I’ll be honest; I’m not much of a legacy player these days. The last time I played legacy regularly, decks like 43 Lands and Rifter were playable because Goblins was the boogeyman of the format. Tarmogoyf hadn’t quite taken over the format yet and dual lands were between $30 and $40. Around that time, I cashed out of Legacy because no one played the game at school. I invested that into a Cube and Commander, since those were formats you could introduce people to that had a much lower investment and learning curve.
Years later, I think I’m in the same position as a lot of other players. Legacy is a sweet format that I’m very interested in learning to play and would love to play more frequently than I do. The problem is that the barrier to entry is very, very high; not only with regard to the cost of cards, but also the sheer complexity of the format. The on-board interactions of a deck like Maverick are more than complex enough to cause most players to make mistakes. This gets exacerbated when people try to play blue-based decks where each match hinges on decisions we don’t even know we’re making. The strength of these blue decks is that you have a myriad of options and are in a great position to punish people who make mistakes. The flip side is that every subtle mistake you make can make the difference and you frequently will get punished for not playing up or down to your opponent’s level.
This is an incredibly deep and skill-testing format, and I want in. The problem is that the mechanics of the format are so fundamentally different than those of others that the technical barrier to entry is just as high as the financial. That’s why I want to start learning.
Each week I will play a ton of games of a specific, relevant match-up and try to identify the key pre-board cards and interactions as well as the kinds of cards that make the biggest difference post-board. I want to grind enough games and decks to learn the cards and mechanics from the ground up, and I want you to come along for the ride.
The best way to learn is to talk about everything: lines of play, which cards a match-up hinges on, the correct timing for your spells – anything and everything. The point isn’t necessarily to identify all of the correct decisions, at least at first, but rather to appreciate the sheer volume and implications of all of the decisions that are being made. Once you become aware of how complicated something is, that’s when you can start improving. The goal for this series is for me to learn the format along with you, whether you’re a seasoned Legacy veteran looking to pass on some knowledge or someone just as new as I am with different questions. It cannot be overstated how important dialogue and exchange of ideas is for a process like this, so I’m hoping to get to know most of you very well through the comments and other social media as this project moves on!
With that long-winded introduction out of the way, let’s take a look at the lists I’m running with this week. The first deck is the only one I own all the cards for, Maverick with Punishing Fire. The other side of the table is a sweet-looking Blue-White deck with Squadron Hawk instead of Stoneforge Mystic. Let’s start by taking a look at the Maverick list I’m running:
Let me say right away that I love a Knight of the Reliquary deck. This deck seems really sweet for the metagame as I understand it, since so many decks rely heavily on small creatures. I’m sure that Counterbalance and combo matchups are pretty abysmal, but against most of the more traditional “fair” decks, you should be pretty well off. The only card I don’t really like in the deck is Aven Mindcensor, but it’s been in several of the lists I’ve seen so it must have some role to play in the deck. That’s certainly something I’m going to be looking for while jamming games with the deck.
This is the deck that I want to be good, recommended by Carsten Kotter in a recent article of his. I’m pretty sure this is generally worse than the Stoneforge Mystic decks. You seem favored against blue-based control decks, but you’ll have to play very tightly against everything else to have a shot.
The thing I like most about this deck is the sheer number of cards that you get to see. You can really leverage the power of one- and two-of cards in the main deck, but especially in your sideboard. This deck ought to be able to beat just about any metagame you’re prepared for since you can find any card in your deck if needed.
Most importantly, this is a deck which is infinitely complex and really gives you the chance to dive into the format head first; to make a ton of important decisions every turn and see how each of those decisions can impact a game.
I played ten pre-board games with these two decks. In general there were three kinds of games, but the Maverick deck was favored in most of them. The Caw-Go deck has a lot of tools and can draw out the games for a long time. It can make the games very, very close, but the Punishing Fire engine is a little too much for U/W to handle in game 1.
Games with Punishing Fire
This is the card that defines game one. Even though Caw-Go wants to be the control deck in general, you have to be more aggressive in game one because you can’t beat this card going long. Sure, you can race one Punishing Fire and one Grove of the Burnwillows by jamming a bunch of fliers and hoping for the best. But let’s be honest; all of your win conditions are x/1’s and Jaces. If they ever find multiple copies of one of their pieces, you have to hope that they make a mistake, because you can’t fight through it.
So, what kind of mistakes can they make that give you openings? Most of those revolve around Vendilion Clique. They have to give you the opportunity to Clique Punishing Fire out of their hand by tapping out of Red sources with a Punishing Fire in hand.
If they’re unfamiliar with the matchup, they can also tutor up Wasteland or fetchlands with their Knight of the Reliquary rather than fetching Karakas. Karakas is a surprisingly pivotal card, because it lets you play around Punishing Fire with Vendilion Clique.
In general though, competent opponents won’t give you opportunities to get out from under Punishing Fire. You have to be as aggressive as you can be without giving them openings to resolve threats you can’t deal with.
A side note before moving on: Umezawa’s Jitte deserves the same kind of respect as Punishing Fire, though not to the same degree. At least if a Jitte gets counters, you can beat them with Jace, while the same can’t be said for Punishing Fire. But you still really can’t afford to let Jittes happen.
Games with Moat
Moat is a sort of trump from the Caw-Go deck before boarding. The only answer that most Maverick decks have in the main is Qasali Pridemage or Green Sun’s Zenith for said Pridemage. However, Moat is not a match-up defining card in the same sense as Punishing Fire. You can’t stick a Moat and then just spend the next ten turns durdling around. You still have to kill them before they have time to put together their Punishing Fire engine, or they will kill you, Moat or no.
The key to playing with this card is trying to identify whether or not your opponent is going to expect it. After only ten games, I haven’t figured out whether an average opponent will expect Moat out of you or not. If they don’t expect it, you can sculpt the game around Moat. Since they won’t hold their Green Sun’s Zenith to find a Qasali Pridemage, you can just slam a Moat and protect it with countermagic while you beat in with Squadron Hawks. If they expect Moat, though, they can either sneak a Pridemage in under countermagic or put you in a position where you need Force of Will back up for your Moat or they kill you anyway.
Games without Punishing Fire or Moat
While the other two kinds of games generally devolve into very grindy sequences involving Jace and Punishing Fire, these are real games with a lot of interaction and a lot of cards that are very important. The most defining card in these games is probably Mother of Runes because its presence determines whether the Blue-White deck can play control. If they manage to stick a Mother of Runes, then you have to play around it until you can two-for-one yourself to get rid of it. Other threats which normally aren’t that big of a deal, like Knight of the Reliquary, are suddenly impossible to deal with and can’t be chumped by Squadron Hawk. If the Maverick player can stick a Sword of Feast and Famine, things can get pretty problematic. Thankfully, you generally have enough removal to deal with that.
The important cards on the Blue-White end are Swords to Plowshares and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The match-up is frequently going to come down to keeping their bigger threats off the board and protecting your Jace. Generally, I play Jace as two Unsummon, then Brainstorm until I feel stable enough to fateseal them out of the game. If you have a board presence though, it’s usually better to start fatesealing immediately to keep them off of Punishing Fire. If you can get ahead in the early and mid game, then making sure they can’t find a Punishing Fire or Grove is the most important thing that you can do. Game one, you need to aggressively use your more powerful cards and removal to end the game as quickly as possible. Trying to play the control is very close to conceding the match, since you’re locking yourself in for a long, grindy game one that you can’t win. And you also won’t have time to win the other two games.
The Maverick Side
The changes I’ve been most happy with for the Maverick list are these:
Swords are pretty bad against the creature base of the Caw-Go deck. In each case, you’re trading one of your removal spells for less than a card. Relying on Swords is letting yourself get put behind on cards. Pre-board, you can make that up with Punishing Fire, but post-board you can’t lean on that as heavily because you have to assume they’re going to board in graveyard hate. Red Elemental Blast does the same kind of work against the cards that matter–mostly Vendilion Clique–and is also an answer to Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
The most important things that you get access to are Choke and Enlightened Tutor as a trump to their entire deck. The deck plays enough basics that you can’t really Wasteland them out of the game, but you can lock them out with Choke. You have to try to force them to tap out so you can resolve Choke. You can also play sub-games with Enlightened Tutor that force them to play in perpetual fear of Choke.
Maverick is still the control deck after sideboarding, at least as long as you can protect your Punishing Fire from graveyard hate. Your plan is to stick a Choke and then kill them. If not, you force them to play around Choke while you grind them down with Punishing Fire. The games are either very, very tight or you absolutely crush them. You can still beat Moat with Punishing Fire, you can trump their “aggro” plan with Choke when they tap out, and you can still just run out Knight of the Reliquary and force them to have answers.
The Caw-Go Side
For me, the hardest card to cut from the main deck is Force of Will, because it’s your best tool against Choke. But I think it’s something you have to do. Swapping Swords to Plowshares for Path to Exile is a judgment call based on how many basics you think they run. You don’t need an excess of spot removal spells because your end game is still Moat; additional removal spells after Moat sticks are generally dead, so don’t overload on them.
From this side of the matchup, it’s all about trying to figure out what your opponent has, dig for the appropriate answer and then bait it out. You board in a ton of removal so that you don’t die in the meantime. Then it’s all about being patient and looking for an opening. If the Maverick player doesn’t make mistakes, it’s very hard for you to win. All you’re trying to do is bait them into making a mistake so that you can capitalize on it.
The mistakes you’re looking to capitalize on are things like them using their all of their Grove of the Burnwillows without leaving one up to play around Surgical Extraction. Fetch up your basic Plains or leave your fetches up whenever possible so that you can tap out into Choke and leave up Oblivion Ring. Force of Will is a reasonable answer, but they do have Red Elemental Blasts that are difficult to play around. Back to Basics is the best trump that you have, and is really the only card that you can aggressively run out without fear of immediately losing the game.
All in all, Maverick seems very favored in this matchup. The Caw-Go deck is very reliant on out-playing the Maverick player in order to have a chance to even be in the game. Maverick has more built in card advantage and inevitability pre-board and has better game-ending trumps after sideboarding. The matchup is certainly winnable from the Caw-Go side, but you are heavily reliant on the Maverick deck drawing all creatures and no Punishing Fire or Choke. That or relying on them to make huge mistakes. That said, it’s very difficult to play against the blue-white deck because of the sheer number of spells you have to try to play around. It’s not unreasonable to expect people to make mistakes that let you take over the game.
This matchup was a ton of fun to jump into the format with, and I think I learned a few important things that will affect the way I approach the format from here on out:
1. Punishing Fire is an absurdly powerful engine. Learn to play with it and against it so you can identify how to play around the hate, or when you can safely pull the trigger on your Surgical Extraction.
2. Your role in a matchup is less dependent on the deck you’ve chosen than in other formats. Control decks have to go on the beatdown much more frequently than in other formats, and creature decks have the tools to beat control going long.
3. The role of cantrips in this format cannot be understated. I’m sure this is pretty obvious to people who are much more familiar with the format, but the timing and sequencing of your cantrips such that you can maximize your ability to find your one-of and two-of answers that are the most important in a particular match up is incredibly important and probably the most skill-testing part of the format.
4. Moreso than in other formats, the timing and sequencing of things that typically “don’t matter” is very important. Whether you play a land before or after combat, or before or after you play a spell. When you crack your fetchlands. When you cast your cantrips. Take a minute to think and figure out what you want your entire turn to be and then figure out the best order to do things in.
After testing this match-up, I’d recommend Punishing Maverick to anyone who likes grinding games out. Maverick is a powerful shell that is very capable of tutoring up game-breaking lands and creatures. The deck will reward someone who can call the metagame correctly and just crushes “fair” blue decks. If you don’t like losing to Islands and are familiar with the Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows grind, then this is probably a great deck for you.
This Squadron Hawk Blue-White deck, on the other hand, isn’t something that I can recommend in good conscience with the printing of Lingering Souls. As much fun as it is to play with Brainstorm and Squadron Hawk, Lingering Souls is going to be better in just about every circumstance. I think that changes how the deck plays enough that I don’t want to make assumptions. That said, cantrip-heavy Blue-White decks are sweet! The sheer density of card selection means that your singletons and sideboard options make a very big difference in problematic match-ups. If you’re good at identifying the pivotal cards and interactions in a matchup and deciding what combination of cards you need to win, I think this is a great deck for you.
I know I’ve learned an awful lot from just testing this one matchup. That says a lot about the depth and complexity of Legacy as a format. Hopefully my bumbling around and misplaying through a couple of matches has been helpful to other people who are trying to get into the format. If you’re also trying to get into the format, I’d be glad to get some questions or matchup suggestions to turn into topics. If you’re a veteran and want to tell me how wrong I am, I’m also interested in that! This is all supposed be a learning experience, for me and anyone else who’s interested in getting involved, so I want it to be as interactive as possible.
Next time I’m planning to try to learn to play either Storm or Dredge, and run a few game ones against different decks! Vote if you have a favorite!
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