and running. Compare him with Loaming Shaman, the Horse-Man with the Shovel. For an additional mana, you get an immediate Tormod’s Crypt with legs. In the mirror, Shaman will instantly steal your opponent’s graveyard and reduce their creatures to crap. He’ll even be left behind to outclass any Mongoose or Wearbear or go on to trade with an opposing Enforcer. And once your opponent shovels your opponent’s graveyard away, his shovel can then be used to bash on your opponent for three damage a turn.
That’s mainly what it comes down to: both are aggressively cost for what they do, but Shaman works immediately while Grunts needs a few turns for his disruption to be relevant.
Threshold has no doubt helped keep combo down (the High Tide decks, and storm-based combo in general).
What Thresh does is put combo on defence and few decks can deal with big and cheap monsters bashing on them while their tutors are countered and Meddling Mage is chanting against their trump or a key combo piece.
Threshold is good against combo for a whole host of reasons, but powerfully exposes how unprepared most Legacy combo players are with their decks. Threshold is certainly much easier to play on auto-pilot and follow scripted plays. Much less so for combo.
In short, I'd like to play against High Tide all day long. [He is being modest. Trust me.]
They’ll win it, that’s what. The last two Legacy Grand Prix have been won by professional Magic players (Jon Sonne and Helmut Summersberger, chronologically) and I don’t see that changing for Columbus. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong. But as Legacy attracts a lot of casual players, it also attracts casual play skill and if the Legacy tournament crowd at Columbus is much like the players I’ve seen at Legacy events, the pros are going to walk all over us. Again, maybe I’m wrong, as there are some very talented Legacy players, just not many.
These “players currently occupying Top 8 slots” account for what, 25-30 people, if that? Supposing there are 600 players at GP: Columbus, and I’m just throwing a number out there, they will still make up a relatively small portion of the overall pool. Of course, they’ll do better than some scrub with his Clerics deck. Fortunately, the SCG events and various local tournaments have given format regulars a chance to cut their teeth in tense tournament settings, so they’ll be more prepared than the random amateur who most likely won’t have done adequate testing with the right opponents, so who knows. This said, it’d be great to see someone like Chris Coppola or Adam Barnello win the whole thing or make Top 8; but as a gambling man, I’d still need some serious odds on that front, just given the size of the thing, the mental strain of getting through more than a dozen rounds and the presence of the pros.
It’s certainly true that it’s very easy to make bad Legacy decks. Pretty much, nothing could be easier. One need only check out the Development forum at TheManaDrain and The Source to see this phenomenon. But I agree with you in the sense that it’s also easy to see what’s working in Extended and make an easy import into Legacy by adjusting for the right dual lands and superior card equivalents (Condemn into Swords to Plowshares, etc.). I think a well-tuned and developed Aggro-Loam deck, like TerraGeddon, could be an important force in the format. Those ideas are out there, it just takes the right people to run with them and enough events to prove that some ideas are worth investing the time and energy.
And yeah, dealing with something like 10,000 cards is a daunting experience, but I’d estimate that 80% of those cards are garbage for Legacy purposes: Limited chaff or functionally inferior to a lot of the Legacy staples. Maybe 5-10% of decks are clearly good and playable, this is still five hundred to a thousand or so cards.
The hard part about Legacy deck-building is that remaining margin, where you can find very cool interactions like Task Force, Shaman En-Kor and Starlit Sanctum. But the more players you have, the more ideas are going to get out there and one day someone finds a way to break Ill-Gotten Gains in a degenerate manner. To some that’s “daunting,” to others—the Johnnies in the worlds—these are “fun challenges.”
Personally, I’ve always been a pure Spike at heart and am just looking for the low-hanging fruit. Cards that are unfairly cost for what they do are mainly what I’m looking for in spoilers.
Even before you start developing a list and getting your cards together, it’s important to know what your new deck’s strategy is going to be. Next determine how it can reliably replicate this strategy over the course of many games. Threshold achieves its consistency with its cheap, plentiful and synergistic card drawing; High Tide/Solidarity does the same. Goblins achieves its consistency with its off the chart threat density and support cards that double as threats, like Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader. IGGy Pop (the Ill-Gotten Gains-based Intuition/Tendrils combo deck) achieves consistency with its litany of tutors, etc.
For new decks, start by running lots of 4-ofs, avoid toolbox plans and make sure the manabase is highly tuned. Getting the mana correct is probably the most important thing for any new deck but it’s
also one of the hardest and most subtle aspects of deck construction. But if you can’t play your cards when you need them, the consistency of the deck’s execution, as I call it, is going to suffer, regardless of your plan.
Next up is testing the hell out of your new deck and being open to new ideas. From an early point in my development of Threshold I had dismissed Mental Note as being sub par and an overall weak and pointless card. Then I saw the Pat McGregor’s Top 8 U/G/r list from GP: Philadelphia and that piqued my interest in the card; but not enough that I went out and paid a whole $0.50 for a set. It was only after GP: Lille and the number of Mental Notes in the finalist decks, out of a 937 freaking players, that convinced me there might be something to the card that I was missing and had once written off.
About two weeks later I played in a small Legacy tournament in Portland and went undefeated with my new deck, running four Mental Notes (replacing Accumulated Knowledge), and was impressed with how easily and effortlessly it allowed Threshold to become the aggressor and recover from hate.
I didn’t mean for this section to be some weird-ass propaganda piece for Mental Note. My point is that people need to have an open mind and be willing to experiment with cards that they may otherwise disregard as junk, but will in fact patch a whole in the design of a deck you don’t want to think about or strengthen particular matches that you wouldn’t consider outside of deck design in a vacuum.
Basically, it all comes down to rigorous testing, openness to criticism and being honest with yourself when you have a pile of crap on your hands.
The silver lining is that those dual lands and other expensive Legacy staples (e.g. Force of Will) are a financial investment. Buying a set of Tundras isn’t like going out and eating an expensive meal or anything else that is completely consumed when you pay for it. If you get bored with Legacy or are
strapped for cash you can very easily turn them around for profit if you wait some time or cash them in for Extended or Standard staples if you want to switch formats.
With high demand and low supply, it’s definitely a seller’s market when it comes to Revised duals, Force of Will, etc. So, while it’s true that you need these cards to competitively play the format, barring mono-colored decks, they’re not going to depreciate anytime soon.
An unfortunate and lamentable side effect of this situation, the supply problem, is largely why Legacy will never be a popular format, like Extended, where old and expensive cards rotate out periodically. In Legacy, there aren’t enough format staples in circulation to support a Pro Tour, for instance, unless drastic revisions are made to the Reserved List.
Heck, you’d be lucky to see me on Saturday at GP: Columbus. I have vacation plans with my family in San Francisco the Monday after the GP, so logistically the timing is awkward, at best, but I’d say my chances of making it to Saturday are somewhere in the vicinity of 50-50. As for Sunday, I have absolutely no idea and won’t even venture a guess there.
Dan Spero can be found making combo unplayable in Legacy as "bardo" on this and many forums and as "bardo trout" on starcitygames.com. And if you wander over there and want more about Legacy for the upcoming Grand Prix, be sure to check out his series with several other writers called "Unlocking Legacy".