Recurring Nightmares – Meliorism

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We’re back, history buffs! In our last installment, we took a look at Future Sight, which was very likely the best Legacy set printed in the last decade. We planned to get further, but there was just too much to talk about to get past the set review, so we’ve pushed it back to here! I imagine those of you who are enjoying these articles don’t mind, as any history is good history to you. Since we left at Future Sight, let’s dive into Lorwyn!

The four sets in Lorwyn and Shadowmoor blocks had a number of role player type spells that were Legacy relevant, and added a serious competitor to the swimming pool of tier one decks. As such, the impact of the tribal blocks can’t be understated. The blocks also introduced the two new card types into the game, allowing your Tarmogoyfs to grow even larger than previously possible. While the Tribal card type was a one-time thing, and more of a rules necessity than a new facet to the game, the Planeswalker type altered the game significantly.

While the impact of this new card type was immediately felt in the smaller-pooled formats, it wasn’t the Planeswalkers that were the important cards for Legacy from this block. Despite the best efforts from the minds of Legacy’s innovators, the original five Walkers weren’t quite powerful enough to spawn new archetypes by themselves. Baby Jace, as he’s since become known, saw some degree of play in control decks, but none of the Lorwyn Planeswalkers really caught on. On the other hand, plenty of other cards did.

[card]Gaddock Teeg[/card] provided Zoo and Survival with a hate bear that finally did something it really needed – shutting down combo and control in one neat package. He closed the window on cards like [card]Wrath of God[/card], [card]Humility[/card], [card]Goblin Charbelcher[/card], and [card]Tendrils of Agony[/card] – all the while beating for two (or held a Sword for more damage) in the meantime.

[card]Mosswort Bridge[/card] became the centerpiece for a combo deck that tried to recapture the essence of [card]Flash[/card]. Created by David Gearhart (once again), the MossNought deck relied on the interaction of Mosswort Bridge and [card]Phyrexian Dreadnought[/card] to function.

The idea was this: You’d set up the top of your library with something like [card]Worldly Tutor[/card], and hide a [card]Protean Hulk[/card] under your Mosswort Bridge. Once the Bridge is untapped, you’d play a Dreadnought. With its EtB trigger on the stack, you would activate the Bridge, playing the Hulk (this is possible since you do, in fact, control 10+ power of creatures). You would then sacrifice the Hulk to the Dreadnought trigger, along with the Dreadnought itself, and use the graveyard trigger of the Hulk to tutor up your favorite iteration of the Flash kill.

Despite the fact that the deck was kind of a pile (no offense, Dave), it was a unique development, and one which I would later lean on to develop the version of the combo that used Bridge to play [card]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/card]. It took top marks in mtgTheSource.com’s semi-annual “Create a New Good Deck” competition, which gave it a bit of notoriety despite its failure to actually win anything.

This points to another issue, which I may have touched on, but I’d like to revisit now.

Even as recently as 2007 or 2008, Legacy was barely beyond infancy – let’s call them the toddler years. In this walk through its history, we’ve witnessed the dawning of Legacy as a Grand Prix format, but aside from those few (and far, far between) events, the structure of the format is still dictated by local events, 50-75 player tournaments, and mtgTheSource.com. Without the work of the tournament organizers who were putting on events (often at a loss, or breaking even at best) and the dedication of the handful of players who were mocked or openly ridiculed by the community at large, there would have been no Legacy metagame at all. It wasn’t until Star City incorporated the format into their Open Series that the metagame truly took shape and could be tracked over the course of weeks, rather than the months it previously took to develop – as a process of simply lacking the data points required to make any kind of analysis worthwhile.

It was for reasons like this that The Source was even required to have things like the CaNGD competition – the metagame would risk stagnancy if there weren’t incentives for the limited number of players who paid attention to the format to stop playing Landstill and Threshold and brew something new – and hopefully something that didn’t suck.

Of course, once in a while, new sets are released and contain cards like

[draft]Merrow Reejerey
Silvergil Adept

And the work is just kind of done for you.

Prior to Lorwyn block, Merfolk was a joke – much the same way that prior to Onslaught block, Goblins was a joke. People have been pairing up [card]Lord of Atlantis[/card] with [card]Merfolk of the Pearl Trident[/card] for years – but now, there were 8 Lords of the sea, and Merfolk of the Pearl Trident could be sacked to counter Force of Will.

The first version of what we’d consider to be “Modern” Merfolk that I could find came from a Source member named chmoddity in February 2008. This was prior to the printing of Cursecatcher, but the deck ran the majority of the lands we’d be looking at as defining the Modern deck:

“Triton’s Minions”

[deck]4 Tidal Warrior
4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Stonybrook Banneret
4 Silvergil Adept
4 Merrow Reejerey
4 Tidal Courier
4 Force of Will
4 Daze
3 Stifle
4 Aether Vial
4 Wasteland
15 Island[/deck]

This was basically a port from Goblins, directly into blue. It featured the [card]Stifle[/card]/[card wasteland]Waste[/card]/[card]Daze[/card]/[card Rishadan Port]Port[/card] package that made the deck so annoying to beat with control, but paired it with the additional disruption of Tidal Warrior – a savage card against non-blue decks which shut down even more of their lands, or allowed you to swing past blockers with a Lord of Atlantis against decks like Zoo.

These days, it doesn’t seem so shocking that a deck like this would be as devastating and shocking as it was, but players were blindsided by this deck. What was once a joke deck piloted by players who didn’t know they were terrible had become a monster that was destroying tier 1 Landstill and Threshold decks left and right. This deck took the disruption package from “Meathooks” (a terrible name for CounterSlivers – another deck that sucked about as bad as a deck can, despite winning Legacy Worlds in ‘08), combined it with the draw engine of Goblins, the mana disruption of Tempo Thresh and Goblins combined, and sat 8 Lords down to try and beat aggro at its own game. It was the Captain Planet of Legacy. Once Shadowmoor was released, and along with it [card]Cursecatcher[/card], the deck began to evolve.

Unfortunately, it took forever, and it was initially in a very different direction. See, in the beginning, players were much more interested in this guy:


And not so much in the Cursecatcher. In fact, for a long time, people were still playing [card]Faerie Conclave[/card] over [card]Mutavault[/card], despite the card being available for over four months! During the rumor season for Eventide, someone even managed to complain that the deck was lacking in turn 1 plays, and yet the Cursecatchers still sat the bench.

In a way, you have to understand that the metagame of the time dictated the delay in appreciation for the now-powerhouse one-drop. See, there was an important factor that was predominant in Legacy. Countertop had finally caught on.

[card]Tarmogoyf[/card] had provided the format with a threat that was so unique, and so ubiquitous that any deck you developed was forced to be mindful of the card. It was the singular point in the history of Legacy where even dedicated Goblin players were setting the deck aside and turning to new concepts, because they simply could not beat a turn 2 Tarmogoyf. Mike Edinger, one of Legacy’s old guard, and curmudgeon extraordinaire went so far as to put Tarmogoyf INTO Goblins – cutting Piledriver down to a Matron target in the process – simply because the Goyfs just hit harder most of the time, and actually had the ability to block opposing Goyfs when necessary.

It was the rise of Goyf that really allowed the Countertop softlock to assert dominance on the Legacy scene. While Grand Prix Columbus had given us a taste of the kind of power the combo had to offer, it was in control, rather than combo, that the cards truly shone. With Tarmogoyf everywhere, the format was scrambling to answer the two mana threat in the most efficient way possible – which left many players using things like [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] and [card]Ghastly Demise[/card] as answers. Additionally, the slower control decks like Landstill were basically getting trounced by Goyf, and were teetering on the edges of unplayability. This meant that there was a collapse in the overall curve of the format, and the decks were starting to become clumped in the one- and two-mana range. This is what’s known as “the butter zone” for Countertop players. In conjunction with your own [card]Counterbalance[/card]s and [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s, alongside Dazes and two-mana cantrips like [card]Predict[/card], you get your Tops, [card]Brainstorm[/card]s, Swords to Plowshares, etc. to shut down the primary mana costs of the majority of decks in the format. I distinctly recall matches while playing the deck where I managed to disallow my opponent from resolving a single spell for the entire match during the Countertop regime – multiple times in an event. The mirror was absolutely atrocious, and basically revolved around who got their Counterbalance to stick first – which was a pretty terrible way to play Magic, in hindsight, but at the time, I was personally so mentally invested into the deck that I though I was having a blast. Halcyon days of youth, etc.

In addition to the aforementioned Tarmogoyf (which, if you haven’t noticed by now, was so much of a big deal that I’ve dedicated well over four thousand words to the effect it had on the format, and I’ve barely scratched the surface), the Countertop decks got a slew of new tools from the Lorwyn/Shadowmoor blocks.

[card]Sower of Temptation[/card] – [card]Control Magic[/card] saw some fringe playability, and cards like Vedalken Shackles and even Threads of Disloyalty were seeing play in the heyday of Goyf wars. Sower provided two distinct advantages over Control Magic – first, it not only represented a 2-for-1, but a 3-for-1 and a threat as well. Your opponent now needed to answer their own Goyf, along with the 2/2 flier, in order to be back to even; and second, it FLEW. In an era defined by vanilla ground pounders, the fliers were king. For the same reason as Tombstalker, Sower was an enormous change in the dynamics of combat.

[card]Ponder[/card] – Prior to this card being printed, the next-best cantrip we had to Brainstorm was Serum Visions. Unfortunately, Visions had that whole problem of being terrible, so most people chose to run [card]Portent[/card]. Even that card was bad. Today, we have a wealth of options which are all basically upgrades to the cantrips we were using a few years ago, and Ponder was really the beginning of that change. Of course, I fondly recall the days sitting in a hotel room, drafting for drinks with the Virginians, listening to the Hatfield brothers debate whether [card]Serum Visions[/card] or [card]Mental Note[/card] was better in Threshold. Or having Osyp read my Portent, look up and ask “there’s no better card you could play than this?” Sometimes you miss those days, but then you read Preordain, and you don’t really miss them so much any more.

[card]Firespout[/card] – This was finally a reason for me to splash red again (beyond [card red elemental blast]REB[/card]), and I was not alone. By the time this card picked up in play, Merfolk had officially established itself as a “real” deck. Players had caught on to the fact that [card]Mutavault[/card] was good, even in a deck that ran 8 other colorless sources. They had figured out that if you run [card]Cursecatcher[/card], all the sweepers that otherwise owned your entire deck were (even more) difficult to cast, and that Goblins really had it right when they were running [card]Rishadan Port[/card] alongside their [card]Wasteland[/card]s. It’s funny how threatening your lands can be when Vial is casting all your spells for you. Firespout was the control answer to this adaptation. At three mana, rather than four, it was a sweeper that was not only efficient in cost, but broad in application, as well. Unlike [card]Engineered Plague[/card], or god help you [card]Tividar’s Crusade[/card], it actually killed creatures that weren’t Goblin-sized, which meant it could be useful even with a couple of Lords in play. It was adjustable, as well, so you could keep your Sower safe if you needed, or kill their Sower and keep your Goyf if that’s what was required. The versatility and efficiency was unmatched, and that’s exactly the kind of thing the Countertop decks were looking for.

[card]Thoughtseize[/card] – Initially not recognized as the strict upgrade to [card]Duress[/card] that it is, Thoughtseize was one of those cards that we knew was good, but didn’t know how good. The first thing we realized was that unlike Duress, it could take combo pieces away from Cephalid Breakfast. This was one of the more important plays of the time (Breakfast was still a deck at this point). The Black player’s nut draw was quickly supplanted from “[card dark ritual]Ritual[/card] [card]Duress[/card] [card hymn to tourach]Hymn[/card]” to “Ritual Thoughtseize Hymn,” and the rest of the players in the world hated that guy even more for it. Combined with [card]Dark Confidant[/card], this also gave Countertop players a real incentive to play black in their lists, as it could proactively win the Goyf battle at the small price of two life. In fact, the Hatfields experimented for a time with 5C thresh:

[deck]3 Sensei’s Divining Top
2 Mystic Enforcer
4 Nimble Mongoose
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Counterbalance
4 Brainstorm
3 Daze
4 Force of Will
2 Predict
4 Swords to Plowshares
4 Ponder
4 Thoughtseize
4 City of Brass
4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
2 Tropical Island
2 Tundra
1 Underground Sea
1 Volcanic Island
4 Yixlid Jailer
2 Blue Elemental Blast
3 Krosan Grip
2 Red Elemental Blast
4 Pyroclasm[/deck]

So we’ve gone over the major players in the format from the perspective of Aggro and Control (well, really Aggro-Control and Aggro-Control), but let’s talk combo for a minute. The tribal blocks brought a silly two-card combo that won the game on the spot, which made everyone jump at the chance to buy an obscure old card and start beating up on their local events:

[draft]Swans of Bryn Argoll
Chain of Plasma[/draft]

The combo works like this. First, you play a Chain of Plasma, and target the Swans. As the Swans turn any burn spell into a draw spell, hitting your own Swan with a Chain of Plasma allows you to continually draw three cards, and discard one to “chain ability” to target the Swans again and again. This loop lets you draw your whole deck. You end the loop by pointing the Chain of Plasma at your opponent, or by choosing not to continue the chain. Now that you’ve drawn your deck, you can use a spell like [card]Conflagrate[/card] (discarded to the Chain of Plasma) or [card]Lightning Storm[/card] to make use of your 40 card hand and win the game. Finally, you get extremely excited about this combo, build the deck (foiled out, of course) and write an article about it, all the while completely missing the much better combo in the same set:

[draft]Painter’s Servant

Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.

Price of Grindstone prior to the spoiling of Painter’s Servant – $2.50
Price of Grindstone the day of Painter’s Servant spoiling – $25-$35
Settling point of Grindstone – $26

Welcome to the new world order, folks. It didn’t get any better from here. Maybe if you were lucky, you traded some [card]Reset[/card]s for them.

The combo was immediately placed into a variety of shells, because the colorless mana requirements associated with the combo allows it to fit nearly anywhere. Jack Elgin, notorious forum troll and Legacy brewmaster, fit the combo into Mono-White control and found some success there. My own team managed to fit the combo into a UB shell (still got all these [card]Lim-Dul’s Vault[/card]s!) called EPIC-Painter, shown below:

[deck]4 Force of Will
4 Painter’s Servant
1 Echoing Truth
4 Ponder
3 Dark Confidant
3 Counterbalance
4 Grindstone
3 Lim-Dul’s Vault
1 Tormod’s Crypt
2 Trinket Mage
3 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Engineered Explosives
4 Thoughtseize
4 Brainstorm
4 Polluted Delta
4 Flooded Strand
4 Underground Sea
3 Tropical Island
2 Island
1 Swamp
1 Academy Ruins
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Tombstalker
2 Tormod’s Crypt
3 Blue Elemental Blast
3 Krosan Grip[/deck]

Even now, with the viability of this deck far gone, I think it’s one of the more elegant lists we’ve ever put together. The transformational sideboard into Team America was something of beauty, and I loved every minute of playing this deck – despite its occasional tendency to do nothing until you die. It found reasonable success in its time, although I believe that I personally tried to play the deck beyond the extent of its viability.

The real “Painter Deck” of all the Painter decks was created by the same underrated mind as created the Gamekeeper deck – Mike Keller, aka Hollywood. He was the first to put the combo into the mono-red shell, and to pair it with an obscure (albeit overpriced) Portal 3 Kingdoms uncommon:

[deck]4 Painter’s Servant
4 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Magus of the Moon
4 Imperial Recruiter
4 Pyroblast
4 Red Elemental Blast
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Grindstone
3 Chrome Mox
3 Sword of Light and Shadow
2 Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
1 Vexing Shusher
1 Dragon Whelp
4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Traitors
10 Mountain[/deck]

Forgive the [card]Dragon Whelp[/card]. Part of Hollywood’s charm is that he is notorious for being SO CLOSE to having his decks actually be insane, but his love for stupid cards knows no bounds, so instead of being credited for the invention of modern Reanimator, he’s just known as the guy who top 8’d an event reanimating Polar Krakens all day. The danger of cool things. It’s his curse.

Despite Hollywood’s insistence that running cards like Active Volcano made the deck function, other people ran with his concept and turned it into something real. The combination of an “I win” combo, along with 8 one-mana “Counter anything or Vindicate anything” spells, along with a tertiary plan of turn 1 Magus of the Moon, allows the deck – dubbed “Imperial Painter” – to have a broad variety of weapons with which to attack the opponent. In a metagame that is predominately blue (like the one in which Mike and I were playing), the deck was nearly unstoppable.

Unfortunately, the price tag associated with [card]Imperial Recruiter[/card] was a significant impediment to the ability for this deck to catch on. As they were in the range of $100 each at the time, it was simply unfeasible for those players with limited disposable income to play the deck, and the Recruiters were an integral part of the puzzle – giving it access to the Painters, of course, but also to the Magi and cards like Faerie Macabre from the board. The cost, beyond the scarcity of the card itself, was driven by the inclusion of Recruiter in another tepid combo deck – Aluren. If I had to choose a deck to convince the world did not exist, [card]Aluren[/card] would be that deck. One day, I will become sufficiently disappointed with the state of the metagame as to justify a diatribe in article form on why Aluren is terrible, but please don’t hold your breath. That topic is neither here nor there. However, it is the reason that Recruiters were pricing mono-red mages from getting their dreamcrush on. Note that Imperial Painter had a nearly 100% win percentage against Merfolk – and likely still does today, if you feel inclined to inflict emotional damage on your local fish player.

I think that’s a good place to break for this week. I very much wanted to get all the way through Grand Prix Columbus (II) with this installment, however each of these blocks are presenting me with way more information – not to mention nostalgia – than I am anticipating. The amount of development and innovation that was going on in just a short amount of time is amazing, and I have to say that I’m impressed by all the work that was put into the format for such little gains. The greatest strength that Legacy players have is their passion for the format they love – and they have a ton.

In my next installment of the series, I will once again attempt to travel in time, bringing us through the Alara block and into the modern world. The decks begin to look familiar, as we change the way Legacy is played and improve the decks to the point where cards are actually being considered for banning – for the first time since Flash. Until then, be sure to keep yourself updated on the decks of the current era (Did you see the finals match from SCG Baltimore? It was insane! And Ali Aintrazi played TURBOLAND!). As always, remember – keep your stick on the ice!



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