My goal over the coming weeks is to paint a picture of the Legacy format, and I’ll begin today by using broad strokes. To take that overview, we’ll examine the pillars of the format and the most common ways that games are won and lost in Legacy.
Defining Cards of Legacy
What cards make Legacy what it is? In this section, I’ll highlight a handful of cards that are essential to understand if you’re going to master the format. Many of these cards are not legal in Modern, meaning that Legacy is the only commonly played Constructed format where you’ll encounter them.
There can be no discussion of the Legacy format without mentioning Brainstorm. For as long as I can remember, there has been a faction of players calling for Brainstorm to be banned in Legacy. But in a way, Brainstorm is almost too important to ever eliminate from the format. It’s the most ubiquitous spell by far and has a tremendous impact on both game play and deckbuilding. The majority of Legacy decks are blue, and very close to all blue decks play 4 copies of Brainstorm. There are many players that love Legacy simply because they love Brainstorming.
Brainstorm is a cantrip just like Ponder and Gitaxian Probe, and could even be compared to Standard cards like Anticipate or Oath of Nissa. It produces neither card advantage nor an impact on the battlefield. Nonetheless, cantrips are extremely powerful in Magic, and Brainstorm is the most powerful of them all.
Brainstorm smooths your draw by allowing you to dig toward your important spells, as well as helping to ensure that you always draw the optimal number of lands. Cantrips in general and Brainstorm in particular are the reason why Legacy decks sometimes play as few as 14 lands capable of producing colored mana! If all of your cards draw you more cards, you really only need one land in your opening hand to make your deck function.
Brainstorm is uniquely powerful because of its ability to cash in unneeded cards from your hand for fresh cards. In combination with shuffle effects, like fetchlands, it can sometimes feel like you’re casting Ancestral Recall. Combine this with additional uses like hiding a card on the top of your library to dodge Thoughtseize, or setting up a miracle card like Terminus, and you have something extremely powerful.
When you have the luxury to do so, it can be a good idea to wait on casting Brainstorm in order to extract that type of value. Once you’ve drawn a few extra lands and have found a way to shuffle your library, Brainstorm will give you far more benefit than if you simply fire it off at the first opportunity.
Force of Will
I hesitate to describe Force of Will as one of the most powerful cards in Legacy. Yet it is also one of the most important and ubiquitous cards of the format.
The importance of Force of Will scales with the power of whatever your opponents are doing. It is possible—although not terribly common—for a player to win the game or cast a game-winning spell on the very first turn. Force of Will is an appealing card to play with in order to protect yourself from explosive combo decks.
Additionally, mana is precious in Legacy and often the ability to win a permission battle at the crucial moment is well worth the price of an extra card.
All that said, card economy is also important, and casting Force of Will for its alternate cost will always represent card disadvantage. Play with Force of Will if your deck can support it, but don’t treat it as a sacred cow. It’s sometimes okay to sideboard it out against non-combo decks.
Like Force of Will, Daze is a free permission spell. The main difference is that Daze is a time-sensitive card, and can be less reliable. But when players are pushed to the extremes of speed and efficiency, a subtle card like Daze can hit with the force of a freight train.
Sometimes you’ll be able to “play around” your opponent’s Dazes by leaving an extra mana untapped. But slowing yourself down by a turn will sometimes mean playing into your opponent’s hands even more, and you’ll allow them to get value from their Dazes without ever casting them (or perhaps even drawing them)! Use your judgment in this regard, but don’t be afraid to jam your spells and make your opponent have it.
Similarly, Wasteland allows sleek, efficient creature decks to win the battle over mana against greedier combo and controlling decks. It sometimes goes hand in hand with Daze as a package to squeeze your opponent’s resources and give them as little room to play as possible.
Despite being a symmetrical effect (each player loses one land), the power of Wasteland comes from the fact that you can control it. If you need your mana more than your opponent, then feel free to play your other lands first, or tap your Wastelands for mana. If you’re pressing an advantage, or don’t need your lands anymore, then Wasteland will allow you to put the screws to your opponent instead.
Fast mana forms the backbone of many of the format’s combo decks and enables the explosiveness of many of Legacy’s other strategies. Speed is a potent weapon in Magic. But you should proceed with caution, since investing resources into fast mana only to have your spell met with a Force of Will or a Daze can be a losing proposition.
By this point you should be noticing a trend. Much of Legacy boils down to a battle between the players who want to cast powerful spells, and the players who want to stop them. While Standard and Modern players will have encountered permission and discard spells as ways to disrupt the opponent, they may not be quite as familiar with these “prison” or “lock” cards.
A consequence of the extreme efficiency of Legacy is that a huge portion of players’ decks consist of 1- and 2-mana spells. It’s possible to exploit that by constructing your deck to support Chalice of the Void or Counterbalance (in combination with Sensei’s Divining Top).
Beware of these cards, lest you lose the ability to cast your spells.
Balance in Legacy
Not the card Balance, but the balance of power in the Legacy metagame.
Above is a list of some of the standout cards of the format. I’ve already hinted at the fact that a majority of competitive Legacy players choose to play blue in order to have access to cards like Brainstorm and Force of Will.
In my mind, Delver of Secrets strategies represent the quintessential Legacy deck. These decks pair blue with any 1, 2, or 3 other colors. They feature a low land count, counting on their Brainstorms and Ponders to help them, and they play the package of Wasteland, Daze, and Force of Will in order to stop the opponent from enacting his or her game plan.
Noah Walker, Top 4 at GP Columbus
Delver decks, in their various forms, have been among the most popular and successful strategies in Legacy for many years.
A second way to utilize the power of Brainstorm and Force of Will is in Miracles. Miracles is the hallmark control deck of Legacy, utilizing Brainstorm plus Terminus and Swords to Plowshares to manage creatures, and Counterbalance plus Sensei’s Divining Top and Force of Will to protect themselves from other threats.
Joe Lossett, 2nd place at GP Columbus
While Delver and Miracles may be the only decks you’re guaranteed to see at a Legacy tournament, you can always count on fast combo decks to be represented in one form or another.
Rodrigo Togores, 1st place at GP Prague
Legacy is incredibly diverse, with dozens and dozens of other strategies being competitive. The combo decks vary in structure, speed, and resilience. There’s a wide variety of creature decks that don’t play Delver of Secrets. And there are disruptive decks featuring prison cards or other ways to shut down the opponent’s game plan.
But Delver, Miracles, and combo are the three pillars that hold the most weight in Legacy right now. If you can understand the workings of these decks and how to beat them, you’ll be well on your way.
How Games Are Won and Lost
Now we have a rough idea of what the cards and decks of Legacy look like. Now let’s take a look at the games. What are the main factors that cause one player to win and the other to lose?
- A combo. The fastest way for a game of Legacy to be decided is if a player successfully assembles a combo. This might mean cheating a Griselbrand into play, casting a lethal Tendrils of Agony, or anything else. If the combo player can fight through all of the opposing disruption, they will usually win.
- Somebody can’t cast their spells. Every Magic player knows the feeling of being mana screwed. But it can often feel like the whole Legacy format is conspiring to mana screw you. Your lands can be destroyed with Wasteland, your fetchlands can be countered by Stifle, your spells can become more expensive due to Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, or you can lose everything to a Blood Moon or Armageddon. Alternatively, your opponent might lock you out with Counterbalance+Top or Chalice of the Void. Finally, you might be able to cast your spells, but they might all be countered with Dazes and Force of Wills.
- An unanswered threat. If those two things don’t happen, then you might settle in for a battle, just like the ones we’re used to in Standard. But the threats in Legacy are potent and resilient, and being caught with the wrong answer at the wrong time can be devastating. For example, you can lose quickly to an Insectile Aberration if your defense if based on ground blockers. Your opponent might stick Jace, the Mind Sculptor when you don’t have a creature to attack it. Or you might die to a Reality Smasher with a hand full of Abrupt Decays.
- A grindy game. Despite the common pitfalls listed above, a huge number of Legacy games do come down to fighting on thin margins, and trying to pull ahead with 2-for-1 advantages, or careful use of Brainstorms and Ponders. Despite the fact that games can end quickly, slower cards like Ancestral Vision, Predict, and Painful Truths still play important roles in Legacy.
Legacy is a dangerous world. There are a lot of pitfalls to watch out for, and a lot of ways to lose a game. The unforgiving nature of the format means that each and every skill in Magic’s game play becomes very important. Sequence your spells to minimize the damage of an opposing permission spell, attack and block carefully in order to maximize damage to the opponent and minimize the risk to your creatures, and line up your disruption and answer cards against the right tools and threats of the opponent.
Legacy is challenging, but knowing what’s out there is the most important step in mastering the format.