Last weekend I took to the road to play in the StarCityGames Team Open in Baltimore alongside two fine, but not great Magic players in Bradley J. Nelson and Benjamin J. “Tony” Stark. I was tasked with battling in the Legacy portion of the event, a format that I hadn't touched since Grand Prix Vegas months ago.
At Vegas, I battled with a Grixis Control deck. I based the list originally off some decks that had been putting up 5-0 results on Magic Online, but ultimately tested and tuned it over and over again until it only played cards I was happy putting into my deck. This is usually how I end up settling on the 75 cards I want to play in Legacy. The format is so powerful and there is so much value in constructing your deck to fit your precise playstyle that I think it is frequently a mistake for people to just copy a decklist without making sure you know how it is meant to be played.
My win rate with Grixis Control leading up to GP Vegas was astronomically high on Magic Online. I was 19-1 in my first four leagues with the deck, and while that win rate eventually dropped, I was still crushing.
My win rate at the GP itself was a nice, crisp, clean, refreshing (for my opponents) 1-4. I got destroyed by turn two Marit Lage, Blood Moon, and so on. These were cards and strategies that were barely represented online but were significantly more represented in the paper metagame, enough to make a deck like Grixis Control a poor choice. Grixis was nice against Delver strategies or the other kinds of fair decks or traditional combo decks that made up a good chunk of the MTGO metagame at the time, but just wasn't a good choice for a long event where you are bound to face random decks a bunch.
It's hard to expect to make Top 8 with a deck like Grixis Control when you have so many fringe decks that are terrible matchups just lurking around the event, waiting for you. It only takes running into those decks a few times before you've lost too many rounds to be able to make the elimination rounds anymore.
I learned my lesson after GP Vegas. I wasn't going to make that mistake again. I vowed that I wouldn't touch Grixis Control anymore. And I didn't, even though Grixis Control is one of the most popular decks on Magic Online right now. Well, not all lists are pure Grixis. Many are more like Four-Color Control, otherwise known as Czech Pile, that also play some green cards like Sylvan Library, Leovold, Emissary of Trest, and maybe even the occasional Abrupt Decay.
This time around, I got hooked on Esper Deathblade. Like how I was crushing before with Grixis Control, I found myself crushing again with Esper Deathblade online. While my win rate wasn't anything close to what I had months ago with Grixis, it was still really good. I was mostly going 4-1 in leagues with occasional 5-0's sprinkled in.
My win rate at the tournament was a crisp, clean, refreshing (for my opponents) 2-4-1. I had Blood Moon cast against me turn one more times than I could even believe was possible. Marit Lage was out in force.
Remember how I vowed that I “wouldn't make that mistake again” and therefore I wouldn't touch Grixis Control in another Legacy event?
I made that mistake again.
It wasn't specifically Grixis Control that was the problem. It was midrange decks. I'm glad I've learned this lesson but I'm sad that it took another failed tournament to teach me. In hindsight, it should have been obvious after the Grixis Control fiasco at GP Vegas, but I just wasn't thinking broad enough. I blamed the deck rather than the archetype.
Twice burned is enough for me. I'm done with midrange decks in Legacy. I'm also off midrange decks in Modern for that matter, but that's another whole article. Legacy is just a format where people can and will show up with whatever decks they want to. Because of this, you can't bring a deck to a tournament that is designed to beat the most-played decks but that cannot hope to beat random decks, if the goal is to win the tournament. A deck like that might be good for a Top 32/64 finish, but it's hard to imagine that you will make Top 8 unless you manage to get lucky and avoid playing against fringe decks.
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Midrange decks in Legacy just don't have the tools or ability to beat the fringe decks. If you're playing some three or four-color mess in Legacy, you don't have the luxury of playing a few basic lands because it will make your mana base unplayable against Wasteland decks and weaken your game against control and combo strategies. However, not having basic lands means that you are just going to struggle to beat cards like Blood Moon or Life from the Loam.
Likewise, your deck is built to be flexible. This means that you have removal spells to deal with creatures and Force of Will to handle combo decks and maybe a Wasteland or two to handle problematic lands. The classic midrange build. The issue is that your removal spells might not be the right ones to handle your opponent's threats, or just having four Force of Will as interaction might not be even close to enough to beat your opponent's combo deck. In a lot of matchups, you ended up forced to rely on a massive sideboard restructuring to be able to win, and while you may end up being favored in post-board games, it can be tough to win both after losing the first game.
From now on I will be sticking to playing on the outsides of the format. I'll either be piloting an aggressive, proactive strategy that can get out ahead early enough to be able to punish fringe decks, a combo deck that only cares about certain cards, or decks like Miracles or Lands that have alternative avenues to taking control of a game that don't fall victim to the same traps that midrange decks do.
As a side note, Stoneforge Mystic has gotten way worse in Legacy than it was a few years ago, much like how Tarmogoyf has similarly had a fall from grace. I knew this instinctively, but I hadn't touched Stoneforge Mystic in quite a while so it was still kind of a shock for me to see just how bad it was compared to how great it used to be.
I remember when playing Stoneforge Mystic on turn two was like seeing the face of God. Nothing could ever compare and nothing would ever be the same again. I remember when you'd swagger up to your friends confidently after a match and be like “I played Stoneforge on turn two,” and they'd all collectively lose their freaking minds. I remember the look of existential dread on your opponent's face when you'd slam that Tee 2 Ess Eff Em – that turn two Stoneforge Mystic. They'd have this look on their face that told the whole story. They were dead, they knew it, and they were running through the series of decisions that led them to this point...this point where they were facing down that T2SFM without recourse. I remember walking up to the cashier in the grocery store and asking “Do you accept turn two Stoneforge Mystic as currency?” and the friendly face would respond: “Why yes we do, but only on turn two and only if searching up Batterskull.” I would get my groceries and move on with my blessed life.
Nowadays, people are like “Is that all?” They'll Thoughtseize or Cabal Therapy your equipment away. They'll Hymn to Tourach you. They'll just politely wait and then Kolaghan's Command the Batterskull. Or worse yet, they'll just ignore it and still beat you anyway, because it just doesn't matter anymore. How the mighty have fallen and how the once great Stoneforge Mystic has been reduced to a Stonefarce Mystake.
So, if I'm done messing around with mediocre midrange messes, then what's next on the docket for me? Well, I've played a bunch with Grixis Delver and I can't find a way to consistently win with that deck, so I'm leaning mostly toward finding another deck to get on board with. These are the three archetypes I am most excited to test with.
Also called “Miracles” or “Topless Miracles” or “Why does this feel so bad compared to what it once was,” this archetype is still in existence after the ban of Sensei's Divining Top.
What I love about this deck is that it gets to play Monastery Mentor, which remains one of the best threats in Legacy. Monastery Mentor is the new Stoneforge Mystic. It's an enormous beating of a card that wins the game by itself if unchecked nearly every single time. I like that. I also like that you get to play cards like Blood Moon in the sideboard, a giant middle finger thrown up at some of these annoying four-color decks or other land-based strategies.
What I don't love about this deck is how clunky it is. Terminus, Portent and Predict are all subpar cards that are only good when their synergies line up, which is sometimes hard to pull off. I hate playing normally underpowered synergy-oriented cards, especially in a format like Legacy. It was fine when you had Sensei's Divining Top to cure all ills, but it's way worse without that bannable one-mana artifact to bail you out.
Decks like this also just get mauled by various midrange strategies that people love playing so much, but that I have personally vowed to never touch again. They have better threats and better ways of generating an advantage. You can sometimes steal games with Mentor or Blood Moon, but those tend to be the exceptions, not the norm.
Lands also has some of the same problems that midrange decks do in that it folds to certain strategies, like a lot of fast combo decks or Blood Moon decks, but the advantage is that it powers through so much of the format that struggles to beat both Wasteland recursion and the ability to create a really fast 20/20 flying indestructible creature.
Lands is easily one of the best decks in the format right now, and a lot of the decks that naturally prey on it (like Storm) are basically nonexistent in Legacy right now. I also don't think it's surprising at all that Storm is basically nonexistent in Legacy. In fact, I'm surprised it took this long, because I think Storm is almost completely unplayable and that any good player with almost any archetype can beat Storm just by being a competent pilot against the deck.
The major issue I have with lands right now is that the deck is very beatable if people pack the right hate. Lands has consistently been a top five Legacy deck for months and months now, and the longer it stays on top it becomes more and more likely that people will start to pack the right cards or right strategies to be able to beat this deck. I'm also not sure how quickly I will be able to learn how to play this deck optimally, but that can always be fixed with testing.
I like that Sultai Delver is just way more powerful than Grixis Delver is. Grixis Delver is a smoother deck, but Young Pyromancer just sucks right now and Grixis Delver is prone to losing a lot of games to just getting outmuscled by other decks. Sultai Delver doesn't really fall victim to that, because it is just a way more powerful overall strategy. Hymn to Tourach is devastating and Tarmogoyf is a way stronger individual threat than Young Pyromancer.
What scares me about Sultai is what has always scared me about the deck, which is that it is the clunkiest 60 cards I've ever played in my life. Ok, that isn't exactly true, but the deck is extremely clunky sometimes. Trying to play blue cantrips and Hymn to Tourach in a deck that also plays four Wasteland can make for some awkward games. There's nothing like having a Bayou that can't cast a Brainstorm or a Tropical Island that can't cast a Hymn to Tourach, or best yet, having a Wasteland that can't do either.
Other people don't seem to have these same issues when playing the deck, so if I can manage to get over it or find ways to mitigate it during play, then this is a deck that I could see myself definitely playing in the future.
- Brian Braun-Duin