Sensei’s Divining Top is banned and Legacy’s premier control deck (in fact, Legacy’s only heavily played control deck) is out of the picture. Over the coming months, Legacy players will be eager to find out what—if anything—will take the place of Miracles. In Part VIII of my Legacy Guide, I’ll discuss what it takes for a control deck to be successful. I’ll also go over a handful of the most likely candidates to be successful control decks in a Sensei’s Divining Top-less format.
Being Proactive and Being Reactive
The first piece of advice I give to anyone struggling with deck selection is to choose something proactive. By proactive, I mean that there should be something you can work toward in each game—something specific that you’re trying to accomplish.
When building a control deck, there’s a tendency to focus more on answering the opponents’ threats. For many, the goal becomes not losing instead of actually winning. I believe that being excessively reactive in this way is an inferior strategy.
The problem is that when you allow the game to go on indefinitely, you leave a tremendous amount of room for things to go wrong. You can survive the initial rush, and then lose because you drew too many lands. You can find yourself with the wrong answers for the wrong threat, like a hand full of Fatal Pushes and Abrupt Decays against a Gurmag Angler. Or your opponent can do something strange that you weren’t prepared for, like hardcasting an Eldrazi Titan off of a Cavern of Souls.
Nowhere is this more true than in Legacy, because of the diversity of the metagame and the depth of the card pool. It’s impossible to be prepared for everything, and you’re likely to face 10 completely different decks over the course of a long tournament. No matter how hard you work, your answer suite won’t always be tailored to beating what your opponents throw at you.
When you’re doing something proactive, you can press an advantage and close the game (either winning outright or doing something that effectively decides the game). When you face something unexpected, you can focus on executing your own game plan rather than trying to shut down whatever they’re doing.
Miracles, despite being a slow deck, had Sensei’s Divining Top and Counterbalance, which represented a potent proactive game plan. Combined with a little bit of permission, this combo offered them an effective game plan against combo decks. It ensured that they could beat decks like Delver so long as they survived the initial rush. It also meant that players couldn’t simply build bigger, slower control decks with more card advantage to prey on Miracles.
Without Counterbalance, another way to be proactive would be to build a combo into your deck, such as Painter’s Servant plus Grindstone or Rest in Peace plus Helm of Obedience. Alternatively, you could play with creatures that close out the game quickly like Stoneforge Mystic, Monastery Mentor, or Gurmag Angler.
Legacy is home to efficient card selection in the form of Brainstorm, Ponder, and other cantrips. But dedicated card advantage is harder to come by, particularly if you want it in the form of spells that directly draw more cards. This is part of the reason that Delver of Secrets decks are so great while control decks are harder to make work. The Delver decks rely on the virtual card advantage of a low land count, efficient spells, and card selection to shuffle away extra lands in a long game. Control decks have to work harder in order to achieve real resource advantages.
The first option for a control deck is simply to pay a lot of mana for card draw. Fact or Fiction comes to mind. But efficiency is paramount in Legacy, and resolving a 4-mana spell is easier said than done in a world of Wasteland and Daze.
There are a few card draw spells that pass the efficiency test, but require a lot of setup to make work. Predict requires you to play a huge number of cards that allow you to know the top card or your (or your opponent’s) library. Standstill demands that you to have a stable battlefield and utility lands like Wasteland and Mishra’s Factory in order to cast it. Ancestral Vision is mana efficient, but glacially slow for a format where games are often decided in the first 2 or 3 turns. It tends to make a good pair with Shardless Agent, but underwhelming as a standalone.
Finally, you could pay life, but there’s a limit to the amount of life-loss that a slow control deck can accommodate. Painful Truths and Sylvan Library are the best options. But unless they’re paired with life gain cards, they should likely be kept to 1 or 2 copies each.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is legitimately great, and virtually all blue control decks should be playing between 2 and 4. But between being a 4-mana spell and being countered by creatures, Lightning Bolts, and Red Elemental Blasts, he can’t be a one-man show. You need to supplement Jace with additional card advantage in order to build a functioning control deck.
That leaves you with non-card-drawing ways of generating advantage, which are a bit easier to come by. In this department, Snapcaster Mage is king and can be considered in 2-3 copies for any blue control deck. Stoneforge Mystic, Baleful Strix, and Lingering Souls (sometimes alongside Intuition) are other good options. Grixis Control has also been putting Kolaghan’s Command to good use.
The diversity of Legacy poses the great challenge of having to deal with single resilient creatures like True-Name Nemesis or Reality Smasher, swarms of creatures from Elves or Goblins, and noncreature threats like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, as well as spell-based or graveyard-based combos. The latter is the most challenging, as the more you pack your deck with Swords to Plowshares, Terminus, and Council’s Judgment, the weaker you’re going to be against Storm Combo and Show and Tell decks.
I believe that beating combo decks (especially in game 1) is the single greatest challenge facing control decks in Legacy. Most combo decks are well suited to fighting through permission spells given enough time. This means that control decks will need multiple angles of disruption, either by playing black for discard spells, or by playing permanent-based disruption like Meddling Mage. That’s not even to mention unusual combo decks like Lands and Dredge! Winning those matchups require an even more specific approach.
When it comes to beating creature decks, having all spot removal won’t do the trick. It’s easy for white decks to supplement with Terminus and Supreme Verdict, but other color combinations can have a hard time beating swarm decks or True-Name Nemesis. Toxic Deluge is a good option, but is difficult to play in large numbers.
Examples of Control Decks
Grixis Control is essentially a bigger form of Grixis Delver. Since it shares many of the same cards and strengths with one of the absolute best decks in Legacy, most players would agree that it’s (at bare minimum) a decent deck choice.
DINATEST, 5-0 in a Competitive Legacy Constructed League
Grixis leans more toward the midrange part of the spectrum than the pure control part. It trades in Delver of Secrets for 2-for-1 cards like Snapcaster Mage and Baleful Strix. These creatures, by the way, pair excellently with Kolaghan’s Command for bigger midgame advantage. 2 copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor round out the control game plan.
The specific strengths of Grixis include a respectable clock, and Cabal Therapy as a way to supplement the disruption package. The Grixis colors offer great sideboard options including the appealing Pyroblast.
One weakness is a lack of answers to a resolved True-Name Nemesis.
Esper Stoneblade is a blast from the past that had fallen out of favor in a world of Miracles. It’s a well-balanced deck that has access to creatures, card advantage, disruption, and life gain.
MOATZU, 5-0 in a Competitive Legacy Constructed League
Much of what you’d say about Grixis Control is also true of Esper Stoneblade. It can put on a clock with creatures, and pairs permission spells with discard to disrupt combo decks from multiple angles.
All in all, it’s slower than Grixis. Combine that with Thoughtseize being a bit weaker than the Cabal Therapy plus Young Pyromancer combo and the result is that Esper Stoneblade will have to work a bit harder to have a good matchup against combo. But Stoneforge Mystic and white removal are great for beating opposing creature decks.
Standstill has been a fringe card in Legacy for as long as I can remember. It nearly went extinct during the height of Miracles, but now its diehard fans are endeavoring to bring it back. Once you pay the deckbuilding costs to ensure that you’ll be advantaged in a stalemate, Standstill becomes the best card draw spell available in Legacy.
POW22, 5-0 in a Competitive Legacy Constructed League
Landstill can come in a variety of color combinations, but POW22’s Esper Landstill deck looks like a great starting point. Notice the emphasis on 1-mana answers to help ensure a clean board for Standstill to come down on turn 2. Once there, this deck can use Creeping Tar Pit and Wasteland to apply pressure and force the opponent to break the Standstill. Even in the absence of Tar Pit, a powerful control deck with a high land count is perfectly content with a stalemate, as making its land drops and filling its hand will help it win the late game regardless.
Beware, however, that Landstill is an extremely slow and reactive deck. I recommend against it unless you’re an expert player who can play tightly and quickly. You’ll also need your finger on the pulse of the metagame to make sure you know exactly what all of the commonly-played decks are going to throw at you, and how to line your answers up against their threats.
There are some mages that refuse to let Miracles go down without a fight. These players love the deck so much that they’re still happy to play it even without its hallmark card. Instead, they use Brainstorm, Ponder, and Portent to set the top of the library in order to make use of Terminus and Predict.
IAMTHELAWR, 5-0 in a Competitive Legacy Constructed League
Topless Miracles is the most classic example of a control deck I can offer. Its goal is to make land drops, grind small advantages using Predict and Snapcaster Mage, control the board with Swords to Plowshares and board sweepers, and eventually win with Jace, Monastery Mentor, or Entreat the Angels. This remains a reasonable strategy, as the blue cards contribute to a high level of consistency while the white cards make for an excellent anti-creature package.
Like Landstill, Portent Miracles is a highly reactive deck. Specifically, with Counterbalance out of the picture, I fear for its chances against combo decks like Storm and Sneak and Show. The saving grace is that its matchup against creature decks is so strong in game 1 that it can devote nearly its entire sideboard to combo matchups, as IAMTHELAWR has done in the above deck list.
Are the reports of Miracles’ death greatly exaggerated? Or is Portent Miracles simply trying too hard to hold onto the glory days a little bit longer? Time will tell.
Control decks have their work cut out for them in Legacy. The diversity of the format makes it extremely difficult to prepare for everything, and the number of combo decks that attack from different angles put a lot of strain on their sideboards.
That said, the answer cards in Legacy are highly efficient, and grinding 2-for-1 advantages is both easy and effective. Finding a control deck that works for you can be a good way to have a successful Legacy career.