Eldrazi and Metagame Adaptation

Written by Administrator on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Legacy

Hello readers, and welcome to my article series here on LegitMTG! Legacy is the lifeblood of my Magic playing experience, I feel like it really exemplifies what Magic is and should be. Every archetype in the game is represented in Legacy, even the ones that Wizards has tried to repress in Standard and Modern like prison and fast combo. Your favorite powerful cards from any block are legal, and we have a metagame that’s self-policing to the point that bans are rarely necessary to keep the format open and diverse. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Legacy gives you access to some of the best threats in Magic history, creature and noncreature alike, but it also has the widest range of available countermeasures to those threats. When any strategy gets too dominant, you can be reasonably confident that some card in the enormous card pool can offer a reasonable way to shut them down. Because of this, the metagame is often in flux: people want to play their “level 0” decks that they enjoy and offer the widest range of plays, and every once in a while someone shows up with the counter-strategy and forces those players to respect and adapt to this development.

One of these “police” decks has, historically, been the Chalice decks. They collectively fall under the umbrella of “Stompy” decks, decks which typically use the Sol lands, Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors, alongside artifact lock pieces like the aforementioned Chalice of the Void, Thorn of Amethyst, and Trinisphere. By accelerating out these cards, they seek to invalidate a large portion of their opponent’s early plays by either locking them out entirely or by taxing them so much that forward progress is minimal. Because Legacy as a whole is so focused around the cantrip core (Brainstorm and Ponder, supplemented by Gitaxian Probe and Preordain) Stompy decks get to enjoy a huge edge in any matchup where they can make that card selection engine either useless or inefficient. Then the Stompy deck can run basically whatever threats it wants, because when your opponent is asymmetrically hindered by your permanents almost any threat will do. And I do mean any threat: in the way-back days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and blue duals were $50 a pop, there were many versions of Stompy with different supplemental disruption and some really… “creative” threats. Sea Stompy utilized blue countermagic and its threats of choice included Sea Drake (go ahead and look that one up), White Stompy variants got to use Armageddon to support Exalted Angel and later Elspeth Knight-Errant, and Dragon Stompy had access to Blood Moon and sometimes finished with Rakdos Pit Dragon. I did say any threat will do.

In recent years, the heirs to the throne of Stompy decks have been predominately the pure artifact MUD decks. The advantages to this version were pretty obvious. Artifact acceleration like Grim Monolith and Metalworker work well alongside Chalice and Spheres, a colorless deck is best suited to use the mana from your Sol lands productively, and you get supplemental land-based acceleration with the Cloudpost engine. With so much mana you can run a ton of game-ending threats that are pretty embarrassing to write on your decklist at a Legacy event but pretty damn potent once they hit play: Wurmcoil Engine, Kuldotha Forgemaster into Blightsteel Colossus, Karn Liberated and Ugin the Spirit Dragon, and even Platinum Emperion. Most Legacy players have at least one story that starts with “I was under Trinisphere and my opponent had a Wurmcoil Engine…” that usually has an unhappy ending. That being said, these decks were generally underrepresented in the format and rarely broke through to the top 8 of major events. If you think about it, it kinda makes sense. Ramp decks are intrinsically inconsistent as you need a mix of mana, accelerants, lock pieces and threats, and the nature of the card Chalice of the Void means you can’t really run tools that improve your consistency like blue cantrips or Sensei’s Divining Top. Your mana accelerating lands are themselves vulnerable to Wastelands, Rishadan Ports, and Blood Moons from your opponents. Without Force of Will you run the risk of dying to fast combo before you can do anything about it. And there are always some hate cards floating around that punish you for playing so many artifacts like Ancient Grudge and Hurkyl’s Recall. These factors combined with the fact that the blue core will just always be more consistent to ensure that MUD and its lesser brethren never really took a dominant metagame positioning.

That is, until now.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or you just ignore everything with the Modern tag, you’ll know that there’s some other “Sol lands” doing some work out there in the world of Magic. The Eldrazi aren’t limited to Modern, though, as the entirety of that deck ports over and also gets access to some additional lands and Legacy-specific cards to ensure that it’s a contender here as well. And honestly, this can’t be overstated: the Eldrazi invasion of Legacy is completely unprecedented. The Source is the main forum for data on the format, and the administrators there cultivate a “Decks to Beat” forum monthly using metagame data provided by TCDecks.net. This forum has always been a great place to see a “snapshot” of the current Tier 1 of Legacy and decks moving in and out of that forum tell us a lot about the state of the format. Despite existing in its current form for scarcely over a month, Eldrazi made its splash in the format in a big way. See the data for yourself here. As a bit of background: Miracles has been the best-performing deck in Legacy by the metrics TCDecks uses since the banning of Dig Through Time in September of last year, and even before that it was generally in the top 3 or 4 decks for over a year prior. Other established decks like Grixis and Shardless have moved in and out of second place, but the gulf between Miracles and the pretenders to the throne has always been sizable. As of February’s metagame data, Eldrazi Stompy came out of nowhere and took a close second place behind Miracles. It’s the fastest any deck in the format has gone from its emergence to Tier 1 status as far as I can tell, and the results are really impressive. Especially when we take into account that the build isn’t standardized at all and innovation is still occurring!

I won’t go into a primer on how the deck is built and how it functions: Tyler Priemer wrote an excellent breakdown on this very site, check it out here. Here’s a sample decklist that I think is pretty close to what might be called a “typical” build.

As you can see, this deck’s threat base is anything but embarrassing. Thought-Knot Seer in particular gives the deck an angle it never had before by attacking the hand of the opponent. Using the Eldrazi-specific lands lets this deck really play a fundamentally better creature game than most of the decks that exist in Legacy, which means that it doesn’t need to rely on its lock pieces as heavily as a MUD deck might, and having your main threats cost 4 and 5 mana instead of 6, 7, or 8 mana means you have some built in resilience to the mana denial plans. A single Wasteland on an Ancient Tomb is never going to be enough to completely cut this deck off, because in addition to playing a respectable 24 lands, they have a high density of 2-mana lands and a full set of Simian Spirit Guide to ramp slightly earlier and help increase the odds of getting a lock piece on turn 1. The other advantage is that this deck can be insanely fast: with Eldrazi Mimic you always have the possibility of drawing insanely well and goldfishing a turn 3 or 4 combo kill. So to reiterate, compared to normal MUD decks we’ve gained a better creature base, a new type of disruption in the form of Thought-Knot Seer, less reliance on lock pieces because our cards are generically more powerful, slight resistance to the main form of disruption against us, and potentially an aggro-combo kill to race the bad matchups. Sounds unbeatable, right?

Well, not exactly. The sky isn’t quite falling yet. Although the deck is extremely well-represented for being in its infancy, there are some decks that are just naturally bad matchups for it, and some cards that have been on the back burner recently that could start to shine against the Eldrazi threat. Remember when I said Legacy is the most adaptable of all formats? We’ve started to see precisely that type of innovation already, and I only expect to see more in the coming month. Be prepared for Eldrazi, because it’s not going anywhere: since the prospect of it being banned is a foregone conclusion in Modern at this point, you’re going to have tons of players with sets of Eye, Temple, and the Eldrazi creature base looking for somewhere they can use those cards. If they already have Chalice as well that means that to fully upgrade to the Legacy version is only going to cost them about $600, which is a very low budget option. Even if City of Traitors (the only Reserved list card) spikes again to $200 in response to that demand, we still have a deck that people can get into Legacy with that’s tier 1 for under $1000.

So now we know what we’re facing, how successful it can be, and how prevalent it might be in the near future. The only question to ask, then, is how to beat it. The weaknesses of typical Stompy decks still apply in general even though the Eldrazi shell somewhat mitigates them. Mana denial is still an effective tool, especially when backed by disruption of your own or repeatedly used to keep your opponent below 4 mana. Aggressive mana denial decks like Death and Taxes stand a fair shot at keeping the Eldrazi deck’s mana under control and winning with fliers. Eldrazi doesn’t have many ways to answer even a small flier like Aven Mindcensor or Serra Avenger. However, Death and Taxes decks don’t end up having a ton of relevant cards against Eldrazi because many of their cards have the same goal as Stompy’s lock pieces: to stick it to Blue decks and the cantrip core. So while both decks have lots of dead cards and Death and Taxes generally sports a weaker creature base, the combination of Wasteland and Rishadan Port locking down lands and Stoneforge Mystic conjuring up a threat that matches some Eldrazi in size leads the matchup to a slight favorite to Death and Taxes. Potential innovations in this style of deck to adapt to Eldrazi include playing more effects like Fiend Hunter or Mangara that allow you to have some removal options while dodging the Chalice and the trigger on Reality Smasher.

Blood Moon is another mana denial card that’s very good against this deck, especially when accelerated out. In Modern we haven’t really seen Blood Moon make a dent in the armor of the Eldrazi deck, mostly because the tools to meaningfully interact with Eldrazi before turn 3 don’t really exist and there is a lack of good acceleration to push Moon out early. The best Moon deck in Legacy is likely Painter, the mono-red combo deck also enabled by the Sol land manabase. Moon has sort of a threefold effect versus Eldrazi. First, it makes their lands produce a single mana instead of double, bringing them down to a fair level of mana production. Second, it cuts them off from casting cards that require Colorless mana like Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher, which are their main threats. Third, it nullifies the utility abilities that many of their lands have innately like Mishra’s Factory, Wasteland, Eye of Ugin, and occasionally Cavern of Souls. Combined with the fact that Eldrazi doesn’t have good answers to the Painter/Grindstone combo itself, and the fact that Painter’s Servant himself acts as disruption by shutting off the Eldrazi lands, this means that Painter is probably the deck best suited to crushing Eldrazi.

The lack of flyers mentioned above hints at another soft spot of the deck: it has to win through combat damage on the ground. Slower decks have started moving towards cards like Moat or Ensnaring Bridge as they basically need to be answered by Stompy before they can win. Against the above list a resolved Moat effect is literally game before sideboarding, and after board they are limited to just the two Endbringers pinging away to try to get through. Some lists might start to use Ratchet Bomb or similar effects to break through, but as of right now Moat is a great place to be. The deck most inclined to use and abuse Moat is our current king of the hill, Miracles. Moving away from Mentor and back to the slower builds with Entreat as the win condition and making space for a Moat or two in the 75 gives you a real edge in a matchup that could otherwise be tough. Terminus will always be good, but Swords to Plowshares gets cut off by Chalice, as do Top and Brainstorm, and your Counterbalance lock is extremely poor, so hedging your bets with Moat seems wise. If you’re on the slightly more midrangey side of UW, such as Stoneblade, then maybe a Humility is a more useful option for you. Humility answers every Eldrazi except Endless One effectively, and it interacts favorably with equipment if you’re using them. If you have a Batterskull attached to a Germ when you play Humility, you have a 5/5 which is bigger than all their pesky 1/1s. If you play or attach Batterskull afterwards, though, you have a 5/5 that again has vigilance and lifelink due to how timestamps work within the same layer. And Umezawa’s Jitte is a huge trump with a Humility in play as well!

Additionally, a classic weakness of Stompy decks is combo. When a fast combo deck like Storm can get a win or cast a discard spell before the Eldrazi deck finds a lock piece they mop the floor with them. This isn’t as useful or reliable as the methods I’ve described above though, mostly because it’s very luck-dependent: if you’re on the play and have a good hand, congratulations! If they get to land a Chalice or Sphere, you’re not having a good time. While I’m a long-time Storm advocate, for this reason I recommend a combo deck that can play around Chalice of the Void at 1. This essentially invalidates all the fastest combo decks, the Storm and Reanimator variants. But a deck like Sneak and Show could be well positioned against Eldrazi. Chalice is ineffective against 3 and 4 mana spells, Sneak and Show plays its own Sol lands to keep up on mana, has Force for protection, and Emrakul shows the other lesser Eldrazi who’s boss. Sneak and Show also easily adopts the Blood Moon tech if necessary, and Eldrazi has very few hate cards it can play that interact with what Sneak and Show is trying to do. As I mentioned above, Painter’s combo is also a great place to be against Eldrazi. While your Painters can get Dismembered and your Grindstone is vulnerable to Chalice, the deck usually packs some number of Goblin Welder to either weld out your opponent’s Chalice or sneak your Grindstone in through the back door. Blood Moon, again, buys you tons of time in this matchup.

But if you asked me what one deck in Legacy had the best natural matchup against Eldrazi and the best metagame position outside of it, the answer would be Lands. Lands was my first love in Legacy, back when repeatedly Ghost Quartering your opponent out was a reasonable line of play and your best win conditions were Creeping Tar Pit and decking your opponent. The deck looks a lot different now, having adopted the Thespian’s Stage/Dark Depths combo and becoming much more streamlined as a result. This deck should totally eat Eldrazi alive. First, their Chalice of the Void is ineffective at 1 and needs to be played at 2 to hose anything important. Second, they’re vulnerable to all of the Lands deck’s disruptive elements in Wasteland, Rishadan Port, Maze of Ith, and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. An early Waste lock is very hard to beat because all their reasonably sized threats cost 4 or more, meaning they need to keep two Sol lands in play to advance the board. And last but not least, the Dark Depths combo offers a way to win quickly and out of nowhere that the Eldrazi deck has almost no way to interact with. While the claim may be made that the other decks listed above may beat Eldrazi but suffer other poor matchups in the format, Lands boasts a good Miracles matchup and a good Eldrazi matchup and can play evenly against many of the other top decks around right now. It’s hard to call Lands a “sleeper” choice after Jarvis Yu took down the most recent Legacy Grand Prix with it, but the deck is still not on everyone’s radar and I believe that to be an oversight.

All of this illustrates exactly what I love so much about Legacy: a monstrous deck makes an appearance and penetrates the metagame to such a severe extent, but rather than shrugging and giving up Legacy players begin to adapt almost from the start. Even during some of the biggest metagame shakeups in history like Dig, Cruise, and Misstep, we still saw signs of people trying their best to find an answer in the deep cardpool we have access too, even if they were ultimately unsuccessful. Only time will tell what mark the Eldrazi will leave on Legacy, but it’s very interesting from my perspective to see these metagame adaptations almost in real time.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, you can leave a comment here or contact me on Twitter: @_LogicKnot. I welcome all feedback, and if there’s anything in particular you would like to read about let me know!

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