I’ve been playing a ton of Legacy recently. The way that my tournament schedule has gone, it has basically been a month of slingling Legacy in Team Constructed events. I have to say, I’m loving these team formats, as it gives me the opportunity to play a format like Legacy that I wouldn’t otherwise typically get to play.
Eternal formats change slowly. The card pool is huge and robust. The Legacy metagame is a lot like a freighter on the sea—everything is so spread out that it doesn’t look like there’s a clear path, but over time it becomes that there was.
“The path,” or, the basic Legacy narrative, revolves around a singular card and its slow creep to dominance.
Deathrite Shaman is the most important topic in Legacy right now. In fact, I’m certain that any conversation about Legacy, if left to go on long enough, will always spin off into a discussion about whether or not DRS should be banned.
Today’s article is not about “to ban or not to ban.” It’s about why and how Deathrite Shaman has been straight-up terraforming Legacy into a garden of its own design.
What Are Fair Cards, Anyway?
Magic has its own language. It is often intentionally, or unintentionally, imprecise.
“Is your Legacy deck good against unfair decks?”
I have no idea what that sentence means, except that I know exactly what that sentence means. An unfair deck suggests a tactic that avoids the typical progression of playing lands, casting creatures, and attacking with them.
These are the kinds of cards I think about when I say “unfair.” But the deeper I delve into the subject, the murkier the water gets:
These kinds of decks are not slamming Emrakul on turn 2, but they are also not playing fair. They are exploiting perceived weaknesses in the metagame.
It’s not that unfair decks are better than fair decks—it’s more that unfair decks force opponents to interact with whatever they are doing or risk losing the game.
Legacy is a format defined by the presence of unfair, or non-traditional ways of going off and ending the game. The fact that there are so many powerful combo decks necessitates that the permission and disruption flow freely.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, What’s the Fairest Card of All?
So, we are in murky territory. It’s sort of obvious what unfair cards are, but also completely ambiguous. Was Miracles with Counterbalance and Top an unfair deck? Is new Miracles an unfair deck? It’s largely subjective, or at least dependent upon exactly how a person chooses to define fair and unfair.
Despite how fundamentally unclear a lot of this rhetoric is, I feel very comfortable making the following claim:
Deathrite Shaman is nearly always featured in fair decks.
Despite being the known “best deck” in Legacy (with regard to winner’s metagame percentage), most people would have no issue with saying that various flavors of aggro control, i.e., Delver decks, fall into the fair camp.
I know there are examples of various flavors of unfair decks (Turbo Depths, Elves, etc.) using Deathrite Shaman, but it overwhelmingly appears in decks that people tend to describe as fair, as opposed to unfair.
Despite the card being exceptionally powerful and useful, it simply doesn’t help narrow, unfair combo decks nearly as much as it helps fair decks fight against them.
1. The Statline Is a Joke
Since when did a hybrid 1-drop have a 1/2 body and three fantastic abilities? I’d expect this kind of resourcefulness out of a 4-drop planeswalker not a 1-drop creature.
It’s been a long time since RTR saw print and general power creep still hasn’t come anywhere near making these stats close to the baseline. There are simply not other options that come close.
What about me?
Delver is about the closest thing, but it is very different from what DRS does. Delver is a clock and little else. DRS grinds advantage.
A card can go from unplayable to great by simply giving it an extra ability:
DRS has a lot of good abilities for not enough cost. Legacy is full of these types of cards: busted and undercosted. It’s the bread-and-butter of the format.
While I believe DRS is a “fair” card, it is also an obnoxiously stacked card. After all, this card is banned in Modern, a format where fair decks are well in the minority.
2. The Power of 1
Margins are smaller in Magic than ever before. Players are rewarded for getting the maximum value out of every card they cast and every mana they use. Since there are few generically good 1-drop creatures in Legacy, the ones that do exist get a ton of mileage.
All creature-based decks need 1-drops to be competitive in a fast format. Elves has a wealth of 1s. Death and Taxes has some great 1s. The list goes on and on.
Deathrite Shaman and Delver are the glue that hold the Grixis and Sultai decks together.
3. Deathrite Shaman Is a Hate Card for Unfair Decks
Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve realized about how Legacy works is the relationship between Deathrite Shaman and the other powerful decks in the metagame.
The default mode of DRS is that it is a mana dork. It’s nearly good enough just based on that. But the other two modes allow DRS’s controller to mess with an opponent’s graveyard by exiling spells and creatures at instant speed.
There are subsets of unfair decks: Reanimator, Dredge, Lands, and Storm that can be defeated by quick Deathrite Shamans attacking graveyard-based resources.
I think this is perhaps the most important fact when understanding why Deathrite Shaman is everywhere. Yes, the card has silly stats, but it is powerful as a threat that also has disruptive qualities to help fair decks interact with unfair decks before sideboard.
Personally, I enjoy and appreciate that dynamic a great deal. I like cards like Scavenging Ooze that are flexible, and most important useful against combo decks.
Top 5 Fair Cards in Legacy
Just because it’s fun, and also because: why not? Here are what I’d consider to be the five best, most important fair cards in Legacy.
5. Swords to Plowshares
“Welcome this is a farmhouse.”
“April is the cruelest month.”
“When it rains it pours.”
2. Force of Will
“Who is this ‘Will’ and why is he so forceful?”
1. Deathrite Shaman
“You’ve gotta fight… for your Rite.. to Golgarrrrrri.”
Top 5 Unfair Cards
5. Chalice of the Void
“This place is a prison. These people aren’t your friends.”
4. Tendrils of Agony
“I hope you paid attention during ‘Defense Against the Dark Arts’ class…”
3. Show and Tell
Imagine the Brad Pitt, “what’s in the box?” scene from Seven. Now, imagine instead of a head that Emrakul flew out and annihilated everyone. The card is sort of like that.
2. Lion’s Eye Diamond
Who needs cards when you could have mana?
“I’m the king of the world!”
It’s a powerful mix of cards on both lists, fair and unfair. Cards don’t exist in a vacuum. DRS is a strong card on multiple axes. It’s aggressively costed. On the other hand, it isn’t just the stats that drive the card’s success and popularity. The fact that it is contextually good as a sort of maindeckable good card that has sideboard-esque disruptive qualities combined gives many players incentive to build around it.