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Recurring Nightmares – Illusion of Safety

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. ~ Saul Bellow

Despite my belief that opening your articles with a quote is somewhat blasé, I can’t help but think that the above quotation describes the past year of Legacy with near perfection. Another, perhaps more blunt way to put it would be as follows:

Some motherf**kers are always trying to ice-skate uphill. ~ Blade

If you’re looking to take a deck to battle, and it isn’t blue, you’re skating uphill.

Since the banning of [card]Survival of the Fittest[/card] – the last deck that really and truly gave us a reason to play not-blue – the illusion that blue isn’t heads and shoulders better than everything else in the format has been growing thinner and thinner. During the period between Grand Prix Providence and the banning of [card]Mental Misstep[/card], it was downright transparent – you were at such a disadvantage by playing a non-blue deck that outside action was finally required. [card]Mental Misstep[/card] was deemed a mistake, and the illusion was cast once again. The color was simultaneously weakened and strengthened – while our free counterspell was taken away, we were given a blue [card]Wild Nacatl[/card] and a blue [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card].

I said in my set review of Innistrad that I believed [card]Delver of Secrets[/card] to be the sleeper hit of the set, mostly because the buzz surrounding him should have been far greater than it was. The majority of the hype before the set was centered on [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], and justifiably so. Both of these men have already made their mark on Legacy in the few short weeks since their release, and have secured a position in the upper echelon of Legacy playable creatures. But why, when [card]Wild Nacatl[/card] and [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] (their most natural analogues) are seeing such small amounts of play, are Snapcaster and Delver on such a tear? To find the answer, we have to peel back the curtain, and dispel the illusion of Legacy once more.

Bold statement of the article, number 1 – [card]Brainstorm[/card] is the best card in Legacy. It would be difficult to cement an argument that would refute that statement, although I encourage any who disagree with it to feel free to try. [card]Brainstorm[/card] is the Swiss Army knife that glues the best decks in Legacy together. It allows them to cheat on mana, on threats, on solutions. It allows them to dig for the right card at the right time, and make sure their hand isn’t clogged with all the wrong things. It’s often better than [card]Ancestral Recall[/card] – unlike Recall, you get to put two back.

When you work from that initial assumption – that [card]Brainstorm[/card] is the best card – then you’re also starting from a point where your goal should either be to utilize [card]Brainstorm[/card] better than any other deck, or to beat the decks running [card]Brainstorm[/card] as often as possible. The honest to goodness truth is that [card]Brainstorm[/card] is so good, that the decks that try to be the former are much more successful than the decks that try to be the latter.

It’s difficult to capture all of the ways that [card]Brainstorm[/card] changes the dynamics of the format, but make no mistake – nearly the entirety of the structure of Legacy can be derived by the presence of that card. Let’s take a look at a few decks from the events that went on this weekend in the US and Europe.

Counter Top – Calosso Fuentes (Really Alix Hatfield)

[deck]4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Counterbalance
4 Brainstorm
3 Daze
2 Dismember
4 Force of Will
3 Lightning Bolt
2 Spell Snare
4 Ponder
1 Forest
2 Island
1 Mountain
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Scalding Tarn
3 Tropical Island
3 Volcanic Island
2 Wooded Foothills
Sideboard:
2 Engineered Explosives
3 Blood Moon
1 Sylvan Library
2 Ancient Grudge
3 Red Elemental Blast
2 Spell Pierce
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/deck]

18 Lands. That’s it. For any of you who are more familiar with the 27 land manabases of Standard AGGRO decks, it should feel asinine that a control deck in Legacy (that is fully three colors) is running 18 lands. Now, for certain, Calosso’s curve tops out at a whopping two, but the fact that he’s running such mana intensive cards as [card]Sensei’s Divining Top[/card] and [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] should tell you that there’s something going on here.

UW Stoneforge – Brian Braun-Duin

[deck]1 Batterskull
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
4 Snapcaster Mage
1 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Brainstorm
2 Counterspell
4 Force of Will
4 Spell Snare
4 Swords to Plowshares
3 Vendilion Clique
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Island
1 Plains
4 Flooded Strand
4 Mishra’s Factory
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Riptide Laboratory
4 Tundra
1 Wasteland
1 Karakas
Sideboard:
2 Phantasmal Image
4 Leyline of the Void
4 Path to Exile
3 Spell Pierce
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant[/deck]

Again, take a look at the lands. This time, don’t look so much for the number, but rather for the configuration. Decks like Bant or Maverick, which run engines fueled by [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card], are often excused from having to justify a bunch of one-of lands, since they can actually find them. Here, Brian (and AJ Sacher, as well) is running a single [card]Wasteland[/card], a single [card]Karakas[/card], a single [card]Riptide Laboratory[/card]; and the expectation is that he will actually be able to access them when he’s in need – with no actual way to search them up, other than the draw power in the deck. At the same time, he’s running only a pair of Equipment – 1 [card]Batterskull[/card] and 1 [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card]. What if he draws two over the first turn or two of the game? Does he just ignore the full playset of [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]s that give the deck its name?

Reanimator – Jack Hatton

[deck]1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
1 Angel of Despair
1 Empyrial Archangel
3 Animate Dead
4 Brainstorm
3 Daze
4 Entomb
4 Force of Will
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
3 Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
4 Careful Study
4 Exhume
3 Ponder
4 Reanimate
2 Thoughtseize
2 Island
2 Swamp
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Flooded Strand
1 Marsh Flats
3 Misty Rainforest
1 Polluted Delta
1 Scalding Tarn
4 Underground Sea
1 Verdant Catacombs
Sideboard:
2 Pithing Needle
1 Inkwell Leviathan
1 Blazing Archon
2 Dispel
1 Echoing Truth
3 Spell Pierce
1 Wipe Away
3 Show and Tell
1 Thoughtseize[/deck]

An even worse culprit of the same phenomenon addressed in the Stoneforge deck, Reanimator has a slew of cards that are miserable when drawn. Reminiscent of the classic [card]Oath of Druids[/card] problem, nothing is worse in a “cheat a fatty out” deck than actually drawing the fatty, and sitting around doing nothing while it’s stuck in your hand.

Ad Nauseam Tendrils – Elie Pichon

[deck]4 Polluted Delta
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Underground Sea
1 Bayou
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Crystal Vein
1 Island
1 Swamp
1 Volcanic Island
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Duress
4 Dark Ritual
4 Cabal Ritual
4 Brainstorm
4 Infernal Tutor
4 Ponder
3 Cabal Therapy
2 Grim Tutor
1 Past in Flames
1 Tendrils of Agony
1 Ad Nauseam
4 Lion’s Eye Diamond
4 Lotus Petal
Sideboard
2 Slaughter Pact
1 Ill-Gotten Gains
2 Empty the Warrens
1 Echoing Truth
3 Dark Confidant
2 Chain of Vapor
4 Xantid Swarm[/deck]

While not as obvious in its issues as the other decks I’ve listed so far, Ad Nauseam Tendrils has only seven cards, with a mere two to three draw steps, to assemble a hand that can amass sufficient Storm to either generate the mana for an [card]Ad Nauseam[/card], or accelerate into an [card]Infernal Tutor[/card] and win the game.

Each of these decks, along with plenty of decks not mentioned, have a critical dependence on [card]Brainstorm[/card]. Without access to the subtle but powerful spell, they are still strong, and potentially viable, but the strength of the cantrip in these decks is undeniable – and significantly strengthens the overall stability and strength of each.

Running fewer lands, because you have three additional cards to look at as long as you can access one. Playing singletons, and having confidence that by a product of simply seeing more cards per game, you’ll have access to them should you be in dire need. Smoothing out your draws, and assuring that the cards you want in your hand can be there, and the cards you want in your deck have a way back in if you draw them. Accessing more cards for a small investment, to generate storm and find combo pieces.

All of these are interactions that we take for granted with access to four [card]Brainstorm[/card]s in the format – and I haven’t even touched on the fact that [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] (sometimes referred to as the best Magic card ever) is still amazing as merely a four mana, Sorcery speed [card]Brainstorm[/card]. There’s a reason that using your own Jace as a [card]Vindicate[/card] for the opponents always feels like a losing proposition – [card]Brainstorm[/card] is that good.

Bold statement of the article, number two – [card]Brainstorm[/card] is the reason blue is the best color in Legacy. During the era of [card]Mental Misstep[/card], and even occasionally today (see: Lewis Laskin’s list from Baltimore), players have been willing to cut one or more [card]Force of Will[/card] from their blue deck. Grand Prix Providence winner James Rynkiewicz played zero in his build of Bant, and obviously had success. More and more, the card is being sideboarded out against decks that aren’t capable of making game-ending plays in the early turns, such as aggro-control mirrors and Zoo – decks where trading two-for-one can be crippling. If you look back across the field over the course of not only the past year, but the past five years or more, it becomes apparent that the correct number of [card]Brainstorm[/card]s in each of these decks – even the ones running less than a full set of [card]Force of Will[/card] – is four.

(Merfolk is an exception to this “rule,” although it hasn’t stopped me from trying to cram [card]Brainstorm[/card] into every single build of Merfolk I’ve ever assembled).

Innistrad has delivered unto us a pair of blue creatures that play uncharacteristically well with Brainstorm. While [card]Wild Nacatl[/card] is a 3/3 for 1 mana, [card insectile aberration]Delver of Secrets[/card] is a 3/2 flying creature for 1 mana, in a color with better spells, and a natural synergy with [card]Brainstorm[/card]. It wants to be played on turn 1, and it encourages you to play [card]Brainstorm[/card] in response to its trigger on your upkeep of turn 2. It wants to reveal a [card]Brainstorm[/card] with its trigger. It wants you to cram your deck full of spells, with fewer lands and fewer threats to clog up the top of your library so its trigger can be satisfied. [card]Brainstorm[/card] will allow all of these things to happen – and it will make your draws better in the meantime, allowing you to survive until you can find and resolve [card]Delver of Secrets[/card].

While [card]Wild Nacatl[/card] can attack just as hard on turn 2, it actively encourages you to run three colors that are not blue in order to make the most of the creature. In order to run [card]Brainstorm[/card] as well as Nacatl, you’ll need to bastardize your manabase in a very significant way – something that Caleb Durward has shown to be possible, but it begs the question of why you’d do so in an environment where you can just run Delver instead. To get the same impact from Nacatl as Delver, you’d need to play a [card]Tropical Island[/card] on turn 1, and [card]Brainstorm[/card] on turn 2’s upkeep, playing or fetching a [card]Plateau[/card] before attacks. Even then, you’re exposed to [card]Wasteland[/card] cutting your threat down to a 1/1, and your attacker still doesn’t fly. When you compare this to playing basic Island, Delver, Brainstorm, attack – there isn’t much comparison.

On the other side of the spectrum, [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] is another creature that encourages a player to load up on spells. Rather than using it as a quick threat to out-tempo the opponent (although, I suppose this option exists), the best use of Snapcaster is to “double up” on your spells, giving you access to twice the number of removal, cantrip, or counterspells than would otherwise be present. Once again, this plays into the natural territory of [card]Brainstorm[/card]. Along with the fact that, at worst, [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] can simply give you two [card]Brainstorm[/card]s for the price of two, the optimal way to assemble a Snapcaster deck appears to be to fashion a wide array of options with your spells, trusting the card selection of the deck to give you access to the proper ones in the right situations. While it may be fine to run a playset of [card]Dismember[/card], for example, there isn’t much harm in switching one of them out for a [card]Diabolic Edict[/card] – giving you access to the Edict effect when necessary, and keeping access to the [card]Dismember[/card]s. Should you need a [card]Dismember[/card] later on in the game when you’ve already expended one that you’ve seen, and drawn the Edict instead, [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] can provide a second chance at the [card]Dismember[/card].

This is directly in line with the example from the Stoneforge deck above – merely with spells in the place of lands in the Stoneforge deck. Having a system of “silver bullet” type spells that are situationally beneficial, but cover much of the same ground, can allow you to fine tune your game to better adapt to the current board state. When you’re staring down a 4/5 [card]Tarmogoyf[/card], there’s not much difference between a [card]Diabolic Edict[/card] and a [card]Dismember[/card] – but when you have a deck full of [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] and your opponent went all in on a turn 3 [card]Natural Order[/card] for [card]Progenitus[/card], it’d be nice to know you have access to an out if you need one. The addition of [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] as a natural analogue to the [card]Brainstorm[/card] smoothing simply increases the overall efficiency of this style of deck.

When making the comparison to [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card], one should keep in mind that this is not as easy a relationship to assess as the one between Delver and Nacatl. Aside from the “four mana, two spells” connection, there are many differences that are not accounted for by saying that Snapcaster is a “blue Bloodbraid.” The difference between tapping out on your own turn, and tapping out on their end step is an obvious one, as is the difference between a random card off the top of your deck compared to a card of your choice. There is less blow-out potential from Snapcaster, as you’ll rarely be cascading into a [card]Maelstrom Pulse[/card] for the win or getting another threat out of the deal (Although hitting [card]Reanimate[/card] or [card]Unearth[/card] can provide this), but you can occasionally use the Snapcaster as a second shot at [card]Hymn to Tourach[/card], which is often much more impactful than hitting a [card]Blightning[/card] with your [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card]. Similarly, a surprise blocker + removal spell has a much more powerful impact on combat than a main phase attacker + removal spell.

When writers refer to the illusion of Legacy, we’re pointing to the fact that some people are under the impression that Blue is not the best color, or that there are real reasons to choose decks that don’t run Blue. In a way, we’re really saying that [card]Brainstorm[/card] is the best color in Legacy, and you’d be crippling yourself by choosing to play decks that don’t run Brainstorm. Certainly, there are options out there that don’t run the card. Maverick has shown itself to be a powerful contender, in the long-standing tradition of the Hate Bears archetype, this time featuring actual threats in KotR and Goyf. [card]Imperial Painter[/card] just managed to navigate itself to a top 8 berth at Grand Prix Amsterdam – capitalizing on the Blue metagame with six maindeck REB effects. Merfolk, the one blue deck capable of justifying a distinct lack of [card]Brainstorm[/card] in its shell, preys on other decks running light removal and Islands. Dredge continues to punish players who under prepare. And yet, even in the face of all of these decks with reasonable matchups against [card]Brainstorm[/card], we’re still seeing one of the most Island dominated cycles of the metagame in recent history.

Bold statement of the article, number 3 – If Wizards doesn’t want a metagame dominated by [card]Brainstorm[/card] decks, unban [card]Survival of the Fittest[/card]. That was the last period of time, and the only one in recent memory, where blue was not inherently the best color.

I don’t believe that [card]Brainstorm[/card] needs to be banned, if that’s what you’re thinking. In fact, should that occur, it would likely mark the end of my tenure as a Legacy aficionado. I’ve long said that my enjoyment of the format extends almost entirely from the interactions available because [card]Brainstorm[/card] exists. When the DCI restricted [card]Brainstorm[/card] in Vintage, I lost interest in the format almost immediately. Should they ban [card]Brainstorm[/card] in Legacy, I can imagine following the same trend. I’d liken it to the passing of a dear friend. Let us all hope it doesn’t come to that.

Vive le Remue-meninges.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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