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Legacy by the Books: Esper vs. Dream Halls

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Legacy

The way I understand it, most of legacy can be simplified into a handful of baseline archetypes to help with a more fundamental understanding of how the format operates.  In general, there are GWx midrange creature decks, Blue-based tempo, Blue-based control, fast combo, and slow combo.  Purely based on how the decklists seem to match up, it looks like the green decks lose to the combo decks, the blue decks lose to the green decks, and the blue decks each lose to a different kind of combo.  The tempo decks will beat up on the slow combo decks, while the control decks will beat the more fragile, fast combo decks.

Ideally, what I’d like to do is to play enough different match-ups to confirm that the format operates on the basic principles that I think it does. So far, the testing I’ve done has agreed with my thoughts.  The Blue-White control deck lost pretty hard to the Punishing Maverick deck while the Blue-Red Delver deck couldn’t apply enough pressure to Dredge while still being able to interact.

The problem is that Avacyn Restored recently became legal and includes Cavern of Souls.  It’s hard to say what kind of effect this will have on Legacy without giving the format time to shift and develop, so I want to be sure not to play a match-up that’s going to be affected by the presence or lack thereof of Cavern of Souls.

With that in mind, I wanted delve into one of the more complex match-ups in the format: a blue mirror.  These are the match-ups that are much harder to boil down to certain pivotal interactions. The match-ups change based on the decisions players are making and each player gets to make a ton of decisions.  Let’s start by looking at some decklists:

This seems to be the premiere control deck of the format right now. And this is a reasonably interesting take on it.  You can tell that the main deck is very much set up to beat up on RUG Delver and Maverick because of the singleton copies of Engineered Explosives and Zealous Persecution over effects like Intuition or Jace, the Mind Sculptor that are more powerful in the control mirrors.

I’d guess from this end of the match-up that this hinges heavily on two things, pre-sideboarding: your Brainstorms and your hand disruption.  You have so many dead cards against Dream Halls that being able to get rid of your Swords to Plowshares and Engineered Explosives seems incredibly important.  I also expect that the secret to success here is discard spells backed by countermagic, rather than the other way around.

Hypothetically, you have to hold your countermagic for the spells that matter: Show and Tell and Dream Halls.  You don’t necessarily want to aggressively fire off counterspells on their turn one Ponder.  Your discard spells, on the other hand, are especially powerful against decks that need combinations of specific cards. They let you know whether or not they will have counterspell backup when they do finally go for it.

That said, you are still the beatdown.  I think the ideal curve for this deck is a turn one discard spell, turn two Stoneforge Mystic, and turn three  forge a Batterskull and cantrip looking for countermagic.

Now let’s take a look at the other list:

source: The Best Combo Deck in Legacy

So, from this end the match-up gets complicated.  Things are simpler in that all you want to do is resolve Show and Tell or Dream Halls and win the game from there.  It’s harder, though, because your opponent can apply a fast clock backed by a significant amount of disruption.  I believe that Dream Halls is favored in this match-up, but it is in no way a bye.

This list has a pretty even split of discard and countermagic, as opposed to the straight Blue-White builds that are heavier on counterspells.  This means that it’s likely correct to just go for it whenever you have a Show and Tell and a threat to put into play. This particular list only has five counterspells pre-board and not many Esper decks will have more than six or seven at the top end.

The more time you give your Esper opponent, the more likely it is that they’ll be able to rip apart your hand with discard and Snapcaster Mages and eventually find a BatterskullBatterskull is actually a pretty big deal in this match-up because it can swing the race against Progenitus.  An eight-point life swing is a pretty huge deal in any match-up–especially one that essentially devolves into a race if both players get to execute their plan.

Once again though, I think the most important card is Brainstorm.  This card does an absurd amount of work in protecting your hand from discard effects, shuffling away cards you don’t want and setting up Temporal Mastery.  Whereas I think the Esper deck wants to use Brainstorm proactively to find answers, I think this deck wants to try to end the game with a Brainstorm in its hand.  I’m pretty sure you only want to use your Brainstorm when you’re hand just doesn’t do anything, to set up Temporal Mastery or to protect yourself from a discard spell by hiding cards or digging for a counterspell.

The Game Within a Game

Let’s talk for a second about opening hands, and what makes them keepable or not.  We’ll start with a more theoretical hand that I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts about, and then talk some about how the match-up changes based on what people see as keepable.

Hand #1

You’re on the play against an unknown opponent and you are playing the Esper list above.  You shipped your first hand; a no lander, obviously.  Is this hand keepable, or are you going back for five?  This is a hand that one of my playtesting partners kept. I think it’s an interesting discussion point:

I posed the same question to Twitter and the responses were basically split down the middle.  What’s interesting is that there weren’t many people who thought it was a close decision.  I don’t know if that’s typical Magic player hyperbole in action, but it’s still worth talking about.

The people who wanted to keep this hand said that Brainstorm will find you a land and then you’re good to go.  I don’t think that this is entirely true.  Let’s assume that it’s correct to play your Island and Brainstorm on the main phase of your second turn.  That’s what I’d do, at least.  The first thing you have to be afraid of is bricking on your Brainstorm, in which case you just lose to a reasonable draw from any deck in the format.  The second thing to be afraid of is not hitting a White source. If you hit an Underground Sea you’re still sort of stuck.  Furthermore, what if you hit that Underground Sea and then get Wastelanded?  Ideally, you hit a fetchland that can get a Plains and then you’re well on your way to winning the game, right?

Well, I don’t really think so.  Your hand still doesn’t really DO anything.  You’re going to have to spend too much time and mana casting Brainstorms and hoping that you don’t brick on lands. You’re not going to have very much action to work with.  You’re only realistically going to win if you don’t whiff on Brainstorm AND your opponent is on a hand or deck that can’t beat a combination of Stoneforge Mystic and Vendilion Clique. I don’t think that’s very likely in this format.

Personally, I think this is a very easy mulligan, but that could just be my unfamiliarity with the format.  I’m especially interested in hearing your thoughts on this hand.

Hand #2

What about this hand on the play after sideboarding?

This is where things get interesting!  This is a hand that I kept in game four of a five game set.  Usually, I would mulligan this hand for similar reasons to the one above.  It doesn’t do much of anything unless you hit a land.  In this case, however, my opponent was valuing discard spells very highly and actively mulliganing into them. This hand seems very strong against discard spells, so it’s a hand that I’m willing to keep here where I wouldn’t otherwise.  If my opponent seems to have a ton of counterspells, then this isn’t a hand I particularly want. You give them time to sculpt their hand and they only really have to interact with Show and Tell.

I don’t keep this against an unknown opponent, or probably even a generic Esper opponent. But, if you have the read that your opponent leans harder on his discard spells, this seems like a sweet hand to fight on that particular axis.

Hand #3

Last one, I promise.  How do you feel about this hand from the Esper side, this time on the draw?

As with all the other hands, the question is: what does this do?  Well, you can Preordain early to try to find action. But then you have to either pitch your second Force of Will or your late game plan of Jace, the Mind Sculptor.  You can sit back on double Force of Will but then you give them infinite time to sculpt their hand.  Lingering Souls applies pressure, but how much?

I think that against an unknown opponent, this is a keep.  You can Force pitching Force to counter an early play, Preordain for things to do, and Lingering Souls can dig you out of a lot of holes.  I think you have to keep this against Dream Halls, but you’re not happy about it.  You have to hold onto your Preordain until you find another blue card that you value less or until you find another way to interact with them.

Discard is generally better than countermagic in this match up. But if they kept a hand that’s very aggressive, then this could be a giant blowout.  It could be that you Force their Show and Tell on turn two or three and then they don’t do anything relevant for the rest of the game.

The point of all of this is that the range of hands that are keepable for you depends largely on the range of hands that your opponent wants to keep.  If you can get some kind of read on them, you can gain a huge edge by not overvaluing cards that are actually not that good against that particular opponent, even if they’re good against that deck.

Getting to the Matches

I first played a bunch of pre-sideboard games against Eric and Ian.  Against Eric, I ran the Esper side of the match-up. Against Ian, I was the Dream Halls side.  We played about five pre-board games each time. Let’s talk about how those went:

The Esper Side

I had the most success here by keeping an aggressive hand with one or two disruption spells.  Sometimes the Dream Halls deck just cantrips into nothing or stumbles on lands and you absolutely have to be able to capitalize on it.  Once in a while, you just lose to Show and Tell into Progenitus. But, you have to be more concerned with having a way to win than having ways to not lose.  You have to make sure that you can present a clock first and have disruption second.  You can always be threatening Force of Will or Daze even if you don’t have them. You can’t say the same for threats.

Vendilion Clique is one of the best cards to have in this match up. Not only because it is both a disruption spell and a threat, but because you can wait to cast it until Show and Tell or Dream Halls is on the stack and you can grab the piece that made it correct for them to go for it.  You can use it to effectively fizzle the Show and Tell or make sure that your counterspell resolves.  This isn’t to say that you should hold back Vendilion Clique if you’ve got nothing else going on. But, you should be aware of the potential to blow them out while Show and Tell is on the stack.

You also want to be aware of which cards are actually dead and which ones just have a narrow purpose.  For example, Swords to Plowshares and Zealous Persecution are narrow, but not dead.  Zealous Persecution takes a turn off of your clock; sometimes more if you’ve cast one or more Lingering Souls.  Even if it’s not killing Mother of Runes, it’s still just fine as a pseudo-Overrun.  Similarly, Swords to Plowshares on your own Batterskull to change Progenitus math was not an uncommon play in these games.

The hardest decisions to make are always what to take with your discard spells. Particularly when the Dream Halls player Brainstorms in response. Generally, I assumed that they’re trying to get me to take a particular card or hiding one card on top of their deck. Based on that, I try to figure out what they could be hiding or what would make them want me to take one card over another.  If all else fails, you can always try to deny them a shuffle effect.  If they Brainstormed into the nuts and just killed you with the card they hid, then they probably would have been able to regardless of what you took. You might as well try to blank their next two draw steps.

In the end, the Dream Halls deck was favored three games to two after we finished this set. 

The Dream Halls Side

This side of the match-up is much more straightforward, at least for game one.  There are two kinds of games that you win.  The first are games where you cast Show and Tell on turn two or three with or without Force of Will backup and just kill them.  The second are the games where you power through their countermagic with multiple Show and Tells and Dream Halls.

The secret to this match-up seems to be that Conflux is a trap.  All you want to do pre-board is put a Progenitus into play as quickly as possible.  It doesn’t matter if waiting one more turn lets you one-shot them with Temporal Mastery.  They have very little countermagic and sitting around gives them more time to shred your hand and find their counterspells.

You also need to mind your threat density.  You only have eight ways to cheat a Progenitus into play. You want to use those sparingly.  You really don’t want to cast an Intuition for Show and Tell or Dream Halls unless you have to. Usually that’s only when you have the combo with Force of Will up already.

Like I mentioned before, you really want to hold on to your Brainstorms until someone forces you to use them.  There were a few really interesting scenarios that came up in our games where holding Brainstorm won games.  For instance, if you have a hand with two Brainstorm and they try to Clique you in response to your Show and Tell. You can use the first to hide the card you want to cheat into play. If they take a card, no harm, no foul.  If they don’t, then Brainstorm again to get the card back.


As for sideboarded games, I played a few three game sets with other players around our local store: Scott, Mike, and Zack.

This is where things get a little interesting.  From the Dream Halls side, you have a transformational-ish sideboard.  You can board in the False Cure/Beacon of Immortality combo instead of Temporal Mastery for games two and three if you think it’s a good call.  In this particular match-up, it’s actually a tough call. It depends on how many Perish you think your opponent has access to.  In general, I left in the Temporal Mastery plan for game two and then switched for game three.  Generally, this is how I sideboarded from the Dream Halls side of things:

-2 Intuition

-2 Daze (on the draw)

-3 Lotus Petal

-1 Conflux (on the play)

-1 Temporal Mastery (on the play)

+3 Dispel

+4 Leyline of Sanctity

You also have the option of:

-2 Temporal Mastery

+1 False Cure

+1 Beacon of Immortality

And if you go for this, you want to cut all of the copies of Temporal Mastery before cutting any copies of Conflux.

It’s possible that you want to cut the Force of Wills as well, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Generally, I like to ask if there are multiple cards that I’d be glad to two-for-one myself to counter and there are a pretty reasonable number of them on the other side of the match-up. Even more come in after sideboarding.  As long as my Show and Tell resolves, I don’t care how many cards I had to spend to make that happen. I think it’s correct to leave Force of Will in.

You can afford to slow down a little in favor of more protection from both discard and countermagic in games two and three.  Dispel and Leylines make a pretty huge difference in your ability to sculpt your hand and protect key spells from countermagic.  Remember, you only need to resolve one spell to win the game and they can’t apply a ton of pressure. As long as you’re protected from hand disruption, you can sculpt your hand all you want.

On the Esper side of the match-up, here’s how I was boarding:

-4 Swords to Plowshares

-1 Engineered Explosives

-1 Zealous Persecution

-1 Umezawa’s Jitte

+1 Disenchant

+1 Force of Will

+1 Spell Pierce

+1 Vindicate

+2 Perish

+1 Surgical Extraction

You get to get rid of all of the cards that interact with creatures and replace them with cards that do something!  You’d think that this would make your match up much better but it makes less of a difference than you would think. Most of these pieces are very narrow, and only interact with a portion of the combo.  Disenchant, for example, does nothing if they go for the Show and Tell into Progenitus. Perish is awful if they go for Dream Halls.

After sideboarding, the match up was still reasonably close, but favored Dream Halls.  The player piloting Dream halls won two matches 2-0 and lost one match 1-2.

In Conclusion

This match-up played out pretty much as expected, though it was not as favorable for Dream Halls as I suspected.  There’s enough play to it that the Esper player can outplay the slow combo deck. But, the combo deck has a match-up advantage that’s pretty difficult to fight through.  The important thing to notice is that the pace and role of each deck in the match-up changes based on how your opponent views it. It’s important to identify how your opponent thinks the match up plays.

If the Dream Halls player rabidly plays around Force of Will, I’d seriously consider boarding out Force of Will and mulliganing into very aggressive hands. If they’re very aggressive, then you need to mulligan into disruption.

Similarly, if the Esper player is more aggressive then the Dream Halls player also wants to be aggressive. Your clock is faster and less interactive than theirs.  However, if the Esper player wants to play a slower game, you often want to keep hands heavy on mana so that you can cast both Dream Halls and Show and Tell to fight through the disruption.

And that’s all I’ve got for this week.  Next time, I’m hoping to talk about the fundamental things that I’ve learned about the format; something a little more abstract.  In formats that we’re all more familiar with, like standard, people know how to play around cards like Mana Leak and Primeval Titan.  What are the analogues in Legacy, and how do you play around those effects?

As always, be sure to tell me what you think I got right or wrong, and leave suggestions for future match-ups!

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