Winning with Sultai in Louisville

I love Legacy. I love the diversity of strategies, I love the game play, and I love that it’s home to my favorite cards from years past, even when the rest of Magic has forgotten about them. It’s because I love Legacy that I decided to practice so much for Grand Prix Louisville.

One of the ironic things about being a professional Magic player is that it has become impossible for me to thoroughly prepare for every tournament I play. When I was younger, I was lucky if I could attend 2 Grand Prix in a year. I’d schedule them way in advance, and I’d spend weeks and weeks practicing for them. Today, as a full-time player, things are different. If I compete nearly every weekend, and nearly every competition demands travel, there are simply not enough days in the week nor hours in a day to put in the level of preparation that I’d like.

This is especially true when it comes to a format like Legacy. Sure, if I’m playing half a dozen Standard Grand Prix in a season, it’s in my best interest to stay current with Standard. But with my recent schedule of playing a Legacy tournament only once every 4 months or so, the incentive to master the format simply isn’t there. Sadly, it’s often better to phone it in with a stock deck and spend my practice time looking ahead to a future tournament.

But I love Legacy, and I was simply unhappy with that arrangement. I wanted to dive back into the format, learn what made it tick again, and see if I might be able to offer some kind of contribution to the format myself. So expected value be damned, I decided to dedicate the 3 weeks I had at home for the holidays to practice Legacy for GP Louisville.

Evolution of the Deck

I cataloged quite a bit of my practice right here on ChannelFireball.com:

I knew two things from the start: First, I wanted to play a deck with Brainstorm. This was a breath of fresh air after having played Elves in my previous couple of Legacy events. While Elves is an excellent and explosive deck, its lack of Brainstorm leaves it at the mercy of its opening hands, and it’s hard-pressed to find an answer when certain problems present themselves.

Second, I knew I wanted to have as good a matchup against Miracles as I could. Miracles is the best deck in Legacy, and it’s difficult to beat. What makes matters worse is that it’s a disproportionately popular choice among elite players. This means that as the field thins in the later rounds of a large tournament, you become more and more likely to find yourself in a war against a skilled player piloting Miracles. If you want to win, you’re going to have to win those matches.

I didn’t know for sure that I wanted to play Sultai, but it felt like a natural place to start. Abrupt Decay is the cleanest answer to Counterbalance that’s out there, and Leovold, Emissary of Trest is an exciting new weapon. The Sultai colors felt like they offered the tools I would need if I could find the proper way to put them all together.

The 4 videos linked above show some stepping stones along the way. The problem I encountered was that so many of the cards I wanted to play with cost 2, 3, or 4 mana—Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Liliana of the Veil, Leovold, Emissary of Trest, Shardless Agent, Hymn to Tourach, and Abrupt Decay, just to name a few.

This kept leading me to build decks that were simply too slow for Legacy. It’s a fast, efficient format, and you need to work in order to keep up. You can’t be some lumbering midrange deck that taps out for one threat per turn at sorcery speed. You need a lot of 0- and 1-mana spells. In a perfect world, you should make the powerful card Daze work for you, instead of playing right into its hands.

I wanted to play with my favorite cards, but I also wanted to be quick and I wanted to play with Daze. The solution I reached was to try and play a mana accelerant on the first turn of the game as often as possible. The Dark Bant and True-Name Nemesis Sultai decks I began to work toward fit the same model as some of my favorite Legacy decks from the old days.

Natural Order R/U/G

Reid Duke, 3rd place


Sam Black, 5th place

Mana acceleration lets you play with a high concentration of powerful cards without being too slow. Gaining a mana advantage is a great way to win in hyper-efficient formats like Legacy. It’s also a strategy that’s well suited to a format where Daze, Spell Pierce, and Wasteland are defining cards.

Importantly, we’re not talking about Rampant Growth and Cultivate here. Mana acceleration in Legacy can come in the form of Deathrite Shaman, Noble Hierarch, and Green Sun’s Zenith. These are cards that help you dish out damage, are reasonable midgame topdecks, and definitely represent threats in their own right.

So when a deck winds up packed with cards like Deathrite Shaman and Noble Hierarch alongside Brainstorm, Ponder, and Sylvan Library, you find yourself in a situation where most of your cards can represent either mana or threats. You mulligan infrequently, and are resilient to both mana screw and mana flood. This level of consistency is priceless over the course of a long tournament.

True-Name Nemesis Sultai

Reid Duke, 1st place

In the end, I cut my white cards and my Green Sun’s Zeniths and settled on a relatively straightforward Sultai deck. The plan was to play one of the powerful 3-drop creatures—True-Name Nemesis or Leovold, Emissary of Trest—on turn 2 as often as possible. Conveniently, both of those creature are blue, which leads to a deck structure that can comfortably support Force of Will.

I rounded things out with some versatile 1-of cards, including a miser’s Tarmogoyf (which I’m sure I’ll get teased about) because I wanted one more potent threat, but didn’t want to let my mana curve stretch too high.

The Tournament

Nearly every match I played at Grand Prix Louisville was close and interesting. In the very first game of the tournament, I lost to a Delver player where the difference of a single life point for either player might’ve swung things in my favor. A few rounds later, an Umezawa’s Jitte counter allowed me to survive a hit from Marit Lage, and kill my opponent on the dot the following turn.

I’ll gladly report that Leovold was quite good for me, but the fact is that True-Name Nemesis was even better. Yes, the answers for it are out there, but when your opponents aren’t well-prepared to beat it, True-Name Nemesis is an incredibly unfair card. In my book, it’s the best creature ever printed.

I will admit that I was fortunate to play against a lot of fair decks (where True-Name Nemesis really shines). Among popular decks, the only truly horrible matchup for True-Name Nemesis Sultai is Elves, and I was able to dodge that all weekend. Unfortunately, on Day 1 I took 2 losses against 4-Color Delver—a matchup I consider about 50/50—and Eldrazi, a matchup I consider quite favorable and was disappointed to lose.

Reaching the Top 8 after starting 7-2 is a lofty goal in a tournament this size. It would mean going 6-0 in matches, and sometimes even sweating tiebreakers after that! Going into Sunday, my focus was more on playing some fun matches of Magic than it was on any particular final result.

I met my goal right away, with cool matches against Enchantress, Death and Taxes, and Miracles (this one in the hands of my longtime Legacy rival, Joe Lossett). I won those 3, and at 10-2, the prospect of making the Top 8 was just starting to creep back into the realm of possibility.

I won the closest match of the day against Alexander Hayne, again playing Miracles. Then I got paired against my first true combo deck in Fadi Hirmiz’s Sneak and Show. His deck failed to deliver its scariest draws, and mine offered up plenty of disruption. Finally, I won a 3-game match against a very traditional Temur Delver deck and completed the 6-0 run I needed to make the Top 8!

The quarterfinals against Cody Napier felt largely the same as my earlier match against Sneak and Show. His draw was weak enough that I was able to win game 1 with a limited amount of disruption, and after sideboarding I brought in a lot more.

I steeled myself for a war in the semifinals against Brian Braun-Duin and his Miracles deck. While the match did prove to be a good one, things just seemed to break my way at every turn. I had my 1-of Sylvan Library in my opening hand, which is probably the best card in the format for game 1 against Miracles. In game 2, my draw was merely average, but turn after turn Brian’s deck failed to offer him any help, and he ended up succumbing to an unspectacular Deathrite Shaman beatdown.

I sat down for the finals against one of the most explosive decks in Legacy—R/B Reanimator. If Andrew Sullano was to have his best draws, there’d be little I could do to fight them. He showcased the power of his deck in game 2 by Reanimating Griselbrand on his first turn—on the play—after revealing Chancellor of the Annex to start the game. But it seemed that whatever good luck he had was spent on that game, and he wound up mulliganing 5 times between game 1 and game 3. The final game was decided by me spending 4 mana to cast Mindbreak Trap on back-to-back turns while Leovold attacked for lethal.

Overall Matchup Breakdown

  • 4-0 against Miracles
  • 2-1 against Delver (various forms)
  • 2-0 against Sneak and Show
  • 1-1 against Eldrazi
  • 1-0 against Lands
  • 1-0 against Enchantress
  • 1-0 against Death and Taxes
  • 1-0 against R/B Reanimator

Closing Thoughts

I feel incredibly thankful after Grand Prix Louisville. For starters, I’m proud to have won a tournament in a field with so much talent, and particularly after facing off against more than one of the best players in the game.

Perhaps just as important, I think I enjoyed playing MTG more at this tournament, and leading up to it, than I ever have in my life. Granted, it’s easy to claim something’s fun when you’re running hot. But even on Saturday, when my record wasn’t particularly good, I was having a blast. Legacy sometimes lends itself to very close, interesting games, and those were the games I was getting to play round after round after round.

Brewing and tuning a Magic deck can also be among the most fun and rewarding activities out there. Part of what makes this a great game is that a wide range of players can all be competitive while doing things in their own way. This time, it felt like my turn. The perfect mix of hard work, good luck, and the right tools allowed me to come out on top. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget, and one that I’ll try my best to repeat someday.


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