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The Best Way to Win in Legacy

What’s the one thing you’d tell your younger self if you could go back in time?

“Try harder in school!”

“Don’t be careless with your money!”

“Ask her out while you have the chance!”

Like most of us, I’ve got more than a handful of things to say a younger, stupider Reiderrabbit, but today I’ve got one thing in particular on my mind. I want to teach him how to win at Legacy. I don’t mean how to build one deck, or spike one tournament, I mean how to have a long-term, winning approach to the format. I’m setting out to write the article I wish I’d read five years ago.

If only someone had told me the secret, who knows how much I could’ve accomplished, or how much time I could’ve saved? Winning at Legacy is such a simple matter! But before I get to that, let me introduce you to a player whom I admire:

U/W/R Miracles – Joe Lossett

I only know Joe Lossett by way of the SCG Open Legacy circuit, but believe me when I say that he’s a major presence there. He consistently puts up stellar results in Legacy, including his 8-0 Swiss run at the last SCG Invitational in Charlotte, North Carolina. When I prepare for an Invitational, I typically have a checklist along the lines of: Can I beat Delver decks? Can I beat Show and Tell decks? Can I beat Combo Elves? Can I beat Joe Lossett?

Surely you’re thinking that I’m exaggerating, or that I’m being unnecessarily extreme. The thing is, in addition to his large collection of SCG Open wins and Top 8, Mr. Lossett has also beaten me every time we’ve encountered one another in Legacy.

What makes Joe Lossett so dominant in the Legacy format in general, and over me in particular? There are a number of possible explanations ranging from “dumb luck” all the way to “he’s the best Magic player ever born.” While I won’t rule either of those explanations out completely, I also refuse to be satisfied with them. Let’s dig deeper into the personal match history between Joe and myself.

• September 2012, Reid with Miracles against Joe with Miracles: Joe wins
• January 2013, Reid with Jund against Joe with Miracles: Joe wins
• October 2013, Reid with Combo Elves against Joe with Miracles: Joe wins
• March 2014, Reid with Reanimator against Joe with Miracles: Joe wins

What do you notice, other than the obvious fact that I’ve been getting smoked?

Joe has stuck with the same deck through multiple years worth of tournaments. If Joe and I have played an equal number of games of Legacy in this time span, that means he’s gotten five to ten times as much experience with his deck as I’ve had with any of mine. It’s no wonder I’m at a disadvantage! I’m a sad little frog hopping around to find the softest lily pad, while Joe’s been lounging in his beaver dam with all the comforts of home.

The best way to win in Legacy is to stick with one deck and master it. Joe Lossett knows it, and he’s become my single most-feared opponent in the format. Perhaps one day I’ll know a deck as well as he knows Miracles, but he’s got a mighty big head start.

Why Stick to One Deck?

There are three parts to tournament preparation: choosing a deck, tuning your list, and practicing. There will always be rewards for time spent in preparation for a tournament, but these rewards do not come in a constant or predictable pattern. The rewards of time spent in each of these three categories are different depending on the format, the tournament, your deck, and yourself as a player.

In some cases, the reward of finding the right deck greatly overshadow the rewards of tuning and practicing. Were I to discover some secret combo deck in Standard that wins on turn 3, I’d likely have a better chance of doing well by playing that deck poorly than by being an expert with an established deck. Along the same lines, if I know that all ten players at my FNM will be playing mono-black, then I’ll have a pretty easy time as long as I can figure out to pack my White Knights, Hand of Honors, and Devout Lightcasters.

In the modern age of MTG, however, such opportunities are few and far between. Information is shared so quickly and efficiently that secrets don’t stay secret for long. Wizards of the Coast is careful in the way they design cards and in their management of banned lists to preemptively close up loopholes and prevent opportunities for abuse. Furthermore, Magic is simply moving more in the direction of fair decks with fewer exploitable weaknesses and less extreme methods of exploiting other decks.

Consequently, my own approach to the game focuses much more on the latter two parts of tournament preparation: tuning and practice. I find that knowing your own deck and having effective plans for sideboarding and gameplay is the best way to win at Constructed Magic. Not only that, but I also find it the best way to grow as a player. Each deck that I devote myself to mastering teaches me lessons that I can carry on to future decks and formats.

What’s Special About Legacy?

Legacy’s card pool is more than ten times the size of Standard. This means 100 times the number of two-card combinations, and an incomprehensible number of ways to combine the available cards into decks. If you charged a professional team, like my own CFB: Pantheon, to “solve” Legacy in a month’s time, we’d be hard pressed to even try all of the established decks, let alone play them all against one another, fine tune the sideboards, or try out our own ideas!

There’s also the issue that Legacy is not played at the highest level of competition very often (or at all, depending on your opinion). You do not have professional teams working on the format in the same way they do in Standard and Block Constructed. Between the greater number of possibilities and the smaller amount (or quality) of information going into the format, Legacy is substantially less likely to ever be “solved” or to reach an equilibrium as other formats might. It is, and will remain, largely unpredictable.

The heart of everything I’ve said is that there are simply too many Legacy decks, and none of them make up a very large portion of the tournament field. You will never face a situation remotely close to the ten mono-black players at your FNM. Someone may someday find a “broken” deck, but how much better can you really get than Ad Nauseam or Dredge?

If you found yourself with a lot of time to devote to testing Standard, it might be a useful exercise to play all of the popular decks against one another, and to see if one comes out on top. If I were to play a Legacy tournament tomorrow, there’s no deck that I’d expect to make up more than 10% of the field, and there are over 30 that I’d be unsurprised to face. It would be both nearly impossible and remarkably unhelpful to use this same approach in Legacy.

Preparing for Legacy means preparing to face unfamiliar situations. The best way to do that is by developing good instincts, and knowing your own deck inside and out.

What’s more is that Legacy is a more challenging format than Standard. Beyond having to be familiar with ten times as many cards and fifteen times as many decks, the gameplay is faster-paced, more complex, and less forgiving of mistakes. There’s library manipulation, mana denial, free spells, and explosive combo decks—just a lot more to think about! In Legacy it’s harder to master a deck, but the payoffs are also higher.

In short, it’s very, very difficult to get an edge in Legacy from choosing the right deck, unless you’ve developed superhuman instincts for small shifts in a metagame and how to exploit them. You need to focus on tuning your deck list and practicing your gameplay if you want to improve in the format, and by far the best way to accomplish that is to stick with the same deck through multiple tournaments.

There are other benefits to this strategy as well, not the least of which is that you won’t have to worry about acquiring new cards as often. Legacy is not a cheap format. Take it from a guy who spent $70 on a Show and Tell in the midst of my most recent lily pad-hop. Additionally, you’ll be able to save yourself some time that can be spent on other formats if you’re ever preparing for two different tournaments at the same time, or for a split-format event (like the SCG Invitational).

How Should You Choose Your Deck?

Everything would be candy cane forests and chocolate fudge rivers if not for this question, wouldn’t it? I have a deck, and I never have to worry about switching, I’ve got it all! But what if you’ve picked the wrong deck, what if you’ve locked yourself into something that can’t win?

Dodging Traps

If your biggest concern is accidentally getting locked into a bad deck, then I do have one suggestion for you: choose a deck with Brainstorm. Blue is the best color in Legacy by a huge margin. Brainstorm is the best card in Legacy by a huge margin. Brainstorm decks tend to have fewer weaknesses (or at least less extreme weaknesses) and are very customizable, so you’re unlikely to get locked into a situation where there’s no way for you to improve.

This means avoiding oddball archetypes like MUD, Goblins, Dredge, and even my beloved Pox. Could one of these decks be top tier? Possibly. Could one be the best choice for a given weekend? Even more likely. However, to discover the answer to these questions would require hundreds, or possibly a thousand games against a huge variety of decks. Most people do not have this kind of time, even for those that do, time is better spent mastering a deck that’s guaranteed not to fail you.

Hard Decks and Easy Decks

As I mentioned, Legacy is an extremely challenging format—it would’ve been more accurate to title this section “hard decks and harder decks.” The point stands, however, that piloting different decks requires different skills, and you should think about your own talents and limitations before you dive in.

Earlier this month, Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa wrote an excellent article on this subject. In it, he makes the important distinction between decks that are difficult to pilot because of their own complexity, and decks that are difficult to pilot because they require a deep knowledge of the format.

Examples of the former are Storm, Dredge, and Combo Elves. These decks are likely to be overwhelmingly complicated the first time you pick them up. Storm presents you with hundreds and hundreds of options, usually within three turns of the game, and one slip-up can translate directly to a loss. One of your most important decisions with Dredge will be whether or not to mulligan, but the knowledge that it’s best to mulligan a six-lander in booster draft doesn’t translate whatsoever when you draw your opening hand of Lion’s Eye Diamonds and Bridge from Belows.

The saving grace of these decks is that once you learn them, you’ll have a fine chance of doing well even if you have no idea what everyone else in the tournament is up to. What’s that card do? Nevermind, it’s not a Tormod’s Crypt so I don’t care.

I play Vintage very infrequently—once or twice a year if I’m lucky. However, when I do get the chance to play, I always register Storm Combo, despite it being one of the most challenging decks in the format to play. The reason is simply that I’ve been playing it for years, so although I’m not an expert on the format as a whole, my past experience with this one deck continues to serve me well. If I’m trying to go off on turn 2, the question of what I should Tutor for on turn 1 doesn’t really change depending on whether my opponent is trying to kill me with Serra Angel, Psychatog, Tezzeret the Seeker, or Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Combo decks can be a good choice for a highly competitive but occasional Legacy player. However, an even bigger question with these decks is whether it appeals to your personality. It takes a pretty special person to play Dredge well and to enjoy doing so.

On the other side of the coin are decks with more simple game plans, but which require more knowledge of the format as a whole. It’s not that complicated to flip a Delver of Secrets, and most people can figure out what to do with a Tarmogoyf. That said, what’s the best turn to leave up Stifle in this matchup? Which Elf should I Abrupt Decay? Should I Spell Pierce her Ponder? Does that change whether she fetched for a basic Volcanic Island or a Tundra?

Decks in this category include Delver and Miracles. Remember our old friend Joe Lossett? Well, Miracles is the perfect deck for a frequent Legacy player, because your main goal is to shut down what your opponents are doing. You follow Legacy every week, you know what your opponents are up to, you develop sideboard plans that work for you, and you pick up gameplay tricks to help you along the way. These are things that you cannot accomplish by jumping from one deck to another every time something goes wrong for you.

I look back at 19 year-old Reid and think about what he might have become with five years of experience with R/U/G Delver or U/W Stoneforge. If you’re someone just looking to get into Legacy, learn from my mistakes and make things easier on yourself. Even if you’re a regretful old fart like me, it’s not too late! Stop throwing away your time and energy by jumping between decks every tournament. Devote yourself to one deck for a month, a season, a year. I think your time will be well spent.

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