It feels odd for me to be saying this, but I think [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] is inhibiting my ability to properly build decks in Legacy.

It’s odd, because we’ve only had the chance to play the card for a short time, when you consider the entirety of the game. Still, his presence has changed the way I construct my decks for any given event, and not always for the better.

When I was browsing over the results of the most recent SCG Open, I couldn’t help but notice that the first place list from David Thomas, which I’ll include below, ran a mere 18 lands. At one point in our experience with Legacy, that would have seemed like too many lands, not the miniscule amount that it appears to be today.

Of course, that’s because we’re better at building decks now than we were a few years ago, right? We’ve all learned from the teachings of Gavin Verhey and others, who have patiently (or not so patiently) urged us to add one more land, and add another, until our deck actually does something worthwhile.

When our decks are full of [card]Counterbalance[/card]s, [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jaces[/card], and [card]Sensei's Divining Top[/card]s, this is without question the correct way to go about building.

When our decks are full of [card]Stifle[/card]s, [card]Daze[/card]s, and [card]Ponder[/card]s, this is possibly incorrect.

[deck]4 Delver of Secrets
4 Snapcaster Mage
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Brainstorm
3 Daze
2 Dismember
4 Force of Will
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Spell Snare
4 Stifle
1 Life from the Loam
4 Ponder
1 Temporal Spring
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Scalding Tarn
4 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island
4 Wasteland
Sideboard:
1 Sylvan Library
3 Krosan Grip
2 Pyroblast
1 Red Elemental Blast
3 Spell Pierce
2 Submerge
3 Surgical Extraction[/deck]

One of the issues that we as deckbuilders in Eternal Formats consistently run into is that when one is delving the entire lot of available cards from all of the tens of thousands of options, some are simply much better than others. This seems like it should produce some obvious choices, and make all of our lives easier. To some extent, it can. On the other hand, it can also make things much more complicated from the standpoint of not simply picking the empirically best card, but rather choosing the card which is the most appropriate one to fill the role which we’re asking it to play.

Take, for example, [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card]. In the above list, Jace would stick out like a sore thumb, as a control card in a tempo deck. When your deck isn’t meant to consistently hit four mana on turn 4 – or on turn 8, for that matter – it seems absurd to be slamming 3 or 4 four drops into the deck, no matter how powerful the card is in a vacuum.

This, more than any regret grounded in nostalgia, is why we were always wrong to try and fit [card]Mystic Enforcer[/card] or [card]Fledgling Dragon[/card] into our Thresh decks back in 2006. It’s simply unreasonable to expect your tempo deck to reliably have access to 4 mana in the face of any kind of disruption.

Of course, we weren’t playing [card]Stifle[/card] or [card]Wasteland[/card] in those decks until the Canadians (namely, Dave Caplan and Lam Phan) drove across the border and handed us our asses for a year or two.

This begs the question of whether those decks were even all that tempo-oriented to begin with… I suppose that’s a discussion for another time.

So here we are, five years later, and still having the same old debate. All of these cards are the same, no matter what your plan is:

[card]Force of Will[/card]
[card]Brainstorm[/card]
[card]Tarmogoyf[/card]
[card]Lightning Bolt[/card]
[card]Dismember[/card]
[card]Spell Snare[/card]

They all show up nearly across the board, in varying numbers depending on the fine tuning. It’s tempting to cram them all in and slap a bunch of other cool cards in, and call it a day. This would be a surefire way to make a pretty cool looking deck that goes X-3 all day, every day. It’s also a very easy trap to fall into. In fact, it’s a trap I fall into with my own local events quite frequently.

Much like any other Magical community, Syracuse NY (where I live, if you hadn’t caught that) has a tight-knit group of players who take the game quite seriously, travelling to various events around our hometown as schedules and bank accounts (and girls) permit. Recently, we’ve had a new addition to our local core group of players. Jon Corpora, a name you may recognize from his near-win (and subsequent firing) from the SCG talent search, or his more recent work on GatheringMagic.com – where he’s undertaken the task of doing 52 FNM reports in a row, one for each week of the year – has become a local, due to his transfer to a University in the area. Jon and I share an appreciation for the finer points of the game, probably due to our mutual experiences as strategy columnists and jaded individuals. The interesting points of our blossoming bromance, however, come not with the things we share an opinion on, but rather in the things which we bring to the table that differ. As Jon is a student of FNM and PTQ, and I am a Legacy stalwart, we approach deckbuilding in a much different manner. In a way, the discovery I hinted of at the beginning of this discussion is a symptom of those differences.

Prior to meeting Jon, my first pass at any given decklist was to pull out all the cards I felt like playing, cram them into some kind of realistic list, and start pulling out the crap until it looked about right. Then I’d take it to a local event, see what didn’t work, and try to figure out what to do to make that part notnot work. This is fine in Legacy, or at least it was, because the risks weren’t all that great, and the rewards for success weren’t all that great either. When you get right down to it, the reward for success in Legacy – up until about a year or two ago – was little more than a few dual lands (which were, remember, worth significantly less then than they are now), and a shout out in a thread on The Source. You’d pay your $20 entry fee, maybe win double, or even triple that in cards, and people would get to talk about your deck for a few weeks.

This is not the kind of environment that rewards a finely tuned machine. This is the kind of environment that begets brewing of the most extreme variety.

Enter the SCG Open Series, the Jupiter Games Legacy Series, and the Grand Prix circuit. Suddenly, there are real incentives to winning Legacy matches. There is an actual metagame, which is even somewhat predictable in the latter rounds of an event. There are people who are putting their incredible minds to the task of getting’ dat cash, and you’re a roadblock on their way to the bank.

Throw out anything you thought you knew about brewing up a sweet Legacy deck, and take some advice from the guys that have been doing this for much longer than you – despite the fact that they may have been doing it in another format.

Now, when I come to Jon with a list, the first thing he asks me is, “What do you want to beat?” This is an entirely new experience for me. Previously, the only question I’d ask myself is “What do you feel like playing today?” These questions are actually much different. In a way, Jon’s is simpler. By answering his, we have some idea of the decks we’re targeting. In another way, his is much more complex. It forces you to consider what the metagame will look like, what you expect to be playing against in the latter rounds, and before even choosing card one for you list, figuring out the weaknesses of those decks. Only once you’ve answered that question – “what do you want to beat?” will we get to discuss what sweet cards you want to play.

Let’s circle back to the discussion about [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card]. When Jace was released into the world, the environment was a bit different than it is today. [card]Mystical Tutor[/card] and [card]Survival of the Fittest[/card] were both still legal in Legacy, but that wasn’t the real key to the success of Jace. [card]Counterbalance[/card] was hanging on to the vestiges of dominance that it once had on the format, and because of this, saw fit to include Jace into its lineup. Because Reanimator was such a strong presence in the metagame of the time, it was an important cog in the gear that deck used to stay competitive with the deck. As a blue answer to [card iona, shield of emeria]Iona[/card], it represented a path to victory that could be pursued even when the opponent named white to shut down [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card]. As a two of, it was often used as a crippling lock piece to stop the opponent from breaking out of the counterbalance lock by allowing you to perfectly sculpt the top of both libraries. It was reliable and easy to play because it wasn’t expected to be a turn 4 play – rather a turn 7 or 8 play once the game had been taken under control.

Fast forward a year to the period where [card]Mental Misstep[/card] reigns supreme. Once again, pure control decks are able to exist, signified by the return to prominence of Standstill-based strategies. In these decks, Jace is the primary win condition, using a combination of [card]Mishra's Factory[/card] and decking to back it up. In this type of deck, land drops are the key to victory, and running 24 or more land is standard. Jace becomes a legitimate turn 4 play as your intention is to make your first 6 or 7 land drops on time every game.

When Misstep left the format, the control decks left with it. At least, they should have, but those of us who were so attached to them during the Misstep era have some separation anxiety.

There is a reason that prior to Misstep asserting its grip on Legacy that [card]Standstill[/card] and [card]Ancestral Visions[/card] weren’t seeing play. There’s a reason that Counterbalance had fallen out of fashion, despite my own personal crusade on behalf of the card. The aggro decks, as well as the tempo decks, were simply much better at winning than the control decks were at stopping them. It’s not a “no wrong threats” thing, so much as a “no way to stop everything” thing.

I’ve mentioned this before in articles on this site and others, but creating a control deck with the ability to answer everything thrown at it through the course of a 7 or 9 round Legacy event is a tall order to fill. There are so many different angles being shot by so many different strategies, that hitting that turn 4 [card]Wrath of God[/card] may be useless in one match, clutch in a second, too slow in a third, and dead in a fourth. You may not even see a creature-based deck on the other side of the table in the first few rounds, despite never playing against the same deck twice! How can you be expected to prepare for all comers with a mere 75 cards (and really, only about 50 spells) at your disposal? It can be done, but it’s much more reasonable a task in a format where you have upwards of 16 hard counters that are near universal. Even Counterbalance can be difficult, as simply being on the draw allows your opponent to resolve a number of threats prior to the lock coming down, and utilizing the combo eats so much mana each turn that developing your own board becomes prohibitively slow.

Ultimately, this is why the tempo based decks like Canadian Thresh (I guess we’re just calling this RUG now?) and Team America (BUG?) have been so successful. They’ve taken all of those great controllish cards like [card]Force of Will[/card] and [card]Brainstorm[/card], and converted them into protection for their undercosted threats for the few turns necessary to achieve victory.

In that strategy, a four mana sorcery speed [card]Brainstorm[/card]/[card]Unsummon[/card] is simply not the type of card you’re looking for.

You want one mana threats. Two mana threats. Free or cheap countermagic. Removal that costs less to play than the creatures it kills. Card selection. Tempo plays.

Jon says, “What decks do you want to beat?” We say all of them. How do you plan to do it? You slam down a threat, and counter/remove the next five plays they make, until they’re out of gas and dead. You use the low land count of your own deck, paired with superior card selection to assure that while the opponent is on blanks, we’re on a steady stream of gas.

This is what a plan should look like.

Despite the fact that Dave just took down an SCG Open with his list, I can’t always escape the fact that at heart, I love to brew. I like it when I feel like I’ve put a pile of cards together, and see things in it that others don’t. I like an off-the-wall card choice that seems like jank, but plays well. I still like getting that stamp out and saying “mine, not anyone else’s.” So, if I plan to execute a similar strategy to Dave’s, how do I still do that while maintaining my personal flair?

Simple.

[deck]4 Delver of Secrets
4 Snapcaster Mage
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Brainstorm
3 Daze
2 Dismember
4 Force of Will
4 Ghastly Demise
3 Spell Snare
4 Stifle
1 Life from the Loam
1 Ponder
3 Mental Note
1 Unearth
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Scalding Tarn
4 Tropical Island
4 Underground Sea
4 Wasteland
Sideboard:
1 Sylvan Library
3 Krosan Grip
3 Thoughtseize
3 Spell Pierce
2 Submerge
3 Surgical Extraction[/deck]

This deck is similar to what I’ve been testing and tweaking since the release of Innistrad, with one very basic and important change. No [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card]. That one small tweak has allowed the deck to go from a control deck that has difficulty maintaining control, to a tempo deck that doesn’t really care to keep control – as long as the opponent dies like they should. In my opinion, choosing black over red doesn’t change a whole lot in the overall plan – really it switches from REB to Thoughtseize in the board, and the removal spell in the main becomes a little different. While you lack the reach of [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], you gain the ability to kill opposing [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s with your non-[card]Dismember[/card] removal, which is a trade I’m happy to make. I’ve also been extremely impressed with [card]Mental Note[/card] in my Snapcaster decks; while it doesn’t offer the same kind of sculpting as [card]Ponder[/card] in setting up your [card delver of secrets]Delver[/card] triggers, it fuels your [card snapcaster mage]Snapcasters[/card] much better. This almost requires the addition of a singleton [card]Unearth[/card], to give you re-buys on any [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s or [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]s you may [card mental note]Note[/card] away.

This weekend marks the next installment of the Jupiter Games NELC qualifier series in Vestal NY. They’ve moved to a new store in the past few weeks to allow us a more comfortable playing environment, so if you’re in the area please stop in and check it out! Don’t miss your chance to play in the most difficult 1x multiplier event in the world!

Adam
@AdamNightmare