Recurring Nightmares – AVR’s Legacy

After spending so much time focusing on Block Constructed over the course of the last month and a half, I’m excited to get back to the respite that is Legacy. It’s a nice, calm, quiet lake that doesn’t feel the same kind of rippling waves that the other, smaller formats feel when new sets are dropped like bags of bricks into the pool. During the lead-in to the release of Avacyn Restored, I was unable to really give the kind of scrutiny to the set that I generally do in terms of Legacy playability. But, now that things have returned to relative normality, I’ve had a little more time to tweak, brew, and analyze. I’ve been able to take a look at the format as a whole, and develop an understanding of what’s changed in Legacy since Avacyn was released from the Helvault.

Not a whole lot.

Unlike Dark Ascension, or Innistrad before it, Avacyn Restored has made little difference to the metagame of Legacy. While the miracle mechanic has the potential to provide giant effects for little mana, it hasn’t really influenced the upper tier of the metagame. RUG, Maverick, and combo are still on top—much as they were prior to the new set’s release.

Looking at the results of the most recent SCG Open, we can quickly deduce that the most significant addition to the card pool is [card]Griselbrand[/card]—a generic fatty that gets reanimated by various decks trying to go over the top of RUG and Maverick’s creatures. Cheating the draw-seven guy into play appears to be the new vogue; and the fact that he can draw those cards immediately, or in response to a removal spell from an opponent, gives him the edge over the previously popular [card]Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur[/card]. Other decks are giving the man a shot as well, such as the first place Dredge list, or the second place Sneak and Show deck, which is happy to pay R and seven life in exchange for a new hand. Aside from these two decks, and the fourth place control deck (which I’ll get to in a moment), there were no other decks in the Top 16 of this event that ran even a single card from AVR. This does not bode well for the set’s potential in the format.

After the enormous influence of Innistrad on Legacy, followed by the marginal-but-not-insignificant changes associated with Dark Ascension, it’s odd to be back in a place where we’re only pulling a handful of cards from a set. Sure, it’s nice to upgrade a fatty, but if that’s the best we can get from an additional 300+ cards, we’re looking at a pretty underpowered format. Either that, or the decks that are winning are so much better than the rest of the cards we have available there’s just no touching them. I don’t believe that to be the case, so it’s much more likely we have a weak Legacy set on our hands. The totality of the block’s influence on Legacy ends up being rather average overall, as the first set was far more impactful than most.

I’m not convinced that we’ve seen all AVR has to offer, though. The fourth place deck from the Orlando Open is quite interesting, and makes me think we may need to investigate the potential of the miracle mechanic a bit more.

Here’s the list, piloted by Shawn French:

[deck]Main Deck:
3 Sensei’s Divining Top
3 Snapcaster Mage
1 Oblivion Ring
4 Brainstorm
2 Counterspell
4 Force of Will
2 Spell Pierce
2 Spell Snare
4 Swords to Plowshares
2 Vendilion Clique
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Entreat the Angels
4 Ponder
3 Terminus
5 Island
2 Plains
4 Flooded Strand
1 Marsh Flats
4 Polluted Delta
3 Tundra
1 Karakas
Sideboard:
1 Relic of Progenitus
3 Tormod’s Crypt
3 Ethersworn Canonist
4 Counterbalance
2 Path to Exile
1 Vendilion Clique
1 Terminus[/deck]

This list is a riff on classic UW Control, which is typically represented by Landstill in the Legacy metagame whenever it’s viable.

Historically, Landstill used [card]Decree of Justice[/card] to great success as a tool for working around the “symmetry” of [card]Standstill[/card], while still allowing the deck to use its large mana advantage to win in one or two attacks. As that deck generally attempted to avoid board states where [card]Standstill[/card] was not present, it was important to avoid breaking the [card]Standstill[/card] to achieve board parity or get ahead, so Decree was a key component. Rarely did a Landstill player choose the “hard cast” mode of the spell, aside from corner cases where a flying blocker/attacker was more important than the card.

[card]Entreat the Angels[/card] is a much worse card at playing with a draw engine like [card]Standstill[/card], but a much better card at playing with a draw engine like [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card]. In fact, it’s a much better card in general, as it creates 4/4 Angels for less mana than Decree creates 1/1 Soldiers. It seems rather ideal for this type of deck, and is an intuitive inclusion for the UW Control archetype.

[card]Terminus[/card], on the other hand, is not as intuitive. Where the occasional miracle will allow you to blow out your Maverick or RUG opponent for a single white, the standard mana cost of six seems too slow and inhibiting for it to work in a format as fast as Legacy—at least, until you’ve actually played more than a game or two with this deck.

Legacy is actually the perfect format for the miracle mechanic. Nowhere else do you have the same control and manipulation of the top card of your library. In no other format do you have the same number of ways to ensure that the cards in your hand are the ones you want, and the cards in your library are the ones that belong there. Controlling your draw step is simpler in Legacy than anywhere else, and it’s fairly simple to ensure that you’ll have access to the right cards at the right time.

When [card]Temporal Mastery[/card] was spoiled, players scrambled to fit it into a shell that started with 4 [card]Brainstorm[/card], 4 [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card], and 4 [card]Ponder[/card]. It seemed sweet that we could use this as a literal [card]Time Walk[/card] to break open the Delver mirror. It’s proven to not be worth the effort, as you’ll find yourself spending turns to gain turns, which ends up costing you more than it’s worth in the end. However, in a deck that already seeks to set up an unloseable board state, what’s a little more time to make your cards a straight blowout?

Shawn’s list has a lot of things I like. There are a few choices I’d probably make differently: conveniently enough I’ve been working on a similar list myself, which I’ll share to give you some insight into my own process for breaking the miracle mechanic.

[deck]Main Deck:
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Brainstorm
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Force of Will
3 Spell Snare
2 Spell Pierce
1 Counterspell
4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
1 Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
4 Snapcaster Mage
3 Entreat the Angels
2 Terminus
3 Island
2 Plains
4 Flooded Strand
3 Marsh Flats
2 Polluted Delta
4 Tundra
1 Underground Sea
1 Scrubland
1 Karakas
3 Wasteland
Sideboard:
4 Counterbalance
4 Thoughtseize
1 Terminus
2 Surgical Extraction
1 Nihil Spellbomb
2 Disenchant
1 Crucible of Worlds[/deck]

While this list sports a black splash in the sideboard for [card]Thoughtseize[/card], this is by no means the definitive choice, and a substitute of red would look similar, perhaps utilizing [card]Red Elemental Blast[/card] in the slots occupied by Seize. Thoughtseize is a boon in matchups like Sneak and Show, where you don’t have a lot of spells that favorably interact with their win conditions, while they require a number of things to go right in order to assemble their doomsday device. Having spells that force interaction in that way is excellent, but I’m not certain that the same role couldn’t be fulfilled by [card]Vendilion Clique[/card].

I feel that 20 lands in your control deck falls under the appropriate number necessary to reliably hit four mana, without forcing yourself to use your cantrips to find land—rather than to find miracles. I’ve upped the count of Entreat to three—you’ll need to access them in order to cast them for their miracle cost—so additional lands are required to get the full value from the Angels.

[card]Wasteland[/card] is an addition I’m not entirely sold on at this point. While I do think the card adds value to the mana base, I see it more as a colorless producer that will occasionally shut down something like [card]Academy Ruins[/card], or an opposing [card]Karakas[/card], rather than cutting your opponent off from a color. That said, combined with the [card]Crucible of Worlds[/card] in the sideboard, I wouldn’t be surprised if that plan ends up being realistic against decks like RUG, which rely on a small number of vulnerable sources. The tradeoff, of course, is the exposure it presents to drawing them when you’re in need of blue or white mana, and this deck is particularly greedy for colored mana sources of both varieties. This is part of the reason I’ve chosen to run the full four [card]Tundra[/card]s, something most control decks in Legacy have eschewed of late.

I think there’s a real case to be made for wanting even more than four [card]Tundra[/card]s in the deck, perhaps running [card]Glacial Fortress[/card] as additional copies. It’s possible that based on the color requirements for Entreat, [card]Mystic Gate[/card] may be better functioning for those purposes. If that’s the case, I could see trimming the number of [card]Wasteland[/card]s to anywhere from 1-3, making it a genuine utility land rather than a strategy.

While Shawn chose to include [card]Ponder[/card] in his list, I don’t see a lot of incentive for the card. Certainly, it does allow you to smooth out your draws in the early game, and finds lands when you’re short (which you will be, when you’re running 20), but it does nothing when you’re trying to set up a miracle. Imagine you cast the spell during your main phase, and see the following:

Blank
Blank
Miracle

In order to hit the miracle on your next turn, you shift the card up by one slot, and hit your miracle a turn before you otherwise would. This is the best case. If instead, you see:

Blank
Miracle
Blank

You’ll need to either put the cards back in the same order, or possibly reverse the order of the blanks, but the miracle comes no earlier than it would if you just cast [card]Obsessive Search[/card]. If the order is:

Miracle
Blank
Blank

You’ve actually set yourself back to the position you started, with a blank in place of the Ponder and down a blue mana. You hit the miracle next turn, in the same way you would have without the [card]Ponder[/card].

[card]Ponder[/card] smooths draws and allows some great interactions with fetchlands, but does not interact with the miracle mechanic in an appreciable way. It can’t give you an additional shot by drawing a card on the opponent’s turn—something that [card]Portent[/card] can do, for whatever that’s worth—and it doesn’t do more than simply cycling a card does in terms of speeding up a miracle. In a deck that’s trying to generate large amounts of mana to go over the top of a deck like RUG or Maverick, this seems like spinning your wheels.

Instead, I’ve chosen to up the count of the miracles you’re trying to hit, which serves a similar function to the [card]Ponder[/card], but does cause situations where you draw the Entreats at an inopportune time. Fortunately, as mentioned above, Legacy is the home of [card]Brainstorm[/card], [card sensei’s divining top]Top[/card], and [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card], to help prevent this kind of thing—or to undo it when you do open the card in your hand. This is similar in principle to Alex Hayne jamming his deck full of as many miracles as he could get his hands on in Barcelona.

The combination of [card]Brainstorm[/card], [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card], and [card]Sensei’s Divining Top[/card] is one that I’m intimately familiar with, through my time playing both [card]Enlightened Tutor[/card] control as well as “Next-Level Blue” style CounterTop lists before that. As a card selection engine, they combine to ensure that all the cards you want in specific places remain there, and the ones you don’t want are not drawn out of turn. It’s a natural fit for the miracle mechanic. It also allows you to sideboard [card]Counterbalance[/card], which is something I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to do for quite some time—at least, I’ve been waiting for an excuse better than “I miss playing Counterbalance.”

Right now, the format stands at a point where unfair things abound. Maverick is most definitely the only fair deck that stands a reasonable shot in the metagame, and even that deck is debatably on the way out. RUG represents the culmination of tempo, and is the check and balance to the broken Show and Tell decks that have been systematically dismantling the players who are trying to attack for two. Dredge, which is actually just a different kind of [card]Show and Tell[/card] deck, has reasonable percentages against both RUG and Sneak and Show, and is popping up in the top slots due to its positive matchups.

While [card]Counterbalance[/card] is rather unimpressive against a deck like Dredge, and has marginal applications against Sneak and Show, it tends to beat up on RUG when paired with cards like [card]Terminus[/card] and [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] to clean up whatever threats slip through the cracks. Having [card]Terminus[/card] as a legitimate answer to [card]Nimble Mongoose[/card] is especially nice, as that card poses a significant problem to most UW lists. Counterbalance is underappreciated against Maverick, as well, since it can force the opponent to rely on [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card] to work around it, often allowing you to turn on otherwise difficult to utilize spells like [card]Spell Pierce[/card]. It turns out [card]Terminus[/card] is pretty good against the creature deck, as well, although allowing them to recycle their [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card]s to Zenith up again is fairly awkward.

The card I’m most eager to determine the value of is [card]Tamiyo, the Moon Sage[/card]. I get the feeling she’s probably not going to last all that long in the deck, as she’s really just an [card]Icy Manipulator[/card] that can potentially draw a few cards from time to time. She’s probably better as the second [card elspeth, knight-errant]Elspeth[/card] or fourth [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card], but I’m giving her a chance before I rule her out completely. The idea of using her ultimate is incredibly appealing, even with a deck like this that can’t fully utilize it as a win condition. Combining a Tamiyo Emblem with a [card]Brainstorm[/card] is pretty awesome, and having access to infinite Plows and Counterspells also seems like a big game. We’ll see how it works out, but the mana cost may be too prohibitive. Five mana is a TON in this format, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Tamiyo is just too slow.

I’m eager to get a in bunch more matches with this style of deck, because I think it exploits a real weakness in the current RUG dominated metagame, and I’d like to see an honest-to-goodness control deck be viable once again. It’s been too long.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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