After a short hiatus, I’ve finally finished the fifth installment of my Legacy Guide! You can find the first four parts of the series here:
I can’t say with confidence that the decks I’ll cover today are the absolute best in Legacy. But I personally consider them to be some of the defining decks of the format. They contribute to making Legacy what it is, and help to set it apart from newer formats like Modern and Standard.
These are what I call Prison decks. If that term is unfamiliar, it’s because Prison decks are a nearly-extinct species in today’s Standard format. The cards that enable these strategies are always unique, often old, and unlikely to be reprinted in any kind of Standard-legal form. Understanding Prison decks is key to learning the difference between Legacy and newer formats.
What is Prison?
Prison is the strategy of making your opponent unable to cast their spells, or unable to use their cards to their normal effect. We’re used to cards like Thoughtseize, Counterspell, and Swords to Plowshares neutralizing opposing threats on a 1-for-1 basis. The goal of Prison cards is to invalidate large swaths of cards all at the same time.
Let’s look at one of Magic’s most iconic Prison cards. This one should be familiar to Legacy and Modern players alike.
Blood Moon has two important functions that contribute to a Prison strategy. The first is neutralizing a large portion of the opponent’s deck by taking away the abilities of their nonbasic lands. Rather than point removal spells at your opponent’s Mishra’s Factories one at a time, Blood Moon is a single card that stops them all for the rest of the game. Similarly, you’ll never have to worry about a Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, an Academy Ruins, or a Dark Depths while Blood Moon is on the battlefield.
Blood Moon’s second important function is to prevent the opponent from casting spells. Just as it directly shuts down the abilities of nonbasic lands, it can also indirectly shut down all spells with demanding colored mana requirements.
Chalice of the Void is the most important Prison card in Legacy right now. Recall from Part II of the Legacy Guide, “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…”
Some decks make the sacrifice of going without Legacy’s powerful 1-mana spells in order to reap the reward of utilizing Chalice of the Void. If you get a Chalice of the Void onto the battlefield with one counter, and your deck is designed to conveniently play around that, you’ll have a tremendous advantage over most decks in Legacy.
Blood Moon and Chalice of the Void are two examples of popular, iconic Prison cards. But there are many more you might run into, including Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Sphere of Resistance, Thorn of Amethyst, Trinisphere, Choke, Ensnaring Bridge, and Armageddon just to name a few.
What to Expect from Prison Decks
At this point, it’s necessary to make an important clarification. While there are some dedicated Prison decks in Legacy, you’re much more likely to run into decks that merely have some aspects of Prison while also employing other strategies. For example, a control deck that simply sideboards a few copies of Blood Moon, or a disruptive creature deck that plays with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.
If Prison is one of your opponent’s primary strategies, they will likely have fast mana to facilitate it. The faster they can get a card like Chalice of the Void, Blood Moon, or Trinisphere onto the battlefield, the more effective it’s going to be. (Consider the difference between casting a turn-1 Chalice of the Void for 1 versus casting a turn-2 Chalice of the Void after the opponent has already played Delver of Secrets.)
You must expect the Prison cards to start coming down as early as the first turn. If your opponent is using fast mana like Ancient Tomb, Mox Diamond, and Lotus Petal to cast these threatening cards on turn 1, then you’ll either need Force of Will, or you’ll have to construct your deck to combat them.
Decks With Prison Elements
In this section, I’ll cover a few decks that contain elements of the Prison strategy, but might not necessarily be classified as Prison decks. Keep in mind that lines can be blurry, and there’s not necessarily one correct way to classify a Magic deck.
Miracles is primarily a reactive control deck, but plays with the Counterbalance plus Sensei’s Divining Top lock. It’s also common to see Blood Moon, Back to Basics, or From the Ashes in Miracles sideboards. Abrupt Decay and Krosan Grip are go-to cards for protecting yourself against the Counterbalance lock.
Colorless Eldrazi is an aggressive creature deck with the tremendous appeal of getting to cast Chalice of the Void for X=1 very quickly, at very little cost. You can expect their sideboard to feature more Prison cards like Sphere of Resistance and/or Thorn of Amethyst. Force of Will and Abrupt Decay are the two best cards for combating turn-1 Chalice of the Void.
Death and Taxes is a white creature deck that pressures the opponent’s ability to cast spells with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Sanctum Prelate, plus Wasteland and Rishadan Port to limit their access to mana. It also plays with Phyrexian Revoker and any of a handful of other Prison-like options including Spirit of the Labyrinth, Containment Priest, Pithing Needle, Armageddon, and Cataclysm. Make sure you have a comfortable amount of mana, and play plenty of cheap removal spells in order to keep yourself from being locked out.
Dedicated Prison Decks
Daryl Ayers, 5th Place at StarCityGames.com Team Constructed Open on 2/18/2017
Lands is the most successful Legacy deck that I would classify as “dedicated Prison.” Per its name, Lands uses a large number and variety of nonbasic lands to control the game. Life from the Loam provides card advantage while Exploration, Manabond, and Mox Diamond provide explosiveness.
Lands employs a combination of Wasteland, Rishadan Port, and Ghost Quarter to cut the opponent’s resources. (Eventually whittling them down to nothing given enough time with Life from the Loam.) It uses the combination of Maze of Ith, Glacial Chasm, Punishing Fire, and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale to neutralize the opponent’s creatures.
Today, Lands has access to a quick kill with a 20/20 Marit Lage token, but before the printing of Thespian’s Stage, Lands would dole out slow, painful deaths via Punishing Fire, Barbarian Ring, or a creatureland once the opponent was locked out of playing spells and attacking with creatures.
Lands is a potent deck, and is challenging to play against. The best strategies against it are fast, noninteractive combo decks like Storm. Short of that, you can fight fire with fire by turning to your own Prison cards that punish nonbasic lands—think Blood Moon, Armageddon, and the like. Finally, be sure to protect your mana, and choose threats that circumvent their defensive measures, such as True-Name Nemesis and planeswalkers.
While many other dedicated Prison decks exist in Legacy, none are among the most popular decks in the format. These include (but are not limited to): Aggro Loam, Goblin Stompy or Dragon Stompy, Enchantress, Pox, Tezzeret, and MUD. While it’s probably not necessary to study each one individually, I will feature one deck list in order to give you a taste of the type of thing you might run into in a Legacy tournament.
PINKFROSTING, 5-0 in an MTGO Competitive Legacy Constructed League
Just like the Thespian’s Stage plus Dark Depths combo in Lands, the Painter’s Servant decks feature the instant-win combo of Painter’s Servant plus Grindstone. That said, its most common route to victory isn’t simply racing to the combo, but instead locking the opponent out of the game (either partially or completely) before assembling the combo at their convenience using cards like Goblin Welder, Enlightened Tutor, and Imperial Recruiter.
A turn-1 Blood Moon or Magus of the Moon can score an easy win. Similarly, many decks are not prepared with answers to Ensnaring Bridge, and can be locked out of winning when it sticks on the battlefield. Creatively, when Painter’s Servant names blue, this deck has access to 6 Elemental Blasts that can counteract any ways the opponent might have to get out of the lock. In this way, the Prison deck can tighten its grip on the game by deploying Prison cards like Ensnaring Bridge, Blood Moon, Rest in Peace, and Trinisphere, which either invalidate or prevent the opponent from casting whole categories of cards. Once large portions of the opponent’s deck can be ignored, the remaining answer cards are free to target only the precious few tools the opponent might have remaining.
Tips for Playing Prison
As a deck builder, the idea of Prison decks is fun and appealing. Your cleverness can be rewarded when you identify patterns in the metagame, and choose cards to exploit those patterns.
My only caution is that, while a well-built Prison deck can be very successful, a poorly built one might hardly function at all. Recall the example from earlier: A turn-1 Chalice of the Void or Trinisphere might delay or lock the opponent out entirely. But casting one later might not save you from the Delver of Secrets they put onto the battlefield on turn 1.
Similarly, if you misjudge what you’re likely to face, you might show up with Prison cards that are ineffective against what your opponents are doing. An example would be Ensnaring Bridge against a Storm deck, or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben against Elves.
Focus on 4 ingredients for your Prison decks.
- Speed. Cast your spells quickly for maximum effectiveness and easy wins.
- The ability to find the right card in the right matchup. Crop Rotation in Lands and Enlightened Tutor in Painter’s Servant help these decks to have the perfect Prison card against each opponent they face.
- Flexible answer cards. Inevitably, things will slip through the cracks, and having some cards that can answer anything will help plug the holes.
- Win the game quickly and decisively once you’re ready. Crafty opponents will eventually find ways to wiggle out of your lock. It’s often easier to win the game with a combo (Thespian’s Stage plus Dark Depths) or a hard-hitting creature (Reality Smasher) than it is to prepare for every single possibility you could face over the course of a 20-turn game.
Tips for Playing Against Prison
It’s common for Prison decks to attack your mana. In this way, they limit the number of cards and combinations you can use to escape their hold. Protect your mana by playing a healthy number of lands, including basic lands in your deck, and mulliganing risky hands.
The more single-minded your game plan, the more vulnerable you will be to the Prison cards your opponents choose. If you have a balanced game plan with a variety of threats and answers, you’ll be harder to shut down.
Choose reactive cards that can answer a wide variety of threats, including noncreatures. Swords to Plowshares and Fatal Push may be the most efficient removal spells in Legacy, but I feel most comfortable when I have access to cards like Abrupt Decay, Council’s Judgment, and Force of Will because those cards can protect me against much of what these Prison decks are trying to do.
Like it or not, many games of Legacy come down to one player or the other being essentially unable to play the game. Sometimes they can’t cast their spells under a Blood Moon, other times they can’t use their creatures in the face of an Ensnaring Bridge. Be careful not to let it happen to you!