One of the best pieces of advice I ever got regarding deck selection for major tournaments actually came from a fighting game enthusiast. “Play a tier one.” He was referring to Street Fighter characters, but it also applies to Magic. If a deck is considered good because it’s a strong counter to a tier one, then the tier ones are better than that deck. If a deck is good because no one is playing it, either you legitimately have the read on the format, or you should just play the decks that are so good people actually play them.
Card availability is sometimes a problem, especially in Legacy. It’s not always possible to get the best deck on short notice. In these cases, play the best deck you have access to. It’s alright to meta aggressively at an FNM or local 1k, but when you are taking your list to compete for 15 rounds with some of the best players and decks in the world, you need to bring the best cards you can. No matter how good your local Dredge matchup is with your Tezzerator list, when you go to a Grand Prix, you need to be able to compete with these five decks:
Sneak and Show
Now Legacy is a wide open format. Other than a few very strong contenders, the field is hugely diverse and any given list can take down a sizable tournament. But when there are five decks that together make up over 50% of the metagame, including the deck at the top with nearly one out of every five lists submitted, you need to have a pretty good reason to not play one of them.
“But Kevin, you play Lands. That’s not on your list” Well, I mean, yeah. That top 5 list was made solely with metagame percentages. Lands is perhaps the biggest victim of card availability. With Rishadan Port at nearly $200 on MTGO and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale topping $700 in paper, I believe Lands is underrepresented for its power level and absolutely deserves a spot in the top tier.
On to the actual top 5:
The obvious choice for deck selection is Miracles. The deck takes format knowledge, patience, and quick thinking to play well. It gets to play broken cards like Sensei’s Divining Top and Monastery Mentor while setting up a two card stone wall with Top and Counterbalance. There is a reason it is 18% of the meta and was four of the Top 8 at Grand Prix Columbus. If you show up to a Legacy event in 2016 with no Counterbalances, you have to have an answer for Miracles.
Which bring us to #2, Grixis Delver. The deck is very powerful and every spell is efficient. Every threat by itself draws a Terminus. You have to play tight and maximize your cantrips, but if you can keep Counterbalance off the board, you are very favored against Miracles. With all your counterspells and hand disruption, you can take a game from any combo in the format and you have room in the sideboard for enough removal to be able to beat creatures. The list is hard to play, but there is a reason it’s such a big part of the meta.
Eldrazi is a newcomer and by week one had firmly taken its place in the top of the Legacy metagame. It is the deck MUD never was. Taxing and invalidating your opponent’s spells while disrupting their hand with a 4/4 body and hitting a 5/5 with Trample and Haste by turn three is understandably powerful. The real distinction between Eldrazi and MUD is that the “sol lands” in Eldrazi cast efficient threats and not all-in haymakers.
Shardless BUG is a neat deck because it allows for some really tight play, but the floor of the deck is much higher than some other Force of Will lists. That is, a new player on Shardless will likely do better than a new player on Miracles, for example. The card advantage grind-it-out style of deck lends itself to some forgiving plays. If you spend your Abrupt Decay at the wrong time, Ancestral Visions might get you out of that tight spot. Hand disruption and repeatable discard means you have fewer cards in your opponent’s hand to play around. The raw power is high and it has been in and slightly out of the top tier for years.
The last deck in the top five is the first combo deck, Sneak and Show. The ability to combo with each of several permutations of your win conditions lends redundancy to a deck that can already fit 12 cantrips in a deck with sufficient countermagic and fast mana to combo reliably. A Sneak Attack activation landing Griselbrand will most of the time be able to find another red mana and an Emrakul for the win this turn. A Sneak Attack activation showing Emrakul, if 15 damage isn’t enough to kill, will at least remove all of your opponent’s permanents, giving you more time to find another kill. A Show and Tell bringing Griselbrand or Emrakul is usually game over. Griselbrand draws cards and sets up for a better combo next turn and/or plenty of countermagic. Emrakul tells your opponent “You need to win next turn or die,” even if it doesn’t have haste like it would off of a Sneak Attack. If landing a free Emrakul without haste or Time Walk is the worst way your deck wins, that’s a sweet deck.
So what does all this mean for you? It means if you want to win, play one of these or have a darn good reason you’re not. Again, Legacy is probably the widest one-on-one format out there, with dozens of decks being legitimately competitive in the meta at large, but if you want to consistently do well, you need to play a deck that consistently does well. If that’s not fun for you, ignore me and keep playing the list you like. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Have fun the way you like to have fun and never let anyone tell you it’s wrong.
Deck familiarity is perhaps the second most important skill in Legacy, only topped by format familiarity. Give a player who knows the format well a top tier deck against a player who knows their lower tier deck very well, and barring a matchup issue, the format specialist will come out on top. Because the format is so wide, knowing how to play against your opponent is often more important that knowing how to play your own deck perfectly.
That is not to minimize the necessity of putting in the reps with your deck. If you expect to Top 8 a Grand Prix playing Grixis Delver or Miracles blind, you are probably in for a bad weekend. Playing ANT well is absolutely better than playing Grixis Delver poorly. But, if you can afford the testing time, learn multiple decks. Go to “playtest card” events and borrow cards when you can’t. Have a backup deck in case you, like Elves players of yesteryear, find that your deck has fallen out of the top tier.
Writing this directly after the 2016 Legacy Grand Prix weekend with Infect and ANT coming out on top of the two events seems like odd timing. But between the two Top 8s, there were 10 of 16 decks in the top 5 decks of the metagame, with 1 Sneak and Show, 1 Shardless BUG, 3 Grixis Delver, and 5 Miracles. Lands, Death and Taxes, Reanimator, RUG Delver, and champions Infect and ANT rounded out the 16.
It’s clear that you don’t need to play an arbitrarily defined top tier to win, but Magic is all about maximizing your odds. If winning is the most important thing for you to have your fun in this game, consider your position in the metagame and test the heck out of your list if you think you’ve brewed the new hotness, because if you want to win, you should play a tier one.
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