Of all the formats we currently play competitively, Legacy is the one where you can do the most powerful things—you have the most powerful cards, the best card draw, the fastest mana, the quickest combos.
For this reason, there are very few decks with no disruption that can succeed in Legacy. If you let them do whatever they want to do, they will kill you. There are a few—like Elves—that have such a powerful plan on their own that they force the opponent to have to disrupt them. Everyone else has to dedicate quite a few slots to simply stop things from happening.
It’s important to realize, however, that simply having disruption is not enough—you also have to use it effectively. It’s common for people to read “disrupt them with discard,” or “use removal to keep them off their key guys,” or “counter the key pieces of their combo,” and not elaborate any further. What am I supposed to take with my discard? What are the key guys? What are the key pieces of the combo? Many games have been lost because a player had the Force of Will and chose to wait for the Ad Nauseam rather than countering the Dark Ritual.
This is what I’m going to talk about today. Disruption in Legacy. More specifically, what forms it takes and when and how to use it against the most popular combo decks in the format.
Sneak and Show
Sneak and Show is the most popular of what I like to think of as the “blue combo” decks, which are the combo decks that also have their own counterspells. Here’s a list for reference (and keep in mind that this is not necessarily the list I recommend, it’s just the newest list I could find):
Sneak and Show, Brad Nelson
Sneak and Show wants to resolve either Sneak Attack or Show and Tell and get a big guy into play. The best way to stop them, therefore, is to stop both Sneak Attack and Show and Tell. This is not very easy to do, considering the entire deck is combo, card draw, and disruption, so you need to apply at least some pressure to win.
Counterspells are generally the best form of disruption because they can counter anything and they beat Brainstorm and topdecks. The tricky part is figuring out what to counter. Sneak Attack and Show and Tell are automatic. If you don’t counter those, you aren’t going to counter anything else. I believe most lists will adopt some number of Dig Through Times, and that’s also an easy target. The small card drawing, however, is a bit harder to evaluate.
When deciding whether to counter something now or later, the question you ask yourself is: “if I don’t counter this now, will I have the opportunity to counter something better later?” My default is to not counter anything that is not a combo piece, unless I have reason to believe that I won’t be able to counter whatever I want to counter in the future. This can be for many reasons:
• My counter is soft. There are two kinds of counterspells: hard counters and soft counters. Hard counters are things that will counter something no matter what—Counterspell, Force of Will, Pyroblast. Soft counters are the ones that can be worked around—Spell Pierce, Daze, Flusterstorm. As a general rule, you want to use soft counters as soon as possible, because they lose effectiveness quickly. If I don’t Spell Pierce your Brainstorm, chances are that when you cast your Show and Tell you can just pay for it. Your hard counters, on the other hand, you want to hold on for as long as possible, since they can counter the key spells no matter what.
As far as combo decks go, Sneak and Show is on the expensive end of things, so your soft counters will be more useful throughout the game—it’s not super easy for them to play Sneak Attack and keep two mana up, for example. It also has a red combo piece—Sneak Attack—so be a little more liberal with those Pyroblasts.
• I won’t have enough mana. This is very simple. Imagine I have a two Counterspells and two mana. If you play a card draw spell, I can normally just counter whatever you draw, so I let it resolve. If I can only cast one spell, however, then it makes sense to counter it now, because that extra Counterspell in my hand is not going to do anything anyway. Basically, if I am constrained on mana, I want to spend it as much as possible whenever I can.
It’s also possible that I want to tap out for something the following turn. Imagine, for example, I have a Stoneforge Mystic and a Spell Pierce. On turn one, you play Ponder. I’m going to Spell Pierce this 100% of the time, because I know that on turn two I want to tap out for Stoneforge, so I’m not going to be able to play Spell Pierce. I want to minimize the chance that you combo me in that window of opportunity and I don’t mind trading 1-for-1 to do that.
• I want to avoid a counter war. Sometimes, I have mana but they don’t, and I know they want to fight for a spell but they can’t. Say someone casts an Intuition on three lands and they have a Pyroblast in hand. If I don’t Force of Will the Intuition, they’re going to untap, play a fourth land, and then cast Show and Tell with mana up for that Pyroblast. In this case, it’s better to counter the Intuition before they can fight for it.
• The card you’re getting can’t be countered. Sneak and Show is a two-card combo, but only one of the cards is vulnerable to counterspells. If your hand is three Show and Tells and no Griselbrand, I have to stop you from finding it—and that means countering cantrips. If you do find it, you have three Show and Tells. I can’t counter them all.
Discard effects are effective against Sneak and Show because it needs both combo pieces at the same time. In the great majority of the situations, if you can play a discard spell when they don’t have mana (such as on turn one), do it. You absolutely do not want to give them the chance to Brainstorm away a valuable combo piece.
What you do choose to remove will depend a lot on what they have and on what you have. If they have two enablers and one guy, take the guy. If they have two guys and one enabler, take the enabler. If you have more discard spells, take the Brainstorm. Unless you’re a combo deck yourself, it’s almost always correct to take their combo piece rather than their own counterspells.
Vendilion Clique is a special case because it can be played in response to Show and Tell, snagging whatever it is that they wanted to play. Unless you know for a fact they only have one guy, though, I’d recommend playing Clique sooner rather than later. It’ll be very embarrassing for you if you do that and it turns out they had three Griselbrands but only one Show and Tell. It also applies pressure, so go for it early.
Hate Bear is the generic term for a two-mana creature that has some sort of disruptive ability, though at this point I’d say the concept has extended to include any cheap creature (such as Aven Mindcensor). These are usually present in green/white decks that have no other ways to interact with spells.
If you have something like Thalia or Meddling Mage, play them as quickly as you can. Their effects do nothing to stop the combo itself, they only stop them setting up the combo. With Meddling Mage, I think the best card to name is usually Show and Tell, since it’s the cheapest one.
If you have Phyrexian Revoker (or Pithing Needle), then it’s usually correct to wait for them to Show and Tell. Then you play your Revoker and name whichever it is that they have (Griselbrand or Sneak Attack). If they cast Emrakul, well, that’s what you get for playing mono-white.
If they get to three mana and do not cast Show and Tell, then play your guy and name Sneak Attack. First, because if they had Show and Tell they would likely have cast it already. Second ,because there’s definitely a chance you just lose to a 7/7 lifelinker even if they can’t draw 7, so try to stop it from getting into play.
Elves, Kazu Negri
The main Elves combo consists of playing Glimpse of Nature, casting a bunch of Elves, drawing a bunch of cards and generating a bunch of mana with Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel. It can be disrupted at basically any of those spot, but there’s one thing: disrupting Elves doesn’t mean you’re going to win the game. If you have ten guys out, you don’t particularly care that I stopped your Craterhoof Behemoth—you’ll just kill me next turn. As such, the way to beat Elves is to stop them at their foundation.
There are two “must-counters” against Elves: Glimpse and Natural Order. Your hard counters should always be saved for those two spells. Elves has a lot of mana, however, so use your soft counters freely—never pass up an opportunity to Daze a little Elf or to Spell Pierce a Green Sun’s Zenith. If they cast a Glimpse and you have Spell Pierce or Flusterstorm, play those. It’s likely they aren’t going to cast another spell anyway, so you at least constrain them on mana a little bit. If I have a Daze, then I usually wait, because it’s possible they tap out for their third Elf, and then you can counter that one and they can’t generate mana anymore.
Elves operates on two resources: mana and cards. When you play your discard spell, you need to see which one they have the least of, and take that. Most of the time, they’ll have plenty of mana, so just take business, but if they have a lot of business (say both a Glimpse and a Natural Order), then don’t be afraid to take away the mana.
It also depends a lot on what you are playing. If you’re playing a fast deck, then taking away mana becomes a better strategy, because you can kill them before they can recover. If you’re playing a slow deck, however, then you’re probably not going to be able to take away all of their mana—they’ll draw more eventually.
If you have plenty of removal spells, it’s feasible to just kill everything. Elves is a deck that needs a critical mass of creatures, so taking any out is good, and killing a Deathrite Shaman will stop them from casting an early Natural Order for example. If you only have one removal spell (say a Lightning Bolt), then you probably want to wait for them to try to combo. You need to time the spell at a point where it’ll disrupt their plans—for example, you kill the Heritage Druid as soon as they’re playing the third Elf. Your target should almost always be Heritage Druid in this spot, unless they have multiples or a Birchlore Ranger, in which case killing Nettle Sentinel is probably your best bet.
Ad Nauseam Tendrils, Randolph Gille
Storm is a deck that plays a bunch of mana spells with the intention of casting Ad Nauseam or Past in Flames and then finishing you off with a big Tendrils of Agony. Every game against Storm is quite unique and it can be disrupted early or later, depending on what you have. In this regard, Storm is fundamentally different from Elves in that, if you stop their kill, they likely lose the game, so waiting is a valid strategy.
Counterspells are, again, the best answer. In this matchup they are particularly better than discard spells, because they take away all the set-up with them. If you play Dark Ritual into Ad Nauseam and I Force of Will Ad Nauseam, you spent both cards. If I Thoughtseize your Ad Nauseam, you aren’t going to cast the Dark Ritual.
Storm is a deck that usually wins on quantity rather than quality, so I like countering the cantrips with my soft counters. They also have a ton of mana sometimes, so make use of those while you can. I’m never letting a Brainstorm resolve if I have a Spell Pierce that can counter it. Pyroblast should also be aimed at cantrips every time, since it doesn’t counter anything else. Regarding their discard spells, I’m never countering a blind Cabal Therapy—let them try to hit, you’ll be surprised how many people are going to name cards that aren’t even in your deck—and I’m often countering Duress if it’s a 1-for-1 (such as Counterspell) but almost never with a Force of Will.
Knowing whether to counter rituals or not with Storm is always the hardest part. If you counter a ritual, you usually stop them dead in their tracks—for a turn. If you wait, you might get their whole hand. But they might also snowball things out of control, draw into Duresses, or even play a Past in Flames that can get flashed back.
Whether to counter a ritual or not depends more on what you have than on what they have. If you counter this ritual, do you have reason to believe that I can kill you before you amass enough resources to go off again? If yes, then counter it. If not, don’t counter it. Sometimes they’ll keep upping the stakes—they’ll cast, for example, a ritual off a ritual, and then maybe they’ve spent enough resources that it’s worth countering, but I’d advise against it.
In my experience, most of the time you do not counter the Ritual unless you’re killing them the very next turn. In the end, the deck has a lot more mana than business, so trying to counter all their mana is pointless unless it’s just a tactic to buy time. They don’t have counterspells of their own—just discard—and most people cast their discard before they start going off, so you know that your Force of Will is going to be there for their big finish. The must-counter cards are Infernal Tutor and Ad Nauseam. If you manage to get those, you very likely win unless they have a lot of mana and drew their one Past in Flames.
Discard is good against Storm because, again, every spell counts, but it’s not as good as counterspelling because you never “get” them. As with Elves, you can try to constrain them on two things: mana or cards. As with Elves, it’s much easier to constrain them on cards. The cards you want to hit the most are Infernal Tutor and Ad Nauseam, followed by Brainstorm/Ponder. I’d rather take away a cantrip than a mana source, because their deck is all mana sources. The only scenario I’m taking away a mana source is if they have multiple Infernal Tutors or if I just want to stall them.
Unlike the previous two combo decks, Storm is actually susceptible to graveyard hate on two of its cards: Cabal Ritual and Past in Flames. Both of those can be responded to, so there’s no reason to preemptively pull the trigger on something like Relic of Progenitus (though maybe this changes if they adopt Delve cards).
Most of the time, what will happen is this—you have a Relic and they cast a Cabal Ritual with threshold. Then you have to decide whether you want to give them more mana and wait for Past in Flames, or whether you want to try to beat them on mana. Their key number is 7. That’s the amount of mana they need to play Infernal Tutor into Ad Nauseam (or 6 if Tendrils kills you directly). If you think they have access to this much mana even without threshold, then don’t use your Relic. If you think they do not, then use it. If it’s the very late game and they have plenty of mana, then don’t bother and just wait for Past in Flames.
Dredge, Joseph Moreno
Dredge puts a card with dredge in the graveyard and then just mills itself every turn instead of drawing, to win with cards like Ichorid, Narcomoeba and Bridge from Below. The best way to stop Dredge is to either remove all their graveyard or take their enabler.
Against Dredge, I’m always countering the first enabler I can. If my opponent starts with land, tap, play something, I am countering that no matter what it is (unless it’s Cabal Therapy I guess). This means you will end up Force of Willing Putrid Imp from time to time. The reasoning for this is that you can’t really counter anything else—it all just happens, so you need to stop the start of it.
If they already have a dredge card in the graveyard, then you want to counter the card draw—Careful Study, Looting, Breakthrough, all the stuff that lets them dredge multiple times a turn. Don’t try to save the counterspell for Dread Return because it’ll just get stripped away by Cabal Therapy, and they don’t even need Dread Return most of the time.
Same as counterspells—take the enabler. Do not take the dredge card, it will not go well for you.
Your use of graveyard removal is going to depend on how much you need from your graveyard hate. If you want Tormod’s Crypt to gain some time, then use it early. Disrupt their early plans, try to get their Dredgers. If you need it to win you the game, however, then wait. Let them set up some things and then respond when something bad happens. Key moments for pulling the trigger are when your opponent mills a Narcomoeba or a Cabal Therapy, when they are going to lose guys and get Zombies from Bridge from Below, and when they flashback Dread Return.
My preferred approach is to wait as much as I can. I will almost never respond to card drawing with graveyard hate—I’ll let them dredge and, if something bad is about to happen, I’ll stop it. If you respond to card drawing, they can just draw and discard new dredgers, and that’s bad for you. Having a Tormod’s Crypt in play makes it very awkward for them to just play their game—everything they do is to try to force you to use it, so they can play normally. It’s like playing LoL against an opposing Annie. You have to worry about Flash/Tibbers at all times, so you play very differently. When those abilities are on cooldown, you can do a lot more, because the threat of them is gone. I like to prolong the threat as much as possible.
Reanimator, Craig Spitzer
Reanimator throws a big guy (usually Griselbrand) in the graveyard and then brings it to play with cards like Reanimate and Exhume. There are two possible approaches to stop it—either you stop the creature from going to the graveyard, or you make sure it stays there.
The big question regarding Counterspells against Reanimator is whether you counter the card that puts something in the graveyard. Once it’s already there, then you must counter all the reanimation spells—it’s a no-brainer at that point.
The deck has 8 ways to put something in the graveyard: Careful Study and Entomb. You can also Thoughtseize yourself, which brings it to effectively 11. It has 9 ways to reanimate things: Exhume, Animate Dead and Reanimate.
From a purely mathematical point of view, it would seem better to counter the reanimation spell, since they have few of those. Once you consider that Thoughtseize can be used to force through a reanimation spell anyway, however, it becomes better to just counter the enabler—and even more so when seven of those enablers also require a creature in hand.
Against Reanimator, the spell I most want to counter is Entomb. It does everything they want no questions asked. It’s also relevant that if I fight for Entomb, I give them less time to fight back. It’s awkward if I let Entomb resolve and then they untap and play Thoughtseize, or if they draw a Force of Will on their turn.
Careful Study is a different matter because it requires them to have a guy in their hand already, and they actually run quite a few of those. If they do, it’s even better than Entomb, because they get to draw two cards. If they don’t, you really want to let it resolve. My inclination is to always use soft counters on Careful Study but never use Force of Will on it unless I have a strong suspicion that they have a Griselbrand in hand.
Discard here follows the motto of “take whatever it is that they have less of.” If they have two enablers and one reanimation, take the reanimation; one enabler, take that. If I see a hand of Entomb and Reanimate, I’m taking Entomb all the time. If they have Careful Study and Reanimate, but no guy, I take Reanimate. If they have Careful Study and a guy, I’ll take Careful Study over Entomb.
Not a big deal here, just respond when they play a reanimation spell. Be careful with Exhume, though—it doesn’t target, so if they have two Griselbrands, it’s not enough to just remove one. They can also let your Relic resolve, then cast an Entomb before Exhume is done resolving.
Well, that’s about it! To sum it up in general terms:
- Use soft counters on cantrips, but save hard counters for combo pieces.
- If you’re constrained on mana and flooded on counters, counter whatever you can.
- When you’re using a discard spell, try to see what their problem is—what do they not have enough of? Then take that. It’s usually going to be “cards that do something,” but it could also be mana.
- When playing against Dredge, try to deal with their very first way of putting things in the graveyard—it’s the most important part of the game. If you have a one-time graveyard hate (such as Relic of Progenitus), try to wait as much as you can to pull the trigger.
I hope this was useful to you, and good luck in New Jersey!
P.S. Play a blue deck. Really.