Legacy by the Books: An Overview of the Format

Written by Carlos Gutierrez on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Legacy

Last time, I tried outlining what the top-tier metagame looks like and how different strategies interact with one another and the format.  One idea that helps when discussing formats more generally is the concept of archetypical pillars.  As far as I know, this formulation comes from Vintage where there are a handful of cards that have been defining decks for years.  So what are some examples?  Well, let’s talk about the pillars of this standard format to get an idea since more people are familiar with that format.  If I had to try to define standard in general, I’d say that there are Delver decks, Primeval Titan decks, Birthing Pod decks, and Green Sun’s Zenith decks.

This idea isn’t quite as helpful in Legacy because of how diverse the format is. There are a handful of tier one strategies, but there are a billion tier two strategies that you have to be prepared for.  That said, archetypes are still helpful when trying to discuss the format.  So what are the pillars of the Legacy format as I see it?  I think there are five right now:

As far as I can tell, until there are any big shifts in the metagame, this is how Legacy works right now.  Pick the pillar that you’re running in the diagram above. An arrow drawn towards a card means that you have a favorable matchup and an arrow drawn towards your pillar means that you have a bad matchup.  What does all of this mean for someone who’s unfamiliar with the format and trying to pick a deck for a legacy event?  Just like any format, you decide what you think the metagame is going to be and choose the best deck against the field. That part’s obvious.

The issue is that in Legacy, it’s not that simple.  The card pool is so huge that there are high impact cards that can swing just about any matchup.  For example, the Jace decks have traditionally had a bad matchup against Maverick. But they can run some number of Zealous Persecution and Perish to swing that matchup in their favor.  Everyone is looking for an edge in their bad matchups while trying to stay ahead of everyone else’s new technology.

With that in mind, let’s talk briefly about each archetype, their strengths and weaknesses, and their role in the metagame sorted roughly by popularity.

Delver Decks

Delver decks are mostly RUG and UR these days. However, some European Esper-ists have been adopting Delver to help improve their combo matchup.  These decks pack the most efficient creatures, burn, and countermagic. They are very similar to the UW Delver deck in Standard.  Once you get ahead on board, you can just tempo most people out of the game.  Much like standard, these decks are way, way better on the play than they are on the draw.  Even your worst match-ups are probably between 40:60 and 50:50 when you’re on the play, while your favorable matchups are almost hard to lose.

The problem is that Delver is notably worse on the draw. This is especially true when you’re playing too many cards like Daze, Stifle, and Spell Pierce that are much worse when you can’t stick a threat first.  Because of this, you need swingy cards like Submerge out of the sideboard to get ahead on tempo when you start on the draw.

Delver generally crushes slower decks–especially those that don’t have a proactive plan to keep themselves from falling too far behind.  The combination of a fast clock and cheap disruption gives you a great game against non-interactive decks that can’t interact favorably with your threats. Some good examples are Tendrils and Show and Tell decks. You can also just race most of the fair decks in the format.

If you’re comfortable with aggressive or tempo decks, then this is a great place to start.  You have very few match-ups that are legitimately unwinnable–probably just Punishing Maverick.  Delver packs such a plethora of cheap countermagic that people have to play around. You can always get someone if you play a combination of different, cheap counterspells instead of committing to one or two.

Jace Decks

These are the control decks of the format. They come in a ton of different flavors.  The biggest distinction right now is whether or not you’re running Stoneforge Mystic and Lingering Souls or not.  You could also be playing Pernicious Deed and Liliana of the Veil, or Energy Field and Vedalken Shackles [ed: which don’t run Jace usually, but are blue-based control]. There are tons of ways to build blue-based control decks depending on what you expect to see.

These are probably the most flexible decks in the format.  Depending on how you want to build and play the deck, you can get your matchup to about 60:40 against any two decks of your choice. But expect to be unfavored in the rest of your matchups.  The problem is that there just aren’t enough sideboard slots to fix all of your matchups after sideboarding. You have to give up on your matchup against some of the format.  If you could have a twenty card sideboard, I’m pretty sure that this would be the best archetype.

A stock list is pretty heavily favored against Delver lists because Lingering Souls plus efficient removal buy you enough time to set up and play around Daze and [/card]Spell Pierce[/card].  The problem is that against combo you have disruption but can’t back it up with pressure, so they can fight through most of your disruption.  Your worst matchups are the slow, blue combo decks with Force of Will. They can sit and sculpt a hand through your hand disruption and then trump your countermagic with theirs.

Against the miscellaneous tier two strategies, you’re pretty heavily favored.  Every card in your deck is generally very, very powerful. as long as you can figure out what interactions are important and have a plan going into any given match-up, it’s not unwinnable.

Knight of the Reliquary Decks

In previous formats, this could have referred to Junk or Bant decks. Right now, this pillar is almost exclusively Maverick with or without Punishing Fire.  Maverick is an interesting kind of deck.  It has all of the tools to crush the “fair” blue decks. It also has a very strong, proactive plan against the rest of the fair decks in the format.  When your plan is to proactively jam disruptive threats and to force people to interact, you’re going to do well against the decks that want to interact with you.

That leads into the real strength of the deck; its ability to find all kinds of singletons that are unbeatable for the different interactive decks.  Knight of the Reliquary finds Karakas and Tower of the Magistrate, Green Sun’s Zenith finds your Gaddock Teeg and Scavenging Ooze and you can even run Enlightened Tutor to find Choke and Story Circle.  This gives you a ton of flexibility when your main deck has a ton of powerful, proactive cards and tutors and your sideboard can be filled with powerful singletons.  This is the kind of flexibility that GW decks in other formats can only dream of, and is the reason that Maverick is strong as an anti-metagame deck.

The biggest problem that this deck has is that it can basically never beat combo of any flavor.  That seems strange for a deck full of efficient hate bears and giant threats, but when it comes down to it, combo decks have been fighting through hate bears for years.  Even if Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is more efficient than the hate bears we’ve seen in the past, she’s still just a hate bear.

Lion’s Eye Diamond Decks

These are the fast combo decks of the format; mostly Dredge and Storm.  It could just be my limited experience with the format, but I think that these are probably the best kinds of decks to play for someone who’s experienced with them and with the cards they have to play around.  There are a ton of fair decks in the format that just can’t interact favorably with you before sideboarding.  Even then, there’s a fair percentage of players who decide to try to dodge that match-up and can’t interact even after sideboarding.

I believe there are a few things that limit the number of combo decks we see doing well in this format.  The first is that these decks are incredibly difficult to play.  You can spend years learning the ins and outs and permutations of storm combo and some players do just that.  You can be smashing someone with Dredge and miss one trigger or dredge when you were supposed to draw. That could be all it takes for them to pull the win out from under you.

The issue is that the “name” players who are more experienced and familiar with the format generally want to play interactive decks.  They want both players to make as many decisions as possible so that they have opportunities to leverage their experience and allow you to make mistakes.

As a consequence of this, one of my first impressions of the format was that newer players would want to play these non-interactive decks just because it limits the opportunities that people have to outplay you.  As long as you can play your deck competently, you should be fine, right?

Well, as it turns out, that’s a much bigger deal than it seems.  These are not combo decks a la Splinter Twin where you assemble the pieces and as much disruption as possible and jam the pieces the turn before you lose.  These combo decks are much more dynamic. It’s much harder to tell when you have it or which counterspells you can afford to play around.  Games are won and lost in margins that newer players like me didn’t even know existed.

Just imagine a player who’s only ever gold-fished Storm trying to play a game against a good RUG player.  You have to play around Force of Will, Daze, Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, Red blasts and Blue blasts. Meanwhile, they have cantrips to find even more countermagic and fast threats to force you to try to combo off into their counterspells.  The worst part?  Your gameplan is going to revolve around resolving an Ad Nauseam, Infernal Tutor, or Ill-Gotten Gains. Your is going to know exactly which spells they have to fight over to make sure you fizzle.

So the real issue is that these decks have an incredibly steep learning curve to start off with. Couple this with diminishing returns for players who are more familiar with the format. These decks provide fewer opportunities to leverage that experience and give people opportunities to throw away games.

Show and Tell Decks

These are the decks that I think are the best for new Legacy players.  Not only do they have good match-ups against a significant portion of the field, but they’re reasonably straightforward to play. You only care about very specific kinds of cards: counterspells and discard.

Generally speaking, these decks are very formulaic.  You cast cantrips to find Show and Tell, pop in something that wins the game and then proceed to win the game.  Sure, you need to learn the appropriate ways to manipulate the stack with Hive Mind in play. You need to learn the sequences in which you can tutor for cards with Conflux to protect you from whichever cards you’re afraid of. You even need to know when you have to go for it to race a Batterskull with Progenitus.  None of these things are difficult to pick up on though. The mechanics of this kind of combo deck are much more straightforward than something like Storm.

Your nut draws are just as fast as the fast combo decks, but you’re better at forcing through your combo as a game goes longer and longer. This is especially true because you can use Show and Tell to bait early counterspells and discard and then just hard cast your combo pieces later on.

This deck is mostly going to have trouble with decks that can present disruption and then kill you before you can cantrip back into the pieces you’re missing.  Delver decks are going to be a pretty rough matchup, as will the fast combo decks that can rip your hand apart and then combo off faster than you can.

Honestly, I think that the biggest draw to playing decks like this is that you’ll get free wins against people who don’t know which cards are important or how your combo works.  You have the tools to beat up on unfair decks that go for it a little too aggressively, while still doing something inherently unfair yourself.  If you can learn to play one of these decks competently, this is probably the best deck that a newer player can run. You still get some number of free wins, have a very good matchup against some of the most popular decks in the format and they have a relatively shallow learning curve compared to the more interactive decks of the format.

The Tier Two Metagame

So you’re familiar with the top tier decks.  You’ve picked a deck and jammed some games against a deck or two from each archetypical pillar.  That means you know most of what the format has to throw at you right?  Well, not really.  For the longest time, Legacy had been a tier two metagame.  That is to say, there are a larger number of cards at a comparable power level than a format like Standard. Standard has four or five cards that really define the format because they are far and away the most powerful things you can be doing.

In Legacy, there are more angles to attack from because there are more cards at a comparable power level. You have to be familiar with a lot more than just the five best strategies. I wanted to take a little time to talk about some of the more popular tier two strategies I’ve run across since starting the format, sorted more or less by popularity again.

Affinity

This deck is a really popular tier two deck right now, at least around me.  I assume that this is largely because of a combination of people already having Mox Opal for Standard and already having most of Affinity because of Modern.

This deck is pretty explosive and its nut draws are pretty difficult to beat.  That said, most of its hands are pretty unexciting. Even if they vomit their hand onto the table, it’s just a bunch of 1/1s, 0/2s and mana.

That said, there are builds with Stoneforge Mystic as additional copies of Cranial Plating, or Glimpse of Nature as extra copies of Thoughtcast to restock your hand. These both make the deck much more consistent and much more terrifying.

Burn

This is something I’ve been seeing a lot more of on SCG coverage and at local events since the deck started doing well a few months ago.  I think, in general, the deck is bad now. People have learned to dedicate some number of sideboard slots to it and have learned how little life they actually have.

For the longest time, people were playing like their opponent only ever had a Lightning Bolt. That is almost never the case.  I’ve found that you always want to play like the top of their deck is Fireblast or Price of Progress–whichever is worse for you.  At the beginning of the game, it’s pretty safe to assume that each card in their hand is worth a little less than three damage, not counting lands.  After turn two or three though, each card is probably worth closer to four or five damage since they’re going to be holding Price of Progress and Fireblast to get you when you think you’ve stabilized.

Rock

Generally, there are two builds of this that I’ve seen.  One is built around Life from the Loam, Liliana of the Veil, and Smallpox and is very good at Wastelanding the control decks of the format out of the game.  The problem with this kind of deck is that you’re very bad against aggro unless you have an early The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, which is a problem unto itself considering the price tag attached.

The second deck is the Veteran Explorer decks with Cabal Therapy,Pernicious Deed and an awesome top end of Grave Titan or Primeval Titan plus Scapeshift.  Those builds are starting to pick up some amount of steam in Europe because you get to be an attrition-based control deck with an unfair top end of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle.  When the poles of the format are as extreme as they are now, you have to be able to be flexible. Sometimes you need to just kill someone with Scapeshift.

Elves!

This is a combo deck that has fallen out of favor recently because it has a difficult time against a number of the top tier strategies.  You can’t really disrupt the other unfair combo decks that are just as fast as you are and you will lose random games to Chain Lightning and Swords to Plowshares out of fair decks.

That said, this deck can be very explosive. Many of your cards have similar roles. You can be difficult to disrupt.  There are fewer Engineered Plagues around now because Goblins isn’t nearly as good as it once was. That’s one less card going around that blanks your deck.

Generally, Elves isn’t super popular. There are a few people who play elves in every format, every time it’s remotely close to playable, though. It’s worth being aware that this is a deck and knowing which creatures to kill over all others.  Elvish Archdruid and Priest of Titania are obvious targets, as are Heritage Druid and Birchlore Ranger.  What may not be so obvious is the Wirewood Symbiotes. It acts as a pseudo Glimpse of Nature as soon as the Elves player finds an Elvish Visionary.

Imperial Painter

I’m actually surprised that this deck hasn’t seen much of a comeback yet.  The format is basically being dominated by blue decks, which this deck crushes because of maindeck Red Blasts.  Maverick is going to be a problematic matchup because of Qasali Pridemage and your reliance on Painter’s Servant and Grindstone.

I think that this deck’s viability is largely dependent on its matchup with RUG Delver, which seems okay if not awesome.  Generally, they’re only going to have Lightning Bolts as cards that you can’t really play around. Even then, you can have access to some amount of countermagic of your own, right?  I mean, I guess it’s bad to play a combo that’s soft to hand disruption, counterspells, and spot removal. When you have Goblin Welder as backup and get to play six to eight copies of the best sideboard cards in the format, you have to be able to fight through some of that.

The biggest issue for this deck is the rising price tag of Imperial Recruiter–the guy who really ties the deck together.  At $300ish a piece and rising, Imperial Recruiter is the thing that severely limits the popularity of both this deck and Aluren.

Enchantress

Last but not least, there’s a deck that I think is severely underplayed relative to how strong it is in the format.  There’s always at least one Enchantress player in the room and they seem to do reasonably well.  The format has shifted away from Pernicious Deed, very few people are packing Seal of Cleansing and Primordium and people are even moving away from Qasali Pridemage.

How exactly does a Delver deck beat an Elephant Grass early on? Especially when you can back it up with a quick Solitary Confinement.  I think this deck is incredibly well positioned right now against most of the field. You just need to make sure you have more ways to deal with Emrakul once he hits play.

Generally, there are two ways to build Enchantress.  All versions are base green-white and the difference involves your splash color.  You can either splash blue for cantrips, Cloud of Faeries and Words of Wind to bounce their board and win by attacking with Faeries or you can splash red for Words of War and lean more heavily on your other enchantments to lock them out of the game.

That should be a pretty comprehensive overview of what decks are out there and how they fit into the metagame.  What I’m hoping to do over the next two weeks is to talk about the cards that you have to learn to play around in Legacy–much like Titans, Mana Leak and Day of Judgment in Standard. I plan also to report on my first Legacy event which I’m hoping to head out to in the next two weeks!

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