Legacy by the Books: Defining the Format (Pt. 2)

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

Last week we spent some time talking about the archetype-defining cards of the format.  This approach is helpful when you’re talking more generally about how decks interact.  It’s easier to think about your plan against an archetype than against each individual card in a given deck.  Some sub-archetypes deserve their own considerations, but generally speaking you’re going to board and play very similarly against each Jace deck, each Show and Tell deck, and so on.

This approach tells you a lot about what the important cards and interactions are in a given matchup.  Using these pillars as a way to understand how to play and play against entire archetypes rather than a specific sixty cards is hugely helpful to people just getting into the format.  What it doesn’t do is tell you how games actually play out, what the pace and play of the matchup is like and what kind of hands you can keep or cards you need to board in.

This week I want to talk about the cards and interactions that are really the underpinnings of the format; the interactions that define the format, rather than any given metagame in time.  First though, let’s understand the subtle differences between the two.  I’d like to think that this exchange pretty nicely sums up the difference between these two schools.  Admittedly though, that’s mostly because I want to think that I’m learning enough to be able to discuss the format in a meaningful way with people who are passionate about Legacy.

First, I want to say that Todd did an insane job of outlining the current state of the format, and you should definitely check it out (The Four Horsemen of Legacy).  Right now, Jace is very easily the weakest archetype by a pretty big margin.  There are just too many strong, proactive strategies that attack along too many different axes for a Jace deck to be able to contain all of them. It’s perfectly reasonable to just ignore Jace as a pillar of the format for the time being.

Drew managed to clearly and concisely describe the interactions that define the format on a fundamental level, which is also hugely impressive.  The issue is that Drew and Todd are talking about different things.  Drew is focusing on the cards which enable or require decks to function in a certain way, while Todd is focusing on the powerful things that you can do within those constraints.

Let’s try to use some analogous examples from Standard just to make sure this is clear.  Mana Leak is a card that defines the format, but not a particular deck.  You have to know how to play with, against and around Mana Leak in order to be successful in Standard. However, you can’t build a “Mana Leak deck.”  The card is one of the most powerful tools in the format, but not an archetype-defining card.

Conversely, Birthing Pod is a card that absolutely defines the decks that it’s in, but I don’t know that anyone would say that Birthing Pod defines Standard in any way.  Lastly, there are cards like Primeval Titan that define both formats and decks.  Many of the decks that Primeval Titan is in become Primeval Titan decks. There are also other decks that just play Primeval Titan because it’s one of the constraints on the top end of the format – you can’t go much bigger than Primeval Titan.

So with that out of the way, what are some of the cards and interactions that define Legacy as a format?  These are the cards and effects that you need to play around. These are the interactions that you need to be familiar with so that you don’t get blown out by your lack of knowledge of the format.  I’ve made just about every mistake possible, I think, so here’s hoping you won’t make the same ones!

As with anything, all of these define the format to a different degree.  Some are the basis upon which the format is built, like Wasteland and fetchlands.  Some are just cards that incidentally invalidate entire decks, like Stoneforge Mystic/Batterskull.  Some are the cards that define how quickly and on what axes you have to be able to interact, like Griselbrand and Lion’s Eye Diamond.  Understanding how all of these pieces operate and fit together is the first step towards being able to metagame and play the format proficiently.

Fetch Lands, Dual Lands and Cantrips

This is a huge part of what defines Eternal formats.  The Fetchlands/Cantrip engine lets you cheat just about every possible way: colors, land count, copies of situational cards.  What lands you fetch, basic or non-basic, when you do it with respect to your cantrips; these are the margins in which so many games are won and lost. The importance of learning the ins and outs of how lands interact with cantrips cannot be understated.

Even with just fetch lands and dual lands, you can build a solidly three- or sometimes four-color deck that still has some resiliency to Wasteland.  That’s how absurdly powerful these cards are together.

But then there’s all the additional upside to be gained with cantrips and other library manipulation.  Entire articles have been written on how to Brainstorm correctly.  I think, in general, you’re better off holding on to your cantrips until you either need a specific card or to put together a plan for the next few turns.  In general, the games I know I played correctly are the ones that I win with a Brainstorm still in my hand.

Even so, there are tangible downsides to this kind of mana base.  As huge as the edges are that you can gain if you’re paying attention, you can easily lose games because you didn’t fetch at the right time.  The easiest example is with something like Stoneforge Mystic.  Let’s say that you untap with Stoneforge Mystic and two lands in play while your opponent is tapped out.  You Brainstorm, play a fetch land, and pass back.  Your opponent does something irrelevant, and on their end step you crack your fetch land so you can Forge a Batterskull.  They respond by Bolting your Stoneforge Mystic.  Oops?

You have to be careful, and recognize when it might matter that your fetch isn’t an actual land.  Your opponent gets to do things between when you crack your fetch land and when you actually have mana to show for it.

Removal Spells

In general, the difference between removal in Legacy as compared to other formats is that all of the removal in Legacy is good.  You don’t have to choose between Doom Blade to get Inkmoth Nexus and Go for the Throat to get Zombies. You just get to play Swords to Plowshares.

The thing is, you don’t get to not play around removal just because it can be represented by any color and amount of mana.  You still have to know what kind of removal other decks are going to have so that you can play around the appropriate spells.

Swords to Plowshares/Path to Exile

Lightning Bolt

Forked Bolt


Chain Lightning


Pernicious Deed

Engineered Explosives

Snuff Out

Ghastly Demise

These are sorted more or less by how likely I am to try to play around them in any particular game.  The first thing you need to be aware of is which ones matter to you.  For example, Forked Bolt matters a lot if you’re playing Noble Hierarch or Tarmogoyf mirrors, but  is completely irrelevant if you’re  on a Griselbrand plan instead.

Probably the most important card to play around right now is Submerge, given the popularity of RUG and the role of Submerge as a gamebreaking card in RUG mirrors and the deck’s bad matchups.  Be careful about fetching up Forests before you need to use them.  Be careful about cracking fetchlands if you can’t counterspell their Submerge or afford to shuffle away your guy.  Don’t be so eager to Green Sun’s Zenith for Dryad Arbor on turn one and get destroyed.

In the coming weeks, I expect to see more of some of the less played cards here, like Engineered Explosives.  The format has shifted to cheap, efficient threats that have some kind of resiliency to colored removal spells, like Nimble Mongoose and Mother of Runes.


This is probably the most important piece of the format at this particular juncture.  Unfortunately, the amount of diversity in countermagic suites in Delver decks is huge, so it’s almost impossible to know which counterspells you’re supposed to play around at any particular time.

The worst part is that playing around one plays straight into the other.  Holding back your Tarmogoyf plays around Daze, but makes Spell Snare even better against you when they get you with it, since you gave them a free turn attached to their counterspell.



Spell Snare

Spell Pierce

Force of Will


Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblast

The easiest thing to comment on here is Counterspell, since it’s the one counterspell that’s probably most analogous to something Standard players are familiar with.  The rest of the countermagic is much harder to play around. It costs much less to represent and there’s a larger payoff when you get them with it.  Counterspell, though is a lot like Mana Leak in Standard.  It’s not too difficult to tell when they have it. There’s also a real cost to holding up Counterspell every turn.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t really figured out an effective way to play against all of the different countermagic in the format.  As best as I can tell, the easiest thing to do is to pay attention and sculpt a plan.  What spells can you afford to have countered?  Can you run them out first to see if they either get countered or send your opponent into the tank?  Does waiting to play around Spell Pierce/Daze lose you the game?

Honestly, the approach that’s given me the most success playing against most counterspells in this format is treating it like playing against Mana Leak out of UW Delver.  You need to decide early on whether you’re playing around it or into it and then commit to that plan as best you can to minimize how game-breaking that Spell Pierce is when they do cast it.

Interactive Advantages

To be honest, I’m not sure what to call these. They are mostly a mishmash of cards that didn’t fit into other places, but I think they make sense together.  These cards fundamentally change how any future interactions with your opponent are going to go. Generally, any exchange that involves one of these is going to be favorable for you.

The easiest example is WastelandWasteland is a card that defines the color commitments and mana curve of every deck in the format.  Everyone knows to use Wasteland to try to cut people off of colors, key quantities of mana or utility lands.  There’s more that you can do, though, if you’re looking for opportunities.  You can Wasteland someone off of their one blue land, move to a new phase and then cast your spell that you can’t afford to have Dazed.  You can force them to crack their fetch land to give you an opening to Submerge or cast some spell you don’t want Spell Pierced.  Just threatening Wasteland activations can force people to play differently and give you an edge.

The point is that the existence of these cards in your deck forces people to play differently whether they’re in play or you’re representing them.  Most of these have a certain amount of passive effect on the board or threat of activation that make the game more favorable for you as time goes on.  Here’s what I have:


Mother of Runes

Knight of the Reliquary

Umezawa’s Jitte



Qasali Pridemage

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben

There’s a lot to take in here, but I think the important thing to recognize is that this is almost just a list of cards in the Maverick deck.  The purpose of effects like these is to give you as many options as possible on any given turn while cutting off choices from your opponent.  If you can restrict their options and be prepared for the lines you’re going to force them into, you’re going to be pretty hard pressed to lose.

The issue with trying to definitively outline these kinds of effects is that the ones that are most powerful shift with the metagame.  For instance, right now Thalia is absolutely insane. She was much worse when the metagame was more focused on Stoneforge Mystic and other Maverick decks.

Similarly, cards like Umezawa’s Jitte are kind of insane right now because they give you an edge against Maverick and Delver of Secrets–which seems to be part of why Batterskull has fallen out of favor.  There aren’t as many decks as there used to be that can’t interact favorably with a Batterskull. The equipment that wins combat forever once you connect once is preferable.

Which cards get used as part of this category are probably the ones which shift the most frequently, since you have to predict what interactions you’re expecting to see in order to find a way to push it in your favor.

Hand Disruption

In my experiences with competitive play, I feel like the strength of cheap discard effects is one of the defining aspects of a format.  That seems to be less true for Legacy at this particular point than it has been in the past.  The format appears cyclical that way.  Discard isn’t so great against a deck like RUG.  If you Inquisition them on the draw, you can take a counterspell of some kind, I guess. You’d be better off doing something proactive that kills them if it resolves rather than disrupting them.

That said, as the format shifts towards slow or fragile combo decks, I think that discard becomes increasingly powerful.  It gets to a point where you can’t keep hands that rely too heavily on any one piece unless you have something like Brainstorm to protect yourself.


Inquisition of Kozilek

Cabal Therapy

Vendilion Clique


Hymn to Tourach

I think the most important thing to recognize is which decks are going to run which disruption spells.  The faster a deck is, or the more it cares about Force of Will, the more likely it is to run Thoughtseize over Inquisition.  Otherwise, look at the use of Inquisition compared to Thoughtseize in Modern.  As formats become more compact, Inquisition hits all of the same cards as Thoughtseize, but without the life loss.  Similarly, as formats become more aggressive, the life loss starts to matter more and you can’t afford to run Thoughtseize.

The card that I think is most relevant in this format is Vendilion Clique because it’s the only instant-speed disruption spell.  As the metagame moves towards Show and Tell and Sneak Attack decks, the ability to take cards out of their hand at instant speed becomes increasingly important.  This card gets worse as the metagame shifts towards decks that are mostly redundant copies of the same cards, like RUG delver.   By the same token, it gets better as match ups start to revolve around particular cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Show and Tell.

In Conclusion

Legacy is a hugely broad and diverse format and it’s impossible to try to discuss the entirety of the format or to describe all of the important interactions.  When it comes down to it, you really just have to get familiar enough to start playing. Preferably with people who know the format better than you.

I found it incredibly helpful to play games with hands face up so you can get an idea of what cards people are representing, what hands can afford to play around certain kinds of countermagic and what threats can be countered as opposed to Lightning Bolted or some such.

For a format like Standard, you can learn a ton by just reading about the format.  There are only so many interactions and viable decks in a format that small. You can absorb most of the necessary information to play it competently in a very short amount of time.

Legacy, on the other hand is complex enough that you really have to play a ton of games and internalize some amount of the complexity so that you don’t have to think about it.  Which lands are you tapping to represent tricks?  Which lands are you fetching?  When are you fetching?  Can you play around Wasteland, or will you color screw yourself on a key turn?

Every decision counts. You want to play enough games that you at least recognize when you’re making a decision.  Make your mistakes in games that don’t matter and not in an actual event.  Just like any other format, if you play enough you can start to recognize patterns to the way games play out and identify tricks that you can and should play around as opposed to those you lose to regardless.

The moral of this story: you can read as much as you want about Legacy–it certainly helps when you start to play—but there’s nothing like actually jamming the games.  When it comes down to it, actual experience is worth way more than a ton of theory crafting.  Even if you don’t own any of the cards, just proxy up some decks and play. If there’s one thing that’s really made me step up my game in the last few months, it’s been playing some amount of Legacy every week.  This is a sick format that you can learn an awful lot from, and it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing Magic.

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